Tuesday, July 14, 2015

PRAIRIE THUNDER - a short story

Buck McDivit is my Oklahoma cowboy detective, and the protagonist in Ghost of a Chance and Bones of Skeleton Creek. Hope you like him.

***

Heavy June rains had raised the humidity well above normal. Buck McDivit felt it as he pulled into the thoroughbred horse ranch north of Oklahoma City. The horses issued a noisy acknowledgment of his appearance when he entered the large barn.

“Sorry, gang. You’ll get your oats after I clean up a bit.”

Buck took the stairs to the upper level. A narrow walkway encircled the large structure. It provided passage to several luxury suites often used by jockeys and visiting horse buyers. The owner, Mrs. Virginia O’Meara rented one of the suites to Buck for almost nothing. In return, he fed the horses and watched after them. He’d often wanted to bring home a girlfriend to see the place, but knew Mrs. O’Meara had a crush on him. Perhaps the motivation for the cheap rent.

Mrs. O’Meara had a much younger boyfriend that spent little time in Oklahoma City. A wary man, he kept a jealous eye on his wealthy girlfriend whenever he came to town. Trouble Buck didn’t need. He hadn’t dated anyone lately extraordinary enough to chance losing his happy home, though he did have someone in mind.

Blood on his hands disappeared into the marble bathroom vanity. Besides his work as a P.I., he often assisted the Logan County death investigator. Earlier, he’d worked a messy murder just north of Guthrie, a quaint bed and bath town north of the City. The phone rang as he dried his hands. It was Doc Halsey, the Logan County death investigator. Halsey was a veterinarian. That didn’t matter much in Logan County.

“We got another homicide, this time in Felony Flats.”

“Do I have time to feed the horses?”

“Make time. This one ain’t going no place.”

Buck did his feeding and then hurried up Coltrane, past Waterloo Road. Felony Flats had earned its name. A preacher intent on something other than salvation had purchased cheap land, and then built even cheaper houses on it. He carried the note for anyone that could sign their name, and more than a few that couldn’t. The houses fell apart after a few years. The residents, many of them only a step or two ahead of the law, never protested.

Waterloo Road, the county line, is too far north to worry Oklahoma County police. It’s also far enough south of Guthrie to provide little interest to the Logan County Sheriff. Bad things often happened in Felony Flats. Tonight, the name fitted the area well. Darkness blanketed the neighborhood as Buck parked his “Cowboy Coupe” in front of a ramshackle mobile home. A body awaited inside.

Broken brick littered the front yard. Someone had begun laying a barbecue pit. It was far from finished. A golden moon shined through thin cloud cover. Fireflies lit the pathway to the mobile home as a chorus of tree frogs heralded his appearance. Long after dark, it was still hot. He found Doc Halsey squatting beside the body of a large man, two Logan County deputies looking on with tired eyes.

“Johnny Big Shoe,” Halsey said. “Never thought he’d end up like this.”

Pulling on a pair of latex gloves, Buck knelt beside Doc Halsey. Without asking what had happened, he cocked Big Shoe’s head and touched the clotted wound behind his left ear.

“Blunt trauma,” Halsey said. “Someone nailed him from behind with something jagged and heavy.
Been dead since last night. His cousin, Austin Big Shoe, found the body.”

“Where is he now?”

“Guthrie, for questioning. Our number one suspect, to hear the Sheriff tell it.”

“Doesn’t make much sense. Why did he call the police if he’s the killer?”

“And wait twelve hours before doing it?” Doc Halsey added. “Don’t have a clue, but then again that’s not my job. Not yours, either.”

Buck glanced around the room, noticing the many Indian art paintings. A bare spot over the ratty sofa cried out for attention. Yellowed walls of a chain smoker outlined the former location of a missing painting. Sheriff Farnsworth entered the squalid mobile home before Buck could digest this information.

“Bag him,” Farnsworth said. “Austin confessed. No need to proceed any further with your investigation.”

Farnsworth glanced at Buck as if he were about to stomp a cockroach when he asked, “What’s the motive, Sheriff?”

“Them two’s feuded for years. Started in high school. They had designs on the same gal. They couldn't tolerate each other.”

“Then what was Austin doing here?” Buck asked.

“Came to kill him, I guess,” Sheriff Farnsworth said, dusting his hands as he started for the door. “Whatever, Austin confessed, and his fate is out of my hands.”

Buck knew better than to pursue the questioning. So did Doc Halsey. Lowering his eyes, he began wrapping the deceased man in a plastic body bag as the two deputies followed Farnsworth out the door. Halsey waited until he heard tires slipping in loose gravel.

“You’ll get us both fired if you aren’t careful.”

“When I was on the O.C.P.D., we checked things out with a lot more care. There’s enough evidence here to prove the case, one way or the other.”

“This ain’t Oklahoma County, Buck. What happens in Felony Flats stays in Felony Flats. There ain't no slick city lawyers here to get a guilty man off death row.”

Buck just shook his head. “Or an innocent man. What’s the story on all the paintings?”

“Johnny Big Shoe was an artist. I own some of his paintings myself. He never hit the big time. Maybe he will, now that he’s dead.”

Two men in a county transport truck retrieved Johnny Big Shoe's body. Doc Halsey supervised the loading, and then walked over to Buck’s truck.

“Forget this one. Go home and get some rest.”

***
Buck took half of Doc Halsey’s advice. That night, he got enough sleep for the first time in a week. A good thing because the horses were in no mood for late feeding two days in a row. Next morning, some of the stalls needed mucking. He’d finished a surveillance job the previous day. Despite Doc Halsey’s advice, he decided to visit the Logan County jail.

Farnsworth figured into Buck’s decision to take the day off. Sheriff Farnsworth’s daughter, Carla, worked for the Logan County Sheriff’s Department. She smiled when he entered the front door. With blond hair braided into a sexy pigtail, she had the bright looks of a California surfer girl.

“To what do we owe this pleasure?” she asked as Buck approached her desk.”

“Nothing much. Just thought I’d give you another chance to go two-stepping with me Saturday night.”

“Maybe. Tom Jr. and me had a little fight last night. Don’t know if we’re broke up just yet, but it’s a definite possibility.”

“Then can I pick you up around seven Saturday night?”

“You here just to ask me out?”

“I also need to talk with Austin Big Shoe.”

“Daddy left orders for no one to see Austin.”

“I’m working for your daddy today.”

Skepticism flashed in Carla’s green eyes. “Sure about that?”

“Call and ask him if you don’t believe me.”

“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll have Roy bring him up to the visitor’s room.”

Buck walked away without a guilty conscience. A man’s life was more valuable than a little lie. Though that’s how he had it figured, he doubted Carla would see it that way.

There are no country club jails in rural Oklahoma. They’re all tough, the Logan County jail no exception. Buck waited as two jailers led Austin Big Shoe through the visitor’s room door. Clad in heavy shackles, he shuffled across concrete dressed in an orange jump suit. His wrists were cuffed, elbows manacled behind his back. Austin had two black eyes and a swollen face.

Buck didn’t smoke but kept a pack of cigarettes for just such occasions. Lighting one, he placed it between Austin’s bruised lips.

“Bad fall on the way to jail?” Buck asked. Austin likely grinned at the question. His eyes were swollen shut, and Buck couldn’t tell. “Sheriff Farnsworth said you confessed to killing Johnny.”

When Austin mumbled something indecipherable, Buck knew it was a denial. He always carried a pad and pen, a habit he’d learned from his days on the O.C.P.D. He placed the pad on the table and the pen in Austin’s hand

“I don’t believe you killed Johnny. I’ll help you, but you got to give me some information. What’s the story on the blank spot on the wall behind the couch in the trailer?”

Austin nodded. Although cuffs and manacles made movement difficult, he wrote until the jailers returned for him. Sheriff Farnsworth was talking with Carla when Buck reached the front desk.

“You liar!” Carla said.

“Get the hell out of here, McDivit,” Sheriff Farnsworth said.

Ignoring the sheriff, Buck glanced at Carla and said, “Does this mean our Saturday night date is off?”

Carla’s glare was his only answer. He rationalized that her anger didn’t matter. Still, he felt as though he’d just fallen on his sword. Despite her rejection, he had a hunch Austin was innocent, and set out to prove it before the trail became too cold. In hopes of scoring more clues, he returned to Johnny Big Shoe’s house. The smell of recent death hung in the air. No yellow crime tape encircled the house, nor was the front door locked. With Austin Big Shoe’s fate already sealed, no one cared.

The missing painting, according to Austin, was an original Charlie Red Bird. Red Bird had died of lung cancer shortly before becoming famous. The painting he’d given his friend Johnny was worth a cool quarter-million dollars. Austin’s estimate. The painting, Prairie Thunder, depicted a violent Oklahoma rainstorm. It had become a problem in Johnny’s recent divorce. His ex owned a studio in Oklahoma City’s Paseo Art District. She coveted what she considered her half of the painting.

Johnny had refused to sell it. As Buck saw it, this made her a prime suspect. The painting had occupied the back wall of the squalid mobile home, just behind Johnny’s old green couch. What caught his attention was the circular tear in the couch’s fabric. It would have defied dating except for one thing. He’d spotted several fresh droplets of blood, one within the tear. Because of the blood’s placement, he knew it had gotten there on or about the time of the circular tear. Of that, Buck had no doubt.

With this information, he headed toward Paseo District. But not before taking pictures and collecting samples of the blood droplets. The Paseo District lies just north of downtown Oklahoma City. It has a Santa Fe stucco appearance and is quite unlike any other place in the State. It’s now populated by art studios and a few southwestern style restaurants.

Much like the rest of the country, a declining economy had affected Oklahoma City. The Paseo now lay somewhere between decline and prosperity. Buck loved the pink and blue buildings.

Parking in front of Dream Catcher Studio, he found it closed for lunch. A cozy bistro across the street called The Azure Pendant beckoned. When an attractive woman, dressed in faux-buckskin, greeted him at the door, he knew he'd made a wise choice. They were the restaurant’s only occupants.

“Slow day?” Buck asked.

“Every day’s slow in the Paseo.”

“What’s for lunch?”

“Honey lime, chipotle chicken and cornmeal dumplings. To die for.”

“Twist my arm, sweet talker,” Buck said. “And I better have a Tecate in a cold mug.”

She disappeared into the back of the restaurant, returning with a mug of beer, its edges salted and topped with sliced lime.

“Beer’s on me. I’m Beth.”

“Pleased, Beth. I’m Buck. Nice place,” he said, admiring the Mexican tile and large window overlooking a picturesque patio. “You have a different accent. You’re not from around here, are you?”

Beth smiled, relishing the handsome cowboy’s blatant flirtation. “Followed my ex-husband here from Austin. He’s gone, but I stayed. What’s your story?”

“Just a lonesome cowboy that likes two-stepping on Friday nights, and cold Coors any old night. Can’t say as I’m sorry your old man is gone,” he said, noticing she wore no wedding ring.

“Hey, best thing that ever happened to me.”

Beth was friendly and had a terrific smile. She looked like an American Indian princess, or perhaps a seventies hippie. Her thatch of thick red hair and a fair complexion marked her more as Irish than Indian. She was maybe ten years older than he was. It didn’t matter. He liked redheads. Something about her set his sexual bells ringing, almost causing him to forget why he was there in the first place.

“I’ll get your chipotle chicken,” she said, breaking eye contact.

Buck’s head had begun to spin as he exchanged quips with the attractive restaurateur, and not because of the beer. After finishing the last savory bite of chicken, he said goodbye and walked across the street to the Dream Catcher Studio. An attractive woman with thick braided hair met him at the door. She didn’t need her turquoise squash blossom necklace to proclaim she was no wanna-be Native American.

“I’m Brenda Big Shoe. How may I help you?”

“Just browsing.”

She smiled. “Need help, I’ll be in back.”

Buck had no idea what he was looking for, but soon found it anyway. Brenda Big Shoe was talking with a petite woman in a blue pinstriped dress. The attractive woman, despite her spiked heels, barely reached Brenda Big Shoe’s chin. They were in a heated discussion and Buck decided to interrupt their conversation.

“Sorry to butt in, but I have a question. Have any Charlie Red Bird’s?”

The interruption surprised Brenda Big Shoe. Her smile returning, she turned and faced Buck.

“You a collector?”

“I represent a client in Nevada that has a sizeable Red Bird collection. I don’t like saying money’s no object, but if you have the right piece, then. . .”

He could see that his Pacific-sized lie had caught their attention. The short woman also smiled and extended her hand. It was then he saw the large bandage on her arm.

“I’m Diane Plimpton, art agent for many prestigious galleries on the east coast. Perhaps I can help?”

“My client has a quarter million dollars burning a hole in his pocket for just the right Red Bird. Any ideas?”

Again the two women exchanged glances. “We have an early Red Bird titled Prairie Thunder,” Diane Plimpton said. “We’re asking a half-million dollars, and it’s worth every penny. I’m sure your buyer wants to keep this as discrete as we do.”

“Can I see it?” Brenda and Diane led him to a painting the exact size as the one missing from Johnny Big Shoe’s wall. Bingo! Buck could see it all now. The two had gone to Johnny’s mobile home to bargain for the painting. Greed had overcome good sense, and an argument had ensued.

While Johnny and Brenda screamed at each other, Diane Plimpton had hit him from behind with a brick. Then she’d punctured the couch’s thin fabric with one of her sharp heels as she took the painting. A check of Diane Plimpton’s DNA would likely link her to the killing. He began backing out of the room.

“I’ll call my client and get back with you tomorrow.”

Buck knew the Logan County District Attorney. He also knew every judge on the Logan County bench. He didn’t know for a fact that Brenda and Diane were Johnny Big Shoe’s killers. Didn't matter. He had enough evidence to convince someone with authority to force Sheriff Farnsworth to at least check it out.

The Sheriff had an over inflated opinion of his own intelligence and often jumped to false conclusions. He also had an enormous ego, hated anyone proving him wrong, and he didn’t like Buck. A future with his daughter, Carla, was likely out of the question. It didn’t matter at the moment.

Instead of his truck, he returned to the Azure Pendant. When Beth met him at the door, he said, “You like to dance?”

END



Eric Wilder is the author of the Paranormal Cowboy and French Quarter Mystery Series. If you liked Prairie Thunder, please check out more of Eric's writing on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

Saturday, July 04, 2015

MOTH MADNESS - a short story

A clear New Mexico day, the sky mimicking polished turquoise pierced with veins of crystalline quartz. At the Palace of the Governors, Navajo artists sold malachite rings and squash blossom necklaces. Across the street, non-native artisans expressed their own vision in a more contemporary fashion.

The old town was alive with color. Morning glories and hollyhocks lined the street. Pastels clashing with orange berries of mountain ash and chocolate adobe. Sunflowers, pumpkins, and sacred corn crowned flat roofs.

A message on an old car painted in a splashes of bright, freehand colors, said, “Never pet a burning dog.”

Two couples meandered down the sidewalk, stopping to examine silver baubles and turquoise rings. Finally, Pamela said, “What now, gang?”

Pamela’s husband Don winked at Raymond his male counterpart and said, “A drink at the nearest bar?”

“Honestly, Don,” Pamela chided. “Has the town’s ambiance not caught up with you yet?”

“Just the gas from last night’s frijoles,” he said.

Raymond added, “So spicy, there’s a fart in every bite.”

Pamela frowned and walked ahead in silent protest. Don winked at Raymond and Julie, puffing his cheeks in Dizzie Gillespie fashion to show his distaste for the local fare.

“Slow down, Dear,” he said, words dripping with mischievous inflection. She didn’t, and they hurried after her.

After lunch at a courtyard restaurant, Julie pushed her plate aside and asked, “Where to?”

Don stretched in his chair and yawned. “A nice nap?”

Pamela sipped her mineral water and smiled. “It’s the last day of our vacation, Don.”

“So what?”

“This is the center of New Age. We can’t leave without at least visiting a channeler and summoning a lost spirit.”

Don grinned, playing with his gray mustache. “Dear, you’re crazy.”

Pamela ignored him, turning to Julie and Raymond. “What do you two think?”

Julie glanced at Raymond, “I don’t know. Sounds silly to me.”

“It’s not silly,” Pamela shot back. “If you think it is, Don and I will go alone.”

Don glanced at Julie and Raymond. Then, winking at Raymond, he asked, “How will we decide which channeler to consult, Dear?”

“We’ll ask the waiter.”

Don grinned. “Sounds logical.”

Pamela ignored him. Raymond glanced at Julie and smiled. When the waiter with the Brooklyn accent returned Pamela asked, “Can you direct us to the best channeler in Santa Fe?”

“Depends,” he said.

Her curiosity piqued Julie asked, “On what?”

“How much you’re paying.”

His terse reply raised Pamela’s eyebrows. “Are there some that much better than others?”

“No, but for the right price, I’ll do it myself.”

This time, no one stifled their laughter. Pamela folded her arms, sat up straight and frowned.

“I wasn’t making a joke,” she said, reprimanding the young man.

“Well,” he paused, “If I’m not good enough for you, you might try the Wolf.”

“The wolf?”

“Steinhart, Wolf Steinhart.”

Bob chortled, “Wolf Steinhart?”

“Who’s Wolf Steinhart?” Julie and Raymond asked in unison.

“If you want to know about New Age, Wolf is your man.”

Don leaned back in his chair, folding his big hands behind his head. “Where might we find Mr. Steinhart?”

The waiter glanced at his watch. “Right now, he’s at the Pagan Bar.”

Don’s pale blue eyes widened. “He keeps a schedule?”

The waiter grinned. “Nah, he’s there most of the time.”

***

They found the Pagan Bar empty and eclectic, even by Santa Fe standards. Small dragons hung from the ceilings. A tree grew behind the bar. Louis Armstrong’s picture decorated the wall, along with crosses, lizards and stained glass dragons. A sign said, “This is the year of the dragon.”

A lone man occupied a pink stone table, his head resting on his arm. As they stood in a semi-circle around him, he began snoring at a level that would have made a tic on the chart at the nearest seismic station.

Don grinned and tried to rouse him. “Ahem!”

A louder snort erupted from the man’s nostrils and Pamela suggested, “Maybe we should come back later.”

“Not on your life,” Don said.

Raymond grabbed her elbow to prevent her exit. “He’s right. Let’s wake him.”

Raymond shook the man’s shoulder. Steinhart brushed away Raymond’s hand like someone swatting an annoying fly. A voice startled them. “You wanna talk with the Wolf.”

A dark-skinned lady wearing a bright red dress draped low over her shoulders stood looking at them, hand on her hips.

“Why yes, as a matter-of-fact.” Don said.

“Then waita minute.”

She disappeared behind the bar, returning with a shot of tequila which she placed beside the man’s head. The Wolf snorted and opened his red-rimmed eyes, glancing up at the five people standing over him. He drained the shot in one gulp and tossed the glass into the adobe kiva behind him. When it shattered, he winced and massaging his left temple.

“Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“I’m Don Brabham, and this is my wife Pamela. These lovely people are Julie Hamilton and Raymond West.”

The man stretched himself to his full, impressive height. Don was tall but this man taller, at least six-six.

“Wolf Steinhart,” he said, extending his hand. “At your service.”

Steinhart’s spoke with a clipped British accent, khaki shirt imparting the appearance of a big game hunter. A red stain on his shirt dispelled this initial impression. When Pamela edged to the back of the group and eyed the door, Don grabbed her arm.

“We understand you’re an expert in New Age philosophy,” Don said. “May we sit?”

“How rude of me,” Steinhart said, pulling out two of the red lacquered chairs and raising a finger to the woman in the red dress. “Ramona! Tequila and five glasses.”

The dark-skinned woman ignored his request, continuing to polish a glass. “Who’s gonna pay?”
Steinhart glanced at the group until Don raised his hand. “My treat.”

“Then make it Cuervo Gold, pretty senorita,” Steinhart said, popping all five fingers on both hands. He bent over and placed his palms on the table’s pink surface. “Ladies and gentlemen, you have found your man.”

Still beaming, Steinhart plopped down between Pamela and Julie on the pink-cushioned bonco. They wrinkled their noses and edged away as Ramona brought the tequila and five shot glasses.

“I’d rather have a glass of Chablis,” Pamela said.

Julie said, “Make mine a Coke.”

“Well, gentlemen,” Steinhart said, refraining from breaking the glass in the fireplace. “More for us.” He smacked his lips like a contented bovine and added, “My friends. You have arrived at the pith of the maelstrom, the mouth of the volcano, the eye of the needle.”

“The tail of the ass,” Don said.

Unperturbed, Steinhart continued. “Exactly what is it you wish to discover?”

“The address of a good channeler,” Don said.

Wolf’s chin dropped. “Is that all?”

“No,” Pamela said, becoming enthusiastic. “We need a guide through the mysteries of New Age.”

Wolf perked up at Pamela’s words. “A broad and demanding subject. I require a fee.”

“That’s no problem. . .” Pamela began.

Don interrupted. “How much?”

“Thirty dollars an hour and residuals,” Steinhart said.

Don squelched Pamela’s reply. “Residuals?”

Steinhart held up the bottle of tequila. Don glanced at Raymond and Julie. They smiled and blinked.

“You got it, old man,” Don said, taking the initiative.

Steinhart filled Don and Raymond’s glasses and poured another for himself. “As you mentioned,” he said, looking at Pamela. “This is the hub of New Age. The place where everyone’s karma hits the fan.” He chuckled. “In Santa Fe, experts perform diverse functions."

"Such as," Pamela said.

 Synovial fluid equalization, aura balancing, crystal healing, vibrational healing. Need I continue?"

"We're all ears," Pamela said.

 "Connective tissue polarity therapy, colon cleansing, clear light therapy, and bio-energetic synchronization.”

“More like bio-energetic money detachment,” Don quipped.

Pamela ignored her husband’s levity. “And channelers?”

“My dear lady,” Steinhart said, “There are hundreds of mystics, gurus, and spirit channelers in Santa Fe.”

Julie sipped her soda and Raymond fidgeted in his red lacquered chair. “Every waiter in town is a mystic,” Raymond said. “I'm sure most of these people are fakes preying on unsuspecting visitors.”

When he glanced away from Pamela’s glare, Steinhart nodded. “What you suggest is true, but they are here for a reason.”

Raymond asked, “What reason?”

Steinhart poured another shot and answered, “The Native Americans.”

Pamela leaned forward. “You mean Indians?”

“There are fifteen thousand Pueblo in New Mexico, along with the Navajo and Hopi. The Pueblo believe they are here, now and always. This is a fundamental view they keep because it reveals their feelings for bahana.”

“Bahana?” Don said.

“Whites. You and I. The original people have occupied this region for almost eight thousand years. Their culture is quite defined; more so than any in North America. There are things we bahana will never know.”

Julie asked, “Such as?”

“Koshare. . .”

Steinhart’s word died on his lips.

Don glanced at Raymond, then at Julie. “Koshare?”

“Powerful secret societies. Magic, both white and black. The so-called New Age practitioners gravitated here. To the Pueblo this is the center of the universe.”

Pamela’s face glowed with anticipation. “You mean these people could summon a demon, or heal a cancer?”

Wolf Steinhart nodded. “These people, as you call them, are quite capable of almost anything.”

“Then this is for real?”

“As real as you or I,” he said.

Pamela asked, “Can we experience this mysticism, or witness the summoning of a spirit?”

Don turned in his chair. “Dear, this is getting ridiculous. Let’s go back to the hotel and take a nice nap.”

Pamela glared at her husband. “You go, I’ll stay.”

Don frowned but remained seated, pouring another shot from the bottle. Raymond and Julie cast nervous glances at each other. Steinhart folded his arms, silent as he contemplated Pamela’s question.

“It’s possible,” he finally said.

Pamela glowed. “We’ll pay whatever it costs.”

“Dear lady, it’s not a question of money, though there is the matter of my small retainer.”

Don opened his wallet and handed Steinhart a Benjamin, asking, “What else is it a question of?”

“Belief,” he said, finishing his shot. “Where are you staying?”

“La Fonda,” Don said.

Wolf Steinhart glanced at his watch. “If you’re serious, I’ll pick you up in front of the hotel at five.”

***

The two couples waited, Pamela beaming, Don fidgeting. Julie looked bored as Raymond paced the sidewalk. “This is stupid, Pamela,” Don said. “Steinhart already has our money. He isn’t coming.”

“Of course he is. He’s just a little late.”

An old Land Rover pulled up to the curb, allaying Don’s doubts, Wolf Steinhart at the wheel in the same outfit as before. A broad-brimmed hat completed his big game hunter look. Raymond noted with relief he had at least changed shirts. Steinhart leaned across the front seat and opened the door with a smile.

“Pile in, good people.”

Because of his height, Don sat in the front seat. The others crowded into the back on the narrow bench. Steinhart pulled away from the curb and headed out of town.

Don asked, “Where are we going, old man?”

“First to Taos to secure a guide, and then to visit the witch.”

Julie sat in the back seat, arms folded and toe tapping. “I thought you were our guide.”

“Unfortunately, this excursion requires more than I.”

Pamela was ecstatic. “We’re visiting a witch, a real witch? Please tell us about it.”

“A practice passed through successive generations. Spanish monks introduced Catholicism to the region. Since then, the native’s belief in the spirit world has become intertwined with the Catholic view of god.”

Raymond said, “Such as?”

“The evil eye. The Pueblo and Navajo believe wizards and witches own the power to harm by gazing at you. The power of the evil eye. They wear amulets and talismans, Catholic crosses or votives to protect them from this power. They commingle Catholicism with their beliefs when they invoke spirits of the earth and moon.”

“And our visit to the witch. . .”

“A demonstration,” Steinhart said, finishing Raymond’s question. “It would take our combined lifetimes to understand this region’s mystical culture.”

Purple shadows engulfed the highway. They blended with a hazy orange sunset as they continued north to the Taos Pueblo. Steinhart entered through the back gate. In the encroaching darkness, they approached two pueblos separated by a clear creek. Both structures looked like ancient apartment complexes.

A church bounded the west end of the coyote-fenced enclosure. Steinhart crossed the narrow bridge, careful of the roaming horses and mongrel dogs. He stopped by the largest adobe structure, opened the door and stepped out.

“Wait here. I won’t be long.” Steinhart started away, but returned, as if forgetting something. He removed four crucifixes from his safari shirt and handed one to each of them.

“Wear these,” he said.

They watched him climb a ladder to an upper entrance, disappearing inside. Don glanced at the crucifix, saying. “You think this will work for a Jew?”

“Honestly, Don,” Pamela said. “Just put it on.”

Raymond nudged Julie and she bit her lip to keep from laughing. When Steinhart returned, only the stars and moon illuminated the surroundings. He wasn’t alone.

“This is Sam,” he said, introducing the young man. “He’ll lead us the rest of the way.”

Sam rode on the Land Rover’s fender to his own vehicle, an old pickup truck. Steinhart shadowed him out of the enclosure and into the darkness. They followed the highway several miles before exiting to a dirt path. It jutted into the desert, following a dry arroyo for five more miles.

Julie, Raymond and Pamela held on to their uncomfortable seats as Steinhart shadowed Sam’s truck. At the end of the arroyo, they found a single adobe cubicle, light radiating from its windows. Steinhart helped Pamela and Julie unwind from the uncomfortable back seat. The two couples waited in chilly bleakness, Sam and Steinhart soon returning from the house with a smiling boy. Steinhart took a bag of fruit from the vehicle, handing it to the lad.

“We’re just here to observe,” Steinhart said. “Please don't ask any questions.”

They followed him into the stucco house, finding a young woman standing beside a kiva fireplace. Two little girls giggled, playing ball, and jacks on the earthen floor. When they spotted the sack of fruit, they rushed with pigeon-toed gaits, demanding their share.

Peculiar objects decorated the walls. An old chrome hubcap, several jawbones of indistinct origin, and some shells. Lateral vigas supported the ceiling. Bits of hay in the walls suggested real adobe formed them, not the cement-variety used by local builders.

“This is Rachel Kucate, her daughter’s Verla and Natalie, and son Chester.”

Don, Pamela, Julie and Raymond, followed Steinhart and Sam to a room in back. An old woman sat alone in a rocking chair, a black cat at her feet. Sam closed the door behind them, a dim coal oil lamp illuminating the room. The old woman continued rocking.

The cat arched its back as it moved beneath her legs and the rockers of the chair. Though she looked the picture of antiquity, the brightness and color of her garments clashed with this notion. Withered as a corn stalk ruined by too much sun and lack of rain, a blue flowered bandanna capped her silver hair. Turquoise and silver draped from her earlobes. A flowered shawl cloaked her pink wool sweater. Twisted turquoise graced her gnarled wrist.

“I have brought visitors, Grandmother,” Sam said.

The old woman opened her eyes, one dark and old, the other green and alive. She studied the visitors as Sam brought a small table from the corner, placing it in front of her. He sat on the floor and began chanting and beating a drum he’d brought from the truck. When the old woman spoke, her almost inaudible voice quivered, and she looked straight at Don.

“You brought somethin’ for Grandmother?”

Startled by her question, Don reached for his wallet. Steinhart touched his wrist and shook his head. “She’s not asking for money.”

Confused, Don fished an old gold watch, attached to a length of frayed chain, from his pocket. Without understanding why, he placed it on the table.

“Bring me the cloud blower, my son,” she said.

Steinhart handed her the ceremonial pipe which she lighted with a thin piece of wood in the flame of the coal oil lamp. Acrid smoke of wild tobacco billowed from its bowl. After several puffs, she handed the pipe to Don. Don puffed it, coughing as the harsh smoke filled his lungs. The old woman took it from him, placing it on the table beside the watch.

Soon, her shoulders began to quake. The tremble continued up her neck until her eyes closed and head tilted backwards. Her wrinkled lips parted and emitted a moan that sounded like wind whistling through branches. Trembling enveloped her, and she shook in a wild paroxysm of movement. Her head slammed against the table so hard, Raymond thought she must have killed herself.

When Don moved to help, Steinhart’s upraised palm signaled him back. Her head thrashed against the table before finally surrendering to a few feeble palpitations. Finally, she was quiet, her motion ceasing completely. A voice spoke, her lips unmoving. The voice, coming from the bowels of her soul, sounded masculine and tinny, as if awakened from a long sleep.

“I plunged from the sky, embraced by icy blue water. Now I am free and can say goodbye little brother. Live your life in peace.”

The voice died away like an echo in an empty cavern as they watched, mollified and frozen in place. Sam stopped drumming and filled a ladle with cool water. He and Steinhart helped the old woman back into the chair and held the water to her lips until she opened her eyes.

Steinhart hugged the old woman and gave her a pouch of tobacco, then exchanged a silent farewell as he motioned them to leave. Raymond was the last out, stealing one last glance at the old woman before shutting the door behind him. He noticed the cat beneath her feet had only one eye, green and alive. In the cheery outer room, Steinhart gave Sam and Rachel twenty dollars each. Sam nodded and faded into the darkness.

“That’s the strangest experience I’ve ever had,” Pamela said, returning along the dirt path to the Land Rover.

“Amen to that,” Julie said.

Raymond asked, “What’s the story on those people?”

“The old woman is a witch, as is her granddaughter Rachel and the two little girls. They suffer from genetic epilepsy, and the foot abnormality you noticed. Navajos call the epilepsy moth madness—witch frenzy. This is because in the throes of a seizure, they move their limbs like the wings of a moth near a flame. The Navajo believe women possessed by moth madness are magical and able to converse with spirits. What you saw is its own explanation.”

“Fascinating,” Pamela said. “Whose voice did we hear and what did the message mean?”

“Maybe you should ask your husband,” Steinhart said.

Confused by the Wolf’s reply, Pamela put her hand on Don’s shoulder. “Don, are you all right?”

His usual joviality had flown out the window. “The watch I gave the old woman was my older brother’s, a tail gunner during the war. His plane crashed over Germany, his body never recovered. We were close, and I never told him goodbye when he left to go overseas.”

Pamela started to comment. Caught instead between reality and a dusty desert road, she reclined against the bouncing seat of the Land Rover. With his arm around Julie, Raymond gazed at the sky. As he did, a shooting star lighted the darkness before disappearing forever behind a distant mesa.

END


Eric Wilder is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series. If you liked Moth Madness, please check out more of his writing on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

Friday, July 03, 2015

DAYS OF DISCO

In 1977, I was freshly divorced and working in a high-stress job as a petroleum geologist—"A new drilling prospect every week or you’re fired!" Nights would find me in a disco called Clementine’s, a club located in the basement of Oklahoma City’s Penn Square Mall. The place was dark, the music loud, the drinks and women loose. I was usually inebriated, or well on my way to getting there.

Yes, it was in the post-Vietnam, pre-AIDS era. Practically every night I'd spend hours line dancing to the anthems of Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, and KC and the Sunshine Band. 1977 was the year I first saw the movie Saturday Night Fever and fell in love with the music of the Bee Gees.

There were two ways to enter Clementine’s: walking down a narrow flight of stairs, or sliding down a chute. Either way got you to a living fantasy.

You’d wind up in a huge open room illuminated by a rotating disco ball, colored strobe lights that warped your reality even if you weren’t yet drunk or stoned, and a few discreetly placed floor lamps that provided little more than dim haze. Most of all, there was a pressing multitude of warm bodies and the sounds of disco belting out the message of freedom, expression and free love.

A huge bar extended across the front of the room where three bartenders served drinks as fast as they could pour them. The dance floor of diamond-shaped black and white tiles was rarely empty; the occasional cooling fingers of vapor rising from grids in the floor made the swaying dancers seem like uninhibited creatures from Hell’s nether regions.

The dance floor was like hypnosis, insanity, and blasting sound. Bodies crushed together amid the beat of drums as ancient as the continent of Africa. Once, across the crowded dance floor, I saw a beautiful young woman staring at me. Our eyes locked. We danced toward each other. She passed me a note with her phone number. When I called her the next day she invited me for spaghetti. I showed up with flowers and a bottle of wine.

Marti was her name. At least that's what I'll call her. A single mother, she had a five year old son named Chris. We ate pasta and drank wine by candlelight. I helped her with the dishes and then she put Chris to bed. We made love in her bedroom.

"I want to thank you," was her unexpected reply as we lay in her little bed.

"My pleasure," I said.

"You don’t understand," she explained, sensing my flippancy. "I’m in remission from cervical cancer. You're the first man I’ve slept with since having the surgery. I’ve been so worried I would never have feelings again. You proved me wrong. I thank you for that."

Confused and too young, or stupid, to understand the depths of her message, I contributed little more than small talk before saying goodbye and disappearing into the night. I never saw her again and I don’t think she wanted or needed me to.

Those were the days of disco, my days of disco, for whatever that means. Some people have suggested that disco isn’t cool and people that liked it were somehow less than intelligent. I don’t think so. It was a magical era and we were just as human and vulnerable as any young person today.

And I know this. Whenever I hear Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer or the Bee Gees, I find myself back on that same dark dance floor, with wisps of vapor cooling sweat dripping down my neck as I pulsate to a message of love and coming together. And when I do, I feel like sliding down that chute.

END



Eric Wilder is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series. Check out all his books on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook