What I’m posting today is an email that I sent to two of my friends about seven years ago. It was just an email, but it read like a short story. That spurred me on to do some more writing and before I knew it, here I am asking you to read about my misspent youth (again). By the way, every word is true (unfortunately). And please forgive my syntax, tense mistakes, and all the rest. It was my first effort and I’m too indolent to go in and change anything.
Dear Ben & Rick,
Mount St. Helens blew its top, the Liberty City riots, and this story all took place between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning of that fateful weekend of 1980. There must have been something in the air.
First, a little background: You guys remember my old office and the kind of neighborhood in which it was located. Well, I decided to relocate to a little bit better area. So we moved a mile or two east on 79th street. But we were east of Biscayne Boulevard and that made all the difference in the world. Or so I thought at the time.
Our new offices were in a strip shopping center. You know, about ten stores set up for retail businesses. However, this place was a little different; it had offices at each end to act as anchors. Our set up was two stories and had large, mirrored windows you could see out, but not in. They were massive, about twenty feet high and ran across the entire front. They come into the story later.
In this layout was a “dance studio” two doors down from me. It was owned by a beautiful Jamaican lady. There was not one wrong thing about her. Long hair, glowing brown skin, and curves most women would kill for at that age … she was twenty-five. Her name was Maryanne. And to top it off, she drove a brand new black Corvette. Maryanne got my attention.
I don’t remember how our relationship got started, but before long, I found myself going over there to hang out in the afternoons, if she had no customers. I must digress for a moment to disabuse you of the idea that this may have been a dance studio in any way, shape, or form. The only person who danced in that dance studio was Maryanne or one of the girls who worked for her. The customers, who were all male, sat in beanbag chairs and observed the girls dancing to music supplied by a boom box (at least that’s where I remember the music coming from). As to what these men did while a girl was dancing, I’ll leave to your vivid imaginations, but the girls were never touched.
There’s one other thing you need to know. Maryanne and I were not in love, it was pure sex. One weekend, we drove her car to Key West, and the first night there, at a bar, I saw a girl I was very interested in. So I suggested to Maryanne that she should see what she could dig up for herself, which she happily set about doing. I went home with the local talent and spent the night with her. The next morning, Maryanne and I met up and continued our weekend, no questions asked. That was the type of relationship we had. I tell you this because it is pertinent to the story.
Now the fun begins. It’s Friday afternoon, just before Mt. St. Helens and Liberty City blow up. I’m on my houseboat doing a little housework. (In those days I still did things of that sort.) Maryanne jumps on board—unannounced I might add—with her sheets flapping in the wind. (Sailor talk for very drunk.)
She wasn’t too bad, but you know what Quaaludes were like. She wants to have sex “Right now!” You guys, because you know me, might not believe this, but I said no. Probably the first and only time in my life I’ve done anything of that sort. I expected her to take it like a man, turn around, and walk out. But, boy was I wrong! She said, and I quote, “When I tell a man to fuck me, he better well do it, and fast!”
If she had given me a few sniffles instead, you guys wouldn’t be reading this sordid tale. But no, she gets butch and throws a left hook, which connects and pisses me off. She was a petite little thing, so I wrapped my arms around her, picked her up, and carried her to the dock where she was gently deposited and told to be a good little girl and go home.
As far as I was concerned, that was the end of it. But remember it’s only Friday afternoon and this drama didn’t have the National Guard throwing me to the ground and pressing five shotguns into the flesh of my back, with one resting on my head, telling me if I moved one muscle I’d have my “fuckin’ head blown off” until Sunday morning. Dear, dear Maryanne made it a most interesting weekend. I preferred our Key West get-a-way much better. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After she struts down the dock in an angry huff, I turn my attention to more serious matters—that evening’s debauchery. A few docks over lived a guy that reminded me of you, Rick. He had been in a serious motorcycle accident and had just got out of his body cast. His boat hosted a never-ending party that included the fabled Dancing Girls. Never had I seen such depravity, and I was right in the middle of it most nights. No … I cannot lie to you guys. I was in the middle of it every night. What happened on that boat is a story for another time. But going over there that night saved my life. By the way, Rick, it was the body cast and not the depravity that reminded me of you.
As I’m walking home the next morning from that boat of ill repute, a neighbor informs me that there were two guys hiding in some bushes the night before waiting for me to pass by. Some people in the marina noticed them after a while and called the police. They had guns and one of them shouted that he was going to kill that son-of a-bitch (me) for insulting his wife.
Maryanne, as it turned out, was married. Who knew? I learned later that she had gone home to her husband and gave him an edited version of what had happened, leaving out her wanting to go to bed part. I also learned that her husband’s original plan was to walk right to my houseboat, knock on the door, and shoot me point blank as I answered said door. That is why they were hiding in the shrubbery, and why I am still here to tell this tale of woe. I was not at home when he knocked on my door—I was two docks over enjoying the hospitality of my dear crippled and crazy friend.
So now I do the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I go to my debauched friend and tell him the story. He wants in on the fun, but he can only hobble around, so he offers me one of his many guns for self-protection. Being the genius that I am, I take a 9mm automatic. All of a sudden, I’m Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson.
It’s now Saturday, and that night I go night-clubbing with the 9mm in my back pocket, ready for action (what an A-Hole!). Well, I’m not attacked and make it home unscathed. About the time I got home, Mt. St. Helens was blowing her top, Liberty City was just getting a good burn going, and Maryanne was setting events in motion whose end result would culminate with me in the Dade County jail.
I get a few hours sleep and I am just getting up when my brother Mike bursts in and says, “What’s with your crazy girlfriend?” He goes on to tell me he had gone to the office that Sunday morn to get a little work out of the way. But as he exited his car, two guys assaulted him, hitting him over the head with the butt of a rifle, breaking the stock. The only thing that saved him was Maryanne yelling, “That’s not him, that’s not him!” He goes on to tell me that every window in our place has been smashed. You’ve heard the expression “He saw red,” well, I really did see red. It must have been the stress of the last couple of days, coupled with what happened to Mike (and my windows).
I reach for the gun as I’m telling Mike to come with me. We get into my car and off I go on a mission of vengeance and in a cloud of self-righteousness. We were there in less than five minutes and I slide my car sideways as though I’m Magnum PI. My plan is to use it as a shield. As the car comes to a rest, I pop out; draw the gun and start shooting straight into Maryanne’s studio (the bullet holes are still in the aluminum framing of the door to this day).
Well, ol’ Dirty Harry gets off two shots when my “friends” stick their heads out to see what’s going on. I take carful aim for the first guy, putting my thumb over the top of the gun. Up to that point, I had been firing one-handed. But now, I’m holding the gun with two hands like I see them do in the movies. I take careful aim at the motherfucker, pull the trigger, and almost severed my thumb (still got the scar), and the gun jams. No one told me automatics slide back with every shot. By the way, after my first shot, Mike said, “Are you nuts!” and walked (or ran) away. I was too busy to notice his means of staying out of jail that day.
So there I am. My thumb is dangling by a piece of bone, my gun won’t shoot anymore, and my targets are coming out with guns drawn. So what’s a hero to do in such a situation but run. I go around to the back of the building—there’s a house there—and I start knocking on the door screaming that they are going to kill me and please let me in. Amazingly, I’m let in. Two minutes later, the National Guard and about fifty local cops show up and drag me from the house. The riots are only blocks away, so I guess it wasn’t any bother on their part to run down the street and apprehend another crazy. Especially one that is armed and dangerous!
Well, as I’ve said before, I was thrown to the ground—the five shotguns on my back and a sixth on the back of my head, etc… etc…
Jail was interesting. I was the only white guy in there that day. They had arrested so many people because of the riot, we had twenty guys in a holding cell made for two or three at the most. And did I mention I was the only white guy? My fellow cellmates, at first, paid me no heed. They were too busy recounting to one another the exploits that landed them in our merry little conclave. But after about twenty minutes, things quieted down and one by one they turned their faces to me—Whitey. And believe me, there was no love lost in even one of those faces.
Presently, one young fellow spoke up and asked what I was in for. I looked at him, took a moment to answer to make sure I had everyone’s attention, and then said, “I just killed two people.” With that, they, as one living organism, shuffled away from me and I heard a voice in the back say: “I’ll take my TV rap” (he was in for looting). The rest of my cell mates wholeheartedly concurred. After that exchange, I was left to my own devices.
Ten hours later, I was allowed my phone call. I called a customer of mine, a bail bondsman. He told me I was getting him out of the sack with the sweetest little thing, but he came. Remember the streets were closed and there was a curfew. But somehow he got there and got me sprung. I then called good old Henry, who also got through the police lines—somehow.
As Henry and I made our way home that evening, Mt. St. Helens was calming down, the flames of Liberty City were now nothing more than embers; and my relationship with Maryanne had undergone a profound change. It had been quite a weekend.
The final outcome was this. The charges were pretty serious, so I took no chances and hired Roy Black (the guy who defended William Smith, the Kennedy who was charged with rape in Palm Beach, but this was years before that). I gave Roy $5000.00 cash (this was before money-laundering laws) for a retainer. After the preliminary when we knew which way the wind was blowing, we would then discuss his fee. So we went to court to ascertain my fate. When they called my case, the complainant’s name was called: Maryanne Jones. The judge looks up and says, “Is this the same Maryanne Jones that is in here every other week?” His clerk says it is indeed. To which the entire courtroom breaks out in laughter. It seems she was rather well known in judicial circles. Even the judge cracked a smile as he said, “Case dismissed.” That was $5000.00 well spent!
As a postscript, I subsequently spoke with Maryanne and she said she didn’t show up in court because she wasn’t a snitch. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wouldn’t have mattered if she had been there or not.
Somehow, after that weekend, the romance kind of went out of our relationship, although we remained friendly.
On a serious note: My hands shake every time I think of how close I came to taking a human life. I have not touched a gun since, nor will I if I live to be 100.
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She passed him every day. He was young, well built … and he was handsome. Just her type. She had tried everything to attract his attention. She had dressed provocatively, she had loitered, she had even taken a pratfall hoping he would come to her rescue, but some busybody stuck his big nose into her business by helping her up from the sidewalk where she lay waiting for Mr. Right to come to her aid.
In desperation, she came up with a plan. It centered on his profession. She would make some work for him and be there when he arrived. Then let him ignore her!
The plan was daring. A few blocks from where she saw him every day was an abandoned building; she would simply set fire to it and wait for her dream man to come to her.
You see, he was a firefighter. She walked past the firehouse daily, and that is where she saw the love of her life talking to his mates—paying her no mind.
The fire had spread fast and became larger than she had envisioned. But she stayed in place, awaiting her man. Finally he came. Now she could show herself at the window.
There he was—just below her—only a few feet away. His arms were reaching out to her and he was telling her to jump. You bet I’ll jump, big boy—catch me!
As she was in mid-air, and halfway to his waiting arms, she thought, “There must be an easier way to meet a man.”
I once had a girl. She was from Norway, but we met in New York City at a jazz club on the West Side. My friend Lane had dragged me there; he told me that the sax player would really send me. (I know, that is 60s lingo). I didn’t want to go because I was broke and I was embarrassed that Lane always picked up the check when we were out. But he persisted in asking, so I went with him that warm August night. It was a night that changed my life forever.
Lane and I were from upstate New York, we had been friends in high school. We were both going to be writers and write the Great American Novel. And here we were, Lane wrote copy for an ad agency and I wrote short stories that no one would buy.
I was twenty years old, and had just dropped out of college. I wanted to be a writer and I did not think college was the way to go about it. I thought the only way to be a writer was to write. So I headed for the big city, found myself a roach-infested apartment and opened my laptop. I got lucky and sold my first short story to a weekly newspaper. It was a free paper, but they did print fiction. They paid me all of twenty-five dollars for it.
After that, I figured it would be only a matter of time before I had TheNew Yorker knocking at my door wanting me to write my genius fiction for them, and if not the New Yorker, then at least the Village Voice. Well, things did not work out that way. Six months later, I had not sold another story. The newspaper that had bought my first story was long out of business as I contemplated my future. I was nearing the end of my savings and something would have to break soon or I would have to get a job. Something did break and her name was Karina.
Unbeknownst to me, Lane and his girlfriend, whose name was Sally, set me up with a blind date. When we got to the club, I saw Sally sitting at a table with a blonde girl. I immediately grabbed Lane’s arm and halted his progress toward the table. “What’s the deal?” I asked in a low voice. Then I added, “If Sally is trying to set me up again, I’m leaving. You know I don’t have any money to date.”
With a phony and shocked look on his face, Lane said, “No, no, it’s nothing like that. It’s just that the poor girl is in town and doesn’t know anyone. Sally’s mother and her mother were friends. Sally’s looking out after her, that’s all. Don’t worry; she’s not your date. And she’s got plenty of money; she can pay her own way.”
With a sigh and a shake of my head, I said, “Lay on, Macduff.”
We seated ourselves at the table and I was introduced to the blonde. Sally started right off yakking away, but I heard nothing she said. I was looking into the eyes of the blonde. They were green, the color of emeralds—they were sad eyes. She was good-looking in a not glamorous sort of way. There was something about her. Something that made me want to put my arms around her and tell her everything would all right. That night I fell in love, head over heels. To me, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. But it wasn’t her looks that got me. It was her soul. She looked vulnerable and she had those sad eyes. I know that’s a cliché, but that is what it was, plain and simple. I was hooked. Her name was Karina.
We talked and ignored both the music, and Lane and Sally. When Sally saw where things were going, she nudged Lane and said they had to go, but that we should stay. As they left, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lane hand some money to our waitress and point our way. He had made sure that I wouldn’t be embarrassed for lack of funds.
The music was really too loud to carry on a conversation, so I suggested that we go somewhere more conducive to getting to know one another. I had no hope that she felt toward me as I felt toward her, but I just couldn’t let her go out of my life until I knew everything about her.
We settled in at a Starbucks and talked until the early morning. Her parents were both dead and had left her relatively well off. She was in the States because she owned a cabin in North Carolina, up in the mountains, and she had come here to sell it. At twenty-two, she was two years older than I was. But that was okay with me; I liked older women. I prattled on about my writing and she said that she would like to read some of my stuff someday. Someday? I wanted her to read my stories right then and there. But I held my tongue.
As I walked her to her hotel, she slipped her arm through mine and we walked on in silence. My feet never once touched the ground.
We said goodnight in the lobby of her hotel. She looked at me with those big sad eyes. “Please, may I see you tomorrow and read some of your stories?” Now normally, I would let anyone read my stuff at the drop of a hat, even if I had to drop the hat myself. But in this instance, I was reluctant to say yes. I didn’t want her to see how I lived. I mean, she was staying at the Plaza, for God’s sake! After a momentary hesitation, I told her I could bring my laptop over the next day and that I would be proud to have her read a few of my stories. We set a time and I left. We shook hands—we did not kiss goodnight.
Well, the short of it is, she was as smitten with me as I was with her. Why I don’t know. She postponed her trip south and stayed in the city. We saw each other every day. Sally must have told her about my financial situation, because Karina always insisted we go someplace that cost no money. We hit the art galleries and the museums, among other venues. Central Park was our favorite. As we walked through the park, the sunshine would ripple in her yellow hair like waves upon a sparkling ocean. At the end of two weeks, we both knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.
Karina liked my writing and told me I should be writing a full-length novel. Then, when that sold, I could put out a book of my short stories. No wonder that I loved her, she believed in me, more so than I believed in myself.
One day, a Sunday, as we lay on a blanket in the park holding hands (we still had not made love), Karina asserted herself. She told me in no uncertain terms that she was taking me to her cabin In North Carolina. She would cook and clean for me while I wrote my novel, and then when it sold, I could take care of her.
I told her that I would have to think on it. She stood and took my hand. I raised myself from the ground, and forgetting the blanket, we went back to the Plaza. We made long, slow love all that afternoon. And then again that night.
We hit the mountains of North Carolina as the leaves were changing. It was the perfect metaphor. Our lives were changing; we were melding into one entity.
As the snows came, I wrote and Karina loved me. I didn’t want to write. I wanted to make love to my girl, but she made sure I stayed at the computer at least six hours a day. The rest of the time I devoted to loving her.
As the snows melted and the leaves slowly returned to the trees, my book took form. Karina would read what I had written each day. She would correct my mistakes and give me input as to the characters and the plot. As I sat there in the evenings, seeing the firelight reflected in her eyes while she read my daily output, I fell in love with her all over again.
When spring was in full bloom, the book also bloomed. I had completed my version of the Great American Novel. I emailed my query letters to agents. Within a month, I had a signed contract. When summer came around, the book had been sold to a publisher and I had money in the bank. Now I could take care of my Karina. But it was not to be.
It was August once again, almost to the day that Karina and I first met. We were leaving the next day for New York. My agent had set up a meeting with my new editor. There was still work to be done. Writing the story is one thing, getting it out there is another. However, before leaving I wanted to buy something for my love. I went into town and bought Karina a ring. Nothing fancy, it was a simple band of gold. I was going to ask her to be my wife. I couldn’t wait to get back to the cabin, get down on one knee, and tell her of my love for her.
I saw the smoke long before I turned into the drive to our cabin. Then I saw the flames. I pulled the car to a stop, rushed to the cabin, and heard her screams. Those screams will never leave me.
“KARINA!” I shouted as I rushed the door.
When I pushed open the door, a blast of heat and flames knocked me on my ass. I got up; nothing short of hell was going to keep me out of that cabin. And that is exactly what kept me out . . . hell. I could not penetrate the flames. On my third attempt, the burns and resultant pain caused me to pass out. When I awoke, I was in a hospital’s burn ward.
Karina was gone and I was alone.
I sold the rights to my book to my agent. I couldn’t edit and work on it with anyone else now that Karina was gone. I took the money and bought a sailboat down in Miami. I had Karina painted on the sides in large letters the color of her eyes. I now sail the Caribbean, going from island to island, looking for nothing and finding nothing. I’m certainly not finding relief for the pain in my heart.
I once had a girl. Karina was her name.
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Now I know you guys ain’t gonna believe this one, but I’ve got to tell it just the same. This all happened in 1984, long before the Internet, cell phones, and Lady Gaga. And please, when you’ve finished reading it, no emails, no phone calls, and no damn letters telling me I’m nuts. Because I already know it and what I’m about to tell ya just goes to prove the point.
My friend Rick and I were traveling through the mountains of Pennsylvania when it happened. We were heading to Colorado; he’s got his law practice out there. Me? I was just along for the ride. The day before, Rick had called and asked me to go with him. Help out with the driving and that kind of stuff. Or as he put it, “What else you got to do? Tag along. I’ll put the top down and the wind will blow the stink off ya.” I mean, how could anyone turn down an invitation like that?
So here’s the scene. We had left the Interstate and were on a small county road. We were looking for some place to grab a bit of food. It was about—no, it was exactly—a quarter to four in the morning. I remember because I looked over at the clock.
We’re in some kind of valley because there are mountains on both sides of the road. And there’s a fog appearing. Appearing from where? I don’t know, but this fog wasn’t descending like a good, decent fog should. No, this fog was coming up from the ground. It was weird. But now that I think about it, I believe it came from hell itself. However, at the time I was oblivious, as was Rick.
Just when the fog appeared, we hit a ghost town. Yeah … I know, ghost towns are supposed to be out in the West. Well, excuse me … this ghost town was somewhere (and don’t ask me where) in Pennsylvania.
I’m sitting in the passenger seat, looking at the buildings as they passed by. Man, were they spooky. Oh, I forgot to mention, it was a full moon, or damn near close to it. Anyway, with nothing else to do (Rick isn’t the best conversationalist in the world), I’m looking out the window at this town. All the buildings seem to have been constructed of wood, most of which had rotted away. I could see right through them to the moonlight and trees on the far side. It went on like that for mile after mile. Actually, the buildings looked as though they had sustained a fire, but I figured it was just a trick of my imagination, considering the fog and moonlight. After a while, I couldn’t see anything but the goddamn fog. When it really closed in, Rick slowed down, turned to me and said, “Where the hell are we?”
And I shot back, “You’re drivin’, pal. If you don’t know, then we’re lost.”
Rick may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s hell-on-wheels when it comes to a quick comeback. His retort: “Screw you!”
It was just about then he saw it. I didn’t see it, but thank God he did, or you would not be reading these words. Right there in the middle of the road was a large, very large, pine tree. I mean really! What the hell is a pine tree, or any kind of tree for that matter, doing in the middle of a road that good, God-fearin’ people have to traverse? I’m not sayin’ Rick and I were God-fearin’, but you know what I mean.
As I’ve said, it was a good thing ol’ Rick was at the wheel because if I had been, we would have plowed into the damn thing. So Rick stops in time and we look at each other. And before either one of us can utter a word, a voice rings out, “WELCOME TO PERDITION!” When I say a voice rang out, well … boomed out might be closer to the truth.
Turning to Rick, I shouted, “Let’s get the hell outta here!” I didn’t have to tell him twice. Before the reverberation of the sound of my voice dissipated into the mist, Rick slammed the car into reverse and was burning rubber backwards. We were both looking out the rear window. Rick because he had to see where he was driving. And me? Because what else was I going to do?
We were moving at a fairly good clip considering we were going backwards, and in a fog. The backup lights didn’t illuminate much. So intent were we on peering into the white darkness that we didn’t see the obstacle in the road. It was another damn tree, though this one was a bit smaller, and we were on it before we knew it. I mean we were literally on it. The two back wheels bumped over it, but the front wheels didn’t make it. So there we were, the car’s chassis resting on the trunk of a pine tree, in the early morning hours, in the mountains of Pennsylvania, with a sinister fog closing in.
If that wasn’t bad enough, then the shapes appeared. They were dark and they oozed out of the mist. They had the shape of men, but because of the fog, we could not make out any discernible features, like eyes and noses, you know, that kind thing.
I must admit I was scared shitless. But at that moment, Rick brought me back to my senses, at least for a minute. He said, “Fuck this!” He got out of the car and played a wonderful bluff. He stood by his opened door and said, in a loud voice, “I am an officer of the court. You are interfering in official business and there will be repercussions if you do not remove the blockage of a state highway and allow us to proceed on our way.” As I said, it was a good bluff and it fortified me … for a moment. But when two of the dark forms enveloped him, and he disappeared before my eyes, well … I went right back to being scared shitless. Then I felt a sharp pain at the back of my head; a blackness overcame me and I lost consciousness.
I came out of my stupor slowly, and as I became more cognizant, I perceived my surroundings. I was lying on a hard earthen floor in what looked like a log cabin. There were no windows, but moonlight was seeping in from the spaces between the logs. There was a table against the far wall. On another wall, three chairs hung from hooks, and on still another wall was Rick … also hanging from a hook. His hands and feet were tied—he was trussed up like a Christmas turkey.
I was still a little slow on the uptake and I asked him if he was all right. His answer was a muffled “Mmm … ummm … umm!” That’s when I noticed the rag, balled up and stuffed into his mouth. I went and started to pull the gag out while Rick shook his head back and forth. Ignoring him, I removed the gag so that we could converse like normal people. And that just goes to show you, some people can be downright unappreciative. Instead of saying, “Thank you,” I was met with, “You idiot! Why do you think I was shaking my head? Screw the gag, get me down. My arms are killing me.”
Grasping him around the waist, I lifted him a few inches so that he could slide his tied hands off the hook, which he did. When I had him back on terra firma, I let go, and he toppled to the ground. I heard an exasperated sigh, followed by the words, “Will you please untie me so that if I feel so inclined, I can stand up without falling over!”
“Sorry, pal, I didn’t realize.” I got down on my knees and fumbled with the ropes in the dim moonlight until I had my friend freed. Well, freed may not be the right word. We were still in the cabin.
As Rick massaged his wrists, I asked him what had happened.
“You want to know what happened? Well, you’re asking the wrong guy. This is all I know. I was standing there one minute and the next minute I have a hand over my mouth and two brutes were half carrying and half dragging me into the fog. They were both massive and when they got me into this cabin, one of them hit me and the next thing I knew, I was hanging up like a side of beef and you were on the floor grabbin’ forty winks. And that’s about all I know. What’s your story?”
“I was knocked out at the car and came to in this here cabin. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. But why are we still here? Let’s get the hell outta here before they come back.”
“Go ahead and try the door. I don’t think you’ll be able to open it.”
I saw no lock, so I stood and pulled on the handle. Nothing. So I gave it a good yank. Still nothing. As I was gearing up for a third try, Rick interjected, “It opens outward. Before they muscled me into this damn place, I saw one of them remove what looked like a 4” x 4” sitting in slots across the door. Go ahead and try to push the door open and see what happens.” I did as asked and nothing happened.
“You see,” said Rick, “this is a jail cell and I don’t think we are the first to inhabit it.”
About then, the moonlight was changing to daylight, and it wasn’t long before we heard someone at the door. We both got to our feet and waited for whoever it was to make their entrance. We did not have long to wait.
The door creaked outward, and the small space within the cabin was flooded with sunlight. Both Rick and I were momentarily blinded, and then the shapes appeared again. However, now we could see them for what they were. At first there was only one; he entered the cabin and stood to the right of the door. Then other one came in and took a position to the left.
They were only men, albeit, big men—very big men. They each stood about six feet, six inches tall. They were well muscled, no fat on either one of them. I figured they weighed two fifty if they weighed an ounce. They wore black suits, but not the kind your friendly neighborhood undertaker would wear. No, these looked to be right out of the late 19th century. Kind of what a preacher would have worn back in those days.
At this point, Rick and I looked at one another and Rick cocked an eyebrow in my direction as if to ask, “What the hell?” And speaking of preachers, that’s exactly what turned up next. After the two behemoths were positioned on either side of the door, the star of the show appeared. He, in contrast to his minions, was a scrawny little guy. He was also dressed in the same archaic manner. He was about sixty years old and stood about five and a half feet tall. Rail thin with a few days’ growth of gray beard stubble, grizzled hair that looked greasy and was unkempt and which hung down almost to his shoulders. Unlike the other two, he wore a hat. It had a wide, circular brim just like the preachers of old wore. He did not come in, but stood framed in the doorway.
Without preamble, without introductions all the way around, without even a by-your-leave, he started right in. In a loud voice that would have been better suited to the two brutes standing on either side of the door he boomed, “REPENT YE SINNERS! REPENT WHILST YE STILL MAY DO SO. FOR THE JUDGEMENT OF THE LORD IS AT HAND!” He then raised his right hand over his head, and in it was a Bible. At least it looked like a Bible, and any thinking man would assume it to be a Bible. But I digress.
So, there we all stood … the monsters, the preacher, Rick, and I. No one said a word, no one said a thing. At length, I turned to Rick and said, “I want to hire you to act as my lawyer and I want you to sue that son-of-a-bitch for everything he’s worth. Which probably isn’t much more than the clothes he’s standing in. But that’s a cool hat.”
Replied Rick: “I’ll take the case. And when we win, I get his hat as my fee.”
However, The Preacher—as Rick and I took to calling him—forestalled any further attorney-client consultation by loudly intoning, “AT THE FULL OF THE MOON THE SACRIFICIAL LAMBS WILL BE OFFERED UP TO JEHOVAH. THEIR BLOOD WILL WASH AWAY THEIR SINS AND ALLOW THEM TO ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.”
Now, my first thought upon hearing the above was, “I wish he’d turn it down a notch. I’m getting a headache.” Then, all of a sudden, it hit me. “Did he say ‘sacrificial’ and ‘blood’?” And I think it hit Rick about the same time because he looked over to me and his smirk was completely gone, as I’m sure mine was. Up till then, we thought it was just some yahoo trying to save our eternal souls. However, after hearing his plans for us and looking at the non-smiling apes, we got the picture.
Before I could think of anything to say, like, Who the hell do you think you are? or something to that effect, Rick said, “You gotta be kidding me. Come on, Billy, let’s book,” and took a step toward the door. That’s when ape number one moved to block Rick’s egress. Rick tried to push pass him, but to no avail. Then The Preacher put in his two cents worth. “MY SONS ISAAC AND AARON WILL BRING YOU TO THE ALTAR OF PURIFICATION AT THE APPOINTED HOUR. TILL THEN, MAKE YOUR PEACE WITH YOUR MAKER.” And abruptly he was gone. I mean in a flash he was gone. I didn’t even see him move a muscle. It was as though he went up in a puff of smoke. Then the apes left, but in a more conventional manner; they walked out, shutting the door behind them.
Rick and I were left standing there like the two idiots we were. We should have tried to get out while the getting was good despite the apes. But we didn’t, so now we were locked in a small log cabin waiting for the moon to rise so that we could be killed by three psychos.
Finally, Rick said, “Well, if that doesn’t beat all!”
“It sure as hell does, pal. But I think there’s something weird about that little guy.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“No. I mean, I was standing right in front of him. He had the sun to his back and I could swear that at times he was transparent. But when he talked, he filled in. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what I saw.”
Rick walked over to me and gently said, “It’s been a rough night for both of us. We’re tired and I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry as hell. So don’t worry about it. Let’s just figure a way out of here.”
He was right, so I asked him, “You got any ideas?”
Rick, for all his high-sounding lawyer talk, had no ready answer. Then I suggested we might dig under the logs and squirm our way out.
Rick told me that if I looked around the cabin, I’d see shallow depressions around the edges that looked like others had tried to dig their way out. And he was right. But that didn’t stop us from giving it the good old college try.
We found that the damn place had been built on a slab of granite, and a few inches under the dirt was solid rock. So, there was no getting out that way. And after an hour of going around the cabin looking for a weak spot that we could use to our advantage, we discovered nothing. Hence Rick, being the practical one, said that we should take two of the chairs down from the wall and hold a council of war. I agreed, and we did so.
I’ll spare you the details of all the stupid ideas we came up with. I think we discussed everything except having Buck Rogers descend in his spaceship to rescue us. However, in the end, we came to the conclusion that the only avenue of escape open to us was to run like hell when given the chance.
So this is what we came up with. When they came back for us and we heard them outside, we’d get ready. And when the door was cracked an inch, we’d both push with all our might (as feeble as that might be), rush past the giants, and haul ass down the mountainside.
Because he was conscious when brought to our place of incarceration, Rick knew that we were about two thousand yards above the road we had been taken from. We figured that all we had to do was run like hell and the man-mountains wouldn’t be able to catch us. After all, it would be downhill all the way. It was a simple plan formed by simple minds. They say that the simple plans are the best. Well, I’m here to you tell that is not necessarily so.
We sat in that damn cabin all day and watched the sunlight that came in through the cracks move slowly across the floor. Then the light got dim and then things got downright black outside—and inside—we couldn’t see a thing. While we sat there in the dark, we spoke of food. We talked of charred steaks smothered in onions—of grilled hamburgers with melted cheese and side orders of French fries. Surprisingly enough, salads did not enter into the conversation, but hell, we were macho guys. No sissy food for us.
After what seemed like a lifetime, the moon made its appearance. Its light slowly seeped into the cabin and we prepared ourselves. Rick and I, standing shoulder to shoulder, placed our hands flat on the door. The minute we heard the wooden bar being lifted, we were going to push for all we were worth.
And that is just what we did, and we did it with such force that the goons, Isaac and Aaron, were caught off guard. Rick and I were through the door and starting our sprint for freedom before they knew what was happening. Rick was a few feet in front of me because we had decided that he would lead the way, seeing as how he had a better sense of where we were in relation to the road. We were maybe a hundred feet out of the cabin and the goons still hadn’t moved. Things were looking up. That is, until a line from a Robert Burns poem came into play. “The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men often go awry.”
I took a step and tripped over a root or something, and fell flat on my face. Rick heard me take the tumble and started back. But we didn’t have time for any heroics. I couldn’t see them, but I could feel the gruesome twins bearing down on us. So I did the only thing I could. I yelled at Rick, “Get your ass outta here!” And with a quick nod, he did just that.
I don’t want you folks to think I was being a hero or anything like that. No, I was just being smart. I knew if Rick slowed down for me, the Bobbsey Twins would have us both. At least this way he could come back with some help.
Rick was gone and I was picked up by my arms—one goon on each arm. Then Daddy appeared out of nowhere. He didn’t seem concerned that Rick was no longer with us. He instructed the boys to tie me tight with a rope and then bring me to the “Altar of Purification.”
One of the monsters, it may have been Isaac, I couldn’t tell the sons-of-bitches apart, held me while the other went to get a rope. When he returned, they wrapped the rope around me and tied it so that my arms were pinned to my side.
After that, it was my turn to be treated like a slab of beef. One of the guys hefted me as though I were a sack of potatoes and slung me over his shoulder. As we made our way to wherever the damn altar was, I had a good view of the ground, seeing as how the top half of me was hanging down Aaron’s back—or it might have been Isaac’s back. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, that is when I noticed the fog coming up from the ground. It was the same kind of white mist we’d seen the night before. By the time we got to where we were going, it was well over the head of whoever was carrying me. Speaking about where we were going … it was a rock ledge, almost perfectly flat, about four feet off the ground and a few hundred yards from the cabin. I was unceremoniously dumped upon said ledge, also known as the Altar of Purification.
So there I was, flat on my back and helpless. Then out of the mist came The Preacher. In one hand he held his Bible, and in the other, the biggest goddamn damn knife I’ve ever seen. The blade was a foot long, the handle six inches. It looked more like a sword than a knife, at least to me, lying in my precarious position.
He stood looking down at me with his sons, one on either side of him. Next, he raised his hands over his head, the Bible in one, the knife in the other, and started to pray. Well, I don’t mind telling you I said a few prayers of my own right about then. And in between praying, I was grateful for the fact that Rick had gotten away because I knew with certainty that it wasn’t going to be too long before that knife made a swift descent and was imbedded in Yours Truly.
Then time slowed down, it almost came to a halt. It seemed to me that we were all frozen in some weird tableau. My eyes were fixated on the knife and it became the only thing in the world to me. I prayed for the nightmare to be over and that I’d awake in the car seated next to Rick with us barreling down the highway.
All the while the mist continued to rise, enveloping us in its whiteness as it swirled higher and higher.
About then, I decided it would probably be better to close my eyes and wait for the inevitable. But before I could wrench my gaze from the knife, two things happened simultaneously. The knife flew out of The Preacher’s hand and I heard a gunshot.
As soon as the knife left The Preacher’s hand, I closed my eyes and rolled to my left. I just knew the damn thing was going to get me. But it clattered harmlessly onto the rock, barely missing my head. And when I opened my eyes, the three creeps were gone and Rick was standing over me, looking concerned.
Breathing hard, as though he was out of breath, he asked, “Are you all right?”
“I am now. But where the hell did you come from, and is that a gun in your hand?” Before he could say anything, I added, “Untie me; get these goddamn ropes off me!” As he untied the rope, the mist lightened and seemed to be seeping into the ground.
When I was free, Rick said it would behoove us to get out of there before our “friends” came back. I had to agree; following Rick, we made our way down the mountain. It wasn’t too hard because the mist was almost gone by then and we had a full moon.
We made the road in no time flat. Rick turned left and I followed. I was about to start peppering him with questions when up ahead I saw his car. It was sitting on the side of the road just as pretty as you please. And there was no sign of the tree it was sitting on the last time I saw it. It was then that I hit him with a thousand questions.
Rick said he’d tell me what he could, but first we had to go back to the last town that we had passed and report our little mishap to the local law. Him being a lawyer, he would suggest that. Personally, I was for hightailing it out of that country and the sooner the better, but I said nothing.
I’ll save you the back and forth of our conversation and just tell you what I learned.
When I had fallen and told him to keep going, Rick did so only because he knew he’d need some fire power against the two giants if he was to effect my rescue. It turned out that he kept a gun—a pistol—in the trunk of his car. When he got to the highway, he was as amazed as I had been to see his car off the tree and on the shoulder of the road. His only concern was about the keys. If they were gone, he didn’t know how he’d get into the trunk. But they were right where they were supposed to be, in the ignition.
The rest was pretty straightforward. He went back up the mountain, found the cabin, and was led to where I was by The Preacher’s loud voice as he prayed over me. When he saw the knife, he took a bead and knocked it out of The Preacher’s hand. I told him that that was pretty good shooting. That’s when he informed me that he was aiming for the son-of-a-bitch’s heart, but the gun recoiled and he hit the knife instead.
There was one thing that we didn’t understand. Well, there were a lot of things we didn’t understand, but one thing in particular baffled us. Where had the bad guys gone? If you remember, I had my eyes closed when they vamoosed; I thought they had just run away. But Rick had been only twenty or so yards from the action and he told me it looked to him as though they had vanished into thin air. But we didn’t dwell on it.
The closest town was about eight miles from the scene of the crime. But it did us no good. Initially that is. The place was a one-horse town if I’ve ever seen a one-horse town, and I have. The sheriff’s office was closed up tight, so we made our way to an all-night diner. There we were informed that the sheriff or his deputy would be in about eight o’clock in the morning and there was nothing we could do until then. Rick asked the counterman who had supplied us with the info what the town folks did if there was an emergency in the middle of the night.
His answer: “There hasn’t been one so far.”
So, seeing that there was nothing we could do until the appointed time, and as we were hungry as hell, we ordered just about everything on the menu (which wasn’t much) and killed time until the local constabulary deigned to make an appearance.
When eight o’clock rolled around, we finished the last of our coffee and went to the counter to pay our bill. As we were collecting our change, the big man himself walked in. His name, we were to learn, was John Brown, Sheriff John Brown. He was thin with gray hair and I figured him for about sixty years old. We approached him, and Rick started to tell him our tale of woe. But after a few words, the sheriff held up a hand and said, “Unless there is imminent danger of grievous bodily harm or someone is lying dying somewhere, then let’s adjourn to my office. I’m just no good in the morning until I’ve had my first cup of joe.”
What else could we do? We waited for him to get his Styrofoam cup of coffee, and then the three of us walked to his office. Once he was comfortably seated behind his desk and contently slurping his coffee and we were seated in the two chairs before the desk, Rick laid out our story.
When Rick had concluded his account of the previous night’s adventures, Sheriff Brown didn’t say a word. He swiveled in his chair and hit the switch to the two-way radio on the stand next to the desk. Speaking into the mic, he said, “You there, Abe?” When an affirmative answer came forth, he went on, “I have to take a run out on the county road and I need you to hold down the fort. If I need you, I’ll call.” Having taken care of business, he flipped the switch to the off position and said, “Let’s go.”
With Rick in the front seat of the sheriff’s car and me in the back, we headed out. On the way, Sheriff Brown asked a few pertinent questions which we answered. One of the questions was what happened to the knife? When we heard that, Rick and I just looked at one another and felt stupid. We had been in such a hurry to get away that we didn’t think to take the knife. The last time I saw it, it was lying where it had fallen when it was shot out of The Preacher’s hand. Then the sheriff asked where exactly along the road did we encounter the pine trees. Rick hesitated, but then he said things looked different in the daylight and he wasn’t quite sure where we encountered the trees.
Feeling brilliant, I said, “We came upon the first tree right after the ghost town.”
Said the sheriff: “What ghost town?”
Said I: “You know … the one along here somewhere, on the north side of the road.”
Said the sheriff: “There ain’t no ghost town in this neck of the woods.”
Said I: “Yes, there is. I saw it last night. It runs on for a couple of miles.”
Hoping to get confirmation, I asked Rick, “You saw it, right?”
Rick wasn’t much help. He informed me that with the fog coming up, he kept his eyes on the road. Or to put it in his words, “I didn’t have time for sightseeing.”
To no one in particular I stuttered, “But … but I know what I saw.”
The sheriff said. “This is my county, boy, and if there was a ghost town in these parts, I’d know about it. Now, if you boys can point out to me where the alleged abductions took place, I can start my investigation.”
“Alleged abductions!” Rick and I said in unison.
Well, to make a long, sad story short, we never did find the place where we hit the trees. In fact there were no cut trees, pine or otherwise, along the road. So, no trees, no ghost town, no nothing! We just couldn’t pinpoint where all the shit took place. And if we couldn’t do that, then there was no way we’d ever find the cabin.
On the way back to town, the sheriff made what for me was a startling statement. “You know, all this talk of a ghost town kinda reminded me of Jasper.”
Rick beat me to the punch. “Jasper? Who the hell is Jasper?”
“Jasper,” said the sheriff, “isn’t a who, it’s a what. And what Jasper is, or was, is a town that was burnt down about a hundred years ago. Some crazy preacher took a torch to it. When I was growing up, us kids told spook stories about it. And it was always claimed that the spirit of the preacher was seen on the nights of the full moon, roaming the hills over there.” As he said that, he pointed to the north.
Once again, Rick and I looked at one another. We didn’t have to speak. The thought was there. ‘Crazy preacher’! But before we could say anything, the sheriff said, “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, and I don’t want to hear about no ghost preacher snatching you out of your car! Are you boys foolin’ with the law? Because if you are, I won’t take kindly to it.”
Rick slouched in his seat, folded his arms and put on his lawyer face. I did the opposite. I leaned forward and said to the sheriff, “Everything we told you is the truth. And we don’t believe in ghosts. Maybe it was some local nut who knows the story of the crazed preacher and gets his jollies kidnapping and murdering people in that vein.” Then, as an afterthought, I added, “You ever have a missing person report where the person was last seen along this stretch of road?”
After thinking for a moment, he answered. “No, we haven’t. Well, at least not recently. But when I took over as sheriff, I was handed a file by my predecessor. He told me it was the only unsolved case of his career; it goes back to 1934. There was a car found abandoned somewhere out here. It belonged to an out-of-state gent, like you fellas. He was never found. But it could not have anything to do with your boy. That was fifty years ago.”
“I think I speak for my friend as well as myself when I say that we’re getting out of this state just as fast as we can. But before we go, I’d like to know a little something about the firebug preacher. Is there any place in town that might have some more information on him and the town of Jasper?”
“You’ll be wanting to speak with Miss Wells. She’s our town librarian and the town’s unofficial historian. I can drop you off there and then I’ve got to attack a stack of paperwork back at my office that’s been staring at me for a week.”
So, we drove on in silence. Rick hadn’t said a word since the sheriff accused us of making up the whole sordid tale. Then just before we hit the outskirts of town, a thought entered my cranium. I asked the sheriff if he knew what date the car was found in 1934. He said that he didn’t, but that when he got back to his office, he’d check the file and call us at the library. I think he was feeling a little guilty for not being able to help us.
Sheriff Brown brought us to the library and introduced us to Miss Wells. She was in her fifties and wasn’t a bad looker. I wondered why it was Miss Wells. Rick, well, he was still sulking and mumbled in my ear, “Let’s blow this pop stand. I’ve got a law practice waiting for me in Denver.” I informed him that it was his idea to go to Johnny Law, and now all I wanted was to get a few salient facts about the original preacher. Just something to comfort me in my dotage when I think back about what we had gone through. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Lay on, McDuff.”
I told Miss Wells we were looking for any information on the fire that destroyed Jasper and of the perpetrator that started said fire.
She gave me a dazzling smile (again I wondered why it Miss Wells) and told me that, off the top of her head, she knew that the preacher’s name was Jeremiah Stone, that he was a fire (no pun intended) and brimstone type. But she said that was par for the course in that day and age. Then she blew me away when she said, “You can read an account of the fire that was printed in the local paper on the one year anniversary. And I believe there is a picture of Parson Stone.”
I told her that I would indeed like to read anything she had on the subject.
Walking to a file cabinet, she opened the top drawer and withdrew a small box about three inches by three inches. She led us to a viewing machine while telling us that the relevant newspaper story was on film. “TheClarion Dispatch,” she said, “was our local paper. It went out of business years ago; however, we have all their editions on microfiche.”
When we got to the machine, she inserted the reel and started fast forwarding the tape, stopping every once in a while to peruse the date. Finally she came to April 23, 1885. And there he was, The Preacher, staring out at us from the past. It was an old-time photograph; they used to call them “family portraits.” Seated on a small couch, next to a woman, sat our tormentor, hat in hand. And standing on either side of the two were the boys, Isaac and Aaron.
Miss Wells missed the look that passed between me and Rick. She simply said, “This is the article. When you are finished, leave the tape in the machine. I’ll rewind it.” Then she left us to our own devices.
The first thing I said to Rick after the lovely Miss Wells had departed was, “Look at the date.”
You know, I never put much stock in lawyers, and Rick just reinforced that image when he said, “Yeah, I see it. So what?”
“So what! I’ll tell you ‘so what’! Today is April the 23rd. That article said the fire was set “yesterday,” which would mean April the 22nd. Don’t you get it? That crazy son of a bitch burned down his town exactly one hundred years ago to the day that he grabbed us. Look at that picture. You know it’s the same asshole.”
Rick’s reply: “I don’t believe in ghosts.”
My response: “Neither did I until two minutes ago.”
Rather than continue arguing with my pal, I started to read the article. I was seated in a chair and Rick read over my shoulder. This is the gist of the story.
Jeremiah Stone had been the pastor of Jasper for a number of years and was well liked by the town folk. He was married with two sons. The sons were “touched” or “pixilated,” or—as we would say today—mildly retarded. Then, in the autumn of 1883, his wife died and Stone went into seclusion with his sons. When he emerged a month later, he was a different man. His sermons were of redemption by purification; he started talking of blood sacrifices to appease an angry God, and of fire as a means of purification.
In the early morning hours of April 22nd, 1884, fire broke out in the town of Jasper. It seemed to be jumping from house to house, from building to building. The town’s people gathered on the main street, the men forming a bucket brigade, the woman and children huddled together.
The fire was too well advanced to put out, and it was while the people stood in the street watching their homes and businesses burn, that three men ran up and said they had witnessed Pastor Stone and his sons, at the other end of town, setting fire to the few remaining houses not already engulfed in flames. Everyone ran to that section of town and arrived just as Stone and his sons were entering the church—the only building in town not on fire.
Two men, town leaders, said that they’d go in and speak with the preacher and see what it was all about. But when they started for the church, the crowd followed. They had a stake in the catastrophe and wanted answers. So, instead of the two going into the church, the town’s people stood outside and yelled for the preacher to show himself, which presently he did.
Holding his Bible over his head (as I’d seen him do), he told his flock that they were now purified and ready for the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s when the first torch was thrown. It landed at the preacher’s feet, then another and another. The preacher retreated into the church. Then someone ran to the front door and poured lantern oil onto the small flames of the torches. The fire quickly spread and soon the church was ablaze. As the roof fell in, the people heard, over the roar of the fire and in a loud clear voice, these words, “I AND MINE ARE CLEANSED! TODAY WE SHALL BE WITH YOU IN HEAVEN.”
The people stayed until the church was no more. Then they slowly filed away to search the ruins of their homes for anything left of value. The town was abandoned and never rebuilt.
As we finished reading the article, Miss Wells walked up and said she had a message for us from the sheriff. “He said to tell you that he checked the file and the car was found on April 23nd, 1934.”
We thanked Miss Wells for her help and left the library. While walking back to Rick’s car, I said, “That crazy son-of-a-bitch took someone on the fiftieth anniversary of the fire and then he tried to do the same to us on the hundredth.”
Rick only said, “You know, we haven’t slept in forty-eight hours and I’m not one bit tired. I think I’ll drive straight through to Denver. Let’s get out of this goddamn part of the country.”
I could only agree and wholeheartedly concur with my friend.
From that moment on, Rick was a changed man. He didn’t mind some nut job trying to kill us. He could handle that. But when it came to the supernatural that was something else altogether.
We didn’t speak much during the rest of the trip. Rick refused to discuss The Preacher or anything concerned with what we had gone through. He seemed somehow embarrassed about something. When we got to Denver, I caught a plane back to New York. It has now been more than thirty years since that night, and Rick and I have not spoken since. I tried contacting him, but he would not return my phone calls or answer my letters. I believe he thinks I would only remind him of something that he does not want to face—something outside his learning.
As Will Shakespeare so aptly put it: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
I didn’t lose my life that night, but I think I lost something much more dear to me than my miserable life. In the twinkling of an eye, I lost a good friend.
DAMN YOU TO HELL, PREACHER STONE!
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