Bobbi Heck: The Case of the Wacky Whacker Part Three

(Copyright 2022, Stroble Family Trust.)

LAX doesn’t look much different from the last time I flew out of here roundtrip back East. But it sure feels different. Probably because this is my first flight since the Corona Virus lockdowns, restrictions, and requirements began.

I’m relieved when my nonstop redeye flight to Chicago’s O’Hare is uneventful. There’s been way too many flights canceled, delayed, or interrupted midair by a passenger with an agenda they are no longer willing to keep hidden.

One of Wilma Fernandez’s daughters meets me curbside by the terminal. It takes about a half hour to reach the Fernandez home on Chicago’s northwest side. Looks like Wilma wants to introduce me to the whole clan.

I am thankful for the glass of ice-cold lemonade handed to me as I sit on a couch next to who knows who. That mystery is solved as Wilma makes introductions by pointing at each of her four children and speaking their names. One thing about Wilma. She is in charge.

“You’re all here to help Bobbi find who killed my son and your brother Douglas. I need you to tell her who might have hated him.”

Her oldest son Juan lets out a laugh that sounds like a wolf howling at a full moon.

“Get real, Mom. Douglas was such a low life. There had to be at least a dozen people that hated him.”

The expression on Wilma’s face goes from hopeful to stern to angry to sad.

“Then give us some names, Juan,” she says.

Juan rattles off five names.

“How about the rest?”

Juan stares at his shoes.

The rest of this family gathering releases more emotions. Most of them are ugly, even hostile. None of it is helpful. Well, maybe to clear up unfinished family business. But nothing to help me find the killer.

I describe what I could glean from the security camera footage from the motel where Douglas died. Then Juan growls out a word in Spanish, jumps to his feet, and stomps out of the room. I try to follow him but Wilma grabs my arm before I can stand. Guess I’ll have to let things play out.

Meanwhile, my driver Carmella offers to drive me to the address that Douglas’s P.I. gave me.

“Are you sure this is where Douglas stayed?” she asks an hour later as we pull into a parking lot of a rundown apartment building that borders the state line to Indiana.

*  *  *

Sigh.

So maybe this is why Dad used to sigh and Mom would cry whenever Dad would go crazy because one of his difficult P.I. cases seemed to become even more unsolvable. At least I picked up a few more clues from a neighbor who lived next to Douglas’s old apartment.

This eight-year-old kid claims he saw some guy who looked like a gang banger pounding on Douglas’s door. To be friendly, the kid told the stranger that Douglas had gone to L.A. to visit his long-lost natural father.

One thing that stuck with the kid about the gangster – he wore the skinniest looking boots he had ever seen. The kid asked if he could get a pair of boots like that on account of his helping the stranger. Then the gang-banger wrote down the kid’s shoe size, 7, and promised to return with a pair when he got back from a trip.

When I get back to Wilma Fernandez’s house and pass along the new info, she turns a ghostly white. Her oldest son has returned from wherever he stormed off to during the earlier meeting. Once again, he reacts the most after hearing my update.

“I knew it!” he says. “I knew it had to be Crazy Rodrigo. He offered to waste Douglas after he heard some of his half siblings didn’t like him. I told him to back off.”

Juan shakes his head.

All of Wilma Fernandez’s daughters move closer and hug her as she breaks down. After a good cry, she takes charge.

“Then we must tell the police about this Crazy Rodrigo. We will inform the Chicago police and Bobbi, you need to tell the Los Angeles police for us.”

Her face grows dark.

“There must be justice.”

I always hate being the messenger. But it comes with the territory. I turn to Juan for backup.

“Your sister and I were gone for hours. That gave you plenty of time to check things out.”

Juan bares his teeth, probably his signal that I shouldn’t be betraying his knowledge of Chicago’s gangland hoodlums in front of his mother. Sorry, Juan. But I need some help. His mom comes to my rescue like only a mother can.

“Answer Ms. Heck, Juan,” she says.

He grumbles.

“Okay, okay. I talked to some of the guys who hang with Crazy Rodrigo. They all say they haven’t seen him for weeks.”

Wilma turns her anger toward me.

“You said Rodrigo told the little boy that he would get him the boots made at the same shop where his were made. Where is that shop?  What is its name?”

“All he knew is that the shop is in TJ.”

“TJ?”

“Tijuana.”

*  *  *

Wilma ignores my suggestion of just informing the police and letting justice make its way through the long, slow maze of the Los Angeles and Chicago law enforcement bureaucracies. She insists I have to do everything I can to track down Crazy Rodrigo’s whereabouts.  

So after flying home to L.A., I grab a shower, change clothes, and drive the two hours south to the border and Tijuana.

It’s not the safest part of Mexico these days. At times, the drug cartels engage in open warfare on its streets, with innocent bystanders serving as collateral damage. Luckily for me a Hispanic couple who run my favorite bakery prove helpful.

Using the internet, they came up with a list of every boot maker in Tijuana. Not until I enter the third one’s shop do I find what I’m looking for.

The boot maker is kind. He waves off my sorry attempt at Spanish complete with a Valley Girl accent and speaks to me in much better English than the Spanish I spoke.

“Rodrigo? I’d like to know here he is too, Senorita. I finished the size 7 boots he ordered more than a week ago. I need him to come pick them up so he can pay me.”

Sigh.

Looks like Crazy Rodrigo has:

  1. Decided to go on the run to who knows where
  2. Gone on a bender of alcohol and/or drugs somewhere here in Baja California and still hasn’t sobered up
  3. Gotten himself killed

If it’s number 3, then his dead body was most likely stripped of any identification to hinder any solving of the crime.

Sigh. Next stop, the TJPD.

Daddy told me there would be cases like this.

(More Bobbi Heck cases are available in the five-book Short Stories Series. Available at Amazon and Smashwords.)

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Bobbi Heck: The Case of the Wacky Whacker Part Two

(Copyright 2022, Stroble Family Trust.)

This case is beginning to feel more like a melodrama than a mystery to me. It appears that Melvin got a fake I.D. card when he was seventeen and living in Chicago that got him into the local jazz and blues clubs. After a night of drinking too much at one of them, Melvin wound up in the car of a college student who also had too much to drink. She wound up pregnant and Melvin in a whole lot of trouble.

His family called her white trash. I’m sure her family had more than one ugly word they called Melvin. Another case of your sin will find you out, as the Good Book says.

Because of their different economic statuses and races, marriage was out of the question. Last thing Melvin heard before he left Chicago, Wilma planned to put the baby up for adoption. Decades later, Douglas, now almost sixty, reappeared and tracked down his mother, who now lives in a quiet suburb north of Chicago.

I say goodbye to Melvin on my front sidewalk. Now he seems more interested in the huge boat on a trailer parked in front of his car than me. He nods approvingly as he caresses its motor, which has to be more powerful than the one in my car.

“This boat looks a lot like the one that Lloyd Bridges had on his TV show Sea Hunt,” Melvin says. “At the end of each episode, he would drive it across a huge bay out toward the ocean. You don’t know how much I wanted to go with him so I could escape my messed-up life. Living out here in L.A. with my aunt and uncle was no fun. They watched me like hawks. So, I joined the Navy as soon as I turned eighteen and docked in Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia…”

He smiles.

“The Navy made me a machinist’s mate. It turned my life around because I learned enough to become a mechanic once I got out.”

*  *  *

A couple days later I feel well enough to try and find out who killed Melvin’s and Wilma’s son Douglas. The COVID pandemic and my lack of cases have kept me away from the main office of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department for almost two years. Judging by all of the new faces, it looks like what I’ve been reading is true. Most of the older guys and gals who worked out of here have evidently either quit or retired or taken a law enforcement job in a place where the judges and politicians are more concerned about those who keep the law than those who break it.

Who can blame them? Why keep risking your life for ungrateful people who want to defund the departments you work for?

Maybe this is my lucky day. Even though I wound up with a newbie who I have never met before, the detective involved with the case is more than helpful. She tells me everything I need to know.

For instance: Douglas Weston’s last permanent address was an apartment in Chicago. He had stayed at his motel here in L.A. one night and had started on a second one when his murderer entered his room sometime in the early morning hours of June 5th and put a bullet into his brain and another one through his heart. Most importantly, I now have the name of the private investigator Douglas hired here in L.A.

P.I. Paul Yee sounds old school. His phone’s land line is hooked up to an answering machine, something I have not encountered since the last century.

“Hello, Mr. Yee. My name is Bobbi Heck. I’m a P.I. trying to help the parents of one of your clients get some closure. His name is Douglas –”

A voice interrupts my message.

“Bobbi Heck? Are you by any chance related to a private eye named Roland Heck?”

Turns out my dad helped Paul Yee get established when he opened an office next to Chinatown during the 1970s. Seems Mr. Yee believes he still owes Dad for that. He buys me lunch. I must be completely over whatever put me flat on my back last week. I order a nice sirloin steak, salad, and baked potato the size of one of those nerf footballs.

Mr. Yee tells me what he knows about the deceased.

“Douglas had to be the most desperate client I ever have helped, Ms. Heck. He claimed it was a matter of life and death that he track down the father he had never met. All he knew was that his father’s name was Melvin and that he lived somewhere here in Los Angeles. He claimed that even his mother did not know Melvin’s last name. To speed up our search, he followed my suggestion and sent a DNA sample to one of those ancestry companies. We got a hit from one of his half-sisters who had given her DNA to the same company. Douglas was so excited after I gave him his father’s full name and address that he said he would be catching the next plane from Chicago to here.”

Paul Yee sighs, the kind born of the sort of strangeness only P.I.s like he and I encounter.

“It’s funny in a way. I only dealt with Douglas by phone and never got a chance to meet him in person. I’m just glad the credit card number he gave me still worked and paid my bill for his case after he got murdered. The card’s number stopped working a day later when I tried to bill it for the mileage I had put on my car for the case. I had forgotten all about that expense until I got my gas credit card statement in the mail. You know how it is these days with gas prices almost up to $8 a gallon at some stations.”

*  *  *

Maybe Douglas was either hurting for money or low class when it came to motels. This dump he spent his last couple of nights in looks like one- or two-star rating at best. Even worse, the desk clerk isn’t saying much of anything.

Until I slip a couple of twenties to him. After that, he proves much more helpful.

“Good thing you showed up here when you did, Ms. Heck,” he says. “The security tapes get wiped clean once in a while. The one you want to see would have been gone by next week.”

I have to watch three or four hours’ worth of video before I see a medium built figure walk toward the room Douglas stayed in, take about ten seconds to enter it by using some kind of tool, and then exit a minute later. Whoever it is was showed little skin, mostly just bare hands and patches of face. Oversized sunglasses and a beard cover most of the round face. Because the video is black and white, determining exact skin color is iffy. My guess is not very white or black, but somewhere in between. Probably a shade of brown.

Only one other thing stands out about this suspect. His boots. They have got to be the narrowest, most sharp pointed pair of boots I’ve ever seen. Now I wish I had been called in on this case right after the murder. If only I could have gotten the impression of those boots’ soles on the room’s carpet…Next best thing to fingerprints. The way it was raining the night of the murder, the killer would have left some tracks.

As far as fingerprints? The sheriff’s CSI crew found so many in that room, that it confirms my hunch this is the kind of place that gets new sheets and towels after a customer checks out and not much more in the way of cleaning.

I thank the clerk for his help, even though it was reluctant at best. Dad used to say it best: Money talks. B.S. walks.  

In the P.I. business, money is what solves more cases than I care to admit.

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Bobbi Heck: The Case of the Wacky Whacker Part One

(Copyright 2022, Stroble Family Trust.)

Is this how people who catch the Corona Virus feel before they die? Or is this how they feel when they are destined to recover and live another ten, twenty, forty or Lord only knows how many more years?

Now, I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t gone to the pharmacy and gotten the free COVID testing kits. Ignorance is bliss. More and more, I’m becoming convinced that it might be better not to know if I have COVID, a cold, the flu, or some kind of new virus they haven’t even come up with a name for yet. The newest thing I saw on the internet was that viruses keep on mutating even after they invade your body. What if that means I caught the Corona Virus but the version I have has mutated to the point that these home test kits won’t detect it?

Detect it. Ha! That’s a good one. Since I’m a private detective with decades of experience, maybe I can transition into being a virus detective. No, that sounds too icky. Viral detective sounds better. Of course, I’ll have to get some new business cards printed that read:

Bobbi Heck

Private Virus Detective and Contact Tracer

For your peace of mind let me trace back your illness to its point of origin

Forty-two years old, but feeling twice that age, Bobbi Heck swabbed the inside of each of her nostrils and then deposited part of what clung to the cotton swab into the section of the testing kit built to house viruses, whether deadly, benign, or indifferent, all according to the instructions. Then she waited. For fifteen minutes, once again, per the pamphlet. When the results read Negative, she waited another ten minutes and read the results again.

Negative? Again?

Well, that’s a relief. I must be carrying just some run of the mill virus. You know, the type of virus that Mom and Dad used to call the 24-hour, 48-hour, or 72-hour flu.

Wham bam, thank you kind flu cooties of yesteryear. That was when life seemed so much easier than the 21st Century version none of us seem to be able to escape. Wow, I just realized that I have lived more years in this millennium than I did during the last one.

How I miss you kinder, gentler versions of ailments that afflict humans everywhere, no matter how rich or poor or what skin color we carry around. Oh great. Now the doorbell is ringing. I knew I should have hung up my Sick. Do not disturb sign before I took that COVID test.  

Ordinarily, I would check my security camera before opening the front door. But these times are anything but ordinary. Besides it’s afternoon, when the bell rings because a UPS, FedEx, the U.S. mail, or some other delivery service employee is letting me know their extra special delivery has arrived. For all I know, the Grim Reaper is standing on my doorstep to tell me it’s time to go stand before the Judgment Seat of Jesus.

What…

A lady old enough to be my mom is standing there. She’s wearing one of those Corona Virus protective masks that look like a bird’s beak. I sure hope my sign will scare her away. I’ll just wave it in her face before I tape it to the door.

“You’re sick?” she asks. Well at least her bird’s beak mask matches her voice. She sounds like an old crow down to its last hundred caw caws. “Have you lost your mind, young lady? Don’t you know L.A. and all of its surrounding communities have COVID-19 infection and death rates that are currently at record levels?”

I do an about face to hang my sign. And hide my rising anger. Then I extend my hand toward this stranger for a more formal greeting, which make her backtrack two steps.

“As you can see, you caught me at my worst. I really need to go back inside and lie down.”

“Before you do, I need your help…please.”

I study her outfit. It is one of the latest styles for pantsuits. But because it looks to be about a size too large, I’m guessing she bought it second hand at a Goodwill or Salvation Army store for a fraction of what it cost new. And the wrinkles her mask are not hiding tell me this poor woman has been around the block one too many times.

Now, tears are running down onto and underneath her mask. No way to know for sure if they are genuine or the crocodile variety because that huge mask is hiding too much of her face. For all I know, she is grinning underneath the mask because she thinks she can take me for being a fool.

I sigh. I shrug. I hold out both hands, palms up and shrug again. But either this woman has no clue about reading body language or else she’s just flat out ignoring mine.

“Please, Bobbi. Melvin said you’re the only one who can help me out.”

“Melvin? As in Melvin my mechanic?”

“Yes.”

My knees are getting wobbly and head is beginning to spin.

“Tell you what. The inside of my home is like a petri dish full of germs. I can’t afford a HEPA filter so you coming inside would be like playing Russian roulette for you. Why don’t we instead talk by phone? I’ll go back inside and stretch out on my couch before I pass out. You can sit in that lawn chair over there. I leave it out for better times when I can watch the sunrise.”

I try and hand her my phone but she refuses to take it.

“But how are you going to call me if you don’t scan my phone number?”

“Melvin gave me your phone number. I tried calling it two or three times after I went by your office earlier. All I got was your voice message.”

“My office? I had to shut it down about four months into the COVID pandemic because business dried up so much. Did Melvin give you my home address, too?”

“No. A nice lady who is the receptionist next to the office that used to be yours gave me your address. She said she only knew it because you had given it to her in case the post office kept on delivering mail to it.”

Thanks a bunch, Grace. I thought I explained to you how dangerous it is for private investigators like me to have their home addresses get into the hands of anyone, including customers. Too many wackos out and about these days. Guess I’ll have to drop by and explain it to you all over again after I get back on my feet. At least I don’t have to kick Melvin’s butt. That’s what I told him I’d do if he ever gave out my home address.

“Okay, okay, you win. I’ll turn on my phone after I lay down. Give me a minute and you can go ahead and call me. Just remember that this is your lucky day.”

“Huh?”

“If you had been a total stranger, I wouldn’t be helping you. But since you know Melvin, you’re a friend of a friend. Melvin was the one who taught me that you always help your friends out. Come Hell or high water, don’t ever shut the door in their face.

*  *  *

Why are so many bells ringing? This is worse than the time in high school I had to memorize a stanza of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells. Not only that. I also had to stand up and recite it to our English class. I still wonder if my hamming it up was the reason our English teacher gave me a D grade for that assignment.

Oh. Guess I was dreaming about that again.

Hello, Bobbi. It’s 2022, not 1997.

It’s just my phone and the doorbell playing a duet for me. I stumble toward the front door while I answer my phone. It takes me longer than usual to answer whoever won’t stop phoning because I have to open the two deadbolts and lock for the door knob at the same time.

“Hello?” I finally say.

“Bobbi, would you please open your front door?”

The voice belongs to Melvin, my dad’s and my mechanic for as long as I can remember.

“It’s hot out here. This drought is frying my brains. Please let me in.”

I open the door and there is Melvin. He grunts as he picks up a huge cardboard box with what looks like a crockpot in it. Two loaves of French bread are alongside it. Real food. It’s been forever. Because I don’t step out of the way, Melvin almost knocks me over as he hurries into my kitchen.

By the time I get there, the crockpot is on my kitchen counter and plugged in. The smell of chicken soup reminds me again that my last real meal was three days ago.

“You got the COVID?” Melvin asks as he forms a cross by joining his two index fingers.

“I’m good. My home test says I don’t.” I plop down into a kitchen chair.

“Well, that’s good news. No sense in me catching it and dying until I get you to take care of business for me. It would be nice to leave this world with at least a little bit less guilt nagging me all the way to my grave.”

“Huh?”

“I thought Wilma was already here to explain everything to you. She called and left me a message saying so.”

A blurry image of the woman wearing clothes not her size appears in my head.

“Wilma?”

“You know. Wilma Fernandez.”

“Oh, yeah. Now I remember her name. Forgive me, Melvin, but my mind is running at no more than 20 percent of normal. She seemed super paranoid about catching the Corona Virus from me so I talked to her by phone while I crashed on the couch and she sat outside. All I can remember is something about her son coming out here to L.A. for a visit and him getting murdered at some motel. She said she has already been to the cops but her son’s case has gone cold. She said you said I could help her out.”

“Meanwhile, people want to defund the police. Go figure. That’s it? That’s all she told you?”

I shrug.

“That’s all I remember, Melvin. I still don’t understand why you sent her to me. There are tons of other private eyes around L.A. I haven’t been this sick since I was a kid. I must have passed out while she was talking to me.”

“Yeah. She said you sounded like a zombie.”

Melvin stops stirring the soup he brought me. No doubt it has carrots, celery, onions, garlic, and rice mixed in with the chunks of chicken. Melvin’s secret recipes have revived me more than once.

“You got to understand something, Bobbi. It ain’t just Wilma who has a reason to want her son’s murder to get solved. I got some skin in this game, too.”

“But –”

“I was Douglas’s father.”

Melvin is avoiding my gaze. Probably because he’s embarrassed by all the tears starting to run down his cheeks.

“I guess I still am. Even though he’s dead. If only…”

I keep my mouth shut, a skill my dad taught me when he passed everything that he knew about being a private investigator down to me. It always amazes me how often being quiet is best. It doesn’t matter if I’m listening to a client, a friend, or even a stranger who I’ll probably never see again.

“…if only I had invited him to stay with me at my place instead of sending him back to that fleabag motel of his. Then none of this mess would have happened.”

*  *  *

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Pow-wow of the Minds

(Copyright 2022, Stroble Family Trust. Adapted from The Wolf Is Crying to Be Heard and stories told to me by Native Americans, especially Randy, a half-Apache who taught me about fearing God.)

After Chris returned to the Richmond farm, Hank Richmond suggested that Sunday was a good day for his best friend to visit Gray Wolf.

Half-Shawnee and half-white, Gray Wolf had avoided the removal suffered by most Shawnee from Ohio to reservations further west in the 1820s when his white father grudgingly took his full-blooded Shawnee common law wife and him to Kentucky. Now eighty, Gray Wolf lived alone in a rundown cabin about a mile from Hank’s cabin. While Hank described Chris’s dream of the deer that spoke to him, Gray Wolf filled his long-stemmed pipe. He lit it, puffed it three times, and passed it to Hank. The pipe continued in a circle between the three. Each time it went out, the host refilled and relit it.

A strange dreamlike state gripped each smoker.

“It is sad,” Gray Wolf said. “My brother wolves no more speak to me with their howling. They are all gone because the white man killed them in these parts. But sometimes I dream of them. They tell me they are crying to be heard when they howl.” He paused to puff the pipe. “Do you believe what the deer told you in your dream?”

“I…I don’t know. Am I supposed to?” Chris asked.

“That is for you to decide. But remember one thing. The deer came to your dream as your friend. If he had come as your enemy, he would have killed you with his antlers and sharp hooves. I once had a dream where a bear tried to slay me but my brother and sister wolves came and saved me.”

On the way home everything appeared to move in slow motion and be out of proportion to Chris. Colors seemed more vibrant. He wondered if Gray Wolf was a shaman and had cast a spell on him.

“Do you feel funny? Things don’t look right.” He pointed at the landscape.

“Sort of. Gray Wolf likes to mix hemp with the tobacco. He uses only the female plants and says it gives the tobacco a kick.”

A quarter hour later, Hank found only his wife Rose still awake.

“Out having a party time with your pal Chris?” Before her husband could answer, Rose continued. “I bet you two went on over to Gray Wolf’s place.”

“Uh, how’d you know that?”

“I can smell Gray Wolf’s marijuana all over your clothes and hair. How much did you guys smoke?”

“Probably about as much as the laudanum you down every time you take a swig of one of your tonics. Don’t you know those cures they claim to get people to buy that junk are phony? And just because they’re legal doesn’t mean they’re any good for you. Sometimes it seems you can’t get through the day without taking at least three or four drinks of them.”

Rose made a face at the man she sometimes loved to hate.

“Listen to Mr. High and Mighty. Next thing you know, he’ll be preaching a full-length sermon at me. What are you trying to do? Take our pastor’s place?”

She walked to the kitchen and found her favorite brand of legal tonic. Such brews had made older white women into most of their day’s opium addicts. She downed the remaining third of a bottle in two gulps. Twenty minutes later, she sprawled across the kitchen floor.

Unable to revive Rose, Hank hurried to a back bedroom and awoke their first child.

“I got to take your momma over to Gray Wolf’s place. She’s ailing something fierce. I’ll be back as quick as I can. Okay?”

“Yeah, Daddy. Please hurry on back home.”

“I will,” Hank said as he tucked the sleepyhead back under the covers.

He walked to the barn and returned to the house with their two best horses. After laying a blanket across one horse’s back, he lifted his still unconscious wife and hung her limp body across the blanket. He tied her wrists to her ankles tightly enough to keep her from sliding off the mare’s back. But not tight enough to cut off her circulation to her hands and feet.

To cut their travel time, Hank skipped the comfort of a saddle. Instead, he rode bareback. Soon, the awkward procession followed the trail leading toward Gray Wolf’s home. The backbone of the stud he rode cut into Hank’s backside. At times, the pain made him almost lose his grip on the reins of the horse carrying his still silent wife.

Hank prayed until a dim light in the window of the room next to Gray Wolf’s porch brought forth a Thank You, Lord from Hank’s troubled soul. Sure, there had been plenty of opium dens back there in New York City. But moving back here to the hills of eastern Kentucky had left all that sort of addiction behind.

Or had it?

Hank wondered where his country was headed.

“Probably to hell in a handbasket,” he said aloud in lieu of a curse.

Gray Wolf met them with a lantern held above his head on the front porch.

“Why are you back so soon, friend?” asked Gray Wolf.

“Rose drank down all her remaining Kickapoo juice at once,” Hank answered. “Can you help me out?”

“Bring her over to the lodge.”

Gray Wolf stepped off the porch and led the way to the wooden structure he had built decades earlier. Then he had used it to purify his body. Now, he hoped using it could cleanse Rose to the point she could stop drinking what Gray Wolf called the white man’s firewater from Hell.

The lodge stood four feet high. Supple saplings had been bent to form a rounded top by burying their ends in the hard soil. A hide from a buffalo shot by his father covered the lodge’s only entry. While Hank untied his wife to carry her inside the lodge, Gray Wolf started a fire in the pit at the center of the lodge’s dirt floor. By the time Rose settled onto a second buffalo hide, the fire roared.

Hank went outside to water the horses at the creek running behind Gray Wolf’s cabin. He found an area where as much grass as moss grew and left the horses to graze. Back on Gray Wolf’s porch, Hank leaned his back against the rough logs that kept most of the weather from the cabin’s interior. Weary, he dozed.

The sound of Grey Wolf’s footsteps treading the porch awoke him an hour later.

“How is Rose?” Hank asked.

“She has sweated much,” Grey Wolf answered. “You could help by refilling my buckets with water from the creek. Much steam is needed from the rocks next to the fire burning by your woman. The steam will help her sweat the poison from her body.”

Hank stood to obey.

“But only your Great Holy Spirit can sweat the poison from her soul. When you return, we will pray.”

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The Pitfalls of SRP aka Sibling Rivalry Problems

(Copyright 2022 Stroble Family Trust)

Facing life is hard. But it becomes even more challenging when you have one or more siblings that life introduces you to.

Take the first pair of siblings, for instance. Cain was Adam and Eve’s first son; Abel their second. Abel pleased their Creator but Cain did not. Although God warned Cain that sin is crouching at your door and that he could overcome it, the elder brother paid no heed. Instead, he lured Abel out into the countryside and murdered him. Lifetime disastrous results followed for Cain.

Hundreds of years later, Joseph faced an even worse form of Sibling Rivalry Problems when almost all of his eleven brothers wanted to kill him. Why? Because Joseph had foolishly told them and their parents his prophetic dreams, which foretold of his family bowing down to honor him. Only the eldest brother Reuben tried to save Joseph. But before he could rescue his little brother, the others had sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt. Just as bad, they drenched Joseph’s garment in blood, brought it to their father, and lied, claiming, “Joseph has been slain by a wild beast.”

The rest of the Old Testament is filled with Sibling Rivalry Problems, especially among the royal families who led Israel and its breakaway kingdom Judah.

Little has changed until this present day. During our growing up years, I and my two brothers and one sister endured our fair share of Sibling Rivalry Problems. I also saw such problems in other families.

But not until five years ago did I finally begin to understand the pain that SRP can cause. My father had passed away In Jordan, where he and my mom had lived the last sixteen and a half years of his 91-year life. I flew there and tried to help my sister with plans for our mom.

On the return flight of Aqaba to Amman to Frankfurt to San Francisco to Sacramento, fog rolled in and shrouded the Amman airport. We sat waiting in our assigned seats until the pilot informed us that our flight, along with the three scheduled before ours, had all been cancelled. I sensed something was up as far as God’s Divine Providence goes when the pilot told us that flights cancelled by fog at Amman’s modern airport “only happens two or three times a year.”

God’s Providence became even clearer when we were assigned rooms at the airport’s hotel. While many other passengers had to share a room with three beds and two other strangers, I and another passenger wound up in a three-bed room without the inconvenience of sharing it with a third stranger. My roommate and I got past small talk and into family matters. Turned out no matter how much he had reached out to his two brothers; they had shunned him. He had given up on any chance of reconciliation.

You could tell by the expression on his face and tone in his voice that he was wounded, bleeding from his soul because of the rejection.

All of which caused me to take inventory of my own Sibling Rivalry Problems. (Our brother John drowned while trying to save his friend in 1982, so that has left me with a younger sister and younger brother). It seems that the older we get, the more complicated life becomes. Plans get made, someone gets left out. Immediate family needs crowd out attempted reunions because of the hundreds of miles separating me from my brother and the almost two thousand miles of separation from my sister.

But somehow, the tougher things get, the more Sibling Rivalry Problems seem to fade away.

Thank God.

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Another Saturday Night at the Gasthaus

(Copyright 2022, Stroble Family Trust. Adapted from Fool’s Gold and stories told to me by distant relatives in West Germany during 1974.)

The rooster in charge of the barnyard crowed as loudly on Saturday morning as the other six days of the week.  Always strong enough to awaken Thomas Schmidt, no matter how hard he toiled the day before. Seventeen years old but with the build of a full-grown man, Thomas rolled out of bed and dressed. He made little noise.

Best not to awaken his two sisters. They might continue with their seemingly nonstop questions for him:

When are you getting married?

Is it really true that you are smitten with the Gasthaus owner’s daughter?

Why do you always argue with Father?

Will you be the first one of our family to go to university?

Splashing tepid water from a large wash basin onto his grimy face revived Thomas somewhat. His mother Marta’s breakfast, especially her dark, strong coffee, would complete the task.

“Good morning, Mother,” Thomas said as he sat down at the large walnut table that once had seated five children and their parents. With Thomas’s two older brothers married and gone, the table now felt more comfortable.

Snores from an adjoining bedroom told Thomas his father had made it home from his weekly Friday night visit to the Gasthaus.

“Did Father get home late last night?” Thomas asked.

Marta sighed, the kind known only to women who have been married going on three decades. “Of course. He stayed at the Gasthaus until it closed, which he always does. He smelled so much of beer and bratwurst and smoke that I called him a drunken cow. He seemed stunned for a moment. But then he shrugged and grunted. I think he was fast asleep before his head hit his pillow.”

As he gobbled down his mother’s fried eggs, sausage, and dark black bread, Thomas calculated whether to get as many of his chores finished before his father awoke and ate breakfast or to take them slowly and easily.

Best take it easy or Father will surely find other things for me to do. Then I shall be too tired to enjoy my time at the Gasthaus tonight.

 *  *  *

Ludwig I ruled the Kingdom of Bavaria, homeland of the Schmidt family for hundreds of years. Its impatient younger generation wanted the states of the German Confederation to at last become a nation. They cared little whether it took a revolution. Had not both France and America had their revolutions about fifty years ago? Why did Germany have to be so slow about it?

*  *  *

“If I smell your mother’s schnitzel and potato soup much longer, I will pass out from hunger,” said Thomas’s father, Helmut.

Thomas stripped off his cotton shirt, now a darker color because of the sweat clogging its fibers than when he had put it on ten hours earlier. Having had a two-hour head start of working before his father joined him, Thomas could not contain his joy.

“Wonderful!”

He slapped his firm stomach as if it were a conga drum.

“Never in my lifetime has my stomach been so empty. I hope Mother made very large portions for us.”

“Are you going to the Gasthaus tonight, son?”

“Yeah. You go every Friday night. I go every Saturday night.”

“Do not tell your mother this but she and I had a talk about you. You know how wives can be. She has worn me down with her arguing to let you have more than one beer with your Saturday supper, if you give up going to the Gasthaus. She said you can have as many as want if –”

“I don’t go to the Gasthaus only to drink. I must visit there with all my friends.”

“Uh, yes. But she is afraid you will drink too much and make one of the girls from the village become with child and…” he punctuated his warning with a shrug.

Thomas stifled a curse. He knew[SS1]  what was coming.

“…then you would have to marry her. Try to be like your older brothers. One married at twenty, the other at twenty-two.”

Thomas pondered how to answer. After a few moments of silence, he spoke.

“Okay Father, I will not make any girl with child until after we marry. I promise. But please understand that I have to the Gasthaus to spend time with my friends. While we all are at school, the teachers are so strict. We are allowed no fun.”

“I understand.”

Helmut sighed. “I’ll give just have to have another little talk with your mother about all this. Promise me one thing, though.”

“What””

“That you will pray for me that I will say the right words so that your mother can somehow stop her worrying about you all of the time. Of all our five children, she cares about you most of all. Maybe that is the blessing reserved for the child born in the middle?”

Or the curse, thought Thomas.

*  *  *

Not quite three kilometers from the Schmidt household, the village Gasthaus lay in wait in a central location for its surrounding farms. Thomas opted not to take an easy shortcut through the woods. Instead, he trod the dirt roads. As he walked, friends from his school joined him for what most of them considered the highlight of their otherwise dreary week – shedding their prim and proper German manners and traditions at the combination tavern and eatery.

By the time they reached the wooden hall capable of hosting upwards of 200 revelers, Thomas and his friends panted through parched throats. As always, it appeared to be another stag night. The girls and women the boys knew preferred to gather at one of the village’s three churches: Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed.

During the Sunday morning services, it fell to the mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers to jab elbows into the ribs of the males of their family who had drunk too much at the Gasthaus the night before. Otherwise, their raspy snores embarrassed all who heard them.

As usual, those Thomas’s age settled in at one of the long tables onto benches as sturdy as the decades’ old tables. The older men settled into smaller groups. The younger generation commented on the girls who served the beer. Their elders talked business. Some worried about slacking sales at their businesses. Others fretted about the weather, which is every farmer’s concern. Too much rain at the wrong time and the crop is ruined. Too little and withers and dies.

After an hour of many beers downed, the patriarch of the village raised his voice. Out of respect, everyone else quieted down.  

“A toast to the great Ludwig I, ruler of our beloved Bavaria,” said the elder as he raised his stein heavenward. Flushed with the potent alcohol deadening his inhibitions, Thomas stood and stumbled to the head of the table where the village’s oldest man held court.

“But when will the German states at last unite so we can be a nation?” Thomas asked.

The patriarch’s head jerked, as if his wrinkled and bearded face had been slapped. “Become a nation like our neighbor France?” he asked. “And where were you when Napoleon invaded our land and killed our people?”

Thomas hated how adults always seemed to turn any such questions as his latest to their advantage.

 “I…I…” was all he could stammer.

“And where were you when the Romans carried our ancestors away from our homeland almost 2,000 years ago?” His forehead’s veins bulged as the old man slammed his stein onto the table. Beer erupted from it, slowly settling as foamy lava pouring down the stein’s sides. “Bah! How can I expect you to understand how the Romans forced our ancestors into being slaves? Do you even know where those slaves went?”

Thomas stared at his leather boots. “Rome?” he asked.

“Ha! Our ancestors ended up scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Some rowed the Romans’ ships used for war and trade. They were chained to their oars. If the ship sank, they went to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea or Atlantic Ocean or wherever else the Romans sailed with it. Others toiled in the Romans’ fields or kitchens. I imagine the fairest German girls were sold as concubines or harlots. The lucky few German slaves who became gladiators could at least die an early death in one of those pagans’ coliseums.”

After the old man turned his fiery glare from Thomas to his beer stein, he blushed. He motioned for one of the pretty servers.

“Another round of beer for everyone, on me. It seems my stein has gone dry.”

Thomas used the distraction to slink out the door. The cool night air revived him somewhat. He joined the oldest and toughest boys from his school.

“Once again Thomas let himself be made a fool of,” said the largest boy, an oaf whose fists outweighed his brain.

The others snickered. Their glee stoked a fresh onslaught of taunts, which soon degenerated into Thomas being called various animal names. Being labeled Swinehund snapped Thomas’s will. Without warning, he punched the tormentors’ leader in the nose. Rivers of blood poured from the smashed nostrils. The bully screamed, cursed, and screamed again.

“I’ll kill you,” he yelled as he headbutted Thomas’s ribs, stomach, and intestines, sending Thomas to resting flat on his back, where he stared at the stars in the heavens and those caused by his pain.

After staggering to his feet, Thomas landed a lucky punch to the blowhard’s jaw. The five beers drunk by the bully earlier that evening became Thomas’s allies as they helped him hit the ground with a dull thud. When he did not arise, one of the boys ran to him and shook the still body. He held a hand high and waved it.

“Gunther is bleeding from the back of his head because it landed on a large rock.” He pointed a bloody finger at Thomas. “Thomas killed him.”

Thomas backpedaled from the throng who rushed to get a closer look at Gunther. Unable to produce movement or sound from the motionless body, one boy leapt to his feet. He paced in frantic circles with arms raised above his head.

“Someone go get the village policeman. Gunther really is dead.”

Thomas wheeled about and sprinted for the one place he might find refuge, even if merely temporary, from Bavaria’s legal system — home.


 [SS1]

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What Smells?

(From Perseverance, Short Stories Book 1, Copyright 2022 Stroble Family Trust)

What Smells?

Curbside garbage pickup happened every Wednesday for residents on South Pinedale Avenue in Banderville.

It was also the day Cara Husky had to babysit her little sister while their mother worked her shift as a nurse at Banderville Memorial Hospital. Cara was glad her mom last month had cut back to part time work hours. But that still meant two twelve-hour shifts, one during daytime on Wednesday and the other on Saturdays, Sundays, or holidays, when Dad had to assume the role of babysitter.

On this Wednesday morning, Cara wished summer vacation would hurry up and end so she could return to a routine of high school while an aunt or grandparent took over Wednesday babysitting of Hope.

Not that Cara minded watching Hope.

But she often wished three year olds came with a switch to shut off or at least power down what Cara called an infinite supply of energy. All this morning Hope had toddled around both floors of the dwelling. After she had reached into cabinets, drawers, and bookcases, the house appeared as if a flood had washed through its interior and removed items from their intended places and left them strewn about the floor after the waters had receded.

It had taken two snacks, three children’s TV programs, and five stories before Cara could coax Hope into her room and sing her to sleep for a nap by humming lullabies. Her little sister tucked away in bed, Cara cleared a path from the bedroom she shared with Hope to the kitchen. There, a pile of dirty breakfast dishes and utensils waited.

“Ugh. Why does Dad have to always have his bacon fried to a crisp?” Cara wondered out loud as she rubbed a scouring pad on the bits of meat and fat that seemed to have melded onto a greasy cast iron skillet. Scrubbing it and the stainless steel pan in which half a dozen eggs had been fried in canola oil distracted Cara enough so she did not hear Hope awake and wander toward the front door of their split level home. Because of the summer heat, Cara had left the solid core wooden front door open, with only a screen door keeping out the flies looking for an opening to a supply of food and the buzzing mosquitos hungry and hunting for humans’ fresh warm blood.

The screen door sat ajar enough for tiny hands to open it as Hope pushed on its aluminum frame.

Once outside, Hope lifted her arms toward the fluffy gray and white cumulus clouds hiding the sun. Then she walked across the lawn to her favorite ball and kicked and rolled it until it became wedged underneath a row of bushes dividing her front yard from a neighbor’s. As she crawled under the green shrubs to retrieve her toy, Hope heard a familiar sound, one of her favorite ones, a gigantic green and white garbage truck bouncing and lurching toward the curb thirty feet from her. Its hissing air brakes widened her hazel eyes.

Every week it performed the same trick, its magical illusion amazing Hope without fail. Down toward Earth would descend a huge metallic claw to clutch the 60-gallon plastic container full of stinky trash, anything that could not be recycled into new plastic or metallic containers or paper products or converted into reusable mulch. Up, up, up, the claw always lifted the container, no matter how full or heavy, before upending it, shaking it, and making its contents somehow disappear.

Hope was certain of the before and after condition of the garbage can because more than once she had climbed onto an overturned bucket next to where it sat on days other than Wednesdays and peered down into it to survey its contents. Every Thursday, it sat either empty or contained only a trifling of trash, the only confirmation necessary to assure her the truck’s performance yesterday had once again succeeded. Every other week, either the recyclables’ bin or yard and garden waste bin would also be empty.

Sometimes the magic truck rushed its pickup and a plastic bin would fall on its side as it returned from its journey toward the sky back to planet Earth. Even from her bedroom window, Hope had seen it had been empty as it rested sideways on the sidewalk. Often, Hope had tried to convince her parents and siblings to watch the weekly magic show with her, but they had all ignored her pointing finger.

Only her eleven-year old brother pretended to care enough to share her excitement. In response to her pointing and shouts of look, look, look! he had lifted her into a freshly emptied can and given her a ride inside of it to the side of their house. Then Cara had screamed at him until Hope came to his defense by beginning to wail, her preferred tactic to distract her older brother and sister whenever they fought.

*  *  *

After washing the dishes, Cara flipped on the television set and found a movie she thought adequate for her sophisticated tastes, maybe one good enough for her to review on her reviewer page at Amazon’s website.

Tired from a date the night before and not getting home until midnight, her father’s imposed curfew, Cara drifted off to sleep. While Cara dreamed about what August and being a sophomore might bring her way, outside on the front lawn Hope watched her favorite Wednesday entertainment.

After squeezing the overflowing trash can, the iron claw hoisted it skyward. Three quarters of the way up the truck’s side, the mechanism jammed. Hope’s mouth opened as the truck’s cursing operator exited his right side driver’s seat. Because he held a tire iron and his face resembled her daddy’s whenever he grasped such a tool, Hope scooted backward until her head touched the hedge.

The sanitary engineer climbed a ladder made of three-quarter inch thick rebar welded to the side of his truck until his face was level with the lid of the garbage bin. Then he banged on the metal chain that picked up and dumped the twenty-five to thirty dozen cans his truck lifted every shift.

“You better work now,” he said as his feet touched the concrete and he shook the tire iron at the part of his trucks always requiring the most repairs. He climbed back into the truck’s cab and pushed the control to activate the chain. When he heard the kind of groaning sound mechanical things make when their human operators expect the impossible, he leaped back onto the sidewalk and looked heavenward.

 “Come on, God. Why do I always have to get stuck with the truck that is so messed up that it can’t even finish a single shift?”

He rolled the bin containing yard waste underneath the one dangling above hm. Next, he grabbed a seven-foot long one-inch thick piece of oak from behind the driver’s seat. Standing as close to the cans as possible, he thrust his long pointer to press a control in the cab to release the metal claw.

As the freed can dropped two feet toward the top of the plastic bin under it, the driver leapt next to them and squeezed the falling can in a bear hug as the one under it tottered from side to side. He stopped the lower can’s movement by letting it bump against his hip until it stood motionless. Then he lowered the can he held to the ground.

His orange coveralls and face drenched with sweat, the driver walked to the rear of his truck and pulled a two-liter plastic bottle of root beer from his protective clothing’s largest pocket. In between gulps, he dialed his cell phone. As he waved traffic around his vehicle and explained the breakdown to his dispatcher, Hope walked to the truck and touched the bottom rung of the ladder. It looked no longer than the ones she loved to climb at the playgrounds her family took her to visit.

Her leg and arm muscles were firm from the hours spent climbing monkey bars and ladders to their tallest slides. Soon, her feet rested on the next to last steel rung of the ladder. This allowed her to bend at the waist, her pelvis resting on the ladder’s top step.

Hope was surprised by the stinky assortment of fresh garbage assaulting her eyes and nose because she had assumed the garbage she had so often seen tumble from the cans somehow disappeared. After all, her big brother had said the trucks ate the garbage to give them fuel to rumble around town and out to the dump, where they spit out anything that gave them indigestion and next went potty if need be.

A sad looking doll, dumped from her next door neighbors’ can, looked to be reaching up to Hope, so she stretched down to rescue it. Her motion propelled her into a somersault, landing her atop 138 houses’ worth of weekly trash.

Having convinced his dispatcher by saying, “I can’t pick up another can because the chain’s jammed beyond me being able to fix it,” the driver threw his empty soda bottle high into the air and yelled, “Three points, he wins the game,” as it disappeared into the truck’s storage compartment for trash. He whistled as he headed toward the dump to jettison his not quite full truck. Then, it would be back to the maintenance shop to pick up another truck to finish his route.

“Looks like a little bit of overtime,” he sang. “OT for me, how sweet can that be?”

His song and the rumbling diesel engine next to him drowned out Hope’s alternating wails and sobs, which had begun when the truck lurched forward into gear. She wondered if the truck had already decided which of the three scenarios detailed by her brother would happen to her: consumed along with the garbage all around her to power the monstrous truck, burped out by the truck at the dump, or worst of all, becoming part of what came out of the truck when it went potty.

*  *  *

Ten minutes later, the increased volume of the television as a commercial break played woke up Cara.

She stumbled to the bathroom. After splashing three cupped handfuls of cool water onto her face, she went to check on Hope. Seeing only a rumpled blanket where she had tucked Hope in, Cara began calling her name, starting with one call in a normal voice every ten seconds. After a search of her home’s every room, Cara’s voice rose in volume and her calm calls escalated from “Hope?…Hope?…Hope?…” to demanding shrieks of “Hope! Hope! Hope!”

During her second search of the house, Cara noticed the front screen door was ajar. She dashed through the front entryway using enough force to pull the top hinge of the screen door from its aluminum alloy frame. As Cara’s feet touched the concrete steps leading from the front porch to the yard, scenarios flashed through her mind, all of them starring Hope as innocent victim because of a neglectful sibling: frightened and lost, kidnapped, run over by a car, molested, murdered. The images flashing through Cara’s mind stoked the two emotions controlling her – fear and guilt.

After quick searches of front and back yards showed no sign of her little sister, Cara did what many of her age had grown up doing: she pulled out her phone from her jeans pocket and sent a tweet:

Help. My three year old sister Hope is lost. I think she is still in the neighborhood. Help me. And don’t tell my mom or she’ll kill me.

Her tweet landed on 117 phones. Within three minutes it had been forwarded to another 538 phones. Ten minutes later, the message sat in the memories of 2,639 phones. Fifty-six volunteers descended on the Husky’s home. Their frantic knocks on doors within a two-block radius produced nothing, not even a report of a sighting of Hope.

Hearing the negative results, Matthew Hennessy took charge as GIC, Geek in Charge.

First, he posted on his Facebook page:

Missing: Hope Husky, age three. Last seen on the 1800 block of South Pinedale Avenue in Banderville. If you have any information, call….

Not sure whether his army of 1,351 Facebook friends, ninety-six percent of whom lived outside of Banderville, would prove adequate for the task, Matthew next posted on What’s Happening in Banderville?, a page where local residents chatted, complained, cursed, gossiped, and too often raged about politics, religion or life in general.

Matthew smiled as he watched the genesis of what he thought would be a case of one of his posts going viral. The first comments to it appeared on Facebook within seconds and did not cease until weeks later. Two minutes later, nineteen others had shared the post to their Facebook pages. The first comments were dramatic and short:

OMG. I hope u find her.

I started searching over here on the south side of town.

Have u found her yet?

Let me know if the searchers need any sandwiches.

On the way there with my dog Roscoe, best damn tracker in the state.

Have you called 911 yet?

The last comment sent Matthew to Cara to ask her the same question.

*  *  *

It had been a routine shift for LVN Tonya Husky, caring for patients suffering from pneumonia or the flu strain she thought never fully exited the older ones it invaded until they died. Patients of all ages, who had endured the uncertainties of surgery, had tested Tonya’s patience since her shift began. At least the number born at Banderville Memorial Hospital today outnumbered those who had died in its wards – so far. She was returning to her ward after lunch in the cafeteria when her phone rang.

“This is Tonya.”

“Hi, Tonya. I just heard the news. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Because I’m almost seven hours into my shift I’m not too good at recognizing voices right about now, Tonya thought. It would help quite a bit to tell me who you are. “Who is this?” she asked, in a voice she hoped carried enough irritation to keep this intrusion as short as possible.

“Racheal.”

“Oh, hi Racheal. What do you want to help me out with?” She hoped her friend had heard how Tonya had been drafted to serve as chairwoman of her church’s craft fair. As she listened to the answer, Tonya’s expression went from bored to hysterical. “Oh, my God! My baby? I have to get home right away.”

She dropped her cell phone and ignored its bounce and slide across the tile floor. Sprinting to the nurses’ station, Tonya slowed to a trot as she passed it. “My daughter’s missing. I have to get home right now.”

The charge nurse for the ward stood and tried to utter a reassurance, but her words bounced off the door to the stairway as it slammed shut behind Tonya. She descended three flights of empty stairs in twenty-two seconds and bumped into staff and patients as she bolted across the first floor for the hospital’s main entrance. Commuting to or from her worksite took fifteen minutes most days.

Tonya made this trip home in eight minutes.

*  *  *

Tonya Husky’s body shook as she grabbed her oldest child and rocked her back and forth. Her voice trembled even more. “What happened? Where is Hope? Why didn’t you…” She stopped when she saw Cara’s eyes grow wide as her head bobbed about.

Cara’s fears and worry for the last hour gave way to tears. “I’m sorry, Mom. I fell asleep just for a little while after Hope laid down to taker her nap. When I woke up…” Cara pointed at the house, the front yard, and then toward the back yard to try and communicate the extent of her hasty search. Unable to any longer take her mother’s fingernails digging into her bare upper arms, Cara tried to wiggle free from her grasp. As Cara collapsed onto her knees, she dragged Tonya’s vise-like grip downward until their faces were inches apart.

“No…no…” Tonya stammered, not sure which level of scolding her daughter deserved or if it could even penetrate what she considered the hardest head of their five-member family. A loud cough spun Tonya’s head upward.

“Excuse me, Ma’am. I’m Officer Jorgenson. I need to ask you a few questions. Can we go inside and maybe you can have something cold to drink to help you calm back down. I know you’re pretty upset because I chased you for the last five blocks here to your house and you didn’t slow down even after I put on my lights and then my siren.”

“Are you going to give me a ticket at a time like this?” Tonya let go of Cara and wobbled as she stood.

The officer sighed.

“No. You must be the mother of the one who the dispatcher radioed us about. I just need to help you find your missing daughter, okay?” The cop started to walk to the front porch. “Maybe you should come inside, too,” he nodded at Cara after he saw a van from a local television station pull up to the curb. “It’s getting a little bit crazy out here.”

*  *  *

Fourteen blocks away, Art Pagan lifted the lid to what he called the best compost bin known to man because it has wheels and didn’t cost me a single cent. The gasses created from grass clippings, weeds, leaves, coffee grounds, and kitchen scraps knocked him backward, as if one of his friends had landed a punch to his jaw after both had had too much alcohol.

“Woeee, Jethro!” He imitated Uncle Jed, his favorite character from the television situation comedy The Beverley Hillbillies. “That sure has got to be some right powerful mulch. It’ll make Granny’s garden turn into the Garden of Eden for sure. All that’s left to do is give it one last shot in the arm.”

Art popped open a twelve-ounce can of his favorite beer and poured the brew on top of the steaming, smelly mulch. “I read in one of them there organic gardening magazines that baptizing mulch with beer gets it to cooking big time. I love the smell of rotting vegetation in the morning!”

Art slammed the lid to one of the eighty-gallon heavy duty gray plastic refuse bins the city had provided to all its residents. Into it supposedly went all yard waste, but no pet litter, meat or dairy products, disposable diapers, or other toxic materials, according to the instructions studied and adopted by the city’s Environmental Protection Department.

Art checked the date he had painted onto the can’s lid and smiled. “It’s been cooking for four weeks now. Should be ready to spread around starting sometime next week.” The sound of his phone ringing in his den sent Art inside.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Art. The radio just said they are really biting up at Lake Tuckahotha. Let’s go.”

Art’s plans of applying his freshly brewed batch of compost around his eleven fruit trees evaporated, replaced by visions of large, plump bass being reeled into his friend’s boat. “I’ll pick you up in ten minutes. We’ll take my camper and your boat. Let’s stay through Saturday. By then, the lake will be crawling with boats and the fish will all be hiding.”

“Quit jabbering and get on over here before our wives find out and try to talk us out of it like they always do.”

*  *  *

An hour later, when a breeze blew past Art’s compost bin and through an open window, his wife Nancy’s nose twitched. She had agreed to tolerate his mulch making only if he had all of it out of the bin by tomorrow because she needed it in an empty condition so she could prune her rose bushes. But he had run off to go fishing instead.

“You snooze, you lose. You fish, you wish you hadn’t instead of doing your chores,” Nancy said as she wheeled the bin to the curb fifteen minutes before the truck picking up yard waste turned onto the Pagan’s block.

Some of the smoldering batch of table scraps and yard waste had reached 172 degrees after sitting in full sun inside the closed container for twelve hours a day for weeks. It landed atop a pile of gasoline soaked newspapers, used to clean up a mess from a neighbor’s garage and which then had been tossed into his yard waste bin because of his overflowing trash can. Forty minutes later, Art’s steaming mulch ignited the newspapers as the truck holding them turned onto a bumpy, rutted dirt lane leading to the county dump.

Its driver had heard tales of garbage trucks catching on fire, the legends always taking place in a large metropolis, where anything and everything transferred from cans to the trucks, including dead bodies.

“Help! Help! My truck’s on fire.” She waved her arms as she fled the flames, which had spread downward to the branches, bushes, and weeds, until her truck’s container looked more like a volcano than a sanitary receptacle, the term a bureaucrat had coined.

*  *  *

The dump’s superintendent’s 911 phone call alerted six members of the nearest volunteer fire department, four of whom responded. By the time they arrived clinging to their fire engine, an ancient model handed down by the U.S. Forest Service, the fire had consumed all of the flammable material inside the truck’s bed. A smoldering mixture of ashes and embers remained.

It took five minutes for the fire crew to drench the residue and another five trying to convince the driver to dump her load “right here on the dirt road so we can make sure it’s completely out before we leave.” After reminding the driver of how Smoky Bear always ordered campers to drown their campfires, stir what remained, and soak them again during the public service announcements starring him, the driver obeyed.

Satisfied after every drop of water from their 1,200 gallon tank had been applied to the gooey mess, firefighter Sondra Tighe coiled one of the hoses used to fight the blaze. The glint of the setting sun’s rays reflecting off of something about 150 yards away turned Sondra’s head.

Must be a piece of metal or glass, Sondra thought. A minute later, another reflection from the same direction seemed to now be a little closer.

And moving.

She ran to the truck and grabbed the binoculars donated with the truck. What appeared to be a dirty, crying child filled the instrument’s field of vision.

“Angel, you my angel?” were the first words firefighter Sondra heard after sprinting to the tired, hungry Hope, whose silver colored hair clip had caught a descending sun’s final light for the day.

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The Lord Works in Mysterious Ways

In a few hours we will be attending our first in person church service in 3 months since the lockdown for the Corona Virus began. Have been upset over the continued restrictions to worship: we have to park at least one space away from other cars; wear a mask, have our temperature taken; and be asked: “Have you or anyone you have had contact within the last 14 days tested positive for the Corona virus? (In the last 14 days I have come in contact with hundreds of people. It is impossible to answer this question as people might be contagious BEFORE testing positive).
Do you have a cough, fever or any other symptoms of Covid-19?
In the last 24 hours have you had a fever and taken aspirin, Tylenol or any other fever reducing medication?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, we cannot allow you to come into the sanctuary”….Once inside, we cannot touch any of the Bibles or hymnals in the pew racks. We cannot sing any hymns or pray because it would spread any virus. (I thought the masks were supposed to prevent that?) We have to leave the service immediately after it ends and can have no contact with any other worshipper. The authorities will evaluate in 3 weeks whether to lift the restrictions, which also allow no more than 25% of capacity or 100 worshippers to attend, whichever is less….Meanwhile, authorities have let hundreds of thousands of demonstrators loot, set fires, attack and shoot others. They violated every protocol for not spreading Covid-19. Yesterday on the news, I saw demonstrators at the state capitol throwing bottles of water without caps at the police protecting the building, which soaked them with the water, a perfect way to spread viruses on their targets…In 3 weeks, guess who authorities will blame for the increased number of Corona Virus? Those who attended church….All this had severely depressed me until I had what my former boss Dave used to call “a come to Jesus meeting.” I remembered that “God works all things together for good” for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose…Those hundreds of thousands of protestors nationwide have unleashed COV-19 with such a vengeance that our nation will finally get a herd immunity, which will help protect us from future waves of the virus. Remember what Joseph said to his brothers who sold him into slavery, ” you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”…..The Lord works in mysterious ways.

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Grocery Shopping During Lockdown

For the past 20 years I’ve shopped once a week for groceries at 6 a.m. to avoid bumping into other carts and waiting in long lines. Currently, I shop at three different stores because each one carries items the other two do not, and other items at better prices than the other two. Hitting each of them only once every three weeks helps keep our diets varied, too.

Today was the week to shop at Smart and Final. I yelped with joy when I saw only about five cars in the parking lot. I grumbled when I read the sign taped to the front door. “As of March 15th our new hours are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m….” So I hurried over to Food4Less because they are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The sign on their door told of new hours starting at 8 a.m. “As of March 15th…”

Drove across the street to Wal-Mart, which had publicized new hours of 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Lots of cat food and litter. No toilet paper. Found a milk and a soy milk. No low-fat or nonfat yogurt. No bread. No brown rice. Grabbed the last two boxes of Rice-a-roni. None of the large jars of natural peanut butter, only a few small ones. The kinds of cornbread and cocoa we buy were gone. Bought more expensive cornbread that bragged about “natural ingredients.” Lots of packages of the brand of burritos my wife and kids like.

Tons of frozen vegetables and fruit. Tons of fresh produce.  Cereal aisle had a handful of boxes and only three small boxes of bran cereal at almost $4 a box.

Now you’re really making me mad, I thought. Not only are you going to have an upset customer on your hands, the next time I come in here you’re going to have a constipated one. As I walked away, a couple of boxes on the back of the top shelf, which sat higher than my six foot height, caught my eye. Two boxes of generic bran flakes, less than $2 a box. Started feeling regular again after I stood on the bottom shelf to reach them.

Hurried home and unloaded the groceries. Drafted my wife to help me shop at Smart and Final. Got there a few minutes before 8 a.m. and there was a line of people with so many carts that only one empty sat near the door. As I snagged it, an employee asked if I was a senior and if so, he needed to see I.D. He let us in the store.

No bread. My wife found some yeast. Looks like it might be only homemade bread for a while. No frozen chicken. Lots of nonfat and low-fat yogurt. Tons of fresh produce. Tons of frozen vegetables and fruit. (Is this your way of telling me to shift from the mostly carbs and protein diet I eat to one with mostly vegetables and fruit, Lord?)

Saw the produce manager and asked him if he’s ever seen anything like this. He said only one July 4th was “sort of like this” and he’s been working produce a long time. Told him I appreciated the store letting “us seniors come in first.”

He said, “We have to. Yesterday the old people in here were getting run over. I saw one old lady get pushed out of the way and told the customer who pushed her, ‘you can’t do that.'” Thanked him for doing what he does.

At checkout, the cashier said there was no bread and some other items because the warehouse for them is down in San Jose, which is in one of the six San Francisco Bay counties under lockdown so severe it is affecting outgoing deliveries.

Can hardly wait until next Wednesday, which is my regularly scheduled day to shop at Food4Less.

Whoever said being a senior doing grocery shopping isn’t an adventure?

 

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The Fixer

“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m as serious as a heart attack, which is what you’re probably going to have if you don’t relax. Calm down and don’t take it so hard.”

The favorite candidate for a vacant U.S. House of Representatives seat shuffled through the compromising photos and written allegations against him. So far, his political career had been stellar, a series of unbroken successes. Four years on the city council, then five years spent as a county supervisor, followed by another seven years in the state legislature. Next stop – Washington D.C.

Then this young punk had shown up unannounced.

The candidate ran his fingers through his perfectly trimmed, blow-dried shiny brown hair, a habit he reserved for whenever he became nervous. His hazel eyes grew darker as he smoldered with anger.

“Who put you up to this blackmail?”

“That is immaterial,” answered the unwelcome guest. “Who knows? Who cares? The real question for you is will you call off your campaign or will you play the martyr and go down in flames? You and I both know how no one loves a loser. So cut your losses while you still can.

Faces of the other three candidates running against him in the primary election next month flashed through the aspiring national politician’s mind, followed by the obstacle he hated and suspected most of all, his rival from the opposing party. He considered any one of them to be ambitious enough to stoop to this sort of dirty trick. His anger reached its tipping point.

“Get out of here!” He shook his fist as he jumped up from his comfortable chair parked beneath an oversized desk. Two long steps and he leaned until the fist danced inches from his tormentor’s serene face.

“I ought to…” his shaking fist cocked backward, waiting to propel into nose, mouth, eye, any target would do.

“But you won’t.”

The younger man stood and smirked.

“Belting me would be assault and battery because I would press charges, which would end your career here in the legislature. Look, you can still continue being a state senator. Just pull the plug on your campaign to become a congressman and none of this will ever become public knowledge. Capiche?”

Wade Radcliff swept the incriminating evidence into his tan leather briefcase, spun on his heels, and exited the office without saying goodbye.

As Wade hurried to the dark green Toyota two-door compact he had driven for almost 130,000 miles, he phoned a media contact, who he knew was ambitious enough to carry out his backup plan. That was all any of these players he dealt with for a living were – mere parts of his grand schemes. No use in considering any of them as flesh and blood people. If Wade caved into such sentimentality, simple tasks became complicated. Besides, putting anyone else’s needs ahead of his cost too much of everything: time, money, and energy – in that order.

His contact met him forty minutes later at a nondescript coffee bistro, one of the many imitations of the chain whose green and white logo still seemed omnipresent, even after hitting its peak.

“Aren’t you ordering anything?” Wade asked as the reporter he had used once before slid into the chair opposite his. “I thought all hotshot journalist types have caffeine and or nicotine running through your veins so you can be the first to get the story.”

“No time. You know that my profession is 24/7, nonstop. What do you have for me? I hope it’s better than what you gave me before.”

Wade suppressed a giggle. These young mainstream media types all acted and talked the same, rough and tough, don’t give them any gruff or they’ll berate you until you feel like a creampuff. But it seemed like they would believe the worst about people who did not further their agenda. And verifying whatever their anonymous source had given them? Forget it. That sort of checking out a story before running with it had ended sometime shortly after the new millennium replaced the last one.

But if I waste time doing that, one of our competitors will beat us to the story or some such variation on that theme had been explained to Wade more times than he could remember.

Besides, this reporter was all business. Everything about her reeked of her overwhelming need to impress. From her matching manicured painted fingernails, to hair straightened beyond repair and subtle traces of make-up hiding every perceived blemish, and dressed to impress in a pantsuit Wade estimated to have cost three, maybe even four hundred dollars. I guess she has to look pretty for the cameras, Wade thought.

His momentary introspection made her fidget.

“Come on, come on. Let me have it. And it better be good.”

“Well, it seems that a certain someone who has been making headway in the upcoming election has a skeleton in his closet. I can give you the name of someone with a nasty grudge against him.” He paused, unable to resist teasing her. “That is, if I’m completely left out of it. In other words, I’m not your source, even if your boss asks you, okay?”

The journalist rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”

“Good.” Wade scribbled on a coffee stained napkin and slid it across the small table. “Here’s the name and number of the one who’s unhappy.”

She snatched the napkin and read it. Then she dialed the phone number. Wade shrugged as he stood to take his half empty large cup of supposedly 100% freshly roasted and ground dark Columbian beans to the counter with free condiments to recharge it with anything sweet to deaden the bitter brew’s nasty and sour taste.

“You’re welcome,” he said with a sigh as the reporter gestured for him to be quiet.

Same old story.

If his target did not agree to whatever the one who paid Wade wanted, then he always fed the victim to the sharks, who would blast the embellished details in print or on the airwaves. Either way, someone’s reputation or, in the worst cases, life got destroyed. Once again, Wade convinced himself that he preferred for the target to cooperate and submit to his handler’s demands. If they didn’t…oh well.

I need a vacation, Wade Radcliff thought as he left the bistro.

* * *

Rapid City Regional Airport must be the smallest airport in the world, Wade thought as he claimed his alligator hide suitcase from the baggage claim area. Landing there had required him first to connect at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport after taking off from his home on the East Coast.

Since reading about people with terminal illnesses creating bucket lists of things to do before dying, Wade had crafted one of his own. Burned out by his unorthodox line of work, he had decided to start with Number 20 on the list. He planned to hit Number 1, Retire at age 40, within the next three years.

After ten hours of sleep at a packed motel located on the southern edge of Rapid City, South Dakota, Wade skipped breakfast and drove his rental car into the Black Hills. He was thirty-fourth in line at the entrance gate to Mount Rushmore, one of the eager tourists wanting to cram as much as possible into the almost sixteen-hour long days that June bestows on the Dakotas. By the time he parked, read his emails, and entered the monument’s visitor center, the parking lot had already filled halfway.

For some reason, everything about Mount Rushmore looked different from the other time he had visited it. Maybe it’s because I was only five years old way back then, Wade thought. Maybe it’s because Mom and Dad and my sister and brother were with me. Mom and Dad…

Remembering life before The Divorce always filled him with pain. Why did his siblings have to blame him for their parents splitting up and never once attempting to reconcile? Those two big snots had been just as much of a pain as he had. Probably worse. They were supposed to set an example for me because I was the youngest.

Wade’s musing ended as he finished his first meal of the day, three candy bars washed down by an energy drink. With sugar and caffeine energizing him, Wade sauntered outside into the already brilliant sunlight that served as an all-encompassing spotlight on the busts of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Hoping to dredge up at least one memory of his last time here, he walked to the point closest to the base of the huge granite outcropping. But no memory surfaced.

Oh well, at least I can send this souvenir to Mom, Wade thought as he patted the postcard in his blue windbreaker’s pocket. After all, she’s the only real reason I bothered to come here. She’s the one who always had to engineer all of our vacations because Dad always wanted to either go hunting or fishing with his buddies instead. He turned toward the parking lot and his main destination for the day, Deadwood.

After twice watching the DVD series about the old West town made famous during the 1800s by the gold prospectors, prostitutes, business owners, gamblers, outlaws, and the overworked lawmen, Wade had added Visit Deadwood to his bucket list. He couldn’t wait to walk the streets where his hero Wild Bill Hickok had and then visit his gravesite.

A year from now, Wade would still be cursing himself for obeying instead of ignoring the little kid nearby who began pointing and yelling. If only I had ignored that kid and left for the parking lot right away, maybe none of it would have happened to me, Wade would repeat to anyone, many of them more than once.

“Hey look up in the air above the statue of those four dead guys,” the kid said. “What is it?”

Wade started to say, it’s probably just a plane or a bird but froze when he turned his head in the direction signaled by the boy’s shaking finger. Hovering over the monument floated a human being. The one who appeared to defy gravity with a rectangular shaped object strapped to both feet and a fuel source strapped onto the back of what looked like long-sleeved black overalls. A nearby teen-aged geek knowledgeable of all things high-tech danced from foot to foot as she broadcast the unfolding incident from her smartphone to her links at Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram.

“Oh yeah!” the geek shouted. “It’s a hover board.”

“A what?” an adult a few feet from her asked.

“You know, the kind of thingies that guy used to fly across the English Channel nonstop not very long ago.”

Within seconds, the crowd below the four towering presidents began gawking and pointing at the marvel. Many of the tourists jostled through the crowd to gain the best location to record or photograph the fly-like human who was making this a vacation to remember. Within a couple of minutes, those inside the visitors’ center had spilled outside to join the spectacle.

Through it all, Wade Radcliff remained detached. Because he made his living by disrupting and sometimes destroying other’s ambitions and dreams, he had no links to any social media. Long ago, he had joined Myspace when it first emerged on the internet but then abandoned it after his line of work expanded from part-time into full-time. Being the go-between for those competing for power required a strict anonymity on his part.

He joined those surrounding him by taking a few photos with his phone of the strange flying human. None of them would ever be broadcast on the internet, just for the record to maybe show Mom during their scheduled visit at the end of this vacation. Got to have something to talk with Mom about, he thought.

“Look, now that fool is spray painting Washington’s face!” An older bystander with high-powered binoculars informed those nearby her. “It looks like they are letters. There’s an S…now an O…”

Gasps, moans, and curses filled the air as black letters tall enough to be seen with the naked eye appeared on the foreheads of the four presidents. On George Washington: SO. On Thomas Jefferson: S0. On Teddy Roosevelt: I. And finally, on Abraham Lincoln: NR. The crowd below murmured as interpretations of the mysterious vandalism spread. Then, as if ascending from a netherworld, a group of two men and a woman began to chant:

SOS…O…I…NR

 

Followed by an explanation of those same ten-foot tall letters now defacing the stony faces high above them:

SOS means help

O stands for our

I stands for idolatrous

N stands for nation

R stands for reorganize

 

After chanting the refrain six times with the fervor of a church choir on fire, the three spread out among the crowd, giving out sheets of paper. Wade snatched one just before two rangers grabbed the long-haired scruffy looking young man handing it to him. As handcuffs bound his wrists, the protestor tossed his remaining leaflets into the air. Anxious sightseers scrambled to claim theirs as a breeze carried them above their outstretched hands. Who knows? Maybe someday such an object might appear on one of the television shows that appraised such historical items. If nothing else, maybe the paper would reveal the motives of the four engaged in the unfolding drama.

Wade held his in such a way that he could read it while the upper part of his field of vision helped him navigate back to the parking lot:

SOSOINR stands for Help Our Idolatrous Nation Repent. Now you too can become part of The Resistance by standing against the patriarchal, misogynist, sexist, racist, homophobic, fascist establishment which dictates absolutely every part of our lives, every hour of every day.

Help Our Idolatrous Nation Repent by destroying all memorials nationwide dedicated to the evils of America’s past, such as Slave Owning George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Imperialist Theodore Roosevelt and No Reparations for slaves Lincoln. Only then will we finally be able to move forward. Log onto to SOSOINR.com to vote to pick four progressive people who really made a positive difference in America. The top two women and two men vote getters (at least two of the four final selected must be people of color) will take the place of the four outdated evil doers (may they R.I.P. in the trash-bin of history) who now unfortunately reside at Mount Rushmore.

 

A list of suggested names to vote for followed, so many they filled the rest of the single-spaced piece of 8 and ½ by 14-inch sheet of paper. Wade recognized some of the names of those who still lived. The names of those dead at best seemed vaguely familiar. By the time he found his rental car, Wade had shoved the leaflet into his windbreaker. He did not notice the barrel of the shiny .38 Special revolver resting atop the opening of a stranger’s large cargo pants pocket until after the car’s five locks had opened.

“I just need a ride. I do not want your car, your money or your life. All you have to do is cooperate with me and do exactly what I say and we’ll both get far away from this mess just fine,” the stranger said as he opened the driver’s side door, slid in past the driver’s seat and settled onto the front passenger’s seat, all the while keeping his weapon pointed at Wade’s midsection. He waved the handgun’s barrel.

“Come on, let’s get going. You and I both have places to go to and things to do.”

Wade felt like he watched himself get into the car as part of a cheap movie that had used unknown actors following orders from an equally barely competent crew.

Have to focus, he thought. Don’t want to get lost in fantasyland or I’ll probably do something stupid and get myself killed. I wonder if this is karma, some kind of payback because of all the people who I have hurt just to make a buck. Mom always warned me how you’re going to reap what you sow, Wade. So please promise me you will at least always do something honest for a living.

Wade glanced at his kidnapper. If this really had been a thriller movie, then his co-star could have used a better make-up artist.

Whoever sat next to him had long black hair hanging to his shoulders and an uneven bushy beard that did not quite match his hair’s color. He wore faded gray pants with frayed cuffs, a white pullover shirt with no pockets, and orange windbreaker tied about his waist with its arms fastened into a square knot because the morning chill had given way to the growing warmth radiated by the sun. A baseball cap with a logo Wade did not recognize completed his outfit. He carried a backpack small enough to carry on board an airliner.

“Uh, where exactly are we going?” Wade asked after sliding the key into the ignition.

“The front gate,” answered the stranger. “When we get there, I’ll be pretending to sleep. No funny stuff if we get stopped there. My good buddy is still aimed at you even though he’s now hiding inside my pants pocket. Oh, by the way, I’m Bill.”

The stranger thrust his free hand toward Wade, who squeezed its edges. Only then did Wade notice the thin clear plastic glove covering his unwanted rider’s hand.

“I’m not contagious, you know,” Wade said. He let out a nervous giggle to try and lessen the tenseness squeezing his body and mind. “You don’t think I am do you?”

Bill shrugged as he stared down at the glove. “Can’t be leaving any of my DNA behind because it leaves too much of a tell-tale trail. Let’s go.”

A few minutes later, a small version of a railroad’s moveable crossing gate blocked their exit. A ranger strutted from the small hut next to the adjustable barricade.

“Good morning, sir. Is it just the two of you?” the ranger asked through the window Wade had lowered.

“Yes sir, Mr. Ranger.” Wade tried to sound formal. “What’s with all that fuss going back there at the visitor’s center all about?”

The ranger groaned.

“Just some crazies. We get them out here occasionally.” He bent at his knees to get a better view of the car’s passenger. “Your friend over there doing okay?”

“He’s just plumb worn out, Ranger. We had to get up real early this morning –”

An electronic whooshing sound followed by the greeting “Command post to front gate…” sent the ranger backpedaling toward the hut. He reached through its door to grab the microphone attached to the two-way radio on the wall of the small building, used his other hand to push down on the end of the wooden crossing gate blocking Wade and Bill’s exit, and then motioned for Wade to exit.

“Have a good day, Ranger,” Wade said as he contorted his face into a pleading look meant to signal help me, I’ve been kidnapped by this guy and he has a gun pointing right at me. But the ranger’s attention had already shifted to the next car approaching him.

Without changing his position of a fake sleep, Bill said, “Excellent. Hope you didn’t have any plans for the rest of today because no matter what you might have had in mind, I really need you to bail me out of a jam.”

“Actually, I was going to hit Deadwood before I headed on back to my motel. You think I can drop you off somewhere in Rapid City –”

“I’m afraid not, amigo. Stay on this road until we hit Interstate 90. Then take a right and head to the east. Just continue to be a good little esse and someday you’ll have a great story to tell your kids and grandkids. They might not believe you but what do the kids of today know anyway?”

* * *

The 337 miles and six-hour drive to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, seemed like the final two acts of the same awful movie Wade had stepped into back at Mount Rushmore, one that would need major editing because the self-absorbed actors obeying the likewise marginally competent crew had produced a flop. Everything about Bill demanded routine. He and Wade stayed together everywhere while outside the car during stops for gas, food, and bathrooms.

Bill left nothing to chance, even inspecting the metal partitions of the stalls when Wade urinated or defecated to see if he had scrawled a rescue note. He also made Wade hand over is phone.

Wade continued to gobble his normal diet of potato and corn chips washed down by 64-ounce cups of sugary soda. Bill ate nothing but turkey and beef jerky whose salt made him drink four bottles of water.

But overall, Bill seemed to be okay for a kidnapper. He and Wade even had something in common, sort of. Not until they were halfway to Sioux Falls did Wade ask what he had wondered for hours.

“So, are you connected to those protestors back there at Mount Rushmore?”

Bill laughed for half a minute, as if to make up for his otherwise serious manner.

“Afraid I am. I was their baby sitter. My suggestion for them was to go on ahead and do their protest, get themselves arrested, and then I would go into Rapid City and hire a lawyer to bail them out until they stood trial to get a whole lot more publicity for their cause. But no, they had to do it their way instead.”

“Oh.”

“So, what do you do to pay the bills?”

Wade’s description of I’m a fixer who derails people’s plans because of their enemies brought forth an approving nod from Bill.

“Hey, we’re sort of alike, you and me. How much do you make in a year?”

“I pulled down $50,000 last year,” Wade answered, inflating the true amount by $12,000.

“Man, that’s only chicken feed. I clear six figures easy every year. It seems like whole truckloads of rich people these days are willing to underwrite a lot of protestors’ causes.” He paused for a minute. “You think you might like to come on board? I could put in a good word for you because just between you and me, I’ve got way more assignments than I can handle right now.”

Wade remembered his bucket list. Number 1, Retire at age 40, had now taken on a life of its own, thanks to Bill’s offer. Who have I been fooling? There is no way I’ll ever retire until I can collect Social Security, he calculated. This has got to be the big break I’ve been wishing for.

“Hey, I’m your man,” Wade said.

“All right. So you’re a fixer? I’m sure glad you were the first person who was by himself heading into the parking lot back there at Mount Rushmore. I get a bonus whenever I find someone who works out handling one of our protestor teams. You won’t let me down, will you, Wade?”

“No way, dude. I’m only in it for the money. I’ve got a whole lot of things I need to do instead of what I’ve been doing.”

“Look, I need to be totally honest with what you’ll be getting yourself into if the big bosses bring you on board.”

“Okay.”

“You know all that I really am?”

“Uh, sort of, I guess.”

“I’m a GBS. Just a glorified baby sitter.”

* * *

At one of the northern crossroads that help travelers crisscross America from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico and from Canada to Mexico, where Interstate 90 and Interstate 29 connect, the Glorified Bay Sitter ordered the Fixer to exit south, then take a left before pulling into one of the dozens of the motels that accommodate visitors to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After entering their room, Wade began wondering why he not yet gotten out of this fix.

Wasn’t he a hotshot fixer? That’s all he had claimed for the last three hours since applying to be part of what Bill had called The Network.

When Bill had finished stretching duct tape over Wade’s mouth, handcuffed his wrists to one of the queen bed’s metal frames, and then duct-taped his ankles together, mounting anxiety convinced Wade that he had become the lead actor for a snuff film. He wondered how many twisted perverts would enjoy watching him die on the DVDs detailing his murder that Bill would make big bucks off of.

Six figures annually? This clown probably made more like seven figures a year doing underground snuff films. Sweat clouded Wade’s eyes so that the TV screen Bill turned on looked fuzzy. He listened to noise from channel after channel until a reporter’s upper body filled the screen. Wade wished he could laugh and groan along with Bill to build enough trust to be set free as they listened to the latest update from Mount Rushmore:

“Rangers and other law enforcement from the FBI finally have located four suspects in what has been called the Mount Rushmore Five case,” the reporter said. “One still remains at large.”

The camera zoomed in to show the unsmiling faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Their foreheads still bore the letters, SO, SO, I, and NR. Then a film clip of four rescuers carrying a stretcher with an unmoving body toward a waiting life flight helicopter played.

“Initial reports are that the injured person was found six miles from the spray-painted national monument. They found the suspect strapped to a hover board that looks similar to the one seen by millions of people on photos and videos that sightseers who witnessed the event have posted on the internet. The suspect was last reported to be at a trauma center in Rapid City, where she remains unconscious.”

“Are there any new leads on the fifth suspect yet, Clare?” asked the news anchor reporting from his network’s world headquarters.

“Not yet. It seems that…”

Bill switched off the television set.

“The original plan was for the one flying the hover board to drop the leaflets that explained the protest down onto the crowd below the monument,” he said. “Then the other three protestors on the ground were supposed to answer any questions anyone had after they read the leaflet. Finally, I was supposed to go meet the hover board flyer at a spot outside of the monument, drop her off at a hotel, and then get to work on bailing the other ones out of jail.”

He shook his head.

“I had a bad feeling that they were planning to do something else because every time I walked in on them, they would stop talking. That’s the reason I hung around the visitors’ center parking lot instead of going off to meet her. Just like I suspected, they went ahead and did it their way.”

Wade squirmed on the bed and blinked his eyes, his plea to be unbound from the handcuffs and duct tape.

“I’m really sorry to mess up your vacation like I have, dude,” Bill said as he pulled a small syringe from his pants pocket. He filled it with a clear liquid from a small bottle. Then he tapped the plastic casing of the syringe until the bubbles floating in the liquid rose to the top where a short metal needle waited for pressure to expel the liquid. Using a disposable alcohol wipe, he cleansed the area inside Wade’s right elbow.

“Relax, this is just something to chill you out after such a long stressful day. I don’t know about you but now that I know that one or more of those bozos gave me up to the authorities, maybe you can better understand why I had to borrow you and your rental car back there at Mount Rushmore. If I had driven away in the van that we rented, I most likely would have been stopped and arrested before I got a hundred miles away from there. Knowing those four clowns, at least one of them has probably already given a description of me and the van we used in order to cut a deal and get some of the charges against them dropped.”

Wade shook his head. All I want is to be free, he thought. Please don’t leave me here like this.

Bill injected the liquid barbiturate into the vein running through Wade’s arm. Then he waved goodbye as he walked toward the door.

“This little shot is guaranteed to give you at least twelve hours of sleep. Think of it this way, Wade. What you did for me was kind of like a professional courtesy. You know, Mr. Fixer helped out me, Mr. Glorified Baby Sitter. Thanks for all of your kind cooperation.”

Bill picked up the Do not disturb sign from where it hung by the door. He wiggled it at Wade.

“I’m putting this on the door handle outside. That way, the motel staff won’t come up here and find you any time before checkout time. That’ll give me enough time to be far, far away from here when the authorities question you.”

Wade wanted to scream but could not.

* * *

As soon as Glorified Baby Sitter also known as Bill closed the motel room’s door, he began his transformation back into his real identity. After scanning to his right and left twice and seeing no one in the long, carpeted hallway, he pulled his long-haired black wig from his head and stuffed it into his backpack. His body cooled as its heat escaped through his balding pale blond hair. Then he turned his reversible shirt inside out and pulled it back over his head. The pale white shirt he had worn when he and Wade had checked into the motel now appeared to be a bright red.

He exited the motel, walked two blocks, and checked into a motel whose sign read Vacancy.

“Do you prefer a smoking or nonsmoking room?” the helpful desk clerk asked.

“Either one will do just fine,” Bill answered.

Who cares, he thought. I just blew so much smoke into Wade Radcliff’s mind that he’ll probably be confused the rest of his life. Especially whenever he thinks back on this day’s events. I wonder if today will change his life as much as it is changing mine.

His 260-square-foot room came with one bed, a bathroom, refrigerator, tiny desk, dresser with a TV set perched on its top, and microwave whose glowing green digital numerals keeping time reminded him not to relax yet. Bill grinned at the face smirking from the mirror above a sink.

“It’s showtime, Mr. Abraham Edge, because I’m sick and tired of pretending to be that big lousy liar and fake named Bill,” he said to his reflected image. “Time for this snake to shed his skin and never ever put it back on again.”

First to go was his beard, which took a pair of sharp scissors, an entire small can of shaving cream, and two disposable razor blades to remove. Next, he applied a milky gel to his tattooed arms and let it penetrate the tattoos for a half hour before standing under a hot shower that seemed to go on forever. Abe whistled as the colors from the temporary tattoos dripped from his arms down to the porcelain tub and washed down the drain. He inspected his transformation in the mirror.

“Abe, Abe, Abe, how could you forget?” he asked himself as he popped the dark brown contact lenses that had covered the sparkling blue ones he had been born with. He pulled the change of clothes from his backpack and put on a pair of new crisp blue jeans and a matching button-down plaid shirt.

He chuckled as he wondered if Wade Radcliff had believed his tale of trying his best to bring him into The Network. We don’t even call the organization that, he thought.

He called a cab.

Minutes later, he stepped out of it at Sioux Falls’ largest airport.

Wonderful how you can book flights these days anytime, from anywhere, Abe thought as he recalled making reservations using his phone shortly after he and Wade had left the Black Hills on the other side of South Dakota.

Three hours later, he landed in Minneapolis St. Paul. During the wee hours of the next morning, he walked down the stuffy concourse into the huge Airbus jetliner that would carry him and over 400 other passengers to Frankfurt, Germany. South of Frankfurt nestled in the rolling dark green forests of Bavaria, the woman he loved waited for him.

To Abraham Edge, this red-eye flight would be like going home. Sure, he had been born in America. But lately his native land had degenerated into warring factions unwilling to compromise, with the strife destroying relationships within families, neighborhoods, churches, communities. Enough had become enough and then too much for Abraham. Thanks to the foolishness of the last idealistic bunch of protestors he had been paid well to supervise, Abe knew his fate had been decided for him.

It could be worse. At least his free will remained intact, and able to choose between two options.

One, remain here in America and always have to look over his shoulder for whoever had been assigned to find and arrest him. Abe imagined standing before a judge and pleading with as much emotion as he could muster: but your Honor, I was only the driver for those protestors and had absolutely no idea that they were going to deface four of our greatest presidents. The original plan was for the hover board flyer to just drop those leaflets down onto the people milling around and for the other three of her comrades to explain the reason for their protest to the tourists. My mother named me Abraham after Abraham Lincoln because she admired the way he preserved our country when he ended slavery. I would never be a part of messing up his face at Mount Rushmore. Mom would kill me if I ever did that.

Abe’s flight into fantasy ended with the judge handing down a sentence of somewhere between five and twenty years in a federal prison. Those federal joints might be better than state and county jails. But Abraham Edge suffered from one phobia – an acute case of claustrophobia.

Or pick the number two choice.

Abe could continue his current escape plan of flying far away to a foreign land to live out the rest of whatever life he had left. It could be worse, Abe thought. With his wonderful fat and secret Swiss bank account collecting interest nearby where he would live in Garmisch-Partenkirchen with its fantastic views of the Alps, maybe he could at last slow down and smell the Edelweiss or whatever you are supposed to do after taking an early retirement.

The second option had to be what any 55-year-old Generation X guy hiding from the law would choose, Abraham Edge (AKA Bill, AKA Glorified Baby Sitter) concluded as he fell asleep 32,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

Life as an ex-patriate would come with obligations. His girlfriend Freida had often complained how hard it was to find good help for her coffeeshop, which specialized in strudels and chocolate goodies of every shape and size. Exchanging vows to be what she called a couple for the rest of our days here on Earth meant also being married to her business. A month ago, Abraham had at last convinced her to close her shop every Sunday so they could enjoy the nature that only the Black Forest and Alps offered. She agreed, on one condition. She needed his help to keep such a commitment of closing one day a week.

“That means I will have to continue to generate as much business in six days as I now do in seven days a week,” Freida had said. “I can take such a risk with the shop passed down through five generations of my family only if I have a husband to stand with me.”

Long ago Abraham Edge had learned how German women can persuade you do whatever they want, all the while getting their man to believe it had been his idea in the first place.

* * *

The second-floor maid preparing for a new batch of guests at the motel where Wade Radcliff slept glanced at her watch. Having finished cleaning every room except one, she wondered about its occupants. Her assignment sheet said they had been scheduled to check out by 11 a.m. So why did Room 201 still have a Do Not Disturb sign hanging from its door’s handle?

Maybe they decided to stay another day, the maid thought. I hope they let the check-in clerk know because they will have to pay an extra $150 for late checkout if they didn’t reserve the room for an extra night. She timidly knocked on Room 201’s door. After hearing no answer, she knocked again.

I bet they just forgot to put the Do Not Disturb sign back inside the room, she thought.

Still no answer. No one speaking to her or sounds of footsteps across the creaky floor.

Using her electronic pass key, petite 108-pound Maria the motel maid let herself in. What she saw repelled her back through the doorway and down the long, carpeted hallway. Her heart pounded. The scream caught in her throat did not escape until she entered the stairwell, which she ran down two steps at a time. Then down the first-floor hallway and into the lobby.

With check-in time not until 3 p.m., only the desk clerk occupied the large airy room filled with comfortable chairs, sofas, a large-screen TV, and tables and chairs where a continental breakfast had ended at 9 a.m. The desk clerk wondered what excuse for not having finished her assignment Maria was about to lay on him.

“He’s dead! He’s dead!” Maria said as she pounded her fists to rouse the clerk to action.

“Huh? Who’s dead?” he asked.

“The person in Room 201. Call 911. Hurry, hurry, before the murderer comes after you and me or someone else.”

* * *

The pair of law enforcement officers first on scene entered Room 201 with their weapons drawn. Between them, they carried thirty-six years of service. Neither had ever seen what greeted them. At least not in a motel room.

“What’s that awful smell?” asked Officer Kirby.

“He pooped and peed in his pants. No wonder that maid said he was dead. That’s what a lot of people do just before they die, especially if it’s an accident or they’re getting murdered,” answered Officer Schultz.

“Yeah, one time I saw a guy let loose when he got executed. Who do you think would want to whack this guy?”

Officer Kirby slid a forefinger and middle finger back and forth across Wade Radcliff’s unmoving neck. “Hey, I got a pulse. You better call the paramedics.”

By the time an ambulance arrived, Wade had revived to a state of wakefulness. Feeling and smelling the feces and half-dried urine trapped inside his underwear and pants ended any further consideration of joining Bill and whoever he worked for. This had to be the ultimate humiliation. Whoever heard of a healthy adult soiling himself so bad that his rescuers had opened the room’s window, propped open the door with a chair, and turned on the bathroom’s ceiling exhaust fan. Worse yet, the closer they moved to Wade, the more they turned their heads away.

The duct tape removed from his mouth and ankles, Wade began what he considered to be The Mother of All Paybacks.

“His name’s Bill,” Wade said. “He kidnapped me back there at Mount Rushmore and forced me to drive him here. I forgot about the rental car. He stole it didn’t he?”

“Try to calm down, son,” said Officer Schultz.

“You don’t understand. I didn’t get the total insurance policy on that car. You know, in case it got stolen, stuff like that. I bet he took my wallet too. It had a couple hundred in cash and all my credit cards and ATM card and driver’s license. Oh, great. Now he can steal my identity too and wipe out my checking and savings accounts. I bet they’re already empty.”

“Okay, okay,” said Officer Kirby. “Just try to hold still while I get those cuffs cut so you can at least get to the bathroom and clean yourself up. No offense, but you smell worse than a pig sty full of sows and their babies.” He grunted as he squeezed the long thick handles of a bolt cutter to close its sharp blades against the shiny metal chain linking the two thick metal bracelets binding Wade’s wrists to the bed’s frame. “Well, Bill bought only the best. Those handcuffs are top quality, el numero uno.”

Two more grunts and the chain snapped. Supported by the two officers, Wade hobbled to the bathroom, where steam billowed from the hot water cascading out of the showerhead Officer Shultz had turned on a minute earlier in anticipation of finally being able to contain Wade’s stench behind the closed bathroom door. After washing the dried sweat, odor, and waste from his body, Wade opened the door wide enough to poke his head into the room.

“What am I going to put on?” he asked. “There is no way I can ever put these clothes back on again. The stink will never come out of them.”

Officer Kirby handed the underwear, pants, socks and shirt he had bought from a nearby store through the door. “You can send me money for them after you get back home,” he said. “After you get dressed, be sure to leave your soiled clothes in the bathroom,” he said. “It still stinks pretty bad out here. No offense, but like the saying goes, your caca stinks muy malo, Senor.

“What’s with all the Spanish?” Wade asked.

“We get a lot of Hispanics who come up here to the Dakotas to work the dairy farms and natural gas fields,” Officer Kirby answered. “So I’ve been boning up on the two years of Spanish I took way back when I was at college. You know what they say, use it or lose it, so I like to practice it whenever I can. My wife and kids won’t let me practice it on them.”

After a thorough examination, the paramedics found no injury other than a severe wound to Wade Radcliff’s pride. As their patient continued to rant by calling Bill every profane name he could think of, one of the paramedics backed toward the door while saying, “I need to go get the ambulance warmed up.”

The other one packed her medical kit and offered advice.

“Sir, you may want to seek help from a counselor,” the cheerful twenty-five year said. “Kidnap victims often need to work through a great deal of anger before they can resolve the trauma that they suffered through.”

Two hours of questioning at the police station convinced Wade he had an excellent chance to achieve his revenge. His description of Bill matched the one given by at least one of the other four protestors offended by America in general and Mount Rushmore in particular. Even though he told his interrogator of how Bill had worn clear plastic gloves nonstop during their time together, a CSI team had been dispatched to Room 201 at the motel. News of the team’s members finding Wade’s wallet and rental car keys hidden in a dresser drawer and the undamaged rental car in the motel’s parking lot momentarily revived Wade’s faith in humanity.

Maybe Bill wasn’t as evil a dude as Wade believed after all?

Samples of DNA from over two dozen individuals were found in the rental car and Room 201. Matching them to the kidnapper who had claimed his name was Bill and by now had landed at Frankfurt’s sprawling airport would never be successful.

And Maria the motel maid?

She pleaded to only be permanently reassigned to either the first and third floors of the motel or she would have to find another job. Her kind manager gave Maria the rest of the day off to recover.

“But you have to do your best to be back here on time for your shift tomorrow, “said the manager. “There are two conventions coming to town this weekend. We’re already almost fully booked and today is only Wednesday.”

* * *

Thirty-three-year-old Ebony Sierra met Wade in the hallway outside the interrogation room. She handed him a bottle of mineral water.

“Here, drink this,” she said. “It will help flush out any remaining phenobarbital that’s still in your system. Bill, or whatever his name really is, sure loaded your blood with that knockout shot. Let’s go, we need to get to Rapid City ASAP.”

Wade stared at the bottle.

“Huh? Who are you anyway?” he asked as he strained to keep up with the auburn-haired, green-eyed woman who looked to be a couple inches shorter than him.

“I’m Agent Ebony Sierra of the National Park Investigative Service.” She also answered Wade by holding an identification card over her shoulder. “Sorry to be in such a hurry but my mom has a surprise birthday party planned for my dad on Friday. If I miss it, I’ll be toast. I couldn’t have taken a chance on you not showing back up at your motel in Rapid City. What if you had decided to head home from here instead?”

Wade trotted to read the card’s details before stepping in front of her. She bumped into him as she stopped.

“Hold that card up next to your face,” Wade said. “After what I’ve just gone through, I’m never taking any chances ever again.”

Her impatient smirk seemed to be the only difference from her photo, which had a smile revealing upper and lower rows of her front teeth. She stepped around him, exited a door, and walked to Wade’s rental car.

“Hey, what are you doing getting into my car?”

“My job. NPIS sent me all the way from Washington, D.C., to question you. It’s up to you. We can walk back into that interrogation room or you can enjoy the scenery while we drive you back to your motel in Rapid City.” She nodded toward the police station and then the car. “Your call. What’s it going to be?”

“Okay, on one condition. I get to drive,” Wade said as he elbowed his way past his new handler. Already manhandled by kidnapper Bill, the two cops who had found him in Room 201, woman-handled by the paramedic who had examined and treated him, and interrogated nonstop by a Sioux Falls police detective, he needed to regain control over his ruined vacation.

But his outstretched palm did not receive the car’s keys.

“No way. If I had a death wish I would gladly let you drive. But since I don’t, you get to ride shotgun.”

Wade’s expression turned from authoritative into a pout.

“But I’m the one who rented it. What if you get into an accident? You aren’t covered by the insurance I bought for it while I’m driving it.”

“Look, Bill or whatever his real name is who kidnapped you gave you enough of a knockout shot that you are in no shape to be driving until at least tomorrow. And maybe not even then. Kidnap victims can take quite a while to return to normal.”

Wade opened his mouth to continue their argument. Then the paramedic’s concerned look back in Room 201 and warning of kidnap victims often need to work through a great deal of anger before they can resolve the trauma that they suffered shut it. He grumbled as he walked around the front of the 2019 Dodge SUV. Frosty sulking replaced his self-pity after he had fastened his seatbelt.

A shiver ran through him as he remembered who had sat in this seat during yesterday’s long drive from Mount Rushmore to Sioux Falls.

“Wait a minute, I’m contaminating the evidence. Bill sat in this seat. I can’t be wrecking the evidence by sitting here.”

“Don’t worry. The local CSI team has already examined this car and your motel room. But any DNA they collected will only help solve this case if Bill or whatever his real name is has some of his DNA on file somewhere.”

“Why do you keep saying Bill or whatever his real name is? Did one of the other protestors give you a different name for him?”

“Two of them said his name was Bill when the FBI questioned them. The FBI is handling the crime scene at Mount Rushmore. The third one refused to talk until his parents had their personal lawyer fly in on a corporate jet to Rapid City. With the lawyer at his side, he’s answered nothing so far.”

“What about the other one?”

“The one who flew on the hover board? She is still unconscious in the intensive care unit of the hospital.”

“What made her crash?”

“It appears she was in too much of a hurry to land and make a getaway. At least that’s what the surveillance tapes showed.”

“Surveillance tapes?”

“One of our federal government’s eyes in the sky started monitoring the situation as soon as we got word of it in Washington D.C.”

Wade finished the last of the mineral water and dropped the empty bottle by his feet.

“Get another one out of the back seat,” Ebony said as she jerked her right thumb over her shoulder.

“Whoa, you must have about 10 bottles of this stuff back there.”

“The sooner we get you rehydrated and that sleepy time dope out of you, the better. There is nothing worse than an incoherent witness. I’ve had way too many of those send me down one too many rabbit holes during my career. The CSI team at your hotel room let me see how much you deposited into your underwear and pants. I bet your insides are still pretty empty.”

Wade blushed.

“I don’t ever go like that when I’m sleeping, okay?”

“Nothing to be ashamed of. Your fear because of being kidnapped, held at gunpoint, handcuffed and duct-taped coupled with being shot full of dope would be enough to make anyone soil themselves like you did.”

Wade obeyed.

Three bottles of mineral water later, he needed a bathroom so Agent Sierra took the next exit. His first trust in her blossomed when she did not accompany him to or from the men’s room. Instead, she met him in the car with a bag filled with his favorite kinds of junk food. The fat, salt, and sugar he continually craved. Even his favorite brands of chips, cookies, candy, and soda.

“How did you know exactly what I like to eat?” he asked as the car re-entered Interstate 90 westbound.

“Oh, your mom told me quite a bit about you, Wade.”

“My mom?” Wade asked before a small potato chip slid down before lodging in his throat. He gagged until tears formed in his eyes and half a can of orange soda sent the wayward chip into his stomach. “Why did you talk to her?”

“Because I hate doing nothing while I wait in airports, which is what I had to do for hours after my itinerary changed. While I was hanging out at Minneapolis Saint Paul International, I called your mother. She sure is proud of you, Wade.”

“Just what kind of stuff did Mom tell you? She better not have told you any of my personal business.”

“Only how you live in a guest cottage behind her house. She said she really appreciates having one of her kids so close by.”

“Well, I owe her big time, okay? I mean by the time she got pregnant with me, she could have just gotten an abortion because it was legal in our state even though the Supreme Court hadn’t yet made it legal nationwide. Besides, she already had two brats to take care of. Do you know what my brother and sister used to tell me? That I was adopted. Then they told me that Mom and Dad would send me back to the orphanage if I didn’t do their household chores and give them part of my allowance and…”

Agent Ebony Sierra let twelve miles of silence pass between them before speaking again.

“Look, I know you’ve been through hell during the last day and a half, Wade. But I have to clear some things up.”

“Go ahead. Believe it or not, I want you capture Bill or whatever his name is even more than you do.”

“Based on your present reported income and the $2,000 you give your mom a month for rent and your share of the utilities, things don’t add up at all. It looks like you must have a second source of income other than your morning paper route.”

“You gotta do what you gotta do.”

“I’ve looked at the amount you have paid into Social Security and Federal income taxes for the last 15 years. It’s way less than what you should have seeing how you give your mom a couple thousand a month. That comes to $24,000 a year. My best guess is you’re doing some kind of work off the books, maybe even something that breaks the law. Whatever it is you do on the side is so far under the radar that even your mother doesn’t know about it. She told me I just can’t understand how Wade does it. Your voice sounds young so I’m guessing you must be about his age. How do you youngsters today make ends meet?”

She paused to take a sip of mineral water.

“I make my ends meet by working a 40 hour, sometimes longer workweek. Just what else do you do besides tossing newspapers out your Toyota’s window seven days a week? Your mom said you’ve put way too many miles on it doing that.”

“Look, my personal business has nothing to do with your investigation of those bozos who have their fun by spray painting national monuments. That’s what Bill or whatever his real name is said they are, bozos. They’re the ones you need to be asking questions, not me.”

“The FBI has been assigned to question them. I’ve been assigned to you.”

“Whatever.”

“Have you ever heard of Stockholm syndrome?”

“No.”

“It happens when hostages or kidnap victims like yourself begin to identify with whoever is holding them against their will. What you went through had to do some emotional damage. Maybe Bill or whatever his real name is even reminded you of your brother and sister who manipulated you so much? How long did they do it?”

“As far back as I can remember. Finally, I got up enough nerve to ask my dad if I was adopted. Man, did he get mad after I told him what they had told me. I think I was about nine when I finally found out how they were lying. But forget all of that. I still think my personal business won’t help you to profile me into some kind of psychological pigeonhole to help you decide what to believe about what I tell you about Bill. I’m just one person in this whole lousy situation. It’s just a nightmare, okay?”

“Get real, Wade. One person can make a huge difference. Our political science teacher at college taught us to always look deeper. She said that on the surface, it appears that politicians, judges, and presidents determine America’s fate. But she said the real power lies in the bureaucracy of the federal government. There are more than two million of us federal employees, Wade. And a whole lot more when you add in part-time employees and contract employees. Just one of them with an agenda can bring down any judge, president, or politician, even the ones who are in Congress.”

Faces of those he had helped ruin flashed through Wade’s mind. “But –”

“No more buts, Wade. My best guess is that you do something shady to make money that is off the books and therefore tax free because you obviously don’t ever report it. Maybe you even do things that are illegal. I don’t know. But I do know this much. People like you are more susceptible to going over to the dark side, given the right circumstances. I just need to know if Bill or whatever his real name is made some kind of deal with you. I’m surprised he didn’t just leave the air bubbles in the syringe he injected you with to make you have a fatal embolism. Instead, based on what you told the police officers who found you, he made sure to push the air out of the syringe. Or he could have just injected more dope, enough to kill you instead of putting you into a deep sleep.”

Wade wadded up his half-eaten bag of chips and tossed it over his shoulder onto the rear seat. This is going to be about as much fun as my long ride with Bill yesterday, he thought. At least Bill offered me a job with his thingy he called The Network. Wait a minute, if he offered me a job, why can’t secret agent woman do the same? I’m getting sick of wrecking other people’s lives. It reminds me too much of the way my siblings treated me.

“Okay, okay, busted,” he said. “You win. I’m guilty as charged, Judge Ebony.”

“Huh?”

“You’re worse than those judges on TV who hear real cases of people suing each other for everything from A to Z. I give up. Tell you what. You don’t send the IRS on my tail for my past crimes of tax evasion and I’ll tell you some real interesting stuff about Bill or whatever his real name is. Stuff I didn’t bother to tell those two cops who found me or the detective who grilled me until I felt like an overcooked hot dog.”

“Fair enough.”

“And you also show your appreciation for my total cooperation by helping me to change my evil, wicked ways. I need to get a real job so I can quit doing what I have been.”

“I’m betting you want me to pull enough strings to get you a federal job.”

“Yes ma’am. I really like working outdoors. How about getting me a job with the national parks system?”

“I can’t promise you anything right away. First you will have to take a test.”

“That’s all right. I have some money saved up so I don’t have to go back to doing anything crooked for about a year.”

“That should be enough time to get you hired. But you will probably have to start out as a seasonal employee and prove you’re a good worker before you get hired on fulltime.”

For the next 294 miles, Wade answered every question NPIS Agent Ebony Sierra asked. Honest answers to prove his commitment to stop being only interested in himself.

Darkness rapidly replaced dusk when they pulled into the parking lot of Wade’s Rapid City motel. By then, personal telephone numbers had been exchanged. Wade called a cab to take Ebony to the motel room she had reserved after being given this assignment twenty-five hours ago.

As Wade opened the cab’s rear door for the woman he now considered a friend, he said, “You know, I’ve never been as honest with anyone as I have with you today. Can I say just one more thing?”

“Sure.”

“You’re the kind of gal a guy wants to take home to meet his mother.”

She smiled.

“Sure. I think I’d enjoy meeting her. When we talked on the phone, she reminded me of my mom.”

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