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Shards of light were popping up over the tops of the mountains in the east as Frank stepped outside the dome. He was up early and it was as cool as it was going to be. The air was like silk on his skin. He guessed it was somewhere around seventy degrees already.

He was a little stiff, suspecting it was the result of long hours in the driver’s seat, and a stroll around the grounds seemed like a good way to loosen up.

He moved along the perimeter, walking close to the wall. Went past the miniature version of the main house, where Maria and Humberto lived, and forty yards farther along he came to a large outbuilding, which, upon closer inspection, was determined to be a former stable converted into a garage and storage shed.

No windows on the log building so he couldn’t see the Lincoln Continental Larry had talked about, but where else would it be?

He continued on.

The dry air was delightful, his sinuses open and free for the first time in weeks.

Nothing like the desert for your sinuses.

Around back of the ranch house, the adobe wall gave way to a chain-link fence with razor wire on top. He could see the rear of the main house and the pool and the tennis courts. Foot of the mountains was about a hundred yards the other way.

About twenty yards behind and away from the house was a low-slung, windowless structure he figured was the power plant. Rancho Deluxe produced its own electricity. Next to the power plant stood a large satellite dish, which explained the excellent TV reception.

He’d let a Los Angeles Dodgers game lull him to sleep last night, the dulcet tones of the play-by-play guy sending him off to dreamland in a hurry.

Moving on, the desert floor still dark and cool, he could see paths and trails snaking up the foothills, loose rocks scattered along the desert floor.

Coming to a gate in the back fence that had heavy chains and a padlock, he stretched and breathed deeply, a hint of pine scent drifting down from the mountain.

Coming around the corner of the house on his way back to the dome, he saw Larry hurrying across the grounds toward the converted stable. He watched Richards put a key in the padlock on the big front door and swing it open. As Frank came abreast of the open door he heard a starter motor spinning, followed by the sound of a big V-8 engine coughing to life.

Frank stopped and watched a classic, black Lincoln Continental with white-sidewall tires back out slowly. He stood there smiling as Richards swung around, Larry putting down the window and saying, “Off to Sky Harbor International, Franko. Maria’ll cook you some breakfast. I’ll be back in time for brunch. See ya.”

Frank nodded and smiled, thinking he wasn’t so sure he’d be here, as something seemed to be telling him he should get back on the road and leave Rancho Deluxe to the rich boys and the wannabe, thinking that would be a good title for one of those long acoustic story songs Bob Dylan occasionally did.

Here’s Minnesota’s favorite son, Bob Dylan, with his new tune, “Rich Boys and the Wannabe.”

But Frank’s mother had raised him to be polite. And he had enjoyed the hospitality here, so it only seemed right that he stayed and met the new arrivals, if only for a quick meal before hitting the road.

He returned to the dome and started putting his stuff in the station wagon, thinking about another shower and maybe a dip in the pool before the sun was up too high.

(End of Chapter 16)

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Shards of light were popping up over the tops of the mountains in the east as Frank stepped outside the dome. He was up early and it was as cool as it was going to be. The air was like silk on his skin. He guessed it was somewhere around seventy degrees already.

He was a little stiff, suspecting it was the result of long hours in the driver’s seat, and a stroll around the grounds seemed like a good way to loosen up.

He moved along the perimeter, walking close to the wall. Went past the miniature version of the main house, where Maria and Humberto lived, and forty yards farther along he came to a large outbuilding, which, upon closer inspection, was determined to be a former stable converted into a garage and storage shed.

No windows on the log building so he couldn’t see the Lincoln Continental Larry had talked about, but where else would it be?

He continued on.

The dry air was delightful, his sinuses open and free for the first time in weeks.

Nothing like the desert for your sinuses.

Around back of the ranch house, the adobe wall gave way to a chain-link fence with razor wire on top. He could see the rear of the main house and the pool and the tennis courts. Foot of the mountains was about a hundred yards the other way.

About twenty yards behind and away from the house was a low-slung, windowless structure he figured was the power plant. Rancho Deluxe produced its own electricity. Next to the power plant stood a large satellite dish, which explained the excellent TV reception.

He’d let a Los Angeles Dodgers game lull him to sleep last night, the dulcet tones of the play-by-play guy sending him off to dreamland in a hurry.

Moving on, the desert floor still dark and cool, he could see paths and trails snaking up the foothills, loose rocks scattered along the desert floor.

Coming to a gate in the back fence that had heavy chains and a padlock, he stretched and breathed deeply, a hint of pine scent drifting down from the mountain.

Coming around the corner of the house on his way back to the dome, he saw Larry hurrying across the grounds toward the converted stable. He watched Richards put a key in the padlock on the big front door and swing it open. As Frank came abreast of the open door he heard a starter motor spinning, followed by the sound of a big V-8 engine coughing to life.

Frank stopped and watched a classic, black Lincoln Continental with white-sidewall tires back out slowly. He stood there smiling as Richards swung around, Larry putting down the window and saying, “Off to Sky Harbor International, Franko. Maria’ll cook you some breakfast. I’ll be back in time for brunch. See ya.”

Frank nodded and smiled, thinking he wasn’t so sure he’d be here, as something seemed to be telling him he should get back on the road and leave Rancho Deluxe to the rich boys and the wannabe, thinking that would be a good title for one of those long acoustic story songs Bob Dylan occasionally did.

Here’s Minnesota’s favorite son, Bob Dylan, with his new tune, “Rich Boys and the Wannabe.”

But Frank’s mother had raised him to be polite. And he had enjoyed the hospitality here, so it only seemed right that he stayed and met the new arrivals, if only for a quick meal before hitting the road.

He returned to the dome and started putting his stuff in the station wagon, thinking about another shower and maybe a dip in the pool before the sun was up too high.

(End of Chapter 16)

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CHAPTER 15

Watching Frank walk off toward his cabin, Larry Richards was thinking that his old friend had definitely changed.

These days Frank’s face looks harder. And there was more of an edge to him. He’d always acted tough—didn’t we all back then—but now there seemed to be something more to it.

In his school days, Frank was a talker—even gregarious, after a few beers—and had a surprising amount of wisdom and perception. A trait Larry supposed was beneficial if you were a bartender.

But now Frank was keeping things close to the vest. And it seemed like there was something else there that didn’t meet the eye. Working in a sleazy bar could certainly put some lines on your face—but this was more than just age and discontent.

And give me a break, Larry thought. Frank was thirty-six years old and trying to recreate the adventures of a twenty-year-old book. A book of questionable value, at that.

Definitely something not akimbo here.

Ah, but what the hell do I know? Larry thought. At this age and this point in life, we all have our secrets. If the realities of his own life got out and made their way back to Zenith City—well, suffice to say the feces would hit the ventilator.

No one back home, parents included, knew that Larry had been given the boot from ASU near the end of his senior year for running a fake ID business. Using photostats of Canadian driver’s license blanks he’d acquired while on a spring break ski trip to Banff, Larry’s business became so successful that the campus cops quickly grew suspicious of the large number of Canadian fake IDs being confiscated at local bars.

One thing led to another and Larry was expelled from ASU.

So he transferred to Denver University, a move his parents believed to be climate related, as Larry concocted a story about being just a few credits short of graduation with no desire to endure the “insufferable” heat of a summer term in Arizona. Also telling his parents that he’d transferred to DU with the intent of attending law school after graduation.

In actuality, his desire was to be closer to the excellent Colorado skiing. But the law school part eventually came true.

If Frank somehow discovered the truth of Larry’s current situation—well, it seemed probable that he’d take a different view of his old high school pal. If Frank knew Larry was nearly broke—the credit card they used for gas on the drive from Denver, the only one he owned that was still viable, although rapidly approaching maxed out—Frank Ford might recoil in disgust.

Or maybe feel sorry for Larry.

Which would be even worse.

And, yes, this mall-building deal was his shot to get out of the hole. A hole dug deep by his frequent usage of cocaine over the last few years.

Among other things.

If Larry could convince his young and rich associates to throw their financial weight behind the proposed Phoenix area mall, he’d be back on top of the mountain and sitting pretty once again.

And why wouldn’t they?

No good reasons that Larry could see. The Denver mall Larry had brokered was a going concern and a future cash cow for the consortium.

But his commission, kickbacks and all, had, nearly in totality, gone to the coke dealers. His frequent late payments had been a continuing annoyance for Arturo “Burt “ Reynolds.

And he’d also lied to Frank about Reynolds’ affinity for violence, fearing that if Frank discovered the real truth, he’d run as far and as fast as he could from Arturo Reynolds and Larry Richards.

During the course of his work on Reynolds’ divorce from wife numero uno, Larry had heard some stories. Of beatings, dismemberments and other assorted mayhem visited upon the wife’s suspected suitors, all attributed to “Burt’s” jealous nature.

So sending thugs or hit men to Arizona was definitely not beyond the bounds of possibility.

But they’d never find him out here in the middle of the desert.  

And maybe with time and a lot of freebase in his bloodstream, Reynolds would lose interest.

One could only hope.

But in the meantime, Larry had another problem. Two problems, actually: Bryce Parker and Clayton Cook.

One of the things Larry did for them to earn his base level salary was act as cocaine broker. Coke deals were how their business relationship started.

The whole “consortium” concept was kind of an in-joke at first, speaking to the fact that a bunch of these rich guys pooled their money together to get a volume price on the nose candy.

They gave their cash to Larry and he was expected to come through.

Which he always had.

Until now.

Reynolds had apparently sent the word to all his dealers to curtail sales to Larry Richards, and Larry had failed to find another source.

Leaving Denver on the run didn’t help.

So the two entitled sons of filthy rich fathers, due to arrive at Rancho Deluxe tomorrow, would be pissed off and disappointed at Larry’s lack of product.

Certainly a revolting development, as Jackie Gleason used to say.

Richards took a deep breath, blew it out and went to get his address book from his bag in the bedroom. He intended to spend the rest of the day getting in touch with members of his former senior class at ASU, a high achieving class filled with big-energy guys with big ideas.

Just the type of people he needed to help get the ball rolling on the mall project.

Top on his list was Bill Rosenbaum, or B.R., as they used to call him in college. Bill was now a hard-charging stockbroker and all-around big wheel in the Valley of the Sun business community, and just the right sort of guy to point Larry in the proper direction.

Of course B.R. would expect some compensation—but there would be plenty to go around.

With any luck, Larry would have some progress to report to Bryce and Clayton. Enough, Larry hoped, to avoid the sharp-tongued rebukes and sarcasm those two dicks were practiced at.

(End of Chapter 15)

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To contact Bluestone Press or T.K. O’Neill, email bluestonepress@outlook.com or call 218.724.5806

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CHAPTER 15

Watching Frank walk off toward his cabin, Larry Richards was thinking that his old friend had definitely changed.

These days Frank’s face looks harder. And there was more of an edge to him. He’d always acted tough—didn’t we all back then—but now there seemed to be something more to it.

In his school days, Frank was a talker—even gregarious, after a few beers—and had a surprising amount of wisdom and perception. A trait Larry supposed was beneficial if you were a bartender.

But now Frank was keeping things close to the vest. And it seemed like there was something else there that didn’t meet the eye. Working in a sleazy bar could certainly put some lines on your face—but this was more than just age and discontent.

And give me a break, Larry thought. Frank was thirty-six years old and trying to recreate the adventures of a twenty-year-old book. A book of questionable value, at that.

Definitely something not akimbo here.

Ah, but what the hell do I know? Larry thought. At this age and this point in life, we all have our secrets. If the realities of his own life got out and made their way back to Zenith City—well, suffice to say the feces would hit the ventilator.

No one back home, parents included, knew that Larry had been given the boot from ASU near the end of his senior year for running a fake ID business. Using photostats of Canadian driver’s license blanks he’d acquired while on a spring break ski trip to Banff, Larry’s business became so successful that the campus cops quickly grew suspicious of the large number of Canadian fake IDs being confiscated at local bars.

One thing led to another and Larry was expelled from ASU.

So he transferred to Denver University, a move his parents believed to be climate related, as Larry concocted a story about being just a few credits short of graduation with no desire to endure the “insufferable” heat of a summer term in Arizona. Also telling his parents that he’d transferred to DU with the intent of attending law school after graduation.

In actuality, his desire was to be closer to the excellent Colorado skiing. But the law school part eventually came true.

If Frank somehow discovered the truth of Larry’s current situation—well, it seemed probable that he’d take a different view of his old high school pal. If Frank knew Larry was nearly broke—the credit card they used for gas on the drive from Denver, the only one he owned that was still viable, although rapidly approaching maxed out—Frank Ford might recoil in disgust.

Or maybe feel sorry for Larry.

Which would be even worse.

And, yes, this mall-building deal was his shot to get out of the hole. A hole dug deep by his frequent usage of cocaine over the last few years.

Among other things.

If Larry could convince his young and rich associates to throw their financial weight behind the proposed Phoenix area mall, he’d be back on top of the mountain and sitting pretty once again.

And why wouldn’t they?

No good reasons that Larry could see. The Denver mall Larry had brokered was a going concern and a future cash cow for the consortium.

But his commission, kickbacks and all, had, nearly in totality, gone to the coke dealers. His frequent late payments had been a continuing annoyance for Arturo “Burt “ Reynolds.

And he’d also lied to Frank about Reynolds’ affinity for violence, fearing that if Frank discovered the real truth, he’d run as far and as fast as he could from Arturo Reynolds and Larry Richards.

During the course of his work on Reynolds’ divorce from wife numero uno, Larry had heard some stories. Of beatings, dismemberments and other assorted mayhem visited upon the wife’s suspected suitors, all attributed to “Burt’s” jealous nature.

So sending thugs or hit men to Arizona was definitely not beyond the bounds of possibility.

But they’d never find him out here in the middle of the desert.  

And maybe with time and a lot of freebase in his bloodstream, Reynolds would lose interest.

One could only hope.

But in the meantime, Larry had another problem. Two problems, actually: Bryce Parker and Clayton Cook.

One of the things Larry did for them to earn his base level salary was act as cocaine broker. Coke deals were how their business relationship started.

The whole “consortium” concept was kind of an in-joke at first, speaking to the fact that a bunch of these rich guys pooled their money together to get a volume price on the nose candy.

They gave their cash to Larry and he was expected to come through.

Which he always had.

Until now.

Reynolds had apparently sent the word to all his dealers to curtail sales to Larry Richards, and Larry had failed to find another source.

Leaving Denver on the run didn’t help.

So the two entitled sons of filthy rich fathers, due to arrive at Rancho Deluxe tomorrow, would be pissed off and disappointed at Larry’s lack of product.

Certainly a revolting development, as Jackie Gleason used to say.

Richards took a deep breath, blew it out and went to get his address book from his bag in the bedroom. He intended to spend the rest of the day getting in touch with members of his former senior class at ASU, a high achieving class filled with big-energy guys with big ideas.

Just the type of people he needed to help get the ball rolling on the mall project.

Top on his list was Bill Rosenbaum, or B.R., as they used to call him in college. Bill was now a hard-charging stockbroker and all-around big wheel in the Valley of the Sun business community, and just the right sort of guy to point Larry in the proper direction.

Of course B.R. would expect some compensation—but there would be plenty to go around.

With any luck, Larry would have some progress to report to Bryce and Clayton. Enough, Larry hoped, to avoid the sharp-tongued rebukes and sarcasm those two dicks were practiced at.

(End of Chapter 15)

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I realized, only a few chapters into T.K. O’Neill’s Dive Bartender: Flowers in the Desert, that Frank Ford’s blunt grittiness wasn’t just a literary choice. It was a clever and calculated decision regarding a character that turned out to be one of the most likable protagonists I have ever encountered in a novel before. Ever! — Masa Radanic, The International Review of Books

CHAPTER 14

The steaks were excellent, high quality meat, and the sides Maria had created for them—baked potato with sour cream, salad, green beans—were sufficiently bland and un-offensive in a mid-western sort of way (possibly a request from Larry Richards) and didn’t add to the discomfort in Frank’s already rumbling digestive tract.

Huevos rancheros, indeed.

Now shuffling slowly toward his cabin beneath the star-filled sky, Frank was half in the bag from beer and red wine, and sleepy from the big meal, but he was struggling internally.

Behind a few glasses of wine, Richards had been persistent and insistent that Frank should stay and meet the two arriving members of the “consortium.” And, well, that just wasn’t Frank’s kind of scene.

What he really wanted to do was blow the hell out of here and get back on the road to California, the Golden State not that far away now.

He decided he’d stay just long enough to meet the new arrivals, if only to check out these rich boys Richards was hanging with and maybe get a read on them.

Frank was thinking Larry had slipped somehow, the man fallen from the lofty pedestal he’d placed him on. The whole ride down it seemed like Richards was living in his reptilian brain—a concept Frank’s former girlfriend, Nikki-the-sociology-major, used to talk about.

Larry was not exactly totally calculating, but he did talk obsessively about deals and scams and making money. And maybe he wasn’t actually suspicious and paranoid—although sometimes close—but he certainly was distant.

So the reptilian thing was at least partly accurate.

At times Larry’s voice sounded like a cheap tape recording. And he didn’t seem to care about anything but money. So you could say he showed a definite lack of empathy. A far cry from the warm and light-hearted Larry Richards Frank remembered from their youth.

Hell, Richards was the first guy he ever saw light a fart.

But did Frank really know him?

Do kids, especially boys, ever reveal their true selves to their friends?

If they even know their true selves

Frank had met Larry in the summer before their sophomore year in high school. They both were working as caddies at Zenith’s most exclusive country club. They came from different family backgrounds, Frank from a “troubled home,” while Larry’s parents were stable and approached upper-middle class. Nonetheless, Frank and Larry became friends.

Frank always thought of Larry as someone living on the outside of wealth and looking in with envy. Certainly better off than Frank was but not in with the elite like Richards obviously desired. Both of Larry’s parents worked, which was a rarity in those times. His mother was in retail and his father was a lawyer with a private practice. This afforded Larry the opportunity to mingle with the rich while still looking to take advantage whenever he could. Frank could recall a number of schemes Larry had come up with while attempting to wedge his foot in the door of the luxury suites without paying the dues.

Larry was even kind of a trendsetter, in that he was one of the first to attempt soliciting door-to-door for UNICEF in the well-to-do neighborhoods.

Without any affiliation with the organization.

But after a few stops, one of the residents recognized him and he had to discontinue the scam.

Never got caught, though, and did pocket thirty-five bucks.

Thinking about it, Frank accepted that he, too, had a well-developed reptilian side.

And he wasn’t very proud of it at the moment.

Ah, but what the hell, he thought, pulling open the door of the dome, he’d be out of here tomorrow and off to the green of sunny California. Putting this parched land where too many humans already lived—more pouring in every day by the carload—behind him.

(End of Chapter 14)

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Frank felt the heat through the bottoms of his flip-flops as he walked across the sea-blue tiles surrounding the swimming pool, the sun and his chili-laden breakfast combining to make him sweat.

He was a little sluggish, but pleasantly relaxed. Richards was neck deep in the blue water already. Sun was like daggers. “Sure is fuckin’ hot here, Larry. Hard to imagine why anyone from Denver would want to come down here this time of year.”

“But it’s a dry heat, Frank,” Richards said with a slight wince, hands feathering the inviting water. “And they basically come down here for two reasons: Either there’s a chance to make money or they just want to raise some hell without the prying eyes. You’ll see what I mean when Bryce and Clayton arrive. The booze will be flowing. Those boys do like to get wild.”

“So there are two of these young lions coming.”

“Yeah. Humberto said Bryce phoned this morning. He and Clayton Cook are scheduled to touch down at Sky Harbor airport tomorrow morning at nine-fifteen. I’ll pick them up with the Rancho Deluxe airport shuttle.”

“What’s that?”

“This old Lincoln that used to be Howie’s. Suicide doors, continental kit, the whole shooting match. They keep it here as sort of a camp car. Thing’s in mint condition. We can check it out if you want to.”

“Maybe later. Right now I just want to get in that water.”

“Got any suntan lotion, Frank?” Richards said. “Sun here will fry you like a slab of bacon if you don’t grease up. There’s some in the cabana.”

“Yeah, thanks, Larry. Maybe after a dip. Too fuckin’ hot to stay out here very long, anyway.”

Man, this is a place like no other,Frank thought as he stepped into the shallow end of the pool, the water like soft velvet.Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty never did anything like this.

Or, more correctly, this was unlike anything the pair had experienced in the book, at least as far as Frank had read to this point.                       

Yesterday afternoon, as Frank and Larry were blowing out of Denver on the freeway, Richards saw the book on the back seat and went off on a long spiel about Neal Cassady, the real-life inspiration for Dean Moriarty. How the man had become legendary in Denver after the book came out. Richards, who’d read On the Road in college, said the characters were based on real people and that Neal Cassady was at one time an actual Denver resident who had indeed been a car thief, speed freak and maniac driver. And Jack Kerouac, of course, was now a well-known name in literature. Although Truman Capote once called Kerouac’s most famous work,“typing.”

Not writing.

Typing.

Frank was enjoying the book—hell with Truman Capote.   

After a glorious fifteen minutes in the cooling and soothing swimming pool, the bed in Frank’s cabin was sending out the Siren’s call.

He reluctantly got out of the luxurious water, put a towel over his head and went inside through the French doors, telling Larry he’d see him at dinnertime.

“I had Maria take out a couple of steaks, Frank,” Richards said. “Come by the house around five for the cocktail hour, the bar is well-stocked.”

(End of Chapter 13)

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Frank couldn’t recall ever eating such a spicy breakfast. Damn good, but a lot spicier than most anything you might find in Minnesota, even in a Mexican restaurant.

As Frank and Larry sat back in their chairs and let the eggs, cheese, ground meat and chili sauce settle in, Frank scanned the photos on the dining room wall.

More photos of the early days of the ranch, but these were focused less on the Mexican construction crew and more on older white men. One in particular, a tall, sturdy gent shown on horseback and in front of buildings in various stages of completion, had to be the patriarch. “Old Howie,” as Richards had referred to him. There was one of Old Howie standing with a group of men in suits who’d seemingly just arrived. Two of the men were looking down at the ground so all you could see was the tops of their heads. Another photo showed the same group in various leisure poses: drinks in hand, holding rifles, smoking cigars, etc. The two camera-shy gentlemen were not pictured.

But the pic Frank found the most interesting was a picture of Howie in a khaki-shirt-and-pants get up, standing next to a man wearing a dark suit and an air of importance. Both men were smiling at the camera, while behind them, two men, also in dark suits, were standing next to a black U. S. Army helicopter, seemingly waiting for the man with Parker.

Guy looks like Richard fuckin’ Nixon, Frank thought. Our former president, Tricky Dick, was now in self-imposed exile in San Clemente, California, after his stunning resignation from the country’s highest office.

“Is that Richard Nixon?” Frank asked, pointing at the photo.

“Sure is. Back when he was VP under Eisenhower. He and Howie were buds, I guess. Bryce calls that picture ‘Nixon pleased with graft payment.’”

The damn picture was giving Frank a funny feeling. He’d read somewhere that events in the past can leave psychic fingerprints, so maybe that was what he was sensing. He never used to experience such nonsense, but after his recent acid trip, the concussion, and all the other shit that had gone down in Zenith, his senses had become acute to the point of hypersensitive. And, at times, he swore he had a sixth sense.

Extrasensory perception.

ESP.    

And also more susceptible to whacked-out theories, a voice in his head reminded him. It wasn’t the Hater speaking, more like the Admonisher.

And take a look at that Howard Parker. Man resembled famous movie director Sam Peckinpaugh. Especially in the photos of an older, white-haired Howie. And all the photos kind of vibed like behind the scenes at a Peckinpaugh western. You almost expected to see Warren Oates lurking in the background somewhere.

And was that William Holden in the back row of the group photo standing with a beautiful Mexican woman?

But there was something else, something different Frank was sensing. Not like this place was a den of evil, some stronghold of conspirators complicit in the assassination of JFK or anything like that, but the vibe was less than immaculate. Like the psychic fingerprints were saying that off-kilter and unsavory things often happened here.

So maybe this place was also haunted by sins of the past, Frank thought, letting his mind drift.

But maybe it was just the residue of the amphetamine and the lack of sleep, playing tricks with his head.

Now he was too full and too tired to think. All he wanted was to get in the pool before he crashed out, that inevitable moment rapidly approaching.

(End of Chapter 12)

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Frank couldn’t recall ever eating such a spicy breakfast. Damn good, but a lot spicier than most anything you might find in Minnesota, even in a Mexican restaurant.

As Frank and Larry sat back in their chairs and let the eggs, cheese, ground meat and chili sauce settle in, Frank scanned the photos on the dining room wall.

More photos of the early days of the ranch, but these were focused less on the Mexican construction crew and more on older white men. One in particular, a tall, sturdy gent shown on horseback and in front of buildings in various stages of completion, had to be the patriarch. “Old Howie,” as Richards had referred to him. There was one of Old Howie standing with a group of men in suits who’d seemingly just arrived. Two of the men were looking down at the ground so all you could see was the tops of their heads. Another photo showed the same group in various leisure poses: drinks in hand, holding rifles, smoking cigars, etc. The two camera-shy gentlemen were not pictured.

But the pic Frank found the most interesting was a picture of Howie in a khaki-shirt-and-pants get up, standing next to a man wearing a dark suit and an air of importance. Both men were smiling at the camera, while behind them, two men, also in dark suits, were standing next to a black U. S. Army helicopter, seemingly waiting for the man with Parker.

Guy looks like Richard fuckin’ Nixon, Frank thought. Our former president, Tricky Dick, was now in self-imposed exile in San Clemente, California, after his stunning resignation from the country’s highest office.

“Is that Richard Nixon?” Frank asked, pointing at the photo.

“Sure is. Back when he was VP under Eisenhower. He and Howie were buds, I guess. Bryce calls that picture ‘Nixon pleased with graft payment.’”

The damn picture was giving Frank a funny feeling. He’d read somewhere that events in the past can leave psychic fingerprints, so maybe that was what he was sensing. He never used to experience such nonsense, but after his recent acid trip, the concussion, and all the other shit that had gone down in Zenith, his senses had become acute to the point of hypersensitive. And, at times, he swore he had a sixth sense.

Extrasensory perception.

ESP.    

And also more susceptible to whacked-out theories, a voice in his head reminded him. It wasn’t the Hater speaking, more like the Admonisher.

And take a look at that Howard Parker. Man resembled famous movie director Sam Peckinpaugh. Especially in the photos of an older, white-haired Howie. And all the photos kind of vibed like behind the scenes at a Peckinpaugh western. You almost expected to see Warren Oates lurking in the background somewhere.

And was that William Holden in the back row of the group photo standing with a beautiful Mexican woman?

But there was something else, something different Frank was sensing. Not like this place was a den of evil, some stronghold of conspirators complicit in the assassination of JFK or anything like that, but the vibe was less than immaculate. Like the psychic fingerprints were saying that off-kilter and unsavory things often happened here.

So maybe this place was also haunted by sins of the past, Frank thought, letting his mind drift.

But maybe it was just the residue of the amphetamine and the lack of sleep, playing tricks with his head.

Now he was too full and too tired to think. All he wanted was to get in the pool before he crashed out, that inevitable moment rapidly approaching.

(End of Chapter 12)

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This little cabin is pretty damn nice, Frank thought as he stepped out of the bathroom after his shower and noticed the dome was already a lot cooler than when he came in. He figured it must be something to do with the dome shape that made the AC work so fast.

He stepped into the sleeping area and opened his bag on top of the queen-size bed. The bedspread was multi-colored—yellows and reds and browns—in familiar Mexican sunburst patterns.

Frank dressed in the lightest clothes he had with him—a pair of khaki trousers and a bird’s egg blue button-up short sleeve shirt. And then, glancing in the full-length mirror on the bathroom door, decided he looked like a dork and changed into a plain white T-shirt and his new swim trunks. Swim trunks were longer now than they used to be. Frank’s were off-white with a blue pinstripe, and the clerk at the Glass Block in Zenith had assured him that this was what they were wearing on the beaches of California.

As if the guy actually knew.

Walking across the blazing hot grounds in his shower sandals toward the cool comfort of the main house, Frank felt a little awkward, because he hardly ever wore shorts. Legs were blindingly white. But he knew he’d have to adjust to a new climate and new habits eventually, so why not start now.

Richards was lounging on a brown leather couch in the great room, wearing powder blue tennis shorts and a yellow polo shirt and reading a newspaper, a stack of papers on the cushion next to him.

“Care for yesterday’s papers, Frank? Afraid that’s the best we can do out here. They get mailed from Phoenix, week’s worth at a time. Pick ‘em up in Carefree.”

“I’ll pass, man. Thanks anyway.”

“No problem. So let’s go eat. I took the liberty of ordering you huevos rancheros, and I can smell the chili peppers.”

Frank followed him into the large dining room. Beneath a crystal chandelier and ceiling fan was a huge rectangular table made of thick dark wood, surrounded by sturdy matching chairs. A large window on the far wall had a view of the mountains, purple now in their majesty. There was a place setting at each end of the table, with linen napkins, thick white plates and sterling silver utensils. A shiny coffee pot sat on a silver tray in the middle of the table, along with a sugar bowl, a creamer, a sugar bowl filled with honey and two thick, white porcelain cups. A large wooden bowl of grapefruit and oranges and some smaller white bowls completed the picture.

A picture of the perfect western breakfast, Frank was thinking. Genteel living in the middle of the barren desert.

“Care for some coffee, Frank? Maria brews up a mean pot.”

“Don’t mind if I do, something sure smells good.” He smiled and looked at his surroundings, trying to take it all in. He’d never been this close to this kind of luxury before, unless you considered Mr. Pills’ place, back in Zenith. But there he was on the outside looking in, whereas here he was right in the thick of things.

And kind of enjoying it at the moment.

Richards lifted the coffee pot and filled the cups. “Cream, sugar, Arizona honey? Help yourself.”

“Black is good for me, man.”

Still standing, Frank took the cup and eyeballed the seating arrangement—plates on opposite ends of the long table. He showed a little smirk and sat down on one end. “We’re just like two lords of the manor in old England, man. You know, like in the movies where the king and queen eat dinner together but they’re thirty yards away across a long table like this.”

“The thought crossed my mind, Frank. Humberto knows that once Bryce shows up, no one else gets to sit at the head of the table here, so this is like his little joke on me.”

“If that’s the head of the table, then this (looking at his place setting) must be the foot.”

“If that’s the way you choose to look at it, then you’re at the foot. But remember, I didn’t set the table. Humberto just likes to throw these jabs at my supposed outsider status. He’s a good man. We talk a lot. You can learn a lot talking to the servants at a place like this.”

And, as if on cue, a gray-haired Mexican man with a limp, who looked to be around sixty, entered the room carrying a tray with two steaming plates of what Frank assumed was huevos rancheros, having never before had the dish.

(To be continued)

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The Mexican woman who’d greeted them at the door watched quietly as Richards hauled his bags up the wide staircase to the second level, Frank following behind with his head on a swivel checking out the photos and paintings.

There were several pictures of the Mexican construction crew and the early stages of the ranch house, interspersed with romanticized oil paintings of western scenes of cow roping and cattle drives.

Of course these assholes would have Mexican servants, Frank thought as he walked down the dark wood upstairs hallway. There were doors on both sides opened to simple but plush bedrooms.

“This one is mine,” Richards proclaimed as he entered a dark-paneled room with a skylight and a view of the mountains and the sun-spangled desert,

Richards dropped his bags down on the floor by the queen-size four poster bed, stretched and looked around, taking it all in with a grin.

“Which room is mine?” Frank asked.

“I’m thinking we should set you up in one of the cabins, Frank. They’re pretty cool. They have everything you’ll need: AC, TV, a wet bar—fully stocked, I might add.”

“I see,” Frank said. “Servants’ quarters.”

“Not at all, Frank, not at all. It’s just that all the bedrooms in the main house have been spoken for. Consortium members glommed onto them eons ago. Some of the douchebags even wanted to have brass nameplates put on the doors. But Bryce, for a change, showed a little restraint and put the kibosh on that one. Nevertheless, I don’t want to overstep my bounds and risk having one of the entitled ones get his shorts in a twist.”

“I hear you, man. No problem.”

Frank shook off what he felt was a slight—nothing unusual in this type of a set-up. And he was leaving for California, anyway, soon as he got himself recharged.

“Come on, Frank,” Richards said,  “I’ll show you the fun area.”   

They went back downstairs and clicked across the hardwood floor of a large dining room on their way to the back of the house, where they entered another room of leather and wood and head mounts of dead animals. Also more old black-and-white photos, a fireplace on one side and a pool table and a circular poker table in the middle, and what looked to be the latest in stereo equipment along the back wall. Off to the right was one of those giant screen projection TVs, a semi-circle of overstuffed chairs in front of it.

Through a large pair of glass French doors, Frank could see the sunlight dancing on the blue-green water of a huge, Lima bean-shaped swimming pool. Just beyond the pool were two tennis courts of green and red asphalt enclosed in a chain-link fence with light stanchions rising above the courts.

“They use those tennis courts much this time of year, Larry?”

“Only at night, thus the lights. But really, they’re not used much at all these days.”

“Bring your racket?”

“I didn’t. But there are plenty here if you want to play.”

“No thanks, man. I never did go in for white bread sports like tennis and golf.”

“You are such a real man, Frank, it makes my heart flutter.”

“Fuck you. Besides, I don’t have a white sweater to tie around my shoulders.”

“You are sadly lacking in the important things of life, Mr. Ford.”

“True. You still play much?”

“Not in a long while. Too long, really.” He grabbed a hunk of fat on his waistline and shook it between his fingers.

“Love handles, Larry,” Frank said. 

“Yeah, right,” Richards said. “I’ll get the keys and we’ll get you set up in your cabin.”

They went outside and, man, was it hot. Like lasers to the top of Frank’s head.

Were things getting thin up there?

They got in the wagon and Richards directed him down to the third and last dome in the row.

Frank swung in alongside it.

Richards got out and stuck a key from a large fob into the cabin door while Frank dug out a small suitcase and his shaving kit.

Frank was starting to slow down, fatigue crawling up his legs now, but the water of the swimming pool had looked so inviting he was determined to stay awake long enough for a dip.

“All right if I use the pool?” he asked. Richards was standing at the door of the dome like a maître d at a fine restaurant.

“Of course, man. Facilities are open to all guests at Rancho Deluxe. But I thought you were famished.”

Frank had forgotten his hunger—excited by entering the lavish grounds—but now he remembered. “Yeah, I could eat,” he said, walking past Richards into the dome.

“I’ll get Maria to rustle us up some huevos rancheros, maybe some fresh Arizona grapefruit. The pantry is always well stocked here.”

“You don’t have to trouble the staff, Larry, just show me the way to the kitchen and I can fix something up. I’m used to fending for myself.”

“The staff here is well paid, Frank. And they don’t do much when there’s nobody here. We’ll have a nice breakfast and then I may join you for a dip. I think they keep the water around eighty degrees. Got a suit? There’s a bunch for guests to use in the cabana at the end of the pool, if you need one.”

Richards stepped inside the dome and flipped a switch on the air conditioning unit.

Frank said, “I picked up a pair of trunks before I left Zenith. Going to California and all that shit, you know?”

“I do. So let’s go eat.”

“Man, I really need to shower first. My pits smell like old garbage cans.”

“I was going to say something,” Richards said, laughing as he walked back out into the heat.

(End of Chapter 11)

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