A death too many

A serialized story, Part 4

Then the group came to the area that was advertised as “Ghost Corner.” Eerie music played from loud speakers. Colored lights swirled and dipped and rose and dove. “It’s like a disco,” the mayor had bragged to the council when he thought up the idea.” “Just like a disco but cold and under the ground and all mysterious. They’ll love it. Just you wait.”

As the tourists approached Ghost Corner, the bright lights that shone on the paved path dimmed. “Now be very quiet,” Joe warned. “The ghosts don’t like loud noises, except of course if they are making them themselves. Just listen and look.” The whole group, some 50 people, stood silent and immobile. “Don’t move at all,” Joe warned. “I’m going to shut off the lights.”

The cavern was plunged into total darkness, the blackest of black. People shifted slightly, unconsciously seeking the comfort of closeness. Frank was still standing so close to the young woman that his hip brushed hers. The only sounds were water dripping from the roof of the cave onto a crystalline rock, the rustle of the tourists’ clothing, the shallow breathing of people trying to hold their breath.

“I’m scared,” said the little boy who had cried when the mayor kissed him. He was whispering but amid the silence it sounded as loud as a scream.

Suddenly Frank said in a loud whisper, a kind of stage whisper, “Did you hear that? There it is. Listen.” They all listened. He patted the girl reassuringly on the shoulder and turned the lights back on. “You were lucky today,” the guide told his flock. “Not everyone is so lucky.”

An elderly woman with blue hair said, “It was scary.”

A man with glasses said, “I think I heard it.” “That noise, that must’ve been the ghost.”

The woman added, “But I couldn’t tell if it was a she or a he, or if it was cute or not.”

A man interjected, “She must’ve been cute. She didn’t threaten us.”

Later above ground outside the cave entrance, a man approached the mayor.

“Joe, how you doing?”

Photo by Thelma Bowles

The mayor turned toward the voice. “Peters, I didn’t expect to see you here, not after all your fuss in our town meetings.”

“Well, mayor, I guess I needed to see how all this folderol is turning out,” Town Councilor Stu Peters said. He was the lone dissenting voice on the council, the only opponent of the mayor and the only ally of the publisher.

“Peters, you call this folderol? I call it business. Good business. Good for the town. Good for all of us.”

“You’ve been saying that for years, Gonzales,” but just saying it a lot of times in a loud voice doesn’t make it any truer.”

Unlike just about everyone else in the small and superficially friendly city, Peters and Gonzales called each other other by their last name. The head of the executive branch and the president of the council couldn’t just ignore each other. If they didn’t find ways of cooperating, the town’s government would grind to a halt. So for the better part of a decade they had been fighting with each other while struggling to accommodate each other, all of which did nothing to alleviate the fact that, both publicly and privately, they really did hate each other.

“For God’s sake, Gonzales, just look around you. Look at all this crap. Cheap motels, billboards, fast food joints. Gas stations. Chain stores. You must remember what this place used to look like. You’ve lived here long enough. Why the hell did you move out here unless you liked the way things were?”

“Of course I remember, Peters, I remember it real well. I remember that two-thirds of the high school senior class left town the month after they graduated, that most of the girls got pregnant within three months of graduating so their boyfriends would have to marry them. I remember the guys who slept at night in the alley behind the grocery store. I remember the busted glass at the hardware store just about every month so somebody could steal the guns. I remember old lady Shumaker who couldn’t pay for heat and used the oven in winter and died of asphyxiation from the propane. Sure, fella, I remember it all.”

“But do you remember the pasture that used to be here and the view of the mountains when there were no billboards? Do you remember the café that used to be where McD’s is now and how we’d conduct council business sitting there drinking a cup of java and eating Aunt Elfie’s apple pie? Do you remember when this used to be a real town and not a collection of junk for tourists from Texas?”

“God damn it, Councilor, you’ve been arguing with me about this forever and you just won’t quit. You ran for mayor and you lost. It’s time to move on.”

“You’re right, Mayor. I guess we can agree on that.”

But Peters wasn’t ready to move on—at least not in the way the mayor thought he did. Instead, Peters thought maybe it was time his nemesis moved on.

Donald Langstrom breathed a sigh of relief and rejoicing as he sipped a morning espresso on the deck of his new home in Cavetown.

Unlike almost everything that he had experienced in his turbulent 65 years, the scene in front of him was placid: in the foreground, his colorful garden of native wildflowers; in the middle ground, lush green prairie with grass so tall it nearly buried the herd of pronghorns (he had quickly learned not to call them antelope); in the background, a forest of elegant, widely spaced ponderosa pines, straight and strong and pure, climbing blue mountains that sliced into a cloudless sky. Somewhere among the ponderosas, a small herd of bison—no, they were not buffalos—were resting in the shade. Half a dozen llamas and alpacas seemed to wander willy-nilly. The only creatures that seemed energetic on this lazy fall day were the two emus racing across the meadow as if it were the pampas. The could speed along at 60 miles an hour and had a kick so vicious they could stave in the side of a car as if it were made of cardboard, something one of them had once done.

Why, the real estate magnate wondered, had it taken him so long to discover this 2,000 acres of paradise and the rewards of telecommuting? Telecommuting? He snorted—a fancy word for letting his businesses run themselves. Without lifting a finger, they made more money in a day than he could spend in a year.

When you had a brain as good as his and a network of connections spanning the globe, who needed hard work? Who needed an office with hundreds of employees? Siting by himself at his computer, he was worth more than all of them combined—worth more in every sense. Arrogant? Yeah, why not, some people had earned the right to a touch of arrogance.

Next week, Part 5

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