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Untamed Fury - The Return of Jake Charm

Chapter 1 – Jake Walks into My Bar

           

On the last evening of my yearly one or two-day vacation from my life, I was closing up the family bar near last call.  It hadn’t always been a bar.  Used to be a restaurant, until my twin brother took it over after Dad died.  Mother was riddled with arthritis and a love for the sauce, so my brother Cash took over.

            Cash and I were always close, but we were different.  Looked exactly the same, but we were different.  Even so, once a year, about six months after our birthday, we’d switch lives for a day or two.  I’d play him, and he’d play me.  A vacation away from life.  It might sound stupid, but identical twins have been doing this since the beginning of man.  Part of being in the club.  Some secrets aren’t for people without a twin, and this is one of them.

For my brother and me, it started out as a competition.  As kids, we’d have five bucks that said, “You’re the one that gets caught first.”  True to his name, Cash always claimed money talks.  But those particular five bucks always stayed in our pockets.  We never got caught.  Our secret was never revealed.  A part of me always wanted him to mess up though.  Think about all the stories he and I could share if we’d finally ever gotten caught.  Dad would’ve loved them.  While it might have made mom sip her drink a little quicker, we’d have had dad cracking up for hours.  Unfortunately, we never got to see that and still have to play this stupid game.

When I got married, it became kind of tricky at times, especially since the girl I married was the girl he dated most of the time I was in college.  During those years, he was home taking care of the family restaurant that he’d later turn into a bar.  They were broken up for a while before she and I started dating, but it was still a tricky thing.  I trusted him though, more than anyone on the earth.  He was my twin, and, until I’d gone off to college, we were inseparable.

This particular year’s switched-lives vacation came six months after our thirty-eighth birthday.  It was the beginning of 2011.  Now, over the years, there was very often one of us who wanted to blow it off for one reason or another, but the other of us would always talk us out of it.  Never missed a year.  A point of pride.  No matter what, we had to play this stupid game.

            This year though, he was really insistent that we skip it, more so than ever.  He wouldn’t tell me why, so I put my foot down.  No-the-freak-way was I giving up a chance to spend a couple of nights away from my wife Callie.  I didn’t care that he used to date her.  I was sick of her coldness and was miserable in our marriage.  We hadn’t slept together in over a year, so I didn’t worry a bit about his sharing the bed with her.  She’d become so cold I probably should have left him an electric blanket.  I’d actually met with a divorce lawyer but discovered divorce was too great a commitment to the giving up of all I’d worked for, so I decided to suffer – just not through my yearly vacation though.  Maybe it was just half my stuff, as they say, but it’s a lot more than that when you get right down to it.  The lawyer never tells you that.  Doesn’t even put it in the fine print. 

            I loved being Cash, probably more than he did.  He was always the favorite.  I was the smart one academically.  He was smart, but his grades weren’t as good as mine.  Probably would have been worse had I not helped him along and taken a few tests for him.  But he was the hard worker.  While I was studying, he was working in the restaurant, helping Dad keep the business afloat and developing his charismatic personality, which was needed to overcompensate for the personality of our mother.  Her drunkenness was becoming more and more a problem.

            So, it was nearing last call, and I was wiping down the bar when Jake Charm walked in.  I hadn’t seen Jake since high school.  His last name was actually Chambliss, but everybody called him Jake Charm.  I didn’t like Jake Charm and was probably the only one who didn’t, but he and Cash were tight.  Cash was the quarterback.  Jake and I were his wide receivers.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Jake and I didn’t get along, but I’ll tell you anyway.

            Cash was an amazing quarterback.  Senior year, we lost only one game, and it was a game he had to sit out with a sprained ankle.  He was magic when he threw the ball.  A talent to behold.  He could have played just about anywhere in the NCAA, but he didn’t want to go to college.  Just wanted to stay home and help our father.  Me, I wanted to play in college.  I was good, but I could have been a lot better – if I’d only gotten more of the throws.  Cash liked throwing to Jake more though.  I don’t know why.  He just did.  I was just as good.  Had I gotten more passes, I might’ve had some recruiters looking at me.  It wasn’t as if they weren’t trying to talk Cash into leaving.

            He’d say, “Check out Curt.”  That’s me.

            But they’d say, “No, it’s you we want.”  The golden arm. 

            So, I didn’t get to play in college.  I could have tried to be a walk on, but I wanted to be wanted.  I wanted them to cover my college expenses.  I was young and still a bit full of myself.  Cash wasn’t.  He knew where he was needed, and he was completely humble enough to ask for nothing more than just to be needed, even though he was really wanted elsewhere.  While I just wanted to be wanted, he was needed and wanted.  Always the favorite.

            Jake Charm, on the other hand, didn’t need to be needed or wanted, but, like my brother, he was both and by everyone.  He went into the Marines or the Army and was rumored to be Special Forces.  That’s the rumor anyway.  He served in Iraq and then a whole bunch of other places that remain undisclosed, and then he disappeared.  Word around the campfire was, he went AWOL, but no one really knew for sure and just about everyone was willing to forgive him.  He’d served above and beyond, as far as anybody knew.  His parents were gone and weren’t able to update the record.  So, if he had gone AWOL, there must have been an acceptable reason.

            Nonetheless, I had to hide my dislike for him at the bar that night and remember I wasn’t Curt Cutler.  I was Cash Cutler, his actual friend.  Now, I’m not a total jerk.  I have my reasons for not liking the Pendleton, New York hero.

            It was our last football game of senior year.  It was the sectional championship game at Rich Stadium, the old name of the stadium where the Buffalo Bills play.  With about a minute to go in the first half, we’re up 14 to 10 against Olean High School.  We’re thirty-five yards from the end zone, and it’s 3rd and four.  I’m open and in the end zone with my arms up.  Cash could have made the pass with his eyes closed.  Instead, when Jake puts his arms up on the ten-yard line in three-man coverage, Cash throws it to him.  With three men covering him and me completely open, he had no business looking for the ball.  Cash threw it to him, it was intercepted, and the guy from Olean ran it back for a touchdown and the lead going into half.

            I was pissed.  Sure, I should have been pissed at my brother, but I took it out on Jake.  As soon as Coach Sark left the locker room, I walked up to Jake, slammed his head up against the locker door and said, “What the hell’s wrong with you?  I was open in the end zone.”

            Sure, he could have just said, “Ask your brother,” but he didn’t.  He punched me so hard my nose broke, and it was gushing blood.  A circle had formed around us, but Cash came in to break us up.  “Quit it now.  We got to win this game, and I need you both.”         

            He grabbed a towel and started wiping the blood off my lip, but, when he touched my nose, it hurt so badly I had to push him away.  “I think my nose is broke.”

            “Suck it up, Nancy,” Cash ordered, “No one’s going to know about it ‘til the game’s over.  You tell Coach, he’s going to sit you both.  I need you both.  So, shut up.” 

He was right.  I wanted to win the game just as much as he did, but I was hoping to shine.  I knew there were a bunch of scouts there, and I wanted a call later.  We got the blood to stop, but, for the whole second half, my game was shot.  I couldn’t run like normal.  Every step was like getting punched in the face again.  I got one pass, but Jake Charm got the rest.  We did win the game, but I didn’t have much at all to do with it.  It was all Cash and Jake.  Cash threw for nearly 400 yards, and we won 35 to 20. 

We never told the coach about our dustup, and eventually my nose stopped hurting.  Maybe it wasn’t broken.  I don’t know for sure, but that was my last game of football.  Even though Jake and Cash were friends for the rest of the year, Jake and I barely spoke again. 

Oh, by the way, even though Jake Charm could have had any girl in the school, even in the county for that matter, he dated Callie Olmstead for most of high school and maybe some of junior high.  They were voted most likely to get married, have a bunch of kids and grow old together.

After Jake went off to war, the two people who missed him the most started dating – Cash, his quarterback, and Callie, his high school sweetheart.  Cash probably would have stayed with her, but when he turned the restaurant into a bar after Dad died, he drank a little too much.  He had his own bar, where he was the hometown hero serving up drinks to people always wanting to relive the good old days.  She left him.

During that time period though, she used to occasionally call me at college and tell me all her problems.  Maybe she thought I could help him, but I was at college and probably drinking just as much as my brother.  What was I going to say?  I promised more than once I’d have a talk with him.  I did.

It’d start out, “Hey Cash, it’s Curt.”

“Thanks for telling me.  I wasn’t sure.”

“Callie thinks you’re drinking too much.”

“I know that too.”

“Okay, good,” I’d say, and then we’d have a conversation like any of the millions we’d had growing up, sharing the giant attic that we turned into a two-man bedroom.  We called it the barracks.  It was an awesome place to grow up.

Jake Charm walked into my bar, and I hadn’t seen him in about twenty years.  I looked at him, and he looked at me.  I didn’t quite react though.  See, I’d heard he was back in town, and while I hadn’t yet seen him, that didn’t mean Cash hadn’t seen him.  One of the things Cash and I learned from playing the stupid life-switch game is that people tell you everything you need to know if you just let them.  Reacting too soon will cause you to make a mistake and lose your cover, but patience, masked as coolness, prevents you from making mistakes.  Eventually, people will tell you everything you need to know.  So, in addition to being a vacation from life, playing this game was also practice on how to go through life with the ability to know what to observe and how to interpret it.

He looked me in the eye a couple of times and then at the floor he was traversing.  He’d come through the back door and had to veer around the pool table to get to the bar.  There weren’t that many people left in the bar.  Pacho, the kitchen boy, had already gone.  The kitchen was closed.

After swerving around the pool table and the row of tables that stood between it and the bar, he took off his green winter jacket, set it on an empty stool and then swung a leg over the center bar stool.  He landed with the agility of a gymnast.  It was nothing like I’d imagined, having heard all the stories about how he’d become some legendary Special Forces killer of America’s enemies.  No, he was smooth and agile like a ballet dancer and not all bulked up like I’d figured.

Even though it was winter, he was wearing a muscle shirt.  He was ripped, but his muscles weren’t huge.  He was probably six-two and two hundred and five pounds.  Just not a bit of fat on him.  There were some tattoos on his arms, like a green military symbol and some others that seemed to have something to do with his service, but his forearms were more interesting.  They were covered with orderly scar symbols.  It wasn’t like the random scars on a self-cutter.  These scars were put there purposely, either with a knife or a brand. 

I saw them and pretended not to notice, but he knew I had.

“What can I getcha?”

“Beer.”

“What kind.”

“Don’t matter.”

I gave him a Labatt’s Blue after popping the top with my church key, as our dad used to call it.  He took three swallows and set it down.  “You Cash or Curt?”  He hadn’t yet seen Cash.  Probably makes sense since Cash would’ve told me.  The big question on my mind was whether he’d come back to reclaim my wife, Callie.  As part of me would be happy to give her back, no part of me would wish that curse upon anyone.  She was no longer that sweet girl with which we’d all fallen in love.

“Which do you think?”

“You two haven’t changed much, I see.”  He took two more casual swallows of his beer.  “I think you should be Cash because you’re in this bar, but something about you reminds me of Curt.”

“What?  You think I’m going to smash you upside the face?”

“Yeah, maybe.”  A big old smile broke out all over his face, and I couldn’t help it – one broke out onto mine too.  There went my cool.  It wasn’t the smile I had to give because I was pretending to be Cash.  It was the smile I had for a kid whom I’d missed for a long time.  At that moment, I realized I had thankfully grown out of holding onto my childish grudge. 

I dried my hands on the white rag and walked around the bar to his side.  I then picked him up in a bear hug and said, “Welcome home Jake.  We missed you.”  I quickly realized I probably shouldn’t have been speaking for my brother too, but it was too late.

He hugged me back, once I’d put him down, and said, “Yeah, I’ve missed you guys too.”  I knew he was talking about me and my brother.  That’s how it’d always been.  We were one and the same to just about everyone but Jake Charm.  Jake had apparently set that stuff from youth aside and seemingly forgiven me for attacking him at halftime way back when.

“How’s your brother?”

“He’s fine.  He’s good.  The president of the bank.  Pendleton Savings and Loan.  PS and L.”

“Pendleton’s got a bank?  What the heck’s going on?  I’ve been gone too long, brotha.”

“You’ve been gone half your life, brother.  Pendleton’s actually got two banks.  My brother’s bank is in the middle of acquiring the other.  What a can of worms that’s become.  He’s miserable right now.  Just miserable.  The whole thing’s a mess.”

“I thought you said he was good.”

“He is.  He’s just going through a tough time with this acquisition.  He didn’t even want it.  The board of directors is making him do it, and it’s getting a lot of pushback.  Other than that, he’s good.”  I realized I might have been saying too much about things Cash might not necessarily know.  “You know he married Callie, right?”

“He married Callie?  I thought for sure you’d have married her.  You were together last I’d heard.”

“We were, but I went and messed that all up.  Once I’d opened this bar, it all went to hell.  Drank too much and partied too much.  Knowing Callie, you can figure out why she left me.”

He smiled one of those fond-memory smiles, the kind that reminds you why we live.  “Callie happy with Curt?”

“Yeah, I guess.”  Tough question.  How do you answer that, knowing she wasn’t but also knowing that Cash probably hadn’t any idea of how unhappy she really was?  Strategy.  It’s all a part of the game.

“Did you come back to reclaim Callie?”

“No, nah.  I don’t think so.  It was just time,” he said as if he wasn’t quite sure why he was back.  “Something was calling me back.  Been a long time.  Wanted to see what I had missed.”

“Makes sense,” I said, even though it didn’t.  “I don’t know if you know this, but some of the people around here used to say you went AWOL when you disappeared.  And since your folks were already passed, there was no one to say any different.  Just thought you ought to know.”

“I didn’t go AWOL.  I was honorably discharged.  I just didn’t come right home, is all.”

“You didn’t come home, period.  What are you talking about?  You’d have been welcomed as a hero.”

“Didn’t need that,” he said.  “Just had some things to figure out is all.  Did it in my own time.”

“Where’d you go?”

“All over the world.  I spent a lot of time in Africa and Europe, a little time in Asia.  Just wandering.”

“How’d you make a living?”

“There’s always someone needing something done.  For many of those things, I’m probably more qualified than most.”

“Makes sense,” I said.

Jake put a ten on the bar and said he’d have another beer.  I looked at the clock and the rest of the bar.  The last of the late stragglers had left through the front door.  “It’s after last call.  Your money’s no good here.”  I popped open another and set it down after wiping the condensation off the bar in front of him.  “It’s on the house.”

He picked it up and pointed the open top at me while winking his eye.  “You sure I’m not keeping you up, Cash?”

“No, I’m good.  I haven’t seen you in forever.  I’m good as long as you are.”

“Well, have a beer with me.”

“I appreciate the invitation, but my stomach’s been acting up.  I need some Pepto-Bismol more than I need a beer.  ‘Sides, I have to get up early and meet my brother for breakfast.”  Loose lips sink ships.  The real reason I wasn’t going to drink is that it’s harder to watch what you say when you’ve been drinking.  Jake Charm had already come closer than ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine percent of the people ever get to figuring Cash and me out.

“No sweat,” he said.  “I’d like to see your brother too before I leave.”

“Leave?  You just got here.  Where you going?”

“I don’t know where I’m going or even when, but I know myself better than anyone, and I never stay anywhere beyond my welcome.”

“You don’t think you’re welcome here?”

“I don’t know, Cash.  I just got here, and, like you said, they thought so little of me they’d think I’d go AWOL.  There’s more behind that than just a little gossip, I’m thinking.  This isn’t the first I’d heard about the AWOL rumors, of course.”

“Yeah, I don’t know.  Just know that I never believed that bull.  Benefit of knowing you, I guess.”  And I meant that sincerely.

“Thanks.”

We sat for another hour and a half or so.  He drank another three beers.  We talked about the old days.  Whether I was as tight with him as my brother or not, I was still there.  I knew all the stories and enjoyed talking about them.  The good old days in the local Starpoint bar.  Starpoint is the name of our school.

Once he’d taken his last swig, he set his bottle on the bar with a thud.  “That’s it for me tonight.  Thanks again, Cash.  It’s been a long time since I talked about the old times.”

“You need a ride home?  Where you staying?”

“I’m at my folks’ house.  Our neighbor’s been taking care of it for me.  Looks just like it did the day I left.”

“You never even made it back for their funerals, did you?”  His parents were killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver.

“Wasn’t even an option for me.  I was in a deep-cover mission and eventually laid up in the hospital with a bloody bandage covering three bullets to the abdomen.  I just couldn’t make it.”

“Well then, Jake, we’re not done,” I said.  “I’ve got more questions for you.  Three bullets to the abdomen.  Make sure I see you again before you disappear.”

“You got it.  It’s a promise.”  And I didn’t doubt it for a second. 

“You didn’t answer the question though.  Do you want a ride?  I can put you on the back of my sled.  It’s cold out there.”              It was January.  After I’d locked the door, checked the kitchen appliances and turned out the lights, he followed me out the back door.  There was more than an inch of snow covering the seat of my snowmobile.

Before he answered my question, he looked around and breathed in the fresh cold air.  He grew a smile while taking in that cold air.  I know the feeling.  There’s nothing like the chill of winter air in the lungs.  “No,” he said, “I’m gonna hoof it.  It’s snowing, and I haven’t seen much snow in a while.  This is beautiful.  I look forward to the walk.”

“Suit yourself, Jake.  Have a good walk.”

I started up my sled and tied my hood up tight.  I didn’t have a helmet, so I needed the hood to keep me warm.  He walked around the front and off to the east.  He grew up about two and half miles away from us.  I had about a mile to get to my folks’ house, where Cash had been living since they died.  It was all trails though.  I could have driven the car over or the four-wheeler, but the snowmobile was my ride of choice when there’s snow.  Pure speed.  I knew right then and there that there was little chance I was going straight home.  To do what, fall asleep, only to wake up and go back to my real life with my miserable wife?  Pshaw.


Chapter 2 – The Discovery

 

I took the snowmobile for an hour ride before I got home.  I went along a lot of the old trails and then to some of the trails in other areas.  It was quiet.  I was the only thing making noise.

Pendleton and the surrounding area is all old country New York.  In the city, blocks are small, but here, the blocks between the roads are a mile or two by a couple of miles, sometimes many miles.  There are houses and farms along the roads, but the center is uninhabited for the most part.  Just woods and farm fields.  Through those woods and around all those fields are trails for tractors, snowmobiles, four wheelers, and of course hunters.  The woods are loaded with tree stands.  Some metal that you’d buy at the store, many wooden and many left abandoned and unsafe.  I can get from the restaurant to the family homestead through the trails without ever touching a road, but it’s about a mile’s worth of driving at the most direct route. 

This night though, I drove for miles, even crossed some roads.  I was trespassing in certain spots on a technical level, but I knew every farmer in the area.  There’s an understanding for the most part.  It also helps keep the roads safer when guys would drink and drive through the fields rather than on the roads.  If you’re going to drink and drive, risk your own life and not everyone else’s.

Chief Lyman Beck might try and get you if he thinks you’re drunk and operating an off-road vehicle, but he wasn’t going to catch you.  That’s for sure.  His deputy Tyler Graveline grew up with us, and he saw the advantages of looking the other way sometimes.  He played football with us but was a year younger.  Good kid and isn’t such a stickler for the strict adherence to the law as Chief Beck.  Now don’t get me wrong, Chief Lyman Beck is a good man.  He and my father were friends, way back.  Used to come over to the house for dinner and parties when we were young.  He’s just old school.  Served in Vietnam and didn’t take crap from anyone.  And no favoritism.  While that’s good when you want justice, it’s bad when you need leniency.

Back when we were kids, there were no police in Pendleton.  Didn’t need them.  You might get a sheriff’s deputy driving through, but that was it.  There wasn’t a lot of crime.  People left their doors unlocked, the area was small, and everyone knew everyone. 

The school was located in Pendleton.  It was called Starpoint because it served five towns and, even so, the class sizes were small.  It was considered a small school when it came to sports and, as a result, we played in the division with the other small rural schools, most of which were up along Lake Ontario.  I think the towns were the towns of Lockport, Cambria, Wheatfield, Sanborn and of course Pendleton.  The central school was the center hub in a star-like wheel with five towns at the points.  Beyond those towns, you had the City of Lockport to the east, the City of Buffalo to the south on the other side of Amherst and Williamsville.  To the southwest and west were the City of Kenmore, the City of Tonawanda, the City of North Tonawanda and the City of Niagara Falls.  One of the “Seven Natural Wonders of the World” is in our Niagara County.  To the north were just more rural towns and then Lake Ontario.  It was a great place to grow up.  You could get to any of those cities in two shakes of a pig’s tail, but you didn’t have to deal with the psychoses of those cities.

Then it started to change.  Pendleton nearly doubled in population because people in those big cities wanted to escape.  The parents would still work in the cities, but they didn’t want their kids growing up there.   Who could blame them?  Pendleton and the surrounding areas changed a bit.  There were now houses along roads that had previously had farm fields right up to the road.  Parts of the farm field were sold, and homes were built.  Nice homes with small trees that had just been planted in strategic places by people with the big picture in mind.  They weren’t always going to be small trees.

The school grew so much they had to build a new high school on the old track and football field.  They built new fields, of course.  They then combined the old high school wing with the junior high wing to make the new junior high.  Instead of playing sports against the small schools up along the lake, Starpoint played against the bigger schools in the Buffalo suburbs like Williamsville, Kenmore and Sweet Home.  But the Starpoint teams were still great.  I’d put a callous-handed farm boy up against a soft delicate-fingered city boy any day of the week.

Even still, we knew how to laugh at ourselves.  We, the students of Starpoint, had nicknamed our school “The Starfarm.”  The school paper was called “Down on the Farm,” and my brother named the bar “The Trough” to signify the trough from which farm animals drink.  He had a mural on one wall showing a few cows wearing varsity jackets and standing up on two legs against a bar with beers in their hooves.  It didn’t look as absurd is it might sound.  Although, one of the cows was wearing a Spartan helmet to honor our Spartan mascot.  In order to sip from his beer, he had to lift the awkward helmet off his snout to see the beer he was drinking.  A varsity-jacketed cow in a Spartan helmet drinking a beer – what’s not to love?

Cash covered the walls with photos of the great Starpoint athletes from history, and even had a section to highlight the feats of the new kids.  He did more to promote the athletic department than the members of the booster club.  He tried to join them and sponsor them numerous times, but they rejected him because he ran the bar.  Didn’t want to promote alcohol and drinking.  He understood though and didn’t let it change his mind.  So, he sponsored a little league team.  Glory days needed to be celebrated, and he had a lot of glory days.

It was about 5:30am when I parked the sled in the barn.  Unfortunately, I smelled something burning and figured I’d try to remember to mention it to Cash later.  Let him fix it.  Imagine that though, something wrong with the snowmobile right when it’s snowy enough to ride.  What are the chances?

I called it a night and went into my brother’s house.  He’d set his bedroom up in my parents’ master bedroom, leaving our old room, the barracks, as a dust-collecting memorial museum to our youth.  I thought about checking it out but was too tired.  I took a seat on the couch and started watching an old TV show on Nick at Night.  I was asleep before it was over. 

I woke up around 8:00am, startled that I was late for work and not in the right place, but I wasn’t.  I remembered Cash was supposed to stop over about 9:00am, and we were going to switch our identities back.  Just another fun year of switching it up without getting busted.  Too easy.  No five-dollar bill switching hands this year.

I went back to sleep.  Meeting up with Jake had me up much later than normal.  I was tired.  I figured Cash would wake me up when he got here.  But around 10:30am, I awoke again.  Cash was an hour and a half late.  That wasn’t like him.  This wasn’t something we played around with.  The goal was to never get caught.  It was an obsession to both of us.  Neither of us wanted to be the one that got busted.  It would ruin the game forever once someone had realized what we’d been up to for the last thirty years.

Did my wife figure him out?  I sure hope not.   She was already crazy.  How did a woman who was so amazingly sweet and wonderful turn into such a shrew?  Maybe she thought Cash and I would be suitable replacements for her true love Jake Charm, and maybe we both failed miserably. 

Then Jake freakin’ Charm shows up just in the middle of this mess – what are the chances?  The competitive side of me wanted Cash to be caught, but the rest of me didn’t want to give up next year’s opportunity to take a break from my life and my wife.  That latter desire was much stronger than my desire to win a thirty-year-old five-dollar battle.  Playing the game was better than winning it, like watching a movie you never want to end.

I waited another half hour and then called the house.  No answer.  Maybe they were outside.  I called again in fifteen minutes and still no answer. 

Maybe this was the year we got busted.  I got in Cash’s Chevy pickup and drove over to my house.  My Trailblazer and my wife’s car were both in the driveway, parked just like normal.  Mine on the right and hers on the left.  I just drove by.  So, they were there. 

I then drove over to the Convenient Store at Five Corners.  Five Corners is the center of Pendleton where three streets intersect to make five corners – one road ends at the intersection.  My bank is located just off the southeast corner, next to the Star Pharm pharmacy, which is obviously run by another Starfarm graduate.  The Convenient Store was on the northwest corner.  I went there because they still had a pay phone.  True, I could have used my cell phone, but I didn’t want the caller ID to pick up too many calls from me.  Callie might think something was up.  No answer again. 

As I was getting back into my truck, I saw Daren Flacks coming out of the store with some milk and a paper bag folded under his left arm.

He looked at my vehicle and then at me.  “Hi Cash.”

“Morning, Daren.”  He got into his car and took off.  I did as well. 

I took another pass by my house.  Nothing had changed.  I drove around the block and then pulled into my driveway.  I parked behind Callie’s car on the left and went through the small garage door.  The big two-car garage door was closed.  The cars would have been parked inside, but I had a project in the garage I hadn’t finished yet.  I hadn’t moved all the sawhorses and tools. 

The driveway had been shoveled recently, but there was still snow on it.  Just not as much as on the two parked cars.  Cash should have known I don’t normally shovel the driveway until before I have to leave, unless we’re getting a crap load of snow, in which case, I’d shovel it multiple times a day so it wouldn’t get overly burdensome.  Nonetheless, the driveway had been shoveled after the cars had been parked for a while.  No wonder you’d been caught.  Little mistakesSucker.  I’m about to be five bucks richer, Cash.

I walked in through the small doorway to the garage, which led to the doorway into the kitchen.  At first, I went to open it with my key, but I didn’t have my keys.  Cash had them.  Good thing.  I knocked like Cash would.  Only strangers knocked on our front door. 

I knocked again.  No answer. 

I knocked again. 

And again. 

Nothing.  Not a peep.

I went out the back door of the garage to the back yard.  Once on the porch, I knocked on the sliding glass door.  No answer.  Nothing inside looked amiss.  I walked around the house and peered into the windows.  The shades were down, but there’s always a small sliver of view.

I saw nothing new.  The bedroom was upstairs, so I couldn’t see what was going on there.  I went back into the garage and remembered I’d stashed a key in the nail and screw compartment box I had on one of my workbenches.  It was hidden under an emptied box of finishing nails so it wouldn’t be seen by someone rifling through all the little clear plastic drawers.

I opened the kitchen door and wiped my feet as best I could on the rug in front of the door.  There were actually water spots on the kitchen floor, probably when Cash had walked in after shoveling the driveway.  They were partially dried because you could see a ring of salt left at the outer most reaches of the drying puddles.  As the water dried, the spots got smaller.  Cash must have wanted to get caught.  Callie doesn’t go for stuff like that, and he knew that.  She’s a clean freak compared to us.  There goes my yearly vacation, jerk wad.

Callie’s actual husband – me – hoping to preserve peace in my world, would have grabbed the mop from the closet and started to clean up the mess, but I didn’t.  If Callie walked into the kitchen to see Cash mopping her floor, my cover would be blown.  When it came to keeping the bar clean, Cash knew what to do, but he wasn’t married like me.  Living alone and able to retire to his bachelor’s castle at the end of the day, he was still impervious to the pleas and demands of women for his domestication.  He’d never voluntarily mop a floor just to keep from having to hear my wife’s complaining.  But her real husband would.  I couldn’t risk it.  I had to leave it and hear about it later.

As I walked through the kitchen, I said, “Helloooo.  Hellooo?  Anyone here?  Curt?  Callie?  You guys here?”

Nothing. 

As soon as I walked into the dining room, I saw little amiss.  The wooden floor was covered with water like the kitchen.  The table was clear and dusted, other than the centerpiece.  I looked into the living room area, which was just beyond the front-door entrance.  The door was to the left, and the stairway was to the right.  At the foot of the steps, I saw my baseball bat and a small puddle of blood that had dripped off the bottom step. 

A shot of fear ripped through my body.  I had beads of sweat forming on my forehead and my heart started pumping as if I’d just finished running a six-minute mile.  When I picked up the bat, I saw it was speckled with dried blood, but I grabbed it for the security of knowing I’d have something to defend myself if necessary.  I didn’t have a gun on me.  I looked up the stairs and saw Cash lying face down on the wooden stairway.  He’d been shot, and his blood had made its way to the floor.  He was wearing my flannel pajama pants and one of my t-shirts.  That’s how I’d be dressed if I wasn’t in bed yet. 

Did Callie shoot my brother?  Why would Callie shoot my brother?  Or was she shooting me?  Did she want out of our marriage more than I did? 

I stood there for a moment completely unable to move.  Sure, I’d gone there to find out why Cash hadn’t met up with me as per our prearranged plans, but this was no longer about avoiding being discovered.  It wasn’t a game anymore.  My twin brother was lying dead in front of me, and it was like looking at my own dead body.

What if he’s not dead?

I checked his pulse.  “Cash, you still with me?  Cash, I’m here.”  There was no pulse, and the blood on the bat was dried.  Dried quicker than the water on the floor.  He’d been there for a while.

My gosh, my brother’s dead. 

“Callie.  Callie.”  I walked upstairs carefully.  I did whatever I could to avoid walking in the blood.  I got to the top of the stairs and quickly looked to the right to see that no one was in the bathroom.  I turned to the left and walked towards the front of the house where the door to the master bedroom was on the right.

Callie wasn’t on the bed, and the sheets were pulled back.  Our bed was queen-sized with four lathe-turned wooden posts connected to a headboard and a footboard.  The head of the bed was up against the far wall.  Her dresser was to the left, and my dresser was on the other side.  I walked to my side of the bed.  Her body was face down on the floor, partially under the bed.  There was a bullet hole in her head and a large puddle of blood soaked into the purple rug under her.  It looked like she was hiding under the bed, but they pulled her out by her ankles.  Her left arm was still under the bed.  Apparently, they eventually pulled her by her right arm as well.  It fell to her side after it had been dropped.

I was sweating.  The fear of being killed had subsided because the killer or killers were gone, but I was sweating and shaking like never before.  What do I do?  Fight or flight is kicking in, but there’s nothing to fight, and where do I go?

I knew well enough not to touch the crime scene, but I didn’t have the first clue of how I was going to handle this.  I stood there and contemplated my situation without disturbing the crime scene any more than I already had.

Who was being killed – Curt or Cash?  Most likely me, Curt.  Right?

When I report this, how do I explain that my brother Cash was killed with my wife and not be a suspect in the murder of my brother and my wife for apparently having an affair?

Do I admit that I’m really Curt and that we were playing a game?

If I do, that will mean I hadn’t yet been assassinated and thus make me a target for death again.

What if I just report it as Cash discovering my brother Curt and sister-in-law Callie dead?  Can I get away with it?  At least then I’ll be alive to figure out who did this and get justice for my brother and wife.

If I tell the truth that I’m really Curt, I will be the number-one suspect for sure.  Can’t do much investigation from the jail.

Is there a chance that Jake Charm did this after he walked home from the bar last night?

If they were murdering Curt and not Cash, why were they murdering me?  This does not look like a robbery. 

I looked around a little to see if anything was indeed stolen.  Nothing seemed to have been touched. 

I carefully made my way to my office on the other side of the stairway.  It was the other room on the front of the house.  My first step onto the dark hardwood creaked like normal.  I made my way to the desk that faced the doorway.  My desk was left as it was.  I doubt Cash had even sat in it.  I sat down and rolled over to the safe behind my desk.  It seemed undisturbed, so I opened it.  The papers were untouched, and so were the four stacks of cash.  Each stack was $9,900 in hundreds.  I grabbed two of them and put them in my coat pocket.  Since only two people on the planet knew how much money was in there and one was dead, I figured I could get away with this without causing too much trouble for the investigation. 

I closed the safe and then sat at my desk.  My laptop was sitting right in front of me.  It was closed.  I went to open it but remembered that, if I did, there’d be a record that I opened it as soon as I plugged in the password.  That would be bad if I chose to remain as Cash.  Even if I didn’t, it would look bad because the investigators would wonder why I went on the computer before I called the police.  Making me an even bigger suspect. 

The best way to make sure they don’t have a lot of questions for me is to make sure they have nothing to suspect.  Which means I must tell them I’m Cash.  Otherwise, I’ll never get out of there.  I’ll be suspect number one, and the real killer or killers will get away.  I sound like freakin’ O. J. Simpson.  This is not good.  Understatement of the year, dingbat.

I grabbed the computer and the power cord, and I stashed it under my left arm.  The stacks of cash were secure in my pocket.  I walked out and made my way down the steps without disturbing the blood.  I took a quick look at the rest of the house to make sure this wasn’t some sort of burglary gone wrong but could find nothing missing.

In the garage, as I opened the door to the driveway, I realized my footprints were going to be in the snow, as well as my car prints.  That’s who must have shoveled the driveway – the killer or killers.  They may have left snow tracks in the house, but they made their tracks outside disappear.  I looked to where I kept my shovel, but it was gone.  They didn’t bother to bring it back.  It was one of those big ergonomically correct plow shovels from the Home Depot.  I had a snow blower, but unless there were huge drifts and blizzard-like amounts of snow, I just shoveled instead.  Gave me a chance to get out of the house and breathe the fresh cold air. 

Forget about the tracks.  I’m the one that discovered the body, and I’m the one that will call it in.  I’m just not doing it from the crime scene because I didn’t want to disturb it.  Sounds good, I guess.

            I really just had to go and hide my computer and the stacks of cash.  It’s not as if I knew all of my brother’s bank codes.  I needed the cash to get me through for a while.  The computer’s mostly useless, but I did have an offshore account with money that couldn’t be traced back to me.  The info on that account – and this was probably a bad idea – was on that computer.  The only problem, taking the computer might make it look like a potential burglary if they discover the computer missing.  I then regretted not having wiped away the dust that might have fallen around the computer on the desk.  There might not have been dust, but even a little would be noticed by the investigators.  Crap.

            Driving back to Cash’s house, the pain of losing my wife and brother started dominating the adrenaline rush of figuring out how not to be blamed for a murder with which I had nothing to do.  Writing this is like experiencing it again, and I’m baffled at how I didn’t just break down and cry.  I wanted to, but I hadn’t cried since I was a kid.  Cash and I were taught not to.  Mom was allowed to cry, but we weren’t.  Our dad would say, “Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”  After hearing it hundreds of times, we learned not to cry.

            But I wanted to.  And not just for Cash.  For my wife.  I know I had my problems with our marriage, but that had much more to do with her own hang-ups.  Maybe depression.  Probably.  I couldn’t fix it or control it.  It frustrated me to no end.  She wasn’t willing to tell me what her problem was, or maybe just wasn’t able to tell me.  So, my life needed to be miserable, and she needed to make sure it was.  That doesn’t change the fact that I loved who she was.  She was truly a special woman.  I just preferred who she was before we were married.  Maybe it was the marriage, and maybe it was my fault, but she really was amazing.  Even though I thought about getting a divorce and decided against it, I did indeed decide against it and to dedicate my efforts to fixing the marriage.  That was my choice.  Not divorce. 

            Now she was dead, along with my twin brother.  I mean, these are the two people I loved more than any others on the planet.  Gone at once, and I was going to be the number one suspect.  No way around it.  To top it off, Cash was my contingent beneficiary for most of my accounts.  Callie’s sister was too, but Cash will inherit much of my money.  While that is good if I stay as Cash, it’s also another motive for murder.

            I wanted to mourn. I wanted to break down and curse God for giving me something I didn’t think I could handle, but I just didn’t have time.  I don’t want to come off as a heartless guy.  I’m not.  I didn’t even want to curse God.  I was really praying for guidance.  I just didn’t know if I was getting any.

            When I drove through Five Corners again, I remembered I made a phone call from the pay phone, even though I was carrying my cell phone.  That will have to be another reason I didn’t call from the house.  I didn’t have my cell phone, which I have to remember to leave at home.

I drove past The Trough and decided to keep it closed today.  People would understand later.

Before I got out of Cash’s truck to go in the house, I covered the computer with a blanket I’d found in the back seat.  After making sure no one was watching me, I made my way in.  The house was a purplish-grey three-story with a big white porch that matched the trim on the garage that sat in front of the U-shaped driveway-slash-parking area situated between the house and the barn.  It wasn’t a working farm, but there was an old barn and a garage big enough for three cars. 

 Inside the house, I put my cell phone on the dining room table and went upstairs.  Then I climbed the second flight of steps into the barracks.  I hadn’t been in our old bedroom in years.  It was the attic, and it was the size of most the house, other than the add-on in the back.  The floor was unfinished tongue and groove fir wood.  The walls leaned inward and then up to the peak.  When we were kids, our dad put insulation in them, ran some electricity and then covered the walls with knotty pine.  There were windows on all four sides of the room.  We, being kids who loved to play war, cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, called it the barracks.  We were soldiers and mercenaries preparing for a life of war and adventure, and we could see our enemies coming from any direction.  That’s how God wanted it.  All our friends loved sleeping over at our house.  It was built for youthful mischief, and we lived up to our calling.

In addition to our dust-covered beds that were still there, there were numerous boxes.  Cash was using the barracks as storage.  Not a surprise. 

I moved my bed off the wall and walked around to the corner of the room.  When we were kids, we used a drill and a jig saw to cut through the tongue and groove of a few of the floorboards under my bed.  It was my idea.  We created a secret hiding spot that we used throughout our time in the barracks.  Anything we didn’t want our mother to know about went there – snacks, nudie mags, guns, bottles of liquor, a bag of weed, cigars, cigarettes and maybe a few other things.  We were good kids, but we weren’t angels.  We were soldiers of fortune, and this was where we kept the spoils of our mercenary lives, the kind of lives our mother didn’t want for us.   She might have drunk too much in her later years, but she really was a good mama.  We respected and loved her enough to make sure she didn’t know all we were up to.  It was out of love for our mama.  A mercenary never tells the whole story.  Some just can’t handle the truth.

I used a key to lift the third board off the wall.  I didn’t think there’d be much there, other than a couple of forgotten trinkets from our childhood, but once I lifted all three boards, I discovered that Cash was up to something, probably no good.  There were stacks and stacks of cash.  Living up to your name, I see.

I didn’t have time to count, but, in between the three floor joists, there were about eight piles of stacks of different denominations: mostly twenties, fifties and hundreds.  Each of the eight piles were two stacks high, meaning there were up to about sixteen banded stacks of cash, each with about a hundred bills.  I put my computer and charger over some of them, and then I put my twenty thousand dollars on top of my computer so as not to mix the monies up.  The boards had just enough clearance.  I lifted the bed back into place, careful enough again to lift from the bottom so as not to disturb the dust.

Crap, Cash, what are you up to?  This must have been why you were so insistent we skipped the switch game this year.  Must not have wanted to answer the question that I was sure to ask if I’d been curious enough to check our old secret hiding space. What if you were the real target and not me, Cash?  If I report the murders as you, and you were the target, the assassin’s bound to come back for me.  Come on, Cash, help me out.  What am I missing?  I’m still talking to my dead brother.


Chapter 3 – Pastor Gabriel 

           

“Hodi…  Hodi…  Hodi…”

            “Ignore him,” the Tanzanian Pastor Gabriel said to the visiting American Jake Chambliss, as the pastor was comforting their host and his wife.  Pastor Gabriel was a hundred-and-thirty-pound African minister to whom the missionaries from America would come to get coordinated and situated.  That ended once they discovered he was so willing to proselytize to the Muslims.  While missionaries wanted to spread the word, they also wanted to make it back home someday.  Only standing five-four and sporting a dark African complexion textured with pockmarks and a few rogue white whiskers to match the color of his hair, this pastor walked as though he had an army of millions at the ready behind him.  Unprepared for actual hand-to-hand combat himself, due to age, his faith gave him an air of invincibility. 

Jake took it upon himself to reinforce that faith.  Jake liked that Pastor Gabriel was still allowed to walk the earth and spread his immense wisdom and knowledge of the Gospel.  He wore a black button-down shirt under his cross necklace and nice brown slacks that hid the dust that would collect on his regularly shined black shoes.

Their hosts had just lost their second child in a year.  He’d succumbed to malaria.  The first one was sucked into a drainage pipe during a heavy rain in the middle of Tanzania’s rainy season.  It was now June, and the dry season had begun.  Instead of rain, the air was polluted with dust that would make the throat soar and the eyes redden.

            “Hodi…  Hodi…  Hodi…”  The gate knocker wasn’t giving up.  There was an obvious anxiousness in his voice.

            Pastor Gabriel had been rolling some hot ugali in his right hand provided to him by his hosts.  The left hand was the dirty hand.  All eating and transactions must be done with the right hand because the left hand is used for going to the bathroom in a land where toilet paper is a luxury to those in the villages.  Ugali is a paste made of pounded corn flour in boiling water.  It’s dipped in mchicha, which is like spinach, or in meat if you’re lucky.  Its main purpose is to fill the belly and stave off hunger.  The pastor dipped it in the mchicha, leaving the meat for his hosts who needed it more.  He took a bite. 

            “Hodi…  Hodi…  Hodi…  Pastor Gabriel, I really need to talk with you.   Please, Hodi, please, please.”

            Whoever it was, it was rude to interrupt the pastor in the middle of consoling the bereaved.  It was in times like this, when unfortunate villagers start to question the existence of God, that it was especially important for Pastor Gabriel to reinforce their faith with scriptures from the Bible.  The amazing thing about Pastor Gabriel, at least in Jake’s eyes, he didn’t even need to open the Bible in his hands.  It was as if he knew it by heart.  Jake had met the pastor through some missionaries who would make sure the pastor was fully stocked and had what he needed.  In exchange, they’d get informed about where their services were needed most.  That was before they’d stopped coming as often or even at all.  The missionaries were from the U.S., and Jake had been working security for them or whoever else needed it.  He and the pastor really hit it off though, and he decided to stay with the pastor and his wife. 

            Gabriel said, “Can you go and help him?”

            Jake dipped his ugali, took a bite and walked to the bamboo gate that walled off the center square of the U-shaped structure formed by the bereaved family’s three mud huts. 

            “Hodi.”

            Jake opened the gate and said, “Marahaba.”  Marahaba was the term used to receive those who knock with the term “Hodi.”  Hodi was used as a verbal doorbell.  There was no electricity on most bamboo doorways, so “hodi” is Swahili for “ding-dong,” but not really.  It’s said with respect, which obviously implies that ugly Americans with their loud doorbells juiced up with a constant flow of electricity are just disrespectful.  Jake recognized the elderly gentleman from church and from the Muslim cafes.  He was a quiet understudy of Pastor Gabriel.  Not quiet, as in secret.  Quiet, as in he listened more than he talked.  A lot more.  Maybe it was in secret, but Jake was trained to see things.  It wasn’t a secret to him.

            Seeing who it was, Jake said, “Shikamoo.”  That was the term used to greet elders with respect and reverence for their wealth of wisdom.  Pastor Gabriel told him it was actually a term from back in the slave days.  It was a term used by the slaves to greet their masters by saying “I am at your service” or “I am at your feet.”  That meaning had long been forgotten and replaced with more of a respectful meaning.  It was more as if you were imitating Jesus when he washed the feet of his disciples before the Passover feast on the night in which he was betrayed.  Not to be served but to serve, even those whom you know might betray you.

            “Ali, Ali, they’ve taken Ali again.”  The elderly man was more agitated than Jake had ever seen him. 

            “Who took him?”

            “The Muslim boys.  Many Muslim boys.  Five or six of them.”

            Jake looked to Pastor Gabriel for guidance.  Without saying a word, the pastor waved his hand telling him to go and help Ali.  Ali was a boy that helped out at the Muslim café.  He’d get water and help the owner with whatever was necessary.  The Muslim café was an outdoor pavilion with some benches under a straw-thatched roof.  Mohamed, the owner, would make really strong coffee in a big black kettle, which he served in small cups to men who’d sit around and talk politics and religion while their wives worked in the fields.  Unlike in America, in Tanzania, that’s all they talked about.  Politics and religion.  And if you were a Muslim, your women worked.

            Being braver than just about any man he’d ever met, Pastor Gabriel would visit the café at least three times a week.  He liked to talk religion.  While the Muslim men didn’t admit to believing what he said and would crack jokes at his expense, they tolerated his company because he was so respectful.  Maybe even enjoyed it.  Most did anyway.  Of course, he had his detractors.  They’d occasionally express themselves with death threats, but Pastor Gabriel was fearless, almost recklessly so.  So, Jake sort of felt it was his responsibility to make sure no one actually made good on those threats.  He saw someone in need that seemed completely unaware that he even was in need, and Jake considered protecting Pastor Gabriel an obligation.

            Sometimes, Jake couldn’t believe what Pastor Gabriel was telling these swarthy Muslim men, all hopped up on espresso-strength coffee.  He’d bring the Bible and slap them in the face with what they saw as blasphemy against their religion.  Jake knew the pastor was right, especially after seeing what he saw while at war in the Islamic world.  Stuff that cannot be unseen and can only be described as looking Big Evil in its face with nothing more than the measly weapons supplied by the Big Government that the Big Evil considered the Great Satan.

            Armed with nothing more than the Word of the God of the Jews and of the Christians, the same God these Muslim men considered to be Satan, Pastor Gabriel would regularly try to convince them that they were the ones who were actually worshipping Satan.  It was not the preaching someone would give if he liked his throat uncut, but Pastor Gabriel’s faith was as strong as the army of millions in front of which he walked.

            He’d tell them about the prophecy of Daniel, that 1,290 days after the daily sacrifices ended, there will be the Abomination of Desolation.  In 583 BC, the daily sacrifices at the Temple Mount ended because the Jews, held in captivity by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, were able to return to Israel.  According to Genesis, the 1,290 days were really prophetic years according to the prophetic calendar, where there are 360 days in a prophetic year.  360 divided by 365.25 days per calendar year is a multiplier of 0.9856.  Multiplying that by 1,290 prophetic years, he’d get 1,271.4 calendar years.  1,271.4 years after 583 BC would be 688AD, and that was when the people of Allah began to build the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount where the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the first century.  Then he’d talk about the forty-two months mentioned in Revelation, which is three-and-a-half years, or one-half of the seven-year tribulation.  Forty-two months of thirty days is 1,260 days.  When translated into 1,260 years, as had been done before, and added to 688AD, he would come up with 1948, the year that Israel was reestablished.  In brief, his point was that more than a thousand years before the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, Daniel had prophesied the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the building of the Dome of the Rock, which Revelation had prophesied as put there by the Beast, though Daniel had prophesied that the Beast would be a kingdom.  Then he’d go back to Revelation to prove that this beast of the kingdom was the kingdom of Islam and that the number of the Beast, 666, was actually the number of a man, and that man was Mohammed.  Every day he’d come up with some new mathematical proof that the Bible was preparing for the rise of Islam for centuries before Mohammed, and he’d scold them for blindly worshipping the wrong god.  He’d do the math in the dust with a small bamboo stick, and it would stay there until the wind erased it.  He swore that math was the language of God and the only universal language.

            Pastor Gabriel wasn’t bringing a warm and fuzzy Christian message of love and that Jesus died for everybody’s sins.  He brought these Muslim men the Sword of Jesus.  The Word of God.  Jake realized he was Pastor Gabriel’s witness.  He let the pastor argue and make God’s point, but he remained quiet.  He was the army of one that the Muslims could see, but nowhere near enough in his own mind.  For once in his life, Jake felt inadequate and liked it.  The challenge this obligation presented made him feel needed.

Fortunately, Tanzania had a strong military.  There wasn’t a lot of war.  These military guys were big, strong and completely unwilling to waste time on troublemakers.  They’d break heads and ask questions later.  However, there were indeed troublemakers, many who’d made their way south from South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.  For the most part though, the soldiers would let the pastor do his thing.  Sometimes they’d cut him short if he was getting too close to a truth that was starting to inflame tensions around the peaceful coffee pot.  Their job was to keep the peace and, not wanting to openly disrespect a man of the cloth, they’d use Jake as their interpreter.  Some of the Tanzanian soldiers liked Jake and would often wonder out loud how Jake was crazy enough to stand by this man who was on his way to being put in the ground by unnatural means.

He could only tell them he had no need to make excuses for fulfilling an obligation.

“You could just go back to America.  Why your obligation?”

“If not mine, then whose?”

They never had an answer to that question.  Jake’s selfless bravery only served to make him appear bigger in their eyes.  He wasn’t the missionary that came with words, books and food.  His mission was one of deeds, and they appreciated that.

The old man led Jake to Ali, walking faster than he probably should have.  Just another indication of the seriousness of the situation.  First, they walked to the road along Lake Tanganyika.  This lake was four hundred and fifty miles long by about thirty miles wide.  The local fishermen were making their way out to the lake.  At darkness, they’d light lanterns to bring the fish to their nets.  The lake would be lit up at night with the many lanterns.  It was beautiful.  Jake loved to get his hands on the expensive and delicious Kuhe, but he was happy to settle for the sangara or even the degaa, anything to give the ugali some flavor.  Nothing on the docks looked or sounded amiss.  Just the sounds of wood banging and men talking.

The old man, whose name Jake couldn’t recall, kept walking south and then suddenly turned left in between mud huts and into a large gathering of small huts.  They passed several huts, veering left and right and left and right.  Finally, the man pointed at an alleyway between larger buildings.  He was done walking.  Wouldn’t say a thing, but just kept pointing with a look of horror on his face.  Maybe the horror was inspired by the quiet. 

Jake walked into the alleyway.  He could smell trash and human waste.  The sun was on the horizon and very little of its light was willing to venture into this godforsaken alleyway.  Jake was starting to think he may have been lured away from the pastor.  He kept going though.  At the rear of the alley, right before it was blocked off by a wooden door, he saw light shimmering off the freshly spilled blood of Ali.  They had killed him.  Beating him was just for kicks.  His belly was slit open, and his innards were hanging out.  He had no breath. 

Little Ali had been seeking out Pastor Gabriel’s wisdom.  He wanted to know more than just the math.  He wanted to know about Jesus.  Pastor Gabriel was low-key about this, and he had warned Ali many times he was going to get in trouble if he continued to seek him out.  Ali kept coming though.  He had brilliant questions for a child of his age, and the pastor had the answers.

Now, he was dead.  A fury was building in Jake.  It was the fury he’d spent years learning to tame.  An old friend that can quickly become his enemy but more so the enemy of his enemies.  Woe be to his enemies once Jake’s fury began to rise.

Jake took off his shirt and covered Ali’s abdomen before he picked the boy up in his arms.  The old man that had brought him was gone.  Ali wasn’t more than seventy pounds.  Jake walked slowly back to where he’d left the pastor with a solemn scowl on his face.  Others looked at him, but none offered a word or help.  It was as if they’d all seen it coming and were afraid to take a position on any of it.  They’d glance over and then quickly look away.  Jake’s shirt was covered with blood, but at least people were spared having to see what was under it.  It was gruesome.  Jake had to, at one point, put the boy down so that he could tuck the boy’s innards back into his belly.

When he’d gotten back to where the pastor remained with their hosts, he opened the gate without knocking to immediately see more horror.  Pastor Gabriel had been decapitated, and the husband and wife had been stabbed to death.  The pastor’s body had fallen to the ground, and his head was left sitting on his Bible splayed open upon the chair.  A knife handle was coming out of the top of his skull.  The Bible was soaked in blood.

Jake set the boy down and tied the goat away from the bodies.  Its face was covered in blood. 

The fury was no longer tamed.  As if a switch in his head had been thrown, Jake Chambliss went from witness to soldier.  Actions were dictated by instincts, while thoughts were for the civilized.

He ran shirtless through the village and back to the cement home where he stayed with the pastor and his wife.  A brick wall with a metal gate surrounded the home.  There was barbed wire above the wall, and shards of glass had been cemented into the top of the wall.  He unlocked the gate and ran into the house to get his guns.  There is a time for peace and a time for war.  This was a time for war.  There was no other way to satisfy this untamed fury.  It would take an elephant tranquilizer to stop him, and that might not even be enough.

Before Jake ran into the house, he noticed a blanket left over the barbed wire atop the protective wall to the left.  Following the muffled screams, he ran directly to the pastor’s bedroom.  There were three men in there with Pastor Gabriel’s wife.  Two were holding her arms, while a third was trying to rape her.  Jake put the knife he’d grabbed off the table through the ear of the guy caught with his pants down and threw his body across the small room.  The punctured head bounced off the wall.  The other two came at him. 

The guy on his right punched at him.  Jake grabbed the guy’s arm, brought him in and twisted his arm behind his back so hard he ripped it right out of the shoulder socket.  The man’s screams ended quickly after Jake lifted the man off the ground by yanking his neck back until the spinal cord had snapped.  A death move he stole from Chuck Norris in the movie The Octagon, or maybe Force of One.  He didn’t have time to remember.  He slammed the body to the cement floor for good measure.  He wanted Satan to hear the sounds of hell being paid.

The other guy backed up after watching what happened to his friends.  Jake walked after him to the rear corner of the room.  With a look of horror, the man held his arms forward in hopes of keeping Jake at bay.  No luck and no mercy for rapists.  Jake grabbed the guy’s hair, slammed his face on his lifted knee, and then twisted the guy’s head until his neck snapped.  Another twist, and he’d have ripped the guy’s head right off his shoulders.  But Jake was trying to control his fury.  It’s a multi-step process, but it was underway.

He went right to the pastor’s wife.  She hadn’t moved.  He pulled her skirt down and realized they’d stabbed her in the chest.  He tried to wake her, but she wouldn’t move.  There was no pulse.  They were trying to rape a dead woman. 

It was still time for war.

In the kitchen, Jake grabbed some dried pork and put it in the mouths of each of the dead rapists.  Let that be a lesson, let the rest of the Muslims learn that they have more than just their lives to give up.  Yeah, it was offensive, but that was the point.  No mercy for the wicked.

In the room where he’d been staying, he loaded his things into his backpack and put on his fatigues and a clean green shirt.  His guns were loaded, and he put them in their appropriate places.  He was armed to the teeth now.  Finally, over some clean and dry socks, he laced up his combat boots.  The mind was ready, and now the body was. 

On his way out, he grabbed some food and stuffed it in the food pocket of his pack.  Then, he went back into the pastor’s bedroom.  From the stand, he grabbed one of the pastor’s Bibles.  The one he used for private study when he was writing his sermons.  He also grabbed his other cross necklace, made of turquoise and silver.  He put those in the pocket for personal items.

Walking out of the pastor’s home for the last time, he was breathing hard.  With each breath, plumes of exhaled air would send the dust swirling around his nose.  His fury was being converted into fuel.

***

Jake woke up covered in sweat and ready to battle whatever brought him out of his nightmare.  He slowly realized he was alone in the room of his childhood.  There was light sneaking in behind the blinds.  It lit up the dust in the air of his dead parents’ home.  His home – the one he’d hoped he’d someday be able to live in again.  The comfort of home wasn’t enough though to let him escape the nightmares that regularly plagued his sleep.  This was one of his three least favorites.  It always had him thinking about Pastor Gabriel, the pastor’s wife, and little Ali throughout the day, trying to figure out what he could have or should have done to prevent what happened.

Sure, his vengeance was swift and just as much a part of the nightmare as the deaths of his friends, but he’d been woken up before the vengeance part.  Why this dream, he wondered, why?  Why now? 

As he sat up in bed with the blankets thrown to the side, he felt the cool morning air on his sweat-soaked skin.  Anxiety rippled through his belly until his whole body was able to shake and shiver it off.  It really was one of his least favorites – one of the dreams that almost invariably preceded a nightmarish day.  While the body fuels the mind, the mind guides and prepares the body.  Jake’s mind did it with dreams that were seemingly unaltered portions of his life – there’s nothing more nightmarish than real life.  Sometimes life is so awful the mind doesn’t even need to make up horrors.

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