Thinking about Traffickers in Human beings and Body Parts is something I have thought about for a long time. It played a part in the last book of the Mint Julep Mysteries Trilogy,
Mayans, Muscadine & Murder:A Mint Julep Mystery.
By listing the actors I imagined when writing this novel after a DNA test showed potential DNA connections to Mayans and Guatemala, I hope you might be able to envision these events a bit better in the chapters I share with you.
I was sitting at a traffic light when Saroya introduced herself to me.
Dabney Palmer Rankin
Dr. Sophia Palmer Ransom
Police chief Carrow Dee Gunther
Wilhelmina Mucklewrath Banks
Fredricka Pinkerton Amos
Dr. Gavin Crenshaw
Reverend Roscoe T. Ledbetter
Elvis (a.k.a. Felix Forbes)
The noise of the crowd upon the plaza ball field reached --- as soon as Saroya topped the hill at the end of the path from the cenote. The jungle that surrounded Peru Waka barely muffled the raucous sounds of the crowd lured to the plaza by the wooden flutes, trumpets of wood, gourd and conch shell, and drums that signaled another ceremonial sacrifice. Someone would die today.
But not Inka. Ilyana promised to let Saroya know when Inka would be sacrificed. The distraction was timed well. Saroya would take that opportunity to slip into the palace and rescue Inka. She elbowed her way, pushing through as quickly as she could. If she could get to the palace, she would evade the guards and priests around Inka and somehow convince him to leave with her.
She looked up. K’inich Balam stood above the plaza at the top of the stairs of the ceremonial pyramid. He wore an embroidered cotton loincloth trimmed with feathers covered by a robe of jaguar skin and quetzal feathers; sandals; and an elaborate green parrot and quetzal feathered headdress as large as himself. His had puttied his nose to give it a beak-like appearance. Jade inset his teeth and ears. His eyes crossed appealingly as he stood before the crowd with his right arm raised displaying the paper fiber he drew through the foreskin of his penis that now dripped with sacrificial blood demonstrating his love and devotion to his people. He lifted a flaming stick and set fire to the paper which now brought smoke bathing over him. Dramatically, he breathed it in and then out as he watched the smoke carry his prayers towards the heavens while his people cheered.
Lady T’abi, now the darling of El Peru, dressed in a brocaded dress cinched at the waist, her teeth filed to a point with inlays of jade, and also appealingly cross-eyed, looked adoringly at her husband. She then drew a barbed stingray’s tail through her tongue. A priest handed her the paper rope that she pulled through the hole and held high for the people to cheer. K’inich Balam passed her the lighted taper and the smoke of the burning bloody paper filled the air.
Cheers rang out for the beautiful couple whose sacrifice and prayers for a reversal of the drought, victory over the advancing army, and a bountiful harvest inspired them. Though the true King and his wife were too ill to function, his son and daughter-in-law performed his duties admirably.
Saroya spotted Lady T’abi’s guards everywhere in the crowd. She had never seen such a presence in the crowds. Yik’in Chan K’awiil, Lady T’abi’s brother, appeared from nowhere surveying the crowd and signaling Montoya, his most trusted friend, the guard who frequently sat vigil when she visited her parents. Saroya bent down behind a big woman whose children carried rattles; small bells of copper, gold and clay; tinklers of shell and small stones to play along with the musicians. Saroya searched for another way through the crowd. Yik’in Chan K’awiil headed straight toward her!
From out of nowhere came Kish’s deep, now familiar voice. He placed a cloak about her shoulders and pulled the hood around her head, shielding her face. He pulled her close kissing her with a passion that seemed to others to join in the near orgiastic ecstasy of the crowd. She placed her hands on his chest to push him away, but his lips moved to her ear and he whispered, “We must blend into the crowd. Lady T’abi has the full guard watching for you.”
“But, why? She thinks I’m dead!” she said, trying not to succumb to the pounding music and the closeness of this man whom she had admired from afar for so long as a ball player and come to respect and trust as a man. And if she were to be honest to herself … desire … Her arms lifted to wrap around his neck as his lips traveled down her neck.
She felt him stiffen when he lifted his head to look beyond her.
“When she could not find you, Ilyana came to me,” he said. “She said Tabi did not trust you not to stay dead and that she was sure you would try something. So today had to be the day before word could get out.”
She lifted her eyes to his and knew. She whirled just as the priests laid the drugged boy painted with blue dye upon the ceremonial altar on the pyramid above them. She struggled in Kish’s embrace as her brother K’inich Balam lifted the obsidian knife and looked to his wife, Lady T’abi. Their brother Inka turned his head and found Saroya in the crowd. Recognition flickered in his blue eyes and was replaced by fear.
Inka’s lips formed her name. Lady T’abi nodded and K’inich Balam plunged the obsidian knife into Inka’s chest.
I gasped as if breathing in life once more. I heard, but could not see, ChiChi sit up in the tub. I heard him leap over the side of the tub and opened my arms because I knew where he was headed. I needed to hold him. I shook from my vision. The heat from outside crept into the house but I felt cold to my very soul. Not a fan turned, not a light shone, not a whisper of air crept through any vent. It was as quiet as a tomb. The generators were down just as I plotted. But the dream had been so real that I knew time was of the essence. I still panted with the shock and fear of my dream. I had to find Julio.
ChiChi dropped to his feet as I opened the door to the bedroom. I took his hand just for the comfort of his presence in the ominous darkness and felt my way to the side of the bed. I heard Bennett’s breathing in the silence. I dropped to my knees near where I thought his head should be.
“Bennett, the lights went out,” I whispered.
“No shit, Sherlock,” he said.
“You’re not surprised.”
“You set it up, didn’t you?”
“I removed the governing spring and adjusted the throttle stop screw on a few carburetors is all.”
“In other words you sabotaged the generator.”
“You might say that.”
“Bennett,” she said.
“It’s my curse now to be a geriatric sex symbol. So I don’t blame you for … that kiss.”
“Geriatric sex symbol, you say.” I could hear the smile in his voice.
“Yes. Ever since the show with Diamond and Ruby T.”
I felt myself blush then in embarrassment and was grateful for the darkness.
“I saw that show,” Bennett whispered, hoarsely. “Your husband was a lucky, lucky man. We can talk about that some other time -- at great length -- but now we have to go and rescue Julio.”
“You found Julio!”
“Yes, and now I will get off of this bed and then I want you to follow closely behind me as we maneuver through these halls to his room. It will take them a while to fix the generators and get the surveillance up and running again.”
Bennett climbed out of the bed and I stood up. We bumped heads. Bennett grabbed me as I stumbled and there we were once more body-to-body and once again I felt a gun. Only this time it was the real thing. And there was another strapped to his chest. I felt around some more and found a machete tucked into his belt.
“Need more time?” Bennett asked. I jerked back realizing my recalcitrant hand had been headed to explore lower terrain.
“No, I’m good.”
Bennett’s hand went naturally to the small of my back to guide me to the door. I felt the comforting pressure of the gun I found in the Jeep in the backpack strapped on my back. I now felt naked without it.
“No need to ask what’s in there. I went through the backpack earlier. Just be careful you don’t shoot yourself or me with that gun. Do you know how to use it?”
“Carrow Dee, my cousin who is Palmer police chief, made sure I knew how after the last time I got kidnapped. And Harvey Banks took me to the shooting range.”
I thought I heard a humph then that I thought best to ignore.
Bennett took my hand and led me to the door. Before opening the door, he whispered, “When I open the door, crawl through and then wait for me to close the door behind us. I’ll try to be as quiet as I can, because I wouldn’t put it past the sisters to have an eye glued to the peephole. When we get out there in the hall, stay as close to me as you possibly can. We’ll stand up when we get to another hall.”
“But I can’t see a thing, Bennett!”
“Then use your other senses. Can you smell my aftershave?”
It was Brut. I remembered. I gave him some about forty years ago.
“Yes,” I answered. I resisted the urge to pull him down for another kiss. Just for good luck, of course. I wondered if I should have told him about that terrible vision. It didn’t seem necessary. He seemed to feel the urgency himself.
I followed him to the inner core of the compound. I heard a whirring sound of a motor and saw the glow of a lighted corridor at the end of the dark one through which we crept.
Bennett stated the obvious, “One generator still works.”
We heard a door open and the sounds of several pair of rubber soled shoes. The wheels to a gurney sounded lippety, lippety down the terracotta hallway.
“Julio is to our left,” Bennett whispered.
We heard a door close and Bennett immediately set off down the hall. We caught a glimpse of a man in a blue mask dressed in the white garb of a medical person enter into center room ahead of us at the end of the corridor. “It is time for the donor,” we heard the man say. “I have come for the gurney.”
Bennett pulled me into a supply room and told me to stay there. I nodded. My heart pounded so hard I thought it probably echoed through the hall. I prayed that the cameras were still disabled even though there was light in this part of the compound. Bennett opened a door and looked in before indicating to me that it was clear. I ran forward and he reached back to pull me in behind him. There lay Julio nearly as white as the sheets upon which he lay, connected to wires and tubes. He looked lifeless.
I pulled the covers from his chest. It was still intact. I looked at Bennett with tears of relief in my eyes. He only nodded and proceeded to disconnect all the tubes. He pulled Julio, unconscious, from the bed. “Follow me,” Bennett ordered, shifting Julio to his shoulder in a fireman’s carry.
Bennett took off in the opposite direction from the sounds we now heard coming toward us down another corridor, but that way took us directly past the door that the white-garbed man had entered. We heard the door open as we rushed past and heard the man turn back to someone in the room to say, “Torres is prepped and waiting. He was told about the other generators, but assured us that the central core of the compound was equipped for such an emergency.”
“But it’s midnight!” came the voice within the room.
“This is the time chosen by his astrologer,” the man replied. They heard the gurney hit the door.
With Julio still slung over one shoulder, Bennett turned down a darkened corridor and soon he took us out into the black night. We heard loud noises from behind us in the compound. Soon the shrieks of a howler monkey filled the air.
“They’ve opened the door to your room,” I said aloud.
“Take the gun from my waist band and don’t speak,” Bennett warned. “Step as close to my footprints as you possibly can. Hand me the night goggles in your backpack.”
I nodded and then realized he probably couldn’t see me. He didn’t need to. Had I been any closer I would have been another skin. I fumbled around in the backpack and found the night goggles and pressed them against his back. He reached back without missing a step.
Bennett led us to the rocky stream that trickled down the hill where I stopped earlier for water. I knew we did not have time to stop to rest or get a drink of water and did not bother to ask. I heard rustlings about us and imagined the snakes and other venomous and carnivorous critters that were in the darkness that enveloped us. Bennett must be exhausted yet he did not falter. Only resolve kept me going. That and the strange vision.
Bennett consulted the watch that I decided also served as a compass two or three times as we climbed up, up, up that mountain. As we reached the pinnacle, the fog shrouded morning lightened as the sun rose in the eastern sky. I heard the familiar sound of water falling and knew where we were. We had reached the cenote. Bennett with his compass and innate sense of direction brought us to the only safe place. We both heard vehicles at the ruins where I stole his Jeep.
Bennett turned and yelled to me, “Our only hope is to jump,” he said. “They have beaten us here.”
“You go first,” he commanded. But I was steps behind and seconds mattered.
“No, get Julio to safety. There’s no time to argue.”
“Right behind me, Dabney,” Bennett commanded as he shifted Julio to a hold tight against his body. Then he disappeared into the cenote.
I turned as I ran looking for ChiChi. A déjà vu moment struck me. I had been here before. I knew this path. I could almost feel Lady T’abi at my heels. I heard the pounding of monkey feet rushing toward me.
My head spun.
I was wrapped in Kish’s arms standing amid the snakelike roots of the ceiba tree at the aperture to the cenote. Lady T’abi drew her bow with arrow cocked and looked straight at me. Kish took a step back to take us down into the blue waters below and I saw the arrow fly. ChiChi jumped in front of me to take the blow. I screamed, “No, ChiChi!”
Back in the present, but with tears in my eyes, I saw the outline of a figure appear through the fog silhouetted against the rising sun. Wilhelmina Mucklewrath Banks with Freddie right behind her pulled a rifle to her shoulder right as I stepped toward the opening of the cenote and opened my arms to ChiChi. ChiChi leapt up. Simultaneously, I heard the report of the rifle. The power of the bullet sent ChiChi over the edge of the cliff beyond the ceiba tree and its writhing roots just as I stepped back to fall into the cenote. ChiChi’s howls as he dropped drew our pursuers to the edge of the cliff just as a stealth helicopter manned with a Special Ops team topped the cliff and sent them running back in the direction they came.
I broke the surface of the blue waters with a shriek of pain masked by the noise outside.
“Dabney? Were you shot?” Bennett asked. I could hear the fear in his voice. For me.
Julio lay on his back on the rock ledge beside the still blue water, dripping wet from the fall into the cenote while Bennett performed CPR.
“No,” I sobbed, “ChiChi jumped between me and Willie’s bullet. He gave his life for me, Bennett.” I was in shock. I had seen Inka’s heart ripped from his body and ChiChi killed.
Then Julio coughed and his startling blue eyes fluttered open. He looked straight at me. Those eyes. Now I knew why he seemed so familiar.
I had been through this before!
But Julio lived! I cried harder.
“I know you grew very close to ChiChi, Dabney,” Bennett said, as he pulled me from the water and held me close.
My sense of loss was something others would never understand. Inka! I lived the horrible loss once more. And there was ChiChi. My grief was timeless.
“Are you all right there, Commander,” someone called from above.
“I’m okay but we need a medic,” Bennett answered.
“There’s one coming down in the lift,” came the voice.
Sister, with her eyes closed tightly, held on to the sling for dear life while Elvis slid down the rope behind her. He helped swing the sling to the side where Sister did a visual on me that reassured her and then went to Julio.
They all thought I fell apart because of what I had just experienced.
“The doctor medicated him before they were to take his heart,” Bennett told her.
“So Torres was just as bad as Faye Lynne said,” she commented while she examined Julio. She threw me a glance.
“Even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and then,” I heard myself murmur and saw Sophie smile.
“Julio’s vital signs are good,” she told us.
I looked at Bennett. “Commander?” I asked.
“Undercover,” he said.
All of our attention then went into getting us all onto the helicopter and out of Guatemala before anyone really knew we were there.
There were several transfers between the rescue and our final drive home, impeded as we were by the sheer power of the hurricane. Sister focused her attention mainly on Julio like she should. The shock of what I had gone through left me numb. The loss I felt for the Inka and ChiChi was as intense today as it was for Saroya over 1000 years ago. I kept my eyes on Julio as long as I could keep them open. I felt the mists rise and my bones went weak. I looked at Sister accusingly realizing she had given me a tranquilizer in the liquid she had me swallow. Her big eyes filled with tears that only enhanced the love in her eyes. She had watched me rub my temples for as long as she could. I lost consciousness and the dream came quickly. Once again I lived in the mind of the Mayan woman, Saroya.
A shout came from the top of the mound upon which would be built the temple Kish planned along with a well-known builder, a recent refugee from our former home in the lands far to the south. I worked in the fields in the bottomland where we grew corn, beans and tobacco. He pointed west where a familiar canoe came into view. The raised prow with the gaily painted and carved serpents head wings alerted us that more of our people had arrived. Kish had visited this place many times to purchase the clay I used to make the blue for the murals I painted in the palaces and the temple of El Waka Peru. Though little of that was sold these days, much pottery was produced for drying brine for making salt. Merchants arrived frequently. Everyone rushed to the shore of the river the natives called the Ocmulgee to hear news of those left behind.
I ran down the hill to the river eagerly anticipating word from Kish’s friend who had promised to take news to Ilyana of our arrival in the new land across the big water up the coast to a new land. He would share with Ilyana our plan for her own flight from El Peru Waka.
As I ran, I watched the oarsman pull the boat ashore. He turned back announcing that they had reached their destination. A slender man stepped over the side and reached back shaking as if he barely had the strength to lift the small boy from the canoe. He took the child’s hand and stumbled up the bank of the river. Up ahead, one could see the pyramid under construction beyond the river bottom now planted in corn, beans and tobacco. The beginning of a Grand Plaza like at home would be built. A city would grow. The man stiffened and pulled the child before him blocking him from the boat that could be seen approaching. A knife appeared in his hand. He took precious seconds to thrust the child behind a rock before he turned. A spear pierced the man’s back and would have impaled the child as well had he not had the foresight to thrust him away.
Behind me Kish lifted his own spear and hurled it into the man in the second canoe who had jumped into the shallow water and headed toward the child.
When I reached the wounded man, I turned him over where he lay face down. Brown eyes fluttered open. I wailed, “Ilyana!” I pulled the cloak now wet with blood from my friend to press and staunch the flow. So many wounds some healed and others festering. And now, the newest that I knew would take my friend’s life.
The sobbing child crawled to Ilyana and laid her tiny body across Ilyana. Ilyana lifted her arm to comfort the child.
“This is K’inich Balam’s only living child. I have brought her to you,” she said. Blood bubbled at her lips.
“I stayed until only one of the young daughters of Lady T’abi and K’inich Balam still lived,” Ilyana whispered, as I held her in her arms. The blood gushed from Ilyana’s frail body despite my efforts to save her. Kish broke the spear, but knew to pull it out would cause the loss of even more blood. I kept pressure against the wound in a futile effort to stem the flow of blood.
Ilyana touched my cheek to make me focus on her words. Ilyana knew her life ebbed with every beat of her heart. Tears flooded down my face. My dear friend. My valiant protector.
“She only survived becoming a sacrifice because of Lady T’abi’s plans to marry her off to the king of Tikal. This beautiful child is only three years old. Stories of the king’s unnatural predilections and cruelty are legend. He prefers them very young I heard whispered. Tai is the gentlest and most affectionate of all the girls that I have prepared for sacrifice.”
Ilyana’s eyes softened as she looked down at the child who lay against her watching with big eyes and three fingers in her mouth.
“The words of assurance as to the meaning to their sacrifice would no longer come.” Ilyana’s eyes looked beyond me into the past. “I no longer believed their deaths had meaning.”
“ Lady T’abi and her brother manipulated the deaths of K’inich Balam and his parent. T’abi’s brother and at the time I left, Calakmul’s ruler, Yik’in Chan K’awiil set her up as ix kaloomté, Empress of El Peru Waka. Still, the army of Takil approached and the sacrifices continued.”
Ilyana choked and another froth of blood appeared on her lips.
“Later, dear friend. You must preserve your strength.”
Ilyana shook her head almost imperceptibly.
“You must know. More will come.”
“Yik'in Chan K'awiilsent an emissary to the king who led the army of Tikal. Lady T’abi dressed in her finery greeted the warrior king of Tikal who arrived at the head of his army for peace negotiations. She attempted seduction. But, his eye fell on the beautiful child who hid behind my skirts. When Yik'in Chan K'awiil, saw this I saw in his eyes when he decided to offer the child in an effort to save himself.”
“I could not bear to hear more screams from innocents. Negotiations were under way when a stranger approached me in the market and revealed himself as a friend of Kish. After assuring himself that I would not betray him, he revealed the plan you and Kish set up for my escape.”
She closed her eyes and I looked at Kish. A deep breath. Her words were weaker, but determined.
“I could not, would not, leave the child I had kissed and comforted as each of her sisters were led to the ceremonial altar. I had no words of explanation as to why the vile old man who slavered over her should take her as his own so that T’abi and her evil brother might live.”
She touched her cloak as she looked up at me. Her eyes dimming. “So I retrieved the jewels you hid in the walls of the cenote and were unable to gather before Kish carried you unconscious to the boats that would take you to the land in the north. I sewed them into the hem of this cloak. I followed the directions of the messenger and cut my hair and that of the child. From then on, I became a man and Tai was my nephew.”
Ilyana came from a line of warriors who protected the rulers of El Peru Waka. She and I had wheedled her father into giving us training just as he trained Ilyana’s brothers. Serving in the household of the king as her father planned for her, such talents might serve well one day, Ilyana told him. As the daughter of the king, he could not refuse to include me as well. Though the day when he or his sons would not be there to protect us was at that time unimaginable.
“Your brothers?” I asked.
“Lost in battle. Fighting the armies of Tikal.”
The true character of Lady T’abi and her brother were evident to Ilyana and me from the beginning. But K’inich Balam, still a callow, inexperienced youth was so overwhelmed by lust for the beautiful Lady T’abi that he was easily seduced. From that moment on Lady T’abi and her brother set about weakening El Peru Waka for takeover by Calakmul. They did not plan for the approaching army of Tikal to appear at the moment of the culmination of their plans.
Kish lifted Ilyana while I carried the little girl, my niece, to our cottage.
“I managed to kill many who pursued us,” Ilyana whispered.
“You’ve done well, my dearest friend,” I told her.
I looked at her wounds and the streaks of infection and marveled at her strength. In spite of all, she managed to elude the assassins who followed as she made the contacts to whom Kish had directed her. I realized that Tai had become the symbol of those she was too weak to try to save, the royal line of the ancient and venerable rulers of El Peru Waka that her family had served so ably.
We laid her on the pallet in our cottage. Despite her pain, Ilyana babbled on telling of how they traveled in boats with curved ends, rudders and serpent heads engraved on their prows. Or walked evading their pursuers with Ilyana carrying the child when Tai could not walk.
I could barely hear her speak. She moved closer.
“We finally made our way to a small cluster of islands to replenish our fresh water. There I waged a battle with the remaining assassins, back tracking to kill them all in their sleep. Apparently -- all but one.”
She paused. Took a deep breath that shuddered in her chest. Her eyes turned to Kish.
“There were those there who knew you. They brought us here.”
Her breath rattled. I closed her eyes. Sure my friend was no more, I succumbed to the sobs that I had been fighting.
Suddenly Ilyana’s claw like hand grabbed my wrist. “You must flee. They will pursue.”
Her hand fell away. I knew her pain was no more.
I opened my eyes when Sister tapped me on the shoulder. But it took a moment to orient myself. I knew the place Ilyana died. I had visited the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds near Macon not long after I took my DNA test and discovered the Mayan connection to my Native American genealogy. Somehow, I knew that was the place Ilyana had been killed. I knew it, because I was there.
Sister’s voice broke through my reverie. It was only then that I realized Sister and I were in the back of an ambulance. “We are at Adam Afield. The orderlies I requested from the county hospital have already taken Julio in to put him to bed in your third floor suite. Ralph and Elvis think security is better here than at a hospital. They have called in support with more friends of theirs. They’re upstairs with Julio as is the doctor I called at UAB who is more aware of the pharmacology and consequences of the drugs they gave Julio than I am.”
“Adam called his sisters and told them you’d been found and were fine. They were getting into the car to head here. He’s heading up one of the search teams looking for the child.”
I took Sister’s phone and called my girls. I reassured them that I was fine and told them to stay where they were. The weather was too bad for them to be on the road. And I did not want them around the craziness.
I wobbled with my first step and Sister put her arm around me to support me. “Hold onto me,” she said.
She led me to sit on a stool at the soda fountain and then went around the counter. She dispensed a fully leaded Coke on crushed ice replete with cherry juice and cherries. She stuck in a flexible straw and handed it to me.
I barely had the strength to suck on the straw. But eventually the high octane Coke revived me. Sister merely sat with me and waited for the sugar to kick in.
“Can you talk to me about it? Was that gorgeous man really Bennett Chastain?”
I smiled and nodded.
“Leave it to you, Dabney, to get kidnapped, nearly killed, and get rescued by your first love.”
I looked out the window to the scuppernong vine wrapped around the oak across the street.
“He’s married,” I said. Tears threatened. I chose not to elaborate.
Sister’s face fell at that. She had a torrid romance in play in her mind.
“He was undercover with a sting operation the CIA was operating trying to uncover leads to upper level drug distributors and dealers.” I swallowed hard.
“All of that is now shot to hell.” I said when my emotions were under control.
Elvis appeared from the room behind the bar with its two-way mirror and slapped a picture down on the bar. “Recognize these two?” he asked.
Sophie explained, “Elvis has been doing a little more research on Estrellita. When she heard that you had seen a little girl around three years old, she fainted. Faye Lynne told us the reason she had left Estrellita in Hollywood and returned here to us was that she thought not only that she had renewed her relationship with Pedro Torres, whom Faye Lynne despises, but also she thought she was taking drugs. Elvis brought me the drugs from her suitcase. They are the same drugs I prescribed for Pedro Torres when he came to me as a patient years ago.”
Elvis said, “We checked out all the bottles. One came from a pharmacy in Guatemala. With help from some of my friends we traced Torres to the compound in Guatemala and were already coming to check things out. Your sister, here, had a strong feeling that was where you were and was ready to fly the plane herself if I didn’t get us a pilot immediately.”
“You can’t fly, Sister,” I said.
“I’m a quick study,” she said.
I took her hand in mine. She looked embarrassed
“By the time we got the message through contacts that Willie and Freddie were there we were already in the air.”
“I have never been so scared in my life as when I looked out the window and saw Willie and Freddie jump out of a Jeep and run up the hill after you and a man carrying Julio.”
“You should have heard her when you disappeared down that hole!” Elvis said.
“Thank you, Sister. I am glad it was you coming down that rope to my rescue.”
“Yeah, well, let’s not let it happen again,” she said looking away so I wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was the only one with the creepy visions.
But I said, “I wondered how you came to be there to rescue me.”
I looked at the picture in Elvis’ hand.
Estrellita had only become more beautiful.
“I recognize Estrellita,” I answered. “But, I’ve never seen him.”
I pointed to the tall, dark-eyed young man, pulling her tight against him. The young man guided Estrellita through traffic in what appeared to be a surveillance photograph above a department store from a security camera somewhere in Mexico City. With black wavy hair and an aquiline profile, he also had the same deep dimples that had drawn me to Julio because they reminded me so much of Kevin. He smiled down at Estrellita with such intimacy that just looking at the photograph seemed to teeter on the voyeur.
“He looks vaguely familiar to me,” Sister remarked.
“Does the name Stanley Amos ring a bell?” Elvis asked.
Sister and I both looked at him in shock. “Stanley?” we said in unison.
“He wears glasses now,” Elvis said.
“Freddie’s son?” I squeaked.
“Stanley is named after his legal father, Aldrich James Amos. James in Spanish is Diego. He spent time in Mexico studying Spanish; there he was known as Diego. He would have taken a Spanish name when he stayed with his host family. Stanley is too Western for someone who wishes to become immersed in the culture.” Elvis said.
“Estrellita knew Stanley Amos in Mexico?” She looked once more at the photograph. “It looks like they were quite friendly!” And Stanley’s mother once again kidnapped and nearly killed me!
I could not believe what I was hearing! Estrellita and Stanley, Freddie’s son?
“Where is Estrellita now?” I asked.
“She collapsed as we were trying to figure out what could have happened to you and Julio. We mentioned the fact that you had seen a child and she fainted. So, I had Adam carry her up to your old room and put her to bed. I gave her a little sedative to calm her racing heart. We left a female guard in her room to watch and see if there were any other indications that she might need to rush her to a hospital.”
Estrellita had a heart problem similar to that of her father? I knew her father to be a man who cannibalized family members for their body parts. Estrellita! A mother? In my vision, it was the mother who sacrificed her children. The father was another victim. I needed to talk to Stanley Amos.
Over the rain that pelted against the windows and the howling of the approaching hurricane, we heard a tap on the glass door of the soda fountain. The windows were tinted so that we could see out, but those on the other side of the glass could not see in. Elvis checked the security monitor beneath the bar and went to unlock the door. The Soul Sisters had arrived. Everyone was curious about what had happened to me after I got kidnapped, but they were afraid the trauma was too great for me to relive once more. So they waited. And fidgeted. And watched me with the same intensity as if I were a bug under a microscope.
My friends had no idea where I had been. How could they know it wasn’t so much the miles as the millennia that had affected me?
Trauma be damned. When Ruby could stand it no longer, she demanded, “You are white as a damned sheet! Tell us about it!”
I was drained of emotion. The thought that the girl we had all embraced as one of our own might possibly be a chip off the old block disturbed me more than I could share. The vision of Inka’s death and Julio’s near death experience unnerved me still. So I gave them the clinically sanitized, just-the-facts-ma’am, Readers Digest condensed version, leaving out the visions and connection with Inka and ChiChi -- and the sexual tension I discovered between Bennett and me. Only Sister had sensed that in the few minutes we were all together in the cenote before Julio, she and I were airlifted out.
“Who was the woman in the Victory Garden?” I asked, shocking them all with the directness of my question. It had occurred to me that mystory might be connected to herstory?
“We’re not really sure,” Sister said. “All the pathology report has uncovered thus far is that she is not the child’s mother. At least that was all we knew when I left with the rescue team.”
I fluttered my hands in front of my face and languished helplessly against the soda bar in imitation of a frail Victorian in dire need of a fainting sofa.
“I am exhausted and need some time to myself,” I explained, allowing a slight whiney tone to my voice. A nice touch, I thought.
“I don’t have the energy for another search at the moment.” I had to keep the impatience out of my voice. I needed to find the child.
“I just need rest, I’m sure,” I said, turning toward the elevator. Elvis held my elbow to lend me his support. I waved goodbye to my friends and entered the elevator fully expecting Elvis to remain and see them out. But he did not. I had to maintain my pretended weakness until we reached the third floor and the door opened.
“I’m just going to bed, now,” I said.
He followed me, peeking in on Julio and speaking to his guards before following me into my room where he then conducted a thorough search including a search for any type of bug.
“Is there any chance they might have placed a bug on your body?” he asked. He wanted to do a body search? I might consider that some other time, but now I was anxious to get rid of him and get on with my own investigation.
“No one -- but Bennett -- touched me,” I told him. His eyebrows lifted at that.
“Not that way,” I assured him with a laugh. “I fell against him – once or twice.”
A blush betrayed my errant thoughts at the memory of those not so innocent bumps.
“Bennett Chastain is a legend among the SEALS,” he said. And then he walked out the door.
I fumbled around in my drawer and found my darkest colored jogging clothes with the hooded sweatshirt, padded socks and the well-worn Reeboks that I used in the garden so the white was long since scuffed and dirtied. There were many questions that needed to be answered.
In my vision, Lady T’abi sacrificed the child as well as the child’s father for her advantage. I needed to talk to Stanley Amos.
I soaked in the bathtub. Washed and conditioned my hair. Shaved my legs and under arms. Blow-dried my hair. Brushed and flossed my teeth. Gargled well and used a whitening solution. Took the polish off my finger and toes. Looked for my favorite Strawberry Pink nail polish and polished the nails of my fingers and toes. And lay there on my bed drumming my fingers on mother’s hand sewn Lone Star Quilt watching the second hand tick away the time I promised myself to wait for things to settle down so I could sneak out. I listened to the wind whip against the window and catch the side of the building hitting something that if I had been sleeping in the voodoo priest’s bed I would have known was a horde of demons come to steal my soul. I thought of all the questions I needed to ask Stanley.
First, I wanted to judge for myself Stanley Amos’ character. I had experience now with folks turning out to be far different than I initially thought them. I was beginning to think Estrellita had totally duped me, and everyone else, just as her father had done. But, really, what did I have to base that on -- except a vision. Those dreams had turned out to be amazingly accurate thus far, however.
Next, I wanted to know if Stanley was aware that he had a child. A DNA test might be necessary to confirm or deny his paternity.
And, most importantly, I wanted to know if he was involved in the death of Ily … I mean, Renata Ramirez. I felt I owed it to her. To me the two were inextricably intertwined.
Dressed and ready for my nocturnal adventure I opened the door ever so slowly trying to avoid any telltale creak. I slid down the frame of the door to the floor and made my way to the floor not making a single sound. There I rested just a second because going very slowly is actually quite taxing on the muscles. I took a deep, but soundless, breath and then I commando crawled past the snoring guard at Julio’s door at a snail’s pace making my way to the stairwell that hadn’t seemed so far away when I first began. The guard, snorted just as I was halfway past with my tush in the air in mid hump as I crawled like a caterpillar toward the stairwell, the fire escape from the building. I stayed rigidly in position until he breathed evenly and his snoring began again, opened the door slowly not to make a sound, and tiptoed down the emergency stairs. I programmed in the code to disarm the security and opened the door. I rearmed the security and stepped out.
“Took you long enough,” Sister said, with arms folded and that bulging eyeball –you’re-on-my-shit-list-now look -- I deplored. I jumped and screamed.
“Damn it, Sophie! You’ve just taken ten years off of my life!”
“That means you’ve only got five lives left since you must have the lives of a cat with the many times you’ve cheated death! And now you’re asking for it again, aren’t you!” She nearly screamed in my ear.
Elvis came between us saying, “Now, now, girls. Can we continue this in the relative privacy of Adam’s delivery van? If there’s a sniper about, I would feel much more secure there.” Elvis had outfitted the van with as much high tech equipment as he had Adam Afield.
The snoring guard I had so carefully outmaneuvered stuck his head out the door and called to Elvis, “You got her?”
I looked at them all in amazement.
“He knew I was down on the floor wiggling past the door?”
“Watched your every move,” he said with a snort that was really a laugh. The same snort that had kept me rigid until I thought my back would break.
Elvis nodded. “I told him to watch out for you when I took you upstairs.”
“How did you know I would be coming down? I’ve been through a harrowing ordeal. There are very few women of my age who would have survived such a trying experience.”
“You’ve been my sister for a long time, Dabney, dear. I’ve had a lifetime of taking care of you.”
“Have not! I’m the Big Sister.”
“Have to! You may be older, but you’ve always been the baby.”
“If you cared, you wouldn’t have left me!”
“I came back when I dreamed you fell in that deep hole down into that lake that turned out to be a cenote in Guatemala, for God’s sakes!”
That got my attention.
“You dreamed of me falling into the cenote?”
“If that’s what you call it, yes, I did! And I left immediately to see about you and arrived at Waverly right after the Bachelorette Party. That I never got an invitation to by the way …”
“It was mailed to you! It’s your own fault you don’t open anything but bills!”
“… And how dare you not invite me to see our boys parade down MY hall in their …whatever.”
“They wore Speedos, not G-Strings… I think,” I said.
“How would you know that?” she demanded.
“I write romances, remember. I know those things.”
If Sister would trust a dream like that, maybe she wouldn’t think mydreams were crazy.
But then Elvis opened the door to the van to find Ruby buffing her nails, Faye Lynne checking her email on her IPhone and Betty Lee reading the third in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy on her I Pad. Bernice was wedged between Faye Lynne and Ruby on the third seat looking shocked as she read along with Betty Lee.
“What are all of you doing here?" I demanded.
“Honey, you didn’t fool a one of us!” Ruby said, barely looking up from her manicure. “That weak as a kitten. I must get my rest crap. Hell, even Faye Lynne can act better than that!”
Faye Lynne shot Ruby a bird. I pretended I did not see that, but it was evident someone in our group needed Southern lady lessons. Who better than me to instruct? A charm school at Waverly. What a novel idea!
“We missed out when you and Betty Lee did your midnight skulking with Ralph and Carrow Dee, but we refuse to miss out this time.”
“Where are we headed first, Dabney?” Betty Lee asked.
“Do we get to climb a tree?” Faye Lynne asked.
“Elvis, are you going to let these novices obstruct our official business?” Dabney demanded.
“First of all, none of us are official. The official investigation is being conducted by Carrow Dee and Ralph and all the volunteers they’ve assembled. Secondly, I didn’t know I hadany control over this. If I did you would be asleep in your bed and all these other ladies would be in their own homes minding their own business!”
Sister had already put her prissy behind in the front seat, so I let Elvis help me into third row back seat of the van where I sat next to Ruby.
The guard from upstairs headed back to join the others in guarding Julio.
“Where to, Dabney,” Elvis said.
“Good grief! Can’t a girl go off on her own every now and then?”
They all looked at her in amazement. Ruby spoke what they all were thinking. “Let you out of our sight for one minute and what happens? You’re kidnapped and either down a well or in another country! You need us!”
“We’ve got your back,” Betty Lee said. “Just like you did for me when Lawrence was fooling around.” Betty Lee wore the same black outfit she wore when we’d followed her Episcopal priest husband to his rendezvous with the infamous Wilhelmina Mucklewrath Banks. Doggone if they didn’t all have on the same costume. Including Ruby and that surprised the hell out of me. I looked down at myself and couldn’t help but laugh.
Birds of a feather …
“I’ve got questions for Stanley Amos,” I answered. “Might as well fill them in about Estrellita and Stanley, Elvis.”
Elvis did so and then passed the surveillance picture around in the van.
“Where is Estrellita?” I asked.
“I gave her something to make her sleep. Ralph put several guards on the house,” Sophie said.
“I never thought Stanley looked a bit like his father, Dr. Amos, though that man thought Stanley hung the moon,” Ruby said.
“I overheard Freddie and Wilhelmina talking about Stanley when they held me at the cabin in the woods. They both said he was more like his father and his Uncle Hartwell, Willie’s husband, than the two of them. They said he was too much the goody two shoes for them to trust with their family secret – the Pinkerton chest and their drug business.”
“And yet, there he is in that picture in Mexico City with Estrellita. Makes you wonder how long Willie and Freddie have been associated with Pedro Torres. They had to get the drugs they distributed from somewhere. Torres is the logical source. Willie and Freddie were living like royalty in the compound where Pedro Torres planned to cut out Julio’s heart and use it as his own,” I said.
Quiet settled on the van. The concept of such a thing was sobering.
Ruby hesitated, cleared her throat and acted as if she had something to say but was either embarrassed or afraid to speak. At last she decided to forge ahead and said, “Does anyone else think Estrellita, Julio and Stanley look a lot alike?”
Oh, my God! Was that why Stanley looked so familiar? Estrellita and Julio were half brother and sister. Could they all have the same father? Pedro Torres.
How better to ensure suitable donor organs than to set about growing the most positive match. But a girl child would not be as advantageous to Torres as a male child, I thought, wondering about why Torres would be involved in kidnapping a child that age. Torres needed a bigger heart than a child could provide.
“Let’s visit Stanley Amos and see what he knows about all of this,” I said. Elvis cranked up the van and pulled it out from under the security of the loading dock.
It was a good thing we did all of our talking under the shelter at the delivery entrance because once we hit the road, the wind wailed so loudly you could barely hear yourself think. There’d be a lot of damage to the pines when the storm passed. I only hoped the road remained clear. I thought of the small child out in the dark in the middle of the storm.
All of us were lost with our ominous thoughts. The pines bowed with the wind making eerie moans and creaks. Ancient oaks bearded with moss groaned and threatened us with uprooting. But silence settled upon all of us in that van. Truth is stranger than fiction, I always say. I mean, what Hollywood producer would have ever filmed anything as unlikely as what happened with the twin towers and the Pentagon on 9/1/2001 and yet I stood and watched it as it unfolded standing safely in my bedroom on my very own television set. It was as out of the realm of possibility as anything anyone could think to write.
When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, putting a heart in a cadaver and re-energizing it to give it life, she could never have dreamed of a day when a near dead person could receive a heart from a donor and return to a full life. She wrote the novel on a stormy night much the same as this, I thought. The rain from the hurricane now came down in sheets. The windshield wipers could barely keep the rain from totally obscuring the vision out the windshield. I thought of my dream/vision and the image of Estrellita popped into my mind.
“Estrellita did not look well to me,” I said so low I almost prayed no one could have heard me say those words.
Sister turned around in the front seat to look at me
“You are not saying what I think you are saying, are you?” Sister asked.
From what I had overheard Willie and Freddie say while I lay tied to that brass bed in the cabin in the woods after they kidnapped me, Willie and Freddie thought Stanley a naïve, extremely innocent young man who took after his father Dr. Aldrich Amos. They never implied that there was a different biological father, only that the ‘his father’ Aldrich Amos and Willie’s husband, Senator Hartwell Banks had made him a “straight arrow.” To their dismay.
What was I thinking? I surely would not be thinking such thoughts if it were not for the fact that I had actually participated in rescuing Julio in Guatemala where he lay in a hospital bed prepped for the surgery to swap hearts with his birth father, Pedro Torres.
I looked at Sister looking back at me. This macabre situation did not happen to people like us. That was how Hitler managed to accomplish so much of his demonic plan. No one could comprehend the evil.
The problem here was determining just who were the innocents.
I could not answer Sister’s question.
Kendrick Newkirk needed help. He knew it. He just did not know from whom he should seek it. His friends and family believed him dead. His sudden resurrection was likely to cause undesired ripples. But the child was in danger and so he had no choice. He’d seen enough children killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to last a lifetime. Their tiny faces appeared nightly haunting his dreams.
The wind screamed like banshees outside the rain pelted plate glass window that overlooked the Alabama River.
He sat and stared at the telephone. Phone lines had probably been knocked down, but he’d observed that lots of folks only had cell phones now. That had been a shock to him when he left the hospital. Cell phones had been in use before he went to Afghanistan, but they were not so small or so universal as now. Both of his daughters had them, he’d observed. Bernice must be doing well in her job with Soul Sisters, the Restaurant.
That pleased him. She never realized just how smart and capable she was. Now she dressed well and walked like she knew who she was and where she was going. And that was places.
He teared up. He slapped the tears away. The child lying beside him jumped. He patted her to calm her down.
Buck up, Kenny boy, he told himself. He could almost hear those words coming out of his father’s mouth. “Buck up, Kenny boy. You’ve got to be a man. Ain’t nobody gonna give you squat in this life. You gotta make it on your own.”
Damned cigarettes gave his father lung cancer and he died soon after. Leaving his son with those words of wisdom.
The rain thundered against the tin roof. He’d sat in that very place with John Ed and his dad one day just talking about football and fishing on just such a day. John Ed had one fine dad. Big Ed was always there for his boy and his life nearly ended when his son died. At the funeral, the big man broke down crying and told all of his son’s friends that they were what he had left of the boy he’d loved so much.
Big Ed! He could call Big Ed. And at least talk to him about what to do. But not on the phone. Someone might pick up the chatter. He had an idea.
He picked up the phone and looked at it. He pressed around and found the caller ID mechanism. Sure enough there were names and numbers there. If he called Big Ed from this phone and it came up on the caller ID that he was calling himself, would that bring Big Ed round to the camp? Surely something like that wouldn’t alert the bad guys, would it?
Kendrick decided it was worth a try and called Big Ed’s house. He heard Big Ed’s voice. And hung up. The phone rang back. Big Ed was returning the call. Kendrick heard the answering machine pick up. The child lay sleeping on the sofa. She was exhausted. Would Big Ed come out in weather like this just to check on their supposedly empty camp house?
Then Kendrick stood in the dark room looking out the window waiting for some light to reflect off the window telling him Big Ed had arrived.
About 45 minutes later Big Ed drove up in big white four wheel drive double cab truck. Kendrick looked out the glass in the back door. He’d come with his son-in-law, Champ. Champ’s mama named him Beauchamp and tried to call him Beau. Around the age of six, Champ informed his mama that he thought Beau was a sissy name and wrote Champ on all his papers from first grade on refusing to answer to Beau. He was a successful lawyer who made Big Ed’s only daughter happy. He’d been the other tight end on their football team. John Ed played quarterback.
Both Big Ed and Champ came armed with rifles. Kendrick stepped back.
When the door opened, the barrel of a gun appeared. Kendrick stood between them and the child with his hands raised. “It’s Kendrick. I ain’t dead. Don’t turn the light on. Somebody out there’s trying to kill this little girl. I need help.”
“Good God, boy!” Big Ed said, dripping rain. He leaned the rifle against the wall and he enveloped Kendrick in the bear hug Kendrick always looked forward to. His own dad died so early. Big Ed held him tight and long and Kendrick could feel the tears on the other man’s cheek.
“Where you been? We thought you were dead!” Champ asked, as he pushed at the door to close it against the powerful gust of wind.
Kendrick got so choked up at the Big Ed’s response he could barely speak. “I was injured so bad I nearly died. I got burned real bad and lost my memory for a long time. When I woke up they thought I was somebody else. When I came to myself, I didn’t want Bernice having to live with the monster I had become, so I became the orphan soldier they thought I was.”
Kendrick got so choked up at the Big Ed’s response he could barely speak. “I was injured so bad I nearly died. I got burned real bad and lost my memory for a long time. When I woke up they thought I was somebody else. When I came to myself, I didn’t want Bernice having to live with the monster I had become, so I became the orphan soldier they thought I was.”
“So, call me Alphonso Aguillero, if you please.”
Big Ed pushed away. Sputtered a minute. Champ hooted. Big Ed could barely breathe he laughed so hard. And then … Kendrick laughed for the first time since he’d been injured. And when they quit laughing, they hugged each other and cried some more.
Rosalie stood on the sofa with the light show of lightning brightening the night sky over the Alabama River behind her and watched.
“We nearly forgot about the little girl,” Champ said.
“Bring the child up here,” John Ed said, leading them up the stairs and into a back bedroom with black out draperies. “Now turn on the lights,” he said.
“Mr. Woods, sir, you really don’t want to see this mess the war made of me.”
“I’m Big Ed to you, boy. From now on you’re too old for me to be a “Mr.” anymore. Now you answer me this, do you think losing his legs would have made my son any less precious to me? You don’t know me if you think something like appearance is going to make me see you any different.”
Kendrick turned on the light, but kept turned away from them. Rosalie crawled off the bed where Kendrick had laid her and hugged his leg, her three fingers in her mouth. Then she removed her fingers and looked up at him holding up her arms, an invitation to be picked up. Unable to resist, he leaned down and lifted her against his chest. She put her head in the familiar hollow of his neck and relaxed. Her fingers returned to her mouth and her eyes closed. Kendrick unconsciously rocked back and forth.
“That girl sees the real you, Kendrick. Do you think your girls would see any thing else? You are robbing yourself, Bernice and your daughters not to go home and tell them who you are.” Kendrick looked up to see tears in his old friends’ eyes.
“I’ll think on it, sir, but now, I’ve got to figure out what to do with this little girl to keep her safe. Some real bad guys have killed her mother and are out to take her!”
“You know why?”
“These two camped over in Miss Ruby’s field where I’ve been living. With the nightmares her mother had, I thought she’d been in the war like me and had PTSD. I’ve been watching out after them. But the other night I came back to the camp late after working in my garden – Miss Ruby’s Victory Garden -- and couldn’t find them anywhere. When I went back to my allotment and shed this morning I found Rosalie’s blanket in the shed and came out looking for her. That was at the same time another child screamed. I looked around and saw Rosalie running toward the woods and spotted Tasha running toward Miss Dabney who comforted her. I was torn between Tasha and Rosalie at first, but as soon as I saw Mrs. Rankin hand Tasha over to Bernice I set off to catch up with Rosalie. I looked back and saw Dabney Rankin fall beside Rosalie’s mother. My instinct told me this child was in big danger.”
He paused and then said, “I must admit the thought of Bernice seeing me kick-started me in the opposite direction, but, it’s a good thing I did. There was somebody in the woods waiting to grab this baby here. I don’t know why. But they gave chase like professionals.”
He looked at them through lids that barely closed so scarred were they. “I’ve been up against professionals. Just like these. They are dangerous.”
Elvis pulled the vibrating phone from its holder at his waist. He looked at the identifying name and took the call.
“Chief?” he said. A look of surprise crossed his face.
“Talk louder! The wind and rain are so loud, I can barely hear you!” he said. “Go for it.”
“Estrellita has disappeared from Waverly,” he told us. “Deputy Francine Cole had to make an emergency trip to the bathroom while she thought Estrellita was unconscious. She was only gone briefly. When she returned Estrellita was gone.”
My gut clenched. I had the most compelling feeling that the danger the child was in had just multiplied exponentially.
It was past midnight when the van rolled with headlamps off regardless of the rain-drenched night to park across the street from the small house in Callerville where Stanley Amos lived. Set back from the sidewalk up a couple of stairs a brick walk led up to a Victorian inspired cottage with a turret. A light filled bay window jutted out the tower-like architectural artifice. It joined the porch that continued around to the right side of the house. Ferns and white wicker rockers dotted the porch and a swing took pride of place at the far end of the side porch. It was a friendly house. I always thought houses reflected the personalities of those who live within. This looked warm and welcoming—not anything like I would imagine the home of a son of Freddie Amos and Pedro Torres would look!
“Hold on,” I commanded. “Elvis, turn off the interior lights before anyone opens a door.”
“Let’s think this through,” Sophie said. “What would Stanley be doing up this late?”
“He’s a teacher. He could be grading papers,” Bernice said. “Tasha thinks the world of Coach Amos.”
“Tasha loves everyone,” I said. They all nodded.
I thought about the first time I had heard about Stanley Amos. We had just begun planting the garden around Waverly. Bernice’s daughter Tasha visited frequently. Their trailer home was just a quarter mile up the road behind Alf’s Store at the intersection of two state roads. She came just to “help.”
While we planted purple coneflower in the herb garden, I listened to Tasha chatter on about the people at her school. One name kept popping up, Coach Stanley. What was it she’d said?
“Coach Stanley let me go with him to the teacher’s lounge to get some coffee today,” she’d said big brown eyes looking up at me with a proud smile.
“There were other children with you?”
“Just me,” she said.
“There were other teachers in the teacher’s lounge, right?”
“Nope, just me and Coach Stanley,” she replied.
“Tasha, your Mama has told you, I know, not to be alone with strange men.”
“But, Coach Stanley is not strange, Miss Dabney. He’s a teacher.”
Later, recalling that conversation, my heart clenched. Something wasn’t right about that. Tasha is a beautiful little girl. I was new to Palmer then. Bernice and I at that time were not well acquainted. But, if something happened to that child because I sat back and said nothing, I would just die.
I picked up Bernice and Tasha before school started. Tasha went off to class, but Bernice and I waited in the hall until the principal could see us. When Bernice told her what Tasha had said to me, she laughed at our concerns. “If you knew Coach Stan Amos, there is no way you could think he would do something to a child. Why he is Senator Hartwell Banks nephew, Dr. Aldrich and Freddie Amos’ son.”
That was the first I knew that he was Freddie’sson. Somehow that did not comfort me. And that was long before I knew just how evil Freddie Amos really was. Later, Freddie borrowed Stanley’s van to kidnap me and take me to the well-hidden cabin where she and Wilhelmina Banks would have killed me. But the son could not help what his mother was and could be totally innocent. I needed to keep an open mind. I needed to do so now, even with what we thought we knew about him.
It was now past midnight. I found myself smiling back at the friendly house. Surely not the home of a pedophile or body part snatcher I told myself.
Why were all the lights still on?
I looked at Bernice meaningfully reminding her of Tasha’s words and our visit to the school when were first getting to know each other.
We ignored the rain and poured from the van. Like black ants in search of a crumb, we scurried through the pounding rain across the street in single file to run past Elvis who held open the white wooden gate onto a charming cottage garden surrounded by a white picket fence. Foxglove, delphiniums, daisies, pansies, snapdragons and iris. All bloomed so beautifully and smelled so much like a perfumery that I twirled around in spite of the rain, enchanted, and could barely resist exclaiming. I somehow sensed Stanley Amos’ uncle by marriage Harvey Banks’ hand in that beautiful garden.
Sister, mascara running like Ozzie Osborne’s, grabbed me by the shoulder and pointed to where the others huddled like shadows around the left side of the house on the other side of the turret. Elvis, the hood to his sweatshirt pulled over his head, watched us all in amusement, but he kept his hand on his gun.
My girls had always teased me saying I needed a bumper sticker that said, “I brake for pretty flowers and shiny objects.”
How could anyone who had such a lovely garden be a bad person, I thought. But, I joined the others peeking under the ruffled café curtain that barely covered the window. All I could see were three legs. One looked male. Two others were decidedly female. One female leg entwined one of the male and a foot wearing a Jimmy Chou shoe with very high heels rubbed the male leg up and down. I guess the other male leg was propped up on the sofa or a stool.
“Stanley has a guest,” I said.
Ruby huffed. “I would know those shoes anywhere!”
“I thought you said you gave Estrellita a sedative!” Faye Lynne whispered to Sister. Her hair hung stringy and dripping with rain, but her Marla Mae mascara and eye make-up remained perfect.
Ruby shushed her and they all leaned closer to the window to hear what they could over the noise of the thunder and lightning.
“Stanley, I have missed you, mi amore,” they heard Estrellita say, in a sultry voice with an exotic accent.
“Strella! Why are you here? How did you get into my house?” Stanley said in a hoarse sleepy voice. Sounded as if he’d fallen asleep probably while reading and left the lights on. His other foot settled firmly on the floor as if he intended to stand.
“But, Stanley! You love me!” They could all imagine her pouting bee stung lips.
“I made the mistake of loving you once, Strella, but that was before I knew the real you.”
“You don’t mean that!”
“Of course I do. I wouldn’t put it past you to have ordered the hit that nearly took me down in Mexico.”
“I tried to find you! You disappeared,” Estrellita said.
“I saw you, Strella! I lay there bleeding on the ground and you turned and walked away. You did not run as if you were afraid for yourself -- or me! Nor did you call for help.”
“You were unconscious! You did not see! I was distraught with my fear and went to find help,” she said.
“If my father hadn’t come to see me receive the degree, I probably would have died. Fortunately, good Samaritans came to my aid in the street and called the emergency number in my wallet. My Dad had them bring me to the hotel and not a hospital. He removed the bullets and got me out of the country quickly before your father’s goons could finish me off.”
They all looked at each other in horror. Mascara ran down each face, except Faye Lynne’s. We all looked like groupies from an Alice Cooper concert. The Estrellita that they brought to their bosoms had turned out to be a venomous black widow spider!
They saw both Jimmy Choushoes hit the floor and turn toward Stanley where he still sat on the sofa.
“I tried sweet talking, Stanley, now I want the truth. Where is our daughter? You took her!” she demanded, petulantly.
“Our daughter? I don’t know anything about a daughter. Do you think I would have left a child with you?” Stanley sounded incredulous.
“I left her with my friend. Renata Ramirez. She was caring for my child. It is she whom they discovered dead in the garden. But, we have had no luck in finding my little one.”
“Que pasa?” came an ominous voice from the shadow behind us. We all jumped, except Elvis. Elvis was nowhere to be seen. Four men dressed in black appeared out of the darkness before us and behind us holding guns. We were so absorbed in listening to Estrellita and Stanley that we did not hear the men approach.
They herded us into the house through the back door dripping and tracking mud through the kitchen into the parlor in the tower of the Victorian house.
“You were supposed to stay outside, Alfredo!” Estrellita said. She stood with languid grace her hands on her hips as she surveyed the group of us.
“What is going on here?” I asked Estrellita. She looked confused by the hard tone of my voice. I could no longer look at her without thinking of Lady T’abi.
Sophia had left her drugged and asleep back at Waverly. How had she made her way to Stanley’s house at midnight without help? She did not have a car. She came with Julio!
How did she know “Alfredo”? The four Spanish-speaking gangsters dressed in black seemed familiar to Estrellita. They almost seemed familiar to me. Their body type and attitude sure looked a lot like the guys I thought we’d left behind in the compound in Guatemala. I knew they couldn’t possibly be the same ones, but they were sure cut from the same cloth. They tied all of us, including Stanley, up, but strangely left Estrellita free. All of us, but Stanley, were gagged as well. At Alfredo’s command, three of the men left to continue their surveillance
In my vision, the mother was the villain. In the vision Ilyana had brought the child to Saroya to protect.
“I need my child!” she said petulantly. “Any mother would understand that.”
Estrellita wrung her hands. She bit lips now devoid of lipstick. Dark circles once camouflaged by the skillful application of stage make-up now showed beneath her eyes. I watched as Sister’s observation skills kicked in.
“You have the same condition as your father, don’t you, Estrellita?” Sister asked before they gagged her while they were tying her just as they had the rest of us.
Estrellita blanched and put her hand to her chest. “What makes you say that?” she demanded.
“I can almost see your heart beating in your chest, you are so thin,” Sophia said. “I thought you were just exhausted from this frantic pace you have set for yourself and the phenomenal work load that has been placed upon you as the result of your success… and Elvis showed me the medicines from your room.”
Estrellita’s shoulders slumped and she stared at her feet.
“But now I see how blue your lips are, where your fingernail polish is chipped your nails are blue and the dark circles. It appears that you are cyanotic.”
Estrellita nodded to the man she called Alfredo and he gagged Sister just as he had Ruby, Florence, Bernice, Betty Lee and me. Only Stanley and I remained ungagged. Estrellita needed information from him and they hadn’t gotten to me yet.
“I might as well tell all of you. It is unfortunate. You have all been very kind to me.”
Estrellita picked a sour lemon from the wrapped candies on Stanley’s coffee table, unwrapped it and popped it into her mouth. “I would offer the rest of you some, but, that would be difficult with your mouth gagged.”
“Stanley?” she offered to the only one still ungagged. Stanley looked incredulous and shook his head.
She continued, “It is a congenital defect. My time has nearly run out. The discovery of this defect and my father’s search for a doctor years ago, right after my birth, is what led him to the Heart Center in Singapore. Later, his own heart began giving out. That’s when he said, ‘If I’d been smart, I’d have grown an extra heart.’ That’s when he remembered Julio and Stanley. Julio was the closest match.”
“Stanley, I knew of your mother, Fredericka Amos, long before I met you. She was one of my father’s amantes years ago. She came ostensibly to view the Mayan ruins. Actually she wanted to make contact with a drug supplier. She and her sister had big plans. She was beautiful and my father loved beautiful women. She achieved her goal. And a surprise. You. When she became pregnant, she went home and let your father think you were his. But she … and her sister … continued to visit my father.”
“When you came to Mexico to study, I think your mother hoped that my father would acknowledge you as his heir. She tried to use you as leverage over the years. I knew who you were. My father told me when he discussed his options. While you were not an option for him, there were possibilities that I could consider. Your mother supplied us a sample of your blood -- for a significant concession, of course. But your heart would have been much too large for me. A child, however…”
My blood ran cold. I could hear the others gasp.
“You found out, didn’t you, Stanley? Renata called you and was bringing the child to you, wasn’t she?”
Stanley looked confused.
“Someone called me, yes. It was a strange call. A woman asked a few questions as if she was some polling company asking about politics and charity. Oddly whoever it was said I had a kind voice and then hung up. She never said anything about a child!”
“Sounds like Renata decided to contact you, personally, after testing your worthiness through that call,” Estrellita said.
“I cannot believe this! Your father is my father? My mother would have known and surely she would not have allowed …” He bowed his head and looked at me. "I have underestimated her over and over, haven’t I?” Gagged, we could not speak. But we all nodded with compassion.
The horror of what they had done showed on his face. “And we have a child?But, we are brother and sister! Is she all right?”
“Half brother and half sister,” Estrellita reminded him. “The ancient Mayans, our ancestors, frequently married siblings. Our daughter is perfect. Renata told me that she is fine!”
“I stayed with you until I could determine the sex of the child. Children of the same sex make better donors, you know. Otherwise I would have had an abortion and tried again. My heart is only strong enough for one full term pregnancy and that was questionable, but my only chance.”
“You would use our child and take her heart?” Stanley sounded incredulous.
“Look at me, Stanley! I am beautiful and talented. The world loves me!”
I felt like I attended a tennis match. All of our heads turned as one to focus on whoever spoke. I could tell the others were as shocked as I was.
“I did as my father told me. He said never get emotionally involved or you cannot do what must be done.”
I remembered Pedro Torres last look at his daughter as he drove away into the fog that night at Malabouchi when Estrellita chose to stay. “Mi vida,” he’d called her.
“So, I came to America. I had my child and left her with someone I had known for a long time whose mother was a midwife. She delivered the child and I paid her to keep her.”
“She’s just three years old, Estrellita!” Stanley pleaded.
“I appreciate your concern, Stanley,” she said, misinterpreting his meaning.
“And I am very small. The doctor thinks the transplant will be successful. Then she can have my heart. We’ll just swap,” she said blithely.
“I will acknowledge her as my baby then and I will take care of her and love her. As long as she lives. She will love me also. I am told children that age do not remember things. Perhaps medicine will come up with a cure and I can save her then. People will love me even more as the mother of such a child.”
I looked around at the expressions on the faces of all of my friends.
“You’ll never get away with it. Everyone here knows the truth, Estrellita,” Stanley said.
A calculating look appeared on her face. “You’ll never tell. It would hurt the child.”
“I would always protect a child from danger, whatever the source. No matter what the cost,” he said.
Estrellita looked at him slyly.
“That is why Alfredo is here to handle a cover up so that I can get away after we get my child. But, none of you will live long enough to tell anyone else. This house will experience an unfortunate explosion due to a gas leak.”
“It is a shame you stumbled into all of this. You have a very bad habit of being where you shouldn’t be, don’t you Dabney?” She looked at me and laughed.
Then she mocked us all with an exaggerated sad look. “All the rest of you must now suffer because of Dabney’s curiosity. My men and I would have found the child. They nearly had her when that mysterious man appeared. I thought he was sent by you, Stanley.”
“So now we must go and search for her. You should have stayed in your room!!!”
She looked at Alfredo. “Kill Stanley also. He is just as Freddie said. A straight arrow. He will immediately go to the authorities.”
She picked up a handful of sour lemons and put them in the Chanel bag clutched in her hand.
“It must be done. But, you really must know that I do love you all,” she said with theatrical flair.
Alfredo indicated that his remaining goon fit the silencer on his gun.
“One moment, Alfredo. I must ask. Dabney, why did you all show up here at this hour?”
Alfredo’s man took the gag from my mouth.
“Elvis discovered surveillance film of you and Stanley in Mexico. The obvious intimacy and similarities in your appearance made us want to question Stanley. You may kill us, Estrellita, but the evidence is there. Your game is up!” I said. “I only wonder why you waited until now and why here to retrieve your child.”
Big Ed said, “Let’s get the two of you back to The Hill. Emmalyn is all set to press speed dial and call the police in to back us up if we don’t get back soon.”
“Let me wear your jacket, Kendrick,” Champ said. “I’ll put Rosalie under the jacket to keep her dry and smuggle her out to the truck just in case someone is watching. Though only a damned fool would be out here on in any road or camp on the Alabama River in this weather. The dirt roads are going to be hard enough on our four wheel drive truck.”
“Put on this black jogging suit of mine, Kendrick,” said Big Ed, pulling it from the drawer in the bedroom. “With the black clothes, you should be able to crawl into the back seat without being seen.”
Kendrick ran through the mud out to the car as soon as Big Ed opened the door to put the big ice chest in the back seat. That was meant to look like the reason they’d come out to the camp should anyone be watching. A silly cover. Like Champ says, only a fool would be out in this weather. A fool and his friends. Champ opened the jacket and Rosalie crawled over the console of Big Ed’s Ford truck to hide with Kendrick. Kendrick lay ready to cover her with his body should anyone stop them and start shooting.
They did not encounter a soul as they maneuvered around downed trees and maneuvered the rutted, slippery dirt roads through what seemed like endless woods toward town. Soon the dim glow of streetlights obscured by the rain brightened the night a bit as they rode through the empty streets of downtown Callerville.
“It’s only a matter of time before a tree will fall on the power lines and all the power will be out,” Big Ed predicted. “It happens every time there’s a big wind.”
“Stanley Amos’s lights are still on. Must be having a hurricane party,” Champ said with more than a little sarcasm.
“Probably grading papers, more likely,” said Big Ed, chuckling. “Old Stan’s a good fellow, but I have never seen him squiring any females around. Not since his high school days, that is.”
Kendrick said, “His mama and aunt are the ones that tried to kill Dabney twice, aren’t they?”
Big Ed nodded and then pointed toward the side of the road.
“Isn’t that the van from Adam Afield?” asked Champ.
Kendrick lifted his head to peek out the window. The lights in the turret of Stanley Amos’ house shone like the beacon of a lighthouse meant to warn ships of dangerous shoals. In spite of the All American innocence of the white picket fence and cottage garden, Kendrick felt his hackles rise and his heart rate pick up.
Big Ed slowed the truck. “I’d recognize it anywhere,” he said, trying hard to see through the fast movement of the wiper blades and the onslaught of the wind driven rain. “Look at the license plate. 10PNTR. That’s Adam’s van for sure.”
“Why would it just be sitting there empty?” Big Ed wondered aloud.
“This doesn’t feel right,” Kendrick said. “I’ve trusted my instincts too many times not to check this out. You take Rosalie with you to The Hill. You can come back for me.”
“Shouldn’t we call the sheriff?” asked Big Ed. “You’ve been out of the loop awhile in this covert operations thing, haven’t you?” Kendrick noted that Big Ed didn’t mention his injuries and obvious disability. Kendrick appreciated that. It had been a long time since he’d last felt the adrenaline flow.
“Ain’t what I used to be. That’s for damned sure. But something’s telling me I gotta do this.”
He crouched down in preparation of jumping from the vehicle. “Turn off the interior lights,” he told Big Ed. Rosalie started to whimper.
“I won’t be gone long, sweet girl,” he assured her, giving her a hug. “These are my friends and I trust them with my life. They will take care of you and I’ll be there soon.”
He looked back and saw big scared eyes in a thin face. Rosalie hunkered down in the floor of the back seat of Big Ed’s truck and just looked at him. Those eyes. He’d seen so many eyes filled with the same fear. Missions they were called. Those eyes, those children. Collateral damage. The greater good he’d believed. So many lives lost. And what had changed?
They haunted his dreams.
He’d sat there too long. Big Ed reached out and clasped his hand. It was almost as if he read Kendrick’s mind. Big Ed sensed that this was a step toward returning to the man he used to be.
“It’ll be all right, son. We’ll be back as soon as we get her settled in with Emmalyn. My daughter Trent is there with her and she can shoot the hair off a frog’s lip. We’ll settle ‘em down in the storm cellar till we get back.”
“Come back in a different car in case someone noticed this one,” Kendrick said. “Make it thirty minutes. I should know what’s going on by then.”
“Take my rifle,” Champ said, passing the weapon back to Kendrick. He pulled ammunition from his pants pocket and handed it to Kendrick.
Big Ed slowed and turned off the interior lights so they would not come on as Kendrick opened the door rolled from the car. Champ turned around in the seat and pulled against the wind on the window frame to close the door.
Kendrick ran behind a huge fuchsia Formosa azalea in the yard just beyond Stanley Amos’ house. Multiple shadows passed inside the curtains of the bay window of the turreted living room. Stanley had company. Lots of company. Kendrick decided to scout around the house before getting closer. He made his way to the back of the property where he found two black Lincoln Escalades parked in the alley behind the house. A single man stood with his back to a tree cupping his hands at his mouth attempting to light a cigarette in the pounding rain. He held an AK- 47.
As the wind howled, obscuring any sound other than that of the storm, Kendrick crept up behind him and cracked him over the head with the butt of his rifle knocking him out. He patted the man down looking for ID and found a semi-automatic pistol. He tucked the pistol into his pants, tied the man’s hands with his belt and rolled the unconscious man under the SUV.
Kendrick had run covert operations against men like this. But never in his own country. The tentacles of this evil had to be eradicated. While he’d been distracted by the foreign enemy, the monster had made its way into his own hometown. The money and power present with guns and drugs was as heady a narcotic as the cocaine, heroin and marijuana they trafficked. He had no doubt now that there was a connection between the death of Rosalie’s mother and the drug cartels now prospering south of the border that had made serious headway into the United States.
One down. But how many more to go?
Kendrick flattened himself against the hedge in the shadows of the huge Japanese Magnolia in the back corner of Stanley’s yard. The wind and the rain muffled sound. He spotted a shadow move outside past the window, a spotter with eyes on the front of the house he figured. The smell of cigarette smoke alerted Kendrick to another man standing close by, also in the shadow of the magnolia. His heart pounded. He was losing his touch! It was a miracle he had not sensed or seen Kendrick already.
Kendrick crouched and waited.
Miserable and wet a man emerged silhouetted against the house cursing under his breath in Spanish. He pulled a cigarette package from a pocket, wadded it up and tossed it to the back of Stanley’s border of flag iris. He turned toward the back alley headed to bum some cigarettes from the man already down in the alley. Neither of the men seemed concerned about anyone coming out in the storm to challenge them. Kendrick waited and when the man walked directly in front of him Kendrick head butted him under his chin and then when he was still on the ground hit him once more in the head with the butt of Champ’s rifle to make sure he remained down.
He skirted around the magnolia to where the guard once stood. The man beside the house called to him in a soft voice, “¿Donde estás?” Kendrick whispered back, “Estoy Aqui.” Then he took a large river rock from Stanley’s koi pond now full to overflowing. With the cacophony of whipping branches, the torrential downpour and eerie wind, the other guard was not suspicious of the different voice that responded. Kendrick wound up praying his muscles would remember their way back to his days as a high school pitcher and threw the rock just as he had a baseball when he’d been pitcher of the Cox County Cougars baseball team. The third man went down. Kendrick breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t really been sure he was up to that pitch.
Kendrick moved to peek inside. He couldn’t make out what was going on. He moved to the back of the house and found the door unlocked. Kendrick shook his head. Small town folks were all too trusting.
He opened the door and followed the muddy tracks to the door of the living room. He peeked through a crack. Two men in black stood with their backs to the window holding guns pointed toward a line of people with feet and hands tied, but whose faces he could not see. He was pretty sure he knew who they were. And Bernice was among them.
Kendrick glanced down at his watch. Nearly thirty minutes had passed. He turned quietly and went out the back door. He jogged through the torrents of water that had made a river of Main Street to the point where he’d jumped from Big Ed’s truck. There he waited for Big Ed and Champ praying the road had not washed out and no trees blocked their path. Finally he spotted car lights. Big Ed’s wife’s white Buick Enclave. He stepped out of the dark in front of the slow moving car and indicated they pull over. They let down the window. A bloodied and bruised Elvis sat in the back seat.
“I need help and I recognized Ed and Champ,” he said. “They told me who you are and that you were on a recon mission.”
“Hey, man! Looks like you got beat up!” Kendrick asked.
“Dabney insisted on coming to see Stanley Amos. I stood back in the shadows. A couple of guys got the jump on me. Knocked me out and left me for dead.”
“But I got a hard head. When I woke up, I sent out a call for help and have been watching what’s happening from out here. I was waiting for backup when Ed and Champ arrived back. What’s going on?”
“There’s a bunch of people in there tied up. I disabled three gunmen in the back. Two men have guns directed on the people in the house,” he told them.
Kendrick told them his plan. Then he kept to the shadows and returned through the back door to listen at the parlor door.
In the parlor, all eyes focused on the slender, dark haired beauty still dressed as she had been for the Bachelorette Party in her short flirty skirt and the peasant blouse that hung off of one shoulder. Estrellita pulled her hair to one side plaiting it and seeming unconcerned.
He heard Dabney say, “I only wonder why you waited until now and why here to retrieve your child.”
“It’s a long story,” she said. She looked at her diamond crusted Rolex and glanced toward the rain pounding on the window. “There’s time,” she said to Alberto who nodded.
“I tracked Julio in New Orleans for my father. Julio willingly gave the physician’s assistant from Singapore who has become my father personal aide blood and tissue samples. Freddie had already provided samples from Stanley years ago. I already knew Stanley was the best match for me.”
“Father did well for awhile. Just recently he suffered a severe setback and it was time to bring Julio in. I allowed Julio to join me on the tour just so I would know exactly where he was in case Father needed him immediately.”
“What kind of doctor would agree to such a thing?” Dabney asked.
“One who enjoys a good life, I suppose,” said Estrellita. She shrugged and rolled her eyes.
“But why kidnap Dabney?” Stanley asked.
Estrellita said, “She came out the door close behind Julio. She would have seen what was happening and would have raised a ruckus.”
“Father became good friends with a surgeon at a hospital in Mexico when I was born with a congenital defect in my heart. Fortunately, the surgery and repair was successful,” she assured us. “Until now.”
“They visited back and forth over the years. The doctor was associated with some Heart Center in Singapore. His cousin was a physician’s assistant with one of their major physicians there. Father brought him to Mexico and paid him lots of money to just attend him. They were successful in maintaining father’s health with drugs, but they knew it was only a matter of time. I overheard them discussing transplants and remember the doctor telling father that family members made the best donors. I heard my father say ‘but it is more successful if donors are of the same sex, I understand.’”
“I had a friend, Renata Ramirez, who moved to the United States years ago. We were pen pals for a while,” she said smiling at her adroitness in carrying it all off. “I had her address. She lived in New Orleans. I told Renata and her mother that I had gotten pregnant and my father would kill me.”
“Renata joined the Army before I contacted her. But, they wanted to help me. Renata’s mother is a midwife and so she delivered Rosalie. We all agreed that Senora Ramirez would take Rosalie and care for her as if she were her very own grandchild until it was safe for me to acknowledge her and bring her to live with me.”
“When money I wired was not retrieved. I had someone investigate and discovered that Senora Ramirez had died suddenly. No one knew where the child or her mother had gone.”
“So, now it is my turn to question. What brought all of you out to Stanley’s house on a night like this?”
She indicated to one of the black suited men. He removed the gag from my mouth.
“Elvis discovered surveillance film of you and Stanley in Mexico. The obvious intimacy and similarities in your appearance made us want to question Stanley,” I said.
Seconds later, the emergency alert went off on the van just as a rock came through the front window. With the gunmen distracted, Kendrick burst through the door.
Instinctively all those with hands and feet tied dove for the floor.
Kendrick took a dive and rolled in position to shoot the standing gunmen with a bullet to the middle of their forehead. The last of Estrellita’s goons, the apparent leader, sat in a wing chair where he’d pulled Estrellita onto his lap as a shield. He lifted the semi-automatic pistol in his left hand and said, “Drop your gun.”
Kendrick overset the solid walnut pub table and took cover. He recognized the remaining man as the one he’d spotted in the door of Wilhelmina Mucklewrath Banks’ cabin. He did not have a clear shot. I caught Kendrick’s eye and made a slight nod toward the shooter. Surprise was our only hope. Sister and I occupied the only chairs remaining upright and we were the only ones tied directly to the chair in which we sat. Though we were trussed like a Thanksgiving turkey and tied to a straight chair, Sister knew what I was thinking. She and I catapulted our chairs and us at the man so that the wood of one of our high backed wooden chairs cracked into the man’s head and knocked the gun out of his hand. Kendrick stood quickly and shot the man in the forehead.
I then lay bound to the chair and out of commission. There was nothing I could do when Estrellita grabbed the gun and pointed it directly at Kendrick. But it was then Big Ed and Champ came flying through the window right at the same time that lightning struck the huge magnolia in the rear of the house that came down on the tower taking power lines with it. Everything went dark. Limbs of the tree came through the windows and the rain now pelted those still tied up lying on the floor.
The room was now lit only by the flashing lights and headlights of the police cars that arrived and stopped facing the house.
With the distraction, Bernice rolled as hard as she could toward Estrellita knocking her to the floor. Then lying right next to her she bit Estrellita’s leg distracting her long enough for Kendrick to block the shot Estrellita intended for Bernice’s head. The bullet missed Bernice’s head, but struck her shoulder.
Big Ed untied Bernice and used the rope on a screaming, Spanish expletive shouting Estrellita.
Kendrick held Bernice in his arms and rocked back and forth with her, his hand staunching the flow of blood, crying, “Lord, please. Lord, please.”
“So, you ain’t forgot the name of the Lord in all this time. But you forgot the name of the wife you promised you would love forever.”
“I ain’t never forgot you, Bernice.”
The sirens of police cars and emergency vehicles vied with the wind and the rain.
Sophia leaned in between them to check on Bernice’s wound. Bernice gave her the eye. Now was not the time to intrude even if she bled to death it said.
“Where you been, then? I thought you was dead! We went to a funeral and everything! Who’s in that grave since you ain’t?”
“I got shot up and burned real bad. They mistook me for someone else, Alphonso Aguillero. And since I couldn’t remember who I was I thought I was who they thought I was. He didn’t have any family to tell us any different. When I got my memory back, Bernice, they were so busy operating on me with all these burns that I couldn’t burden you with taking care of a cripple of a man.”
“You ain’t no cripple, you damned fool. You’re a hero. You were then, and you are now. You just saved every one of us!” Bernice winced with the pain but she didn’t hold off. “Where you been all this time?”
“I had enough of hospitals and I’ve been staying in the camp with the other veterans. Been working some in the gardens at Waverly. And I took one of those allotments in the garden.”
Kendrick looked sheepish. “I had to see you. Had to make sure you and the girls were safe. I watched you wish on the moon,” he nearly whispered just for her.
“I felt you there,” Bernice said, with what appeared to be tears in her eyes though with the rain coming in through the roof, it was hard to tell. She took his face between her hands and said, “So your pretty black skin ain’t quite so pretty no more. You think that matters? I got my hands on you now, Kendrick Newkirk, and you ain’t going nowhere from now on!”
Kendrick lifted Bernice for a kiss that had all of them tearing up.
“I’ve got to check on this now, love birds. Let me get you bound up and then we’re taking you to the hospital,” Sophie said. Bernice would not release Kendrick’s hand.
“Not without him,” Bernice said.
“Bernice,” he said. “I’ve got to go. There’s another little girl that needs her daddy.”
“Kendrick! What ain’t you tellin’ me?”
“It ain’t another woman. Now don’t you be thinking any such as that. It’s that little girl you was talking ‘bout.”
“You know where the missing child is?” Bernice asked.
“I’ve been hiding her from these men,” he said. Bernice looked at him long and hard. Stanley stepped closer.
“Can I come?” he asked. Kendrick nodded. He’d heard enough of the conversation to know Stanley’s relationship with the little girl he rescued.
“I guess you’re the only family that little girl has got,” Kendrick said. “But can you keep her safe?”
“Uncle Hartwell and his brother Harvey have always wanted me to give them a grandchild. I was just afraid to have children knowing my mother. Looks like I wasn’t as careful as I thought and that baby can’t help it. I know I can count on them to help me out. Between a retired judge and a senator and me, I think we might be able to keep her safe.”
Estrellita said, “Hartwell and Harvey have no relation to you!Iam Rosalie’s mother. I will regain custody just you watch. My father is a powerful man”
“You know what, Strella. Both Hartwell and Harvey Banks are powerful men. I know they love me. In spite of my mother, the two of them and my dad, who probably suspected that I wasn’t his child all along, have always loved me. I just thank God they did. Or I might have turned out with a soul just as black as yours.” Stanley said.
I could not help but be struck with the thought that once again we faced the age-old question of nature and our luck of the draw in the gene pool or nurture and its impact on the character of a child.
With that he turned to follow Kendrick.
“Dabney, you go with him and make sure he don’t get lost,” Bernice commanded.
Kendrick walked Bernice out through the lightning, the rain and thunder to where the red light of the emergency vehicles created a surreal setting at the ambulance for another goodbye. Bernice could tell Kendrick was tempted not to let go her hand. She could not take her eyes from the man she thought she’d lost forever.
“That little girl needs you. But so do we. Come home to us, Kendrick Newkirk,” she said, and then her eyes fluttered closed.
“I’ll bring him to you soon as I can,” I assured my unconscious friend. The medics set to work.
“It’s something I gotta do,” Kendrick told Dabney, as if he needed to explain. “She’s scared of everybody else.”
Finally they had to close the door. I stood back moved by the emotion.
Elvis took a now handcuffed, hysterical and dripping wet Estrellita out to wait for Ralph and Carrow Dee who had been combing the woods for the missing child.
I followed Kendrick to Big Ed’s wife’s car with all the bells and whistles for grandchildren. Big Ed and Champ sat up front. I sat in back between Kendrick and Stanley.
Stanley needed to talk so while the rain pounded on the roof and we waited for the emergency vehicles to clear us a path, we listened. “I never thought I’d have children. You know my mother. Would you want to pass those genes down to anyone? And now, I’ve found out that my father is actually Pedro Torres. I thought my redeeming genetic pool came from the man I always thought of as my father, Aldrich Amos.”
Stanley shook his head. “And in addition to that I have now discovered that I have a little girl with my biological sister. I always thought that produced monsters.”
Kendrick said, “That little girl is no monster. She is loyal and brave. She’s three years old and was almost the mother to the woman who brought her to the camp.”
“Why do you suppose Renata came here?” I asked. “How much of what Estrellita said can we believe?”
Kendrick said, “I think Estrellita got desperate and the woman raising Rosalie got suspicious. She may have been told to meet Estrellita here but when she finally got here changed her mind. Estrellita must have sensed her reluctance to part with the child and called in her father’s men to help her out.”
Stanley said, “I think I met Renata once. Perhaps she remembered me and came here to find me.”
“Stanley, the question now is, do you really want to keep your daughter?” I asked.
“I hate for her to know the twisted family she is born into. But, I have always wanted a child of my own. Estrellita was a force of nature that I could not resist. I surely never knew we had a blood relationship. That kind of turns my stomach now that I know it. But the child shouldn’t suffer for that. She’s young enough to forget everything that came before.”
“Nobody but those of us in that room knows the truth, Stanley. And I can promise you they will not tell anyone,” I said.
Big Ed maneuvered the Buick skillfully down the wet roads and up the gravel path to his house on the hill. Stanley speed dialed his Uncle Hartwell and we tried not to listen to the conversation as best we could.
When he disconnected with Senator Hartwell Banks, he turned to us and reported, “Uncle Hart thinks Rosalie and I ought to come and live with him in his house. He’s got good security there and Rosalie can stay with him and Nettie, his housekeeper, during the day while I work.”
Stanley smiled. “I think Uncle Hart is excited about being a grandpa. Aunt Willie was never the motherly type. No more than my own mother ever was, really. Dad and Uncle Hart pretty much took care of me. Nettie was always there for me also.”
He sat back in the seat. “Nettie’s going to be so happy to have a child in that big house again.”
Kendrick said, “That’s the house your Uncle Hart and his brother Harvey grew up in, ain’t it?”
“My grandmother never took to Aunt Willie, Dad told me. But, she didn’t live long after Uncle Hart and Aunt Willie married.”
It didn’t take long for the implications of that to set in.
“God, I wonder just how many victims those two really have! That worries me more than you can know, Mrs. Rankin,” Stanley said.
“Dabney, Stanley. Just call me Dabney,” I said. “They need to open all the unsolved crimes since those two have been in the area, I’d say.”
Big Ed had been listening. He said, “Don’t worry, boy. It’s just as likely she got two times the good part of your genealogy. Kendrick, Champ and I think she’s a pretty special little girl. Worn out as she was when we got her to the house, she remembered to say thank you for the cookies and milk Emmalyn put out for her.”
“And she bowed her head and asked a blessing before she would eat them,” Champ added. “The Ramirezes, mother and daughter, must have loved her and taught her well.”
“I know Rosalie’s looking for you, Kendrick. We left her standing at the window watching down the hill for us to return with you,” Big Ed said.
“I’d appreciate your help, Kendrick,” Stanley said. “You’ve got experience with little girls.”
“Maybe we can help each other,” Kendrick said. He knew there were lots of bridges to mend with his family. His daughters might find it difficult to understand why he hadn’t come straight home to them. He’d had to find his way out of hell first. But only someone who’d been there would really understand.
The pines bent, limbs crashed and the rain beat mercilessly about them. But when they looked to the top of the hill, a little girl stood warm, dry and safe silhouetted against the warm glow of candlelight in the window at Big Ed’s house.
Six Weeks Later
Today was one of those days you wanted to capture like a lightning bug in a bottle so you could enjoy the glow over and over. It began with the dedication of the Victory Garden, a garden ravaged by a storm, but still standing with beauty continuing to burst forth. Instead of honoring a dead soldier, we honored a live hero. We uncovered the sign that said Kendrick Newkirk Victory Garden.
Bernice hasn’t let go of her man since she got out of the hospital. He’s joined Bernice down at Soul Sisters as pastry chef, a job no one ever knew was his second choice for a profession ever since was five years old and helped his grandmother bake a chocolate layer cake. Having a background job suits him for the moment, but he spends lots of time at the Victory Garden and in the tent city. Kendrick has been where they’ve been and talks their language. He’s good at getting them to the services they need so they can get better and go home. Like he did.
I balanced the tray of Mint Juleps as I walked from the kitchen with Gigi by my side toward the front veranda. Gigi whimpered and cried if I got out of her sight these days. I brought her into the bed with me upon my return home and muffled my crying against her soft fur. She knew the grief I could not share with others. I almost felt she mourned with me.
The antique cut glass punchbowl on the long mahogany dining room table glittered as the last rays of sun filtered through the damask curtained windows at Waverly. I gave the punchbowl to Sister for her birthday.
Ralph Stankey occupied Grandmother’s metal rocking chair on the back veranda and Elvis stood guard on the front with snipers on lookout on the roof wherever I went. Though the most secure federal prison in our country now incarcerated the Demonic Duo, Police Chief Carrow Dee Gunther ordained that we would not be caught with our guard down ever again. Delta Force captured Willie and Freddie on the road back to the compound in Guatemala and since no one actually knew they were in the country, no one missed them being taken out ofthe country. All anyone ever actually knew was that they were found and sentenced and were now located at United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility(ADX) in Florence, Colorado.
Pedro Torres disappeared into the jungle. But he was in such bad shape no one thought he would live long. At least that’s what they told me. My arrival undermined Bennett’s original sting operation and revealed one even more heinous. If he had not been there neither Julio nor I would have survived. Estrellita got committed to a hospital for the criminally insane. Her name is on a national registry to receive a heart transplant. It would take more than a new organ to fix all that was broken.
I asked Julio if he knew anything about Estrellita having a child she was coming home to find. He said he just knew she had gotten weaker and weaker on their tour. She had surprised him when she told him she was coming to Waverly for the Bachelorette Party. He’d encouraged her to come and let Sophie give her a check-up.
“Estrellita told me that she was going to take some time off because she needed to fix something, though she did not say what. Then after we got here something upset her terribly.”
I said, “I guess she couldn’t locate Renata and called in the goon squad.”
I heard laughter and looked out the side window to the great expanse of lawn beyond Grandmother’s garden. Kendrick and Bernice and their girls wore white clothes and shoes and played croquet with Stanley and Rosalie. A close friendship had developed between Kendrick and Stanley. I was glad I had been wrong about Stanley Amos.
Hartwell and Harvey waited patiently for their Mint Juleps on the front porch along with Gavin Crenshaw who’d given up his practice of medicine to retire and move to the country. He wanted a commitment. But he’d have to settle for a Mint Julep.
I did not get to speak with Bennett after our rescue. But I knew where he was. Bennett was an honorable man. I received a bowl of scuppernongs on my birthday and knew from whom they came.
I have read that one in two hundred men possess a direct genetic link to Genghis Khan. You can’t help but wonder how many women possess his genes and could Willie and Freddie have been two of those. Or was it their grandmother that gave them their sense of entitlement that led them to see other people as having been put on this earth to be used or disposed of according to their whim and pleasure. Nature or nurture?
Could it truly bepossible that the DNA helix holds important memories of our ancestors in addition to physical characteristics and personality? Things happened to me that I could only credit to such a phenomenon. Life is fleeting even at its longest, though I was now convinced that more of us lives on in our children than ever we imagined. But, I wasn’t telling.
I opened the double front doors and smiled at the gathering of Saks Fifth Avenue quality gentlemen on the veranda that Sister and Faye Lynne entertained. Southern gentlemen to the core, they all stood welcoming me.
The network notified us that our show with Rand McPherson had hit ratings and has been nominated for some kind of award. Faye Lynne’s old agent even gave her a call after that show. She said if it took Jim Beam, Rye whiskey and Rhine wine to get noticed in Hollywood, it just wasn’t worth it.
Anonymous telephone calls directed to me at Adam Afield have Carrow Dee on pins and needles. Thus far, the headaches, dreams and visions have faded.
Tomorrow, I will make a new list of guests for our next season. Sister decided she’d better stay put for a while.