1. THE ANATOMY OF AN ALPINE MURDER
The murderer’s victim’s life had been stolen from him in a carefully planned, artfully choreographed, but cold-blooded murder. He did not have the chance of a snowball in hell. Face-to-face, celebrating in the exhilarating flush of their greatest mutual triumph, the murderer’s intentions were completely masked from his unsuspecting victim. Although he had already triggered the killing mechanism deep within his psyche, he continued to project the warm, fuzzy image of a proud mentor reveling in the superior achievements of a favorite apprentice.
Polished by years of deception, the murderer’s expression betrayed no hate, no malice, not even a tiny hint of disapproval. A practiced, boyish grin flashed on demand much like the fixed megawatt smile of a Miss America finalist. Squinting mischievously at his prey over the top rim of his designer sunglasses, the crinkles around the murderer’s eyes exuded sly humor as if he had, just at that moment, remembered an exceedingly funny, off-color joke that he could not wait to share. So he did: four-letter trash talk cascading forth in waves of foul-mouthed barnyard humor. To his future victim, he was hilarious.
Breaking the code of a veiled threat would have been exceedingly difficult if not impossible when murderer and victim are laughing together so hard that both are doubled over with tears filling their eyes to overflowing.
The apprentice had proven exceptionally adept at his assigned duties within their overall plan. He had perfected his own style and business techniques, and had developed his own contacts until he rivaled the master in so many ways. Through the crucible of intense adversity, these like-minded risk takers had become a well-oiled team. The apprentice was sure that his full partnership was just around the corner, or he would know the reason why.
For that foolishly impatient ego trip, among other indiscretions, the apprentice had to pay a price. He had to die. Despite several off-hand assurances, full partnership was never any part of the murderer’s lexicon.
“Wasting that creep” would be as quick and impersonal as squashing a fuzzy bug on a cement sidewalk. The crime, however, had to look like a too-common alpine road accident. There could be no witnesses, nor any chance of survival. Within that three-pronged framework, the murderer choreographed his end game with the exacting precision of a Radio City Rocketees chorus line.
It was show time. Where better to pull the final curtain than Taylor Pass?
Set against a backdrop of some of the most spectacular alpine scenery in North America, Taylor Pass has long been every four-wheel enthusiast’s fondest dream come true. Little more than a glorified elk path in places, that twisting, axle-bashing roller coaster of a natural test track descends with ear-popping élan from the delicate flora of the high tundra, through the grotesquely twisted conifers at timberline, and into the dense stands of stately evergreen and aspen trees that garnish Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest.
No posted traffic signs mar the unparalleled view. No state or local police lurk in waiting for the unwary. On the unimproved Jeep trails that scar the north slope of the pass, a lead-footed four-wheel enthusiast could seriously test himself and his “ride” in just about any way that he wished, or seriously scuff himself and his equipment in the process.
Over the pass to the east, the road led to a pristine trout-stocked lake nestled among the high peaks that form the massive backbone of the Continental Divide. But more significantly, it was the only decent shortcut down the other side to U.S. Highway 50 and the sleepy little town of Gunnison, Colorado, as well as the gateway to a world of unparalleled opportunity for those with the imagination and the intestinal fortitude to step up and seize the golden ring.
Reginald Charles Sugarman, Junior, “R.C.” to his ever-expanding circle of subculture friends and clients, and “Slick” to those who had known him the longest, had raced his undeclared business mentor over this extremely sporty back road between Alpine and the outside world many times before. Despite honing his dirt track and professional racetrack techniques, he had yet to win this race. From his frequent but never mentioned round trips to Gunnison and points beyond, he knew every rut, pothole and natural speed bump like the more intimate contours of his sweetie’s rump. But so did his boss—quite possibly on both counts.
Deeply involved in a web of interlocking, extremely sensitive enterprises, especially the kind that demand total secrecy to be successful, R.C. had never even whispered his mentor’s name in polite society, particularly in connection with himself. That had been a tall but necessary order in the laid back good-ol’-boys bars and tight-knit shops of a little tourist town as intentionally gregarious as Alpine, Colorado. There, among the almost fairy tale grandeur and the aura of new money well spent, nearly all of the permanent residents, and certainly all of the expanding business community, knew each other at least well enough to say “howdy” and the person’s local nickname or title in passing.
Still, no one in town could say for sure that R.C. and his boss had actually met or even knew each other. Certainly, no one knew they were in business together. Normally a touchy, feely, motor-mouthed extrovert, R.C. had been fairly warned: “If you so much as whisper my name, even in your friggin’ sleep, you sushi-brained hippie twit, I’ll rip off your butt-ugly face and ram it down your scrawny damned throat! You do hear me, don’t ya’ boy?”
R.C. had heard that warning loud and clear. The uncharacteristic intensity of the older man’s outburst added untold layers of emphasis to his message. Eyeball to eyeball at that time, R.C. never doubted his boss’s resolve for one second. He had been fairly warned, and he fully understood the message. R.C. knew, without a doubt, that he was far better off by being forewarned before he fouled up, rather than not having a clue to the unavoidable consequences until too late. Under the circumstances, he appreciated the older man’s candor. In fact, R.C. almost respected it, if that had been possible within his hippy dippy frame of reference.
In the idiom of the emerging good-ol’-boy that this former California beach bum now pictured himself, R.C. had initially called his undeclared boss “good buddy” when touching base anonymously by cell phone or C.B. radio. However, with their ever-increasing success, as their profits expanded exponentially, a natural progression cycled through the colloquial “my bud” to the semi-familial “Uncle Bud.”
Bingo! That anonymous Dutch Uncle designation for high-country entrepreneurial enterprises and moonlight mountain surfing was just right. Both liked the image, so Uncle Bud it was. Someday, R.C. had vowed, there would be an Uncle Reggie cruising the back roads of Taylor Pass and enjoying everything that could come with the respect due to the shibbolethic title of “Uncle.”
Except for the almost perfunctory but quickly dissipated outbursts aimed his way, soon smothered in an enveloping cloud of chemical contentment, R.C. actually liked Uncle Bud after a fashion. He was the quintessential father figure that R.C. had never known. With the obvious chasm between his own beach-blanket, yuppie-puppy background, and Uncle Bud’s rise to “Top Dog” in their business through his own chutzpah and meticulous attention to even the most minuscule biddy fuzz details, their basic lifestyles were definitely at opposite poles. Multiple ear rings, body piercings and trouser belt-length pony tail contrasted sharply with Uncle Bud’s more buttoned-down establishment wardrobe and protocols.
To their mutual amazement, however, in the fullness of time, they had found that despite their divergent life styles, their street-wise business instincts had eventually meshed together quite nicely to forge an efficient, amazingly cohesive team, the total being so much more than just the sum of the various parts. After months of working together, their business contacts were rock solid, and their far-ranging ventures were increasingly profitable and promised even more in the near future. From their nouveau high-roller point of view, their prospects seemed unlimited, depending only on how far they dared to reach out to snatch the American Dream.
For Uncle Bud and R.C., the proverbial brass ring had turned to solid gold. They were in “Hog Heaven.” It was a pity that no one else could ever know about their great good fortune and incredible skills.
Unfortunately, in his carefully veiled rebellion against any and all outside encroachments into his life-long habit of doing or saying whatever the heck he damn well pleased, R.C. Sugarman was eventually sure that he could howl “Uncle Bud” into the echoing peaks at the top of any pass, anywhere, or even in his often-crowded bare-as-you-dare hot tub parties, and no one would be the wiser. So eventually, he did that with ever-increasing abandon. And true to form, no one seemed to care one whit. R.C.’s oft-repeated mantra: “resist all but temptation” masked a multitude of sins, great and small.
However, if he had checked out the man lurking behind his patio fence the previous Friday night, he probably would have cut his profits and left town for good before morning. Uncle Bud had gotten an ear full. It was time to turn off the lights. R.C.’s party was over, but he just did not know it yet.
At their first and last roadside meeting of their grueling 20-hour business trip over Taylor Pass and back again, the heady taste and smell of the thin, pure air at 12,000 feet above sea level worked its magic to mask their mutual exhaustion amid the surrealistic golden glow to the west just before sunset. Added to the heady exhilaration of looking down several thousand feet at eagles soaring between fat, puffy little cumulous cloud formations, the pure satisfaction of having successfully completed a challenging, highly profitable business venture made that an evening well worth celebrating.
A little off-color humor is the glue of many male-bonding rituals. Finally able to give as well as he received, R.C. figured that he had taken a big step toward parity at last.
Out in front after a friendly but barbed challenge and an unfair foot race to their vehicles near the crest of the pass, R.C. accelerated into a relatively broad, descending switchback turn in a full but controlled four-wheel drift. A split second behind, Uncle Bud pressed him for the lead.
High from nothing but a little weed and a lot of adrenaline, R.C.’s elation from the added power and smooth handling he commanded with his new 220-horsepower Range Rover matched anything he had ever smoked, shot-up or snorted through his often-abused nasal passages. That exoteric symbol of British automotive craftsmanship had cost him a small fortune, even with the cash and loyalty discounts. But the boxy beauty was worth every single penny if it would change his status quo.
In some cases, money can, indeed, buy happiness. R.C. knew that he was the poster boy for that premise.
Reflecting on their previous outings over Taylor Pass, R.C. chuckled giddily while mumbling reassurances to himself. “You damn betcha’, no more hind teat for me, you nit-pickin’, penny pinchin’ old pain in my ass. Not only no, but HELL NO!” Then he keyed his microphone and blurted another of his rhyming one liners, an irritating affectation almost exclusively reserved for his signature C.B. banter. “Tally ho, El Supremo. Catch me if you can, my good man.”
R.C. took inordinate pride in his rhymed C.B. transmissions. He was convinced deep within his heart of hearts that no one else could play that game as well as he, at least not in his fast-paced league.
Seeing R.C.’s new Range Rover tracking considerably more conservatively than usual through the middle of the first tight switchback in the descending roadway, rather than initially cutting the decreasing radius from the inside of the curve upon entry, and then adding power as momentum turned into controlled drift to the outside at the apex of the turn as he usually did, Uncle Bud gunned his older but custom-made, superbly tuned and supercharged engine. He was curious to see if he could have passed on the inside of R.C.’s outer arc if he had really wanted to do so.
Actually, he really did not want to pass R.C. at that time. Uncle Bud needed to stay right where he was and collect information for the onrushing future.
Then, at the next but less challenging switchback, Uncle Bud again tested the new man/machine combination just in front of him. Uncle Bud attempted that standard, but still fairly hairy passing maneuver despite the chasm of uninterrupted, rarefied air where road shoulders are normally found at lower altitudes. But that time the dirt track tricks that had always worked before were no longer good enough to overcome the new power-ratio imbalance from R.C.’s latest and most conspicuous extravagance.
“Nice try, big guy,” the C.B. crackled. “But no cigar. Not by far.”
Having anticipated Uncle Bud’s attempt to pass at that particular place, R.C. quickly downshifted, then jammed his accelerator pedal flat to the floor, holding off his pursuer in a burst of surprisingly smooth power and a vortex-like cloud of blinding dust that rapidly blew over the side of the road into space to dissipate in the brisk mountain breezes.
Uncle Bud logged another data point to solve his dirt-track racing equation. Visibility would be no problem, not until their mano-a-mano contest descended into the layer of scattered clouds and fog-like scud below them. “Look out, sunshine,” Uncle Bud goaded R.C. in a flat, laconic monotone, “’cuz here I come again.”
Grinning broadly, extremely pleased with himself and his latest purchase, R.C. entered one of the few long, straightaway sections of the road that they would see that evening. Excited, he twisted partially around in his six-way, goat-leather seat to glare back over his shoulder triumphantly. Too busy for C.B. trash-talk, he pointed his forefinger back at Uncle Bud. Shaking it with sharp, jerky wrist strokes as if chiding a rowdy high-school kid, he seemed to be saying: “No, no. There would be none of that nonsense today, if ever again.”
The good life was getting even better by the minute.
Parity in one venue has been known to open the gateway to parity in another. R.C. Sugarman, Junior, was nothing if not an ambitious young man. After many failed attempts, he was finally in the catbird seat and enjoying every moment of it. He knew that he was on his way to promotion and pay.
“Just how fast will that thing go, Amigo?” Uncle Bud asked, mimicking R.C.’s speech pattern and doggerel verse.
“How fast do you want it to go, Daddio?” The new-found smugness in R.C.’s voice was clearly evident even through the crackly C.B. radio. Delighted, R.C. settled back in plush leather comfort, grinning like a drunken sailor on long-overdue shore leave. Had he been a puppy dog, he would have thrust his head out the driver’s window and let his ears flap in the breezes.
Notice had been given: R.C. Sugarman, Junior, was no longer just a second-rate, wet-behind-the-ears disciple in that which he had already excelled. From that point onward, R.C. knew that he would be a major force to be reckoned with. Suddenly, the sky was the limit, and that was just for openers. After all, he knew that he had repeatedly been the critical element in the success they had enjoyed in an extremely dicey, often dangerous business. Not only that, R.C. assured himself, but he was the front man on the streets and in the party hardy bistros and upscale condos of Alpine and Gunnison. It was he, not Uncle Bud, who made all of the face-to-face contacts in this last transaction in Gunnison. Aside from a few setup phone calls and his admittedly reliable shotgun backup when the hairs occasionally got a bit short over a dicey deal gone askew, Uncle Bud had become, in R.C.’s estimation, little more than the mysterious, always anonymous bankroller.
However, Uncle Bud had always taken the lion’s share of the profits. From the depths of his exponentially expanding ego, R.C. was convinced that he deserved a bigger slice of the corporate pie. He was also convinced that winning that high-altitude road race would send that message so loud and so clear that even a one-way old tightwad like Uncle Bud would clearly understand that R.C. Sugarman’s star had finally arrived at its apogee.
“Eat my dust, if you must,” R.C. transmitted exuberantly as he waved his left arm out his open window in a tight circle, then swung it forward as if pointing a saber for a cavalry charge. “Taylor Pass…”
“Blow it out yer ass,” Uncle Bud interrupted, substituting his own doggerel for whatever shallow rhyme R.C. had intended to spout.
Deliberately holding back until they entered the next switchback, Uncle Bud experimented with his carburetion advantage and the lower gear ratios of his custom-made, off-road racing machine to surge forward again. Effortlessly, he closed the three-car-length gap to barely half a car length in less time than it takes to tell about it. Trying the same inside-the-curve cutoff maneuver as before, he met with the same results, exactly as he had expected.
“Aa-men! Try, try again,” the C.B. blared gleefully as R.C. pumped his closed fist straight up and down in the “hurry up” signal that Uncle Bud had taught him months earlier as well as prior to their first business trip over the pass. When unable to talk to one another, military-style hand signals had proven to be a highly reliable backup after all else had failed.
Uncle Bud smiled. “Tricky,” he admitted. “Very damned tricky!” he said as he settled-in close behind to keep the most intense pressure possible on the lead vehicle. “Yer mama didn’t raise any fools, did she?” he transmitted. It was an almost too-obvious stroke, and certainly not a question. He had to keep R.C. committed to the unusually fast pace. So far, Uncle Bud believed that he was just about right on course for the ultimate last act of this well-rehearsed play. “Too bad there won’t be any curtain call,” he said quietly to himself.
Finally, Uncle Bud had the key data points as well as a far better feel for R.C.’s modus operandi with his latest plaything. These translated to more raw power than before, but less high winding torque on a new aluminum engine not yet fully broken in, and a bit less pizzazz that would limit four-wheel stability when picking his way through the tighter curves. “Hell for stout,” Uncle Bud had admitted minutes earlier as they had transferred the spoils of their latest enterprise from R.C.’s Range Rover to Uncle Bud’s Jeep near the top of Taylor Pass. “This limey locker box,” Uncle Bud admitted, “damn well packs the gear.” R.C. had literally beamed with pride for his latest, and by far his greatest purchase. Then Uncle Bud added with feigned concern: “But will she corner?”
R.C. could not wait to meet and beat what he had rightly perceived as the usually thinly veiled challenge. He had easily won the foot race to the impromptu starting line, and fully intended to drive away with the long-coveted bragging rights to their previously lopsided downhill competition. He believed that victory could very well change his life. That happy prospect beckoned from just beyond the not-so-distant finish line at the timberline.
In the fullness of time, the combination of man and new machine would undoubtedly become more comfortably meshed, and the vehicle’s performance envelope would be gradually honed to its full potential. But that was somewhere down the pike, next week or maybe several weeks after that. But on this brisk fall evening, Uncle Bud was interested only in the immediate performance characteristics of the here and now.
Extraordinarily agile over rough terrain, Range Rovers have never been known for their superior cornering. However, the smooth-talking Range Rover salesman may have forgotten to mention that dirty little secret.
Nowhere on this stretch of tortured, untended road could equally matched drivers in even marginally comparable vehicles ever hope to pass one another, but both reveled in the competition: the mano-a-mano exhilaration of pushing the other to the upper limits of skills and equipment. Their elation was further compounded by the perverse thrill of the ever-present threat from various unprotected drop-offs and menacing rock formations lurking like a surrealistic, other-worldly landscape shrouded in the murky depths of the cotton-candy-like clouds just below them.
As always, their fierce competition eventually would boil down to a basic gut check. Who would chicken-out and back-off first? From that day forward, R.C. vowed that he would never again be satisfied with second place. In this fast-moving world of great returns from relatively small investments, the “hog’s hind teat” was the natural feedbag of the financially challenged. That group of also-rans, he assured himself, no longer included R.C. Sugarman, Junior. “Not after today, no damned way,” he vowed to himself in doggerel rhyme.
“You still back there, daddy bear?” R.C. chided his challenger, even though Uncle Bud was only a scant couple of feet behind his back bumper.
“Is a frog’s ass watertight?” Uncle Bud answered in a flat, laconic monotone as if talking to an aircraft control tower.
“When I get back to town, I’ll tell ’em that sooner or later, you’ll be comin’ on down.”
In the heat of virtually synchronized gear shifting while nearly red-lining their high-revving engines, Uncle Bud’s delayed response took added emphasis. “Like a great man once said: ‘It ain’t over ’til it’s over, boy’.”
“Boy!” R.C. exclaimed, but without keying his microphone. “I’ll show that damned tight-wad sonova’bitch who’se a friggin’ ‘boy’.”
Considering the altered equation, Uncle Bud had to admit to himself that R.C. was driving extremely well. A promising amateur sports-car jockey at the Continental Divide Raceway near Castle Rock just south of Denver, R.C. was an accomplished heel-and-toe virtuoso of the simultaneous downshift/brake/accelerate school of gearbox crunching. No one ever saw much red brake light when chasing R.C. Sugarman, Junior, through an “S” turn whether on the race track or a rugged back road above timberline. Furthermore, he was inordinately proud that he had always taken his foot off the brake pedal as soon as anyone, and a lot sooner than most gear heads when powering through sliding tight turns while relying primarily on gear ratios and engine back pressure to establish that fine line between winning impressively or seriously scuffing expensive auto body parts.
That which Uncle Bud lacked in formal road-racing experience, he gained back through his keen insights into human nature. He knew people. He had made it his business to evaluate, test, and understand before defeating his competition. He was good at that game, and he took pride in his long string of successes.
“Pretty darned good truckin’, Amigo,” Uncle Bud admitted, then stopped transmitting before adding: “But damned-sure not good enough, you sorry slop-jar sonova’ bitch!”
Through several minor switchbacks amid serpentine clouds of trail dust, Uncle Bud was able to finesse his somewhat less substantial, but slightly more versatile vehicle to stay barely a split second behind R.C.’s lead. His heavy duty, yet all-purpose tire tread allowed him to follow R.C.’s radius tracking through each turn almost precisely, but with significantly less traction-robbing wheel drift. Satisfied, he finally knew for sure that his more responsive torque, better traction, and slightly lower center of gravity could power him just a little faster through most turns than the road-racing nutcase still holding onto the lead as his testosterone quotient spiraled upward and off the charts.
As they descended into the upper layer of bunched but still distinctly cotton ball-like clouds formed by hundreds of baby cumulous cloud cells floating eastward within a very narrow altitude band, their previously unlimited visibility was reduced to a few dozen yards at the worst case to occasional strobe-like peeks through the intermittent haze to the heavily forested valleys still far below.
As R.C. held off his hard-charging competitor at the next switchback, Uncle Bud momentarily glimpsed R.C.’s wild-eyed, exhilarated expression in the Range Rover’s huge elephant-ear rearview mirror. Grinning ever so slightly despite tight-jawed, unblinking intensity, Uncle Bud was fairly confident that he finally had R.C. exactly where he wanted him, both tactivly and mentally. “Heads up,” he transmitted as he once again accelerated through the swirling, damp mass of barely transparent fog as if attempting to pass on the inside. “Think fast,” he yelled sharply as if to warn R.C. of an upcoming threat to his safety. By constantly toying with R.C.’s mind, Uncle Bud intentionally baited the younger man closer and closer to the ragged edge already tattered nerves in a constantly re-tuned scheme to set him up for the planned finale.
Smoothly, but with clearly evident abandon, R.C. downshifted again, barely keeping his whining engine’s revolutions below the tachometer red line as he setup engine and gearbox for the short straightaway he had yet to see through the thickening curtain of mists, although he knew from long experience that it was there. Laid down along the crest of an ancient terminal moraine from the last glacial age more than 10,000 years before, this comparatively civilized section of road would either make or break the ultimate outcome of his most-important competition ever. After repeated failures, R.C. finally had Uncle Bud right where he wanted him. One more familiar switchback and a long straightaway through the formations of occasionally dense clouds with no place to pass, and he was the winner in more ways than one might imagine.
The poster that had hung over R.C.’s stereo for several months had proven prophetic: “Every Dog Will Have His Day!” “Youdamnbetcha’,” he said aloud, but only to himself. Then he keyed the C.B. microphone and shouted his own counter-challenge: “C’mon, c’mon. Let’s get it onnnn!”
“Don’t let yer alligator mouth overload yer tadpole ass, boy,” Uncle Bud said. The usually flat, unemotional monotone of Uncle Bud’s voice had a sharp, unusually sinister edge to it: an edge that passed unnoticed in the headlong race through the murky shadows and mists of the thickening cloud formations.
Carefully positioning himself to force R.C. to enter the center rather than the inside of the upcoming decreasing-radius turn, Uncle Bud subtly pushed the pace to yet a higher speed than R.C. would normally prefer for this dangerous switchback; particularly in such restricted visibility. Reaching down one gear lower than R.C. could hope for at high r.p.m., Uncle Bud took full advantage of his wider gearbox and engine ranges, as well as his superior tire traction that he had been testing and retesting for the past half-dozen tight curves. Seeing his opportunity unfold almost exactly as he had planned it in his mind, he gently eased against R.C.’s rear bumper with only a slight clicking kiss as his closing speed zeroed with R.C.’s, and then meshed smoothly as the younger man slightly reduced the drag of his engine’s back-pressure. Satisfied with his positioning, tracking far more precisely from slightly inside the other’s intended driving line through the unprotected switchback, Uncle Bud had R.C. precisely setup to lose.
“Tally ho,” Uncle Bud yelled over the C.B. radio. That exuberant warning was meaningless without the slightest inkling of Uncle Bud’s murderous intent.
The more-dense lower third of the next cumulous cloud cell could not have been situated any better if Uncle Bud had placed it there himself. With visibility once again less than 20 yards, their momentum pulled them ever closer to the outside of the curve. As if flying in tight formation, both vehicles slowed down in tandem just enough so that Uncle Bud could slam his wider-ranging gears down one more notch to pick up a sudden surge of added torque. Then, jamming his gas pedal hard against the floor boards, he accelerated his supercharged engine to almost its red-lined r.p.m. limit in a sudden, violent burst of power.
Almost casually, as if playing bumper tag as a hot-rodding teenager, Uncle Bud shoved R.C. Sugarman, Junior, and his shiny new play toy hurtling over the edge of the sheer drop-off into the murky mists of everlasting eternity. It was a done deal, done with skill and malice aforethought.
“Fly, you sorry sonova’ bitch!” Uncle Bud bellowed over the C.B. radio. Impulsively, although he had his hands full as he fought to keep his fishtailing four-wheeler from breaking through the ragged edge to his own premature demise, he could not resist the urge to shift the microphone in his hand so that he could flip the doomed man his glove-encased middle finger with double thrusting finality. “Rhyme that, you big-mouthed sonova’ bitch!”
Not realizing what was happening to him until too late, R.C. tried to slam on his brakes simultaneously as he desperately downshifted to the next lower gear. But the combination of his momentum and the relentless battering ram from behind gave him all the traction of a pig on ice. With all four wheels suddenly grabbing nothing but moisture-saturated air, white-knuckled fists frantically twisted the leather-wrapped steering wheel to the full left-hand stop as his right foot jammed with panic-stricken strength against the useless brake pedal, R.C. jerked his whole upper body nearly all the way around in his custom-made six-way adjustable leather seat to gape across the misty, widening chasm at his business partner, his benefactor, his murderer, who continued to thrust the one-finger indignity as R.C.’s airborne Range Rover slowly swapped ends, then began a looping nose-down rotation toward the crystal clear air below. Horror and disbelief ravaged his boyish face as unthinkable reality fully sunk in.
This could not be happening to him.
As Uncle Bud slowed to watch the mist-shrouded, rapidly fading silhouette of the hurtling Range Rover rotate through a lazy half-gainer as if in slow motion, an eerie, other-worldly shriek bellowed through his C.B.: “God…damn…you…to…” The Range Rover slammed upside down into a massive boulder several hundred yards down the mountain side, then cartwheeled crazily end-over-end into the dry creek bed far, far below. Over the howl of his downshifted engine and the chatter of chunky tires biting into loose gravel, Uncle Bud heard the “Whoommff” of the explosion announcing the termination of R.C.’s second bounce.
There would be no survivor, nor any evidence of foul play. No one could have seen anything in the thick cloudy fog and twilight encompassing darkness from the shadow of 14,265 foot Castle Peak to the west.
Emerging between puffy cloud cells within seconds after the explosive impact, Uncle Bud peered into his rear-view mirror at the last of the hellish fireball with its boiling blacker than black smoke column that shot upward through the tree line as if to mingle with the rising moon. Stunned, he felt a sickening lump swelling in the depths of his gut; and expanding rapidly until he had momentary difficulty sucking in enough air to fill his lungs. “My God!” he whispered. The enormity of R.C.’s single-minded compulsion to damn him to hell, especially with his very last breath before meeting his Maker, shook even a hardened cynic like Uncle Bud to the core of his being. Despite his meticulous planning, he was not prepared for that unearthly howl from the gates of Gahanna.
Had their situations been reversed, he knew without a shadow of a doubt, that he would have been screaming everlasting contrition until the final nanosecond of his life on God’s green earth. But that heathen slop jar, that ungodly scum bucket, even at the last moment of his worthless existence… “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” he quoted a long-forgotten adage from his dear old mother; an adage that was suddenly more meaningful than ever before.
R.C.’s mama had indeed raised a fool; a totally unacceptable liability, a loose cannon in his too-frequent chemical highs, a too-conspicuous consumer of expensive baubles despite repeated warnings. No, the cure, although extremely radical, had fit the affliction. “The right medicine for the right reason at the right time,” Uncle Bud assured himself. “I’m not about to fall on my own damned sword, not for a self-centered damned showoff like that dip shit.”
Mentally rearranging his planned but characteristically flexible, ever-changing time table, Uncle Bud could not afford to waste a moment of precious time. He had to hurry unseen to a detour onto an even more rugged backwoods trail that led north by northeasterly to a familiar dry stream bed that would eventually empty near the road to Leadville at the western approach to Independence Pass. A favorite alternate route, generally unknown to most outside his precarious profession, it would be extremely tricky in the gathering darkness with no vehicle headlights to be seen and remembered.
But the risk was worth the effort as that circuitous route eliminated the unacceptable threat of being seen returning to Alpine through the circuitous northern entrance to Taylor Pass at a former ghost town west of Independence Pass. After R.C.’s remains would be found, that kind of sloppy indiscretion could lead to sticky questions best left unasked by curious local scuttlebutt hounds.
With luck, no one involved in the accident investigation would ever know that Uncle Bud had been anywhere near Taylor Pass that evening. With a little more luck, he would be back in Alpine at the Red Onion Cafe enjoying a favorite seasonal treat—deep-dish choke cherry pie with French vanilla ice cream and a steaming mug of hot, black coffee—long before anyone could climb down to the burned-out wreckage and report on Mrs. Dee Sugarman’s wayward son, R.C., and his tragic “accident.”
More tired than he would previously have imagined, more shook-up than he would care to admit even to himself, Uncle Bud knew that he had to replace R.C. before he could once again move the product with acceptable safety while turning the kind of profit that made the considerable risks even more than profitable than before.
He had plenty of time. Soon the slopes would be crowded with self-indulgent but quick-witted young ski bums searching for the perfect mogul all day long, as well as some way, any way to continue to satisfy their obsessions where the deep, powder snow falls softly on Alpine’s storied bare-as-you-dare outdoors hot tubs.
From experience, Uncle Bud was confident that more than a few latter-day disciples of Timothy O’Leary would gladly stoop to almost anything imaginable for the rare privilege of living large in Alpine for the rest of their natural lives. As in the local real estate bubble, Uncle Bud’s three best-selling points were location, location, and location.
Uncle Bud had only to cull the herd until he had unequivocal leverage on the pick of the litter. He had done that before. He was certain that he could do it again.
5. SHIMMY LIKE MY SISTER KATE
Later that same night, as most of the local bars gradually nodded off, Alpine’s more determined night owls were progressively thinned by attrition—hard booze, soft bodies, thin air and/or the controlled substance of choice—until only a few hundred survivors were left to gravitate to that night’s designated last-chance watering hole.
Gordy and Cecil, the bartender from the Jasper Hotel, were seated across from each other at a small ornamental-iron ice cream table at the edge of a well-wired sea of humanity in a large basement bistro: the Purple Avocado, or something as flippantly clever as that. Image conscious to a fault, almost everyone present had dressed to some extent in Gay 90’s or 1920’s flapper costumes. An easy favorite among the women, the extremely short skirted, deep cut, straight but bouncy flapper attire was the hands-down favorite. Not much of a pun intended.
However, a few demure turn-of-the-century costumes, somewhat incongruous on well-toasted 1990’s hard-bodied perennial snow bunnies were scattered around the milling crowd. Some were probably the same party hardy gals who show up in see-through nun’s costumes for wet tee-shirt contests and other non-cloistered, mixed-company, contact sports.
Cecil’s bartenders’ threads blended well with the evening’s theme. Gordy wore the same black and dark green checkered Pendleton wool shirt and unzipped, down-filled vest as before. As a concession to the occasion, he had added a too-small, dime store bowler hat tipped forward over his forehead to shade his tired, smoke-reddened eyes from what little illumination was acceptable with this very demanding clientele. Dark corners and shadowy booths were at a premium among the vaguely visible layers of the sweet-fragrance smoke oozing from every nook and cranny.
An array of empty beer bottles garnished the top of their table, accounting for time in its own indisputable way. Although determined to finish his self-appointed assignment that evening, Gordy had enjoyed about as much night life as he could stand for one night.
To the rear of the large room, an overabundant, shady looking middle-aged reveler in a skimpy flapper dress sang “I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” in a whiskey alto while she staggered unsteadily around the small stage with everything she had in at least six degrees of unrestrained motion. Her version of the shimmy would tend to remind most of those revelers of several water-filled balloons wrestling in a low-cut nylon bag when viewed from just about any angle either fore or aft. If unrestricted cleavage could kill, this party would forever be remembered as the “Great Alpine Massacre.”
A young girl, hardly more than a teenybopper, her features nearly hidden under more layers of makeup than even Tammy Fay, if that’s possible, materialized out of the faceless crowd and dashed straight to Cecil like a knock-kneed colt frolicking in a summer pasture. There, amid a breathless babble of staccato teen-speak jargon, she immediately sat down by straddling Cecil’s outstretched legs as though his thighs were a saddle of sorts. Wiggling her little backside as if to settle into her perch, she giggled like a happily naughty child, then laid an open-mouthed salutation full on Cecil’s parted lips, checking his tonsils, gums and overall dental pattern in the process. Her forehead firmly held against his, their eyes interlocked only centimeters apart, she began whispering sybaritic secrets to Cecil in such low, intimate tones that her words were undistinguishable to Gordy only a few feet away.
She was obviously overjoyed to be aboard. Cecil was at least as pleased to have her there. Without breaking the forehead-to-forehead bond, Cecil placed both hands on her immature hips and pulled her forward until her little fanny was exactly on top of his trousers’ zipper. As she rocked rhythmically back and forth to his obvious delight, the intensely private conversation continued uninterrupted.
Glancing slyly at Gordy for just an instant, she giggled again, very proud of herself. Self-consciously, after the fact, she put her hand over her mouth to cover an array of gleaming braces, then continued in an intimate whisper meant only for Cecil’s ears. Even though she was obviously San Quentin Quail, that fact didn’t seem to faze Cecil one little bit.
When the music finally stopped, the entire crowd roared “Next!” in enthusiastic unison. Without hesitation, Cecil’s little bar pal bounced off his lap as though she was dismounting a trampoline. Wincing from both the sudden pain and the too-obvious, embarrassing revelation, Cecil quickly crossed his legs and placed his bowler hat where it would do the most good. But from the look of pure longing as he watched her pigeon-toed, joyful sprint toward the stage with not-yet-mature legs all helter skelter, Cecil was not inclined to file a complaint.
This little gal would indeed be a keeper in any high school in the United States. And tonight, well tonight she was going to make the big time or know the reason why.
“Me, me, MEEEE!” she shrieked. Hearing her volunteer, the crowd parted before her like the biblical Red Sea, and roared their approval as she hit the stage on the run, never pausing for a second as she launched immediately into a bawdy, swaggering version of the same dance while a live band of crispy critter musicians struck up the same tune one more time. Probably a high school cheerleader from her unusually confident stage presence, the young lady was almost transformed into the woman she would eventually become. Shaking everything she had, and some she only thought she had, it was show time at the Avocado.
His eyes glued to the stage, his watch freshly wound and a whole new bank of hormones having just kicked in, Cecil was totally wired. He liked them young. “Hey Gordy,” he yelled. “I think I’m in love again.”
Gordy studied the latest offering on the tiny stage. It was none of his business, but this budding affair seemed fairly premature even considering all of the background information that he had been briefed concerning Cecil’s various social preferences. “Come on, Slick,” Gordy yelled back. “She’s got to be at least 16. Don’t you think she’s about over the hill for you?”
“Naah. Jeanie’s alright,” Cecil yelled directly into Gordy’s ear from less than four inches away. “She’s gotta’ be at least 18 or so.”
“Yeah. Maybe in cocker spaniel years,” Gordy yelled back.
Too bombed out of his mind to recognize sarcasm if he met it in a phone booth, Cecil could not take his eyes off little Jeanie. Slender, athletic, proud of herself, bubbling over with girlish energy and too much white wine, she radiated enthusiasm as Cecil tried his level best to memorize every angular curve of her fascinating although immature body. As Cecil’s imagination ran wild at the table, she went ballistic on the stage.
“Right now, I’d take anything from teen to toothless,” Cecil recited an oldie from way back as he nodded toward Jeanie.
“I’ll just bet you would,” Gordy answered as he took in the whole unfamiliar scene with detached amusement. “By golly, look at her go. Get after it, little gal. GO!” Gordy said with muted enthusiasm. “What the heck,” he thought. “At my age, for all I know, she might very well be 18 or so. Lord love a duck, every gal under 30 looks like doggoned high school kids anymore.”
With an ear-banging clang of the drummer’s cymbals, the music stopped and a couple of barely vertical young drunks helped the little “wild thing” down from the stage as half the crowd roared approval and the other half yelled “Next!”
To Gordy’s surprise, Beth Brennan was physically plucked from the crowd by a large, friendly gang of happy drunks who did not understand any part of “No” for her answer. Resigned to the inevitable and apparently challenged by the chance to compete in front of a large, snockered crowd, Beth hit the stage in high gear, shifting into a down and dirty, hip swinging, boob-shaking shimmy that brought the crowd howling to its feet, and then they stayed there to raucusly celebrate her performance.
Fascinated, Gordy watched as she strutted her impressive stuff through a combination 1920’s hyperactive flapper/1990’s aerobics dance routine that easily outshined every mother’s daughter before her. Working the crowd into a frenzy, she finished with a triumphant pose on the last beat. Her back to the crowd, on her toes with her legs spread wide apart, every svelte muscle taut, she mooned the entire room with tightly stretched ice-blue flapper style bloomers accented with white ruffled trim around the edges. The crowd went bonkers in appreciation.
Momentarily holding her pose as waves of high-decibel accolades washed over her, Beth again straightened to her full height with her arms pointing dramatically at the ceiling like a rock’n roll goddess, then deliberately fell over backwards into the mass of humanity below her as though doing a back-flip into a swimming pool.
Whooping with delight, the rowdy crowd caught her and playfully passed her joyfully squirming body from the stage all the way across the room to deposit her within a dozen feet of Gordy and Cecil’s table. When finally, begrudgingly lowered to the floor—the local revelers seldom get the chance to grope a police officer—she was still pumped up by the crowd’s wildly enthusiastic reception.
As Beth pulled down her skirt so that it covered her ice-blue skivvies once again, she looked up, startled to see Gordy sitting almost dead center in front of her. Applauding with great, measured claps as if slowly banging two cymbals together, he was definitely amused and certainly among the more appreciative in the entire room.
Once again, Gordy had to admit to himself that he had never seen anyone quite like Beth in his life. She was just something else: a unique piece of work. But still deeply concerned about his tainted self image, and defensive from their previous encounter at the Jasper Hotel bar, he would be double damned if he would blow his cool in public just for someone else’s passing fantasy.
From Beth’s vantage point, she could read him like an open book. He could be had if she wanted him. In a remote corner of her mind, buoyed by her latest triumph, she casually toyed with the idea for just a moment.
Jeanie the teenybopper was again sitting on Cecil, straddling his legs as before while deep into an intense, intimate conversation, eye to eye and basically ignoring the rest of the crowd of revelers around them. Still pumped up from her command performance, Beth half danced, half walked the few remaining steps to stand proudly in a confrontational pose between Gordy and his table full of empty beer bottles.
“Well, well, Mr. ‘Ohh Gee’ Tyler. How was I, huh?”
From his sanctuary beneath the shield of his bowler hat’s brim, Gordy studied her critically from head to toe for several long seconds. Then, on automatic pilot, he spoke in a strong matter-of-fact voice from his salad days of yore: “Merely magnificent, little lady. Merely magnificent.”
Extremely pleased, but still inclined to taunt him a bit more, Beth moved closer. The musk of her perfume, mixed with fresh sweat, flooded his senses as she leaned against him so that she could be heard over the din of the next rendition of the same rowdy song featuring yet another prancing female exhibitionist. Naturally, each gal wanted to outshine all of her predecessors no matter what it took to win the ovation. The crowd—anticipating even more from a young but memorably shapely school teacher from Boise, Idaho on her first drunken binge—could not wait.
With his full attention focused on Beth, Gordy was completely at ease with a good-looking woman for the first time in too many months. Casually, he reached into his shirt pocket and, unobserved, turned off the miniature recorder.
“See anything you like, yet?” she asked, intentionally resurrecting her opening gambit at The Spa the night before; but this time in an entirely different context.
“I tell you, Lady Cop, if I were just a tad bit younger, I’d be puttin’ some hellacious moves on you.”
“Don’t let that slow you down, Cowboy.”
As she sat down on the edge of the table tight against his legs, Beth turned on the whole impressive array. Her attention focused only on Gordy, she pointedly ignored everyone else in the room including Cecil and his kiddy-car love life.
Unaware of the moment of transition, Gordy was soon adrift in the deep, dark pools of her big brown eyes. He was drowning in them. Up close and very personal, she had even more animal magnetism than he had remembered. However, this time, he had much less awkward indecision.
Gordy could sense his preoccupations slipping away as the protective barrier of his cultivated poker face faded away. He felt himself blush, a tingling warm feeling radiating across his upturned face. By a pure act of will, he pulled himself back to reality. He was determined not to overload his circuits, particularly with the very real prospect of being put down by one of the most intriguing women that he had ever seen on God’s green earth. Reaching for a safer, more comfortable old come-on line, a husky catch in his voice gave him away. “Speakin’ of moves, little lady. You sho’ do have a few yourself.”
She chuckled, enjoying the moment. “You’re not gonna’ go pullin’ another cornpone routine on me, are you, Mr. Cowboy?”
“Not if it won’t do any good,” Gordy admitted with a sly little smile.
Beth presented herself, hands out, palms up as if to say: “This is me. Accept me as I am.” Glancing down to check herself, she confidently locked onto Gordy’s once-again steady gaze, ready for round number two. “So whatta’ ya’ think, big guy?”
“I think that you are about the best-lookin’ gal on the whole danged block. Any danged block, any-dang-where.” It was like old times, and Gordy was once-again running on automatic. Deep within, he had, he knew, broken the mold. Maybe not for long, but any at all was a leg up after past months of lonely misery.
Beth was astounded by the new Gordy Tyler, and she said: “Wye you sweet talkin’ Texas carpetbagger, you” as if that was the epitomy of compliments.
As Gordy pointed to his hair he said: “Those aren’t gray hairs, little lady. Those are really raw nerve endin’s. Actually, you see, I’m just barely 35 myself.”
Beth laughed at the idea. “Then what would that make me?” she asked.
Once again he looked her up and down, paused a few moments apparently in contemplation, and then he said: “I guess that would just about make you only a twinkle in your daddy’s eyeball, little Mizz Brennan.”
Beth giggled then said: “Nice try, Cowboy, but no cigar. Not even close.”
“Close enough,” Gordy said, then nodded in self-affirmation.
“Anyway, the name is Beth. Mrs. Brennan is my sainted old ‘mither’, God rest her soul.” A bit of the blarney had crept into her voice. Gordy decided that he liked that a lot.
Lifting the hem of her skirt to curtsey like a proper debutante while incidentally showing off just about every last square inch of her athletic legs, Beth picked up Gordy’s drink and sat down on his knee as if to avoid the press of the swelling crowd. Saluting him with the neck of the still frosted bottle, she took a long, deep drink to clear her throat, finished the last drop with a deep sigh of satisfaction, and then snuggled up comfortably with her face once again within inches of his, ready to continue their conversation despite the high-decibel racket all around them.
Gordy was more than a little surprised to be having this light-hearted if moderately steamy banter with someone so vibrant and so incredibly good looking, especially someone with whom he had previously had nothing but brief, awkward confrontations. On the spur of the moment, he decided that he would go with the flow. Deep down in a far corner of his id, he was curious to see what would happen next.
“You know what, little Mizz Beth,” Gordy said as his eyes took in the better part of the room without turning his head. He hesitated a moment and then said rather confidentially: “There are a whole bunch of good-lookin’ young guys in this room who are wishin’ they were me, right here and right now.”
“Names, Ohh Gee,” Beth raised her voice and said huskily without taking her eyes away from his face. “I want names.”
As a waiter passed by, Gordy hailed him. “Hey son, you got any Ovaltine?”
“No sir. We sure don’t.”
Gordy glanced at Beth and then said to the waiter: “In that case, I guess I’ll have another Coors Lite.” Then he glanced at Beth again and added: “And bring the little lady here three more of the same.”
Waving both hands negatively, Beth tried to cancel the order, but the overworked waiter had already disappeared into the crowd. “Hey,” she said. “I can’t handle three beers, not all at once, not by myself anyway.”
Soothingly, Gordy placed his hands over hers and lowered them back to the table. “Don’t worry, little lady. We’ll share,” he said. “Those slue-footed waiters around here are so bloody slow, ya’ gotta’ double down or go dry. Besides, we wouldn’t want any of these impressionable young whippersnappers around here to think that us suave if slightly grizzled old dogs are a bunch of drunks, would we?”
Not solidly situated on Gordy’s knee, Beth began to slip precariously close to falling on her bloomer-clad fanny. Instinctively, Gordy pulled her onto a more solid foundation. In the process, he unconsciously gave her a friendly little hug that spoke reams without saying a word. Turning nose to nose with Beth, Gordy whispered hoarsely: “Oh boy, I hope that somebody starts a rumor.”
For a long, unexpected moment, they stayed locked onto each other’s eyes, then Beth began to giggle. “Oliver Gordon Tyler, I like your style.”
Gordy nodded in appreciation and said: “Gordy. Most folks call me Gordy.”
“Okay, Gordy. Gordy it is,” she said with a definate tone of finality.
Searching the milling crowd, Gordy looked for a familiar if unfriendly face then asked: “So where’s your date, ol’ Fashion’s Plaything?”
Flippantly, Beth giggled and said: “Oh Kurt? The last time I saw him, he was out back worshipping at the throne of the porcelain god.”
In mock sympathy, Gordy asked: “Oh, did him spit up?”
“Spit up,” she snickered derisively. “That poor boy was selling Buicks. You know: Buuuick…Buuuick…BUUUICK!”
“You gonna’ be taking him home, pretty soon?” Gordy asked somewhat sympathetically.
Brushing away the comment as unthinkable, Beth separated herself from any further association with her former date. “No way. Some of his silly-danged ‘roomies’ have taken him to raise. I sure as hell didn’t. So long, good bye, good riddance.”
“Is she trying to distance herself from that pompous klutz ‘cuz of that little scuffle at the Jasper Hotel, or because he didn’t pack the gear anyway?” Gordy thought about that, but decided that the whole concept was immaterial. Raising his beer bottle in salute, he was once again reminded that it had already been drained. “So whatta’ you usually drink, when you aren’t drinkin’ my last beer?”
As she looked into his eyes, a coy little smile flitted across her face. For some reason, unknown even to herself, she went for truth in advertising. “Oh Pees. I usually drink ‘other peoples’,” she said with a hint of playful pride.
Gordy recognized bald-faced fact when he heard it. “Sure you do, and you’re just the little gal who can get away with it too.”
As she looked inquisitively into Gordy’s eyes, Beth was distracted by something in her peripheral vision that was not copacetic: the sight of an oncoming disturbance in the form of the overstuffed, over-stimulated, over-the-hill shimmy shaker who had started the whole shimmy shaking orgy in the first place. “Oh oh. Look out,” she said as if alarmed. “Here comes trouble with a capital T.”
Gordy raised his gaze and followed Beth’s lead to see the head-long imitation of a charging rhinoceros by a puffy, over-50 years old, overweight, left-behind and patently on-the-make woman with garish bottled-red hair and a “big hair” style with a faint but nevertheless distinguishable halo of gray roots. Dressed like a woman half her age, she was still trying to cover too many hard years with too much makeup, too much bourbon, too little branch water, and not nearly enough material in her inadequate, poured-into costume.
“Isn’t that the old gal who started all that shimmy shaking stuff a little while ago?” Gordy asked.
“That’s Mizz Mary Lou Ruttensomething-or-other, the two-bit punch board that’s just about to hit on you, Tex.”
“Her is?” Gordy’s voice raised an octave as if he was highly astonished.
Sarcastically, Beth explained. “Her is, and why not? She’s already hit on every other pair of pants in the building, and that probably includes the gay guys and every waiter at work, as well. She’s a fixture around here; she never gives up.”
Able to resist almost anything but temptation, Gordy took wicked delight in asking: “Isn’t that what you call a ‘socialite’ in Alpine?”
Beth blustered defensively: “Socialite! Gim’me a break, Cowboy! That woman’s idea of playing hard to get is showing up at a party with MOST of her clothes still on.”
“Oh yeah,” Gordy laughed. “I think I’ve heard about her: the only woman ever to win child support from an entire troop train.”
Beth agreed: “You got it. If she goes home tonight with her bloomers on: it’ll be a first.”
Intended for himself alone, inadvertently Gordy mused out loud: “Sounds like a fun kind of a gal to me.”
“Well go for it, Cowboy. Go for it.”
In mock terror, Gordy grabbed Beth firmly by her shoulders and shook her a bit harder than he had intended while he pleaded: “Beth! Come on! Please get me out of this. I’m too damned young to die like that.”
But it was too late as Mary Lou, in all of her over-stuffed splendor, made her flamboyant yet purposeful connection. “Beth. Darling! Who IS this handsome man you’ve been hiding over here?”
Mimicking Mary Lou’s extravagant mannerisms, Beth responded with syrupy sweetness, all of which was lost on the hard-charging female lush. “Mary Lou. For goodness sakes, don’t you look like a million dollars tonight.”
Tangle-footed drunk, Mary Lou placed herself nose to nose, head-on with Gordy, making a determined, possibly desperate effort to focus her eyes and simultaneously look seductive. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your date, hon-nee?”
Beth winked at Gordy, who had already taken the first step backward. “Oh sure. Mary Lou, this is my step father; Oliver, Boliver, Egor Brennan the Third.”
Giggling shrilly in explosive, off-key bursts, Mary Lou did her best to be cute. “Ohhh! I’m sooo glad to meet you, Mr. Third,” she said. As if the automatic next phase in any personal relationship, she proceeded to lean major parts of her unfettered anatomy heavily against Gordy, wrapped her arms fully around his neck as he shrank further backwards, and continued trying to focus her eyes while swaying her hips, shoulders and other body parts to the music in a way she must have thought was either quite sensuous indeed, or a mutual warm-up to scooting their boots on the dance floor. “Would you like to dance, Beth’s Step Daddy?”
Coming to the rescue, Beth tugged on Gordy’s arm, wrenching him out of Mary Lou’s groping grasp. She and Gordy began retreating backwards toward the outside door. Without the human leaning post, Mary Lou stumbled off-balance against Cecil and Jeanie, who stubbornly tried to remain oblivious to the immediate world around them despite the mass of intruding, overly powdered, female flesh invading their previously private little party.
Apologetically, Beth made their excuses: “He’d just love to dance with you, honey. But we’ve got to hurry on home now and neuter the cat.”
Still unable to focus the thinking parts of her liquor-soaked brain, Mary Lou blurted in frustrated disappointment: “Ned, the cat?”
Even though confused with current affairs, Mary Lou would not let this chance encounter end on an unproductive note; social networking being her stock in trade. As Gordy and Beth continued backing away, Mary Lou gushed: “Mr. Third. Your little girl is a darling, darling, DARLING girl.”
“Yes ma’am,” Gordy agreed. Then, grinning mischeviously, he added: “Her mother and I are very proud of ALL of her mud wrestlin’ trophies.”
Beth and Gordy bursted out laughing as soon as they had escaped into the cold, crisp night air. Noticing her involuntary shudder from the abrupt change of temperatures, Gordy slipped out of his down-filled outdoor vest and laid it loosely around her bare shoulders and arms like a cape. In the process, with his arm already around her, he impulsively gave her a quick little hug in passing: sort of an unconscious “thank you” among friends. Outwardly, it was nothing more. However, within a couple of steps toward the street, Beth snuggled closer for warmth as they continued walking. As Gordy’s arm tightened perceptibly around her, she laid her head against his shoulder and kept it there.
Astounded, Gordy whispered: “Little darlin’, you are all right.”
“You aren’t so bad yourself, Cowboy.”
His eyes searched the vehicles parked along the street. Seeing nothing familiar, he asked: “Car? Truck? Motor scooter? You got any wheels?”
“’Fraid not,” Beth answered. “I came with ol’ ‘Fashion’s Plaything,’ remember?”
Gordy guided her as he turned in another direction and lengthened his stride to steered Beth across the street as they jaywalked toward a set of black and white Texas license plates. “In that case, let’s take my van,” he said. “I’m too danged drunk to walk.”