Great stories about good people caught in difficult situations.


Denver Cereal - Chapter One Hundred and Forty-Two : Rats

CHAPTER ONE HUNDRED and FORTY-TWO

Three hours later Saturday afternoon — 3:15 P.M.

“General.” Standing in the Castle driveway, Seth spoke into his cell phone. “It’s O’Malley.”

“What can I do for you, Magic?” the man asked.

“I need the Denver Rats,” Seth said.

“For?”

“Coal tunnels.”

“You predicted this day would come.”

“Sir, I believe you predicted this day would come,” Seth said. “Did you ever finish that map?”

“Not exactly,” the man said. “Where? When?”

“My house,” Seth said. “As soon as they can make it.”

“You realize this is a Homeland Security problem now,” the General said.

“DHS, sir?”

“Terrorism, Seth,” the General said. “They confiscated every map in the city.”

“But?”

“Give me an hour,” the General said. “Maresol at home today?”

“Yes sir,” Seth said. “Enchiladas?”

“I was thinking rellenos,” he said.

“Yes sir, she’d be delighted,” Seth said. “She made tamales last week.”

“Good Lord, I love being back in Denver.”

“See you soon.”

Seth clicked off the phone. He had enough experience with tunnels to know that if the Denver Police entered anywhere in the system, Saint Jude would know they were coming hours before they found him. Seth wanted to take down the bastard once and for all. No slip ups.

They had to move fast. After decades of stable, predictable, psychopathic behavior, Saint Jude was changing his MO. The FBI profiler was ‘deeply concerned’ that Saint Jude had killed a police officer and Beth. These murders plus capturing Ava, an adult, indicated to the profiler that Saint Jude was coming apart at the seams or ‘decompensating’ in profiler speak. The profiler warned Seth they could expect Saint Jude’s behavior to becoming more and more erratic.

The profiler insisted they had to get this psycho now.

Seth didn’t need the push.

He closed his eyes in a silent prayer that somehow between a good map and an oracle named after a flower, they’d get this bastard.

~~~~~~~~

Three hours later Saturday afternoon — 3:35 P.M

Nash stood in front of the mirror. Somehow Charlie had manipulated his Dad into paying for Charlie and his girlfriend, Addy, to go to the movies. In a piece of sheer brilliance, Charlie convinced Dad that it was unfair that Teddy and Noelle couldn’t go to the movie. Nash was about to protest when Charlie told Dad that since Sissy was at ballet and Sandy was with the girlfriends at her studio, Nash would be at home all alone.

To Nash’s shock, Dad had agreed. Sandy had called Melinda’s Mom and, after months of pestering and begging, Nash and his dream girl from Smiley Middle School, Melinda, were on a date. The girls wanted to see the new Shrek movie. While the boys rolled their eyes and moaned, they didn’t really care. At least Nash didn’t care.

He was on a date.

With Melinda. She looked amazing and smelled… wow.

Dad was supervising, but who cared? So far, Dad had paid for lunch and the movie and the snacks. He didn’t even comment when Nash and Teddy went to the bathroom by themselves. Feeling very grown up, Nash smiled at himself in the mirror.  Teddy came up behind Nash in the bathroom. The boys smiled at each other.

Leaning over, Nash washed his hands.

A large hand pushed his head under the stream of water. Nash flipped around to his attacker and found himself face to face with the bully who got him kicked out of middle school.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Nash asked.

“You,” the bully pushed him. “That’s what’s wrong with me.”

Nash felt Teddy stand at his side.

“We don’t want any trouble,” Teddy said. “What’s past is past.”

“It’s not past for me, loser,” the bully pushed Nash. “My Dad’s in jail because of you assholes. We got kicked out of our apartment. Mom has to work nights. All because of you!”

The bully pressed his face right into Nash’s face.

“Maybe your Dad shouldn’t been a disgusting pervert with nasty stuff on his computer,” Nash said.

Using his shoulder, Nash pushed the bully off him. The bully rushed him. Nash readied for the collision when Charlie stepped out of a stall. Charlie picked up the bully by the shoulders.

“What are you doing?” Charlie asked the bully as he set him down.

“This doesn’t concern you, prick,” the bully said.

“That’s my brother,” Charlie said. “He concerns me so this concerns me.”

“Well, your brother destroyed my life,” the bully said.

“Oh right,” Charlie said. “You’re the kid with the nasty movies on your computer. Losing good jerk off material is tough. But ruin your life? You must not have much of a life.”

“It was Sandy!” Nash said.

“I see,” Charlie’s face shifted to scary neutral.

“I don’t have no problem with you,” the bully said.

“Well, this has been very interesting,” Charlie patted the boy’s jacket. “I find myself with a difficult dilemma.”

Charlie nodded to Nash.

“On the one hand, you’ve disrespected my brother, Nash,” Charlie said. “And I find out you’re a perv from a long line of revolting perverts and pedophiles.”

Charlie nodded at the bully.

“I’m very tempted to beat the crap out of you,” Charlie said. “But, I have a real live girl waiting for me. And you? You have disgusting, not to mention illegal, videos.”

Charlie shook his head.

“Every time I start getting pissed, I think of how pathetic you are and…” Charlie shrugged. He looked at Nash and added, “Anything to add?”

“Pathetic is a very good word,” Nash said. Teddy gave him paper towels to dry his head. Nash stuck his head under the air hand dryers.

“If you’ll excuse us,” Charlie said. “We have three beauties waiting on us.”

Making sure Nash and Teddy were in front of him, Charlie hustled them out of the bathroom.

“Why didn’t you beat him up?” Nash asked.

“I have better things to do.”

Charlie kissed Addy’s cheek. She giggled. Aden held a soda cup out to her and she went to get it.

“I wanted to beat him up,” Nash said.

Charlie turned to Nash. Tall, strong, handsome Charlie looked the boy over. He gave Nash a soft smile.

“You can’t hurt him more than he’s hurting right now,” Charlie said.

“How do you know?” Teddy asked.

“I’ve been him,” Charlie said.

They watched the bully and a few of his friends leave the bathroom and go into an action movie.

“But why didn’t you beat him up?” Nash asked.

“If I beat him up, I’ll go to jail. Seth will have to get me out and it will be a big pain in my ass. I’ll have a bunch of stupid serious talks with Aden. Sandy will cry,” Charlie said. “I’d rather watch the movie with my girl. Maybe we’ll make out. Maybe more. You can never predict what happens in the dark. Trust me. That’s a lot more fun than jail.”

Melinda walked up with a bag of popcorn. She gave Nash the bag, a soda and a big smile. She jogged off to join Noelle in the bathroom. Charlie put his arm around Addy and nuzzled her neck. He winked at Nash and they moved toward the movie theater.

“He seems almost sane,” Teddy said in a soft voice.

“Scary,” Nash said.

Melinda and Noelle returned from the bathroom. Nash held out his hand and Melinda took it. Walking hand in hand, they followed Charlie and Addy to the theater. They found seats near the back. Aden sat in the row just behind them. The theater lights dimmed and Melinda leaned over to Nash.

“I’m glad you called, Nash,” Melinda whispered in his ear.

Nash smiled at her. They watched some stupid trailers when Melinda leaned in again.

“I really like you,” she said.

“I really like you,” Nash said.

To his shock, Melinda leaned over and kissed him.

On the lips.

Him!

Nash Norsen!

He was going to kiss her again when he felt a piece of ice hit his head. He turned around to see his father smirking at him. Nash nodded. Rules of dating: No hanky panky on the first date. If you start too fast, you have no where to go. Start slow.

Nash leaned back in his seat. He watched the trailers and ate popcorn. He was about to get a drink of soda when he saw Melinda’s hand. He took her hand instead of the soda cup.

For the rest of the movie, Nash held on tight.

~~~~~~~~

Six  hours later Saturday night — 9:35 P.M

Seth sat at the upright piano in this basement studio. Ava had woken a few hours ago and insisted on seeing where he ‘really made music.’ He agreed to show her if she would see a doctor, something she’d refused since leaving the hospital. He’d led her down the studio and called his old friend Bumpy. When Bumpy arrived, he’d left them alone together. He’d asked Bumpy to take a look at Dale while he was here.

For all intents and purposes, Ava’s voice was gone. The funeral and events afterwards had taken her energy and what was left of her vocal cords. Bumpy had given her a strong sedative to make sure she rested. He thought massage, and maybe even some acupuncture, would relieve the tension in her neck and shoulders and release her voice. But for now, Ava needed to sleep. Dale too.

Seth played this ancient upright and Ava slept.

This room had effectively belonged to him since he was four years old. His great-uncle had given the family the piano before Seth was born. His father thought the piano was the Devil’s tool, so the piano was tucked away in a basement storage room. Seth found it playing hide and seek with his brothers.

For no reason anyone ever could understand, Seth found the piano one day and played it the next. The bench seat compartment was packed full of sheet music. Seth had found the music a week later. He could read the piano scores long before he learned to read words. While his father worked, Seth had played this piano. His mother was so struck by the miracle of what Seth could do that she hadn’t told his father until he had composed his first piece at seven years old.

Seth looked over at Ava. She was curled up in a sagging leather couch. In contrast to the formal room upstairs, this room was warm, wood paneled, and comfortable. Someone had put in pine floors. He’d had them repaired when he’d moved back to take care of his ailing father. The room was sparsely furnished with furniture from his old apartment. A leather recliner, leather couch, a few chairs, an ancient wood chest, and this upright piano. The wood fireplace cast a dancing glow on Ava’s sleeping form. Seth wrote his best work on this piano. He began to play an old familiar song.

“What’s that?” Dale asked from the doorway.

Seth looked up at him and smiled.

“Come in,” Seth said. “When I stop playing, Ava cries, even in her sleep. Do you mind?”

“Go ahead,” Dale said. “It’s beautiful.”

Seth gave him a partial smile and continued playing.

“There’s Scotch and some glasses in the case there,” Seth said. “Help yourself.”

Dale went to the cabinet to pour himself three fingers of scotch. He took a drink.

“Wow. This is amazing,” Dale said.

“Hundred year old Scotch,” Seth said. “It’s my agent’s. Well, it was his father’s but now it’s his. Drink it if you like it. There’s a case in the closet.”

“A case of hundred year old Scotch?” Dale asked.

“My agent brought it when we sold a piece about forty years ago,” Seth said.

“I thought you were an alcoholic?” Dale asked.

“I am,” Seth said. “I hate Scotch. My father drank Scotch exclusively. The case was a bribe for him.”

“Why is there any left?” Dale asked.

“I had a special gift for pissing my father off,” Seth said. “When I left his house, I put a padlock on the door. He thought the piano was possessed so he never bothered coming in.”

“His loss,” Dale sat down in a recliner. “Who was that guy?”

“Which guy?”

“Bumpy?” Dale asked.

“He’s the best standup bass player in Denver,” Seth said. “He’s has a general practice in Five Points. Good man.”

“How’d you get him to do a house call?” Dale asked.

“Old friend,” Seth shrugged.

“He touched me, you know, my shoulder, my neck, my face, my back,” Dale said. “He looked into my eyes and listened to me like I mattered. I don’t think any doctor has ever really touched me or looked at me.”

“He knows what you’re going through,” Seth said.

“I felt like he… understood me,” Dale said. “He told me that you’d make me the man I was supposed to be.”

Seth continued to play the piano.

“He said you’d done that for him,” Dale said.

“He’s a good man,” Seth repeated.

Hoping to deter the walk down memory lane, Seth changed songs.

“What’s that?” Dale asked.

“Something I wrote when I was in Vietnam. We used to hum it in the tunnels. The original score is in the First Division Museum,” Seth chuckled. “What to hear an irony?”

“Sure,” Dale said.

“I sold this song while we were in Vietnam. I don’t remember why, probably for furlough money. My best friend and I were eighteen and lived in a state of excess,” Seth said. “Anyway, the next time I heard this song was in my wife’s obstetrician’s office. There was a movement then of playing calming songs while the women were pregnant then when they were in labor. It had been… twenty years, maybe longer, since I’d heard or thought of this song. Imagine my surprise.”

“I bet.”

“We had both of our boys to this song,” Seth laughed and shook his head.

He continued playing.

“What’s it called?” Dale asked.

“A Medley for Amelie,” Seth said.

“Is that why you call her Ava?” Dale asked.

“Among other reasons,” Seth said.

“She’s named after this song.”

“Who?” Seth asked.

“Amelie,” Dale said. “Her mother loves it. She had it playing in the delivery room and used to play it for her as a baby. Amelie was supposed to be named after her mom, but listening to the song, her father named her Amelie. Or that’s what they say. Amelie listens to the song anytime she’s anxious.”

Seth stopped playing to look at Dale. Still sound asleep, Ava began to cry. Seth went to comfort her. He whispered in her ear and stroked her back. He got another one of his mother’s handmade quilts from the chest and laid it over her.

“I heard what that guy said when we got home,” Dale said.

Seth kissed Ava’s cheek then went back to playing. Ava stopped crying.

“I heard him ask if Amelie was your daughter,” Dale said. “Then laugh that you were always a hound for young pussy.”

“Lecherous old man,” Seth shrugged.

“She really loves you,” Dale said. “It’s not a joke or a fluke. She’s not after your money or this house or your music or anything. She loves you.”

“Listen…”

“No. You listen. Beth’s not here to tell you off so I have to say this,” Dale said. “Beth was with Amelie when she met you, you know, the day the Cigarette Killer was convicted. Beth said Amelie fell in love with you at that moment. Amelie’s never been this involved with any guy. Ever. She’d never let a guy take care of her. She’s always been really independent. Beth was terrified she’d never find anyone.”

“I…”

“I’ve lived with Beth and Amelie off and on for almost six years. I know her better than almost anyone,” Dale said. “We knew the moment she met you again. She was happier than I’ve ever known her. She danced around the apartment singing her song, that song. When she didn’t come home for a month, Beth just knew she was with you. Beth was so, so happy. If I know anything, Beth died happy knowing Amelie was with you.”

Dale took a deep breath to cool the intensity of his feelings.

“Amelie loves you,” Dale’s raw emotions came out in his raised  voice. “Do you love her or is she just a piece of young ass?”

“Whoa,” Seth said. “Slow down, Dale.”

Dale scowled at Seth.

“Have some Scotch. Breathe for a minute.”

“I’m not a child,” Dale said.

“No, you’re not,” Seth said. “But you’ve been through a horrible experience. You’ve lost everything so every little thing carries that intensity. My God, Dale, you buried the love of your life today.”

Dale blinked at Seth. He’d never had another man understand him. Not his father, grandfather, his uncles or any man he’d known could have made that statement. Dale finished his Scotch and refilled his glass. He stopped by the fireplace to add a piece of wood. When he sat back down in the recliner, he felt the warm flush of Scotch and the safety of the room.

“Amelie?” Dale asked.

“I care about Amelie, Dale. But it’s been maybe three months since we met in a forensics meeting. We’ve been dating maybe six weeks? Seven? Everything is brand new. Now she’s lost the person who made her world whole. Her compass. She’s undergone an unspeakable horror. She needs to find her footing before anything else happens. It’s going to take time. Whether I love her or she loves me or we work… All of that will be determined with time.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Dale said. “Who were those guys?”

“Army buddies,” Seth said.

“Army?”

“You’ve knew there were tunnels in Vietnam?”

“Vaguely.”

“I used to go down them ,” Seth said. “Miles and miles of wretched, filthy, bug infested, human waste filled, God forsaken tunnels under the jungle. We think the guy that killed Beth and hurt Amelie is in a tunnel under Denver. The guys went over some ancient maps. They have more experience in tunnels than anyone in the world. And we…”

Seth shook his head. They’d gotten nowhere. Tomorrow morning, he was meeting with Jake, Mike, and Delphie. Seth sighed. At this moment, he felt less ‘magic’ and more desperate.

“Most of those guys think I’m living in my Daddy’s house because I’m a boozer,” Seth said. “They don’t know my heart and can’t speak for me. But they will show up any time, anywhere, ready and willing to kill for me. I’d do the same for them. I bet you have friends like that.”

“No,” Dale shook his head. “I had Beth. And that was enough…”

The boy broke down. Seth played while Ava slept and Dale cried. After a while, Seth looked over and Dale was staring into space.

“I wanted you to know…” Dale said.

Seth stopped playing and went to Ava. He lifted her head to his lap and settled in to listen.

“I was going to hang myself tonight,” Dale said. “I had this whole plan. Then I got here and Maresol had my favorite food ready. Even a warm berry pie. I figured it was my last meal. So I was going to hang myself after dinner then I met Bumpy. And…”

Seth stroked Ava’s bald head to comfort her tears.

“I don’t want to die,” Dale said.

“But you don’t want to live without Beth,” Seth said.

Dale nodded.

“I understand,” Seth said.

“My Mom wants me to come home to Fort Collins… get on with my life… put this behind me…”

“What do you want?” Seth asked.

Dale raised a shoulder in a drunken shrug.

“Can I stay here until I figure it out?” Dale asked.

“Of course,” Seth said.

“Is there something I can do?”

“As repayment?” Seth asked. “You don’t have to.”

“I need something to do. Sitting around is making me crazy,” Dale said.

“Lost your job?”

“Not showing up for a week does that,” Dale nodded.

“Maresol has a long list of crap that needs to be done around the house. It’s enough to keep any dozen men busy for months,” Seth said. “Why don’t you see if you can make a dent in her list?”

“I worked building tract houses every summer through high school and college,” Dale said.

“That should help,” Seth said.

“Can I stay inside?” Dale asked.

“I thought Maresol set you up in a room upstairs,” Seth said.

Dale nodded.

“You can stay there or over the pool with your stuff from the apartment,” Seth said. “Whatever feels right.”

Dale gave a partial smile.

“But don’t hang yourself,” Seth said. “That’s just dumb.”

“Selfish, childish,” Dale said. “That’s what Bumpy said. He told me I would dishonor Beth if I killed myself.”

Seth chuckled.

“What?” Dale asked.

“I’ve heard that speech,” Seth said. “Did he say you were acting like a spoiled child?”

Dale nodded.

“He’s right, you know,” Seth said.

“I know,” Dale said.

“I’m going to play for a while,” Seth said. “You’re welcome to stay or head up. We’ll be up in an hour or so. Maresol’s off on Sundays. You’ll need to be ready to work on Monday around seven.”

“I can do that,” Dale said.

Dale got up from the chair. He nodded to Seth then moved to leave the room. Seth kissed Ava then went to the piano. Dale was at the door when he turned.

“Thanks,” Dale said. He raised a hand in ‘good bye’ and was gone.

~~~~~~~~

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