Journeying the Narrow Path
Note: This is "Journeying the Narrow Path,” a novel told in serial format. Holten’s previous novel, “The Last Tree.” is available at thedickinsonpress.com for a short time.
Sunshine peeked through the drapes of our Deadwood, South Dakota, motel room as I watched Kelli sleep. Her eyes were beautiful even when closed and I looked forward to spending that morning and the rest of eternity with her.
Since our chance meeting two years earlier, we’d become each other’s best friend, lover, confidant and cheerleader; seldom leaving each other’s side and making more than a few people nauseous with our constant carrying on.
Her bare shoulders glistened above the tops of the blankets that were covering us and she said something very softly, like a little girl, to someone in her dream. I wanted to hug her, to run my hands along the side of her body, working my way across her soft belly, to the underside of her breasts and back down skin that felt as though it had been mixed with thick cream. Instead, I let her sleep.
When we first met, I had mistakenly assumed that she might be aloof, preoccupied and a bit of a smart ass because I had learned to expect a woman of profound beauty to be a little self-centered. After all, she was so pretty, with ocean blue eyes, long blonde hair, tanned skin, very full lips, glistening white teeth and a smirk powerful enough to buckle the most stoic man’s knees.
Instead, proving that a cover does not determine the content of a book, I discovered that she was very inquisitive, ponderous, respectful of others, full of wit and, most of all, she was my wife — a fact that was well beyond my comprehension, better than my wildest dreams and way more than I deserved.
No, she wasn’t perfect. She couldn’t knit, sew or play pool worth a damn, but who cared? And she tended to get up later rather than earlier and eat only the inside of her toast, leaving the crust for the birds.
We were married in my hometown church for the second time, across the street from my grandparents’ house, mainly because she didn’t have a church, a home or a family for that matter.
I met her in the springtime at a rest stop in California where she was sleeping in her car and where I rolled in at 3 o’clock that night, dog tired and lucky to be alive after nearly hitting the ditch twice.
When I woke up in the morning, I noticed an old, abandoned clunker parked next to mine blanketed in layers of fine dust. I was readjusting my body, intent on returning to an unfinished dream when I spotted the prettiest girl in the galaxy exiting the restroom. With haste, I popped out of the car, opened the trunk and searched the depths of my mind for a better-than-average opening line.
“Hi there,” I said, coming up with nothing too creative.
“Hi,” she said, eyeing me warily, obviously hesitant to converse with a strange male whose hair was sticking up in all directions, clothes were wrinkled and who slept in his car at rest stops.
“Is that your car?” I asked.
That was followed by an uncomfortable pause during which I realized that I might have inadvertently implied that her car was less than impressive.
She stopped, stared into my eyes, shifted her weight to one leg and put her hands into the back pockets of her very tight, hip-hugging jeans.
“Is that yours?” she asked in a manner that completely put me in my place.
Glancing sheepishly at my beat-up, dust-covered, four-door jalopy with a dented driver’s door and loose-hanging license plate, I began to mentally retreat with my head down like Dick Nixon leaving his first presidential television debate.
“Yes it is,” I said.
“Nice,” she said.
“You don’t mean that,” I said.
“No,” she said.
“But I like your car,” I said.
“No you don’t,” she said.
“You’re right,” I said.
“Then why did you say that?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said sheepishly. “Probably because I didn’t know what to say.”
She smiled and then I smiled.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“North Dakota,” I said.
“Where is that?” she asked as streaks of morning sunlight burst through some tree branches and set her hair aglow.
“A little closer to Mars than here,” I said.
“That’s what I thought,” she said.
“And is that your home?” she asked, pointing to my car.
“It is for now,” I said, “and the trunk is my clothes dresser.”
“Very impressive,” she said.
“Now you’re lying,” I said.
“That’s true,” she said.
“Well, nice meeting you,” I said, once again not knowing what to say while assuming that it might be time to retreat.
“Does it have a shower?” she suddenly asked.
“Hot tub,” I said as I shut the trunk.
“Are bathing suites optional?” She asked.
“Completely,” I said.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of our verbal joust and through further prodding I discovered that Kelli was a recent dropout from the University of California, Los Angeles, and was on her way to Las Vegas. Unfortunately, she had just embarked on a new journey meant to help her forget that her last living relative, her mother, had just died of breast cancer.
As we sat on the hood of my car chatting, I sensed from her further revelations that she and her mother had lived more like roommates or sisters than parent and child in their rented Manhattan Beach, California, duplex, located well south of the Los Angeles Airport.
Meanwhile, her mother, a semi-accomplished artist who had helped pay for her college education, was too much of a free spirit to have had life insurance or to have married Kelli’s father, wherever he was. Kelli had contributed to her own college tuition by selling yogurt at a local beach shop and modeling swimwear for department store catalogs, which was something she likened to having her teeth pulled.
She was, in essence, a pre-med student stuck in the pre-med stage, since her main source of funding had died. The abruptness of her mother’s death and resulting depression then prevented her from working out alternative plans for furthering her education. Thus, her anticipated graduation, instead of being from UCLA, had been from a state of lonely depression to an “I need to get away” mania.
Two hours out of Los Angeles, the headlights on her 10-year-old jalopy began acting more like strobe lights than headlights. So I offered to follow her into Las Vegas that morning in case something else went wrong and we ended up leaving the glitter city two days later, married, both of us being in our early 20s, with I being three months older but no wiser.
It was a decision that my parents considered ridiculous at the time and yet proved to be the best one I’d ever make. It was also the first time I could remember my mother being rendered nearly speechless anywhere, much less on the phone, and for a moment I thought she might have passed out.
“Mom, are you there?” I shouted into the receiver after the long pause.
“Yes, we’re here,” she said, speaking for my father as she always did. “We’re just a little surprised.”
“So am I,” I admitted while Kelli kissed me on the cheek.
“Are they excited?” she asked me anxiously.
“Ecstatic,” I said.
Meanwhile, Kelli’s car stayed behind in Las Vegas with its new teenage owner as we headed north toward Mars and a big, endlessly bright future.
Of course, I’ve thought back to that particular morning in Deadwood countless times, because it would be the last one that we’d spend together.
We were in Deadwood, in the heart of the Black Hills because I was riding in the Days of 76 Rodeo that night and needed to be in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the next afternoon for the final round of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo.
You see, I was a professional rodeo cowboy — and a good one — and that meant Kelli and I spent a whole lot of time on the road.
We left Deadwood that evening, after the rodeo performance, in pouring rain on a road that wound around like a snake through the hills, with lightning flashing everywhere, illuminating the sky like rockets shot at allied jets over Baghdad.
Unfortunately, Kelli was behind the wheel when a deer suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Had it been me, I might have plowed into it rather than swerve off the road. But Kelli was too nice for that and we tumbled down an embankment, rolled over twice, came to rest against some big rocks and I felt no worse than I might have had I been thrown from a bucking bronc. But I knew immediately that my Kelli was gone because she wasn’t even in the car.
I crawled out of the wreck and stumbled about half-wittedly until I heard her moans coming from the tall grass up the ravine. So I climbed to where she lay and tried to hold onto her as she laid there all broken up, a jumbled mess, unable to move or speak.
She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, but I wondered how she could have been alive at all and I think she hung in there just to say goodbye to me with her eyes.
I asked God why she had to suffer that way, like an angel with broken wings, but he didn’t give me an answer. I assumed that, since her life had been a rough one from the beginning, the end just had to follow that same path.
At any rate, it sent my life spiraling down a new, self-destructive path, prompted by my desire to see her again, if only in Heaven, along with our baby that died inside of her.
From that point forward, it seemed that everything I did was designed to get me there sooner rather than later.
I came close to winning the world saddle bronc riding title that year, but it didn’t matter much to me.
Coming back from almost $50,000 down at season’s end, I won five out of 10 rounds at the National Finals Rodeo held at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas and almost eked out a championship on the final day while thousands cheered me on and a national television audience watched.
Alone that night in my hotel room, I ordered a steak as thick as a king-size mattress and pretended I wasn’t there when my inebriated cowboy buddies, with buckle bunnies under each arm, banged on the door and begged me to come out and play.
“Open up!” one of them said.
“Let’s party,” said another.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” whispered a young, sultry voiced, southern vixen.
That’s when something, perhaps a bottle of champagne, dropped to the floor, popped its top and sprayed the surroundings like a fireman’s fire hose run amok.
“What did you do?” one of my buddies said.
“I’m soaked!” said one of the girls and I turned up the volume on the television set to drown out their noise.
A nearby hotel guest, perhaps sleeping off the frustrations of a not-so-profitable stint at the tables, opened his door and scolded the party animals like a high school basketball coach dressing down his losing team. Then he slammed the door, and for a moment there was complete silence.
“Let’s go,” one of the revelers finally said. “He’s not in there.”
“But the television is on,” one of the girls exclaimed.
“Haven’t you ever left your television on in a hotel room?” asked another.
That’s when I propped my boots up on the desk, leaned back in the chair and tipped my hat forward, kind of like James Dean did in that famous photo where he was sitting in the back seat of a convertible on the set of the ‘50s movie “Giant.”
“Ain’t this grand,” I said to myself and took another sip from a bottle of whiskey.
To tell you the truth, nothing could have bucked me off during those 10 Las Vegas rounds or at any rodeo for the rest of that year for that matter. It was all about how high a score I’d get or if the bucking horse I was riding was ballistic enough to give me the score I needed to win.
You see, as soon as the last shovel full of dirt was added to the big pile that covered Kelli’s grave in my little hometown cemetery, I hit the rodeo trail and never looked back.
I was driven, focused and possessed, not because I wanted to win but in order to keep my mind off of her. And since I didn’t care if I lived or died, I threw all caution to the wind, feared no horse and teased death irrationally.
Still, at the end of the season, I almost bowed out of the National Finals Rodeo — which would have been a first, like the Milwaukee Brewers not showing up for the World Series. That’s because the days between the end of the rodeo season and the National Finals Rodeo gave me too much time to think and I couldn’t bear the thought of being in Las Vegas again without Kelli.
I was a wreck after Kelli died and kept mostly to myself. But since I’d never been the world’s greatest conversationalist or the life of the party, nobody seemed to notice how messed up I was and because I was winning, everyone assumed that I must be OK.
The biggest problem I had to deal with was adjusting to the loss of “what might have been” until I finally figured out that there is no such thing as “what might have been.” Nothing in life is guaranteed and everything can be instantly lost. That was when a stale bitterness swept over me and I began to view life from a very morose perspective because I just couldn’t help but miss her and the baby inside of her that would have soon been born. My time with her had been a fantastic dream but it was over for good and I found that to be an impossible fact to face.
I stared absentmindedly at my uneaten steak as I continued fighting the mental battle and finally gave in, popped up, trotted out of the room, snuck down the hallway, rode the elevator to the first floor and burst through the front doors of the casino, leaving behind an awards ceremony, interviews, a championship buckle, saddle, my riding gear and my rodeo career.
“Where are you going?” someone shouted after me.
“Out,” I said curtly, not wanting anyone to see the tears forming in my eyes.
“Can I have an autograph?” someone else asked.
“I can’t,” I declared as I buttoned the snaps on my jacket, skipped across the parking lot and jumped behind the wheel of my pickup truck.
Having finally come to the realization that rodeo would never erase the reality of Kelli’s death, I sped north on Interstate 15 with the highway’s white lines blurred by tears flowing ceaselessly from my eyes. The dam had burst on my huge reservoir of pain and I abused myself for wallowing in self-pity, but I still couldn’t stop the pity party.
Negative, angry and lonely thoughts pursued me like a hungry lioness and I stepped on the gas harder and harder in an attempt to outrun it.
In what some might consider a trance, I drove seemingly forever across four borders without turning on any music and stopped only when the fuel gauge touched “E.”
Eating nothing and drinking little, I talked to no one as my waistline shrunk and dark rings formed under my eyes.
I left one middle-of-nowhere gas station without paying and another without removing the nozzle, pulling it and the hose along for miles before stopping and casting it aside in a snow-filled ditch.
Somewhere along the line, I vowed that I would never ride in a rodeo again or even attend one. Nor would I call my rodeo buddies or return their calls, simply because I wanted to escape. No, I wanted more than to escape. I wanted to be with Kelli.
Frigid temperatures finally awakened me from my stupor when I stepped through the gates of the cemetery on the west side of my little hometown as granules of ice drifted over the graves driven by fierce northwest winds blowing down relentlessly from Canada.
The headlights of my pickup truck shined into the cemetery, lighting a path to where my grandparents were buried next to my uncle who died long before them, beside Kelli’s grave.
Snow covered the small plaque marking the spot where she lay and I angrily pushed it away with bare hands. The still-high mound of now-frozen dirt peeked through the snow while dead flowers from a withered wreath blew across the barren landscape.
On my knees and wiping tears from my eyes with frosted hands, I made no plans to leave, even if it meant being discovered there frozen to death in the morning by a passing motorist.
Meanwhile, I was surrounded by familiar names on countless stones; faces from the past that had enlivened a once bustling little community and landed there long before either Kelli or I were born.
Schoolteachers, shop owners, farmers, ranchers, old timers, little kids, family and friends, all scattered about and I began to wonder what good it was to be a rodeo star if everyone you did it for was planted six feet under.
Just then, bright lights caused me to turn about quickly and I saw footprints in the snow following me to where I knelt. Silhouetted against headlights were four deer digging in the snow for food and I stared at them for some time and they glanced at me not at all.
As stupid as it might sound, I wanted their respect because it was one of theirs who led me to where I was at that moment, on my knees in the middle of a cemetery, and yet they felt none of my grief. In fact, I didn’t think anyone could feel my grief and that made me feel completely alone and empty.
Suddenly, the deer looked up and scattered. Then, coming out of the darkness and into the beams of light was a familiar shape, a man, his cowboy hat tilted just so, with overshoes covering his boots and the collar of his heavy jacket turned up.
His name was Houston Timber and he was the owner of a big ranch north of town. He was also the father of a friend of mine, my best friend, who used to rodeo with me a lot up until we were 20 years old.
I had seen Houston in the crowd at the National Finals Rodeo and knew that he must have followed me home from Las Vegas, but I was apparently so self-consumed that I didn’t hear him pull up or perhaps it was the winter winds pounding ceaselessly against my ears that blocked out the sound.
Saying nothing, he gently grabbed me around the shoulders, lifted me up, wrapped a blanket around me and guided me back to my pickup truck. Then he circled around to the other side, brushed snow from the driver’s seat, where I had left the door open, got behind the steering wheel and cranked the heater up full blast until it sounded like a hairdresser’s blow dryer. He then put it in gear and as we crawled down the highway, I noticed headlights following us through the right-side mirror and assumed it was his wife in their car.
“When you didn’t show up at the awards ceremony, I had an idea where you might be headed,” he said.
I didn’t say anything.
“I’d been wondering for a long time when things might finally hit you,” he said.
His words went right to my heart, my stomach did a couple of flips and I drew in a deep breath as new snowflakes began to appear in the headlights.
“I’ve spent a few lonely nights at that cemetery myself,” he said, and I knew he knew I would understand what he meant.
I also knew that it was hard for him to say what he’d just said because men in my neck of the woods didn’t talk much about feelings or emotions, or anything else for that matter.
Conversations consisted of phrases, not sentences because sentences were mostly reserved for women, preachers and traveling salesmen.
And yes, I remembered all too well the sultry day that his boy’s foot got stuck in a stirrup at the rodeo in White Earth when we were 20 years old, because he was my best friend. But I also remembered it because it was the day he died and the worst day of my life up until the day Kelli died.
I had looked over at Billy behind the chutes in White Earth after I saddled my bronc while he was still saddling his, and there was sweat running down his cheeks, and he glanced at me with a funny little smile on his face. At least I thought it was a smile until sometime later, when I really thought about it, I realized that it had actually been kind of a forlorn look with a wince.
Whatever it was, since everyone has a lot of expressions for a lot of occasions, I guess it’s that face that I’ll remember him by forever.
“I spotted you just south of Salt Lake City,” Houston suddenly said, “and tried to follow you home from there but I had quite a time trying to keep up with you and lost you again somewhere in Montana.”
I didn’t respond to him, mostly because I didn’t know what to say and sat there looking out the pickup window watching thick snowflakes fall in the headlights as he hauled me away from my hometown cemetery.
“At any rate, I’m too old to be driving that long and that hard,” he said.
“I’m sorry to put you through that,” I finally said and then there was a pause.
“I don’t guess it’s your fault,” Houston said. “You’ve been through some pretty tough times.”
It was beginning to heat up nicely inside the pickup truck so Houston turned down the heater fan a notch and the tears that had iced on my cheeks started to melt and drip on my chin. I had little feeling in my feet or hands, my ears were burning like they’d been laid in a frying pan and I grabbed at the oversized blanket that he had draped over me as my whole body suddenly began to shake.
“It’s getting warm now,” Houston said as he took off one of his gloves. “Pretty soon you’ll probably be sweating.”
When he said the word sweat, I remembered Billy again and how we had ridden to the White Earth rodeo together the day he died. Fact is we almost always rode together everywhere because Billy was closer in age and more of a brother to me than my own brother was.
Houston turned left into town and then left again on Main Street where blue streetlights high up on timber posts thrust blue light onto the barren, snow-covered streets below. Porch lights lit up snow-blanketed yards and little white rabbits darted in front of the headlights.
“Do you want me to take you to your place?” Houston asked, knowing that I’d either go there or to my parent’s ranch, or maybe even to his place if I really needed to.
“My place,” I said and, as soon as I said it, I thought about how I used to call it our place when Kelli was alive.
Then I suddenly remembered the snorting sounds that the bucking horse made when he drug Billy around the White Earth rodeo arena. When the pickup men stopped the horse, I sprinted to where he lay with my chaps flapping against my jeans and my spurs clanging like chimes.
I remembered thinking as I ran toward him that, since he wasn’t covered in that much blood that he might be OK. But that was stupid thinking or lost hope or something, kind of like hoping that the goldfish floating at the top of the water tank might still be alive, Because there was no way he was going to be alive.
Arena dirt was stuck to the sweat on his skin and where it wasn’t caked to him, his skin was as white as clean sheets on a clothesline, I guess because by then he was a ghost laying there with his mouth open with dirt inside both it and his open eyes.
The whole scene seemed a lot different from what I was used to seeing on TV or in movies, because the TV version suddenly seemed way too sterile. Billy looked scary, grotesque and otherworldly in so many ways. After all, he’d been a vibrant living being turned into a limp and meaningless object, here one second and gone the next.
“What’s it like?” I wanted to ask him, “being dead and all.”
Because, after all, we shared everything in life —from the times we peed in bed, to the first girl we kissed and even the first time we had sex and who we’d had sex with. So, naturally, I’d want to share dying with him too but suddenly I couldn’t and that was what was most shocking. He was no longer in my world and I’d never actually lived without him in my world, so I wasn’t sure what to do.
The white cowboy shirt that he’d borrowed from me had been nearly torn off and there were big dents in his ribcage where thundering hooves, shot like missiles from a low-flying jet fighter, had caved it in. And even I, despite not being a doctor, could see that his right leg was broken above the knee because everything below it was turned in the wrong direction and blood was soaking into the dirt under his head.
I called out to him, because I couldn’t help it, but he didn’t answer. Houston and his wife Audrey weren’t there, and I was glad for that because no parents need to see their boy that way, my buddy, my brother.
“This place looks like a ghost town at this time of night,” Houston suddenly said, shaking me loose from my deep thoughts and I looked at the clock on the dashboard when he turned on the radio and tuned it to a station in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, that everyone listened to.
It was 3:30 in the morning on a cold December evening and I suddenly realized that I had been wrong about one thing: There was someone who could feel my pain and he was the man that was sitting next to me, and that thought began to fill my eyes up with tears again.
Then we rode in silence until Houston pulled up to the front of my house, which looked ominously dark and cold, probably because I hadn’t been there since the morning just before Kelli’s funeral. It looked different, like it had shrunk or something.
It was an old house, built when the sidewalks on Main Street, a block away, were wood planks and the streets were made of dirt.
I loved the antique wood trim around the windows and doorways, and the hardwood floors, the old rugs that covered them and the stained glass section at the top of the large living room window that faced east, caught early morning rays and deflected them in countless colorful directions.
My grandparents had moved there from the ranch long before I was born, after the previous owner, my grandmother’s cousin Willie —a boisterous talker who moved to Washington in search of fame, fortune and warmer weather —had moved out.
Why he settled in Seattle I don’t know but I think it had something to do with the availability of better-paying jobs. At any rate, he came to visit occasionally and seemed happy enough, so I guess it was a good move.
My grandfather died when I was 14 and I would often visit my grandmother after that. She would fill my head full of stories of the “olden days.”
In fact, amongst many other things, she once told me that a physician, who frequently took sips from a flask, had performed surgery on my great-grandfather on the kitchen table out at the ranch and it had not gone so well. As a result, they had to haul him 20 miles by wagon to a train that transported him across the state to a hospital that could patch him up.
The fact that he lived at all was a miracle and it was months before he finally returned to the ranch with a beard that was much grayer than when he had left.
In the end, my grandmother, who was a woman of incredible strength and faith, had survived the death of her husband, parents, 12 brothers and sisters and others, and eventually moved into a senior housing unit filled with more modern conveniences, where she eventually died from heart failure. With my brother having already built another house at the ranch, I was the recipient of the old house in town by default, more or less, and loved it.
Kelli and I had fixed it up in our spare time between rodeos and ranch work that summer, starting right after exchanging vows in Las Vegas. You could say that it was our honeymoon cottage.
“We own a house?” Kelli had shouted when I parked in front of it after I arrived in town with her for the first time.
“Oh,” I said, “did I forget to mention that?”
“It’s beautiful!” she exclaimed and hugged me.
“Well,” I said, “where did you think we were going to live?”
“In an apartment until we could buy a house I guess,” she said.
“See any apartments in this town?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I love it!”
“You better look inside first,” I said.
“I don’t care what it looks like,” she said. “It’s ours!”
“That it is,” I said and she hopped out of the car, sprinted to the front door and waited for me to arrive to open the door and carry her across the threshold.
“Hurry!” she shouted.
“Why don’t you just go inside,” I said.
“Why don’t you unlock the door, silly,” she said.
“It’s open,” I said.
“You don’t lock the door?” she asked.
“Not here,” I said.
“And how long have you been gone?” she asked.
“A month,” I said.
“That’s amazing,” she said.
“No,” I said, “that’s normal.”
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you more,” I said and picked her up, kissed her and carried her inside on what was our fifth day of knowing each other and third day of marriage.
In the days and weeks that followed, we completed most of the work on the house just before we were married for the second time in an official church ceremony with most of the town in attendance.
Rather than make major changes, we tried to preserve its antiquity as much as possible. I tore the enclosed porch off the front, replaced one window with a sliding glass door upstairs in the east bedroom, built an upper and lower deck, and added a skylight to the west bedroom which had been an attic with no windows.
The sun would shine in our faces early each morning and lead us outside for breakfast. Eventually, we converted that east bedroom into an entertainment center and slept most nights in the west bedroom where we could look up and find falling stars through the skylight, make wishes and keep them a secret from each other.
“What did you wish?” Kelli would ask me and then smile.
“Can’t tell you,” I’d say.
“Why not?” she’d ask.
“Because then it won’t come true,” I’d say.
“Is it good?” she’d ask.
“It’s a lot better than good,” I’d say.
As it turns out, I could just as well have told her because then she’d have at least known that all I ever wanted was for us to live happily ever.
But I guess that wasn’t meant to be.
In front of the lower porch of our house was a hitching post where Kelli and I would tie up our horses when we went in for cold drinks on a hot summer day, our spurs singing to us as our boot heels pounded against the wood planks.
An old couch along with my grandmother’s tall, antique clothes dresser dominated the living room. I had converted the dresser into a wall unit that hid the TV and sound system.
The dining room next to it featured an antique table and four chairs along with a large, overstuffed chair in a corner that swallowed us up when we read and listened to music late into the night.
Another bedroom on the downstairs level with a big, iron bed was meant mostly for guests. Meanwhile, our poor kitchen suffered from neglect since we often went across the alley to the local café for meals because it was so convenient and very much like having our own cook. Plus we loved mixing with the locals and they loved hearing my latest stories from the rodeo trail.
“Where are you guys off to next?” they’d ask, I guess because they were living vicariously through me.
Salinas, I’d say or Tucson or Prescott.
“Bring home the buckle,” they’d say, and if I won I’d show it to them when we got back home.
Basically, life was as good as it could get and I’d lay in bed with Kelli at night wondering what I’d done to deserve it and if it could really last.
“Do you love me?” she asked me more once.
“Do frog’s croak?” I said one time.
“What’s this got to do with frogs?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “the answer is yes, more than you know and I will until I croak.”
“You’re funny,” she said, “and weird.”
“Good thing you like weird,” I said.
“Sure is,” she said and kissed me.
We entertained often on those porches on summer nights, grilling burgers, steaks, chicken and corn on the cob, and discussing an endless list of topics with a myriad of guests including ranchers, rodeo buddies, cousins, teachers, pastors and, of course, my parents, my brother and his wife. There were even friends of Kelli’s who flew in from California.
Once, we even invited the whole congregation over after church. They all loved Kelli and she loved them, and after they’d gone home we talk about the evening’s conversation while in bed and fell asleep in each other’s arms.
Yet in all of our conversations, planning for the future rarely came up —simply because there was just so much future ahead for us. We were kids, after all, and nearly immortal. Time was on our side and there was always something to do to keep us from getting bored and more than enough travel for rodeo to help us appreciate our time at home.
A swing through California brought us back to her friends and the sunny beaches and gave us the best of both worlds.
With more than 80 rodeos a year in California, we spent a lot of time there that winter, along with Florida, Texas and Louisiana. We even went to the Rose Parade, getting up at 6:30 a.m. in Manhattan Beach and trekking to Pasadena, where we stood on the street watching marching bands and equestrian units.
Afterwards, we returned to Manhattan Beach and walked on the beach for a long time watching surfers and porpoises and fell asleep with the Sugar Bowl on TV in our hotel room.
Blocking the front entrance to my house was a small snowbank, so Houston and I kicked it aside and stepped into what had been the little dream house that Kelli and I shared.
A mental image of her sitting in the overstuffed dining room chair with her bare feet tucked under her flashed before my eyes, knocking the breath out of me and weakening my knees. I reached for the light switch and plopped down on the couch while Houston located the thermostat and cranked it up. It would take hours for the temperature to reach a comfortable level since it had at least 30 degrees to climb.
Wrapped in quilts, I lay on the couch staring at the ceiling while Houston and his wife checked the fridge for food and found none.
“Maybe you should come to our place instead,” he suggested.
“I’m staying here,” I declared.
“It’s a little barren in that fridge,” his wife said.
“I’ll be OK,” I said.
“We don’t pretend to know how you feel,” she said, “but we do have a little bit of an idea.”
What she said, which was meant to comfort me, instead made me feel embarrassed at my own self-focus as I thought of Billy again, who’d been robbed from his parents at such a young age.
“I should have been there for you,” I said. “I should have done more.”
“No,” she said as she approached the couch. “That wasn’t your job.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
She sat on the edge of the couch next to me, patted me on the head and ran her hand through my hair.
“Things just happen,” she said, “we don’t know why. We’ll see them both again someday. You’ll see.”
“It seems like such a long time,” I said.
“Yes it does,” she said, “but you’ll see that it’s not. Life is pretty short. You’ve got to make the most of it while you can. There’ll be a lot of happy days ahead.”
We sat in silence for a moment, except for the creaks from the rocker Houston was sitting in.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, “you better go home and get some sleep.”
“We’re here for you when you need us,” Houston said. “And your parents should be back from Las Vegas soon.”
“I know,” I said. “You’ve always been like parents to me.”
We all got up and I hugged them both.
“Billy loved you too,” she said. “He’d be so proud of you.”
Then she turned before I could see her cry.
When the front door closed, I kicked off my wet boots and wondered how I had managed to make such an amazing event, the National Finals Rodeo, such a depressing ordeal and then I fell asleep only to wake up at around 6:30 a.m., sweating profusely because the temperature in the house had finally reached and exceeded comfortable limits. I opened the nearest window a crack and fell back to sleep.
At 11:30 a.m. I got up and found another pair of boots, jeans and a denim shirt that was hanging in the closet upstairs next to one of Kelli’s summer dresses. On the closet floor were a few pairs of her little shoes lined up just like she’d left them.
I grabbed a big UCLA hooded sweatshirt of hers and an old goose down jacket of mine and some tattered gloves. After a cold shower I dressed, dumped underwear and socks into a duffle bag and looked for my pickup truck keys, which were nowhere to be found. Houston had obviously misplaced them on purpose to keep me from going down the road again, so I located a spare key in a cup on top of the kitchen cabinet. Then I stood in the doorway, paused to look around the house for one last time and turned to go as tears welled up in my eyes.
“You’re an idiot,” I said. “This pity party has got to end!”
With that, I closed the front door, ignored my ringing cellphone, walked out to my pickup truck, threw the duffle bag into the back seat, checked the fuel gauge, exited town and watched the water tower disappear in my rearview mirror.
My older brother was probably on the way in from the ranch to check up on me, having been called by Houston, my parents or both. I was relieved to have been able to escape in advance, not wanting to have to justify my quick departure.
“Where are you off to?” I asked myself.
“I have no idea,” I said.
With each passing mile, a sense of guilt grew inside of me and I had to continually tell myself that I was leaving nothing behind because Kelli wasn’t there.
As I drove on, I thought about driving by the same spot where Kelli and I had gone off the road in the Black Hills and wondered if I happened to go off the road too, if I might be able to go through the same gate in Heaven that she’d gone through.
Thoughts like that made me wonder if I was going insane.
Being near her grave and her things in the house tortured me and yet part of me wanted to go back and wallow amongst them and continue my pity party, while a bigger part of me wanted to escape from it all. So I thought of myself as an astronaut watching Earth get smaller and smaller through a tiny porthole.
Ultimately, I concluded that I had to escape; from that house, that town, that life, rodeo and everything that had previously existed. I was on a mission to erase the past and let go of it all. Still, letting go of Kelli was a very difficult thing to do because it wasn’t something I wanted to do.
It was something I had to do.
Was leaving everything behind a cop out? Absolutely. But I thought that I had to run away physically to survive mentally. It seemed to me that the only way I could keep from wallowing in sorrow was to run away. No, it wasn’t a rational conclusion, but it was my best solution nevertheless.
Perhaps I felt that way because the highway had always been a way for me to escape any of my problems and that time on the road would often allow me to think things through. Of course, you’d have thought that the months I’d already spent on the road following Kelli’s death would have done that. Instead, it had only delayed my coming to grips with reality and this latest departure might simply be more of the same. Only time would tell.
Either way, the highway’s white lines were like markings on a ruler that measured how long it would take to clear my head.
In this case, I knew I still had quite a few white lines to go.
Rodeo was an occupation that allowed me to earn money, and come and go as I pleased. It was also mostly common knowledge that the cowboys who rode in rodeo were basically ranch hands who were very interested in getting out of work. In that way, for those of us who did, freedom was the cake and winning was the frosting.
I noticed that the wind had stopped and the sun reflected brightly off the soft snow blanketing the community of Broadus, Montana, as I went inside a small hut and paid the attendant for the fuel I’d just put into my tank and the bottle of water I had grabbed from the cooler. Then I drove slowly down the only paved street in town and parked in front of a tiny Laundromat next to Broadus Boot and Tack.
I dumped a pile of dusty jeans that I’d worn during 10 rounds of the National Final Rodeo into a washing machine along with too much powdered soap from a couple of those little boxes that you wrestle out of a vending machine. Then I strolled next door to shop for shirts, underwear and socks, casting most of my dirty shirts aside because they were covered with rodeo sponsor logos and that would be a little too conspicuous to wear “on the street.”
Burning a hole in my back pocket was a National Finals Rodeo check for $100,000, which was little more than a piece of paper in a town like Broadus, whose population was the size of a big city high school and where bankers seldom let strangers walk out of their front door with a bag full of that kind of cash.
I was a little worried that someone might recognize me in Broadus since it was smack dab in the middle of Montana’s ranch country, with most of its population being made up of avid rodeo fans. In fact, I’d seen a rodeo arena on my right when I entered city limits, next to the park.
So I felt a little like a criminal on the run even though I wasn’t, because I just wanted to get away, and being recognized or being reminded of who you are simply made that more difficult.
Broadus had not been a planned destination. It was just a place where my fuel tank began to scream for a refill. I’d been there a number of times before because it was sitting on top of a southbound highway that offered an alternative to going through the Black Hills when headed south.
Surrounded by buttes and ranches, Broadus was definitely secluded and too far east to be in the midst of Montana’s majestic mountains, but west enough to be in the heart of the Wild West. It was also a very cold place in December and I thought that, if my goal was to get away, it might as well be to a warmer climate, thus my stay in Broadus was destined to be short-lived.
Broadus Boot & Tack was a small western store crammed from floor to ceiling with cowboy stuff. I went inside and snooped around for some underwear, socks and cowboy shirts with snaps. I liked shirts with snaps because they reminded me of the one’s my uncle and aunt gave me every year for my birthday when I was a kid.
The middle-aged female owner of the shop appeared to make it her mission to sell me a pair of boots and tempted me with substantially reduced prices on a number of models. But I wasn’t in the mood to buy boots and in even less of a mood to bargain.
“They’re made of very soft deer skin,” she said, trying to boost my interest.
“Not a big fan of deerskin,” I said to myself and thought about how she couldn’t possibly know that her reference to that animal was not going to be an appreciable selling point.
“Maybe another day,” I said.
“You’re not going to walk around in those boots, are you?” she asked.
I looked down and noticed a piece of white sweat sock sticking out through the side of a tiny tear in my right boot.
“Good point,” I said and she grinned.
“Let me try on a pair of those over there,” I said pointing to a square-toed model with a flat heel.
“Sure thing,” she said and grabbed a box from the shelf in my size.
That’s when I noticed a big western wear poster on the wall behind the cash register with a picture of me on it. Of course part of having a rodeo sponsor, like I did, meant being used by them to promote their products in a variety of ways. A photo session here and an autograph session there got me my travel expenses and rodeo entry fees paid.
I didn’t necessarily like the publicity, but I did like the added money and the freedom it provided.
She caught me looking at the poster as she rung up the sale and yet never seemed to put two and two together, which might have told me how lousy I looked at that moment, to the point of being unrecognizable.
I spent the next hour watching no traffic pass by the Laundromat while my jeans took an extraordinary amount of time to dry in what must have been a lukewarm dryer. When my stomach began to growl, I spotted the nearest — and only — bar and restaurant and left my clothes behind to fend for themselves, at least for the moment.
When I got to the bar, I bellied up and ordered a steak with American fries, whole kernel corn and a dinner salad. I might have been the third person that year to order a salad there, which was not a big seller apparently and wondered how fresh the lettuce leaves might be in Broadus in mid-winter.
“We’ve got the best steaks in town,” the bartender said.
“And the only ones,” I said.
“That’s true too,” he said and wiped off the bar in front of me.
“Just passing through?” he asked.
“Quickly,” I said.
“To where?” he asked.
“South,” I said.
“Good choice,” he said.
“I think so,” I replied.
As I sipped from a glass of water, I noticed a gentleman by the name of Buck Haley playing pool in the corner. Buck was not my favorite name since it seemed to be normally associated with stupidity, inbreeding and white trash and, from what I knew of him, he did nothing to alter that misconception. So I wondered for a second if it was the name that shaped the man or the man who shaped the name and couldn’t quite come to a conclusion before I snapped out of my momentary daydream.
Buck was a rancher near my hometown who was semi-tall and fat, though others might have called him “big boned,” at least to his face. Not me, I called 260 pounds tacked on a man under six-feet tall “fat.” and I often wondered how he’d convinced a woman as beautiful and seemingly intelligent as his wife to marry him, and thought his dullness might actually be an act. But he’d never done or said anything profound enough to support the “he might have brains” theory, so I finally concluded that there were simply pretty women in the world who had a thing for large, slow-witted men.
He and three other slightly smaller men were very preoccupied with their game of high-stakes pool and had yet to glance my way. and I hoped they wouldn’t. Perhaps my frazzled appearance would throw Buck off if he did glance at me anyway. Whatever the case, remembering our prior interactions, I wondered if there might be a sheriff in town and some competent medical facilities, seeing as how I was outnumbered.
In that situation, a man with any intelligence might have just tipped his hat to the bartender and sauntered out the door but apparently I wasn’t that intelligent. Or I was just too hungry.
At any rate, I knew it wasn’t me that Buck hated as much as a pair of brothers I often hung out with, which was precisely the situation people referred to when they suggested that you choose your friends wisely.
You see, my friend Mickey and his brother Darrin were also ranchers from my neck of the woods and they, like a lot of cowboys who had substantial intellectual ability but spent too much time on the ranch, tended to stir things up a bit once they got “to town.”
Mickey was actually in the midst of working towards his master’s degree in mathematics, go figure. And despite the fact that he could be like an animal after a few too many beers, he was a crafty animal. His brother, Darrin, who was labelled “Calendar Boy” by a rather stocky fesmale at a bar somewhere in Kansas, could be a borderline psychotic after he’d downed a couple of shots of whiskey.
They both loved to fight and had been bred to do so by the generation before them, with alcohol being the great facilitator that prompted them to create a fighting situation if one didn’t automatically evolve.
Buck had crossed them in a pool game once, oddly enough, and paid for it, and were they both with me at that moment he would have simply backed out the door with his buddies in tow and sped down the highway. Instead, I knew I would look like a tasty treat to him, a sacrificial lamb, all alone and vulnerable and the opportunity to take out all of his past frustrations would be just too tempting for him to walk away from.
That’s when the bartender brought me my steak along with a large glass of orange juice and two kinds of salad dressing on the side, just like I ordered. When Buck finished missing his pool shot, he casually picked up a glass of beer sitting on the edge of the pool table, spotted me through the bottom, sitting there all alone, and nearly spit what he’d just swallowed across the room.
“Very impressive,” I muttered, mostly under my breath.
“What?” the bartender asked, probably hoping that I was commenting on the taste of my first bite of steak.
“Nothing,” I said and glanced at the napkin he’d given me, thinking that if it’d been red I could have used it as a bullfighting cape for when Buck the bull came charging, which I knew he soon would.
Figuring that I might was well get some enjoyment out of the meal I’d just ordered and probably wouldn’t be paying for, unless the bartender grabbed some bills out of my jeans pocket as I lay unconscious on the floor, I took a couple more bites of what would soon be my “last supper.”
Buck Haley glanced about that Broadus bar to make sure that I was alone and he seemed temporarily uncertain how to proceed, seeing as how I, someone who he hated, was there by himself and easy prey.
“Can I really be this lucky?” I imagined him asking himself. Unfortunately he was.
Although I had briefly thought about making a mad dash for the door to save my life, I finally decided that I’d just get my blows in once Buck and his buddies attacked me, and then probably join Kelli in Heaven.
Of course, I really didn’t debate it long because I could never have lived with myself anyway had I run away from Buck Haley, who I so greatly disrespected, because then, in the end, I’d have to disrespect myself.
While he huddled with his boys to formulate a plan of attack, I simply looked down at my plate and took two more bites. Then I glanced back at Buck, with a manufactured look of cocky arrogance on my face, as if I had an entire army covering my backside, and I even snickered a little, which might not have been the smartest thing I ever did because it seemed to fuel the fire.
Hours later I located the nearest medical facility, around midnight in fact, in Gillette, Wyoming, and watched as the glass doors popped open when I walked through them.
I felt OK but I definitely didn’t look OK because apparently one of the participants in my “Broadus Brawl” had been wearing a big ring and caught me with it on the underside of my chin. The resulting gash spewed what seemed like gallons of blood onto my shirt and jacket before I could ebb the flow with a handful of Broadus bar napkins.
My left eye was swollen almost shut, which made driving a little difficult, even though I tried to minimize the swelling by holding a snowball against it, which, while driving, was no easy task since I was also trying to hold the bar napkins to my chin.
Gillette was one of those wild oil towns, and I got the feeling that a busy emergency room was mostly the norm at any time of day. A nurse at the reception desk gave me a clipboard and asked me to fill in the blanks on a variety of forms while a knifing victim was whisked by me on a gurney, down the hall and through some double doors.
“Are you in pain?” she asked me.
“Usually,” I said.
“Usually?” she asked.
“More often than not,” I said.
“Why,” she asked, “do you have a condition?”
“No,” I said, “an addiction.”
“To what?” she asked.
“Rodeo,” I said.
“I understand,” she said.
“I wish you did,” I said.
Having diligently filled out the forms, I slumped in a chair in the waiting room along with many other valued customers in various states of ill health and together we watched way too many minutes of sitcom reruns while yawning and trying to stay warm.
I quickly tired of gazing at an elevated television through one eye and promptly drifted off to sleep, did one of those falling off-a-cliff-things you do when you first fall asleep, woke up, fell asleep again and woke up again.
Then I began to contemplate how far I’d fallen in such a short time, nearly winning a world championship in rodeo on a national television network one day and in a barroom brawl and a hospital emergency room two days later.
Across the aisle, a young boy was sitting next to a large lady wearing what might have been a flowered tent and he looked at me warily as though he thought I was about to star in some low-grade horror flick.
Truth is Buck might have made short work of me back in that Broadus bar had he not uttered a derogatory remark about Kelli that propelled me to a previously unattained level of rage.
Surely he must have known she was dead. The man had absolutely no class or he was dumber than I thought.
After kicking him squarely between the legs I busted him one on the jaw that instantly buckled his knees and sent him into dreamland for the night, or at least for the moment. I was working over his buddy who was wearing the ring as the other one scurried out of the bar, and then the bartender and two customers pulled me off and held me, and that’s when Mr. Ring got his sucker punch in and then he ran off too.
“Gee thanks,” I said to the bartender.
“Sorry about that,” he said.
Later, a very attractive black-haired nurse, who softly poked me on the shoulder, coaxed me from my slumber and escorted me into the emergency room where she cleaned my chin wound with gentle hands and examined the area around my eye to see if there might be some unapparent damage.
“Any visual problems?” she asked.
“There is now,” I said.
“Before it swelled up?” she asked.
“None that I can remember,” I said.
“Where you knocked out?” she asked.
“Not by that lard ass,” I said.
“Just one lard ass?” she asked.
“As a matter of fact there were three,” I said.
“So you must be Superman,” she said.
“Only on Halloween,” I said.
Her name was Wendy, she was in her late 20s, she’d married a man in the military at a young age, lived on various bases throughout the south and was now divorced. What had happened to her husband and how she’d ended up in Gillette I didn’t know, nor was I about to ask because I didn’t want to be accused of prying.
When the doctor finally arrived he sewed 17 stiches on the inside and 18 on the outside of my wound. I guess that meant my gash was both deep and wide.
“Did you run into a grizzly bear?” he asked.
“Wild boar,” I said.
“How is the wild boar?” he asked.
“Sleeping peacefully,” I said.
Afterwards, they covered my chin with a big, thick bandage held on by long strips of thin white tape. It might have been an impressive-looking patch were I a soldier returning from the battlefield. But I knew it’d be no asset for a cowboy, whose shirt and jacket was covered in blood, trying to locate a motel room in the middle of the night.
When he was done, I went out to the parking lot, climbed into my pickup truck, started it up and began to drift off to sleep.
Suddenly there was a tap on my driver’s side window.
“No place to go?” Wendy asked me.
“Probably not tonight,” I said, “looking like I do and not being able to see all that well.”
“You can sleep on my couch,” she said.
“Where’s that?” I asked.
“Across the street,” she said.
“But I hardly know you,” I said.
“That might be a good thing,” she said.
“Good point,” I said, and she walked me across the street, let me in her house, showed me the bathroom, gathered some blankets, threw them on the couch and said she’d be back in two hours when her shift ended.
“I’ll pay you,” I said.
“Not necessary,” she said. ”Just don’t leave the toilet seat up.”
“That might be asking too much,” I said.
“You’re right,” she said, “I momentarily lost my mind.”
“Thanks,” I said, and as soon as she closed the front door, I passed out.
At five o’clock she woke me up, unintentionally, and I pretended I was still asleep when she passed by me and went into the bedroom.
With the light on and her door open just a crack, I watched her peel off her emergency room scrubs and drop them to the floor. She was a fairly tall woman, maybe 5-foot-9, with a very nice figure and slightly dark skin with nary a blemish.
While slipping into a bathrobe, she made her way to the bathroom, where she turned on the shower and, I assumed, completed a nightly ritual. A short time later, the bathroom door opened slightly and the smell of shampoo and cleanliness flooded the living room. I continued to pretend that I was asleep as she traipsed very quietly around the apartment until I suddenly felt her soft lips touch mine.
She was wearing a pink satin robe that did little to hide the fullness of her breasts and I looked into her gentle eyes and she put her hand around the back of my neck and kissed me passionately. Then she took my hand, guided me into the bedroom and asked me to lie down next to her.
“I never do this,” she said.
“Then why are you doing it now?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” she said, and there was a moment of silence.
“But you’re not a stranger,” she added.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I saw you on TV and I obviously know your name from your chart,” she said, “but it’s more than that.”
“Oh?” I said.
“You’re very sad,” she said.
I looked away.
“I know what it means to be sad,” she said, and then she hugged me and we cuddled that night in a way that added a missing ingredient to both of our lives, I think.
I felt a bond with her as if something deep in her soul was trying to heal mine and I stayed there for a day and a half while the swelling in my eye went down, but for bigger reasons than that I think.
We spent a lot of that time talking, became very good friends and she did a lot to heal my soul, but in the end she couldn’t bring Kelli back or replace her, and I took off the next mid-morning in the general direction of Denver.
As I waved goodbye, I found myself asking God to take care of her and to give me an opportunity to see her again.
“Don’t be a stranger,” she said as I pulled away.
“Wouldn’t think of it,” I said, and tipped my hat like I remembered my grandfather had often times done.
Poor planning on my part brought me to Denver at the early stages of rush hour traffic. Rather than crawl along at 25 miles per hour with no specific destination in mind, I elected to veer off of Interstate 25 onto the Boulder/Denver Turnpike towards the community of Boulder and the frosty mountain peaks dominating the horizon. It would prove to be a life-altering decision.
Fifteen minutes later, I topped a large hill and drove right into the center of a postcard, or so it seemed, that featured the city of Boulder visually filling a large basin with purple mountains as the backdrop. Those mountains, called the Flat Irons, seemed to have been thrust from the center of the earth skyward.
Once inside the Boulder city limits, I found it to be a rustic, hip and hippy town, and soon parked next to a beer and burger tavern downtown, across the street from the local newspaper.
Inside, the tavern’s 20 booths were filled with boisterous conversationalists involved in deeply intellectual conversations while cute waitresses in wrap-around skirts attended to their every need. I sat down in a vacant two-person mini-booth near the jukebox and glanced at the menu.
“What can I get you?” a waitress soon asked.
“I’ll have a burger,” I said.
“Nice choice,” she said.
“And a consistent one here it appears,” I said.
“That too,” she replied and spun around, walked to the back and shouted instructions to some eyeballs peeking through a long slit in the wall. Then she picked up a tray of draft beers from a little bar bellied up to by three or four thirsty regulars and delivered them to another booth.
“New in town?” she asked when she soon delivered my burger.
“Very,” I said. ”Is it obvious?”
“We don’t get many cowboy hats in here,” she said.
“Guess that makes me unique,” I said.
“Not that you weren’t anyway,” she said, “especially with that black eye and big bandage on your chin.”
“That’s not a popular look here?” I asked.
“It’s not unpopular,” she said.
“Just unusual,” I said.
“That’s right,” she said.
“I’ll take that in a good way,” I said.
“You should,” she said and smiled.
After two hours of fun-filled conversation with her, most of the waitresses and some of the patrons over beers, I later found myself on the front step of her brother’s house waiting for him to answer the door. He looked a little puzzled when he opened it and saw me wincing under his too bright porch light.
An advance description is one thing but actually seeing a black-eyed, bandaged and beaten refuge on your front porch holding a duffle bag without a jacket on in mid-winter can be a little shocking to anyone. Nevertheless, he kindly invited me in, and I marveled at the risks people in dire need of a roommate will take. Of course, the fact that he was a 6-foot-2, 245-pound gorilla with a crushing handshake might have eliminated a lot of his paranoia.
We haggled over rent, not at all, and discussed the rules of the house, of which there were none and then I moved my belongings in, which didn’t require a return trip to my pickup truck.
“How soon can you pay rent?” he asked.
“Soon,” I said and showed him my $100,000 check.
“Are you here to buy the house or rent a room in it?” he asked.
“Whichever is cheaper,” I said.
“That depends,” he said.
“On what?” I asked.
“On how long you stay,” he said.
“I love roommates,” I said, “but I hope to grow out of that someday.”
His name was Dave and he’d grown up way back east in Rochester, New York. I mentioned that I’d ridden in a large county fair rodeo near there and broke the tip off my elbow a couple years earlier, and he seemed to like that for whatever reason.
“Looks like you got bucked off something in the last couple of days,” he said and I assumed he was referring to my black eye and chin patch.
“Ran into a wild boar,” I said.
“It happens,” he said.
Dave, as it turned out, was a big puppy who’d recently graduated from college and worked in the advertising department at the Boulder Daily Camera, the local newspaper. Sitting on his lap, as we talked in his living room, was an attractive young girl, about college age, who he said also worked at the newspaper part-time as a support person in the advertising department.
Dave’s father worked for the same newspaper chain the Boulder Daily Camera was owned by, thus his ease at getting a job there. He and his sister, Pam, my waitress, had four other siblings. It wasn’t long before his friendly nature and big heart led me to nickname him Baby Huey, after the terminally naïve cartoon character.
I decided to stay in Boulder for a while and Santa failed to visit me that Christmas Eve.
In fact, it began as a desperately lonely night, which was my fault because I was living life “undercover,” so to speak, and none of my friends really knew where I was. The loneliness led me to seek out a local church where I might find some companionship, because one can only watch so many reruns of Jimmy Stewart in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” by himself before he begins to feel a little too much like Ebenezer Scrooge and looks for the sudden appearance of the ghosts of Christmas past.
At 10:30, I was the first one to arrive for the 11 O’clock evening service and promptly sat myself down in the next to back pew.
“Welcome to Trinity,” the silver-haired male greeter with the red sweater had said to me as I entered.
“Visiting from out of town?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said as I looked about for other worshippers, fearing that I might be part of a congregation of one at that late hour.
“Don’t worry,” he said, reading my mind, “It’s a late-arriving crowd.”
“I’m not worried,” I said and a lull in the conversation then ensued.
“Have I seen you before?” he suddenly asked. “You look very familiar.”
“No,” I said, “I don’t think so.”
“Are you a hockey player?” he asked. “I see you’ve got quite a scar there under your chin.”
That’s when I absentmindedly felt my chin and tried to respond quickly without making up a total lie in the house of God.
“N-no,” I stammered, “I came to the defense of a not-so-fortunate diner at a restaurant not so long ago.”
“Oh,” he said, “who was that?”
“Me,” I said and he chuckled mightily, thankfully.
In minutes, the pews were overfilled and, as a reflex action, I eyed the crowd in search of a familiar face and found none.
The stout older lady seated next to me had the hide of some unfortunate creature wrapped around her neck and appeared to be the grandmother of the teenage girl seated next to her. I wondered if she’d been a famous opera singer in her past based upon the way she belted out the hymns at a decibel level that put the church’s giant pipe organ to shame.
The pastor, a blonde-haired man in his early 30s, originally from Duluth, Minnesota, greeted me warmly and did his best to make me feel like an honored guest. I liked him immediately because of his warm eyes and because he smiled a lot.
His name was David Nelson and after the service, as if I was a homeless pup, he and his wife, Mary, invited me into their home and served me hot cider and popcorn balls by the fire.
He opted not to pry into my past, which led me to believe that there was much wisdom behind that young pastor’s eyes, and I stayed there for about an hour while their dog, a huge Alaskan malamute, about the same size as my roommate, Baby Huey, served as a pillow for their 3-year-old sleeping daughter.
“So,” he said, “you’re originally from North Dakota?”
“Yes,” I said, “where hockey pucks spend more time on ponds than ducks.”
“That’s a good one,” he said laughing.
“And true,” I said.
On the way home, I remembered to call my parents to wish them a merry Christmas and assure them that I was very happy, even though that was a small lie.
“Are you eating properly?” my mother asked.
“Better than most Americans,” I said.
“Which isn’t necessarily reassuring,” she said.
“But nonetheless true,” I said.
When I got back to Baby Huey’s house, I threw a pile of logs into the fireplace, grabbed an afghan lying on the couch that his girlfriend had made for him, played some classic Christmas music and unsuccessfully tried not to think of the prior Christmas spent with Kelli.
Baby Huey and his sister Pam, who were back in Rochester for the holidays, were kind enough to give me a call earlier in the evening to wish me a merry Christmas. Thus, all in all, it turned out to be a fine, if somewhat lonely, Christmas Eve.
Around 3 O’clock in the morning, I woke up when I thought I heard reindeer on the roof and Santa in the fridge. Concluding that it had been part of a dream, I shed my jeans and sweater, climbed into my bed in the basement and slept off the remainder of that holiday evening. Not a creature was stirring.
That next morning turned out to be an interesting one.
I met Stephanie when her purple Corvette skidded off an icy street in front of Huey’s house, spun around and plowed into his front yard, stopping just short of my large, split-level bedroom window.
She said that her stodgy father lived next door to David Letterman in New Canaan, Connecticut, an hour north of New York City. Her mother, an overweight real estate big wig in New Mexico with cotton candy hair, had a drinking problem and more money than she knew what to do with. Meanwhile, their daughter appeared to be the poster child for the “I get my own way society of America.”
She was neither frantic nor hurt, but drunk and I mistakenly did what so many had done for her in the past when I covered her tracks.
After getting her undamaged car off of the snow-filled lawn, with the aid of two neighbors, I put three logs on the fire, perked some high-octane coffee and listened to her babble her life’s story, repeating certain themes two too many times.
From that point forward, I somehow knew that the peaceful existence I had created in Boulder would quickly come to an end.
“My mother is a fat pig and my father is a loser,” announced Stephanie, the motorist who’d just run her car onto the front lawn of the house I shared with Baby Huey.
“That’s a little harsh don’t you think?” I said.
“You don’t know them,” she said. “I’m nothing to them. My mother pays me off to keep me out of her life and my father pays other people to keep an eye on me and make my life miserable.”
“Really,” I said.
“The hell with them,” she said, “I don’t need them!”
Now I didn’t know the girl but I figured that she would need them if she was going to continue what appeared to be a fairly opulent lifestyle. Everything about her was bought and paid for, after all, including her body, tan, auburn hair and tight-fitting jeans.
She had been a student at the University of Colorado, located just down the road, and quickly dropped out when sorority life began to bore her. At the moment, she was without a boyfriend because all men were pig. Though ironically, she’d just left the home of some nameless joker whom she’d met at a party the night before.
For five hours she lay passed out on the living room couch while I did everything I could think of to occupy my time, which included reading the morning newspaper, showering, cleaning my room, washing clothes and wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
Around 4 o’clock, after numerous attempts to awaken her failed, ranging from clearing my throat to dropping things on the kitchen floor, blasting music and opening doors and windows, I debated driving my pickup truck up the steps to the front door and hooking jumper cables to her big toes.
Finally, at five o’clock, Sleeping Beauty woke up red-eyed and hungover and begged me to drive her home. I agreed, if only to get her out of the house.
“I’m a loser,” she said. ”I need to change my lifestyle or I’m going to end up dead.”
“Sliding into front yards can be lethal,” I said.
“I’ve got to quit drinking,” she said.
“That helps,” I said.
“I can’t remember the last day I went without a drink,” she said.
“Because you drank too much or because it was too long ago?” I asked and she ignored me.
“Do you drink?” she asked.
“Less than you,” I said.
“All my friends drink,” she said.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” I said.
“Maybe I need a new life,” she said.
“Maybe you need to go home,” I said, but only to myself.
Her condo was located on the opposite side of town in north Boulder, which, for some reason, gave me great comfort. Its contents reeked of lavish overspending with an overabundance of items purchased, looked at once and cast aside. I assumed that she simply bought everything she ever saw in any ad.
“I’m going to jump in the shower,” she said.
“Don’t jump,” I said.
As she soaked for hours, I sat down on her couch, flicked channels on the world’s biggest big screen and thought about how she might have been the exact opposite of Kelli.
I tried to ignore the phone when it rang but then she yelled for me to answer it.
“Hi, is Stephanie there?” an older male voice asked.
“In the shower,” I said.
“This is Donovan Rolander, her father,” he said. “Could you tell her that I am wishing her a very Merry Christmas and that I want her to know I love her very much?”
“I sure will,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said and hung up.
Shortly after that the water in the shower quit running, she primped for a decade and then appeared stage right, morphed, fabulously dressed and ready for me to shower her with oohs and ahs. My unintended lack of enthusiasm seemed to dull her glow a bit and I suddenly felt guilty. Hidden behind all of the toys, makeup, self-centeredness and toughness, I quickly realized, was a little girl who was very lonely and in need of confirmation.
“You look very pretty,” I said.
“I know,” she said and smirked. ”Are you hungry?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Let’s go eat,” she said.
“Your dad called,” I said.
“That’s nice,” she said.
“He wished you a Merry Christmas and said he loves you,” I said.
She muttered a profanity, went through a door that led to her garage and I followed.
“Not going to call daddy?” I asked.
“Not this year,” she said.
I dropped the topic in favor of more mundane issues like abortion, homosexuality, sex before marriage and politics.
I’d driven her Corvette to her house and she drove from there to a downtown restaurant, a trendy brick building full of beautiful people, at NASCAR speeds.
Stephanie was fairly composed, interesting and sincere as we waited for our meals and she nursed a gin and tonic. After a short time, her rowdy friends arrived and she took on a totally new persona, becoming loud and gregarious, and buying round after round of drinks for what I soon realized were her “hangers on.”
Meanwhile, I was a mostly sober party of one, which is always no fun, sitting off to the side watching a group of drunks cackle and crow, laughing at stories which, without the aid of alcohol, wouldn’t really be that funny.
Oddly, each member of the group made repeated trips to the restroom for what I thought at first was a contagious bladder problem and then realized it had more to do with recreational drugs, with Stephanie wearing out more carpet then any of them.
“Merry Christmas!” she shouted once, on her way back, while nearly tipping over the table of four much more conservative diners, as her heel caught on the carpet.
“Let’s party!” she shouted.
Eventually, I worked my way out the front door and walked in light snowfall three miles back to the warmth of my roommate, Baby Huey’s house. Then at three in the morning I responded to a loud and never-ending knock on the front door wearing only pajama bottoms and a frown.
“Hi,” Stephanie said.
She was drunk, missing a shoe, her dress was torn, her coat was hanging half off and her top lip was bloodied and bruised. I quickly whisked her inside, wrapped her in the living room afghan and sat her on the couch.
“I was raped,” she said.
“Who raped you?” I asked.
“Sam,” she shouted.
As far as I was concerned it could have been Bill, Ed or Sue and not have had any less meaning but I, nevertheless, urged her to fill me in on the details.
Seems she and her hangers on had gone back to her condo, and she and one of the males had slipped into her bedroom and he’d raped her when she refused to grant his wishes. The other members of the group laughed when she re-emerged, distressed, partially clad and screaming, with mascara tears running down her cheeks.
Some of the boys even gave high-fives to the rapist as he smiled and raised his fists in a victory salute.
None of them was going to be of assistance were charges ever brought against Sam, I knew, and I could imagine how an unscrupulous defense attorney might have a field day when describing Stephanie’s suggestive attire and lifestyle to a judge or jury.
Aided by Stephanie’s description, I remembered the perpetrator sitting across the table from me, an arrogant gift to women who was clad in a leather jacket, with an open collar shirt framing a gaudy gold chain. His accent revealed a foreign origin and his buddies seemed to jump at his command.
I hugged Stephanie like a loving father and rocked her back and forth while she cried for what seemed like hours. Despite my repeated urgings, she refused to go to the hospital or call the police and cursed Sam repeatedly.
Eventually, I removed her jacket and helped her to the bathroom where I turned on the water in the shower and tested the temperature. When I turned around she had removed the straps of her black party dress and let it drop to the floor. As she stood there naked with her arms crossed and her bottom lip quivering I could see some light bruises here and there.
She stayed in the shower even longer than she had earlier that day and when she got out I wrapped a large towel around her that I had warmed in the dryer, handed her a bathrobe and left, careful to make sure that the bathroom door was not locked, since I’d heard of girls becoming suicidal in that type of situation. Then I called the pastor I’d met the night before and asked him to come over.
Pastor David was there in minutes and talked to Stephanie for a while, until she was too tired and, after I tucked her in my bed, he and I sat in the living room and talked some more. He had some experience in these matters and suggested a counseling center that could help her with both her rape and alcohol issues.
He also declared that she should have gone to the hospital, which I knew, and that she should not have showered and that pictures should have been taken of her injuries.
While he talked it may have appeared that I was listening to him but most of my thoughts were centered on Sam the rapist. I was concerned that he might repeat his offense and hurt her in other ways, both mental and physical. He needed to be corralled somehow and taught that he did not have free reign.
The next day, I cooked Stephanie a nice brunch, after which her spirits seemed to improve. Then I left her lying on the couch, sleeping, and went to her condo to pick up clothing and bathroom items to hold her over.
Her house was a mess, with empty glasses and beer cans strewn all over. In the bedroom I found the panty hose and underwear she’d been wearing on the floor next to the bed.
I grabbed some bathroom items and clothing, stuffed them into a bag and found a video camera lying on a table. There appeared to be film inside so I shot everything the way it was and then called her to make sure she was all right and to tell her that I was on my way back.
She didn’t answer.
It was Friday night in Boulder and a dance club called Night Cap was the place to be. Located at the corner of Arapahoe and Broadway, it was on the edge of downtown but still close enough to the University of Colorado campus to draw plenty of student partiers.
I flashed the bouncer my driver’s license, he did the math and I sped inside. The mirrored globe hanging from the ceiling deflected bright colors in every direction, young bodies banged against each other on a packed dance floor and the music blared so loud that the bass nearly altered my heart rhythm.
Working my way across the dance floor, I spotted the crew that’d partied at Stephanie’s the night before. They were gathered around a high top table in the back.
Sam, the rapist, was walking toward the restroom so I approached him from behind, put my arms up under his armpits and locked my hands together behind his neck, a move that is referred to as a full nelson in the sport of wrestling. Then I drove his nose into the carpet and held him there while I shouted in his ear.
“If she dies,” I said, “then you do too!”
Having finished my speech, I picked him up, drug him back to where his friends were seated and threw him towards their high-top table, sending both it and their drinks flying through the air and knocking two of them off of their stools.
By then, two bouncers had been alerted to the scene and I slipped between them unnoticed as they glided toward the action. Continuing on out the front door, I got into my pickup truck, checked the rearview mirror and sped off towards Boulder Community Hospital.
As I drove, I reminded myself that confronting Sam in the bar had been a stupid thing to do for a variety of reasons. After all, I had considered Stephanie to be a self-centered, spoiled bimbo so why would I want to come to her aide, defend her or exact any kind of revenge on her behalf?
Of course, that attitude changed abruptly when I’d left her home alone, while retrieving items from her place, and she promptly slit her wrists.
The event shot me into a new stratosphere of rage I had to admit, and jettisoned me towards the need to take some kind of action. In addition, deep down I wondered if the event also served as a convenient outlet for me to release personal emotions that’d been pent up for far too long.
Meanwhile, Stephanie was either asleep or unconscious when I entered her hospital room, her wrists were heavily bandaged, there were tubes running into her arms and Pastor David was sitting in a chair next to the bed.
“She’s been asleep for some time,” he said. “The doctors said you got the ambulance there just in time. She’s lost a lot of blood.”
“Her dad is on the way,” I said, having called him. “He’ll be here tomorrow.”
“What about her mother?” he asked.
“Don’t know how to get ahold of her,” I said and picked up a chair from the corner of the room and moved it closer to the bed.
“Where have you been?” he asked me.
“Stopped off to educate some of her friends,” I said.
“That’s nice,” he said.
“I thought so,” I said.
We sat in silence for a moment and looked at Stephanie.
“Why don’t you go home?” I finally said. “I can handle this.”
“I can stay,” he said.
“There’s no need,” I said.
When he left 15 minutes later, I sat there wondering how I might describe the evening’s events to my new buddy and landlord, Baby Huey. After all, his neighbors would undoubtedly clue him into what they’d seen take place next door at some point.
“Never mind the purple Corvette in the front yard or the ambulance and fire truck parked outside,” I might say to him. “It was all a misunderstanding or a figment of their imagination.”
I thought it best to pack my bags and be prepared to move out and that’s when Stephanie called out my name.
“I’m here,” I said.
“It wasn’t me,” she said, laboring to speak through what must have been a drug induced stupor.
“Relax,” I said. “You’re in good hands.”
“It wasn’t me,” she said again.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”
“It wasn’t me,” she said. “I didn’t cut my wrists!”
Her revelation stunned me so I asked her to repeat it again but she couldn’t quite pull herself out of the stupor enough to do so. I sat there for a moment and then pulled out my cellphone and called a number that I’d obtained only hours before.
“Give me Detective Stypula,” I said and then waited on the line for what seemed like far too long.
From our earlier contact, I knew that Stypula was a Penn State graduate who’d grown up near Pittsburgh. A good-sized cop with blond hair and thick glasses, he’d been one of the officers who’d made an appearance at the house after I’d called 911. He’d also gone to Stephanie’s house, at my suggestion, to investigate things there and scoffed at any suggestion that her event might be anything other than a suicide attempt. I had to admit that the evidence supported his “let’s get this over with quickly” conclusion.
“What have you found out?” I asked him.
“Looks to me like we might have an unstable lady of questionable morals trying to implicate a foreign male because he dumped her and this is how she gets back at him,” he said. “We also found no evidence at her home, despite your suggestion that we’d find something to support a rape. Nor do we have any corroborating testimony from witnesses.”
“Cut and dried,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said.
“Then you probably wouldn’t believe it if I told you she wasn’t the one that cut her wrists,” I said.
“That’s a big 10-4,” he said. “Besides, there isn’t anything in your home to suggest that there’d been any kind of struggle there or that an intruder had broken in. In other words, I think the little lady is being less than honest with you.”
I reprimanded myself for not taking her to the police station immediately after she’d been raped, even if it would have required me to rope and drag her like a stampeding steer, so opposed was she to the idea.
“I suggest that you distance yourself from that young lady and quit this nasty habit of roughing up foreign nationals in bars,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I heard about the little incident at the Night Cap tonight,” he said. “It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together. I expect that Stephanie’s friend Sam will be getting a restraining order against you as soon as he can.”
I momentarily stared at the ugly tiled floor.
“But what about her house,” I said, “what about any evidence of sperm on the sheets?”
“Her sheets were clean and the bed was made,” he said. “For all we know, she went home with you and the two of you had rough sex.”
That statement, I assumed, was his not-so roundabout way of telling me to back off.
“That’s right,” I said, “and then I called a pastor to come over so that I could tell him all about it.”
“I’ve seen weirder things,” he said.
“I doubt it,” I said, and he went on to tell me about how they’d briefly investigated Sam, the rapist, and found out that he was originally from Egypt, his college grades were very good, his teachers had nothing but good things to say about him, all of his papers were in order, and his family was very influential and blessed with unlimited resources.”
I ended the call having formed the opinion that Detective Stypula was a grade “A” jerk and that he, unfortunately, might be right. Perhaps Stephanie was just a rich bitch trying to get back at Sam. Or maybe she had been so drunk that she didn’t know she was being taken advantage of until it was too late. After all, she did drink enough to float a navy, and that was only while I was at the restaurant with them. Not to mention that she was teasingly affectionate with Sam and every other guy who came near her.
Whatever the case, I decided it was time for me to wash my hands of the whole mess because Stypula was right. I needed to distance myself from her. She was bad luck.
Not that she would be talking to me anytime soon anyway because, when I told her earlier that I’d gotten ahold of her father and that he was flying in she’d gone ballistic on me. So when daddy arrived she’d be his problem.
But more importantly, I had to realize that I wasn’t a detective or responsible for fixing the problem even though it had fallen into my lap.
Still, there were a number of things that bothered me. For example, I wondered who had made up the bed at her home. It couldn’t have been a maid because maids don’t typically make up a bed in the bedroom and leave the rest of the house a mess.
Plus, I wondered what had happened to the video that I had shot of her messy apartment? I was quite certain that I had put the camera in my pickup truck in the midst of my rush to get back to my place. But for some reason, I couldn’t find it.
I was in a foul mood anyway, but when the airline stuffed me into the middle seat of the last row on a crowded airplane, I became even crankier.
The flight from Denver to Newark was long and it seemed like people were lined up 10 deep back there for most of it, waiting for the next restroom door to pop open so that they could rush inside.
Then a too-tall, just-of-out-college and very-drunk pretty boy started hassling the flight attendants because they wouldn’t serve him more booze.
Of course, once again, I knew better, but because I had reached a high enough level of frustration, I decided to come to aide of the sky waitresses and quickly swore myself in as air marshal.
Glancing briefly at the lady holding the baby to my right, I asked the New York businessman seated to my left to move up four rows to the aisle seat left unoccupied by Mr. Cocky College Boy. Then I squeezed past the passengers who were nearly hugging the restroom doors and jerked back the curtain to the kitchen area where Mr. College was towering over and yelling at two very intimidated flight attendants.
“Hi ladies,” I said. ”How’s it going?”
“Get lost,” Mr. College said.
“Pardon me?” I asked.
“You heard me cowboy,” Mr. College said. “Get back to your seat. I’m having a little discussion with the ladies.”
“Funny that you should use the word little,” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because those girls who were seated next to you were just talking about how funny it was that such a big boy could have such a small mind,” I said.
He uttered a profanity.
“No, really,” I said, “they said something about how interesting it was that a vertically excessive peon like you doesn’t have it where it counts most.”
One of the flight attendants smirked.
“Go to hell,” he said as he formed a fist and tried to punch me.
“No thanks,” I said and grabbed him between the legs and squeezed so hard that he dropped to his knees and squealed like a “Green Acres” pig.
Then I applied even more pressure and pushed on his neck with my other forearm, leaned his body against the rear exit door and told him that he was going to act like a perfect little schoolboy, while seated next to me, for the rest of the flight, adding that the alternative might be for him to sail out the exit door.
He quickly agreed, for some reason, and crept behind me back to our adjoining seats, holding his hands to his groin area and emitting little whimpering sounds. The rest of the flight was mostly uneventful except for the few minutes he spent blowing his lunch into his barf bag, which grossed out most of the people seated in the last half of the plane.
“Do you think it’s food poisoning?” I asked him and he failed to answer.
When we got off the plane at the Newark airport, he had hidden himself in the restroom where it sounded like he might also have been relieving himself of his dessert.
I then darted to the car rental counter and slapped a driver’s license and credit card down in front of the pimple-faced, oversized attendant dressed in an ill-fitting, mostly polyester uniform. He instructed me to repeatedly scribble my initials on layers of documents and I wondered if buying a house might be less tedious.
“Welcome to Newark,” he said unenthusiastically and handed me my copy of the contract while the fingers of his other hand continued to dance across the computer keys.
I realized a little too late that he didn’t really expect me to respond, since he was already focused on the next renter, and I caught my muffled “thank you” after it had leaked halfway out of my mouth and reeled it back. Then I slung my bag over my shoulder and marched on.
“He’s probably a robot,” I said to myself and hopped onto the car rental bus with other frowning travelers who mostly kept to themselves.
Having, shortly thereafter, been dropped off in front of my rental car, I studied the map of the greater New York metropolitan maze and eventually found the Merritt Parkway, the route that would lead me to New Canaan, Connecticut, the suburban community where Stephanie’s father, who had failed to show up in Boulder as promised, supposedly lived.
What I would find or do when I got there remained a mystery to me. But when a man promises me that he will do something, especially when it involves his daughter, I expect him to follow through — or find out why he didn’t.
New Canaan was a postcard community nestled amongst trees with cute little shops, gas stations, homes with shutters, pretty mommies who didn’t work and frazzled dads who commuted to their office in Manhattan by train and died young of heart attacks brought on by stress.
With nary a hotel or motel in sight, I checked into a large, three-story house that featured a wide front porch and a big sign out front that touted it as the finest bed and breakfast spot in the Northeast.
After checking in, I glanced about and realized that I could either hide in my room or mingle with other guests of diverse backgrounds who were milling about in the living room. A third option, and one to avoid, was to walk in on someone in the bathroom down the hall that featured a claw-foot bathtub with oversized feet and no lock on the door. Especially since all of the female guests appeared to be well beyond retirement age.
Clearly not their typical guest, and the only one wearing cowboy boots, I wondered what I’d do if someone were to ask me what I did for a living.
Rather than lie or recreate myself, I decided that I would simply tell the truth: I was there to beat some sense into the father of a suicidal friend of mine. Then, upon further reflection, I decided it might be best to try to avoid that conversation all together and I climbed the stairs to my third-story room.
While lying on the canopy bed in my room, I overheard Mrs. Magnuson, the kindly old proprietor of the place, talking while she escorted another guest to their room across the hall. The new border had the voice of a young woman who spoke much too formally for the setting, using words that were longer than necessary, as though she was checking into the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan and being shown to her room by a bellhop awaiting a sizeable tip.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Magnuson, I had quickly deduced, wouldn’t have accepted a tip had it been shoved into the pocket of her soiled apron.
When I heard the door close across the hall, I rolled off my bed and skipped down the stairs and out the front door, with my mind focused on my mission.
Snow was piled high on the street in front of Stephanie’s father’s house, which I could barely see, set so far back off the street and protected by a short, brick fence and gate.
Jumping over the fence was a little more conspicuous than I wanted to be, so I sat in the car for a short time, committing the scene to memory and planning my next strategy.
Despite the fact that I would have preferred to completely separate myself from Stephanie, a guilty conscience kept me from walking away entirely. What I really wanted was for her father to ride in on his silver steed and take care of things, allowing me to disappear from her life.
Thus, since her father had failed to show up in Boulder as promised, I figured I’d put my face in front of his and not-so quietly explain how important it was for him to come to his daughter’s aide.
Apparently I was a little lost in thought when knuckles rapped harshly on the driver’s side window, causing me to jump like a demonized war veteran.
Partially hidden behind reflective shades were the eyes of a stout police officer who informed me that I was parked on a street that did not allow for parking. My first clue might have been the complete absence of any other vehicles, had I looked.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Well,” he said, “we don’t allow parking here. Can you do nothing somewhere else?”
“Almost anywhere,” I said and smiled.
“Good,” he said and went back to his squad car, and I appreciated the fact that he had been kind in an unkind kind of way.
Of course, I’d thought it best not to tell the office that I was looking for Mr. Rolander, who had refused to answer my phone calls regarding his daughter, a possible psycho, who had accused a Middle Easterner of being too rough during drunken sex and then tried to kill herself.
The gossip mills, I assumed, were probably as well greased in New Canaan as any small western North Dakota farm and ranch community and I saw no need to supply them with more material.
Back at the bread and breakfast lodge, I walked in on dinner being served to a dozen guests, with Mrs. Magnuson passing plates and bowls filled with wholesome, high-calorie food.
My stomach, which had not been filled in many hours, strongly suggested that I occupy the one remaining open chair.
Seated directly across from me was a dark-eyed, dark-haired beauty whose plate held about the same quantity of food that I balanced on my fork each time I took a bite. She was wearing one of those slinky silk shirts that you can see a bra through, and her hands and nails were so well manicured that she could have been a hand model if she wanted.
When she spoke, I quickly connected her to the formal voice that I’d heard being escorted to the room across the hall from mine.
“This is Karen,” Mrs. Magnuson said to me.
“Hi,” I said.
“You don’t come here often,” Karen said.
“No I don’t,” I said.
“Well, you should,” she said and I knew the evening was about to get more interesting.
The entire group that was seated at the dining room table at the Mrs. Magnuson’s bed and breakfast place was immersed in conversation while I, the late comer, finished my meal.
The group included a nice retired couple, an overweight businessman with horseshoe hair, a retiree dressed in a plaid shirt and baggy pants held up by his thick suspenders, who I somehow concluded was a permanent resident, a handyman and three ladies in their late 50s who looked and talked like elementary school teachers. There were also some others who kept mostly to themselves.
One remaining clown, who I figured might be about 28 years old, was seated at the end of the table to my right. He wore a white shirt with rolled up sleeves, his hair was slicked back with a quart of lube and his bright red tie was hanging slightly askew.
Whilst dominating the conversation, he had an answer for everything and obviously hoped to lay claim to Karen, the dark-haired beauty. How did I know that? You can call it men’s intuition.
This self-elected global president stopped at nothing to impress us with his ability to sell pharmaceuticals and a couple of times I noticed the old guy, Frank, the guy with the suspenders, roll his eyes and escape inside himself.
“So,” I said, having finally had enough, “you’re a drug pusher.”
“Yes,” he said, “I am a representative for the world’s largest pharmaceutical company.”
“Like I said, you’re a drug pusher,” I said.
He seemed appalled at my apparent lack of respect, judging by the crimson color his face suddenly turned and Karen glanced at me, and shot me a quick smile.
“And just what is it you do, cowboy,” he asked, “besides line dance?”
“Actually,” I said, “I’m a line dancing instructor.”
“Really?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
He looked at Karen to see if she had figured out what a dork he was. I assumed she had.
“Then what do you do?” he asked.
“I’m between jobs,” I said.
“Aren’t we all,” he said. “So what was it you did?”
“I’m a rancher,” I said.
“Somehow I knew that,” he said.
“That’s because you’re so insightful,” I said.
He paused for a moment but only a moment.
Have you thought about college?” he asked, I assumed because he wanted to portray me as being very young, ignorant and naive.
“Yes, I have,” I said.
That seemed to set him back just a bit.
“And what type of degree will you pursue?” he asked.
“I already have two undergraduate degrees,” I said, “and I’ve also completed one year of graduate school.”
“You’re a college graduate?” he asked.
“That’s right, professor,” I said. “They don’t all wear ties.”
“Quite right!” Frank suddenly shouted as Mr. Horse Shoe chuckled and the schoolteachers puckered their lips.
Apparently the drug pusher hadn’t expected me to be blessed with even minor intelligence, which is a common misconception on the part of urbanites when it comes to cowboys, and he grasped for something witty to say and apparently came up blank.
I stood up, excused myself and thanked Mrs. Magnuson for a delicious meal.
“Well, cowboy,” he said, “perhaps you can let us know when you get a real job.”
I turned and paused for a moment, and I figured he had to be wondering what I was up to.
“Do you sell valium?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “Why?”
“You might want to swallow a couple,” I said. “It’ll take the edge off.
“Good night, everyone,” I then said and headed up the stairs.
The canopy bed in my room was so high, and my stomach so full that I wondered if I could climb into it. Once I did, I grabbed the TV remote to do some serious channel surfing, and that is when I heard a light tap on my door.
I quickly jumped up and opened the door, not thinking that it might be the drug pusher readying a roundhouse for the smart aleck cowboy that had showed up late, and showed him up, at dinner.
Fortunately, the rap belonged to the luscious Karen dressed casually in faded jeans, an oversized sweatshirt, with the collar stretched big enough to reveal a bare shoulder.
She was carrying a tray holding two brownies the size of square hay bales with two huge glasses of milk.
“Is this room service?” I asked.
“I thought you might like a bedtime brownie,” she said. “It’s a tradition here.”
“Sure,” I said and invited her in, leaving the door open. “I wouldn’t want to break with tradition.”
She placed the tray on the ottoman by the overstuffed chair and turned towards me.
“Mind if I have mine with you?” she asked as she flicked some short silk hair out of her eyes.
“Be my guest,” I said.
I glanced at the brownies again.
“These are huge,” I said. “There’s much more here than was on your plate at dinner.”
“One must plan ahead,” she said. “It’s important to leave room for dessert.
The sound of thundering hooves suddenly caused both of us to look towards the open door and that’s when the drug pusher suddenly appeared and then gawked and continued down the hall to the restroom.
“That’s odd,” I said.
“Especially since his room is down the hall and down a flight of stairs,” she said.
That caused me to wonder if her motivation for being in my room had a lot less to do with me and a lot more to do with getting away from the drug pusher.
“So, what brings you to our neck of the woods,” she asked while licking chocolate off of her full lips.
“Are these your woods?” I asked.
“Well, no,” she said. “I actually live in Manhattan and work in the apparel industry. I consider this place to be my little oasis. Somewhere to escape to from time to time to regroup, refresh and rejuvenate. Things get a little hectic in the city.”
“But it’s midweek,” I said. “Isn’t escaping usually a weekend thing?”
“Not when you’re in my position,” she said.
“Which means you’re either the boss,” I said, “Or else the boss answers to you.”
“Both,” she said, “So I answer to myself.”
“Do you argue a lot?” I asked.
“With myself?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“No,” she said and smiled and I smiled back with pursed lips, not wanting to expose my chocolate covered teeth.
“How about you?” she asked. “Are you a real cowboy?”
“No,” I said, “I’m an actor auditioning for the remake of Midnight Cowboy.”
“Really?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“What then?” she asked.
“Bonanza,” I said.
“Shut up,” she said. “Where are you from?”
“North Dakota,” I said.
“I see,” she said.
“Have you ever been there?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Really?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “But I’d like to go.”
“You can,” I said
“With you?” she asked.
“Perhaps,” I said, “if you play your cards right.”
“I love playing cards,” she said.
“Somehow I knew you were going to say that,” I said.
The next day we strolled down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue with me wearing jeans, cowboy boots, my hat and a jacket with the collar turned up to block out strong winds whipping down the concrete canyons.
Rivers of morning commuters flowed to towering office buildings like ants to mounds as horns blared, sirens screamed, vendors shouted and steam rose from manhole covers. I both longed for the peace of the open range and enjoyed the city’s sensory overload.
New York was a nice place to visit, I concluded, but not where I’d be hanging my hat.
What I was doing in the city, I hadn’t a clue as we skipped along with Karen holding onto my arm, from the train station to a taxi to her work, a few blocks below 34th Street.
I held my breath as an overstuffed elevator rose at warp speed to the 25th floor of what was an old office building where her clothing company was located. When the doors opened, I exhaled briefly and then gasped at the site of her staff flying in a variety of directions. The chaos measured high on the madness meter, just below spiraling paper airplanes and food fights.
We sailed to her office where frazzled lieutenants threw questions at her like pellets from a shotgun. I slumped onto a black leather couch and understood why it was she sometimes found it necessary to escape to a Connecticut bed and breakfast oasis.
The fact that she had risen to a position of prominence at such a young age was a testament to her intelligence and wit, I assumed. And I knew that she’d have had little trouble chewing up the drug pusher from the night before and spitting him out had he been more of an irritant.
Thus, I concluded that her wanting to share a brownie with me had more to do with her really wanting to than wanting to hide from Mr. Obnoxious.
But as it turned out, we had burned the midnight oil the night before discussing a myriad of topics from rodeo to polio and delved hardly at all into our personal lives, which was fine with me and maybe even more so with her. Then I promised to accompany her to the city the next day, if only to make her stop asking, and even acted like it was, when it really wasn’t my first time there, having ridden in rodeos at Madison Square Garden more than once.
The plaque on her desk indicated that her last name was Snyder, which was something I only then realized I didn’t know, as the endless stream of fast-talking robots confronting her with one challenge after another seemed unaware of my existence, and I wondered if it was because I was just one of many who had sat there.
“Come with me please,” she suddenly said and I followed her like a happy puppy wanting its master’s attention.
“We’ve hired a new model and I need to see her wearing some of our recent designs,” she said.
We scurried down a hallway to a large, mostly empty room with big mirrors and dozens of skirts, blouses, dresses and gowns hanging on mobile racks. A very tall, indescribably beautiful blonde-haired model, who looked vaguely familiar, was picking through the racks like a bored housewife at a second-hand store.
“OK, let’s get started,” Karen commanded and an assistant, nearly as attractive, with pulled-back red hair and glasses propped low on her nose, appeared out of nowhere.
“Are you doing OK?” Karen turned around and asked me.
“Sure,” I said and then the model, who was wearing a slinky dress, let it drop to the floor.
There we were in downtown Manhattan at Karen’s clothing design company and Heidi, the famous model, must have disrobed and redressed fifty times that afternoon and I realized that even watching a gorgeous model strip over and over can get a little boring after a while, but less so than watching “Gunsmoke” reruns, The Weather Channel or Al Gore anywhere anytime.
Karen picked up on my impatience and took me to lunch at a bustling New York eatery and then to her apartment building on 34th Street and Lexington. The doorman greeted her enthusiastically and I could see him reexamining her bottom in the mirror, after she removed her coat while we waited for the elevator.
By then it was close to five o’clock, darkness was descending upon the city and Karen had slurped down three fancy drinks while I drank one beer.
Her apartment was huge by New York standards I knew, having been in one or two before, whilst in New York riding in rodeo. Then she took me on a grand tour that suddenly ended in the bedroom where she threw her arms around me and kissed me with a high degree of passion and I voluntarily failed to fight her off.
“I’ve been waiting to do that since dinner last night,” she said.
“And here I thought you were just enjoying the asparagus,” I said and we tumbled onto the bed.
We shed our clothing in record time and made mad passionate love until long into the night. You might say that she was the very appreciative recipient of a cowboy’s long-overdue, pent-up passions, further fueled by the memory of a model stripping repeatedly for most of the afternoon.
I woke up at dawn feeling a little guilty, as though I had somehow betrayed Kelli and wondered how it was that I could be so easily distracted from my original mission.
Karen lay asleep next to me with her light skin glistening in the early morning light and her short black slinky hair splayed across her cheek. She was beautiful, intelligent and quite extraordinary, and yet I felt oddly uneasy, as if Sampson’s Delilah had seduced me too easily.
So I threw on my clothes, popped out the front door and pressed the elevator down button.
Having located the subway, I tossed the New York Daily News into a trashcan and skidded down the subway steps intent on working my way back to Grand Central Station and boarding an early morning train back to New Canaan, Connecticut, and my original mission.
The top step had been streaked with early morning sunshine and the lower steps were unusually empty, I thought, for a weekday. As I turned a corner and glided down a second flight of stairs, I notice two beefy men following close behind me.
When I reached the bottom and headed toward the turnstiles, they gained on me and seemed to double again in size. They grabbed me from behind, punched me in the head, tackled me to the concrete floor and kicked me repeatedly.
In the midst of the onslaught, my fellow commuters chose to observe the action from afar, preferring not to get involved.
Instead of yelling for help, I chose again to get to my feet as each goon grabbed an arm, pinned me to a wall and punched me in the midsection and face. One of them caught me with a blow between the ribs and knocked the wind out of me just before they smashed my head against the wall, dazing me and opening up a big gash.
“I love New York,” I wanted to say, just to be a smartass, but couldn’t.
Warm blood began to flow down the back of my neck and I assumed that they’d soon be digging for my wallet and not find it since I always wore it in my left boot. Instead, one of them grabbed me around the throat and held his pockmarked face inches from my nose. So I thrust my knee into his groin, which initially seemed like the thing to do but obviously wasn’t, and he bent over gasping and his buddy pulled out a knife.
“Get out of town cowboy,” his buddy said, “you’re way out of your league.”
Then they left.
“That’s it?” I shouted after them. “You ambush me and leave? You’re cowards!”
I staggered back, hit the wall and slumped to the floor while a train stopped and all of the mildly startled but unhelpful commuters got on and off. Eventually, a Good Samaritan, probably someone else from out of town, spotted me and rushed over to check on my welfare. Then he turned to run for help as soon as he spotted blood flowing from the back of my head but I grabbed him by a sleeve.
“Don’t bother,” I said.
“You’re insane,” is what he should have said, but didn’t and flashed me a look that said it instead.
Of course, he couldn’t have known that it was normal for a rodeo cowboy to refuse to be helped from the arena. Nor could he have known that I didn’t want to compound my problem by adding an ambulance, hospital and doctor bill to the equation.
Crawling into a corner, I tore off a good portion of my shirt, applied it to the back of my head and pressed it against the wall to stop the bleeding, while ignoring the pain. A nearby beggar, who’d been trying to solicit contributions from mostly apathetic commuters, was kind enough to give me his stocking cap for five bucks. I put it on my head to hold the bandage, hopped on a train and sat with my head pressed against the window.
As my vision began to double, I thought I saw the boy that I’d seen in the emergency room in Gillette staring at me again but then I realized it was actually a little black woman knitting mittens.
How I got from the subway to the New Canaan-bound train I haven’t a clue, but when it arrived someone woke me up and I staggered off.
Feeling pain in every part of my body, I pulled one of Mrs. Magnuson’s business cards out of my pocket and gave her a call.
“Hello,” she said.
“I wonder if you could send someone to the train station to pick me up?” I asked.
“Who is this?” she asked.
“Your favorite cowboy,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, “are you OK?”
“No,” I said and hung up.
Her husband Frank, still nattily dressed in his fat suspenders and plaid shirt, appeared shortly thereafter and failed to recognize me, I assume because my eyes were almost swollen shut, my lips were twice the normal size, dried blood coated my face and dirt, soot and more blood clung to my jacket. Plus the $5 dollar beanie made me look more like a leaf-smoking Jamaican musician than a rodeo cowboy.
I woke up the next day in my high-rise canopy bed with a splitting headache and cottonmouth. Across the room, Frank was sleeping in a big chair with his feet up on the ottoman.
“Are there no attractive nurses in this hospital?” I asked.
“I think I’m attractive,” he said.
“Good point,” I said.
“Welcome back to reality, cowboy,” said Mrs. Magnuson, who I hadn’t realized was standing to my left. ”How are you?”
“Brilliant,” I said.
“Then perhaps you could explain what happened to you,” she said.
“Fell down a subway stairs,” I said.
“I don’t think so,” she said. ”You were mugged.”
“Is my wallet still in my boot?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Then I wasn’t mugged,” I said.
“I got my nephew doctor up here to sew up your head,” she said.
“Nice,” I said.
“What happened?” the drug pusher suddenly shouted from the doorway, “Did a horse buck you off?”
“Hush!” Mrs. Magnuson said.
“Did the poor country boy run into trouble in the big city?” he added.
I didn’t respond.
“Maybe things are a little tougher here than out there in the sticks, huh, Roy Rogers?” he continued. “You ain’t in Kansas anymore. Better mosey on home. I hear the sheep are getting lonely.”
He seemed very pleased with his overrated sense of wit and I decided to let him bask in a few moments of awkward silence before responding.
“So,” I finally said, “you’re the salesmen those sheep were asking for when I left.”
His face turned a little crimson, he swore and then stomped down the hall.
“Rather uptight,” I said.
“He’s very competitive,” Mrs. Magnuson said.
“Or something,” I said.
Later, after another nap or two, I found my cellphone and dialed Baby Huey’s number, intent on reminding him that he still had a housemate despite the fact that my basement bedroom featured the same level of activity as your average a ghost town or any church on Super Bowl Sunday.
Having just returned to Boulder from Christmas in Rochester, New York, Huey was totally unaware of the suicidal events that had occurred in his absence, primarily because I hadn’t told him and also because he had yet to have his ear talked off by one of his nosey neighbors.
The hours I spent scrubbing bloody evidence from the bathroom tub and linoleum floor also contributed to his temporary naivety, as did my luck at having stumbled upon a clone of his bathroom rug at one of those all-purpose department stores.
With things rolling along so smoothly I briefly contemplated keeping him in the dark forever but thought better of it when I remembered that I’d have to kill the neighbor or his wife to do so. Plus, I thought he might enjoy some minor chaos in his life, at least I hoped so and if he didn’t, what was the worst he could do? Throw me out? There was nothing to throw out because I had my bag with me.
Thus, I laid out the facts for him like a lunch buffet and he seemed to devour them. But then there was a long pause and I thought he might be thinking about how no amount of rent could possibly compensate for the headaches I might cause. That was until he asked how soon I’d be returning to the Rockies.
“It’s getting a little boring around here,” he said, and I knew I was still in good standing.
“As soon as my mission is accomplished in New Canaan,” I said.
“How can I help?” he asked.
“You already have,” I said and hung up.
A black, four-door Jaguar appeared in the driveway of Stephanie’s father’s house at 7:37 a.m. in New Canaan and exited through a slow opening automatic gate onto the street where I was illegally parked.
The driver appeared to be an older male who I assumed was Mr. Rolander but didn’t know for sure since I’d never seen him or a picture.
Following him in my rental car, I parked on the street near the gas station where he parked next to a gas pump. A refined-looking gentleman, with hair as thick as a fuller brush, and a hairline that originated a millimeter above his eyebrows, he exited and skipped inside the adjoining convenience store. I intercepted him when he came out holding a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and a magazine in the other.
“Mr. Rolander,” I said. “How are you?”
“Good,” he said as he tried to walk past me.
“You don’t recognize my voice,” I said, standing in his way.
“No,” he said. “Should I?”
“I’m the guy from Boulder whose phone messages regarding your daughter have been ignored,” I said.
He acted a little puzzled at first and then quickly recovered, took on an air of confidence and then smiled, like John F. Kennedy did when he was disarming an overzealous reporter at a press conference. He was a real pro I could see.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I remember.”
“I’m a little surprised to see you here,” I said.
“Really,” he said. “Why is that?”
“Because wasn’t it supposed to be you flying to Colorado rather than me flying east to New Canaan?” I asked.
“I’m sorry not to have gotten back to you,” he said and smiled politely. “A number of business emergencies suddenly came up and stole away my time.”
I felt like rearranging his little smile.
“You’ve got some interesting priorities,” I said.
He seemed to sense the presence of a loose cannon in his midst, which in this case was me. Not that a couple of black eyes and stitches in the back of my head should alarm him at all.
“Listen, son,” he said, “I think you need to know the entire story. I’d love to have breakfast with you and explain it all but I’m a little busy right now.”
The way he called me “son” seemed a little arrogant and disrespectful to me. Plus, I despised his cold, ultra-professional manner.
“I think you’ve got the time,” I said. “There’s a breakfast place across the street. You can take the time.”
He agreed for some reason, probably because he knew there’d be an embarrassing moment to follow if he didn’t.
Once seated, he began to fill me in on the “real story,” as he referred to it.
It seems that Mr. Rolander was an investor. What did that mean? It meant that he had no real job but instead owned a lot of companies that’d he’s taken over, improved and then sold for profit. That had transformed him from a man of meager beginnings to one of substantial wealth.
His manner was impressive and he was much younger looking than his 55 years might imply, with a chest that stuck out far in advance of his hardened stomach. Meanwhile, he wore a tailored suit and tie ensemble that could only be described as impeccable, right down to the monogrammed cufflinks.
He told the tale of a youthful romance with Stephanie’s mother that began when he was a young, eager executive working for a network television acquisitions department. She was the daughter of a wealthy and prominent New Jersey politician and businessman.
The romance later turned into a booze-riddled nightmare marriage he thought it necessary to escape from, even though he took great care to throw piles of money at both Stephanie and his former wife to keep them as secure and happy as possible.
“In return,” he said, “I get nothing but turmoil and torture from two ladies who excel at consuming drugs and alcohol, and going from one troubled situation to another.”
“And isn’t it odd?” he added, “that he, a California native who’d grown up on the beach, would end up living in New Canaan while his former wife, an East Coast native, whose greatest goal was to be the queen of affluent East Coast society, would end up living in the hills of New Mexico.”
“Yes, very odd,” I said as I took another bite of my rye toast bathed in honey.
He concluded our breakfast meeting by thanking me for my help and praising me for going so far as to fly to the East Coast to get his attention.
I thanked him for thanking me and then he handed me 10 crisp $100 bills for my troubles and paid the breakfast tab.
“I suggest that you distance yourself from my daughter,” he said, “unless you want to end up being tortured for the rest of your life.”
“Sound advice,” I said, fully prepared to heed his warning.
“And by the way,” he said, “I’ll try to help my daughter once again. But I will not personally confront her, nor will I put myself in the position of having to fly out there and witness her demise. It’s just too painful.”
“But you did promise,” I said, not wanting to let him off too easy. Maybe I said it to make myself feel like my trip there had not be a complete waste of time.
“I know,” he said. “I had intended to but then changed my mind once I’d had a chance to think it through.”
Looking into his eyes, I concluded that he was either an award-winning actor or a seriously honest and troubled rich dude.
“I’ll have my assistant call again to reserve a spot for Stephanie at a noted Denver rehabilitation center,” he said.
I left the breakfast table impressed, satisfied and a little embarrassed at my initial arrogance, sarcasm and lack of respect. Mr. Rolander, it appeared, was a man of accomplishment who carried a ball and chain around in the form of a former wife and daughter, and probably always would.
With my belly filled and my mission accomplished, I went to the restroom and symbolically washed my hands of the whole affair, feeling a huge weight drop off my shoulders.
After exiting the restaurant, I was feeling so good that I called Karen, the black-haired fashion designer, to invite her to New Canaan to celebrate my victory. Better she come there than me risk being beat up again in some subway, I concluded.
Yet, while her phone was ringing, I sensed the pull of some nagging and perhaps meaningless thoughts that wouldn’t go away.
Mr. Rolander hadn’t asked a single question about me. What I did for a living, what my favorite color might be or which terrorist leader we should go after next. Yes, he was a busy man and maybe too busy to care. Or maybe he thought I was just another in a long line of victims who’d briefly pass through Stephanie’s life … so why bother.
Still, it bothered me. I felt like I could have propped up a cardboard cutout of me in front of him and been just as effective.
My thoughts were interrupted by a recording that asked if I’d like to leave a message for Karen. I did, but she never called back. The next day I drove to the Newark airport and hopped on a plane back to Denver.
After nearly a week in the New York metro maze, despite having been focused on a mission and having been beat up by inner-city thugs, my thoughts were dominated by the affair — the one-night stand with Karen — that seemed to have ended meaninglessly.
Combine that with the impersonal treatment by Mr. Rolander, natural feelings of insignificance after having floated in a sea of East Coast strangers, and mix in the loss of Kelli somewhere, and I felt like an invisible ship without a sail on some pointless voyage. I knew then that I was still a mental mess.
When I arrived in Denver, I climbed into a taxi that eventually dropped me off in front of Baby Huey’s house in the middle of a frigid January afternoon. I was a weary, wounded traveler who was glad to be home and more than ready to kick back, soak up some normalcy and heal his wounds. My cellphone rang as I unlocked the front door.
“Hi, it’s Stephanie,” she said. “Where have you been?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” she said, “my mom is dead!”
“She’s gone!” she said. “They found her dead in her car in the garage. The motor was running.”
I’d never met the lady and had no idea what she was like but still, given my brief relationship with Stephanie and having met the woman’s husband, I couldn’t help but be somewhat affected by the news and it’s timely irony.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“They’re trying to say that it was suicide,” she said.
I didn’t find that to be particularly surprising since carbon monoxide poisoning was a common way for people to “check out.”
“They also said her alcohol level was high and that she had sleeping pills in her system,” she added.
Why should that be a surprise, I wondered? Being full of booze and drugs seemed to be normal for both she and her daughter, from what I could surmise.
“But it wasn’t suicide!” Stephanie declared.
That was quite an assumption I thought, especially since she hadn’t talked to her mother since Lincoln was president.
“Get real,” I wanted to say, but didn’t.
“It wasn’t?” I said instead.
“No!” she said.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I just know,” she said.
“OK,” I said.
“Can you come over?” she asked.
I paused as neurons raced about in my brain, trying to construct a plausible excuse as to why I could not come to her place. But being mentally exhausted, I couldn’t come up with anything remotely legitimate.
“OK,” I said.
So, normalcy decided to stay at Hubert’s house that day, knowing that it would not be welcomed at Stephanie’s. And I officially marked that day as the day that I lost total control of my life.
Stephanie, the rich chick, tried to kill herself unsuccessfully one week and her mother did it successfully the next. Who would be next? Would it be her father? I didn’t think so. He was too stable.
Did she have any other siblings somewhere sucking on an exhaust pipe like hippies on a bong? I chastised myself for having such insensitive thoughts but chuckled at them anyway. Call me rude.
Of course, maybe her mother hadn’t committed suicide at all but instead took a sleeping pill when she was drunk and then got the munchies and decided to go out for a snack and passed out in the garage before she backed out. Then again, maybe there was oceanfront property available in Arizona.
As I walked through the front door of Stephanie’s condo, having been summoned there, I wondered why I was entering the last place in the world that I wanted to be. I had flown to Connecticut to deal with her problem, handed it off to her father and mentally washed my hands of her existence, only to be sucked back in like used shampoo down a shower drain.
It was very discouraging to say the least, and in the back of my mind, I also wondered if she using her mother’s death to manipulate me. But what was I supposed to do? Tell her “No, Stephanie, I know your mother just died but can’t you get some other sucker to come over?”
She was curled up on the couch, and leaped up and hugged me and wouldn’t let go for a long time. I hugged her back, feeling like I had no other choice. When she finally released me, I noticed how good she looked, without the usual ton of makeup on. In fact, she looked so much healthier, almost as if she was glowing.
“Do you have black eyes?” she asked me.
I had kind of forgotten about my subway altercation and the bruises and stitches, proving that you can eventually become accustomed to almost anything.
“Well … yes,” I said.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Door opened in my face,” I said.
“Really?” she asked.
“No,” I said and she immediately moved on.
“I have a really big favor to ask you,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
“I want you to go to my mother’s funeral with me,” she said. “It’s the day after tomorrow. I’ll pay for everything.”
The invitation felt more like a gut punch than an invitation. If fact, you might say that it was the third gut punch that that week. The first one was in the subway, the second was delivered, in another way, by Karen, the New York fashion babe, and this was the third.
Thus, I felt like I needed to take a step back and assess things. After all, I’d only known Stephanie for two weeks or less and now I was going to accompany her to her mother’s funeral? I didn’t even own a tie.
“First, we’ll have to get you a suit and tie,” she said, reading my mind.
“And a decent winter coat,” she added, “and new shoes.”
“Boots,” I said.
“What?” she asked.
“I only wear boots,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, “OK.”
I dropped my face into my hands, rubbed my forehead, ran my fingers through my hair and readied myself to say no.”
But when I looked up again, I was shocked by what I saw. Stephanie looked like a queen, a goddess, a diva dressed not in a gown, sequins and veils but in a tattered sweatshirt and little white shorts.
Her bangs were pulled back, which exposed her forehead and brought life to her eyes. Her legs seemed longer and glisteningly soft with little toes wiggling on the ends of tiny feet that might fit into Cinderella’s slippers. Plus, her lips appeared to be much fuller than I had remembered, and they framed glistening white teeth.
“But …,” I began.
“I better call the airline right now,” she said.
“Ah, where’s the funeral?” I asked, assuming that it’d be a quick trip to New Mexico.
“New Jersey,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
“Have you been there?” she asked.
“Well … yes,” I answered, “Fairly recently.”
Of course, the last person who had bought me a suit was my mom for eighth-grade graduation. But Stephanie showed much more enthusiasm going through the process, and when the dust settled, the pricetag was a whole lot higher.
Our purchase was made at a stylish shop in downtown Cherry Creek called Lawrence Covell, where Stephanie searched through rack after rack until she found the perfect black Giorgio Armani sport coat with matching charcoal colored, pleated pants.
I explained to her that I was highly opposed to wearing a tie and that prompted her to select a black long-sleeved pull-over shirt with a collar and three buttons. It completed a very “Hollywood appropriate” ensemble that my rodeo pals would never have recognized me in, hopefully.
I looked about for someone to hand me an official gigolo certificate as a tailor pinned, poked and prodded me, coming precariously close to my crotch and, within minutes, we were walking down the street with a clothes bag slung over my shoulder that was worth more than the rest of my wardrobe and pickup truck combined.
We landed back at Newark Airport the next mid-afternoon and I looked about nervously for anyone who might recognize me, but no one did. Silly me. A black limo drove us to the Montvale Marriott, where I was surprised to discover that, with all of her substantial wealth, Stephanie had reserved only one room with a single king-sized bed.
“I’ll sleep on a cot,” I said when we entered the room.
She didn’t answer.
Then I half expected her to go to the hotel bar and get loaded, even though I hadn’t seen her drink since well before the alleged rape episode. Immediately, there was a knock at the door and a number of older people, couples mostly, also dressed in black on black, flowed into the room and exchanged hugs and “air kisses” and cackled nonstop.
I was introduced as her “friend” and since we were staying in the same room, it appeared to most, I’m sure, that we were an “item,” by design. Then I noticed another girl about Stephanie’s age, who I assumed might be a cousin, sizing me up with her eyes stopping for an uncomfortably long period on my rear end. When she noticed that I had noticed she licked the rim of her “drink” glass and smiled, and I went out onto the patio to get some air.
From there, we went to the funeral home for a short memorial service and to view the body and I was shocked to discover that her mother was an extraordinarily beautiful woman, even in death. Amplified by the fact that Stephanie had described her as being a sloppy, overweight lush with a W.C. Field nose and rosy cheeks.
Instead, I saw a virtual Grace Kelly look-a-like and had a hard time taking my eyes off of her. If drinks and drugs were a problem, they had failed to alter her appearance or else the mortician was a magician.
Afterwards, we dined at an award-winning restaurant and then visited with some more relatives in a garden area back at the hotel. At 11:30, Stephanie got up from her chair and looked me in the eyes.
“Come on honey,” she said, “it’s time for bed.”
I looked around to see if she was talking to me and noticed that everyone was looking at me, including Bridgett, the girl I had correctly assumed was Stephanie’s cousin, winking at me. Then we walked down the hall towards the elevators and Stephanie grabbed my hand and held it briefly before pulling my arm across her shoulder and giving me a kiss on the cheek.
As I glanced at her face, I was once again struck by what seemed like a remarkable transition. Her beauty was growing and her mother’s face, a face that I had not seen prior to that evening, appeared to be transposed over hers.
When we reached our room, she went straight to the mirrored dresser and took off her earrings, bracelet and black, medium-heeled shoes. Then she walked towards me and asked me to unhook the clasp and pull down the zipper in the back of her medium-length black dress.
I felt my legs weaken a little, probably from the jet-lag, and the room seemed to be getting suddenly warmer.
After I had lowered the zipper to the small of her back, she turned around and looked up at me with innocent, Bambi eyes and placed her open hands and forearms on my chest and smiled sweetly.
“Thank you for coming with me,” she said. ”I don’t know where I’d be without you.”
I hesitated briefly and then leaned forward, kissed her lips and, with both hands, gently nudged the top of her dress off of her shoulders and it dropped to the floor. She immediately began unbuttoning my shirt and I paused for all of one millisecond and then lay down on the bed with her.
We made love for most of that night.
The next morning, I found myself seated in a huge church with a vaulted ceiling, endless rows of pews, an army of priests and alter boys, and a Super Bowl-sized audience. In fact, mourners filled not only the church but also the narthex and much of the parking lot despite arctic temperatures.
After a lengthy service, Stephanie’s mother, Kathryn, was laid to rest in an old cemetery established long before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, among countless giant headstones all featuring the same last name, McHenry.
Her family, I discovered, had come to America from Ireland during some famine, not as starving huddled masses looking for freedom but as wealthy landlords escaping the wrath of the poor. Stephanie’s great-grandfather, Peter McHenry, then built up even more wealth and prominence in America and at one time served in the United States Senate and was even on Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet.
These historical revelations came to me not from Stephanie but from articles appearing on the front page of newspapers like the New York Times and New York Post.
That was my second surprise of the morning. The first had been the site of Stephanie seated at the desk in our hotel room reading when I woke up.
“What are you reading?” I asked her.
“The Bible,” she said.
As we sat in the pew at her mother’s funeral, I thought about how Stephanie had blushed earlier that morning when she discovered that I was watching her read the Bible in our hotel room.
“Pastor David suggested that I read some verses each day,” she had said.
“That’s very nice,” I said.
“They make me think,” she said. “And refocus.”
“Refocus?” I asked.
“Refocus my life,” she said.
That’s what I was thinking about when, at her funeral service, Stephanie’s mother suddenly walked down the aisle and sat next to us. How could that be?
Imagine my relief when she was introduced to me as Kathryn’s younger sister, Joanne, a clone of Stephanie’s mother and the person who had orchestrated the entire funeral event. She was also the mother of that flirtatious cousin, Bridgett, the girl who had winked at me and looked at my butt the prior evening, who was also the third-year Princeton student seated directly behind us.
Stephanie’s father was, not surprisingly, conspicuously absent, and I began to wonder about the legitimacy of the tales he told me at our historical breakfast meeting in New Canaan based upon two main things: My view of things from this side of the fence and the McHenry’s enormous wealth.
Was it possible that Mr. Rolander’s quick movement from lower to upper class was less a result of his own creative abilities and more a result of his wife’s prominence and wealth?
Plus, did Stephanie’s big bank balance remain high because of the McHenry’s family gold reserves rather than her supposedly benevolent father’s bankbook? I found it hard to believe that Kathryn had relied on her former husband for support, given the opulence that surrounded her, but then I couldn’t see the big picture.
At any rate, my attempts to match the former wife and mother that Mr. Rolander and Stephanie described to me with the woman that I saw lying in the casket, whose funeral was attended by hundreds of prominent mourners, was difficult at best. Had this beautiful woman really descended to the depths that Rolander and Stephanie implied? And if not, what was their motive for saying so?
My sudden preoccupation with untangling the myth was further complicated by my having witnessed a complete Stephanie metamorphosis from drunken caterpillar to beautiful butterfly. She was, as anyone could plainly see, strikingly different from the Boulder party girl who had completely repulsed me.
I watched as she glided amongst people at the funeral reception like a poised and well-bred politician’s wife, mingling with prominent mourners, thanking them for coming and looking nothing like the obnoxious drunk that I had left at the bar on Christmas night.
You might say that I was transfixed and consumed with the sights and sounds that were before me and that bothered me a little because, in a day or two, I’d be back home in Boulder focusing on the next phase of my life. At least I hoped so. Or did I?
It seemed that my life, which had been so black and white just a year or so earlier, was getting grayer by the minute.
Hoping to subtly distance myself from the proceedings and clear my head a little, I spotted a chair in the corner and nearly sprinted to it to sit down and observe things from afar. Bridgett, the flirtatious Princeton student and cousin, spotted me immediately and scurried over and plopped down beside me.
“So,” she said, “do you think she was murdered?”
“What?” I asked.
“Do you think she was killed?” she asked.
“Who?” I asked.
“Auntie Kathryn, of course,” she said. “You don’t actually think she committed suicide, do you?”
“I beg your pardon?” I said. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
She shrugged her shoulders, bit into a piece of cake that had been sitting on the plate on her lap and then waved to someone across the room.
“How long have you and Stephanie been going out?” she then asked.
“Going out where?” I asked.
“You know,” she said. “How long have you two been dating?”
“Well … ” I said.
“Are you getting married?” she asked.
“Ah … ”
“I heard she dropped out of school,” she said. “Is that true?”
“I’m not … ”
“You’re not saying?” she asked.
“I … ”
“I’m just interested,” she said. “That’s all.”
I shook my head.
“Hey, want to go for walk?” she asked.
I looked at the snow piled outside and was about to say “no” when an old man walked up and greeted Bridgett. He could have been an uncle, a great uncle, the mayor of Montvale or a mafia don for all I knew.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Colorado,” I said.
“I know that,” she said, “but where are you really from?”
“Not Colorado,” I said.
“No shit, Sherlock,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Just interested,” she said. “Why not?”
“But why?” I asked again.
“Why do you not want me to know?” she asked.
“I didn’t say I didn’t,” I said.
“Good,” she said and a short pause ensued.
“I just like to know what’s going on in my family.” she said, “That’s all.”
“That’s nice,” I said.
“And I was just wondering if you were planning to become my cousin,” she said and smiled.
“Your cousin?” I asked.
“Yes. If you marry Stephanie, you’ll be my cousin. My kissing cousin,” she said and kissed me.
I leaned back like an impish prude who was fresh off an Amish farm.
“Call me at room 327 tonight,” she said as she stood up.
“After all,” she added, “you and I have a mutual friend.”
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Someone who’s surprised to see that you’re still hanging around his daughter,” she said and left.
I stared at the floor for a moment and wondered what had just happened.
The next thing I knew, I was watching an older gentleman wearing boots, a black suit, a bushy white mustache and a beige cowboy hat skip from New Jersey’s arctic exterior through the automatic doors and into the warmth of the lobby of the Montvale Marriott.
“You must be from New Mexico,” I said as he strolled by.
“That’s right,” he said. “I flew in last night.”
“For Kathryn McHenry’s funeral, I assume?”
“Yes,” he confirmed, “and how about you?”
“I came here yesterday from Colorado with her daughter, Stephanie,” I said.
“I recognized you right away,” he said. “Saw you ride at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. You’re one hell of a rider, son.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked, and we bellied up to the hotel bar. Walt, my new buddy, ordered whiskey and water, and I ordered a tall glass of orange juice because, for some reason, I just didn’t see booze and funerals as a perfect match. Nevertheless, the McHenry family did as they gathered nearby and hoisted drinks, intent on sending ole Katie off in grand style.
“Did you know Kathryn well?” I asked Walt.
“Pretty well,” he said. “My wife and I bought our ranch house from her, and she went with us to the Ruidoso Downs Racetrack quite a few times to watch some of my ponies run.”
“What was she like?” I asked.
“Great lady,” he said, “and she was very classy.”
“She sure was pretty,” I said.
“No doubt about that,” he said.
He took a sip of his drink.
“So,” he said, “are you and Stephanie dating?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve only known her for a short while. I’m just helping her through some tough times.”
“Her mother had filled us in on a few of her activities,” Walt said. “She’s a free spirit for sure.”
“To say the least,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “she looks to be in pretty good shape now.”
“She’s handling things well,” I said.
There was another short pause while Walt took another sip, and I wondered how to best phrase my next question.
“I’ve heard that Kathryn committed suicide,” I said.
“That’s what they say,” Walt said.
“And that she had a lot of trouble with drugs and alcohol,” I said.
“I heard that, too,” he said.
“But when I saw her in the casket last night,” I said, “I was surprised to see how beautiful she was. Not at all like someone who had abused themselves.”
Walt took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair and put it back on.
“She’d had her problems a few years back,” he said.
“OK,” I said.
“The way I heard it, her husband was pretty abusive and she escaped to New Mexico with Stephanie to get away from him,” he said. “When she left New Jersey, there was a lengthy legal battle and her husband tried to wrestle away a lot of her loot, and I guess he did get a bunch. But that was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the McHenry family fortune they say.”
“So,” I said, “she still had a lot of money?”
“Oh yes,” he said, “more than she could spend. In fact, I’ve heard that it’ll take a few generations to go through that family fortune.”
He took another sip.
“Still, the whole situation back here drove her to booze and drugs for a while,” he said. “But I’ve never seen her take a drink as long as I’ve known her. And that has been five years.”
I nodded and thought for a moment.
“But I was told that she died with booze and sleeping pills in her system,” I said.
“That’s what they say,” he said, “and I suppose anyone could have a relapse.”
“Do you think she did?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
Another hotel guest, probably a salesman, with an ample belly and undone tie, came up to the bar, ordered a drink, paid for it and left.
“Did Kathryn have a boyfriend?” I asked.
“Plenty of boyfriends,” he said. “They were good men, and some of them were my friends. She was the belle of the ball.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” I said.
Walt finished his drink and told the bartender “no” when he asked him if he wanted another one. That’s when a few of the McHenry mourners hooted and hollered in the background, and one of them started singing an Irish ballad, which seem to foretell where the evening was headed
“So, what did Kathryn tell you about Stephanie?” I asked Walt.
“That she was worried about her,” he said. “That she said she went through money faster than Congress.”
“But her father kept padding her account, right?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. “Rolander cut her off years ago. But that didn’t matter.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because Kathryn was loaded anyway,” he said.
After visiting with Walt, the cowboy from New Mexico, I walked to the elevator, pressed the up button and waited for the doors to open.
As I stood there, I contemplated Walt’s revelations about Stephanie’s mother, Kathryn, and how they conflicted with what Mr. Rolander had told me. When the elevator doors finally opened, Bridgett — Stephanie’s cute and crazy cousin — was its lone occupant and she quickly decided not to get off as I stepped inside and pressed the button for the second floor.
“Hey, cowboy,” she said, “are you coming to my room later?
I pressed the stop button and the elevator jerked to a halt.
“I’m just wondering,” I said, “Are you Rolander’s onsite spy?”
“He doesn’t need a spy,” she said.
“Then what is it that you are up to?” I asked.
“What makes you think that I am up to anything,” she said as she stuck her hands into the front pockets of her very low-riding jeans and fluttered her eyelashes.
“I think you’re always up to something,” I said.
“The mark of a creative mind,” she said.
“Or a demented one,” I added as I pulled the stop button out and the elevator jerked back to life.
When it arrived at the second floor, the doors opened and Stephanie was waiting to get in. She looked at Bridget and then at me.
“I was just coming down to look for you,” she said.
“I was just going to change my clothes,” I said and got out of the elevator as the doors closed on Bridget’s sly grin.
“What were you doing with Bridget?” Stephanie asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“No one does nothing with Bridget,” Stephanie said.
“She was on the elevator when the doors opened,” I said.
“She’s big trouble you know,” she said.
“I sensed that,” I said. “But then, it wasn’t long ago that I was saying the same thing about you.”
The card key clicked in the room lock and we entered the room.
“I’m not going back to Colorado with you,” Stephanie suddenly said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because I have to take care of things here,” she said.
“What kind of things?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “I’m not ready to leave my mother behind.”
“Oh,” I said. “But I don’t think you’re really leaving her behind.”
“I feel like I am,” she said. “I suppose because I was cruel to her. Or more precisely, we were cruel to each other, and now I realize that she is gone and I’ll never be able to repair my relationship with her. So, I just can’t leave her yet.”
“I see,” I said, not knowing what else to say. Then again, why did I really care?
She stared into my eyes for a moment.
“You know, I love you,” she said.
“What?” I asked, not knowing if I had heard her right.
She loved me? How could she love me? She didn’t even know me. Nor could she know that I could probably never love anyone ever again. After all, the girl I was “meant to be with” had already been taken from me. Anyone else would be nothing more than a substitute, so why bother? No, I couldn’t love her.
Her Prince Charming had to be someone else. I’d already been someone’s Prince Charming and so I couldn’t be Prince Charming again.
“Look,” I said, ”about last night.”
“I know, I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. It should never have happened. It’s crazy to think that you could actually love me.”
“It’s OK,” she said. “I’ve made a total mess of my life. How could you possibly love me? I mean, come on. First, I almost drive my car through your bedroom window, and then you help me and end up walking miles home on Christmas night.”
“Stephanie,” I said.
“No,” she said. “It’s OK. You can take off for Colorado tonight if you want to. There’s probably a late flight.”
“But,” I said, “I don’t.”
“I just want you to know how much I appreciate what you’ve done for me,” she said. “And coming here with me was so nice. I’ll never forget that.”
“But … please listen,” I said.
“I can give you some money,” she said.
“Hey!” I shouted.
She immediately got quiet and didn’t move.
“What?” she finally asked while looking up at me very timidly.
“Can I say something?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said, “I’m sorry.”
“Please quit saying you’re sorry,” I said.
“Oh, sorry,” she said.
“Look,” I said, “It was wrong of me to take advantage of you last night.”
“But,” she began.
“I don’t even know you,” I said, “and I took advantage of you at a very vulnerable time in your life. I’m the one who should be sorry.”
There was much more that I wanted to tell her but I couldn’t, because I didn’t dare.
After all, it was too crazy. I felt a little like saying that I loved her and I knew that had to be idiotic. In fact, it would be absolutely nuts.
A little more than 48 hours earlier, I had been repulsed by her. So now was I going to turn completely around and beg her not to stay in New Jersey? Was I going to ask her to come back to Colorado with me and live happily ever after?
There was no “happily ever after.” I already knew that. Because happily ever after only happened in fairy tales.
“Put your head on straight,” I told myself. “You need a drink or a shrink. Get some fresh air. This is Stephanie that you are talking to. Remember, she’s a drunk and a spoiled brat.
I sat down on the bed and rubbed my face in my hands.
“I’ll leave in the morning,” I told her. “There’s no use incurring more costs by changing my airline ticket to tonight. I’ll call housekeeping and sleep on a cot in the corner.”
She quietly walked over to the other side of the room and sat on a chair, crossed her legs, rested her chin on a propped-up arm and tried to unsuccessfully stop tears from running down her cheeks.
I felt really sad and wanted to go over and hug her. But I didn’t.
The next day, except for a five-minute nap, I did little more than stare at the seat in front of me during the entire flight back to Denver.
Stephanie had secured a limo to take me to the airport that morning and rode along to say goodbye. When I got out, she did too and gave me a big hug. As I entered the airport through the glass doors, I glanced back towards the limo and she was still standing next to it watching me. I waved, she waved and then blew me a kiss, and I assumed that I’d probably never see her again.
When my flight landed at a cold and overcast Denver Airport, I immediately called my housemate, Baby Huey, and asked him if he’d mind picking me up.
He agreed and was his usual jovial self when he arrived, which snapped me out of my melancholy mood while we drove straight from the airport to his favorite smelly, Boulder beer joint near the University of Colorado campus. Once there, we watched sports on a variety of TV’s and inhaled a greasy, late lunch.
As can sometimes happen, we started out by ordering a single beer and that quickly evolved into several. A couple of his friends arrived and began ordering shots of Wild Turkey, an ominous sign for someone who’d hardly slept the night before. It didn’t take long for my blood-alcohol level to soar and kick me into a real longing for a nap, and it wasn’t long before my forehead was on the table.
While I lay there comatose, someone grabbed the TV remote, started flicking through channels and stumbled upon a re-telecast of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas on ESPN.
“Leave it there!” Baby Huey’s buddy Edwin suddenly shouted.
“Why?” Baby Huey asked.
“Look,” Edwin said again pointing to the TV screen.
“Look at what?” Huey asked.
“Look at the guy riding that bucking horse,” Edwin said. “It’s him.”
“Who?” Huey asked.
“Him,” Edwin said as he grabbed my hair and lifted my head off the table.
They all looked at me and then back at the TV screen.
“He’s a big-time rodeo guy,” Edwin said.
“No kidding,” Huey said, and they all giggled and then Huey ordered another round of beers.
The next morning I was awakened by a call from Jessie, the cute nurse that I’d met at the emergency room in Gillette, Wyoming, where I went after the fisticuffs at the bar/restaurant in Broadus, Montana.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“Boulder,” I said.
“Isn’t that a hippie town?” she asked.
“Not sure,” I said.
“So, what are you doing?” she asked.
“Playing the flute, flipping pizzas and wearing a kilt,” I said.
“Really?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m just hanging out. How are you?”
“Burned out,” she said.
“You’re not happy with your life and your pursuit of happiness?” I asked.
“Too many hours,” she said.
So, I suggested that she slide down to Boulder for a weekend of rest and relaxation. She concurred.
“However,” I said, “You may not recognize me without a swollen eye.”
“I hope it’s an improvement,” she said.
“Not sure,” I said.
“If not. I can always make it swell up again,” she said.
“That’s always an option,” I said.
She arrived the next day and after she made herself at home in the spare bedroom, we filled the next few days with movies, watching live bands, good conversation, sleep, museums, no kilts or pizza and a view of Boulder from high atop the Rockies.
On Saturday night we dined with Pastor David, his wife Mary, their little daughter, Jennifer, and their wolf-sized dog, whose cuisine was different but portions much larger.
“How can you afford to feed that moose?” I asked.
“That’s why we invite guests,” he said without smiling.
After dinner, David and I did the dishes, Jessie and Mary stretched out on couches, Jennifer played on the floor and the moose snuggled on a rug by the fireplace.
In the midst of stacking an army of pots and plates in the dishwasher, David expressed some concern over not having heard from Stephanie.
“Don’t worry about her,” I said.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because she’s a new person,” I said.
“Why do you say that Stephanie is a new person?” Pastor David asked me, as we did post-dinner dishes, obviously intrigued by my summation.
I filled him in on my trip to New Jersey for her mother’s funeral. How she had wanted to stay longer, her amazing transformation while I was there, her mother’s incredible beauty, my original trip to Connecticut, the breakfast discussion I had with her father and a detailed description of how I had been mugged in Manhattan’s subway bowels.
He absorbed the data silently for a moment, like an electronic device synchronizing with a home base, and then finally responded to my dissertation.
“I haven’t had that many experiences in a lifetime,” he said, “and you did it all in less than two weeks.”
“Well,” I said, “I left out some good parts.”
“Bless your heart,” he said. “That’s quite a story. But I’m still a little concerned for Stephanie’s welfare.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Did she happen to tell you that she stayed here while you were gone,” he said, “after she got out of the hospital?”
“No,” I said.
“She did,” he said, “and we did a lot of talking. Actually she and Mary did a lot of talking. Then I had a counselor friend of mine stop by and visit with her.”
“How did that go?” I asked.
“He said that he didn’t think she was someone who would try to kill herself,” Pastor David said.
“He can somehow determine that in one sitting?” I asked.
“Well,” David said, “he has counseled a lot of young people who have tried unsuccessfully to kill themselves, and others who have threatened to do so. And he said he didn’t think she exhibited the classic symptoms associated with either group. He said that he believed she was telling the truth when she said that someone had tried to kill her.”
“That’s alarming,” I said.
“He also said that he thought she was someone who was trying to show courage in the face of adversity rather than someone who might be depressed or reaching out,” David said.
I suddenly felt like an insensitive jerk.
“So if someone really did try to kill her,” he said, “that could be the reason she wanted to stay in New Jersey.”
“She certainly wouldn’t feel safe here if she felt that any of us, including the police, didn’t believe her story,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said.
“I’m an idiot,” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because she told me that she hadn’t tried to commit suicide and that she had gone from sitting on the couch that day to waking up in the hospital,” I said. “But how could that be? Because Detective Stypula said that there were no signs of a struggle.”
“I don’t know,” David said. “I suppose someone could have snuck up behind her and somehow rendered her unconscious.”
The thought of her being imposed upon by an intruder while I had been at her condo picking things up was more than disconcerting.
“I called Stypula to tell him what my counselor friend had concluded,” David said, “and he listened but didn’t sound the least bit convinced. Nevertheless, he promised to give my friend a call, but as of today he hadn’t done so. Can you get ahold of Stephanie to see if she is okay?”
I immediately called her cellphone and there was no answer. Then I called the Marriott in Montvale and I was informed that she had checked out.
For the rest of that night, I was a very poor conversationalist. David rented a movie but instead of watching it, I kept involuntarily playing back scenes from when I had first met Stephanie, the funeral and my entire stay in New Jersey, trying to match them up with her actions to see if I could think of anything that might be somehow revealing.
The next morning, I made Jessie and I a big breakfast and afterwards walked her to her car and gave her a big hug.
“Thank you for a great little vacation,” she said. “I may be tempted to come back to this resort.”
“Your room awaits you,” I replied. “Come any time.”
I watched her drive off and then skipped up the steps and closed the front door. Almost immediately, I heard someone ringing the doorbell.
“I wonder what she forgot,” I said to myself as I opened the front door.
Suddenly a female, bathed in perfume, grabbed me and tried to kiss me. I found myself hoping that it was Stephanie, and I even began to feel some relief at her having returned to Boulder safely. But it wasn’t her.
It was her cousin, Bridget.
“Since you’re not wearing brown, can I assume that you’re not here to deliver a package?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said, “I’m here to deliver a package all right.”
She stood with her hands in the back pockets of her faded jeans looking like a cross between a sultry mountaineer and Annie Oakley, clad in a buckskin jacket with lots of fringe and a trendy fur hat from which her long, blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders.
“Did you follow me home?” I asked.
“Of course not, silly,” she said. “I’m here on a ski trip and just happened to see you standing on the street.”
“There aren’t many ski lifts in this neighborhood,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “I’m still getting to know the lay of the land.”
“And where are your skis?” I asked.
“Oops,” she said, “I knew I forgot something.”
I hoped that her visit would be short and feared that getting rid of her might be a monumental task.
“Have you dropped out of Princeton and given up your dream of becoming a lawyer?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she said. “The holiday break isn’t over for another two weeks and besides, New Jersey’s not big enough for both Stephanie and I, so I figured that while she’s there, I’d take her place here.”
“Did you clear that with her?” I asked.
“I didn’t know I had to,” she said.
“Well, give her a call,” I said as I turned to go back into the house, “and get back to me.”
“Not so fast, cowboy,” she said. “I didn’t come all this way to have a door slammed in my face.”
My blood pressure began to rise.
“What do you want from me?” I asked her.
“It’s not what I want,” she said. “It’s what I want to give.”
“And what’s that?” I asked.
“Some fun,” she said.
“Have at it,” I said. “There’s a lot to do in this area.”
“But I want to have fun with you,” she said.
“I’m busy,” I said.
“Or in love,” she said.
“With who?” I asked.
“Stephanie,” she said. “And she’s in love with you. I saw it in her eyes.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, “it’s true. But I’d advise against going down that path.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because it’s a unhealthy route,” she said. “At least that’s what I was told to tell you.”
“By who?” I asked.
“By someone who is prepared to pay you handsomely to evict Stephanie from your life,” she said.
“And who would that be?” I asked.
“Sorry,” she said. “That’s privileged information.”
“Does he live in New Canaan?” I asked.
“He might,” she said.
“And how did you find me?” I asked.
“I invested wisely in some investigative work,” she said.
“You had me followed?” I asked.
“Actually, I recruited someone to accompany you on your journey home to protect and guide you without you knowing it,” she said.
“Which probably included a little research into my past?” I asked.
“That’s right rodeo stud,” she said.
I felt a little like I had been raped.
“And this is your part-time job during college?” I asked.
“You might say that,” she said.
“Why couldn’t you be a waitress like every other college girl?” I asked.
“Because I’m much more accustomed to being served,” she said as she glanced at her fingernails and snickered.
Suddenly, my housemate Baby Huey and his girlfriend drove up, prematurely ending my conversation with Bridget and hastening her departure.
As she turned toward her awaiting limousine, she invited me to meet her for dinner later that evening at one of Boulder’s more expensive hotels at around 8 p.m.
“I don’t think I can,” I said.
“I think you might want to,” she said.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because I have so much to tell you,” she said as she climbed into the limo and then immediately rolled down the window.
“So,” she said, “I’ll see you later. And by the way, Karen says hi!”
I watched slightly dumbfounded as her limo pulled away.
“If I start riding in rodeos, will cute little rich girls stop by and visit me too?” Baby Huey asked as he and his girlfriend walked by.
“You might have trouble finding a horse tall enough to keep your feet from touching the ground,” I said.
“Good point,” he said. “And who was that?”
“The wicked witch of the East,” I said as I walked back towards the house.
“Nice broom,” he said.
I skipped down to my basement bedroom to digest the events that had just transpired and made absolutely no plans to meet Bridget later for dinner. And then my curiosity got the best of me.
“What connection does Bridget have to Karen, the fashion designer?” I asked myself. “How could she know about Karen and I?”
Naturally, she could have had her private investigator tail me, I thought. But I hadn’t even met Bridget until after my relationship with Karen had begun and ended in less than a 24-hour period.
When I got to Bridget’s hotel, I pulled into the parking lot and sat there for a few minutes wondering whether or not to go in. Confusion with the course that my life had taken had by then graduated to “Twilight Zone” levels. In fact, my original plan, which had been all about getting away in order to simplify my life, had backfired and instead resulted in adding complications, challenges and irritations.
I strutted inside and used the house phone to ring Bridget’s room.
“I’m here,” I told her.
“Come right up,” she said excitedly.
“Not a good idea,” I said to myself but went anyway.
When I knocked on her door, a muscle bound boy wonder wearing what had to be his little brother’s T-shirt answered it and escorted me inside. Bridget was lying on a portable table wearing nothing more than a towel.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I thought you said 8 p.m. I’ll come back when you’re less …horizontal.”
That’s when she sat up and her towel fell to the side.
“Actually,” she said, “your timing is impeccable.”
Despite the fact that she was very pretty and sparsely clad, like someone who was ready to hop into the shower, I knew that getting out of Bridget’s hotel room was the best move I could make.
“I thought that’s how men preferred their women,” Bridget said as she sipped from a tall glass of ice water.
“How is that?” I asked.
“Unclothed,” she said.
“That’s probably true,” I said.
“But not in your case?” she asked.
“You’re not my woman,” I said.
“I’m trying to be,” she said.
“I’m not in the market,” I said.
“That’s not what I heard,” she said.
“You heard wrong,” I said.
“I think not,” she said.
“Would you like a massage?” she asked as she pointed at the hulking guy wearing his little brother’s T-shirt. “I’m sure Frank here has time for another.”
“Nothing personal, Frank,” I said, “but I don’t really let guys touch me.”
“Perhaps I can help you then,” Bridget said.
“Tell you what,” I said as I turned to leave, “I’ll be downstairs in the bar for about twenty minutes. If I don’t see you down there … have a nice trip home.”
Nineteen minutes later, I hopped off the barstool, thanked the baritone-voiced bartender for my extra-tall orange juice, left a tip and headed for the front door just as a sleek black limousine slithered between me and the path to my pickup truck. Then the driver popped out and opened the back door.
“Can we give you a ride sir?” he asked.
I glanced inside and spotted Bridget casually adorned in jeans, a beige sweater and a fox-colored fur jacket. Her long, blonde hair was again falling over her shoulders like a waterfall.
“Get in,” she said. “I’m in the mood for a delicious burger.”
I hesitated for a moment, wrinkled by brow, glanced to the side, told myself I’d be forever sorry and then got inside and gave her limo driver directions to the best burger place in town; a cozy beer joint on the edge of the downtown open-air mall.
Once there, we selected a corner booth near the jukebox, grill, back door and restrooms. A prime location, I thought, since I wanted nothing but the best for my new not-so-best-friend Bridget.
She ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a pitcher of beer, proving that she was neither a health nut nor a diet fanatic, even though her figure looked like it’d been chiseled by one of ancient Rome’s finest sculptors.
Meanwhile, I elected not to order a burger and instead asked for an empty glass to help her drain her pitcher of beer, lest I have a drunken Bridget on my hands, which I thought might be lethal.
Had the other males in attendance known what I was thinking, they might have assumed that I was either insane or had been rendered a eunuch. Because while they salivated over her appearance, I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get rid of her while she acted as though she was the lead in a Broadway play.
I elected to let her initiate all conversation and focused less on showing her a good time rather than keeping her from turning what was actually a fact-finding mission for me into some sort of date.
“Eat here often?” she asked.
“I haven’t been in town long enough to do anything often,” I said, “as you well know.”
“How would I know that?” she asked.
“You either do,” I said, “or that private investigator you hired to tail me is grossly overpaid.”
“Okay,” she said, “so I do know a little about your past. I’m intrigued by it, and that’s really why I’m here.”
“Really,” I said, “and I thought you were just a two-bit spy.”
Her food arrived and I refilled my beer glass. Then six boisterous fraternity brothers from up the hill at the college rolled into a booth, glanced at Bridget repeatedly and whispered to each other like pre-school kids.
“This is a great burger!” Bridget exclaimed. “You really know how to show a girl a good time.”
I winked at the frat boys who appeared to be hanging onto Bridget’s every word and they giggled, drooled and gave me a thumb’s up and I felt a little guilty about misleading them about my interest in her.
Then, as I watched the little princess eat her dinner, I found that I couldn’t quite make myself despise her no matter how hard I tried. In fact, the more she talked the more I found myself feeling a little sorry for her.
When she casually revealed that her parents were estranged, it was obvious that their divorce and the pain that went with it had impacted her life very negatively.
Apparently her father, who’d gotten bored with his suit-and-tie existence, including the nightly dinners at the club and limo rides, had moved to a little hideaway in the mountains of Montana. I was familiar with the placed she described in mid-Montana because for one, I’d been there, and for another, Lincoln, Montana, was the home of the “Uni-bomber,” the one the only Ted Kaczynski.
Of course, Teddy had since moved to a nice federal facility, and yet I couldn’t help but wonder if Bridget’s father had once been one of Teddy’s Wednesday night poker pals, but I didn’t ask.
Her father, she added, went from being the president of one of the family’s many corporations, a gift from his dad-in-law on the wedding day, to driving a snowplow for the county and shacking up with a 24-year-old waitress who was expecting their first child. Whether the old man had brains or balls, I don’t know. But he certainly had a sense of adventure.
Bridget tried to flippantly fill me in on the details, but I could tell that she missed her father and that the pain was deeper than she implied. At the same time, I wondered if she had inherited the same magical gene that had caused all of her family, at least all of the McHenry women, including Stephanie, to chase their men away.
When the princess finished her burger, she ordered another pitcher of beer and, through her cellphone, ordered up an endless list of songs on the jukebox. I rolled my eyes and sighed as the frat boys across the way began to get restless.
Over a chorus of some Willie Nelson tune, she asked if there was a place that we could go and dance.
“Dancing has been outlawed in Colorado,” I declared.
“No, it hasn’t,” she said.
“Yes, it has,” I said.
“Really?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
At 11 o’clock, I suggested that it might be time to go home.
“If we don’t, I’ll be worthless at work tomorrow,” I said.
“But you don’t have a job,” she replied.
“I know,” I said, “but I might someday.”
“So why not practice?” she asked.
“Precisely,” I said.
“I can get you a really good job,” she said.
“I bet you can,” I said.
“In fact, I can set you up for life,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”
The frat boys couldn’t believe their ears and howled in unison. I had to admit that I couldn’t help but be entertained by them and, of course, Bridget basked in their attention.
“All I have to do is stay away from Stephanie, right?” I asked.
“Correct,” she said.
“But I’m already staying away from her,” I said, “so you can save your money.”
“It’s not my money,” she said. “Plus, I know the separation won’t last. And I have another motive.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I want you for me,” she said.
That really set the frat boys off, and a couple of them fell out of the booth as the rest gave high fives to each other.
“You can have ME if he doesn’t want you!” one of them shouted.
Through it all, she locked her eyes on mine trying to be serious, even though her mouth was beginning to show a sinister smirk.
“I’m not a race horse on the auction block,” I said.
“Too bad,” she said, “because I was ready to put you out to stud in my pasture.”
The frat boys feigned passing out and howled. It had to be one of Bridget’s best performances.
“Sorry,” I said, “I’m not ready to be put out to pasture.”
“I can see that,” she said.
That’s when I stood up, excused myself, saluted the frat boys, they applauded and I headed for the restroom.
After quickly relieving myself, I exited to the right out the back door, and immediately a brisk breeze slapped me in the face. After strolling down the sidewalk about eight steps, I heard the back door of the bar suddenly pop open.
“Hey!” Bridget shouted, “Don’t you want to know how I know Karen?”
Naturally I did but answered, “No.”
“She’s Stephanie’s sister,” she said, and I re-swallowed the beer that rose up in my esophagus.
I took a cab back to Bridget’s hotel after leaving the burger joint in downtown Boulder, shocked at her revelation that Karen, the New York fashion queen, was actually Stephanie’s sister. Are you kidding me?
I wondered why my life was intertwined with all of these women. If I had wanted it to happen, it wouldn’t have. But since I didn’t, it did, if that makes sense, which it doesn’t.
Meanwhile, Stephanie and Karen being sisters hoisted the situation to a whole new level of absurdity that I couldn’t even come close to wrapping my mind around. I ran through a myriad of possibilities as I rode in a cab back to Bridget’s hotel and my pickup truck in the parking lot.
Once we arrived, the cabbie hesitated after I paid him, as if, just because he’d taken me to a nice hotel, he felt I should give him an inordinately large tip, even though we’d ridden only a few blocks. I didn’t take long for him to conclude that I had enough on my mind without having to also deal with him, so he sped off.
That’s when I hoped I wouldn’t see a black limo pull up as I opened the driver’s door of my pickup truck and turned the key in the ignition. But it wouldn’t start, so I immediately suspected foul play since the thing had never failed to start for me in the past, even in very inclement winter weather.
Summoning another cabbie, I sped off toward home, or more correctly, Baby Huey’s house, formulating a plan for the next day that would include fixing my pickup truck, tossing my gear inside and moving on to warmer and perhaps even tropical climates.
It seems I’d had enough of the neverending play that I’d suddenly become an actor in and decided it was time to exit stage left.
When I got to Baby Huey’s house, I went inside, feeling exuberant and free, thanks to my new plans — until I spotted Bridget seated on the couch in the living room across the room from Huey.
“Your roommate was kind enough to let me in after I told him that you told me I could stay over,” Bridget announced.
Huey flashed me a toothy, glisteningly naïve grin, thinking that he’d done me a big favor, even though he’d somehow become the unwitting participant in a bad dream.
“That was very kind of him,” I said and then my cellphone rang.
“Hi, it’s Stephanie.”
“Where are you?” I asked as Bridget walked by me with her overnight bag and said, “See you downstairs, honey.”
“Who was that?” Stephanie asked.
“Where are you?” I asked, trying to ignore her question.
“Still back east,” she said. “I just wanted to see how you were.”
“I need to talk to you,” I said. “Pastor Dave told me you stayed at their place while I was gone and that you had talked to a counselor friend of his who said he didn’t think you were … well … the type to commit suicide.”
“I told you that,” she said.
“I know, but …”
“Listen,” she said, “this was a bad idea. I shouldn’t have called.”
“But wait,” I said. “We need to talk.”
“I know whose voice that was,” she said. “Bridget is there, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” I said, “but …”
“That’s okay,” she said. “I understand.”
She hung up. I plopped down on a barstool with my elbows pressed against the kitchen counter and my face wrapped in my hands. Baby Huey got up and got a beer from the fridge, glanced my way, winked and returned to his favorite chair. He had no clue, and I wanted to somehow escape from the whole situation.
Then, like a death row inmate, I descended the darkened stairway towards the beam of light flowing from my bedroom doorway. Inside, Bridget lay in bed under the covers, her straight blonde hair flowing over the pillows, her lips moistened and glowing, and her clothes — all of them — placed on a chair beside the bed.
As I crossed the threshold, her inviting green eyes met mine, and she sat up and held out her welcoming arms. I floated towards the bed in a daze, like a jet on autopilot, hoping that I could just sit down beside her and reason with her.
Leaning over, she kissed me, her mouth tasting like a nice chardonnay and I thought briefly about how I might as well enjoy the evening, because in the morning I’d fix my pickup truck and hit the highway and never see Bridget or Stephanie again.
That’s when she tried to kiss me again, but that’s also when something caught my eye: a reflection. It was Stephanie’s camera, the one I’d grabbed at her apartment the day after she was, in her words, raped. It was sitting by a stack of dirty clothes next to the bedroom closet. Shocked, I grabbed the camera and ran upstairs, planning to connect it to the television in the living room and see what photos or recordings might be on it besides mine.
“What are you doing?” Huey asked.
“I found Stephanie’s camera,” I said.
“Found what?” he asked.
“I found the camera that I had picked up at Stephanie’s place,” I said. “Watch this!”
I pressed play and what appeared on screen was a taping of Stephanie’s Christmas Day post-party, where Stephanie, Sam, the other male revelers and the cocaine babes were stumbling about, being very loud.
At one point we could hear screams, and the camera was pointed towards Stephanie’s partly opened bedroom door, where, it appeared, a struggle of some sort was taking place. Then the screen went blank, as though the camera operator knew better than to film something he or she didn’t think should be filmed. That’s also when the camera cut to what I had taped the following day: the messy apartment and bed, torn underwear and more.
“Someone was shooting Stephanie’s rape,” I said.
“Oh, wow,” Huey said. “And they must have shut the camera off when they figured out what was going on!”
“Looks like it,” I said. “Those were Stephanie’s screams.”
“Where did you get it?” Huey asked.
“I went back to her apartment to pick up some things the next day, noticed the camera and just started filming,” I said. “I didn’t know the rape thing was on there. After I’d brought it back here, I couldn’t find it again.”
“So you haven’t shown this to the police,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“You need to,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“But where did you find the camera?” he asked.
“By my closet door downstairs,” I said.
“It was there all this time?” he asked.
“No way,” I said, “or I’d have seen it.”
“So how did it get there?” Huey asked.
“I have no idea,” I said and then turned around when I heard a rustling sound behind me and saw Bridget standing there in the stairwell wrapped in a sheet and smiling.
That next morning, orange sunrays peaked through my bedroom shades and I shivered, coughed and pried my parched tongue from the roof of my very arid mouth.
Rolling out of bed, I limped to the thermostat, turned up the heat and scurried to the bathroom for a drink of water.
That prior night, I had continued to watch the recording of Stephanie’s Christmas Day post-party over and over so many times that I almost felt like I had been there and then eventually fell asleep on the living room couch.
Bridget, meanwhile, had returned to my downstairs bedroom, probably distraught at having shooed away her limo driver, and I assumed that she was still asleep.
Huey rose early that morning like clockwork, hustling about, getting ready for work, dropping breakfast silverware and sending fumes of freshly brewed coffee wafting throughout the house. By 8 a.m., he was at his desk at the newspaper ready to face the day.
My plan that day was to have a lengthy discussion with Bridget about her family, and her desire to make sure that Stephanie and I remained at opposite ends of the globe. I was determined to find out if it was her or the tooth fairy that’d dropped that camera on the floor near my closet.
I jumped into the downstairs shower, and it wasn’t long before Bridget crept into the bathroom and suggested that she join me in the shower to conserve water. I suggested otherwise.
“Don’t let her,” my conscience told me.
“I won’t,” I said. “Give me some credit.”
“Just making sure,” my conscience said.
“It’s all yours,” I said to Bridget as I left the bathroom with the water still running.
A short while later, as I labored in the kitchen, she emerged from the basement looking very clean and fresh, minus all of the makeup and dressed in one of my shirts.
I placed an omelet in front of her and she dug into it like a ravaged ranch hand just off the range.
“Got any more toast?” she asked.
“Do you always eat like a truck driver?,” I asked.
“Must be the mountain air,” she said. “Or maybe it’s the lack of love.”
“Or both,” I said.
She continued to eat with what seemed like a terminal smirk on her face, which, I had to admit, was somewhat appealing.
“Why is it that you’re offering me funds to stay far away from Stephanie?” I asked.
“I couldn’t possibly divulge that,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I have my orders,” she said.
“Is it Stephanie’s father who wants me to stay away?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Just give it up and move east with me.”
Most men would have leaped at the chance to be taken care of by a rich, beautiful woman. For some reason, I didn’t.
“Sorry,” I said, “but I’m not ready to settle down. There are too many things that I want to explore.”
“Okay, Chris Columbus,” she said. “What is it you plan to do?”
“A lot of things,” I said, “but mostly I just want to be left alone.”
“You should have thought of that before you started dating Stephanie,” Bridget said.
“That’s just it,” I said. “We’re not dating.”
“Does that mean you’re available?” she asked.
I realized the woman could twist a conversation in any number of ways and have it come out exactly as she desired. Thus, the legal profession for her seemed to be a good choice. I rolled my eyes and ran my hands through my hair in desperation.
“Do you know where Stephanie is staying?” I asked.
“It’s not my job to watch her,” she said.
“But you know where she is,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
“And where is that?” I asked.
“With Karen, her sister,” she said, “the fashion designer that you just happen to know.”
Bad answer, I thought to myself.
Okay, so Karen, the exotic-looking New York fashion designer, is Stephanie’s sister, at least according to Stephanie’s cousin, Bridget.
If that’s the case, then Karen’s absence from her mother’s funeral was obviously a good measure of how close their relationship “wasn’t.”
So after calling Karen an embarrassing number of times on her cellphone, and also being told repeatedly by her receptionist that she was in a meeting, I finally got her on the phone by convincing the receptionist that I was an outraged agent and lawyer for one of her big-time models and needed to talk to her.
Oh sure, you could say that was cheating, but sometimes you have to go with what works.
So when she finally answered I said, “Let’s see, you were kidnapped, forced to play Russian roulette endlessly and couldn’t respond to my calls?”
Predictable silence ensued.
“Or you and Bob the drug salesman from the bed and breakfast place in New Canaan ran off together and you were waiting to tell me the good news,” I added.
The second pause seemed to confirm that she lacked some appreciation for my elaborate wit and I debated whether to hang up or stay on the line long enough for her to insult me.
“Must you harass me at work?” she asked.
Her use of the word “harass” was definitely impactful, because it was one of those painful words that all too quickly categorized more than just the conversation.
“Is there a better place to harass you?” I asked.
I’d had my fill of her entire dysfunctional clan and their incessant mind games. So her verbal comeback, though slightly justified, led me to act like even more of a jerk. Not to mention, of course, that I was still hurt by how she’d treated me after our rendezvous in New York. But, of course, I could never admit to that, right?
“Perhaps we could talk later,” Karen said, “because I have people in my office.”
“Perhaps,” I said.
“I’ll call you,” she said.
I knew she wouldn’t, so I figured I might as well ask one more question.
“You knew, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Knew what?” she asked.
“You knew that I knew Stephanie,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
“But for some reason you failed to mention that to me when I met you,” I said, ignoring her question. “And then later you even made love to me.”
“That was unintentional,” she answered. “My father wanted me to see what you were doing in New Canaan.”
“I’m sure you vastly exceeded his expectations,” I said. “But is your father your only client, or are you also occasionally employed by al-QaIda?”
“I’d rather not get into it right now,” she said.
“Nor would I,” I said. “But for some reason I’ve been swallowed up by this really bizarre family and I’m wondering how to escape its grasp.”
“I’m not part of that family anymore,” Karen said.
“Oh, you forgot to pay your membership dues?” I asked.
“I don’t stay in touch,” she said.
“But you talk to your cousin, Bridget,” I said.
“When she calls,” she said.
“And you spy for your father,” I said.
“I’m not a spy,” she said.
“What then,” I asked, “just an observer?”
“Look,” she said, “what do you want?”
“First of all. I’d like to be released from your family’s grip,” I said. “And yes, I’m just a little bitter about our not-so-chance meeting in New Canaan and the resulting misadventure. Apparently, I’m used to people returning my calls, or perhaps I’m just naïve.”
“I didn’t return your calls because I was afraid of what it might lead to,” she said.
“A conversation?” I asked.
“Or more,” she said.
There was a long pause and I could hear a chorus of noise in the background, and I knew that she was in the midst of another frantic day. I felt a little sorry for her.
“Why are you calling me?” she asked.
“I need to know where I can get ahold of Stephanie,” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Have you talked to her?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said.
“When?” I asked.
“Eight years ago,” she said, “at my high school graduation. She and my mother were about to move away. It was our last chance to see each other. My mother was drunk.”
Suddenly, I was very confused again because Bridget told me that Stephanie had stayed behind with Karen.
“Stephanie hasn’t been staying with you?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Why would she?”
Now I didn’t know who to trust. Or perhaps I knew there was no one to trust.
“So,” I said, “you are daddy’s girl.”
“You could say that,” she said.
“He wouldn’t happen to own that company you work for, would he?” I asked.
“He might,” she said, and suddenly the bustling sounds in the background disappeared, and I assumed that she’d closed the door to her office or went somewhere else that was private.
“Look,” she said, “I wanted to call you.”
“That’s amusing,” I said.
“When can we talk?” she asked.
“Right now,” I said. “And you can also tell me where Stephanie is.”
“I don’t know where she is,” she said.
“Then why did Bridget tell me you did?” I asked.
“I can’t account for Bridget’s actions,” she said.
I doubted that anyone could.
“Then I guess this conversation is over,” I said.
“I think not,” she said, “if escaping the grasp of my family is what you really want.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because my family’s grasp might be bigger than you think,” she said and hung up.
The next day, snow pelted my windshield as I drove up the turnpike from Boulder to Aurora, a community located on the west side of Denver and just east of Boulder.
The pre-dawn freeway was dotted with early-bird workers trekking towards their inner-city offices and another battle-filled day. Occasionally, I corrected my car’s subtle sideways slide as it passed over intermittent sheets of ice.
It was those early years spent manipulating the snow-covered highways of the Dakotas that helped me to maneuver towards patches of dried pavement, and I listened as my snow tires grabbed at concrete like tiger claws reaching for an evening meal.
The pre-sunrise hour made headlights a requirement, and a pair of them approached me from the rear at a very high speed, prompting me to initiate a lane change that would enable the daredevil to easily pass by.
But suddenly the maniac’s high beams filled my rear window with blinding illumination, leading me to assume that he was piloting a large pickup truck or utility vehicle. The darkness behind those stage-like lights prevented me from ascertaining the exact make of the vehicle or a description of the inconsiderate driver.
Meanwhile, the driver, not content with having blinded me, then tapped my rear bumper with his front. A second tap, perfectly timed with the arrival of another patch of ice, sent my car into a spin across four lanes of freeway and turned my percolating anger into desperation.
The resulting wild ride, which closely resembled a rodeo bucking bronc ride in many respects, including the length, ended abruptly when my rear end met concrete and sent my pickup truck careening along an outside retainer wall for many yards.
When the ride was over, I sat motionless until I could gather my wits, of which there were few, and began to initiate a damage assessment, which is something that I’d learned to do in rodeo. With no major injuries to report, I told myself to hop out of the pickup truck in case there might be something like a leaky fuel tank and eventual flames to contend with.
Once outside, my initial reaction was to glance about for the daredevil who had forced me into this situation and, of course, he or she was nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile other commuters, ignoring my life-altering experience like a primetime television commercial, continued on their merry way.
Then, before I could begin to plot my next move, a burly highway patrolman drove up, determined to do a quick but thorough investigation. He not-so casually concluded that I was lucky to be alive and that my pickup truck would never be driven again, unless its parts were melted down and became part of a new vehicle.
“Is there any good news to report?” I asked him.
“You’re alive,” he said.
“That’s not surprising,” I said, having survived plenty of wrecks in the rodeo arena, not to mention my wreck with Kelli.
“Why’s that?” he asked.
“I just seem to be blessed with dumb luck,” I said.
He then jotted down some notes for his report, looking as though he didn’t necessarily believe the part about someone tapping me on the rear end, or so it seemed, as I thought about why I had been on that freeway in the first place.
As an official nonmember of the morning commuter club, it was not somewhere that I’d normally be, except that I had received a call in the middle of the night from an unidentified female who said that she was a “mentally burdened” reveler who had attended Stephanie’s Christmas Day party.
It seems that she needed to drain her overfilled reservoir of guilt and asked me to meet her to discuss the events of that night at length in the parking lot of a mall just off of the freeway in Aurora.
“Why me?” I asked.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because I don’t know you,” I said.
“Thus, your qualification,” she said.
Apparently, I was, in her mind, a semi-participant who’d earned the qualification by simply not being an official member of the “party crowd,” and yet one familiar enough with the situation to know how to best describe it to the police, while at the same time preventing her from being labeled as a snitch.
“I get it,” I said.
“You do?” she asked.
“Only partially,” I said.
What she failed to realize is that she’d ultimately have to come forward as a witness anyway, but I decided to let that small detail remain anonymous.
“I see you’re from North Dakota,” the officer said as he continued to jot down notes on his pad. “Have you been here long?”
“Not long,” I said.
“How long?” he asked again.
“Long enough to nearly lose my life,” I said.
“I see there’s no luggage in your pickup truck, so you obviously didn’t just roll in,” he said.
“Nor would there be if I had,” I said.
“So you travel light?” he asked.
“Extremely,” I said.
“Do you think someone would purposely try to kill you?” he asked.
I stared at him for a minute.
“You said someone tapped your rear end,” he said. “Do you think it was on purpose?”
“Yes, I think it was on purpose,” I said.
“So it’s quite possible that someone was trying to kill you,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “because that only happens in movies.”
“I wish it did,” he said, “but it doesn’t.”
After I was rear-ended on the Boulder/Denver turnpike, with my pickup truck having been rendered useless, the highway patrolman on sight was kind enough to give me a ride home.
I considered asking him if he’d take me to the Aurora mall parking lot to meet the girl who had called me to rid her mind of the gruesome details of Stephanie’s post-Christmas party rape. But I decided trying to meet her might be senseless given the amount of time that had passed and the fact that she wasn’t answering what I assumed was her cellphone. Nor did I think the patrolman’s job description included taxiing accident prone motorists.
Nevertheless, he did drop me off at Hubert’s house, which was more or less on his way and it was then that I remembered I had left Stephanie’s camera sitting on my front seat, without any possible means of retrieving it, since I no longer had a vehicle.
So I went right to work getting a replacement vehicle and scanned the local Boulder newspaper that was sitting on the dining room table, and spotted a classified ad that described an old ’90s-era pickup truck as being in prime condition despite its age. My personal inspection, that took place a short while later thanks to a taxi ride, revealed that the elderly owners, who were Boulder natives, had actually under-promoted its condition.
“It hasn’t spent a night outside of the garage,” Mrs. Anderson said, as if she was talking about a delicate pet.
“Looks like it,” I said.
“And here are all of its service records,” her husband said as his wife set a glass of cold milk and a pile of very tasty sugar cookies in front of me.
A few thousand dollars cash made the pickup truck mine and I waved to the Andersons as I backed out of their driveway.
Although much older than my parents, as they stood there, the elderly couple reminded me of the distance that I’d put between my family and I, and made me think of a time in the distant future when I might be confronted with my parents declining health, a circumstance facing the Andersons at that very moment and prompting their move into a retirement village.
Meanwhile, the odometer on the truck read 39,000 miles, which meant that it had barely been broken in, had traveled no great distance from Boulder and, although it lacked a few modern comforts, it was nevertheless a solid investment and I gave them a nice amount over the Blue Book price.
In fact, I showed my appreciation for its meticulous upkeep by stuffing an extra $500 under the plate of sugar cookies for them to find later, knowing that they’d never accept it any other way. And I was glad I did after seeing the old man’s sad face and noticing some tears forming in his wife’s eyes as we discussed the details.
“Please take care of them,” I said to God as I pulled away, hoping that he might still recognize my voice.
Then, after a fairly lengthy drive to a junkyard in Broomfield, where they had towed my truck, I discovered that Stephanie’s camera was not in it. That was no great surprise, since I’d called ahead to have the junkyard people look for it and they’d already told me it wasn’t there, but I drove there anyway just to “not see for myself.”
Fearing that it might have fallen out while the tow truck driver was preparing it for transfer, I scanned the freeway for remnants, found none and kicked myself for not having downloaded the contents onto a computer or zip drive.
Then, back at Huey’s house, I paced for a bit and called Karen again in New York to get a better definition of what she had meant when she implied that the web I was tangled in might be bigger than I thought. My bravado had blown it off at the time she said it, but the sudden appearance of a driving demon that bumped me off the road gave rise to my need to investigate further, but Karen didn’t answer.
So I called the bed and breakfast place in New Canaan.
“Is Karen there by chance?” I asked Mrs. Magnuson.
“Haven’t seen her since you were here,” she said.
“How about Mr. Pharmaceutical?” I asked.
“Who?” she asked.
“You know,” I said, “Bobby the drug pusher.”
“Oh him,” she said. “Yes he’s here.”
“Tell him hello from his favorite cowboy,” I said.
“Really?” she asked.
“No,” I said, and wished her the best.
I had to meditate for a while after I hung up and sort through my mixed up life. Then my stomach began to growl loud enough to probably scare some kids in the neighborhood and cause dogs to howl. So, I slapped a can of tuna onto whatever bread showed no signs of mold and added potato chips to the plate.
Then, while I was engrossed in my five-star meal, the evening news anchor was concluding another gloomy newscast and I almost missed the report about the murder and possible rape of a young female whose body had been discovered in a trash dumpster at a nearby mall.
I left the kitchen, walked into the living room, placed my plate on the coffee table and continued to listen with mild interest.
As the camera panned over the crime scene, while an onsite reporter interviewed a police representative, they streamed the location across the bottom of the screen. The line said that it was at the Galleria Mall in Aurora and that’s when my heart sank.
Days later, I watched attentively from my vehicle as a large throng of mourners filed out of a church, jumped into their cars and followed the hearse to wherever that murdered girl’s body was to be buried.
Of course, I couldn’t be certain but I knew that it was quite possible that the girl that was being laid to rest and the girl with the guilty conscience who had called me to vent about Stephanie’s rape were one in the same.
“You’re wasting your time,” I said to myself.
“Have you got something better to do?” I answered back
“No,” I said.
The brief clip in the Denver newspaper outlining the 24-year-old victim’s gruesome demise had failed to include what I wanted to see most — a photograph. Without that photo, my only other option was to view the body in person or check out a photo on Facebook, but if she’d had a Facebook page, it had been eliminated.
The other options, which included sneaking into a church in the midst of a funeral or unearthing a freshly buried coffin, were a little beyond my moral grasp.
Not that a photograph would be the Holy Grail. Because, even if I did see a photo and didn’t recognize her, it didn’t mean that she hadn’t been at Stephanie’s post-Christmas Day party or called me with a guilty conscious.
Anyone could have gone to Stephanie’s condo that night without having gone to the bar and she may have also avoided being on the footage that was housed in Stephanie’s camera. Plus the deceased, for all I knew, could have been the person operating the camera. So, unless she called me back, I’d never know for sure if the one who called me was dead or not.
Meanwhile, conspicuously absent from the funeral crowd, at least the part that I saw, was anyone I recognized from that evening’s group, which seemed to prove that I was wasting my time.
After all, there was nothing to link the girl that I was supposed to meet with the dead girl, except for the fact that, had I not been run off the road, I might have witnessed a murder and a body being dropped into a dumpster, both amazing coincidences and a compelling argument all in one.
The newspaper clip, although brief, had revealed the following: Her name was Melissa Boyle, she had grown up in Aurora and graduated from high school there, attended Long Beach State University in California on a volleyball scholarship, earned a business degree and was employed by an investment firm in downtown Denver.
The name Melissa meant no more to me than John Doe because Stephanie had not formally introduced me to any of her beverage-consuming colleagues, except for Sam, the rapist, and that was only after the fact, to accuse him of rape, with him not present. So I had taken care of that intro by myself, in person the next night at the nightspot where they were partying in a much more memorable and physical way.
Meanwhile, as I watched the funeral proceedings from afar in my not so new pickup truck, I began to assume, perhaps incorrectly, a couple of things. First, if it was Melissa who had scheduled our rendezvous, she probably had hoped for it to be a quick and clandestine meeting, and one that would have taken place on her way to work, given the early hour of the morning.
That implied a certain degree of risk, intrigue and urgency, unless I was reading more into it than there really was, putting James Bond where not even Barney Fife was needed, which was entirely possible given my level of boredom.
Now, knowing that most funeral attendees return to the church for a reception after the graveside ceremony, I felt that if I was going to sneak inside and look around for photos that the moment had arrived.
As I entered through the front doors, I spotted a huge bouquet of flowers that was eerily similar to those that had been on display at my wife Kelli’s funeral. Their aroma immediately dredged up memories and weird thoughts as I wondered, now that Kelli and Melissa were both dead, if they could talk to each other.
Dressed casually and standing out amongst a sprinkling of attendees appropriately attired in dark-colored suits and dresses, I quickly made my way to a long table upon which lay a guest book, tri-fold brochure and a photo display.
Before I could study any of the soccer, volleyball, cheerleading, graduation and family photos, an impeccably dressed older gentleman with light reflecting off of his oily, bald head came out of the woodwork like a ghost and looked at me oddly with eyes so close together that they were nearly one. I assumed he was one of the undertakers.
“Are you looking for something?” he asked.
“A bingo card,” I mumbled.
“What?” he asked.
“Oh,” I said, “I just moved into the area and had a day off so I thought I’d look around for a church.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Did I come at a bad time?” I asked.
He studied me for a moment and then flashed an insincere grin.
“We’ve just laid a young lady to rest,” he said.
“Does that mean she died?” I asked in an intentionally sarcastic manner, simply because I hated that stupid phrase.
“Yes,” he said. “Perhaps you can come back another time.”
“Perhaps I can,” I said and did an about-face.
Okay, so I’d failed to get a good glimpse at any photos of the girl who’d been murdered in the parking lot of the nearby mall at her funeral. That was not good because I felt bad being there in the first place, and a little like a weirdo, so not accomplishing my mission made it doubly bad.
Yet after having words with the spindly mortician I spun about, intent on leaving the church, and noticed that the parking lot was refilling with vehicles. Therefore, I assumed that the graveside ceremony was over.
That’s when I noticed a tri-fold brochure of sorts lying on another table near the entrance which featured a photo of the deceased. Not only was it a photo of one of the “party girls” that was part of the crowd at the bar on Christmas Day but it was THE girl who had stumbled out of the restroom with white powder on her face and shouted, “let’s party!” at the top of her lungs, just before she nearly knocked over a conservative group of four seated at a table nearby.
“Oh,” I said.
“Oh?” said the spindly mortician who’d apparently snuck up next to me.
“Such a shame,” I said. “She’s so young.”
“Always a shame,” Mr. Mortician said with pursed lips.
“Indeed,” I said and continued on through the main entrance.
Once outside, I regretted having made the discovery, not only because of the outcome for the girl but because of what could have meant for me.
“That guy was trying to kill me too,” I said to myself in reference to the turnpike and the person who had tried to run me off it.
Thinking that someone might be trying to kill you is one thing. Actually coming to the realization that they ARE is another.
“Do I have to go into hiding?” I asked myself.
“I thought you already had,” I answered.
“Good point,” I said.
As I walked toward my new — but really old — pickup truck, I noticed a group of young people getting out of a car. One girl in particular looked like someone who’d been part of the alleged party group at the bar the night I sent Sam the rapist flying like a Frisbee.
As I approached our eyes met and she looked the other way and tried to subtly alter her course. I quickly picked up my pace, she did too, and I caught up to her as she neared the front entrance of the church.
“Can I talk to you a minute?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“You were there, weren’t you?” I asked.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” she said.
“You were at Stephanie’s condo on Christmas night,” I said.
She stopped, turned around, looked into my eyes and said, “Excuse me, but I have to go inside.”
“Look,” I said. “There’s something very odd going on here. Is there a time we can talk?”
“No,” she said.
“What’s your name?” I asked. That’s when one of the young men from the group came up from behind and grabbed her arm.
“Amy,” he said, “are you coming?”
“Yes,” she said, “I’ll be right there.”
If the young man’s stare could have drilled holes, I’d have looked like a chunk of cheese. I returned his look with one equally full of disdain.
“I wasn’t there,” Amy said and turned to go.
That’s when the young man, obviously a boyfriend who had the shoulder of an ox and a palomino ponytail, put his arm around her waist and nearly shoved her inside.
I watched helplessly, not wanting to create a scene and he flashed me a “get lost” look as I made my way to my pickup truck, where I sat behind the wheel and debated my next move.
“Who would want to kill her or me?” I asked.
“Perhaps it was Sam the rapist?” I answered.
“He wouldn’t dare,” I said.
“Perhaps not,” I answered, “but he might dare to pay someone to do it for him.”
“Another good point,” I said and then turned the key in the ignition and then, as I was staring at the church doors, I turned it off again.
“You can’t stay in the church forever,” I said to Amy, out of earshot, and prepared to wait her out.
Now, there are perhaps few people in this world, given its ever-changing horizon, who can claim that their occupation is the same as their great-grandfathers had been. In my case, in spite of the invention of cellphones, texting, emailing, jet travel and frozen pizza, my occupation had remained that of horse wrangler. That was the same job title that my great-grandfather had listed on his 1910 wedding license, proving that some things never change.
At least that was my occupation until fate intervened and changed it to “spy” because, as I sat perched in a tree on a cold black night watching the occupant of a house across the street, I knew that something had dramatically changed.
Especially when the front door suddenly creaked open and a lone dark figured emerged and walked down the street.
You see, I had spent a grueling hour or more, waiting for Amy to come out of the church after the funeral reception so that I could talk to her. When she finally did, it was as part of a group — of course — none of whom seemed to notice me in my pickup truck across the street.
So I followed their car like a seasoned investigator, anticipating turns and laying back an indiscrete number of vehicle lengths to insure invisibility.
My journey ended when they dropped her off at their third stop, in front of a two-story house on a residential street dotted with turn-of-the-century homes, just north of downtown Boulder and three blocks from where I would have run out of gas, if my calculations were correct.
As she entered the front door, I rolled past, parked a block away and came back to half perch in a tree, in the yard of what appeared to be an unoccupied house —with a real estate sign out front —whose branches could have held a small castle.
“This is stupid,” I said to myself.
“I know,” I replied.
Who it was that later burst through the front door was hard to ascertain but the height and walk seemed to match that of Amy, although a long black coat and a floppy knit hat obstructed my view of her face.
For 30 minutes, I had debated sauntering up to and knocking on her front door and inviting myself in for a heart-to-heart discussion, but for some reason I’d held back. It probably had to do with not wanting her to summon the police. Although, staying in a tree and being arrested as a peeping Tom didn’t seem to offer a viable alternative.
But I was glad that I hadn’t knocked when she finally popped out the door, which is when I studied her movements with the intensity of an anxious new father viewing his newborn for the first time.
Following her at a safe distance, this time on foot, I marveled at my innate spy ability, watching carefully as she turned left on Broadway toward downtown with her hands buried deeply inside her coat pockets.
When she finally glanced back, I ducked into some nearby bushes and waited until the streetlight changed at the intersection she’d stopped at. As I did, a brisk north wind swirled about, lifted silt off the street and momentarily deposited it in my eyes.
Just before Pearl Street, she took a right turn and then a quick left down an alley, approached the back door of a small gift shop and went inside. Moments later, a heavy-set woman in her 50s emerged, walked up the alley, got inside a car parked on the street and drove away.
Crouched under a stairwell by the back door, I feared that I might become involved in another elongated waiting spell and realized that the life of a private eye was fraught with drudgery and discomfort rather than bright lights and brilliantly exciting escapades.
After a lengthy period, during which I questioned my sanity, I began to think about things like digging into an oversized bowl of popcorn in front of toasty fireplace flames. Then suddenly an old four-door sedan veered into the alley and nearly framed me in its headlights but I pivoted around a corner just in time and hovered within viewing distance.
A male driver with a ponytail emerged from the car and crossed rapidly in front of the headlights holding a rage and cigarette lighter. He tapped on one of the back door’s glass panes with a tool of some kind, broke it, lit the rag and threw it inside, then hopped back into the car, backed out of the alley, shifted gears, popped the clutch and squealed down the street. I stood there momentarily dumbfounded.
A real hero might have burst through the door to extinguish the flames and saved anyone inside, but I held back for a millisecond as fire ate away at the drapes covering the inside of the door.
At precisely the point, when I had finally decided to vacate my hidden roost and offer aid, the flames were suddenly doused by a white cloud. Amy popped through the cloud, coughed and spit as though she was aiming for a spittoon and flung aside a large fire extinguisher, sending it careening across the pavement and clanging like an old grade school teacher’s bell.
I readied myself to hop over and save the day, so to speak, but paused a bit longer, seeing that she wasn’t in immediate danger. Plus, I wanted to witness any further proceedings, while wondering if the man with the ponytail, who’d caused all the fuss, was the same guy I’d seen at the funeral.
I wondered if I’d just witnessed some sort of fraud attempt. Was he teaming with Amy to burn down the shop and collect insurance money? If so, why would she put out the fire?
Or maybe he knew Amy was in the shop and, in that case, it’d be a murder attempt.
Whatever the case, I felt like I was in way over my head. So I decided that I should just go home.
But I didn’t.
Roughstock rodeo cowboys have a dramatically altered concept of time. To them, eight seconds is more like an hour, a minute is more like an afternoon, a day is like a week, a week is like a year and a year is equal to five years.
As a result, they age like dogs, seven years to one, and no matter how old they are when they starting riding in rodeo, they are old when they quit.
So subconsciously, a cowboy knows that his lifespan — much like that of a mosquito — is day to day and that tomorrow may never come. The reason they know that is because tomorrow never came for some of their buddies and they watched it happen and then rode again afterwards, only to find that those memories are hard to erase.
It is also why rodeo cowboys don’t sleep, dine or drink a beer. Instead they collapse, starve and party hard.
They don’t plan, invest or reminisce. They wander, spend and move on.
They don’t take one aspirin. They take five. They don’t fix. They patch. They don’t talk. They watch. And they don’t just meet a girl at a dance. Instead, they marry her for the night.
So why do they ride, you ask, if it is so dangerous? Because to them it is not a choice or a decision it is a foregone conclusion and then an addiction. Why else would a bareback bronc rider have a spur set into the cast for his broken foot?
Seconds can also seem like hours when you’re hovering under a fire escape trying to be completely quiet.
Especially since I assumed I’d soon hear sirens scream and see beams of red flashing lights bounce off alley walls, followed by black-and-white police units and shiny red fire trucks rounding corners and screeching to a halt. Isn’t that what usually happened after someone tries to burn down a business? Instead, there was only silence.
I even rehearsed what I might say to police when they arrived to ask questions, take notes and dust for fingerprints. Instead, I watched as Amy, the girl I was trying to get info out of, propped open the back door with a broom and let the remaining smoke filter out as though she was cleaning up after an evening barbeque.
It seems the event just never graduated from an incident to a crime. Instead, it remained a nonevent — like burned food on a kitchen stove — and I wondered why there weren’t smoke alarms screaming like a newborn babies inside the store.
Darkness and the remaining smoke altered my attempts to see into the back door, so I circled around the block and put myself in a position to gawk through the front windows. But I could see nothing from that vantage point except dim light, as if it was creeping out from the back of a cave.
Across the street, happy patrons were going in and out of the local tavern, unaware of events on the other side. Three pot-bellied good ole boys fell out of a side door, slurred some unintelligible dialogue, swayed down the block, got into a hot rod and sped off to commit involuntary manslaughter.
An older, overzealous jogger gimped by wearing a knee brace and spit on the sidewalk every few feet. In the distance, a dog barked — probably practicing for when the jogger would pass by its yard — and a blustery breeze swirled uplifted sand and sent soda cans racing down the street clanking an eerie tune.
Finally, a siren blared in the background but it was too far away and probably too late to have anything to do with the shop’s mini-blaze.
Suddenly, a car burst around the corner as though driven through time by Marty from “Back to the Future.”
I stood and watched under a streetlight across the street, as the glare cast my shadow across the roadway well beyond the height of most professional basketball players. The driver of the car, when he popped out, nearly stepped on my shadow’s head but failed to glance my way.
Meanwhile, the car appeared to be the same battlewagon that’d parked by the back door of the shop only moments before. And the same driver with the ponytail got out and knocked on the shop’s front door, it opened and he went inside.
My jaw dropped briefly, wondering why someone who’d just tried to torch the shop would now be let inside the front door, and I skipped not so inconspicuously to the front door again to get a look inside.
As I did so, it suddenly occurred to me that Amy, if she was monitoring my activities, might mistakenly cast me in the lead role of firebug rather than the arsonist who’d just entered her shop.
So, I assumed that I had two choices: don a Superman cape and burst through the front door intent on saving her from a murderous arsonist or call the police. But if I called the police, I might have to explain my back alley loitering, an odd habit that might demand a lengthy and embarrassing explanation. And the absence of a nearby phone booth and cape prevented me from immediately going the Superman route.
Besides, there were no sounds of distress coming from inside the store anyway and Amy, or someone, had obviously let the arsonist in, so I had little motive to proceed. Plus, breaking through the front door or slipping in through the already opened back door might be misconstrued as trespassing with intent to do harm and give them legal grounds to send a bullet my way.
Facing a disturbing crossroads, I conveniently saw the bar across the street as an oasis of sorts, a great place to meditate on the issues at hand, and I crossed again to that side of the street to sort through my frazzled thoughts and plan a course of action, just in case there was to be any.
The bar happened to be windowless on its east side, which faced the smoky shop, and I wondered if the rumor about it having been an early 20th century jailhouse was true? Those thoughts prompted some momentary delusions where I would proceed to lock Mr. Ponytail in the men’s room until the police could come.
Pam, my roommate’s sister, happened to be there and she walked toward me as I leaned against the bar. The bartender, a young lady with blonde braided hair and dressed in a Rocky Flats Nuclear Power Plant T-shirt with a red circle and line through it, planted a beer in front of me and I immediately had an epiphany and plan of action.
“No charge,” Pam declared and winked.
“Thank you,” I said and then asked if it was her, the bartender, who’d sent the three stooges out of there “wasted” a few minutes earlier.
“Not me,” she said. “They strolled in here blitzed and I sent them on their merry way.”
“You have my utmost respect,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Laura,” she replied.
“Do you happen to know who owns the gift shop across the street?” I asked.
“Which gift shop?” Pam asked.
“The one with the overhang,” I replied.
“An older lady and her daughter,” Laura said. “Why do you ask?”
“I just saw someone try to burn it down,” I said.
“Pardon me?” Pam said.
“I just saw someone break a window in the back door and toss a burning rag inside,” I said.
“Should we call the fire department?” Pam asked.
“No,” I said, “the fire is already out.”
“Who put it out?” Laura asked.
“The girl inside,” I said.
“And who tried to burn it down?” Pam asked.
“The same guy who is there right now, inside the store, with the girl who put it out,” I said, expecting them to be somewhat alarmed but they weren’t.
“Why were you hanging out by the back door?’ Laura said, asking the very question that I hoped to avoid having them ask.
“Smoking,” I said.
“Really?” Pam asked.
“No,” I said and just then Laura and Pam scurried out the side door, sprinted across the street, banged on the front door of the shop and inadvertently created a perfect diversion.
Amy greeted them nonchalantly and they quickly partook in a conversation more appropriate for a bridge club gathering than a near miss block razing.
I slipped across the street, snuck up to the battlewagon’s driver’s door and crouched below window level.
When Pam and Laura entered the shop, I tried a car door and discovered that it was unlocked. So I crawled inside and searched the glove box for a car registration and found one. With it in hand, I slid out of the car, crept behind the other cars until I reached the end of the block, turned a corner and slipped into the back of the shop and then entered the still open back door and hid behind a stack of boxes.
When the voices up front went silent, I heard the old front door squeak and close while the little bell above it rang. Light footsteps neared my pile of boxes and I found myself hoping the pony-tailed firebug had exited the premises at the same time as Laura and Pam.
As I sat there crouched low behind the boxes, it became one of those moments in my life when seconds seemed like hours and I suddenly realized that my addiction to danger was still alive and well.
Just then, a cloud of perfume engulfed my nostrils and chased away any semblance of lingering smoke. I also noticed that a small lamp was shining light on a part of my body usually associated with a bent-over refrigerator repairman.
If Amy was the only one left in the shop, then all would be well I assumed. But if the pony-tailed ox still occupied the premises, I anticipated that things could get quite physical very quickly.
Meanwhile, Pam and Laura had to, by then, been back at the tavern noticing my half-full beer. I had overheard Amy tell Laura, the inquiring bartender, moments earlier, that a tipped-over candle had started the small blaze, which was a totally believable myth given the fact that much of the shop’s stock consisted of scented candles.
Pam and Laura had obviously bought into the tale since their visit amounted to nothing more than a friendly chat followed by an invitation for Amy to join them at the bar. At the same time, there was still no evidence of the pony-tailed arsonist’s presence in the shop, which lead me to believe that he had ducked out the back door while the action unfolded up front, probably narrowly missing my grand back entrance.
Nevertheless, I was on high alert and anticipated his return.
As I hid behind the boxes inside the shop in downtown Boulder, Amy’s perfume continued to reveal her whereabouts as she roamed in and out of the small back room where I was hidden.
So I crawled out from behind the boxes and stood near the doorway, leaning with my back against the wall.
When she re-entered the room again, I flipped a paperclip to the other side of the room to announce my presence. It was an approach I felt was better than grabbing her from behind and holding my hand over her mouth since I was, after all, a rodeo cowboy, not a criminal, robber, rapist or CIA agent.
The deadly look on her face as she spun around scared me more than my presence might have panicked her.
“Don’t shoot,” I said.
It appeared that she was about to scream but then she didn’t, I assumed because she recognized me from the funeral or from the bar on Christmas day, or the other bar after that.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Three candles and some incense,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.
She failed to giggle.
“What do you want?” she asked again. “And why are you in here?”
“To talk,” I said.
“About what?” she asked.
“I think you know,” I said.
By then she was shaking and tears were rolling down her cheeks as she put her hands to her face and nearly collapsed into an old wooden chair.
“I saw how the fire started,” I said and she looked up at me fearfully.
“And I know you were at the bar the night I sent Sam flying through the air with the greatest of ease,” I said.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“A friend of Stephanie’s,” I said.
“Where is Stephanie?” she asked.
“Back east,” I said.
“Is she okay?” she asked.
“Why do you ask?” I said.
She ignored my questions, rested her elbows on her knees and dropped her face into her palms again.
“Who murdered Melissa and threw her in the dumpster?” I asked, figuring I might as well go for gold.
Her head snapped up and she gave me a deadly stare.
“Get out!” she shouted. “I’m going to call the police.”
“That would be interesting,” I said. “Because they’ll certainly find the lingering smoke and burned drapes intriguing.”
She remained silent.
“Look,” I said, “I need some answers. I was supposed to meet Melissa when she was killed. In fact, someone tried to kill me too. I just want to know why? I have a right to know, don’t you think?”
She looked into my eyes. I figured that she was trying to measure the level of my integrity.
“Why are you asking me?” she asked.
“Because you may not have all of the answers,” I said, “but you’ve got some of the answers. And you’re in the midst of some real strange things here.”
It was evident that my words were hitting home and I sensed the presence of a bundle of information residing inside of her waiting to get out. Unfortunately it wouldn’t come out easily.
“I went to high school with Melissa,” she said. “That’s all there is to it.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s a start. Do you also know Sam?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Were you also at the party at Stephanie’s condo on Christmas night?” I asked.
“My boyfriend is coming back any minute to fix the window,” she said. “You better get out.”
“Is he the big boy with the ponytail?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“The same one that started the fire?” I asked.
“He didn’t start the fire!” she said.
“And Bill Clinton didn’t have sexual relations with that woman,” I said distastefully.
“Leave me alone!” she said.
It was then that I realized I was about to send her into full-scale hysterics, so I quickly formulated another plan of attack.
“You’re in some kind of trouble,” I said. “I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, maybe I can help.”
She appeared to study me again, trying to determine whether or not I could be trusted.
“What’s your name?” I asked, even though I already knew.
“Amy McIntyre,” she said.
“And you and your mother own this shop?” I asked.
“My mother does,” she said.
“Okay,” I said and grabbed a piece of paper and pen off of a shelf. “Keep this phone number and call me. I’m in the middle of something and I don’t know what it is but maybe you can help. I sense that you are in trouble too. And we can help each other. Got it?”
She stared at the number.
“I don’t need your help,” she said.
“I’m afraid you need someone’s help,” I said. “Because whether you believe it or not, that boyfriend of yours is tonight’s firebug?”
“It’s not him,” she said. “It was someone else.”
“I’m not going to argue with you,” I said. “He’s the one, whether you believe it or not. So you need to be careful. And please call me.”
I left the shop through the back door and walked down the alley. As I turned the corner onto the street, I saw Mr. Ponytail walking my way carrying a bag that looked like it could have held a pane of glass. As we neared each other, I looked into his eyes and tried to read his soul. He glanced at me but only for a second, as if he was a busy New York business executive rushing to his next appointment.
“Didn’t he recognize me from the funeral?” I asked myself.
“Apparently not,” I answered.
I crossed the street when I reached the end of the block, entered the bar again, ducked into the hallway leading to the restroom and dialed 911 on an old payphone there.
“I’d like to report a fire,” I said.
“The location?” the operator asked and I gave her the address.
“Your name?” she asked.
“Mitchell Riley,” I said, reading from the car registration that I’d stolen from the big green battlewagon previously parked in front of the store.
“I’m the one that started the fire,” I said and hung up.
Later, I watched as two policemen loaded Mitchell Riley, alias Mr. Ponytail, into the backseat of a squad car. He appeared to be less than thrilled with his lot in life and, in fact, I thought I detected a great deal of anger, with his expression reminding me of a birthday boy being denied a giant piece of cake.
Meanwhile, firemen roamed anxiously about trying to release the reservoirs of adrenaline they’d built up in anticipation of fighting a major blaze. I realized then that I might have poured it on a little thick to the 911 operator.
As we stood by the back door of the tavern, Pam stared at me like I’d just given nuclear bomb-making blueprints to some terrorists.
“The guy had it coming,” I said.
Both Pam and Laura stared at me.
“He lit the blaze!” I said. “Trust me.”
Meanwhile, Amy pleaded with officers to let Mr. Ponytail go and I ducked into the tavern again not wanting her to suddenly point at me and say something stupid like, “He did it!”
The policemen had apparently failed to believe her “tipped over candle” story because she too was being put in the back of a squad car.
I guess one broken window, glass shards on a floor inside, burned curtains, a burned door, some burned boxes, a little smoke damage, a perpetrator on the premises and failure on her part to call the fire department raised a few red flags with the boys in blue.
I assumed that they’d eventually let Mr. Arsonist, formerly Mr. Ponytail, go after some questioning or at, most, a night in a cell with a lonely male lover. Eventually, they might trace my call to its tavern origin and ask patrons if they had seen Riley there that night. Once they discovered that he’d not entered the bar, they’d have to let him go.
Ultimately, there was no one on earth who could say that they’d seen Riley set the blaze except me and I had no intention of explaining why I had been hovering in an alley under a fire escape, especially since it would eventually come down to my word against Riley’s.
I did, however, want to make sure that I kept Mr. Riley away from Amy for as long as possible, thus the main reason for my call, but I hadn’t counted on them hauling her away too.
As events continued to unfold, I wondered at what point I might become part of the story, should Amy decide to mention my presence in her back room. My plan, were that to happen, was to ask for Detective Stypula, the lead investigator in Stephanie’s rape case, and fill him in on the continuing saga.
Plopping myself down on a bar stool, I was planning my next course of action when I looked up and saw Pam and Laura still staring at me with arms folded.
“What?” I asked.
They said nothing so I ordered another beer.
The next day, I discovered that Mitchell Riley had other things to worry about, the least of which was being the prime suspect in an attempt to burn down central Boulder.
The police had discovered that Mr. Riley was working in the automotive industry collecting classic cars that he forgot to pay for. A ’70s Chevrolet Chevelle Super Sport registered to a Denver man and reported stolen, was found in the garage of a house he shared with two male students just east of the Boulder college campus.
His roomies knew few details of their beloved housemate’s life beyond his having responded to their “roommate wanted” ad in the Boulder Daily Camera and his tendency to go through girlfriends like paper towels through a restroom dispenser.
They were, in fact, quite shocked to find out that the young ladies he brought home weren’t actually girlfriends at all but prospective employees whom Riley “tested” prior to hiring them for another one of his side businesses, an “escort” service.
Seems he supplied companions to lonely business travelers and exotic dancers to bachelor parties, making him an entrepreneur with a diverse portfolio. Assuming that his businesses were profitable, I wondered why he felt the need to share a house with others, unless he worked for someone who didn’t pay his employees well and had to funnel all of the cash directly to his superiors.
Whatever the case, I couldn’t wait to find out more.
Mitchell Riley, the man who tried to set the store on fire in downtown Boulder, was a loser.
He stole cars, ran a prostitution ring and who knew what else and he was in jail, thanks to my call to the police station.
I had gathered facts about his past in a roundabout way from Detective Stypula, having called him under the guise of checking on whether he’d caught Stephanie’s rapist yet, knowing that he hadn’t.
“No, because she wasn’t raped,” he said.
“And Hitler was a parish priest,” I said.
“Anything is possible,” he said.
“Precisely my point,” I said.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I heard that someone tried to burn down the town last night,” I said.
“How did you hear that?” he asked.
“I read the newspaper,” I said. “And I was across the street.”
“Oh,” he said, as if he wasn’t really listening.
From there on, our conversation fell under the category of “beating a dead horse” but I did manage to extract some vital information. For example, I found out that Riley was not a native of Boulder. Instead, he was from New Jersey and was wanted for a lengthy list of charges ranging from extortion to failure to pay child support.
“Impressive resume,” I said.
“If you like deadbeats,” he said.
“Is Amy McIntyre, the shop owner’s daughter, also a crook?” I asked.
“It appears that she is simply someone very adept at picking out the perfect man to bring home to Mom,” he said.
“Are you sure that she wasn’t a co-conspirator in a scheme to defraud an insurance company?” I asked.
“We can’t be sure who set the fire,” Stypula said, “because Amy McIntyre says she didn’t see who started it.”
I wanted to say I did but didn’t.
“And you believe her?” I asked.
“I have no valid reason not to,” he said.
“Nice point,” I said.
“I have my moments,” he said.
“Don’t waste them,” I replied.
Because Riley would not be going anywhere for a while, I decided there was little reason for me to reveal my knowledge of the prior evening’s events. Plus, in the end, it would be my word against his and even though I thought I might win, I wasn’t mentally prepared for the battle nor that heavily invested in it.
Still, I wondered why Amy was trying to protect Riley? Was it love? Or was she that naïve and being coerced, or was she being intimidated by him?
The fact that Riley happened to come from the same part of the country as Stephanie and her degenerate family was one impertinent bit of information that, for some reason, irked me a little, like a pebble in my boot. I hoped there wasn’t a connection but, for some reason, I sensed there was.
I wished I could talk to Stephanie, but her decision to go undercover left me with Karen, the New York designer, as my only source of relevant data. But when I called her office again, I was told she had left for a Paris fashion show, so I called Amy at her shop and, for some not-so mysterious reason, she didn’t want to talk me.
I knew that Amy hadn’t told the Boulder police anything about my having witnessed the arson attempt because if she had, Stypula, who was too dumb to act dumb, would have brought it up. I assumed that she’d kept it to herself to protect Prince Charming, ignoring what I told her I’d seen.
Undecided on what to do next, I called Stephanie expecting her not to answer too. After two rings, she answered the phone.
Immediately, her apathy and coldness led me to wonder if she’d had a lobotomy and forgot who I was.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Fine,” she said.
“When did you get back?” I asked.
“This morning,” she said.
“So,” I said, “where have you been?”
“Here and there,” she said curtly.
“Nice place,” I said. “Is there a problem?”
“Nope,” she said.
“OK,” I said, “nice talking to you.”
Then I hung up.
The old Stephanie had returned to reside in the new Stephanie’s body I assumed. It was the bizarre Stephanie, the one who used to hoist glasses full of booze, slur meaningless dribble, plow into stranger’s yards and tell lies about her mother.
It was unnerving and I paced back and forth, amazed at how easily I’d been caught up in her spiderweb, and yet, at the same time, I felt relieved, as though the return of her dark side released me from feelings of guilt and the sense that I had to protect her or right a wrong that she had suffered. Without that monkey on my back, I could move on.
There was no question that my focus on her had taken it off me, myself, and I and my so-called problems made me forget the twists and turns of my own life, stabilized my mental well-being, and proved to me that there was more to life than me, which was a silver lining to a dark cloud. Still, I felt a little like a truck driver trying to race an 18-wheeler against Formula 1 racing cars.
The world was moving faster than I was.
Faced with another semi-frustrating crossroads, an intersection of self-examination, my eyes were suddenly opened to the absurdity of chasing after a murdered woman, an arsonist, a car robber, a pimp, a Middle Eastern rapist, a rich entrepreneur, a suicidal maniac and a nymphomaniac.
I was neither James Bond nor Columbo, and yet I might have given Inspector Clouseau a run for his money. Rodeo cowboys don’t suddenly become secret agents, cops or private eyes at the drop of a hat, I realized.
When my internal search for a method to my madness to my life came up short, I called Pastor David, whom I considered Mr. Stability.
“What’s up?” he asked. “I haven’t heard from you in a while.”
“Just wanted to call and thank you,” I said.
“For what?” he asked.
“For taking care of me on Christmas Eve,” I said. “That was very nice of you, and for everything else that you’ve helped me with.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“I’m leaving town in the morning,” I said.
“You’re what?” he asked.
“I’ve had enough of Boulder,” I said. “I’m leaving.”
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “South I think.”
“Is something wrong,” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“I’m sorry to hear you are leaving,” he said. “Will you come back?”
“Can’t say,” I said.
“Are you going to ride in rodeos again?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Do you want to come over for dinner?” he asked.
“Thank you, but no,” I said. “I’m going to bed soon so that I can get an early start in the morning.”
We both paused.
“Hey,” he said. “I got a message on my phone from Stephanie. She’s back in town. Have you talked to her?”
“No,” I lied. “I better go.”
“Okay,” he said.
“I just wanted to thank you,” I said.
“I hope we see you again,” he said.
“Me too,” I said and hung up.
I woke up very early that next morning and called my parents.
“How are you?” my mother asked.
“Fine,” I said.
“Your rodeo buddies have been calling,” she said.
“Really,” I said.
“They are wondering where you are?” she said.
“Tell them I am taking time off,” I said.
“When are you coming home?” she asked.
“Don’t know,” I said.
“Don’t be gone long,” she said, “OK?”
It felt good to connect with my parents. My dad, as usual, talked less than a choirboy during church service.
Men his age from that part of the country rarely talked on the phone. Still, his phone manner was a dramatic improvement over what grandfather’s had been, because Gramps never even hung up. The first clue that your conversation was over was a click on the other end.
It had to be hard for my parents, I thought, to patiently let me — their prodigal son —wander aimlessly, depressed and half out of his mind, across the country. My mother’s faith seemed to carry her through, however, just like her prayers had kept me alive to that point. Unfortunately, no one says parenting will be easy when you sign on, but people keep doing it.
My dad, a rowdy rancher from way back, had not been a regular church attendee until the day my mother laid down the law, which happened to be the same day he proposed to her.
I had to give him credit because he had promised and stuck to his word. But like most men in those parts, he didn’t sing in church or get all excited and raise his hands in praise, although he did usher, fix things, serve on committees and wash dishes after a big pancake breakfast.
There were no displays of emotion or shouts of “Amen” coming from the pews of our church. For men, Sunday meant putting on their only suit, a thin tie, parking their hats on a shelf in the entryway and sitting stoically in the same pew decade after decade.
Self-sacrifice had been ingrained in people early on back there and there I was being selfish and self-centered. Not because I wanted to be, but because, for me, it was a desperate last resort and somehow my parents seemed to understand and I loved them for it.
My brother, on the other hand, had a different view, I knew, because he always had. The good son, after all, was left behind to slave away at the ranch while I frolicked about the 50 states and Canada making headlines and leaving the dirty work to him.
He’d get his due soon enough when the land was officially given to him, and then I’d be the one left to fend for myself, as it should be. My brother’s whole life story had already been written, it seemed, while my next chapter was yet to become even a rough draft.
That, I assumed, might not be a good thing.
When he approached the hills
He let go of the reigns
And signaled for his trusty steed
To gallop on
Towards where, he knew not
Nor did he care
— Tales of a Lonely Cowboy.
I’m not certain where I had read those words. Especially since I went through something like 50 books after Kelli died. But for some reason those words came to mind when I stared into Bridgett’s eyes, after she’d driven up in her new four-wheel drive pickup truck and parked it on Baby Huey’s front lawn.
It was a vehicle that was hard to miss, especially since it was painted purple and had tires the size of Mount Rushmore. Apparently Bridgett could do nothing on a small scale.
“Did you have to park it on the lawn? I asked her.
“I like to make grand entrances,” she said.
“I’ve noticed,” I said.
She looked stunning, I had to admit, wearing a waist-length sheepskin jacket with very low-riding jeans, and tan cowboy boots, with a red scarf around her neck. Her long blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She was very cute.
“Have you noticed anything else?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“That you are very pretty,” I said, “as pretty as a beautiful rose. But like a rose you are very thorny.”
“Do you mean thorny?” she asked, “or something else that rhymes with thorny but starts with an H?”
“No,” I said, “I meant thorny.”
“That’s interesting,” she said, “And just what do you mean by that?”
“It’s hard to explain,” I said, “but it’s like you use your flamboyance as a wall or as a protective device.”
“That might be true,” she replied in a split second of abnormal openness.
“Protection from what?” I asked.
“From wolves,” she said. “There are a lot of wolves out there.”
“Are you saying that I am a wolf that you need protection from?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “you’re a fox.”
“That’s funny,” I said.
“But true,” she said.
“And guess what else?” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“I missed you,” she said and put her arms around me and kissed me.
Her arrival and that action probably came at the wrong time for me. I was vulnerable, confused and longing for something, and I knew what it was. I was longing for Kelli but she was gone.
“When did you get back into town?” I asked.
“I never left,” she said and invited herself inside.
We then chatted for a bit and eventually — against my better judgment — ended up in my bedroom, talking for a long time until she kissed me and then we made love, which, in the end, felt a little like biting the apple that Eve handed to Adam.
I couldn’t help myself because I needed attention and she was giving it out in heaping helpings. Then we fell asleep until someone pounded on the front door upstairs and I got up and threw some jeans on, and then ran upstairs and opened the front door.
“Do people always park their giant trucks on your front lawn?” Detective Stypula asked.
“Not every day,” I said.
“I’m going to have to ticket this one,” he said.
“Be my guest,” I said.
“No!” Bridgett cried out as she came up behind me, dressed only in a bed sheet.
“Just kidding,” Stypula said as he stared at her, “but that’s not why I’m here.”
“I suspected as much,” I said.
“I’ve got some more news for you,” he said.
“What’s that?” Bridgett asked as she rested her chin on my shoulder and wrapped her hand around my waist.
“We found another body,” he said.
“Really,” I said, “who?”
“Sam,” he said, “the young man who took out the restraining order against you. The one Stephanie accused of raping her.”
Of course, I knew who Sam was and I couldn’t say that it came as bad news, shame on me, but it was still a shock.
Never before had I been remotely involved in so many affairs of such magnitude and this latest addition took a few moments to sink in.
Finding bodies was suddenly becoming a daily occurrence for the local police, just like stopping for donuts or busting dope smoking hippies in the park. And since my name was linked to the bodies, my next visit to the police station was as a suspect rather than as a guest and that’s where Stypula took me with Bridget following closely behind in her new pickup truck.
Fortunately for me, Sam was killed on the same day and at the same time that I had spent with detectives at the police station and napping with Bridgett in my bedroom, thus I had an alibi. In addition, were they tempted to jail me, Bridgett was fully prepared to post any amount of bail to keep me from being thrown behind bars. Thus, I concluded that it paid to allow rich chicks to park their big trucks on your front lawn and seduce you.
Sam’s time of death had been estimated at between noon and 3 o’clock, simply because he was in a college classroom at noon and found dead on the living room floor of his apartment with a bullet in his head at 3. A cleaning woman had found him.
That would have given me, were I the murderer, a half-hour to drive across town, kill Sam and then get back home in time for Bridgett to land on the lawn. It was physically impossible without a helicopter, although Bridgett might have financed one had I requested it.
The police didn’t really consider me a suspect anyway, I could tell, but it would have been inefficient of them not to question me.
Of course, when Stephanie left town to go back to New Jersey, Sam had become irrelevant to me anyway. Still, I did want to recover the tape of the party rape so that I could send him to jail. After all, anyone would want to see justice done.
But now, with people around me dying, I wondered when it would be my turn to die too until I remembered that someone already had tried to kill me on the turnpike as I drove towards Aurora to meet with Melissa, who’d unfortunately ended up in the garbage dumpster there. Remembering all of that was very disconcerting and that’s when a thought occurred to me.
“Would someone still try to kill me if I left Boulder, altogether?” I asked myself, “or was I only a murder prospect while still inside Denver/Boulder city limits?”
“What?” Stypula asked.
“Nothing,” I said, and walked out of the police station. Bridget took me home and when I got there I called Stephanie.
“Have you heard about the killings?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said.
“Did you know Melissa, the girl who was murdered in the mall parking lot in Aurora?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Did you also know Amy, the girl whose mother owned the little shop in downtown Boulder?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Did you know Sam was also killed today?” I asked.
“I know,” she said. “I have a television.”
Yes, I remembered that she did. It was the size of a billboard and took up the greater part of the west wall of her living room.
“And do you have any idea why they were killed?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Why should I?”
“Do you also know who Mitchell Riley is?” I asked, in reference to Amy’s ponytailed arsonist/pimp boyfriend.
“No,” she said. “Who’s he?”
“He might be the man of the year,” I said.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
How could she know Amy but not know Mr. Riley, the arsonist, I wondered and decided to move on to more personal matters.
“Do you have any idea why you are suddenly treating me like you hate me?” I asked.
“Yes,” she announced.
“Why?” I asked.
“I think you know,” she proclaimed.
“No,” I said, “I don’t.”
“Because when I called you from New Jersey you were with my cousin Bridget,” she said.
“No I wasn’t,” I said.
“Look,” she said, “I heard her voice. I know she was there.”
“She was there all right,” I said, “but I wasn’t with her.”
“You weren’t?” she asked.
“No I wasn’t,” I said. “But I am now.”
Had my pickup truck not been impounded, I might have ventured down the highway to destinations unknown. Instead, perhaps stupidly, I elected to shack up temporarily with Bridget on the mini-ranch that she’d purchased near Lyons, a small town nestled in the canyons, just a few miles north of Boulder.
Yes, it was a less-than-brilliant idea, but I’d already established a pattern of stupidity and that fit right in.
Her house was a one-story, two-bedroom, turn-of-the-century classic with a bathtub that had feet larger than horse’s hooves and a four-horse barn in the backyard. Not only that, but Bridget was a different person there, cooking meals on a gas stove, cleaning house, painting and riding horses almost daily when the weather was good.
She had decorated the place with antique and rustic furniture, some of which had been made by a local cowboy. It was a nice setting and one that I felt very much at home in, which might have been her aim.
Had I never met Stephanie and the rest of her crazy family, I might have been tempted to settle down with Bridget and give consideration to having a few offspring. Unfortunately, lurking in the back of my mind was the thought that, when it came to Bridget, something had to be brewing somewhere, readying itself to sweep down like a canyon flood.
Life was actually pretty good and then one day, on a whim, I made a split second decision to stop by Stephanie’s condo on my way back from running errands and having lunch in Boulder with Baby Huey. In truth, I stopped there because I was worried about her.
“Did you actually buy a big new purple pickup truck?” Stephanie asked me.
“No,” I said, “it’s Bridget’s.
“Where is she?” she asked.
“She lives here in Colorado now,” I said.
“Are you two a couple?” she asked.
“Look,” I said, “I’m not here to talk about me. I came here to talk about you. I’m concerned about you.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because you are a dot that connects the lines to every murder that has taken place,” I said.
“Are you blaming me?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “I’m worried about your welfare. I don’t want to scare you but I wonder if you might not be next on the list?”
“Why should that bother you?” she asked defiantly.
“That’s a good question,” I said.
“Look, I just want you to have this phone number,” I said to Stephanie, as I talked to her just outside her condo, having stopped by on my way back to the place where her cousin Bridget and I were co-habitating, at least temporarily.
“If you have a problem or need my help, call me, okay?” I said, suddenly remembering that I’d said that same thing to Amy McIntyre before I found her dead in my pickup truck.
Then I hugged her and left to go back to Bridget’s place.
Later that afternoon, I lifted small potted trees into the back of the pickup truck as Bridget paid off the owner of a nursery with crisp bills that she’d just milked from a bank’s cash machine.
“I don’t think you can plant trees this time of year,” I said to her.
“The book says that you can, honey,” she replied.
Did she say honey? Her sudden introduction of that word into our “relationship” made me feel a little claustrophobic.
I had been getting a little edgy anyway. The mock marriage thing wasn’t quite working out for me, even though it wasn’t a marriage and had only been something we’d been doing for a few days. It made me realize how deeply in love I had been with Kelli. Instead of feeling claustrophobic with her, I had felt greater freedom.
After digging a few thousand holes for Bridget’s new trees, I slipped into the house, filled the big bathtub with steaming water, shed my clothes and dove in. Minutes later, the old bathroom door creaked open and Bridget, wearing nothing, came in carrying a tray that held two full champagne glasses, a bowl of strawberries and still another filled with whipped cream.
“Mind if I join you?” she asked.
“It’s your bathtub,” I said.
“What’s mine is yours,” she said.
We looked like an old couple by the time we finally crawled out of that tub, so wrinkled was our skin.
After drying off, we plopped down on the bed in her bedroom and fell asleep with light music from the stereo flowing throughout the house.
I had never met a sexier lady than Bridget, nor had I ever been with a woman who tried harder to please me, so I decided to go with the flow and stick out our arrangement for a few more days.
“Don’t do it!” my conscience said.
“Shut up,” I murmured and fell asleep.
Suddenly, I was whisked from peaceful slumber to painful reality by the relentless ringing of a cellphone at 3 a.m. It was Stephanie Rolander.
The resulting conversation, as it turned out, was brief. Not because she wanted it to be but because I quickly realized the pointlessness of carrying it past two minutes.
Meanwhile, Bridget appeared to know who it was even before I told her. Apparently she had expected the call, if not that night, then sometime in the near future.
“I have to go,” I said to Bridget.
“I know you do,” Bridget said.
The Boulderado was a four-story hotel built in 1908 that Buffalo Bill Cody might have stayed in back in the day. Now it took at least $200 to secure a room.
As soon as I walked into the lobby, I spotted Stephanie lying comatose on a vintage Victorian couch with her black dress riding high on her thighs. She was obviously drunk.
A young bellhop was stationed next to her fidgeting like a nervous Buckingham Palace guard.
“Thank you,” I said to him. “I’ll take over from here.”
“She threatened to jump from the second-story balcony,” he said. “I almost called the police until she flipped me a hundred bucks to dial your number.”
“She’s had a very tough time,” I said and he walked away.
When I nudged her awake, she grabbed me like I was a passenger falling over the side of the Titanic and she immediately began to cry. I sat down and rocked her like a baby.
Her life had been a nightmare recently and no big bank account could change that. In a very short period of time she had been raped, lost her mother, lost her so-called friends, lost her old lifestyle and also, she might have been thinking, lost me, I suppose.
I felt impotent to help her and wondered why I, rather than Sigmund Freud, Dr. Phil or Oprah, had not been brought into her life instead.
Half-carrying her to my pickup truck, I gently slipped her inside, like a precious document into an envelope and drove her to her home. I carried her inside and once I got her close to her bed, she dove onto it like a dehydrated desert traveler into a bright blue oasis watering hole, while seemingly falling asleep in the midst of the fall. I then covered her with blankets and called Bridget to tell her that I’d see her in the morning before I laid down on the couch in the living room.
Then I tossed and turned for a while, finding it hard to fall asleep and eventually decided to call the Boulderado and ask for the bellhop who’d assisted Stephanie earlier.
“Hi, this is Mike,” the bellhop said when he came on the line.
“I’m the guy that just picked up the drunk girl in the lobby,” I said.
“My condolences,” he said.
“Can you tell me anything about what she was doing there?” I asked.
“She came in late with some big guy,” he said, “and they were having drinks in the bar when all of a sudden she went nuts.”
“Do you know what it was about?” I asked.
“No clue,” he said.
“What did the guy look like?” I asked.
“Good looking guy,” he said. “I’ve seen him before. In fact he stays here occasionally and meets with different people all the time.”
“What kind of people?” I asked.
“Executive types,” he said.
“So you’d recognize him if you saw him again?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said. “He’s easy to spot.”
“Because he has a big, thick, blond ponytail,” he said, and my stomach flipped because I knew he was talking about Mitchell Riley, the arsonist.
“Call me when you see him again,” I said after giving him my number.
“Will do,” he said.
Then I called Detective Stypula, who informed me that the owner of the classic car that was found in Riley’s garage had suddenly remembered that he had “lent” it to Riley. The girls that he had employed for his escort service had suddenly left town. And Amy McIntyre’s mother told the police that Riley was Amy’s thoughtful and considerate boyfriend who was also quite a handyman and had most certainly been helping her fix up the store after someone else had tried to torch it.
I assumed that each of the above, the car owner, the girls and Amy’s mother, had been given a pile of cash to alter their stories.
Thus I, a temporary suspect in the Amy McIntyre murder case, was the only one that could place Riley at the scene of the Boulder downtown shop torching. But I wasn’t going to reveal that simply because I had already tried, in a roundabout way, to implicate him and they wouldn’t believe me. Plus, it would be hard for me to track his whereabouts and activities if I was his target, which is what I would be if I was to witness against him.
Therefore, after Riley had made a substantial payment for overdue parking tickets, and received convincing support from a high-priced lawyer, he was free to roam the streets of Boulder, at least temporarily.
The wheels of justice had turned again, only this time they had turned backwards.
So I called Karen, the New York fashion designer.
“I need your help,” I said.
“What kind of help?” she asked.
“What did you mean when you said that this situation is a little bigger than I may think?” I asked.
“Look,” she said, “I don’t know if I can help you. All I can tell you is that my father (Mr. Rolander) is involved in a lot of things with a lot of people. Some of those things are pretty weird.”
“Which is weird, the things or the people?” I asked.
“The people,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, “do you have anything more concrete?”
“Well,” she said, “occasionally when I run up against competitors who substantially cut into our profits, they just seem to go away.”
“And you think that your father is behind that?” I asked.
“I know he is,” she said.
“Then there are the odd jobs that he as me do,” she said. “Like when he wanted me to find out what you were up too.”
“So sleeping with me was part of that job description?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “don’t be a jerk. I’m trying to be helpful. I could get in trouble for this.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“He’d kill me if he knew,” she said.
“You know what I mean,” she said.
“No I don’t,” I said.
There was a pause.
“Why didn’t you call me back when I was at the bed and breakfast place in New Canaan?” I asked.
“I did,” she said.
“That’s funny,” I said, “because I don’t remember talking to you. In fact, I remember NOT talking to you.”
“I asked them not to tell you I called,” Karen said.
“Because they told me that you had been beaten up in a subway,” she said.
“And what did that have to do with anything?” I asked.
“I figured that I was the reason why,” she said.
That little statement seemed to throw another log onto the fire.
“Can you elaborate?” I asked.
“Not now,” she said and hung up.
I lied back down on Stephanie’s couch and fell asleep for a while. When I woke up, I called Pastor David.
My hope was that Stephanie could stay there for a while for her protection because, if she was cavorting with Mitchell Riley, the pony-tailed wonder, she was obviously involved in something that was very dangerous.
As I expected, Pastor David was ready to help. No other person was in greater command of his life, I thought.
“You didn’t leave town,” he said.
“I got sucked back,” I said.
“By what?” he asked.
“Circumstances,” I said.
“Is that good?” he asked.
“Apparently not,” I said.
I had taken Stephanie back to her place after having retrieved her from the lobby of the Boulderado hotel in downtown Boulder. Then I lay down on her living room couch and called Pastor David, which revealed to him that I had not yet left town.
“I left a message for you after I heard about the murders,” he said, referring to the deaths of Sam the rapist and Amy, the shop girl who was found dead in my pickup truck.
“I got it,” I said, “but I’ve been a little busy.”
“I can imagine,” he said.
There was a short pause.
“What makes you so solid?” I asked him out of the blue.
“Are you changing the subject?” he asked.
“Because I’m a little embarrassed about how I’ve handled my life, I suppose,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
There was another short pause.
“I try to listen,” he suddenly said.
“You asked me what makes me solid,” he said. “I try to listen.”
“God?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Could you ask him to talk to me?” I asked. “I could use some input.”
“He already does,” he said.
“He must not,” I said, “because I don’t hear him.”
“You’re not listening,” he said.
“You wouldn’t be referring to Mr. Conscience, would you?” I asked.
“Interesting,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” he agreed.
Stephanie put up little resistance when I suggested that she pack up some things and head over to Pastor David’s house to stay for a while. I knew she liked both he and his wife, and that she felt secure in their presence.
Meanwhile, I had to practice patience whenever I was around her. Based upon what I had learned from the bellhop at the Boulderado, there was definitely going to have to be a heart-to-heart talk in our future, but it would have to wait until she stabilized. First, I was going to have a heart to heart with her cousin, Bridget.
“Why did you follow me to Colorado?” I asked Bridget when I got back to her place.
“Because of love at first sight,” she said.
“Love at first sight,” I said, “or love at first flight based upon instructions from Stephanie’s father, Donovan Rolander?”
“I knew he wanted me to follow you even before my auntie’s funeral,” she said. “But I didn’t know I’d fall in love with you.”
“Why do you have contact with him?” I asked. “If he is at odds with the rest of the family?”
“He comes over,” she said.
“To where?” I asked.
“To my mother’s house,” she replied.
“Are they friends?” I asked.
“More than just friends,” she said.
My stomach turned.
“Are you saying that your former uncle is now your new stepfather?” I asked.
Bridget and Stephanie’s family clearly suffered from some sort of rich-and-famous syndrome but picturing Stephanie’s aunt with Rolander seemed demented and was made even weirder by Bridget’s apparent acceptance.
It took me a minute to gather my thoughts.
“How often do you do work for Mr. Rolander?” I asked.
“I don’t,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“He doesn’t pay me,” she said. “Sometimes he asks me to do him favors. It’s always family stuff. Most of the time I ignore him, and that’s what I would have done this time too — until I met you at the funeral.”
“What did he want you to do?” I asked.
“Offer you money to stay away from Stephanie,” she said.
“And you didn’t think that was a little odd?”
“Not for my family,” she said.
We were sitting in the living room of the ranch house. Bridget was folding freshly washed clothes.
“Did you think I’d take the money?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “I assumed that you wouldn’t. In fact, I hoped that you wouldn’t.”
“Why?” I asked. “And then why did you come to Colorado?”
“Because I hoped that you’d accept something else,” she said.
“Me,” she said.
From the front steps of the University of Colorado student center, I watched as hundreds of undergraduate students navigated an intricate network of freshly cleared winter sidewalks, like early morning commuters on a busy Los Angeles freeway.
Pretty sorority girls performed mating rituals for fraternity studs. Oversized champions of the gridiron, traveling in packs, forced students of average size to tight-rope the peaks of snow piled at the sidewalk’s edge. A self-absorbed professor, appropriately attired in a tweed jacket, bow tie, long hair, wire-rim glasses and a graying beard, talked to himself as he scurried along, probably concentrating on principles that were mostly relevant and successful in a vacuum.
Johnny Ebbets, the young man I had arranged to meet, was fairly tall, about an inch over six feet, with curly dark hair and a blue shadow on the lower part of his face, kind of like Richard Nixon had on television during his debate with JFK.
His steely blue eyes switched from scanning my face to our handshake when he suggested that we go inside for a snack.
Ebbets had been one of Mitchell Riley’s housemates at the fairly run-down shack east of campus and I asked him if the “arsonist” had left anything behind, assuming that he’d left town.
“A few things,” he said.
“Besides a classic car?” he joked. “Some shirts, old shoes, a jacket and underwear.”
“Did you spend much time with him?” I asked.
“He was never there,” he said, “except for very late at night when he’d usually wander in with some chick.”
“Did you know any of the girls?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “they were always different. I figured that he must be the Don Juan of Boulder. It gave me a huge inferiority complex until the police revealed that they were all prostitutes.”
“Was he a good roommate?” I asked, “Or was he one that you considered throwing out?”
“That wasn’t an option,” he said. “He was too big.”
“For both you and your other roommate?” I asked.
“My other housemate is a computer nerd,” he said. “Plus, Riley was never around enough during normal hours for us to talk to him.”
“Have you seen him since he got out of jail?” I asked.
“He’s out of jail?” Ebbetts asked.
“You didn’t know?”
“Heck no,” he said. “I haven’t seen him and I hope I don’t.”
“The guy gives me the creeps,” he said. “Having him as a roommate is like having a cancer that’s in remission; you’re on the constant lookout for its return.”
“Nice analogy,” I said.
“So you don’t know where he might be?” I asked.
“No idea,” he said. “My guess is that he’s left town. At least I hope so. He never paid rent.”
“That would be irritating,” I said.
“Extremely,” he said. “He was a nightmare.”
Ebbetts bit into his hamburger and glanced at his biology book as though it was urging him to open it. A cute girl with short blonde hair walked by and brushed his shoulder with her right hand.
“Hi Holly,” he said.
“Hi Johnny,” she said and winked.
“Do you know Stephanie Rolander?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “who’s she?”
“A friend of mine,” I said. “I think Riley might want to do her some harm.”
“Thus your motivation to find him,” he said.
“That and more,” I said.
“Wish I could help,” he said.
“Me too,” I said, but obviously Ebbetts couldn’t or wouldn’t offer much.
I had hoped to gain insight as to why Stephanie might have been with Riley at the Boulderado hotel. Perhaps it was a chance meeting, but I doubted that based upon what the bellhop had told me.
I had also hoped to find out where Riley was so that I could tail him. But Ebbetts was probably right in assuming he’d taken his matches and moved on to a new playground. Nevertheless I had a hunch so I asked Ebbets one more question.
“Do you remember Riley going on any trips?” I asked.
He paused for a moment, finished chewing, took a drink of soda and looked up at the fluorescent lights, which implied that he was scanning his memory banks.
“He didn’t show up for a few nights one time,” he said.
“Do you remember when that was?” I asked.
“Right after Christmas,” he said.
“Do you know where he went?”
“No,” he said, but I noticed two tags on his bag when he got back. One of them said DEN and the other said ROW. I know what DEN stands for but I’m not sure what airport ROW is?”
“I know,” I said because rodeo cowboys know a lot about airport abbreviations. “It’s Roswell. New Mexico.”
“Hmmm,” I said. “That’s where Stephanie’s mother died and at about the same time.”
“Oh my God,” Ebbetts said as his eyes got real big.
Sometimes we put ourselves in a box. After all, there’s nothing that says we can’t win the lottery, discover a cure for cancer, become president of the United States or walk on Mars.
That was the kind of logic I was relying on when I considered it possible for me, a rodeo cowboy, to have discovered a major clue that had eluded seasoned investigators.
Mitchell Riley was away from Boulder when the former Mrs. Rolander, Stephanie’s mother, had died mysteriously in New Mexico. He then returned with a tag on his bag that indicated he’d just returned from Roswell. Was that a coincidence?
Naturally I couldn’t be certain. But since I was neither a court nor jury, I didn’t have to argue much to prove it to myself beyond a reasonable doubt. Still, I needed to gather more evidence.
So I decided to play another hunch and used Baby Huey’s phone, with a Colorado area code, to call a number in Connecticut that was on a business card I had discovered in Stephanie’s condo after she’d been raped.
“Lavender Industries,” the receptionist said when she answered, “can I help you?”
“I’d like to speak to the president please,” I said.
“Can I tell him who is calling?” she asked.
“His associate in Boulder,” I said.
She put me on hold long enough to memorize the complete works of Bach and Mozart.
“Come on Riley,” Mr. Rolander said, “I thought I told you to call my private cellphone instead of this one.”
On a hunch, I called Stephanie’s father, Mr. Rolander, at his Lavender Industries office in Connecticut and told the receptionist to tell him that it was his “associate” calling from Boulder.
What I hoped for is that he would get on the line and reveal to me that he knew Mitchell Riley, and sure enough he did, basically, when he came on the line and said, “I told you to call me on my cellphone. Not at the office.”
“I don’t have that number,” I said to him.
There was a long silence, and then I heard some rustling of papers and a chair creak.
“Who is this?” Rolander asked.
Now, it’s usually best to quit while you’re ahead, and it would have been best not reveal to Mr. Rolander who I was, but now that I had him on the line, it was too tempting to inflict some pain and torture. Unfortunately it was also a critical mistake on my part.
“I am an investigator,” I said, “working for a ghost.”
“You thought I was someone else, didn’t you?” I said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Sure you do,” I said. “You thought I was Mitchell Riley.”
“Mitchell Riley,” I said. “He works for you.”
“There are many people who work for me,” he said. “He’s not one of them.”
“So you know who he is,” I said.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“You might want to make sure that I have your cellphone number,” I said.
“Why would I do that?” he asked.
“Because you might want to know which ghost I am working for,” I said.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said.
“That’s too bad,” I said, “because it’s always good to know who is going to be haunting you.”
He hung up.
“As to who may have killed Amy McIntyre, the girl whose mother owned the shop in downtown Boulder, the evidence is inconclusive,” Detective Stypula said as he handed me my pickup truck keys.
“Inconclusive as in there is no evidence?” I asked, “or inconclusive as in you’re still gathering evidence?”
“That’s right,” he said.
“In other words, you have no idea who did what, when or where?” I said.
“Something like that,” he said.
The metal fence surrounding the impound lot where my pickup was parked was Rocky Mountain high with treacherous-looking barbed wire wrapped around the top. Having strung endless miles of wire across the Dakota Badlands ranchland, I had to respect its lethal appearance. It was very extensive security for an old pickup truck, I thought to myself.
I’d long had a love/hate relationship with “wire,” as had most cowboys. It was an internal moral battle that stemmed from the fact that we preferred the open range where deer and antelope play and buffalo roam to the restricting nationwide spider web that had successfully separated man from nature. Still, I also like not having to chase cattle all over the countryside every day.
Stypula had been kind enough to chauffeur me the short distance from the police station to the impound lot, but only after I had filled out a mountain of paperwork. Along the way, he stopped at a donut shop for some gooey cream puffs and ate five of them to my one.
“I know who killed Amy McIntyre,” I said.
“Right,” he said.
“No, really,” I said.
“OK, Sherlock,” he said. “Fill me in. It was you, right?”
“Who was it then?”
“Mitchell Riley,” I said.
“He seems to be the root of all evil,” Stypula said, “at least in your mind. But I don’t think it’s that simple.”
“You need to step back and look at the big picture,” I said.
He stepped back.
“It still looks the same,” he said, and I rolled my eyes. “I suppose he killed Sam, too.”
“Do you mean Sam the rapist?” I asked. “You haven’t figured that one out either?”
“No,” he said.
“What do you guys do every day?” I asked.
He didn’t say anything and got back into his car. I stuck my head inside the opened rider’s side window.
“Yes,” I said, “I think he killed Sam, too, and Melissa at the mall parking lot in Aurora, and Stephanie’s mother in New Mexico.”
“You’re on drugs,” Stypula said.
“Mark my words,” I said.
“Is there anything else, inspector?” Stypula asked me.
“No,” I said, “you can take it from there.”
“But you’ve forgotten one minor detail,” he added.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Riley was in jail when Amy McIntyre was murdered,” he said.
“That is confusing,” I agreed. “But only if you fail to realize that Riley is a regional manager who instructs underlings to carry out instructions for an interested party back east.”
“So he sublet the job?” Stypula asked.
“And who is the interested party back east?” he asked.
“Stephanie Rolander’s father,” I said.
“You’ve been reading too many spy thrillers,” he said.
“Not so,” I said.
“And what would Rolander’s motive be?” he asked.
“Not sure yet,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, “do you mean that rodeo’s finest investigator has hit a snag?”
“A temporary one,” I said. “And, oh, there is one other thing.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“You might want to have someone look after Stephanie,” I suggested, “because she could be in danger.”
“Why do you think that?” he asked.
“Because she was attacked before,” I said.
“That was drunken sex,” he said, “followed by a suicide attempt.”
“And whales eat pizza,” I said.
“Really?” he said. “What kind?”
“Canadian bacon,” I said.
“That’s my favorite,” he said, drove off shaking his head.
“Policemen are so sensitive,” I said to myself.
I spotted a highway patrolman in my rearview mirror approaching at warp speed and jerked my foot off of the gas pedal.
The atypical-looking black cruiser with white doors, white roof and rooftop track of lights was positioned a few car lengths back and gaining fast. My heart rate quickened and I tried to ascertain whether he was locked in on me or tracking another high-speed missile ahead of me.
When a spot opened up in the right-hand lane I casually slipped into it and rechecked the speedometer, hoping that it had fallen dramatically. Even though it gave me a new, much more subdued 65 miles per hour reading, my heart rate continued at a high speed.
The cruiser soon got close enough so that I could see inside, and I noted that there were two large offensive linemen-sized officers in the front seat and a smaller perpetrator dressed in an orange jumpsuit in the back, behind a screen.
The vehicle, I quickly deduced, was not your average highway patrol car hunting for speed demons, but a police escort with officers transporting a criminal.
Meanwhile, the gas gauge in the rental car I was driving measured three quarters full. That meant I had enough gas to get me from Las Vegas, where I had just flown into from Denver, to Los Angeles, my ultimate destination.
It had only been a few weeks, but seemed like a lifetime ago since I had been in Las Vegas, riding in the National Finals Rodeo. I had flown in to pick up a few things I’d left behind when I made my dramatic, teary December exit.
The South Point Hotel and Casino had been kind enough to lock them away for safekeeping. I had decided to pick them up, not so much because I wanted to, but because their kindness had made me feel like I should. And since it had been my parents who had received the initial phone call from the casino, I knew that if I didn’t retrieve them they would. Thus, I saved them from having to make a return trip.
The hotel even offered to put me up for a couple of nights if I agreed to sign autographs near the casino’s main entrance, but I graciously declined, not wanting to look like those washed up boxers with mixed up memory banks who roamed the casino floors in Las Vegas, scribbling their name on every scrap of paper placed in front of them.
By coincidence, Kelli’s friend Camille from Manhattan Beach, the maid of honor in our North Dakota wedding, had simultaneously called me to touch base. At her suggestion, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and make the four-hour drive from Las Vegas to Manhattan Beach to visit both her and her husband Jacques, a technician for a cable sports network. The trip would give me both a sabbatical from the Boulder soap opera and the opportunity to meditate on Southern California’s sunny beaches.
Of course, Bridget had offered to accompany me, but, not wanting to bring the soap opera along I gracefully declined her offer, which might have been a not-so-subconscious statement about the future of our relationship.
Through the side mirror of my rental car I watched as the patrol car pulled to about even with mine, in the next lane, and I made sure that there was ample room between mine and the car in front of me so that I could take a moment to sneak a peek at the poor sucker stuffed in the back.
After quickly reading Fontana Police Department written in script on the rider-side door, I locked eyes with the unfortunate arrestee. He looked back at me and smiled eerily.
It might have been only marginally eerie had he not flashed me a serial killer grin, an ominous one that opened my mind to an endless list of possibilities as to what might have been going on in his demented mind.
Was he just a headcase, I wondered? And what was it that I saw behind those eyes of his? Was it Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo in one? The guy was obviously possessed.
I sped up and followed the patrol car for quite a distance, with my curiosity not allowing me to let their car speed away. After all, the policemen were from a Los Angeles suburb and had little or no jurisdiction on Nevada highways and couldn’t have cared less if I was breaking the law or not.
Had I passed them going ninety and flipped them the bird, it wouldn’t have mattered. They were on a mission and would not be distracted.
No, what bothered me the most, and what prompted me to want to follow the patrol car, was who was seated in the back of that car. Because sitting in that back seat … was Mitchell Riley.
Seeing Riley in the backseat of a police car in the middle of nowhere with cacti and sand dunes in the background blew me away. It might have been only marginally eerie had he not flashed me that serial killer look that seemed to prove the guy was possessed. They had to be traveling in excess of 85 miles per hour, as were 70 percent of the drivers sharing the highway with me, and I had a little trouble keeping up with them and their big motored vehicle on the steep mountain climbs in my compact rental four-banger. When the cop car sped ahead to a distance of at least 20 car lengths in front of me, the back end began to fishtail and then the car shot from the left lane to the right and veered off into the desert, throwing sand and cactus high into the air in every direction. A dust cloud of epic proportions soon formed and the cruiser suddenly burst skyward through the cloud and did a mid-air rollover before it hit the desert terrain once again the rolled some more. I couldn’t help but silently hope that the two offensive linemen would somehow survive and that Riley would move on to browner pastures. Shame on me, but why not? As it turned out, help would be slow in coming, since we were in the middle of nowhere in spite of the fact that a number of my fellow motorists had stopped to see if they could be of assistance and gawk. Many were using cellphones, I assumed, to call 911. I sauntered over to the upside-down patrol car, fearing the worst as other motorists scurried about frantically, like balls in a pinball machine, accomplishing nothing. In my days in rodeo, I had seen many a gruesome injury and death that should have hardened me to any scenes of blood and gore, but the sight of that overturned squad car brought back too many memories of a rainy night in the Black Hills, and I fought off a strong urge to climb back into my rental car and race off. Still, curiosity chased off my morbid fears and I lay down on the sand and looked into the upside-down interior of the car. Contrary to what I had hoped, the big boys were dead and Riley was gone. A mathematician with a little too much time on his hands might have calculated the odds of me seeing Mitchell Riley in a cop car on the interstate between Los Angeles and Las Vegas at somewhere around a million-to-one. With that kind of luck, I should have gone back to the gambling capital to earn a fortune at the black jack table. Instead I scoured the accident scene for the better part of an hour in search of the pony-tailed arsonist with no positive results. He had literally disappeared in a cloud of dust. Not only that, I seemed to be the only one amongst my fraternity of shocked and wide-eyed motorists who recalled seeing Riley in the back seat of the cop car. The others, for some reason, had no recollection of a third occupant and I began to question whether “my mind was playing tricks on me” as they say. Perhaps he had been a mirage. Desert? Mirage? They go together, don’t they? The behemoth and once formidable officers in the front seat could neither confirm nor deny my assertion in their morbid condition. And once a few highway patrolmen finally arrived on the scene waving batons and shouting instructions, the area became off limits to me and everyone else. “Don’t you want to ask us any questions?” I asked on officer. “Clear the area!” he shouted. “What about the missing prisoner?” I countered. “I don’t know anything about that!” he announced. “But …” “Clear the area!” He screamed again. “Okay, okay!” I said and sauntered dejectedly to my rental car, looking right and left the whole way and then, after I had opened the driver’s door, got in and quickly checked the back seat to make sure that Riley wasn’t hunkered down inside. Meanwhile, an eerie inner alarm kept alerting me to Riley’s impending resurrection and I couldn’t find a button to shut it off. It was a little like when you have seen an ant crawl across your arm and then you become itchy all over, but a lot worse. Riley seemed to be everywhere, even though he was nowhere. The event had greatly dissipated my desire to visit Camille and Jacques in Manhattan Beach, and after momentary contemplation and another shout from officers to “get lost,” I decided to cruise 40 miles to a mid-desert town named Baker, home of the world’s largest outdoor thermometer. Once there, I’d revisit my future travel plans and make a call to Boulder’s Detective Stypula to see if he was aware that Riley that had been picked up. The Denny’s in Baker may not have been the infamous Tavern on the Green in New York City, but it would fill my empty belly for half the price of what it cost for a baked potato at that Central Park eatery. Meanwhile, my waitresses, in sharp contrast to those in New York who were not really waiters and waitresses at all but actors in waiting, were terminally smiling optimists, as happy as bees on a petunia. After ordering the pot roast from a menu that had some left on it, I called Detective Stypula. “I ran into a buddy of yours today,” I said to him. “Who’s that?” he asked with his usual absence of interest. “Mitchell Riley.” “Where?” he asked, yawning. “Between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, in the back of a cop car,” I responded, “Did you know he had been picked up?” “Nope,” he admitted. “And I don’t suppose you’d like to find out why, just for fun?” I asked. “Not really,” he answered, “guys like Riley are always getting picked up. Besides he’s out of my jurisdiction.” “But this is a little different,” I suggested. “What’s different?” “The cop car he was riding in left the road like a rocket and rolled over, and then Riley disappeared in a cloud of dust. He’s a fugitive.” “No skin off my back,” he responded. “Not unless what he’s doing out here ties into what he did back there,” I said, “And then someone who puts two and two together will be asking you a lot of questions and you don’t want to be caught with your pants down, do you?” “Perhaps not,” he admitted after a brief pause. “By the way, what are YOU doing out there?” “It’s a long story.” “It usually is,” he said. “I’ll call you later, after you’ve had a chance to check it out,” I both promised and then hung up and glanced back in time to see a happy waitress deliver a plate of steaming hot chow to my booth and set it next to the Los Angeles Times that I had wrestled from a stand outside. Remembering my mother’s gentle prodding from years past, I stepped into an extra clean restroom to wash my hands and allow my food to cooler temperature. Bathing my face in multiple handfuls of warm water, I groped for the overstuffed towel dispenser and jerked out some towels, wiped my face shiny clean and was about to slam dunk the used tissues into a huge trash barrel in the corner when I spotted a pile of familiar orange material, like designer county jail attire, lying mockingly at the bottom of the giant receptacle amongst a maze of appropriately dispensed and tattered towels. Instantly spinning around, I kicked in the doors of the two stalls, found them to be unoccupied, flew out of the bathroom and studied every corner of the restaurant looking for one familiar face. My fellow diners glared at me fearfully as though I’d set off a bomb in the men’s room, a small clue as to how loud I’d been. Seeing nothing, I walked warily back to my booth, cleared my throat for no reason and immediately sensed that something was wrong. Missing was my steaming hot plate of pot roast. Riley was not only a fugitive. He was also a comedian. ******* Visiting any police station can often times be a demeaning experience because the employees often assume that you are a deviant scumbag who just crawled out from under a rock, and treat you warily and sometimes disrespectfully as a result. At the same time, I realized that my attitude and internal defenses might have been the same as theirs were I forced to face disreputable characters every day. The city of Fontana, located on the east end of the greater Los Angeles basin, was famous for its high winds and NASCAR racetrack. The police station was a fortress that dominated the center of town and served as a depot for black-and-white cruisers streaming in and out like bees from a hive. Officer Fernandez watched me warily as I approached his desk. “Hey cowboy, what’s up?” he asked in a manner so surprisingly friendly that I had to re-examine my method of judging a book by its cover. “I just witnessed the accident that killed two of your officers between here and Vegas,” I announced. “I see,” he said and seemed to fight off some emotion. “I’m sorry,” I quickly added. “Thank you,” he replied. “Can I help in any way?” I asked. “Let me get someone to take down your statement,” he replied. “Before you do, I think there’s more you should know about the prisoner they were transporting,” I said. “Save it for the detective,” he said. “Okay, but can I ask you something first?” I said, plopping my orange prize down on the chair next to his desk. “Go ahead,” he said as he glanced at the jumpsuit. “Why was he in custody?” I asked. “I’m not allowed to say,” he said. “Okay then, let me call a friend of mine and maybe you can tell him,” I said. “Who is that?” he asked. “A Boulder, Colorado, detective,” I said. “He is very familiar with the past transgressions of one Mitchell Riley.” “Fine,” he said. I dialed Stypula’s number.
Clouds often filled the skies above Manhattan Beach, California, in the earliest morning hours until about ten o’clock. Then, they burned off and a gentle ocean breeze served as a natural thermostat that locked in moderate temperatures; not too hot, not too cold almost every day, winter, spring, summer and fall.
Camille and Jacques lived in the other half of the duplex that my late wife Kelli and her mother had inhabited.
Kelli’s former abode was occupied by a young career couple who found its relatively modest rent much to their liking in a community where rental rates leaped higher each block closer to the beach.
The eight blocks between their home and the waves was far enough away to be affordable, yet close enough to walk or ride a bike to the water’s edge, where bronze bodies surfed, played volleyball, biked, rollerbladed, jogged and, at night, watched a molten sun sink into cold, rolling waves.
Jacques was a man whose French Canadian roots were diluted by two generations and too much time in America. Though his family had originated in Quebec, his great-grandparents moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, long ago —a city only two hours north of the North Dakota university that I had attended near the mighty Red River, on the border between North Dakota and Minnesota; sodbuster country and as flat as a pancake.
Jacques was tall, a 6-foot, 5-inch Canuck, with Jet-black hair and a terminal smile. I liked him when I had met him at my wedding and more with each passing minute.
He and Camille’s prize possession, a large painting given to them by Kelli’s mother that was completed before but donated after her cancer had been discovered, hung on the living room wall above their television set.
“She was a beautiful lady,” Camille said, ‘I wish you could have met her.”
“I hope to someday,” I said, sounding a little too cosmic perhaps, referencing life after death.
“I hope so too,” she seconded.
With detective Stypula’s reluctant assistance, I had learned that Mitchell Riley had been arrested in Las Vegas because he had roughed up a lawyer at a gas station in Fontana. It was ironic that Riley, a participant in a plethora of crimes ranging in variety from prostitution to perhaps murder, was ultimately brought down by a lawyer more than willing to press charges in an argument over who had won a race to the gas pump.
He might have avoided arrest altogether had he not participated in a drunken brawl near the front entrance of the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas days later, thereby bringing himself to the attention of the police. Justice, although it had somehow traveled through a maze, an obstacle course and a marathon race and still prevailed.
Sitting at the end of a Manhattan Beach pier that jutted a hundred yards in to the vastness of the Pacific Ocean gave me time to pause, reflect and regroup as the mist from crashing waves slapped me in the face.
“What am I doing?” I asked myself.
“What?” asked another voice nearby.
“Nothing,” I said sheepishly to a small Asian fisherman who was hanging over the pier’s railing.
“Oh,” he said smirking and I casually slithered away as four or five other fisherman chuckled.
My selfish attempt to run away from my problems, I had finally realized, had helped me to take my mind off of Kelli, but it had also brought me into the Twilight Zone, thanks to Stephanie and the rest of the Rolander clan. Thus, it had become a question of which one was better; depression or the confusion?
I knew that I had to schedule a talk with Stephanie to find out about her association with Mitchell Riley, simply because a desire to know the truth ate at me like acid on an empty stomach. I tried to convince myself that she had only just met him that night at the Boulderado hotel, but that didn’t work. He had been the boyfriend of a friend of hers, after all.
When I called Pastor David to get an update on her mental condition, he indicated that she had gone through some informal counseling sessions with a friend of his who concluded that her instability was less a result of insecurities, drinking or weakened mental capacities than something she perceived as threatening her life from the outside.
The counselor could not get her to completely open up and didn’t dare try since he was only assisting as a friend and not someone officially appointed or hired as caregiver. However, he did conclude that whatever the pain was, it had been hidden inside of her for a very long time.
That only increased my curiosity and after mulling it over for about three minutes, I called back and asked Pastor David to put her on.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“Just leaving California,” I answered.
“What’s going on there?”
“On vacation,” I replied.
“From what?” she said. “You don’t work.”
“It’s a vacation from my vacation.”
“Is Bridgett with you?”
“Look,” I said, “I need to talk to you. I’ll be in Boulder tomorrow.”
“I’ll be back at my place by then,” she answered, “call me there.”
I didn’t realize how hard the desert wind was blowing until I got out of my rental car in Barstow and put the gas nozzle in my gas tank. A fat man wearing way to tight polyester pants and a T-shirt that was two sizes too small galloped across the street in pursuit of a cap that had been stolen by the wind and was being blown in the general direction of Phoenix.
I quickly calculated, based upon my estimate of the wind’s velocity, that the cap would cross the Arizona border in roughly two hours. The fat man would arrive much later, if at all, and some hungry buzzards were smiling in anticipation of what they thought might be a potential banquet.
After dining on junk at a fast food restaurant, I re-entered the northbound lane of Interstate 15 bound for Las Vegas. Soon, the monotony of an early afternoon, post-lunch desert drive led me to consider pulling over for nap rather than not wake up later in an overturned vehicle like countless others had done on that same stretch of infamous highway.
A wake-up call, in the form of a love tap on my back bumper, initiated by a big, black four-door Chevrolet Caprice that I had failed to notice previously, sat me straight up in my seat with hands at two and ten o’clock on the steering wheel.
A second love tap soon followed and I steadied myself for a third while attempting to see who the assailant was through my rear-view mirror. Minus the ice and cool temperatures, the event seemed strikingly similar to my previous “run off the road” episode on the Boulder/Denver Turnpike.
Once again, I was amazed, in the midst of another life-threatening crisis, at how many thoughts can travel through the mind in such a short period of time.
There had been one occasion, earlier in my life, when I was flying like Superman over the front end of a bronc at a rodeo in Montana and felt like I could have memorized the Gettysburg Address in the time it took for my head to collide with the fence. The human mind has more gears than a truck, I was learning, one of which was apparently warp speed.
A third tap sent me flying off the highway and into the desert beyond. But before they hit me, I had time to study not only the face of the driver in my rear-view mirror, but also that of his associate in the rider’s seat.
Both of them had entered my life in New York, and I recalled their fists hitting my body deep in the bowels of the New York’s subway system shortly after I had left fashion designer Karen’s lovely apartment.
Once I had been forced off the road, my rental car soared through the air and made a four-point desert landing. I survived intact and looked immediately for the big black vehicle and saw that it was parked by the side of the highway some forty yards away.
“If Mitch Riley was Mr. Rolander’s hit man in Boulder, then the New York muggers must also be on his payroll,” I said to myself.
In other words, if Mitchell Riley was Rolander’s regional manager in Colorado, then the subway muggers were the henchmen, foot soldiers and the implementers of their nasty plots. That would explain how Amy McIntyre was murdered even while Riley was tucked away in the Boulder jail, and how Melissa Boyle was murdered in Aurora while someone else simultaneously ran me off the Boulder/Denver turnpike.
“If that’s the case,” I said, “then I might be the second desert victim.”
Other motorists zoomed by as the muggers got out of the black car, but they weren’t walking toward me so me so I stayed low in the car.
“Perhaps Riley was also one of their victims,” I said.
Perhaps it was a fantasy, but for some reason I pictured Riley running for the Mexican border and being caught just short of it by the two big boys who had just run me off the highway, all while I was sitting on the pier in Manhattan Beach talking to dolphins.
Mr. Rolander, the big boss, had probably come to the conclusion that Riley was out of control and elected to have him quickly annihilated. The phone call I had made to Rolander revealing my knowledge of Riley’s activities in Boulder might have not only facilitated the process, but also put me next on the hit list. Then again, maybe I had read too many mystery novels.
As more cars approached from the west, the two men got back into their black bomber, sped off and disappeared over a hill, prompting me to get out of mine and evaluate the damage.
“They must have thought I was dead,” I said, “either that or they only meant to scare me.”
Sitting at least fifty cacti from the highway, my rental car looked relatively drivable even though it was scraped, scratched, dusty and it’s tires would do no more than churn in the sand.
“Another wild ride”” I exclaimed mostly to God, knowing that only a miracle had prevented the car from rolling over.
“You’re lucky to be alive!” I said, stating the obvious.
Walking toward the highway very tentatively, I readied my thumb to hitch a ride and wished that I had invested in a large bottle of water in Barstow.
Hank Windbag, as I anointed him, was a nearly retired, toothless tow truck driver who lived in a little house in Barstow with his wife and two cats.
He didn’t stop talking the entire time he helped me extricate my vehicle from the Nevada sand dunes.
“Had a little accident, did yah?” he asked.
“Bird watching,” I said.
“That’s funny,” he said as he gimped around on rickety legs.
“Actually, I was bumped off the highway,” I said.
“Haven’t heard that one before,” he said.
“Wish I could say I hadn’t said it before,” I said.
Unfortunately the brush, cacti and hardened lava of the Mojave Desert had torn apart the underside of my flying machine, rendering it at least temporarily “un-rent-able.” So I let Hank take it to wherever Hank takes things like that, and the car rental company would have to pick it up there.
A burly-looking Highway Patrolman gazed into my eyes and contemplated giving me a breath test, I think, or having me do hand stands, or whatever it is they have you do, as he listened to my tale about being run off the road by a black Chevy with two pock-faced goons inside. Meanwhile, no evidence and no witnesses promised to elevate my insurance rates to a new higher level.
“At least Hank believed me,” I said to myself, as if Hank was suddenly a prominent figure in my life.
“Did you say something?” the officer asked.
“Just thinking out loud,” I muttered.
All in all, the rental car was the least of my immediate worries. I was more concerned with finding a ride back to Las Vegas in time to catch my early morning flight to Denver.
Hank graciously invited me to stay at his place where he indicated that I’d be able to watch Real TV, eat Doritos and drink beer with him and the little lady.
But I declined in favor of the Patrolman’s offer to drop me off in Baker. There I convinced two potential female students traveling from Los Angeles to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas to haul me back to Las Vegas.
Once there, they threw me a sleeping bag, let me sleep on their very hard dorm room floor using my trophy saddle as a pillow, and dropped me off at the airport the next day. My gratitude was immeasurable.
Baby Huey appeared to be glad to see me as I exited the plane, and I backed off when I thought he might hug me. After I told him some of what had happened during my time in Nevada and California his expression duplicated that of a baby filling his diaper so I stopped short of briefing him completely, not sure that he could handle it.
I had to admit that I was happy to see the big lug again, he having become like a brother to me, which was no great feat of mine since anyone Hubert met became like family to him. He just seemed to love the whole world, including those that everyone else loved to hate.
“You don’t love sauerkraut too, do you Hubert?” I once asked him.
“Sure,” he said.
“Well then, what DON’T you love?”
“Chocolate cake,” he answered without hesitation.
Not long after Baby Huey had picked me up I went to see Stephanie at her condo.
When no one answered my progressively louder knocks, I circled the place and tried to peek into the windows but all the blinds were lowered and the windows were locked tight, preventing me from sneaking inside.
With no other option, I banged on a neighbor’s door to see if they might have seen her and a plump housewife in pink fluffy slippers answered, gave me the once over like I was her favorite milkman and then mentioned that she had seen Stephanie load an overnight bag into her Jeep earlier that morning.
I quickly concluded that there were probably few things that this particular neighbor lady didn’t see and so I decided to enlist her as a scout, a job I knew that she’d take to like sugar on a donut.
“Be on the lookout for two pock-faced dudes in a big black Chevy,” I said.
She stared at me and angled her head like a young puppy that had seen a butterfly for the first time.
“I fear that Stephanie might be in some sort of trouble,” I continued, knowing that would really get the big lady’s juices flowing.
It did. She pursed her lips, straightened up and for a second I thought that she was going to salute me.
“I’ll call you later to check in,” I said as she handed me a slip of paper with her phone number on. Then I found the nearest pay phone and called Stypula to see if he had assigned someone to follow and protect Stephanie based upon our earlier discussion.
“Do you think that I’ve got officers sitting around doing nothing?” he asked.
That response registered a landmark reading on my “frustration with a cop-o-meter” so I quickly discontinued the conversation rather than say anything regrettable and redirected my concentration towards finding Stephanie, which might prove to be equivalent to finding a needle in a haystack.
I called Pastor David to see if she had mentioned anything to him about planning an upcoming disappearance.
“I drove her home,” he answered, “and she said that she was going to see you later this morning. That’s all I know. Why do you ask?”
“She’s gone,” I said.
“Where?” he asked.
I didn’t have an answer. It was all very mysterious, I thought, while at the same time thinking that I might just be jumping to conclusions.
Were it not for Miss Fluffy Feet, the nosey neighbor who had seen Stephanie with an overnight bag, I might have concluded that she was simply at a grocery store or out shopping for something she didn’t have. Then I remembered that there was nothing she didn’t have.
I began to drive the streets of Boulder in hopes of spotting her Jeep, not sure what else I should do. It was a futile attempt at best, I knew, but since so many bizarre events had dominated my recent life, I thought it best to continue on with an equally illogical course of action.
When I happened past Amy’s mother’s gift shop downtown I parked in front of the tavern across the street and went inside, knowing she wouldn’t know me from Adam, so rather than let that be a disadvantage I decided to use it as an advantage.
After all, she had been less than helpful to police during both the fire investigation and Amy’s murder and I wanted to know why she hadn’t shed more light on Amy and Mitchell Riley’s relationship.
“Can I help you?” she asked as I glanced about the shop and made sure that there were no other customers in the store.
“Actually, I’m a friend of Mitchell’ Riley’s,” I answered. “You haven’t seen him lately, have you?”
I knew that she couldn’t have and felt a little guilty asking a grieving woman a misleading question I already knew the answer to.
“Look, I didn’t tell the police anything,” she said as she flashed me a death stare. “You don’t need to threaten me again!”
I had not expected that kind of reaction. It was like walking into an abandoned copper mine and finding some seams of gold.
“What was it you didn’t tell them, Mrs. McIntyre?” I asked.
She stared at me blankly.
“You’re not Mitchell’s friend are you?” she demanded, suddenly realizing that I was being more than a little misleading.
“No, I’m not,” I confessed. “Quite the opposite, in fact.”
“Who are you?” she pleaded.
“Someone who saw Riley try to torch this place,” I answered. “And someone who tried to warn Amy before she was killed.”
Mrs. McIntyre took in a huge breath and broke into a heart-wrenching sob. I hadn’t anticipated that happening either, although I probably should have and then I waited before speaking again.
“Look,” I finally said, “I didn’t come here to hurt you.”
I walked over and put my hand on her shoulder.
“I’m concerned for your safety,” I said.
“Plus you and I might be in the same boat,” I added, “because on two occasions someone tried to run me off the road. Amy has been killed. Melissa Boyle, Amy’s friend, was killed in Aurora. Stephanie Rolander thinks someone killed her mother and tried to kill her, and someone killed a friend of theirs named Sam.”
She grabbed a tissue and began to wipe her eyes.
“Now I have reason to believe that Mitchell Riley has disappeared unwillingly,” I went on, “and I need you to tell me what you know.”
She looked me in the eyes and I could see that she was a volcano ready to pop and certainly not a master at keeping information from anyone much less the police. Had they been a little more persistent, she might have broken down, so I hung the CLOSED sign on the front door and pulled up a chair across from her.
Between sobs she confirmed my theory that Riley had not actually wanted to burn down the shop because that would have been much too complicated. After tossing the burning rag in the back door, he became concerned for Amy’s welfare and rushed back to make sure that she was not hurt.
Gee, what a wonderful boyfriend, I thought to myself.
“Then why did he do it in the first place?” I asked.
“He was told to do it to scare Amy and keep her silent,” she nearly whispered.
“By whom?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Because she knew something that had to do with Stephanie,” she said.
“And what was that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she responded, “Amy wouldn’t tell me.”
“Did Amy know Riley started the fire?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
“How do you know all this?” I persisted.
“Riley told me,” she said, “after Amy was killed, when he got out of jail and before he took off.”
“Did he tell you who killed Amy?” I asked.
“But he told you he was taking off?”
“Yes,” she said. “He had to go.”
“Why didn’t you tell that to the police?” I asked self-righteously.
“Because Riley told me to shut up,” she said, “or I might end up dead, too!”
My roommate, housemate and lover, Bridget, was planting flowers behind the ranch house when I got home and nearly jumped out of her jeans when I came around the corner.
“Hi!” she said.
“You seem a little surprised,” I said.
“I didn’t hear you walk up,” she said. “How was Las Vegas and California?”
“You look tan,” she said.
“I look weathered,” I said.
“Are you hungry?”
“A little,” I said and went in the back door.
“I’ll be right in,” she said.
I sensed that something was a little off. Normally, she would have enthusiastically greeted me, her shining knight, but not this time. It could have been because I did not invite her to go with me. At least that’s what I thought, until I saw a man’s watch laying on the nightstand in the bedroom.
“When the cat is away, the mice will play,” I said to myself.
Momentarily off kilter, I quickly recovered, grabbed the few items of mine that were stored in her closet, slipped out the front door and drove away. As I did so, I couldn’t help but look back to see if she was sprinting after me. She wasn’t.
“Easy come, easy go,” I said to myself and stepped a little harder on the gas.
After extensive prompting by me, Mrs. McIntyre, the downtown shop owner, had agreed to update Detective Stypula on what she knew about Mitchell Riley, the pimp, thief and firebug. That, I felt, would lend some legitimacy to what Stypula had considered my tall fables.
Thus, I thought it might be a nice time to call him.
“I’m beginning to think that it might be that Stephanie Rolander chick that is causing all of the trouble in the area and not you,” Stypula said.
“Do you have any idea where she is?” he asked.
“Let me know if you hear from her,” he said.
“I certainly will,” I said.
Around 6 o’clock, a slender gentleman in cheap black pants, greased hair and a gold windbreaker knocked on the front door of Baby Huey’s house, where I had returned to, and handed me a telegram. Then he did an about face and skipped back to awaiting vehicle.
I tore open the envelope and sat down on the couch in the living room.
Go to the payphone at the gas station at the corner of Broadway and Baseline Road at 10 o’clock and wait for my call.
They still have a payphone at the gas station? And who is Bluebird?
At 9:57, I pulled some kid with chartreuse hair, wearing a black T-shirt, black pants, a black jacket, army boots, pierced lips and a bad attitude out of the phone booth, and handed him a $10 bill for his troubles.
“Hey!” he shouted.
“Hey what,” I said and glared at him.
“Nothing,” he said and got into his Hyundai.
When he pulled away and looked back, I gave him a Rose Parade wave. He forgot to wave back.
“This is awfully covert,” I said when I answered the ringing phone.
“I couldn’t risk anyone listening in on our conversation,” Stephanie Rolander said.
“Who’s going to listen?”
“A lot of people,” she said.
“Should I call you Bluebird?” I asked.
“Shut up and listen,” she said. “I can’t say much right now. I am in Texas. I want you to drive my Corvette down here. It’s parked at the corner of Spruce and First Street with the keys sitting on top of the right front tire. Can you come? It should take you about 15 hours or so.”
“Fifteen hours?” I said, “at what speed?”
“The Corvette only has one speed,” she said, “fast.”
“The sooner the better,” she said. “I stashed the address and a bunch of cash in the glove box. Don’t tell anyone where you are going, especially my cousin Bridget.”
“No problem,” I said.
If you had to guess which young, rapidly rising male athlete was pictured on the front cover of the October issue of Life magazine in 1951, you might have guessed Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Frank Gifford.
It was actually a South Dakota cowboy who would go on to wow the world with his amazing bronc riding ability. What was his name? Casey Tibbs.
He became a standard by which other bronc riders were judged, both in and out of the arena, adding daily to his legend by driving a purple Cadillac convertible filled with lovely ladies. He drank his fair share of whiskey and even successfully rode a bucking horse blindfolded one day.
Perhaps I had Casey Tibbs somehow in mind when I accepted Stephanie’s invitation to deliver her purple Corvette to Texas. It would be a wild ride and another misadventure, I assumed.
With the car’s top removed and my hat pulled down tight, I began the thousand-mile journey as if it was a trip to the corner grocery store. It was the first time I’d worn my cowboy hat in weeks and it felt good. As if an old friend had returned after being away for a long time.
Before blasting off, I had parked my pickup truck next to the bar across from the nearly on fire gift shop downtown, called Baby Huey to tell him I’d be out of town for a few days and walked to Spruce Street to see what I might see.
Sure enough, the purple land rocket was there and $900 flowed from the glove box when I popped it open.
A marked-up map revealed my destination. It was Cody’s Cabana, a beach motel in Port Aransas, Texas, on the gulf coast facing South Padre Island.
“When she gets away, she really gets away,” I said to myself as I pulled out of the parking spot and laid some rubber on the pavement.
“Do you think this is wise,” my conscience suddenly asked me.
“Then why are you doing it?”
“Boredom, I guess.”
“Wrong answer,” my conscience said.
“Okay then, how about his?” I said, “I’m going there to help her out.”
“I might be able to agree to that,” my conscience said.
“Thanks for your support,” I said as I waved to an attractive co-ed walking near the CU campus. She returned my wave and smiled.
The drive to Texas was uneventful and very lengthy. It took me what seemed like 30 minutes to get from Boulder to the Texas border and 30 years to get from there to the Gulf.
Colorado Springs, Trinidad, Amarillo, Lubbock, Abilene, San Antonio and Corpus Christi. I went through them all and saw none of them, except for one motel in Kerrville, which is where I would have died had I not pulled over.
It seemed like I shed one item of apparel at each stop as the temperatures rose. Apparently, I’d become unaccustomed to this country’s perilously boring highways and byways in just a short time after having removed myself from the rodeo trail.
Stephanie scrunched herself up on the bed and held her legs to her chest after letting me into her motel room, number 122 at Cody’s Cabana.
“Who is it?” she asked when I knocked on the door.
“Buckminster Fuller,” I said.
“Do you mean you are the creator of the geodesic dome?” she asked.
“How did you know?”
“I play Trivial Pursuit,” she said.
“So let me in,” I said, and she did.
Not only was Cody’s Cabana located near the beach, it was so close that every few minutes the tide flowed up to and nearly through the sliding glass doors.
Stephanie looked dazed, dreary and depressed with eyes swollen from flowing tears and hollowed cheeks.
“There is no one I can turn to,” she said. “And they are going to kill me soon.”
A few weeks earlier, I might have considered that statement to be the utterance of a raving lunatic hyped up on crack cocaine. But recent events had lent some credibility to her words.
“Who are THEY?” I asked.
“My father and his cronies.”
“Why would your father want to kill you?”
“Because I know secrets that could ruin him,” she said.
According to Stephanie, Donovan Roland had been a busy daddy in the early part of his marriage, spending most of his time sexually abusing his daughter and beating up on his wife.
Few people were aware of that fact. When the divorce was finalized, Stephanie and her mother escaped to New Mexico. Stephanie’s granddad, a prominent politician and businessman, thought it best for his own reputation and the family’s empire, to keep things hush, hush and he invested mightily to see that it was.
When gramps was alive, he could hold his former son-in-law under his thumb and control him somewhat, but only to a certain degree since Rolander also held a gun to the old man’s head in the form of the truth.
As soon as gramps died, Roland had free reign — along with a contract that tied him to the family fortune — to do whatever he pleased. What he liked to do was make sure that Stephanie, her mother and anyone else who could reveal the truth would do so only at great expense.
He then further expanded his power by having a relationship with Stephanie’s aunt Joanne, who had been forever jealous of her older sister and could think of no better way to get back at her than to have an affair with her sister’s former husband.
Stephanie’s mother made it easier for both of them by becoming a lush and escaping to New Mexico where she and their daughter would be far away and less likely to reveal the truth. Life then cruised along not so happily for a number of years until the former Mrs. Rolander began to get her act together, becoming financially independent as a result of her success in real estate sales and ventures, and healthy as a result of abstinence and exercise.
But as her confidence grew, so did her bitterness and she started revealing tidbits of the past which threatened to ruin Rolander’s life, possibly the life of her younger sister and bite into the profits of their companies around the world; because by then she was no longer fighting a former husband, but an entire empire.
Alas, the threat to Rolander, Joanne and the empire ended the day Stephanie’s mother supposedly committed suicide, putting an end to the possibility of any embarrassing revelations. That is, except for one little detail that needed to be attended to, watched over and perhaps even disposed of … Stephanie Rolander.
“I’m in big trouble,” Stephanie said to me.
As Stephanie Rolander had told me, the threat to her father, her aunt Joanne and the empire her grandfather had created ended the day Stephanie’s mother supposedly committed suicide. Except for one small detail, which was a little irritant that could still expose things, and that was Stephanie herself. Thus, the reason she felt that she was in danger and the reason she was hiding out in Texas.
“I won’t have any money pretty soon,” Stephanie said to me. “My mother’s assets are tied up in court because of my father and the family.”
“Doesn’t your father give you any money?” I asked.
“He has bought things, like the condo in Boulder that I live in, mostly as an investment,” she said. “But my money came from my mother.”
“What about your sister Karen?” I asked. “How does she fit into all of this?”
“Karen is my half-sister,” she said of the New York fashion designer. “My mother was already pregnant when my father married her. My grandfather hated the man that she really loved and made her marry my father. Karen doesn’t even know that. She thinks that my mother was her mother and that she was a drunk and that I was a nut.”
I stared at her, listening intently without really knowing what to say.
“My father didn’t know the truth about Karen either at first,” she went on, “until shortly after the marriage, and that’s when he figured it out and started to beat my mother. Oddly enough, now it’s Karen that my father really loves the most, so try to figure that out.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked.
“Haven’t you noticed that anyone I tell the truth to then suddenly disappears?” she said, she and began to cry.
“I’d get drunk and blurt things out, and Mitchell Riley would tell my father ,and that would feed my father’s immeasurable insecurity,” she said. “I am responsible for all of the deaths.”
She sobbed heavily and I sat down next to her and put my arms around her shoulders.
“I never thought he would be capable of this,” she said. “I might as well have killed them myself.”
“He had those people killed just for that?” I asked.
“He’s a psychotic animal,” she said. “You can’t imagine.”
I held her some more and let her cry it out, while trying in vain to think of something that might make her feel better.
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
She continued to weep before she sat back against the pillows and stared out at the gulf through the sliding glass doors.
“So Mitchell Riley works for your father?” I asked about the pony-tailed arsonist.
“Of course,” she said. “He was sent out to Boulder to keep me in line, amongst other things.”
“And what about his relationship to Amy, the daughter of the downtown shop owner?” I asked.
“That’s just something that happened,” she said.
I quietly tried to digest it all as she continued to stare out at the waves soaking the beach.
“I have a feeling Mitchell Riley may have been killed,” I said.
“That doesn’t matter,” Stephanie said. “My father will just send someone else to take his place, if he hasn’t already.”
I thought about the two New York goons who beat me up in the subway and ran me off the road in the desert.
“I think he already has,” I said.
But after a little internal mental debate, I realized that it would be unlikely that Mr. Rolander would replace Riley with the two goons simply because their resume was not equal to the task. After all, Riley was Rolander’s regional manager. The two goons were simply foot soldiers.
Riley, after all, could do things, like mix in with Stephanie’s college crowd. Meanwhile, the two goons would be hard pressed to mix in with the Hell’s Angels or Klu Klux Klan, much less a small college group.
Then again, maybe Mr. Rolander had already replaced his regional manager, Mitchell Riley, in Boulder long before the arsonist had disappeared, and maybe I already knew who it was. If so, I had played into that person’s hands.
Maybe it was Stephanie’s cousin, Bridget.
Bridget’s untimely appearance might explain how the videotape of Stephanie’s rape scene just happened to disappear about the same time that she appeared. But if it was Bridget who returned the videotape to a spot where I could find it, what would be the purpose of that? Was the tape altered? And was it her goal to distract me? Was I really that much of a threat?
Plus, I wondered how Sam the rapist and his demise figured into the scenario. He obviously had not been part of Mr. Rolander’s motley crew. So who had him killed and why? Had he really raped Stephanie, and after that did Mitchell Riley kill him or have him killed because of it? And if that was the case, was Riley someone who both spied on Stephanie and protected her?
Then there was the entrepreneur side of Riley to consider. If his main function was to spy on and protect Stephanie, were his side businesses, including the escort service and the illegal classic car ring, also part of Rolander’s business empire?
It was proving to be a very complex puzzle, at least for an untrained cowboy mind like mine, and each time I thought I was beginning to put it all together a few new pieces would pop up.
I had assumed that it was Riley who ran me off the road on my way to the rendezvous with Melissa Boyle at the Aurora mall. I also figured that he had somehow circled back and grabbed the rape scene videotape out of my wrecked vehicle, and examined its contents to make sure that he wasn’t a star or supporting actor in it, having been there with Amy. Then he returned it to me via Bridget, the “messenger dove of love.”
But why would he care about the videotape? Did he just want to remain anonymous? Or was he concerned about appearing on a tape that might implicate a rapist, in this case Sam, that he would later kill?
Or, having foreknowledge of the existence of the tape, because he’d been there, did he just want to see what additional taping I had done the next morning when I retrieved the camera and shot some footage of the scene?
And who was it that had killed Melissa Boyle at the Aurora Mall while Riley was running me off the road? I assumed that it had been the two pock-faced New York thugs. And I was now concerned that they’d make their way back to Boulder to do the very same thing to Stephanie and I, especially if Rolander’s psychotic tendencies were escalating, as it appeared they were.
“You haven’t used any credit cards, have you?” I asked Stephanie, know that doing so would enable someone to track our whereabouts.
“No,” she said. “I loaded a backpack full of cash before I left Boulder. But that’s all the money I have.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“There are advantages to being poor,” I said. “It forces you to be creative.”
“By the way,” I said, “you don’t happen to know your neighbor’s phone number do you?”
“The big housewife on the east side of your condo,” I said.
“Mildred Anderson?” she asked. “The nosey one?”
“I need to give her a call.”
Fortunately, I had gotten the neighbor’s number from her and put it in my cellphone the day I had met her.
She was overjoyed to hear from me, and I could tell that she could hardly contain her enthusiasm. I pictured her jumping around like an excited puppy, chasing her tail.
As I predicted, she had watched over Stephanie’s nest like a mother hawk, and not only spotted to two goons arrival, but also revealed that they had traded in the black Chevy that they had run me off the road with for a white Lincoln Continental.
“Do you want a license plate number?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” I said and wrote it down. “What did they do when they got there?”
“Went inside real quick,” she said, “like they had a key.”
“For how long?”
“Twenty-nine minutes,” she said.
“Nothing,” I said. “Did they bring anything out?”
“What else did they do?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said, “but ...”
“I took pictures of them with my cellphone and their car, too.”
“You are brilliant!” I said.
“Thank you,” she said.
I could almost feel her blushing.
“Send the pictures to me and keep up the good work, but don’t talk to anyone about this, OK?”
“OK,” she said.
“And don’t answer the door if those two guys knock,” I said.
“Only with a shotgun,” she said and giggled and I cringed a little.
After that, I took Stephanie out for some chow to bulk her up a little at a nearby diner. She had showered and put on khaki shorts with a white tank top that did little to keep admiring males from admiring her ample breasts.
“Couldn’t you dress a little less conspicuously?” I asked.
“I would hardly call this conspicuous,” she said.
Of course, she was right. The same outfit on someone with less of a figure would have been quite conservative. But on her it stood out like a canary yellow dress at a funeral. And the dark tan that she’d acquired while sitting on the beach waiting for me to arrive further accented her voluptuousness.
“By the way,” I asked, “where is your Jeep?”
“And you paid cash for the airline ticket?”
“Yes,” she said and rolled her eyes.
“Again,” she said.
As she ate, I tried to plan our next brilliant maneuver with little success. There appeared to be only two solid options: go back to Boulder and become filler for another garbage dumpster, or hide. I thought hiding might be better.
That’s when I began to fanaticize about a deserted island somewhere until my dream was interrupted by a voice to my left.
“Hey,” someone said, “what are you doing here?”
Walking towards me was Jason Harris, a very talented rodeo steer wrestler, lady’s man and roper from Athens, Texas, a small town two hours east of Dallas.
“Eating,” I said.
“Obviously,” he said, “and who is this queen you are with?
“My wife,” I said.
“Really?” he asked.
“Good,” he said.
“She’s a girl, and she is my friend,” I said.
He looked into my eyes for further clues. I gave him none.
“She’s about as pretty as Kelli,” he said.
Stephanie looked at me, a little surprised.
“Who is Kelli,” she asked and Jason winced.
“Kelli was my wife,” I said.
“Was?” she asked.
“She died,” I said.
It wasn’t the first time Stephanie had ridden a horse. In fact, she’d taken English riding lessons in her New Jersey birth land and continued to ride as an immigrant to New Mexico. Her horsemanship was further enhanced by the relationships her mother forged with a bevy of racehorse owner who let Stephanie ride stable horses between barns at the Ruidoso Downs racetrack.
The eyes of a dozen cowboys were glued to her behind as she glided aboard a trusty steed in an arena at Frank Harris’ ranch in Athens, Texas — especially when she chased steers back to the pen each time a beefy bulldogger completed a dust-raising run, like rodeo queens often do at rodeos.
“They like it when you sing to them,” I said from high atop a corral fence.
“I need to go shopping,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Inappropriate attire,” she said.
“Do you need boots and a hat?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “I thought I’d wear a bathing suit for this.”
“That’d work, too,” I said, and all the boys on the fence hooted.
The combination of warm Texas air and vast distance from Boulder and New Jersey had begun to drain some of the anxieties from Stephanie and even prompted her to throw out a couple of smiles, though none came my way.
A chasm still existed between the two of us, a result of both her pigheadedness and my inadvisable relationship with her cousin Bridget. Or at least I assumed that to be the cause of her sullenness, despite the fact that she said she was “fine,” which usually means not so fine.
We had shared a bed that one night at Cody’s Cobana, she on one side and I one the other, as though a plank were propped between us. The next morning, we met Jason again much too early for Stephanie to be in a good mood, even though noon might still have been too early, and followed him to his father’s ranch.
“Whatever happened between you and Bridget?” she asked as we glided down the highway.
“I went away and the cat did play,” I said.
“She cheated on you?” She asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Hard to believe,” she said and smirked.
I didn’t reply.
“Didn’t see it coming?” she asked.
“Didn’t care,” I said.
When we arrived at the ranch, I read Stephanie’s biography out loud, so to speak, to Jason’s father, Frank, and asked him if she could vacation there temporarily for her protection. He immediately concurred, and I knew from experience that her stay, whether for one day or 100, would be anything but restful since no one has ever actually vacationed even near that ranch, much less at it. Stephanie was about to endure a western boot camp of sorts, at least for her, and I couldn’t help but be amused.
“Why are you chuckling?” Stephanie asked.
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
The plan to board her there was so incredibly brilliant that I wished I’d thought of it myself instead of having it land in my lap out of dumb luck or divine intervention. With an abundance of oversized, anxious cowboy eyes glued to her every move, she’d be safer than the president in the White House’s bunker.
And if any goons from New York were stupid enough to venture into that part of the world, they’d stand out like bears at a picnic and probably find themselves being drug through Texas brush at the end of a long rope if they tried anything.
“She’s welcome to stay here as long as she wants,” Frank Harris said, tongue in cheek.
I grinned at Stephanie and she smiled warmly. Then I looked at Jason and he coughed a little, and so there we were, one big happy family.
My plan was to leave early the next day, hoping to avoid Stephanie’s possible scorn when she discovered she was not at a five-star resort. I asked her to accompany me on an evening walk in a nearby meadow where cattle roamed and rabbits scurried. An appropriate scene, I thought, for saying goodbye.
“Look,” I said, “I want to apologize to you for not fully understanding your situation. I could have done more in the beginning if I had believed what you told me.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “You’ve done more for me than anyone has in my life. I will forever be indebted to you!”
“Really?” I asked, while marveling at how she could be both aloof and grateful.
“Absolutely,” she said.
“Good,” I said. “Then maybe you can tell me how I am getting back to Colorado.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go back,” she said, and looked into my eyes.
“You want me to hide out, too?”
“Well,” she said, “if you must go, you can take the Corvette,” she said.
“But you’ll need it.”
“I didn’t think so,” she said.
“And what about your jeep at the Denver airport?” I asked.
“What about it?”
“When are you going to get that?”
“Never,” she said. “My dad has probably located it by now and had someone pick it up.”
That was a sobering thought. But then I had an even more sobering thought: Maybe she wanted me to drive the Corvette so that I could take a bullet for her?
“Na,” I said.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I replied.
We lingered, sitting on two large boulders for a long time, until the sun sank into the horizon and turned a tall tree into a black haunting silhouette. I walked her back to the main ranch house and we rocked on the porch swing briefly before she asked me to follow her to her bedroom so that she could give me back a borrowed shirt.
“Keep it,” I said.
“It’s a little big,” she said.
“Use it for a pajama top.”
“I don’t wear pajamas.”
“You might want to around here.”
“I’ll take my chances,” she said.
“It’s your life.”
She then stepped into the bathroom, and I glanced about the bedroom aimlessly, twiddling my thumbs until a dark glistening object in her overnight bag caught my eye. I reached in and pulled out a small .22-caliber pistol. That’s when she reappeared in the bedroom doorway, looked at the gun in my hand and then into my eyes in a way that seemed to imply that I might have been a bit too snoopy.
“Sorry,” I said. “This was sticking out of your bag.”
“I took shooting lessons in New Mexico,” she said. “Given the circumstances, I felt it best to give myself a little extra protection.”
“How did you get a gun on the plane?” I asked.
“I didn’t,” she said. “I know someone in Texas.”
I was momentarily puzzled and not sure why.
“I’m sorry that you lost your wife,” she said. “It must have been very painful.”
She seemed to be fishing for details.
“It was,” I said.
We hugged each other, and when she finally loosened her grip I told her that I’d probably be leaving as soon as the sun came up. She gave me a peck on the cheek, thanked me again, and asked me to be careful. Finally, we said goodbye.
Then I sauntered back to the bunkhouse, not real anxious to sleep with eight cowboys.
The next morning, I set the Corvette’s cruise control at warp speed and landed in Wichita, Kansas, around 11 o’clock. After filling the gas tank and inhaling a fast-food snack, I called my not-so-favorite Boulder detective.
“How is Mrs. McIntyre, the shop owner, doing?” I asked. “I hope you are watching out for her.”
“We’ve got her covered,” he said.
“Anything new I should know about?”
“No,” he said. “You must be out of town.”
“Whatever,” he said.
“But I’ll be back soon.”
“Then I’m retiring,” he said.
“Not yet,” I said. “I have a license number for you to track.”
“That belongs to whom?” he asked.
“Good question,” I said. “But it was being driven by the two New York goons who had rammed me off the road in Nevada. The ones who probably murdered Melissa Boyle at the mall in Arvada, killed Amy McIntyre somewhere and dumped her in my pickup truck, and took out Sam the rapist.”
“They are busy,” he said. “But if they did kill Amy McIntyre, they switched weapons before they did away with Sam the rapist.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m a detective.”
“Then you should know.”
“I hope so,” he said. “We just got a ballistics report back and the bullet they dug out of Sam’s head is a smaller caliber than the others.”
“Meaning that Melissa Boyle was strangled and dumped into a dumpster, Amy McIntyre was shot with a .45, and Sam the rapist was killed with a weapon New York goons seldom use.”
“What was that?”
“A .22,” he said.
I lay awake that night in my basement bedroom at Baby Huey’s house wondering, between tosses and turns, when the two New Jersey goons would step up and tap the front doorbell with the barrel of a loaded gun.
“Loaded gun?” I said to myself. “Of course, it would be loaded.”
Other than a baseball bat and steak knives, there were no other weapons in the house.
I rolled over in frustration and tried to go to sleep, suddenly aware of the fact that nobody talked to me more than me lately, and that was probably a little sick.
The next morning, I called Stypula again to see if he’d found out anything on the white car the two goons were driving.
“We spotted it last night,” he said, “in the parking lot of a department store in north Boulder.”
“And there was nothing inside, including fingerprints,” he said. “It has been reported stolen in Grand Junction at about the same time your boys would have passed through there perhaps, based upon your timeline. Thus, your new buddies might still be out there trying to reunite with you.”
“It could be an interesting reunion.”
“I hate reunions.”
I hung up and went back to bed. Upstairs Huey was messing around in the kitchen, brewing a batch of black coffee. The smell reminded me of our ranch house back home, a comforting thought that allowed me to fall asleep.
At 10:30, I heard a crackling sound, like someone had stepped on a twig and I sat up and turned on my radar.
Moments later, I heard another crack.
I’d left Stephanie at a ranch in Texas and gone back to Boulder and Baby Huey’s house. Being exhausted after the trip, I slept in the next day before being awakened, first by the sounds of Huey fooling around in the kitchen before going to work and then the snapping of twigs, as if someone was sneaking around outside. Or maybe I was just imagining things.
But then I heard another crack and I stood up on the bed, split the drapes to my basement window and came eyeball to eyeball with one of the New York goons that’d beat me up in New York and run me off the road in Nevada.
Spinning, I jumped to the floor and into some jeans, and then one of the goons smashed through the window, fell onto my bed and sent glass flying in every direction. By then, I had darted through the bedroom door, down the short hallway and sped up the stairs, only to soon hear the sound of his weighty hooves thundering up the steps behind me.
When I reached the top, I scurried through the dining area, quickly opened the glass patio door and blew through the screen, thinking about how I’d have to replace it if I survived.
Then something that I thought might be a bullet whizzed by my ear and planted itself in the wall of the neighbor’s garage. It had to have been shot from a pistol with a silencer.
“These guys are serious,” I said to myself. “You need to run like hell!”
The fact that the two previous attempts to kill me had failed had probably raised their level of irritation, and I hopped off the outdoor patio, slipped behind the house, and ran towards the street in the opposite direction of the high school across the street, clueless as to what I might find back there since I’d never actually gone that direction.
As I did so, the treads on my bare feet were wearing out quickly running on dead grass and rocks, so I searched frantically for a place to hide.
That’s when the second goon appeared from around the corner and grabbed for my neck. I dropped to the ground and he flew over me like a giant airliner, then I rolled back onto my feet and headed for safety, wherever that was.
Up the street, a neighbor had just backed out of his driveway and was cruising in the opposite direction. So I slid head first under his electronically closing garage door and waited for it to tag me on the backside as I did so, but it never did.
I lay there for a few seconds listening for pertinent sounds. Hearing none, I peered out of the garage window just in time to see the two goons approach it with weapons in hand and puzzled looks on their faces, apparently unaware of where I’d gone.
Rather than hope they’d lose their patience and give up, I ventured through a door and into what I thought was an unoccupied house, found a land line and called Detective Stypula. He agreed to send in the cavalry.
“I just hate to break up your reunion,” he said.
“Really, I don’t mind,” I said and it wasn’t long before I could hear sirens and knew that the goons would soon scurry away.
Then I heard someone in the hallway and turned around.
Standing before me was a frightened young lady with yellow hair wearing a very attractive red teddy and bulging eyes.
“Good morning,” I said. “How’s your cable TV working?”
While I was vacationing with Stephanie in Texas, Bridget had left a plethora of messages for me on my cellphone. My ego hoped that she missed me, but logic suggested she was on a fact-finding mission.
First impressions can often be the most accurate and my first impression of Bridget had been that she was big trouble, a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a snake, ready to strike. Still, she was also maybe the sexiest girl in America, which could be a distraction. Nevertheless, her messages went unanswered.
Meanwhile, Stephanie was doing so well in Texas that I wondered if she might not decide to eventually buy the state. Then I remembered that without daddy’s money she wouldn’t be buying anything.
She bragged on the phone, during a check-in call, about how some of the cowboys had taught her to dance, rope and ride. I began to wonder why it was her having so much fun while I was dodging bullets. After all, it wasn’t even my war. But then, it never is the soldiers that start the war, is it?
Of course, the black-and-white police units that Stypula had sent to Hubert’s house had arrived to find nothing more than a broken basement window, patio screen door and a bullet in the neighbor’s garage wall. They surgically removed that, and I hoped it would match one of those that’d been removed from Amy McIntyre’s body after she’d been found dead in my pickup truck.
“Do you finally believe me now?” I asked Stypula.
“You’re beginning to make some sense,” he admitted, “except this bullet could have just as easily come from the gun of a jealous husband.”
“You’re kidding right?”
“I saw that lady up the street in the red teddy,” he said.
“And her husband was seen leaving the neighborhood right after the incident,” he said.
“No,” he said, “I’m yanking your chain.”
“Don’t yank too hard,” I said. “There’s not much left.”
When I was in grade school, two older kids began pestering me each day before English class.
Back-to-back sleepless night led me to swallow my pride and ask my big brother to intervene on my behalf. Our macho father, a John Wayne clone, happened to be gliding past my brother’s bedroom door as I made my request, and he burst through the doorway with furrowed brow.
“You don’t get others to solve your problems,” he said. “You deal with them yourself.”
With that settled, the next day I studied the activities of my abusers like a sniper setting up a trap for his victims. When each was alone, I walked up and punched them in the gut so hard that they both dropped to the floor clutching their abdomen with no apparent desire to further the fight.
One of them happened to be talking to an older, highly attractive girl with a long blonde ponytail at the time.
“Would you like to walk me home?” she asked.
“No, thanks,” I said, “You better help him home.”
Somehow, that event would factor into my mental state after the third failed murder attempt by the New York goons.
What angered me was not that the Big Apple boys were making my life miserable but that Mr. Rolander didn’t have the balls to take care of his problems himself. So I decided to take the game to his court.
He and I were going to have a duel, I concluded, and I went back to Huey’s house and immediately began calling Rolander nonstop until his secretary finally put me through.
“I’m coming to visit you,” I said and hung up.
Then, in a fit of rage, rather than call an airline and make a flight reservation, I threw some clothes into a bag, hopped into the Corvette, laid a patch of rubber and steered vaguely towards New Canaan, Connecticut.
By the time I reached the Nebraska border, I had cooled down enough to have second thoughts about my inept plan, one that called for me to attack him on his turf after having given him ample time to prepare.
So, two hours older and wiser, I pulled into a gas station that looked like it had been built during the 1930s, leaned my head back against the headrest, as if I was lying on a psychiatrist’s couch, and began to counsel myself.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“You lost your cool,” my conscience said.
“Stay out of this,” I said.
“Impossible,” he said.
“You bug me,” I said.
“That’s my job,” he said.
“I’m not listening to you anymore.”
“That’d be a big mistake,” he said.
“It’s MY life.”
“But it affects others,” he said.
Good point, I thought, and decided to sleep on it. So I checked into a cheap motel, the kind with long, pink neon lights running along the edge of the roof, which was filled with pot-bellied truck drivers and traveling salesmen.
Once I’d secured a room, I looked about for a place to eat and saw that the pickings were going to be slim.
That’s when I remembered I’d left Baby Huey’s screen door unrepaired, so I called him to apologize.
“If you want me to move out, I understand,” I said.
“Are you kidding?” he said, “Why would I want to eliminate the greatest source of entertainment in my life?”
“Your nuts,” I said.
“Probably,” he agreed.
Meanwhile, the only place serving dinner in the remote Nebraska oasis was a roadhouse, whose menu featured beef and buffalo. I ordered a buffalo burger that was delicious and a cold beer.
By the time I finished my meal, the sun had dipped well below the horizon, and a five-member band was busy stuffing itself onto a mini-stage the size of a canned ham container.
Their music proved to be refreshingly “twangy,” which was a welcome departure from the assembly line tunes that were dominating the country airwaves.
I glanced at a calendar above the bar. It featured a photo of a woman clad in a polka dot bikini, making it the type of calendar that you’d normally find in an automotive repair shop. It was then that I realized it was Friday. When you’re an unemployed nomad being chased by trained killers, you can tend to lose track of time.
Rather than rush back to my motel room, I ordered another beer. By the time I had requested my third and last, a herd of pickup trucks had parked outside and emptied themselves of rowdy rural folks wearing soiled caps and dusty hats.
It was turning into just the kind of get-away the doctor had ordered and I almost raised my hand to order another beer but, for some reason, decided against it.
A bottle magically appeared in front of me anyway, and the stocky older bartender with hair dyed one shade lighter than his handlebar mustache announced that it was on the house.
I thanked him, took a few drinks and the next thing I knew it was “lights out.”
Patty’s father was a tall, thin man dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and a long-sleeve plaid shirt with pearl snaps. He had extra-thick, black hair and cheeks so chiseled that, if not for the dairy farm, he might have had an excellent career as an Elvis impersonator.
I sensed a certain gentleness and melancholy in his soul that I assumed originated with the loss of his wife and best friend in a car accident three years earlier. He couldn’t have known that I knew more about what he was feeling than most. But it was not something that I’d bring up and discuss with him.
“Were you on your way to a rodeo?” he asked me.
“No,” I said, “I was on my way to Connecticut to attend to some business.”
“What kind of business?” he asked.
“Helping a friend.”
“Patty mentioned that you lost your wallet,” he said.
I glanced at her and hoped that she’d left out a few parts of the story. Her return glance seemed to suggest that I should keep my response brief.
“That’s right,” I said. “Without Patty I’m not sure what I would have done.”
“I don’t know if pitching manure is the answer to your prayers,” he said, “but whatever works.”
“Beats walking back to Colorado,” I said.
Meanwhile her brothers, two blossoming introverts, said two words during the entire meal and I occasionally caught them stealing glances at me before quickly looking down at the piles of food on their plates. We ate enough grub during that meal to feed a nation or two and I wondered what the boys did for food during the week when Patty was away at college. If it was TV dinners that they ate, there had to be a gigantic warehouse stacked with boxes.
After dinner, I surprised Patty by offering to help her with the dishes. Then I showered and changed into some fresh clothes.
She agreed to accompany me to the honky-tonk later to kick up her heels briefly before beginning the midnight shift at the motel.
“Business could be brisk,” she said, “after the honky-tonk closes when the drunk couples check in.”
“Sounds romantic,” I said.
“Church is at 8 a.m.,” she had announced at the dinner table.
I smirked at the boys.
“And that means you too,” she said and looked at me. “You can stay in my room tonight. You’ve earned that. I’ll be at work anyway.”
“Do you ever sleep?”
“Thursday and Sunday nights,” she said.
“I’ll sleep in my car,” I said.
“Don’t be impudent,” she said.
“Disrespectful,” she said.
“I know what it means.”
The Corvette’s clock had just snuck past 10:30 when Patty and I left the farm and drove the seven miles back to the bleak oasis near the interstate where the neon motel, two gas stations, a small town café and the honky-tonk provided cheap chow, little sleep and wild times for weary travelers, truck drivers and locals.
Because her motel shift didn’t begin until midnight, I suggested while we were washing dishes that we depart early enough to allow her to join me for some brief fun at the honky-tonk.
“Sorry, but I’m not into that kind of fun,” she said. “I don’t drink.”
“Neither do I,” I said.
“Evidence would suggest otherwise,”
“Evidence is what I am going there to gather,” I said.
“Best of luck, inspector,” she said. “I might just get in the way anyway.”
“You’re too small.”
“Hey, no short jokes.”
“It’s okay,” she said and smiled.
“Do you dance?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Do you?”
Meanwhile Darrel, Patty’s father, was sawing logs in his recliner when we left and would probably do so until the oldest boy returned from taking his giggly girlfriend to a movie 26 miles away. The younger son was in his room playing video games of some kind.
“Thank you for helping out today,” Patty said. “It was a gruesome job. I didn’t think you could handle it. I’m moderately impressed.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “I can’t promise that I’ll do it again.”
“Then you better not pass out in my motel lobby,” she said.
“Not a chance.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
“You’re such an optimist.”
“A marginal realist.”
“Much better than a pessimist,” she said.
“I’ve survived too many wrecks to be a pessimist.”
“No,” I said, “on bucking horses.”
“Leading you to believe that there’s someone looking out for you?”
“Without question,” I said.
The night was so dark that I thought we might be driving into a black hole. An arctic breeze sent tumbleweeds scurrying across the gravel road and I sensed that there were snow flurries high in the sky just waiting to drop down.
I watched Patty’s delicate fingers manipulate the buttons on the radio and wondered what kind of music she’d select. Her fingernails were unpainted and immaculate despite her duties as a Nebraska farm girl. She was dressed in a manner that said she “had it” but didn’t need to flaunt it. And I smelled a dab of perfume that I hadn’t detected earlier.
There appeared to be little makeup on her face, the skin of which was incredibly flawless. Her full lips were glossy but uncolored and although her beauty was undeniable, I could tell that she had once been a full-fledged tomboy and was a little unaccustomed to doing super “girly” things.
As I glanced at her face lit up by the dashboard lights I noticed a smirk and wondered what might be going on in her mind. The more we talked, the more interesting I found her to be and the less interested I learned she was in many of the silly things that others our age might be interested in.
Her life had a serious note to it, and still I could see a smart ass peeking out from inside.
I liked her. I liked talking to her.
“Will you return to the farm this evening?” she asked.
“Didn’t you say I could sleep in your bed?”
“Of course,” I confirmed.
“You can,” she replied. “I even changed the sheets for you.”
“Or I could stay in an empty room at the motel and pay you back when we get back to Boulder.”
“We’ll probably be booked up tonight,” she revealed.
“Then I’ll hang out in the office with you.”
“Sorry, no loitering allowed.”
“How about dozing?”
“You really should go back to the farm. I don’t want you falling asleep in church.”
“About church,” I began.
“What about it?” She asked, her eyes squinting in anticipation of an onslaught of bullcrap.
“Never mind,” I said, suddenly remembering that the gas tank had yet to be filled.
The smoke in the bar hovered like a cloudbank just above my eyebrows. At a little under five-and-a-half feet tall, Patty stood well below the pollution level and I wondered if she could see the top of my head through it all.
“How could a girl with such big brothers be so petite?” I asked her. “Are you adopted?”
“I’m not petite,” she declared with a smile. “I’m average.”
“You’re far from average,” I said.
She stared into my eyes for a second to see if I was making fun of her, and when she realized I wasn’t she looked away shyly.
To our right, the same band was again stuffed onto a stage the size of a canned ham. Bodies were packed in everywhere battling for room on the dance floor, bottles and glasses clinked together and off to my left some potbellied slob shouted, “Let’s party!” at the top of his lungs.
“This seems like it’d be a perfect place for meditation,” I said to Patty.
“I think you achieved some sort of advanced meditative state last night didn’t you?”
“That’s funny,” I said. “Let’s dance, Cinderella, before the clock strikes midnight and you turn into a motel employee.”
“Okay,” she said and grinned.
As we made our way to the dance floor, the band announced that it was going to slow it down a bit.
“Sorry, I don’t know how to slow dance,” I said and took her right hand in mine. She smiled, rolled her eyes and followed my lead.
Later, I held her hand again as we crossed to the other side of the highway in the direction of the motel. The wind seemed to have died down and the snow flurries that I had anticipated apparently decided not to come out and play. Through the motel office window, I could see the Mrs. Beehive Mamma waiting for Patty to show up.
“Thank you, that was fun,” Patty said before going inside. “I bet your girlfriend really enjoys dancing with you.”
“Which one?” I said.
“Oh I forgot,” she said. “You’re a rodeo star with a girl in every port.”
“That’d be a sailor.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” I said. “And you?”
“I don’t have a girlfriend either,” she said and smirked.
“Good to know,” I said.
Beehive Mamma, having by then spotted us, came out the front door wearing a goose down vest with the world’s longest cigarette balancing on her bottom lip. She bid us adieu and ducked into one of the back units.
“Really?” Patty asked.
“You’re glad to hear I don’t have a girlfriend?”
She looked into my eyes again and suddenly looked very serious.
“You probably have a wife,” she said.
“You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?”
“I used to have one,” I said.
She looked at me again, her eyes opening a little wider.
“What happened to her?” she asked.
“I lost her,” I said after a short pause.
“She left you?”
“No, I lost her …” I said again and paused, trying to build up enough composure, “… like your dad lost your mom.”
After walking Patty across the highway to the motel, I returned to the honky-tonk and noticed that the friendly bartender with the off-colored hair and handlebar mustache from the night before was seated with a group of people at a table near the dance floor.
It appeared that he was enjoying a night off.
He didn’t see me at first, not until I walked up to the bar. Then he happened to glance my way, looked unusually surprised and then turned away quickly, as if he’d been caught with his hand in a cookie jar.
That was odd, I thought to myself, and his actions prompted me to wonder why he was acting that way, and I decided to play out a hunch. So when the band took a break, I walked over and stood uncomfortably close to his chair.
“The beers they serve here seem to have a variety of levels of toxicity,” I said. “You might want to have them checked.”
“What?” he said.
“Some of your beers have drugs in them,” I said. “Drugs that make people lose touch with reality. I wonder if I should have the sheriff check it out?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t know?” I asked.
“I didn’t think you would.”
“Great,” he said angrily. “Now get lost.”
“You’re not used to seeing your victims return to the scene of the crime, are you?” I said.
I knew at that moment that he had underestimated the potential of my unleashed temperament and the lengths to which I would go to see that justice was done. In other words, he didn’t know how stupid I could be.
“You apparently need to attend some anger management classes,” I said. “Last night you were such a friendly little host, and now I think I’m sensing some hostility.”
He flashed me a confused look, as if he couldn’t quite comprehend what I was saying and the direction I was heading.
“You’re sensing a lot of hostility,” he said and guffawed as if he’d just uttered the globe’s best comeback line. I felt a little guilty picking on someone with so much space between his ears as I quickly glanced about the bar.
To my right, one portly bouncer was seated on a stool by the front door checking ID’s. Another bouncer was making rounds and greeting patrons. That one looked a little like a politician on a campaign trail.
“Is this your companion?” I asked Mr. Handlebar, gambling that he was in cahoots with the buxom babe seated next to him, the one that Mrs. Beehive, the owner of the motel, had reportedly seen me with the night before. “Is she getting ready to empty the pockets of some other innocent victim?”
Mr. Handlebar flew out of this chair, drew back and aimed a big roundhouse at my jaw. I ducked to my left and it flew past. Then he stumbled from his heels to his toes as if he were logrolling or slipping on a wet barroom floor and his veins bulged.
“Better sit down,” I said. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
He grabbed at my shirt and missed. At about that time the smiling politician bouncer, along with his gorilla mate by the door, eyed our exchange and debated whether to come to the bartender’s aide.
That’s when it suddenly occurred to me that all of them, the bartender, the buxom babe and the bouncers might be members of a four-person mini-corporation that fleeced weary road warriors, like myself, on a nightly basis. Perhaps I’d taken on a little more than I could easily chew, silly me.
The woman seated next to Mr. Handlebar screamed as he caught a heel on a puddle of beer and went down as if someone had pulled the latch on a trap door. The two bouncers assumed that I’d clocked him and came at me like salivating wolves.
I let them come, faked right and dropped down to the floor at the last minute, caught both of them around the ankles, and they tripped onto a table full of tattooed truck drivers who were already squinting through glazed eyes and in no mood for irritation.
Then I grabbed the buxom babe by the arm and ran with her out the front door, led her to the west side of the bar and peeked back around the corner to count the number of wolves in hot pursuit.
The bouncers popped out of the front door, looked left, spotted me and were about to eagerly pursue me when they were quickly surrounded by the pickled, angry truckers who tackled them and kicked at their rib cages for far longer than necessary.
I basked momentarily in my good fortune and then briefly considered calling the cops to come to the aide of my own assailants, proving once again, that life can sometimes get very complicated and ironic.
Meanwhile, the young lady looked at me like I was a body that had climbed out of a casket and struggled to get away, but I clung to her skinny arm and tried to get her to quiet down.
“I didn’t want to take your money!” she shouted.
I looked at her a little dumbfounded, trying to process everything.
“I didn’t want to take your money!” she said. “He made me do it! He makes me do it all the time!”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“You don’t know?”
“I have an idea who you are.”
“Then why did you grab me?”
“It was a reflex,” I said. “I thought I might get some information from you.”
“Oh,” she said.
She was young, maybe 21, with fawn eyes and shoulder length, reddish hair that looked a little frail, like it’d been bleached and colored a few too many times.
Her clothes were virtually painted on, her face was definitely painted on, and it wouldn’t be long before she got very cold in the night air without a jacket.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Cassie,” she said.
“Do you live here?”
“Nobody lives here,” she said.
“Where are you from?”
“Everywhere,” she said. “My dad was in the military.”
“Where do you live now?”
“With George, the bartender, on an old farm,” she said. “I need to get away from him.”
When she said that, she suddenly took on the look of unwanted baggage.
“You rob me, and now you want me to help you?” I asked. “Did he kidnap you?”
“No,” she said, “I got left here by my trucker boyfriend and George took me in.”
“Do you happen to know where my wallet is?” I asked, suddenly realizing that there might be some hope for its recovery.
“George has it.”
“He has it with him right now?”
“It’s back at the farm,” she said.
“Where is that?”
“Five miles north.”
“Take me there,” I said.
Grabbing Cassie’s hand, I raced across the highway and burst through the front door of the motel office.
“Call the cops,” I said to Patty.
She was so busy staring wide-eyed at Cassie that I couldn’t tell if she had heard me or not.
“Patty?” I said again.
“OK, OK,” she said and started to dial.
“Tell them there’s a brawl going on at the bar,” I said, pointing to the roadhouse, and then I ran back outside with Cassie in tow, opened the rider’s door of the purple Corvette, helped her inside, got in on the other side, popped it into reverse and spun onto the highway.
I looked at the roadhouse and noticed that the brawny truck drivers, still hovered over the two crumpled bouncers outside the front door, were so busy schooling them on proper barroom etiquette that the whole lot of them failed to notice my squealing, fishtailing departure.
At the same time, I didn’t see George, the mustachioed bartender, being mysteriously absent from the scene, and I hoped that the barroom floor had inflicted some not-so-minor injuries upon him, like a broken pelvis, back or neck. Shame on me.
As I sped down the highway and towards the east edge of the oasis, I barely noticed a large, green, four-door Pontiac with two stout men seated inside, parked between two matching big rigs, with a cloud rising from its exhaust.
“It can’t be,” I said.
“What?” Cassie asked.
“That green car back there,” I said shaking my head. “I hope it’s not who I think it is.”
“The big one?” she asked.
“The green one between the two trucks with the two thugs inside.”
“I know who that it,” she said.
“George knows them,” she said. “They’re the Santinelli brothers from New Jersey.”
“Really,” I said, and looked in my rear-view mirror to see if they were following us. It appeared that they weren’t.
Meanwhile, as we approached, I could see that the farmyard where George and Cassie lived was a mess. Even in the dark, it was apparent that the house was in dire need of a thick coat of paint, and the barn had imploded decades earlier. Chipped fence posts were either toppled over or sat at odd angles and thick barb wire hung loosely from the rotted wood.
“Does George own this place?” I asked Cassie.
“No,” she said. “He’s from back east, too. He rents it.”
I looked for a place to hide the car.
“Do you have a cigarette lighter?” I asked her.
“I don’t want to turn the lights on when we get inside,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
“OK,” I said, “Let’s go.”
I had parked behind a grove of trees on the east side of the house and we quickly scampered through the knee high grass with Cassie running nicely in heels.
We entered the house through a side door into what looked like a major health hazard that might have been a kitchen at one time. Refuse on the table indicated that, except for a few scattered chicken bones, George mostly dined on frozen pizza and whiskey.
“Do you know where my wallet is?” I asked.
“It was on the table when I left,” she said.
I cleared off some of the table trash with my forearm, discovered three wallets, one of which was mine, and immediately began prospecting for loot, credit cards, ID’s and a precious photo of Kelli. What I found, much to my amazement, was nearly everything inside, except one credit card and all the cash.
“You can live in this hell hole?” I asked.
“No,” Cassie said.
“Then why do you?”
“Camping outside is a little rough in Nebraska this time of year.”
That’s when beams of light suddenly bounced around the kitchen walls, so I grabbed the wallets, stuffed them into my jacket pockets, looked out the window above the kitchen sink and saw that there was a car racing up the bumpy farm road.
“We need to go,” I said to Cassie.