Choose Your Poison
Willamette Valley, October 2003
Josee discovered the canister while seeking firewood in the thicket. A chance encounter, nothing more. The odds of finding it here beneath a sword fern were slim, she knew that, but long ago she had retreated from belief in a grand design. She’d been down that slope before.
In her hands, the object pleaded for purpose. For significance.
She shook her head. Nope. A random occurrence–that’s all this was.
Prompted by sporadic raindrops on leaves overhead, Josee Walker built her campfire, blowing at kindling and newsprint until flames rose with halfhearted applause. Satisfied, she returned to her discovery. Weighed the canister in her hands, noted water spots and rust stains. Scratch marks, too. She polished it with the sleeve of her sweatshirt and found her face reflected in the metal surface.
That’s me? After two days without a mirror, the sight was disturbing.
Don’t even look like myself. I look so…wasted. Out of it.
Josee rotated the object and found a skull-and-crossbones symbol.
Stenciled in black, it made her shudder as she rolled the canister into her bedroll.
Rocks shifted nearby.
“Hey.” She raised her voice above the patter of rain. “That you, Scoot?”
“Who else? I scare you?”
“Not even. Just making sure.”
Josee’s friend wheeled his bike down the railway embankment. His dreadknotted hair hung like soggy pretzels from his hood and funneled water down the front of his poncho. Moisture clung to his thin beard.
“Quick, hon,” said Josee, “get in here.”
“Think I’m frozen to the bone.”
“I started a campfire for us using the classifieds. How’s that for irony, considering we have no place to stay?” As Scooter dropped his daypack onto the ground, Josee heard his chattering teeth. “Scoot, you poor thing.”
“You don’t have to mother me. And what, this place isn’t good enough?”
“Oh, cork it.” She kissed him on the cheek. “What’d you get us?”
“Dinner. Found some bread and fish fillets at the old Safeway in
She studied the expiration dates. “Hmm, should be okay. Only a day late,
looks like.” The fillets were actually fish sticks that she knew he’d collected from the Dumpster by the store.
“They’re fine,” Scooter said. “Let’s eat.”
She pushed back a tuft of hair. “Better watch it, mister. Might find yourself traveling alone.”
“Know so. And you know you can’t live without me. You adore me.” She teased him with turquoise eyes. He couldn’t resist them, she was certain of that. Part of her survival gear. Multifunctional. With a twinkle of these eyes she often masked her real thoughts from others; her feelings, too.
Right now I feel far away–that’s what I feel. Detached.
“You ask me,” Scooter was muttering, “beggars can’t be choosers.”
“You mean the food? Beggars, artists–we’re all in the same boat. Yep,
have to take what we can get.”
“Money’s a security blanket. That’s all it is, Josee. People goin’ through the motions for another paycheck, selling their souls for a slice of suburban heaven–”
“Or suburban hell.” She watched the sputtering fire.
“Load of crock. You and I know better.”
“Babe, you okay?”
Josee peeked from beneath her pierced eyebrow and black hair, started to answer, then with a flick of her wrist waved him off while fanning at eyeburning smoke and memories. Her past was a vandalized scrapbook: pages torn, photos scratched, facts rubbed out. The book’s coverage of her childhood was a mess.
Yeah, there were a few unsullied years, beginning with her adoption at age nine. Before the darker days of teenage angst, of reproachful encounters.
Events she preferred not to speak about.
Give them credit, her adoptive parents had tried to provide an atmosphere of acceptance in which she could open up, but she felt nothing. It was useless. They would never understand, and she refused to risk further rejection.
Already she had developed an effective coping mechanism: Josee Walker trusted no one but herself. After making life miserable for everyone in the house–and feeling guilty for it–she had taken advantage of her newly earned driver’s license and moved into a friend’s converted garage. Never bothered to look back. The past was the past, she told herself. Best to let it go.
That was six years ago.
“What’re you thinking?” Scooter prodded.
“That it’d be nice to stop thinking.”
“Tomorrow you get to meet your birth mother. That’s a good thing,
Josee grimaced. “I hope she’s ready for it.”
“For me. She might expect her daughter to be, I don’t know,
Scooter’s grin sparked amid his facial hair. “You sent her a picture, didn’t you? Don’t worry, she’ll like you just the way you are. If not? Her loss.” He dug into his poncho. “Here, Josee, little somethin’ I picked up. Nothing big.”
She accepted a case of charcoals and pencils. “Where’d you get this, or do
I want to know?”
“Worked out a deal. Hated to see you scratching away with that stubby pencil of yours.”
She paused and listened to the rain. “Where’s your Discman?”
His hands pushed into his pockets, jacking up his shoulders.
Josee pawed through his pack. “You hocked it to pay for this?”
“Listen, we gonna eat or what?”
She opened the art case, found that fingering the colorful implements recharged her imagination. Too wet out to do any sketches, but later she’d get a chance. “Thanks,” she said, nudging him. Her throat tightened. She clicked the case shut and busied herself with her bedroll until confident her voice was steady. “Something I wanted to show you, too,” she said. “Look what I found while gathering wood.” She hefted the canister. “Sort of spooky, don’t you think?”
In a dank basement studio, canvases draped the concrete walls. Shades of scarlet and ebony dominated, splashed across cubist artwork. Spanning floor to ceiling, the collection’s centerpiece depicted a white chess queen against a stark background. She was losing her balance on a castle parapet, her silent scream exaggerated, lances poised below to skewer her.
The Lady in Dread.
Karl Stahlherz frowned at the picture. Since its completion, he’d been unable to paint, despite his gnawing appetite for distinction. He knew the art was good; his mother had fostered his gift, and in statewide galleries his pieces had sold for respectable and increasing amounts. Never under his own name though. Payments filtered through an art institute called the House of
Ubelhaar, and the only means of identifying his work was his signature saffron streak across the lower right-hand corner.
He remained an unknown. Barely a footnote in federal government files.
Soon that would be rectified.
Stahlherz slipped an audio book into his newly acquired Discman.
Taking only cash or trade, he supplemented his income with the sale of art supplies. The kid who’d stopped in earlier had telephoned first, asked for a specific item for his girlfriend. Stahlherz had waited on the porch’s uneven stone steps, nervous, tapping his fingers against the air until the kid arrived astride a rusty bike. Most likely another college dropout–scrawny, hair tickling his chin, multiple pockets down the baggy pant legs.
The kid handed over the Discman. “Works great. Check it out for yourself.”
Testing the player’s components, Stahlherz fumbled and almost dropped it. “Appears functional,” he managed. He relinquished the art case, tried to look his customer in the eye. “Keep me in mind the next time you need supplies.
Without the overhead, I can underbid most shops around Corvallis.”
“Thanks, but I’m from out of state.”
“Doesn’t live here either, not anymore. Ran across your number on a flier.”
“Shipping’s inexpensive,” Stahlherz pressed. “With an address, I could add you to my files and send you quarterly fliers. Or e-mail if you’re online.”
The kid kicked at a foot pedal. “Nothing against you, but I pretty much keep to myself. I try to stay off those kinds of lists, to avoid the eyes of Big
Brother. Fly under the radar, low as I can go.”
Stahlherz bobbed his head. Despite the twenty or thirty years that separated them, he could relate to this kid. “Your views sound vaguely anarchistic.”
“Might say that.”
“You’re not the only one with such ideas. This region’s gained a share of notoriety for similar leanings. In fact, I could put you in contact with others who–”
“Nah, that’s all right. You know how it is… Girlfriend’s waiting.”
Watching the kid ride into the drizzle, Stahlherz felt he had mishandled a potential recruit. Never mind. As a mentor to many, a sower of discord and activism, Stahlherz could visualize his objectives at last. He and his recruits would soon mete out justice to this cancerous culture in which they’d been bred.
Chemo treatments, as it were. To purge society’s disease, bring it to its knees.
In the basement, Stahlherz rotated in his desk chair and drew inspiration from his canvases. He focused on The Lady in Dread. Pain, he mused, was the great equalizer. None were beyond its reach, and he had harnessed his mind to see into such mysteries. He could control his intellect. Guide its mighty surges.
As if to mock his thoughts, a rook squawked from the cage above his desk. Black wings beat the bars, and feathers lighted on Stahlherz’s onyx chess table. Insolence filled the bird’s sable eyes. A single talon, a polished spike,
poked between the bars.
“Now, now,” Stahlherz reprimanded. “You’ll have your chance to roam.”
Logged on to the Internet, he sent his first summons. He signed it: Mr.
“What is that?” Scooter was pointing at the cylinder’s base.
Josee traced a hand over the skull and crossbones. “Nothing.”
“Maybe you should put it back where you found it.”
“Maybe I’m a big girl and can do what I want.” She braced herself, hoping for Scooter’s opposition, which would confirm her sense of foreboding.
“Your call,” was all he said. “Let’s get this food cooking.”
“That’s your big response?”
“You got a hungry man sittin’ here.”
“Why do you do that? Why do you back off?”
“What, you’d rather fight?”
“Well, you spout off at everyone else like you’re the man of the hour, but when it comes to me, you back away. Don’t you have an opinion at least?”
Scooter shrunk into the thicket’s shadows, arms crossed beneath his poncho.
His introspective nature had drawn Josee to him, yet his lack of assertiveness annoyed her. All the loyalty she tried to give… And he just grunts when it comes to choosing sides?
“Figure it’s up to you, Josee.” His fingers twisted at his moonstone ring.
“I’d leave the thing alone, but that’s just me.”
“Hey, if we disagree on something, it’s not like I’m going to bite your head off. You should realize that by now, Scoot. I care about you. Any reason you should doubt that? Am I doing something wrong?”
“’Cause sometimes it sure seems like I’m doing something wrong.”
“It’s been a while,” Scooter ventured. “A long time actually.”
“Since…you know what I’m talkin’ about. You gonna make me spell it out? I’m lucky to even sneak a kiss anymore.”
“We’ve already talked about this. You said you understood.”
“I do, in the cerebral sense. Up here. Not trying to complain, but”–he tapped his chest–“in here it still feels like you’re pushing me away. Am I
blowin’ hot air? Am I making any sense?”
“There’s more to love, hon, than just getting it on. Plenty of people do that without an ounce of real feeling for each other. Look at Josh and Heather–
perfect example. Already told you, just need to work through some stuff.”
“You think it’s wrong, babe? Is that it? Like some kind of moral issue?”
“No. Yes. Heck, I don’t know, Scooter. Yeah, we jumped in too quickly.
There’s a part of me that says to hold off. It brings up thoughts of the past I
don’t want attached to our relationship.”
“So I’m the one who gets robbed.”
“No, don’t give me that. I’m not your property, never have been.”
His eyes caught hers with the look of a wounded animal. “I’ve never thought of you that way.”
Josee lifted the canister and heard herself growl, “Dang it, why do you make me feel guilty? How’d we even get on this subject? When’re you going to start standing up for yourself? That was my original point. What’s so stinkin’ hard to understand about that?”
“Listen, I’m not trying to–”
“Not trying? Hey, you said it, mister, not me.”
“Wait, I didn’t mean that.”
He pulled his knees to his chest. Although Josee wanted to reach out, she distrusted her ability to do so in the aftermath of indignation. She had a real knack for lighting sticks of dynamite around those she loved. Dynamite…and love. A poem idea swam through her head, but she held it under.
Scooter nodded at their meager food pile. “Chow time yet?” His teeth still chattered as he rubbed his hands together.
Josee resorted to routine. “Should take only a few minutes. Know how you feel. I’m hungry too.” Before taking out a battered frypan, she set down her discovery and gave it a maternal glance. “I’m keeping this thing,” she said.
When he failed again to retort, she added, “Finders keepers, isn’t that the way it works? Belongs to me.”
Creepy. Or was it just her imagination? The skull and crossbones seemed to be taunting her with a cold, black grin. She fidgeted. Tried to ignore it.
Throughout the meal, the hollow eyes continued to stare right through her.
“Whasit gonna be? Choose your poison.”
Beau saw the countergirl’s brow lift over sequined glasses, and he scratched his chest. He felt like a moron. Café Zerachio’s whole vibe was wrong, and he couldn’t figure out why Mr. Steele had summoned him here.
The overhead menu was a blur of neon chalk curlicues, and the sound of grinding espresso beans had Beau grinding his teeth.
“What about just straight coffee?” he tried. “Got anything like that?”
The girl pointed to the coffeepots behind her. “House blend?”
“Perfect,” Steele broke in. “And I’ll take a short double cap. Make it dry.”
With his part-time tractor repair job, Beau made okay money, but he was glad to see his mentor pay the bill. Not that it mattered much. As of tonight,
Beau knew that his life was going to change.
Mr. Steele was leading the way to a corner alcove, chin down, a sack slung over hunched shoulders. Smarter than smart, the middle-aged guy wasn’t much of a people person. Had salt-and-pepper hair, eyes that darted this way and that, fingers that tickled the air when that brain of his started revving.
Geniuses were like that, Beau had been told. Always ten moves ahead.
“You see the way that girl looked at me?” Beau touched coffee beans strung along the wall. “Real snooty.”
“Don’t let it irritate you, my friend. Let’s say nothing foolhardy.”
The girl approached with their drinks, nodded at Steele. “Thasit?”
“Should do the trick.” From beneath graying brows, Steele’s eyes tracked her retreat. His body rocked in his seat.
Beau carried on, his interest in the coffee diluted by the sting of his mentor’s words. “You’re wrong there, boss. You watch, I’ll do everything as planned.”
“I have been watching, and soon you’ll have the chance to prove yourself.
Within the next twenty-four hours, the girl should be arriving in town, may even be here now.” Steele savored his cappuccino. “Mmm, won’t she be in for a surprise?”
Beau cast a glance around the empty café. Although his heart raced in anticipation of the task, he was afraid of messing things up. His father’s face flashed before him, but he knew nothing would ever impress that fool. Beau had tried–oh, how he’d tried. Forget it though. Eight months ago he’d torn a flier from a bulletin board at Fred Meyer’s supermarket and found a legitimate shot at approval.
ICV…In Cauda Venenum.
The group had nabbed Beau with its ad for artistic outsiders. It fit him to a tee. Before dropping out of school, he had earned nothing but trouble from teachers and disrespect from classmates for his cartooning. “Wasting your time,” a senior had once told him, with a finger thump against his latest sketch. “Your artwork’s a joke.” Others had done more than ridicule; Beau would always hate those high school locker rooms.
Mr. Steele was the one who’d given him new ambition. He and the members of ICV recognized Beau’s value.
And the Professor won him over for good.
At secretive gatherings, the Professor hammered out their goals in that hushed tone that masked tough-as-nails determination. You can, you will, you must obey to find the way… It was one of the Professor’s credos. Inspiring.
Providing purpose. And Beau soaked it up like a rag stuffed into a gas tank’s spout.
“Okay, cough it up,” he said. “What’s my next move?”
Steele shifted his eyes, then clasped Beau’s wrists. The fingers were anchors dropped into soft skin. Beau tried to withstand the pain, looked toward the counter where the girl swayed to soft drums over whale song. He curled his toes. Chose to shut down. Focused on the last ICV meeting and the support he’d sensed in the Professor’s eyes. I must obey to find the way…
Steele’s grip tightened, testing the anchor’s hold. “Beau, this will be your chance to leave your mark. Do you believe that? Are you ready to pay the price?”
He hardened his gaze. “Yes, I’m up for it.”
“As I understand it, you’ve worked before on the machinery at Addison
Ridge Vineyards. I assume, therefore, that you’re familiar with Ridge Road.
Starting this evening, we need you posted there on surveillance. When this girl of ours arrives, she expects to meet with her mother. You’ll make certain such a reunion never occurs.”
“You betcha, boss. For the good of the network.”
“In cauda venenum.”
Energized, Beau echoed the phrase. A literal reference to the sting of a scorpion’s tail; it was a name wrapped within a warning. For as long as he’d been shoved aside, he’d looked forward to making others suffer. This was his big chance.
Scooter was in the tent as the campfire burned low. She needed a few minutes to herself, Josee had told him. In the slivered moonlight beneath the branches,
she found their canteen. From a vial she kept on braided twine around her neck, she extracted a red capsule and washed it down with water.
Daily routine. Doctor’s orders. Through the years it’d become second nature.
She heard Scooter shifting in his sleeping bag, felt a tug of remorse.
Words that flowed so easily from her fingers could stab so sharply from her mouth. Dynamite…and love. Her manner of delivery seemed to have pushed him farther away.
“Scoot? You still awake?”
His breathing skipped, then turned heavy. No reply.
She slipped a pencil from her new case and, by firelight, wrote:
who will discover the gold in me without the use of dynamite?
A pause. A nibble on the eraser.
dreams and hopes, buried alive beneath the rubble of strife
Josee slapped at a mosquito, then crouched to ensure that the canister was still in her bedroll. With her sleeping bag removed and situated in the tent,
the metal object felt cold and unyielding against her hand. A chill crawled along her skin. She hurried to cinch and knot the cord with all the strength her small fingers could muster.