CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FORTY-SIX
Four months later
Saturday early morning — 5:30 a.m.
Cherry Creek running trail
Nelson had driven Tres’s sedan down University Boulevard to the Cherry Creek Trail. He parked and got out. Grabbing his athletic face mask and his water bottle, he began to run in the direction of the Cherry Creek reservoir.
The beginning of the pandemic had been fun. They’d taken care of children and planted seedlings. They’d moved into their new home. Jeraine had put together his concerts. Jacob, Blane, and Aden had worked to save Lipson Construction. Delphie’s weird raised bed project had gotten off the ground. Blane had started his clinic in the medical offices of the Castle.
But as the summer heat rose, the pandemic lingered on. Mr. Matchel went home. The seedlings, so joyously planted, were slowly growing. Jeraine’s concerts were a big hit. They settled into a routine in their new home.
And the battle lines were drawn between people who didn’t “believe” in the virus and people who wanted to keep themselves and their families safe. Of course, the ERs remained full of patients. People were still dying every single day in Colorado.
Yet, around Nelson, only some people wore masks. He wanted to scream but he knew that there was nothing he could do. Every other day, Nelson had headed out to this trail to run with Dr. John Drayson. They’d been friends since they were both young doctors working in the ER. Nelson was one of the few people who could truly understand what John was going through. They commiserated while they ran. On particularly glum days, they ran in companionable silence.
Somehow, Nelson’s father had held on. Jill and her grandfather visited regularly to strengthen his father’s body. Yet, Nelson felt a lot of pressure to get this God damned moronic Templar trip together to find that ridiculous jewel and save his father.
France was willing to foot the bill for the expedition, but wanted to wait until the pandemic was over.
His father was hanging on; Nelson was waiting for the pandemic to be over.
The pandemic lingered on.
In order to avoid the bikes and the idiots, Nelson kept to the grassy creekside of the path. He was just reaching the spot where he picked up John when he saw John’s wife, Alex, waiting for him. He’s heart skipped a beat.
“Where’s John?” Nelson asked in a flurry of words as he coming to a stop. “Is he sick? Is he okay? What’s happened?”
“He’s okay,” Alex said.
“You’re sure?” Nelson asked.
“I’d never lie about something like that,” Alex said. “Shall we?”
Alex started running and Nelson joined her. While Alex wasn’t as fast as John, they kept a good, even pace.
“You’re hip does well,” Nelson said.
“Mostly,” Alex said. “I’m due for another tune up where they scrape the socket. Turns out the flame retardant crap in my pants is in the bone I built.”
“Yuck,” Nelson said.
“It was new technology,” Alex said. “I was damned lucky to get it. So I don’t complain — too much. I have to do it every five years or so. It’ll happen either the end of this year or next. There’s no real rush.”
“You’re moving well,” Nelson said. “I guess it just surprises me.”
“You’ve seen my chart?” Alex asked.
“You came in once when I was working the ER,” Nelson said. “I’ve known Max for a while and. . . Well, it’s amazing that you’re doing so well.”
“I’ve had really great doctors,” Alex said with a soft smile.
Uncomfortable with her words, Nelson fell silent. They ran in silence for a while.
“How’s the new house?” Alex asked.
“It’s really great,” Nelson said. “I was just thinking that the ‘newness’ had dimmed. But I’ll tell you — I always feel happy when I open the door, even if no one is home. It’s just like ‘Ahh.’”
“Kind of ‘This is my life and it’s good,’” Alex said, nodding.
“Exactly,” Nelson said. “I feel lucky, blessed even.”
“I’m glad.” Alex grinned at him.
“Where’s John?” Nelson asked.
“Oh, sorry,” Alex said. “I didn’t say? He went fishing with Max. They’re taking these last warm days before fall sets in to the high country. Wyatt and I will bring the kids up later this week.”
“He didn’t say anything when I saw him last,” Nelson said.
“It came up quickly,” Alex said. “The ICU is down in numbers for a minute. They decided to give people some time off. They did it by hours worked which put John at the head of the list. You know, he was basically there day and night when this thing started. I was gone and the kids were with his siblings. He just worked.”
“Incredible,” Nelson said.
“So many people have made so many sacrifices,” Alex said. “I don’t remember a time like this. I find myself in awe of the grocery clerks and farm workers. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I never really thought about them before.”
“Yeah,” Nelson said. “We’re surrounded by heroes.”
“We just don’t know it,” Alex said.
“Listen, I thought we could run up there and meet with some people,” Alex said. “If that’s okay with you. I tried to call but Blane said you’d already left. He said that you had time today.”
“I have time,” Nelson said.
“Good,” Alex said. “We’ll meet by the lake . . .”
“Lollipop lake?” Nelson asked.
“Really?” Alex asked with a laugh. “It’s called Lollipop lake?”
“In Garland park,” Nelson said with a nod. “We’re nearly there. French pastries?”
“Oui, mon ami,” Alex said.
Nelson grinned. There was a wonderful French patisserie around the corner from this park.
“Why are we meeting?” Nelson asked.
“To talk about our adventure,” Alex said. “I’ve been quietly setting up a team. I realized that many of the members were in town, so I thought we’d meet in the park.”
“You still look so. . .” Alex said.
“Thin?” Nelson asked.
“Muscular,” Alex said. “Blane?”
“We workout as a family,” Nelson nodded. “Manage our diets together. It’s been really great for me.”
“Blane’s a wonderful man,” Alex said.
“It’s all of us, really,” Nelson said. “Tanesha is a powerhouse in the gym. She runs circles around us. Jeraine’s. . . Well, he’s in magazines for his tight abs, so he’s all about our food. It’s incredible to be around Heather and Tres too. It’s like a dream team that I get to call a family.”
“I’m so happy for you,” Alex said.
Nelson smiled but didn’t respond.
“You run kind of heavy,” Alex said.
“Yeah,” Nelson said. “Since running in armor. My feet haven’t adjusted to not wearing it.”
“Does it make your ankles hurt?” Alex asked.
“Now that you mention it,” Nelson said.
“Would you be offended if I connected you with a running coach?” Alex asked. “I’ve used him for my hip. We train with him as a team. I think he can help you get off your feet and ankles.”
“Why would you do that?” Nelson asked.
“You’re loud,” Alex said. “Not a big deal while we’re out here, but could be a big deal on our adventure. And anyway. . .”
When she didn’t respond, Nelson turned to look at her.
“It’s a habit of mine,” Alex said.
“What is?” Nelson asked.
“I track physical characteristics in people,” Alex said. “That way I know who I’m dealing with. It’s helped our team. I don’t know. You’re young so it probably won’t bother you.”
“I’m happy for your help,” Nelson said.
“It’s a pretty annoying habit,” Alex said with a grin.
“How does it serve you?” Nelson asked.
“Sorry, that’s a question we ask in forensic science all the time,” Nelson said. “Who was served by this action?”
“We ask it in psychology, well, and in the military,” Alex said. “Just in the military, we’re usually told who an action serves but later figure out who is actually benefiting.”
“Life,” Nelson said.
“Let’s see,” Alex said. “Physical gestures are very hard to fake or cover over. If someone drags their toe, they always drag their toe. Speech patterns are the same. So by tracking these kinds of physical tells, I usually know who someone actually is no matter who they are pretending to be.”
“Makes sense,” Nelson said with a grin.
They ran in silence until they reached Holly Street. They ran across the bridge over Cherry Creek and into the park. Nelson spotted a group of people sitting at a bench near the lake.
“They are awfully close together,” Nelson said. “It’s not really safe.”
“They’re immortal,” Alex said. “Mostly.”
“Now, none of that,” Alex said with a laugh.
Alex ran to the table but Nelson held back until he realized that Heather was sitting at the table. Relief cursed through him. Heather acknowledged his relief with a soft smile He realized that he knew almost everyone at the table except an older woman.
The older woman stood up and reached out a sturdy hand to Nelson.
“Hestia,” she said. “I am not sure that you need my assistance, but I was in town visiting my uncle so thought I’d come.”
“Why?” Nelson blurted out.
“I knew your great-great-grandmother,” Hestia said with a soft smile. “She was a silly creature who thought that if she bore a child, she would be safe for life.”
“What happened to her?” Athena asked from the end of the table.
“She fled with the child,” Hestia said. “She lived out in the country until the child was five or six. The Templars found her and took the child.”
“And killed her,” Nelson said, his voice hard.
“Clearly, you’ve met a few of your kind,” Hestia said. “I was told that you were raised here away from them.”
“I was,” Nelson said. “We went on a quest earlier this year and I got trapped in time.”
Hestia stood and walked to Nelson. She put her hand on his arm. He looked into her eyes. For a moment, they just looked at each other. When she broke off their gaze, Nelson felt oddly better.
“I see her in you,” Hestia said with a smile. “You should know that she was so very brave. Truly heroic, in a time when women were. . .”
“Treated like cattle,” Athena said from her spot at the table.
“I see your mother, your father,” Hestia said. “I don’t know that I will be able to go with you, but I will bless your journey.”
With her index finger pointed, Hestia held a hand up to the heavens. The clouds themselves seemed to bend down to her hand. She reached and touched Nelson’s forehead.
“Whoa,” Nelson said.
He weaved with the power of the blessing. She gave him a nod and disappeared.
“You were given a rare gift,” Heather said.
“Why did she go?” Nelson said.
“She does that,” Hecate said, appearing from thin air. “You have to remember that in her day there weren’t very many humans.”
“We interact with each other like that,” Heather said.
Nelson nodded. He looked up to see a dark skinned human woman wearing a face mask sitting at the table.
“You’re not a god,” Nelson said, mostly to himself.
“I’m not,” the woman said. She stood up and walked to him. “I’m Captain Josie Glover-Carmichael.”
“Leena’s wife,” Alex said. “She’s a Captain in the Coast Guard.”
“I had Covid,” Josie said with a slight nod. “I was on a ventilator, nearly died. When the LC asked Leena about me. . .”
Josie sucked in a breath.
“I want to live,” Josie said with a nod. “Big. I can lead a crew. Sail any craft.”
“I. . .” Nelson started.
“You’re the Grandmaster of the Templars?” Josie asked.
Nelson gave her a curt nod.
“I’m in,” Josie said.
“I work for Ava O’Malley,” Nelson said. “She was at your wedding.”
“Her husband played for us.” Josie’s hand went to her heart. “It was magical.”
“It really was,” Alex said.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Nelson said. He looked at Alex. “Why do we need a Captain?”
“Your hoard is in the sea,” Alex said with a nod.
Nelson’s eyes flicked from Alex to Athena to Hecate and finally looked at Heather.
“Alex believes that she found it,” Heather said.
“I need you to take a look,” Alex said. “According to Athena, you will know the truth of it.”
“Or you should,” Athena said.
“Show me,” Nelson said.
Alex nodded in the general direction of the table. Expecting paper maps or something reasonable, Nelson went to the table to look. There was nothing there.
A truck squealed into the parking lot. A large bodybuilder flew out of the passenger seat. He trotted over with more speed than Nelson could have imagined.
“Did I miss it?” the man asked.
“This is Chris,” Alex said with a gesture to the man.
He stopped short in front of Nelson and held out his hand.
“Captain Chris Blanco,” the man said. “Most people call me ‘White Boy,’ but you can call me ‘Chris.’”
Nelson looked the man up and down. His name fit the man. He was possibly the whitest looking man Nelson had ever seen.
“Are you really a Templar?” Chris asked in French. “Grandmaster and everything?”
“Oui,” Nelson said.
“Cool,” Chris said.
“Did you bring it?” Alex asked.
“Yep,” Chris said.
Chris’s chest and back were so large that Nelson hadn’t noticed a messenger bag over his shoulder. Chris went to the table.
“Ladies,” Chris said. “Oh sorry, you’re probably not ladies. Alex said. . .”
Chris’s pale eyes showed his pupils grow large as he became flustered.
“It’s okay,” Nelson said. He put his hand on Chris’s arm. “They scare the crap out of me too.”
“Heh,” Chris said with a snort. “I don’t usually meet new people.”
“We aren’t people,” Athena said in mild reproach.
“Oh right,” Chris said. He saw Hecate. “Hey! I know you.”
“You’re a friend of Gandy’s,” Hecate said of her partner. “I am Hecate.”
“The Titan,” Chris said, under his breath. He saw Heather and grinned. “You go to our church. You’re Blane’s wife!”
“I am,” Heather said. “I’m Hedone. My father is Eros. I go by Heather.”
“I knew that,” Chris said with a grin. “Okay, this isn’t so freaky. Who are you?”
“I am Athena, as you well know, Christopher Blanco,” Athena said in mild reproach.
Chris’s eyes welled with tears.
“I. . . wasn’t sure. . . I. . .” Chris’s eyes flicked to Alex and then back at Athena. “Thank you.”
“You are most welcome, young man,” Athena said. “I am excited to see what you’ve brought us.”
“Oh right,” Chris said.
He took a tablet computer out of his bag. He gave it to Alex, who started tapping on it.
“Can we sit close here?” Chris asked. “At the table, I mean.”
“Face mask?” Alex asked.
Chris scrambled to find a facemask in his bag. He put it on.
“Why don’t you sit on the end next to Athena?” Heather asked when he had on his mask. “She’s actually very happy to see you.”
“She is?” Chris asked seeming surprised.
Chris’s eyes flicked over to the goddess. She gave him a strong look.
“This is how I look when I’m happy,” Athena said.
Grinning, Chris sat down next to Athena.
“Alex, why don’t you sit on the end across from me?” Heather said. “Leave your mask on. Nelson?”
Nelson sat down between Heather and Hecate. Josie put back on her face mask and sat next to Hecate.
“Show me,” Nelson said.
Alex set the tablet down on the table. A 3-D world floated over the table. Alex spun the world until she found what she was looking for.
“Okay,” Alex said. “It seems like it’s here.”
“Did you say something about pastries?” Nelson asked.
“Oh, my bad,” Chris said.
He jumped up and ran to his vehicle. He returned with cups of coffee and French pastries. While the humans struggled to eat and wear masks, the goddesses drank their coffees and laughed. For the next hour, they went through maps, directions, and plans. When they finished, they looked at Nelson.
“What do you think?” Heather asked.
“I’m surprised at how excited I am,” Nelson said. “When do we go?”
“As soon as we build a crew,” Alex said. “The French are ready for us to leave as soon as we’re ready. They have a few people to add to our crew but you have a right to refuse a few of them. Some, we’re stuck with.”
Smiling from ear to ear, Nelson nodded.
“Yea!” Chris said, cheering. “We’re going to have so much fun.”
He looked from face to face to see everyone cheering. For the first time in a very long time, he felt confident about something in his future.
Denver Cereal continues next week...