cover

JUICE

Revolution

 

 

Michael P. Clutton

 

 

 

JUICE: Revolution

Published by Michael P. Clutton at Smashwords

Copyright 2011 Michael P. Clutton.

 

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Also available in print at most online retailers.

 

 

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

 

First and foremost, to my precious wife, Ginger. Thank you for your love and support. And, most importantly, your patience.

 

A special thanks to my daughter, Brittany Cheyanne. Your input was critical. Even when you just rolled your eyes. I really appreciate your suggestions and feedback. I just couldn’t – and wouldn’t - have done it without you.

 

 

JUICE: Revolution

 

What If…

1 - Game Over

2 - Off Ramp

3 - Bananas

4 - Brain Freeze

5 - Shapoopie

6 - Foreigners

7 - Windfall

8 - Jillian

9 - Chang

10 - Round One

11 - All Nighter

12 - Murphy’s Law

13 - Fur Ball

14 - Goliath

15 - It Begins

16 - The Future

17 - Chase

18 - If I Get Dead

19 - Trepidation

20 - Family

21 - Surprise

22 - Magnificent

23 - Kya

24 - Progress

25 - Fire

26 - Assault

27 - Family Recipe

28 - Ambush

29 - The Rub

30 - Which Planet

31 - Revelations

32 - Revolution

33 - Face Off

34 - Confrontations

35 - Ultimatums

36 - Consolation

About The Author

 

 

 

 

What If

 

Every issue completes an intellectual voyage of deduction.

 

From that spark of awareness and discovery through cerebral dispute to ultimate destinations of blatant denial or unyielding conviction. The process is unavoidable.

 

It is a truism that, the depths of skepticism notwithstanding, the course to determination must always encounter the obscure What If.

 

To fully ponder the ambiguity of existence, one must envision the unimaginable, engage the unknown and embrace the What If.

 

Rise now from the slumber of blissful ignorance.

 

Awaken to the reality of What Is.

 

-- Caleb Westland

 

 

 

 

1 -- GAME OVER

 

 

Forget about Juice.

Forget the money. Oh God, the money.

What sadistic twist of fate had briefly satisfied my greatest aspirations? Why grant me but a fleeting glimpse at the rewarding future of my dreams before plunging me into a quagmire of terror?

But, there it was. Another death.

He had been a friend and his murder was my fault.

Staring at his broken body, my guts were hot mush erupting into the back of my throat. I hadn’t actually killed him. Of course, not. Yet the fear and desperation that gripped me now threatened to tilt the teetering scale that balanced what was left of my sanity.

That body in the grass should be me.

Lucid cognizance was a dull hum of confusion. Even now, facing the murderer, it was difficult to acknowledge the reality of my situation.

To die.

I stood there in a half crouch, heaving with a dizzying mixture of adrenaline, anxiety and exhaustion. Pain lanced through me in throbs and my whole body ached from the battering I had just endured. But my physical damage wasn’t even registering as an issue right now.

It was cool, even for early October in Murphy, North Carolina. I was in front of the old Victorian house on Campbell Street. With the half-moon hidden by an overcast sky as midnight approached, the old house presented a less-than-inviting aura. Local children argued that it was a house to be avoided at night, making it the ghostly topic for many a campfire story.

Now, a gentle breeze joined forces with a streetlight a hundred yards away to blanket the old Victorian in wavering shadows. Huge Maple trees towered as permanent sentries at both front corners of this century-old landmark. Night sounds consisted of little more than the crickets and katydids. It would have been – should have been – peaceful, if not a bit ominous.

The whole scene exuded a spooky tranquility that shrouded my altercation on the path just inside the hedge line. The rapid thumping of my own heartbeat pounded in my ears and shocked disbelief kept my eyes locked on that crumpled body a few feet away. I squinted through stinging tears and my brow pushed together in a contemplative reflex.

Appalled, my jaw fell slack as shifting moonlight separated the shadows to reveal a hulking form just behind my friend’s prone corpse. The bald man in a tight blazer was on his feet again. It was the one my brain referred to as Delivery Man. The repulsive ogre who had attacked me without provocation.

And somehow my brain deduced that he had killed my friend. A friend trying to rescue me from his deadly intentions, which put the resulting murder squarely in my blame column.

Even in the swinging shadows, I could see the dark moisture that covered Delivery Man’s right arm – starting just above the elbow – down to the dripping fingers curled around a ten inch section of limp spinal column. A ghastly remnant of the slaughter performed just moments ago. Strings of gelatinous fluid stretched between his gory trophy and a puddle of goop forming in the grass.

“Two Festers for the price of one.” Delivery Man grinned with those ghastly teeth and followed it with a menacing chuckle. “No further delay. You were warned.”

“Whatever a Fester is… you can shove it up your fat ass, you sumbitch! You killed him! You insane motherf----- !” My verbal barrage cut short at a hoarse shriek when stark realization slammed home like a red hot poker.

I was in deep shit. For real.

Bald dude wasn’t here to deliver a message. He didn’t want to just scare me or rough me up. He meant to turn me into a puddle of liquid history. And apparently, he would enjoy it.

What did I do to deserve this?

And for the first time in my life, I knew genuine fear. I understood it for what it really was. I flashed on a lifetime of memories at the precise moment I felt the bone chilling, blood curdling adrenaline shot to my heart.

“Oh, shit!” I spun and lunged toward the car.

Twenty feet separated me from the Chevy Impala idling at the street’s edge. Three running strides should have been enough. Should. If I hadn’t just had my ass handed to me. My legs churned. My chest heaved from exertion and the world slowed down around me.

Just a bad dream, right? Wake up.

Like running in water, my legs seemed to be pushing me through invisible sludge. The harder I pumped, the slower I progressed against the thick, invisible current of resistance. Dream-running sucked.

Wakeup wakeup wakeup!

Pain stabbed my shoulders as I began my second real-time stride. Delivery Man clamped a heavy grip on them from behind.

His full weight was on me by the time I entered my third stride. There was hot breath on the back of my neck and another guttural growl sounded just behind my right ear. Short, thick legs circled my waist from behind and the force of the impact coupled with my momentum to propel me forward as one knee buckled.

Hands outstretched, our combined impetus thrust me against the car door. My face met the window with a sick thunk and I felt important bones shatter.

The glass held.

Crap! Not a fair fight. Game over, man!

Thoughts flew past my mental window. Images. Color. Blurry faces. Incomplete recollections.

Does your life really flash before your eyes just as it ends?

So much to do. Why me? Why now?

Then that beautiful face was at the car window. A small hand slapped at the other side of the glass. Her visage blended terror and shock. Gorgeous blonde hair bounced across her forehead and cheeks as she shook her head in helpless panic. That dainty hand pounded the tinted glass again.

She screamed something, but I couldn’t make it out.

The woman I loved was worried about me and my heart missed another beat. She cared about me. How cool was that?

Wait. The woman I loved? Was that really the frame of reference my brain used for her?

Admit it, old man. You know you do.

My face slid painfully slow down the door, leaving a wet, dark colored smear across the side panel.

Damn… I should have slept with her.

Delivery Man bent and flipped me over. It seemed effortless. I was little more than a child’s rag doll to be tossed about. Kneeling, he leaned in and assaulted my nostrils again with that foul breath. There were veins protruding from his temples and his forehead glistened with perspiration.

And just as those black eyes rolled upward, I saw something else. Surprisingly, it wasn’t satisfaction or even intensity, as I might have imagined. Something else showed in his empty pupils.

Disdain? No, not that.

I swallowed hard one last time as I registered his complete loathing for me.

Delivery Man didn’t enjoy killing me. Nor did he shy away from it. Indeed, it seemed more like he was here to complete an unpleasant chore. The same look I had seen on my father’s face when he’d recently removed a furry carcass from the wooden mousetrap in his garage.

In Delivery Man’s eyes, I was filth. Something akin to unclean vermin.

In a different situation, I might have contemplated the reasons for his contempt – speculate on who had sent him – and why had I been targeted. For now, however, my thoughts couldn’t coordinate the sustained conformity to launch a single query. Rational thought slipped away, replaced by swirling eddies of recollections and questions. I stared upward, stunned into silent submission.

So, this is it? Just lay here? Will it hurt?

I was losing it. Slipping away. The pumping in my ears quickened, yet now seemed to echo from a great distance.

“Like all Festers… ssssooo pathetic,” he hissed at me through clenched teeth. “Die knowing… that you will not be the last.”

His lips curled back in a vicious snarl and that wet arm raised for the finishing blow, flinging grisly body fluids into the air. I saw it coming down towards me. Watched its slow motion arc and squeezed my eyelids tight.

Please, God. Protect my daughter.

How weird is that? To know exactly when you’re going to die.

It just ain’t natural. Knowing, that is.

What went wrong?

Four minutes ago, I was on top of the world. I had restructured my business. I had a plan and it was working. For cryin’ out loud – I had Juice! It was mine – untold wealth within my grasp. The world was about to come knocking.

And the woman I loved had just asked me to run away with her.

I had stepped through the looking glass and touched my elusive fantasies. But the rabbit hole was a horrifying bottomless pit and now I would die.

I guess it’s true. Having everything you want dropped in your lap doesn’t guarantee you’ll survive the impact.

 

 

 

 

2 -- OFF RAMP

 

 

Reflecting on my life’s journey has never been a priority. The twists and detours in my trek through obscurity were too numerous to recall. I just had a goal and moved toward it, rarely analyzing the efficacy of my actions to reach that goal. But, I now believe the off ramp for me – the series of events that converged to rewrite history – began when I met Caleb and his entourage.

Them. The family of misfits that seemed to hail from everywhere. And yet, from nowhere that made sense.

The void of my life would suddenly surge with uninvited relationships just as my struggles for self importance would come to startling fruition. The rewards I drove myself to achieve would burst into reality. Success beyond my wildest imagination would finally be within reach. Unless some greater galactic force screwed it up for me.

My life, scattered and at times, misdirected, would drift into the exit lane towards the junction of Impossible Avenue and Unexplained Boulevard.

My Success and Caleb’s Family.

It’s still unclear, even now, whether one factor was the result of the other or if the two were brought together via some morbid law of attraction. But the path I traveled would encounter this crossroad – and the unavoidable decision it created. Left or right. Right or Wrong.

Live or Die.

In retrospect, I guess I never had a choice. For the record, I firmly believe the future is not prewritten. Yet, there’s no doubt in my mind that the collision between Caleb’s world and mine was inevitable. The impact would ignite a chain reaction of terrifying events in which I would play a part.

But the importance of that part was yet to be determined.

At the time, all I knew was that my journey of more than 39 years had become bogged down and tiresome. A result of my over zealous efforts that had multiplied unchecked. While chasing bigger dollars, it seems I had become a victim of my own one-step-forward-two-backward approach to life. And I had been reluctant to admit this fact until just recently.

So, in the summer of 2008, I resolved to make significant course changes of my own. My off ramp into chaos was dead ahead and I subconsciously veered toward it.

Go big or go home.

As I recall, my normal life – before them – ended in late August. It was unseasonably hot in Western North Carolina. The nights cooled off nicely, but at 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon it was just plain sticky.

Maybe I should get a dog.

I took a long pull on the icy Mountain Dew, swallowed hard and returned it to the cup holder between the seats. Highway 74 West stretched out before me through the windshield. Leaving the small town of Andrews in my mirror, I motored towards Murphy, about 15 minutes ahead.

Facing the late day sun made me squint and I longed for the drive to just be over. More than two hours in the car since leaving Asheville and my thoughts weighed heavy. The sun was scorching away my remaining patience. I needed a shave and a fresh shirt.

Not one of those scrappy little hair balls. I mean a real, man’s-best-friend kinda’ dog.

Reaching into my breast pocket to extract a cigarette, I inserted it between my lips, touched Bic flame to the tip and pulled hard. A heavy sigh blew smoke all over the dash, where it hovered briefly before escaping through the window I kept down about three inches.

Little “doggies” were only good for Paris Hilton types to dress up in frilly costumes and carry in expensive handbags. A mid sized dog was what I needed. A man’s dog. One that could ride next to me with its head out the window. A true companion to share my lonely hours in silence without complaining and rest its head on my lap after a long day.

Lord knows I can’t get a woman.

I ran tired fingers through my light brown hair, pushing it backward even as a few loose strands dangled down over my eyebrows. I usually kept it well groomed, allowing myself that tiny bit of vanity. But, now it brushed the top of my ears and swooped in waves to a point just below my collar line in back. It wasn’t a mullet. But if I didn’t get a trim soon, the jokes would start.

Shit, I’d probably just end up with a dog that humps my leg.

I shifted my weight, realigning my butt cheeks and spreading my thighs. Crotch itch was a bitch. The Chevy Impala was comfortable enough for someone my size. But, my belt buckle was carving a small groove into the underside of the roll that pudged over my jeans.

My name is Doral Knobel. Just “Dak” to anyone I’ve met more than once. I have to admit that the 225 pounds I usually carried so well was now pushing 235 from too many hours on my butt. I kept the seat all the way back to accommodate my 6’2” frame.

Almost new, the car was a dirty gray color. The tinted side windows were nice, but the fireball sun was dead ahead right now. I took a short drag on the smoke and adjusted the overhead visor to shade my eyes as blue smoke trailed from my nostrils. Thank God for air conditioning. Even with the window cracked, I kept the AC blower cranked up.

Who am I kidding? Even a dog would run off after a couple days with me.

Digging hard with my free hand, I tried to make an adjustment in the constricted area below my belt. Why did a long drive in snug jeans always produce a nagging itch in the worst place? It didn’t seem fair.

Note to self… the guy who invents anti-itch jeans will make a killing.

Maybe I could undo the snap. Reach in. Fix the problem. Of course, that’s when a truck driver would pass by and give me one of those looks.

My luck, I’d put the car in a ditch with one hand stuck in my pants.

I could picture the headlines in Murphy’s weekly paper, The Cherokee Scout.

 

LOCAL MAN KILLED IN BIZARRE ZIPPER ACCIDENT

Officials Puzzled

 

I could just see my mother’s face. That would be priceless.

A Van Halen classic filled the car and my fingers drummed along on the steering wheel. No rap crap for me. Not this guy. Country music was tolerable on a slow day. But nothing beats good Rock n’ Roll. Power ballads. Blazing guitar riffs.

Oh, yeah.

I still loved to sing along when I was alone. Now, however, I drove in silence – consumed by brain fatigue.

My destination was – and always had been – a place of comfort and contentment. I don’t need massive wealth. Just enough significant income to eliminate stress and worry. I run my own businesses. My daughter and parents are my primary concerns.

But, for me, financial success has been an elusive objective. Unconventional methods have usually paved my path. Nothing illegal, of course. But, I’m no rat in a maze. The 9 to 5 dead end trap isn’t for me.

Doing whatever it takes. Putting in the hours. Sacrificing the small pleasures. Full speed ahead. That’s me, for sure. No rat. No maze. Go big or go home… and you make your own cheese.

Checking the speed control to ensure it was set at 60, I glanced at the empty passenger seat. Just enough room for a big dog. Or a patient woman. But, since I had neither – and no prospects – I inhaled smoked and drove with my shoulders slumped.

Unfortunately, if I’m being brutally honest, I’m not always as smart as I should be. My ambitions and confidence tend to get me into hot water. That doesn’t make me a bad person or an idiot. I’m just saying, sometimes I get in over my head.

And that was the modus operandi that I needed to amend. I was spread too thin. Too much overhead and not enough income. Not enough hours in the day.

I’d been toying with some ideas and postponing some tough decisions for several months now. But the resolve to consolidate my projects and streamline my life had solidified over the last few weeks. I wasn’t getting any younger, as much as I hated to admit it.

The past three days spent at DataOne had been uneventful and unprofitable. DataOne, in Asheville, was a small data processing facility with a few political names on its short list of clients. As a majority owner, I had a vested interest in its success, but it wasn’t growing and neither was my personal bank account.

Worst of all, it no longer held my interest. I was bored with it. That meant that DataOne was on the chopping block. It was some of the fat I planned to trim in an effort to get my life under control.

On the up side, I had made some significant contacts in the political world since taking over the company two years ago. I believed in keeping my “black book” full of names with clout. You never knew who might be helpful down the road.

Approaching the intersection at Marble, I dabbed the brakes when the traffic light changed to yellow. Something on the back seat slid onto the floor with a thud. I glanced back over my shoulder before realizing I really didn’t care. I shrugged and turned forward, sucking on my cigarette.

The back seat was a black hole of despair and disarray. A physical manifestation of my life, if I chose to recognize the similarities. It was littered with boxes, files, papers, fast food bags, a brief case and other assorted junk that made up my mobile office. The debris field extended to the trunk where I kept duffel bags and a couple of plastic trash bags. Clothes, shoes and other personal necessities for my life on the road.

I had a habit of keeping it simple. Jeans and assorted sneakers or flip flops were all I ever wore. There was only one pair of khaki Dockers in one of the duffels. The rest of my attire was usually a T-shirt or Polo. As long as it had a pocket for my notes and smokes, I didn’t much care what it looked like. Hanging on the side hook in the back seat were two Oxford button-downs I kept for the occasional business meeting. Somewhere among the litter was a wrinkled tie that matched either shirt.

“It’ll come in handy if I decide to hang myself. God knows I need a friggin’ break,” I muttered out loud. There were four credit cards in my wallet – three were over limit. Push was coming to shove and I was running out of things to shove.

I devoted 70 to 80 hours a week to my projects, most of it sitting behind the wheel of this car because I was too spread out. Another side affect of my not-so-organized approach to business.

The downside was that I had no life. No “me” time. And even if I did, there was no one special to share it with. It was a lonely, boring life I had endured these past few years. Traveling back and forth between my different businesses – Asheville, Murphy, Marietta, Atlanta, Dalton – I often felt like a hamster on the wheel. Running hard and getting nowhere.

The rat I had sworn I would never be.

Ah, what th’ hell.

I reached down to address that nagging itch and that’s when I noticed the large white SUV idling next to me with the window down. A gorgeous female eyed me with a sly smirk.

Oh, crap!

I let go of my crotch and grabbed the wheel with both hands, feeling the rush of color spread across my face. The woman licked her lips playfully, tossed back long sandy hair and pushed sun glasses into place as the tinted window slid up to block my view.

Geez… gimme’ a break.

The light went green and I stomped the gas. Sucking the last of the smoke, I flicked it over the top of the open window and reached for the Mountain Dew again.

I was currently a partial owner in three businesses. And there were three that I owned out right. Some were losing money, some were doing “okay” and one, Elite Concepts, was on the brink of a huge windfall. A new product I was about to release would definitely bring in the big bucks.

Of all my ventures, Elite Concepts was my favorite and I wanted to give it more time. Inventing gimmicks that people just couldn’t live without satisfied my creative urges and marketing them in clever ways was the type of challenge I enjoyed embracing.

And I had a genuine hunch about this newest creation. Sure, I’d had these feelings before. But, this time, I was convinced I was on the right track. My new project would shower me with long awaited rewards.

It just had to. Overhead was killing me.

Gotta’ spend money to make money.

As if my own life wasn’t frustrating enough, the rest of the world was also going to hell in a hurry. The Big Cheese from Texas was driving endless nails into his political coffin. The Muslims were taking over the world. The Chinese controlled all the purse strings and Wall Street was doing its impersonation of the Titanic. Dwarfing all this was news that some unknown black guy thought he had a snowball’s chance of becoming president of the United States.

Who knows? His competition was weak. A woman most people were fed up with and some other pasty-faced wannabe’s who were willing to say all the right things and prostitute themselves for the highest office. They were all bloodsuckers living off the people, as far as I was concerned.

And yet, none of that seemed important right now. I just couldn’t devote the mental effort required to give a shit.

I needed a break. Maybe, a little luck. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul was an exhausted option. Peter wasn’t even taking my calls these days. It was time to reconfigure the way I did things and streamline my activities. Recapture some semblance of normalcy.

Do or die.

Removing the cell phone from my belt clip, I flipped it open and thumbed the buttons. After two rings, there was a click.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Dad. It’s me. Just pulling into Murphy now… I’ve got a few stops to make and it’s been a long day. Where are you right now?” I had called my father’s cell phone.

My parents were remodeling an old Victorian house as an investment project. Restoring it would be more accurate. Gordon and Ann Knobel were hard working, consistent, reliable and devoted.

Dad told me he was home and mom was preparing supper, but he’d be at the Victorian the next day. However, he’d be heading home early. They had dinner plans with some neighbors and he asked me if I’d ever heard of the Westlands.

“Don’t think so. Listen, give Mom a hug and I’ll see you tomorrow some time. I really want to talk to you.” My dad agreed and I snapped the phone shut, tossing it onto the seat next to me. My watch displayed 4:45. Patty usually left the office by 5:00 and I knew I could catch her if I hurried. Leaving the 4-lane at the first Murphy light, I made a right and then turned left on the “Old Road” towards the old home that served as a converted office building, just off Regal Street.

Leaving the keys in the Impala, I tromped up the porch steps that fronted the simple gray ranch with white shutters. There was no signage and no lettering on the front door. From the outside, it just looked like an old house. Inside, it just looked like an old office.

Stained carpet, dark paneling and dim lighting were the better features. Slanted floors and crooked walls gave it what Patty called “character.” The window AC hummed and I could hear water running in the kitchen, located near the back of the building. The living room now held two old desks, assorted rickety chairs and dented filing cabinets. The flat screen TV in the corner was the only thing with any modern luster.

I headed down the narrow hall past the small bathroom and entered the kitchen/dining combo to find Patty rinsing a coffee mug in the sink. Her purse and a crumpled Wal-Mart bag lay on the counter next to her keys.

“Hey, Patty,” I said and pinched her on the elbow. She jumped and I gave her my biggest grin.

“Dak! You goofy pain in the butt! Why didn’t you call?” Patty Mare was in her late forties, pleasantly plump and her short strawberry hair was naturally wavy. Her round cheeks turned bright red easily and she had an infectious smile. About 5’7” in her flats, Patty wore khaki Capris pants and a light blue sleeveless blouse. She punched me in the belly. “I oughta’ whoop your butt for sneakin’ up on me.”

“C’mon… it’s the only fun I’ve had all day. And your cheeks are red again.” I chuckled as I turned to sit in one of the flimsy old chairs at the small table where Patty ate her lunch. It was next to a sliding glass door that opened onto the back yard. This was a residential area, so the office actually had a yard. Unfortunately, it would take about two hours of mowing before anyone would ever see it again.

“Whatsup?” Patty leaned back against the counter, drying her hands on a small towel. She had come to work for me almost six years ago. Although she was technically my assistant/secretary/gopher, she felt more like a favorite aunt. Our interactions were garnished with banter, concern and familial understanding. We were comfortable with the unspoken bond that had formed between us. I counted on her. Trusted her. And anything Patty couldn’t do for me, her husband Larry usually could. “Sorry about the grass. I can have Larry cut it on Saturday.”

“Don’t worry about it, Sweetie. Least of my problems. Although, you could call the landlord and ask him if the Jungle Look is really what he’s going for here.”

“And when he asks me about the two months rent we owe him?” She crossed her arms under her breasts and waited. Patty oversaw my personal finances and paid my bills, too. That duty included writing her own paycheck every other week – or every third week, if my accounts were in danger of flat lining.

“Yeah, well… forget about it. We won’t be here long.” I reached for a cigarette, but thought better of it as Patty took a seat next to me. “That’s why I’m glad I caught you. Did you find us a building?”

“As a matter of fact, I did. David Fritz called to tell me the old Remax office was finally available down there on the four lane. The Remax people got all their stuff out.”

“Did he give you any numbers?”

“I didn’t ask. We’re broke, Dak. I didn’t think it mattered. Figured if you wanted a new building, you’d just figure out a way to get it. You always do.” She gave me her I don’t wanna’ know how you do it look.

“Anything urgent come up while I was in Asheville?” I tried to change the subject.

“Ugh! You’re such a… a… man.” Patty tossed the hand towel at me and straightened. A signal that she was ready to go. “No. Nothing that can’t wait. Ginger says two of the trucks down in Dalton need tires. Harley says he can make payroll… but wants to go over the forth quarter budget with you. You know. The usual crap.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I responded with a slight eye roll. “Listen. In the morning, call David and arrange a meeting for me to talk about that building. Tell him it’s urgent. Maybe he can meet me in the afternoon, okay? I’m going over to Dad’s in the morning.”

“Yeah, I’ll call you.” Patty didn’t have to write it down. She would remember. Sometimes it seemed like she knew what I needed, even before I did.

I stood up and rested a hand on Patty’s shoulder as she rose. “Don’t know what I’d do without you, Darlin.’ And don’t worry. I did a lot of thinking over the last couple days. We’re gonna’ turn things around… together. Starting tomorrow.”

“I know, Dak. I mean… I know you have plans and you mean well. I’ll stick with you, no matter what. But our back is really against the wall in a few places.”

I leaned in and gave her a hug. “You’re right. And I’ve had enough. Get me that appointment with David. Oh! And try to get in touch with Jerry Roberts for me. Tell him we need to talk. Now get outta’ here or Larry will be calling.”

Patty picked up her purse and bag, heading for the front door while I ducked into the small bathroom. Standing there, I stared at the paint peeling off the wall above the commode while the Little General drained his load. My plans raced through my brain and the dull throb of a pending headache was working its way up the back of my neck.

No turning back. Full speed ahead.

There would be challenges. But, the end game would be worth it. I would make this work and I would gain the peace I longed for – or, at least, reduce the confusion. My daughter would have what she needed and my parents would live out their years in comfort.

Hopefully, I would sleep at night.

Yep! Look out World! It’s nothing personal. Just business.

Returning to the car, I piled into the driver seat and turned the key. The cell phone was buzzing on the seat where I’d left it. Missed Call. The display read “Shyanne.” With an elevated heart rate, I thumbed the voicemail button as I backed the Impala onto the street and gunned it.

My daughter, Shyanne, was 19 and living a couple hours away at Western University. I listened to her explain that she wanted to come home for the weekend and felt my pulse fade back to normal. There was no crisis. She was just missing me. And no, she didn’t need any money. I grinned at that comment.

The message ended with a promise to see me on Friday. Shyanne had only been gone a couple of weeks and the fact that she wanted to come see me was a relief. We were close and I had prayed that going away to school wouldn’t diminish the bond we had built after her mother left.

I missed my baby girl terribly. But, with my travels, I hadn’t been able to spend much time with her lately, which bothered me deeply. Gordon and Ann had helped keep an eye on her. Shyanne always stayed busy, usually working two part-time jobs, so she’d have her own money when she went off to college.

I decided to make a pit stop at Wal-Mart before hitting a fast food joint on my way to the house. If Shyanne was coming, I would need a few groceries. And dish soap. Some snacks and a carton of smokes. And a little white bottle of something to combat the headache that was creeping into that annoying spot a half inch behind my eyebrows.

No dog. No woman. And I still get headaches. I must be cursed.

 

 

 

 

3 -- BANANAS

 

 

Life in Murphy has its advantages. Nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, it seems to be half way to everywhere while still being in the middle of nowhere. You can actually live out in the country and still be able to reach a major city within about two hours. During the summer, traffic swells to four times its normal volume as seasonal residents and vacationers flood this area.

On the down side, being a small town in the middle of nowhere means there’s not a lot to do in the way of evening entertainment. During the day, adventure seekers can enjoy rafting, hiking, camping, hunting and more. But, at night? Well, there was Wal-Mart.

At 5:30, the retail monster drew humans like moths to a candle. The swarm represented a full spectrum of the species – from well dressed white-collars on their way home after a 9 to 5 – to low income chemical junkies and no income adolescents with nothing better to do.

I winced a little as my headache reached full tilt.

My flip flops smacked the waxed tile while I pushed my buggy down the wide grocery aisles of Murphy’s Supercenter. Trudging along, I dropped various items into the buggy while keeping my head low and avoiding eye contact. Not that I wasn’t sociable. I usually had an amicable way about me and people generally liked me. But tonight, I just wasn’t in the mood.

In and out. Grab your stuff. Make tracks for a hot shower.

Lost in thought, wondering which burger joint I should hit on the way to the house, I rounded the end of aisle 5 and had a collision with Mark Vickey’s shopping buggy. I looked up sheepishly and grinned big.

“Dakkie!” he exclaimed. “Where you been, you old Cod? Ain’t seen you in forever.”

In his trademark camo, Mark’s boyish features smiled back at me from beneath a John Deere ball cap perched atop a mop of shaggy dark hair. As a football stud in high school, Mark had saved my geeky butt more than once. Twenty years later, he was a full blown red neck right down to the chewin’ tobacco stuffed inside his cheek.

Me? Well, I’m not too geeky anymore. But our friendship had endured since tenth grade and now we clasped hands in the manly thumb-wrap manner, patting each other roughly on the back of our shoulders. Mark was a big ol’ boy, probably three inches and thirty pounds larger than me.

“Hey, Bud. You’re lookin’ good.” I returned his greeting. Mark made money any way he could. He was selling houses one week and building them the next. Hauling wood, cutting hay. It didn’t matter and he never complained. “Staying busy?”

“You bet, Dakkie! I got enough money for gas and beer. How ‘boutchoo?”

“Still on the road a lot. But not much longer, if I can help it.” I glanced down at Mark’s buggy. A pack of hot dogs, a six-pack of Old Milwaukee and two boxes of shotgun shells. Typical. “What’s the plan, Mark? Hunting season open already?”

“Nope. Got me a stake out. Gonna’ watch some cows.” Mark backed away and maneuvered his buggy around mine. In doing so, he bumped a rotund lady rounding the meat bunker. She had a wide ass, a female mustache and a dirty toddler riding backwards in the buggy. I saw Mark fighting to keep a straight face as he gave her a barely discernable nod. “’Scuse me, ma’am.”

With a look of contempt, she had waddled away. We watched her butt cheeks flopping up and down in her skin tight shorts that displayed panty lines disappearing at odd angles into her massive crack.

When she was out of sight, Mark spoke first, “Speakin’ of cows.”

“You need help, Mark.” I paused briefly and we both burst out laughing. An older couple ambled by with a they must be a couple of them druggies look and quickly turned into the next aisle. When the adolescent giggles subsided, I composed myself and asked, “So, what’s the deal with the cows? Run out of girls to date?”

“Huh… no, it’s weird, Dak. You know somethin’ out there is attackin’ cows ‘round here? Nine total, so far. Three in th’ last week. Five of ‘em was out near Hangin’ Dog. Your folks say anything?”

“No, but I just got back into town. What’s the deal? Someone killing cows?”

“Not some one. Some thing. And dey ain’t dead. That’s th’ head scratcher, man. Dem cows just got tore up, but not kilt. Dey got some ragged scratches and deep punctures. Kinda’ jest stand thar in a daze fer a day or two and then dey seem to be okay. But, the owners are keepin’ ‘em away from their herds until dey figger it out. No tellin’ what dey got or if it’ll spread.”

I leaned on my buggy, absorbing Mark’s words. But it just didn’t make any sense. Shaking my head, I said, “Guess you lost me, ol’ buddy. Some hurt cows and you gotta’ do a stakeout with a gun?”

“You ain’t listening, Cod Breath.” Mark’s banter was endless. “Nine of ‘em! All wit’ th’ same wounds, but none died. Somethin’ weird going on. Me and some of th’ guys are goin’ to watch a few of the pastures out our way and see what we kin see.”

“Well, must be a big animal… to attack cows, right?”

“You’d think. But what kind of animal attacks nine beefs an’ never kills one?”

“You got me, Mark,” I shrugged. “Sounds weird, for sure. Be careful, ya’ hear? It’s got to be a big animal or something. Maybe some wild dogs. How long has this been going on?”

“’Bout two or three weeks, I guess. An’ don’t worry ‘bout me. I’ll be careful, Dakkie. Me and my shotgun are jess gonna’ lay low and watch. I see any wild dogs… I’ll shoot ‘em. But, I jess don’t figger on dogs makin’ the same wounds over and over on diff’rent cows in diff’rent fields all over the county.” He hit me with another manly gesture, the traditional shoulder punch and said, “See ya when ah see ya!”

“Later, Mark. Call me in a day or two. I’ll buy you a beer and you can tell me if you shot anything.”

Flip flopping toward the check-outs, I inspected the contents of my buggy. Milk, bread, salami, cheese, chips, cereal, socks, deodorant, bananas. Nothing too exciting.

Such was my life.

I thought about Mark’s cow story and did another mental shrug. Obviously, there was more to the story. You just never knew with fun loving Mark. Next time I ran into my old buddy, I’d probably hear about how he had shot Bigfoot while on cow patrol.

The check-outs were busy. Nothing new. With heartless resolve, I placed my loot on the self-check belt and began the task of swiping things across the scanner.

Teri Robinson watched me from her post at the employee monitor. She was an attractive woman in her mid forties and she smiled broadly when I caught her eye and gave a little nod. Most of the people who worked here knew me. A side effect of living in a small town.

Nearby, Linda was manning Register 10. Her 60 year old hair was cropped close and she rarely wore her teeth. Raising a hand to my mouth, I blew her a silent kiss and she turned blood red, flashing me a gummy smile. We had played this little game for years.

My gaze drifted and I panned the people in Linda’s line with absentminded interest. A fat couple with two cases of beer. A lady in an electric chair with toilet paper piled high in the basket. An attractive blonde holding some bananas. A teenager with weird hair, picking his nose. A white trash couple with three kids and two buggies in danger of collapsing from the weight of their bounty.

Reverse pan: Trailer Trash with rug rats. Excavating Teenager. Bananas. Petite blonde in low-rider jeans, belly shirt with plunging neckline, about 5’1” and well rounded in all the right places. Long, blonde hair framing an angelic face. Small nose with a perfect tip. Full, wide lips with no lipstick. And those eyes – so blue – so deep – soooo staring at me.

Shit!

My head jerked downward and I fumbled with the 3-pack of socks. Like a kid up to his elbow in the cookie jar when Mom walks in the room, I felt deflated and childish.

I’m such an idiot. Seriously… get a grip.

Swipe. Beep. Swipe. Beep.

With no presumption of risk, I stole a side glance, stooping to set the milk in the bag on the self-check scale. She was staring straight ahead now, the most delightful smirk playing on those lips. The smirk of a woman who knew she had been ogled and apparently didn’t mind.

Her dainty tongue darted out to moisten her upper lip – slowly. I caught a glimpse of perfect teeth. Perfect teeth behind perfect lips under a perfect nose and those perfect eyes – were looking at me again.

Damn! Busted again. You flippin’ idiot!

Feigning frustration with the check-out, I rubbed my forehead, shielding my eyes behind my hand. Through my fingers, I watched her raise her left shoulder slightly, drop her chin and cock a thin eyebrow in my direction. Was she daring me to look again?

Dropping my hand to reach for my wallet, I gave her a look of surprise, as if I hadn’t already noticed her just twenty feet away. When her lips formed a sexy pout, it caught me totally off guard. In a fluster, I grabbed my bananas. Waving them at the ones she held, I made a "See? We eat the same stuff" kind of gesture.

Oh, Geez!

I lowered the bananas with embarrassment. Ladies and gentlemen, the results are in and this year’s winner of The Lame Dipshit Award is Doral Knobel!

Thank you. Thank you, so much. First, I’d like to thank God for the opportunity. I’d like to thank the Academy members who voted for me. And my parents for their support.

Maybe there was a reason I hadn’t had a date in nearly a year.

Because I’m a hopeless dumbass!

But, to my surprise, instead of rolling her eyes, the blonde raised her bananas and gave them a little jiggle. She flipped her head gently to swing a few blonde strands back over her shoulder and graced me with the most endearing smile I’d seen in 39 years.

Turning slightly to face the tabloid rack, she reached for a People magazine. This caused her to lean across the conveyor belt and she stretched a little extra for the benefit of any tongue-wagging dipshits within viewing distance. As the only award winner in the vicinity, I stared at the way her snug jeans accented the perfect contour of her backside.

Trance-like, my eyelids drooped a bit. I inhaled long and hard, not even noticing my tongue sliding slowly across my own lips.

Oh, my.

I crammed a twenty into the money slot with hands that were suddenly clammy and forced myself not to look again. I hadn’t seen anything that attractive since Sheri left three years ago. Apparently, Little General agreed. I grimaced at the growing pressure against my fly and clutched the Wal-Mart bag a little closer to cover my sudden expansion.

Head straight for the shower and make it a cold one. Out of the way, people! Dumbass coming through!

With a nod to Teri, I power walked to the exit without looking back.

A minute later, I dropped into the Impala and slammed the door, thankful that I hadn’t bumped into my mother or Pastor Brown in the parking lot. My mother! One look at the swell beneath my belt and she would have given me a stiff lecture right there in front of Wal-Mart and half the people in Murphy.

Staring out the windshield for a moment, I exhaled the breath I didn’t know I was holding. Thoughts of my mother were replaced by a twister of anxious reflections.

What a doll! Where did she come from? Who is she? Wonder if I’ll see her again. Get a grip. Act your age. Just a pretty woman.

Lighting the smoke I’d instinctively fingered from the pack on the console, I inhaled deeply and held it for a moment. Finally, I blew it against the windshield with an audible huff and answered myself out loud. “No, sir. Not just a pretty woman. That was one helluva pretty woman. And now… it’s official. I am definitely the biggest doofus in Murphy.”

Staring down at my crotch, I added, “And you, my friend… are an embarrassment. I can’t take you anywhere.”

On the up side, the headache was gone.

I reached between my legs to make some equipment adjustments and keyed the Impala. Turning the AC to high and sliding a CD into the player, I headed for home.

After a quick stop at Nate’s Country Store for a carton of smokes and another stop in a fast food drive-thru, I pulled into my driveway around 7:00. Placing the food on the kitchen bar next to the large Mountain Dew that started forming a sweat puddle, I headed into the master bathroom.

Turning on the shower, I stripped and stood before the full sized mirror over the vanity. I leaned forward for a closer look. I probably favored the guy with the Fedora and whip in those Raider movies, if you asked me.

Whatever. Just a guy. Nothing special.

Crap! What th’ hell is that?

I leaned in closer to inspect the small cluster of nose hair that was forming a visible bush in my left nostril. Good thing the blonde hadn’t seen this. I clenched my teeth, grabbed the mini-shrub and gave it a nasty tug.

“Son of a…. !” I yelped out loud.

With a fingertip covered in fuzz and eyes watering, I straightened and gazed into the mirror again. Heavier than I should be, I thought I carried it well. No six pack, but not flabby either. Too much time on my ass, that’s for sure.

In the bottom of the mirror, my junk hung limp. Unimpressive. I suppose it was about average in size. Just barely, but then again, I’d never given it much thought. Never had any complaints. Little General seemed like an appropriate nickname. Always ready to take charge.

Pathetic looking little trouble maker.

I pivoted to view myself in profile, sucked in my gut; let it out with a grunt. Forced it round by flexing belly muscles.

Geez, I look like I’m flippin’ pregnant.

Sucked it in tight. Now out. In. Out. In.

**sigh**

Hot water flooded me with bone deep relief when I stood face up under the shower head. I let the spray massage my hair and drop down my back in soothing waves. Sometimes, it seemed like this was as good as it gets.

Small pleasures, old man. Just stand here and enjoy it.

Tomorrow would bring new challenges. Firmly convinced about the direction I would take my business, I felt as if I’d turned a corner. Business complications and financial dreams aside, a little peace and harmony was all I really wanted in my life. Was that too much to ask?

Reaching for the shampoo, my brain changed channels in silent clicks.

New building, plans, money, big goals, worth it, shampoo, hair, blonde, bananas… oh, my.

Damn. She was f-i-n-e! And shoulder length, golden hair. I had a “thing” for long blonde hair.

Sheri had also worn her blonde locks in a leftover style from the 80’s. She was a single mom I’d dated after my divorce, when my daughter had finally pushed me off the sofa and said, “Get back out there, Dad.”

Without a doubt, I had fallen hard. For six months, Sheri had filled my every waking thought. But, as usual, all good things – for me – come to an end. And when she suddenly moved to Florida, I had been crushed.

Just feeling sorry for yourself, old man.

Again, Shyanne had consoled and comforted me. She had lived with me fulltime since the divorce and never saw her mother. My bond with her was strong. She was my daughter and my best friend.

Soon, I’d shaken off the blues and immersed myself in my work. For the last three years, work dominated my existence and the handful of dates I’d reluctantly attempted had triggered zero repeats.

Fingering the lather on my head, I recalled the encounter at Wal-Mart and my hasty escape. Like any normal guy, I noticed women in passing – even rubbernecking on occasion. Heck, I’m only human. And 39 years old ain’t dead. But, it had been a long time since anyone had literally taken my breath away.

I did a mental eye roll as my brain replayed my ridiculous behavior. Doofus didn’t even come close to describing how silly I felt.

But, why had she responded? Was she baiting me? Was she flirting? Did my deer in the headlights reaction invite her pity?

Mental head slap. Had I received a Sympathy Flirt?

Get caught looking like a twelve year old with his first Playboy and whataya’ expect?

Ducking under the spray to rinse, my mental video seemed stuck on auto-playback. With suds drooling down my face, I saw her smile. Those low-riders and that belly shirt covering its round treasures. I was one of those odd balls who didn’t care much for oversized breasts. Shape and contour were what really pushed my buttons. Just a good handful was right up my alley. And this blonde had enough to fill a large pair of hands – like mine.

Over and over again, she turned and stretched, making her jeans suck up into the cleft of those teardrop butt cheeks.

**sigh**

Auto-playback: Smile, hair toss, turn and stretch, ass from heaven. Smile, hair toss, turn and stretch, ass from heaven. Smile, hair toss – uh oh.

Shaking my hair like a wet dog, my eyes went wide. A familiar awakening stirred just south of the border. Something was up – again.

Down boy!

I twisted the shower knob and gasped like a girl when the steamy massage turned into icy spikes against my startled skin. My left big toe curled as I tensed and forced myself to withstand the frigid onslaught.

Downstream, Little General was doing his scared turtle act.

That’ll teach you.

Four minutes later, I pulled the covers over my shoulders and snuggled in deep, hair wet on my pillow. It was still light outside, but the shades were drawn. I didn’t care. I was done. Nothing left for today and anxious for tomorrow.

Skin still tingling; I welcomed the coming slumber, flexing the cramp in my big toe.

Bananas? I’m such a dumbass.

 

 

 

 

4 -- BRAIN FREEZE

 

 

No alarm. No distractions. Silence. Serenity. Sunlight.

Forcing my eyelids to separate, enjoying the moment while my brain slowly registered the situation. I flexed my long legs and arched my back, stretching under the covers. Light was seeping through the blinds, turning the room from black to shadows. The sheets were cool and the house was quiet.

I lay there, cradled in peace, trying to imagine what it would be like to live out my remaining years in that very position. The clock showed 7:10 and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept a full rotation of the little hand. For that matter, I couldn’t remember getting up to pee during the night.

Damn. Twelve hours. Too old to sleep that much.

If I ever got six hours these days, it was unusual. Just too busy.

Get up? Or, roll over?

No. Wasting away in the sheets was a luxury reserved for teenagers with no ambition. Today was a big day, things to do.

Drop your cocks and grab your socks!

A great line from a classic action movie and a private habit of mine. My overtaxed brain tended to relate in the form of memorable clips from movies and music.

Pushing my legs over the side of the bed, I stood slowly. One hand pushed fingers through my hair while the other went downtown for a scratch and an adjustment. I ambled into the bathroom to unload the bladder that was threatening to burst. While standing there, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and moaned. It looked like I’d pulled an all-nighter. Too much sack time was definitely not good for you.

I look like death.

Feeling better with my bladder back to acceptable proportions, I made tracks for the kitchen. The mental fuzzies were fading and the day’s agenda was dominating my brain. I was definitely going to do this and I felt almost giddy with anticipation. It would be a day full of adjustments – laying the foundation. Like a kid on the first day of the new school year, I was anxious to get started – to embrace the new challenges.

With all the blinds closed, the house was still dark. My kitchen was a walk-thru with a center island that held a double sink. To the right was the fridge and dishwasher. On the left was the stove and microwave. At this end was the transition from the living room and on the far end was the dining area. Heading left at the island, my shuffle stretched into strides, anxiety heightened by the lure of coffee.

Watch out world. No more getting kicked in the nuts!

My exhaustion last night had overshadowed hunger. The fast-food and drink had been left on the bar where condensation had later drizzled onto the floor. Now, cool marble tile gave way to slippery wet as my hasty steps hit the small puddle. Arms pinwheeling, I defied gravity for half a blink. One flailing hand collided with the fast food bag and sent it sailing into the darkness. The other hand thumped the counter in a feeble attempt to steady myself.

Too late. My legs were already out in front of me and the tile was racing upward.

“Whoashit!” I blurted out loud as I dropped.

Rock hard tile caught me with a muffled smack. My legs were spread in a wide V, one foot against the stove. My back came to pounded against the center island hard enough to jar my teeth.

Stunned, I sat perfectly still. Above me, the extra large Mountain Dew toppled over and I went bug-eyed when the yellow water deluged my head and shoulders.

I shook my head, flinging sticky wet hair.

This doofus is a trained professional. Please do not attempt these stunts on your own.

“Bee. You. Tee. Full.” I muttered slowly in disgust. “Crap on a big flippin’ stick!”

It took a few moments to get to my feet as I twisted and bent each body part, inspecting for serious damage. Amazingly, other than a little throb in my left wrist, I seemed to be relatively undamaged.

Okay, my butt hurt and I was drenched in sticky, yellow liquid. The stove and cabinets were splattered. The floor would need mopping. But, other than that, I was off to a good start.

Someone was knocking on the front door.

Of course! Spectators.

Another knock.

I stepped gingerly into the foyer, dripping a tacky trail. Seeing a familiar face through the door glass, I pulled the handle a few inches and used the door to shield my body.

“Floppy! What th’ hell you doing out so early?”

“Just got off work. Stopped to grab your mail and saw your car. Just get in?”

“Last night. What’s up?”

“Well, uh… can I come in?” I paused and then let out a sigh. Easing the door back, I ushered “Floppy” into the dark foyer. Jerry Roberts had been my closest friend for many years. About 6’4” and skinny as a rail, his straight brown hair was combed forward in bangs across his eyebrows. His mustache was salted with a few gray streaks.

When I had first seen Jerry, nearly 10 years ago, he had his jeans stuck in the top of his work boots. It had reminded me of Sheriff Andy on the old Andy Griffith Show. The boots were unlaced and the large tongues were flopping with each step. Hence, the nickname, Floppy. He no longer wore his boots that way, but the nickname stuck. Jerry didn’t mind. Five years older than me, he was mild tempered, quick with a retort and smart as a whip. Probably one of the smartest guys I knew.

Jerry fingered the wall switch and light filled the foyer. Tilting his head to look over his wire rim glasses, he gave me the up-n-down once over. Then he looked away, lips pulled up under his mustache.

“Not one word, Floppy.”

“Not saying a thing, Capt’n Disaster.” He feigned sudden interest in a new hangnail while I returned to the kitchen and flipped on more lights. At the sight of the splattered stove, I heard him snicker.

“Go ahead,” I huffed. “Laugh it up, Numb Nuts!”

Jerry dropped into one of the side chairs next to the dining table and let out an unrestrained guffaw. My hair looked like I’d been hit by lightning. My stubbled face was wet and yellow liquid trailed from my shoulders down to my boxers. Jerry wrapped one arm around his middle, trying unsuccessfully to hold back the laughter.

“Yeah, yeah. Go ahead.” I surrendered. “Just here for your amusement.”

“No shit.” Jerry gasped. “You need a woman… bad. Just to keep you from hurtin’ yourself.”

“That’s the last thing I need right now. Although, I did see a nice one last night.”

“Really? She in the other room?”

“Nope. I’ll probably never see her again.”

“Too bad,” he countered. Then, more seriously, “You’re dangerous all alone.”

“Aw, bite me, Flopster. I’m fine. Just slipped in some water.” I slouched a bit, leaning heavily on the sink island. “But, I think I broke my ass bone.”

A new round of laughter took Jerry down to one knee and I tossed a hand towel at his head. “Fix the coffee while I shower. Make yourself at home.”

8 minutes later, I emerged from the bedroom in jeans and a gray T-shirt. My hair was wet, but the beard stubble was gone. Jerry was on the sofa, watching CNN.

Due to my time on the road, I had relied on my friend to stop by a couple times a week to check on the house, grab mail and so on. Fortunately, the neighbors across the road cut the grass, so Jerry rarely did anything physical – although he had cleaned out the gutters a while back.

Coffee aroma drew me like a magnet and I took two mugs from the cabinet. Filling both, I added sugar to mine and left Jerry’s black. “Coffee, ol’ buddy?”

“Sure. Anything to eat?” he asked.

I opened the refrigerator and eyed the bare shelves. With a shrug, I grabbed the bananas on the counter and tossed one to Jerry. Then, I carried the coffees in and set them on the round table in front of the sofa.

“By the way,” Jerry began, “Did you know you have food on the mantel?”

My eyes shot toward the corner fireplace and saw the crumpled fast food bag amid the family pictures. The sandwich had spilled out. Roast beef and lettuce littered the 5x7 of my parents. There was sliced tomato on the floor in front of the hearth.

“Of course.” I responded nonchalantly. “Why? Where do you keep yours?”

“Huhn.” Jerry snickered again. “You need a babysitter and a maid.”

I chucked one fist against Jerry’s shoulder and returned to my coffee. We sat in silence for a couple minutes, staring at CNN, but not really watching.

When my mug was ready for a refill, I stood and spoke on my way to the kitchen. “So, what’s up, Floppy?”

I knew Jerry had been making ends meet the last few months by working third shift at one of the local plants. He’d been doing well in real estate before the market crash. Now he simply dabbled with it when time allowed.

“Well, you know we sold that spec house,” he began. It sounded as if he were choosing his words carefully. “Shelly and I were glad to get out from under that. But, we had to give it away and didn’t make anything.”

“Bummer.” I commented. “That’s rough. Sounds like my kinda’ luck.”

“Yeah. Live and learn. Anyhow, we’re just barely holding our own right now.” Jerry and Shelly had three grown daughters, Mandy, Lynn and Stacey. The two younger ones were away at school. Mandy was married and pregnant. “But, we just heard the hospital is going to cut Shelly back to three weeks per month. So, it’s tough times ahead.”

I paused, thoughtful. Shelly had been one of the head nurses at Murphy Medical for years. I knew they counted on her income. Jerry worked hard and did well. Like a lot of folks, they were just enduring some bum luck lately.

“Not gonna’ hit you with no sad sack story here,” Jerry continued. “I don’t mind working thirds at the plant, but the money’s crap. Was hoping you’d keep your ears open for me. You get around. You hear things. You could put in a word for me.”

“I might be able to do better than that,” I reached over and placed a hand on Jerry’s shoulder in a gesture of concern. “You know I think the world of you and Shelly. You know I trust you big time and of course… you’re a lot smarter than me.”

Jerry shrugged and rolled his eyes. “I don’t know about that. Better lookin’ maybe.”

“Ha ha. Seriously. You know? It’s funny you showed up this morning. I just asked Patty last night to call you. I’ve got something big in the works. Got some meetings today, but I want you to call me this evening before you go to work. Okay?”

“Can do.” Jerry got up to leave. “I put your mail on the table. I gotta’ get home. The vet’s comin’ at nine and Shelly wants me there.”

“The vet? Everything okay?” I knew Shelly had three horses.

“Dunno’ for sure. One of the horses got some wounds just above his shoulder on the lower neck. From way back, I thought some kid had shot him with a twenty two. Up close, though, looks like snake bite… from a big ass snake. Helluva thing. We called the vet.”

“Same thing that got those cows?”

“What cows?”

“Never mind. Call me later. Don’t forget.”

Moments later, I stood on the covered porch and watched Jerry’s green Jeep Cherokee crunch down the gravel driveway. Fingering the day’s first smoke to my lips, I lit up and sipped my third cup of coffee.

I liked Jerry. A lot. And Shelly had been helpful after my divorce and the ensuing custody case. Raising a teenage daughter on your own came with certain speed bumps. Shelly had been the concerned female to help me through it. And being a nurse and mother of three girls gave her the experience I needed to trust when a fatherly perspective wasn’t enough for Shyanne.

Damned odd about that horse.

Dropping the cigarette butt into a metal can by the door, I went back inside to get my day started – again.

Two hours later, the kitchen was clean as a whistle, the fireplace was sandwich-free and the floor was mopped. Teeth brushed, hair brushed. One load in the washer and one in the dryer. Good enough for now.

Wearing a dark blue golf shirt with a little Nike slash over the breast, clean jeans and blue flip flops, I grabbed my keys, patted my butt to check for a wallet and headed for the car.

Campbell Street was a small residential lane in the center of Murphy. I parked along the sidewalk in front of the large Victorian house, a registered Historical Landmark – and my parents’ retirement project.

Ann and Gordon Knobel, in their late 60’s, were restoring the two-story structure and the project had consumed them for the last five years. They were nuts for details and took great pains to get every board and every nail just right. The transformation from a run down blot on the landscape to breathtaking monument was remarkable. They swelled with pride at any chance to host guided tours for curious visitors.

With their work nearly done, my father now spent time on minor details while they tried to sell the house. The financial gains from this project would set them up for a comfortable retirement. I admired the results of their efforts and hoped it would sell quickly.

“Hey there!” Dad greeted me from the covered porch. He was just 5’6” and thin. Narrow face, cleft chin and hair mostly gray. Setting down the paint brush he was using, he gave me the once over. “Dressed for success, as usual.”

“You know it.” I responded cheerfully. Nothing new. Dad was sincere, supportive and dry. And his comments often sheltered admonitions in shady condescending tones. The years had taught me to overlook it.

With a spring in my step, I mounted the steps to join him on the porch. On the way, my flip flop snagged the lip of the top step. I tripped and fell awkwardly, knocking over a potted plant.

“Shit!” I blurted, looking up at him from my hands and knees. “I mean, shoot! Sorry, Dad.”

Standing slowly and flexing my left leg, I returned my father’s stare with a sheepish grin. Embarrassed, I stomped one foot forward and threw my arms wide. With raised eyebrows, I sang out “Ta Da!”

Dad just looked down in despair and picked up the paint brush. “What a doofus.”

I gave him a one-arm-around-the-shoulder hug and plopped down in one of the wicker chairs next to the large front window. The midmorning air was crisp and fresh, August heat still a couple hours away.

Where’s Mom? Wal-Mart?”

“She stayed home today.” Gordon and Ann actually lived in a beautiful two-story log home they had built in the small community of Hanging Dog, five miles north of Murphy. “Company coming over tonight. You should drop by.”

“We’ll see. Not sure what the rest of the day holds. Got a lot going on.”

“Hmmm.” Dad leaned against the picket railing and stared at me. “Always on to something new, aren’t you?”

“It’s not like that, Dad. Just some restructuring. Going to drop some dead wood and move things around to make it more practical. And I’ve got a project underway down at Elite that will turn some big bucks. Something we’ve been working on for a while.”

“Uh huh. Heard that before.” He crossed his arms and looked out across the yard as he continued. “Bet you don’t have any money right now, though. And you need a float.”

And this was where the conversations typically got uncomfortable. I was already fifty five grand behind with my parents – from previous help. Gordon always assumed the worst.

To be fair, his assumptions were based on a history of big deals and new projects that didn’t always play out the way I anticipated. He had a right to be skeptical.

I was the Idea Guy. Always had been. I believed in a positive attitude. The next project was always the piece de resistance. The Cherry Opportunity. The Big One.

I was a visionary. My dad was a realist. Dak, the entrepreneur. Gordon, the Clydesdale with blinders.

I believed the only way to financial freedom was to Go Big or Go Home. My father knew that the proven path was to work, save, invest, retire – and then work some more.

“I hate being in this position. You know that. But, honestly, I could use about ten to cover a few things during this transition.” My eyebrows went up in a hopeful expression. I quickly lowered them, not wanting to appear desperate. “Fifteen would be better. And I swear… it’s strictly short term. Chang is wrapping it up this week.”

“Fifteen thousand?” His look of frustrated surprise was genuine. “I’ve got taxes coming due. Sorry, son. But until we sell this place, I just can’t shell out any more money.”

“We should have the new product on the market within sixty days,” I insisted. “Ninety… tops.”

“I’m sure you believe that, Dak.” Dad mumbled, turning away from me. “But… if I had a dollar for everytime I heard that. Well… you know… I just can’t give you what I don’t have.”

“No problem,” I returned with resignation. “I’ll work something out. But I want you to know what I’m doing. Gonna’ dump DataOne. Probably Starburst, too. And I’m going to bring Elite and Advantage here to Murphy.”

“Huhn!” Dad straightened. “That’s pretty drastic. What about the others?”

“Not sure all the details just yet. Probably keep the trucking company in Dalton. Maybe diversify a bit. And I’m leaning towards dumping DAK Escorts after the holidays.”

“Don’t try too much all at once and shoot yourself in the foot. I know how you are when you get a bright idea.”

“Ain’t gonna’ happen overnight. Maybe six months or so to get it done. My new project down at Elite will affect how much I can do and how fast.” A dull twinge at the nape of my neck warned me that I was just minutes away from today’s headache. Soon the stabbing pulses would work their way up my neck, fill my skull with some unpleasant explosions and come to rest as an annoying thumper behind my eyes.

Buzzing from my waist created a distraction. I flipped open the cell phone and listened to Patty for a few seconds before returning it to my belt clip. Gordon had already picked up the paint brush to resume his task.

“Patty set a meeting for me, Dad. Gotta’ run. I need to stop by Parker’s for some of my pills.”

“Uh huh.” Dad was dipping the brush in the can and swabbing the lip to remove the excess paint. “Headaches any better?”

“I’d rather suck down a milkshake. The brain freeze would be a pleasant change.”

“We always pray for you, son. We beg God to ease your pain. I may question your business tactics… but I don’t like to see you suffer.” Our eyes met and I knew he meant it.

“Don’t worry about it, Dad. I’m used to it.” The headaches had started about 18 years ago and every doctor since then had been stumped. I was resigned to this curse. I ate over-the-counter pain relievers like Tic Tacs, wore sun glasses and avoided bright lights and the sun.

Rock n’ Roll was the only loud noise I found tolerable.

Can’t live without good music. It just ain’t American.

I stood and shuffled toward the porch steps. Gordon paused in mid brush stroke and straightened. “I wish I could help, son. But we have to draw a line on how much we can afford to throw away. So, what’s your big project this time? More hair stuff?”

“I wish.” My dad was referring to Hair2Day, a hair growth formula I had invented a couple years ago. It was one of my few genuine smash hits. A serum that had to be injected by a doctor, it literally rejuvenated dead hair follicles at a molecular level. FDA approval had been a bitch – and legal opposition from some major hair transplant companies – but in the end, you no longer had to endure going bald, if you didn’t want to. “No, not this time. I’ve got Chang in the final stages of a subdermal pigmentation manipulator.”

Go ahead, Dad. Try saying that three times really fast.

Chang was Kevin Chang. A wiz kid genius I had discovered, hired, pampered and tolerated. But, he was also the one thing that made Elite Concepts one of my most volatile business ventures. We could work months with nothing to show for it – or he could sneeze and miraculously blurt out the cure for cancer and AIDS in the same sentence.

That was Chang. Extremely valuable. And just as unpredictable.

“A what?” My dad looked like I’d just assaulted him with a heavy dose of profanity.

“It’s a formula you inject… affects skin color… all over. Should last about six months, if we get the recipe right. Basically, you can get a full body tan without sprays or light bulbs. We can control the shades and it won’t rub off.”

“Have you snapped your cap?” Gordon’s shoulders sank and he was shaking his head in disbelief.

“What? If it works, it’ll be huge! And we can diversify. Not just tanning. Say a black dude wants to pull a Michael Jackson. We can just…”

“It’s all about vanity, Dak!” he cut me off sharply. “Why don’t you make something that actually helps people? Or makes the world a better place?”

“What can I say? Vanity sells. People spend more on their looks than they do for groceries or health insurance.”

“There’s more to life… and business… than just money.” This was where he started preaching core values and ethics. “Create something of substance. Something you can be proud of. Stop chasing your tail on trivial nonsense.”

We had had this conversation before. Time to go. Walking backwards as I headed for the car, I hunched my shoulders and turned my palms upward. “I didn’t make the world, Dad. I don’t control how stupid people are. I’m just trying to make a living. Give Mom a hug. Maybe I’ll stop by later.”

A cigarette found its way to my lips as I gunned the Impala away from the sidewalk. Rhythmic organ pulses and short guitar riffs erupted from the CD player and blue smoke wafted through the window opening.

Today’s headache was now blistering its own miserable rhythm – like a drummer with 2 foot pedals – jamming in the empty space between my ears.

I turned the car onto the main drag towards Parker Drugs as the introductory tempo ended. My head bobbed as I anticipated the blast. The organ solo reached a climactic pitch and the car speakers pumped sweet, searing guitar riffs into my brain.

Pulling into Parker Drugs, I sat for a moment, enjoying the high vocals. Okay. I was humming along.

God bless Rock n’ Roll. Sure beats a Brain Freeze.

 

 

 

 

5 -- SHAPOOPIE

 

 

Three bottles of generic Acetaminophen rolled around on the seat next to me. One was open and four of the white tablets were sliding down my throat. These cheap pain relievers didn’t kill the agony, but they dulled it enough to make it tolerably annoying. Nothing else worked any better, so cheap and easy was the best option.

It was nearly midday Wednesday. Hump day for workin’ folks. I stopped by the office and found Patty, feet propped on a chair, eating a sandwich over a novel by Stephanie Somebody.

“Quiet day?”

“Uh huh.” She didn’t even look up.

“Good book?”

“A vampire love story,” she answered, flipping a page and munching egg salad.

“Don’t know how anyone can read that crap.” I rolled my eyes. “Couldn’t you find any good science fiction? Maybe a story about aliens. You know… something believable.”

“For your information, it’s only the most popular book in the country,” she commented defensively.

“Doesn’t say much for our country. I mean, seriously… romance with fanged freaks?”

“It’s for kids,” she argued. “And these vamps don’t have fangs.”

“Oh yeah,” I huffed. “That’s real believable.”

Throwing up my hand, I caught the apple she threw at me. I gave her my best smirk and she scratched the bridge of her nose with one middle finger.

“Anyone get arrested while I was gone?” I changed gears and she set the book down, shaking her head. “Hmmm. Seems like Murphy’s crime wave is at an all time low.”

This small office also housed Smoky Mountain Bail Bonds, another one of my mediocre enterprises. Patty and I would bail out local offenders. It was a small town and they rarely jumped bail. If they did, Patty would send two of the Shephart boys to round them up.

The Shepharts liked to tell their friends they were Fugitive Recovery Specialists. Actually, they worked for the Department of Transportation, driving dump trucks. But, working for the DOT wasn’t very exciting and didn’t impress women.

Although the bond business could be lucrative and required almost no overhead – a plus for me – it did require a certain amount of crime. And lately, everyone was behaving.

Never a good criminal around when you need one.

“Hear anything weird about some cows getting hurt around here?”

“Uh uh,” Patty mashed the remains of her sandwich into her mouth.

“Well, I’m gonna’ run some errands before I meet with David. I’ll try to get back by five and we’ll go over everything I’ve got cookin’.”

My errands consisted of running the Impala through the Quikkie Lube, shoveling garbage out of the back seat and enjoying lunch at Burger Barn. A Double Deluxe with cheese and bacon was the perfect way to restore my arteries to their optimum level of rigidity. Of course, the chocolate Frosty also offered brain freeze bliss for a few eye watering moments.

By 1:30, I was with David Fritz at the old Remax building. David was well known in the area. A hugely successful realtor and investment specialist. About 30 years old, married with two sets of twins, he was well groomed and courteous. We’d known each other for years and I felt comfortable divulging some of my personal plans while David did a lot of nodding and note taking.

We spent some time walking through the vacant building. It had been subdivided into offices. Good location, plenty of parking. Expensive, too. If I took it, some remodeling would be required to suit my needs.

As the afternoon wore on, we drove to another location further west. More nodding and notes. Then, to a large building in Peachtree, a small community on the southern outskirts of Murphy. This place was huge, formerly a manufacturing plant, now abandoned by a company that had moved to Mexico – leaving the local unemployment rate a little higher.

By 5:00, I parked next to David at his office and joined him inside. The staff was leaving and we were left alone to talk numbers and dates. Placing two cold sodas on the table a short time later, David excused himself to use the rest room. I grabbed a Mountain Dew, leaned back and mentally reviewed the afternoon.

I had to admit, I was impressed. Yes, I knew David. But, he was still a salesman and salesmen had their ways. Yet, during the hours we’d spent together, my Trigger never activated. I had to give David a thumbs up.

Trigger was a hard-to-explain sensation. A kind of sixth sense, I surmised. Since my early twenties, I had experienced the effects of this natural, built-in radar. It ranged from a tingling on the back of my neck to a full blown hot flash that jolted me to red alert status. Doctors didn’t believe me and my parents were skeptical.

Over time, I had begun referring to it as my “trigger” because it only activated when I was being lied to or when I was in the presence of someone with unfavorable intentions. The severity of the sensations varied according to the depth of the animosity or deceit.

Hard to fully understand. Even harder to explain. But, for over 18 years now, absolutely accurate.

Increasing my confusion about Trigger was the fact that I didn’t believe in anything of a supernatural nature. Sure, I loved a good superhero movie – even flicks about demons and monsters. But, this was the real world and I was convinced that ghosts, werewolves and vampires didn’t exist. There was, without a doubt, no such thing as super powers. Psychics and fortune tellers were bullshit. Mind reading and talking to the dead? Get real.

So, I never allowed myself to consider that I had a “mental power.” It had to be something else. My dad had suggested that maybe I was ultra sensitive to non-verbal language. Movements, twitches, inflections and that sort of thing.

I suppose. Beats the hell outta’ me.

Knowing when the other guy is feeding you a line or wants to see you fail can be a huge advantage in negotiating. Now, after a few hours with David, I found myself completely at ease. Carrying my soda outside to light a smoke, I tried to visualize my plans coming together nicely, if David and I were able to work out the financial hurdles.

When he rejoined me in front of our cars, I stuck out a hand and thanked him for his time and effort. Admitting that the Remax building was my preferred option, David offered to hold it for me. We exchanged small talk for a few moments, concluding with an agreement to reconnect in a couple days to solidify our negotiations and crunch the numbers.

Driving down the four lane into the heart of Murphy, supper was high on my to-do list. Mexican? I hated eating out when I was alone. People stared. Like I was a loner – a loser. Maybe a pizza. A burger? No. My pudging middle couldn’t afford too many hamburger patties in one day.

Patty! Crap!

Thumbing my cell phone, I waited for an answer. No way she was still there. Call her at home? No. Not that important. I left a message. She’d get it in the morning.

Next, I thumbed my parents’ house number.

Nothing like home cookin’!

“Hello?”

“Hey, Mom. I was wondering if tonight is dinner or just visiting with the neighbors.”

“Hi, Dear. Sorry, it’s just pie and coffee, I think. Why? You hungry?”

“No, I’ll be fine. Just didn’t want to come full if you were cooking.” Pizza was looking like a great option. “What time you getting together?”

“Oh! Change of plans. The Westlands had a delay of some kind and couldn’t make it. So, they invited us over later around eight thirty. You coming?”

“Aw, I don’t know, Mom. Been a long day.”

“You’ll like them. They’re very… well to do. I understand Mister Westland is a man of influence. I can’t wait to see the inside of their house!”

“Oh, fine. I’ll meet you at your driveway about eight twenty five and follow you over.” I rarely passed an opportunity to meet someone of influence.

“Great! I’ll tell Dad.”

I disconnected and swung the Impala into Pizza Hut.

Nothing better than meat and melted cheese on thin crust.

I ordered a medium and a cold draft. I didn’t do the beer thing much. But, this was pizza! Why not walk on the wild side?

 

* * * * * * * * * *

 

The geography around Murphy is laced with winding, two-lane roads that meander among the foothills. They weave through an abstract blend of small communities, each with its own quaint name. Joe Brown Highway was one of these twisting passages. Heading north, it passes Fain Mountain before twisting through Grape Creek, Unaka and Beaver Dam. Or, veer right at the small Y just 2 miles outside Murphy’s city limits and find yourself snaking through the natural beauty of Hanging Dog.

Just past the turn-off for Owl Creek, a gravel driveway meets Hanging Dog road. The Chevy Impala sat idling, smoke trailing through the driver side window. My watch said 8:23.

Gulping down 3 white pills, my gaze carried across the Knobel mini-farm. Dad’s barn up on the hill, the well trimmed fence lines, the miniature horses. The house wasn’t visible from down here. You had to climb a steep drive for a couple hundred yards to find it positioned on a high vantage point near the rear of the property.

A minute later, I could see the Ford Explorer creeping toward me, Mom waving through the windshield. Inhaling on the butt until no paper was left, I mashed it into the ashtray. Couldn’t toss ‘em out with Ann Knobel watching. I blew smoke onto the passenger seat so it wouldn’t billow out the window, took a long pull on a bottled water, tightened the cap and tossed it on the seat.

I returned her wave. An evening socializing with my parents. Oh, boy!

I shoulda’ had another beer.

Gordon drove the Explorer onto the pavement heading east and I pulled out behind him. AC/DC was screaming “Highway to Hell” through the speakers. I turned it up a couple clicks as we drove past Hanging Dog Baptist Church. Letting a bubbly burp escape, I felt a small chunk appear in the back of my throat.

Hmmm. Pepperoni.

Dusk hung heavy through thick forest on both sides of the pavement. The mercury was dropping as the day neared its end. I followed the Explorer when it made a sudden left off the pavement, entering a narrow break in the woods.

For the life of me, I couldn’t recall if I’d ever met the Westlands. Probably not. A lot of people lived out here. Every winding road had a fork and many of the forks led to places where city folks wouldn’t venture. There were probably a hundred families within a square mile of here, but you couldn’t see more than a half dozen houses from the main road.

Explorer brake lights bobbed a bit on the uneven gravel as we made our way deeper into the woods. Rounding a boulder the size of a truck, the drive suddenly dipped and crossed a shallow stream. The Explorer was climbing the opposing bank as the Impala’s front wheels touched water.

Must be foreigners trying to get away from city life.

Another 300 yards and the dense vegetation gave way to a large clearing. The driveway leveled out and skirted about five acres of manicured grass, ending in a large parking area that hosted four vehicles and room for a dozen more. It was like stepping through a door from one world to another. Out here in the middle of God’s country – the wildlife, the trees, the back-to-nature environment and a fairytale estate.

I tried to visualize that Disney World castle in the middle of Amish country. Awesome. But, out of place.

This was no castle, but it did make me inhale sharply at first glance. Even in the waning light, the house was magnificent. I could see that this was a multi-million dollar compound. A retreat with royal overtones. Behind sculptured shrubs and ornate foliage was a monstrosity of glass and brick. Great domes, spires, arches and other architectural marvels.

How many rooms? Twenty? Thirty?

Son. Of. A. Bitch.

It was a castle. For someone who valued his or her privacy.

“This should be interesting,” I said out loud. The parked vehicles caught my attention again. White Cadillac Escalade SUV, black BMW 3-Series, black Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class. And one other sleek machine.

What? No way! Is that a Ferrari Enzo?

Metallic midnight and sultry. One of the few inanimate objects that could give a guy an instant erection. Full dusk was settling, but the polished shine screamed Touch me.

I shoved the car door wide without wavering my lustful gaze. One foot touched gravel and I pulled myself out of the Impala as my cell phone buzzed on my waist. Impulsively dropping back into the driver seat, the back of my head whacked the upper door frame with a dull thunk! A sea of black dots swirled before my eyes.

“Awww… SLAP me sideways!” I cursed my clumsiness through clenched teeth. One hand clapped the back of my head while the other flipped the phone. “What!”

“Bad time? You said to call you.”

“Oh… uh… geez Floppy, sorry. Just smacked the shit outta’ my head. Hurts like a mother!”

“Eye ballin’ another lady?”

“Sort of. This one has sweet curves and she’s worth a half million if she’s worth a dime.”

“Have you done anything stupid yet?” Jerry’s sarcasm bled through the phone.

“Hang on a sec, will ya’ Floppy?”

Gordon and Ann were standing in front of the Impala, staring a hole through the windshield. Past them, lights winked on at the entrance to the massive house. I could see the huge double doors open as the Westlands prepared to greet their guests. I motioned for my parents to go ahead, waving the phone at them. They took the hint and crunched away.

“Swear to God, Floppy. I’m sitting ten feet away from a flippin’ Ferrari. A real cream puff!”

“Got a boner?”

“Wouldn’t you?” I closed the door so the dome light would go out and touched my Bic to a smoke. Blue wisps coiled around the cell phone against my cheek. Fortunately, “boner” was just a euphemism for my mechanical infatuation. In reality, Little General was quite withdrawn, still pouting from my cold reprimands the night before. “Me and the folks are visiting some neighbors I’ve never met. You should see this joint. Un frickin’ believable.”

“Sorry I interrupted. On my way to work.”

“No, really. Not a problem, ol’ buddy. Tell you what, why don’t you meet me and Patty at the office in the morning around nine.”

“Er… well, I guess so. I’ll be drag assin’ by then… but okay. Anything you can tell me now?”

“Yep! I want you to come work for me.” Silence followed. I listened for a second before checking to make sure I still had a signal. “Floppy?”

“Yeah, I’m here. Uh… I’ll see you in the morning. But, no promises. I got bills, Dak.”

“I know. We’re just gonna’ talk, okay?”

“Roger dodger. Ten Four.”

“Hey!” I said quickly. “How’s that horse?”

Too late. Jerry was gone.

Shaking four white pills into my palm, I reached for the bottled water. My brain pain was off the charts and I imagined a knot on the back of my head doing a Pinocchio surge. My parents had already entered the Westland mansion and now I eyed the oversized doors.

God bless foreigners and their toys.

I looked at the welcome lights on the house. Then back at that glistening, reflective black car with tinted windows and low slung door panels.

Front door. Car. Parents and chit chat. Car.

Yep. Let’s have a closer look.

I jerked the door handle and squinted against the dome light. A buzz on my belt made me pull the door back toward me with enough force to rock the Impala.

Someone should shoot the guy who invented cell phones!

“Hello?”

“Dude! Where you at?”

“Chang? I’m in Murphy. Whatsamatter?”

“Sorry to call like this, Mister Dak. You ain’t gettin’ horizontal with no chick right now, are you?”

“No.”

I was just gonna’ touch her fenders, I swear!

“Well look, dude. Something like… happened, man!” Chang came from Asian ancestry, but he was born and raised somewhere between Malibu and South Central. At times, intellectually advanced – articulate and brilliant. More often than not, preferring a chemically induced state of relaxation. Tommy Chong with Bruce Lee hair.

“Um, okay. Can it wait until morning?” I was puzzled. Chang was different. Okay, weird. But, he never called. A freakin’ genius who enjoyed stimulants. A God-send to my business. But, he never called.

“I don’t think so, man. This is off the hook, Bro! I mean… I hit it outta’ the friggin’ park!” Conversations with Chang were sometimes like talking to a really smart 15 year old. Sometimes, they were complicated riddles. At times, just incoherent gibberish.

The jury was still out on this one.

“Slow down a minute, Kevin. You caught me off guard… what’s got you revved up. Just slow down and take it from the top. Okay? No waitaminute! You’re not smokin’ in the lab, are you?”

“Hell yeah, Mister Dak! I’m smokin’ my ass off. Like… leavin’ a trail through the whole frickin’ building!”

“I’ve warned you, Chang. No weed in the lab… for cryin’ out loud! You’ll blow the place up!” I lit another smoke and blew hard. What next? I pictured my favorite facility going up in smoke – my financial future reduced to a pile of smoldering ashes. “Is Rheeta there?”

“Naw. She gone, man. They all gone. Don’t worry, Mister Dak. I ain’t in the lab. I’m sittin’ in your office with my feet up on your big shit desk… talkin’ on your big ass phone.”

“You’re smoking in my office?”

“I was. Now I’m talking’ to you. Next, I’m going out and celebrate with some righteous shit I been savin’ up. I gotta’ remember where I stashed it. But, it’s gonna’ be an off planet experience!”

How’d he get in my office?

Dusk was fading and several outdoor lights winked on in strategic locations around the house. Solar cells recognized the coming night and I glanced at my watch. 8:55.

** sigh **

I reached for more white pills and water.

“Kevin… Kevin? Chang!”

“Yo, dude… I dropped the phone, man. You got like… some humongous dust balls under your desk, Boss Man.”

“Chang, listen. I can’t talk all night. But, I gotta’ know. Did you finish the pigmentation formula?”

“Aw, yeah! Well… no. But, I know how to do it now. No doubt, Bro. We be givin’ them bitches a tan in no time.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“Problem? Ain’t no problem, Boss Dude. I just hit the big time jackpot up in this mother. I done made Einstein and Pasteur and all them other brainy guys look like pussies… for real, man. I am the new king of makin’ stuff up and… hey, dude! Who’s this picture on your desk? She’s freakin’ hot! That your new squeeze? Suh-weet!”

“Oh, for the love o’ God. That’s my daughter, you stoner! Put it down, Godammit! Just tell me why you called me.” I drew hard on my cigarette and got out of the car. I needed to stand. And pace.

“Hey, you got one of them fax machines that makes copies. Too cool. So like… you’re pretty old to have such a young daughter, ain’t you? Is she single?”

One. Two. Three. Breathe. Four. Five.

“I swear by Cheese n’ Rice and all that’s holy, Chang! If you’re still in my office when I get there… I’ll....”

“No wait… yeah, right… drive down. You gotta’ come down here, dude. Not tonight, man. I got one foot in another dimension. Tomorrow, Bro. Come down and see this awesome shapoopie!”

“Shapoo-… what? Oh, geez… just tell me. What do I need to see?”

“Not over the phone, dude. Like… the frickin’ CIA might be listening or something. You want this in person. You wanna’ see this shapoopie for yourself.” Over the phone, I heard a kachisk and a huff. Chang was lighting up again.

“I got a meeting in the morning, but I can be there around three or so. What, uh… dear God give me strength… what have you done, Kevin?”

“Prepare to kiss me, Bro. I just made you like… richer than that Gates guy.”

“I’ll be there by two.”

“Ohhh Yaaaah… hahaha… Timberrrrr!” There was a muffled whomp, a peculiar thump and the clack of a dropped phone hitting the floor. A barely audible voice was mumbling. “Ow! Gak! Swallowed my bud. Holy crap on a cracker, Batman… yo, Boss Dude’s got gum stuck under his chair.”

I drew a mental picture of my lab tech falling out of the big leather chair and laying on the floor behind my desk, eyes glazed over. When I heard a muffled “Totally rad. The spearmint ain’t even hard.” followed by girlish giggles, I snapped the phone shut and flung it hard through the car window. It ricocheted off the gear shifter and put a dent in the glove box. I may have thrown it too hard.

Shapoopie…it’s a good thing he makes me money.

Tossing the cigarette butt, I headed for the front of the house. Time to meet the Westlands. Time to shake hands and make small talk. Time to see what someone of influence looked like.

Standing before the 8 foot high double-door entry, I paused. Should I head for Atlanta right now? Trigger didn’t work over the phone.

What if Chang was just full of smoky shit?

I should never have driven out here tonight. No one would have cared. But, it was too late now. Ann and Gordon knew I was here. No turning back now without a damned good excuse.

Well, hell... let’s get this over with.

 

 

 

 

6 -- FOREIGNERS

 

 

Bent slightly at the waist with eyes cast downward, a thin man held the door wide. Black slacks, white wrinkle-free shirt, black bow tie over a frail body of bones.

“Mister Westland?” I queried tentatively.

Weary eyes darted upwards and gave me the once over. Something swept his withered features. I’d wager it was contempt.

“Silas, sir,” he responded with no other visible expression.

“Um… I’m Dak. My parents are in there. Can I come in?”

“Certainly. We’re… delighted… to have you.” A small spark ticked the back of my neck. Like a static charge when you rub your feet on carpet. A small Trigger. The butler wasn’t exactly lying. But, there was a hint of false delight.

What’s your problem, Jeeves? I ain’t no trailer trash.

I stepped past the man, who appeared to be in his 80’s. A tiled foyer stretched before me. Dimly lit, it still looked bigger than my entire house. There were two archways spaced evenly down the left wall and one larger opening centered on the right. I caught a glimpse of a large room to the right with an elegant stairwell curling upwards. Scenes from “Gone With The Wind” flashed through my brain, which was now down to a subdued thump.

“Join them in the parlor through the second arch on your left, sir,” Silas said behind me as the front door closed.

I sauntered forward and turned to stand in the second arch, taking in the room. My parents were standing near the huge, stone fireplace, admiring its 12 foot wide mantel. A man and woman, presumably the Westlands, were pointing out details of its workmanship.

The parlor walls were lined with oversized paintings in ornate frames. I noted the well placed sofas and plush arm chairs, colorful rugs over polished hardwood and a chandelier the size of a Volkswagen hanging from the domed ceiling.

No doubt, Rhett and Scarlett would enter any moment.

Some 40 feet away stood an expensive billiards table and beyond that were floor-to-ceiling windows, adorned with delicate, shear draperies that seemed to float in place. Two young men leaned on pool cues. Another was bent over the table, one arm stretched across the playing surface.

A resonate buzz of conversation hushed as my presence was detected. Everyone just stared at me. I felt like the guy barging into a room full of women, interrupting an animated discussion of his physical prowess and startling them into dumb stares.

And then it hit me. My parents wore their Sunday clothes, minus Dad’s tie. Everyone else in the room was dressed to the nines while I stood there with casual indifference – five o’clock shadow, faded jeans, golf shirt, flip flops.

Okay, then. Awkward moment.

Ann Knobel approached quickly, her flats clicking on the hardwood. Lips pursed and eyebrows knitted, she had that motherly look of reproach. Barely 5’1” with tight, gray curls from a recent perm, she walked like she owned the place. Gordon trailed a half a step behind her.

“Was that a good pizza?” she muttered. One hand was trying to tuck in my shirt. The other was tugging at a glob of hardened mozzarella just above the Nike slash. Ann rolled the cheese into a wadded Kleenex and it vanished under her bra. She eyed the quarter-sized grease stain left behind, huffed a bit, took her hand out of my pants and looked down. “Your feet are filthy. I raised you better than that.”

Bet she passes out if I fart right now.

I stood there, helpless. A grown man who knew the futility of rejecting her Mother Hen antics. Shoulders slumped; I stared over her at the Westlands with a resigned grin.

When it became apparent that Ann’s touch ups were done, they approached. Gordon and Ann turned and pressed their backs against me. I towered over them. Attempting to shield me only emphasized the contrast in our heights and build. I leaned an elbow on Gordon’s shoulder to exaggerate our lack of uniformity and grinned wider.

“This is our boy… Doral. He’s had a rough day,” Ann stated. The Westlands smiled, but their eyes were quizzical. She added, “We adopted him as a toddler.”

Accepting her explanation with a raised brow, the man stepped forward, hand outstretched. “Caleb Westland.”

“They put fertilizer on my cereal,” I replied, returning his hand shake.

“Door… Al, is it?” He appeared to be in his early 50’s, dressed in a black Armani suit over a pressed white shirt and thin maroon tie. At most, 5’10” and slim with slick, black hair and handsome features. George Hamilton twenty years ago, without the heavy tan – rather pale, actually.

I had been around aristocratic types before, but Caleb took it to a whole new level. My curiosity was surging.

“Yep. But, just Dak will be fine. My initials.” I caught Caleb’s eye, but he quickly averted to the cheese stain. It had been subtle.

“Oh? And your middle name?” he asked with a slight accent.

“Don’t laugh. It’s Adonis. Ain’t that a hoot?” I tried to establish eye contact again, but this time Caleb turned to the woman next to him. She smiled and something passed between them. “What? Did I miss something?”

“No. Forgive me, Doral,” Caleb responded politely. “Adonis is a rare name. I knew someone… once… many years ago. Allow me to introduce my wife… Agnes.”

“Nice to meetcha, ma’am.” I took her hand gently. She could have been in her late 40’s, but she was so well groomed, it was hard to tell. Agnes was a diminuitive presence. Shoulder length black waves surrounded distinguished beauty. Pale complexion, narrow nose and chiseled cheekbones. Caleb’s wife was elegant, but conservative in a black pant suit ensemble over white silk blouse and no jewelry.

Black cars, black hair and black outfits. There was definitely a monochromatic theme at play here. I could see the 3 younger men also followed this pattern.

Must be a foreigner thang.

“Welcome to our home, Doral.” Agnes spoke softly, an unfamiliar accent flaring slightly. She looked me in the eye as she spoke. Her dark pupils sparkled with genuine warmth – lids widened abruptly and she withdrew her hand from mine. It was a flash. I wouldn’t have caught it if I hadn’t been looking for it. Whatever had disturbed Caleb now did the same to his wife.

What? Have I got a booger hangin’ outta’ my nose?

“So, where are ya’ll from?” Backhanding my upper lip, I dragged my wrist across my nostrils.

“We still have family in Greece. But, we have lived in your country for many years,” Caleb provided. Well spoken, his speech represented schooled intelligence. I recognized the Mediterranean tone, but thought it also bore a mild British influence. It was also interesting to note that he used basic, root English. No contractions. Yet, he pulled it off without sounding snooty. “We built this home a few years ago, but rarely get a proper chance to visit. My business keeps me… busy. This part of your country is so lovely. We hope to spend more time in this area, if we can. What do you do, Doral?”

“Talks on his cell phone a lot,” Ann piped in. “Always cookin’ up some new money making scheme.”

“Don’t worry. I left it in the car.”

In several pieces, I think.

“Ready for that tour?” Agnes asked my parents.

“Agnes is going to show me some of her antiques!” Ann looked up at me like a 10 year old about to enter Willy Wonka’s factory. “You stay here and chat with the boys.”

“I’ll stay here, too,” Gordon stated.

“Come meet the boys, Doral,” Caleb suggested. He swung an arm wide and ushered me across the room. Nearing the trio, he gestured at the young man who had resumed lining up a corner shot. “This is our son, Isaac. The two lads by the window are… our nephews. Trent and Anthony Marriott.”

A static buzz from Trigger on my neck again. I nodded at the them. “Hey guys. Who’s winning?”

“Me… as usual.” It was Isaac and he didn’t look up when he spoke. The cue jabbed forward. There was a click, clock, kathunk. A shiny green ball dropped from sight in the corner pocket. Isaac had shiny black hair in a modern cut. Long bangs swooped down over one eye. The sides and back hung in jagged, uneven lengths. Tiny gold hoops dangled from his left ear.

Behind him, Anthony elbowed Trent and rolled his eyes. They all appeared to be in their late 20’s and they all looked quite similar in their black suits and black hair, except the nephews had long, curly locks. Trent displayed a piece of shiny metal protruding a half inch below his lower lip. Anthony wore a “soul patch” of black fuzz in the same place.

“Nice shot, man.” I offered. No reply from the players, so I glanced around. Another arched opening I hadn’t noticed earlier was to my right. Through it, I could make out what looked like a fancy sitting room – or small movie theater. Lots of pricey electronics were visible and one wall was covered by a 10’ wide screen. It looked a bit odd.

Is that a plasma screen? Do they make ‘em that big? Holy crap.

On the far side of the room were French doors. Through the glass, I saw more lights and dancing shadows. Reflections seem to be moving in rhythm. Water?

“Is that a pool out there?”

“Yes. A luxury we really do not use. But, the boys like it.” The boys straightened and suddenly looked hopeful. “Not yet. Wait till our guests leave.”

“They like to swim at night?” I tried to make conversation. Trent took his turn lining up a shot.

“Our family is afflicted with a skin condition that makes us… burn easily. So, they prefer to avoid the sun if they can. Too much sun also makes us a bit… what is the word… nauseated?”

“Huhn. Ain’t that a bummer?” I commented thoughtfully. “I avoid it too… on account of I get bad headaches and the bright sun just kills me. Gotta’ wear shades all the time.”

“Really?”

“Yep, he’s had it most of his life.” Gordon interjected. He had found comfort on a nearby loveseat.

“Well… since my early twenties, actually,” I corrected. “Hey look, if they wanna’ take a dip… have at it. We don’t care. Wish my daughter was here. She’d get a kick outta’ this place.”

“You should have brought her. We would love to meet her,” Caleb continued politely. The boys were looking hopeful again. He gave them a tiny nod and they turned to hang their cues in the rack on the wall.

“Finally,” one of the nephews muttered. “We can get out of these rags.”

Apparently, Armani suits were not their preferred attire.

“She’s away at school. Her name is Shyanne. But, she’s coming home this weekend.” The young men were leaving the room. They hesitated briefly, eyeing each other. Noticing the look, I added, “Yep, she’s a looker, guys. Six foot tall with long red hair and a grouchy father.”

Caleb gave me a knowing smile, flashing his pearly whites. The boys continued their exit.

When they were gone, Caleb took a seat near Gordon. Adjusting his suit and crossing his legs, he looked quite regal. “So, tell me more about what you do, Doral. Surely you have more amusing distractions than using a cell phone and making your mother nervous.”

“Call me Dak, Mister Westland. Really.”

“Very well. And you can call me Caleb.”

“Okee dokee. And there’s not much to tell. I have several business ventures. But, just one that I really work at. It’s my pet project. I get these ideas and then I try to make ‘em work. Some do… some don’t. If they fly, I market them on the internet and through TV infomercials.”

“Hmmm, I see,” Caleb nodded a bit. “You are an entrepreneur of sorts. You have a high risk tolerance and you think big. Am I getting warm?”

“Humph.” Gordon shifted in his chair. “Never did much real work. Always chasing the dream.”

“Go big or go home, I always say,” I countered.

“And do you ever do anything solely to help others? Or do you only pursue… ideas… that line your pockets?”

“Well… Caleb… charity doesn’t pay the bills. I mean, I don’t mind helping people. In fact, some of my products do help people. But, was that my reason for creating those products? Probably not.” I leaned my butt against the pool table and crossed my ankles. Wondering about the awkward slant this conversation had taken, I opened my arms wide and said, “You look like you’re doing okay. You obviously know how to turn a buck. What do you do?”

“I… acquire things.”

“Things?” I pressed him.

“Real estate, intellectual properties, businesses, objects of value.” He was so damned nonchalant.

“What does acquire mean?” My curiosity was raging now.

“Dak! Don’t be rude, son.”

“What, dad? I didn’t mean anything by it.” And to Caleb, I said, “Sorry… I’m always interested in knowing more about how to make the big bucks.”

“Understandable,” he picked invisible lint from his pant leg. “I simply buy and sell whatever offers reasonable profits.”

“Suh weet! Using your money to make more money.” I must have seemed overly impressed.

“Well, I assure you it is more than that. A floundering business can not be resold unless it has been resurrected. What I do requires a modicum of intelligence in addition to a large bank roll.”

“Absolutely,” I nodded eagerly. “I wasn’t implying anything. I guess I’m just envious of your success.”

Caleb raised his palms slightly. “I have been blessed with good fortune, my friend. And do not take offense at my curiosity about your business. I am not judging you. If anything, I admire you. My question was simply intended to learn more about what makes you… who you are.”

“He’s smarter than he looks,” Gordon offered.

There was a minor disturbance in the next room and I caught a glimpse of three guys going through the French doors clad only in knee-length shorts. I reached behind me and rolled one of the balls across the table. Then another, a bit harder. Ticka whocka tunk clacka kathunk.

Caleb rose gracefully and circled to lean against the chair back. “Here is a question, Doral… er, Dak. If you could snap your fingers and make something happen overnight, what would you wish for?”

Swim trunks? No… wait, a Ferrari!

“Hmmm. You mean, like if I rubbed a lamp and a Genie popped out?”

“I suppose, although I hope you realize Genies do not exist.”

“No kidding?”

“Usually… smarter than he looks.” Gordon kept checking his watch.

“Well, let’s see,” I rubbed the stubble on my chin. “It would sure help me a ton if I could unload DataOne pretty quick.”

“Is that the one in Asheville?” His question made my chin stiffen. How did Westland know about that? As if sensing my concern, Caleb added, “I have many business interests across this region. The only DataOne I know of… is in Asheville. Is that yours?”

“Uh huh,” I relaxed a little. No Trigger. Apparently this guy knew things. “I’m doing some restructuring and dumping that would really expedite my efforts. Nothing wrong with it. I just can’t give it the attention it deserves. Good little company, though.”

“Nothing wrong with it?” Caleb seemed dubious and I was about to defend my statement when there was a muffled shout outside, some laughter and a slamming door. A woman could be heard fuming “stupid male scum!” and then another door slammed.

“My apologies, gentlemen.” Caleb’s right hand made a circular movement – a blur – and a phone appeared in his palm. I blinked twice. I hadn’t seen him slip into a pocket or reach for an end table. “DataOne? Let me make a call. Excuse me while I go find Silas. I will have refreshments brought in momentarily. Make yourselves at home.”

Before either of us could object, he was gone. He didn’t really walk or saunter. It was more like he glided. Smooth. No wasted effort.

Must be how them foreigners walk.

I looked at my dad. Gordon looked at me. We both looked at our watches. 9:37

“Wonder what’s keeping your mother. I’m ready for bed.”

Gordon sat there inspecting the dirt under his thumbnail. In reality, we hadn’t been there very long. But, it seemed the high dollar atmosphere didn’t suit my dad too well. He was obviously uncomfortable in this stuffy environment.

I wandered over to a small bookshelf and perused the titles. Glancing down, I noticed my feet really were dirty – thanks to my afternoon with David Fritz. I looked at my watch. 9:41. Not right to leave without excusing myself. I’d never hear the end of it from my mother.

Replaying our brief exchange, I thought I kind of liked this Caleb guy. But something was “off” around here. Trigger had chirped and ticked intermittently since my arrival. Never intense enough to worry me. Just enough to make me curious about my hosts and their backgrounds.

Maybe I’d better go find the ladies. If they were talking antiques, this could take until breakfast.

“Childish idiots!” A female voice was muttering. I spun around and Gordon’s head snapped up.

A bare foot woman came through the arch. Tall with Latino hips and booty in skin tight, white denim shorts. A white, cotton tank top was doing its best to contain her abundant chest. It was soaking wet and two dark circles stared at a startled Gordon Knobel.

She was walking with her head down, a towel draped over her long hair, hands rubbing furiously. “Agnes! Have you seen my brush?”

“Uh… h-hi there,” Gordon stuttered. Her hands froze. Raising her head, she pushed soggy bangs back from her eyes. “Agnes is giving a tour. Caleb went after drinks.”

“Oh. My bad,” she blurted apologetically. “Stupid kids think they have to splash anyone who gets near. So… who are you?”

This Amazonian newcomer arched her back; chin up so that hair hung nearly to her waste in back. The transparent tank top stretched and the dark circles got a little closer, both displaying a hardened protrusion at its center. Wrapping her hair, she did one of those twirls with the towel and turned it into a huge turban. Now she was about seven feet tall, staring down at Gordon.

He rose politely, eyes wide. “I’m Gordon Knobel and the big guy over there is my son. My wife is upstairs with Agnes.”

“Jillian Kelso. Forgive my entrance. Didn’t see you in here.” She shook Gordon’s hand, both knockers within licking distance of his face. His jaw tightened and he didn’t blink.

“Don’t mention them… it!”

Atta’ boy, Dad.

Jillian came towards me and I felt life below my belt. Apparently, someone was done pouting.

Don’t even think about it, little man!

I gave her my best smile as she neared. Her lips returned the greeting. She was tall. Almost eye to eye with me. Chest to chest. Another stir in my nether regions.

Don’t you dare! Dear God, not tonight.

“Evening, Darlin’… I’m Dak.”

“Dak?” Her head tilted, the motion exaggerated by her lofty head gear. She stared into my eyes, like she was trying to see inside.

“It’s my initials.”

“Ah. D-A-K. I get it. Hey, then I’m J-A-K. We’re Dak and Jak.” She giggled at her own humor. The twin peaks were jiggling and they surged towards me when she reached up to remove the turban.

Oh, my. Hi, ladies!

She shook her hair out of the towel. Long kinky strands flung outwards before settling about her shoulders. A few strays whipped a wet smear across my chin before dropping into her cleavage. She relaxed her back and the twins bobbled back into place. Up close, cherub-like qualities highlighted an intelligent face. And her hair was sandy brown – not black.

“I’m the white sheep of the family!” She answered my question before I asked. “I take it you noticed they’re all dark headed?”

“I guess you drive the white Escalade, eh?”

“Of course. You catch on quick, Sweetie.” She leaned in closer, almost nose to nose as she peered deep into my eyes. Modesty was obviously not an issue. She appeared to be about 30 – with the personality of a 20 year old. Her breath was warm and her wet skin smelled nice. “My… but you are an interesting creature, aren’t you Mister Dak?”

“Uh… well… you haven’t caught me at my best.”

“No doubt. But, I did catch you playing with yourself in your car yesterday,” she whispered and gave me a coy smirk, dipping her head a bit.

Wha-…? Oh no… the white SUV.

She was playing with me. I knew it. She was well aware of every asset she possessed and knew perfectly well how to manipulate male reactions. “Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me. I like you, Big Man.”

I could feel the hot red sweeping my face again. Jillian noticed it and repeated the lip lick and hair toss I had seen through my car window.

“I see you met my niece.” Caleb’s voice broke in, slicing the sexual tension like a scalpel. “Jillian. You are not dressed appropriately to receive guests. I fear I must apologize again, gentlemen.”

Eyes rolling, Jillian leaned in again, giving me a playful wink. She mashed the wet girls against my chest as her fingers tugged my earlobe, pulling my head in close.

“Gotta’ go. I’ll see you again… soon,” she whispered. Her lips left a moist kiss on my neck as she pulled away and scampered from the room. Watching her J-Lo back side romp through the arch, I couldn’t shake a mental lyric from an old hip hop tune.

I like big booties and I can not lie.

And I don’t even like hip hop.

God, I need a smoke.

“Set the drinks on the table, Silas.” Caleb was motioning for Gordon to grab a beverage. Silas was backing out of the room. Traditional butler scraping.

I turned to gaze out the large windows, keeping my back to the room while things shrunk back to normal inside my boxers. She had been unabashed and full of energy. An unexpected life force – a brazen splash in the face. Not the type that usually attracted me. I preferred a more demure female. But, there was no arguing the obvious – Jillian made an impact.

“Join us, Dak. Soda? Coffee? Ice tea?” Caleb was in full host mode. I shuffled back into the center of the room and stood next to Gordon. I could hear my mom’s voice. The ladies were returning from their adventure – hopefully.

“Thanks, Caleb. But, I’ve really got to be going. I appreciate your hospitality.” I looked down at Gordon and continued. “That last call was Kevin down in Atlanta. Something’s up and I’ve got to go down there tomorrow.”

Gordon looked skeptical. “Always something.”

“Would that be your Elite facility?” Caleb was seated again, legs crossed, coffee cup balanced on the arm rest. He noticed my cocked eyebrow. “I made some calls, Dak. Forgive the intrusion.”

A man of influence, eh?

“Well, yeah. I’m at a critical point in a new project and my tech tells me there’s… a development.”

“Ah! Kevin Chang. Intelligent fellow. A bit off center, from what I hear. A delay in your tanning formula?”

Must have been one helluva phone call.

“No, I don’t think so. But… I have to go.”

“Wait a minute, my friend. One glass of tea while we wait for the ladies to return. I want to talk to you about DataOne.”

“What about it?” I picked up a glass and poured some tea over ice. Sipped it. Sweet. A bigger gulp went down nicely.

“It seems that you are twelve percent over budget in the third quarter. You are understaffed and your second biggest client is about to pull the plug for greener pastures.”

Damn! Not fair. I wanna’ be a man of influence, too!

“Say what? Who’d you call?”

“I understand your surprise. I have… contacts. You are not the full owner, either. But, you do own a majority share. How much were you hoping to get for it?”

“About three big ones,” I answered, off guard. This was just not the way I’d pictured the evening when I was wolfing down pizza.

“Tell you what, my friend. I like you and your parents. Let us skip all the negotiating and get down to it. You need money. You do not need a long drawn out payment arrangement. And you will never get three hundred for such a small enterprise. So I will give you one twenty… cash.”

Gordon’s head was swinging back and forth, following the exchange like a tennis match. He set his drink down, waiting for my response.

“Make it one fifty and it’s a deal.” I blurted, without really thinking it through. He couldn’t actually be serious. I gulped the remaining iced tea in my glass.

“Done.”

“Wait. You lost me.” Gordon said.

“Silas will give it to you before you leave.”

“Give me what?”

“The cash.”

“No shit?”

“I… uh… shit you not.” Caleb smiled and relaxed back into his chair.

“Ahem!” Gordon again.

“Sorry, Dad.”

“You just sold your business for a hundred and fifty dollars so you could walk away from it?” Gordon was truly bewildered.

“A hundred and fifty thousand, Dad.” I let that sink in for Gordon. And then to Caleb, I added, “Right?”

“That would be correct. I will have the papers drawn up and we can sign them in a couple days. Shall we shake on it?”

The wives entered the room at that moment and seeing the hand shakes, Agnes queried, “You men aren’t doing business, are you? This was supposed to be social.”

And Ann said, “Why is your shirt wet, son?”

Caleb looked at Agnes and muttered, “He met Jillian. The boys got her wet. I will have to speak to them… again.”

Agnes looked around, determined to remain a good hostess. “Well this was fun, wasn’t it? Have some tea, Ann.”

“I love your home,” Ann replied. “I hope you’ll show me the other thirteen rooms one of these days.”

“Give me strength, Lord.” Gordon stood and moved next to Ann, checking his watch again.

“I wish the kids were here to say good night to everyone.” Agnes remained positive.

“The boys are swimming. Jillian is doing her hair.” Caleb provided.

“She’s expecting her friend. They’re going out.” Agnes gave the Knobels an apologetic look. “We should probably see you out before she arrives. She’s a wild one.”

Wilder than Jillian? Hmmm.

“Quite right, my dear,” Caleb agreed. “We have enjoyed your visit, Ann and Gordon. Oh… and Dak. I will get in touch with you to finalize the transfer details. In the meantime, I will see what I can do about getting you something for those headaches.”

Pretty darn helpful… for a foreigner.

There were a few moments of shuffling and milling about. Hands were being shaken. Brief thank you’s and promises to do this again. It was all quite cordial. We turned as one to head for the foyer. Standing in the arch, facing us with hands on hips was a little lady with golden hair and a stunned look.

“Banana Man?”

Uh oh. Just my luck.

“Hello… again.” I stepped forward. Her blue eyes met mine and my heart missed a beat. I considered melting into a puddle right there on the hardwood, captivated by the face of a playful angel with a wide smile.

Whatever you do, don’t look down at those B cups.

“Like what you see?”

Damn!

“Even better up close,” I mumbled.

“You two know each other?” It was Agnes. “What’s a bananaman? Is that some street slang?”

The blonde rolled her eyes and I grinned. She tilted her head slightly. “You know you have a grease stain on your shirt?”

“Yeah. I was going for the I-need-a-woman-to-take-care-of-me look. My feet are dirty, too.”

“Be still my heart,” she cooed, placing a delicate hand over her left breast.

“Hey, girlfriend… you met Dak!” Jillian suddenly appeared next to me. Hair dry, full of energy and everything bouncing in unison.

“Dak?” The blonde cocked one delightful eyebrow. “Like yak?”

“Aw, he’s cool. Not much to look at. But, I’ll bet he cleans up pretty good.”

I turned to face the four adults. They stood like statues. A strong wind might have blown them over.

“I’m leaving, Mom. Big day tomorrow. Thanks again, Caleb.” I turned back to face the blonde. “Nice to see you again. I’ll be the guy heading for my car now… dragging what’s left of my dignity behind me.”

Both girls stuck their bottom lips out and gave me a double dose of “Awwwww.”

Then they locked arms and swaggered down the foyer. Jillian was talking loud enough to be heard by everyone. “Yeah… he was checking out my boobs earlier. So I kissed him and he… you know… got a stiffie!”

They disappeared around a corner, squealing and giggling like 16 year olds. I heard gasps from the Knobels and huffs from the Westlands as I closed the front door behind me.

Dropping into the Impala, I lit a smoke. My head was throbbing again. I looked down and blew smoke all over my crotch.

Hanging Dog. Humph! Now there’s a nickname for you.

 

 

 

 

7 -- WINDFALL

 

 

It was cool inside the Big D convenience store. And busy. I placed 3 coffees on the counter and pulled out my wallet. The clerk took my money and someone nudged my elbow. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Joe.

Lt. Joe Hood was second in command at the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department. 5’10” and 175 pounds of well packed muscled under his snug shirt and jeans. His belt anchored a gold badge on the left and his sidearm on the right.

He smiled at me. “G’morning!”

“Well, hey there, Joe. Didn’t see you.” He was a few years younger than me and had moved here from Charlotte a few years earlier. Joe was known for being fair and firm and the locals had accepted him as one of their own. I liked him, even though I thought Hood was a funny name for a law man. We interacted regularly on my bail bond activities and he had always been a friendly, straight shooter.

The girl handed me my change and I stepped aside so Joe could set a box of donuts on the counter. He saw me eyeball the snacks and said, “No cop jokes.”

“Guess you get that a lot, eh?”

“You think? These are for my deputies.” Joe accepted his change and turned. We walked slowly together, heading for the exit.

“You gonna’ arrest anyone today?” I asked.

“Biz a little slow?”

“Never enough crime when you need it.” It was my turn to nudge Joe’s elbow.

“I’ll see what I can do. What’s new for you? Your daughter okay? Folks alright?”

“Yeah… yeah. Folks are fine. Shyanne’s away at school… but coming home this weekend. Say, Joe… you hear anything about some cows getting hurt around here?”

“A little. Doesn’t add up. You been talking to Mark Vickey?” Joe tossed the donuts through the window of his unmarked car. “It’s not at the top of our priority list.”

“I hear you. Just sounded weird. Wondered if he was makin’ it up. Jerry Roberts had a horse with similar problems.”

“Oh? Didn’t know that. Horse okay?”

“Yeah. It’s a real head scratcher, though.” I set my coffees on the hood of the Impala parked next to Joe. “Hey, I know you gotta’ run… what with the overwhelming crime wave and all… but can I ask you one other thing?”

“Shoot.”

“Ever hear of the Westlands?”

“What’s that? A housing development?”

“Naw. It’s people, Joe. Got a monster sized place out in Hanging Dog… almost to Boiling Springs.”

“Never heard of ‘em.” Joe was getting into his car, but he hung his head out the window. “They causing you any problems?”

“Oh, no. It’s just weird. There’s a whole family… several cars… a house like a mansion… just down the road from my folks. And I didn’t know they were there.”

“Yep… that’s weird. Want me to run a search? Can you give me a reason why I should be concerned?”

“Naw. It’s not like that. Actually, they seem quite nice. In fact, Mister Westland and I really hit it off. I guess… no need to trouble you, man. I was just wondering.”

“Gotta’ go, Dak.” He backed out and gunned the unmarked.

One of my favorite rock anthems filled the Impala as I angled out of the Big D lot. I glanced at my watch and popped the top on a coffee. Aroma heavy steam hit my nostrils as I raised the cup.

Navigating through traffic, I palmed my phone and scrolled the list of saved numbers. Choosing one, I fumbled in the console for a pack of smokes. The sound of two electronic hums and then a click.

“Hello?”

“G’morning, Miss Vickey. Is Mark ‘round?”

“Round as a donut. Hang on.” Mark lived with his widowed mother. Cheaper that way. Better food, too.

“Your dime.” He sounded sleepy.

“Mark… it’s Dak.”

“Oh… hey there, Slippery Dick! Whatsup?” That was Mark. I found myself grinning wide, exhaling a blue cloud of smoke.

“Not much, ol’ buddy. How’s the stake out going?”

“Been a bust, so far. We ain’t seen a thing. I shot a possum.”

“Huhn.”

“Yeah. Out at old man Winebecker’s. I went down by the creek to take a leak. It was real dark and I left my flashlight in th’ truck. I no sooner got Mister Happy flung out dere and th’ furry little sumbitch walked across my foot.”

“Scare the piss out of you?”

“Frickin’ A. I jumped and cut my stream so sudden… got a cramp in my left nut. Hurt like a mother! I may never have children.”

I was laughing now. Only Mark. “So, you shot the little guy?”

“Had to. He jest sat dere watchin’ me rub my nads… like he thought it was funny, man.”

“Geez, Mark. Guess I didn’t realize a stake out could be so dangerous. You okay?”

“I guess. I put Mister Happy away an’ went home.”

“Anything else?”

“Naw. The other guys quit after the first night. Oh, hey! Almost forgot… Lenny called a few minutes ago. Said two more cows got it last night… out near Boiling Springs.”

“No shit?” My eyebrows went up. I turned left on Tennessee Street and took another pull on my cigarette.

“Yeah, man. Floyd Odell found ‘em this morning. And guess what? One of ‘em was dead this time.”

“Huhn.”

“Uh oh. Mom’s callin’ me, Dak. She’s makin’ pancakes.”

“Don’t let me keep you, Mark. Give her a kiss on the cheek for me.” I braked hard and swung onto Regal Street.

“Gotcha, Big Man. Ow! … dammit. My nut feels like I sat on it.”

I set the phone aside and picked up the coffee, still chuckling a bit.

Too bad it was a possum and not Bigfoot. Now that would have been a ball buster!

I pulled into the office driveway, veered left and parked in the grass. Two cars were already there and I didn’t want to block the Jeep Cherokee.

My jeans had a small hole in the left knee and I wore a white T-shirt that bore a large circular image with curled wings on either side. The words across the top said, “Journey – 30th Anniversary World Tour.” On the back was a list of concert dates and locations. Dressed for success, I flip flopped my way into the office.

Patty was at her desk. Jerry leaned on the filing cabinet.

“Morning, neighbors! Let’s go back to the table.” I greeted them cheerfully and made my way to the kitchen table. The others followed and each slid into a chair, sitting side by side so they could face me.

“Glad you made it, Floppy. Grab some coffee and we’ll get right to it.”

Patty handed a cup to Jerry. They knew each other – through me – but had never had occasion to become close or chummy. It didn’t bother me. I knew they’d be fine together. Give it a few days and they’d be ganging up on me with the one-liners.

Patty sipped her coffee and nudged Jerry. “He’s wearing his Journey shirt. Sit up straight. This is an official meeting.”

“Yep.” I cut in before Jerry could respond. “And I’ve got to go to Atlanta all of a sudden, so I don’t want to drag this out. You may want to grab a note pad, Patty.”

She didn’t move, but Jerry pulled a pad and pen from his pocket. Patty would take mental notes, as usual. I popped the latches on the briefcase and retrieved a folder and pen.

“First off, here’s what I was…” My phone buzzed. Without looking down, I brought it up to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Doral Knobel! I’m ashamed of you. Your father and I just want to know where we went wrong.”

Not now, please God. Why didn’t I check the caller ID?

“I’m in a meeting, Mom.” I raised a finger toward Patty, signaling this wouldn’t take long.

“What kind of person goes into a stranger’s home and fondles a young girl’s breasts? Not the boy I raised!”

“I didn’t fondle them. I just stared at ‘em.” At this, Jerry froze with a coffee cup against his lips.

“Don’t get smart with me, young man. We were totally embarrassed. I’ll bet they never speak to us again!”

“I think they will.”

“We couldn’t face them, if they did. You showed up looking like a homeless bum and the moment I leave the room, you start an incident.”

“Dad was there. He saw them. Her shirt was wet.” Now Patty’s eyebrows went up.

“You’re a grown man! Can’t you act like it for two minutes? What were you doing?”

“She started it, Mom. I was just a victim.” Jerry looked out the glass door, but I caught the smirk.

“I don’t know what a bananaman is and I don’t wanna’ know. But, I know what stiffie means!”

“I gotta’ go, Mom.”

“I’ll pray to God for your forgiveness... Mister Big Shot business man!” Click.

**sigh**

The room echoed a pregnant silence. I gulped my coffee. Jerry’s lip was up under his mustache again. Patty was biting into her lower lip – hard. She would most likely explode any moment, if someone didn’t speak.

“That’s not even close to what it sounded like.” I murmured tentatively.

And that’s all it took. They looked at each other and busted out. I replayed the phone call in my head, lips pouting. Recalling what they had heard on this end, I shrugged and joined them with a hearty round of chuckling and eye rolling.

I’ll bet real business moguls don’t get calls like that.

“Here’s to life with Doral Knobel.” Patty said, raising her coffee cup high. “Never a dull moment.”

Jerry tapped his foam cup against hers to complete the toast. I eyed them, watching the anticipated bond beginning to form already and smiled with satisfaction.

“Okay, you two. Back to business.”

“So, what did your dad see?” Jerry couldn’t to let it go.

“Couple of wet bikini stuffers. Right in his face. It was beautiful. He never blinked.”

“It’s always about boobs with you guys.” Patty stood and leaned against the sink.

“Sorry, Patty.” I winked at Jerry. “Let’s get back to it. I’ve gotta’ leave soon.”

“The floor is yours, Boss Man.”

“Patty, I invited Jerry this morning because I want him to come to work for us. I’m going to be bringing the Elite project here to Murphy… and Advantage. I want him to be my right hand… to help manage daily operations. And I’m going to expand your administrative duties, too.”

Patty sat down again, an expectant look on her face. Jerry looked stunned.

I pulled a small note pad from my shirt pocket and tore off the top two sheets. I placed one in front of Patty, the other in front of Jerry. They scooped them up and I continued. “The numbers you’re looking at would be your new salaries.”

They stared at the numbers for a few moments in deafening silence.

Jerry was the first to speak. “I would have to give notice at the plant. Assuming I can do whatever you have in mind.”

“And this…” I tore off another page and slid it over. “Would be your bonus percentages. Probably net about three grand at first.”

“Per quarter?”

“Uh huh.”

“I can give a short notice.”

“Good. Then, let’s run through a to-do list, so I can get outta’ here.”

Patty set her paper down and gave me a serious look. “This all sounds good, Dak. But… well… I run your checkbook. I guess I’m waiting to hear the rest of the story.”

“I knew you’d say that and it brings me to the first thing on our to-do list.” I opened the briefcase again and pulled out a cloth bag. Placing it in front of Patty, I motioned for her to open it. She upended the bag to let its contents drop onto the table. Several bundles of money held together with paper wrappers flopped onto the Formica and I said, “Put this in the bank.”

Silas had tapped on my car window just before I’d left the Westland Estate. Dropping a hundred and fifty grand in my lap, the old geezer had just shuffled away without a word, leaving me baffled and speechless.

Now, pulling out two more bundles, I continued, “Put one of these in my personal account and see that my folks get the other one. Now, a few other things I need you to do.”

They were still staring in open-mouthed astonishment at the money. Patty reached over and removed a legal pad from a drawer near the sink and extracted a pencil from behind her ear. Apparently, she now felt a need to take notes.

“Jerry, you’ll be overseeing and expediting the move of my companies.” I proceeded as if dumping money on the table was daily routine. “Spend some time with Patty over the next few days and she’ll bring you up to speed on a lot of the details about them. Patty, you’ll still be in charge of anything administrative or financial. I don’t know if Rheeta will want to move, so you may have to assume her duties when Elite comes to Murphy. And of course, we still have the bail biz. Go over that with Jerry. I expect you two to work together.

“Also, get Jerry’s personal info for payroll. Have Artie draw up the papers to make both of you partial owners… power of attorney… yada yada.”

“What?” They responded in unison.

“Yeah. I’m making you both minority partners”

“Really?” Patty voiced what was on both their faces. “Shouldn’t we discuss this?”

“What’s to discuss? I can’t run this without you. Why not let you own a piece of it? Just a small percentage. Enough to keep you motivated.”

She opened her mouth to object, but nothing came out and I pressed onward. “Anyhow, I’ll have the exact numbers for Artie in a few days. While you’re at it, get him to work up transfer papers for my share of DataOne. You’ll need to get contact info and business details on a guy named Caleb Westland. I don’t have his number on me.”

“I’ll look it up,” she responded. “And it’s Thursday. Artie’s in court today. He doesn’t take calls on Friday.”

“Just tell Susanne what you want him to do. He’ll get on it.” Artie Blomfield was my attorney and Susanne was his Patty.

“Jerry… let David Fritz know I had to go out of town, but it’s a thumbs up on what we discussed yesterday.” He nodded without looking up from his notepad.

I paused for a moment and when they both looked at me, I said, “By the way… anything discussed between you or Patty and me… stays that way. This money is a good example of what stays between us. I’m hesitant to spend too much of this windfall before we get all the paperwork done with Westland.”

They both nodded again and Patty was scribbling on her pad.

“Get the keys from David. Go through the old Remax building and figure out what we’ll need to modify. Coordinate with Patty or call my cell if you need anything. Patty knows what I like. Keep it simple… functional. We’ll need to have office space for everything you have here, Patty… plus the Advantage offices. An office for Jerry or a big one you two can share. You guys work that out. And we’ll need a large area for Chang’s lab stuff. Maybe you can draw it out on paper and I’ll look at it when I get back.”

“Uh… Dak.” Jerry stuck a hesitant hand in the air like a schoolboy. “I can’t start today.”

“I understand, Floppy. No worries. All I need you to do is take a look inside that building and call David. Patty can do the rest… for now.”

“Um… okay. I still gotta’ talk to Shelly. And I’ll think of something to tell them at the plant.”

I nodded at the small papers in Jerry’s hand and smiled. “Those numbers work for you?”

“You da’ man, Capt’n Disaster. Shelly’s gonna’ shit a brick. But, I guess I work for you now. Monday sound like a good day to start?”

“I can live with that if Patty can.”

“Any dress code for this job?”

I stood up and smoothed out my Journey T-shirt. “You’re lookin’ at it.”

“Do I have to wear flip flops?”

“Wise ass. Okay… we about done here? Oh… Patty, I should be back tonight. But, if I get held up… Shyanne’s coming in tomorrow some time.”

“Not another word. I’ll make sure she’s okay. You have any groceries in that house of yours?”

“Not much. Floppy here ate one of my bananas.”

“Bachelors!” she muttered, reaching for one of the bundles on the table and removing a fifty. She waved it at me before slipping it into her pocket. “I’ll make sure she has real people food.”

“Atta’ girl. See why I love her so much?” I winked at Jerry and we shook hands. “Thanks for being here, Flop. Go get some sleep. You don’t work third shift anymore.”

Jerry looked pleased and headed out the front. As he stood in the open doorway, he turned back to me. “I don’t have to call you Boss… or Sir, do I?”

“Get outta’ here before I change my mind, Numb Nuts!” The door slammed shut and we could hear Jerry’s low chuckle on the other side. I handed Patty the folder on top of my briefcase. “This has an outline of my plans plus contact info on the buildings we lease. There’s a list of the employees… who I think will move… and the ones I think we can do without. We’ll hire locals to fill any open positions after the dust settles.”

I strolled back to the outer office, Patty on my heels. “Sorry I have to run again.”

“What’s the rush this time? Anything you should tell me about?” She was doing her best not to be motherly.

“Not really sure,” I shrugged. “Chang’s got his panties in a wad over something and I gotta’ go check it out.”

“Well, before you go, you might wanna’ look at this.” She handed me a folder. I opened it and saw a copy of the arrest report for Boland “Bo” Dockery. Age 72, a retired chicken farmer from Grape Creek. Harmless, really. But, he liked to drink. And since he didn’t have a car, he sometimes drove his tractor to town. Of course, this always caused a frustrating log jam of traffic on Joe Brown Highway. Drivers with the nerve to gun it around him while laying on the horn would usually get a long, juicy string of tobacco spit across their windshield.

“Son of a gun. They busted old Bo?”

“He hit a cop this time.”

“No way!”

“He tried to spit on the squad car. Got the officer on the chin. They say there was brown gook all over his shirt, too. Booked him for disorderly and resisting. No assault charge.”

“They don’t think he’s much of a problem,” I commented, flipping through the report. “The bail’s only a thousand.”

“Not a flight risk. How far is he gonna’ go on a tractor?”

“Who’s the co-signer?”

“His grandson, Jeff.”

I dropped the file on her desk and smiled. “See? Business is picking up already. Told you things would get better!”

“Yep. Looks like I can actually write myself a check tomorrow.” She sat down and picked up the phone as if I had already left. So I did.

I tried to follow the hidden sidewalk beneath the long grass, still wet with dew. I hated to get my feet wet in flip flops. They would squeak for hours. I was still looking down when I reached the driveway and went around Patty’s car.

“Hey, Handsome! My… you do clean up pretty good.”

My head snapped up and my jaw went slack. Sitting on the hood of the Impala was Jillian – and the honeydew sisters. She slid off the car to a standing position, the sisters bobbing noticeably behind a snug white button up that was tied in a knot above her naval.

“I… um… what…” Frankly, I didn’t know what to say.

“Aw! You’re not mad about last night, are you? Just goofing around, right?” Without waiting for a reply, she grabbed my shoulders and leaned in – planting a gentle peck on my cheek. After an awkward silence and no response from me, she covered my mouth with hers. It was moist and she lingered briefly.

Stepping back, she bounced on the balls of her feet like an excited cheerleader. Of course, the snuggle puppies tried to keep up with her. “Told you I’d see you again soon!”

I exhaled loudly, recalling the General problem that had “come up” the last time I saw Jillian.

Don’t move an inch. Don’t even think about.

 

 

 

 

8 -- JILLIAN

 

 

“Honestly, Jillian. I don’t have time for this.”

She was far more aggressive than the women I usually spent time with. Jillian was gregarious and vivacious, but she didn’t seem dangerous.

“Time for what?” She batted her eyelashes playfully. “Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“I’m on my way to Atlanta. Business. Hope you understand.”

“Atlanta? Sounds like fun. Can I go? We can take my car!” She was relentless.

Why me? She must be at least ten years younger than I am.

“Oh, I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” I said, shoving the briefcase through the car window. “Don’t you have better things to do?”

“This is Murphy. What’s a thirty two year old woman going to do here? I don’t quilt. And canning vegetables is boring.”

“Thirty two… really?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Nothing. I just thought you were in your twenties.”

“Well. Aren’t you the sly charmer all of a sudden? Must be my youthful complexion.”

“Something like that.” I bent at the waist and leaned through the car window, fumbling for my cigarettes.

“Hmmm. This side looks yummy, too!” Long, slender fingers squeezed my left butt cheek. I jerked upwards in reflex and thunked my head on the door frame.

“FUCK ME!” I hollered. The knot on the back of my head was still sore from the last time.

“Here and now, Sweet Cheeks?” She gave me an innocent pout, hands suddenly tucked behind her.

“Geez, girl. Do you ever turn it down a notch? Son of a bisquit eater! That’s twice I’ve hit my head… in the same spot. I’m gonna’ have brain damage!”

“Does it hurt bad?” At that, I just stared a hole through her and lit a smoke. She tucked her fingers in the front pockets of her skin tight, white shorts. The over zealous vixen seemed to vanish, replaced by a more mature woman. “Sorry, Dak. I get carried away. Can I do anything? Maybe go inside and get some ice?”

“Aw, crap. Don’t worry about it. I know you didn’t mean it. But, seriously. I’ve got to go.”

“Then, let me drive. You can snooze on the way or we can talk. I’d like to know more about you.” She was pressing and I looked doubtful. “No fooling, Dak. I’m bored. I’ll be good company. I promise. I can do some shopping while you’re doing whatever it is that you do down there.”

“We take your Escalade? And no horsing around?”

“Yep.”

“Can I smoke?”

“I don’t care if you fart. Just keep the windows cracked.”

I twisted my mouth. Might be fun. I could catch a few Z’s. My headache would be a show stopper today, that’s for sure. And now that she’d pulled back on the throttle, Jillian didn’t seem half bad.

“Aw, hell. Follow me to my house and I’ll leave my car there.”

Twenty minutes later, the Escalade was on Spur 60, headed south towards Highway 515. One of my “just in case” duffel bags was in the back seat. The passenger seat was reclined and I was fiddling with the AC vents. I liked it cool.

“There’s a little store up here on the right… just over the state line. Pull in and we’ll grab a Mountain Dew.”

“Aye, Captain,” she giggled and I snickered a little. She wasn’t so bad. And this seat was soft leather.

I could get used to this. Warp five, Mr. Sulu. I’ll be in my quarters.

The stop for a soda was quick and we were back on the road in no time. I kept my eyes closed for about ten minutes, hoping the motion of the vehicle and the reclined position might put me to sleep. Jillian was keeping her word and behaving. In fact, she wasn’t saying anything. We drove in silence, but sleep eluded me. On the bright side, my headache was down to a distant thumper.

Adjusting the seat upright, I lit a cigarette and pressed the window down button. Then, I reached for the radio. “You mind?”

“Not at all. I love to jam. Just didn’t want to disturb you. I keep CD’s in the console.”

I sifted through her discs. Not bad. Several I could tolerate. Slipping one into the player, I adjusted the volume and waited. When the opening licks came on, I leaned back and inhaled on my smoke.

“Mind if I ask you something?”

“They’re Forty D’s.” She grinned at me, then down at her chest. “Nice, huh?”

“You never stop, do you?”

“Oooops! Sorry.”

“And while we’re at it. You ever wear a bra? I mean… seriously, I’m only human.” We both laughed. It was a shared moment. I felt the tension subside and relaxed a bit. “Actually, I was wondering why I’ve never heard of your uncle.”

“I dunno’… he’s not there much. Travels a lot. Me and the boys just got there a couple weeks ago.”

“What do ya’ll do?”

“The boys are… on leave from university… in Spain. Taking a break. I’m just… killing time. Caleb may have a position for me soon. I don’t usually work. Sounded like fun.” Trigger slapped me like a fly swatter across the back of the neck.

Hmmm. Something about those boys. Or is it her?

“You rich?” I asked.

“Family money. Wanna’ marry me now?”

“Ha! Maybe later. So, how did he build that place out there without me hearing about it?”

“Like I said, I just got here. Is there a problem, Dak?”

“I dunno’… I mean, I don’t think so.” I blew smoke out the window and rode quietly for a moment before continuing. “Can I ask another question?”

“Sure. Then it’s my turn.”

“What’s with all that up close eye contact last night? I thought they were looking into my brain… then you did it, too.”

“Oh, that,” she said flatly. She rarely took her eyes off the road and I studied her profile. Yep, chin-dropping cute. Especially the eyes and nose. “It’s another family thing. My people believe they can… see what kind of person you really are… in your eyes. Some can… read minds.”

Trigger sparked slightly. “You’re kidding. Right?”

“Why?”

“I don’t go for any of that hoo doo nonsense. Do you?”

“I’m just telling you what my people believe, Dak. Agnes says your parents… behind it all… are so proud of you… just don’t know how to express it. And they would kill to protect your daughter. Literally.”

“Humph! They’re my parents. I don’t need a mind reader to tell me that.”

“Okay. You asked. I answered.”

“But, what about you, Jillian? You did the eye thing.”

“Habit, I guess.” Another Trigger tick. I almost missed it.

“Why did they look away so quickly?”

“They said they couldn’t read you. You were blank.” Trigger blipped again. She wasn’t really lying. Telling half-truths, maybe.

“Yeah, right. Maybe ‘cause I don’t believe in that shit. Why did you look away?”

“Your Willy Johnson distracted me.”

“My what? Oh… that.” I turned to watch the trees racing by, my face changing color. “Just a red blooded male, that’s all.”

“And a cute one, too. How’s Willy today?” Her hand was suddenly exploring in my lap.

“Behave, woman!” I scolded, grabbing her wrist and shoving it away.

“Is he a big boy?” she persisted mischievously.

“About average, I guess. Wouldn’t really know.”

“I hear some guys name them. You know… like Ramrod or Sod Buster. Does yours have a name?”

“Not having this conversation.” I chugged some ice cold Dew.

“I vote for Ramrod.”

Maybe I should pull it out and beat her to death with it.

“Jillian… please. I have a nuclear headache.”

“Caleb mentioned it. What’s that all about?” She was back to normal again. Sure could turn it on and off. The Escalade swung right at the light, joining the traffic on 515 South. I retrieved my sunglasses and pushed them on.

“Just a nuisance I’ve endured for the last eighteen years. No big deal. Sun bothers me a bit, too.”

“Same here. Not the headache. The sun.”

“Caleb told me they were sensitive. Burned easily. You got that too?” I looked around at the heavy tint on the Escalade windows.

“Yeah. Another family quirk.”

“Huhn.” The speakers went quiet for a few beats. Drum thumps began a steady cadence and the “live” audience started screaming. The vocalist screamed back “Are you ready?” and I recognized the intro for a popular one-hit-wonder.

“Another question?”

“I’m just the driver. What’s on your mind?”

“What’s with all the sexual energy? You always in overdrive?”

She snorted and leaned her elbow on the window jam. “Our women are the aggressors. We dominate the sexual activity. Our men are rather docile in that area.”

“Our women? Another family thing?”

“Sort of. Actually, all the women where I come from. I don’t mean to scare you. Just something about you I find interesting.”

“They’re all like you? Crap! Are there many male survivors?” We both laughed again. When it passed, I twisted in my seat, my back to the door. “So, tell me about the other one.”

“Who?”

“The little woman with golden hair.”

“Oh… you mean Kya! That’s my friend. She has a place in town.”

“Really? I’ve never seen her before. And I would have remembered her.”

"She said you saw her at that big food store in town." She glanced over at me and recognition flashed across her face. "Ah! I get it. You like her! I'm right, aren't I?"

“Well, I… I mean…”

“I knew it. Wait’ll I tell her! Oh… you’re so cute!”

“No. It’s not… you know… she’s…”

“No wonder you keep pushing me away. You got the hots for Kya!”

I reached out and gave her arm a little squeeze. “Jillian! Can I get a word in?”

She was smiling like the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary. But, she nodded for me to continue. “She’s attractive… I guess. But, Jillian… I don’t even know her. I’ve never spoken to her before last night.”

“What was the deal with the bananas?”

“Um… that would be my Dipshit of The Year routine. I won an award.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” I released her arm.

“Uh huh. You like her, Dak. It’s all over your face.”

“Well, who knows? I might. If I ever got a chance to talk to her. But, after last night, I don’t think a date with me will be very high on her to-do list.”

“Don’t assume, Dak. What are you, a teenager?”

“And then you… with that whole stiffie thing! Kinda’ makes a guy wanna’ hide under a rock.”

“Awww. At least she knows you can get a stiffie! You guys… you walk around bragging about your tools. But, the moment a woman shows interest… you shrivel right up.”

“Um… uh… I don’t think… you know… shrivel kind of…”

She rolled her eyes. “Men! You leave it to Jillian, my handsome friend. You’ll have a date in no time!”

“No shit? Just like that… you go from grabbing my crotch to setting me up with your friend?”

“She’s my friend. You’re my friend. No problem for me.” She smiled over at me. With a playful wink, she added, “If I’m lucky, maybe she’ll share.”

I was forced to look out the side window again, new warmth flushing my cheeks. Little General was stretching and yawning after a long nap. “Someone mention a three way?”

Now I need two ice packs.

Never missing a detail, Jillian said, “Good morning, Ramrod. Sweet dreams?”

Oh, God. Make it stop.

She giggled for several minutes while I chugged Dew and lit another smoke. The singer in the speakers wanted his fans to “Come Sail Away.” I thought it might be nice to sail away. Jillian started singing along and she was pretty good.

When the song ended, I pressed eject and replaced the disc. As a new track pumped through the speakers, Jillian kept perfect beat on the steering wheel and sang some more.

She wasn’t my type, but I had to admit I liked her. Something about her drew me in. But, it wasn’t physical.

The Escalade zipped along on cruise control. The outskirts of Ellijay, Georgia flew by the windows. The atmosphere inside the vehicle was comfortable.

Another two miles and Jillian finally broke the silence. “If you’re done blushing over there, it’s my turn for questions.”

“Oh, sure. Go ahead… oh, wait a minute.” A vibration made me raise my cell phone. “Hello?”

After a moment, I put the phone to my chest. “Patty can’t find any info on Caleb. She needs a number. I asked her to call him. Mind giving me the number?”

Jillian stared straight ahead for a moment, and then said, “He’ll call her shortly.”

I raised the phone again. “Patty… he’ll call you shortly. Everything else okay? Uh huh. Oh, you went to the bank already? Good. What? Bo’s out? That didn’t take long. You give him a ride home? Okay. Yeah. I’ll call you later.”

I put the phone away and noticed that Jillian was tucking a phone back into her shorts. I hadn’t heard her talking.

“He apologized,” she said.

“He does that a lot. I wonder why Patty couldn’t find anything on him.”

“It’s a private number.”

“No… I mean she couldn’t find anything. Nothing on the internet. Nothing in the business directory. Almost like he doesn’t exist.”

“I don’t know much about the internet. And I don’t know much about my uncle’s business affairs. He said he would call her. Isn’t that good enough?” Trigger zapped and pinged.

“I guess. We just need some business details for the lawyers. Caleb bought one of my businesses.”

Must hide behind multiple business entities. Keeps himself out of the spotlight.

She shrugged and kept tapping the steering wheel. A minute later, she slowed and veered into a Marathon station. “We need gas and I gotta’ use the ladies room.”

“No problem. I could use a break and stretch my legs. Want me to pump it?” She nodded and swaggered off toward the store entrance.

We were back on the road within 10 minutes. I twisted the top on a fresh Mountain Dew when it struck me that Jillian hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since we left.

“Thirsty?” I asked, extending the plastic bottle.

“No, thanks. I’m fine.”

She gunned the Escalade into the passing lane around a large travel trailer. I slipped a disc into the player. When Celine’s quality pipes hit melodic perfection, my fingers started tapping on my knee. At times, good vocals were satisfying enough – even if it wasn’t really Rock n’ Roll.

"Wow," came from Jillian. "All those manly features and a varied taste in music, too."

“That’s me. Predictably unpredictable.”

“So back to my questions, Handsome.” She set the cruise control and rested an elbow on the door frame. “What do you do for fun?”

“Not much,” I answered bluntly. “I work a lot. Don’t really have any hobbies.”

“Too bad. But, if you had free time… how would you spend it?”

“I like to play poker. I enjoy the challenge. Played a little in Vegas last year. Oh… and racing. I like to go to the car races. I enjoy it on TV… but there’s nothing like actually being there.”

“The ones that look like little airplanes? Or the ones that go in circles.”

“Circles.” I had to chuckle. A typical assessment by a non-racing fan. “The open wheel cars… the little airplanes… are fun to watch. But, I’ve always followed stock cars. My daughter was like you until I took her to a live event. Now she loves it.”

“Huhn. Always thought that was a guy thing.”

“It’s the noise… the smells… the excitement is electric. And the drivers are like movie stars nowadays.”

“Cool. Can’t wait to meet your daughter.”

“Maybe this weekend. We’ll see.” Yep. Jillian was alright. Once you got past the jiggling and giggling.

“So, tell me why we’re going to Atlanta. You some kind of biz wiz hot shot?”

“Ha! No, afraid not. Just an average guy trying to make a living… in my own way. I’ve been divorced about eight years, I guess. I don’t date much. I just keep trying to get ahead, so I can retire early and live comfortably.”

“Nothing wrong with that, Dak. Doing it your way is cool. Tell me about your business.”

For the next few minutes, I gave her a superficial overview of my activities. When I touched on Elite Concepts and some of my “inventions,” she seemed genuinely interested.

I followed with a description of Adonis Advantage, a small marketing and ad firm I owned in Atlanta. Only two national clients, cosmetics and a private label beer. Mostly smaller companies based in and around Atlanta. Retailers and a few Mom n’ Pop businesses. I also used Advantage to promote some of my creations that came out of Elite.

“So, you use one company to help the other?”

“Whenever I can. It’s a good way of controlling expenses with reduced outsourcing.”

“Clever.”

“Not really. I’m sure Caleb would find my business tactics rather… unsophisticated… compared to his.”

She shrugged and made a hand motion, indicating that I should continue. I told her about DAK Escorts in Marietta. It was a hodge podge under one roof. Limo services, bodyguards, event security. Or any other unusual assistance a client might be willing to pay for. A good money maker, but staffing was a bitch. Background checks and drug tests eliminated most applicants. And then there was training. Not everyone had the required skills and talents. Most of my employees were ex-military. Some were Pro Wrestlers who needed a day job.

“Mostly men,” Jillian quipped. “Maybe we should stop for a look-see before we go back to Murphy.”

“We’ll see. I’ve got a few females on duty. But, yes, mostly guys. However, they’re hired for their skills… not their looks. You may be disappointed.” This produced a playful pout.

Next, I told her about Starburst Events, my event planning service in Marietta.

“Let me guess.” She interrupted. “When the conventions and expositions that hire Starburst need security or limo service, you hand that off to DAK Escorts.”

“Bingo.”

“You’re pretty slick, Big Man.”

“Well, some times, I guess. Problem is… with the economic downturn… events are down. Starburst is off about thirty percent this year. I’m only a partial owner and I’m probably going to let that go soon. I prefer to concentrate on Elite.”

“Bummer. I guess you have to cut your losses… choose your battles, eh?”

Nodding in agreement, I told her about my streamlining ideas and the plans to drop some of the extra weight. There was DataOne, but Caleb had already paid for relief on that front. I also had Knobel Trucking, my freight company based over in Dalton, Georgia. It made money – usually. I hadn’t decided what I would do with it yet. A few more months wouldn’t hurt.

“So, you’re consolidating and restructuring. Sounds like a smart plan. You can’t do everything… or be everywhere.”

“Yeah… that’s my biggest problem. I’ve gotten overextended. Too many irons in the fire. All these companies have potential. But, I don’t have the time for all of them. So, I’ve had to make some tough decisions.”

“Better to do a few things really well… than a lot of things half assed,” she commented.

“Egg-zactly. And now I’m excited. I’ve got the ball rolling and I think the next six months will be good in the long run. There will be some challenges… but I’m used to it.”

“Atta’ boy, Dak. I like your attitude. Ooops… hang on.” She dug into her tight shorts and somehow managed to retrieve her phone while keeping an eye on the pavement.

Road signs said we were approaching I-75 South. I watched her flip open the phone and answer. Hard to believe this was the same woman who had caused me so much discomfort earlier. She was really okay when she wasn’t trying to jump my bones.

“Hey, girl! Whatsup? Uh huh. Almost to Atlanta. Yeah. Really? Uh huh.” I tried to follow this end of the conversation. She was animated, sometimes taking her spare hand off the wheel. “Yeah, it was fun. Uh huh. Sitting right here. I told him you’d go out with him. He blushes real easy.”

I fanned my hands in a frantic gesture. When I realized I looked like a girl trying to dry her nail polish, I lowered them quickly.

Just when I was starting to like her.

“No problem, Kya. He’s sweet. Uh huh. I know… first impression… yep… second impressions. Third times the charm, girl! Really? No way! I can… but… you know… the whole stiffie thing. It didn’t go over well. Uh huh. Um… well…” She glanced over and winked at me. “Ramrod would be my guess. Ha ha! Yeah, he blushed again… just talking… seriously. Kisses, girlfriend. See ya!”

Okay, you can drive off the next bridge we come to.

The phone disappeared and Jillian turned up the radio volume without looking over at me and I felt a strong desire to slither under the passenger seat.

Traffic was getting heavier as we merged into 5 lanes of speeding vehicles on I-75 flowing south toward Atlanta. Jillian suddenly slapped me on the thigh, startling me into a wide eyed expression.

“Heads up, Lover Boy! You sparked an interest with Kya! You’re a lucky man.”

“What… no.”

“Well, not as lucky as you could have been. But, you don’t like me.”

“I like you… really.”

“Uh huh. She said you were cute.”

“She did not!”

“Did too! In a sad… needs-a-good-woman kind of way.”

“Oh, God. I need a drink.”

“I’m sure Ramrod will make up for what you lack in social graces.”

“Is that a gun store up there on the right?”

Jillian laughed for the next 4 miles. The honeydew twins were practically rebounding off the steering wheel.

“Take the Two-Eighty-Five West exit,” I finally said.

“Can do, Stud Muffin.”

“Look, Jillian. It’s not that I don’t like you. Hell… you’re attractive… a real head turner. Any normal guy would bust a nut for a woman like you.”

“You’re not normal?”

“Maybe not. I think you’re terrific. Funny. Gorgeous. Just not… you know… in a romantic or sexual way.”

Staring straight ahead, Jillian dropped her right hand, grabbed the bottom of her shirt and yanked it upward. Butterball Number One plopped out, a hard nipple brushing the steering wheel.

“How about now?” she asked without looking at me. And, there it was. A magnificent 40 D fully exposed in all its traffic stopping glory for the whole world to see. “Is that a boob or what?”

“No.” I forced myself to look away.

“It’s not?”

“It’s a death wish.”

“Wanna’ touch it?”

“Jillian… please. Sex with you would kill me.”

“Yeah… but what a way to go!”

“I’m so out of practice, I’d probably… go… within seconds. Um… can you put that thing away? People are looking.”

She looked defeated as she tried to force the unrestrained orb back under the skimpy shirt with one hand while she drove with the other. The large mound of flesh was resisting confinement in an awkward, floppy way.

Do not ask me to give you a hand. I’ll just watch from over here.

“Grab the wheel.” She caught me by surprise.

“What th’?” I jerked upright, reaching for the steering wheel and fighting back the panic. We were doing over 70mph!

Another friggin’ Kodak moment.

It took both hands and three tries to wrestle her large mammary into submission.

“You win, Dak. I gave it a shot. Thought I could break you.” There was resignation in her voice. Her task completed, she lifted and prodded both breasts until the weight was evenly distributed behind the thin shirt. Retaking the wheel, she asked, “So, what about when I kissed you earlier?”

“I’m flattered, Jillian. Really. I haven’t been with a woman in… I dunno’… about a year. It’s just… well, it was like kissing…”

“Don’t say sister.”

“… my sister… if I had one.”

“Crud.”

“Just being honest. Don’t hate me.”

“Oh, I don’t hate you, Dak. We’re gonna’ be great buds. We just won’t do the nasty. But, we’ll be tight. I can tell about these things.”

“Whew!”

“Ha! You can breathe now, Lover Boy. I give up. I’ll retract my claws.”

I lit another cigarette and looked down.

Sorry, little dude. Not this time.

“You smoke too much.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Before I could react, she punched me in the shoulder. Apparently, the relationship was already moving into the “buds” phase. I could live with that. Less danger. Lower risk of heart attack.

“Take this next right. No… that one, just past the bank down there.” Then, another question came to mind. “So, why does Agnes think Kya is wild?”

“That’s just Agnes. Kya lives on her own… not with other family or a mate… er, husband. To Agnes, that makes her a loose cannon. Compared to me, though, she’s a… what do they say over here? A pussycat?”

“Ahhhh. Pussycat is good. So… what’s her last name?”

“She’s a Michaels. Kya Michaels. Why?”

“No Kelso blood… or hormones?” I waited for her to glance sideways. Then, I winked.

“Ha ha! I think you’ll be safe with her, Big Man.” She smacked my thigh again. “Then again. You might wanna’ start working out.”

“Remind me to buy some vitamins. And a box of Wheaties.”

I pointed to the next left turn and while Jillian looked for coming cross traffic, I dropped my eyes to my crotch.

And you! A few push ups wouldn’t hurt. Maybe some leg lifts?

 

 

 

 

9 -- CHANG

 

 

Directly overhead, the sun blazed in peak fury. It was 12:40 when the Escalade slid into a slot facing the long, unimpressive building. We had made good time and I was anxious to get my hands on Chang.

Jillian scurried from the vehicle and ducked into the shade of the metal awning over the door with small white lettering on the glass: ELITE CONCEPTS. I joined her quickly, adjusting my sunglasses and flicking a cigarette butt into the can next to the door. Pulling on the handle, I ushered her in and followed.

This rather plain building was 2 blocks long, camouflaged among dozens of similar structures positioned in rows with parking between them. It was a bleak industrial park on the western outskirts of Atlanta. The inside was utilitarian drab. Rugged indoor-outdoor gray carpet over concrete. Unadorned walls in eggshell white and foam panel ceiling with fluorescent tubes.

“Thank God you’re here!” exclaimed the woman behind the desk, startled by my sudden appearance with a tall female in skimpy white shorts and bulging shirt.

I gave her a knowing look. “Hey, Rheeta. Is he back there?”

“I don’t think he ever left.” Rheeta Wakowski rose behind her desk. She was a hefty woman in her 50’s. Hair pulled back into a bun, large round glasses with thick frames. Average height, above average girth. Face of a school teacher, body like the cafeteria lady. The look on her round face made it clear she wasn’t in the mood for any shenanigans.

“This is my friend, Jillian. Show her the lounge and ladies room, will you? I’m going back to see what’s going on.”

“I’m fine,” Jillian objected with a hand on my arm. “I want to meet this guy.”

I paused. Arguing would, no doubt, be futile. I had already filled her in on Chang before we left the SUV. I just shrugged and said, “Brace yourself.”

Rheeta snorted and huffed as she waddled toward the “lounge,” a small room with a coffee maker, sink and fridge. “Someone better do something about that nut job back there.”

We were standing in the outer reception area. On the left was my office, door ajar. On the right were doors to the lounge and unisex rest room. Straight ahead was a double-door entry to the rest of the facility. I pushed through, Jillian on my heels.

Entering a long hallway lined with doors and windows on both sides, I peered through the first glass on the left. Delroy Jenkins was a short black man with a large head. Bald on top, short gray on three sides and a pug face in front. Del handled fabrication, quality control and post production details. He rolled his eyes at me and pointed toward the back of the building.

Three short strides brought me to the next window. Inside, I saw several tables stacked high with crates and boxes. There was a computer on the far wall, some filing cabinets and chairs. Organized chaos was the primary theme. Melissa Whitebear, a Native American in her late 20’s, usually occupied this room. It was empty at the moment.

In the next room, Jason and Beth were apparently having a heated debate. More computers, test tubes, glass jars, electronic gadgets and stacks of assorted paraphenalia. Jason had an engineering degree and Beth was a physicist. Both were young and blonde. Debates were a common occurrence. Seeing me at the window, Jason hooked a thumb.

I took the hint and continued to the end of the hall. I ignored the doors on the right. One was little more than a storage room, the other a small workshop. Both were dark.

“How many people work here?” Jillian asked curiously.

“Oh, six or ten. It fluctuates. The people you saw plus Melissa. She’s not here. In the back here is the lab. We should find Chang and two or three part time lab assistants. Depends on the work load and other factors, like who has classes or who’s sober.”

“Pretty casual around here, huh?”

“I guess. One of the benefits of working for me. I don’t stand on formality too much. Just get the work done and don’t blow the place up. I tend to hire misfits who can’t cope in the real world.”

“What a guy.”

“Okay, ready? Through these doors is Chang land. No telling what we’ll find.”

“Lead the way, Boss Man.”

It was a large room with bright lights. No people in sight. Several long tables filled with everything from Bunsen burners to bubbling beakers angled through the center. Typical mad scientist equipment for any Dr. Frankenstein laboratory.

Along two walls were various work stations, computers, electronic microscopes and a bank of equipment with names that were impossible to pronounce. The third wall was uncluttered. A 42” flat screen sat on a wooden cart. Beneath it was a satellite tuner and a video game console. Black cords littered the floor between the TV and two soft chairs. There were game controllers, a remote control and several empty snack bags scattered about.

“That’s the think tank over there,” I informed Jillian.

On the TV, a coyote with a rocket strapped to his back was chasing Road Runner through the Grand Canyon. Road Runner zig zagged. Coyote zipped over a large cliff and dropped in a puff of cartoon smoke. Someone had lowered the volume. There was a faint “Beep Beep” as Road Runner zoomed into the sunset.

The rest of the room was quiet and apparently empty. I strolled to the left, circling one of the large tables. Jillian sashayed the other direction, making her way along the wall with the work stations. I stopped at the end of the first table and picked up a notebook, scanning the hand written notes. Could have been German or Arabic. I set it down.

Then, Jillian’s voice from across the room, “Found him!”

Hustling around the room, I found her crouched in front of a small work station. On top, amid the clutter were a fast food bag, a half eaten burger and a large Coke. Under it was a guy with Bruce Lee hair, curled up in a fetal position.

“Kevin!” I said sharply, nudging the body with the toe of my flip flop.

If he’s dead under there, I’m gonna’ kill him.

I nudged the little Asian again. Then, a little harder.

“I am the Gate Keeper.” The voice was groggy and slurred. The body didn’t move. “Dijoo bring the key?”

Jillian looked at me, eyebrows up.

“What? You never saw Ghost Busters?” I questioned her confusion.

“I don’t watch much television.”

“It was a movie. You know… who ya’ gonna’ call?”

Her pale face was a blank.

“Huhn. Chang!” I gave the body a swift kick. “Get your ass up!”

“Wha… geez… Mommy?” Chang rolled over and lay face up at my feet. “What time is it? Are you early?”

“You said it was important, Kevin. What th’ hell you doing down there?”

Chang stood up a little wobbly. “Yo, man. Don’t get your pubes all tangled up. The Chang Man is here… sort of. Whoa… like… I can’t feel my legs, dude.”

His straight, black hair was spiked on top. He was wearing an Atlanta Falcons jersey with a Pi symbol where the number should be. At just 5’4”, the jersey swallowed him. Baggy Cargo shorts ended just below his knees and he wore Nike high tops with no socks. The sleeves of his white lab coat were knotted around his neck, the coat hanging down his back like Superman’s cape.

Chang grabbed the Coke and sucked hard on the straw. The eyebrows above his bloodshot Asian slits shot up as he noticed Jillian behind me. “Bonjour, Mon Cherie. Wow. Righteous ta ta’s!”

His mouth sagged as he ogled the honeydew twins. I stepped in and took him by the arm, dragging him away from the danger zone. Placing him in a nearby chair, I pulled another one in close and sat facing Chang, who slumped onto an elbow. Jillian and the girls kept their distance.

“Where is everyone, Kevin?”

“The Indian Princess had to take her kid to the doctor.” That would be Melissa.

“What about the others?”

“Webster’s been like… AWOL since Monday. I figure the two girls are sleepin’ it off… there was a rock concert last night.”

“You didn’t go?”

“Nah. Not my style, Dakster. I’m more of a rap dude. It speaks to me… like… you know… right here, man.” Chang chucked himself in the chest with the back of his fist.

Steady, old man. Steady.

I leaned in. Chang was in his mid twenties. His face was a bit round. A small stub of a nose over a thin mouth. Tiny, black whiskers dusted his upper lip. There was a smear of dried ketchup across his chin.

“You stay here all night, Kevin?”

Uh… think so. Got the munchies. I know I was thinking I should like… get some carbs. So, I ate a monster burger. Dude! What a night.”

“That’s it? Don’t you remember anything else?”

“Sorry, Bro. Found a rad joint in my sock… Jamaican, I think. Everything’s a blur after that.”

“You’re not wearing any socks.”

“I’m not? Whoa… dude. Like… you think maybe I ate ‘em? I got cotton mouth from hell. Serious shapoopie, man. Do me a solid and gimme’ back my coke.”

“Try to focus, Kevin. Do you remember calling me?”

“Who’s the Amazon Queen?” Chang’s gaze went past my shoulder. “That your new babe, Bro? If it is, you’re like… you know… my hero, man.”

“Jillian… how about grabbing us some coffee. You mind? Rheeta will help. I like just a touch of sugar in mine. Smokey Tokyo here will take his black.”

She nodded and spun on her heel. I waited for her J. Lo asset to bounce through the doors. But before I could say anything, Chang sat up straight.

“Bodacious back yard, Boss Man! Are you like… stabbin’ that in the dark?”

I’ve got to rethink my hiring practices.

“The only stabbing will be me… stabbing you with a Coke straw… if you don’t shape up. C’mon, Kevin!”

“Okay, okay, Mister Knobel, sir. The fog is lifting. And yo, dude… that Tokyo shot was low. My grandparents were like… Korean, man.”

“I thought they were Vietnamese.”

“Could be. I’ve got it written down somewhere. But I know I ain’t Japanese, bro.”

“I’ll make a note of it in your file. Now… why did you call me?”

“You’re gonna’ wanna’ give my ass a raise! Let me show you, dude. It’s over there by the… oh, wait, here comes the coffee. I could like… use some java, Bro.”

I nodded and watched Jillian approach with two large foam cups, steam curling upwards. Handing one to each of us, she pulled a tissue from her pocket and licked it. Bending at the waist, she started wiping the ketchup from Chang’s chin, massive cleavage dangling just out of reach.

“Ahh… the motherhood force is strong in this one, Obi Wan.” Chang said softly. I felt an unplanned snicker escape. From where I sat, her well rounded backside was blocking my view. I heard Chang add, “Thank you, my Queen. You know… you like… resemble that chick in those Angel movies.”

“The one that also makes romantic comedies,” I suggested.

“I guess so,” murmured Chang without taking his eyes off her. “But, your puppies are a lot bigger. They real?”

“It’s all me, Kung Fu Dude.” She gave his chin a final swipe and stepped away.

“Huhn. Your kids may have to like… wear head gear.” Chang stood slowly, trying not to spill his coffee.

I took a sip of mine and stood up to follow him. We went over to a work station with an electronic microscope and a disarray of glass strips and plastic trays. Scattered pages filled with chicken scratch littered the table surface. Chang took a pull on his coffee and set it down.

“Boss Dude. Is it… you know… okay to talk?” Suddenly serious, he tipped his head slightly and I glanced over at Jillian, now sitting in the chair I had vacated.

“Don’t worry about me, Kung Fu. Me and Dak are tight.”

I thought about it briefly. “Is this about the tanning formula? She knows about that.”

“No, man. That stuff’s over there on Table One. Good news is… I got it figured out. A few tests and you’ll be good to go on the tanning juice. Better news is… well… I sorta’ made an even better juice over here. You sure about her, Boss Dude? This is some radical shapoopie. Over the top… like big time.”

I looked a Jillian again. She was admiring one of her fingernails and looking rather distant.

Whatever. She doesn’t look like a spy or a terrorist.

“Go ahead, Kevin. Whatcha’ got?”

“You asked for it, Captain.” Chang turned and started sifting through the papers and junk on the table. He rooted out a small note pad and began flipping through it while he talked. “I hit a wall with the molecular stability in the tanning juice. After running a gazillion tests and cross referencing the results with some of the work we did on that hair juice, I thought I was going to go ape shit.”

“You said shit.”

“I mean… ape shapoopie. Aw, whatever. I was so close… yet like… so far, man”

I just stared. Amazing how the chemical junky could transition between street slang and rocket scientist mumbo jumbo without skipping a beat.

Chang had walked away from Johns Hopkins at the tender age of twenty. Bored, he claimed. Dabbling for a few semesters at Oxbridge, then Liverpool before finally hitch-hiking around Europe for six months. Soon after, he had stunned the professors at Duke University for nearly two years before being offered a fellowship.

Instead, surfing in Hawaii had seemed more inspiring.

When Del Jenkins had brought him to my attention, Chang proudly displayed a good tan and no plan. The offer to play Professor Gadget with my money – and be as creative as he wanted without stuffy rules and restrictions – had been accepted with a shrug and a “Whatever, dude.”

An IQ off the charts and the ambition of a box of rocks. Go figure.

“So, I was just playin’ around with some of the ingredients from previous Elite projects.” He was still talking and I refocused on what he was telling me. “Remember when you thought we could like… make people’s eyes change colors based on their moods? Now, there’s one we should give another go.”

I leaned against a table and sipped coffee. Chang was finally awake and on a roll. No telling how long he would take to actually make a point. At least, not one a normal human could understand.

“I dug out some research notes I kept from some old experiments I did at Duke and I was like… just dilly whackin’ the hours away and smokin’ this awesome log I got from Kenny th’ Mole down on fourth street.”

“Smoking in the lab?” I straightened, anger contorting my features.

“Oooops! Sorry, Bro. Can you like… kill me later?”

“Humph! This better be good.”

“Better than good. Like I said… no plan. No clear direction. Just mental masturbation. Like… hopin’ for some divine guidance, dude. And then, shazam! A little of this and a little of that. Badda bing, badda bang… Chang Bang! I frickin’ did it, dude!”

“Did what?”

“See for yourself. Prepare to be uplifted. Like… to a new level of living.” Chang went to a small refrigerator next to a filing cabinet, removed a plastic tray and came back. He assembled a group of rectangle glass strips in a neat row. Each had a rusty colored spec in its center.

Picking up one of the strips, he placed it on the mount under the electronic microscope and indicated for me to observe the monitor on the shelf above. The screen flickered and went bright, filled with the image of an odd liquid, some squiggly globs and assorted specks. Could have been brain cells. Could have been molecules from a pile of dog dookie.

I was no scientist. I was the Idea Man. That’s why I hired people like Chang.

“What am I looking at?” I demanded.

“Blood with traces of synthetics.” Said Jillian, now standing at my elbow. “It’s in poor shape. My guess? It’s Kung Fu’s blood.”

My chin went limp.

Boobs and brains? Who woulda’ thunk it?

“I’ve been to school,” she said casually. “This is entry level biology at any European university.”

“Hang on, hang on!” Chang was getting excited and he replaced the glass slip with another from the tray.

“Looks the same to me,” I admitted with a straight face.

“This one’s healthier,” Jillian commented. Chang placed a third specimen on the mount.

“Still looks the same. Will we be getting to the point in the near future, Kevin?” I was growing impatient, but he was pulling out another sample.

“Normal blood cells that time. Not Kung Fu’s,” Jillian said. And nothing looked any different when Chang slid yet another strip into place.

“Okay, Kevin. I don’t have her eye for detail, but they all look the same to me. What do blood smears have to do with your late night epiphanies?”

“You better sit down, Boss Dude.”

“I’ll stand.”

“Tall, round and tasty over there was right on the first one. It’s mine, man. Good eye, Babe. I use my blood sometimes when I need to test interactions and long term… well, I won’t like… bore you with the details. But, it was mine.”

“Still listening.”

“The second specimen was from one of the lab assistants, the third was yours and the last one was Delroy’s.”

“Wanna’ run that by me again? How did you get my blood sample?”

Chang was giggling and fidgeting. Almost giddy with excitement. “I said it was yours. I didn’t say it was your blood.”

“I’m gonna’ need my pills.” I said, sensing cranial explosions. “Enough with the riddles, Kevin.”

“It’s yours! As in… you own it. I’m just the creator. You’re the owner. Am I like… awesome or what? Yo, dude… you don’t look so good.”

My legs felt suddenly weak. I backed into a nearby chair, plopped down and ordered, “Put it on the screen again.”

Chang complied. I stared. Jillian asked, “You fabricated a blood cell?”

“A cell hell!” He tipped his head toward the small refrigerator. “I got like… nearly a quart of this juice in there!”

“Is this a joke, Kevin?” I wasn’t convinced. There should be firecrackers zapping the back of my neck. But, nothing. No Trigger. “I pay you to work on my projects. Not create pranks.”

“Scouts honor, Bro! It’s the real shapoopie. And not just a wimpy imitation. More like a clone. It’s real… fully functional blood. Right down to the atomic structure of the cells. The hormones. Proteins like, um… immunoglobulins… and other antibodies. The enzymes… all that shit. I challenge anyone to prove me wrong. Damn, I’m good!”

“And white cells?” Jillian queried.

“Here.” He pointed to the display monitor.

“Platelets? Calcium… vitamin K? What about the fibrinogen protein? Does it clot?” she pressed on. I sat silent. The stunned bystander with nothing intelligent to interject. Chang kept pointing and nodding, absolutely ecstatic by now.

“But,” she wasn’t satisfied yet. “What about the suspension fluid? You keep plasma on hand?”

“I had a little left over,” Chang answered flatly. “But, I cloned that into the production recipe, too.”

“It’s just not possible. Not in this lab,” Jillian insisted. “The technology isn’t available.”

Kevin’s eyes darted back and forth between us. He wasn’t frustrated. It was more of an ask me anything look.

To Jillian, he said, “You can like… break it down anyway you want, Princess Lay Me. But, it’s all here. Guess I’m one bad assed mofo… ain’t I?”

Jillian crossed her arms and stared at the monitor with her chin out. Perplexed. Maybe baffled. At least she somewhat understood the discovery. I was still several steps behind.

Chang looked around, as if checking for silent observers hidden about the room. Then, he pulled up the left sleeve of his jersey to expose four band aids on his forearm. Three had pictures of Donald Duck on them. One showed Mickey Mouse. “My hands were shaking real bad, dude. I had to try a few times till I like… hit a vein.”

“You injected yourself? Are you out of your fuckin’ mind?” I was almost shrieking. But, of course, I knew Chang probably was out of his mind.

“Hey, dude! Why all the hostility? I’m okay, ain’t I? Good as new! Gotta’ test shapoopie to make sure I got the recipe right.”

I slunk back into the chair. My body felt limp and my arms weighed a ton. The room was spinning like a disco ball. I closed my eyes and tried to will my headache into submission. Chang was returning the specimens to the cooler when I finally opened my eyes. The room wasn’t spinning – too fast.

Where was Trigger when I needed it?

This ain’t happening.

A tidal wave of alerts flooded my brain. Possibilities and ramifications. If this really was a blood replacement – a synthetic substitute – life was about to get very complicated.

Crap! What if it’s true? Is it even friggin’ possible?

There would have to be testing, verifications, approvals and objections. There could be public uproar, global demand, political intervention, and legal nightmares. Think of the hospitals alone that would line up for this stuff.

What had he called it? Juice?

Millions of lives could be saved.

What about the war zones in places like Iraq or Pakistan?

Breathe. Just breathe.

And what about the money? Truck loads, no doubt.

I can’t get any air. What’s wrong? Am I having a stroke?

“And it like… gets even better, Bro!”

“Huh?”

“If the formula remains stable, I think I can manipulate it. Like the tanning serum. Ain’t that a bitch, dude?”

“Gimme a moment.” I whispered feebly, trying to sit up in my chair. I fingered a cigarette from my shirt pocket, hand quivering. “What does that mean?”

Chang held out a Bunsen burner, turned the knob and torched the white tube hanging from my lips. “It means that we can develop variations. You know… down the road. We start by making different types… A, B, O Negative and so on. Then later, we can add modifications. Target specific physiological needs. Um… like you’re smokin’ in the lab, dude.”

“My lab.” I inhaled deeply and held it. “Physiological needs? In English… that would be?”

“We include built-in elements to fight or prevent things like Leukemia… or AID’s. The sky’s the limit.”

I blew smoke all over Chang. Then, I blew chunks into the garbage can next to the work station.

“Awww… rude, dude! I ain’t cleanin’ that up. You hurl… you clean it up. That just ain’t cool, man. Oh… almost forgot. This juice doesn’t have to be kept on ice like real blood. Is that radical or what?”

I nodded and threw up again.

 

 

 

 

10 -- ROUND ONE

 

 

Pressing the intercom button on the wall, I shouted, “Rheeta! Lock the front door and get back here with a note pad!”

“Your girlfriend is out front talkin’ on her phone,” the electronic voice said. I spun around. I hadn’t seen Jillian leave the room.

“She’s not my… get her inside and lock the door. I need you back here, pronto!” Then, to Chang, I asked, “You talk to anyone about this?”

“Not me, Bro. I was sleeping on the floor.”

“You have all this data on the computer?”

“Well, um… you see… I was just messin’ around.”

“You have notes?”

“Some of ‘em are right there.” Chang pointed at the pile of paper on the desk. Then, he tapped his temple and added, “Got the rest right here, dude.”

“How much can you make?”

“Maybe another quart or so. We don’t have the raw ingredients just laying around in bulk.”

“Step One, get your notes typed and downloaded onto a zip drive. Step Two, make up as much as you can as quick as you can.”

“Um… like, I don’t type so well. Must be my short fingers.”

“I can help with that,” Jillian stated matter of factly.

“Where the hell were you?” I asked a bit sternly.

“Chill, Dak. I just went out to call home. I told Agnes I wouldn’t be home tonight. Didn’t want them to worry.”

Zap! Ping! Trigger was back. I scrunched my eyebrows, mulling over her answer. “Why would you do that?”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? A ton of shit just landed in your lap. No way we’re heading back this afternoon. Should I order pizza? Maybe Chinese?”

“Pizza,” I answered. Chinese food was nasty. I wondered about her call and it bothered me. Trigger had spiked big. Who did she really call? “Order the pizza. Then, no more calls without asking me first. That means you too, Kevin.”

They both saluted and Jillian stuck her tongue out. Rheeta appeared behind her, pad in hand. The three other employees bumped into her when she stopped suddenly and asked, “What stinks in here?”

“Dak spewed. It’s in the can.” Chang used his Nike high top to slide the offending garbage can across the floor until it stopped in front of Rheeta.

She peered inside. “Gross! I’m not gonna’ be able to eat pizza after looking at that.”

Three heads leaned around Rheeta to get a better look and it dawned on me that the intercom worked in every room simultaneously. I didn’t need an audience.

“Whoever gets rid of that and cleans the can… gets the rest of the day off.”

They all stared at me like I was a little green guy from outer space.

“Okay, the rest of the week off.” No one moved. “With pay.”

Delroy left with the can in one hand, his nose plugged with the other. I looked at the two blondes in lab coats. “You two go pick up the pizza. Stop by the gas station and get a six pack of Mountain Dew and some bottled water. We’re going to be here a while. Oh… and a pack of smokes for me. Rheeta… any money up front?”

“We don’t keep money here. You know that.”

I pulled out my money clip and peeled off a fifty. “I want receipts. Lock the door when you go out.”

When they were gone, I turned to Rheeta. She had wedged herself into a swivel chair with arm rests. “When they get back, take the stuff. But, don’t let them back in the building. Tell them to take off until Monday, too.”

Rheeta looked puzzled. She was the hub that Elite Concepts revolved around. She handled administration and accounting. She was also my liaison, running interference with the FDA, AMA, EPA, CIA or any other A that got in my way while trying to get my projects to market. She was a valuable commodity and I overlooked her snooty attitude. She also liked to know everything. Being out of the loop didn’t sit well with Rheeta.

“What has that Chink gotten us into?” she asked, emphasis on snooty.

“Nothing to worry about, Rheeta. Just an unexpected development in my tanning project. We’ll be putting in some extra hours here and I need you to do a few things to help me get the situation under control.”

“Am I going to be able to leave on time? I promised the grandkids I’d take ‘em to Dairy Queen after work.”

“I don’t see a problem, my dear.” I gave her a reassuring smile. “Just stay up front, unless I call you. And don’t let anyone else in without my permission.”

“Well, since you’re here, I guess it’s okay.” She looked skeptical. “But, I’m not staying late. Wrestling comes on TV tonight. I gotta’ dump them kids back at Maggie’s house and be home by eight. You gonna’ fire the Chink? You gonna’ whoop his ass?”

“Nothing that drastic, I don’t think. Mostly, we’ll just be sifting through his notes. He’s not very organized. So, I don’t want to be disturbed. Understand?”

“Humph!” she snorted. “He’s a menace! The whole place smelled like wacky backy when I came in this morning. And look at that lab coat around his neck! Sheesh! Some superhero. Super pain in the ass, if you ask me.”

“Rheeta, please,” I tried to sound calm. She huffed a bit, but didn’t say anything. “I need you to call over to DAK Escorts. Have them send over four or five guys with no appointments for the next few days. Not sure how long I’ll need them.

“Then, call Patty for me and tell her I’m not coming back tonight. Maybe tomorrow some time. Have her leave a message for Jerry Roberts. Let’s see, it’s about two o’clock. He’ll be asleep. I want him to call me when he wakes up. By the way, he’s my new operations manager on the Murphy side.”

Rheeta looked up from her notes, large glasses sliding down her nose a bit.

“I’ll tell you more about that later,” I answered her quizzical look. “Start the normal series of calls to the various universities and labs we use for R and D verification. Initiate scheduling for rodent testing, double blinds, yada, yada. You know the routine. Tell ‘em it’s urgent. When they ask what we’re testing, just tell them the pigmentation manipulator. Can you do all that?”

She nodded and kept scribbling on her pad.

“Call Chang’s landlord and tell her he’s with me, so she doesn’t worry. Give her my number, if she wants it. You’ll need to start paperwork on a patent application. No… wait. Hold up on that. Call some of our political contacts. Just talk to their secretaries. Try to find out their schedules next week, in case I need to talk to them. Use my name.”

“Senator Williams and Senator Burns? Call them too?”

“Yep. And Congressman Mulholland. See what he’s got planned. Oh… and who’s that woman in Alabama? The one I helped with her coming out party last spring. Call Starburst and get her name and number.”

“That lesbian Attorney General?”

“That’s the one. Get her number.”

“Yes, sir.” She would do it. She wouldn’t enjoy it.

“Do what you can before you leave today. I want you back here tomorrow. We’ll camp out here for the night, but I have to go back to Murphy tomorrow. If all goes well, you can have a short day.”

She pryed herself out of the chair. “Anything else?”

“Um… no, that’s good for now. Oh… remind me to have a one on one with you about my Murphy organization.”

Rheeta plodded away, mumbling to herself. She didn’t like surprises or an increased work load. But, this was a rare situation. I figured she would survive. When she had disappeared through the double doors, I turned back to the issue at hand.

“Okay, Darlin’… I need you and Kevin to get started on… Kevin? Where’s Chang?” I gave Jillian a questioning look. She was leaning against the filing cabinet and simply pointed. I looked over my shoulder in the direction she indicated. Chang was in one of the soft chairs near the flat screen. Road Runner was being chased through a dark tunnel. The headlight from a coming train suddenly appeared. Coyote’s eyes went wide.

I strolled over and looked down at Chang. His head hung slack, eyes closed. A trail of drool ran down his chin onto the Falcon jersey.

I looked back over at Jillian. “Just you and me for now. Good thing we’re best buds, eh?”

 

* * * * * * * * *

 

Shutting the door to the Escalade, I carried my “just in case” duffel over and set it under the awning. I leaned my back against the building and propped one foot up against the wall, just below my butt. The sun was behind the building and the shadows in the parking lot were long. My watch said 3:40. I needed a moment alone. Time to think.

Habit placed a cigarette between my lips. Second nature lit it.

Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit.

I wasn’t sure if the full impact of the situation had hit me yet. My mind was racing and felt like it might reach critical mass any moment. An overload was pending.

Go big or go home. Holy shit.

Smoke went down hot and harsh. I coughed a bit.

Calm down. Think.

This was bigger than me. Too big. I was going to need help. But who? My parents? Wrong. Jerry? Maybe. I had to slow down. Think.

One step at a time. Stop assuming the worst. Think positive.

I sucked on the smoke.

Damn that’s good.

After a few moments, I picked up the duffel and entered Elite Concepts, blue curls swirling about my head as conditioned air escaped the open door. Rheeta didn’t look up from the phone as I passed her desk. She was scribbling frantically with one hand, holding pizza in the other. The phone was tucked snugly under one of her chins.

The blondes had brought the food and been sent home with puzzled looks.

Returning to the lab, I dropped the duffel by the door and looked around. Chang was still in front of the flat screen. Jillian was seated at one of the computers, flipping through crumpled sheets of paper with jerky motions and shaking her head. She and I had collected anything that looked like recent notes and tried to organize them while we ate. After an hour, I’d gone outside to smoke and think.

Now, I rejoined her at the rear of the room and noticed there was only one bite missing from her slice of pizza. I’d been too preoccupied to notice it earlier. She didn’t eat much.

“Not hungry, Bud?”

“Pizza goes straight to my ass,” she said. Then she cocked an eyebrow at me and added, “Not a word about the size of my ass. Some guys like ‘em that way.”

“I wouldn’t think of it. So… how’s it going?”

“It would go a lot easier if I had a starting point. For all I know, these are notes about a dozen different projects.”

“Guess I better wake him up, eh?”

“Well, it might help.”

“Hey, sorry Jillian. I forgot you wanted to go shopping. It’s great of you to stick around and lend a hand.”

“Forget it. I can shop any time. Life’s more interesting around you.”

“I don’t mean to keep you a prisoner here. Just want to get a handle on the situation before anything leaks out. I’ve got to keep a lid on it. This… stuff… could attract attention.”

“I understand. Happy to help. I told you we’d be tight. You’re stuck with me now.”

Rheeta’s voice came through the intercom. “Dak?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Better get up here.”

“Something wrong?”

“There’s some kind of ruckus in the parking lot.”

“On my way!”

Rheeta was still at her desk when I ran into the front office. Muffled sounds came from the parking lot. Could have been a football game. Could have been an invasion by armed forces. There was no window. Just the glass in the door and I approached it cautiously.

Suddenly, a large figure darkened the opening with a heavy thump. The tempered glass held, but the figure seemed dazed and slid down to his butt. I looked out and my jaw dropped.

“Oh my God!” I thumbed the deadbolt latch on the door and shoved. The body resisted, so I pushed harder and slowly gained an opening. By then, the stunned figure shook his bald head and shifted forward, allowing me to exit.

An eerie quiet swept the lot as I surveyed the scene in disbelief.

The man on his butt at my feet had blood trickling down his forehead. Another man laid in a heap ten feet to the left. There was a muscle bound guy with a long, blonde mullet on the hood of the Escalade. Two spots over was Rheeta’s parked Volvo. The rear window had been smashed and a pair of legs hung limp across the door.

Moving slowly toward the Volvo and passing the Escalade, I could see a fifth on the other side. He was on his knees, cradling his right arm with his left. Intense pain registered on his sweaty face and he sucked air through clenched teeth.

I didn’t take immediate notice of their individual features, except that they were all similar. Huge men, built like tanks. Two wore a sidearm. All five wore gray shirts over their chiseled physiques, each with the DAK Escorts logo over the left breast.

Back to my right, past several empty parking slots, was a black BMW. Leaning against it were three men in their mid twenties with their arms crossed. Each wore black jeans. Isaac Westland wore a gold tank top. The Marriott boys each wore pastel button downs with the sleeves torn off. All three pale faces were blank. No emotion. No reaction.

“What the hell?” I took in the carnage, trying to grasp the situation.

“Uh oh,” Jillian said from the open door.

“I’m calling the cops!” a voice behind her shrieked.

“Little bastard broke my arm,” whined the man on his knees.

“I think my back is broken,” moaned the long haired hulk on the hood of the SUV. He rolled over the driver side fender and landed on his feet. Straightening slowly, I saw muscles rippling where I didn’t know muscles existed. Fully erect, he was nearly 7’. “Thank God, it ain’t broke. I got a match next week.”

Now, I recognized him as Charlie Windam. He moonlighted on the Pro Wrestling circuit as “Ravishing Rodney.” The two guys near the building were struggling to their feet. Both were well built with rugged features. Each wore a holstered gun and an ugly sneer. The bald man I had shoved with the door was streaked with blood and dripping dark speckles onto the sidewalk.

Jillian ducked inside and I heard her say firmly, “Put the phone down. Dak has it under control.”

No, I don’t. I don’t even know what happened.

She came back out and I approached her with an expression that declared I was pissed. “Tell me more about the phone call you made earlier!”

Jillian’s chin was firm and she shook her head. “Caleb must have sent them.”

“Why?”

“I dunno’… single woman in a big city?”

“Uh huh. I’ll bet. You knew I called my own guys. They have training.”

Jillian nodded at the youthful trio, not a wrinkle among them. “They also have certain… skills.”

Four of the Escort men were gathering around. The bloody one said, “We were told to get over here, Mister Knobel. No reason given. When we arrived, we didn’t even get to the door and those punks just appeared out of nowhere.”

“They snuck up on you?” I was still puzzled.

“No. I mean they just appeared. Poof! There they were, between us and the door! Any of you guys hear them coming?” The other three shook their heads.

“We told ‘em to haul ass,” said the other man with a sidearm. I recalled seeing him on a previous job. Barry Something. “They said no one was allowed in. One thing led to another and here we are. Some kind of sissy, martial arts bullshit.”

“Yeah… had to be Judo or something,” the wrestler added.

“We saw you smoking outside, Dak.” Trent interjected quietly. His pale face was calm. The other boys were at his elbows. “When you went back in, these men showed up. We thought they meant you harm.”

The four muscle heads from DAK Escorts were suddenly shoulder to shoulder, chests puffed out.

Barry barked, “Back off, freaks. You just caught us by surprise, that’s all. Come any closer and we’ll go for Round Two.”

Anthony snorted and Isaac grinned. As I recall, the first signs of life from either boy. Trent mumbled, “We’re still trembling from Round One.”

“I mean it, Punk. Don’t push me!”

“Bring it,” taunted Isaac. The situation was escalating rapidly.

“You’re on private property,” Barry pointed out. “We work for Knobel. Now back off!”

“Actually, we’re in a parking lot. And we’re here to protect… her.”

I stepped between them. A scary move, considering all the testosterone hanging thick in the air. I was no nightclub bouncer and all this macho stuff was not my style. I made myself extend my arms and say, “Now hold on here! I’m in charge and no one is going for Round Two.”

“Boys!” Jillian hissed behind me.

“Stand down, Barry,” I insisted with renewed courage. For a moment, no one moved. Lips were tight and a half ton of muscles were flexing in a show of unified bravado. “Barry!”

Finally, the goon squad lowered their shoulders, deflated their chests and took a half step back. Jillian’s cousins hesitated before slinking back to the BMW.

“There’s been a misunderstanding here. That’s all,” I said to no one in particular. I turned to face the Escort men. “Those kids are family. Her family. I didn’t know they were out here. Sorry for the mix up.”

“If you say so, Mister Knobel. Sorry you found us on our asses. Won’t happen again, sir!” Barry asserted.

“Okay, okay. You guys got a first aid kit? We need to stop the bleeding on this guy’s head. I want two of you to stay here with me. One of you needs to take GI Joe there to the hospital and get that arm set. That just looks sick from here. Oh, and… um, Barry?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Who’s the fifth man?”

“Kubrick, sir. Ex drill sergeant. Special forces.”

“Huhn. How about draggin’ his butt out of that Volvo over there.”

“Can do, sir. Riggs! You’re with me.” He trotted over to Rheeta’s car, followed by the bloody bald guy.

Geez! Military guys. Hope he doesn’t start saluting.

I entered the glass door and glared at Jillian. “We gotta’ talk. Right now.”

 

 

 

 

11 -- ALL NIGHTER

 

 

“Can I call the police now?” Rheeta was in a real snit.

“No. Everything’s fine. Just a misunderstanding,” I assured her. “Finish up what you were doing and you can take off. But, I want you back here first thing in the morning. Okay?”

No answer. Just some mumbling.

I walked Jillian by the elbow through the lab doors. Chang was curled up on the floor next to the soft chair. Quick stepping to the rear and stopping at the table with the mountain of notes, I released her elbow.

“Dak, look. I know you’re upset. But, it’s not what you think.”

“You don’t know what I’m thinking.” I was frantic enough that I feared laser beams might burst from my pupils any moment. Jillian leaned her J. Lo against the table edge, saying nothing. “I know we’re supposed to be best buds and all. But face it, Jillian. I just met you yesterday. I may like you, but I don’t really… really know you.”

“Dak, please.”

“Your uncle… if that’s what he is… dumps a wad of cash on me. Next day, won’t give me his phone number. Seems damned odd to me.”

“He values his privacy. He has… security issues, too.”

I paused. No Trigger. “Then, you’re all over me like a cheap suit. Wanting to be tight. And the moment I’m tossin’ my cookies in the trash bin, you’re on the phone broadcasting my new discovery. How am I doing so far? Sound about right?”

“Dak,” she looked almost sad. “Sit down. Let me explain.”

“Believe I’ll stand.” My voice reflected my irritation. My head was pounding in my ears and my fingers were fishing out a cigarette. To hell with the fire code.

“First, Caleb has many interests and yes, a few enemies. Competitors, you know… rivals. He has to be careful. But… I got the impression he really likes you. Buying your company is just what he does. He has… I don’t know… hundreds of them. He’ll fix it and resell it a year from now. I’ve been truthful with you all along.”

“I think you’ve been honest… in a careful sort of way. Not always giving me the whole story.” I saw her perplexed expression and added, “I have my ways, too. And I’m no goofy mind reader.”

“Interesting,” she said slowly. “Behind that dumb luck country boy exterior, you’re very… perceptive.”

“Damn skippy.”

“I didn’t broadcast anything. I have to check in. My uncle worries about me.”

“And the boys show up less than two hours later? No one drives that fast.”

“They must have followed me. I didn’t know I was coming to Atlanta today.”

“Huhn.” Trigger snapped and popped. “I smell bullshit. I shoulda’ known better than to bring you.”

Jillian dropped into the chair. Her face was a mixture of hurt feelings and bewilderment, but I was determined not to let that sway me. There was too much on the line.

“Sorry, Babe. I don’t like being lied to. And I always know.”

Chew on that! Go ahead. Feed me another line of crap.

“Okay, Dak,” she exhaled slowly. “Cards on the table.”

“Flippin’ A. It’s about time!”

“He sent me.”

“Huh?”

“Caleb. He sent me.”

“So… you’re spying on me?”

“Not like that. Just curious, I think. He wanted to know more about you… and your businesses.”

“So, he throws you at me? Like the dumb hick will just melt. And while you’ve got my drawers around my ankles… I’ll tell you all my secrets?”

“No. I volunteered.”

“What?”

“I told you I liked you, Dak. Caleb said he wanted to know more about you. Wanted someone to follow you around. The boys seemed reluctant. So, I just volunteered. Thought it would be fun.” Trigger was silent.

Well I’ll be damned.

“Here’s a news flash, Jillian. I don’t have any deep, dark secrets. I was quite open with you in the car.”

“I know.”

“And I didn’t know about Chang and his… juice, until I got here.”

“I know that, too.”

“So, why is Caleb so curious? Surely he has better things to do.”

“I don’t know everything, Dak. I’m just his niece.”

“Did he really send the boys?”

“Uh huh. To keep an eye on me… not you.” Still no Trigger.

“Thought they were reluctant,” I countered.

“We don’t refuse Caleb, if he… insists.”

Is he their uncle or their boss?

“What did you, um… really tell him on the phone?”

“I told him your tanning solution was nearly done, but you were being sidetracked by a new development and Chang was… not himself.”

“So, it’s the tanning project he’s interested in?”

“I think so. Again, I think it’s more like curiosity.” Trigger remained quiet.

“Did you tell him what Chang made… what this new thing is?”

She hesitated, tipping her head slightly. Several seconds expired before she whispered, “Yes.”

“Why?” I felt my anger bubbling again. “You knew I wanted to keep a lid on it!”

“It’s bigger than you realize, my friend.”

“Hell… I’m not stupid. I know it’s big! And there will be problems. That’s why I called for security. And the last thing I need are slips and leaks… from people I’m supposed to be trusting!”

I stomped around in a big circle for a moment, not sure what to think. She was being honest with me – finally. But, her explanations created more questions than they answered. I sucked smoke into my lungs and held it. Chang rolled onto his back and started snoring.

Exhaling loudly, I stood still in my own cloud. “Does he want to take over my company? To get the tanning formula?”

“Can’t. It’s in Georgia. He only does business in North Carolina. Don’t ask me why.”

“But… I’m moving everything to Murphy.”

“He doesn’t know that. I don’t think you have to worry about a take over. His intentions aren’t… hostile.”

“So, why are the boys here?”

“He just wants us to… keep an eye on you. Make sure nothing bad happens.”

“Us?”

“Don’t take it the wrong way, Dak.”

“How should I take it? I don’t need babysitters. And those kids are… well, they’re…”

“Dak, please. They can handle themselves.”

I thought about the five Escort gorillas, constrasting that image against the meager presence of the three kids averaging 5’8”, not one of them over 150 pounds. Pale and frail, by all appearances.

“How th’ hell did they do that? My guys are no pushovers.”

“There could have been twenty muscle men. Results would have been the same.”

C’mon Trigger. Where are you?

“Are you shittin’ me? What are they… ninjas?”

“Let’s just say that they were well trained… where we come from.”

“And where was that again?” I strolled closer to her, fumbling for a half empty Mountain Dew on the table.

“Greece… mostly. We have family spread around Europe.”

“Will they go home, if I tell them to?”

“Only if Caleb tells them.”

“Huhn.”

A man of influence.

“You’re perfectly safe, Dak. They won’t bother you. And they won’t kill your other guys… now. Try to relax. We’ve got a lot to do.”

“Should we invite them in?”

“They’ll be okay. If they need anything, they’ll call my cell.” She smiled at me. I tried to recall seeing the boys when I was outside earlier. They had claimed to see me smoking, but I hadn’t seen anyone around.

Ninjas. Gotta’ be frickin’ ninjas.

I drained the Mountain Dew, dropped my cigarette butt into the can and stood over Jillian with hands on my hips. Awkward moment.

She suddenly leapt to her feet and kissed me on the cheek. “Still friends, Lover Boy?”

“Aw, hell,” my shoulders drooped in resignation. “Guess I’m stuck with you.”

“Back to work?” she asked cheerfully.

“Yeah. See if you can wake Kevin. I gotta’ pee. Back in a minute.” I headed for the exit doors, then paused and said over my shoulder, “And I want to talk to Caleb when we get back.”

“He told me he was going to meet with you on Monday. That soon enough?”

I shrugged and pushed through the doors. I didn’t want to come off as a naïve idiot. But, the situation seemed to be acceptable – for now. I wasn’t totally convinced. But, Trigger had never let me down before and Jillian had apparently “laid all her cards on the table.”

Should I still be concerned? Elite was my baby. No one was going to touch it. And this blood stuff – this juice – could be a ticket to retirement paradise.

Westlands. Something doesn’t add up.

For someone I’d just met, Caleb sure had managed to become involved in my personal affairs. Literally overnight.

And Jillian? I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Was there a bond forming here? She was definitely a wild hair. Unpredictable. Exasperating. Amusing.

But, I liked her. Why?

Relax, man. Don’t read too much into it. Brain strain is a bitch.

Rheeta had her purse in hand and a bee in her bonnet, judging by the scowl she aimed my direction.

“We have an extra key somewhere?” I asked.

“Top drawer. In the back,” she pointed as she reached for the front door. “Color me gone.”

“See you in the morning?”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.” Her robust back side disappeared through the glass door. I found the key and followed her outside.

My watch said 4:54. The lot was quiet. Three young men were propped against the black BMW to the right. Motionless. To my left, past the Escalade, Rheeta was backing the Volvo away from the building.

She eyed me and shouted, “Someone’s gonna’ pay for my window!”

As she sped away, I swung my attention to the blue minivan with DAK Escorts in gold lettering on the door panel. Barry Whatshisname leaned against it, arms folded, staring at the BMW.

“In case you need to pee,” I put the extra key in the man’s hand. “What’s our status?”

“Kubrick has a concussion. They’re keeping him overnight. Riggs had stitches. The broken arm was put in a cast. Windam went to get his back checked out. Doesn’t want to miss his next match. Something about pay-per-view and a big paycheck. Sorry we got our asses handed to us, Boss. Sneaky bastards!”

“Don’t worry about it. It won’t go in your file. Never happened in my book.”

He looked genuinely relieved. “Appreciate that, sir. I need this job.”

“I want you to watch this place all night. Long shift, I know.”

“Not a problem, sir.”

“No one in or out, unless I say so. Call over to Escorts and tell them you need two more men. I want guys with permits to carry. You got a phone?” The man nodded and dug a hand in his pants pocket. “Good. This place gets ‘round the clock coverage until further notice. Got it? I’ll be here all night. Leaving tomorrow some time. But, there’s a little Asian guy in there… he doesn’t leave… and no one talks to him. Understand?”

“Loud n’ clear. I’m on it. Um… Mister Knobel… what about them punks over there?”

“Ignore ‘em. They won’t bother you again. They’re with my… friend. You saw her?”

“Tall… sandy hair, big bazookas?”

“That’s her. She’s with me. They’re with her.”

“If you say so. Mind if I hunker down in the van? Or you want me by the door?”

I scanned the door, the deserted parking lot and the BMW. “Van’s okay. Move it over a little closer. No sleeping. Here’s my cell number if you need anything.”

The man leaned in as I flipped open my phone and held up the illuminated screen. He nodded and fingered the buttons on his own phone. Then he turned, got into the minivan and fired the engine.

I went back inside after a nod at the three young men. They didn’t respond.

Personality times three. Sheesh!

After a quick stop to relieve myself, I made my way back to the lab. The room vibrated a thumpty bump rhythm from a boom box hidden among the confusion of Mad Scientist paraphenalia. A guy with no recognizable vocal talent was rapping some urban mumbo jumbo and I rooted through the duffel by the door, retrieving a pill bottle. Chucking a few tablets down my throat, I made my way to the back of the room.

Jillian was seated at the computer. Chang hovered over her shoulder, his eyes darting back and forth between the stacks of paper and her cleavage. He was saying something and she was shaking her head. Heavy base drowned out their words until I got closer.

“Turn that shit off, Kevin! We got work to do!” I was almost screaming. Chang stepped to the next table and the room fell silent. “Geez… Kevin. If my ears start bleeding, I’m gonna’ be pissed. Ain’t you got any real music?”

Jillian snickered. Chang just looked like Chang. His Superman cape was hanging down the front now.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Still looking for a starting point.” Jillian informed me. Most of the notes were now separated into five stacks on the desktop. “Apparently, these are tanning notes. These are blood… um, juice notes. These are rap lyrics and recipes for illegal brownies. No idea what these two piles are.”

“Kevin?” I gave him the eye.

Chang looked thoughtful. Sort of. It was always hard to tell with him. Dried saliva left a crusty white trail down his chin and neck. “This stack here is some of my Duke notes. And this one… um… could be for the eye color idea. Or wait. It might be my boob enlargement notes. Is anyone else like… hungry?”

“I never initiated a… breast project.”

“Guess my mind wandered,” Chang suggested, palms up.

“Imagine that.”

**sigh**

“Start on these ones here, Jillian. I’ll try to figure out this pile. Gonna’ be a long night,” I muttered and looked at Kevin. “There’s some cold pizza over there. You were sleeping. I want you to get started on making more of that stuff… the juice.”

We worked in silence for a while. Jillian typed fast, but stopped frequently to decipher the chicken scratch on paper. Chang busied himself, moving among the tables, inspecting this and adjusting that. Occasionally visiting the electronic microscope, then shuffling over to the messiest work station.

I had no idea what he was actually doing, but he looked focused – for Chang. I was perusing page after page of hand written figures, numbers, mathematical equations and hasty scribbles.

Patty called and I gave her the brief version. Staying overnight, home some time on Friday. Caleb had called her and promised to stop by on Monday around 11:00. There was food in my refrigerator for Shyanne. My extra key was back in its hiding place.

Jillian continued typing, frequently waving at Chang. He would walk over, gesture or translate and shuffle away. The wrinkled lab coat was tied around his waist now.

Around 8:00, I was startled by noises outside the lab doors. I pushed them aside and caught Barry coming out of the unisex rest room. He was zipping up and smiled sheepishly.

“Need anything?” I asked. When Barry suggested a cold drink, I nodded at the fridge in the small lounge. He headed back to the van with a can of Dr. Pepper. I stepped up to the door and thumbed the bolt with a glance out at the parking lot. Dusk shadowed everything. To the right, the BMW propped up three young men. They hadn’t moved.

Geez. Like friggin’ statues.

Time slipped by slowly in the lab. Jillian looked a little more pale than usual. Odd.

I got one stack of paper figured out, conferring frequently with Chang. I was handing them to Jillian and reaching for another stack when my phone buzzed again. It was Jerry Roberts.

Wandering through the doors into the outer office, I let him update me. They had sketched the layout of the new building and he had generated a rough list of materials and time tables for the remodel. I was pleased with what I heard and asked Jerry to call Knobel Trucking in the morning to request an empty truck be sent to the Elite building in Atlanta.

“How’s Shelly taking it?” I asked him.

“A little apprehensive at first. It’s a sudden change… and a big one. We’ve got big bills, you know.”

“Give notice at the plant?”

“Yep. That could have gone better. They weren’t happy. Hope I’m doing the right thing.”

“Go big or go home, right Floppy?”

“Well… um, for some guys, I guess. I usually follow a slightly more… stable plan.”

I laughed over the phone. “No sweat, ol’ buddy. Something happened down here. It’s big. Bigger than big. I can’t give you details over the phone. But, trust me… life just got a lot more interesting for both of us.”

“Is it legal?”

“Ha ha!” I looked through the front door, peering into the darkness.

“Well… you’ve told me about Chang. I just figured… you know.”

“Nothing to worry about, Flopster. Completely legal… I’m pretty sure.” The Escort minivan was straight ahead. Barry waved. I nodded back. “Listen. Plan on meeting me at the office on Monday about ten thirty. We’ve got a guy named Westland coming in. And I want you to take a run with me down to Marietta… maybe Monday afternoon… maybe Tuesday.”

“I work for you now. You pay mileage?”

“Patty will explain your expense account.” I looked to the right. No BMW. “I want you with me when I go to Advantage. Just a heads up, so you can let Shelly know. There will probably be a few trips back and forth while we get all this restructuring done. Hope that’s not a problem.”

Jerry said it wasn’t and he had to go. This was his last night at the plant. Might as well get it over with. I looked out the door again as I pocketed my phone, thumbed the bolt and pushed through. Flicking my Bic, I drew hard on a cigarette, watching Barry exit the minivan.

“Whatsup, Mister Knobel?” he asked, looking around overtly. His right hand rested casually on his holster.

“Just grabbin’ a smoke. Everything quiet out here?”

“Yep. Mind if I take a leak again? Damn Dr. Pepper went right through.”

“Suit yourself. Say listen… you see them kids leave?” I nodded at the empty pavement to the right.

“No, sir. They stood there for hours, like they were frozen. Then, I look up and nothing. Just gone. Weird ass freaks, if you ask me.”

I inhaled and leaned against the minivan. “Go drain the vein, Barry.”

Returning to the lab a couple minutes later, I noticed my headache was all but gone. It usually faded at night. Thank God.

“The guys are gone,” I informed Jillian.

“Maybe they got hungry.”

“So much for security. At least one of my guys is still out there.”

She opened her phone and dialed while she strolled over to the flat screen. A moment later, she swaggered back, slipping the phone into her shorts. “They ran out for a bite. Back any minute.”

“Humph! Wish I’d known. I could use a burger.”

“Shall I call them back?”

“No. It’s okay. Is their number private, too?”

“Gimme your phone.” She stuck her hand out towards me. I paused, then handed her my phone. Her fingers were a blur of liquid action for about 20 seconds. When she handed it back, the face was still open, the phonebook display illuminated. “Happy now?”

I scrolled through the display. Among my personal and business contacts, I found Isaac W, Anthony M, Trenton M, Jillian K and – my eyes went wide – Kya M.

“You’ll need that one too, Sweet Cheeks.” Jillian swung her lovely hair as she returned to typing.

I picked up a stack of notes and pulled a chair over. Back to work. A moment later, my nose detected a foul odor wafting by, thick and raunchy. I fought back a gag reflex and looked around.

“Don’t look at me,” Jillian spun around to face me again. “Kung Fu has the butt burps.”

I made a face. Jillian rolled her eyes. Truth be known, I ripped a good cheek splitter every now and then. Heck, I’m a guy, right? But, this went beyond normal biological functions. This funk was pungent enough to make your eyes water.

Chang shuffled by with a plastic tray and a clip board, stopping when he saw our accusatory stares. “What?”

“Kevin… for the love o’ God… did you give birth over there?” I was fanning my nose.

“It’s like… cold pizza, Bro. I have a very delicate constitution. I think it’s like… genetic or something.”

“Yeah, right.” I laughed, thinking of all the artificial stimulants that polluted the little guy’s plumbing. “Smells like you need clean shorts, you mutant stoner!”

“Sorry, Boss Dude. Should I like… light a match?”

“Um… better not.”

“How about a Bunsen burner?”

“Back to work, Munchkin.” I jerked a thumb toward the work station. “I have to admit, Kevin. When it comes to backdoor bio hazards, you’re my new hero.”

“Righteous admiration from the boss.” Chang tugged the lab coat from his waist and retied it around his neck. “I’m a Superhero.”

“With a super tooter!” I added, enjoying the comic relief. It had been a tense day.

“Ugh! Men.” Jillian was typing again.

 

 

 

 

12 -- MURPHY’S LAW

 

 

Around midnight, I noticed that Jillian was looking a little different. A little off. A little too pale.

“You okay, Darlin’? Wanna’ take a break?”

She waved me off and continued typing. I tried to remember if I’d seen her eat anything since that morning. Or drink anything, for that matter. Was she ill? Over tired?

“Here, try this.” I offered her a bottled water. “If you’re hungry, I’ll have something brought in.”

“I’ll be fine, Sweetie. Really.” She tried to give me a smile. Then she grabbed Chang as he passed and questioned a line of numbers he’d written upside down. The bottled water sat unopened next to the keyboard. I stared at her a moment longer. No Trigger alert.

Crash diet? Nah! Hot flashes? Who knows?

“Well, I’m gonna’ stretch my legs,” I said to anyone within earshot. Halfway to the double doors, Chang caught up to me. “Just going for a smoke, Kevin.”

“Mind if I like… join you?”

“Free country.” I lit up and held the pack out to Chang.

“Got anything like… more spiritual, Bro?”

“Afraid not, Kevin. You out of… stuff?”

“Weedless I am. Bummer for sure, dude.”

“For sure.”

“I’ll just walk with you, Mister Dak. Fresh air and all that kinda’ thing.”

I nodded and strolled slowly, staying parallel with the face of the building. The BMW was back, blank faces staring out through the glass. Chang and I passed by without talking. The night was clear, about 70 degrees. When we reached the end of the long structure, we rotated and retraced our own steps, keeping a slow pace.

“I’ve got a bit of a… dilemma, Kevin.”

“Sorry, Boss. You want to tell me about it? I could be like… your shrink or something.”

“Ha! I wish it were that simple, my friend. My predicament… is you.”

“No foolin’? Um… oh! Because I was in your office, man? Like… I was just kidding about your daughter, dude. You ain’t gonna’ fire me, are you?”

“Calm down, Kevin.” I tried to explain, choosing my words carefully, that I didn’t quite know what to do with him. Leave him here under guard? Quarantined from the world. But, for how long? I couldn’t risk any leaks until I got R&D verifications and patent approval. But, I didn’t want to keep Chang a prisoner. And yet, letting him wander around freely was just too big a risk.

“Do you understand my quandary?”

“I guess so, Dakster. You need me… but don’t trust me.”

“Don’t put it like that, Kevin. I trust your intentions completely. But, the world is full of rotten people. I don’t want you to get hurt… I couldn’t live with that.”

“Hmmm. Yeah, I guess getting hurt would be a real bitch for the Chang Man. So, you think like… bad dudes might want to get their hands on our Juice?”

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JUICE: The Crimson Clone