Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Romance  ➡  Action/adventure

THE CLIFFS OF ARDUOUS

THE CLIFFS OF ARDUOUS EMIL CRISE

THE CLIFFS OF ARDUOUS

EMIL CRISE

Prologue

Have you never set eyes on nothing?

How was I to know

My heart belongs to her

Our soul to us

It’s a curse of the heart

It’s the gift of the soul

A cruel joke that passes.

How does one find courage

When the cost is another’s will

A buried heart

A fire of eternal glow

I knew it could burn

But the fire melted the freeze

Cast our souls together

High in the sky we sailed

Our wings to weak

We fell from the cliffs like rain

Destined into the divide of the river

We knew then

Our eyes had seen nothing before the gift

How was I to know?

CHAPTER ONE

THE CLIFFS OF ARDUOUS

Emil Crise

On the table sat a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of tequila, and a small wooden gun case with the engraved initials CJ across the top. “Choices . . . Choices,” Stan said aloud pondering his next move as if the world sat upon his shoulders. Reaching for the tequila his attention diverted to the whiskey. His hand passed across his unshaven chin. “Come here my old friend,” he said reaching for the whiskey bottle and pouring to the brim of the glass. Lifting the glass his sights caught the caramel colored leaves outside the window that perfectly matched the whiskey marking the passage of time. ‘Another season gone,’ he thought to himself sensing a lost he couldn’t explain beyond an impending feeling all that existed or mattered before, had quietly slipped away into the void of the past. He sipped the whiskey then pulled the old six-shooter from the case begotten by his great grandfather who begot it to his grandfather and then father and now Stan. A family loom whose ancestry included a Cherokee chief that took under his fold a small immigrant boy from lands an ocean away, who grew to be strong and feared. A local legendary gunslinger who once dueled with Doc Holiday. As the story goes from the local archived ledger, which few have read, both men too whiskered up to hit their targets gave up, ending the night snugged up to the bar drunk and in a celebratory state with no hint or remembrance to their original feud. This boy, once under the watchful eye of a Cherokee chief who rose to be a gunslinger was Stan’s great grandfather.

Stan gripped the antique gun. The wooden handle felt worn, yet strangely matched his grip, as if it had been molded for his hand alone. He held it trying to feel the energy from its past. The notches on the gun handle gave mystery to its past owner. It was the only history he knew about his family, and it gave him resolve grounding him to a past that at best was more imaginary then factual.

Regardless of the history he had a bond with it perfecting his aim shooting empty beer cans and bottles at first, later squirrels, birds and chipmunks. He had become a marksman with it. His attachment was both a therapy and muse that haunted his soul. He pointed it at a squirrel outside the window “ bang… bang” he said eyeing it up, then took a bullet out of the case loaded it in the chamber and snapped it shut.

Twilling the chamber, he paused, escaped in a thought for a moment . . . then took a long swig of the whiskey downing the full glass. He raised the gun and pointed the barrel to the temple of his head. Sweat beads formed on his brow and dripped downward merging with a single tear. He squeezed the trigger… it clicked. He took a deep breath then let out a sigh. The surge of wild uncontained adrenaline raced through his body. A kundalini movement. His hands began to tremble removing the lone sacred bullet from the gun. Carefully wiping the sweat from the handle, he put the gun back in the case as if lying to rest, a soul in its casket. He held reverence for the gun although he couldn’t remember the last time he felt that way about his own life.

This game of roulette had become his ritual set off by bouts of unsettlement. A funk of hopelessness, often hidden buried by his happy go lucky persona. He had tried the circuit of spirituality to try to appease his soul, glued to every word the pulpit preacher spewed from his mouth warning of hell fires and eternal damnation. But even one poor in math would find little logic in perpetual suffering for such a short skit on earth. He next turned to the eastern philosophies of mindfulness and living in the present. That only kept him locked in the emptiness that clouded his mind. This ritual or game as he called it, a byproduct to his disillusionment for spiritual growth, the answer to all that haunted him. A game that left him refreshed, reborn, a way to atone for his sins and misdeeds. Afterwards he was happy or at least felt different. It always coincided with Saturday sometimes in the morning sometimes at night, but always Saturday. It usually accompanied bouts of drinking, but not always. He believed the alcohol lubricated his courage to partake in the adrenalin gamble with his life. At any rate, he rarely pondered long over the sanity of the game under the influence of liquor before pulling the trigger. What he did know was the overwhelming jumps start or spark of passion that reenergized in his being right before pulling the trigger. Nobody or at least a few could know the hell he put himself to fell a bond or connection to continue living. If they did that thought alone would make those think he was crazy or at least confirm it. And as bizarre and unbalanced his little game would appear to those seemingly in control of their own life Stan was convinced it was the only time he controlled his own fate. He could go weeks even months sometimes three months at a time before needing to play the game. But eventually the impulse in a slow steady methodical beat simmering deep from within would trigger an impulse far too volatile to be kept at bay from eruption.

Three and half months had already passed since he last played. Maybe he had outgrown it; put it out of his mind, if that’s possible, that is until his visit to the fortuneteller. It, the reading by Madeline was supposed to be a gag gift. Her place easy to find, smack in between rows of small two and one story box homes smashed together stood a gaudy painted pink house with blue trim, peeling from a bad paint job. In the front yard a large posted sign with big red and blues letters stood in the lawn. “Fortunes by Madeline.” The long ago abandoned driveway now a deteriorating entry filled with craters camouflaged by muddy pot holes, more grass then gravel, twice his car bottomed out pulling in. After parking, he walked around his vehicle, pushed down hard on the hood and watched it slowly rise, convincing him the shocks and struts had survived. “Good lord this woman needs to fix these holes.” He muttered under his breath.

Reaching the steps, he nearly tripped grabbing for a rusted-out rail that gave way. Catching himself he wondered why her psychic abilities didn’t foresee a potential injury to her patrons let alone a lawsuit. Knocking on her door he was greeted by a short plumb older woman with large round earrings and black dyed hair seemingly long and straight beyond her age. A colorful scarf covered the top, decorated with round bronze medallions across the front. He surveyed the rest of her outfit. She wore black yoga pants stretched beyond its make, and a tight-fitting shirt, with a shawl draping over her shoulders that showed the outline of her bra working beyond its design attempting to hold up her very noticeable large breast. Her wrist adorned with wire bracelets and charms. Her fingers with rings of gold, silver, and bronze.

“Come in, you’re the professor, right?” She said half asking. He nodded at least she knew that much he thought to himself. She led him to a sitting room adjacent to a parlor that had curtains covering its doorway. It was a small room consisting of two Victorian style chairs and a black and white framed picture that immediately caught your attention. In the picture, a tall thin woman wearing a depression era long cotton dress stood next to a man, at least a full head shorter garnishing a pipe and black trousers with white shirt and suspenders, proudly holding a large fish, half the length of the man, tied to a thick wooden stick. “Wait in here. I’m finishing a reading, it only be a couple minutes.”

Twenty minutes later, Madeline who’s dress reminded Stan of a misguided gypsy, escorted a younger woman maybe thirty, possibly forty, dressed with large dangling earrings and ostentatious gravies of makeup covering her face. She nervously chumped away at her gum, giving Stan a looking over and tracing his eyes glued to the picture on the wall. “Hum” she said cringing her shoulder inward and shivering. “Gives me the wellies seeing a crooked picture.” She straightened the picture giving it little attention beyond its crooked position then flashed her eyes across Stan’s body once more, winked at him and exited the door.

Stan’s own attention diverted back to the picture. “That’s an old picture, isn’t it?” Stan commented.

“Ah yes my grandmother and grandfather.” She smiled.

“Muskie. Right?”

“Sure is, told it weighed over forty pounds” She stood still, straight as one her age could, and proud, as her face lit up admiring the picture allowing an ancient memory to surface.

“Cool photo. Where was it taken?”

“Lily Dale village, it’s where I grew up. It’s in New York. The lake in the background is Lake Cassadaga. Got its name after all the lilies that grew along the lake. “

“I’ve heard of it. A carnival of sorts for psychics? You know like a carnival groupie hangout.”

She frowned in disapproval of his assumed knowledge and arrogance concerning her work. She needed to correct him. “It’s a spiritual compound, started out in the late 18oo’s. My grandparents some of the first spiritualist that resided there, immigrants from Hungary, course didn’t have the same reputation back then it has now. It’s considered the world’s largest center for the Science, Philosophy and Religion of Spiritualism. I guess you could say it’s where I got my education. Anyway… Yes, very cool picture, and as they say, a picture tells a thousand words.”

Stan took a good moment to evaluate the abundant shades and contrast of color portrayed in the black and white photo. Their faces void of expression displayed a sadness, their simple dress, the hardships of their era. Yet it also spoke of conquering strength. The Muskie being no less that of the antagonist whale of Ahab. A symbol of struggle overcome. A hidden joy and pride burning within standing straight and honorable displaying their trophy. “A powerful photo I must agree it speaks volumes. A simpler time I suppose, but one that required perseverance to survive.” For a moment, the gypsy woman raptly glared at Stan’s face. It made him uncomfortable.

“Something wrong?”

“Not it’s just you look nothing like him.”

“Like who?”

She fixed her eyes back to the picture. Staring could be conceived as an obtrusion into one’s life and she knew that better than anyone. “No one, it’s not important for now. It’s good you understand the power of a picture. The cards, speak the same way, one captures the past and tells the story, the other, the future, yet to be written. Do you understand what I’m saying? Regardless of what the cards reveal, you can accept it, or change it before the final picture is framed.”

He nodded. “I get it; in a nutshell, you’re not guaranteeing your work.” He joked.

“NO!” She snapped back at him. “What I’m saying is only you can guarantee my work. I provide the frame, you the picture. What you seek is seeking you. Come it’s time for your reading.” The gypsy woman led him beyond the door curtains into the parlor, the window shades lowered to contain the darkness, lit only by an antique light with a large round red shade and a flickering orange candle scented with sage. “Sit,” she commanded offering him a seat opposite her. A deck of cards sat between them. “So, what is it you wish to know?” she asked.

Stan shrugged his shoulders as his eyes slowly adapted to the dim light. “Nothing really. I guess… I mean… I guess whatever you do in these readings, it was a gift you know, so I guess I feel… I suppose you know… obligated to well… You know what I mean.”

“Ah,” she nodded her smile barely turned upright forced at best. She picked up the cards and shuffled them.” You don’t believe in this.” He started to apologies but she “shushed” him as she started to lay out the cards one by one. Stan watched her place each card on the table with the upmost care and respect occasionally stopping, leaning back for a moment, and casting a smile or disagreeable eye to the card. What held her interests on some cards and little on others, Stan wasn’t sure, but never the less she was entertaining.

After putting a row of six cards on the table, she took a moment to assess each. At this time, it came to Stan’s attention that she had a lazy eye of sorts. In a peculiar dexterity, she had the ability to focus one card with one eye, while the other seemed perfectly content scanning the end of the table and beyond. Stan followed her hand and fixated on her steady eye trying to evaluate the where and how of her focus and that to which prompted her read. After all skepticism required some logic and he was more bent on proving her wrong, then agreeing she might be right. She spooked him when she looked up catching him staring at her one eye. “Something wrong?” she asked him.

“No… just…” He started to say blushing.

“I see you’re a gambler.” She said in poignant tone.

“Gambler, good lord no,” he muttered careful not to stare at her fixed eye. “Strike one he thought to himself.” Not at all. I work too hard for my money can’t see given it away.”

She was feisty in nature and gave him a hard stare trying to evaluate him as well as the cards.” Honesty is important in all my readings.” The smile dropped from his face, and she dug deeper into his shield of confidence. “It’s not money you gamble with.” His face flushed and his little glimmer of superiority whittled away. It caught his attention. He thought about his little game. She couldn’t possibly know, could she? She put another row of cards below the first row. Her eyes widened scanning the entire row then with a narrowed sharpened focus took time to evaluate each card. She was meticulous in her trade and practiced her gift with great care. “Your and old soul… I didn’t sense that when you first walked in.” Again, Stan’s eyes wandered to the table and back to hers.

“Is that good or bad?”

“Depends,” she said matter of fact, pausing for a moment.

“On what?” Depends on what?” He countered trying to follow her eyes.

“On the next row of cards, I lay down.”

This time both his and her set of eyeballs eagerly watched as each card hit the table one that understood its meaning, another bent on gauging hers for input.

“Ah,” she said straightening a card and tapping her long black painted nail finger on it as if it might help divulge a well-kept secret.

“You followed her here…. That’s why you’re here.” Stan squinted at the cards trying to make sense of it.

“Followed who? Where?”

“Hush,” she said laying a new row of cards over the first ones dealt. Her head cockeyed. “Oh I see.. Yes, I see. She too is an old soul. But wait this queen of hearts, followed by the spade. That is confusing. It’s telling me there are two hearts. What did I miss?” She said scanning for errors in the card placements, “One shadows the other. One shadows the other.” She repeated trying to make sense. “That is puzzling.” She laid another card down looked at it then placed a second card next to it. “Do you live near cliffs?”

“Cliffs? I live in Kent Ohio. Lucky to find a hill let alone cliffs” He said in a dry quip manner and thought strike two, wondering if this was her best attempt to fish for information.

His sarcastic comment returned a look from her crooked eyes as if she was warning him the next pitch was gonna be high and inside. She flipped another card over. Looked at him, looked back at the card, and looked at him again. “You have a lock . . . or I’m getting some sort of key that’s important to you. It contains within it, the two souls that are one. You wear it on you?” She said perceived by Stan as half telling, and half asking.

Strike three he thought to himself. Definitely fishing, and terrible at it to boot. “Nope got the wrong cowboy.” He held his hands up. “No rings on the fingers, half the time never even wear a watch.”

Madeline shook her head. Her eyes more focused. She seemed a little frustrated. “The cards don’t lie. Maybe I have missed something. . . Ah I see it. Yes, now I see it. She wears it.” She said smiling and vindicated to her misread.

Nice comeback Stan thought to himself, now almost completely skeptical of her reading.

She put another card down, her eyes went full bloom on it and her hand instinctively covered her mouth… She paused, her face twisted in a horrific look. Only a blind man would miss the horror the card created on her face. In silence, she reengaged her eyes on Stan and shook her head in disbelief then laid another card carefully next to it as if its actions in itself locked his fate. A believer or not, her theatrics caught his attention. Stan nervously smiled but she returned nothing but disdain for the pattern emerging. Her crusty old eyes again focused on the unfolding of mystery hidden by the mosaic patterns of cards of the table in a last attempt to find a positive but truthful outcome. And as any master of their trade, worth their salt knew, she knew when to fold up the cards. She started to pull the cards off the table. “I’m sorry there is too much unclarity in my reading. I’m not able to continue. I can refund your money.”

“What? Stan asked, seeing her pull the cards now fully entrenched into her perceived game. “It’s over? That’s it? “I ain’t buying that. You know you saw something. I could see it in your face. “

She hesitated, collecting the remaining cards from the table. “Oh I see. Now you believe. Surely you haven’t become one of the faithful Carnival groupies you feared earlier? I’m done the reading is over.” She reached to snatch another card from the table.

Stan gripped her hand firm, preventing her from picking the card up. That cat perched comfortably in deep sleep sprung on all four legs arching its back and wiping its tail from side to side. “What you want more money?” Is this how it works. Some parlor trick to milk me for more cash?”

Her eyes burrowed into his, he instinctively released her hand. “You’re a foolish man if you think I perform tricks for cash, like a dog for a bone. But as you wish, I’ll give you what you paid for. But know this, the apple not always as sweet as we envision, knowledge to some can be poison. Before I share this, it is only how I see your future, once I share it, my observation becomes yours, and in-turn becomes your reality.” The candle light flickered, her one good eye floated searching the room for unseen spirits as it had been trained. Locking her attention back on Stan she spoke with a stern conviction. “Your end is near. You suffer two deaths.” She paused to glance at his reaction, wounding one’s soul was not her intent. She continued. “That to me is strange. But in death, is also life for you. You haven’t much time.” She gazed through Stan and he could see the flicker of the candle reflecting in her eyes. It was surreal and downright spooky.

His first reaction anger, his second to dismiss her creditability and take back the reality he knew before entering hers. Anger and denial the first stages when death looms near. “I’m no business man lady, but your reading smells of desperation. I got a newsflash for ya, telling me my days are numbered ain’t gonna do much for your repeat business. All of this is just borderline creepy.”

Her eyes like an owl fixed on prey, penetrated his. “I warned you knowledge can be poison for some.”

He kept her gaze. For the first time, he saw her wandering bad eye glazed over and covered in cataracts. Part of him felt sorry for her, another maybe repulsed. He wanted to believe she was nothing more than a broken down old lady who got her jollies reading horoscopes. And in her case a sadistic one. Another part of him sensed an overwhelming conviction and honesty to her craft. He was a little flustered. This was the last thing he expected. Most folks visiting fortune-tellers got an ear full on pending love and money, not death. Stan softened his tone. He needed to know more. “Okay…. Let’s just say for amusement sake, I’ll play along with this little skit. When you say my time is running out, how is it running out? Are we talking today… tomorrow… next week … a year from now? “

“Why does it matter you don’t believe in this anyway. I’m done. There’s nothing I can do for you.”

She was wrong. Deadly wrong. Stan’s attention went to the cards on the table carefully gauging their placement and design. He sought to break the code himself, get back what he came with. Prove the reading was just an orchestrated act for handouts. Then whether she would admit it or not, he would leave with nothing more, but pity for the misguided gypsy woman.

His tenacious behavior amused her, his reaction normal. Give’m good news and they could care less about the cards or their placement. Give’m bad news and they look for misreads in something they fear. Most soothsayers weary to confrontation tempered the bad news, repackaged it and sent their soon to be lost customer on their way with good tidings. But Madeline was different, she believed in her gift and as much as Stan wanted to believe it was only an act, deceit was not part of her makeup. “Do you think I would make a good professor at the university, you know teaching what you do?”

He shrugged his shoulders giving her a polite half smile. “I don’t know, I guess it would depend on your experience.” He looked around the room. “I don’t mean to come off as standoffish but I’m assuming your education at Lily Dale didn’t include a doctorate in literature. “

“Exactly, I would be no more suited to teach at the university then you to determine what lies in front of you on this table. And tell me if a student who sought your teachings became frustrated, rejected all you stood for, because he couldn’t understand it or it wasn’t what he wanted to believe. How would you handle that? Would you concede and say he’s frustration is proof he’s right and your wrong?”

Her rational was dead on and Stan knew it. It was her game to play out, he had sought her. He either believed it or not, no harm in listening. He wanted to hear more. He needed to hear more. “I’m sorry. That was rude on my part, you didn’t deserve that. I came here for a reading so please, continue.”

She patted the cat on his back, stroking it until it curled up again in a comfortable position on the table. Maybe to set the stage maybe to soothe herself. She cast a glance towards Stan. Telling someone their going to die, maybe as painful as hearing it. She envied those who found suitable means to survival hitting a time clock making widgets in life. “Readings by Madeline,” or a name thereof had plagued her family for generations dating as far back as her heritage went in Central Europe where her people were known as ‘Tent Dwelling Gypsies’ roaming the countryside of Hungary, with a traceable bloodline to the ‘pharos people’. “Why I keep doing this, I don’t know, even the court jester finds peace in retirement.” She reshuffled the cards putting a new row on the table, running her hands over the cards her eyebrows furrowed inward collapsing the rest of her face in sadness. Whatever she was sensing could only be construed as bad. Suddenly her persona changed, took on a stoic look void of any emotion. Almost as if some unknown spirit possessed her. Her hand rose to her neck and what seemed like an imaginary knife, slashed across her it. Stan shook her . . . twice. The second time she snapped out of the trance.

“Are you okay?”

She blinked a couple of times scanned the room to get her bearing back and refocused on the cards. “Yes,” she took a deep inhale, letting it slowly out. “But I’m afraid the cards have revealed the same. Your time is limited. Now I am certain.”

“How? When?” he asked his tone a mix of uncertainty as well as disbelief.

“I can’t say. A short time is all I sense.” She started to collect the cards again and a card caught her attention. She closed her eyes and placed her hand over the king of diamonds card with a reaper in the background. Her face again void of emotion. “Ah yes how foolish,” she said as if she were having a conversation with another unforeseen entity in the room. “Death and rebirth, rebellion. Of course, I see the harvest moon, interesting yes, yes, I see that now…. it follows another. “She opened her eyes as if she never closed them, and started collecting the cards. Stan could only stare in wonderment to her revelation he said nothing until she started to pick the cards again off the table.

“Well?”

She looked up him. “Well what?”

“Are you going to share it? I mean twice now you’ve acted as if someone else was in the room. Something possessed you. A trance of sorts.”

She gazed down at the cards placed on the table; there arrangement appeared to change as she remembered them. She had a twinkle in her eye. “Oh, you devilish spirits what have you revealed to me. Yes, now it is clear.” She looked up at Stan, her face solemn. “I do not know how to put this other than your death proceeds another… the number thirty-five seems to keep coming up.” She paused looking down at the cards again. “In an aircraft. That is how it ends.”

“Thirty-five days? Are you sure? Plane crash?”

“I didn’t say plane crash, but it could be. The cards only reflect your death is not on ground, or water. Perhaps you grow wings like an angel.” She said with almost a sadistic smile, then seeing its effect written on his face realized her poor timing of humor. Her dispositioned lightened, her approach more sympathetic. “I shouldn’t joke about such serious matters. I’m sorry,… this was not an easy reading for me.”

Stan eyes burned on the woman. “For you?” How about me? I came here thinking worst case scenario my girlfriends ready to leave me.” He shook his head from side to side. “But no! Mine ain’t that simple. You got the grim reaper camping out in my backyard with a parking pass that expires in thirty days.”

“Thirty-five, I said thirty-five, not thirty. But I’m not sure if that is the days left, just a strong marker, a number that has significance to you.”

Looking down he run his hands thru his hair then popped his head up. “You said I followed her here. Who are you talking about?”

“Yes… that is why you are here, I mean not here with me, but in this lifetime.”

“Her? who my girlfriend.”

“It could be… but that I don’t know with certainty. Whoever it is her soul your soul depends on getting it right this time. You must protect her.”

“From what?”

Madaline pulled each card carefully from the table before engaging her eyes with Stan, she had conviction in her voice. “From you. You can’t make the same mistake with her in this passage of time as you did in the others.”

Stan’s hands went outward, open, confused. “Who? What do you mean me, this time?”

“She is the love of your soul, not a soulmate, much more powerful, a twin soul. She had work to do, you shouldn’t have followed her. She wasn’t ready for you. Now it’s too late. You’ve forced this on her… on you. I’m afraid it’s your last shot left. But it won’t be easy. She has scars from your past, and her pain is creating pain in your soul neither is making it easy for each other. You shouldn’t have followed her.”

“Making what hard the last meeting? And struggle what you mean by that how do I struggle.”

She hesitated for a moment carefully searching his eyes for sincerity before responding. “That I can’t answer I can only feel the pain. As for your struggles . . . it’s that foolish game you play with yourself, cease immediately. It’s not a game you win, its manifested baggage from your previous life it serves you no purpose.”

“Game?” he asked more shamed then shocked. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Please, don’t insult me.” She made a mock gesture holding an imaginary pistol to her head and pulling the trigger. “Your gambling problem.”

Stan got goose bumps. He stood up wanting to leave. He felt lightheaded as the blood rushed from his head. He steadied himself on the corner of the table his skin flushed and white.

Her reading from the gypsy woman had been a gift for getting tenure as a professor at the university meant for amusement. A professor that had walked in the door as a young man and a future. And why would one see it as anything else then amusement. She dressed accordingly in rings and colorful pageantry. A true thespian to her trade. But telling one his time is near can’t be good for business not by a long shot. Before he left her parlor, he turned to her. “You said she was the love of my soul and you think we shared a previous life? How do I know how, let alone who am supposed to help.”

She was careful how she answered, even she couldn’t be sure. “I can’t tell you how to help her, but I don’t think you’re alone.” She said fixating her eyes periodically on random spots across the room much like the cat in an indifferent manner had done all during the reading. “I see spirits around you, good ones, I think their trying to help you.” Stan traced her eyes turning and staring in the same direction. She smiled her eyebrows raising. “None of this comes as a shock to you. You see them too, don’t you? That’s why you came here, your frightened by all of it.” Stan nodded no, but his eyes reflected a different truth. “Very well, you have your reasons to disagree. As for knowing her.” The gypsy smiled. For such a smartly educated man you don’t know where to find the essence of yourself? How do you ever tell were you soul lives in another, her eyes… in her eyes you well know. “

CHAPTER TWO

Pulling to the curb of the airport, the driver, Butch reached over a gave her a kiss on the check. “You got you ticket and passport?” She rummaged through her purse in a hurry.

“Ticket Yes, where’s my passport? “she panicked digging deeper into her purse. “Okay got it.” She said with a relief.

“You be careful over there.” He warned her.

From her car window, she stared at the people making their way into the airport, some hurrying, some dressed in two- piece business suits, others, shorts and flip flops. Her eyes caught the added security of machine gun armed guards, she was hesitant, her own face reflected as much. She looked to Butch for solace. Butch, the driver, had that crazy look in his eye, wolf eyes, blue and piercing that cut thru you. Maybe the look that first attracted her to him, he had bad boy written all over him, shaved head tattoos, but that’s where it ended. His subterfuge all a farce for his years as an undercover cop, before that, special ops in the service. Now at least rumored to be semi-retired. She at his side complimentary, tall blond with almond shaped eyes, and a body in her younger years found work in a strip club outside of Orlando. She turned heads no matter where she went. "I got a bad feeling about this Butch, I'm not sure I can go through with it."

“Racheal, we’ve went over this a hundred times already, it’s the only way. You’ve got to do it.”

Her look reflected nothing less than her fears. “If Marco finds out he’ll kill us both.”

Butch rolled down the window, and spit after coughing a few times. “Let me worry about Marco, he’s stepped way out line on this. I don’t care what organization backs him, there’s rules to everything. And it’s my job to enforce it.”

She opened the door, grapping her luggage then popped her head back in the car. “I guess if all goes well I’ll see you in a few days.”

“Just do as I say, it all go well.” She nodded in compliance, felt her chest to make sure she had her lucky charm locket then hurried to the gate.

By the time, Racheal got through security she hustled to the gate, hearing the gate agent announce last call for emirates flight 820 to Dubai.

The agent about to close the door and walk her paper work to the captain stopped hearing Racheal call out. “You still boarding.”

The agent turned and gave her a look of annoyance. “You on the Dubai flight?” she nodded yes. The agent shook her head, rebooted the computer, and in an almost cold scolding tone let her know she had inconvenienced her. “Give me your ticket.” She coldly demanded You’re lucky you caught me.

“I’m sorry,” Racheal, said handing the agent her ticket.

“Miss Moore?” Oh, she responded in a kinder and more accommodating voice seeing the gold member seated in business class.

“Is there a problem?”

“No mam, just take a second. I’m upgrading you from business to first class.”

“Thank you,” Racheal said as she took the ticket and headed down the jet bridge. Settling in, the pursuer helped Racheal load her luggage in the luggage bin and within minutes greeted her with a glass of Champaign. Adjusting her seat to a reclined sitting position, she put on the headset, and took a moment to text Butch. “Made it.”

“Smiley face, good luck.” He texted back as the 380-airbus lifted of the ground to Dubai.

CHAPTER THREE

Before leaving his house, he X’s out another day on the calendar since his gypsy reading. “Thirty-four days” he said to himself “a measly thirty-four days.” His walk to work, took him down the same path every day. Down thru old town. It was an eastbound walk and like most mornings the sun peaked its eye above the horizon slowly burning off the morning dew of freshly cut late summer grass. Today a soft wind blowing over the field of lilacs enhanced the morning greeting. It was a small-town neighborhood, one of old money, framed in with old red clay brick streets and manicured clipped green lawns, occasional doused with a yellow fever of dandelions.

Large colossal two and three story painted colonial houses dominated the streets decorated in high cables and crown molding trimmed in an array of light, blues, greens pinks, reds, orange, and even yellow colors. Immaculate landscapes of red juniper, and miniature forest evergreens, red maples trees’, low lying ornamental greens, and blossomed flowers of all size and colors, buzzing with busy bees collecting their nectar gave way to covered porches anchored by large solid white columns and a neighbor or two leisurely sipping a morning coffee from their wicker swing. Scattered amongst them proud Victorians. Some pastoral in colors, other blue, and yellow with long rounded windows and louvered Shutters. If Mayberry did exist, perhaps this was a cornerstone for it.

The path took him over the arched stone bridge spanning across the water falls. It was a small college town, and Stan had grown to love its simple life and the prestige his tenor as professor had provided him. Today after the reading he had less enthusiasm in his step yet one that seemed appreciative of each step.

He took a long hard look crossing the bridge over the grass near the river walk. His intrigue heightened watching the assembly of yogis performing their poses down below the arch stone bridge base in the grass next to the roaring river. It contained a mix of age. Some days no more than five attended, other days maybe fifty with a blend of imported students and locals tightly woven together in the small meadowland. But what pulled his interest did not lie in the numbers, but instead her smile that captivated her audience and eyes that possessed an untold mystery. It was a lure that he longed to bridge the distance, and learn her hidden secrets.

She usually stood at the front. Her energy drew you towards her. She could capture your attention. A grace hard to ignore. Seeing her would often put and extra step of pep in his movement. He had gotten to know her schedule and found himself walking the bridge hoping to see her. Today, she was nowhere to be seen, disappointed another younger man took her place at the helm.

In the back, he noticed a student Beth. She waved with a smile and he waved back. He felt the eyes of the teacher trace his attention. Only for a brief moment, a curious glance nothing more.

Reaching the campus, he glanced at his watch. He was early as was his custom. He had just recently got tenure as a professor teaching English literature. A craft he had hoped would propel his latest ambitions, writing. The writing was therapy for him. An escape from the boredom, a divergence to his life he found little joy in anymore. Regardless of having anything worthy to write, he had the drinking and melancholy of the greats, down to a T.

Sitting at his desk he noticed the ‘Readings By Madaline’ flyer tucked inside a card. It was a colorful insert and reminder of the gypsy woman s encounter. A reminder although not as intense as the day he met her, she was still haunting him and had her full attention. Booby cock he tried to reason. Pure horseshit, after all his life couldn’t be at a better place. His hard work had finally appeared to pay off. And for his little game, will that was all behind him, merely a phase, a dangerous one, but a game he was sure he was done with. Even his recent roller coaster relationship with his Partner Maria, seemed to hit level ground as she concluded her residence at the local hospital. Sure, they had acquired some debt remodeling the old home and combined with medical school cost it had put them a little tight but the reconstruction was in its last throes and stood out as his trophy of success. And her current position of residence at the hospital made everything seem on track. The nest, void of yearlings had all the makings of arriving.

Everything seemed perfect or as perfect as you could expect, at least on the surface the only place perfection could be expected to exist. But It was hard to deny something dormant had awakened by the gypsy. He sat down at his chair next to the window and watched students bustle about some with intent others more leisure in stride through the courtyard of the campus. He flipped his computer on, cracked his knuckles and in a half-hearted joke meant only for himself, he vowed for the sake of the gypsy woman to get to business finishing his novel before his time ran out.

He typed a few words hoping to gear up into the flow. “Her eyes ablaze with sonnets of light.” he stopped stared reread his words then pounded his thumb on the delete key. He started retyping. “She held a muse deep within her eyes.” He paused reread his words, shook his head, and then put his thumb back to work striking the delete button. He got up and poured himself a coffee while taking in the view outside the window again. His focus outside was without intent as his internal theme energized back on his writing, forcing him to sit again for round two like a fighter reengaging in the fight.

He stared at the screen, nothing came. The frustration grew, he was not used to writers block with this story. He muttered some choice words glancing over at the wall of framed accolades that covered it. Bachelor of arts in English from Hiram, Masters of Art in literary philosophy and P.HD. English Literature Dartmouth. On his book shelves rows of great literature After all he had a voracious desire to read as if it were a gift, he never possessed before. Shakespeare, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Crise, on and on the great books and authors continued… Ones which he had read and reread losing count, and if count provided a propensity towards anything he had a countless stack of fresh ungraded papers of uncorrupted minds neither swayed or molded in any direction waiting for his seal of approval or pounding of the anvil hammer against the raw iron of words, redefining the hot metal, drawn from his fire into a practical collection of words and stories. He the professor did this through critique, correcting, suggesting, and encouragement to students trying to master the trade for which he was the teacher and as his writing seemed to indicate a false prophet.

He pushed himself again; “Words keep em rolling. Write, it’s all about word count. Write and fix write and fix write and fix.” He started typing struggling thru a few more paragraphs. “Hum 150 words not even close to a thousand… let alone 150 bad words’. Fuck it.” He googled yoga Kent Ohio. Let’s see, Amanda Margret, Mary Beth there that’s her picture, Racheal!”

“So, let’s see who you are Racheal.” He typed the name in and like an eight-ball baring his future it spit out its search. One an older lady in Seattle another Facebook account for a Jamaican woman.

“Writing again.” A voiced with an Asian accent inquired peeking into the room. The voice broke his concentration and he fumbled for his mouse closing his browser and simultaneously pulling the screen partial down. He shuffled through his student’s papers.

“Hey Sharia, I didn’t see you standing there.”

In the doorway stood a tall dark woman, thin. A runner’s body for which her and Stan had bonded competing in marathons. She kept her self-plain, in clothes and style, but had an intrinsic hidden beauty that occasionally sparkled from her eyes. Her Staff ID read assistant professor psychology department. They were intellectual rivals and often played a chess game of philosophical dogma. In her hand a foreign crafted object, with a webbed spun center.

“What are working on your book?” she asked.

“Was,” he picked the stack of papers up. “Now just trying to get through this stack of grading papers before my next class. What’s that in your hand?”

It’s a Viking dreamcatcher, made in Greenland. A replica from the Eric the Red era. Cool isn’t it?” She asked holding it up.

He turned his head sideways to get a better perspective. “I guess. Don’t you have enough Viking stuff from Greenland in your office?”

She kept admiring her latest buy, then chuckled. “I do have a rather strange fetish for this stuff.”

“Yeah, that and freaking WW 2 memorabilia. If I see one more Rosie the Riveter picture go up in your office. I’m gonna personally approach President Miller for some of his quote “painting budget” to bring his designer in from New York. “ They both laughed. Hey, you ever do any yoga?”

“Yoga?“

“Ya, yoga, you know stretching sweating the kind of stuff they do down by the river.”

Sharia smiled. “No never done yoga. My father’s big on it. Why you giving up running?”

“Maybe,” Stan smiled back. “Just curious that’s all.” Aren’t you from Indie? Hari Krishna stuff. Don’t they teach you that before you learn to walk?”

She rolled her eyes. “India, my father’s family escaped to Pakistan, or what would eventually be Pakistan, then America. Well France I guess before America. The Third Reich movement forced our last move to the good old USA. You can’t put us all in boxes Stan. I know it makes you world so much more predictable. And Hari Krishna really? I was brought up as a Muslim, but left that a long time ago. By the way how’s your book coming?”

“It’s coming I guess.”

“What’s it about anyway?” she asked bending closer to his desk to catch a peek at his screen.

He glanced at the computer as if it were part of a conspiracy, cautious to share its mysteries. “Not sure started out as action adventure. Some down on his luck guy goes off to Alaska, finds these mystical stones… shit canned that story, then I switched over and started writing about some psycho serial killer Reverend …. scrapped that idea after a couple of months of work. Only thing now that seems to keep filling my head is strangely enough a western theme, you know cowboys. Set in like the late 1800’s. Guess you have to wait for the book signing for more details.”

“Westerns? Nobody reads that stuff anymore. Do they?”

“You do.” He shot back.

She cracked a smile. “Yeah but I’m weird like that. My papa always says I’m too westernized. Says I got the spirit of an ancient cowgirl in me. Of course, he’s from the old country, every things a bit to westernized for him. I’m sure it well all turn out.”

“I hope. Thank God I still got my day job. Anyway, it was that, or a Christmas story and I ain’t no Dickerson. Keep trying to bury it, but I can’t get this story out of my head it’s like, like I keep going back to it.”

She gave Stan a compassionate smile. “You’ll get it. you were destined for great things. Just remember us small folks when you reach the top of the mountain.”

“Yeah, I’ll scream out when I reach the first summit. Speaking of which maybe I can get you to help edit my first draft. That will be your punishment for asking. You can help carry me to my greatness.”

“Good! Think positive. Always there to help ya. Just cut me in on the royalties.”

“Hey, if I could sell some books at this stage of my life I’d be like getting a carnival ride right before the storm. You run today?” Christian asked seeing her in her running shoes.

Sharia smiled. “Five miles,” she pumped her arms to mimic running. “Missed you. Oh by the way how was the reading?”

“The reading?”

“Ya, you said Friday you were gonna see the gypsy lady. How’d it go? Or didn’t you go?”

Stan rolled his eyes upwards then gestured with his fingers, “looney tunes, nothing but looney tunes.”

“Looney tunes! Really? I heard a lot of folks say good things about her. Maybe she had an off day, not sure if you noticed but you get two readings. And speaking of looney tunes, you seen Billy, my new program keeps crashing.

“No last time I seen, him he was at the gym waxing the floor, talking to coach Sembach about his latest conspiracy theory. You try the IT department?”

She paused in thought, nobody went to the IT department if Billie was around. Man was pure genius with computers. “No, I guess I’ll go over there and round em up. Shame he dropped out of college. The man runs circles around everyone here including the Dean. “

“Agreed. But I think he was asked to leave. Seems the defense department didn’t care for his campus prank disarming some nuke silos.”

“You’re kidding me. I never knew that.”

“OH yeah,” Stan chuckled. “He was only fifteen at the time. A prodigy. He swears the secret government been tracking him ever since. Crazy, here we sit and teach the kids, and we got our Einstein pushing a broom. Well beware if your track him down, his latest conspiracies are dingers.”

She tapped her chin with her index finger, pondering whether she had been blessed with Billie’s latest revelations “Which ones? I’ve heard the government collusion with the internet monitoring every key stroke, and using algorithm to build profile’s on us. And I also heard the one about contracting foreign governments to get around privacy laws and spy on us thru smart phones and TV’s.”

“Naw them old ones. Newest is foreign governments hacking into our elections. And the super virus to bring the world systems down.

Billie’s latest concerns brought a smile to her face. “Oh speaking of Billie, he says prez Millers doing a surprise sit in in your class today.”

Stan’s cheerful day suddenly took a turn for the worst. His face reflected disgust. “Are you serious? I think those guys are out to fire me.”

“That’s crazy why would he want to do that?”

“I don’t know. I thought we used to get along fine, then one day you could tell something changed. Besides have you ever had three sit in’s in one quarter?” She nodded no. “And the Dean, I think he’s going through my desk. Shits always missing. I swear they got these rooms bugged.” His eyes scanned the ceilings. “Remember what happened to Sinchek?”

She smiled again. “Come on he was selling pot out of the class. Your starting to sound like Billie with his conspiracies.”

“Well I still don’t like Miller or the Dean nosing around in my business. How’s Billie find out these things before I do?”

“Ah . . . hacking. Come on he’s been doing it for years just for the entertainment.”

“Why am I even asking? Figures, mans too smart for his own good. But don’t hold your breath on me cashing the second psychic reading in anytime soon. Only thing missing was Rod Sterling from the twilight zone. I mean come on you don’t believe in any of that. Do you?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I got admit I had a reading done, and it was a pretty good experience. She seemed dead on.”

His eyes lit up as his mind dwelt on her choice of words. “Dead on and good reading would seem oxymoron in nature. I mean get real, she’s good at reading people. And either very persuasive or just down right lucky on her guess.”

Stan’s question seemed innocent enough but the seriousness of his voice made Sharia wonder if he had broached the subject matter with actual concern. Beliefs in the supernatural and clairvoyance dwelt more on emotion, then logic, and she usually always guarded her emotions around Stan, but the temptation of intellectual debate proved far too much a lure not to go down the rabbit hole. “I don’t know a lot of it goes beyond coincidence. Maybe somehow these fortunetellers zone in on our energies. get a peek into the possible outcomes in life. Kinda like the freaky science where energy waves are waiting to be magically transformed by our brains into particles of matter all entangled in a holistic world that you and I create. Of course, others would say no such thing. Self and free will is an illusion, we’re really just programed biological carbon machines.”

Stan put his grading pen down and looked up at Sharia. “I think Freud would be disappointed in that statement. Are you watching too much Oprah?”

“Can’t help going there. Minored in physics, you know it’s an Asian thing. We’re required to have some background in it.”

“Sounds like your boxing your pedigree up a bit, I’m glad you said it and not me.” His attention went back to grading. “Hum, talk about coincidence here’s a student’s paper I think relates.”

“The soul attracts that which it secretly harbors; that which it loves, and also that which it fears; it reaches the height of its cherished aspirations; it falls to the level of its un-chastened desires. Every thought-seed sown or allowed to fall into the mind, and to take root there, produces its own, blossoming sooner or later into act, and bearing its own furtive of opportunity and circumstance. Good thoughts bear good fruit; bad thought, bad fruit.” Stan savored the thought for a moment, then assigned it an F and circled it.

Sharia’s cast her eyes down trying to hide the carnal nature melting away her body as the word’s impaled her soul. Words she felt, but for now best buried. She swallowed hard and barely uttered, “impressive, quite a student,” In a meek voice. His unperceptive nature allowed him to see none of it.

“Not really, unless he’s James Allen reincarnated, I’d say clear cut case of plagiarism. The rest of the paper, he copied and pasted from one of my dissertations word for word I wrote on the poet. I wonder if he thinks I don’t even look at these papers when I grade em. “

“Ugh, I hate when students do that, not good.” She said composed and back to full shield.

He scribbled out the ‘F’ and wrote ‘see me on it!’ “I got ride this one out and see what in this kids mind, crazy as it sounds, he kind of reminds me of myself as a kid. Anyway, in response to your philosophical outlook, I like your theory on being pre-programmed, it washes my hands of any responsibility. Because if this is the one I created…god lord what was I thinking?”

Sharia smiled. “Come on your life isn’t that bad. But isn’t that the irony in life, we don’t seem to realize the power we have until we put ourselves in a log jam that seems impossible to get out of.”

He reflected on her statement for a moment and nodded. “By the way I meant to ask you how’s Mike doing?”

Her face preceded her answer, “Not good his blood counts still been off, he’s going in for his first chemo this weekend.”

Sorry to hear that. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” He glanced at his watch. “Oh, shit I better go or I’ll be late for class.” Stan gathered up his class notes and scurried out the office.

His lecture gathered little emotions except for the announcement of a quiz the following class. The president along with the dean sat in, saying nothing and taking notes with stoic faces. Afterwards he made a quick stop at the gym, put a few miles on the treadmill then did a few basic weightlifting exercises careful to stay out of the way of the muscle heads, that had a secret protocol and ownership of their sacred iron barbell territory. Before long, he hit lunch then a second class, sophomore level, and Stan was again retracing his steps over the arch bridge covering the river.

He stopped for a moment rested his arms on the railing and watched mesmerized as the white water foraged its path down the river in a perpetual roar of strength. A constant flow like time itself. It, the river was every bit alive and nothing could hold back the beauty of its course. A strange epiphany of sorts, triggered by the gypsy woman, awakened him. The end was pursuing him, and the pursuit brought an unnatural vibrancy to him, it made him feel more alive. For now, it seemed clear to him that the end only represented an undefined segment, one point in time in the river, a river that never ended.

CHAPTER FOUR

The eleven-hour ride seemed like no time at all, an inflight cocktail lounge took the edge off of the long flight, and gave those in first class a chance to mingle. A drink after all at 39000 feet took the edge and good company made it even more appealing. A middle aged distinguished looking man with short cut grey hair sat alone at the bar. Racheal sat down next to him, he smiled and she returned the smile.

“I’ve seen you before, on a flight to Paris, two weeks ago.”

“He turned his seat to her, spreading his legs as if to claim his territory. That’s a hell of memory.”

“It’s hard to forget an attractive man.” She said stealing a glance. “

He blushed and gave her a return looking over. “Thank you, I.. I only wished I still had the same memory. So, I take it you travel quite often like myself. What line of business are you in?”

“More often then I like. And more places then I want to be. But I do get to Paris quite often. France is by far my favorite country. I don’t know if it’s the food, people, or just beautiful country side, but it feels like a homecoming every time I set foot in France. But air conditioning units is my business. You?”

“Makes sense, Dubai and all. Government work, I’m a congressman.”

Racheal gave the congressmen a seductive smile, batting her eyes while sipping from her drink, “Interesting, I hadn’t realized congressman ventured this far east.”

He winked at her. “Congressional representative for matters I’m not at liberty to discuss. How long are you out here?”

“Three days, just enough time to keep from getting in trouble. Maybe.” He smiled in response to her answer. The captain came over the load speaker followed by the seat belt sign coming on.”

“ladies and gentleman, I’ve turned back on the seat belt sign. Getting some reports of turbulence along our route, like everyone to return to their seats, and make sure your buckled in, still got about seven hours left in our flight, soon as we get into some better air will get that seat belt sign off for you.”

Racheal got up from the bar seat. “It was nice meeting you.” She said with a smile.

“Hey before you go, where you staying? Maybe we could grab dinner or drinks?”

She looked down at his wedding ring. “Sure, you can find me at the Burj Al Arab its right on the beach, Room is under Racheal Moore. That is when your done playing James Bond.”

“Nice accommodations Mrs. Moore, the air conditioning units must be a profitable business, I take it they have room order service? At Burj Al Arab.”

“Miss not Mrs,” she said holding her ring less finger up. “It’s a desert, moving these units is like shooting fish in a barrel, bang, bang.” She said pointing her imaginary gun at him and seductively blowing the smoke out from the barrel. “Rooms stocked with booze, eat in service is excellent. See ya in Dubai congressmen.” Then winked at him and returned to her seat.

CHAPTER FIVE

Reaching his house Stan entered thru the garage door and saw Maria’s spot empty. He glanced at his watch. It would be at least another two hours before she got home. His parking spot stacked high with aluminum scaffolding, wood planks, and paint leftover from the contractor, now over the last two weeks collecting dust at best. Worst of all, backed in the corner with a painting drop canvas draped over it, his Uncle’s prized Indian motor recently given to Stan blocked in a sealed from his use for now. It was obvious his project had been put on the backburner. He shook his head and voiced his complaints to himself. “I told her not to pay the balance off. Never see him again.” With summer coming to a close, and winter right around the corner, the last thing he wanted was to be chiseling snow from his windshield.

Before he could reach the entry door, he heard the voice of his neighbor Shelly approaching him. “Hello there sexy.” He turned and gave a halfhearted smile. She was holding mail up in her hand.

There in her petite low cut tennis outfit that followed every perfectly fit curvature of her body and seemed more appropriate in the Victoria secrets flyer then the courts, stood his neighbor, Shelly. Her seductive smile accentuated with bright red lipstick and white polished teeth reflected her friendlessness towards Stan. One even without intent, couldn’t help feasting their eyes on her devotion as a bored Banker’s wife, to keep herself in top shape.

“The mailman put your mail in my box by mistake.” She said handing him the mail. Junk mail, instant low interest loan, buckets of money guaranteed, Stan noticed as he sorted thru it. “Thanks,” he said. At least for now, she had given up competing with the neighbor’s black Lab, stealing his newspaper to be nosey.

She peeked into the garage. “Maria not home yet?” She said in her southern accent covering her mouth as if in total repulse yet displaying a devious smile drawn with purpose. She brushed the back of her hands across his cheek. “Shame to leave you unintended all these nights such a shame. Especially on your birthday.”

Stan pulled back. and gave her a forced smile defending her absences. “Finishing her residence not an easy road. I’m okay with it. But thank you.” He started to go in the door then stopped. “How’d you know it was my birthday? You snooping on me.”

She shifted her hip, in a sexy accentuating pose holding one hand against it. “Honey there’s a lot of things I know about you, things that might just surprise you.” She pointed to a blue dealership ad for BMW”s mixed in his junk mail. It had HAPPY BIRTHDAY STAN written all over it. A big black caddy pulled into Shelly’s house across the road. A sign her husband had arrived. She glanced over half annoyed.

“Looks like you better go.”

“Yeah, I guess.” A hint of disappointment leaked from her face in response to her husband’s untimely arrival, and just as quickly as it appeared she turned and plastered a well-used and overly rehearsed fake smile to greet her husband.

He watched her walk in a purposely exaggerated sway, turning once to make sure she had caught his attention until she reached her husband wrapped her arms around him in a hug and out of her husband’s site displayed a pout on her face for Stan. He could only shake his head in disbelief to her waning theatrics. “That’s a complication I can live without.” He said to himself.

Making his way into the house, he stopped at the frig, as his stomach growled vying for attention. “Cheese roles and cold beer,” perfect he said grabbing both and heading to the den. Turning the computer on he pulled up his novel and read a few paragraphs to reset the story in his mind. As was customary he put on his head set and pulled up some James Bay music then started to type away.

He could fell the flow, sometimes it practically poured out of him usually with little mental effort on his part, a byproduct of countless hours watching John Wayne or Clint Eastwood movies growing up. He had little need to jot ideas or words that normally were lost before the ink hit the paper. He didn’t use an outline, nor index cards, or a notebook of characters and plots on a flow chart. He spent little time thinking about it outside of his writing time. It normally just poured, and boy did it pour from his head almost as if he was reciting a past experiences locked in his mind.

CHAPTER SIX

Her mother and father proudly dressed in their Sunday best, family in tow of rank, led the trail thru the general store. A tall young man tipped his hat and stepped aside as the family passed. She battered her eyes almost too quick to be detected. But the young man observant by nature, zeroed in on her, felt the invitation. She trailed a step or two behind her two sisters and younger brother whose fascination fixated on the hoister and six shooter gun wrapped around the young man, then to his tattoo, cast in a bluish and green dye with two feathers hanging from a webbed circle.

Her intrigue different. She first saw his long lock of hair held together by a single ban in a ponytail peaking under his cowboy hat. On his wrist, a torques bracelet made from animal bones.

He was as close to a mix of gun slinging Indian if such a beast existed.

“What is that mister? Your tattoo?” the curious boy asked pointing to his arm. “It’s an Indian thing, ain’t it?”

Christian pulled his sleeve up to let the boy see all of it. “It’s dreamcatcher, and yes an Indian thing.”

“What is a dreamcatcher?” He asked touching it.

Christian smiled kindly, taken in by the inquisitive boy. “A dreamcatcher helps one catch and release dreams in the spirit world. It’s a belief of my people.”

“You a real Indian? He asked looking at his fair skin. “You don’t look or talk like one?”

“Yes, I am Sioux.”

“Jamie, you’re wearing the man down, enough questions, leave the man alone.” His father’s stern voice carried from the front of the line. The command started the Congo of the tribe back in motion. As the young girl next to her brother slid past him his eyes widened awakened by her graceful natural beauty. She turned once more and gave him a flirtatious smile. The entourage of giggling sisters ogling the young cowboy were of little concern to the preoccupied parents as they marched out the door. That was the first time he saw her.

One week later almost to the exact same time of day, he stumbled upon her in the most peculiar of settings, skinny dipping where the creek opened to the cascading falls situated in between the canyon next to the grass meadow that crept right up to the willow reeds. A place a young calf, bold enough or naive enough could run off to find the sweetest of all the grass. A place that batted up to the open range and the start of the young cowboy’s homestead.

He spied her first unintentionally and dared not break his stare. After all it weren’t often maybe never in a lifetime a cowboy would be lucky enough to find himself in the company of such a beauty young lass as innocent as the calf partaking in a cool water of the falls with all the glory of her being naked, soothing away the hot summer sting of the sun. Her young tight body glistened as the water frolicked down her body. He was mesmerized not only by her beauty, but more an innate thought he was seeing a part of his own soul that might just complete him. The whiney of the horse started the young girl and locked eyes with the wood be intruder covering herself frozen for moment in a state of both intrigue and fear.

“I ain’t gonna hurt you.” he said dismounting from his horse and grabbing his rope.

“I’ll scream if you come even closer.”

He motioned with his hand to quiet and while holding the rope pointed to the calf dipping its mouth to the water near the high reeds.

In a slow calculating movement, careful to keep from rousing the fresh autumn leaves under his boots, he come close enough to the calf to attempt to recapture it.

Hurling the lasso, it landed center on the calf’s neck. He tugged just hard enough to bring the calf down then sprint into action trailing the rope tightly around its hocks like he had done so many times during branding season.

The girl never witnessing a roping before screamed. “Don’t hurt him.”

“It won’t hurt the little lad. He’s stronger then iron nails.” He shouted back holding the calf down.

She wadded closer, forgetting her own naked vulnerability. “Well it sure looks like it.”

[_ His eyes distracted from the calf towards her and had he not stood in mouth dropping silence staring, she would out of compassion for the innocent calf forgotten she stood bare naked in front of him. "Quit looking," she screamed. He turned his head having the nature of a gentleman and slightly embarrassed for indulging. She darted over to where her dress lay next to the bush. Checked to see if he was looking then smiled and slipped her dress on. Once safely cloaked, she took a minute to admire the rugged man standing tall, T- shirt soaked in his sweat, his body defined and taunt, carved muscles and rich prominent veins decorated his sculpted body and professed his enduring love for the outdoors. _]

“I’ve seen you before. At the general store. You’re that cowboy got folks talking about.” She covered her mouth and turned slightly red.

His eyes narrowed in on her. “Saying what? Come on now. Let it out of the bag, you’re already thinking it. You don’t seem all the shy earlier prancing around in your birthday suite. What’d they say?”

“That ain’t fair. I didn’t know anyone was around. But I ain’t bashful either. Everyone says you’re a mean drunk and a gambler. They say you stooled old man Aikens ranch. Shot one of his kin folk in a gun battle, heard you killed him.”

He shook his head from side to side. “Damn townsfolk ain’t got nothing better to do, minding everyone else’s business and if the business don’t suit em they change the way the business went down.” He let the calf up adjusting the rope to hold it within lead distance to his horse. “Christian. My name is Christian, and a young girl like you shouldn’t be part of the town gospel. I didn’t steal it, won it fair in a game of cards, had just as much to lose as that fellow only the cards on that day were kinder to me.”

“Did you really kill a man?”

He checked the knotted tie around the calf’s necks then turned back to her. “Not without good reason.”

“Then it’s true.” She put her hand to her mouth again to feign being appalled but her excitement and intrigue were hard to mask. “What reason could a person have to take another person life?”

“I had my reasons. He drew on me first. Would you rather be talking to him?”

She blushed. “Was he the only one?”

Christian hesitated at first to answer, after all killing didn’t seem quite the conversation that would hold many girls interest, fact of the matter was he weren’t one to want to discuss in the first place but somehow he felt and easiness towards her. Someone he could share any secrets with. “He lowered his head. No, thirteen I’ve killed. You can never get it out of your head. No matter how hard I try I still see their faces every single day, right down to the moment they fall. Crazy part is always happens on a Saturday. I hate Saturdays. Don’t matter what I’m doing could be fetching water, branding cows, eating ribs and out of know where their faces pop in my head and replays that day over. Sometimes I wish I’d been the one laying there. It ain’t like I’m a nature born killer, just seems once you get a reputation for being good with a gun, someone thinks they need to prove they’re better.” His remark cast a look of displeasure on her face.

“I would hate that feeling looming over me all the time. It must be frightening.”

Christian chuckled… “Maybe reckon that’s a nature instinct, sure I suppose at first it scared me, but now….” he hesitated.

“Now what? Mister” She asked her eyes intently narrowed towards him focused on his next few words to leave his mouth.

“Now I guess… I guess I don’t mind it almost seems to stir a spark in me. I doubt most realize they’d be doing me a favor, you know where I wouldn’t have to think about no more killings. But Christian’s my name not mister.”

“That’s terrible, Christian. I mean not your name how you feel and all.” She said running her hand down her arm to sooth her own emotions, yet diving deeper into the open portal of his confessions. “Is that why you gamble, my pa said gambling men like you take to whiskey to cure what only the god lord can. My daddy says it unnatural an alchemy of poison, corn should give life, not take it. Is that true you got a liking to whiskey too?”

“I don’t know why I’m even taking the time to answer your silly questions. But ya, sometimes. Fact sometimes I like it a lot. Ain’t nothing unnatural about it. But not whiskey, if your goanna tag something on me get it right. I like the tequila the Mexicans bring up. Makes me mellow. Whiskey changes me, makes me unfriendly. Maybe that’s why folks think I’m mean.”

What should have frightened her only excited her to push him further. “My pa says whiskey and whores go hand in hand. You like whores too?”

“Your paw sure does say a lot of things, things a proper girl shouldn’t be asking, but yeah I like em just fine, I ain’t ashamed to admit that a man needs company ever once in a while. Way I see it just like any relationship, I help them, they help me. Besides just having little fun ain’t no bodies business if no one get hurt. I get there’s no lost love once we part. I know I don’t mean squat to them no more than they mean squat to me.”

“Her eyes lit up. “You don’t have someone special you care about?”

“I didn’t say that, “he snapped back then mellowed. “Just said I enjoy their company once in a while.”

For a moment, they stared at each in silence. Feeling compelled to break the silence she spoke. “My paw says… “

He stopped her midsentence. “Who exactly is your paw anyway? He sure does seem to have a big influence on you. What’s your name?”

“Suzie “

“Well please to meet you Suzie.” He put his hand out. “You got a last name?”

She giggled, “of course I do. Cartright, actual name is Rechell Suzie Cartright. But everyone calls me Suzie.”

“Well that explains a whole bunch.”

“What you mean by that?”

“Nothing just we all got folks talking I suppose.”

“Not bad talk. My daddy ain’t never done no harm. Follows the rules of the good book. Ain’t killed anyone, fact of the matter is he steps in for the preacher now and then, first one to pull silver and gold out these hills. Weren’t for him this town wouldn’t be nothing but a ghost town by now. “

“Bible thumper, are you? Be careful with that.”

“Why? Cause the good book don’t see eye to eye with your line of reasoning. You do read the good book…” She covered her mouth sensing a slip. “I mean it’s okay if you can’t read, I suppose I just assumed you did.’‘

“I read fine. Just a lot of what’s being said in that book don’t make sense. Maybe I just ain’t book smart. But I ain’t never seen a fish eat a man, and why something would drown all his creations, well that don’t make sense either.”

For a minute, she seemed frustrated by his obstinate reasoning then her face lit up. “I don’t know all the answers either but maybe you should come to my paws church. He’s real good at explaining things, got a special wisdom. Pasture lets him read a passage every Sunday.”

“I don’t think your folks want me hanging around. Wouldn’t be natural for either of us. I come from I different world then your family might take a liken too. You ever do any thinking of your own?”

“Of course I do. I ain’t a kid. I’ll be 16 in the spring. My maw was already with three kids at my age. But she grew up back east in the city with a lot more opportunities. Things move slower in the country, but mama says when the time is right I’ll know. It well just happen”

“What well just happen… think on your own?”

“No silly, finding my one true love “ She shot back then came close to him perching up on her tiptoes to get a good look in his eyes it was an intense look that spoke volumes to who or what their true essence was. It made him a little uncomfortable and he backed away.

“Why’d you do that?”

“Do what.”

“I don’t know the way you looked in me, like you was searching for something.”

“I don’t know,” she said closing the gap again. just felt like it seems I’ve known you before, that’s all.”

“Course you do between all the town talk about me seems you knows me good.”

“No, not in that way.” she said again looking deep into his eyes and inching beyond a comfortable distance between them. “Like I’ve always known you and I get a good feeling about you.” He returned her gaze this time his eyes widened finding the same passage hers had found. Her eyes dropped to his lips and on que he pulled her the last few inches towards him. She offered little resistance and they locked in a kiss.

When they finally pulled away their eyes locked and in the silence, they both knew a soul had been united unopposed by the wrath of heaven and hell that contrasted their lives. “You sure your church is ready for me?”

She smiled backing away mesmerized by her young cowboy. “I don’t care what the church folk our ready for, besides,” she said with a coy smile forming in the corner of her mouth. “If you want to see me again that’s the only place you’ll get a chance.” And with those words she turned and with a hop in her step run down the path leading back to her home.

Watching her leave in that moment the hardnosed young man, raised on the prairie, quick with the gun, who favored a weekend in town, playing cards, drinking, and chasing the young saloon girls decorated in fancy lace and lavender perfume brought in from San Francisco, knew they would not be able to keep his attention quite like her. All of it would soon take a back seat. She had awakened in him a force that had the potential to wean him from the excitement of the whiskey, gunfight, and whore.

And so, the stage was set for the young girl and the gunslinger a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. After all, his notoriety would likely find little favor in the heart of her father. His beginning roots innocent enough, doing respectable odd jobs working alongside the china man laying track for the iron-horse, hunting buffalo, mining, running scout for the Calvary. And void of temptations he had saved a healthy penance of money after a couple year of hard labor. But life demands temptations to supply a fever for life, and cards and dice supplied the bulk of it for Christian. He seemed at ease with games of chance but exceeding good at cards. Five card drawl his favorite. His first trip in town hooked him on the game, the first gunfight over cards he witnessed, convinced him the need to learn to handle a gun. So, he traded some beaver belts and a couple fox traps for his first colt. Spent every spare minute he could practicing. On the cold day on the eve of Christmas he learned how to take another man’s life. This is where the lines split for a man of Christian’s new vocation and that of Suzie’s father. A man, Jerry Cartright, all the county knew. A man who had purged, dug, ripped, and carved damn near half the mountain before his luck finally smitten his hard work with the mother lode rumored to be the biggest take in the last 100 years in the Rockies.

Hard work sacrifice that’s what made a man successful in the eyes of her father, not a game of chance. His fortune was earned, not won in a game of little skill, and defended by the quickness in his hands. It seemed like a cold day in hell would be felt before a man of her Fathers background could accept such an unassuming progeny, let alone one raised by Indians.

But Suzie she knew better. It was fate that led that calf to find the water, and the timing of two souls to unite nothing could disrupt this stage once it was put in place, she already cast her muse on the young cowboy she knew that. And if it took forever to change her father, so be it, even mountains become flatlands by the soft winds and rains.

CHAPTER SEVEN

As the seasons changed and the northern west winds brought the arrival of winter, the snows tightened its hold around the small town tucked amongst the grand Rocky Mountains. The irony of its harsh bitter freeze and picturesque white blanket of snow provided a contrast as the beauty of its scenery crippled the ability of the black iron horse to break a path further west then the small town of Durango making it at least during the harshest moods of old man winter the mecca of the west. It was a gamble by merchants hoping to cash in on the last push of supplies from the east. Fruit of loom from Manchester having just lost their big army contract for union uniforms now had surplus of men’s undergarments. Appalachian coal, Ohio beef and the latest gadgets from New York city found it way on the last train before the year ended. A hail Mary pass to buffer the merchant’s pockets, but one with the advancement of telephones that made the risk a phone call away from a bartered agreement in the town of Durango. It had become such a common event for the train passage to get stuck or wait it out in Durango the last stop before the gateway to the west coast that the small general store often ran lean on supplies until they could take advantage of the stranded train. The townsfolks even had a festive holiday of sorts that roasted a pig, barbecued a steer, and drank corn brewed whiskey flavored with bitter Virginia tobacco and at the least a good fiddle player to celebrate the arrival of the train, usually on its arrival, and usually a week prior to thanksgiving.

As the train plowed into the station knocking snow more than five feet high and screeching its breaks as it hydroplaned down the track it finally came to a stop. A passenger on the train, stood near the door gripping the handle. He had black hair as black as ink, and a burly long curled beard to match with streaks of grey. A lifetime of rich foods and leisure time settled in layers around his belly and round shoulders lightly hunched over by age. He was dressed in black top coat and derby hat, checking his watch, he tightened his grip on his bulging backed carriage, and plopped his boots on to the soft cover of snow that crunched below him. Barring the cold wind, he stopped only to ask a local as he dismounted from the train where one could buy some bread, meat, and drink or two before settling in for the night.

Heavens gate?” The local said, giving the man a look up and down then pointing down the street. “Count ‘em, five buildings, last one on your right. Can’t miss, only place with any activity this time of day.”

He walked with a noticeable limp dragging his right leg past the grey sun dried spruce building, past the general store advertising five lbs. sacks for three pennies, past the old stable with the cannon sculptured arms of the blacksmith pinning his anvil hard against the searing hot metal, occasionally searing in his sweat, with plumes of smoke and sulfur filling the air, past the barber shop where the seat doubled as the town dentist and a mix of hair cotton and blood found its way to a burn pile in the side alley. He stopped for a moment to rest and a young lady walked past him passing him at first then turning. “Can I help you sir?”

No, but that’s kind of you to ask. Oh, wait maybe you can. I’m looking for heaven’s gate.”

Her eyes went to the sign above, and she pointed.

His greyish blue eyes followed hers, his face blush. “I’m afraid I’m not so astute. My eyes not so clear, but thank you.”

With a smile, her sweet voice followed. “You’re welcome,” she said turning to refocus to her business at hand.

He watched her leave and in that moment, it occurred to him who she was.

Glancing at the sign, he smirked. “Heaven’s Gate” perfect. The winds kicked in a furious full blown swirl of snow igniting the flame of the kerosene light that highlighted the saloon. He shivered and pulled his collar tighter to his neck. Entering the bar, it offered immediate comfort from the bitter sting of the winter winds pushing from the monstrous yet grand white painted mountains. The buckling and roaring embers of wood and coal from the pot stove fire drew him near, breaking the chill and melting away the outer cover of snow and frost from his coat. Situating in and gathering his senses, numbed from the cold the drafty building protected its occupants from the gusting mountain winds racing into the valley with only an occasional draft pushing through the cracks of the wooded sided building. He ordered a drink

“Bourbon,” he said grimacing as he sat brushing the last remnants of snow from his black leather long coat and placing it over a bar stool next to his.

The bartender laid out a glass, “Ain’t got no bourbon. At least not until they off load the railcar. And that be at least a couple of days. Got local corn whiskey you still want it?” He asked hovering the bottle above the glass.

The man nodded and the bartender poured a healthy shot and turned to put the bottle away.

An old, cowboy who had left the trail behind him years ago, snickered and couldn’t resist the opportunity to chime in. “Corn whiskey? Think you mean Coffin Varnish. Hell more turpentine and gunpowder in that bottle then ever was any corn.”

The black dressed man, smiled acknowledging the old cowboys humor. “A shot for my friend,” he said pointing to the old cowboy and lying down a guinea on the bar. “What kinda meal you got?”

“Ain’t never seen a coin like that.” The bartender scratched his chin and picked up the coin examined the rarity of it bit into it with the corner of his mouth, then laid it back on the table. “I can’t take that.”

The man looked upon the coin offering, then a brief glance at his surroundings, in an attempt familiarize his new surrounding to his awareness. “Ops, English coin,” and snatched the coin back pulling out a small nugget of gold.

The bartender’s eyes widened a smile broke across his face. “I can take that,” he said laying a bottle of corn whiskey down. “Got Beef stew cabbage, best you’ll ever eat, and some black bread, that’s it. “

“Maybe later,” the man said pouring a shot and throwing it back, then pouring another and taking a moment to survey the contents of the bar. In the corner a piano player erratically pounded out foreign music next to a colorful poster highlighting New Orleans. His music off beat to Scott Joplin ragtime style rhythm or barbershop quartet style from back east, but still held an appealing drawl to the senses. It along with the music provided changing times for the small town wanting desperately to be a city one day. The port or arrival train station laid entry to a town that now had three churches and three preaches all selling the same product with different wrappings. A shoemaker that had one style of men’s boot and one style of women’s boots, that made more of a living fixing em then then selling em. A general store stocked high in can and bag foods, assortment of lady’s dresses, and most important to the kid’s rock candy all the way from New Jersey.

A saloon of course, which also served the only food and hotel service in town and evolved as the first building from a canvass tent. It was owned by an Indian woman of all people. Part Mexican, part Apache. Weird mix most thought. Taller and thinner than most, with Mexican blood, a dark skin beauty, lavish brown eyes even reaching her forties, still could turn cowboy’s heads. Her Indian name, Dahteste, meaning Warrior Woman. Everyone called her Tessy. Built the bar up alongside with her husband. A Kentucky man who knew how to turn corn mesh to spirits. A founding father of Durango, who found more gold in his pocket selling liquor then panning the river, or digging the dirt. One could argue whether he died from bad whiskey or the White Plague (tuberculosis), but agreed it was consumption never the less. His early parting gave her full reign and most patrons gratefully found a little less water in their booze. Fair deal Tessy they called her. Paid a good days wage, and weren’t bashful about splitting time barkeeping or duties with the dancing girls. Even made one of her more dependable salon-keepers a part owner. Christian and her, despite the age difference, had a special relationship, some said like a brother and sister. Others just didn’t speculate, given Christian’s background. Her wit was what he would say bonded them, but most had their own idea of the bond.

Rounding out the rest of the town. A bank that had soldered metal iron made from the blacksmith to protect its contents. A barbershop that housed the doc who pulled teeth if needed, and if his medical practice suffered he also handled the mortuary aspect of the town usually given a free haircut to the parted soul. Rounding out the rest of business was a telegraph office that now offered a glimpse of the latest technology of a fellow back east called Alexander Graham which everyone in the town was convinced would be a flop, and most preachers witchcraft. This store was Mr. Cartwright’s favor and being the star citizen for which most of the business existed due to his generous offerings as offbeat as it were most agreed the business would survive.

With civility, the need for order also seemed to finally come to the small mining town in way of a new sheriff, or at least a county traveling sheriff. Whose job as lawman was to balance the input of monies from the miners, and cattle wranglers, that couldn’t wait to spend hard earned cash burning in their pockets, and keeping the straightened path of townsfolks lives from being disrupted.

Recently a traveling band of choir, equipped with banjo and fiddle players had the misfortune, or good fortune depending whether the glass is half full or half empty, to end up in the small isolated town trying to reach the coast now stranded possible for the duration of the winter. At any rate, it was one of the small gifts from the iron horse that joined the east to the west for the pivotal town of Durango. A lifeline connecting the country, led by central Pacific that had imported and exploited a tough Chinese labor force to undercut the Irish immigrant by thirty dollars a month ready and desperate to endure the wrath of snow slides, landslides, explosions, falls, tunnel collapses, and other accidents that would count for hundreds of deaths or maimed workers, while putting down over five miles of iron rail, pine timber, iron spikes and bolts a day bridging the Appalachians with the Rockies. The iron horse and unwavering well of the worker cut thru remote dense foliage of brush, and pine, and rivers, and mountains and even occasional hostile attacks from Indians. Expanding its rail as far north as Denver and as far south as Albuquerque NM. Recent concern at towns gatherings, fueled talks of plans by the Rio Grande railroad, a new competitor to Pacific, to lay rails north up into Silverton a small mining town. It was a great time to be alive so much was happening. The civil war back east had been settled for better or worse, and even the Injun problem as seen by the bulk of town folks seemed to be manageable, as with the decline of the buffalo, so also the decline of the Indian nations.

The old man with a limp surveyed the room. He set his eyes on a group of rough riders hedged up to the bar the loudest and most obnoxious caught his eye. “Perhaps, him,” the man thought to himself.

A crowd was starting to filter into the saloon neither hell or high-water was going to keep the locals out and damn sure enough a winter storm couldn’t stop their enthusiasm either. You could tell the miners from the rail folks excluding the Chinese worker who made it a practice to stay clear of the bottle and the buffalo chasers and cattle ranchers ripe and hardened who found pleasure seeking balance in the gut wrenching whiskey that shocked their callous senses back to acceptable terms in their minds.

The crowd, engaged in lustful pursuit of corn whiskey and companionship paid little consideration to who walked into the saloon. The salon keeper wary of those that would exit without settling their account and those that entered carrying nothing but trouble focused intently on the swing door. It was his business to know his clientele and unlike the gentleman with a limp and black coat and hat seemed to have railroad business written all over his face and demeanor. The likes of the next man walking in spelled trouble.

A confident cowboy his carriage cast an ominous shadow as he towered over most by at least a foot. He dressed expressly in an imported European frockcoat, that covered his broad shoulders and black creased trousers and a shirt with ruffles. It seemed a clear intent to distinguish himself from the crowd although his size already conveyed it. And if a man weren’t observant to his style of dress, then his piercing light crazy blue eyes that sparkled with a mischief akin to that of a wild prairie wolf allowed you a passage into his soul. Harnessed on his waist a slim Jim hoister with a stamped leather design and decorative silver plugs designed for quick drawl of his smith and western six-shooter. Entering the bar, he paused at the doorway and purposely parted his jacket allowing all to view his hardware. A path parted for him like the opening of the red sea and he made his way next to the stranger at the bar. He had a graceful athletic build with broad shoulders and a focused look to his piercing blue eyes and light black hue to his skin. Most of the dancing ladies cut a quick look in his direction then back to their labor at hand. the barkeeper without waiting for him to ask grabbed the corn whiskey jug and started to pour a glass for the cowboy. The cowboy angrily shifted his hand over the glass blocking the whiskey and pitching the content in the glass on the floor.

“Why you want to do that to me Billie? I want bourbon now! Not this rot gut shit.” The derby hat man payed close attention to the interaction between the two.

Running low on the good stuff Royce, that’s all. Didn’t mean any disrespect. Can’t say for sure they shipped any factory stuff in from the east.” The bar keeper said nervously adjusting his collar. “And…. and . . .”

“And what?”

“Well you ain’t settled your bill in a while Royce.”

The cowboy pounded his fist on the bar and with the other, placed his hand over the pistol in his hoister. “Billie I ain’t gonna ask again.”

The barkeeper’s eyes locked in on his hand hovering over the hoister and grabbed the top shelf bottle. His own hand started to shake as he poured spilling a considerable amount. “What’s wrong with you Billie? “Son of bitch if you ain’t got half of it on my shirt. You know how much one of these cost?” Billie nodded no and Royce was quick to remind him. “About a week of your wages that’s how much.” The barkeeper laid the bourbon bottle on the bar and then still shaking tried to dampen the spill with his bar rag. “Horses ass Billie, leave it alone, you’re making it worse” Royce snatched the bottle and poured his own shot, putting it to his lips he caught the stranger wearing a black derby hat, staring at him from the corner of his eye.

“Whatch’a ya looking at mister.” He said slamming the empty glass on the bar.

“Bourbon now I like a man who knows his drink.” Natas remarked in a calm but authoritative voice. “Man’s drink selection says a lot about him.”

Royce softened. “Grew up in Kentucky about the first thing a country boy learns.”

“You’re some ways from home, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, but I don’t see how any of that’s your business mister.”

“Just making conversation.” Natas said focusing his eyes away from Royce.

Royce looked at the man with contempt and little respect. “Will, I can see you’re not from these parts, so here’s some friendly advice, minding your own business goes a long way keeping you out of trouble.” His words brought a self-satisfied smile to the man, knowing indeed his business to some part would end with Royce. Royce narrowed his sights eyeing the man up. His unyielding demeanor, made Royce uncomfortable and he turned his attention back on the barkeeper. “Billie, I swear to you, you ever try and embarrass me again cause you ain’t got the smarts to keep your arithmetic in order, I’ll have my old man shut this place down quicker than you can shake two sticks.”

The bartender nodded nervously. “I don’t want no trouble Billie it’s just…just…

“Just.. just what? He mimicked.” Quit you stuttering Billie. It’s driving me crazy.”

It’s just that…folks expect the good stuff for funerals.. can’t count on the rail for sure to ship some in.”

Royce cut him off. “Next one be your funeral Billie you ever pull that stunt again.” Then grabbed the bottle and worked his way over to a card game.

The bartender apologized to the black derby hat man as he wiped the counter in front of him. “Didn’t mean to hold out on you but try to save the good stuff for special occasions, mainly wakes of course those being the most unpredictable. But you can’t talk any sense into that boy.”

“Is he the gunslinger I heard about.” Noticed his hoister. “If I’m not mistaken it’s a quick action type most would prefer given that trade. Funny I’d pictured someone a little different.”

“Him.” the bartender let out a snicker. “Yeah he been in a gun fight before shot a drunk in the back. Damn near killed him. Crippled him up good, I mean not in the way you got a little snag.” He said covering his tracks. “I mean I ain’t comparing you or saying you’z a cripple. Different story to hear him tell it.”

“No offence taking.”

“Spoiled little brat his families’ old money that moved out west with the Mormons. Made a fortune in the railroad, contracting out workers to the railroad. Slave labor if you ask me. His old man is running for governor of these territories. Apple didn’t fall far from the tree no wonder the boy turned out like he did. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Damn near got away with murder.”

Anyway, names Billie, I own a piece of this paradise, or I guess lease from the bank. Tessy if you ain’t met her, well she’s the controlling partner. She got the paper on the place. ” He put his hand out to the stranger noticing a rather colder than normal touch to his hand.

“Natas,” the man said. “And no apology needed. I’ve rotted my gut with worse.”

“Nattes,” the barkeeper repeated.

“No not Nattes…Natas it’s French.”

“Oh?” the barkeeper remarked,” got you. here for business?”

Natas shook his head.

“Figured that not many pass thru here unless business.. let’s see I’d say you’re a tad bit late for buying cattle, you don’t look much like a merchant, and your hands well, too soft for labor. You must be one of the big bosses with the rail. Been talk of extending into Silverton. I assume that’s your business here.”

Natas took a sip of his corn whiskey. “Here to collect a debt.” He pulled a watch from his pocket looked at the time, shook the watch put it to his ear then smiled again. “Suppose to meet someone..”

“Banks two buildings down on your right, you probably passed it on your way here. Might still catch Mr. Rivers. Fine banking man. I mean if you got business and all.”

“Not that kind of debt,” Natas said focusing his attention on the quartet next to the old piano starting to rehearse some music.

“Not bad, are they?” Billie said seeing Natas linger his attention on the band. “Come in all the way from saint Louise. Collecting a debt? And you don’t need the Banker?” The saloonkeeper scratched his head. “Well you got me stumped?”

“Yes,” business transaction one I’m not at liberty to share.”

“Suit yourself,” he said wiping down the bar with his rag. “Don’t need to know your business, but like I said most of all business ends up finding a spot here. Secrets hard to keep boxed in, gossip only entertainment we get most days.” The bartender stood silent for a few moments hoping for a response from Natas, receiving none, he put some muscle cleaning a stubborn spot on the counter then scanned his attention down the bar. “Well got some cups to fill. You want another shot before I leave?” He asked reaching over to his bottle to pour it.

Natas reached the bottle first and pushed it to the old cowboy, who’s eye lit like he had just won the jackpot in a raffle. Pulling another small nugget from his purse, he handed it to the salon keeper. “Why don’t you make easy on yourself and bring me another bottle.” The barkeeper smiled, pocketed the gold nugget, and this time grabbed the last bottle of top shelf bourbon. “Royce can go to hell,” then worked his way back down the bar grabbing a few empty glasses and making a mental note of refills.

Natas took a moment to sense the ambience the quartet created on the saloon a few dancing girls huddled closer swaying to the beat. The crowd for the most part were happy and drunk in the spirit of both music and alcohol. The festive enthusiasm spread thru the crowd bonding the quartet with a feeling of kinship and hopes of loosened pockets in tips.

After a few more songs, the quartet took its first break. the man watched in anticipation as the fiddler made his way up to the bar the derby hat man pulled his coat off the stool offering the seat

“Naw,” he replied squeezing closer to the bar. “Do me some good to stand for a bit.”

“Drink? “The man asked pushing the bottle towards him.

The musician shook his head, “don’t drink just trying to get a glass of water. That in itself hard enough. At least one that don’t taste like rotten eggs baked in iron rocks pulled straight from the ground.”

The man put out his hand. “Natas Reificul, its French and you are?”

“Shawn Cets enchanté de faire votre connaissance.”

“I’m impressed. You don’t look French.”

“Naw but spent enough time in New Orleans to learn the language. Funny you don’t have much of an accent yourself for being French.”

“Nomad of sorts. I guess, my upbringing in the new world. My father from the old country my name honor’s his heritage. You got a pretty talented group of music folks and you pretty damn good on that fiddle. I play a little myself once in a while.”

Thank you. We put a lot of work to get there. If you really enjoy it he pointed to a jar next to the piano. We only get paid tips, be much obliged if you like our music and all. “

“I missed the introduction, what you call yourselves?”

“Four men in a quartet, no just kidding,’ Tramp Abroad’.”

Interesting? Why Tramp Abroad.”

“Well more anything, four out of the five in our little skit have gypsy background I’m the outcast tramp abroad seemed to fit the circus atmosphere but more because of Mark Twain’s new book, I know not very original but just liked the sound of it.”

I guess not much in life is original just about everything gets recycled then repacked but five in the band I only count four? “

He pointed down to a girl talking to a gentleman with white hair and beard at the opposite end of the bar. “That’s Madrid, she’s the four of the five of us. A local we picked up. Does readings, scary how damn good she it. Outta give it a whirl. That is if you believe in that sort of thing.”

Natas smiled. “Very much so.”

Shawn hearing his name called from his other band members grabbed his water, “le ciel brille vers le bas sur vous.”

Natas looked down at the white-haired gentlemen and girl next to him. “Thank you that is kind of you. I think the heavens our already shining down on me.”

The girl next to the white-haired man looked more native Indian then gypsy. She was pretty but carried a little extra weight in her cheeks, which also enhanced her bosoms, which her attire proudly put on display. She seemed to have a smile that conveyed a jovial nature to her. The man poured himself another glass of bourbon from his bottle, took a sip then got the barkeepers attention.

“Like to buy a drink for the gentlemen and young lady at the end of the saloon.”

The barkeeper turned. And at first only catching a glimpse of the young girl turned back. “You mean the girl?”

The man chuckled, he’s playing his tricks, he thought to himself. “Yes for the lady “got anything sweet some wine… or brandy even better.”

“Brandy nah got some old wine though, been around for a while might be close to brandy might be sour as vinegar. Natas nodded in approval and with bottle in hand followed the barkeeper over to the other side of the saloon.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Stan took a glimpse of his watch. “Damn 7:30 already.” He quit typing and took a minute to jot some notes in a notepad, then checked his email. He started to log out of his computer when for shits and giggles he googled yogi downtown Kent. Racheal’s. He stared at her picture and started to scroll through her web site when he heard the door open, he closed out his browser.

His partner Maria, wearing hospital fatigues, arms bearing small groceries peeked her head into the den. “Working on your book?”

“Yeah..” was all he responded. A tense boundary of silence drifted over them.

She lingered in the door for a short time. Getting no response, she turned to walk away.

“You ever hear of twin flames?” He asked causing her to reengage her attention.

“Twin flames you mean like soul mates? Why is that what your books about?”

“Yeah, I mean no my book isn’t. But yeah, I mean exactly like soul mates, but I guess like a step up. Twin flames they call it. There like supposed to be a part of each other.”

“Well I dated a guy in high school once who told me I was his twin flame. Pretty sure he used that on all the girls. Little horn dog trying to get in my pants, that’s about it.

“What about you and me, you think were…?”

“Please Stan, first of all, I really don’t believe in that junk, but if I did aren’t soul mates or twin flames whatever you call em, sort like compatible, get along, complete each other?”

Her words weren’t a surprise. Yet still stung. “Yeah… guess you’re right.” His head sunk down back to his computer, isolation that was he MO when it came to dealing with their relationship, she took his cue and carried the groceries into the kitchen.

He pulled his writings up. “Western, what I’m I thinking, ain’t nobody gonna read it. Maybe I should write about soul mates.”

“Is the garbage disposals broke?” Maria shouted in. “And we still got ants. I thought you were gonna call an exterminator. I mean if you don’t have time, we can just call someone.”

“I’ll work on it.” he mumbled back to appease her letting his attention drift back to his book.

The lack of sincere intent in his response infused another tirade of demands to the honeydew list.

Stan realized it was fertile to attempt to keep writing, he looked at the doorway and took a long sigh. Her persistence that wasn’t going to go away until he at least tried to satisfy her demands. He shuffled over to the disposal, turned it on, heard the grinding, then let his focus gaze out the window, freezing his attention in a void of infinite thought that lead nowhere.

“Jesus Stan what’s wrong with you?” Maria said rushing over to the disposal switch and clicking it off. “It’s smoking. You can’t smell that?”

Her statement snapped his attention back to the disposal. “Is that smoke I smell?”

Maria ducked her head under the sink pulled the disposal plug then reappeared standing next to him. “Your gonna have to call the plumber, I don’t have time for all this. I got my hands full with my residence working 16 hours a day. I need a little help around here.”

Stan nodded but gave little more emotion. His gaze set outside the window again. “Okay, sure, I know your busy.”

Her look revealed disgust, she snapped at him. “What are you looking at. Do you even hear me?” She traced his eyes, maybe the squirrel gathering acorns under the oak tree. Maybe the wind blowing the wooden swing attached to it.

“You okay?” she asked searching Stan’s eyes.

“Yeah fine just a little tired that’s all.” He glanced down at the sink. I’ll call someone tomorrow.

“Tomorrows Saturday.”

“Oh sure, okay Monday, first thing I promise.” Stan with a spark in his eye redirected his attention at Maria’s “Hey did you want to go uptown to grab bite, maybe a glass of wine? Celebrate, shake to a little music. You remember Billie he got a band playing at uptown.”

Maria shook her head. “Celebrate what? You know I got to get up for a 4:00 am show tomorrow. God, I wish I had the luxury of your schedule. Sometimes I think you just don’t get how hard I work.”

Stan nodded anyone could see the disappointment, anyone maybe that still cared enough to see it. Fine he thought, lately hanging around her seemed more like a job then fun anyway. They were growing apart and spending a night sulking about it especially on his birthday wasn’t in his game plan. “Well it can’t be considered luxury if I ain’t enjoying it, so I guess I’ll see you when I get home.”

CHAPTER NINE

Stan showered threw on some jeans and t-shirt and headed to shooters. It was a college bar. His friend Billie a janitor at the university headlined the entertainment for the night as lead singer and bass guitarist in a band that played top forty and an occasion home grown songs. He was a local icon that once opened for the Boss and seemed at the time destined for great things in the rock world. As fate or luck would be, time proved his brush with Bruce nothing more than his fifteen minutes of fame, and outside of reliving the glory days playing at local bars his university pension fifteen years down the road had more promise than his music career. The most curious nature to Billie’s contentment to sweep halls and play small gigs was his IQ tested above 165, and Stan figured his voracity to take a challenge concerning computers seemed to satisfy any ambition to use it. Stan often wondered with a little luck what might have become of Billie and given the uncertainty he decided to immortalize him at least in his book borrowing his mannerisms as a character for the saloon keeper.

Entering the bar, it was a good crowd, in the middle stood a circular bar running the length of the room manned with four bartenders. Square chest high ceramic tables with stools, capable of seating 8-10 people were placed around the bar. The stage sat near the back of the room from the main double door entrance. To the side of the stage stood an exit to an outdoors patios stocked with a bar and even small outdoor stage that could double the occupancy of the bar. Tonight, given the warm breeze and clear summer night it was quickly filling to full capacity.

Stan chose a stool at the bar ordered a draft beer then glanced around the bar. Midterm was in full season and college kids dominated the bar. He even recognized a few from his class. In particular, the plagiarizer, Matt, a tall skinny kid, with long straight black hair that curled at the end over his shoulders, and always wore an old green army jacket, one he hadn’t seen since his own college days. “Can’t believe that kids always at the bar. Especially when I’m here.” He thought to himself. Stan wondered if possibly it was coincidence or he was a regular for which maybe the plagiarize felt the same about Stan. Overhearing his conversation amongst his group Stan was amazed at his memory as he quoted full soliloquy from Shakespeare. This was not a kid who plagiarized for grades. He made mental note to sit down before the semester ended and get to the root. Spotting Billie hauling in equipment, Stan made his way over to give him and offered a hand.

“Hey professor glad you can make it.” Bill said seeing Stan approach him.

“Need a hand?”

“Sure, can always use another hand jump in line got some speaker we need carried in.” The band along with Stan worked like ants in an orchestrated march bringing piece by piece of their stage equipment in through the back door. When the drummer laid the last piece of the bass drum down it caught Stan by surprise. Stenciled on the front the name “Tramp Abroad”. His thoughts pulled inward trying to remember the band using that name in the past. “Tramp abroad,” he queried the drummer?”

“Oh yeah got this drum set on eBay, kinda catchy ain’t it. Bill was a little pissed but hey whatcha going do. Got a hell’va deal on it.” Stan shook his head in wonderment but said nothing.

For the next hours as the music played Stan watched an intermix of patrons move in and out of the bar, mostly college students juggling their wits between drinking games and hookups. It was fascinating to watch the dynamics play out. Prime real-estate being a bar stool or sections thereof provided easy access to quick drinks where the banner cry of drink and Yeager Bomb resonated as each member of his fraternity of drinkers bellied up and staked their passage of manhood based on the small alchemy shot in front of them. Further, down the bar closer to the bathrooms another state had arose in the territory oasis of equality where energized young women gathered sharing a pitcher of the Saturday night special Alabama slammers. A drink guaranteed to prime them for the invasion of the neighboring Vikings mired in the enchantment of Yeager soon to make their voyage over to the young maidens and at the very least a good headache in the morning. Others around the bar in smaller settings shared glances hoping the alchemy of their drink would help loosen their lips and set their fate in motion. Most by evening end never leaving the safety of their spot.

Professor he heard a voice call out. He turned seeing Maggie, Billie’s better half, adorned in her wild black hair, streaked with white and purple highlights. Reaching him, she gave him a jovial unsuspected hug. Stan smiled. “Prof I didn’t know you were coming, Billie never mention it, so nice for you to come.”

“Yeah been promising I would stop by.”

“He does love his music you know he once opened up for Bruce. Boy, could he tell you some stories from the old days.” Stan nodded, “any hoo, not sure if Billie told you but,” she proudly flashed her necklace with a ring on it.

“Is that a…?”

“Engagement ring yep,” she held it up admiring it on her necklace.” Afraid to wear, guess I’m superstitious. Make sure you keep last week in July open if you can, love to have you.

“I well, congratulations.”

The music started in the background and her eyes naturally darted towards her center of the world as he started to sing, a smile beamed wide across her face. “Crazy, isn’t it? We met in this bar, fact I was sitting right here. She pointed to Stan’s seat right. “Right where you’re at. He came up for a drink and there was just instant chemistry. This spot is magic Prof, you better be careful.”

Stan’s face sparkled with a sad intrigue. “That ship sailed a long time ago. My heart already locked away.” He glanced at his watch. “Speaking of, maybe I should call it a night. Let Billie know thumbs up.”

“Lucky woman,” the purple haired girl said with a coy flirtatious smile. The music beat a familiar siren calling her attention and she gave the professor a wink and tuned to work her way to the front of her hearts band.

He took a gulp of his amber micro beer, and savored the venue. It was a contrast to his life, especially considering the sands of time sifting thru the final countdown as the gypsy woman would have him believe. It was a youthful vibrant energy. A raw pulse of vigor. And as a teacher he felt he had a hand in cultivating, or at least a small influence on. Maybe not for long, but tonight none of that mattered.

The band jammed on Zeppelin and Floyd tunes and occasionally one or two written by Billie. Tonight, as the band rocked on they were the pied piper of Hamelin the crowd spellbound song along pushing and pulling until only the stage separated his mesmerized fans. Beyond them row and rows swayed in rhythm to the band. Stan took one more look around a final tribute to youth and the energy they brought to the forum. It was a place when the soul still has dreams to conquer and hadn’t been chained to the scars gathered thru time. He put his empty beer bottle on the bar. The bartender signaled another? And Stan motioned with a nod, he was done. Turning towards the door he stopped seeing her enter. The golden hair siren with a small group of friends. He sat down and observed as she and her friends took a seat. “Bartender,” he yelled out, getting his attention. “Yeah make it one more Rail Bender.” And settled in.

He studied her. Watching her slightest movement, he smiled when she smiled, drank in her laughter, feasted in her eyes that both lit the room and hid a buried sadness deep within her. In that moment, he wanted to save her, but knew nothing for which he could save her. His attention, be it the stare or vibes called out like a lone wolf howling at the moon and the barren space between them closed. Their eyes met, her eyes averted to the floor, she smiled as her eyes rose again to meet his. He returned the smile. A tap on his shoulder forced him to look away. He turned to the bar. The bartender laid out a shot in front of him.

“Compliments of the blue haired girl” He turned back to reengage but to his disappointment she, the yogi maestro was gone.

Stan turned back to the bar stirring at the shot and shaking his head, “I told myself no shots but what the hey, it’s my birthday.” He raised the glass to his lips nearly spilling half of it as he felt an unexpected push on his back then a surge of electricity run thru his body as a hand touched his back.

“I’m sorry. I was trying to get the bartenders attention.

He twisted around. There she the golden-haired nymph with brown eyes stood in front of him. “That’s alright,” he mumbled his eyes locked on hers.

“I know you, don’t I?”

His brow cast inward, “you do?”

“You work at the university? I mean I think you do? I see you walk the bridge every day. I think that’s you, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” enthusiasm pouring from his voice, “you’re the yoga teacher?”

“I am. Do you practice?”

“Nah thought about it, looks challenging.”

“Mindfulness Its all what you make it. you should stop in some day and give it a try you can find my schedule on the website or Stephanie and Tracey teach it.”

Stan smiled. “I should, I mean find your schedule.”

“Whatcha you have?” The bartender asked seeing her holding money in her hand.

“One Zinfandel, two Rail Benders and Miller Lights. No wait two Miller Lights,” and another shot for this gentleman. I seemed to have spilled his.”

“Quite a thirst, for such a petite young lady, but really you don’t have to do that.”

She laughed “just game back from the middle east, trying to catch up with all the corruption of the west. But I insist you let me buy you another drink.”

“Ah world traveler, biz or pleasure.”

She gave him a sultry look. “I always mix business with pleasure.”

“Okay then I like that spirit, order one up but, only if you have one with me.”

“I shouldn’t.”

“You would deny a drink with me on my birthday.”

“It’s your birthday? Make that two shots.” The bartender waiting acknowledged, and in little time had two shots of tequila in front of them.

“Pardon me,” Racheal said sporting a flirtatious smile and wedging herself between Stan and another patron, for whom both took a moment to bat an appreciative eye as she leaned on the bar resting her weight on her elbows, back arched underscoring her outward pushed nicely sculpted posterior and tight fitting jeans. “You teach? Right?” she asked turning to Stan.

“Yes. Literature professor.” Stan responded redirecting his attention back on her face.

“I knew, I knew you. I took a writing class with you. Existentialism and writing. I think it was a one-day gig for aspiring writers.”

He rose upright in his seat. “You did? Are you a writer?”

“Journal keeper, does that qualify?”

“Of course it does. I hope you found the class beneficial.”

“Still writing away, yes very intriguing,” she said taking a moment to capture his eye.

She pushed a shot over to Stan from the bar and grabbed the salt. “Lick you hand.” He didn’t hear her as the band started to play a favorite song and the crowd broke into hoots and hollers. She licked her own, then bent over and playfully licked his sprinkling salt on both and raised the shot.

“Here’s to you. 
Here’s to me. 
And here’s to the space between us. 
One of us has to go. 
Not you. 
Not me. 
But the space between us. Happy birthday”

She gulped the shot, made a face and bit into the lemon. “Yogi come join us in our space. Grabbing the tray of drinks, she started to turn but stopped, put the drinks back on the table, and dug in her purse. “Here, so you don’t forget, my card.”

He took it. “Racheal’s real estate. You trying sale me some property?”

“Oh! Darn it. Flip it over.”

“Ahh… your yogi website and I take it this is your number?”

“It is,” she said catching g a glimpse of his eyes and in the next move, totally unexpected, she moved closed to him, propped herself on her tiptoes and cast her eyes onto his. For a moment, she held his gaze, their lips inches away from each other. Lowering herself off her tiptoes she backed away. “You sure we haven’t met before, I feel like I really know you.

He nodded no

“Okay… if you say so.” She gave him a wink and headed to her friends.

Stan watched her balancing the collection of drinks weaving gracefully in and out of the swarm until she melted into the crowd. He raised his half-filled beer finished it and recited her toast trying to lock it in memory. Laying the empty glass on the table, he made his way to the exit with an extra kick in his step. He was drunk, happy, and excited by his new friend. Opening the door, he held onto it and a smile broke across his face. “Sharia, what are you doing here?”

“Billie, mentioned he was playing tonight. I’ve been promising him for the last year I would make it to one of his events. You’re not leaving, are you?”

“I was planning on it but ah . . ., you know what, I got time for another.” His eyes roamed across her body.

“What?” she asked blushing with a worried look while checking her hair in the window. “Is something wrong?”

“No, not at all, it’s just you look really nice tonight. I guess I don’t see you fixed up to often.”

She had a shy smile on her face not used to, compliments or attention. “Come,” on he said taking her arm and leading her back to the bar. “I think my spots still open.” He maneuvered her to the open spot at the bar. She spotted Billie on stage and waved. The stage lights shining in his eyes prevented his reply.

“God he actually looks like a rock star doesn’t he.

Stan smiled. “Sounds just as good too. He is a man of many talents.”

“Oh speaking of, he said interestingly enough, your theory on Arthur Miller. Might not be too far off. Guess Billie intercepted some emails or found em in the trash not sure, but for some unknown reason Miller got you on his radar.” Her statement came as little shock to Stan.

“Figured as much, yeah he mentioned we need to talk. Just haven’t found the right venue. Won’t say nothing at work, won’t use the phone, and public places that’s out too. “They shared a laugh. “you want something to drink? Wine, Beer, Shot?”

She looked across the bar, seeing the young kids engaged over a silver pitcher filled with a pink drink. They seemed to be having a ball laughing and dancing. “One of those.”

He perked his head up to get a better look across the bar. “Ah good choice. Alabama slammers, get ready to party girl.”

And the party did start, they drank and made cheers, and joked, all the while laughing and dancing and by the end of the night found their way on stage with Billy Blasting out a Springsteen tribute ‘Born to Run.’ All three sharing the mic and stirring the fever of the crowd in cheers as the stamped their feet screaming, “encore, encore.

When the party ended, and all began to part their ways. His eyes caught and locked with Racheal’s as she exited the door, she smiled at Stan and then seeing Sharia, pulled her eyes down and away, heading out the door. Stan, said his goodbye’s to his friends, all promising to get together again, and soon found himself walking home over the stone bridge. The full harvest moon, provided the perfect setting casting its beam across the river. It was surreal in effect and he paused for a moment noticing its beam selecting one path where the river split off from the islet in the middle. An epiphany he thought staring at the divided river. The gypsy voice rung in his head. “In her eyes, you will know when you found her.” He had definitely found a connection or passage in her striking almond sculpted brown eyes. “Yes her eyes. He had even caught her twice staring down Sharia, in what could be construed as jealousy. He shook off his thought as a cold breeze broke his trance. “Hogwash,” he said to himself and walked the remaining way home.

What he didn’t see that night was an older man wearing a black derby hat that had a slight limb sitting next to a white haired bearded man engaging in a conversation at the bar.

“He didn’t see us, did he?”

“No am sure of it.”

“So, it’s started they’ve met again.”

“Yes, they’ve met,” he agreed shaking his head.

“But you and I can both agree the real question can he let her go?”

The man in the black derby hat put a guinea coin on the bar, “same wager I suppose?

“Yes.”

“I really shouldn’t, given how obvious you made it for them.”

“How?”

“With the locket, you’ve all but laid it out for them.”

“Come now, I wish it were that simple. They, humanity has always been too preoccupied in distractions. It wouldn’t be a fair bet for me if I didn’t give them some direction.” Brahma stared hard at the coin. “Crazy it really just comes down to a game of chance after all the design I put in it, and we make sport of it to entertain ourselves.”

Natas shook his head in agreement, laughing in peculiar tone to the disdain of his bet. “Of course. Of course, my friend.”

CHAPTER TEN

Entering the house the cat jumped on the counter letting out a welcoming, “meow.”

“Shh!” He said stumbling taking his shoes off and discarding them on the middle of the floor. “Don’t wake Maria, bad kitty.” Passing the bread box, he pulled out some slices, opened the frig rummaging thru it he found some baloney, cheese, mayonnaise, and pickles to his liken. He plopped the meat on the bread, put cheese on it, spread the mayo partially on the sandwich and more so on the counter then wrapped the pickle in the middle and finished it off in two bites. Repeating the process, he was content and made his way up the stairs leaving the condiments on the counter. Half stumbling, he undressed, threw his pants and underwear on the floor and crawled into bed naked. His arrival awakened Maria. Her hand reached for the alarm clock. “Damn it Stan, I got to be up in three hours. I just fell asleep.”

He moved closer running his hand over her leg, he went to kiss her. She returned a cold shoulder pressing her back to him as a defense.” Stan I’m serious I don’t have your schedule. Besides your drunk again.”

Slighted, he recoiled in rejection towards his side of the bed. There was no remorse or pity for himself. His buzz wouldn’t allow it, besides she, the yoga teacher had energized him, enlightened a path. He chuckled to himself and muttered happy fucking birthday and passed out.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Stan awoke startled by the alarm. He reached over to Maria’s side and felt an empty bed. He still felt a little buzzed or off from the night before and he tried to do a recalculate on how many drinks. One two yeah. No then Billie came over … three no, four had two with him and then she yes she came back. I remember the poem and fuck I think she came back later but shit I don’t remember. Oh man then the Alabama slammers with Sharia. I hope I didn’t make an ass of myself, he got out of bed and found some coffee already brewing with a note sat next to it. Be home late, you left the food on the counter I had to throw it out. I really wish you would quit drinking YOU DON’T KNOW WHEN TO STOP!!!!”

He took some aspirins with water and made his way over to the den. Writing in the morning was his favorite time most days, he felt fresh and full of ideas. He thought about his encounter last night, that which he could recall, it could be good incentive for his writing. The fortune teller popped in his mind, yeah that make for some good shit too.

He reread the previous pages to his story. Taking a moment to delete the bad, fix the so so, and enjoy the good, and set the stage for more. Let’s see check characters, good guy Christian the gunslinger, got some bad traits but makes him more real and Royce the bad guy arrogant demanding need to expend, and Suzie the prize. Okay left off at the saloon seen with Natas and the white-haired gentleman(Brahma) identical look but one in white the other black. God, I feel like I know these characters. he took a sip of his coffee then started pounding away at the keys.

CHAPTER TWELVE

The salon was reaching full capacity crowed with the energy of men quenching the thirst to take back control of their lives after ransoming it for a week’s pay in the fields mending fences, carving below the earth, digging for minerals, or laying track for the iron horse expansion. These were men as strong as the iron they laid, as wild as the prairie they roamed, and as hardwired to finding fun as the mineral they dug.

Natas limbed down behind Billie, the bar-keeper until he came up where the young gypsy girl sat next to the white-haired man. The two men engaged in a stare locking the depths of their essence together. They were after all, identical in look in every way outside of the color of their hair and beards. “It’s been a while. Hasn’t it?” the white-haired man said.

Yes, quite some time, maybe to long overdue. I’m a little shocked you hadn’t sent someone else but nevertheless I’m glad you could make it on such short notice. I know you have a busy schedule and have traveled a great distance for this. Sit take the weight off your legs I noticed you favor the left one.”

“It’s this damn cold Just not used to it. I stiffen up pretty good you know. Hard to adjust I suppose but a necessary evil. Little surprised you also felt the need to make the trip.”

The bartender laid out a drink for the girl and another glass for the man. For a moment, they all sat in silence before Natas finally spoke. “We should do this more often you know? how long has it been.”

The white-haired gentlemen shook his head, while mentally trying to calculate the gap since they last meeting. “Not sure.” He responded swirling his cup to check residue of the wine left on the side of the glass. He put it up to his nose before taking a sip. “Not bad considering the stage. I’ll give em credit for having a talent for the magic alchemy of fermentation, he chuckled. “A toast to yin and yang.”

Yin and Yang,” Natas repeated raising his cup. “And not to be rude but it’s been a while. What should I call you.”

“Brahma, well do. What? I just like it. It seems to fit their current energy down below. What’s in a name anyway.”

“True a rose by another name is still a rose.”

Brahma smiled. “So why did you come? You could have sent someone, especially considering the triviality of this occasion.” He asked only to be polite, knowing full well the extent of the visit.

Trivial,” he huffed. “Please, you know as well as I, this is anything but trivial. Beside we all love the classics. Who doesn’t want to know the answer as whether to be… or not to be?”

Natas took his derby hat off and carefully placed on the bar, running his hand through it like a comb. “It does come down to that I’m afraid.” His eyes ventured over to the young girl. “And Brahma where’s your manners? Who is this beautiful young lady?”

“Madrid,” she said blushing. “You are so kind. Thank you for the drink. You two must be brothers, you look so much alike.” He put his hand out to shake hers and she grabbed it turning it over and running her hand over his carefully exploring his deep cut prominent lines. “Distant relatives you could say.”

Her eyes worked diligently. “My, my, you have such distinct lines. Your lifeline is as if it continues…” She felt a queer jolt holding his hand and quickly let go. Her eyes for a moment transfixed to his.. then looked downward darting from side to side trying to evaluate as what she was encountering with Natas. She looked up at him again with deep concern unsure of his nature. She dropped her hold on his hand and slowly stood up, backing away, keeping her eyes on the ground fearful to look upward. “I’m sorry but I feel a little faint, excuse but I need to get some air.” The two of em watched as she weaved shouldering thru the crowded bar until all that could be seen is the door opening and closing.

I just love the chaos and disarray that seems to evolve around mankind. They can’t help themselves they want the pain to end yet they haven’t the guts to end it and the pain will it eats away at them until the angel of death does there bidden. Why would someone bestow that pain on its own creations?”

Brahma put down his drink. “You didn’t have to frighten her off, but now that she is gone I suppose we can talk freely. If your questioning the design in the seemingly madness, I suppose free will is an untamed beast, chaos its by product. I know realize it may have been my greatest mistake if their ultimate choice is to . . . should we say decide on their own terms to end the journey.”

But is it free will… really?”

Brahma had a puzzled look. “Of course it is, how could you see it any other way?”

Natas paused for a moment maybe surprised Brahma could even argue any different. “Some you give great talents, some the gift of mind, others the gift of body some both, some rich, some poor. Some it would seem you barely give a crumb. I could go on forever.”

An equally baffled expression shadowed Brahma’s face. “I think your merely confused but all this.” He spun his hand over his head to gesture the entirety of all. “Their minds create this theatrical stage, events and actors come and go, life just a short rehearsal. Nature an obedient stage hand, they cast their own players, they write their own scripts. And I’ve found those that seem to be given the least, become the most.”

“Pure hogwash, but please you’ll have me believe you’re just a prop manager and not the director in all this?”

His eyebrows rose emphasizing his point. ”Exactly!” Brahma replied.

Natas pulled back on his stool and folded his arms. “Well I never could have guessed that nor even conceived that’s how you view all this. Tell me then, from your perspective, how do I fit in all this?”

Bahamas took a sip of his wine. “You my dear nemesis, are the critic.”

A smile broke across Natas’s face. “Me the critic? But when they disappoint you, defy your rules, exercise their freewill as you call it, you act like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum. Less I remind you of paradise lost over an apple. And you call me the critic?”

That was a tad bit overdone. I suppose, but I never expected such disobedience. Pain seems to be the only thing that prompts their return to me.”

Natas, unfolded his arms and admired the color of the whiskey as he spoke. “Disobedience? A child wanting to be like his parents, is that so wrong. Let me humor you for a moment and agree Free Will does exist. Look at the world, those the civilized they strap guns to their hips, kill the buffalo, kill the Indians, enslave each other, kill each other, will my brother if this is the free will . . . chaos is the product and I win.”

How so?”

They . . . given the choice, lay at night in my camp. Of course you always have your bags of tricks to win them back. You know the flood, the plague… retribution and fear does go a long way in loyalty.”

Maybe,” he nodded sadly in agreement. “So, pertaining to this little matter that brings us here,” he began using his fingers to count each strike. “Is it deceit, lust, vengeance, jealousy, or pride that brings them down.”

You mean Romeo and Juliet, to be or not to be? You talk as if you’re already conceiting on our little bet. Natas smiled. “What happen to them writing the script?”

Brahma shook his head. “No I haven’t given up.. not in entirety, but those in the last throes of life cycle often … will let’s just say more times than not, seem to make bad choices. It’s almost as if some or just born bad and no matter how many times you cycle em, they just don’t get it. Ego I suppose is the culprit. That’s always been the loop hole in my design.”

Natas looked at him in admiration then finally took a hit of bourbon from his glass.

Careful with that stuff, it’ll bring the devil out in you if you don’t watch it.”

They both laughed till their sides hurt. “Words well-spoken just trying to ward off the cold. Speaking of which I have to visit nature, before attending to some business.” Natas had a look of confusion, one that often led the two into deep philosophical debates.

What?” Brahma asked seeing his puzzlement.

This whole nature call thing. Really? And next to such a fine development on its own. You’re like a painter that doesn’t know when to quit.”

Brahma put his hands up and shrugged his shoulders. “Functionality, really no more mystery then that.

Natas thought about his response for a moment and bookmarked it for later debate, collecting his hat he bid Brahma adieu with a bow of his head.

Brahma took a sip of his wine. “Before you leave I have a question of my own. What do you actually do with them? You know when they cash out for the last time?”

Natas eyes excited by the question, lit up twice the size of the moon. “Come on you don’t know? I thought you knew everything?” He leaned closer to get a good look in his eyes wondering if he weren’t just being ornery. “You really don’t know do you?”

He hunched his shoulders, “No I really don’t, once they make the choice I lose track, cut ties. It the one indulgence I won’t allow or put up with.. that is considering the why, and occasional second chance their offered.”

Natas shook his head slowly. He let out a sigh, his eyes warm and drooped. “I don’t envy you…. can’t be easy watching your own creations so ungrateful to your gift. Well I’m convinced it’s no fault of your own, contrary to what their ego makes them believe, I think humanity lacks any real intelligence. I think what becomes of them after you . . . I suppose discard them. Will it’s really best unspoken. . .! We did agree on the same wager?”

“Yes of course we’ve already agreed on a guinie haven’t we?”

Natas tightened his buttons on his coat and limped to the door. Walking out he bumped into another cowboy walking in. The cowboy gave Natas a cold glare as if the world sat upon his shoulders. “Sorry my good man,” Natas said. “I hadn’t seen you walk in. I’m afraid age has dimmed my vision slightly more than my wits.” His comment brought a smile to the cowboy.

“No harm done, all’s good.” He made his way into the saloon Brahma traced the steps of the new patron to the bar. The cowboy had a rugged look confident yet naive to his own swagger. He body taut and his eyes clear. When he stared at you it seemed as if they pierced thru your soul. He was man not to be fucked with. A look that kept most at bay to approaching him.

The cowboy scanned the salon evaluating it for trouble spots then feeling none his eyes wondered to the gaming tables. None caught his fancy, seeing an empty table he headed for it and was soon followed by a maiden running her hands over his body and flooding him with affection of her trade.

Tequila,” he said with giving her little attention and throwing a dollar coin on the table.

One or two classes,” she asked hoping for the latter to welcome her company.

Your Madrid aren’t you?” The cowboy asked looking her over for the first time. “The one who reads fortunes.”

The smile disappeared from her face. “NO, she went for some air earlier, oh wait she’s over there. You sure you know what you looking for cowboy?” She said pushing her breast out and shaking em.

“God damn if I know,” he said licking his lips and giving her an eyeful. “Unfortunately, I got business to attend to, but if it comes down to pleasure honey I think I know where to find it.”

She gave him a smile. “Madrid!” The girl screamed across the bar. “We have a cowboy who wants the Saturday special.”

Madrid, with her jovial cheeks and plump body, made her way over to the cowboy. She looked her client over, and seeing his eyes feast on her breast set the ground rules. “I read cards and haul bath water. My service’s don’t end with a ride with me on my back, if that’s what you’re looking for cowboy.”

Christian eyed her up. “You carry a lot more cushion then I prefer but you got pretty face and ample bosoms man could get lost in. Fetch us some tequila and two classes. I’m not here for that.”

She smiled went to the bar and brought a corked bottle and two classes. Pouring each equally, she sat down next to the cowboy. Seeing his eyes gravitate towards her chest, she tucked herself in as best she could given her ware. “Told you once cowboy, my company only brings a reading of the cards any other entertainment you’ll have to find elsewhere. She pulled a deck of fortune cards from underneath her corset and started to lay them out in sequence.

He grabbed her hand stopping her from laying anymore down. “You know who I am?”

“Yeah, don’t everybody?”

“Well don’t waste your time putting the cards down. I didn’t come for that either.”

She started to pick her cards back up. “Will mister maybe you don’t know who I am. I ain’t a dancing girl, these cards and bathing is all you get with my time.”

“You know a Paulie, Irish cowboy dark hair scar down the right side of his face.” He asked pointing to his own cheek. “Gullible little guy that drinks far too much whiskey and gives far too much reverence to folklore and parlor tricks like yours. “

She put her hands on her hips in an aggressive way holding her ground and angered by his disrespectful tone. “I do. What’s your point?”

“Will my point is, seems to me you done a reading on him last week. And apparently, you got him believing he needs to find some new work. Seems you told him big changes coming. Changes in the way of me not being around anymore to make his wages. Now Pauli got a lot of responsibilities around the ranch and with spring around the corner, you getting him all stirred up to jump ship, will you can see how that puts me in a bind.”

“So, your worried about the big changes coming?”

“You ain’t listened to a word I said. Have you?”

“I did but the cards I’ve laid down tell a different story. I think a story that got your interest. If you’re not afraid. Lay a coin down and well get you a reading, and a hot bath. Nothing more. “

He leaned back in his chair and broke into a laugh then pulled a coin out flipping it at her. “Paulie said you’re a persuasive little filly. I’m listening, go ahead I’m due a little entertainment. Why not.”

She dealt a row of cards down, then another face up. Her look seemed tight-lipped holding a secret she didn’t quite understand. She took a deep breath and scanned the saloon, spying both Natas and Brahma, and as quickly as spotting them ducked her head and started flipping the bottom cards over.

“Something wrong?” Christian asked noticing a worried look on her face.

No, she said I’ve never laid this card out before in the same row. It signifies spirits, very very powerful spirits. Spirits that seem to be watching your every move.”

Is that bad?”

I wouldn’t think so normally, or could rightly say.” She pointed to a card. “Had this card not shown on my last deal.”

Christian stared at the card. “And….?”

It’s the death card. Same one I saw reading Paulie’s fortune. Cept I’m pretty sure it weren’t for him.”

Christian smirked throwing his boots up on the table and leaning further back in his chair. His eyes glanced with intent at her breast. “That don’t scare me none. Truth be told we all got demons that haunt us, death always around the corner honey. How about before they come get me. I soak these bones in some hot water in the back, knock some of this cattle dung dust off. And you and I share a little drink together.”

You’re a strange man.” She said trying to take in his reaction to her warning. “Most warned of impending trouble, take heed not mock the warning.”

Darling I’ve stood ten paces away from the quick drawl barrel of Doc Holiday. Ain’t much more that can scare me in life after that. So what you say. If you ain’t gonna put those pretty legs of yours up for me.” He bent his neck around and peered at her posterior. “How about putting that rock-solid ass of yours to good use and fetch some bath water.”

You’re a callous man, Christian. But I like your honesty. That proposition include some pot roast and potatoes?” she asked sweeting the deal for herself. “I don’t do more than fetch hot water and read cards, if them are terms you can follow. I got no problem sharing a drink in the back with ya.”

“Deal,” he nodded in agreement. “Your one entertaining filly if nothing else. Got some good girth to boot, you’ll do fine keeping the water warm, about as much as one could expect in these harsh times. I gotta relieve myself. Meet ya in the back.” Reaching the back-bathing area, he spotted the half-filled tub, quickly disrobed, placed his six shooter within reaching distance of the tub, lit a cigar from a candle and grabbed the corked bottle as he eased his muscular lean body into the Luke warm water.

“Yowzer.” He shouted. “God lord woman. More hot water.”

He bit the cork of the tequila bottle spit it on the floor and took a long swig. Madrid poured the hot water in paying little attention to his comfort as she poured it over him. “Jezus woman I think you did that on purpose. Maybe you ought just square the deal up and jump on in.” He said patting the water beside him.

“Ain’t that kinda company I keep. I haul water and do readings only. You deaf or just dumb cowboy?”

Christian postured his head upward and to amuse himself contemplated her observation. “A little bit of both I suppose, but that’s alright honey.” Christian said matter of factly scrubbing his underarms with a bar of soap. “like I said. You’re a bit filled out for my liking anyway.”

She sneered at him propped her hip out and lowered her cleavage in an orchestrated view while pouring the next bucket of hot water in the tub. “You’d like it fine if I was that kinda girl.”

His eyes took in the sites above her bountiful neck line and below. “Yep I suppose your right about that. So, princesses, pot roast don’t come cheap. Why don’t you lay those cards out and tell me how I’m gonna fair at the tables tonight.”

She put the empty bucket down squatted in a seating position as if she was going to give birth standing up. and started laying out the cards on the floor. “You’ll get your money’s worth. Born from the loins of a Cherokee medicine man and gypsy warm blood running thru my veins. Weren’t born for anything else. Don’t have to believe it, but cards about the only thing in life won’t lie to you.”

I know a little about the magic of a medicine man’s myself. Can’t disagree on the cards either. Seen many of poker faces meet their demise when the cards hit the table.” Holding his cigar above the water he dunked his head under.

Christian surfaced just in time to hear her ramble about something or someone causing trouble. “Damn cowboy ain’t got a bit a sense.

“What you seeing down there? he asked looking over squinting one eye to get a better look.

“Her… I’m seeing her.”

“Her what card you looking at?” He asked stuffing the cigar in his mouth and chewing on the end.

“This one.” She pointed. “It shows your souls are intertwined, one souls that roams as two. This ain’t your first meeting, probably won’t be your last.” She flipped over another card. “As I suspected, not your last.” She again threw another card to the floor and shook her head dissatisfied with its arrival. Pain. I see a lot of pain. This card is bad, real bad. I don’t like seeing this card. It seems two shadow one. One won’t let go.”

Christian rested back in the tub and blew a ring of smoke. “Hell, woman you ain’t told me nothing I ain’t already known…. pain and hardship were old friends.”

“It’s not your pain it’s hers.” She looked over to the six shooter. “That will be the source of her pain.”

He rested his elbows over the tub tying to evaluate the cards for himself. “Maybe you better take another look. Hell, if it weren’t for that six shooter I’d be pushing daisies, sounds like you got your soulmate cards all mixed up. Fact of the matter is I’m doing quite fine on my own without one of those soulmates. Ain’t reckoning to cause anyone else some grief so just give me a name of that young filly and I’ll make sure to stay clear.”

The gypsy woman broke into a howl of laughter causing her partially covered bosoms to sway from side to side like two firm bowls of jelly. Christian’s eyes in a natural gravitation kept beat to the display like a metronome tuning a piano. “You foolish boy, you don’t have that control over love, nobody does. Besides,” she said engaging his eyes to gauge his truthfulness. “You don’t need her name from me. Bet you first thing this morning your thought of her, and last thing before you close your eyes tonight, she’ll be on your mind. And as the finest tradesman of all prose did so elegantly put it, “The worst was this: my love was my decay.”

Christian pulled his eyes away from her. It made him uncomfortable, like she was prying in his soul. In his head. The girl at the falls. He hadn’t been able to shake her from his mind. Fact it was more torture then doing him good. Effecting his work. He even dreamed about her.

“I’m done with this reading I don’t want to know anymore this ain’t natural he reached down and picked up the bottle next to the tub and took another long swig of the tequila before holding it up and submerging his head under the water again. Bursting back out of the water he shook his head violently like a dog flinging the ringlets of water from his hair. She intrigued, feverishly arranged more cards possessed in her new mission to unlock his secrets.

He watched her for a moment. “I told you to quit. I don’t want know anymore. I done told you It ain’t natural,” he plunged his head below the water again. Bubbles continued surfacing as he mumbled under water.

She ignored him, forging on by her own curiosity. When he finally resurfaced, like a whale breaching and spewing water from his mouth, he spied her plowing forward with his reading whether he was vested or not. “You’re a stubborn one, aren’t you? Didn’t you hear me? Put em away. I got half mind to douse your ass in this water you don’t quit.”

She finally gave up and picked up the cards. “Still owe me the pot roast.” Christian nodded and stood up bare ass naked with no shame to her eyes scrutinizing his movement. Stepping from the tub he gathered his belongings scattered on the table. “Here quite your complaining.’‘ He said pulling a fifty-cent piece from his pocket. “You could have made this more entertaining and less dramatic. Just told me how the poker cards would fare tonight. Not in the business of soulmates.”

“Don’t work that way,” she said picking up the fifty-cent piece. “Cards ain’t concerned about your finances, its spiritual growth that brings us here. It’s a long process for souls to come back. Your both old souls reckon you ain’t got much more time together to get right with each other.”

[_ Christian pulled his pants up, buttoned his shirt and sat down to put his boots on. “Well I ain't gonna argue with ya, but that fifty-cent piece should did put a smile on your face. Besides I got out of this what I wanted. Only come here to straighten you out with Paulie. Leave that boy alone. If he shows up again, you better not misdirect his thinking. I believe in magic.” He said standing up and buckling on his six- shooter hoister and patting it as he tied the strings to his leg. “Seen shamans do things that just couldn’t be explained any other way, but I ain't totally sold on what your selling here. Seems to me if you were about helping people and any of this were true, you'd tell that girl to stay clear of me.” _]

The gypsy woman could only shake his head and smirk. “You only hear what you want to hear. I told you before you don’t control love. It’s not easily contained like a fenced in calf. It’s more like the wind blowing the tumble weed across the prairie. That’s what life is . . . that’s what love is. You be careful out there cowboy, we both know the cards don’t lie.”

Christian smiled. “Well you and I share a kinship making our living off the cards, so I can’t disagree with that, but careful? Can’t see hiding in the forest like a frightened deer eating acorns when a field of corn sits within view. Enjoy your pot roast.”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

The phone rung breaking Stan’s attention. “Wonderful just when the flow comes, life interrupts.” He answered his phone.”

“Yeah. Hi Aunt Ella. Yeah not a problem now… wow sure.” Stan glanced at wall clock. “No not a problem at all. I can get it and meet your there, great shoot me a text with the detail. No it’s not a problem am glad to help, sure if I can’t find it I’ll call you..” Stan ended the call.

He dialed Maria next, getting voice mail. “Hey Uncle John’s out of the hospital they taken him over to Life Gardens Nursing home, I think it’s on Ravenna road. Got to pick some stuff up take it to the nursing home. Give me a call.” He looked at the clock again and wondered how late Maria would be tonight. Still in the fever of the story he re-engaged into his writing with the juices still fresh in his head. Reread his last few paragraphs and pounded away.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Walking in the bar Christened eyed the talent assembled, few had some open seats but the game he wanted in, the one with the big money, that one he would have to wait for an opening. He took the second-best offer and bellowed up to the bar.

What you have?”

Tequila.”

Bartender nodded, “run out, got whiskey that’s all.”

Christian nodded, Billie grabbed a bottle of the top shelf hidden under the counter. “Here got one more bottle stashed away. Really do hope we ain’t got a funeral.” Christian was a man who both earned respect and more than anything in Billie’s world, paid for his whiskey, never put anything on credit. Funerals and men of respect those were given top shelf VIP service to the good stuff. “How’s things going?” Christian asked the bartender.

Good, how about yourself.”

Can’t complain, just trying to knock some prairie dust away. How’s the talent look tonight.”

Billie’s looked over at the tables. “Small money going around most the tables course the one I see you got your eye on. Lotta money exchanging hands, not so much liquor yet.”

Christian laid down some coins and smiled. “Get’m round on me. Well prime that pump a bit.”

Billie turned to grab a bottle, “Billie,” Royce called out dragging a dancing girl in his hand making his way to the bar, “Need a room upstairs pronto. Give me a key.” And whiskey, another bottle. He said giving Christian an aggressive push with his elbow and forcing his way to the front. Billie nervously handed him some corn whiskey. “It’s all I got Royce, till they unload the train.”

Royce eyeing the good stuff next to Christian, took liberties and switched the bottle’s. “There problem solved.”

Christian fixed his stare on Royce. “Good lord I’m beginning to really, really hate Saturdays.”

Royce cocky in nature, stood up tall and straight attempting to make his already large frame more intimidating. “What you looking at, you got a problem.”

“Nah.” Christian said taking a deep breath and shaking his head.” I ain’t got no problem. I’m just here for a drink bud. Enjoy my whiskey.” He said turning back to pour himself a drink.

“Good that kinda thinking keep you outta trouble. Billie how long you gonna make me wait for that damn key?”

“Son bitch thinks he’s the only one in the bar.’ Billie muttered. and put the tray of drinks down, grabbing a key off the peg he laid it on the bar next to Royce. Royce snatching the key, and not knowing when to make exit, made it a point to bump Christians drink from his hand, sending it tumbling to the ground. Royce snickered picked the key up and turned. He hadn’t fully turned when he felt a tug on his shoulder that whipped him back front center to Christian. His face turned red as a monkey’s ass. He stood up straight repeating his game of intimation, then drew his frock coat back, but stopped short of flipping the small leather piece readying him for a drawl. Something in Christians eye’s, spooked him.

Savvy in battle, Christian could easily read the fear and turmoil in Royce’s eyes. He choose to give him a warning rather than a headstone. “You don’t want to do this cowboy hear me, best you just apologize and buy me another drink, then you and your little filly can go about your business.”

Royce felt the eyes of the bar upon him, he wanted to save face but this man kept him at bay, forced him to use his rarely used wits and not his rage. “And I do that why?” He asked, his voice slightly cracking.

“Simply because today is a bad day to die. It’s that simple.”

Again, Royce’s eyes focused around the bar. putting him between a rock and hard spot. He tried to laugh but it only came out muffled. “You think you’re that good.”

Christian shook his head, “No cowboy what I think I am, ain’t something I boast about. But I’ll give ya forewarning. Killing ain’t for everyone. Takes a meanest that brews deep in the bowels of a man. A god awful meanest I’d just as soon not discuss. Most that saddle a gun to their side, do it for show. But a few, I reckon for reasons they can’t explain, strap that gun to their side knowing they’d like nothing better than to unleash that beast on some green behind the ear want be gunslinger who ain’t got the sense to know when they’re over their head. So, before I define which one of those cowboys we are. Why don’t you just apologize and refill my whiskey glass. Ain’t no winner if it goes beyond that.”

For a moment that felt like eternity Royce locked eyes with Christian, but said nothing. A little bead of sweat formed on his brow. “Billie get em drink, am wasting time with this fool. I got better things to do. That squares us up.”

Naw,” Christen said shaking his head in disagreement. “It’s half the deal. I need a simple apology and then then were squared up

Youz pushing it mister.” Royce backed away, his rage as always outlasting his smarts. The crowd gave him room. He flipped the stitch next to his hoister and rode his hand over the gun.

Christian shook his head, unlatching his own hoister his eyes fixated on Royce’s gun hand. “I guess the burden of one more on my soul ain’t gonna make a difference.” Silence followed, the air so thick you could cut it with a knife. A sound of shotgun chambering a bullet rung out over the silence as Tessy came from the back room.

“Get on outta here Royce,” Tessy said standing strong and firm brandishing a double barrel shotgun aimed at his chest.

Tessy had him by the balls, but smarts was never a trademark of Royce. And teaching a stubborn mule who holds the reigns, not always as simple as one might hope for. “I got right to be here. I done paid this whore already. I’ll bring the law in Tessy. You know I will. Paid whore owes services. You’d know that better than anybody.”

His statement was meant to piss her off, degrade her. And piss her off it did. Tessy lowered her aim dead center on his manhood to make a point. But a point with Royce could only go so far, Royce senior’s influence in town made it a good bluff at best. She backed down softening her demands. “Then take her upstairs and cool your ass off. Even your paw be upset about your doings here.”

Royce juggled his attention from Christian the shotgun and finally BIllie. “You got lucky mister hear me? Tessy saved your ass. And you Billie. “Both of yins ought a be embarrassed it took a whore to save yinz ass’s. I’ll deal with you later Billie.”

Billie stood dumbfounded by Royce’s inability to comprehend. “You stupid son of bitch. You otta be thanking her for saving you. Ain’t you got a clue who this man is?”

Royce nodded no. “Don’t matter much to me.” He said in a defiant tone.

“Well just thank your lucky stars you ain’t number twenty. That is the number ain’t it Christian?”

Christian nodded. “Not quite, but seems to be working its way in that direction.”

Royce wiped his hand across his chin. “Well I’ll be damn if ain’t the gunslinger who killed old man Eaken and took his farm, you don’t look that tough.” He said allowing his ego to outbid his wits.”

Christian shook his head realizing the price of a drink in town might be getting more then it was worth. “Toughness got nothing to do with it. I done told you I ain’t that tough. Just god awful mean. Just an emptiness that brews in my soul.”

Royce studied the gunslinger there was a calmness to him. Not like the nervous shake he felt in his knees’ when confronted. A battled proven confidence. Sweat rolled off his brow and he wiped it away as quickly as it formed. “I’ll deal with you later Billie,” Royce said refusing to give Tessy the respect of control. Then yanked the arm of his saloon girl dragging her past the crowd as they parted like the red sea making his way up the stairs.

Keeping an eye square on Royce as he left. Christian thanked both Billie and Tessy. “Appreciate you all sticking your neck on the line. Getting harder and harder to just have a couple drinks and play cards.” His eyes settled on the card table he had hoped to engage with. “Appears my game scattered amongst the confusion. Best be getting on my way. You gonna be alright.” He asked Tessy. “Seems you always got my back.”

She smiled. She wanted to tell him she had more than his back. She had a part of his soul. He had no idea how her trigger finger twitched on the gun, or how close she came to pulling it. She would have gave up her saloon, her freedom, her life to save his, if it came to that. But those were unspoken words, words that if a man wanted to see it, could easily read it in her eyes. Knowing that, she left their talk with business. “Yeah that boy still wet behind the ears. Most things come out of his mouth nothing more than idol threats. Had I let him get himself killed today, I’d had my hands full with his old man. Shame though, think it’d be doing the town a favor.

From the corner, Braham’s watched the whole event and knew for better or worse he had seen all but one of the main characters that he would soon meet. The stage set the script ready. Now time would work its magic and choices would be made. He reflected on his encounter with Natas and for now, given their history, the two were estranged acquaintances they had peacefully come together. Brahma sensing the lateness of the day made note of the clock on the wall. Took his pocket watch out, checked the time, glanced around the bar to make sure no one was watching. Then pointed to the clock on the wall and as if he had commanded it to move, it slowly shifted ten minutes to match his watch.

Natas unbeknown to Brahma, had made his way back into the saloon. His presence, undetected served him best if he was to have any influence in its outcome. “Hogwash free well. And idle mind is the devils workshop.” He let out a roar of laughter for which only he could hear. Pushing the door open to leave he quivered in response to the arctic air pulling his jacket collar high above his neck and walked away, leaving no foot prints to be seen as he, in his fare wreathed attire, faded in the blizzard.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

With a good portion of the next few pages in his mind he decided to take some Hemingway advice and stop at a point you still have some writing in you. Let the subconscious digest it for a night. The wise thinking of Pappa.

The drive to Uncle John’s house was less than a half hour. It was located in old Brooklyn a suburb of Cleveland an older neighborhood that had seen better days. Loss jobs meant less and less money to care for the homes and neighborhood, even less left for taxes to run good schools and police departments. Without the hope of prosperity, the gift of the serpent quickly flowed it’s sweeten nectar of drugs and alcohol to replenish the void of faith, allowing those caught in the web of poverty to escape within, deep into the tunnels of addiction. It was a neighborhood Stan had grown in. A neighborhood that found passage from a child leaving his bike and finding it as left. To a neighborhood where the least of sins, would leave a missing bike next to a cut lock and chain.

Pulling into the one story two-bedroom house, Stan felt sadden by the years of neglect around the neighborhood. His Uncle had built the stone block house piece by piece digging the basement for the most part by hand pouring the footer framing it siding it and capping the roof. If he had a couple of dollars left from his weekly salary it found its way into the house and not at the local matinee. After two years, he and his bride moved into the house signed sealed and free of mortgage.

His Uncle move into a nursing home was the end of an era. A passage of time that drew heavily on Stan’s mind. Stan swept his eyes left and right and knelt to pick up the hidden key under the mat, a bad habit he couldn’t convince his Aunt and Uncle to break. it was a different time and a different neighborhood. Most concerning for Stan was his Uncle’s reservations about putting all his money in the bank, hard to tell what sat stuffed in mattresses.

The smell of old weathered magazines pipe smoke garlic and cat caught his attention immediately. It was a trademark insignia for old folk’s home. It was like a quantum leap into the sixties, nothing had changed, same white paint, same furniture, same cabinets, same white porcelain sinks, except for a newer big screen TV that looked like the pink elephant in the room. He poured food into the cat dish and the cat immediately appeared rubbing on his leg and purring. To a T he followed the directions of his Aunt’s text and gathered up all his Uncle’s essential items. Clean underwear, pajamas top and bottom along with slippers and teeth. “Teeth…ugh,” he stopped for a moment doing a double take spying the dentures soaking in a glass on the sink.

Completing the task, he did a mental rundown to make sure he had everything then patted the cat and made his way out. Scanned left and right then placed the key back under the mat.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Pulling into the nursing home he was surprised how packed it was. The front reception was colorfully decorated bright cheerful red and orange mixed with yellow colors and soothing big band swing music. A wall mural of forest and mountains decorated the main sitting area. Stan walked over to a layout diagramming the rooms. It weren’t long before a woman in blue fatigues carrying a tray of medicines stopped. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“Yes, I suppose I am a little confused looking for John Mastsko I think room 332.”

She pointed. “Down the hall thru the double door first right. He’s in assisted living.”

“Got it,” He said pointing alone with her. “Where the nurse is coming out of those doors and make a right?”

She nodded with a smile.

Stan walked thru the door. It opened to a huge eating-recreation area housing a diversity of elderly senior citizens, engaged amongst themselves and staff members in talk and games. Some still vibrant others weaning and others nothing but despair dependent on others to feed them. The refreshing invasion of a new soul to the atrium awakened everyone’s attention, as if the world turned on its axis. For a moment they stopped dealing cards, rolling dice, reading papers, even those tucked away in the corners who saw little more than shadows gave the outsider their vested attention.

Stan kept journeying, past the rec area, down the long hallways, until the numbers hit the 300’s. Passing each room he couldn’t help being a voyeur to the wax like characters propped in their chairs captivated by the televisions in their zoo like crypt habitats that encapsulated their legacies. Passing a room an elderly lady called out. “Michael come out of the rain. Why you’ll catch a cold standing out there.” Stan stopped searched for others, and peeked in her room pointing to himself.

“Excuse me mam, were you talking to me?”

“Will I don’t talk to myself, get in here and shut that door your letting a draft in.” Before he could turn away, she bolted from her rocker and grabbed Stan’s arm with all her might leading him back to her room. “I swear Michael to the good lord your memory isn’t what it used to be, nor is your hearing. I called out your name three time before you stopped.”

“But I think your confused…” he barely got out before she pushed him into a loveseat using both hands.

“Now sit there and get your strength about you then will talk.” She sat back in her own chair gently rocking at a slow pace. Stan looked around the room more amused then anything. It was obvious the old woman was senile, off her rocker so to speak. “Tea?” she asked as she poured him an imaginary cup of hot water.

Stan took the empty cup, graciously playing along.

She moved next to him, took a sip of her imaginary tea, and smiled pleased with her brew.

She couldn’t keep her eyes off him. For whoever Michael was, she adored him with all her heart. Seeing Stan’s eyes divert to a picture on the dresser she got up and walked over to it.

“That’s my favorite picture of all time.”

She brought the picture to Stan and handed it to him.

Beyond all the years he still recognized her beautiful penetrating blue eyes. “My god you were beautiful.”

Her eyes started to tear up with emotion. “I so wanted to look good for you that day, I’m so happy you feel that way.”

She returned to her rocking chair closed her eyes, and before long the motion of the chair seemed to work in sync to propel her memories back to the reality of her past.

He felt it was now or never and he started to get up hoping to escape her room.

“Michael, you not leaving again are you? I want to show you something before you leave.”

Stan smiled.

“The box,” she pointed to an old rugged cardboard box. “Bring that here. I want to make sure you know what’s in it.”

Stand picked the box up, surprised how light it seemed. He peeked into the opening and saw it contained nothing and handed it over to her wondering what she could possible want with it.

She smiled as wide as a crevice cut in the canyons of Nevada sorting thru the box as if it contained a collection of items for which she treasured. Shifting thru the empty box she appeared to grab an item and held it to the light to get a better look. Her actions appeared strange to Stan, sad perhaps how the mind begins to deteriorate, yet at the same time intriguing how it protects the being, the box was now her collection of memories. The box was her life.

“You remember this don’t you Michael,” she handed him the imaginary item. “Careful don’t drop it.” He played along taking it into his hand.

“You gave it to me when we first met. It was so romantic.” Her face turned to disappointment. “You do remember, don’t you? “Ellie brought you home, but I knew you would be mine.” You told me you whittled it on the way over to our house. She reached into her box again and pulled another item. Her face abeam with joy. “Tommie’s baby shoes. She continued pulling from her empty box, little by little a lifetime story of two lovers unfolded from her memories, children, grandchildren, holidays, birth, death, sadness, and love, all come from the empty box. It hit Stan her box was not empty but instead contained the treasures of her life. It was his box he shamefully had nothing to show for.

He had witnessed a lifetime in the short period when he finally broke free. Where are you going honey?

“To see John down the hall, John Mastsko.”

She smiled “that’s nice the secret police are trying to kill him, you too have fun.”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

“Room 332, the door half open. He knocked and entered the room, it was not what he expected. Less than a week ago, he was doing the work of a twenty-year-old. Now a breathing mask covered his Uncle’s face attached to a stationary oxygen tank. Without it to help him breath, he was a goner. Smaller oxygen bottles were scattered within proximity to his bed and chair. The atmosphere reeked of finality. Where a vibrant energetic strong man should have been, instead rested a weak frail man. A man that had taught him to hunt, to catch a ball, to get up when he fell, and to always give his best, no matter what. He shook as a chill came over him.

“At the same time his Uncle’s eyes opened and life reappeared from his slumber. “Someone walk over you grave.” he said smiling.

Stan put his hand on his Uncle. “How you feeling buddy?”

His Uncle glanced to the oxygen bottle tracing the tube from his nose. “Been better feel like a mule kicked me. Thought I just had food poisoning. My stomach felt twisted and all. You?”

“Good. Brought you a few things Aunt Ella thought you might need.”

He nodded in agreement. “Suppose they got me hunkered in here for a while. She’s so worried you know. These doctors put the scare in you. She don’t take that kinda talk very good. I’ve always tried to shield her. From a lot of things, you know. He run his hand thru this tight military crewcut hair, the same cut he had gotten since he was wet behind the ears, he never let it grow more than a quarter of an inch before hitting the barber. Damn I knew I should got my haircut, last week. “

Stan smiled but it showed more worry then anything. “I know you’ve always taken care of her. Hey won’t be long before the two of us our back on the roof again finish the back barn at the church.” His Uncle shifted himself propping up on his elbows and looking around the room.

“I don’t know Stan. My gut fells like it’s on fire, just keeps churning.” Again he paused as if in deep thought. “I need you to do me a huge favor, if the chance I don’t get out of here…”

“Whoa what you mean if you don’t get out of here? Come on Uncle John this is just a small set back.”

“No! Now listen, this is important. We’re two men here, I don’t need to shield any of this. I’m in a bad way here Stan.” His Uncle chocked up a little, got a knot in his throat. “I got a bad feeling this is it. But what I got to tell you I ain’t never told anyone.” His eyes misted over. “Some of it my service to the county, other parts of it personal. I fell a little embarrassed I hadn’t told you before. This would break your Aunt’s heart to find out. but I got something to tell you. Something you need to know… about me…. I wish I could tell her but it will break her heart. Ain’t no easy way to say this and if I could take parts of it back I would. Stan your….” he stopped mid-sentence as the duty nurse entered the room

“How’s my patient?” The nurse asked scanning his vitals and adjusting his pillow as she accessed his food intake. “Not hungry Hun?” She eyed his urine bag recorded the minuscule fluid on her charts the shook her head and gave him a compassionate look. You feeling okay Hun? Any pain? Doctor’s got you on pain killers if you need em. ”

Stan stood motionless watching the methodical care with a touch of empathy that most doctors seemed to lack and most nurses made up for. Every action, every word, spoke compassion and warmth in an orchestrated script to access her patient’s care.

“little pain, but hell.” He pulled his gown up showing her a long scar down his leg. “Got shot down over North Korea when I was a young buck. I ain’t afraid of a little pain. Keep them things away from me. Can’t hardly think on em.

“Okay I’ll be back. Let me go get your medication.” She fluffed his pillow up again. “Are you sleeping okay honey?”

“Fine,” his Uncle said slightly agitated as he watched her walk from the room. “I hate being fussed over.”

Convinced she left he picked up where he left off. “In the shed. You know where I keep all my tools, there’s a little safe, the code very easy to remember is 1984. That’s the year you were born. Inside you’ll find letters amongst some other things. A few clippings, a had a different life after the Korean war, one I took an oath too.” He paused reflecting on his own thought. “A picture of someone… someone very special.” His eyes watered and he looked away. “Country looked down on that sort of thing back then. I never meant to hurt anyone.” His eyes darted back to Stan’s. I did things. I guess things happen beyond our control, but that being said, they’d still crush your Aunt to know. I still think of her to this day.” His Uncle hesitated, his mind pulling him back to a fond memory. Stan said nothing. His Uncle finally broke from the captive slave of his memory. “Crazy isn’t it? Seems our life force is like an ocean tide. It thrust life onto you, then pulls its away leaving scattered shells of memoires in the sands of time. I often wonder what could of or should have been.” He looked up at Stan. “Don’t get me wrong. I love your Aunt. We have had a very special life. But my life would have been incomplete if I never had the moment I had, can you understand that? Do you think she can forgive me for being a coward, for hiding behind all of it, for abandoning her?” He wiped a tear from his eyes taking a moment to recompose himself. He propped himself up and reached for Stan’s hand holding it. “I know all this sounds crazy. But in the safe maybe that will help you all make sense of it. Maybe I could have done it different maybe I should have been more of a man.” He let go of Stan’s hand and laid all the way flat.

Stan brushed his hand over his Uncle’s forehead to reassure him. “It’s okay Uncle John, I’ll take care of it. It’s between you and me.”

“You have to promise me you’ll read the letters, then destroy them. Do you understand?” His Uncle closed his eyes trying to fight back his tears of emotion. That was his nature. never show weakness.

He bent over and gave his Uncle a kiss on the forehead. “I’ll see you later. Okay? You take care.”

His Uncle grabbed Stan by the forearm. You could see the passion in his eyes, hear the sincerity. “I love you son. Read the letter, read her letter. It’s the only thing that can save her.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Leaving the hospital, Stan took the time to reflect on his Uncle’s peculiar request. All of it seemed completely out of character. A mistress? Maybe the meds he rationalized. “mental note,” he said to himself. Do not forget to discuss with doctor. The site of his Uncle vulnerable hooked to all the gadgets, was discerning enough from his normal vigor, but what rocked his foundation even more. His seemly over emotional breakdowns, it was a sight Stan had rarely witnessed from his Uncle. After all his Uncle, had given Stan his structure and most of his beliefs. He had been like a father and Stan emulated his qualities to a T. Disciplined himself to never color outside the lines and as for colors everything was black and white. A disciple of Truman, the greatest president ever to hold office in his Uncle’s eyes. Outside of his Uncle’s distinguished military service Stan, rode the line like his Uncle. College, marriage, well commitment if not marriage, house-mortgage, bills more bills occasional vacations, more bills and more bills….., Stan chuckled, maybe somewhere he had drifted from his Uncle’s disciplines. Regardless, he had a mission to perform, and his Uncle was counting on him for his help. Stan made a call to Maria’s it went to voice mail. “Hey be home late. Lot going on. Headed to Uncle johns house. Got some business to take care. See you later tonight. Luv ya.” He said more out of habit, then hang up and drove to his Uncle’s.

Reaching his Uncles, he walked to the back of the house where the shed sat. he looked at the surroundings feeling guilty for being away so long. Under the enchantment of youth, where distances and size are magical distorted, the same backyard seemed no less the range of two jungles merged encompassing miles of gardens, and orchards, and vineyards, stretching as far as the eye could see. Bountiful wild game roamed freely, white tailed rabbits and grey squirrel, foxes with an occasional deer or two, entertained by the call of the crow “caw, caw, caw,” warning of predators or sounds of the robins harassing the purple martins that lived in the bird house mounted on the iron rod pole Stan and his Uncle had made from a Popular Mechanic magazine and won him first place in the school project. Now with the wonderment of childhood gone, it was merely a small fenced in yard, with one garden one grape vine, three apple trees and occasional chipmunk, that roamed the half acre lot. The pole still stood, but the bird house gone years ago. Stan opened the gate walked past the small garden and in front of him stood the shed, once only a harbor for tools and garden furniture, now an uncharted passage to knowledge his Uncle had hid secrets.

He opened the door and it made a creaking sound like the opening of a mausoleum letting light seep into the shed. It, the contents of the shed, like his uncles life had everything neatly organized and labeled. Every peg a tool, every coffee can labeled and filled with screws, nails, and washers, all in descending order of size. To some sorts, it was museum providing a chronologic history of his Uncle. Hanging on the wall, his most prized possession, crimps, and ice walkers. Stan pulled them off the wall, and tested the poles. He imagined how his younger vibrant Uncle felt making it to the base camp of Mount Everest, waiting out minus forty-degree freezing gale force winds gusting above hundred knots, that left most with frostbite, And snow so thick and white it blinded a man’s vision beyond a foot. In the end, the storm had ended his one opportunity to summit the mountain.

Most to be so close to their dream and denied would be broken in spirit. Uncle John flavored it as a meant to be proposition, his spirit relished on the journey and not the destination and he often quoted the saying of his Sherpa guide when asked the difficulty of the climb. “On a good day is just a hike, one foot in front of the other. On a bad day, you just don’t come back. You decide very little; the mountain will decide for you.” He put the poles back on the wall, and his attention lured towards a picture of a naval aircraft carrier signed by each sailor. Smack in the middle, Johns signature, an aviator sitting in his twin mustang aircraft. He pulled the picture off the wall to look at it and from the glass frame another picture hidden in the back slid out. It was a picture of his young Uncle amongst a group of well-dressed men in black business suit, next to him an undeniable icon of history, John F Kennedy. He slid it back in its hidden spot. Next in line hanging on the wall a weaved basket with a handle used to collect donations from each church pew where his Uncle served as elder, and a dented and scratched hard hat from the steel mills with his name in black magic marker written over masking tape. Stan put the hard hat on his head, for thirty-five years, outside of his Uncle’s periodic hunting trips, he wore the same hat religiously without missing a day of work. Hat on head, he grabbed the weaved basket, and to humor himself play acted his Uncles service to the church, pretending to offer the basket down his imaginary church pews. “Why thank you Mrs. Madeline, I hadn’t realized the witch’s society could make such generous contributions to our cause, it does seem quite conflicting in dogma and I’d would like to be the first to apologize for our rudely conceived witch hunts and of course that little matter of burning y’all at the stake. Good lord I could burn in hell for that.” He thought to himself ridiculing the church for his own amusement.” He quickly put both items back on the wall. The shed merely a reflection of his Uncle’s life and everything the safe he was about to open, was not.

He spotted the small safe on his Uncle’s workbench bolted down with large screws and braces. It looked sterile and harmless. Tumbling the numbers 1984 it popped open, inside it contained an unsealed envelop. Emptying it on the workbench he noticed a picture of a young woman maybe mid-twenties. Her eyes green as an evergreen spoke to you first, her cheekbones high with dark hair that curled just above her petite shoulders. She had a distinct beauty that was undeniable. His Uncle’s arm draped around her with his signature smile and gleam in the eyes that spoke far more to the picture. He emptied part of the packet out on the work bench and pulled out a letter and started to read more than half of it, then as quickly put it down and stuffed it back in the envelope, noticing official letter head paper for the us government he scanned over it, it was a letter head thanking him for his service in area 51 clipped next to it an application for an government organization he didn’t recognize and a passport with his picture, what appeared as an alias name. “Come on this has got to be one of his practical jokes John John were you some type of spy?” He gathered the contents stuffing them in a packet, shut the safe, and headed back to his car.

Tossing the packet on the passenger side of the car, he flipped the radio on. Fire away Chris Sebastian blasted over the speakers and he turned the volume down. His mind drifting between the music and adulterous love letters seasoned his thoughts. “You gotta be kidding me, “he said firmly clutching the steering wheel with his hands to release his frustration. “Uncle John had a girlfriend a lover? Backing out of the driveway, he put the car in forward then tucking his leg against the steering wheel to steer it pulled one of the letters from the envelope and split time between the road and the letter.

A horn blasted. He dropped the letter grabbing the steering wheel and swerved back to his lane just in time to avoid oncoming traffic. “Shit that was close,” he said seeing the other driver flip him off. Maybe the gypsy woman was right, my days are numbered.”

As he pulled into his driveway he noticed his neighbor Shelly talking with the lawn service guy. Her hands doing most of the talking. He crouched down in his seat. “Please don’t look, please don’t look,” he said watching her from the corner of his eye. He hadn’t even put the car in park before she was on him faster than a jackknife rabbit running from a coyote.

She knocked on the car window and Stan rolled the window down. She couldn’t wait to spell the beans. “Maria was home, funny she pulled in about two hours ago, with a friend. Never seen this one before.”

Stan gathered up the packet from his Uncle and exited the car. “Seen him? Who you talking about?”

“Tall guy really good looking. Thought it was you at first, waved but they both ignored me.”

You say tall guy? About six three? Dark hair?” she nodded. “Yeah that must be Joe. Colleague at work. Working on a big project together.” He stopped short of saying more.

“Will they were definitely working on something, honey.” Her little sneer on her face pissed him off, he knew what she was insinuating and he wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction by acknowledging it.

“Hey I don’t mean to cut you short, but I really need to take care of some business.”

Her smirk dropped, disappointment filled her eyes. Her play of words she had hoped to use as a dagger had little effect on him. “Sure, I’m sorry didn’t mean to hold you up, just being neighborly.”

Stan entered the study and sat down at his computer desk laying the envelope on the desk. He pondered on Marias friend. It did seem a tad bit more friendly then just coworkers, in fact he was sick of hearing how Joe was up for this award and that award at the hospital and how Joe does this cute fucking little thing and how fucking smart Joe is. “Damn it Himmie,” he said as the cut jumped on his lap spooking him. The cat in response, rubbed against him and like a fine-tuned engine let out a meow and started purring, and cleaning itself. He picked up the envelope of treason feeling the heaviness of its content. “I got get my head back on straight. I’m just shook up over these letter a packet full of betrayal.” He said to the cat petting it. “I mean fifteen years we’ve lived together. We’ve had some stressful times, Schooling new jobs. Peaks and valleys expected, all part of the cycles of a relationship. “Right Kittie?” The cat let out a screech scratched Stan and jumped to the floor. “Bad Kittie, freaking bad Uncle, damn it John how could you do that. Were Stile’s we don’t color outside the lines, that’s way it’s been that’s the way you brought me up.”

He dropped his head resting it in his hands. Could any of his Uncle’s behavior or even Maria’s be rationalized. Hell, maybe a little excitement on the side not all that bad, after all, this was real life, no participation trophies handed out sitting on the sideline. God knows we’ve all had some fine temptations. Does a little turn off the highway keep you from your destination? Yeah, he snickered. “A destination stored in an empty box. Come to think of it seems everybody had a storage of sorts for their lives legacy, the senile woman from the nursing home, his Uncle maybe even Maria had her own little box filled with memories he knew nothing about. One thing he did know with certain when he added up his life, outside of tenure at the university, he really had nothing to show. His home remodeling sank him deeper in debt at a time her medical school loans where suffocation them. For the first time, he felt his life was nothing more than an illusion slowly collapsing inward on him. He stuffed the envelope into the drawer and locked it, then went to his favorite vice to escape, or at least a second after booze, he opened his computer. He reread his previous chapters. Satisfied he looked at some previous notes and started to write.

His flow seemed good, emotions always seemed to drive his writing and boy if nothing else the recent events in his life gave him mojo to write. “Let’s see sitting at the bar, every scene opens in a bar I gotta fix this. Classical hero shit, theme emphasized by gypsy reading, thank you gypsy lady, impending trouble okay that sets the plot. Mental note need to explore bad guy villain just not completely developed yet. Let see Christian gets dressed from bath, leaves the back-room heads over to a table to gamble, yeah that’s it.” Christian scrolls further up in the story alright Natas character setting wager on cowboy with Brahma’s wager based off second chance, the tide of good and bad. Okay where the fuck is this story going, alright I got it. just as he started typing his phone went off.

“Hello, hey yeah. Well they got Uncle John at the rest home he’s doing okay. Hey did you stop by the house earlier? No? No reason just wondered. I see, you gotta to pull a double shift. Can they do that to you? I know I get it. Well I guess I’ll see you in the morning. I lo…. “she hung up before he could finish.

He shifted back in his chair and let out a sigh trying to keep the stress of the mounting situation from controlling him. He had caught her in a blatant lie about being home, what else was she lying about. In fact, this was the third week in a row she got caught up in work. His mind replayed her emotions she seemed to be displaying recently. He closed out the word program and goggled cheating. Avoidance popped up on the top of list. “Yeah that’s one of em.. he kept going down the list of infidelity and mentally compared it to her recent activity. “Anger, no doubt seen my share of that. “Grooming Hun yeah that one two, and recently her phone seemed joined to her hip. He quit after skimming over the next seven. She aced her test scored 100. Considering his Uncle’s latest revelation, it would be hard to believe anyone could be immune to cheating. He cleared his browser then went to her email. He put her password in. “What? Invalid?” He typed it again, it denied him entry again. “You got to be kidding me. Did she change her password? He tried one more time, nothing. Frustrated he closed out the email site and shut down the computer. “I can’t believe it’s come to this. Damn it John what are you doing to my head. You got me spying on my own lady.

Feeling his stomach churn it reminded him he had forgotten to eat. He went to the frig sorted thru some items pulled a Tupperware with salami, smelled it, put it back, closed the frig and without thinking re-opened it and rummaged through it. “Nothing.’ He said closing it again.

His eye caught a coupon for a five-guy burger on the frig. “Bingo,” he said tearing it from the door. One stop in the den to grab his wallet and make sure his envelope was safely hidden and he was on his way to the burger joint. Driving over the bridge the moon begin to peak over the horizon and his eyes caught a small crowd of folks carrying yoga mats making their way to the grass plaza. It kept his interest watching the last of them go down the steps from his rearview mirror. He stopped, turned around and parked his car near the bridge and got out to get a better look. A small army of yogis in colorful mats and earthly outfits were assembled either sitting, standing, or stretching while the matriarch of the entourage in the front, a spirit incarnated from the heavens, revealed by the moonlight on her angelic face, knelt Racheal. Fascinated he needed more. It was time to leave the safety of his bridge.

It was a warm summer night. A big orange harvest moon lay low in the background, maybe the last mix to the muse or lure that smitten him. Stan followed the precarious path of wooden steps down to the meadow underneath the arch of the bridge. For the first time, he stood on the grassy knoll next to the water falls. The water pouring over the hand-crafted sandstone roared yet blended into the meadow in a pleasant acoustic style. He looked upward to the point he often walked over the bridge. And he felt as if he had ventured to a new land far away from where he came.

It was a magical place anyone could feel it. Maybe because of the warm air left from day mixed with the cool night air taking over. Or maybe the smell of the dew speckled grass or fresh water that roared over the falls. The allure had captivated others, the craftsmanship of the arched bridge and stoned water falls laid out in a circular drop and rail station high on the embankment gave that testament. A christening event for Stan marked by the full harvest moon now larger than life, casting its moonlight over the meadow and all its stage.

Lit torches set around the outskirts of the practitioners gave off a faint citrus scent and ambient light. A younger man dressed in a Mexican poncho held a bongo drum between his knees striking the edge of the drumhead with his fingers and palms in a soothing high pitched rhythm. On better examination, the young bongo player the plagiarize himself spotted the prof at the same time waving while not missing a beat. “Child’s pose,” he heard the teacher say and the choir of yogis obediently sat on their knees extended their arms outward and stretched across the mat. The mass had begun and the faithful joined in.

The teacher got up from her pose after tending to her flock allowing her attention to flow to Stan. She motioned him over and the delicate lace top spread outward across her arm creating an illusion of a winged angel beckoning Stan to join her. He stood up a little straighter and looked around as if she might have pointed to another, then pointing his own hand acknowledge, nodded, and moved towards her.

She smiled, unrolled a yogi mat laying it next to him. "Take you shoes off," she said pointing to the others barefoot. He took them off and got on his mat imitating the pose of the others. Taking a moment to look around he realized his baggy jeans and Cleveland browns T- shirt singled him out as a misinformed rookie yoga participant engaging in his first lesson.

She handed him a pencil and paper then addressed the class. “Write down those things that no longer serve you and those things you wish to pursue to replace it. The harvest moon is a rebirth a time to harvest that which serves and bury that which no longer serves.” Stan knew exactly what to write down. He scribbled some notes on his paper smiled and folded the paper stuffing it in his pocket.

“Okay finish up and five breaths in adho mukha svanasana, down ward dog. Remember breath through the nose.” She looked to Stan. “If you get tired go to child’s pose, it’s you and the mat, you’re not competing with each other. Stan’s eyes followed Racheal’s movements and he did his best to configure his body in poses to stretch his will, slightly more than his strength.

“Breathe,” she kept emphasizing in a calming voice. “Raise your leg, breath in, lower it, breath out. Controlled inhales and controlled exhales.” Sweat poured from his body as it creaked moaned and rebelled with every new twist. His were huffs and puffs and grasping for air, there was no control or balance, his pride forcing him to go beyond his limitations. Several times catching himself from tumbling in his display of Shrek aerobics exacerbated by the unevenness of the ground until he finally found himself in child pose more than any other and heard the blessed call of “Corpse pose” suskahan spread your feet arms palms up relax your body. Close your eyes and clear your mind. You made it.” Peppermint mist hit his face, he looked up and seen Racheal spray each yogi, it was a ritual he would come to love.

He took a second to allow the scent and moment to capture his senses a nice distraction from his pounding heart and muscle spasms from his stomach. Even with the turmoil of his physical body he felt a calm, a sense of completion. A relaxing feeling, the only energy left in your body after you’ve drained it.

“Move back into your body he heard her voice say. Slowly move your fingers. Your toes, your hands, your foot, now slowly come into a seated positon.”

Stand followed suit of his yogi neighbor and got in a seated position “Namaste,” Racheal said and all followed. “Hands clasped to the forehead crown, to the heart crown, thanking for the blessing of being together.”

“Namaste,” the crowd of yogis responded. Serene smiles displayed on all.

Stan with the same smile etched on his face rolled up his mats and slowly got up. He waited afterwards to thank her as a few faithful approached her almost messiah in nature thanking her and sharing a little of their journey in the practice. She had a simple vibrancy that drew them to her. you catch it first in her smile then her eyes an energy that gave life to all she touched.

At the end when the last of her followers broke apart. He went to her to return the mat.

She had a peculiar look on her face before she locked her eyes into his. “I know you from somewhere?”

“Here’s to you. 
Here’s to me. 
And here’s to the space between us. 
One of us has to go. 
Not you. 
Not me. 
But the space between us.” Stan spouted out, repeating her toast.

A smile a canyon wide took control of her as she let out a laugh of equal magnitude. “Now it’s all coming back to me. The bar Saturday right you’re that professor.”

“Yeah that guy. Jesus, I don’t remember a whole lot beyond your poem but I hope I didn’t make an ass of myself. I’m Stan and you are?” He asked knowing full well her name as he put out his hand to offer a shake; she reciprocated, the touch sent a spark up his arm. She moved back slightly his eyes widened.

“Racheal.” She said softly. “No, you were every bit a gentlemen. I think your girlfriend was keeping a good eye on you. She seems to really take care of you.”

“Girlfriend?” he asked confused, then it dawned on him. “Naw, that was Sharia, were coworkers. She’s like a sister.”

“Sister,” a smile resurfaced on her face. “Will how do you feel after the yoga?”

“Nice, nice and relaxed.” he said suddenly conscious of their hands still touching, he gently released hers.

Her face flushed and she lowered her gaze to the ground. “Racheal! a voice called out traced back to a young man with a scraggly ponytail and raspy thin pointed beard approaching. Reaching her he put his arm around her. “My dear what have you been doing you know we have a date tonight.” he said giving Stan an unwelcomed snare.

She smiled awkwardly at Stan.

“Will come on,” he impatiently coaxed her grabbing her arm. “We’re already late.”

“Sorry got go, thanks a bunch for coming, I hope to see in another class.” He nodded.

“Oh, I almost forgot. I never signed up or paid?”

She winked, as her date pulled her away. “It’s a homecoming gift. First ones on me. the rest you.”

“Homecoming gift?” Must be a yogi thing he thought. He watched her walk away then turned and strolled up the steps to his car with a new energy he hadn’t felt in a long time. A hidden energy pulled from the deep recesses of the heartland. Upon reaching his car he realized he had also forgotten to give her mat back, and placed it in the trunk for safe keeping, A car darted by and his eyes caught a glance of a woman and a man sitting relatively close together. He instinctively waved believing it to be Maria’s car, getting no response he shook it off attributing his mind to playing games. It was a quick drive back home and Maria’s car nowhere to be found. “She ought’a be home,” he said looking at his watch.

Walking in he passed the frig realizing he hadn’t eaten. He pulled the five-guy coupon from his pocket remounted it on the frig took a minute to flex his already tight abs from the workout and decided he would skip eating. Next, he gripped the remote and flipped through the channels, unhappy with the choices threw the remote on the couch and headed to the den, unlocked his hidden Uncle’s envelop, and scattered its contents on the desk. A few old polaroid pictures of a pregnant woman and his Uncle at a lake caught his attention. Scribbled on the back a date 1983 and the name Michelle and John lake Cassadaga. “I’ll be damn the gypsy lady’s lake,” he said to himself.

“Who are you and what are you two doing at the gypsy lake?” He wiped his hand over his mouth and stared at the letters laying on the desk. “Well let’s see what’s so important about these letters.” The iris of his eyes widened as he began to read it.

“I understand your reasons, neither of us could have imagined how this would end. We can’t undo what the heart feels “ The emotion of the letter poured from each sentence, it betrayed a man’s reasoning’s taught to lock the heart from wounds and even Stan could feel the passion, the yearning, the lust, he put the letter down, it was everything in his life that was missing. He could feel the intoxication of the affair. He reread the last sentence. “In your eyes, I realize where my own essence dwells.”

The words resonated in his mind, they were identical or at least close to what the gypsy woman had told him about his own soulmate and above coincidental their visit to lake Cassadaga where the gypsy woman grew up. “Maybe I will pay you another visit,” he thought to himself.

The fueled passion in the letters provided a different glimpse to a normally vanilla Uncle who from the time he was a choir boy, to soldier, to steel maker and husband never dared to drawl outside the lines of principle. He learned in his chair to the back and shook his head trying to digest the epiphany of his Uncle’s hidden life. Hearing a car and thinking Maria had pulled in he stuffed the letters back in the envelope and hid them in the drawer again. The car backed out, only using his drive as a turn around. “Enough of those letters he said looking at the calendar then X’ing out another day. “hum… Days are dropping off like leaves in the fall. He decided to write and distract his mind.

Emotions could fuel his ability to write, words just seemed to flow easier. Beyond that, the mix of his imagination fueled with the new excitement of his friend sparked his creativity. He opened his laptop and reread where his story had left off.

“Ah yes last discussion in the bar between good and evil. Before long the trance of writing pulled him back to his fictional life and the story continued to unfold in his book as he lost himself in the world of his words. Brahma seated at bar, cowboy playing poker. Small crowd. “

CHAPTER NINETEEN

The next time Brahma saw Christian, he was getting a better feel for him. The saloon seemed to be the common grounds for finding him. Sitting in the corner he took some time to evaluate him. Strong study good looking man. Little cocky, while engaging in a game of cards, but at that age who weren’t. When the door swept open again announced by the cold rush of air, in the doorway searching was a petite outplaced filly who seemed as lost as the calf at the waterfalls. The young girl scanned across the bar, spotting Christian she smiled and made her way to a seat next to Brahma. Tessy was helping bartend. She seemed irritated by Suzie’s arrival and made her way over to her.

“Why do want Susie you daddy know your down here?”

“I want,” she looked over at Brahma. “One of whatever he got.”

“That’s alcohol you ain’t getting it and I ain’t got time to make one of the sassafras drinks. So what do you want? Your options are water or root beer.”

“Root beer be fine.” she shook his head in disgust and made her way to appease her. She smiled at Brahma who seemed amused by her charming good spirit. Then her eyes locked on Tessy. A look of mistrust, annoyance even jealousy. The tension was thick.

I don’t like that lady.” She said out loud without introducing herself to Brahma.

Brahma could sense an unknown friction between the two. “Well hello young lady.” He said stroking his beard a few times. “So, I take it you’re not a regular here.”

She giggled, “hardly,” she said batting an eye towards Christian.

“So, what brings you here?” He asked tracing her eyes over to the poker table.

“Nothing,” she said fidgeting in her chair as the root beer arrived this time by Billie. As Tessy stood from afar keeping a watchful look over her.

“Certainly a nice young girl like you would have more entertaining ideas then spending time in a place like this.”

She looked around the saloon, capturing Christian from the corner of her eye. “I don’t. Seems to be a nice place to escape. Isn’t that why everybody’s here?”

He mirrored her observation of the saloon patrons. “I suppose your right,” he replied. Taking a sip of his own escape. “But what would such a young girl want to escape from?”

“Boredom maybe, but definitely uncertainty”

“Of what?”

“Being alone. The uncertainty of being alone.”

“Your never alone I’m….” He caught himself seeing the confusion in her eyes. “I mean we always have something to help us. Something that grounds us.”

She smiled maybe her head twisted to catch the glimpse of the piano as its music echoed thru the saloon then back to Christian.

He traced her eye movements. “You seem to be vesting most of your attention to the poker table over there. Are you a student of the game?”

Her face turned a shade of red. And she lowered herself to be less conspicuous.

“Don’t worry,” Brahma comforted her. “I don’t believe he saw you. The game appears to have quite a hold on him.”

“I’ll cure him of that.” She smiled devilishly.

“You seem quite enamored by him, and I don’t mean to be rude but I know that cowboy has quite the reputation. Are you sure that’s what you’re looking for?”

She didn’t hesitate in her conviction. Her voice strong and sure. “Yes, we belong together. I feel it. I know it. I see it when I look at him. Were eternal soul mates. Souls never die, you know that, don’t you?”

Brahma smiled. “Indeed, I do know. So how long have you too weathered this life together?”

“Oh, not so long.”

“Couple years?”

“Nope just met him two weeks ago. But like I said we hit it off right from the go, soul mates.”

Ah I see. Yes soulmates. A divided soul like a river whose foundation flows together, yet stands at times divided. Make sure the groundwork you put in for tomorrow is a better journey every day. Live for now learn from the past and don’t look to far into the future.”

“I like,” that she said while splitting her attention to the small jazz band assembled and Christian from the corner of her eye. She smiled to accommodate him, and then got up.

“Leaving?”

“Nope going to catch me a cowboy.”

“With what?”

Another cowboy.” She said and disappeared in the crowd of folks.

Brahma studied the crowd now assembled with the addition of the jazz band now bringing a little piece of New Orleans with them. He knew the look in the crowd living in the moment, bordering on the excess living to its fullest. The chemistry of the environment filled the room and life was being celebrated, a little towards a hedonism charge but not too unsettling for Brahma. Even he over time had come to terms with the nature of it all. The atmosphere brought a smile to his face. a proud smile one that widened from corner to corner and sank low with his teeth showing. It brought joy to him.

As he got up to leave his eye caught the young girl in conversation with Royce. Now pardoned by his father’s actions eliminating his ban from the saloon. “Oh, no. you couldn’t have picked a worse bait.” Brahma said sinking back in his seat, He sat within ears length and bent his full attention to her.

I’ve seen you in before, Royce said capturing her attention with a piercing stare from his deceitfully kind blue eyes. “Susie is your name. Susie Cartright. You know who I am?” He asked proudly and slightly conceited.

Everyone knows who you are. How do you know my name?” She said twirling her hair while looking past Royce towards the poker table.

An angel told me.”

An angel? And what did this angel look like.” She asked playing along.

Oh, let me see.” He said cupping his hand over his eyes and acting as if he was searching the bar for his angel. Then surprising himself, pointed at Brahma. Taking back by his similarities. “Like him actually, but . . . but dressed in black, black everything. Hair beard, even darker complexion.”

She looked at her friend and waved. He waved back and smiled. “Well that don’t sound like an angel. You’ve met Natas. But what else did the little devil say about me. He had an earful about you.”

That your too young to be in here.”

I’m almost sixteen, besides what my folks don’t know won’t hurt em. So, Royce Jr., keep your mouth tight. You know loose lips sink ships.”

He laughed. “That’s funny.”

She cracked a smile while keeping her focus on Christian, who seemed to be engaged in a game of his own, getting heavy attention from a dancing girl. As he broke from the table, to take a break, her eyes fixated on the dancing girl trailing him with hands attached as they walked outside. For a moment, her heart sank and before she could follow him out. She felt the hand of Royce pull her.

Want to dance?” he said forcefully positioning her on the dance floor.

“Do I have a choice?”

“No,” he said matter of factly.

She gave him a halfcocked look. “You always get you way?”

He smiled. “Yes, I do.” Royce was a man who warranted attention, be it good or bad, and she was not accustomed to any let alone bad attention. She was even less comfortable being in a saloon, for which her daddy would rightfully tan her hide.

Leading he took her hand and they began swaying to the music. As if his good looks where not enough, he was also athletic and matched her steps perfectly, it was easy to see why woman drooled over him. Tonight, he added a rare flavor of charm, which he rarely used, or needed with most women. He was what most ladies of her age wanted in a boy, or man, strong and confident, admired or at least conditioned to respect by his peers.

She caught a glimpse of her interest return from outside. The dancing girl ogling him while trapped together in laughter. His eyes locked on Royce and he could feel the rage building in his body. Then they moved to hers, and quickly pulled downward defecting from her questioning stare. In response, she pulled the young Adonis, Royce closer to her, who now, served only as a pawn in her game. A game her new acquaintance Natas had suggested and seemed to spark the jealousy she was hoping for. Christian tried to ignore her at least on the surface. Two could play her game he thought. Seated back at the poker game the dancing girl balanced herself on his knee. Whether caught up in the fever of her plot or her emotions suffered for attention. She abandoned her fear of being outed in the bar and let out a loud laugh. Loud enough over the music, and loud enough to catch the interest of all the bar. Satisfied she had the saloon and Christian’s attention, she planted her lips on Royce. Her eyes opened watching for Christian’s reaction. It was exactly what she had hoped for, she could see the dagger of disappointment, of hurt cut through his shield. Breaking away from Royce she marched out of the saloon, followed by her new lost puppy, smitten by its new owner.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Car headlights, flashed in the driveway. Stan got up and peeked out the window in the den, he could see a shadow in the car and watched as the driver bent towards her greeted her with a kiss then opened her door from inside.

He could hear her giggling then silence as the shadow pulled her towards him one last time before she exited the car.

“Fuck me,” Stan said as uneasiness fermented inside him. He went back to his computer and waited for her to walk in.

She fumbled her keys at the door partially opened it, beaconed by a text momentarily stopped, looked at it, laughed typed a response then walked in the door.

She walked right past the den while texting to another beep then stopped and backed up propping herself on the arch of the door. Stan could smell the liqueur it barely covered the cologne.

“Work got you late?”

She smiled her eyes glassy kept to the floor. “Something like that.

“Where’s your car?”

“Jan and I had a few after our shift.”

“Was that Jan who dropped you off?”

She nodded still looking away. Her phone buzzing with text’s capturing both their attention.

Maria fumbled thru her pocket trying to turn the phone off, placed it in her back pocket and took a deep breath leaning her back against the wall for balance. Silence filled the room. The tension was thick It seemed an argument imminent, after all she had lied right to his face and they both knew it. Had things got that far apart for them?

“Maybe you ought to get some sleep.”

She nodded and turned away confident she had passed the integration.

He got up and watched her stumble a few times, he followed her. She went straight to the shower. He heard the water stop and the shower curtain move, when she entered the bedroom she had already put on her long fleece sleeping gear that covered her body from head to toe.

Stan rolled onto his back he had neither the energy to argue or to fix what was surely broken. He said nothing.

The morning alarm came quick. Stan made the coffee as Maria cleaned a few dishes from the sink. She still said nothing, and Stan allowed the silence to grow. “Don’t wait up for me,” was as much of a conversation he got as she headed out the door.

He soon followed her out the door already pushing it to make his first class. Reaching the bridge, he looked down at the small class. But no teacher, at least not his teacher with her trademark smile that disappointed him not to see her.

He made it just in time for his first class, Basic English literature a prerequisite for the university and thus a challenge for those not a fan of writing. As the final minutes of the clock ended he reminded the class to check the syllabus. “Quiz need I say more.” Then rushed out the door zig zagging behind their moans down the steps, with all the enthusiasm of a child fighting his way down the sibling filled stairs, on Christmas Day. At the office, he scrolled down the website saw her name and compared schedules. Satisfied he pulled up a web site to order a mat, after flipping thru multiple pages of choices, which only confused him, he gave up and made quick phone call to the nursing home to check on his Uncle.

“Uh Hun, okay I see. They took him to the hospital. Yes I’m his nephew. Okay just as a precautionary, Good, yes Trumbull hospital on River road. got it. Thank you.” he hung up the phone and made a call to his Aunt. It kept ringing and knew more than likely she had accidentally muted it. Trumbull hospital he thought to himself, Stan was never a fan of it. Preferred Memorial hospital where Maria worked, but Trumbull was closer to John’s and Ella’s house and more in likely a requirement of their insurance.

He had two more classes before he found himself again crossing over the arched bridge and spotted a lesson in session in the grass park below heightening his excitement. It was small, no more than ten. His eyes drew to hers. She smiled spotting him at the same time. He waved and smiled back as she redirected her attention to the class. It was enough to brighten his day. In a short time, he made his way back home. he was alone a common denominator to his Partners new lifestyle. But that was alright. All for the better good down the road, besides he was becoming accustomed to the solitude and the spoils it offered. It, the solitude never judged him when he drank three beers instead of two. Or left the knife out with mayonnaise on the counter. It was a short oasis to his bachelor hood. He went to the frig and grabbed a chunk of cheese and beer and sat down. Opening his computer, he took just a few minutes to reread his latest work. Okay he said rubbing his hands in delight, its five-thirty got one hour before visit hours start. Let’s get a few words on paper.

He typed a few minutes then sat back in his chair taking a moment to digest the words. Before he could type the next sentence the phone rang. He recognized the number and before he could even say hello he could feel the emotions pour from his Aunt’s voice.

“Stan this is Aunt Ella,” her voice strained with anxiety, “Father Chonko’s here he’s giving him his last rites. You need to get here, he’s asking for you, keeps calling out your name. A few more words were spoken and Stan hung up the phone and bolted out the door leaving behind his sandwich and beer.

Waiting at the corner light next to the hospital, he pulled his phone out and made a call to Maria. “Damn it, voicemail.” He hung up and redialed hoping his luck would change, again the call went to voice mail. “Marie it’s me. Hey not looking good for Uncle John you need to get to Trumbull hospital. I think room 206 not sure call me.”

A driver behind him blasted his horn and he pulled forward into the parking lot of the hospital and got out. The hospital building screamed institution. Tall, square and grey, it felt to be the last place you’d find compassion or empathy to service the fragile human enclosure we call body.

The doors automatically opened and at the front desk an emotionless woman sat doing a cross puzzle. He inquired to his Uncle’s room and soon found his way to room 235. Inside his Aunt held her Uncle’s hand fighting tears as best she could. Next to her a doctor, wearing his best poker face. “At least he’s getting bedside attention, Stan’s first thought.

He moved next to his Aunt and put his hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t noticed him at first but turned and glimpsed up with sorrowful eyes and worrisome smile to acknowledge him. His Uncle’s labored and raspy breathing made it clear the doctor was near for more than bedside manners.

Stan glanced at the electronic gadgets monitoring his Uncle’s vitals. His blood pressure elevated read 220/110 and his heart rate monitor erratic and off the charts. He looked at the oxy level and it beeped displaying 82, his Uncle occasionally glanced up, partially sedated with morphine drip. His legs agitated moved constantly and incoherent words bellowed from his mouth. It was a sad state to see a man once so strong.

“So different to see a man who held you in his lap with the balance of strength and tenderness. His Aunt said seeing the distress on Stan’s face.

Stan could only nod, watching the doctor’s eyes, fixated on the life monitors hooked to his Uncle. He looked ready like a coach, ready to sub a player as precious time ticked off the scoreboard clock. “I know his wishes are to avoid life support.” The Doctor finally said recognizing the tale signs of no return. “But it’s now or never to ventilate him. “If you don’t, it won’t be long. “

Aunt Ella’s eyes darted between the doctors and Stan’s.

“I don’t know,” she mumbled choked up with tears. “He told me no life support. I’m not ready to lose him Stan.”

Stan fought back his own tears, all he could do was shrug his shoulders in response. The room went silent neither could see the stoic eyes of the doctor waiting, yet felt their weight.

A cell phone rang breaking the silence, Stan dug into his pocket. “Maria thank good he said looking at the number. “Hello … the phone went dead. “Damn no bars.” He walked closer to the windows hoping for better reception. He redialed the number and it immediately went busy. From the glass reflection of the window he watched he Uncle’s lungs heave upward followed by a raspy sound from his throat. He needed Maria now more than anytime. “Aunt Ella I’ll be right back, got make a call to Maria.” She nodded but seemed unable to process much more than her friend lover and protector struggling for every breath that feed his life.

Leaving the room a few more bars appeared on his phone then as quickly disappeared. He kept moving until he reached a door leading to a staircase, yanked it open and found himself at the bottom next to an outside exit before the strength of the bars remained. “Bingo,” he said seeing full stream of bars. He dialed her number again this time hearing her voice just as the battery died. Son of bitch, this can’t be happening. “ He squeezed the phone then took a large breath keeping himself from heaving the phone on to the side of the grey block building. “What a worthless piece of shit.”

He rushed back up the steps and when he got to the hallway, their stood his Uncle in his gown, in front of the door to his room. “Uncle John? What are you doing in the hallway. How did you get out of your bed…?”

His Uncle had a serious look to his face. “Did you see her? She said she was coming?”

“See what?” he asked moving closer to his Uncle. “The envelope? Its handled. You really need to lay down. How did you get out here?”

His Uncle smiled. “You were always a good boy, then we understand each other.”

“Yeah… I mean sure.”

“You did read the letters right son?” Before Stan could response, his Uncle smiled, waved goodbye, and disappeared into his room. Stan stood still for a period unnerved by the whole conversation, then hearing his Aunt break into a wailing, hurried to follow his Uncle in the room. The doctor stood motionless next to the hospital Chaplain, an elderly man with large hands and thin body and a rasp of thin grey hair with eager eyes full of conviction, one you would expect given his vocation. His Aunt sobbing uncontrollably spread her arms over her Uncle’s still body and piercing blue eyes fixated beyond this life. The angel of death had struck.

Stan felt faint, his hair and goosebumps rose on his skin. In contrast lay his Uncle lifeless where seconds ago, he witnessed standing at the door to his room. He broke out in a cold sweat surely his emotions had played tricks on his mind. Half spooked by the apparition, he waited until his Aunt allowed the staff to take the body to the morgue and escort her to a comfort room, then sought the same solace his Uncle and Aunt received by the church. He approached the Chaplain before he left.

“Frank,” he said seeing the name tag on his shirt. “Can I ask you something?”

“Ok course son. What can I do for you?”

“You were in the room when my Uncle passed? I mean you gave him his last rites.”

“I was in the room, yes. But as for the last rites I do believe father Chonko had given them earlier. You see I’m a non-denomination Chaplain, not a priest. “

Stan searched the Chaplain’s eyes. “ I see, this is going to sound strange but did my Uncle ever while you were in the room get out of his bed.”

“Heavens no son, he was quite non-ambulatory.”

“Are you sure? I guess I mean you never left the room?

“Quite sure, is something troubling you son?” The Chaplain asked with a puzzled look on his face.

“No, just a little confused I guess.” Stan said deciding it better to keep his vision to himself.

The Chaplain took Stan’s by the arm. “Son you seem a little shaken. If you decide you need someone to, to talk too. I do some part time here, not much. Officially I’m retired, but the parish has a little house at Copper’s cemetery I call it home.”

“Coppers cemetery, used to cut grass in the summer for the church as a kid, helped pay for my college, didn’t realize anyone actually lived there.”

The Chaplain smiled, “well talk.”

Stan joined his Aunt on the lower floor of the hospital reception area and was greeted by his Aunt’s neighbor Mabel, who was more like a sister to her and upon hearing the bad news made sure to be by her side and console her. “Aunt Ella, Mabel’s going to take you home and be with you, I’m going to try to get back tonight but probably won’t see you until first thing in the morning. You going to be alright? You know you’re welcome to stay at my house?”

“NO! I will not spend a night in that house.” she said nodding seemingly still in shock. “Its best I… well I just don’t know what would possess you to buy that house, knowing its history.”

“History? You mean the woman that passed in it.”

“Hung herself, it weren’t a nature death, by any stretch of the imagination.”

Stan watched his Aunt and Mabel pull away then went to his car and frantically searched for his phone charger. “I can’t believe this of all days not to have my freaking car charger, how can this day get any worse? “He looked at his clock it just turned midnight. “I guess a lot considering it just started.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Opening the garage door Maria had still not made it home. “Where is she. he said sitting in his car alone and in the dark then and only then did it hit him. And it hit him like a tsunami, as the wave of emotions poured out of his body in a flood of tears and heaves of stress the mourning process started. He had lost an Uncle, a father for all practical reasons. The memories flooded back to him like it was yesterday. He could still smell and feel the leather baseball glove his Uncle gave him and how he taught him to rub oil to soften it. Or how to grip a two-finger fastball along the threads of a baseball. Or where to dig among the dirt and dew-covered morning grass to find the largest nightcrawlers for late night fishing along the banks of the river, lit only by the moon and an old, but reliable smelly burning oil lantern. All that now gone, gone also the strong steady callus hands freeing him to take flight with his bike no longer grounded by training wheels. A man who first preached diplomacy for differences, but knew the value in showing a young lad how to bob and duck while sending an upper cut to defend himself. Those all just a few memorable gifts that continued filling his life. And most importantly a man who took him under his roof when his own father abandoned him and his mother passed soon after giving birth to him. When his tears subsided, he opened the garage door backed out and headed to Billy Buds a small neighbor shot and beer bar.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Billy Buds was a bar that had been in the small town almost as long, as the first church. Year-round it was decorated with Christmas lights, which provided most of the dimly lit arena and an infamous picture of Billy Budd, (hence the name) from Melville’s Moby Dick sat square dead on in the middle of the bar between the mirrors and top shelf liquors. In the corner a small stage for seminude exotic dances. Dancers that long ago had passed their glory days and had matured beyond a lifestyle they couldn’t or wouldn’t let got. All peculiar oddities but necessary to give the bar its own distinct character.

A woman whose style of dancing seemed distant, stood on the stage. Her rugged look a by product of bar life. She appeared young in age, long brown hair, but old in soul tattered by her profession. Even in the obscure lighting of the tavern, her green eyes noticeably penetrated the space between her and the others. Her attire more a bikini bottom with pasty’s covering her nipples. Around her neck she wore a thin terry cloth neckband, that attempted to cover a scar that peeked out of the edges. In the opposite corner an older gentleman, his bald head shaved neatly, maybe late 80’s, a Korean war pilot who still proudly wore his bomber jacket and regardless of his time spent at the bar always had three beers no more, no less. His Uncle and him often sharing tales of piloting. Next to him, a businessman tie undone, coffee stained white sleeved shirt rolled up, hitting hard on the vodka martinis. To the right of the middle manager, a small group of college kids, none he knew.

When the music ended, the dancer sat next to Stan and ordered a drink, Stan politely offered to pay from his stash siting on the bar.

“Thank you that is so generous, she said sporting a genuine kindness in her eyes. You’ve been in here before I recognize you. “

“I do. Live right down the road. You?”

She nodded. Not far away. Your professor Stiles aren’t you? Stan Stiles.”

“Yeah kind of rhymes. It’s my adopted name, my Uncle’s. Where you in one of my classes?”

“No.. just someone who can appreciate who you are. I have the upmost respect for what I heard about your teachings.” She run her hand through his hair admiring him, “You are a handsome man, you remember me so much of him.”

“Like who?”

She caught herself. “Nobody you just reminded me of someone I’m sorry I didn’t mean to confuse you with him.”

“That alright I’m always getting mistaken for someone else must have a pretty common face. you’re a writer? You said you liked my work, teachings I’m assuming. “

“No honey I work here. I’m not that smart of a girl. My talents are here.” She propped up her breast not here she finished pointing to her head. “This is all I could do. But it’s been good to me. I met the love of my life here. I knew it the first time I set eyes on him. But my tragedy in life has always been falling in love at the wrong time, and with the wrong person, forbidden love I think they call it.”

“Happens to us all I guess. One way or another.”

I made the mistake of following in love with a married man, but I share the same sin. He wouldn’t leave her I wouldn’t let him. God, I loved him though. I didn’t care if it was right or wrong I just wanted to be with him. it wasn’t meant to be.” She stroked Stan’s arm again in a nurturing adoring manner. “We had a child together, but neither of us could break from the restraints that captured in another heart. She took a sip of her drink. I’m not making much sense. You must think am an evil person.”

Stan smirked, laughing more how his own life had panned out. “I don’t judge anything. Honesty I don’t know what is the right answer anymore, or if there is a right way. As a matter of fact, in the last few days I’ve found out more about what I don’t know about life then I ever knew about life to begin with. Any who I wouldn’t worry too much about right or wrong in life. I don’t think their passing out trophies anymore for coloring inside the lines. Had I met you a few days ago, I wouldn’t have said that, but you know tonight I lost someone very special to me, someone up to the last few days Id sworn I knew. Someone I spent my whole life trying to be like, only to find out maybe they weren’t who I thought they were. So, you know what that means?”

She nodded no.

“It means plain and simple I don’t know who I am anymore.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” She put her hand on his back, rubbing it gently. “I know he was a kind man.”

“You knew him? My Uncle John, John Stiles? “ Stan asked confused.

She returned a puzzled look.

“You said you knew he was a kind man.”

She laughed. “I did, didn’t I. I mean I see in you, what he has made. You have such kind eyes. But not his eyes.” Hers burned into his and they bared a striking resemblance to his own. He felt a kinship with her.

He broke from her stare and looked down at his drink. “Ah…. seems life’s just full of surprises … fucking never know how things turn out … maybe even if you really know anybody or anything for sure.” He stared intently in the mirror at the bar, wondering who he really had become. He turned to her suddenly and without reason asked her. “Do you believe in ghost?”

Without a hesitation, without questioning she replied. “Yes, very much I do.” She heard her song come on at the juke box and smiled at Stan. “Got to go honey. I’m up.” She ran her hands through his hair. “You take care, sorry to hear about your daddy, I mean Uncle. I hope it gets better for you.”

“Yeah, can’t see it getting worse.”

She smiled at him, hoping he was right. “I don’t know. I shouldn’t say this but I’m a little superstitious. Seems passing’s always comes in three’s.” She winked at him and kissed his forehead. He watched her walkaway his eyes more intrigued by her person then her body.

Nature calling, he headed to the restroom, standing at the latrine, he thought about the dancer, somewhere he had seen her before, then her comment about death hit him head on. ‘Passing’s always come in threes, this fed the words of the gypsy. ‘Your time marked by the passing of another.’ He did a quick calculation of the X’s marked on his calendar 10 no 11 today would be the 11 days since his reading. When he returned from the bathroom, he glanced up at the stage and noticed the stripper had finished her dance. He sat at the bar stool and noticed a shot of tequila in front of him. “Hum,” he said looking to the left and right for a sign of her. “She must have bought me a shot. Bottoms up” placing the empty shot glass on the bar he motioned the bartender over. “Hey that lady I was talking with earlier, what was her name?”

The bartender scratched his neck and cocked his head back. “Ah I didn’t see you with anyone,” he said slowly and with a only a small quiver of concern.

Stan’s brow creased inward a little frustrated he become more persistent. “The dancer, the girl tonight what was her name?”

The bartender shook his head. “Buddy its Wednesday night, ain’t no dancing Wednesday. You okay?”

He studied the bartender’s eyes for truthfulness wondering why he was screwing with him. “Never mind,” Stan said while gathering his change and leaving a few bills on the bar. “Have a good night.”

“You be careful.” The bartender said, collecting the tip first, then shot glass while wiping down the bar.

Reaching home, he opened the garage door and saw Maria’s car. Parking his car outside, he entered the den pulling his Uncle’s envelope from the drawer. One by one he started reading the letters finishing the last as the sun pierced thru the den window, in the last letter it contained an obituary, He read the letter it was the last of the undelivered.

‘Your passing pulls a part of me with you. selflessly I mourn, you’ve left me and I find myself damning the most precious gift one can give another. Once again, I have failed you, but I swear until we come together again I will make you proud of me. Proud of her. I have always felt guilty knowing you have given more than I ever had available to give. Rest in peace until we come together my dear, we complete each other. Forever. Stan’s heart pounding he felt the lost love and equally the betrayal in his Uncle’s words.’

He flipped thru the pile searching for the lake picture. It was faded and not of good quality. But there was no mistake the dancer tonight at the bar bared a ghostly resemblance to the woman in the picture.

“Stan,” he heard his name call out. “Are you still up?” She walked in the den. “Where have you been? I was worried sick about you?” How’s Uncle John?”

“Where have I been?” He asked sarcastically raising his eyes upward and patting his chin with his finger. “Let’s see. Oh, I remember now. At the hospital, and as for Uncle John, he’s just doing freaking marvelous. He’s DEAD! But the real question is where the hell have you been?”

Her face turned a pale red and her eyes watered. She put her hand over her mouth. “Oh, my god I’m so sorry.” She put her arms out to him, he didn’t return the embrace.

Stan took a deep inhale and let it out. “Two weeks ago, were putting a roof on the church barn, the man’s carrying shingles up a ladder, now he’s gone.

She said nothing now kneeling and holding tightly unto his hands. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there, there was a bad accident everyone was forced to stay. I’m so sorry.” His body started trembling she wrapped her arms around him tighter. “It will be alright,” she said gently stroking his hair.

He looked straight at her. “I’m scared Maria, I feel lonely, and scared at the same time.”

Tears started to flow down her face, she knew even in his pain, she couldn’t console his loneliness but it was her duty to try. “Why?”

He was hesitant to tell her, but needed to share it with someone. “I’m seeing things Maria. I seen my Uncle after he died, standing in the hallway as sure as you and I are here.”

“Stress can play funny tricks on you.”

“No, it wasn’t stress, later before I came home, I mean I was home then went and had a few drinks just to just to try and sort it all out, knock the edge off and I seen something else.”

“Your drinking way too much. I know this is all hard for you to cope with but…”

“NO! it was not the drink.” He stood up, pushing her away from him. “Why can’t you ever just believe me. Why does it always have to be some underlying cause? I know what I seen. I’m telling you I seen my Uncle.” He stopped short of blurting out lover.

“Uncle’s what?”

He sunk back down in his chair and went silent, his preferred method to shield himself, a coping mechanism to avoid the reality of his relationship.

Whether the timing was right or not she wouldn’t allow him his guarded sanctuary of silence “Don’t you dare shut down on me. I know your hurting, but we need to talk about this.” Her mind started racing, she was a fixer, and needed to make sure all the loose ends were tied. “Oh my and your poor Aunt. She’s going to need us I mean the funeral… Oh my god they’ve never been apart before, I should go over there.”

“She’s fine neighbors spending time with her. And funeral, why bother? You probably have to work that day anyway.”

She stood raising off her knees looking down at him. “That’s not fair, you know I loved your Uncle.”

“Will I suppose that much is true, it’s me you could give a shit about. “

Tears began to welt from her eyes. “Why would you say that? That’s cruel.”

“I don’t know Maria let’s see. Now why would I say that? Hum,” he put his finger on his chin and his eyes diverted upward, in an overly theatric sarcasm. “How about answer ‘A’. Your never home, but that’s fine because were both getting pretty comfortable with that. But wait answer ‘B’ looks good. When you are home we avoid each other like the plague. But that’s okay too, because that happens to all roommates eventually. Now it gets really challenging when we look at ‘C.’ Now I think it’s select all that applies, because C answer is… you’re having a freaking affair with Doctor freaking Joe.”

She trembled. Her own buried emotions came to the surface. After all there is rarely one victim in a relationship. “Your just being emotional… You know I would never… “

“No I don’t…not anymore I don’t.” He interrupted her. Then choose silence again before speaking. “Remember, when we first met?”

She tried to think of their first meeting, she couldn’t. She felt a little panicked, embarrassed, she shook her head with regretful eye’s. “At a fraternity party in college?”

He shook his head no. “In Fort Lauderdale Florida spring break. You were at the beach. Good lord could you turn heads. You had just broken up with your boyfriend.”

She smiled, thinking of kinder time for both of them. “Rodney Miles, captain of the football team. I almost forgot all about him. Now I remember you were my break up date. My rebound.”

“Well not sure I looked at it as a rebound but as I recall you were quite pissed with Rodney as I think you put it, and I quote, ‘couldn’t keep his pecker in his pants. Followed by a vow never to be in a relationship with another soul where honesty took a back seat.” Her eyes started to tear up.

“Maria, I’m not saying I’m blameless in this. But those were words that bonded us, we owe at least each other the dignity of honesty. Games over. You know that, and I know that.”

She looked away hiding her tears. “I didn’t mean for it to happen….it just did. Your drinking. You’re not the same man. I don’t think you even realize it.”

Stan felt a lump in his throat and his eyes water, he had pressed her for an answer, but wasn’t ready for the sting of truth. “Is it Joe at the hospital?”

She let out an emotional sigh, and lifted her heavy eyes. “Does it really matter? You couldn’t have stopped it, you and I, we were already too far gone.”

Stan broke her stare lowering his head. “Are you in love with him?”

She nodded yes, cradling herself with her arms rocking her body back and forth. Stan stood. “How long? How long has it been going on?”

“A long time ago … you left a long time ago.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

The funeral and calling hours per his Uncle’s request were condensed all in one day. A wealth of friends and neighbors packed the hall to say goodbye and pay tribute to a good soul. Waves of friend’s relatives and acquaintance he had formed over the years marched along the long procession line anchored by Stan and his Aunt. Even great Uncle James who turned ninety-six last month made the trip down from Milwaukee, escorted by his great grand kids, his feeble body shaking but his will strong as an ox.

A hug, a kiss, a shared story and one last look together, then those in line would run off to pockets of folks that seldom got together, cept for funerals and weddings. Stressful times, when saying goodbye, bring out change in people, some more than others. Stan’s Aunt’s reaction a case in point. Especially under the influence of her neighbor’s prescription and a glass of Uncle John’s strong dandelion wine.

Fred, a family friend, stood next to Aunt Ella. A shorter man with pockets of thin grey hair combed over the front, and lips more purple and white then red. He wore his traditional brown corduroy suit. The only one he owned, the only one he would ever own, the one that he got married in, got his first job in, and more in likely would follow him to his grave to be buried in. “I’ll surely miss that man,” he said graciously to Aunt Ella.

She smiled kindly thanked him for his words and waited for him to pass. “I’ll bet you will miss him alright,” she said only loud enough for Stan’s ears. “Won’t have anyone else to borrow money from now,” she winked at Stan. “He’s counting he’s blessings today, guarantee it be a cold day in hell before he pays me back the money he owed John.”

And so, the onslaught of remarks continued as each passed to pay their respects. A metamorphosis of character from his sweet Aunts normal disposition to a down right callous nasty woman, stricken by grief, sleeplessness, and later he would find out aided by a pill or two from her neighbor’s stash.

And in his time of grief, in such a place, if pleasantries are ever possible, Stan found himself surprised to be standing with his Aunt, himself, and estranged better half, in the line when an elderly lady about his Aunt’s age came next, accompanied by the yogi teacher.

“Racheal,” he put out his hand. “So kind of you to come. What a small world. You knew my Uncle?”

“A little,” she said keeping his Aunt and Maria in the loop with eye contact. “I met him once at the VFW, ornery old Piot from Korean war, had some great stories.”

“Yeah he sure did love to fly. He got me hooked on it, fact is he taught me to fly.”

“Wow, you’re a pilot too? Impressive.” She responded amused and pleasantly surprised.

“Yeah, I’m sure I scared the hell out of him a few times learning. He got me all my ratings, at one point thought I might want to be a commercial pilot, but the better half she wasn’t so comfortable with it.” His head tilted without him knowing towards Maria. “But I still rent a small Cesena once in a while. Just to stay current. Need to get back up again before I forget everything I learned.”

“Oh, Stan this is my Aunt, Jennifer, she knew your Uncle, used to tend bar at the VFW.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Stan shook her Aunt’s hand, “This is my Aunt Ella,” the two women locking eyes refused hand shake in what seemed a competitive interaction. “and Maria, my better half, who was just here a minute ago, over there.” He pointed across the room, and Racheal took a minute to give a good looking over at his wife. Behind Racheal a man with a shaved head and crazy wild blue eyes, wolf eyes that immediately caught your attention. “This is Butch, Racheal introduced.

“Boyfriend? Stan asked, she smiled but said nothing. Butch offered his hand.

“My deepest condolences sir, your Uncle was quite the man, he well be missed.”

Jennifer immediately went to the casket and deep tears welted down her face as she brushed the cold cheek of the lifeless corpse with her hand. Aunt Ella while cordial to the next in line kept a watchful guard from the corner of her eye on her husband and the overly dramatic slovenly harlot dangling over her husband. Racheal gathered her Aunt up and patting her hand guided her away as tears streamed down her Aunt’s face.

Aunt Ella rolled her eyes at Stan and he knew a remark was soon to follow. “Tramp,” she said under her breath.

Stan’s eyebrows lifted. “Aunt Ella, now that is shocking even from you today. Behave you hear me.”

“What?” she responded surprised by his reaction. “Let me give you a forewarning. You stay away from the likes of her niece, apple don’t fall far from the tree. You got yourself a good marriage. Don’t blow it for yourself.”

“She’s just a friend.” He said dwelling on her comment for a moment. “I’m taking it her Aunt had a fancy towards Uncle John?”

Her Aunt took the hand of the next in line, he was a tall thin man and age and haircut matched his Uncle with bureaucracy accuracy. He wore a black suit with polished black shoes. Ella accepted his condolences and when he passed by her, addressed Stan’s question.

VFW, give me a break, her and her sister used to dance nude down at that bar near you house.”

“Billy Buds?”

“Yeah that’s it,” she said smiling and accepting condolences from the next in line.

“I don’t think they get completely nude just down to bathing suits and some cover you know, not naked nude.”

“Well nude enough for me. She and he sister both were the town floozy or was before their hardware dried up, both of em went after your Uncle every chance they had like bitches in heat. Chased them off a time or too. I don’t really blame your Uncle. Man needs that stuff and if a woman’s gonna throw it at em, wouldn’t be nature for him to turn it away. The good book says the flesh is weak but the heart is strong.”

“Yeah will the good book may, or not be right about that.” Stan replied glancing at the man dressed in a black suit and polished shoes, paying his respect to his Uncle laying in his coffin, proudly decorated in war medals, void of energy, lifeless, like a wax figure, yet his influences on life still controlled the emotions of those at his wake. He noticed the man affectionately straighten one of his war medals.

Stan leaned closer to Ella’s. “Who’s the man that just passed over by Uncle john. She looked over to the casket.

“Oh, that’s Eddy, an old war friend of John’s. Can’t you tell by how polished he keeps his shoe’s. Military drills that in their heads. Wouldn’t catch you Uncle suited up without the same shine. They go back a long way, quiet man. Too quiet.” She shuttered. “Like he was always hiding secrets. Your Uncle and him used to work together in New Mexico. Mason and hunting buddies, went all over the world together, sometimes gone for weeks.”

“Area Fifty-one?”

His Aunt gave Stan a coy smile that added to the mystery. “Maybe.” Then, adjusting her focus on next in line, accepted their condolences.

As the final stream of folks whittled down, his coworker Sharia trailed at the end. She gave them both a big hug and paid her respects apologizing for Mike, her husband being too sick to attend, and just as quickly made her way to the exit.

“Poor girl” Aunt Ella commented. “Suspect from what I’m hearing she’ll be suffering the same fate as me.”

“Yeah, that in itself tough, there both so damn young. Medical bills are kill em right alongside with the cancer. By the time it’s over, she’ll have to file bankruptcy. That was never the plan. I never could understand how we call ourselves the richest nation in the world, and yet so many lose everything when sickness strikes. I mean what are we really protecting when only the few at the top go unscathed.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

The latter part of the service concluded at the gravesite the preacher spoke strong words of his Uncle’s service to others, ethical fortitude, unwavering principles, devout husband provider father and a person who gave more than he ever expected to see. When the preacher spoke of his faith in life in Christ in the way he lived his life Stan’s eyes wondered over to Maria’s. And although they both had remained cordial to each other during the funeral anyone with the least of a perceptive eye could see the sharpest knife couldn’t cut the thick air between them. She wanted nothing more than forgiveness, to start healing, to cut the last of the threads that held them together. He wanted vengeance for her betrayal and not their lost love. Leaving the cemetery in separate cars she sent the first punch in way of a tex. “I won’t be home tonight I, we, have things to figure out. I’m sorry if this comes to you at a bad time but I can’t stay in that house anymore. “

His face turned red and he could feel his blood pressure soar as he took his eye of the road to read it. “You bitch,” he said outload. “How dare you be the one to move out on me.” A horn blasted, Stan swerved back into his lane just in time to avoid the highlights of an oncoming truck. “Son bitch,” he put the phone down shaking, pulling off the exit he drove past Billie Buds then turned around, and pulled into the parking lot. “Drink too much, I’ll show you drink too much. I’m gonna put on a clinic tonight. Maybe even carry a conversation on with the spirit world.” he snickered. “Fucking going nuts anyway. “ He slammed the door of his car and walked into the bar it was completely empty apart from a white-haired gentleman and a man with a derby hat for which he paid them little attention.

“Tequila,” he said to the bartender. “No fuck it whiskey and a draft beer.”

Bartender poured the whiskey and started to leave, Stan tugged at him. “Get one for yourself.” The bartender smiled and poured a generous serving in his glass then topped off Stan’s drink.

One become two, which become three, that turned to four. Five become happiness, six led him to the juke box, seven to Bob Serger songs, nine to Kid Rock. Then ten to his old friend anger. Anger for losing his Uncle, anger for losing Maria, anger to hide the frightened man he was becoming. Eleven, twelve and thirteen got him kicked out of the bar, now wanting to fight the man he held a toast to at the beginning of the night. He attempted to open his car, but luck be on his side, he couldn’t open it. “Fuck it,” he said kicking it. “Fuck everything, fuck the bullet that never finds the chamber, fuck everything.” He shouted at the top of his lungs.

He staggered and swayed the entire walk home driven by a chance to renew his lust of life in a game of Russian roulette. After all it was Saturday, and tonight, all but one chamber would be loaded. It had been at least a few weeks since he last played and felt the strong desire to push as far as possible.

As was the car locked, so too the front door. He fumbled with his keys but found the challenge overwhelming and finally giving up propping himself on the porch chair. He was awakened by the paperboy staring at Stan and unsure how to leave his paper.

Stan coughed, his mouth dry and cotton tasting, he propped himself up, looking down at his wrinkled suit and trying to get his bearings straight. He was still buzzed and disorientated. His eyes sore and blood shot.

“You alright mister?” The paper boy asked holding his paper.

“Yeah,” Stan replied shading the sun with his hand peaking over the horizon.

The paper boy handed him his paper and got back on his bike peddling away.

Stan slowly got up, every muscle in his body seemed to ache. He was cold and wet from the morning dew. Unlocking the door and entering the house the cold seemed even more compelling surrounded by the dark and empty insides of his home.

He called out Maria’s name only out of habit and a bit of sarcasm. Stopping at the fridge he grabbed the bottle of orange juice wolfed half of it down, then grabbed some aspirin. “That’s it for a long time no more booze.” He checked his phone which had died and then plugged the battery in. “Coffee,” he said shifting through the cabinets for filters, then sat down helping himself to a thick portion as it brewed. Coffee in hand, he entered the den and opened his lap top.

He brought his story up and felt a distraction would help relieve his thoughts. Okay he’s in poker game she leaves with Royce got it, he started writing.

Her plan to create jealousy as planted by Natas, would for the time being simmer a relationship long enough to bait her catch. It would lead to a small romance at least in Royce’s heart. But all the same it was fitting that she left when she had. It being a Saturday, led to an unfortunate set of circumstances that seemed should have been preventable.

For most in the saloon, it was a time to make peace with the hard life. Blow off some steam, find a pretty girl and the spend cash burning in their pockets. Christian had a knack for winning at the table, his reputation with a gun kept most at bay to challenge his skill. Others under the bravery or stupidity of whiskey felt different.

It was a long day of gambling that went far into the Saturday night. Billie long gone, who knew how to tame a bar and keep peace, left behind a dancing girl to tend behind the bar. Christian had done well and began to collect his winnings the game had dwindled down to two players. Folks that had nowhere to go, no one to miss them, no family and little purpose outside of work and gambling. He like them belonged to the same cult. “One more game.” The man demanded pouring himself a whiskey then chugging it.

“Rather not.” Christian said standing..

The man slammed his fist down. “One more time. And this time deal from the top of the deck.” He said rising from his chair.”

Christians eyes fixated on the man speaking, then to the other still sitting. Their smiles confirmed their allegiance.

“Buddy I said I was done, and quite honestly I don’t like what you might be insinuating, am gonna attribute your drinking to your misspoken words.”

The accuser’s eyes dark and mean barred down on Christian. “Ain’t no mistake mister, don’t take to cheaters, I said you play one more game.” The accuser looked over to his comrade and smiled. “I think we all see it that way, so make it easy on yourself.” He allowed his coat to dangle open exposing his unlatched leather hide given him easy access to his gun.

Christian looked to the other man. “Is that where you stand?”

The man put his hand next to his gun and grinned through his tobacco stained beard and crooked yellow teeth. “You heard em, been cheating both of us all night.”

Christen nodded and remained silent as did the saloonkeeper, and the dancing girl sitting next to the town drunk slouched over on the round wooden table. His stare fixated on the cards laying on the table allowing little chance for another to read his intent.

“Calling a man, a liar and cheater leaves me just a few choices. One I accept your terms and neither of yin’s are gonna be happy until I lose. And to be honest, that don’t settle very well with me seeing how I knows I earned it fair and square. The second choice I have to drawl on you. One takes my lively hood and pride, the other could take my life. The question is, which choice are yins comfortable with, cause I can tell you the direction I’m leaning towards.”

“Shut up,” the man said his eyes rested firmly on Christian’s gun-hand. Sweat poured profusely from his brow and armpits. His hand hoovering over his own gun.

Christian eyes moved from the table to see where the other man had vested his interest, be it the eyes or hand. Eyes set on the trigger a trademark tale of inexperience. They at best could only react and if they did drawl first their eyes had already betrayed them. Any seasoned gunfighter that lived long enough to have a reputation knew the eyes signaled the intent before the hand. “Mister now’s the time to make your choice, seems he’s made his, and if you don’t leave now, I’ll be forced to put both of you in your grave tonight.”

The man had little time to make his decision, and in his hesitation, he made the wrong one. The accuser’s black eyes grew as the excitement of thought pulsed in his mind betraying him micro seconds before reaching for his gun and finding out the hard way how the skills of a man on the prairie with nothing but time and boxes of bullets could hone his talents shooting at jack rabbits, prairie dogs, snakes or anything that moved. Christian was quick and decisive and the advantage favored him and his youthful reflexes. As he drew his pistol and fired, two deadly shots in the man standing and instinctively another in the man sitting who barely had the quickness of mind to unlatch his pistol. Both fell, one to the ground and one slumped over the table. Christian using the barrel of his gun pushed the dead man’s head off his winnings and gathered them up leaving a small contribution towards their burial. His face blank void of emotion, his body unwavering as he holstered his gun and walked in a casual stroll to the bar. “Give me a shot, top shelf”’ he said to the dancing girl tending bar, then looked over to her cohort. “Reckon you otta get the sheriff.”

There was no arrest, no trail, the witness all agreed self-defense had prevailed. The makeshift sheriff who was also the undertaker, put more effort in to figuring who would pay for their burial then whether an injustice to the law had taken place. It weren’t that the sheriff was a corrupt man, he just had seen his share of death being a civil war veteran, figured it as a fact of life. Now he just assumed a preferred few hits of opium with the china man to ease his spirit and calm his nerves. Occasionally a real sheriff, a traveling regional lawman would show up. Check the logs, see if any work to be done. One who covered an area almost the size of the Texas territory, and once settled in and not campaign for governor, spent more time enjoying the fruits of his labor with the local whores then looking for trouble to fix. That was find for most, kept everything on a level playing field. Justice often came by way of hired gunslingers or hyped up family members with vengeance in mind. None of the killing settled will with Christian and he wondered if it might ever stop.

[_ It was a never- ending curse. A cowboy with a quick drawl and steady mine in gun battle. For most as word continued to travel, it provided a respect or at least a path of avoidance, others a lure. His gambling ways, putting him in company with more of the latter. Four more times before summer he would be forced to but a man down, add the three hired gunslingers to avenge their death, and the numbers kept mounting. Billie’s mistaken number had come and gone. He was hoping things would be different now. His ranch, run down by its previous owner, sat in the prime land of the Rockies and now due to hard work, matched its beauty and respect of his neighbors. But even this newly won respectability, couldn’t wash away his reputation as a gunslinger. The challenges kept coming. _]

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Winter had come and gone and spring near its end when Christian packed his saddle with a change of clothes and rode together with Ken, a quiet man, sensible with no taste for liquor, and Paul an Irishman who couldn’t function without it. He Paul was not a man of large statue but held his whiskey better than most. Even more then the monstrous size traveling carnival man, who lifted ungodly amounts of weights, and wrestled a small black bear into submission for a penny a ticket. The trail was long maybe an hour ride in the hot sun, in fellowship they took time punching jabs at each other to pass time. It had been near three months, 35 Saturdays to be exact since his last gunfight, or since Christian had traveled back to town.

Reaching town, they pulled next to the saloon and hitched their horses. A buggy sat next to the hitching post near the general store and Christian needing some chewing tobacco went to the general store and spied the young filly from the falls working her way down the aisle, her face abeam with a smile when she saw Christian.

“Meet you inside,” he hollered out to his friends and disappeared inside the store.

He walked an aisle away from the young filly occasionally glancing at store items, while keeping a keen eye on the young girl. She in her own game of cat and mouse slowly worked her way down the opposite aisle, occasionally picking an item asking for the price then putting it back until she made her way into his aisle picking up the first printed book in the rack.

“Oh, it’s you the cowboy.” She said trying to act uninterested.

Christian is my name, Christian Russell Jesse James. Don’t you remember we met at the falls. Seemed to have quite a few questions back then, cat got your tongue now? Or maybe your boyfriend Royce don’t like you socializing with men of my caliber.”

I know who you are. Royce don’t control me, he’s just a friend.” She smiled satisfied with his concern. “Do you know Jessy James the outlaw?”

Nope don’t know him at all. Not my real last name, fact is I don’t know what it is, just like the sound of his. Kinda liked how he stood up against the rich folks and all.”

How do you not know your last name, that’s terrible?”

I just don’t, that’s all there is to it.”

“Do remember my name?”

Suzie Cartright. Little old for comic books ain’t ya? Especially Vikings of Greenland?”

Her face flushed and she put the comic book back on the rack. “Not so much.”

You look a little different.” She blushed again.

I mean no, in a good way fixed up. Not that you didn’t look good that way. I mean I just wanted to say, you look really nice.”

She run her hand through her hair playfully. “This outfit its nothing just an old dress.” Her eyes widen as did her smile. “What brings you in town. You didn’t lose another little cow did you.”

Nah came in for a little poker.”

And dancing girls?”

Maybe.”

You like dancing? They got some real good fiddlers playing tonight, that’s assuming if you really know how to dance.”

You inviting me on a date?”

A man standing behind them cleared his throat to get their attention while eyeballing the young cowboy. “Are you ready Miss’s?”

The girl turned, “daddy, I was just talking to my gentleman friend.

“Christian Russell Jesse James, sir.” He said putting his hand out.

“I know who you are.” The man said with a cold tone, staring at his gun, and refusing the hand shake. “Let’s go Miss. Your mom has been looking all over for you.”

She turned back to Christian giggled and twirled her hair giving a coy smile. “Starts at eight, I’ll be back in town.” Then turned and followed her father.

He watched her walk away, she turned once smiling, that was all the encouragement he needed to keep an eye on the 8’th hour. Finding his friends hunkered up to the bar Paul, with whiskey, Ken with a sassafras root beer, he called out to the Saloonkeeper. “Billie Tequila and line these boys up.” He threw a dollar coin on the bar. “keep em coming.”

The bartender laid the drinks on the bar. “Fancy seeing you, been while.”

“Thought it best to hunker in for the winter, just long enough till spring fever hits.”

“Big money game going on at the Banker’s table.”

“I seen that. wonder whose money?” They both laughed.

“They asked about you. those two facing the back. Railroad folks, think they got an interest to cut through your property, rumor is all the way up to Silverton.”

“I heard tell of that. Is that Royce Senior with em?”

“Sure is, son bitch probably be our next governor. You can bet your sweet ass he got his nose all the way up the railroad brass over there. And yeah little Royce is not far away, seen him earlier. Keep an eye on him. Still stewing over you putting him in his place.”

Christian leaned back against the bar facing the opposite direction. His first instinct to stay away from the game, especially with Royce senior and junior not far away, but that came and passed. The lure of gambling far more enticing. Spying an empty seat, he took a shot and bid his friends adieu pointing to the card table.

“Got room for one more,” he asked recognizing some of the six players seated. Knowing his competition important, it gave him an advantage in helping him decide his chair placement, given the opportunity to join the game. The first seat to his left was Phil Reaken, a short stocky man with a barrel chest and beady small eyes who made his fortune as a pig farmer and soothed his crude temperament with homemade moonshine. He was crafty in his card playing and rarely got careless. Next to him the Banker a stout and portly man, prone to hacking spells, more in likely a byproduct of his love for cigars, who sweat profusely regardless of time of year. He always seemed to have a ton of money whether his or not, rare bank audits never told the difference. He played in complete contrast to his disciplined banking often sweetening the pot and staying all the way to the end s with nothing more than a king high or pair of deuces. Opposite of him a savvy player, at least from Christians standpoint, sat a Mexican fellow who brought the tequila from down south over the border. He was shrewd and quiet, maybe self-conscious to his broken English, but had a tenacity to drawl a player in by his non-confrontational mannerisms and walk away with his hard-earned cash in the end. The final two players outside of Royce senior who sat between them, he knew little of, one who introduced themselves as a representative of Union Pacific railway the other a retired Calvary officer who hired on as security for the rail. He, the Colonel with his battled tendered face caught Christian attention. He had a long gaunt face and his left eye dropped where a scar traveled down his cheekbone, to below his neck, partially covered by his long bushy mustache with waxed ends that curved upward. When he stood to introduce himself (the only one to do so) Christian sensed a man broken in his tall lanky body but his blue friendly eyes cast a man strong in spirit. The rest of the group acknowledged Christian with less friendliness yet made room for a new player.

“Sit,” the Banker said looking over to Royce senior. “Why this couldn’t have worked out better.” The Banker pointed to the railroad boss. “Gentleman here was gonna pay you a visit down the road.”

“Yeah about what?” Christian asked.

“Bob Marley, I represent the Union Pacific, I’m sure you’ve heard about the coming expansions north of here.”

“Little.”

“Will I won’t delay the game much and cut right to the chase. Surveyors seem to think cutting through your property offers the least resistance to make that happen, not much boulder to blast, pretty flat, few waterways. So that being said, the railroad has authorized me to make a generous offer to buy your land. Win, win situation for both us.”

“Whereabouts were you thinking of putting that rail?”

“Next to the Animas that runs through your property.”

Christian shook his head. “Will sorry to be the one to tell ya, if that’s your business, I can’t help ya. That property ain’t for sell. “

The railroad man gave Royce senior a look then the retired Colonel. “Son you do realize Colorado is no longer a territory any more, been a state since 1876. You have heard of the Railroad Right Away Act of 1871.”

Christian shook his head. “Can’t say I have.”

“Well maybe it be best before you go and make a decision you got nothing to sale, you outta have someone read it too you.”

“I read fine. Like I said, ain’t for sale.”

“Not the point how you read,” Royce senior injected, trying to hide his angered arrogance with little success.” Man’s ready to make you a fear transaction for the betterment of the community. I highly suggest you listen up to him and put aside your own interest for a change and take the deal the man’s ready to offer you.”

“Now that’s interesting coming from you Royce. I suspect somewhere in that ‘betterment of community’ comes a betterment for you.”

Royce senior’s eyes burned into Christians, then as if to say I told you he looked to the Colonel who seemed engaged in serious observation to the reaction of Christian. “Don’t forgot who you talking too. “Royce senior said. “The days of lawlessness in this town is coming to an end.”

Sensing the tension the Banker started dealing the cards “Enough business for now Five card drawl, ante up,” the Banker said trying to put peace back to the table.

No more business was spoken, and as the eight-hour ticked nearer, Christian decided to bid the table adieu. The parting was cordial in nature, but Christian knew he had not seen the last of the railroad bosses. He started to rake in his cash winnings in the last hand and bid the table goodnight.” Sorry gentlemen I’ve got a prior engagement tonight.”

Royce Sr grabbed his hand before Christian swept the last of his winnings in. “Heed my words cowboy days of unlawfulness is coming to an end. Once I’m governor of this fine state, they’ll be laws to keep men like you out. Odds ain’t in your favor. Take . . . the . . . deal! It’s the best thing for you.”

Christian pulled his hand away. “Gambled all my life. Most of the time with men like you. Seems I’ve done alright for myself. But I appreciate your concern.”

“Lucky at cards unlucky at love.” The Banker joked once again to lighten the seriousness descended on the table.

Christian smiled. “Maybe. Goodnight gentleman.” And headed to the washhouse, doused water in his long hair, slicked it back, checked his look in the mirror noticing the thin growth of beard, then made his way to the shin dig as the sun started to set in the west. Kerosene lanterns already lit, lined the street leading to the main dance area. In the middle sat a wooden deck made from spruce specifically for the dance. A couple of fiddlers, few guitars, and even a horn player, stood underneath the banner, “tramp abroad,” strung across the platform advertising their name.

Christian leaned against the rail of the sidewalk and looked over the crowd for Suzie. She was easy to find as a small group of suitor’s already trying to find her favor, had assembled around her, ever so slowly making their way to her. Seeing the young gunslinger approach her, the suitors conceited and immediately scattered investing their interest elsewhere.

“Good evening Miss Suzie my, my, do you clean up well. I must say you’re looking exceptional tonight.”

“Thank you.” She said batting her eyes at him. “I’m glad you made it. I knew you would.”

“How did you know for sure?”

“Because you and I….” The music started playing louder drowning out their conversation, Christian could see her lips moving but heard nothing, just the same her lips captured his attention.

Come on,” he’s said grabbing her and leading her to the dance floor. Once he got her out. He stood unsure what to do next. Sensing his hesitation, she smiled and took his hand leading him in a two-step dance.

“One two,” she said dipping her shoulder. “Yes, just like that. One, two you got it.” His natural athleticism allowed him to at least keep from toeing his feet up in knots.

When the music finally stopped, she had worked up a little sweat and they both headed over to the lemon refreshments. A rare treat brought in from the trains.

She fanned herself with her hand, to cool off. “Okay, now I need to know everything about where you grew up, what you believe in, what you want in life.” She bellowed out not catching a breath and not wanting to waste a moment together.

Wow, that’s a mouthful of questions. Not sure any of its, much to talk about.”

It is… I gotta know please. I already know your parents were killed and you was raised by Injuns and…” she covered her mouth. “Oh my, I shouldn’t have blurted that out. How terrible of me. All of it must be embarrassing to talk about.”

“I’m not ashamed of my past, got no reason to be.” He said sternly feeling the need to defend himself. “Just never had a reason before or anybody really ask me. But if it’s important I’ll tell ya. Its true Sioux raiding party killed my pa. We wuz part of a wagon trail. “Made it as far as the Texas territory, what’s Oklahoma now. I don’t hate’m they wuz just protecting their land. My ma well she already passed trying to make it out west, got the fever half way out. Lots of folks started out never made this far, least that’s what I’ve been told. I don’t remember much I was only 5 maybe 6. Truth be said, I feel more Indian then white, even though I ain’t got red skin. We wasn’t Americans anyway. Come over on the boat, not exactly sure where from, but hard to forget the boat ride and I’ll never forget the city they call New York. Guess once we hit land we just kept going west. I’m told we followed the Mormon out west, guessing my pa was Mormon not me. I believe in the great spirit.”

Is that why you wear those beads on your arm? Them’s Injuns amulets, aren’t they?”

He ran his hand over the bracelet on his wrist in a reverence to them. “Yes given to me by my Indian mother. She was a princess. I’d now’d her better than my real ma. I keep this to remind me of her.”

Did you have an Indian father too.”

Of course I did. He was great Cherokee warrior, Nanotacka, means guardian of the lands. Taught me how to hunt. Made my first bow for me. Taught me to use a knife, how to fight bare fisted. Ain’t many that can outride me on a horse. I wish I could go back. I miss all of it.”

Her fascination rocketed with his story. She couldn’t keep her hands off him. She ran her hand through his long hair lighting up her eyes. “I just love how beautiful your hair is.”

He smiled. “Well is that it, or do I got your stumped-on questions?”

For a minute, she allowed her eyes to be mesmerized on him, he was a king and she a prince. “Just a few more.”

Will go ahead, fire away. Like I said before, you ain’t a bashful one. At first your questions seemed a little annoying prying of sorts, but now I sez you’re just trying to find out who I am.”

Well good she said taking a big gulp of her drink to refresh herself first. “What’s stopping you from being an Indian. It’s a free country, I mean I still see a lot roaming around these parts.” She finished taking a cautious view around the hills hoping they weren’t doing any roaming tonight.

Free country, don’t be so naïve. You ever hear of the Trail of Tears.”

She shook her head no, and her smile dropped embarrassed for not knowing.

They gathered up all my people, even after wez made peace. Government folks came with their armies. Killed a lot of brave warriors packed em up and made em march straight to their death, in a land so far away most’m died from starvation, sickness, or a bullet in their back before they even got there.”

“How come your still alive?”

“Few of us escaped, ten of us in all. Wez all swore to raise again. Chicco the medicine helped us escape. Kept us going west. The further wez went the less our rage to honor or vow fueled us. Chicco, still practices the old ways, but he’s an old man now, long in the tooth, nobody bothers him. The rest either got hang trying to honor their pledge, or converted over to the white man’s way of thinking. Every day I feel guilty for dishonoring my people.”

She put her head down, it was a jolt to her ego to realize how little her own challenges in life had been. When compared to his tribulations, her beliefs in her strength to persevere only an illusion. She had never been tested and could only imagine losing a loved one or family member that much showed on her face. But this man had been stripped of his family twice, not once, but twice. She in contrast had everything laid upon her table. He neither had a table or anything given to him that he hadn’t clawed, scrapped, and taken just to survive. She would never judge him again. The fiddle started blasting out a tune again and for Christian it was the opportune time to leave the past for now. He grabbed her and their attention to the dance floor only stopped by the man with the new photograph contraption that looked quite technical in design. “Get your pictures, what a fine couple you make. Lock this moment in time. last chance before the sun goes down.”

Christian was hesitant but Suzie pulled him towards it. “I’ve never had my picture done before. Come on don’t be afraid.”

“Two bits to lock her soul with yours forever its, magi… cal.” he said stretching out the word as if singing it. “Best investment you’ll ever make son.”

The photographer positioned them just right up to a white background that still reflected the last of the setting sun. A minute later and the chance to capture the moment in time would be lost forever. The photographer pulled the black blanket over himself and held the igniter setting off a flash and then it was over. “Okay, done this moment frozen in time” he said taking the framed negative out. “See me in a week general store cost you a bit know, bit when I give you the photo.”

“See that wasn’t that bad, was it?”

“I guess not, still got some reservations about it. My peoples would say these new contraptions steal a part of your soul.”

She smiled, “Well good I hope your people are right. Now both of our souls are entangled, maybe forever.” Hearing the music, she in full bloom with the carnival fever of the moment, tugged him onto the dance floor. “Come on I think you got the two step down, let’s see what else I can teach you.”

The next five songs played without a break and the two were inseparable on the floor. The last song a generic waltz slowed down and tightened the distance between them. He held her and felt her heart beat in synchronicity to his. Their eyes melted in a gaze and the two recklessly breached the sanctuary of the chaperoned mother, keeping an eye, but lazy one at best. He pulled her in behind a merchant wagon advertising that which ills the heart. And closed the gap as their lips meet for the second time. Had not the merchant ducked his head out between the canvas in the back woken from his sleep and scattered them back on the dance floor. They would have stayed behind his wagon for eternity.

Back to the dance they broke into a laugh twirling and spinning in circles, catching the green-eyed monster of Royce Junior. A man pulsating with the green-eyed devil of jealous convinced she was still his.

In an unsuspected series of events, heckled and encouraged by his own entourage, Royce rushed to Christian, blindsiding him with all his might knocking him to the ground and grabbing Suzie pulling her from the dance floor as she kicked and hollered curse words towards Royce.

Christian lurched up towards Royce only to be pulled back by several of his hired hands, clutching his arms in a chock hold. In the background stood the Colonel from the Railroad.

“I ought to kill you for messing with my woman you son a bitch,” Royce screamed. “Who you think you are stealing another man’s woman already spoken for?”

“I ain’t you woman, anymore it’s over,” Suzie protested.

“You know our parent made a deal. Don’t do this, it’s already been worked out.”

“They don’t own me and neither do you.” She violently almost painfully tore the ringer from her finger and threw it on the ground. “Take it I never wanted it anyway.” With that she leveled a hit with her elbow square center where it was sure to drive her point. He released her staggering to his knee for a moment, both shocked and angry; rising from the ground, he reared his hand high in the air to strike her with all his vengeance when the voice of her father seized his intent.

“Don’t you dare Royce.”

“Mr. Cartright…,” he stuttered shocked to see him. “I was just… “

“I see what you were just doing. Let the boy go too.” Royce’s henchmen waited for the Colonel’s direction. He nodded and they released Christian. Christian’s eyes fixated on the ring laying in the mud. He hadn’t seen it on her before and it took him by surprise. He picked it out of the mud wiping it with his pants leg and taking Suzie’s hand, forced her to accept it.

He turned to Royce. Containing his anger. “I got no beef with you.” Then gave her a look of disappointment. “I don’t come between a man and engaged woman. You lied to me. This was all just a big lie.”

Christian found his way back to the saloon heading straight for the bar. “The night had gone from his best to maybe his worst. Only one thing would take the sting away quickly. “Whiskey and keep em coming.” He thought about what had just transpired, Royce seemed to be pushing him at every angle, and it seemed this weren’t the end of it. But tonight was a clear-cut mistake on his part. Courting another man’s woman, will that’s where he drew the line. He scanned the bar, not a stitch of his friends more in likely after a long winter snowed up, they had already found themselves some comfort upstairs.

The place was hopping it was a big Saturday night in town and after the first cattle drive of the season a lot of money to go around. He turned back to the bar ordered another shot and soon found himself engaged in conversation with Tessy, his longtime friend, playful in nature, who seemed in a flirtatious mindset flaunting her seasoned tall thin body ripe for the pickings and red lips that could drive a man wild.

How about a drink cowboy?” she said batting her eyes.

He smiled at her, “alright order a bottle. How much?” He asked knowing his friendship dues went beyond a coin.

“Three dollars.” She said applying more red lipstick.

“Three dollars! You out of your mind?” He played along.

[_ "I'm giving you a deal darling, cause I like you. Normal rates three- fifty. But you look half worth spending a little time with." She ran her hand down his chest stopping at his hoister” _]

“[_ Three- fifty?” _]

That’s right cowboy. Thirty for this.” She slapped her ass.” And fifty for all the years of experience I bring. I’m not in it for charity work. “You’ll spend it. You know I’m worth it.”

He smirked. “Just sold and old mule for fifty less then I paid and the farmer used that same argument on me.”

She turned away slighted, as if she had better options. “That statement, regardless of our years together could get you banned from my saloon.”

Tessy Tessy tessy, my little Indian warrior. You know we’ve never in all these years, rumors or not went skin to skin.” He feasted his eyes on her. “Alright screw it, but for two dollars, you better be damn good. And I better get you all night for that.”

“I said three cowboy. But if your got that much stamina, might let it go for two fifty and never had a cowboy outlast me.” She run her tongue over her brightly painted lips and smacked his ass this time. “Giddy up cowboy. You want be disappointed I’ll even have breakfast for you in the morning. “Billie,” she screamed out to the bartender over the noise of the crowd, give me room five. All night and some of that whiskey bottle.”

“Make it tequila instead.” Christian said.

“Last bottle,” the bartender said, and popped off the cork the Mexicans sealed it with.

He followed her upstairs, into a room and locked the door behind them. She wasted no time and pulled Christian close to her. Her tongue darted into his and his hands naturally responded grabbing her posterior tight. “Whoa cowboy,” she laughed. “Slow down, I might have to pay you, before this over.” Her hands went to this buttons on his shirt pulling it off. She rubbed his chest and used both hands forcing him flat on the bed, next she grabbed his boots pulling them off, dropping them to the floor one at a time.

Now she was set to ready herself. She loosened her dress shimming out of it and letting it fall to the floor. All that was left was a colorful red corvette and black stockings. Tequila she asked pouring a glass and handing it to Christian. He took it and while taking a sip felt her tug his pants completely off taking a moment to admire his hard body. She slide her underwear off and climbed on top of the young bronco seizing his drink and sipping from it, while slowly rocking on top of him. Had the door not flung open followed by the angry cry of a young woman with bartender and dancing girls in tow chasing her, the seasoned whore may have earned her money.

“Get off him you harlot,” she said pushing her aside before she had an opportunity to react.

Christian stayed motionless half shocked half embarrassed laying full naked spread eagle with all his glory, for all to see. Susie mad as hell still got herself an eyeful before she grabbed his pants off the floor and threw them at him. “Put em on cowboy.” She grabbed the whores dress and threw it at her. “Your business is done here. Get on outta here.” Tessy, stood in half shock to the intrusion. Christian split between surprise and amusement.

Guess it will have to be another time between us Tess. Maybe our next life.” Christian said jokingly in bad taste.

His statement only angered Susie more. Spotting his wallet, she pulled out the first bill she got her hands on. Here take it five dollars,” and threw it at her. “Get on out, all of you,” she said pushing the small crowd back, beckoned by all the excitement.

Christian stood up his face red. “What the hell is wrong with you girl? Are you crazy? You know you just kicked the owner out of her own place.” Christian yanked his pant on and started searching for his shirt. “Barging in a man’s business you ain’t got no right over and seeing things you shouldn’t be seeing unless your married.”

“Christian James I don’t care who she is. Besides marriage didn’t stop you from sharing it with your little Hoe tonight. Good lord she could be your mother.” Besides she smiled. “Now where even.”

Even, he shook his head. Was that all this was about? Getting even.”

“Maybe?” She playfully said with a devious smile then changed her tune to a more serious tone. “You ran out on me without letting me explain things. Ain’t no way to treat a woman on a date.”

A date? Pretty sure your fiancé wasn’t looking at that as a date.”

“That’s what I wanted to explain before you ran off on me. I ain’t his fiancé.”

“What about the ring?” He asked now seeing it missing from her hand. “I’m not sure he sees it the same way you do.”

That ring, don’t mean squat. I tried to give back to him hundreds of times. Only took it so he’d quite bugging me about it. Told him I wasn’t accepting it as an engagement ring. He knows that. Just that man can’t take no for an answer. Only wore it tonight so my daddy wouldn’t think I needed chaperoned all night. It was a bad idea I guess in hind sight. Never had it on my wedding finger anyway. Bottom line is Royce ain’t my man, and we certainly ain’t engaged. So there. That’s the story.” She folded her arms together satisfied in her response and waited for his reply.

He buttoned his shirt up. “So, your paw didn’t arrange it?”

She reached over and straightened his collar. “He’s a daddy, he wants what’s best for me. He tried to at first, not in the traditional ways one might expect. But kinda every once in a while, tried to encourage me in that direction. Royce family got a lot money, plenty to raise an offspring and not want for anything. But that was it, and after tonight, my pa saw Royce’s true colors, he just as soon skin his hide then bring him into our fold. Besides, I’m nearly sixteen and half. He ain’t got no more control over me, than I got in his matters.”

“You sure about that?” He asked looking around the floor for his socks.

“Why, you afraid of him?”

Ain’t afraid of no one. It’s about courtesy and respect to your paws wishes.”

She found his socks first and handed them to him. “Will I’ll be Christian Jesse James, last place you’d think you’d find a man of integrity would be sitting here in this whore house, preaching to someone about respect and courtesy. Almost makes me want to laugh.”

Christian put his socks on and pulled up his boots. “Will okay you have your little laugh on my account. But I tell ya straight up, there’s more honesty going on here, then penned up in your little Sunday get together. That I’m sure of.”

She moved within inches of Christian. Her eyes feasting on his lips, he didn’t hesitate. Together locked in a kiss their souls met again. letting go, she smiled. “Come on, I got a three step I ain’t shown you yet.”

He grabbed his gun and hoister and followed her down the steps. “You’re one crazy woman. You know that? I just hope for your sake you know what you’re getting yourself into too.”

Stan shut the computer off, and but his head down for a moment. Two hours later he woke, phone in hand, the time read 1130 am. He felt nothing but emptiness in the house. Looking for any companionship, he poked his head out the garage door hoping maybe Maria had changed her mind, come home to try and work things out. It was only wishful thinking. You’d think as often as her job at the hospital kept her away, the isolation would be an old friend by now. But this time it was clear, it wasn’t the hospital keeping her. None of it a bombshell in reflection. No, far from it. The signs all too clear, for Stan, it was the timing that hurt the worst.

He went back to his computer and googled Saturday yoga. “Bingo,” he said scanning the site and seeing the afternoon schedule posted. One o’clock class with Racheal. Just need a quick shower and little coffee to square things off and I’ll be ready to hit it.” He bee lined for the shower, put on some clean sweats and shirts, checking his look in the mirror he felt like an alien visiting a formal without a tuxedo, “I got get me some new gear.” Then hurried out the door.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Pulling into the plaza lot for yoga Stan couldn’t find a spot. He circled around a few times then spotting a man carrying bags slowly inched behind him only to watch him zig zag across the lot and lose the spot to another driver. Frustrated he was just about ready to give up when someone tapped on his window. It was Racheal. “Hey good to see you, here for the class?”

“Yeah if I can find a spot.”

She pointed to the street curb. “You can park on the street, meters are free on weekend. I’ll wait for ya.”

Stan parked, grabbed his gym bag, and hurried back to her. Following her to the studio, he couldn’t help but notices her blue short shorts and tank top shirt, both left little to the imagination. She turned catching him looking then smiled. “Did you forget shorts?”

“I take it sweats are the wrong gear?” Stan responded slightly embarrassed.

She laughed. “Kinda…it’s gonna be a little hot. You know as in hot yoga?”

“Oh? Your website said Bikram yoga?”

She noticed his belongings. “You don’t have a mat either, do you?”

“No,” he said shaking his head.

“Water bottle?”

He shook his head again.

“Okay, that’s okay, we can fix all that, “You did hydrate the night before, I’m hoping?”

“Oh yeah, I definitely drank a lot.” Stan chuckled.

Entering the studio Racheal slipped her shoes off, and Stan followed suit stopping for a moment as he noticed a strange birthmark on her calf, a web like circle with what looked almost like two feathers attached. A stretch maybe, but one could see if…if they needed to, or wanted too.

He pointed to it. “That’s a dreamcatcher.”

“What? Oh yeah,” she said tracing his attention to her calf. “It does kinda look like one, I’ve had people tell me that before. “

“Alright fill this out.” She said handing him a registration form. “On the back are our pricing, if you sign up ten visits you save fifty bucks, that’s the most popular.

While Stan filled out the form, Racheal laid a mat next to him and grabbed a bottle of coconut water from the frig. “When you’re done, men’s locker room down the hall to the left, towels right as you enter. The class is on the right.”

He nodded. “Got it, thank you.” Entering the locker room, he stowed his stuff and noticed the others leave their shirts behind. It donned on him to do the same.

The minute he opened the door he felt the heat from the hot blast attack him. The room had mirrors in the front and sides with a small stage for the instructor in the front.

Stan laid his mat out, and plopped onto it. Beads of sweat broke out over his body like zombies crawling from their grave. It was hot, a humid hot, hotter than two a day football practice in full gear baking in the august sun as a high schooler. He wanted to leave and wondered why the hell anyone would expose themselves to any of this torture.

The room easily could hold 25, today it was pushing 30, and the mats were close together creating even more heat. All he could think of is hot, hot as the desert, hot and nothing more, until he spied Racheal walk in with her tight black bikini yoga outfit and black painted toe nails with beads of sweat pouring down her tight muscular body, then and only then, did he quit thinking of the heat.

“Okay everybody ready? Remember breathe and go at your own pace.” Stan, or anybody else if you feel dizzy go to child’s pose.” She paused for a moment, spotting the tattoo on his arm. tapped her arm and smiled. “Always be mindful of your breaths, inhale through your nose lock your hands and bring your arms down, elbows locked suck your stomach in and lift. Stan watched his neighbor and did his best to emulate. From the mirror, he could see how the moves worked parts of his core and how despite his best efforts he had much to learn. ‘Eyes on the Mat’ is an inside joke for mindfulness to your own practice and keep your eyes occupied and out of trouble. But to any man and healthy woman distractions are hard to keep from. Yoga after all seemed to be the nature gateway to producing a rather beautiful body and any distraction to the heat seemed to be the right distraction for Stan. To his right stood a short brunette whose tight body glistened from the sweat. Next to her an athletic built woman with tattoos that he swore couldn’t have been a day over twenty-five only later to find out was reaching her late forties, and soon to be a grandma. It was a room filled with all shapes and sizes and at best one could only steal a glance before a new posture created the challenge of full concentration to keep from tumbling or worse passing out.

Stan like a good soldier twisted and bent and turned and stretched and locked and wrapped and strained for micro seconds that felt like an eternity until dropping to his knees, sucked down as much coconut water as the bottle would hold. Later then sooner, the most blessed words came from Racheal’s mouth. “Last pose you all made it. make sure you take a moment to just lay on your backs and relax.” Stan collapsed on the mat his mouth dry his bottle already emptied, his shirt soaked with sweat.

The shower felt every bit as amazing as the workout. It rejuvenated his body mind and spirit. Drying off he took a moment, using the mirror to look at the tattoo on his arm. It bore a striking resemblance to Racheal’s birthmark. A dreamcatcher tattoo he had gotten, the year he did a stint studying overseas in Barcelona. It was his sophomore year of college and he spent a sizable chunk of it backpacking across Europe tasting the wine and woman. An older street artist in Paris France, inked it, that’s about as much he remembered about that night. Walking out he sat down to put his shoes on.

“How was the class?” Racheal asked waking behind the front counter area.

“Tougher than I thought it would be. I get that hydration thing now.”

“Gotta hydrate, how was the coconut water? Supposedly it’s like a nature plasma used during ww2 for transfusions. Sale it here if you get in a bind, but Marc’s is half the price. First ones on me.”

“Well thank you once again. It was a great experience. Almost feel like smoking a cigarette now.” He joked.

She laughed “It does have that effect. Loved it ever since the first time I did it. For me it grounds me. Hope we get to see you here again.” Stan nodded then started to head for the door. Racheal’s eyes followed his walk, feasting on his attributes and safe from being outed. She shouted out to him. “Hey if you’re interested we all usually stop for a coffee next store.”

He stopped. “That sounds great, to be honest with you.”

“Good. Coffee’s out of this world. I got finish a few things up and I’ll meet you next store.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Stan walked into the coffee shop greeted by genuine smile from the woman at the register, he smiled back. “You with the yoga class? They meet in the back, the rest of the crew already back there.”

He ordered a latte double ginger with goat milk. “That does sound good,” he heard Racheal’s voice. “Make it two.”

They gathered the drinks and headed out to the patio. It was a small area that overlooked the river. Prime seating close enough you could see the pristine water ripple in the sun while a school of dark green colored spotted brook trout made their way upstream.

Stan sat next to Racheal, and being the newest to the coffee ritual drew stares from the flock gathered around the table. He recognized the man from his Uncle’s funeral but couldn’t remember his name. A medium height stocky guy, head shaved bald, with a goatee moustache and tattoos down his Popeye sized arms. But most enduring his trademark blue eyes. Eyes that cut through you, piercing wild crazy shepherd or wolf eyes. Eyes he had seen before the funeral but couldn’t place. He, Butch re-introduced himself first. “Welcome to our little coffee gathering, names Darrell but just about everybody outside of my mom calls me Butch. And this is my wife Crystal, everybody except her mom, calls her Crystal.” Crystal gave Butch a slap on the arm.

“Yeah, I met you at my Uncle’s funeral, John Mastsko?”

“That’s right, we did meet didn’t we.” Butch said. “He will be missed, quite a character your Uncle.”

“So how was yogi?” Crystal asked to change the venue.

“Ah… good I think, little wore out but feel great.”

“That heat sneaks up on you. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.”

Stan smiled. “I keep being told that.”

“Stan’s a professor over at the college,” Racheal added.

“Really, that’s cool I thought I recognized you. What do you teach? Like quantum physics, on the brink of some wild new discovery or new astronomy, yeah you look like a previous NASA guy. No I got it. An archeologist back from some remote jungle expedition, with some new wild discovery. I know it’s something exciting, god knows they all gravitate to Racheal.”

Stan wasn’t sure what to make of his last comment, but replied in a friendly way. “Nope just plain and simple boring English composition.”

Butch went silent for a moment, his ornery glint in his eyes pulled inward to old memories. “Well ah yeah…English wasn’t my favorite subject. But I guess you got have it. Well tell Art Miller, I said hello, great guy we go back a way. Doing a lot of good things for the university and community. He’s still president over there, isn’t he? “

Stan held his tongue. He strongly disliked Miller, hated Miller summed his feelings up better. Especially since he seemed to launch his own personal attack on Stan. “Yeah I’ll say hello for you . . .If I see him.”

“Butch used to work part time as campus cop, retired military navy seal plus put twenty-five years with the city police force, that is when he’s not chasing ghost.” Racheal chimed in.

“Ghost?” Stan eyes lit up.

“Yeah paranormal ghost chaser stuff, never filmed one, but got some good voice on em. Amazing what this high-tech recording stuff picks up. You live in old Doc Murphy’s house, don’t you?” he said flashing a quick look towards Racheal.

Yeah, I guess that’s the previous owner.”

Butch pulled his wallet from his back pocket and ruffled of a business care. “Here that’s my card, keep it Heard there’s some building over at the university they say are haunted, sure be nice to get a chance to check it out.”

Stan took the card “Ghost problems big or small we handle all jobs.”

“Flip it over, I also distribute DMSO, best liniment in the world to take the soreness out. “

Stan flipped the card. “Am guessing you and Racheal get your business cards from the same print shop.”

Rachel nodded then hearing her phone ring, looked at the number then excused herself to take the call. Gone for a brief time, she came back, sat in her chair, and fidgeted with her coffee mug. Her face painfully distraught, agitated not her normal cheerful self.

“Marco?” Butch asked.

“Yeah,” Racheal responded He’s in Miami on a business trip.”

“Miami? Surprised he didn’t take you.”

“It’s all good,” Racheal said trying to reassure Butch.

Butch pointed to her nose then her sleeve. She pulled her shirt sleeve down. “Your colds coming back. Seems you can’t seem to shake it.” Racheal nodded her head and wiped her nose with a tissue. “Why do you put up with that guy? Is he still married?”

Racheal gave Butch a dirty look. “Not here. Not now.” She said her eyes darting towards Stan then back at Butch. “Besides that’s not fair, he’s in the process of separation. It’s a complicated process. Isn’t that what you always say?”

“You ready?” Butch asked his wife somewhat irritated and looking for an out. “Got kids soccer match today best be getting.

“I’ll call you later.” Racheal said watching him leave then turning to Stan. “There really good people been coming to yoga ever since I started teaching. Like family.

“Yeah they seem like good folk. Seems Butch worries about you?”

“He does, he’s so sweet like a big brother.”

“I don’t mean to pry but it seems he’s concerned about this Marco guy. I take it you and him are in some type of relationship?”

Her smile dropped. “Like I said earlier, Its complicated. How about you, married, divorced, gay? Just kidding”

Stan grimaced and sucked in some air. “Ah… I guess I am.”

Ah… I knew it. Why are all the good looking ones always gay.”

No! I didn’t say that, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but not gay. “

“living together, I guess going through a rough patch.” He took a minute to digest his own words. “Hell, it’s more than a rough patch, my partner found someone else. So honestly I don’t know what we are . . . I suppose headed for a breakup”

For a micro second, barely long enough for the eye to catch Racheal let out a smile. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Ah is what is. I feel strange talking about it, you’re the first person I’ve told. Not even sure why I shared it.”

“You shouldn’t feel bad talking about it. It helps to get things off your chest. Guys always seem to internalize things. I don’t mean this to be callous about your situation, but sometimes things happen for a reason, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be, right?”

“Maybe,” he said halfheartedly. “Let me take that to the heart and chew on that for a while.” He took a sip of her coffee. “So you teach yoga, and sale real estate on the side?”

“Dab in it a little bit.”

“Do I make you nervous?” Stan asked seeing her knees and leg shake.

She followed his eyes fixated on her shaking knee and put her hand over it to slow it down. “No not at all, just coffee I guess gets me all hyped up. I really should quit after the first cup. But yes, sold real estate going on a couple of years now. Marco has a lot of real estate around the town, helped me pay for my license, finance the yoga studio. He’s been a great friend when things really looked down for me. And more I guess then just friends.” she said smiling. “You know sometimes life seems so hard. I mean you set goals and I’m not so sure you’re really just not setting yourself up for failure. And then when it looks the bleakest someone shows up and everything just seems to fit.”

“Yeah … I suppose a lot days fell like that, something to be said about spontaneity.”

“I think so. Maybe it’s the wildness that fertilizes the seed of relationships and gives the root the chance to take hold and grow.”

Her playfulness of words reminded him of the little games of wit he enjoyed with Sharia. “That same root can squeezes the life out of everything thing else around it. ‘The worst was this: my love was my decay.’ “

“That’s sad,” she said. “I could never think that way. I think the heart needs love.”

Stan glanced at his watch took a gulp of the remaining coffee in his cup and stood up. “I would love nothing more than to continue this conversation but I may need to take a raincheck.”

She smiled, a smile that shot straight back to Stan. “Well good to get see you again. And you got my card any question it’s got my cell number listed on it too.

“Thanks,” he said smiling and headed to his car.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

A quick change of his t-shirt and jeans and Stan was on his way to help sort through some of his Uncle’s belongings. At his Aunt’s house the two of them sat in the living room reminiscing through some old pictures. It gave the two of them a chance to relive his memory then slowly let go before parting with relics of his life. By the end of the night little progress was made in clearing out his Uncle’s belongings, but much for letting go. After the hearty meal of roast beef and mashed potatoes Stan, like his Uncle, went to his favorite chair, turned on Fox News and soon nodded off with an occasional snore comforting his Aunt with at least familiarity as she turned down the light and made her way to bed.

His dream took him at first down in the meadow under the bridge with Racheal, it was dark and he could only feel and hear her next to him. “You can’t stay, it’s too painful,” is all Racheal would say then his dreamed blurred onto another stage in a different passage of time. Life merged with his fiction, and Racheal became Suzie, and he became the gunslinger Christian. The scene opened in the streets of an old western town, where twenty feet away stood the tall ominous figure of Royce, decked out in black. And his blue cold wolf eyes peering down on him. His heart governed by the adrenalin beat strong and fast and he could almost feel his blood surging though his body. It was the same sensations his little game provided. His choices were simple as he stared into the eyes of the opposing force, dominate, subordinate or die. For the first time, he was living his character’s emotions and could taste the harsh whiskey on his breath, and feel the cold wind chapping at his face. He had calmness, although he felt a need to consciously suppress the ugly anger locked deep inside. His eyes sharp with intent, a clearness and focus he hadn’t known since his younger years. Royce reacted first, Christian now battle shrewdness read his intent, maybe it was a nervous twitch, maybe a reaction of the eye before one goes for his gun. His accuracy and speed dead on hitting and intentionally maiming Royce’s gun hand, wounding him. His kindness to be rewarded with the sting of a bullet in his back. A mortal hit that struck pain in his chest. He dropped to the ground in disbelief. That’s where the dream ended. Startled, Stan awoke in a cold sweat. Perched on top of him the cat kneading his claws into his chest watching him with curious eyes ready to say if could or would, “your safe now, away from the sleep world that plays by different rules.” He pushed the cat off his chest. “Good lord that dream seemed real.” He said taking a stretch, and scanning the room to get his bearings. He could see the kitchen table cleared and his Aunt long retired to asleep. Heading for the spare bedroom, sleep was foremost in his mind. His bedroom remained unchanged from the day he left, baseball and soccer trophies in chronological order from little league to high school decorated the shelves on the wall. Lying on the table, sat his old yearbook. Flipping through it he stopped at an old picture of himself. “Wow was I young,” he said glancing at the mirror then back at the picture. The years had piled on, a little grey, skin tighter, even a few crow’s feet near his eyes, the future here now maybe in retrospect not the future he envisioned would show up. He closed the yearbook, pulled his shirt off and a noise out back startled him.

Peeking out the window he caught a light on in the shed with the door partially opened. “Freaking kids,’ he said thinking of recent vandalism happening in the neighborhood. “Tonight, you meet 33 inch Johnny Bench compliments of Louisville Slugger,” He grabbed his baseball bat and in quiet fashion opened the back door and started towards the shed. His bat cocked ready to be the redeemer, he slowly opened the door and his mouth dropped feeling his heart thump twice skipping a beat while letting the bat fall to the ground. Goose bumps surged over his body and his froze in position. In front of him, in his blue hospital garbs, ass sticking out the back, hunched over sorting thru his work bench stood his Uncle. Or at least an apparition of him.

“Uncle John,” he finally forced out.

The apparition turned looked at Stan then turned back and gave him little more attention. The apparition become more frantic in his search, opening, spilling, throwing, and tossing items while sorting through the workbench. Stan could do little more then watch still unsure what or how any of this was possible. Finally, the spirit turned to Stan, you could see anger in his face. “Where is it? It’s not here, don’t play games with me, I asked you if you found it?”

“Found what?” Stan asked. “The packet? Yes I’ve read them, some of them…” The experience was becoming stranger by the moment. How could any of this be possible? Why was this spirit so angry?”

“No,” the voice said sternly. “Not the letters, the disk. Did you find the disk?”

Stan nodded. “No what kind of disk? His said with a shaky voice.

“Then you’ve lost it! Can’t count on you for nothing. You’ve been nothing but an ungrateful thorn in my side. Raising my wife’s kid sisters ungrateful kid, that’s why I couldn’t go to her.” The belligerent spirit turned back to the workbench, now even more disruptive in his search.

The light to the house went on and Aunt Ella’s stuck her head out the door. “Stan is that you? Is everything alright?”

The apparition gave a sneer perceiving Ella as nothing more than butting in. “Mules ass. I’ve got to go. I can’t let her see me.” He turned his attention to Stan, his demeanor slightly more tamed. “Be careful Stan he’s come back for you. But you’re not ready, you have unfinished business, you can’t allow him to take you yet.”

“Who take me? Where?”

The lip on his Uncle quivered, his voice shaken. “I fear for your soul son, it’s not what you think on this side. We haven’t even come close to describing it.”

“I’m calling the police,” he heard his Aunt shout out.

“It’s okay it’s me,” he shouted back to her, in an anxious voice. “I left the light on, that’s all just shutting it off.”

When he turned where his Uncle stood or at least a similar looking spirit, the spirit was gone and in the wake of his visit the workbench left in a mess. “I’m fucking going mad.” He said try to analyze what he had just witnessed. In all his years, his Uncle had not even raised a voice let alone treated him as harshly as tonight. And being an obstacle to his Uncle’s happiness, that emotions never played out before between them. Logic could only suggest it was all a dreadful experience fueled by the guilt locked in his subconscious for being an orphan. Or if the remote possibility existed, the soul did transcend this world. Maybe the dead, on the other side, experience the five stages of grief. Anger being his Uncle’s stage. He was about ready to go back into the house when a map caught his attention he had not seen in the shed before. Circled with the overlap of a heart, and the words my love, a map of a small town. Stan studied the location, Harmony Idaho, of all places, he thought strange given his Aunt had never been west of the Mississippi.

“Are you coming?” he heard his Aunts voice again.

He grabbed the map and stuffed it in his back pocket, turned the lights out, and pulled the door shut tight.

“My lord Stan, you’ll catch a cold out there without a shirt, your cheeks are all red.” Seeing his worried look she rubbed his arm. “Forgive me for being so much trouble in my own grief I’ve forgotten how much John meant to you.”

He nodded and kissed his Aunt on the forehead. “You’ve done fine I just think we both need a little sleep. He went to room peered through the blinds of the window and pulled the map from his pocket. “Shit I’m not sure if am going mad, or any of this is real.” He tapped his finger on the circled city, “Harmony Idaho. What could that mean?”

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

In the morning, Stan woke to the smell of coffee and bacon. He partially opened the blind to the window peered at the shed and satisfied it was not a threat opened the shades. Aunt Ella already busy cooking, pointed to a coffee cup as he entered the kitchen. “How many eggs?” she asked breaking four out of habit.

“Two be fine.”

“You got to eat to keep your strength up. I’ll make you four.” Within minutes, four eggs over easy along with bacon sat on a plate on the table. Stan quickly gulped the eggs down scrapping the plate yoke clean with his toast.

“There, didn’t I tell you, you need to eat.” She said clearing the table and running dishwater in the sink. “You don’t eat enough you almost skin and bones the wife of yours she needs to be home more, not natural to always be apart. Why for fifty years your Uncle never went without anything. I made sure of that, a man got all kinds needs and I just don’t understand the way you young people go about everything. You two spend too much time apart that ain’t good for a marriage.”

“Aunt Ella you know we never got married, but I get what you saying.”

“That’s another thing I don’t understand with you kids, why would you live together for all these years and not get married?”

“It’s complicated.” He caught himself saying, hating that phrase. “But I guess we both feel we don’t need a preacher to tell us we belong together.”

Ella had a look of disgust “You know I don’t like poking in people’s business, but the good lord don’t view things that way, you gonna have a lot of explaining to do someday.”

He bit his tongue. Wanting to say the same about Uncle John. “Different generation I guess. But really don’t need to worry about that, I think.” He hesitated, catching himself. Worrying her about his relationship problems was just plain bad timing on his part.” Well let’s just say maybe your right about being apart. Aunt Ella did you and John every visit Boise Idaho?”

She stopped scrubbing the dish and thought about it. “Boise Idaho? Her eyes lifted to the sky as to better see her memory. “Me, good heavens no. I’ve never even left Ohio in my life. But your Uncle, that was another story. Between work and his hunting trips. He was a road warrior at times.” She tipped her index finger on her lips a few times pondering further on the buried history. “Come to think of it yes now I remember. That’s right him and a bunch of his navy friends met for a skiing trip. Think he rented a plane and flew out there for a couple weeks. Can hardly believe I almost forgot. Good lord does the years cloud the mind. It was the only Christmas holiday we spent apart. Oh, I was mad at him. Didn’t talk to him for a week after he came back. Told me it was the only time he could afford the lodge, no other family in their right mind would be skiing on Christmas.”

“I never knew he skied.”

She turned back to her dishes rinsing them off one at a time. “There was a lot things your Uncle did, he didn’t much talk about. But, when I asked if missing Christmas together was worth it, he said yes in this rare occasion it was. Mind you we never missed another holiday together.”

By the days end, they had bags full of Salvation Army items next to trash bags headed to the garbage pile. It was a tedious emotional process as each fabric of clothing, each personal item, carried its own memory. Satisfied with the piles, Stan gathered them and loaded them into his car leaving the garbage pile for pickup.

After completing a few errands and arriving home, he opened the garage door and for the first time in ages he could pull into the empty spot in the garage, an amenity he felt came with a hefty price of a failed relationship.

Finding his way to the den, he rechecked the packet for a disk, then pulled the map he had found in the shed unfolding it across the desk. “This city is smack in the middle of the Boise mountains. “ Hum mining town, copper, why this town?” He said googling it. Pondering the relevance of the town his thoughts slipped to the events from the night before at the shed. He googled ghost and paranormal activity delivering a page of choices from physic reading to ghost busters and finally a site he recognized, ‘Butches Ghost Hunters.’ The site was amateurish yet its subject matter had some appeal. He recognized a sorority house on campus said to be hunted and got a chuckle seeing the gypsy lady’s ad pop up on his site. Book marking the site he pulled up his book, reread a few chapters, revisited where he had left off at the saloon and her intrusion to his night with dancing girl and started pounding away at the keyboard.

Leaving the saloon, she stopped him outside. “Which horse is yours?” He pointed to the painted mare tied to the post. She took his hand and led him to the horse reaching for his hoister and guns. “I don’t like these things.” She said stuffing them in his saddle bag. Promise me when you come to town. You’ll leave these in your saddle bag.” He nodded. Now promise me I won’t ever have any more dealings with this Tessy woman. He nodded again. She smiled. “Come on you owe me that three step.” By the end of a collection of fast and slow songs mixed in with dancing and talking they finally stopped for refreshments. It was full moon and the light it provided, mixed with the torches, created a romantic atmosphere.

His mother assigned the task to chaperon, kept a watchful, yet sympathetic eye to her youngest of the flock. She understood the need for a young girl to feel free to taste a night of courtship, one she chose her man, and not her father.

He dipped the ladle into the punch and handed her a cup. She took a sip her eyes focused on his. He focused on her lips. “So why do you like the saloon so much is it the dancing girls? I mean I guess if you had a regular girl or a proper courtship maybe it wouldn’t be fair asking that question. I mean you do want something more, right?”

“Of course, I got dreams. If that’s what you’re asking. Who don’t want a better future. Every day I try and set up myself for a better day then the day before. the man I am today, tries to help the man I’ll be tomorrow, course every once in a while, my attention wanders.”

She leaned her head to the side, “I like that, … So where is this person standing in front of me taking the guy tomorrow.”

He pointed to a star in the sky. “To reach that.”

She smiled.” It sure does sparkle nice. Seems like a mighty big task. How you figuring on reaching it?”

“Got a few good ideas but rather not say you might laugh.” He said looking down from the star.

“I wouldn’t laugh. Honestly.”

“Rodeo that got this show that travels in the east. Never been there before Theatrics they call it. Put on all kinda shows for the people. Get you all dressed up in fancy showman attire.”

Suzie covered her mouth trying her best to keep from laughing.

“I told you’d laugh.” He said in a serious tone.

“I’m sorry it’s just I just don’t picture you doing that sort of thing. You just seem I don’t know a little rough, but,” she reached out for his arm. “That’s fine no really, everybody has a special dream.” She offered, trying to keep a straight face.

He frowned at her. “She started to apologize. “Honest I just . . . I mean… It’s just seems difficult to believe you… I mean I think that’s really good but… am sorry I didn’t mean to laugh.”

“Got ya,” he said playfully kneading her in the belly button and breaking into a wide smile. “Yeah I’m pretty sure I don’t fit the theater type.”

She smacked him hard on the arm. “You’re bad. I can’t believe I fell for that.”

“What about you?” He asked. “What are your dreams?”

She looked down at the ground then her eyes came back to meet his. “I’m living it right now, and I hope it last forever. “Her eyes penetrated his. He met her gaze head on taking it deeper then backed away frightened he saw himself in her.

She broke contact first. Uncomfortable she had sparked something in him. Frightened him, simply went beyond her allowance with him.

“Forever’s a long time,” he said.

“It is, but not when you with the one meant for you. The one that completes you.” She said making circles in the ground with her foot and keeping her eyes away from his.

He lifted her chin, locking eyes. “Is that how its suppose to work.”

The music started back up a slow dance and he put his hand out. She took it and in the dance, they knew they had found each other.

From the corner of Christian’s eye, he caught Royce junior watching… he instinctively felt for his gun realizing she had disarmed him, he felt vulnerable but for now, all that mattered was her warm body tightly pressed together locked in his arms. He was falling for her, a position he was not comfortable with, a position that frightened him more than any man he battled with.

When they finally noticed the music had stopped, he gave her a soft kiss and she pulled his head down to hers and reengaged the kiss. When she opened her eyes they immediately found his and a smile came across her face. No one was left on the dance floor even the music men were packing away their gear.

“I had better go,” she said seeing the dance floor empty. Her eyes lifted to her carriage where her mother and sisters had already made their way. “You know where I live cowboy?”

He smiled. “The big house on the ridge.”

“Yes, if you’re going to court me, you’ll need to make a proper introduction to my father. Church in the morning. That be the best place to at least make acquaintance with him. It’s the one place he seems the most at peace with himself. You are a Christian, aren’t you?”

He nodded, “can’t really say. I think my birth parents baptized me, they was Christian folks, but Christians took my Sioux family. Be kinda scary to see a whole gathering. Seems folks of your kind tolerate my kind when they can box em up, keep em in boundaries. They have very little patience for our growth or ideas.

“I won’t let anyone hurt you.” She said hearing her mother call out. She kissed Christian on the cheek, smiled, and skipped off to the wagon. He made his way over to his horse. Both his friends already gone or at least bunkered in for the night.

The moonlight lit the trail back to the ranch. It was a beautiful harvest moon the air was crisp, yet still warm. He could still smell her scent. She had opened a passage of his heart maybe better left concealed. A doorway, the gypsy had warned him about, a doorway that transcended infinity to everything that existed. It would have been the perfect end, to a near perfect night had a bullet delivered with bad aim to its target in the dark of night not whirled past him spooking his horse into a frightful trot nearly knocking him off his mount. Now being a gunslinger, the odds of where that bullet may have come from increase slightly to the position of uncertainty. But given the night’s circumstance seemingly cuts a path back to his encounter with either Royce senior, or Royce Junior, or both.

CHAPTER THIRTY

In the morning, he tried to put the night excursion behind him as best he could. After all, given the way his life had unfolded, all of it seemed natural. Violence, whether he wanted it in his life or not, seemed to be part of his own nature. One doesn’t succeed in such an endeavor as gunfights without obtaining a calmness in battle. And calmness in anything is a trait of acceptance. Some learn it, some just have it. Christian always just seemed to have it. At any rate, captivated by the lure of Suzie, he was hell bent on distancing himself as much as one could from his past. Being reborn, he thought he heard church folks call it. That was the ticket.

Making a quick stop down to the creek, he bathed himself then hightailed back to the ranch. Sorting thru his clothes, his picking for such events came down to a black pair of wool pants he wore once for the burial of a friend, and once for a wedding. He matted them a few times hoping to take the winkles out, slipped them on, then found a rolled up white silk shirt, smelled it, flapped it in the air and put it on. His Sunday best now complete.

Dashing out the door, he saddled his horse, ran a brush through its mane, knocked dust off its coat then used the same brush to bring out a shine on his boots before mounting the mare. These were all good intentions to look his best, but with the stray bullet from the night before still fresh in his mind, he decided a moving target, and a quicker one at that, would be prudent to his longevity. He rode the mare hard and by trails end the poor horse, was lathered in sweat, mud and dirt caked on his belly and tail. Christian’s shoes and pants suffered the same fate.

Reaching the end of the trail about a half mile out Christian stopped and picked flowers along the roadside and in his one hand he held them and the rein of his horse until he come up to the front gate to the church. Folks dressed in their Sunday best filtered into the small steeple church. He did a quick inventory of his own dress, brushing as best he could, the mud from his pants and waited hoping to greet her outside the church. After the bell rung for the third time, an elderly thin man hunched to one side with a crooked back and sporadic wisp of white hair neatly combed over to one side, poked his head out the door before closing it. “You coming in son? Or are you gonna sit their holding your flowers all day.”

Christian gazed at the flowers, realizing how stupid he appeared bringing them to church, in the hopes of courting a young maiden. His faced turning red, he jumped off his horse and stuffed the daisy’s in his saddlebag. Entering the threshold of the church the elderly usher shook his head, closed the door and guided Christian to an empty seat in the back surprisingly next to Tessy, who he would have thought to be last person outside himself, at a white man’s church. A plumb woman sitting a row in front, wore a fancy bonnet hat that covered beyond the confines of her own seat partially blocking all the curious eyes stealing a glance at the newest addition to the church.

It was a warmer than normal spring day and the church, the only Baptist one in town, stretched and packed beyond is designs, with all its widows propped open, felt like an oven. By the time the preacher took his position at the pedestal to begin his sermon, folks were desperately fanning themselves with any means available. And most wondering, and stealing a glance towards Christian, as if the devil himself had come to pay a visit gathering the unlucky soul for an eternity of fire and brimstone the preacher often spoke of.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. How many of you among this flock would be willing to do this for another? Let us now pray.”

Christian in respect, closed one eye and bowed his head. The other he surveyed the congregational with. As the prayer of thanks bellowed in longevity from the pulpit, it reminded him of an Indian saying. “A hungry stomach makes for a short prayer.” Surveying those in attendance, he wondered how many would share their blessings, sing their praise had the tables turned, as they had for his people.

The service continued in an orchestra fashion, and it was a busy time for the matriarch of the family as the older men in particular caught a swift nudge by their wives to the rib cage to abate their snoring. The kids in the back received stern look from their mothers to tighten up their P’s and Q’s. And in most cases their singing carried the tune from the hymn book, making it easier on the ears. At the end of the service the pews from the front followed the preacher out first. It was a pecking order of sorts that existed even under gods watch over the small church. Those more influential in the community enjoyed the benefits of being closer to the pastor. Who one could only believe, was closer to god.

As Suzie passed by him, followed by her family. Her smile faded seeing Tessy next to him. Her sisters nudged each other, and motioned towards Christian, gawking at the young cowboy and giggling as they passed him. Behind them Royce Sr. and Jr. smiling like a Cheshire cat. When Christian finally made his way outside she rushed up to him a pulled him by the arm towards her family and away from Tessy. “You look so handsome,” she said proudly, brushing dust off his shirt. “Come on time to meet papa, “Daddy this is Christian he’s the cowboy…” she started to say pushing him front center to her papa.

“I know who he is; question is what are you doing here?”

Christian put his hand out to offer a shake. “I come to ask you permission to court your daughter. Sir.”

“No!”

Christian’s eyebrows raised directing his attention to Suzie as if to say I told you so then dove back in to make one more plea. “No? That’s it? Have I don’t something to offend you sir?” He asked drawling some attention by the church folk.

Feeling the eyes of his peers upon him, Suzie’s father wanted closure now. “I don’t approve of how you carry yourself, and I won’t allow my daughter to expose herself to a life where a man’s fortune thrives on luck. To be quite blunt, I find your lifestyle both cowardly and shameful. I know you’ve gathered quite a reputation and there’s risk being bold to a man of your temperament, but I will protect my daughter with my dying breath.”

Christian could understand her father’s sentiment, hell he had predicted as much. But any courage that ran through his veins, simply had no purpose if he couldn’t find use for it to mend his own heart. “I have no beef with you sir. I waz simply hoping for your permission to see your daughter. Make it proper with you. So, for Suze’s sake I asked, trying to respect you and your customs. But since you’ve made it clear you won’t give it. I’m forced to do it without it.

The old miner’s eyes widen and he cocked his fist back, had it not been for the interception of her mother there would have been no resemblance of civility going forward.

“Enough Mr. Cartright.” She said standing between the two of them, pushing her husband aside. “Jerry Cartright I swear to the good lord if you don’t contain yourself.”

“Contain myself. Do you know who he is?”

“No I don’t, I know who people say he is, and nothing more. It’s not our life to make her choices.”

He gave Suzie a divisive look, narrowing his eyebrows, his voice stern. “It is as long as she lives under my roof and sits at my dinner table.”

Her mother put her hands up in the air surrendering in frustration. “Our roof and our table, is her roof and her table! If you don’t see it as such, you’ll push her towards him, or any other cowboy you’re not going to approve of. Don’t you see Jerry?” She continued her voice less excited, softer in nature. “All we can do is hope what we have taught her is right. And I think we’ve both done that much.”

He looked to his daughter then put his head down nodding in agreement.

She turned to the boy next. And gave him a good tongue lashing. “And you Christion James. Confidence in these times can be a virtue, cockiness a death sentence. Tame it, or it well turn on you. If you wish to call on our daughter you have OUR! Permission. But here are the rules. Never, and I mean never, may you wear your guns when with my daughter. Two, church is every Sunday, we are a Christian family and I expect anyone courting my daughter whether they be confused by the good word or not, be present to hear the word. And three, if I ever here you mistreat her or dishonor her I will shoot you myself. Understood?”

Christian nodded. “Understood.”

“Good then if you would like we have a brunch that you are welcome to join us.”

Suzie’s smile could have lit a dark mine buried in the farthest pits of earth like the morning sun peaking over the horizon. She answered for him. “Yes he would.” He smiled and returned a shy nod.

It was the first of many interludes to follow. Her mother always cordial, her father at first tolerant at best. Despite this friction their relationship blossomed. And slowly, Christian won over her father when he witnessed the eagerness when it came to tinning over the new roof high on the barn in temperatures that could fry and egg let alone a man’s brain. Digging the new well through layers of rock and hard clay under the top soil in the south quadrants of her father’s ranch, and helping her father drive his cattle to market in San Berdino over rugged rocks and steep grade paths that washed out with the monsoon rains. In all this he had come to know the man Christian was, and not legend that preceded him. Weeks turned to months and summer turned to fall and Christian to his word devoted his Sundays learning about her god.

One day on a country ride, Christian shared an unusual spot, called the ‘Cliffs of Arduous.’ A special spot rumored to be the porthole to heaven where angels roamed freely. “Indescribable and breathtaking,” the only two words from Suzie’s mouth the first time her eyes set sights on the cliff. Here, for the first time she had the chance to ask about his God while spreading out a small picnic of baked blueberry and apple pies.

“Blue berry or apple,” she asked knife in hand kneeling on the blanket.

Blueberry be fine.”

Big piece or small,” she asked again positioning her knife over the pie.

Small be fine.” She cut a piece and handed it to him with a fork. Waiting in silence in anticipation of his approval.

Uhm . . . uhm . . . uhm that is good pie.” he said with a smile savoring his first bite.

I added some honey to sweeten it. I know you like that. Could you taste it?”

Yes,” he gobbled out with a mouthful of pie. Taking a napkin to wipe his mouth. “loved it.”

She smiled. Then laid back on the blanket staring at the big white puffy clouds growing as the pushed across the blue landscape of the sky. “Look,” she said pointing to a cloud. “An angel.

He stopped eating for a moment and caught a glimpse of it just before the winds reconstructed its artwork. Swirling the wings into a circular hole and pulling the clouds at the bottom. “Looks like your angel turned into a key.”

She twisted her head to get a different perspective. “Naw, that’ looks more like your tattoo. Your dream catcher.”

He laughed. “Yeah, your right, it does. The great spirit Wankan Tanka is busy today. My people say he lives in the cliffs.”

Suzie lifted herself up partially on her elbows facing Christian. “Is that your god? Wankan? I mean you are a good listener at church. But I never see you pick the bible up or even follow along in the hymn books. You don’t believe much of it do you? You know in my god.”

Christian remained silent. She could tell her question created some internal duress for him. She plopped back down, mad at herself, almost pouting for ruining the moment. He was hesitant but finally found the courage to answer. “I listen good. cause I have too. . .Truth be told, I really ain’t such a good reader. Fact is I can’t read. Never told anybody that before. I just ain’t that smart.”

She sprung up, rolling herself on top of him pleased, it in her eyes, was really no more the a small worry that had seemingly almost ruined their picnic. “Smarts got nothing to do with it. I can teach ya, if that’s what you want?”

He nodded, “I’d like that. Be nice to go in the county store and knows for sure what’s on sale and if my account is being squared rightfully. Even be nice to know what’s in your book you put so much faith in.”

Her face lit up. “It’s a wonderful written book, it’s got so much wisdom, am sure no different than what’s written down for the beliefs you was brought up in.”

He shook his head. “We don’t have a book. Nothing written, everything in our heads. Our god simpler.” He moved his arms high above his head and across the sky. “Everything, earth, sky, the Great Mystery, Wakan Tanka.”

Wankan Tanka, Great Mystery.” She repeated.

Yes, the creator of all this. He serves us and we are a part of him. There are no written words only expressions in nature and the emotions we experience. One man’s experience different from the others, we are part of him and good in nature, not fallen. He is everywhere and we celebrate this spirit in everything we do, not just on Sunday.”

“Silly, we celebrate our god every day too. Sunday is just a special day we take time to honor our god, but everyday helps us come closer to him. Don’t you have a special day or event that you kinda just forget everything and connect.”

Christian looked confused. “Every day is a special day, but yes I suppose we have different rituals that bring us closer let us honor the great spirit. For me I really feel the most spiritual in our sweat lodges, I’ve even seen the creator once.”

“That’s sounds beautiful.” She said distracted by his tattoo and tenderly touching the outline of it.

“Your fascinated by that aren’t you?”

“I am,” she said smiling. “I just love the story how your people believe it catches the good dreams and allows the bad ones to pass thru.”

“Do you want to experience it?”

“The tattoo? I would love one just like yours.”

He laughed casting an eye to his own tattoo. “The beauty of the tattoo one thing, the pain receiving it another. But I was asking about the ritual in the sweat lodge. It’s considered very spiritual for my people. I’ve always come away feeling calm yet full of energy”

“Yes,” she said without hesitation while caressing his arm. “I want to experience everything about you. When can we go?”

“Soon,” he said smiling, “soon.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Soon came as quickly as the harvest moon came and the last big cattle run to the market before the end of summer. Christian rode his wagon to Suzie’s promising her a unique experience and suggested dress accordingly for heat, with a change of clothing. Steven, Suzie’s younger brother who idolized Christian, accompanied them. After all what twelve year old wouldn’t be enamored by a man part Indian, part gunslinger, part gambler and part cowboy, Especially on a ride two hours deep into regions rumored to still be inhabited by Indians who had not made peace with the States.

The ride to the country took every bit of two hours and then some, Starting with dirt paths, bordered by hay grass and apple orchards, wide enough for two wagons, through the meadow valley buzzing with bee’s capturing the nectar of blue, purple, red, and yellow wild flowers, mixed in-between the green swaying grass, up the hill, now only a wagons width, through the maze of deep scented green pines of the forest, back down through the river trails cut out by migrating deer and elk occasionally peppered with fresh grizzly scat. Now the friendly soft brook of the stream, next to the trail, become a steady roar then thundering falls. And soon back to a narrow channel and slower pace. The horse kept going, kept pulling, its coat shimmering in the sweet sweat of horse hair, beyond the soft green of the lush meadows and hills, into the hard-red canyon rock that reflected the heat of the high noon, and a few scattered desert cacti into an opening of vast nothingness. In the distance, surrounded by nothing more than open desert, and a backdrop of red lifeless cliffs where only scorpions and snakes found refugee stood a small thatch roofed clay habitat, a lone locust tree shading a crude hut. And next to it a wood covered well with a rope tied to a wooden bucket. In the far corner where neither the lone tree or cliffs could shade, stood a round igloo built of clay and rocks, with a leather flap as a door and no taller than a man kneeling could enter. The smell of sage smoke poured from atop it.

From the crude house walked a man with a young boy about the same age of Steven, Christian waved and a smile as wide as his face permitted broke on his. Pulling the wagon brake, he jumped off the wagon to greet him.

“My brother, it is good to see the white man hasn’t killed you off yet. “The man said tightly embracing Christian in a hug then releasing him and offering Suzie a helping hand off the wagon. “Glad you made it. And this must be Suzie you spoke of? Your words gave no justice to her beauty.”

Suzie blushed. “Thank you,” she said accepting his help and feeling the strength of his working hands.

“Sekora is my name. Blood brother of Christian.”

Suzie was in awe, outside Indian tales her father had told, she had never met in person a true Indian. Her wore long black hair braided down to his shoulder with beads interwoven at the bottom. His dress from the land. Leather moccasins on his feet, leather pants covered his bottom and no shirt revealing a sun perched brown body conditioned from hard-work and lean days between meats and fats. “Please to meet you.”

Sekora smiled and looked to the young boy. “And you must be Steven this is my son Dakota.” The two boys did a quick eye check. “You fish?” Dakota asked. The boy scanned the barren desert setting and nodded in hesitation. Dakota pointed to the cliffs. “It’s a little ways, but the river cuts on the other side of the cliffs.” That was the only encouragement the two needed as he jumped off the wagon and run off together. Sekora took a moment to look over Christians arm examining the dreamcatcher tattoo. Its healed nicely. I’m happy how it turned out.

“You did that?” Suzie asked. “I love his tattoo. I want one just like it.”

Sekora smiled, “I would be honored but please come,” Sekora said. “My father is ready for both of you.” Sekora led the two next to the circular adobe covered by the deerskin. “It’s hot, real hot, disrobe here and when you’re done, I’ve got blankets down by the river afterwards.”

Christian nodded and took his shirt, boots, socks and lastly his jeans off leaving only his underwear. His attention went to Suzie. “It’s hot. No time to be bashful.” She hesitated for a moment then pulled her dress off leaving her undergarment that hid just as much as the dress.

All of it,” he said.

That ain’t gonna happen. I don’t know what kind of dates your used to?”

You’re the only one I’ve brought here. Cept for Tessy.”

She rolled her eyes. “That figures.”

What?” He asked noticing her annoyance. “We’re just friends. Always been that way.”

You don’t have to tell me about your friendship Christian James.” I witnessed it first-hand. “You stay away from that woman. She seems to shadow you for no good reasons I can think of.”

Fine. Are you going strip to down or what? It really is that hot. I’ll keep my eyes close, till we both get in there.”

She nodded adamantly. She after all could be stubborn as a mule. “Not unless were married.”

The stare down started, then being resourceful, Christian’s eyes spotted some venison hung and drying in the sun. Next to it on the ground, a few kerns of corn, left from the chicken feedings. He cut a piece of the deer meat away and picked up a few of the corn kernels laying on the ground. Handing her the corn, he positioned himself in front of her. “Here, take the venison.” He said handing her the meat. “Now hand me the corn.” She reached over and gave it to him amused by his little ceremony. “That’s it. Were married. Take off your clothes.”

That’s it?” She asked smiling. “Really?”

Yes,” he said. “The watered-down version, but still every bit recognized by the Great Mystery in the sky”

Deer meat and corn?” That’s it? Are you pulling my leg.”

No, Mrs. James. Cross my heart.” He said Xing out his chest. “The meat symbolizes my commitment to hunt and provide. The corn yours to take care of our land and farm. When we enter the holy circle of the lodge the shaman’s presence gives us the final wedding blessings. Oh, and I almost forgot.” He reached over and took her by the arms and passionately kissed her. When she opened her eyes, smitten she smiled and disrobed to just her underwear.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Together they entered the adobe. Inside an old Indian sat with grey stringy long hair, shirtless wearing a leather shroud that barely covered his privates, beating on a small snare and chanting in a foreign language even Christian had trouble following. Feeling their presence, he opened his eyes smiled then went back to a chant and rhythmic beat of his drum.

Christian motioned Suzie to sit with her legs intertwined together. Sweat immediately poured from their bodies attempting to offset the piercing heat contained in the clay hut. The scent of sage permeated the small enclosure as the half-naked Indian occasionally fed the fire with a dry sage plant that spontaneously burst into flame throwing out more heat. His chanting now broke into a steady beat. Then abruptly stopped “Breathe,” he said, “like this, thru the nose breath take it in hold it in now. Push it out all of it.” the beat of his drum set the tempo for inhales and exhales. Suzie felt the burn in her lungs as she took a breath in sync with the drum beats.

The shaman smiled. “You are entangled souls.” He spoke his eyes open and fixated trancelike beyond them. “Hum foreign lands again united. Hum… Not the end but sadness, deep sadness.”

He suddenly turned to Suzie. “Life is a precious gift, to deny the gift damages the soul.”

She looked at Christian freighted by the medicine man’s words. He shushed her before she could speak and whispered to her. “You’ll be alright breathe. He’s in the spirit world… just keep breathing.”

She refocused on her breathing… the heat and aroma of sage continued to pull her inward. Occasionally from a leather pouch he would throw herbs of different color and aroma into the fire. Passing a wooden chord to her he offered a drink. Christian nodded for her to accept it. “Cactus juice,” he said. “Mixed with alcove.” She took a sip it was bitter, Christian laughed seeing the reaction on her face. The shaman motioned with his hands for her to finish it. Again, she took a sip tasting less of the bitterness, and it immediately relaxed her, she gulped the rest of it down. He smiled, pleased she had accepted his gift and started in a chanting and beating of the drum. The heat, the chanting, the sweet aroma of mixed alchemy of herbs, from a budded plant permeated thru the small adobe hut. Sweat poured off her body, her breathing increased in out pushing out sucking in. How long she had been in the hut, she couldn’t tell, her perception of time had little reverence as she felt a strange awakening in herself or spirit. A foreign or unknown energy awakened at the root of her seat rising thru her body, her eyes drawn back. She called out in an ancient language that stopped the shaman in his tracks silencing him. Even his interpretations vague at best.

He stared at her with curious eyes then broke into a laugh. His grin went wide and he started conversing with Suzie in an ancient tongue that Christian could only grasp a few words. “Water, Death, Rebirth, being the few. As quickly as the conversation started it ended, the shaman chanted a prayer in the tongue of Sioux to the Great Mystery. More sage brush and the sweet burning herb found its way to the fire igniting the heat and sweat, inducing a strange vision to Christian. He saw himself in a time, far into the present. A place opening to a meadow with neatly cut green vibrant grass, manicured low to the ground, below the harvest hay line. An arched stone bridge stretched above the meadow cut from granite and mortar supporting the girth of horseless carriages spanned across a deep but quiet river feeding its energy over a circular sandstone waterfall and releasing a steady thundering roar pounding the rocks below until it nourished the whitecaps of a river that divided itself into tributaries further down the passage. On the hilly embankment, the iron horse proudly stood in front of its checking station.

The meadow began to fill with people, laying mats in a uniformed pattern neatly on the grass. At the helm in this foreign world, stood a woman. One he knew well, one he could see beyond her blond hair, taller frame and fairer complexion. In her eyes, he recognized the sparkle of truth that carried the same life force as Suzie. When the vision melted from his senses and the heat awakened him from his spiritual journey, he opened his eyes to Suzie staring at him, and the shaman gone.

“Wow,” They both said in synchronicity.

“I feel so at peace. Like all the stresses of my life poured out.” Suzie said taking a deep relaxing breath.

“It’s beautiful isn’t it.”

She smiled slowly nodding her head, closing her eyes to savior the memory. “Yes,” she softly said. “I can’t believe the thoughts that poured out of my mine, and then just nothing, just a peaceful feeling. Like I was one with the earth. A part of it, no different than a grain of sand or piece of meadow grass, but belonging to the whole of all the majestic beauty. I was the green meadow, the white snow cap mountains, the blue endless sky that went all the way to the heavens. It felt so good.” She opened her eyes energized by her experience, a smile she couldn’t lose.

“Different perspective from maybe the spirituality you’ve ever experienced?”

“Yes!” she emphasized with enthusiasm in her voice. “Amazing, maybe the most exhilarating experience I’ve ever had. Part of it I almost felt the presence or spirit of something near or inside me.”

Christian looked on her with satisfaction yet cautious concern. Visitations of her caliber usually only experienced by shaman alone and very few at that. “I wasn’t gonna share this with you but you had a visitation. Thought it proper the medicine man, spoke to you first, but he’s more’n likely resting. You spoke in ancient tongues. Only seen that happen one other time. That’s rare, especially someone new to it. Your souls were conversing. After Chicco is rested, possibly he can tell you more. He’s old now and although his spirit is strong, it takes much from him. Come on, let’s get out here, that’s good place to stop. Your gonna love what’s next. Give me your hand.”

Crawling out of the clay abode even the desert heat of summer, felt cool and refreshing in contrast to the clay sweat lodge. Together they hiked to the creek, beyond the cliffs, to the water, and still holding hands, jumped down the small embankment, plunging into the cool cesspool of water. The cool mountain fed water immediately sapped the heat from their bodies, sending a soothing shock and awakening of spirit refreshing their being. Surfacing and still holding hands, they locked together and embraced in a kiss. Tidal waves of emotions ascended as their external heat cooled and their internal flame grew. She felt him and her eyes grew. “You can never leave me.” She whispered. “I’ve never . . “

He shushed her putting his fingers over her lips. “I know.” He nodded gently kissing her neck. “Never,” he said slipping into her and joining two souls to one. It is a rare moment in time when two souls that have been apart come together again, so rare that even words can’t ignite the imagination to understand the power of it.

By the end of the day Christian had bookmarked a concern to the speaking of toques and shaman’s prayer that he recognized or hopefully just confused as a burial prayer. As it was customer for Chicco the shaman to nap after a session, it would have to wait for another day. Halfway back Christian, Suzie and Steven stopped on the top of the grassy meadow, where a cool summer breeze made their dinning on breaded chicken, squash, fresh bread and newly caught trout even more pleasant. It was a day to be archived in their memoires. Before the sun set, they packed and headed back to the ranch. Pulling close to the house Steven jumped out eager to show his paw his uneaten catch for the day.

What?” Christian asked seeing Suzie’s inquisitive look he had come to recognize.

“Your beliefs, when I see things, our they real? I mean or is it the heat?”

He pulled the reins to the horse and set the brakes on the wagon “What did you see?”

She turned her full attention to him. “Well I don’t remember everything but a lot of it seemed crystal clear. Us, I think, I saw us. It’s just felt like I was watching us. Just like a play unfolding. Except it was in a distant time, and we were different people.”

“In the future?”

“No, the past, and not just one lifetime many it was beautiful, at first I never felt love so… “ she hesitated her eyes darted to his then back to the ground, realizing how strong the words may appear if only one is yoked to it. “I mean just a strong happiness, but the last one the past. I think I, you, we, lived somewhere near England, or Scotland, near the sea. It was summer yet cool not like the summers here, beautiful country with green blush fields and hot springs that shot water ten feet in the air. Even volcanoes. You were a warrior, a tamed pirate, a captain of a vessel, a Skeppare a Viking warrior. Married to the clan leader’s daughter Erik the Red our king. She was stunning. And I, . . . I was a Volva a witch outcast from the clan. Where the Vikings live.

Christian following along, tried to keep her vision in check. “Greenland and Viking? You just described the picture on the comic book at the county store.”

She pouted her lips and her eye brows turned inward only for a moment, as the excitement forged her on. “No,” she said nodding. “I know I seen it. I felt it. I lived it, it was very real. I can easily recall all the frames of my vision. You had been instructed to exile me. In essence, leave me in a barren place with no food, no shelter. To slowly execute me. Take me far away from the clan, from the village, from the same people I had saved using the same potions, same amulets. But fate had another calling.” Christian watched quietly, he could see her reliving what was very real to her, much more than a cover of a comic book could offer. She continued.

Closing in on the rocky shores of the coast a wicked storm had its own plans. I remember the vision of strong gale winds on the sea. And I could feel the cold it cut through me like it touched your soul. Oh how you and your brave men tried to fight the will of god. But mother nature toyed with your small vessel and when tired of playing, threw you to rocks smashing your boat to pieces and drowning your warriors. In the morning when I woke, I was set ashore, by your will only. You swam dragging my body ashore with you. You had survived the Arctic waters and strong currents along with the one you were to execute. The storm had left only bits and pieces on the shore of a ship that never made it home. Fate had left its mark. We both had been exiled. We fell in love, you said I put a hex on you. We had thirteen children together. We raised them on the land, burying a few and vowing we would die on the lands and be together forever.” Her face displayed the disappoint of her words to come. “But your tainted pirate blood boiled in your vein’s and you were of the substance of drink, and whores, and violence, and by the 15 year you had built a new ship to carry us back to quench that thirst.”

When we hit the homeland I never saw you again. Word occasionally traveled back you had hitched up in the Caribbean under a palm tree and a chest of gold, Others that you had found you fate at the sword of the British on a frigate and slept with Davey Jones. None of my black magic could bring you back. And that’s how it ended.” She looked up at Christian and had tears in her eyes and the pain seemed as real as any.

Christians eyes almost gave him away as he stared at her, through her. The same vision had haunted him but hearing the words of gypsy woman echo in his mind, of the pain he would cost his lover, he feared to share their connection. “Heat does funny things to you.” He said in a cold callous fashion refusing eye contact to hide the secret he knew.

I better go.” she said waiting for a moment, hoping to end the evening with a kiss. He avoided even a look, it left her uncertain, it had been such a special day and now he pulled it from her.

“I was thinking a picnic next week.”

“Maybe, naw come to think of it. I can’t. I got to mend the south fence.”

“Did I do something wrong?” she asked “You seem mad all of a sudden.”

“No,” he said with little conviction.

You sure?” She asked searching his eyes.

He nodded with a fake smile. “I’m sure.” Then gestured with his head to the porch where her paw stood pacing, smoking a pipe. “His pace is getting quicker by the moment, you better go before he wears the paint off the wood.”

Jumping off the wagon she turned, and he gave the horse a smack on the ass before she could say anything more. She walked slowly to the porch turning twice as the dust from the horse and cart kicked up down the path.

Christian on his ride back to his ranch thought about her vision, it was more than mere coincidence.

In his mind’s eye, he replayed the haunting past of the vision no doubt she had also experienced. A love in ancient times exactly as she had described it. But he had seen more, he had seen visions of the sea eating their island paradise for which they escaped. Of a clan council accepting her return, but only at the cost of his own exile. For the king’s daughter found little amusement in his new family. And how marked on the last day their skins touched, for all intensive purpose his life had ended. “We just got to be careful he reminded himself, that’s all, just be careful.” The vision was painful she was right. The intensity of their passion could easily roar like a fire burning across a dry meadow taunted by the wind. It did end badly, before and if they gypsy was right no better the second time around. Madness, he rationalized shaking his head from side to side. “All of it. Why does man even allow himself to be tapped in what he can only see in his mind, not touch or hear or see. Only what is in front of me is real, nothing more. If I let myself believe this nonsense. How can I live my life in the present?” Reaching the ranch, he unhitched the horse pulled off its reigns then smacked its ass and watched it buck and snort as it run off in the pasture. Paul greeted him at the door.

“Hey I think we got trouble, some cattle came up missing followed the fork creek down by the hill. Someone one cut the fence looks like they made off whit em.”

“When? How many?” Christian asked

“Hard to tell maybe twenty, could be more.”

“Son a bitch any idea which direction they headed?”

Yeah north right up cedar lane. Didn’t hide it at all. Almost like they were taunting us. Christian I don’t think this wasn’t done just for cattle, you’d be crazy to even take em out that way. And if its cattle you want, you sure in hell wouldn’t go north. Anyway expecting some news. Ken took a few men and trailed em said he send word when he found em. Figured I’d heard something by now.”

Walking into the house he went straight to the gun rack, took a rifle out and heaved it at Paul followed by a box of shells. “Here, he said pulling another rifle and box of shells for himself. “Maybe we ought to head out that way see what got em slowed down. Hopefully He ain’t found trouble. I got a sneaking suspicions who’s behind all this.”

It was a rugged trail with protruding jagged boulders and thicket of fallen pines laid down over the trail. Paul was right, no man would run off with cattle using this trail. The sun was starting to set, which gave Christian more concern for Ken versus the cattle. His concern worsened, when he bumped into Ken’s trio sent to call it a night and head to the ranch minus Ken. Gathering some details to Ken’s direction of search, he could see the fatigue in his ranch hands bordering on a full day without sleep. Against their wishes, he sent them back to the ranch.

Following their leads, his concerns were soon to be answered. In a little pocket cut out form the trail he spotted kens horse grazing without a master. Christian saw it first and pointed. “Shush,” he whispered hearing a collection of voices.

The doorbell rung sidetracking Stan’s concentration. “Who could that be this time of night?” he asked himself. Opening the door, he was surprised to see his neighbor dressed to the nines, holding a tray of food.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said barging her way past him. “I hope I didn’t interrupt you. It’s just I heard about your Uncle I’m so sorry. Where can I put this honey? I ordered some pigs in a blanket, from Reveier, that new exclusive restaurant down by the river. I hope you like it.”

“Kitchen be fine, that is very kind of you to think of us.” She followed him to the kitchen.

“Speaking of us? I hadn’t noticed Maria pull in the last couple days. I hope everything is okay. That poor child is just working herself to death at the hospital and now this.”

“I suppose you could say that.” Stan’s tone sarcastic in nature.

“Is here okay?” she asked. He nodded and she bent over allowing her bountiful cleavage to pour from its confinements of her selected dress, tailored for no other purpose. Laying the pans down, she coughed which seemed forced.

“You okay?” Stan asked, just to be polite sensing her feign

“Yes,” she coughed again. Over dramatically fanning herself with her hands as if any moment she would pass out. “Swallowed down the wrong pipe, just need a drink to clear it.” Stan could only watch in amusement to her theatrics as he filled a glass from the sink faucet and handed it to her. Her face reflected abhorrence to his offering. “Not that kind of drink. You got any liquor?”

Her mythology to seduce him seemingly calculated and steadfast had found its target, and whether the drought of his marriage, or persistence had won out, she had indeed broke him down as Stan’s attention zeroed in on her attributes. After all he reasoned ethics can only win out so long in the nature of man, if one is to follow the nature of man. There’s no trophies at the end not even a participation trophy for following the rules. She had been consistent in her advances and given his circumstances that was good enough. “Yeah,” he half smiled. “I got plenty, keep it in the bar downstairs.”

She smiled. “lead the way.”

“Bars official opened,” he said flipping the ‘bar open sign’ and disco light. “How’s margaritas sound?”

“Got vodka?”

“I most certainly do. Grey goose work for you?” he asked grabbing it from the shelve and laying down a glass for her.

“Love it on the rocks.”

She sat down in the bar stool, bending slightly to assure a full view of her assets. “Got any music?” he pointed to a jukebox. “Coins?”

“Nope. Just select what you want.” She got up from the stool, drink in hand and wandered to the juke box flipping through the selections. Rocking her hips in rhythm to the melody of the music. Stan’s eyes fixated on her posterior in a semi-hypnotic trance while he poured half a bottle of tequila along with mixer and ice into the blender and within minutes had a salted glass staring him in the eye. “Good lord I just love alcohol.” He toasted to her, as the music lured them from one, to two, to eventually an empty bottle of grey goose next to an empty bottle of Jose Cuero.

Sipping on her drink, a slow song came on, she stood half way up bracing her elbows on the bar, her back seductively pushed out, swaying to the rhythm of the music her eyes sultry and inviting. Stan took the bait, locking eyes he bent closer to her, the whiff of her lavender perfume drew him in closer. Her finger circled around the outer edge of her glass before dipping it, then to her lips, licking it clean while penetrating his eyes. In a come-hither gaze Greta Garbo would be proud of.

Stan gulped the last of his drink and slammed it down on the bar. “Alright were on, were taking this to the bedroom.” He grabbed ahold of her arm and pulled her up the stairs. Reaching the bedroom, he pulled his shirt off tore her top down exposing her tits and like a high school kid knocking down his first score took a mouthful as they both fell to the bed. Next came her skirt his jeans her panties his underwear, until both had nothing more than skin to skin between.

“Wow. Cowboy,” she said her voice rattled by the excitement of her encounter and the prowess of his eagerness. “We should’ve had that drink a long time ago. I hope this isn’t just a revenge fuck.”

Her words cut through the heat of passion. “what… did you say revenge fuck.”

“No don’t stop darling,” she said pulling his head towards her chest. “Let it go. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

He pulled himself up, and off her balancing with his hands a full arm’s length holding his chest away from hers. “No, you said revenge fuck. Why would you say that?”

Her eyes dazed and conflicted by his sudden distraction. “I just thought… I mean it’s okay if it is.”

“If it is what? A revenge fuck? What would make you think I would be doing this to get even with Maria? You know something about Maria, don’t you?”

She searched his face trying to understand if the truth was what he really wanted to hear. “Darling, I’m gonna try and make this as painless as I know how, and the only way I know how is plain and simple cut to the chase.” She propped herself up on her elbows, and shook her head straightening her tussled hair. “She been running around town for at least a year with this guy. Christ everybody in town knew. Honestly he gives me the wheelies.” She said shuttering, “Just a greasy knurly man I don’t know what she sees in him.

Stan’s face went pale. He got completely off her and stood up looking for his pants. “I guess being a doctor has its advantages.”

“Doctor? honey she’s banging some rent a cop, works as a part time guard at the hospital.”

Reaching for his pants he put one leg in, hobbled on one leg sticking the other in, then stood straight and zipped his pants. “Well I guess that summarizes everything. Just a bad country song. You ought to just go.”

Shelly realizing the moment had passed, followed suite grabbing her panties and pants and began dressing. “I’m sorry Stan, I know all this is bad timing. Maybe we ought take a rain cheek?” She asked in a meek voice testing him.

He smiled but gave her no other response.

When she left, he went back down to the bar and poured a glass of whiskey and slammed it down. “Freaking rent cop you got to be kidding me.” In his semi stupor, he dialed Maria’s number to give her a piece of his mind. It immediately went to voice mail. He hung up and dialed again, in fact he kept dialing until her voice mail was full and no message could be left. Frustrated he poured another glass of whiskey and thinking her heard footsteps upstairs he called out Shelly’s name, thinking she had returned. Getting no response, he headed up the basement steps.

He hadn’t even gotten halfway up when his mouth dropped and his drink fell out of his hand. “Good lord,” was all he could say as the mystery woman from the bar stood at the top of the stairs. In her hand she held the packet of love letters from his Uncle.

“How did you get these?” She demanded an answer. “These were not meant for you to see.”

“I was given them.”

“You lie,” she screamed out.

“Look I don’t know how you got in here but you need to go before I call the cops.”

“Cops,” she laughed. “Honey they can’t help you.” The women’s disposition suddenly changed, her eyes took in the room. “You’ve changed things. It’s not the same house it used to be.”

“What do you mean it’s not the same, have you been here before?” she laughed and her hand drew towards her neck covered by a scarf.

“Yes.” She responded as his phone rang. “

Before he could answer it, it quit ringing. “Maria,” he said fumbling to answer then noticing it was a telemarketer number. His eyes drifted to the spot the young lady stood. She had vanished in thin air. “What the hell is going on.” He said cautiously taking a step up the stairs, guarding for any uncertainty. He peeked around the corner. She couldn’t have just disappeared he thought, or could she? Twice now this strange woman or apparition had made an appearance and in doing so defied all logic, Stan could reasonable hang his hat on. Now it was time to apply a different rationality. One that he had suppressed since his childhood. His first experience with the dead, his grandfather during his wake. He was only five then, those in the process of grieving gave his peculiar conversation with the unseen as child play. There had been many more after that. Mostly relatives that had passed, but after a visit from his father, fresh from the grave, and unsettling, spooked him to the point he would never discuss or ever allow his conviction to wander to the window of the mind that seemingly called out and invited the departed souls. He wondered if the years of alcohol had loosened his ability to hinder their visits.

Three relative sleepless nights passed and were ‘X’ out from the calendar, before Stan finally made a call to Butch. The Ghost Buster always eager for a new adventure, immediately made himself available. Butch arrived on his Harley and in tow driving a van with a barely noticeable Casper the ghost emblem and containing a cargo of recording equipment, sat Racheal. She was accompanied by a thin tall guy with glasses, long black stringy hair slicked back in a ponytail introduced as Mic, and a shorter stout chubby Spanish guy with a crew cut named Paco.

He stared somewhat in awe somewhat in mystery to arrival. “Racheal what a surprise? Don’t tell me you’re a ghost buster too?”

She laughed.” Not an official member yet. Hope you don’t mind but Butch been telling me his ghost chasing stories for a while. I thought I’d tag along for this one, although I assumed he meant the university when he mentioned your name.” She looked around the house her body seemed tense and you could see the apprehension in her look.

“Not at all,” he emphasized with baited enthusiasm. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you again. All of yinz. To tell you the truth, thought I was going crazy. “

“You’re not off the hook yet that’s what were here to confirm.” Butch said patting Stan on the back then turning his attention to Racheal with kind eyes. “But thanks for coming Racheal, I know it isn’t easy for you. So, where was you encounter?” He asked turning back to Stan.

“Follow me, next to the stair way in the basement. I was standing on the lower step and she, the ghost appeared at the top of the stair.”

Butch waving the crew forward followed taking out what he called a thermometer and pointed it near the area Stan encountered the specter. “Reads temperature,” he replied seeing Stan’s interest. “Goes all the way up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Ghost leave temperature imprints due to different energy output, machine is super sensitive. Slick the way it picks up the variances.” The dial on the color reading trended to the right and the beeps, similar to a Geiger counter increased to a steady stream. “Bingo Houston we got poltergeist activity.”

“Down here,” he waved, motioning his crew to follow until the gadget dead ended him at a wall. “What’s behind here, Butch asked putting his hand up against the wall. “Feels cold.”

Stan shrugged his shoulders. “Got me? I would say block. That’s about where the house ends and the porch is above it sits.”

“Nah, its hollow behind here.” Butch tapped his hand a few times against the wall leaning his ear against it, then without notice or permission, pulled a pocket knife out and plunged it into the drywall cutting out a small peep hole and shining a pen light in it to get a look.

“See anything?” Stan asked

“Take a look for yourself.” Butch said handing him the flash light.

“I’ll be damn a room behind here.” Stan backed away. Previous owner must have dry walled right over it.”

“Cool isn’t that my friend may be the source of your visitor, machine went crazy. This house was what built in the early 1800“s? Probably and old root cellar.”

Stan nodded. “Sounds about right.”

Within a few minutes a hole in the drywall was cut under the insurance by Butch of his mudding abilities to repair it and the crew’s curiosity to what stood behind it. His crew equipped with lighting and cameras, stood ready as any seasoned poltergeist hunter would be, Mic with the lighting, and Paco camera in hand. Behind the wall, they found an old rickety wooden door, that easily pushed open and led to a ten by ten room. The room had a damp musky smell to it; a thick patch of cobwebs covered the ceiling.

The lighting caught the reflection of a rope hanging from a beam. Paco but he camera down and made the sign of the cross. “Good lord Jesus, what we have here. Butch knocked the growth of cob webs, off the beam “I’ll be damn looks like what’s left of a hanging noose. Go figure?” What’s that wrapped in it. Butch gripped the envelope out of the noose and started to open it.

“Stop!” Stan shouted almost panicking recognizing his Uncle’s envelope. “That’s personal stuff and for the love of Jesus I have no idea how it got back here. “

Butch handed the envelope to Stan, who had a resigned defeated look, like the wind had been knocked from his sails. “This is Creepy, I never did like this house.”

“Hey check this out,” Mic said shining his light towards the back, “another door.” They pried the old rust clad metal door that gave little resistance venturing into what appeared to be a tunnel, its ceiling braced with rough cut timber a height that of an average man and maybe just as wide as tall. Grisly tree roots anchoring the might oaks above, cut straight through the walls and ceiling of dirt. The floor a mixture of clay and pools of water with a steady stream led the path that followed a downward slope.

Butch had a smile on his face. “Will only one way to find out where it goes.”

Mic started the first few steps in the tunnel heard a clump of clay splatter onto the floor, flashed the light to find the source then turned and handed the light to Butch. “Count me out, I don’t like tight spaces, anyway someone needs to stay back in case you know.”

“Paco?”

“Hey bro I’m in, you know I’m comfortable with tunnels. That’s how I got to America.” His statement got a laugh from the group.

“Alright then let’s go. See you guys when we get back.”

“Whoa,” Stan said. “I wouldn’t think of not seeing this one. You coming Racheal?”

She nodded no. “I don’t need to go. It leads to the meadow.”

“The meadow? how would you know that?” Stan asked.

Racheal’s eyes darted over to Butch, he interceded for her.

“Lucky guess if nothing more, come on Racheal it be alright,” Butch said gently taking her hand. “It will be good for you.”

Racheal nodded, and the group started down the tunnel. Occasionally, the tunnel would rumble, dirt would fall from the ceiling, and the footsteps came to a halt, as the group crouched over staring at the wooden beams, waiting for flying monkey to buzz over their yellow brick road. “Freaking cars.” Paco said carefully recording all events for later analysis of their journey.

Butch bravely led the band with Racheal in tow next to Stan. She instinctively clutched his hand tightly; both could feel a surge, or jolt that served them in a complimentary fashion. An unknown awakening to the harmonic magnetism that completed each other. They smiled at each other unaware of their connection.

Progression down the tunnel finally met natural light bleeding into the darkness of the cave. The sound of rushing water brought familiarity to their destination. “Were under the waterfall this leads to the bridge, my yoga meadow.” Rachel excitedly shouted out over the roar of the water tumbling over the stone. “I told you.” More light transcended into a carved-out walkway under the water falls.

Butch reached out touching the river as it fell over the falls. “You were right. Were right under the waterfalls. All makes sense what I’ve read about some of the homes in the community having ties to the underground railroad, must have been a way out of here at some point.” He added then turned to Stan making sure he was out of hearing distance from Racheal. “You got yourself a historical landmark. Maybe that’s the ghost connection, you know a lot of stored emotional energy seems to be a portal for that kinda activity. You do know about the younger woman who hung herself. Right?”

“Yeah long, long, time ago. Thirty years ago or more. Realtor told me. I’d preferred not to buy, but my better half vetoed that idea. Maybe that’s why we got such a good buy on the place.”

“Could be,” Butch said. “Let’s get back to the house and set some equipment up and see what happens, be interesting to a little research now that we got a little history.” By the time they made it back to the entrance in the basement, they could hear a woman arguing with Mic, Stan recognized her voice and he knew a battle awaited him.

Stepping from the backroom Maria was on him like a jaguar cat running down a desert rodent. “Jesus Stan what is going on here you got a hole in the wall, strangers in my house hauling equipment down here. What in god’s name are you doing.”

“We found a tunnel, these guys are paranormal experts. I got em doing some research.”

“What from the university? What kind of research?”

“Ghost research. And no, they’re not from the university.”

She stood firm shaking her head, giving the whole of the group a looking over. “ I don’t know how I put up with you all these years. You finally lost your mind.”

“Not necessarily,” Butch came to his defense. “Stan’s got some legitimate concerns of paranormal activity right here in this house.”

She let out a huff followed with a mocking laugh. “Paranormal activity I’ve lived here for five years. The only paranormal activity in this house is when he runs out of booze.”

Stan caught Racheal’s look and lowered his head almost shameful. Butch did an aggressive hand gesture across the neck signaling Paco to quit filming. “That ain’t all true Stan said. “You just make your choices easier by seeing what you want. Look if all you came to do is bash who or what I am, then just leave. You’ve already made it pretty clear that’s your choice. I don’t want to fight anymore.”

Maria felt the eyes bearing down on her especially Racheal’s, it made her uncomfortable. She was outnumbered, the unity of his new friends favored his perspective. Besides she hadn’t come to argue, it just naturally went in that direction. “Your right, this is not the place to air out our grievances with each other.’ Maria feasted her eyes on Racheal delivering a venomous sting that was meant to slip. “I’m getting a few things that’s all. And you and your little pussy . . . I mean ‘posse’ of ghost chasers can go about your… well whatever it is you do.” Maria stormed from the room, her words a vehicle for Racheal to know her place, at least in her house. After collecting her wear, the group now much quieter and with less enthusiasm returned to business setting up cameras and lightening along with an array of electrical gadgets that picked up infrared spectrums of colors and sounds not normally heard or seen by the naked eye or ear. As a temporary fix Butch fastened a sheet of plywood over the entrance in the basement, then collecting the tools, loaded them up. “We’ll he said shutting the door to the van, the next spot well need to do is your Aunts, I know you had some concerns you mentioned on the phone?”

“Yeah the hard part is keeping it under the cuff, no need to spook my Aunt after all she’s been through.”

“Alright,” then butch said jumping on his Harley. “Adios boys and girls, time to go see mamma. Cause if momma ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy. Oh, not sure if I told you but if you go to www.Butchghosthuniting.com you can log into your account be under you name password is your name you can change once you’re in, you can actually check out the recording video and sounds even the gauges to your house, pretty cool instant feedback for you if they pick anything up. “

Racheal walked to the van door and Stan followed her. “Hey thanks for stopping over. I know Maria made you uncomfortable, I’m sorry she can be a little overbearing at times, a lot of it maybe my fault. I guess everything’s been a little unsettling for me and…”

She opened the van door standing outside it and turned to Stan. “Look, you don’t need to apologize. You’re going through a lot. I get it. It’s all scary stuff trying to make sense of it all. Besides it did me good to come back, I mean to come back and see you.”

He smiled, while trying to analyze the ‘why’ of her need to see him again. “Will I’m glad to see you again too. But the ghost stuff, honestly Racheal that’s not what bothers me. Maybe someday down the road, I might be able to share some things along those lines. But what bothers me is the thought maybe I’m just losing my mind and none of this is real. Now that scares me. and….,” he hesitated his head facing down.

“And what?”

His head lifted. “And I guess the thought of all the wasted years I, we, Maria and I, she spent together. We never had any chemistry, nothing to keep the passion simmering.”

“Breaking up is hard, I know.” Her face drooped she could feel his pain.

He went to silence, thinking at first he had shared too much. Then he thought the truth would set him free. She turned getting in the van. He leaned his hand on the side of the open window. He felt a need to confess his sin. “I feel more guilt for wasting her life, she didn’t leave me I pushed her away. And I just got comfortable in all of it. What you witnessed tonight is just the last punch after the bell rung, a cheap shot maybe I had coming.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, it takes two too tangle. Besides if that’s the worst you’ve done, I’ve seen nastier.” She nodded touched him on the cheek with sad eyes and softly mouthed goodbye and backed down the driveway. For a moment he watched her pulling out, waving he couldn’t help thinking Maria had everyone believing he was a freaking alcoholic. Yeah booze has been a better friend then her lately. After all it was friend that was always there, took the edge of bad days and made boring days fun. Stan had earned at least a little of that in his life everyone needs something more, an escape or chance to step away from always being mister average in everything he did. Booze just seemed to be the only option to unleash him from being the poster child of mediocracy. Stan walked into the den looked at the calendar, crossed out another day with an X and cracked open his computer, ordered a pizza on line then dug into his book.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Almost riding up on them they caught a flicker of a small fire thru an opening in the brush. So close they could smell the pot roast stew, mixed with beans, simmering in the kettle. Both men became quiet, while they dismounted off their rides. Christian pointed to three men slopping up a bowl of what appeared to stew, no doubt from one of his young choice calf’s. He could see Ken closest to the fire; his face in the shadows of the flame seemed anguished over his predicament while conversing with the three men sitting around the fire, chomping on grub like they ain’t seen food in months. Christian pointed to brush cover closer to the fire, signaling Paul to follow him. Once in position they could safely hear the conversation.

“Where is he,” Ken asked nervously. “I done my part of the deal, their gonna be wondering where I’m off too.”.

The cowboy stout in build, leaned his ass cheek to one side let out some gas, and put the plate to his mouth licking the few bits of gravy made from grease stuck to the plate, most of it entangling itself in his grizzly unkempt beard. “Give him some time it’s still early, beside your already knee deep in this. Way I see it, you got no choice but to wait.” The cowboy shifted his ass cheek again and farted, putting a grin on his face. “I’d say the Colonel is your only friend about now, ain’t gonna be hard for your boss to figure out youz betrayed him. Figure cattle rustling still get ya hung in these parts.” He said gathering a nervous laugh from his cohorts.

Christian’s eyes narrowed on his friend, or at least what he thought was his friend, and shook his head in disbelief. Ken and he had met a long time ago while laying over four-hundred miles of steel on a railroad crew through weather and terrain that would stop most men after the first day. Their equal toughness and ambitions a bonding factor in their relationship. Eventually their interest, weaned by hard work and low wages, captivated them in the changing times and latest American dream. After all, a man of fate, must seek it. And under the banner of gold for the taking, they found themselves along with thousands of others headed to California with gold fever chasing a dream to dig, blast, and sift through rock, and water, together in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Their prospecting yielded them with more stories then gold, and after varies jobs and years of working side by side, Christian offered Ken what he thought was a generous position to help run the ranch he won in a card game. Sure they had both had their difference, maybe even a little jealousy on Kens part to Christian’s good fortune. But to Christian, ken was like a brother and felt he treated him as such. Christian took his pistol out of his hoister, checked the chambers and whispered to Paul. “Come on were going in.” Just as Christian rose Paul suddenly jerked him down, motioning with his chin in the direction directly to their right.

There less than 40 yards away came a small band of cowboys fully armed maybe twenty in all led by Royce Junior and what appeared to be the Colonel from the card game. Reaching the campfire Royce jumped off his horse, while the Colonel remained mounted in his saddle. With a smile Royce walked over to the pot of stew and beans, took a heaping out with the cradle, ate some from it, scattered the rest into the fire, dropping the cradle back into the stew and ripped his mouth with his shirt.

“Jesus boy’s you looked half scared to death when I rode in, something got your spoked?”

“Just being careful,” the stout older man said. “Rustling cattle isn’t exactly a night in the pen. Hung man out here for less. So yeah just a little concerned. Got the money? Junior here is a little antsy to be on his way.”

Royce sneered at him. “Well you dumbasses seen the fire two miles down the trail. Hell, god knows that gunslinger might have his sights on you right know waiting to pull the trigger.”

The cowboy peaked his head looking about with a worried look then, kicked some dirt in the fire to douse the flame.

Royce laughed then went to his saddle and bulled a bag from it, tossing it over to Ken. “There you go Judas take your silver and go. We can consider the deal closed. Rest of you take the cattle and head em up the north trail.” Ken scrambled to the ground picking up the silver pieces as that had dropped from the small bag.

The stout cowboy got up adjusted his suspenders then did the math on Royce instructions. “North trail that lead to the cliff, why they’ll all go over the cliff and drown.”

“Exactly,” you got a problem with that?”

Kens popped his head up and stopped picking up the silver. “Hey, I thought you were just gonna, send a message, raffle his feathers a little, give him a chance to round em back up. I didn’t sign up for this?”

Royce gave the Colonel a smirk then walked over to Ken. “Look you little grease ball, I don’t care what you signed up for, as far as this day goes, your ass belongs to me. I’d hate see the wrath comes you way if Christian was to find out how you betrayed him. Besides thing of it as your civic duty, Ranch only as good as its cattle it produces, maybe after a while Christian will come to his sense, see how good of an offer the Railroad made him, help the community out. ain’t that right Colonel?”

“That’s about right,” the Colonel said uncomfortable yet trained his whole life to take and implement orders.

“Christian waved Paul to retreat, when they both got to a safe distance, Christian seemed to prefer silence and Paul wasn’t going to settle for anything less than talk. He rode his horse along-side Christian. “I just can’t get the picture of Ken selling you out from my mind. I don’t know what got in the boys head.”

“Money plain and simple.” Christian said picking up the pace sticking his spur in the horse’s flank to cue him.

Paul did the same to keep step.“Naw that ain’t like Ken you guys got back to far for money to be his motivator.”

“You’d be surprised what money can do to a man.”

“What you gonna do? That’s a lot of your income. Maybe we should have taken our chances tonight.”

Christian shifted his weight to the back of the saddle and pulled on the reins, stopping his horse in his tracks. He turned to Paul. “We did the right thing tonight. No way to get in front of em and head em off, got the backside covered too. Would have been a bloodbath to make a stance. Won’t be tonight, but I’ll even the score, I promise you that. Besides seems I already lost one good friend tonight, hardly seems sense to lose another.”

Paul smiled. “I take it you ain’t waiting for the law to fix this one.”

“Deputy from Albuquerque won’t show for another six months. He ain’t gonna make a special trip for a man of my reputation. That’s a long time to keep peace, after seeing what we saw.” A lightening bolt in the distance flashed catching their attention. Christian felt a drop of rain on his neck and adjusted his hat tightening the strings. “Best we get home.” He said lightly spurring his horse. “But don’t you worry paybacks are a bitch. Someone taught me that a long time ago.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

The doorbell rung, “must be the pizza, wow that was quick.” He said checking his watch and making his way to the door; opening it, the delivery guy caught him off guard. The smell of reefer barely covered by his cigarette hung from his mouth and his eyes were glassed over.

“Dude nice Crib,” the young man said poking his head in.

In front of Stan, stood the infamous plagiarizer. “Come in Matt, right? Ah, ya leave the smokes outside. “

Matt stopped just before entering the house wet his fingers with his mouth then twisted the cigarettes putting the flame out and leaving it on the railing. “Yo bro. Got you like 2’nd period English literature.” Matt handed Stan the pizza, opening the lid to check his pizza he noticed Matt’s attention zero in on the pizza like a ravaged wolf hunting for prey. “Come on in I’ll get your tip. You hungry you want a piece?” Stan asked laying the pizza on the counter.

“Excellenta.” Matt said digging into the pizza with unwavering enthusiasm.

“I’m kinda glad to see you, I actually been meaning to talk to you. “

“Shoot bro.” He said in between chomps devouring the pizza.

“You know you seem like a really bright young man.”

““Thanks it’s a gift,” he said swallowing half the piece of pizza in two bites. “God I love this pizza.”

“It’s called the munchies, isn’t it?”

Matt stared cold stone faced then broke into a smile. “Oh yeah got ya.”

“What’s your major anyway, you seem well versed in some of the classic literature, I’ve even heard you recite entire Shakespeare soliloquies from memory.”

“Yeah dude I got the gift, feds tested me out said I got a good noggin man, but a yeah what was you second question again?” he finished with a nervous laugh.

“Major what’s your major, you know the reason you actually go to class?”

“Ah got you dude, yeah pre-med, into neurobiology, maybe even be a prof like you some day when I’m not cutting up and suturing neurons together. I think that’s where I’m headed, but not really sure.”

With his recreational outlet, it seemed doubtful to Stan that road would be taken. But as in his own life, once a pre- med student with different ambitions then literature, he felt he could sympathize facing the same fork in the road. “It all work out.” Was all he could say.

Matt pointed to the pizza. “Mind if I grab another piece?”

Stan nodded. “Sure help you self, I suppose delivering pizza’s gets you hungry. Seem like your juggling a lot. “

“Yeah work the night shift at hospital as a security cop too, that keeps pretty busy if you know what I mean.”

The statement seemed out of place but he let go. “I’m going to ask you a question just between me and you.” Matt’s attention barely rose above his pizza. “Now you seem like a good kid, but do you realize I actually read what you turn into me?” Matt’s look unchanged and blank as if nothing was said. Stan wondered for a moment is he was dealing with a savant. “Okay let me add to that. So being a professor of literature, I can more than likely spot someone else’s work. Right? Especially if it were my own work, right?”

He munched down on the pizza,” sure whatever you say man.”

Stan was getting a little pissed. “Alright put the pizza down for a moment and listen to me for a second.” Matt stopped mid-air from putting the pizza in his mouth and blankly stared at the professor. “The last paper you turned in, it was a work I had published, every bit of it. Seems like you just more in likely copied and pasted and turned it in as your work.”

“Exactly what’s the big deal? You had me worried I did something wrong.” He said smiling and stuffing the pizza in his mouth.

Stan could only shake his head at first, sensing Matt’s insolence to the subject matter. “The big deal is its plagiarism, and that buddy, can get you kicked out of the university.”

“Didn’t plagiarize it, Webster’s defines plagiarism as the intentional act of using to steal and pass off, the ideas or words of another as one’s own.”

Stan stood flabbergasted by Matt’s complacency to understand. He wondered how much pot he was smoking. “Well then I’m dumbfounded, forgive me for not recognizing myself.”

“Not a problem bro. There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

“You’re going to use my own quotes on me? Come on buddy you got do better than that? I got to be crazy just to believe I’ve given you the benefit of the doubt.”

“Those who dance with the wolves are thought crazy by those who can’t hear the music.” Matt tapped his index finger on Stan’s chest. “You bro hear the music. I’m just a visitor, a shadow of yourself a friend stopping by. I’ve been more than just a student, but maybe not. Fact is I’ve been a slew of things for you.”

“Your confusing me.”

“I’ll make it as simple as I can. I’m you, straight from your occipital lobe up to your parietal lobe.” Matt stopped for a second to think. “Wait no. That would be real, I meant to say down from your parietal lobe to your occipital lobe. That would be imaginary. Miss fires in the brain. I’m surprised you remembered that, or we remembered that I guess. You know your drinking brought all this back, that my good friend is true. You are your own worst enemy, the villain, the antagonists in your life story. You tear your own world apart. You’re not a gunfighter this round Stan. Maria tried to warn you. She is a doctor after all. Told you, you were going crazy, but you kept pushing her away. All cause you didn’t want deal with it, always afraid of commitment, couldn’t even make a honest woman out of her. Can’t hardly blame ya. Man has heart disease, people try to help, but mental issues? God lord they avoid you like the plague itself. I, you, are the creator, loneliness the catalyst. You’re the one always pushing people away on the outside, until one day you got nobody out there, then little by little you start seeing us… ah but the mind is kind. It tries to protect itself. Ghost that’s what you’ tell yourself your seeing, just like when you were a lonely child, and that my brother, your isolation, is the pathway that lets us all in your world.

Stan could own stare at the young punk. A young punk that now on closer examination. Looked a little like he did at that age. A lot like he did at that age. And his logic a little like his. In fact, a lot like his. Matt was right the mind does try to protect itself. Denial being its strongest tool. He wanted to scream out liar, but no words came from his mouth.

Matt beat him to the punch. “You don’t believe it, do you? Think I’m a liar.” I can see that. Think about it, I don’t know literature, you do, I’m just an over active imagination.” He took the last piece of pizza from the box and gulped it down. “I really better go, but my visit won’t be for naught. My advice, seize the moment, make this life count. Quit punishing yourself for an old life time, that has passed. Think of your time under the muse of one of my, our favorite quotes.”

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’… Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”

Stan stood locked in on his words, his gaze went beyond Matt, his mind pulling inward to sort through the craziness he was being confronted with. When his focus reengaged in the outer world, Matt was gone. And the house was empty.

His sights fixated on the monitoring equipment, and he noticed one of the camera’s pointed at the area near the door and another scanning the kitchen area where he had left the pizza. Technology would be the judge of who was going insane. “Freaking punk trying to fuck with me, I’ll get the little smart ass. I’ll get his ass fired. And when I’m done he won’t be so cool and casual when he finds himself on the street kicked out of school too. How’s that for Imagination.” Stan went to the den and googled the pizza website, then got the phone number off the pizza site and dialed it. “See how your boss likes your smart ass.”

“Sam’s pizza. This is Chip.”

“Yeah hey, your guy just delivered a pizza here. My address? 233 oak knoll. What? What you mean it’s a pickup, you already delivered it. Stiles is the name, Stan Stiles. Yes, I know it sounds like it rhymes. What? You mean it’s still sitting on the oven? Yeah that’s right, large pizza, everything except anchovies. Nah I don’t want it now, keep it.” Stan hung up and went to the kitchen to check the pizza box, thinking he had ordered from somewhere else. “What the hell?” he said, seeing the box and pizza gone. “That son of bitch must have took my pizza.” His mind tried replaying his encounter with the plagiarizer, it was getting harder to rationalize the why and how of what was happening. A game of ping pong in his mind, split between rational and craziness. His thoughts now leaning towards his own craziness. “Alright, I need to slow down everything. Website, yeah Butch said everything is recorded.” He sat down at his computer and googled the ghostbusters’ website entering his name and password which brought him up in real time to Butch’s webpage. It seemed easy enough to maneuver through using a dropdown link that took him straight to a bird’s eye view of his living room, kitchen basement and even a camera in the tunnel. Using the drop-down menu again, he linked into the archives and very first day the system was mounted. “Alright now were getting somewhere,” he said eager to put it all in perspective. “Racheal,” he said fondly seeing her smile in the lens camera and blowing kisses to the crew hanging the camera. He fast forwarded it, nothing but his cat running across room. He forwarded it again. “There we go,” he said seeing himself coming in view on the tape answering the door. All expression dropped from his face, the videotaped seemingly him, and him alone having a discussion with himself, and no one else. “That can’t be,” he said dumfounded. He replayed it back several times before finally giving up and pushing his chair back from his computer. “Good god I am going crazy.” His phone went off startling him and he fumbled for it. A text from Racheal.

“Found Billy Buds, with Paco and Mic cool place, interested in a drink?” It took him more time to type it then decide. “Walking out the door as we speak!” she sent back a smiley face.

Stan put his jacket on and made his way to Billy Buds, it was raining and a cold night. Entering the bar, it was a good crowd, most of the bar stools were taken and even the dance floor had a few folks dancing to a DJ. He scanned the bar looking for Rachael but she was nowhere in sight, he made his way to an open stool.

“What you have?” the bartender asked as Stan planted himself to the bar.

“Kilian’s draft beer be fine.” The bartender poured it and laid it down. “You look a little weary my friend. What troubles you?”

Stan took a sip and laid his beer glass back on the bar. “Everything. You ever feel that way?”

“Every time I walk in this place,” the bartender kidded. Then smiled and made his way to other patrons.

He took couple more gulps of his beer, let his eyes carefully wander to the strip pole, with no dancer then pulled his phone out and texted Racheal."??? you leave?" It was a few minutes before she responded.

“Had to step out , lol, run a quick errand. Boys left, stay put I’ll be back in a few. Smiley face” Several beers later she finally appeared and made her way over to him.

“Glad you made it back. I was just about ready to give up on you. What you drink? It’s on me.”

“Ah… glass of red wine sounds good.”

He smiled. “It does. In no time at all the bartender obligated and brought two glasses and a bottle over.

“So,” she said taking a sip of her wine and giving the place a looking over. “This is Billy Buds, Butch said it’s the first place you sighted the young lady.”

“Yep, right over there. She was dancing, had a drink with her right about where were sitting.”

Racheal’s eyes lifted towards the dance pole, then caught site of the juke box. “I swear I’ve been in here before, I think my Aunt worked here, came in here with my mom before, when I was a kid. Ate pork rinds of all things, jukebox used to take bar tokens.”

“Coin machine now, but still got pork rinds.” He waved the bar tender down and ordered a bag of pork rinds and some hot-sauce. “Small world Hun? The bartender laid the bag of pork rinds down. Stan ripped the bag open put it between them and started to instinctively pour the hot sauce, suddenly stopping. “You do like hot sauce?”

“love it.”

“That’s my girl.” He offered up the rinds. And took a bite himself. “Question is how’d you get interested in all this ghost stuff?”

She took another pork rind from the bag. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve always had some type of fascination with the paranormal. My grandparents used to have an old farmhouse. Couple people died in it, of natural causes. We lived there, my mother and I, for a while. I guess she was going through some tuff times with my dad. As a kid my grandma and grandpa used to say I would have conversations with imaginary friends. Sure did seem real to me. Funny as I got older and my interest changed you know teenager stuff. I never had the experience again. I don’t know if any of that was tied into the old house but when Butch started taking yoga lessons, he kinda stirred up some old memories.” She licked the pork rind first then popped it in her mouth.

“Seems we have a common path.” He said taking a sip of his beer, careful not to share, his own past that haunted him. “Realtor told us there was a suicide in our house, back in the fifties, young girl, doctor’s family owned it, maybe that’s why we got it so damn cheap.”

Racheal kept her stare forward and corrected him. “It was a murder.”

“Really?” He responded wondering how she knew.

She sensed some suspicion and backed down on her proclamation. She wasn’t ready to get into the history of it all. “At least the rumor circulated over Halloween.”

“Stan shivered. “That’s creepy, you know I’ve had my reservations about that place. Maria wanted it. I always felt uneasy there. Place always reminded me of the house the ‘monsters’ lived in.” From the corner of his eye he could see something had upset Racheal she appeared to be gazing into the distance, he wondered if he had offended her somehow. “You okay?” he finally asked to break the silence

“Yeah,” she responded as if she broke out of a deep thought. “So your ghost is a dancing girl?”

He turned around facing the dancing post. “Yep saw her right over there. she was dancing then came and got a drink, next thing I know were deep in conversation. Told me she had a love affair with a married man. Honestly now I ain’t sure seen any of it. Maybe Maria’s right, I probably do drink too much. Maybe I’m just going looney.” He joked but knew, it had more truth then he would admit.

“We all got sins that haunt us. Which way is the bathroom got to powder my nose.” Stan pointed behind her.

“That way.”

After a short period, Racheal returned with more pep in her movement and a livelier mood. She grabbed her wine glass drinking half of it down. “Cheers,” she said clinking glasses together. “Love is friendship set on fire,” and downed the rest of the glass.

“Ah yes the discussion of love…the mistress of the lonely, let me think, ah here’s an appropriate second toast from James Joys. ‘Love loves to love love.’

“Very nice and simple,” she smiled. “See I knew I could break thru that armor of yours.”

The bartender seeing the empty glasses and bottle, brought another bottle over and offered them another drink. “Sure,” they both said in unison and smiled at each other. One led to three and before long both had glazed over eyes as the DJ started to play ‘doctor feel good.’

Racheal took Stan by the hand and led him over to the strip pole. Drinks in hand, Racheal seductively sipped from her wine glass, put it down, kicked her shoes off and grabbed the pole. In one swift motion, aided by years of conditioned yogi, she lifted her lean muscular legs horizontally and acclimated her body to the pole as if they were one. Dropping one foot back to the ground, she swung around the pool. Shaking her hair loose. The wisp of the angelic blonde hair threaded through her lips while the rest seductively covered one eye. Stan stood mesmerized and quite turned on. She for a brief moment appeared in a trance, he reached out to touch her breaking her spell. Her eyes opened and she shook her hair free from her eyes.

“You okay,” Stan asked.

“Yeah,” she said smiling.

“Good lord you can dance.”

She grabbed her shoes putting one on at a time, holding onto Stan to balance herself. “I used to dance when I was younger. We only went down to pasties and bikini. Lived in Fort Lauderdale for a while, wild time of my life.” She smiled. ‘All she wants to do is dance,’ started playing by the DJ. “How about you, can you dance?”

“Sure the two step. can’t remember learning it, but somehow I know it. Especially when I’m drunk. And this just happens to be your lucky night. I think I’m drunk.”

They had a natural rhythm. They danced to jazz, they danced to rock, they dance to country. When the music slowed, they got closer. He held her tight and he felt her tremble. Her eyes locked on his, and sunk deep inside him, it was there she saw a part of herself. She pulled away, frightened. “I have to go.” Before he could ask why? She whisked out the front door.

He stood at the dance floor watching the door close. He shook his head. Let out a sigh, then feeling out of place alone on the dance floor, easily found a seat at the bar which had thinned out near its closing time. “Beer?” Bartender asked.

“Sure, one more. Draft is fine.”

The bartender obliged and while sipping his drink he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked in the mirror, saw no one, hesitated for a moment then in hopes it might be Racheal returning, flipped around in his chair, his smile instantly melting away.

“Hi,” she said. “Glad you made it here again.”

The hair on his arms rose as he looked at her. “What do you want from me?” he asked keeping his voice and head down, scanning the bar checking for bored patrons not minding their own business.

“To take you home.”

“What do you mean home. Go away. You’re not real anyway.”

You have to let her go. Your time is over. I’m here to take you back.”

“What you mean let her go, who? I told you go. You’re not real.”

The apparition was persistent, she, it, wasn’t about to leave. “The locket, she said you had it. That should have awakened . . . what is buried. It’s the catalyst . . . to start the bond.”

“Locket? What locket?”

“The one you gave her. The one that locks your souls together.”

“Who, damn it?” He barked in a loud frustration.

“You okay, Buddy?” The bartender asked Stan, seeing him engaging in a loud one sided conversation.

Stan turned back to face the bar. “Yeah. Just having a private conversation, that’s all.”

The bartender took a sigh, shook his head, and looked upward. “Why me god?” then directed his attention back to Stan. “Really friend, I suggest you drink up and that’s it for you tonight. You hear me. Go home after that.”

Stan turned to address his visitor behind him, but she was gone. He looked in all direction of the bar. In frustration and aversion to his sightings, he stormed outside to his car. The rains were kicking in gale force sending bucketful’s of water mixed with a cold northerly winds and by the time he sat down and started his car he was soaking wet and shivering. Putting the car in reverse, his attention averted to the mirror for a moment while his foot pushed on the gas pedal, “JESUS! He said seeing the dancing ghost in his back seat, swinging a locket from her hand like a pendulum. He floored the gas pedal in a knee jerk reaction slamming his vehicle into a parked car behind him setting off its alarm and stirring commotion within the bar, to prompt an investigative rush to the parking lot.

In a moment of fight or flight fueled by mix of adrenaline and alcohol, he thrust the car in drive ignoring the patrons surrounding the scene and screeched his tires as he cut a hard right out of the lot barely missing oncoming tariff and veering back into his lane. He dared not look in the mirror again until he pulled safely into the garage and pulled into Maria’s spot, then and only then, did he dare to look at the back seat. Seeing nothing, it put him at ease.

Entering the empty house the beeping noise of the recording device zigging patterns on its screen stooled his ease and spooked him again. He bypassed everything and headed for the bar in the basement. “Glass of cognac settle my nerves.” He said, watching his hand tremble, and feeling the twitch in his eye that had recently plagued him. Putting the glass to his mouth the smell repulsed him, and he chucked it at the temporary sheet of plywood acting as a temporary closure to the tunnel. It shattered into pieces as glass shrapnel exploded across the floor. He turned to the wall of alcohol on the shelve, and his mind was settled on what needed to be done next. One by one, he emptied the bottles down the drain and dropped them in the garbage until none were left. Carrying it outside to the curb, his attention fixated on a window in the attic. A light was on and the shadow of a woman could be seen looking out. He ran inside to his bedroom locking the door behind him and grabbed his pistol. Checking it for bullets, he backed himself into a chair and for a while hearing strange noises he was unsure whether to point the gun at the door and the external world, or to his temple, ending the nightmare from within.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

In the morning, the sunlight bled thru the open window, hearing the doorbell, Stan reengaged from his slumber, his gun tucked into his belt much like a gunfight. “Good Lord,” he said checking the chamber and seeing it loaded and pointed at his manhood. He carefully laid it on the desk and peered out the bedroom window. In the driveway sat a police vehicle. “Hold on,” he hollered. “I’m coming, stopping at the kitchen he ran some water splashing his face and running the rest in his hair.” Officer,” he said opening the door and seeing a stout, pug nose, short crew cut hair uniformed police man at his door, next to a tall thin black man in a sports jacket. “How can I help you?”

“Mr. Stiles, Stan Stiles?”

“Yes sir, how can I help you?”

“Do you mind if we come in?”

“No not at all,” he averted his attention to the plain clothed man in the sports jacket. “Look I know I think I might have accidentally hit a car in the parking lot but I got insurance I was gonna square it all up today. No one got hurt did they?”

“We’re not traffic cops.” The man wearing the sport jacket replied. “I’m Dave Phillips DEA, this is officer Ornstein,” he said pulling out his credentials. “Were here about a Racheal Susan. Do you know her?”

DEA? That’s drug enforcement agency, right?”

“Yes.”

“Racheal Susan? I don’t know any Racheal Susan.”

“How about a Racheal Moore?” The detective asked.

“Yeah. You mean the yoga teacher, Racheal Moore? What could she possibly have to do with you guys?”

“Yeah, sometimes it gets a little confusing on her pseudo names, but the yoga teacher.” Both officers looked on with smirks on their face and cynicism. “When was the last time you saw her?”

“Well… Last night we had some drinks. Is she in some kind of trouble?”

“You ever been to Mexico.”

“No, why?”

“Belize?”

“Never.”

“How about the Caribbean, Jamaica or maybe the Cayman islands, When’s the last time you been there?”

“Counting never, zero. What’s up with these questions?”

“You tell us buddy.” The uniformed cop snapped back just like an aggressive bull dog pushing up against Stan and eyeballing him like a drill sergeant. Stan couldn’t help but laugh realizing how much his looks really did favor a pissed off bulldog.

“What so funny buddy?” he said spewing a mouthful of pit with his words.

“Back it off, “the agent in the sports jacket said pulling his partner away from Stan.

“He’s playing games, he knows why we’re here. We ought just take him downtown and book him.”

“For what a fender bender?” Stan protested.

“Wrong answer.” The intimidating cop with a pit-bull mentality said charging towards Stan.

The kind agent stepped in front keeping the peace. His partner took a step back. “Look Stan. I apologize for my partner over reacting here. Let’s just start over. What can you tell us about Marco Bianco?”

“Marco Bianco? I don’t know. I mean geez everyone knows of him. He’s a big alumni supporter at the college. Family made their money distributing air conditioning units around the country. I think their worldwide too. What’s he got to do with any of this?”

“You dating Miss Susan? I mean Miss Moore. “ The police officer budded in with a stern voice.

“No,” he responded half irritated.

“Then you work for her?”

“No just friends. were friends. Why is she mixed up with, with this Bianco guy?”

“Now were getting somewhere.” The bulldog faced officer snapped. “So, tell me. How is she mixed up in all this?”

“Mixed up in what? I didn’t say that. You alluded to it.” Stan searched for some relief from the kind agents corner. “look I’ve about had it with you guys, you want a book me for hit and run, go ahead, but whatever your beef with Racheal and this Bianco guy, that I can’t answer.”

“Did you leave the bar with her?”

“No.”

“Who left first, you or her?”

“She did.”

“Alone?”

“Yeah I think. I mean, I think she left around 1030, or 1100.”

“What time did you leave?”

“Shortly after maybe 1100, I guess.” Stan felt like a ping pong ball getting bounced between the two cops questioning him.

“And where did you go when you left?”

“Here, came straight home.”

“And you don’t know where she went? Your saying you got no idea?”

“No. I mean no. I don’t know where she went, home I suspect.”

“What did you two talk about?”

“Small talk, why?”

“She didn’t say anything about where she might be going? What her plans where over the next few days?”

“No, again, I have no idea where she went. I’m assuming home, as for her plans, you gonna have to ask her that.”

They finally came to the end of their interrogation with one last request. “You mind if we take a look at your car?”

“No go ahead I mean for not being traffic cops, not sure I catch your drift, but right this way I got nothing to hide.” Stan lead them to the garage.

The officer walked around the vehicle periodically shining his flashlight into the car window of the back and front seat. Seeing nothing of interest, he popped the trunk, then closed it, taking a moment to run his hand down the dent in the back bummer. He nodded his approval to the good cop who seemed to become the spokesman. “Alright Mr. Stiles, if we have any more questions well get back to you.”

Stan followed them out to the cruiser. “That’s it? I mean you not gonna tell me what any of this is about?”

The short-fused officer ignoring him, got in the squad car, rolled the window down and fixed a mean stare on Stan while lighting a cigarette. The DEA agent, who’s role seemed the good cop, addressed Stan’s concerns, as best he could. “It’s a delicate subject, an ongoing investigation, here’s my advice for what it’s worth. If you are involved, this is your chance to come clean, if you aren’t, you need to stay clear of Miss Moore, that’s all I can say on the subject.”

Stan, smiled and gave them a Forrest Gump wave as the team of good cop bad cop pulled out just to piss the bulldog off and went in the house to dial Racheal’s number. Getting voice mail, he left an abbreviated message. After a few minute wait without a response he texted a message to her. “Need to talk Asap!!!” sending it, the thought occurred they more in likely had her wired taped and his text fueled their thought he was involved. Pacing the floors of the living room and kitchen waiting for her response, he decided a call to his cousin; an attorney might be in his best interest.

“Jake hey Stan. Hey how you, ya doing good myself, ya Aunt Ella’s little shook, I know you would have been here if you could. Maria yeah she’s fine. She said what. No that’s a long story maybe another time. Hey . . . no I didn’t hear that bobby won the spelling bee wow what is he fifth grade now seventh wow yeah that’s great . . . hey got a question … yeah sure, sure that would be fine… I don’t know ya three boxes would work, no, no I love girl scout cookies butterscotch is fine. Hey look I got a weird situation … hold on yeah hold on I got an incoming call I got take. Racheal? Oh hey Butch, hold on Butch I got a call on the other line. Hey Jake let me call you back… Yeah, yeah okay, tomorrow all right I’ll give you a call.”

“Hey Butch yeah glad to hear from you. Yeah agree shit been going off the rocker. A lot of buzzing and ticking, recording something. Yeah crazy thing is, pulled up the video, not seeing anything. Hun is that right, okay then, so you can adjust that. alright well then maybe we’ll see something. No don’t think the cats been around. Wow, I didn’t know that. Cool you get a printout synced to your computer. Really, that’s interesting well got a little more to share with you. Sure 1100 o’clock will work, I think my Aunt will be home, but not sure. Exactly two streets down a blue trimmed house, I’ll be there. Yeah bring that.” he laughed. “We can tell her it’s a security system. Okay see yeah, then thanks.” Stan ended the call and noticed Racheal finally sent a text back.

“Got you message, (sad face) sorry about not getting back, Been in a tight place, will reach out when able.(smiley emoticon)

“Really,” Stan said. “it takes you all day to answer and that’s it? he thought to himself. He dialed her number it went to voice mail.

He re-texted her. “Are you in some type of trouble?”

Another fifteen minutes went by until she finally texted him back. “LOL NO, I’ll explain later sorry” (sad face emoticons)

Stan texted back, “??????,” he waited twenty minutes before he realize he wasn’t going to get an answer.

Stan pulled her website up and checked the schedule. “Bingo class today at 400 pm. That could work. Racheal Moore, you are you a woman of mystique. You won’t come to me; I guess I’ll run to you.” He went to the den and pulled his Uncle’s envelope, retrieved from the cellar. “The traveling envelope, how in god’s creation did that get down into that room. He decided to go through it one more time before burning as his Uncle had wished. He laid the pictures out, they were happy times picnics on the lake, an eat in at a burger joint. Drive in movies sitting together flaunting their deceitful entanglement. “Geez when did he have the time to even orchestrate any of it under the always-watchful eye of Aunt Ella. I’d never had guessed in a million years.” But in each picture, the common theme each with a smiles a mile wide, and eyes that lit the picture. They were a couple regardless of their boundaries seemed destined to be together. He pulled a letter the first one among the bundle. He looked at the date October 31 Halloween 1974.

‘Mary I now you have reason to believe that my heart is not completely yours. God knows we have both questioned the madness in all of this. Our treachery a blind to guard another’s heart. Every day my wishes go unanswered that it could all be different. You have no idea the hold you have on me. Life would have been so much easier had we never met. We are souls that are eternally joined. There is no mystery for us when our eyes meet, lips touch, and our skins melt together. Had this not happened it would have been the greatest injustice in the existence of life itself for our souls. If I am guilty of anything it is feigning sanity in the chaos of life that keeps us apart.

Be with me, I am ready. I will not betray my heart anymore. My thoughts always lingering on you. Meet me tonight down in the meadow by the falls, we well make our getaway together. Some might say this is my weakest moment, your weakest moment. I say our strongest moment. For us not too share our love that is sacred above any I have felt . . .would be the greatest failure in creation. With love John.

Stan put down the letter he noticed the envelope had not been postmarked. His mind settled on the letter. He studied the date again. Scurrying thru the packet, he found her obit. “Jesus the same day of her death. She never received it, she never got this letter. They were both going to leave their marriage. “Chills rose on Stan’s arms. “What a tragedy she never got this letter.” He said again. “It doesn’t make any sense they both knew they belonged together. Yet life kept them at bay. There is no order in life no rational. What force in life would purposely design such a cruel fate.” He gathered the pictures and letters shoving them in the envelope and locking in the drawer, until he could burn them. A quick shower, change, and before long he was headed towards his Aunt’s a little more than fifteen minutes away.

Arriving he strolled up to the front of the house. It still amazed him how little everything appeared. “Aunt Ella,” he said walking in. She turned from the counter, smiled, and continued her labor of love smearing the toasted homemade bread, one side mayonnaise the other tuna, toppled with a layer of garlic bathed tomatoes and olive oil seasoning, that permeated the room.

“Ella what are you doing? You didn’t have to go to all this trouble I told you it was a quick visit.”

“Hush you it’s no trouble at all I told before the woman of yours doesn’t feed you, but that’s a story for another time. I won’t have any child of mine not given a good meal to start the day.” She wiped her hands on the apron. “I’ve made enough for the two of you, your friend that is, the security guy. He well be eating, won’t he?”

Stan smiled, “I suppose.” Hearing a car, he peeked out the window. “Hey, I think that’s him pulling in.” Stan left to greet him glancing at the sign on the van. “Butch’s Bill Bondsman DON’T GET CAUGHT WITHOUT A WAY OUT. “Now that’s catchy.” Stan said admiring his creativity.

“Yeah, I’m a jack-of-all-trades. Just flip the signs on the side. Figured a little more incognito to the neighbors then poltergeist specialist.” Butch went to the rear pulled out a few tools of his trade, along with a camera sensor, sensitive recording devise, and gauntlet of wires he draped on his shoulder. Here he said utilizing Stan and loading him up. “Grab that thicket of cable lines. Oh yeah and the wire tacks. . and duct tape and that small tool box. Where do you want to start?”

Stan pointed to the shed. “In the back.” He said catching his Aunt staring out the window. He smiled at her and she quickly closed the curtain. Old habits die hard. She was still keeping a watchful eye on Stan.

Reaching the shed Stan opened it half way. “I was right about here when I noticed the door slightly opened. Just like this. Inside by the workbench thats where my Uncle stood.” Butches eyes immediately focused over to the work bench safe. He went over to it and tumbled the numbers.

“Don’t make em like this anymore this is a government issue. Did he say anything?”

“Not really, seemed caught up in finding something, more than anything he seemed agitated, ignored me at first. Completely out of character.”

Butches wolf like blue eyes surveyed the contents of the small shrine to his Uncle with a hunger, his attention gravitating to his Navy picture “That’s to be expected, their just as confused by everything being so different. It’s got to be frustrating for them. They’re split between two worlds. Ain’t none of that easy to digest.”

Oh he asked me about a disk”

“What kind of disk? Butch asked turning his attention back on Stan.

“Not sure, can’t find it.”

“Hum,” Butch replied pondering for a moment. “That’s it nothing else he might have said or left behind?”

“Not really just old memorable pictures, like I said he kinda ignored me.”

Butch nodded pulling a hunting bow from the wall and checking its sights. “Ah, “that’s not uncommon, sometimes they have us much trouble seeing us as we do them.” He pulled the strings back and pointed it at Stan, then released it.

“You’ve actually seen them yourself?”

“Yeah but it wasn’t a pleasant experience, remind me someday to tell you about.” Butch put the bow back on the wall. “Guess we better get busy.”

Before long Butch sporting a little beer belly, broke into a sweat balancing himself on a paint can while mounting the last camera on the upper wall of the shed. “That should do it. Been my experience ghost usually return to the same spot, not sure why that is, but I’ve had the most luck using that reasoning. Camera’s work off of motion. They aren’t so far removed from an actually security system. If your Uncle comes back, we should get him on film.” Butch sorted through his tool box, and attached a sensor of sorts to the main door and man door. These are actual alarms, they set off an alarm, make sure you occasionally check the battery, that’s the real thing, think it well make you Aunt fell a little safer. Where to next?”

“I guess the house, give you a chance to meet my Aunt, think she got lunch ready for us.”

Butch and Aunt Ella hit it off like two long lost friends united. Butch, after all could lure anyone to friendship with his quick wit and charismatic charm. And Ella, well she was a pleaser, especially concerning the lure of meals to an empty stomach. The two traded stories, of old times, new times, and just about anything else one can squeeze in a short conversation while wolfing down a few tuna sandwiches, homemade soup and her special mustard potatoes salad.

Butch patted his already bulging belly and loosened his belt a notch while pushing back from the dinner table. “Couldn’t stuff enough bite to save my life. Can’t remember the last time I’ve eaten as good. He said giving Ella a smile.

“Eat, eat, I’ve got plenty more.”

Butch shook his head. “Can’t.”

Her eyes misted, her smiled faded. She was programmed to serve. “Then you’ll have to take some with you, I’m afraid it will all go to waste now that there’s only me to eat it.”

“I would be indebted for life to you if you did.” Butch said watching her smile return. With a purpose to her stride and like the good subservient worker ant she had been all her life she feverishly went to work wrapping him food stacked three plates high to take home. Checking his watch, he stood up. “Didn’t realize how late it was, better get back to work, earn my keep.” Butch pulled a thermos scanner from his bag, turned it on, pointed it around the room, then adjusted some dials to calibrate it.

“What’s that,” Elle asked?

“Oh, this picks up electromagnetic interference make sure nothing will affect the signal on the security equipment.” Butch gave Stan a wink. Come on let’s take a walk.” Ella followed seeing the lights on his scanner change colors and hearing a faint buzz sound off a few times, and nothing more. After mounting the infrared cameras and recording devices in each room, strung together with cable and tied into the phone line, butch placed alarm sensors on the main and back door. “These are actual alarms, gonna mount a small box she can shut everything off if she wants. Everything is tied into the internet so you can monitor yourself or pay for a service to do it. The ghost monitoring equipment independent to the security. That’s it. I know a good security company if you go that route.” He said winking. “Got any questions?”

“No not really, Seen you ghost monitor light up a few times when we passed near the basement that’s good right?”

“Nah I think that was actually electric interference these older homes still have the knob and wire but hey that’s how it goes.”

Butch gathered up his tool and Stan followed him out.

“Hey Butch,” he hesitated fumbling around to get to the point. “Racheal what’s her deal.”

“What you mean what’s her deal?” he asked loading his equipment in the van.

“I guess I mean you know her really will, and I almost feel embarrassed asking, but this morning cops wake me up pounding on my front door, and…”

Butch quit loading his gear turning his full attention to Stan. “And what?”

“Never mind I shouldn’t even be asking you this.” Butch turned back to the van acting as if he had no interest or at least interest to answer.

For a short moment, Stan stood still not knowing if he should even push Butch about Racheal. He broke his silence. “Is she into something she shouldn’t be? These cops were asking a lot of questions.”

Butch loaded the last of his tools and shut the van door. “Let me guess these rent a cops wanted to know about Racheal’s travel outside the country.”

“Exactly, I mean one of the cops was DEA, mentioned Marco Bianco.”

Butch shook his head in frustration.” Ah, man shit I’m sorry. Look there’s a lot of complications surrounding Racheal. And this Marco guy, bad fucking news for her, and anybody else he touches. One of the cops uniformed shorter stout build crew cop?”

“Yeah exactly. Looked like one those angry little bulldogs with snout nose and all, pudgy dude.”

“That guys a dick, Vince Ornstein, knew him for twenty years, used to be ATF got busted for ethic violations, send his ass back to a patrol cop, was the DEA David Phillips, black guy tall thin little bit of grey hair?” Stan nodded yes.

“Dave’s a good guy. I can talk to him if you need me to. Chances are they were just fishing probably won’t seem em again, but… geez” Butch took a deep breath. “Man I would do anything for that girl, but Jesus sometimes I swear she ain’t got a nickel of sense in her head.”

“Who is that Marco guy? I though he owned an air condition business, why are these cops asking about him?”

“Marco, oh yes well I think Marco distributes a little more than just air conditioners around the country… look what I’m about to tell you, stays between me and you, all off the record. This Marco guy is dealing in drugs, had a pretty wide network back when I was still in the force, heard its tripled since I left and that’s only been couple years.…. and I think somehow he got Racheal involved, I don’t know exactly how, but they have a very interesting to say the least relationship.”

“In what way?”

“Ah… well first off, I shouldn’t be saying any of this, cause it ain’t really my business, nor yours for all that matters.” Butch patted his shirt pocket. “You got a cigarette? “

Stan nodded. “Sorry don’t smoke.”

I’m not supposed to either, wife would be pissed if she knew I started back up. Hold on.” Butch walked to the driver seat stuck his hand in the window and pulled a cigarette and lighter off the dash. Walking back with a lit cig in his mouth. “Alright where was I? Racheal will tell you it’s strictly business between her and Marco. She explains it as PR work for him, helps out in marketing so to speak, Marco gets off on having a pretty woman hanging around him. He in turn owns the buildings she’s in, doesn’t charge her rent from what she’s told me. That ain’t exactly the truth. I venture his investment is trying to get into her pants. She’s got some issues, that’s just part of the equation. I’ve already said more then I should. Just watch yourself around her. she’s a time bomb waiting to go off.”

Disappointment filled Stan’s mind, Butch made her out to be one step from a cheap whore. And that didn’t settle well with him. “Butch the cops kept asking me about travel into the Caribbean area, with, or without Racheal. Is that where her quote, ‘PR’ work is?”

Butch hit the cig taking a long inhale and flicked the bud on the ground, smashing it with his boots then picking it up. “That’s a difficult one to answer. She’s a worldly girl. Been a lot of places with and without Marco. I suppose you could say Racheal’s world is structured a little different than yours and mine. She’s not one to be contained or held by anyone or anything. Her little get a way’s, some business some not, seem critical to reenergize her. I’ve known that girl for a long time, she wants to belong but only by her rules. More than anything her connection with Marco, who won’t let her go, seems to be a lightning rod to bring out the worst in her. I don’t ever think she realize what he really brings out in her.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Well she has her share of baggage too, got a nasty temper if you piss her off. Seen those two go at it before.” Butch’s blue friendly eyes took on a change, narrowing like an eagle locked on its prey not of malicious intent, more a warning. “I guess I’m telling you this because I think she’s taken a liken to you, but don’t flatter yourself, she needs attention. That’s just her nature. When you’re not around, someone else will be, her looks alone will guarantee that. “

The friendly smile from Stan’s face broke away, loosened by Butch’s remark. A temporary look of disenchantment replaced it before he spearheaded with his stubbornness. “Maybe she just hasn’t found the right person.”

Butch squinted his left eye, maybe to help him evaluate if Stan was truly listening. Then shook his head. “Trust me when I say this when she does find that right person, they well pay for her pain more dearly then anybody. You’ve been warned my friend,” he opened the van and got in waving as he pulled out the driveway.

Stan went back into the house to say goodbye to his Aunt. She had a smile on her face like a Cheshire cat. “What,” Stan asked?

“Oh, nothing I guess you’re a little disappointed.”

“Disappointed why would you say that.”

She looked up at the equipment they had installed. “Because she didn’t appear. “Or it at least your equipment didn’t pick it up.”

“Her?”

“Yes her name is Mary; she is quite charming at times at other times a royal pain in the ass. Knocks things over.”

“Mary,” Stan’s expression took on a startled look. “Aunt Ella’s are you telling me…”

“Yes, I see her, or I guess shadows of her, maybe my eye’s not as clear as the used to be. Pretty young girl reminds me of my sister, her name was Mary too. Your Uncle thought I was crazy but she’s been in this house damn near since we owned it. She died young. I think she was attracted towards your Uncle, you know he was a looker your Uncle in his day. When I described her, he cried, then told me never to speak about her again. Her and I carried on conversations all the time, well not so much with words, but we knew what each other meant. She suddenly stopped, is that why you got all these gadgets in the house? Did you see her too?”

Stan nodded.” Yes, I’ve seen her. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, I just thought it might freak you out. Aunt Ella I’ve seen Uncle John too. The first time at the hospital when he passed, then again out in the shed.”

“Did he speak to you?”

Stan hesitated for a moment. “He just said he loved you, but had to go.”

Tears started to come down her face, happy tears. “You know it’s a gift you see things, people won’t believe you, maybe our gypsy blood in our family roots passes it on. When my mother passed, she hung around for weeks. I could sense her, it wasn’t until your granddaddy brought in a priest, and told her to go, that she left.”

Stan sat down covering his face with his hands as tears started to pour down his cheeks and his body heaved as his soul unlocked his grief. She came over and put her hands on him to console him.

“I thought I was going crazy,” he mustered out in-between his deep wrenching outpour. “I thought I was going crazy,” when he finally collected himself he let out a big sigh. “I’m not crazy am I?”

Her eyes displayed compassion and understanding. She brushed his hair. “No honey, it’s just hard to sort this out at first whether it’s a gift or curse.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

The weekend ended without further incident. Butch collected the data and outside of Stan wondering what was in the mind of Racheal, and a call from Maria’s lawyer, whom left a cute message congratulating him on his common-law marriage and all the legal tidings that accompanied it, he finally got back to the everyday grind to life. Walking past the meadow, he stopped hoping to see Racheal, but today no class was given.

Walking in the hallway before reaching his room, he heard his name called out. “Mr Stiles? He turned to see Mr Miller the president with his sidekick Dean Umbleby and his union steward Professor Joe Holbee. “Can we have a word with you.”

“Sure,” Stan said turning to the president. “What can I do for you.” Stan noticed his union steward Holbee had his eyes cast towards the floor, it didn’t leave Stan with a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Miller spoke first. “I’ve asked Dean Umbelby and Professor Holbee to witness this. And I would have preferred this meeting in my office but unfortunately, it’s being repainted. It’s one of the small favors I reward myself, considering the university budget.” Repainted Stan thought to himself what a misquote of reality. His office painting job included art work from Sinchek, a professor from the university, who he personal fired and as a momentum to his victim kept his work costing the university in the upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. Rumor also from a reliable source, listed the cost of new furniture and mahogany desk set by a New York designer had a price tag of one hundred thousand dollars. One hundred and forty-two thousand to be exact according to Billie. If a budget did exist, which Miller only seemed to imply during contract time. It always missed it mark when it came to the president’s perks. House on Millionaire Row, brand new Lexus for him and his wife. Box seats at the stadium and a credit card that had no boundaries.

“This is fine,” Stan said seeing a semi private hall with the exception of Billie working his way down the hallway with a mop and water. “What can I do for you?”

The president took a long deep breath, fixing his sights on the union steward then cleared his throat, prompting Joe Holbee to speak up.

“Stan, ain’t no easy way to say this. Their putting you on notice. Your tenure’s being revoked.”

“What? How can they do that. On what grounds.” He excitedly demanded an answer.

“Performance, the university is alleging some students have complained. You scored really low on sit in assessments by the Dean. And their telling me you never even submitted any research paper this year or last. It’s always been a publish or parish policy. For god’s sake Stan, you’re in the literature department you should know that better than anybody.”

Stan’s eyes floated towards the Dean. Then Miller and back to the union steward. He wasn’t buying what any of them were selling. Performance? Stan knew that was bullshit. Miller and his henchman Umbelby could tramp up whatever they wanted. But that didn’t make it fact. Sure the paper they had him by the balls. He knew better, told himself when he finished his book he’d get right on it. But hell, everybody turned their published work in late at some point. What he would never buy, is his students complaining. And he had good reason to believe that. His class was always the first to fill up each semester. And he knew if nothing else in life, he at least knew he was a damn good teacher. He shook his head knowing he was being railroaded. “You know Joe, makes me wonder why I even pays union dues. Especially considering Art Miller and his henchman here has had it out for me from day one.”

“Why Stan why would we do that.” The president said in a condescending irritating voice of his. A voice that made Stan just want to bitch slap him. He felt outnumbered fighting a fight he couldn’t win. Strangely enough his attention fixated on Billie, smiling, who now had made his way within feet on their little meeting. Inconspicuously, unobtrusive, accepted, yet foreign to their conversation as his mop swayed from side to side as if he knew every hidden mystery in life yet hadn’t a care in the world. In-fact the whole group stopped for a moment focusing their attention on him. Billie headsets on, barely audible sang a song as he passed. “Stan the man made the machine. Joe Holubee made it go. Dean Umbleby turned the crank. And Prez Art Miller blew a fart and blew the whole damn machine apart.”

“What did he just say?” Miller asked the Dean with a crossed look of confusion.

The Dean on cue by the look of Miller stopped Billie. Billie smiled pulling his earplugs away.

His carefree grin an irritant to the dean. “What did you just say” He asked.

Billie nodded with a feigned look of confusion, saying nothing almost as if the next words from his mouth would be no hablo English. The Dean with bigger fish to fry and less a mindset to battle Billie’s wit, relented.

“Well hurry up with your business here. We’re trying to conduct a private meeting.”

Billie took a panoramic view around the public domain of the hall way. “Strange place to carry on a private conversation. Ill hurry up Boss-man. Shaking the tree. Hurry up and slow down. Napoleon is always right I must work harder.” Billie put his headsets back on, smiled, winked at Stan, and started his mop motions from side to side, like a storm that had passed by, leaving its mark.

“Well,” Holubee said interrupting the passing storm of Billie. “Lets get back on topic. “Mr. Miller’s got a point. Why would he have it out for you Stan?”

Stan snickered he could think of lots of reasons. Sinchek for one. He was the only one vocal to stand up for him during his witch hunt to fire him on some trump up bullshit charges. And for what? They said soliciting pot in his class, but Stan knew the real reason. Homophobia, Sinchek led the cause to bring the LGBT chapter in the university. Or how about his student led protest he stood side by side with concerning university funds for a new indoor football practice field verse a new library that would benefit all. Or even the articles from the universities paper for which he oversaw concerning wasted spending under Miller. Those just being a few, but even that being said, Stan had a suspicion there was more to it. Almost as if Miller was doing somebody else’s bidding. His method to detached. It didn’t seem personal to the president. More business like, like he was doing someone a favor. “I don’t know.” He finally spurted out, figuring it wasn’t worth taking a stance now. “I guess it is what it is. If that’s it, while I still got a job to do. I’d like to go in and teach. ” He said his attention fading almost hypnotized by Billie’s peaceful presence, who had come and gone and made his way slowly down the hall without a care in the world.

The party agreed and parted, with the union steward saying, he’d fight it, and Stan knowing his head had already been promised and delivered to the Prez by the same man. Entering the classroom, a strange vibe come over him as if he had leaped frog to a different universe or awareness, everything seemed more animated, vibrant, full of life, full of sex. Like he had nothing left to lose and nothing mattered accept living itself. It was a world his mind rarely ventured too. In the front sat the young vivacious girl Tami, who seemingly was spending more time displaying her flattering assets then listening to the lectures. He wondered if she had always practiced this safe game of seduction and art of sexual innuendos. After all the low cut racy shirt that begged for attention was part of her mainstream attire. He hadn’t noticed her before, but now wondered if the stress of being fired actually liberated his thoughts or his Uncle’s infidelity had opened up a channel asleep, but now awakened. Next to her, a soft spoken dark haired girl whose braids pushed over her black rim glasses framing in her dark deep sensuous eyes. Three rows back he caught the dreamy stare of bedroom eyes from a blonde that god had endowed way beyond a fair temptation for the male species to endure. The room that had once only contained students thirsty for knowledge, now becomes a jungle of seduction.

“Focus,” he said to himself, “Focus. All right class today put away the books, grab a piece of paper and pencil, and for the next twenty minutes, I want you to write whatever comes out of your head. Don’t try to correct, don’t try to fix the grammar or spelling, just let it flow. First, I want you to clear your mind then let it rip, ready? Okay…”

“Hold on. Yes Mary?” He responded seeing her raised arm.

“Is this going to be graded?”

“No, it’s just and exercise.”

Another hand bolted to the sky. “What is the goal?”

“The goal is no goal, it’s that simple.”

“Ready?” One more hand joined the up rise.

“Is this free flow writing?”

“It’s what every you make of it, ready no more questions, close your eyes and clear your mine when you hear my voice again start writing. Okay open your eyes.” The group went to work some in a feverish nonstop energy, while others started, stopped, started, stopped until painfully the twenty minutes ended. “STOP!!!” It broke their concentration. “Now take a look at what you wrote, don’t change it, just read over it. “Here comes the tricky part. I want a five thousand-page story on what you wrote, dig in fairytale, sci-fi thriller, anything just go with what you’re feeling and let it rip. It well be a contest, judged by your peers.”

A collective moan electrified the class.

“What?” Stan asked

“You said it wouldn’t be graded.”

“It isn’t but as writers, you’ll always be judged by others, isn’t that why we write? Beside get used to it, everything in life you do is judged by either you, or someone else, it’s all part of the human experience we call life.”

“All right now to the mechanics of writing. Take out your book you brought, hopefully a classic you like.. Open it up and take your pen and paper. Now go to the first chapter and start copying it, word for word. Make sure you indent properly, grammar, everything exactly as its written, ready?”

“For how long?” someone asked.

Stan looked at his watch. “Let’s see got 45 minutes left in class, for 45 minutes.”

The class looked around at each other and a lone voice echoed out, “holy shit 45 minutes.”

The class along with Stan broke into a hearty laugh. “Okay, settle, oh you of weak heart and mind, do thou not trust my intent?”

“In 1886 a man name Samul Clements started works as a copywriter, not in the sense of ad man like today, but a printer setting the press for books from the classics. He did this every day and when he wasn’t trying to fulfill his goal of being a boat pilot, he allowed the subconscious of his mind to consume the writing style and cadence of some of the greatest literature and writers. Steinbeck employed the same methods, so until any of you reach that status, and some of you hopefully will, were going to try it ourselves. Ready set go.”

Stan looked around the room and the diligence and solace his project created allowed him to take advantage of the time. Maybe time to save his job. He pulled his lab top out, and pulled a file listed ‘professor research paper.’ He read a few paragraphs, typed, erased, typed, erased, then closed it out. This time he pulled up his book silently read some of his last chapters and then started to type.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

For the next few weeks, Christian’s used about every ploy to keep distance between Ken and himself at the ranch. Paul often acting as a buffer to keep the peace. And Every day it ate away at him. He’s reasons not to confront Ken rested in the belief that loyalty was the trademark of character in an individual, and he couldn’t fathom the idea Ken did not share the same belief system, especially given all the trials and tribulations they both endured over the years together. After all friendship with Christian was not something handed out as freely as the tumbleweed blowing across the prairie. With him, it was the oak tree deeply rooted in the soil of the earth, and nothing less.

He needed time to figure out why and how of it, and what event had driven Ken away, yet he hoped the day of reckoning would have a firm date, sooner than later. Suzie, during this time became a more pleasurable distraction providing solace for Christian. They became inseparable entities, he was a regular in church and even the Sunday afternoon picnics. And his quick grasp to learn to read found its foundation in the bible. She gave him balance and peace as the forces from two different worlds collided to become one. He smitten by her beauty that originated from her soul and cast outward. Her, to his untamed gentleness, that seemed foreign to his swagger wildness. Talk was of the future. A house high on the prairie a good place to raise and nurture a child. A future of growing old.

Eventually anything that has a flame will come to a boil. It’s the simple laws that aren’t written but understood. Ken was eventually weeded away. His part never questioned he was ostracized and given no reason. Ken’s guilt kept him from asking. And as much as it played on Christian to fix it, his anger never subsided long enough to be amicable with Ken. He had killed men for less.

Avoiding a repeat, hired guns now guarded sections of his Ranch providing some security to his livestock, but at best, an expensive temporary fix he had little resources to continue. Stolen cattle was by no means a simple thing to allow to slip into the past without redemption, cattle after all provided the means to a man’s survival and lifeblood connecting him to his lands. Yet the power of love is a strange chemistry that can be both a cure and a curse changing bad to good and good to bad. The transformation completed Christian soothing the beast from within to seek anything but love. And he for now, was set to appease all of her wishes.

The irony being dreams sometimes, are only meant to be dreams, fiction an escape. Problems buried or ignored often fester and all flames left unattended will eventually boil over. Christian had been challenged, and time was on the side of the railroad folks who had set their site on his passage of land for the new rail to Silverton. One man alone was not going to stand in the way of a large entity that knew how to mold the bureaucracy of a new government, tame the ambitions of an old problematic Indian nation, and gladly exploit the dreams of foreigners flocking to opportunity in a new land. His attempt to procure a legal solution with the local authorities of the community found little sympathy in Christian’s plight as most of em, felt the Silverton expansion worked in their favor to line their pockets through promised commerce or backdoor deals of ransomed integrity with the rail company. Money and force often being the culprit of progress. Their cast was strong, the Colonel, a decorated union veteran of both the civil war and Indian wars, had a callous demeanor towards obtaining his objectives for which he was employed. He was the strategist, his accomplice Royce senior, whose expertise to stir an affinity to political matters, gave him favor in the public’s eye, and hid his true ambitions of power. Royce Junior merely a unknowing pawn scorned in the eyes of his love, become the enforcer. It was a battle of unproportioned forces mounting and neither Christian nor Royce Jr. could back away from the fate of it. The prelude to the stage came with a visit from the Colonel to the ranch. Christian clearing evergreens, with a few ranch hands, in the valley near the passage the rail had hoped to acquire, spotted him first, high on the ridge working his way down the trail.

Seeing his awareness divert from the pine, Paul traced his attention. “Is that who I think it is? That man’s got a set, the size of bulls balls to show up here.”

Christian with his axe in hand, walked to meet the Colonel as he pulled his mare next to him.

The Colonel tipped his hat staring at the axe. “Hope you don’t plan on using that, for the wrong reasons. I’ve come to have a little private conversation with you. Folks told me I would find you out here.” Sitting on his mount, the Colonel took a panoramic view. “This is most definitely god’s country, no mistake about that.” He pointed to the river. “That I take it is about where they want to set down the rail?”

“I reckon,” Christian replied, taking in the view himself.

“I thought maybe you and I could take a little ride, have a talk.”

“Ain’t no harm in talking I suppose.” Christian replied walking to his horse, and hoping bareback on it.”

The Colonel seeing Christian’s balance, and readiness to ride without reins or saddle, smiled then prompted his horse with a kick and sided next to Christians mare. “They told me you were raised by the Indians, you know I’ve met many of very proud warriors over the years, most em very honorable people.”

“Yeah I heard about some of your dealing’s you’ve had with my people, not sure they share the same sentiment you have for em. Your hands from what I’ve gathered are soiled in the blood of my people.”

The Colonel pulled back his reins slowing it to Christian’s trot, pulled out a can of snuff and lined his inter lip. “Guess where gonna have to agree to disagree. I’m proud of my military record. I like those I fought, also proud warriors, nothing more, nothing less. I’ve killed. Sent a lot to their maker. Like to also think I helped keep a few behind. Helped write and negotiate, in good terms, the treaties of Big Horn and Wallo with the Sioux and Cheyenne.”

He shifted on his horse and leaned over to the side spitting tobacco on the ground. “Strange the way a white man would say our people. Aren’t we all our people. Be it red, white, black, or yellow. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t deny my hands are stained in blood. But make no mistake these bare hands that have strangled the life from more than I want to count, drove my sword deep pulling out a man’s gut. Watched them choke, gargling and eventually drowning in their own blood. They my friend, were just as much warriors ready to do the same. And whether they be god fearing Baptist rebels from the Deep south, or believers in the Great Spirit hunting the buffalo, they all bled red.”

He spit again on the ground. “Not certain everything I’ve done, I might not have changed given the opportunity. But I didn’t chose my fate. Drafted in the union army, weren’t more than thirteen. I went because I had too. I went because if I wanted to eat, wanted to have shelter, I had to become a soldier. I didn’t have any skin in the game, nothing political about right and wrong coming out of my head. Just a young boy that cared more about what’s in his belly, then what’s in his head. My family were sharecroppers. Hell we’d lost what little means we had when plantations brought negroes in. Course they didn’t want it. They were just caught up in the greed of folks running things.” He pulled the snuff from under his lip and spit the rest out. “I don’t know why one ends up doing what he does. Just like why our paths have crossed. They say the good lord got a plan for us all, but honestly after seeing some of things I’ve seen, I don’t think he gives a damn about us. All I know is I’m tired of killing. I’m tired of seeing another man in pain, and I think you can understand that better than most.”

Christian nodded. “I reckon you’re right about that.”

They both stopped next to the river a cliff area overlooking a channel of river that divided, where the rail company had hoped to stake out. In the distance a water fall, in the further distance the snow cap Rockies. It was by far the most beautiful spot on his property. “The Cliffs of Arduous,” named for its rugged beauty. It was Suzie’s favorite spot. The Colonel took another good look at the countryside, spit again and wiped his mouth with his arm. “I’ve come here to tell you I’m headed back east. My suggestion for what it’s worth to the rail folks is to find another way north to Silverton. Not sure that well mean anything. When you get the politicians, big bosses and money all lined up, cards seem to get stacked in their favor. And I’m sure I ain’t got to tell you about the locals you got nipping at your back.

Christian nodded, “well I’m grateful you see it that way. But it seems at one point you had the same ambitions. I saw you along with Royce Sr. and Jr. run my cattle off the cliff. Why the change?”

The Colonel lowered his head. “Weren’t supposed to go down that way. What they did was pure evil. Unfortunately, my hands tied, orders from folks back east had me here only as an observer. Felt it best to let the locals do as they saw fit. Believe me if I’d had the muscle even a fraction of my old regiment, we’d of stopped them. That night had a lot to do with me soul searching. Honestly given the chance again I’d done things different. Seeing how morally corrupt the next governor and his boy handled things. Made me sick to my stomach to think a land as pretty as this could and up under his say.”

Christian could see the sincerity in the Colonels face. He shifted in his mount looking back at his crew cutting timber. “Reckon I outta get back.” He led his horse around then stopped. “You know one thing that got my crow more than anything, is how my ranch hand got involved.”

The Colonel took his cap off his canteen and offered it to Christian. “Kentucky whiskey if you got a taste for it.” Christian declined. The Colonel took a sip and made a “AH,” Sound as it went down his throat. Then addressed Christian. “I don’t claim to know this ken cowboy very well, but from my observation, seems he saw an opportunity for some quick cash where nobody got hurt. Ken came across as a very persuadable type of guy, but not malicious. I think Royce had em believing that it was all for the betterment of the community and you were just being downright stubborn for your own good.”

Seen him lately?”

Royce got him doing odd jobs around town, that’s is when he ain’t tied into a bottle.

“Bottle? Christian replied almost falling from his mount. “Hell that man in all the years I knew him never touched the stuff.”

The Colonel took one more swig of the canteen and screwed the cap back on stuffing it in his saddle bag. “Well I suppose these our different times. He’s definitely gotten to be a slave to the thirst for liquor, and honestly, I’m not sure the thirst has made him bitter or his bitterness made him thirst, but he got an evil about him, touched as the Sioux would say. You be careful cowboy, lot bad people in this town don’t seem to have your best interest at heart. Their tentacles are deep, reach all the way back to the east to Main street folks in New York. Call em selves Wall Streeter’s. Select group of folks with a lot money. Guardians of the constitution they’ll tell you as they sneak in your back door at night and rob you blind. The railroads a coming, steel makers need it. Trust but verify.” The Colonel took one more look at the view the cliffs presented. “Goddamn if this ain’t one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen, then bid Christian farewell and rode off. Christian had been left with a new admiration and respect for the man. Looking over the vast wilderness of his land it brought to mind what had been dwelled into his mindset since a child by his Sioux family.

When the blood in your veins return to the [*sea*,
and the] earth in your bones returns to the [*ground*,
perhaps then you will remember that this] land [does not belong to you,
it is] you who belongs to this land.

Christian had gotten to a place in his life, as much as it burned his ass at time, he was letting go of the mishap concerning his livestock. Turning the other cheek. Treating it as no different than a payback by the Great Mystery when his stock survived the foot and mouth disease and his neighbors thirty miles south of him lost all its young spring calves. But he, Christian Russell Jessie James, did belong to the land. And no one would take that from him.

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, the trees colored in orange and red, by the time the back meadow to his property had been cleared of timber, sawed milled into building lumber, and neatly stacked next to the lake. The courtship between Suzie and Christian had blossomed into commitment and the weekend before the wedding had arrived.

The gypsy woman’s warning, now only a good story to tell his one day grandkids, and nothing more in his mind. Both stood together in admiration overlooking the mountains and hill that framed in the plot of land that was to be their dream home.

Christian marking off the finishing boundaries of the house, stake in hand, yelled out to Suzie to confirm he appeasement to the back boundary of the house as he got ready to drive the stake to the ground. “Go back further,” she said. He glanced back eyeballing the distance from the lake and moved back several feet. “More,” she said waving him back. Christian took several more steps back, and queried her with a look of approval before driving the stake in the ground. “No she stopped him, “back,” she said nodding to her own approval. His eyes wondered over to the staged lumber, then back to the lake behind him before meeting up with hers again.

“We can’t go back any further Suzie, the house is already more then you and I need. Besides I’d have to cut down another batch of woods, saw it, mill it, that’s an awful lot of work to be done before winter. And twice as much wood to heat it. Don’t mind work, but wasting, that just don’t seem to make sense.”

Suzie put her fingers up to Christian’s lips, “hush you. I swear sometimes I can’t understand how a man can know so much, but not enough to know not to question that which only a woman can understand.”

“I understand a lot, I understand my current living arrangement ain’t really suitable for a woman long term, especially one used to a little more than most, but what in gods darn creation does that got to do with practical matters. Miss Suzie Cartright surely you were brought up mindful to not waste and that’s all I can see standing here.”

She was getting inpatient with his practical thinking that left little room for the future. “Oh, you think I’m being wasteful, spoiled maybe? Yes, I see why you could mistake yourself to believe that. So tell me, where a bouts is Elizabeth’s room, where would that be?”

“Elizabeth?”

“Yes and of course, we can’t have Elizabeth and Junior in the same room now can we?”

A smile overtook his face. She once again had been one step, in fact at least two steps ahead of his mindset. He moved back even further. “Why stop with Elizabeth and Junior,” he added striking the hammer on the stake deep in the ground with added enthusiasm a foot or two beyond hers.

Content they had mapped out the boundaries of their new home, Christian gathered up his tools and loaded them in the wagon, pocketing a pouch, hidden in the bed of the wagon. Together they took one last look, hands interlocked, standing near the future entrance of their covered porch where every night the bright orange sun of their paradise would say goodnight as it moved downward into the covers of the horizon. She leaned to kiss him on the cheek. “You better go. I know the boys have a little get together in town planned for you tonight. Make it good, but not too good. Ain’t a cat house, you can hide in if I get wind of it.” She warned him jokingly.

He smiled, “I know you would, it’s that feistiness in you that first attracted me.” He squeezed her hand. “Rest assured there’s not another filly that got my eye, not even for a moment not even ever. Just trying to appease the boys, you know I ain’t had a drop of liquor or gambled a card in nearly a year, honestly don’t miss either. You’ll see me before midnight.”

She smiled and drove her lips deep into his, the smell of her skin casting a smell of lust before they broke the kiss. “That where I need you, home and safe, I’d die if anything ever happen to you. You hear me Christian Jesse. You know my soul belongs to you. You hear me?”

“Close your eyes,” he said waiting to make sure she did before he pulled a locket from the pouch stuffed in his back pocket.

“What?” she said playfully.

“Just close em.”

She could feel a metal chain going over her neck. “Okay open up your eyes.”

Her eyes gravitated to the locket around her chest, “it’s beautiful, l love it.” She said stroking it with her fingers.

“No that’s not it, open it up.” She unhinged the latch on the heart shaped locket. Inside the picture taken at the square dance. “Oh, my god,” she said surprised covering her hand over her mouth her eyes watering. “I’d forgotten all about it. I mean I didn’t, but I thought you did.”

“No I didn’t forget. Been carrying it around for a while waiting for the right moment. Like the photograph man said. Our souls are locked together forever.”

The tears of happiness continued in her eyes. He stood behind her tall holding her, she leaning her head on his chin, the sun starting to set. “I’ve never been happier in my life.” She turned around facing him . Now I’ve got something special I’ve been waiting to show you. And today I know it works, cause every dream I have is coming true.” She started to slowly pull her skirt in a teasing fashion exposing her calf.

His eyes dilated a quarter of their size. Then he broke into a laughter realizing what she was actually willing to show him “You got a dreamcatcher like mine.” He said touching it.

“I went back and Seroka did it. Course, had to hide it, paw would have just went crazy, had he seen it.”

Christian shook his head, visualizing the commitment and pain she endured, one few woman this side of the Mississippi might partake in. “Suzie Cartwright I don’t know what to do about you but I promise you that strike my soul to eternal damnation, I will be with you forever.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

Christian’s friend Paul met him at the ranch and together they both made the trail into town. Hitching the horses to the post outside the saloon Christian spotted three men standing near the blacksmiths barn.

He hadn’t recognized them and thought they displayed a fashionable cockiness that put his senses on guard. “Lighten up,” Paul jokingly said patting him on the back, “them cowboys just knocking a little prairie dust off, just like you and I used to.”

Christian nodded, It had been a long time since he had made any rounds in town at night and he attributed his uneasiness to that. “I suppose your right.” Paul smiled and followed Christian in the saloon. He couldn’t help but glance to the cowboys making his own assessment that agreed with Christian. These cowboys seemed destined for trouble.

“The room is in the back,” Paul said guiding Christian. Before entering, Christian felt eyes upon him and he turned in time to see Royce Junior and his beady blue wolf knife cutting eyes staring him down. Most appalling, his new side kick, barely recognizable, ragged and un-kept, a sad glitter in his blood shot eyes, stood his once good friend, Ken. Paul traced his concerns and shook his head. “Heard the bastard was back in town.”

Christian instinctively felt for his gun. There was no gun to be had. A promise made with Suzie. A feeling of vulnerability overcame him. “I don’t like it Paul. Between those cowboys outside and seeing Junior, I get a bad feeling.”

“Come on don’t worry about him, we got some lost time to make up for. Its gonna all work out.” Inside the back room, a table of roasted pig ribs sautéed in vinegar and tomatoes, tender to the bone, and spit roasted beef, dripping in hickory flavored sauce, sat next to a bucket of yellow sweet corn, salted and buttered and fresh water trout that flies gave equal attention to. It between the booze and grub and rows of pies made from the early autumn harvest of blackberries and blueberries was a feast fit for a king, or at least a kingdom in the remoteness of nowhere. Tessy had made sure of that. Even in her sorrow of losing a good friend to marriage, she wanted to make sure everything was perfect for him. In good fun and the festive spirit of the night, she even offered up a raincheck to their earlier encounter. He of course declined jokingly assuring her in the next life time, she was all his. The crowded room held more than thirty of Christian’s friends he had come to know over the years. And seeing Christian enter they shouted out a collective cheer, putting him to ease.

It would not have been complete without a few of his clothes friends he had made of the years. Matt the red headed blacksmith with forearms as big as a blue spruce timber trunk, and a chest as big as a whiskey barrel, that made most wonder if god had willed his body for such a trade or the trade had wielded him. And Carl the only truly gifted carpenter in town, that could not only frame better than most, but had the mind of an engineer who could craft the most elegant of wooden structures and as a gift had promised Christian a spiral staircase to highlight his new home. Although most would argue his barrel making for whiskey mush and keg beer his greatest gift to the community. There was also Mike and Randy and of course Fred, who in their youth, had all had worked next to each other, in the cold wet mines, for which only a shot of whiskey could kill the chill, and clear the lungs of coal dust. Gathered next to them alone but mindful of others, stood Fungi a short, pony tailed Chinese immigrant who Christian had spent a summer setting dynamite charges and laying rail over the rough terrain of the rocky foothills. He in Christian’s eyes was a man of honor sharing the wisdom and secrets of his ancient culture concerning the yin and yang of life and art of eastern fighting that kept him strong and vibrant. Next to him, the shaman and his blood brother decorated and proudly dressed in full Indian carb that turned an eyeball or two, and got some colorful comments all in good fun as the whiskey poured freely, and dark rich barley beers mixed with plates of new churned butter and bread was broke honoring the upcoming celebration. Rounding out the group of friends were neighbors whose property budded next to Christian and taught the gambler how to drive his steer to market and haggler with the best of the beef merchants from as far away as Denver, and when to reap the hay before the harvest moon to get the finest hay this side of the Rockies and best price. But the one man Christian was most proud to see at his party, was Suzie’s Paw, a man, who in his expressed actions towards Christian now conveyed only warmth and acceptance for him into his family. One he now bragged on as the building block to his heritage and bloodline. His turning point as he often told Christian was his new founded faith in Christian to turn the other cheek and not the quickness of his gun hand.

These and a few more comprised the wealth of friends he came to celebrate the end of his bachelorhood and beginning of true manhood. And in the far corner two men one dressed in black, and one with white hair and a long white beard, for which no one question and readily accepted as having reason to celebrate the joyous occasion, sat and watched.

It was a night of cards and booze with even a few dancing girls to liven up the festive spirit of the party. True to his words, Christian neither partook in gambling nor did alcohol reach his lips.

As the lamps burned to the end of the wick, the party slowly ushered back to the Saloon, it gave Christian a perfect time to bid for ware and make his escape home. As he was just about ready to exit Paul made one last desperate plead for one last shot for old time shake. “I got piss but I’ll be right back, you owe me at least that.” he demanded slightly swaying.

“The paper said see me after class?” A student interrupted Stan’s typing.

“What?” Stan asked without looking up, engrossed in his writing.

“The paper says see me after class.”

“Then see me after class.” Stan said still captivated in writing. And paying his student little attention.

“Alright dude it’s your call.”

Stan eyes immediately rose recognizing the use of the vernacular in his voice. It was Matt the kid with tall straight black hair, a refugee cross between Edgar Poe and Charlie Manson, the awkward kid in his youth that hadn’t found his stride in life yet. The plagiarizer of his own soul. The pizza boy. For a moment Stan forgot his surroundings. “You’re not real, you’re not on the rosters, you don’t exist.”

“Maybe we ought to take this outside,” Matt said pointing to the classroom’s attention locked on a man in conversation with himself.

Stan slowly got up seeing the eyes flooded with curiosity and wonderment, to the theatrics or breakdown of their mentor. He followed Matt outside, a few braver students got up and watched from the glass of the doorway as Stan continued his charade in the empty hallway.

“Look why are you doing this? Go away you’re not real.”

“You haven’t even looked at your calendar lately have you?” The plagiarizer asked.

Stan nodded no, and in an uncharacteristic fashion comforted himself cradling his arms tightly wrapped around his chest while swaying side to side.

He put his hand up counting his fingers. “Five days that’s it, thirty already crossed out. You’ve done nothing but wasted time. She’s coming to get you, the tunnels already been open. You can’t close it once it’s opens. “

“What do you mean tunnel?” he asked suddenly stopping his swaying then starting again.

“The passage to the meadow. It will be your way out. You’ll need it but maybe now it’s already too late, five days, five days left on the calendar. “

“I know how much time I got,” He hollered out in frustration, backing those from the glass of the door, no doubt watching a sad display of a man’s wits unfolding in front of them.

“You got to calm down,” Matt said gesturing to the students spying on him from the window. “Maybe We need to go get a drink. Yeah, that does sound good. A drink that’s what we need. Then maybe we could play our game.”

His mention of needing booze and game infuriated Stan. “What you know about the game?”

“I know why we play it. We play it because of her. Suzie.”

He peered into Matt’s eyes, wondering if he might be right. “She’s only a character in the book.” He said now casting an eye to the class window, then back to Matt.

Matt laughed. Loud, loud enough to piss Stan off.” Is that what you think that book is, just fiction, please were not that creative. What mysteries of the mind the gremlins do produce.”

Stan covered his ears with his hands pressing tight across his head. “Shut up, you’re not real, you’re not real, you’re not real!” He repeated louder each time.

Stan, STAN!.. You okay man?” Stan felt a hand on his arm. The touch brought him back to awareness. In front of him stood his friend Billie, the music man, holding his broom.

“What.. Yeah man what’s up?”

“Nothing man, you just kinda, got me a little concerned my man, just kinda out here like.. like you were like having a conversation with yourself? I thought you were gonna tap your red ruby shoes next and be off to Kansas.”

Stan instinctively looked at his feet. “Naw I’m okay, just working through some thoughts. Just . . just tired that’s all, had a bad night sleep.” He said backing away from Billie. “Really man I’m okay let me just get back to the classroom alright? “

He opened the door and in the silence of all eyes upon him, he sat in his chair, his look dazed and fogged over. He never heard the bell end the class or the concerned and frightened students one by one still silent still staring lay their papers on his desk. It wasn’t until Sharia, eyes barely able to hold back her emotions walked in seeing Stan almost in a comatose like state, shaking sitting in a trance. “Stan are you alright? Look at me.” she said focusing on his eyes.

“Stan’s eyes locked on a faraway gaze moved towards hers, “I don’t know,” was all he could say.

Sharia continued to observe Stan for a few more moments, then pulled a chair from the classroom and scooted it next to his, taking his hands, in hers. From the door, a few still curious students lingered stealing a glimpse from the window. “Stan I think you’re having a breakdown. Do you know where you’re at?” He nodded yes. “Where are you Stan?”

He had a peculiar look in his face, his eyes focused beyond her attention as if he barely understood or recognized where he truly was. “I’m in the street. I’m in a dirt street, in an old western town, folks are dressed as if . . . good lord.” He chuckled to himself. “I’m back in time, I’m back in my previous life.”

“No Stan,” she said gripping his arm tightly. “You’re not in your previous life. Your confused. Your confused with your book. The one you’re writing, the one I’m helping you edit. It’s all fiction Stan. Do you know your name?”

“Christian James.”

“Stan listen to me, your name is Stanley Mathew Stiles. Say it with me, my name is Stanly Mathew Stiles. Not Christian James”

“Stanley Mathew Stiles,” Stan finally repeated.

“Yes,” she said excitement in her voice. “Say it again, Stanley Mathew Stiles.”

Stan took a deep inhale and let it out as if her words broke through his cationic trance. “Sharia, what…. What are you doing here?” his eyes surveyed the empty class. “Jesus what time is it? Did I like zone out or what?”

Sharia eyes bathed in concern remained silent observing Stan for a moment.

WHAT?” he asked to break the uncomfortable silence.

“Did you take something today any prescription medication or even over the counter herbal supplements?”

“NO! why?”

“Stan you just had a small breakdown, a psychotic episode. You zoned completely out, Billie came to my office said you were hallucinating, talking to someone who wasn’t there. Do you remember talking to someone?”

Stan shook his head no, even though he knew it was a lie.

“You sure? He wasn’t the only one who stopped by my office. Miller already got wind of it.” Stan barely nodded his head in response. “Alright, look I’m gonna write down a name. He’s a good physiologist.”

Stan ran his hands through his hair pulling on it. “No why are you doing this to me. I’m just tired, that’s all.”

Sharia’s dark- brown eyes locked with compassion on Stan, she pulled his hands away from his head and brushed his matted hair down. “This is beyond tired Stan. This is beyond a couple restless nights.”

Stan rubbed his hand hard across his face and small growth of whiskers, he was looking for an out. An easy fix. “I mean you’re a doctor of psychology couldn’t I just…”

“No Stan, that’s not my expertise. Besides I’ve already put in for FMLA, Marc doesn’t have much time.” She handed him the paper with the doctor’s name. “I would also recommend you see your regular doctor, rule out any physical ailments.” Stan stared at her like a broken child with nowhere to turn.

“You think the students told Miller? I’m I gonna lose my job?”

“I don’t know Stan, you freaked some people out, but hey everybody got a crazy professor story from their past,” she jokingly said to hopefully lighten it up. “I’ll talk to the union for you. You okay to it make home? Do you want me to call Maria? Or maybe Billie will drive you home?”

“NO! I’m okay, I’m walking anyway be good for me to sort some things out. I told you I just, haven’t had any sleep lately. But to make you feel better, I’ll make some appointments.” She could only look at him with concern. Before he left, she brought pamphlets from her office with a list and signs of anxiety and mental illnesses.

“Really?” Stan said looking down the list.

Sharia put her hands out to the side. “It’s just something to look at. Prepare you for your doctor’s visit. I’m not saying your nuts, but I know you’ve been under a lot of pressure lately.” He nodded and took the pamphlets’ begrudgingly.

CHAPTER FORTY

Heading towards home and out of Sharia’s view, Stan crumbled the card with the psychiatrist name and threw it to the ground. “Fuck it, I don’t need a doctor, I just need some sleep, something to relax me that’s all, yeah I’ll play your game Sharia. Meet you halfway and call my doctor, god knows you won’t let it rest until I do.” Denial,” popped into his brain, but he wouldn’t associate himself. ‘A powerful impediment to treatment.’ The title and subtitle of Sharia’s pamphlet dogma. He dialed his regular physician. Halfway into the conversation he got into his symptoms, or at least what he felt comfortable to share. “Yeah that’s right, been having headaches, blackouts. No, I don’t drink,” he said in a half-truth since quitting. “Seeing things, no not like that, just…I guess like double vision,” he said downplaying what he considered embarrassing questions. “Again, no hearings fine, occasional ringing that’s all. Yeah and lately some type of twitch in my eye. Yeah that’s what I thought, do I need to submit it or do you for the insurance on the MRI? Working through the details he hung up with appointment in hand. “That wasn’t that bad.” He thought to himself. Justifying his half-truths as necessary considering a good doctor worth at least a hill of beans, could figure at the rest, if there were a rest to figure out. He started listing his appointment in his IPhone. “Screw it,” he said erasing it. “I told her I would make an appointment, not actually go.” Then noticed a hair appointment he had set for today. Checking his watch and still within distance he turned around and headed to his appointment with the ‘Hair Doctor.” A peculiar friend and stylist obsessed with Elvis, and in tribute fashioned his own hair in a thick black crop of dyed hair side burns and all that added close to half a foot of hair to his already lanky frame of 6 ft. 10 inches. Everyone called him Elvis and it only encouraged him more to imitate all facets of the king’s life. He grabbed a thistle of his hair measuring its length and eyed his look in the reflection of a shop window. “No wonder everyone thinks I’m crazy. Look like hell. Haircuts what I need. Just like Uncle John, tight on the sides. Nice haircut and a little sleep, that’ll fix what’s ailing me.”

Hurrying he still entered the shop two minutes late, where Elvis stood arms folded, taping his foot, waiting impatiently “Can’t take you, your late.”

Stan standing alone with the barber in the empty shop thought he was kidding at first. “What?” He asked confused.

“Your late I don’t have time now… sorry you’ll have to reschedule.”

Stan initially or in most days might have tried to reason, but given the days that seemed to lack any type of rational belief, he just nodded his head, accepted the fate of it, and walked out of the shop. Muttering under his breath. “I walk in two minutes late, to a guy dresses like Elvis, not a damn soul around and he ain’t got time, and I’m the guy who needs a psychiatrist. Only crazy thing I’ve done lately is give up booze.”

Walking over the arch bridge something prompted him to walk down the steps near the waterfall to see if an exit existed from the tunnel connecting his house. And how one actually navigated it. Working his way down the steep path of thick entangled vines and overgrowth of green hanging from the trees, he felt more in the amazon rainforest where the passage of light barely cut the dense foliage of Eastern Ohio. Finally, he stumbled on a dirt walkway cut amongst the mighty oaks and bushel of thick growth. It directed him to the bank of the river where he first heard the thundering roar of the water crash over the old rock ledges and crudely engineered handmade damn. Beyond the damn on the other side his eyes spied upon, an older man, and younger lady embraced in a kiss. When they broke, Stan’s mouth dropped as the woman’s face came to view. It was Racheal, he thought his heart skipped a beat and he felt a lump in his throat sink low below his heart straight to his stomach. For a moment, he contemplated what he was actually seeing. A kiss of friendship perhaps, gratitude for a deed will done. No that was merely wishful thinking on Stan’s part.

He had seen enough, retracing his steps back through the rain forest and thick foliage, back to the steps that took him over the arch bridge he made his way home. He felt zapped of all his energy, abandoned betrayed. But why? She wasn’t his to begin with. Maybe misplaced baggage of emotions from Maria’s abandonment, triggered by a misplaced belief something more existed between Racheal and him. “Projection,” he said to himself, remembering it on Sharia’s mental illness pamphlet. Have to circle that one. He walked home dejected his head down. The thought to detour to Billie Bud’s crossed his mind, but soon passed. Reaching his house, he sat at his computer pulled up his story and for the first time in a long time felt empty. He forced a few lines, read them with little interest and realized he would not find escape or solace in his writing. “Fuck it. Liquor that primes the well. Nobody likes quitters, anyway.” He went to the basement and stared at the plywood on the wall. It distracted his attention, he thought about the student or at least the ghost in the hallway mentioning it as some mode of escape. “Bullshit,” he rationalized. I must be going crazy. No I am fucking crazy. The temporary plywood for some unknown reason plagued his thoughts. “Fixation,” he said pulling another word from Sharia’s pamphlet. “Got projection and fixation. Hell should have been a psychiatrist. All you got to do is put their actions in a box , label it, and send em down the road. Got all the terms down. Will I’m fixing to project a new project fixing my wall.” He smiled happy with his clever use of words. “Fucking poet, that’s what I am.” Within a few minutes, he had gathered his drill gun and had the temporary plywood off. He took a moment to stare into the dark abyss of the tunnel. Nothing but a draft of cold musky darkness. He measured the opening and moments later found some leftover drywall and screws and manhandled the cut piece from the garage to the opening, driving two screws to temporarily hold it. Dropping his tools next to the wall, he was satisfied for the moment making a mental note to pick up mud and tape from the hardware store. Happy with himself he rationalized a drink was in order to reward himself. He went to the bar hoping he had forgot to empty a bottle or two and rummaged through the cabinet below the bar seats. Smelling smoke, he poked his head up, bumping it on the top. “Jesus! What the fuck.” He said grabbing his chest. “You scared the shit out of me.”

“Can a girl get a drink here?” the ghost said smiling as she puffed away at a smoke.

He reached out and touched her. She felt cold yet he could feel her. “This can’t be happening, you’re not real. It’s all in my head. Hallucinations psychosis that’s what the pamphlet says.”

“Darling, everything in life is in your head. Nothings external. I’m as real as anything else in this room, including yourself.”

He stood up straight from behind the bar. “What you want from me?”

“A drink.”

“Your out of luck, I quit. Ain’t got a drop to offer. “ He said wondering why he was even engaged in conversation with her.

“That’s okay honey, you hiring any dancers here?” She asked pulling lipstick from her purse with her free hand and hunching closer to the mirror to apply a bright red glossy lipstick. She puckered her lips to spread it evenly rechecked her look and seeing a smudge on her teeth wiped it away with her finger.

“This ain’t a freaking bar, it’s my house.” He responded glancing at the mirror void of her reflection.

She looked around her surroundings.” Yeah, I guess you’re right, it is a house, sometimes all this is very confusing for me. But lighten up, you look like you just saw a ghost.” She, grinned twisting away and blowing her menthol cigarette smoke over her shoulder.

“I ain’t gonna ask you again. Scatter, head for the light, whatever you suppose to do, just leave. What do I need to do? Get a priest to get rid of you? If you got a message from the other side, out with it. Spill the beans, spit it out, and we can both move on.”

She laughed, “please you’ve read to many Stephen Kings books. It don’t work that way. “I live here. And as for what do I want? It’s you that brought me into your life, it don’t work the other way.”

“Why would I bring you in my life, who are you, or who were you?”

“Who do you think I am?”

“My imagination at this point.”

She shook her head in disagreement.

“Alright its games you want to play. There was a suicide here, young girl.”

“Now you’re getting close. But it wasn’t suicide it was a murder.”

“Is that why you’re here? I’m I suppose to do find your murder.

She chuckled. “God you’re not making this easy, I really could of used a drink. Why does everyone think there’s a mystical scoreboard that tracks naughty and nice, and the balance of life depends on evening the score. I comfort you, can’t you see that, even in a strange way, beyond your fear of the unknown I bring comfort to you.”

“What do I need comfort from?”

“Abandonment, god lord knows you’ve had your share of it, and I know how tough it is when you want someone so bad, but you can’t have them. But honey that’s life, that’s the secret I bring back to you. It’s okay to hurt. We all face it, every one of us. We all want what we can’t have.”

He reflected on her words. his Uncle’s words, the plagiarizer’s words. “So, the envelope letters I’ve been chasing, none of that means anything? You ghost need to get your shit together. Shouldn’t you all be like Dickens Christmas ghost? You know have a common theme if your gonna harass a man. You’re really rather terrible at all this.”

She took another drag on her cig and blew it at him. “Humbug, scrooge was simpler he had a brain and no heart. You seem to have a heart but no brain. All any of us wanted, is to help you know the truth.”

“The truth? Jesus the truth is so convoluted at this point. The only truth I’ve gathered is you both lived a lie. In the end, you both lost. “

She looked puzzled confused. “What? He asked.

She put out her cigarette in the astray. “Nothing I guess I hadn’t expected such a shallow response from a teacher in life. You missed the beauty in all of it. What a sad way to view life.” She reached out and although he could not feel her touch he felt her energy. “Everything in life can be seen as an illusion. Money, fame, security, these are attachments that really don’t exist outside of what we believe. The lie would have been to never had each other.” She stood up. “But I’m not here to justify my life. I just wanted to meet you. He told me how proud he was of you. How you are just like him, always in deep thought, random, carefree. I knew you would be a good choice. But then again, you really never had a choice. And when you found the letters. I knew it wouldn’t be long before you brought me in your life.”

“Random and carefree, Uncle John was none of those things. Anymore than I am.”

“Oh… but he was. That’s the wisdom, that’s the truth in the letters, you see inevitably each person you meet every connection you make with someone else brings forth another part of you, and if that connection is strong enough, the patterns of your response lead you to your true nature. You’ve already made the connections. You really do write the script for your own life. Someday you’ll see it for yourself.”

“Someday? You missed the mark on that. Ain’t many days left for ‘someday’ to happen. I’m down to less than a week, and then I’ll be harassing some poor soul like you. One week don’t seem like a whole lot of time in my book.”

“Nonsense! That can be a lifetime, I’ve got to go. You won’t be seeing any of us again, at least until the end. She looked around as if she felt others of her caliber were near then cautiously spoke in a direct low tone. “The locket, she has it. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but the locket tells the story. Take care of her. She is very precious.”

“What story? What locket?”

“The one you write; don’t you see the connection.” She said tapping her finger on his forehead. “We’ve been trying to tell you that.”

He nodded gnawing over her words, and as quickly as she appeared, she seemed to fade and blend into the pixels of space gone forever.

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

Sleep he thought staring into the void. Man can go crazy without sleep. All this harassment goes away with a good night sleep, he justified to himself scratching the shadow of whiskers starting to shade a darker tone on his face. He thought he heard a moan come from upstairs. With his nerves on end, he instinctively dashed to the top of the step in a flight or fight response stumbling over the cat and catching his fall on the corner of a sharp piece of metal from an old doctor cabinet they had gotten as an anniversary gift ripping his skin right down the life line of his palm. It was a deep cut and blood poured from it. Stan looked to the sky and laughed. “If that ain’t an omen. I don’t know what is.” He wiped his hand on his jeans, to look beyond the blood. “Sleep, I need sleep. A long sleep.” The game crossed his mind. His thoughts random, unorganized, fleeting, flipping between a cure and finality to the madness. “Pack the gun,” he reminded himself. Yes, maybe that’s it. Play the game and this time it wins.”

In little time, he had an overnight bag backed with a change of clothes, his pistol, and his Uncle’s packet. It was a college football weekend, all the nice hotels taken. Wondered if the prick Miller was enjoying his private lodge at the stadium. He had half a mind to join him. Nice hotel wasn’t necessary for the thoughts that shadowed his mind anyway. Driving he found a hotel in the seedy part of town, neon lights advertising topless dancers flashed down the street. Reaching the hotel, he parked the car and grabbed the gym bag then stuffed the packet of letters in a side pocket of the gym bag and headed to the front desk clerk. “Need a room somewhere quite.”

“How many nights?”

“One,” he said handing her his credit card. “You got a bar here?” she looked up at him half irritated with a seriously you’re asking me that question look. She shook her head.

“Walk out here make a left carry out store less than a block away, got beer and wine. “

“Right,” Stan said.

“No left out of here.”

“I meant right, I get it… it wasn’t a direction thing…never mind,” he ended the conversation, seeing her blank face

He went next store. Wine was limited, but cheap. The cork opener cost more than the bottle. Well worth the investment to take the edge off. Make all of it a little easier. He thought to himself.

Unlocking his room the smell of musk, immediately flooded his senses as the air conditioning unit kicked on and off in bouts of bangs and rattles. A befitting place to put my miserable existence away. He thought to himself.

He poured a glass of wine in the plastic cup and took a swig taking a good look at himself in the mirror. Bags hung down around his eyes. His sleep lately in spurts, hour here, hour there were taking its toll. He took another swig of the wine. He started to get the chills then a cold sweat and he knew what that meant. Fuck.” he said. Lately his vision preceded this. He started to pour another glass, smelling it first before tasting it. His eyes bulged outward, he felt queasy as his stomach gurgled he put the red cup down and rushed to the toilet feeling sick. Wiping his mouth, he got up, and took the gun out of his bag laying it on the desk. Then grabbed the bullets and picked the gun back up loading it and rolling the barrel. He put it to his head and closed his eyes. The sound of a text went off on his phone. He tried to ignore it. Closing his eyes again and balancing his trigger finger. Another text came through. This time he grabbed his phone looking at the name and time it was 11:11 Racheal finally responded. “Hey you got time to talk.”

“I’ll be damned, she finally texted back.” He put the gun on the dresser and started to immediately type a respond then stopped. “Slow down,” he cautioned himself. “I am acting like a teenager lining up his first piece of ass. He went to the sink, picked the wine cup up and dumped it in the trash. Then looking in the mirror, ran water and wet his face and hair slicking it back with his fingers. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he started typing a long response on his phone before rereading it and erasing the entire message and simply responding. “Yes.”

“You home? I’ll stop over.”

He thought about it for a moment wondering how silly it looked running away from his own house before deciding to answer. “No,”

“No? Will than how about meeting my place. It’s on Whitestone road. Do you know where that is?”

“Yeah, millionaires row?”

LOL, yes.”

“That could work. Give me your address.” He texted back. “Millionaires row, go figure,” he said to himself. Yogi teachers and University Presidents.”

Before long Stan had her address programmed into his GPS and found himself taking in the sites of the old country road lined with mainly new homes but some older refurbished homes for which most cost north of seven figures. Hence the nicknamed millionaires row. Passing a white wooden fenced pasture that seemed to go on forever his GPS said make next right, it took him down a long winding cement drive with coach lanterns mounted on post about every twenty feet and carefully chosen oriental pear trees bordering the quarter mile drive.

The house lights switched on as he pulled next to the opulent limestone French Chateau house with a steeply pitched hipped roofs, cast-iron cresting, corner turrets, and two tall chimneys crowned with ornamental caps. With windows set in arches. It was a castle fit for a king or queen in her case. Stan texted first before going to the door. “I’m outside, wow, wanted to make sure your place.” The front entry door lit and out stepped Racheal, relaxed in sweats and t-shirt holding a coffee mug. He expected a butler given her dwellings. She waved him in.

His first impression. Beyond words, the wealth in just her furniture, more in likely exceeded his yearly income. He stopped at a painting in the hallway, to admire it. Is that a Rockwell print?”

“No, not a print. But yes, a Rockwell painting. It’s one of my favorites.”

“An original Rockwell, that can’t be cheap?”

She took a good look at the painting. “It was a gift to myself. I guess it’s the family I never had but always wanted.” Passing the den, a black and white photograph of a home high on the mountains caught his attention, he stopped and looked in.

“My god don’t tell me that’s an Ansley Adam’s.”

She smiled. “Okay I won’t tell you then. But that’s my second favorite picture. It’s my little escape, my retirement home.”

He shook his head standing in the hall admiring it, then walked to the kitchen equally impressed with the view from the patio windows of the vast rolling fields behind her house. “I’m in the wrong business. Retirement house, god lord how much money do you make teaching yogi?”

“The retirement home was a gift, from a stranger.” “Do you want a drink? I got whiskey beer or even wine.”

“No booze,” Coffee be fine though.” Is that a graveyard back there?”

She hit the grind button on the coffee maker, and her eyes drifted to the outside where confined in an rusted rickety metal black fence, guarding the slanted eroded stone markers an old small family grave plot existed. Fresh flowers lay on top of each grave. “Yes, family that used to own this property. Looked up their history in the archives. Well to do family that moved from out west. Cartright’s were their names. Five graves in all, had one daughter, pass back west, young girl, still trying to find out more about her.”

“The flowers? You put them there?”

She smiled at Stan. “Yes, I do put fresh flowers on their grave, every Saturday. As strange as it seems, I find a bond when I walk amongst the graves. Almost if there speaking to me. Like were a part of each other. It gives me a grounding peace. Sometimes I think for that reason only I bought the place.

Racheal took a deep exhale as if even the thought of her past still haunted her. Stan’s eyes froze on Racheal. With her next word’s she locked her eyes on his. “Sometimes I feel as if I’m the soul of the missing tombstone.“

The name of the family stung him hard without thinking he blurted out her name. “Suzie Cartright was her name. she died from a fall off cliffs back in Colorado.”

Her eyes danced in his words, a secret few would, or could know. . . unless? But she had to be sure. “How do you know about the girl?”

If silence was an invisible fortress, and the eyes the key to unlock it, their eyes were fully engaged and one, only one, had the power to turn the key at that moment and unite the souls. But frames of time pass and so do the circumstances of chance, the eyes melted away as did the intimacy of secrets better kept at bay, not yet to be shared.

“Ah . . . ah, He stuttered trying to cover his tracks. “Read it somewhere. I can’t remember I think I saw an article in the Kent Review about it.”

The fire in her eyes dwindled, the smile dropped, her tone, a shade of disappointment. “Oh, that’s strange, I must have missed it in my research.” She poured his coffee and handed to him. “Cream or Sugar?”

He sat at the counter island still in awe of her place. “Blacks fine.” They both took turns sipping on their coffee, using it to soothe the silence, each wondering, as the stooled a glimpse of one another, the strange connection they couldn’t share. The silence swept in slow like mist moving over a river. Until his coffee cup emptied, and talk was the only thing left to do. “So, let me understand this. Some stranger just gives you a house. Don’t you think that’s a little bizarre? Someone just giving you a house.”

She looked up at him, no longer finding refugee in her own cup. “I did at first, but later it made sense. It was a birthday present.”

“Well why didn’t you say that,” he joked. “Now it all make sense. What are you anyway? Let me guess. You’re a Libra?” He searched her face for a confirmation. “No wait its coming to me. A Sagittarius?”

“Capricorn, born the day before Christmas.”

The date didn’t immediately register with Stan. “That was gonna be my third guess. Where at?” he asked taking a sip of his coffee.

She hesitated for a moment, “Boise Idaho, it’s where I was born, its where my little escape is. And that’s our little secret, once I leave here, I’m leaving everything behind. No one else knows I own that place, not even Butch.”

Stan nearly choked on his coffee, spilling half of it on the counter. Dec 24 in Boise Idaho screamed out his Uncle’s skiing trip.

“You alright?” she asked handing him a napkin. “Speaking of Butch have you talked to him lately?”

Stan nodded, still a bit unsettled. “I did. Guess he got some recording feedback, right at that marginal level of normal electrical interference, and poltergeist stuff. Not sure what that means, but I think it’s a good thing, as far as ghost hunting goes.”

“Butch had mentioned you’ve had some contacts.”

“A little I suppose.” He replied in a short manner, eager to get beyond the pleasantries of the conversation. “So, what was it you wanted to talk about? Did Butch tell you about the cops visiting me?”

Racheal’s emotions showed little to match her words. “Yes, I’m so sorry you got drugged into this. It’s why I thought we should talk.”

“I’m all ears, let it roll.” Stan replied.

She hesitated, put off by the need to apologize. “There’s really not much to tell.”

“There isn’t? What are you involved in Racheal?”

His direct question took her by surprise, she thought he understood the rules of engagement with her. Agitated, Her eyes flickered. “What you mean by that?”

“I mean Marco Bianco what’s the deal with him. The cops seem to have a keen interest in him.”

“Those cops are bunch of hoodlums, was it a fat cop and skinny black cop?”

“Exactly, good cop bad cop, what you mean hoodlums?”

Her shoulder’s caved inward in a shrug. “I don’t know, just bad cops. Trying to shake down Marco for cash.”

Stan’s eyes dropped to his coffee cup. He stroked his chin as if to help push the wheel gears in his brain. “That don’t make sense Racheal maybe this Marco guy… well maybe he ain’t who you think he is.”

“Why do you say that? Did Butch put you up to this, he never liked Marco.”

“No, it’s just I’ve heard things about him.”

Racheal turned her back away from Stan, pouring herself a cup of coffee her hands cradled the cup, and the warmth of it brought comfort. “People judge people wrong all the time, I hate that, Marco is a good person. Those are the toxic people jealous of him because of what’s he’s done, he’s a self-made man, and that you can’t take away from him.”

“Self-made?… I thought his family had money.”

She rolled her eyes. She was becoming annoyed by his questions, he could see that much. Her slips pursed and tight lipped. There was no doubt she wasn’t used to being questioned, maybe her looks gave her a pass. Maybe it was contempt for him. But if defending needed to be done, when it came to her in-crowd, she wasn’t bashful. “I’m not saying he was broke. Yes, his family is of good stock to begin with. I find that admirable in itself, but what he’s done even more admirable, turning his family’s fortune into an empire. A lot of folks start out good and secrets within destroy what they have. If you knew him like I do you’d see how much he is a wonderful kind compassionate man. Its negative people that don’t see the good values in him, their own jealousy blocks them from seeing the truth.”

Stan couldn’t let it go, he certainly wasn’t going to get a membership in her in-crowd, questioning her. Nor did he want to. He shook his head in disagreement. “Racheal, I’m hearing a different story then your painting. I don’t know the man personally, but I gotta believe the DEA don’t get involved in just rumors. Honestly it just seems like the dots don’t connect, for him being a quote ‘Self-made man’ especially if it were made on drugs.” He could tell his words infuriated her more, her head shaking, not in disagreement but almost a nervous twitch of anger, an attempt of self-containment before the rupture. She was speechless feeling attacked burying herself in silence, a game maybe better played by him, and one he wasn’t giving in too.

“Look none of it is any of my business.” His eyes inadvertently scanned across the eye view of her home and all its belongings, “but when someone profits off the misfortune of others its wrong, and nothing can convince me differently.” His eyes waited for her to turn, reengage, a chance to see the truth, but she wouldn’t allow it. He waited a few seconds before throwing the next dagger. “I’ll leave it at that. Besides you said yourself your relationship with Marco was a little more complicated than normal business relationships. I guess you just come off a little hard to gauge.”

She turned towards him, her face displayed nothing less than a sardonic nature. “Me hard to gauge, really? And honestly be careful who you put your trust in, a lot of good folks on the surface would put a dagger in your back without batting an eye.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, I think I’m a pretty good judge of characters and honestly unless I’m missing something, everything surrounding you seems to be a big mystery, and your ability or lack thereof to communicate compounds it.” His comment got her goat. She unknowingly reacted ears pinned back readying herself for a fight. That was fine with Stan, it was long overdue. “Don’t look shocked I mean what’s with the power trip of not calling someone back?”

“What are you talking about?” She responded feigning indifference settling herself back in.

“About? About calling you and leaving several messages, let alone text’s. Look if I’m bothering you let me know that’s not the way I operate.”

“I never got any calls from you.”

Stan’s eyes squinted and judgmental, peered through her. It was a lie as far as he was concerned. “Seriously, is that how your gonna answer that?”

“I guess. I mean what do you want from me?” She asked as if to say in Stan’s mind. Fuck you. I don’t answer to anybody. And certainly, not you.

It was time to lay his cards down. “The truth that its, I mean Jesus Racheal, you make this Marco guy out to be some type of saint and that’s not the picture the DEA is painting. I mean what is your connection? Money? Birds of the same feather flock together, right. And you both come from money.”

“Hardly, money? My family barely had two nickels to rub together. Everything and anything we owned purely show.”

Stan eyed her lavish home. “Well you’ve seemed to play catch up, better than most.”

“Go to hell. You don’t know anything about me.”

“Will then what is it? I don’t mean to poke into your biz but I saw you with another man down in the falls. If I didn’t know better I’d had thought it was Butch, had a shaved head like him, but honestly could have been anybody from where I was standing, but definitely not Marco.”

Her eyes widened as her eyebrows rose, she covered her mouth with her hand. “You followed me.”

“No I’m not a stocker, purely chance, that’s it. Is he your lover? One gives you money, another, well whatever?”

Her face went blank, void of expression, her thoughts tugging her inward then led by her eyes morphed in a stumble full force locking together the windows of their souls, and exposing her turmoil. “They leave you in the end anyway… does any of it really matter.”

“Who Rachel, who leaves you?” She turned away, staring at the graves in the back field, clutching a locket she wore around her neck for which he could not see.

“Go it doesn’t matter, just go.”

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

Downtown in an old rarely used administration office a team of specialist monitoring surveillance devices sat huddled together, most recognizable the detective whose badge read Dave Philips and a fat pug nose grease ball cop in uniform who went by the nickname VO Vince Ornstein. “ You got anything yet? Nah, not yet. He left the house, I suppose driving back to the hotel. We got a tail on him. “

“Anything from her place?”

“Double negative there. I don’t know if we can trust this Racheal girl.”

“If Butch said it would work out, gotta believe it will, just keep surveillance on him. “

“I wonder if he’s on to us? Strange he won’t stay in the house. But honestly Cap, I get a feeling this guy ain’t involved at all.”

“He’s it alright. Make no mistake if that’s who Butch says he is. Plain and simple, then that’s our man.”

The younger cop looked to his mentor. “Why’s Butch carry so much clout? I mean for a retired street detective, you’d thought he was the commissioner himself.”

The two older cops glanced towards each other. “We can tell you, but then we’d have to kill you.”

The young cop chuckled, but stopped seeing the serious tone in their face and uneasiness in the air. Even in the overly used expression, a rookie cop could sense a truthfulness from the others.

The Captain lightened the mood for the rookie. “You heard the crackpot he thinks theirs ghost. Would stay there if you thought that?” The others in the police headquarters broke in a healthy laugh, allowing it just long enough to break the tension. “Alright knock it off,” the Captain said. “If we don’t crack this open soon, we’ll have a lot of unanswered expenditures. Folks upstairs won’t be happy, it’s time to crank it up. They got to make a run for a load pretty soon, that’s just simple math. Give Butch a call, have him set up a meeting. Make sure he’s wired, something’s got a give. Maybe tonight.”

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

Reaching the hotel, Stan scanned the buildings around him and parking lot. Black car parked in Mcdonald’s, radio jamming, dressed like KBG. White van Caberret Dancing Bar, two guys, one smoking something. Faggots. Guy on pay phone at chevron gas station. Beady eyes don’t trust him. Even the desk clerk from the window seemed to keep a watchful interest on him. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but felt an uneasiness of eyes upon him. Inside he plopped down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. He tried to piece together Racheal’s logic. The more he allowed it to ferment in his thoughts, the more frustrated he became. He sprung up sorting through his overnight bag for more bullets for his gun. Finding three more he placed them next to his antique six-shooter laying on the bed stand. Next, he took the envelope of his Uncle’s letters, grabbed the metal ice-bucket and determined to fulfill his Uncle’s wishes to destroy them, walked outside with lighter in hand. One by one he lit and dropped the letters in the metal bucket watching the fire consume the journals of a man’s secrets until only ashes remained. Satisfied his obligations fulfilled, he headed into the hotel room noticing a picture, enveloped letter, and old newspaper clipping laying on the floor. He looked around picking it up. The picture was of his Uncle and the mystery lady at lily Dale. Stan scratched his head, “must have fallen out from the envelope. He laid it down and took the old letter stamped, “return to sender, mail undeliverable, postmarked July 3 1874,” its address strangely, the same as his. His first thoughts, burn it, but curiosity is a potent mind changer and he opened it. Inside it contained a letter and an obituary from an old newspaper. He skimmed over the obit. July 3, 1874 A young lady tragically meeting her death from an accidental fall at the Cliffs of Arduous. He read the letter next. A note expressing the young ladies haunting sorrow.

I’m writing this as my last testimony to attest to my love and reasons I can no longer endure life itself. Christian you have left my soul incomplete. You broke your promise of growing old together. Under the enduring rainbow of children we shall never bring to this world. I can’t go on any longer with this pain in my heart I can never love another as your heart has captured mine, I am hoping the Cliffs of Arduous, takes me quickly, that in their beauty the great mystery spirit Wakan Tanka lives and the porthole to heaven exist. But if pain is inevitable it cannot match the pain I suffer without you. My only hope the void I bring will be filled with your spirit as we reunite in paradise and I am hoping this is my gateway there. The love of my eternal being, I am coming to be with you. Rechelle Suzie James.

Tears rolled down his face she had thrown herself off the cliff and drowned. Included in the clipping an newspaper article about one man slain in an ambush, the other his body missing. A father soon to be governor, and son, a self-proscribed dignitary of the community vowing to uncover the atrocities inflicted on the small western community.

“Good lord,” he said to himself the names the story all beyond chance. The haunting revelation hit him. I’m writing about my past, my book is my past, Suzie, my past lover. He grabbed the gun from his night stand and it donned on him the initials. CJ Christian James, it had been one of the few family looms passed down, with vague history at best. He ruffled thru the bug and pulled two more bullets out loading five in the chamber and then laying the gun on the bed. He pulled out his laptop and propped his knees up while laying upright in bed. And then started typing away. His novel’s ending a testimony to his history.

Christian stood outside the bar, the kerosene smell from the street lamps filled the air. He walked towards his horse feeling an uneasiness as shadows near the blacksmiths stables cast in the lamp light. Reaching in his saddle bag, he had hoped to find his small derringer, but that too had been cleaned out, mostly assuredly by Suzie. Instead he pulled out an Indian bracelet and amulet, he assumed left by the medicine man and his half-brother before they left. Stepping back, he thought he heard Paul and turned to see Royce standing two lamp post down with his jacket pulled aside and hand over his holstered gun.

Christian Jess James,” he called out. “Move out towards the light. You and I are going to settle some old business. Christian moved a few steps in plan site with the lamp pouring ample light on him.

“This ain’t the time or place. I got no feud with you Royce.”

“Well ain’t that ashamed’ word on the street is your calling me a cattle rustler behind my back, and them fighting words.

“I don’t want any trouble with you Royce. What’s in the past stays in the past. I’ve done spoke my mind and let bygones be bygones. I’ve learned to turn the cheek. We both should just leave it at that.

Royce spit on the ground. “Ain’t that just beautiful. We got a Injun, someone taught to quote bible, now ain’t that just dandy. Hun boys?” He queried as the two cowboys earlier near the stables came to view. “Come on out here while Moses preaches to us.” Chuckles broke out amongst the two. The biggest holding an empty beer glass, wiping his beard clean.

Christian laid a keen eye on them sizing up his predicament. “I’m not armed.”

“Give him a gun, Hank, toss it over to him.” Hank pulled his pistol out and threw it on the ground next to Christian.

“Not my gun Royce, not hardly fair if your gonna call a man out.”

“Fair.” He chuckled looking around at his posse of acquaintance’s. “Well when the hell did fair start being part of the math. Ain’t nothing fair in life. Way I see it, I’m giving you a chance, that’s all you can ask for. But fair? You can ask Saint Peter when you reach the gates, where fair plays into a man’s life. Take the gun. I got no qualms killing an unarmed outlaw.”

Christian put the amulet in his pocket and knelt slowly towards the pistol wondering if the dice were loaded, or the gun for that matter. “Just picking it up Royce not drawling on you.” His eyes studying Royce with an occasional glance to his entourage who might be tempted to sway the odds a bit. Before his hand could reach the pistol, Royce went for his, but froze on the handle hearing the unmistakable click of the gun hammer in his ear.

“How’s these for odds cowboy. We Indians can still move like the wolf across the prairie,” Sekora said holding a gun to Royce’s neck. “Tell your boys to drop theirs.”

Anger like thunder came from Royce’s mouth. “This ain’t you battle Injun. It’s between a half breed, and a white man. Don’t make things bad for yourself.” Sekora pushed the barrel more convincingly on Royce’s neck. “Drop it boys.” Royce commanded, and both disarmed.

Sekora backed with Royce in tow holding the gun to his temple, stepping out of the light and easy target. “Don’t do anything stupid Royce.” Sekora said. “I’d like nothing better than honoring my heritage and payback the white man’s hate that flows through your blood. You’ve already murdered and stooled my lands away, chased others off, slaughtered the buffalo, forced those left, to worship your god. And you think you can make it worse on me?” He chuckled and pulled Royce’s gun from his hoister and threw it to the ground, slowly backing away more, keeping the sights of his gun waist high on Royce.

“What the hell? “ Paul said making his way from the back of the saloon his arm over a young lass helping to balance him. “What’s going on here? Sekora is that you?”

“It’s me sent the old man home already. Just dropping off a gift. I’d almost forgotten when I eyed a small dispute.”

Christian smiled, and whether to entertain Seroka, or as a superstitious act, took the amulet from his pocket and slid the bracelet on his wrist “I couldn’t have asked for a better gift. Let’s saddle up and get the hell out of here. I got a wedding to get ready for.”

Stan, stopped writing to take a break. He laid flat out on the bed and for a moment stared at the ceiling and the light, he reached for his pistol, and ran his hand over the engravings on the handle. Holding the pistol, he closed his eyes only for a moment he thought, and felt his life flash back to Christian’s world. His self or spirit standing at a graveyard high on the plains of Colorado. The snow-covered Rockies in the background. He held his pistol in his hand cocked and ready, his adrenaline on guard it was almost dusk. Kneeling to read the stone, he recognized Suzie Cartright James. Jul 3 1894, and an engraved picture of a dreamcatcher. Next to her an empty plot, void of a headstone. He backed up bumping into the medicine man, it spooked him and he turned quickly his finger firmly on the trigger ready to fire. “Chicco? What’s happening here? Why I’m I here? The old man spoke.

“Certain things catch your eye,
But pursue only those
that capture your heart.”

“What? I don’t know what that means.” The Indian pointed at another tombstone.

“Racheal Susan Moore died November 25 2017, he rubbed his fingers across the engraved letters. “Racheal, he said. “I’m here to save Racheal.” He raised his eyes to the Indian who was gone. A click went off.

Stan hearing a gun hammer striking the primer startled himself out of his dream. He was sweating sprawled out in the hotel bed. His hand, trigger finger and all, clutching the gun pointed at his chin. Stan moved the gun from his chest and popped the chamber open, emptying it as six bullets plopped from the six-chamber gun. He sat up throwing the gun on the floor. It was apparent his intent had stacked the odds beyond a game of chance. A misfire, he jumped out of the bed and picked the bullets up tossing them into the trash can. His eye caught the wine bottle, and he gravitated towards it picking it up and putting it to his lips. He just as quickly pulled it away, rushed to the door and heaved the wine bottle as far as he could throw it. Hearing the glass hit the pavement, he slammed the door and crawled into a cradle position on the bed and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, three hours had passed. The clock read 3:00 am. Awake, he flipped through the T.V. Finding nothing that would capture his mind, he opened his laptop and started typing away.

Riding back to the ranch, it was a dark night as clouds started to settle in releasing a steady rain. Being monsoon season occasional thunder and lightning shook the warm air mixing with the chilly air. Christian counted the time between the roar of the clouds, to the flash of light and figured the brunt of the storm still lingered ten miles away. For the most part shades of moonlight marked the trail, and with steady familiar horses, they easily navigated homeward without little prompting from the trio. Christian remained silent his thoughts hashing over a plausible outcome outside of a showdown with Royce. After tonight it was evident it was business that needed tended to, and couldn’t be pushed aside any longer. He was right on all accounts, but wrong on the timing. A crackling sound, unlike thunder, unlike the horse’s hoof pulling from the mud, whizzed through the air.

The first bullet hit Paul dead center, dropping him off his horse. Another took out Sekora, and the third bullet went thru Christian’s horse ricocheting into his shoulder, and wedging itself between the bone and muscle. The third and fourth shot knocked his horse down, and the fifth ripped open his chest and exited out his back. The bullet cut through muscle and bone sending globs of blood everywhere, before his body hit the ground. The now lifeless carcass of his horse free fallen, plunged on him, creating a tomb trapping him on the red clay grounds of Colorado, and in the mix of human and horse blood gave the appearance of a slaughter house. He was dazed and confused and the next sequences of events appeared in slow motion blurred by the mix of mud and blood and steady thunder roaring in the distance. Two boots appeared next to his chin and he closed his eyes filling the butt of the rifle on the temple of his head. “They dead?” He heard the voice standing over him ask.

“Dead as door knob boss.” The voice replied. “How about Christian?”

“The man looked down pushing the barrel harder against Christians temple, seeing no movement a grin broke across his face and he broke into a little chuckle. “I think it’s fair to say the gunslinger known as Christian Jesse James has met his maker.” Even under the confusion and veil of death Christian recognized the voice of Royce standing over him.

“What should we do with the bodies boss?”

Royce snickered, pulling his coat collar around his neck to block the rain as heavier droplets forced down in pockets. “Leave em. Animals gotta eat. They’ll carry em away. Ain’t nobody gonna miss em, and the law sure as shit could give two hoots about a gunslinger, Indian, and town misfit. Way I see it, worlds a better place today without em. Ain’t gonna be any questions asked boys. That I can guarantee you.”

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

The maid knocking on the door, forced Stan out of his chair. “Yes?”

“Room Service, you checking out today? Check out time is eleven o’clock.”

“Ah, sure,” he looked down at his watch. “Wow I didn’t realize I pulled an all-nighter.” The maid had zero emotion to share, her face a blank canvas as she chomped on her gum. “I’ll be out soon thanks.” Gathering his stuff, he loaded his car and buzzed down the highway noticing a missed call from Butch. Passing the campus, he pulled in hoping it being a Sunday, he wouldn’t see anyone, and could at least grab some papers that needed tendered too with finals coming up. Getting the plug pulled on the job one thing, letting his students down another. Pulling in his spot he took a minute to listen to Butches message then sent him a text. “Got your call. Bill Buddy’s around 400 see ya.” Then got out of his car.

“A black sedan pulled curbside next to his vehicle and the window went down. “Professor,” a voice called out from the front.

“Yeah?” Stan asked, in unison as the man chauffeuring the sedan got out, revealing a body that belonged more on a Sunday afternoon football field then playing caddy to a rich socialite. Towering his huge body over Stan he pulled his jacket back, displaying a gun.

The window in the back went down. “Get in, please.” The driver, scanned the area as if running security then nodded to Stan prompting him to get in. He wasn’t sure getting in was a good decision, made him feel like Jimmy Hoffa on his last day, but felt it was his only choice. Sitting across from him a man dressed in an Armani business suite, with slicked back hair over his ears. A handsome man, tan with a sparkle in his eyes that seemed to have natural charisma. “Care for a drink professor,” he offered, extending his arm to the stocked bar in the limo.

“No.” he said as dry as he could.

“Very well professor.”

“You don’t know who I am, do you?”

Stan shook his head. “No should I?”

The spark in his eyes dulled. “No . . . I suppose not.” The man coughed barely covering his mouth then pulling a monogrammed handkerchief out and wiped his mouth. “Does the Bianco name mean anything to you?”

“Sure alumni, contributor to the university, ah… distribute air conditioning units?”

He started coughing again, this time followed by a few hacking episodes before finally clearing his throat with a sip of brandy from his glass. “Damn virus,” he said finally looking up at Stan. “Do you know what a virus is professor?”

“I suppose,” Stan started to say looking at the driver staring him down in the mirror and unsure where the conversation was going. “It’s a protein molecule that replicates itself in a host?”

“Yes, exactly professor. A parasitic like creature that feeds off a week cell.” Marco hacked some flam on his handkerchief, looked down at it and folded the rag over. “You know what you are professor?” Stan nodded no.” You’re that weak cell that feeds the virus, lets it replicate itself, harbors it, feed its.” The man again broke into a fit of coughs after a few more hits of brandy, he was able to contain himself.”

“Pardon me but you see how counterproductive and disruptive a weak cell can be that allows itself to harbor a virus?” Stan started to speak but Marco raised his hand indicating the stage was still his. “Now Racheal, the sweet child not to be completely confused with a virus . . . is a parasite. And that makes her more dangerous. You see professor a virus by definition is a parasite. But a parasite can be much more deadly, faster acting, much more deceiving, her agent can be both viral and bacterial in nature. She will let you live, to watch you suffer. And to compare such a fair maiden as Racheal to pathogens such as E. Coli or salmonella which gave us Typhoid Mary, seems a bet trite. But it is who she is. I see on your face that statement concerns you but she is purely a freak of nature. A parasitic beauty, a contradiction to nature. She unfortunately,” he started to cough and caught himself, sipping his brandy to ward off the urge. “Thrives off adulation from where ever she can get it, that’s her flaw.” Again his cough persisted, this time he pulled a small white vial, laid out some lines took a long snort then rubbed some on his gums. “Don’t look so shocked. Purely medicinal purposes,” he held the vial up examining it. “Only vice I toy with occasionally. But getting back to our matter at hand. She will attach herself to anyone, and anybody. Charming some to bring into her harem, and weeding out others. It’s all quite emotionless for her, but make no mistake, her beauty will drawl you in.” He sipped his brandy and cleared his throat staring out the window for a moment as if to collect his thought. Then turned to Stan.

“Now I could give two rats ass to what the whore wants, but you see, she is an employee of mine. For which I both depend on, and compensate very well. Her acquaintance Butch on the other hand can be seen strictly as a virus. He invades the host, replicates himself, and destroys the functionality of the cell. You my dear professor have attracted both a parasite and a virus into your cell. Where this becomes a problem for me is your lack of understanding of its effect on my business. So I’ll break it down for you. A. Your fucking with Racheal’s mind, and that’s fucking with my business. B. You’ve got Butch producing a little ball sac juice. This has always been a balancing act of power between Butch and I. Now you got him wanting to play the white knight, and topple the empire. And for some strange reason he’s latched onto you thinking it leads to me. Quite honestly its ashamed that matters of such importance have filtered down to such an innocent little setting and found sanctuary in this town, but I suppose that’s the nature order of things. All that being said, I would certainly think I shouldn’t have to tell an educated man like yourself, the difference between equipment to scan for ghost, and equipment to wiretap and record everything going on in a man’s house. Butch isn’t retired if that’s what he led you to believe. You don’t believe me, do you? That I see in your face.”

“I’m not trying to be disrespectful but friend…”

“Marco, Marco Bianco.”

“Alright Marco, I’ve heard you out, now hear me. I think you got it all wrong. With Racheal, her and I are just two people that randomly bumped into each other in the dark of the night. And outside of a hello and goodbye . . . that’s it. As for Butch, well I don’t know what to think he is. I take him at face value. But maybe he’s a pervert that ain’t got nothing better to do but watch me walk around in my underwear at home. Because that’s about the only motivation to wiretap that I could see. “

Marco chuckled not maliciously, he knew Stan was merely an innocent bystander sucked into Racheal’s web. Like a puppy . . . no more like a kitten venturing out of the protective custody of its yard. “Then you have misread the cards. Butch is playing on you. Remember the cowboy isn’t always the good guy, and the Indian always the bad guy. Jealousy is his motivation, and trust. Racheal has always been a handful for him. For that reason alone he keeps an eye on her. Since you’re her latest and greatest you’ve caught his attention.”

Stan shook his head frustrated by it all. “Look I don’t read cards, nor most people very well, all I can tell you is what I am and what I ain’t. What I ain’t, is part of James Bond team, I don’t do anything incredible in life and I certainly ain’t the slightest threat to a damn thing you do in life. What I am, plain and simply is a professor at a small state college trying to earn a retirement before the day I stand in front of a urinal six time in an hours with an enlarged prostrate and can’t piss. A man who occasionally drinks a few too many, and in my really weird days, thinks he sees gasper the ghost. But a threat to you, Butch or Racheal… not a god damn chance. “

Marco could read the sincerity driving Stan’s words. “Fair enough, consider this a warning shot across the bow. How and what you do from here, determines your fate.”

“That confuses me. Why even the warning, seems a person of your statute, given I even had some influence, would squash it out without even thinking twice. “

“I am an educated man professor. First one in my family to go beyond high school. Proud alumni of this college, university wasn’t half its size it is now when I went. And without my endowments probably would have shrunk. But this place it’s a good thing, it teaches a lot of folks, good ways in life. Teaches them how to think for themselves, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ I respect what you do, teaching a man to fish.” He pointed to a cluster of buildings on the north end of the university grounds. “I don’t know if you noticed before, but my names on several of these buildings. That gives me more pleasure then all the wealth I have.”

“And that’s why we’re having this conversation.” He held his index finger up symbolizing one. “But professor . . . you only get one warning, that’s it. I can’t continue to protect you.”

“Protect me?” Marco being a fat cat alumni, Stan felt that meant only one thing, Miller the president. But with tentacles as deep reaching as Marco, he couldn’t be sure.

Marco hit the unlock key to the door, signaling the end of the discussion. “Yes, by the way, on your way-out, wave to the blue van two lots over, they’ve been tracking you for a few days. We intercepted your location off them.” He started coughing again banging his hand gently on the window until he stopped. “Dman virus.”

Stan had more to ask, or say, but wary of Marco’s seemingly Freudian mob bullshit approach, it was best he kept it to himself. He got out of the vehicle.

Standing in the parking lot, what he did do was exactly what Marco had advised and waved to the blue van, within minutes the van started its engine and pulled out. Stan could only shake his head wondering if it was purely coincidental or not.

Before reaching his office, he passed Sharia’s office, a light was on. “What the hells she doing here on a Sunday anyway.” He said to himself trying his best to sneak around her avoiding confrontation. “Avoidance, he snickered, another mental illness trait. Damn psychology department had a box for everything.

“Not so fast buddy,” she said getting up from her chair. “How are you? You doing okay? My god you look terrible.”

“Thanks, for the compliment but yeah just having trouble with sleep that’s all, like I told you that day, I kinda zoned out I guess.”

Her eyes were sympatric in nature. “Did you make the appointments?”

“Yes, yes I called?”

“Both of them?”

“Jesus Sharia ain’t you got your own problems to worry about with your husband.” She went silent and the smile broke from her face. “I didn’t mean that.” He said realizing how the words had escaped unfiltered.

“Well good morning and go fuck yourself too.” She said pushing him out the door. “Go I don’t want you in here.” She slammed the door behind her.

Stan knocked on the door. “Go away asshole.”

He knocked again putting his ear to the door, he could hear her crying.

“Look Sharia I didn’t mean it, you’re the last person I would want to hurt in this world. My god after all were work spouses,” he jokingly flavored in. “Especially considering my real spouse left me for a two-bit half her age punk pulling rent cop duty down at the hospital.” Her door opened.

“Stan, Stan, Stan, what I’m I going to do with you?” She put her arms around him giving him a hug. “I’m so sorry I didn’t know. “

“Ah… it’s alright, I’m just as much to blame. God knows I spent more time finding new beers, then finding time with her. But, on the flip-side, talking to imaginary people seems to take the sting out of loneliness. Not to worry, I have ventured to make new friends, seems I’ve attached myself to a psychotic mafia throwback thinking I’m hitting on his girl, who yes, I find somewhat intriguing, but we’ll let just say her stability is questionable. Which… you would think would make her the perfect match for me.”

“Did you make the appointments? With the doctors?” She asked.

He scratched his nose. “Of course I did.” He responded knowing that was half the truth.

A smile broke across her face. “So, the real question is this yoga teacher, are you banging her or not?”

Her down to earth, seemingly correct, unpolitical response, almost put Stan in tears of laughter. When he finally collected himself he could only shake his head “You know me better than anybody, and if I didn’t think I was mentally unstable. I‘d had married you a long time ago.”

His statement brought a smile to her face. “Stress can play some funny tricks on the mind, but to be honest I think we’re all a little crazy, right? Maybe by design, a fucking ride with a broken steering wheel that leads to a black void. Why wouldn’t we all be crazy?”

He nodded in agreement. And took delight in their little game of philosophical chess. “Ain’t that the truth, a spirit maybe nothing more than a pipe dream. Pick your poison on the other side carefully, it might be your reality waiting.”

She adoringly stoked his arm. “I’ve always enjoyed your perspective on life, it means a lot to me. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know. Ditto.”

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

Pulling into Billy Buds, Stan parked in the back and pondered for a moment whether going in was the right idea. It was a good crowd, seems the full moon brings that out. Butch was already at the bar and had a shot and beer next to him. Stan sat and ordered a coke.

Butch eyed the coke. “That stuff well rot your teeth.”

Stan gazed at his coke set before him and then at Butches shot and beer. As much as he craved a drink, and his eyes reflected as much, he wanted a chance to evaluate things with a clear mind. “Slowing down a little that’s all.”

“So, where you been?”

Butch’s question seasoned by Marco’s insistence of suspicion to Butch’s intent, immediately put Stan on guard. “What you mean, where have I been?”

“Stopped by your house earlier, either you weren’t home or weren’t answering. Was going to recalibrate you video, see if the problem was in the equipment. You alright you seem a little edgy?”

“Maybe that equipment got me a little edgy. How different is that stuff, from wiretaps you used in the police force?”

Butch took a sip of his beer and thought about it for a moment. “Not much at all I suppose, I guess the difference being size, and one you know is there and the other you don’t. Why?”

“No reason, just wondered.” He took a sip of his coke, lifted his eyes around the bar, allowing silence to creep in, while waiting for Butch to play the next card.

Butch ordered up another shot and beer then broke the silence. “Well I’m glad to get the opportunity to talk with you. I guess I wanted to maybe clear some thoughts up.”

“About what?”

“About Racheal mostly. Just trying to fill in a little of her background.”

“I’m listening.”

I don’t know if Racheal told you about her past but she comes from a pretty dysfunctional family. Her old man was an alcoholic. Mean son of bitch just a goddamn awful mean drunk, a freaking doctor to boot. Used to beat the lot of them especially Racheal. She was the oldest and had the same temperament of her mother. He took to her just like he did to his mother. She won’t talk about it, denies any of it ever happened.” Butch took sip of his beer.

“That’s horrible.”

“Yeah but that’s only part of it. Son of bitch was an alderman with the church, devout catholic, found his salvation on Sunday for his sins the rest of the week, his family not so lucky. Mother hung herself, or so was the rumor, other rumor was a prestige’s doctor of the community wasn’t going to be prosecuted for a murder. Priest made sure of that. Racheal found her. She knows the truth.”

“My house?” was all Stan could muster.

Butch confirmed with a nod. “Only the place, could’ve happen anywhere, all comes down to a man’s belief system. Good and bad in everything.” Butch pulled his cross with the Virgin Mary attached to the neckless, kissed it and made the sign of the cross. “I’m not throwing out the baby with the bath water, been a catholic all my life, just saying or I guess getting to saying. Racheal hides her emotions, I mean buries em maybe so deep, she don’t know how to reach em. At this point I just think it’s not hers to control after everything she’s been through.”

Stan chewed on Butch’s assessment, his read from Racheal different. But then again lately, deceit didn’t at times, seem far off from her character. But why? That he couldn’t answer. “I haven’t known her for long, but I kinda got the opposite feeling, she seems pretty outgoing, warm.”

Butch scratched his face and made a painful grimace. “I guess she does put up a pretty good front. I mean professor you’ve been around the block. Your new. She’s only showing the pretty packaging, you ain’t seen what lurks behind that.”

“Why you even telling me any of this?”

“I don’t know,” Butch distracted his attention from Stan, glancing across the bar, for a moment he seemed to ponder his thought before opening to him. “You know her and I used to be an item. Yeah not proud of it,” he said rubbing his wedding ring. “But we had fling, never told anybody.”

Stan’s eyebrows rose. “You? . . You and her used to be an item?”

“That’s right, why? You find that surprising a man like me could find himself with a prize like that?”

“NO, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Yeah you did, I know I ain’t no goddam Brad Pitt, but it happen, maybe just to fill a void, but it happen.”

“From the way you and Marco talk of her, she is like the sirens of Capri luring the sailor to the rocky coast of the sea.”

Butch chuckled. “You’ve met Marco?”

“Today. Had an interesting chat with him.”

“Well this is getting interesting, please do tell. I can only imagine what came from that viper’s mouth.”

“You don’t like that man, do you?”

“No, what’s there not to like. Son of bitch is one of the biggest drug importer in the eastern United States. You do remember I used to be a lawman?”

“Used to be?”

Butch chuckled, finished his drink and bit into a few of the ice cubes. “I get it, somehow Marco got you believing, I’m out to get him, still hold some clout down at the office. You want to know the truth, yeah if I could, I’d put that son of bitch away.” Butch stared into the distance, you could see the hatred build on his face. he looked over at Stan. “I shouldn’t be saying this but, eventually you’d figure it out. And I think you need to know. It might help you understand my perspective. Racheal’s a fucking drug addict, you name it coke, heroin even meth, and she is for one reason only, Marco Bianco. “ Stan sat dumbfounded, that would have never crossed his mind, at least then, but now, her occasional hyperness or nervousness, or even her dreamy withdrawal, now whether he wanted to believe it or not, it all seemed plausible.

"It's hard to picture, Hun? Such a sweat goddamn innocent thing, going that path. Addiction is a terrible fucking thing, ain't like when we grew up, still got that image of the grim reaper holding a long ass needle like a spear in the school posters, scared the shit out of me. They snort heroin now, or smoke it in a joint to get you started, non- evasive, then you're hooked, then the spear comes out. "

Stan’s eyes caught the reflection of the shot and beer sitting on the bar, a slower poison but all the same he knew the curse of addiction. He was learning things about Racheal that broke his heart he wanted to save her and wondered if he was the only one who could, or if time would allow him.

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

Stan felt a little more comfortable, thinking maybe Butch was only nothing more than just a ghost hunter hobbyist. It was all getting to complicated and harder to discern where the real truth lie. The lack of a good night’s sleep, driving a bigger wedge in the fragile balance of his thinking, and sanity. He decided to go home, regardless of its seemingly recent bad energy. After all he had only chosen the hotel with one purpose and that had come and gone. On the way home, his normal route detoured him past an old cemetery which stopped him parallel to the small parish entry. For a good ten minutes the traffic barely budged. After another ten minutes, seeing his gas gauge flicker yellow and still no movement, he squeezed his way on the side to the old cemetery road, for which he spied a back exit and hopefully escape before his gas ran out. It was a slow bumpy ride as potholes decorated its surface. “Why do creepy places always have potholes,” he said, thinking of Madeline’s place. The cemetery’s bulk of residence barely hung to the legacy of their passage marked now by crooked white tombstones made of sandstone planted in the ground and dates and names long ago weathered away. Those more fortunate in life, and remembered with the appendage of granite, boasted their engraved legacy still intact, maintaining the parody of life’s struggles and insult to the poor. As luck would have it, or fate to undistinguishable forces in life, his car ran out of gas. Staring at the gauge all he could muttered was, “really God? . . . Now you’re just harassing me.”

He dialed his phone, greeted with a lost signal. “Strike two,” he said. The rain was starting to come down, in sheets and seeing a light breaking through the darkness he got out of his car and headed for the beacon in the storm. As he passed over the area of graves, a chill ran over his body crossing a grave. His eyes diverted to the tombstone but time had erased the name. Now he was walking as briskly as his legs would carry him. Reaching the source of his beacon, he knocked on the front door to the old cemetery house. Within minutes the door opened and there stood the piercing blue eyed and kind face of the hospital Chaplain. “Yes?” he asked not recognizing Stan. “What can I do for you son?”

Stan looked over to his vehicle pointing to it. “I’m sorry to bother you. But I run out of fuel. If it wouldn’t be a problem, could I use your phone?”

“Come in, get out of the rain.” He said offering his space. “I’m very good on faces but not so much on names, we’ve met before.”

“You were bedside when my Uncle passed a few days ago.”

“Yes, John, John Stiles, and your Aunt? How is she doing?”

“Good father, as well as can be expected.”

“Chaplain, I’m not a priest. This used to be owned by Saint Josephs, but oh maybe twenty years back, we damn Lutherans bought the buildings and land, stock and barrel. Left a lot of it as is, you can still see the Catholic influences. The Chaplain continued down the hallway of the sanctuary towards the living quarters. It was humbling to see the few possessions he had. Most, as advised, consisted of older pictures of priest and bishops that had served the parish. Stan stopped at a picture of the Pope and the Chaplain, wow that’s you, I thought?”

“It is me, in Rome at the Vatican, quite a day for me. You have no idea how much it means to me.”

“But your non-domination?”

The Chaplain’s eyes fixated on the picture with childlike wonderment. “Absolutely, but he is the holiness, it would mean just as much if it were the Dahlia Lama. For me as my beliefs have taught me, it’s the evolution and refinement of one’s spirit for which each of these fine men have duly passed. Christianity teaches acceptance, but acceptance takes practice and ultimately a refinement of soul. Here you go phones in here,” he said stopping and pointing to his office. “Wish I could do more, but unfortunately this late in the season we only keep little more than a canister to weed-wack around the tombstones. Do you know someone that can come for you?”

“Got triple A if you know of any local garages to bring some gas.”

“I know just the place. Their cheap, and lets say they owe me a favor. Not far from here either. I’m sure it won’t take em long to get here.”

The Chaplain, seated at his desk, dialed the garage and after a brief conversation returned this attention to Stan. “All taken care of. Have a seat, it might be a few minutes.”

“Thanks, I really appreciate your help.” Stan replied sitting on an old outdated leather seat, which he noticed had a heavy coating of dust.

“So, you doing okay, losing a close family member can be very dramatic.”

“Yeah, as well as can be expected. Kinda strange how our patch randomly intertwined again, coincidence is a weird beast.”

The Chaplain patted his bible laying on the desk. “Nothing in life is random, every choice in life we make has direction. “

“Let me ask you something, its Frank, right?” he nodded. “I’m not a religious guy, so I don’t bump into too many folks with your background, but I think if you got a minute you might be able to clarify some things for me, if you don’t mind.”

He nodded and tilted back in his chair, “It’s what I do son. Fire away.”

“Alright their going to be a little out of the ordinary questions, but maybe not so much in your realm.”

“Fire away.”

Stan leaned forward closer to the Chaplain. “Do you think anyone can see spirits? I mean they do exist, right? So why couldn’t we see em?”

The Chaplain rubbed his chain. “Well yes, of course the scripture says they exist and void of seeing any I would be a hypocrite to my faith if I thought otherwise. But…”

“But what?”

“But, it has been my experience a lot of phenomenal of the super nature can be explained thru nature.”

Stan took a deep breath. “Alright then, what would you say if I told you the night my Uncle passed I saw his ghost?”

“Ah I see,” he said rubbing his chin for a second time. “Sometimes son we see and wish so much for something our minds can trick us into believing it exists. Especially under a lot of stress.”

Stan pondered his words for a short time. “Alright, earlier you alluded to coincidences being more then chance, I think you said all life’s decisions create intended direction in our life.

He nodded his head. “Yes, I believe that is how I feel.”

“What if I said I went to a psychic and they conveyed the idea I’m here on a mission to save someone? A psychic rather convincing in things they shouldn’t know.”

The Chaplain shifted his chair closer to his desk straightened the bible, then flipped through it looking for verses concerning mediums. “Ah here it is Deuteronomy, 18:9, these things are detestable to the lord. No wait Leviticus 19:31 maybe a better one. Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them.” He closed the book. “Well the good book, I think makes it quite clear that’s not something a Christian should participate in. From a humanity perspective, I suppose Barnum Baily would tell ya, you got a hell of a crowd drawler. I guess I believe some folks do have a special gift, but most would deceive you just to turn a buck. What is your mission son?”

Stan moved up on the edge of his chair closer to the Chaplain. “I think Frank, I think I was born, or reborn I guess… to save my soul mate. And I’m not sure exactly how, but I think I know who.”

The Chaplain got quiet and closed the book. “Don’t think the good book can help with soul mates.” He could see the stress and anxiety as Stan’s one knee bounced in a repetitive sync to some unknown internal metronome that kept beat to a slight twitch in his eye. “Finding our purpose in life can be a challenge.” He said his eyes watching Stan’s knees for a reaction to his words. “Especially as we age and reflect on our life. I would say rely more on what comes from one’s heart then what is stirred by the passage of winds.”

Stan’s knees froze for a moment, digesting the Chaplain’s words, then started bouncing nervously again. “That’s putting it all back on me.”

“Precisely where it should always come from.” The Chaplain leaned back in his chair, his eyes fixed on Stan’s knees waging battle to sooth the internal turmoil driving them. “Let me tell you a story. One of the kindest woman I knew, Marylou, she had the gift. Seen her mother after she passed. Poor old departed soul just wouldn’t leave. Kept the whole family up all night. I was brand new wet behind the ears, cutting my teeth with this preaching stuff, didn’t have much of a background for anything like that. Will the previous Chaplain had given her a whole list of scripture for her to read in hopes of her getting her mother to jump over to her rightful side. All of it for not. Weren’t until I took over, that we figured out how to fix it. I went with this Marylou to try and see what she was seeing. Now I’d be a liar to tell you I saw anything in the flesh, but watching this Marylou hold a one tongued two-sided conversation convinced me one thing, to her . . . whatever she was seeing . . . was real. And no scripture, no man of the faith outside of Marylou, was going to see her momma off until Marylou had made her mind up to let her pass. Seems they had some unfinished business between the two of em.” The lights flickered in the room and the Chaplain nodded his head as if it were a clue or divine intervention. “Do you understand what I’m trying to say, only you can know what’s right for you. Everything else, everybody else, just props on the worlds stage to help guide you. I think in the end . . . whatever you believe . . . that’s what you get in the end. Don’t matter what the preachers selling you.”

The Chaplain spied the lights of a tow truck coming up the road. “I think your rides here,” he said noticing Stan’s knees finally at peace. He smiled. “You can let yourself out. I’ve got some business to attend to and really do need to address it before it gets too late. It was a pleasure to see you again. “Oh,” he said getting Stan’s attention. “I wonder if you might do me a small favor. We have this old laptop computer. I’m afraid technology has passed it by, it’s even before CD’s were used. I heard you shouldn’t throw it out. I wonder if you could maybe take it to be recycled? It would be a such a help. “

“Sure,” Stan said accepting it. “Got a friend at the university, computer geek, sure he can use the parts if nothing else.” Stan shook his hand and headed out the door to meet the driver, fighting the gusty winds and pelt driven rains, he shivered and pulled his collar up against his neck. The tow driver backed to his car then jumped out fully adorned in a tan corduroy grease stained overalls that barely covered his protruding belly, and a face mixed with dirt and grime. He like his machine of metal, totally indifferent to the elements. He pulled the wench down and started to hitch under Stan’s car in what appeared to be an attempt to tow it.

“Whoa,” Stan said picking up his pace, slow down. “What are you doing? I just called for gas.”

The driver looked around. “Called who for gas?”

“You guys, I’m assuming. The Chaplain called said you’d bring gas out here.”

“Pal, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Only call I got all night was the cops calling to say someone left a vehicle unattended parked in front of the crematory, that’s it.”

“Cops?” Stan questioned. “Those sons of bitch’s, their following me.”

“Who’s following you?”

“Never mind, well hold on here let me go back to the office you can talk with the Chaplain he’ll straighten things out.” Stan turned to walk back to the office, and the tow driver restarted the grinding noise of the wrench.

“Really,” Stan said turning back to the driver. “I just asked you to hold on, it take a minute to the Chaplain and he can explain it.”

The tow driver spit a wad of tobacco on the ground and wiped his mouth with his arm, in the distance he could see and hear the wind blowing the door to the parish open and shut “ You break into there, Pal? What’s that in your hand? I’ve about had it with you.”

Stan looked at the laptop, “No! He said opening the door of his car and putting the computer in the front seat. “The Chaplain wanted me to get rid of it.”

The tow drive blew snot from his nose and wiped it using his coat sleeve. “Someone put you up to this? What he look like? The Chaplain you saz lives here.”

“I don’t know. White beard, blue eyes about as blue as the Caribbean seas.”

“Hmm,” the tow driver snickered, “I suppose his name was Chaplain Frank, right?”

“Yeah,” Stan said softening his voice.

The driver jammed the lever up pulling it off the ground and just as quick grabbed a chain to secure. Shaking his head, he couldn’t hold back any longer. “You’re a sick creepy son of bitch. I don’t like being out here and people like you is the reason. Lived my whole life here. Chaplain Frank been dead for better then a couple years. What’s wrong with you anyway?” He didn’t wait for an answer as he wrapped the chain to the bumper and got off his knee. “You can pick this up at the precinct. I’ll be towing it there. Company don’t allow hitchhikers, normally don’t enforce it, but somethings wrong with you pal. “ The driver jumped in the vehicle keeping a stern eye in the rear a view mirror and sped off as the chains clinked over the pot holes filled with water.

Stan stood speechless collecting his thoughts. “Good lord I’m I seeing things again. His eyes lifted to the door that sat twenty feet away to the Chaplain’s house, maybe the only place that could answer it. He started to shiver as the rain soaked through his outer clothes. “What good would that do?” he asked himself, then hightailed out of the cemetery walking as fast as his legs would carry him. By the time he got halfway home, he hadn’t realized his path took him right past the psychic’s house. There in the window with neon light still flashing, “Madeline’s Readings Stop In’s Welcome.”

“It’s like an angel led me here.” He thought hearing the words of the Chaplain echo in his ears. “Nothing in life is random, every choice in life we make has direction.” He almost tripped in a water filled pot hole as he went to the door, looking to the sky and shaking his head feeling no less besieged by the wrath of God then Job had. Twisting the doorknob to open, he found it locked. Banging on it a few times, he waited impatiently for her to answer.

“Hold on. Hold on before you break it.” A voice from the other side shouted out. Madeline unlocked several bolts to the door and swung it open. “Yes?”

“Madeline…?” he pointed to the sign. “Says your open. I’m the professor you did a reading on. I think I get another reading, but that ain’t important. I can pay. But I need to talk with you now.”

Madeline stuck her head out the door. Seeing the light still on, ducked back in the doorway and hit the off button. “I’m closed.” Before she could slam the door shut, Stan blocked it with his foot.

“Please I need to talk to you, you’re the only one that can help me.”

He could see the warmth return. She opened the door, peeking out. “Your soaking wet. Where is your car? Never mind get in here.” He walked in and stopped next to her parlor where she performed the readings. “Come on what are you doing? “

“The reading, that’s where I thought… “

“Follow me, well get you some tea, warm you up. What do you think, I keep my crystal ball in there?” she jabbed at him.

She stopped at a closet and pulled out a quilt. “Here, sit and put this on. Your gonna catch a pneumonia.”

Stan accepted it and wrapped it around his shoulders. She poured him spiced cinnamon tea and offered him homemade pumpkin roll. The two of the them sat together as content as two old friends. “Have another.” She offered, getting up to warm the teakettle on the stove.

“No thank you, you’ve already been more hospitable then I deserve, I guess we should start or I should start I mean I don’t know where to start, do you remember my reading you gave me?”

“Of course I do. What it’s been 30 days?”

“Yes, you said I had thirty-five.”

She paused her eyes lifted upward to the left. “No, as I remember it, I said thirty-five was an important number for you. . . of course you could be right, but I think that’s yet to be seen.”

“You also said I came back to help someone, save them. Save them from me.” He said pointing to himself. She grinned.

“Yup, yup, so what’s your point?”

Stan let loose almost in a manic ramble. “Well, it’s all been crazy. But just like you said it would be. My Uncle passed, who was like my papa. Well I guess that’s the one that precedes mine. And then the gift, it has come back. I see ghost and spirits, maybe their angels? I don’t know. But I see em. Just like you said. And I met this girl. And her eyes, like you said I’d know, I just knew she was the one. But this mafia guy is like got her all mixed up. And my book, it’s like . . . I’m writing my past. If that’s possible. But I found a picture. It was my Uncle. And he had an affair. Everything was confusing. And it was up at Lily Dale.” He stopped for a moment to think if he had covered it all. “Oh! And there was a murder in my house and… “

“Murder? Good lord, take a deep breath and slow down boy. I’ve made more sense out of a Marty Popovich show. What are you talking about and what picture of Lily Dale?”

“Yes, well its complicated, but this woman who teaches yoga. I think I’m here to save… “

“She was murdered? How can you save her?”

“No, the house I live in. The ghost, I think there’s a connection.”

“Ah so you have embraced your gift?” Her eyes reflected a satisfaction.

“Yeah to the point of insanity. But the picture . . . it’s my Uncle with a woman.” Wait a second.” He felt around his back pocket and handed her the picture.

A smile came to her face. “John, and Maryann, what a lovely couple. I do remember them. One of my first readings, or at least that I got paid for. I took this picture. They were two spirits that had come together, twin souls. It’s a rare occasion when two meet up. Most folks confuse the twin flame with their soul mates. Easy to do, some soulmate relationships on the outside appear stronger than twin-flames. But only the twin flame can complete you. That’s what made your reading so confusing for me. Your soul mates and twin flames have been shadowing each other over multiple lives. All of it is very draining, I prefer not to do past life regressions. It’s not easy to see both the past and future although they really are the same. Just different energies to see them.”

“So I’ve had past lives? You’ve seen them?”

Everybody that has experienced this consciousness of life has had at least one past life here. Some many, and I don’t know why that is. Maybe a refinement, carry the good to our next. I think I was a card reader in my past, like to think I’ve gotten better. But yes, your most recent the clearest. You were an American soldier, survived the beaches of Normandy. You were walking back to camp from a country road at night alone, you had a mistress, you had just left her. The breath of her kiss and wine on your lips. A German sniper, ended that life. In American you left behind another, she became a cause in herself, her fifteen minutes of fame and war contribution the model for the Rosie Riveter poster.”

“Of what?” Stan asked his mind fixated on Sharia’s infatuation with WW 2 poster and especially Rosie.

“Rosie the Riveter, the iconic woman welder.”

“Yes, I mean I know that. I just wasn’t sure what you said.” His mind again went into overdrive trying to fit the pieces together. Sharia come to mind her Rosie collection, but fitting her in the equation seemed like putting a square peg in a round hole. They were great friends, but he didn’t see beyond that. “So, I think I read somewhere, soulmates or these twin flames, have recurring connections to their past. Right?”

Hearing the teapot whistle She got up to turn it off and pour herself another cup. “More tea?” She offered Stan. He declined. She sat again. “They can have connections, most seem to have something in common with either themselves, or the past. A memento they carry or even bad luggage. But that in itself can be deceiving, ultimately we’re all connected and carry a piece of each other.” Stan balanced his elbows on the table holding his head and running his hands through his hair. It was all simply getting to confusing. Madeline, scored through the plate of table deserts. Ate one, then rubbed her hands together over the plate cleaning the crumbs. “Oh, getting back to John and Mary before we seemed to have got sidetracked. Yes, I do remember both of them, like I said wonderful couple. They had a baby girl together.”

Stan’s ears perked up, scattering him from his thoughts. He leaned back in his chair, distancing himself from the truth. “Nah these two, definitely had no child together. My Uncle was married over fifty years to my Aunt.” Madaline could only look at him as if to say come on buddy, this is where the road meets the rubber. Her look prompted a justification on Stan’s part. “Maybe a little fling, but from what I gathered, it was just a fleeting moment. Maybe your confused, good lord it’s been a while.”

She studied the picture focusing her good eye carefully while the other shot outward. “No, I’m certain. You look shocked, both of em were married but that didn’t stop em. The heart wants what the hearts wants, vows or words rarely hold up to that. They were gonna name the baby Racheal. She was in her first trimester.”

Stan’s eyes bulged from his sockets scoring twice their size and nearly chocked on his tea sending a slew of spit over the table. “RACHEAL? Naw that can’t be.” He snatched the picture out of her hand and threw the quilt over the chair as he rose. “Look maybe you and I finish this later, thanks for the tea.” She said nothing watching him walk out with her glazed over eyes, standing at the door before closing, she smiled. “Now you have all the information, go save her, go save her my brave knight Christian, but know by her eyes, who you are truly saving. “

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

By the time Stan got home, he was soaking wet, cold, hungry, and tired. All elements to badger his fragile mind already at war with itself. He stared at the cameras mounted on the walls, ghost well that was a battle he couldn’t win, but the idea swept in his mind again thinking Butch was a cop recording every movement. That he could fix. Within twenty minutes like a wrecking ball operated by the Tasmanian devil, he ripped down every last electric gadget the crew had spent hours assembling and within minutes he received his first couple text from Butch responding about the haywire signals from the gear. He paid the text, little attention instead opening the glass doors of his fireplace and stuffing a couple logs of hard cherry wood he had cut with his Uncle last summer. The scented smoke of the cherry wood crackling in the fire soon filled the room throwing its red embers upward into the chimney, kneeling then laying down next to it he pulled his wet shirt off and allowed the warmth of the fire to besiege him. It was a setting, that soon drifted Stan off to sleep. His dream took him to an old ancient temple. Essene burned thru out the shrine providing a soothing aroma. The floors a polished marble and at the front of the temple stood four stone carved majestic deities, surrounding the recognizable figure of Buddha. He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned and heard Racheal’s voice call out his name. When he turned he was surprised. “Sharia?” In front center dressed in ancient robes adorning a horned hat, made of gold and a neckless of rubies stood Sharia. Her look captivated him, he was not used to feeling that emotion with her. “My god, you are beautiful.” She smiled. “Where are we?”

“Were at the temple of the four heavenly kings, guardian of the world keeper of the four directions. Were home again, we’ve come to be together again… the sound of a metal bong echoed through the temple, I can’t hear you what?” The bong went off again.

“That the first bell, was the first life we shared. You sailed the sea and left me for a witch.”

The bell went off again. “That the second. That for a sinner who took her own life at the cliffs.”

The third rang louder this time. “And our last past life we shared. You a soldier on a foreign country road, that never came back. You had the sting of your lover on your breath. ”

Finally, the fourth, then silence. “That is the life we share now.”

He heard his voice called out again. This time no mistaken, he recognized it as Racheal’s. Stan suddenly jerked, his eyes opened and the fire still burning, he heard the bell a fifth time, realizing it was the doorbell. Groggy he wiped his eyes, and staggered to the foyer door still half asleep.” Outside stood Racheal, covering herself as best she could from the buckets of rain coming down on her.

His eyes lit up and at the same time he was speechless.

“Is it okay if I come in? I know we kinda left on bad terms at my house. I hope I’m not intruding.” She asked. Her eyes dragging across his shirtless body.

“Sure. I mean come in. Don’t sweat it. Everybody has off days. You had your reasons I guess. ” He said taking her arm and guiding her out of the rain. “But please come in, my god your soakings wet and shivering.”

“I wasn’t sure if you were home. I rung the bell several times. Even called out your name. I was just getting ready to leave.”

“I’m sorry. I made a fire and fell asleep.”

“Did I wake you?”

“NO, just a quick nap.”

Her eyes darted to the junk piled up on the floor then back to Stan with an inquisitive look. “Butch had mentioned your gear went haywire, called me asked if you and I had talked. I hope it was alright to stop over and check in on you?”

“Oh yeah, I… ah I…”

“Decided the ghost busting wasn’t for you?”

He smiled. “Exactly.” She shivered again, this time her teeth clattered. “How’s some hot chocolate sound? Fire’s roaring with heat. First, you better change out of those wet clothes. Bathroom is upstairs on the right, towels and bedroom on your left, top drawer you’ll find a dry shirt. Do you want me to show you? “

“Thanks, but I think I can find my way around.” She said ascending the oak staircase gently placing her hand on the banister and feeling reassured by an old friend.

The timing of the hot chocolate worked perfectly. Racheal sat her wet bundled clothes on the floor and knelt next to the fire, wearing just a pull over t-shirt of his, and what the light of the fire revealed, not much more.

Stan feasted on her beauty, as any man would. Long blonde hair that twisted at the ends, fair smooth complexion, big almond eyes, cast in a deep rich brown color, succulent lips that reminded him of spring, a body molded by angels, a fierce personality that rivaled that of a Nomadic Viking Queen from days past. She was a beautiful temptress that could easily call him out, but he cautiously preceded with her. He watched as she allowed the warmth of the fire to comfort her. A smile radiated from her face as her eyes lit and lifted up across the room.” I have always loved this house it just seems so cozy. I could’ve just spent the rest of my life here happy and safe.”

Stan raised his eyes and traced them to capture the same illusion she had, but only for a moment before recapturing her in his sights. He wondered if it were easy for her to bury the bad history found in the same house. “Yeah, this place despite the weirdness, I suppose does grow on some.”

She laughed, then found silence feasting her eyes back to the muse of the calming fire. “What are you thinking about?” Stan asked. “You seem somewhat contrite in nature?”

She took a sip from her cup, her knees tucked in crawled by her arms as she sat staring in the fire. “I don’t know, nothing or maybe everything I guess.” She turned to Stan and gazed into his eyes. “I wish I’d had known you a long time ago. Before my life became such a mess.”

“Mess? I mean looking from the outside, I’d say you got your life in pretty good order. Your healthy, got your own business, which seems to be doing quite well considering your neighborhood. “

“Looks can be deceiving,” she said casting her eyes down.

Stan’s hand gently lifted her head, “Tell me what can be so wrong when everything looks so right.” His eye’s entwined in passion with her. He reached over and kissed her softly on her lips. She leaned into him grabbing the side of his hair and playfully biting his lip then devouring him in a kiss before abruptly pulling away from him without a cause.

He was confused. “What?”

She shook her head. “We can’t, I can’t. I don’t want to drag you into my world. I don’t want to pull you down with me. “ She stood up and stared out the paneled window, it gave her a calmness. “It’s funny how were able to bury things in our mind that are gone, just like we bury the dead.” Stan walked behind her placing his hand on her shoulder. “Please don’t, “ she begged him. “You don’t understand.”

“Understand what? Make me understand.”

Her hand like a magnet, grasped the locket she wore. It gave her strength and comfort. “Who you are. Who we are.”

“Tell me Racheal. Who are you? Who are we?”

She bit her lip, half mesmerized by the wind gently swaying the swing attached to the oak tree. “You remember I told you there was a murder in this house, right?”

“I thought a hanging or I guess a suicide, but you did say a murder.” He had a hunch where it was going and tried to catch a glimpse of her eye reflected off the window.

“This used to be my favorite room, that oak tree, barely yearling when my momma and I planted it.”

“You used to live here, didn’t you?”

“Yes. This room is my favorite. I’ve always loved the view of the back yard. The swing the tree, the last of my innocence. My father murdered my mother, in this house. We were the doctor’s family.”

“How?” Stan said unprepared and surprised to hear her open up to him.

She turned back to him feeling the weight of his closure to her. “Not with his own hands, but with the cruelty of his deeds. He made it so unbearable she couldn’t go on any more. She didn’t want to live, even with me, she couldn’t go on. Even with those that cared so much for her, she still couldn’t find the strength to stay. “

“My god that’s terrible? And your father?”

“They put him in an asylum, I lost contact, we were never close. I hated that man, hated that I was part of him. Honestly, I never thought he was really my dad. I don’t know why I felt that way, but I did.”

Stan took a moment to let the full momentum of her past to ruminate in his mind. His eyes suddenly lit up. “Racheal, was you mothers name Mary?”

She turned to get a good look at his eyes. “Yes, how did you know that?”

“Hold on, let me get something, I want to share it with you.” Stan rummaged thru his coat jacket, and came back holding something in his hand. “Here, take a look at this picture. Is this your mother?”

She put her hand to her mouth, her eyes watered. “My mother, and her friend Johnny. Where did you get this picture?”

“From my Uncle, Johnny is my Uncle. The picture was taken at Lily Dale up in New York.” She squinted at the picture to get a better look.

“Your Uncle,” she nodded her head. “How strange he was like my mother’s best friend. Like an Uncle, maybe even more like a father. I think my father hated the two of them. But they just seemed to be a perfect couple”

“Racheal, are you sure they weren’t a couple?”

“Johnny and my mother? You mean like lovers? I guess they could have been. I never thought in those terms, I guess even though I had wished at times he was my father. But you have me confused. Why would you ask that?”

Stan wished he could backtrack not sure that the truth had any bearing, he guided Racheal over to the coach and sat next to her. “Racheal, I don’t know if this makes any difference or if I should even have suggested in the first place, a woman who took this picture, she lives in town, Madeline she’s the psychic in town.

“I know Madeline. She’s really good. She did a reading on me once. Told me I had a past life, a few of them actually. Said I still carry a lot of pain in this life.” Racheal’s eyes bore into Stan’s searching both. “She said I would find contentment in this one, but that is yet to be decided.”

Her glimpse into a pocket of her life distracted Stan for a moment. He lost his thought. He wanted to tell her about her about Mary, her mom, about Johnny, about their baby Racheal. He leaned closer to her, his lips inches from meeting. Zeppelin’s “WHOLE LOTTA LOVE,” went off from a phone bundled between the clothes Racheal had laid on the floor.

“OH, shit what time is it?” she asked rummaging through the pile of clothes to grab her phone.

Stan checked his watch. “Just short of 730 I guess 727 to be exact.”

“Damn it,” Racheal said checking the caller then laying the phone on the floor and running her hand through her hair, “Damnit she said again. “I got make a call, is it alright if I use your phone. My receptions bad.”

He pointed to the kitchen. “Sure, help yourself.”

Racheal got up hesitating for a moment uncertain of herself, then walking to the kitchen took his phone and opened the patio door and made a call.

Stirring the fire with the poker, Stan threw another log in, and leaned back on his haunches. The pain she seemingly carried, eerily similar to his novel’s character Suzie. He could see from the window, Racheal’s stern look and hear her heated conversation. One hand tightly gripped the phone and the other chopping away at the air. When she came in, her look somber, with clouds of tears ready to erupt at any moment.

“Everything alright?”

She sat down on the coach, and her eyes went to the floor seemingly showing a half truth. “No, everything isn’t alright.” Then, like a turtle finding refugee in its covering, ducked into her shell of silence. He knew the ploy well, he often used it himself. “It’s not going to go away if you just ignore it. Maybe I can help you?”

Her eyes reengaged they were split between tears and the product of stressful laughter of indifference. “I don’t think a professor of literature from Kent Ohio got a prayer in hell of helping me with my problem, anymore then the wizard of Oz could help Dorothy get back to Kansas.”

He moved closer to her taking her hand. “Racheal I ain’t gonna ask you to close your eyes and click your shoes three times, but as crazy as this sounds, I think I’m the only one who can help you get back to Kansas. You got to trust me on that.”

She bit her lower lip, still searching his eyes for a savior. She had to trust em. She had nowhere else to go. “I think I do, but I’m almost embarrassed to ask or tell you why.” This time he remained silent. He waited patiently, it was her move to make. It finally came out of her.

“Money I took something that didn’t belong to me, and now I owe money. A lot of money.”

Stan rubbed his forehead. For the best things in life being free money always seemed to be the root of problems. “Okay what is a lot of money to you? How much are we talking about? I got a little in the bank.”

“Over three million dollars. 3.5 to be exact.”

The little optimism he had fell from his face. He exhaled as if someone had knocked the wind out of him. “Wow, unfortunately my bank account is about three million five hundred and ninety – five thousand short.” Her presence reminded him of steady breathing. “Pull out the bad energy. Bring in the good,” is what she always preached in her yogi sessions. He took a deep breath to process her plight. “Let me guess, you owe Marco the money?”

“Yes, in a round-about way” she responded in a sheepish voice. “But he doesn’t know, he’d kill me if he did.”

“How did you get it?”

“It’s complicated.” she said casting her eyes to the ground.

There was the term again, ‘complicated’. He hated it. He pulled her chin up. “Everything in life seems complicated. Try me, the way it looks you got no choice.”

“I did favors for Marco.”

“What kind of favorites?” he inquired almost in an accusing tone.

“Business transactions.” She replied with an equally stern voice. “I carry money for him and make sure it gets through places… amongst other things.”

“You mean customs?”

“Yes.”

“Your laundering money for him? Is that it?”

“That’s where it gets complicated.”

“Complicated? Not really. Looking from the outside in I’d say your laundering drug money or worst you’re a mule to carry in what you don’t use.”

“Go to hell, you don’t know anything about me.” She turned away from him. “I experimented a little, but I’m not a junkie.”

Stan grabbed her arm and pulled up her sleeve uncovering her arm and displaying her track marks. “This sure does paint a different picture.”

She quickly drew her arm back, pulling her sleeve down. It’s not like that. I’m done with it, I haven’t used in over a week. Anyway, this isn’t part of the deal. Marco would kill me if he knew I was a user. He’s not a bad man, he’s nothing like you think he is.”

“He’s a freaking drug dealer. I seen him use himself, blow anyway. What more do I need to know about him?”

“Cokes a cultural thing, he grew up chewing cocoa leaves. Would never go beyond that. But selling, that’s just a tool in his tool box. The monies not for him.”

“Not for him, so let me guess he’s funneling all it into an animal orphanage to save distraught kittens?”

“I hate that about you.” She said narrowing her eyes and lowering her brow in contempt posture. “In fact it disgust me when you act that way.”

“Hate what?” That I’m not naive enough to believe bullshit when I hear it?”

“No, the ignorance that you think you know everything.”

His cadence quickened. His emotion’s fueling it. “Then educate me. Come on what are you waiting for?”

She took a couple deep breaths to dislodge her anger towards him. She knew she had swore an oath, but time, and times, have a way of unsealing secrets. She locked her eyes on his. “Alright, you want to know? Be prepared my friend. I offer you the apple from the tree of knowledge. I’ll tell ya. I’ll tell ya why loading my vein with the breath of the dragon brings more peace to me than anything else left in life. Marco belongs to a group that call themselves the “The Divided River.” It’s a group of very, very influential folks. Folks that do bad things to help good people.”

“What are they the arched enemy of the illuminati?” Like the Joker and Batman?”

Her lips curled over in a sneer. “Do you want to shut up and learn for a moment? Or just be the smart ass that knows it all.”

He bowed his head, his hands reached outward. “Stage is yours. I’m sorry.”

She preceded cautiously. “I suppose if the illuminati is a way to sink your teeth into this, it bares some resemblance. But the DR’s as they call themselves, kinda sit above all that. It, their existence is like an elite branch of the CIA, FBI, and Supreme Court mixed together in a big pot then injected with steroids. They’ll identify themselves as branches of the Agencies, and even have planted leadership in each of these organizations, but their allegiance is to the DR. They don’t have, or honor the laws or restrictions posed on any of those offices. Their main objective is the preservation of our country as the founding fathers intended it. And they well accomplish this by any means. Money to them and their pursuit of it, just a vehicle to assure the power stays in their hands. Wall street just one of their piggybanks. Think of them as guardians, the glue that keeps this country together, not the farce of self-serving politicians your led to believe who skirt around the true issues of democracy. They are an elite republic as the founding fathers had originally set this melting pot in motion. They add the ingredients, they stir the pot, they give you the nourishment that fuels this country. The money they collect, be it legit or not, most of it used to finance operations around the country and around the world. I don’t think most Americans realize how little monies left after the politicians take their cut. And like Butch always says, most folks are just plain too busy trying to keep their bellies full and roof over their heads, to ask enough questions” She let out a sigh posturing her thought for a moment. “So as a balancing force, they, we, exist. I won’t lie too . . .we do bad things at times. Really, really, bad things . . .but for good reasons. So there you have it. The truth is stranger than fiction. The walls of illusion dismantled.

All of it did seem stranger than fiction. His little Mayberry town the center of the world. “How Racheal? How does a small time girl like you get mixed up in all this?”

She tucked her legs, with her knees against her chest hugging them, head tilted, resting peacefully on her knees and staring into the fire. “I met him at the race track It was my birthday. I guess almost three years now, he had an entourage with him. He spotted us, me, I don’t know for sure. We were all partying it up in the lounge. Next thing I know were all invited up to his private lodge. He could dazzle anyone. I think I was immediately drawn to him. He was so freaking full of alpha bullshit that normally turns me off, but for some strange reason I found myself intensely attracted to him. It started out slow, met a few times. I knew he was married, but it was just harmless fun that’s it, nothing more. But little but little we started developing feeling for each other. We came to trust each other a little more, and that’s when everything changed. I become one of them. He asked me to start doing small favors at first. It was fun, exciting, nothing out of the ordinary. Just little things like accompanying him on trips to Vega’s. Money was never an issue. We stayed, ate, and spent like we were printing it. In a roundabout way we were. Then the travel started to extend to the Caribbean, Paris, once to Barcelona even Russia, that’s when I started to notice some of the men we were starting to meet. Powerful men, dignitary’s, Generals of standing armies. Men that controlled countries, some willingly, others not so much. More wealth then you could imagine, chateau’s in the French Alps and yachts cruising thru the Mediterranean, drinking 500-dollar bottles of wine, and doing almost twice as much coke on the hour. My responsibilities grew, money exchanged hands, drugs and guns flowed, and sometimes just information. And deals were made . . .sometime on people. She looked downward. “It crazy some of the things I saw. And once I lost the innocence, the veil of luxury, that hid their true sins. I got a true glimpse of who I was really dealing with. Funny how most of the folks that had rose to theses position of power, how ruthless and the sick they became with power. It consumed them, it wasn’t even about the money any more just power and ego. I saw one of the richest men of Bogota, cut the hand of one of his workers for taking home a can of coffee beans from the fields he worked . . . just because he could. Just because he was an egotistic prick running that country, just because the ugly anger ate him up inside. Crazies part is for two days he kept he hand as a freaking souvenir, until the smell of the rotting hand was worst then the rot of his anger. I’ve got my scars.” She said rubbing the needle tracks on her arm. “So, yeah maybe I’m a freaking junkie. Maybe the only pleasure I really get anymore.” Her eyes met Stan’s. “I know this gig is coming to an end. I am trying to get out. Butch wanted me to turn on Marco. I won’t do that. And their lies the problem.

“So, the three million dollars, where, or who did you take it from?”

“It’s Agency money, or was, held by the royal family of United Arab Emirates, its complicated but I had access to accounts in Dubai, it’s not uncommon for operatives to have access to these accounts, honestly there’s so much money moving thru these banks from our people and the Arabs anything under fifty million is like a twenty missing out of your piggy bank. Eventually they’ll find it, but it’s usually far and in-between audits and even then, takes some time. Unfortunately for me as luck would have it I bumped into a congressman on my trip who knew Marco, word got back to him. It raised some flags why I was over there. Marco’s not a stupid man after all he is in the information business. He’s got bosses too, that money needed to be accounted for.”

“Was that Marco on the phone.” Stan asked, picking up the iron wrought to stir the fire.

“Yes, he told me I was going to jail. I told him that’s okay as long as he was comfortable with a front page spread on USA today. He didn’t like that, he reminded me jail was the better of the two options. And the first one he couldn’t guarantee.”

“Do you think he’s serious?”

“Oh, he’s serious, no doubt in my mind.”

“How can we fix this?”

Her eyes darted from side to side, in a calculation of her options. I can only think of one way out of this, but I need to get to some money I have stashed. Disappear on my own terms.

“What happen to the money? Can’t you just give it back?” her eyes watered, I spent it, every last dime.”

“On what?”

She let out a half smile, half grimace. “Plan B. I had the money transferred into an account in Switzerland, it was earmarked for weapons out of Russia, to the Syrian rebels, thru turkey. Chinese’s government confiscated every penny of it. They ran a sting operation, took the guns took the money. I never seen a dime of that three million, all paper transactions, had it worked I’d had the money back in the bank of Dubai in less than a week. Nobody would have been the smarter and I’d given myself just enough to make sure if I needed to disappear I’d have the resources.”

Stan poked the fire, throwing another log in. “Good lord if someone had written a story about a yogi teacher who in her spare time runs drugs and guns for the CIA, or let me correct myself ‘Agency,’” he emphasized mimicking quotes with his fingers. “I’d told them there out of their mind to even put it on paper. I don’t know Racheal I mean shit, I think I’m here to help you, but damn girl your borderline out of my league.”

She pulled her knees tighter to her chest hugging herself and rocking. “I know nobody can help me nobody at all. I just need a place to stay for a while until I can grab a stash I have. I’m sure my house is staked out, and my passport, I’m sure he’s had that revoked. All of them.” Stan was almost motionless. His mind trying to work through all of it. Wrap itself around a way to save his damsel in distress. “You can stay here, I mean until we figure something out.”

A semi smile cracked her face she reached out and wrapped her arms around Stan giving him a big hug. She felt safe again in the house she grew up in. “I’d like that. I wish I could. At best it might be for a night. Maybe just long enough to get to the Caribbean, Jamaica. I still got some friends I can depend on. I just gotta figure a way across the Caribbean Sea.”

Stan’s eyes lit up, “I can get you there. Rent a plane, I can fly us there. But customs? I don’t know anything about international flying. And shit outside of a couple hundred bucks saved, I live paycheck to paycheck.”

Racheal unfolded her knees as if a flower opening from the morning sunlight a smile beamed across her face matching his. She pointed to her purse.” There’s just about 50,000 dollars in that purse, I would have shoved more if it would’ve fit. There’s a little charter company down in the keys, we just need a pilot willing to rent and fly under the radar. Marco had shipments running out all the time, neither the feds or Jamaican customs wont screw with this company they know they do work for the US. We got act on this fast. I could just fucking kiss you.

Stan smiled. “Then do it.” she moved closer to him and their lips entwined sparking a fury of passion between them. He gently laid her down on the sofa and her hands went to his belt. He knelt up one knee on the coach to help her, suddenly from the corner of his eyes he caught a light shining in the back, then another, he ducked down next to her and whispered. “Someone’s here, lights in a back I thought I saw guns.”

The iris of her eyes widened almost twice their size. “Marco, he traced the phone.”

Suddenly the lights went out in the house and a flash light flashed across the room. Stan pointed to the steps of the basement while grabbing her clothes next to the fire. And whispered “Go out the tunnel to the water falls, follow me. They together her in tow crawled on hands and feet down the steps, bumping into his drill he grabbed his screw gun and using the light from it unscrewed the two screws holding the drywall in. “go take my phone use the light to get down the tunnel. When you get to the waterfalls, make your way over the bridge to the campus, at the old train depot near the tracks is a pay phone, you can find Sharia’s number on my cell phone, do not use my cell phone, you understand that I’m sure there tracking it, explain to her you need a place to stay if you follow the tracks down past two intersections her house is off the second road. Now this is important, take my cell phone leave it on, and put it in one of the boxcars. The trains leave every night, if they are tracking it, it well throw them for a loop. You got all that? Sharia’s is a good friend of mine. Tell her I sent you, tell her you need her to help. I’ll meet you as soon as I can.”

Racheal had a look of hesitation. “Are you sure she can be trusted.”

“Yes, with my life. Now go.” He pushed her to start her descent down the tunnel, barely screwing the drywall up and hiding his tools, when he heard a crashing come from the back door. He started upstairs when a full combat geared agent crashed his way into the kitchen and aimed the red laser beam of his gun pointed at Stan’s head.

ATF, don’t move.” Stan froze and put his hands up. Another agent pulled him to the ground kneeling his knee into his back and putting the butt of his rifle to his temple. Two other agents scurried through the upstairs another the basement a third the downstairs. Within minutes, messages of, “area secured,” blasted over the radio. Afterwards the lights came back and under the shadow of darkness walked Marco.

“Let him up,” he instructed his agent, who by now had cuffed Stan. The agent pulled him up by the cuffs giving little concern to Stan’s comfort.

“Where is she?”

“Who?”

“You know perfectly well who.”

“You got a search warrant, last time I read the constitution breaking into a man’s home required some sort of thumbs up from the judge.”

Marco had an irritated look on his face. “You do know for someone in my position, that’s only a formality. Un cuff him he’s no risk.”

Stan rubbed his wrist to get circulation back to his hands. “Yeah it’s amazing the power one accumulates selling air conditioning units.”

Marco sneezed, then went to a bout of hacking, pulling a rag, and blowing his nose he directed his attention back to Stan. “I don’t normally get involved in this capacity but my relationship to her requires it. “

An agent came back into the room holding up some of Butch’s electronic gear. “She’s not here. We’ve searched everywhere. Looks like someone’s been keeping an eye on your boy.” The agent remarked studying the wiring to the electrical components. “Pile of it sitting in the foyer, someone at least had the smarts to take it down.”

“Butch,” Marco said “Son of bitch can’t keep from meddling where he shouldn’t, run a scan make sure no bugs are left.” Marco addressed his sights back on Stan. “You don’t get it do you Professor? I suppose . . . maybe you won’t allow yourself to understand.”

“Understand what?” Stan asked still rubbing his wrist.

“Racheal’s role in all this, and by saving her from me, you’ll push her to him. And in the end, that will get her killed.”

“Butch? Jesus you’re a hypocrite. Your blaming all this on Butch? I got news for you buddy. She told me all about what you got her involved in. Arabs ain’t gonna miss that money. Seems to me all you’ve done is put a price on her head, for what, a fucking ego trip on your part?”

“Money, you think this is about money, or even the Arabs? Christ professor they print the shit every day. She’s a renegade, out of control.” Marco shook his head. “No, she’s told you nothing Professor, all I can say is if you want to get to the root, do the math. She’s been careless at every step, left crumbs that lead you right to the truth. Of course, maybe none this will make sense, unless your political in nature, have an eye for power struggles within an organization. It’s not something you’ll read in the fake news. Think you’d be surprised how deep her tentacles go. Problem is I got bosses, and they ain’t happy about her. I’m not even sure I could protect her anymore.” Stan stood speechless, he couldn’t tell what the truth was but whatever Marco seemed to be selling he either had the skills of a snake oil salesman or had compelling evidence he wasn’t going to volunteer outright.

“Alright boys, Marco said, “let’s get out of here. We must have just missed her. Well get her.”

“Hey,” Stan said grabbing Marco by the arm. “What about the door you smashed in?”

Marco looked at it and snickered. “Have Racheal fix it she got some stray cash laying around.” As the swat team pulled out, Stan’s neighbor, Stacy pushed around them shouldering her way in.

“Oh my, oh my, what has happened?” She covered her mouth as if horrified by the scene and rushed over to Stan and in dramatic fashion kneaded his chest with her hands like a cat marking their territory. “I thought we were being invaded by the national guards, what’s going on? I seen all the light flash over here, then nothing. Are you in trouble with the law? I called the cops but the army men stopped them from coming in.”

“Yes, I’m okay, wrong house.”

“OH my, how could they make such a mix up.”

Stan threw his arms up. “ I don’t know but Stacy I really need to get this fixed and as much as I appreciate your company, if you don’t mind.”

“I’m sorry,” she said moving back from him. “Okay sure, should I send Raymond to help you?”

Stan smiled. “That’s kind, but I’m pretty sure Ray might do great with a loan, but maybe not so much in carpentry.” Stacy turned to leave catching herself before bumping into Butch in the doorway. Stan’s eyes met his immediately.

“And they’re there you have the jack of all trades, that Stacy is the man that can do it all. “ He said in a sardonic tone.” WELL COME ON DOWN.” He continued his voice getting louder. “You’re are next contestant.”

Butch clapped while in a non-chalant manner surveyed the damage. “Bravo, well done. And I was worried Marco, would steal my thunder getting here first. My, my, you have a mess here my friend. Haven’t you?” He said eyeballing the busted door lock. “You do keep strange company. Oh . .. express mail came in. I signed for it. Hope you don’t mind? Seemed you had a lot going on when he showed up.” He threw the letter to Stan. It was from the university.

“Fancy you would show up after the party, your timing is impeccable.” But really Butch, I ain’t got time to socialize with you either.” Stan said ripping open the letter and shaking his head while reading it.

“Bad news?”

Stan raised his attention back to Butch. “Yeah but expected. “Your good buddy President Miller, such a nice guy is suspending me.”

“Ouch,” he said cringing. “Sorry to hear that. Maybe I can talk with him. I do have a little influence over him.” Butch grinned surveying the scanning gear and cameras scattered in piles on the floor. He picked a piece up examined the damage and dropped it back on the floor “Well, not sure these would have caught your ghost but they may have saved you a little embarrassment with Mr. Bianco given some incidental information.”

“Really? That’s your answer to all this.”

“It’s complicated.”

Stan shook his head in frustration. “Complicated? That’s all I hear from you folks. And it’s starting to piss me off. When did the simple truth become so god damn complicated. What is with you people? Both of you? I mean this is small town USA, I should be dealing with Andy Taylor and Barney Fife over how big the street banner is on Labor Day not some government goons selling arms to supply rebels in Syria, or bringing drugs up from Columbia. When did all you rats abandon Washington anyway.” Stan said while attempting to reclose the front door, frustrated, he tried slamming it shut.

“I can’t answer that. All I can say is where a necessary evil.” Butch pointed to the top of the door. “It’s twisted at the top coming off the hinges. Your gonna need a crow bar or something to force it in. “

Stan shook his head looking at the damage, getting more pissed by the moment, feeling violated by his own government the government of we the people. He turned to Butch. “Well, both of you are wrong. And shame on both of you for bringing your battle here. Here’s a news flash. We don’t want you here. We the people, ain’t about corrupting candidates and or taking over some rogue nation for god knows what reason. Were about picnics in the summer next to the lake, or driving with the windows down blasting “Born To Run,” at full tilt, or taking our girl for a double scope of ice cream on a hot day. The only excitement we want is the star spangle banner playing on the fourth of July while F-18’s scream across the sky and your heart drops saying god bless America. So tell me Butch, tell me why the fuck is this happening here?”

Butch lowered his head then slowly brought his eyes back to meet Stan’s. “I don’t know why things are the way they are, pretty out of balance if you ask me. But I’m just one part of Santa elf’s making toys. I don’t decide whose naughty and whose nice. Those folks are in a pay grade way above me, and you. And they ain’t given any of their control back. Don’t look at me like that. Damn it I fought in desert storm. I fought in the mountains of Afghanistan. What have you done to preserve the values that started this little melting pot we call home of the free?”

His words had merit and Stan knew it. He hadn’t fought in any wars, or even sacrificed his time. Sure, in his youth he marched in a few protest, but that was more a rebel thing in college for the attention of girls then the principle of it. Hell, it was like pulling teeth to get him to vote. And jury duty, he dodged his commitment more than once.

Butch could sense his words impacted him, and being malicious towards Stan was never his intent. His toned softened. “Hell brother, I know we can’t all be saviors. And for most folks believe me there is a lot of truth in ignorance is bliss. But please don’t read me the constitution. Cause buddy, I live everyday to make sure a little of it survives. Those with all the money, the ones that pull the strings on wall street. They don’t give a rat’s ass about you and me. But you can’t beat em. No sir you can’t. You can join em, but you can’t beat em. There dangerous wounded creatures that live in fear, and their biggest fear is the whole system might collapse in on em. Take the paper money away from em, they got nothing to contribute. Just a bunch old man down and out playing dice with our life’s.” Butches attention migrated to the busted door and pulled it up checking to see if the hinges needed replaced then turned back to Stan and picked up the conversation as if he were discussing the latest city ordinance concerning grass parking bans, and not the life and death of democracy.

“Funny thing is all its gonna take is a little ingenuity, hack the right system tweak the right virus and everybody’s slate is wiped clean. Take your friend Billy for example the janitor. Surprises you I even know who he is. They got a file this thick on him. Son of bitch is dead on center on some of his thinking.” Butch bridged his hands six inches apart. “See, he’s the kinda guy they keep an eye on, someone who ain’t bought completely into the system, but got the smarts to bring it all down. One hacked virus and all the big players, lose everything, even those with paid security. Funny how a man’s loyalty goes when he gets hungry. But you ask why Mayberry? I’ll tell you why. Because nobodies looking for us here, that’s the simple truth. Nobody would expect the battle of Armageddon to start in small town USA. Nobody, Butch repeated. For a moment they both stared at each other as if maybe for the first time truly understood each role they seemed to play in their lives. “I got tools in my van, we can at least get your doors fixed till you can get someone over here.”

Stan nodded and had to laugh. Despite, Butch representing everything he could thing of he hated about where the country was going, he plain and simply had taking a liking to him and felt Butch liked him equally. In no time at all after retrieving the tools, both doors were temporarily secured for the night. Gathering his tools Butch stood in the doorway. “Don’t suppose you’d want to grab a beer down at Billy Buds?”

“Maybe next time. Trying to quit for a while.” He replied in a solemn voice. Butch nodded and started to walk out before turning again.

“I don’t suppose your gonna tell me where Racheal is either?”

Stan chuckled. “No I don’t suppose I will.”

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

After Butch pulled down the road, he walked into the den, X out day 31, and 32, on the calendar and made a quick call to his insurance agent. “Yes that’s right, Sharia Moore, I mean Murphy. I just wanted to confirm she is now the full benefactor, yes every bit of my life policy. Excellent.” He hung up. and rustled files from his filling cabinet and laid them both on the table along with a note. Gathering a change of clothes, he did a mental calculation of inventory, then remembered to pack his gun and bullets. He laid his life insurance policy, with a letter with Sharia’s name out on the kitchen table. Satisfied he was set, he opened up his computer to finish his book, hell bent on at least finishing it, before he was finished.

When the night showers ended as the dawn of the day slowly creeped upward, Christian as miraculously as the rise of the sun, felt life in his body. His eyes came back to consciousness, scanning his environment for clarity. He was greeted in his awakening by the misfortune of his two dead friends, eyes locked open and fixated beyond the sky without a care in the world. His shoulder and back pulsated with spasms of pain as if someone had taken a mining drill and laid it upon his body. With his one good arm still numb from being trapped under the horse, he pulled with all his might and mind and freed a portion of his body from the weight of the horse’s pastern, pulling himself beyond its withers, before passing out. All in all, before he found himself completely free from his imprisonment, he had come and gone in consciousness and the sun had hit high noon and turned the wet mud back to hard clay. The shaman found his son’s body first, then Paul, and finally Christian, who had managed to crawl into the cover of bush several yards from the scene.

At the next point of consciousness for Christian, he found himself within the confines of an old Indian ruins carved out of the hills called “Cliff Palace.” For days, the old shaman nursed Christian back to health utilizing his knowledge of wag weed, toad herbs and sage for his wounds and a mix of spiritual chants. Hours turned to days, and days into weeks, before Christian finally had his strength back.

“Where are we?”

“Here drink,” the shaman said forcing a cup to his lips.

Christian gulped the contents of the cup, chocking, he pulled the cup away. “Its bitter.”

“Slow,” the shaman said, again putting the cup back to his lips. “It’s peyote juice, take the pain away. Just a small amount, weaning you off it now.

Christian abided, when finished, looked around his setting. In the center, a fire with a hole to vent the smoke. The walls made of the clay, rock, and wood, the floor hard rock. Light poured through small square windows, where long ago wooden shutters blocked the winds, and it was but one of many shelters for a proud nation of ancient apaches who had carved out their homes in the cliffs at the foothills of the mighty mountain. “Where are we?”

“Where at the sacred ancients.”

“Why? What happen?”

“You were ambushed. Don’t you remember?”

Christian hunched back supporting himself by his elbows, the memories of the night started flooding back. The eyes of his dead friends burning in his memory. “I do, at least part of it. I’m sorry. How did…?”

“Ken found you. He came and got me. I didn’t think you’d make it. It wouldn’t have been safe to take you back to my hut, for either of us, I’m afraid. I didn’t even have a chance to give my son a proper burial. Your safe for now, the town and most importantly Royce believes you dead, your body carried away by animals.”

“Ken?”

“Yes, Ken, he had overheard Royce planning it. He tried to follow you, warn you, but got there too late.”

“Where’s he at?”

“Dead they hung him, put the murders on his back. Royce set em up, possess ran him down, hung him where they found him. bodies still hanging on the old oak next to the falls.”

“Good lord, for a moment Christian tried to evaluate the situation. “I got get out of here, he started to get up and the pain forced him down just as quickly as he’s ambition. He took a knee, then laid down. “Son of a bitch, I feel like a mule’s ass.”

“Rest, you need to rest yet.”

He settled in closing his eyes, then it hit him. His eyes darted open. “Suzie, my god Suzie she’s got to be going out of her mind. I had the weirdest dream that comes back to me. She was like an angel floating no falling, water all around her, she whispered goodbye then I woke. It was like I saw it happening as if it were happing to me. “

The shaman’s eyes bit down on the floor, he refused to look up. “No! Christian said seeing the shaman’s face. “No please tell me no. I’ll kill that bastard if he hurt her.”

She’s dead Christian.”

The words struck his soul tearing away any joy of life leaving him with only emptiness of thought, of hope, of love, and of life a fate worse than void of death itself. For a while no tears even flowed because without the spirit of emotion, the body has no motion. “How?” he finally asked.

“She took her own life. She dove over the Cliffs of Arduous.”

A tear formed at the top of his eye, a large drop and it slowly moved downward across his cheek. Why?”

She thought you were gone. I thought she knew. I thought Ken had got to her. I only find all this out, a short time ago. I would have told her. I would risked it all. I thought ken had gotten to her.” He repeated with solemn conviction.

The wailing of cry echoed thru the canyons awakening the ancients, his eternal soul could fill the same pain tearing herself from him. And although the subconscious whole of his eternal being knew they would again reconnect, the surface of his existence, could only experience her void.

Two deities, Natas and Brahma stood silently witnesses to the two events. Brahma pulled the coin out and offered it to Natas. Natas shook his head. “I can’t accept,” he said still inspired or shocked by the emotions of Christian. “Besides it was I who had tempted her to bring Royce and his wrath of Jealousy. I had clearly interfered. Maybe they deserve another chance?”

Brahma slightly amused by his suggestion had both a slight smile and baffled look to himself. “You interfering was not a surprise, it is what your nature is. I don’t fault you for that anymore then I would fault a cat for killing a bird. You of all beings should rejoice in your win, time to move on, that’s your spirit. I would think you would rejoice in this cesspool of hopelessness. Why should I even give them one more chance? You for some strange reason have vested an interest in them, I must say completely out of character for you. And I have already spent far more time in this matter then I should have.”

Natas looked upon the scene of Christian laying in grief. “Your right, I do strangely have a bonded interest in their plight and I’m not sure why. Sometimes I think maybe because the essence of all their lives have dwelt within my realm more than yours.” He stopped for a moment pondering his thought. “It would be interesting to see if the sum of all, the ying and yang, the good vs evil, the light the darkness. In the end, in the finish product of the soul, do they create a whole being or a hole in the being. I guess I would like to know if contrast is the nature of their world does good become bad and bad become good to complete them?” He turned to Brahma. “Give them another chance, time is human element, eternity has no such boundaries. You, in essence, nothing to lose, and everything to gain. At least concerning our little sport.” Brahma redirected his attention back to Christian, his eyes narrowing gauging the pain of his soul.

There’s no spirit left, look at him he’s lost everything. Even his humanity. I don’t need to see anymore, revenge redemption none of that will bring anything back for him. He’s a gunslinger, the payment of his heart makes him a mercenary, in this saga, in this time for Stan. I mean Christian. One doesn’t need to see what they can envision the outcome as. Come let’s move on, this book has ended, there’s nothing more to be written.”

Natas looked with pity at Christian and spoke. “I make them relive their life.”

What?” Brahma questioned. “What did you say?”

You asked me before, when we first met in the saloon. You asked me what I do with them when they ended or take their own souls. You said before, once you hand them over, decide there not worthy of another chance, you lose track. I make them relive their most painfully life . . . for eternity.” That’s how I punish them. That’s how we punish them.”

Brahma’s eyes lifted. He straightened his posture, his will, his consciousness taking note evaluating Natas on his calculating reformation of penalty suited for denial of one’s gift of life. He nervously gnawed on his fingers. The pain sheared through him. “I . . I hadn’t realized you were so adept at your job.” His eyes cast down on Christian. “Your right. What have I got to lose? And everything to gain.” He put his coin back in his pocket patting it for safe keeping. “I suppose we shall see how this plays out.”

Natas hid his smile, strangely pleased for now, he was not to take possession. “As always your wisdom prevails and as the Irish say. ‘The future is not set, there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” Come let’s leave this place, partake in a little ale. You yourself have boosted how gifted they are in the alchemy of liquid spirits. And even I could find little argument in that.”

Brahma smiled. “Natas I believe in your own strange way, you compliment me.” He looked somewhat affectionally towards his contrasting creation. I’ve got a better place, have you ever seen the view from the ‘Cliffs of Arduous?” It’s one of my favorites.” The two walked from the cave dwelling slowly disappearing in the void of space.

The end Stan Stiles

“Finally finished he said smiling while looking up at his calendar and noticing the days left. Stan printed the novel out. He had hoped for more time but as his calendar told the story, the time was now. He laid his printed novel next to Sharia’s note, then grabbed his keys to his motorcycle, threw the contractors abandoned materials imprisoning his motor bike from launch, and made his way down the street. Leaving in stealth mode he left the lights off figuring at the least it would torment those running surveillance on him.

Once past his neighborhood, he turned the lights on and buzzed down the highway, feeling a new freedom awakening in his life as the air tunneled around him and his bike. In less than an hour he was Pulling in his Aunt’s uphill driveway off the main route. Walking to the door he stopped giving the house a sentimental looking over. Knocking, a light popped on and from the window he could see her peeking out with her warm smile, one that always made him smile.

“Stan?” she said as he came in a gave her a hug. “I didn’t expect you. Are you hungry?” He nodded no. “Come on in. Sit.” She cleared papers off a chair for Stan then sat in hers reengaging in her needle point crocheting.

He sat on the edge of the chair not wanting to plant himself. “No I can’t stay long. Just wanted to stop over and see you before I left. I’m going on a little vacation.”

She looked up, through her reading glasses, while her hands continued to knit. “That is such good news. I’m so glad to hear that. You’ve done nothing but worked yourself so hard, and life, well . . . life is so short.” No doubt a statement in reference to her own reason calamity Stan reasoned.

He looked at her with affection. She always had the gift to put a smile on his face, even when she herself was suffering. “I hope your right. Hey you remember Sharia the Indian girl I work with?”

“Your secretary?”

“No Aunt Ella’s, she’s a professor too. The one you baked pies for. You know the cancer benefit for her husband?”

Forgetfulness both a blessing and curse at the beginning of senility, had recently plagued his Aunt in pockets. Stan attributed it to stress. At first she struggled to remember. Then smiled kindly. “OH yes she is such a good soul. You are so lucky to have her as a friend.”

“I know I am. Seems like she’s always there when I need her. But she be coming by to check on you. Make sure you’re alright. I didn’t want you to think a stranger was stocking you.”

“That’s nice.” She said in contentment sinking back into silence focusing her attention between her crocheting and price is right show.

It reminded him of the warmth and security he experienced as her child. All of them gathered around the TV, together yet, absorbed in their own world. “We’ll I best be going.” Stan leaned towards her and gave her a kiss on the forehead, His sights caught the shed and he noticed the light on. “Were you in the shed?” He asked.

She shook her head, no, still focusing on her stitching.

“Better check it. I must have left the light on last time I was here.”

“That would be nice dear.” She responded as Stan walked outside, prepared to see his Uncle maybe one more time. Opening the shed door his eyes scanned for anything out of place, then zeroed on the safe. Approaching it, he toggled the code, peeked in, and made sure he’d gotten all its contents. Satisfied he took one more scan around the shed, turned out the light closing the door behind him. Just before closing it, his eyes spotted a floppy disk laying on the floor underneath and old chair. He picked it up and read the label, income tax 1984. He wondered if this was the missing disk, but taxes?” confused he shook his head, and put it in his pocket. Eyeing the gate fence cracked slightly open, he walked over locked, it and it a good shake to make sure it was secure. One last time before leaving he checked and made sure everything was batted down and secured, then reentered the house to say his last goodbye. His Aunt’s hands were frozen to her knitting and eyes tightly shut, he smiled and headed to the door not wanting to wake her. Suddenly hearing his footsteps, her eye jolted open and her hands like an automated machine took back to knitting without missing a stitch. “I must have dozed off.” She said.

“I didn’t want to wake you.”

“You are such a thoughtful young boy. Before you go there’s something of yours I’ve kept.” She pointed her knitting needle at the desk with the lamp on it. On top the desk, sat an older black and white photography of a man dressed in petticoat, and woman in a corset dress with high collars and blooms tightly fitted to her waist. Both man and woman dressed indicative of late 1800 western style clothes right down to a hoister and gun. In the background a horse buggy next to a general store with a wooden sign that read ‘Durango Colorado,’ Stan picked the picture off the table.

It was a black and white photo with a hint of brown. “Wow, that’s old. Who is it?”

“Flip it over there’s a date and name on it.” Stan read the date September 5, 1893 then his eyes captured the names. A shiver went down his back. Where did you get this? Did you write these names on here?”

Stan’s Aunt engaged in her crocheting, barely looked up from her stitch. “Mary showed me it. She said those are your great granddaddy, Christian. The women I don’t know, names on the back, Suzie I think.”

He touched the photo gently. They the man and woman, just as Stan had pictured they looked in his mind’s eye. “You did say Christian?”

“Yep, same name carved in your gun Mary said. CJ Christian James. Did your Uncle give you that old gun? You know I told him to throw that out. I don’t like guns.”

Stan stood dumbfounded. “Mary? You’ve seen Mary?” Ella nodded, yes, pulling out a healthy amount of yarn, while cross-stitching her pattern. He moved closer to her. “You do realize Mary is a ghost, right?”

“Yes, of course I do, but I so enjoy her company, I guess it never really mattered to me.” She said, stopping her knitting for a moment to think how that must sound. “Anyhow she said she was leaving that the picture, as the last piece of the puzzle. Does that make sense?”

“I think,” Stan said and repeated. “I think.” He pondered for a moment wondering whether to share his thoughts. “Aunt Ella did you ever really see Mary?”

“Yes.” She said trying to capture her picture in her head. “But of course my eye sight isn’t what it used to be.”

“Do you think she looks a little like Racheal’s mother, you knew years ago. The girl you met at the funeral. The yoga teacher whose Aunt, knew Uncle John?”

She squinted her eyes to reflect. “Come to think of it, she does. You don’t suppose it’s her do ya?”

“Does it matter?”

“No not really, kinda nice she don’t mind keeping me company, almost like were sisters.” Stan smiled at her and knew as strange as all of it sounded his Aunt was going to be alright, whether he made it back or not. Getting on his bike he again checked around to see if he was being followed, then made one last stop.

CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

Sharia carried the laundry basket of warm clothes from the dryer and set it down on the kitchen table. “I made some coffee I hope you don’t mind. Racheal said. “Would you like a cup?”

“I would love cup, its late but god does that sound good.” Racheal poured a cup and handed it over. Sharia held it with both hands and rested it under her nose, taking in its aroma. “I just love the smell of coffee.”

“Me to,” Racheal said.

“It’s nice to have visitors, that cater to you, tough when you got a lot going on.”

Racheal sipped her coffee, “I’m just glad you and Stan have helped me out.”

“You know Stan really thinks highly of you, don’t you?” Sharia said rustling thru the basket and holding a blue sock and black one, then digging again for a match.

Of course, he is such a good friend.”

Her eyes went beyond the sock and cut over to Racheal’s “let me ask you something and if you think it’s none of my business, I’m okay with that too. Is that the only way you think of Stan, I mean just good friends?”

She got quite for a moment staring down at her coffee cup, then back to Sharia. “I think. Why does he see me differently?” She caught a look on Sharia’s face that seemed to unleash a secret. “Oh my god, you got something for Stan.”

Sharia turned away, her face turning red. “Don’t be silly, I’m married.” She reengaged her eyes with Racheal a trusting look, one of the sisterhood understood, one of two beings that had known each other a long time. “It’s just, I know how he thinks and he’s been through a lot. I’ve known him for a very long time. He’s such a kind man I’d hate to see him get hurt. You know he doesn’t talk about it but his life started in an orphanage, his Aunt and Stan’s mother lost contact, she was an addict. He lived in orphanages and foster homes until he was nine, and they finally tracked him down. He won’t talk much about it, but I guess it was horrible. He told me once, sometimes he felt like you and him had a common bond, that you had it rough growing up too.”

She nodded her eyes assembling a tell-tale wave of her emotions.

A hoarsen voice from the bedroom called out. “Sharia, Sharia.”

Sharia threw her unmatched socks back in the basket and rushed to her husband’s bed. Racheal following her leaned against the door opening. Sharia seeing the bag overflow attended to his catheter drainage bag. “Fumble farts,” she said as urine spilled, pulling off the full bag. “No Marc. Why are you pulling this off? Leave it, leave it,” she repeated pushing his hand away. He reached up again this time grasping for her locket and neckless and ripping it off. She pulled it back and laid it on the nightstand. She took the bag over to the toilet, emptying it, then swabbed the area with an alcohol rub, and replacing the bag.

Marc incoherently mumbled a few things for which Sharia surprisingly seemed to understand. “No hospice isn’t coming in today. Your slurring, is your blood sugar low?” She pinched his finger with a diabetic meter. “Yep,” she said holding up the results. Sharia took a deep breath. You could easily read the stress coming from her face.

“Are you okay?” Racheal asked.

“Yes… he needs some insulin and I freak out giving shots. Hospice was suppose set an IV for it. I have a needles phobia.” She pulled a paper towel wiping his bed and tubing.

Racheal moved closer. “Here let me take that.” Racheal handed her a towel laying on the table and noticed the locket that fell to the ground.

Racheal bent over picking it up. It was the exact replica of hers. Your locket?” She said picking it up and admiring it. Where did you get it?” She asked opening it. Sharia had a look of dread, as she reached for the locket to snatch it from Racheal’s hands. She was too late. Inside a picture of Sharia and Stan.

Sharia’s face turned red. “I’m so embarrassed. That wasn’t meant for anyone else to see. Stan doesn’t even know I have his picture. I put it in there a long time ago, half the time the locket won’t open. I could just kill myself you saw this.”

Racheal had a look of understanding “You shouldn’t be. It’s are little secret. But honestly where did you get this? It’s identical to mine. I’ve never seen another like it.”

“I got it from Madeline. The physic in town.” She insisted I take it after she did a reading. Wouldn’t take any money for it.”

“Freaky Hun, this isn’t a common locket.” Racheal added dangling it closer to the light to see if it indeed held the same captive power hers held over her. Both her and Sharia’s attention gravitated to it fixating on the locket until Racheal broke the trance. “Where’s the needles and insulin? I’m good with needles.”

“You sure?” Sharia asked looking away from the locket. Racheal’s nod of assurance was all she needed, dreading the thought of needles. “In the bathroom top shelf you’ll find needles and new vial of insulin. Rub the bottle don’t shake it. I’ll clean the area.”

Racheal, got up not realizing she still held Sharia’s locket and entered the bathroom. For a moment. she stared hard at herself in the mirror as if she stood before the crossroads of her life and soul. In a quick twitch of the mind before she could corral her thoughts. She took her own locket off and swapped her pictures of Christian and Suzie into Sharia’s locket, then clamped Sharia’s down hard, to make sure it wouldn’t open. No good deeds go unnoticed and opening the medicine cabinet too her pleasant surprise, given her stress, it was as if the prayers to all her problems had been answered. Staring her in the face, a smorgasbord of pain killers. She knew all of them well, OxyContin hydromorphone methadone, hydrocodone, it was a showroom catered by Doctor fill good himself, and the drive too tormenting to pass on. She wiped her hand across her mouth and glanced to see if Sharia was looking. Feeding her lust, she ate two, filled her pockets with half the bottle of OxyContin, placed the prescription back on the shelf grabbed the syringe and vial of insulin and cracked a smile of devious nature satisfied in her score. Like a pro she measured the insulin tapped the syringe and injected it into Marc’s hip, “Sharia watched in amazement to her professional aptitude with the needle.” Where’d you learn all this?”

Racheal smiled back at her. “Used to be a nurse’s aide, long time ago, thought I’d end up being a nurse. Funny the experience has come in handy over the years. “ She handed Sharia her locket back, feeling a hidden betrayal to her own soul.

“Thank you,” Sharia said. How about a glass of wine? Something to take the edge off. Nice to do a little girl talk for a change. It’s funny I’ve just met you, but maybe hearing so much about you. I feel like I’ve known you forever.”

CHAPTER FIFTY

Pulling down the remote dirt road, cut between a thicket of deep woods, was no surprise to Stan. Billie for the most part an extremist in everything, including being a survivalist who preached the need to isolate and wean off the power grid. The house was made of old cedar and brick built from recycled material from and old church, replicated with a steeple belfry holding a brass bell at the peak and an old collectable machine gun from WW2 mounted next to it. The driveway ended, maybe fifty feet from the house, and now only a dirt trail accessible by walking down a curved path down the hill up a hill, past the pond, and over a creek, took you the remainder of the way. Stan grabbed the flashlight in his bike saddle bags and floppy disk and headed down the path. A few feet shy of the house a spot light detecting his motion cut through the pitch-black night, the crickets and bullfrogs stopped chirping, and standing on the deck, Billie branding a shotgun with one hand and his foaming at the mouth ear deafening barking dog with his other hand. Stan froze. “Yo Billie its Stan. Don’t let the damn dog go.”

“Stan,” the voice called out. “What the hell are you doing out there? You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you. Come on in.”

Stan, walked in, the house a unique gem, a combination of the old church and the eccentrics of Billie’s mind. UFO paraphernalia mixed with rock and roll picture and his prize memorabilia Elvis, pointing to a sign near a metal gate, ‘Area 51’. Shelves were lined with books of conspiracy exterritorial beings and physics thru the eyes of Hawking and Dyson, Higgs. Volume after volume of the great mathematicians and philosopher’s over the last thousand years, Thales, Descartes, Nash, Ptolemy, and even a whole bookcase dedicated to religions dating as far back as Neanderthal beliefs to modern and future expectations of religions to come. A playground Stan figured to amuse his intellect. “What’s up man?” Billie said scratching his overgrowth. “I was just getting ready to hit some herb you want some?”

“Naw man, not my gig?”

“That’s cool man, got some booze if your thirsty?”

Stan shook his head. “Thanks, but I’m okay, just stopped over to give you something. Need a favor, something right down your alley.” He pulled the disk out from his pocket and handed it to him.

“Nice. . . taxes.” he read off the label. “What you want me to audit your taxes?”

No Stan laughed, “I need you to tell me what’s on this, you got that old computer, in the back of my car when you picked it up?

“I did. What did you say to poor Ralph, he was still all worked up. No worries though, he got his boss to drop the towing charge. You should’ve told him you knew me.”

“Next time. Where you able to get it to work?”

“Yeah man, pain in the ass finding parts, old parish computer. Not much scandal hidden on the hard drive. Mainly kept track of monies. You would not believe the amount of cash passing thru that little church. Tax free. Any who, it works man. Lets pop in that disk and see what gives.”

Billie went to his desk, and booted up the lab top. “Presto man I had a hell of a time finding parts for this.” He slipped the floppy in. Codes and numbers started to scroll on the screen. “Someone encrypted this. Old school but reliable shit, might be a hard nut to crack.” He watched the codes flip by on the screen for a moment, contemplating his next move. Hitting a key the codes stopped, and the BIOS screen came up.

“The evil Bios page.” Stan said. “I thought that page was taboo. You always told me, stay away from it.”

Billie looked over his shoulder at Stan. “Yeah, that’s right, YOU, should never operate here.” He started to type some programing into the prompt. After several attempts and muttering nothing more than a few obscenities, he opened his desk draw and sorted thru the clutter until he found a portable disk drive and plugged it in the port of the old computer. Retrieving a disk from a selective arsenal of old floppies he downloaded it into the computer, then patiently waited as it did his bidding.

“You making any progress? You gonna be able to figure it out?”

Billie inclined back in his rotating leather office chair and folded his arms behind his head and yawned. “Eventually. This is gonna take a while to download. Oh I almost forgot” He pointed to the kitchen table. “Pulled those emails off President Millers account. What? I was bored. Any who . . . interesting reading. Seems he was targeting you as a favor to someone. The someone I call deepthroat, guy was running surveillance on you. Hitting you with all the information down to the hair count on your balls. Your history goes back some ways. This guy did his homework on you. ”

“Who? Why?” Stan asked, picking up the emails and leafing through them.

“The who, let’s call deepthroat, not sure yet, but the source or account is from a store in Kent. I believe you know Racheal Moore?”

“Racheal?” he turned facing Billie.

“At least from Racheal’s email address and server at her Yoga boutique. But the vernacular is not that of a woman, someone she knows, or someone who knows how to hack her system is using her email as communication to the Prez.”

Stan turned his attention back to the emails skimming through them. “Will, I got a good hunch who, but outside of ruining my life, not sure why?”

“That I don’t know yet either. Seems he wants your blood whoever he is. Almost like he got some sick grudge. Billie turned his attention back to the computer. “Keep em maybe you can figure something out.”

The disk finished uploading and Billie leaned back to the keyboard and started a furious cat and mouse game between the screen and keyboard. “Rats ass.” He finally said.

“What?” Stan asked leaning over Billie’s shoulder, emails in hand.

“Nothing, this little bugger is a little more challenging than I thought. Where’d you get this anyway? The White House? I’ve hacked into a lot of systems but this stuff . . . wow! Someone wasn’t playing.” Billie got up and left the room returning a few minutes later carrying his lap top. Taking the mobile drive out he plugged his in the port, and went on line typing a sequence of codes which finally popped a screen up. Bingo!”

“You get it?”

Billie watched as sequence of codes and numbers flashed on the screen, occasionally hanging up on a code then plowing forward. “I think, this might take some time.”

Stan felt relieved he was getting close, but suffered a small bout of anguish hoping he’d finish. “How long?”

“Not sure,” Billie responded his mind intrigued by the challenge in front of him. “Let me play with it for a day or two, this is top secret shit Stan. I’m talking illuminati type shit. Where’d you say you got it?”

“My Uncle.”

“The one who just passed? Worked as an electrician at the steel mills?”

“Yeah that one. “

“Well, I don’t know how he got this, but I’m guessing your Uncle was a little more than an electrician.”

Stan nodded. “Yeah I’m beginning to see that. Look I’m going out of town for a few days. I’ll get back to you. Oh almost forgot, if I get hung up on my trip, let Sharia know to water the plants and feed the cat, theirs an envelope for her troubles sitting on the kitchen table. “

“Sure,” Billie said already memorized by his new toy. “Give me a call.”

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

Once back at this house, and under the guise of night, and surety his house was being stacked out. Stan located his flashlight put his backpack on containing clothes from his trip laptop and Clark aviation headphones, turned before entering the tunnel, saluted his house, and bid it farewell as if it had a life of its own. Creeping down the dark tunnel aided by his flashlight. He thought how ironic the tunnels at one point used by the Underground Railroad had helped the slaves find refugee and under the same secrecy of its pathway, he was finding the same. Reaching the waterfalls and meadow, and exiting under the arch bridge, he jumped on the rail tracks and followed it down past two crossings checking behind him every once in a while to assure he wasn’t being followed.

By the time he got to Sharia’s, Stan barely had time to say hello, before total exhaustion overtook him and he crashed on the small sofa feet and all hanging over, into a deep sleep.

It was near noon by the time Stan finally woke. Feeling a sense of eyes on him. Disoriented by his surroundings he rubbed his own eyes and a smile broke on his face seeing Sharia lovingly hover over him with her big small and big brown eyes.

“Good morning sleepy head, did you sleep will?”

“Yeah best night sleep I’ve had in ages.” He sat up putting his feet on the floor. “Where’s Racheal?” He asked looking around.

“I don’t know she left a couple hours ago, said she just needed to get out.”

Stan eyes darted upward trying to think we’re she might have went and what could have possibly possessed her to do such a lame brained thing, “I don’t know what’s with that girl.”

Sharia felt nothing less than compassion realizing the torment she could see Rachael was putting him through, she put her arm on his shoulder. He felt the warmth pulsate from her. “Stan are you sure you know what you’re doing? She told me a little about your plan. It all sounds crazy. None of it makes sense. I don’t get a good vibe about it. Do you realize how this could turn out for you?”

Stan took a big breath his eyes fixated beyond her. “Your gonna thing I’m crazy when I tell you and maybe your already do. So, I guess I got nothing to lose. But here’s the god’s truth. That psychic I went to, you’re right she wasn’t a nutcase. She was dead on. Told me things about myself ain’t no way anybody could’ve known. Bottom line is, Racheal . . . she’s my soulmate, my twin flame. We both lived a prior life together, tragic end, but this time I followed her here to fix things. Set em straight. I’m here to make sure she don’t make the same mistake, protect her I guess.”

The disappointment in Sharia’s face could not have been more obvious unless one was under the spell of another. “You sure about all this, does she believe that?”

Stan stood up, half irritated by her question. This wasn’t time to change the course of the river, Sharia after all had always been steadfast in her support of him. “I don’t know, I haven’t told her what I told you if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Why not?”

He walked over to the window and glanced out. “I don’t know. It just ain’t that simple. Quit looking at me like that.”

“Like what?” she asked closing the gap between them.

“Like your looking through me. Like your invading me. Like you know something about me that I don’t know.”

She forced her eyes away. “I’m sorry I didn’t realize I was looking at you like that.” He turned and she stood inches from him, he could smell her and it intoxicated his senses. He gently pulled her chin up, locking his eyes with her and witnessing the glow infusing outward. He wanted to break away from her, knowing just minutes ago he had it all figured out, confessed to his purpose, now he felt trapped in confusion. Now he was drawn to her, spellbound by her hex he felt the happiest part of his life stood in front of him. He went to kiss her and she twisted her lips away from him.

He had taken the bait finally seen the lure, and she had yanked it from him. He was more confused now than ever before and embarrassed to boot. “Oh my god, I’m sorry I don’t know what I was thinking, I can’t believe I just did that.” he said as his hand reached to his forehead to soothe the scrambled gremlins creating chaos in his mind.

“It’s okay,” she assured him gently rubbing his arm. “Trust me you didn’t do anything wrong.” The door opened and Racheal popped in knocking as she opened it.

“I’m back,” she said smiling at first, then feeling the nervous tension, changed to a look of curiosity.

“You guys alright?” She asked trying to break the ice.

Stan’s nerves were starting to fry. “Where the hell where you?” He blurted out.

Racheal pulled backed her shoulders rising together in sync to her eyebrows. “Well hello, and good morning to you too. And excuse me, but since when was it necessary to check in with you first.”

“I didn’t mean it that way if that’s the way you read it. It’s just with everything going on, prancing around town with everybody outside of the KGB looking for you, might not be in your best interest.”

Heading his words, her mindset receded and her shoulders sunk back to their normal position. “I just needed to get some fresh air that’s all. Not to come across as woe is me, but last time I looked my world seemed to be crumbling before me.”

Truthfulness seemed to be at an all-time low, neither Sharia or Racheal seemed to make much sense to him. Woman from Venus men from Mars may have been an understatement. Racheal’s world may very well have been collapsing, but between the two of them, his universe felt like it had been sucked into a black hole. Taking back control required order at least to practical matters that didn’t involve the heart, that’s how men get back on track. “Alright he’s the plan. I think Racheal, you and I need to sit down and kinda go over a few things. Sharia if you don’t mind, I want to make sure you sit in on this. Okay?” She gave him a compliant passive nod.

“Sure, I’ll make some new coffee.”

“That sounds great, also need a notepad and paper.” Sharia without hesitation went to work making coffee and laying a pad and pen down on the table where all three sat. “Okay Racheal before we do this little venture, I want to know everything you know, names, place, dates. I mean everything .”

“Why?”

“Let’s call it insurance or better yet my contribution to my country.”

“Where do I start?”

“From the beginning.”

And from the beginning, she did start leaving little to the imagination. For the next five hours, she spoke and he wrote down notes. Her tales spanned the globe and her deeds as angelic as Mother Theresa and devilish as Genghis Khan. By the end of the night he had typed up a story that detailed exchanges of information, money, guns, drugs even tortures and assassinations. When he was finished, he wrote a little note and attached an email to several addresses. For now, the plan had been hatched. They decided it best to drive separately. Reimbursing Sharia, a lucrative amount to secure two rental cars for their getaway, the plan would be to drive to the “Key’s,” hop a charter flight to Jamaica, and loot, or as Racheal called it, borrow some accessible retirement funds from the Republic Bank of The Caribbean.

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

It was a gloomy grey day, when he started out from Ohio, a day that obscured the light and if you had to bet a sun existed on the other side you might not take the wager. Snow swirled to the ground kicked without direction by the wind. It seemed an omen, of undefined proportion waiting if one believed in that sort of thing. A rare showing of early September. The drive would take Stan less than three days to reach the keys and break away from the seasonal Midwest temporal boundaries governed by the northern artic winds. The further south he pushed the greener and kinder the sun and air presented itself.

By the time, he had reached the magic carpet ride of the seven-mile bridge spanning the aqua blue waters delivering him into the paradise of the Key’s, Stan, driving with all windows down had a calmness that matched the passive waves and kind wind driven by the warm sun beating down on his face. He was at total peace with himself, the past was just that . . . the past. Nothing more, nothing less, be it good or be it bad. A road of recovery for him. Alcohol was out It had been over two weeks. He missed the little bastard at first, but realized it didn’t know when to leave. Little fucker always spoiled the show. As Butch once told him. And notwithstanding the repetitive song of two Pina’s Colada’s over the radio, he was content leaving it in his past. Most appeasing for him, considering it sat concealed under his seat, the control over the haunting demons in his mind that would call him out to play his little game of chance.

Passing over the bridge, a blue marline or maybe a dolphin on second thought, jumped next to a small fishing boat and the imagery brought “papa.” Hemingway and the old man and the sea to his mind. He was equally proud regardless of its quality for completing his own novel and he felt a kinship nevertheless nearing his turf. Reaching the end of the carpet ride, his GPS, directed a hard left then a sharp right down a long dirt bumpy road bordered with palms trees and tropical growths that looked more like a jungle then a passage to an airport dead-ending him into a makeshift stop gate. Freaking pot holes was all he could think of putting the car in park, reminding him of Madaline’s drive and her ill-fated warning. He chuckled reading the sign laying on the ground. “No trespassing” grated with shotgun blast. It was a long ago forgotten airport that locals knew to stay clear of. “Using his Walmart phone, advised by Billie to offer secrecy, he made a call to confirm his destination.” Sounds good,” he said hanging up the phone and yanking the rusty gate open he continued down the trail. The potholes and tree roots now more frequent and more unavoidable rattled the struts of the gm caprice, jarring Stan’s back, until making the last sharp bend in the trail a black topped road expanded to a lot where an office building and an old hangar sat next to a grass and paved runway. Parked near the hanger a small jet aircraft. Next to the aircraft stood Racheal and a tall young black Jamaican man, with a wide grin from ear to ear highlighting his noticeable perfect pearly white teeth from a half a football field away. As Stan got closer the boy looked not to be a day over 21, proudly dressed in his white pilot shirt, epaulets, and black creased pants. Racheal came over and gave Stan a big hug as he exited his vehicle.

“What’s that for?” Stan asked hugging her back.

“For helping me.” She said releasing him. “You don’t know how much this means to me.” Stan scanned the airport skipping his sights past the Jet aircraft.

“Are we waiting on the plane?”

Racheal’s brows of her eyes turned inward. His statement confused her. She pointed to the Jet parked less than a couple of feet away. “Ah…No, I’m I missing . . something?”

Stan’s eyes froze on the aircraft. “Racheal that’s a freaking jet. Hell, I barely got hundred hours on a twin engine, let alone a machine that complicated.” His next question created more stress in his voice. “The pilot? We do have one, right?” She pointed to the young tall thin black kid, his smile still as bright as ever, maybe now more a sign of nerves.

“You mean a co-pilot?” She asked even more confused. “I thought you were a pilot? I mean is this gonna be a problem?” The tall young Jamaican walked up and his accent gave barring towards his ancestry.

“Yo mon,” he said looking at Racheal. “Dis your pilot, right?” he said pointing to Stan.

Racheal’s eyes crested open, a look of direction or humility for resolution deferring the things of flying hierarchy to those trained in such things. “Stan’s, the name he said offering his hand, while cautiously eyeing up in evaluation of his young pilot.

“Damerae, mon at your service.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Stan eyed the pilot uniform. It was time to see what he was working with. “Okay I’m assuming you got your pilot license, Damerae nodded accompanied by a big smile. Stan pointed to the aircraft and fired off another question.” How much time we talking flying that aircraft?”

His eyes flashed upward to the right to help him calculate. “Ah… Yeah mon, like ten hours’ mon, second time I do trip.”

Stan stroked his hand across his chin “Second time, I see ten hours okay, how many hours you got all together?

His eyes again darted upright to the right his smile subsiding until the answer came to him. “Yo mon like 500 hours mon.” His full bloom smile returning separated by the whites of his teeth.

“Okay and including your ten hours in this jet, how many hours of those hours are jet time?”

He smiled without even attempting to calculate it. “Yo mon just ten, most time single engine Cessna time.”

Stan hunched back, folding his arms together. Between the two of em most in a Cessna to boot they barely had a thousand hours. A dismal amount of time considering their undertaking. He tried to be positive, maybe the effect of the sunshine, maybe just from being around Racheal. “Well at least I think you are familiar with this area, I would hope?”

“Oh ya mon grow up in the islands.”

“Well at least we got that much going for us.”

“Good,” Racheal said listening in. “Then everything’s settled, I’ll grab my things and we can get going.”

“Whoa Daisey,” Stan said attempting to pull her reigns back.” I mean not that legality is playing any part of what we venturing to do, but safety should. Maybe we all slow down, and reevaluate this.” Stan, could see Racheal was anxious to get moving, but what sounded good on paper seemed like a bad idea in reality. One that could get’em all killed. He thought for a moment carefully choosing his words to at least allow her to understand the risk. “Racheal I’m trained and typed on a completely different aircraft. This is way more complex. It’s like asking me to get in a fighter jet I’ve never flown and fly you to a foreign country I’ve never been to. All of it way above my skill set or learning. Do you understand the risk in all this?” Honestly, I find it hard to believe someone would even let you use it without the proper paperwork. What happen to the regular pilot that flew this before?”

A bleak and doleful look overtook Racheal maybe mixed in in with nerves. Her eyes darted from side to side and her voice hyped and hurried. “Marko owns the plane and the pilot; I can guarantee neither would be happy about us using it. This is the best I can do. I’m done if it doesn’t happen. If I need I’ll fly it myself. Do you understand I have no options?”

“I do.” Stan said trying to comfort her and seeing the conviction in her eye to proceed with or without him. “It’s just a lot water out there between here and Jamaica, drowning don’t seem all that pleasant.”

“It ain’t all that bad.” She slipped, releasing a secret only she knew from a recurring dream. Stan couldn’t help but reach into her eyes, wondering if she did indeed understand the pain of drowning. She felt the sting of his inquisition burn, as his eyes searched deep into hers. “I mean there’s worst way’s I suppose to go.” She said lowering her eyes, refusing him refugee to her soul’s secrets.

He had no choice but to help her. Bad plan or not he forged forward directing his attention at Damerae. “What about, customs? And air space? We aren’t gonna get shot down are we?”

“No mon, no worries.” Damerae said with his trademark smile. “Me people take care of it. We buys some air space mon, everything for sale mon. It’s all good mon” he assured Stan.

Racheal’s smile returned, being a veteran of Caribbean runs, she backed up Damerae’s proclamation hoping to give Stan a little comfort. “It’s the way things work in this part of the world.”

Stan stared at both of them for a moment then glanced at the awaiting chariot. He always wanted to fly a jet hearing his Uncle’s battle stories in Korea. Funny how life meets you half way on its own terms. “Alright then this is it. Fucking crazy if you ask me, but JV squad here we come, ready or not. Go get your stuff Racheal. Damerae follow me. I need a crush course on the avionics of this machine.”

Entering the cockpit of the aircraft Stan took the pilot seat and Damerae the copilot seat. Scanning the glass cockpit and its primary avionics he was both impressed and intimidated by its sleek design of colorful dials, switches and gadgets. It was sexy and as foreign to Stan’s understanding as a space monkey being launched to orbital flight. Nothing looked familiar outside of the yoke. Damerae, obedient to his role as First Officer quietly sat in his chair waiting for instructions. After a short bout of silence and his eyes glazed over like a deer in headlights, Stan finally mumbled in frustration. “This ain’t gonna work. I can’t even tell you where to find the battery switch.” Damerae reached up over the top panel and flipped a switch bringing life to the sleeping dragon. Lights blinked, cautions dinged, and the machine came to life. Stan smiled feeling one step closer. “Okay then.” recognizing the engine start panel, he pressed the start button and the engine started to spool then just as quickly shutdown, causing a whole series of blinking lights and audible cautions to pop up in protest by the aircraft.

Damerae still silent yet smiling pointed to the panel marked APU (auxiliary power unit). “You got start that first, need air to rotate the engine.”

Stan now fully understood Damerae’s value, conceiting his own authority realizing how over his head he was. “How about you start everything and I’ll watch and learn.”

Damerae started the auxiliary power unit, then right engine, which prompted him to push and adjust a series of panel buttons followed by the review of the checklist. It was simply amazing how quickly Damerae had mastered the aircraft after only ten hours. “Navigation,’ Stan thought seeing Damerae finish up his tasks. Even if he couldn’t fly the plane, he damn sure could set the course with a little help from his copilot. Pulling out the aviation maps he unfolded the charts. “What’s the best route to Jamaica, I mean one that keeps us from being intercepted by the feds. “KEY POINT you ever hear of that point?” he asked seeing it on the charts.

Damerae smiling as bright as every shook his head. “No mon.”

Stan pointed to another navigation point on the map, “How about ‘Pirate’s Cove?”

“No mon.”

Stan squinted his eyes surveying Damerae’s response. “I thought you were familiar with this area. You said you grew up in the islands, right?”

“Sure mon, but only got ten hours here. Did my flight training in Minneapolis. Go Vikings mon.”

“Wonderful,” Stan continued studying the map then put it down. Wiping sweat from his brow, he looked over at Damerae smiling and happy as a lark. “Little hot in here, isn’t it? He said sliding his window open.

Damerae without skipping a beat reached up and opened the pack system allowing cool air to circulate through the cockpit and cabin.

Damerae was like the Jeanie in the magic bottle, Stan realized nothing was gonna happen unless he rubbed the bottle and asked. “When you flew to Jamaica, how’d you know how to get there? Show me.”

He pointed to the flight management systems labeled FMS. “Yo mon. Do you want me to program it mon?”

“Yes please,” Stan said quickly folding his maps and putting them away. Damerae’s fingers went to town and within minutes had the entire flight points programmed into the computer, this time without asking dialed in ten thousand feet in the altitude indicator, then pulled the checklist and confirmed he had covered his work.

“Good lord Damerae I been in here already an hour and I’m more confused than when I started, what are you some kinda prodigy, learning all this in ten hours?”

He laughed, “yo mon, you funny, got over a thousand hours on Microsoft sim on diz plane, mon.”

Stan shook his head. “Computer games…? Alright then how you on landing this thing.”

“Yo mon, good, smooth greasier.” He said illustrating the smooth flow with his arm. “No worries mon, at least on sim. Maybe never in real life.”

Stan could only stare with amazement to their plight. He chuckled because that’s all he could do. “Well between the two of us, let’s hope we land it. Alright fuel checks, right? We got enough to get us there.” Stan asked. Damerae did a double check and nodded. “And customs were good, right?’

“Yo mon, we sail under the radar.” He illustrated again with his arm. “No worries mon.”

“Alright then, I think we got this. Where’s Racheal?”

“She’s in the office, not a problem mon I’ll get her.”

Stan agreed and headed to his own vehicle to grab his belongings. Reaching in the backseat he collected his backpack of clothes and laptop and started for the plane. Stopping halfway a thought hit him and he turned and headed back to the car. Fumbling his hand under the seat he pulled his hidden gun and shoved it in his backpack. Entering the plane Damerea and Racheal had a two man Congo line of sorts going on loading large white packages half the size of a hay bale on the aircraft. “What’s that?”

Racheal handed Damerae the last package to load then turned to Stan. “That’s for our friends in customs.”

“We gonna be able to handle the extra weight?” He started to ask Damerae then stopped himself seeing his white teeth shine. “Forget I asked. I just hope yins know what you’re doing. Cause I’m pretty sure I ain’t got a clue.” Then followed the two in the plane shutting the door behind him.

CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE

Taxing down the runway he jerked and swerved from side to side adjusting to the brake pedals. A few times slamming the brakes so hard in a clumsy attempt to master their sensitivity it spooked their lone passenger. “Everything alright up there?” She hollered from the back.

Overcoming the challenge of maneuvering, he finally lined the jet on the runway. In front of him, dead center down the runways end, a jungle of palm trees and shrubbery convincingly closer then comfort would allow. “Sure looks like a short runway. This is the one you used before?”

“Yo mon.” Damarae said proudly displaying his trademark teeth. “But never this heavy before mon?”

“How much runway you use before?”

“All of it mon.” His response jilted Stan’s confidence, but destined to continue, pushed the throttles forward, while holding the breaks down to build steam.

“Here we go.” He said, releasing the brakes while engaging more power.

Damerae smiled, reaching over and turning off the transponder, {a signaling device for other aircraft.} “We’re stealth mode now mon.”

Stan pushed the throttles to full thrust, and like a rocket, the small jet accelerated, chewing away the runway, bouncing with the potholes until the air slowly engulfed the wings, lifting weight off the wheels. His adrenaline had his knees knocking, and not reaching rotate speed, the end of the short runway quickly closed on him.”

“Rotate mon, rotate mon!” Damerae’s eyes wide, shouted in an excited and rapid succession. “Fuck D speed mon, rotate!”

Stan jerked the yoke and the airplane wheels pulled off the ground just before hitting the grass as the pavement ended. The plane slowly climbed, the moist heavy air of the keys making it a balancing act between leveling to build speed, and climbing to clear the palm trees ready to engulf the plane.

Pull up mon, more mon!” Damerae demanded. “We gonna hit em mon!!! PULL UP TERRAIN, PULL UP, WHOOP, WHOOP, PULL UP TERRAN. started to annunciate from the plane’s audible warning equipment followed by RED WARNING lights flashing in the cockpit. Stan whether instinctively or calculated yanked the yoke up as far back as he could, while Damerae hearing the gear horn and audible blast out GEAR GEAR pulled the gear up just before the planes wheels caught on the tops of the palm tree.

“Holy shit!” Stan said. “That was close. Feeling a little more comfortable, he loosened his grip on the yoke, and shifted back in his seat readjusting his scan outside from the plane then back down at the instruments. The colorful 3d panel of red and green and blue colors pulsating with energy of constant data changes, mixed with movements in a three-dimensional word can hypnotize the senses and fixate a pilot’s attention. Under normal circumstances, a pilot is trained to forego his internal sense of directional movement. And instead trust, and process, the external workings of the dials and data the flying machine offers. It’s a battle of internal senses to submit to the external dynamics of the aircraft. A battle made more challenging, when the is aviator lacks familiarity and experience. They had barely lifted over the tops of the tree, and as a prelude to what was to come, the aircraft wing buffeted shaking the yoke violently and automatically thrusting it forward. “Stall!” both pilots cried out. Damerae reacted first, pushing the power to the firewall, then taking over the flight controls and in a balance act with the yoke, jockeyed it back and forth to build speed, while staying clear of the tree tops. Finally, clear of the terrain and appropriate speed in succession, Damerae pulled the thrust back and leveled the aircraft avoiding over speeding the engine.

Stan had virtually frozen, and given his lack of currency and unfamiliarity, the odds were in his favor to do as much. “You okay mon? Damerae asked with genuine concern.

“Sorry, everything happen so quick. I like zoned out,” was all he could muster out still trying to evaluate the sequences that had just transpired.

“All good mon, no worries.” said the young Jamaican who’s quick thinking and equally smooth reflex has prevented a catastrophic event. Reaching over to the NAV panel, he clicked on the autopilot, and the programed flight management system, slowly turned southbound towards Jamaica. Little words were exchanged and under the comfort of the autopilot assuming flight responsibilities, Damerae kept a watchful eye over the aircraft making sure compliance was met. It was a moment to chill, and both took the opportunity watching the blue shades of Caribbean water mix with deep pockets of green and darkened reef patches, providing a natural habitat for a mix of sea creatures, budding beyond the surface. Possibly one day becoming a small patch of land, or relenting to the sea and receding back below the endless surge of waves.

“What happen?” Racheal asked, finally getting the nerve to unbuckle her seat and stick her head in the cockpit. “I could hear all those whistles and bells going off, and all the rocking, I darn near left my breakfast on the seat.

“Yeah thinks got a might busy up her, I tried to tell you it wasn’t going to be easy. Everything’s under control now.” Stan said looking over at Damerae. “Should be there in less than half hour.”

Racheal started to return to her seat then paused for a moment and in a serious tone asked. “I thought planes had auto pilots? You guys are gonna be able to land this I hope?”

Stan’s eyes drew to Damerae for conformation. After all he had piloted everything up to this point. Seeing his big grin Stan nodded. “As my copilot, here would say, ya mon everything good. No worries mon.” A nod of understanding was given and Racheal returned to her seat and took special precaution to buckle in.

Cruising at 450 miles an hour soon masticated the distance between the tip of Florida and Jamica. Soon the heat of the sun made its brush marks on the blue canvas of the day, turning the white fluffy cumulus to a darker less friendly color. Seemingly matching them stride for stride, racing equally in space to welcome their arrival. Recognizing the islands Damerae tuned in the Attis (broadcasted weather and landings) and selected the GPS position to the small obscure spot tucked away in the jungles of the Caribbean that few aircraft knew of or would have the permission to venture into. Stan was no less a spectator to the whole process, and that’s exactly how he wanted it. Looming in the distance between the valley to the airport, large menacing purple and green mountains pushing up emerging growths of violent rain soaked cotton ball clouds, burnt to a crispy dark color by the sun seeping over the windward side of the mountain throwing flashes of light and boasting its arrival in a thunderous voice. Damerae ducked his head towards Racheal. “Yo mon get your self-strapped in it’s the Jamaican afternoon welcoming committee. She gonna be bumpy, hopefully we beat her in.” Racheal peaked out the window at the nasty thunderstorm pushing over the mountains into the valley and just as quickly pulled the window shade down and tightened her seatbelt.

Dropping the speed brakes Damerae pulled the thrust back and eyed the runway making a sharp turn to line up with the runway. The plan crabbed into the wind to counter the gusting crosswind. “Flaps 8 mon,” he said watching his speed. Stan had no trouble finding the flaps, bringing them to the proper indent. “Gear mon,” was heard. And Stan mesmerized by the closing distance of terrain broke back to his duties and slung the gear, followed by a thunk noise and air dragging down the gear to a down and locked position. “Full flaps man. Stan complied. The plane was now configured for landing. The dark bullying thunderstorm edging in over the airport, caused pockets of turbulence and wind shear rocking the small jet like eddies hinting the bow of a ship on the open ocean, forcing Damerae to jockey the thrust lever to combat the fluctuating speed

Rain joined in pelting its thick droplets in puddles across the windshield, considerable stealing visibility from the pilot and adding to noise distraction as well. “You got this Damerae; Stan asked maybe more to reassure himself as lightning bolts sparked across the sky.

“Piece of cake mon, no worries.” Damerae said as his trademark smile and the whites of his teeth reflected more his intensity to focus then satisfaction to his plight. “1000 micro soft landings mon.” he said intensify eyeing the runway like a batter staring down a knuckle ball.

The complexity of the aircraft audio system, like a crusty old football coach barking out demands on a searing august day to his disciples, to focus to task, started its tirade of warning. “TOO LOW TERRAIN, SINK RATE, SINK RATE, PULL UP, WINDSHARE all sang out until Damerae slammed the plane on the runway sideways not having the presence of mind to kick the rudder straightening the plane and dip the wing, bouncing two feet in the air until the ground spoilers pulled the aircraft back down to earth nearly scrapping the wingtip while both instinctively jammed on the breaks. Damerae pulled the thrust reversers until the plane stopped with a mere foot left of runway. Stan eyed the young aviator covered in nervous sweat. He smiled, Wright brothers be proud of ya, Microsoft sim Hun?”

“Yo mon,” he said half dazed and slightly fatigued from sensory overload. “Next time I practice my crosswind landings mon.”

As quickly as the rains had come, they ended. The now warm breeze of the winds drove the remaining ominous clouds to sea and working in tandem with the scorching sun slowly reclaimed the water puddles making the air hot and sticky. Back taxing down the runway, Damerae pointed to a small metal roofed wood shack that served as an office. Next to the office sat three vehicles, a green yellow and black flagged van with the official government seal, an old green army jeep, tugging a trailer, and a white beat up SUV van that looked like a retired hotel shuttle van. Coming to an abrupt stop aided by smoking brakes, Damerae sprung out of his chair to open the door and was immediately met by a grey haired thin light skinned man with a pocketed face man missing his two front teeth. He was accompanied by two-men yielding machine guns in official looking tan uniforms. For which one could assume were local authorities of sorts. The man smiled and offered Rachel his hand; the two conversed in a language Stan could only presume was creole. It seemed a friendly exchange, one of trusted friendship, Racheal handed the man that was later introduced as Cheeko an envelope for which he quickly counted the money, took a cut out for himself, then delivered the envelope and its remaining contents to two men sitting in the official government vehicle. The men without counting the money smiled and waved to Racheal then shook hands with Cheeko and drove off. Cheeko helped gather the remaining luggage of unknown contents into the parked jeep and trailer, that was left guarded by the two uniformed men and for which an unknown recipient would claim.

“Hurry,” Cheeko said to the young pilot while helping him cover the engines. “We haven’t got a lot of time.”

Once the plane was covered, chocked, and tied down, Cheeko assisted everyone in the van then advised his crew to buckle up and started down a maze of roads that made the sharpest S curves of the West Virginia mountains, look like child play. Cheeko, a man of many hats, showed little emotion, his face stoic his eyes fixated to his task, as he swerved and maneuvered the high center of gravity white box down the wet mountain roads avoiding pedestrians within inches. A feat even a Nascar driver on his best day would have trouble duplicating. Stan admired the rich green pristine fertile scenery of Jamaica, with its rolling hills, mountains, and valleys scattered with occasional rustic shacks made of wood, block, or clay and for a select few, a villa of contrasting wealth and prestige. All shared a common theme of black iron clad windows and doors whether the ownership of the wealthy, or dirt pour farmer. Reaching their destination, a guarded gate opened and they pulled down a long well-kept stone driveway of serene lush like jungle gardens to the courtyard passage of sculptured orbs and cement pelicans pissing in the water fountains. Cheeko stopped in front of the large white columned main villas and jumped out to assist in unloading the guest luggage, Racheal quickly followed, eager to set her feet on ground and scampered out of the Resort Van pale and unsteady with a bout of motion sickness.

An entourage welcoming committee immediately assisted Cheeko and took the luggage from the van in preparation to distribute each to their guest suite. The main villa entry opened to cathedral ceilings and water fountains with naked Greek goddess statues and servants, dressed in white tuxedos hurrying to offer and kept each guest giddy and full of pink champagne. Rachel seemed to be well known amongst the staff, garnishing the most attention and went to the front of the line to be exclusively checked in amongst other guest. Stan accompanying her, seemed to garnish his own attention as eyes and whispers followed. A gulf cart stopped on the backside of the main big white house which opened to a large sand stone patio, framed within the ocean and mountains of Jamaica. Peacocks roamed freely around the courtyard and one could hear the constant male cry out like a crazed henna laughing while spreading its plumage feathers of blue, green, red, and black to compete for the attention of select female, who had a host of suitors eagerly awaiting her favor. The golf cart stopped in front of a private bungalow, separated in location and size from the others. Its amenities included its own beach, dock with a boat sling, and private pool with a manned Tiki bar all at their beckon call. Settled from her trip, Racheal seemed exceeding relaxed maybe a bit overly contrived in nature.

The bungalow three times the size of most residents of Jamaica, had a huge canopy king’s size bed as well as living room, kitchen and two bathrooms, a fully stocked bar and within short distance a private bar stood near the pool ready with a smiling magic man ready to serve any desired alchemy.

Stan went to tip the guide and Rachel interceded. “It’s all included don’t worry about, everything drinks food anything all included, shops everything, put it on the room.”

When the hotel attendant left, Stan had a few questions. “I thought we were here to get money not spend it”

“Compliments of Marco,” she replied with a devilish smirk.

“This won’t leave a trail?”

“None that give em a chance to catch us, I’ve got a lot loyal friends here, this is sorta my fuck you send off message to Marco. So please spare no expense. Tomorrow we hit go, collect cash from the bank and head back to the states.” Racheal wandered to the stocked bar, pulled a bottle of Johnny Walker, and poured a glass. “Join me?”

Stan felt his mouth watering and walked to the bar. He eyed up a fancy bottle and read its contents of Remy Martine rum labeled 1957. “Interesting”

“It’s the jewel of the Caribbean, this is Marco’s suite nobody else stays here. It’s all Marco drinks and the only rum they stock in here. That’s about a 1200-dollar bottle won’t find better rum in the Caribbean.

He put it down. “Picked a hell of a week to quit drinking.”

Racheal took her drink and suit case disappearing into the bathroom. After ten minutes, she surfaced from the bathroom, her eyes partially dilated maybe from the booze but Stan doubted it. She refreshed her drink then stood next to the sliding glass door. It’s beautiful isn’t it?” She closed her eyes and took a long breath. “I just love the smell of the ocean.”

He moved next to her sticking his head out to the patio. “Sure is pretty.”

“Look someone started a fire down at the beach, come on.” Without given a chance to answer, she took Stan’s hand leading him to the beach.

He hesitated. “The door should we lock it?”

“No, silly,” she said tugging almost dragging him with her free hand the other carting her drink. “Don’t worry nobody would even think about taking anything from us.” Reaching the beach sands, the orange sun etched mid sky slowly sunk below the horizon of the tranquil ocean. She held his hand tightly, a completeness overcame both as they caroused the beech barefoot, not a care in the world, frolicking over the cool white sands of Jamaica. In the distance, Raga music shared the air between crackles of beach wood splitting in the hot fire and sea scented waves crashing onto the shore as a trio of bongo drums, four string guitar and quire shaker, set the rhythm to awaken the secrets of the soul.

They positioned themselves next to the fire in wooden beach chairs serviced exclusively by a private butler assigned their accommodations. “This is heaven don’t you think?” Racheal asked as the butler immediately offered to refill her glass. “Not too much,” she giggled feeling giddy.

“Yeah sure is, maybe the calm before the storm, hun?”

“Relax? This is the easy part; maybe you should have a drink? The hardest part is over, we got through customs without a stitch and now it’s just pick up the money and were on are way, how many times have you had an opportunity like this anyway, cease the moment.” She reclined her seat back more. “I hadn’t realized how uptight you can get.”

“What?” He asked caught off guard by her statement.

She propped herself up on her elbows and seeing his reaction attempted to backtrack. “Forget its nothing; I guess I forget how I was the first time.”

“How long have you been involved in all this? And for the record, I’m not an uptight person.”

She sipped her drink her eyes locked on the sun starting to make its final act for the day settling beyond the waters. “Fifteen years maybe, right after my son was born.”

“Son?” Stan repeated wondering if he heard her correctly. “You have a son?”

Her eyes withdrawn she spoke matter of factly, yet strained. “I do. He lives in California with his father. He’s a good kid I should see him more.”

For a moment, Stan said nothing trying to grasp her revelation. His mind went blank. All he could think to say was, “California isn’t that far away you know.”

“It’s further then you could ever imagine.” Her thought in contrast ignited to a painful chamber in her mind, she felt the need to cleanse her soul with a confession. She took another drink of truth serum. “I abandoned him as a child. I admit it was a dark time for me. I couldn’t take care of him, let alone myself. I forced him on his father. I didn’t want a child. I didn’t want him. It was meant to be an infatuation not an attachment.” She looked to the sky her eyes watering. “Do you know how hard it is to lock away a memory of someone? To try and put them in the darkest recess of your mind, a dungeon without a key?” She asked knowing all too well the mind is not a keeper of secrets, not by a long shot. She nodded her head and in her mind allowing a prisoner of her past to resurface. “Every night in my dreams I could see a child wandering in the world, looking for the nurturing love only a mother can provide.” She cast her look downward in shame.” . . . But refused to give. With that on your record what does it matter what else you do in life. Nobody will forgive you. I won’t forgive myself.”

Silence permutated the setting. The pain settling in like a heavy fog pushing into the valley, she in her admission had finally gave Stan a glimpse into her past, into her heart.

In a perplexing instance, as if a switch had been toggled, she turned to Stan wiping away her tears and a smile came back to her face.” So, Mister uptight, what do you do for fun?”

He was slightly taken back. It caught him off guard for a moment. “I don’t know ahh . .. work out, I guess, read a little bit, maybe yoga now.”

“That’s boring,” she said teasing him running her leg over his. He gave her a good looking over, her personality had come a full hundred and eighty degrees in less than a few seconds. It donned on him Butch’s concerns, she was like a carnival ride to the mad house you had no idea where it was going. But who was he to judge? Beside it seemed to be trending in the right direction.

“Oh yeah what exactly do you do for excitement when you not trying to finance arms for rebels and stealing money from drug lords in the Caribbean? Talk about bor…ing.” They joined in a good laughter.

Rachael sat up her chest pushed out. “Come on I know there’s some mystery to you, I sense it. Tell me something nobody knows or at least few do.”

Stan thought for a moment. “All right this might come as a shocker being a lit professor and all, but I write.”

“I can see that.”

“You can?”

“Yeah you have that like melancholy aura around you, Hemingway Fitzgerald all drawn in introverts suffering the sins of the world alone.”

“Funny you would say that Maria always accused me of being manic, hiding away in my writing.”

“What do you write about?”

“Nothing really, well I guess I’m writing a novel, a fiction.”

“Wow that’s impressive. I could never do that.”

“Sure you could. I mean anyone can write. Getting someone to read it, that’s the trick, few can be good at it.”

“What’s it about?”

“You don’t really want to know, do you?” He asked, wondering how she would judge the inner products of his mind.

“Yes why wouldn’t I? Do you have it here? I would love to read it.”

“Be careful what you wish for, the task may be more painful than entertaining.”

“I’ll bet it’s really good, I mean it,” she said smiling and watching the waves hit the shore, “you’re really a smart guy, I’m sure it’s really good. Come on she said grabbing his arm, “let’s go for a dip.” He stopped her before hitting the water edges staring at the dark waters.

“What about sharks?”

“Stan James Stiles, if it’s the last thing I do, I’m gonna put a little excitement in your life.”

“What about bathing suits”

Scanning the beach for others, she gave him a flirtatious smile and pulled her shirt and pants off, bare naked proudly in all her glory, then laughing rushed into the water kicking and hollering as she crashed into the waves. “Craziest woman I’ve ever met, he responded taking a quick peak about the beach, quickly disrobing, and following her in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. When he surfaced, his eyes first scanned for the presence of jaws, then her. He was already apprehensive of predators and when she lunged out of the water leaching onto his back it damn near scared the bejesus right out of him.

Entangled and tumbling together into the waves they broke into laughter filling with salt water, as the force of the ocean pushed and churned their bodies onto the white shore. She lay on top of him naked aroused hidden in the darkness of the night, with only a vintage of the full harvest moon light, their eyes locked and souls collided, and there in the froth of the waves their hearts melted together, bonded by lust, magnetized by passion, and anointed with the intoxication of ecstasy only two bodies, one being enjoy when the burden of exile is lifted. The ceremony of joining lasted long after the roar of the fire died down to small crackling orange and red embers. Drained tired in a state of eutrophic relaxation they leisurely strolled back to the canopy bed on the bungalow and once more before giving to sleep reacquainted their spirits in love.

Awakened only by the morning sun as spears of sunlight crept above the ocean and dark canvas of sky turned blue ignited by the red ball sneaking high above the horizon, Stan pulled the soft fluffy bedding closer and squeezed up a few more minutes of rest until the aroma of fresh coffee beckoned him. Racheal sat in a wooden chair on the patio curled up, knees tucked, hugging herself, rocking with her head rested on her knees. In his T-shirt, only, his iPad opened, sat lying on the desk. He got up, peed, poured a coffee, sipped it and surrendered his taste buds to a bitterly brash Jamaican coffee. Walking to the patio, he stood next to her watching the theatrics of the morning unfold. Seeing his iPad laying on the table, he put his hand on her shoulder. “So, you read it?”

She nodded still staring far into the sea. Her hand fondling her locket on her neckless.

For a while, he allowed silence waiting for her to offer a critique. Getting none he feared the worst and broke the silence first. That bad? Hun?”

She looked up at him at small teardrop came from her eyes still holding her locket tightly. “It’s beautiful, it captured me. I felt I was living it. I read somewhere, I can’t remember the author, but he believed that imagination was only a shadow of a past life and nothing more.”

He tried to conceal his smile. If from this point, he never sold a book, he had gotten all the validation he would ever need. He had after all written it, with her in mind. “It’s just a book.” He said trying to downplay his excitement.

She nodded, “it’s more than just a book.” A calmness overcame her. When she jumped from the cliffs I knew what she felt. Almost as if I was reliving my past.” Her attention fixed on the vast void of the ocean in front of her. “You know it’s funny sometimes I get the feeling the ocean is calling me. Telling me to come back to it. Every day I just feel like I’m too tired to go on. Like I’m pushing a load up a hill and I can’t anymore.” She stood, the light of the morning burned past the cotton of her T-shirt, it caught his eye. “I could just jump in and never come back.”

Her remark concerning and contrary to the storyline he had hoped to be remembered. “Don’t say that, don’t even think it.”

She turned to him as if she dared him to say otherwise. “Why? Do you think anyone in this world would care if they ever saw me again?”

“Of course people care about you. I think you got more people then you know, that love you.” His eyes hit the ground searching internally, he had hoped to stir emotions by his words but not these emotions. Had his writings been so careless as to invoke the celebration of death and decay, not life and love.”

“Love…Please. Love like you and Sharia have?”

He was taken back by her statement. “Sharia, that’s ridiculous what makes you say that? She’s married.”

Her eyes focused back on the ocean. “Our we gonna be honest with each other here? She told me about Marc. How she married him to help him with insurance, for god sakes I picked up he was gay before she even told me the story. She also told me, she had told no one else, but you.” Her eyes flirted back to the ocean. “Nobody at all would care, if I never came back. They always leave you in the end. ” She started to walk away. He intervened grabbing her hand.

“Enough, please your scarring me.” He held her, her arms in contrast limb and to her side. He pulled her head up from the chin gently. “Let’s walk together. Let’s just walk and enjoy us . . . this . . . and forget the book.” And walk they did, mostly in silence as they passed the resort staff, engaged in the early morning labor mission working in unison like ants on a sugar-heisting mission, sweeping the skimmer across the pool, opening the small cabana bar, and raking the white sand beaches, all in preparation for another go at paradise for its guest. The stressful moment left behind, or at least hidden for now, gave them both an opportunity to enjoy the casual carefree walk accompanied by the waves softly lapping its touch on the white pristine shores which suddenly came to a halt, dead-ended by an AK 47-armed guard watching over the boundaries of the beach resort. “Good morning mam, good morning sir. Any passage beyond dis area man we cannot be responsible for.” Stan’s sights focused beyond the boundary point, it seemed harmless in scenery, same white sands same Blue Ocean, same driftwood left from the high tides yet a line had been drawn in the sand.

“Come on,” Racheal said squeezing his hand while tugging him. “I want to keep walking. I know this area, it will be alright. I want to show you a special spot. You got to see it.” Stan hesitated taking heed to the armed guard gripping his gun ready. “Come on,” she said again both her eyes and hands tugging at him. Words couldn’t even begin to describe it.” He searched the eyes of the guard, trying to get a read, as to their real safety beyond his sentry.

The watchman could only nod. “be careful with the pretty woman mon.”

By the time they had reached the “spot,” the guard was far from sight and it took them up a dirt path through the jungles of growth up a hill until a ledge of granite overlooked the ocean. She was right. Even if one imagined right now, right this moment, their own special spot, took a moment to visualize, hear, feel in total clarity this spot. You would come short. Racheal’s special place stirred an emotion of unequivocal reverence for beauty. Words could not describe it. “Worth the risk, isn’t it?”

“Yes, how did you find this spot?”

“Walking thinking, just pure dumb luck.”

Stan turned back to her. “I wonder if life is that simple, just pure dumb luck randomness, chaos not form, not reason, not even meaning? Sometimes in the chaos it sure feels that way. But there’s another part of me, that says everything has meaning, everyone we meet, everyone we love, scripted into our life with a purpose. Yet we masquerade or obscure the reality fearful of making a mistake, fearful of living.”

She stroked her locket as if it held magic. “I don’t know, I’m not a deep thinker like you, my life-force seems to pull more from the outside, while you seem to work from the inside out. I envy that, yet at the same time realize how painful how consuming even the smallest task might be for you.” She turned to Stan. “But you know what, that’s why I love this spot. It grounds me, it gives life, speaks to me as if everything mattered. I’ve never shared this spot with anyone else, but I felt like I need to show it to you. I wanted you to see it. It’s funny I never realized why this spot appealed to me? I mean more than the beauty of it. But after reading your book I know why now. Your right about heroine, I was a junkie. O’d once, you know what I saw?” Stan nodded no. “I saw nothing. My eyes saw nothing. My senses nothing. Just like what your eyes see before your life starts, nothing. And that scarred me. But this place it confirms life before and after. This is the rugged Cliffs of Arduous, this is my reminder I had indeed lived before. And I will live again after.”

Stan locked his eyes into hers, searching to want to believe what he gypsy woman had told him, the eyes the gateway to the soul, the bearer of secrets. All of it had purpose. Even his book had purpose. His purpose, her purpose, the coming to together of souls. Now was the time to share all of it with her. He started to speak, “Racheal…” her phone went off, she spoke what Stan recognized not as Creole, but proper Spanish. Her demeanor got serious. Before hanging up, she ended in English. “Thanks for the heads up.” She took a deep breath and one last long look at the ocean before turning to Stan. “Come on. We got to go, plans have changed, it’s time to get the money. We got a short window to make it happen.”

CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

On the way back to the bungalow, Racheal made another call and when reaching it a driver with a Mercedes waited outside their door. A quick change of clothes, packing Stan eyed the 1200 dollar of rum and grabbed it for a souvenir stuffing it along with his lap top and gun into his back packet. Racheal quickly, yet like a pro, highlighted her already striking features with black eyeliner, red lip gloss and powder, complimented by a dress that spoke business, yet flattered her feminine attributes. The drive towards civilization again took them through the winding roads until they ended up in the northern hills of Santiago, the business district of town. Racheal seemingly more nervous than her nature, poured a healthy glass of bourbon and from her pocket snatched two pills and downed them with the bourbon.” Vitamins,” she said seeing his inquisitive look. Once the both of them entered the bank, Stan felt the eyes of the armed guards tracing their every step. The bank manager seeing Racheal left his office seat, gave her a smile that contradicted his eyes, and ushered her alone into the office. The staged pleasantries of their meeting ended abruptly and through the glass windows of his office he could see a small augment develop between them stirring the interest of the bank guards. Racheal appeared unfazed by the Banker’s boisterous voice and certain attempt at intimidation, determined, to hold her own. Finally, a smile broke on the Banker’s face and he sat down, made a phone call, then getting up, he looked out the windows of his office and closed the blinds.

The guard’s eye went back to Stan; Stan feeling nervous, loosened his collar and shifted his neck to crack it, then wiped sweat from his brow. “Stay calm, stay calm,” was all he could think, wondering in the back of his head, the hospitality, or lack of it . . . a Jamaican prison would be for a gringo from up north. Minutes that seemed like hours, clicked away before a woman from behind the bank counter, carrying as satchel made her way over to the manager’s office, knocked, went in, and just as quickly exited without the case. Soon after Racheal came out followed by the Banker, happy with a grin that matched his eyes. She winked at Stan and gestured with her head towards the vehicle.

“Where’s the driver?” Stan asked seeing the vehicle empty walking outside.

Racheal scoped out the surroundings, searching to see if he had stepped out. She shrugged her shoulders, then peaked in the windows seeing the keys hanging in the ignition. “I don’t know, but jump in the driver’s seat, I don’t like the feel off this.”

Once safe in the vehicle. Stan started it up. “Okay where too?”

“The airport. Head down this road and I think three intersections, we make a left. Should take us straight to the airport.” Stan nodded.

“Everything go alright?”

“Yeah I guess.”

“You guess?”

“I mean we got what we come for, but…”

“But what?”

Got a bad vibe with the Banker not sure he was being completely honest with me. Tried to push me for more money, said he wasn’t comfortable turning his back on Marco, reminded him he was already knee deep and turning back now would only leave stink on him.”

“So, how’d you leave it?”

“I gave him what he wanted, but…”

“But what?”

“But I don’t think we can trust him,” she glanced out the window. “Next road make a right.”

The road of dirt and rocks and occasional blacktop curved along the banks of a river, which led one to believe it may have been a migrating trail for deer’s in the not too distant past. Stan’s eyes saw it first. “Is that a road block?” He asked seeing two army vehicles and a police car.

“Damn it,” Racheal said trained over the years by her affiliation to the agency to think quick on her feet. She quickly assessed the situation, ten uniformed army personal, in all she counted. Two stopping and looking suspiciously into the vehicles while a third seemed to check paperwork. The rest stood casually around joking or smoking a cigarette leaning on the government vehicle’s shooting the shit with the local law. “Turn around.”

Stan peered in the mirror seeing the car behind him, the road boarded in by jungle to narrow to turn. “ I can’t.”

Racheal eyes searched for a second way out. Seeing none she pulled her duffle bag from the back seat, pulled out a nine-miller meter pistol, checked the clip, popped it back in, and snapped the chamber loading a bullet. “Slow down then get some distance between the cars in the front.” She said pulling her dress up and hiding the gun under it.

Stan registered little to her request, his heart racing almost as fast as his thwarting thoughts. “Good lord Rachael, I hope you don’t plan on using that. We got be smart about this?”

“Slow down and smile. And listen to me Stan.” Her eyes calculating a plan as they slowly moved closer to the roadblock. “We just robbed this little community of about all the American dollars they had in reserve. This ain’t the good old USA. Won’t be no judge, no jury, and if you’re lucky, just be a bullet in your back left in the jungle. Me after they rape and torture, they’ll ransom me back to the government.”

“I thought it was your money?” he cried out in panic.

“Mine, CIA’s, the Agencies, depends on how you look at it. Let’s just say retirement fund, and I’m not gonna let a speed bump run by some third world local yoo-hoos keep me from it.”

Stan got speechless, it’s like another side of her emerged, gone was the yogi maiden that held his heart. What he had in front of him? The verdict still out.

CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE

“That’s it, build some distance with those cars. When I say go, your gonna gun it and swerve around the cars in front of you. Then peddle to the metal, make a mad dash to the airport. And smile, don’t look nervous.” Their car crept slowly up to the road block the guard waving them forward. It started to rain and now the guards irritation growing as he watched the car slowly pull up. He smiled but the guard had a serious sneer and if looks could kill, Stan could already feel the bullet. “Hit it!” she screamed flipping the guard off. Stan jammed his foot on the gas pedal and the car spun out kicking dirt and rocks everywhere fishtailing its get away. The guard’s eyes widened and he jumped back avoiding the tail end of the vehicle as it plundered and swerved within inches of him. The law, more accustomed to returning livestock and occasional settling domestic feuds, scrambled for their guns, and set a tirade of bullets at the passing vehicle. Racheal fueled by adrenaline, hesitated little in returning fire. Her aim impeccable as she stuck her head out the window of the moving getaway car knocking a few soldiers to the ground and slowing the pursuit.

Satisfied she ducked her head in the car. “That should buy you enough time to at least get us to the airport.” She was right. That was about all it got them, as the sirens closed in on the airport. It gave them enough time to stow the gear and shut the airplane door. Stan rushed to the captain seat, glancing at the empty seat to the right. “I’d sell my soul to see Dameres bright smile and hear his everlasting words, ‘no worries mon.” He thought outload.

His senses flushed with the adrenaline of the chase, had his nerves on high end, and thought did not come easy. Slouching in his seat he felt a sharp pain. A muscle pull, he reasoned trying to evaluate the panels of the aircraft. Sweat poured from his face. “Let’s see yeah APU for air start. Got it.” His eyes in a constant rapid movement, as panic set in and he tried to reconcile thought, with action.

Racheal settled, door stowed, sat next to him in the copilot seat. He pushed the APU start. “Nothing.” A series of thoughts fleeted thoughts his mind to trouble shoot. “Battery.” He moved the switch above him to on. The APU fired up and he hit the engine start button. Nothing. “Mother’s ass!” He shouted at the switch, wiping sweat away as his mind again raced for solutions. “Engine covers,” he said to himself. Looking out the window he could see the lights of the sirens now almost at the airport gate. “I got get out. We left the covers on the engine.”

She nodded. “You need help?”

“No, just give me cover.” Opening the door, he jumped out and scrambled to pull the engine covers off, twice falling to the ground dodging a cascade of bullets. Racheal seeing Stan pinned down, scattered a full clip of bullets at the vehicles, loading another, as if all of it was second nature and she was the queen of the arcade game. “We got hurry,” she said releasing the second clip of bullets on her pursuers. “Can’t keep them away much longer.”

Stan finally able to make his way up the stairs, jumped in the captain seat and hit the engine start adding fuel with the throttle “Got it, close the door!” he screamed scanning the cockpit instruments doing a quick mental checklist between the loud popping of gunfire distracting his attention.

Pushing the throttle up, the aircraft bounced over the chocks blocking his tire. A tirade of bullets continued piercing and ricocheting off the fuselage, and he hoped by the grace of god they wouldn’t rapture the fuel tanks. Scrambling to start the second engine, he barely got it started as he pulled to the runway threshold. It was now or never and having little time and even less of settled presence of mind, he firewalled the throttle’s and the aircraft started rumbling down the potholed runway. ‘CHECK FLAPS’ the audio on the plane screamed at him. ‘Abort’ his first thought then dismissed it as a plausible plan and diverted his attention and hand to engage the forgotten step of flaps hoping he had made the right decisions. It’s funny how quickly the mind works defying time and how the fleeting endless thoughts continue in such a small frame of life. Even the thought of Madeline’s potholes seized a frame and reminded him of her imminent death. Slowly the flaps deployed as the aircraft jolted down the runway building speed and swerving as he worked the rudder pedals like a madman biking up hill to stay centerline. Had he not seen it, he would have never believed it, but one guard, whether considered dutifully brave or stupid veered his vehicle in front of the path of the jet. Stan had one option, and he rotated the yoke of the plane, putting it in steep climb. It buffeted like the stall earlier departing Florida. He nosed down ever so slightly and the aircraft built speed. Just enough for the gear to scrape the top of the vehicle and start to sail away in their escape. Next the gear horn sounded, followed by GEAR GEAR GEAR audible and the RED WARNING annunciators flashing, prompting Stan to sling the gear handle up. He barely got a minute to catch his breath before the TCAS warning (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) screamed TRAFFIC TRAFFIC CLIMB CLIMB and again RED WARNING annunciators flashed. Unfamiliar he gave into the directives of the plane and followed the command bars pitching the aircraft. Catching a glimpse of small weekend warrior Cessna buzzing at his 1200 o’clock, he banked the aircraft in a sharp turn creating another series of audios. BANK ANGLE, BANK ANGLE, he leveled his flight just in time to hear, WHOOP WHOOP PULL UP TERRAIN, PULL UP TERRAIN, WHOOP WHOOP, as red and yellow annunciators flashed overloading his senses. Seeing the mountains dead ahead, he Jerked the yoke up, until the plane responded CLEAR OF CONFLICT. He leveled off, catching a second of peace before the over speed CLAPPER rattled his peace and he pulled his power back to cruise. Racheal’s eyes paralyzed to the ride fixated her sights out the window. He could see the terror in her eyes. When she finally spoke. A barrage of Jesus related swear words came first, followed by a simple question as to if they we going to make it?

He cracked his neck trying to settle in. “Piz a cake mon, plane tells you what to do.” He joked finding no audience for his humor. As all aviators are taught the fundamentals of flight are aviate, navigate, communicate. He was flying, hand flying, without the auto pilot, and even though his oscillating pitch control, similar to a cowboy on a radio bull, displayed his lack of currency in any aircraft let alone a jet. He could check the aviate box, finding the auto pilot to lessen his load he went to step two, ‘navigate’. Checking his compass, he noticed he was southbound and made a turn for the north. Next seeing the flaps still engaged, he brought them up to zero and for the first time noticed the plane had never been fueled during its stopover parked at the airport.

Stan had made in less than five minutes, every conceivable cardinal sin of flight, yet still managed to stay airborne. Nervous and shaken, he sat back in his seat and took a huge breath. Sweat poured from his face, stress maybe he thought at first, but seeing Racheal fan herself with the emergency card. It donned on him to reset the packs. Cold air immediately poured in the cockpit and with that and smooth air the quality of life had exponentially increased.

His attention wandered to the flight management system (FMS) next. He was about as comfortable with it as a groom at a shotgun wedding… and thankful the GPS point still existed, and programmed for the Key West airport. He brought the point up to the top as he had seen Damerae do. Nothing changed. His eyes scanned the navigation panel. “NAV,” he said and pushed the button causing the plain to turn to the northwest. He smiled proud of himself, finally feeling a sense of command. His pride short lived as he focused back on the fuel. “How the hell do you find the fuel burn on this,” he said to himself. He did some rough calculations in his head. “Got less than half what we came with. Winds not really a factor.” He let out a sigh, with a long breath.

“What’s wrong?”

“Fuel we never got fueled back in the islands.”

“Do we have enough? Were gonna make it, aren’t we?”

“I think. Its gonna be really, really, close…” He started to say. Then changed his tune, as the low fuel annunciator flashed its yellow light. He pushed it in, to cancel it. Deep concern shadowed his face. “Now I’m sure, were really, really, tight.” As a trained aviator, a rusty one at that, he went to contingency planning. “Check in the back for life jackets we may need to ditch this.”

As if she wasn’t frightened before, she now had a horrified look on her face. “Where do I look?”

“Anywhere and everywhere, under the seats, open any compartment. I don’t know. Just look around. “ She hesitated as if she had another question but was afraid to ask?

What! He asked semi annoyed.”

“You are a pilot, aren’t you?”

Her statement in any other circumstances would have challenged a pilot to the core. Given the events he broke into a laughter that cut away a portion of the stress. Looking at the gas gauge he turned back to her. “Sure does make you wonder, doesn’t it?”

With Racheal, out of the cockpit, he put his hand where he felt a pulled muscle brushing it across his rib. It was wet, and when he brought his hand out, it was covered in blood. His mind’s eye locked on a picture of Madeline the psychic, her warning echoed in his mind again. “In the air is all I can tell you. I see the number Thirty-five, thirty-five she repeated. It had been exactly 35 days since her visions.

CHAPTER FIFTY-SIX

Aviate, navigate, communicate, the last of the sacred rules to flight. He pulled out some old Jepson maps and tried to match up his location with the terrain. He was headed to the Keys but violating an airspace monitored by radar would set off the F-18’s. Dusk was starting to settle in, and it made the task more complicated. Unfolding the maps he spread them out over the cockpit panels and with a worried look peaked out the window, nothing but water and more water. He was a man whose navigation skills required VOR, old school flying, not GPS, not NAV and certainly not a FMS, (flight management system). He tuned in a few frequencies on the radio getting more static then much more.

“This is all I could find.” Racheal said holding one life preserver. She looked down at the maps. “Do you know where you’re going?”

“North, just checking for hotspots.”

“What’s that.”

“Military zones, places to avoid. Don’t want to be shot down.”

She looked down at her iPhone then at the map. “Isn’t this little island Cuba coming up? Is that one of your hot spots? I know we never flew over it before, usually around it.” She looked down at her phone yeah that’s definitely Cuba.”

“What?”

“Yeah I got GPS on my phone.”

“You got phone service?”

“No Wi-Fi. Aren’t all planes equipped with Wi-Fi?”

“Give me that phone.” He set it down next to the FMS. Pushed the heading button and turned it to the left away from CUBA tracking its route on her phone.

Little by little, in a nail biting way, the miles shortened, and exponentially the gas disappeared. The dusk was slowly turning to night and Stan knew the reduced visibility would add to the challenge of finding the airport. Closer to shoreline of the keys he used the lights of the towns, as beacon markers to guide him. Pulling the power to idle, he started his descent down. “The bridge,” Racheal screamed out. Just follow the lights it runs you right into a channel that leads to the airport. See the boats lined up next to it. Yes follow it all the way.”

Stan smiled. I got it, I could just kiss you right now. Her timing spotting the lighted bridge couldn’t have couldn’t have come at a better time. A ‘RED MASTER WARNING’ annunciator flashed lighting up the dark cockpit. ‘ENGINE ENGINE audible chimed in. Stan’s attention zeroed in on the left engine. “Shit out of fuel, flame out.” The plane jerked hard to the left. His foot instinctively hit the left then right rudder almost tipping the aircraft on its side. “Dead engine, dead foot,’ he reminded himself trying to coordinate the rudder and keeping the plane in straight flight.

That’s is see the channel she screamed, he tried to divert his attention between the rudder, flight and descent while taking a quick peek outside the aircraft.

“Where?”

“Over there turn right,” She said grabbing her yoke eager to help him. The blank rocked then started to oscillate before he regained control.

“No! no don’t do that again. That’s not a way to help.”

His eyes focused back on the channel trying to adjust to the night light. In the far distance, he caught the green light of an airport beacon. “I got it,” he screamed, correcting his path. “Little more to the right he said banking the plane over so gently. A RED MASTER WARNING flashed followed by the ENGINE OIL, ENGINE OIL, audible. The combination of the bright warning and loud aural warning spooked him at first. The plane again rocked as he now had a duel engine failure. And his feet fought to coordinate the rudder pedals. His chest pounding maybe fear maybe the bullet lodged in his chest. Remembering Sully’s miracle on the Hudson, he instinctively switched on the APU keeping electric to the planes instruments. “Get in the back, buckle up and assume the crash position.”

She hesitated, “NOW!” he screamed, that was all it took, tears filled her eyes. but not of fear for herself. He peeked back to make sure she buckled in. Then turned his attention back to the cockpit. He felt the sting of his wound and blood soaked shirt. Lightheaded, he fumbled thru this pack sack and grabbed the 1200-dollar bottle of Rum and bit the cork off. He needed something to shock his system. “No reason to quit now. Nobody likes a quitter anyway.” Taking a swig, it immediately flooded his pleasure senses, he poured a fair amount on his wound next, sending a burning sensation followed by a numbing. He took another swig and laid the bottle down. “Focus, you can do this.” He said eyeing up the runway.

“That’s right boy. You can do anything you set your mind too. Just like I taught you.” A voice he recognized coming from the first officers seat commanded him. “Easy on the controls. Light touches sacrifice a little altitude for speed. Not too much, you’ll hit that damn tree. Level off, level it off,” his voice accelerated in excitement then softened. “Good.” His Uncle encouraged him.

“Uncle John,” Stan said. “You can’t believe how happy I am to see you.”

“What Racheal’s voice called out hearing him talk. Did you say something?”

They both peaked back at her, but Racheal saw and heard only one. “NO,” Stan replied. Then in a quieter voice looked back at his co-pilot. “Thank god you’re hear Uncle John.”

“It’s Captain,” his Uncle said fully geared in his military flight suite he wore in the Korean war. It was indeed his Uncle from the past. A younger version no more than twenty just reaching his stride, still with a full head of hair as dark as coal. “What?” his Uncle asked uncomfortable by his stare. “Do I look alright something wrong with my hair.”

“Nothing it’s just you’re so young. Just like in your pictures.”

“Oh yeah, will you get to pick out the body your most comfortable with considering the circumstances and all. Death ain’t that bad. God lord I ain’t had a hard on this good in 35 years.”

Stan chuckled. It was a light-hearted joke and just what he needed to settle him. Maybe to relaxing, as the plane drifted to the left. “Keep your foot on the rudder boy.” His Uncle shouted as the slip ball on the instrument panel went to the far left. “You and I got this. It’s time to get serious. Get her configured. Got some mighty-fine cargo in the back. He said to Stan, giving him a wink.”

Stan reached for the flaps, He was unsure of himself. Even shaking a little.

“You want flaps? Don’t set more than twenty. You’ll come in about 20 knots faster.”

“Yeah twenty be good. Thanks for reminding me.” Stan said wiping the sweat pouring from his face. “Keep focused keep focused,” he repeated, “still three miles away and watching his altitude bleed off. Not gonna make it, fuck were not gonna make it.

“You’ll make it,” his Uncle said in a confident carefree way trying to comfort him. Easy for him to say Stan thought, he’s already dead. “Just focus. You got this boy.” The RED WARNING annunciator went off TOO LOW NO GEAR TOO LOW NO GEAR. Stan reached over for the gear.

“Not yet,” his Uncle snapped. Never make it, you throw the gear down this far out. Not yet, got one shot at it left in hydraulic reserves. “I tell you about the time them damn commies shot out my hydraulics over South Korea escorting bombers back to base.”

Stan grinned he loved hearing the story as a child. “Got a bogie on my back can’t shake buzzing another come up starboard, I say to my navigator we’re in one hell of dogfight, bird on my ass right off the Chinese assembly line, Mig-15, competent SOB’s to boot very disciplined. But the sabre F-86 she was the girl to take to the dance. Had radar range gunsights and most importantly G-suite.”

Stan, still listening to his Uncle’s story, focused his eyes outside, inside, outside, then the airport flag. A quartering tail wind pulled at the sock…great he thought that outta to add to the excitement. “FIVE HUNDRED FEET” the plane called out. His Uncle, still engaged in his story telling, stopped for a moment, hearing the Five Hundred feet call out. He looked out the window. “I’d drop the gear, were getting close.” Stan reached over and pulled the gear down just before all his screens went blank and the APU fueled out. The Rat (Ram Air Turbine used for emergency power) popped out making a deafening noise and the screens flashed again. The gear locked and with it the comforting sound of wind dragging on the wheels. He was a glider now at the mercy of the winds. “So where was I yes so we got this MIG up our ass. I pull a hard bank straight up, stupid SOB follows me. Disciplined SOB but stupid. Had a be pulling 7 G’s or better, dumbass had no suite. Boom the force knocks him out cold. In the process his partner shoots some scrap my way dinging my hydraulic. I shoot straight up and curve around locked guns, Jesus that radar was sweet, no I’m bleeding oil everywhere.” Stan still dividing his attention between the outside and his Uncles story was hoping he’d wrap it up sooner than later. His Uncle finally noticing the runway sneaking up and feeling the plane sink faster in the seat of his pants as it began to lose lift, quickly wrapped the story up. “Any who you know the rest, nursed her in no hydraulics, piece a cake.” He turned to Stan, “just like this, piece cake. The plane started to sink faster and he thought he heard his Uncle say, “put it down boy.” Flair this bitch.” Right before the plane slammed on the ground bouncing damn near ten feet in the air then smashing back to the earth. The impact struck the left wing violently on the ground pulling the aircraft to the left and shooting sparks and plumes of smoke around the aircraft. Stan fought to control the missile as it fishtailed left and right jamming the brakes with all buried his strength until finally the plane came to an abrupt stop off the runway, aided by the wheels buried deep in the soft sands of the keys. What was left of the little gas in the tanks poured over the grass and soon smoke started ignited by the hot brakes.

Help arrived quickly, Stan thought seeing light come from the main cabin door opening, but he really couldn’t tell. Still buckled in, a deep laceration across his head sifted blood like the great Nile during the floods of Moses. The yoke of the aircraft bent trapping him in and pushing on his broken rib cage. Everything went quiet, he couldn’t hear. From the shattered cockpit window shield he witnessed a few men pull Racheal from the plane. They had no intent to free Stan. Now trapped inside the aircraft. He could only see her screaming as she kicked at them, but heard nothing. At the least a good sign she had survived the crash. His vision blurred by the dripping blood, he could barely see or recognize the men who dragged her to a man exiting a parked limo. A stocky man with round shoulders, got out. And with the meanest of intent, batted Racheal, with what looked like a pistol, hard against her head. Her knee’s buckled and before she hit the ground he caught her midair pulling her by the hair and again smacking the gun against her head, creating a bloody gash and turning her blonde hair auburn. The man’s words towards Racheal were silent to Stan’s ears, but his angry rant and intent, obvious even to a partially deaf and blind man.

“Marco,” he screamed at the top of his lungs struggling to free himself from his seat. Bleeding away most of his energy, he rested trying to regain his strength and clarity. It felt like Deja Vu. A glimpse of clairvoyance to his past, trapped under a horse. Looking to the empty seat next to him, maybe his copilot, maybe all of it just an illusion. The plane, well it was trashed. But he made it, and so did Racheal. And he was not going to let her down this time, if he was going to die, he would do it with a fight, and she would know he had not abandoned her when she needed him most. This time there would be no Cliffs of Arduous. With all his strength, he crawled from the wreckage of the plane having the presence of mind to first grab his pistol, the six- shooter with the CJ engraved passed down from his heritage.

Standing up, he limped away from the plane and closer to save his damsel in distress. The man holding Racheal with her knee’s on the ground, lifted his eyes to see the ghost rise from the dead. In the same moment like a thunderbolt from hell the plane exploded sending plumes of black smoke and red hell fire twenty feet in the air, it was a surreal background to Stan’s arrival. “Let her go Marco,” he screamed his hand tightly clutching his revolver. The man had a puzzled look to his face. Next to him his two mercenaries full armed with semi-automatic machine guns waited for their bosses que to end the one sided standoff.

In what could only be described as reactionary movement or instinctive luck carried back from the old soul of a gunfighter. He squinted his eyes and they responded in a sharp and keen awareness to any sudden movement or trigger happy fool ready to make the first mistake. And in that same micro second catching the aggressive sleight of hand, he took aim and dropped the first then second mercenary with only two shots. The lone man standing stood still in cold opposition to Stan, pulled Racheal from the ground, the barrel resting on her head. She was weak and barely coherent from the thrashing of the barrel.

“I’ll kill her, if you come any closer. That my brother is truth.” Stan froze for a moment, his eyes clearer his hearing a constant buzzing now, but slowly returning.

His gun dropped to his side. His own feelings and judgement betrayed by the truth. “Butch, tell me it’s not you. What the fuck is going on here?

It seemed like time stood still before the words were uttered. “You shouldn’t have come here professor, this was all out of your league, now.. now I got to kill you. You made this harder on me then I wanted. I like you.”

“Why Butch? Why? . . . Marco, I get that. But you? Your just an ornery cop maybe, but not this. We could end all this, end Marco, Shut it all down. “

Butch laughed, then coughed. “Damn virus, speaking of Marco, son of bitch gave me this cold.” But I’m afraid Marco no longer works for me.”

“For you?” Stan asked his thoughts fleeting to grasp the enormity of his statement. “

“Yes, for me I’m afraid. Why do you always underestimate who, and what I am? It seems to be quite annoyingly repetitive. Marco I’m afraid put in for early retirement, or I guess I put him in for it. He was getting sloppy.”

There was no mistaken the look of disappointment in Stan’s face. “You’re supposed to be the good guy?”

Butch let out a deep exhale, more of frustration than anything else. “We’ve had this discussion already. What I do is a necessary evil. I’m the guy that makes sure you get your happy meal at Mickey D’s, cheap gas at the pump, and a six pack, and lottery ticket on the way to a Saturday matinee for under a day’s working wage. Then at night tuck you in and make sure the boogey man ain’t under your bed. Don’t sound like much, but takes more than you could understand to get you that. I never defined my role in any of this, you did. You were the one who assumed, who I really was.”

“Let her go Butch. You just keep working on those happy meals, but let her go for god’s sakes.”

“Can’t do that Stan. Would like to, but can’t.” He rubbed his gun down Racheal’s cheek. “This little renegade runway slut . . well you can blame her for Marco’s fate. A fucking embarrassment to the organization. Seems Miss Racheal here ran up quite a tab with the Saudis, Syrian repels, and now the fucking Jamaican cartel. And with a new administration in town, well you can understand my disappointment. Beauty always attracts attention, but a tad bid more then I feel comfortable with. Especially the kind she’s attracting.” Butch feasted his eyes on her and shook his head disgusted by her actions. “Sad part is I liked you. The little yogi shit with coffee afterword’s, and good god with your freaking ghost stories. My brother you were a lot of entertainment. It’s true I swear, it’s the little things in life that make this world go round.” Butch went silent for a moment, reminiscing, he chuckled to himself. “Yes sir I did indeed enjoy that yogi shit. But then you fell for the whore of Babylon. I warned you.” Butch coughed, hacked some flam, and spit on the ground. “I really do need to see a doctor. But now, now I gotta kill you.

“NO!,” Racheal pleaded. Butch’s blue emotionless eyes widened and he wrapped his arm up against her neck causing her eyes to bulge, before he finally loosened it seeing Stan’s gun hand move.

“Shut up your fucking coke freak whore. It’s that mouth of yours’s that got his Uncle killed. Did you share that with him? Did ya, did ya tell him how your mouth got him killed?”

“What are saying? What does he mean Racheal?” Racheal eyes watered, her tough exterior now completely weaned away. She was broken and tears overtook her. She had never seen this side of Butch before.

“She was trying to unite with him, knew he was her daddy. Oh I know she put on a good front, but she knew. Hell, his name was on the deed to the place he bought her, out in Colorado or no Idaho. Guess he thought it could make up for all the lost years. That where things started to unravel. He got some information out of her. Was gonna take it to some of his old pals down at the VFW, so to speak. He was old school CIA, I think even a different name back then. You didn’t know that, did you? Wouldn’t do much harm, mainly just stir up little trouble for me. But you see the real problem came down to Racheal, and simple disobedience. Discipline is a fine tool when used correctly. And for her, you got to take things or she just don’t get it. Like goddamn child. So that’s where poor Uncle John and a concoction of old fashion arsenic became the fork in the road.”

“You son of bitch. You shook my hand at my Uncle’s funeral.”

Butch made a chucking sound and his eyes cast to the ground. “Yeah I did feel kinda bad about all that.” His eyes lifted a smile accompanied it. “Although it was a nice funeral and all. And for the record I will miss your Uncle. He was a straight shooter. Old school, but a straight shooter. He’d understand all this. Dirty work, just goddamn dirty work. And you know what the kicker was? I never took a fucking penny that wasn’t mine. And in the end the agency sends me a fucking letter to tell me I needed a combined Thirty-five fucking years of departmental service to collect my fucking pension. Thirty-five fucking years I served this country. Gave my soul. And today . . . Will today is my lucky day. Because today is thirty-five fucking years of service.” He looked down and Racheal and pulled her body closer to him. And today darling, today is your unlucky day. Today is my last assignment for the agency.” He cocked the gun.

Stan barely heard the last of his words. He head was spinning, his energy fading quickly, but he saw the look in the blue crystal fearless eyes of a wolf. It donned on him then, these were the eyes from another past, and he knew his intent, before another word was said. He yelled out at the top of his lungs. “Royce.” And drew on him hitting his target dead center. Racheal fell away and Butch dropped to the ground.

Stan weak, his shirt covered in blood, fell to his knee. “We did it.” he said but got no response. In a strange series of compelling evidence that shadowed his own relationship with Racheal’s true bond to Butch, Stan witnessed her, with enduring eyes and tears of affection, stroke, and cradle Butch’s lifeless body. At that moment, he knew he might die in vain. He screamed out in an angered raspy voice. “Why?” and using all his might and determination, he clawed his way over to her. Pulling her attention away from his dead adversary. His eyes penetrating hers, for understanding. She pulled away from him nothing but disdain in her look. “You killed him. The only man that truly loved me, you killed him. He was my soulmate in this life. I wasn’t ready for you. You shouldn’t have followed me.”

She beat him away and he pulled her neckless grabbing her locket, it broke open inside a picture of her and Butch. He fell backwards and choked on his own blood, still holding the neckless. He kept muttering why… why? Then lost consciousness.

CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN

The smoke and fire finally brought a rescue crew to the small airport, Stan was airlifted out by helicopter In the air, he felt faint, weak, he broke out in a sweat, then nothing, darkness, non-existence. No pulse no breath. A realm of never being, a time before birth, a void beyond darkness, nothing, never, stillness, black silence. Then the crackling sound as the defibrillator sent a surge of electricity through his heart, changing the silence, opening its prison of nothing, allowing a fragment of awareness to seep back transitioning in his space of mind as tiny grey pixels of consciousness barely distinguishable allowed light. Yes, the light, a light. Perhaps the tunnel of rebirth, maybe not. It was not defined or captured in a defined space but it gave seed, root to recreate his being. The light allowed voices, outside voices, the voice of Racheal calling him out. A path from an angel to regain self-awareness away from nothingness. He heard his name, Lazarus rise. He heard her say, “breathe, breathe,” like in the meadow. Leave me alone, let me dwell peacefully in the void. Then realization of self, an awareness posturing intent to fight its way back into consciousness, break through the barrier, follow the voice. “Breathe,” she said. Wrap into it, seek it, allow it to pull you back. Fight, fight, struggle, pull back to your body, breath, pull the nectar that gives life, travel the path of first birth. He felt his chest heave. He fought to put his lungs back in rhythm. To energize his being. He had made it back, to the world the voice dwelt. Color filled the cup of awareness. The lucidity of the darkness gone. His senses reborn, groggy at best. Undefined boundaries, yet he had broken thru the thick barrier of nothing. A guardian of dark space where death and pre-birth live together. A laborious feat to battle the Reaper and win. His body soul and mind exhausted. He was alive and stood a conquer of death. Twice he was resurrected from death. Twice this syndrome of Lazarus played on his soul and being. They all agreed it was a miracle. When he left the hospital three weeks later, everything had come to pass as Madeline from Lily Dale had prophesized. Racheal Susan Moore, as she had intended, disappeared from the world. Rumor had it a woman of comfortable financial means had settled in an estate in Idaho with her son. He also surprisingly found himself richly endowed from an unnamed source, one that contributed a sum dedicated in his honor at the university and dismissal of President Miller. And a special note asking him to see that Sharia was paid accordingly for a prescription she had taken in error, the check handsomely assured Sharia would never see debt again. The letter in closing finished with her toast from their first meeting.

“Here’s to you. 
Here’s to me. 
And here’s to the space between us. 
One of us has to go. 
Not you. 
Not me. 
But the space between us.”

And the final words that sung to his heart. “Sharia has the locket your soul is searching for. It’s hard to Open, but I think you can. ”

CHAPTER FIFTY-EIGHT

As Stan walked out of his house, in the small town in Kent Ohio, the paper boy handed him the paper. “Good morning sir,” he started to bike off and stopped turning back to Stan. “You’re looking much better now days Sir.” Stan smiled graciously then opened the front page of the Kent Journal Sunday paper. In bold print, a highlighted article into the investigation of corruption to an organization known as “the Divided River and its local ties. A decoded disk being a source of its origination. “That’s for you Uncle John.” He said to himself.

He walked thru down town over the arch bridge and looked down and for a moment thought he saw his guardian angel in blonde hair. It was fall and the leaves made their way down the river some to the left some to the right where the river divided. He picked up his pace with an extra kick smiling, booze free, and guns no longer a part of his life. He was a new man reborn a second chance in life and he was going to confirm what he already knew in his heart, claim his divided soul back, ready, or not. And the missing locket Sharia held, that would confirm what he already knew.”

Two elderly gentlemen stood off to the side of the bridge and watched Stan walk by tipping their hat. Natas turned to Brahma and handed him the guinea. “I’ll be son of gun. I didn’t see that coming. It was Sharia all this time.” Brahma studied the coin.

“Do you even remember why we use a coin? For the bet?” Natas tried to recollect, his mind running through the years. Billions of years, trillion of years and more but he couldn’t remember. More importantly why did it matter. He had won and that was what always mattered.

“No, I can’t say that I do? Do you?”

“I think because at the beginning, with all the chaos, all the divergence in the design, we wanted this to be simple like it was meant to be, before it all seemed to take off on us. We wanted it, life, consciousness to run it’s course, like a river runs its course. A part of the whole that becomes the divide. The river divided. It wasn’t meant to be a competition for us. All of it only an observation on our self. On our creation. Here take back your coin. It’s far from being over yet.”

Natas’s had a puzzled look on his face accepting his coin back. “I don’t understand, they’ve united Sharia and Stan their souls have met. He’s headed to her place. You won fear and square.”

Brahma chuckled. “He’s not uniting with Sharia. He’s uniting with the locket. The locket his passage back, like the Cliffs of Arduous was her passage back. He’s allowing his other half of his soul the time to grow until she’s ready for him. He wasn’t meant to follow her, not yet, and he knew it. He’s learned his lesson in the last round with Suzie, he won’t make the same mistake this time. This time Racheal must come to him. This time when she’s ready, she well come. She will come to take back her locket. Light finds the darkness; the darkness never finds the light.”

The End /Emil Crise

333

 


THE CLIFFS OF ARDUOUS

  • ISBN: 9781370003785
  • Author: Emil Crise
  • Published: 2017-09-23 19:35:20
  • Words: 133947
THE CLIFFS OF ARDUOUS THE CLIFFS OF ARDUOUS