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The Devil's Charm

Chapter 1 – Robot Cow Executioner


December 2011


The last time I saw her, I told Skylar that if I ever saw her again or she ever even spoke my name again, I’d tie her to a tree and cut her gut open so she could watch the coyotes eat her from the inside out.  It was either that or let Jake kill her, and I wasn’t ready for that.  He had a gun burrowing into her skull while she was tied to a bar after grazing the side of my belly with a bullet because we were foiling her plans.  Yeah, I probably should have let Jake kill her.  But I didn’t.  I went soft.

That meant I had to wonder about myself, would I really do it?  I promised her I would, and I was convincing enough that she believed me.  I know she did.  But would I do it?  I don’t know.  I had doubts, and I don’t like doubting myself.

“Do you agree?”  The pretty woman across the dinner table interrupted my self-doubting.  Her name was Monica.  I was on a date.  She was pretty enough that I might actually have wanted to be on that date, but I didn’t.

“Yeah,” I said without thinking, “Sure.”  I didn’t know what I was agreeing to, but I figured she’d want me to agree, right?  Women are like that.  I think.

“You’re crazy then.”

And without losing a beat, I nodded my head slowly and as if I hadn’t had sleep in three days, “Yes, I am crazy.”  I looked at her with faked crazy eyes.  Funny crazy eyes.  Not the kind meant to scare her into thinking I might tie her to a tree and gut her for the coyotes.  That would be inappropriate.

“You’re not even listening.  What’s on your mind?”

I couldn’t tell her that, so I shrugged my shoulders.  “It’s been a rough day.”  I had my head shaking to make sure she understood that she didn’t really want to know, because she surely didn’t.  I mean what kind of girl wants to discover she’s on a date with a guy trying to convince himself he’s not so soft that he wouldn’t gut his ex-girlfriend for the coyotes if he saw her again.

“Not for me,” she said without much interest in my rough day, “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you all day.  Since two days ago, really.  When we made the date.”    

I’d met her on a local internet dating service for divorced or widowed singles, but I wasn’t actually looking for a date.  I was forced into it.  Ainsley was working on a story about a serial rapist who’d been dating girls he’d met online and then raping their teenage daughters.  The local police hadn’t been able to figure the guy out.  He used different identities every time, and they were unable to trace back his messages.  Nothing was panning out for them.  One of the women actually ended up getting beat up before he drugged her and raped her daughter.  The others were just drugged.  Seemed like an easy case, but the guy changed his appearance every time.  Different hair styles, different colored eyes, different colored hair.  Different name.  A chameleon.  But all the dates were made on one dating-app site.  That was the one constant.

Since no one had been killed yet, the local police weren’t given much help.  Not even from the media.  It later turned out that the dating-app company was owned by one of the local media families.  The best way not to destroy your business is to make sure you don’t scare away your customers and to make sure no one else does either. 

Ainsley had Samantha working on it as well, but Samantha wasn’t man enough to be able to recruit women to go on these dates.  Apparently, I was.  I’m not sure I agreed with their plan of action.  Pretending to be me online, they had me dating girls they’d been communicating with on the internet.  My job was to find a woman who’d be willing to play bait for this serial rapist.  I thought they should play bait, but neither felt they were old enough to pose as a woman with daughters old enough to rape.  Talk about high self-opinions.  So, I had to go on occasional dates with women in their mid-thirties to early forties and pretend I was into it.  The things you’ll do for friends.

Trust me, I wasn’t into it.

I was over Skylar, for sure, but I was still with Lisa.  When Lisa was proven right about Skylar, she was happy to take Skylar’s place as my girlfriend.  Both had somehow taken the place of my dead wife, for whom I never really mourned appropriately, but I couldn’t.  So, I was still dating Lisa.  Somewhat.  She lived forty-five to fifty minutes away though.  She wanted me to move in with her, but I was still running the bar that my brother named The Trough.  Driving forty-five minutes was the last thing I wanted to do after a night of serving alcohol and drinking a little too much.  She owned a pizza joint in Lyndonville and didn’t like where I lived. 

After my house was burned down, I fought with the insurance company for a while before getting it all settled.  By the time it was settled, it was too cold to break ground.  Until they could build my new house in the spring, I was living in an old trailer I bought.  I hooked it up to the water and electricity from the barn. 

In addition to hating my cold trailer, Lisa didn’t like it one bit that I was going out on dates with these women.  Ainsley and Samantha didn’t care much.  Girls were getting raped, the police were stumped, and the police were unwilling or unable to go public with warnings.  That was all they needed to know.  If you asked Lisa, I didn’t care much about her feelings either.  While I probably did, I also did not like that girls were getting raped.  I surely wasn’t going to be seduced on these dates.  I promised myself that, so Lisa had nothing to worry about.  I wasn’t in the mood to be seduced.  At least that’s what I told Lisa.  More than a few times.  It didn’t matter.  She didn’t like the idea of me on a date.

“Well,” Monica said, “I see you’re disappointed with me.”  She slapped down the emotional blackmail card to get my attention.

“No, no, it’s not you,” I assured her, “I’m just…  Just having a rough day.”  Repeat a lie enough, it becomes true.

“Is it because you miss your wife?”

“My wife is dead.”  I shouldn’t have said that.  I was still living as my dead twin brother, and according to anyone, I was never married.  It just came out, without my thinking.  I should have told her I was never married, but anything this woman knew about me came from Ainsley and Samantha.

“I know that silly.  You told me about her.  I find it so romantic.”  I guess I didn’t read over the conversations that Ainsley and Samantha had with her closely enough.  Honestly, I don’t remember reading them at all.  They surely didn’t include the whole thing that happened with the murder of my wife because neither of them knew I was actually Curt Cutler and not Cash Cutler.  However, they told this woman that my wife was dead.  At least, that’s what I had just discovered.  Made sense once I remembered that the dating site was for previously married singles.  Guess I’d have to have a wife.  That didn’t come up during the first three dates.

“Romantic?  My wife was murdered,” I said. 

“Oh,” she responded, “you didn’t tell me that.”  She immediately pursed her once smiling lips to manufacture sympathy.  It was a sweet attempt.

“Yeah, sorry.  She was murdered.”  It was then I figured this date might turn out like the others.  Meaning, I would successfully protect the woman from having to play bait for a rapist and walk away free and clear without a woman trying to get a second date with me.  Cruel, maybe.  Necessary, yes.

“Oh, my gosh, that’s terrible.  Why didn’t you tell me that?”

“Would you have gone out with me if I had?”

“Depends on why she was murdered.  Did you do it?”

“No, I didn’t do it.”  I broke a smile with a sigh.

“Did you pay to have her killed?”

“No, didn’t do that either.”

“Then probably.”

“Probably what?”

“I probably would have gone out with you.  A dead wife is better than a crazy ex-wife, believe me when I tell you.”  Sympathy was gone.  She was all business.  She wasn’t responsible for the murder of my wife, so the date wasn’t dead yet.

“Are you listening to yourself?  It’s better that my wife is dead?” 

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I mean that from my point of view.  Didn’t mean to be so insensitive.  I’m just sick of dating men with crazy ex-wives.  Always having to hide our relationship or having to take second place.  It’s tough out there.  You must be new to the dating jungle.”

“Got it.”  I nodded my head.

The waitress came to save her.  She was painted blue and had rubber skin-looking horns that dangled from her head.  I took this woman to a new bar and restaurant that I thought should be called the Dago-Bar.  It was a generic themed Italian cantina-like bistro that should have been named after Yoda’s planet, Dagobah, which is pronounced like a Boston inhabitant would say Dago-Bar – you know, because they pahk the cah in the Hahvahd Yahd.  Instead, probably because of copyright issues and that some Italian people don’t always like being called dagos, it was called The Space Bar.  Still geeky.

The bartenders, waiters and waitresses were all dressed like space movie characters, and the restaurant slash bar looked suspiciously like the cantina on Tatooine in the first Star Wars movie.  We were sitting in the booth located about where Han Solo shot Greedo before Greedo was even able to shoot.  Balls.  Total geek bar, but I had a lot of geek in me.  At the same time, I figured the best way to make sure she didn’t get all into me was to take her to a place where she wouldn’t think for a second that my goal was to make it super romantic.  A family-themed restaurant, where unfortunately, there were no screaming children.  I was hoping for screaming children.

Monica didn’t flinch at the sight of the waitress.  “Wow,” she said, “I love your earrings.  My son would love this place.”

“Thank you,” the blue lady said in a fake accent from another planet.  She wasn’t from our sector of the galaxy.

“I love Science Fiction,” she said.  Great plan, I realized.  Nothing like taking a geeky lady to geek-world paradise.  

“Are you two love birds ready to order?”

“Um,” I stalled before saying I wasn’t quite ready.

“I’m ready,” Monica said.  “I’ll have gnocchi with white sauce and meatballs.”

“And you sir?”

“I’ll have the lasagna.  You up for a pizza for an appetizer?”

“Sure,” Monica said with a smile. 

“Ok, and a meat-lovers pizza for an appetizer.”  I like meat on my pizza.  Didn’t know or care what she liked.  Zen in the art of turning women off.

The waitress took our menus and checked our drinks.  “The pizza is great.”  She smiled and left.  But she was a blue alien.  What would she know about pizza?

“So, you have a son?” I asked.

“Yes, I told you that.  I have a son and a daughter.”

“Sorry, I remember.  Just forgot for a second.  That menu is distracting.”

She smiled again.  Must have liked the geek in me.

“Don’t worry about it.  My kids are with their dad this week.”  She lifted her eyebrows twice as if she were happy about this, but I ignored her.

I was going to ask if he lived near but figured she’d already told me that too.  It was probably Christmas break, so that might have been why she had no kids.  So, I asked a different question, “Does your daughter like Sci-Fi too?”

“My daughter is sixteen.  She doesn’t like anything…”  She was shaking her head like I was an alien.  “At least not in my presence.”

“Oh, that age.”

“Why don’t you have children?”

“My wife couldn’t have them.”  I guess I had a wife.

“There was a time when I would have covered you with sympathy, but my kids are teenagers.  Part of me considers you lucky.”

“That bad, huh?”

“No, it’s not that bad.  They’re just at that age.  Thank God, I can send them to their father once in a while.”  She smiled at the thought and unfolded her cloth napkin before spreading it over her miniskirt.  She might be forty or so, but she wasn’t at all ashamed of wearing a miniskirt that didn’t reach her knees, even in the freezing cold.  She was actually really kind of sexy for a forty-year-old woman – my estimate of her age.  Nice body with cleavage still worth looking at – I mean worth showing off, which she was – and a good symmetrical face with long brown bangs that she had to regularly move off her left eye and tuck behind her ear. 

I was pretty sure this was not the woman we needed, but I’d also been pretty sure about the other three I went on dates with too.  What kind of woman was good for rapist bait?  I’d really have to dislike her, wouldn’t I?  I was going to have to be the guy who busted the rapist and beat the crap out of him before calling the cops.  Samantha and I actually.  Samantha couldn’t wait to get her hands on the guy.

Samantha worked as a private contractor that helped women and children escape from sexual exploitation.  She tried to recruit Jake, but Jake left again.  Not sure why or where he was, but Ainsley was still in touch with him.  So, Samantha, who was still my bartender at The Trough, began recruiting me.  I wasn’t sure I was fully in, but they seemed quite serious about the whole thing.  They had a Martial Arts Master come into town and train me once a week.  It was a whole day affair.  He had me practice motions, punches and kicks for hours.  When I could barely stand, I’d do my Katas for hours, and then we did hand to hand combat.  In other words, he’d beat the crap out of me for an hour or so.  Then, while I’d be wiping the blood off my face and icing my bumps, he would write down his notes.  During the debriefing, he would go over every move of our fight and my actions.  He’d tell me why I suck.

Am I a better fighter?  Yes.  Was it the best way of teaching me to fight?  I don’t know.  I do know that I didn’t like getting the crap kicked out of me so much that I would practice every day.  It was motivation.  I also didn’t mind the fact that I didn’t have to train with children.  That would be weird.  My classes involved the sensei and me, one on one.

Truth is, I wasn’t in any way really on board with looking for someone to risk as bait for a serial rapist.  How was I even to broach the subject?  The woman would either think I was crazy, or she would do it because she thought it might get her a second date with me.  Maybe I was conceited.  Why would a woman want a second date with me if I were willing to set her up on a date with a dude that wanted to rape her daughter?  So, yeah, Samantha and Ainsley weren’t really thinking this one through, and no matter how much I tried to explain that to them, they remained unwilling to listen to me.

Monica and I small talked our way through the wait until the small thin-crust Pizza was delivered.  It was loaded with pepperoni, sausage, bacon and onions.  Mostly meat.

“Mmm,” Monica moaned, “this looks delicious.  Smells delicious too.”

The blue waitress put a slice on each of our plates, filled our waters and asked if we needed anything before leaving us.

While I let it cool, Monica lifted her slice above her face where she stuck her tongue out to catch a ball of sausage that was slowly bungy jumping off the slice on a strand of gooey cheese.  Catching the sausage, she lowered the slice into her mouth.  She grabbed her water and cooled her mouth before chewing with a smile.

I took a bite.  If she were brave enough to ignore the heat, I ought to be too.

“This is delicious.  Thank you so much for bringing me here.  This place is amazing.  My son’s been bugging me to bring him.  Wait until I tell him about it.”

“Maybe his dad will bring him.”

“Pfft,” she sneered, “not his style.”

“Oh.  What’s his style?”

“He has no style, but I don’t want to talk about my ex-husband.  I want to talk about you.”

“Oh,” I said, “what about me?”

“What were you thinking about earlier when you weren’t listening to me?”

I made something up, “I was thinking about how my wife would have hated this place and how it was probably a mistake to bring you.  So, I was thinking I screwed up already.”

“Well, guess what, I love this place.”  As she took another bite, she rubbed her shin on mine.  Once she swallowed, she continued, “You haven’t screwed up anything, yet.”  Small favors, dang it.

“Good to know,” I said and took another bite.  It was cool enough to eat without water by then, and it was delicious.  Who’d have thought a goofy Science Fiction restaurant would have good food?  It was legitimate Italian.

“Here I thought you weren’t into me,” she said.


“Because it’s like you don’t remember anything we spoke about.  On the internet, I mean.  Maybe you’re talking to a lot of different women and can’t keep us straight.  Maybe you’re that guy who keeps raping his date’s daughters.”  She looked at me for a response, so I picked up my fork and dropped it on my plate with a clank.  “You’re not him, are you?”  The news had gotten out to some extent.  Probably without pertinent details though.  That’s why Ainsley and Samantha were so hot on the story.

“No, I’m not him.  Why would you say something like that?”

“Can’t ever be too safe.”

“Yeah, but if I was him, do you think I’d tell you that?”

“Probably not.  But just so you know, my kids aren’t home.  They’re with their father.  So, if you come home with me, you’re going to have to have sex with me.  Not my daughter.”

“That’s a weird thing to say.”

“You brought me to a space restaurant.  It’s a weird date.”  She took another bite of her pizza.

“Yeah, but still.  Now, I can’t ever go to your house unless I want to have sex with you.”

She laughed with food in her mouth, swallowed and said, “You old fashioned, or something?”

“I don’t know what that means anymore.”  I didn’t.  I might have been old fashioned, but my brother wasn’t as much.  I was living the life of my brother.

“Do you believe in pre-marital sex?”

“Yes, I believe it happens all the time.”  I was just being a jerk.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Figured that,” I admitted, “why do you ask?”

“Why do you think I ask?” She used her tongue to clean the sauce off her lips but maybe to be a little sexy too.  This was all I needed.  Ainsley and Samantha must have had some serious conversations with this woman.  Told her exactly what she wanted to hear or something.  Women can be more perceptive to the needs of other women than men can.  I imagine anyway.  They had this woman ready to jump into bed with me.

“Because you’re not sure if I’m too old fashioned for you?”  I answered her question with a question.

“You’re full of crap,” she said, “you just want me to say it.”

“Umm, if you don’t say it, I might not know what it is.”

“Now you’re just playing with me.  I like that.”

The waitress saved me this time.  She set the pizza to the side and delivered my lasagna and Monica’s gnocchi.  She grabbed our drinks and took them to be refilled.  I was drinking a Supernova, and she was drinking an Exploding Planet.  Whatever her drink was, it was served on fire.  Nonetheless, the food looked normal.  Not out of this world.  Apparently, my lasagna was made with meat harvested and processed by droids.  That’s cool to think about.  Robot cow executioners.

“You find her sexy?”  Monica asked me and lifted her head a little as the waitress walked away.


“The blue waitress?”

“No,” I laughed, “she looks like an alien.  She’s probably loaded with space warts.”

“Captain Kirk would bed her.”  She was a Trekkie too?

“Captain Kirk wouldn’t be caught dead in this quadrant.”

“Bite your tongue man, he was always looking for exotic women.”

“You’re a geek,” I smiled at her.

“Yeah, pretty much.  Gotta son.”  She took a bite of her gnocchi with a hunk of meatball.

“Mmm,” she moaned lasciviously.  What had Samantha and Ainsley gotten me into?

I ignored her moans and took a bite of lasagna and a nibble of cheesy garlic bread.  “This is good too,” I said carefully, trying not to seduce her.

“I’m going to the lady’s room.  Let this cool a bit.”  She put her napkin on the table, slid out of the booth and wiggled her butt as she pulled her skirt down.  As far as it would go anyway.  As she walked away from the table, she looked back at me to make sure I was checking out her butt.  Old habits never die.  I was, and her smile was to let me know I’d been caught. 

I took the opportunity to check my phone.  I had multiple messages from both Ainsley and Samantha.  They wanted to know if we had the girl.  I texted back that I didn’t think so.  They both texted right back, asking me what was wrong with her and promising me that she fit the profile.  I took a few bites before I answered.  Wasn’t sure how to answer, but I finally wrote, “I don’t feel comfortable about her.  Don’t think she’s right or ready.  Can’t say why.”

And while I heard the clicks of Monica’s high heels as she was making her way back to our booth, I didn’t see her looking over my shoulder.

“Why do I make you uncomfortable?” she asked, “And who are Samantha and Ainsley?”  It was a group text.  “This isn’t a group sex-cult thing, is it?”

“Oh, sorry.”  I didn’t know how to answer that, so I went silent.

“You’re sorry?  That’s it?  Should we get this to go and call it a night?”

“No,” I protested, “You weren’t supposed to see that.”  I turned it on her a bit, but it wasn’t really sticking.

“But I did.  What’s wrong with me?  Not good enough for your sex cult?”  She spread her arms to the side to make sure her cleavage was front and center. 

“Nothing, you’re a lovely lady.  It has nothing to do with you.  It’s not a sex cult, I promise.”  My face was catching a rush of hot-blooded embarrassment.

“It doesn’t sound like it has nothing to do with me.  What?  Am I being too forward?  Ok, I’ll say it.  I want you to come home and have sex with me.  What’s the big deal?  I don’t want to marry you.  That’s the last thing on my mind.  Besides, pre-marital sex is the best.  Getting married turns it into a chore.”  Modern women are weird.

“Stop,” I said, “that’s not what I was talking about.”

“Then what are you talking about?”

I was a deer in the headlights, so I tried to free myself with a dose of truth.  “All right, I’ll tell you.”

“Tell me what?”  She sounded half ashamed and half pissed at the same time.  She was good, I had to admit.  Manipulating men is a talent that women have been perfecting for millennia.   

“My friends Ainsley and Samantha are working to find the guy who’s raping the daughters.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“I’m helping them.  Kind of against my will, but I want to help them.  Not sure their method is the right one, but they’re pretty insistent.”  They had manipulative talents as well, but I left this project in their hands.  I was occupied with the bar, my insurance company, the architect of my house and the builders.

“Get to it.”

“They want me to recruit a woman to lure this guy out so we can catch him.  Crazy, right?”  I shrugged my shoulders and took a bite, so I could quit talking.

“Why aren’t the police doing it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who are these girls?  What’s their deal?”

“They’re just a couple of girls who want to help protect women.  It’s a girl thing.”

“What kind of game are you playing?  You don’t want to protect women?” she asked with a surprised look on her face.  The kind meant to shame me.

“I’m not playing a game.  I’m not comfortable asking you to play bait to a rapist who will want to rape your daughter.  Call me what you will.”

“Why, what’s wrong with me?  I want this guy caught too.  You think I want my daughter raped?”  And that was not what I expected to hear.  I was hoping she’d just get horrendously offended and call it a night.

“It’s dangerous, and I don’t want to put you in danger.  That simple.  It’s a compliment.”

“Listen, if I can help bring this guy down, I’m your girl.”

“Do you hear what you are saying?”  I was beginning to think she was crazy.

“Yeah, I’m hearing that you aren’t here because you like me.  You’re here because you want me to help find this rapist.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t like you.  I was just saying I don’t feel comfortable putting you in danger.  My friends are fearless.  I don’t know about you.  I think they should do it, but they don’t think they can pull it off.”

“What’s wrong with them?  They aren’t pretty enough?”

“No, that’s not it.  The guy likes his dates’ daughters in their teens.  They don’t look old enough to play a woman with a daughter in her teens.  That’s what they think.  They’re just going by this guy’s MO.  He preys upon women that are older.  They might be right on that, but I don’t know.  Samantha’s the expert.”

“What about the other girl?  She’s not an expert?”

“No, she is, but she’s an investigative reporter.  Different expertise.  Samantha works to get girls out of sexual exploitation.  I can’t believe I’m telling you this.  So much truth.”  Women hate truth – said no one ever who actually had a brain.

“Truth is good.  It’s the world’s best currency, though it rarely converts.  But look, if I’m doing this, I ought to know who I’m getting into bed with, right?”  The first time I’d ever thought of truth as a currency.  Sometimes, money can’t even buy it.

“You’re serious?”  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  I never thought I’d meet a woman who’d want anything to do with this.  Thought it was all in vain.  Maybe even thought that Samantha and Ainsley were playing a joke on me.

“Yeah, I’m serious.  I’m interested.  This sounds like fun.”

“Fun?  You know this guy is drugging his victims and raping their daughters?  You know that right?  You could die.”

“Yeah, well, my daughter isn’t around, she won’t be home, and you guys will be there, right?  I mean how else you going to get this guy?  I’ll get to watch you beat him up, right?”


“That will be fun.  I’d love to watch you beat the guy senseless.  I’m not going to lie.  I find you sexy.  That might make you even be sexier.”

“I have a girlfriend,” I said before adding, “sort of.”

“Heh,” she scoffed undauntedly and took a bite of her meal.  It might have cooled, but the conversation hadn’t.

“I do,” I protested.

“Yeah, well, she’s just sort of your girlfriend.  She’s probably too young for this job too.  If it’s going to take a woman, I’m your girl.  Your woman, I mean.  Tell them I want to hear more.”

I took a bite of my lasagna while digesting the situation.  After she finished her bite, she said, “You going to keep them in suspense?”

“You want me to tell them now?  We’re not even finished with our meal.”

“Oh, you mean this other-worldly romantic meal?  Hah, that spaceship has sailed.  Tell them.  Tell em now.”

“Ok.”  I texted that she wanted to know more and took another bite.

“What did they say?”

“Nothing yet.”

“Huh,” she took a bite and a large sip from her drink, “This drink will knock you on your butt.”  She smiled.

“You sure the drinks aren’t influencing your sanity?”  Just wanted to make sure.

“Yeah, I’m sure.  I want to do this.”

The door to the restaurant opened, and in came Samantha and Ainsley.  A quick survey of the room had them rushing in our direction past the host wearing a hammerhead.  All I could think was, “It’s a trap.”  Because it was, but I wasn’t sure who was getting trapped.

Samantha used her butt to move me in, and Ainsley was gentler in trying to nudge Monica over.  Monica and I both moved our plates and settings.  They made their introductions and got right into it faster than I could keep up.

Monica was eventually able to ask, “Why me?”

Samantha answered with no hesitation, “Because your photo on the dating app is a photo of you and your daughter.  The police haven’t shared much, and the profiles are all gone, but we did discover that every victim had a photo of the daughter someplace on her profile.  That and they’re all off this particular site.  The news hasn’t mentioned that all victims are from Buffalo Mingle.”  Monica’s eyes lit up with a sudden realization.  Samantha finished her thought though, “The guy is shopping for girls using the victim’s profiles, and you fit his profile.  Simple as that.”

“I wasn’t sure I should have included that photo, but I look really good in it,” Monica said.

“You do, but there aren’t many photos of children on the site, so we think there’s a good chance he will get to you.  At some point, at least.  We’re happy we got to you first.” 

Not having had much to do with the planning, this was the first I’d heard of the daughter in the photo.  It was my fault for not being involved.  That and my hesitancy in the whole thing.  Either way, I suddenly had a little more optimism that Sam and Ainsley were on to something.  They did their homework.

“Me too, I guess,” Monica said.

“You fit his profile to a T.”

“Great, I guess.”  I could see Monica was starting to see the big picture.

“Monica,” I asked, “are you starting to have second thoughts?  I can get you out of this if you want.”

“As fun as it sounds, you have a girlfriend.  No, I’m in.  It’s just that I didn’t think for a second you ladies were coming in right, you know, now.”

“I didn’t either, I swear,” I said, “I had no idea they were outside.  How’d you guys know we were here?”

“We followed you.”

“Oh.  Didn’t think I needed to worry about a tail.”

“You always need to worry about a tail, Cash,” Samantha was shaking her head and making a face to remind me to never forget. 

My date was thankfully over.  The girls talked for a while, even after Monica and I had finished our meals.  The four of us ended the night with a final round of drinks and four Obi-won cannolis.  The cream cheese was blue, like his lightsaber. 

Something weird happened when I was paying.  I made my way to the bar to pay it because the blue skin hadn’t collected the check.  It was a rounded horseshoe bar in the middle of the back portion of the restaurant.  There were some patrons, but it wasn’t packed or loud.  Perhaps because the band hadn’t started – they were supposed to be “out of this world,” according to the sign.  Who knows?  The bartender took my check back to the door into the kitchen where she met with a man that looked terribly like Luther Camionette.  Luther was my girlfriend Lisa’s brother.  He disappeared after the events of six months earlier.  Thought he might have been killed at Gino’s bar, but his body was never recovered.  Lisa hadn’t heard from him either.  She figured he was dead.  In any case, the bartender had a question, showed him, he said something, looked at me, smiled like he knew me but wanted to kill me, and then made his way back into the kitchen.  He wasn’t dressed like an alien and would have looked out of place at the restaurant.  He was dressed in the kind of suit a classy restaurant owner would wear or an Italian mafioso.  The restaurant was new, it was no more than a couple of months old, and there was Luther Camionette slinging space-themed drinks and meals of the Italian variety.  I wasn’t in the mood to know more.  I paid the check, left a tip on the table and coaxed my three companions to call it a night. 

Chapter 2 – The Tail of Feebs

Jake Chambliss was on his way back from DC in his El Camino.  He had it painted black.  A little more than five months earlier, he traded it for a getaway car.  Unfortunately, the kid who needed it didn’t get away.  Jake painted it blue and grey with spray paint cans to make it look like a beater, but it wasn’t. It was mint.  The kid and his girlfriend painted their rugs brain-blood red after ignoring Jake’s advice.  Once the car was retitled and legitimate, Jake got a professional paint job that matched the quality of the vehicle.

In DC, he’d been going back and forth with the Defense Department and the jackboots of the alphabet intelligence agencies.  Eventually, the DOD reluctantly restored his good name.  After what happened, Bennett Glazebrook’s former law firm took his case pro bono.  How was Jake to say no?  The firm wanted to clear the stink of their former partner Bennett Glazebrook and figured helping Jake out was their ticket.  Jake had enough evidence to indict the FBI for fraud, conspiracy and perhaps even treason several times over.  Once lawyers got a look at the evidence, they were willing to play ball, but if and only if Jake would sign non-disclosure agreements galore.  While he didn’t want to let them get off scot-free, the idea of not having to watch over his back was motivation enough.  That and it guaranteed his friends immunity – an even bigger selling point in his decision to bite the bullet.

At least two feds had been trying to kill him for the previous sixteen years – Sam Simon and Bob Dillard.  Jake knew too much about the Oklahoma City Bombing coverup and specifically what these two FBI agents had done to make it happen.  While it was true that Jake killed them and that everybody in the room knew it, he didn’t have to cop to it or answer to the charges.  Only had to sign non-disclosure agreements.  The FBI was more interested in covering its own butt than getting justice for its rogue agents – or having to admit they weren’t really rogue in the first place.  Probably a lot of that too.  What the public doesn’t know won’t hurt the FBI.  That kind of thing.  Most of Jake’s time in DC was consumed by lawyers trying to get everyone to finally agree on the final wording of each of the non-disclosure agreements.  Lawyers get paid by the hour.

Jake wanted to get on with his life, but none of that was happening until pen was set to paper.  It was all done in the back rooms of the Pentagon that gave him enough protection from the bewailing FBI, which had to be dragged to the negotiating table with a gun to its head.  Jake had a stellar enough military record to get the help he deserved.  They even restored his veteran’s benefits.  None of this happened quickly though.  He’d spent over two months in DC going back and forth on the agreements.  While his secret hotel was regularly switched, he always slept with a gun under his pillow.  That is, if he slept at all.  Fear of his own dreams kept him awake more than he liked.  While most would call them nightmares, Jake called them his dreams.  His mind made him replay different parts of his life over and over, just as soon as he was in the REM phase of sleep.  He considered it a curse and a blessing.

The whole time in DC, he wished he was back home with Ainsley.  He only wanted to move on with life, and maybe even have a normal life.

While they talked at night, he didn’t let her in on what was happening.  Not even her investigative ability to get at the truth was enough to break through his classified wall.  Jake was nothing more than a prisoner of the bureaucracy for all she knew.

When dealing with the government, Jake learned that secrecy apparently doesn’t go both ways.  Jake noticed he’d picked up a tail before he even got to Pennsylvania.  A couple of young guys with government haircuts in an ugly enough brown sedan that had to be a rental, simply because no one would ever want to own a car that color.  It’s the color that comes with a deal that’s too good to pass up.  Jake was sure these guys were government stooges.

After playing with them a few times by taking detours through small towns and still being unable to shake them, he decided to make a bathroom stop at a gas station two-thirds of the way through PA.  He parked his car at the pump and made right for the bathrooms on the right side of the building.  Didn’t even start pumping the gas.  The men’s door was locked.  The sign said the cashier had the key.  One of those places.  You have to carry the amputated portion of a broom stick to the John, even though you know that the dirtiest hands in America have already touched it.  Washing your hands after you’re done with your business is immediately rendered useless because you have to return the key on a germ stick.  But that’s how they used to build gas stations. 

Having caught the two guys pulling in behind him out of the corner of his eye, he was well aware they knew he knew they were following him.  Thought about picking the lock but didn’t know if there’d be enough time.  Then he noticed the door to the lady’s room hadn’t latched shut.  He pushed it open, turned the light out and positioned himself so he could peek through the crack.  He’d see them once they passed him to get to the men’s room.

He wasn’t alone.  A young lady’s voice came from within a stall, “Hey, I’m in here.  Turn the light back on.”  Wasn’t the politest of young ladies, but manners weren’t a part of the government-indoctrination archipelago’s curriculum anymore.  That was Jake’s way of describing the government school system – the best way to destroy a nation is to destroy its youth.  Getting his name back didn’t curb his distaste for the government.

Quick thinking Jake was able to fix the situation with a few words, “Shh.  These guys want to kill me.  Shut up, or they’ll kill you too.”  To the point.

She squeaked into silence, other than the sound of her wiping and lifting her drawers as quickly as possible.  While Jake didn’t know what the squeak was about, the near silence was just right.

One of the federal haircuts walked past the lady’s John without noticing the door partially open.  He went right for the men’s John, wiggled the handle and pounded on the door.

Jake came out with his gun pointing at the haircut.  “You need a key.”

“You should learn to read.  That’s the lady’s room.” 

“What do you and your boyfriend want?”  Jake was referring to the haircut in front of him and the guy at the front corner of the building.  He knew where the guy would be posted but wasn’t going to take his eye off the guy in front of him to verify.

“Drop the gun Chambliss,” Jake heard the order come from behind him, but before the gunman had finished the word “Chambliss,” Jake was behind the fed in front of him with his gun resting on his temple.  He had most of a half nelson on the guy’s right arm with his gun digging into his skull and the guy’s left arm cranked up behind his back.  The other haircut was barely decipherable from the first.  Cookie-cutter feds, mass produced by your government – government of the government, for the government and by the government.  Brainwashed boys in suits.

“No, you drop the gun,” Jake was quickly in control, but the haircut with a gun wasn’t too stressed.

“Cool it Chambliss.  We’re not here to kill you.”

“What do you want?  I’m free and clear.  You punks know that.”

“Yeah, well, we just have a message for you.”

“Let me guess,” Jake said mockingly, “This ain’t over yet.”

“I probably would have said it more like, ‘This isn’t over yet,’ but you get the gist.”  He was a little more nonchalant than he had any right to be.

“Ok, well, I promised myself I wouldn’t kill anyone today,” Jake responded, “but you don’t seem to be helping me keep my promises.  What should I say your last words were, you know, when your boss asks?”

“Calm down Chambliss.  We’re just messengers.  You can keep your promise.  We’ll be on our way.”

“No,” Jake said, “you can be on your way.  Go get your car.  First drop your gun.  Get your car and pull it right up here.  I’ll let this guy get in, and then you can be on your way.  I see you again, you’re both dead.  Hear me?”

“Look Chambliss, your immunity doesn’t protect you for that.”

“Your badges don’t protect you from me.  Do as I say.”


The fed dropped his magazine, pocketed it, popped the shell out of the chamber and caught it in his right hand before setting his gun on the ground.  With all that style, he looked pretty practiced at surrendering his weapon.  He backed around the corner.

“I don’t think that’s standard procedure,” Jake said to the guy whose head was ready to eat a bullet if provoked.

“I won’t say anything.  We’ve completed our mission.”

“Who sent you?”


“Yeah, right.  What do you guys want?”

“That’s need to know, and they haven’t said I need to know.”

“Playing that game, huh?” Jake posed his question as if it were a statement. 

“Yeah, whatever, here’s my ride.”

“Touch your gun, you’re dead.  Beat it and head south.  Don’t let me see you again.”

“You have no idea what’s coming?  Do ya Chambliss?”

“That also part of the message?”  He didn’t wait for an answer.  “You have no idea what you’re coming for.  Best thing you can do is forget you ever saw me and hope you never do again.”  Jake eased his grip and pushed the fed far enough away that Jake could prepare for any blowback.  The guy used the push as an excuse to get away and walk towards the car that was waiting.  When he got to the gun on the ground, he pointed and looked back at Jake.  “Yeah, take it,” Jake said as he lowered the muzzle of his gun.  The fed bent over to get it.  The guy waved goodbye to Jake before he climbed into the passenger’s seat.  They were off, and they turned south, back towards DC.  Jake hoped anyway.

As he was walking back to gas up El Camino, the door to the lady’s room opened, “Hey mister, you could’a turned the light back on.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.  Didn’t want them to think anyone was in there.  They’d have killed you.”


“Yeah, oh, I was looking out for you,” Jake wasn’t in the mood for rude chicks.  Especially chicks covered in tattoos and face metal.  The world had turned upside down.  Too many girls seemed to believe that beauty was obtained through self-uglification.

“Oh, thanks then.”

“No problem.”

“Who were they?”

“Your government.”

“Not my government,” she said wiping her hands of the government, “What are you, a criminal?”

“No.  If I was, they would have taken me.”

“Not from what I saw.  You owned them like dogs.”

“Heh.  I wish.  See you.”

Jake gassed up and continued north.


Chapter 3 – The Band’s Back Together

After our out-of-this-world science-fiction-infused space bar meal, Samantha and Ainsley made an appointment to meet with Monica the next morning about the next steps.  I was spared a good night kiss and all the things that go along with that.  The date had successfully turned into a recruitment, and maybe my skepticism about the whole project was misplaced.  Didn’t change the fact that I believed they’d most likely never get the date with the rapist they were looking for.  Still smelled like a longshot to me, and that’s what I wanted it to be.  I was obviously a reluctant participant.

We made our way back to my bar.  Back on planet earth.  With Skylar out of my life, I’d hired a new bartender named Chrissy.  She was a short-haired bleach blond who liked wearing colorful leggings that didn’t match her socks or her blouses.  A fun free spirit who was well liked and was more than able to handle the bar when I wasn’t there.  She had little idea about what had happened before she was hired, but she seemed to be picking things up and displaying an interest along the way.  As if she were trying to put the pieces together without me knowing, but I was aware.

The bar was kind of empty when we walked in through the back door.  My bar was named The Trough because my old high school, which was named Starpoint, was also known as The Starfarm.  That’s what we students called it.  The school was surrounded by farmland, even more so back when we attended.  Since then, much of the land had been turned into large homes, and the district doubled in population.  When we were younger though, a lot of the students were farmers’ kids.  In other words, before they even got to school, they’d already been working for two or three hours doing chores.  Farms didn’t come without mandatory responsibilities for everyone living on them.

In my bar, there was a mural of cows wearing Starpoint Spartan varsity jackets drinking beer around the bar, aka The Trough.  Just a fun way to memorialize the area and our time at the Starfarm.  Sounds like a terrible time, but it wasn’t.  Starfarm was a great school – nothing but a good education with a small-town feel.  We were a big local sports booster, even though some didn’t like the fact that we served alcohol.  Whatever.  It’s a bar.  What were we supposed to serve?  The Little League team didn’t care though.  What’s baseball without beer?

Samantha’s friend Zeth was at the bar waiting for us when we got there.  I was pretty sure she was dating him, but that was nothing she was talking about.  She rarely talked about her personal life.  He was the sensei that her group sent to kick my butt and train me at least once a week.  I was surprised he was still in town.  My training session was the day before, and he normally went back to where he was stationed or lived.  I wasn’t sure which.  Everything to do with Samantha’s group was on the hush hush.  As far as they were concerned, it was better if no one knew they existed.  So much so, I wasn’t sure they did exist.  Other than Samantha and Zeth.

Samantha rarely talked about any of it, other than what she had to share with me because she was recruiting me.  I was her second choice.  Jake was her first, but he had other things to worry about.  That and he seemed to want to get out of the game completely.  That’s what they call it.  The game.  After he took out FBI agents Simon and Dillard, who’d been trying to kill him for the previous sixteen years, he wanted a normal life.  He’d found Jesus and didn’t seem in the mood to have Jesus scowling at everything he did.  With all the people he’d killed in his life, he was trying to repair his soul.  More power to him.  Which one of us didn’t need a little soul repair?  The things he’d done and seen were way beyond my comprehension.  I had no business questioning it.  He’d saved my life more than enough times to ever have me questioning his motives.  He’d earned that.

Nonetheless, he did quietly suggest I shouldn’t get involved with Samantha’s group.  I couldn’t tell if it was because he thought my safety would drag him in or if he thought the group wasn’t on the up and up.  We all liked Samantha well enough, but this part of her life was a bit insane from any objective perspective.  However, since it paled in comparison to the life Jake had been living, Samantha got a pass.

We’d been drinking some beers when the back door opened and in came Jake.  Good old Jake Charm – that was his nickname in high school – always showing up just when he was most needed.  Whether we realized it or not.  Like a messenger from God.  Come to save us all.  I sound like I’m kidding, but I’m not.  The dude was special.

He had a smile on his face, and I knew we were in for a good night.  Ainsley almost knocked over her bar stool.  She was so excited, she couldn’t get untangled from it quickly enough.  She scurried by the pool table in the back of the bar and jumped into his arms.  Zeth said something into Samantha’s ear, and she responded.  I had Chrissy prepare his Molson Canadian.  She put it in between where Ainsley and I were sitting.  Zeth and Sam were around the corner of the bar with their backs to the door into the kitchen.

Jake lugged his way back to the bar with Ainsley clinging to his neck and her legs wrapped around his hips.

“How’d it go?” I asked.  Ainsley had finally told me why he disappeared earlier.  Once it was no longer a secret.

He looked around, and when he saw Zeth, his smile disappeared for a second.  Then he brought it back like he was hoping no one had noticed.  I did.  I looked at Zeth, and he lowered his head and brought it up like a bull getting ready to gore.  As if he were preparing for go time.

“Good,” Jake said. 

“That it?”  I asked.

“That word does the trick,” he shook his head a little as he helped Ainsley come back to earth, at which point he grabbed his beer and downed it in a three second chug, or however long it takes to get the beer out of the bottle.

Samantha got the first word in once the empty bottle hit the bar with a thud, “Jake, I want to introduce my friend Zeth.”

Jake lifted his cheeks into one of those reluctant smiles, “I know Zeth.”

Sam looked at Zeth with surprise.  Zeth said, “Yeah, we go way back.  This here is Casper the Psycho Ghost.  All I can say is no one ever wants Chambliss sneaking up on him.”  Zeth got off his stool and walked around the bar with arms out to hug Jake.  “It’s good to see you Casper, Holy crap, it’s good to see you.  We thought you were dead.”

Jake was quick with a response, “How you gonna kill a ghost?”

“Apparently you can’t.  Dang, it’s good to see you, man.”

The hug had ended, Jake nodded and brought the stool on my right over to sit behind Ainsley and me, just a few feet back from the bar. 

Jake took a pull off his second beer and asked, “What brings you to town Zeth?”

“Samantha has me teaching Cash to fight.”

Jake looked me up and down, “He knows how to fight.  I’ve seen him.”

“I mean like us.”

“Uh-huh…  Why?”

“He’s thinking about working with us.”

“Who’s us?”

“Me and Samantha.”

“So, you’re back to doing merc work?” he asked Samantha.

“I’m not a mercenary, Jake,” Samantha protested, “you know that, and you know what I do.”

“I know what you’ve told me, but Zeth is a merc.  Isn’t that right, Zeth?”

“Nah, brother, I’m totally on the up and up.  That stuff we used to do.  It’s in the past.”

“The stuff you used to do.”

“You were right there with me, more than once.  Who you kidding?”

“That was legit government work, and you know it.”  Never thought I’d hear Jake calling government work legit.  That was weird.  The man was the most anti-government man I knew and for good reason.

“Jake, don’t pretend you don’t know better.  Government work is rarely ever as legit as private work.  Government operators never know who they’re working for.”

Jake tilted his head and lifted his beer in silent agreement.  That’s the Jake I knew.

“See?  This guy knows.  But hey, why are we talking about this?  I just discovered that Casper is still alive.  Let’s do some shots.  Celebrate.  Chrissy, can you get us five shots of your best scotch?”

“Yeah,” Samantha concurred, “let’s do that.”

Something stunk to high heaven.  Jake was not happy at all to see Zeth, and I was no longer at all comfortable taking Karate lessons from him.  And not just because he was kicking my butt for fun.  Ainsley couldn’t stop smiling, and Samantha looked like she had no idea any of this was going to happen.  Me, I was only hoping I was reading it wrong, but I knew I wasn’t.  I knew Jake well enough to know, eventually, I was going to have to clean the crap off the fan.

We did a few shots in between some bouts of small talk, but there was a huge ugly elephant in the bar.  At least Jake wasn’t going to jail, and neither were we.  We found that out.  Zeth had a thousand questions, but Jake wasn’t willing to answer them.  He resisted any attempts to get into it, and none of us were willing to pressure him.

Finally, Zeth asked a question Jake was willing to answer, “So, now that you’re in the clear, what do you plan to do?  You know, for a living?”

“I’m going to hang a Private Investigator shingle.” 

“Really?  You licensed for that?”

“Am now.  It was part of the deal.  They reinstated my hours and training.  The lawyers are working on it, as we speak.”  There was Jake’s smile.  It was for the rest of us though.  Not Zeth.

“Isn’t that a state license?”  Zeth asked.

“Yeah, and my lawyers are in state.  It’s being taken care of.”

“That’s amazing,” Samantha said, “Jake Chambliss, Private Dick.  Like the sound of it.”

“How about Casper the Friendly Private Eye?” Zeth asked.

“I’m no longer a ghost,” Jake said, “Hey, listen, it’s getting hot in here.  I’m going to get some air.”  As he was putting on his jacket, Ainsley offered to join him.  He shook his head.

Jake wanted to be alone, and he walked out the door.

“What’s eating Jake?” Zeth asked as innocently as he could.  I didn’t think he was innocent.  Hopefully, I was misreading the situation, but I wasn’t.

Ainsley answered, “Jake still has a lot of nightmares from you know, before.  You might be bringing some of that back.”  I agreed it was Zeth’s fault.

“I’m sorry.  I had no idea that the Jake that Samantha was talking about was Jake Chambliss.  The dude’s a legend.  I love the guy.  I hope he’s not still mad at me.”

“Why would he be mad at you?” Ainsley asked.

“Just something that happened a ways back.  Can’t talk about it though.”

“There’s a lot of that stuff, it seems.”

“Yeah, well, some things.  You know.  I’m gonna go talk with him.”

“He wants to be alone,” Ainsley said. 

“That’s what he told you.  I think he wants to have a word with me.  About the things neither of us can talk about.  Know what I mean?  Think he’s expecting me, actually.”  Zeth put his jacket on and headed for the door.




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