LIVING WITH LIVE DRAGONS -by Val Szymanski copyright: 1999

It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you happen to live near one. - J.R.R. Tolkien

Prologue The house had fascinated Lee Meadow since he moved into the neighborhood four years ago. It looked to him like a cross between a villa and a Victorian and was set far back from the street, its front courtyard protected by a six foot high brick wall with iron gates painted green. Scrolled in the iron of the gates was the name: Green Gates. Lee liked the house’s size and stately attitude, its distance from the street, the rounded rooms at the corners and the multiple porches, especially the small, covered porch on the third level. This little porch reminded Lee of an apartment a friend of his had when he was in college back east over twenty years ago. That too was a third floor front apartment with a covered porch where Lee and his friend would play chess and watch the sun set. Green Gates faced west, as did his friend’s apartment.

-1-

Two or three times a week or more Lee would walk down the hill to the store and back again, passing the house each way. Often he would stop to rest in a tiny park almost directly across the street from Green Gates, especially if he was carrying a heavy bag of groceries. Lee enjoyed sitting and smoking a pipe as he looked at the house and daydreamed about owning it. He was still a long way from being able to afford it, but closer than he was when he first moved to this quiet Oakland neighborhood bordering Piedmont. Considering how Lee Meadows made his living he might get the money quickly or not at all, but even should he get the money, he would still have to convince the owner to sell. Get the money first, Lee told himself as he sat on a bench in the tiny park, watching the house, smoking, dreaming. Binion’s starts the end of this month, maybe this will be my year? At that very moment Lee saw a bird take off from the railing of the third floor porch, gliding a beautiful deep blue through the sunlight before landing on a branch no more than ten feet from where Lee sat. It was a magnificent Steller’s Jay, a bird Lee often saw in the Sierras or the wooded parks of the Oakland hills, but he could not remember seeing one in such a populated area before. The bird looked directly at Lee, turning his black head to look at him first with one eye then the other. When Lee broke off a piece of baguette and tossed it toward the jay the bird caught it in mid air and flew back to the porch railing in another beautiful blue display. Marvelous, Lee thought to himself. # It was getting late and Cassandra knew it. The vernal equinox had just passed leaving less than nine months remaining in the present cycle and still she had found no one she wanted to teach what she knew. In truth Cassandra had not been searching very

-2-

diligently, probably because she had always expected the perfect candidate to simply appear when the time came. The time was now, or very soon, and none had yet appeared. Then she saw Tataya. When Cassandra saw Tataya Feathers on Piedmont Avenue that day it was the first time the dark-haired beauty was there in a decade and a half, nearly half her lifetime ago. She had lived there with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment above a laundromat for most of her childhood, until her mother died and she went to live with an aunt in San Diego. Now Tataya was passing through the Bay Area on business, to collect from a delinquent client, and on a whim decided to check out her old neighborhood. Much looked the same, much looked different, and the old woman staring at her from across the street Tataya recognized from her childhood. Cassandra had first noticed Tataya as a young child playing in the little park across from where she lived. She saw her too at Powwows she attended every year, a beautiful girl dancing the traditional dances with the proper inflections and respect. Cassandra also remembered Tataya’s mother, a Native American woman who in trying to both respect her culture and to cope with the Whiteman’s world ended up destroying herself with alcohol instead. She had taught her daughter well though; Cassandra could remember talking to Tataya when she was still a young girl and being impressed with the knowledge and respect the child had for the old ways. The old woman had thought then Tataya might possess the talents she was looking for, and now talking to her as a woman, she thought it again and so began to take Tataya into her confidence. It wasn’t until later, after Cassandra shared the earth’s essence with Tataya, that the old woman discovered the evil in the young woman’s heart.

-3-

When Tataya spotted Cassandra staring at her from across the street she recognized her immediately from the golden glint in her eye and was surprised to see the ancient looking woman was not only still around, but seemed no older or less lively than she was those many years ago. When Cassandra spoke to her Tataya listened and responded in a manner she believed the old woman wanted her to, thinking Cassandra might have a lot of money stashed away someplace. If she played it correctly she might be able to get her hands on some of it. Tataya was always open to opportunity, always ready to grab as much as she could, and so she went with the old woman, acting sincere, playing the role, waiting for the right opportunity. Later, after sharing the essence of the earth with her, Cassandra could see the evil hatred buried deep in Tataya’s soul, and so she rejected her, but not before Tataya knew Cassandra had something she wanted, the essence of the earth. “Your heart is full of hatred, and its poison has seeped into your soul.” Cassandra told her. “You cannot stay here any longer; you must go, now.” The old woman’s voice was calm and gentle, yet Tataya sensed it was full of threat. What do you fear from this old bag? Take what you want from her. Tataya told herself as she fingered the handle of one of the several throwing knives she always kept on her person. The moment Tataya’s fingers touched the knife Cassandra’s eyes flashed gold fire at her. For the first time in her adult life Tataya shuddered with fear. She took her hand from the knife and the gold glare eased a tiny bit. Tataya’s fear had her confused and unsure what to do. She was used to being the one feared, and had feared no one herself, until now. Why, she wasn’t sure. how could

-4-

this old woman hurt her? Tataya didn’t know how, but her soul told her Cassandra definitely could if she wanted. “Go, now.” Cassandra repeated, the gold fire flaring. Tataya looked into the gold eyes and knew they could see into her heart. She left without another word, trying to keep the thoughts of revenge from her mind until far away from Green Gates.

Chapter 1. Preparations

Lee Meadow had his plans set: two days in Yosemite, two more in Death Valley, then on to Vegas for the World Series of Poker, the most important event of the year for a professional poker player. Lee felt this was going to be his breakout year; he had been consistently playing his best lately and had managed to build up his biggest bankroll yet. His state of mind, confidence and health were all excellent, and he had no personal entanglements to distract him. If he was ever going to move up to the next level the time was now. Lee came to Roundtop primarily to watch the sun go down from a favorite meditation rock, arriving early enough to walk around the dome-like hill to the circular rock labyrinths behind it. There were two such structures, the larger one set in a low hollow easily viewed from a railed vantage point a hundred feet above. The smaller one was set off a less used path, was fairly hidden by the hills around it, and much less known. Lee had walked both before, the small one alone when he discovered it the first time. He discovered the bigger labyrinth that same day, but did not walk it then.

-5-

Weeks later Lee returned with a friend and walked both the labyrinths. They walked the smaller one first, separately, Lee first then his friend, and as before Lee experienced very positive vibrations as he did so. That was not the case with the large labyrinth in the hollow. While Lee sat a little way up the slope his friend walked it first, following the circular rock paths to the center, checking out the gifts left there, then walking straight out across the rock boundaries, ignoring the intended way out. To Lee’s mind, exiting as his friend did was disrespectful of the spirit of the place. When he told his friend so, his concerns were simply laughed off. Then Lee walked the labyrinth, and the vibrations he received were not good. He had brought a brass screw he had found in his car, intending to leave it in the center, but by the time he got there this token did not feel right. The center felt angry and hostile to him, and to give it a pointed screw he felt would only increase its animosity. Instead Lee sat at the edge of the center and smoked a pipe of peace, but when he tried to blow the smoke into the center the wind blew it away. With the last hit from the pipe in his lungs, Lee knelt at the edge of the center and blew the smoke directly into it, then arose and walked slowly out the way he came in. His friend thought him silly to give a pile of rocks such respect. Lee thought his friend silly not to. Now Lee sat alone on a rise above the small labyrinth, contemplating the stone circles before walking them, and as he did so the shadow of a large bird slid over the rocks. Lee looked up expecting to see a vulture and was surprised to see a golden eagle instead, the first he had ever seen in the Oakland hills. While Lee watched the eagle and meditated over the labyrinth, then walked it later, Cassandra was observing him the entire

-6-

time. When he came to the overlook above the large labyrinth Cassandra was there waiting for him. “Good afternoon, it’s a beautiful day.” He greeted her as he approached, surprised to see such an old woman out there alone. “Yes, it is a beautiful day.” She answered as he joined her at the railing. “Have you seen the one over the hill there?” He asked her. “Yes, I have. It is much smaller than this one.” She answered. “That’s true, but I like it much better.” He told her. “Really, why?” Cassandra asked. “It gives me better vibrations, feels benevolent, friendly. I only walked the big one once, and it felt angry, possibly even vindictive, though why I don’t know.” Lee answered. “You are very perceptive.” Cassandra told him. “That is not a benevolent design below. It is placed too low, where it can easily flood, and it is too easily seen. Many who walk it do so without the proper respect, angering the spirit of the circles. But that is its purpose, as a test for those who can sense its negativity. See how the entrance is off to the side, making it difficult to enter and exit with the proper perspective. Then there is that little swamp next to it, breeding insects that feed on living blood, and the water also attracts the cattle allowed to graze here. Cattle are an insult to nature, a symbol of the European races’ attempts to dominate the land and the creatures who live on it.” “You consider raising cattle an insult to nature?” Lee asked.

-7-

“Yes, of course. No such animal exists naturally. Large animals that graze in herds must migrate or they will devastate the land, and an animal that exists only as food, with no life of its own, is not a natural animal.” Cassandra told him.

Chapter 2. Binion’s

Every time Frankie thought about yesterday she got mad at herself again. How could you have been so stupid! All you had to do was take the deal, take the money and run. Three hundred and eighty bucks, one sixty profit, all for about an hour’s play, but no, you had to get greedy and end up with nothing. Put it out of your head. It’s a new day, a new start. You’re even at this point, with over six hundred in your bankroll. It’s enough to get you going again. Forget it’s all that’s left of twenty-two hundred. You got that much once you can do it again. Hell, you’d still have a thou left if you had taken the deal. You’ve been playing well and can play better if you can keep your concentration level where it should be. You played well enough yesterday to get to where you could have taken the deal, and if you had you would have been back on the way up again. That was a bad business decision, not a bad poker decision. Even after rejecting the deal, if you had gotten a break, won the next hand, you might have won the satellite, taken the fifteen hundred and be even for the trip with your confidence soaring. Hell, you might even be playing today for a hundred thousand and the bracelet, Frankie told herself, dreaming her favorite dream. It still might happen. As Frankie wondered what to do next, how best to invest the six hundred she had left, she roamed over to where the big money games were being spread. She looked up at

-8-

the board to see what was going on in the middle of the afternoon. There was just about any game a poker player could want. If only she had the money! Frankie was convinced that was all she needed, a big enough bankroll, and reasonable enough luck. She didn’t have to get lucky, just couldn’t be unlucky. Francesca Speciale was not alone in her feelings; most of the poker players in the room felt much the same way. Almost all are convinced they are good, maybe even great poker players. They dream of winning a gold bracelet, being a world champion. Thousands come to Vegas every April from all over the world for the World Series of Poker. They come for the money of course, but they come even more for the glory, for their dreams. Most of the poker players here have been at it a lot longer than Frankie, but few dream more insistently. Poker had fascinated Frankie since she watched her father’s home games as a little girl. She played a number of times with friends for meaningless chips in her childhood days, but her first “real” poker game was for clothes. She and her friend, Linda, both thirteen years old with their sexuality newly erupting, managed to get talked into a game of strip poker with two boys their age. She could still vividly remember how near bursting she was, first from embarrassment, then from excitement. It was the first time she saw an erect penis, the first time she exposed her budding breasts to a boy’s eager eyes. It surprised Frankie to discover she enjoying being looked at as much as looking herself. She even slightly envied Linda managing to get naked first, on purpose Frankie suspected. Once Linda bared her pussy she held all the boys’ attention. Frankie wanted their attention too, wanted to show what she had, but she wanted more to win at poker.

-9-

Winning at poker excited her more than sex when she was thirteen, and it still did today. She did win that first day too, by the slimmest of margins, her panties. That had been half of Frankie’s life ago. Sex is a larger part of her life now, even more exciting than it was then, but it still placed second to winning at poker. The show horse was far, far back. Maybe that’s what I need, get some jollies, relieve the pressure, improve the concentration. Maybe not, maybe what I need is to just concentrate completely on poker. Now there’s a combination of both. He turns me on, but I’m not sure why. He looks good, but not that good. He’s a gentleman though, very cool, very collected, at least every time I’ve watched him play. He seems always in control, even after a bad beat. I wonder if he’s that cool and controlled making love? Frankie was talking to herself about a player she recognized, someone she began to notice years ago when she first entered the poker scene. He had occasionally played in the small no limit game at Artichoke Joe’s when she dealt there, and she saw him at every major tournament she managed to go to. He usually played pot limit hold’em, sometimes no limit, and more than once she had seen him playing razz. All Frankie knew about the player was he went by the name of Lee, looked to be in his late thirties or early forties, spoke very little when he played and wore no wedding ring or jewelry other than a simple watch. He also seemed to always win. She played with him twice in a small pot limit side game during a tournament at the Reno Hilton, and lost both times, once going broke against Lee when convinced she had enough of a hand to push all her chips in on. In truth she had been drawing dead.

- 10 -

That particular hand remained permanently embedded in Frankie’s memory. She had sat down with three hundred, just to try the game out, and had more than doubled her stake when the hand took place. She was down to the felt when it was over. Lee had played her like an expert fly fisherman does a wild trout, slow playing pocket aces before the flop from an early position, sensing her intention to raise. She did raise too, nearly the size of the pot, with an ace-queen suited, and was flat called by two players, the button and Lee. The flop came up ace, queen, blank, three different suits, a horrible flop for Frankie under the circumstances, but one that made her think she had a big hand. In truth she could only win if the other two queens fell on the turn and the river. Lee checked and Frankie checked behind him, thinking she had a strong hand and hoping to trap one or both of the other players. The button also checked. The turn card was a second club but otherwise a blank. Lee checked again and Frankie bet nearly the size of the pot. The button folded and Lee flat called. Frankie was having trouble putting Lee on a hand. What could he have to just call with? She decided he probably had an ace-king, maybe even suited in clubs, or he could simply be drawing with something like a jack-ten of clubs. The river card was a low heart, Lee checked again and Frankie bet the pot, most of her remaining chips, figuring if Lee had the ace-king he would call, if he simply missed his draw he would fold. “Raise” is all Lee said as he pushed more than enough chips toward the center. What could he have but a set, Frankie thought to herself, or did he miss and is just trying a desperation move? What did it matter? With less than a hundred in front of her and so much in the pot, Frankie had to call. Lee gave her a little smile and said sorry as he turned over his pocket aces and pulled in all her chips.

- 11 -

There were no hard feelings on Frankie’s part. She knew she had learned a few things playing with Lee, not the least of which was try to stay out of his way on a poker table. Now might be a good time to approach him away from the tables except that he was already talking to a woman, one Frankie had never seen before. Who the hell is that? She doesn’t look at all familiar. Is she here with him? Is she competition? Competition seldom bothered Frankie, especially when it came to attracting men. Few men seemed able to resist her combination of appearance and allure, especially when she wanted to attract a particular individual. Since her earliest teens Frankie had virtually her pick of boys and men. Now, at age twenty-four, she was an expert at using what she had to her own advantage. Frankie was competitive by nature and liked playing all sorts of games, and when it came to sexual games she possessed an abundance of tools and talents. The only game she enjoyed more that sex was poker. Unfortunately for Frankie her poker talents did not equal her sexual ones. If they did she’d have a world champion’s bracelet by now. Several men watched Frankie as she moved through the crowded room to where she could get a better look at the woman talking with Lee. She was used to such attention, often barely noticing, other times enjoying it. Rarely did she allow the stares of men to bother her, being always careful to avoid appearing cheap. She knew her beauty of face and figure did not need to be flaunted to attract attention. Her eyes were usually all she needed to interest whomever she was interested in. Frankie began assessing the other woman long before she saw her face. She was short, an inch or two over five foot at most, shorter if she happened to be wearing heels with her jeans, which Frankie doubted. In her opinion the woman was dressed more for a

- 12 -

picnic than a casino. Whenever Frankie entered a casino, or most any other public place, she came dressed as she believed a lady should dress. She considered her femininity an asset, both on and off the poker tables. Soon Frankie had a good view of both Lee and the woman he was talking to. She had a pleasant enough face, but was hardly pretty in Frankie’s opinion. She wore little if any makeup, and though short, she was nowhere near petite. According to Frankie’s criteria, solid or athletic would be charitable adjectives to use for her physique. Frankie thought she knew what all men liked and this woman had little of it. There was no way she could compete with Frankie for a man’s affections. In truth Frankie knew what some men, most men maybe, liked about Frankie. She was only twenty-four years old and still did not fully grasp that most of the world did not adhere to her opinions. She was as yet completely unaware of how appealing a woman like Victoria could be to certain men. Frankie also thought she knew what kind of man attracted her and Lee was far from her ideal. Still, she found him as desirable as any man she had yet met. Why? Frankie was five foot seven in her bare feet and liked tall men, tall buff men, and Lee was an inch or two under six foot, neither skinny nor fat, but certainly not buff, not according to Frankie’s standards. His hair was also longer than she preferred, but it was pretty hair, clean and soft looking, light brown with the earliest hints of gray. It seemed to fit him perfectly, as did his clothes, which were far too casual for Frankie’s ideal man. Why indeed did he appeal to her so? Frankie did not understand it, but she did accept it. She was not the type who had to understand feelings to act on them.

- 13 -

In reality it was Lee’s demeanor and attitude many women, Frankie included, found most appealing. His nature was evident in his kind eyes and easy smile. He liked women very much, as individuals, as friends, preferring their company to men’s. It is why his lovers were friends first, during, and nearly always after as well. Lee never lied to a woman; most knew it and appreciated it. He was kind too, except while competing on the poker tables, and he tried always to act the gentleman, especially on the poker tables. Frankie watched Lee’s eyes hold Victoria’s as they talked, his easy smile often appearing; she decided this was not the time for her to make her move. No problem, she was convinced she would have other chances, and if she really wanted him, she would get him. # Less than a week into the three week plus of the World Series of Poker, Lee Meadows was so far enjoying his most successful trip ever to the biggest, most prestigious poker tournament in the world. He was here primarily for the pot limit side action, but like all the other players here, he too dreamed of a championship bracelet. To that end he had entered three one-table satellites, two hold’em and one razz. Lee split one of the hold’em satellites three ways and won the razz outright the night before the championship event. Four times before Lee had won satellites and played in a championship event, but had never finished in the money. This time, playing razz, he came as close as he ever had, going out just before it got down to three tables. If he hadn’t lost back to back hands with a Queen-seven to a ten-eight, and a ten-six to a nineeight, he would have made it to the final two tables and a payday for sure. And who knows, if the cards fell a little differently Lee might be wearing a championship bracelet

- 14 -

now. Lee was keenly disappointed, coming so close then going out the way he did, getting nothing. He had played well though and he felt good about that, plus he was still up a fair amount of money overall. As to the side games, where Lee had to earn his daily baguette, he couldn’t be happier. He was at the very top of his game, playing as well or better than he had ever played. So far he had concentrated solely on pot limit hold’em and in six sessions had five wins and one push. In just over forty hours of play Lee Meadows was up nearly eleven thousand dollars. Everything seemed to be clicking: concentration, confidence, intuition. When he had to guess, he guessed right. Even the poker gods were cooperating so far by not playing any practical jokes on him like those that knocked him out of the razz tournament. Just keep it going, he kept telling himself. If you keep playing your best, good things should continue to happen. Lee Meadows was a quiet, private man. He traveled alone, lived alone, and although he had many acquaintances and some good friends, few were truly close. He had been earning a living playing poker for over fifteen years now and knew hundreds of poker players. Many seemed to be good people, intelligent, interesting, honest. Unfortunately just as many seemed to be complete assholes, at least on the poker tables. There were few Lee considered friends rather than acquaintances, very few. Most players on the kind of streak Lee was experiencing would spend virtually all their waking hours playing poker, but not Lee. He took the next day off from the tables and drove up to Mount Charleston instead, one of his favorite retreats near Vegas. It was a crisp, crystal clear day, the sun warm, the air cool. There was still snow on the ground at the trailhead to Mary Jane Falls but the trail was passable. Much of the time of the year

- 15 -

that the falls is accessible to hikers its flow of water is not great, but when the snow is melting it can be spectacular, as Lee saw it that day. Lee spent most of the day at the falls, in the warm sun and cool air, without seeing another human being the whole time he was there. It was a marvelous day. Now Lee was back at Binion’s, watching the side games, waiting for a seat, when the lady with the hazel-green eyes next to him asked what game was being played. She looked good, mildly pretty, her eyes friendly and kind, her smile warm, her skin soft brown. He smiled back. “It’s hold’em.” He told her. “Do you known how to play poker?” “Uh huh.” She answered. “How about seven stud?” “Yes.” “It’s a little like seven stud, except the last five cards are common cards. It means you can always tell what the best possible hand is. Take this flop here, the common cards: there are no pairs so no full houses, no three of a suit so no flush, but there is a queen, jack, eight making a straight possible if someone is holding a ten-nine. The player in the five seat, who just checked and raised, that’s probably what he has, or that’s what he wants people to think he has, though I think he really has it. Right now the ten-nine is what’s called the nuts, the best possible hand, but there’s one more card to come and if it’s a club or a pair he could be in trouble. There, it’s a blank, no change, the ten-nine is still the nuts. He won’t get a call, the other two were on draws. He should have just checked hoping somebody might try to buy the pot. It probably wouldn’t have worked

- 16 -

anyway, but it was the only way he was going to get any more money out of the hand at that point. I’m sorry, did you follow all that.” Lee was surprised he had rattled on so, very unusual for him even if it did involve an attractive woman. “Yes, I think so. Most of it anyhow.” Victoria answered. For the second day in a row Lee played no poker, instead he spent the rest of it with Victoria. Mary Jane Falls yesterday, Victoria Falls today, popped into Lee’s head during dinner. “Do you know Mount Charleston?” He asked her during dinner. “No, I’ve never been introduced.” Victoria answered with a straight face. “Then maybe you should be.” Lee replied with a semi-smile. “Maybe? Are you a close friend?” She asked. “I suppose you could say that. It’s probably my favorite place to escape to around here. There’s a lot of such places near Vegas, more than most people realize.” Lee answered. “So I gather. There’s a kind of tour book in the hotel room with an article on Charleston, Red Rock and someplace else. They all sounded worthwhile. Why did you ask if I knew it?” “Oh, just because I spent the day there yesterday, hiked to Mary Jane Falls, a beautiful place, a beautiful hike.” Lee told her. Victoria answered with a silent raise of her eyebrows. “Anyhow, you’ve heard of Victoria Falls?” He asked.

- 17 -

“One of the world’s great wonders, if that’s the Victoria Falls you’re talking about. It is one of the places I would most love to see.” “Me too, since I was a kid. The point is yesterday I spent with Mary Jane Falls, and I was just thinking how strange it would be if your last name was Falls.” “It isn’t.” She told him. “My last name is Steller. My middle name is Falls.” “You’re kidding.” “No, I’m not. My mother’s maiden name is Falls and my parents named me Victoria because they liked the sound of Victoria Falls Steller.” “I like it too. It sounds a lot better than if they named you Niagara.” Lee opined. “Or Yosemite.” She replied. “Angel might have been nice, a little hokey though, plus I am certainly no angel.” This time Lee answered by raising his eyebrows. Lee usually fell asleep easily, slept soundly and awoke to an internal alarm clock, but the night following his dinner with Victoria was a relatively restless one for him. His rare restless nights usually followed a particularly frustrating loss or preceded a highly anticipated event. That night thoughts of Victoria intruded into his sleep. She was in every dream, in his mind each time he awoke. Lee hoped she became an anticipated event rather than a frustrating loss. The next day Lee entered a one-table satellite for the $2500 buy-in, no-limit hold’em tournament for the following day, and despite getting little in the way of cards to work with, managed to survive to the final three players. He had not been able to build up any chips though, no firepower, a severe handicap at this stage. Over ninety percent of the chips were equally distributed between the other two players leaving Lee with slightly

- 18 -

less chips than he started with. He knew the other two were just waiting to knock him out before making a deal. He had been in such positions before, from both ends, and knew good play and a little luck could change things around in a hurry. All he had to do was double up twice to get on even footing or better, but if he didn’t do it soon he would be gone. Just then he looked away from the table for the first time since play began and saw Victoria watching from the rail. She smiled and blew him a little kiss. Lee smiled back, pointed to the table and mouthed the word “wait”. Lee was on the button the next hand and found himself with the two red aces. Beautiful, the best possible start, a huge hand with only three players. Lee knew he had to get maximum value from the aces or go out trying. He had so few chips that if he raised he was almost certain to get a caller, but probably only one. If he flat called he might be able to triple up, but the risk of losing the hand would approximately double. Lee flat called. The small blind asked for time and Lee was certain he was deciding whether to flat call himself or raise hoping to either win the pot right there or perhaps get it down to him and Lee heads up. The small blind raised, just enough chips to put Lee all in. Lee expected the big blind to fold since that was simply good tournament strategy, but to his surprise the big blind called. That’s either a big mistake or he’s got a big hand Lee thought to himself as he pushed the rest of his chips into the pot. He had gotten exactly what he wanted, two for one on his aces. If they held up he would have nearly thirty percent of the chips against one or two players and definitely be back in the hunt. There was nothing more he could do now but hope the poker gods would be kind to him. Lee could feel Victoria’s inner smile on him but he kept his attention on the other two players. To win the satellite he would eventually have to beat

- 19 -

one of them heads up, and so Lee was intent on absorbing as much information as he could. The flop came up jack, six, three of different suits, what should be a favorable flop for Lee. His only real worry was one of the other two players holding a pocket pair of sixes, threes or jacks. Two pair seemed highly unlikely since he doubted either player would call a raise before the flop with a six-three, jack-six or a jack-three. A straight draw was an outside possibility with either maybe playing a four-five suited, or even unsuited in that position, but probably not. Pocket jacks also seemed very unlikely to Lee. If either player had pocket jacks he probably would have pushed it all in before the flop, to narrow it to him and Lee. No, a set of sixes or threes were the only logical threats. The little blind checked and the big blind checked behind him. That was probably good for Lee, but maybe not. If either had caught some of the flop he probably would have bet, so they either both missed the flop completely or one of them was sitting on a set hoping the other will try to make a move. The turn card was a queen of hearts, making both a straight and a flush draw possible, a very dangerous card for Lee. It also greatly increased the possibility of two pair since queen-jack was a hand either might see a flop with in such a position, though Lee didn’t think a queen-jack likely since such a hand would probably have bet something on the flop. Lee was pretty sure the queen had helped the small blind though as he had been watching him shuffle his chips while the card was being turned, and he had noticed a slight change in cadence. The small blind checked again and the big blind, who had slightly more chips, bet less than half of what he had left. Lee felt certain he was betting a draw, though it could

- 20 -

be something like king-queen or ace-queen. The small blind thought for several seconds before pushing the rest of his chips toward the center. That’s a good move, Lee thought to himself. He reads him for a draw too, makes it awful hard to call. If the big blind is on a draw, calls and misses, he will be left with maybe five percent of the chips, a nearly hopeless position. If he folded now he would still have better than a third of the chips and either a fighting chance or the opportunity to sell his chips at percent value to the chip leader. The big blind thought for several seconds then tossed his nine-ten of clubs face up in the muck. Good, Lee thought to himself, eight possible disaster cards eliminated, stupid too, showing his cards instead of just folding. There was no doubt in Lee’s mind anymore that the big blind was now playing more to make a profit from playing the satellite rather than going for the outright win. Lee watched the side pot being pushed to the small blind then turned his aces over, expecting them to be the best hand. “Whoa, I didn’t put you on aces at all. It’s a damn good thing I hit my second pair.” The small blind told Lee as he turned over the queen-six of diamonds. Damn, Lee thought to himself, wishing now he had raised before the flop. He was a big dog now with only eight cards out of forty-two winning for him, the two remaining aces or one of the six remaining threes or jacks. This time the poker gods smiled on him with a three on the river, giving Lee aces up and the pot. Now the three of them were almost even in chips. The player who mucked the ten-nine still had the most chips by a slim margin and suggested they split three ways, but Lee and the other player both rejected the offer. They could sense the player who made the offer was now playing

- 21 -

scared, and in no-limit scared play is weak play. Unless he got lucky he would be the next one out. All three could sense it, and in four hands it came to be. Now it was down to Lee and the man who called himself Montana, Lee with a slight chip lead. Montana offered Lee a split according to chip percentage and was rejected. Then he offered to take less than a strict percentage split, but Lee rejected that too. Lee felt Montana would be easy pickings heads up. Lee immediately shifted into high gear, won a couple sets of blinds and a small pot on the flop. Now, with a two to one chip lead, he down-shifted a couple of rounds, got nothing to play anyway, and managed to see a few flops checked all the way to the river, winning a couple, losing a couple. Apparently Montana was not going to try to take control without cards even when given the opportunity. That made Lee certain he could run all over Montana unless he got lucky enough to catch a hand just at the right time, and as timidly as Montana was playing that was unlikely to happen. Lee shifted into high gear again and it was soon over. That was all the poker Lee needed or wanted that day. A half an hour ago his chances in the satellite looked grim, then Victoria arrived and it all started going his way. Now he had his entry for the two thousand dollar buy-in, no limit hold ‘em event being played the next day, and with such a beautiful day outside and Victoria willing to spend it with him, poker could wait. Tomorrow he would be playing for a chance at a lot of money, maybe even a bracelet. Victoria had said she wanted to meet Mary Jane Falls and this was the perfect day to introduce them. At dinner the previous night the conversation consisted mostly of small talk, but now during lunch and the drive to Mount Charleston they talked as if they

- 22 -

had known each other for half a lifetime. By the time they arrived at the trailhead both knew their relationship was going to include more than hiking, eating and talking. # It was near midnight the next day and Lee was still in the tournament, still in the running to realize his dream of a world championship bracelet. He had been playing poker, his very best poker, since the tournament began half an hour past noon, with an hour break for dinner at six. He was tired but continued to play at the top of his game, concentration high, adrenaline still flowing. Three hundred and fifty players had entered the tournament; thirty-two remained. The final three tables, twenty-seven players, would be paid. The next five people out would get nothing for a very long day of high level poker. They would finish ahead of over three hundred people, yet they would still end up money losers for the day. Such is the nature of tournament poker. With $47,500 in chips in front of him Lee was in excellent position to cash in a World Series of Poker event for the first time in his career. All he had to do was screw down tight and play only against the short stacks, if at all. Two players at his own table, five others at the other three, were on very short stacks; if they didn’t improve their chip position soon they would be blinded and anted out of the tournament in a round or two. Just don’t do anything stupid, Lee kept telling himself. He looked over at Victoria standing at the rail. She had been there, “sweating him” in poker parlance, the entire day. They had been together since yesterday, becoming lovers on their return from Mary Jane Falls, sleeping in each other’s arms that night. Victoria gave Lee what she hoped was an encouraging smile. She was surprised at herself for staying there as long as she was, wanting to be nowhere else as long as Lee

- 23 -

continued to play. The previous day and night they had bonded both physically and emotionally, allowing Victoria to feel how important the tournament was to Lee, and how important it was to him that she remained there with him. The three friends Victoria came to Vegas with had all flown back to Denver earlier that day, but she couldn’t leave. Her friends were very surprised when she called them the night before to say she would be spending the night elsewhere. They were near shock when Victoria told them she would not be flying back with them. If a poll had been taken of the four, Victoria would have gotten all four votes as least likely to do such a thing. She was as surprised as any, and yet it was so obviously right in her mind and heart. Though she had known him only fifty hours, Victoria considered Lee Meadow as kind and considerate a man as she had ever known. She also found him very exciting, both intellectually and sexually. He might well be the love of her life, something she still believed in, and she didn’t want to risk losing that once in a lifetime possibility. At one of the other tables a player Lee knew as Fat Fred suddenly stood up. He had pushed all his chips into the pot and turned his pocket queens face up in front of him. “If I’m going down, I’m going down with a legitimate hand.” He announced. The biggest stack at the table was the only caller. He looked up at Fred hulking over the table for several seconds before slowly turning over an ace, then a king off suit. Fred was not very happy to see the ace-king; he had been hoping to see an underpair, a pair lower than his queens, but at least it wasn’t an overpair as he had feared when he saw the king turned before the ace. Fred had an edge, but not much of one. Fat Fred had been playing his best poker all day and had managed to build his chips to nearly $20,000 a couple of hours ago, but had seen no good cards since. This was his eleventh

- 24 -

try in a world championship event, and, like Lee, it was the closest he had come to cashing. He also needed the cash badly. Fred prayed for garbage on the flop, but got a king, deuce, ace instead. His heart sank. Fat Fred had gone from a slight favorite to more than a twenty to one dog. Two cards coming to get one of two queens remaining or he was gone. Then came the turn card, a miracle, the queen of clubs, and Fred’s spirits soared. The other thirty-one players all groaned, some to themselves, some out loud. They were all rooting against Fred as they would be against anyone all in. Every player going out brought the others that much closer to a payday. Having a short stack of chips at this stage in the tournament was much like being a bleeding fish in a pool of hungry sharks. The miracle queen had made Fred a ten to one favorite; only four cards out of forty-four could hurt him, but that is exactly what happened. A second king fell on the river, giving Fred queens full of kings, his opponent kings full of aces. Fat Fred’s double chin dropped; his mouth hung open and silent. He could not believe what had just happened to him. He had been so close to glory and came up empty. Lee felt sorry for Fat Fred who always conducted himself as a gentleman at the poker table, and seemed a pretty decent fellow as well. But like the others, Lee was happy to be one spot closer to glory himself. As Victoria watched Fred walk away in livid silence she could feel his pain. Please don’t let that happen to Lee, she implored whatever gods controlled poker. The poker gods, she had heard them called. She doubted the existence of any divine control over the fall of cards but didn’t dismiss it completely either. What did she know about poker?

- 25 -

As to the supernatural, Victoria seldom dismissed anything completely. How could anyone be certain about anything concerning the spiritual or supernatural? Faith, is what her uncle Mike, a catholic priest, told her is the answer. Blind faith, is what she thought to herself, preferring not to debate the unresolvable. In her opinion blind faith had been keeping the clergy in relative luxury at the expense of the working classes for thousands of years. Whatever the reason, her pleas were answered. Soon another player went out, then another, and another, and another. It was almost one o’clock in the morning when Lee made it into the money for certain. Tomorrow at four in the afternoon he and the other twenty-six would play for all the cash, and the bracelet. They slept together again that night but did not make love until waking shortly before noon. After lunch they split up agreeing to meet at the tournament area a little before four. Lee needed time alone to get his head right for the afternoon’s play. When Lee walked into the tournament area at ten to four Victoria was already there, sitting in the spectator bleachers set up near the final tables. Lee smiled, his heart and spirits soared. Earlier, when he first felt himself being so strongly drawn to Victoria, Lee worried it would interfere with his game, with his concentration, but the opposite was apparently true. Throughout his poker career Lee tried to dismiss the possibility of lucky charms of any type influencing the cards, but had been unable to do so completely. He had seen so many strange runs of cards over the years that he didn’t see how anyone could be sure what influenced what. Simple deviation from the norm, is what his mathematically minded friends told him. Flip a coin a couple of billion times and it is a certainty to come

- 26 -

up heads a hundred times or more consecutively at some time. Lee understood the principal and accepted it, and yet couldn’t help thinking there was more to it. Confidence was probably the key; believe strongly enough in a charm and it just might work. Whatever the truth, Lee felt much more confident with Victoria there. With everybody now in the money play opened up a bit. The first nine people out will all collect the same amount, the next nine progressively more, but not that much more. It is only when the final table is reached that each notch higher means a huge difference in the prize money. First place pays thirty-seven percent, only two percent less than second, third, fourth and fifth places combined. Lee was starting the second day’s play with $46,000, sixth place in the chip standings. The chip leader, a former world champion, had over $100,000. Fortunately for Lee he was at another table. Lee had the second most chips at his table, but the three just below him were not far behind. The table leader, seated two places to Lee’s right, had over $63,000. To have a realistic chance at the bracelet Lee knew he would have to start making a move soon. He intended to shift into high gear at the first good opportunity, but was resolved to be patient waiting for that opportunity. Patient aggression, he told himself. Many of the others at his table, especially the shorter stacks, had also decided to shift into high gear. While they attacked, Lee threw away garbage hand after garbage hand. For three rounds Lee watched the antes and blinds slowly drain his chips away as he maintained his discipline and patience. The three rounds of garbage hands he tossed into the muck actually worked to Lee’s advantage, convincing the others at the table that Lee was playing very tight, afraid to risk chips on anything but the nuts. Thus when his finally did get something to play and came out firing Lee easily won some blinds and a

- 27 -

couple of small pots uncontested. Then he picked up pocket kings when the shortest stack was in the big blind with king-queen suited, giving him little choice but to defend his blind. Lee put him all in before the flop and his kings held up leaving eight players at the table, and Lee with almost $60,000 in chips. Two hands later Lee went after the blinds with a $10,000 bet and pocket threes on the button, and was called by the small blind who had another $30,000 left after the call. The flop looked like garbage but gave Lee a set, putting him in a perfect position. The small blind checked and Lee checked behind him, waiting for the other player to commit more chips to the pot. A queen came on the turn giving the small blind top pair, top kicker, and he came out firing half his chips at the pot. Lee purposely thought for only a couple of seconds before calling, hoping the other player would put him on a draw or an underpair rather than the monster he had. The river card was a blank, no pairs, no three to a flush, and only a small straight possible. The small blind was having difficulty putting Lee on a hand and asked for time. He had watched Lee throw away three rounds of hands before playing, then show only high cards when he did play, so a straight or two pair seemed a near impossibility. Lee could have tried to backdoor a flush with two high clubs, but if that was the case he missed and would either fold if the small blind bet, or come over the top in an attempt to buy the pot. If Lee held a pocket pair lower than queens he would probably call a small bet, but might fold to an all in bet. Lastly, if Lee was sitting on a set the small blind was cooked and knew it. What to do? Check? Push all his chips in? What? He decided to take the middle road and pushed half his remaining chips into the pot, hoping for a call or a

- 28 -

fold. If Lee raised he knew he would have to call. There was no way he could let such a big pot go to save his few remaining chips. Lee raised immediately and the small blind thought a bit more, then called with a sense of doom and was sent on his way. Now the table was down to seven players, Lee up to over $100,000. At the first break twenty players remained, and Lee had moved up to third in the chip standings. Three hours later the tenth place finisher went out and the remaining nine players drew for seats at the final table. Since the set of threes Lee had done little. Few cards came his way, no monsters, no bad beats. He had won a few small pots and lost a few, leaving him in fourth position with $101,500. He drew the five seat, two places to the right of the world champion, who had increased his leading chip total to $198,000. Between them was an Australian who called everyone mate and was in third place with $3000 more than Lee. Three seats to Lee’s right sat Bonnie, the only woman remaining and like the world champion a legitimate world class player, in second place with $124,000. She had started the second day’s play on a short stack, shifted into the super high gear she was known for and taken control of her table. When they got down to eighteen Lee was moved to her table and simply stayed out of her way. Bonnie was a very dangerous player, extremely aggressive, very hard to read, and an excellent reader of other players. To enter one of her pots was to put all your chips in jeopardy and Lee was not about to challenge her with anything but a big hand. Her presence brought to Lee’s mind a favorite saying, a quote from Tolkien: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you happen to live near one.”

- 29 -

The other five players had from $63,000 to $9,000. Lee had played with six of the eight before and considered all of them tough. He knew he would have to play the best poker of his life, plus get a little lucky, to have a chance at the bracelet. Starting the final table on the button was the shortest stack, a Vietnamese player in his early thirties who everyone called Why. With little in the way of cards, he had somehow managed to survive on a short stack virtually the entire tournament. Under such circumstances Why was extremely pleased with making the final table and a payday of at least $11,200, but he wanted more. Now the prize money really began to escalate, with each place higher meaning much more money. Eighth paid $14,000, seventh: $17,500, sixth: $24,500, fifth: $31,500, fourth: $42,000, third: $66,500, second: $133,000 and first: $259,000 and the coveted bracelet. Why’s intention was to survive as long as possible in order to make the most money he could and maybe get a shot at the bracelet, but with the blinds at $2000 and $4000 the odds against him were extremely long. On the very first hand of the final table Bonnie left no doubt she intended to continue her aggressive play. She was in the big blind and the table folded up to the eight seat, one of the two players Lee had never played with before, a middle-aged man who appeared calm and confident. As soon as the bet came to him he quietly said, “raise” and pushed 10,000 of his $63,000 into the pot. The button and small blind folded leaving Bonnie. She too had never played with this player before and studied him for twenty or thirty seconds before pushing in enough chips to put him all in. “Reraise.” She said to him with a smile and sat back. As he watched the tip of the man’s right ear redden Lee knew immediately he did not believe his hand strong enough to call with. The man stared at Bonnie for several

- 30 -

seconds, then looked at his cards again, then back to Bonnie who was still leaning back in her chair with a smirk more than a smile on her face. Lee studied both players and tried to read their hands. There was just no telling what Bonnie had. She was capable of making a move like that with garbage, but only when she felt certain she wasn’t going to get a call. If she figured this guy to call she probably had a monster. What would I need to call her with at this point, Lee thought to himself? Probably queens at the least, he decided. He was certain he wouldn’t have attacked her big blind in the first place with anything less than that. Bonnie was definitely a live dragon. Finally the man looked at his hand one last time then threw his pocket nines into the pot face up. “Go ahead, take it.” He said. “Not quite enough.” “Hah!” Bonnie exclaimed as she threw her eight-six suited face up. “This time it would have been plenty, but it probably won’t be next time.” The man’s ears grew redder, then redder still when Bonnie raised him off his big blind three hands later. A couple of hands after that he raised the pot from a middle position, again to $10,000. Bonnie was on the button and flat called. The flop was garbage and the man pushed another $10,000 in and was flat called again. The turn card was a ten and the man pushed his remaining $25,000 into the pot. Lee could tell the redfaced man thought he had her, but Lee didn’t think so. He was pretty sure Bonnie was on a hand this time. “No problem.” She answered and pushed more than enough chips to call his bet. “I call, now show me your queens, or is it jacks?”

- 31 -

The man’s ruddy face suddenly lost color; he hesitated then turned two jacks up in front of him. “The jacks, huh. Sorry, you’re dead to two cards.” Bonnie told him as she turned up two black kings. “If this was a cash game I’d offer to buy a little insurance from you, but they don’t allow such things here.” The river card was an ace and the table was down to eight players. Poker tournaments are strange things; a player can win $11,000 and still feel disappointed. Bonnie continued her assault on the short stacks, usually running them out of the pot, but able to show a hand the few times she needed to. She was flying in top gear, attacking every sensed weakness, missing few opportunities. She took out another short stack, then the Aussie took out another, and then Bonnie finally took out Why his third time all in. The beaming war orphan was extremely pleased with his finish and the $24,500 it paid. Surviving three more places had earned him an extra $13,000. It was a marvelous achievement to finish sixth without ever having a significant amount of chips to work with. Five players remained, one on a short stack of less than $30,000 and Lee next lowest with just under $100,000. The world champion had increased his leading chip total to about $215,000, but Bonnie was now nearly even, less than $10,000 behind him. In solid third place was the Aussie, who had quietly increased his chip total to $150,000. With the difference between fourth and fifth place over $10,000 Lee didn’t want to risk going out before the short stack, but if he wanted a realistic shot at the bracelet he would have to start taking some chances. Over the past year Lee had finally managed to tuck away enough money to cover a year of living expenses, plus maintain a playing

- 32 -

bankroll of $20,000 coming into the WSOP. A fifth place finish would increase his bankroll to $50,000, a fourth place finish to $60,000, not really all that much of a difference taken in that context. It certainly wasn’t enough of a difference to deter Lee from going all out for the bracelet and maybe $200,000 more! Lee had been a non-factor so far; the time was right to shift into high gear. Victoria Steller had watched over fourteen hours of no-limit tournament poker the past two days, and being an intelligent, perceptive individual she had developed a good understanding of the drama unfolding before her. She too could feel the time was now for Lee. Just then their eyes met as Lee looked away from the table for the first time in nearly an hour. Victoria raised her eyebrows and gave Lee a little nod and a smile. He returned the smile to her, his attention to the game. Just after the blinds increased, with Lee the big blind and the short stack the small blind, Bonnie attacked again, raising the bet to $30,000, enough to put the short stack all in. She knew if the short stack called, Lee would fold just about anything less than aces. Some tournament players might even fold aces in such a position, preferring to let Bonnie take out the short stack. To call or raise was simply too dangerous for a couple of reasons, the primary one being the possibility of Bonnie taking him out also. A third player would also mean the short stack could triple up instead of double up, and that would make Lee the short stack if he survived the hand at all. The small blind looked at his hand and asked for time. He continued to look at his hand for several seconds, then closed his eyes, reopened them, looked around at the chip distribution, then counted his own chips for the third time in the past three minutes.

- 33 -

“What the hell, I call,” he said, pushing his chips in and covering his two cards with a piece of quartz crystal he always used for that purpose. Lee looked at his pocket eights, an automatic throwaway given the tournament situation, but Lee had been studying Bonnie very closely and was certain she was not on a monster pair of aces or kings, or even queens. If she had a pair at all it was jacks at the most; there was no doubt in Lee’s mind. He knew if he pushed in all his chips here, especially after playing so conservatively since joining Bonnie’s table, she would have to put him on a pair of aces or kings, queens at the very least. She couldn’t possibly call. She would want to but she couldn’t, not if she wanted the bracelet. To call and lose would leave her the short stack, crippled and vulnerable. She had worked too hard for those chips to lose them all on one hand, and at this point she certainly considered the world champion her main competition, not Lee. As to the small blind, Lee put him on high cards, though he might have a small or medium pair. Lee had read his hesitation in calling Bonnie’s raise as real doubt rather than an attempt to deceive. With a high pair the short stack wouldn’t have hesitated. “I’m going all in,” Lee announced and pushed his chips toward the center. Bonnie had been certain Lee would fold if the small blind called and she looked at him in disbelief and annoyance. While Bonnie studied him intensely, Lee wondered if he had miscalculated. How can she play me for a move in a position like this, he thought? Think aces, he told himself and did, trying to pass the false vibration to Bonnie. Deep down Bonnie sensed Lee was making a move on her. She had played with him many times and knew that while Lee almost always played a straightforward, solid game, he was capable of doing the unexpected in rare situations. Lee seemed easy to

- 34 -

read, but Bonnie knew from experience he was anything but. She wanted to call, could feel it was the best play, but it was just too risky at this point. That’s a hell of a move, you son of a bitch, Bonnie thought to herself as she silently slid her cards into the muck. She would never reveal a card or a thought process during a poker game without somebody paying for it. “You have a pair?” Lee asked the all-in player. “No, just big slick.” He told Lee, turning his ace-king of hearts face up. “I do.” Said Lee, turning up his two black eights, his attention more on Bonnie than his opponent. A tiny wince told Lee she had held a higher pair. So far so good, now it was up to the cards as the two hands were nearly even heads up. The flop came up queen, ten, six with one heart, keeping Lee in the lead and improving his chances, but giving the aceking a gut shot straight draw in addition to his overcards. Now if one of the next two cards is an ace, king or jack, ten cards out of forty-five, the small blind would take the pot and Lee would become the shortest stack at the table. The turn card was the eight of hearts, almost a good card for Lee as it eliminated the six remaining aces and kings as winning cards, but making seven of the nine remaining hearts winning cards for his opponent. Forty-four possible cards to come, eleven of them winners for the small blind, thirty-three winners for Lee. Three to one odds were good, but scary. The percentages held up for Lee when the river card came up a blank. Now they were down to four, and Lee was even with the Aussie. Bonnie was really pissed at herself. Her heart had told her to call, but her reason convinced her to throw her pocket tens away. If she had called she would have a

- 35 -

commanding lead, but now it was pretty much up for grabs. Two hands later she attacked again, raising the pot to $50,000, but her timing was off. The Aussie folded the small blind but the world champion pushed all his chips in from the big blind. Bonnie had picked up pocket tens again and just could not bring herself to throw them away this time. She knew the world champion well but could not get any kind of read on him, few players ever did. She knew he might make such a move with pure garbage. She called, turned up her pocket tens, and felt pretty good when the world champion turned over a jack-ten of clubs. But then the flop came up three clubs and she was gone. Bonnie had been so close she could almost feel the bracelet on her wrist, then was gone in a flash. She collected $42,000, but was very disappointed. Now with a substantial chip lead, plus Bonnie now out of the way, the world champion went on the attack and took control of the table. Lee kept hoping to find a big hand to trap him with, but that did not happen so Lee simply stayed out of his way instead. When the Aussie attacked back he ended up finishing third for his efforts. Lee considered himself a good heads-up player and usually felt he had the advantage in such situations, but against the former the world champion, down almost four to one in chips, he knew he was a huge, huge dog. Still, if he caught a hand and doubled up, then caught another and doubled up a second time he would have the chip lead to work with. Lee did everything he could, concentrated and played at his highest level, but his highest level was not quite the level of the world champion. Lee Meadow was of course disappointed in not winning the bracelet, but he was ecstatic over his second place finish and the $133,000 it brought him, minus $8,000 in tokes.

- 36 -

Chapter 3. Green Gates

Lee Meadow returned to Oakland in mid May a very happy man. He didn’t win a world champion’s bracelet, but he did bring back $150,000 more than he had left with. Never in his life had his financial position been anywhere near as good and he wanted to put his new wealth to good use. He already had enough put away in checking and savings accounts to cover a year’s living expenses so he didn’t feel the need to add anything there. Lee decided to invest $100,000 off the top, triple his playing bankroll to $60,000, then take some time off and celebrate with the rest. The question of how to invest the $100,000 was answered on Lee’s next walk to the store when he saw the “For Sale” sign on the Victorian villa named Green Gates. Lee didn’t normally search for omens but he didn’t ignore them either, especially when so clearly presented. It was obvious to Lee the house was meant for him. How could it not be, after meeting and making love to a fascinating woman named Victoria, then winning enough money with her spiritual support to buy the one house he wanted to own? It was a Victorian of sorts, and put up for sale at the exact time he had the money to buy it. But where was Victoria Falls Steller? She spent the night and the day following Lee’s second place finish with him, then supposedly returned home to Denver, but the number she gave Lee was a nonworking number and there was no listing for a Victoria Steller or a V. Steller in the Denver area. There were six Stellers listed though, and Lee considered calling all of them to see if they knew Victoria but decided to wait awhile to see if she called him. If she had really meant for Lee to contact her she would have given him her correct number, he reasoned. Lee missed Victoria more than he had expected he

- 37 -

would. If she didn’t call soon he might use some of his time off looking for her, but first he wanted to buy Green Gates before anyone else did. Lee called the realtor as soon as he returned from the store with a live lobster, a fresh baguette and a bottle of Asti. The realtor set things up with the residents and agreed to meet Lee in front of the house at six. Lee deliberately arrived early and waited for the realtor in the little park across from Green Gates. While waiting, Lee was visited by the same Steller’s Jay who had exchanged stares and shared his baguette just before the trip to Vegas. Without knowing how or why, Lee expected the jay and brought seven shelled peanuts which he left laying on the far end of the picnic table. The jay took each of the peanuts, one at a time, back to the third floor balcony in a blaze of blue. Each time the bird returned for another peanut she looked at Lee first with one eye, then the other, then bobbed up and down as if saying: yes, yes. Lee Meadow marveled over the eerie coincidence of names and circumstances. The realtor arrived and introduced himself as Bob White. He told Lee the house had been built in 1899 as a single dwelling then divided up into five apartments in the late forties. There were two each on the first and second floors, and the third floor a kind of loft. It was the loft Lee intended to make his own. In the first floor front apartment lived two middle aged gay men who served as building mangers. A reclusive man occupied the studio apartment behind them. On the second floor there was a young couple in front and an artist in the rear. The loft was occupied by an old woman who had lived there since the house was first divided into apartments, a dozen years before the present owner, now recently deceased, bought Green Gates.

- 38 -

As soon as Lee passed through the iron gates into the front courtyard he entered a different world. The courtyard was dominated by a waterless fountain and overgrown with untended flowers, bushes and vines. It appeared a perfect setting for an allegorical movie, or a dream. Seven stone steps led to the terra cotta first floor porch. Descending the steps was a tall, slender, smiling man. “Hi, I’m Teddy Marsten, me and my partner George act as managers.” He greeted Lee, lightly shaking his hand, barely nodding to Bob White. “Glad to meet you. My name is Lee.” He answered. “Hi Lee, good name, could be either a first or a last name. I like that. Well, there’s either somebody home, or I have the key to all the apartments but one.” Teddy told Lee. “Which is that, the old man’s?” The realtor asked. “No.” Teddy answered, glancing at Bob White, then turning to Lee as he continued. “It’s Cassandra, the third floor.” “Don’t you have a key? That’s the place Mr. Meadows is most interested in.” The realtor tried to keep the irritation from his whine. “No, I don’t have a key, and you know I don’t.” Teddy answered the realtor then turned to Lee. “Cassandra is a woman of many years and great wisdom. She has lived on the third floor since the house was made into apartments, maybe even longer. Nobody seems to know and she isn’t saying. I have never had a key to her home, nor would I ask for one. She is the kind of person whose privacy should never be invaded. So, Lee is your first name then.” “Yes, and my last name is actually Meadow, without the s. As far as I’m concerned, nobody’s privacy should ever be invaded.”

- 39 -

“Amen to that. Since somebody has to buy this place I hope it’s somebody who thinks like you. Anyway, the couple on the second floor isn’t home from work yet but I have a key and I called her at work and she said it was fine to go in. Jackson, the artist in the studio in back of them might or might not be home, be he also gave his permission. As to Spencer behind us, he’s always there, and he knows we’re coming, but I can’t guarantee he’ll open his door.” The realtor started to speak but Lee quickly interrupted him before he could say anything. “That’s no a problem. Why don’t we take a walk around the house first, then take a look at your place and the two on the second floor. I don’t see any reason to bother Spencer at all. I do want to look at the loft though. I live just up the hill, maybe I can leave my number and whenever Cassandra is comfortable with me visiting you can call me.” Lee found the Victorian as fascinating inside as out, especially the second floor rear. What was probably a conservatory in the original house had been turned into a true artist’s studio apartment. It was a single large room, perhaps twenty feet deep, and thirty feet wide. The outside wall and nearly half the side walls and the ceiling were all glass, facing east by southeast to catch the morning light. In the late afternoon, when Lee was there, the sun had long ago moved to the other side of the house, yet the studio remained bright. Jackson, the artist tenant, was there when they called. He looked the part of an artist, dressed in ragged, paint-splattered jeans and sweatshirt, untended beard and long, wild hair escaping from under an orange beret. Canvases were everywhere, most with

- 40 -

their backs turned out. Those that Lee could see were full of color swirled on top of color. They were strikingly beautiful to the eye yet seemed unfinished somehow, as if they were lacking a core, a center. Lee did sense a central idea though, the impression of flight, the flight of birds, yet there wasn’t an identifiable bird or other object in any of them. “So, you’re going to buy Green Gates?” The artist asked Lee in a voice that sounded like a challenge. “I’m considering it.” Lee answered as he looked into blue eyes as wild as the man’s hair. Lee’s natural ability to read the emotions of others had been finely tuned by many years of playing poker successfully. In Jackson’s eyes more emotions screamed out at him than Lee had ever seen in one person at one time before. Usually an individual made decisions based primarily on a single emotion, and while others came into play, one was usually the decider. In Jackson, Lee read anger, fear, doubt and resolve, plus emotions he could not put a label on. Each appeared to pull on the artist from a different direction, each with equal strength. Lee knew immediately that Jackson did not like him at all, yet he found himself liking Jackson a lot. “Then what, raise the rents, throw me out of my near perfect studio, what?” He demanded. “Probably not, but I haven’t bought it yet.” Lee answered. “Well, if you do, keep in mind a place like this demands an artist. Anything else would be an insult to human artistic endeavor. The muses would be angry.” Jackson warned.

- 41 -

“I would not want that; I have great respect for the muses. You are right, such a place cries for an artist. If I could paint like you I would want such a place for myself too. I have to say I like your work, what I can see of it.” Lee told him. “They’re not done.” Jackson grumbled. “When they are let me know, if you’d be interested in selling any that is. Even if you’re not interested in selling, I’d still be interested in seeing a finished work.” Lee said. A grunt was all Lee received in reply. The two two-bedroom, front apartments were both roomy and bright, with extraordinary, beautiful wood floors, windows and wainscoting. Lee knew he could live comfortably in either apartment, but he was still most interested in the third floor loft. “Have you been in Spencer’s place?” Lee asked Teddy. “A couple of times.” Teddy answered. “Can you tell me what it’s like then, so we don’t have to bother him?” “Sure. It’s a one bedroom, but small, the whole thing smaller than the studio above.” Teddy told him. “Is it full of wood, like here?” Lee asked. “I think so, but I’m not sure.” Teddy answered. “How about the third floor, have you been there?” “Several times.” Teddy replied. “Cassandra is a very interesting woman to say the least, but that’s all I’m going to say. You can form your own opinions when you meet her.” “How about her place?” Lee asked.

- 42 -

“It is definitely her place, as interesting a home as she is a woman. To me it seems a self-contained forest, a little piece of a world that now exists only in pockets here and there, but you should form your own opinions about that too.” Teddy suggested. Before leaving with the realtor Lee left his number with Teddy, who promised to talk to Cassandra about him inspecting the loft whenever possible. Outside Bob White asked Lee what he thought. Lee told him he was interested and intended to make an offer tomorrow morning through a realtor friend of his. The whole process of buying a house proved to be far easier than Lee thought it would. He had heard horror stories about lenders and expected to have a hard time of it, especially with self-employed poker player listed as his occupation, but the ability to put $100,000 down and still have nearly $100,000 remaining in various accounts apparently assuaged all the bank’s doubts. The day his offer was accepted Lee received a call from Teddy. “Cassandra would like you to look at her place today.” Lee was told. “Good, I’m looking forward to meeting her.” Lee answered. “Oh, she won’t be there. She wants you to see the place the first time without her there. She said she would talk to you tomorrow if you like.” It seemed strange to Lee that Cassandra wanted him to see her place without her being there. For what reason, he wondered? Maybe she is a bit of a recluse herself? Teddy said she was an interesting woman. Maybe she knows I want the loft for my own, but why would she not want to be there if that’s the case? Damn, I think I’m as interested in meeting her as I am in seeing her place.

- 43 -

Teddy was waiting for Lee when he arrived. They exchanged greetings then headed up the private stairway to the third floor. The apartment manager was feeling pretty good about the new owner. He liked Lee’s attitude regarding Spencer and his right to privacy, and he remembered Lee saying something about everybody’s privacy should be respected, and Teddy liked that too. Then there was Lee’s obvious dislike of that asshole realtor, Bob White. # Every day Teddy encountered people who treated him with less respect than a human being deserves. Usually he feels it is because of his obvious sexual orientation, but he is seldom certain of that without anti-gay prejudice being overtly stated. Teddy Madsen is by nature an easy going individual who prefers to give others the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. He usually reminds himself that the people who treat him with disrespect are simply unhappy with their own lives and so treat everybody with less respect than they should. Those who hate gays and say so are assholes, but at least they are honest assholes and are best dealt with simply by avoiding them. It is the people like Bob White that bother Teddy the most. They feign acceptance and friendship while their hearts and minds are filled with bile and disgust. Richard, Teddy’s best friend and lover of over a decade, claimed it was because people like Bob White were actually either homosexual or bisexual themselves and simply could not accept their own sexual orientation. Have pity on them, he would say, because they live a life of frustration and are never able to be who they are. Richard Gerlach might preach tolerance, but Teddy knew he absolutely detested people like Bob White. Teddy also knew this hatred stemmed from Richard living the very same confused lie until his early thirties. Richard

- 44 -

hated himself then; now he hated the self he had been. In a way it reminded Teddy of people who had quit smoking being intolerant of those who did not. So from all indications Lee Meadow appeared to be a good man, a landlord one could live with, yet Richard claimed there was something about Lee that made him uneasy. “He told us nothing of himself.” Richard pointed out. “Why should he? He doesn’t need our approval of anything.” Teddy countered. “Let’s just hope he doesn’t want our apartment for his own.” “He doesn’t; he wants Cassandra’s.” Richard told him. “Cassandra’s, are you sure?” Teddy asked. “Of course I’m sure. Which would you take if you had the pick of the litter, especially after he sees what it’s like up there?” “That’s true.” Teddy had to agree. “Poor Cassandra.” “Poor Cassandra! Probably more like poor Lee Meadow!” Richard suggested. “What do you mean?” Teddy asked. “Come on, this is Cassandra we’re talking about. Granted, we don’t know a whole lot about her considering we’ve lived in the same house for so long, but we do know she is a unique and formidable individual. I can’t imagine anyone able to make her leave against her will. She has an extremely strong will, that was obvious to me the first time I met her.” Richard answered. “Yeah, I guess it was obvious to me too, though I never really thought about it much. I never thought about her being formidable either, that’s an interesting choice of words, but I guess that much is true too. Unique though, now that is an understatement

- 45 -

for certain. Cassandra is without doubt the most unique individual I have ever known, bar none, and the more one learns about her, the more unique she proves to be.” Teddy opined. Richard nodded mechanically in thoughtful agreement. # As Teddy led Lee to Cassandra’s loft he thought of that conversation with Richard and considered how he might question his new landlord. “So, Mr. Meadow, do you intend to move into Green Gates yourself?” Teddy asked. “Yes, I do, and I’d much rather you call me Lee, unless you mind.” Lee answered. “No, I don’t mind. I prefer Lee. And so, Lee, which apartment do you plan on making your own, if you don’t mind me asking?” “The loft.” Lee told him. “The loft, that’s what Richard said. What about Cassandra?” Teddy asked. “I don’t know. I hope we can work out something between us. Maybe I can help her find another place something like this, or whatever.” Lee told him. “I doubt another place like this exists. Here, see for yourself.” Teddy told him and opened the door. Warm, moist, oxygen rich air greeted Lee as Teddy held the door open for him to enter the third floor Eden before him. Lee Meadow took a step inside then paused for several moments, awed by the sight and smell of hundreds and hundreds of plants. Sunlight flooded the huge open room through at least a dozen skylights, and a soft breeze caressed Lee’s cheek. This is a

- 46 -

different world, Lee thought to himself. Teddy is probably right, there is no other place like it. Teddy stepped into the room behind Lee, stayed near the door and remained silent. He wanted Lee to absorb the full effect without distraction. Lee was barely aware of Teddy as he walked slowly through the loft, turning and gawking with mouth agape as tourists often do when entering a great cathedral in the daytime with the sunlight shining through stained glass windows. Green, in a multitude of shades, was the dominant color, but there were also reds and yellows, whites, violets and oranges of various flowers and plants smiling at Lee from among the green. The floor and walls were all of wood, oak as far as Lee could tell, and all the skylights made the sky itself seem to be the ceiling. How beautiful it must be on a starry night or a full moon, Lee thought to himself. The squawk of a jay pulled Lee’s attention to the open double doors leading to the front porch that had first attracted him to Green Gates. As Lee neared the open doors he saw the Steller’s Jay sitting on the porch railing looking at him, first with one eye then the other. The jay squawked several more times at Lee as he stepped on the porch but the bird did not fly away even though they were less than five feet from each other. The view from the doorway was marvelous and Lee wanted to step out onto the porch for the full impact, but he didn’t want to scare the bird away. Why? He didn’t know. Lee talked in a soothing voice, trying to communicate his benevolence to the jay as he stepped out onto the porch. As soon as he did the jay burst by him into the loft in a blaze of blue, then disappeared. This startled Lee but did not surprise him. The jay obviously knew the loft well; perhaps it was his home as well as Cassandra’s.

- 47 -

From the porch railing the view was spectacular, the bay shimmering in the late afternoon sun, San Francisco lolling by the water and Mount Tam silhouetted against the sky. Lee loved it, he had to live here, but how could he take such an unique place from the one who had created it? Lee toured the rest of the loft as Teddy stayed off to the side out of the way. Everywhere Lee looked he saw wonders. There were plants and flowers he had never seen before, huge dark red strawberries growing in window boxes, and beautifully healthy peppers and herbs all over the place. All the furniture in the room was fashioned from a beautiful, reddish hued wood that blended in so well Lee didn’t notice it was furniture at first. Against one wall, drawing Lee to it, stood a cross section of a tree trunk over six foot in diameter. The aroma identified the tree as cedar, probably red cedar judging from its size and color, Lee reasoned. He didn’t know, but he would be willing to bet the furniture was made from the same wood. Something in his soul insisted it all came from the very same tree. The rings told him the tree was at least three or four hundred years old when it was cut. How long ago was that, Lee wondered? The entire loft was technically a single room, void of interior walls, its vaulted ceiling supported by a framework of wooden beams, yet there were several private nooks hidden among the foliage. The bathroom was such a place, so well secluded Lee found it by accident, and didn’t know what it when he first stumbled into it. The bathtub was a rock-bottomed, ovalish pool perhaps six foot by four foot, the shower a hidden waterfall. Undetected by Lee was the toilet bowl, secreted in a genuine tree stump with a flip top lid.

- 48 -

Opposite the front porch was a much larger rear porch, its double doors also left open. Huge, multi-paned windows looked out onto the porch and allowed the hills beyond to fill the back wall. In the mornings the windows would welcome the sun inside. This was actually only the third time Teddy had been in Cassandra’s loft in the ten plus years he had lived at Green Gates, and he was enjoying it immensely. He had been fascinated by the old woman and her third floor world home from the very beginning and couldn’t understand his partner not wanting to join the tour. Richard claimed the place, and the woman gave him the creeps. What a pair we are, he gets the creeps and I get awestruck. Awestruck and fascinated was how the loft left Lee Meadow. He now understood it had been the loft calling to him every time he walked by Green Gates, but he didn’t know why. Now Green Gates, and the loft, belonged to him, or maybe he to it. Two months after buying Green Gates Lee moved into the second floor, front apartment. He and the couple who lived there simply exchanged apartments, with Lee paying moving expenses plus throwing in a thousand dollars for their trouble. The loft was where Lee wanted to live of course, but Lee had yet to meet Cassandra and she still had nine months remaining on her lease. He tried to contact her a couple of times before moving in but the old woman had no phone and when Lee knocked on her door she either wasn’t home, or wasn’t answering. He didn’t push it though. There was no rush and Lee could sense Cassandra would contact him when she was ready to meet.

Chapter 4. Cassandra

- 49 -

From the day he moved in Lee listened for any signs of human habitation in the loft, but heard nothing. No footsteps sounded on the two stairways leading to the third story, nor on the wood floor over his head. The only voice Lee heard from above was that of the Steller’s Jay. For a couple of weeks there was no sign of Cassandra causing Lee to be concerned. He asked Teddy if such an absence was normal. “I can’t say I know Cassandra very well, or really at all, but I remember often not seeing her for long stretches of time. In many ways I would say she’s even more reclusive than Spencer; actually maybe secretive is a better word than reclusive. She is very different from anyone I have ever met, but I wouldn’t worry; she’ll turn up, when she’s ready. You know, in the ten years I’ve been here I’ve probably only talked to her a dozen times at most, and probably haven't even seen her more than a couple times a month on average the whole time.” Teddy told Lee. On the night of the first new moon since his move Lee was sitting on the balcony off his living room, watching the stars in a cloudless sky, listening to the hooting of a nearby owl. He was thinking of how such a night must look from inside Cassandra’s glass-roofed loft when he heard a voice from above. “Would you care to view the stars from my aerie?” He was asked in a soft, cooing voice that made Lee think for a moment it was the owl speaking to him. It took Lee another moment to realize the voice came from the balcony above. He looked up to see a human silhouette against the dark, star filled sky. “Yes.” He answered. “Then join me, please. I’ll meet you at the door.” He was told in a low, smooth voice neither masculine nor feminine.

- 50 -

The stairway was dark, and so too was the loft behind Cassandra as she waited for Lee in the open doorway. Even with his eyes accustomed to the dark Lee could not see her face clearly as she bade him to follow her inside. Being told so often that Cassandra was an old woman, Lee came to expect her to be a small, frail, grandmotherly type. Small she was, but in no way did she appear frail, and she moved with a fluidity and grace like no grandmother Lee could imagine. “Welcome.” She said, holding the door open for Lee Meadow to enter, then silently shutting it behind him. With no moon and only the stars for light it was very dark inside the aerie, too dark for Lee to read Cassandra’s eyes, as he tried to do with everyone he met. “Come, let’s sit in the center.” She suggested, offering him a rocking chair opposite the barkless log she glided over to and perched upon. She moves more like an animal than a human, and definitely not like an old human, Lee thought as he watched her. In the darkness Cassandra appeared little more than a shadow, distinguished only by her size, agility and a silvery, waist length braid of hair. She wore pants and appeared to have a headband on, but that was all Lee could make of her attire. The rocking chair Lee sat in was large and comfortable; the wood felt warm and friendly to his touch. Cassandra sat facing him, cross-legged on top the log, perhaps five feet or less away, difficult to judge in the dark. Her face was a mystery, not even the whites of her eyes were visible. Lee sat patiently in silence, staring at Cassandra, waiting for her to speak.

- 51 -

Cassandra was also very patient, plus she could see in the dark far better than Lee. His face was clear to her and she studied him for several minutes before speaking again. “Is this too dark for you? Would you like a little light?” She asked. “It would be nice to see your face. Thank you.” Lee answered. He watched in fascination as Cassandra slid off the log and made a small fire in a stone pit between them. It took her only a couple of minutes to get a flame going, and though he watched her as closely as he could in the dark, Lee was unable to see exactly how she produced the first spark. That spark she blew into a small flame, arranged a few more twigs around the flame, then floated back to her perch. “There,” she said, “now we can talk.” The fire flickered orange and red shadows on Cassandra’s face. Slowly, as the sticks she had added caught and grew, the fire lit her face out of obscurity. She was old, very old, that was evident somehow, though exactly how, Lee wasn’t sure. It was her eyes he decided. Cassandra’s eyes were bright, clear and very alert, but there seemed little doubt they had seen many years, many things. Her face looked to have the wrinkles of a hundred years or more, and yet her skin was tight and alive. It reminded Lee of the bark of a red cedar. Cassandra did not speak again as she watched the fire grow. Lee waited and waited before deciding to initiate the conversation. He had been practicing and improving his patience throughout his poker career; he knew patience well, and he knew he could not outwait Cassandra. “This is an amazing place you have here.” Lee began. “I call it my aerie.” She replied.

- 52 -

“I can understand that; there is certainly that aspect to it. I have to say I am impressed, no, more than impressed. Flabbergasted is more like it.” Lee told her. “That’s a good word, flabbergasted. And so, now that you have seen the aerie both during the day and the night, which do you prefer?” She asked. “I was here in the late afternoon and it was beautiful. Now it is also beautiful, but very, very different. I would want to see it at dawn, and in full sunlight, and even more during a full moon before I decide on a favorite time.” He answered. “That is a good answer, and an interesting one. So, you would like to live here then?” Cassandra inquired. “Yes, I would, very much.” Lee admitted. “So, you would put me out of my aerie?” Cassandra asked, her voice still a soft coo. “No, that I wouldn’t do.” He said. “You wouldn’t?” “No, I couldn’t. You belong in this place. I would love to live here myself though, don’t get me wrong, and I wouldn’t change anything, not a thing, but what’s right is right. As far as I’m concerned the aerie is your home for as long as you want to stay here, but hey, if you ever want to move to the sunny baja coast or anywhere else, I’ll pay all your expenses and pay you however much you want to leave everything here just as it is.” Lee told her. “Money has never been very important to me. You are sincere, though.” Cassandra stated. “Yes, I am sincere.” He answered, though she had not asked a question.

- 53 -

“I know; that is good. Would you like to share an ancient tradition with me?” The old woman asked. “Of course.” Lee answered with little hesitation. “Before you know what it is? You are very trusting.” “Of you, yes.” “You know I can be trusted?” She asked. “You knew I was sincere.” He answered. Cassandra reached behind the log and produced a beautifully carved peace pipe, complete with feathers. She lit the pipe with a twig from the fire, took a large puff of smoke into her lungs and held it there as she lifted the pipe to the stars and held it aloft for several seconds before passing it to Lee. Lee was an old hand at smoking marijuana and recognized the aroma immediately. This he had not expected, but what had he expected? There was nothing about Cassandra and her aerie he could have anticipated; why should he this? A beautifully sweet, potent-smelling smoke rose into the night breeze whisping through the aerie. Lee accepted the pipe and cautiously drew deeply. The smoke tasted marvelous, sweet and cool from its journey through the long stem of the pipe. Lee held the smoke in his lungs and felt his own head rise as he lifted the pipe to the stars as Cassandra had. When he offered it back to Cassandra she held up her hands shoulder high, palms facing Lee. “No, you keep it. The pipe is a gift from me, along with the deerskin pouch hanging there. Use it in peace and truth. I am leaving now, but you stay, please. Here, let me put a couple more sticks on the fire. Stay, finish the pipe, watch the fire become

- 54 -

ember, the stars disappear behind the dawn. We will talk again, in the daylight.” Cassandra told Lee then disappeared into the foliage. Lee took Cassandra’s advice and stayed until a rosy fingered dawn worthy of Homer rose above the Oakland hills and filled the aerie with a soft light that gently waked the plants. The air smelled fresh and clean, with a hint of cedar from the dying embers. Marvelous, just marvelous, Lee remarked to himself as he left for the world below, closing the door behind him. That was the first of many visits Lee paid Cassandra. The more exposed he became to Cassandra, the more fascinating and mysterious she became to Lee. But Cassandra revealed little of her own history; she seemed much more interested in Lee’s. If he asked her specific questions, she usually gave vague, ambiguous answers. “How old are you really?” Lee asked once. “I am much older than you think, older than you would probably believe, but my journey through this life is far from over.” She answered. “So you believe in a life after this?” He asked. “I believe in what I know is true for me.” She answered. “You know the truth?” “For myself I do.” Cassandra told him. “Only for yourself? Isn’t the truth the same for all?” Lee asked. “How can I know what is the truth for others when I only know the truth for myself?” Cassandra answered with a question. “And what is the truth for yourself?” He asked. “The truth is a combination of memories and hopes.”

- 55 -

“So my truth depends on my memories and hopes?” Lee asked. “Your truth is what you believe.” The old woman told him. # In daylight Cassandra’s age was more ambiguous than in the darkness of her aerie that first meeting. There was an unmistakable aura of great age about her, her face holding a century of wrinkles, her eyes centuries of knowledge. Yet the old woman could move with the grace of a puma in her prime, with senses equally acute. Cassandra was small and lithe, certainly less than a hundred pounds, and she moved about the aerie without a sound, without disturbing a leaf. Lee was never aware of her coming or going. She was simply there, and then she wasn’t. The old woman’s eyes were the most fascinating Lee had ever seen, large and round, very bright and clear, and of changing shades of gold and brown. During their conversations Cassandra’s stare bore into Lee’s self. In her eyes Lee saw wisdom and perception. He often thought of what a formidable poker player Cassandra could be. Lee’s professional poker playing interested Cassandra. His description of poker as a game of people and psychology more than cards appealed to her. She was also intrigued about his choice of such a profession. Usually when Lee told someone he made his living playing poker they immediately thought of him as a gambler and pictured dens of cheating card sharks. Neither was true in Lee Meadow’s world. Cassandra made no such assumptions though, and was instead more interested in why he had chosen such a profession than in the profession itself or its perceived sordidness. Lee told her it was because of the money and the freedom, but under Cassandra’s gaze he realized it was more than that. There was the will to excel, the joy of the contest itself, and the intriguing

- 56 -

combination of skill and luck. Just as appealing was the democratic justice inherent in the game. Anyone could play, male, female, young, old, all on the same playing field; and if you outplay your competition over the long run, you will take the money home. How well an individual does depends on his decisions and the fall of the cards, not the opinions of others. “It is much like life in many ways.” Cassandra observed. “Yes, I suppose so, but fairer, much fairer. In the world I see, many people never get any decent cards to play, and they suffer bad beat after bad beat.” Lee commented. The old woman who called herself Cassandra appreciated Lee’s respect for poker. She also appreciated that Lee Meadow was a very private man who rarely shared his inner thoughts, but she was extremely talented at drawing out such things and finding another’s soul. She questioned him about poker, the game itself and how it’s played, and could see the passion in Lee’s eyes as he explained it to her, especially when he talked of strategies and playing the players. As he related some of the more memorable incidents and hands of his poker career, Cassandra felt his heart blaze with the relived excitement of triumphs and disappointments. But it was when Lee talked of his own theories of play, his personal philosophy of poker, that his joy in the game was most evident. With her extraordinary powers of perception Cassandra was able to understand poker quite well without ever actually playing. She was impressed by how beautifully simple a game it is, yet extremely complex at the same time. She was also fascinated by poker’s uniqueness, as Lee explained it to her. “The worse thing that can happen to a poker player in a particular hand is to come in second.” Lee told her. “If you come in second in the Olympics you get a silver medal,

- 57 -

and a horse finishing second gets place money. Finish second in poker and you go broke. In addition, you can analyze a particular hand perfectly, play it perfectly and yet have it completely backfire on you. Then too you can play a hand completely wrong, catch a miracle card and come up smelling like a rose. Still, best play will win the money over the long run, and if you don’t have faith in that, you cannot win. And in poker, if you get two steps ahead, you’re really one step behind.” While Cassandra was able to understand Lee’s fervor for poker she wondered if it was all there was to his life. She had seen and felt his integrity, his morality, and she knew there must be more to Lee Meadow than poker. “So, other than the enjoyment of the game itself, and the money it brings you, why do you choose to make your living that way?” She asked. “Isn’t money and enjoyment reason enough?” Lee asked in return. “Yes, for most people it would be, but not for you. For you there must be something more.” Cassandra told him. Lee thought for a few moments before answering. “Well, as I told you before, it is for the freedom. My time, my life is my own. I don’t have to be anywhere I don’t want to be. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.” He told her. “Isn’t that essentially true for everyone?” She asked. “In a sense, yes, philosophically anyhow, but from a practical standpoint, people have to work to survive, and for most people work means forty hours a week doing the same thing, something they rarely enjoy. I just can’t see myself doing anything five days

- 58 -

a week, week in and week out, year after year. You don’t work, I don’t think? How do you make your living?” Lee answered. “I am very old, I have lived many years, and I have my resources.” She told him. “But you say you play poker for the freedom it gives you, so what do you do with your freedom?” That was a question Lee Meadow had never really asked himself. What did he do with his freedom? He was not a gregarious person and spent a lot of time alone, walking in the woods, thinking, reading, listening to music. He was simply enjoying life, he guessed, and told Cassandra just that. “What about people: friendship, family, love?” She asked. Lee thought about that too. He had many acquaintances, most from the poker world, but none he would consider close friends. He had a few chess-playing buddies in the area, but again none he would consider a close friend. His parents and his brother and sister all lived back east, and while they still communicated on special days it had never been a close family. As for love? Lee loved women in general, platonically and sexually. When he thought about it Lee realized his closer friends now were all women, most of them former lovers. He was forty-three years old and had enjoyed a number of love affairs over the years, and had in fact remained friends with each of his former lovers, something he felt quite proud of. Still, he didn’t know if he had ever really been in love. He believed he had been falling in love with Victoria Steller when he was with her in Las Vegas, but then she disappeared from his life. All of this Lee related to Cassandra, revealing himself to another as he hadn’t ever before. Why did he trust this woman so? Why did he feel she had answers to questions he

- 59 -

had yet to ask himself? Maybe it was the peace pipe they shared, filled with the marvelous smoke, sometimes with an earthy, slightly truffle-like taste. Perhaps that was part of it, but it was more because of Cassandra herself. In a matter of weeks Lee Meadow and Cassandra became close. Such a friendship seemed strange to Teddy Madsen and it intrigued him. Despite a sincere belief in an individual’s right to privacy, Teddy couldn’t help wanting to know everybody else’s business. He tried not to pry or spy, but he couldn’t keep himself from noticing what was there to see. Such an unlikely friendship, Teddy thought, especially considering how private a world Cassandra inhabited. In truth Lee was as surprised as Teddy, yet his closeness to Cassandra felt so natural. Somehow she had drawn him out and had him asking questions about himself he had not considered before, questions he should have the answers to. For Cassandra it was Lee’s honesty and sincerity that admitted him into her world. She knew Lee wanted the aerie for his own very badly, but would not evict her to obtain it because of his sense of justice and morality. He did what was right simply because it was right. Cassandra greatly appreciated such integrity. It was good to know Lee Meadow would never knowingly lie to her. To show her appreciation Cassandra gave Lee a key to the aerie and told him he could visit at any time. “Please, just knock, then wait a minute or so before entering.” She told him. “What if you’re there but just don’t want a visitor?” Lee asked. “If I don’t want you to see me, you won’t; and if I don’t want you in at all, the key won’t be enough to get you in. Don’t even think about it; just come when you want to come.” She instructed.

- 60 -

At first Lee worried about wearing out his welcome and tried not to visit very often. The times he did visit, Cassandra was usually either not there or out of sight somewhere. He often felt certain of her presence without actually seeing or hearing her. The times she did greet him it was with a welcoming eye, and then they might talk for hours, or sit silently for just as long. As the weeks passed and Lee realized his increasingly frequent visits were apparently not an intrusion, he grew very comfortable in the aerie whether Cassandra was there or not. Never once did the key fail to let him in. On two separate occasions Cassandra took Lee on fascinating tours of the aerie. Just as Lee had suspected, the cross-section of the log and the furniture were all red cedar, all from the same tree. The floors, the walls, the support beams were all oak. The plants numbered in the hundreds and served many purposes. Lee asked Cassandra how long she had lived there, and if she had created the aerie or if she didn’t, who did? She would only say that she had lived there a long, long time, and the aerie had been as it is since her arrival. In Lee’s opinion the aerie was most beautiful during full moons, and Cassandra agreed. Beginning with his first full moon there in mid July, Lee always spent the three or four nights the moon is fullest in the aerie, and Cassandra always joined him for at least one of those nights. But for the harvest moon of early October, the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox, nearest the earth, Cassandra did not show. This concerned Lee. Cassandra was with him the last full moon, but only once since, about a week later. At that time she gave no indication she intended to be away, but since then he had not seen her, nor felt her presence in the aerie, not a single time.

- 61 -

Maybe it was a regular thing for Cassandra to disappear for weeks at a time, Teddy said it was, but Lee couldn’t help feeling something amiss. Wouldn’t Cassandra have said something to him if she planned on being away so long? After all she did give him a key, but maybe that’s why she did, because she planned on being away? But why wouldn’t she tell him of her plans? No, something had happened to Cassandra, or perhaps she was trying to avoid something happening to her? Something was just not right, Lee felt certain of it.

Chapter 5. Visitors

The full moon had waned to a crescent and still there was no sign of Cassandra. It was mid October, when the winds come from inland rather than the sea, the warmest time of the year for the San Francisco Bay area. Balmy breezes blew through the aerie and around Lee as he sat in the rocking chair opposite Cassandra’s log, watching the moon’s silvery, sideways smile appear and disappear in a sky half full of moving clouds. He had just exhaled a toke from the peace pipe and was thinking how the smoke sometimes tasted a little different when Cassandra filled the pipe. Lee was smoking what she had given him, but it lacked that distinctive earthy taste he noticed at times. Certainly Cassandra enhanced the smoke somehow; probably it was why he revealed himself so easily to her. What was it she added to the pipe? Was there something sinister there? No, he felt certain there was nothing evil about Cassandra. Mysterious, yes; occult, possibly; sinister, no way, not in Lee’s mind.

- 62 -

Just then came a quiet knock at the door. Could that be Cassandra? Why would she knock? She probably knows I’m here and does not want to bust in unexpected. Who else could it be? Then the light knock came again, no louder the second time than the first. Lee went to the door. There was no peephole or window in the door, no way to see who was there without opening it. “Who’s there?” Lee asked, trying to keep his voice just loud enough to be heard. “Cassandra, is that you? It’s me, Colon.” Came the answer after a moment of hesitation. What to do now? Colon must be a friend! Lee had to open the door. “She’s not here, but I’ll let you in.” Lee told the voice called Colon and waited for a reply. There was silence for a moment, then the muffled voices of a quickly whispered dialogue. “Who are you?” Colon asked just as Lee began opening the door slowly. There was no light in the vestibule outside the door nor in the aerie; there were outlets but Cassandra did not use electricity. Lee had been sitting in the dark for hours and his eyes were well accustomed to it, far better than those of the two men facing him. The closer one, probably Colon, looked to be about Lee’s height and a maybe a bit heavier. His hair was long, shoulder length, and he wore a pointed beard. The man behind him was much taller and wider, his head an inch or two above Colon’s even though he was standing on the top step. He too appeared to have long hair but it was too dark to see if he had a beard. Colon was apparently dressed in fringed buckskin.

- 63 -

“My name is Lee. I’m a friend of Cassandra’s; she gave me a key. Please, come in. You must also be friends of hers?” He said to the two visitors, stepping to the side and holding the door open for them. It was a little lighter in the aerie than the vestibule, allowing Lee a better view of the two men, both of whom looked like time-traveling hippies from the Haight of the late sixties, tie-dyed and fringed. The smaller one had dark hair and skin, and he looked Hispanic to Lee. The larger one had light hair and a full beard, a cross between a Viking and a lumberjack. “I’m Colon, this is Dipsy.” The smaller one told Lee. “You don’t smell like cologne.” Lee told him, smiling. “It not spelled that way; it’s spelled like a colon, and I don’t smell like that either.” Colon responded, almost smiling. He had danced the same dance before. “Where’s Mama Earth?” Colon continued. “Mama Earth?” Lee asked. “Yeah, the old woman, Cassandra. Where is she? She never gave anyone a key to her place before, and I’ve never seen anyone here when she wasn’t here.” Colon’s voice sounded a bit wary, more than a bit accusative. “I don’t know where she is; I haven’t seen her for weeks. I bought this place and moved in here in June. We became friends; she gave me a key, said I could come here whenever I wanted.” Lee told them, wondering now if he made a mistake letting the two inside. “You bought Green Gates?” Colon asked, frowning in surprise and turning to Dipsy who just shrugged.

- 64 -

“I did.” Lee answered. “You must have bread.” Colon stated. “I did, enough for a down payment anyhow.” Lee told him. “You’ve been smoking her herb.” Dipsy spoke his first words in a slow, deep, deliberate voice that made Lee think of a gunfighter in a Hollywood western. “Yes, I have, but it’s actually my herb; she gave it to me. She gave me this peace pipe too. Would you like to smoke some? It’s very good stuff.” Lee told them. “We know.” Colon said. “We grew it.” Dipsy added, causing Colon to frown at him. “Hey, man, I’m sorry.” Dipsy told Colon. “The cat’s cool, I know he is. Shit, Mama Earth ain’t gonna let anyone in here she doesn’t want here. You know that shit, and you know she has her ways too.” “Be cool, man, just be cool.” Colon told Dipsy. “I am cool. Shit, Lee here’s cool too. Ain’t you, man? We’re all cool, and we all love Mama Earth. Don’t we, man?” Dipsy orated, turning his attention from Colon to Lee. “I do, and I’d like to know where she is probably as much as you guys.” Lee answered. “Let’s talk.” Colon said, then walked to Cassandra’s log and sat. Dipsy followed, then Lee, taking the rocking chair. “We need a fire, man.” Dipsy told Lee. “But it’s already hot in here.” Lee responded.

- 65 -

“Shit, that don’t mean nothing. You gotta have a fire when you pass the pipe, man. Didn’t Mama Earth ever tell you that? Shit, it ain’t that hot anyhow.” Dipsy stated, then had a tiny fire going in a minute or two with the help of large wooden matches. “There, that’s what we need to start. Now let’s get that bowl going. I think we’ve got a lot of shit to talk about.” Dipsy told the others as he sat on the log next to Colon. And talk the three did, until rosy light followed the gray over the Oakland hills into the aerie. Colon and Dipsy had know Cassandra for over a quarter century, since they returned from Viet Nam together with a duffel bag full of the highest grade southeast Asian grass they could find. They sold most of it, bought some land in Mendocino County, and planted it with seeds from the stash they saved for that purpose. “We started with great seed, worked at it, experimented, kept records, the whole shitload.” Colon told Lee. “Yeah, and now we grow the best shit there is.” Dipsy added. “We think so, anyhow,” Colon continued, “and so do most of our clients.” “All of our clients.” Dipsy boasted. “If this is your stuff, I wouldn’t argue.” Lee agreed. “Okay, so it’s unanimous, ours is the best, but that’s not the point.” Colon tried to continue. “The hell it isn’t!” Dipsy interrupted. “Growing the best shit has always been the point.” “True, true, but that’s not what I’m getting to.” Colon told Dipsy then turned back to Lee.

- 66 -

“What I was going to say, hell, I forgot what I was going to say. Damn, anyhow, we don’t grow all that much herb, we live in the woods, it’s cool there, don’t really need a whole lot of money and that kind of shit, so……what the hell was I getting to? Oh yeah, right, the point of all this shit is Cassandra. Some of our clients we barter with, and she’s one of them.” Colon continued. “Okay.” Lee answered, wanting to ask what they bartered for, but not sure if he should. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” Colon asked. “I understand barter, and I know what you trade, but I have no idea what Cassandra traded, if that’s what you mean.” Lee answered. “Okay, let’s cut this ring around the rosy shit. You’ve smoked the peace pipe with Mama Earth, haven’t you?” Dipsy asked Lee. “Uh huh, several times.” Lee confirmed. “Well, shit man, did it always taste the same?” Dipsy implored. Suddenly it dawned on Lee Meadow what they were talking about: the earthy, truffle taste. That’s what Cassandra traded, whatever she added to the smoke to give it that sweet taste. That’s when they rose to the next level. The grass was great without it, but it became mystical, of a higher level of perception when Cassandra added her earthy ingredient. That must be why she is Mama Earth! “No, sometimes it had a different taste, an earthy taste. I always wondered about that, but I don’t know what it is, or where she keeps it.” Lee told them. “Neither do we, not really. I think it’s a kind of fungus though, and it probably grows somewhere in the Sierras. We used to think she grew it in here somewhere, and

- 67 -

maybe she does, but probably not. Cassandra calls it ‘earth essence’, and as far as we can tell she is the only one who knows where to find it, or how to harvest it.” Colon told him. “I understand.” Lee said. “Do you?” Colon asked. “Barter time has arrived; so where is Mama Earth?” And so the three talked until daylight filled the aerie allowing them to search for any clue to Cassandra’s whereabouts, or where she kept or grew what she intended to trade. By noon it was a hundred degrees outside and nearly as hot in the aerie, which somehow managed to stay cooler than one would think given all the skylights. They found nothing of what they looked. “Come on, man, we gotta get back to the woods. It’s too damn hot here, and beside, maybe she decided to visit us there. She’s done that before.” Dipsy told Colon, and soon they were gone, after selling Lee an ounce of smoke and asking him to tell Cassandra they had been there when he next saw her. Using a pair of binoculars from the open doorway of the aerie’s front balcony so that he could not be seen, Lee watched the two men get into a brownish green Dodge van and drive away. As they drove down the hill Lee got a sudden urge to follow. Why, to what purpose? No, it was too late, by the time he could get to his car they would be long gone. He might catch them on the freeway though. Lee quickly jotted down the license plate number and dashed to his car with binoculars in hand. To get to Mendocino County they would almost certainly take Highway 101, which means they can either go through San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge, or over the San Rafael Bridge and pick up 101 a little further north. Lee took the latter; it was the more likely way, a lot quicker, plus it would be easier to spot the van from behind

- 68 -

since that way was all freeways. If they had decided to go through San Francisco instead, then he would actually get ahead of them and could wait by the side for a while for them to pass. As he grew near the bridge Lee further questioned the wisdom of following Colon and Dipsy. For what reason, to find out where their crop is? Why? Lee wasn’t about to steal any of their crop or anything like that. There was really no good reason for him to follow them, except maybe if Cassandra was there waiting for them. But even if she was – so what? What did he need to find Cassandra for? She’s sure to return to the aerie soon, and even if she doesn’t, then the aerie is his alone. But he would miss her, that’s for sure, her and her perception, and her marvelous earth essence. The aerie would be a different place without her presence. # Spencer seldom left his small apartment, and when he did it was almost always at night. Rarely, very rarely, did he leave the quarter acre grounds of Green Gates. The other tenants knew him only as Spencer, the recluse, and knew nothing of his history. He was still a young man, only in his late thirties, and less than two decades ago it seemed the world was going to be his. In high school Michael Spencer Campbell, known as Mickey, had been a baseball phenom, a pitcher/shortstop/center fielder with a major league arm, speed and power, a can’t miss prospect. In his senior year he quit school to sign a contract with the Baltimore Orioles that included an $800,000 bonus. He reached double A ball his first year as a professional, went to triple A the next year, then on to the majors when rosters were expanded in September of that same year. The first major league curve ball Mickey saw

- 69 -

came from one of the best in baseball. It was a wicked, sharp-breaking bender that caused him to pull back before it caught the inside of the plate. The second curve ball he saw came two pitches later and was as good as the first, but this one he poked into the opposite field for a hit, the nineteen year old taking second with a hard slide when the right fielder did not play the ball aggressively enough. On the first pitch to the next batter Mickey stole third base despite a strong throw from the catcher, sliding head first to the outside of the bag, catching it with his left hand as he avoided the tag. Two pitches later, with the infield drawn in, the teenaged rookie scored on a ground ball to the second baseman, hitting the catcher just as the ball did, knocking it loose. Before a promising young ballplayer reaches the major leagues the one question all the experts ask is: can he hit major league pitching, specifically a major league curve ball. That is one of the differences between baseball and the other major sports. A can’t miss prospect in football or basketball rarely misses if he works hard enough, but in baseball there is always the question of being able to hit the major league curve. If he can’t, he better be able to pitch, or he better look for another career. Mickey Campbell had never doubted he would be able to hit a major league curve ball, but what surprised him was they actually seemed easier to hit than lesser curve balls. For two weeks he played like the second coming of Mickey Mantle, the man his father named him after, then it all collapsed. It was his own damn fault! That was what got him so mad, what kept him locked in the little rear apartment. He had been so young, so stupid, but how was he supposed to know she had a boyfriend who knew how to break hands beyond repair?

- 70 -

On the night Colon and Dipsy visited the aerie, Spencer the recluse, the former Mickey Campbell, was out on the grounds of Green Gates enjoying the unusual warm night air. He had seen the two men before and knew them to be friends, or at least acquaintances, of the mystical old lady who lived on the top floor, and he watched from behind bushes as they entered the hidden door to the stairway leading there. Spencer had visited Cassandra’s world only once, shortly after moving to Green Gates. On that night too he was out on the grounds, listening to the hooting of an owl, enjoying the fresh air and what he thought was solitude, when Cassandra seemed to simply appear next to him. He was startled a bit, but not frightened. There was an aura about her that made him feel safe, unthreatened. He could sense her kindness, her perception of his pain. When she invited him up, he followed. Like anyone else on his first visit to the aerie, Spencer felt he had entered a different world, a place not quite real in the way he had always understood reality. It made him feel very nervous, not scared but uneasy, anxious, though he had not idea why. Cassandra smoked the peace pipe that night too, offered it to the recluse, but he was unable to accept it. The smoke smelled sweet and enticing, and though Spencer had never smoked anything before he wanted to pull that sweetness into his lungs and heart. Why he just couldn’t do it he did not know, fear probably. Spencer suspected that once he entered Cassandra’s world he might never be able to leave. The unknown was simply too scary to the recluse and so he resisted Cassandra’s attempts to draw him out of his tiny, very familiar world into a magical, unknown place. When she tried to enter his being, the recluse kept all his barricades firmly in place. Instead of entering another world, or letting

- 71 -

another into his world, Spencer returned alone to the tiny, totally familiar world he had created for himself, a world he would likely never be able to exit. On the night they visited Lee, the sight of Dipsy and Colon transported Spencer back to his grammar school days, the days when millions of young people looked like Dipsy and Colon. His father, his coaches, the police all hated the hippies back then. According to his father all hippies (and anyone with long hair or who opposed the war was a hippie to his father) were scum. They were an insult to America and should be eliminated. “America, Love it or leave it.” was proclaimed from his car bumpers, front and rear. Of course Mickey Campbell followed his father’s example. What did he know, he was a jock. Sports, baseball especially, were Mickey’s life. He was going to be a major leaguer. What else did he need to concern himself with? Spencer remained hidden in the bushes the entire time Colon and Dipsy were in the aerie. He didn’t know if Cassandra was in the aerie too, or how long they would stay, but he felt compelled to remain where he was until they left. It was just about the time the earliest rose tints were emerging from the gray skies that Spencer realized he wasn’t alone in the garden. Near the front gate, the green gate, sitting on the ground with her back to the wall, hidden from the pathway and the house itself, but not from Spencer, was an Indian princess. Her hair was long, straight and black, held by a headband. She had not noticed Spencer; he knew every hiding spot on the grounds and had picked well. The princess remained nearly motionless as the daylight filled the yard. Near midmorning a man about Spencer’s age and size, dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and hat but looking very Native American, passed by the gate, got the princess’s attention and

- 72 -

whispered with her from behind the wall. Spencer could not make out a single word of what was said. When Dipsy and Colon drove off in their van shortly after noon, Spencer watched the princess jump into a blue Jeep Cherokee occupied by two men, including the one she had just talked to. The Cherokee took off after the van. Several minutes later Lee came rushing out of the house into his car and drove off in the same direction. Spencer looked up at the third floor loft, sensing it was empty. Where was the mystical old woman? The aerie called to him. The recluse remembered its smells, its aura, its feeling of self-contained reality. There was nobody else there now; the magical world waited alone for him. Spencer knew how to get into private worlds, he just didn’t know how to get out again. It was getting hot, the aerie would be cool and breezy, his own world dark and stuffy. Spencer took a step toward the hidden door, then veered back to his own world, the studio apartment he called iota. # There were only four tollbooths open at the San Rafael Bridge, with five or six cars waiting at each. Lee slowed down, searching for both the fastest lane and any sign of the drab van. He had just moved to the far-left lane when he thought he saw the van pulling away from the open booth furthest to the right. Lee strained to see the incline beyond the booths for a better view of the suspected van but was unable to spot it. By the time he got through the tollbooth the van was over the crest and out of sight. No matter, the bridge was a good five or six miles long and he should be able to easily spot the van on the decline. Lee kept his new Prelude SH in the left lane, winding it out to nearly 8000 rpm before shifting to second, then again to third. The instant response of the high

- 73 -

revving VTEC engine always thrilled Lee. The car had been his reward to himself for his showing at Binion’s the past spring, and nearly every time he drove it he thought again of how well the money was spent. The Prelude was doing seventy halfway up the incline, nearing its redline in third gear, when a blue Jeep Cherokee moved into the lane a couple of car lengths in front of him. ‘Damn.’ Lee murmured to himself as he let up on the gas and shifted to a more relaxed fourth gear. Lee flashed his lights at the Jeep but it stayed in the left lane of the two-lane bridge, blocking Lee’s view as it barely passed the cars in the right lane. Lee let the Prelude fall back a bit, looking for a better view and an opportunity to pass on the right. As soon as he saw an opening Lee dropped to third and hit it, pulling close to the Jeep before moving into the opening in the right lane. There in the right lane, fifty yards in front of him with nothing in between, was the drab van. Lee continued past the Jeep, glancing to his left to see what the road-hogging driver looked like. The driver looked to be a huge man, with a countenance as dark as his hair. He frowned back at Lee. The man riding in the back gave Lee the finger, and the dark-haired woman in the front passenger’s seat just stared with black, angry eyes. ‘Nice group.’ Lee mumbled as he passed the Jeep and gained on the van. In his rearview mirror he watched the Jeep pull into the lane behind him. Lee was pretty sure the van in front was the right one, but he wanted to get close enough to read the tag and make sure. When he did, he was, so he slowed a bit to give the van more room. The Jeep stayed on his ass, the driver not looking friendly. What the hell is their problem? Lee wondered, then turned up Pink Floyd on the stereo. Near the bottom of the decline the Jeep shot into the left lane, passed Lee, then cut in front of him.

- 74 -

Shit! What the hell is their problem? No matter; I’m not going to play that game, no how. Lee thought as he shifted back to third gear and let the transmission pull the Prelude back to fifty-five. From a couple hundred yards back, with several cars including the Jeep between them, Lee followed the van. Both the van and the Jeep took 101 north off the bridge, Lee stayed a distance back, wondering if the Jeep was also following the van. No, that would be just too weird, he told himself. The van continued up 101 with the Jeep staying a couple of cars behind it, the Prelude a couple of hundred yards further back with several cars in between. It was slow going, the van never getting over sixty, the majority of cars speeding by on the left. Lee set the cruise control just under sixty and tried to relax by getting into the music and the increasingly pretty scenery, surprised at the amount of anxiety he was feeling. Just after Petaluma the van exited, the Jeep followed and so too did Lee. When the van pulled into the only gas station there, the Jeep did too. Lee continued past, glad now he had taken the time to fill his near empty tank before beginning his pursuit. About a quarter mile down the road he pulled into a driveway, turned around and waited behind and in the shade of two huge eucalyptus trees, studying both vehicles and their occupants with the binoculars he had brought. Or is it eucalypti? Lee wondered. The van’s thirty-six gallon tank took a long time to fill, and either the Jeep also had a big, dry tank, or they stalled long enough to let the van leave first. The latter was seeming more likely all the time. Lee tried to get a good look at the three in the Jeep when they were stopped for gas but only the driver got out, pumped the gas then paid for it just as the van drove off and back onto 101 north.

- 75 -

The driver of the Jeep was a very big man, at least six foot two, and well over two hundred and fifty pounds, much of it in his stomach. He moved easily though, and it looked like his stomach might be more muscle than fat. His appearance made Lee think of a Samoan football player, until he took a good look at the face. The man’s features were definitely Native American; his dirty, black, shoulder-length hair was Indian straight. Just before the big man got back in the Jeep he squinted in Lee’s direction for several seconds. As the Jeep drove off all three in it looked Lee’s way before they pulled into the road then back onto 101. Could they have seen me? Lee wondered. He certainly hoped not, and he seriously considered going back south on 101, but instead went north, now staying only close enough to barely keep the others in sight. The landscape got hillier, the scenery prettier as they continued past Santa Rosa. Lee felt the window; it was hot outside, probably a hundred or more. There had been no rain yet this far south leaving the hillsides golden brown, spotted with dark green trees. Enjoy the ride, Lee kept reminding himself, ignoring both his anxiety and the urge to turn around. For some reason, for Cassandra somehow, he felt he had to see this quest to its conclusion. Just past Cloverdale the van took 128 north and the Jeep followed, two or three hundred yards behind, but with no vehicles between them. Lee stayed as far behind as he could without completely losing sight of the Jeep, certain now that it was following the van. Dipsy and Colon were also now certain the Jeep was following them. “Who the shit are those guys?” Colon yelled as he watched both the road ahead and the Jeep in his side mirrors.

- 76 -

“I don’t know man.” Dipsy shouted from the back of the van where he sat on the homemade bed, looking out the rear window with binoculars. “It looks like two guys and a chick, man. They look like Indians, and I think I’ve see them before, especially the chick, but it’s hard to tell with you bouncing this sucker all over the place.” Dipsy yelled to his partner. “Yeah, right, man. Like you can drive on this road any other way. So, what the hell do we do about it? You don’t think they’re narcs or anything like that, do you?” Colon asked. “Indian narcs? No, man, no way. No, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them before. The chick looks familiar; she looks pretty good too, that’s probably why I remember her. I’ve seen that big dude before too; it’s easy to member any dude bigger than me. Come on, man, you must remember them too. When did we last see a foxy Indian chick and a big, ugly, overweight Indian in the same place? Think, man. I can’t quite place them but I bet you can. You know my memory ain’t worth a shit.” Dipsy told Colon as he rejoined him in the front, handing him a billowing pipe before he sat down. Colon took a strong toke on the pipe, drew it deep into his lungs and held it there as he searched his memory. It is claimed that long-term marijuana use adversely affects the memory, but that had never been the case with Colon. Dipsy’s memory, though, was sporadic at best, a poster boy candidate for marijuana memory loss. “Actually, man, what the shit difference does it make where we saw them? The question is: what the shit do we do about it?” Dipsy continued. “That is a true statement.” Colon remarked, glancing again in the mirror. “What to do is the question. We can’t lead them to the farm. Do you think we can lose them?”

- 77 -

“I doubt it. That sucker’s four-wheel drive, it can go anywhere we can. You’re not in the mood for a fight are you?” Dipsy asked. “You got to be shitting me! I haven’t ever been in the mood for a fight. You’re not, are you?” Colon asked. “Hell no! Don’t know why I even said it. So, what do you suggest?” Dipsy asked. “We could just keep on going; I bet they run out of gas before we do.” Colon suggested. “I bet they do too.” Dipsy agreed. “Shit, we haven’t been all the way up to the ocean in awhile. What better day to go than today, hot as it is. Shit, it might even be fun to drive up the coast awhile, then take that back way over the mountains, the one with no gas stations on it.” Colon looked over at his grinning partner and laughed. “Sounds good to me, man.” He said. Highway 128 was a beautiful two and a half hour drive all the way to the ocean. The autumn sun was already low in a cloudless sky, sparkling off the shimmering, electric-blue pacific when the sea first came into Lee’s view. The van and Jeep continued north on Highway One and the Prelude followed, but by now its driver was having third and fourth thoughts about continuing. What do you hope to gain? Lee asked himself for at least the tenth time. He was still unable to come up with a good answer. Cassandra was the only reason, but what about Cassandra. How would it benefit her for him to follow the Indians following the hippies? You don’t even know where she is, Lee told himself, and even if you did, what makes you think she needs, or wants you there?

- 78 -

Lee gave up the chase in Albion, opting instead to pick up some smoked salmon, bread, a fresh lime and wine for a sunset dinner by the sea. It was already a long drive back home. Just about the time a refreshed and mellow Lee was watching the last maroons on the edge of the horizon, thinking about where he could get some good coffee for the drive home, the gray van turned inland on a dirt road without a signpost. The Jeep stopped at the turnoff, its occupants watching the van’s taillights climb into a thick forest and disappear. “What did you stop for? Follow them!” Johnny Raven yelled to his younger brother. “I told him to.” Tataya Feathers said firmly, then turned to her cousin in the back seat. “Why? Their crop is probably right up that road somewhere.” Johnny told her. “You think so? I’m not so sure. They have to know we’re following them by now, and I doubt very much they’re dumb enough to lead us to it. Besides, we only got about a quarter tank left and we don’t know where that road leads, or how far it is to the next gas. I don’t really like the idea of running out of gas in the middle of a forest at night.” She replied. Johnny didn’t like her answer but he couldn’t argue with her logic. That was just the way it was. He hated her always being right, always being in control, but what the hell could he do? Before she joined him and his brother Benny they actually lost money loan sharking. Not any more, not with Tataya running the show. He hated being second to anyone, but he certainly liked the money she brought his way. He liked the money, but he

- 79 -

didn’t like Tataya. He had the hots for her, and she knew it, but he didn’t like her, and she liked him even less. Benny Raven never considered if he liked either one or not. Johnny was his older brother and had always told him what to do, how to act, who to beat up. Now their cousin Tataya told both of them what to do, and if Johnny listened to her, Benny figured he better too. She was smart too; he wasn’t so dumb that he didn’t know that. Tataya was a far better boss than his brother in Benny’s mind, and it was much easier to listen to someone else than to think for himself. He was glad she joined them; he just wished Johnny wasn’t always trying to get into her pants, not that he would pass it up if he ever got the chance. “So what do we do now then?” Johnny asked his cousin. “We have two choices they way I see it. We can either give up and just go back, check this road out some other time, or we can find a place to stay nearby, then see what we can find tomorrow.” She told him. “If you’re asking me, I say we stay and check this road out tomorrow.” Johnny told her. “Hey, if we’re going to stay, why don’t we drive up the road a little bit until we find a place we can camp?” Benny suggested, something he rarely did, but he loved sleeping under the stars, especially in a forest clearing, and it had so long since he last did so. “You know, cousin, that’s a very good idea, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to sleep out in the open. I know you like that Indian Brave, back to nature crap though, so go ahead, drive up ‘til you find a good spot, and you two braves can spend the night. I’ll

- 80 -

take the SUV back to town and pick you up in the morning. That way we can be sure those guys don’t just come back out the way they went in.” Yeah, you’ll be damned anyhow, Johnny thought to himself as he listened to Tataya. All us damn Indians are damned in this life, by the damn Whiteman, so why shouldn’t we be damned in the next by whatever gods decide such things? Our ancestors must have really insulted them somehow. “That is a very good idea, but there’s no reason we both need to camp out. Benny can handle it alone; I’ll go back with you.” Johnny suggested. That was exactly what Benny wanted to hear. He would be lost in many ways without one or both of them to tell him what to do, but it sure felt good to get away from both of them once in awhile. One or another was always on his back about something, or they went at each other which was just as bad. The forest was one of the few places he felt confident in himself, the one place he felt truly in his element. Benny Raven knew he should have been born at least five hundred years earlier. He sometimes wondered what he had done in his past lives to deserve this one. “If Benny’s by himself, they might get by him without waking him up.” Tataya told them. “No they won’t, I promise. I’m a very light sleeper in the forest.” Benny implored. “Okay Benny, if you say so, but you better sleep with one eye open. And you, cousin,” Tataya turned to the older brother, “will be sleeping in your own room so don’t even start to get any ideas.” #

- 81 -

It was pitch dark in the woods when Colon stopped the van an hour after turning off route one. “Shit, man, this road is a pain in the ass at night. I’m tried of driving. You want to take over?” Colon asked his partner. “Shit no, man. It’s cool right here as far as I’m concerned. Let’s take a look with the light for a place to pull over.” Dipsy answered. “What if they’re still following us?” Colon asked. “Aw, man, no way they’re still following us, and even if they are, we’ll hear them coming, probably see their lights long before we hear them.” Dipsy told him. “Then what?” Colon asked. “Then what, what?” Dipsy asked in reply. “Then what do we do if they show up?” Colon asked him. “First off, they ain’t going to find us if we find a good enough place to park the van. Remember we painted it this color to make it hard to see in the woods, even during the day. All we have to do is cover the reflectors. If they still manage to find us, we’ll simply kick their ass if we have to.” Dipsy told him. Colon chuckled to himself over his partner’s answer. After more than a quarter century as a dope-smoking pacifist Dipsy Doodle still felt the urge to kick some ass once in awhile, training and boxing regularly in the gym, though the last time he was actually in a fight was probably a decade ago. I guess you can take the boy out of the streets, but you can’t take the streets out of the boy. Jorge Colon first met Howard Dipsy Doodle when they were both assigned to the same airborne company on their arrival in Viet Nam. Dipsy was a big, strong kid of

- 82 -

nineteen from the streets of Philadelphia, a White boy who had grown up in one of Philly’s many tough neighborhoods. He was itching to get at the Cong then, ready to win the war John Wayne style. Colon was his apparent opposite. At twenty-four he was about the oldest non-lifer being newly assigned, and he was a noncombatant medic, a conscientious objector. Jorge Colon’s parents moved from Puerto Rico to Miami when he was six years old, then on to San Francisco the next year. His father, Luis, was the youngest of seven children, and since all of his brothers and sisters had moved to the States, he did too. All his siblings had settled in New York City, but their tales of winter kept Luis from following them there. The only place ice belonged, according to Luis Colon, was in a drink. Miami he didn’t like either; it somehow seemed hotter and muggier than PR, its attitudes meaner, its opportunities very limited. He had his family in Miami less than a year when he saw a television program highlighting the Mission District of San Francisco. A month later Luis and his pretty wife and five children were driving across the southern United States in an old Chevy step-van he had scraped together enough money to buy. In the two weeks it took them to reach San Francisco Luis learned a lot about keeping an old Chevy running, and about starting and cooking on a campfire. His wife and children learned how to beg. While driving across California they saw hundreds of farm workers picking strawberries in the hot sun. Luis prayed none of his family would have to do that, much like the same prayer he said for himself as a child when he first saw sugar cane being harvested. Begging didn’t bother him; working like a slave or a beast of burden did.

- 83 -

They arrived in San Francisco with nearly two hundred dollars, almost as much as they started with. If they had spent longer on the road they might have made a profit. In San Francisco Luis found a fairly decent apartment for his family, and a fairly decent job for himself, as a mechanic. He figured the two weeks on the road with the Chevy qualified him, and he was able to bullshit enough, and learn quickly enough to get by. In five years he had his own shop, in seven years his own house. Jorge’s life in San Francisco would have been near perfect if not for Viet Nam and the draft. He did everything he could think of to stay out of it, including six years at San Francisco State for the student deferment and a request for an exemption as a conscientious objector. Eventually they got him anyhow, but did classify him as a noncombatant based on his own personal philosophy rather than a formal religion. Colon always considered that a small victory; his beliefs were sincere. Why he volunteered for airborne is hard to say. Maybe for the challenge, maybe there was some Latin macho buried deep within. Whatever the reason it led to him befriending a nineteen year old kid from Philly who wanted to kick some ass. Their very first firefight, after only three days in the field, changed Dipsy’s attitude completely. From that day on to the end of his tour, Dipsy concentrated on keeping himself, his buddies and innocent civilians alive. The Viet Cong and the N.V.A. he killed only when he felt there was no choice, and far too often there didn’t seem to be. He probably saved far more than he killed though, especially Vietnamese, and he managed to get through the year with body, mind, morality and soul relatively in tact. His emotions were shot all to hell though, for a long time.

- 84 -

Colon returned not only unhurt, but more mature and self-confident both in his abilities and his morality. He knew in his heart that he had managed to remain true to his beliefs in the midst of a horrible war. It was a brutal test, but he had passed. Dipsy and Colon returned to the States together, along with a duffel bag full of the best herb in Viet Nam, smuggled through with the help of some friends responsible for shipping bodies back to the states. They kept two kilos for themselves and sold the rest in the Haight for prime bucks at the time. With the proceeds they bought some land in the coastal mountains of Mendocino County where they planted the seeds they saved from their stash. In the two decades plus since they learned their craft well. The two partners kept records and experimented, and in time they were growing a grass as beautifully potent as any to be found anywhere. They never got greedy though, being always careful to keep their crops and client list small. Their concentration was always on quality rather than quantity. Neither had a great need or desire to be rich, both being happy to spend part of the year living in the long cabin they built on their land, the farm they called it, and the rest of the year in the Bay Area. Colon owned a house in The Mission where he spent as much time as he could with his pretty wife, Angela, and their two children. Dipsy kept a small apartment in Berkeley not far from the campus, but spent far more of his time on the farm. He liked the isolation and the quiet solitude it offered, plus his staying there alone gave Colon more time with his family. Colon sincerely hoped Dipsy was right about the Jeep giving up, he didn’t want anybody’s ass kicked, least of all his. That driver was a pretty big dude, but he figured Dipsy could handle him. Colon could handle himself in a fight too, if he absolutely had

- 85 -

to, but he hoped he never would again in this life. In Colon’s mind, violence of any type was a foolish human endeavor. # Lee originally intended to head back to Oakland the way he came after eating and watching the sun set, but by the time the smoked salmon and half the bottle of wine were gone he felt too mellow for such a long, curvy trip in the dark. There was a bed and breakfast right on the ocean he knew of, a little way down the coast near Point Arena, so he spent the night there, sitting past midnight in the night air, listening to the ocean, finishing the bottle of wine. The next day he would take the long, spectacular drive down Route One. As Lee listened to the tireless sea sing her eternal song he thought of Victoria. What had happened to her? Why did she give him a non-working phone number after they had hit if off so well in so many ways? It was possible he had written the number down wrong, or had misheard it, or maybe Victoria made a mistake when she told it to him? Even so, he had given her his correct number, and he kept the same number when he moved, so why had she not contacted him? Something could have happened to her, of course? Lee hoped not; he hoped she was happy. Well before dawn, only a few hours after Lee went to sleep, Tataya was kicking her cousin into wakefulness. By the time the earliest light was seeping into the forest they were at Benny’s campsite with a full tank of gas, and were being offered a morning cup of coffee. Whenever Benny slept the night outdoors he always woke in time to hear the earliest of the birds sing their welcome to the coming light. Greeting the forest dawn with

- 86 -

a cup of coffee in hand, listening to the birds’ hymns, breathing the cool, misty, morning air was pretty much Benny’s idea of heaven. In his heart the simple young giant knew the Happy Hunting Ground truly existed, but he feared he would never get any closer to it than he now was, especially if he continued to let Johnny and Tataya decide this life for him. “We don’t have time for coffee. Throw your crap in the back and let’s get going. They could have stopped for the night too; we might be able to catch them before they start out again.” Tataya told him. “Yeah, so what if we do? They’re still not going to lead us to their crops. You pointed that out yesterday.” Johnny questioned. “That’s true, but if we catch them in the middle of nowhere we can simply take what they have with them.” She told him. “And you think they’re just going to give it to us without a fight?” Johnny questioned again. “If we do it right, yeah. That’s why we have guns. A gun can be a great persuader. Don’t try thinking for yourself, cousin, it will only get you in trouble.” Tataya told him with a sneer. Johnny felt the blood rise in his body. One of these days Tataya was going to push him too far and find herself with a broken arm, or maybe even a broken neck. Not now though, and not with Benny around. There was no telling which side the big fellow would be on if he physically attacked Tataya, and there was certainly no standing up to the big fellow physically. Then there was also the problem of Tataya’s knives. She probably carried at least three or four knives at all times, and she knew how to use them, very well.

- 87 -

“I hope you’re not talking about killing them.” Johnny told her. “Me too.” Benny added. “Not if we don’t have to. That’s the whole purpose of the guns, to scare people so we don’t actually have to hurt them.” She told them. “Good, I don’t like hurting people.” Benny stated. “I know you don’t, Baby, but you’re so good at it. It’s a shame not to use a gift like that.” Tataya told him. Benny didn’t know how to answer Tataya when she said such things. It somehow seemed to make sense to him, yet he knew it had to be wrong. Still, why else was he so good at physically hurting people? With Tataya pushing the Jeep to its limits the three bounced over the rutted dirt road in pursuit of a vanful of herbal treasure. Benny sat in the back seat hoping the van was long gone, fearing it wasn’t. Breaking somebody’s fingers or arm when they didn’t pay up what they rightfully owed was one thing; threatening or hurting, maybe even killing somebody to take what was rightfully theirs was another thing altogether. Good at it or not, Benny was sure hurting innocent people was not the road to the Happy Hunting Grounds he so badly wanted to reach. He suddenly remembered the words of a favorite aunt from his youth, what she said to him when he complained to her that Johnny had no respect for nature, or for Indian ways. “Indian blood alone does not give one an Indian’s soul.” She told him. The older he got, and the more he saw of Johnny and Tataya, the more Benny understood what his aunt meant. The more he understood what his aunt meant, the more he feared for his own Indian soul.

- 88 -

Chapter 6. Earth Essence

One of the things Lee liked about this particular Bed and Breakfast was that one could combine a brunch with the bed rather than a breakfast if preferred. Lee was rarely much of a drinker, and after a whole bottle of wine in one night he appreciated the extra couple of hours sleep. Following an excellent brunch he took a huge, thick mug of coffee down to the beach, watched the ocean, and thought of Victoria. When Lee returned to the Prelude for the drive back, a Steller’s Jay squawked at him from a nearby branch as it looked at him with one eye, then the other. Lee stopped several more times on the way down the coast, for the view, for the air, to walk on the beach, and nearly everyplace he stopped he saw another Steller’s Jay. It couldn’t possibly be the same one; no bird could fly that fast for so long. It was late afternoon and still very warm, though not as hot as yesterday, when Lee returned to Oakland and Green Gates. He looked up at the aerie as soon as he walked through the green iron gates and saw a Steller’s Jay perched on the railing of the balcony. Lee was certain it was the same jay he has fed bread to in the little park shortly before leaving for the World Series of Poker that spring. ‘Were those your friends?’ Lee thought to the jay. ‘You’re my friend, though, aren’t you? You also want something from me, don’t you? Or do I want something from you? What do I want? Victoria, that’s what I want, who I want.’ Lee’s own thoughts surprised him. Until he met and lost Victoria his answer to what he wanted was always a world championship bracelet. He wanted the money that

- 89 -

went with it, of course, but he wanted even more the title and prestige, more for himself than to show to others. In a larger sense what he really wanted was happiness, which to Lee implied personal freedom and the absence of money worries. According to Shaw it is not money, but the lack of money, that is the root of all evil, and with that Lee agreed. Meeting Victoria expanded Lee’s definition of happiness to include love. He had always suspected love was a major factor of happiness, but he had not been exposed to much love in his life, and had never truly been in love before Victoria. In his forty plus years of life Lee had thought he was in love at least three or four times, more if you count his teens, and had seriously considered marriage to two different women at different times in his life. He felt pretty sure he was in love both those times, but deep down inside he apparently knew he wasn’t. On the second of those occasions, his closest friend at that time, a truly happily married woman, told him: “If you have any doubt at all whether you are in love or not, then you’re not. When you truly fall in love there is no doubt”. Lee had never been able to understand that before Victoria. It had been six months since Lee was with Victoria, and then it was only for five days and three nights, yet he still longed for her. Even poker did not seem as important as it once was. The jay screeched and disappeared into the aerie. Lee remembered the balcony door being closed when he left yesterday and realized Cassandra must have returned. Lee went straight to the third floor without stopping in his apartment below. Cassandra was waiting for him, embers glowing gold in the firepit, and in her eyes. “Welcome back.” She greeted him. “Welcome back, yourself. It’s good to see you.” Lee answered.

- 90 -

“I see I’ve had visitors.” She stated rather than asked, a nod and a smile in her eyes acknowledging his greeting. “Yes, two guys, hippie time travelers.” He told her. “Dipsy and Colon, two of my more favorite humans.” She told him. “Exactly, Dipsy and Colon. They did seem like good people; grow some great smoke too.” Lee answered. “Yes, among the very best, as you know. I should have been here for them but I had other concerns to attend to. There were others here too?” She stated more than asked, despite the inflection in her voice. “Not that I know of.” Lee told her. “They would have tried not to be seen. They are three people with evil, selfish intentions, all cousins, all of the Raven clan, but with souls more like that of a greedy Whiteyes. I almost trusted one once, a young woman, the most evil of the three. She is very cunning, full of guile and knowledge, a dangerous combination. For a short time I believed she might possess the soul of a shaman, but it was only because she knew how to play the role so well that she fooled me. Or maybe I was just careless, or impatient, or possibly my intuitions are beginning to wane. If that is true it would mean I am finally getting old.” Again Lee wanted to ask how old she was, but he knew Cassandra would not answer him, plus he did not want to interrupt her story. Cassandra continued. “I was not fooled for very long and I severed my connection with her. Speaking of impatience and intuition, how has the poker wars been going?” She abruptly changed the subject.

- 91 -

Lee told her he hadn’t been doing well lately. He wasn’t playing very often, and when he did play his concentration was off. He was actually down a little bit since returning from Vegas in the spring with two of the last three months being losers. He was just about to tell her his heart just didn’t seem to be in poker right now when she handed him a pipe with the essence of earth added to it, and asked him about Victoria. Lee remembered mentioning Victoria to Cassandra, but he didn’t recall saying very much about her, or talking of his feelings for her. Lee was certain he didn’t say he was in love with Victoria, he couldn’t even say it to himself at the time. In truth it was still difficult to admit, but then the marvelous smoke took effect. The marijuana grown by Colon and Dipsy was certainly among the very best: quick, strong and enduring, producing a vibrant, potent high with no debilitating heaviness. Lee considered it great stuff, but it was a different ballgame altogether when Cassandra added her black powder to it. It didn’t really make the high stronger, just clearer and deeper. Lee knew nothing about the powder other than Cassandra called it earth essence and treated it with great respect. As far as Lee could tell she used the powder rarely, apparently only when she intended to look into another’s soul. Lee had visited Cassandra a couple of dozen times or more over the past months and was always offered a pipe full of herb, but only on three or four previous occasions did she add the powder. It was on those occasions their souls were able to speak to each other. Often Cassandra would give Lee some of the herb for himself, but never did she give him any of the powder. It was clear in Lee’s mind that Cassandra meant for the earth essence to be used, at least by him, only in her presence.

- 92 -

This was a time Cassandra chose to use the powder, a time she wanted to know about Victoria, and a time Lee wanted to talk about her. The first couple of occasions Lee smoked earth essence with Cassandra he was surprised by how freely he opened up to her, and it originally made him suspicious of the powder and her intentions. Any successful poker player who has played in as many private games as Lee, routinely assesses any new situation with a suspicious attitude, but those suspicions quickly dissolved in Cassandra’s integrity and spirituality. In all his adult life Lee had never trusted a person as deeply as he did this mystical old woman. Lee’s impressions of five days with Victoria, and the six months of longing for her since, flowed from his soul into Cassandra’s. She listened to his memories of their casual encounter at Binion’s, and the easy, natural, immediate friendship that arose. She heard too of their visit to Mary Jane Falls, and of their spiritual and physical bonding there. “It is a very spiritual place, a very physical one too; it has been a sacred place for some, for many, many years. I know it well, I have been there many times.” Cassandra said then urged him to continue. Lee related how Victoria had sweated him through the entire two-day tournament, spending the night between with him, providing him with the emotional strength needed to finish as high as he did. When Cassandra first heard Lee use the term “sweating” to mean a supporter of a poker player remaining close by, giving support, while the player plays, helping he or she “sweat” in a sense, she didn’t like the sound or image of the expression. The concept of a female Falls sweating, however, produced images of Mary Jane Falls in the late summer

- 93 -

or early autumn of a dry year, and those images appealed to Cassandra very much. At such times Mary Jane Falls eases to a trickle, sometimes less, but always there is moisture present, always water, always life drinking from the sweating rocks. Cassandra envisioned the proud rocks glistening in the light of both sun and moon. She could see Victoria too, softly glistening in the dry light of the casino. Victoria Falls Steller had nurtured Lee though the dry spells as a falls should. By the time the warm glows of the sunset faded from the aerie Lee was absolutely certain he was in love with Victoria. He now understood he needed her to experience complete happiness. While entwining her soul with Lee’s, Cassandra had also fallen in love with Victoria Falls Steller, in a very different way. She too needed Victoria, as intensely as Lee, but for very different reasons. “We must find her. I will help you, but right now I need to ask you about Dipsy and Colon, and the evil three I told you about.” Cassandra abruptly changed the subject back again. “Right, Dipsy and Colon, and the evil three. You know, maybe I did see them after all. For some reason I decided to follow them when they left. I’m not sure why, I think I thought they would somehow lead me to you, and I was getting pretty concerned. You disappeared without saying anything to me and I was worried.” Lee began. Cassandra gave Lee a strange smile that told him she appreciated his concern, but was amused he thought her in any danger. How could he not know by now how extremely capable she was of taking care of herself? Cassandra’s smile was enough to tell him all that, she did not need to use words.

- 94 -

“Anyhow, the point is that I wasn’t the only one following them. There was a yuppie Jeep with three people in it, one female, all looked like Native Americans to me.” Lee told her. “That must have been them. One was a big, dumb looking guy, and the woman was still young and would be considered pretty?” She asked him and Lee confirmed what she already knew. “Where did Dee and Cee lead them?” She asked. “Up the coast, at least as far as Fort Bragg, that’s where I gave up.” He told her. “Did they take One all the way up?” “No, One Twenty-eight, then One.” “That’s good, that means they knew they were being followed, and probably by who. I wonder where they led them? They should be okay. Those two can take care of themselves, at least they used to be able to. The last couple of times I saw them they looked like they were getting just a wee bit soft, perhaps a little complacent in their old age. Those three following them can be dangerous; I hope those two old hippies don’t get hurt. They are the most trustworthy humans I know.” Cassandra told Lee. The last line the old woman spoke caused Lee’s normally unreadable poker face to betray disappointment. “Do not be so hurt. I trust you too, very much for the time I have known you, but Colon and Dipsy have been close friends and more for many years.” She told Lee. “I’m sorry, it took me by surprise. I don’t know why it should bother me at all?” Lee replied.

- 95 -

“You know in your heart we have formed a special bond, but as humans unfortunately so often do, you want yours to be the most special. It is a form a jealousy of course, and jealousy, while a very natural human emotion, is useless, and often harmful. Accept what is and enjoy it for what it is worth; do not concern yourself with things that do not concern you, not just here, but everywhere.” Cassandra told him in a soft, forgiving voice. “Good advice.” Lee answered just as softly. “But I do trust you, very much, as I already said, and to show you how much, I am going to tell you things very few know.” The ancient mystic told him, her eyes glowing gold in the emberlight. And the tales Lee heard told under the stars that night were of earth essence, and of the old woman who tends the powerful fungus the powder is made from. Cassandra is one of very few remaining with any knowledge of the secrets of earth essence, the essence of the earth. Others do exist in other places, but the last physical contact Cassandra had with another was over half a century ago. She has however remained in contact with a few of her spiritual sisters since that time, by entering the spirits of birds and communicating through their essence. Cassandra claimed to be nearly two hundred years old, and expected to live at least another century. It made perfect sense to Lee; he not only believed her, he actually expected such an answer, and would have doubted another. She also told him that she needed to pass her knowledge to another, and that she needed to find a protege soon since it takes at least three cycles of learning, a cycle being fourteen years.

- 96 -

“I should have found someone three or four cycles ago, but I procrastinated, didn’t look with the intensity I should have, and so I found no one. Then I became impatient, and so was temporarily fooled by Tataya, the evil one I told you of. Impatience is as useless and harmful as jealousy, or worry. All are such normal human traits, yet all are so destructive. You would think in two hundred years I would have learned to control them, but obviously not. Even now I worry about Cee and Dee, but to what purpose? Worry does no good, only harm.” “Do you think they’re in danger?” Lee asked. “Maybe, but probably not. They are astute, resourceful lads, plus, as I said, it serves no purpose to worry. If I knew where they are now I could warn them, but I think they have already warned themselves. They are their own concern; my concern is to find a suitable successor. As I was saying, I should not have been so impatient, I should have simply waited for the obvious to appear, as it has.” Cassandra told Lee, her golden eyes searching his soul. “You want me to be your student?” Lee blurted out, stunned, flattered and apprehensive all at the same time. With amused eyes Cassandra continued looking into Lee’s soul for several moments before speaking again. “No, not you. You are a good man, but you are a man, or rather your soul is in the body of a man, and so is subject to those powerful male urges. No, it must be a woman, and the obvious woman is Victoria.” She told him. Lee was at first disappointed, then relieved, then confused.

- 97 -

“How can you know Victoria is the one when you have never met her?” Lee asked. “I have met her, through you, and I know what I need to know to be sure. There is no doubt here, not as there was with Tataya. I am still disappointed in myself about that. The one thing I need to know about Victoria, but don’t, is where is she?” # Donald Merkle was waiting in the Denver airport for Victoria when she returned from Las Vegas. As soon as she exited the tunnel she saw him, leaning against a post, a self-satisfied smirk on his model-perfect face. Victoria’s first reaction was an urge to run and hide, but that was ridiculous, he had already seen her, and he was so nice to look at. Physical beauty can be such an intoxicating drug, Victoria thought to herself and sighed. It’s too bad he’s such an asshole. Victoria had dated Donald Merkle for a month before they became lovers and during that time he was charming and attentive. He was also gorgeous to look at, with the face of a Greek god and a body to match, Michelangelo’s David brought to life in Victoria’s eye. Unfortunately he had the temper and tolerance of Zeus. Once they became lovers he apparently decided Victoria belonged to him. He wanted Victoria to move in with him, and to quit her job so she could travel with him and be at his constant beck and call. None of it appealed to Victoria, and neither did Donald Merkle any more once he revealed the true character under his good looks. When Victoria told him this, he became verbally abusive in an attempt to get his way. Victoria would have none of it. An acquaintance who once left an abusive husband told Victoria that the first time a man beats a woman it is his fault, but the second time is her fault. Victoria understood what

- 98 -

the woman meant, but she didn’t exactly agree. In her case she didn’t intend for there to ever be a first time. She told Donald it was over, then took off for Vegas to be out of the way for a week. Victoria hoped he’d forget the whole thing by the time she got back, but unfortunately he hadn’t. Victoria stood still, staring at Donald Merkle, thinking of Lee, wondering how best to rid herself of the abusive charmer approaching her. Lee didn’t look as good, nor did he have Merkle’s salesman charm, but he was pleasant to look at, and extremely nice to be with. What am I going to do about this jerk? She wondered again as Donald walked toward her. “Aren’t you glad to see me?” He greeted her, his arms held out to embrace her in a hug. Victoria kept her carry-on in her hand and stepped back. “Forget it!” She said. “Don’t I even get a hug for old times’ sake?” He asked with his best hurt puppy dog expression. “No way. We have nothing more to do with each other. I told you that before I left.” She told him. “I’m sorry. I thought you were just mad at the time and needed to get off on your own and think about things for awhile. I thought you’d be seeing things my way by now.” He told her and waited for an answer. When none came he continued. “You did think things over, didn’t you?” He asked. “I didn’t have to. My mind was made up when I left.” She told him, her voice level and firm.

- 99 -

“I wish I could get you to change your mind.” He told her in his most sincere voice. “You can’t.” She informed him. They stared at each other for several long seconds without speaking. Victoria thought she saw some genuine hurt in his eyes, but she saw a lot more anger, maybe even hatred. “At least let me give you a ride home then, as a friend?” He asked. “We are not friends, and never will be. Please, leave me alone. Goodbye.” She said and walked away as Donald Merkle’s jaw first dropped, then clenched, his teeth grinding. The cab ride to Victoria’s apartment cost twenty-five dollars, well worth it she thought, then she saw Donald’s silver BMW parked up the street. Now what? Did he intend to harass her, stalk her, or what? Victoria remained in her apartment the rest of that day and through the night; Merkle remained in his car. In the morning he was still there and Victoria began to wonder if he was maybe a little crazy. She was already convinced he was dangerous. What to do about him was the question. She thought of calling the police, but what could they really do except shoo him away which would probably only exacerbate the situation. She considered friends in the area she could call, but she didn’t feel close enough to anyone to want to involve them in her private life. Victoria Falls Steller was a loner by nature, the people she spent the most time with were usually her gymnastics students at the time. Outside the class she had some casual friends, but nobody she confided in.

- 100 -

By the time Donald Merkle drove off at ten-thirty in the morning Victoria knew her only realistic option was to disappear. She would miss her job and her students very much, plus her mind and ego urged her to stick it out, but her soul, her essence, knew to do so would lead to disaster. She had seen the meanness behind his smile. By noon she was ready to go, everything that mattered packed in three suitcases, three boxes, and two canvas shopping bags. Victoria looked around her apartment with sad eyes. It was a nice place, small but with a couple of interesting nooks and lots of sun. She would miss it. She didn’t like having to leave some of the furniture and most of her books either, but there just wasn’t the time. To disappear effectively, one must do it quickly. She called Donald on the direct private line to his office, then hung up as soon as she heard his voice, quickly loaded her trusty little yellow civic and headed west. The mountains were beautiful with their snowcaps glowing in the autumn afternoon light, and pockets of trees holding on to their fall colors. She would miss the Rockies, but she was looking forward to seeing the Sierras. San Francisco was said to be a beautiful city and she had not yet been there. What better place was there now to go? Victoria grew up an orphan and had no known family anywhere, plus Lee lived in the San Francisco Bay area. In the motel that first night on the road Victoria realized she had misplaced the little notebook/addressbook she had taken with her to Vegas, the one with Lee’s phone number. She hoped it was packed away somewhere because it was the only way she had of contacting him, and he could no longer contact her. It turned out San Francisco suited Victoria much better then Denver. There was great hiking everywhere, even in the city itself, especially along the ocean. Victoria was

- 101 -

awestruck the first time she saw the ocean, and every time after. It was thrilling living in San Francisco, a great place to walk, filled with a marvelous mix of neighborhoods and cultures, all with a variety of restaurants, some with very good food for very little money. Victoria managed to find a job right away too, teaching gymnastics at a private club, for three dollars more per hour than she made in Denver. It was much needed money too, considering the price of housing. Fortunately she was even luckier in finding a place to live, buying a paper and calling at just the right time to land a sweet roommate deal. Victoria had lived alone since leaving the orphanage and didn’t much like the idea of living with someone, but it was a perfect set up for her, and it was available immediately. Her roommate/landlord was a gay guy in his mid twenties with a great two bedroom, two bath apartment near the Golden Gate Park panhandle. He told her straight women were the only roommates he could live with. When Victoria finally unpacked everything she brought from Denver she still couldn’t find the addressbook. She looked and looked again, but it was not there in San Francisco with her. Where had she left it, she wondered, and hoped Donald didn’t steal it somehow. The months passed quickly in San Francisco. Victoria drove all over the area in her free time: to the mountains, Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Tahoe, up and down the coast. She also visited all the cities and towns of the bay area, stopping in every cardroom or casino she saw to look for Lee. She checked every local phonebook too, calling any number that might belong to Lee Meadow, getting nowhere. At the exact time Cassandra was telling Lee the one thing she didn’t know about Victoria and needed to know was her whereabouts, Victoria herself was only a couple of

- 102 -

miles away, asking the boardman at the Oaks Card Club if he knew Lee Meadow. He told her he did not, which was true in that he did not know him by Lee Meadow. He did know the man though, by the waiting-board name Lee often used: Lime. This time, instead of simply accepting a “no” answer as she usually did, Victoria tried describing Lee as best she could. Halfway into her description she thought she saw a spark of recognition in the man’s eyes, but then it was quickly smothered with suspicion. “You know, there’s a number of guys who play here who might fit that description. Before I say anything more I need you to be straight with me. Why you want to get ahold of this guy?” He asked her with eyes that expected to be told the truth. The truth is exactly what everyone received from Victoria, at all times, though she would often say as little as possible. She thought a couple of moments before answering. “I’m trying to think of the quickest way to explain. The long and short of it is we met in Vegas, at Binion’s, had a good time and exchanged phone numbers. I lived in Denver then, and due to circumstances I found there when I got back, had to disconnect my phone before he could call me. Then I somehow lost his number and couldn’t call him. I just moved here recently and thought I’d try to look him up.” She told the boardman. He looked at Victoria, appreciating her natural look and demeanor, trying to decide if he could trust her story. “Had to disconnect your phone right away, huh?” He asked. “Yeah, it’s a long story. You don’t want to hear it, and I don’t want to tell it. Come on, you know him, don’t you? I give you my word I’m not out to harm him in any way. In fact I’m sure he’d want you to give me his number.” Victoria answered.

- 103 -

“I can believe that. If you were looking for me I’d want somebody to point you in the right direction, and I’m married. I think I know who you’re talking about, and no, I don’t know if he’s married or not for sure, but I don’t think he is. I don’t have his number either, and I haven’t seen him in here in a couple of months or more. What I can do though is pass on a note for you if he comes in again. I’ll tell the other boardpeople too. He calls himself Lime, or at least that’s the name he uses for the board.” Victoria was surprised at how excited she was at finally getting a lead, a hope. Her hand shook and her brain raced as she tried to compose her note to Lee. What should she say? How much? Best to keep it short and to the point, and the point should be obvious without saying anything. How to address it was the first question: Dear Lee? Darling Lee? Lee, my Love? No, don’t be ridiculous, besides he may not feel the same. No, he does, I’m sure, he must! “Lee,” Victoria wrote, “I had to disconnect my phone and I lost your phone number or I would have called you long ago. I now live in the area and would like to see you very much.” And now how to sign it? Sincerely? With Love? What? She signed it: “Love, Victoria” and included her phone number. Maybe it said too much, but then some people use the word “love” very freely. Not Victoria, she was quite careful with that word. As far as she was concerned the English language was greatly lacking in that particular area. The word “love” was used for too many things, for far too many different feelings. How could the same word be used to describe the emotion one feels for such different things as lobster, opera, ice-

- 104 -

cream, a child, a mother, a lover, broccoli, baseball, a pair of shoes or the three stooges? When Victoria signed her name that way she was simply being honest. # Donald Merkle took the notebook from the bottom drawer of his desk at home for the second time that evening. The loss of Victoria had been seething inside him for five months, but he had been too busy to do anything about it. On Victoria’s second day back Merkle hired a private detective to watch her so he could go to work. When Victoria took off west the detective followed her all the way to Grand Junction and the motel she stopped at for the night. Victoria had been concerned about being followed since first deciding to flee after seeing Donald parked outside her apartment. If he bothered sitting in his car all night to keep track of her then he would certainly hire someone else to do it when he couldn’t. Donald Merkle had plenty of money and no scruples. Scruples are a strange commodity; they cannot be bought, but they certainly can be sold. Victoria stopped often that first day, at every rest stop and viewpoint, and always behind her, though it managed to often stay out of sight, was a banal blue Toyota. She couldn’t find it right away after registering at the motel, but she did spot it later when she went out to eat, parked around the side of the motel across the street. She drove further than necessary to find a local Mexican restaurant, and she did not see the blue Toyota follow. Neither did she see it when she came out forty-five minutes later. Maybe now was the time to take off, while the stalker waited for the prey to return to her bed. Victoria reasoned her shadow must have watched her check into the motel and carry her suitcase inside. When she went back out without the suitcase he obviously figured she was only

- 105 -

going out for something to eat and would be back so he simply waited for her. If only she didn’t need what was in that suitcase she could take off now and be rid of him. Maybe she should just leave the suitcase and take off without it? No, it wasn’t worth it; there was stuff in there she needed. Tomorrow would be soon enough. The next morning Victoria was on the road early enough to see dawn being announced in her rearview mirror. When she pulled over to the side of the road and got out to view Aurora in her full glory, the Toyota drove on by, then stopped and waited just barely in sight. Victoria spent the day at Arches, taking a couple of short, interesting hikes, and always the Toyota lurked somewhere not too far away. He can’t be very good at this, Victoria concluded, way too obvious. That was fine, it would make it a lot easier for her. After her day of hiking Victoria drove the thirty miles back up to the junction of Seventy, then west about twenty miles to Green River before checking into a motel not too far across the street from another motel. The suitcase she carried into the room had only a single change of clothes, and the clothes she wore that day could be easily thrown away. Like the evening before, the Toyota did not follow her when she went to eat. This time she picked up some chicken to go and took a side road back to the junction of Seventy and One-Ninety-one. From there she drove south until she found a safe, out of the way place in Blanding to sleep a few hours in the car. She was awake before dawn again the next morning, heading west on Ninety-five. A few years ago Victoria saw photographs of a spectacular drive through Utah and committed the route to memory with the intention of taking it someday. What better day could there be.

- 106 -

When Victoria didn’t return to the motel in over an hour George Hardy of the Hardy Brothers Detective Agency realized she had probably slipped him. That was not good, business had been slow recently and he badly needed the money from this job. Now what? If he called this Merkle character and told him he lost her, the job would probably be over, unless maybe George could convince him he could still find her. Maybe that was worth a chance, or maybe it was better just to call him with false reports for a couple of days before losing her. He could still try then to convince Merkle to keep paying him while he tried to pick her up again. That way he would get at least a couple more days’ pay and expenses. Donald Merkle knew about Victoria’s habit of keeping a small notebook with her at all times to record thoughts, ideas, names, phone numbers and anything else she wanted to remember. When he saw the corner of such a notebook sticking out from a pocket of her carry-on bag on her return from Vegas, he slipped it out without her knowing. Now he paged through it again, for the second time that day, and probably the fiftieth time since he stole it. By now he knew the contents almost by heart, yet lacked much of the meaning because of Victoria’s private codes. What he concluded from what he could understand was Victoria had met a man in Vegas and spent several days with him, and had probably became his lover. Victoria referred to him as ML, and he had apparently won a lot of money in Vegas while she was there, maybe playing poker. In one place was a set of ten numbers Donald took to be the man’s phone number, probably written in code. In his mind Donald was certain Victoria dumped him because of this man she met, not because of the way he treated her. Deep in his mind he was convinced women liked

- 107 -

men who took control and weren’t afraid to tell them what to do, how to act. Most of them need to be slapped around a little once in awhile, and they appreciate it when it happens. It makes them feel loved. Women are like children, they need both discipline and restrictions. The women who say they don’t are only lying to themselves, much like children thinking they hate the discipline they crave. There was no doubt in Donald Merkle’s mind he was exactly what Victoria needed and wanted, but she just didn’t realize it yet. He would have to convince her, but to do so he first had to find her. George Hardy’s report had him losing her in Reno. Where did she go from there? Or did she stay there? The phone number in the notebook, if it really was a phone number and not a code for something else, included the area code. That probably meant the phone was not in Vegas, and since the mystery man was apparently a gambler, and Hardy had lost Victoria in Reno, Donald figured Reno was as good as place as any to start looking. By using the area code as a key he tried translating the number to a Reno phone number but got nowhere. Donald considered hiring George Hardy again, but didn’t trust the man. He even had some doubts that Hardy had actually followed Victoria all the way to Reno. Still, he had to start somewhere, and it was either there or Vegas. Reno was a lot smaller, and seemed more likely too. With nothing important on his executive calendar for the next couple of weeks Donald Merkle decided to spend them looking for Victoria. He booked a flight to Reno and a room at Harrah’s that afternoon, then told his secretary to inform everybody who mattered that he would be out of the office until the first Monday in November. #

- 108 -

Shortly after telling him Victoria was her intended successor, Cassandra left Lee alone with the pipe and the remaining embers in the firepit. He finished the former while the latter died, and he thought again about the stories of Victoria he had just related to Cassandra. What was in there to make the mystical old woman so certain Victoria was the one she was waiting for? All he could see were the traits he loved Victoria for. Lee Meadow considered the implications of Cassandra’s intentions. If they found Victoria, and Victoria accepted Cassandra’s proposal, did that take her out of Lee’s life, or he out of her life? He wanted to ask Cassandra, but she was gone before he had a chance. Where does all this leave me, he wondered? The fire in the pipe was gone and the embers in the firepit black by the time Lee pulled himself from memories of Victoria and his triumph at Binion’s. Suddenly he had the urge to play poker, no limit hold ‘em to be precise. The only continuous no limit game Lee was aware of was at Artichoke Joe’s across the bridge, on the other side of San Francisco. It took Lee thirty minutes to get there, and when he arrived he found one open seat waiting for him in the no limit game. It was a small game, a hundred dollar minimum buy-in, one, two, two blinds, and there wasn’t very much money on the table when Lee sat down. Most of the players had only two or three hundred in front of them, a couple had less, and two of them had over five hundred, one almost a thousand. Lee bought in for five hundred, but this time winning money was not his primary motivation, winning to defeat others was. Lee wanted to hurt somebody, anybody, and poker was the best way he knew of doing it. Lee normally smoked a little dope before playing poker, convinced a slight buzz tended to calm him just enough to play more effectively. He rarely played very stoned

- 109 -

however, as that had an adverse effect on his game. Never before had he played under the effects of earth essence. What followed was one of the strangest sessions of poker in Lee Meadow’s experience. Normally the strongest aspect of Lee’s poker game was his ability to read other players and when his game was on he did it very well, but in this particular session his reading abilities reached a level far beyond anything before. Usually when he was reading well Lee could sense if a player was feeling weak or strong, and then could put him on a hand by combining this sense with the board cards. This session was nothing like that, it was more like he was able to eavesdrop on their thoughts. ‘Fold you son of a bitch, fold’ he “heard” a player urge him in his mind. Another time the same player urged ‘Call you bastard, call’. One player prayed for a heart on the turn, and again on the river, but got neither. Another urged ‘Pair the board, pair the board, pair the board’, and he got the pair to make jacks full. Strong thoughts and hopes were reaching Lee Meadow as plainly as if they had been verbalized. This fantastic ability to read other players should have made for a spectacular session, but that was not the case. How could one lose at no limit while able to tell what the other players are thinking? The answer is omnipresent luck. First of all Lee received very little in the way of cards to play, and whenever he got a hand someone had a better one. Twice he had pocket kings, once queens and twice jacks, and each time he ran into a higher pocket pair leaving him with only two outs and virtually no way to win the hand. When he got pocket aces himself Lee was able to trap a decent player into going all in before the flop with pocket tens, and not one but both the other tens came on the flop. There were times he was able to beat weak hands off small pots with a big bet, and many

- 110 -

times he saved himself by correctly reading strong hands before he was badly hurt, but all of that wasn’t enough to overcome the fall of the cards. It was as if the poker gods did not want Lee to win that session. Three and a half hours later, and a thousand dollars poorer, Lee left Artichoke Joe’s. A loss like that usually dominated Lee’s mind the rest of the day, and sometimes the next too. These days he no longer seethed and tortured himself with doubts as he did years ago, but he always tried going over any mistakes made in an attempt to eliminate similar ones in the future. This session could not be analyzed that way. Lee had not made any mistakes he was aware of. How could he when he knew what everybody was playing? The real question was how had it happened, and why. Lee was always a big believer in the why, even though he was often unsure of the answers he arrived at being correct. It seemed clear to Lee that the earth essence was the reason for everything. What else could it be? Always when he smoked it with Cassandra they were able to see into each other’s thoughts, though she was far, far better at doing so than he. Earth essence must allow one to intrude into the thoughts of others. Why then did he lose? Was it in spite of the ability the earth essence gave him, or was it because of it. The cards had run so ridiculously against him that Lee had to believe there was a reason other than the simple caprice of the poker gods. This time the poker gods had a very good reason, Lee felt certain of it. The only good explanation he could come up with was that the earth essence should not be used for poker gains, and the poker gods are aware of this. He needed to ask Cassandra about what happened. When he looked up at the aerie on his return from Artichoke Joe’s Cassandra greeted him from the porch. Lee told her what

- 111 -

happened, his interpretation of events, and as she listened Cassandra just nodded and smiled. When Lee asked Cassandra point blank if his conclusions were valid, she answered: “You are learning.” and said nothing more.

Chapter 7. Pursuit

Dipsy Doodle loved the forests and the mountains as much as Benny Raven. Benny’s soul, in truth, was more akin to Dipsy’s than to his earthly brother Johnny’s. The Ravens wise old aunt would consider Dipsy’s soul more Indian than Johnny’s. Dipsy also enjoyed greeting the dawn in front of a campfire with a mug of coffee in his hand, much like Benny Raven. Colon preferred listening to the birds while he slept with the cold morning air swirling in through the open windows of the van. He knew if he waked slowly enough there would be breakfast as well as coffee waiting for him by a warm fire. Dipsy always kept the van stocked with enough food for at least a week in the wilderness, just in case, and that morning the aroma of canned Danish bacon being cooked pulled Colon from the van. The two longtime partners and companions ate their breakfast in silence, each involved in his own thoughts. Colon thought of his family, and how now that the harvest was over he would be able to spend a lot more time with them. This might be the right year to take the drive all the way down to Cabo, he thought.

- 112 -

Dipsy’s thoughts were centered in his senses. Life is good, the forest, the mountains, the birds singing, the warmth and smell of the fire, the taste and smell of the coffee, and the marvelous high from the morning’s first bowl. Colon was just about to suggest that they get going in case the others were still after them when he heard the distant growl of the Jeep. “Someone’s coming.” He told Dipsy. “I hear them. Let’s load up in case we have to take off.” Dipsy responded. In minutes the fire was smothered and everything loaded in the van. The Jeep’s growl was closer but still sounded far. “What do you think, can they see the van?” Colon asked his partner. “I don’t know, man, let me look.” Dipsy answered and sprinted through the trees to the road. From the road the Jeep sounded closer but the road was visible only about twenty or thirty yards back and Dipsy could see neither the Jeep nor the cloud of dust it must be raising. He could see the van, but only because he knew where it was. He jogged back to his partner. “We should be alright.” He told Colon. “You can see it from the road, but only if you know where to look. Besides, if we took off now they’d see our dust for sure.” “Let’s grab the herb and find a place to hide where we can watch the van in case they spot it.” Colon suggested. “Those rocks there should do.” Dipsy agreed, putting his private stash in one pocket and one of the two quarter pounds they had been bringing Cassandra in the other. The second quarter pound he threw to Colon.

- 113 -

In minutes they could see the dust cloud from the Jeep rising into the trees, then the Jeep itself, bouncing viciously over the rutted dirt road. At first it drove on by the vague pullout they had taken the van on, but before they could breathe a sigh of relief the Jeep braked and backed up, blocking the pullout. “I think I should have skipped breakfast this morning.” Dipsy told Colon. “My thoughts exactly.” He replied. The rocks Colon and Dipsy stationed themselves behind were uphill from the van and the road, giving them a good view of both through the trees. “You know, that’s a mistake.” Dipsy told Colon. “What’s a mistake?” Colon asked. “Stopping like they did. It leaves them vulnerable to the van backing up into them broadside. Hit them hard enough and they either tip over or go off the other side of the road.” Dipsy told him. “Yeah, maybe, maybe not. That sucker’s probably as heavy as the van. We could mess ourselves up as much as them. Besides, we’re not in the van.” Colon replied. “That is a true statement. We might be able to get back in though. An option to keep in mind.” Dipsy responded. “What the hell are they waiting for? Why don’t they get out?” Colon wondered aloud. Just as he said that the passenger side door opened and Johnny Raven exited with gun in hand. “What the hell? Those suckers got guns.” Colon exclaimed in a whisper.

- 114 -

“Now I really wish I had skipped breakfast and coffee.” Dipsy added, then asked Colon if he had any ideas. “Yeah, keep low and keep quiet.” Colon replied. Tataya and Benny joined Johnny and the three of them moved toward the van, Tataya in the rear, a gun also in her hand. “Damn, man, the chick’s got a gun too. They ain’t too bright though; if we were in the van we could probably back up over all three of them before they got out of the way.” Dipsy remarked. “You’re dreaming man. As soon as they heard the van start they’d all jump off to the side. No, man, the further we get from those guns the better.” Colon told him. As Dipsy watched Johnny check out the van with gun drawn, his Viet Nam instincts quickly resurfaced, making him acutely aware of how careless Johnny was. If anyone had been armed and waiting for him, Johnny wouldn’t stand a chance. He wouldn’t have lasted a week in Nam. “They’re not here.” Johnny called back to Tataya who was keeping herself to the side, a good ten yards from the van. “I didn’t think they would be. I bet they’re around though, probably close enough to watch us. Benny, you take a look inside the van, no, you stay out here with Johnny; I’ll search the van. You sure they’re not in there, Johnny?” Tataya asked her cousin. “I’m sure, unless they’re hiding under the bed.” Johnny answered. “Check under the damn bed then.” Tataya ordered. Johnny hesitated, the urge to turn and blow Tataya away flickering for an instant. He had beaten people up pretty bad in the past, but he had never shot or killed anybody

- 115 -

yet. The first time won’t happen easily, but the times following will, for anyone with an evil heart. At this point Tataya was the odds on favorite to be Johnny’s first. “There’s drawers under the damn bed, and they ain’t big enough to hide a midget in.” Johnny shot back with his mouth instead. “Okay, you guys keep your eyes open out here; I’ll check the van.” Tataya told them. Colon and Dipsy were close enough to hear everything being said, especially since Johnny and Tataya made no effort to lower their voices. “Any ideas?” Dipsy asked Colon again. “Sit tight and let them search. We should have gone deeper into the woods.” Colon whispered back. “They’ll probably rip up the van.” Dipsy remarked. “Let them, better than ripping us up.” Colon opined. “That, my friend, is also a true statement.” Dipsy concurred. Benny Raven wasn’t feeling at all good about anything that was taking place. He had been against them getting the guns originally though he said nothing at the time, and he was even more against it now. Why the hell are they going through all this shit anyhow? Why don’t they just buy the dope from these guys? We got the money. I should say something, I should. Such thoughts ran through Benny’s mind as his eyes searched the area, seeing nothing in the woods but spotting the smothered campfire. Benny touched the small mound of dirt and felt the heat still inside. There was something about feeling the warmth of the two men’s morning fire that made Benny feel a kind of kinship with them. He knew in his soul that the individual who had tended this

- 116 -

fire knew the forest and felt at home in it, just as Benny did. He could feel the man’s love of the land in the tender warmth of the dirt. His brother Johnny had grown up on the reservation with him and yet he lacked the understanding and respect for campfires and the forest that the maker of this fire possessed. Tataya was a different story altogether. She knew the Indian ways, could make a campfire and survive off the land as well as he, but she didn’t have the proper respect. She knew her culture, but she didn’t think it relevant any more. Still squatting with his hand on the warm dirt, Benny searched the immediate area for hidden vantage points. He hoped the two men were far away by now, but he sensed they were near. He wondered if they were armed and found himself hoping they were. Why? Because he felt they would only use guns in self-defense, not aggressively, not like Johnny and Tataya, and they might well need to defend themselves against those two. Benny hoped it didn’t happen. At this point he was beginning to wonder which side he should be on if it did. When Tataya didn’t find what she was looking for she jumped out of the van and yelled into the forest. “I know you guys can hear me. We don’t want to hurt you, all we want is the dope you’re carrying. Just give it to us and we’ll let you be. If you don’t, we’ll have to tear up you van looking for it, and if we don’t find it we’ll have to come looking for you.” “What do you think?” Colon whispered to Dipsy. “I wouldn’t trust that bitch as far as I could throw her.” Dipsy replied. “It’s only a half pound, man, certainly not worth getting shot over.” Colon offered.

- 117 -

“No, man, no it’s not, but how do we get it to them without giving our position away, and do you really think that bitch will let us be once she has it? I don’t, plus they’re pissing me off, and they don’t deserve to smoke our herb.” Dipsy told him in an excited whisper, his instincts also reverting to Viet Nam memories. “I’m hep. So what the hell are you suggesting?” “You’re hep? Wow, man, I haven’t heard that in awhile.” Dipsy told him. “At least I didn’t say ‘hip’.” Colon replied. “True.” “So you think we should just stay tight?” Colon persisted. “For now, yeah.” Dipsy told him. “Hey, you guys,” Tataya called out a second time, “don’t be stupid. If we don’t find the dope after tearing up the van, we’ll come after you.” “And then we tear your ass up!” Johnny added, his adrenaline flowing. Tataya shot Johnny a hard look and shook her head, but actually figured it was good he shouted out. Maybe that would provide that little extra convincing they needed. Colon had the greatest urge to yell out, “Screw you, bitch!” and take off running into the woods. The yelling would be stupid, but the taking off into the woods was sounding pretty good right now. They were probably going to have to hike out of there anyhow since there was no way they could keep them from messing up the van, and they might not spot them taking off into the forest. Even if they did, they would have to get very lucky to hit one of them with a handgun through the trees at that distance. He and Dipsy were both in pretty good shape, and should be able to stay well ahead of those three. They might even be able to circle back to the van.

- 118 -

With similar thoughts going through his mind Dipsy spoke first. “Maybe we should make a run for it.” He whispered. “I was thinking the same thing. You know this area at all?” Colon asked. “I don’t think so, man. If I do, I don’t remember it.” Dipsy answered. They visually scouted the surrounding forest, each trying to anticipate the lay of the land beyond their sight, and then decided on what looked to be the most promising avenue of escape. There was what appeared to be the crest of a rise about fifty yards uphill, with enough trees in the way for protection, but not too many to slow them down. Once they got over the crest they would split up if possible, Colon to the right and Dipsy to the left. If all three came after them, then Dipsy would try to circle around back to the van and Colon would circle around back to the road they came in on. The road was probably the way they would have to hike out anyhow, unless they could find a stream leading to the sea. “You ready?” Colon asked. “Ready.” Dipsy answered. “Remember, low, slow and quiet until they spot us, then take off. Let’s go.” They had only gotten a third of the way to the crest when Benny saw them, but he said nothing and tried to look away, hoping neither of the others would see them. They were another third of the way up when Johnny spotted them. “Hey!” He yelled, and the two longtime partners began sprinting uphill. Johnny’s first reaction was to get off a couple of shots, but there was no chance of hitting them and Tataya yelled for him to stop.

- 119 -

“After them!” She yelled, and the two brothers took off in pursuit, Benny wondering what the hell he was doing. When Dipsy and Colon reached what they thought would be a crest they found only more uphill, steeper than before. Dipsy got to the pseudo-crest first by a couple of steps and took a quick look back. “They’re coming.” He said. “All of them?” Colon huffed. “I only see the guys.” Dipsy told him. “Keep going then.” “Split?” “Nah, we can out run them.” Colon decided. The next high point they reached was more a crest than the first, the land beyond falling into a bit of a gully before rising steeply to the left while staying more or less the level of the gully to the right before apparently falling off in the distance. Again Dipsy was a step ahead, and when he turned he was surprised to see Benny gaining a bit on them. “That big sucker can move, man. I think he’s gaining. Split?” Dipsy huffed. Colon was next to his partner in an instant, gasping for air as he surveyed the land before them. Up to the left, down to the right, maybe. He turned and saw the big guy was now no more than twenty yards behind and gaining, but other one, the one with the gun, had only just made it to the first crest. “Together, follow me.” Colon gasped, grabbing Dipsy and starting off to the left, then veering sharply to the right when he was sure they were out of Benny’s sight.

- 120 -

Dipsy immediately knew what Colon was thinking. “That tree there!” He half-shouted, half-gasped. “Uh!” Colon puffed. They were at the bottom of the shallow gully and easily visible from the crest until they jumped behind a big double-trunked redwood. Colon reached it first, and was glad to see the big guy following them was not yet in sight by the time they were both behind the tree. A moment later Benny reached the crest and took a couple of steps to the left, then stopped when he couldn’t see his quarry. Good, he thought to himself, and again wondered what the hell he was doing, and why? The run uphill felt good. Maybe Benny went after them simply for the joy of pursuing prey through the forest? He was breathing heavy at this point, but nowhere near gasping like Colon and Dipsy, and they were both in pretty good shape. Benny Raven had one of those rare body types that appear a little fat and flabby, but are in reality extremely athletic, agile and in excellent condition. If Benny had attended a high school with a good football program he probably could have made the NFL, but the high school he quit after two miserable years didn’t even have a football team. He looked down at Johnny still trying to catch his breath on top the first rise and found himself thinking what a sorry-ass Indian his older brother was. What was Johnny going to do now, just stay there? That’s cool, then he wouldn’t have to try to catch them any more. He had chased Colon and Dipsy for the basic thrill of it, but more to drive them far away from Johnny and his gun. Benny didn’t really want to catch them and was glad he could no longer see them as he scanned the forest they had disappeared into. He

- 121 -

knew they had to be somewhere close; he hadn’t been that far behind. They were probably behind a tree, but which tree, and how close? Benny found himself liking the two pot growers more and more, and his brother less and less. When he looked back at Johnny again, his brother had still not moved. “I lost them.” Benny yelled to Johnny and started back down the slope, wishing he could go the other way, out of Johnny’s world, into the world of the forest, and never come out again. “Keep going.” Johnny yelled, trying to wave him back up the rise. Benny stopped. Maybe he should keep going, over the rise and out of sight, out of Johnny’s world completely? He could disappear into the forest and live off the land. No, that would never work, not without a woman. Benny liked women far too much to be without one. In fact the only segment of modern society he truly needed was its hookers. “Keep going, damn it.” Johnny yelled again as Benny continued down toward him. “Forget it, Johnny, they’re gone. If you want to go look for them, go ahead, I’m going back.” Benny told him. “You’ll do what I tell you to do!” Johnny yelled, his gun still in his hand. Benny stared at his older sibling for several silent seconds, considering the order Johnny had just given him. It was true that he always did what Johnny told him to, but that didn’t mean he had to continue doing so. Where the hell had it gotten him? To hell was exactly where, a life of hell, and probably a hell in the next life too. “Forget you. I’m done with all this shit. You and Tataya want any bones broken from now on, you’ll have to do it yourself.” Benny told him and started on past.

- 122 -

“You better turn your ass around if you know what’s good for you.” Johnny yelled, grabbing Benny by the shoulder trying to turn him around. Benny shrugged Johnny’s hand off, then turned slowly on his own. “And you better keep your goddamn hands off me unless you intend to use that gun.” Benny told him in a fairly even, but a very angry, threatening voice. Johnny Raven took a step back, both he and his gun staring at his younger brother. He said nothing. “You’re really thinking of using that on me?” Benny asked. Johnny said nothing, his hand shaking, his eyes and brain swimming with doubt and confusion. “You better not miss if you do, or I’ll make you eat that piece of shit you’re waving at me.” Benny told him in a voice reeking of menace. Johnny didn’t know what to do; his brother had never stood up to him like this before, and while he was very angry, he was also more than a little scared. Johnny did not doubt Benny meant what he said. It was out of fear of his brother, rather than love for him, that Johnny Raven lowered the gun. “That’s a wise move.” Benny told his brother. “What about Tataya? She is going to be really pissed.” Johnny pointed out. “So what if she is? What do I care? I told you I had it with this shit. All I want now is a ride back to the reservation and any money I got coming to me.” Benny answered. “You’ve got to talk to Tataya about that.” Johnny told him. “I intend to.” The big Indian replied.

- 123 -

Back at the van Tataya was questioning her own decisions. This was a serious situation they were in. It all seemed so simple at first, follow the growers to their farm and steal as much dope as possible, but then nothing seemed to go as she thought it would. Now what the hell were they going to do, shoot these guys for whatever dope they were carrying? They probably didn’t even have much with them in the first place, and in the second place that could be killing the goose that was about to lay golden eggs; the location of the farm is what she really wanted, that and the earth essence, though she didn’t know that was what Cassandra called it. Tataya looked at the gun in her hand, then up the hill. She hoped things hadn’t gotten completely out of hand. At least she didn’t hear any shooting. What the hell is wrong with you, she chastised herself. You’re thinking like Johnny now, looking no further than immediately in front of you. As soon as you knew they knew you were following them, you should have stopped. If they’ve been growing dope for years without being caught, they certainly aren’t stupid enough to simply lead you to their farm. They’ve known for awhile they were being followed so this can’t possibly be the right road. One thing just led to another, and now here you are. You must have been crazy sending those two morons after them, Johnny with a gun. Benny could probably catch them too, but he wouldn’t use a gun even if he had one. Johnny might though; he does like to hurt people. Not Benny, him I can’t really figure him out. He’s not as dumb as he thinks he is, and nowhere near as dumb as Johnny thinks he is. That Johnny is a piece of work. He thinks he’s slick, but he’s probably no smarter than Benny, and certainly not as smart as Benny seems to think he is. Why he takes all of Johnny’s shit I’ll never understand. He takes my shit because Johnny does, and Johnny takes my shit because it’s

- 124 -

making him money. I guess Johnny’s not all that stupid, he’s just not half as smart as he thinks he is. Hell, maybe that’s one definition of stupid, thinking you’re smarter than you really are? If that’s the case, there are a lot of stupid people in the world. And I guess that means the only true smart people are the ones who correctly evaluate their own intelligence. Am I really as smart as I think I am? Tataya often carried on similar conversations with herself. Her ego, and the intelligence that ego depended on, were the motivators of many of her actions. Money too. Ego and money, that was the ladder she used to climb above the crowd, getting her what she truly craved: revenge and envy. She wanted revenge against the White race for what was done to her own race, but deep in her being Tataya wanted to be envied more than anything. Cassandra had always considered such a desire to be a very human trait, based in petty emotions. Tataya was considering firing a couple of shots in the air, to bring her two cousins back, when she saw them coming down the hill, alone. That was good. It was better they didn’t catch those two, and good she didn’t have to fire off a couple of shots either. There’s no telling who might hear, especially after the shots Johnny fired earlier. Tataya had forgotten about that, and now all she wanted to do was get out of there before somebody else came. “Let’s go you two.” She called to them. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” “Did you find anything in the van?” Johnny asked as he got nearer. “Nothing, they took whatever they had with them.” She told him.

- 125 -

Johnny didn’t believe this. All the time he was after the growers he was thinking of Tataya being left alone at the van. If she found any weed, or anything else, she wouldn’t tell him, that he was sure of. Whatever she found had to be hidden in the Cherokee, unless she hid it somewhere in the woods. Johnny looked at her suspiciously, but said nothing. “Let’s get going. I’m starting to get some bad vibrations here.” She urged. “Me too, I’m ready.” Benny agreed. Tataya looked at Benny, surprised he spoke rather than Johnny. She was so used to his silence that even his usual voice sounded strange to her, and that was not his usual voice. There was a resolve, a confidence in his tone she couldn’t remember hearing before. She looked at Johnny, but he said nothing. Instead he walked over to the van and shot out the right rear tire. “Damn it!” She yelled when she saw him raise the gun to shoot. “Stop that you idiot!” She continued, taking a couple of steps toward Johnny until he turned with the gun pointed toward her, ready to fire again. That stopped her. The asshole was crazy. He was beginning to like shooting things up, and she might be next judging from the look in Johnny’s eyes. “That’s enough, Johnny. She’s right. We’ve got to get the hell out of here.” Benny told him in a loud, firm voice, much like a patient parent who has reached their limit with a misbehaving child. Both Johnny and Tataya turned their attention to Benny. This was a person they had not seen before, though they had known him all his life. Johnny knew he could shoot Tataya and never feel sorry about it, but Benny was his brother, and if Johnny loved

- 126 -

anyone in this world other than himself, it was Benny. He couldn’t shoot Benny, plus it might only get him mad, and that made about as much sense as getting a grizzly bear mad at you. Benny wasn’t sure what the hell was going on himself. These new tones in his demeanor were as surprising to him as they were to Johnny and Tataya. He didn’t understand where this sudden feeling of confidence and power came from, but he knew he liked the feeling even if it did scare him a bit. He looked into their eyes as they stared at him, and saw -- what? There was some fear there, he knew that look, had seen it many times before in the eyes of people whose bones he was about to break. There was also surprise in their eyes, but mostly Benny saw something he had never seen before: respect. That he liked, very much, as much as the confidence he now felt in himself. Following his initial shock over the change in his brother, Johnny found himself hating what seemed to be happening. It was hard enough becoming number two to Tataya; there was just no way he was going to let himself be number three. He still had the gun in his hand, the real power, the last word, if he wanted it that way. Maybe now was the time to take control again? Tataya had messed up and they all knew it. They shouldn’t have followed these guys into the forest in the first place, but since they had, and since the growers now knew them by sight, why give up now? As long as they had tipped their hand they might as well play it out. Careful, he warned himself, you need Benny on your side. “Why do we have to get out of here so fast?” Johnny asked, directing the question to Benny rather than Tataya.

- 127 -

“Because of your stupidity, you moron.” Tataya told him, confident now that Benny would back her up. Johnny turned to his cousin with hatred bubbling into his eyes. Tataya had seen that look before, but never quite so intense, and never when he had a loaded gun in his hand. Easy, she told herself. “Look, we can’t be sure those shots weren’t heard by someone.” She explained. “So what if they were? They’d probably just think it’s hunters. I say we set a trap for those two bastards. They’re bound to come back here for the van, so all we have to do is lie in wait for them.” Johnny told them. “What the hell for?” Tataya wailed. “For the dope, you stupid bitch. That’s what we went after them for.” Johnny shot back. Tataya felt her blood rushing. Easy, easy, she reminded herself, he’s got a gun in his hand and yours is in your belt with the safety on. “Look, Johnny, we don’t know they have enough dope with them to make it worthwhile. They could have left it all at Cassandra’s.” She reasoned. “So what! It’s the farm we’re after, the mother lode. We hide the Jeep and wait for them to come back, then get the drop on them and force them to take us to their farm.” Johnny argued. “Are you crazy?” Tataya blurted out, her frustration rising. “You’re going to kidnap them at gunpoint, then what, kill them later?” “If I have to.” Johnny answered.

- 128 -

“Johnny, think, you don’t even know if there’s much dope still at the farm. Harvest had to be month ago.” “Stop telling me to think. I am thinking. It’s you who need to think better.” He retorted. Benny Raven’s thoughts were swimming in confusion as he witnessed the confrontation between his brother and his cousin. She was right, Johnny wasn’t thinking very well, but he was the one with the gun, and he was acting crazy enough to use it. Benny knew he had to try to keep that from happening somehow. “Come on, Johnny, let’s get the hell out of here like she says. It just ain’t worth it.” Benny pleaded with his brother. “Careful, little brother. Maybe it’s time you decided exactly whose side you’re on. This bitch has been using us like mongrel dogs. I think it’s time for us to be rid of her.” Johnny turned on his brother, his voice reeking of threat. Benny didn’t know how to respond so he said and did nothing, his newfound confidence slowly dissolving in his brother’s bile. Tataya had been counting on Benny siding with her, but now she realized that was not going to happen, and Johnny was far beyond any reasoning or intimidation. The gun worried her more and more. It was time to try a different approach. Tataya played her hole card. “Look, Johnny, you’ve been after my body forever; if you go back with me now it’s yours.” She told him. That took Johnny by surprise, and grabbed his interest, Benny’s too. “What do you mean, exactly?” He asked.

- 129 -

“Just what I said, I’ll be yours for the whole afternoon, or night if you prefer. You can fuck me all you want, have me walk around naked, give you blow jobs, whatever. I promise I’ll give you the best blow job you ever had.” Tataya replied. The offer immediately changed Johnny’s focus. He had been lusting for Tataya since seeing her dance at a powwow when she was only eleven years old. Her family did not live on the same reservation he did so the only times he saw her back then were during the annual powwows. He was fourteen the year she was eleven, and though she was still just a girl who hadn’t yet begun to openly develop, he still wanted her. Johnny tried to get the eleven year old to go off alone with him, but she refused. When Tataya refused again the next year, Johnny began hatching plans to abduct and rape her, but never got a good enough chance to carry any of them out. By the time she was fifteen Tataya had not only developed into a nubile young woman, she also had a pretty good understanding of her sexual power and how to use it. That was the year she charged Johnny twelve dollars, all the money he had at the time, to show him her tits, careful to do so where she could yell for help if he tried to do anything more than look. The next year it was twenty-five dollars, for both him and his twelve-year-old brother Benny. The following year the price rose to fifty dollars for five minutes of viewing pleasure, more money than the brothers could come up with together. They offered thirty-six, all they had, and she took it, but gave them only three minutes. Tataya told them next year would be a hundred, minimum, and in effect put her private show out of their price range. Johnny knew where to get hookers for ten bucks a pop, some of them not all that bad looking, so why should they pay her a hundred just to look, especially since they didn’t

- 130 -

have a hundred dollars between them. If they had, they probably would have paid it. Both wanted her that badly. Now, a dozen years later, her offer to Johnny had the brothers as horny as they were then, their memories of her as vivid as ever since both had seen her hundreds of times in their fantasies. As far as Benny was concerned this was an offer much too good to refuse. How could Johnny even hesitate? “Come on, Johnny, how can you turn that down?” Benny urged his brother. “I ain’t turning it down, but we ain’t going back either. You’ve been teasing me long enough, bitch, now you’re mine. I want your clothes off, bitch, all of them, now.” Johnny ordered, waving the pistol. “Bullshit, Johnny, you’re not going to shoot me with Benny here.” Tataya responded without a slight trace of fear in her voice. “I won’t if I don’t have to. Besides, if you don’t do it on your own, I’ll tie you down and do it myself.” Johnny told her. Tataya wanted to tell him to screw himself and just walk away, but the burning menace in Johnny’s eyes, combined with the gun in his hand, told her that would be a mistake. She turned to Benny for support. “You going to let him do this?” Tataya asked him, noticing as she did the huge erection bulging in his pants. What was left of Benny’s self-confidence was now swimming in a sea of confusion and testosterone. He didn’t know what to do. Part of him wanted to get the hell out of there and for the whole thing to be over, but a more urgent part of him wanted Tataya naked and at their bidding. Reason seldom wins arguments with lust.

- 131 -

“He’s got the gun. Why don’t you just give him what he wants so we can all get the hell out of here.” Benny told her. Tataya was now on her own, her back against the wall. Her hoped-for ally had slid to the side of the pricks. She considered going for the gun in her belt and started to slowly move her hand in that direction, but quickly stopped when Johnny fired a bullet into the ground a foot away from her. “Don’t be stupid. It ain’t worth it. Let’s just get on with it. The first thing you can get rid of is that gun. Toss it over here, slowly, very slowly.” He told her. # Dipsy and Colon kept watching from behind the redwood for many minutes after Benny went back down the rise, concerned the big man might be in hiding himself waiting for them to come back out into the open. “How long should we wait, man?” Colon asked his partner. “Not too long; we don’t want to give them time to circle around behind us. Tell you what, I’m going to try to circle around myself; here’s the binoculars in case you need them. Keep your eye on the trees on the ridge” Dipsy told him, but just as he started to move away they heard Johnny shoot out the van’s tire. “Damn, what are they shooting at.” Colon asked. “Themselves, I hope.” Dipsy replied. Colon looked at him with the eyes of a true pacifist. He didn’t want to see anyone hurt, not even if they were trying to hurt him, though if it had to be one or the other, he would much rather have it the other. Jorge Colon truly hated violence, by anyone, against

- 132 -

anyone, yet he knew if his family were being threatened he would get very violent in a hurry. “Come on, man, don’t give me that Bambi look. Better them than us.” Dipsy told him. “That is a true statement.” Colon answered. “That’s also our cue; let’s move.” Dipsy took the lead. The two veterans of jungle warfare slipped quickly through the woods, taking the higher route around so they could hopefully find a spot to see what was going on from a distance. Just before the reached where they were to begin circling back they heard the second shot and stopped for a moment, Colon looking questioningly at his partner. “Hey, man, we got to get back to the van sometime anyhow.” Dipsy told him as he looked around for a possible vantagepoint. “There, those rocks there. Maybe we can see them from the top of the big one.” Dipsy suggested, indicating an outcrop of boulders a good hundred yards downhill from where they now were. Dipsy’s combat instincts were still good these many years later. From the top of the largest of the boulders, using the binoculars, Dipsy found a partially obstructed view of the drama playing below. He tuned in just in time to see Tataya remove her shirt. “What kind of shit is going on here?” Dipsy wondered aloud, more to himself than Colon. “Why, what’s happening?” Colon asked. “I’m not sure, man, but it looks like the chick is doing a strip.” Dipsy told him. “A strip?”

- 133 -

“Yeah, she don’t look like she’s enjoying it though. The big dude is off to the side just watching, and the other dude is hard to see because of the trees. No, man, she’s not liking this at all. She saying something, I can’t really see the dude she talking to, she’s… …damn!” Dipsy exclaimed seeing Tataya jump, then hearing the shot a second later. “What happened?” Colon asked in a hushed, excited voice. “I think he shot into the ground next to her. She’s taking off her jeans now. I’m pretty sure he’s forcing her to do it at gunpoint. Damn, man, she’s got a knife strapped to her thigh and another on each ankle.” Dipsy told him. “What kind of shit is going on?” Colon wondered. “Damned if I know, but I gotta admit the chick is looking good, sexy white panties against her brown skin. There goes the bra, nice tits too. Damn, I can see the nipples popping out from here. Come on, that’s right, the panties too. Damn, man, she is looking good. That chick has got a hell of a body. Here, man, take a look.” Dipsy told Colon, handing him the binoculars. Colon had to move a little to get Tataya in view, and when he did all he could say at first was: “Damn.” He continued to stare at her for several seconds without saying anything. “Come on, man, give ‘em back. You’re a married man; let me enjoy this for awhile.” Dipsy told him. Colon continued to stare for several seconds as Tataya slowly turned per Johnny’s direction, then handed the binoculars back to Dipsy, telling him: “We got to stop this, man.” “Why, I’m kind of enjoying it.” Dipsy replied.

- 134 -

“Come on man, no woman should have this shit done to her. You wouldn’t have let it happen to a Vietnamese peasant back in Nam. Besides, what if they kill her and shove the body in our van? You really want to have to deal with the fuzz over this?” Colon argued. “No, man, you’re right. Damn, he’s got her on her knees now. What the shit? Oh, I see, somebody wants a BJ. What the hell can we do about it, man?” Dipsy asked. # Tataya’s mind raced as her heart pounded. There had to be a way out of this, but how? Johnny knew about all the knives she carried and had made sure she didn’t have any more on her when he made her strip completely. Maybe she should just go through with it; Johnny probably wouldn’t hurt her if she gave him what he wanted. Then she would kill the bastard later, first chance she got. She looked at Benny who was so excited he was damn near masturbating through his pants. She wondered how she could play him against Johnny. “Over here, bitch, down on your knees before I bite one of those nipples off. You have definitely got some nice tits, cousin, great nipples. Why don’t you take my prick and rub it against them.” Johnny told her, his back against a tree, his pants pulled down to his knees. Why not, Tataya thought to herself. Better than having to suck you off. If I can get you hot enough it might give me the opening I need. “That’s the way, that’s nice, bet you’re liking it too. Easy, easy, stop, that’s enough. You ain’t going to get me off that easy. Come on up, I want to see if you’re juicy

- 135 -

yet. Son of a bitch, those are great nipples. I’ve got to suck on those a bit.” Johnny directed her. Benny watched everything in a near trance-like state, aroused nearly to the point of exploding, but also wishing deep down that the whole thing wasn’t happening. “Me too, me too!” He couldn’t keep himself from blurting out. “Later, Benny. You can have the bitch when I’m done.” Johnny told him. Tataya shuddered inside for the second time in her adult life. She knew Johnny was now completely immersed in his viciousness and wanted to hurt her more than he wanted to have her. If she didn’t do something soon she might never get out of these woods in one piece. Her knives were usually her edge, but Johnny had been careful not to let her get to any of them. Benny wasn’t about to help her either; Johnny had regained control of him through his penis. She didn’t think Benny would hurt her though, not on his own, not without Johnny’s instigation. The rough touch of Johnny’s hand between her legs repulsed Tataya. She hated his dirty hands on her, in her, pawing her. It would be better to give head than be touched by him. Johnny apparently thought so too. “Still dry, huh? What’s the matter, bitch, too scared to enjoy it? I don’t give a shit if you do or not, I am. Back on your knees, bitch, you’re going to suck me dry.” He told her and roughly shoved her back to her knees. Tataya knew she had little choice and quickly decided on her best course of action. She slowly took him into her mouth, so repulsed she nearly gagged, but she knew what she had to do and so began to give head like she was enjoying it, like she wanted him to enjoy it.

- 136 -

“Ah, there you go, that’s good. You like my dick in your mouth, don’t you? Ah that’s good, do that some more.” He told her as she lightly caressed his balls. Tataya had both hands on his balls now and was sucking harder, using her tongue, bringing him slowly to the verge of climax. Just as she felt him losing control of both himself and the gun in his hand, she bit down as hard as she could and tried to pull his balls off at the same time. Johnny screamed in agony and dropped the gun. The head of his penis had been bitten completely off and his scrotum was ripped and bleeding. Johnny grabbed his hemorrhaging, headless penis while Tataya grabbed the gun he dropped and spit the head of his penis in his face. “Now you’re mine, you son of a bitch.” She told Johnny as she shot a glance at Benny who seemed to be frozen in shock. # Colon listened to Dipsy’s running account of what was happening leading up to the turning of the worm, trying to think of some way to stop it. He was about ready to start yelling himself in the hope it might break things up when he heard Johnny’s terrible scream. “Damn, man, I think she just bit his prick off! Now she’s got the gun. Man, that sucker is hurting; he’s bleeding all over the place. The big dude’s just standing there. She’s pointing the gun at him now, making him move over next to the other guy. What the hell’s she doing now? Oh, now she’s got the other gun too. Those dudes are in big trouble man, and don’t you even think about trying to stop it. They deserve whatever they get. All that shit down there is justice if I ever saw it.” Dipsy stated.

- 137 -

Colon wasn’t so sure it was justice taking place below, but whatever it was he was not about to interfere in any way. Whatever happened to any of the three was the result of their own doing. “Now she’s making the big dude take off his clothes.” Dipsy continued his play by play. “He looks scared shitless. Man, he is a big dude too, not really fat, just big. Now she’s got him ripping the clothes off the other dude. Man, he is in real agony. Now what the hell is she going to do with them? Oh, I see, she’s thinking, making them lay face down in the dirt, keeping them helpless. Damn, she’s putting her shirt back on; what a shame; she does have some nice tits. Now the jeans, oh well, so much for the peep show. Now what the hell? She’s poking the injured dude with a stick. Okay, I see, she’s making him tie the big guy’s hands behind his back with a belt. Man, he is hurting. Ow, damn, she poked him in the balls with the stick. Now she’s got him face down again, and she’s tying his hands behind his back with another belt, got that stick ready to shove up his ass too if he tries anything. That is a mean woman, man. I think those dudes are about to pay for their jollies with a lot of pain.” Dipsy was exactly right about that. As he continued to give a running account to Colon, he watched Tataya eventually get the two brothers tied hand, foot and neck to different trees. They were now completely at her mercy, and she had none for them. After stuffing their socks in their mouths to keep them from screaming, Tataya subjected the brothers to more than an hour of horrible pain, until death released them from her revenge. She left their mutilated bodies in a gully for the scavengers and was gone. Dipsy had put down the binoculars shortly after the tortures began, as horrified by what was happening below as by anything he had seen in Nam. She might have a very

- 138 -

beautiful body, but she certainly had a very evil, ugly soul. The two men she tortured to death had known her; they should have realized what kind of devil they were dealing with. The Raven brothers brought on their own fate. Once Tataya was gone, Dipsy and Colon returned to their van, changed the shot out tire as quickly as they could, then tried to obliterate any traces of themselves or the van being there. They drove away from the site in the opposite direction from the murderess, leaving the bodies in the shrub filled gully she left them. They hoped to see no one on the lonely dirt road ahead. Tataya drove down out of the dark forest to the misty brightness of the ocean in an odd state of euphoria. She had never killed before, but she had always known she could if the need arose. Now she had not only killed, she had also tortured her cousins to death, and she felt no remorse, only a sense of accomplishment. It was as if she had hit her first major league home run, or had finally satisfied a longtime desire. Tataya also felt in complete control of herself, calm, rational, confident she would never be caught. Her cousins’ bodies might never be found where she left them, and Tataya was sure nobody would miss either of the brothers enough to want them found. Their customers were probably the only ones who would realize they were missing, and most of them would be glad they were. As far as Dipsy and Colon were concerned, it was unlikely they could tell anyone what they had seen, if they saw it at all. The Jeep was the biggest potential problem since it was registered in Johnny’s name, and if it turned up in the wrong place the cops might go looking for Johnny, though she doubted they would be able to find him where she left him. Still, she had often been seen with both Johnny and Benny, and she

- 139 -

didn’t want to have to answer any questions about anything. Maybe she should disappear too, with the Jeep, or maybe she should dump the Jeep first? Tataya was nearly back on Route One, deep in consideration of her options, when she passed the brown pick-up headed in the direction she just came from.

Chapter 8. Convergence

On her way out of the Oaks Card Club, Victoria noticed the rack of complimentary Card Player magazines and picked one up, remembering how Lee always kept the latest copy around. In the Tournament Trail section in the back she learned there was a major tournament scheduled at the Peppermill Casino in Reno beginning the end of the week. What better place and time to look for Lee Meadow? The tournament began on Friday and ended nine days later. Victoria had to work the week in between so she booked herself a room for both the beginning and ending weekends. If she didn’t see him the first weekend, maybe she would the last, when the no-limit event was being held?. The rest of Victoria’s workweek seemed to take forever. Her mind cautioned her heart not to be so optimistic, but her heart kept insisting Lee would be there. She arranged to leave work early that Friday, and was over the summit in time to see the lowering sun softening the harsh light of the high desert. The high, wispy clouds reflected pinks darkening to purples in their farewell to the sun, and a glittering Reno suddenly greeted Victoria after she rounded a bend in interstate eighty. #

- 140 -

That same sunset meant nothing to Donald Merkle; it was something he could not control and he usually paid little attention to such things. He gave no thought to the natural beauty taking place outside as he searched the Peppermill tournament area for Victoria. He searched the faces of the players too, trying to figure out which was the one she had left him for. Merkle felt certain the man who stole Victoria from him was here, now, playing poker. He was also pretty sure he’d know him when he saw him. # From atop some favorite rocks on the ocean side of Roundtop, Lee Meadow watched the same sunset as he considered many things, including whether to drive to Reno for the tournament that had started at the Peppermill that day. He had intended to play and had even booked a room, which they were still holding for him, but he didn’t know if he could get his mind off of Victoria and on to poker. Lee had four basic rules he always reminded himself to follow before he played, using the Russian initials for the old Soviet Union to trigger his memory: confidence, concentration, consistency and patience. If he thought he was lacking in any of the four he did not play. It was a two hundred and twenty mile drive to the Peppermill, or about a hundred and seventy miles as the Steller’s Jay flies, a three hour drive at least. If he couldn’t play, why go? Lee had wanted to talk to Cassandra to help him decide, but she had not been in her aerie since she told him of her plans for Victoria. If Cassandra found Victoria first, would she take her out of his life forever? Would she even tell him? How could he concentrate on poker with all that so up in the air? The old woman had never answered many of Lee’s questions and it worried him considerably. He suspected he had seen only the very tip of Cassandra’s powers.

- 141 -

What are you staying here for, he asked himself? Victoria will not just come to you or she would have already, unless she cannot find you. If that’s the case, go where the poker is; that is where she would look for you if she is looking. By ten o’clock Lee was on his way, cruising across the Carquinez Bridge to the sound of the mighty Zeppelin. He figured to check into the Peppermill about one in the morning. # At the same time Lee was crossing the bridge, Victoria was letting herself into her room at the Peppermill. When she checked in at the desk she asked if they had a Lee Meadow registered there, and was told they had a reservation under that name but the party had not yet checked in. This news had Victoria very excited. Lee was coming, he might even be here already, just not yet checked in. She left a note with a “Love, Victoria” signature for him at the desk, hoping he still felt the same way about her, then went to her room to anxiously await his call. Two hours and a room service dinner later, Victoria could wait no longer, her adrenaline was flowing too freely. Lee might be playing poker downstairs right now, seven floors below her, and she had to go see if he was there. # When Donald Merkle lived in the dorms back in college he played poker a couple of times a week and was a winning player in that circle. Hold ‘em was one of the more popular games played, and with the Peppermill’s opening day tournament being hold ‘em, he found it easy to follow the action. By the time Victoria had finished her dinner

- 142 -

and decided to come down and look for Lee, Donald Merkle had become interested both in the tournament itself, and in one of the players in particular. There were four tables left, just over thirty players remaining of the nearly two hundred who entered. Only the final two tables, twenty players, would be paid. One of the players remaining was a beautiful dark-haired woman who looked to be in her midtwenties or so. When Merkle arrived shortly after the start of the tournament he was surprised to see so many women playing, as many as thirty or forty, and more than a couple of them looked good. One in particular was positively beautiful. The more he looked at her the more he wanted to look at her, and the more he did the less he thought of Victoria. This girl acted and dressed like a lady. She would know how to keep a man happy, how to make him the master of his home. Frankie Speciale had noticed Merkle staring at her when she returned to her seat after the first break, two hours into the tournament. She had become so used to being looked at all the time that she often barely noticed, but Merkle looked pretty good himself and dressed expensively and well. Those were the kind of things Frankie noticed but she couldn’t let herself be distracted when she was playing. Poker, as always, was her primary concern. Her first order of business was to get into the money, and second to finish as high as possible. Anything else was way down the list right then. Frankie focused her concentration on poker; playing her best was not only essential, it was more thrilling than sex. It always had been. It was a crucial time for Frankie. With her bankroll down to almost nothing she badly needed to cash in this tournament, and she was getting very close to doing so. There were only about twelve or thirteen more people left between her and getting into

- 143 -

the money, but she had seen little in the ways of hands the past hour and the stack she had built up with a nice run earlier was dwindling. At the beginning of this round she thought she had enough chips to rock it out to a payday, play nothing but aces, kings and queens, but that was probably not possible anymore. In six minutes they would raise the limits again, just about the time the big blind would get back to her. If she didn’t win a pot or two soon Frankie would end up playing over eight hours of her best poker only to lose two hundred and twenty dollars. She squirmed and threw away another eight-three offsuit. After throwing three more unplayable hands into the muck Frankie found herself immediately to the left of the big blind when the limits were raised again. The blinds were now five hundred and a thousand and she had only sixty-five hundred in chips, enough to get her through four sets of blinds if she didn’t play a hand. As she tried to loosen the tightness in her neck Frankie looked around to see Merkle still staring at her. Their eyes met for a moment and he winked at her. Frankie frowned, looked down at the cards just dealt her, and saw the two red aces, the first time that day she held pocket rockets. For an instant she thought about flat calling rather than risk winning only the blinds with a raise, but that could be suicide. “Raise.” She said, pushing nearly a third of her remaining chips into the pot. # Victoria entered the tournament area hoping to see Lee Meadow, but instead saw Donald Merkle, the one man she least wanted to see. Fortunately his attention was on a very pretty, vaguely familiar young woman still in the tournament, and it did not appear he was aware of Victoria. From behind some slot machines, where Merkle couldn’t easily

- 144 -

see her, Victoria kept an eye on him as she continued to search for Lee. When she didn’t see Lee anywhere she decided the best thing to do was go back to her room and wait for Lee to check in and call her, but what if Merkle had checked at the desk and knew she was registered there? To have learned anything he would have had to check during the past couple of hours since Victoria had not made an advance reservation. She had been mad at herself at check-in when she found out how much more money not making a reservation was going to cost her, but now she was glad she hadn’t. She hurried up to her room and called the front desk to instruct them to change the name the room was registered under to Mary Jane Falls. # It was fold, fold, then a call from the biggest stack at the table, another fold, then a raise from the player immediately to the right of the button, a player with a stack almost as short as Frankie’s. The button and blinds folded and it was back to Frankie. “Reraise.” She announced throwing two more thousand dollar tournament chips into the pot. The big stack who had flat called her raise looked at his two cards, showed them to the player to his right, then threw them in the muck. Good, Frankie thought to herself, one less to draw out on me. “Reraise,” came the response from the only player left in the pot with her. What could he have, Frankie thought to herself, the two black aces? How could he reraise with anything less? She looked down at her chips, twenty-five hundred left. What did it matter, they were all going in on this hand anyhow? At least he couldn’t be ahead of her at this point.

- 145 -

“Reraise.” She said again, throwing in the two thousand dollar chips and holding up the lone five hundred dollar chip left for him to see. “Okay, you got it, raise.” He replied, throwing in three five hundred dollar chips, leaving him with only four more. Frankie threw her remaining chip into the pot then turned over her pocket aces. “Damn!” The other player exclaimed, turning up his pocket kings and standing. Seeing the pocket kings gave Frankie a rush. She was a huge favorite; he was dead to the two remaining kings. Just don’t flop a king, she implored. The flop was garbage, just what Frankie thought she needed, but there were two spades. The turn card wasn’t a king, but it was a third spade, and one of the kings her opponent held was a spade. One card to come, and now he had eleven outs, two kings and nine spades. The other thirtythree cards would bring the pot to Frankie and she would be back in business. The last card was the ace of spades. The standing player yelled, “Yes!” A few of the players at the table and several of the spectators actually gasped. Frankie could only stare at the black ace in disbelief. She was a huge favorite before the flop and a three to one favorite with one card coming, and now she was gone. How could such things happen to her, especially when she needed the money so badly? It’s poker, she told herself, but that was no consolation. Donald Merkle looked at the shock on Frankie’s beautiful face and wondered how he could turn it to his benefit. He watched her rise from the table in a trance-like state, deaf to what those around her were saying. Frankie drifted into the spectators, wondering whether to stay or go, when she felt Donald’s hand on her shoulder. She had forgotten all

- 146 -

about him in her shock and it took her a couple of moments to recognize him after turning to face him. “Sorry about that.” He told her. “You winked at me. Did you know I had pocket aces?” She asked. “No, that was just coincidence. I was just winking to get your attention.” He told her. “Well, you got it, but not for long. Who the hell are you and what do you want? I’m not in the best of moods right now.” Frankie told him, surprising herself with her tone. Normally she would flirt with anyone who looked as good as he did. “My name is Donald and I’d like to offer to buy you a drink, or dinner if you like, maybe take your mind off what just happened, or you can bitch to me about the injustice of it all if you prefer.” He offered. “You’re on. I’m famished and I know just where to go.” She told him. # When Lee finally checked into the Peppermill nearly an hour past midnight, tired from the drive and the late hour, he was given the note left for him by Victoria. In the seconds it took him to read the few lines Victoria had written everything changed. His attitude suddenly leapt from slightly depressed to elated. Victoria was here, now, wanting to see him, signing her name with the word “love”. While he had been moping around confused and indecisive, Victoria had been looking for him, and had somehow managed to find him.

- 147 -

Lee looked at his watch; maybe he should wait until the morning? No, he decided to call her as soon as he got to his room, but on the way to the elevators he saw Cassandra sitting at a slot machine, waiting for him. “Cassandra?” Lee questioned in his surprise. “Yes, of course. Who else looks anything like me?” She answered. “But what are you doing here? How did you get here?” Lee asked, his brow furrowed as he tried to figure out the answers to his own questions. “I got here; I have my ways. And you should know why I am here. I believe you have a note from her.” Cassandra told him. Lee Meadow looked deep into Cassandra’s eyes, trying to read her, trying to decide what kind of position he should take. He wanted Victoria too, and he didn’t think he wanted to share her with Cassandra and her mysticism. “I understand your concerns, and I think we should talk.” Cassandra told him before he could speak. “Okay. My room okay?” He asked. “It will do. This won’t take long. I know you are very anxious to see Victoria. So am I.” Cassandra told him on the elevator ride up. “You haven’t seen her yet?” Lee asked. “I’ve seen her; I haven’t talked to her yet though. I wanted to talk to you first.” She answered. As soon as he closed the door of his room behind her, Cassandra began to talk. She told Lee he did not have to fear she would take Victoria from him.

- 148 -

“If she decides to become my successor she will need you even more. She will need a strong, understanding lover while she is learning. I cannot tell you all the reasons why, but take my word for it: if she accepts me, you will benefit greatly. From your standpoint, and the standpoint of your relationship with Victoria, the positives of her joining me far outweigh the negatives.” Cassandra told him. “There are negatives then?” Lee asked. “Yes, maybe. You might not even consider them negatives.” The old woman answered. “Can you give me an example or two?” “There is the time involved. I will require a fair amount of her time, especially while she is absorbing what she needs, but not half as much time as a full time job. It would not be a daily thing either, but would come in blocks and spurts.” Cassandra told him. “And how long would this absorbing period be?” Lee asked. “Three cycles,” was the reply. “Three cycles? How long is a cycle?” “Fourteen years.” Cassandra told him. “Fourteen years! You mean she’ll be in training for forty-two years?” Lee asked in disbelief. “Yes, in a manner of speaking, but she will age so slowly over that time it will not be noticeable, and she will still be in her sexual prime long after those three cycles. Training is not the right word though; absorbing is the closest English can come.” Cassandra informed him.

- 149 -

“But I’ll be over eighty by then, well past my sexual prime.” Lee countered. “That is true, but you too will also age a bit slower because of your contact with Victoria, not nearly as slow as she, but slower than you are now. In three cycles time you will probably feel and look more like you’re in your late sixties than your mid eighties.” “Really?” Lee asked. “Really.” She assured him. “I told you would benefit too.” “What if she doesn’t want to do it?” “Then I will have to find someone else.” Cassandra told him. “What can I say? The decision is Victoria’s anyway, but I’m glad you talked to me first.” Lee told her. “There is more I need to tell you. The evil woman Tataya is here in Reno, and she is someone you need to be aware of. She has killed recently, I believe for the first time, but I also believe she will kill again.” Cassandra told him. “Who? She didn’t kill Colon and Dipsy, did she?” Lee implored. “No, they are healthy and well. It is they who witnessed the murders of the two Raven brothers who travel with her.” Cassandra informed him. “Those two guys? Why did she do it? How did she do it? One of those guys is huge.” Lee just couldn’t picture it. “Tataya is very capable, very cunning, and is probably even more so now that she has taken life. The three were after Dipsy and Colon when the two men apparently decided to rape Tataya. That was a very stupid mistake, but neither of the brothers ever was particularly bright. Colon wouldn’t talk about it, but Dipsy told me she managed to get the advantage, tied them to trees, then tortured them to death.” Cassandra related.

- 150 -

“She tortured them to death, how?” Lee wondered. “Dipsy said it was with a knife and a sharpened stick. He didn’t go into greater detail, and I didn’t want to know any more than that.” Cassandra concluded. “Is she a danger to Victoria, to us?” Lee asked. “She is a danger to anyone who comes in contact with her. I am almost certain she does not know I am here, and I am sure she does not yet know who Victoria is. You, I don’t know. Did she see you when you were following her?” Cassandra asked. “I don’t think so, only from a distance, inside the car. I doubt very much she got a good look at my face. I can’t imagine she would recognize me.” Lee told her. “You would recognize her though?” Cassandra asked. “Yes.” Lee replied. “Then keep your eyes open for her, and if you see her try not to let her see you. It would be much better if we can avoid her altogether.” “Are you going to tell Victoria about Tataya?” Lee asked. “Of course. She will have to know all I know of her.” Cassandra replied. “Now it is time for you to go to her. The two of you have waited a long time to be together again. We will meet and discuss everything tomorrow, at sunset. There is a road south of here, leading to Virginia City, in the mountains.” “I known the road.” Lee told her. “Good, do you also know the little scenic view park on the way there?” She asked. “I think so. It’s got some great rocks to sit and watch the sunset from.” Lee answered.

- 151 -

“That’s the place. That is where I’ll meet the two of you, on the rocks far down the path, not the first group. Meet me there before sunset, when the sun’s light softens and shadows become long. I will be waiting for you, for her. Now, you go to her.” Cassandra told him and then was out the door so swiftly and silently it was almost as if she had vanished. Victoria Falls Steller was in a deep sleep, lost in a dream, when the phone rang. She wished it to stop, trying to hang on to her sleep and her dream, but by the third ring she had wakened enough to realize it might be Lee. As she reached to answer the phone Victoria suddenly feared it might be Donald Merkle on the other end. She hesitated only a second or two before answering the phone. It was a glorious night for both Lee and Victoria. What they had before had grown stronger, as if they had never been apart and had been lovers all along. Their bodies and souls rejoiced in reunion, comfortable and thrilled in pleasures remembered and found. When two people are in love, familiarity will breed passion rather than contempt. Over breakfast in the morning Victoria told Lee about Donald Merkle and her history with him, and that he was here and she was afraid. He told her not to be, that he would protect her, but he hoped to himself the need would never arise. Poker used to be Lee’s only worry, now it was the least of several worries. He told Victoria of Cassandra, but very little. Sunset would be soon enough, and Cassandra could tell her then of the evil Tataya. # Frankie Speciale’s dinner with Donald Merkle was anything but glorious. Impressed at first by his good looks and apparent prosperity, she thought at first she

- 152 -

might have stumbled upon something good, but that feeling was gone before the appetizers. Frankie had been hit on by all sorts of men in all sorts of ways and could discern the jerks quickly. She could always tell when men wanted only sex and nothing more, which was most of the time, but that in itself seldom bothered her. Sex was often all she desired from a man anyway as poker was her true love. There was something in Merkle’s attitude however that triggered her jerk alarm and turned her completely off. He wanted to possess her rather than enjoy sex with her, and that she did not want. Frankie enjoyed exchanges of passion and physical pleasure, but despised being used as a sexual toy. To her that was an abuse of the glories of sexuality. It was not necessary for a man to respect Frankie’s mind to be in her sexual favor, but he did have to respect her sexuality and Frankie could read no respect for her or her sexuality in Merkle’s attitude. Some men would rather rape or ravish a woman than have her give herself willingly. Long before dinner was over Frankie was convinced Merkle was such a man. She tried to make it clear to him dinner was all she was going to share with him that night or any night, but Merkle seemed oblivious. As far as he was concerned her acceptance of his dinner offer implied sexual acceptance. They had eaten in the top floor restaurant of Harrah’s, the hotel where Merkle was staying though Frankie was not aware of it when she picked the restaurant. When he pushed the tenth floor button in the elevator Frankie asked him why. “Because that’s where my room is.” He told her. “You think I’m going to your room with you?” She responded. “Of course, we both want the same thing.” He declared.

- 153 -

“Then you must want to go to sleep by yourself because that is what I want to do.” She informed him. “Now don’t be like that. I didn’t buy you dinner just to watch you eat.” He insisted. “I don’t know what you think you bought with dinner, but it certainly isn’t me. I’m not for sale.” She told him in her firmest voice. “How about for rent then, for the night, I’ll give you the two hundred and twenty dollars you lost today.” He offered. A bomb of insult exploded in Frankie. Two hundred and twenty dollars! She had made more than that in a day dealing poker, much more playing poker, and had been offered as much as a thousand for her sexual favors on a couple of occasions. She had always turned such offers down too though she had been badly tempted once when she was completely broke. A thousand dollars was a lot of money when you had none, but Frankie’s pride had always been worth far more to her than money. She was beginning to hate Donald Merkle and was starting to wonder how she could profit from his arrogance. Would it be worth the risk to try? “Two hundred is a joke. I’m worth at least two thousand.” She told him The elevator stopped at the tenth floor and the doors opened; nobody was there. Donald held the doors open for Frankie as he spoke. “Two thousand is ridiculous, five hundred.” He counteroffered. “If that’s all you think I’m worth you can get out now and I’ll continue on my way.” She declared.

- 154 -

Merkle looked at her but didn’t move. She looked so good, and he wanted her so badly. Two thousand wasn’t really all that much money to him, but it was the principle more than it was the money itself. Frankie was wearing a fairly tight skirt hemmed two inches above her knees. This she now raised up high enough to show the sheer light green thong she was wearing. “You don’t think this is worth two grand?” She asked as she wondered to herself what the hell she was doing, much like she did whenever she tried a desperation bluff she knew would be called. “How about this?” She added, slowly turning around to show him her beautiful, nearly bare ass. By now Donald Merkle was so completely aroused the only thinking he could do was with his little head. Frankie looked so good she was all he could see. Donald wanted her and nothing else much mattered at that point. She lowered her skirt. “Push the button for the casino, please.” She told him. “Okay, two thousand; I have the money in my room.” He agreed, still holding the elevator doors open. Now what have I gotten myself into? Frankie wondered as she stepped out of the elevator. “What’s your room number? I want to see the cash first.” Frankie told him as she tried to figure out how she might get the money without giving anything in return. Merkle’s room was close to the elevators. He unlocked the door and held it open for her to enter first.

- 155 -

“After you.” She told Merkle, then followed him inside. When he moved to reach around her and lock the door, Frankie told him not to bother until he came up with the two grand. “You’ll get it after I get it.” He told her and roughly pulled her into the room, then bolted and chained the door. The situation was getting serious, as Frankie had feared it might, and she quickly weighed her options. Boys and men had been after Frankie’s body ever since she began blossoming into a beauty in her mid teens, and after one boy became very rough in trying to force himself on her the sixteen year old Frankie joined a martial arts school the very next day. Sex was always going to be on her terms or not at all. “I just want to be sure you have the money.” She told him in a meek, slightly scared voice that made him feel confident of his physical superiority and her submissiveness. “I have it, and if you want it you better be very very good.” He told her, then pulled her to him. That was just the opening Frankie needed; she brought her right foot down hard, two-inch cleated-heel first, on Merkle’s left instep. He screamed and hopped, then felt an explosion of pain in his testicles. Merkle’s brain went black as nausea flooded his insides. When he gained consciousness he found himself and his empty wallet in his own vomit. In the shower Merkle thought of revenge. As she rode the elevator to the casino level Frankie also thought about the possibility of Merkle seeking revenge, or possibly even going to the police. She figured he was very unlikely to do the latter since he had no proof and would probably be embarrassed by the truth, but he was probably the type to want revenge. Frankie wasn’t

- 156 -

overly concerned though. She knew lots of people in the poker community, included a few who would gladly break an arm or a leg for a fraction of the eight hundred and sixtythree dollars she took from Donald Merkle’s wallet. Only yesterday, when she went to check out the poker action at the Hilton, Frankie noticed the sexy Indian loan shark she knew from when she dealt at Cache Creek a couple of months the year before last. She couldn’t remember the woman’s name, but she did remember she had two collectors working for her, both mean, one huge. Frankie doubted Merkle would be much of a problem, but she intended to stay alert all the same. # Victoria and Lee were a couple again in their hearts as soon as they spoke on the phone. After spending that first night in Victoria’s bed, they moved into Lee’s room after Victoria told him about Merkle. Merkle worried Lee. He had not been in a fight since high school and did not want to have to physically protect Victoria, though he would certainly try if it came to that. Lee told her the tournament wasn’t that important, though now that his lucky charm was with him he really wanted to play in it. He told her it would probably be safest to check out and return to Oakland the next day, or maybe even that night, depending on their sunset meeting with Cassandra. About Cassandra and the meeting, Lee told Victoria very little. What could he say that wouldn’t make her think he was crazy? Would she think Cassandra was crazy when she met her and heard what the old woman was offering? What did it matter what he said and did? It was all up to Victoria and Cassandra now. He felt like a pawn, or perhaps more appropriately, a drone bee. Lee just hoped he wouldn’t be used up and discarded like the male insect was when his usefulness ended. According to Cassandra that would

- 157 -

not happen, and Lee trusted her. She had never given him a reason not to, and in reality, what other options did he have? He knew in his soul it was all going to happen with or without him. For her part Victoria was as confused as a bloodhound with a head cold. Who was this Cassandra and what did she need to talk to her about? Lee told Victoria only that she was very old and very wise in the ways of nature. That intrigued Victoria who considered herself a spiritual daughter of Gaia, the earth mother. Was this woman a priestess and a seer like her Trojan namesake? If so, what did she have to tell Victoria? And where did Lee Meadow figure in all of this? Victoria’s heart did not doubt Lee loved her, or she him, but she could also sense his apprehension and doubt. Doubt over what, she didn’t know. Victoria was not the type to push for information; she would wait until sunset. They made love again that morning, then spent a glorious, crisp, sunny day driving over Mount Rose down into the Lake Tahoe basin. It was the first time Victoria had seen Lake Tahoe coming from that direction, and it looked to her like the soul of Gaia herself. After a picnic lunch on the shore of the crystal clear lake, they drove back up and over the Carson Range down into the valley, then back up the mountain leading to Virginia City. It was a good hour before sunset when they reached the picnic area where they were to meet Cassandra. The mountain air was cool and growing cooler with the lowering sun, the late afternoon light was vivid and deepening. Perched on the rock gateway near the parking area, watching the two lovers as they approached, was a Steller’s Jay, royal blue in the clear, soft light. Lee stopped when he saw the jay and pointed it out to Victoria, who had seen the bird before Lee did but had said nothing.

- 158 -

“Your namesake.” He said, pointing at the bird. “In a way, I suppose.” She answered. Just then the jay rose into the air, allowing the marvelous blue of its back and wings to catch the rays of the sun perfectly as it flew to the top of the first rock formation. “Such a beautiful creature.” Victoria said, more to herself than to Lee. “Yes, so too are you.” Lee told her. Victoria smiled. It was so corny, and yet she liked it, especially since she knew few people would consider her beautiful. Cute was usually the most she could expect. Love itself was corny, she decided. “Thank you, you are too, for a human, but compared to such creatures as that, we are very drab indeed.” Victoria replied. Lee could think of no response, nor did he really want to. The jay continued to watch them as they walked down the path leading past this first group of rocks and down to where they were to meet Cassandra. When Victoria looked up at the jay again it squawked twice before again rising into the sunlight in a dazzling blue display, disappearing in the direction they were going. When they reached the rocks at the end of the path Cassandra was already there waiting for them, facing the west, her back against the sun-warmed rocks, hidden from their view as they approached, unseen until she spoke. “Happy sunset, Victoria and Lee.” She said softly so as not to startle them, but still she did, a little. The three talked of sunsets and mountains and lakes for a little while before Cassandra asked Lee to wait for Victoria back at the first group of rocks. From atop those

- 159 -

he would have a good view of much of the path Victoria would take back to him. Once perched on the highest of the rocks, his eyes continuously darting to the path, Lee watched the sun snuggle behind the mountains, the sky above turn from rose to purple. It seemed a very long time, and the air was growing cold, and so too was Lee. He considered returning to the car to wait, but he didn’t want to take his eyes off the path, plus Cassandra had told him to wait at the rocks, probably for a reason. Once the sun was behind the mountains darkness came quickly, leaving the path difficult to see. Lee grew impatient and worried, and was beginning to wonder if the two women had changed into birds and flown away. He was just about to head back down the path himself when he saw Victoria returning, alone. Lee scrambled down off the rocks to meet her. Victoria was walking slow, appearing lost in her own thoughts, but when she saw Lee she smiled and held out her arms to him. He ran to her and they embraced, silently at first, then Lee whispered. “I love you, Victoria. I was getting worried, are you okay?” “Yes, I am, and I love you too, Lee.” She answered. They held each other in silence for several moments before Lee spoke again. “Where’s Cassandra?” He asked. “Where she wants to be.” Victoria answered. Lee looked at Victoria and read in her expression that he should ask no more questions. He didn’t. When they returned to the parking area Lee’s Prelude was the only car there. He wondered how Cassandra had gotten there, and how she would get back, but he said nothing. Perhaps Cassandra truly was a bird, or could change herself into one; it was seeming more possible all the time. She did, after all, live in an aerie. Victoria

- 160 -

remained silent the entire ride back to the Peppermill, her thoughts far away. Lee left her to her mental travels until they were almost to the hotel. “Are you hungry? Do you want to go eat or just go back to the room, or what?” He asked her. She started as if she had been wakened from a trance. “Oh, we’re here. No, I’m not hungry, I don’t think. We should go back to the room; I need to talk to you.” She told him. Lee parked the car, and as they walked through the cool night air to the casino together Victoria suddenly remembered Merkle. He was the last person she wanted to see now, or probably anytime. “I’m worried about Merkle, I’ll kind of hide behind you, you keep your eyes open for him.” Victoria told Lee. “I don’t know what he looks like.” He answered. “That’s right, you don’t. I’ll have to watch for him then; if I see him I’ll point him out to you.” She replied. “What does he look like, big, small, dark hair, what?” Lee asked. “He’s pretty tall, six-one, I think, and he works out regularly so he’s fairly buff. He has sandy hair, medium length, and he usually dresses like a cover model for GQ. That’s actually what he looks like, a male model for GQ.” She told him. # Francesca Speciale had also been keeping on the alert for Donald Merkle. She played in the next day’s tournament, Omaha-split, and got all sorts of cards to play, but played terribly and knew it. Her attention was not there, not on poker, but rather was on

- 161 -

what had happened the night before, and on what might yet happen. Frankie had been watching for Merkle so intently she barely paid attention to the game, yet she got such great cards she lasted past the dinner break, barely aware she had done so. She ate at the special players’ buffet with a couple of friends who were also still in the tournament, talking poker with them in an attempt to get her head back into the game, but when she returned to the tables her attention returned to the spectators. When play resumed Frankie stopped getting such great cards and was out before the round was over, leaving her feeling strangely more relieved than disappointed. Frankie had stole before, but it had always been on the sly and she never physically hurt somebody for money before. But it wasn’t the immorality of the act that bothered her; it was the possible consequences. The money she was glad to have, and she had no doubt Merkle got no more than what he deserved. Frankie considered playing in a side game when she went out, but that would just be giving money away and she knew it. Then she started thinking maybe the best thing to do was to just take off, get the hell out of Reno before that asshole can even find her. There was really no good reason for her to stay, and a couple very good reasons to leave. When she got to the elevators she saw Lee pushing the button with one hand while holding Victoria’s hand with the other. That’s the same one he was with in Vegas, they must be a couple. I haven’t seen him since then; I wonder what he’s been doing? He had a big score; maybe they’ve been on a honeymoon or something. Oh well, another good man taken. Frankie thought to herself as she approached the elevators. Lee looked up at her coming and his face showed

- 162 -

recognition. He nodded, Frankie nodded back, and the elevator doors opened for the three of them to step in. “Have you been playing in the tournaments?” Frankie asked him in the elevator. “No, not yet. How about you.” Lee answered. “I have, and I’ve gotten past the dinner break both days, but haven’t been able to cash. I just went out now.” She told him. “Tournaments are tough, you have to beat a lot of players to win any money at all.” He responded. “Yeah, I know. I got some cards today too, I just didn’t play very well, didn’t deserve to win.” Frankie admitted. “At least you know you didn’t play well, sometimes that’s the first step to playing better.” Lee added. “If you play bad you should lose, right? This is my floor. Good luck.” Frankie told Lee and smiled at Victoria. “You too.” Lee wished her as she left the elevator. “That’s a very pretty girl, a friend of yours?” Victoria asked, then quickly added, “don’t worry, I’m not jealous, just curious.” “She’s just a poker acquaintance. She used to deal at Artichoke Joe’s or someplace like that. Her name is Frankie, I think.” He answered. “She has the hots for you, you know.” Victoria told him. “Really? I doubt it. She could just about have her pick of men.” Lee opined. “I’m sure she could, but she wants you, take my word for it.” Victoria replied.

- 163 -

“Well she can’t have me, not as long as I have you anyhow.” Lee tried to assure her just in case she was jealous. Victoria looked at him intently, but said nothing. Lee was ready to talk when they got back to the room, but Victoria wanted to make love instead. As they lay in each other’s arms afterwards Lee asked if she wanted to return to Oakland the next day, to avoid Merkle. Victoria agreed that it would be a good idea to avoid Merkle, plus she had to return to work in San Francisco on Monday. “You don’t have to go back to work if you don’t want to, I have enough money for both of us. I’ll pay your rent where you are, or you can come live with me.” Lee told her. “Thanks, but I actually like what I’m doing, and I couldn’t just quit suddenly like that. They’re good people I work for; I want to give them sufficient notice. Besides, I am probably going to live in the aerie; that I am definitely anxious to see.” Victoria responded. “You’re going to live in the aerie, with Cassandra?” Lee asked. “Probably, but I’ll tell you more about that later, when the time comes. Right now all you really need to know is that we have to be back here next weekend, for the final tournament.” She told him. “We do?” Lee asked. “Well, I’m not so sure ‘have to’ is the right phrase. What Cassandra said is she expects you to play in the no-limit event.” “Cassandra wants me to play in the no-limit tournament?” Lee inquired. “She said she expects you to play in it, and she expects me to be there to sweat you.” She replied.

- 164 -

“She expects me to play?” Lee asked. “That’s what she said.” Victoria answered. “Did she say why?” He asked. “No, but you know Cassandra well enough to know she has a reason.” She told him. “Yes, with Cassandra I believe there is a reason for everything. What did you think of her? How was your meeting?” Lee finally asked, hoping Victoria was now ready to confide in him. Victoria looked at Lee a long time without saying anything. Lee held her gaze, studying her face and saying nothing himself as he awaited her reply. She looked somehow different to him now, younger it seemed, yet wiser at the same time. Her clear, kind, hazel-green eyes appeared even brighter and clearer than before, deeper too, and the skin of her face glowed softly. She reached out and touched her hand to Lee’s cheek before finally speaking. “It was very interesting, and so was she.” Victoria told him. “Do you want to talk to me about it?” He asked. “No, not now, in the future sometime. Cassandra told me you know all you need to know for now.” She answered. “Are you going with her?” Lee wanted to know. “I agree with Cassandra in that you know all you need to know for now. Be patient, I will discuss it with you when I understand it better myself. Isn’t patience one of your chief assets on the poker table? Use it here too. Wait until the final event is over; much should be clearer then. Now, please, no more questions. Let’s sleep.” She told him.

- 165 -

# When Tataya passed the pickup truck entering the forest as she was leaving it, she wondered if she should turn around and follow. And do what, kill them if they find the bodies? No, that would be stupid. They have almost no chance of finding them, even if they were looking. No, get the hell out of here, as far away as possible, then dump the damn Jeep. When she got back to route One Tataya turned north and continued up the coast, not sure where she was headed or what she was going to do. What she was sure of was how good she felt, possibly more alive than ever before. Did she have to kill to feel alive? Tataya wondered if she was going to have to kill again. She hoped she would. Tataya originally intended to drive to a secluded area of the coast, or perhaps an inland canyon, someplace she could run the Cherokee off a cliff or the like where it might never be found, but the more she thought about it the more risky such a plan seemed. If she chose the wrong place and the Jeep was found it could be traced back to Johnny, then back to her. Plus if she dumped the Jeep in a remote area she would have to bring a motorcycle or some other means of transportation with her to get away on. Tataya did not want to go to jail, that much was certain; she would rather die than be locked up for any considerable length of time. As she continued to travel north, dumping the SUV was seeming less desirable all the time, but how else could she get rid of it. She couldn’t just sell it, at least not legally, especially with the registration in Johnny’s name. To do so illegally would be taking a big chance, but then she remembered a fence in Seattle who bought stolen cars and shipped them out of country. Twice in the past she had sent cars to him that were stolen to pay off a loan, and both times she got her money without a hitch

- 166 -

or any bad repercussions. She could probably get as much as ten thousand for the top of the line Cherokee, which had cost almost forty less than a year ago, and the money would come in handy. Tataya had access to almost seventy thousand dollars in total, but the money was in several different places and she had less than five thousand with her. When she reached the outskirts of Seattle Tataya beeped the fence from a pay phone, not wanting to risk using her cell phone. Her last dealing with him was last spring and for all she knew he had been busted in that time and the cops were answering his beeper. She didn’t have to wait long for the callback. “Somebody paged me?” A voice asked as soon as Tataya answered the phone. “Yes, I did.” She answered. “Do we know each other by sight?” He asked. “Yes.” She answered. “How many times?” The fence asked. “Twice.” Tataya told him. “I think I know who you are. Do you know Longacres Race Track?” “I can find it.” “Where are you now?” “Just off Route 5, I just passed 518, I think.” She told him. “Perfect, you’re right there. Go back to 518 and take it toward Renton, you’ll see signs for the track right away. Park in the C lot and I’ll meet you at the fifty dollar windows in the clubhouse before the sixth race, that will be in about an hour. We’ll talk if and when we recognize each other.”

- 167 -

The meeting went smoothly and proceeded to the Jeep Cherokee in lot C after the running of the sixth race. The fence drove the Jeep around the lot one time then pulled into an open space next to a Porsche 911. “Your timing is perfect.” The fence told Tataya. “I just had a call for one of these and can get rid of it quickly, plus I have that Porsche there that I have to get to Reno. I can give you nine for the Jeep right now, or you can take five and drive the Porsche to a customer in Reno who will give you ten more on delivery.” Tataya hesitated. It sounded like a hell of a deal but she worried about being caught in a hot car. How much more of a chance would she be taking by doing it that way? It was six thousand more, plus Reno was one of the places she had some of her cash stashed. “Don’t worry, it’s not hot in this country and the plates are valid Nevada plates. Even if you get stopped for speeding or the like, they won’t find anything wrong; it’s already legitimately registered to the customer. I would advise you not to speed though, you can’t play these things too safe.” When Tataya arrived in Reno three days later she was in a revived frame of mind. She had been tired from the long drive up to Seattle, but when she drove the Porsche onto the highway it felt so beautifully strong and agile, especially after the big clumsy SUV, that she was looking forward to the drive to Reno. It was late already when she left Longacres so she found herself a motel in Renton, retired early and arose with the dawn. From there she headed south to Mount Rainier, getting used to the Porsche and thrilling to the car’s responsiveness on the mountain roads. Tataya had never driven a car as powerful or agile as the Porsche and she was enjoying it immensely. She spent the entire

- 168 -

day and the night on the mountain, sleeping in a lodge, again arising in time to see the sunrise. The pristine beauty of the area drew Tataya’s thoughts back to five hundred years and more ago. How beautiful the entire continent must have been before the Whiteman arrived, bringing his ugly, unnatural buildings and machines, excreting their poisons into the earth, water and sky. For many of the tribes life must have been relatively easy and satisfying half a millenium and more ago. There was so much game then, so many fish, and not enough people to even dent the numbers. Tataya was a kind of mongrel Native American, with blood from at least five different tribes nourishing her brain, and her hatred. There was also some Spanish, and maybe even some African or Asian blood mixed in, but how much of anything nobody had been able to tell her. She did not grow up on a reservation but often visited relatives there with her mother, or had relatives visiting. As a child she loved hearing the stories of the old people and often dreamed of living in a time and place when one only had to pick mussels for a couple of hours to give a feast for fifty, and a couple of weeks of fishing provided salmon for the entire year. Certainly there were lean, difficult times then too, but for the most part an individual had to spend far less than forty hours or more a week “working” to provide basic needs. The rest of the time was your own, and one could act according to one’s personality. There were no jails because they were not needed, and the only law was natural law. Then the Whites came, bringing their paradise-polluting civilization. Tataya always thought such thoughts, but by the time she was in her late teens she realized there was no road leading back to what was hundreds of years ago. As far as she was concerned life on the reservation was really no life at all, not for her. It was the

- 169 -

Whites’ world now, and since it looked like it would stay that way the rest of her lifetime she saw no option other than to adapt if she wanted to succeed in the world that was. That meant money. That was the White world: money and power. The Whites got what they wanted by either having enough money to buy it, or enough military might to simply take it. At seventeen years of age Tataya vowed to get what she wanted using much the same methods. It was late afternoon when Tataya came to the Columbia River, the last leg of the Lewis and Clark expedition of nearly two hundred years ago. She had read parts of their journals, and had thought more than once that the Indians should have killed them and taken their supplies on a number of occasions, certainly a far less crime than genocide and the theft of ancestral lands. In a town named Plymouth, like the rock the English used to step onto the Indians’ land, she rented a room in a motel overlooking the river. That evening she sat outside and watched the river glow red with the setting sun. To Tataya it symbolized the flowing of Native American blood, pushed to the edge of the continent and out to sea. The next day was the day of the Porsche, accelerating Tataya a hundred years into the now. It was nearly six hundred miles of open roads and few towns all the way to Reno, six plus hours of pure driving pleasure. Tataya loved driving fast and she reveled in the German car’s exquisite performance. The Whites’ machines were not all hated. # The road east out of the forest was a seldom used old logging road that had not been graded or repaired in many years. Dipsy and Colon shared the driving, bouncing and twisting over the rocks, holes and ruts for hour after hour. The concentrated effort,

- 170 -

combined with their adrenaline surges of the morning, left both feeling drained by the time they finally reached a paved road just as the forest darkness was asserting its control. They had spoken little the entire time, their minds occupied with memories and fears. Witnessing the murders had returned both to memories of the horrors of Viet Nam, a place neither liked to let his mind wander into, but those horrors had been in the context of war and did not seem quite as shocking as the atrocities they had witnessed that morning. The sole dialogue between them occurred shortly after their exodus began so many hours ago. “We should at least consider going to the police.” Colon suggested at the time. “We already have, considered it that is, as much as it deserves to be considered. The less dealings we have with the police the better. What possible good could come of it? We’d have to answer a whole bunch of questions, and probably end up suspects ourselves, and even if they believe us and find the chick, she’s sure to tell them about the farm” Dipsy answered. “But she doesn’t know where it is.” Colon replied. “Maybe not, but so what, the man will still be on to us, making it very difficult to stay in business. No man, no way I’m going to take that chance. I’m surprised you even considered it for more than a couple of seconds.” Dipsy countered. “What if they do find the bodies and are able to trace the tire tracks or something else back to us?” Colon asked. “I doubt very much those bodies are going to be found for many years, if at all. The forest scavengers are sure to discover the food source and will probably leave very little evidence. Even if somebody does find the bodies, how are they going to trace them back

- 171 -

to us? We left nothing except some tire tracks, and we can get new tires. There is nothing to connect us to them, and even if they do still manage to somehow trace us, then we can tell them the truth. No, man, no way do we go to the police.” Dipsy asserted. Colon thought several minutes about what Dipsy had said before he voiced his agreement. “Those are all true statements. I will say no more about it.” Colon told his partner. “The incident is forgotten.” Dipsy added. But it wasn’t forgotten, of course, how could it be? The two took turns driving and sleeping through the night. It was mid morning by the time they returned to their beloved farm to find Cassandra waiting for them, perched on the top step, singing a lilting song in a language they did not understand. “Cassandra, it’s good to see you.” Colon greeted the old woman as he walked toward her with Dipsy a few steps behind. “It’s good to see you, too. I had been told you were being pursued by violent people, one of whom I know to be evil.” She responded. “That is a true statement.” Colon agreed, then proceeded to tell Cassandra the entire story. “It does not surprise me Johnny Raven came to such an end, but it does surprise me he thought he could get the better of Tataya. He was never overly bright, but I did not realize he was that stupid. Tataya is a very formidable entity; do not forget that, either of you, ever. It is kind of a shame about Benny though. His mistake was in listening to his brother. He was not very bright, but I don’t believe he was evil. Like most Indians he was born hundreds of years too late; his soul belonged in the forests of long ago. And so life

- 172 -

must always end before it can be reborn. I found the herb you left for me, and I have brought earth essence to you. Now I must go; I have much to do.” Cassandra told the two men, arising as she finished, then hugged them both and walked off into the forest. “Do you think she’s really a bird?” Colon asked as they watched her disappear into the trees. “I really don’t know, but it would sure explain a lot.” Dipsy answered. “She certainly isn’t a normal human being, if she’s human at all. That much I’m sure of.” They had had similar conversations many, many times before, and had never reached a definite conclusion. They knew from experience that Cassandra never answered any questions about such things. If and when she decided to reveal any of herself, she did so on her own terms, not when asked directly. # By the time she reached Reno, Tataya was so captivated by the Porsche’s performance she wanted to keep it for herself. She decided to check into a room at the Hilton and wait a few days before contacting the buyer. Maybe she could work out a deal with him when she did, and in the meantime she could enjoy the Porsche awhile longer. The next few days Tataya and the Porsche made love to each other over the lonely desert roads outside of Reno. One day she drove up to Pyramid Lake and around it, urging the Porsche to over one-sixty on a wide-open section of 447. The next day they growled their way up and over Mount Rose, around Lake Tahoe, then back over the mountains again. The more time Tataya spent with the Porsche the less she wanted to contact the buyer, but she knew if she didn’t very soon he would probably be contacting Samuel, wondering where his car was, and then Samuel would be looking for her. That would not

- 173 -

be a good thing. From a pay phone in the hotel she paged the beeper number Samuel had given her; when it rang back just minutes later the barely masculine voice on the other end sounded soft and refined. “You paged me?” The voice gently inquired. “Yes, I have your special delivery of smoked salmon from Seattle.” She answered, using the code Samuel had given her. “Really? Well, it’s about time. Is it Chinook or King?” He answered with the correct code. “Neither, it’s Sockeye.” She replied, continuing the identifying sequence. “That’s good. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.” The soft voice completed the code, then continued. “I must tell you I talked to the wholesaler yesterday and he assured me you left days ago. We were both beginning to get concerned over the quality of the salmon, and for your safety, of course.” The voice was still soft and gentle, but the threat in it was clear to Tataya. “I’m sorry if I caused either of you any concern, but it was such a beautiful drive down here I simply took my time and enjoyed it.” She replied. “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself. I take it you are now in Reno and I can expect delivery today then?” “Just tell me where and when.” She answered. “When is as soon as you can get here. I will give you directions to the where.” Less than an hour later Tataya was driving the Porsche up the same mountain road Victoria and Lee had taken two days earlier, but she went a bit further up the mountain, to a beautiful house set off by itself, surrounded by juniper and cypress, with a magnificent

- 174 -

view of the Washoe Valley below with Reno to the north and the snow capped mountains ringing Lake Tahoe to the west. Tataya was impressed; whoever owned this place obviously had some serious bucks. She sat in the car for several minutes after shutting off the engine, and when she did get out a Steller’s Jay scolded her from one of the junipers. Tataya stared at the bird until it stopped squawking and flew away. A large, muscular, dark-skinned man who looked Filipino to Tataya despite his size answered the door. “I have a delivery of smoked salmon.” She told him. “Yes, I know, come in. Mr. Adzick has been expecting you. Follow me, please.” He told her, leading Tataya through a house of wood, windows and views, to a round room with windows shaped like the four card suits open to the view. In the center of the room was an oval poker table around which sat seven men, six players and a professional dealer. One of the players threw his cards into the muck then arose to greet Tataya. He was a tall, angular man with pale skin, washed-out blue eyes and hair the color of a manila envelope left to fade in the sun. The suit, shirt and tie he wore were all made of expensive silks, as was the underwear beneath. “Good afternoon, Ms Feathers. I am Sebastian Adzick. My friends call me Silky.” He greeted her, taking her brown hand in his cool, dry, long-fingered white hands and pressing his lips to the back of it. Tataya did not know quite how to respond to Silky Adzick’s greeting. She wasn’t sure if he was putting her on a bit or not, but she was certain he was liking what he saw very much. Maybe she could use it to her advantage, as she so often did.

- 175 -

“Very charming, Silky. Please, call me Tataya, and you better be careful or you’re liable to get my girlish heart fluttering.” She told him. He raised his eyebrows in response but said nothing. Instead he turned to those seated at the table. “I think I’m going to take a little break, gentlemen. This beautiful young woman has just delivered my newest toy and I want to look at it.” He told the others. A couple of the players turned and grunted acknowledgement, but the hand still in progress was developing into a big hand, and that was holding all their attention. The size of the pot also grabbed Silky’s attention. “Let’s wait a bit; I want to see how this comes out.” He whispered to Tataya. Tataya had started playing poker in the Indian casinos when she was still underage, and had made enough money at it to finance her loan sharking business. She hadn’t played much the last few years, partly because the loan business was both more lucrative and a more steady income, but mostly because she hated losing, and no matter how good she played losing was inevitable at times. She missed the game though, or more precisely she missed the satisfaction that came from crushing men who thought they were better than her. The game in progress was hold ‘em and the turn card, a jack of clubs, had just been dealt. There were three players left in the hand and already there was a pile of chips in the center. The first player to act, a huge man, checked, as did the second player, an older, balding man wearing old fashioned half-frame reading glasses. The player on the button, easily the youngest player at the table, thought for a minute then pushed in two equal stacks of green chips.

- 176 -

“Bet a thousand.” He announced. Without hesitation the big man said, “Raise” and pushed all of his chips toward the center. The old man thought only a moment before tossing his cards into the muck. Then it was back to the young man on the button, now wearing a worried look on his face. He looked at the chips left in front of him, a much smaller pile than that pushed in by the big man, then he looked at his hole cards, then at the four board cards: a queen of diamonds, a four of hearts, and a nine of clubs to go with the jack. “You expect me to believe that jack helped you, Big Fish, like you would play a king-ten or an eight-ten.” He told the big man. “What I expect is for you to make the wrong play. You will either throw away a winner, or call with a loser.” The man called Big Fish answered. “I could call with a winner.” The kid suggested in an uncertain voice. “You could, if you have a winning hand, and are sure enough to risk all your chips on it.” The big man replied, his demeanor placid despite the obvious taunting. “Damn, Fish, I know you don’t have the straight. You must have made two pair, or maybe a set of jacks, I’m not sure, but I know you want me to call, and I am not going to let you break me this time.” The young man told his huge opponent, then threw an acequeen of hearts face up into the muck. “You’re too damn tight, Petey, and a wimp too. I knew you wouldn’t have the heart to call.” Big Fish told him as he turned over a four-five of clubs then pulled in the chips pushed to him by the dealer. Silky turned to Tataya who had been watching with interest.

- 177 -

“Do you play?” He quietly asked. “I used to, not so much any more. It’s no-limit, I take it?” She asked. “Of course, the only way poker should be played in my opinion. Have you ever played no-limit?” Silky asked. “No, but it looks like fun.” Tataya answered, lying to hide her experience. She had played a fair amount of no-limit for the couple of years she played seriously, but not for nearly as much money as was involved here. “You’re welcome to stay and watch; you can even play if you like, though I have to warn you there are some rather strong poker players at the table. The minimum buy in is two thousand; I can take it out of the ten you have coming.” Silky told her, hoping to entice her into playing, expecting her to be easy money if she did. “Maybe I will, for awhile, but I want to talk to you about the Porsche first.” Tataya told him. “What about it? There is nothing wrong with it is there?” He asked. “No, nothing wrong with it, in fact I’d like to buy it. That’s what I want to talk to you about.” Tataya told him. “Really? Well I didn’t plan on selling it, but let’s go out and take a look at the car and maybe we can discuss it.” Silky answered. When they got outside Tataya offered Silky the ten thousand she had coming for the car. He just laughed, then told her the ten thousand was just the delivery price; that he had already paid Samuel ten thousand up front. It’s an eighty thousand dollar car, he told her, and he had been waiting awhile for one to be available. He said he liked her, though,

- 178 -

and would sell it to her, but for thirty grand total, the ten he owed her plus twenty more out of her own pocket. Tataya told him that was more than she wanted to pay, but he was adamant about the price. “I don’t really want to sell the car in the first place, but because I like you and can make a quick ten grand I will, but no way I go any lower than that.” He told her. “I’ll have to think about it. I don’t have that kind of money with me anyhow.” She told him. “Of course not; I didn’t expect you would, but there is plenty enough money to buy it on the poker table inside. It’s just there for the taking.” Sebastian Adzick suggested. Tataya was fully aware that Silky expected her to be easy money, and if she played he figured on keeping both his ten grand and the Porsche. It was a challenge Tataya dearly wanted to accept, but she wasn’t sure she could win at no-limit against players of that caliber at that level. The kid looked like he would be easy, but he was probably the only one, and Big Fish was certainly dangerous. He could probably be set up though, especially since she would be unknown, and almost certainly underrated. “I doubt it’s just there for the taking, especially after you told me there are some pretty strong players at the table, but I’d like to watch for awhile first, before deciding to play or not.” Tataya told him, knowing already that she would. Five hours later Tataya drove back to the Hilton in the Porsche she now owned, or would own when she paid Silky another four thousand. She had watched the game for nearly an hour, trying to get a handle on everyone’s style of play before sitting down herself. During the time she was watching the kid went broke. After speaking to Silky in private he put another five thousand in chips in front of him. Over the next four hours he

- 179 -

would lose that five thousand, talk to Silky in private again and put another five thousand on the table, then lose that too. Once again he talked to Silky in private, but this time was given no more chips and stomped out in a huff. Half an hour after the kid left, the game broke up. It was obvious he was the one the others had expected to host a financial party, but as it turned out he was not the only big loser. They had expected Tataya to contribute too, but instead she took, a total of sixteen thousand and change. This she gave to Silky for the Porsche, promising the other four thousand the next day. He told her she could forget about it if she spent the night in his bed, but she declined, though she was tempted. Four grand was an awful lot of money for one night, and Silky was not a bad looking man, but her pride was worth more than that, especially since she did not need the money that badly, and Silky was as white as a man could be. Tataya was not the biggest winner though, Big Fish was, through superior play, and she was glad she had managed to stay out of his way in the big hands. To trap him Tataya knew she would need the perfect opportunity, and that just never came. The kid probably wasn’t the big loser either; a well dressed, gray haired man they called Doc was, to the tune of well over twenty grand, as far as Tataya could tell. Silky was also a fairly big loser, but more because of bad cards than bad play. The old man with the half-frame reading glasses won a little and the sixth player, a quiet man named Bill, looked like he finished about even. Big Fish won all the rest of the money. It was while playing in this game that Tataya heard about the tournament being played at the Peppermill, particularly the no-limit tournament coming up on Saturday. They told her the buy in was only five hundred, and first place would be at least twenty

- 180 -

grand with a hundred players or more. Tataya decided to hang around until Saturday. Based on that night’s results, she figured she had an outside chance of winning the tournament, and if she did it would be a victory both for Native Americans, and for women. It would also be money in her pocket, and most importantly, would allow her to crush Whitemen. # When Lee and Victoria returned to the aerie Sunday evening, after taking the scenic route eighty-eight over the Sierras, Cassandra was already there waiting for them, waiting for Victoria. For three hours Lee waited on the balcony, under a darkening sky and brightening stars, while the two women communed with each other. At times wisps of earth essence and murmurs of conversation reached Lee, but most of the time silence and stillness reigned. It was near midnight when Victoria joined Lee on the balcony, touching him first on the shoulder, then hugging him without saying a word. Lee was extremely anxious to know what Victoria had decided to do, and what was going to happen next, but he asked nothing as he held her close to him. She would tell him only what he needed to know, only what she wanted him to know. Victoria ended the hug with a long kiss, full of love and promise, but with no immediate passion, a kiss to end the night, not begin it. “It’s a beautiful night.” Were the first words she spoke. “Yes, it is.” Lee agreed. “There is much I need to talk to you about, but not yet, not tonight. I need to stay in the aerie tonight, alone, but I’ll need a ride into San Francisco tomorrow. Can you take me?” She asked him; they had driven back together in Lee’s car, leaving hers in Reno. “Of course, anytime. When do you have to be there?” Lee replied.

- 181 -

“My first class on Monday isn’t until ten, so maybe the traffic won’t be too bad. I don’t want to be late though; these people have been very good to me and now I have to tell them I’m leaving.” On the ride into San Francisco the next morning Victoria told Lee that it was going to be a very busy week for her so she wouldn’t be able to see him until the drive back up to Reno on Friday for the no-limit tournament the next day. She said she would call him Friday morning to let him know what time to pick her up. During that week Lee visited the aerie at least two or three times a day, but did not find Cassandra there until sunset on Thursday, though he had felt her presence nearly every time he visited. On Thursday he had spent the late afternoon sitting by the cold firepit before moving to the balcony to watch the sunset and listen to the hooting of an owl. When he returned inside, Cassandra’s face glowed in the light of the small fire now flickering in the pit. “Come, join me, please.” Cassandra invited Lee to sit opposite her. “Thank you, I have missed you.” He told her. “Yes, I know, you have been coming every day, but I thought it best I not see you, or you me, until now. It appears Saturday is to be a very important day, with many forces coming together. Some may collide, some may merge, and some may be devoured by others. I do not know what the final outcome will be, and I can do little to influence things. I believe the no-limit tournament will be the key, but the tournament itself is not what is really important.” She told him. “What is it that is really important?” Lee asked.

- 182 -

“That is for each individual to discover, to decide, me as well as you.” Cassandra told him. “And Victoria?” Lee asked. “Definitely, Victoria most of all.” She answered. # For Victoria the week passed both very quickly, and very slowly. The Sunday night she spent in Cassandra’s aerie to begin the week was filled with dreams and visions she did not understand. Cassandra had told her the answers to her questions and doubts would come in dreams, but her dreams that night seemed to pose more questions rather than answer the ones she already had. Victoria wanted to ask Cassandra so much more, but the old woman had already told her she would not see her again that week. Any questions she had, Victoria would have to try to answer herself. “You should dream tonight all you should need to know.” Cassandra told her after they had smoked the earth essence together and she left Victoria alone in a bedroom of leaves. “You may not understand at first, but if you continue to consider your dreams, you should eventually. I cannot tell you more than I have. The only questions that matter now, only you can answer for yourself.” It all seemed so ambiguous and bizarre, and yet Victoria felt certain the old woman spoke of a reality she had always suspected deep in her own soul. It was a reality not like any she had known, but like she had imagined. On the mountain at sunset, when she first met the old woman, Cassandra told Victoria both their souls were from a time and people of long ago, a people who understood the nature of life, and how to exist in harmony with the world and themselves. Their world, a world of empathy, nurturing and understanding,

- 183 -

had been eclipsed hundreds of cycles ago, thrown into darkness by the philosophies of greed and power. Force began to dominate, and alliances were formed based on desires and domination rather than need and cooperation. In time change would come, it always did, and in the meantime Cassandra and those like her kept life alive. “You are one of our tribe, you know it deep in your soul, but you must learn the old ways if you are to find the old path, so hidden by the overgrowth of men that very few can find it. It will take time, but you will have time, many, many more years in this lifetime than you thought possible, and you will understand the spirits of creatures you were only able to marvel at before. If you choose to follow the path I hope to uncover for you, then you will be able to show it to those who need to know it.” Cassandra told Victoria under the purple sky, handing back to her the sweet pipe they shared. The smoke tasted sweet and earthy, full of the essence of the earth, and Victoria closed her eyes as she drew it into her lungs and held it there. When she opened her eyes Cassandra was gone, and the smoke Victoria exhaled into the mountain air was tinted pink by the purple sky. She stood up and looked around, but saw no sign of Cassandra, heard no sound other than that of the wind and the hooting of an owl. She took another deep pull on the pipe, held the sweet smoke in with her eyes closed, then opened them to see her rosy exhale. Still there was no Cassandra, and the purple sky was darkening into starry black. She looked back at the rocks and saw the dim shape of Lee waiting for her, looking for her, and she knew she needed him no matter what she decided to do. Back in San Francisco in her own apartment the rest of the week Victoria would sometimes wonder if anything was real, but then she would sleep and dream again, and her dreams promised it was all true. During the days, in her gymnastics classes, she

- 184 -

looked at the adolescent girls she was working with, their emerging femininity emphasized by their uniforms, and she thought of the future of the human race. From such bodies all human life would come. Back in her apartment, looking at herself naked in the mirror, Victoria wondered if any life would yet come from her womb? Did she even want it to? When Victoria told the people she worked for she would need some time off, and couldn’t be sure if she would ever return, they were very understanding and asked if there was anything wrong, anything they could help her with. She told them there was nothing they could do, but she thanked them for their concern and promised to let them know about the future as soon as she knew. On Friday she hugged her students goodbye, feeling the life of the future in their young bodies, making her feel both sad and excited at the same time. By mid afternoon Victoria and Lee had crossed both the Golden Gate and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridges and were on their way to the mountains and Reno beyond. # It was a strange week for many people, a week of new situations and desires for some, a week of triumphs, fears and disappointments for others. In Reno the tournament at the Peppermill was a big success, drawing over a hundred entries for each of the events, the side games keeping all the tables full until the early morning hours each day. Several games, including a pot-limit and a no-limit game, ran continuously the entire week. Bankrolls were doubled, tripled and more, or sometimes were lost completely. In the tournaments the best experienced players were doing well, but so too were players with little or no tournament experience. The seven stud tournament was won by a housewife and grandmother who had never played public poker before. She was in Reno

- 185 -

on vacation with her blackjack-playing husband and just happened to hear about the tournament. She had been playing poker every week with a group of women her age for over twenty years, but that was the extent of her experience. She entered the tournament on a whim, then not only got good cards from the start, but played very well too, reaching the final table third in chip position. From there she proceeded to simply outdraw and outplay the rest of the table. The experienced players left were so sure she was going to eventually crash and burn that no one offered to make a deal until it was down to four players, with grandma holding almost as many chips as the other three combined. When the mention of a deal was first brought up she didn’t even understand what they meant. When it was explained to her, she just laughed. “Hell no. I’m going to win this sucker, I can feel it.” She told them, and she did, convincingly. For Tataya Feathers and Donald Merkle it was a week in which they both rediscovered poker, and discovered each other. Merkle had come to Reno to find Victoria Steller, either to take her back with him or to somehow make her pay for leaving him. Unfortunately for Merkle he ran into Frankie Speciale instead. Now there were two women he sought revenge against. The day after Frankie took his money and left him in pain, Merkle returned to the Peppermill to look for her and spotted her playing in the tournament. He wanted to keep his eye on Frankie without her seeing him, so he took a seat in a side game figuring he would be relatively inconspicuous as a player. It was only a small game, three-six hold ‘em, but by the time the tournament players took their dinner break he was up almost three hundred and was deep into the game. He went to eat shortly after Tataya did, and

- 186 -

did not return to his game until the tournament resumed. When Frankie got knocked out of the tournament Merkle followed her to the elevators from a distance, not sure what he intended to do if he managed to get her alone somewhere. It was then he saw Victoria and Lee waiting for an elevator. Now his original purpose for coming to Reno became primary again. That must be the asshole she left me for, and it looks like he knows this Frankie chick too. Just one big, happy family, only they’re not going to be so happy for very long, not if I can help it. Merkle watched the light above the elevator stop at four, then again at eight, and he wondered who got off at what floor. He would find out soon enough; it shouldn’t be that difficult. In the meantime he returned to his poker seat and went up another hundred dollars before quitting close to midnight. He figured all three would be here the entire week, giving him plenty of time to plan his revenge. Donald Merkle had forgotten how much he liked poker, and how good he was at it. By the end of the week he was devoting as much thought and energy to poker as he was to plans of revenge, but it was still revenge he most desired. Then on Friday he met Tataya. By Thursday night Merkle was pretty sure he had let Victoria get away since he had not seen her or Lee since the elevator on Sunday. He suspected they had left town, but his other target, Frankie, was still around, playing in the tournament every day, cashing on Wednesday with a fifth place finish. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to manage to get her alone and helpless, but he had bought a gun with that purpose in mind. She was

- 187 -

going to pay for what she did to him, in flesh, and he was going to enjoy collecting immensely. It was pretty much all he could think about when he woke up on Friday. Friday was a beautiful day in Reno, still cool when Merkle left Harrah’s at nine to walk along the Truckee River, but sunny and warming up nicely. He had a thing for fast running water, always did. Most of the beauties and wonders of nature Merkle cared little about, barely noticing the glorious high desert sunsets or the still snow-capped mountains around Reno, but a rapids, cascade or waterfall, that was another matter entirely. It was the relentless, persistent power of water that appealed to Merkle, and the Truckee tumbled through downtown Reno swift, clear and strong. Also visiting the river that Friday morning was Tataya Feathers, also with revenge in her mind. The pure, natural beauty of the Truckee River, contrasted by the steel and concrete structures of White civilization, as usual led Tataya to think of how things would be if the Whites had never come, or never existed. This was Eden, and the Whiteman put concrete clothes on it. Tataya hated modern society, White society in her mind, for what it did to her people and to the natural world, but she knew what was would not be again, not in her lifetime. Her revenge would have to come in beating the society she was forced to live in at its own games. Technology is a cancer on the land, but it does have its advantages, she thought to herself as she looked from the river to the silver Porsche parked nearby. On his route to the Truckee Donald Merkle passed Tataya’s parked Porsche and stopped to admire it. This was the car he really wanted to buy instead of the BMW, but it was twice the price, and he figured at the time it would probably cost him ten times as

- 188 -

much in tickets, provided he managed to keep his license at all. Next time, he promised himself. Tataya was sitting on a rock near the river’s edge, thinking her destroy Whitey thoughts, when she looked up from the water to see a suit and tie type nosing about her newly purchased, recently stolen automobile. Suit and tie types bothered her, they always had – cops wore suits and ties. She had seen this guy before too, hanging around the poker room at the Peppermill where she had been playing in the no-limit side game the past couple of nights. She didn’t think he was a cop though, he was dressed too fashionably and looked too good, but one never knew. Maybe he’s a Fed or something? Maybe he’s on to the Porsche? Samuel claimed the car had been totally cleansed, but she didn’t trust Samuel all that much. He already got his money for the car, what did he care? She kept her attention on Merkle as he walked away from the Porsche and continued on down to the river by the same route she had taken. He looked out of place to her, walking across the grass dressed like he was on his way to a corporate board meeting, but she had to admit he looked good for a cauc, though too much like a Ken doll for her taste. Tataya decided she better find out exactly who he was. As he neared the water Merkle could feel he was being watched, and when he looked around his eyes met Tataya’s. He had noticed her before too, playing in the nolimit game, and was intrigued by the dark-skinned, cold-eyed beauty who always seemed to have a huge pile of chips in front of her. She was physically very much to his taste, though not as gorgeous as Frankie, whose smooth, soft sexuality appealed to virtually every heterosexual man’s taste. There was a hardness to Tataya, especially in her eyes,

- 189 -

and a definite aura of danger. That aspect of her Donald Merkle found almost as attractive as her body. He smiled at her, and when Tataya smiled back he continued in her direction. “Good morning,” he greeted her, “looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day today.” “Yes, it does.” Tataya agreed, nodding in response to his greeting. “I’ve seen you playing the no-limit game at the Peppermill.” He told her. “Oh?” She responded. “Yes, I’ve been thinking about trying the game myself.” He continued. “You should,” she replied, “it’s a good game, and I can use the money.” “You think I would be easy money?” He asked. “I can’t say for sure, never having seen you play,” Tataya replied, her face showing no emotion, “but I would suspect you would be.”. “What makes you think that?” He asked, surprised at her answer. “A couple of things.” “Like what?” Merkle asked. “Now why do you think I would tell you? You might decide to play, and anything I told you now might cost me later. Any lessons you get from me you’ll have to pay for on the table.” Tataya replied, hoping to goad him into playing, perhaps finding another way into his wallet. She was sure there was money to be mined from this suit. “Fair enough. If we ever find ourselves at the same table may the best player win. My name is Don.” He continued, holding out his hand to her. Tataya glanced at his offered hand but did not take it. “That’s fine with me, Don,” Tataya told him, “now who are you and why did you really come over here to talk to me?”

- 190 -

“Hey, what can I say, I’m just a guy on vacation who saw a beautiful woman he would like to get to know.” Merkle told her. “I’m sure you’ve had men try to meet you before.” “You’re on vacation, from doing what?” “Nothing exciting,” he told her, “just your typical MBA type trying to rise on up the corporate ladder, getting there too. Aren’t you going to tell me your name?” “Maybe. What were you doing checking out that Porsche up there? You’re not a car thief, are you?” “No. Is that your car?” He asked. “You haven’t said why you were checking out the car.” Tataya reminded him. “And you haven’t said whether the car is yours or not.” He replied. “Look,” she told him, “if you want to play games there are casinos all over the place with all sorts of games to play, but if you want to get to know me, you better tell me what I want to know. You don’t like that, go somewhere else.” Merkle thought about doing exactly that for several seconds without saying anything, then decided it might be worth the hassle to get into this chick’s pants. “Okay,” he told her, “what do you want to know?” “I told you once already.” “The Porsche?” He asked. Tataya just stared at him with her hard piercing eyes, waiting. “Okay, the Porsche, no big thing, just that I almost got one like that when I bought a new car last year.” He told her. “Oh, and why didn’t you?”

- 191 -

“I don’t know, more money than I wanted to spend, too many potential speeding tickets, a combination of both?” He replied. Forty minutes later Merkle was in the Porsche with Tataya, three hours later he was in Tataya. A few hours after they became sexual partners, they also became poker partners, agreeing to work in collusion with each other for their mutual benefit should the opportunity arise. The collusion was Tataya’s idea, but Merkle had no qualms about cheating at poker and readily accepted, though he did worry about what would happen if they were caught. He considered refusing because of this fear, but he feared the consequences of refusing even more. Tataya was in control and he knew it. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t know what he could do, if anything could be done, to change the situation, or if he even wanted to chance trying to change it. Tataya was very sexy and very dangerous. Merkle could feel the danger deep in a part of him he had not known existed until then. # The day after he and Dipsy returned to the farm Colon was back in The Mission with his wife Angela and their children, trying to concentrate on his husband and father role but finding his thoughts constantly returning to Cassandra, Dipsy and Tataya. He wanted to put it all out of his mind, not even think about the farm or anybody other than his family until it was time for spring planting, but his thoughts wouldn’t let him. The murders he stashed away with his Viet Nam images, but what he kept remembering was asking Dipsy if he thought Cassandra was really a bird, and Dipsy answering that she wasn’t a normal human, if she was human at all. The more years they knew her, the more possible it seemed that she was truly a magical being. Angela had met Cassandra only

- 192 -

once and was so convinced of the old woman’s otherworldliness that she avoided any further contact. As a devout Catholic, Angela Colon believed the most likely explanation was that Cassandra was an angel, and since she did not claim to be an angel of God, she might be an angel of Satan. Her husband Jorge did not accept that at all. He too sensed Cassandra possessed powers he did not understand, but he had always perceived her as being benevolent, never evil. Angela would have preferred he have no further contact with Cassandra, but it was not her nature to persist or try to impose her beliefs on others, not even her husband, and she did trust Jorge’s judgement of what is right for him. Still, she would not permit him to take the children to the aerie when he suggested it, and he knew it would be pointless to ask a second time despite his soul insisting to him the children should meet Cassandra. Angela always had the final word when it came to the children. As usual Dipsy felt glad when Colon left for San Francisco for the winter, but this time he also felt apprehensive being alone on the farm, something he had never felt before. His first night by himself, and every night following, Dipsy dreamt of Tataya, not of her crimes but of her beautiful body naked in the forest. Her smooth, light brown sugar skin and erect chestnut nipples dominated his sleep and invaded his waking hours. He imagined her there for him, legs spread waiting for his tongue, and he longed to dive into her sexuality. But he also could see her eyes, hard, dark, cold and piercing, like knives of carbon. Would he be fatally stabbed if he dove in? Dipsy spent a week of days hiking familiar trails through the surrounding forest, and nights dreaming dreams that soon became as familiar as the trails. For the first time since he discovered the joys of masturbation as a twelve-year-old, Dipsy had a wet

- 193 -

dream. Now Dipsy returned to that boyhood joy, masturbating once or twice a day while on his walks through the woods, always with visions of Tataya in his mind. How can you want her, he asked himself, you know she is evil and very, very dangerous? What the shit is the matter with you, do you want a sharp stick shoved up your ass? Even a poke in the eye with a sharp stick is better than that! It didn’t matter what arguments he used, Dipsy couldn’t convince himself not to go searching for Tataya. Something deep in his soul needed to experience her sexuality, without it he knew there would be a void in his being. With it, who knew? But why do you want to make love to a black widow spider? I don’t want to make love to her, I just want to experience her sexuality. I must know it, must feel it! Where to look for Tataya was the question, and Dipsy had no idea where to begin. Then, on his third day of solitary walks through the woods, Dipsy found himself at a favorite thinking log high above a little clear, fast-running stream and the pretty canyon it had carved through the rock. On days such as this he could see the snow capped Sierras far to the east, and it was on those mountains Dipsy’s attention was focused when he heard a rustle of feathers and turned to see Cassandra perched on a rock not ten yards away. He was relatively used to the old woman suddenly appearing without warning, but this time she apparently came out of the air itself. Dipsy was startled, but not scared. “You have been dreaming very powerful dreams,” Cassandra told him before he could say anything. “I understand you have been dreaming of the evil one called Tataya, and I know deep in your soul there is a pulling toward her you are unable to resist. I do not know or understand why this is, or what will be the ultimate result, but I do know your need is too strong to deny. Do you play poker?”

- 194 -

“Poker?” Dipsy asked, his mind unable to make any connection. “Yes, poker,” she told him. “Did you know Lee Meadow won the money to buy Greens Gates by playing poker?” “No, but what…” “What does that have to do with the order of the world? I don’t know, but I do know there is a poker tournament in Reno this Saturday and I feel strong vibrations Tataya will be playing in it. There are many forces coming together this Saturday, not only is the moon full, but it is also the eve of a very important day in ancient Europe and beyond, from a time when the Whites were not so white. There are other forces at play too, and I don’t know why but I believe the convergence of these forces will be in the poker tournament being held at the Peppermill that day. There is far more than money to be won that day, and of course more than money to lose. So, do you play poker?” Cassandra asked a second time. “I can, and I will.” Dipsy responded. “Are you saying I can win what I need from Tataya at this poker game?” “I don’t know, I really don’t, but I do know I will be there watching.” Cassandra told him. “I’ll be there too, playing.” Dipsy told her.

Chapter 9. Tournament

Herman Trout, better known as Big Fish, woke up early Saturday morning full of anticipation. This was not unusual for him on the day of a no-limit tournament, but what

- 195 -

was unusual was the high degree of anxiety he was experiencing, way out of proportion to the size and importance of the event. Big Fish had been playing in the major poker tournaments for nearly two decades, had world championship bracelets for limit hold ‘em and pot limit omaha. He had also made the final table of The Big One, the World Championship no-limit hold ‘em event, three times, but had yet to finish higher than third. Each of the times he got there he expected to win it all, but each time somebody hit a miracle card to knock him out. Now in his late forties, with over two million dollars in solid investments, a playing bankroll of half a million and a reputation as a no-limit player that gave him a built-in advantage nearly every time he sat down, Big Fish figured the only thing left for him to accomplish in his poker career was to win the World Championship of Poker. Why then did this relatively minor tournament feel so important? # Victoria Falls Steller also awoke that morning feeling the importance of the day, and like Big Fish, she too did not understand exactly why. Am I here because Cassandra told me to be or am I here because Lee is here? But then Lee is here because Cassandra told him he should be, or is he? He was planning to play in the tournament anyhow, but then decided not to…… because of me, because of Donald? And why does Cassandra want him to play in it anyhow? What can the tournament possibly have to do with her? Poker tournaments are about money, and money means very little if anything to Cassandra. There must be a reason for it, there always is with her, that much I could tell from the beginning. She said she didn’t understand it fully herself, and she would not lie, but then she said nothing of what she did understand. Am I really the one she wants? Is

- 196 -

this a test for me, a test of me? What do I really want? Do I really want to follow Cassandra? How can I not? Victoria turned to Lee’s sleeping warmth beside her, gently wrapping herself around him, trying not to wake him. Thirty-three years old, a third of a century, and now that I’ve finally found a man I can love, I find Cassandra too, or rather she found me, through him of all things, Victoria thought to herself as she held her body against Lee’s. Like most of the girls she grew up with Victoria had always dreamed of finding the perfect love, the perfect man. When she grew from a girl into a young woman she gradually came to realize no prince on a white horse was going to come and sweep her away. By the time she hit her late twenties Victoria was beginning to doubt there were any men around worthy of being loved. At one point she considered lesbianism rather than have to deal with men at all, even tried it a few times with a couple of different women, but it was not satisfying enough. Her natural sexual desire for the male was simply too strong for her to ignore, or try to change by will. Fortunately for Victoria she was not subject to the innate and irresistible desire to be a mother that plagued most women she knew. She had long suspected this need to be a mother was the primary if not the only reason many women had anything to do with men, that and financial security. But there were exceptions, or at least there seemed to be. Victoria knew men who could love and be loved in return, but those men were all apparently happily married. A woman just had to be lucky enough to find the right man at the right time, and the right man for her was Lee, and the right time should be now! But what about Cassandra? What about living three hundred years? How can I have Lee and that too? And how will Lee take it? Can he handle it? Does he already know? No, he can’t, Cassandra would have told me if

- 197 -

he did. She said I would still need him, perhaps even more, but will he still need me? Will he still want me if he knows I am something more than human? Lee Meadow had been lured awake by Victoria’s gentle embrace but had remained still to enjoy it as long as possible. The appearance, then reappearance of Victoria into his life seemed a miracle to him. He had lived more than a decade longer than Victoria, and he too had long desired the perfect love, but that was only one of several desires that drove him. Sex he needed and loved as much as love itself, and then there were his poker ambitions and so much more. Over the years he had shared sexual pleasures with a dozen women or more, and had carried on a relationship of several months or longer with almost half of them. A couple of times he thought he might be in love, but the feeling always faded. Eventually he came to accept what a happily married friend insisted was true: when you truly fall in love, there is no doubt. If you only think you might be in love, then you are not. Lee wondered how many couples who considered themselves in love were truly in love according to such standards. What does it matter, as long as they think they are? Later, while relaxing in a warm shower after making love, Lee felt the first waves of anxiety. By the time breakfast was over he was feeling very anxious and impatient for the tournament to begin; he was also feeling more than a little scared without understanding why. Victoria went her own way after breakfast so that Lee could have the time alone to prepare himself. So much stuff swimming through Lee’s mind kept his heart from being very involved in the tournament, and yet he felt deep in his soul this would be a very important day in his life. But why? #

- 198 -

For Frankie the poker tournament that second last day of October was of primary importance. Often by the end of a weeklong tournament her bankroll would be so depleted that the only way for her to get in the final event was by winning a satellite. This time was different. She had cashed a little over six hundred for her fifth place finish in Wednesday’s tournament, plus she had booked a couple of moderate wins around a small loss in three sessions of pot-limit, for an overall profit of five hundred. This time she could enter the final event without winning a satellite, and even if she failed to cash she would still go home ahead. If she did manage to cash, a good week would become a great week. The only thing bothering Frankie was her biggest score so far came not from the poker tables, but from her mugging of Donald Merkle. She had seen Merkle around the poker room several times since that night, sometimes playing poker, sometimes just hanging around, apparently always keeping his eyes on her. Frankie expected some kind of attempt at retaliation, but none had yet come. She feared it may yet be coming and had considered skipping the final event and checking out Friday, heading back home before Merkle did try anything, but she was getting strong vibrations that this would be her breakout tournament and she was determined to play. Let me cash big in this sucker and I’ll take the money and run before he gets a chance to do anything, Frankie promised herself just before buying her entry into the tournament. When she turned from the window she saw Merkle get into the line to buy his entry. Frankie looked away from him and tried not to notice his stare; she was very good at ignoring stares, she had been doing it her entire adult life. #

- 199 -

Merkle watched Frankie walk away from the buy-in window with a combination of lust and hatred. She looked so damn good he still wanted her. How could he not? Today she was wearing a tight, mid-thigh length skirt with a cream colored silk blouse unbuttoned enough to show a bit of cleavage, and a bra underneath thin enough for her erect nipples to show through both it and the silk. She would be a distraction for every man sitting at her table, which was exactly the effect she wanted. Merkle hoped he was one of those men; the view would be worth the distraction. It would also give him great pleasure to knock her out of the tournament. After watching Frankie walk by, Merkle quickly looked around the room for Tataya. They were lovers now, if two nights of sex makes two people lovers, and Merkle didn’t know how Tataya would react if she saw him ogling Frankie. Donald Merkle wasn’t sure what to make of Tataya, or his relationship to her. He always dominated any male-female relation he had in the past, or had been able to convince himself he did, but with Tataya there was no question she was in control. It was a situation he did not like at all, yet could do nothing about, not if he wanted to keep enjoying her sexual favors, plus remain her poker partner. Donald Merkle did not trust Tataya. He knew she was using him, but he figured he would be able to get what he could from the deal then get out quickly enough to keep from being badly hurt somehow. Tataya definitely had him scared him though, and he had never been scared of a woman before. Now he was living near two live female dragons, Tataya and Frankie, and it would not surprise him if Tataya was capable of breathing fire. #

- 200 -

Fifteen or twenty minutes before Frankie bought into the tournament, Cassandra perched herself on a fence with a good view of the parking lot and the entrance closest to the poker room. From there she could observe those arriving for the tournament from outside the Peppermill. Dipsy was the first she recognized, though it was actually the van she recognized first. Cassandra was pleased to see he had decided to come and play in the tournament. Howard Dipsy Doodle was perhaps Cassandra’s favorite human of all those she knew. It was his natural honesty and integrity she appreciated most. He trusted his own feelings and always followed his heart. The rules of others: religion, laws, traditions, social pressures etc., those he knew and respected, but he did not base his own actions on anything outside of himself. He trusted his own morality, and so too did Cassandra. He was flexible too, able to change if his heart told him he should. Dipsy was a big kid in high school, six-three and two hundred and twenty pounds by the time he was an eighteen-year-old senior. He was a good athlete, though far from great, and played nearly all the major sports in high school. At the time he graduated in 1966 Viet Nam was beginning to really heat up, so with his heart telling him he should help the oppressed fight for their freedom, he enlisted with visions of John Wayne dancing in his head. His first fire fight changed his heart’s feeling of who the oppressors truly were. For the rest of his tour he was a pacifist according to his own style, concentrating on keeping himself, his buddies and innocent Vietnamese civilians from being slaughtered. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army regulars he killed only when it was necessary to keep the others alive, and by the time his year there was over he knew he had prevented far more suffering than he caused. Somehow Dipsy managed to get through that year in Nam intact, both physically and emotionally despite all the

- 201 -

horrors he witnessed and the visions he could not purge from his memory. He had followed his own heart and so had no moral regrets, other than originally being so gullible and gung-ho before he truly understood. He was still a teenager then; what could one expect? The military has always loved boys in their late teens. It is so easy to convince them of the military’s version of the world, of what it takes to be a man. Cassandra watched Dipsy jump out of the van and walk briskly into the casino, still spry despite his fifty years and two hundred and thirty-five pounds. Living in wooded mountains suited him well. He was pretty much immune to pressure, and if his poker skills were up to the task, he might be an interesting force in the tournament. Others arrived to play in the tournament: Big Fish, a couple of other major league class local pros, Sebastian Silky Adzick, and the kid who went broke in his private game. Some of these Cassandra recognized but did not know. When the silver Porsche arrived she could sense it was bringing Tataya to the arena. As she drove slowly through the lot looking for a parking space, Tataya passed Dipsy’s van, recognized it, then went straight to it rather than the casino once she did find a space for the Porsche. She was unaware of Cassandra watching her every move. With one of her knives hidden in her hand Tataya checked out the van, found it empty, thought a bit, then put the point of her knife against the right front tire. Cassandra thought she was going to go through with it, but after thinking a bit longer Tataya changed her mind and returned the weapon to its sheath hidden under her jeans . Tataya was about halfway to the casino entrance when Dipsy came back out. The two saw and recognized each other immediately, both hesitating only an instant before continuing walking toward each other. Cassandra watched Tataya’s right hand go to her

- 202 -

back pocket for the switchblade she kept there. Dipsy also noticed, his combat instincts being immediately revived by the rush of adrenaline brought on by Tataya’s appearance. Shit, man, she’s got a knife, and I know the chick knows how to use it. Watch her, man, watch her! I can’t believe she intends to do me in right here, but you never know. The chick is definitely dangerous. Watch yourself, keep your distance, be ready, Dipsy told himself as they grew nearer each other. He considered turning, heading away from the van, but what was the point, she knew him and his van. He did alter his path a bit though, enough to discourage a quick knife thrust just in case. After seeing Tataya in action he doubted his advantage in size and strength would be enough to offset her feline quickness. Her knives were her claws, and she was no more hesitant to use them than any other wildcat. Tataya had no intention of trying to kill Dipsy out in the open, and so they passed without incident, ignoring each other, watching from the corners of their eyes. She didn’t know what he was doing here though and it worried her. Dipsy had seen her kill; would he turn her in? Could he afford to turn her in? Tataya didn’t think so, yet if he were dead that would leave only one witness, a witness who might easily become a suspect himself. Once inside the glass doors Tataya turned to watch Dipsy return to his van, and considered returning there herself once she signed up for the tournament. She still had twenty minutes to kill before the tournament was scheduled to start. Donald Merkle spotted Tataya almost as soon as she entered the poker area, so too did Big Fish and Sebastian Adzick who were sitting together at an empty table talking. “Hey, there’s that Indian broad who played at your house the other night. What’s her name, Tataya or something like that?” Big Fish asked Adzick.

- 203 -

“I believe her name is Tataya.” He answered. “Yeah, right. She got pretty lucky that night, but she can play too.” Big Fish commented. “My good man, you were luckier than she was.” Sebastian responded. “Maybe, but I also play better too. I hear she’s been playing in the no-limit game here.” “That is also the information I have received, and according to my sources she has been winning consistently too.” Sebastian added. “Well, she ain’t going to win this tournament, I am.” Big Fish declared. “So you claim.” “So I claim? So I know. I told you I was going to win it last year and I did, didn’t I? Don’t ever doubt me, Silky, I’m the strongest player here and you know it. If I get any cards to work with nobody here can beat me.” “Bonnie’s here.” Sebastian reminded Big Fish. “Bonnie’s tough, but I can handle her. Besides, as aggressive as she is, she’s liable to go out early.” Big Fish told him. “Okay, I’ll concede you’re the favorite. If you were booking the event what odds would you make yourself?” Sebastian asked him. “Four to one, maybe even seven to two.” Big Fish answered. “I’ll give you four to one.” “Yeah, right, you’d give a wiener for a ham anytime.” Big Fish responded. “Why the hell should I bet myself at four to one when I’m going to get better than a hundred to

- 204 -

one just by entering the tournament? Tell you what, if you want to get something down on the side, I’ll give you five to three I last longer than you.” “Now you’re trying to give me a wiener for a ham. You know tournaments are not my forte. What about Tataya?” “The Indian broad?” Big Fish asked. “Right, the Native American young lady. I’ll take her against you at five to three.” “You’ve got to be kidding me Silky; you don’t know if she’s ever played a tournament before. Now you’re giving away hams for wieners; I’ll take the bet, five thousand against three alright with you?” Big Fish was quick to jump on the opportunity. “Sounds good to me.” As they talked about her, the two watched Tataya move through the room to the tournament registration window. So too did a number of others, including Merkle, who still couldn’t decide if she was more desirable or more dangerous. He was leaning to the latter, and questioning the wisdom of agreeing to a cheating partnership with her, especially since he wasn’t sure collusion would even work in a no-limit tournament. But there was nothing he could do about it now except to simply not go along with the plan. That would be even more dangerous, he told himself. He wanted to talk to her again before the tournament began, go over their strategies again, but Tataya had warned him against any pre-tournament contact where they could be seen, and so he didn’t. Now why the hell did I let her start giving me orders, Donald Merkle wondered to himself. Tataya scanned the room after buying her entry. When her eyes met Sebastian’s he nodded to her and she nodded back. “You have to admit, Fish, she is a beautiful woman.”

- 205 -

“Hell, I don’t have to admit any such thing. Yeah, she looks good, got a hell of a body, but her eyes are cold, man, cold and cruel. There is something about her I do not like. I wouldn’t fool with her if I were you, man, but I know you will if you can. Hell, the only reason you sold her that Porsche was so you could get in her pants.” “You should know me better than that, Fish. Sex is sex and business is business. I sold her the Porsche because I made a quick ten grand on the deal.” Sebastian told him. “Yeah, right, but you also want to get in her pants.” Big Fish countered. “That’s what beautiful women are put on the earth for, my good Fish, and it is my intention to enjoy the sexual favors of as many of them as I can during my time on it.” Sebastian stated. “Hey, be my guest, but I’m telling you, that broad is trouble if I ever saw it. I wouldn’t trust her as far as I could throw her, or as far as she could throw me for that matter.” Opined the three hundred pound plus Big Fish. “I don’t need to trust her, or to throw her. I just want to fuck her.” # Meanwhile Dipsy was back in his van trying to relax before the tournament by drawing the sweet smoke of his labors deep into his lungs while letting himself drift with the music of T. Rex. “I danced myself right out the womb,” sang the late Marc Bolan. Dipsy had very little experience playing casino poker and had never entered a tournament before. That along with the natural competitiveness of the former athlete had him feeling a bit nervous ever since he told Cassandra he would play. But what really had the pot farmer rattled and on edge was encountering Tataya on his way back to the van. “I danced myself into the tomb,” Marc Bolan’s song continued.

- 206 -

And so he did, Dipsy thought, on a motorcycle I believe. Oh well, better to go dancing than crawling. Dipsy looked at his watch, ten minutes to go. Is that what I’m going to do, dance myself into the tomb? “Is it strange to dance so soon?” The song asked him. I don’t know, man, but it sure is strange being here, waiting to play poker against a murderess, and who knows who else. Cassandra, where are you? You said you’d be here. Just then Dipsy noticed the huge raven perched on the cyclone fence the van was parked facing. The black bird had its head turned so that it appeared to be looking into the van, staring directly at Dipsy sitting in the back. Cassandra, he wondered? “Caw,” the bird answered then rose into the air on gleaming black wings three feet across. Tataya was nearly to the van when she saw the raven ascend. The raven was a very important entity in Tataya’s culture and the sudden appearance of the huge bird caused her to stop where she was to watch it. The two men she had killed were of the Raven Clan, as was Tataya, and she considered it quite possible the bird was the spirit of one of them. She shaded her eyes with her hands as she watched the raven circle higher and higher until it was only a dark dot in the cloudless blue sky, then disappeared. A sudden, sharp tapping on the window of the van’s side door startled Dipsy and sent another surge of adrenaline though his being. He had drawn all the curtains in the back and could not see out without moving them, but he could see out the front windows and so moved forward to where he had an angle on the outside mirror that allowed a partial view of the side of the van, but he saw no one. Again the tapping came, while he was looking, but he still couldn’t see anybody. Dipsy moved to the side doors, where the tapping was coming from, and peeked cautiously from behind the curtain. Still nobody.

- 207 -

He waited for the tapping to come again while weighing his options should Tataya be out there waiting to greet him with knife in hand. In Dipsy’s own hand now was the hunting knife he always kept in the van, and he considered trying to grab the element of surprise by jumping out either the driver’s side front door or the back doors. What if she is on the roof! No, it doesn’t make sense, not in broad daylight like this. Get a hold of yourself, man, nothing is going to happen here in the open. She’d be way too obvious on top of the van, unless she can become a bird like Cassandra. If she could, she would probably be a raven! Dipsy looked at his watch, three minutes after noon, the tournament had probably already started. You better get yourself in there, boy, Cassandra is probably there waiting for you. And Tataya too, Dipsy reminded himself just before he flung open the driver’s side door and jumped out, then spun around to face any foe coming at him from the roof of the van. There was nothing, nobody anywhere other than a young couple on their way to their car who looked at him like he was crazy. Maybe I am crazy? Dipsy considered. Women into birds? The tournament had still not started when Dipsy returned and many of the players were still milling around waiting. He stood at the edge of the tournament area and scanned the crowd for Cassandra or Tataya, or anyone else he might know. He recognized nobody, but he did notice a beautiful young woman in a short skirt and a cream-colored blouse sitting at table number eight, the table he was assigned. She appeared to be reading a magazine but she kept looking up, apparently searching for someone. Dipsy had drawn seat number eight and she was seated in what he guessed would be seat nine. He hoped she would be next to him when play began. A woman that beautiful, so close,

- 208 -

could make him forget Tataya, but he couldn’t afford to do that; it would be far too dangerous. Suddenly a favorite line from Tolkien popped into Dipsy’s mind: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you happen to live near one.” Dipsy felt this room must be full of live dragons, all in disguise. # Lee Meadow also found himself to be in a very strange state of mind that Saturday morning as he tried to prepare himself for the tournament. He had been making his living playing poker for many years now and had developed certain routines to get himself in the right frame of mind for the particular game he was playing, but this morning nothing seemed to be working. He had taken a couple of hits, just enough to reach the mild high that suited his game best, plus he reminded himself to concentrate and stay confident, consistent and patient. He had meditated too, but still he was unable to focus his mind on poker. Maybe it was the full moon, but more likely there was just too much else going on. Cassandra had told him there was more than poker and money involved, and his soul was certain she was right. He just wished he knew exactly what was at stake. Losing at poker wouldn’t bother him at this point, but losing Victoria would devastate him. # “Players, please take your seats.” The tournament director announced. “ The cards will be in the air in two minutes; you have two minutes. Dealers, start with the green deck and give chips to all ten places. Blind off anyone who isn’t there. Shuffle up and get ready to deal when I give the go.” Now the tables filled up quickly, fourteen of them, a hundred and thirty-seven players. It would be a good payoff. Lee looked around his table. There were six or seven

- 209 -

faces he recognized, including a couple he knew to be strong tournament players, but he figured he was still the strongest player at the table, if he played his best. For Frankie the poker tournament by itself was enough to get her adrenaline flowing, the money involved was critical to her. A high enough finish in this tournament meant she wouldn’t have to go back to dealing right away again to rebuild her bankroll. She could concentrate solely on playing poker. Today could be the start of her life long dream. Then Donald Merkle sat down in the three seat. He smiled at her and gave a slight nod. Frankie, who was neither happy or surprised to see him, gave a slight nod in return but did not smile. With all his attention focused on the beautiful Frankie next to him, Dipsy noticed her eyes widen a bit when she saw Merkle sit down. Following her gaze, he saw the suit and tie settling in the three seat smile at Frankie and nod. He watched Frankie nod back with no smile on her face and the hint of alarm in her eyes. Frankie was already well aware of the large, bearded man sitting on her right; she had returned his hello when he first sat down, and had answered his pleasant smile with a small one of her own. He was nowhere near good-looking according to her tastes, but there was something about his face and demeanor she liked, a sincere kindness she didn’t often see. Usually men looked at her with desire, often with lust, and sometimes with awe, but rarely did she see kindness in their eyes. It was true most men treated her kindly, at least at first, but it was usually only for as long as they thought it might get them what they wanted. This lumberjack type sitting next to her seemed genuinely kind to Frankie. She also liked the way he paid attention to her cleavage, glancing appreciatively rather than leering as most men did. The leering never really bothered Frankie though, at least

- 210 -

not on the poker tables. She liked the attention her looks brought her, and the distraction they caused others. Big Fish studied the faces of the players at his table one by one, trying to remember if he had played with each of them before, and if he had, what kind of game they played. In most of the tournaments he played Big Fish could sit down with a good read on better than half the players based on former play, but today most were unknown qualities. He was in the five seat for the first hand, a relatively early position just a few hands from the blinds, and with so little knowledge of the table he decided to throw away just about everything the first round or two. Then he looked at his first two cards and found pocket rockets. In the hundreds and hundreds of hold ‘em tournaments Big Fish had played in he had never gotten pocket aces on the very first hand before. Big Fish thought it ominous getting the best possible starting hand at the very start of the tournament, but ominous of what? Pocket aces is a great hand, but also a very dangerous one, especially with all the players having the same thousand dollars in tournament chips and Big Fish having no knowledge of most of the players. Still, pocket aces only come around about once every two hundred and twenty hands and should not be wasted. The two players to the left of the big blind quickly folded, leaving Big Fish three basic choices. He could push all his chips in right away, probably resulting in nobody calling and Big Fish winning only the blinds. This was surest way of winning the hand, but also the way he was likely to make the least profit, and if somebody did call and then got a lucky flop, Big Fish would be out of the tournament. On the other hand, if someone did call and failed to get lucky which was a much more likely outcome, Big Fish would double up and be in good chip position immediately. A second choice, more

- 211 -

dangerous than the first but with more profit potential, would be to make a small raise in the hope of luring a player or two into calling, maybe even reraising. If he was raised Big Fish could move his entire stack in without hesitation and again would probably win the pot immediately, now with more in it than just the blinds. With more money in the pot however the chance of someone calling the all-in bet increased. The final choice was to flat call, encouraging others to do the same in the hope of seeing the flop cheaply. This might in turn entice someone in late position to make a play for the increased pot, again opening it up for Big Fish to come over the top behind the raise. The big risk in slow playing the aces with a flat call was that the more players who saw the flop, the greater chance his aces would be busted, but it also increased his chances of busting another player or two if he got a favorable flop. Flat calling would also give Big Fish the option of dumping the aces after the flop if he felt they were no longer the best hand, provided of course he hadn’t had to push all his chips in preflop. “Call.” Big Fish announced. # Silky Adzick much preferred playing money games for a lot of money and rarely played tournaments. When he did, it was always no-limit, and always more to have a good time than to try to win money, but as this particular tournament progressed his feelings changed. After hitting a number of lucky hands early while playing very loose and aggressive, Adzick found himself the chip leader at the first break two hours into the contest. During the break he checked out the three players he was most interested in, discovering that Tataya, Big Fish and Bonnie all had decent sized stacks. Silky Adzick’s

- 212 -

competitive juices began flowing freely. That will be an interesting final table if we all get there, he thought, resolving to do his best to get there. Silky also talked to Big Fish at the break, heard how he tripled up on the very first hand with pocket aces, then without seeing another decent starting hand still managed to build his stack further by using the power of his chips. Bonnie had more than doubled her stack through her usual aggressive play, and both knew the more chips she had, the more she would push. Tataya had more chips than either Bonnie or Big Fish, and was not far behind Silky. According to a friend of his at her table, Tataya was playing a lot of hands, switching gears constantly, and was hitting cards the few times she needed them. So far she was dominating her table. Meanwhile Lee was struggling, his mind more on Victoria and Cassandra than on the weak cards he was constantly seeing. He had looked at very few flops, didn’t come close to hitting those he did, and in two hours had not yet won a hand. The lack of playable cards had kept Lee from being badly hurt though, allowing him to make it to the break still with almost half his chips remaining. Lee had drawn a table near the center far from the spectators, making it impossible for Victoria to see any of the action, though she could see he did not have many chips. She was trying her best to pull for him, hoping to help recreate the positive vibrations they had going that past spring in Vegas, but her mind was also more on Cassandra and her own future than on the tournament. During the ten minute break Lee and Victoria took a short walk in the autumn afternoon sun, Lee taking his usual two or three tokes as they walked. They spoke little, their minds too filled with thoughts to form speech. When they hugged and kissed before Lee returned to

- 213 -

the table Victoria reminded him to simply play his best and not split his concentration by thinking of anything outside of poker. “I will be with you for as long as you want me.” She promised him when they parted. Dipsy had never played no-limit poker before, nor had he ever played in a poker tournament, yet he was somehow managing to hold his own so far, and was having a great time doing it. He came to Reno because of Cassandra, and entered the tournament wondering why it was important to her that he play in it, but those concerns left his mind the first time he got involved in a hand, winning it when the straight he made on the turn held up. He didn’t win as much as he should have on the hand but it did get him involved, and awakened him to the nature of no-limit poker. Dipsy’s competitive nature immediately kicked in enabling him to shift most of his concentration to the game, observing and learning as much as he could as quickly as he could. The little bit of his concentration that was not on poker he allowed to remain on the beautiful young woman next to him. Dipsy occasionally let his eyes wander to Frankie for the sheer joy of beholding beauty, but most of the time he watched everybody else at the table, especially the suit and tie across from him who constantly kept his own attention on Frankie. Francesca Speciale was naturally aware of all the attention she was getting, but was well used to it and able to concentrate her energies on poker. So far she was doing okay too, managing to increase her stack to sixteen hundred by being selective and careful, then aggressive when the time was right. Donald Merkle’s big head was not into poker and hardly functioning at all. His little head had taken control, focused his eyes on Frankie and his thoughts on sex. As to

- 214 -

poker, Merkle was functioning on a kind of automatic pilot that hadn’t been fully programmed yet. His lack of experience showed but his luck more than made up for it, leaving him slightly ahead at the break. He spoke to Frankie a couple of times in the course of play, always in a friendly tone, but she barely responded. Merkle was considering speaking to her on the break, if that big lummox next to her didn’t try to hog her attention, when the announcement came to finish the hand they were on then take a ten minute break. Merkle was ready to approach her, but as he got up he noticed Tataya frowning at him from over Frankie’s left shoulder. Merkle quickly changed directions and headed for the men’s room. Dipsy was watching Merkle as he began heading Frankie’s way, and he noticed the suit’s eyes widen a bit just before he changed direction. When Dipsy looked around to see what prompted Merkle’s detour his eyes met Tataya’s and were held in their icy intensity for several seconds before he could pull them away. Her eyes were so dark and cold it made Dipsy shudder. When he turned back toward Frankie she was also gone, so too was Merkle, and so too was Tataya when he looked back her way again. Dipsy quickly headed for his van; he needed to get as stoned as possible during the break. Dipsy kept on the alert for Tataya as he half-trotted to the van. Once inside he immediately noticed the small wooden box exactly like those favored by Cassandra. Dipsy slid the lid back and inhaled the sweet, musty smell of the essence of the earth. How Cassandra had gotten into the locked van didn’t concern Dipsy, he knew she possessed extraordinary abilities and didn’t bother to wonder. He was glad she did, and thrilled about the gift she left him. Is this why she wants me here? I don’t know, man, but it’s cool if it is. Playing poker on the essence should be pretty interesting. Dipsy pressed

- 215 -

number six for the Miles Davis Kind of Blue CD, skipped ahead to Bluesette, then sat back in the old, legless easy chair and filled his lungs and soul with the sweet beauty of Cassandra’s gift. By the time Dipsy made it back to the table he had missed three hands but didn’t care. He knew he had enough time and chips for the moment and he could sense the game was about to become very clear to him. It’s not what you got; it’s what they got, and how far they’ll go with it that’s really important. Pay attention, man, people will tell you what they got if you watch them close enough. And so Dipsy concentrated his heightened awareness on the other players, especially those involved in a hand. Almost immediately he started to get good at reading the strength of the other players’ hands, particularly when they made a large bet or were considering a large bet from another. Soon Dipsy was stealing blinds and winning small pots whenever he sensed the others still in the hand would not call. By the second break Dipsy Doodle had more than quadrupled his stack and was the chip leader of his table. Frankie also continued to do well through the third round and most of the fourth, until she got rivered by Merkle. He had been struggling at the time despite trying to concentrate on playing his best poker. Tataya’s glare at the beginning of the first break had frightened him enough to try to avoid her for those ten minutes, and he thought he had too until he found a note in his jacket pocket shortly after the play began again. “You are disappointing me,” it read, “if you don’t stop thinking with your prick, you prick, you will lose it.” There was no signature, but there was also no doubt in Merkle’s mind it was from Tataya, and little doubt she was completely serious. Once again he wondered what he had gotten himself into, and how he might get out. Merkle considered burning off his

- 216 -

chips quickly and getting the hell out of there while she was in the middle of the tournament, but he was afraid if he did, he would always be looking over his shoulder. Merkle decided his smartest course of action was to play his best and hope to last long enough to get on the same table with Tataya so they could implement her plan. If he got lucky maybe she would go out first. If that failed he could still resort to flight. Merkle’s resolve to focus on poker and play his best was not enough. His skills were simply not up to the competition, and his luck was no longer bailing him out. At the time he got involved in the pot with Frankie she had twenty-five hundred in front of her while he was down to six hundred. Frankie thought she had him right where she wanted him too, putting him all in before the flop, then hitting an ace on the flop and a king on the turn to go with her ace-king suited, but Merkle caught a miracle on the river to make a set of fives. Two hands later he caught another miracle against another player, more than doubled up again and suddenly had nearly three thousand to Frankie’s nineteen hundred. When Merkle hit his twenty-one to one shot against Frankie, Dipsy could feel her pain. The big man was so well attuned to the emotions of the table that he could feel her dread when the river card was being turned, and her anguish when the five hit. He could also sense her confidence draining in the aftermath. It bothered him. He and Frankie had been exchanging friendly observations on the game over the past three hours and Dipsy was thoroughly charmed by multiple aspects of her character, particularly her enthusiasm, honesty and intelligence, all qualities that could easily go unnoticed next to the glow of her physical beauty. Dipsy wondered how often Frankie’s fantastic looks got in the way of someone really seeing her? He wanted to tell her exactly that, but didn’t dare for fear it

- 217 -

would sound like a line, and probably a line she heard several times before. He wanted to get to know her first if possible, and so he decided to suggest they eat together when the dinner break came. Until then he resolved to hurt Merkle as badly as he could should the opportunity arise, but none came before the second break. After the second ten minute break there was a fifth hour of play before the hour long break for dinner. Most of the players seemed to think there would be only four maybe five tables by then, and they were right on target. Thirty-two players remained at the dinner break. When Hippie John was knocked out of the tournament twenty minutes before the dinner break reducing the field to thirty-six, Dipsy’s table was broken up by distributing the six remaining players among the four remaining tables. Dipsy and Frankie again drew the same table, he the two seat, she the five seat. Merkle drew Tataya’s table, the seat immediately to her left, a perfect position as far as she was concerned. When it got down to eighteen players, two tables, everyone would redraw for seats again, but until then Tataya could use Merkle very effectively once she adjusted their strategy and signals during the dinner break. Also at their table, and still among the chip leaders, was Sebastian Adzick. Adzick had draw Tataya’s table when the one he was at was broken just before Dipsy’s. Tataya was the first person at the table Silky noticed and he nodded to her as he was taking his seat. She nodded back, but her attention was more on his chips than it was on him. Tataya had been the chip leader at her table since early in the second round but now that Silky Adzick was here that was no longer true. Having the most chips on the table in a no-limit tournament was a distinct advantage since that player was always more

- 218 -

than one hand away from going broke while being able to break any of the other players in a single hand. Once Silky joined her table Tataya lost that advantage. Now she could be eliminated in one hand if she went up against him. Adzick liked the effect his big stack was having on Tataya and the other players. He knew they were forming opinions about his play based on the over nine thousand in chips in front of him, in effect giving him an advantage before he played a hand. Other than the World Championship event at the World Series of Poker, which he played in twelve of the last fifteen years but had only reached the second day three times and never made it to the third day, Sebastian considered tournaments larks, even those few he managed to win. This tournament was different. For reasons he was unsure of Sebastian Adzick wanted to win it very badly. Perhaps it was Tataya’s presence, or maybe it was Big Fish’s attitude; he didn’t care. Silky was not one to often concern himself over the whys of his actions. He was a doer, a follower of whims, not a mirror on himself. He felt confident he would win the tournament if he continued to play as well as he was, providing the poker gods did not decide to play a particularly nasty joke or two on him. Big Fish looked at another eight-three off suit and as he threw the cards in the muck he reflected on how if he were playing blackjack he would be doubling down about half the time. His stomach growled prompting him to looked at his watch again. The eagerly awaited dinner break was just over ten minutes away. The pocket aces Big Fish had on the very first hand was virtually the last good hand he held. For a time after that he had managed to continue building his stack by using its power, but such a strategy can only go so far without getting any cards to back it up and so he reverted to a survive and wait mode about the middle of the second level. Patience was a large part of Big Fish’s game,

- 219 -

so too was his ability to change gears when the timing was right. When he started getting some cards, which he felt was a near certainty, he would be ready to make his move. Until then he would not waste his ammunition. Lee Meadow was also anxious for the dinner break, but not because his stomach was growling. When he went to his room during the second break for a quick hit or three as was his custom Victoria was there waiting for him as expected, but with a surprise in the form of a gift from Cassandra. “Cassandra said to give you this during this break.” She told Lee as she handed him the wood box filled with the earth essence. “She did? When?” He asked. “The last time I saw her. She said you would know what to do with it.” She told him. “I would, huh? I’m not so sure.” Lee told her, remembering what a catastrophe it was the only time he played poker after smoking the essence, but also remembering how well he was able to read the other players that one time. “Did she say anything else?” He asked. “No, not concerning you or the gift. I’ll wait for you downstairs; you only have a few more minutes left to relax.” She said as she kissed him and wished him good luck. Lee closed the door behind her and looked at the box in his hand, wondering if he should add a pinch of its contents to his pipe. How would it affect his game? He had been struggling with both his concentration and the cards the first two hours leaving him with less than half his chips at the first break. After his walk with Victoria, and her assurance she would stay with him as long as her wanted her, Lee managed to pull his concentration

- 220 -

together and claw his way back over the next two hours. It was an unspectacular but steady rise. He had no monster hands either for or against him, and the few times he pushed in all his chips nobody called. The times someone pushed all their chips in against him, Lee did not have the cards to call and so was not hurt. The increase of his stack was slow, steady and barely noticeable, but by the second break Lee had more than doubled the thousand dollars in tournament chips he started with. Things are starting to happen, why should I risk changing anything now? But why would she have Victoria give it to me if she didn’t want me to smoke it? And why did she say I would know what to do with it? What does that mean? Does she want me to give it to somebody else? If so, who and how, with or without their knowledge? No, I could never slip somebody a drug that way and I’m sure she knows that. What the hell, just a small pinch; just be careful and see what happens. The pinch he smoked was enough to make the hour before dinner very interesting, and to make Lee anxious for the hour break for dinner. As it happened the one other time he played poker after smoking the essence, Lee found the emotions of the other players much easier to tune in on. With each turned card he was able to sense if the players still in the hand felt it helped or hurt them, and on one occasion he knew both players hit a flush, and which had the nut flush. This time though the poker gods were apparently not in the mood to throw ridiculous percentages at him as they did before, and with ten minutes still to go until dinner Lee’s stack had more than doubled again to just over five thousand, yet he was troubled. Something about it felt just not right; it was too easy, too artificial. Lee began to feel his integrity was being challenged and he needed the dinner break to reconsider his position. Winning was never Lee’s primary concern; his own integrity and

- 221 -

that of the game always came first, on the tables or off. But why should he not use the essence to up his game? He always smoked a little marijuana before he played to help him relax and put himself in what he believed to be his best frame of mind for poker. Did not the essence carry that same principal one step further? # Tataya was also anticipating the hour break. With her collusion partner immediately to her left she could use him and his three thousand in chips to great advantage in the right situations, but she needed to make sure he knew what to do and when. Until the break Tataya wanted Merkle to do nothing, to take no chances and waste no chips, but with only a few minutes left in the round he made it a thousand to go from the big blind. Two other players, Silky in a middle position and a long time pro immediately to the right of the button, had limped in for the two hundred, enticing Tataya to call the addition hundred from the small blind with a nine-eight suited hoping to get a perfect flop. As was her habit, Tataya had her hands in her lap to keep her fingers warm when Merkle started to reach for his chips to raise, exactly what she did not want him to do. Tataya immediately reached over and grabbed Merkle by the balls hoping to stop him, but was too late. After both Silky and the other played called the raise Tataya squeezed hard again hoping now to keep Merkle from doing anything else stupid, then she called the additional eight hundred herself. When the flop came up rags Tataya checked and squeezed hard again to stop Merkle from betting. She sensed Adzick might be sitting on a big hand just waiting for a fish to swallow the bait, but Merkle misinterpreted her signal and pushed all his chips in. Silky thought for several seconds, his eyes boring into Merkle’s and those of the other two players still in, then he simply called. Now Tataya

- 222 -

squeezed hard enough to cause pain and Merkle realized he had made a mistake. Adzick noticed the pain shoot into Merkle’s eyes. Tataya followed the other player in throwing her cards into the muck, then switched her grip to Merkle’s penis, intending to stroke it if he won, rip it off if he lost. It was no surprise to Tataya when Adzick turned up the set of fours he had hoped to trap her and the other player with by just calling. Nor were Merkle’s pocket jacks much of a surprise. What a stupid ass, she thought to herself when she saw the jacks, he should have pushed all his chips in if he was going to raise at all! Damn, I should have come over the top, and he would never have called with fours. When no jack came on the turn or the river Tataya gave a vicious yank and removed her hand. Merkle had taken himself out of the tournament leaving Tataya without a cheating partner, and far less than half the chips Sebastian Adzick now had in front of him. She was furious. Merkle wasn’t sure what to do now. He knew he was in big trouble with Tataya and dared not look at her as he left the table. When he first felt her hand on him he thought he was going to get rewarded, but now all he wanted to do was get away. Donald Merkle immediately headed for the elevators, but once out of sight of the tournament area he changed directions and rushed outside to the rented Mustang. He didn’t care about anything left in his room. He cared only about getting away. # Dipsy barely looked at the cards he got the last ten or fifteen minutes of the round before throwing them into the muck. His mind was on Frankie and how he might join her for dinner at the players’ buffet, but since he also wanted to get out to the van for a couple of quick hits first he left five minutes early a couple hands after the button passed him.

- 223 -

Dipsy sat on the bed in the back of the van while he smoked so he could watch the casino entrance from the rear windows. He was just letting out his first hit when he saw Tataya exit the casino and go to a white Mustang rather than the silver Porsche he had seen her drive up in. Dipsy watched as she took a quick look around, her eyes stopping only for an instant on his van, then she worked on the lock for a couple of seconds, opened the door, slid into the backseat, then closed the door behind her. Less than a minute later the suit and tie who had been leering at Frankie earlier came out of the casino and went to the same Mustang, unlocked the driver’s side door with a key, got inside and drove away. For half an instant Dipsy was tempted to follow, but instead he took another couple of hits then went looking for Frankie at the buffet. Frankie Speciale had not gone directly to the buffet on the break, opting instead for a short walk outside to get her poker head together. She was getting very close to a payday she desperately needed, but she was also on a short stack, less than half the average chip holding which Frankie had already worked out was $4280 with thirty-two players still in and a total of $137,000 in chips among them. She had only nineteen hundred, and the blinds the next round would be two hundred, four hundred. Three rounds of blinds would leave her with a single chip if she didn’t play a hand, but that one chip might enough for a payday with places ten to eighteen paying $685. It wasn’t much to many of the players, but it was a lot more than she had left in her bankroll. The problem with such a timid strategy was it was far from certain fourteen players would be busted in the next three rounds, in fact it was unlikely with only four or five players having under two thousand. More importantly such a strategy would negate any chances she had of finishing higher up. First place was over twenty-two thousand, and just

- 224 -

making it to the final table would get her at least thirteen-seventy. Frankie decided the way to go was to be very selective, then push all her chips in the first time she felt she had enough of an edge. Maybe she would double, or even triple up, then maybe double up again and be back in contention. In her mind Frankie decided she was going to finish in sixth place or higher for a payday of thirty-four hundred or more. Frankie made it to the buffet a few minutes after Dipsy and she watched him from behind as he searched the tables for her with a full plate of food in each hand. She knew he was looking for her and so she quietly sidled up to him, then smiled when he finally turned her way. “Looking for someone to eat with?” She asked. “Uh, yeah.” He answered. “Would you care to join me?” “Sure, pick a table out; I’ll get my food.” Frankie replied. Frankie liked the big man she thought looked like a lumberjack. In the four plus hours she had been sitting next to Dipsy playing poker Frankie had become convinced he was a genuinely kind and caring man. He was certainly not the type she usually found physically attractive, but he was nice to talk to and was probably a considerate, pleasing lover. The first assessment Frankie made of any man not repulsive to her was how considerate a lover he was likely to be. Next to poker sex was the most important facet of Frankie’s life, and because of her beauty and self awareness she could afford to be as selective or as promiscuous as she pleased. She had hours ago decided the lumberjack would be worth a roll in the pine needles despite his somewhat gruff appearance. “So, you’ve built up a pretty decent stack this last round.” Frankie began as she sat down across from him. “You’ve been playing really well. Do you play much no-limit?”

- 225 -

“No, not at all. This is the first time. It’s actually my very first poker tournament.” Dipsy told her. “Really? Damn, you sure have gotten the hang of it quickly. You must play a lot of poker though; you read people very well.” “Actually I hardly play at all, and then only kitchen table poker. I’ve had help though.” Dipsy told her. “Oh?” Frankie asked, very interested. And so Dipsy told her of the gift he had received from a mystical old woman. After dinner they both went to the van. # Sebastian Adzick and Big Fish were eating together when Dipsy entered the dining area. “Have you ever played with him before?” Silky asked Big Fish when he saw Dipsy. “Who, the big guy with the beard?” “Yes, do you know him? I do not believe I have ever seen him before today.” Sebastian told Big Fish. “Nah, never seen him before; I’d remember him if I did. He’s on a big stack, I noticed.” Big Fish answered. “So did I, that’s why I asked. Do you think he can play or has he just been lucky?” Silky wondered. “Hard to say, hard to say. Probably just lucky, but who the hell knows. I hate unknown factors, especially when they have lots of chips.” Big Fish responded.

- 226 -

“Well now, there is probably the most beautiful poker player on the planet.” Sebastian commented when Frankie entered the room. “I don’t know about all that,” Big Fish responded, “but she sure as hell looks good enough to eat to me. I thought you had the hots for that Indian chick who played at your place the other night? Hell man, you even bet her against me, though from the size of your stack you probably should have bet yourself instead.” “Maybe, but she’s got a fair stack in front of her too, and we both know she can play, though I just moved to her table and took a thousand from her when I flopped a set of fours to bust some yuppie type’s pocket jacks.” Silky told him, then changed the subject back to Frankie when he saw her talking to Dipsy. “And look at this, will you; they know each other. What is her name; I cannot think of it right now?” He asked Big Fish, knowing the huge man seldom forgot anything about anyone he ever played poker with. “Frankie, Frankie Speciale, hell of a last name for a broad who looks like that. She ain’t that good a player though; but she ain’t that bad either. She tries, probably reads a lot of books and shit, but she don’t read players that good. Nice girl though, not stuck up or anything despite her looks. By the way, where is that Indian chick? Tataya is what she calls herself. She hasn’t been in to eat yet.” “No, and she took off from the table early too, a couple of hands after I beat her for a thousand with my set. I think she went outside.” Adzick related. # A half mile from the Peppermill, at the first light he stopped for with no other cars around, Donald Merkle felt his head yanked back by the hair and the point of a very sharp

- 227 -

knife pressed against his throat just under the corner of his right mandible, followed by a trickle of blood down the side of his neck. “I’m going to let your head back up and you’re going to turn right at the next block. Try anything stupid and you will be very sorry you did.” Tataya hissed in his right ear. Donald Merkle felt the sweat erupting from every pore of his body and could smell his own fear. Quick flight had been his last resort; now what did he do? He tried to calm himself, tried to form a plan. She’s just a woman, a lot weaker than you, get rid of the knife and you can take her, slap her around silly and rape the shit out of her. Wait, just wait; you’ll get the chance, she’ll give you an opening. Talk to her. Maybe you can talk your way out of this, or maybe just distract her enough to get the opening you need. Merkle coached himself. “Why are you doing this to me?” He pleaded. “I did what you wanted me to. I thought when you grabbed me it meant you liked what I was doing.” Tataya pressed the knife a little harder and Merkle felt the pain of his skin being invaded by very sharp, cold metal, followed by the warm trickle of more blood sliding down his neck into his collar. “Keep your mouth shut, prick, and just keep driving straight until I tell you to turn.” Tataya hissed again. Okay, that won’t work. Think. You can drive off the road, run into that tree up there; you have airbags; she doesn’t. Merkle’s mind raced towards panic. Tataya tightened her grip on Merkle’s hair and pulled his head back a bit, her knife piercing his throat a half millimeter deeper.

- 228 -

“Keep your speed down, prick. You speed up or start to go off the road and you’ll have this knife in your neck up to the hilt.” Tataya promised in a low hiss oozing with malice. “Here, slow down here, take this dirt road. Take it easy; you bounce too much and you might get badly cut.” She warned. “Okay, good enough. Pull over here, easy, very easy.” Okay, this is it, man. Your best chance will probably be when you’re getting out of the car. Be ready! Donald Merkle was poised to make his move as they got out of the car, had himself psyched up for it, but as soon as he stopped the car and turned off the motor Tataya suddenly slammed his forehead against the steering wheel, dazing him. The next thing Merkle was aware of was being dragged from the car by his hair and a strap of rawhide wound around his neck, choking him and cutting off his air. Waves of dizziness and nausea swept over the misogynist, then it was black. When Merkle came to again he was bound against a tree with his back to it. His hands were tied to a branch above his head, his feet to the trunk, and his head was held fast by his own tie, tied around his open mouth stuffed full of his handkerchief, making it impossible to talk and difficult to breathe. Tataya had just thrown water in her victim’s face to bring him around. “Good, glad you’re back, you prick. This wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if you weren’t conscious.” She told him, and as she did Tataya saw the awareness then the fear fill Merkle’s pale blue eyes.

- 229 -

“Wondering what I’m going to do to you, huh? Well, I’m not sure myself. There are many options. I respect my Indian blood and heritage very much, and so am considering a classical, cultural approach. Some tribes would cut out the living heart of an enemy then devour it in the belief they would gain that enemy’s courage, but since I’m not sure there is any courage in you to gain I will not do that. Then there is always scalping, which was actually the Whiteman’s invention. They introduced it when they were paying bounties for Indians, like they were vermin. Scalping a person alive I understand is very painful, followed by a slow, agonizing death.” Donald Merkle looked at the hatred burning black in Tataya Feathers’ eyes and wished he had never regained consciousness. He closed his eyes and tried to will himself back to blackness. “Oh, look at this. Pale ass thinks he can close his eyes and make it all go away. You’ll open them again, prick, just to see what I’m going to do with you.” And Merkle did open his eyes again, when he felt his pants being cut from his body, and then he closed them again, when she roughly grabbed his genitals in her left hand and held the sharp blade of the knife under his balls. “I told you you’d lose your prick if you didn’t stop acting like a prick, but how could you? You were born a prick, stayed a prick, and you will die a prickless prick.” # It pleased Lee immensely to have Victoria waiting for him at the rail when they broke for dinner. They smiled at each other and hugged. “Thanks for being here for me.” He whispered to her. “I’ll always be around for you; I hope you stay around for me too.” She replied.

- 230 -

“As long as you want me. Come on, let’s go up to the room.” Lee suggested. When they got there Lee told her he didn’t know what to do about the earth essence Cassandra had left for him. He explained how it lifted his awareness to a level where he could read the other players so well that it seemed an unfair advantage, but yet was it any different from smoking dope to get himself in the right frame of mind as he had been doing for years. He asked Victoria how she felt about it, and what she thought was Cassandra’s purpose in giving him the essence at that time. “I love you, Lee, and I want to help you any way I can, but I cannot make any decisions for you. I have learned much from Cassandra already, but as yet understand little. I have also gotten to know Cassandra herself, and I do know she would want you to form your own conclusions and make your own decision without any influence from me.” Victoria told him. # Frankie walked with Dipsy across the parking lot to his van in a state of mild elation and great anticipation. She looked at him as they walked, and as he made small talk about his van and the nearing sunset, she wondered how she could feel so certain she had nothing to fear from this big, roughly gentle man. To get in a van alone with a man was an extremely dangerous thing to do, something Frankie had never done before, not with somebody she didn’t know very, very well. Male human beings have been wanting to possess Francesca Speciale since she first began turning into a woman. Before she was out of her teens she knew there were many men willing to do horrible things to have their will with her, and so had learned to protect herself about as well as she could. A large part of her protection consisting of staying out of such potentially dangerous situations.

- 231 -

Frankie put her arm through Dipsy’s and patted his biceps. He looked down at her when she did, and she smiled up at him. Dipsy smiled back through his beard, amazed that such a beautiful, other-worldly woman would take his arm and smile at him like that. When they got to the van the big raven was sitting on the fence looking at them. As soon as she saw the bird Frankie stopped and Dipsy stopped with her. “Look,” she said, “do you see her?” “See who, the bird?” He asked. “Yes, isn’t she magnificent?” She stated as much as asked. “How do you know it’s a she?” “She’s a she. I just know.” Frankie told him. “Caw.” The raven called to her before rising into the mellowing sky on powerful black wings. Though Frankie wasn’t born until the seventies, once she stepped inside Dipsy’s van she felt like she had gone back in time to a hippie pad of the late sixties. The floor, walls and ceiling of the van were all carpeted in crimson and black, a double bed laid sideways across the back, and in the middle were two legless easychairs with a couple of milkcrate tables. This living area was separated from the front seats by a curtain of beads. “This is pretty cool, Dipsy, pretty cool indeed.” Frankie told him when he joined her inside. “I like it. I’ve always liked fixed up vans; had them since I was younger than you.” He told her. “Oh, and how young do you think I am?” She asked. “No, forget that,” she quickly continued before he could respond, “we don’t have time. What time is it? We’ve got like

- 232 -

twenty-five minutes before we have to be back. Quick, tell me more about this stuff you smoke.” “Okay, in brief it is a gift from a very old and spiritual woman. If you smoke it with a little herb it should help you to tune in to the emotions of others. It’s not magic, you won’t be able to read minds or anything like that, but you should be able to better sense things like fear, anxiety, confidence et cetera in the other players, that kind of thing. You will still have to play good poker though, and not get unlucky.” Dipsy told her. “Sounds great, just what the doctor ordered to bring my game up to the next level. So what are the downsides?” She asked. “Downsides? None really, not as long as you can function stoned. Have you smoked much grass before?” He asked. “Enough, actually quite a bit at a few different times in my life, though not much lately. I think I can handle it.” Frankie answered. “I think you can too.” Dipsy agreed. # There were thirty-two players, four tables of eight, when play resumed, with at least a quarter of them on short stacks and a half dozen with less than two thousand. One of the short stacks was busted on the very first hand after dinner when his pocket tens ran into pocket kings. Five minutes later another player was busted, then another. Forty minutes into the round it was down to twenty-six players and they were breaking up Tataya and Sebastian’s table, the table with the most chips on it by far, distributing the players among the other three tables. Tataya drew Lee’s table; Sebastian drew Bonnie’s.

- 233 -

Silky Adzick had busted the last two players at the previous table to get it down to twenty-six and was still the tournament’s clear chip leader with over twenty-five thousand, more chips than the rest of his new table combined. Silky recognized half the players at the table but only knew the names of Bonnie and one other player, Pizza Steve, a moderately strong local player with very deep pockets who was now on a short stack and not much of a threat. Bonnie was definitely a threat though, especially if she had enough chips to push at people, and it looked like she had about ten grand in front of her. It was more than a third of what Sebastian had, and definitely enough to make her very dangerous. If she doubled up once through Silky she would have more chips than him. There was nobody else at the table with very many chips though, so unless Bonnie went through Silky her rise would be slow. It also meant he could not be hurt badly by anyone on the table other than Bonnie, at least not yet. Tataya had also busted a couple of players before they moved her, giving her over fourteen thousand and making her the chip leader at her new table. Only one other player at the table was even close to ten thousand, and Lee was about mid pack with forty-three hundred. Half the players were on very short stacks. Frankie, Dipsy and Big Fish were all at the third table, Dipsy the chip leader with exactly eighteen thousand. Frankie had doubled up once, then gone down a little and was hanging in there with twenty-eight hundred. Big Fish was lurking in the bushes with sixty-nine hundred, patiently waiting for the cards or the situation to tell him the time was right to make a move. In the meantime he watched the other players closely, especially Dipsy, where the most chips were, and whose game he was having a lot of trouble figuring out. The only thing Big Fish was certain of was that Dipsy was very good at

- 234 -

reading the other players, and he knew to attack scared chips. Big Fish surmised he would have to be very careful with Dipsy, and would probably have to set him up with a fake tell or two to get any chips from him. He was also a little surprised to see Frankie had made it so far and still had some chips to work with. She seemed to be playing well too, careful and patient, then aggressive when she did play a hand. # When Tataya found herself in the midst of scared short stacks, with the taste of blood still in her soul and her adrenaline flowing, she attacked at every opportunity, stealing blinds here, busting a player there. Lee was watching her, waiting, wondering if she recognized him from when he followed her more than a week ago. The first time she attacked him, Lee folded, as he did the second and third times. The fourth time he had pocket jacks and knew she was just making a move. He called her pre-flop bet putting himself all in then watched his jacks hold up enabling him to double up through her. The next time Tataya attacked his blind Lee pushed all his chips back at her forcing her to let her hand go as he knew she would. Tataya tried to leave him alone after that, but Lee was already stalking her. Back in his room during the dinner break Lee Meadow had decided not to smoke anymore of the essence during the tournament, but he did take a few strong hits of Dipsy and Colon’s marvelous herb. If he was going to win the tournament he wanted to do it the way he always had before. Lee didn’t know if he was still feeling the effects of the essence or if he was simply on top of his game, but when play resumed he found he was reading the other players better than he had in the hour before dinner. Maybe it took that long for the essence to

- 235 -

take full effect, or maybe the healthy dose of cannabis kicked it into a higher gear, or maybe the essence had nothing to do with it. Lee didn’t know, nor did he care at that point. He was where he was, and what he wanted was to win the tournament. The rest he would consider when it was over. Once it got down to three tables most of the twenty-six players remaining tightened up considerably. The next eight players out would receive nothing and end up being five hundred and thirty dollar losers after playing solid poker for over six hours. Most tournament players would much prefer going out early to finishing in the last table not to get paid. Poker is a strange game: the worst hand loses little, the second best hand loses a lot. To get close to a win without winning, be it a single hand or a tournament, is the worse thing that can happen to a poker player. The closer one gets, the worse it is. Since this was the time for most players to tighten up, it was also the time for others to take advantage of this tightness. It was the time for Big Fish to start his move by attacking the scared chips, as Dipsy had been doing all along. Big Fish had been idling in low gear, waiting for Dipsy to attack him when he was on a hand, but Dipsy always seemed able to sense the strength of his hand. It was now time for Big Fish to shift gears. It was also time for Lee to shift another gear higher. He had increased his stack since the dinner break, mostly at Tataya’s expense, and now he went into a full attack mode anytime he sensed weakness. At Silky’s table Bonnie was also constantly attacking, shifting into overdrive against the short stacks, while Silky was content at this point to sit and wait, hoping for the chance to trap Bonnie, or that she would get hurt by another player.

- 236 -

Twenty players remained with five minutes to go until the first scheduled break when the tournament director announced play would continue until they were down to eighteen players. All players would then draw new table and seat assignments before taking a ten minute break, which ended up being a quarter of an hour later than originally scheduled. In the redraw for seats Sebastian and Dipsy, the two chip leaders with a little over twenty-six and twenty-five thousand respectfully, drew different tables. Frankie with fifty-one hundred and Tataya with ninety-seven hundred were both at Dipsy’s table. There were more total chips on Sebastian’s table, including Big Fish’s eleven-two, Bonnie’s seventy-eight and Lee’s eighty-one hundred. There were two players on the table with more chips than Big Fish, each with about half of Sebastian’s total. Dipsy and Frankie had become good buddies by this time and again decided to spend the break together in the van. Inside they found another wooden box waiting for them, more beautifully carved than the first, a note attached with a quote from Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye need know on earth, and all ye need to know.” “She must have left this for you.” Dipsy told Frankie when he read the note. “Who she, the old woman?” She asked as she took the note from him and read it. “I’ve heard this before. Keats, isn’t it?” “I’m pretty sure it is. She must intend the essence for you.” He replied. “But, why me? Never mind, who cares, let’s just do it up and go get them.” Frankie declared, feeling a big payday coming. #

- 237 -

Victoria was waiting for Lee in his room with a cup of coffee cooled to the temperature he prefers when he got there. They embraced and kissed but said little. Victoria knew Lee’s mind and heart were now concentrated on poker and she didn’t want to distract him. While he drank his cup and smoked his bowl, she tried to ease the tension in his neck and shoulders with the strong hands and fingers of a gymnast. # When play resumed things opened up considerably. Since places ten through eighteen all paid the same six hundred eighty-five, now was the time for the short stacks to make their move. With seven minutes left in the round Bonnie knocked out the eleventh place finisher on her table half a minute before Frankie busted the tenth place finisher on the other table. With the final table now set it was decided to draw the new seating assignments first then take a quick five minute break before resuming play.

Chapter 10. Final Table

When the short break was announced Frankie told Dipsy that since her head was just where she wanted it to be he should go to the van alone. She had built her stack to ninety-eight hundred, the second shortest stack on the table, and she had drawn the one seat, the little blind. In the two seat was the shortest stack, a self-proclaimed semiprofessional with forty-one hundred in chips. Lee drew the three seat and was in a virtual three way tie for second place. Silky was in the four seat and an old man he had barely noticed before occupied the five seat. Tataya was in the six seat with eleven-five, and

- 238 -

next to her was Dipsy, the clear cut chip leader with twenty-eight-five. Big Fish came next with fourteen-six, then Bonnie, starting with the button and twelve-three in chips. Dipsy hurried through the early evening darkness to his van, glad to have drawn the seven seat which started him in a late middle position where he could safely miss a number of hands before the blinds reached him, affording him a little more time to get his head and thoughts together. The moment he stepped into his van he saw Cassandra sitting in one of the easy chairs waiting for him. Her presence startled Dipsy a bit but did not really surprise him. It was Cassandra after all, and little she did would surprise Dipsy anymore. “Good evening, Dipsy.” She greeted him, smiling warmly. “Cassandra.” He nodded and smiled back. “I’m glad to see you; I actually expected to see you a lot earlier.” “Yes, I know, but then was not the time.” She replied. “And now is?” He asked. “Yes, time for us to talk.” Cassandra answered as she handed him the smoking peace pipe she had just toked on. “But I only have a few minutes.” He told her as he took the pipe. “You have plenty of time, and plenty of chips. You can easily afford to give some of them away. Time is not money, it is much more precious than that.” “So I believe.” Dipsy agreed. “Yes, I know, it is partly why I chose you.” She told him. “You chose me?” “Yes.”

- 239 -

“For what, to play in the tournament?” Dipsy asked. “Yes, and more. Are you enjoying yourself?” “Yes. What do you mean more?” He inquired. “Later. I am impressed with your beautiful new friend. She is marvelous to look at, and she has a good heart to go with her free-spirited soul.” Cassandra told him. “She has impressed me too.” Dipsy agreed. “She has more than impressed you, my dear Dipsy, I believe you are smitten with her, totally.” The wise old woman observed. “That is a true statement.” Dipsy told her. “How could you not be? What sensitive person would not be attracted to youth, beauty and unabashed enthusiasm? What man could not fall in love with such a woman if she allowed him close enough to her? You came to the tournament at my suggestion partly because you wanted to ball Tataya. I understand; she has great allure. But now that you are close to pure beauty your dangerous desire for her has disappeared.” Cassandra told Dipsy. “That is also a true statement.” He agreed again. “It is an interesting group, is it not, the final table?” Cassandra opined, then continued before Dipsy could respond. “You, the chip leader, have no tournament experience at all, but you have used your natural, enhanced empathy. The beautiful Frankie possesses great desire and enthusiasm, but her talent is, unlike her beauty, only average. Today though I have augmented her talent, put her on a more even level. She has worked hard enough to deserve it. Then there is the evil Tataya, and the amoral Sebastian Adzick. She thinks power and revenge are more important than time; he thinks money is.

- 240 -

And look at the professional players left; they are so different from each other. Money is important to each of them, but is not the top priority for any of them. Big Fish has worked long and hard to get to the highest levels of his profession, and is most concerned with the excellence of his game. Bonnie has also worked hard at lifting her game, but she is more concerned with being an aggressive, dominating player. Lee Meadow has not worked quite so hard on his game as Big Fish and so has not reached the highest level he could, but that is not his main concern; his integrity is. Now Chuck, the little old man in the five seat, has been playing poker decades longer than anyone else at the table and plays solely for the enjoyment it brings him. He doesn’t care at all about the money since he already has more than he can spend. At seventy-six years of age, time and pleasure are his priorities. That leaves us with Peter Stanton, the shortest stack, a part-time lawyer, part-time poker player, full time loafer. He is a man of great intelligence and talent, but little enthusiasm. He has never even considered the intrinsic value of time, only what to charge for an hour of it.” Dipsy had no response. He had listened to all Cassandra said, could follow each of her player sketches clearly, but had no idea what the entire portrait signified. “I can see you feel confused, but don’t be.” Cassandra continued. “I did not expect you to understand; you do not need to. All you need to do is be yourself, as you always are. It will become clear when you need it to become clear. Now you must go. You have spent all the time here needed, and it continues to pass inside without you.” # Final table play began without Dipsy, Lee or Sebastian seated at the table. Dipsy was the only one not there for the second hand. Stanton in the big blind had won the first

- 241 -

hand and more than doubled up, taking most of it from Bonnie who tried to buy the blinds from the button and got caught. Dipsy still wasn’t back when the big blind came to him so Frankie raised all-in from mid position and won the blinds. Tataya took his little blind, and Big Fish’s big blind from the button on the next hand. Dipsy still wasn’t back when the blinds came around again, and again somebody bought them. When he did get back to the table, the first hand Dipsy looked at was a ten-nine offsuit. He was two places to the right of the button and about to through his hand away when he sensed Frankie in the small blind was on a big hand, kings at least judging from the positive vibrations he was getting from her. Nobody had yet called and Dipsy considered raising to get it down to him and Frankie, giving her the best chance of winning the hand, but he just called instead in the hope another player or two would also flat call before Frankie raised them out of the pot. Dipsy wanted Frankie to win as many chips as possible on her big hand, but he also wanted to reduce the chances of her losing the hand. For hours now he had been feeling her intense desire, and her pain when she lost a hand, and by now Dipsy wanted Frankie to win the tournament almost as badly as she did herself. Bonnie raised half her chips from the button in what Dipsy read as an attempt to buy the blinds and his flat call, but then Frankie came over the top with her chips. Dipsy considered reraising behind Frankie so Bonnie would have to go all-in to call, but then he might end up catching a flop and putting Frankie out of the tournament himself, the worst possible result in his mind. Dipsy thought for awhile for show, then threw his hand in the muck, knowing Bonnie would have to do the same, which she did. When Frankie showed her aces Bonnie breathed a small sigh of relief. A few hands later

- 242 -

Frankie took some more chips from Dipsy uncontested. A few hands after that Bonnie managed to get a couple of thousand dollar chips from Dipsy. The button continued its journey around the table a couple of times with no large amounts of chips changing hands, only sets of blinds being won and lost and a few small pots taken by bets on the turn. As was his habit Big Fish counted down his stack as the blinds approached, finding fifteen-five in front of him. With nine players remaining and a hundred and thirty-seven thousand in chips, the average chip holding was fifteen-two, almost exactly Big Fish’s count. When he looked around the table to see where everyone else stood he was astounded to see every player had virtually the same amount of chips. In the hundreds of tournaments he had played over the years Big Fish had never seen the chips so evenly divided at the final table, not even in small tournaments much less one that started with well over a hundred players. “Hold up.” Big Fish asked the dealer before he could deal the next hand. “Randy,” he turned to the tournament director, “have you even see the chips so even at the last table before?” “No, never.” He answered after quickly scanning the table. “Stop the clock. Let’s count down the chips; I want to record this.” When the chip counts were taken it turned out that Frankie was the chip leader with exactly sixteen thousand in front of her and the smallest stack was the fourteen-four in front of Sebastian. With a hundred dollar ante and the blinds at five hundred and a thousand, the winner of the next hand would immediately become the chip leader. Needing the money more than anyone else at the table, Frankie did some quick figuring in her head. Nine people dividing up ninety-one percent of sixty-eight-five

- 243 -

meant each player would get almost seven thousand, about eight hundred more than the fourth place money. That would be more money than Frankie had ever won in one day before and twice as much as the sixth place finish she had decided to shoot for when there were still four tables left. The poker lover in her wanted to keep on playing, but her practical side wanted to take the money knowing it would enable her to play a lot more poker over the months or years to come. If given her choice Frankie would split the money up right then, but she did not want to be the one to suggest it and so she said nothing while hoping somebody else would. Dipsy could feel Frankie pleading for something but thought it was probably only to finish as high as possible. Having never played in a poker tournament before he didn’t realize deals could be made with the remaining prize money split up if all the players still in the tournament agreed. Had he known, Dipsy would have proposed the deal Frankie was hoping for. He and Colon did okay financially with their little farm, but seven grand was still a lot of money to him, and if given the choice Dipsy would prefer to take it now rather than risk most of it trying for twenty-two grand, especially after losing such a big chip lead so quickly. Peter Stanton had played in many tournaments and did know deals could be made. He also knew at least five or six players at the table were far stronger than him and that he was lucky to have gotten as far as he did, very lucky. “Hold up, don’t deal yet.” He told the dealer then addressed the other players. “Look, we’re all even in chips and an even split now would be sixty-nine-twenty-six; you’d have to finish third or higher to get more. Anybody else want to split it up right now?” Peter Stanton proposed.

- 244 -

Frankie didn’t want to be the first to jump aboard, not wanting to seem too anxious in front of Big Fish, Bonnie and Lee, so she waited. Dipsy thought it was a great idea and said so, encouraging Frankie to say she was willing to go along with an even split. Sebastian had been growing more tired and less confident since play resumed after dinner and was about to agree to the split when both Bonnie and Big Fish told the others to forget it. “I don’t deal.” Bonnie announced, letting everyone know no tournament ending deal would be made as long as she was still in. Chuck was happy to hear Big Fish and Bonnie quickly nix the split. If everyone else had agreed to it he would have went along, but the old man who had been playing poker almost seventy years really wanted to play a lot more poker that day. He didn’t think he could outplay a player like Big Fish, or Bonnie, or even Lee Meadow, but he wanted the chance to try. For Chuck the pleasure was in the trying. “That’s it, I’m starting the clock. You have twelve minutes left in this round. Deal!” Randy announced, and play resumed. # Things now began to happen quickly. On the very first hand Peter Stanton made it six thousand to go from late position after Big Fish flat called the thousand and everyone else folded. The remaining players threw their hands in the muck making it five thousand to Big Fish. The huge man with the huge game studied the half-assed lawyer for a good thirty of forty seconds before pushing all his chips in. Stanton’s immediate impulse was to throw his pocket jacks away, convinced Big Fish had to have a higher pair to make a play like that, but then he started thinking. He

- 245 -

might just be betting high cards, ace-king or something like that, in which case I’m the favorite, but by how much? I can’t remember and I don’t feel like figuring it out right now. Besides he might be making a move with a smaller pair figuring I was making a move with high cards and would play him for a big pair and throw them away. If he’s on a smaller pair I’m a big, big favorite. Hell he’s even capable of making a move like that with junk, something like six-seven suited. What the hell, let’s push it in and see what happens. Peter was tired of thinking and so pushed all his chips into the center. Big Fish had played poker with Peter Stanton many times before and had built a small book of good solid tells on him. From the way the lawyer had put in his raise Big Fish knew he had a strong hand but not a monster. He figured Stanton for a pocket pair of queens at the most, more likely tens or jacks, but he might also be on an ace-king, or acequeen suited, something like that, which would leave three aces to outdraw Big Fish’s pocket kings with rather than just two cards if Stanton held a lower pair. A suited ace would also give the lawyer a long shot flush draw. With a confident smile Big Fish turned up his red kings and was glad to see Stanton turn up two red jacks. Big Fish was over the first hurdle, and with the jacks and kings all the same suits there was no chance of losing to a board with four cards of one suit. There were still two more jacks in the deck though, and five chances for Stanton to hit one of them. The flop came up ace-queen-four, making the king that fell on the turn actually a bad card for Big Fish since it gave Stanton the four tens as outs rather than only the two black jacks. Big Fish held his breath when the river card was being turned, he had been put out of tournaments before by even longer shots, but a harmless three came to put Stanton out of the tournament and make Big Fish the chip leader.

- 246 -

Bonnie was the next to go when she trapped Chuck into going all-in on his overpair after she had flopped a set, but the old man got lucky and hit his set of tens on the turn to knock her out. Right after that Tataya either started getting some starting cards, or decided to try to take control of the table, raising four times in a row to win the blinds and antes. The fifth time she tried it Silky had pocket tens and pushed all his chips back at her. Tataya called and turned over ace-queen off suit, then got both an ace and a queen on the flop. The turn and river cards contained no miracles for Sebastian and he was out. A few hands after Sebastian went out the antes were raised to two hundred, and the blinds to one thousand, two thousand. Play tightened up again with the jump between payoffs getting bigger with each person out. Now whoever made the first move at the pot usually took it, and if the first move didn’t, then it was the first counter move. Almost all the hands were won before the flop or on the flop, only a few went as far as the turn card or the river. Big Fish and Tataya were the ones doing most of the pushing, winning the most of the blinds and antes, making them the two chip leaders as the next break neared. In between Tataya in the six seat and Big Fish in the eight seat sat a befuddled Dipsy. He was not enjoying the game nearly as much as he had earlier. He was still feeling the effects of the essence and so was reading the emotions of the others players well, but it was no longer easy to interpret the strength of their hands from their emotions. With all the players remaining playing at the top of their game their emotions were difficult to decipher. Concentration was also getting to be a problem. It had been a long time since Dipsy had to think so long and hard and he was getting tired. In addition, he was still acutely aware of Frankie’s emotional stress, particularly her fear and desire, and that combined with his budding love for her exhausted him further. About the only thing

- 247 -

Dipsy was certain of at this point was that he wanted Frankie to win more than he wanted to win himself. Chuck was having a great time. He played poker for enjoyment, and enjoyment was what he was getting. Other than Tataya and Big Fish he was playing the most aggressively, and he was certainly having the most fun, though he kept that to himself. What he was looking for now was to make the brilliant play, ideally against Big Fish, but he’d take it against anybody. He got his chance a few hands before the break, though against Tataya rather than Big Fish. Unfortunately for Chuck his brilliant play was read perfectly by his murderous opponent and he was out in sixth place, but feeling great. It had been a marvelous day for him. # When break time came again Cassandra watched the five remaining players leave the table to do whatever each thought would contribute to their best poker when they returned in fifteen minutes. She smiled at the sweet embrace of Lee and Victoria. They fit so well together she could feel their love across the room. If only Lee could accept sharing Victoria with her. He would, once he understood sharing Victoria would actually mean he would have more of her. Cassandra was impressed at how well Lee was able to keep his concentration on the tournament with so much weight on his mind. “Would you like something to drink, Ma’am?” The bartender asked Cassandra. “Why yes, yes I would, young man. Bring me a grasshopper, would you please.” She answered as she watched Dipsy and Frankie walk out to the parking lot together. That couple also made Cassandra smile. Tataya’s presence did not. Cassandra could feel Tataya growing more dangerous, both on and off the table. She could sense the

- 248 -

young woman’s hard hatred, and the power it gave her. As Cassandra watched her, Tataya suddenly turned and stared back. Cassandra held her stare for two or three seconds before looking away, glad she chose the form she did, a form Tataya could not recognize, except maybe through the eyes. Tataya continued to stare at the old lady at the bar for several seconds after she looked away. She hated being observed like that and there was something about the woman that made Tataya uneasy, but she didn’t have time to concern herself with that now. She was the clear chip leader and she wanted the twenty-two grand, but just as much she wanted to destroy the other players, every one of them. Then maybe she’d kill that old biddy for looking at her that way. Silky Adzick was seated at the bar near Cassandra, waiting for Big Fish. “Hey, man, that’s what you get for going after your own horse.” The huge man told Silky as he joined him. “My own horse? Oh, right, our bet. Well, you know the only thing I don’t cheat at is poker. Bet or no bet, I was playing to win.” Sebastian replied. “I know, man, I know; and the bitch drew out on you too, though you weren’t much a favorite.” Big Fish told him. “C’est la vie, what can I say? She is tough, my friend, on and off the poker tables I think. And so, what do you think? Can you handle her? Silky asked. “On or off the tables?” Big Fish countered. “My very large friend, you wouldn’t have a chance off the tables. I am quite certain very few would.” Silky told him. “What about you?” Big Fish wondered.

- 249 -

“I’m still considering the situation.” “Considering the situation! Damn, man, you never considered such a situation before, you just did. That bitch has got you spooked too, admit it.” Big Fish asserted. “Maybe, an iota or so.” Sebastian admitted. “An iota? Hah! It a hell of a lot more than that?” Big Fish pushed. “Maybe, but you haven’t answered my question. Can you outplay her?” Sebastian Adzick asked again. “Silky, I can outplay anybody here and you know it. Hell, I can outplay all but about six people in the world, and sometimes I can outplay them too. She could always draw out on me though.” Big Fish told him. “Of course, the glory of poker, the element of chance. Make the wrong move and win, make the right move and lose. Lady Luck, the ultimate handicapper.” Sebastian expounded. “Exactly, and every time it happens to me I remind myself that without luck there would be no game, no little fish for the Big Fish to eat. Without luck we’d be playing chess, and there ain’t a whole lot of people making a lot of bread playing chess.” Big Fish noted. “Point well made, so true indeed. By the way, did you notice that Frankie went with flannel shirt on the break again?” “Yeah, what a weird pair that is.” Big Fish replied. “That it is, a little like Grizzly Adams meets Emma Peel.” Sebastian commented. “Yeah, exactly, except she ain’t English.”

- 250 -

“No, but she looks just as good. She also carries herself much the same way, with that cool confidence in her looks. You don’t think they could be working in collusion, do you?” Silky asked Big Fish. “No, no way. For one thing, if they were they wouldn’t want to be seen together. Besides, I’ve know Frankie awhile, not well, but well enough to know she just wouldn’t do that. I’ve talked to her about poker and she really loves the game. Cheating would be a mortal sin for her. The flannel shirt is okay too, seems like a real nice guy. Can’t figure his game out for the life of me though; I’m beginning to think it’s because he can’t figure out his own game. What is possible is the guy has got the hots so bad for Frankie he wouldn’t want to hurt her on the poker table. But that shouldn’t be a problem, I might even be able to use it to my advantage.” Big Fish informed him. # “Thanks for inviting me back to your van again.” Frankie told Dipsy. “I think that stuff really does work, though I think one toke will be enough for now. I’m still able to read people better than ever before, but maybe it works because I think it works. You know, it’s all in the mind kind of thing, all in the confidence.” “Maybe, who knows anything for sure? I know you’re playing good, a lot better than me. I hope you win; I think you’re going to win in fact.” Dipsy told her. “Thanks, that’s really nice. If I don’t win, I hope you do. In any case, would you let me treat you to dinner after the tournament.” Frankie asked him. “Of course, I’d love it, very, very much.” Dipsy answered. “To our success, and our dinner then.” Frankie proclaimed, holding up the pipe before taking a deep toke and passing it to Dipsy.

- 251 -

# Like Sebastian, Tataya also considered the possibility Dipsy and Frankie were in collusion. Those who cheat believe nearly everybody cheats, those who lie think everyone else is lying too, and those who always tell the true tend to believe others, even their lies. As she listened to Big Fish and Sebastian’s conversation, Cassandra kept an indiscrete eye on Tataya, and was a bit alarmed when the dangerous woman followed Dipsy and Frankie outside. Cassandra also followed, from a distance, her eyes very good at distances. From inside the casino she watched Tataya watch the two get in the van. As soon as her quarry closed the door behind them, Tataya exited and headed off to the left. When Tataya moved, so too did Cassandra, stalking the predator. She watched Tataya walk about a hundred feet before crossing over to the parked cars, then stop at her Porsche to get something out of it before heading back toward Dipsy’s van. The front door window was the only one on the driver’s side of Dipsy’s van, the side Tataya chose to approach. When she reached the van Tataya moved to the front and crouched down in its shadow where she could listen at the window with the stethoscope she had gotten from the Porsche. Tataya needed to hear what Dipsy was saying, what he and Frankie were up to, if anything. It wasn’t collusion she was really concerned about, it was why Dipsy was here at all. When Tataya first spotted Dipsy at the tournament earlier that day she hoped he didn’t recognize her from the incident in the forest, but the first time their eyes met she knew he did. She immediately became concerned as to why he was here. Was he following her? She reasoned at first that maybe he just happened to be a poker player and

- 252 -

was here simply for that, but as the tournament progressed she eventually realized that apparently nobody had ever played poker with him in a casino before and so that was not the case. So why was he here? Was it because of her, and if so, what did he intend to do? Just as Tataya pressed the stethoscope to the window of the van Dipsy turned on the stereo, startling her into jumping away. The stethoscope was no good now, all she could hear was The Pretenders. Using the mirrors Tataya tried to look inside the van but it was too dark to see anything. She swore under her breath and returned to her Porsche, formulating possible plans in her head. She had to find out what Dipsy was about. Tataya was afraid she might have to kill him to protect herself, and she didn’t want to kill Dipsy. For some reason she found herself liking him. Maybe he thought what I did was right? Tataya walked back to the Porsche to return the stethoscope, looking above the parking lot lights to the night sky. The sun had set long ago yet it still left some gray on the western edge of the cloudless sky. The high desert air was getting cold quickly. When she got to the Porsche there was a magnificent horned owl sitting on the fence facing the car. “Ooooh, whoooo” it said to Tataya before rising slowly in the air and disappearing in the darkness. That’s a little weird, Tataya thought to herself, it’s the right time for owls but I wouldn’t have expected to see one in a parking lot. Maybe there’s a lot of rats around here for them. Frankie and Dipsy shared a bag of M&M’s, but little conversation. Frankie’s concentration was on the poker task ahead; Dipsy’s concentration was on Frankie. The fortifying hits of essence had Dipsy so in tune with Frankie’s emotions it was like he was inside her heart. He could feel her acute desire to win the tournament, and how fragile her

- 253 -

confidence was. Dipsy tried to remember the last time he had wanted anything as badly as Frankie wanted to win this tournament. All he could come up with was wanting to get out of Viet Nam, and the army altogether. Now he wanted her, just as badly as he wanted that then. # When play resumed Tataya immediately began attacking Lee and Dipsy, the two smallest stacks at the table. The ante was now five hundred, and the blinds two thousand, four thousand. Lee had just gotten through the blinds before the break leaving him with twelve-five and the button, and Dipsy had four in the big blind with eleven more in front of him. Tataya was the little blind the first hand, and after everyone else had folded she pushed enough of her chips toward the center to put Dipsy all in. Dipsy hoped to find aces or kings in his hand but instead looked at a ten-eight off suit and threw it into the muck. The next hand Tataya considered attacking the blinds from the button after Frankie and Lee had folded. She knew Dipsy wasn’t going to defend his small blind, but Big Fish was the big blind and that worried her, especially since she had only a jack-ten off suit. She looked at Big Fish and found him impossible to read as always so she threw the jackten in the muck. Dipsy’s hand followed and Big Fish won the pot without the bet ever getting to him. Big Fish attacked Frankie and Lee’s blinds from the button the next hand, after Tataya declined attacking with her ace-ten because of her position with Big Fish behind her. She was glad she didn’t when he raised; she could not have stood a reraise. Big Fish had about two thirds as many chips as Tataya, more than enough to hurt her badly if he

- 254 -

doubled up through her, and she knew he was waiting for a chance to do just that. She didn’t like their relative positions on the table either since by being two places to her left Big Fish would have the bet after her sixty percent of the hands. With a seventeen hundred dollar difference between fifth and fourth places, and twenty-four between fourth and third, nobody wanted to be the next out. It was several hands before anyone looked at a flop, and that was only when Dipsy in the small blind called the additional two thousand and Big Fish didn’t try to raise him out from the big blind with his three-six figuring that since Dipsy already had almost half his chips in the pot he would almost certainly put in the rest if raised. The flop, the turn and the river were all garbage, no three, no sixes. Each time Dipsy checked and Big Fish was tempted to bet he resisted, fearing a trap he could not smell. He was glad he didn’t when Dipsy turned up his set of nines, having hit his pocket pair on the flop and wisely waiting for Big Fish to make a move at the pot. It was the only way he was going to get any money since if Dipsy bet Big Fish would have folded. Big Fish was glad he didn’t hit a six or a three since he had himself convinced Dipsy was on big cards with no pair. Big Fish would have bet for value and been buried if he had hit anything. Big Fish was even a bit tempted to bet with nothing since he didn’t think Dipsy had anything either, but Dipsy had been reading hand strength so well Big Fish was afraid he would still call. The real problem for Big Fish was he could not read Dipsy very well. He had tells on all the rest of the players though, especially Frankie. Lee went through the last round without seeing a playable hand, leaving him on the button with four thousand in chips, five hundred of which he had to ante. He needed to

- 255 -

find a hand quickly and was dealt a king-jack suited immediately, likely better than anything he would see in the next three hands. “Call, all in for thirty-five.” Lee announced. Tataya looked down at her ace-four suited and pushed ten thousand more into the center, enough to also put Dipsy all in if he called too, but he didn’t. When Dipsy threw his cards in the muck leaving just Lee and Tataya in the hand, Lee turned up his king-jack of hearts, but Tataya kept her cards to herself. The flop came ace of spades and nine ten of hearts. “I’ve got a chance.” Lee declared when he saw the flop. “Looks like I need a heart, the queen of hearts would be perfect.” “That’s the only heart that wins for you.” Tataya told him as she turned up her acefour of hearts. “Only the four queens wins for you, sweetie.” She gloated. Three queens, Big Fish thought to himself having thrown a black queen away, thirty-seven to three, two chances to hit a twelve to one shot. I hope he hits it on the bitch! Big Fish got his wish, the turn card was the queen of diamonds giving Lee the straight. It was a great feeling getting the straight, but Lee’s demeanor did not reflect it. Tataya could still catch a heart on the river. “Heart!” Tataya called for when the dealer burned and was turning up the river card. She got her heart too, the queen of hearts! “Alright!” Lee yelled, jumping up, showing more emotion on a poker table than he had for years.

- 256 -

Tataya just stared at the cards, then at Lee, hatred in her eyes, the desire to destroy him in her heart. Lee could feel the doldrums being blown away by his straight flush, its wind filling his sails as he pulled in the pot. Every once in a great while a poker player can just feel the cards turning his way, and this was such a time for Lee. He won the blinds the next hand, and the hand after that. Then Tataya went after the blinds and Big Fish came over the top behind her, making her throw her hand away. The next time she attacked the blinds, Big Fish came over the top again, but this time Tataya called, going all-in, certain that she had discovered a tell on Big Fish and that he was just making a move at the pot. Neither player turned their hand up until an ace and two garbage cards fell on the flop. “I’ve got an ace.” She announced, turning up her ace queen of diamonds thinking it was the best hand. When Big Fish turned up his ace-king it was now Tataya who was dead to one of three queens, but no queen came for Tataya and she was out of the tournament with over four thousand in cash and revenge on her mind. She stayed to see who would be next out, and to follow Dipsy when he left. Dipsy was the next to go, with a happy whimper rather than a bang, putting in the rest of his chips on a queen-ten off suit the next time Frankie raised. He got a queen on the flop too, but Frankie was on pocket kings which held up when a second queen or ten failed to show on the turn or river. Dipsy also stayed after collecting his money; he had his dinner date with Frankie and was more than a little curious about who was eventually going to win the tournament.

- 257 -

It was down to three now: Frankie, Lee and Big Fish, and Frankie was soaring like she never had before on a poker table. Even if she was the next one out she would collect over eighty-five hundred, almost three times as much as her previous personal high for a day of poker, and if she held on for second place she would collect almost twelve thousand. Big Fish was the chip leader with around seventy-five thousand, Lee on a short stack of just under twenty thousand, and Frankie solidly in the middle with forty-three. Three hours ago Frankie wouldn’t have given herself a chance to beat a player of Big Fish’s caliber in a situation like this, but now she knew she had a shot, a very good shot. She had been studying Big Fish very closely, Lee too but not quite so closely, and she was reading both of them very well. She was poised and ready to go after either one. Big Fish was feeling extremely confident at this point; not only was he the strongest, most experienced player of the three, he also had the most ammunition to work with, He also considered it a plus that the more dangerous of his two opponents was on the short stack. Big Fish had gone up against Lee several times in the past and knew him to be a formidable player, solid, seldom made mistakes, and had the ability to immediately shift into high gear when the situation called for it. Big Fish wanted to go after Lee while he was still on a short stack, take him out when he was most vulnerable, but he had to be careful not to provide such a solid player with any more ammunition. Once Lee was out Big Fish would be heads up against Frankie, and unless she got very, very lucky, first place would be his. Big Fish had been watching her closely, as he did all the players at the table, and it was true she was playing well, but she was still a long way from his level, plus he had a couple of solid tells against her that might yet come up in the right position.

- 258 -

Lee Meadow was also feeling very confident despite being on the shortest stack. Like Big Fish, he didn’t think Frankie was a strong enough player to win without getting lucky, plus all he had to do was take a set or two of blinds then double up one time through Big Fish and all three would be fairly even. The first few hands ended quickly and without incident, the big blind winning each time without a bet. Then Big Fish got a couple of high cards on the button and made it ten grand to go, reasoning that Lee was unlikely to commit any more chips unless he had powerful starting cards, but Lee reraised all his chips without hesitation putting the decision back on Big Fish. Damn, I should have shoved them all in, maybe he couldn’t have called if I did. What can the sucker have? If he has just one ace I’m a big dog, but how can I let it go? He might be making a move? No, not Lee, not here. He has a hand, he has to, but damn, there’s over thirty in the pot now and it’s only ten more to call. If I throw the hand away now I’ll still have sixty five and he’ll have half of that, but if I call and lose I’ll have fiftyfive left and they’ll both have in the low forties. I’d still be the chip leader though, and if I win Lee is out, then I’ll have almost a hundred thousand to Frankie’s forty. I’m a dog, I know I’m a dog, but I’ve got to call anyhow. Big Fish told himself then pushed enough chips in to call and turned over his king-queen offsuit. Lee turned up a pair of fives. As far as Big Fish was concerned that wasn’t too bad, in fact it was far better than Lee having a single ace. If Big Fish hit a queen or a king then Lee would have to hit one of two fives to beat him rather than one of three aces. He was still a dog, but he had expected that. Either way Big Fish had to hit a king or a queen, or a straight or flush to win, and he hit none of these. Things were evening up.

- 259 -

The next hand Frankie found an ace-ten on the button, a big hand for three way action, any ace was according to most of the books she had read. She had been studying the other two players as they looked at their cards and she felt certain Lee was about to give up his hand, but she was having trouble reading Big Fish. He was so full of emotion from the hand he just lost it was hard for her to read how he felt about his present hand. I got to go for it, Frankie told herself, I can’t waste a good ace on the button if I want to win this thing. “Raise.” She announced and pushed all her chips in. This looked to be the hand Big Fish was waiting for. He rechecked his pocket tens to make sure he didn’t somehow misread his hand, then turned his attention back to Frankie, looking for one of two tells he had picked up on her in previous tournaments. As far as Big Fish knew neither tell had yet manifested itself today, but in times of great poker stress old habits easily surface. He hoped the tells he had on Frankie remained the same, that nobody else had caught them and wised her up. Some poker pros share notes on other players’ tells, habits and the like, but Big Fish believed in keeping such things to himself. There was no way he would ever write a book revealing his own poker strategies and secrets unless he decided to retire from playing, and probably not even then. Those who did write the books seldom told all anyhow. Frankie had long suspected some players were able to pick up tells on her and had been working on that part of her game. Since she didn’t know specifically what the tells were she reasoned her best defense was to employ a strategy of simply staring at the table in front of her without looking up, an idea that came to her while watching Stu Unger win his third World Championship. This simple but effective method made it difficult for Big

- 260 -

Fish to pick up one of the two tells that centered on Frankie’s lips since he could barely see them. Then he thought he saw her chew a little on her inner lower lip, a tell that should mean she was not all that confident in her hand. If she had a pair of jacks or higher Frankie would feel more confident, and if she had anything less he was the favorite to win the hand. “Call.” Big Fish announced. Frankie would have preferred to win the blinds without a contest, and so was not happy when he called, and she was even less happy when Big Fish turned over his pocket tens. “Looks like I need an ace.” She told him as she turned up her cards. She got not one ace but two, one on the flop and another on the turn, killing any chance of Big Fish winning the hand. The spectators reacted to the aces falling, but Frankie or Big Fish did not, not outwardly. Frankie was now the chip leader with almost ninety thousand, and was focusing her concentration was on taking first place and the twenty-two thousand that went with it. She felt the tournament was going to be hers when the second ace hit. Big Fish still had thirteen thousand and was not quite out of it yet. He immediately put the beat out of his mind and concentrated on the next hand. He had to find a playable hand very soon with each three hand round costing seventy-five hundred in blinds and antes. Big Fish looked at a deuce-nine in the small blind and a deuce seven on the button and threw them both into the muck. The big blinds took both hands uncontested. Then Big Fish was back in the big blind again and had to put forty-five hundred of his remaining ten thousand in the pot knowing one of the other two players was sure to go after it with almost anything. Frankie looked at an eight-three on the

- 261 -

button and tossed it, leaving it up to Lee who decided to do something he never did in a tournament before. Without looking at his cards he pushed ten thousand in chips into the center. “Raise,” he announced, “in the dark.” “In the dark, Lee? You?” Big Fish wondered aloud. “Hey, why not? You knew I was going to raise with just about anything anyhow, and now you almost have to call, unless you have real garbage.” Lee answered. Big Fish looked at the queen-seven off suit in his hand; it wasn’t much but the queen was enough to warrant a call of a dark bet in that situation especially since he wasn’t very likely to see anything much better in the next couple of hands, and if he won this hand he would have twenty thousand in chips to work with. Big Fish showed Lee the queen-seven before calling. “Looks like enough to call, Lee.” Big Fish told him, hoping in vain to get him to peek at his cards. “That’s up to you. It’s alright with me if you throw it away; I’ll be glad to take the pot right here.” Lee told him. “Yeah, I know you would. I don’t really have a choice; I call.” Big Fish replied and pushed his few remaining chips into the pot. “Let’s see what I got to beat.” The first card Lee turned over was a deuce, the second card a king, making him the favorite. No deuce, seven, queen or king showed on the flop, nor on the turn, giving Big Fish six winning cards out of forty-four to hit on the river. It was thirty-eight to six against him, making the defending champion a nineteen to three underdog. Lee and Frankie both held their breath as the river card was about to be turned, and they both

- 262 -

exhaled in relief when they saw the eight of clubs. The biggest dragon left on the table had been slain. As Lee was stacking his chips Frankie was counting down her own stack. She had ninety-two in front of her leaving Lee with forty-five, giving her a two to one chip lead that could be easily reversed on a single hand. Frankie figured the ten thousand dollar difference between first and second made it time to discuss a deal. “Should we discuss a deal?” Frankie suggested. “I don’t usually deal, but it can’t hurt to talk. I think we should do it in private though. How about a short break, Randy?” Lee asked the tournament director. “You got it, five minutes, okay?” “Plenty enough. Shall we, young lady?” Lee stood and indicated an empty table away by itself. “Charmed.” She answered with a smile and took his offered hand as she got up from the table. She had always liked Lee and still wondered if they might yet get something going. “So, Frankie, what kind of deal did you have in mind?” Lee asked her when they reached the table he indicated. “I don’t really know; I’ve never been in this situation with so much money involved before. What do you think a fair deal would be?” She answered. “Like I said, as a matter of principle I seldom make deals, but I’m willing to listen to what you have to offer.” Lee told Frankie. “I don’t really have an offer to make; I thought you might make one.” She responded.

- 263 -

“Well since I don’t like to deal in the first place any offer I make will be much to my advantage, or it’s just not worth it to me to deal. I want to be up front with you about that.” Lee explained. “I understand that, and I’ll be straight with you too. I’ve never had enough of a bankroll to be able to quit dealing before. Now I will, but whatever I take here will be it, so I don’t want to risk any more than I have to playing you heads up.” She told him. “Okay, that’s cool, I understand. I’ve been there myself, many times. Let me give a quick word of advice though. Making poker deals is a little like playing poker, you don’t want people to know how strong or weak your position is. I appreciate your honesty, but many would only try to take advantage of it. I won’t though.” Lee told her. “I know that, Lee, that’s why I’m being so straight with you.” Frankie explained. “You trying to flatter me?” Lee asked. “No, I’m just being straight with you.” Frankie answered. “Okay, then I’ll be straight with you. First of all, we need to play this out and have something more than the trophy riding on the outcome. Agreed?” “”Agreed.” Frankie agreed. “Now the way you would be sure of getting the most is by a nearly even split, say seventeen each and play for the change, but that’s not really fair to you since you have a two to one chip lead.” Lee stated. “Right, but if you double up through me once you will have the two to one chip lead, as you well know.” Frankie responded. “See, now that’s the kind of thing you should keep to yourself, make me point that out, then counter with telling me that if I fail to double up the first time I try I’ll be out,

- 264 -

but you will have a second chance. With a two to one chip advantage you are statistically a two to one favorite to win, and you should deal with that leverage behind you. Boy, it’s a good you’re dealing with me and not a few others I know.” Lee told her, shaking his head a bit. “I know.” Frankie replied. “Okay, here’s what I’ll do, but remember it’s a better straight percentage deal for me than it is for you. I think it will give you want you want though. How about if we both take a guaranteed fifteen apiece and play it out for the rest?” Lee suggested. “That sounds fair.” “No, it’s not fair, Frankie. You should get more of a guarantee because of the chip lead.” Lee told her. “I understand, but it’s worth it to me.” Frankie replied. “Okay, I should take it, but I wouldn’t feel right if I did, so what we’ll do is this: I’ll take two grand plus insurance money if I finish second and you take three plus if you do, meaning I get fourteen for second, and you get fifteen. That gives you twenty for first, and me nineteen. It’s still a better deal for me than it is for you, but it’s the best I’m willing to do.” Lee explained. “It will work for me. Let’s do it. Done deal then?” Frankie held out her hand to shake a confirmation of the deal. “Done deal.” Lee agreed, taking Frankie smooth hand in his own. He liked the touch of her hand and the smile she gave him, but his heart insisted Victoria was the only one for him now.

- 265 -

Frankie also liked the feel of Lee’s soft, warm hand on hers, and while she was looking forward to her dinner with Dipsy and the love making she was sure would happen later, her heart did not consider Dipsy the only one. Her heart had never yet considered anyone the only one, and occasionally Frankie wondered if it ever would. She also wondered if she wanted it to. Dipsy was of course still waiting for play to resume when they returned. Frankie winked at him and smiled. Dipsy smiled back. He felt more excited for her than he had for himself when he was playing, and he wondered what kind of deal they had made. Also staying for the conclusion of the tournament was Big Fish, Silky Adzick and Tataya Feathers, all sitting and talking together. After Sebastian went out and collected his money from Randy he found a nearby empty table to watch the end of the tournament from. When Tataya went out he asked her to join him, explaining to her he had just lost three grand betting she would last longer than Big Fish. “You thought I would beat him?” She asked. “He gave me odds of five to three, and yes, I did think you were going to outlast him.” Silky told her. Tataya felt flattered and it pleased her, but she was not the type to let flattery influence her. “But I didn’t.” She said. “No, you didn’t. But so it goes, it is only money.” Sebastian declared, though money and the power it brought were more important to him than anything, sexual conquests being a fairly close second. Tataya looked at him hard and raised an eyebrow, but said nothing in response.

- 266 -

“You were a good bet at five to three.” Silky continued. “No I wasn’t, I lost, you lost, three grand to be exact.” “That is true, sadly so, but I could have picked up five big ones from my old friend and nemesis, and that would have felt so very splendid. Besides, I can easily afford it, and I just picked up two thousand myself in this tournament, not to mention a quick ten thousand on a car deal. Making money is one of the two things I do best.” Sebastian told her. Tataya looked at him hard again and said nothing. She of course knew he expected her to ask what the other thing was, and she also knew what his answer would be, as would any attractive, intelligent woman in her position. Tataya was not going to give him the opening he was looking for. She had no qualms about using sex to get what she wanted, but Sebastian Adzick had nothing she wanted right now, nothing except money and she could go after that anytime. Plus he was simply not sexually attractive to her. Grown men seldom were. Tataya preferred boys just beginning puberty, with bald genitals and rising libidos. She liked being in control, and she liked it best when her sexual toy, boy or man, was completely at her mercy. Sebastian saw the hard look in Tataya’s eyes and dropped it at that. He didn’t know what to make of this woman, and he didn’t know if he really wanted her anymore, which would be a first for a woman looking as good as Tataya. Maybe Big Fish is right, maybe she’s too dangerous to fool with? Just then Big Fish went out and he too joined them. “Got my money, Silky, old chap?” Big Fish asked after nodding to Tataya and sitting down. He then turned back to Tataya.

- 267 -

“This limey fool bet you against me, three to five, and you damn near pulled it off. Good tournament, you played very well, and if Lee hadn’t caught that queen you would still probably be in there. That was a bad beat.” Big Fish told Tataya. “It happens.” Tataya replied, trying to appear unaffected, but Big Fish could taste the venom in her tone. He did not like this woman and wanted to be far away from her, but he wanted to stay around to see if Frankie could hold on for the win. He also wanted to study Lee’s head up play, reasoning there was a fair chance he and Lee might end up the last two in a future tournament. “So, what do you guys think?” Big Fish asked. “Can she hold him off for the win? Lee is a lot stronger player than Frankie.” “He is the stronger player, no doubt, but so were you. Besides, I am not so sure Frankie isn’t playing just as well today as Lee is. It’s not that Lee is playing down to her level, but that she’s playing up to his. What do you think?” Sebastian asked, directing his question both to Big Fish and Tataya. “You may be right, and she does have a two to one lead, but I think class will tell and he’ll catch her. Do you think they made a deal?” Big Fish wondered out loud. “I don’t really give a shit.” Tataya told them. “In fact I don’t even know why I’m waiting around here.” “Wait,” Silky asked her, putting his hand on her arm. “would you like to play in my private game this week?” Tataya looked at Sebastian’s hand on her arm causing him to take it away. “I’ll think about it. She said. “What day?”

- 268 -

“Wednesday, play begins at six-thirty and I have food and drinks set out at six for those who want to eat before they play.” “I’ll think about it.” She told him and was up and gone before he could say anything else. “That is a strange woman, Silky.” Big Fish told him as they watched her leave. “She most certainly is.” Sebastian agreed. “You still want to fuck her?” “I’m not so sure anymore, I’m really not. You may be right, my huge friend. There is something very discerning about her, dangerous more than discerning actually. I have decided she is probably too dangerous to fool with, but I’ll be damned if I know why exactly.” Silky told him. “It’s her attitude, man, you can see it in her eyes. Those are some hard-ass, cold eyes, man. She could probably cut off your balls, smiling from the pleasure it gave her. I wouldn’t give her the chance if I were you. You’d miss your balls, man. Look, Lee’s making a move.” Frankie had raised Lee ten thousand before the flop and he came back at her, pushing all his chips in. Now she had a big decision. If she let her hand go now she would still have about a three to two chip advantage, and if she called and lost he would have her two to one. But if she won the hand she would win the tournament. Frankie looked down at her king-queen of clubs again and considered the possibilities. If Lee had an under pair, or an ace, she was a dog, though maybe not that much of one. If he had aces, kings or queens she was a huge dog. Frankie wanted to find a reason to call, but since she wasn’t getting any vibrations from Lee as to the strength of his hand she didn’t

- 269 -

know what to do. Frankie was just about to push her chips in when she suddenly got scared, convinced Lee was on a big pair, and threw her hand into the muck. “Were you better than ten-nine suited?” Lee asked, knowing she was, then threw the two named diamonds face up as he pulled in the pot. Damn, Frankie thought to herself, he’s trying to play with my mind now. What the hell does that mean? Is he going to keep on pushing or did he do that so he’d get a call next time? On the very next hand Lee pushed all his chips in again making Frankie throw away her ten-two off suit. The next hand Lee again pushed all his chips in and Frankie threw away a six-five off suit. Now their chip totals were nearing even. When Lee pushed all his chips at her the fourth consecutive time Frankie had an ace-seven off suit. Again she tried to read if Lee felt strong or weak but got nothing, which was probably just as well since she had just read his ten-nine for a high pair. Frankie decided she couldn’t possibly win by continuously throwing hands away, and certainly not by throwing an ace away heads up. “Call.” Frankie announced and everyone but the two players and the dealer stood up to see the two hands turned up for all to see. Frankie’s heart sank when she saw Lee’s ace-ten of diamonds. She was a huge dog now. To win, Frankie would have to hit a seven without Lee hitting a ten. Neither showed on the flop, but there were two spades and Frankie’s seven was a spade. The turn card was another spade, making twelve cards out of forty-four winners for Frankie, nine spades and the three remaining sevens. Lee had counted down his sixty-five thousand in chips before the hand so he knew Frankie had seventy-two in front of her when the hand

- 270 -

began. If she hit a card he was out, but even if she didn’t she would still have seven thousand in chips and a slight chance. The river card was a queen of hearts, the same queen that made Lee’s straight-flush earlier, and Frankie was down to one or two more hands at the most, if she failed to win one of them. She didn’t and two hands later Frankie was out, fifteen thousand dollars richer and very glad she had made the deal with Lee. Frankie’s soul and spirits were soaring. This was the win of her career so far, by far, and she was as happy as she had ever been. Lee told her “well done” and offered his hand to her, but Frankie hugged him instead, much like a fighter after a hard fought, twelve round bout. Then she looked for Dipsy and hugged him too, this time like a woman who wanted to be closer to him. As they hugged, so too did Lee and Victoria. “Very good, my love, very well done.” Victoria whispered in his ear then kissed him hard on the mouth. Lee suggested they go upstairs to freshen up before having a victory dinner, but Victoria asked him to come and meet somebody first, leading him to a little old lady sitting at the bar. The moment Lee saw the golden eyes he recognized Cassandra despite her greatly altered appearance. “Congratulations, Lee Meadow, a well deserved victory indeed. As you can now see, Victoria’s relationship to me can be to your advantage too.” Cassandra told him. “Thank you. Are you implying you and Victoria had something to do with me winning?” Lee asked. “Only in the abstract sense, in the moral support she provided. The tournament win was your own doing. Only the play of the players, or the whims of the poker gods can affect the outcome. You know that.” Cassandra answered.

- 271 -

“Maybe that’s what you are, one of the poker gods?” Lee asked. “Is that what you think? No, there really is only one poker god, as you already know, and her name is Random. She is fickle though, and can be influenced if approached correctly.” “And did you influence her?” Lee asked. “I got the princess I needed, you got the queen you needed.” Cassandra answered.

Chapter 11. Back to the Forest

When Tataya left Big Fish and Sebastian she headed first for the exit then circled back through some slot machines to where she could watch from a distance. Unlike Big Fish, Tataya wasn’t interested in the play of the individual hands, but she did want to see who ultimately won. Now that she was out of the tournament Tataya was able to concentrate on things other than poker. When she considered the strangeness of the entire week, especially the tournament and it’s participants, she began suspecting there was more than a poker tournament going on. Dipsy concerned her most since Tataya was certain he recognized her as the killer of the Raven brothers, and thus was a potential danger to her. But she also knew it was extremely unlikely he would go to any of the authorities about the killings, given the circumstances. Why then was he here playing in the poker tournament? As far as Tataya could gather Dipsy had never played in a casino before much less a tournament, so why did he make her first tournament, his first tournament? And how did both of them manage to finish so high with no experience? She at least had played a fair amount of poker in the

- 272 -

past, but she also knew she had never before played as consistently well as she had this past week. It was possible her game was simply much better suited to no-limit and higher quality players, but it was also possible there were other factors involved. Could it be killing made her stronger? And what about Dipsy, where did he acquire the poker skills he brought to the tournament? It was of course possible he had honed them in private games or in casinos elsewhere, but it was also possible there were others factors involved there too. Cassandra came to mind. Then there was Lee Meadow. She knew he was a successful professional player so his appearance in Reno and at the tournament was nothing unexpected, but what concerned Tataya was Lee being the owner of the house Cassandra lived in, the house she and the Raven brothers followed Dipsy and his partner from. What role did he play in all this? His owning Green Gates was just too much of a coincidence for Tataya. She had heard he bought the house with poker winnings from the World Series of Poker six months earlier and she wondered if it was possible Cassandra had anything to do with him winning in Vegas. Did she have that kind of power? Tataya considered what she knew about Cassandra and realized most of it was conjecture. She remembered Cassandra from when she was a girl growing up in the neighborhood and how her mother thought Cassandra was an eccentric old woman who believed herself a shaman of the ancient ways. Her mother told Tataya to be nice to Cassandra because she probably had a lot of money, but to be careful too, just in case the old woman really was a shaman. Then running into her again as an adult, smoking the essence with her, being dismissed the way she was, threatened and scared by the ancient woman’s golden glare. Tataya was convinced Cassandra was not a normal human being,

- 273 -

and might not even be all human, or human at all. Cassandra possessed powers, especially powers of perception, Tataya was certain of that, but she could only guess at the scope and strength. Tataya also knew she wanted the essence Cassandra possessed but would never give her, and she was too wary of Cassandra’s strength to try to take it from her by force. That was why she and the Ravens had followed Dipsy and his partner in the first place, believing they would be easier pickings. It had been a good week for Tataya financially, very good. She cashed in the tournament, won all but one session in the no-limit side game, and won at Silky’s house. Perhaps it was time to switch from loan sharking back to poker. It had been a good week emotionally as well. Tataya had crushed men, Whitemen, on the poker tables, and she had cut off the living balls of another Whiteman, one who deserved such a fate because of the individual he was as well as being a member of an evil race. The murder of Johnny and Benny Raven came unexpectantly, in the heat of the situation, but the torture and murder of Donald Merkle was planned and savored. Killing a Whiteman had much greater significance, and was so much more satisfying. Her time in Reno had gained Tataya money, power and sweet revenge, but not the essence she set out to attain two weeks and three murders ago, the essence she desired even more now. The more Tataya considered it, the more she became convinced the essence greatly contributed to Dipsy’s success in the tournament, and probably to Lee’s and Frankie’s as well. She remembered how easy it was for her to sense the emotions and intentions of the Ravens and the guy whose marker she held the one time she smoked the essence with Cassandra. As she thought back on that day Tataya realized it was probably

- 274 -

the essence smoking which enabled Cassandra to penetrate her carefully constructed façade. Maybe she should have challenged Cassandra then, by trying to take the essence by force. Tataya remembered thinking about doing so at the time, and how just thinking it had her scared for the first time in many years. She didn’t know how to handle her fear then, plus she didn’t yet realize the essence’s great worth. She also vividly remembered sensing the great power of Cassandra’s anger. It was the first time Tataya had been truly afraid as an adult. She was not even afraid when Johnny held her naked and apparently helpless at gunpoint, but Cassandra’s cold, gold glare had made her soul shudder. The tournament was over, Frankie and Lee were hugging, then Frankie hugged Dipsy and Lee hugged his girlfriend, whose name Tataya still did not know. Because Merkle did not tell Tataya of his past relationship to Victoria, Tataya did not suspect the importance of her role. Tataya was unaware of Victoria’s connection to Cassandra as well, and thought her simply Lee’s lover. Victoria was a crucial piece of the large puzzle, but Tataya didn’t realize she was part of it. What was coming together in Tataya’s mind was the smaller puzzle of the tournament’s outcome. She felt certain Cassandra had supplied Frankie and Dipsy with the essence to use during the tournament, and maybe Lee too. But why? The why Tataya couldn’t figure out. Maybe it was just to get at her somehow? But Cassandra’s motives weren’t most important to Tataya right now. What was most important was the probability of more of the essence being in Dipsy’s van. Tataya kept her eye on Frankie and Dipsy as she considered her next course of action. Breaking into Dipsy’s van would be no problem, but finding where the essence

- 275 -

was hidden might take some time, if she could find it at all. If they go eat I should have enough time, If I don’t find it that way, I’ll just have to force them to give it to me. Go, go to dinner. Aren’t you guys hungry? It was while watching Dipsy and Frankie that Tataya noticed Lee and Victoria talking with the old woman at the bar who had been staring at Tataya earlier. Who the hell is that woman? Could it be Cassandra? Doesn’t look anything like her, but still, who knows how Cassandra can alter her appearance? As Lee and the old woman conversed, Frankie and Dipsy headed for the exit. For a moment or two Tataya was torn. She needed to follow Dipsy, but she also wanted to find out what was going on with Lee and the old woman who might be Cassandra. Dipsy had just reached the door and was pushing it open for Frankie when Lee and Victoria nodded to the old woman then headed toward the elevators. The old woman watched them go for a moment, then flashed her golden glare into Tataya’s hard, cold eyes, making her shudder again. By reflex Tataya pulled her head back out of sight behind the slots, knowing now that the old woman was definitely Cassandra, and that she had spotted her. The gold glare left no doubt in Tataya’s mind. # “Okay, Dipsy, looks like you have a dinner coming at the very least. Any special place you want to go?” Frankie asked after he had congratulated her on her second place finish. “No, none that I can think of. At the very least, huh? That part sounds good to me. We can eat anywhere you like, but lets go to the van first.” He suggested.

- 276 -

Tataya slipped out the door seconds after Frankie and Dipsy and slid into some nearby shadows, ready to follow wherever they decided to go. Now, in addition to any essence remaining, the van contained at least eighteen thousand dollars in cash, booty well worth taking by any means as far as Tataya was concerned. “I’m not really that hungry right now, are you?” Dipsy asked Frankie as he offered her a pipe filled only with his own crop. “No, not really.” She answered as she declined the pipe. “You can take a rain check if you like, if you’re too tired.” “I’m not too tired, not at all, it’s just that if dinner is the very least I have coming, I’m wondering what the very most is.” Dipsy told her. The sparkle in Frankie’s liquid eyes brightened; Dipsy was going exactly where she wanted him too. Frankie looked at Dipsy for several seconds without speaking, then licked her lips and spoke, uncrossing then recrossing her legs as she did so, causing her short skirt to rise higher. “If you want to find out what the very most is you will have to come back to my room with me.” Tataya tried to draw herself further into the shadows when she saw Frankie and Dipsy exit the van and head back toward the casino. If either had looked her way they would have seen her, but with their attention on each other they did not notice the murderess follow them back inside. Tataya watched the couple head for the elevator and followed after them, glancing over at the bar to see if Cassandra was still there but not seeing her. Tataya kept glancing around the casino looking for Cassandra as she walked

- 277 -

toward the elevators, but saw no sign of her, unless the old woman had changed her appearance again. Tataya watched the couple enter an empty elevator, then followed its progress on the electronic wall grid to the eighth floor, stop, then return back to the main floor with a different couple on it. Now, she figured, was a good time to search the van. As Tataya searched the van for the essence she sought, Dipsy and Frankie explored the essence of each others’ sexuality. A few hours later the new couple was sleeping in each others’ arms, marvelously satisfied, while Tataya sat alone in her Porsche horribly frustrated. Dipsy and Colon had installed the van’s hiding places very well; Tataya had found nothing. What to do next was the question. The essence she sought was very close, she could feel it, and now that she was beginning to understand its power and how to use it, how much stronger would it make her? If I had it, would I be a match for Cassandra? Maybe the essence is the source of all her powers? And if it is, where does it come from? Does Dipsy know, I wonder? If he does, it would be a lot easier to get it from him than it would from Cassandra. He has a weakness: Frankie. Hell, maybe he’s Cassandra’s source? Could he grow it as well as the grass? Tataya was convinced Dipsy and his van were the key, just as she had been two weeks ago. Now she had to be ready to follow him again whenever he hit the road, plus be ready to do whatever was necessary to get what she needed from him when the right opportunity arose. Maybe I should hide in the van? That way I’d be sure not to miss him leaving, plus I’d be pretty sure of taking him by surprise. If she comes, all the better. If I

- 278 -

put a knife to her throat I’ll be able to get him to do anything I want. It’s either that or sit in the Porsche all night. # The first gray hints of the coming sun sneaking through a crack in the heavy drapes woke Dipsy the next morning, as they usually did, but this day they did not pull him out of bed as quickly as usual. Instead he lay there for several minutes looking at the still sleeping Frankie, thinking she was even more beautiful now than when all made up. He gently touched his cheek and lips to her bare shoulder, not wanting to wake her, but unable to resist her marvelously smooth skin. Frankie sighed in her sleep and turned, causing the covers to slide down enough for him to see her right breast, its brown nipple relaxed soft and large in sleep. Dipsy wanted to touch it, coax it to the gloriously erect arousal he knew during their lovemaking. Decades earlier Dipsy had returned from Viet Nam to a time of free love, of hippie girls with long hair and short skirts, braless beneath flimsy tops of many colors, sometimes pantyless too. It was modern society’s window of love, the time between the introduction of the pill and the discovery of aids, and Dipsy had often enjoyed climbing through that window, but never had he know a lover as free and responsive as Frankie. With Frankie uninhibited love making was pure joy, both for her and her partner. He continued watching the dark-haired beauty sleep, until the combination of wanting to touch her plus the need to pee pulled Dipsy from the bed. When he returned from the bathroom Frankie’s eyes were open.

- 279 -

“You look good naked.” She told him. “You must keep yourself in pretty good shape, and you got a nice prick. No, wait, let me look at you a little. See, all I have to do is talk about it and it begins to respond. Come on over here, I want to touch it." As Dipsy took the last couple of steps to the bedside Frankie threw the covers off revealing her magnificent nakedness, and his penis responded like a teenager’s, rushing into full erection. She took it with both hands, stroked it, then squeezed his balls gently. “Come, let’s take a shower together and begin the day making love.” She suggested. It was nearly the noon checkout time when they finally did leave the room, bags in hand, stomachs empty. They took their bags to the van first, then their stomachs to one of the Peppermill’s restaurants. As they ate and talked, Frankie thought to herself how much she was enjoying being with Dipsy. She had originally thought he might be worth a onenighter, a change from her usual fare of lover, but now she found herself wanting to spend more time with him, and so she gladly accepted his offer to take her on a van tour of the Sierras. As they headed south on three ninety-five the afternoon autumn sun filled the front of the van. “The sun feels good, this might be a good time to try to get an all over tan. You don’t mind if I go topless, do you?” Frankie asked. “No, please do, my pleasure, though you may make it a little hard for me to keep my eyes on the road.” Dipsy answered. “Only a little hard? I would hope to make it very hard.” Frankie answered, winking at Dipsy when he looked at her.

- 280 -

“So you like looking at my tits, huh?” She continued. “Thanks, I kind of like them myself. Would it surprise you if I told you I was a little bit of an exhibitionist at heart?” Frankie asked Dipsy. “Really? Yeah, I guess I’m a little surprised, but what the hey, with a body like yours, why not? I certainly wouldn’t complain, and I bet no other man would either.” Dipsy answered. “No, no man has yet, no boy either. Actually it’s boys I like to give visual treats to; men seldom deserve it, and teenage boys are so appreciative.” Frankie replied. “You like teenage boys?” “Only for teasing. For lovemaking I prefer grown men, like you.” “Did you ever try a teenage boy?” Dipsy asked her. “When I was a teenage girl.” She answered. “How about as an adult?” “Actually I have, once, but that’s another story. I’ll tell you about it some other time. No, what I’m talking about is just lightweight stuff. I just like to give some kid a thrill every once in awhile.” She told him. “Oh, like how?” Dipsy asked, becoming aroused by both the conversation and Frankie stretched out next to him with her feet up on the dashboard, wearing only tiny yellow panties, her smooth light brown skin glowing in the sunlight. “Well, see this camper coming up here? I’ve been checking it out with your binoculars and it looks like a kid maybe twelve or thirteen looking out the back window, a perfect opportunity. He should have a hell of a good view when we get a little closer. You want to bet on how close we have to get before he notices me?”

- 281 -

“You mean you’re going to lay there like that when we pass him?” Dipsy asked. “No, I don’t intend to just lay here, I intend to rub this sunscreen on me when we get close enough for him to see, and instead of passing him right away I think we should stay close behind for a little while.” Frankie told him. “Really? Damn, I wish I had ran into someone like you when I was his age.” “You don’t mind then?” “No, not at all. Hell, it should be fun. I envy that kid, you’re going to give him a lifelong memory.” Dipsy told her. “I know,” she answered, “that’s my intention.” They were still twenty or thirty yards from the camper when they saw the boy’s eyes suddenly widen. The next thing they knew he was looking back at them with binoculars. “Looks like he spotted those beautiful one-eyed things of yours and wants a better look.” Dipsy remarked. “Should we keep our distance? I bet he’s getting an eyeful already.” “I bet he is; his little dick is probably hard as a rock too. No, keep going, get up as close as you can safely. We want to give him his money’s worth.” Frankie told Dipsy as she began applying the sunscreen to her gorgeous body, saving her breasts and nipples for when they got within a couple of van lengths of the camper. They stayed there for a few miles while the boy’s eyeballs nearly popped through the binoculars he continued to use. “Looks like he wants to get as close a look as he can” Frankie remarked as she continued to spread the lotion on herself, opening her legs to get at the upper inner thighs,

- 282 -

sliding the tips of her fingers under the tiny yellow panties, much to the joy of her small audience. “What do you say, Dipsy, should I give him the thrill of his young life?” Frankie asked, but did not wait for an answer before sliding her panties off. Dipsy’s own jaw dropped nearly as much as the twelve-year-old’s. God, is she beautiful, and something else too, and Lordy, is that kid lucky! “Okay, show’s about over. You can pass now.” Frankie told Dipsy as she half stood, bent over because of the low ceiling, and moved to the back, offering both the kid and Dipsy a marvelous view of her perfect ass, which Dipsy had to touch as she went by. “Time for me to move to the back; don’t want mama or papa to spoil the kid’s fun.” As soon as they got around the camper Frankie moved back to the front, still completely nude. “You don’t mind, do you?” She asked. “I like to feel the sun on my naked body. How are you doing? Bet you’re hard as a rock too. Ooh, you certainly are. That’s partly why I did this, to get you horny too. Damn, I better open these pants and let this sucker out in the open, and I do mean sucker.” And so Dipsy received one of the most memorable blow jobs of his life, at seventy miles an hour in a sun filled van over an open desert highway with the awesome, snowcapped Sierras off to the right. When he went, he damn near went off the road as well. With all the distractions Dipsy didn’t notice the silver Porsche following a half mile behind them since they left Reno. When he took a right onto eighty-eight, his favorite route over the Sierras, the Porsche did too, but he didn’t first notice it until several miles later, and then the only thought he gave it was that he would be driving a lot faster if he

- 283 -

had a Porsche on this road. Had Dipsy known the Porsche belonged to Tataya he would have given it a lot more thought. The late afternoon sun was glowing low and soft by the time they reached Carson summit. A short distance later Dipsy pulled off the road to a glorious view. “How would you like to camp out in the van tonight, or would you be more comfortable in a motel?” Dipsy asked Frankie. “Well, I’d probably be more comfortable in a motel, but I’ve never camped out in a van before and it might be fun. You know I’ve never camped out at all before. Are we going to have a campfire and all that kind of stuff?” Frankie replied. “Of course, that’s all part of it. We don’t even have to stop for food; I’ve got everything we need right here in the van, including a bottle of wine or two.” Dipsy told her. “Except a shower.” Frankie pointed out. “Except a shower.” He confirmed. “That shouldn’t be a problem; if we can heat up some water we can give each other sponge baths before we go to bed.” Frankie suggested with a smile. # It had been years since Tataya took any route other than fifty or eighty over the Sierras and she too was reveling in the awesome vistas around every turn, though she found it very frustrating to have to drive the Porsche so slow over a road so well suited to its attributes. A couple of times on her way up the east slopes she pulled the Porsche over so she could get out and appreciate the view, then drive fast awhile until she caught up with the van again. On the western side of the summit eighty-eight becomes a curvy road

- 284 -

through the forest, making it impossible for Tataya to keep the van in sight from much of a distance. When Dipsy and Frankie pulled off to enjoy the view shortly after the summit, Tataya kept on driving past, stopping at another scenic pullout a mile or so further down the road to wait for them to drive by again. With the Porsche positioned where Dipsy might not notice it coming from the direction he was, Tataya remained inside and opened the windows to the cool, fresh, mountain air. The high pine air smelled marvelous and the view was spectacular. Were it not for the road and the telephone wires it probably looked pretty much like it had for thousands and thousands of years, the years of Tataya’s people. As always in such places, that is where Tataya’s thoughts traveled, to the years of her people, to a time and place without the Whiteman. I would have been my true self then. How can I be now? How could any of my people be their true selves in this horrible world the Whiteman has made? Certainly we can thrive and prosper in it if we want to live as the Whites live, but not by living as we have always lived, not as the essence of our souls needs to live. Trying to exist with the Whites is like trying to exist in a world full of dragons, hungry, greedy dragons. When the van went by again, Tataya followed again, from as far back as she could, and when Dipsy turned into a national park campground several miles down the road, Tataya kept on going until the next pulloff. There she waited, thinking similar thoughts as before, intending to wait well past sunset. If they went by again, she would follow again. If they did not, it meant they were staying at the campground for the night, the perfect opportunity for her.

- 285 -

Dipsy had picked the campground he did purposely, knowing it well. It was officially closed for the season, the water turned off, but you could still get to some of the campsites, including one with an excellent view of autumn sunsets. There they watched the sun color the sky as it sank below the foothills laying before them, a crackling campfire warming their backs. Once the sun left, the cool mountain air grew cold quickly. Frankie and Dipsy turned to face the warmth of the fire and watch its flickering flames dance to a song of crackles, pops and hisses. The only wood fires Frankie had seen before were in indoor fireplaces making this a unique experience for her, and a very enjoyable one, snuggled warm against Dipsy, wrapped together in a wool blanket, feeling the cold, crisp air stirred by waves of warmth from the fire, watching the sparks dance into nothingness against the dark sky. Tataya waited until the last gray traces of the day were gone from the night sky; a good hunter has to be very, very patient. There were no clouds in the sky this night of a new moon, and the forest very black, lit only by the light of distant stars. The huntress drove slowly and quietly back to the entrance to the campground, searching the blackness for the flickering orange hint of their campfire. When she spotted its faint wink through the trees she continued on to where she could pull the Porsche off the road, maybe a hundred yards past the campground entrance, then turned off the engine and the lights. She waited in the darkness for her eyes to gain their night vision. Once they did, Tataya started the slow walk back to the campground, barely able to see the ground in front of her in the blackness. When she got close to the entrance, their campfire winked at her again.

- 286 -

That’s good, they’re still up, probably still outside, or at least one of them is, if that’s their fire. It has to be. Tataya moved toward the campfire’s wink very slowly, unable to see the ground beyond her toes, listening for voices but hearing none. She stayed on the campground road, feeling her way with her hands and feet, in her right hand a very sharp, double edged throwing knife. As she grew closer Tataya considered her options again. Much depended on exactly where Dipsy and Frankie were, whether they were together or apart, inside or outside the van or whatever, but whatever the case Tataya believed the easiest way of getting what she wanted from Dipsy would be to threaten Frankie. The hardest way would be to kill them both then try to find the essence on her own. Even if she couldn’t find the essence there should still be at least fifteen thousand in cash to steal. That plus ridding the world of one more Whiteman and Whitewoman would be worth it as far as Tataya was concerned. Eventually Tataya moved close enough to see the campfire clearly, and to make out in its orange glow two people huddled together watching it. The van was behind them and about twenty feet away, barely discernable in the firelight. That’s good, perfect in fact. I can come at them from behind the van. Their eyes are used to the fire; they won’t be able to see anything in the dark. All I have to do is wait until they split up, then grab Frankie. I could throw a knife into Dipsy’s leg first, just in case. Maybe I should put a knife into her leg first? I should be able to hit either one of them easily from here once they stand up. Hell, why wait ‘til they stand up; I can hit either one of them in the back then get what I want from the other. But which one do I do first? Hell, I can’t even tell which is which, so what does it matter? No, wait, they have to

- 287 -

get up sometime. Use the patience of your hunter’s soul. Be ready for the moment. Hit her first in the leg, Dipsy won’t run and leave her alone, then hit him in the leg. They will be helpless and blind. Dipsy felt himself in a state of bliss. He had long loved sitting in the glow of a warm fire in a dark forest night, and being able to enjoy it with Frankie’s warm beauty held close to him had the kindly pot farmer feeling perfectly content. Dipsy liked to watch the sparks rise into the night sky against the blackness beyond the orange-yellow reach of the campfire. Above them the black sky was filled with billions of stars, a twinkling background for the black silhouettes of trees. The high mountain air was getting very cold now, its chill beginning to penetrate the wool blanket and the warmth of the fire. “How are you doing?” He whispered to Frankie. “Are you getting cold?” “Um, a little.” She answered. “Would you like to go in the van?” He asked. “Not quite yet, in a little bit.” Frankie replied. Tataya had positioned herself at the back of the van, for her an easy knife throw from the seated couple with their backs to her. From that distance the size difference of the two figures was noticeable enough for her to know Dipsy was on the left, the one further from her. Tataya had put on a sweater and a jacket but they were not that heavy and she was getting very cold waiting, and the cold was wearing on her patience. She was plotting the exact lines of her attack when she heard the mumble of their conversation.

- 288 -

That was Tataya’s cue. With her other two throwing knives at the ready, she set herself to put the third in Frankie’s right thigh as soon as she stood up. Where the other two would go depended on how her prey reacted. Frankie took her head from Dipsy’s shoulder and kissed him on the cheek. “Okay, I’m ready, I guess.” She told him. Dipsy removed himself from inside the blanket and wrapped it tighter around Frankie, then began to rise. As he did so Tataya’s right hand went back, but before she could bring it forward again the knife was slashed from her hand. “Aiee!” Tataya screamed in surprise and pain, feeling her blood and knife spring from her hand. “What was that?” Frankie asked Dipsy in a startled voice full of primal fear. “I don’t know, probably just a rabbit becoming something’s dinner.” He told her, though it sounded awful human to him and had his own heart pounding. “Rabbits make sounds like that?” Frankie asked. “When they get killed, yeah, at least that’s what I’ve been led to believe.” Dipsy tried to assure her while remaining as alert and wary as possible. He didn’t know what made the sound or where it came from, though it sounded like it was from the direction of the van, the van he wished they were both safely in right now. Tataya hid herself behind the van and tried to examine her bleeding right hand in the darkness. When she held it within inches of her eyes she could make out three slashes on the palm of her hand and one across the back. All were bleeding profusely and hurting terribly. She did not know what had happened, had felt or heard nothing until her hand exploded in pain.

- 289 -

“Look, is that an owl?” Frankie asked Dipsy, pointing to a large bird sitting in a nearby tree, its brown feathers showing dark gold in the firelight. “It sure is, a big one too. I think it’s a great horned owl. It was probably him that shrieked, or maybe something he caught.” Dipsy told her. Tataya’s attention also followed Frankie’s finger to the owl in the tree, her eyes meeting its golden glare. “Oooo, whoooo.” The owl said.

The End

- 290 -

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful