Excerpt for Ocean of Deceit by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Ocean of Deceit


by


Patricia Welliver





Smashwords Edition


Copyright 2017 Patricia Welliver


Smashwords Edition, License Notes


Thank you for downloading this book. The book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. This ebook is a work of fiction. The town of Oater's Creek does not exist. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events or locales, or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



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"For fools rush in

Where angels fear to tread."


Pope - Essay on Criticism


Chapter One


I have committed the unforgivable sin of taking another man's life. I am a murderer. Even so, I am confident that I will never face a judge or jury of my peers.

The victim was a stranger, known only to me by name. It was not a gruesome or bloody murder, yet the crime was carried out as an act of bitter revenge, and for the love of a beautiful woman.

The specific location chosen for the murder more or less guaranteed that the body would never be found. No body. No suspect. A simple equation. One might dare to call it the perfect murder. Of course, that was how we had planned it to be. The perfect murder.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. To hear the whole incredible tale, I must take you back several weeks to a hot sunny day in early June. My name is David Townsend, and this is my story.


Chapter Two


As was my usual custom at about this same time every weekday morning, I left the jeep parked in the shade of the acacia tree, and slowly strolled along the narrow timbered sidewalk. Bothersome gusts of wind during the night had stirred up the bordering area of crushed gravel, leaving the sidewalk's uneven surface coated in a fine sprinkling of sandy particles.

Although it was not yet eight o'clock, the outside temperature was already playing footsy with the ninety degree mark. Considering the early hour, and the unseasonable heat for this time of year, it was not surprising that I was the only pedestrian in the tiny plaza. But I loved the heat, or the dry heat, as Arizona residents are inclined to describe their sweltering summer temperatures.

I was headed for the Brazilian Bean Bistro, a fancy name for the neat little cafe hidden away in one corner of the plaza. On the way, I passed Daisy Walton's one of a kind novelty store, and appropriately named Desert Treasures. Behind a myriad of glass showcases filled with eye-catching knickknacks, I glimpsed Daisy, glasses perched on the end of her nose, engrossed in the morning newspaper. Daisy didn't see me, but an ugly looking china jackrabbit stared back at me through the window. I had to wonder who would purchase such a hideous looking thing.

It never ceases to amaze me the crazy objects visitors seemed compelled to buy; objects that wouldn't normally get a second glance back home. I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of the items are acquired on a spur of the moment whim. Who among us can honestly say they have never once in their life purchased a completely useless vacation memento? On the other hand, this is indeed fortunate for Daisy, whose livelihood depends on the split second temptation of her merchandise.

As I continued on my way, I pondered the ultimate fate of all those woven baskets, beaded necklaces and grotesque carvings sold at Desert Treasures, and all other similar stores. There's no doubt that quite a few of the purchases would eventually end up on a dust laden shelf in some storage room or basement, and all but forgotten until the next spring cleaning ritual. Worse yet, they could become part of a Christmas package to some dear old aunt, who would never complain no matter how hideous or worthless the gift might be. Of course, if all else fails, there is always the ever popular Saturday morning yard sale, undeniably one of America's favorite ways of disposing of any unwanted item. The much loved yard sale can generate a veritable hodgepodge of treasures and relics, as well as a wide ranging assortment of other people's junk.

I stepped up quickly to the elevated boardwalk that followed the contour of the horseshoe shaped plaza. The weather-worn timbered walkway does a lot to enhance the Old West theme of this unique section of Oater's Creek. In preference to the somewhat dreary Seventh Street address, the area is more often referred to by the locals as Pioneer Plaza. The name makes a lot more sense to me, and I understand there are plans in the works to officially change it to the more popular term.

Although the historic authenticity of Pioneer Plaza cannot be denied, it always reminds me of a badly constructed backdrop for some B-rated western motion picture. Looking much like a prop from an MGM movie lot, an old water trough leans out of kilter against the raised walkway. Aside from it being a genuine piece of history, and a posted threat of a one hundred dollar fine, the wooden trough unfortunately is also used as a convenient garbage receptacle by thoughtless visitors and, if the truth be known, probably a few of the local residents too.

According to the town's somewhat ambiguous chronicles, it seems that at one time or other, everyone from Wyatt Earp to Billy the Kid have reportedly hitched their trusted steed to the railing next to the trough. Although it's a well known fact that both of these legendary characters once honored Arizona with their presence, there is no real evidence that either man actually set foot in Oater's Creek. As expected, this controversial topic often leads to a plethora of good humored banter among the old timers here in town, with each insisting most adamantly that their version is the correct version. No matter which story is told, it is by and large the overall consensus that the inclusion of someone like Wyatt Earp typically makes for a more interesting narrative. Most of the visitors to Oater's Creek, but especially the kids, seem to enjoy listening to tales, true or otherwise, of the bygone years of lawlessness, and a stimulating improvisation here and there is considered nothing more than harmless indulgence by the present day storyteller.

The Brazilian Bean Bistro is a modern day addition to Pioneer Plaza. With its phony Wild West facade, it somehow manages to blend in nicely with the surrounding background. In my humble opinion, although I'm by no means an expert, the little cafe serves up the best cup of coffee this side of the Rockies. It was established by one Milton Monroe, an entrepreneurial upstart, whose early years spent working on a coffee plantation in Brazil convinced him that every small town in the U.S. deserved its very own unique coffee shop. Upon entering the cozy interior, you will discover a treasure trove of coffee beans from around the world. Even the most discerning coffee connoisseur would have a hard time finding fault with the wide selection of palate pleasing creations.

From humble beginnings, the Brazilian Bean has grown into the town's most popular coffee venue, with a worthy mention in a couple of travel magazines. Most mornings you will find me seated in the window of the little cafe, and enjoying a cup of my favorite latte.

I eased back into a leisurely pace as I approached the cafe, so I could take a quick peep through the pebbled glass window. Would she be there again this morning? My heart did a double flip flop when I spotted her sitting in her usual seat.

I quickly entered the Brazilian Bean and was greeted by a wonderful aroma of freshly ground coffee. I headed straight for the counter, determined not to sneak a glance in her direction.

A pasty faced teenager with a startling punk hairdo shuffled towards me. I hadn't seen the lad before, and wondered what had become of the doe-eyed young filly who usually served up my morning coffee. Many a time her bubbly personality and cheerful smile had helped jump start my day. The embodiment of sullen resentfulness now standing before me would likely expire before cracking a smile.

"What's your pleasure?"

His brusque attitude definitely needed work on. No good morning. No cheerful greeting. This was not an encouraging start, and I sensed immediately that the two of us were going to butt heads before too long.

"A Kahana Royale latte."

He grunted some sort of a response.

It vexed me to have to tell him what I wanted. After all, I had been coming here for the past eight years and, being a creature of habit, had never once deviated from my order of Kahana Royale with its distinct sweet flavor of macadamia nuts. Of course, unless he had the ability to read my mind, there was no way he could have known this, but I was pissed just the same.

My disdainful glance took in the youth's skintight frayed jeans, and the cutoff tee shirt that barely covered his bony rib cage. What was the owner, Mel Thomas, thinking when he hired this scruffy image of arrogance? I made a mental note to enlighten him of my displeasure. Not that it would do the slightest bit of good. Mel was not one to take advice in the spirit it was given.

In a fit of ill will I slapped down a hundred dollar bill, and was rewarded with an angry scowl. Probably in retaliation for having to make change for the hundred, the dumb jerk had intentionally filled the coffee cup to the brim, and by the time I reached the table in the window, a good amount of the frothy concoction had slopped over into the saucer. Too late, I realized there was no sugar bowl on the table. I glared back at the freak behind the counter, but he was too busy admiring his week's growth of beard in the chromium-plate of the coffee dispenser to notice my dilemma. Apparently, shaving was not yet part of his daily routine. Someone should tell him where he could buy a razor.

"Please use some of my sugar."

Her voice had an immediate effect on me. My heart was pumping so wildly that I felt sure the movement could be seen beneath my shirt. The golden goddess, my secret name for this gorgeous creature, had actually spoken to me. I could hardly believe my good fortune.

On the way over to her table, my hand had mysteriously developed a slight tremor, and I prayed I wouldn't make a complete ass of myself by scattering sugar all over the table. Fortunately, the good luck gods were smiling down on me today, and the sugar made it safely from the bowl to the cup.

"Thank you," I managed to say.

I was suddenly caught off guard by her penetrating blue eyes as they looked steadily into mine. For a second I found myself completely and utterly powerless under her beguiling spell.

"Now that you're here," she whispered sweetly, "why don't you join me?"

Her request took me by surprise, and I tried not to look too stunned. I pulled out a chair and quickly sat down beside her before all of my remaining self assurance gave out. My left knee accidentally brushed against her leg, and when she smiled across at me, I felt the heat rise in my body.

Up close, she was even more beautiful. Flawless skin over a perfectly shaped face betrayed only the faintest hint of makeup. Her short curly hair, the color of corn, was arranged in a boyish carefree style. She was tall, about five seven or eight, with all the perfect statistics to complement a body tanned a golden bronze.

She extended her hand and introduced herself. "I'm Angelina, but everyone calls me Angel."

Angel? Unless angels had taken to wearing skin tight leather skirts and low cut blouses, she was certainly not my idea of the typically portrayed angel. More like a teasing seductress, but I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

"I'm Michael. Michael Townsend." I held her soft hand in mine just for a second. Any longer might seem inappropriate. "But everyone calls me Michael."

I immediately regretted the inane repartee, but she appeared not to have noticed. The truth is I dislike being called Mike, or Mickey, or any other adulterated form of my given name. It's probably a throwback to my childhood days, and a mother who insisted I answer only to Michael, and nothing else. Fortunately, she was never around to hear the nickname I was given by the other boys at school. Pride prevents me from sharing the nickname here. Everyone at school had a nickname, respectful or otherwise. Even the bullies had nicknames, but unless you wanted to go home sporting a black eye or bloodied nose, it was wise to keep your mouth shut.

"I'm glad we've finally met," she smiled, exposing a row of dazzling white teeth. They seemed almost too perfect to be real.

"I've been coming here every morning for about two weeks now," she went on to explain, "so I think it's about time we introduced ourselves."

"Has it been that long?" I pretended to be surprised, yet knowing full well it was exactly twelve days since I had first laid eyes on this golden goddess.

She gave me another heart stopping smile. "Yes, it's been that long."

Her casual gaze slowly traveled over my five foot ten slightly overweight body, and I had the uneasy suspicion that I was being analytically evaluated from head to toe. I was glad I had chosen to wear one of my better shirts and a decent pair of slacks, but beneath her unabashed scrutiny, I felt as naked as a newborn babe. Thank goodness she couldn't see my knees. Perhaps I should explain that I have been cursed with a pair of unattractive bony knees, so you'll rarely see me wearing shorts except around the house. It appeared I passed her inspection for she gave me another warm smile.

I took a quick sip of coffee, and found myself pleasantly surprised. In spite of my initial criticism of the dude behind the counter, I had to grudgingly admit he made a decent cup of Kahana Royale. I looked up to find him watching me as if waiting for my approval. Maybe tomorrow I would play the nice guy and give him the exact change for the coffee. After all, it was probably unwise to make an enemy of the barista who now appeared to be the new dispenser of my caffeine stimulant.

"Do you work around here?" She leaned over towards me, and I inhaled the intoxicating fragrance of her perfume. She was so close I wanted to reach up and touch her hair, to run my fingers through those soft, blond curls, and to feel that beautiful body pressed against mine.

"Michael?"

The sound of my name jerked me abruptly back to reality. I noticed that Angel was looking at me in a odd sort of way. Was it possible she could read my mind. I cringed at the thought.

"I'm sorry. What did you say?" I was embarrassed by my wandering thoughts, and in particular the sexual direction they had taken. This definitely was a first for me. I was acting like a kid with raging hormones.

"I was just wondering if you worked around here."

An innocent question, yet I needed to take a deep breath before answering. "Yes, yes I do. As a matter of fact," I informed her, "my office is just around the corner on Fourth Street."

"Fourth Street?" A small frown appeared on her beautiful face, causing the tiniest dimple between her eyebrows. "Isn't that where the old saloon is?"

"Ah, yes," I grinned, "the infamous building on Fourth Street. One of our town's claim to fame."

"Oh?" She looked puzzled. "And why's that?"

"Well, according to records, the building boasts quite a notorious past."

"Really?"

"Uh-uh."

Angel leaned forward in her chair, and I caught another whiff of her perfume. Whatever she was wearing, it seemed to be having a weird effect on me.

"So," she looked at me enquiringly, "are you going to tell me about the old saloon?"

It just so happened that I had recently finished reading an exposé of Old West bordellos, and other establishments that provided similar services. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the building in Oater's Creek, known back then as the Palace of Pleasure, had been given quite a respectable mention in the book. Additional research had produced further intriguing reading.

"I've just finished reading a book on the history of the place," I informed her. "If you like, I'll bring it in tomorrow for you to read."

"Oh, I would much rather you tell me about it. Besides, I'm not really into books or reading."

"I doubt if I can remember all of it," I began, but she waved aside my protest.

"I'm sure you'll do just fine." She pulled her chair closer to the table, and waited for me to begin.

"Well, okay then." Being a quiet sort of guy, I was not very happy with the role I had just been handed. "As I recall," I began hesitantly, "the original building was a bordello, and was known back in those days as the Palace of Pleasure."

"Mmm. The Palace of Pleasure." She gave me an unabashed grin. "Tell me more about this house of ill repute."

I knew she was teasing, but she appeared to be genuinely interested, and so I obliged by probing deep into my memory bank.

"Well, let's see. According to the plaque outside the building, the bordello was finished around 1890. It was built for a woman who went by the name of Madame Paulette. No one seems to know her full name, or where she came from, but rumor had it that she was the mistress of a wealthy French aristocrat."

"Ah, so maybe that's where she got the money to build the bordello? From her French lover."

"That's very possible," I agreed, "but wherever the money came from, she certainly seemed to have plenty of it. Apparently she spared no expense on the plush furnishings. Most of the furniture and fittings were imported from Europe. You can imagine the stir that would have caused in a little town like Oater's Creek."

"I doubt you'd find any of it listed in the Sears catalog," Angel chuckled.

"Definitely not," I confirmed, "and in keeping with the lavish theme, all the ladies chosen by Madame Paulette were said to be very beautiful, well educated, and all had a musical talent of one kind or another."

"Not to mention a number of other talents."

"Well, yes I suppose. But unlike a lot of similar places at that time, the Palace of Pleasure was considered to be a high class establishment. It was known to set a good table, and serve up the finest liquors and wines."

"It certainly doesn't sound like your average Wild West cat house." Angel admitted.

"No, and I'm sure it wasn't. In fact, it was probably a little too grand for Oater's Creek. In any case, the bordello lasted little more than a year before the Madame and her ladies were shown the road out of town."

Angel looked suitably dismayed. "Oh, my goodness. What happened?"

"Well, it seems that a group of the town's folk, mostly made up of church going biddies, apparently didn't take too kindly to the bordello's reputed immoral operation. They made life so miserable for Madame Paulette that in the end she had no choice but to pack up and leave. After she left, the place was ransacked of all its expensive furniture and fittings. So even though some of the folk didn't approve of the bordello, they were more than happy to display a prized piece of the stolen furniture in their own front parlor."

"Talk about being hypocritical," Angel muttered scornfully.

"Ah, but justice has a way of getting even." I now discovered I was quite enjoying the role of storyteller, and certainly couldn't have asked for a more attentive audience.

"With Madame Paulette out of the way, the town decided to turn the building into a music hall. Now, you have to understand that this was a pretty bold venture, especially since back in those days Oater's Creek was little more than a stopover for the stagecoach line. Also, because of the town's remoteness, there was not too many so-called entertainers willing to make the hazardous journey through Indian occupied land just to perform before a bunch of hicks, who probably wouldn't know the difference between Othello and Sitting Bull. Anyway, the place closed down after only a few months."

"Well, if you ask me, it serves them right for chasing poor Paulette out of town."

"Ah, but here's where it gets interesting." I took a quick sip of coffee. It had gone cold, but I didn't care. I was living out my dream of being with this incredibly beautiful woman. Nothing could spoil this moment, not even cold coffee, and I intended to make it last as long as I could.

"Exactly one year to the day when Madame Paulette and her girls were forced to leave town, someone torched the abandoned music hall, and a large part of it was destroyed. Some say that Madame Paulette secretly returned to town, and deliberately set the place on fire. That's only speculation of course, but they never did find out who started the fire."

Angel leaned back in her chair, looking thoughtful. "I wouldn't blame her if she did set the fire. If I'd been in her shoes, I'd want to carry out some sort of revenge too."

It was difficult for me to picture Angel as the revengeful type, but a tiny hint of meanness in her voice gave me something to think about.

"Anyway," I continued, "after that, the place remained boarded up for a very long time. Finally, someone came along and converted it into a saloon. And that's the building you see there today."

"I'm surprised the old biddies didn't object to the saloon."

"Oh, I'm sure in the beginning there was a lot of opposition, but back then a saloon was part of a town's framework. Much like a church, a blacksmith, or a general store."

"From a whore house, to a music hall, to a saloon," Angel mused, "that's quite a history for one little building." She took a sip of her coffee and grimaced.

"Would you like another coffee?"

"Yes, that would be nice."

I signaled to the guy for two more coffees. It's unusual for me to have more than one Kahana Royale, but this morning was turning out to be anything but normal. The coffees were delivered up in next to no time, and Angel rewarded him with one of her mesmerizing smiles. The poor kid turned beetroot red before quickly retreating to his spot behind the counter. Another victim of her charms, I thought wryly.

Angel took a tentative sip of her hot coffee. "Ah, that's good." She returned the cup to the saucer. "So now, thanks to you, I know all about the saloon on Fourth Street."

"Actually, there's more if you're interested."

She looked surprised. "More? Now I'm really intrigued."

I was only too happy to continue. "Okay. Since Oater's Creek was too small a town to have its own courthouse, the saloon doubled up as a courthouse whenever there was a trial for the odd horse thief or cattle rustler.

"The judge at the time was a man named James Bradley, whose qualifications were dubious at best. He was a whiskey swigging individual, who was also an ardent advocate of hanging as a means to quash any lawlessness in Oater's Creek. It's a known fact that the majority of those who appeared before the judge found themselves being marched off to the gallows. According to the book, Bradley would hoist himself up onto one of the bar stools, and without further ado, and without any real trial, or jury, or witnesses, the judge would pronounce the harshest of punishments. Since the judge owned most of the town, no one dared go up against him."

Angel looked suddenly sad. "Fear is a terrible thing."

"Yes. it is," I agreed. "And in fact, it took the hanging of an innocent church elder to finally convince the people to take matters into their own hands. It's believed that late one night a group of men burst into the judge's house, and hauled his ass over to the nearby saloon. The next morning, his body was found hanging from one of the wooden beams inside the saloon. No wonder they called it the Wild West. Thank goodness for our present day legal system," I added on a somber note.

She looked at me with a quizzical expression. "You're not an attorney by any chance?"

"Nothing as glamorous as that I'm afraid," I admitted, suddenly wishing I had chosen a more exciting profession if only to impress her. For a brief second I even considered lying about my job.

"As a matter of fact I'm an architect," I finally informed her, deciding it was better to stick to the truth.

"Really!" She actually looked impressed. "Well I think that's a glamorous career. You have a special and unique gift. Not everyone has the ability and skill to design beautiful buildings."

Oh yes, I thought sourly, beautiful buildings like kitchen and bathroom extensions. I decided not to enlighten her with this depressing triviality.

"And what about you?" I asked her. "Do you work around here too?"

"Oh, I don't go out to work," she informed me with a delightfully crooked smile. "I'm what people jokingly refer to as a lady of leisure."

I glanced down at her left hand, and noticed for the first time a faint line where there had obviously once been a ring. A wedding ring?

"I'm married," she explained, as if this made everything perfectly clear.

The softly spoken words hit me with the full force of a sledge hammer. Of course she was married, and I was a damn fool to have thought otherwise. I had let myself believe that this enchanting woman was actually interested in me. The fact that I had just spent the last fifteen minutes boring her to death with my babbling account of the old saloon left a disagreeable feeling in my gut.

Deep down I felt a strong resentment for all married women who thought it was cute to leave their wedding ring at home. The absence of that little gold band had duped many a man into thinking the road was clear of any complications, including a husband lurking somewhere in the background. Of course, both sexes were equally to blame.

Back in my bar tending days in the gaming mecca of Las Vegas, I had become quite astute at identifying the ring-less spouses. The wives were always the easiest the spot. Gracefully draped across the top of a bar stool, they would flutter their eyelashes at every attractive male who came within a yard of their perch. It was like a comedy act played out every single night, but with different characters taking center stage. And I had the best seat in the house.

With this background, I should have been able to spot her type a mile away, and I could kick myself for being such a dumb sucker. A dupe, an easy target. I was all that and more, and all because my carnal thoughts had clouded my ability to see through her little charade.

Now I was faced with the problem of what to do. The sensible thing of course was to hot foot it out of the cafe before I made a bigger ass of myself.

But what if I was mistaken? What if she was just trying to be friendly? No strings attached. Should I let this unique opportunity pass me by? After all, I had fantasized about this encounter from the moment she had first entered the Brazilian Bean.

In the end it was common sense that ruled the day. A speedy departure from this temptress and all her wily charms, would allow me to leave with my pride still fully intact. Doing anything else would go against my inner persona of being tediously predictable in my lackluster life. Throw in a sprinkle of self esteem deficiency, and you get the general picture.

"Gee," I exclaimed, making a big show of looking down at my watch, "I didn't realize it was so late."

"You have to leave so soon?'

"I'm afraid so. I have to be at a meeting at nine."

I hated lying to her. It was a coward's way out, but it was hard for me to dismiss the little matter of the missing wedding ring. I was still smarting from the stupid oversight.

"Perhaps we can spend some more time together tomorrow morning?"

"Yes, that would be nice." I stood up quickly, eager now to be gone. That is until her hand rested lightly on mine, and I stopped dead in my tracks.

"Until tomorrow then."

The dictionary defines the word bewitched as 'to captivate completely', and that's exactly how I felt as I left the Brazilian Bean that fateful morning.


Chapter Three


I spent the better part of that day checking out the final phase of a new shopping plaza. The initial acceptance of the mall by some of the residents of Oater's Creek had been an uphill battle. Heated haggling had continued on for weeks on end, but eventually the aye votes had triumphed over the opposition. In the end, the design of the shopping mall had been awarded to Wilson and Wilson, an architectural company based in Phoenix.

As the Johnny-on-the-spot representative for Wilson and Wilson, I had quickly discovered the importance of remaining cool, calm and collected during the long and complex negotiations. There were times, however, when I wished I had never even heard of Oater's Creek. To some extent, I could sympathize with the emotional group of anti development supporters, but it was also my task to convince them that the town needed a small shopping center. My life became considerably easier once the provincial semblance of the mall began to take shape, and the group of skeptics finally ceased to air their complaints.

Through all the haggling and bitter quibbling, I gained a valuable insight and understanding of small town life. To be perfectly honest, and if I had my druthers, I would not change one single iota of the place I now call home.

When Wilson and Wilson decided to open up a branch office in Oater's Creek some eight years ago, I made darn sure I was first in line for the transfer. As it turned out, I was the only one in line! Apparently, not too many people had the desire or motivation to live out in the sticks, so it came as no big surprise when I was given the nod to move north.

Along with the transfer came a pay raise, plus a promotion to head up the branch office. Since there was only myself and one part-time secretary, the promotion itself was no big deal, but I must admit though that the extra money came in very handy. Today, our little office is currently staffed by three architects, myself included, and the part time secretary now works full time. As a result of their uncanny perception of future expansion far beyond the city of Phoenix, the two farsighted Wilson brothers must smile from ear to ear at the enviable growth of their bank account.

It's generally accepted that the town's early homesteaders most likely named their tiny settlement after the creek that flowed nearby. A huge reservoir to the north of Oater's Creek now corrals most of the rain water and snow runoff, so it's a rare sight these days to see water flowing between the eroded banks of the creek. Even during the monsoon season, the creek becomes little more than a meandering stream of runoff water.

I'm told that Oater's Creek was once a designated stopover for the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. Indeed, the remains of a sandstone and wooden structure can still be found close to the banks of the dry creek. Although it has never been officially recognized as such, it is thought that the building may possibly have been a way station for the stagecoach line. Inside this crude structure, and sheltered from the harsh environment, weary overland travelers would receive a hearty meal before continuing on their journey aboard the bone crushing stage coach.

Somewhat difficult to locate on a regular road map, our little community is surrounded by rugged desert terrain, and colossal awe inspiring rock formations that can be seen from miles around. At the last count, there were approximately one thousand permanent residents living in Oater's Creek. It's a place where the pace of everyday life remains sane and unhurried.

As hard as I tried, I could not get Angel off my mind. Concrete blocks, plastic piping, and architectural configurations were no match for the images that persistently invaded my thoughts. At around two I left the site of the shopping plaza, and drove back to the office where I hoped to submerse myself in more designs and blueprints. It never happened, and at three o'clock I decided to call it quits, and head for home.

Home for me is a distance of three miles from the center of Oater's Creek. From the main route heading north, you'll need to take a right turn onto a rough dirt trail, just past the bright yellow mailbox. Follow this trail for another half mile or so, and you've finally arrived. During the rainy season, the road leading off the main highway can be a little intimidating, when heavy downpours can turn the dirt surface into a quagmire of rust colored mud.

You can't miss the house. It sits isolated in the center of a five acre lot. A variety of trees and shrubs indigenous to this part of Arizona help break up the wide open spaces.

The coral-colored adobe style house, with its flat roof and intriguing recesses, is not everyone's preferred style of architecture. In truth, it was the sheer magnificence of the surrounding scenery that finally convinced me to buy the place. From every window of the house is a spectacular view of the Arizona landscape stretching for seemingly endless miles. The rolling, rugged terrain transports the onlooker to the far horizon, and the distant breathtaking range of mountains rising up in craggy savageness. It's a continually evolving scene, and I am constantly amazed by the proliferation and explosion of color variations.

Most visitors to the area consider the desert terrain around Oater's Creek to be rather bleak and desolate. Maybe even a little creepy at times. This is more so in the long shadows of the setting sun, when an occasional gentle breeze can be heard whispering through the sun-scorched bushes and thorny ground cover. Gray whiskered old timers are quick to point out that it's not the wind you hear, but the spirits of dead Apache braves who once lived and hunted on the open plains here in northern Arizona. If you believe this story, and many people do, and happen to be out in the desert at sunset, it's possible to imagine all sorts of strange sights and sounds. More than once, the mournful sound of a coyote's howl has sent cold shivers down my spine. At least I assumed it was a coyote.

I gain a great deal of pleasure from living out in the boondocks, and far away from the noises and nuisances that are the by-products of modern day civilization. On rare occasions, but only when the wind is blowing from the north, you might hear the muffled sounds of vehicles traveling along the distant freeway.

My nearest neighbors live approximately half a mile away. They are a delightful, elderly couple who share their acreage with a menagerie of animals, including two potbellied pigs, and a fickle tempered goat named Herbie. I quickly discovered that the goat is best observed from a safe distance, or at least with some kind of barrier between me and the animal. This is because Herbie is inclined to demonstrate his mean butting ability whenever presented with the opportunity.

It felt good to be home. After a long relaxing shower, I made my way into the kitchen, and poured myself three fingers of bourbon. The day's newspaper lay on the counter where I had tossed it earlier on. Glaring headlines screamed of impending budget cuts, and higher unemployment figures. With an impatient grunt I shoved the newspaper to one side. I was in no mood for more of the now familiar gloom and doom. Tomorrow would be soon enough to read about the world's imminent end. Instead, I turned to the bundle of mail I had picked up from the mail box on my way in. A quick look through the stack confirmed my suspicion. Nothing but junk mail and bills. They too could wait until tomorrow.

I was feeling too lazy to cook something to eat, so I poured out another good measure of bourbon, and grabbed up a bag of chips and half a carton of cream cheese from the fridge. Not exactly the healthiest choice, but I've never been into calorie counting or watching my weight. Despite this blasé attitude, I'm sure there will come a time when I'll regret not having taken better care of my body as I struggle to control an ever expanding waistline. But that's in the future, and this is here and now. Besides, I'm rather partial to crackers and cream cheese.

Armed with my triple bourbon and the artery-blocking snack, I made a beeline for my favorite armchair. I have to admit to spending a fair amount of time relaxing in that well worn leather chair. Large enough to comfortably seat two people, it is purposefully positioned by the window so I can sit back and enjoy the panoramic view of sprawling desert and the distant range of mountains.

It just so happens that the armchair is also a great place for catnapping, and just to prove my point, I fell asleep shortly afterwards.

I awoke to find that dusk had already transformed the room into a shadowy area of semi-darkness. Somewhere close by, the persistent chirping of a cricket disturbed the otherwise natural silence of the early evening. And then I remembered my dream of Angel.

She had first appeared before me dressed as an angel. Naturally! Clad in a flowing white robe, her face was partially hidden by the large hood. Fluffy white clouds, looking much like freshly whipped cream, swirled slowly around her, obscuring her feet and ankles. I took hold of her outstretched hand, and was slowly drawn into the midst of the clouds. Her passionate, yet gentle, lovemaking took me beyond anything I had ever experienced before. I suddenly felt strong and powerful. I became Eros, the primordial god of love. And then, even as I tried to hold on to her, she quickly slipped away from me, to be swallowed up in the billowing swell of clouds.

When Angel appeared again, I could hardly believe my eyes. I gazed in horror at the figure slowly advancing towards me. Her lovely blond hair was now a hideous fiery red, matching the color of her long, tapered fingernails. The white virginal robe had been replaced by a form hugging scarlet dress that left little to the imagination. The word whore immediately sprang to mind.

All at once I felt terribly afraid of this threatening creature with her arms reaching out towards me. How was it possible that such a gentle loving woman could suddenly and mysteriously be transformed into the female equivalent of Lucifer?

Instinctively, I knew I had to get away. Without as much as a backward glance, I took to my heels and got the hell out of there as fast as I could. The dream abruptly ended with me racing through the clouds at breakneck speed.

Seldom do I dream, so I was understandably a little disturbed by this particularly bizarre depiction. I immediately blamed it on the fact that I had been dumb enough to dispatch a couple of very generous belts of bourbon into a food depleted stomach.

Most human beings, if they are being honest with themselves, confess to having a few decadent failings. Mine happens to be the enjoyment of a glass or two of bourbon. I should point out, however, that my fondness for the hard liquor has never before resulted in the creation of a nightmare.

I leaned over and switched on the table lamp, and its cheery glow helped dispel some of the weird images that were still swirling around in my head.

After a while I got up and wandered back into the kitchen. The offending bottle of bourbon, still there on the counter where I had left it, willed me to pour myself another large drink. What the heck, I thought, and poured myself another generous shot.

It seemed stuffy inside the house so I carried the bourbon out to the patio, and settled myself down in one of the bamboo chairs. The sturdy chair, together with the other matching three, and purchased from the local Goodwill store, had proved to be an economical means of furnishing the large, open patio. A coat of dark varnish, and a few colorful cushions thrown in for good measure, and the chairs looked as good as new.

A warm summer breeze brushed across my face as it made its way over the desert landscape, grazing by the nearby Palo Verde trees. I had planted the four trees a few years back, during a rare self motivated moment in my otherwise indolent life. Digging deep into the parched, unyielding earth had been a daunting task, and one I have no intention of ever repeating. Nevertheless, the memories of those back breaking hours of labor are now all but forgotten as I anticipate each new blossoming of the showy yellow flowers on the outstretched branches of the trees.

The surrounding desert was silent in a soothing sort of way, yet the silence was deceptive. I knew that somewhere out there in the murky shadows of the descending dark of night, unseen creatures such as the coyote moved silently among the thorny bushes.

After discovering that I was serving up a delectable array of plants and flowers to an appreciative and growing number of rabbits and javelina, and various other creatures that got wind of the free meal, I gave up the idea of having a small garden. It wasn't too long before my backyard was once again reclaimed by the desert. Even though I miss the pots of colorful flowers, and the small vegetable garden I had so lovingly nursed along, I quickly discovered that Mother Nature has a way of dishing up some awesome offerings of her own.

I sat out there on the patio for a long time, slowly sipping my drink, and enjoying the peacefulness of the evening. Rarely do I indulge in self commiseration, but somehow the progression seemed a natural extension of my dream of Angel.

Up until now, I had led a somewhat unremarkable existence. I had just celebrated my fortieth birthday, and considered myself fairly successful in life. Of course, the word successful can be defined in many different ways. My mother's definition of a successful man was a married man. Nothing more, nothing less. Whether he was a happily married man, or the casualty of a disastrous relationship, didn't seem to matter to her one way or the other. Having never walked a bride down the aisle, or taken advantage of one of the quickie wedding chapels in Las Vegas, I can only assume my name was prominently displayed in my dear mother's list of failures.

Born to a couple of hard working stiffs in a small farming town of Pennsylvania, I am the younger of two sons. My father owned and operated the local gas station, while mother ran the adjoining convenience store.

In an effort to provide her sons with a proper education, Mother insisted on sending brother Andrew and myself to a prestigious school in the city some thirty miles away. This entailed getting up at the crack of dawn five days a week, and hitching a ride with one of the local farmers who made daily deliveries to the city. Every Saturday, Mother would compensate the farmer with a bag of assorted groceries. Life was much simpler in those days.

At a very early age, I quickly discovered that it was practically impossible to keep pace with an older brother whose scholastic achievements were the pride and joy of our parents. Although I tried my best to follow in my brother's footsteps, I never did quite manage to make the desired 'A' grade.

I distinctly remember the year I left home. It was 1974. It also happened to be the same year President Nixon resigned, and Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the self-styled Symbionese Liberation Army. Unlike the President's resignation, and the kidnapping of the heiress of a legendary newspaper publisher, my fleeing the nest was not determined noteworthy enough for inclusion in the local tabloid, for which my poor mother was eternally grateful.

On the other hand, the timing of my departure did stir up the ire of my parents who just happened to be in the midst of planning my brother's nuptials.

I didn't much care for my brother's wife-to-be, a snobby, upper-social class wannabe, whose mind would never fully grasp the nuts and bolts of good basic housekeeping. Just as I suspected, their marriage did not last very long, but because I think a lot of my brother, there is no satisfaction on my part for accurately predicting the eventual outcome of their union.

I was just nineteen when I left home, and linked up with a young group of idealistic misfits whose impractical dreams were in harmony with my own. Our bungling approach to life was to enjoy it to the full without lifting as much as a pinky finger. I am ashamed to admit that most of the time we managed to accomplish this goal with only the minimal of effort, thanks in part to the unselfish goodwill of the average citizen we met along the way.

Like many rebellious young people of that era, we became one with the unified youth of the day. Sporting unkempt beards, and shoulder-length hair, we paraded around in oversize outfits we had purchased from some army surplus store. At the time, it's doubtful even my own mother would have recognized me.

Odd-jobbing our way across the country, we managed to eke out just enough money for food, and other bare necessities. Our mode of transport was an archaic van that one of the guys had purchased from some low life, who had conveniently neglected to inform him of the numerous defects of the vehicle. By rights, the pathetic pile of metal should have been banished to the junk yard.

Eventually I grew tired of the nomadic existence, and all the greasy spoons we ate at. Most of all I hated the tacky motels we were forced to stay at because that was all we could afford at the time. However, even the most dreadful motel was by far more desirable that the six of us packed like sardines in the back of the stinky airless van.

January 1975 found our group somewhere in Colorado. I forget the name of the small town, but I do remember how bitterly cold it was, and the vast areas covered by colossal amounts of snow. Colorado was where I chose to bid a poignant farewell to my traveling brethren. The craving for a nomadic life had finally run its course. I was now ready for a more settled way of life.

To this day, I regret not keeping in touch with any of my buddies, and often wonder what became of them. With the passing years, I have chosen to remember only the happy times, and the unconditional friendship of a bunch of good guys.

It took me twenty long exhausting hours, plus a couple of bus transfers along the way, to finally arrive at my destination, Las Vegas.

You get to meet an amazing assortment of people traveling by Greyhound bus, but two in particular remain in my memory. The first, a little old lady, made a beeline for the empty seat next to mine. She introduced herself as Mary, and before too long embarked on the task of turning my journey into a trip from hell with her ceaseless chatter delivered through a pair of ill fitting dentures. All the while, she worked on an odd shaped piece of knitting, and the constant clicking of needles almost drove me insane.

My prayers for some peace and quiet were finally answered at Richmond, Utah, when the silver haired devil gathered up her needles and woolen doodad, and left the bus.

The second memorable passenger was a buxom wench with a bird's nest arrangement of bleached blond hair. She introduced herself as Jayde, spelled with a y she quickly informed me, and from the way she was dressed, I suspected she wouldn't be spending much time around the gambling tables of Las Vegas. Her kind preferred the fresh air of the sidewalks, or cruising the convention centers. As it was, I had a hard time keeping my eyes averted from her tee shirt, and the fascinating outline of voluptuous female breasts. As a twenty year old guy, I was still a little intimidated by women who thought they owed it to the world to display their bountiful and obvious synthetic ornamentation.

Like the vast majority of bus depots, I found the Greyhound terminal in downtown Las Vegas depressingly cheerless at the midnight hour. An old guy mopping the floor of the terminal directed me to the nearest and cheapest motel. Twelve hours later I awoke to the sun on my face, and eager to tackle whatever the future held in store for me.

Behind its glamorous facade, Las Vegas was just like any other town, but with one big exception; there were scads of jobs to be had. Finding employment was a walk in the park for anyone not too particular about the type of labor involved. For five bucks an hour, you could wait on tables, or work up a sweat in the kitchen of one of the many hotels that lined the famous boulevard. Accommodation was fairly cheap too, provided you had no objection to sharing a coffin size apartment with five other people with equally humdrum aspirations.

During those first few weeks in Vegas, I worked as a fry cook, a dish washer, and a parking valet. It was a sobering experience. More than once I thought about packing it in and going back home, but then the pride issue kicked in, and so I stayed on. I had almost given up hope of ever finding meaningful employment when I latched on to a bar tending job at The Oasis.

The Oasis bar was a small and cozy watering hole located about half a mile from the main drag, and was mostly patronized by local residents. The lure of generous measures of booze, along with complimentary mouth watering morsels of raw oysters and deep fried shrimp, no doubt had a lot to do with the faithful allegiance of its long time customers. Although the hourly bar tending wage was a pitiful amount, the constant flow of generous tips from the regular bar flies kept me from slipping below the poverty line.

One of the established patron's of the bar was a man named Harry Stillwell, and a nicer man you could ever wish to meet. I liked Harry a lot, and came to know and appreciate his dry sense of humor. You could set your watch to his arrival each afternoon at five fifteen sharp, Monday through Friday.

It was Harry who was responsible for my becoming an architect. An architect himself, Harry advised me to take a course in architectural drafting and design after seeing some of my sketches. I should mention that back in those days sketching was more than a hobby to me, it was a passion; a passion to draw anything and everything from medieval structures with parapets and buttresses to quaint timbered cottages.

I followed Harry's suggestion and eighteen months later, with my coveted diploma in hand, I went to work full time for Harry.

Known throughout the world first and foremost as a gaming mecca, Las Vegas always seems to be in the midst of a big building boom. I'm sure mobster Bugsy Siegel would have been completely blown away by the appearance of the present day Las Vegas strip. Even during dismal economic times, colossal structures continued to spring up seemingly overnight, with the skyline visibly changing on a regular basis. As an apprentice architect, the town of Las Vegas provided me with a one-of-a-kind training experience.

The years spent in Las Vegas flew by. I was making a fairly good salary, and had scraped together enough money to rent my own little apartment. Gone were the days of sharing a pigeonhole of a dive with slobs who never cleaned up after themselves.

On the other hand, my social life really sucked. I seemed to be a magnet for women with insatiable appetites for all things lavish and expensive. In the end they all turned out to be meaningless relationships, and at that period of my life I was convinced that all women were conceived from the same avaricious seed.

And then came that dreadful day in late October, and my life changed forever. Harry's passing left a large void in my life. A massive heart attack had taken my most staunch and loyal friend. I was devastated by the loss of the man who had been instrumental in turning my life around. For several months I went through the motions of living out each day, but there were times when even this artificial pretense was hard to maintain. I knew then that it was time to pick up sticks, and begin a new chapter in my life.


* * *


There was a definite nip in the air early that December morning when I set out on my journey. Everything I owned fit on the rear seat and in the trunk of my 1969 Chevrolet Impala. The old car was my pride and joy, despite the fact that it guzzled up gas at an alarming rate. Although I never actually found one, I'm still convinced to this day that there was a small hole in the bottom of the gas tank!

As I turned to lock the door to my apartment one final time, I suddenly realized that the place had never meant anything more to me than somewhere to stow my gear. I knew my neighbors simply by waving to them whenever our paths crossed, so there was no real need to say goodbye to any of them. The ginger cat from next door came over and nuzzled against my leg, and I bent down to stroke it one last time before it scurried away.

The sun was well above the horizon when I headed out on the freeway. Not once did I glance through the rear view mirror to take one farewell look at Las Vegas. That part of my life was now in the past.

I had set out with no particular destination in mind. I simply chose to head east only because east seemed to offer more territory to navigate.

It had not been my intention to settle in the Phoenix area, but driving across the beautiful desert wilderness convinced me that this was indeed God's country. Although many have come pretty close, I have yet to discover the artist who can truly capture the unparalleled hues and silhouettes that are all part of the distinctive southwest landscape.

On arrival in Phoenix, I made do with renting a cheap studio apartment which was barely big enough to swing a cat around. Nevertheless, despite the apartment's minuscule size, only one closet was needed for all of my meager belongings. At that early age, I had yet to enter that phase of my life when possessions either became necessary evils or objects of sentimentality.


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