"We the jury find the defendant guilty of six counts of murder in the first degree."
With those words, three long months of sequestration was ended, and the twelve individuals who held the fate of Jonas Slab in their hands could go back to their lives. The trial had been intense- Slab was accused of murdering at least six people over the course of three years. The evidence was vile and nightmarish- more than one of the jurors had begun to have nightmares, and several talked frequently of needed the number of a good therapist.
It was not all bad. The jurors bonded. Tess- mother of three- and Abigail- grandmother of eight- had formed an almost mother/daughter bond. Reggie, Clive, and Zed had all decided it would be fun to go together to see their mutual favorite football team- the Houston Texans- play during the upcoming season. Sam and Liz had been flirting a lot during the time, and several jurors had actually placed bets on whether or not he would ask her out before the trial ended. Alexis and Ted won when after the previous night's deliberation ended, Sam caught Liz in the hall and asked her to coffee after the verdict. Luis, Jeb, and Olga were just glad to be done.
Jonas Slab waived his right to appeal, and declared- "I just want it over with." His execution was set for one year to the day after the trial concluded.
They all received the notice about a week before the execution.
A jury summons.
They all had the same reaction- not surprising considering that they had just given three months of their lives the year before.
But a summons is law, so begrudgingly, they all showed up. Even though the location was at the old courthouse (Which they paid no attention to), and the summons was for eight in the morning (Which they did pay attention to).
When Reggie saw Alexis, he thought it odd that both of them would get called again. Olga, Liz, and Clive arrived next, then soon after all the rest were in the dark courtroom, in a vacant building. Ted was a contractor, and he noticed right away that the building was altered. But he couldn't tell why.
Abigail noticed Liz and Sam were on opposite sides of the room. "Sam, did you not come with Liz?" Liz averted her eyes, and Sam gritted his teeth and mumbled, "We're not together anymore."
"Guys, something isn't right," Ted began. "This room has pipes it shouldn't."
Luis grunted. "It also has people it shouldn't."
As if on cue, a fine mist filled the room. "I don't feel so good," said Tess, just before passing out. The others followed in rapid succession.
When Zed and Clive woke, they made eye contact. They both immediately displayed expressions of shock and terror. What they saw was the rest of their fellow jurors in a circle around the room. Each was strapped to a rudimentary wooden chair and each had a variety of devices behind them. Some looked like surgical instruments- needles and scalpels and knives. Some were more electrical in nature. Some were tools. And a few had large blades- like guillotines laying on their side.
Olga was the first to scream, then Sam, then a chorus of terrified voices cried out- some tearful, some angry, some pleading.
Ted was still looking around the room- the same they had entered into. But the furniture was different before- more like the courtroom. Now, it looked eerily similar to their deliberation room. Where the judges seat was, there was a large television. The lights were fluorescent, stark and flickery. Below the television, on the wood panel was a clock. It read 6:00 in digital red numbers.
The television flickered on.
There was a shape- a dark, hooded shape not unlike a grim reaper. But where the face should be, there was only blackness. When it spoke, it's voice was mechanical. Altered by some device to mask the true voice. There must have been speakers spread around the room, for when the shape spoke, it seemed to be right behind everyone at the same time.
"Welcome jurors. Today, we are holding court to judge crimes so heinous, so cruel that should a guilty verdict be rendered, then death will be swift and equally cruel. You are judge, jury...and defendant."
It took a moment for that to sink in. Sam began to weep, as did Liz and Tess. Abigail, a woman who had been through much in her life, steeled herself. Jeb began to struggle with his restraints.
Ted- who had been foreman- fell back into his leadership role. He was man of medium build, but large forearms that strained against the restraints told a story of a life wielding heavy hammers and tools. "What do you want from us?" he demanded, his stubbled jaw tense.
The shape moved closer to the screen. "Simple. You must determine who is holding you captive- who am I?"
"That's it?" Olga squealed? "You are holding us for a guessing game? Fine. I guess it's a friend of Jonas Slab. Since he's going to be executed in a few hours, I bet it's one of the witnesses who defended him."
The shape made a 'tsk, tsk' sound and shook what seemed to be its head. "I'm sorry. That's a wrong guess. Now, the penalty for a wrong guess is death."
There was a sound like leather being twisted, from behind Olga's head, and the flat guillotine blade flew forward. Olga's head rolled back and off her shoulders. Another chorus of screams went up. A mechanical whir began below Olga's seat, and her body and the chair were lowered into the floor. A hole remained where her seat had been.
"Now that you know I am serious, let us go over the rules." The voice was calculated and calm. "You must guess who I am. Remember, I am someone that at least one of you has wronged. Once you come to a consensus as a jury- make your accusation. But, if you are wrong, you must choose which of you will die for making a false accusation. Accuse correctly, and you are all free to go. Oh, and you must decide by midnight tonight- when Jonas Slab is executed. If you have not successfully guessed yet, then you will all be joining him in the afterlife. Those pipes along the ceiling? They can deliver killing gases just as they can deliver knockout gasses. I will check back in one hour. Happy deliberations!" The screen went black.
The room was silent except for the sniffling of Sam and Tess and Liz. Abigail sat stock still, facing forward. Luis, Zed, and Clive were looking at their feet. Ted and Reggie (who was an electrician) were looking around the room, trying to see what structural things might help them. Alexis and Jeb were looking around the room at the faces of people they had know so well a year ago, but had not spoken to since.
Alexis, who had been the first to speak in deliberations the year before, did so again. "How can we be sure this guy will let us go if we guess correctly?"
Clive replied, "We don't. But we have to at least make an effort, right? I mean, I don't want to die here."
"Me either," added Luis. "But where do we start?"
Ted spoke again, his voice was always strong and reassuring- part of why they named him foreman. "I think we make a list. Who would want to do this to us? I mean, it must have something to do with Slab, right?"
"His attorney," said Abigail coldly. "He always gave me a funny feeling."
"Okay, that's one. Who was the witness that spoke up most for him? The girlfriend?" asked Reggie.
"Grace Vess," said Liz, through sniffles.
Tess composed herself enough to add, "His parents."
Clive's eyes lit up. "The groupies! Those weird chicks that were in the trial everyday. What did they call themselves?"
Jeb chuckled, "Slabbettes. Like some girl band." He laughed out loud, and the sound was strange in the room. But soon Reggie laughed, too, and then others followed. While it felt odd with the blood of Olga still fresh, it also felt normalizing. And they needed their wits about them if they were to survive.
When it died down, Ted spoke. "I don't think they are capable of this." He indicated the room with his eyes. "But wasn't his dad a plumber?"
"Yeah, he was. But he was a wreck during the trial," countered Reggie. "I think he was even committed to some institution about six months ago."
"Whoever did this had to be planning it for a while," Clive commented. "And strong enough to maneuver us once we were unconscious."
"Unless they had help," Zed commented, his eyes looking from Clive to Reggie. Both looked away from him.
The back and forth of raising an accused and then dismissing them kept up for a long time before Liz called out, "The time! We only have five minutes before we need to accuse someone!"
Despite the mental institution issue, it was the father of Jonas Slab that had kept coming up. The television popped on and the mechanized voice asked, "Who is the accused?" Everyone exchanged a look. They all nodded at Ted, and he said, "Jonas Slab's father."
There was a long moment of silence. The screen went black. Then in place of the hooded man was a newspaper clipping. Jonas Slab's father had died a month ago, and they were looking at his obituary.
Ted swore. Tess shrieked. Sam and Liv sobbed. Abigail was stone still. Luis, Zed, Clive and Reggie all struggled against their restraints. Alexis darted her eyes back and forth across the room, looking at the faces of each person in the room. Jeb began to laugh.
The hood was back on screen. "You must choose who dies within five minutes, or you will all be chosen." The screen went off.
"How do we choose who of us dies?" cried Liz hysterically.
Jeb spoke up. "Don't you see- he is dangling in front of us that we killed Jonas Slab. In his mind anyway. So, so since we so callously killed him-" he looked the clock. "-or will in a few hours, we must be devoid of human emotion. This hood is trying to say we are just as cold blooded as Slab."
Abigail looked coldly at Jeb. "But what choice do we have? We are trapped here- and honestly, I see no way we win this, this...game." She sighed heavily. "Choose me. I'm eighty years old. You all have your lives ahead of you- and I've lived mine."
"No!" screamed Tess. "Think of your grandkids!"
"I am," she replied calmly. "And I am thinking of your kids."
"Why should we consider her kids, Abigail?" Jeb said coldly. "Did you know Tess there has been investigated by CPS for child abuse?"
The eyes in the room went to Tess, who went sheet white. "I...I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You beat your kids?" Reggie shouted angrily. "How could you?"
"I don't- my ex accused me to try to get custody!" She defended, but she saw in the eyes of the room it didn't matter.
The screen came on. "Say a name."
Ted muttered, "Tess."
Tess screamed, but it was cut short. Blood ran out of her mouth, and she slumped forward. The point of a knife stuck out of her chest. The whirring noise came back, and her body was lowered into the floor.
"Tess never beat her children. She was telling the truth." Said the hood.
All eyes turned to Jeb. He began to stutter and stammer. "Look, I work with the boyfriend of a CPS worker that knew about that case. It sounded legit!"
Sam had recovered enough from his crying fit to say, "That's cold, man."
Liz wheeled on him. "Cold? Like cheating on me with my sister 'cold?'"
"Oooo!" teased Reggie. "Man, I knew you too wouldn't last."
Sam grew defensive. "Oh yeah Reggie? You and Clive and Zed make that Texans game? Or just you and Clive? Cuz, what was it you said? 'Zed is a total loser?'"
Reggie and Clive exchanged looks. Zed grinned a cruel grin. "Yeah, word got around, 'buds.' You guys ghosted me."
Clive became defensive, "Look, we were on a jury together- we were never going to be best friends forever!"
"Hey!" Ted yelled. "This is what he wants- us accusing each other. But none of us are the guy behind the hood. Right?" Nods of agreement. "So, let's focus on who it could be."
The discussion ranged again across the already named suspects. As the time drew near the end of the hour, the group had agreed on the lawyer.
The screen went live.
"Who is the accused?"
"The attorney. Victor Hodge."
The screen went black, and then an image of another newspaper article appeared. This one showed Hodge in handcuffs, and the headline read "Local Attorney Pleads Guilty to Child Pornography Possession."
Multiple swears filled the room. Abigail simply said, "I knew he gave me the willies." Her eyes were still puffy from the tears she shed over Tess- the thing that finally broke her.
From the screen: "You must choose who dies within five minutes, or you will all be chosen." The screen went off.
Abigail looked up. "Jeb."
Jeb's jaw dropped. "Me? Why?"
Coldly, Abigail explained. "You accused- falsely- Tess. And she died. Need I say more?"
"But I said her name," said Ted, tears streaming down his face.
Abigail looked at Ted with compassion. "Sweety, you only said what we all were thinking because of Jeb." Nods all around the room. Jeb continued to protest until the voice came back.
"Say a name."
Through gritted teeth, Ted said, "Jeb."
Jeb began to yell, "That is total bullsh-" but he began to convulse and jerk in his seat. Reggie noticed for the first time that Jeb's seat had wires running into his restraints. He saw the same wires now protruding from his own restraints.
The smell of burned skin and hair began to fill the room, then the floor opened and Jeb was gone.
"And then there were nine," said Clive.
Deliberations continued. The girlfriend was named next. A video was shown of an interview where she admitted that she had been mistaken about Slab- and she wished him dead.
This round of accusation was quieter. Abigail again tossed her name into the ring, it was again dismissed.
Zed through out Clive and Reggie's name, the hurt over being abandoned by his buddies evident.
Reggie shook his head. "Man, we called you a total loser because of what you bragged about doing to your girlfriend." Zed stiffened.
Liz looked at Reggie. "What did he do?"
Clive answered, "He actually did beat her. Unlike Tess and her kids."
"We saw the bruises, and he bragged about it," Reggie confirmed.
"Say a name."
"Zed." No hesitation from Ted this time.
A plastic bag descended over Zed's head, and he squirmed, seeking air but only sucking in plastic. He thrashed and slowly stopped moving.
As the body was being lowered, Sam asked, "Didn't Zed work at that grocery store on 7th- the 5-Spot?"
"Yeah," answered Clive. "Why?"
"That was a 5-Spot bag," Sam responded.
Eight of them remained. Ted had begun to shake, Abigail kept dropping her head. Clive leaned his head back, Reggie was checking out each of the chairs to see how they were set up. Sam and Liz were looking at each other, a softness appearing where once there had been only resentment and guilt. Luis and Alexis were chatting.
"I think it might be one of us," Alexis whispered to Luis. She trusted the middle aged pharmacist because they had spent a good deal of time talking about their lives during the trial. Both of them had been from broken homes and had thus far chosen the single life to avoid that heartache again.
Luis sighed heavily. "How? I mean- how could they be controlling the...game, I guess, if they were in here?"
"Like Jeb said, maybe they had help?"
"Or maybe they understand electrical work well enough to rig up the system to make it look like there really was a hood." Luis indicated Reggie, who was suspiciously looking around at all the chairs. Alexis nodded.
"Hey guys," she spoke loudly enough for all to hear, but her voice, like the rest of the people in the room, was cracked from lack of water. "Have we considered the possibility that someone in this room is the hood?"
Laughs came from most, but Ted and Reggie were silent. Abigail asked, "How would that even work? And why?"
Luis answered, "The first is easy enough- you can rig up automated systems, even voice recognition for the video to start up and respond to certain phrases. Notice the hood does not directly address anyone?"
Ted spoke next. "But the why? Why would one of us do this?"
Alexis shrugged. "I don't know. But something Sam said about Zed being left out by Clive and Reggie. What if someone got really messed up by the trial, and for some reason connected really well with the rest of the group. When we went our separate ways, back to our real lives- what if they felt abandoned? Left for dead, even?"
"Remind me what you did for a living, sweetheart?" asked Clive. His 'sweetheart' held none of the warmth that Abigail would have passed on.
"I'm a psychiatrist."
"Oofff course you are. Just trying to play mind games, huh?" Clive replied sardonically. "Well, maybe it's you."
Luis, who had been quiet so far in these discussions, defended her. "Or perhaps someone with electrical skills, like Reggie? Or Clive, aren't you a computer tech?"
Clive shut his mouth. But the damage was done. Reggie and Clive became prime suspects. Despite his protests, Reggie's name was called by Ted at the next accusation.
From the screen, the hood laughed. "So, you figured out that I must be one of you, huh? Well, you're right! But not about poor Reggie." And with that, Reggie began to convulse and shake, just like Jeb, as he was electrocuted. Reggie's head lolled to one side and his hand dropped free to the floor. When he descended into the floor, his dead eyes met Ted's and Ted began to weep.
"And since you know that one of you is a killer, we will go ahead with the plan to have one of you named right now."
"Clive," blurted Alexis before any discussion. That must have worked because instantly a robotic arm dropped from the ceiling and fired a gun point blank into Clive's chest. He gasped for air, his eyes wide with shock and no sound coming out. Then he moved no more and the seat began to draw down into the floor.
Alexis, Sam, Luis, Abigail, Liz, and Ted were all that remained. Alexis looked around the room. None of these people could be the killer, could they? Abigail, the sweet grandmother who wouldn't hurt fly. Ted was clearly broken by this- no one could fake the pain on his face. Sam and Liz were just two dumb kids. And Luis. No, Alexis couldn't bring herself to think he was capable of that.
For the longest time, it was silent. Each person was thinking about their actions over the last few hours. Whatever happened, the hood had proven that they could kill. Just like Jonas Slab. They had each made snap decisions, based on the heat of the moment. And people died because of it.
Luis began to think about how each person in the room had died. Electrocution for Reggie and Jeb. Clive was shot by a robot arm, Zed got suffocated by a bag from his grocery store, Olga was decapitated, and Tess was stabbed by a knife.
Then Luis had a thought. "Guys- Olga was a florist, right? And what did Tess do?"
Abigail replied quietly, "She was a chef."
"Guys, the manner of death for everyone has been connected to their career." Luis smiled, in spite of the psychological torture he'd been through.
"Yeah, so?" asked Sam.
"Everyone except Jeb. He worked ...well, not with electricity." Liz answered.
"Yeah, what did Jeb do? I don't think he ever mentioned it..." Alexis was trying to remember.
"He never said," Ted replied matter of factly.
"Is Jeb somehow the key to this? Like, why would his death not be connected to him in some personal way?" asked Liz.
"Because we never knew him. Not really," answered Luis. "So his death not being related to him tells us that whoever is doing this, maybe they feel like Alexis said- like we left them behind." All eyes turned to Sam and Liz.
Alexis spoke next. "Sam cheated on Liz, so she might feel abandoned. Sam could feel that we turned our back on him because of his actions."
Sam's face went white. "Wait- guys. I am not doing this! I swear! And Liz could never hurt any of you!"
The screen returned. "Who next?"
Ted was on the verge of catatonic now, so Alexis answered. "Sam- it's Sam!"
Liz suddenly rose up, not of her own volition, and turned, her shackles guiding her hands to Sam's throat. She began choking him and screaming as her own hands acted without her consent. Sam's eyes bulged and he fought unsuccessfully for air. Then he died. Liz was maneuvered back to her seat, and she was hyperventilating from the act of murdering her ex.
Alexis looked around the room, knowing the voice was going to tell them to choose another victim. Her mind raced- not Ted or Liz. That left her, Luis and Abigail.
"Give me a name."
Alexis cut her eyes to Luis and Abigail, telling them silently to not say anything. She was missing something. The lack of personal connection to Jeb in regards to his execution. He did not work with electricity- or at least they did not know he did. Because they didn't know him. He falsely accused Tess, right off the bat, and got himself killed. But by a method not connected to him.
Alexis yelled out- "JEB! I know it's you!"
Luis looked at her with wild eyes- "What are you doing- Jeb is dead!"
"No, he's not. He faked the electricity. And he didn't break the rules of the game because he was never accused- we just killed him because he falsely accused Tess. Which he knew would trigger Abigail to call for his head. Then he could play us from behind the scenes from then on!"
A slow clapping came from the floor below them. A hooded figure arose from the hole where Jeb had been seated, clapping gloved hands. The hands reached up and pulled the hood back, revealing a very alive Jeb.
"Very good, Alexis. You only had to kill six to figure it out." Jeb said sarcastically.
"No- you killed them. Your game, your devices. Your plan."
Jeb smiled. "That is so true. In fact, it is more true than you realize. See, I positioned myself to be on that jury in the first place. I needed to be on that panel."
"Why?" asked Luis.
Jeb sighed. "I was lonely. And then, we bonded. So very much over those months. But then, the trial ended, and I thought 'Finally, friends I can hang out with!' But you all abandoned me, left me alone. Again."
"Wait- the rules," Alexis pointed out. "You set the rules for this game- we guessed it was you- and you have to die now!"
Jeb laughed. It was the same laugh that had brought levity at the start of this ordeal. Now, it was bone-chilling. "Right you are again, Alexis- you are on fire. But the problem is- for me to die, you have to know something about my personal life. And you. Don't. Know. Me. Not even my job."
Luis looked down. He remembered something Jeb said earlier that day. "What did Grace Vess do for a living? Wasn't she CPS?"
Jeb's smile faltered.
"Slab's girlfriend?" asked Abigail. "Yes, she was a CPS worker. Why?"
"Jeb said he worked with the boyfriend of a CPS worker." Luis looked at Jeb's brown eyes. "Jeb worked with Slab. He said he had to get on this jury. He had to vote guilty to make sure Slab took the fall. But I bet Jeb was the mastermind. So, Jeb- how'd I do?"
Jeb walked swiftly over to Luis and raised a knife to his throat.
"Ah, ah, ah, that's not the rule, Jeb," said Alexis. "And a you are such the narcissist that you cannot break the rules to your own perfect game. So, you should die the same way Slab does tonight- at midnight. By lethal injection. In the chair Luis is in- because my guess is that his death was to be by pharmaceuticals."
Jeb gritted his teeth, and pulled a remote from his pocket under his black robe. He pressed a button and all their shackles released. Luis rushed Jeb, who was taller by at least six inches and shoved him down into the chair. The latches clicked. Jeb was trapped.
But he still laughed. "See- you still want blood! Just like Slab. Just like me! You want to kill me- and you have already killed more than half of our fellow jury duty members!"
"No, Jeb. We are not going to kill you," Abigail walked over to him, her steps halting from being held down so long. "But we are going to leave you alone- just like we found you. Because a man like you, you don't deserve an audience." She turned and left the old courtroom, and walked out the door. Ted and Liz were leaning on each other for support as they too left. Finally, Luis and Alexis left.
Jeb was screaming at them, "This is not over! I'll still find a way to win!"
But he was alone. And that loneliness, that was his weakness. It was why he killed, why he groomed and controlled Slab. Why he planned relentlessly.
And why he made sure that if this game failed, there would be another broken soul to pick it up. As he pressed the button on the remote that triggered the needle to enter his arm, right at midnight, right when Slab was executed hundreds of miles away, he smiled one last time. He just wondered which of the survivors would snap first.
I wanted to share a free chapter of my current book- Sawyer Shepherd Chronicles: Rites of Passage. Here, you will meet many of the main characters of the book, and get a tease of the larger story. If you like it- please click the links below and purchase it on Amazon today!
A black Camaro crested the Continental Divide, sun bouncing of the ebony metal. The engine growled along, the tires spun rapidly maintaining steady speed as the automobile navigated the sharp turns with grace and ease.
A young man sat behind the wheel, attentively looking everywhere he could to soak it all in. Sawyer Shepherd was prepared for a beautiful view. But what he got was so much more.
The fresh rays of the rising sun stretched out before him, first tendrils, then as fingers, then slowly broadening to a blanket over the valley below him. There were only a few small wispy clouds scattered here and there and wrapped around the occasional mountain like a misty halo. A decent bank of clouds rested on the horizon, a hint that winter was knocking on the Rockies door. Perhaps sooner rather than later. Pockets of shadow lingered here and there in the countless trees of the San Juan National Forest giving an unreal depth and contrastingly shiny contrast to the aspen leaves and pine needles clinging to the sides of steep slopes. It was like looking at the 8K resolution displays at the electronics store. The yellow aspens in particular seemed to wave an enthusiastic greeting to the weary traveler. They waved and shimmied, casting a golden glow that seemed almost ethereal. Even from within the confines of his car, he could feel the temperature had dropped through the cool of the window. He suddenly longed for flannel blankets, hot coffee, and a comfy fire in a nice stone fireplace. It seemed most appropriate that the song on the radio by a band named after a Midwestern state was promising him rest soon. Though it was dawn and the late fall valley below him was just waking up, Sawyer had been driving all night.
No particular place to go, but a definite place- and time- to escape from as quickly as possible.
Despite his sleepiness, the dawn had energized him a bit. He saw a sign for a “Scenic Overlook” ahead and decided to pull over and stretch for a bit. He pulled off the road as far as he could and opened the door. He stepped onto the crushed gravel, a telltale crunching sound meeting him as he put weight on his foot and raised his body from the low seated car. He lifted his arms up and stretched as high as he could, a small cracking noise emanating from his lower back.
Sawyer was about average height, and in pretty good shape. But that probably had as much to do with his youth and hyperactive metabolism than anything. He was just eighteen, having graduated from high school just a few months ago. He had been an athlete until a few years ago when the thing he was trying to get away from happened. But even as he sought the distance between himself and that terrible memory, he knew that could never completely break from that day, that tragedy, that ending.
At sixteen, he had been orphaned. It was a tragedy he did not like to talk about, nor did he really even want to think about it. But it had shaped his destiny more than anything else and he knew it always would.
He had gotten the Camaro for his birthday, just a few weeks before the ‘thing.” He called it the “thing” because it made it seem less personal and intense. The night before the “thing,” he and his best friend had stayed out late hog hunting- a Texas past-time that had grown more common since the fanged beasties had overpopulated- and he decided to sleep in instead of attend church that Sunday. His parents had gone, but were late because they had tried to get him up and he resisted stubbornly and with lots of snoring...
Because they were late, they sat at the back of the church. Just after the offering, a man had walked in and began shooting. The first three people he shot- and killed- were his parents and the person sitting next to them. He went on to shoot another dozen- none died- before detonating what police thought was a small homemade bomb. No real trace of the bomb was able to be recovered, nor was the body of the shooter- save for some patches of cloth and a pinkie finger.
The shockwave spread out as is usual with mass shooting- social phenomenon that was all too common, just like the hogs. The media came and went. The politicians blustered. The tears flowed. The indignation rose. And after a bit, the world went back to normal.
Sawyer found a new normal. He was taken in by his best friend’s family so he could finish high school. His parents left him everything, and as an only child it added up to a lot, mostly in property. He felt guilt- a great deal of it. He felt anger. He went through all the stages of grief, but those two held on with a tight grip and would not let go. He saw therapists, and though they advocated he pursue college, Sawyer thought a gap year a better idea. His parents had not been rich, but with the ranch land they owned being in a prime location for development just outside his small but growing hometown, he was able to secure a little more than two million dollars. That could buy him some time, he thought and maybe even a foundation for moving forward at his own pace. But it only added to the guilt he felt- if only he had been there, he could still have them, not just their inheritance.
So, after graduation, he invested some of the money so he could have some income (he was a smart guy, and despite the tragedy had graduated at the top of his class). He packed up his clothes and some things he wanted to keep with him that reminded him of home: a few pictures, some of his favorite clothes, and a handful of personal mementos in a small box. Then he set out on his own.
He had spent some time in Florida- his parents never got to take him to the theme parks there- and then he moved on up the East Coast. He timed it so he caught some of the change of season in Maine and Vermont, before he turned east and headed to Colorado- having always wanted to see the aspens turn gold. He was determined to deny the tragedy’s power to define his life.
Now it was late October, and the chill was
definitely in the air. A little too chill, so he ducked back into the car and brought out his gray military style jacket. It was one of those prized pieces of clothing, the other gift he had gotten from his parents with the Camaro. He slid it on over his henley and breathed in the cool-almost-cold morning air then let it out in a plume of smoke that slowly rose and dissipated into the air. His canvas shoes were letting in too much cold too, so he made a mental note to find some good hiking boots when he got down to Sage City- his next destination.
He ran his hands through his medium length hair, giving it just a tad bit of a look that he had slept on it and did not have time to properly comb it. It gave him a look of youthful rebellion that made him more than just an averagely attractive guy. He stretched and yawned.
Then he really took the valley in.
It was gorgeous, the colors of the fall leaves really shining and shimmering as the sun gained altitude. The shadows grew shorter and lighter, revealing more and more of the variety of colors, even present in the rock. But in that rock, another truth of the valley was revealed. Yes, it was beautiful, but it was also dangerous. Those rocks lay in fields where no tree stood- but they did lay. Avalanches had scarred the land over the years, decades, centuries and millennia even. He noticed boulders bigger than his car, and tree trunks torn from the ground that he could never be able to wrap his arms around. These scars exposed varying strata and decomposition, which enhanced the beauty even more while reminding the humans that this place could kill you.
Then there was the smell. Cedar, aspen (he guessed, having never smelled them), and something he could only define as clean. No smog, no humans, no smell except fresh, clean air. Though he was forced to take shallow breaths as his lungs got used to less oxygen, he felt energized. Alive.
As he surveyed the valley, he noticed that there were several more Scenic Overlooks (thanks to the state of Colorado for pointing out the obvious, he thought) and since he had no particular place to be at any particular time, he decided to hit them all and soak up some nature.
On the third one, he noticed a historical marker that was labeled “Cannibal Pastor.” Always up for a good horror story of the human race, Sawyer read about how Pastor Horace Goodley (he chuckled at that irony) had gone mad in a blizzard and murdered and eaten some portion of over two dozen citizens. He had apparently died in a cave collapse- its general location indicated by an arrow- according to a survivor named Hezekiah Romer. The arrow pointed toward a cliff face with an older cabin nearby. Sawyer figured that anyone who had a desire to live that close to the site was either oblivious or a little crazy.
He climbed back in the car and sat for a second. He noticed his breathing was still heavy- a consequence of being over 9,000 feet higher in altitude than he was used to. And the focus on the breathing suddenly made him realize just how sleepy he was. He looked around to make sure he was pulled far enough off the road to be out of the way of oncoming traffic, then he let his eyes close. He was out quickly.
He found himself in a dream almost immediately. He was on the side of a mountain, looking at an open (cave? mineshaft?) spot in the rock. There was snow- falling rapidly and collecting in large heaps all around. He felt cold and afraid. Smoke or dust and falling rocks were everywhere and he could almost smell the ozone from fire. He was not alone. Some people he did not recognize were there, a few men, and one younger woman who might have been his age or close to it. And they were afraid, too. Except this one guy- older, salt and pepper hair, dark skin. He was looking at Sawyer not with fear, but with realization. Resignation. Something was (hunting? chasing?) after them. And the older guy knew it.
Suddenly one of the people was pulled away forcefully. There were screams. Sawyer turned in the dream toward a snapping sound and looked into a stand of trees. He stepped toward it as the branches moved. He heard a rumble, then a blaring sound as something with green eyes leaped out of the trees-
He snapped awake to the sound of a blaring car horn as a convoy of luxury SUVs flew past him down the switchbacks.
Paulie Reza swore at the stupid driver who was pulled off at the switchback. Yeah, they were off the road, but Paulie had important cargo. VERY important cargo.
That cargo was billionaire developer Lucius Furr on his way to acquire managing interest the town of Sage City. Furr had been negotiating with the town mayor to invest and prop up the struggling little hamlet. They thought he was there to rescue them.
Paulie loved this part- coming into some backwoods town, watching Furr and his chief lawyer Lennox Dupree lay the sell on thick to the hick locals and buy their town right from under them for dirt cheap. Furr was not there to help them, he was there to help himself to whatever he wanted.
Dupree and Furr had been acquiring pieces of Sage City for the last few years- through shell companies and whatnot, but now the time had come to lower the boom. The town’s mayor- some bright-eyed optimist named Torbin something- thought this was the beginning of a partnership. Ha! Furr and Dupree would let them keep on thinking that until it was too late.
Paulie looked back in the back seat. His two passengers were busy pouring over the financials. They- unlike Sawyer Shepherd- did not take notice of the beauty around them. Money was the only thing they saw as beautiful. And they were good at making it. Furr was in his late forties and had made his fortune around the turn of the century, in the years after 9/11. He started in New York as an unassuming stockbroker, and after the tragedy at the Towers, he had gotten into real estate. He bought when no one else would and bought recession proof properties. Plus, a vacation destination here and there. He had met Dupree around that time, and Dupree saw no need to take the limelight, so their partnership was born. And it was a partnership, though everyone else saw Furr as the boss. Furr and Dupree liked it that way. It let their marks think they could negotiate. Furr and Dupree did not negotiate, they dictated.
Furr was decked out in “leisure” business attire. He wore hiking boots to convey that he was going to be on the ground, checking things out and activity slacks that looked professional but allowed for movement. Furr called it his “Man of the People” costume. Over his ridiculously expensive dress shirt, he wore an equally ridiculously expensive fleece jacket. Dangling around his neck was -yep- ridiculously expensive sunglasses. He was fit and tan and had a full head of jet-black hair that made his deep blue eyes stand out along with his flashy, charming grin.
Dupree was all business, all the time. And his suit showed it. Despite the outdoor nature of their visit today, he insisted on wearing a business suit. He always did. He said it made him feel powerful, but he also knew it made people dismiss him as “nerdy” or made weak by time in the boardroom.
That was calculated. The truth was, despite Furr’s leisure attire, Dupree would be able to keep pace, being a stellar athlete himself. He was blonde and had green eyes- but both features were equally as striking as Furr’s. His smile was not as bold or as frequently deployed, it was slyer. To get a smile from Lennox Dupree was to receive high praise.
Paulie felt honored to be able to drive these two men to their meeting. He had been on Lucius Furr’s detail for about three years and it had been the best chauffeur/bodyguard job of his life. He did not always get to drive the “Big Car” as the team called it, but today he did. And he did it with a strong awareness of the importance of image.
Mr. Furr expected people to take notice when he came to town- and he expected people to know he was in charge. Paulie was to drive five miles above the speed limit to the destination- honk at anyone who got too close and be as threatening as possible while silent at the boss’s side.
Today was even more special. They had not two, but three cars on this trip. The second car was the rest of the bodyguard detail- five more men armed with semi-automatic pistols just like Paulie’s- and all wearing their own version of “business leisure” clothing. This car also carried heavier weapons- Furr had enemies and you had to be prepared.
The third car carried a combination of a family and a potential co-investor. The family was there to provide input on the vacation destination potential, and the investor was there to scout locations for new businesses such as hotels and restaurants. The family was the Hansons- Tom and Desiree and their daughter Felicia and son Alvin. The investor was in her mid-thirties and a real rising star in Furr’s circle. Secretly, Paulie thought Elena Cordova was, in his extremely eloquent words “wowza.” He believed that did not hurt her ambitions, at least when it came to catching Mr. Furr’s eye. But Paulie also knew that Cordova had established early on in her career that she was more than capable of going toe to toe with the toughest and taking them down. She was going to be a big-deal, and this trip might be the big shot.
Paulie was beginning a not so nice little daydream about Elena Cordova when a deer bounded in front of the SUV. He overreacted a bit and slammed on the brakes to avoid the deer, causing all three people in the car to be jostled a bit.
“What the -(the blaring horn from behind drowned that word out)- Paulie?!?!” yelled Mr. Furr. “How am I supposed to prepare back here? Do you think I came to the mountains for some four wheeling or to do business?”
Cold sweat broke out on Paulie’s forehead. Not much scared him, but the wrath of Lucius Furr did. “S-sorry boss. There was a deer and-”
“Hit the deer next time. This vehicle is designed to take a hit and keep going. And, there would be a lot less of a disturbance to my concentration. And the less disturbed my concentration, the more secure your job.”
“Yessir.” Paulie could feel his heart in his temple, it was beating so hard. The deer was nothing, but Paulie feared what lay behind the charming facade of Mr. Furr when the smile turned dark. “We are about five minutes from town, sir.”
Without looking up from the papers, Mr. Furr responded, “Good. Remember, five above and no stopping.”
“Yessir,” he replied as he glanced in the rearview. Dupree was looking at him, smiling. But it was not the smile of approval. It was an almost sadistic smile.
That smile scared Paulie more than the near miss with the deer and Furr’s threat combined.
Elena Cordova glared ahead at the road. The uncivilized brood in the back seats were sucking the joy out of what should have been a great day. Instead, she was stuck listening to the preteens lead their slovenly parents in another chorus of a saccharinely sweet pop song. The driver, one of Lucius Furr’s bodyguards, Shane, managed to avoid this torture because he had a wireless in one ear and an earbud in the other. She hated him for it.
Elena was here to make money. A lot of it. This small gem in the Rockies was poised for an investment that would reap massive dividends. She had worked her whole life for today. She would bring her vision of mass market hotels and chain stores to this little vacation destination and put it on the map. And herself on the Forbes list.
Elena was a little older than Paulie had guessed, she was thirty-nine and lived for her career. That meant the little anklebiters in back were a reminder of why she had never had children. Or a significant other. The husband was a bore, and the wife was an automaton merely there to serve the needs of the parasites she was raising and the slob she was married to. Elena felt that reliance on others was a weakness- regardless of their gender. She was not a feminist exactly; she was just independent.
That did not mean that she had not been the object of many men’s affection. Paulie’s opinion of “wowza” was held by almost all men who beheld Elena, but she was not fazed or concerned about it. Her dark hair had perfect natural highlights to accentuate her nearly symmetrical face. She was about five foot five, but she always wore heels that bumped her near six foot, and that moved her into the category of statuesque. Her eyes were a deep blue and when she squinted her eyes to focus, there was not a trace of wrinkles. Like her business acumen and sharp wit, her attractiveness was a tool to get ahead. She was a shark, and she was eager to feast on success.
She knew her appearance is what got Lucius Furr’s attention. And that was fine. He could objectify her and underestimate her, all while she climbed up and took as much money as she could from their deals. She got this chance to invest in Sage City when others had wanted it desperately, but she was shrewd and cunning and ruthless beyond what they could handle. If today went well, Elena Cordova would be able to sit at the biggest tables with the biggest CEOs and be respected.
And really that was what she wanted. More than money, she was greedy for respect. She had worked with lesser Furr wannabes her entire career and watched as they climbed the career ladder on a wink and a smile, while she did all their work for none of the credit. She had gotten lucky here or there and managed a bit of upward mobility, but that had been minimal by her standards.
So she started to play by the men’s rules. Backstabbing and subterfuge. And that had gotten her an audience with Lucius Furr and Lennox Dupree. Three years later, she had risen to a point to be an almost equal partner in this deal today. And while she had Furr under her thumb, Dupree worried her. He was all business and did not fall for the usual tricks. He could not be bought or seduced it seemed, but he was capable of doing both to others. Furr had final say, though and she steered toward him whenever there was a disagreement between the three of them. Elena looked forward to pulling this deal off and pulling one over on Dupree at the same time. She had bested many a man in the business arena, but to best Dupree would be a Title Fight for sure.
But if those stupid hayseeds did not shut up in the back seat, she would never be able to focus in on the task at hand.
She was about to say something when both cars slammed on their brakes ahead. She wondered what could have happened when she saw the deer dart off to the side of the road. No doubt that Neanderthal Paulie was daydreaming about her and nearly killed them all. He thought he was slick, but she saw the looks. She knew the type.
They entered the town a few minutes later, and she began to survey the land. Over there by the river would be an excellent site for the Italian bistro. And she had already looked at the surveys on her tablet about the hillside on the opposite side of the river. That would be the Cabin Bungalows. The road curved and they headed toward the bridge that crossed the river. Just down the river a bit would be a restaurant built over the river with a glass floor to watch the rapids and smell the pristine water running through the aromatic cedars and pines.
But where these things would be stood- ugh- mom and pop local establishments. Restaurants with “local flare” like that bar and grill just ahead at city center- the “Hungry Pastor”- in reference to some religious nut who killed a bunch of people a hundred and fifty years ago.
Elena would remove all that crap from the city and make it a carbon copy of Aspen or Telluride. Because that meant tourists which in turn meant money, power, and that most elusive thing- respect.
And if it meant she had to spend some time with the hayseeds in the back seat, she could put on a smile just like Lucius Furr and schmooze. She could laugh with the ridiculously mundane walking dad joke and hide the pity and disgust for the matronly woman that settled instead of fought. She could even deal with the brats, because those snotty noses and matted heads of hair were dollar signs in her eyes. More of them would come to Sage City than they ever had before, and they would stay in cabins she brought to town, and eat in restaurants she enticed to build a franchise in town, and buy cheesy souvenirs that were way overpriced from shops she collected dividends from..
No, despite what Furr and Dupree thought, this was not going to be their victory, it was going to be Elena Cordova’s victory.
Torbin Glenshaw was nearly bouncing with glee as the three SUVs pulled into the parking lot in front of City Hall. The portly mayor of Sage City demonstrated a remarkable energy for a man so rotund, but this was not out of the ordinary. He was an optimistic one, alright, you betcha. Known around town for his consistent use of confectionery treat names instead of foul language because “Why be dirty when you can sprinkle with sugar” was his motto. The man was a ray of sunshine.
And he kept winning re-election in spite of that.
Torbin knew that this was a big deal. Literally. Bringing one of the largest developers in the world in with his top investor in an effort to turn the quaint Sage City into the next mecca of mountain destinations would be sure to win him mayor for life.
If the people didn’t vote him down for making the town so corporate.
It made him so fudging mad that the people could be so short sighted. The tax revenue was not enough to keep the town afloat, but they did not want to bring any outsiders in. Just wait, when the money started rolling in, they wouldn’t give two sugarplums about corporations over local businesses.
As the doors to the black SUV’s opened, Torbin opened his arms wide and declared in a sing-songy voice, “Welcome to Sage City, the Sweetest Heart of the Mountains.” Torbin was so enjoying the moment he did not notice Elena Cordova’s dismissive eye roll. He rushed to great Furr and Dupree.
“I trust the trip in was enjoyable?” he asked,
expectantly. “Enjoy the views coming in?”
“Absolutely my friend!” replied Furr,
the billion-dollar smile getting its money’s worth. “I cannot think of a better spot for the next Furr Development project. This valley is a vision!”
Torbin squealed with laughter at this, and Dupree winced. By now, the Hansons had climbed out of the car, dropping candy wrappers and half-finished soda bottles to the ground. And that is where they stayed as the family moved on to look in the windows of the nearby shops.
“Well, Ms. Cordova, you look lovely this morning!” chimed Torbin as he turned toward the investor. “I hope you in particular enjoyed the view on the drive in!”
She smiled her own smile- maybe a half-
billion dollar variety. “I especially loved the drive over the river.” In her mind’s eye, she saw dollar signs.
Turning now to the family grazing the shops with their eyes- who were not nearly as uncouth as Elena saw them- Torbin extended his arms again. “And you must be the Hansons- Tom, Desiree, Felicia and Alvin!” He may have appeared a simpleton, but Torbin was great with people. You don’t get elected to mayor five times in a row without knowing how to play the people.
“Yessirree bob. You got a nice town here, Mr. Mayor!” Tom Hanson replied, a small piece of chocolate melted on the corner of his mouth.
Dupree stepped over to Torbin and leaned in to speak in his ear- “I would like to get on with our evaluation of the area if you don’t mind?”
“Of course, of course Mr. Dupree. Where would you like to start?”
Furr stepped over to this conversation and interjected- “Well, if Lennox does not mind going over over the legal documents, I would like to head up with some of my geologists-” he pointed to two men that had stepped out of the middle SUV. They were dressed for hiking, but to Torbin, they only appeared to have a passing resemblance to geologists in the sense that they had rocks for brains. “-so we can evaluate the potential for mining operations. You know, if we find some deposits, we might be able to sweeten the deal…?” He smiled and winked, playing into Torbin’s glee. (Of course, they knew there were minerals, gold and silver, but the “geologists” were going to claim they found nothing or some issue with the land, forcing a drop in price, not a “sweetening of the deal.” Not for Sage City, anyway.)
“Abso-fudgin-lutely! Here comes Ranger Steve and his intern- they can show you the good sights. Heyo, Stevo!”
The approaching ranger shook his head at the greeting and begrudgingly approached. “Howdy, I’m Ranger Steve Zander, this is my intern Mandy Jane- she is on loan from the university over in Gunnison for the semester.” The young lady with curly hair smiled politely but did not extend a hand.
The billion and half-billion-dollar smiles turned full force on the locals. But inside, Furr was not happy, not one bit. He did not need some park ranger interfering. And he definitely did not want some tree-hugging Gen-Z hippie talking about conservation. But he smiled and he charmed, because that is how you do this.
Just down the street, a black Camaro pulled up to the Hungry Pastor and Sawyer Shepherd stepped out of the car, and into a much bigger story than he ever imagined.
Chad Lehrmann lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in College Station, Texas, where he teaches High School Psychology, Sociology, and Debate.