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It was after one o’clock when Frank returned to the main house. He could smell something cooking. Seemed to be more Mexican specialties. He went to the glass doors leading to the pool. The three men were still in the water, empty beer bottles on the tiles alongside three separate lounge chairs.

Bryce Parker was floating on an inflatable raft in the middle of the blue water. He saw Frank and waved him out. Frank went out into the heat and took a seat at a round table with an umbrella over it, having had enough sun for the day.

“Grab yourself a beer, Frank. Lunch should be ready any minute,” Parker said. “Maria is fixing us a batch of carne seca. Ever had it before?”

“Never even heard of it before.”

“It means dried meat, Frank,” Richards said, climbing out of the pool.

“Dried meat?”

“It’s made with beef jerky, you’ll love it,” Parker said. “Maria is a fantastic cook. Nothing dry about it when she gets finished.”

Frank nodded his head. “The huevos rancheros yesterday were excellent.”

Parker rolled off the raft into the water and submerged, surfacing a few seconds later blowing water and pushing his hair out of his eyes.

Larry Richards was stretched out on a yellow chaise. He was tan compared to Frank, but not as dark as the other two.

Clayton Cook climbed out of the water, lifted a beer bottle from the edge of the pool and approached Frank’s table. “Decide if you were going to stay or not, Mr. Frank?”

“Yeah, I think I’ll stay for one more day. Take you up on your offer of dinner.”

“Great,” Cook said. “What about golf?” He executed a golf swing, clicking his tongue to mimic the sound of club striking ball.

“I was thinking maybe that I should caddy. I’ve got some experience with that. My game would be a disaster, slow you guys down waiting for me.”

Cook said, “You want to carry a heavy golf bag in this heat, man? You in need of atonement or something? Fulfilling some purgatorial duty, perhaps? Punishment for deeds unkind?”

He was. But they didn’t need to know that. “I was thinking more along the lines of driving the cart.”

“I suppose we can arrange that. But foursomes are much better than threesomes. On the golf course, anyway. You and I can partner against Bryce and Larry. What’s your handicap?”

“Having to swing the club. I’m horseshit at golf, plain and simple. Baseball—now there’s something I can do.”

“C’mon, man. No pressure, no responsibility, no worries. Right up your alley. We’ll play best ball. That way any bad shots you hit won’t cause us any harm, and if you do catch hold of one, we can make it count. After, we’ll take you to the batting cage.”

Frank figured there’d be gambling. And he couldn’t tolerate losing money to these rich guys. But he didn’t want to admit it; didn’t want to be seen as a piker. “I’ll give it some thought,” he said.

Bryce Parker was toweling off at poolside. “Lunch is served, gentlemen,” he said.

Frank glanced through the glass doors and saw Humberto walking toward the dining room. 

(End of Chapter 19)

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Judging by the position of the sun, Frank figured it was close to noon when Clayton Cook arrived at the pool with a beer bottle in his hand.

A beer bottle of a type Frank couldn’t remember ever seeing before, which was rare for a veteran bartender.

Having been in the water long enough that the skin on his fingertips was wrinkling and his face was feeling a tad tight; Frank was sitting on the steps of the pool in the shallow end, lower body submerged and an orange beach towel over his head.

He nodded to Cook, who nodded back as he flopped down into an aqua blue chaise lounge at poolside.

“Care for a beer, Frank?” Cook asked. “We have some beaner brew, if you want it. Bryce always stocks it, so you either drink this shit or bring your own,” Cook lifted up the bottle of what Frank now saw was Dos Equis, a Mexican beer he’d heard of before but never actually seen.

“Thanks, but I think I’ll pass. I’m gonna hit the road after lunch, so alcohol is probably not a good idea.”

“Wisdom learned from years of tending bar?”

“Years of drinking and driving.”

Cook smiled and snorted. “Why don’t you stay and enjoy another day at Rancho Deluxe before you head out?”

“Sounds tempting, but I was really hoping to get somewhere with a little more green and maybe not quite so hot.”

“Where in Cali you headed?”

“I’m not sure. Santa Clara or Santa Barbara or Santa fuckin’ Claus… I really don’t know. Never been to California before so I thought I’d look around a bit. Hopefully find a clean, well-lighted place to work at.”

A clean, well-lighted place. Hemingway, correct? I remember that story. About a guy who owns a little spot and studies the customers. That you?”

“Could be. But I think the story was more about the guy who visits the well-lighted place every night.”

“Perhaps,” Cook said. “Long time since I read it. So that’s what you want to do, own a bar?”

“Maybe, maybe not. Owning entails lots of responsibility. Which leads to worry. Which can lead to feeling like shit. Right now I just want to find somewhere to settle for a while. You know man, take stock of things.”

“I hear that, Frank. All the more reason you should stay another day. I was going to treat everyone to dinner tonight at this great restaurant on Camelback Mountain. Bryce and I were going to play nine at the country club and then go for dinner. I think Larry has business to take care of but I’m sure he’ll be joining us at some point. You play golf?”

“I have, but not very well. And I don’t have any clubs.”

“Clubs are not a problem. If you want to play, we can always scare some up. You should come; it’ll be a kick. After dinner we can hit the bars and burn off some excess energy. I know some spots that can get pretty wild. Lots of hot chicks.”

Frank had to admit he was tempted. Female companionship sounded good. He was beginning to think this being alone shit was like living with an open sore. Maybe another day of rest and recreation was what he needed.

He was feeling indecisive again.

And right now his face was feeling hot.

Frank got out of the pool and toweled off.

He said goodbye to Clayton, slid on his flip-flops and left the pool area.

Walking back toward the dome, rubber sandals clapping on the red bricks, he was debating within himself.

Should he stay or should he go? 

These guys were uncomfortably out of his league financially, culturally and just about every other way, except the physical. He was bigger than them and figured he could take either of them in a fight if it came down to that. Then he wondered why he was thinking like that. He wrote it off to some old, deeply ingrained bartender shit, like when you were assessing the possibility of trouble from an unruly customer.

Unable to land comfortably on a particular choice, he recalled a saying he’d recently begun to hear from a wide variety of people: What would Jesus Christ do? Or the shorthand version:WWJCD?

He had his own version now: WWJKD?

What would Jack Kerouac do?

Seemed like Kerouac would say: Fuck the economic differences, man. Just dig it. Dig the scene, man; this chance may never come again.

So that side was heard from.

But what about the sensible side of Frank Ford? The guy who’d vowed to be a better person—more responsible—and dedicate himself to starting his new life before his money ran out?

Good question.

He decided to wait until after lunch to make the decision. First he was going to hit the shower and then maybe read a little or lie down for a short nap. Something was telling him he’d need the energy later.

Inside the dome it was cool. He had a shower and put on his underwear and crawled into the wonderfully comfortable bed with his book. But his eyes got heavy so he put the book on the bed table, thinking about Nikki as he drifted off. He thought about her a lot. Too much. More than he thought about his dead brother Ray. Nikki was definitely a lot better looking. And the memories of her were generally of the pleasant variety, whereas thoughts of Ray usually brought forth a truckload of torment.

Nikki, in spite of all of their differences, had been a beacon of light, a breath of fresh air and a plethora of other positive clichés.

As for Ray, what he was is better left unsaid.

And now, of course, the man was dead.  

(End of Chapter 18)

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Larry followed Parker into the house.

Frank was holding the golf bag at the bottom of the staircase as Cook started walking up. “Where do you want the clubs, Clayton?” Frank asked.

Cook stopped and turned. “I’m sorry, man,” he said, “I don’t know what I was thinking. Should’ve left them in the Lincoln. How else would I get to the country club? Would you mind putting them back in the trunk?”

Frank didn’t know if this was an honest mistake or some kind of weird test Cook was putting him through. But he was a guest here so he shrugged and carried the heavy bag back outside.

He took the keys from the ignition of the Lincoln and opened the trunk, dropped the golf bag in, put the keys on the driver’s seat and went back inside the house.

The main floor was empty. He heard voices upstairs on the second floor. Not sure what else to do, he started up the thick wooden steps.

Halfway up he heard the voices get louder.

It sounded like Bryce Parker: “What do you mean you didn’t get it, Larry?”

Larry: “I told you, Bryce, Reynolds cut me off. He’s super pissed about losing out on the mall deal and he sent out the word to his dealers to cut me off.”

Clayton Cook: “A little resourcefulness might have served you well, Larry. I suspect there are a few more cocaine suppliers in Denver besides Arturo Reynolds.”

“C’mon, give me a break. Reynolds sent goons with baseball bats to destroy my Beemer for God’s sake. And the next time it was going to be me. I had to split town or take a beating; no other choice in the matter.”

Parker: “A week in the desert without any blow is gonna be tough sledding, Larry.”

“I told you, Bryce, the reason Reynolds has it in for me is because you guys bought the mall deal out from under him. And when the checks start coming in, I want you two to remember it was me that put you on it.”

“I’m sure Burt remembers it was you,” Cook said, laughing.

Parker: “We were counting on you, Larry.”

     “I know you were. And I tried, I really did. But circumstances were beyond my control. But I’ve got some old friends in Phoenix who can help us out, so let’s change the subject. What’d you think of those properties I showed you this morning?”

“Not bad,” Parker said. “Halfway decent. I see the possibilities.”

“I can feel my mood slipping, already,” Frank heard Cook say. “I suppose we’ll just have to drink the ennui away.”

Richards: “I do have some state-of-the-art amphetamine. Stuff is straight from the American medical pharmacopeia.”

Parker: “I suppose that will have to do. But get on the horn with your local friends and see what you can shake up. Maybe you can redeem yourself.”

Uncomfortable now and feeling sorry for Larry—Hell is the people you hang with, they say—Frank turned and went back down the stairs. Stopping in the great room, he gazed around at the mounts on the walls and tried to figure his next move.

He had committed to staying for a midday meal, and after that he’d be free as a bird. But it would be getting on in the day by then and cutting into the available hours of daylight…

But, shit, any time at all on the road would get him closer to his goal.

And farther away from this cluster fuck.

Seemed like a win-win situation.

Part of him felt he should stay and be an ally for his friend. Larry seemed in need of some unconditional love—another concept Frank’s ex, Nikki, used to talk about. Girl liked to show off her education.

But Christ, prior to the day before yesterday, he hadn’t seen Larry in years. And Richards was the one that dragged him into this scene. Wasn’t the other way around, you know.

Unconditional love?

Fuck that.

He couldn’t make up his mind.

So he said the hell with it and headed for the pool. It was probably still below ninety out there. But the sun was well above the mountains now and it was only a matter of time.

(End of Chapter 17)

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The two new arrivals were pretty much like Frank had expected. Except he’d pictured them in blazers and ties—an east coast preppie look Frank had apparently brought forward from his formative years. Made him wonder if he was ten years behind the times.

Or longer.

The two average-sized guys were wearing shorts and rock band T-shirts. Dark-haired guy: Eagles. Blond dude: Rolling Stones.

Gone were the days when you dressed up to get on an airliner.

Both guys’ hair was fashionably long and similarly styled. They were also tan and good-looking.

Frank came up as they were unloading the Lincoln. “Anything I can carry?” he asked, showing a friendly smile.

Larry Richards was standing by the open trunk of the Lincoln. “Bryce—Clayton,” he said, “this is my old friend from Minnesota I told you about, Frank Ford. My Beemer was in the shop, so I made him drive me down here.” He grinned.

The guy with the dark hair, Bryce Parker, put out his hand and Frank shook it. “Welcome to Sonora North, Frank, or as Larry has so astutely christened it, Rancho Deluxe. I trust your stay has been enjoyable so far.”

“Very good, yes,” Frank said.

“So you’re a chauffeur then?” The blond dude, Clayton Cook, said, coming over to shake Frank’s hand before lifting a large snappy leather suitcase out of the trunk.

Frank showed him a mixture of grimace and smile. Couldn’t tell if the guy was serious or giving him a dig. “No, not really. A bartender by trade, actually. Right now I’m on my way to California, so I stopped in Denver to see my old friend Larry here. Turned out he needed a little assistance and I was happy to oblige.” He paused and looked at Larry. “And now here I am, footloose and fancy free.”

“Ah, a mixologist,” Cook said. “Some of my closest confidantes are bartenders.”

“Which is why your dirty laundry is always hanging in public view, Clayton,” Parker said, a sly grin on his face.

“It’s just that my troubles are so compelling, Bryce,” Cook said. “And yours, on the other hand, are so mundane and banal that nobody even cares to know them.”

“Stability and consistency are positive traits, Clay,” Parker said. “Something you’ll probably never understand.”

“Maybe when I’m an old man like you, Bryce. And now that you mention it, Frank, I could definitely use a hand with the golf clubs.” He nodded toward the open trunk of the Lincoln.

“Sure, no problem, glad to be of service,” Frank said, then lifted out the black leather golf bag, putting some muscle into it. Thing was as big as the ones the pros on TV used. He put the strap on his shoulder and started toward the house. “Just like the old days at Lakeview Country Club, eh, Larry?”

Taking a suitcase from the trunk, Parker at his side holding another one, Richards’ face got a little pink. “Yeah, Frank, thank God those days are over. I spent enough time in the woods looking for balls to last me a lifetime.”

“Maybe that’s where you lost your own balls, Larry,” Parker said, still grinning.

Frank turned and saw Larry stiffen; Richards’ face turning a shade of crimson.

“Just kidding, Larry,” Parker said, as he and Cook laughed.

Then Cook went into the house and Parker turned to Richards. “C’mon, Larry, lighten up,” Parker said. “Just giving you some shit. Let’s go inside and get out of this heat.”

(To be continued)

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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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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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