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Length:
583 pages
8 hours
Released:
Mar 7, 2022
ISBN:
9781622534807
Format:
Book

Description

With only a mysterious telegram, improbable email, and antique newspaper as his guides, Jack London Clarke is thrust into an epic, unsuspecting journey of redemption and self-discovery.

Three days before Christmas, Jack issues a stunning ultimatum to his wife following a damaging confrontation over his suspected infidelity. As he prepares to flee his suburban Chicago home, a knock upon the front door delivers a most unlikely character, one who sets Jack's personal life spinning out of control.

Consumed by entitlement, excess and temptation, Jack has grown ignorant to his own moral decay and hardened heart, which have alienated the three women who love him most. When his family turns up missing, he must face the reality of his ways and the realization that the life he once had—but never knew—may be lost forever.

While searching through a world not known to modern man, he stumbles upon welcoming strangers who reintroduce him to those things most important in life. Only when he confronts the skeletons of his past and empties his soul of the scars of a debauched childhood can he dream of ever seeing his family again.

EVOLVED PUBLISHING PRESENTS a metaphysical time-travel adventure that just might cause each of us to look inward in self-examination. [DRM-Free]

BOOKS BY MICHAEL RINGERING:

  • "A Debt of War"
  • "Six Bits"
  • "Where Butterflies Go to Die" [Coming Summer 2022]
  • "John's Donuts" [Coming 2022]
  • "A Calico Tale" (A Short Story)
  • "A Face on a Train" (A Short Story)
  • "The 9:15 to Grand Central" (A Short Story)
  • "Willy the Whale" (A Short Story)

MORE GREAT FICTION FROM EVOLVED PUBLISHING:

  • "Hannah's Voice" by Robb Grindstaff
  • "Indivisible" by Julia Camp
  • "Red Clay, Yellow Grass" by Richard Barager
  • "Along the Watchtower" by David Litwack
  • "Moon Path" by Steven Greenberg

 

Released:
Mar 7, 2022
ISBN:
9781622534807
Format:
Book

About the author

When he was in the third grade at East Alton Elementary School, East Alton, IL, Michael Ringering selected Miriam E. Mason’s Broomtail for a class-assigned book report, and from that moment on, set his sights on wanting to write short stories and other works of fiction. He published his first novel, Six Bits, in December 2011, earning finalist designation in the 2012 USA Best Book Awards for Fiction. Since then, he has published four short stories: Willy the Whale (2017), A Face on a Train (2017), A Calico Tale (2018), and The 9:15 to Grand Central (2019). Michael’s second novel, A Debt of War, is in post-production. In December 2017, he started his third novel, a trilogy concept based on a childhood memory, and continues to work on several shorts. All these older works are being revised and will re-release with Evolved Publishing in the second half of 2021. Michael was born in Alton, IL, and raised in nearby East Alton, where he graduated from East Alton-Wood River High School in 1984. He is a 1989 graduate of Murray State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Following a 14-year career working in media relations and communications in Major League Baseball, he entered the healthcare industry where he serves as a surgical specialty administrator. Michael and his fiancée, Jackie, reside in Southern Illinois, with their own menagerie of animals including dogs, goats, horses, and chickens.


Book Preview

Six Bits - Michael Ringering

Chapter 1

December 21

Who is she, Jack? I have a right to know who you’re sleeping with.

Cocooned in several layers of blankets, swaying gently, hunkered in a rigged-up rope hammock, Jack London Clarke stared wide-eyed into the darkened rafters of the century-old post-and-beam barn, contemplating the demand spewed by his wife two hours prior.

A bitter chill sliced at his cheeks from the biting December air skulking through weathered gaps in aged windows and maple slats. He passed the time tracking condensation streams flowing from his nostrils, as they seemed to freeze in midair before drifting into the abyss as solid, elongated masses.

The night proved a total wash, none more than the last forty minutes. Desperate for sleep, he looked around the barn, unable to rid his conscience of his wife’s suspicions. He arrived home near midnight, infused with alcohol following an evening entertaining clients, hoping to avoid her altogether.

A leather couch in the den of their renovated 1800s farmhouse served as his designated bed away from bed when returning late, and often, a preferred winter nesting spot courtesy of a large stone fireplace that dominated the far wall. Within the reflection of flames bursting into the chimney, he pulled a cover under his chin, maneuvered into a cozy position, and fell fast asleep.

Who is she, Jack? I have the right to know who you’re sleeping with.

Brooke appeared out of the shadows, her voice cutting through the silence with such startling effect that Jack leaped from the couch disoriented, nearly stumbling into the flame. The planned attack induced a confrontation lasting into the wee morning hours, spilling into multiple rooms. Intense insults and varying accusations, ranging from infidelity to leaving the butter container riddled with toast crumbs, kept the couple at each other’s throats. As the mood turned ripe for a physical action, Jack fled to the barn and the one corner on the ten-acre plot he considered his private retreat.

As dawn neared, he dredged through his memory in search of the last time he’d pulled an all-nighter, determining it to be that snowy November morning when his twin daughters entered the world. Had this been any other day, he’d be nestled in his own bed, encased in flannel sheets, with the soft sounds of Chicago’s premiere jazz station introducing the morning at a more desirable hour. The mere thought of starting the day on an empty tank only heightened his anger. What the fuck was she thinking picking a fight in the middle of the night?

Suspecting a better chance of getting rest in his private office downtown, he pulled off the blankets, keeping one draped over his shoulders, steadied the hammock, then slid off and headed for the house. A hot shower would provide a much-needed burst of energy and relief to stiff and frozen joints.

He entered the kitchen to a welcomed upgrade in temperature. Up the stairs, down a long hallway, and past his daughters’ bedrooms brought him to a sitting room adjacent to the master suite. He worked down a small hallway and peeked around the corner. Their master bed was empty. Brooke had either assumed his vacated spot on the couch or slipped in with the girls. No matter, he intended to be on his way and out of the house before she woke.

He enjoyed a brief shower. The soothing hot water erased the chill and improved movement in his worn-out joints but did little to improve his lethargy or mood. He grabbed at matching articles in the master closet, assembling a casual outfit to serve his needs for the light day ahead. A quick pit stop in front of a massive floor-to-ceiling mirror allowed for a haphazard effort at constructing the beginnings of a Windsor knot in a purple tie.

At the rear of the chamber, he eased onto an antique cherry butler’s chair, then slipped into a pair of black dress shoes. As he bent over to tie his shoes, he spied his wallet and its contents scattered about the floor—a vivid reminder of his removing and tossing his suit pants sometime near the one-hour mark of the couple’s bout.

He filtered through the mess for his driver’s license, which turned up alongside a rumpled copy of his insurance card. Two credit card-sized items had bonded together, which he separated, exposing a miniature copy of his college diploma and a picture long forgotten.

Jack brought the image close, rekindling the memory of that sunny, June afternoon when their real estate agent snapped a picture of him and his wife posing with a sold sign following the purchase of the old farmstead. The pleasing comfort of his wife’s smile and excitement in her eyes stirred regret for their current rift. If only she’d concentrate on serving as a mother and housewife and less time questioning the means by which I provided our comfort and luxury.

He inspected the photo as if seeing it for the first time.

Brooke’s natural beauty both confused and mesmerized him. Jack could toss women aside like worn socks and think nothing of it, but Brooke was different. She cast a spell he could not repel. The photo reminded of the first time he saw those sea-green eyes and the way she made him work for her attention. Maybe that was her device against him, the manner with which she carried herself, or the way she did not appreciate her beauty as others did.

He studied the stained-glass window at the far end of the closet, contemplating the couple’s future. Any lawyer could get for her everything he’d worked so hard to attain. Divorce was out of the question, as he’d made a considerable investment grooming her in the ways important to his career and held no desire to break in a new trophy. If she tested him, which he doubted she’d have the courage or means to do, he’d adjust to the single life better than she.

Jack looked again at the picture, acknowledging their attraction for one another was mutual. Brooke mentioned often in moments of vulnerability the thrill of tracing the chiseled curves of his chest, abs, and arms. His broad shoulders and towering frame accentuated her petite build. She craved his attraction, as did most women, and had surrendered long ago any thoughts she alone caught his eye.

Jack flaunted his physique as a trophy earned through iron will rather than natural evolution. He’d succumbed to the world of barbells and dumbbells in the seventh grade, necessitated by a skinny frame, playground bullies, and a father unable to handle his liquor. His intent to break free from the control of others drove him to the weight room every day, resulting in granite-like forearms and biceps, and a muscular back and chest no business suit could disguise.

She isn’t going anywhere, he huffed, before tossing the picture on top of his dresser.

He moved off the butler’s chair, then stuffed his wallet in his back pocket. He grabbed a sports jacket and proceeded to the master bath. The warm glow of a chandelier in the makeup nook forced his pause.

Oh, shit. When the hell did she come in?

He inched closer. A shadow drifted across the floor in front of the entryway.

The nook, situated in a corner of the upstairs once serving as an exam room for a prominent Chicago pediatrician who treated patients in the home until his death in the late twenties, was one of many upgrades Jack insisted on during the estate’s renovation. After reviewing the final blueprints, the couple’s second date came to mind, as did the small scar above Brooke’s left eye.

She described sharing a tiny bathroom with four older sisters for years before her parents added on to their farmhouse. She recounted fights, including those resulting in blood loss and stitches, precipitated by close quarters and lack of privacy. Her battle scar was the result of a shove into a glass shelf after surpassing her allotted mirror time.

The extent to which Jack updated the space produced a perfect blend of sophistication and elegance that had served Brooke well. He now recognized, despite the gesture being based on a conversation he’d recalled and one she’d long forgotten, the space now served as a private sanctuary where she could cry in private. As he approached, the soft sniffling rubber-stamped the couple’s current reality.

Jack peeked around the corner. Brooke perched on a brass stool in front of her vanity, sheathed in a pink chiffon robe, gazing into the depths of a pewter-encased mirror, her eyes bloodshot and swollen.

His skin flushed and sweat beads formed on his brow. Intent on avoiding round two, he moved past the nook at an exaggerated pace. The crunching of his leather shoes alerted Brooke to his presence.

Jack, she called out, her voice sounding like nails dragged cross a chalkboard.

Jack stalled, then shook his head. Fuck, he whispered.

Brooke called his name again, this time in a much sharper tone. Jack returned, settling just beyond the doorframe.

Brooke turned from the mirror to look upon the profile of the man she’d called the most handsome she’d ever known. Jack looked at the floor, avoiding the trap of getting lost in her eyes.

Tell me her name, Jack. I deserve to know.

Jack stood his ground and said nothing, conceding internally the several hours they’d sparred had been futile.

Brooke swung full to face him, crossing one leg over the other. She pushed her long hair, black as onyx stone and void of the first strand of gray, over her left shoulder. I have the right to know. You owe me that.

Yielding to the inevitable, Jack stretched around the corner to meet his wife’s stare. Light from the chandelier worked in diabolical partnership with two wall sconces to highlight a deep rut in her cheek where the decorative ribbing of a couch pillow had carbon copied itself.

With her robe flowered open at the chest, Jack followed the V-shape of her face, down her slender neckline to the deep and tight crevice between her perfect breasts. Despite having just turned thirty-six and the mother of twin daughters, she’d maintained the look of a woman ten years her junior, even on her worst day. As if he were a stranger, Brooke resituated her robe to cover her chest. Jack expelled a sarcastic huff, knowing if he wanted it, he could take it.

I’m not talking about this anymore, Jack said.

You owe me an explanation.

I owe you nothing. I’ve had no sleep. None. I’m tired of arguing and tired of your paranoia. There’s no reasoning with you.

I’m not stupid, Jack. I want the truth, and I want it now.

How would I know who called the house? I deal with a hundred fucking clients a day. Maybe it was a wrong number?

"A wrong number? Are you kidding? Is that the best you can do? The same woman calls my home three times asking for you, and when I ask her name, she hangs up. Do you think I’m stupid?"

Listen, Jack said, rubbing his face, "I have no idea who she was or why she called my house, okay? Jesus, how many times do I have to repeat it?"

I pulled your shirts for the dry cleaner yesterday and they reeked of perfumes I don’t use. Did you bring home the wrong shirt or do you make a habit of rolling around your office floor with clients?

"I’m around women all day long. Hell, our office mostly female. Most of my clients are female. I can’t help they all don’t spray themselves with your exact perfume. I must work, or have you forgotten who’s responsible for all this? Look around you. Look at all I’ve done for you. How about all the shit you have—all those clothes and shoes in your closet? Are you driving a minivan? No, you’re driving a Cadillac Escalade. Are those girls lacking anything? They have more shit than all the kids on this side of town combined.

You wanted a rustic home. I bought you a rustic home. You wanted a pool. I built you a goddamn pool.

I didn’t ask for any of this, or have you forgotten? Brooke fired back. I was content with the house as we found it. I didn’t ask you to convert it to a million-dollar estate. I wanted a minivan. You purchased the Escalade for you, your image, and your ego. I only—

Jack continued his rant over her words. Anytime you want to visit your family, I buy you a plane ticket. Everything you’ve needed, I’ve given without griping. I even gave you two damn kids. Do you think we’d have all this with your paycheck? Think your job working with the retards would support this? What the hell else do you want from me?

How dare you, Brooke yelled. What’s the matter with you? Every one of those children were products of abusive homes. Why would you say something so vile? And our children? Is that what you think of them?

Jack rolled his eyes, wishing he’d spent the night in a motel.

"Those girls adore you. They cry at night when they don’t see you before bed and when you leave without saying goodbye. They want to spend time with you. You don’t touch them or hold them. When you speak to them, seldom as it is, you say such horrible things.

Last week, Julianna asked me what a cocksucker was. I almost fell off my chair. I asked her where she heard that and she said, ‘Daddy says it all the time.’ I mean, for God’s sake, Jack, do you know how irresponsible that is? I’ve resigned myself to the vulgar manner you speak to me, but our children? Do you have such little respect for them they must endure that abuse as well? You act as if they’re something you take care of when you have the time. The girls aren’t laundry, Jack. They need both of us. Thanks to you, they’re my sole reminder that I’m of any worth to anyone.

I don’t know any other woman who bitches more than you do, especially one who’s surrounded by such luxury.

You need me to have these things so the world can see what you’ve made of yourself. I’m nothing more than costume jewelry you pull out on occasions to prove you’ve arrived.

Hey, Jack yelled, pointing at her chin, you don’t lecture me. You understand? You’re the wife and mother. It’s your duty to take care of the kids and whatever I need you to do. You don’t lecture or question me. You do as I say, when I say. Period. Is that understood?

Brooke shook her head. You don’t get it. Her voice faded and eyes filled with tears. I only wanted a husband to love and grow old with, and a family to nurture. How could you ever misinterpret that?

Jack rolled his eyes as silence washed across the space.

Who she is? I want to know her name.

I have no clue what you’re talking about and don’t owe you a fucking thing. If you don’t like it here, like this marriage or the life I provide, then pack your shit, get the fuck out, and grub off someone else. Is that clear enough for you?

Brooke stood from her stool and lunged at his forearm. Who are you screwing? she yelled, digging in her nails.

Jack slung his arm upward and toward her, attempting to break free. The force pushed her onto her heels then into the vanity table behind, where her lower back connected with the edge of the marble counter. She fell to the floor, grasping at the point of impact. Jack reached for her. She slapped his hand away.

Go, she whispered. Get out of here and leave me alone.

Jack exploded out of the space, burying a palm into the bedroom wall, creating a softball-size crater and sending a picture crashing to the hardwood below. He stormed through the bedroom and sitting room, then slammed the door, leaving Brooke crumpled in a ball on the floor in a puddle of her own tears.

Chapter 2

Jack stomped down the hallway, rubbing his palm, cussing under his breath. The aroma of coffee corralled his senses, dispelling concern for Brooke’s condition. He breezed past his daughters’ bedrooms, forgetting their pending trip later in the day to visit Brooke’s parents for Christmas.

At the bottom of the stairs, he caught the tip of the tail of the family’s pet beagle, Peetie. The rescued vagabond yelped, sending Jack stumbling to his knees on the frigid cobblestone floor. The dog scurried for the nearest corner and buried his head. Jack pulled upright, found the kitchen switch, all the while cussing the beast for not having sense to move out of the way.

He hated the dog, and the dog feared him. The mere sound of Jack’s voice sent the animal into a frenzy. You piece of shit, he mumbled, before continuing toward a bistro-style coffee maker at the far end of the kitchen.

With his morning routine in shambles, he adjusted his tie in the reflection of a large, stainless-steel coffee pot. He flipped his collar and tightened his belt. He cocked his head, took a final glance, and concluded the product perfect.

He searched the countertop for his coffee thermos but found no sign. Fuck, he blurted, as Brooke had failed to follow his clear instructions to have his thermos at the ready without exception. With an angry flip, he slung open a cabinet in search of anything insulated. Lost in a world of tumblers and kiddie sippers, he fumbled through the unorganized lot, knocking several to the floor.

As the cups settled at his feet, the chime of the front doorbell caught his attention. As if poked with a stick, he jerked from inside a cabinet and shot a look toward the front entryway. Another push of the bell sent him in pursuit, reciting the barbed greeting he intended for the intruder.

Jack stepped into the large foyer modeled after a sixteenth-century rotunda, patting along the wall in search of the light switch. The doorbell exploded a third time.

All right, hold your horses. Jesus.

A flip of the switch lit up both the foyer and porch. Jack cleared the deadbolt and freed the door to an avalanche of frigid air. Its advance tore at him like an unsuspecting punch in the face, biting the tips of his ears and nose. The landscape remained covered in the black of predawn, save a slight hint of purple hue nudging above the eastern horizon.

Fighting through the wall of winter air, Jack diverted his attention to the trespasser, a most peculiar looking fellow, standing erect as if awaiting inspection. The strategic, explosive response Jack had planned expelled as a harmless cloud of condensation.

The squatty, egg-shaped old man struggled to focus through a thick patch of ungroomed eyebrows and wire-rimmed spectacles that looked like they’d been mangled then bent back to shape. Ink-black pupils peered through half-fogged lenses cut from glass a quarter-inch thick. A crimson, bulbous nose competed for attention with a dent on the right side of his head, suggesting he knew his way around a bar and a bottle.

And his clothes? The uncoordinated ensemble seemed purchased from a turn-of-the-century Sears and Roebuck catalog, complete with a black fedora hat two sizes too small, and bright red-and-white-striped suspenders supporting baggy, plaid knickers.

Is there something I can do for you, mister? Jack asked, his expression dripping with disbelief.

The intruder held a postcard inches from his face, and in a slow, country drawl asked, Is this the headquarters of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Clarke?

Headquarters? Yeah, I guess. What can I do for you?

What d’ya say? the man asked, placing a gloved hand to his ear.

Yes, this is the Clarke residence. What do you want?

Am I addressing Mr. or Mrs. Clarke? The words just passed his lips before he cut loose a gut-busting laugh that bent him over at the waist then onto the backs of his heels. Jack crossed his arms, waiting out the man’s hysteria.

I’m sorry, Mr. Clarke, just a little joke I like to play. Gets me every time.

Yeah, that’s funny... well done.

What? the man asked, squinting as if Jack had disappeared.

I’m right here. I said that’s funny. Your joke was funny. Why are you ringing my doorbell so early in the morning?

The old man grabbed an iron baluster to steady his legs, then replaced his fedora.

Well, Mr. Clarke, my name is Jubel Bigsby, of the Cartersville Bigsbys, and I work for the McClellan Delivery Service. I have a delivery for—

Cartersville Bigsbys? Jack interrupted.

What? the old man replied, looking well to Jack’s right.

The Cartersville Bigsbys? Jack repeated at a pitch sure to bring neighbors scurrying to their windows. Is that what you said?

Yes, sir, Cartersville. He paused then cocked his head. I’m sorry, did you say something?

What? Jack questioned, now equally confused.

The man shrugged. As I was saying, I’m—

Jack tapped his shoulder then leaned in, fighting a stench of gorgonzola and manure. How about you take that damn thing off your ears?

Bigsby stared blankly, then pulled the contraption over his head, knocking his hat to the ground. Jack recoiled. The old man returned upright with hat in hand, reached for a column supporting the porch roof, and flashed an elfish grin.

Now, where was I? he mumbled. Oh, yes. Well, Mr. Clarke, my name is Jubel Bigsby, of the Cartersville Bigsbys, and I’m an employee of the McClellan Delivery Service. I have a delivery for you and your wife.

I’ve never heard of the McClellan Delivery Service and I’m not expecting any packages.

Well, we’re a small outfit operating north and northwest of here, but I can vouch for the company. Been with ’em many years now. We started out on horseback but upgraded since. I enjoy delivering packages and letters around the holiday season. Gives me that old timey—

Who sent the delivery? Where did it come from? Jack interrupted.

I’m sure I don’t know. It was sent anomitouis.

What? Jack asked.

What? Bigsby replied.

You mean anonymous?

Well, if that means the sender wanted to keep it a secret, then yes.

Any identification inside the envelope?

Well, ya see, if we open a letter or package, we can get in a mite bit of trouble. My employer frowns upon that sort of behavior. I did it once and swore I’d never do it again. Almost got relieved of my duties. I was just startin’ out, and this feller, who was older, dared me to open this letter. Now, my mother, who was as saintly a woman as the good Lord put on this earth, taught me to mind my business and abstain from innaferin’ in the affairs of others. Well, that letter scented of the sweetest smellin’ sauce you ever put a nose to, and we assumed it come from this feller’s girlfriend, because he was married. And, oh, I guess I’d had too much to drink and was feelin’ sprite so I—

Mr. Bigsby? Jack said, extending an index finger. Bigsby rambled on several moments before allowing his words to fade. I don’t care. Just hand it over. I’m in a hurry.

Of course, Mr. Clarke, he said, annoyed his customer did not appreciate a good story.

Bigsby smiled, then removed a glove, one finger at a time, all the while maintaining direct eye contact. He unsnapped the flap of a large and beat-to-hell leather satchel, buried his entire arm into its depths where he fumbled for something near the bottom. His hand reappeared holding two envelopes, one much larger than the other.

The small one’s for you, the larger one for Mrs. Clarke. That’ll be six bits, please. He dropped his arm and extended the envelopes. Jack attempted receipt, but Bigsby yanked both envelopes from his grasp.

I don’t know how y’all do things ’round these parts, but I’m obliged to receive all moneys before handing over any parcels—that’s the rule. Six bits, please.

Six what? What do I owe you?

Six bits.

What the hell is six bits?

It’s what you owe the McClellan Delivery Service. We’re not a free service. Ya see, if I don’t collect, it could cause—

Jack sighed. I know you’re not a free service. How much money is six bits?

Well, that’s mighty peculiar, Bigsby said scratching the side of his head. Where I come from, it’s three-quarters of a dollar.

What? Jack asked.

What? Bigsby returned.

Seventy-five cents for a home delivery?

If that’s three-quarters of a dollar, then yes.

Who charges only seventy-five goddamn cents for a delivery?

Now, now, take it easy young fella, he said, waving a finger. Don’t be using the Lord’s name like that. You’re in enough trouble already.

How can you charge just seventy-five cents?

Well, I don’t charge that money myself. My employer, the McClellan Delivery Service, charges that money, and I get paid out of the total profits at the end of the week. We’ve raised our rates a mite, but that’s because things are so much more expensive these days. Ya see, how it works is, I deliver the packages and collect what my employer instructs me. Then, I take that money back to the station. It’s all based on a system our forefathers—

I get it, okay. I get it. I don’t understand how a home delivery costs a mere seventy-five cents in today’s economy. You’d put FEDEX out of business.

Who?

F-E-D-E-X. FedEx.

Well, I’m not familiar with them. Are they a local bunch? Did they start on horseback?

You’ve never heard of FedEx? How can that be so if you’re in the delivery business? They deliver by trucks and planes?

Bigsby scratched at his beard. Well, no sir, can’t say I have, though I’m not used to these parts. Remember, my employer, the McClellan Delivery Service, operates north and northwest of here. I heard some recent talk of a plane though. Somebody told me something about a plane ... now who was—

Please, just hand over—

I know, Bigsby yelled, raising a finger, surprising Jack onto the backs of his heels. This feller was putting on a show near a cornfield on the outskirts of this small town back home, Cumberland, and, well, something went wrong because that poor feller flew that dang thing right into this farmer’s barn. Well, I don’t have to tell you the hullabaloo it caused. Horses, cows, chickens, scattered about the county, and well, the wife of the fella flying the plane was said to be having a little side deal with—

Mr. Bigsby, take this, Jack said, extending a crisp dollar bill, and keep the change.

Bigsby accepted the bill, drawing it close for inspection. He dispensed an exaggerated Hmm.

What now? Jack asked, peering over his shoulder.

Well, it’s just about the strangest money I’ve ever seen.

What do you mean?

I mean, Bigsby said, peeking over the top of his spectacles, it sure doesn’t look like any bill I’ve ever seen. The old man reached into his pocket and grabbed a wad of ancient currency. He fumbled through the bills, dropping several, before exposing a dollar from the mess. See, he said, waving it in Jack’s face, there’s an awful big difference.

Jack snatched the bill. The words Silver Certificate appeared at the top, as opposed to Federal Reserve, and stamped ‘Series 1935 F’ under a bright blue seal with the word ‘Washington, DC’ passing through its center.

That’s odd. Where did you get this?

I’m not sure. Must’ve picked it up yesterday in Clear Lake.

Where the hell’s Clear Lake?

A fair stretch of the legs north, because, as you know, I’m employed by the McClellan Delivery Service, and we operate north and northwest of here. I was in Clear Lake yesterday morning and am sure it’s still there. It’s a nice little town. Sits close to one of the best fishin’ holes you’ll ever drop a bobber in. Do you like to fish, Mr. Clarke? I can’t get enough. My mother told me I should’ve been a...

Jack rolled his eyes as Bigsby rambled on. None of it added up. He returned the ancient currency while Bigsby finished a conversation with himself.

I’m sorry, Jack said, that’s all I have.

Well, okay. If my employer takes issue, I know where to find ya. By the way, here’s your change.

Keep it, Jack said, turning for the door.

Well, thank you. I’ll buy myself a slice of cheese later.

Jack mumbled a vulgarity.

Bigsby tipped his fedora, reattached the earmuffs, then stuffed the currency into the pocket of his knickers. Merry Christmas, Mr. Clarke. He headed down the sidewalk before disappearing down a set of stairs leading to the road.

Jack reentered the home, forgetting to shut the front door, as the bizarre exchange felt as a bad episode of a soon-to-be-canceled reality TV show. If a prank, someone had gone to great lengths. He retraced his steps to the kitchen.

A sharp, analytical thinker, he possessed an uncanny ability to make sound decisions with little to no warning or supporting information. His ability to assess and decipher with precision, whether it be data or a fellow human being, proved deadlier than a sniper two feet away. It was this ability he rode to the top of his industry.

His most reliable attribute was failing him now. He struggled to connect the dots. As he neared the kitchen table, an unlikely cry erupted from the front of the house. That sounds like a dog, he mumbled. Seconds later, another burst.

Not a dog. That sounds like a goddamn horse. He scurried toward a large bay window framing the front of the property and scanned east where the road cut into a soft curve fronting a steep embankment draped with one hundred-year-old oaks.

What the hell?

There sat Bigsby, perched on a large, wooden-wheeled carriage, with reins in hand, a quilt draped over his legs, and towed by two mammoth white draft horses. The vehicle was a cross between a western stagecoach and royal English carriage, with rear spoke wheels twice the size of those in front.

The envelopes slipped from Jack’s grasp to the cobblestone floor. He tracked the giant team with mouth open as they pulled Bigsby around the bend and out of sight.

What the hell is that? Who is that guy?

Jack retrieved the envelopes, tossed Brooke’s on a pile of magazines on the kitchen table, then stuffed his into his open briefcase on the cooking island. He slammed the case shut, grabbed his jacket, and set off through the garage door. He intended to get answers, even if it meant chasing the nutjob and his ponies into downtown Chicago.

He raced across the garage, dodging Brooke’s Escalade, tossed his coat and briefcase into the passenger side seat of his Hummer, then set off in pursuit, leaving tire marks on the garage floor.

The road snaked around a sharp bend, forcing Jack into a hard right toward the main road. With no side streets branching the half-mile shot, Bigsby should be easy to spot. Jack zigzagged down the tar and chipped pavement then navigated a short S-curve before the road straightened. The last quarter mile appeared in full. He saw no sign of the man.

He raced to the end of the straightaway and slammed on the brakes at the small stone and brick shack housing the security company hired to protect the entitled residents of Ridgeway Estates. He set the Hummer in park and jumped out.

The security officer, having returned to his desk with a cherry-filled pastry and steaming hot cup coffee, settled in with his morning Tribune.

Jack rapped on the window just as the chubby rent-a-cop took a sip of coffee. The unexpected jolt caused a spill, the guard jumping from his chair as if on fire.

Jack hit the glass again.

Good morning, Mr. Clarke, the guard said as he slid open the window. You’re up awful early today. Everything okay?

Yeah, fine. Sorry about the coffee.

No problem. My wife can get the stain out. I’m sure you know she’s having a bout with cancer right now.

Yeah, well, we all have our little problems, don’t we? The guards always worked the residents for Christmas bonuses.

Yes, sir, I guess we do.

Did you see an old man in a horse-drawn .... Jack stalled, hoping he’d done so in time. The guard paused midstroke of wiping his clothes, shooting a funny expression.

What did you say? Did I see a what?

Having given little thought as to how this would sound to others, the near faux pas reminded him of the many women who stopped by to yap with the guards, hoping to obtain information for later use. Jack did not trust this, or any, guard. He rephrased the question.

Has anyone passed through the gate this morning?

No, not that I’m aware of. I clocked in twenty minutes ago. If you’ll give me a second, I’ll check the sheet from the night shift.

I’d appreciate it.

The guard pulled a clipboard off the wall, scanned from the top, then shook his head. No sir. Last car out was around three a.m. He moved to the window, catching Jack gazing down the road.

Something wrong, Mr. Clarke? You seem upset.

No, nothing’s wrong. I was expecting a delivery and hoping to get it before leaving for the office. You sure that list is correct?

It’s part of our protocol.

Okay, thanks. Jack turned from the window.

The guard poked his head out the window. Sorry, Mr. Clarke. You have a great day now. If there’s anything I can do, anything at all, let me know. Ole Nelson will take care of it.

Save it, asshole, Jack mumbled. He slipped into the purring Hummer and swung the vehicle around, scanning the horizon in all directions, searching for any sign. He followed the road to behind his property, combing every field and side road. Following thirty minutes of chasing the wind, he conceded. Bigsby had disappeared without a trace.

He pulled the Hummer to the side of the road, thrust the gearshift forward, then slammed his palms against the steering wheel. Sonofabitch.

He replayed the scene, searching for anything to account for the strange sensation now enveloping his consciousness. There’s more to this than a simple delivery.

He reconstructed the interaction from the moment he opened the door, working through the conversation until mining a nugget that slipped past him at the time. He recalled taking the Lord’s name in vain and Bigsby scolding him. You’re in enough trouble already.

The recollection sent a chill to his bone as he contemplated what the man meant by that. His anger exchanged for anxiety settling deep in his chest. This is no prank.

Jack turned toward the passenger seat and the black briefcase Brooke purchased for his last birthday. He disengaged the clips to reveal the tattered envelope resting on his company’s quarterly report.

Covered in visible marks and various postal stamps, the envelope looked as if it had been hunting its rightful owner for decades. Jack pulled the envelope close. A strange, musty odor tickled the hairs of his nose. He wedged a finger under the flap and sliced. The paper disintegrated, sending shards of aged stock floating to the floorboard.

Jack peeked through the slit, discovering a folded piece of paper no bigger than an index card. The faded pink paper seemed of vellum quality and antique. He pulled at the piece, and despite its desire to remain bonded, coaxed the paper free. The words ‘Western Union’ and ’telegram’ centered at the top, printed in thick black script above and below a circular logo of a globe, complete with lines of latitude and longitude. The header included the names Newcomb Carlton, president, and George W. E. Atkins, first vice president, with a form number near the upper left-hand corner: 1024.

Under the logo, a grouping of letters and numbers were printed, only an X and a B identifiable. The telegram originated at Western Union Station 66, New Auburn, though the state abbreviation was illegible. Broken type littered the message, with many characters smudged or stained beyond recognition. Jack read aloud, making sure of each word.

MR JACK L. CLARKE=

1794 M-P-E ACR-S DRIVE OAK BR-OK IL-=

YOU MU-T ASCEN- -TAIRWAY STOP

-OOR TO LEFT—WH-RE SH- LIES ST—

I AM NOT THE-E S—P

TH-Y HAVE BE-N CAL—D BUT SHE M-ST REMAIN S—-

N—T –E-IV-RY -O-A- A- 2 P-

URGENT STO-

MOD = DEC21 – 450PM- 1935

1935? What the hell?

The words floated in a confused whisper. The fifth line revealed the least. He thought he saw a ‘2’ and ‘P,’ but wasn’t sure.

Who the hell is M.O.D.? He recited names of people who might match those initials. 1935? This has to be a mistake.

He’d hoped for an explanation, not another undecipherable twist. He scanned the message again in search of anything that might make sense. A telegram from 1935 with my name on it. It has to be a joke.

He tossed the telegram to the passenger seat then glanced into the rearview mirror. He looked like hell, felt like hell, and contemplated calling in sick. He needed a place to sort his confusion and angst, but where? Home? No. Club? No. Gym? No. He had but one choice.

His downtown office often served as a haven, of sorts, with direct access to the one person he trusted most and could trust to make sense of this most senseless situation.

He guided the Hummer to a clean pivot and backtracked through the community, scouring each street and offshoot for any signs of the phantom carriage. He blew past the guard shack and onto the main road, setting his sights on the forty-five-minute commute to Chicago’s famed Magnificent Mile, contemplating how he could explain the first second of the last two hours.

Chapter 3

Brooke fell into a deep sleep, curled in a ball on the carpet, inches from a visible stain where tears pooled. Half-naked, resting on a mound of her own hair, slumber hit her quickly for reasons other than the marathon argument with her husband. She’d been battling clinical depression for months.

A frigid breeze infiltrating the space sent a rush of goose bumps rippling across her body. Her eyes shot open. She ran her fingers over her bare chest, pulled her bathrobe tight, then pushed into a sitting position. Her predicament returned in full, thanks to the pain in her lower back. The exchange with Jack flooded to the forefront.

This was not the first time an argument resulted in physical contact. Jack’s aggressiveness served him well during his days as an All-American linebacker, but not so much in their marriage. Less than a month following the birth of their daughters, the two sparred over a dress he demanded she wear to a company outing.

When Brooke refused to don the black, nearly see-through silk gown, she paid for it with a backhand to the jaw. She spent the rest of the night alone with an ice bag against her bloodied lip. In the wee hours of the next morning, she packed a bag and left for her parents’ farm.

She reconciled only when Jack promised to enter an anger management program, which he did, then quit following the first session. She returned to him against her father’s wishes, creating a deep rift between her family and her husband.

Brooke secured a grip on the countertop and eased onto the stool. She swiveled toward the mirror then arched and stretched in catlike fashion. To her great relief, she felt only minor discomfort. A deep bruise, she thought.

She ran both hands through the length of her hair, clearing the strands from around her face before rubbing the center of her back. Deep wrinkles around her eyes reflected the stress and exhaustion created by the couple’s worsening partnership.

Her despair reached a new plateau during the sleepless night when she sought a pistol Jack kept loaded in a shoebox in the closet. She’d settled on the edge of their bed, working through the recent years of abuse and suspected infidelity. At one point, she released the safety, brought the piece to her temple, and closed her eyes. A quick and painless solution, she thought.

She placed her index finger around the trigger. The moment the steel of the barrel settled against her skin, her daughters’ smiles manifested in her mind’s eye. She started crying uncontrollably. Several minutes passed before she boxed the weapon. She could not allow her two most prized possessions to carry on alone.

Brooke returned the pistol to the closet, knowing she could never leave them with a man who loved them less than he loved her. She spent the next hour buried in a wad of Kleenex, reconciling her life, concluding if it was another woman Jack wanted, then so be it. It would not come at the cost of her children.

Unable to tolerate the cool air nipping at her calves, Brooke searched for the source. The chill grew with every step toward the hallway. The thermostat read fifty-two degrees; the furnace was running.

She rushed across the hardwood to the large stone fireplace and pressed a button, coaxing the firebox to life. The urge grew strong to climb into the large maple rocker adjacent to the hearth, but she feared, once settled, sleep would find her. She had too much to do before their departure to her parents’ farm for the holiday.

She stepped lightly down the hallway to her daughters’ bedrooms, expecting to find one room empty, as the two usually held true to their routine of one sneaking into the other’s room where they’d spend a few moments giggling before falling asleep. Brooke peeked in Julianna’s room and found her bed empty. She moved one door down. Both girls were dead to the world, each holding a stuffed animal, sleeping back-to-back.

She descended the hall staircase, startled at seeing her own breath. Plastic cups lay scattered about the kitchen floor; the door to the garage stood wide open. She quickstepped across the cobblestone and pushed on the door but felt a pressure from the other side. She peeked beyond the threshold and gasped.

For God’s sake, Jack, she said. She mashed the garage door button, wondering what caused him to leave the home unsecured. Though nothing surprised her these days, this was out of character, no matter his mood.

Noticing Peetie had failed to greet her, she called out, Where are you, boy? When he did not respond, she searched the garage, mudroom, and laundry room. She dropped a few chunks of food into his bowl, knowing the pinging would draw him from the farthest reaches of the home.

Peter, where are you?

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