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Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-four - A friend indeed

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-FOUR

Sunday early morning — 5:15 a.m.

“Ava!” Valerie said as she came around the corner from the stairs and into the kitchen.

Ava O’Malley was sitting with her forehead on the kitchen table. She raised a hand and waved at Valerie.

“Are you okay?” Valerie asked.

Without lifting her head, Ava nodded against the table. Valerie empathetically touched Ava’s back as she passed to the kitchen. Valerie turned on the coffee pot. She checked the electric kettle for water. Finding it full, she turned it one. She went into the deep closet they used as a pantry and returned with a tin. She went around and set the tin in front of Ava.

“What is it?” Ava said, still not lifting her head.

“Breakfast cookies,” Valerie said. “They are my favorite. Sandy makes them for me and Jill — well, any adult who’s not eating Cap’n Crunch.”

When Ava didn’t move, Valerie opened the lit of the tin. She took out a cookie and set it in Ava’s hand. Ava shifted to look at Valerie.

“You’ll feel better,” Valerie said.

Ava grunted, but didn’t put her head down again. She took a bite of the cookie.

“These are really good,” Ava said.

“They are,” Valerie said. “I take them with me when I leave. They make for fast and easy mornings.”

Valerie poured a cup of coffee from the still filling pot.

“I think Maresol is coming here to make heuvos rancheros,” Ava said. “At least that’s what she said last night. I left before she was awake.”

Valerie set the coffee in front of Ava and brought her the cream. Ava ate her cookie and drank her coffee while Valerie made two pots of tea.

“What’s going on?” Valerie asked.

“I love Harvest Day,” Ava said. “It’s so fun to see everyone working and laughing. You make great food. I mean, like this morning, Maresol is making everyone breakfast from beans you grew, eggs the chickens made. . .”

“Corn tortillas she made yesterday from that huge corn crop at Mr. Matchel’s,” Valerie said.

“It’s like magic,” Ava said. She sighed. “I haven’t been able to participate because of this stupid detective.”

“Stone?” Valerie asked.

“She called me at four this morning,” Ava said. “Woke me up. Yelled at me for twenty minutes.”

Ava shook her head.

“You wouldn’t believe what she said,” Ava said. “I’m a spoiled, stupid, corrupt employee of an incompetent lab and. . .”

Ava sighed.

“She said worse things about Seth,” Ava said, nodding.

“How can anyone hate Seth O’Malley?” Valerie asked. She shook her head. “The woman is clearly deranged.”

Ava nodded.

“I rushed over here so that I could start,” Ava said. “Walk her through what we’ve done.”

“Stone said she’d be here?” Valerie asked.

Ava nodded.

“What a cow,” Valerie said.

“I’ve been sitting here for more than an hour,” Ava said. “Who’s stupider? Stone? Or me, for doing what she told me to do?”

“Well, I’m glad for your company,” Valerie said. “Mike’s in the shower. The kids are mostly sleeping. Even Grace.”

“The newest baby?” Ava asked.

Valerie nodded.

“Everyone is worn out by all of the Harvest Day activities,” Valerie said. “I need to get my big pots going so that we can make more soup today. Jake’s going to be canning outside today.”

“Sounds fun,” Ava said.

“You can help me,” Valerie said. “Unless you just want to sit there and be mad.”

“Nope,” Ava said. “I’m over it. What do you need?”

“What I really need help with is the jars,” Valerie said. “We have them, and certainly we clean them, but they aren’t always clean enough to can with. It takes a real eye to see the imperfections in the glass or lids or. . .”

“Sounds like something I can do,” Ava said. “Where are they?”

“I’ll show you,” Valerie said, with a grin. “Jake brought them up from the basement but there was no space here so we put them. . .”

Valerie went to the wall behind the kitchen table. She pressed on the wood panel and it opened to show deep shelves.

“Jake said that he used a few apartments to make this space,” Ava said.

“I think that this was an original part of the apartment, but. . .” Valerie shrugged. “It’s all a little hard to track. You’d have to see the plans and even then. . .”

“He’s really good at this stuff,” Ava said.

“Weird, isn’t it?” Valerie nodded. “You know who’s as good or better?”

Ava shook her head.

“Jill,” Valerie said. “She can see things in her head that. . . It’s really amazing. Have you seen the place across the street?”

“They invited me but I’ve been crawling around in the dust,” Ava said.

“Right,” Valerie said. “Who’d want to give up grime?”

“Exactly,” Ava grinned.

Valerie moved away. Ava started hauling box after box of glass canning jars and set them on the kitchen table. Valerie set another cup of coffee on the table for Ava. Feeling better, Ava started to check the jars. Some were dusty. Some had breaks. But most of them were ready to be used.

“Oh great!” Jill said, seeing Ava and the jars lined up on the table. “If I bring you some Italian tomato sauce, could you put it in the jars? You don’t have to do the lids. I just need to get the. . .”

The sound of a weeping baby reached them.

“I’ll send Jake down with it,” Jill said, running up the stairs. “Thanks!”

“We made it from tomatoes on Friday,” Valerie said. “They’ve been cooking it down in their kitchen.”

“What is it?” Ava asked.

“Sauce for pizza, spaghetti, bruschetta,” Valerie said. “Sandy has. . .”

“Oh great,” Sandy said coming into the kitchen. “Would you mind if I brought you some tortilla soup? Val and Maresol made it on Friday. We’ve been cooking it down.”

Ava nodded. Sandy grinned.

“We have to clear the stove top for today’s baking,” Sandy said.

“What’s today?” Ava asked.

“Chicken noodle,” Valerie said. “Stewed tomatoes, vegetable soup, pickles, and. . .”

“Pies,” Sandy said. “We’re making pies in my apartment. If you’d like to come and hang out, you’re welcome.”

“I have to crawl around in the dirt,” Ava said with a sigh.

“Sorry,” Sandy said. “Did you ever figure out why that horrible woman is so obsessed?”

“Her mother was killed here,” Delphie said entering the kitchen.

“Is that it?” Ava asked.

“There’s no excuse for her to be so horrible though,” Delphie said.

“She called me this morning and. . .” Ava shook her head. “We’ve found seven remains and the labs are working.”

“You haven’t found where her mother was killed,” Delphie said.

“Probably,” Ava said. “It makes sense why she would be so insistent if it was her own mother.”

“Still,” Valerie said. “No one should be so mean to our Ava.”

Valerie looked at Delphie and Sandy.

“Ava was deflated when I came down stairs,” Valerie said.

“I’m so sorry,” Sandy said. She hugged Ava. “You sure you’re up to this?”

“Absolutely,” Ava said nodding.

“Great,” Sandy said.

Sandy put her fingers to her mouth and blew a loud whistle. Teddy came in with a large pot of soup followed by Nash and Charlie, each carrying a full pot of soup.

“You can set them here,” Valerie said. “Ava, can you move some of the jars?”

Ava and Delphie moved enough glass canning jars off the kitchen table so that the boys could put down their three pots of spicy delicious tortilla soup.

“That’s a lot of soup,” Ava said.

“We go through it,” Valerie said. “Especially this one.”

“It’s really good,” Nash said. “We make it vegetarian so that everyone can eat it.”

“The meat eaters add whatever they want,” Charlie said. “You should try it.”

“What will happen with the jars when they’re filled?” Ava asked.

“I’ll start canning them outside,” Jacob said. He was carrying a large pot full of tomato sauce. “Where should I. . .”

Valerie pointed to the kitchen counter.

“Great,” Jacob said. He set the large pot down. Turning to Ava, he said, “Let me get this set up and I’ll show you the last site. It’s a mess. I wasn’t sure what to do with it so I boarded it up.”

“Mess?” Ava asked.

“Two,” Valerie set a two cup measuring cup in front of Ava.

Ava nodded to Valerie.

“You’ll see,” Jacob said. “I probably need an hour.”

“That’s okay,” Ava said. “Detective Stone ordered me to meet her here at 4:30 am.”

“She’s not coming,” Delphie said.

“Clearly,” Ava said. “Anyway, I have this. The team will be here in a bit. We can help out until you’re ready, Jake.”

Jacob nodded and ran back upstairs for another pot of sauce.

Ava got to work. With her laboratory science skills and her two cup measuring cup, she filled the jars. She write “Italian” on a sheet of paper and set the jars on top of it. Valerie started cleaning the tops and putting the canning lids on top. A half hour or so later, Ava’s team arrived. They helped put the soup and the tomato sauce into jars. Fran took over the cleaning so that Valerie just put the lids on top.

When Jacob returned, he talked Nelson into helping him carry the full jars out to the deck. Jacob set up three propane burners with three large pressure canners.

Ava was on her third cup of coffee when Detective Stone’s partner arrived. And Ava and her team grabbed Jacob and got to work.

~~~~~~~~

Sunday morning — 8:05 a.m.

Alex Hargreaves jumped out of the truck and turned around to help her twins, Joey and Máire, out of the back. Her husband, John Drayson, got out of the driver’s seat and went around to the back.

They were in charge of getting the school gardens ready for all of the children and their parents to come harvest the vegetables. The gardens were large and the growing year had been successful. They had a lot of food to get picked, stacked, and moved to the Castle where two teams of students and parents were cooking in the driveway.

It was also a big event for the Marlowe School. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the children spent more time outdoors while their rooms were cleaned and the UV lights were on. This garden was a source of pride and joy for not only the children but teachers and parents, too.

Every class had their own garden. Every student had planted or weeded or watered. And now, finally, everything was ready to harvest.

Of course, Delphie already had crops planned for the fall and winter garden here. That meant that after everything was harvested, another group of students and parents would help to plant winter foods while still another group set up tubes and plastic covering to create mini-greenhouses for when winter came.

Alex, John, and their twins were there to get everything started. They had practical experience in harvesting since, prior to the pandemic, they returned to Afghanistan every year to help with harvesting in the entire valley inherited by the twins from their biological parents.

Another pickup truck pulled up beside theirs. Alex’s identical twin, Max, his partner, Wyatt, and their two boys — Chase and Beau — were there to help get everything started. John and Max went to open the large metal storage container with everything “garden” in it. Alex and Wyatt were taking down the temporary fences to allow open access to the garden today.

“Hello?” a woman’s accented voice came from the edge of the garden.

Alex turned to look at the woman. She was small in stature and thin. She wore a runner’s outfit — tights with a skirt over them, long sleeved shirt, and a sport hijab with an exercise face mask.

"As-Salam-u-Alaikum" Alex said.

“I am looking for. . .” the woman continued in Arabic.

“Yes,” Alex looked at Wyatt. He nodded and continued with the fencing. Pulling a face mask from her pocket, Alex walked toward the woman. Alex had her face mask on by the time they were close. Alex stopped six feet from the woman.

“How can I help?” Alex asked in Arabic.

“Uh,” she said. “Now I just feel dumb.”

“Why would that be?” Alex asked.

Alex smiled hoping that the woman felt less anxious, only to realize that the woman couldn’t see her smile behind the facemask.

“Oh, yes. Well. . .” The woman looked away and then back at Alex. “My mother called me early this morning. I was on call last night. I’m a veterinary at the vet hospital.”

The woman waved toward the north.

“What did your mother say?” Alex asked.

“She said that the head of our tribe would be here, in this lot, today, and that I should come to meet them,” the woman said. “I must ‘Let everyone know that they are here so that everyone could meet them.’”

“You’re from Afghanistan,” Alex said.

The woman nodded.

“Are you a member of. . .” Alex said the name of the Afghan tribe.

She nodded.

“I moved here to go to school and then stayed,” the woman said. “I like it here in Denver.”

Alex nodded.

“I’m Alex Hargreaves,” she said, in the hope that the woman would introduce herself in return.

Gasping, the woman reeled back.

“Should I bow?” the woman asked. “I think I should kneel or. . .”

“Please,” Alex said.

“You have no idea what you’ve done for our people, our family,” the woman said. “I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t let my brother move to the land. My mother’s mother along with my mother and father live with them, now. Our parents have had a difficult life and left the valley for work.”

“They wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t,” Alex said, referring to the fact that everyone in the valley had been murdered. Joey and Máire’s mother had managed to escape, but she did not survive after the birth of her twins.

The woman nodded.

“So we’re kin,” Alex said.

“I am Asal Noor,” she said with a nod.

“Maman?” Alex’s daughter, Máire, ran up.

“Wafa?” The woman said Máire’s Afghan name.

Grabbing Alex’s hand, Máire gave the woman a confused look.

“This is Asal,” Alex said. “She is your cousin.”

“Nice to meet you, Cousin Asal,” Máire said in Arabic.

“Your Arabic is beautiful,” Asal said with a nod. “I’m so glad that I came. Would you mind if I take a photo with you and Amir?”

Amir was Alex’s twin Joey’s Afghan name. Máire looked up at her mother.

“My mother is missing you this year,” Asal said. “She will be delighted to see how big you’ve grown over the last year.”

“Grandmother Noor is your mother?” Máire asked. “Great-grandmother Noor is your grandmother?”

Asal nodded. Maire grinned at Asal.

“They have the best bees,” Máire said. “Biggest hives. Best honey.”

“That’s my grandmother,” Asal said. “She loves bees.”

“We were just saying that we hoped to get honey this year,” Alex said.

Joey ran up to see what was going on. He stopped short when he saw the woman.

“You’re Grandmother Noor’s daughter,” Joey said. “I recognize you from her photographs.”

With this simple words, Asal began to cry. The children looked at Alex, and she nodded to them. Máire and Joey hugged Asal. And Asal hugged them back.

After a moment, the children pulled back and returned to holding Alex’s hands.

“You said that you’ve were on call last night,” Alex said. “You must be exhausted. We’re going to be here all day. We have a lot to harvest. You can head home to rest and return in the afternoon.”

Asal nodded.

“May I take a photo first?” Asal asked.

“Of course,” Alex said. She nudged her twins forward. “Why don’t I take it?”

Asal nodded and gave Alex her cellphone. Joey and Máire stood on either side of their newly found cousin. Alex gestured for her kids to pull down their face masks. Then, Alex took a few shots with Asal’s cellphone. The twins put their facemasks back on and ran off to be with Chase and Beau.

“Do you need help?” Asal asked.

“We have a lot of people coming,” Alex said.

“We will come.” Asal said with a nod. She gave the children one last look and started running again.

Not sure what that meant, Alex watched the woman run off.

Although there was a large Afghan community in Denver, Alex and her twins rarely had contact with them. She wasn’t sure why they never saw the twins family members. She’d assumed that people were as busy as they were. Watching Asal run off, Alex wondered if there might be more to it than sheer busyness. Shrugging to herself, Alex went to help to get the site ready for harvest day.

Denver Cereal continues next week...


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-three - Safe, together

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-THREE

Saturday evening — 5:15 p.m.

“So you’re in?” Teddy asked Sissy. “If you say ‘yes,’ I’m going to announce it.”

“Masks required,” Sissy said.

“Of course. We’re not idiots,” Teddy said. “But, you’re in, right?”

Sissy gave him a slight nod. She and Ivan were sitting at a table in the backyard. After a successful Harvest Day, people were milling around. Jacob and Mike were working the bar-be-cues on the back deck. Food was laid out on the tables on the deck. If people weren’t eating, they were wearing masks. The tables were set apart with only a few seats. Everyone was doing their best to keep each other safe.

Yes!” Teddy said, with a fish pump.

Teddy grabbed his phone and jogged to where Nash was standing. The boys cheered and rushed inside the Castle.

“Would you mind if I joined you?” a woman with long dark hair asked. “Seems like the tables are either full or filled with kids. I could use a quiet meal with adults. Do you mind?”

“Please,” Sissy said, gesturing to a chair at their table. “I’m Sissy Delgado. This is my fiancé, Ivan.”

“Jennifer Kearney,” the woman said with a smile. “I’m one of the Fey Wives.”

“Like Honey?” Sissy asked.

The woman nodded. She took a bite of potato salad.

“I love this stuff,” Jennifer said, gesturing to the potato salad. “Honey’s husband is on the current team. My husband, Dean, was on the original team.”

“He was a wonderful man,” Ivan said, softly. “So kind.”

Jennifer gave him a long look.

“Did you know my husband?” Jennifer asked.

Ivan nodded.

“They rescued me from the gulag,” Ivan said. “Charlie carried me out on his shoulder. Your husband kept me alive until we were out of Russia. He said to me, ‘The worst is over now. Nothing is going to be as bad as where you’ve been.’ I think of that often. He was accurate.”

Jennifer’s eyes welled with tears. She gave Ivan a quick nod and looked away to gather her emotions.

“He would have loved this,” Jennifer said with her face away from them. She turned back to assess Ivan. “Are you ill now?”

“Cancer. Blood,” Ivan said. “From gulag.”

Jennifer nodded. She sighed and pointed to where a teenaged boy and girl were standing.

“My teens,” Jennifer said. “I have a baby too, but he’s off with the younger kids. They are wild. He’s absolutely in love with every one of them.”

“Everyone calls them the ‘Wild Bunch,’” Sissy said with a smile. “That’s accurate.”

Jennifer gave her a brief smile. To regain her composure, she focused on her meal.

“It’s lovely to see so many careful people,” Jennifer said. “I love that they are keeping everyone so safe.”

“From the very beginning,” Sissy said with a nod. “Jake, Aden, and Sam run a big underground construction company. They've been able to keep their entire crew from getting sick by using distance, masks, and hand washing. I think that it’s been a lot of work, but no one here minds doing the work.”

“You don’t live here?” Jennifer asked.

“I’ve been in Paris for school,” Sissy said.

“Oh,” Jennifer said. “You’re the ballerina? My daughter’s been talking about a ballerina who is going to dance tonight in City Park.”

“Nash and Teddy run an Instagram account for me,” Sissy said. “We’ve danced all over Denver, Paris, and a few places in Europe. Before Ivan got sick.”

Jennifer nodded.

“She’s very excited,” Jennifer said. “Do you mind dancing with younger students?”

“I think we’re all students,” Sissy said. “Plus, she’s not that much younger than I am. I’m just eighteen.”

“Oh, you’re a year older than my son,” Jennifer said. “I guess it’s your poise that makes you seem older.”

“Since I have been ill,” Ivan said.

“I think it’s just living in France,” Sissy said with a shrug. Sissy pointed to Charlie and Tink. “That’s my older brother and his girlfriend.”

“My eldest loves Charlie,” Jennifer said. “He read so many books when he was here earlier in the year. I was surprised because he’s not much of a reader, but Charlie got him interested in all kinds of books and stories. He still does the book club.”

“I do, too,” Sissy said with a grin. “Charlie’s a great teacher.”

Wanda came running out of the Castle. She went to speak to Tink. The girls looked up at Sissy and waved her over.

“Excuse me,” Sissy said. “I better go over before they get wild.”

Jennifer smiled. Sissy got up from her seat. She kissed Ivan’s cheek and went to see what Tink and Wanda were up to.

Ivan sighed.

“You are probably wondering about the difference in our ages,” Ivan said.

“Not really,” Jennifer said. “I learned how precious love is when Dean died. I always thought that I knew about love, but losing Dean and the rest of the guys. . . I don’t think any of us wives have really moved on. It’s been a long time, but. . .”

Jennifer shrugged.

“Now, I guess I think if you have love, you should cherish it for as long as it’s with you,” Jennifer said.

Ivan gave her a slight nod.

“Are you a dancer too?” Jennifer asked. “You look like one.”

Ivan gave a nod.

“Why did the boys go to get you?” Jennifer asked.

“Do you know Seth O’Malley?” Ivan asked.

“By name,” Jennifer said. “I mean, like everyone in Denver, I could recognize him in a crowd, but I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to him.”

“He traded a big favor for the team to go get me,” Ivan said. “Paid for the trip, too. They used his help to find someone who would likely had died without his help. Did you know that he finds remains and brings them home?”

Jennifer nodded and looked away.

“What do you do?” Ivan asked.  

“I work with traumatized people. I’m a psychologist,” Jennifer said. She gave him a long look. “Delphie told me. . .”

“She told me that I would meet someone who could help me today,” Ivan said.

“I don’t usually find clients at parties,” Jennifer said. “I’m not sure that it’s ethical.”

“I understand.” Ivan nodded.

“That said,” Jennifer said, “it would be a great honor for me to help someone who was helped by Dean.”

Jennifer smiled at Ivan.

“Do you need help?” Jennifer asked.

“Delphie told me that my internal rage and trauma are making my illness worse,” Ivan said. His eyes flicked to Sissy. “I want to survive this thing. I want. . .”

Ivan sighed.

“I understand,” Jennifer said. She dug around in her purse and came up with a business card. “Let me give you my card. If you decided to get help, just call me. If I don’t work for you, then I can refer you. I can always come here or meet you over the Internet.”

“I am very tired,” Ivan said.

“I understand,” Jennifer said. “I’ve known other people with cancer. No matter how fit or strong you are, fighting cancer takes everything out of you.”

Ivan gave her a quick nod. His eyes drifted to where Sissy was talking to Wanda and Tink.

“She is very beautiful,” Jennifer said. “I’m excited to see her dance tonight.”

Ivan nodded.

Jennifer opened her mouth to say something else, but Blane came up behind them.

“Excuse us,” Blane said.

Ivan looked up at him.

“Time for another treatment,” Blane said.

“Excuse me,” Ivan said. “Very nice to meet you.”

“You, too,” Jennifer said.

Blane helped Ivan to his feet.

“And thanks for telling me about Dean,” Jennifer said. Her hand went to her heart. “You cannot imagine how much that means to me.”

They got to the end of the medical office stairs. Mike jogged over. Without saying a word, Mike lifted Ivan off his feet and carried him upstairs.

“Mike and his family are here, too,” Blane said when they reached the top.

“Thank you,” Ivan said.

Mike carried Ivan through the medical offices, past his apartment, and into Delphie’s apartment. He lay Ivan down on the bed. Ivan was asleep before Blane returned.

~~~~~~~~

Saturday evening — 5:15 p.m.

Jeraine started jogging toward the gate when he saw Mr. Matchel, their elderly next door neighbor, at the fence. J’Ron Tubman beat him too it. J’Ron had helped Jeraine pick the vegetables in Mr. Matchel’s yard that  afternoon. J’Ron greeted Mr. Matchel warmly.

Mr. Matchel blushed at the boy’s attention.

“Hey!” Jeraine said. He held his hand out for the man to shake.

Seeing a target, Mr. Matchel grabbed onto Jeraine’s hand.

“But. . .” J’Ron said.

“He needs this,” Jeraine said.

“I sure do,” Mr. Matchel said, good naturedly. “I want to introduce. . .”

Mr. Matchel turned but there was no one there. J’Ron gave Jeraine an “old people are idiots” kind of look. A man yelled from the gate.

“My son,” Mr. Matchel said, gesturing to the gate.

Jeraine went to open the gate for Mr. Matchel’s son.

“You’re Jeraine!” the man said. “I thought my dad was joking when he said that you picked his garden today.”

“Picked it clean,” Mr. Matchel said with a grin. “With this fine young man, as well.”

Mr. Matchel’s son nodded to J’Ron. Embarrassed, the boy looked down.

“Let’s get you a mask,” Jeraine said to Mr. Matchel’s son.

“Oh shit,” Mr. Matchel’s son said. “Dad said that you were sticklers for that. I have one. . .”

J’Ron held out a clean mask for Mr. Matchel’s son.

“We have them over there,” J’Ron said. “We keep one in our pockets and one on our face. It helps if someone needs a mask, but mostly if our mask gets gross, we can change it.”

“Thanks,” Mr. Matchel’s son said.

“Your dad was really sick this year,” Jeraine said.

“Crazy stuff,” Mr. Matchel’s son said. “We — my brother, sister, and I — didn’t realize he wasn’t getting food and. . . We really owe you. None of us live in town, we. . .”

The man stopped talking. Under the face mask, his face flushed red. His eyes welled with tears. He started gasping for air.

“Get Nelson,” Jeraine said. “Or M.J.”

J’Ron took off running.

Jeraine put his hands on the man’s shoulders. For a moment, he just held him up.

“What’s going on?” Mike’s voice came from behind Jeraine. As Mike neared, he gasped. “Burt? Burt Matchel?”

Nelson came running up behind Jeraine.

“Let go,” Nelson said. He glanced at Mike. “Whatever is happening, this man is going into shock. Grab him!”

Nelson and Jeraine took either side of Mr. Matchel’s son, Burt, and dragged him toward Honey and M.J.’s quiet garden off the driveway. They set Burt down on the bench. Nelson put Burt’s head between his knees.

“What happened?” Nelson asked Jeraine.

“I’m not sure,” Jeraine said. “He saw something and then. . .”

“It was me,” Mike said.

Jeraine and Nelson turned to Mike.

“He was in my unit,” Mike said. “You know. . .”

“Afghanistan,” Burt said. “I’m sorry, I just. . . I should have known. Dad’s been talking about Val, the movie star, and Jeraine, the R&B legend, and. . . It just sounded like. . .”

“The ramblings of a crazy old man,” Mr. Matchel said with a laugh. “My children think I’ve lost the plot.”

J’Ron ran up with his father, Royce.

“Can you take Mr. Matchel to the back?” Nelson asked. “His son is not feeling well. I know Mr. Matchel would like to see everyone and get some punch.”

“Did Val make that punch?” Mr. Matchel asked with a grin.

“No, Tanesha did,” Nelson said.

“Even better!” Mr. Matchel said, rubbing his hands. “Burt, you’re in good hands. I’m going to get some punch and say ‘hello’ to everyone. Is our group here yet?”

“They’re at a table near the back,” Nelson said of the elderly neighbors in Mr. Matchel’s “group.”

“Good,” Mr. Matchel said with a grin. “Let me know if I can help.”

Mr. Matchel looked at Mike for a long moment.

“Thanks for bringing my son back to me,” Mr. Matchel said.

Mike winced and looked down at the ground. Mr. Matchel patted his shoulder and left with J’Ron to the back.

“I’m Royce Tubman,” he said. “That was my son. Can I help?”

“Could you bring some. . .?” Nelson started.

M.J. appeared with a bottle of cold water.

“Thanks,” Nelson said. “He seems to be having a PTSD episode.”

“We haven’t seen each other since we got off the plane,” Mike said. “He was in the caves with me.”

M.J. and Royce shared a look.

“Does he really have a girlfriend?” Burt asked without looking up.

“Me?” M.J. asked, gesturing to himself. He shook his head.

“He means his dad,” Nelson said. “Yes, he and one of the neighbor’s have started a relationship over the pandemic. I don’t know how serious it is, but they enjoy each other’s company.”

“We thought he was just crazy,” Burt said. “He’s always been such an asshole, racist. . . My little sister won’t speak to him because he hates everyone. I don’t know how you did it. . .”

“Right love at the right time. He was also near death. I think that kind of need creates miracles,” Nelson said. He looked up at Jeraine. “Jer? Why don’t we give Mike and Burt a bit of privacy?”

Nelson stood up. He looked at M.J. and Royce. The men nodded in agreement.

“I’ll be just over there if you need any help,” Nelson said.

Nelson, Jeraine, M.J., and Royce moved away from Mike and Burt.

“You okay, man?” Mike asked.

“No,” Burt said. “I. . . No. . . I haven’t been since we got back. I mean, I went to counseling but it was so stupid and then. . .”

Burt looked up at Mike.

“How’d you do it?” Burt asked. “You were fucked up when you got back. Worse than me.”

“I got used to being fucked up,” Mike said with a snort. “Listen, are you here for a while?”

“I’m supposed to evaluate whether to put dad in a home,” Burt said.

“He’s never going to agree to that,” Mike said.

“You know him, too?” Burt asked. “It’s like my asshole dad has this awesome secret life!”

“He comes to dinner sometimes,” Mike said. “It’s really Blane and Jake that pulled him into our family. Then, they found him outside their house — I don’t remember who. Nelson, probably. Your dad wasn’t getting food. He tried to make it next door but collapsed on the sidewalk. He was brought to their house. They nursed him back to health. He’s been doing great since then. Joined the neighbor group. Helping out everyone. He drops food off.”

Mike looked off into the distance and then back at Burt.

“I remember your stories about him,” Mike said. “I don’t know what’s happened, but he’s decided to try to be a nicer person. He has friends now and doesn’t spend so much time alone.”

“Does he watch those stupid programs?” Burt asked.

“I don’t think he has time,” Mike said. “He’s pretty busy, now. He’s either making food for people or dropping it off. That’s three times a day. Delphie and my sister, Jill, organize it. It’s a little crazy but people were starving before we stepped in to help.”

Burt looked up at Mike.

“What do you need?” Mike asked.

“I. . . I don’t know,” Burt said. “To know that it’s over, I guess.”

“It’s over,” Mike said. “Listen, we’re going to be working in the gardens for another day.”

“Dad wants me to help out at some school?” Burt asked.

“We’ll tell you all about it,” Mike said. “I’m due someplace. Do you mind if I leave you with Mike and Royce? Royce was a SEAL and M.J.’s a Marine. They know all about what we went through.”

Burt shook his head.

“Your dad stays here sometimes,” Mike said. “Why don’t you plan to stay? We can talk more when I’m done.”

Burt nodded. Mike put his hands on Burt’s shoulders.

“I know that you’re suffering,” Mike said. “But I also know that all that we went through is really and truly over.”

Burt looked up at him.

“Yes,” Mike answered Burt’s unasked question. “I still have nightmares and wake up thinking I’m there. But, I have three kids now. They’ve taught me that I have a bigger life than a few months in a cave in Afghanistan.”

Burt started to cry.

“Come on,” Mike said. “Let’s get you a beer and some food. You can hang out with a few nice people.”

Wiping his face, Burt got to his feet. M.J. and Royce were right with Burt as soon as Mike moved away.

“Oh, I should tell you,” Mike said. “Your dad’s working on his memoir.”

“Really?” Burt mouthed.

Mike nodded.

“It’s pretty good,” M.J. said. “He’s read some of it to us.”

“Who knew?” Burt said.

Mike started toward the back. He was just about to turn when he saw M.J. and Royce walking Burt toward the back.

Mike saw that Blane was getting Ivan to his feet. They were shuffling toward the stairway to the medical offices. Mike jogged across the backyard and carried Ivan up the stairs. At the top, he looked out over the party.

Mike remembered getting home from Afghanistan as clear as day. He remembered the mess he’d made of his life and the wreckage his trauma caused for him and Valerie. He looked out across the Castle backyard.

These were the people who helped him put his pieces back together again. They would help Burt, too.

Nodding to himself, he went inside to join his family to help heal Ivan.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-two - You can talk to me

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-TWO

Saturday midday— 12:31 p.m.

“Hey,” Tanesha said. She leaned over the bed to shake Jeraine’s shoulder. “You said that you wanted to get up at 12:30.”

Jeraine groaned.

“None of that,” Tanesha said. “You know that you’ve had enough sleep. You have to stay on schedule or your head gets off.”

“Feel tired.” Jeraine flopped over onto his back. He stared at the ceiling for a moment. “Actually, I’m okay.”

“How’s your head?” Tanesha asked. “Last night was a late one.”

Jeraine had a concert last night in the ballroom of the Castle. The musical guest was a jazz band that met over the Internet during Covid-19 lockdown. They were big on the social media platforms where they’d met and very popular with the public, in general. The band insisted on piping the music outside of the Castle. The Casino’s team set up speakers on the greenhouses in the Castle driveway. Wearing masks and socially distancing, the bands fans danced and sang along in the parking lot of the 7-11 on Colfax Boulevard.

Jeraine was up with the band long after his designated sleep time so he’d slept in late.

“Actually, I’m okay,” Jeraine said. He sat up and got out of bed. “Excited for Harvest Day. How’s it going?”

He walked across their bedroom to use the restroom.

“It’s fun,” Tanesha said. “I’m having fun, at least.”

“And Sissy?” Jeraine asked from the bathroom.

“Ivan’s got a kind of blood cancer,” Tanesha said. “He doesn’t want to marry Sissy. Just wants to just fade away.”

“Damn,” Jeraine said from the bathroom. “That’s drama.”

“Hmm,” Tanesha said.

Jeraine flushed the toilet.

“I’m going to make your smoothie,” Tanesha said. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”

“See you there,” Jeraine said and turned on the shower water.

Tanesha went out to the big house kitchen. She put together Jeraine’s morning smoothie with a little bit of frozen fruit, some spinach, a cup of nut milk, protein powder, and some of his medications for his head.

Dressed in jeans and a long sleeved T-shirt, Jeraine came out with a towel on his head. She set the smoothie in front of him and he drank it down without question.

She gave him a glass of room temperature water. He drank it down.

“I wanted to say something,” Jeraine said.

“What’s up?” Tanesha asked.

“I know that when I came in last night, you were talking to Heather about something more important than your hair,” Jeraine said.

“Oh yea?” Tanesha shrugged. “What do you think you know?”

He grinned at her surly response, and she smiled in return.

“I wanted to remind you that you can talk to me,” Jeraine said. “I can handle more than conversations about your hair.”

“Good to know,” Tanesha said.

“Seems like something big is going on with you,” Jeraine said.

Tanesha sighed.

“I don’t know if I can go into it with everything going on today,” Tanesha said.

“Did something bad happen?” Jeraine asked.

“No, no, I mean, yes,” Tanesha said with a nod. “Working in the ER is awful. Totally awful. I cry every single day when I leave. I gotten to a point where I dread going in. I don’t think I can handle it anymore.”

As they had practiced in couples therapy, Jeraine didn’t offer suggestions. He simply listened. When he was sure she’d finished talking, he nodded.

“I understand,” Jeraine said, evenly to encourage her to talk.

“Hedone took me back in history to show me other plagues,” Tanesha said. “We went to London in modern times and then back in history to a plague pit. Same place. That was creepy. The area we had been standing on was the same place men were stacking human bodies — of all ages! — into the pit. Then she took me to Paris when they were moving bones into the limestone tunnels to make room in the cemeteries. But it was the last one that really hit home to me.”

“Where was that?” Jeraine said.

“Mexico City,” Tanesha said. “1500s. There was a plague of small pox. I mean, who gets small pox now? But then it killed 8 million people almost overnight. I looked it up. That was 40% of the population of Mexico City at the time!”

“What do you think that means?” Jeraine asked.

“You know how Hedone is,” Tanesha said. “She doesn’t say anything or fill in the blanks. She just shows you stuff that she thinks you need to see and lets you figure it out.”

Jeraine nodded, but didn’t say anything. He filled his water glass and drank another glass of water.

“Coffee?” Tanesha asked.

“Tea,” Jeraine said. “I’ve been drinking Nelson’s fancy French tea.”

“Good?” Tanesha asked.

Tanesha looked in the electric kettle. Finding it full of water, she turned it on.

“Really good,” Jeraine said. “He says that the Templars own a tea plantation that makes it. He has a lot of it. So he’s happy to share. Why don’t you try some?”

“Sounds good,” Tanesha said.

She got out a couple of mugs and gave them to him. Jeraine took down a tea pot. He filled it with warm water to warm the pot and waited for the kettle.

“What do you think Hedone wanted to you to get?” Jeraine asked when he couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Oh,” Tanesha said. “Sorry, I left you hanging. I think some of it is that these things come and go. There’s no evidence in Mexico City that so many people died all at once. In London, they built over the pits they put plague victims in. They just found them when they cleared the area for a rebuild. In Mexico City, we saw this solemn parade of people going to the cemetery. Weeping women and men followed tiny children’s caskets. But in London, it was all business. Men stacked bodies on cart.”

“And Paris?” Jeraine asked.

“It was like a party,” Tanesha said with a shake of her head. “They danced in the streets as their ancestors’ bones were moved. It felt festive, fun even. But when I say it, it’s so creepy.”

Jeraine nodded. The electric kettle clicked off. Jeraine poured the warm water from the tea pot and made a pot of tea for them. He set it on the counter next to the mugs. She got some cream from the refrigerator and held it up.

“Please,” he said, starting a timer on the tea.

She set the cream on the counter and went around to the other side. When the timer went off, he poured tea, put in the cream, and gave her a mug.

“What was Hedone trying to tell me?” Tanesha asked into her mug. “I can never be too sure, but I think it’s that plagues come and go. We’re so lucky not to have had one in a long time. But our ancestors experienced them for generations. Children died. Grandparents. Even healthy adults. There wasn’t anything they could do to avoid getting sick. It was just something that happened.”

“Some people were mad, of course. And, I’m sure that there were people who thought it was demons or wasn’t happening or whatever. Certainly, mistrust of authority is nothing new.”

Tanesha fell silent for a moment.

“I guess. . . well, I don’t really know, but I felt like I wasn’t so important in all of it, you know?” Tanesha asked. “I mean, when I’m in the ER, it’s all about me. What am I doing to help? Patients blame me for their illness or worse. Their families want me to do something that I will not do — like those crazy meds they talk about on the Internet.”

Jeraine nodded.

“But this is just life,” Tanesha said. “Death and life and death. It is how we came to be, you know.”

Tanesha fell silent again. Jeraine poured their cups of tea and doctored them with a bit of cream and sugar.

“I do what I know to do,” Tanesha said. “In the 1500s or whenever, people did what they could do. It’s really about doing what you can and leaving the rest. This pandemic isn’t about me. It’s about life.”

“Everything living has a virus,” Jeraine said.

“Exactly what Hedone says,” Tanesha said.

Jeraine nodded.

“I’m sorry that it’s so hard,” Jeraine said.

“I just. . .” Tanesha shook her head and shrugged. “I mean, Hedone said that I never wanted to be an ER doctor. And, she’s right. I never wanted to be an ER doctor. I’m good at it.”

Tanesha sighed.

“I don’t really know, honestly, what I want to do with my career and my life,” Tanesha said. “After being so certain for such a long time, it’s pretty scary.”

“I bet,” Jeraine said.

Tanesha shrugged.

“At least I know what I have to do today,” Tanesha said with a grin.

“What’s our assignment?” Jeraine asked.

“You are supposed to go over to Mr. Matchel’s and see what his garden needs,” Tanesha said. “Just check it out. If you can take care of it, that’s great. He likes you.”

Tanesha shrugged.

“If I need more help?” Jeraine asked.

“As usual, Jake and Mike are competing,” Tanesha said.

“Of course they are,” Jeraine said.

“They’d love to help, you know, get more points,” Tanesha said.

Jeraine laughed.

“If you don’t want to deal with them, all those teenagers are back,” Tanesha said. “They’re roving around looking for ways to help. Mr. Matchel’s garden was grown from their seedlings.”

“What are you assigned to?” Jeraine asked.

“I need to change into scrubs,” Tanesha said. “Help out with the clinic. There are more people today, plus Ivan. They don’t want to bring him to the clinic so I’m going to help Nelson and LaTanya until Blane’s done evaluating and treating Ivan.”

Jeraine held out his arms and they held each other for a moment.

“Go change,” Jeraine said. “I need to finish getting ready and brush my teeth. We can at least walk out together.”

“Meet tonight for the barbecue?” Tanesha asked.

“Of course,” Jeraine said.

Tanesha changed into a clean pair of scrubs. They walked out of the house together. Across the street, the paparazzi screamed at them and Jeraine swooped Tanesha into his arms. He bent her backwards and kissed her. She laughed, and they went their separate ways.

~~~~~~~~

Saturday afternoon — 1:11 p.m.

Shuffling her tarot cards, Delphie looked up at Ivan and Sissy. The windows of her apartment were wide open. They were sitting six feet apart and each of them were wearing face masks.

“What are your questions?” Delphie asked.

“We decided on three,” Sissy said.

Sissy looked at Ivan. He gave her a soft smile.

“I am only here so that she will accept,” Ivan said.

“Accept what?” Delphie asked.

“I am dying,” Ivan said. “My life is over. There is nothing left for us.”

Sissy’s face flushed with anger and emotion. Delphie scowled at him.

“Why is this important to you, Ivan?” Delphie asked.

“It is the truth,” Ivan said. He gave an exhausted lift of this shoulder.

Moving quickly, Delphie laid out the cards and then scooped them up again. She shuffled.

“And?” Ivan asked, his voice laced with exhauster.

“I was just checking something,” Delphie said. “What are your three questions?”

“I want to know what you checked,” Ivan said.

Delphie smiled at him.

“I had a sense that your desire to just fade away was. . .” Delphie sighed.

“Be clear!” Ivan said, emphatically.

“Okay,” Delphie said. “Your sense that ‘there is nothing left’ for you, for Sissy, for the both of you, has more to do with the fact that you believe that you don’t deserve to be happy than any intuitive knowing about your health.”

Ivan scowled but Sissy nodded.

“You have suffered enough, Ivan,” Delphie said. “Your sister, your mother, and your father believe that you had suffered enough. It’s time for you to live a joyous life.”

“I am Russian,” Ivan said. “Joy does not come naturally to me.”

Delphie smiled at Ivan.

“And now this sickness,” Ivan said. He shrugged.

“Hmm,” Delphie said. She smiled at Sissy. “What are your questions?”

“Is there hope?” Sissy asked.

“For?” Delphie asked.

“Us,” Sissy said. “For Ivan’s health. For our future. For my future?”

“Yes. Yes. And yes,” Delphie said with a grin. “There is a lot of hope.”

“For?” Ivan asked.

“You have options with your health,” Delphie said. “I see two children. I see Sissy dancing for at least another decade.”

Delphie shrugged. Ivan shook his head with disbelief.

“Okay,” Sissy said. She glanced at Ivan and continued, “Otis believes that our own option is a bone marrow transplant. Are there other options? Better options? Will any of these things work?”

“What are the options?” Delphie asked and stopped shuffling the cards.

“Continue chemotherapy,” Sissy said.

Delphie placed a card on her table.

“Immunotherapy,” Sissy said.

“Okay,” Delphie said, placing another card.

“Bone marrow transplant,” Sissy said.

Delphie put down another card.

“Um, Blane talked about something, but we weren’t sure what he was talking about,” Sissy said.

Nodding, Delphie set down another card.

“Anything else?” Delphie asked.

Sissy looked at Ivan.

“Give up,” Ivan said. “Not waste the money and time. Let go, let God.”

“Of course,” Delphie said and set another card onto the table.

For a long moment, they were silent.

“What I see is here and what I know,” Delphie waved her hand in a circle around her forehead, “is that each of these treatments have merit.”

But. . .!” Sissy’s voice rose with frustration.

“The question is one of order,” Delphie said, nodding to herself. “Which one are you doing now?”

“Ivan stopped chemotherapy last week,” Sissy said her voice laced with sorrow and anger.

“Ah,” Delphie said. Looking up at them, she smiled. “That makes sense. May I speak plainly?”

“Please,” Ivan said.

“You are exhausted,” Delphie said, gesturing to the cards. “Your exhaustion is from your illness and from your mental torture. You cannot heal until you are less exhausted.”

Ivan grunted in irritation.

“So here’s the best order,” Delphie said. “First, you work with Blane. Every herb, every treatment. You do everything he asks you to do. This will help raise your energy. It will give you the strength to end your mental torture. So in combination with your work with Blane, you must enter into psychological treatment — and work your ass off, if only because you are loved by Sissy and you wish to give her peace.”

“I do,” Ivan croaked.

“This will not take long,” Delphie said. “A couple of weeks. Maybe a month. Then you will return to chemotherapy, but much stronger than before. This will lead you to. . .”

“Bone marrow transplant?” Sissy asked.

“Not yet,” Delphie said. “You will stay with Blane — drinking his herbs, doing his treatment — and stay in psychotherapy. After the chemotherapy, you will take the immunotherapy for whatever you need. This treatment will be effective for you, but also be very hard.”

“If — and it’s an if — the immunotherapy doesn’t work, you will need the bone marrow transplant,” Delphie said.

“Otis wants us to skip everything and go to the bone marrow transplant,” Sissy said.

“Otis knows that Ivan is exhausted,” Delphie said. “He doesn’t realize that some of this exhaustion is from mental suffering. He can’t differentiate.”

“Are you saying that my mental issues are the cause of my sickness?” Ivan asked.

“No, of course not,” Delphie said. “I’m saying that your mental issues are abetting your illness. You should be able to heal your illness if you heal your mental torment. Nothing will work — not even a bone marrow transplant — unless you learn to forgive yourself.”

“Forgive myself,” Ivan said. He looked at Delphie. “Is it even possible?”

“Absolutely,” Delphie said.

“So there is hope,” Sissy said.

“There is lots of hope,” Delphie said. “Do you have a third question?”

Sissy and Ivan looked at each other. Ivan nodded.

“Ivan wants to know if we should marry,” Sissy said.

Delphie chuckled.

“Why is that funny?” Ivan asked, irritably.

“Of course you should marry,” Delphie said. “You don’t need me to tell you this. You were born for each other. You belong together — and you know this!”

Ivan let out a kind of sigh. The breath seemed to deflate him.

“But first, you need rest,” Delphie said. “I will speak with Jake to see where we can move you.”

“Blane invited us to stay with them,” Sissy said.

“We can keep you safer from Covid here,” Delphie said. “Jake is thinking about this right now. He will come up in the next five minutes to tell you where to stay.”

Sissy smiled at Ivan, and to Sissy’s surprised, Ivan actually smiled back.

“Thank you,” Ivan said. “I haven’t known how to. . .”

“I understand,” Delphie said. “We have a lot of people here today. There is someone who can help you with your head. She’s the mother of one of the teenagers. You will meet her at dinner.”

Ivan nodded.

Delphie got up and walked to her front door. There was a knock on the door and Delphie opened the door. Blane and Jacob came inside.

“Blane told me that he would like to treat Ivan,” Jacob said to Delphie. “He said that Ivan should stay close so that he can get the treatment he needs. I. . .”

Jacob looked across the apartment. Seeing Ivan and Sissy, he smiled.

“Oh great, you’re here,” Jacob said. “Val and Mike are moving out of their apartment. With three kids, it’s too small for them now. They’re moving into a couple of apartments near Honey and MJ. Now that the Denver Police are done, I should have it finished in a day or so. You two are welcome to Val and Mike’s apartment when the new apartment is completed.”

“I can stay with Sam for a couple of days,” Delphie said. “Ivy is leaving Sunday night to spend a week with her Aunt Gracie. Gracie goes on leave today and will be here for dinner tonight.”

“I don’t want to push you out of your apartment,” Sissy said.

Delphie chuckled.

“What is it?” Ivan asked.

“It’s all set up for you,” Delphie said with a grin. “Did you think that I would not be ready? I’ve changed the bedding. The refrigerator is filled for you. It’s all ready for you.”

Sissy smiled. Ivan grabbed Sissy’s hand.

“Why don’t we help you into bed?” Blane asked. “If you’re willing, we can start treatment right now.”

“Yes,” Ivan said. “I would like that. But. . .”

Ivan looked at Sissy.

“What about Sissy and her dance?” Ivan asked.

“It will work out,” Delphie said. “You will spend some time here together and some apart. Ivan, you need days of long rest that you can really only get alone. It will work out so beautifully that you will think it was planned.”

Ivan looked at Sissy, who was smiling broadly. Ivan nodded.

Blane and Jacob helped Ivan into Delphie’s bed.

“I’ll get your bag,” Jacob said.

Blane nodded. Jacob and Delphie left the small apartment.

“What do you think?” Sissy asked.

“I think that I am so lucky to have you in my life,” Ivan said.

“I agree,” Sissy said. “I’m going to shower. You rest for a while. I’m sure they’ll bring up lunch and we’ll plan to head down for dinner.”

Ivan nodded. Jacob returned with Blane’s bag, and then rushed off to do something else. Blane started to work. Sissy went to shower.

There was hope, and that was enough.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty-one - Myeloma

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-ONE

Saturday morning — 11:03 a.m.

Staring at some kind of a map, Ava, Fran, Leslie, and Bob walked across the Castle living room.

“That’s this way,” Jacob said.

Ava and her team waited for Jacob to get ahead of them. Captain Ferguson and his two technicians were following Jacob.

“We haven’t been through this room,” Jacob said. “Honestly, it’s something Val was going to get to but she got pregnant again. So be super careful. There could be anything in here.”

Everyone nodded. Jacob walked down the hallway in front of Honey and MJ’s apartment and stairs. The hallway stopped a few feet after the stairs with one room on the right.

“It’s this way,” Jacob said, holding up a cordless drill.

He pressed a section which opened up to show a screw, which he loosened. He revealed other screws and, with the help of Captain Ferguson, removed the panel that had been a wall.

“I had no idea that was there,” Sissy said.

Everyone turned to look at her.

“Hi,” Sissy said. “I wondered if I could talk to Ava.”

Ava looked at her team, and they nodded.

“What are you doing?” Sissy asked.

“Some jackass detective decided to look into cold cases here at the Castle,” Ava said, as she walked toward Sissy. “They were such assholes that we had to leave the lab to come spend our weekend here. Captain Ferguson has an entire team is working this weekend on this bullshit.”

Ava hugged Sissy.

“Sorry to be so dark,” Ava said as they separated. “Seth’s home and I want to be home with him.”

“I understand,” Sissy said.

“It’s really great to see you,” Ava said. “Just speaking for myself, I’ve missed you. I know that you’ve seen Seth a few times, but I know he’s missed you too. Not to mention your family. Is it nice to be home?”

A couple of laughing and talking teenagers ran in the side entrance and into the Castle living room. They turned to watch them before turning back.

“I wanted to ask you about Ivan,” Sissy said.

Ava nodded.

“Is it okay for him to be there?” Sissy asked. “I. . . Honestly, I didn’t know what to do.”

“He’s more than welcome to stay as long as he needs to,” Ava said. “Seth would love it if you would stay with us, but we marginally understand that you want to be with your family.”

Sissy gave her a worried nod.

“I need to talk to Sandy and Aden,” Sissy said. “They set aside time for us to talk. They’re waiting for me. But I wanted to check.”

“Don’t worry,” Ava said. “We’ve done this before. We’re happy to help.”

Sissy gave her a worried nod. Ava impulsively hugged Sissy again. Ava kissed Sissy’s cheek and went back to join her team. Sissy watched Ava for a minute before heading up the stairs to speak with Aden and Sandy.

With each step forward, she felt heavier until, at the top of the stairs, she barely had the strength to take the final step. Talking to Sandy and Aden would make everything that was happening real. For the last six months, she told herself that she didn’t have to deal with everything until she spoke with Sandy and Aden. Standing outside the apartment, she took a breath for courage and went inside.

Aden was sitting at the table. He had his laptop open, his phone, and a checkbook. He was clearly ready for anything. There were glasses of water and a pitcher on the table. Sandy came in from the kitchen with a pot of tea. Sandy nodded to Sissy and went back into the kitchen for something yummy.

Sandy did not disappoint. She returned with her “Everything” cookies that included nuts and chocolate and caramel bits and some candies and other yummy things. They were Sissy’s favorite.

“Have a seat,” Aden said, gesturing to a seat next to him at the round table. He gestured to everything in front of him. “I wasn’t sure what we’d need, so I. . .”

Sissy grinned at him.

“It’s really great to see you, Sis,” Aden said. “I’ve missed you. You’re such an important part of our family that we all miss you.”

“I miss you guys too,” Sissy said. “It’s like a rock in my shoe. I feel it every day.”

“We never got used to it either,” Aden said. “That’s not to underestimate your incredible accomplishments.”

Sissy smiled at him. Sandy took a seat next to Aden. She set her phone in front of her.

“We watched your final dance for school,” Aden said.

Sandy held up a hand showing five fingers and mouthed “times.” Sissy grinned.

“You know, I lead meetings all day, all week,” Aden said. “I don’t want to step on your toes.”

Sissy gave him a little shake of her head and sat down next to Aden. She shifted the chair so that she could see them both. As a younger girl, Sissy talked nearly non-stop. Neither Sandy nor Aden knew what to do in Sissy’s silence. They waited.

“I. . .” Sissy said. She looked up at them and then sighed. “If I tell you then it all becomes real.”

Sandy reached out for Sissy’s left hand and Aden took her right.

“Just tell us,” Sandy said, softly.

“Can’t fix a problem we know nothing about,” Aden said.

Sissy nodded.

“You probably remember that Ivan moved to Paris to rest,” Sissy said. “He was tired from working and everything. I mean, he’s danced all of his life. He’s the eldest male dancer in the world.”

Sissy nodded.

“It turns out that he had a kind of blood cancer called ‘Myeloma,’” Sissy said. “The doctors think it’s from his time in the gulag. They think that he’s had it for a few years. They got his samples from when we were shot. They found evidence that he already had the Myeloma.”

“When did you find out?” Aden asked.

“Right after I graduated,” Sissy said. “I. . . I mean, I’m such a child. I thought that if we ‘took care of it’ for a few months that we’d get married and live our lives.”

Sissy shook her head.

“So he’s started treatment?” Sandy asked.

Sissy nodded.

“He’s pretty sick,” Sissy said. “He’s lost all of his hair and. . .”

Fat tears ran down her face. She sighed.

“The doctors said that he had a great chance of getting well because he’s so fit and doesn’t have a chromosome issue,” Sissy said. “But that gulag and. . . I mean, there’s no way to know what he was exposed to there.”

“What can we do?” Sandy asked.

“I. . .” Sissy swiped at her tears. Her voice dropped to a whisper, “I don’t know what to do.”

“We’re here,” Aden said. “Tell us what the options are.”

“They tried the meds in France,” Sissy said.

“Did they help?” Aden asked.

Sissy shook her head.

“Lay out the options for us,” Aden said. “I know that you are quite familiar with all of this but it’s new to us.”

Sissy bit her lip and nodded.

“Okay,” Sissy said. “I, uh, okay.”

She took a breath and settled her emotions.

“The doctors in France want to try more medications,” Sissy said. “But Otis says that nothing will work. Otis says that Ivan needs a bone marrow transplant. It’s usually not done in these cases, but Otis thinks it’s Ivan’s only chance. Otis wants him to have the last of the twin’s cord blood. If not that, Grace’s cord blood. He says that Grace has Mike’s healing abilities. Val saved it, right?”

Sandy and Aden nodded.

“One of the problems is that the docs in France want to be more conservative,” Sissy said. “Otis says that they’re going to waste our time and Ivan will get weaker. By the time they decide to do the bone marrow transplant, Ivan will be too weak to get it.”

“I mean. . .” Sissy abruptly stopped talking. Sissy grabbed her glass of water and drank it down. Sandy poured tea for each of them.

“I don’t know if you’ve spent time with Otis. . .” Sissy said. She looked up to see Sandy and Aden shake their heads. “He’s kind of a drama queen. It’s weird because he’s always so emphatic about things, so sure of what to do — anything, really. It’s hard to negotiate a dinner order, let alone something like this.”

Sissy nodded.

“The doctors in France won’t do a bone marrow treatment,” Sissy said. “They refused. And then there’s money! Healthcare is free in France. Ivan is adamant that he won’t saddle me with a huge medical bills. So he. . . So he. . .”

Sissy sucked in a breath.

“He doesn’t want to get married,” Sandy said.

Crying, Sissy nodded.

“He knows that you’re loaded?” Aden asked.

“How am I loaded?” Sissy said, angrily. “My so-called mother stole any penny that should have been mine from Dad and any other money lined her pockets and. . .”

Sissy noticed that Sandy was shaking her head.

“Seth has money for you,” Sandy said. “Or I should say — I have accounts for you from Seth’s money.”

“Sandy added money to your accounts when she received that money for her mother’s symphony,” Aden said. “You have enough money to do anything you’d like to do. We’re also here to help in anyway — financial issues are the easiest, honestly.”

Sissy’s head collapsed into her hands. She sobbed.

Able to reach her, Aden rubbed her back. After a few moments, Sissy sat up.

Sandy gave her a soft smile. Sissy had become such a young woman.

“I’ll talk to Val and Jake, but I’m sure we can put you both on the Lipson Construction insurance,” Aden said. “That should help.”

“Why Val and Jake?” Sissy asked.

“They have to secure the insurance,” Aden said. “It’s complicated, but whenever there’s some weird economic issue, the insurance company wants us to stop covering our employees. Val and Jake put down a million or more to guarantee the insurance.”

“I think Aden’s just asking to be polite,” Sandy said. “You’ve always been on our insurance — which is Lipson Insurance. Adding Ivan is not a big deal. They have unmarried partner insurance from the days when gay people couldn’t get married.”

“With Seth, we are your legal guardians,” Aden said. “Insurance, money — all of that is solvable. The question is what do you need from us?”

“I need. . .” Sissy said. “I need. . .”

She looked at Sandy and Aden.

“Hope,” Sissy croaked out. “I thought that I’d finish school and start a life with Ivan. I’d work. He’d coach. We’d travel all over the world. It’s like some Kathryn Hepburn movie. I. . .”

Sissy heaved a heavy sigh.

“It’s gone,” Sissy said. “All of it. He doesn’t want to get married. He only came with me here so that I would be at home. He plans to leave me here and head back to France. He doesn’t want the bone marrow transplant. He doesn’t want to risk the cost of treatment. He. . .”

Sissy shook her head.

“Nadia calls him a stubborn old goat,” Sandy said.

Sissy grinned at the words, but the rest of her face was cast in sorrow.

“What about ballet companies?” Aden asked.

Sissy nodded and swallowed hard.

“I really want to stay in Paris,” Sissy said. “I know that would keep me away from home, but I love the Opera de Paris. I just love it there in France. Even the awful parts. I love Paris. Truly.”

“If Ivan dies?” Sandy asked, softly.

“I. . .” Sissy nodded. “He’s asked me this, as well. I would still rather be in Paris.”

Sissy nodded.

“I think,” Sissy said. “I don’t know. I’m just a kid. I feel like just a kid and. . .”

“This is a huge burden to have carried by yourself,” Sandy said.

“I’m glad you told us,” Aden said.

Sissy nodded.

“Ivan’s staying with Seth,” Sissy said. “I asked Ava if it was okay. She was like you guys — ‘Whatever you need,’ ‘Happy to help,’ you know how she is. Seth, his father, Maresol — they’ve been so nice. So nice. But. . .”

Sissy started crying again.

“What am I going to do?” Sissy asked.

No one said anything for a long moment. Aden looked at Sandy and she nodded.

“Are you asking us for advice?” Sandy asked.

“I guess so?” Sissy shrugged. “But don’t be offended if I don’t do it.”

“Of course,” Sandy said. “You’ve always been your own person, Sis. I wouldn’t expect that to change.”

Sissy gave Sandy a smile.

“So, my advice is this,” Sandy started. She took a deep breath and continued, “I think you should marry Ivan. The sooner the better. In the meantime, we’ll get him in to see Blane. See what Blane’s Chinese Medicine prognosis might be. Blane can talk to him about the process of getting the bone marrow transplant. Aden?”

Sissy nodded.

“I agree with Sandy. Get married,” Aden said. “Enjoy the time you have. I also think that we should talk to Nadia. She talked to Nash almost every day. I doubt that she knows about this.”

“She doesn’t,” Sissy said. “Ivan wants to just fade away. Die with dignity and. . . Sorry, please continue.”

“The only other thing I would add is that I think you should talk to Delphie,” Aden said. “Get Ivan to talk to Delphie. If anyone can give you reasoned options, it’s someone who can see all of the outcomes. I’ll tell you, she’s been really helpful to me.”

“Really?” Surprised, Sissy asked in a laughed. “Delphie?”

“I’ve known her since Jake gave me the job as his assistant,” Aden said. “She told me that I would meet Sandy. She told me that I would have to be really patient. She got me working on myself so that I was ready when I had a chance with Sandy. I think she’ll help Ivan in ways we can’t predict.”

Sissy nodded.

“But,” Aden said, with a grin, “you have to be prepared for some incense and tea and all the rig-a-morol. You know.”

Sissy gave him a watery smile.

“Whatever happens, Sis, we’ll be here for you,” Sandy said. “In fact, I wondered if we should look to buy you a place in Paris.”

“Oh, probably,” Sissy said. “I don’t know. Maybe when this is settled.”

“I’ll get our minions looking for something,” Sandy said.

Sissy nodded.

“When do you have to tell the ballet companies?” Aden asked.

“Next Friday,” Sissy said. “I was asked to join the Denver Ballet, and that would be fine. I would be home with my family and everything.”

“Denver’s not Paris,” Sandy said.

Sissy nodded.

“Got it,” Aden said.

“I know that I’m young,” Sissy said. “I. . . I mean. . . I really love Ivan. He’s been in my life for so long that even if we never marry and he dies, I will still feel a huge hole in my life. I will miss him the rest of my life. I just know it.”

“Why don’t we talk to him about that marriage thing?” Sandy asked.

“Would you do that?” Sissy asked.

“I’d do one better than that,” Sandy said with a smile. “I’ll get Nadia to talk to him. She’ll be furious that he is not getting the treatment due to the cost.”

“She’s really rich,” Sissy said.

“1% territory,” Aden said with a nod.

“I can see why she’d be mad,” Sissy said. “I think he just wants to stay in control. You know, he lost so many years in the gulag. When he got out, he wanted to control the rest of his life.”

“That does sound like Ivan,” Sandy said with a smile.

Sissy fell silent. Sandy looked at Aden.

“Thank you for telling us,” Aden said. “Why don’t we go find Delphie? I know that you’d rather know now than wait. Sandy will call Maresol and have her bring Ivan to the acupuncture clinic.”

Sissy nodded.

Aden leaned over and kissed Sandy’s cheek. Sissy got up from her seat. Sandy got up to hug Sissy, but she was so distraught that she missed Sandy’s gesture. Aden gave Sandy a soft smile and Sandy nodded. Aden put his arm over Sissy’s shoulders and led her out of the apartment.

Sandy sat back down at the table and started making calls.

The first person she called was Jill.

“Where are you?” Sandy asked.

“Where are you?” Jill asked.

“Our apartment,” Sandy said. “Can you come?”

“On my way,” Jill said. “Heather and Tanesha are here. Do you. . .?”

“Oh great,” Sandy said. “Can they come too?”

“On our way,” Heather and Tanesha said in the background.

“Thanks,” Sandy said. “Is your mom here?”

“She will be,” Jill said. “Why?”

“I’ll tell you everything when you get here,” Sandy said and hung up.

Sandy called Maresol, Seth O’Malley’s housekeeper, family, and dear friend.

“Maresol?” Sandy asked. “Can you bring Ivan to the acupuncture clinic here at the Castle?”

“Is that where Blane is?” Maresol asked. “I’ve been calling him and I can’t find him. I tried Heather but she’s not answering and I know that Harvest Day. . .”

“Blane holds a free medical clinic here at the Castle on Saturdays,” Sandy said. “Nelson and LaTonya are also there to see patients.”

“When should I bring him?” Maresol asked.

“As soon as you can,” Sandy said.

“He’s very sick, Sandy,” Maresol said. “He probably should be around a bunch of people.”

“I thought that he could see Jill and her mom, Mike, Steve, Megan — you know, get their opinion,” Sandy said. “Is Angelika there with you?”

“She is. Dionne, too,” Maresol said. “We’ll be there within the hour.”

“Call me when you get here,” Sandy said. “We’ll have it all worked out by then.”

“Got it,” Maresol said. “Did you ask about the cord blood?”

“I was just about to,” Sandy said.

“Okay,” Maresol said. “Good. See you soon.”

Sandy sat staring into space until Jill and the girlfriends arrived. She told them everything and they started making plans.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Sixty - Harvest Day visitor

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY

Saturday morning — 5:30 a.m.

“Who are you?” Rachel Ann whispered to the person sitting on her bed. “If you’re a scary monster, then you’re going to have to deal with my big brother!”

The woman leaned forward.

“No scary monster here,” Sissy said.

“Sissy!” Rachel Ann said, throwing herself onto her sister.

“Shh,” Sissy said, in a whisper. “You don’t want to wake everyone up!”

“Did someone say Sissy?” Charlie asked as he opened the door to the room.

“Heya Charlie,” Sissy said.

She stood and hugged her brother.

“Should we be hugging?” Charlie asked. “We don’t know if you have Covid. Do they have Covid there?”

“Who’s talking?” Noelle asked. “Why are you talking in the dark?”

She reached over and turned on her bedside light.

“Sissy!” Noelle squealed.

Noelle jumped up to hug Sissy.

“Jill picked me and Ivan up at the airport,” Sissy said. “She wanted to surprise Sandy, so she came to get us.”

“How did she know?” Sandy asked, leaning against the door frame.

“I’m not sure,” Sissy said. “Was Helene here?”

“The pretty French lady?” Rachel Ann asked. “I told her that you were there and she said that she knew you well!”

“That must be it,” Sissy said. “Jill said something about Helene but I couldn’t put it together.”

Sandy held out her arms, and Sissy hugged her tight. Sandy kissed Sissy’s cheek.

“How are you?” Sandy asked when she pulled away.

Embarrassed, Sissy just nodded.

“Sissy!” Nash squealed from the adjoining bathroom door.

Nash and Teddy rushed into Noelle and Rachel’s room. Everyone was talking and laughing at once. Aden stomped down the hallway holding a towel around his waist.

“What’s everyone doing out of bed?” Aden said in the hallway. “You know that we have a long day today. If you don’t. . . Sissy?”

Sissy nodded.

“I’d hug you but. . .” Aden gestured to his wet body. “It’s wonderful to see you. Really wonderful. Is Ivan here too?”

“He’s staying at Seth’s,” Sissy said.

“Why?” Sandy asked.

“It’s all a long story,” Sissy said. “We can talk about it when everyone’s awake.”

“Go,” Sandy said. She patted Aden’s chest. “Finish your shower.”

“Pancakes?” Charlie said in a yawn.

“Sounds magnifique,” Sissy said

Charlie kissed Sissy’s cheek and hugged her again before heading to the kitchen.

“Why don’t you guys get ready?” Sandy asked. “It’s cool out. I’m sure Val’s already cooking and Delphie’s got people picking.”

The kids jumped up and started getting dressed.

“Sissy?” Sandy asked.

Sandy held out an elbow. Sissy took her elbow and they walked to Sandy’s bedroom.

“We probably just have a few minutes,” Sandy said. “I wanted just to look at you.”

“I talk to you every week!” Sissy asked.

“It’s different to see you in person,” Sandy said. “How are you?”

“Good,” Sissy said with a nod. “Really good.”

“What are you doing here?” Sandy asked.

“I didn’t tell you because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but school’s done,” Sissy said.

“What do you mean ‘school’s done’?” Sandy asked.

“The term ended in the spring,” Sissy said. “Because of Covid, they brought us back for the summer. That session’s over. All of my friends were leaving for jobs in ballet companies. I. . .”

Sissy smiled at Sandy.

“You didn’t get the job you wanted?” Sandy asked.

“I wanted to come home before making a decision,” Sissy said.

Sandy hugged Sissy.

“You always make the right choice,” Sandy said.

“You’ve helped me with every decision I’ve ever made,” Sissy said. “Or every good decision I’ve made. I. . .”

Sissy looked at Sandy for a moment.

“Going to Paris was the best possible thing I could have ever done,” Sissy said. “I loved school — my teachers, friends, the younger students. If I had stayed here? I mean, it’s Harvest Day. Again. The routine is wonderful but I would have. . . wilted here.”

Sissy shrugged.

“You are exceptional,” Sandy said. “You needed an exceptional education. The question is what do you want to do next?”

“That’s the question,” Sissy said.

“Did you get a lot of offers?” Sandy asked.

Sissy nodded.

“Jammy vetted everything,” Sissy said.

“He’s still taking care of you?” Sandy asked with a smile. “That’s really good.”

“I’m really lucky,” Sissy said. “He helped my friends too. He didn’t charge anything either. He told them that if they wanted to hire him when they were primary dancers they could, but for now, they were just friends. They all got a lot better offers with his help.”

“When do you have to decide?” Sandy asked.

“Soon,” Sissy said.

“This weekend?” Sandy asked. “I can get O’Malley and we’ll. . .”

“No,” Sissy said. “Not until next Friday. We have time to figure everything out.”

“But?” Sandy asked. “You can’t fool me, Sissy. Something else is going on.”

Sissy gave Sandy a long look.

“What are you obsessing on?” Sandy asked.

“Oh,” Sissy snorted. “You know me so well.”

“I do,” Sandy said with a smile. “So what is it?”

Sissy shook her head and looked off in the near distance.

“Come on, before Aden finishes showering,” Sandy said.

“You know how I turned 18 this year?” Sissy asked.

Sandy nodded.

“Ivan wants to get married,” Sissy said. “No, that’s not right. It’s not like he’s pressuring me or anything. That’s not happening. Not even a little.”

“But?” Sandy asked.

“I guess, I always thought that I would marry Ivan when I turned 18 years old,” Sissy said.

“And now?” Sandy asked. She gave Sissy a worried look.

“Oh, I still want to marry Ivan,” Sissy said with a smile. “I just. . .”

Sissy shrugged.

“People say that their wedding day was the best day of their lives,” Sissy said. “I. . . I’ve had so many great days — that day Charlie and everybody took me out, meeting Wanda at the eating disorder place, getting back into dance, those funny days in the hospital with Mari and you, getting Paris, living with Claire and Ben, meeting the Prince and Princess, starting school, and. . . so many. I feel like having a wedding will be. . .”

“Small potatoes compared to that,” Sandy said with a nod.

“No,” Sissy sighed. “Maybe I’m not sure what the problem is. I just knew that I wanted to come home. Spend time with you, Charlie, Nash, Noelle, and my Rachel Ann. I. . . Delphie, the girlfriends. . .”

“Just the boring old stuff?” Sandy asked with a grin.

“I guess so,” Sissy said. “Home. I mean, I love Claire and Ben and everything about Paris, but this is home.”

They heard the water turn off in the shower.

“It doesn’t sound like anything has to be decided today,” Sandy said. “Why don’t we head out for pancakes? Are you up for some Harvest Day adventures?”

“I love Harvest Day,” Sissy said. “I mean, I know I just said that about Harvest Day, but I really love it. I have been thinking about how Val always makes it back for Harvest Day. I think I’ll do that too, you know, when everything’s settled.”

“You’re welcome any time,” Sandy said.

“Jill said something about greenhouses and there are gardens all over town?” Sissy asked.

“They’re trying to do their part during the pandemic,” Sandy said.

“Wonderful,” Sissy said. “Just wonderful. Did Heather and Tanesha’s house ever get made?”

“You should see it!” Sandy said. “It’s gorgeous. They have guest bedrooms, if you’d rather stay over there.”

They heard the sound of Aden shaving with his electric razor through the door.

“Let’s head out,” Sandy said.

Sissy got up and followed Sandy out of the room.

“What about Tres and Heather?” Sissy asked in a soft voice.

“They are very on,” Sandy said.

“And Blane?” Sissy asked.

“He and Nelson are also on,” Sandy said. “Before you ask — Heather and Blane are still married and still together like they were.”

“Wow,” Sissy said. “I mean, I grew up with them, so it’s not such a huge deal, but it’s not normal.”

Sandy nodded.

“They are happy,” Sandy said with a shrug.

“Charlie!” Sissy said going into the kitchen.

“I made coffee,” Charlie said. “It’s not French coffee but it’s pretty good.”

“Thank you,” Sissy said. “I could use some.”

Charlie grinned at her. She hugged him from behind before heading to the machine. She poured herself a cup of coffee.

“How are you?” Sissy asked.

“Good,” Charlie said. “You should have seen it when everyone was on ‘stay at home’ in the spring. We had a bunch of visiting kids. I was their teacher, mostly. It was. . . I think that’s what I want to do — teach.”

“Awesome,” Sissy said. She scooted up so that she could sit on the counter. “I figured you’d either be something like a teacher or social worker or head of a cult.”

“Head of a cult?” Charlie asked. “Aren’t I already your messiah?”

“Absolutely,” Sissy said with a laugh. “How’s. . .”

Tink rushed into the kitchen.

“Why are you making pancakes?” Tink asked angrily. She hadn’t seen Sissy yet. “Did you forget that we’re having a big breakfast. . .”

Charlie gestured behind him.

Tink turned in place. Her jaw dropped and her eyes went wide.

“Hi Tink,” Sissy said with a wave.

“OhmyGodSissy!” Tink said. “OhmyGod! OhmyGod! OhmyGod!”

Charlie threw the spatula down and grabbed Tink in a hug.

“Is she okay?” Sissy asked, coming to their side.

“Her brain kind of stops working when she’s overstimulated,” Charlie said. “She’s been doing really great. This is still here from. . . well, you know. She was probably focused on me screwing up — again — and then she saw you and. . .”

Sissy rubbed Tink’s arm. After a moment, Tink seemed to breathe. Charlie kissed her lips and stepped away. Sissy hugged Tink. The young women hugged each other tight. Sissy kissed Tink’s cheek and stepped back.

“I talked to you yesterday!” Tink said. “You sneaker! You didn’t say a word!”

“I wasn’t sure that we’d be able to come,” Sissy said. “You know the flights are banned from other countries and. . .”

Sissy sighed.

“How did you do it?” Tink asked.

“Oh you know,” Sissy shrugged. “Ben, Alex, the usual.”

Tink grinned at her friend.

“I’m so glad that you’re here,” Tink said.

Tink grabbed Sissy’s hand and pulled her out of the kitchen. Before Sissy left, she turned to Charlie.

“You and me?” Sissy gestured with her hand.

Charlie nodded. Sissy blew him a kiss, and he grinned. Tink dragged Sissy out of the apartment. In the hallway, Tink hugged Sissy.

“Do you have Covid?” Tink asked. “I don’t care. I would hug you either way but. . .”

“I don’t. Jill picked me up at the airport,” Sissy said. “We were able to dance and keep each other safe.”

Tink hugged her even tighter.

“The house is full of people!” Tink said.

“I saw that,” Sissy said. “Lots of kids!”

“They were here at the beginning of the summer,” Tink said. “That military team that Alex is on?”

Sissy nodded.

“All of their kids were here as soon as they found out that Teddy was here,” Tink said. “It was really fun. You should have seen Charlie. He took on getting everyone to read books and then talk about what they read. It was really great. They go to the Marlowe School now too!”

Tink pulled back to look into Sissy’s face.

“You look so grown up,” Tink said. “I feel like a little kid.”

“You look gorgeous,” Sissy said. “Happy. Smart. Your hair is amazing. Did you put your applications in for school? You didn’t say when I asked before.”

Nodding, Tink blushed.

The door to the apartment jerked open.

“If you want pancakes,” Noelle said, “you should come in now before Nash and Teddy start eating up everything.”

“They eat a lot,” Tink said with a nod.

Tink led Sissy back inside. At the doorway, Sissy stopped walking. Her family — Noelle, Nash, Charlie, Tink, Sandy, Aden, and Rachel Ann — were sitting around the table. She had missed them so very much. And there they were — ready to love her, ready to welcome her, and. . .

“Can I have your pancakes?” Nash asked, shaking Sissy out of her fog.

“Nash!” everyone at the table said.

“Not a chance,” Sissy said.

She jogged over to take her seat. For the next hour, they ate, laughed, and talked about everything and nothing.

It was everything Sissy needed and much, much more than she could have hoped for.

She was loved.

~~~~~~~~

Saturday morning — 6:00 a.m.

“Papa,” Nelson said as he came to his father’s bedside.

It was the change of nurse. Nelson came to check on his father every time the nurse changed. Nelson checked his father’s pulse and blood pressure. He made a note on the clipboard.

“When was the last blood draw?” Nelson asked.

“Midnight,” the nurse said. “They picked it up about an hour ago.”

She touched Nelson’s shoulder and left the room. Unless something came up, Nelson spent every morning right here by his father’s side.

Nelson dropped into the chair by his father’s bed. He took his father’s hand. He went through the treatments they’d tried. His father had acupuncture three times a week. Mari brought Otis to work on his father at least twice a week. Jill and Mike came as much as they could. He was receiving the best medical care known to humankind as well as all of the crazy shit that his friends could provide.

His father was still on the edge of death.

“But not dead,” Nelson said, clinging to the positive thought that he and Heather had come up to. “My father’s not dead.”

Nelson sighed. He dropped his forehead onto the bed in a kind of suppliant posture to whatever was going on with his father.

He felt so helpless. The only way to heal his father was to find this “Adam’s Apple” ruby. He should have already found it within the Templar hoard, but the pandemic kept pushing their expedition off. He had no idea if his father would survive much longer and there was nothing he could do about it.

Feeling movement, he looked up.

“Mari!” Nelson said. “I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“Busy, busy,” Mari said. “You do know that there’s a pandemic going on, right?”

“Funny,” Nelson said.

Mari laughed.

“What can I do for you, my dear?” Mari asked.

“For me?” Nelson asked.

“You’re close to giving up,” Mari said. “You told me to stop you if you decide to give up. Here I am!”

In the low light, Mari’s ridiculously long eyelashes looked like strange appendages hovering over her huge eyes.

Nelson sighed.

“Wait,” Nelson said, sitting up straight. “Your father is Manannàn?”

“Yeeessss,” Mari said.

Mari raised her eyebrows to encourage Nelson to speak.

“And Manannàn is a God of the sea?” Nelson asked.

“Yeeessss,” Mari said.

“Why are you being so weird?” Nelson asked.

“I’m hoping that you will ask me for something,” Mari said.

“What about Poseidon?” Nelson asked.

“He’s a God of the Seas, as well,” Mari said.

“Do they get along?” Nelson asked.

“You know Poseidon’s niece, why not ask her?” Mari asked.

Nelson pointed at Mari.

“You’re up to something,” Nelson said.

“I can only help where you ask me for,” Mari said.

Nelson scowled and thought for a moment.

“Can you get this ruby?” Nelson asked. “The ‘Adam’s Apple’ from the hoard?”

Mari blinked at him.

“I mean, your father has been there and. . .” Nelson said. He blinked. “Mari?”

He reached out to touch Mari. Her body was there but she seemed completely gone.

“Fucking shit,” Nelson said turning away from Mari. “God damn it! This thing is so. . .”

“What’s wrong?” Mari asked.

Nelson turned in place. Mari was standing there with a basketball sized ruby in her hands.

“You disappeared!” Nelson said. “I thought that this thing. . . What’s that?”

“Your ruby,” Mari said. “I had to go get it. Well, I had to mess with time I assume that. . .”

“Nelson?” Heather asked, appearing an inch from here. “There’s a time disturbance here and I. . .”

Nelson pointed to Mari. Heather turned to Mari. Her mouth dropped open.

“Sorry,” Mari said. “He finally asked for the ruby. I had to ask dad — well, I had to find him and then I had to ask and then he had to get the ruby and deal with your uncle. Thank you, by the way, for asking him already.”

“Of course,” Heather said. “My uncle Poseidon said that he would be happy to help.”

“He did,” Mari said. “And then Dad had to get the stone to me and here I am!”

Mari looked down at the glowing red stone.

“It’s big,” Mari said. “No wonder the Templars wanted it.”

“What do we do with it?” Nelson asked.

“Oh,” Mari said. “I thought you read the documents.”

“There are documents?” Nelson and Heather said in near unison.

“Everything has a document,” Mari said. “Lucky for you, I read them.”

“What do we do?” Nelson asked. “Hurry! Hurry! He’s near death.”

Nelson sucked in a breath and began to cry. Heather hugged him tight. Over Nelson’s shoulder, Heather nodded to Mari. The fairy went to Nelson’s father, Pierre, and set the ruby on his stomach.

“Look,” Heather said, pushing away from Nelson.

Nelson turned toward the bed. Thin streams of black were surged from his father and flew into the ruby. Mari, Heather, and Nelson stared in shock while it seemed black had no end.

“Look,” Heather said, pointing to the oxygen mask over Pierre’s mouth.

The mask filled with a black fog. Nelson carefully removed the bands that held the mask on and pulled the mask off. A grapefruit sized ball of black moved into the ruby, which continued to glow bright red.

They waited and waited and waited.

Nelson had almost given up when. . .

“Oú suis-je?” Pierre croaked. “Oú est mon fils?”

“Je suis là,” Nelson said, rushing to the bed.

Pierre’s eyes scanned Nelson’s face. Seeing his father’s face, Nelson began to weep.

“Papa,” Nelson said.

Nelson held onto his father for the rest of the time the smoky black treads came off his father’s body. It took a while, but suddenly nothing came off of Pierre. Nelson looked up to see Heather and Mari were still there.

“I think that you should keep this,” Mari said. “At least for a while. I’ll come back for it.”

Nelson nodded. Mari blew him a kiss and disappeared.

“I’ll. . .” Heather said, gesturing to the door. “Should I come get you for clinic?”

Nelson nodded, and Heather left. Nelson glanced at the door and turned back to his father.

“What’s happened?” Pierre whispered.

Nelson looked at his father and then laughed.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Fifty-nine- ... gets?

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FIFTY-NINE

Bob nodded. Standing in the middle of the dried blood, dust, and decay of an old crime scene, Dr. Robert Parrish looked at his team — Ava, Fran, and Leslie — as well as the young Crime Scene Unit technician, Luther, and Captain Ferguson. Nelson stuck his head out of the bathroom, where he’d been working, to see what was going on.

“Okay,” Bob said. “We have a tenant who moved out in the middle of the month, right?”

“That’s what the file says,” Ava said.

“And we know this door was broken before the party,” Bob said.

Everyone nodded.

“I postulate that the tenant was either being stalked or a battered woman,” Bob said. “We could ask the woman who lived across the hallway. She’d know.”

Jacob and Delphie looked off into space.

“She says that the woman had left an abusive brother,” Delphie said. “Moved in here, but the brother found her.”

“To me, it looks like an abusive and controlling man kicked open the door,” Bob said. “He did whatever he did. . .”

“Beat up his sister,” Jacob said with a nod. He quickly added, “According to our ghostly neighbor from across the hall.”

“. . . and went away,” Bob said. “He came back for his sister and found this party. Bunch of people ran out. He dropped a body there. . .”

Bob pointed to an area near the door. Luther dropped an evidence cone.

“Knocked over the food table,” Bob said. “Then shot someone there.”

He pointed to an area where he was standing. Ferguson put a cone there.

“So he’s looking for his sister, right?” Bob asked. “He thinks that she’s here but he can’t find her. So he’s shooting fairly randomly. He must have decided that she was in the bathroom because he killed someone in there, right?”

“Got it,” Nelson said from the bathroom.

“By that time, the apartment has cleared out enough for him to realize that his sister wasn’t here,” Bob said. “Realizing what he’s done, he went in the closet with his shotgun.”

No one said anything for a moment.

“Did I miss anything?” Bob asked.

“There are a couple of other blood spatters,” Ava said.

“That’s what I was looking at,” Bob said. “He must have shot quite a few people. We need to see if the hospitals have any record of gun shot victims or if the folks were freaked out about the drugs they’d taken that they dealt with it themselves.”

“Where?” Ferguson asked.

“Here,” Bob said. “Here and here. You can see the pattern on this wall. It’s blood but not a lot of blood or an arterial spray. There’s no pool here.”

Bob pointed to the ground.

“Maybe that’s a glancing wound?” Bob shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know — maybe he hit someone with the stock of his shotgun.”

For a moment, they all stared at the wall and ceiling.

“Do we know who the shooter is?” Ava asked.

“No,” Fran said. “Not according to the file. They don’t know the guy by the door and the woman that was shot mid-apartment. They didn’t follow up with the hospitals. Honestly, it looks like they just figured it was druggies and hippies. They didn’t work very hard on this.”

“Okay,” Ferguson said. “I’ll call my team. Ava, can you and your team stay?”

“Sure,” Ava said. “The Evil Wizard will be pissed if we just wander off.”

“I can’t believe you call him that,” Ferguson said.

“You made it up, boss,” Ava said with a grin.

“I will never admit to that!” Ferguson said, firmly, but he grinned. “Alright, out of my crime scene. My team’s waiting for us at Pete’s. I’ll call them.”

“Remind them about the masks,” Jacob said.

“I will do just that,” Ferguson said. “Come on, let’s get some air.”

Ferguson was such a force of will that everyone stopped what they were doing and followed him out of the apartment. He led them out to the backyard.

“Just breathe for a while,” Ferguson said.

He gave them a nod and left to get his team.

“Well?” Ava shrugged.

“That was fun,” Leslie said. She turned to Jacob. “Do you think that the ghosts will go away now?”

“I hope so,” Jacob said. “I really hope so.”

“Nelson?” Ava asked. “That’s four bodies. Do we know where the others are?”

“Sure,” Nelson said. “Do you want to press on or wait for Ferg’s team to finish before we go into a new one.”

Ava looked off into space.

“Why don’t you help us harvest for a while?” Delphie asked. “That’s such grim work. You probably need a break. We can use the help. Alex is over there picking tomatoes. And John’s in the trees. Looks like Alex’s French sister is here! Do you know her Ava?”

Ava shook her head.

“Time to make some new friends,” Delphie said. “You can just set your stuff over there. I’ll let you know when it’s time to look at the other spaces.”

“Um, Jacob?” Leslie asked.

“How can I help?” he asked.

“I wondered. . .” Leslie said. Delphie looked up at her. “What do you think the ghosts are? Souls that were once embodied? So some kind of bodily essence? Something that is foreign to the body — kind of like gasoline to a vehicle. The vehicle needs the gasoline to run, but it’s really a foreign substance.”

Leslie peered at him to see if he understood her question. Jacob nodded.

“Or is it a memory,” Leslie said. “Something generated between you and me and whoever was there at the time they died. The memory can act out what happened but doesn’t really have power in its own right. Then there’s the idea that a creator gives the soul and. . .”

Leslie shook her head.

“You probably think I’m crazy,” Leslie said with a slight laugh.

“I think you are asking interesting questions,” Jacob said. “I can tell you what I know but honestly, I’m not sure anyone knows. Do you, Delphie?”

Delphie shook her head.

“I’ve always taken them as a creature of this earth,” Delphie said. “Humans, animals, plants, ghosts, angels. . .”

Delphie shrugged.

“I wonder if they have mass,” Leslie said.

Jacob grinned at her. She shook her head at him.

“What?” Leslie asked.

“You’re really smart,” Jacob said, evenly.

Leslie blushed so red that her scalp showed red under her white blond hair.

“I didn’t know that,” Jacob said. “I’m sorry. I guess I underestimated you.”

“You know about Nelson, right?” Leslie asked.

“The Templar thing?” Jacob asked.

“Sure,” Leslie said. “But he’s. . . an incredible ER doctor. He’s come up with techniques that save lives.”

“I had no idea,” Jacob said.

“Bob basically developed blood splatter technique,” Leslie said.

“I was blown away by what he did in there,” Jacob said.

Leslie nodded.

“Fran’s the best lab tech I’ve ever worked with,” Leslie said. “We’re all weirdos. And we love working together.”

“That’s all that matters,” Jacob said. “Why don’t we sit down and talk about this ghost thing?”

“Okay,” Leslie said with a nod.

“Delphie?” Fran asked. “I wanted to ask. . .”

Fran stopped talking. Delphie put her hand on Fran’s arm.

“Your children are happy,” Delphie said. “They want you to know that they love you and don’t blame you for what happened.”

Tears rolled down Fran’s face. She gave Delphie a nod.

“Why don’t we sit for a while in the shade?” Delphie asked. “You can ask what you need to know.”

Fran nodded and followed Delphie to the chicken yard. They sat in the shade and talked. As the day began to fade, Harvest Day got underway.

~~~~~~~~

Friday night — 10:05 p.m.

“There you are!” Heather said as she jogged down the stairs to their main kitchen. “What are you doing? How come you didn’t come over?”

Tanesha turned to look at Heather. Her eyes were moist as if she’d been crying. She shook her head at Heather and went back to staring straight ahead from where she was sitting at their kitchen table.

“Did something happen?” Heather asked.

Tanesha looked at her best friend.

“You should go back to the party and have fun,” Tanesha said.

Heather snapped her fingers and a bottle of her grandfather’s expensive wine was sitting in her hands. She opened the wine and poured two glasses.

“Come on,” Heather said.

“I just. . .” Tanesha said.

“I know,” Heather said.

Tanesha got up from her seat and followed Heather to the soft couch that face the wall of windows to their sunken backyard. Heather gave Tanesha a glass of wine. For a few long minutes, they sat out on the couch staring at the yard.

“I was thinking. . .” Heather started at the same time Tanesha said, “I just can’t. . .”

They laughed.

“Tell me,” Heather said.

“It’s so hard,” Tanesha said. “Today, we had this kid — four years old.”

“Jabari’s age,” Heather said.

Tanesha nodded.

“He had to be hooked to a ventilator,” Tanesha said. “He’s got the stupid virus. His parents are in the middle of a divorce. They swear that they have no idea why he picked up the virus, but the dad was in India last week and. . .”

Tanesha shrugged.

“These variants are going to kill everyone and we’re going to be right back in the mess of it or worse,” Tanesha said. “I don’t know if I can handle all of the death.”

“What did your resident say?” Heather asked.

“I didn’t tell her,” Tanesha said. “She’s not like me. She just shrugs and says ‘Oh well, next patient.’ I. . . It’s so hard.”

“It is,” Heather said.

Tanesha put her hand over her eyes and cried. Heather rubbed her shoulder.

“What am I going to do?” Tanesha asked. “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a little kid. Now, here I am and. . .”

Heather waited a moment to see if Tanesha has anything else to say. Tanesha just shrugged.

“You’re still a medical student,” Heather said. “You have two years before you graduate and then residency and. . .”

“I’m thinking about quitting,” Tanesha said. “I can’t handle it. Truly. They’re saying that there will be a huge winter surge and. . .”

“I don’t remember you ever saying that you wanted to be an ER doctor,” Heather said.

Tanesha turned in her place and stared at Heather. Tanesha’s mouth opened and closed. Heather shrugged.

“But. . .” Tanesha said. “I’m really good at this.”

“You’re really good at a lot of things,” Heather said. “It doesn’t mean that you need to spend your life doing it.”

Tanesha looked down and then out at the garden.

“When did that happen?” Tanesha asked, gesturing to the garden.

She got up and slid open the sliding door to the back patio. She crossed the white rocks to the large cement patio with the table on it. She walked to the grassy area along the retaining wall and knelt down at the koi pond Jacob and Blane had dug. Heather followed after her.

“They are so beautiful,” Tanesha said gesturing to the water lilies. “Pink and white and. . . Oh look! The fish!”

“Would you like to feed them?” Heather asked.

Heather held out the fish food. Tanesha took the food and put a tiny bit on the top of the water.

“Do you think that they’ll get big?” Tanesha asked.

“I think that we’ll have to keep them alive in the winter,” Heather said. “But otherwise, they will get big. They live a long time.”

Tanesha gave Heather a broad smile and turned back to the pond again.

“I know you’re right,” Tanesha said facing the pond. “I never wanted to be an ER doc. ‘You told me that you wanted to deliver babies.’ ‘You could work with Jeraine’s dad.’ ‘You could be a plastic surgeon for that matter.’ I tell myself the same things, I just. . .”

When Tanesha turned to look at Heather, she was crying again.

“I’m good at this,” Tanesha said.

“You’re good at everything you do,” Heather said.

“I can’t cook worth a shit,” Tanesha said.

“That’s why we have men in our lives,” Heather said.

Tanesha laughed.

“I wonder if I might show you something,” Heather said.

“I’m so tired,” Tanesha said.

Heather looked at her friend. Tanesha shook her head. The two looked at each other for a long moment.

“Oh, fuck it,” Tanesha said. “I need to be home in time for Jer’s show.”

Heather gave her a kind of bowing nod. Heather reached out for Tanesha, and Tanesha grabbed onto Heather. The world began to whirl.

“Where are we?” Tanesha asked.

“Modern Day London,” Heather said. “This is East Sheffield road.”

“Why are we here?” Tanesha asked.

“They recently found two plague cemeteries here,” Heather said. “I wanted to show you what modern day looked like so that you could see.”

“Okay,” Tanesha said.

“Watch,” Heather said.

They stood on the edge of open space. Heather nudged Tanesha aside as a horse drawn open carts drove over where they had been standing. The driver and passenger got out of the front and went to the back.

Tanesha gasped when they threw off the covering.

Human bodies were neatly stacked six across and five or six high. The men carried the bodies one at a time to a deep hole. They swung the body and let it fly. It landed at the bottom of the pit with a thud. The men walked back to the cart to carry the next body. They continued working until their cart was empty.

They were just pulling out when another cart, equally as full, pulled up to the pit.

“This is the 14th century,” Heather said. “These are victims of the Black Death.”

They watched another cart unload its dead. As the cart pulled away, another full cart appeared. This time, one of the men jumped into the pit and began organizing the bodies.

“I can’t believe them,” the man complained bitterly. “They are so lazy.”

When the bodies were stacked, the man got out of the pit and helped the driver to clear their cart. Another cart pulled up before they finished.

“Between 1346 and 1353 — less than ten years — 30-60% of Europe was dead,” Heather said. “History reports that it’s something like 75 million people or possibly 300 million people. I’ll tell you that it felt like 300 million people.”

“There wasn’t anything anyone could do for people,” Heather said. “Once they were sick, they died. No one knew how the disease was transmitted. Or even what caused disease. It was such a hopeless time.”

“I know that fleas bites gave it to people, but I don’t know how it spread,” Tanesha said.

“Slave ships,” Heather said. “Rats on the ships would pick up the disease, get on the ships, and off to the world.”

“Horrible,” Tanesha said.

Heather nodded.

“Shall we?” Heather asked.

Heather hugged Tanesha. When Tanesha grabbed on, the world spun for a moment.

“This is Paris,” Heather said. “Sissy lives just above us.”

“Where are we in Paris?” Tanesha asked.

“We’re in the original limestone mines under the city,” Heather said. “They cut out the limestone to build the buildings.”

“Mom told me about this. They went here on their second honeymoon,” Tanesha said. “They dug up old bones and brought them here so that they’d have room for plague victims.”

“They did it many, many times,” Heather said.

Tanesha walked up to a wall made entirely of skeletal bones and skulls.

“I wanted you to see. . .” Heather said.

They were standing on a street corner. An open cart driven by two men and two horses was driving toward them.

“Bodies?” Tanesha asked.

“Skeletons,” Heather said. “But look. . .”

Heather gestured around them. People were out on the streets celebrating the macabre parade of carts and bones. Some people threw down flowers while others danced behind the carts.

“Wow,” Tanesha said.

“Death was common place,” Heather said. “You brought out your dead every morning. Most children didn’t live past the age of three. Disease was rampant.”

Heather gestured for Tanesha to step back. A large man carrying a stoneware gallon jug of wine danced past them.

“They seem so happy,” Tanesha said.

“Death is a part of life,” Heather said. “Millions of people died in just a few years. He’s dancing for his own life as well as his ancestors.”

Heather reached out and touched Tanesha’s hand.

“This is Mexico City,” Heather said. “The year is 1520.”

“What do they have?” Tanesha asked.

“Small pox,” Heather said. “5 to 8 million people died, which was more than 25% of the population.”

Tanesha nodded. Heather touched her arm and the world whirred again. They landed in a beautiful villa with an open field behind them.

“Where are we now?” Tanesha asked stepping out of the way of a body laden cart.

“My grandfather’s house,” Heather said. “I wanted to give you a minute to think and talk.”  

Tanesha nodded. They fell silent. A woman came out of the house with a bottle of wine and glasses. She poured the wine. Another woman brought a plate of cheese, grapes, and olives. Tanesha and Heather watched the scenery in silence.

“You’ve told me — ‘Everything that lives has a virus,’” Tanesha said. “And I know that’s true. It’s just. . .”

“Heartbreaking,” Heather said.

Tanesha nodded. They drank wine and sat in peaceful silence. Tanesha sighed.

“I don’t want to be an ER doctor,” Tanesha said with a sigh. “I don’t know what kind of doctor I want to be, but I can’t handle this.”

“Okay,” Heather said.

“But I still have two more months,” Tanesha said.

“You do,” Heather said.

“I can change my mind,” Tanesha said.

Heather laughed.

“Shall we?” Heather asked.

“Sure,” Tanesha said.

The world spun, and they were standing in their backyard. Tanesha hugged Heather tight.

“Thank you,” Tanesha said.

“Any time.” Heather shrugged. “Go shower. I’ll walk you over.”

Tanesha nodded. They went inside. Heather waited in the kitchen while Tanesha showered and changed.

“What do you think?” Tanesha asked. She was wearing a beautiful, bright blue dress that hit her thighs. “It was in my closet. Jer probably. . .”

Heather pointed to herself.

“Where’d you get it?” Tanesha asked.

“Those women who brought us wine?” Heather asked. “They’re seamstresses. They made it for you. They wanted you to know that anything you do — everything you do — makes a big difference in the world. The color is only available in Olympia. It is gorgeous on you.”

Teary, Tanesha shook her head at Heather.

“There you are!” Jeraine came running down the stairs. “I’ve been looking for you forever.”

He scanned Tanesha’s face.

“What’s wrong?” Jeraine asked.

“I’ve decided to grow my hair out,” Tanesha said. “I’m going to grow an afro.”

“Whatever you like,” Jeraine said. “You grow a beautiful afro.”

“See,” Heather said. “I told you he wouldn’t be upset.”

Jeraine hugged her. He grabbed her hand and they walked out of the house. Heather followed behind. Tanesha stopped to grab masks and the three of them left to house to join Harvest Day.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Fifty-eight - ... the Evil Wizard ...

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FIFTY-EIGHT

Friday midday — 12:45 p.m.

“Damn,” Ferguson, the head of the Denver Police Crime Scene Unit. “It’s dark.”

They had just stepped into the hallway to the area of the Castle with unopened apartments. The two younger people with Ferguson stood just inside the door. They both looked terrified.

“Uh, sorry,” Jacob said. “The power is active here but I keep the breaker off because the electrical here hasn’t been redone.”

“Ah, sketchy electrical,” Ferguson said. “It’s okay. We have lights.”

“I can turn them on,” Jacob said.

“I was just surprised, I guess,” Ferguson said.

Jacob turned to look at him. Ava and her team stopped to look at them. The two young people who worked for Ferguson hadn’t moved from their position near the door.

“Not everyone has a museum in their house,” Ferguson said. “This wall paper is straight out of the 1950s.”

“You should have seen it when we started,” Jacob said. “We have a photo album if you’d like to see it.”

“That’s a hard no. I had the pleasure of coming here when I was just starting out.” Ferguson gave a dramatic shiver. “You’ve done a great job.”

“Just turn down the hallway,” Jacob said.

Delphie came in the door, surprising the younger people.

“Oh, excuse me,” Delphie said.

She walked passed them to Jacob.

“Where are we going?” Delphie asked.

“104,” Jacob said.

“Ah,” Delphie said.

“Ah? What’s that mean?” Ferguson asked.

“We had some ghost issues there,” Delphie said.

“Huh,” Ferguson said. “I’ve been in some haunted places. Are the ghosts still there?”

Delphie looked at Jacob, and he shrugged.

“The short answer is ‘No,’” Delphie said. “Jacob hates ghosts.”

“I don’t hate them!” Jacob said. “I just think that they’re a waste of time.”

“Look at how they could help today,” Delphie said in a prim reprimand.

“You don’t need them,” Jacob said.

“Jacob!” Ava called from down the hall. “I hate to interrupt, but unless you want us to break this down, we need the key!”

“Excuse me,” Jacob said with a sniff.

Grinning, Delphie let him pass.

“It’s an ongoing argument,” Delphie said. “Come on! Come on! This should be fun. From what I remember there were four specters. All about the same age — old teenagers or young adults.”

“Write this down,” Ferguson said to one of the young people.

The man held out his phone which showed that he was recording.

“Huh,” Ferguson said with a sniff.

The young man grinned at the young woman but she was too terrified to respond.

“Your phone won’t work in a minute,” Delphie said. “Ghosts disrupt cellphone.”

The young woman shivered and Delphie turned to her.

“Why don’t you head on, Captain Ferguson?” Delphie asked. “I wanted to speak with this young woman.”

Ferguson and the young man went down the hallway and turned down the separate hallway.

“You don’t have to be here,” Delphie said, kindly. “You can hang out with Val and Sami in the kitchen. I think my friend Joan is there.”

“I. . .” the young woman said.

“I know,” Delphie said. “Would you like me to tell Ferguson?”

The young woman nodded. Delphie walked her out to the kitchen. Joan was chopping tomatoes with Samantha. Valerie was putting together a new pot of tomatoes.

“I brought you some help,” Delphie said.

“Great!” Valerie said at the same time Joan said, “Welcome!”

“Val’s the head of the kitchen during Harvest Week,” Delphie said. “She’ll find you something to do.”

The young woman nodded. Delphie gave her a kind smile and left to return to the hallway. When she got back to the hallway, she found Ferguson waiting for her.

“Where’s my technician?” Ferguson asked in an accusing tone.

“She’s a little overwhelmed,” Delphie said. She looked up at the burly man. “You know that her mother was killed here.”

Ferguson groaned.

“You forgot?” Delphie asked.

“I forgot,” Ferguson said. “We talked about it before she came here. I asked her if she wanted to come because it was her mother’s case! Then, I forgot.”

“She’s okay,” Delphie said. “She’s a huge fan of Valerie’s. You know, Val.”

Ferguson nodded.

“She’ll take care of everything,” Delphie said.

“Should I go check. . .?” Ferguson asked.

“Yes,” Delphie said. “But get back here or you’ll miss the show.”

“Show?” Ferguson asked.

“Jake was never able to get rid of all those ghosts,” Delphie said, rubbing her hands together. “It’s going to be fun.”

Ferguson gave her a vague nod and left the hallway to check on his technician. Delphie waited for him to return before heading down the hallway.

“Hey,” Nelson called to Ferguson from the turn in the hallway. “Do you have the crime scene photos? It looks like no one’s done anything to this area after the incident. It’s not even cleaned up.”

“Yes,” Ferguson said. “It’s on the tablets. Didn’t the technician show you?”

Nelson rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“Ah, yes,” Ferguson said. He took a few long steps to where Nelson was standing. “Let’s show him how his tablet works.”

Grinning, Nelson let Ferguson pass. He looked at Delphie.

“You look happy,” Nelson said.

“I knew this day would come,” Delphie said. “It’s like a little present.”

“Even on Harvest Day?” Nelson asked.

“Even on Harvest Day,” Delphie said.

Nelson put his arm over Delphie’s shoulder, and they walked to the apartment. Delphie glanced at him and then went inside. Leslie and Fran were standing with their back against the wall. Ava was wandering from place to place in the apartment. Bob was standing in place, staring at the blood spatter on the ceiling. The young technician was standing in the middle of the room with his head down poking around his tablet.

Everyone stopped moving when Ferguson stood in the doorway.

“What the. . .” Ferguson looked around the room. “This is the crime scene.”

“Great blood spatter here,” Bob said. His nickname at the FBI was “Blood Spatter Bob.”

“Did you just close this up?” Ferguson asked Jacob.

“After arguing with ghosts,” Jacob said with disgust. “It’s why these apartments are just sitting here.”

There was a sound from the closet.

“And they’re back,” Jacob said. He swore.

“Now, now,” Ferguson said, looking around the room. “We’re here to figure out what went on here. That’s our job. If you want us to look at something, then make sure we know what it is you think we should see. Otherwise, we’re going to get about our business here.”

No one cared before,” the young woman said in an angry other worldly voice.

“Is there a ghost in front of me?” Ferguson asked.

“She said that no one cared before,” Jacob said.

“Ah,” Ferguson said. “Yes, well, we’re here now.”

Ferguson gave a curt nod in the direction of where he thought there was a ghost.

“Let us get to work,” Ferguson said to the air. “You can complain when we’re done. In the meantime, let us know if we miss something.”

Ferguson nodded to the air. He glanced at Fran, who was trying not to laugh.

“Don’t,” Ferguson said, pointing at Fran. “These people lost their lives.”

Fran nodded to him and looked away to keep from laughing.

“What can we do?” Leslie asked.

“I want you to take on all of the closets,” Ferguson said. “You’re a smart girl.”

“Woman,” Leslie corrected.

“Woman,” Ferguson said without missing a beat. “Check the closets to see what’s going on there. If something was missed, it’s usually in the closets.”

“The ghost came out of that closet,” Jacob said, pointing.

“Do I need to worry?” Leslie asked. “I have three kids at home.”

“No,” Jacob said staring at a spot in the air. “She says that you should go into the closet on the left and to check the walls.”

“Robert?” Ferguson asked.

“Yeah,” Bob said, not breaking his gaze at the blood spatter on the wall.

“Anything you’d like to share?” Ferguson asked.

“Uh,” Bob looked at Ferguson and then back at the ceiling.

“Walk him through,” Ava said. “You can trust him. We need to know where to collect samples.”

Bob nodded.

“Fran,” Ava said, and gestured to the young technician.

Fran nodded. She went to the technician and took the tablet from him.

Bob went to the doorway.

“Okay,” Bob said. “From here, it looks like there were four or possibly as many as six people here.”

“The ghost just said that there were more than that originally,” Jacob said. “They left when the ‘action’ started. She specifically said the word ‘action.’”

“They were having a party,” Delphie said.

“That makes sense,” Bob said nodding to Jacob and Delphie. “It’s great to have you here.”

“Any day now,” Ferguson said, irritably.

“Right,” Bob said. “Something happened at the door. It’s hard to tell what. Maybe some kind of skirmish or fight. You can see that the door was broken in.”

Bob looked at Jacob, who shook his head. He turned to Delphie.

“Doesn’t seem like anyone knows,” Delphie said. “Maybe it’s something that happened that no one thought was a big deal until the person started shooting.”

Ferguson threw down an incident cone in the doorway. Bob nodded and took a step into the room.

“I think that the door was broken previously,” Jacob said.

“Before this party,” Delphie said. “Do you think that’s how they got into this apartment?”

“Oh,” Jacob said with a nod. “Maybe.”

Turning to Ferguson, he said, “These apartments weren’t a part of the house then. This hallway was outside. The side across the hallway was another set of rooms. The doors opened to each other.”

“What’s happening there now?” Ferguson asked.

“I made them into rooms,” Jacob said. “One is an apartment that Tanesha’s family lives in. The rest went into the kitchen. The space where the table sits now and all of that space behind it belonged to those apartments.”

“You’re saying that these young people could have come to this apartment to party because it was open,” Ava said with a nod. “Because someone had previously kicked in the doorway.”

“That makes sense, too,” Fran said. “Part of the problem they had with this case was that no one was supposed to be here. The apartment wasn’t occupied at the time. The tenant had moved out a week before. The landlord had no idea who might have been here. They never identified three of the people. And none of them were connected to this place. So you’re right. They probably just came here to party because it was open.”

“It doesn’t mean that they didn’t live here,” Ferguson said. “They could have lived across the hallway.”

“Just a sec’,” Jacob said. “Okay, the female ghost — she’s standing next to Bob — she said that she lived across the hall. She said that she saw this apartment was open. When her friends called to invite her to party, she suggested this apartment. She didn’t want them in her apartment because her daughter was there. Her mother came to watch her daughter. She didn’t want to go far because the child had been sick.”

Jacob paused for a moment. He nodded.

“Her daughter is that girl in the kitchen,” Jacob said. “This ghost wants to be released from this apartment so that she can see her daughter.”

“But let her come back,” Delphie said. She touched Jacob’s arm. “Imagine how you’d feel if it were Katy.”

Jacob nodded.

“Close your eyes,” Jacob said.

“She’s been stuck here so long that there’s bound to be a burst of light when Jacob releases her,” Delphie said.

When everyone’s eyes were close, Jacob did something that sound like he’d clapped his hands.

“Okay,” Jacob said. “You can open your eyes. She’s gone.”

“Robert?” Ferguson said. “You’re on again.”

“Leslie?” Bob asked.

Leslie was in the closet next to the door.

“What do you see in the closet?” Bob asked.

“It’s odd,” Leslie said. “I was just wondering what the crime scene photos show.”

“There was a body in the closet,” Fran said.

“Looks like a self-inflicted shot,” Bob said, scanning the walls and floor.

“Right,” Leslie said. “But look over here.”

Leslie pointed to the corner of the closet. There was crayon writing on the wall as well as a dried puddle of blood.

“Were there any children in this ‘action’?” Leslie asked. She turned to Ava. “That’s the word we’re using? Action?”

“I guess so,” Ava said with a shrug.

“No, Leslie,” Fran said. “Four adult bodies including one self-inflicted gunshot in the closet.”

“They note the blood and crayon but it looked older when they got here,” Ferguson’s young male technician said. “I’m Luther, by the way. Luther Gundy.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ava said. “I’m Ava. I had your job for a while.”

The young man gave her an embarrassed nod.

“The blond lady is Leslie,” Ferguson said. “Fran’s standing next to you. The pain in the ass is Doctor Robert Parrish.”

“Bob,” he said from the closet.

“You met Jake and Delphie,” Ferguson said. “Now that we all know each other’s names. . . Robert?”

“I agree with the original report,” Bob said. “This blood is older. There’s not enough of it for the wound to be critical. It’s distinct from this larger pool of blood. I think we should take samples of both. Photos everywhere.”

“You got anything for me?” Ferguson asked.

Jacob shook his head.

“The ghosts that are here don’t know anything about the man killing himself,” Jacob said.

“I think that they were dead before he shot himself,” Delphie said.

“Do the ghosts know the shooter?” Ferguson asked.

Jacob looked at three distinct spots in the room.

“No,” Jacob said. “They came over to party with the other ghost. They’d been friends since elementary school. They got together once a month or so and partied — pot, alcohol, music, dancing, talking all night. Nothing crazy.”

“This one,” Delphie pointed to the air. “He says that he heard that there was a party here. He didn’t know anyone here. He came from Aurora. Wanted to score some weed.”

“You know, son,” Delphie said. “We don’t know your name. You were unidentified by the police.”

They silently watched Delphie listen to the air for a long moment.

“Huh,” Delphie said.

Delphie looked up and realized that everyone was looking at her. Delphie blushed.

“What did you learn?” Ferguson asked.

“Oh, yes, sorry,” Delphie said. “I forget that not everyone can hear. Um. He told me his name, which I will give you; and his address. The other two ghosts are friends of the woman who invited everyone. They said that the rest of their friends ran out. That’s their last memory — their friends deserting them in their deaths.”

“Terrible,” Ava said. “They clearly didn’t come forward to identify people either.”

Ava looked out into the air.

“Is there a place where we can get DNA on the folks who were here?” Ava said. She gestured to her teammate, Fran, “Fran is a master at getting DNA from almost nothing.”

“Are you asking the ghosts?” Jacob asked.

“Yes,” Ava said.

“Bathroom,” Jacob said. “They did coke in the bathroom. The drugs are still there. Roaches? What’s a ‘roach’? Do I need the exterminator?”

“The small end of a marijuana cigarette,” Delphie said. “Hippy talk.”

Jacob gave her a pinched look and rubbed his forehead.

“I’ll take the bathroom,” Nelson said and walked into the bathroom.

“Someone did a great job here,” Ferguson said, sarcastically. He sighed. “Okay, Leslie, can you place evidence cones where you think they need to go? We’ll see if Bob has something else for us.”

“If I may,” Luther, the young technician, said. “Why do you keep going back to him?”

“This is ‘Blood Splatter Bob,’” Ferguson said with a gesture to Bob. “He basically developed the entire science of blood spatter. It’s his thing. Even though I give him shit, he’s the best at this. He can read the blood spatter and tell what happened here. He’s usually right. You can hear that even the ghosts aren’t sure what happened. It’s like magic.”

Ferguson nodded to Luther and then scowled at Bob.

“Moving on,” Bob said. He pointed to the ground about a foot from the south wall. “There’s a bunch of spillage here. Someone picked up the glass.”

“That would be me,” Jacob said. “There was a lot of glass from beer bottles, broken china, rotten food. The rats had been through it. It was very gross. Val wanted to get in these apartments. She loves going through the crap in these apartments. But she would freak out at the food and the mess. I was trying to clean it up a bit for her to go through the stuff left here. But the ghosts were on me and. . . I closed it up and walked away.”

“Makes sense,” Ferguson said. “Did you landfill the stuff or. . .?”

“Good question,” Jacob said. “I probably. . .”

Jacob looked around. There was a broom and a trashcan with a lid near the door. He pointed to the trashcan.

“If it’s anywhere, it’s there,” Jacob said.

Ferguson gave a cone to Luther and the young man walked over to place the cone on the trashcan.

“Use a mask,” Jacob said. “There’s likely rat feces.”

Ferguson nodded and pointed to Bob again.

“You can still see some of the glass and a stain here,” Bob said, pointing at the ground again. “I’d guess that this is food — like a snack table was turned over.”

Ferguson tossed a cone where Bob pointed.

“Okay,” Bob said. He looked at Jacob. “I think I know what happened here, but you’ll tell me if I’m wrong?”  

“Sure,” Jacob said.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Fifty-seven - What the Evil Wizard wants...

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FIFTY-SEVEN

Friday midday — 11:34 a.m.

“They’re out there again,” Xanda, one of the med techs, said to Tanesha.

Xanda was a quiet African American young woman. She rarely spoke to anyone until Fin and Tanesha showed up in the ER. Now, she only spoke to them.

“Who?” Tanesha asked.

“Those jerks,” Xanda gestured outside the windows. “They say that we’re lying — that the ICU isn’t full. They show up with their weapons and. . .”

Tanesha turned to look at the young woman.

“What?” Tanesha asked.

“Someone’s going to get killed,” Xanda said. “You know — you, me, your cousin — it’s usually us.”

“What is this?” Fin demanded in his princely voice.

Xanda shook her head and walked away.

“She says that there are people outside with weapons,” Tanesha said. “They believe that we’re lying that the ICUS if full. They demand to come inside and. . .”

There was a shout at the door.

“I will take care of this,” Fin said.

“Fin!” Tanesha said, but he was gone.

She watched as Fin walked outside the ICU. Two of the guards bowed to Fin and moved to stand around him. Tanesha started toward the door.

“This is a place of healing.” Fin’s voice boomed over the chants of these armed protestors. “You are not welcome here.”

“Get him on camera!” someone yelled.

The guard standing at Fin’s right raised her hand. All of the electric devices burst into flames, including the hospital’s surveillance camera.

“What the. . .?” the leader of the protest asked.

Fin and the guards transformed into their new Fairy military uniform, complete with gleaming broad swords.

“You will leave here and never come back,” Fin said, in a low threatening voice.

The protestors were so surprised that one of them jerked his machine gun and shot off a round. Fin easily deflected the series of bullets with his broad sword. The bullets flew through the crowd.

The protestors began screaming and complaining that they were being fired at. A few of them ran toward their cars.

“Leave now,” Fin said.

There was a snap and the people disappeared.

Fin nodded to the guards. The guards held their broad swords to their foreheads and bowed to Fin. As he walked back into the ICU, his armor and sword transformed into the personal protective gear they wore in the ICU.

“Subtle,” Tanesha said.

“Look around you,” Fin said. “No one saw a thing.”

“That’s not the point,” Tanesha said. “Those guards are here to guard you?”

“I am a prince,” Fin said. “They are here to defend me, should I need them. You cannot ask me not to be exactly what I am as you deny what you are.”

Irritated, Tanesha squinted at Fin. He gave her a bright smile.

“And the people? Well, I assume you sent them home?” Tanesha asked. “You did send them home, didn’t you?”

“I may have,” Fin said with a grin. “They won’t remember that they were ever here.”

“Smart,” Tanesha said.

Fin gave her a nod and went back to work. More than an hour later, a doctor came up to Tanesha.

“Did you see that protest this morning?” the doctor asked. “They showed up with their machine guns!”

Tanesha made a non-committal sound.

“They just disappeared,” the doctor said. “One moment they were there and the next they were gone.”

“Weird,” Tanesha said.

The doctor sighed.

“This job. . .” The doctor shook her head at Tanesha.

“You make it look easy,” Tanesha said with a smile.

“If I were you, I’d never become an ICU doctor,” the doctor said.

A siren screamed indicating another patient’s oxygen level was dropping fast. Their conversation forgotten, the doctor and Tanesha ran to help the patient.

~~~~~~~~~

Friday midday — 12:05 p.m.

“Ava?” Delphie asked as she answered the side door.

Delphie held her arms out. Ava showed her an elbow, and Delphie nodded. They touched elbows. Ava was wearing an African print mask while Delphie was wearing one with delicate flowers on the front.

“What are you doing here?” Delphie asked.

“I’m here to talk to Jake,” Ava said with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “The Evil Wizard wants us to get the Crime Scene Unit in here to see if we can get forensics. You know, what the Evil Wizard wants, he gets. Were you here this morning?”

“When those detectives were here?” Delphie nodded. “They were very unpleasant.”

“So I heard,” Ava said. “‘Complete a-holes.’ That’s what the Evil Wizard said: ‘Just because the detectives were complete a-holes, doesn’t mean that we don’t need forensics.’ Anyway, he knows that we’re friends so he’s hoping to get forensics.”

“For those detectives?” Delphie asked, wincing.

“That’s the hard thing,” Ava said. “Since they claimed these cases, they cannot be reassigned without big drama. You’d have to file against the department which is a big pain in the rear.”

Delphie nodded.

“They thought that we could do the work, get answers for the families, and you don’t have to deal with assholes,” Ava said.

“No a-holes?” Delphie asked. Her eyes crinkled as if she were grinning.

“That’s why I’m not the head of the Denver Crime Labs,” Ava said with a laugh.

“Come in, come in,” Delphie said. “Is your team here?”

“They’re waiting in the SUV,” Ava said. “I wanted to get permission first and talk to Jake.”

“You know that I own this house, right?” Delphie asked.

“I’m sorry, Delphie,” Ava said. “I forgot. Would you mind if we took forensics from a few sites.”

“You’re most welcome, Ava,” Delphie said. “Nelson, Leslie, and Fran, too.”

“But not Bob?” Ava asked with a grin.

“I do love Bob,” Delphie said. “And Joan. Is she here too?”

“Of course,” Ava said. “But. . .”

“Yes, dear,” Delphie said.

“Isn’t this Harvest Weekend?” Ava asked.

“It is,” Delphie said. “The way I figure, if you get what you need, you can help!”

“Sounds like a plan,” Ava said. “Have you met Leslie’s husband?”

Delphie shook her head.

“We’ll volunteer him,” Ava said with a grin. “He loves gardening. He’s asked about your Harvest Weekend before.”

“Good,” Delphie said with a clap of her hands. “The more the merrier.”

“First, I need to talk to Jake,” Ava said. “Will you sign something saying that you’ll let us in?”

“Of course,” Delphie said. “Jake’s just in the kitchen. Samantha Hargreaves is here, too. They are starting to cook down tomatoes for tomato sauce.”

“Fabulous,” Ava said.

Delphie stepped back, and Ava walked into the Castle. Ava followed Delphie through the living room and into the kitchen.

“Ava!” Valerie said from the stove where she was stirring a large pot filled with pureed heirloom tomatoes. “I’d come give you a hug, but. . .”

Valerie gestured to the baby on her chest.

“Hi Gracey,” Ava waved to the baby. “Love the little mask.”

“Isn’t she cute?” Valerie asked with a smile. “Eddie and Jackie are at school. You should see how cute their masks are.”

“I bet,” Ava said. “Hey, Sami.”

“Ava,” Samantha said, in a guarded tone, from her spot at the kitchen table. Samantha was cutting up tomatoes from a large basket.

Ava raised her hand as if Samantha was pointing the knife at Ava. Samantha laughed.

“Did you get sent here?” Samantha asked.

“By my boss,” Ava said. “I know that there was some trouble this morning. My boss thinks that we can get the Crime Scene Unit in here and between us, we could get whatever forensics.”

“None of that Detective Stone?” Samantha asked while chopping a tomato.

“Stone?” Ava asked her voice laced with disgust. “That’s who was here?”

Samantha nodded.

“She’s horrible,” Ava said. “To everyone. I’ve never met an unhappier person. She makes everyone miserable. She gave Seth so much crap about dating me. You wouldn’t believe the stuff she said. Karaowski is the only person who can tolerate her and that’s just because he’s oblivious to everyone.”

“I love how you know everyone.” Samantha nodded.

“I was a cop before. . . you know. . .” Ava stumbled on words.

“Saint Jude?” Samantha asked.

Ava nodded.

Reading Ava’s discomfort, Samantha changed the topic.

“What do you need from us?” Samantha asked.

“I have a form for Delphie and Jake to sign agreeing to let us poke around,” Ava said.

“Can you set it so I can read it?” Samantha asked.

“Where’s Jake?” Ava asked.

“He’s harvesting tomatoes,” Delphie said. “With Alex and John.”

“Mike’s out there, too,” Valerie said.

“Mike’s harvesting from the fruit trees,” Delphie said. “John too, now that I think of it.”

Ava nodded and started toward the door. Samantha patted a dry spot on the table. Ava set a copy of the form on the table. Samantha waved Ava away, and Ava went outside to the backyard.

“Jake?” Ava asked from the deck.

“Here!” Jacob said from his spot in the tomato plants. “Ava! What do I owe the privilege? Is Seth with you?”

“Seth’s in New York,” Ava said. “That guy is still trying to evict his tenants so he can build a ‘better’ — whatever that means — Hell’s Kitchen. Seth and his dad are in court today.”

“Some people are such jerks,” Jacob said.

“This is bad business that goes back to when Seth bought his building when he was 10 years old,” Ava said.

Jacob shook his head.

“What do you need from me?” Jacob asked.

“My boss sent me and my team to see if we could facilitate the Crime Scene Unit to come in and get forensics,” Ava said. “I’ve worked with those guys for as long as I’ve been at Denver Crime Labs. They are really great guys. Not an asshole among them. Really.”

“What did Sami say?” Jacob asked. “Did she tell you that she kicked the detectives out?”

“My boss did,” Ava said with a shrug. “I would have thrown them out too.”

Jacob nodded.

“I left the form with her,” Ava said. “My boss wanted me to give you my assurances that the department is very sorry for the misunderstandings this morning.”

“I’m sure he is sorry,” Jacob grimaced.

“I’ll tell you,” Ava said, nodding, “I’ve had run-ins with Detective Stone, most recently over our project to process all of the Native people’s rape kits. In short, she thinks that it’s a waste of our time and slowing down forensic work. She filed a complaint with the police board. We had to go through an investigation and everything.”

“Didn’t you open a separate lab?” Jacob asked.

“We did,” Ava said. “We even got separate funding for it. She’s just an asshole.”

Jacob nodded.

“That doesn’t change the fact that there were cases here,” Ava said. “Which means that we might get forensics and bring some relief to the victims’ families.”

Tipping his head back, Jacob groaned.

“Too much?” Ava asked with a smile.

“No,” Jacob said. “You’re right. I just. . . I mean, how is it my fault that there were crimes in this building? Many of them happened before I was even born!”

“I know,” Ava said. “I understand.”

“But, you’re right, it doesn’t change the need to look into it,” Jacob said. “And before you say it, people should be caught and, if we can help bring peace to families of the dead, we’re happy to.”

“I was kind of hoping you and Delphie could help, you know, using your. . .” Ava waved her fingers in front of her forehead.

“My. . .” Jacob waved his fingers in front of his forehead, mimicking Ava, “. . . is all yours.”

“We’re okay, Jake,” Alex said, standing up from the tomato plant. “Finn and my sister, Helene, will be here in a few minutes. They can help me.”

“You’re sure?” Jacob asked.

“Jake, I can call and have a dozen burly guys and gals here,” Alex said with a grin. “They’re not here because I thought that so many people will get in the way. People are no problem.”

“Thanks, that’s very generous,” Jacob said.

“This is not generosity,” Alex said. “It’s delightful to spend a day harvesting and hanging out with friends.”

Jacob gave her a nod. Standing up, he wiped his hands on his jeans.

“I’m all yours,” Jacob looked at his hands. “I should clean up.”

“Sure,” Ava said. “Would you mind if I call the Crime Scene Unit? Bring my team into the building?”

“Of course,” Jacob said.

“I need you to sign the form,” Ava said.

“I’ll sign it if Samantha says that I can,” Jacob said.

“Deal,” Ava said.

They walked together into the kitchen. Samantha gestured to the paper.

“What do you think?” Jacob asked.

“I think that this is the easiest way,” Samantha said. “We should be grateful to Ava for helping us with this situation.”

“You mean, we’d have to deal with it at some point?” Jacob asked.

“At some point, someone will give them a warrant,” Samantha said. “I would guess that they tried for one?”

Ava nodded.

“Was it for the entire building? Every room?” Samantha asked.

Ava nodded.

“They will dump everything out of any drawer or closet, all of those boxes you haven’t gone through, everything in this house will end up on the floor. Then start making up crimes,” Samantha said. “We don’t want that.”

“I don’t,” Jacob said.

“Then sign here,” Samantha said. “This is limited to the spaces that are indicated in the original documents on the original crimes.”

Samantha looked at Ava.

“Did you designate these areas?” Samantha asked.

Ava nodded.

“Good to know,” Samantha said. “Delphie’s already signed. You need to sign, as well.”

Jacob signed the document.

“Now go shower,” Samantha said. “You smell.”

Jacob looked up. Valerie nodded in agreement. Ava shrugged.

“You’re going to smell by the time we’re done,” Ava said. “At least we always do.”

“I’ll go shower,” Jacob said.

“I’ll call CSU and get my team,” Ava said.

Jacob nodded and jogged up the stairs. Fifteen minutes later, he came back down wearing clean clothing. His hair was wet from the shower. Delphie was standing in the kitchen talking to Ava’s teammate Dr. Leslie McClintock. Nelson Weeks and Fran DeKay were sitting in the living room drinking tea. A tall burly red-haired man was standing next to them. He wore a black mask with the white block letters “CSU” on the front.

“Ferguson,” the man said when Jacob came into the room. “I understand that you had a run in with Detective Stone.”

Jacob nodded.

“Sorry about that,” Ferguson said. “My team is filled with only nice people. I make sure of it. We just want to catch some bastards and get out of your hair.”

“Good to know,” Jacob said.

“We’ve been informed that you and Delphie have the gift of sight,” Ferguson said.

“I know that you’re a good friend of Seth O’Malley’s and Ava used to work for you — if that’s what you mean,” Jacob said with a smile.

“Did you get that. . .” Ferguson made the same gesture that Ava had.

Jacob laughed.

“I know that from when we were in the middle of Saint Jude,” Jacob said. “Your team was here for a couple of weeks retrieving the bodies and collecting samples.”

“Oh fuck, that’s right,” Ferguson said. “I knew this place look familiar. Sorry. This whole thing has been a fiasco.”

“No problem,” Jacob said. “If Delphie’s ready, we can start.”

“Good, that’s real good,” Ferguson said. “I’ll get my men.”

“Any idea where we need to go?” Jacob asked. “What we’re talking about?”

“I pulled the last plan for the house,” Nelson said. “We printed it out and matched the map to where these crimes were committed.”

“Can I take a look?” Jacob asked. He held up the large map. “This is a little behind the times but it will do.”

He looked around.

“Everyone ready?” Jacob asked.

Delphie nodded. Ava’s team nodded. Ferguson and two other younger people nodded.

“The first one is. . .” Jacob said, looking at the map.

“I think it’s one in that section by the ballroom,” Nelson said. He pointed to the “secret” door off the Castle main living room. “Through that door? Blane took me through there. If I remember correctly, there are a few apartments still there? The closest incident to where we’re sitting happened there.”

“Good thinking,” Jacob said. “Do we know what happened there?”

“We have it on our tablets,” Ferguson said. “Let’s walk through the site first.”

“Okay,” Jacob said.

He went to the wall.

“You can get through this door,” Jacob said. “You have to push on it twice to open the latch. There’s a hallway behind. You can also get there from the stairway off the kitchen. The stairway off the kitchen is a little wider if you need to get equipment in. We also opened the door from the outside to the ballroom. They needed a wider space to get the video equipment and the aeration equipment inside.”

“Let’s just take a look first,” Ferguson said. “Ava, your team can leave their stuff here. We’ll walk through and figure out what we need. There’s no reason to second guess anything.”

“Okay,” Ava said.

She nodded to Leslie, Fran, and Nelson. Dr. Bob Parrish came in from the backyard.

“I hope you’re all wearing. . .” Bob held a handful of N95 masks. “Oh.”

“We wear masks in this house,” Jacob said. “Science. You know. It’s big with us.”

Ava and her team grinned while Ferguson laughed out loud.

“Very funny,” Bob said. “Dr. Joan is going to stay with Valerie and Samantha until we need her.”

Dr. Joan Quincy was recovering from colon cancer.

“I’m ready!” Delphie said.

Jacob opened the door off the living room. He let Nelson go first since he seemed to know where he was going. Ava’s team followed Nelson. Ferguson and the two younger technicians came in after them. Delphie and Bob went inside.

Sighing to himself, Jacob followed them into the dark hallway.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Fifty-six - Early morning visit

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FIFTY-SIX

Friday morning — 7:10 a.m.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

“Someone’s at the gate!” Nash said from the dining room.

“Someone’s ringing the. . .” Noelle said entering the dining room. Seeing Charlie and Nash, she said, “Oh.”

Charlie and Nash lifted a fork and pointed to her. Shaking her head at them, Noelle went to open two windows to give them airflow and moved to sit down.

“You should go get it,” Nash said with his mouth full, which sounded like, “Mu ff-ld mm rr m.”

“Ew,” Noelle said.

Mike poked his head into the dining room. Rolling his eyes at the children, he went to the closet where the gate controls were located.

“Hey! We have school!” Charlie yelled after Mike.

“Oooh school,” Mike said, sarcastically. “What?”

“Denver Police,” a woman yelled.

“So?” Mike asked.

“Can you let us in?” the woman asked.

“What do you want?” Mike asked.

A man’s face appeared on the monitor. He pointed at the monitor.

“Fuck you, Roper,” the man said. “Let us in.”

“Hey asshole,” Mike said. “I’m not letting you in until you put your masks on.”

He watched while the Denver Police detectives put on their facemasks.

“You want some coffee,” Mike said. “I was just making a pot.”

Mike hit the button and the two police detectives came into the Castle compound. Mike put on a facemask. He grabbed a stack of masks, opened the side door, and went to finish the coffee. The police detectives wandered into the building. They looked into the dining room.

Still chewing, Nash and Charlie pointed toward the kitchen.

“He’s in the kitchen,” Noelle said. “We’re just kids. We don’t know anything about anything.”

“Good to know,” the woman said.

The detectives went toward the kitchen.

“There’s some guys here,” Teddy said as he came into the dining room.

Teddy sat down next to Noelle. Jabari, Mack, and Wyn ran into the dining room. Maggie, Jackie, and Eddie ran in. The younger kids started arguing about which seat they were sitting in. Noelle got up from her seat.

“Jabari!” Noelle said. She pointed to a chair. “Here.”

“Mack, Wyn — go there and there,” Noelle said.

“Where should we go?” Maggie asked.

Noelle pointed to three chairs.

“Okay,” Jackie said.

Maggie, Eddie, and Jackie sat down. Noelle grunted. She closed the dining room door before she sat back down in her seat. After a few minutes, the only sound that could be heard was the crunching of healthy cereal.

“Who are you?” the male detective asked with a snort. “The fucking Goddess of Love?”

“Now that you mention it,” Heather said. “Yes.”

She cleared her throat and transformed into her goddess wear.

“Enough of that,” Blane said. He kissed her cheek and took a facemask from Mike. “No goddess wear before coffee.”

Mike turned around from the coffee pot. Mike looked from Blane to Heather and laughed.

“What do you want, Karowski?” Jacob asked as he jogged down the stairs.

Mike gave Jacob a facemask, and he put it on.

Katy, Bladen, and Tanner ran down the stairs behind Jacob. Once the kids hit the floor, they took off toward the dining room.

“Who are you?” Jacob asked the woman.

“Detective Joy Stone,” she said. She held out her hand for Jacob to shake. Jacob held out his elbow and they elbow bumped. “We’re here to talk to a Jacob Marlowe.”

“That’s him,” Detective Karowski said.

“Would you like some breakfast?” Jacob asked. “It’s my turn to make breakfast.”

“I want to know why the kids keep running into the. . .” Detective Stone said. “What’s over there?”

“Dining room,” Jacob said. “They have kid breakfast on Friday morning.”

“No parents allowed,” Mike said.

Valerie came down the second floor stairs wearing her silk pajamas and a silk bathrobe. She was carrying Grace. The detectives openly gawked at her as she walked around them to Mike. He poured her a cup of coffee. She kissed him, gave the detectives a little wave, and went back upstairs.

“Did you come to gawk at my sister?” Jacob punched Detective Karowski.

“Ow!” Detective Karowski said.

“Let me guess,” Detective Stone said. “You play hockey together.”

“How’d you guess?’ Mike asked.

“And you.” Detective Stone pointed to Heather.

Heather raised an eyebrow at Detective Stone.

“You are the goddess of love?” Detective Stone asked.

“What’s it to you?” Blane asked through his facemask.

“You’re Blane Lipson,” Detective Stone said. “Criminal, prostitute,. . .”

“What’s it to you?” Heather transformed into goddess mode and pointed at Detective Stone.

Detective Stone’s hands went to her throat as if she were being choked.

“That’s my husband,” Heather said in her husky and terrifying goddess voice. “Shut the fuck up.”

“Let her go,” Blane said.

Heather’s eyes flicked to Blane. She nodded and transformed back into human form.

“You’re getting good at that,” Jacob said, taking a sip of his coffee.

“Thank you,” Heather said in her normal human voice.

Detective Stone gasped for breath.

“That’s assault,” Detective Stone croaked.

“Sure,” Heather said. “You go ahead and arrest the goddess of love. You’ll never figure out why the love of your life is acting so weird.”

Blane and Jacob laughed

“Wha. . .?” Detective Stone asked in a desperate voice. “I mean, do you know why she’s acting so weird?”

“She’s pregnant,” Heather said. “She doesn’t want to tell you because she’s afraid that she’ll lose it.”

Detective Stone began to cry.

“What’s happened?” Delphie asked.

She came into the kitchen wearing a facemask. Ivy ran past the kitchen to the dining room.

“Why is the detective crying?” Delphie asked.

“Her partner’s pregnant,” Heather said.

“Did you strangle her?” Delphie asked.

Heather gave a slight nod.

“She was talking crap about Blane,” Heather said.

“I deserved it,” Detective Stone said in a croak.

Mike put a cup of coffee in Detective Stone’s hand, and she drank it down.

“Put a facemask on,” Delphie said. “No reason to show off.”

Heather nodded in a kind of bow.

“Thanks,” Detective Stone said. “Good coffee.”

“Why are you here in my home, Detectives?” Delphie asked.

“This is your home?” Detective Stone asked.

“It is,” Delphie said. “Jake’s mom bought it for me. Now, we have a lot going on today, so you should spit out what you want. There are a lot of people will be here shortly.”

“It’s the first day of Harvest Weekend,” Mike said.

Detective Karowski nodded.

“What’s ‘Harvest Weekend’”? Detective Stone asked.

“We get together to harvest gardens,” Alexandra Hargreaves said through her facemask as she came in the door from the backyard. “Go ahead.”

Her children — Joey and Máire — ran off toward the dining room. Alex’s husband, also wearing a facemask, came in behind her. He touched Alex’s shoulder and started toward the dining room.

“Children’s breakfast,” Jacob said.

“No adults allowed,” Heather said.

“Ah.” John stopped short. “Might I have some tea?”

Mike reached over and turned on the electric kettle.

“Breakfast?” Jacob asked from his position at the stove.

“Sounds good,” John said with a nod. “Need help?”

“Nah, I’m just making eggs,” Jacob said. “Bacon. Sandy made muffins.”

“This year, we’re harvesting here, at Alex’s house, and the big garden at the Marlowe School,” Delphie said. She clapped her hands. “Some of us are cooking and canning all next week. Alex, her brother, I, and some of the kids will harvest from our bees and then Alex’s bees while they cook.”

“Oh good, you’re here,” Sandy said as she came in the room.

She set down Rachel, who ran toward the dining room. Mike gave her a facemask which she put on.

“Can you help?” Sandy asked Heather.

“Sure,” Heather said.

Sandy and Heather left to Sandy’s apartment.

“Why are you here?” Mike asked.

Jill came down the stairs. She looked around the room.

“They went to Sandy’s,” Alex said, drinking coffee.

John fixed a pot of tea and went to Alex’s side. He put his arm around her. Jill went off to Sandy’s apartment.

“We’re here on a cold case,” Detective Stone said.

“What cold case?” Jacob asked.

“Lieutenant said that we should work on cold cases while crime is down,” Detective Karowski said.

“Crime is down?” Delphie asked.

“Not really,” Detective Stone said. “Most crime now is between family members so it’s not the challenge the lieutenant wants for our professional growth. At least, that’s what he said.”

Mike ground coffee beans for another pot of coffee and then started a pot.

“Why does this bring you to us?” Jacob asked with his head in the oven.

“What?” Detective Stone asked.

“With the facemask and the oven, she couldn’t hear you,” Mike said.

“Oh.” Jacob stood up and closed the oven door. “Why are you here?”

“There are seven cold cases related to this address,” Detective Stone said. “Karowski said that we should just come here and clear them up.”

“Okay,” Jacob said.

They heard the dining room door open just before Sandy and Heather arrived with plates of muffins. Jill arrived a moment later without anything.

“I dropped some in the dining room,” Jill said.

“How are the eggs?” Sandy asked.

“Almost done,” Jacob said. “But the bacon needs a bit more time.”

“Perfect,” Sandy said.

Sandy set down a large plate of muffins on the kitchen table.

“We should eat outside,” John said. “Covid? I don’t want to see you in the ICU.”

Sandy nodded in agreement. She and Heather picked up the muffins. Alex held the door open and they went out into the backyard. Sandy set a plate of muffins down on one picnic table and Heather put her plate down on another. A few minutes later, Mike arrived with a fresh pot of coffee. Jacob came out with two plates of eggs and went back inside to monitor the bacon. Alex arrived with plates and silverware. John arrived with napkins. The detectives wandered outside.

Making sure that they had six feet between them, they took seats at the tables or in the chairs around the backyard. They started eating. After a few minutes, Jacob went inside and returned with the bacon. He set a plate down on each picnic table.

“I have carpool,” Jacob said.

“We need to walk through these crimes,” Detective Stone said. “See the locations of each event.”

“I’ll take them,” Sandy said.

“You have work,” Heather said. “I’ll take them.”

Heather finished her coffee. She picked up her plates and silverware, stopped to say a word to Blane, and went inside. As if it were a trigger, everyone slowly went back into the Castle and off to school or work.

“Well,” Jacob said. “What would you like to see? What can I do for you?”

“We have cases that range from the 1920s to the 1990s,” Detective Stone said.

“Does this include the eight bodies we’ve already discovered?” Jacob asked. “Three in the ballroom earlier this year.”

“Good question,” Detective Karowski said. “No.”

“Saint Jude?” Jacob asked.

“That’s right.” Detective Karowski pointed at Jacob. “You found some remains here as well.”

Jacob sighed.

“Why so much death on this one property?” Detective Stone asked.

“Old house?” Jacob shrugged. “It was run down for a long, long time. When we moved in, we had to chase people away for months. It took me a long time to get it to even a livable state.”

The detectives looked at each other and didn’t respond.

“Why do you think?” Jacob asked with a sigh.

“We’re not sure,” Detective Stone said. “There’s a lot of people who live here. I mean. . .”

She flipped open her notebook.

“You’ve got prostitutes and drug dealers and. . .” Detective Stone’s hair caught on fire.

Detective Stone squealed and Detective Karowski jumped up to help her. Under the table, Jacob gestured with his hand. The fire went out.

“If I could make a suggestion,” Jacob said and cleared his throat. “Why don’t we look at whatever you’re looking for and you can get out of here?”

“Did you set fire to my hair?” Detective Stone asked.

“I believe that you set your own hair on fire,” Jacob said. “When a goddess gives you instructions, you’d be wise to follow them.”

“You mean that bitch was serious?” Detective Stone sneered.

Shaking his head, Jacob sighed.

“Excuse me for a moment,” Jacob said getting up from the picnic table. “I’m calling my lawyer.”

“Hey, now!” Detective Karowski said. “There’s no need for that.”

“Sure, man,” Jacob said. “I’ll be right back.”

Shaking his head with irritation, Jacob walked into the kitchen only to find Valerie’s best friend and their lawyer, Samantha Hargreaves, sitting at the table eating a muffin and drinking tea with his sister.

“How?” Jacob asked.

“I called her when I got back upstairs,” Valerie said. “That detective seems like a real asshole.”

“She is,” Jacob said. “Thank you for coming, Samantha.”

“Thanks for letting Sasha go to the Marlowe School,” Samantha said. “Heather even dropped her off. And these muffins. . .”

“Sandy’s baking is amazing,” Jacob said.

“Yes,” Samantha said. She stood up from the table. “Let’s see what they want.”

“I should tell you that Detective Stone’s hair just caught on fire,” Jacob said.

“Okay,” Samantha said. “How?”

“Heather warned her not to talk shit about Blane,” Jacob said.

“Well, then, the detective is lucky that it wasn’t worse,” Samantha said. “I mean, that was Athena driving the other SUV right?”

“Probably,” Jacob said. “She’s been here a bunch lately. Some project that she and Heather are working on. But I didn’t see her today.”

“What’s she like?” Samantha asked.

“She doesn’t speak to men,” Jacob said. “You’d have to ask Val.”

Samantha turned to Valerie, who shrugged.

“She’s nice,” Valerie said with a shrug. “Tough, but kind. I like her. I’m sure that she’ll be back. Jill and Honey have classes this morning and then they’re all hanging out this afternoon. When you’re done with whatever the detectives want, you should just stay.”

“I might do it,” Samantha gave Valerie a bright smile. “Come on.”

Jacob followed Samantha out to the backyard.

“Detectives?” Samantha asked. “My client informs me that you have some cold cases from before they took occupancy of this property. Is that correct?”

“Yes, but. . .” Detective Karowski said.

“Yet, you’ve insinuated that my clients had something to do with these events,” Samantha said. “You even included people who weren’t even born prior to taking occupancy of this property.”

“Like who?” Detective Stone asked.

“Charlie Delgado?” Samatha asked. “And what exactly is your issue with Blane Lipson?”

“He has a long sheet,” Detective Stone said.

“I see,” Samantha said. “And when was his last arrest?”

“Uh. . .” Detective Stone said, thumbing through her phone.

“Might it be around the time that the Marlowe-Lipson family taking possession of this property?” Samantha asked.

“Yes,” Detective Karowski said while Detective Stone said, “I’m checking.”

“Let’s be honest with each other,” Samantha said. “Besides eating some of the best muffins I’ve ever had, what exactly are you doing here this morning?”

“The lieutenant set up a contest where the partners. . .” Detective Karowski gestured between himself and Detective Stone, “. . . who solve the most cold cases wins Broncos tickets. We saw that there were eight cases attached to this house. Since I play hockey with Jake and Mike, we came over this morning hoping to clear cases.”

“And the insinuations about my clients?” Samantha asked.

“I. . .” Detective Karowski started.

“You can’t blame us for looking up who lives in a house,” Detective Stone said. “You live with criminals then crimes are bound to wind up on your doorstep.”

“Even though there have been no cold cases attached to this property since prior to their occupancy and ownership?” Samantha asked.

Detective Stone gave Samantha a steely look.

“It’s a simple question,” Samantha said. “You look at any of these people and what you’ll find is an abused child who did the best they could in their situations, who has grown into a functioning member of society. You want to hold their abuse against these children?”

Detective Stone never flinched. Samantha shrugged.

“Good luck with your contest,” Samantha said. “Given that none of this has anything to do with my clients, I’m going to recommend that they not let you inside.”

“We’ve already been inside,” Detective Karowski grinned.

“I’m revoking your access,” Samantha said in a stern voice. “Good day, detectives. You can see yourselves out.”

Samantha threaded her arm through Jacob’s elbow and encouraged him toward the back door.

“We’ll just stay here,” Detective Stone said.

Jacob opened the back door and whistled.

“Shit,” Detective Karowski said.

“What?” Detective Stone asked.

“He called his crazy dogs,” Detective Karowski said.

The detectives ran out of the back yard and down the driveway. The dogs nearly caught them at the fence, but the detectives managed to make it though. Once on the other side, the dogs headed back to the backyard.

“You fucked that up,” Detective Karowski said as they got into their vehicle.

“How did I fuck that up?” Detective Stone asked. “I’m going to call for a warrant. We’ll take that house apart room by room.”

“No,” Detective Karowski said. “You won’t.”

“Why’s that?” Detective Stone asked.

“In the first place, you won’t get a warrant,” Detective Karowski said.

“Why’s that?” Detective Stone asked.

“Because they haven’t done anything,” Detective Karowski said. “And their lawyer is Samantha Hargreaves. There’s no way she’s going to let a warrant slip by her.”

Detective Stone started the vehicle and they drove to the intersection of Race Street and Colfax Boulevard.

“What’s your beef with them?” Detective Karowski asked.

“What do you mean?” Detective Stone asked.

“You wanted to come here,” Detective Karowski said. “You have to know that you were a complete asshole in there.”

“I was stating facts,” Detective Stone said.

“No, You were talking about crimes committed when these adults were children,” Detective Karowski said. “Any jury is going to see them as abused children whose crimes were a long time ago. Why are you so zealous here?”

Detective Stone sniffed.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” Detective Karowski said. “But you’d better be prepared for the lieutenant to ask you.”

“Why’s that?” Detective Stone asked.

“Because if I know Samantha Hargreaves — and I went all the way through Catholic school with her — she’s talking to him right now,” Detective Karowski said. “You ever notice that tattoo on the lieutenant’s wrist?”

“I asked him about it once,” Detective Stone said. “He didn’t answer. Some military thing.”

“It means that he’s owned by the Hargreaves,” Detective Karowski said. “What do you think he’s saying to Samantha Hargreaves?”

“No idea.” Detective Stone shook her head.

“More than all of this,” Detective Karowski said. “Samantha was right. They invited us to breakfast, no questions asked, even after you were an asshole to Blane. You know what Blane’s doing right now?”

He continued when Detective Stone did say anything.

“He’s running an acupuncture clinic,” Detective Karowski said. “On the weekends, Blane and a couple of medical docs see indigent people, mostly elderly, and people with long haul Covid. You think that your petty jealousy, or whatever is going on with you, will stand up to that?”

Detective Stone didn’t respond. Lost in their own thoughts, they drove to the station in silence.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Fifty-five - Good morning

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FIFTY-FIVE

Thursday morning — 5:17 a.m.

“Good morning,” Blane said as he came into the kitchen.

Heather got up from the table and hugged him. She pulled back to look into his face. His hair was wet from the shower. He was dressed and ready for a day in his clinic.

“How are you holding up?” Heather asked.

She put her hand on his forehead to check for fever.

“I’m okay,” Blane said. “A little tired. That dog. . . remind me, where did he come from?”

“Why?” Heather asked. “What did he do?”

“You didn’t notice?” Blane asked with a grin.

“Notice what?” Heather asked.

Blane chuckled. The electric kettle clicked off, and he poured water into the tea pot Heather had set out.

“Food?” Blane asked.

“I put a bagel in for you and one for me,” Heather said.

“Where is everyone?” Blane asked.

“Nelson’s already gone to work. Some video meeting with the FBI lab in Virginia,” Heather said. “Tres is sleeping in. He’s working on a proposal that he’s presenting to the owners meeting tomorrow night. I’m sure that you remember that our boys are at the Castle. I’m going to pick them up in a bit. Tanesha’s off today so they left after the show to spend a night in the mountains.”

“Give Jabari some time to unwind a bit,” Blane said. “That’s a good idea.”

“He’s so stoic,” Heather said. “It’s hard to ever know what’s going on with him. They wanted to give him a chance to talk about how he feels before the time passes.”

Blane nodded. He opened the refrigerator and took out the egg carton. He took out four blue eggs from Delphie’s happy chickens. He whipped them and put them into a pan to cook before turning around.

“What did the dog do?” Heather asked.

“He hogged up my side of the bed,” Blane said.

“He did?” Heather asked. “I thought that he was hogging up my side of the bed. I was attempting to be the goddess of love and let you sleep.”

Blane laughed. She grinned at his laugh.

“I’ll get a crate for him,” Heather said.

“You don’t think that he needs his own golden palace?” Blane asked.

Blane grabbed a handful of baby spinach and threw it into a pan.

“Golden palace?” Heather asked.

“Come on,” Blane said. “He’s Anubis, isn’t he?”

“He’s a dog,” Heather said with a shrug. “The boys and I went to adopt a dog and the boys picked this dog. No conspiracy. Just a dog.”

“You’re saying that the dog on the dog bed over there isn’t the God Anubis?” Blane asked.

The dark haired dog regally sat on his dog bed with his front ankles crossed.

“I’m not sure what you’re asking,” Heather asked.

Blane pointed at her with the spatula.

“You’re being intentionally vague,” Blane said.

“Am I?” Heather asked with a grin. “I’m just messing with you. As far as I know, he is just a dog. Hecate told me that Nelson thought the same thing.”

“Nelson’s smart,” Blane said.

“He’s a beautiful dog,” Heather said. She shrugged. “What would I know about an Egyptian god?”

“Hmm,” Blane said, scowling as he buttered the bagels.

“I swear to you,” Heather said. “We went to the Dumb Friend’s League. They couldn’t let us in because of Covid. We asked for a young dog for the boys. They brought out a few dogs and the boys liked this dog. He is beautiful, very sweet, kind.”

“Too beautiful to be in the pound,” Blane said.

“So there has to be a catch?” Heather asked.

“There just usually is,” Blane said. “You don’t think that your friend Loki set us up?”

“Loki?” Heather shook her head. “Loki hates dogs.”

“Exactly,” Blane said with a grin.

“You’re not making any sense,” Heather said.

Blane scowled at her, and she smiled back.

“What?” Heather asked. “We talked about it. Everyone said that they trusted me to pick a nice dog. This is a very nice dog. He’s even nice to Jeraine, who is not very comfortable around dogs. He’s less than a year old. He’s fixed. He is potty trained. He’s great.”

“What did they say his background was?” he asked. “Where he came from?”

He gave her a plate with eggs, spinach, and bagel.

“You know who we could ask. . .” Blane said.

“No,” Heather said. “He’s gone away with the others. There’s no need to. . .”

“Did someone call my name?” Ares, the God of War appeared in their kitchen.

Ares wore his “in-the-house” armor with sandals on his feet. His brown curly hair was long and a little wild. There were colorful flecks of paint throughout his hair. He held an oil paint brush in his paint stained hand. He actually smelled like he’d had a bath in the last month, which was a vast improvement over any other time they’d seen him.

“This is our new home,” Heather said to her grandfather. “And no one called you. Go away.”

“Yes, but your lovely partner. . .” Ares said. “Say — where is that hunky Templar?”

“At work,” Heather said. “No one called you.”

“But. . .” Ares said. “Your beloved husband has a question. Since I’m here. . .”

Heather’s eyes shot daggers at Blane, who shrugged.

“He is here now,” Blane said.

Shaking her head, Heather rolled her eyes at him.

“We’re wondering if this dog is the God Anubis,” Blane said.

Ares turned in place until his eyes fell upon the dog. For a moment, the dog and the Greek God seemed to take the measure of each other.

“That is an excellent question,” Ares said. “I heard that your Templar met a gorgon or three.”

Ares gave them a wide grin.

“They are wildly powerful,” Ares said. “Good fun too, if you catch them when they aren’t angry — which I admit is rare since the whole Medusa thing.”

“Dog,” Heather said.

“That is a dog,” Ares said. “I just saw Hynos and Thantos. They would never become dogs.”

“Anubis?” Blane asked.

“You know that we’re all the same, right?” Ares asked. “Different cultures. Different times. Same gods, different names.”

Shaking her head, Heather groaned.

“He doesn’t want a lecture,” Heather said.

“It’s nice to see you, grandfather,” Ares said. “I’m so glad that you are weathering this modern pandemic so well. Are you painting?”

Ares pointed to his cheek. Shaking her head, Heather got up. She kissed her grandfather’s cheek.

“How about you?” Ares asked raising his eyebrows.

“No,” Heather said. “You cannot seduce the men in my life.”

“You have so many human — men and women — in your life,” Ares said with a pout. “I have so very few.”

“I have to get to work,” Blane said, picking up the plates and carrying them to the kitchen.

“Yes, I am very busy too,” Ares said.

“So, Ares,” Blane said, “you confirm that this is a dog.”

“Among other things,” Ares said.

“What does that mean?” Blane asked.

“Nothing, nothing,” Ares said with a smile. “This creature will serve you, well as, be a companion to you when you run, a friend to my great-grandsons, play with the Templar, and even enjoy the company of that singer and his angelic wife.”

“Jeraine and Tanesha,” Heather said.

“Exactly,” Ares said. “Nothing to worry about. Now, I must be off. Feel free to continue to take from my wine cellar. Anything I have is yours for the taking.”

Ares gave Heather a hopeful smile.

“Nothing I have is yours for the taking,” Heather said.

“Sometimes, you can be so like your mother,” Ares said.

“Thank you,” Heather said. “Good luck painting. Don’t start any wars.”

“Only happy times, my dear,” Ares said.

Ares waved to Blane and disappeared.

“I wish I’d never. . .” Blane said.

“I heard that,” Ares voice echoed through the room.

Heather laughed.

“How is LaTonya?” Heather asked.

“Good, I think,” Blane said. “She seems to be enjoying being around clients; helping people. I think she’d rather be working as a psychiatrist, but she’s enjoying it for now. Her kids went to the Marlowe School today. Bumpy’s paying.”

“Good,” Heather said. “I’m glad.”

“I miss you being there,” Blane said wistfully.

“I do, too,” Heather said. “My guess is that LaTonya will move on soon. The boys are at the school every day. I can come back then.”

“Really?” Blane asked with a smile. “I’d like that.”

“Me, too,” Heather said with a smile. “I’ll walk you over.”

Blane grinned at her. She gestured to the dog and he came to her. Blane hooked a leash on the dog’s collar and they went back up the stairs. Heather put on her shoes and jacket. She waited until Blane was ready for work. They walked across the street to the Castle. They kissed at the bottom of the stairs to the medical offices.

“Have a great day,” Heather said.

Blane waved to Heather and went up the stairs. Heather went around to the back door of the kitchen and went inside. Compared to the quiet sanctuary of their house, the Castle was pure chaos. She found her boys eating cereal at the kitchen table with the other kids. Heather pitched in to get everyone off to school and work.

When the last person left, Delphie put her hand on Heather’s arm.

“What did you need?” Delphie asked.

“Would you mind checking our dog?” Heather asked, gesturing to where their new dog was playing with Buster and Sarah.

“I saw him last night,” Delphie said. “He’s a beautiful dog.”

“But just a dog,” Heather said.

“Nothing is ever ‘just’ anything,” Delphie said.

“Why is everyone so vague about this dog?” Heather asked.

Grinning, Delphie shrugged. Heather gave her a hard look.

“Let me be as clear as possible,” Delphie said. “The dog is just a dog until you need it to be something else.”

Heather scowled, and Delphie laughed.

“Come on,” Delphie said. “Let’s have some tea. We can talk about anything.”

Heather followed her into the kitchen. When the tea was ready, they went out to the garden and talked about Harvest this weekend.

~~~~~~~~

Thursday evening — 7:05 p.m.

“Hey!” Aden yelled over the chatting owners of Lipson Construction. “We’re ready to start.”

It took a few minutes, but everyone fell silent. They were seated under a giant tent. Each person was in a chair that was six feet from each other and they were all wearing face masks, which was why the men and women were talking so loud. There were giant fans blowing the air around. They had set up speakers so that everyone to hear what was being said. Bambi, Aden’s assistant, carried two wireless microphones in case people wanted to speak.

“Welcome!” Aden said.

Everyone cheered.

“I wanted to thank everyone for hanging in there,” Aden said. “I know that the masks are itchy and uncomfortable. . .”

“I don’t wanna die!” a young man yelled from somewhere in the middle.

Everyone laughed.

“I just appreciate everyone wearing masks and being careful,” Aden said. “As you know, outside of Sam Lipson, we’ve had zero infections. That’s a big deal as most of the other construction companies are either not open or filled with sick people. You should each be really proud of yourself.”

“Hey, you gonna make them vaccines mandatory?” a woman asked.

“We would never just make that decision,” Aden said. “We’ll make it together.”

“Out of curiosity, if the vaccines were available today, how many of you would get a vaccine?” Jacob asked.

Every hand went up.

“And my family,” Pete yelled.

Everyone cheered.

“I like it,” Jacob said.

“First order of business,” Aden said. “Sam Lipson has submitted his formal retirement.”

“Ahh,” there was a general sound of disappointment.

“His scare with Covid really got to him,” Jacob said. “He wants to retire while he’s healthy enough to enjoy it.”

“He promised that he would still be available if we need him,” Aden said.

“Especially in the next year or so as we work with the state to get our other business up and running,” Jacob said.

“And Jake?” someone yelled from the front.

“You can’t get rid of me,” Jacob said.

“He’s willing to help us out when we need him,” Aden said. “But he won’t be here every day soon. That will happen soon. I promised.”

Everyone laughed.

“As you likely know, the Marlowe School is up and running,” Aden said. “Jake and his team have improved the ventilation. With your help, we’ve developed more of the property so that our students have access to exercise in the air. We’ve been asked to build a swimming pool, but we’re not quite there yet.”

“We poured the basketball court last weekend,” Jerry yelled from the middle of the crowd.

“They will be playing basketball tomorrow,” Jacob said.

Everyone grinned.

“If you haven’t been to the school lately, we’d invited you to come this weekend,” Aden said. “We’re having an open house to show people what’s happening there. Jake?”

“I took over Valerie’s role as the family member head of the Marlowe School,” Jacob said. “As you likely know, Valerie set up a program where non-employees could pay to go to school there. Right now, we’ve allowed fifty children of military families to go to the school. Like us, people in the military are now essential workers. They need help with their child care. Tres is here to talk to you about the Marlowe School fund, but the income from these parents has allowed us to make substantial payments on the redevelopment of the school.”

Everyone seemed to have something to say. Aden let the general rumbling continue for a few minutes before bring their attention back.

“Okay, we asked you here because Tres has a proposition for you,” Aden said. “Tres?”

The owners cheered for Tres. Blushing, he waved them quiet.

“Okay,” Tres said. “First the Marlowe School Fun — as you may know, I took over the fun when Valerie took over as the head of the Marlowe School. I’ve been able to build up the fund so that the recent remodeling was easily affordable. In the last months, we’ve been able to hire more teachers so that we’re able to keep our class size down to help protect against the virus. I don’t need to tell you what a luxury it is for us to have our kids safe and in school.”

He saw a sea of nodding heads.

“We’ve been able to increase our enrollment of people paying for school as well as take on more state funded cases,” Tres said. “The state would like us to take more young children, but for now, we’ve been able to hold the line. Our charter is to care for Lipson Construction children. Everything else is extra. So far, that’s kept the state at bay.”

When no one said anything, he continued.

“Before all of this happened, Jake brought an article to my attention,” Tres said. “It said that research showed that companies do better when employees work four days a week. During this time of job sharing, we found that people worked effectively when they worked only four days a week. Aden asked me to work up the cost of having people work only four days a week. That’s four eight-hour shifts, not four ten hour shifts or whatever.”

Tres looked out into the audience to see that everyone seemed to be thinking about what he was saying. He pressed on.

“There are a lot of employees available right now because of the pandemic,” Tres said. “We can increase our work force so that we can keep the jobs going six days a week. It will cost more, but I believe that it will move us through the jobs more efficiently and in the end, wind up making us more money. I’ve done the math, in case anyone wants to look at it.”

A hand went up in the middle. Bambi rushed back to give them the microphone. A woman stood up.

“Will these new people be given the chance to buy shares?” the woman asked.

“We hadn’t thought of it,” Aden said. “Why?”

“I don’t like the idea of non-Lipson people buying shares,” she said. “Remember those jerks that had shares and ended up leaving?”

“How could I forget?” Aden nodded.

“I worked for them,” she said. “They were miserable to everyone.”

“We should have known about that,” Bambi said.

“I know,” she said. “But things were different then. No one talked about that kind of thing. Plus, they were owners and I was just an employee.”

“That’s awful,” Bambi said. She looked at Aden. “We can’t have that.”

“No one should have to deal with that,” Aden said.

“I didn’t bring it up to complain,” the woman said. “I just. . . you know, think that we should be cautious with new people. Make them work for us for a year before they can buy in. Once they buy in, they are permanent. You know?”

DeShawn stood up in the back.

“I agree with her,” DeShawn said.

Pete hit him lightly with the back of his hand and said, “I second that.”

“I second that,” DeShawn repeated what Pete had said.

“Then we have a motion,” Aden said. “New hires would have to work for the company for a year before they can buy in. All those in favor?”

A sea of hands shot up.

“Against,” Aden said.

No one raised a hand.

“What do you think about keeping the four day a week schedule?” Aden asked.

For a long moment, no one said anything. There was general whispering on one side of the room.

“We should try it before we make it permanent,” a man said from that side of the room. “Hire new people. Keep it in place for a year or so. See how it goes.”

“If it’s affordable and we’re still productive, then we vote to make it permanent,” Aden said.

Someone clapped and everyone joined in.

“We need to vote,” Tres said. “For the minutes. I second Aden’s proposal.”

A sea of hands went up.

“Then we’re in agreement,” Aden said. “If you know people who need work, are willing to wear masks, take Covid tests, and aren’t assholes — let them know that we’re hiring.”

People cheered.

“Okay,” Aden said. “I know everyone has a lot on their plates right now. I don’t want to keep you. Thanks for coming in, voting, and bring your ideas to us.”

“Who owns Lipson Construction?” Jacob asked.

“We own Lipson Construction,” the owner said.

Everyone cheered. For a moment, no one moved.

“See you tomorrow,” Aden said.

Everyone slowly moved out of the space.

“Nicely done,” Jacob said.

Aden nodded.

“Let’s go home,” Tres said.

“So, that dog?” Aden asked Tres as they walked out of the meeting area.

Jacob laughed.

Denver Cereal continues next week...