Ashes

Each year, close to her birthday on May 11, Claire Belmonte takes a trip to a little church yard in Houston County, just outside Perry to visit the grave of Christine Messner, whose life dates are 11 May 1973 to 4 September 1989. Christine “died” on the same day she was declared an emancipated minor in juvenile court in Houston County, and the headstone was placed there by her parents Zachariah and Selma Messner in late October of that year. No death certificate has ever been filed on her, owing to the fact that she is, still, very much alive in Atlanta, and has taken a new name, Claire Christine Belmonte.

Claire learned of the headstone from her friend, Jodie Newcombe, about two years after it had been placed there. Jodie found it while visiting the graves of her grandparents, and noticed a new stone several yards away. There had not been any funeral services at her church since Deacon James Frederick had been laid to rest at a sparsely attended service just after Christine left Perry in 1989, and his grave is on the opposite side of the cemetery. When she went to investigate, the name on the stone caused Jodie’s knees to nearly buckle, and she hurried home and called Claire in Atlanta to be sure her friend was all right. A few days later, Claire, accompanied by her former teacher, Lawrence Standridge, visited Jodie, and she, Lawrence, Jodie and her parents visited the cemetery. From that point on, Claire has come down every year to pay her respects.

She arrives around ten-twenty in the morning, alone, places two white roses, crossed, at the grave of James Frederick, then goes to Christine’s grave, where she places a bouquet of red carnations in the vase on the headstone. Claire bows her head and mouths a silent prayer. Finished, she crouches down and runs her finger over the letters of Christine’s name. She hears a car pull in and rises, then looks to see a familiar black, Buick Regal parking. She shakes her head. “You have got to be kidding me.”

Zachariah Messner exits his car and approaches Claire. He is much thinner than the last time she saw him, and leaning heavily on a cane. He doesn’t look to be in good health. “Well now, look who we have here. It’s been a while, Miss Belmonte.”

“What are you doing here?” Claire says. “Can’t imagine it’s to tend the grave.”

“It has been noted that around this time each May, someone places flowers here,” he says.

“Noted, yeah,” Claire says. “How is Selma these days, by the way?”

“She is as she always has been,” Zachariah says. “More or less.”

“I knew she was exaggerating about what you’d do to her,” Claire says. “You’ve always been more smoke than fire. She carried out all your violence.”

“Selma can be a troublesome individual,” he says. “But she’s there.”

“Since I’m certain you didn’t just stop by to chat, I have to assume something’s on your mind,” Claire says. “Perhaps we should just skip to that, or should I be on my way?”

“We are only allotted so much time on this Earth,” he says. “Sometimes a man takes stock of the time he has, and wonders if, perhaps, his efforts could have been better utilized.”

“Oh, give me a break,” she says. “Soul searching doesn’t suit you.”

“There comes a time when that’s all one has left,” he says. “Since turning my business over to an associate, I’ve had much time for reflection.”

“Don’t come out here pretending you’ve ever cared for anyone other than yourself,” she says. “Least of all me. If you’re trying to apologize, save it. It’s meaningless at this point.”

“I have no feelings for you one way or another, Miss Belmonte,” Messner says. “You served your purpose.”

“My purpose was not to lead a good man astray,” she replies.

Messner chuckles. “There are those within the congregation who might take issue with that particular characterization.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Claire says.

Messner doesn’t respond right away. He looks toward the sky, contemplating something. At last, he says, “I believe you were in school with Davis Franklin’s boy, Ernest, were you not?”

“He was a year or two ahead of me, but I remember him,” she says.

“He’s a rather tall young man, as I recall,” Messner says. “Doesn’t look much like either of his folks.”

Claire considers this. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“One hears rumors,” Messner says. “There were always whispers about those who had received the Deacon’s private counseling. Selma didn’t just come up with the idea on her own.”

“How many were there?” Claire says.

“Hard to say,” Messner says. “More than a few, if memory serves.”

Claire shakes her head. “Deacon Frederick should have been held accountable under the law for what he did. His victims had the right to confront him. You took that away from us — away from me.”

“It was not my will that was served,” Messner replies.

“You don’t really believe that and you know it,” Claire says. “It was a vendetta, plain and simple.”

“Water under the bridge,” Messner says.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” she says. “Why are you here?”

“There is no answer,” he says. “I’m here because I chose to be here. That’s all.” He puts his weight onto the cane and begins to slowly move toward his car. “You take care of yourself, Miss Belmonte.”

She turns and watches him walk away, aware that it will be the last time she’ll ever see him. This thought neither fills her with relief nor regret. In fact, she finds that she feels nothing at all for him. Claire watches as he shambles back to his car, gets in, and drives away, then she resumes erasing all trace of him from her memory.

Rain Maker

High Museum, Atlanta, GA, 26 July 2017

High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, 26 July 2017.

Leah Walker is seated in the reception area of the office of David Cairo, the leading venture capitalist in Atlanta. She’s been working as an independent contractor with firms around town, starting a few months after finishing up work on her second doctorate, which she earned from Georgia Tech, in Internet and Web Security. To drum up business, Leah hacked into the servers of several of Atlanta’s top companies, gathering facts which she used to compile dossiers on ways the companies could protect their Web assets. Her approach met with mixed reactions, with several companies threatening litigation, but a few, such as Bickering Plummet, were impressed, and put Leah under contract to help them sort out their online safety.

While working with Bickering Plummet, Leah learned of the site where the government announces requests for proposals to perform work for them, and began visiting it regularly. Between jobs, she found an announcement which caught her attention. The National Security Agency (NSA) is looking for a firm to develop methods for protecting the phone system in the event of a terrorist attack, and a special stipulation is that the contract must go to a minority-owned or woman-owned business. That same day, Leah logs onto the Georgia Secretary of State’s corporations website, and registers “L. J. Walker Security, LLC” and then sets out to secure financing. While she knows her father could supply her with funds, Leah doesn’t feel that’s the best way to make an impression, and instead schedules an appointment with Cairo.

In the mid-1990s, David Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro, like the Georgia city), an Atlanta native, like Leah, left his job as a Web designer at Bickering Plummet, and founded Cairo Enterprises, which he took public in 1997, during the high tech boom that was transforming the economy in Atlanta and elsewhere. Overnight, he had become a multi-billionaire, both exciting and confounding the business elite in the city. As the nineties drew to a close and the tech bubble burst, Cairo Enterprises initiated a merger with Bickering, which became one of the largest financial transactions of the new millennium, leaving Cairo even wealthier, and, by most accounts, much more eccentric. While he was awarded a seat on the board at Bickering, he relinquished it after only a few months, and began providing funds for innovative entrepreneurs, with a stated preference for brick and mortar operations with limited online presence.

Leah is somewhat wary of dealing with Cairo, who has a strained history with the Buckhead business community, in particular, her father, Paxton. On more than one occasion, while still CEO of his own firm, Cairo had been highly critical of Walker Development, Paxton’s company, barely concealing his contempt for its role in transforming Atlanta from what Cairo termed “a quaint Southern city” into “a monstrosity of glass and steel with no soul or charm”. Leah has heard such criticism about Walker Development throughout most of her life, particularly after becoming an adult, but Cairo made it personal, going so far as to compare Paxton, a multigenerational Georgian, and a proud graduate of both Tech and UGA, to General Sherman, whose forces torched Atlanta in 1864. In the late-90s, when Cairo was honored by the Buckhead Coalition, Paxton was very conspicuous in his absence. By courting Cairo’s support, Leah realizes she’ll most likely be severing all ties with her father.

Leah arrived at 12:55 for her 1:00 appointment, and it’s now 1:32. When she arrived, the receptionist, Tracey McIntosh, a woman in her early-fifties, who appears to be of mixed race, with a generous portion of Chinese or Korean as part of the mix, buzzed Cairo to let him know Leah was there, receiving acknowledgement and thanks from Cairo. About twenty minutes later, she buzzed him again, and this time, her entreaty was met with a terse, “Acknowledged.”

Not quite twenty minutes following the last announcement, the intercom buzzes, and Cairo’s voice comes through the speaker. “Tracey, I have this nagging feeling that I have an appointment scheduled.”

Tracey looks up at Leah, then punches the button. “L. J. Walker is still waiting to see you. Her appointment was for 1 p.m.”

“L. J. Walker?” Cairo replies with a note of surprise in his voice. “You don’t mean Leah Walker, do you? Dr. Leah Joanna Walker, Ph.D?”

“Yes, Mr. Cairo,” Tracey says.

“Why was I not informed of this?” Cairo says.

“I’ve notified you twice that she’s here,” Tracey says.

“This is outrageous,” Cairo says. Movement can be heard in his office, then his door flies open. He appears, then throws both hands over his mouth, wearing a look of consternation.

The man who greets Leah appears to be in his early-forties, but looks the farthest from a business professional as one can. His brown hair is shoulder length, and pushed back away from his face without the benefit of a comb. He’s not quite six feet tall, and appears to be carrying around at least twenty pounds of extra weight, and dressed in jeans and Reebok sneakers, with a buttoned down, striped, Arrow shirt, untucked, with the sleeves rolled up well above his elbows, and loose, wire-framed glasses, which he occasionally pushes up by applying equal pressure to each side. He looks like he hasn’t shaved in a few days.

Cairo fixes his gaze on Leah and lets out a low moan. “Dr. Walker, my deepest apologies for this appalling oversight.” He goes to her, bowing deferentially, “If only I had known you were waiting.” Cairo spins about and points at Tracey, and, in mock outrage, says, “Clean out your desk, Tracey. You’re done here.”

“Yes, Mr. Cairo,” she says blandly, and begins removing items from her drawers. Catching Leah’s eye, she twirls her finger beside her head, and mouths “Crazy”.

“Please, please, Dr. Walker,” he says, indicating his office. “Please join me in my office.”

He leads Leah into his office, closes the door, and indicates the chair in front of his desk. “Make yourself comfortable, Doctor.” As he moves behind his desk, he goes on, “Now, do you go by Dr. Walker or Dr. Doctor Walker?”

“Doctor’s fine,” Leah says with a bit of a sigh.

Cairo sits and folds his hands on the desk. “You understand, Doctor, that I’m taking quite a risk in meeting with you, given that litigation is still pending against you from a certain soft drink manufacturer in town.”

“We’re in a cooling down period,” she says. “Which is all I’m at liberty to say on the matter at this time.”

“The pause that mediates,” he says dramatically. “I must say, Doctor, your exploits have been very thrilling to see and hear about. You had the movers and shakers in this town quaking in their boots. Bickering’s IT chief was screaming for a security audit from top to bottom, and all you did was to play a few parlor tricks on them. It was a sight to behold.”

“In retrospect, I probably should have handled a few things differently,” she says.

“Bet Daddy Leroy didn’t take it well, did he?” he says.

“He was a little annoyed,” she says. “I did get called on the carpet by him after he had to field some calls. But, to his credit, he told them to hire me.”

“Speaking of dear old Dad, I must say, I was very surprised to see you’d scheduled an appointment with me,” Cairo says. “You’re not upset that I compared your father to Sherman?”

“No. Actually, I thought that was pretty funny,” she says, “and kind of justified.”

“Damn right it was. Everytime a charming piece of this city’s character was demolished and replaced with more glass and steel, there was usually a Walker Development sign out front,” Cairo says. “If it had been up to your father, we wouldn’t still have the Fox Theater.”

Leah shakes her head. “No. That wasn’t Dad.”

“It wasn’t?” Cairo says.

“No. Dad wanted to level the Georgian Terrace,” she says.

“Oh, right,” he says. “Alex Cooley shot that one down, I believe.”

They both sit and contemplate this a moment. Finally, Cairo says, “Oh well, enough pleasantries. Why are you here? Daddy Leroy couldn’t cough up enough funds for you?”

“I didn’t ask my father for money,” she says. “I don’t discuss my business plans with him.”

“He doesn’t know you’re here, does he?” Cairo asks. Leah shakes her head. Cairo claps his hands together and says, “He is going to go ballistic when he hears about this.”

Leah rolls her eyes. “Probably.”

“That, alone, is worth the price of admission,” he says. “How much do you want? I’ll cut you a check this minute.”

“Don’t you want to see my business plan first?” Leah says, lifting her briefcase into her lap.

“No need for such trivialities. I know you’ve done your homework.” He puts his feet up on his desk and says, “They don’t hand out Ph.Ds from Tech or MIT for participation. What would you say to five hundred thousand dollars?”

“I’d say it’s probably way more than I need,” Leah says.

Cairo waves dismissively. “Nonsense. It’s a drop in the bucket. You’ll need space, furniture — computers.”

“I was planning to work out of my home at first,” she says.

He shakes his head. “Bad move. You need to show you can walk the walk. People are investing in a concept as much as a person. They pay more for the illusion of competence.”

“Is that how you wowed them?” Leah says.

“Idiots. Every single one,” he says. “All they wanted was to be on the Web. Never mind they had no idea what it was or why they had to be there. In reality, I didn’t know any more than they did, but they thought I did, and that’s what brought in the big bucks.”

Leah chuckles. “World Wide Web — the greatest cyber swindle of all time.”

“Exactly,” Cairo says. “Paying us tens of thousands of dollars to ‘establish their web presence’ when all they had to do was hire a few high school kids with some HTML coding under their belts.”

“I still can’t believe you got away with it,” she says.

“I can’t believe we got away with it,” he replies. “Nowadays, everyone’s too embarrassed to call anyone on it.”

He removes his feet from the desk and swivels around, then leans on the desk. “Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? You’re here because you want to compete for the NSA contract but you don’t want it to look like Daddy’s buying it for you as a graduation present.”

“I’m not sure I’d put it like that,” she replies, “but yes, I do want that contract.”

“How much of your soul are you willing to sell for it?” Cairo says.

“Did you really just ask me that question?” Leah says. He shrugs. “Is that what it comes down to?”

“As Bobby Zimmerman says, you gotta serve somebody,” he says. “This is where we get down to the brass tacks and find out what L. J. is really made of.”

“What exactly does that mean?” she says.

“Everyone’s salivating over that NSA contract,” he says. “Marty Devore at Bickering would sell his first born for a crack at it, but rules are rules. The government says it has to go to a minority or woman-owned business. Am I right?” She nods. “So, everyone’s waiting to see who’s got the guts to go after it. The government doesn’t care about guts, though. They care about procedure. They want to see who’ll give them the most bang for their buck.”

“I assume you can tell me how to do that,” Leah says. “What do you want from me in return?”

“Aside from ten percent of your revenue for the next five years, I want you to lose the know-it-all attitude,” he says. “You need my expertise more than you need my money. You think you can get by on daring and learn as you go like you’ve always done. Well this is the big time, sweetie. Daddy Leroy can probably tell you a thing or two about how the world works, but nothing you learned at Wellesley, MIT, or Tech has prepared you for this. Win this contract and you cannot imagine the power you’ll wield. Every tech firm in the country will be lining up to lick your boots.”

Leah sits back. “I’m listening.”

“Good,” he says. “The government is nothing but rules and regs. You play by their rules, they’ll give you the keys to the kingdom. Fail, and you’ll most likely get filed away in their discard pile, never to be heard from again. What are the specs of the RFP?”

“It says they’re looking to thwart cyber-terrorism, in particular, they want to protect the phone system,” Leah says.

Cairo nods and sorts through some business cards. He takes one out and hands it to Leah. “Here’s an individual you’d find very useful in such an endeavor.”

She takes the card and looks over it. “Roscoe Delahunt? I know that name.”

“You probably encountered Scoey at Bickering,” Cairo says. “He sometimes manages their product support team when they don’t piss him off. We go all the way back to Cairo Enterprises. When you meet him, you’ll think I’ve played a massive practical joke on you, but he has much to teach, Grasshopper.”

“Example?”

“He knows more about hacker culture and phreaking than anyone I’ve ever encountered,” Cairo says. “His online address book alone is enough to get him investigated by every cyber terrorism squad on the planet.”

“Perfect,” Leah says.

Cairo pushes the intercom button. “Tracey, what are you doing right now?”

Tracey’s voice comes back, with a sarcastic edge, “I’m cleaning out my desk as you insisted.”

“Well stop that and come in here,” he says.

A moment later, Tracey enters and presents herself to David, who addresses Leah. “Avert your eyes, Dr. Walker, for you are in the presence of true greatness. Tracey helped Bickering Plummet win twenty-two government contracts, totaling over five trillion dollars.”

“You don’t say,” Leah says, impressed.

“They didn’t appreciate the asset they had, so I lured her away with a four-day work week and triple the salary just because I could. To this day, Marty Devore still won’t return my calls.” He motions toward Leah. “Tracey, as you probably recall, this is L. J. Walker.” Tracey nods to Leah. “She’s hell bent on winning the NSA contract. I want you to teach her everything she’ll need to know to get it.”

Tracey looks at Leah. “Gladly. Provided you understand, I don’t work on Fridays.”

“Not a problem,” Leah says. Tracey sits on the couch near Leah. To Cairo, Leah says, “You sure you can spare her?”

“My days of begging coins from Uncle Sam are far behind me,” he says.

“Perfect,” Leah says. “What else?”

“What else do you need?” Cairo says. “Scoey can help you realize the scope of the work involved and Tracey can help you wrap it all up in a pretty little package for Uncle Sam.”

“Won’t I need staff?” Leah says. “Programmers, database people.”

“No, no, no,” he says. “Personnel brings baggage and baggage equals costs. Costs are very, very bad if you’re competing for contracts.”

“Very bad,” Tracey echoes.

“You’ll need a partner,” Cairo says. “Someone with a vested interest but who can’t compete on their own.”

“Bickering Plummet,” Leah says.

“Ding, ding, ding, ding,” he says. “They have the warm bodies and are just itching for an in. All you need is the plan. Of course, you’ll probably need a receptionist. You don’t want people walking right into your office. Otherwise, outsource all the costs. Makes accounting a breeze.” He turns to Tracey. “Who’s their contracts person these days?”

“Barbara Millican,” Tracey says.

“Excellent,” Cairo says. To Leah, “Do you know Barb?”

“Heard the name,” Leah says.

“No worries,” Cairo says. “You’ll get on swimmingly. Tracey, if you’ll be so kind as to set things in motion.” He holds up his hand for her to wait, and says to Leah, “You’ve filed with the state, correct?”

“L. J. Walker Security, LLC,” Leah says.

“Great,” Cairo says. “Tracey, work your magic.”

“On it now,” she says as she rises, then turns to Leah. “Nice to be working with you.” She exits.

Once she’s gone, Leah says, “Now, about that half a million.”

“What the hell?” Cairo says. “Make it a million. I can afford it.”

“That’s an awful lot of money,” Leah says.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I bet Daddy Leroy drops more than that on his dry cleaning,” Cairo says.

“You seem to have a skewed view of how much he’s actually worth,” Leah says. “Granted, we weren’t hurting for money.”

“No, I bet you weren’t,” Cairo says. “When I got my piddling job with Bickering Plummet in ’94, I started out making about two thousand dollars more than my father was making after twenty years with the city of East Point, and when I was growing up, he was the sole wage earner in our family. How my parents raised three kids on that, I’ll never know.” He turns to face the window behind him. “Tell me something. How old were you when your father made his first million?”

Leah leans forward. “Seven. Dad took me, Mom and my aunt to Disney World to celebrate. He spent the whole trip meeting with investors while we explored the park.”

“You know he’s going to be very cross with you over taking money from me,” he says.

“I doubt our relationship could get much worse,” she says.

“My father was from down South,” Cairo says. “We didn’t get along all that well either.”

“If memory serves, he died before you went out on your own, right?” Leah asks.

“You’ve been checking up on me,” he replies. “No. Dad never saw any of this. He died thinking I’d never amount to anything more than just another corporate drone. Has he really been gone for nine years?”

Cairo swings back around toward her. “Marry me, Leah Walker.”

“Excuse me?”

“Come on, together you and I could conquer this city,” he says.

“Haven’t you already conquered it?” she says with a laugh.

“Yeah. You’re right. Never mind,” he says.

Tracey returns. “I just got off the phone with Barb.” To Leah, she says, “You’re meeting with her next Tuesday to make your pitch.”

Leah rises. “I’d better get to it, then. How hard is it to get in touch with Delahunt?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he could meet with you now,” Cairo says. “What part of town are in?”

“Kirkwood,” Leah says.

“How convenient, he’s in East Atlanta,” David says. “You and Tracey can work out a schedule. Let me also recommend you get yourself an office right away. Always looks better on the business cards.” He looks out the window and points uptown. “I’ve heard Colony Square’s reasonable these days.”

“Wow. So much to do,” Leah says.

“Better get to it, then,” he says.

“I’ll walk out with you,” Tracey says. “We can figure out a schedule.”

They start for the door. Cairo calls after them, “Doctor Walker.” Leah turns. “Kick their ass.”

Leah nods. “Will do.”

Ned Branch

Edward Abraham Branch, III, called “Ned” by his family to distinguish him from his grandfather, “Big Ed” and his father, still called “Eddie, Jr.” despite the elder Edward being dead for ten years, carried on the fine tradition of Branch men playing football at UGA. A quarterback, Ned was a natural player, and, as such, had not been much in the habit of working very hard in high school, despite his winning record on the field. When he arrived at the University, he found he could no longer get by on talent alone, and spent his first year on the bench, developing a work habit that would, eventually, earn him a starting spot on the team. His coaches recognized him as a solid, if not stellar player, who could be depended upon to go the distance, and elicit enough occasional brilliance to pull out the wins. About the same time he gained his starting spot, Ned married his high school sweetheart, Lindsay Maddox, who was also taking classes at UGA in financial planning. They decided to forego starting a family until their studies were behind them.

Ned’s attendance at UGA had been cast in doubt, when a local girl, Charlotte Sanger, identified him as the father of a child she was carrying. Charlotte was considered a mousy little thing, who was mostly known for singing in her church choir, and for being the sister of that guy who’d been caught fooling around with the son of the pastor at their Baptist congregation. She also had some weird disorder that caused her to repeat things people said to her, which earned her the nickname Echo at school. She’d befriended Ned and Lindsay their senior year, which led to her unexpectedly being named Homecoming Queen. Not wanting to involve the family in any messy controversy, Eddie, Jr. called Ned’s coach, Harold Ricketts, into his office at the car dealership, and impressed upon the coach a need for him to handle things. Coach Ricketts came up with a sweet plan to shift responsibility away from Ned and onto a teammate, but Charlotte made the issue moot by sneaking off in the middle of the night one evening, leaving behind no trace of where she’d gone.

In the Fall of 2000, Ned and Lindsay, expecting their first child together, move to Suwannee, in the Metro Atlanta area, where Ned, a fourth-round draft pick for the Falcons, is beginning his tenure as the backup quarterback. It’s here the couple learns what became of their friend, Charlotte, as they discover that the singers who’ve been invited to perform the National Anthem at the season opener are Charlotte and her brother, Brian, who call themselves Echo. The team does not interact with the opening duo, but Lindsay finds herself in the Skybox with them, and after a few awkward moments, during which she meets the boy Charlotte introduces as her son, they reconcile, and Lindsay promises to have the family over to their home in Suwannee. When Lindsay tells Ned of the encounter, he’s secretly somewhat relieved to learn Charlotte did not name the boy fully after him, as he has no intention of being the father of Edward Abraham, IV.

Ned finally meets the boy, Edward Ishmael, who his family calls Izzy, when Charlotte, her brother, Brian, and Izzy visit a few weeks later. In their discussions leading up to the visit, it was decided that they weren’t going to hide the fact that Ned is Izzy’s father from the boy, but when they introduce Ned as such to Izzy, he seems to take it in stride, being far too young to realize the implications of it all. Izzy turns out to be an energetic child, with a natural curiosity about the world around him, and no shyness toward new people. He and Ned hit it off immediately, and Brian and Ned spend nearly an hour chasing him around the yard and playing catch with him, while Lindsay and Charlotte chat in the kitchen.

After the meeting with Izzy goes well, Ned discusses with Lindsay the possibility of Ned formally acknowledging Izzy as his son. Lindsay voices no objections, though she is concerned the timing might overshadow the arrival of their child, who, they’ve learned from the ultrasound, is also a boy. Ned agrees to discuss it with the team’s legal counsel, and to bring Charlotte into the discussions before they go very far. They both agree, however, to leave his family back home out of the conversation, until after decisions have been reached, since they would almost certainly object and cause difficulties.

Lawyers for the team outline the process of acknowledging paternity, but caution Ned that he should confirm with a paternity test that he is Ishmael’s father. Ned doesn’t believe Charlotte will appreciate this step, since he believes she’s telling the truth about Ned being the only man who could be the father, but agrees to broach the subject with her. Officials with the team express concerns over the publicity such a move might bring, but Ned argues that his position on the team will only become more visible as time goes on, and Charlotte can be counted upon to be discrete, especially if she’s respected throughout the process. Acknowledging this, the team gives him leave to quietly pursue the matter.

Ned leaves it up to Lindsay to approach Charlotte with the idea, since the two of them get along a bit better than he and Charlotte do. As it turns out, Deanna Savage, the mother of the family Charlotte’s living with is a social worker in Gwinnett County, and is well-acquainted with the process. Charlotte arranges a meeting with Deanna where she and the Branches discuss the matter in more detail. During the meeting, Ned mentions the idea of a paternity test, and Deanna agrees it would help establish Ned’s role as the father. While she doesn’t totally feel it’s necessary, Charlotte agrees to it, as well as amending Ishmael’s birth certificate to add Ned and to change Ishmael’s name to Branch. Deanna recommends several attorneys who specialize in such cases. After some discussion, everyone agrees Izzy’s name will become Edward Ishmael Sanger Branch.

Before any of this can take place, Lindsay goes into labor, and delivers a healthy baby boy, who she and Ned name John Isaac, though, from the start, they nickname him “Ike”. Izzy is thrilled to have a baby brother. Ned’s family is disappointed the child isn’t named after his father, but otherwise welcomes his arrival. Shortly after Ike’s birth, Charlotte receives the results of the test, which yield no surprises, and Ned completes the Paternity Acknowledgment form, has it notarized, and sends it off to Vital Records. Over the next several years, Ned and Lindsay have two daughters, Ansley Mae, and Emily Kaitlyn.

A year and a half into his contract, Ned, who’s being considered for a trade to Buffalo, gets his first and only start, in an away game against the Dolphins in Miami. He leads the team to a respectable 24-20 score, but in the final drive of the game, he gets tackled hard by a defensive end, just as he’s completed a long pass for a touchdown. The momentum of the opposing player, along with the angle Ned hits the ground, combine to give him a serious head and neck injury, which proves to be career-ending. Fortunately, Lindsay had the foresight to insure Ned has good personal injury coverage, over and above what the league provides, plus she’s been very prudent in investing his guaranteed earnings, which are considerable. As his rehabilitation begins, wheels start turning behind the scenes to capitalize on his popularity in the community. Officials with both political parties send out feelers to gauge his interest in running for local or county office. At no point is mention made of Ishmael’s existence.

Worthy 51, The Phone Call

Rhiannon Worthy enters her home in Seattle, Washington, and slips out of her Crocs, then pads across the living room, sorting through her mail. She’s been on a 48-hour rotation at the hospital, where she’s a nursing supervisor, and she’s looking forward to some down time. It’s been a week since her daughter, Abigail and niece, Genevieve left for Atlanta, and Rhiannon is hoping for a phone call updating her on their progress later this evening. While Genevieve has gone there to possibly start school at Georgia Tech, Abigail tagged along for moral support, and will most likely be back in a week or so.

She hears a delivery truck pulling up near her home, but thinks little of it, until her doorbell rings. She answers to find a Fedex driver outside with a medium-sized parcel. “Rhiannon Worthy?” She signs for it, and thanks the driver, then takes the package to the dining room table. She does not recognize the shipping address, which appears to be a realty office in Massachusetts.

Rhiannon gets a utility knife, and opens the box. Inside, she finds an off-brand cell phone with its charger, sitting on top of an envelope addressed to her, and two individually-wrapped packages. There’s a post-it on the phone that reads, “Start here”. The phone is dead, so she plugs it in. Once it comes on, she checks the directory and finds a single phone number programmed in. She hesitates a moment, then clicks to dial. After six or seven rings, a man answers, “Ms. Worthy. So glad you called.”

“Who is this?” Rhiannon says.

“My apologies,” he says. “This is Marcel Duchard. Paul’s brother. We met, once, years ago, at Rosalind and Paul’s wedding.”

“I remember,” she says. “You’re not in the US are you?”

“No, I’m in Mozambique these days,” he says. “My Portuguese is still a bit rusty, but I like the climate. I won’t elaborate further on my whereabouts, for obvious reasons.”

“Why have you contacted me?” she says.

“I realized I had some unfinished business with regards to Rosalind’s estate, so I had the package sent to you with a means of contacting me,” Marcel tells her. “Once I’ve explained everything, you’ll never hear from me again.”

“Okay, why all the cloak and dagger?” Rhiannon says.

“I apologize for the intrigue,” he says, “but, as you might imagine, I need to be somewhat discrete in my dealings within the US. It’s for your protection as much as mine. The cell phone you’re using is a burner, and I strongly recommend that you discard it once our call is done.”

“Fine,” Rhiannon says. “What’s this all about? What do you mean by unfinished business?”

“You’re Rosalind’s executor,” he says, “and have probably noted, her estate was fairly straight forward. Everything goes to Genevieve.”

“Right,” she says.

“Well, there’s one piece of property she left out of the copy of her will that you have,” he says. “That, she left to you. In the package, the very next item will be an envelope with your name on it. That contains an updated copy of her will, with details on the property. I suggest you file that as soon as possible.”

“What property?” Rhiannon says.

“It’s an old waterfront warehouse Rosalind paid five thousand for around 1972,” he replies. “Rather astute move on her part, actually. The building’s part of a riverfront development now. Worth millions.”

“Rosalind owned that?” Rhiannon says.

“Yes. She’s been leasing it out to an art academy since she’s had it,” Marcel says.

“I don’t understand any of this,” Rhiannon says. “Why wasn’t this in her original will?”

“She didn’t want you to know about it until she was gone, for reasons known only to her,” he says. “Again, I apologize, as I should have gotten this to you sooner, but news is sometimes hard to come by when one is running from authorities. I only learned of Rosalind’s death when I tried to contact my neice a month ago. By the way, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks,” she says.

“The other packages contain information which should tell you everything you need to know,” he says. “They’re Rosalind and Regan’s diaries.”

“Regan?” Rhiannon says to herself.

“Rosalind left them with me for safekeeping,” Marcel goes on. “When I had to leave, I gave them to an attorney friend of mine. She saw to it they were delivered to you, along with a method for contacting me. She can also put you in touch with the witnesses to the will.”

“Why didn’t Rosie just give them to me?” Rhiannon says.

“I’m afraid I’ve told you everything I can.” he says. “As you know, Rosalind could be rather mysterious in her dealings for no good reason. She set this up with me about a year after Paul died, and as her attorney, I couldn’t disclose anything about it until the time was right.”

“Okay, thanks,” Rhiannon says.

“Now, if there are no more questions, I’ll conclude our business,” Marcel says. “If you should speak to Genevieve, send her my regards. I’d contact her myself, but the last time we spoke, she told me she’d turn me in if she knew my whereabouts. I was a bit disappointed, but I understand.”

“What if I have other questions?” she says.

“I’m afraid you’re on your own,” he says. “I plan to lose this number as soon as I conclude this call, which I’m doing now.”

With that, the line disconnects.

Just One Look

Eddie's Attic stage

The stage at Eddie’s Attic, Decatur, GA, 6 October 2016

Rebecca Asher, sixteen, takes a seat at the bar in Eddie’s Attic, and picks up a menu. It’s her first time here, attending an “all ages” show featuring local Atlanta performers. She’s been anxious to visit, since it regularly hosts artists like Michelle Malone and The Indigo Girls, who Rebecca follows on the radio. She doubts either will be in the lineup tonight, since they’re national acts — the Indigo Girls had been on David Letterman — but some of her older friends told her that sometimes big name performers show up to watch the shows, and will go up for a song or two, if asked. Following her friend’s advice, she arrived early, just as the house opened, and has been rewarded with a great seat at the end of the bar, with an unobstructed view of the stage.

The bartender comes over and points at Rebecca. “Can I get you something to drink?”

Rebecca sits up, and in her most adult voice, says, “Bring me a rum and Coke.”

“Sure,” the bartender replies. “Can I see your ID?”

Rebecca sighs. “Bring me a Coke.”

“Coming up,” the bartender says and starts to go.

Rebecca says after her, “No ice”, which the bartender acknowledges, then looks over the menu, deciding on fries, and mac and cheese (Decatur’s Best!) by the time the bartender returns. Her food order handled, Rebecca sips her Coke and turns so she’s facing the stage. There are, at least, three guitars, a small drum set, and keyboards onstage, with a couple of tambourines and a harmonica holder hanging from the mic stands. Rebecca looked at the poster that described the artists performing when she bought her ticket, but other than one called Echo, who she’s not sure is a person or a group, she can’t recall them.

Lately, Rebecca has felt in need of some sort of release. A sophomore at Decatur High School (Class of 1999!), she’s the oldest sibling in her family, which consists of her, younger brother Steven, and mother Sharon. Her father, Owen, a pilot, abandoned the family when Rebecca was nine — “flew right out of our lives,” Sharon always says — and Rebecca has not had any contact with him since. For the past six months, her aunt, Rachel Lawson, has been living with them, having come to look after Sharon, after she was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. It was Sharon who suggested Rebecca have a night out, perhaps correctly sensing her daughter could use a break.

As upbeat and positive as Rachel tries to be around Rebecca and Steven, she’s never sugarcoated the stark facts of Sharon’s illness or chances for survival. Sharon had ignored the symptoms, then put off treatment too long, despite warnings from Rachel, who had been living on the West Coast when Sharon first started complaining of feeling run down. In recent weeks, Rebecca has seen her mother’s energy level further drain away, as Sharon moved from the previous aggressive treatment she’d endured to what Rachel now calls “maintenance of pain”. Rebecca and Steven have both been reluctant to leave the house for fear their mother might slip away while they’re gone, but tonight, Sharon had insisted, giving Rebecca plenty of money to do whatever she wanted, once Steven left to spend the evening with a school mate.

Rebecca’s food arrives, and she starts eating. She tastes the mac and cheese, then douses it with a generous helping of Tabasco sauce, then tries another bite.

“Best gets better,” she says.

As the crowd starts filling in, a tall, shapely, dark-haired woman in her early-20s enters and leans against a stool near Rebecca, who can’t tear her eyes away. The woman sits with her back to the bar, and seems to be watching the door for someone.

Rebecca decides to try her luck. Leaning toward the woman, she says, “Excuse me. Are you performing?”

The woman glances over her shoulder at Rebecca, before returning her eyes to the door. She gives a quick, “No.”

Rebecca considers this, then presses ahead. “I’m Rebecca. Ah, Becky.”

“Good for you,” the tall woman says without looking. She rises, and Rebecca looks to see a tall, slender, dark-haired man, accompanied by a small woman with light, red hair, who looks not much older than Rebecca, headed toward the tall woman.

“We set?” the man says.

“Yeah, I talked to the sound guy,” the tall woman says. “He seems to know what’s what.”

“What, what, what,” the smaller woman says, all the while twisting her head slightly to the left. “Let’s get ready. We’re opening.”

They move away from the bar and toward the stage. Rebecca keeps her eyes on the tall woman. She suspects it could be love at first sight.

For more than a year, Rebecca has been trying to come to terms with the feelings she’s been having for some of her female classmates. She’s well aware of the implications, having been exposed to the topics in human sexuality class, but had not anticipated that it would affect her in a personal sense. Still, she concludes, if it’s how she is, there’s nothing much she can do about it, so she might as well learn to live with it. She doubts her mother or Steven will mind, and has considered broaching the topic with Rachel, but Rebecca isn’t sure how much she trusts her aunt. Rachel isn’t quite what Rebecca was expecting from her mother’s description of her older sister.

Sharon has always described Rachel as a “classic free spirit” and always seemed a bit in awe of her slightly older sister. Rachel moved to California in the 70s right out of high school with her best friend, and her life there has been shrouded in mystery. From what little she’s been told, Rebecca knows Rachel’s friend died, and Rachel became a nurse, but Sharon hasn’t spoken much of what Rachel was doing during the 80s. Prior to Rachel’s arrival, Rebecca formed this image of this wild party girl, hobnobbing with celebrities and cruising LA in a hot sports car. The woman who appeared at the house this past November was totally different, more “new age” than Rebecca expected, with few stories of her exciting Hollywood lifestyle.

The trio of the tall woman and her two companions are now on stage, the man behind the keyboards, and the smaller woman holding a guitar. The tall woman appears to be helping with setup, communicating with the person in the booth as the smaller woman strums the guitar. The lights dim, and the tall woman takes a seat to the right of the stage. A man who identifies himself as Eddie comes to the stage, tells the audience to “hush up” while the singers are performing, and introduces the first act, Echo.

The smaller woman tells the crowd she’s Charlotte, and introduces her brother, Brian on the keyboards, then launches into a song that leaves Rebecca blown away. For such a small person, Charlotte has a huge voice, that floods into every corner of the room, and puts Rebecca in mind of Alison Moyet or Annie Lenox. At one point, midway through the forty-minute set, the tall woman goes to the booth and speaks to the man running sound. She spends the remainder of the performance stationed in front of the booth, listening.

Afterward, Rebecca heads to the lobby between the music room and the patio, where Charlotte is speaking to some audience members, and signing people up for Echo’s mailing list. Brian and the tall woman are packing up their instruments.

“I enjoyed your performance,” Rebecca says, as she’s adding her name to the list.

“Thanks,” Charlotte says. “We’re going to be working on an album real soon.” Her speaking voice reminds Rebecca of how her father’s relatives around Macon talk.

“Is that other woman your sister?” Rebecca asks.

“Sister, sister, sis–” Charlotte begins, giving Rebecca an idea of where the group gets its name. “No, that’s our friend, Claire. She does our sound and helps set up.”

Brian enters and joins Charlotte, who introduces Rebecca.

“Always nice to gain a new fan,” he says as he shakes Rebecca’s hand.

“Is Claire waiting?” Charlotte says, to which Brian nods. She looks back to Rebecca. “It’s great meeting you, Becky. Hopefully we’ll get some stuff out to the mailing list about our next show.”

“I’ll look for it,” Rebecca says.

Once Charlotte and Brian leave, Rebecca goes back to the music room and settles her tab. She hangs out for a couple more performers, but can’t stop worrying about her mother, so she decides to call it a night and heads home.

Rebecca makes a mental note to try and keep up with Echo, but in the meantime, life intrudes. Less than a month later, Sharon Asher loses her battle with cancer. 

House Band

Garden Club, Norcross, GA
Claire Belmonte maneuvers her Jeep Wrangler into the side driveway at the home of Manny and Deanna Savage in Norcross, and parks by the red Nissan that belongs to Brian Sanger. She’s there to help Brian and his sister, Charlotte, plan out the sound requirements for an upcoming show at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta. She’s worked with the duo, who call themselves Echo, for seven years, since their earliest shows, which included open mic events at venues such as Smith’s and Eddie’s Attic, after Charlotte came to Atlanta in the summer of 1996. In addition to the planning, Claire has a huge favor to ask her friends. 

Charlotte lives in the small guest house behind the Savage residence with her son, Ishmael, but instead of going there, Claire walks around to the front of the main house and rings the doorbell. She’s greeted by Gloria, the middle of Manny and Deanna’s three children, an early-teen girl with dark blonde hair, wearing sweat pants, and a Ramones T-shirt, with red and black checkerboard sneakers. 

“Hey, Glo,” Claire says, giving Gloria a hug. “I see the Volvo’s missing. I guess that means your folks are gone.”

“Mom took Prudie to get a dress for a talent show she’s in,” Gloria says. “Dad’s in the kitchen.”

Claire follows Gloria through the house and into the kitchen, where Manny is carefully measuring and placing lumps of cookie dough onto a greased baking sheet. Manny Savage is forty, with dark, unruly hair, which is currently stuffed into a ridiculous looking chef’s hat, and a powerful upper body with very broad shoulders. He normally has a heavy five-o-clock shadow, but today looks like he hasn’t shaved in a couple of days. Looking up as Claire enters, he says, loudly and enthusiastically, “CC!”

“How ya doing, Manny?” Claire says. Not wanting to interrupt his baking, she rubs his back, rather than hugging him.

“I hope you’ll stick around for some cookies,” he says. “We’re making three dozen.”

“I can probably help you out with a few,” Claire says.

“So, getting set for the big show at Smith’s, are you?” Manny says.

“You know it,” Claire says. “I’ll stop back in for some cookies later.”

Claire exits into the back yard and stops to play with the Savages’ dog, Lex, a medium-sized mongrel, with brown, shaggy hair, that the family rescued from animal control a few years earlier. As she approaches the door to the guest house, she can hear Charlotte’s contralto voice singing a tune Claire recognizes from their upcoming album, accompanied by Brian on piano. Claire lets herself in. Charlotte and Brian acknowledge her without pausing. Once they finish, they both greet Claire with a hug. Brian is a couple of inches taller than Claire, and his hair is the same dark color as hers. Claire towers over Charlotte, whose head barely reaches Claire’s chin. For the past few years, Charlotte has been wearing her strawberry blonde hair in dreadlocks, and has a fake nose ring she puts on. She also likes wearing round, wire-framed, rose-colored sunglasses, especially onstage. 

“Where’s Izzy?” Claire says.

“He’s visiting his father and brother this afternoon,” Charlotte says. “Ned’s taking Izzy and Ike to see the Gwinnett Braves.”

“Sounds like fun,” Claire says. 

Echo is releasing a new album and having a CD release show upstairs at Smith’s in a little under a week. It’s a venue they’ve played many times before, so most of their meeting deals with the requirements of several songs on which Brian and Charlotte will be using some new instruments they’ve not played in concert before. Deanna Savage has been teaching Charlotte to play the banjo, and Brian will be playing a saxophone, which he’s used in the studio, but never live. After about an hour, they have a good handle on what’s needed, so Claire decides to approach them with the favor she needs.

“Recently, a family I’m close to lost their father,” Claire says. “Brian, you attended the funeral with me, Jack Standridge.”

“Right, I remember,” he says. “They struck me as good people.”

“They are — the best,” Claire says. “Jack’s death has been really tough on his wife, Nancy. She’s all alone in this huge house and misses her grandkids, who now live in Florida.”

“Florida, Florida,” Charlotte repeats. “Is there something we can do for them?”

“Maybe,” Claire says. “Nancy has decided to put the house on the market and move down near her son, Rex and his family.”

“What does it have to do with us?” Charlotte says. 

“I’m hoping you’d consider making an offer on the house,” Claire says. “Walker Development has been buying up property around the area. They want to tear down the houses and build these monstrosities that will drive up the property values and tax assessments.”

“How’s the neighborhood reacting to that?” Brian says. 

“Split fifty-fifty,” Claire says. “Many of the older residents just want to sell out and leave. The other half, mostly families with school-age kids, want to fight it.”

“I’m happy where we are, Claire,” Charlotte says. “Izzy’s happy. I like being with the Savages. The school system suits us — and I especially like having babysitters right next door.”

“DeKalb has a good school system, too,” Claire says. “It’s a larger house, with a huge back yard, and has a small, wooded area. Izzy would love that.”

“Charlotte would love that,” Brian says, to which Charlotte nods. 

Claire leans toward them. “This place has a lot of sentimental value for me. The Standridges were there when I really needed them, I lived there for nearly three years. In some ways, you could say my whole life started over there.”

Brian touches Charlotte’s hand, and says to her, “It won’t hurt to meet with them. Take a look at the place. Decatur’s got a great music scene, too, and we’d be right near the thick of it in Avondale.”

“Avondale, Avondale,” Charlotte says. “We can meet with them and take a look. The woods do sound tempting. Just don’t get your hopes up, Claire.”

Claire nods. “That’s all I ask.”

There’s a knock at the door, followed by Gloria looking in and saying, “Dad said to tell you the latest batch of cookies just came out of the oven. Actually, he told me to look in and yell ‘Cookies!’ like Cookie Monster, but I’m not doing that.”

They all head over to the main house.

Mommy Issues

Fan Dance, Dolls Head Trail

Fan Dance, Dolls Head Trail, Constitution Lake, Atlanta, GA.

It was early evening, June 1996, at the Clermont Lounge in Atlanta, Georgia. Selma Messner, now calling herself Irene Castleberry, leaned on the bar and looked out at the sparse crowd. She was dressed in a sleeveless yellow blouse, jeans, and work shoes, none of which were new, so she didn’t worry about spills. A large, black woman was dancing on a platform, to the amplified sounds of “Jump” by Van Halen, and was surrounded by a few patrons, but otherwise business was slow. There were only a few smokers inside, but the room still reeked of cigarettes, and body odor, and beer. The real crowd didn’t start showing up until eight or nine, and usually later, and, on weekends, often got younger as the evening wore on. Selma couldn’t understand why college kids would want to hang out in a place like this, but she welcomed their tips, when they gave them, and otherwise, they weren’t much trouble for her. She had a little hardwood club, fashioned out of an old stool leg, positioned strategically under the bar if a patron got a bit too rowdy, and if things really got out of hand, she could give a sign to the bouncer and he’d handle the situation promptly.

Selma had been employed there for nearly two months, since just after she’d confronted her daughter, Christine, outside a hotel in Buckhead, where she was going to some sort of meeting with a fellow Selma took to be her boyfriend, a handsome young man named Brian. Selma had seen him at the Clermont once since. Christine left home when she was sixteen-years-old and came to Atlanta, after several troublesome incidents in Perry, where they lived, and since that time had taken on a new name, Claire Belmonte. Selma hadn’t been in touch with her daughter since that time, but had recently left her husband and didn’t have many places she could go. Claire had given her money to leave town, but Selma decided to stick around, adopt a new name herself, that of her maternal grandmother, and try out life in the big city. Claire had not been happy to find Selma was still in town, but Selma rarely gave much currency to what her daughter wanted or didn’t want, so Selma decided to stay on until she could think of something better to do. She didn’t make a huge salary busing tables or tending bar, but she was paid in cash, and the tips often made up for the shortfall. She’d always considered herself a godly woman, but had to admit, the wages of sin were sometimes quite lucrative.

Around 7:15, Selma turned toward the entrance and was surprised to see Claire enter and head to the bar. Claire was tall — at least six feet — with long, black hair, and portional to her height. She was usually fairly sullen when dealing with Selma, but as she headed toward the bar this night, she seemed to have a bounce in her step. It was Claire’s second visit in as many weeks, the first being to confirm and complain that Selma was still in town. Claire leaned against the opposite end of the counter, a curious smile on her face, and Selma moved toward her.

“Well, hello there, Ms. Belmonte,” Selma said. “You here for a drink, or did you reconsider that dancing position?”

“You really like it here, don’t you?” Claire said. “I never pictured you in an establishment like this.”

“It ain’t bad,” Selma said. “I mean, the folks is usually nice, and I get some good tips. I can take it or leave it, I guess.”

“You really think I’m just going to stand back and let you hang out in Atlanta?” Claire said, the curious smile still glued to her face.

“I don’t see what choice you got, really,” Selma said. “Ain’t but one person can do anything about it, and there’s no way you’d ever call him.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Claire said, pushing away from the counter and standing back from the bar. “Just so happens I was down that way a few days ago.”

The smile on Selma’s face vanished. “No. You’re lying. Ain’t no way–”

In response, Claire looked over her shoulder, toward the entrance. “Mr. Messner, would this happen to be the person you’re missing?”

There was a long pause, during which Selma almost convinced herself Claire was bluffing, then around the corner stepped a smallish man, with salt and pepper hair and beard, wearing jeans and a work shirt, with black work shoes — Selma’s husband, Zachariah Messner.

“Why, Ms. Belmonte, it is indeed,” he said.

Selma could do nothing more than exclaim, “No!” She stepped back from the edge of the bar and her eyes shot to Claire. “How could you do something like this?”

“It was actually pretty easy, once I set my mind to it,” Claire said, her voice slipping into the vernacular of Middle Georgia. “We had a nice little chat one morning and I was moved by his sad tale. I swore I’d do all I could to reunite him with his wayward spouse.”

Zachariah stared at Selma for several long seconds, then said simply, “Time to come on home, Selma.”

Selma remained frozen behind the bar. She caught the eye of the bouncer, who walked over. “Irene, everything all right here?”

“No, it ain’t,” Selma said to him. “Get these people out of here. They harassing me.”

The bouncer moved so he was between Selma and the pair. “I believe the woman asked you folks to leave.”

Claire looked at Zachariah, who appeared on the verge of speaking. She held up her hand to silence him. In a voice brimming with emotion, she addressed the bouncer. “Sir, this woman is my mother, and this is her husband. She’s been having some mental issues, and claiming to be someone she’s not. I learned she ran off and was hiding out here. We’re only here to try and get her the help she so desperately needs.”

“Is that right, sir?” the bouncer said to Messner.

Zachariah lowered his head, and replied with deference, “Yessir, as embarrassed as I am to admit it. What she’s said is true.”

The bouncer looked back and forth from Selma to Claire and Messner, then threw up his hands. “I’m not getting in the middle of some domestic situation. Sorry, Irene.” He walked away. Selma watched him with trepidation.

“I think that settles the matter,” Claire said. “Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Messner?”

“I believe you’re right,” Zachariah said. “Get your things, Selma. We got a long drive back.”

Selma lowered her head and moved out from behind the bar. “My stuff’s upstairs. Won’t take long.” She glared at Claire. “I never imagined you could be in cahoots with him.”

Claire leaned in and said in a harsh voice, “Never underestimate me again.”

Selma led them outside and into the hotel. It took her about fifteen minutes to shove all her clothing into her bags. She and Zachariah carried them down to his car.

Once Selma was seated on the passenger side, with her seatbelt on, Zachariah turned to Claire. “I thank you again, Ms. Belmonte. If you’re ever back down our way, be sure to stop in and say hello.”

“I think we both know there’s not a chance in hell of that ever happening,” Claire said.

Messner chuckled. “Well all right, then. You take care of yourself, Ms. Belmonte.”

He got in and drove away. Clare stood for a long time staring after them, before heading off to wait for her bus.