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A Dead Man's Tale
By James D. Doss
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 James D. Doss
All rights reserved.
10:54 P.M., May 3 Play It Again, Sam
Samuel Reed is every bit as cheerful as he had been (and would be again) on the evening of his untimely demise. As the jolly fellow slips along Shadowlane Avenue in his sleek gray Mercedes, he sings at the top of his fine tenor voice. ("Sweet Adeline.")
Without missing a beat, our happy crooner turns into a graveled driveway that snakes its way through a small forest of spruce and aspen before looping around his two-story, nine-bedroom, twelve-bath brick residence.
Some Strange Goings-On
Having activated a radio-frequency device on his key chain to open a twenty-foot-wide door, Sam Reed pulled into the spacious garage under his so-called guest house. Because Mr. and Mrs. R. rarely entertained overnight visitors, the upstairs apartment served as the businessman's at-home office. But even that designation was not entirely accurate; in actual practice, the quarters over the detached garage provided a quiet sanctuary upon those occasions when Irene was in one of her snarling-snapping moods. As it happened (and not by accident), Sam's spouse did not have a key to the guest house, nor did she have need of one. His better half kept her pink Cadillac in the attached six-car garage, where that symbol of GM's pre-Chapter 11 days was alone except for the lady's shiny new ten-speed bicycle.
Sam Reed parked his superb German motorcar beside his buff black Hummer and closed the garage door with his remote. Before getting out of his automobile, he reached across the seat to pick up the —
Pick up the what?
There was nothing on the passenger seat for his gloved fingers to grasp.
The driver blinked at the empty space. Now what did I expect to find there?
This reasonable question triggered the recollection of a chain of seemingly mundane events, which began with Reed's usual routine after a long, tiring day of turning tidy profits. He remembered locking the door of his downtown office over the Cattleman's Bank and clearly recollected walking down the stairway to emerge onto the parking lot.
So far, nothing remarkable.
Then ... The moment the cold air hit me in the face, I remembered that I had something important to do before driving home. Something to pick up for Irene ... but what was it — something from the supermarket? No. I don't think so. Like a big-mouth bass breaking water to gulp up a plump insect, the memory surfaced abruptly: Oh, of course — I walked a few blocks down to the Copper Street Candy Shop and arrived just minutes before their ten thirty P.M. closing time. Reed could still taste the delicious double espresso he'd tossed back while the proprietor was wrapping a box of gourmet chocolates in shiny silver foil. This latter recollection was particularly significant: the purchase of absurdly expensive sweets for the lady of the house occurred only once each year. And then I walked back to the parking lot, got into my car, and placed the box of chocolates on the passenger seat.
This explained his reaching for a box of chocolates. Sort of. His brow furrowed into a puzzled frown. But the chocolates are not there. And Reed knew why: Because I did not stop at the candy shop this evening. Why? Because Irene's birthday is a month away. Which raised a relevant question: What the hell is going on? As trained scientists are wont to do at the drop of a beaker, he postulated a plausible theory: I've been working too hard; my mind is playing tricks on me. Even when endowed with a superior intellect (he reasoned), a minor malfunction was bound to occur from time to time.
Shrugging it off, Reed emerged from the Mercedes with his ivory-knobbed cane in hand and exited the garage by a side door facing the rear of his residence. He paused for a sweet moment to inhale a breath of the invigorating night air and treat his eyes to the silvery aspect of a half inch of late-spring snowfall. What I need is a glass of wine and a good night's sleep.
Alas, the prescription for what ailed him was to be found in neither bottle nor bed.
As he trod along, tugging a foreshortened moon shadow toward his home, a chill breeze wafted by to cool his face. Endowed with an exquisitely sensitive imagination that could be triggered into delightfully whimsical visions by the slightest suggestion, the closet romantic was instantly transformed into a lean, hard-eyed mountain man — leaning into a blinding blizzard. To enhance the dandy fantasy, Sam Reed commenced to croon a few lines of "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," adjusting his pace so that the crunch-crunch of his pricey Florsheim Kenmoor shoes in the snow provided a synchronized rhythm to the melancholy old cowboy song. He was just about to bellow out the good part about where coyotes howl and the wind blows free when his shoe crunching was accompanied by a distant downbeat.
From somewhere miles and weeks away, a half-ton bronze bell began to count off the eleventh hour.
No. Not tonight. This was not that dreaded End of the Trail.
But the dreadful tolling (which not another mortal soul could hear!) was suddenly accompanied by an extremely unpleasant phenomenon.
Samuel Reed's initial sensation was that a white-hot poker had been thrust through his chest. This assault was instantly followed by an agonizing pain behind his forehead. Believing that he was suffering a heart attack or a stroke or both, the stricken man staggered and almost fell. This is it — poor Irene will find my frozen body here in the snow.
At the seventh peal of the imaginary bell, his pains began to diminish. At the eleventh and final gong, after a half-dozen rib-thumping heartbeats and half as many gasping breaths, they were gone. Professor Reed was fully recovered. A most welcome development, indeed — and one that should have been entirely gratifying.
But, by some means or other, he had become aware of a stark new reality: Before much time has passed, I am destined to reside among the deceased. And not due to natural causes.
Enough to make a man stop and think. Which he did.
I'm a goner unless I do something about it. Which he would.
In the meantime ... I'm glad this creepy experience is over. It was not.
The first indication of more to come was a slight buzzing at the base of his skull. This was followed by a giddy sensation of weightlessness ... as if the slightest breeze might blow him away like a dead cottonwood leaf.
What's this? The expectant fellow cocked his ear as if listening for something. Or perhaps to something.
Then ... Oh my goodness!
Samuel Reed was suddenly bedazzled by a stunning jolt of mental clarity that would have felled a lesser man. As he looked up to see the moon's pockmarked face staring blankly back at him, his mouth curled into a grin that was a notch or two beyond silly. An uncharitable observer might have described the expression as teetering right on the ragged edge of idiotic, and concluded that the unfortunate fellow was suffering from an attack of lunacy.
Sam would have disagreed with that diagnosis, and asserted that he was experiencing a wonderful epiphany. But it is worth noting that the fellow is an authentic specimen of that gender whose members are frequently mistaken — but rarely in doubt.
What is the truth of the matter? We do not know. The jury is still out.
But right or wrong, the man grinning at the earth's silvery satellite was convinced that he understood precisely what had occurred. He threw back his head and enjoyed a hearty laugh.
This was — in a very real sense — a new beginning.CHAPTER 2
Mrs. Reed Fidgets and Frets
Having heard Sam's Mercedes arrive a few minutes earlier, Irene Reed was wondering what was keeping her husband. Desirous of finding out, she pulled on a black silk robe, slipped her bare feet into a pair of black velvet house slippers, and padded from the parlor into the dining room to peek between the curtains at the snowy backyard. The lady's pouting lips carried on a conversation with her petulant thoughts.
"Oh, there he is." But why's he standing in the snow like some dodo that don't know where to go? "And what's Sammy laughing about?" Probably some stupid joke. The humor critic arched a penciled-on left eyebrow. "Now he's talking to himself!" What next? (She is about to find out.)
Samuel began to sing. Loudly. ("Just the Two of Us.")
"Oh, I hope the neighbors don't hear!" The embarrassed wife shook her head in dismay. "That's what happens when a man doesn't get enough rest and relaxation." But working long hours is how he makes so much money. Irene's eyes got as big as silver dollars. "Would you look at that — it's cold enough to freeze an Eskimo and he's taking off his overcoat — and his jacket!" Well if that ain't goofy, I don't know what is. "Now he's rolling up his shirtsleeve." Maybe Sammy's started taking dope again. "First it was popping pills, now he's about to stick a hypo into his arm." Oh, I can't look!
The delicate creature beat a hasty retreat into the parlor.
Not to worry, Mrs. Reed. Your husband is not about to insert a hollow needle into his arm; the mere thought of puncturing his flesh makes Sam cringe. Whenever he needs a specified fluid injected under his skin, a shady lady in town performs that disagreeable task for him. What is the eccentric man's purpose in baring his forearm? Professor Reed plays his cards close to his vest, so it's hard to say. But sooner or later, he's bound to give himself away.
As her chilled silk-stockinged toes were getting all comfy-cozy on the warm brick hearth, Irene Reed scowled prettily at the crackling fire. Soon as I get warmed up, I'll go to the back door and yell at the silly bastard. The lady of the house turned her cold backside to the fireplace. "But I won't let on that I know he's started pumping drugs into his veins." I'll be all sugary-sweet. "That's what Sammy likes." She poured herself a stiff shot of Tennessee sour mash whiskey and tossed the fiery liquid down her throat.
As Samuel Reed rolled his sleeve down, refastened the cuff, and slipped into his jacket, he was experiencing a conflicting mix of emotions that combined to a near-zero sum. The downside was a violent death that awaited him around some dark corner. But such an outcome need not be inevitable, and it was counterbalanced by an opportunity. Make that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The irony of the descriptor produced a thin little smile under the dapper man's immaculately trimmed mustache. So absorbed was the scientist-entrepreneur in his thoughts that he was startled by his spouse's shrill screech from the back door.
"I've been waiting up for you, Sammy — don't stand out there in the cold like a silly old goof." Irene added a shiver and a "Brrrr!"
Buttoning his woolen jacket, her husband called out, "I'll be right there, dear."
"Well hurry up — I've got something special waiting for you!" With this enticing invitation, his gorgeous wife disappeared inside, leaving the door open wide.
Still a bit giddy from his extraordinary experience, Samuel Reed needed to get a fix on his temporal coordinates. He entered through the rear of his home and stepped into a little-used game room that was provided with all manner of entertainments, from computerized tests of manual and mental skills to old-fashioned amusements like a Ping-Pong table, a 1950s'-era pinball machine, an antique Reno Sally slot rigged to fleece the occasional guest who could not resist feeding it quarter-dollars. Oblivious to these garish furnishings, he switched on a century-old Tiffany floor lamp and peered at the Cattleman's Bank calendar, whereupon — every morning without fail — he crossed off the previous day. The last date with an X through it was the second of May. Which makes this the third. Reed's eyes goggled, his mouth gaped, and he heard himself say, "I have a month and a day left!"
Again he was distracted by his spouse's summons — this time from their spacious parlor. "Don't dillydally, Sammy — come in here by the fire."
He smiled at the girlish pout in Irene's voice. "I shall be there directly."
"I've got something sweet and yummy — come to Mummy and get some while it's hot!"
Reed inhaled deeply, put on his happy-face mask, and marched into the parlor, where piñon flames snapped and crackled merrily in a fireplace large enough to roast a side of prime beef flanked by a half-dozen tender piglets.
His darkly attractive wife, wearing a black silk negligee and a sly smile, was stretched out on a midnight-blue velveteen couch. Irene raised a smallish glass that was half filled with an aromatic amber fluid. Smiling seductively at her husband, the lady gestured to draw his gaze to a crystal pitcher perched on the hearth. "Would Daddy like a nice hot toddy?"
The husband sighed. "Mommy always knows just what Daddy likes."
This is an appropriate time to leave Mr. and Mrs. Reed to enjoy the privacy of their luxurious residence.
Tomorrow morning, we shall pay a call on another sort of man altogether. Charlie Moon does not have a wife to come home to, and his bankroll would not choke a garter snake or grubstake a frugal silver prospector searching for "sign" in the badlands on the yonder side of Pine Knob. No, sir — not for a week, on a menu of moldy old corn pone, cold navy beans, and sour stump water.CHAPTER 3
"'O bury me not on the lone prairie.' These words came low and mournfully From the pallid lips of the youth who lay On his dying bed at the close of day."
May 4 Hard Times on the Columbine
Though you wouldn't have guessed it from the hearty breakfast in the ranch headquarters. Eighteen-year-old Sarah Frank, who was serving it up on big platters, also provided nonstop cheerful chatter. The winsome lass was fairly bubbling over about how much she was enjoying her second semester at Rocky Mountain Polytechnic University in Granite Creek.
Every now and then when he could slip a slender word in edgeways, Charlie Moon contributed a remark or two.
Whenever Sarah finally ran out of breath, Charlie's aunt Daisy commenced to entertain those present with her customary early-morning organ recital, which began with the composer's well-known "Overture to an Aching Left Kidney," followed by her lighthearted "Waltz with a Leaky Bladder," and finally the big finale — an untitled fugue dedicated to Daisy Perika's troublesome colon.
What a great way to start a day — and break an overnight fast with a feast.
After Moon had finished off three fried eggs, a Texas- size chicken-fried steak soaked in thick brown gravy, and enough crispy fried potatoes and made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits to feed slender little Sarah for a week, the Ute rancher politely inquired whether anyone had a hankering for that last piece of beef in the cast-iron skillet. The ladies did not, so the tall, lean man helped himself to the lonely piece of meat, smothered it in a ladle of hot gravy, and made short work of the combination.
Will all that cooking, talking, eating, and whatnot, the Columbine kitchen was already a mite warmish and it was about to heat up by a few extra degrees that cannot be measured on any Fahrenheit, Celsius, Kelvin, or other temperature scale that you might care to mention.
Watch the girl do her stuff.
While Sarah helped Charlie with the dishes, the willowy youngster's left hip just happened to bump him from time to time. It was enough.
These small intimacies inspired Mr. Moon to get out of the kitchen and onto the east porch first chance he got, which he did, leaving Sarah to sigh and Aunt Daisy to shake her head and wonder where all this foolishness was going. Sarah has her cap set for my nephew but that silly girl is like a daughter to Charlie and what he wants for a wife is a grown-up woman and there's a half-dozen brassy hussies just waiting to be asked and I wish one of 'em was a nice Ute girl but every one of 'em is a matukach but I'd just as soon he stayed single as marry one of them pale-skinned women because if that mixing keeps up for two or three more generations the whole tribe'll look like they was from Norway and won't that be a big joke on us Southern Utes but at least I won't live to see it.
Excerpted from A Dead Man's Tale by James D. Doss. Copyright © 2010 James D. Doss. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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