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Search for the Hercules
First three chapters of Search For The Hercules
Chapter 1 Riders on the Storm
The tingle of electricity crawled across Stephanie Richardson's arms and her hair stood on end. Above her, the heavens swirled in a massive whirlpool. She needed to get out of there quick. She tucked the device she was holding into her purse and started to run. Suddenly, a flash of light enveloped her, and all she could do was clap her hands over her face as every cell charged with electricity. Unbearable pain of being ripped apart at the molecular level savaged her body. The sensation of being yanked backwards, like iron shavings being drawn to a magnet, made her feel sick. She felt physically strung out until part of her came to an abrupt halt, then the rest of her caught up and slammed back into her body. Then all was quiet. Too quiet. It took a few minutes for the nausea to subside, but when it did, she opened her eyes. A bright light sifted through the cracks between her fingers. She felt certain that a bolt of lightning had struck her and she was dead, and this was the infamous light people talk about when they come back from the dead. Hell, I might as well get this over with. But, when she let her hands slip from over her face, she began to panic.
She silenced the alarm going off in her head. Think, Stephanie, think. You've been in tough situations before. She looked around. To the left—sand. To the right—sand. Behind— more sand—miles of the stuff. Above—a cloudless, blue sky and a fiery ball radiating down unforgiving heat and blinding light.
She mentally scrambled to fit the pieces of the cosmic puzzle together, but all she came up with was more questions. Was she really dead? The hissing wind at her back and stinging sand rushing past her like a swarm of angry bees felt real. If this was reality, then how in the hell did she get here? It was impossible to go instantly from a rain-drenched night to an arid desert day. Wasn't it? Maybe her assumption that she was good enough to enter the kingdom of Heaven was wrong and this was Hell. It sure was hot enough. She yanked her coat off.
But, if this was Hell, where was Gerald. Surely, he should be here. And, what had happened to the others? Where was the restaurant? She looked around. The only nearby structure was a huge column of slate-gray rock poking up out of the wasteland. It looked like God had plucked up and slung a piece of Stonehenge and it happened landed here in the middle of nowhere.
She checked her Rolex. Whatever had happened to her had affected the timepiece as well. It didn't work. Her purse, and Grinder's device, was lying at her feet. Stephanie had a sneaking suspicion that the gizmo was the cause of her current predicament. She plucked it up and started pressing buttons, but nothing happened. "Ohhhhh!" She threw it down.
She scooped up her purse and hurried to find her phone. Shielding the display screen from the overbearing light, she saw the no service bar and angrily tossed it back into her bag. Panic welled up inside her, but she stopped it before it became out of control. She needed to stay levelheaded. Heat from the desert floor billowed up in her face. She had two choices; she could stand here and bake like a clam, or walk out. The unfriendly climate was already robbing her of vital moisture. She swallowed hard and it went down her throat in a dry lump. Maybe there was someplace nearby that offered A/C and a cold drink. She looked down at the coat at her feet. The thought of wearing the garment made her cringe, but she could use it for shade. She picked it up. Grinder's device was useless and would just be added weight. And, who knew if she'd ever see him again? She shook her head. Now, which direction she should go? She turned in a slow circle scanning the horizon, and with her back to the sun, she tramped across the hot sand.
With every step, gusts kicked up grit that nipped at her ankles, nested in her hair, and crawled down the open collar of her silk blouse. Finer particles embedded in the nylon weave of her hose, and it wasn't long before they were abrading the material and her skin. The two-inch heels of her shoes hindered her pace. She should take them off. Balanced on one leg, she removed a shoe and plunked her foot down on what felt like a bed of fiery, hot coals. She let out a yelp of pain and jerked her foot out of the sand. Well, that wasn't going to work. She shoved the shoe back on. She would just have to perfect her technique, that's all. Find a rhythm.
She pressed further on into no man's land staring at the endless sea of dunes with the determination she was going to conquer them one at a time. She had faith that she'd make it to her destination—wherever that was. Off and on, the old guy in the sky teased her with a convoy of small, puffy clouds that blocked the sun for a few fleeting moments.
The plodding trek left a lot of time for the nagging questions lodged in the back of her mind to break loose and surface. It was just tonight she'd met John Grinder. Or, was it last night? The insanity of the situation defied all explanation. Either way, whoever he was, she felt sure he was part of whatever this madness was and probably knew the way out of it—wherever he was. She'd met the strange man while running away from her husband.
She had driven like a bat out of hell as a storm raged around her and plowed through the pools of water on the feeder off I-10 as she sped toward Houston.
She hated driving at night, especially in the rain. But, she had no choice. Until tonight, Ida March had been no more than a raspy smoker's voice at the other end of the phone demanding that Stephanie deliver what she'd promised. She grasped the flash drive that was suspended by a pink lanyard around her neck. This was her ticket out. She glanced down at the loaded revolver in the seat next to her and wondered if she would be forced to use it.
A long blast of a horn drew her eyes back to the windshield to a bright pair of headlights from a car coming the wrong way. She jerked the steering wheel hard to the right. Her black Mercedes fishtailed onto the shoulder and off the pavement where it bucked across the uneven terrain like an untamed bronco. Everything loose began a madcap journey of tumbles and bounces as she stared wild-eyed at the approaching barbed-wire fence. She slammed on the brakes sliding to a stop inches from the steel strands. The airborne objects settled and became lifeless in the passenger side floorboard. Unable to breathe, she sat rigid as a corpse behind her seat belt as a soft tune from the radio ended and the meteorologist began babbling something about the freakish lightning storm, a freezing cold front sweeping in from the west, and more rain to come.
She caught her breath, reached down, and turned off the radio, leaving only the sound of the reciprocating wiper blades raking the water from the windshield. She pulled the shifter into reverse and pressed the sole of her expensive pumps down on the accelerator. The spinning tires churned up mud along with stalks of long grass and slung the goop inside the fender-well until it was caked on thick. She felt the car sinking and remembered that when rain mixed with Southeast Texas clay it produced a thick gumbo mud. She let off the gas, opened the door and peered back over her shoulder at the half sunk tire. "Damn it." The pouring rain forced her to close the door. In the rearview mirror, she caught a glimpse of her face lit by the eerie green glow from the dash-lights. Damp cords of dark hair hung in front of her blue eyes. She scowled at her reflection, tucked her wet hair behind her ears.
She flicked on the interior light, retrieved her upended purse, and began putting the spilled contents back inside. When she came to the handkerchief-wrapped object, she used a long fingernail to pry up one of the folds and examine it. She felt relieved that is wasn't damaged and stashed it deep into her bag. She was counting on it to fetch a handsome price when she found the right buyer.
She searched and found her Smart-Phone only to discover that she had no service. Another flash of lightning ripped through the darkness and thunder exploded in the heavens. She guessed the storm must have taken out one of the towers. Stephanie huffed, tossed it to the seat next to her, and settled back into the leather. Time was running out and she was stranded. "Now what am I going to do?"
She heard the rumble of an approaching vehicle. She looked to the rearview mirror, squinted against the searing high beams coming through the back window, and watched as a silhouetted figure approached her car. She reached down, locked her door, pulled the revolver into her lap, and laid her purse over it.
A set of knuckles gently rapped against the glass.
She slipped her hand beneath the purse and curled her finger around the trigger before rolling the window down a few inches. Rogue drops of water found their way through the opening and spackled her face with cold rain.
A man stooped and peered through the crack. He tugged the bill of his soiled cap down to shield the square features of his face from the downpour. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah." She gave him a threadbare smile that allowed her uncertainty to peek through. "But I can't call a wrecker; my phone is on the fritz."
He glanced down at the rear wheel buried up to its Mercedes emblem. "I have a chain and a four-wheel drive. I think I can pull you out of here."
She nodded. "That would be great."
He rose. The light from the truck's headlamps washed away the color of his skin and he appeared to be a tall, porcelain figurine draped in denim coveralls and topped with a slouchy hat iconic to the early twentieth century farmer. He surveyed the overflowing ditch. Water was quickly rising to the front bumper. "We'd better hurry." He grabbed the collar on his jacket and gathered the rain-soaked material around his neck. "Sit tight while I hook the chain to your car." He turned around and sloshed back up the slope.
While he maneuvered his truck into position and hooked up the chain, Stephanie pondered the idea of the man being an angel sent to watch over her. She wasn't particularly religious, but when she forced herself out of bed on any given Sunday to occupy a back row seat, she learned that God loved everyone, no matter what. She thought it plausible that He had sent someone to watch over her. She eased her finger off the trigger and pulled her hand from beneath her purse.
He returned to her window with water streaming down his face and said, "Put it in reverse. You can gas it a little, but let me do the pulling, or you're going to sink it deeper. Got it?"
He gave her a thumbs up and returned to his truck. A few seconds later the Mercedes jerked as the truck eased forward and the chain grew taut. A plume of black smoke regurgitated from the truck's tailpipe as the engine labored against the mud determined to hold onto its prize. Finally, the car began to rise from the muck, and within moments, the Mercedes' tires rested on the shoulder of the road.
After he unhitched the chain from the vehicles, tossed it in the bed of his truck, he did a quick inspection of her car before returning to the driver's side window.
She rolled it halfway down.
"I don't see any damage and the rain should take care of the mud."
She grabbed her purse and foraged through her wallet. "Let me pay you something." She held up a one-hundred dollar bill.
He waved it off. "No thanks. I'm not out to make money off someone else's troubles."
She stuffed the money back into her purse and offered a faint smile. "Thank you."
He nodded and returned to his truck. A moment later he drove away.
In the rearview mirror, she watched his tail lights become two pinpricks of red in the distance. Her car was now pointed back the way she had come. Maybe it was an omen and she should forget this foolish venture and just head back home. She shook the feeling, made a U-turn, and continued on her journey.Chapter 2 Beware of Ida March
The storm intensified and made it impossible for the wipers to keep up with the pelting rain. She glanced to her right at the overflowing ditch. Unwilling to risk another accident, she dropped her speed.
Four miles further on, she spotted the small billboard for the roadside café she was looking for and passed the Houston city limits sign. She glanced at the time. Ida March wasn't due for another half hour, so Stephanie was glad that she had made an early start. She turned off and rolled into the café's parking lot, populated by knee-high clumps of weeds breaching cracks in the concrete, and pulled to a stop in a slot to the left of the entrance, then shut off the engine. She sat there a few minutes and checked out the place. A pair of old-fashioned gas pumps along the right might have been painted a vibrant red at one time, but were now a washed-out pink. She wondered if they still worked. She noticed the front of the diner sagged at the corners and made the bank of windows on each side of the entrance slope drastically downward, giving it the appearance of a grumpy old man. At the far edge of the parking lot, a branchless, dead tree poked up from the ground like a gnarly finger bone pointing accusingly toward heaven. At its base, a large hand-painted sign promised hot coffee and home-cooked meals. She found some comfort in that.
Her observation led her to the Charlie's Diner sign, fixed to a tall, steel pole and dangling high above her head. A vine of Kudzu waged silent war against it by creeping up the pole and strangling the establishment's neon signature, the only outdoor lighting source. She could relate. She felt suffocated by the real threat of punishment from her husband if she didn't follow the rules set by the clandestine society of ill-gotten money they were a part of. Her light had been extinguished long ago.
Even though the promised freezing temperatures would soon rescue the vine's victim, she could not wait for the intervening hand of God to solve her problems. She had to fashion her own method of liberation. She lightly ran the tips of her fingers across the object bound in white cotton. She was startled from her mental flirtations with escape as a police cruiser pulled into the parking lot with its lights flashing. Flickers of red and blue filled the compartment of her car. She stopped breathing and her heart pounded. The cruiser made a U-turn, blasting the siren as it sped away. She filled her lungs and let out a nervous little laugh in response to her guilty conscience's assumption that she was already caught doing something wrong. The wailing faded out and she stuffed the revolver, along with the handkerchief-wrapped package, into her handbag.
Tethered to the hope that the establishment had remained open despite the storm, she opened her door to the sound of fizzling electricity coming from the overhead sign. When Stephanie stepped out into the rain, she held her purse over her head in a futile attempt to protect her hair and makeup, cursing her lack of an umbrella. A mischievous gust of wind sprang up, lifting the hem of her skirt, leaving her decency to the mercy of the blustery weather. She reached down and smoothed the material against her sodden thighs before she raced to the front entrance, grabbed the handle on the screen door, and opened it. The rusty spring attached to the jamb stretched out and warbled a symphonic welcome. She was confronted by another door with a hand-written No Shoes—No Shirt—No Service sign. Suddenly, an abrupt gust of wind tore it from its mooring of freezer tape and sent it sailing off. She fumbled the knob in one hand while shoving against the door with the other. The shifting frame of the old building had made it sticky, but on the third attempt she put her shoulder in to it and managed to open it. Stephanie stepped inside and slammed the door closed behind her. A rush of warm, climate-controlled air brushed against her face, bringing with it the scent of stale cigarette smoke and the strong odor of calorific, fatty, fried foods.
A young woman standing behind the counter greeted her with a mechanical smile and then returned to looking bored while sipping on a glass of soda and puffing on a cigarette.
Stephanie looked at the empty dining tables scattered throughout the middle of the room and decided to bypass them for the row of booths at the windows. She chose the one at the back to give herself a view of the front door and the entire parking lot. Floorboards creaked under her feet as she made her way over to it. She arrived, removed her coat, and draped it across the back of the bench before sitting down next to the rain splattered panes and tried to look out, but the water cascading down the glass reduced the outside world into a blur.
The girl crushed her half-smoked Marlboro against the NO SMOKING sign next to the register before stepping out from behind the counter. She grabbed the mop leaning against the glass door of a freezer filled with ice cream cakes and novelty pops. Begrudgingly, she slopped up the trail of water and mopped her way to the hem of Stephanie's coat that was still dripping water onto the wood floor.
Stephanie offered an apologetic smile. "Sorry."
The girl showed no reaction to the peace offering. Instead, she stated in annoyance, "The evening cook called in sick, but Charlie says I've got to keep this pigsty open no matter what. Are you going to order anything?"
Stephanie felt hungry. It had been almost twenty-four hours since her last meal. She picked up the clear laminated menu from the table and quickly perused it. "I'll have a grilled ham and cheese."
The girl rolled her eyes. "We're out of ham. How about something else?"
Stephanie's response came out as a question. "A cup of coffee?"
"I'll have to brew it." The girl turned and walked away, dragging the mop behind her.
Stephanie rolled her shoulders in an effort to ease the tension that had worked its way up her spine and settled there. She retrieved the handkerchief wrapped package from her purse, gently placed it onto the table, and delicately began picking at the knot with the tips of her manicured nails. The spring on the screen door repeated its madcap concerto. She ceased plucking and looked up. The front door pushed open. The paper napkins on the tables took flight.
The newcomer rushed in and opposed the gusting wind by putting his shoulder into the door and giving it a hard shove.
Crap. What is he doing here? Ida would be here any moment.
The strong corporeal force that was wreaking havoc suddenly lost its power and the objects fluttered down.
The waitress scowled at the paper-littered floor, ignited the wick of her lighter with the spin of the wheel, and lit another cigarette.
With mud-caked boots, the guy strode over to Stephanie.
From the cloud of smoke hanging around her, the waitress glared at the muddy trail of footprints across the wood floor.
The man stuck out his hand. "I never got the chance to introduce myself. The name's John Grinder."
Begrudgingly, she shook it. His skin was cold to the touch. As she withdrew her hand, she thought it better if she only give him her first name. "Stephanie."
"Mind if I sit?"
Her mind was still in a quick search mode for an excuse, any excuse to say no, but pulled a blank.
From beneath the bill of his hat, he stared down waiting for an answer.
"Sure." She offered a faux smile and motioned to the seat across from her. After he sat, her mind did a replay of their encounter and she became suspicious. "Weren't you in front of me?"
"Yeah. I got down the road and realized I needed gas. I remembered passing this place. Barely saw it," he added. "I didn't want to take the chance of running out before reaching another station."
Stephanie's B S meter pegged out and her eyes narrowed on his face. There were gas stations galore along I-10. Gusting wind suddenly slammed the rain against the windowpanes.
"The storm is really picking up. What are you doing out in such nasty weather?" he asked.
"Taking care of an errand," she replied.
His eyes shifted to the tabletop and stalled on the handkerchief. The raised cloth gave a hint to what it held. "It must be pretty important to brave this storm."
She scooped it off the table, and shoved it into her handbag on top of the one-way airline ticket and snacks. She let her gaze stray to the window, still unable to see a thing. A bolt of lightning flickered. A peal of thunder shook the glass, and for a moment, she thought they might shatter.
He waited for the rumbling to fade out. "Sorry," he said. "It's none of my business."
The waitress returned, set a cup of coffee down in front of Stephanie, and looked down at her with hollow eyes. "Anything else?"
"Another cup of coffee," John replied. "With cream and sugar."
The young girl pouted her lips, did a one-eighty before making the short journey back to the counter like a spoiled brat that had been told to go and clean her room.
John looked back over his shoulder and watched her dig beneath the counter for another coffee cup. He turned back around. "She's not a happy camper."
The episode sparked Stephanie's memory of working small jobs for little pay that barely covered rent. It was one step up from living on the streets. "I can remember being where she's at and desperately wanting out."
His eyes went to her wrist and fixed on the expensive watch. "It looks like you've succeeded."
She subconsciously raised her hand to her cheek and ran it across the length of a bruise that was barely hidden by a bad cover-up job and returned an empty smile. "My husband does well."
He looked at the vacancy on her ring finger.
She noticed him looking and withdrew her hand from her face placing it in her lap.
"What does your husband do?" he asked. He cocked his head in a way that made him look like an inquisitive puppy.
"Why do you want to know?"
"Curiosity killed the cat."
"True." He returned a warm smile. "But satisfaction brought him back."
Giving out too much information could be dangerous. No way she was going to disclose that Gerald dealt in the trafficking illegal weapons and stolen technology. She sighed and summed it up quickly with, "Military."
Grinder raised an eyebrow. "Interesting."
She hoped by asking a question of her own it might take the ball out of her court and put it into his. "So, what do you do?"
He broke eye contact and began nervously fidgeting with his silverware.
She noticed he was just as anxious as she was about sharing personal information.
Finally, he replied, "Farmer."
From the looks of his clothes, she should have guessed. She raised an eyebrow of her own. "Interesting." She rolled her wrist until she could see the hands on the Rolex. Almost eight. Damn it. Ida would be here any minute, and Grinder, for some reason, chose to hang around. His presence might raise the woman's suspicion and blow the deal.
The waitress returned to their table, stood next to John, balancing a cup of scalding coffee above his head. It rattled on the saucer while she fished packets of sugar and cream out of her apron's pocket with her free hand.
He reached up for the cup. "Maybe I should take that." He gently took it from her and eased it down in front of him with a look of relief on his face.
She placed the cream and sugar in front of John. "Anything else?"
He rummaged a crumpled twenty dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to her. "For the gas."
The girl returned to her station behind the counter and lit another cigarette.
John watched her blow a gray cloud of smoke into the air with no respect to the No Smoking sign. "That girl needs a serious attitude adjustment." He turned back around, wrapped both hands around the cup. "That feels good." He lifted the cup to his lips and took a sip. More lightning filled the panes. An electronic beeping sound filled the space between them. He set the cup down, fished a rectangular object out of his pocket, and mashed buttons.
"Gotta date?" she asked hopefully.
He pushed a few more buttons before looking up from the screen. "No, this is more like to do with weather." He said it while checking the time on his watch.
"Towers are down," she said. "Remember?"
"This doesn't work off a satellite," he replied absently as he pulled a small black book from his pocket and laid it on the table. He opened it and thumbed through the pages filled with notes and drawings and landed on a navigational chart with red plot lines. He glanced at his watch again.
"Something to do with geoengineering?" she asked.
"Curiosity killed the cat," he said and closed the book. "Remember?"
Stephanie looked out the window in time to see a large streak of lightning snake down extremely close followed by a loud boom. The lights inside the restaurant winked out.
A female voice called out of the darkness. "Thank God." A spark ignited the wick of her lighter and embezzled the darkness. The waitress held it above her head and stood in the dim glow of the flame. She looked at Stephanie and John. "Party's over, folks. I'm closing this dump and getting out of here."
"You can't," Stephanie protested.
The girl held the lighter out and chased the shadows further back into the corners. "Look, lady, there's no power." The words from her breath disturbed the flame and sent it into a fit of jitters that shifted the shadows across her angular features. "Go. Home."
Stephanie slipped her hand into her purse, pulled out the revolver, and pointed it at the girl.
The blood drained from the waitress' face and her eyes rounded out with terror. She quickly flipped the lid closed on the lighter and extinguished the flame. Everything went black. "Please don't shoot," she pleaded as she backpedaled deeper into the darkness and ducked behind the safety of the register.
A flicker of lightning illuminated John groping blindly across the table for the gun and Stephanie quickly jerked it back away from his hand.
He spoke from the gloom. "Are you crazy? Put that thing away."
"No! Ten minutes, that's all I need." She turned and addressed the darkness. "Hey, Miss Cheerful, have you got a flashlight or something?"
The waitress responded with a flick of the lighter as she lit a candle and plunked it on the countertop, filling the room with a dim glow that left heavy shadows hanging out beneath the tables. She ducked back down behind the counter.
Stephanie waved the pistol at the bar. "Come out from behind there."
An anxious moment passed without a reply. A second later, a deafening bang and muzzle flash briefly eclipsed the cadence of the storm and the discharge from the pistol left a hole in the side of the counter the size of a nickel. A tendril of smoke hung in the air that drifted off like a ghostly apparition.
The girl slowly raised her head. Her eyes were large discs of terror. She stood fully erect and raised her hands above her head.
Stephanie waved the pistol again. "Come over here and sit down."
The girl took abbreviated steps toward them.
"Hurry up," Stephanie commanded.
The frightened girl picked up the pace and scuttled across the floor. She stopped at the booth and sat down next to John. All of the blood had drained from her face and she sat frozen like a statue at his side.
Stephanie's gun hand trembled.
He said, "I don't think that you really want to hurt anyone."
She responded with a shake of her head. "Of course not."
"Why don't you tell me what this is all about and maybe I can help you."
She shook her head again. "You can't help me. In a few minutes, someone is going to come through that door. I'll give them what they want and then we can all leave. No harm, no foul."
"Obviously you don't trust whoever you're supposed to be meeting," he pointed to the gun, "or you wouldn't have brought that along."
The spring on the screen door suddenly squawked out one long, sour note that permeated the wooden door.
Stephanie swallowed hard and quickly tucked the gun beneath the table. She looked at both of them with pleading eyes. "Please, don't say a word."
Heavy thuds vibrated the cantankerous door, one after another.
Grinder and the girl turned to stare at the entrance.
Stephanie envisioned the enemy at the gates with a battering ram. One last massive thump and it opened with a blast of cold, lilac-scented air. The paper napkins skittered along the wooden planks. At the entrance, a large, silhouetted figure filled the frame, leaving little room for the rain to enter between the gaps. The person stepped inside. In one hand was a suitcase, in the other, a smaller satchel.
The behemoth gave the door a solid bump with her butt. It slammed closed with a loud bang and the gust ceased. The woman set the luggage down, struck a match, exposing her thick features, raised the sputtering flame to a cigarette dangling from her lips, lit it, and exhaled. She raised the match above her head giving a glow to the ethereal mane of thick, gray smoke surrounding her heavily made up face. The three of them sat in stunned silence. Stephanie thought she'd seen a better mug on a wildebeest. Suddenly, the ceiling lights fluttered on. Ida shook the match out, dropped it to the floor. She picked up the two cases, propelled herself forward on elephant-sized legs to the edge of the table and stopped. Through a pair of horned-rimmed glasses, she bounced a quick glance off the trio and landed back on Stephanie. "I wasn't expecting you to bring an entourage."
Stephanie quickly geared up to defend herself with a host of excuses, but Ida shrugged it off and said, "No matter." The cigarette bobbed up and down with the movement of her lips. "Did you bring it?"
Stephanie wrapped her fingers around the lanyard bound stick and pulled it over her head. Ida held out her hand and Stephanie stuffed it into the woman's meaty paw.
Ida took up residence at the table next to them. She pulled a laptop from the satchel, placed it on a table, and fired it up. After it had booted up she plugged the stick into one of the ports. While sending puffs of white smoke into the air, she pecked at the keyboard and stared at the screen. It took several minutes for her to peruse the information on the stick. The entire time, Grinder kept glancing at his watch, and Stephanie began to wonder why the time was so important to him.
Finally, Ida looked up and gave a puff. "It looks legit."
"Of course it is," replied Stephanie. "Now, how about my money?"
Ida nodded at the suitcase. It was old-fashioned, like circa 1960s: a hard shell, spotted with age and a single latch. "You know there's easier ways of transferring funds nowadays."
"Not for me," replied Stephanie. She placed the gun in her purse and glided out of her seat. She kneeled, unsnapped the clasp, and lifted the lid. She counted through the first stack of loose hundreds. Ten deep. Ten rows across. Ten down She looked up. "Where's the rest"
"You'll have to take that up with Sala Ahdien."
Stephanie looked at her watch. Her flight would be departing shortly and the mickey she'd slipped Gerald would be wearing off soon. "I want to talk to him."
"That's probably not going to happen." Ida pulled the stick from the computer port. She shoved it into the case along with the laptop.
John grabbed the gun out of Stephanie's purse and scooted across the bench seat, and bumped against the waitress. "Move."
She didn't budge, but sat there petrified.
John barked out his command again. This time, the young waitress, who had been silent up to this point, suddenly found her tongue and exclaimed, "You people are crazy!" She clambered from her seat, turned, and her eyes pivoted between the three in fear.
Grinder scrambled from behind the tabletop, stood, and faced Ida. With one sweeping motion, he took aim. With the other hand held out, he said, "Give it back."
Ida sat there in stubborn silence.
Grinder fired off a shot. The bullet missed her by centimeters, struck the daily menu sign that was slightly off to the right behind her, and splintered the special of the day. "Next time, I won't miss."
The waitress cupped her hands over her ears and chanted, "Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod...."
The girl's involuntary mantra put too much strain on Stephanie's already overtaxed emotions, and it got the better of her. She erupted like a volcano. "SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN!"
The waitress quickly returned to a dormant state and obediently sank in a chair at one of the neighboring tables.
Ida unzipped the computer case and dug for the stick. When she found it she tossed it to Grinder.
"You tell your Mister salad and beans he'll get what he wants when the lady gets the rest of her money."
Ida lumbered to the door. A bolt of lightning flickered, briefly highlighting the overdone makeup on her basketball-sized head into the face of a mad-crack-clown. "You don't know who you're messing with." She grinned back through a cracked coat of red lipstick and plucked the cigarette from her mouth with sausage-sized fingers and dropped it to the floor where she squashed it with the square toe of her shoe. She stared at him defiantly.
"Get out of here." John coerced her by wagging the barrel back and forth.
"Give the money back."
"That's not going to happen," said Grinder.
"He'll kill me."
"Not my problem," said Grinder. He cocked the hammer.
Ida clomped out and thundered down the steps.
After she was gone, the waitress jumped up out of the chair and rushed over to the wall phone behind the counter. "I'm calling 9-1-1." She grabbed the handset out of the cradle and began punching buttons. "You people are freaks!"
Grinder fired off a shot. The phone base exploded into shards of plastic and damaged electronic innards.
The severed cord dangled from the handset she clutched in her hand. Anguish washed across her face. Then she cried out, "You asshole!" She let the phone drop to the floor with a clatter. "How am I going to explain all of this to Charlie?"
"Does this place have security cameras?" Grinder asked.
She wrinkled her nose. "Pfft! This dump?" she asked with a sarcastic grin. "Noooo!"
Grinder walked across the room and grabbed the fire extinguisher hanging on the wall. He charged the cash register and delivered a hard blow to the machine. The cash drawer popped open. He gathered up what cash there was and handed it to her. "The place was robbed after you left."
She stared at the fistful of money.
"Consider it a big tip for forgetting what happened here tonight."
An overgrown smile exposed two rows of crooked teeth as the waitress grabbed the money and stuffed it into her apron pocket. "Sure, no problem." She reached down and rattled the set of keys bedded in the pocket of her jeans. "Like I said earlier, the party's over and I'm closing this pigsty and going home." After Stephanie put on her coat and grabbed her purse and the suitcase, the waitress ushered them out the door, set her own purse down on the top step, and locked the door closed behind her. The torrential rains had reduced to a slow drizzle. Lightning flickered behind the closely gathered clouds giving the vaporous formations the appearance of electrified marble.
The waitress hurried across the parking lot to a near extinct Eighties compact, spackled with small, white patches of Bondo over various locations on the turd-brown body. It looked like a wild, spotted Yugo that had escaped from the junkyard.
Stephanie checked the time and began to feel antsy again. With the suitcase in hand, she hurried to her car and dropped it at the bumper before searching her purse for the keys.
Grinder's truck was parked to the left of Stephanie's car. It looked as vintage as his clothes. He caught up with her as the sputtering compact zoomed past them. The suspension let out a loud metallic groan when the girl missed the graded outlet and the front wheels rolled over the curb. It sped away and the tinny whine of the engine faded out in the distance.
The lull in the storm was short lived as the wind fired up again. A gust rocked the trees and ushered in another bank of clouds. "We'd better get out of here."
She looked up.
"Oh, wait," he said. Grinder pulled the pistol from his coat and held it out.
She looked down and shook her head. "I don't need it anymore. You keep it."
He shoved it back into his waistband, pulled a cluster of keys from his pocket, and headed for his vehicle.
She felt alarm at being on the run and alone. It registered in her blue eyes as she watched him open the driver's door and climb into the cab of his truck. "Wait—" Suddenly a loud peal of thunder cut her short, or at least she thought it was thunder until she saw the bullet hole magically appear in the front fender of the truck and report back a metallic ping that was immediately followed by the hiss of air escaping from the front tire. She heard the panic in John's muffled voice coming from inside the cab yelling for her to get down and then saw him wildly waving his hand and pointing behind her. She twisted around.
A black car rolled into the parking lot with the heavily tinted driver's window slightly ajar and the smoking end of a gun poking through the gap aimed in her direction. A second shot rang out at the same moment the truck's engine turned over and rumbled to life. The second bullet pierced the metal skin of the hood and the truck's engine began to clank and clatter. It sputtered and died; a stream of motor oil crept out from beneath the truck and pooled on the wet concrete. The black car came to a stop a few feet from the truck's bumper and idled there.
The driver's door popped opened and a tall man stepped out of the car. He aimed the pistol at Stephanie's head.
She stared back, wide eyed, at his rumpled clothes, disheveled hair, and slack jaw and knew it was from the alcohol and drugs she'd dosed him with. With the cell towers and GPS still on the fritz, she had no idea how Gerald had located her.
"Don't look so surprised," the man replied. "I have my ways of knowing where you're at—at all times. Now, hand over that Saturday Night Special you keep tucked in your purse."
"I don't have it," she replied.
He stiffened his arm. "You can't afford to play games."
Grinder rolled his window down and called out, "I've got it."
Gerald shifted the barrel of his pistol on Grinder. "Toss it!"
John threw it out. It landed against the curb and skidded along the line of concrete like a guttered bowling ball until it arrived at the grated opening and was escorted down the hollow by a steady stream of rainwater.
"Now get out of the truck and come stand next to her."
John obliged the man and joined Stephanie. He stood there silently staring down the open end of the barrel.
The man eyed John suspiciously. "So, what's your part in this?"
"He didn't have anything to do with it, Gerald," Stephanie piped in. "I skidded off the road and was stuck in the ditch until John stopped and pulled my car out of the mud. He wouldn't take money so I offered to buy him a cup of coffee for his help. That's all."
Gerald laughed and gently shook his head, "You know; my wife is not as defenseless as she leads you to believe. Did she tell you that she drugged me and stole something very important from me?" He shifted his eyes over to Stephanie and cocked the trigger back. "Now, I want it back."
A look of horror congealed on her face. A light drizzle of rain began to fall. Stephanie felt chilled as tiny drops collected on her face. The chills were attributed more to her fear than the cold water spreading across her breast. She felt sure that her life could end tonight once Gerald got what he came for.
"Don't hurt her." John stepped in front of Stephanie.
"Well, it looks like my wife found a knight in shining armor." Gerald cracked a crooked smile. "You can have her. As soon as I get back what's mine."
“I don’t have it."
Gerald looked panicked. "Where is it?"
"I sold it."
"You idiot," Gerald ground out through gritted teeth. He prodded the gun at her. "Who was the courier?"
"A woman named Ida March," she quickly replied.
"Good going, Steph."
She hated it when he called her that.
"You may have just supplied terrorists with the means to start World War Three."
I don't know what you're so upset about, she thought. You're going to make big bucks from this one. That is, if you're not in some hellhole of a prison.
The spotted Yugo seemed to come out of nowhere, whipped into the parking lot, and skidded to a stop. The waitress stared through the windshield wild-eyed at Gerald holding the gun on John and Stephanie. The engine revved and the reverse lamps came on, casting a white sheen of light across the wet concrete.
“Shut the engine down and get out of the car,” Gerald commanded.
The tinny whine of the engine silenced and the door let out a loud groan when it opened. The waitress raised her hands above her head. "I just came back to get my purse." She lowered an arm and aimed one of her red, lacquered nails to where she'd left the leather bag sitting on the steps.
“Shut your mouth and go stand next to them,” Gerald prompted the waitress into action by pointing the gun at her.
“Oh‒my God, you're as crazy as they are!" She hastily climbed out and shuttled over to them. She stood next to John shaking.
"Now what?" John asked.
Gerald nodded at the suitcase. "What's in there?"
"Money," she replied.
"How cliché." He cracked a smile. "Only you Steph."
She cringed, gritted her teeth, and flexed her fingers before wadding them into fist, but thought it best to hold her tongue.
Gerald turned the gun on the waitress. "Bring it to me, Princess."
Without taking her eyes off the gun, the girl impetuously grabbed the handle of the suitcase, jerked it off the ground, and walked it over to Gerald. He took it from her and popped the latch.
He turned it upside down. On any calm day the money would have tumbled to the ground, but a gust of wind scooped up the spilled contents and they all stared up in amazement as the lose bills fluttered away into the night like a flock of startled birds. "I want the flash drive."
"Flash drive?" The waitress pointed her finger and turned it on Grinder. "He has it. In his jacket pocket."
"Hand it over," said Gerald.
"The girl doesn't know what she's talking about."
Gerald swiftly approached Grinder and with one sweeping blow to the head with the butt if the gun, knocked Grinder to the ground. His hand formed a huge lump that quickly became a squirming mass of blue jean cloaked fingers as he searched the pocket. A moment later he held the prize in his hand.
"I told you where it was. You're going to let me go, right?" She emphasized her plea with a snaggletooth grin.
"Get over there with them."
She let out a loud, "Harrumph," and stomped away muttering something about crazies taking over the world.
A harsh white washed over them. The headlights belonged to an older make car, possibly a mid-twenties model. What the hell, thought Stephanie as it whipped into the lot and skidded to a stop. A goon wielding a machine gun stood on the passenger side running board. He hopped off and pointed his weapon at them. "Don't move."
Stephanie had been around the business long enough to recognize a fully automatic and knew the damage they could do in a matter of seconds. She took a step back.
The driver's door opened and an elderly gentleman wearing a white linen suite stepped out onto the wet concrete. He grinned at Grinder. "Well, John, it took me awhile, but I finally caught up to you." He held out his hand, "Hand it over, " and wiggled his fingers.
Grinder coveted the device against his chest.
The accomplice trained the end of his barrel on Grinder. "Better do what he says."
"For God's sake!" cried Stephanie. "Give it to them before they kill us."
"You don't understand," he replied.
The man took aim.
She snatched it from his hand.
"Look!" The color in the waitress cheeks were gone leaving her sharp features ghostly white. The girl was staring up into the heavens with her jaw hanging open and her eyes fixed. Pivoting from the shoulder, she slowly raised her arm with her hand and fingers hanging limp like a wilted flower. The she straightened a crooked finger at the heavens.
Stephanie looked up.
On the underbelly of one of the dark clouds, a swirling vortex of blue energy formed and a loud thunderclap shook the ground.
Now, she was here. Where ever the hell this place was. The wind rattled the sand. She looked up. In the distance, a dust devil scurried away from her. For all she knew, she might be on a planet in some distant corner of the galaxy and the dervish was an alien form of life. She watched it disappear over the top of a dune and wondered if it was on its way to tell the other inhabitants that some strange creature was afoot. Maybe her discombobulated brain was unraveling at the fringe. That was more likely it. She told herself she was teetering on a filament thin line between madness and good sense and put her imagination to rest before it spiraled out of control.
She plowed up a clear stone with the toe of her shoe and it tumbled out in front of her. She withdrew from trying to solve the frustrating riddles, stopped, and picked it up with the tips of her fingers. Hot to the touch, she juggled it until the gem was cool enough to hold it in the palm of her hand. The quartz crystal tossed back the rays of the sun, and the glistening stone reminded her of the heart-shaped diamond from Gerald's collection. The one she stole out of his safe. Stole? She didn't steal it. Putting up with his crap, she'd earned it, a millions time over.
Although imperfect, the stone had been appraised for over two-million dollars. It wasn't the carats or the facets that gave it its worth, it was the story behind it.
It was one of Gerald's most prized possessions. He'd shared the story of the diamond's original owner with her before secreting it away. Joseph Frankland had been one of the most successful, young shipping magnates in Galveston in the late eighteen hundreds. He met and married the love of his life, Charlotte, in Eighteen-Ninety-nine. Joseph was in New York on business when the Nineteen Hundred storm hit, killing thousands of people. Upon returning to the island, he tried to locate his bride. After months of searching for her, he gave up. He’d lost his reason for living and most of his ships in the hurricane, and it quickly took a toll on his business. He took what was left of his fortune and bought a three-hundred carat diamond, then had it cut into the shape of a heart. He sailed out into the Gulf with the intention of tossing it over to declare his never-ending love for Charlotte. However, fate had other plans, and the boiler exploded, sinking the vessel and killing everyone but one crewmember. The survivor retold his drunken tales so often it became legend. Modern day treasure hunters had searched for years before locating the wreck and recovering the diamond. Donated, it had been on its way to the World History Museum when Gerald got his greedy hands on it.
She heard his voice inside her head say, "You see, it’s not just a diamond, it’s a love story."
"What would you know about love, Gerald?" Stephanie blurted out to an uncaring desert. "The only thing you ever loved was money and what it can buy." She dropped the quartz and resumed walking. She wondered if he'd found out she had taken the diamond, as well? He'd said he had ways of finding her no matter where she was. Lots of luck on that one, buster. I don't even know where I'm at. But, knowing him, he was probably hot on her trail. The hairs on the nap of her neck stood up. She stopped and looked back over her shoulder. Nothing but wasteland. The only sign of anyone ever being there was from the soles of her own shoes that had left a string of dots across the barren land. The strong air currents were already erasing the tracks she'd left behind. Satisfied that Gerald was nowhere near, she pivoted her head back around.
She looked down as a small spider scurried across the sand pursued by a scorpion. The scorpion captured its helpless victim and stung it before scurrying away with its prize to hide beneath a rock. She felt the urge to keep moving.
Stray thoughts came and went as she plodded along laboring through the thick blanket of hot sand while taking short breaths stifled by the heat.
She made her way to a rock formation protruding from the desert floor. It was about six feet tall, orange-ish-red in color, and shaped like a large ice cream cone planted upside down. She took shelter behind it to shield herself from the sun and constant pelting of the sand that had become a monotonous torture. The grains embedded in her hose had already rubbed her skin raw. She worked them down to her knees, kicked off her shoes, and pulled the offending garment from her legs. She let the stockings drop to the ground where the stiff breeze caught them and watched them slither away like a startled sidewinder across the ever-shifting terrain. She sat with her back to the rock and dumped the accumulated contents from her shoes.
Without her watch, she had no way to confirm the time. But, judging by the sun crawling across the sky, it was early afternoon, and going by her internal clock, she guessed it was around two. That meant hours of relentless daylight left. Than what: complete darkness? There was no clue how far she still had to go. She closed her eyes. She did have an idea of how far she'd come. Over the past ten years, she had developed a habit of counting her steps on the daily three-mile power walks in the park. The mental tally of the steps she'd taken today was ten-thousand and roughly translated into about five miles.
She stretched her arms out, placed her palms flat against the rock, and noticed the stone was worn smooth by the tiny particles of sand bombarding it over millions of years. It could be the tip of a buried mountain; the rest of it concealed by the hellish grit piling up around it over the eons. She opened her eyes, turned to look at it, and wondered what gave it its red color. It reminded her of pictures she'd seen of Mars. Red, dusty, and dry. Like her throat felt. It was dry, but not parched. She figured it wouldn't be long before that would change and she would literally be dying of thirst. A cramp in her calf muscle validated her concern. She massaged the pain while embracing the thought that maybe in the not too far distance she would stumble upon a convenience store. They always seemed to be everywhere even in the middle of nowhere. The one she frequented in her neighborhood was one of those 24/7 places with outrageous gas prices and neon signs hanging in the plate glass windows advertising beer and cigarettes.
A constant fixture in the place was an attractive, young girl who manned the register. The tips of her red-streaked bangs framed baby blues outlined with heavy black eyeliner. The look was edgy. Stephanie had plans to indulge in shaving the side of her head and adding a few streaks of red to her own dark hair when she was free of Gerald.
The last time Stephanie was in there was after a grueling workout at the gym. She had glided over to the shelves overflowing with snack cakes and chips to the lo-cal snacks and snagged a power bar. Then squeezed down the narrow aisle between the coolers stocked with an assortment of drinks and grabbed a bottle of water. But, she needed something with a little more kick. At the far side of the store, two near empty coffeepots sat on the counter. She grabbed a Styrofoam cup off the stack and emptied one of the pots into it--dregs and all. By the color and smell, she was sure the coffee was at least ten hours old and would taste like a mouthful of warm, dirty dishwater. After stirring in a couple packets of fake sweetener and a three packets of powdered cream to mask the taste, she walked up to the counter to pay.
The girl offered Stephanie a weak smile. "Will that be all, Ma'am?"
Stephanie snapped back to reality and stopped rubbing the knot in her leg. She'd forgotten about the bottle of water and the uneaten power bar. She clumsily dug in her purse and found them both buried beneath the plane ticket, wallet, phone, and an unopened pack of cigarettes. Not hungry, she bypassed the bar and went for the water, uncapped the bottle, and drained it to the last drop. She shoved the empty container back into her purse knowing that she should have conserved it by taking a sip every few hours. The warm water did little to satisfy her thirst, but it did fill her bladder. Even though it was absurd, she looked around for prying eyes before she squatted and relieved herself. She stood and resumed walking. After a while, her legs felt heavy, and it became more of a trudge. The sun's vertical decline perched it in front of her eyes. She lowered her head to avoid the harsh light and took to watching the dye on the toes of her shoes being scuffed off. She tried to convince herself everything was going to be alright, because right now, everything wasn't alright. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. If she stopped now, she would for sure be dead.
In the far off yonder, the rolling sea of sand flattened, and a veil of shimmering heat distorted a speck of silver, flickering light. Her hopes soared and she picked up the pace. It could be a cell tower. She took a quick glance down into her purse at the phone still showing no service. Her mind jumped to another thought. Solar energy plants were starting to pop up in the desert, and even if unmanned, it might be on the grid and have a landline.
She hurried toward the mysterious light as the sun lowered a little closer to the horizon. The landscape continued to slowly metamorphose. The clumps of grass sprouted, not from sand, but from red dust and rock. Bouquets of weeds tipped with yellow flowers wavered in the parched wind. A few gnarly trees struggled beneath the sun. If there were plants, there had to be water, somewhere. She pressed on. Up one side of a dune and down the other. Over and over again. The closer she got, she tried to guess what it was she was seeing. It looked like a mountainous tower obscured by hazy distance. The sides were tall and appeared smooth. It could be a natural formation of rock or man made. From this far away it was hard to tell.
This place generated more questions than it did answers and only added to the mystery of where she was. She spent the next few miles watching the toes of her shoes kick up puffs of parched earth. The sand had already eaten away at the dye and exposed raw leather. She figured at this rate, the hellish grit would eventually wear away her shoes completely. If she survived that long. The thought of death had already entered her head multiple times throughout the day. It was something that she might have to face. But thinking like that was giving up. She wouldn't have it. Besides, she had never been able to contemplate her own death longer than ten or fifteen seconds. To chase the idea of impending doom out of her mind, she cleared her head. Somewhere in her walkabout she got sucked into some kind of a trance, not thinking anything, not watching anything, but the toes of her shoes stir up dust. She crested a dune and glanced down. Puzzled by the spectacle she stopped.
Scarecrows? In the desert? There were no fields of crops—no crows or birds of any kind. Just crude stick figures fastened to T-posts and planted in the sand ten across and four rows deep. The ones that weren't burned to a crisp were smoldering like lit cigarettes. She shifted her eyes back to the tower formation and wondered if the occupants were hostiles. She'd have to take her chances. A few more hours in this heat and she'd be dead. Stephanie set a course for the formation. A misstep tangled her feet. Suddenly, she tumbled down the dune and rolled to a stop when she hit one of the posts. The attached scarecrow toppled and flopped adjacent to her and she suddenly found herself staring eyeball to eyeball with the thing. Except it wasn't a scarecrow, it was a man with half the flesh on his face seared away. With the cheek flesh gone, it smiled at her with a big grin. She let out a scream and jumped to her feet. The others were dead men too, emaciated, dressed in rags, and burned to a crisp. In the distance, behind the veil of shimmering heat, tiny specks emerged from the silver pool of light floating on the horizon. Holy crap, they were moving toward her. She needed to get out of here, and quick. It didn't matter what direction. Any direction. She ran.
A mile into her escape brought her to the edge of a cliff. She stared down at a fluted wall of orange rock that she estimated to be a fifty-foot plunge. She surveyed the arroyo; it snaked out of sight in both directions and stretched across a hundred feet. It may have been less, but for her, it might as well have been the Grand Canyon. A scrap of hope survived her verdict that things had just hit the skids when she stared across the chasm and decided she had the experience to cross the divide. She looked down. The water that had been there at one time had evaporated long ago and left a large crusty patch of land with cracks running through it. A large cluster of Joshua trees looked like a safe place to spend the night. A row of twisting vines, laden with thorns, corralled the small forest like a barbed wire fence. She felt being down in the crevice, behind the barrier and hidden in the trees, would help protect her from whatever critters roamed the desert after the sun set. She could rest, and in the morning, feast on the power bar and start out fresh.
She walked the edge in search the best place for a freestyle descent. She stopped when she spotted it and calculated the risk involved. She hated heights, feared them even, anything over ten feet caused her to seize up. There was a tickling growing in her tummy that would soon become a knot. She made attempts to conquer her acrophobia. At the fitness center, she had the supervision of an experienced instructor, wore a safety harness and proper attire, and counted on thick mats on the floor in case she fell. Here, she had none of those things. She removed her purse from her arm and let it plummet over the edge. She tossed the worn out shoes after it.
With her life at stake, she lay down on her belly and lowered herself over the rim. Searching for proper footholds proved to be a challenge. It was like reading Braille with the balls of her feet. Locating handholds was a bleak process of her clutching at smooth, round projections that were hard to grip, and once got, hard to hang on to. Already on the downside of exhaustion, she made it halfway and ran out of steam. She dropped and hit the remaining outcropping with a thud. The cushion of thick sand at the base softened her landing, but the slope in the terrain sent her tumbling into the brambles. Thorns tore at her clothes and skin until enough of the prickly little bastards latched on to both and brought her to a halt. After a fierce struggle, she managed to free herself and got to her bare feet with a sharp pain shooting through her side and dripping blood from superficial wounds. The valley she was in was below the sun's dying rays and created a world of false dusk around her, leaving no time to rest.
If she had a fuel gauge, she'd be running on fumes. She summoned what little strength she had and moved forward to close the gap between her and the trees. The parched ground had formed a thin crust that caved in with each step, thwarting her progress, but she continued to slog ahead, when suddenly, it was like someone had pulled the plug on her. Blackness clouded her vision, and she sank down to her knees. Her mind flashed a morbid scene of someone stumbling across her mummified remains thousands of years from now. And then she did a face plant in the sand.
She woke coughing dry heat and loose earth, spit grit from her mouth, and managed to roll onto her back. She was unable to focus, and her mind wandered as she watched the light fade from the patch of sky. Thousands of stars clogged the heavens. The full moon peeked over the jagged edge of the rift spilling its meager light down into the basin. The shadows from the grove of Joshua trees grew long and crept toward her like shy children. As the moon rose higher into the heavens, the shadows retreated back to the base of the trees.
The fluctuating play between lightness and darkness coupled with the passing clouds created the illusion of movement. From the corner of her eye, she thought a snake slithered toward her. When she shifted her head to look at the reptile, it magically transformed back into a crack in the dried ground. She trembled. The desert was cooling, and she hugged the warm soil hoping that it would hold its heat through the night.
The moon slowly sailed over the crack in the earth and graced her with enough light to make out shapes, that was, until a few small clouds gathered around the celestial body and curdled in its light like soured milk. Eventually enough of them gathered to form one cloud leaving the canyon almost completely dark. The land came alive with sounds. They were distant but recognizable. A chorus of howls rose in the air. She knew little about Coyotes other than they were nocturnal hunters, but she felt relatively safe at the bottom of the arroyo. She slept.
A snarl brought her out of the land of dreams. She shivered, wondering if one of the canine hunters had made its way down and was lurking somewhere in the shadows, or if the hellish creature's growl had been from a nightmare that had escaped from deep within her id. Another growl from the grove of trees proved it to be real. Fear pumped adrenalin through her veins and her heart beat wildly, but her muscles were still on the blink, and she couldn't move.
Shapeless blobs shifted in the conclave of shadows. The wild beating of her heart turned into thunder that vibrated the sand beneath her chest. She was sure that it was sending out a distress signal to the predators. She homed in on the rustling sounds at the tree line.
The underbelly of the dark cloud split open and spilled milky-white light of the crescent moon onto the bottom of the arroyo.
One of the canines stepped into the moonlight, sniffing the air. More followed. A gust popped up and peppered her face with sand that found its way into both eyes. By the time she rubbed it away with the backs of her hands, the coyotes were gone, and the vague light revealed paw prints leading up to her from out of the darkness. But where did the beasts go?
A snarl came from behind. She readied herself to let out a yell hoping it would scare the creatures away, but a flash of light and the sharp blast of a gunshot cut her short. A bullet whizzed above her head followed by a yelp of pain, then the sound of retreating paws beating the sand.
A figure meandered out of the trees toward her with a cloven-hoofed animal plodding along behind. As the newcomer drew closer, she could tell by the walk that it was a man. The butt of his rifle broke through the crusted earth when he used it as a crutch to steady himself as he kneeled beside her. His body was cloaked by robes and a Ker covered his lower face. She watched him study her through the pair of goggles he wore. The camel let out a bray. Was this another figment of her overtaxed imagination? Maybe the man was a wealthy Sheik, and he would force her to become one of the concubines in his harem. She giggled, and the man cocked his head to one side as if trying to understand her amusement. New horrors flooded her musings, and she quickly sobered. Had she somehow ended up in the Middle East and was about to be captured by a terrorist? The surreal events unfolding swirled around in her mind and made her feel dizzy. She passed out.Chapter 3 Down the Rabbit Hole
Stephanie awoke shrouded in darkness. She stirred. The bed crackled beneath her when she moved. A fledgling headache spread its wings inside her head. Pain racked her body from her freefall into the gorge and the scratchy material covering her naked body brushed against her sunburned arms. "Owwww."
A man's voice slithered from the darkness. "You're lucky to be alive."
In one synchronized motion, she bolted upright while gathering the cover around her. "Who the hell are you?" She strained her words through a parched windpipe.
"Jack," the reply came the same moment a match burst into flame.
The flash of fire dazzled her eyes and she shielded them by pulling the blanket over her face until it was a small flame dancing on the end of the wooden stick.
The stranger's long, black hair, braided into a ponytail, snaked over his shoulder. Nestled between a prominent brow and high cheekbones were a pair of dark eyes that intensely stared back.
She peered back at him. Wasn't this the guy with the camel? He looks American Indian, so why the sheik getup? Yep, she was sure it was the same man who'd found her.
He leaned forward in a wooden chair, lifted the clear globe of a kerosene lantern sitting on a primitive table, and touched the flame to the wick. He shook the match out, dropped it onto the rock floor, let the crystal settle back into place, and dialed up the flame.
The light exposed a crude dwelling of four sandstone walls without windows. She suddenly felt like the prisoner of Zanzibar.
Jack abruptly stood. His head almost scraped the ceiling.
"Stay away from me." She skittered back until the wall stopped her.
"Easy," he said. "I'm not going to harm you."
She realized she was exposed and scurried back to the blanket and wrapped it around herself. "Where are my clothes?"
"I'm afraid the Crucifixion thorns at the bottom of the arroyo made short work of your garments." The hulkster took a step forward while plucking a canteen from the leather belt cinched around the waist of his robe. A pair of holstered side arms attached to the leather creaked like an old, well-oiled saddle as he moved.
Sheik of the burning sands? Indian? Cowboy? Cave dweller? The contradictions rocked her logic.
He unscrewed the cap and handed it to her. "Have some of this."
"What is it?"
While suspiciously eying him, she took the canteen and sniffed the contents. Satisfied that he wasn't lying, she eagerly pressed the rim to her lips and fervently sucked down huge gulps. It soothed her dry throat. A mouthful went down the wrong way and she erupted in a fit of coughs.
"Easy." He took the canteen from her.
"Are you the one that saved me from the wolves?" She asked as she wiped the water from her chin with the back of her hand.
He nodded. "Yes ma'am."
She looked around. Directly behind Jack was a narrow opening in the rock where the light from the lantern didn't penetrate. "Where am I?"
The gritty scraping of soles on the sandstone floor ended their conversation. A figure appeared in the entrance and hung in the penumbra like a ghostly phantom. "She's awake," said the newcomer, and then he waded into the light.
Stephanie clutched her blanket to her and bolted to her feet in amazement. She felt intoxicated and stood there staring, unable to speak the questions tangled in her mind. She suddenly felt weak in the knees.
Before she could plummet to the floor, Grinder stepped forward and steadied her.
After she'd recovered she wanted to slap him and hug him at the same time. She went for the slap.
Grinder rubbed his cheek. "Why'd you do that?"
"Why do you think? One minute I was standing in the parking lot at Charlie's Cafe and then, BOOM! I'm here." She pointed a finger accusingly at him. "I know you did this."
"There are a lot of things that I need to explain."
"No need. Just take me home, now, and I won't press charges."
"I'm afraid that I can't do that."
"Am I a prisoner?" she asked.
She wobbled. She would have toppled if Grinder hadn't grabbed her and steadied her. "I don't feel so good."
"You'd better sit," he said as he ushered her back to the bed.
She planted her hand across her forehead. "I need something for pain;" she said. "A few Ibuprophen should do the trick."
Jack cocked his head. "I'm not familiar with that white man medicine."
She let her hand slip from her head and stared at him. "Why are you talking like Tonto?" He looked baffled by her question. So, she ignored him and turned to Grinder. "Why does he talk like Tonto?"
Stephanie sighed. "Never mind, Kemo Sabe—I'll take whatever you've got."
The Indian grunted.
"And clothes. I need something to wear."
Jack grunted again and left.
After he was gone, Grinder squatted next to her. "As much as I'd like to help you get you home, it is not that simple."
She swept her arm around the place as she said, "Well, I can't just stay here at the Taj Mahal indefinitely."
"It is not only where you're at, but when you're at."
"Grinder, as much as I love a good riddle, I'm not feeling up to the challenge."
"I need to explain what happened, but it's going to be a hard pill for you to swallow."
"After the day I've had, I can handle it."
He hesitated, and then said, "We've made a jump through time."
"What?" She searched his face and body for the slightest telltale signs that suggested that he was joking, couldn't see any, but, she grinned back anyway. "Come on. Time travel? Really?"
"A parallax shift made it possible."
She shook her head. "I've never heard of it."
"Time is not linear like most people think," he said. "It's more like if you were suspended inside a mirrored sphere at the core. Outside the present, you exist in every moment as energy, but by moving from the point of center in any direction causes a parallax shift. Light wave becomes particle form when it's observed. Physics proves that a particle of light can exist in two places at the same time."
"Easy, Professor Hawkins." She massaged her temples. "How long have we been here?"
"You've been here a few days."
She stopped massaging. "Me? What about you?"
"I've already been here a few weeks."
"How is that possible? We were together. And what about the others?"
"It all depends on where each one of us was standing when the shift occurred. Shifts open portals that allow time travel." He took a pause. "You believe me don't you?"
Her mind flashed back to the café parking lot. Rationally, it was impossible, but what other explanation could there be? She battled logic again before she shrugged. "Just get me home. Can you do that?"
He shook his head.
The fear came back and wedged itself in the pit of her belly. "Why not?"
"I don't have the device."
"That calculator looking thingamajig?"
He nodded. "Without it, I can't pinpoint when and where another shift will occur. We're stuck here."
"But, I know where it is."
Hope sparked in his eyes. "Where?"
"I left it in the desert."
"The desert is a big place. Where at exactly?"
She shrugged. "I don't know."
She bristled at his tone. "How am I supposed to know? I don't even know where I am right now."
Grinder looked frustrated. "Do you remember any landmark at all? Mountains? Maybe a plateau?"
Stephanie's eyes lit up and she snapped her fingers. "There was a hunk of gray stone sticking up out of the sand."
The Indian returned carrying an armload of clothes and a pair of boots dangling from his fingertips by the laces.
Grinder whirled around. "Jack, do you know where a large stone stands in the desert?"
The Indian dumped the garments on the bed.
"It's gray, the size of a house" Stephanie added. "And nothing else is around."
The Indian nodded. "I know the place."
The worried look on Grinder's face disappeared. He looked relieved. "Thank God!"
Jack held something in his hand and handed it to Stephanie.
She stared at the small, brown paper package. "What's that?" she asked
She shook her head and shoved it back at him. "I'm not taking that."
"Fine." He took it back from her.
The forgotten headache was doing an encore and reached a climax behind her eyes. She winced.
"You'd better take it," said Grinder. "There is no modern medicine here."
She snatched it back, unrolled the paper, and dumped it in her mouth. She made a face like she had bitten into something rotten. "My God, that tastes awful."
"Maybe so, but you'll feel better in a few minutes," said Jack.
Grinder turned to the Indian. "Mister Spangler, get the horses ready to ride."
Jack nodded and left them again.
Get dressed," Grinder told her.
She picked through the pile of clothes: blue, wool pants, a double-breasted, blue, frock coat with brass buttons. She spun around. "What year is it?"
Her eyes widened. "The war between the states?"
Stephanie felt as though she was trapped in an episode of The Twilight Zone. She sank to the bed and stared off, but then her gaze fell upon the small wad of brown paper. She looked up at him. "You drugged me." She thought about the cup of coffee she had at the diner. "And brought me here." She narrowed her eyes. "Gerald had you do this."
"We've been through this already."
She stared. Her stomach churned.
"The only chance you have of getting back to your time is if we find the device."
"Okay." She nodded. "I'll play along if gets me out of this crazy situation." She pointed to the opening. "Get out so that I can dress."
After he was gone, she walked back to the bed and dipped into the pile. The drug was kicking in. She picked up the wool pants and tossed them to the side in disgust. She pulled the frock coat on, buttoned the garment as far as her breasts would allow, and accented her ensemble by tying the red sash around her waist, and then topping her head with the Keifer hat slightly tilted to one side. She sat down on the bed and wiggled one of the long socks over her toes and up above her knee. She pulled the other sock on before putting on the black leather boots and lacing them up tight. The boots accented the curve of her calf muscles just right. Stephanie finger-combed her hair and fluffed it best she could. She stood up wishing she had a full-length mirror.
She grabbed the lantern and stepped outside the chamber where Grinder waited. The drug made her feel tipsy like the times when she had a little too much to drink.
He leaned with his back against the rock with his arms folded across his chest as she performed a clumsy pirouette. "Like it?" The drug reeked havoc on her coordination and she would have tripped and plummeted to the rock floor if Grinder hadn't grabbed her. He reeled her in, but held on a little too long.
"You can let go of me now."
He released her, "Sorry," and glanced at her attire. "Where's you pants?"
"I wouldn't be caught dead in 'em." She drunkenly pouted.
"Well, you can't go dressed like that."
"We'll be riding horses. Your decency will be at stake, not to mention that you'll be at the mercy of the desert sun. I'll get you a robe."
"Thanks." Her tone was as arid as the desert.
Before he walked out, Grinder stopped to look back over his shoulder. "Stay put."
After he was gone, silence filled the space and that was an opportunity for questions to rush back in and yammer inside her head like a colicky baby. Soon, opium induced logic got the better of her judgment and with the lantern in hand, Stephanie stepped through the opening. The organic light trickling form the lantern managed to keep the darkness bay a feet in front of her as she cautiously moved forward. Cave floors were known to be infested with pitfalls. Some were only a few feet deep, but others were thousands of feet deep. She shivered at the thought of stepping off into one and crashing onto bone crushing rocks far below. Stephanie heard sound. "Thank God," she uttered and picked up her pace. It was the sound of Grinder's voice, and he was having a conversation with the Indian, voices low, articulating concern. She picked up her pace, but abruptly came to a halt and stared. "Oh, why do I have all the bad luck?" She stared at the dilemma.
The channel Y'd. It was near impossible to decipher from which tunnel the voices channeled. "Ohhhhhhh!" Out of anguish, she placed her hand on a stalagmite and leaned into it. "Get a hold of yourself." She was about to call out Grinder's name, but a racket that sounded like a thousand squeaky toys came from behind. Stephanie frantically spun around and let out a gasp when she realized what the noise was.
The critters could be the blood sucking type. Even if they weren't, bats carried all kinds of vile diseases. She suddenly realized that the stalagmite she'd placed her hand on was a pile of guano. She let out a loud yowl in disgust.
The creatures swarmed.
She danced to the rhythm of leathery wings beating the air as she viciously swung her fist at them. One tangled in her hair. She dropped the lantern and wrestled the bat from her dark locks. It squirmed in her hand. Completely grossed out by the creature, she hurled it and ran. To the left or to the right, pitfalls, none of these mattered. The flock of bats rocketed past her on a zigzag course down the gullet of the cave Stephanie shot out the opening and performed a belly flop in the soft sand. "OOOOOOF!" She looked up, it was dark, and Grinder stood over her looking down with a frown on his face.
"I thought I told you to stay put." He reached down and pulled her to her feet.
"You were taking too long."
The Indian shushed her. "Listen."
As she dusted the sand from her bare thighs the faint sound of calliope music carried on the wind, but it wasn't the well composed chords of a circus melody. It was more like the caterwauling of wild beast accompanied by the loud clanking of metal, the sound of gears grinding, and thundering footsteps. She stood. "What is that?"
"Giants," Jack replied.
Grinder tossed her a robe.
She looked it over. "Where'd you get this?"
"Union soldiers," Jack replied.
"I'm pretty sure Union soldiers didn't dress like this."
The clanking of metal and the calliope music grew louder.
"Just put it on," said Grinder.
She sniffed it. "What is it?"
A thobe." He helped her dress. The light material that covered most of her bare skin. He topped her head with a kufeya held in place with an igal of camel wool.
Grinder helped her upon the back of his horse. He walked along side of her.
Still under the influence of the drug, Stephanie sprawled across the neck of the horse and slept most of the way. When she woke a cobweb of wispy clouds clinging around a crescent moon and a star studded sky lit the way. The sound of sand rustling across the wind-swept dunes brought peace, but it was short-lived. A howl filled the night, another followed, and then another. Soon, the pack bayed in unison. She shivered and looked down at Grinder. "You never said where we were."
"The Mojave Desert," He answered. "A few hundred miles east of California."
"Why'd you come here?"
He didn't answer.
Jack pointed. "There." In the distance a large form loomed in the distance. It was the rock.
By the time they arrived at the brim of the formation, most of the effects of the opium had worn off. She felt a sense of relief and slipped out of the saddle. She looked around. "It's should be somewhere right around here."
Jack dismounted and walked toward the rock. He didn't get very far before he called out Grinder's name. "Over here!"
Grinder rushed to where the Indian stood looking down. The imprint of the device was left in the sand along with hoof prints.
Grinder looked to Jack. "Are they fresh?"
The Indian kneeled and studied the markings in the sand. Finally, he rose from his knees. "Maybe a half a day."
"What do we do?" Stephanie felt hopeless.
"We follow," Grinder replied.Chapter 4 A Wicked Breed of Men
© 2016 Marlin 55