Fields of Praise

by

Terry Molloy

 

Copyright 2010

All rights reserved

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Stetson felt the heat of the sun-baked rock against his back.  It soaked through his shirt like warm blood. He looked down at his frayed levis and scuffed boots and smiled for no reason.  Boots with heels like hooves – heels that clacked against hard surfaces with the noise of a prancing horse or deer.  Or goat, he thought and laughed silently to himself.  He pointed his toes like a dancer, stretching out all the muscles in his legs, drawing his sun-warmed pants tight across his thighs.  The movement turned into a long drawn out yawn that encompassed his whole body.  Must be time to go.  As his mind formed the thought, he came to his feet in one fluid motion and stepped away from the protective outcropping of granite.  The cold, morning, mountain air snapped him fully awake.  Across from the smoldering breakfast fire, his horse, Red, grazed lazily on some late summer grass.  The big rawboned roan brought up his head and swung his ears forward, looking directly at Stetson as the man crossed the way between them.  The animal’s head had the finely cut and chiseled features of pure blood lines, and his eyes shone with a clear and present intelligence.  His breath turned to steam in the cold air.  Stetson moved over to an upturned saddle lying on the ground.  The horse followed.

 

He had camped last night at the top of Wolf Creek pass on his way from Alamosa to Telluride.  Even though it was still September in the valleys below, the temperature of the air in the pass had dropped below freezing after the sun had set.  He had found a clearing with some grass and a small spring, considered himself lucky, and bedded down for the night.  The clearing, an oval shape fifty feet on its longest side, was surrounded on the west, north, and east by a thick stand of tall pines.  To the south, the mountain dropped away in a hill of loose rock and earth to the road fifty feet below, which itself dropped away to the west toward Pagosa Springs.  The morning sun had burnt away a lingering night mist and revealed a sky empty of any clouds, a sky the color of deep blue that can only be seen above eight thousand feet, a blue so pure and new that it seemed to start time. 

 

Stetson never got enough of mornings like this.  He thrived on them, was born in them.  Made innocent again.  He stopped still in the clearing, breathing the cold air.  A cocky blue jay squawked and jawed at them from the top of a near-by pine and then suddenly dove through the air at Red, swooping across and coming inches from the horse’s ears before settling on the lower branches of another pine on the opposite side of the clearing.  The man walked over and swung the saddle up on Red’s back, cinched it tight, and began loading up his gear.  Taking his only pot, Stetson filled it with water from the spring and dowsed the dying fire.  The smoke and steam hissed and spiraled up through the dark green pines, flushing the jay from his perch with an indignant scream.  The man watched him fly into the sky above the trees – disappearing into the larger blue field.  Red walked over without being called and rubbed his muzzle into Stetson’s chest, pushing the man back a step.

 

“Alright, alright. We’re going.”

 

As soon as Stetson stepped up into the saddle, the horse began prancing beneath him, eager to be moving.  He tossed his head up and down, stepped sideways, spun in a full circle.  His movements were so fluid and smooth that Stetson felt none of the jerky discomfort that he might have on a lesser horse.  It was, instead, like sliding on silk.  He zipped up his black down windbreaker while Red was still dancing around and urged the horse down the hill of soft earth to the road.  He kept Red to the shoulder of the broken up highway.  What used to be State Highway 160 was now just a jigsaw puzzle of broken asphalt, burnt out cars, and washed out bridges.  They headed west, now, off the continental divide, toward Pagosa Springs and Durango.

 

Both Stetson and Red were content to take their time, for it was the one thing they had in abundance.  There was no longer any hurry to get anywhere, no schedules to meet, no pressing deadlines.    They eased their way down off the mountain into a valley that was on fire with the colors of fall.  Wherever there were streams or springs, there were aspens the color of the sun.  From high above, the lines of aspens looked like veins of gold snaking down through the surrounding pine covered hills to meet with the main artery of the San Juan river moving south along the valley floor.  As they dropped in altitude and the temperature rose, Stetson took off his windbreaker, leaned back in the saddle, and let the swaying movement of the horse rock him into a trance.  With the sun on his back and his feet dangling outside the stirrups, with the San Juan running along the side of the road, life was good.  He thought of the Navajo expression.  It was “hozoi”.  In beauty it is begun.  In beauty it is done.  In beauty it is finished.  The man rocked in a timeless rhythm with no before and no after, at one with the land around him.

 

Out of nowhere the metal grinding scream of a jet turbine rocked Stetson out of his reverie and spooked the horse underneath him.  Red jumped sideways, almost dislodging his rider, as a jet helicopter exploded low and fast over a ridge on the other side of the river.  The copter came over so low that the wash from the rotors blew Stetson’s hat off his head.  Red whirled and danced in the biting dust cloud kicked up the machine.  Then, as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone.  Stetson settled the horse and looked after the copter.  He recognized the type immediately.  It was the latest army model.  A sleek gleaming gunship built for killing.

 

He slung low from the saddle without dismounting and picked his hat up off the ground as he watched the helicopter rip across the landscape and come in for a landing at Pagosa Springs, three miles to the west.  Reaching back into his saddlebags, he pulled out a pair of old binoculars, put them to his eyes, and focused on the town.  The entire place had been converted into a military base, surrounded with three concentric rows of chain link fence topped with razor wire.  His glasses showed him enough to verify the rumors he had heard in Alamosa.  He could see barracks, and control tower, a small landing area, and a half a dozen large overland tank type vehicles.  He put the glasses back in the saddlebags and turned Red to the north.  He had hoped to spend a leisurely lunch in the town, but he now decided to give it a wide berth and head directly for Durango.

 

Red snorted, gave his head a shake, and turned to look at Stetson with one eye as he shuffled sideways, still slightly unsettled from the recent intrusion.  Stetson urged him forward and he jumped into a loping canter as they made their way across the high mountain valley, both anxious to put distance between them and the mechanical hornet’s nest that used to be the peaceful town of Pagosa Springs.

 

The ground beneath Red’s hooves was soft from the recent rain and held the musty smell of wet earth.  The sun was warm on his coat, the air crisp in his lungs, the rider light on his back.  Man and horse rolled across the afternoon, putting miles behind them at a steady, even pace.  The stallion could run – liked to run – all day.  It was what he was born to do.  He was most himself when he could move as smooth and as fast as the wind across the land.  For him there was nothing else.  Life was movement – exertion and exhilaration under a wide sky and across an empty plain.  He knew nothing of thought.  Knew nothing of time.

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *       

 

 

 

The phone rang.  Denise listened to it ring.  She knew who it would be.  She let the autumn breeze blow through her short brown hair, as she stood on the balcony looking out over Central Park.  The wind circled through her loose pale green, silk robe and cooled the curves of her naked body.  Pulsing, rhythmic dance music drifted out onto the balcony from inside.  She watched the usual activity below her.  The joggers running along the paths, the lovers under the trees, the kids playing in the open spaces, the homeless asleep on the benches, the small gangs of young blacks prowling for trouble.  The bums, the whores, the drunks, the junkies.  The whole scene stretched out below her like a Bosch painting.  Not quite real.  Light years from the world in which she lived.

 

She turned and waltzed back into the bedroom.  As she passed the stereo in the dark walnut rococo cabinet, she turned the volume of the pumping music even higher.  It reverberated around the huge, white, high-ceilinged room.  She danced barefoot across a thick lavender carpet over to the phone.

 

“Hi, Mom!  What are you doing?”

 

She knew what was coming.  Knew the exasperated tone.  The confusion.

 

”Denise.  Honey.  You’re not still planning on going on this trip, are you?”

 

Denise grabbed a hairbrush from the nightstand by the bed and swept it through her new spiky haircut, admiring herself in the full-length mirror by the walk in closet.  She was perfectly tanned.  She was beautiful.  There was no doubt about it.  Cupping one of her breasts in her left hand, she caressed it until the pink nipple hardened, ran that hand down between her legs and felt the wetness there.  She smiled again.  Happy.  Life was good.

 

“Denise?  Are you there?  Are you listening to me?”  Her mother was not happy.

 

“Yes, mother.  I’m still going.  You didn’t really think that you could talk me out of it, did you?”

 

“What in the world is wrong with you?”  Her mother whined.  “It’s not like you’re going someplace comfortable and safe like St. Bart’s.  You know there’s no law out there where you’re going, don’t you.  Didn’t you hear the news?  They’re even pulling the troops out – “

 

“Mom!” Denise interrupted, “Mom! Stop!  I’m going.  Period.  Please don’t worry.  We’re going with a certified guide.  It’s not like we’re just traipsing around out in the middle of nowhere by our-

 

“Sweetheart, will you turn down that music?  I can’t hear a thing you’re saying.”

 

Denise danced in front of the mirror, undid the belt on her robe, allowing it to fall open, undulated to the rhythm, admired her tight stomach.

 

“Mom, listen.  Kerry’s coming over any minute.  And you know how she is.  She’ll be all packed and pumped up with the taxi waiting downstairs, and, if I’m not ready, she’ll be a bitch and rag me half to death.  So, I really have to-“

 

Her mother’s tone hardened as she interrupted again.

 

“Denise Sinclair.  Your father’s going to be furious!  And I’m going to be the one who had to deal with it!  I swear to God-“

 

Her daughter had heard it all before.  She tried to derail her mother’s anger.

 

“Where is dad today?”

 

“Oh, I don’t know.  He had to meet with some man from the government.  I don’t know.  He never tells me anything.”  Her voice dropped in register and acquired a self-pitying sadness.  “There was a time, you know, when –“

 

Denise heaved a sigh.  Here she goes again.

 

“Mom.  Please.  Don’t start.  You know dad still loves you.  He took you to Rome for your anniversary, for God’s sake.  He hasn’t taken me anywhere in five years.”

 

“Well, he’s been really busy and –“

 

Denise saw her face harden ever so slightly in the mirror.  Now she’s going to defend him, for Christ’s sake.  The amber light by her bed started to blink.

 

“Oh, shit!  Kerry’s here and I’m not ready.  Listen, mom.  I love you.  I got to go.  I’ll call you from Denver.  Don’t worry.  We’ll be fine.”

 

She heard her mother protesting as her finger pressed the off button.  She’ll get over it, Denise thought.  She smiled.  Besides, isn’t that the motto these days?  Get over it.  She turned and ran through the townhouse from room to room and down the staircase to the foyer.  She threw open the door and saw Kerry.  She was dressed in some kind of chic tan khaki outfit.  Hiking boots with high socks, shorts, a vest lined with pockets, and a floppy canvas hat with her curly red hair sticking out underneath.  Her green eyes sparkled.  Denise shrieked with delight, embraced her friend, and then held her at arm’s length.

 

“What is this?  You look like you’re going on safari in Africa!”

 

Kerry looked back at her with a mock scolding look.  Denise was still half dressed in her open robe.

 

“Why did I think that you might be ready?  The taxi’s waiting downstairs with the meter running.”

 

Denise, ignoring her complaint, turned and bounded up the stairs.

 

“Let him wait.  C’mon, help me get ready.  My mom’s had me on the phone forever.  Trying to talk me out of it.”

 

They ran up the stairs together.  Kerry talked as she ran.

 

“My parents too.  They act like I’m still a teenager of something.  I had to tell them that I was going to Anguilla before they’d leave me alone.  Christ!”

 

When they came into the bedroom, the music was still playing. 

 

Denise’s townhouse looked out over Central Park.  Her parents had given it to her when she turned twenty-one.  A three story expanse of antique furniture, hand woven Persian rugs, pantries filled with china, closets full of clothes, three cars in the underground parking garage, jewelry, stocks, bonds, lavish monthly allowance.  She wanted for nothing and only wanted more.  Young, spoiled, pretty, full of confidence and enthusiasm.  Life was good for Denise and Kerry.  Raised in the rarified atmosphere of the super rich.  No thing had ever been denied them.  Everything was within their grasp.  Life was desire and fulfillment.  A banquet at which they could dine.  Will was the meat.  Choice was the wine.

 

The music had turned lush, romantic, sensual.   Playfully, Denise grabbed Kerry and started dancing slowly around the room.  They closed their eyes.  Pretending to be in the arms of the perfect lover.  When they opened their eyes, they both realized what the other had been thinking and started to laugh.  Denise spoke first as she turned and walked toward her walk-in.

 

“So, does Skip know you’re going?”

 

Kerry turned down the music and walked over to the French doors that led to the balcony.

 

“Who cares?  I’m tired of him.  He bores me.  Danny?”

 

Inside the closet, surrounded by racks of clothes and shoes, Denise slipped on some designer jeans.

 

“I don’t know.  I don’t get it.  I don’t understand how my mother could have stayed married to one man so long.  They’re all such big babies.  Jesus.  It’s pathetic.  What is the deal with men?”

 

“And”

 

“And he acts like he owns me or something.  I told him I’d meet him for dinner to tonight and we’d talk about it.”

 

Kerry’s head poked in the closet.

 

“And you’re just going to stand him up?”  She looked at Denise half in shock, half in admiration.  “You are bad.”  She started laughing.  “My god, that’s something a guy would do.”

 

“Yeah, except I did it first.”

 

Denise walked out of the closet and smoothed down her jeans in the mirror.  She got a thoughtful look on her face and looked at her friend. 

 

“Think you’ll ever get married?”

 

Kerry, standing next to her and looking at herself in the mirror, took off her hat and shook out her curls.

 

“I don’t know.  Girls like us . . .  we’ve got a very limited pool to choose from.  You know what I mean.  I mean guys in general are bad enough, but rich guys are even worse.

 

She turned with a sad and wistful look on her face, walked over and sat on the king size four-poster bed.  She sighed, flopped backward on the thick comforter, and stared up at the silk lace canopy.

 

“What do you think?  You think finding the right guy is just some old fashioned romantic fantasy?”

 

Denise slipped on a cream colored blouse.

 

“What do you think?”

 

Kerry looked over without raising her head.

 

“I don’t know . . . I used to believe that . . .”  She drifted off without finishing her thought.

 

“Yeah,” said Denise, “so did I.”

 

She slipped on a pair of maroon, lizard-skin boots, grabbed her card from the table next to the bed, and slipped it in her back pocket.  She brushed her hair quickly in the mirror.

 

“Well, fuck ‘em all,” she smiled at her friend, “Let’s party.”

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

Felker loved New York.  Everything about it.  Every time he came in over the skyline he felt the charge, the electricity.  As the helicopter swooped down to the pad on top of the new Trade Center and the radio chatter increased, he smiled to himself.  Finally, he thought, finally.  All the pieces are in place.  The city loomed up under them, and he could feel its raw power and energy.  It hummed, crackled, seethed with the juices of life.  He palpably sensed the millions of lives under him, could smell the sweat, the stress, the ambition, the crazed striving of the human animal.  And it pleased him to know that he alone was in the driver’s seat.  Unknown to all those people below, it would be he who would be pulling the strings and making them dance.  And they would never know, because that’s the way he wanted it.  He had no vain need for fame.  It was a hollow exercise.  The fewer people who knew who he was, or what he looked like, the better.  What he loved was the power.  He appreciated power wherever he found it.  The copter, for instance.  He relished the muscle of its engines, the roar of its rotors, its ability to maneuver in any direction.  But what he loved most was his ability to make it respond to his commands.  It became an extension of his own body.  He enjoyed, in fact, insisted on doing his own flying.  He could never stand flying with someone else at the controls.  It set his teeth on edge.  To be hanging in the air, helpless, while other hands held his life in the balance, was intolerable.

 

It was a beautiful autumn afternoon in the city.  He could see that the trees in the park were turning into brilliant flaming colors.  Ships sailed in the blue waters off the island.  The streets were clogged with snarling traffic.  The sun reflected off thousands of windows in the neighboring skyscrapers.  He brought the helicopter down softly on the landing pad and cut the engines.  He looked over to Graves and Whitney, his most trusted aides in the last few years, as they unbuckled and prepared to climb out.  They were perfect.  Outside of the fact that Whitney was blonde and pale and Graves was dark, they looked very much alike.  Imposing, impersonal, anonymous.  Behind their expensive suits and mirrored sunglasses, they emanated the sure and certain threat of instant and deadly violence.  They came off more like machines than men.  Felker liked that.

 

“Alright,” he spoke before they got out, “the usual drill.  Not a word.  Just stand there and scare the hell out of them.  This is the main event.  I want them intimidated.  You both know what’s at stake.”

 

The two men looked briefly at each other, smiled tightly, looked back at their boss and nodded as one.  Whitney answered for both of them, smiling wider as he did.

 

“This is the part we like.”

 

All three men laughed as they climbed out of the helicopter.  The wind suddenly blew hard across the top of the tower.  Felker had to brace himself against it.  It stood his hair on end.  They walked briefly over to the laser activated sliding glass doors that opened into the small private lobby that held the elevator.  Felker carried a silver metal case handcuffed to his wrist.  It was the only part of this whole operation that made him nervous.  He hated taking the stone out of the vault for any reason, but this time it was absolutely necessary.  They entered the elevator and pressed the button for the hundred and fifth floor.

 

The elevator reached its destination in a heartbeat, and the door slid open silently.  The walked down the carpeted hall without talking.  Felker looked out the large passing windows at the sun kissed ocean in the distance.  Suddenly, he stopped, pulled a plastic card out of his suit, and inserted it into the lock of the executive bathroom.

 

“Wait here.  I’ll be right out.  Keep everyone out.”

 

He walked through the coatroom with its light beige marbled walls, chocolate carpet, and hidden lighting, into the plush bathroom.  Solid gold, rococo fixtures, carrera marble floor to ceiling.  Seamless mirrors filled entire walls etched with nude women riding swans on ocean waves.  Soft, classical music was oozing from invisible speakers.  Felker didn’t even notice the décor.  He had something much more important on his mind.  He walked over to a large sink stocked with only the most expensive kinds of soap, cologne, hair spray, and deodorant.  Setting the metal case on the counter, he quickly uncuffed himself from it and turned the tumblers to the correct combination.  He snapped open the case, saw the much smaller metal container nestled inside, and let out a small unconscious sigh of relief.  It was still there.  God knows where it could have gone since they left Washington.  It was an irrational fear on his part and it surprised him.  Get a grip, he thought to himself.  But at the same time, he understood his concern.  He still had not submitted the stone to any kind of analysis even in his most secure lab.  The thought of anyone other than himself having the chemical formula of the stone was absolutely out of the question.  He knew that sooner or later he would have to have it analyzed in order to create a duplicate, or, even better, the chemical equivalent that could be put in the form of a pill or liquid.  But he also knew that as soon as that was done and he had the process in hand, that anyone working on the project would have to be eliminated.

 

He realized now, looking down at the stone’s platinum container that he would have to do it as soon as he got back to Washington.  It was too dangerous taking the stone out of the vault.  Anything could happen.  And anything was not in his game plan.

 

He looked at himself in the mirror.  He hair was still a mess from the wind on the roof.  He reached down, picked up a hairbrush, removed its sanitary plastic cover, and proceeded to brush his hair back in place.  He never tired of looking at himself these days.  His once pure white hair was starting to turn dark.  It was only white at the temples and a streak in the front.  Lines had disappeared from his face.  His blue eyes were clear, the irises pure white.  He looked great, and he knew it.  Thick head of hair, blue eyes, strong jaw, white even teeth, thin nose, full lips.  He looked like a goddamned movie star.  There was still a cruel look to his mouth, but he liked that.  It was intimidating.  Six feet tall, one hundred and ninety pounds framed in a dark gray Armani suit, he exuded confidence, vitality, and power.  He was sixty.  He looked like a healthy forty.  He told anyone that asked that he was going in for some of the newest cosmetic surgery.  Only Whitney and Graves knew that all the physical changes were due to the stone.

 

He reached down and lifted the small box out of the large one, smiled, looked back at himself in the mirror, and opened the lid.  It just took a few seconds.  He felt the rush first and watched as his eyes dilated.  His smile widened until it was pure happiness and joy.  Energy surged through him.  He could feel his physical strength increase as he stood there.  His head cleared and thoughts became crystal clear.  His senses heightened.  He could separate the differing odors between the various soaps and colognes on the counter in front of him.  He could hear Graves and Whitney whispering to each other outside in the hall.  The colors in the room intensified to the point where he could almost taste them.

 

The stone, normally white in color, began to glow.  Not noticeably to the casual observer, but Felker knew what to look for.  He reached down and closed the lid.  He knew that if he continued to expose himself to the stone’s effects that its glow would increase until it shone like a light bulb.  And when that happened, it was not good.  Not good at all.  Felker had exposed himself to the stone like that once.  Just once.  He couldn’t even remember what happened.  He had blocked it from his memory like an accident victim.  Occasionally, a stray sliver of memory would break through and he wouldn’t sleep for a week.  It was frightening.  It had something to do with death. Of being out of control.  Of that Felker was sure, but that’s exactly what he was trying to avoid.  With both Alfred Magnus and his mother dead there was no one who knew how long the stone could keep him alive.  As far as he had been able to determine, the mother and son had managed to live approximately one hundred and sixty years without aging a day from the time they acquired the stone.  He didn’t know if the small doses that he was allowing himself would keep him alive forever, but they had already cut twenty years off his age, and that was good enough for now.

 

Rejuvenated, he put the stone back in the larger case, locked it, cuffed it back on his wrist, and went back out into the sunlit hallway.  He could see that both Graves and Whitney knew what he had just done.  He had given them enough exposure to the stone so that they knew when he had had a dose.  Their eyes lit up in anticipation.

 

“Patience.  I’m going to dose the whole room.”

 

The men smiled.  They knew what was coming.

 

Felker knew he was late.  It was intentional.  He wanted them to sit in the same room together for a while.  He wanted the import of the situation to sink in before he made his appearance.  It would do them good.  It would unnerve them.  The most powerful men on the planet all gathered together in the same room waiting on him.  He smiled as he approached the tall, engraved, mahogany doors, thinking what the level of tension in the room must be right now.  Each man in there was a virtual emperor in his own domain, rich beyond comprehension, used to being in total control of whatever situation they were in.  Now, here they were, sitting cheek to jowl, having to be civil to their rivals, men whose throats they would just as soon cut ear to ear, while they sat on their hands waiting for his arrival.

 

He had planned this meeting for the last ten years, ever since he got his hands on the stone.  He had met with each of the men in the room separately over that span of time, telling them his plans, and giving each one a strong enough dose of the stone to cement forever in their minds what they could expect if they cooperated with him.  Not one of them ever hesitated.  No one ever doubted the power of the stone once exposed to it.

 

As Whitney opened the door for him, he remembered the night that he finally got his hands on the stone out in Laguna.  Remembered it with crystal clarity.  The waves thumping on the shore like mortar rounds.  The seagulls crying and circling the floodlit rocks out in the surf.  The large white beach house.  The chaos inside.  He would never forget the look on the face of Alfred Magnus, dead on the red couch under the Moroccan tapestry.  The man had just died minutes before from an accidental overdose of the stone, and his face held the look of total bliss.  He had never seen anything like it.  Relief he had seen, even a certain contentment, but never that look of complete and utter happiness.  It made his flesh crawl.

 

He also remembered Embrey, the detective the Magnus family had hired to get the stone back for them.  Looking back, he could never understand why he didn’t have Graves and Whitney kill Embrey and his friends.  It bothered him.  But something had happened that night in that room.  Something indefinable that he couldn’t put his finger on.  Something about Embrey . . . Felker shrugged it off as he walked through the empty lobby, past the vacant secretary’s desk, and into the huge, sunlit boardroom. 

 

The energy in the room was quiet but palpably tense.  These were men who played their cards close to the chest.  They had probably spent the last week sounding each other out, trying to find out if anyone of them had any more information than the other, and, of course, coming up with nothing, because Felker had essentially gone through the same exercise with each of them.  As he entered, they were clustered in three or four tight knots around the room, whispering to each other, still trying in the final minutes to piece together the larger picture so that they could gain the upper hand when it came down to negotiations.  Little did they know that there would be no negotiations.  There would be Felker’s offer and there would be a yes or a no.  End of story.

 

These men were not happy.  Felker had specifically forbidden them to bring along any of their various entourages – no secretaries, bodyguards, assistants, flunkies, gofers – nothing.  They were allowed no phones, laptops, recorders, pens, or notebooks.  Nothing said in this room would be documented in any way.  He had, of course, had the room swept for any bugs the previous afternoon and once again just before the men arrived.  And now the final indignity.

 

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he said cheerfully, “I’m glad you all could make it.”

 

He walked over to the head of the table without sitting down and nodded to Whitney and Graves.

 

“I hope you’ll indulge me in a small precaution.”

 

His two automatons moved silently into the room.

 

“My men will need to make a brief body search to make sure that no one is carrying any kind of wire or recording device –“

The whole room tensed.  Heads turned toward him in disbelief and shock.  He was expecting this and waited to see who would be the first to object.  He was not surprised when Yakamura stepped forward with the barely shielded racial arrogance of the Japanese power elite.  The little man, like his peers, was tailored, coifed, manicured, and physically pampered with all the best that money could buy.  He cut quite a figure in his Cardin suit and Italian loafers.  He was so insulted that he could barely get the words out in his impeccable English.  He bowed slightly before he spoke.

 

“Mr. Felker!”

 

“Yes, Mr. Yakamura?”

 

Felker put the metal case on the table and unlocked the handcuff from his wrist.

 

“Mr. Felker, perhaps I have come to the wrong meeting.”

 

Felker looked up coldly.

 

“Have you?”

 

Yakamura looked back at him with the look of flat finality that only comes with one used to absolute power.

“If my personal bond of confidentiality is not to be honored, then perhaps I have.”

 

Felker opened the case and pulled out the small box containing the stone.  Everyone in the room recognized it, and there was an involuntary and collective intake of breath.  Felker looked back to the Japanese banker.

 

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Yakamura.  Your presence will be missed.”

 

Yakamura’s eyes were irresistibly drawn to the small platinum box.  Felker ran his fingers lightly across the lid still looking at the smaller man.

 

”You’ll be leaving us then?”

 

Yakamura could not take his gaze from the box.  Felker could feel the other man’s hunger.  Knew it as his own.   Knew it was time to call the question.

 

“Mr. Yakamura?”

 

Yakamura glanced up quickly, back to the box, and then back to Felker, who watched him buckle, crumble, and collapse – and then try to save face.  The small man looked around the room with a panicked look on his face.

 

“Ah . . . well, if . . . none of the other gentlemen object –“  He looked around desperately, hoping someone – anyone – would step forward.  No one in the room said a word. “Perhaps, this time, I could see my way –“  He couldn’t finish.

 

Felker smiled at him thinly.

 

“Perhaps that would be the wise course.  I appreciate you cooperation.”

 

He looked over to Whitney, who moved over to Yakamura and frisked him thoroughly in front of the others, stripping the man of any last vestige of pride.  Graves followed suit with the German, Krug, and then he and Whitney proceeded to search the rest of the room in complete silence.  Felker watched briefly, enjoying the spectacle of the high and mighty being stripped of their invulnerability at his command.  Then, carrying the box, he walked over to the floor to ceiling windows and looked out to the white winged ships out on the bright backed bay.

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

By the time Stetson reached Durango, it was dark, and, once again, the temperature dropped radically.  He was used to temperature fluctuations like this in the spring and fall up in the high country, but something had gone wrong in the last few years.  The extremes were becoming more and more pronounced.  It could get up to seventy during the day and drop below zero when night fell.  The normal, fairly predictable weather patterns of his youth were becoming a distant memory.  The climate, like society at large, had gone crazy.  Hurricanes in Canada, tornados in California, blizzards in Mexico.  You never knew what was coming next, or where.  It only added to the anxiety of a culture already having a nervous breakdown.

 

As he entered the formerly quiet suburban outskirts of Durango, Stetson saw that it was fast becoming a ghost town.  Beautiful old Victorian houses were deserted, boarded up, lightless, and lifeless.  Yards were overgrown.  Streetlamps were broken out.  And, as he passed block after block, he saw families packing their vans and cars and trucks with whatever they could stuff on board and pulling out of town.  It was eerie.  The sound of Red’s hooves on the pavement was louder than any noise made by these new refugees.  Even normally loud children worked with a silent, grim determination that was unsettling.  Stetson had known it would come to this, but it didn’t make him feel any easier.  These people, who had invested their entire lives and identities in a certain system of things, were totally lost when that system began to collapse under its own weight.  He watched as car after car passed him, going out of town.  He thought that he should stop them and tell them that the bridges were out, that the roads were broken, that they would have to abandon their cars and walk.

 

He should have done that, but he didn’t.  He let it go unspoken.  A van passed slowly, and an eight-year-old girl with blonde wavy hair stared at him through the darkened window of a mini-van.  Her parent’s desperation and anxiety were contagious.  It was leaden in her eyes.  It had already aged her well beyond her years.  Stetson’s heart went out to her.  Then she was gone.

 

Red was slightly nervous, constantly sniffing the air with little snorts, side-stepping when the silent families drove by glumly in their cars.  He didn’t like the pavement under his feet or the smell of fear in the street.  His instincts told him there was danger here, and he reacted with a high-key alertness.

 

As they approached the main business part of town, more and more buildings were lit up.  More and more noise filled the air.  Nearing the heart of downtown, Stetson found an old gas station that had been converted into a small stable.  The gas pumps were used for hitching posts.  The garage had been made over into a half of dozen stalls.  Down the block, Stetson could see that the streets were full of people, spilling in and out of bars, carrying bottles into the road, yelling, staggering around, making out, fighting.  Loud music from different bars filled the air with audio chaos.

 

Stetson reined Red into the gas station and dismounted.  An overweight, middle-aged man in tattered overalls came out of the garage pushing a wheelbarrow full of horse shit.  His hair was thinning, and he had the remnants of a large cigar stuck in the side of his mouth.  He looked fat but was probably strong as a bull.  Ex-marine, most likely, Stetson thought.  He watched as the older man rolled the wheelbarrow over to what used to be the access to the underground storage tanks and dumped his load in.  He looked up to Stetson, looked down into the hole, and back again.  He shrugged and smiled bitterly.

 

“Make do with what you’ve got, huh?  Who’d have ever thought it would have gone this far.  Fuck.”  He rolled over to Stetson.  “Need to board your horse?”

 

“Yeah, just for tonight if that’s alright.”  He pointed down the street.  “What the hell is going on here?”

 

The man looked down the street.

 

“What’s it look like?  It’s a god-damned party!”

 

Stetson watched as a woman dressed in biker leathers pushed what appeared to be her drunken boyfriend up against the wall of a bar.  She immediately went down on her knees, unzipped his pants, pulled out his semi-erect cock and started to give him a blowjob.  A couple of passer-bys stood by and cheered her on, but no one else seemed to notice or care.  The party raged around them.

 

“What’s the occasion?”  asked Stetson.

 

The other man relit his cigar with a wooden match as Stetson turned and started to unsaddle Red.

 

“The army finally pulled out the last of its troops back to Pagosa Springs today . . .” That explains the families pulling out, thought Stetson. “ . . . and the rumor is that they’ll be pulling those troops back to Denver”  The man coughed up some phlegm and spit it out at his feet.  He had a disgusted look on his face.  “I caught the Colonel on his way out of town and asked him why.  He said it wasn’t cost effective to keep the troops here.”  He looked at Stetson and shook his head. “Cost effective?!  Fuck me!”  He looked down the street to the raging party.  “This used to be a nice town.  Hey, want to buy an old gas station?”

 

Stetson took off Red’s bridle and replaced it with a loose halter.  The older took hold of the halter, snapped a lead on it, and led the horse over to the garage.

 

“I’ll take care of him from here.  He’ll get a leaf of alfalfa and a half a bucket of oats.  That’ll be five bucks in advance.  In coin.  I don’t take paper.”

 

“Credits still good?”

 

“Federal?”

Stetson nodded.  The man paused for a minute with another sour look on his face.

 

“Alright.  But I shouldn’t.”

 

He took Stetson’s card and walked into his office.  Stetson followed him and looked in through the door.  The office was lit by one flickering fluorescent bulb that dimmed as the power weakened and then surged along the grid.  The walls were spotted with grease.  The desk was piled with telephone books, styrofoam cups, and assorted papers.  The computer sat on a shelf that used to be line with quarts of thirty weight.  The older man inserted Stetson’s card.  The computer twittered and tweaked, emitted a sound of surprise, and then went black.  The man rebooted, and, as he inserted the card, he picked up a ball peen hammer and gave the machine a sharp smack on its side. The computer responded well to this therapy, processed the transaction, spit the card out onto the floor, and then went black again with a painful squeal.  The stable man picked up the card and walked over to Stetson.

 

“Fucking government.”

 

“Can you recommend a hotel?”

 

“Not anymore.  This part of town’s been taken over by that trash.”  He pointed to the crowd up the street. “Afraid you’re on your own, pal.”

 

“Thanks anyway.”

 

Stetson slung his saddlebags over his shoulder and started walking up the street.

 

“Hey!”  The man shouted after him.  “Want to buy a gas station?  I’ll throw in all the horse shit!”

 

Frantic, pounding music and people swirled around him. Neon signs with missing letters and graphics flickered and dimmed above the bars.  The crowd was an assortment of bikers, cowboys, old hippies, rednecks, and other street trash.  A familiar mix these days. This, however, was no ordinary drunken brawl.  This was a true celebration.  He could see it in the eyes, hear it in the voices.  These people were seeing a dream come true.  No more cops, no more soldiers, no more law, no more order.  They were in heaven.  Finally, they could do anything they wanted, and they were doing it with a vengeance.  Bonfires lit the street.  Women danced naked in the light of the flames.  Couples made love in the street and didn’t care who watched.  Joints were being passed around, followed by vials of cocaine.  People tied off and shot up, sitting on curbs, passed out on the sidewalks in a rush, and let the crowd walk over them.  Each bar he passed spewed forth screeching metal music.  Part of Stetson was shocked and horrified at the absolute and total breakdown of social order.  Part of him couldn’t get enough of it.

 

He passed a particularly crowded bar.  The music reached out and said yes to the mood he was in.  He smiled, turned, and walked in.

 

It was a long narrow place with the bar running the length of the wall to his right.  In the back was a small stage where the band was going off.  A hand grabbed at his saddlebags.  Stetson pivoted to his right, and, in one motion, grabbed a roll of quarters in his jacket pocket with his left hand, launched off his left foot, raked his fist across the cheek and nose of the drunken biker who was trying to take the bags, heard the bones break, turned back and headed for the bar without watching as the man fell like a stone to the floor.  He heard people laugh behind him as he shouldered his way up to the bar.  The crowd parted to let him through.  Stetson never liked violence, but he knew that in a situation like this it was important to make things clear from the beginning.  He saw it as preventive medicine.

 

He scanned the crowd as he waited for one of the four bartenders to get to him.  People screamed in each other’s ears to be heard above the band.  Stetson moved in time to the music.

 

“What do you need!?”

 

It was a fat, over made up, female bartender.

 

“Tequila!”

 

“Five bucks!  Coin!”

 

Stetson held up a quarter.

 

“Old Coin?!”

 

“Let me scan it!”

 

He handed the quarter over and saw her pass it under a mini-spectrometer.  Old coin that was pure silver was now worth ten times its original value.  The barkeep just nodded, kept the quarter, and poured him a double.  As she handed it to him, he gave her another quarter for a second shot, and knocked the first one back in one swallow.  She set him up again.  Someone was yelling in his ear.

 

“Nice move on your way in!”

 

Stetson turned and saw a large black man smiling at him.  The man was about six three and two twenty.  All muscle.  He wore a torn black t-shirt, old levis, and work boots. He had his arm around a pretty white woman, brunette, early thirties, even white teeth, brown eyes.  She was also wearing levis and boots, with a small revealing pink tank top.  She ran her hand up under the man’s t-shirt, stroking his stomach.  The man appeared to be in his mid-thirties, his closely cropped hair showing no gray.  But there was something strange in his amused eyes.  They looked much older.  Not that they were wrinkled or tired looking.  Stetson couldn’t place it.  They seemed out of place in the youngish face.  It was disturbing.  He shrugged back at the man, not wanting to get involved or try to make conversation above the noise.

 

“That’s him!!”

 

Stetson turned in the direction of the angry voice and saw six angry, drunk bikers headed in his direction.  The one he had decked was holding a bloody rag to his face and pointing at him.  The group pushed their way through the crowd.   The leader was carrying a baseball bat.  Stetson reached into his saddlebags for his Colt but knew he’d never get it out in time.  They were on him.  Just as they were about to engulf him, the black man leaned forward slightly toward the leader and extended his right hand forward in, what at first, seemed to be a stopping gesture, palm toward the man, but then seemed to be more of a wave, and then he turned his hand palm up as if to ask why.  It was an odd gesture.  It had an odd effect.  The leader stopped as a look of recognition, respect, and then fear crossed his face.  The biker just looked at the black man who smiled in return.  Nothing was said.  For a split second it seemed to Stetson that they were encapsulated in a bubble of silence.  They crowd around them was oblivious to the confrontation.  But something was unnaturally still in their immediate circle.  Just a microsecond and then the spell was broken.

 

The bikers faded back into the crowd.  Disappeared.  Never existed.

 

Stetson looked at his savior.  He was smiling.  He turned his old eyes to the woman.  There was a question in them.  The woman considered the question and then looked at Stetson.  Examined was probably a better word.  She looked him up and down, penetrated him, took his measure.  She looked back at her partner and nodded.  The black man extended his large hand.  Stetson took it.

 

“My name’s Sailor.  This is Trish”

 

He didn’t yell above the music, but Stetson could hear him very clearly.

 

“Stetson”

 

Shaking Sailor’s hand, Stetson felt something – a current, a vitality.  Trish came forward and embraced him.  It made him uncomfortable.  She hugged him like he was a long lost friend.  He had never seen her before.  He felt a buzzing in his solar plexus as her torso pressed against him.  It felt like a probing.  He pulled away as politely as he could.  Trish melted back into Sailor, smiling.  He could feel her sincere affection.  What was going on here?

 

Sailor reached into his shirt pocket and handed him something.  Stetson took it and saw that it was a small glass vial containing a clear liquid.  He looked questioningly at the man.  Sailor, leaned over, came in close.

 

“It’s new.  Take it in some quiet place.  Give yourself about eight hours.”

 

Stetson laughed.  He felt light headed.  The music pressed in on him.  He felt himself starting to sweat.  This was crazy.  Something wasn’t right.  He tried to hand the vial back.  He was afraid but didn’t know why.  Sailor laughed good-naturedly and pushed the vial back casually.

 

“It’s alright.  Believe me.  You’ll love it.  It’ll clear you right up.”

 

Sailor pushed off from the bar and started to leave.

 

“If you’re ever in Arizona, we’re staying in a town called Salome.”

 

“Salome?”

 

“Yeah, you know.  Where she danced.”

 

“But –“

 

But they were gone, moving through the crowd.  As they left, Stetson watched them thread through the tangled mass of people like water.  He still felt a slight buzzing in his mid section.  At that moment, the bartender came by.  He yelled to her.

 

“Hey!  Do you know who those two were.?!”

 

The bartender watched the couple leave and then just shook her head with a look of confusion.

 

“They’re runners.”

 

“Runners”

 

They run the stone.”

 

“What?!”

 

But she was gone, tending another customer.  Stetson grabbed his unfinished drink from the bar and downed it.  He looked at the vial in his hand, had no idea what if was, but was both uneasy and intrigued by it.  He put it in his jacket pocket, signaled for another drink, leaned back, and let the music wash over him, losing himself in the noise.

 

Later that night, he stumbled back to the gas station where he had left Red.  He had drunk more than he had in years.  He had needed some kind of release – from the strange events of the night and from what he knew was coming in the next few days.  The overhead doors weren’t locked and slid up noisily on their runners.  Inside, in the dark, the smell of hay and horses was strong, and warm, and humid.  When his eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw Red.  The horse came over to the stall door and nuzzled him affectionately, his breath warm and comforting on Stetson’s face.  The man saw that the stall was large with a thick bed of hay.  He opened the door and went in.  It wasn’t the first time he and Red had slept together.  He knew the horse wouldn’t step on him during the night, in fact, would watch over him protectively.  He threw his sleeping bag against the wall where the hay was dry and thick and lied down with all his clothes on.  The familiar smells and the reassuring nearness of Red relaxed him and he passed out into a dark, drunken sleep.

 

Waking was slow and painful.  He head throbbed.  Red’s breath was in his face, the horse’s large head looming down over him, liquid brown eyes looking into his.  Stetson moaned.

 

 

          *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

 

The town of Delores was deserted.  No one had stayed.  As Stetson and Red headed north through the main street of the town, the man experienced a feeling of loss.  Delores had always been one of his favorite places.  He remembered passing through many times on his way to Telluride.  It was a small, friendly place through which ran a peaceful small river that bore the town’s name.  Pine covered hills surrounded the small sunlit valley that nestled the town which always seemed to move at the same leisurely graceful pace as the river.  What had intrigued Stetson most about the place, however, were the women.  It seemed as though through some kind of quirk in the commingling of the genetic pool, Delores always seemed to have an unusual number of beautiful women.  He had always wondered about it.  Through the years, whenever had had passed through, he was certain to see any number of healthy, usually blonde, females of all ages, striking in the beauty, walking the streets.  He had never seen anything like it in all his travels.  It was truly unique.  He often thought that he should relocate here, but one thing or another kept him from doing so.  But now, to see it completely empty, houses and shops boarded up, trash and broken cars littering the streets, it spooked him.  Somehow, through all the chaos, he thought that some places would remain the same.  He should have known that there was no escape.  No place and no one was going to remain unaffected as the system broke down and realigned itself into some kind of realistic structure . . . Still, it was sad to see.  Any time there was a loss of concentrated female beauty, it was a sad thing, in Stetson’s estimation.

 

The wind once again intruded on his thoughts.  It was wrong.  It was blowing hard from the east.  It had been for days.  Unrelenting.  It wouldn’t let up.  After three days it began to wear on both man and horse.  There was something about it that was fatiguing. At times it gusted up to fifty or sixty miles an hour, bending the aspens parallel to the ground, whipping the surface of the river into a foam, blowing dust into the eyes.  It made Red skittish. Instinctively, the horse knew it was not right.  His entire genetic structure was made nervous by the climatic changes of the last few years.  He stepped sideways as he danced down the street and tried to turn his head away from the wind and the biting dust that stung his eyes.  He reacted to the wind like the trees and water.  He didn’t think to himself that something was out of order.  He couldn’t have formed the thought.  His whole system reacted, wanting to get away from the constant unnatural irritation of the gusting wind.  But there was nowhere to go.  Wherever they went, the wind followed and harassed them.  At night, Stetson tried to find an abandoned garage or barn for shelter, but come the morning, the wind was still there, pushing, shoving, stinging.

 

As Stetson and Red left the empty town behind them, the man had another sobering thought.  If everyone had deserted Delores, what was the situation in Telluride?  A ski resort totally dependent on a tourist-based economy would by now be financially wiped out.  There was every possibility that the citizens of Telluride would have decided on the same plan of action as those of Delores, and he would arrive to find another ghost town.  There was no way to know now, of course.  He could only push on and hope that somehow the town was still alive.  It used to be so easy.  He could have just opened his cell and called.  But all the phones were dead.  All the mailmen gone.  All the singing wires silent. All the towers down.

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

Rico would never change.  Tucked in a cold, high pass, clinging to the mountain like spider, Rico persevered.  He rode down the middle of Main Street, the tiny town rising up on either side of him for two blocks and then disappearing into a dark green blanket of pines.  A true ghost town, empty Victorian false fronts weathered to a bare boned look stared vacantly at him as he passed. Heavy black clouds hung five hundred feet above him.  A frozen wind sliced through the pass.  It was still winter in Rico.  Always winter in Rico.

 

Stetson laughed. He laughed because there were still people in Rico.  He laughed because he wasn't surprised.  On his left he passed by the empty gas station.  It had always been empty.  In the dirt lot next to the station there were two or three armed men sitting around a fire blazing in an oil drum cut in half.  They, or men just like them had been there every time Stetson had come through Rico over the last twenty years.  They didn't wave.  They didn't say hello.  They didn't even nod.  They never had.  They just watched him.

 

Red danced slowly down the street, his steel shoes ringing on the asphalt.  There was tension in the air, but, unlike the jittery panic he felt in Durango, this was deeply rooted in the will to survive.  It was deep and abiding, sure and certain.  Capable of remorseless violence.  The horse understood this energy. It was his own.  His senses quickened.  His head came up, neck arched, ears came forward, muscles flexed.  He moved his head from side to side scanning the street, and when he saw nothing threatening he began to step sideways down the road facing the men around the fire.  Ready.  His rider said something in a calm voice and urged him forward down the rock hard human trail.  He responded by breaking into a loping canter and took them out of the town.

 

Just before sundown they reached the first overlook.  Telluride lay nestled in a narrow high mountain valley a thousand feet below.  It was surrounded on three sides by snow-capped peaks.  At the end of the box canyon a waterfall hundreds of feet high sparkled in the sun, fell to the valley and became a river of melted snow that ran slowly through the town.  It looked peaceful, napping in the late afternoon glow.  Stetson scanned the area but was too far away to see if there were any signs of life.  No cars moved along the roads.  Just as he was beginning to think that he had wasted his time coming here, he came around a bend and was looking down the barrels of a half of dozen rifles.

 

"Easy does it", he heard a voice say.  "Keep your hands visible."

 

Six men in ski parkas watched him come forward.  They were of various ages, but all had the lean look of full time skiers.  If there was any softness in them it was shown in their faces.  These were not men who were used to carrying guns.  These were men who were used to skiing all day, partying and fucking all night.  When he got within fifteen feet of them, a burly blonde stepped forward.

 

"Okay, get off the horse nice and easy."

 

As he dismounted he saw that they were standing in front of what used to be a spot where the highway vaulted across a small stream.  That entire section of the road had been torn away, from the looks of it, by dynamite.  It was a twenty-foot drop to the water below. 

 

"Now, step forward."

 

Stetson did as he was told, keeping his hands away from his body.  Two of the other men came forward, one of them a kid no older than sixteen.  The kid went to Red who started to step away from him.  Stetson backed up a step and gently grabbed the horse's head by the bridle.  The boy moved forward and took Stetson's rifle from the scabbard on the saddle.  He then checked the saddlebags.  The other man, with gray hair and the raccoon tan of a skier, frisked Stetson quickly and efficiently.  Then both man and boy stood back and brought their guns to a ready position.

 

The older man asked, "What do you want?"  

 

"A great fuck and a good cook?" said Stetson.

 

The men laughed, even the blonde, and began to relax.

 

"Yeah, good luck, pal.  Now let's hear your story."

 

Stetson took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair.  He was tired.

 

"My kids live here with my ex.  I came to see if they were alright."

 

"Who's your ex?"

 

"Jo Stet - I mean Jo Youell.  Do you know if they're still here?"

 

The blonde looked briefly at the other men.  Eyebrows were raised in recognition.  He looked back to Stetson.

 

"What are your kids' names?"

 

"Grace, Sally, and Tyler."

 

The blonde relaxed even more.

 

"Yeah, they're still here."  He smiled.  "Great kids.  Where'd Grace get that red hair?"

 

"Sally's got the red hair."

 

The blonde finally seemed satisfied.  He lowered his rifle and the rest followed suit.

 

"Okay.  Sorry about the reception, but - "

 

"Yeah, I know", said Stetson.  "You should see Durango."

 

"They're living up the street from the Palace.  We had to move everyone that stayed back into town."  He stuck out his hand.  "Tony Wagner."

 

Stetson shook his hand and was introduced all around.  Names he would never remember.  He stepped back up into his saddle.

 

"We'll be keeping your rifle.  You can pick it up on the way out of town."

 

"I might be staying awhile."

 

The blonde sighed and gave him a knowing look.  "It'll be here when you leave."

 

Stetson was about to ask a question, but the blonde just looked at him and shrugged.  He pointed to the downhill side of the road.  "The trail's over there.  You'd better get going.  It'll be dark soon."  As Stetson crossed the road he saw Wagner pull a satellite phone out of his parka pocket.

 

A half moon rose over the western peaks as Stetson reached the outskirts of town.  He passed by house after empty house on either side of the road.  Expensive mini-mansions and condos.  All of them were lightless and lifeless.   Waiting for somebody to come home.  Up ahead on his right he saw a large pasture.  A small herd of horses drifted randomly in slow motion across the grass.  The moonlight spilled across the field, and their coats glistened with a ghostly light.  On the town side of the pasture he saw a large, two-story, metal barn.  It was new.  A window was lit in a room on the bottom floor, in the corner of the building that faced Stetson, and he saw figures moving around inside.

 

As he turned into a short driveway and headed for the barn, he saw two men come out of the room and walk in his direction.  One was tall and lanky and dressed like a cowboy.  The other was of medium height and build and carried a shotgun slung over his left arm.  Stetson recognized him immediately.  This doesn't look good, he thought.  He tried to put a good face on it.

 

"Stuart, I'm glad to see that you're all still here.  I was worried about the kids"

 

He climbed off of Red and walked him the remaining few feet to the men.  The cowboy stood back a step or two, watching.

 

"Save it for somebody else.  You've never worried about anybody but yourself," said the man with the shotgun

 

Shit, thought Stetson, it's worse than I thought.  He knew there would be no handshakes.  No introductions.

 

"I'm here."

 

Stuart shifted on his feet.

 

"Not for long"

 

Stetson sighed.  "Listen, I don't want to cause any trouble.  I just want to see the kids.  Besides, from what I've seen on the outside, it looks like you could use a few more able bodied men here."

 

 "We don't need anybody like you.  You're out of here in the morning."

 

"What are you talking about?"

 

"You heard me."

 

"What are you going to do?  Blow my head off if I don't leave?"  He looked at Stuart with a certain amount of condescension.  "I doubt it."

 

"Don't doubt it.  You're not staying."

 

"Maybe we ought to talk to the cops and see what they think."

 

Stuart opened his parka and Stetson saw a badge pinned to his tan shirt.

 

"I am the cops now."  There was a complete finality to his voice.  "You can board your horse here.  You're sleeping in the jail for the night, then you're gone."  He looked back to the cowboy.  "Take his horse."  He turned to Stetson and raised his shotgun.  "Let's take a walk."

 

As they walked toward the town, Stetson could see that most of the buildings on Main Street were well lit.  They obviously had managed to create their own electricity when the grid fell.  Probably a mixture of sun, wind, and water, he thought.  He shot a backward glance at Stuart who walked directly behind him with the shotgun ready.

 

He'll cool down.  There's no way he won't let me see the kids.  Jo will talk to him.

 

They turned off onto a side street before they reached any lit buildings, walked a block and then took a right up another darkened block.  The two-story brick station was the only structure with light.  Stuart directed him up the steps and through the swinging doors.  They entered a small lobby.  A fluorescent fixture hung down four feet from the twelve-foot ceiling.  Its one bulb lit the room dimly.  There was no one behind the reception counter. Two other men with no uniforms sat at a wooden table playing poker.  One was pudgy with short thinning brown hair, wearing levis, boots, and a leather jacket.  The other was young, maybe twenty-six, with long red hair and a struggling moustache, dressed in baggy pants and sweatshirt that read "Skate or die!"  They looked up at the new arrivals.

 

"So, this must be the ex," said the fat one.  "Hey, Stu, why don't you go on home for dinner and let me throw the book at pretty boy here?"

 

"Put a sock in it, Meyers."  Stuart motioned Stetson over to an opened door.  "I'm putting him in a cell for the night, and I don't want you fucking with him.  If anybody does any damage, it'll be me."

 

Meyers put up both hands and leaned back in his chair.

 

"Okay, okay.  Just a thought."

 

Stuart ignored him and ushered Stetson through the door into an area that contained three small holding cells.  He walked over to the one farthest from the door, pulled a key from a retractable ring on his belt, and unlocked it.  Stetson stood there for a minute, looking at him.  The only light spilled in from the other room. 

 

"You really going to do this?" Stetson asked.

 

The man with the gun only nodded toward the dark cell.  Stetson shook his head and stepped in.  The door closed behind him loudly.

 

"Better get some sleep.  You're leaving as soon as the sun comes up."

 

He walked out and Stetson could hear him in the other room.

 

"I'll be back later.  And remember what I said."

 

"Christ, Stu, you ought to fuck him up some for all the grief he's caused you.  I would.  I'd kick his fucking ass."

 

 "I don't want to hear it, Meyers, just do what I told you."

 

Stetson heard the swinging doors and then heard Meyers chuckle and speak quietly to his poker partner.

 

"I ain't seen Stu that uptight since the last time this guy showed up.  Jesus, he hates this fucker."

 

"What's the big deal," whispered the kid.

 

"What if your old lady’s' ex showed up.  And it was him.  Don't tell me you wouldn't be looking under the bed."

 

" They split up years ago.  You don't think she still loves him, do you?"

 

"Does the Pope shit in the forest?"

 

The kid laughed, and they went back to their poker game.  Their conversation turned to women and their various orifices and Stetson phased them out.  He looked around the cell.  A narrow metal cot, a toilet without a seat, and a sink with one cold water tap.  No windows.  He sat on the cot and hung his arms over his knees.  He could feel anger and frustration rising in him and threatening to take over.  He forced himself to exhale and then very carefully started breathing.  In and out.  In and out.  He concentrated his attention on his breath.  Let the thoughts and emotions come, he ordered himself, but keep breathing.  Slowly he began to calm down.  He lie back on the cot and relaxed all the muscles in his body, breathing regularly as he did.  Emotions knifed their way through, but he kept bringing his attention back to the one basic act.  Eventually, his breaths became shallower, his body unknotted, he drifted off . . .

 

Voices woke him.  They were arguing.  One of the voices belonged to a woman.  He sat up and looked hard at the open door as if staring could make him hear better.  It was Jo.

 

"Meyers, don't even start.  I'll see him if I want to!"

 

"Jo, Stu is really pissed off.  If I let you see him, I'm the one that's gonna be on the shit end of the - "

 

"Don't worry about it.  I'll tell him what a good boy you were.  Now just get the hell out of the way."

 

"Alright, alright.  Christ!"  Stetson saw Meyers stick his head in the door.  "You got a visitor, asshole."

 

Jo came through the door.  Trim, blonde, beautiful, older.  She wore tight jeans and a small white lace top covered by a down ski jacket.

 

"Over here," he called from his cell.

 

She walked over, stopped, and looked at him through the bars.  As their eyes met, Stetson smiled.  The electricity was still there.  A spark jumped between them.  Stetson laughed, and she smiled and looked away.

 

He continued to look at her and the beauty he saw there still made him ache.

 

"It'll never go away.  You should know that by now."

 

She looked back briefly and shook her head reflexively before the last word was out of his mouth.  This time there was anger in her eyes.

 

"Don't even start.  You're not going to charm your way out of this."

 

This time it was his turn to get angry.

 

"What.  You're telling me that you're not even going to let me see the kids?"

 

Then she started.

 

"You had your chance.  You were always to busy chasing your dreams to be any kind of a father.  You took them in the summers.  Big deal.  You were never around when . . . "

 

She launched into the familiar litany.  The women.  The lack of money.  The hard times and heartaches she had been through.  Stuart's anger.  The kids' confusion and frustration.  It came out of her in a rush.  She stuck in the knife and twisted, knowing just what to say to slice him down to the quick.  Stetson let her vent.  By now he knew better than to try and defend himself.  Most of what she said was true.  She talked loud enough that her words carried into the other room.  He could hear Meyers chuckling.  Every once and while she would pause briefly, waiting for him to respond.  He just looked at her, and then she would start up again before the silence became awkward.  As she was finally winding down she said something that she had never said before.  It was like a confession.

 

"All I ever wanted was for us to be together.  Watch the kids grow up.  Be a regular family."

 

Stetson reached through the bars and grasped her hand gently.  He spoke softly.

 

"I wasn't the one who left.  I never wanted us to split up."

 

She took her hand away.  He could see the truth of what he said hit her deeply.

 

"What did you expect me to do?  I had to put dinner on the table every night!  You didn't leave me any choice.  If you would have only-"

 

"I know.  I know.  But I was still ready to try."

 

"It wasn't good enough."

 

They stood looking at each other, knowing there was no way to change what had been done.  Stetson spoke first.

 

"What about the kids?"

 

"They don't know you're here."

 

"You're not going to tell them."  It was a statement, not a question.

 

"It'll be better this way."

 

"You can't believe that."

 

The anger came back in her eyes.

 

"There's no way you're going to waltz back in here after all these years and start being the father you never were.  You don't deserve it.  It's been hard enough between the kids and Stuart.  They've always resented him.  With you here it would be a disaster.  For some reason they still love you.  Probably because you never had to go through the hard times with them.  You'd have them for a summer and spoil them.  It was easy.  You were always the understanding one.  The cool one.  But Stuart was there for them when it mattered.  And I'm not going to let you fuck that up.  And besides," she looked at him hard and determined, "I don't want them to grow up and be like you."

 

The final fatal thrust.  It rocked Stetson.  He just stared at her in disbelief.  She saw that she had gotten through.  Saw the pain she had inflected.  She pulled three photos from her back pocket, handed them to him, and walked out without another word.  He stood there in the dark cell and watched her disappear. Like a sleepwalker he slowly lifted the photographs and, in the dim light, stared at the pictures.  Sally, Grace, Tyler.  All in their teens.  All smiling and healthy. The girls were beautiful like their mother.  Tyler was big and beefy.  Looked to be about six foot two, about two hundred pounds.  He looks more and more like my brother, Stetson thought.

 

His legs wouldn't hold him.  He sat down heavily on the cot as the reality of the situation hit him like a hammer.  He spread the pictures out on the thin mattress and looked down at them numbly.  This can't be happening.  Can't be true.  He felt like something vital had been torn from his insides leaving an empty hole.  It was immediately filled with a disbelief that was so overwhelming that it incapacitated him.  He tried to reach for some kind of emotional reserve, some alternative, some answer, some solution.  But there was nothing there.  Just his stunned disbelief.  He fell back against the cot and stared at the cement ceiling.  This can't be happening, he thought.  And then he thought it again.  And again.

 

"Okay, Stetson, let's go."

 

He awoke with a start.  Couldn't remember falling asleep.  Stuart was unlocking the cell door and swinging it open.  Stetson swung his legs off the cot and stood up still half asleep, then realized that it all wasn't just a bad dream.  He grabbed his hat and then looked at the other man.

 

"Stuart.  Stop and think a minute.  Put yourself in my place."

 

"I wouldn't be in your place.  I take care of the people I love." 

 

Their eyes met, and Stetson knew it was hopeless.  He followed his ex's husband out of the cell, through the lobby, and out onto the street.  It was bright and sunny as if everything were right in the world.  Two of the men he had seen at the dynamited bridge sat quietly on horseback.  Red stood between them and snorted huskily when he saw his master.  Stetson walked down the steps and climbed up into the saddle.  He pulled the reins in firm and Red started to dance.  He felt the power of the animal surge through him.  Recharging him.  He looked over to Stuart at the top of the steps and managed to smile.

 

"I'll check back in a few months.  Maybe you'll see things differently."

 

"Don't bother.  Nothing's going to change."

 

He dropped his smile and locked eyes with the other man.

 

"Everything changes."

 

He turned away and urged Red forward.  The horse broke into a high stepping canter, and the other men spurred their horses to catch up with him.

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

 

The tree huggers had been right after all, Dave thought to himself.  Mankind had succeeded in fucking up the climate of the entire planet.  It was unbelievable.  A strong gust caught the copter and they suddenly dropped a hundred feet in the space of a breath.  He heard the two chicks in the back scream.

 

“Don’t worry!”  He yelled over his shoulder, “We’ll be through this in a couple of minutes.  There’s some barf bags in that cabinet under your seats if you need them!”

 

Dave chuckled to himself.  As long as he had been taking the well heeled on these camping excursions, he had yet to come to the faintest understanding of them.  Here they were, with more money than he would ever hope to have, and instead of spending that money to enjoy any hedonistic pleasure that they could buy, which is what, of course, he would do, they were taking their lives in their hands and paying for the privilege of puking into paper sacks.  Not that he would ever tell them that they were in danger, of course, that would be stupid.

 

“C’mon, Denise.  Look at those shoulders.  And that hair.  Tell, me you wouldn’t love it.”  Kerry was giggling and whispering into Denise’s ear.  She had to whisper very loud to be heard above the noise of the helicopter’s engines.

 

“Yeah, he’s just not my type.  But you should go for it though.  What the hell?  You know what they say about ski bums.  Great stamina.  Comes from all that cardio conditioning.”

 

Dave could hear the two chicks giggling in back of him, but he couldn’t make out the words.  He recognized that symptoms, however, and realized that he would probably nail one, if not both, of them before the trip was through.  That brought a smile to his lips.  Nothing like fringe benefits.  The most important thing on his mind right now was negotiating their way over the pass.  Large muscled mountain peaks loomed on either side of them and rose another three thousand feet to their summits.  They were beautiful, covered with a lush blanket of dark green pine forest and wild flower meadows that exploded with all the colors of the rainbow.  Above the tree line a pure white robe glistening snow ascended to the sun blasted peaks.  The sky was crystal clear and electric blue.  Majestic was not a word that adequately described the view around them.  It always took Dave’s breath away.  Here was something so impressive and overflowing with life force that it stunned you in the deepest recesses of your being.  The size of the surrounding mountains reduced the helicopter to the size of a small buzzing gnat and the people in it to the size of nothing.  Unfortunately, the young ex-ski bum, now helicopter pilot for the rich and bored, had no time to fully appreciate the beauty around him.  The winds wouldn’t let him.

 

They had been bad enough the last couple of months, but in these passes the winds were treacherous to the point of being fatal.  They could come at you from any direction with the force of hammer blows with enough strength to throw a craft like his right into a cliff face with absolutely no warning.  Just two weeks ago they had lost a copter pilot and camping party in just that way.  By the time the rescue party had finally reached the crash site there was very little to find.  The copter had been throw into a face of solid granite, exploded into pieces the size of a breadbox, fallen down the face of the cliff, and been scattered over a square mile of landscape.

 

Coming down out of the pass the winds became stronger, more treacherous.  The Dave fought for control of the chopper.  Adrenaline began to surge through his system and sweat started dripping down his ribs.  He tried to hide the fear with nonchalant bravado.

 

"Hey, this is better than the Cyclone!  What a ride!"

 

The girls started to turn green.  They were being thrown from side to side like Barbie dolls.  The chopper dropped like an out of control elevator.  Denise reached under the seat for a barf bag, but the container was empty.  Underneath the seats across from them she saw a container half filled with bags.  The vomit was beginning to rise up into her throat.  Just then the chopper leveled out and there was a lull in the wind.  Without thinking she unhooked her harness and dove across the aisle, reaching for a bag.  A pile driver downdraft hit them like a fist, and they dropped another hundred feet in a heartbeat.  Denise became weightless and floated off the floor.  Her friend screamed and the pilot yelled a string of angry obscenities.  Suddenly, a gust it them on the left side and pushed them within twenty feet of the cliff face.  The Dave turned back into the wind but not before the chopper dipped and the rear rotors clipped an outcropping of rock.  The chopper began to spin and fall at the same time.  Denise was thrown against the door.  Between the roar of the motors and the screaming and yelling inside the cabin, she completely lost her bearings.  Her fear made her react blindly like a trapped animal.  She clawed around her for anything to hold on to, to stop her from being helplessly tossed around.  Her hands found a metal bar and she hung on with strength she never knew she had.  The copter continued to spin and drop, out of control.  They were blown sideways again, and the bar suddenly turned in her hands.  Abruptly, the cabin door flew open.  Still hanging to the metal bar, Denise went with it.  The whiplash was too strong for her to retain her grip and she was hurtled through the air.  Afterwards she would not remember being thrown horizontally against the topmost branches of a string of tall pines that bent with her weight and slowed her flight.  She wouldn't remember dropping through those same trees, tossing, turning, hearing branches break under her.  Wouldn't remember hitting the ground covered with a thick mat of pine needles and being knocked unconscious.  She never saw the copter drop like a stone, impact the cliff face, and explode into a huge fireball five hundred feet below.

 

When she came to, all she knew was pain.  And pain was something she had never dealt with, never had to deal with her whole life.  Her head throbbed.  When she took a breath, a bolt of agony shot through her rib cage so intense she couldn't finish inhaling.  The pain from her ribs made her jerk into a fetal position, and then a knife blade seem to twist in her left ankle and cut up her body like a razor until it reached her head and exploded behind her left eye. She put her hand to her head to try to dampen the pain, and when it came away she saw blood.  She wanted to scream, but she couldn't.  It would have meant taking in air, and that was too excruciating to think about.  Panic overwhelmed her.  It enveloped her.  She had no idea how to handle what was happening.   She had no experience in adversity.  Her systems began to shut down, and she went into shock.  The body's survival mechanisms took over.  Blissfully, she dropped back into unfeeling unconsciousness.

 

When she awoke again, it was dark and cold.  She could see uncountable stars overhead.  The wind had died to a low murmur. The pain in her head had eased, but her breathing was still unbearable and her ankle was on fire.  Before she dropped off again, she noticed that she was in the middle of an immense, all encompassing, alien silence.

 

The sounds of birds woke her.  They chattered happily in the trees like it was the first day of creation.   Denise opened her eyes and the sunlight blinded her.  She closed them and waited for the pain.  She inhaled experimentally and realized that if she breathed very shallowly it wasn't so bad.  Slowly and carefully, she began to take inventory.  Her right shoulder and elbow ached when she tried to move them, but it wasn't like the sharp pain in her ankle that knifed at her at the slightest movement. She opened her eyes again and rolled over onto her back.  She saw branches waving in the breeze.  A rich blue sky hung overhead.  The air was cool on her skin.  Pushing herself up gingerly onto her left elbow, she surveyed the rest of her body. 

 

Although she couldn't remember falling through the trees, she knew that she was bruised all over.  She ached worse than she had ever had, but most of her parts seemed to be in working order.  Never having been seriously hurt in her life, she could only assume the extent of her damages.  She concluded that her ankle and probably a couple of ribs were broken.  She remembered the blood coming off her head onto her hand, and she felt her forehead again.  The blood had dried over what seemed to be a healthy gash above her right eye.  These examinations were driven by the instinctual process of an animal fighting for survival. Primitive thoughts.  Primitive conclusions.

 

Abruptly, the human part of her brain kicked in, and the panic returned.  She remembered the helicopter ride.  Kerry.  The pilot.  The winds.  Falling out of control.  Then her memory went blank.  She had no idea what happened.  She looked around and realized that she was alone.   She tried to scream out Kerry's name, but the most she could come up with was a hoarse whisper, which set off the pain in her ribs.  Ignoring her ankle, she forced herself to sit up to get a better view of what was around her.  She saw that she was sitting under a tall pine surrounded by others of its kind.  The ground sloped downhill in front of her and disappeared into the forest.  Somewhere, down and off to the left, she heard the sound of running water.  Through the trees to her left she could see the rock walls of the canyon two hundred yards away shining in the sun.  Fifty feet away to her right was the other wall of the canyon.  She ran her hands through her pockets, but her phone was gone.

 

Denise had never really been alone before.  Not this kind of alone.  She had been living on her own for the last two years, in her townhouse, but friends and lovers and family were always just a phone call away. Whenever she needed anything, whenever she wanted anything, she could just hit the speed dial.  Even as she sat there, her mind could not grasp the idea of this kind of solitude. It was unthinkable.  Too alien to even disbelieve.  As she listened to the birds chatter and the water ripple off in the distance, and she watched the wind blow gently through the trees, a vague realization tried to force its way to the surface.  She fought it at first, for it too was a foreign thought, but it would not be denied.  It came to her that she had to do something.  She actually had to take charge of the situation.  The alternative seemed to be, unbelievably, some kind of wasting death.

 

Death.

 

The rigid inevitability of dying comes to different people at different ages.  To some it doesn't come until it snatches them unannounced from the breathing world.  It came now to Denise for the first time.  She was going to die.  Sooner or later.  There was no alternative, no escape.  She felt like she had been accosted by a rude ugly stranger with violence on his mind.  The realization raped her.  Violated her down to the core of her being.  She tried to shake it off, but it wouldn't go away.  It persisted, whispering the brutal obscenity in her ears with a slobbering breath.  Its truth rapidly seeped down to her bones and possessed her with its finality.  A dark void opened in front of her and sucked her entire short life into its maw.  Everything she knew, everything she had been taught disappeared without a trace.  The rude ugly stranger laughed at her pretensions.  Mocked her.  It whispered, I will take you when it suits me. 

 

Denise stared vacantly in front of her.  The sound of running water seeped back into her awareness.  The wind blew gently across her face.  She heard a single bird performing an aria, oblivious of its impending death.  It seemed like an act of contemptuous courage. Suddenly, it came to her that she was still alive.

 

Alive. 

 

Blood still pumped in her veins, her heart still beat defiantly.  She could smell the pines, feel the sun, hear the wind, touch the earth.  She had weight and substance.   She could act.  She could live.  Death might inevitably triumph, but she could fight him with all her resources.  She could insult him by celebrating in her living flesh. 

 

“Fuck you,” she whispered aloud.  “Some other day, Mr. Death.”

 

Next to her, she saw a wrist thick branch that must have broken off as she fell through the tree.  It was slightly longer than she was tall.  It looked sturdy enough.  She reached over and pulled it to her, rejecting the pain that came from various parts of her body. She stood it upright and carefully pulled herself into a standing position.  Her right leg held her weight.  It was the first victory.  When she looked around, it was obvious that there was only one direction in which she could go.  Slowly and painfully, but fueled by her anger, she made her way down the mountainside.   

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

Three days after the meeting, Felker was still gloating.  Those mother fuckers, he thought.  I could have had them down on their fucking knees, groveling.  What a fucking joke.   All of them trying so hard to be cool.  But I could smell the sweat.

 

He had dosed the whole room with the stone and watched the most powerful men in the world dissolve into giggling school boys.  Two hours later, when they had regained their composure, the hunger in the big boardroom was a physical presence.  The greed of the eyes in the men around him was an obscene public display of lust, with no concern of what others might think.  People are weak, he thought.  Give them slightest hint that they can escape their mortality and they'll do anything, pay any price.  Doesn't matter how rich or powerful they are.  It was pathetic.  Felker loved it.  He loved the way they squealed and begged when he told them that their families would not be included in the deal.  He could hear most of them rationalizing their ultimate betrayal to themselves right now.  Coating their greed with high-minded abstractions.  How they would now be able to maintain their wealth for their children and grandchildren.  How it would be best in the long run for everyone.  Felker laughed. Assholes.  Oh, there might be one or two that would pull out and go to their graves with what they imagined was some sort of dignity and honor.  As if anyone who had attained that level of power could have a clear conscience.  They all knew where the bodies were buried.  The third-world sweat shops.  The waste dumps.  The dead polluted rivers and lakes. The gaping holes in the atmosphere.  These were men who were the masters of rationalization.  There wouldn't be many defections, if any.  And besides, with the power base he would have then, hostile takeovers and nationalization of industries would be just so much paper work.  Felker felt good.  He was happy.

 

He smiled and looked up at the mirror on the ceiling above the bed, admiring his new pecs.  The surgeon had done a nice clean job.  They looked hard and chiseled.  The stone could return your physical youth, but it couldn't make you what you never were.  Too bad.  But what was a little outpatient surgery in the face of physical perfection?  Felker caressed and squeezed his new muscles with both hands.  Yes, he thought, life is good.  He reached over and pulled the sheet off the naked girl sleeping beside him.  Graves had introduced her when he brought her in last night, but Felker didn't pay any attention to her name.  He didn't care.  She would be gone later this morning, and he would never see her again.

 

She lay face down, breathing heavily, her thick brown hair spilling across her face.  In the mirror, he studied her nakedness.  Creamy smooth skin, firm thin waist, great tight ass.  He slid his hand down the curve of the small of her back, and then his fingers curled around one of her cheeks. Beautiful, he thought.  Just right.  He moved his hand downward and slipped his fingers gently into the seam between her cheeks.  Her legs parted slightly and then relaxed without waking her.  Felker smiled and moved his hand down further, slipping his middle finger inside of her.  She was still wet. 

 

Now it became a game.  He wondered how far he could go before she woke up.  He introduced his index finger, and she stirred.  He stopped, and her steady breathing resumed.  He pulled out his two fingers, and inserted his thumb, getting it nice and wet.  Now he removed his thumb and slid his other two fingers back in. 

 

She moaned and her eyes opened.  She smiled sleepily.

 

"You sure know how to wake a girl up."  It came out in a husky whisper.

 

She arched the small of her back and her ass came up into the palm of his hand.  All his fingers sunk deeper, and she moaned even louder.  She began to rotate her hips, and he began to stroke her.  She thrust harder, pushing his fingers deeper and deeper.  Grabbing the sheet in front of her, she started emitting low growling noises.  Her breathing became faster and louder.  She looked over at him, her eyes in a sexual haze.  Her mouth opened, and her tongue flicked out like a snake's.  Her passion possessed her, and she didn't care who knew it.  She wanted everyone to see.

 

Just as she was starting to climax, Felker pulled out.  She looked at him hungrily, and he grabbed her by the hair and pulled her down to his now erect cock.  She opened her mouth and swallowed him, loving her work.  He reached around and started playing with her again, to keep her at that peak while she serviced him.  It worked perfectly.  She sucked on him with total abandon, sometimes swallowing him down to his balls, sometimes running her tongue up the shaft, then licking and teasing the head.

 

Felker was definitely a happy man.  Everything was gong according to plan.  By this time next year, he thought I will have consolidated the entire North American continent into one conglomerate.  The free trade agreements of the past had paved the way nicely.  Now that North America was already one economic unit, it would be nothing, with the power he had, to meld it into one political entity with himself at the head.  It would take a few years, of course, before the transition was complete, but with the stone in his possession, time was no longer a consideration.  He wouldn't be able to abolish the executive and legislative branches of the government immediately.  The economic and social breakdown would have to be allowed to escalate until the ignorant masses demanded that someone step in who could bring the chaos under control.  Felker knew who that someone would be and had already begun to toy with names and titles.  He knew it had to be something new.  Titles like emperor and pharaoh, though they had a nice ring, were too old and burdened with emotional baggage.  He currently favored Chairman of the North American Directorate.  It sounded important but not too dictatorial.  Weighty and businesslike. 

 

After he had brought in South America the year after, he could just drop the word "North", and it would sound even better.

 

Chairman of the American Directorate.  Not bad.  Not bad at all.  It excited him.  It aroused him.

 

After then he was going to take it all. He was going to do what Alexander, Caesar, Attila, Napoleon, and Hitler had all failed to do.  He was going to create a unified global empire.  And then he was going to install himself as its immortal ruler.

 

And then . . .

 

And then he laughed and came in the girl's mouth.

 

And then the phone rang.

 

He picked it up as the girl was swallowing. 

 

"What?"

 

"We need to talk” It was Whitney.

 

"It can wait."

 

"I don't think so."

 

"If I say it can wait, it -"

 

"It's about the stone."

 

That stopped him.  He didn't like the tone in Whitney's voice.

 

"Get in here right now."

 

He turned to the girl.  "Get out."

 

She looked up, surprised.

 

"Now."

 

Graves had briefed her on the rules.  She knew there could be no deviation, so she quickly slid off the bed and started dressing.  Felker stood up and grabbed a black silk robe off the Louis XIVth chair next to the king sized bed.  He wrapped the robe around him and cinched it as he walked to the bedroom door.

 

"Let's go."  He didn't look at the girl.

 

She was struggling to get in to her tight skirt.

 

"Okay, okay.  I'm coming."

 

She grabbed her purse and high heels, tossed her hair back, and preceded him through the door.  In the high ceilinged living room, decorated with furniture and paintings Felker had taken from Versailles, Graves and Whitney had already arrived.  He looked at Graves and turned his head toward the girl.  The big man moved in her direction and escorted her from the room without a word.  When the door closed, Felker sat down on a rococo sofa.  On the coffee table in front of him was a carafe of his special blend of coffee.  He motioned for Whitney to sit down and poured them both a cup.

 

Whitney was tall, blonde, good-looking, and apparently young.  He wore a well-cut but anonymous gray suit.  Felker had taken special care when he had recruited him years ago.  Parents dead, no family, no ties.  Felker had gotten him young and pliable, and now Whitney owed everything he had, everything he was, to the man who sat across from him.  Although there was no real love between the men, not even a sublimated parental affection, they had been through a lot together and there was a certain soldierly camaraderie and respect.  Neither of them really knew the other man.  They probably never would.

 

Whitney looked up at the painting of Napoleon astride his white horse that hung above the sofa.  He waited for Felker to speak.  His boss sipped his coffee, leaned back, and addressed him.

 

"Let's hear it."

 

Whitney looked him directly in the eyes.

 

"There's a synthetic version of the stone out on the black market."

 

Felker held the other man's gaze.  He knew that Whitney would not have brought this kind of news unless he was absolutely, shoot-me-in-the-head sure of his facts.  This was not a topic for jokes, rumors, or innuendoes.  They had both known for years that there was an outside chance of this happening.  They both knew that it was the worst thing that could possibly happen.   

 

A month after they had taken the stone from Embrey and his friends, they discovered that just before they had reached the beach house in Laguna the men had analyzed the chemical structure of the stone and put that formula out on a sub-net that mainly consisted of universities and research labs.  As soon as he found out, Felker had his techs create a nasty and specific virus.  The worm was put out on the net and was designed to burn holes in the operating system of any computer that opened up the file on the stone.  As the years had passed, Felker had come to believe that they had been successful.  It wasn't until he felt absolutely sure that he had the confidence to have this final power meeting. 

 

He realized that he was grinding his teeth.  The fact that Whitney delivered the news like he did meant that they didn't know who was making it or where it was coming from.  If they had, it would have already been taken care of and that too would have been part of his report.

 

"Where did it surface?"

 

"A bar in the city.  I had heard a rumor for about a week and went to check it out.  They were selling it in small high-impact plastic vials over the bar.  Just like booze or coke.  I shut them down immediately and took the owners into custody.  Shot them to the gills with sodium pentathol.   We've been grilling them for the past two days but we can't get anything out of them.  Just a description of the runner."

 

"Runner?"

 

"That's what they call these guys that bring them the synthetic."

 

"And?"

 

"A big black guy, mid-thirties, six-two, two-twenty, levis, cowboy boots, no distinguishing marks.  They don't know where he lives, where he comes from, where he goes.  He always shows alone.  They call him Sailor."

 

"Sailor?"

 

Whitney just shrugged.  "That's all we got for now."

 

Felker stood up and began to pace back and forth slowly.

 

"I've got twenty men out, checking the other clubs.  I just told them it was a new designer drug."

 

"Good.  This has to be handled delicately.  The vials?"

 

 "Generic pharmaceuticals."

 

"Have your men go undercover as buyers."

 

"Already done.  But there might be a problem."

 

Felker stopped pacing and turned to look at him.

 

"They say that there's something weird about the runner."

 

"Like?"

 

"Like he can read them.  Like he's taken a lot of the stuff."

 

"Shit!"  Felker flung his coffee cup at the stone fireplace where it shattered like a broken dream.

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *       

 

 

Coming down out of Rico, following the Dolores, vicious scenes of revenge sliced through Stetson's mind with evil clarity.  They involved guns, knives, and his own bare hands.  He saw himself taking Stuart out with a maximum of violence and pain, and a minimum of emotion.  A bullet to the head, a knife to the throat, a crushing blow to the esophagus.  The scenes played out in his head with a pleasing smoothness. Stetson knew he had this kind of murderous violence in him.  He had known it all his life.  He had also known that he had foresworn it.  It was something from a past life that he now refused to let become a part of this one.  He knew that somewhere, deep in the past, whenever someone had gotten in his way he had simply reached out and removed them from this world, quickly and efficiently with no remorse, no pity, no guilt.  He also knew that he had never considered the cost of this violence to those around him.  Never considered the trauma to a wife or a bright-eyed three-year-old standing in the castle courtyard as the headless body hit the ground in a swirl of dust, blood spurting like a fountain from the gaping neck.  People talked about reincarnation and past lives as if it were a parlor game.  Stetson only knew that somewhere, at some time, he had acted on the violent feelings that he now felt.  He saw Stuart's severed head on top of a sharpened spike out in front of the house that was now his.  It made him smile grimly.  There was part of him that wouldn't hesitate to create such a display.  He smiled because he knew that part of him was no longer in control. 

 

As the sun was setting, he and Red entered a high mountain valley where the river turned into a small lake before it wound it's way south.  Off to the right of the road was a vast meadow surrounded by jagged peaks. The lake was off to the left.  It was fed by two or three other small rivers to the east coming down off of the continental divide.    People used to have summer cabins along the lake.  They used to bring their children, take them sailing on that lake, fishing, swimming, laughing.  They'd have barbeques in the evenings and drink beer on their porches.  Stetson could almost hear the kids in the distance yelling to each other as they played hide and seek in the growing dusk.  Their happiness haunted the place with a heartache.

 

He turned Red off the road and into the huge meadow blanketed by grass and wild flowers.  He decided to camp for the night.  The grazing would be good for the horse.  The rest would be good for him. 

 

He knew that he was in trouble.  Personal trouble.  His only goal for the past few months was to find the kids, stay close to them, protect them, and watch them grow.  Now he had no goals.  He was adrift in a world spinning out of control.  He was lost, and he knew it.  He felt the reins tug in his hand.  Red had stopped and was trying to lower his head to the grass.  The movement brought the man out of his reverie.  He pulled back on the reins and surveyed the area, looking for a good campsite.  A hundred yards ahead of him he saw a narrow stream slicing across the meadow and heading for the lake.  He urged Red toward it.  Get a good night's sleep, he told himself, figure it out in the morning.  When they reached the creek, Stetson dismounted and unsaddled Red.  He reached up and took the bridle off the horse's head.  He didn't worry about him running away.  He knew Red would stay close.  He slipped his arm under the horse's neck and pulled his head toward him in a caress.  He stroked his muzzle with his other hand and talked to him gently.

 

"I guess it's just me and you, buddy."

 

Red nuzzled against him for he loved the gentle touch of the man.  Their breaths mingled warmly in the cool mountain air.  They stood cheek to cheek without moving and took comfort in each other.  Stetson scratched him behind his ears. 

 

"Okay, go eat.  It's going to be a long day tomorrow."

 

Red drifted away a few steps and began ripping large chunks of the tender grass from the earth.  Stetson stepped over to the stream.  It was only about two feet wide and half that deep.   He knelt down and took a long drink of the clear freezing water.  When he stood up, he switched into automatic pilot, going through the ancient routine of setting up camp, rolling out his sleeping bag, and then roaming the area looking for firewood.  He was out of food, so instead he picked enough wild chamomile to brew a pot of tea.  He could go night fishing over at the lake, but he was too emotionally drained.  He realized then that he didn't really care if he ate.  It didn't matter.  It came to him suddenly that he didn't even really care if he lived. 

 

He had reached the end of something.  Jo had been right about many things.  It seemed that his whole life had been one failure after another.  No matter what he did, no matter how hard he had tried, he had let people down.  His parents, his wives, his children.  When he was younger he had been the golden boy.  People looked to him to succeed.  Not only to succeed, but to conquer.  To do something monumental.  To save the world.  Now, he knew, he couldn't even save himself.  Now, he didn't even want to.  He remembered that the ancient Hindus, when they wanted to commit suicide, would go out to some desolate place and starve themselves to death.  It was considered a noble way to go.  Stetson considered it now.  As he lie in his bag, looking up at the star-choked sky, he again tried to calm himself with his breathing.  He heard Red move in closer to him, grazing eight feet away, drifting slowly in a protective circle around him, a dark shadow against the distant peaks.  He continued breathing, and its regular rhythm released a tightness in his chest, which rose to his head and released a stream of tears down his face . . .

 

Stetson fought his awakening, tried to drop back into thoughtless sleep.  He didn't want to wake up.  There was nothing for him in the waking world.  But the day was insistent.  The meadow so full of bursting vitality that it would not be denied.  He finally raised himself up on his right elbow and looked around.  The brilliance and perfection of the natural world was far removed from his fluttering human emotions.  It held no self-pity, no sorrow, only a majestic, unceasing declaration of life.  The four billion year old peaks once again basked in the warmth of their personal star.  The stream sang its quiet autumn song, knowing it would freeze into silence in the winter, knowing it would surge in a raging chorale in the spring.  The grass and wildflowers in the meadow turned their face to the sun and let the wind blow through their hair.

 

Red was there, as always, a part of this world in a way Stetson never could be.  He was grazing over by the stream, and his head came up when he saw his master had awakened.  Seeing all was well, he went back to eating.  He was a beautiful sight in this place.  Sixteen hands high and all well defined muscle, his coat shone in the morning light.  He exuded a calm coiled power that had always delighted Stetson. 

 

The self-destructive thought of the previous night came back to the man as he watched the horse.  He would be happy here, Stetson thought.  He belongs in a place like this.  I would be doing him a favor.  It seemed now that there was a certain logic to ending his life here.  A well-ordered inevitability.  The thought calmed him and he reached reflexively for his down jacket, looking for matches to rekindle the campfire.  A cup of tea wouldn't count, would it?  As he reached in a pocket, his fingers touched something else.  A small cylindrical object.  He pulled it out and looked at it.  It was the vial that the strange black man had given him in Durango. 

 

 He stared at the small vial and the clear liquid inside.  It sparked in the sun.

 

What had the man said?  "It'll clear you right up."  Stetson snorted cynically.  Right.  Sure.  Just another drug to let you escape from the bullshit for a few hours and then when you came down you were even more depressed.  Probably addictive to boot.  He thought about just tossing it out into the meadow, but then he remembered.  Remembered the look in the man's eyes.  Remembered the tendrils of energy that probed his body when the woman embraced him.  Remembered the looks of the bikers just before they disappeared back into the crowd.  There was something about the couple - what were their names? - Sailor and Tish - no Trish - something sure - something . . . centered and calm and powerful as this mountain meadow.  They seemed to be in touch with something beyond doubt.

 

Stetson almost smiled as he stared at the vial.  It was a crazy night, he thought, I could have just been imagining it all.  But then he realized that he hadn't imagined the reactions of the people in the bar.  That had been real.  The bikers had been afraid.  Very afraid.  But afraid of what?  They had outnumbered Sailor and himself by a dozen men.  They could have taken them easily.  What was it?  He replayed the scene again and again in his head, remembering the look in the eyes of the lead biker.  He saw fear, but . . . behind that he saw respect . . . almost awe - and behind that what?  Stetson shook his head.  It made no sense. But it intrigued him.  Then he laughed.  What the hell.  How did the song go? - when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.  Without thinking any further, he broke the seal on the vial, popped its plastic stopper, and drank the contents.

 

Still sitting up in his sleeping bag, he waited for a minute to see what would happen.  Nothing did.  Shrugging, he got up and proceeded to light the fire in order to heat up the tea from last night.  He was barefoot and shirtless, wearing only his levis.  The sun was warm so he didn't bother putting on any more clothes.  He sat on top of his bag, watching the fire and looking around the meadow.  He had no desire to do anything or go anywhere.  Goalless and directionless, all motivation had evaporated from his life.  The tea smelled good, however, so he reached over, grabbed the handle of the pot with a sock, and poured some into his metal cup.  He set the pot down next to the fire, blew on the tea in the cup to cool it, and took a sip.  It tasted good, fresh and wild.  He felt it slide down his throat and hit his stomach with a warm blow.  The warmth expanded outward from his middle, cooling as it did and transforming itself into a nourishing energy that suffused through his whole system until he could feel it all the way to his fingertips.

 

The sky around him was unusually clear today.  The wildflowers across the meadow, instead of melding in the distance into a blanket of color, stood out one by one all the way to the edge of the mountains.  The wind blew softly across the ground, bending the flowers and grass in recurring well-defined waves.  Looking up, he could see minute details in the peaks across the way.  The tall pines and aspens also moved in the wind.  The edges of the rock formations stood out with razor sharp clarity.  As he stared at a particular outcropping of rock, he noticed that something else was moving.  At first, all he could sense was movement itself.  He couldn't find its source.  Then it finally dawned on him what it was.  The crisp dark shadows thrown by the morning sun were slowly moving across the face of the background slope.

 

Stetson sat up.  Alert.  He suddenly realized that all his senses were bringing him information in a way they never had.  He could make out hundreds of different aromas in the air, separate them and find their source.  Flowers, trees, soil, water, fire, smoke.  They all came to him and more.  The air carried scents from far away and filled him with their complexity.  The smells mingled seamlessly with the multitude of things he was hearing.  Bird sounds, the wind through the grass, the stream singing over its bed, insects buzzing over the water of the creek, the crackling wood in the dying fire, the in and out whisper of his own breathing, the rhythmic pumping of his own heart.

 

He came to his feet effortlessly and stepped off his bag onto the grass.  The feel of the soft grass bending beneath him and the cool soil under that thrilled the bottoms of his feet.  He could feel every blade, every small pebble, every uneven rise and fall.  It was like he was standing on an entire landscape.  He looked down, marveling at the sensation.  Energy came up from the earth and surged through him.  His toes automatically gripped the ground tighter, his spine went erect, his tailbone tucked underneath him, his knees ever so slightly bent.  Then he felt a jolt of energy come up through the ground and spiral up his spine to the top of his head.  He was suddenly filled with the kind of physical energy he hadn't felt since he was a kid.  He felt lighter, more agile, stronger.  He inhaled deeply from his stomach, and the air elated him.  Even more vitality surged through his system as he breathed deep.  A smile swept across his face from ear to ear.

 

Red had drifted further out into the meadow when his master had awakened.  He was grazing about a hundred yards off to the man's left when he sensed something unusual.  There was new life in the meadow.  A powerful presence.  The horse felt immediately that it was not threatening; therefore, he raised his head and looked around more out of curiosity than alarm.  His nostrils flared, his ears came forward.  He saw nothing out of place, smelled no danger, heard nothing new.  The energy seemed to emanate from the man who stood looking in his direction.  Red could not think, but he had primal feelings, and for the man he had great affection.  This was a being who fed him, stroked him, loved him.  He lifted his head and let out a loud, stuttering, high-pitched cry.  The energy coming from the man was strong and intriguing.  It was more like his own than it had ever been.  It attracted him like a magnet, and he began to move in its direction.

 

Stetson not only heard the cry, he felt it enter into him like an electric shock.  He watched as the horse moved toward him.  Christ, he thought, what a magnificent animal.  Red's scent reached him, and he took it in with a large breath.  God, I love the smell of him.  Strong, musky, primitive.  The miracle of another living being walking to him was overwhelming.  Of all the possible combinations of atoms and molecules in the universe to choose from, life had somehow decided to create something like this.  Stetson laughed from pure joy.

 

Red started to get excited as he approached the man.  Something was happening here that he had never experienced.  He snorted and threw his head and kept coming.  The man responded, waving an arm.

 

"Yeah!  That's it, boy!  Come here!"

 

As the horse approached, Stetson was astounded.  Jesus, he thought, he must be four times my weight.  Look at his coat shine.  Those muscles.  He's strong and powerful enough to cripple or kill me without thinking twice, but here he comes as docile as a puppy. 

 

Irresistibly drawn to the man, Red came up and, as he had done countless times before, put his forehead gently against the man's chest and pushed him back a step.  This time the man held him.  Then he did something he had never done before.  Slowly he lifted Red's head, keeping his firm grip, and looked him in the eyes.  The horse's first reaction was to look away.  Although he didn't know why, it was always uncomfortable to look into a human's eyes.  But the energy coming from the man was so strong, so unusual, and so loving that for once he held his gaze.  They stared at each other across the vast biological canyon between their two species.  Two radically different types of intelligence and awareness.  But then suddenly, it happened. 

 

They knew each other.  Recognized each other.

 

 A bridge of understanding was flung across the canyon in an instant.  Red shuddered but held his gaze.  The man's love poured into him, and he knew him for the first time, in a way he never had.  The man dropped his hands and they stood there, both stunned down to their cores.  Red finally dropped his eyes and took two steps so that the man was now at his left flank.

 

Stetson knew instantly what the horse was asking him, and without thinking he grabbed Red's mane in his left hand and vaulted up onto his broad smooth back.  As his thighs gripped the horse, Red turned slowly and drifted out toward the meadow.  Stetson felt himself melt into the animal.  As the separation between his legs and the horse's back disappeared, Red began to prance sideways, throwing his head up and down.  The man was in heaven.  The power and grace of the being beneath him was something for which there were no words, because it came out of a non-human experience.  But then, at that point, there were no need for words.  They both knew what they wanted.

 

"Okay,” Stetson said softly.

 

Red spun and broke into a gallop that took them out into the meadow.  He kept that pace for a hundred yards, making sure the man was well seated.  When he felt his rider sink even more deeply onto his back, he cut loose, went flat out, doubled his speed.  He had never run like this before.  Not with a rider on his back.  He went low to the ground, racing over the earth like the bullet.  He pulled out all the stops.  The meadow passed underneath them in a blur.  The wind rushed against them with a blinding force.  The only sound, the drumming of his hooves against the meadow. 

 

Deep down, Stetson knew that this was a dangerous ride.  Red had essentially let himself get out of control.  A gopher hole, a badly placed rock, and they would go down in a bone breaking crash.  The horse was moving so fast that any upcoming dangerous obstacle would be upon them before he had time to change his course.  He had committed them beyond the concerns of physical survival.  Deep down the man knew this.  Deeper down, he didn't care.  The exhilaration was unbelievable.  His body thrilled down to a cellular level.  He leaned in close to Red's neck and urged him on.  As he did, he found himself inside the horse.  He lost sense of his separate body, and they became one thing.  His hooves barely touched the ground.  The wind sliced through his mane.  His muscles surged like one fluid thing.  Air came in and out of his huge lungs.

 

They not only merged physically, their minds became one as well.  The man knew - was - the clear uncluttered animal awareness that knew no neurotic separation between himself and his immediate environment.  Life was one fluid system, its diverse parts blending into a seamless whole.  He was, for the first time, totally alive in the present moment.  There was no past, no future.  Only this ongoing experience of racing wildly across the earth -

 

with a man on his back, was different than it ever had been.  The merging was so sudden and natural that Red never missed a step.  The man surrendered to the situation and let him have his head.  The human's perceptions were duller, his body weaker, but his overpowering mind opened Red's like a flower.  The horse became filled with a kind of emotional joy that was beyond anything he had ever felt. 

 

He became aware of his own consciousness and knew it as a miracle.  He rejoiced in his own being and the rejoicing only added to his strength.      

 

As Stetson looked through his new eyes, he realized that they weren't out of control after all.  The very center of Red's vision was like a telescope.  It scanned the ground in front of them like a laser, picking out anything that might cause a fall and adjusting their path well in advance of any danger.  They were approaching the end of the meadow, now, at top speed.  The boulders at the base of the peaks approached them like a freight train.  Just before they collided, everything went into slow motion.  They tucked their back legs underneath them, and they slid through the grass.  At just the last second they lifted their left hind leg and jammed the right rear and then the right front hoof into the soft earth.  They spun a hundred and eighty degrees and launched back into a blinding run.  Streaking back across the meadow, Stetson sat up erect and let go of the Red's mane.  He held his hands out to his side and closed his eyes, surrendering all thought.  The wind rushed through his hair and the sun warmed his face.  He was gone.  It seemed to go on forever.  Time didn't exist.  All that remained was power and speed and one animal, alive and ecstatic . . .

 

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

    

It was the most horrible thing she had ever seen, and she couldn't get it out of her mind.  As she hobbled down the slope along the stream in the pre-dawn light, the ugly images kept coming back to her.  She had never seen a corpse before, much less two at the same time, much less one of a dear friend.  The helicopter had been a mangled mess of blackened steel crumpled awkwardly at the base of the cliff face.  Its rotors bent and twisted in all the wrong directions.  Desperately needing to hope that somehow Kerry had survived, she had limped over to the wreck, calling out her friend's name.  The images were all too clear.

 

Kerry and the pilot were still strapped into their harnesses in the shadowed interior.  Kerry's black hairless skull stared at her with empty eye sockets.  Her clothes had been burnt off as had most of her skin.  Her jaw hung open and flies buzzed in and out of her mouth.  Denise's body began to heave immediately, wanting to vomit, but there was nothing left in her system.  The violent retching racked her, but all that came out was a thin yellow bile.  Still she heaved over and over again, trying to steady herself against the wreck with her free hand, but the sickness knocked her to her knees.  She had seen scenes like this in horror movies, but never for real in the cold light of day.  In movies there was no smell of charred flesh, there was no buzzing of the flies.  In movies there was always some dramatic musical score playing.  Here, in the clear cool mountain sunlight, the birds still happily sung in the trees, oblivious to the tragedy . . .

 

The urge to puke came back to her as she thought of her friend.  She felt guilty at the same time, because she hadn't even tried to give Kerry a decent burial.  She knew that with her injuries she was physically incapable of the exertion, but she felt bad anyway.  Jesus, what I'd give for some dope right now, she thought.  Valium, Prozac, Xanix, Demerol - anything for Christ's sake.  She wanted to scream and keep on screaming, but she knew that it would make the pain in her chest unbearable.  If she ever got back to civilization, she fully intended to have herself a complete and utter nervous breakdown.  She could afford it. 

 

As she came around a bend in the stream, she saw that it widened and emptied into a small lake not thirty yards from where she stood.  The forest gave way to a rocky beach that sloped down to the water.  Behind her the sun had just come up, sparkling cheerful across the water and illuminating the fact that the shore of the lake was dotted with cabins.  She was dumbfounded.  Cabins meant people.  People meant salvation.  Tears sprang to her eyes and she stumbled forward, almost falling in her excitement.  She turned right at the beach toward the nearest cabin and increased her pace, ignoring the pain.  It was a large, wooden, two story structure with wide screened porches on three sides and an unkempt lawn sprawling down to an empty pontoon pier at the shore.  The nearer she got, the worse she felt.  It was obviously deserted.  Doors hung off their hinges.  Most of the screens and windows had been busted out.  She limped up the front steps and crossed the porch. The front door was partially open, and when she pushed against it, it fell off the hinges and collapsed onto the living room floor with an explosion of noise and dust.  The thought of food came to her.  She hadn't eaten in three days and suddenly realized that she was famished.  She went through the living room and into the kitchen.  Sunlight spilled through the rear windows across the counters and white linoleum floor.  The refrigerator stood against the wall to the right.  Its door gaped open revealing empty shelves.  She lurched over to the cabinets above the sink and began throwing open the doors.  Dishes, glasses, pots and pans.  Damn it! 

 

She opened those under the counter and let out a moan of pleasure.  Someone had left a few cans of food behind.  Peas, string beans, yams.  She pulled them out and set them on the counter top.  Attached under the top cabinets was an electric can opener.  She stuck in the yams and pulled down on the old fashioned lever.  Nothing happened.  She tried again.  Still nothing.  Don't panic, she thought.  So there's no electricity.  They've probably got one of those ancient mechanical ones.  She started opening drawers along the counter until she reached the one that held the various tools like spatulas, whippers, tongs, and cheese graders.  Except there was no can opener.  It has to be here.  She began to throw things on the floor using the process of elimination.  When there were only a few items left, she saw something like looked familiar.  It was a metal device, about seven inches long that had a sharp straight prong at the end and a curved one underneath it. Tucked inside the narrow u-shaped handle was a corkscrew.  She picked it up and looked at it.  It was a mystery.  Taking the can of yams, she tried applying the tool to its top.  She turned it this way, then that way, but she couldn't make it work.  In frustration, she jabbed the sharp prong down through the top of the can.  That worked.  She did it again but missed and stabbed one of the fingers of her left hand which was holding the can stable on the counter.  A sharp pain shot through her finger and it started to bleed.

 

"Shit!"

 

A sharper pain went through her ribs when she screamed and she flung the can and opener across the room.

 

"Shit!" she said in an angry whisper and stalked out of the house.

 

There was another cabin off to her right, and she decided to keep exploring until she found something she could eat without injuring herself, or until she found another human being.  As she walked along the beach to the next house, the terrain opened up even more and she could see all the way around the small lake.  Scanning the shoreline for possible signs of life, she suddenly saw the impossible.  It was a road.  Not only a road, but a paved two-lane highway.  It came in from the north, skirted along the west side of the lake for a quarter of a mile and then curved away to the south.  It was only a couple of hundred yards away.  She turned to look at the second cabin and realized that it too was abandoned.  Making up her mind in a heartbeat, she headed for the road.

 

She struggled mightily toward the highway, fearing that any minute a car or truck would come down it and pass on by without seeing her.  She strained her ears for the sound of an engine but heard nothing.  She hurried, stumbling along, the pain in her ankle jabbing at her in a regular rhythm.  Out of breath when she reached the pavement, she half expected to see some kind of vehicle pull immediately into view.  She had no concept that she might have to wait for a long time before someone came by.  She had never had to wait for anything in her whole life.  The road didn't know she was Denise Sinclair, and so it remained empty.

 

 Across the highway was a large meadow surrounded by peaks on three sides.  Toward the middle of the field she saw a man and a horse.  They were standing, facing each other, not moving.  She tried to scream, but all that came out was a painful croak.  The horse moved forward a couple of steps, and the man, wearing only levis, swung up on his back without a bridle or saddle.  She started to move across the road in their direction, but something stopped her.  What was wrong with this picture, she wondered?  The horse took off across the meadow at a dead run, the man clinging to his back, his head low across the animal's neck, his blonde hair blown back from his forehead.  She watched as they raced across the field at a dangerous, breakneck speed, and she couldn't help but admire the man's ability.  She knew something about horses and riding, in fact, considered herself to be quite the horsewoman, having learned to ride when she was young and even gone fox hunting in Connecticut with her father.  But what she watched now was of a different caliber.  The man rode the horse like it was an extension of his own body. 

 

But beyond that, there was something else about the scene that she couldn't put her finger on.  Something out of control.  They were headed directly for a wall of boulders at the far end of the meadow, and the horse wasn't even beginning to slow down.  It looked suicidal.  Just before they hit the boulders, the horse went into a slide, pivoted, and began racing back with his belly low to the ground.  The man sat up and extended his arms to his sides.  Now she knew what was wrong.  The guy was crazy.  He was trying to kill himself, or he didn't care if he did.  Either way, it was not the act of a sane man, no matter how good of a rider he was.  Great, she thought, the first human I've seen in days and he's probably a raving lunatic.  But she couldn't keep her eyes off of him.  Finally, the horse broke down into a gallop, brought his head up, and then slowed down to a canter.  The transitions were so smooth that the rider was not even disturbed.  The man let his arms down but did not reach for the horse's mane.  Then they began to dance.  It was the only word she could think of that described it.  The horse spun in circles, danced to one side and then the other, threw his head up and down.  Across the meadow, she could hear the man laugh.  Something seemed to attract his attention and he looked up in the sky above him.  The horse settled down without the man touching him.  She raised her eyes and saw a hawk circling over their heads.  Then she heard the man whistle, three short high-pitched bursts.  The hawk replied in the same manner, circled them two more times, and then tucked its wings and fell toward them like a stone.  Just before he hit them, he spread out his wings, fanned out his tail feathers and pulled out of his dive, missing the man's outstretched arms by inches.  Again she heard the man laugh.  The hawk rose, circled them again, and again dove on them.  This time the horse spun at the last second, gracefully like a bullfighter.  Jesus, she thought, now all three of them are doing it.  She watched in disbelief as man, horse, and bird danced in the morning sun.  A few minutes later, the hawk made one last pass, rose in the air, caught a thermal, and floated away out over the meadow toward the peaks.  The man lay back with his head on the horse's rump and was still.  His arms and legs dangled loosely to either side.  The horse drifted over to a small stream, bowed his head, and took a long drink.

 

She stood there, staring at them, not knowing what to think.  Unconsciously, she put her weight down on her broken ankle, and it shot a blinding pain up her leg.  Realizing that she had no other choice, she began limping across the road in their direction.

 

Stetson felt a disturbance in the field around him.  He felt Red lift his head and turn in its direction.  Opening his eyes and sitting up, he looked around and saw a girl hobbling toward them.  She came across the meadow slowly, leaning on a tall stick for support.  She was alone and hurt.  Her clothes were torn and ragged.  These things were obvious to his senses, but he felt more.  He turned Red and headed in her direction at a walk, knowing that he shouldn't approach her too quickly because of her fear.  He could feel it.  This girl had recently been through the worst nightmare of her life.  The shock, the fear, the loss all came off of her like heat off a road on a hot summer's day.  And then the pain came to him.  He realized that she had two broken ribs, hairline fractures really, a slight concussion, and a broken ankle.  With new mental fingers he could trace the jagged lines of the break, knew that the bone hadn't separated and that the healing was already starting to proceed.  For the first time that morning he realized that he was under the influence of whatever it was that had been inside the vial.  He hadn't noticed before because everything that it had released was already part of him.  It had been a natural opening of his consciousness to its own latent abilities and had happened so subtly that he had not even stopped to think about it.  Now, he didn't have time.   He heard the girl calling out to him.

 

"Hey, mister, can you help me?  I was in an accident!"

 

He came within a few feet of her, threw his right leg over Red's neck, slipped down to the ground, and walked over.  She appeared to be in her early twenties, slim, with short brown hair, and brown eyes.  Her face was filthy.  Her clothes were expensive, what was left of them.  She was a mess.  A large gash on her forehead had crusted over and was going to leave an ugly scar.  Stetson could feel the bruises all over her body.  She was exhausted.  Without thinking he smiled, gently scooped her up in his arms and started carrying her back to the campsite.  She started to protest, but was too tired.  Red followed behind them.

 

"I was in a helicopter crash.  Must have been thrown free.  I can't remember.  My friend and the pilot are both dead.  I had to walk out.  It's been three, four days.  I don't know exactly.  I'm so glad I found someone.  I didn't know what I was going to do.  I think my ankle's broken, and maybe a couple of ribs.  If you could just get me to a phone, I could call my father.  He's got a lot of money.  Probably give you a big reward.  I'm sure he - "

 

She knew she was babbling and couldn't stop herself.  She glanced up into the man's green eyes and that stopped her.  He looked down at her with a kind of understanding and calm gentleness that was foreign to her.  She couldn't hold his gaze.  It was too penetrating, too . . . accepting.  She started to cry and he let her.  They reached the camp, and he knelt down, setting her on his sleeping bag.  Once started, the tears wouldn't stop.  He continued to hold her, letting her back rest on his chest.  Her head fell back on his shoulder and he wrapped his arms around her, caressing her like a parent comforting a wounded child.  His arms were firm against her ribs, cushioning them, and it allowed her to weep uncontrollably, without pain.  She wept until she fell asleep in his arms.  

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

             

 

Franklin Sinclair, rich beyond measure, proud beyond price, as crisp as a new dollar, and as cold as ice, stepped from his long black limousine.  The outside, unfiltered air made his eyes burn, but, at the same time, created a beautiful sunset above the dying trees across the street in Central Park.  Franklin Sinclair had no time for sunsets.  He buttoned his suit, swept back his hair, nodded to the guards and mounted the stairs.  It was the first time he had been home in days, preferring to stay five blocks away at the house of his twenty-three year old mistress.  After the meeting with Felker, he had rushed immediately over to her place.  One of the effects of the stone had been to make him feel like a twenty year old himself.  It had unleashed his sexual desires, and abilities, to the extent that he and Christy hadn't been out of bed since.  They had made love day and night.  It was unbelievable.  None of the old problems.  He could come, and a half an hour later he was ready again.  Until about the third night.  When the effects had started to wear off.  If he had the stone, he could have given himself another dose.  If he had the stone . . .  

 

The situation was unacceptable.  There was no way that Felker could be trusted to keep up his end of the bargain.  Once he had attained a certain degree of power, Sinclair and all the other men at the meeting would become expendable.  It was a no win situation.  No profit.  All loss.  He needed some time alone.  Time to think.  He crossed the black marble floor of the lobby and, punching in the code, took the elevator up to his eighth floor study.  The elevator doors slid open with a hiss and the hushed quiet of the large room greeted him like an old friend.  It occupied the entire floor of the house and was decorated like one he had seen at an associate's castle in England.  The dark maple floor was covered by the largest deepest Persian rug he could find.  Its complex weave was done in dark blues, lavenders, and a touch of gold.  Bookshelves, complete with rolling ladders, lined two of the twelve foot high walls.  The far wall was all windows looking out onto the park and the homes on the other side.  In front of the windows stood the massive oak desk with its black leather chair.  To the left was a reading area with two black leather couches on either side of a large, low, glass coffee table.  Just behind that, along the wall was the bar.  That's where he headed.  Pouring himself a double scotch on ice, he walked over to the windows and stared vacantly out at the oncoming dusk. 

 

The more he thought about it, the more complicated the situation seemed to be.  Turning and sitting down at the desk, he pulled out a piece of stationary and a pen.  He created two columns.  One he labeled plus, the other, minus. 

 

The first plus, he thought, is the most basic and most obvious.  I know that the stone exists and some of its capabilities.  The first minus?  Anyone else that knew.  And that included everyone that had been at the meeting.  A big minus.  These were the richest and, probably, the most powerful men on the planet.  When he got his hands on the stone, he would have to keep it a secret.  Otherwise they would be coming after him.  That meant using the treasure most sparingly for years to come, until these men had grown old or died.  That was acceptable.  He had seen how it had reversed the aging process in Felker and was sure it would do the same for him.  Another minus sprang immediately to his mind.  Every one of those men was probably going through this same exercise.  He shook his head.  They would have come to the same conclusions.  Minus three.  That now made it a race, and he had already wasted five days.  Shit! 

 

The second  plus.  I have a couple of billion dollars worth of resources and know how to use them.  Industrial espionage was something in which he had much experience.  Over the years, he, or rather his agents, had stolen uncountable secrets and even experimental prototypes from other corporations with only one or two serious failures.  He was confident in that area.  Minus?  He would be dealing with an organization that all but invented the word espionage.  Cracking their security would be a monumental task.  Plus?  Felker was probably keeping the existence of the stone secret from even his people, excepting the two goons at the meeting.  And he even had the stupidity of carrying the stone on his person.  Beautiful.  That narrowed it down.  Minus?  It undoubtedly meant liquidating Felker and his two men.  Sinclair frowned.  A definite minus.  Murder was messy.  It attracted attention.  With men like Felker, you would only have one chance.  Revenge was another one of their specialties.  Another minus was the fact that he would probably have to hire outside help for the hit.  None of his people had experience in that area.  That meant widening the circle of people who knew about the operation and then, in the end, probably the liquidation of most of those.  He might even have to get his own hands dirty in order to bring it full circle.  He drew a large minus sign next to that thought.  Not that he wasn't capable of murder in this instance; it was just that he knew his own limitations.  Just the simple act of disposing of a corpse was something that he knew absolutely nothing about.

 

He leaned back in his chair and saw that the minus column almost filled the page.  He wasn't surprised.  His gut instinct had been telling him the same thing for days.  It was definitely a high risk venture, but considering the final prize, one that had to be undertaken.  It would just take a lot of thought and careful plan -

 

The intercom on his desk buzzed, startling him.  He leaned over and hit the button.

 

"I'm here."

 

"Franklin."  It was his wife.  "I thought I heard the elevator."

 

"What do you want, Maggie, I'm busy."

 

There was a pause, and Sinclair waited for the hurt questions about where he had been for the last few days, to which he would give his usual answers.

 

"I'm worried about Denise."

 

"What about her?"

 

"Well, she's been gone now for five days, ever since you went to the meeting with that man from the government, and -"

 

"Where did she go?"

 

Her tone chided him for not knowing the whereabouts of his own daughter.

 

"On that camping trip out in Colorado, Franklin."

 

"Well, they're probably not near a phone.  Did you think of that?"

 

"But you'd think they would have a cell or satellite phone or maybe one of those CD radios."

 

"CB"

 

"What?"

 

"CB radio."

 

"Whatever.  I had a nightmare the other night that there had been an accident."

 

Christ!  Here she goes with her premonitions.

 

"Call the travel company and see if there's any way to get in touch with them."

 

"I tried that, but they said that they were probably out of range."

 

"Listen, Maggie, if she hasn't called in a day or two, I'll have my people look into it.  She's probably having a ball, running around naked in the woods communing with nature and balling the tour guide, for Christ's sake."

 

"Franklin!"

 

"Well?  It's true isn't it?"

 

"Franklin."  Her tone was solemn.  "I'm serious.  I think something's wrong.  I can feel it."

 

"Okay, okay.  I'll look into it."

 

Silence.

 

"Satisfied?"

 

"Why don't we have dinner at home tonight?  Just me and you."

 

Sinclair looked down at the list on his desk.

 

"Sorry, Mag.  I've got to go out.  Business.  You know."

 

Silence.

 

"Yeah.  Sure.  Maybe tomorrow."

 

"Yeah, that sounds good.  See you then."

 

He clicked off and stood up from his chair.  The lights had come on automatically as the evening approached.  He hadn't touched his drink and he downed it now in one swallow.  What would she think when he started growing younger and she kept growing older?  He stared out the windows again.  The house and streetlights had come on.  One or two stars were visible in the sky.  It didn't really matter.  He would make sure that she was comfortable and quiet in her last days.  He saw his reflection in the glass.  A handsome fifty, he thought.  He had let his thick hair go to gray for that distinguished look.  The old-fashioned horned rimmed glasses added to it.  His dark blue suit still hung well on his thin frame.  He liked the way he looked in the window.  The reflection was too dim to show the wrinkles.  I should get a lift, he thought, and leaned over to look a little closer.  He took off his glasses to examine the creases around his eyes.  Suddenly, he realized that he didn't have to lean forward to see.  He could see perfectly from where he was.  His eyesight had improved.  Dramatically.  He smiled broadly in the window.

 

Plan the work, he thought.  Work the plan.                    

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

In the dream she awoke as a solitary runner, racing down a forest trail, trees close on either side, sweat rippling across her ribs, breasts heaving, not knowing how she came there, not knowing if she was running to a friend or away from the beast.  The trail was narrow, winding, treacherous.   A branch lashed across her right eye, blinding her.  She stumbled, almost fell, and then the ground miraculously rose up to meet her, and her feet picked the path instinctively.  Her body was strong and tireless.  She surrendered to the instinct and it carried her beyond any thought of fear.  Shaking her long hair from her face, she laughed as she ran.  She laughed and laughed like death itself was the dream.  Her eyes opened and she was running on top of the surface of a surging river which dropped away before her with a deafening roar, as river became waterfall and plummeted into a churning abyss five hundred feet below.  As she fell, she spread her arms and flew, soaring weightlessly out over the mist and thunder.  Suddenly, she was free.  Totally free.

 

Her eyes opened to the blue sky.  Lazy white clouds drifted across her vision and she went with them, turning graceful barrel rolls through their velvet fleece. 

 

"Welcome back."

 

A face leaned over hers, deeply tanned, haloed with a shock of blonde hair.  Eyes the color of the trees in the forest.  Full lips opened and a white smile appeared.  One of the front teeth was slightly chipped.  She awoke and, for a moment, hovered between dream and memory.  A quizzical look appeared in the eyes.

 

"You okay?"

 

He was kneeling down beside her, his hand caressing her broken ankle. Her body was stretched out on top of the sleeping bag. Weightless.  And then, in slow motion, she reinhabited the vehicle, slipping into it like a jump suit.  Legs first, then the arms.  Then the mind.  She remembered that she was somebody.  Somebody with a name and a history.  Then, it all came back.

 

"Who are you?" she asked.

 

The face thought a minute, mystified, and then it laughed.

 

"Oh, yeah.  Um.  Ahh . . ."  It paused, looked to the side, brow wrinkling, trying to figure it out.  "Oh, yeah.  My name is - "  This seemed amusing to him. " - is - "  A light came on in the eyes.  Now, he knew.  "- is Stetson."  He smiled, proud of himself for remembering.  "But how are you?"  Concerned filled the eyes.

 

Denise let her awareness seep through her body.  Tentatively, she sat up.  The pains in her ankle and ribs did not attack her.  They existed as dull throbbing aches that reminded her firmly of her injuries, but did not punish the flesh or take the breath away.

 

"I think I'm better."

 

"Oh, good."  He smiled again.  "It worked."

 

"What?"

 

He stood up.  "Oh, nothing.  Say, ah, would you like some tea?  Got some right here."

 

He was pouring a cup from the pot near the dying fire, not really waiting for an answer to his question.  He just handed her the cup.

 

"I was thinking of going fishing over at the lake.  Do you like fish?  They got some great mountain trout around here.  I could fry them up.  Could be back in no time.  You'd be fine here.  Nobody around to bother you.  They're all gone you know.  What do you think?  A couple of trout for dinner?"

 

Standing over her, he was still dressed only in his levis.   His body was firm, the muscles well defined.  He carried himself like a ballet dancer she had known in New York.  He must have been in his forties but was smiling like a ten year old.  She shook her head and laughed at the strangeness of the situation.  What is going on here, she thought.  Am I still really asleep, or what? 

 

Stetson watched her laugh.  He had felt the bones knitting under his hands as she slept.  It was good to see her laugh.  She had been through hell.  Her laughter fell away, and her eyes scanned the area around her.

 

"You don't have a cell, do you?"

 

"A what?"

 

"A phone."

 

That amused them both, and, caught up in some kind of giddiness, they both laughed at the obvious absurdity.

 

"Listen," she said more seriously, " I've got to get a hold of my parents.  Is there a town or something around here?"

 

"Well, there's Rico.  No.  That's no good.  Telluride's about a day's ride from here.  I could take you there.  They'd probably let you in."

 

"Probably?  Let me in?"

 

"They blew the bridges into town and they've got guards posted to keep out anyone they don't like.  Which includes me I'm afraid."

 

"Why?"

 

"It's a long story."

 

Looking at him, her mind tried to grasp the situation.  She had heard the rumors about the social breakdown and the lack of law out here, but she hadn't really believed it.  You can't not have social order.  Nothing would work.  People would be killing each other whenever they felt like it.  The planes wouldn't run on time.  The stores would be looted.  There would be nothing left to buy.  And why wouldn't they let him into this town?  Was he some kind of criminal?  Was he dangerous?  Fear began to trickle up her spine.  As they looked at each other, he cocked his head to the side as if listening to something beneath her level of hearing.

 

"I'll tell you what.  I'm going to go get us something to eat.  You look like you could use it.  I know I could.  While I'm gone, you can wash up over in the creek and think about what you want to do.  Okay?"  She didn't answer right away.  "Alright?"

 

"Okay, sure . . . alright," she answered absently.

 

She watched him pull on a pair of scuffed, brown leather, cowboy boots, grab a hand line from his saddlebags, and head off for the lake.  Seeing that he had placed her walking stick next to the sleeping bag, she picked it up and carefully stood.  Her ankle felt stronger, and her breathing came more easily.  She hobbled over to the stream, knelt down and washed her face in the cold, bracing water.  For the first time since the accident, she thought of her appearance.  Christ, she thought, I must look like shit.  Where's a mirror when you need one?  She looked down and saw that her clothes were filthy and torn.  Her hands were crusted with dirt and sores.  Four nails were broken.  Great.  

 

She looked around, saw she was alone, and took off her blouse.  Her rib cage was an ugly mass of bruises already turning a disgusting yellowish green in color.  Slowly and carefully, she began to wash her upper body.  Looking up, she noticed that the horse had drifted in from the meadow and was standing across the creek from her. 

 

"Hey big fella."

 

The horse looked directly at her, into her eyes. 

 

"You're sure a pretty boy, aren't you”?

 

She expected him to drop his gaze, as animals do, but he held her eyes with his as if he were her equal.  As if he were waiting for her to say something intelligent.  His stare was unnerving, and she had to look away.  In her peripheral vision, she saw that he dropped his head and went back to grazing.

 

Later on, toward sunset, Stetson had returned with a brace of large trout and four cans of vegetables.  He had prepared a fire, cooked the food, and given her his plate to eat from.  He had deboned the fish for her, and she wolfed them down without a word.  After her second plateful, she realized that he hadn't yet eaten.

 

"I thought you were hungry."  She handed him the empty plate.

 

"Starved."

 

He filled the plate with two trout and a large helping of green beans and dug in.

 

"So tell me," he said between mouthfuls, "the whole story."

 

As he ate, she told him everything.  Who she was, where she was from, how she planned the trip, the flight out, the helicopter ride, what she remembered of the crash, coming to, and finding the wreck.  The wreck.  That stopped her monologue.  The images of Kerry and the pilot haunted her and made everything she had just said banal and meaningless.

 

"I'd never seen a dead person before."

 

The grief on her face reminded Stetson of a child who has just stuck her finger in a candle flame for the first time and discovered not only that she was not invincible, but that there were actually dangerous and malefic forces in the world that didn't care who you were and that had no concern for your well-being.  It was a shattering realization for a child and even a more shattering one for an adult who had been shielded all her life from anything even slightly uncomfortable.  Stetson said nothing to ease her pain, knowing that it would be better to just let the lesson sink in.  He finished eating in silence, leaving her to her thoughts.  Eventually, she came out of it.

 

"So, what's the deal with Telluride?  Is their phone system still working?  Do you think I can get in touch with my parents?"

 

"Probably.  They had some portables, so they've probably got their own uplink on line.  There's plenty of places you could land a chopper.  I don't see any problem.  You might get more cooperation if you got your father to offer them some kind of compensation . . ."

 

"What do you mean?  Some kind of ransom?  You don't think they'd hold me hostage?"

 

"No, no, nothing like that, but these days people are really looking out for their own.  Other people's problems are not a big priority.  Plus, there's not a lot of single women in Telluride.  I heard the ratio's about seven to one.  So that's another reason you'd probably need to give them some incentive."

 

"Great."

 

"Don't get me wrong.  It's your best bet.  No doubt.  If your father's as rich as you say, you won't have any problems."  He held up the empty plate.  "You still hungry?"

 

When she shook her head, he stood up and went to wash the plate in the stream.  Stars were beginning to come out overhead and the temperature in the air began to plummet rapidly.  She threw a few sticks on the fire and moved in closer, holding out her palms to the heat.  Coming back to her side, Stetson slipped on his jacket and sat down, staring at the flames.

 

"We can get started first thing in the morning.  Be there by about four.  You can use the sleeping bag tonight.  It's a good one.  Keep you warm."

 

Abruptly a new factor leapt into the equation.  A man.  A woman.  Alone in the middle of nowhere.  The temperature dropping.  One sleeping bag.  She gritted her teeth.

 

"What are you going to use?"

 

"I'll be alright.  You need it more than me."

 

Watching the flames and listening to the fire crackle, she waited for the come on, but it didn't come.  As she thought about it, it wasn't a surprise.  She looked like something that fell off a meat wagon.  Still . . . he could have at least tried.  He stood up and walked over to his horse.  She watched as he stroked the animal's face and neck.  Soft murmured words drifted back to her, but she couldn't make them out.  He walked back, picked up the sleeping bag, fluffed it out, laid it down closer to the fire, and unzipped it halfway.

 

Sitting down next to her, he reached over to the coffee pot and poured some tea into the cup.  He offered it to her.

 

"Want some?"

 

She took the cup.

 

"Think it's big enough for both of us?"  The words sprang out of her mouth before she could stop them. 

 

"What?"

 

"The sleeping bag."

 

"Oh, don't worry about it."  He shook his head.  "It won't be that cold."

 

She drank her tea in silence, too tired to try and figure him out.  Too much had happened in the last few days.  Her mind and body were already on overload.  Still . . . there was something about him that was unlike any man she had ever met.  Something that intrigued, almost fascinated her.  But then, she realized that she had only been exposed to certain types of men.  What had she told Kerry?  "Only a limited mating pool to choose from"?  She could feel her brain start to short circuit from the recent input.  Sleep was once again forcing itself upon her.

 

"I'm beat.  I guess I'll take you up on that offer."

 

He looked over at her with the same gentleness and acceptance she had seen when they first met.

 

"Yeah, go ahead."

 

She slipped into the bag and could feel her body start to shut down immediately.  He picked up his saddle, brought it over next to her, and lied down.  He rested his head on the seat of the saddle and looked up.  She followed his gaze and saw a sky so filled with stars that the blackness between them seemed to disappear.  It took her breath away.  The dome of heaven.  The old phrase came to her unbidden.  It had never meant anything before now.  She looked over at him and studied his face.

 

"If they won't let you in Telluride, where are you going?"

 

He looked over at her with a blank look.  He didn't know.  That was obvious.  He stared at her a minute, wheels turning in his head, and then a surprised and brilliant smile flashed across his features.

 

"I'm going to Salome."

 

"Where's that?"

 

"In Arizona somewhere."

 

Not offering any more information, he laid his head back and looked up at the night sky.  Denise studied his profile.

 

"What's in Salome?"

 

"Some people I met."

 

"Friends of yours?"

 

He paused and thought.  His smile widened.

 

"I think so."

 

The look on his face was . . . what? . . . like that of a man heading happily into the unknown.   There was a thrill, an excitement, coming from him that was contagious.  It penetrated and aroused her on a primal level.  She felt it's mystery and its promise irrationally unlock the same feelings in her.  Denise Sinclair knew that she had to have that kind of ecstasy in her life.  She realized that it was what she had always wanted. 

 

"What's so special about this place?"

 

Stetson looked over at her and felt her longing, her need for something in her life beyond what she had always known.  He answered two questions - the one she had verbalized and the wild and crazy one that was just beginning to form in the back of her mind.

 

"You'll see."

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *       

 

 

It was a full moon, and Indian summer covered the land like a thick sweltering blanket.  The temperature climbed, hit records, and drove the mercury right through the tops of thermometers.  Global warming had turned into global broiling.  The moon pulled at the tides and people's emotions and stretched both of them to the snapping point.  The ocean overflowed the seawalls, pulled houses off their foundations, created new beaches, gouged out a new shoreline.  Where the watery tide ended, the emotional tide began.  It raced across the landscape like a fever, making the human animal delirious.  Some tried to cope.  From coast to coast people fanned themselves on their porches and downed tall cool drinks.  Or they hid inside their air-conditioned houses and sulked in front of the television.  They tried to sleep.  Took drugs.  Attempted suicide.   Very few people believed that the heat and the moon could drive them into an irrational state, where anything might happen.  And so, in ignoring the danger, they were swept away by it and carried into the deep waters of lunacy.  Teenagers drank and raced wildly down country roads, screaming with the stereo so loud they couldn't hear themselves think.   Husbands and wives eyed each other with impatience, just waiting for the other one to make one wrong move.  In the bars, tempers flared.  Loud words and angry blows were exchanged between total strangers.  Out on the streets, guns were pulled.  Blood was spilled.  The cops were working overtime and had come to hate the full moon.  They sweated, pulled bodies from the greasy pavement and the twisted wrecks, stepped in between crazed couples and flashing knives, fought among themselves like feral dogs.

 

In Los Angeles, it finally happened.  The San Andreas Fault responded to the heat and the gravitational pull of the moon.  At first, the pressure built between the North American and Pacific plates, its friction turning the lower basaltic layers into molten magma.  With no where else to go, it rose to the surface, and a series of mountains along the fault blew their tops like buttons popping off a fat man's shirt.  Mt. St. Helen.  Rainier.  Shasta.  A chain reaction with each eruption exploding with the force of hydrogen bombs.  Billions of tons of ash were launched into the upper atmosphere.  Oceans of lava spilled down the mountainsides devastating everything in their path.  But still the pressure built between the huge tectonic masses, until unable to take it anymore, the Pacific plate sighed and slipped northward fifteen feet.

 

What is a hundred year old pent up tectonic sigh for the earth is a terminal cardiac arrest for the humans living on it.  Thousand Oaks, Westlake, Encino, Reseda, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Burbank, Pasadena, Glendale - annihilated.  Hollywood, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Brentwood, Santa Monica, Venice, Marina Del Rey, Watts, Compton, Anaheim, Tustin - leveled.  Orange County - dust.  San Diego - gone.  Stanford's machines went off the scale trying to measure it.  Denver clocked it at 8.6.  The quake only lasted thirty seconds, but the damage was complete.  Every rigid structure in the hive snapped.  Water mains shot geysers two stories high along the streets.  Houses, shops, and businesses went dry immediately.  Sewer lines spewed raw untreated human waste into sanitary neighborhoods and ritzy shopping areas.  Gas lines blew, and the slightest spark turned the vapors into flamethrowers.  Block upon block went up in huge conflagrations and back down into ash.  Power poles snapped like toothpicks and the majority of Southern California went into the dark in the time it took to blink.  Bridges and overpasses collapsed.  Roads suddenly went nowhere.  The telephone systems surged, went into overload, and then turned a silent ear to all the human screaming.

 

It could have been worse.  Since the moment the Federal Government started pulling out of the southwestern United States because of the global economic crash, the majority of the population had fled.  No longer protected by police, national guard, and the fire services, most people had cut their losses, packed up what they could, left their houses behind, and moved east and north to more civilized regions.  They were the lucky ones.  Now the diehards, or those too poor to move, faced absolute social chaos.  For the previous few months, gangs had already roamed freely across the landscape, taking what they wanted in flesh and property.  Now, the entire area became a war zone.  Competing gangs warred viciously for the richer turf.  Homeowners tried to band together and form militias in an attempt to protect their neighborhoods.  But it was too little, too late.  In the dark of that night it was impossible to tell friend from foe.  Fear and pent up anger drove people mad.  It was a bloodbath. 

 

It could have been worse.  Since the precipitous decline in the population, not as much electrical power was needed along the grid, so both the San Onofre and El Diablo nuclear reactors had deactivated half of their units.  When their cooling systems snapped from the pressure of the quake they were designed to withstand, the resulting meltdowns were minor compared to Chernobyl.  Their containment vessels suffered only minimal cracking, and the radiation released only contaminated, and rendered lifeless for twenty-five thousand years, about a hundred square miles of land around each of them. 

 

The harvest full moon continued to sail through the night sky, oblivious to the ant like creatures below that were scurrying about in a frenzied St. Vitus Day Dance.  The heat, not thinking that this minor regional disturbance was any kind of reason to ease up on its oppression, continued to smother the continent with its sweating presence.  So, in one night the California dream, which had been on life supports for the last forty years, died a violent and inevitable death. . .

 

*        *        *        *        *

 

Felker did not see the moon nor feel the heat that night, but he did receive the reports about the quake in Los Angeles.  Deep in the bowels of his air-conditioned office in Washington, he was plugged into his communications net.  Ever since hearing about the back market version of the stone, he had become obsessed with finding its source and destroying whoever was involved.  There was absolutely nothing else on his mind.  When he was informed about the death and destruction in California, he could only think that it was one less thing he had to worry about.  Fuck L.A.  It had always been more trouble than it was worth.  The disaster would enable him to speed up the pullout, and that was a good thing.  He dismissed it without a second thought, more intent on scanning the reports coming in from the field agents prowling the flesh clubs of Manhattan.

 

Each agent had a tiny radio receiver and transmitter implanted behind his right ear.  Felker could hear not only their reports but everything that was going on around them for a radius of thirty feet.  When he gave them orders or asked questions, he became a voice inside their heads.  A devil on their shoulders, whispering in their ears.  If he was displeased with their responses all he had to do was turn up the volume.  The resulting feedback created a searing migraine headache that reached down into the dental nerves.  Every agent that night was on edge and alert as a man walking through a minefield.  They prowled the all night clubs of the underground trying to pose as casual hipsters looking for the next new high.  But it was hard to act loose and jaded with a bomb ticking in your head.  Felker moved from channel to channel, asking, demanding, cursing, threatening, yelling, and sometimes cranking the volume button all the way to the limit.  He was in a rage.  Many of the clubs were selling the synthetic version of the stone over the bar, but none of the agents had been able to i.d. a runner.  He wanted to close down every club and confiscate every ounce of the drug but knew that it would alert the suppliers, which would make them even more elusive. 

 

Felker paced the floor like a wolf in a cage, alone in his private bunker, ill at ease.   He pictured the ways he would dismember these motherfuckers who were threatening his destiny.

 

*        *        *        *        *        *

 

Sailor stood on the sidewalk outside of a club in Alphabet City looking at the moon, feeling its pull on his blood.  The crowd of party animals on the street swirled around him like water around a rock, ignoring him and the moon and the heat.  But he had learned to pay attention to what most people ignored.  It was why he was still alive.  He had learned years ago.  On point.  In Vietnam.  He let himself feel the edgy, irritable energy around and inside of him, isolated the inner anger and brought it to the forefront of his mind.   Keeping it there so that it wouldn't sneak up on him at the wrong moment and force him to act stupidly, he turned and entered the door below the pulsing neon nude.

 

The club was packed, as usual, with the predictable assortment of New York trendoids.  The ceiling was low, the air was thick, the lights were dim, the music was loud, the laughter was shrill.  The word of the destruction of Los Angeles had hit the streets and was the main focus of celebration.  There was a nasty satisfaction in the air as the crowd reveled in the leveling of La La Land.  It bonded the mob together with a perverse sense of community pride and gave the mindless party purpose and meaning.  As he made his way to the bar, Sailor scanned the place with an inner radar and picked out the threat immediately.  He didn't have to look at him.  He felt him.  Sitting six bar stools down to his left, the man was all adrenaline.  Waiting until he sensed the enemy looking in another direction, Sailor glanced up at the mirror behind the bar and looked at him.  Mid-thirties, longish blonde hair, dressed in the standard black cosmo fashion, Sailor knew him instantly as a killer.  An official, legal, killer.  But not the one he was waiting for.  As the man's head began to swivel back toward him, Sailor casually pushed himself away from the bar and drifted into the crowd. 

 

Back out on the street, he looked up once again at the sky and the fat yellow orb above him.  He remembered a line from a song that was popular in Nam.  “There's a bad moon on the rise.”

 

*        *        *        *        *        *

 

As he looked out the large windows in his den, Franklin Sinclair saw the moon, but it didn't register.  He was too irritated.  Nothing was going right.  He had already received calls from Yakamura and Krug.  They both had wanted to sound him out about what had transpired at the meeting and his thoughts on the matter.  Six days after the fact.  They kept the level of conversation to small talk, but it announced to Sinclair, in big bold letters, that they were both already on the case.  They wouldn't have called personally otherwise.  It also told him that they were in the same situation as himself.  Totally fucked.  That gave him a certain satisfaction.  At least they were not yet ahead of him.  Yakamura, in fact, was now well behind.  He had invested heavily in downtown Los Angeles real estate, and the quake was going to cost him hundreds of millions in revenue and months, if not years, in reinvestment and restructuring.  Thank god for small favors, he thought.

 

Sinclair took another sip of iced scotch and tried to put the elements of the deal in an order that would guarantee success.  But the more he tried, the more obvious it became to him that there were too many negative factors in play.  Too many liabilities, too many people to trust, too many players on the board, too many guns on the other side.  It finally came to him that he would not be able to meet the situation head on.  Sinclair was, above all, a realist.  It was that one trait that had put him ahead of his competition.  He was able to admit to himself that his cause was hopeless.  That simple confession cleared his mind and gave him a clean slate to work with.  Instead of letting anger and frustration surface at his failure, he let his mind remain blank.  He had been here before and had learned that empty containers created a vacuum that yearned to be filled. 

 

He reached over to his desk, opened a humidifier, and pulled out a small hand rolled Cuban.  Thoughtlessly, he lit up, rolled the cigar in his fingers, and took a long draw.  The blue smoke coiled slowly around his head as he exhaled.  He stepped back over to the window and looked out at the moon.  Now it registered.  It was round and a dull white in color.  Very much like the stone.  And then like a lightning bolt, his subconscious illuminated the empty canvas of his brain with the overlooked but obvious comparison.  The moon looked like another stone.  The image glowed there.  Another stone.

 

Felker had the stone, and everyone assumed that it was the one and only stone.  Now, the correct questions came.  How and where had Felker obtained it?  From who?  Was it a natural object or had it been created?  If so, by who?  Natural or unnatural, was there another somewhere?  If it was natural, where did it come from?  If it was created, what was the chemical composition? 

 

Sinclair broke out in a loud laugh.  Now he was on home ground.  Research and Development.  Exploration and Acquisition.  He had spent thirty years developing new products and developing natural resources.  All the tools were at his disposal.  A global network's worth.  If there was one stone, there could be another.  And it would be his.  He laughed again and looked at his reflection in the window.  Once again, he was happy with himself.

 

"Fuck you, Felker.”

 

Still laughing, he reached for the phone.  It was morning in Zurich.

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *

 

 It had taken them a week to reach Cortez. 

 

Stetson had deliberately taken his time, covering under fifteen miles a day, stopping early, and allowing Denise to rest.  She was healing nicely and getting stronger every hour.  It had been a leisurely trip, setting up camp in the afternoon, fishing in the river, raiding abandoned houses for food, lying lazily around the campfire at night, and then moving south again at dawn.  He hadn't been this relaxed in months.  The first two days of the trip he had wondered why he wasn't more upset about what had happened in Telluride, but then it had come to him that he was probably still under the influence of the chemical in the vial.  He no longer had the heightened awareness and acute sensual perception but could feel a residue of emotional calm and focus.  By the second day, he had finally realized that the drug, or whatever it was, had made him apprehend a living order behind everything.  He had felt, and still did, that the universe was in perfect balance, and that everything that happened was part of this perfection.  Well aware that this feeling could just be an illusion fostered by the drug, Stetson did not fully buy into it, but neither did he dismiss it out of hand.  He was grateful for the relief and quiet that it brought him and, for the time being, was content to let it calm him.

 

Denise had not been troubled by many second thoughts concerning her decision to go with him.  She could feel herself healing rapidly and knew that it was in direct response to the energy that came from Stetson.  Not only from the man, but from the horse also.  Somehow the two of them had developed a bond and emanated an aura of tranquility that allowed her to rest mentally, emotionally, and physically.  Stetson had never pressured her about her past, or came on to her sexually, or expected her to do more than she was able.  He had cared for her, fed her, and let her heal.  She knew there would probably be towns along the way where she could contact her parents and then be taken back to the comfort of her previous life, so she was not worried.  In the meantime, she was more than happy to sit up in the saddle on the big horse as they slowly made their way south along the river.  Ironically, it was turning out to be the kind of camping trip she had originally dreamed about.  Unfortunately, she was unable to completely enjoy herself, because part of the irony had to do with Kerry's death.  The image of her friend's corpse had come to her in her dreams and slapped her awake in the middle of the night, filling her with sadness, remorse, and the guilt that she was still alive while Kerry was dead.  She missed her friend bitterly, and the entire tragedy confirmed the suspicions she had harbored for years, that the universe was a godless and indifferent place full of mindless violence and chaos.

 

The third night out, as they had been sitting around the fire, Denise had tried to draw Stetson out about his past.  They had camped in the large pasture of a deserted ranch next to the water.  An old wooden barn was surrounded by tall lush grass that had not seen a horse in months.  Red had feasted happily in the moonlight.  The man had looked up at her across the fire.

 

"Where am I from?"  The question had seemed to amuse him.  "Here, there.  Traveled a lot."

 

"You must have been born somewhere, you know.  Had a mom and dad.  Brothers and sisters."

 

"Yeah, just like everybody else.  Nothing special."

 

"You don't want to talk about it?"

 

"What difference would it make?"

 

"It might help me know you better."

 

"I doubt it.  It might give you the illusion of knowing me better."

 

"Why do you say that?"

 

"Well, think about it.  When you hear people talking about their pasts - what are you really hearing?"  He hadn't waited for an answer.   "Their glorified version of it.  The version that makes them the heroes - or the victims.  Everybody does it.  You can't help it.  So what's the point?"

 

"Sounds pretty cynical to me."

 

"Well, maybe.  But I think at a certain point you have to leave the past behind."

 

"And do what?"

 

"Just be who you really are."

 

"So, who are you?"

 

He had smiled at her and sipped his tea.

 

"Just a guy."

 

She replayed the conversation in her head as she watched him walking out of the old trading post just outside of Cortez with the old woman.  The full moon was so bright that it cast sharp shadows on the ground as they approached.  The woman was short and squat, probably seventy years old.  She was decked in turquoise jewelry and dressed like a cowgirl.  Stetson carried two five-gallon soft plastic water bags over his shoulders.  The old lady was talking.

 

"It's about two days to Mexican Water.  You'd be better off traveling at night.  It's going to be hotter than a bitch in heat during the day.  And you got to watch for the nuts coming out of L.A.  This quake'll drive 'em out like crazed rats.  You got enough ammo?"

 

"Yeah, we'll be alright, Louise."

 

"Bullshit.  You'll be eatin' dust, sleeping with rattlesnakes, and pissing spit.  You know the Navajos got roadblocks up?  And border patrols?"

 

"I heard."

 

"Ain't like it used to be.  They ain't afraid to shoot white men anymore.  They'd just as soon ventilate your head as look at you.  If you didn't know a few of the old men out there, I wouldn't even let you go."

 

The woman looked up at Denise.

 

"You know what you're gettin into darlin?"

 

"Yeah, Stetson told me it was going to be rough."

 

"Rough ain't half of it.  We're talking three hundred miles of nothing but heartache.  There's some of them young bucks out on the res -” She thought better of finishing that sentence.  "You could stay here.  Wouldn't be no trouble.  There's a small airport in town where your folk's people could land - "

 

"Thanks for the offer, but - "

 

"Well, you can't say I didn't try.  I think you're both crazy.  Must be the moon."  She turned to Stetson and shook her head.  "I hope to Christ it's worth it.  Salome, for god's sakes.  Jesus.  Well, give me a big one.  Probably won't see you for a long time."

 

Stetson hugged her, and she nestled up against him like a schoolgirl.  Denise heard her whisper in his ear.

 

"Take care of yourself.  It's bad out there."

 

Stetson kissed her on the forehead, stepped over to Red, and slung the water bags over the back of the saddle.  As he led Red out of the parking lot and south onto the broken up highway, they heard Louise yell.

 

"If you see Joseph, tell the old bastard he still owes me a belt and a full squash blossom necklace!"

 

They were in Indian country.  Tall, narrow, dark red mesas jutted out of the flat desert landscape like sentinels.  The sky curved from horizon to horizon, full of stars.  The only sound was that of Red's hooves against the pavement as they walked out of town past the burnt out and gutted cars.

 

*        *        *        *        *        *

 

Jack Turner was in hog heaven.  Everything was working.  He pushed his old fashioned glasses back up on the bridge of his thin nose and studied the terminal.  He watched the Cray crunch the infinite possibilities of numerical and alphabetic combinations.  Figures raced across the screen almost too fast to see as the music blasted in the background.  The re-issued ZZ Top disc surrounded him at mega-decibels, putting him inside the band, and he danced in his chair.  The program had been running for two hours, searching for the key that would unlock another computer thousands of miles away from his lab in Palo Alto.  He knew that it was just a matter of time now, so he waited, wanting to be there when he hit the mother load.

 

His skinny elbows rested on the arms of the chair, as he tapped his foot in time to the music, and he smiled devilishly.  Nothing can stop us now, he thought and laughed silently.  Looking to his right, he saw Melnick glued to another terminal.  On its screen was a 3-D geological relief map of California.  A glowing red line ran up the coastline by Los Angeles.  The quake had struck hours within the predicted parameters and they had been ready for the inevitable and necessary electronic surge as the grid around L.A. went into overload.  Having already penetrated the key networks in the region, they had been able to channel the immense surge along pathways that been mapped out months in advance.  They routed the power to the main switching hubs of the system, over-rode the various lock-out mechanisms with code words they had acquired, but not used, months ago, got inside, and searched out the lines that connected to the different computer networks to which they wanted access.  After they were in, they had relocked the doors and hidden in sub-programs to avoid detection.  Whoever was monitoring security would never know they had been penetrated.  Any disturbance would be attributed to the surge and overload coming from the quake.  It was a beautiful fucking thing.  Now that they were in, it was just a matter of time.  Melnick looked over and pointed to his screen, yelling over the music.

 

"Aftershock outside of Palm Springs.  7.3  Do we need it!?"

 

"No, we're in and locked down tight!  Jesus, that was a motherfucker of a quake!  Pity the poor bastards down there!"

 

"No shit!"

 

Across the room, under the overhead fluorescents, Bailey was watching four TV’s at once.  Every screen was showing different scenes of destruction.  On one, a remote anchor was dodging bullets as he tried to give his report.  On another, the fires of hell burned below from a helicopter shot.  A third was obviously shot from a fast moving car.  Building after burning building swept by the camera.  The last displayed a map of the region, showing the fault lines.  Short, fat Bailey stood there just shaking his head in disbelief.  He turned to look at Melnick and Turner.

 

"Well!?"

 

Turner held both thumbs up and nodded his head.  Then the computer started beeping.  He swiveled in his chair and stared at his terminal.  The numbers and letters had stopped.  A single combination of ten figures blinked on and off in time to the beeps.  Slowly, a huge smile crept across his face.  He looked over to Melnick who rolled his chair over and stared at the screen.  They looked at each other, and then Turner pressed the enter key.

 

The phone rang.  And rang.  And rang.  Turner picked it up in slow motion before the machine did.  He was expecting this call.

 

"Yeah . . .  Hey!  Good timing. . . It worked . . . . Yeah . . . . Yeah . . . . We cracked the first system . . . .    Yeah, you're going to love this.  Ready.  It's the IRS” Turner laughed and laughed.  "I am going to destroy these mother fuckers!  I am going to rip out their heart and feed it to little rapid hackers!"  He laughed again.  "Yeah, yeah!  We're safe!  They can't find us unless they meltdown the whole system.  We're in deep! . . . .  What!? . . . . Oh, come on!  These guys deserve it!  I'll leave everything else alone!  I promise!  Come on! . . . . . . "  Turner sighed.  "Okay, okay, okay.  I hear you! . . .  .  Yeah, I know! . . . "  As he listened he brightened up.  "Yeah, we could do that! . . . .Right, no problem . . . . Yeah, that's good! . . . . . You're bad.  You're really bad! . . . .   Okay, later!"

 

He hung up and looked at Bailey. 

 

"Get on line!  I want to feed this to you, so the Cray can keep running the other penetrations!"

 

Bailey moved over to a third computer and booted up.

 

"What did he say!?  It was Melnick.

 

"Said we could play a little!  Want to do some creative auditing?"

 

They both rolled their chairs over to Bailey who had brought the compromised IRS network up on his terminal. 

 

"It's time to send some of these bastards into their own personal hell!"

 

Turner leaned over, scanned through the available files, and punched up Personnel.

 

*        *        *        *        *        *

 

Parc Davis hurried through the small private terminal at the Phoenix International Airport, his overnight bag slung over his large shoulder.  Any minute now, the place would be in chaos.  The news of the quake had just come over the media and all hell was going to break loose.  Most of the flights stacked up over L.A. would be rerouted immediately to Phoenix and San Francisco.  Incoming flights, the same thing.  Soon the air over the airport would be a buzzing hive of stacked planes full of panicked passengers, grieving and worrying over loved ones, pissed off because of canceled business deals, dismayed because they wouldn't be able to catch connecting flights to their well deserved vacations.  He had to get out right now while he still could. 

 

His white suit coat was draped over his arm, his red silk tie loose at his throat, his white shirt soaked with sweat.  He hated the desert heat and aridity.  With a passion.  Why the hell Embrey insisted on running the operation from Salome he never understood.  Anywhere would have been better.  He missed his beach house in Laguna.  Now there was a place to live.  Right on the sand.  Cool ocean breezes fanning the porch.  The soothing sound of surf day and night.  Beautiful men and women parading around in the comfortably warm sun.  Jesus, give me the beach any day, he thought.  Well, at least Embrey had been right about the quake.  He wondered how badly damaged his old house was.  There were already rumors floating about large tidal waves wiping out the coastal areas.  The idea of his place being destroyed ate at him like the loss of an old friend.  He stopped in front of a mirrored wall and checked his appearance.  His thick dark hair and beard, no longer sprinkled with gray, were matted to his head with sweat.  He looked wilted.  God he hated this heat.

 

Dismissing the thought, he hurried out the doors of the terminal out onto the moonlit tarmac and over to his small single engine Beechcraft.  He had finished his business just in time, dropping off various loads of the stone at previously selected clubs and bars.  It had been no small task.  Phoenix was nuts.  Engorged with refugees from the entire southwest, the city was out of control.  Along with L.A., it had been the only city in the region where the government retained any presence or control.  Even Tucson had been abandoned.  The result had been an overload on the infrastructure.  It was impossible to buy or rent anything to live in.  Thousands upon thousands of people were living out of their cars, trucks, vans, and campers.  They parked anywhere.  The police were helpless.  Crime had gone through the roof.  Everyone carried guns.  The city was in the process of meltdown.  Embrey had been right about that too.  He had seen the oncoming economic collapse and many of its consequences. 

 

He hauled his large frame up into the cabin of the plane, started all the pre-flight checks, revved up the engine, and contacted the tower for permission to taxi on the runway and get the hell out of there.  While he waited, he pulled a small vial of high impact plastic out of his overnight bag and unscrewed its cap.  He held the vial in his fingers for a minute, looking at it.  His jaw muscles tightened.  He knew he needed a hit, but he was loath to take it.  Originally, he had been as enthusiastic as the rest of them.  He loved the rush, the clarity, the energy, the reversal of the aging process.  But along the way something dark had crept in.  He found himself fighting its effects, getting paranoid, distrusting people around him.  It made him remember things from his childhood that were too painful to consider.  Put desires in his head that scared him.  Lately, he had been taking smaller and smaller doses.  Just enough to keep the aging process at bay.  He took a sip from the vial and put the cap back on.  The tower finally responded, and he taxied out on the runway reserved for private planes, waited his turn, and then, finally, raced down the pavement and rose up into the air above the glittering city lights.

 

As he banked the plane to the west, he saw the lights of the first of the refugee jets approaching.  Just in time, he thought.  Now how am I going to get Embrey see the financial potential in all of this?  They could make hundreds of millions, more than the old cocaine cartels ever thought of.  With the money would come enormous power.  He would be able to buy a palatial villa on some tropical beach and retire to a life of luxury, surrounded by beautiful young me-  women.  He knew the place already, a small sun kissed island in the Caribbean.  They had to get out of that deserted, squalid little town, or he was going to go crazy.  He could manufacture the stone anywhere, as long as he had a properly equipped lab.  Forget all that metaphysical bullshit.  Let's party!

 

As he rose in altitude, Parc Davis, master chemist, darling of the designer drug underworld, girded himself with determination.  No matter what the others said, pleasure, luxury, and immortality were going to be his destination.         

 

*        *        *        *        *

 

Trish sat on one of the swings in the backyard.  It was late, and the moon hung low and large in the western sky.  All around her were dark empty ranch houses and vacant yards.  Beyond them, the desert stretched out flat until, far in the distance, it rose up into jagged mountains that were silhouetted blackly against the background of stars.  It was hot.  Her hair was damp and clung to the back of her neck and temples.  The inside of her arms were slick with sweat.  She lifted her long hair from her neck and twisted it into a knot behind her head.  A slight breeze cooled her wet skin, so she unbuttoned her blouse, opened it up, and let the wind blow against her breasts.  Leisurely, she began to swing back and forth, and the rush of air felt good against her.  A memory came to her from her childhood of swinging in a schoolyard when she was in third grade, of how she fantasized that if she let go at the top of the arc, she would become weightless and be able to just fly away. 

 

As she had grown older, those kinds of dreams of fantasy and magic had been brutally crushed by the reality around her, and she had become hardened and bitter.  But now, things were different.  Once again, she could feel the child of wonder awakening in her.  The past four years had shown her that magic could happen, that her original youthful intuitions were actually based on a deeper, more primal reality than the one she had been brought up to fear and struggle against.  Still, she knew that those two realities were in mortal conflict.  The old would not give way to the new without the vicious fight of a cornered animal.  And tonight that knowledge filled her with a disturbing and formless premonition.  It was not something she could pinpoint.  It was a general unease that told her something dark was sweeping across the land, something worse than the quake.

 

 In the house behind her she heard the others cheering above the music.  She stopped swinging and laughed at herself.  Getting a touch melodramatic aren't you, she thought to herself.  Give it a break.  Between the full moon and the quake and the heat, it's enough to make anyone a little morbid.  She had felt the quake when it hit, although by the time it had reached them its force was almost spent.  It rattled the windows and knocked books off the shelves, but there was no major damage.  Then, of course, her period was due in a couple of days. 

 

She was trying to shake the darkness from her when she heard the sliding glass door open.  Turning in the swing, she saw Curtis step out into the back yard.  The music and voices grew loud for a moment and then faded as the door closed.  He walked over to her, smiled, and looked up at the moon.

 

"They're in." He was inside her head.

 

"That's good.  I was wondering what the cheering was about."

 

He looked down at her and smiled quizzically.  She could feel his concern.

 

"What's up?" he asked. 

 

The only sound was the creak and squeak of the metal chains holding the swing.

 

"I don't know.  I just felt . . . scared, I guess."

 

He reached down for her hand.

 

"Come here."

 

She stood up and he wrapped his arms around her.  His affection surrounded and enveloped her, and, although it did not erase her fear, it made it bearable as something that they shared.  It allowed her to think another concern.

 

"I'm worried about Sailor, too."

 

She could feel him pause mentally for a second and cock his head like an animal listening for something far away.  Then he looked into her eyes.

 

"He's alright. Everything is on schedule."  He smiled and his eyes had that mischievous sparkle. 

 

At that moment her premonition became specific and her eyes went wide.  She knew exactly what was going to happen.  She started to say something, but he pressed his finger gently against her lips.  He already knew, but she could see that it didn't matter.  He smiled and softly pulled her toward the house.  

  

"Come on.” He kissed her with his thoughts.   “It's not a party without you."

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

 

Even though they had traveled at night, the heat and the aridity had been punishing.  They had already finished off one of the water bags.  Denise felt constantly thirsty.  It wasn't helped by the fact that all they had to eat was dry food.  The second night Stetson had shot a rabbit and cooked it.  But to Denise it seemed salty and only increased the ever-present thirst.  Stetson had insisted that Denise ride, so that her ankle could heal, but it was still a grueling trip.  Eight hours in the saddle was not something she was used to, despite the frequent stops.  She was developing raw saddle sores on her butt and the inside of her knees, and her lower back ached from being on the horse all night.  Trying to sleep during the day under a shady ledge of rock or a makeshift tent made out of the sleeping bag had been impossible.  They would doze in and out of heated stupor, not quite awake, not quite asleep, rolling one way and then another on the unforgiving rocky soil, unable to find a comfortable position or get any real rest.  Louise had been right.  It had been a heartache.  But in spite of everything, Denise did not complain and astounded herself when she didn't.  Normally, she would have bitched like the spoiled child that she was, but something had changed in her.  Between the accident, the death of her friend, and running into Stetson, she was no longer the same person.  She had been thrown from her old life as she had been from the helicopter, and she knew that there was no going back.  Meeting Stetson had been the turning point.  He was in touch with something light-years beyond her experience.  Something exciting and vital.  Something - she hesitated to even think it to herself - magical.  There was no way that she was going to let that magic slip through her fingers until some of it had become hers.  So, she persevered three whole days. 

 

They reached Mexican Water on the third night, coming down off the bluffs and down into the little valley where the twisting river ran.  The water sparkled in the moonlight and seemed as if it belonged to a different world than the one they had just come through.  A half of dozen hogans were scattered widely across the valley floor among the trees lining the river, and they could see horses and sheep moving in the darkness.   As they neared the river and the nearest hogan, a tall lean Navajo, dressed in levis, cowboy boots and hat, stepped through its door carrying a rifle.  Stetson greeted him with words that sounded like "ya ta hay" and the man responded in kind.  Their conversation was lost on Denise, and she sat silently on Red as they talked.  The only word she recognized was "Joseph".  At that point, the Navajo seemed to relax his wariness somewhat.  He looked directly at Stetson for the first time and nodded imperceptively.  They talked a few more seconds, and then the other man turned and headed back toward the hogan.  Stetson followed, leading Red and Denise behind him.

 

"He's invited us for dinner.  Just stay quiet and follow my lead.  He assumes you’re my woman.  There won't be any problems."

 

When they reached the hogan, Stetson tied Red to the fence of a small corral and helped Denise down to the ground.  The Navajo disappeared inside the hogan.  In a small clearing next to the man's timber and mud home was a rough wooden table with benches on either side. A large cottonwood tree on the riverside of the clearing hung over the area.  Stetson helped her over to the table and then went back over to Red.  He pulled what was left of the corn meal from the saddlebags and came back over.  Their host appeared at the table silently and sat down.  Stetson offered him the corn meal and he, in turn, pushed a bag of rolling tobacco across the table.  Stetson opened the bag, pulled out some papers, and rolled himself a cigarette.  He lit it, took a long deep drag, and exhaled leisurely.  A few words were exchanged, and then a woman came out of the hogan carrying a pot of steaming food, some bowls, and a round flat loaf of bread.  She must have been in her mid-thirties and already going fat.  She wore a long print skirt, a dark velvet blouse, a small fortune in silver and turquoise, and her dark hair was pulled back severely in a bun.  She laid out the bowls next to each of them, spooned in what appeared to be some kind of thick stew, put the bread on the table, and then went back into the house.  Denise watched as Stetson and the other man began to eat, using their fingers and chunks of bread.  Too hungry for real food to worry about etiquette or meditate on cultural differences, she started wolfing it down.  The stew was substantial and filling and tasted like lamb.  She looked up halfway through to see the Navajo studying her.  He quickly flicked his gaze over to Stetson and almost smiled.  The white man's eyes twinkled and his shoulders went up in a small shrug.  They had hardly touched their food.  She slowed down and the meal progressed quietly.  When they were done, Stetson and the other man shared another cigarette, and conversed in short, unanimated sentences as if they were talking about the weather or the crop report.  At some unknown signal, Stetson stood up and shook the other man's hand.  With a short goodbye, the Navajo turned and walked back to the hogan.  Stetson helped Denise up from the table.

 

"Let's go find a place to camp."

 

Although she could now walk by herself, he still held her by the arm and helped her climb back up on Red.  Following the river in the waning moonlight, they came across a small grassy clearing that ran down to the river.  To Denise, the clearing looked like a luxury hotel compared to where they had previously camped.  The grass was like a thick Persian carpet.  The light breeze like central air.  The river like a huge marble bathtub.  Neither of them had to say a word.  It was the perfect campsite.  As Stetson unbridled and unsaddled Red, Denise walked down to the slow moving water and waded in up to her knees, leaning over and splashing water on her sun burnt face.  It was heaven.  The water felt so good that she walked back up to the shore, stripped off all of her clothes, and waded back in.

 

As he rolled out the sleeping bag, Stetson watched her walk naked into the water.  She quickly ducked down, submerging herself completely, and then stood back up.  The water glistened on her skin, as she pulled back her wet hair.  With the raising of her arms, her rib cage came up and her breasts rose, shining silver in the moonlight.  The river swirled lazily around her firm thighs, and Stetson realized for the first time just how beautiful she was.  He just stood there and watched her.  He held his breath and savored it, wanting it to last, praying that she wouldn't turn around and break the spell

 

She turned to look at him, smiling and scooping water up onto her arms.  Instead of breaking the spell, it intensified it.

 

"I'm in heaven."  she said.

 

"Yes," was all he could think of to say.  

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *       

 

 

 

Margaret Sinclair was housebound.  She had finally admitted it to herself.  The trip to Rome last year had been a nightmare.  She had dosed herself with Xanex the whole time, and it barely kept her fears under control.  Everything about the outside unnerved her.  The crush of human flesh, the noise, the filth, the germs, the machines, the open spaces.  Anything could happen at anytime.  It was out of control.  It wasn't safe.  Just stepping out of the house now was something that paralyzed her with inchoate irrational terror.  There were bugs in the air and under her feet.  There was dog shit on the sidewalk.  There were suspicious, dangerous strangers.  It was too much to bear.  Better to just stay inside.  She had no need to go out.  Everything could be delivered.  Friends could visit her and be entertained lavishly.  Every movie, play, novel, soap opera could be accessed through the satellite.  Every material whim could be satisfied.  And who could want a nicer home?  She had everything.  Well, almost everything.  She didn't have her daughter.  How could Denise have gone on such a dangerous trip?  Camping in the Rockies, for Christ's sake.  Wild animals, violent people, no law, high cliffs, unpredictable weather.  It was nuts.  Where had she gone wrong?  The girl was so spoiled and out of control.  No sense at all. 

 

She was in her main kitchen, a cavernous white room with hardwood floors, leaded glass cabinets, black marble counters lined with white appliances, double wide freezers and refrigerators, industrial dish washer, restaurant size stainless steel stove, breakfast alcove, two phones, three televisions, and an intercom.  She had just put a Slender-Meal in the microwave when the phone rang.  Letting it ring, she set the timer and pushed Start, and then, finally, hit the speaker button.

 

"Hello."

 

"Mrs. Sinclair?"

 

"Yes.  Who's speaking?"

 

"This is Mr. Johnson from Mountain Tours out in Denver - "

 

She grabbed the receiver, taking him off the box.

 

"Ah, Mr. Johnson!  Have you heard from my daughter!?"

 

There was a pregnant pause as the man took a breath.

 

"Well, Mrs. Sinclair, I'm afraid I have some bad news - "

 

She listened in sudden fear.

 

 "There's been an accident.  The helicopter that was transporting your daughter and her friend, Ms. Page, crashed in a pass over the mountains and - "

 

"My daughter!  Is she alright!?"

 

"We don't know Mrs. Sinclair.  There were two bodies in the wreck.  We've identified them as the pilot and Ms. Page.  We weren't able to find any trace of your daughter."

 

Horror overwhelmed her, and struck her dumb.  She stood in her sunlit kitchen with the receiver in her hand, staring at nothing.

 

"Mrs. Sinclair?  You there?"

 

"Where's my daughter?" she asked as if she hadn't heard him at all.

 

"We don't know.  There's been search parties out for the last four days, but they haven't found anything.  I was hoping to call you with something definite, but she's just disappeared.  We'll keep on searching, of course, but I thought you should know the situation.  I'm very sorry, Mrs. Sinclair - "

 

Now she cracked.

 

"Do you know who you're dealing with?  Do you know who my husband is?  I don't want to hear any pathetic excuses from you!  This is my daughter we're talking about for Christ's sake!"  Her voice rose to a shriek.  "You find her right now!  I don't care how many people you have to use! Or how much it costs.  I want her found today!  Who the hell do you think you are to call me and tell me you can't find her!  Who the hell do you think you are!?  You find her!  Do you hear me!? - "

 

"Mrs. Sinclair.  We're doing everything humanly possib - "

 

"Listen, little man."  Her voice turned to ice.  "You find my daughter today or I'm going to have my husband dismember you and your shitty little tour business piece by piece.  And don't doubt for a second that he won't.  You don't piss off this family.  My daughter is worth more than a thousand little people like you.  If she doesn't call me by tonight, in good health, I will destroy you and everything you hold dear.  Do you understand me!?"

 

"Mrs. Sinclair, there's no need to resort to threats"

 

"Believe me, Mr. Johnson, this is no threat."

 

She hung up, shaking from anger and fear.

 

 

          *        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

 

It had taken him a half hour to get hard, and it had taken Christy every trick she knew to make it happen.  She had played with herself in front of him on her king size bed using the huge vibrator he had bought her and faked a couple of monumental orgasms while she talked dirty to him.  His favorite porn video, the science fiction one where the girls get it from all ends and then make love to each other, was playing on her wall-size flat screen.  She had sucked on him for ten minutes before his cock showed any signs of life.  When it finally got semi-hard, hard enough for her to push it up inside her, she straddled him from the top, playing with her nipples the way he liked, and started pumping and moaning and faking more orgasms.  It was hard sweaty work. 

 

Sinclair felt it happening.  He knew he was over the hump.  He was going to make it.  It felt so good.  He looked up at his twenty-three year old nymphet.  The sweat of passion made her skin glow in the dim flickering light of the TV.  This girl just couldn’t get enough.  He looked over and saw that his favorite part was coming up on the video, the part where the three girls did it to each other.  He sat up and buried his face in her large firm expensive breasts.  The rush was starting.  He was going to come.

 

The phone rang.  They let it.  The machine picked it up.

 

“Hi!  This is Christy.  I’m not home.  You know what to do.”

 

“Franklin, pick up the phone right now!”

 

He went limp immediately. 

 

“What the fuck –“

 

“Right now, Franklin!”

 

Christy rolled off of him, picked up the phone, and handed it to him.

 

“Maggie.  What the hell is this?  How did you get this number?”

 

“Grow up, Franklin.  We’ve got a real problem.  Denise was in a helicopter accident out in Colorado, and they can’t find her.  Kerry and the pilot are dead.  They’ve had search parties out for the last four days and haven’t found a trace.  Put it back in your pants and get over here.”

 

“Are you sure that there’s not – “

 

“Franklin.  This is your daughter we’re talking about.  She might be dead.  She might be lost in the middle of nowhere, hurt, starving to death.  You’ve got to do something.”

 

It was unbelievable.  Denise dead?  Hurt?  In danger?  It was impossible.  Things like this didn’t happen to them.  They happened to other people.  Unimportant people. 

 

“Okay, okay.  I’ll be right there.”

 

He hung up and looked at Christy.  She was the same age as Denise.         

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

A week later, it snowed.  The upper atmosphere had been so disturbed over the last few years by man made pollutants that the jet streams had become violent and unpredictable.  Within two hours the temperature dropped forty degrees, massive black clouds swooped in from the north along with a wall of wind that cut to the bone with its cold.  They were caught out in the open, the land barren and flat for miles around.  Stetson knew that they were just a few miles outside of Tsegi, so he slipped up on Red behind Denise, wrapped his coat around both of them the best he could, and urged the horse to pick up his pace.  Red was now consciously aware of his mortality for the first time in his life, and he was determined not to die here when, in fact, he had just been born, so he broke into a single foot, hunched his neck against the wind coming from his right, and ate up the old two lane highway at a steady pace. 

 

Stetson could feel the girl shivering against him, the wind and cold making it hard for her to breathe.  He had to almost shout above the wind.

 

"You okay!?"

 

She nodded painfully, unable to even speak, shielding her face against the weather with her hands.  His heart went out to her and he embraced her more tightly, trying to share his body heat.  He couldn't imagine what she must be thinking.

 

"Sorry you came now!?"

 

She turned and looked back at him.  As their eyes met, he saw her for the first time.  He was not looking at a young, spoiled girl painfully exiled from the insulated womb of the super-rich.  All that had dropped away, and he was looking at a woman, into the deeper self that lie behind the games, pretensions, masks, and the history of this life.  In that split second, a door opened between them, and they were no longer strangers.  As the wind and snow whipped at her hair, her eyes smiled and she shook her head in answer to his question.  Another gust lashed at them, and once again she hid her face in her hands.  He heard her above the wind.

 

"Just hold me tighter!"

 

The snow became so thick that they couldn't see more than ten feet in front of them, and the highway was quickly disappearing in a blanket of white.  Stetson started to worry.  It was easy to get lost in this kind of storm, end up in the middle of nowhere, and freeze to death.  He had to trust in Red's senses, hoping the horse could feel the road under his hooves and stay on it.  His hands were already going stiff and numb, and he knew that the wind chill factor was dropping rapidly.  It would be night soon, and, if they hadn't found shelter by then, they were going to be in a world of hurt.  He didn't have the heart to tell Denise what kind of trouble they were in, so he just pushed Red a little harder and said a silent prayer, losing all sense of time.

 

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a man appeared on the road.  It was an old man, dressed in saggy levis, a faded levis shirt, and work boots.  His long white hair blowing horizontal in the wind.  It was Joseph, yelling above the storm's rage in his own language.

 

"What the hell took you so long!?  I've been waiting out here for ten minutes!!"

 

"Joseph!!"

 

"C'mon!!"

 

Stetson slipped down off of Red, grabbed the reins, and walked over to the old man who grabbed him by the jacket and pulled him off to the left.

 

"I heard you were coming!"

 

"Did Louise call you?"

 

"That old bitch!?"  He pulled on him harder.  "Over here!"

 

An old ramshackle gas station materialized out of the blizzard.  Joseph opened the overhead door of a repair bay, and Stetson led Red and Denise inside.  The relief was instantaneous as the wind stopped and the noise died.

 

"Red should be alright in here.  There's plenty of water, and I think I got a bag of oats around here somewhere."

 

Stetson helped Denise dismount.  She had already started turning blue.

 

"Get in the office.  There's a fire going.  I'll take care of the horse."

 

 As they walked through the door, the warmth surrounded them, and they both went right to the wood burning stove, stretching out their hands to the heat and shaking the snow from their clothes.  The room was small and dirty with large grease smudged windows that looked out onto the storm from two sides.  There was a metal desk across from the stove with two wooden chairs in back of it.  The remaining two walls of the office were lined with wooden shelves that had once been painted white.  Denise looked out at the blizzard.

 

"Does it always snow this early here?"

 

"No, but lately, you never know what -"

 

Joseph came in talking.

 

"Well, you whites finally succeeded in really fucking up the climate, didn't you?"

 

He walked over behind the desk and started busting up one of the chairs, which he fed piece by piece into the fire.

 

"No, actually, I did it all by myself just to piss you off."

 

Joseph looked up and chuckled.

 

"You were always a bad boy.  No respect for your elders"

 

Stetson saw Denise looking back and forth between both of them, not understanding a word, so he switched tongues and nodded toward the woman.

 

"This is Denise.  Denise, Joseph."

 

The old man looked up at her from his kneeling position in front of the stove's open door.  The firelight flickered on his weathered face and Denise could see his eyes examining her, taking her measure.

 

"How the hell did you end up with this guy?"  He spoke in unaccented English.

 

She told him briefly what she could remember.  Outside the storm tore at the building and it started getting dark.  Joseph stood up and lit a kerosene lamp on the desk.  As he listened, he took a pot of coffee off the top of the stove, poured three thick cups, and then added large shots of whiskey from a bottle he got from a drawer in the desk.  He handed her one of the cups.

 

"So, instead of going home, you decided to come with him?"  He laughed and looked at Stetson, shaking his head.  "The accident must have caused some brain damage."

 

Stetson was looking out the window, ignoring the old man's remark.

 

"Where is everybody?"

 

"Home.  Where do you think they'd be on a day like this?"

 

"You just abandoned the town?"

 

"Well, there's no tourists anymore.  What's the point?"

 

"I can't believe this weather.  I knew things were going to get fucked up, but -"

 

"This will clear by the morning.  But there's another one right behind it."

 

"Is that what they said on the weather?"

 

Joseph looked at him like he was a little slow.

 

"What do those idiots know?  We'll get some sleep and then head for my place as soon as it gets light.  You can ride out the storm there."  He put another piece of the chair into the fire, and then sat on the edge of the desk.  "So.  Tell me."

 

"Tell you what?"  Stetson turned toward him.

 

Joseph just looked at his younger friend, waiting for him to catch up. 

 

Denise watched the exchange with curiosity.  They seemed to speak in a kind of short hand.  Finally thawed out enough to be able to move her fingers and toes, she stepped away from the puddle underneath her feet and sat on the floor next to the stove.  Stetson looked at the old man, waiting for him to say something, knowing he wasn't going to.  It was a game they played.  They both smiled at one another.  Stetson knew what he was asking.

 

"Well . . . "

 

He told him the whole story, starting with the meeting in Durango and ending with Denise's appearance in the meadow.  When he was done, Joseph looked at him and shook his head.

 

"It's always gotta be some kind of drug with you guys, doesn't it?  Or some, what do they call them?  Guru?"  He cackled at the sound of the word. 

 

Stetson just smiled and shrugged.

 

"What can I tell you?"

 

"Nothing."

 

They both laughed, and Joseph nodded in Denise's direction.  She had fallen asleep sometime during the story, her head lolling back against the bottom of the window.  Stetson walked out into the garage and grabbed the sleeping bag from the floor.  Red had finished a bucket of oats and was beginning to nod out standing up.  His head came up and he looked at Stetson.  The man stroked his neck.  He was going to say something, but realized there was no need.  Walking back in the office, he unzipped the bag and spread it out on the floor in front of the desk.  Without much trouble, he moved Denise over onto the bag without really waking her.  She curled up on her side and fell back into an exhausted sleep.

 

Joseph had rolled two cigarettes and poured them both another cup of coffee.  They smoked and drank for a few minutes without saying anything.  Stetson stared out the window again.

 

"How bad's it going to get."

 

"Depends on who you're with.  Where you are.  There's going to be a lot of pain."

 

"How long?"

 

"Twenty years, give or take."

 

"Long haul."

 

"It's always a long haul."

 

Stetson looked back to his friend.

 

"And you?"

 

Joseph shrugged and took a drag off his cigarette.

 

"I'm an old man."

 

"That's what you said the first time I met you."

 

"Now I'm really old."

 

Stetson tried to repress a chuckle and couldn't.  There was something about Joseph that always made him feel that he was in on some cosmic joke.

 

"You're so full of shit, I swear to God - "

 

The old man looked at him, his eyes lit up, and they laughed again.

 

Later, as he was falling asleep next to Denise, the last thing Stetson remembered was the sound of the remaining chair being broken up and fed into the fire.

 

He awoke with Denise wrapped in his arms.  They were both on their sides, and she was curled up against him, her head resting on his arm.  He lifted his head, examining her sleeping profile.  It was beautiful.  Her full lips were slightly parted as if she were just about to kiss someone.  He laid his head back down and closed his eyes, fighting the growing emotion inside of him.  Her body fit in his like a hand in a glove, and the pleasure of a female form so intimately intertwined with his was something he had not felt in a long time.  It felt natural.  It felt good.  Too good.  He tried to slip his arm from underneath her head without waking her, but it didn't work.  She rolled over onto her back and opened her eyes.  In the first heartbeat she didn't know where she was.  In the second, she saw Stetson looking down at her, and the look she gave him was unmistakable.  A radiant smile swept across her face.  She was right where she wanted to be.  He couldn't help smiling back at her. 

 

The door to the outside opened with a blast of cold air.  Joseph followed it in.

 

"Okay.  Let's go.  We've only got a few hours."

 

Outside, next to the gas pumps, stood an old beat up Chevy pick-up.  Joseph was filling up the tank.  Red was tethered to the back on a long lead, wearing only a halter.  The sky was a hard gray above the rust colored landscape.  The wind came in gusts, swirling around them in small dust devils.

 

"Gas?"  Stetson asked as he walked up.  "You still got gas?"

 

"Yeah.  When your government started pulling out a few months ago, the Navajos closed down the borders in a heartbeat.  So there was no time for the white trash to come rob the tanks.  It won’t last that long, but might as well use it while we got it.”

He put the nozzle back on the pump.  “Let’s roll.”

 

A few miles outside of Tsegi, they turned left on a dirt road and headed south.  Between the need to go slow because of Red and the poor condition of the road, they puttered along at about twenty miles an hour, making their way around tall mesas, through small canyons, and across dry washes.  Not much of the snow had stuck to the ground, because the land still held warmth from the recent heat wave.  Occasionally, one of the washes would be running, and they would have to get out, judge its strength and depth, and then slowly make their way across.  Stetson, for some reason, felt the need to make small talk.  Neither Denise nor Joseph seemed inclined to say much, and the silence unsettled him.  So, he found himself chattering about the weather, the look of the landscape around them, Joseph’s truck.  Anything.  Finally, Joseph leaned over looking past Denise with a look that said, what the hell are you blabbering about?  He raised his eyebrows and spoke with mock sincerity.

 

“What about them Suns, huh?”

 

Stetson shut up.  And then the thoughts that he had been trying to shove away came at him.  They were about Denise.  Now, whenever their eyes met, that electric spark jumped between them.  It was exciting, stimulating, promising.  He had seen it before.  Many times.  And every time it had ended in disaster.  He had finally come to totally mistrust his own judgment when it came to women.  Every time he thought he had found the right one, he had been wrong.  Sometimes unbelievably wrong.  It had finally dawned on him that he had all the symptoms of an addict.  He loved women and the romance that they brought into his life so much that it blinded him.  Made him overlook the obvious.  Led to separation and pain.  He didn’t want to go through it again.  But as Denise leaned against him, her warmth and softness stirred the old feelings.  Set the hormones in motion.  He loved it and resisted it at the same time, knowing that she had already crossed the line, and that he didn’t know what to do.  So, he started talking again.

 

“The Council still running things?”

 

Joseph glanced over with a look of exasperation, but decided to humor him.

 

“Get serious.  As soon as your government pulled out, they were done.”

 

“It’s not my government.”

 

“Must be.  You’re a pahana.”

 

“Am I?”

 

Finally, Denise spoke up.

 

“What’s a pahana?”

 

A strange thoughtful look crossed Joseph’s face.

 

“A white man.”

 

“Tell her what it really means.”

 

Something passed between the two men that Denise could not quite grasp.  There was a pause as Joseph turned off the road onto a smaller one that seemed to lead to the top of a narrow mesa, six hundred feet above them.  She could sense the old man debating with himself.  He looked over at her, and that seemed to decide it.

 

“It’s part of our religion that in the final days of this world our white brother would appear and help us enter into a new and better one.  It’s a vital part of our beliefs.”  He paused.  “When your people did show up and proceeded to rape the land and kill anything or anyone that got in their way . . .  Well, it would be like you finding out that Christ was a con artist and Moses liked little boys.  It wasn’t good.”

 

“Well, where does that leave you?”

 

A perceptive question, thought Joseph.

 

“It leaves me hoping that he’ll still show up after all.”

 

A light came into Denise’s eyes and a sudden realization into her mind.

 

“You’re a Hopi!”

 

Both Stetson and the old man looked at her, understood the naïve train of thought and burst out laughing.  She looked quickly at both of them with a perplexed look on her face.

 

“What!?”

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

Felker knew that he was running out of options and time.  So far they had been lucky.  Whoever was manufacturing and distributing the synthetic had apparently picked New York as the city to introduce the drug.  Exhaustive reports from other major metropolitan centers had come up with no evidence of the substance on their black markets.  That probably meant that the lab was within the area.  Probably.  He was pissed off that he had even had to run the check.  Even though security was tight, there could always be leaks.  They hadn't told any of the regionals what its effects or properties were, but just the fact that more people knew about a designer drug called the stone was unacceptable.  It introduced variables into an already complex equation.  He held his anger in check as he fed the reports into the vaporizer.  Anger was an emotion he couldn't afford right now.  It clouded the clarity of his thinking.  And two things had become very clear.  One, he had to get the synthetic off the market, and, two, destroy the lab and whoever was producing it. 

 

What was not clear was how he was going to attain these two goals.  A classic strategy would be to have one of his men go undercover, get close to the runner, and eventually be accepted as one of their own.  Then it would only be a matter of time until his man would discover the location of the lab.  After that, a simple wet operation would be mounted and the lab and its creators would be liquidated.  The problem with that approach would be the time that it would eat up.  It might take weeks, even months, and that was out of the question.  Everyway he approached the problem he came to a dead end.  As he let his mind pick at the situation, it became obvious that his real problem was, in fact, time.  It was the need to eliminate the problem immediately that was the source of his grief.  The more time that passed, the surer his undoing.

 

He walked over to his desk, sat down, and stared at the empty walls of his office.  The white walls stared back at him, offering no answers.  He was six floors underneath the streets of Washington in essentially what was a bunker of the tightest security.  Built before the end of the cold war, it was designed to withstand a direct nuclear blast.  In the rooms next to him were complete living quarters with enough food and water to last years.  The walls and floors around him were made of poured concrete nine feet thick, reinforced with a tight webbing of inch thick rebar.  Emergency lighting and heating systems were backed up and then backed up again.  He was completely shielded from any kind of electronic ease dropping.  His phones and computers were swept on the hour.  He was totally secure.  But that security was of absolutely no help in his current predicament.  It was a high-risk situation with the highest stakes involved.  What made it worse was the fact that the people he was hunting were obviously sampling their own wares.  The stone gave them abilities far beyond that of the ordinary drug dealer.  He had a vague idea what some of those abilities were from his own brief exposures to the real stone, but he had not dared to push his own limits to find out what they truly were.  As his mind followed this train of thought, the frightening but logical conclusion came to him.  He fought it at first because of the fear, but its logic was too obvious to reject.   

 

Felker pushed a digital pressure plate underneath his desk and heard the six steel rods sigh into place, locking the only door to the office.  Hitting another hidden plate, a panel slid open on the floor next to him, revealing the top of a combination safe.  He leaned over, spun the dial to the correct combination, opened the door, and pulled out the box containing the stone.  After closing the safe and its covering panel, he put the box on the desk in front of him and stared at it.  The time had come to test his limits.  He had to know what he was dealing with in these runners.  The time had come to fight fire with fire.  He was afraid but not wanting to admit it, he became angry.  Angry that he had been pushed into this corner.  The anger turned into a bravado.  I'll show these bastards, he thought.  If they can do it, I can do it.

 

He leaned forward, his elbows on the desk, his hands holding either side of the lid of the box.  Taking a deep breath, he slowly lifted the lid and looked at the stone.  The twelve-sided sphere lay in its bed of blue velvet looking small and harmless.  A rush of well-being and clarity swept over him as his spine straightened and he smiled.  God, he loved this part.  All feelings of fatigue or age disappeared immediately, and he was infused with an enormous amount of physical energy.  It rushed through him with an ecstatic thrill, and the stone started to glow.  Imperceptively at first, the light increased rapidly.  His mind became crystal clear, and he focused his concentration on the immediate problem.  Time.  Then he knew.  He could gain time if he bought up all the synthetic out on the market.  It might alert the runners, but it would keep it out of the hands of any competitors or adversaries.  It was a trade off, but one in his favor.  Good.  Excellent.  As he stared at it, the stone's color began to shift to the red side of the spectrum.  Its off- white began to take on a slightly pink tone and become slightly less opaque at the same time.  He turned his thoughts to the problem of finding the lab.  But instead, a memory jumped into his mind.  He was younger.  In East Germany.  On a covert operation.  It was a cold winter night.  Outside, the snow was falling softly on the streets outside the window of the apartment.  The man on the bed was sleeping soundly.  Without hesitation he raised the pistol.  He made no sound, but suddenly the man's eyes opened and looked at him through the fog of sleep.  A pitiful fear crept across the man's face and Felker pulled the trigger.  With the silencer, the gun popped with a small dull thump, but the violence it did to the man's head was enormous.  His skull exploded and blood and brain tissue splattered across the pillow and headboard.  Felker felt nothing but professional pride at a job well done. 

 

That's it, he thought to himself as he sat holding the stone.  I've got to do this myself.  I was the best field operative the agency ever had.  That's why I'm where I am today.  I've got to get out of the office and personally handle this.  It's so obvious.  Now, how do I approach it?  He tried to organize his thoughts for the more efficient plan of attack, but something prevented him.  For some reason, the image of the man on the bed kept coming back to him like a movie being rewound to the same spot and played over and over.  Again and again he saw the look of cringing fear and then the skull exploding.  Then he felt himself sinking.  Dropping into a darkness, turning over, falling, landing on something soft, struggling to open his eyes.  They opened in a dark room.  A man was standing over him with a gun.  Fear possessed him.  Invaded every fiber of his being.  It was paralyzing.  It was all he knew.  The gun flashed with a silent blinding fire and unbelievable agony exploded in his brain.  He wanted to cry out for his mother, reduced to an infantile consciousness.  But there was only agony.  And then blackness.  And then a light.  There was something about the light that was more frightening than anything that had gone before. 

 

With a supreme effort of will, he made himself feel his fingers on the lid of the box.  In a time that took forever, the lid slowly started to drop.  Just before it closed, he was back in the chair behind the desk, looking at the stone.  It was glowing blood red.  He slammed the lid shut and held it that way with all the strength he had.  Shaking and drenched in sweat, he pissed all over himself.       

 

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

They had dropped off Red at a small corral at the bottom of the bluff and made sure he had water and food.  When they reached the top of the mesa, they entered into a different world.  Perched on a narrow finger of cliff was a small village of about thirty small rock and adobe houses.  The dirt road ran right down the middle.  They could see for hundreds of miles around them.  The sky above was enormous.  Its vastness dwarfed everything under it.  The sun was setting, casting a golden glow on everything around them.  Joseph parked the truck, and they walked into the town.  Men, women, children, and dogs stopped whatever they were doing and greeted the old man.  It reminded Denise of villages she had seen in South America.  Everyone seemed to have their place, their social roles clearly defined.  Women ground corn, weaved on looms and gossiped outside their front doors.  The children and dogs ran through the street laughing and barking.  Men hauled firewood and water, repaired their ancient trucks, sat around smoking.  It seemed normal enough in a third world way, but there was a sense of timelessness here that pervaded everything.  The village seemed as if it had been there forever.  It had its own personality.  The buildings themselves seemed to be aware of their presence. The very fact that it hung so precariously on the narrow finger of land hundreds of feet above the high desert floor gave it an aura of mystery.  Why would anyone build a town here, so far away from water, plantable soil, and other humans?  It was as if they wanted to leave the planet behind and live in the heavens themselves.

 

Denise couldn't help but notice the curious glances of the people as she passed by.  She couldn't know that there hadn't been any whites in the village for months.  She didn't know that the stares were curious instead of hostile because they were with Joseph.  She didn't know that the stares were just for her until a twelve old boy ran up to Stetson and started jabbering at him in their language.  He proudly displayed a nasty cut on his knee and then started acting out some scenario that seemed to involve hanging from a rope with one hand and reaching out to grab something with the other.  Then he started flapping his arms like they were wings.  It was all lost on her, but Stetson seemed to understand perfectly and acted dutifully impressed.  They reached a house that seemed no different than the rest, walls made out of stacked rock and brown mud, a flat roof supported by large rough timbers, small windows, and a door made out of wood so old it looked almost petrified.  Joseph opened it and they went in. 

 

The first impression that she got was well-worn comfort.  The floors were hard packed earth, but covered by beautiful rugs of detailed geometric designs.  The walls were plastered white and, it seemed, molded so that there were no hard edges or corners anywhere.  A stone fireplace dominated the wall to their right, and on its mantle were a series of large pots glazed in brilliant black and covered by unknown symbols.  A bed made out of cedar logs and covered with woven blankets stood by the wall on one side of the fireplace.  On the other was a large pile of neatly stacked wood ready to burn.  The whole room smelled of cedar.  Across the room from them, along the far wall, ran a white tile counter in the middle of which was a metal sink with no faucets.  Above the sink was a small window that looked out on the desert floor far below.  Underneath were shelves with various pots and pans, bowls and plates.  Against the wall to their left was a table and four chairs, all made from wood that looked as ancient as the door they came in.  Their surfaces had been worn smooth with a patina from who knew how many generations of human contact.  She took all this in by the time Joseph walked over to the fireplace and started piling in the logs.  Stetson went over to the counter, got two cups from a shelf underneath, and filled them with water from a large metal drum next to the sink.  Outside the window she could see black clouds rolling in and the air in the room started taking on a chill.  He came back over to the table, sat down, and waved his hand at the chair next to him.  She sat down, took a drink, and watched Joseph start the fire.

 

Suddenly, there was a tapping noise at the window.  Denise looked over and saw a huge bird perched outside on the sill, rapping against the glass with his beak.  It looked like some kind of eagle.  Its feathers were a golden brown.  He was so tall that he had to hunch his shoulders and dip his head to reach the glass.  The sill was narrow and he was having a hard time staying on it in the growing wind.   He spread his wings to keep his balance and they disappeared on either side of the window, blocking out all the light.  He tapped the glass again, impatiently.  She and Stetson looked at each other quizzically and then over to Joseph.  The old man walked over with an exasperated look on his face to the window

 

"Alright.  Don't break it."

 

He swung the window open into the room and then walked back over to put more logs on the fire. The big bird wiggled through, stepped onto the counter, and spread his wings again to their full six-foot span. His beak opened wide. His narrow pointed tongue quivered, and he emitted a loud high-pitched scream.  Denise sat back in her chair, frightened.  The power and force coming from the eagle was overwhelming.  It filled the room, not even leaving room for her to breathe.  Joseph turned and yelled at the bird before it had even completed its cry.

 

"Shut-up!"

 

The eagle stop screaming, settled his wings with a flourish, raised his head, arched his neck imperiously, and turned his gaze to Stetson and Denise.  The intensity of his stare was as frightening as his cry.  He looked at her with the penetration of a laser beam.  It confronted her, challenged her.  Dared her to return his gaze.  She couldn't.  She looked over to Joseph for some explanation and heard Stetson.

 

"Is that the one your nephew was telling me about?"

 

"Yeah.  He cut his tether the night before they were going to sacrifice him.  Knew what they were going to do.  Two days later he showed up here."

 

"He's beautiful."

 

Joseph walked over to the counter and reached out his palm.  The eagle bowed his head, and the old man stroked his neck and shoulders.

 

"He's a pain in the ass.  Screaming, shitting all over the place.  Thinks he's a big deal."

 

He pulled an old fashioned percolating coffee pot from under the counter, added water and coffee, and walked back to the fireplace.  Hanging the pot on a pivoting metal arm, he swung it over the fire and walked over to the table.  Outside it was getting dark.  Denise could see lightning flash across the sky.  The thunder came a few seconds later.  She looked at Joseph.

 

"Is he tame?"

 

"Tame?"  He laughed. 

 

"I mean is he dangerous?"

 

"Course he's dangerous.  Just don't piss him off while I'm gone."

 

It was Stetson.

 

"Where you going?"

 

"I'm going to stay with one of my sisters tonight."

 

"Why?"

 

He just looked at his younger friend like he was the dumbest kid in the class.

 

"I'll have her bring over something to eat.  It's going to get cold tonight so keep that fire stoked.  You should be able to get out of here in the morning."

 

He looked over to the eagle, said something in Hopi, turned, and walked to the door.

 

"I'll see you in the morning."  And he was gone.

 

"What did he say?"

 

"Told him to leave us alone."

 

"Think he understood?"

 

Stetson got up and walked over to the water container to refill his cup.  It put him within three feet of the eagle.  The bird was so big that he and the man were eye to eye.  Stetson filled his cup, took a small drink, and then looked at the bird.  They stared at each other a minute and then the man put the cup on the counter next to the predator.  The eagle didn't move.  Stetson walked back to Denise.

 

"Yeah, I think he understood.  But I don't think he gives a shit."

 

Denise shook her head and laughed lightly.

 

At that moment there was a light knock on the door.  Stetson went over and opened it.  A young Hopi woman about Denise's age was holding two large ceramic bowls of steaming food.  She looked too young to be a sister of Joseph's.  Through the open door came a cold wind, and Denise could see that it had started to snow.  Lightning flashed, immediately followed by deafening thunder.  The storm was on them.  Stetson took the food quickly and thanked the girl.  She smiled shyly and left.

 

They ate in relative silence.  Denise couldn't keep her eyes off the eagle, which finally deigned to dip his head and take a drink from the cup of water.  As a child, she had seen wild animals in zoos around the world, but never anything like this.  He emitted a wildness and a power that was almost hypnotic.  She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was capable of sudden and merciless violence.  His feathers shone in the flickering firelight, and abruptly she was thrown into a state of mind that seemed to spring from the core of her being.  It was primitive, primordial.  A man and woman eating by the light of a fire in a small cave-like room.  A savage predator haunting the shadows of their presence.  A howling storm outside.  It was familiar.  Like a deeply rooted genetic memory.  With it came the certainty that she belonged.  That not only did she have a rightful place in the scheme of things, but that she was indispensable to it.  Her entire body shivered and she looked up at Stetson.  He looked back at her with a quiet smile on his face while he ate.  He's been here before, she thought.  This is where he is most at home.  Not wanting to break the spell, she said nothing, stood up, and walked over to the fire.  She stared at the flames and immersed herself in its elemental nature.

 

Stetson came over, grabbed two logs, and placed them in the fire.  Using a potholder he found on the mantle, he swung the metal arm out toward him and lifted the coffee pot from it.  Denise spoke, still staring at the flames, afraid to look at him.

 

"I need you to kiss me.  Right now."  She held her breath.

 

He put the coffee pot on the mantle and turned to her.  Gently, he lifted her chin, looked at her, and kissed her softly on the lips.  Neither of them pulled away.  He let her set the pace, not forcing himself on her.  She closed her eyes, kissed him lightly, withdrew her lips, kissed him again.  She brushed her nose against his.  Kissed him again.  His right arm slipped around her waist, his left hand cupping her cheek.  She kissed him again.  Thunder rattled the house and lightning lit up the room.  It struck nearby.  She kissed him again, this time opening her lips slightly.  He responded, and the tips of their tongues met.  Electricity surged through her, and she pressed herself against him.  He pulled back slightly and looked into her eyes.  It happened.  They both crossed the bridge between them. Both surrendered to each other.  She could feel his doubts and reservations drop away, and his smile lit up his features showing her how handsome he really was.  It only increased her passion.  This time they kissed deeply.

 

Slowly, he began to unbutton her blouse, slipping it over her shoulders, and letting it drop to the floor.  He stepped back, took off his own shirt, and then embraced her, letting their chests press against each other, nestling her head on his shoulder.  The fire warmed their skin, and Denise felt her nipples harden into an exquisite sensitivity.  She wrapped her arms around his broad back and held him, starting to kiss his shoulder, his neck.  He ran his hands up her bare back massaging her tired muscles.  She started to kiss him lower on his chest, working her way down, but he stopped her and guided her three steps back to the bed.  Undoing the button on her pants, he sat her on the edge of the bed, and then pulled them off.  Seeing her there in the firelight, he knew he had been a fool for trying to resist the emotion between them.  She was stunning. She leaned back and let him look.  It excited her.

 

He stepped over to the woodpile, threw some more logs on the fire, kicked his boots off, and slipped out of his levis.  She liked what she saw.  He was hard all over.  As he walked over, she saw movement in the shadows behind him.  It was the eagle.  His eyes glittered in the darkness, watching them.  Stetson knelt down beside the bed, took her face in both hands, and kissed her.  His hands slowly dropped down her body, stroking and massaging every part of her as they did.  His palms were rough and calloused, but he touched her tenderly, and their roughness made her flesh catch fire.  He kissed her cheeks, her chin, her eyes, her forehead, her ears, her neck, her breasts.  He took a rock hard nipple between his teeth and teased the tip with his tongue.  A moan escaped her lips, and he went lower.  She stretched out on the bed and he came up next to her, brushing his lips against her bruised and healing ribs.  His hands went to the bruised area, and he massaged it, stroking up and away from her as if he was trying to pull the injury from her.  He kissed her there again and moved lower.  They both knew what was coming, and he wasted no more time getting there.    She came immediately, heaving upward, pushing herself against him, wave after wave of ecstasy rippling through her entire body.  When it was over, he still held her, pulled back slightly to let her catch her breath, and then came at her again.  It was almost too much stimulation.  Almost.  She was so sensitive that she came again, only this time she didn’t stop.  It was one long overwhelming orgasm that just kept getting more and more intense.  And when she thought it couldn’t get any stronger, it did.  Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she let out a loud deep-throated cry that came from a place so deep inside her she didn’t even know it existed.  Collapsing back on the bed, her breath came in huge gasping lungfuls.  She felt like she might pass out when he came up on top of her and slipped inside.  His deep penetration took her breath away and then recharged her immediately.  Her knees bent, and her feet came off the bed as she urged him deeper.  Gone was the girl.  Gone was the past.  Gone was any reservation.  She slipped her hand behind his neck, raised her lips to his, and penetrated him as deeply as she could.  Abandoned herself to him totally. 

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

 

 

Outside the taxi window, the sidewalks were packed with humans looking to satisfy their desires no matter what the cost.  There was disintegration and collapse in the air.  The old order of things was coming to an inevitable and ugly end. Three thousand years of Western Civilization were balled up and dying out on that street.  Everyone knew it.  No one admitted it.  All they knew was that they wanted what they wanted, and they wanted it now.  Because tomorrow?  Who knew?  And that uncertainty and the inner imperative for immediate satisfaction flooded the street with a loud, frantic, clutching desperation.  The party crowd was a many-headed beast lurching and surging along the sidewalks, in and out of bars, grappling in alleys, cruising in cars.  They yelled, laughed, wheedled, begged, demanded, cried out for attention in the glow of the neon.  They would have satisfaction or die trying.  It was a hungry Saturday night in lower Manhattan.

 

Felker watched from inside the taxi and what he saw only confirmed his lowly opinion of the human race.  Fucking idiots, he thought.  They want so little.  A  piece of ass.  A handsome hunk.  A few bucks.  A few drinks.  Numbness and escape.  Diversion.  They're like children.  Give them and few shiny toys and they're happy.  It's pathetic.  They have no idea what's really possible.  But that's fine.  I'll give them all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll they want.  He laughed.  His blood was up. He was back in the field.  The adrenaline raced through him. 

 

"Know where I can get any stone?"  he asked the driver in the front seat.

 

The small Pakistani looked at him in the rear view mirror through the kevlar mesh.

 

"What you want?"

 

"Some stone.  It's a new drug."

 

The driver furrowed his brow.

 

"Stone?  What is this?"

 

"Never mind."

 

He stepped out of the taxi and paid the fare.  In the window of an empty shop he briefly saw his reflection and was satisfied.  Black leather biker jacket, black t-shirt, greasy levis, boots.  All used and worn.  Perfect.  He fit right in.  The expensive longhaired wig tied back in a ponytail looked totally natural.  You couldn't tell.  The dark shades were the final detail.  He looked bad.  Lighting a cigarette, he threaded his way across the street through the clogged, slow moving traffic. 

 

Crossing the sidewalk, pushing people out of his way, he swaggered into a long, narrow bar with a two story high ceiling.  Above him were balconies along the walls packed with people looking down on the crowd below.  Everyone was shouting.  It was the only way to be heard above the speed metal blasting from the series of suspended speakers along the wall to his right.  The ornate oak bar itself extended the whole length of the building on his left.  Bullying his way through the mob, he headed in its direction.  Seeing that there was no room, he simply pushed someone out of the way.  It was a man in his mid-thirties wearing the latest one-piece black silk suit, his dark hair greased back.  He grabbed Felker's jacket by reflex to prevent himself from falling.

 

"Hey, cock sucker!  That's my spot!"

 

Felker grabbed the hand on his jacket, his fingers against the palm, his thumb against the back of the hand. Then he twisted and jerked downward torquing the wrist in an unnatural direction.  The man dropped to his knees to prevent his wrist from being broken, and Felker kicked him in the chest, sending him into the crowd.  Nobody paid much attention.  The party raged on around him.  Turning to the bar, he tried to flag down a bartender.  Two or three minutes later, a burly Irishman got to him.

 

"What'll you have!?" he yelled above the roar.

 

"You got any stone!?"

 

"Yeah, how do you want it!?"

 

"What are my choices!?"

 

The man rolled his eyes.  He was too busy for this.

 

"I can put it in any drink you want!   Or you can have it straight up!"

 

"Straight up!"

 

The man turned, reached under the counter in back of him, grabbed a Beefeaters bottle, and poured Felker a shot.

 

"Twenty bucks!"

 

Felker paid him without tipping.  Bringing it under his nose, he took a whiff, but it did not smell like gin.  It was odorless  Without a second thought, he drank the contents.  It tasted like water.  By his watch, it took three and a half minutes before he could start feeling its effects.  First, the mental clarity.  Then, the physical vitality.  Then, the emotional well-being.  Then came the sensitivity.  The ability to feel the mental and emotional states of those around him.  He knew all these well and had used them many times to his own advantage.  It pissed him off.  There was no mistake.  This was a synthetic version of the stone.  Much weaker than the original, but undeniably the same.  He turned back to the bar and caught the attention of a black female bartender. 

 

"Hey!  Where do you get this stone stuff!?"  He was holding up the shot glass.  "Who's the distributor!?"

 

"I don't know!  You have to ask Mike!"

 

He knew from her body language and emotional tone that Mike was the Irishman.  He waited until the big man came by and, this time, reached out mentally.  The bartender veered unconsciously in his direction. 

 

"Who's your distributor for the stone!?"

 

"Black guy named Sailor!  He was just here!  Think he was headed for the Drug Store!"

 

"Where's that!?"

 

"Two blocks down on the right!"

 

As he flowed with the crowd along the sidewalk, Felker sorted out what he knew.  Someone had, indeed, created a synthetic version.  They probably sold it in a concentrated form and had the bars dilute it with water.  It would make it easier to transport.  Less conspicuous.  They were open about it.  Doing their business like any legit distributor.  It was, of course, still legal.  As far as his agents had been able to find out, it had only been on the streets for about three weeks, so there hadn't really been enough time for it to become well known.  That was good.  Tomorrow night his men would start making the rounds, buying up every bit they could find.  Which still left him with the problem of finding and destroying its source.  To do that he had to find the man who called himself Sailor.

 

Just up ahead, on the corner of the street, he saw a small neon sign in the shape of an old fashioned mortar and pestle, underneath in blue letters, "The Drug Store".  Inside, it looked like more like a old-fashioned ice cream parlor than a bar.  Along the back wall  was a counter lined with revolving stools. Three or four of them were empty.  Behind that was a wall of wood and glass cabinets.  There were no booths to sit in, just antique round oak tables and chairs scattered across the floor.  Large windows that looked out on the street ran along two walls of the room.  Circulating ceiling fans blew a light breeze across his skin.  The lighting was subdued.  The tables were full.  Only a few patrons standing around.   The smell of hash hung in the air.  A soothing but alien music drifted through the room.  It was a duet between classical piano and flute.  It was the flute that made it foreign.  Felker couldn't place it.  It was primitive, third world.  No one was yelling, but there was plenty of animated conversation.  Plenty of smiles, a lot of laughter.  The energy in the room was dense.  Palpable.  Most everyone there was in a state of high key awareness.  Aware of themselves.  Aware of everything happening around them.  He didn't like it. 

 

He took all this in within two or three seconds.  It was two or three seconds too long.  Eyes started to turn in his direction.  Realizing his mistake, he moved immediately over to the counter and grabbed an empty stool, feeling the eyes following him.  Keeping his back to the room, he waited until the girl behind the counter came over to him.  She must have been in her late teens, fresh, pretty, alert, long brunette hair, green eyes, levis, and simple dark blue silk blouse.  Her eyes examined him.  Penetrated.

 

"Hi.  Want something?"

 

"What have you got to drink?"

 

"Mineral waters, sodas, teas, coffee, juices."

 

"I'll take some coffee and something to get off.  Got any weed?"

 

"Sure.  Got some good bud."

 

Trying to be casual.

 

"Got any stone?"

 

"Yeah.  Want some in your coffee?"

 

"That'll work."

 

It only took her a few seconds.  She set the coffee down in front of him.

 

"I wonder if you can help me.  I'm about to open a bar down the street for my biker buddies and I'd like to stock some stone.  You know how I can get in touch with a distributor?"

 

She smiled and examined him again.  Her gaze was direct and disconcerting.  He could feel soft mental fingers inside his head.  It made him uncomfortable and reminded him of something.  Of  Embrey in Laguna.  He forced the presence from his mind.  Her eyebrows raised slightly.

 

Shit.  He wasn't used to anyone else having the same abilities he had.  Wasn't used to the playing field being level.  Especially didn't like a young girl being one step ahead of him.  A large black man sat down on the stool next to him.

 

"Couldn't help overhearing you."  He extended his hand.  "Name's Sailor."

 

"Angel."  He took the hand and regretted it.  A jolt of electricity ran up his arm and made a circuit of his entire central nervous system.  He disengaged immediately and knew he had to play the innocent.

 

"Whoa!  What was that?"

 

Sailor smiled.

 

"Oh, sorry.  Got a little jacked up tonight.  Sometimes I forget."

 

Felker knew he was in deep.  He took a couple of large gulps of coffee, knowing he had to get as much of the synthetic inside him as possible for this confrontation.  He was about to throw up a mental field around him to prevent penetration when he realized that would be a give away.  The field would have to be more selective.  He knew that he had to allow Sailor in to a certain degree to inspire a certain amount of trust.  Arranging the field like a contour map along the fringes of his subconscious, he presented his alter ego up front and suppressed the rest, as he told Sailor the same thing he told the girl.  This mental fencing match was something new to him, but with more of the drug working in him and his previous experience with the stone, he was able to pull it off.  The give and take of the energy flux between them seemed like something they shared, that was part of both of them.  It had a physical presence.  Sailor asked the girl for some orange juice.  In the seconds that he did, it was Felker's turn to examine him.  He pegged him as somewhere in his fifties or sixties, although he looked thirty.  That meant he'd been taking the stone for at least a few years.  Sailor turned back to him, sipping the orange juice.

 

“Shouldn’t be any problem.  We supply most everyone here on the street.”

 

“Great.  I like this stuff.  It’s fucking wild.  I know my friends are going to love it.”

 

“Yeah.  It’s something.”

 

“You know, all I’ve had is this diluted stuff.”  He held up his coffee cup and finished it off.  “I got the feeling that in stronger doses weird fucking things might happen.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“I don’t know.  Like reading people’s minds.  All that weird psychic shit.”

 

“Well, my friends say that if enough people take it, it will raise the consciousness of the entire human race.”

 

Felker looked at him skeptically.

 

“What the fuck’s that mean?”

 

“I don’t know exactly, something about spiritual evolution.”

 

Oh, great, he thought, they’re fucking religious zealots.

 

“Well, I don’t know anything about that.  All I know,” he smiled broadly and laughed, “ is that I’ve had the most intense fucking sex I’ve ever had, and that’s as close to spiritual as I need to fucking get.  Where’s this stuff come from anyway?”

 

Sailor shrugged and took another sip of orange juice.

 

“These friends of mine make it.”

 

“Well, listen.  I’m probably going to need a lot of it.  Once other bikers around the country find out about it, they’ll go fucking crazy.  Is there anyway I can get a dealership or however you guys work it?”

 

“Yeah.  Maybe.  My friends want to get as much of it out to the public as possible.  They’re like on a mission or something.”  He started to get off the stool.  “So whenever you’re ready, get in touch.”

 

“You got a phone?”

 

“Nah.  You can find me around here.”  He stuck out his hand.  “Nice talking to you.”

 

Felker took his hand, ready this time, but the jolt didn’t come.  He turned on the stool and watched Sailor leave.  He got the uncomfortable feeling that most of the people in the room had somehow participated in their conversation.  No one looked at him and the talking and laughing went on unabated, but he could sense the awareness hanging in the room.  It was spooky.  After his next meeting with Sailor, this place was going to have electrical problems, catch fire, and burn to the ground.  Hopefully with a lot of these people in it.  He paid for his coffee and drifted out into the street.  There was no sign of the runner.

 

Sailor was at a pay phone next to a gas station.  He dropped in the coins and punched up a number.  He heard it being rerouted a few times and then a voice on the other end before it rang.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Jack, it’s Sailor.

 

“My man, how’s the rotten apple?”

 

“Same-o.  Listen.  You up on the satellite yet?

 

“Yeah, yesterday.”

 

“Can you patch me in to Curtis?”

 

“Can do.”

 

“Great.  Stay on the line.”

 

He heard a series of clicks and Jack swearing in the background.  Finally a phone rang and he heard Curtis Embrey through some rough static.

 

“Hey.  It works!  Alright!”

 

“We should be able to clear this noise in a couple of days,” said Jack.

 

“Curtis.”

 

“Sailor!  Talk to me.”

 

“He’s up and running.”

 

“Should I go in?”  It was Jack, interrupting.

 

“Nah.  Let’s let him run.  Sailor can handle it.”  Suddenly, Curtis was talking with someone in the room with him.  His voice faded but was still audible.  “I told you he was fine.”

 

Trish came on the line.  Her voice was husky and teasing.

 

“I need you.”

 

“She’s going to start talking dirty now, isn’t she?”  It was Jack.

 

“Get off the line, Jack,” said Sailor.

 

“Shit.”  There was a click as he disconnected.

 

Jack was right.

 

 

*        *        *        *        *        *        *       

 

 

The eagle woke Stetson with a flap of wings.  The man opened his eyes and watched the bird just in time to see him launch off the counter, take one stroke through the air and settle on the table.  His wings seemed to almost reach the walls on either side of him he was so large.  He walked to the edge of the table and watched the door, ignoring Stetson, who turned his attention back to the woman in his arms.  He couldn't get over how good it felt to hold her.  It was a luxury he hadn't experienced in a long time.  The warmth of her, the smoothness of her skin, the natural way their limbs followed each other's curves.  Suddenly, there was a light knock on the door.  It was Joseph.

 

"Meet me down at the truck when you get dressed," he said, staying outside.

 

The eagle turned, flew back to the counter, rapped sharply on the window, and then swiveled his head on his neck and glared at the man on the bed.  Stetson just looked at him.  He had no intention of moving from where he was.  The bird hit the glass harder and a crack appeared in one of the panes.

 

"You son of a bitch."

 

Stetson slid slowly from Denise's embrace, once again, he noticed, trying not to wake her.  He walked over to the window and opened it, seeing that the storm had passed and been replaced by the sun.  Snow was already melting off the roof and dripping off the eaves.  The eagle crouched through the small opening, stepped on the sill, spread his wings, and was gone in a rush.

 

"He is a pain in the ass."

 

He turned and saw Denise looking at him.  She was up on one elbow, sleepy eyed, the blanket down around her thighs, her skin almost luminescent in the sunlight coming through the windows. 

 

"I hope the old man's not in any hurry," he said as he crossed the floor between them.

 

Later, after they had dressed and were walking down the main street out of the village, they saw Joseph talking with another man by the truck.  Hooked to the back of the truck was a two-horse trailer.  The storm had dumped about a foot of snow, and it was already starting to melt, turning the street into mud.   As they approached, the other man started walking back toward the village, greeting Stetson as they passed each other.  When they reached the truck, Joseph was throwing a twenty-five pound bag of cornmeal in the back. 

 

"I heard you kept some of your neighbors up last night."

 

Denise was suddenly embarrassed.  She hadn't even thought.

 

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said blushing and looking away.

 

"Don't worry about it.  It reminds me of the good old days."

 

She tried to recover.

 

"You mean before the white men came?"

 

"No.  I mean the sixties when all those pretty, young, hippie chicks came up here looking for a wise medicine man.  Now, those were some good days."

 

Stetson laughed.

 

Joseph switched into Hopi and motioned for him to follow him around to the back of the horse trailer.  Red and a smaller bay stood quietly in the back.

 

"Listen.  I'm giving you the truck and trailer.  You got a full tank.  Enough to reach Flag.  This bay's a mare, so her and Red ought to get along.  There's enough food and wa-"

 

"Wait a minute.  I can't take your truck and this trailer.  What the hell are you talking about?"

 

"There's other trucks.  Besides I owe you one, remember?"

 

Stetson looked at him blankly.

 

"That 52 Chevy van you gave me.  The one with the tapestries in it.  Stunk from incense?"

 

"Oh yeah, I'd forgotten all about it.  But still, its crazy, what are you going to use?"

 

Joseph looked at him.

 

"I'm not going to need one."

 

"What are you talking about."

 

Joseph looked up.

 

"See that bird."

 

Stetson followed his gaze and saw the eagle, or one just like it, circling high above them.

 

"He came back for me."

 

The younger man started to protest and tell Joseph that he was going to live forever.  All the reassuring banalities that all old people are told.  But then he stopped himself.  He knew that there were things beyond his understanding that were not beyond Joseph's. It had been proven to him too many times before to doubt it now.

 

"So what's this?  Good-bye?"

 

"More than likely," said the old man.  He continued to watch the eagle circle above them.  "What a pain in the ass."