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Denver Cereal is taking a break

Dear Denver Cereal reader,

I'm writing to let you know that Saturday will be the last post of Denver Cereal for a while, at least.

There are so many moving parts to my life right now. They all came crashing down last night in enormous overwhelm.

I need to take some time to clear my head and decide what's next. I don't know if Denver Cereal will continue. I always hope so, but I don't know.

It's a pretty good time to take a break. Everyone in Denver Cereal is happy and growing. They've gotten vaccines and are on their way to surviving the pandemic.

I'm going to be off social media for the next couple of weeks. If you'd like to connect with me, feel free to send me an email.

Thank you for the gift of your readership. You can't imagine how grateful I am for you. Thank you for pushing me to be a better writing, supporting me with your comments and jokes, as well as your financial support.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and a joyous new year!

Many blessings!

Claudia


Chapter Six Hundred and Forty-six - On the Cherry Creek Trail

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.

Nelson nodded.

“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.”

Nelson nodded.

“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.

Alex grinned.

“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.

Alex chuckled.

“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.”

Nelson winced.

“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.

Hestia nodded.

“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...


Chapter Six Hundred and Forty-five - Planting

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FORTY-FIVE

Monday morning — 8:37 a.m.

“Is that everything?” Sam asked.

Delphie went from one greenhouse to another. She looked at him and shook her head. There were three large flatbed trucks full of small plants.

“I can’t find the. . .” Delphie said.

“I put them in the cab of my truck and Jake,” Sam said with a smile. “You told me that the sweet peas were too sensitive to the cold to be in the bed of the truck.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Delphie said, looking relieved. “You said that. Sorry, I just get it stuck in my head that we’re missing something and. . .”

Delphie shook her head. Sam grinned.

“Are we ready?” Jacob asked.

He came out of the Castle with three thick tarps. He helped Sam put on over the plants in the back of Sam’s truck and then went to put them in the back of the two other trucks.

“We’re bringing the kids, right?” Delphie asked. “Isn’t that what we said?”

“They are just inside the door,” Jacob said. “Jill’s got masks on all of them. Honey’s working on outdoor clothing. Heather’s got shoes. And. . .”

“Sandy’s taking care of potty breaks,” Delphie nodded. “Good.”

“What’s got you today?” Sam asked. Putting his arms around Delphie, he added, “You don’t seem like yourself.”

“Oh,” Delphie sighed. “Just a plan coming together, you know? I see it so perfectly in my head and then the execution is. . . When I was younger, it was all a part of the adventure. Now, it’s more like. . . I don’t know, I guess it’s just not as fun.”

“You’ve gotten perfectionistic in your old age,” Sam said, kissing her nose.

“Gotten?” Jacob laughed as he walked toward them.

“Are you going to be warm enough?” Sandy asked.

Sandy brought Delphie her wool jacket. Sam helped Delphie put it on.

“Are the kids ready?” Delphie asked, her eyebrows pinched together with worry.

“They are so excited,” Sandy said. “You should see them. Did you hear what Máire and Joey’s mom is bringing?”

Delphie shook her head.

“We’re going to have fun,” Sandy said.

Using a cane, Sandy went to where the children were being loaded into SUVs.

“Every vehicle has at least one crying child,” Sandy yelled back to Sam and Delphie. “Mission accomplished!”

Sandy gave them two thumbs up and got into the driver’s seat of a vehicle. Tanesha’s father, Rodney, came out of the Castle to Sam and Delphie.

“I have extra masks,” Rodney said. “Here’s your tea.”

Rodney gave Delphie a travel mug. Delphie smelled it.

“Is Yvonne here?” Delphie asked, brightening at the idea that her friend was here.

“Maresol, too,” Rodney said.

He nodded his head toward where his wife, Yvonne, and their friend, Maresol Trafoya, were coming out of the Castle.

“Is there room for us in your truck?” Yvonne asked.

“Nelson’s here with Ava’s new SUV.” Maresol gestured to where Nelson was sitting in an SUV on the street.

“You go ahead,” Sam said.

“You don’t think I should go with you?” Delphie asked.

“I sure don’t,” Sam said. “This is just a fun thing to do. We’re doing it because. . .”

“. . . we grew all of those seedlings,” Delphie said. “Taking care of all of those kids. It was a good thing to do as this is a good thing to do.”

Delphie gasped.

“I forgot to tell the other kids,” Delphie said.

“No, you didn’t,” Sam said. “They are meeting us there. All of the kids who grew all of these seedlings will be there to help plant them into the garden boxes. We’ve saved back what we like to grow here in our garden and the Hargreaves. When we’re done at the lot, we’ll come back here for a barbecue and planting the rest. Everything’s perfect.”

“Everything’s perfect,” Delphie repeated as if by rote.

“Go,” Sam said. “Have fun with your friends.”

A car pulled up and La Tonya’s kids poured out of her sedan. They rolled like water into one of the waiting SUVs. La Tonya got out of the driver’s seat and went to the passenger’s seat where Nelson was waiting.

“What are they doing?” Delphie asked.

“They thought that they’d go, take some temperatures, pass out some masks,” Sam said. “It seemed like a good chance to engage people who might not have had any services. Nelson’s co-worker Leslie is also a doctor. John Drayson got a doc and a couple of nurses to join them.”

“Help them stay well,” Delphie said with a nod.

“Isn’t that what this project is all about?” Sam asked.

Nodding, Delphie grinned.

“Come on!” Yvonne called to Delphie.

Delphie gave Sam one last look and trotted over to her friend. Yvonne took Delphie’s elbow and they went to where Nelson waited for them. When Delphie and Yvonne got into the vehicle, Delphie squealed. Her friend, Dionne, was waiting there for her.

Sam watched as the women talked all at the same time. Nelson pulled out.

“Ready?” Jacob asked.

Sam nodded.

“Charlie’s going with you,” Jacob said.

“I can drive myself!” Sam said. “I’m not sick anymore.”

“Okay,” Jacob said. “Should we just leave Charlie here?”

Sam gave Jacob a frustrated look and stormed over to the driver’s seat of the truck. He opened the door to find Charlie sitting there.

“Can I drive? I want to get my driver’s license this year and. . .” Charlie’s voice came from inside the cab of the truck.

Sam shot Jacob a look, and Jacob grinned at his father. Shaking his head, Sam went around the truck and got into the passenger seat of the truck. Rodney started his truck. Jacob ran to the third truck and got in the driver’s seat. Sam and Charlie left the parking lot first. Rodney followed them, and Jacob came third.

The day of planting had begun!

In a mini-parade, they drove through the Denver and out on Colorado Boulevard until they reached the Marlowe School near I-70.

“Look,” Charlie pointed to the SUV that Nelson was driving.

“Getting coffee,” Sam said.

Charlie grinned.

“I hope that I still have my same friends when I’m their age,” Charlie said. “What you and Delphie do, the way you live, is wonderful.”

“Keep your eyes on the road,” Sam said gruffly.

Charlie flicked his eyes to Sam, and they both started laughing.

“Uh oh,” Sam said.

Up ahead, they saw an angry man wearing a mask and wagging his finger at Valerie. Never one to back down, Valerie was arguing back with him. The man kept shaking his head and wagging his finger at her.

“Who’s that?” Charlie asked.

“Inspector,” Sam said. “Radow. He’s an underground inspector so I’m not sure why he’s here. Can you drop me?”

“And park by myself?” Charlie’s voice rose in panic.

“No,” Sam said. “You’re right. Let’s park and go see what’s up his rear.”

“Poop?” Charlie asked.

Sam laughed. With Sam’s coaching, Charlie managed to park the truck on the edge of the payment within the confines of an actual parking spot. Charlie cheered, and Sam clapped. Together, they got out of the truck and went to where Valerie and the inspector were drawing a crowd.

“Finally,” Inspector Barry Radow said, gesturing to Sam. “What the fuck is this?”

“Garden plots?” Sam asked. “You grow things in them?”

“He’s upset about the fence,” Valerie said to Sam.

I’m not upset about the fence,” Barry Radow said. “I’m not upset about anything! My boss however is very upset. And I have to come out here, in the middle of this deadly plague no less, and deal with one more Lipson Construction cock up. And that makes me really upset!

He gestured to Valerie.

“She only has plans for the new facility,” Barry Radow said. “Where are the plans for this? And why isn’t the fence on the God damned property line?”

“Because we own the entire lot to the street,” Jacob said.

“Then put your little boxes on everything or nothing at all,” Barry Radow yelled.

“You heard the man,” Rodney said. “Jake? Seems like we need more garden beds.”

“Call your guys,” Jacob said. “We’ll pay ’em. And get the drivers here.”

“Wait, what?” Barry Radow asked.

“You said that it has to be all or nothing,” Rodney’s deep voice carried over the distance. “Look around you, man. Where are these people buying groceries? We have the land. We can grow some food for the people. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?”

“We are going to grow as much food as we can,” Valerie said. “Plus, we’re giving people something positive to focus on in order to get through this season.”

Barry Radow scowled at Valerie and then looked at Sam.

“You’all have lost your damn minds,” Barry Radow said.

“When is that news?” Sam laughed.

“Barry!” Delphie said coming across the dirt field. “So nice to see you.”

“Ma’am,” Barry said.

“Is there a problem here?” Delphie asked.

“All or nothing,” Barry said. “The rules are clear. This is either a growing space or a store front or a living space. It can’t be everything to everyone.”

“Will this affect our plans to expand the school or the new infant center?” Valerie asked.

“No,” Barry said irritably. “I told you that.”

“I was just making sure,” Valerie said with a grin.

“Perfect,” Jacob said. “You want to grab a shovel, Radow?”

The inspector looked at Jacob for a long moment.

“You’re not doing anything right now,” Jacob said.

The inspector shook his head at Jacob.

“I’ll give you tickets to see Jeraine play tonight,” Sam said.

Barry Radow’s eyes flicked to Sam.

“Bring your wife,” Valerie said.

“Is it safe?” Barry Radow asked.

“We think so,” Sam said. “There’s always a risk, but wear your mask. We’ll have airflow and there’ll only be a few people. Can you come tonight?”

Barry Radow nodded.

“Not one toe out of line,” Barry Radow said. “My boss drives by this lot every damned day. If you screw up. . .”

“Tell him to stop by,” Jacob said. “He can have a fresh cucumber or two.”

There was a noise and the sound of trucks pulling up.

“Oh look!” Valerie said.

They saw Alex Hargreaves get out of the back seat of a two door truck. She went around to help her twins out of the truck. Her husband, John Drayson, slid out of the driver’s seat. The children ran forward to greet their friends. The group of children drew children from the surrounding housing. Heather passed out masks while Jill and Sandy helped Delphie with the plants in the back of the truck.

A loud squeal of tires brought some of Alex Hargreaves military team. They brought their families and shovels. They also brought a barbecue and coolers filled with food.

Jacob took charge of creating new garden beds. Some of the military team went to work with him. When the heavy vehicles arrived, Lipson Construction employees got to work again.

Delphie was the garden designer so she worked with Valerie to set up the beds with the right amount of sun. An hour into being there, a truck with trees arrived.

“You need a wind break,” Alex Hargreaves said to Delphie. “Along the north edge of the property there. The wind blows up off the light rail tracks. We have a lot of trouble with that in Afghanistan so it’s something I noticed right off the bat.”

“What did you get?” Delphie asked, her excitement and curiosity peaked.

“Pomegranates,” Alex said. “They are bushes in our climate. So we got a few Arborvitae. They should disrupt the wind and not interfere with the light. Will they work?”

“Absolutely,” Delphie said with a grin. “Thank you.”

“We have pomegranate fields on our tribal land in Afghanistan,” Joey, Alex’s son, said.

“We have a supplier,” Alex said.

Máire nodded.

“Wonderful,” Delphie said. “That’s really wonderful.”

“How would you two like to help Beau and Chase plant their lavender?” Valerie said. “They are planting it all along the edge of the fence there. You can see Max there.”

Joey and Máire ran off to be with their cousins. Alex leaned over to speak quietly to John. He kissed her forehead and went to see what Nelson and the medical crew were up to. Alex gave a loud whistle and members of her team including her twin brother, Max, came in her direction. She pointed to the trees. The team got to work planting six Arborvitaes along the edge of the property with six pomegranates inside.

“Are you ready?” asked Valerie as she turned to look at Delphie.

Delphie gave her a slight nod.

“I’ve set up your friends with a set of beds and plants,” Valerie said.

Valerie and Delphie were momentarily distracted by a truck full of young men pulled up to the site. Jacob and the men spoke in fast Spanish before the men jumped out of the truck. The men grabbed shovels and went to where Rodney was mapping out the new beds.

“Look around,” Valerie said softly.

Garden beds were popping up on the side of the field closest to the street. The Fey Team kids and the children from the Castle were ready to plant in the beds that were already made. Adults and children from nearby apartment buildings were either checking in with the medical team or milling around Noelle to wait for the lottery for beds.

Delphie grinned.

“Everything is coming together nicely,” Delphie said. “Are you ready to do the lottery?”

“Absolutely,” Valerie said.

Valerie and Delphie went to Noelle.

“I wrote everyone’s names down on the paper,” Noelle said, gesturing to her clipboard.

“This is your last chance,” Valerie yelled. “If you’d like a garden bed, then you need to be on this list!”

“Why’re you making those beds by the road?” someone in the back yelled.

“We were informed by the inspector that the lot couldn’t be multiple use,” Valerie said. “If we wanted garden beds here, then the whole lot had to be filled with them. So we’re finishing the job.”

“Are they worse? Dirty?” a woman near the front asked.

“No,” Delphie said. “They are the same.”

“Will there be water?” an elderly man asked. “I can’t bring it from my apartment.”

“Yes,” Valerie said. “I just. . .”

“I’ll go remind Jake,” Delphie said. “You get these people some land to plant on.”

“Can you put numbers by everyone’s names?” Valerie asked.

“Sure,” Noelle said and got to work.

While Noelle worked, Valerie told everyone that they needed to follow the rules, help each other out, and the usual mix of “Everyone’s success depends on everyone’s actions.” Noelle gave her the clipboard.

“Okay,” Valerie said. “I’m going to get a random number from this site. . .”

Valerie poked around on her phone before Noelle took the phone from her. Together, they found the random number site and began giving people garden beds. There were people cheering for their win. When they were done, there were only a few disappointed people left.

“We are building a community bed,” Valerie said. “We’ll supply the plants and we can all share it. Would you like that?”

Everyone cheered.

“Now, if you’d like to get seeds, we’ll have them here,” Valerie said. “Right now, just hang out until we finish the rest of the beds.”

“Make sure to see our medical crew if you haven’t yet,” Noelle said.

The flood of people moved away from Valerie and Noelle.

“That was fun,” Noelle said.

“We were hoping that you would paint a mural on the shed,” Valerie said.

“Did they build the shed yet?” Noelle asked.

Valerie turned around to look.

“They’re just starting,” Valerie said.

“Great,” Noelle said. “I’ll get my paints.”

Noelle gave a little clap.

Mooooommmm!” Noelle screamed and ran to find Sandy. “I need my paints!

Valerie chuckled to herself. Feeling movement near her, she looked up to see Troy Olivas, one of Alex Hargreaves’ team, standing near her.

“You okay?” Troy asked.

“A little tired,” Valerie said.

“We’re setting up over there,” Troy said. “Why don’t you go sit down? Everything is happening. It’s. . .”

“Amazing,” Valerie said.

“It’s hope in action,” Troy said.

Valerie smiled. They walked over to where they’d laid grass mats over the dirt and set up folding chairs. Valerie took a seat under a shade umbrella. A few minutes later, Delphie sat down in a chair next to Valerie. Valerie reached over to hold Delphie’s hands.

“This is really beautiful,” Valerie said.

“You know what?” Delphie asked. “It really is.”

Dionne came over to sit next to Delphie and Yvonne followed. As the day warmed, they sat under the umbrella, talked, laughed, and watched it all happen.

By the end of the day, all of the plants were in. Seeds were planted.

They went home exhausted and deeply satisfied to have added a tiny bit of green hope into everyone’s lives.

Denver Cereal continues next week...


Chapter Six Hundred and Forty-four - Getting help

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FORTY-FOUR

Sunday early-morning — 2:07 a.m.

Nelson opened his eyes the moment his cellphone rang. His hand patted the bedside table until it landed on the phone. He squinted at the number and then answered.

“Oui allo?” Nelson said in modern French, into the phone. “C’est Nelson Weeks. Je vous ecoute.”

“Oncle Nelson, c’est Sissy,” she said into the phone. “Á Paris.”

“Sissy!” Nelson said in English. Sitting up, he realized that he was naked. As if she could see him, he pulled the sheet to cover himself. “How are you?”

“Good,” Sissy said. “So sorry to wake you. You told me to call you as soon as I heard anything.”

“I did?” Nelson asked.

“About our trip this summer?” Sissy asked.

“Oui,” Nelson said. “With the virus and everything, I forgot all about it.”

“Sandy said you’d moved into your new, old house,” Sissy said. “How is it?”

“It’s amazing,” Nelson said. “Truly. You’ll have to visit when you come to Denver next.”

“I will,” Sissy said. “Shall I tell you about our trip?”

“Please,” Nelson said.

“Your grandparents agreed to sponsor our trip,” Sissy said. “Their lawyers brought in a lawyer who worked on these kinds of trips. He will be in touched with you later today. I was told that his role would be to act as an intermediary between you, our grandparents, and the crew for our trip.”

“Crew?” Nelson asked.

“Apparently there are people who only do this kind of thing,” Sissy said. “You have to book with a quality crew right away. The lawyer said that he will see what you think you need.”

“Hmm,” Nelson said.

“Not sure what you need?” Sissy asked with a laugh.

“Exactly,” Nelson said.

“You’re having breakfast with friends this morning?” Sissy asked.

“I’m going to Ava’s to eat Maresol breakfast,” Nelson said.

“Exactly,” Sissy said. “You’ll know the answers to the questions after breakfast.”

“Very cloak and dagger,” Nelson said.

“Just remember that you are not alone,” Sissy said. “And now that our grandparents are helping?”

“It looks like we’ll have an eventful summer,” Nelson said.

“Exactly,” Sissy said. “I need to get to my next class. You should go back to sleep.”

“Will do,” Nelson said. “And Sissy?”

“Yea?” Sissy asked.

“Thanks,” Nelson said. “You’re a lifesaver.”

“De rien,” Sissy said. “Au revoir.”

“Bye bye,” Nelson said.

He set the phone down on the side table. Lost in thought, he wandered into his bathroom to use the toilet. He knew that he should get up and work on this, but his new perfectly comfortable bed was too enticing. He climbed into bed and fell into a sound sleep.

~~~~~~~~~

Sunday morning — 6:07 a.m.

“Miss T said that you were really good in the clinic yesterday,” Jeraine said to his sister, La Tonya.

They were sitting at the cement table in the sunken backyard of the new house. Tanesha had convinced La Tonya to stay for dinner. Exhausted and depressed, La Tonya had fallen asleep on the couch after dinner. They had found a bed for her and her children. Jeraine knew that La Tonya got up early, so he made coffee and went to wake her.

This was the first time they’d spent any real time together as adults.

“You must think. . .” La Tonya started.

“I don’t think anything,” Jeraine said, cutting her off. “I wouldn’t be doing my sobriety if I had judgements of you or anyone, really. My focus is on my own messes.”

“Not on mine?” La Tonya asked.

Jeraine smiled.

“Seems like you’re doing okay,” La Tonya said. “You’re back on your feet.”

“I’m alive,” Jeraine said. “As long as I’m alive, I can. . .”

“. . . do something to change my situation,” La Tonya said. “Thanks Dad.”

Jeraine grinned.

“I like your white teeth,” La Tonya said.

“At least my personality isn’t the fakest thing about me,” Jeraine said.

La Tonya laughed in spite of herself. Jeraine chuckled.

“No, really, it seems like you’re doing great,” La Tonya said.

“It’s a big mess,” Jeraine said with a sigh. “I feel like every time I get things going, something comes a long and messes it all up.”

“Like the pandemic?” La Tonya asked.

“Exactly,” Jeraine said. “Jake’s the one who came up with the idea to use the ballroom. I. . .”

Jeraine shook his head.

“My agent and the casino guy did the rest,” Jeraine said. “I. . . I never have any idea what I’m doing.”

“It doesn’t stop you,” La Tonya said.

“Because everyone around me is dragging me forward,” Jeraine said. “I blocked our moving into the new house because. . . I don’t know why. I wanted to control the colors or. . . Honestly, it’s just my madness.”

“I do the same thing,” La Tonya said. “You guys let me live in that house. It’s perfect for us. But. . . I. . .”

“Good,” Jeraine said. “Stay as long as you need it.”

“I don’t want your charity,” La Tonya said.

Jeraine laughed. La Tonya watched his face and then laughed.

“God, we’re so a like,” La Tonya said. “If I were on my own, we’d be living with the unhoused.”

“Stubborn to the end,” Jeraine said.

La Tonya nodded. They sat together in silence before laughing. Jeraine smiled at his sister.

“Nelson said you did a great job yesterday,” Jeraine said.

“He was very nice to me,” La Tonya said.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” Jeraine asked.

“You know what?” La Tonya smiled. “I did. I was there. . . an hour, maybe two. . . when I realized how much I like helping people. It was. . . really great.”

“I’m sure they’ll have that clinic again next Saturday,” Jeraine said.

“Yeah,” La Tonya nodded. “Blane asked if maybe I could help him with his practice. Heather has always been his office support but she has another job?”

Jeraine nodded.

“He said that he thought I might be able to help,” La Tonya said.

“What do you think?” Jeraine asked.

“I think. . .” La Tonya nodded. “Before all of this. . . I would never have worked with an acupuncturist.”

La Tonya shook her head.

“Never,” La Tonya said. “It just wouldn’t be legitimate enough for me.”

“And now?” Jeraine asked.

La Tonya sighed. Jeraine waited.

“If you baby-brother can be flexible enough to run his fancy concerts without a crowd,” La Tonya said. “I think I could at least try.”

Jeraine grinned. La Tonya turned to look at her brother.

“I still have my license,” La Tonya said. “With the pandemic, I could go right back into the hospitals. . .”

“That doesn’t sound smart,” Jeraine said.

“Right,” La Tonya said. “It wouldn’t be smart. I need. . .”

La Tonya’s eyes welled with tears and she shook her head.

“I feel like someone died,” La Tonya said. “Like a part of me died. You know. I was so. . . proud of. . . wanted everything to be perfect and. . .”

Jeraine watched his sister’s face.

“Now,” La Tonya shrugged. “If I help Blane, I can help people, make some money, and. . .”

La Tonya nodded.

“Did you know that Blane did this?” La Tonya asked. “He told me that it took him a while to get his feet under him. He worked for Jake and then stayed there until he was done with school. He went back to work at the construction company again last month for the pandemic.”

Jeraine nodded. La Tonya leaned toward Jeraine.

“I might go to Chinese Medicine school,” La Tonya said.

“Ooooh, how radical!” Jeraine said. “You naughty girl!”

La Tonya laughed. Her laugh brought her eldest daughter to the sliding glass window.

“Oh,” La Tonya said, starting to get up.

“Miss T is there,” Jeraine said.

They watched Tanesha herd the girl away from the window.

“I could have help,” La Tonya said, to herself.

“Yes, you could,” Jeraine said. “You’re not alone.”

Surprised that he’d heard her, La Tonya gave him a long look.

“Blane’s going to give me acupuncture today,” La Tonya said. “He said it could help my depression.”

“Blane’s helped me,” Jeraine said. “Miss T sees him every week. Keeps her strong.”

La Tonya nodded. They sat in silence as they finished their coffee. When Jeraine looked at La Tonya, he saw that she was smiling.

“What?” he asked.

“He says that I had acupuncture with him before,” La Tonya said.

Jeraine nodded.

“I don’t remember it at all,” La Tonya said. “I must have been out of my mind.”

“There’s the truth,” Jeraine said, nodding.

They laughed.

“I have this feeling. . . this feeling that my life is moving into spring,” La Tonya said. She blushed. “That sounds dumb.”

“It sounds about right to me,” Jeraine said.

La Tonya laughed. Jeraine squeezed her hand.

“Looks like Nelson’s making breakfast,” Jeraine said, looking into the main area. “He makes the best coffee.”

He stood up and held out his hand. She looked up at Jeraine and took his hand. They walked together into the house.

~~~~~~~~

Sunday morning — 10:37 a.m.

“How is it that there is no one here?” Sandy asked as she moved into the large kitchen on the basement level of Heather, Nelson, Blane, and Tres’s new home.

“Jake and Mike took the older kids fishing,” Jill said following Sandy into the large open room. “Sam went, too. They’ve never been before so they’re teaching them how to fish. I’d guess that they’ll be gone all day.”

“Aden and Tres took some of the younger kids and the dogs to the Cherry Creek Dog Park,” Tanesha said. “Jer’s in the ballroom playing around with music. He’s got Jabari and La Tonya’s kids, as well as the Hargreaves twins.”

“Nelson and MJ are out with the Wild Bunch are out at the park learning how to roller skate,” Heather said, appearing in the kitchen. “All children are accounted for!”

“I’m right here,” Blane said, moving through the kitchen. He leaned over to kiss Heather’s cheek. “I’m back in the medical offices today.”

“Let me know if you need help,” Heather said.

“Not a chance,” Blane said with a grin. “You four — enjoy your time. You’ve given so much during this Covid nightmare. Take a bit for yourselves.”

The women smiled at Blane. They waited in silence until he’d left the house.

“It’s really nice,” Tanesha said.

“You know what’s really nice?” Sandy asked.

“He left lunch,” Heather said.

Sandy nodded. The other women went to see what was for lunch. Blane had left a quiche, salad, and fresh baked bread.

“Do we want it now?” Sandy asked.

“I can wait,” Jill said, picking a strawberry out of the salad.

“There’s wine,” Heather said, getting up. “I brought it back with me.”

“Your grandfather?” Tanesha asked, clapping her hands in expectation.

“No need for it to languish in his wine cellar,” Heather said.

Heather opened a bottle of champagne. She waited a moment before pouring four glasses.

“I feel like I should be in church,” Jill said.

“No church,” Tanesha said. “It would likely kill us all.”

“So true,” Sandy said. “I can’t believe. . .”

Sandy stopped talking. She shook her head.

“You know what?” Sandy asked. “I’m not going to talk about those jerks.”

While the women watched, Sandy started opening all of the cabinets.

“Who set up this kitchen?” Sandy asked.

“Jake,” the women said in unison.

“It’s a lot nicer than what we have at the Castle,” Sandy said.

“Deep pockets,” Heather said. “Blane and Jeraine wanted a gourmet kitchen. No skimping. They gave him a list of appliances including brands.”

“Nice,” Sandy beamed. “Would you mind if I. . .”

“Be my guest,” Heather said.

“What are you making?” Jill said.

“How are you making anything?” Tanesha asked. “I feel like falling over.”

Jill went to the couch that was facing toward the windows. She pushed and end of the couch so that the couch turned around.

“Lie down,” Jill said. “You’re understandably exhausted.”

“You sure?” Tanesha asked.

“Absolutely,” Heather said.

Tanesha climbed onto the new, comfortable couch and lay down. Jill took a seat at the bar and Heather sat at the kitchen table.

“How is it?” Jill asked.

“This place?” Heather asked.

Jill, Sandy, and Tanesha nodded.

“I like it,” Heather said. “I mean, we’re all still getting used to it. The kids are in heaven.”

“Jabari is,” Tanesha said. “He loves having Mack and Wyn here as allies.”

“And Tres?” Sandy winked at Heather as she continued pulling ingredients out of the refrigerator and cabinets.

“He’s good,” Heather said a hint of red forming at her hairline. “He’s jumped in with both feet. He wants to take care of the kids and make meals and. . . Nelson’s the same way.”

“Sounds like they really wanted a family,” Jill said.

“I guess so,” Heather said with a nod. “I feel. . . lucky to have all of this. Really lucky.”

“And in bed?” Tanesha asked from the couch.

“Tres?” Heather asked. “He’s. . . I. . .”

The women laughed. Before Tanesha got back together with Jeraine, Tanesha and Tres had a “friends with privileges” relationship. Tanesha was teasing Heather.

“We’re having fun,” Heather said. “All of us. And in some ways, things haven’t changed that much. We take care of the kids and work and. . .”

Heather shrugged.

“This is a beautiful house,” Jill said, going to the sliding glass window. “I love the courtyard.”

Jill slid the door open and then closed it quickly.

“It’s way too cold for that,” Jill said.

She went back to the counter.

“What are you making?” Jill asked.

“Cake,” Sandy said. “Something simple.”

Jill smiled.

“You seem agitated,” Sandy said.

“Oh,” Jill said. “I don’t know.”

“Since this Covid thing, I’ve been running as fast as I can,” Tanesha said.

“Yeah,” Jill said. “Me, too. It’s either something the kids need or talking through this Lipson Construction stuff or house stuff or. . .”

“It’s a lot,” Sandy said. “For me, too, and I only have one little one.”

Heather nodded.

“How are we going to get through this?” Tanesha asked.

For a long moment, no one said anything. Sandy started the blender to mix up a cake.

“I think we do it like we’ve done everything,” Jill said.

“Together,” Tanesha said.

“A tiny bit at a time,” Heather said.

“With great food,” Sandy said.

The women laughed.

“What would make it all better?” Heather asked.

“An end to this plague?” Tanesha asked.

“End of police violence?” Jill asked.

“End of the politics of cruelty,” Sandy added.

“End of the economic mess,” Heather said with a shake of herhead.

“Tell me about it,” Tanesha said.

“What do you need to end?” Heather asked Jill.

“I don’t know, really,” Jill said. “For the most part, I’ve been happy. It’s been fun to spend more time with Katy and the boys. Paddie is at a great age. Máire and Joey are a joy to be around.”

“They are so aware of other people,” Sandy said with a nod. “Noelle loves taking care of them because they teach her about so many interesting things.”

“But?” Heather asked, intentionally pushing Jill.

Jill shrugged.

“I guess, I’m just tired,” Jill said. “Tired of the drama of all of it. Everyone has something to say and most of it is nonsense.”

“Drama,” Heather said, nodding.

Jill nodded.

“I think we’re lucky that everyone around us is on the same page,” Heather said. “Blane told me about a patient of his that just got out of the hospital. The patient’s family doesn’t believe in Covid. She hasn’t seen anyone for weeks because she won’t let them in her house to infect her again.”

“Can you. . .?” Sandy pushed two cake pans in Jill’s direction.

Jill started buttering and flouring the pans.

“What’s going on in Olympia?” Tanesha asked.

“Everyone is in retreat,” Heather said. “No one wants to get blamed for this disease so they are heading for the hills. That leaves a lot of work to do. I’m lucky because I have so much help, but. . .”

Heather sighed.

“What do we think is going on with Mr. Matchel?” Heather asked, changing the topic. She looked at Jill and then Tanesha.

“I think he’s just exhausted,” Jill said.

“He’s been mostly sleeping,” Tanesha said.

“Blane gave him acupuncture this morning,” Heather said. “He said the same thing. I worry that we’re missing a cognitive deficit here.”

“You mean like dementia?” Sandy asked, pouring cake batter into the freshly buttered and floured pans.

“Alzheimer’s,” Heather said.

“Maybe,” Jill said.

“We don’t spend enough time with him to tell,” Heather said. “And it’s way outside of anything I know anything about.”

“Did I hear you say that the French government is going to support the search for the Templar hoard?” Sandy asked.

Heather nodded.

“What does that mean?” Tanesha asked.

“I don’t think we know,” Heather said. “No one’s sure that Nelson will be able to go this year because of the pandemic.”

“Another year would be really hard on Nelson’s father,” Sandy said.

“I know,” Heather said. “It’s just finding the right crew.”

“This thing is touching every aspect of our lives,” Jill said. “Nothing is untouched.”

The women fell silent. Sandy patted the pans on the counter before tucking them into a preheated oven.

“We are gloomy,” Sandy said.

“Let’s not be,” Jill said.

Jill took another bottle of champagne out of the refrigerator.

“I’m tired of the drama and gloom,” Jill said. “Let’s celebrate that we’re still alive, still have each other — a lot of people don’t.”

“We have help with the kids,” Heather said.

“We actually enjoy our marriages and relationships,” Sandy said.

“Maybe it’s good that everything changed,” Tanesha said, sitting up.

The other women groaned.

“No, hear me out,” Tanesha said. “This whole world has been going along so fast. This is a chance to get off the rat race and really experience our lives. Breathe. Figure out what matters to us.”

The women were silent for a long moment.

“I think you’re right,” Sandy said. “I’ve worked so much — building a client base, cutting hair, learning new techniques of dying hair, paying the bills and. . . Now I can’t book clients. I can’t work.”

Sandy nodded.

“I have time to think about what I’m doing,” Sandy said.

“Me too,” Tanesha said.

“I know, I know,” Jill said. “But don’t ask me how I need my life to change.”

“We’re too in the middle of it to figure that out,” Heather said with a laugh.

Jill filled up everyone’s champagne glass.

“To us,” Jill said.

“To us!” Heather, Sandy, and Tanesha said in unison.

Denver Cereal continues next week...


Chapter Six Hundred and Forty-three - Neighbors

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FORTY-THREE

Saturday morning — 10:10 a.m.

Noelle and Nash stood outside the Castle’s next door neighbor’s house. Noelle glanced back at Sandy, who was standing on the sidewalk with the support of two canes. Sandy waved Noelle on. Noelle visibly sighed.

The girl knocked on their next door neighbor’s door.

“I hear someone,” Nash whispered to Noelle.

Noelle nodded. The children backed up on the porch until they were about six feet from the door. The door opened a crack.

“Hi, I’m Noelle and this is Nash,” Noelle said.

“I don’t want anything,” a voice said.

Two dark eyes peered out at the children. Even though they were dismissed, the door didn’t close.

“We’re not selling anything,” Nash said.

“We wanted to check that you were doing okay,” Noelle said. “With the pandemic going on, we are going around checking on our neighbors to see if anyone needs anything.”

“That’s nice of you,” the voice said.

“You probably know Mr. Matchel,” Nash said.

“That old coot,” the voice said. “I know him enough to stay as far away as possible.”

The voice chuckled which led to a deep cough. Nash looked at Noelle, and she glanced at Sandy.

“He collapsed yesterday,” Nash continued. “So we thought we’d check on everyone in our area to see if they were okay or if they needed anything.”

“We brought some facemasks in case you don’t have any,” Noelle said.

A thin, wrinkled brown hand stretched out from behind the door. Noelle placed the masks into the hand and the hand retreated. There was another cough.

“You sound like you’re a little sick,” Noelle said.

“It’s not Covid,” the voice said. “I have some lung problems from before this wretched thing started.”

“Our uncle is an acupuncturist,” Noelle said. She gestured toward the back of the Castle. “He’s setting up his office at the house.”

“I can’t afford nothing,” the voice said. “No payments from disability lately.”

“That’s okay,” Nash said. “He’s giving away treatments to neighbors. He wants to see everyone once alone and then, if you can, do it as a group. If not, you can see him privately.”

The brown eyes blinked and then blinked again. The door opened a little wider.

“Are you for real?” the voice asked.

The children nodded.

“We’ve also been growing seedlings,” Noelle said. “Tomatoes, beans, stuff like that.”

“I noticed them greenhouses,” the voice said.

“We can help you plant your garden,” Nash said.

“Why’re you helping me?” the voice asked. “You haven’t helped before.”

“We had school and stuff before,” Noelle said. “We didn’t have time to help. Now, we don’t have school or work. Our parents thought that since we have time, we could help our neighbors instead.”

“Plus, Mr. Matchel being so sick,” Nash said with a nod of his head. “He reminded us that people might need help.”

“And this uncle of yours?” the voice asked.

“Blane?” Nash asked. “Blane Lipson.”

“Your uncle is Blane Lipson?” the voice asked. “I know him.”

“Good,” Noelle said. “Then you should come.”

Noelle held out the business card that Ivy had painstakingly written out phone numbers and the offer of free treatments.

“I’d need help getting there,” the voice said with a sigh.

“That’s okay,” Nash said. “I can come over and help you get there.”

The dark eyes blinked and blinked again.

“I seen some activity right there,” the voice said.

“Do you know Jeraine?” Noelle asked.

“The R&B singer?” the voice asked. “Dr. Bumpy’s child?”

Noelle nodded.

“What about him?” the voice asked.

“He’s going to be having concerts in the ballroom,” Noelle said.

“That old speak-easy?” the voice chuckled.

Noelle and Nash nodded in unison.

“They can’t have people, you know,” Noelle said. “But they are going to be lots of big names.”

“He said that anyone could listen to them practice,” Nash said.

“They’re broadcasting over the internet,” Noelle said.

“I’d have to feel a whole lot better to do that,” the voice said.

Nash and Noelle nodded.

“Do you have enough food?” Nash asked.

“They stopped meals,” Noelle said.

“I. . .” the voice said with a sigh.

The door swung open. Nash and Noelle saw a small elderly woman on the other side. She wore a brown housecoat with blue roses on it. The house was dark. Even though it was cold outside, they could feel the chill coming from inside the house. She had a scarf tied tight around her head.

“I could very much use some help,” the voice said. “I don’t know why but they turned off my power. I haven’t been getting meals. I. . .”

A fat tear ran down the woman’s face.

“I’m Virginia Sage,” the woman said. “Folks have always called me ‘Ginny.’”

The woman nodded.

“Would you mind very much if I went with you now?” Ginny asked. “I’m very cold.”

“Of course,” Nash said. “But you have to wear a facemask.”

With Noelle’s help, the woman tied on a face mask. Nash held out his elbow. Together, Nash, Noelle, and Ginny made slow progress down Ginny’s walk and to the sidewalk.

“Is anyone else in your house?” Noelle asked.

“Not anymore,” Ginny said. “My grankids used to come over every afternoon, but since this thing, I. . .”

Ginny sighed.

“I haven’t seen anyone in at least a month,” Ginny said. She patted Nash’s hand. “I really appreciate the help.”

Nash stood a little taller. Noelle ran ahead to open the metal gate. Sandy led them along the sidewalk, past the paparazzi, and into the Castle grounds.

“Why are they always here?” Ginny asked.

“Valerie Lipson lives with us,” Noelle said.

“Of course she does,” Ginny said.

They got halfway down the driveway when Sam came out of the house.

“Ginny?” Sam asked.

Seeing Sam, Ginny seemed to brighten a bit.

“Sam,” Ginny said. “These kids said it would be okay if I came over.”

“She doesn’t have heat or food,” Noelle said.

“Please,” Sam said, taking Ginny’s other side.

“We’re going around the back because she said she’d like to see Blane,” Noelle said.

“He’ll be delighted,” Sam said. “Now, I had the Covid, so we have to go slow.”

“That’s okay, Big Sam,” Ginny said. “I can’t go very fast anymore either.”

They shuffled along until they got around the house.

“Can I really listen to music in the old speakeasy?” Ginny asked.

“Absolutely,” Sam said. “But let’s get you warm, fed, and stuck with needles first.”

Ginny gave Nash and Noelle a genuine smile.

“Thank you, children,” Ginny said.

Nash and Noelle left Ginny at the edge of the deck. They watched while Sam and Ginny headed up to Blane’s new offices in the medical suite. Sandy caught up with Nash and Noelle.

“Ready to visit someone else?” Sandy asked.

“How did Charlie and Tink do?” Noelle asked.

“Ivy and Teddy?” Nash asked.

“They are still out there,” Sandy said. “Let’s grab another stack of masks and try another door.”

Nodding, Noelle and Nash followed Sandy to the stack of masks and back out to the neighborhood.

“That was really good,” Noelle said with a smile.

“Ginny?” Sandy asked.

Noelle nodded.

“It was good,” Sandy said.

Grinning, they continued down the sidewalk to check on the next neighbor.

~~~~~~~~

Saturday morning — 11:47 a.m.

Marlowe School

“Hey!” Jacob yelled.

He waved his arms and the equipment truck stopped.

“We want to dig up this yard,” Jacob said.

“For raised beds,” Florence, the equipment driver, said from the passenger side of the vehicle.

“Right,” Jacob said.

“Any infrastructure?” Florence asked.

“We did ‘Call before you dig.’ There’s nothing here.” Jacob pointed behind the truck. “Plumbing is right behind you.”

An SUV full of Lipson Construction employees went around the truck.

“Where do you want us?” the SUV driver asked.

“The boundary is marked with wooden stakes,” Jacob pointed.

The SUV sped off. They reached the edge of the road, went over the curb, and drove to a wooden stake in the road.

“You have to go around,” Jacob said. “Through the fast food restaurants parking lots and then onto the dirt.”

“You sure we have permission to be on that lot?” the truck driver asked.

“Val owns it,” Jacob said. “Mom bought this entire lot when it came available. She thought we might need it for new offices.”

Jacob shrugged. The truck driver nodded, rolled up his window, and started the journey through the fast food restaurant parking lot. Another equipment moving tractor trailer arrived and followed the other truck. A truck carrying wooden planks took the rear.

Valerie and Sam drove up. They waved at Jacob and followed the tractor trailers to park on the edge of the lot. Jacob walked to where Valerie and Sam parked. Everyone was greeting each other with waves and elbow bumps. Some of the people here hadn’t worked in a while. Even with the facemasks and social distancing, they were happy to be able to work.

“Okay,” Jacob said. “The city came out and marked the boundary of this lot.”

Jacob pointed to the wooden stakes along the property lines. Sam took a ball of twine from his pocket and began linking the stakes with the twine.

“We want to fit as many raised beds as possible in this space,” Jacob said. “Anyone built a raised bed before?”

Jacob’s hand went up but no one else’s did.

“Okay,” Jacob said. “They’re not that hard. I’ll show you how and you can build them at home.”

Someone cheered and everyone laughed.

“I have a team of carpenters working at the school,” Jacob said. “If I’m not here and you get stuck, any of them can help. I have my phone so you can call or text me. We’re trying to get the school ready to re-open so I’d prefer if they stayed working. But this is important too.”

Everyone nodded.

“We expect that we may have a few non-Lipson people wander over,” Jacob said. “Dad has money to pay people if they want to work. Does anyone have a problem with that?”

Jacob grinned when, to a person, everyone shook their heads.

“Thanks,” Jacob said. “When we can, we like to give people work.”

“Wha-ter-you doin’ wid dis lot?” Trevor, one of the equipment drivers, asked.

Trevor had a long career as an alcoholic. He’d lost all of his teeth by the time he had cleaned up enough to get a job at Lipson Construction. In the years he’d worked there, he’d never replaced his front teeth. He said it reminded him of where he didn’t want to go back to.

“Glad you asked,” Val said. “We’re going to build an infant care facility. We just submitted a set of plans to build the infant care facility and expand the school through the city. Due to Covid, they are understandably behind. So, we’ll see what we need to do.”

“Why do we need more space at the school?” a woman’s voice came from the back.

“We need to manage Covid social distancing,” Valerie said. “Plus, we’re growing so fast that we will need more space soon anyway. While the kids aren’t here, we thought we’d get something going.”

Everyone nodded. The Marlowe School was daycare and school for all Lipson Employees. It was a perk that led to employee loyalty. Lately, the Marlowe School had been winning awards for excellence in education. People who had had their kids in private school had moved them into the Marlowe School.

“Until we’re able to get the school sorted out, we can’t let kids back,” Jacob said.

“Are we close?” the same woman asked.

“Yes,” Jacob said. “The HVAC guys started work last week. They’ve got another week. We’re building out new classrooms and working on plans for the new addition for classrooms.”

“Basically, all of this land will either be school or gardens,” Valerie said.

Everyone nodded.

“Remember, Dad had Covid,” Jacob said. “If Big Sam can get it, any of us can. So keep your distance. The plumbers will be here in a few minutes. They’ll set up a mobile handwashing station. We have extra masks if anyone needs them.”

When no one said anything, Jacob looked at his father.

“Let’s get to work,” Sam croaked.

Everyone cheered and got to work. They unloaded the large equipment. The drivers turned on the machines and went out to join the other workers who were listening to Valerie lay out the field. Valerie had a map of what they thought might give them the most gardening space.

The rest was almost anticlimactic. The large equipment cleared the field. The Lipson Construction employees got to work with their shovels. Two of the women began building the frame for the raised beds. Within a half hour, a crowd began to grow. Lipson Construction employees passed out facemasks and shovels. Soon, raised beds were popping up all over the once empty field.

Then the plumbers arrived. They took two employees and some of the neighbors to dig trenches. Water pipes were laid across the field from the Marlowe school. By the time the water was flowing, all of the raised beds were built.

In order to comply with the city, Jacob’s team of carpenters made quick work of building a fence around the new gardens.

“Tomorrow, we plant,” Valerie said with a grin.

“And run a lottery for half of these spots,” Jacob said.

“Did you put up the flyers?” Valerie asked.

Jacob gestured to Charlie and Tink who were running toward them.

“Good,” Valerie said with a grin.

With that, they packed up and left the site.

~~~~~~~~

Saturday morning — 12:07 p.m.

Nelson was standing in the middle of the medical offices looking at all of the people sitting there. The teens and tweens had gone through their street and checked in on other elderly people that Delphie knew. When there was a swarm, Blane had called Nelson to ask if he’d be willing to assist him with assessing everyone’s medical needs. Nelson had dressed in scrubs and headed over.

He heard a woman clear her throat behind him.

“If you can take a seat, we’ll get to you as soon as possible,” Nelson said.

He turned around to see an oddly familiar small dark skinned woman wearing scrubs and a lab coat. The woman looked embarrassed.

“My dad sent me over,” she said in a soft voice. “I brought the supplies you requested, and. . . um. . .”

Nelson gave her a long look.

“I’m Jeraine’s sister,” she said. “La Tonya La. . . uh. . . Smith. I. . . um. . .”

“You’re a medical doctor,” Nelson said.

She nodded.

“I haven’t worked since. . .” La Tonya said.

Nelson nodded that he knew what had happened. She looked relieved at not having to explain herself.

“I brought my kids,” La Tonya said. “The elderly white lady in the back said that she’d be happy to take care of them. I recognized her as a friend of my mom’s but I’m. . .”

La Tonya waved her hand around her head to indicate that she was a little spacey now.

“Flowery skirt?” Nelson said. “Red hair?”

La Tonya nodded.

“That’s Delphie,” Nelson said. His eyes sparkled. “Mask up, doctor. We can really use your help.”

He gestured toward a sink with a shelf of N95 masks, hand sanitizer, and supplies in the corner. La Tonya went to the supply. She washed her hands, put on a mask, and grabbed a handful of latex gloves, which she stuffed into her pocket. She put on a pair of purple latex gloves.

“Who are these people?” La Tonya asked.

“Neighbors,” Nelson said. “Blane’s doing acupuncture in that room. You and I are checking for the obvious signs of Covid — you know the symptoms to check for?”

“Dad said that you’d help me,” La Tonya said. Looking terrified, she shook her head “no.” “You’re an ER doc?”

“I have been,” Nelson said. “I do mostly forensic science at the Denver Crime Lab now. But I still have admitting privileges at Denver Health. If we need to get these dears to the hospital, we can admit together.”

La Tonya nodded. Nelson pulled a laminated sheet out of his pocket.

“Memorize these,” Nelson said. “The biggest one is temperature. As far as we can tell, nearly everyone who has this crappy disease eventually gets a temperature over 100 degrees.”

“Oh, temperature,” La Tonya said. She gave him a shy smile. “That makes sense.”

“Would you mind checking everyone’s temperature?” Nelson asked. “We only have one so you have to disinfect it after everyone.”

He set a handful of alcohol swabs into her hand.

“I can do that.” La Tonya nodded.

“Tanesha and Fin will be here after their shift,” Nelson said.

“Miss T will be here?” La Tonya visibly brightened.

“Around three,” Nelson said. “We’ll have fun.”

La Tonya gave him what he thought was a real smile. He was struck by how beautiful she was and how deeply sad.

“Hey, everyone!” Nelson said, loudly.

The chatting neighbors fell silent.

“This is Dr. Bumpy’s daughter,” Nelson said. “She is also a medical doctor and the daughter of the amazing Nurse Dionne. She is also Jeraine’s sister which makes her family to me. So be nice. You may call her, Dr. Smith. We are lucky to have her.”

The elderly women sitting six feet apart along the wall clapped for La Tonya. Nelson shrugged.

“There you go,” Nelson said.

La Tonya chuckled. Nelson put a forehead thermometer in her hand and she got to work. Nelson watched her for a moment and then dug into the supplies La Tonya had brought. Finding an IV kit and a bag of saline, he said a quick prayer for Dr. Bumpy and went to put it into Ginny Sage.

Denver Cereal continues next week...


Chapter Six Hundred and Forty-two - Covid is a family problem

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FORTY-TWO

“This morning,” Tanesha said. “About a half-hour ago. The paramedics said that she likely had a heart attack brought on by Covid. According to her mom, she had at least three positive Covid tests. Her mother’s very angry with her for not taking care of her Covid. But you know, Annette believed Covid was a hoax.”

“That’s awful,” Jeraine said. “Where’s Jabari?”

“He’s at home,” Tanesha said. “I already told him.”

Jeraine nodded.

“How is he?” Jacob asked.

“Philosophical,” Tanesha said with a grin. “That kid. . .”

“You should watch him,” Mike said. “It catches up with kids. It was a while before Meg or I really realized that our parents were dead, or supposed to be dead.”

“Good point,” Tanesha said with a nod.

“Annette’s mother asked if you’d go to the funeral and bring Jabari,” Tanesha said.

“We can figure it out,” Mike said. “No point messing up today.”

Jeraine nodded and closed his eyes. He sighed.

“I guess I can’t believe it,” Jeraine said. “That’s she’s gone. She has been such a pain for such a long time that. . .”

“I doubt the pain is over,” Tanesha said.

Jeraine nodded. Each lost in their own thoughts, they stood together in silence. Jammy rushed through the door from the backyard.

“Jeraine?” Jammy said, concern was apparent on his face. “I just got the word that Annette has died.”

“Miss T just told me,” Jeraine said.

“I’m so sorry,” Jammy said.

Jeraine looked at Tanesha, and she turned to Jammy.

“Jabari had Covid when he got home from her house,” Tanesha said. “When I spoke to her about it, she said that her son wasn’t a ‘sissy’ and that she didn’t care about ‘no virus.’ So, it isn’t a surprise to us that she’s died in this way. It’s just very sad.”

“You want to talk to the press?” Jammy asked.

“I think we need to,” Tanesha said. “I’m in the hospitals five days a week. People are dying. We need to use every opportunity to let people know that this thing is real and deadly.”

“I’ll set it up,” Jammy said. He hugged Jeraine. “You okay?”

“Too bright out there for me out there,” Jeraine said. “Jake brought me to a cooler place. Miss T brought my meds.”

“Let’s wait until you’re set,” Jammy said. “Sam’s ready to open the ballroom. Would you like to come out?”

Jeraine looked at Tanesha. She gave him a soft smile.

“Let’s not give up today,” Mike said.

“Good thinking,” Tanesha said. “Come on.”

Jeraine got up and followed Tanesha into the living room.

“First,” Tanesha said.

She took Jacob’s sunglasses off Jeraine’s face and gave them to Jacob. She took out sunglasses popular in the 1920s.

“Your dad sent these over,” Tanesha said.

She put them on Jeraine.

“Looking good,” Mike said.

They each checked their facemasks before heading out into the yard.

~~~~~~~~

Friday morning — 10:01 a.m.

“What do you see?” Katy whispered to Paddie.

Taller than Katy, Paddie stood on his tiptoes to look out the window of Jill’s office.

“They are still out there,” Paddie said with a nod.

Katy scowled.

“Don’t worry,” Paddie said. “They won’t notice. They’re doing what they’re doing.”

“My daddy’s out there?” Katy asked.

Paddie stood on his tiptoes again. He nodded.

“He notices everything,” Katy said.

Paddie turned around to look at his best friend. Katy crossed her arms and scowled.

“Are you okay?” Paddie asked.

“No,” Katy said. “We have to get out of here!”

“Why?” Jill asked.

Katy and Paddie gasped in unison. They looked very guilty.

“Katy?” Jill asked. She knelt down to her daughter. “Are you needing an adventure?”

“We’re worried about our horses,” Paddie said, instantly caving to pressure.

Katy gave him a hard look but Paddie shrugged.

“She saved me when I was sick,” Paddie said. “I could have died!”

Katy’s eyes filled with tears, and the children hugged. Moved by the children, Jill picked up Katy and Paddie.

“Oh Mommy,” Katy said, as she cried into her mother’s shoulder.

Jill let Katy cry for a while before kissing Katy’s forehead and set her on the couch. She kissed Paddie and set him on the couch.

“Now,” Jill said. “Why are you worried about the horses?”

“We don’t know if they got sick!” Katy said. “They can’t wear masks!”

“And a lot of people aren’t as careful as us,” Paddie said.

“They don’t know about bones and crypts and plagues and. . .” The air crackled with Katy’s anxiety. “They’ll get our horses sick.”

“They’re horses!” Paddie said. “I don’t want my horse to be as sick as I was!”

“Well, you bring up a valid point,” Jill said.

“We’re really careful with Sarah and Buster,” Paddie said. “We wash our hands and make sure to wear our masks and. . .”

“We don’t want the dogs to get sick!” Katy said.

They looked so worried that Jill gave them a soft smile.

“I’ll tell you what,” Jill said. “Why don’t we go see our horses? Your daddy is working on the house, so he can’t go. But I know that Paddie’s Auntie Alex and her team are here. She can probably spare someone to help us. Should I call?”

Nodding, Paddie jumped up and down. Katy thought for a minute.

“Do we have to bring the other kids?” Katy asked.

“I was thinking that we would,” Jill said. “Would that be a big deal?”

Adorably, Katy tapped her lip while she thought about it.

“I think everyone wants to break out of here,” Jill said.

“Just the middle-big kids?” Katy asked.

“If you’d like,” Jill said. “Máire and Joey have horses, or they share horses like we do. I’m not sure. I don’t know if Jackie and Eddy have been riding, but I bet they’d want to go.”

“We’ll help!” Katy said brightly.

“Sounds good,” Jill said. “Maybe we can stop for some fancy food on our way home? We can get it to-go.”

“Like we used to?” Katy asked.

Jill nodded. Katy cheered so Paddie joined her. Katy and Paddie ran out of Jill’s office to tell everyone.

Jill remembered that Athena had been working with Heather on something Olympian. She bet that Athena could teach their kids a thing or two about horses. Smiling to herself, Jill began to make calls.

~~~~~~~~

Friday afternoon — 4:35 p.m.

Nelson got off the 15 Colfax bus at Race Street and started toward their new home. When Ava and her team had a case, they worked long hours, sometimes all night. They were between cases due to Covid, so everyone left early. Nelson loved getting home early now that he had such a great home filled with so many people that he loved.

He took a deep breath. The days were getting longer and the weather was moving into summer warm. Tulips and daffodils lined his walk to their new home. He smiled.

He would check in on his father this evening before heading home. It was his turn to make dinner so he imagined himself grilling up some burgers for everyone on his new gas grill in their new gorgeous patio.

For the first time, in a very, very long time, he was truly happy.

Grinning under his N-95 mask, he continued down the sidewalk. His eyes noticed the burgeoning spring while his mind planned out what he’d do when he got home. When he turned back to the sidewalk, he saw what looked like a pile of clothing. He squinted, and then scowled.

“That’s. . .”

Nelson ran toward the pile of clothing while digging in his bag for a phone. He dropped down next to the body of his elderly next door neighbor, Mr. Matchel. Nelson touched the elderly man’s shoulder and Mr. Matchel groaned.

“Oh my God,” Nelson said, blowing out a breath. “You’re alive.”

“Hey!” Blane yelled from the front lawn of the Castle.

The paparazzi turned to take photos. Blane and Jacob ran across the street to where Nelson knelt.

“It’s Mr. Matchel,” Nelson said. “Our next door neighbor.”

“Let’s get him inside,” Blane said.

Before Nelson could move, Jacob picked up the elderly man and jogged down the path to the patio behind the house. Jacob set the elderly man on a bench and helped him sit up.

“What. . .?” Heather asked after sliding open the glass door to the patio.

“Go back inside,” Nelson said. “This is Covid.”

“I’m immortal?” Heather shrugged.

The men stared at her for a moment. She nodded.

“Maybe you should go inside while I figure this out,” Heather said.

Because she’d promised to always wear one, Heather grabbed a mask and went outside. The men went inside and stood next to the sliding glass window.

“Mr. Matchel?” Heather asked. She put her hand on his shoulder. “Mr. Matchel.”

The man’s eyes fluttered open. He looked up at her.

“We found you on the sidewalk,” Heather said.

“Need. . .” the elderly man said, “. . . help.”

“Are you ill?” Heather asked.

“Ask him to take a full breath!” Nelson yelled from inside the house.

“Can you take a full breath?” Heather asked.

The elderly man took a shaky breath. Heather looked at Nelson. Blane was starting outside. But Heather shook her head at him.

“When was the last time you ate?” Heather asked.

“They stopped my meals,” Mr. Matchel said. “I ran out of food a couple weeks ago. You kids told me that if I ever needed help. . . Took me a time to. . .”

“Do you think you need a hospital?” Heather asked.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Matchel said. “I was surprised at how weak I’ve become. I never would have thought that I. . .”

The elderly man closed his eyes and sighed. A tear rolled down his face.

“I’m going to put this mask on you,” Heather said. She opened her hand and a face mask appeared. “Nelson and Blane can’t get Covid. So I don’t want any argument from you.”

The man gave a vague nod. She put the mask over his face. Heather gestured for Nelson to come out. Blane said something to Jacob, and Jacob went into the kitchen. Blane and Nelson went out together. Blane grabbed the man’s right wrist to take his Chinese medicine pulses, while Nelson used an infrared thermometer to take the man’s temperature.

“99,” Nelson said. “High, but that could be from dehydration. What do you think?”

“His immune system is fighting something,” Blane said. “He is very weak. We should treat him as infected until we can check.”

Nelson nodded. Jacob appeared with a cup of warm broth. Everyone but Heather backed up. Heather placed her hand on the man’s shoulder.

“Let’s see how you do with some broth,” Heather said.

The elderly man nodded. He took off the mask and drank the broth. Heather waited to see his effect. She shook his head.

“He’s too weak,” Heather said. “The broth is running right through him.”

Blane and Jacob shared a look.

“What?” Nelson asked.

“We need to bring him to the Castle medical offices,” Blane said.

“He’s too weak,” Nelson said. “Can’t we put him in your office?”

Blane and Jacob looked at each other again. Jacob nodded.

“Yes,” Jacob said.

“What the fuck is it with you two?” Nelson asked irritably. “I thought I’d have trouble with Tres, but he’s open and honest — clear even — compared to the two of you lovebirds.”

“Sorry,” Blane said. “We’ve worked together for a long time. We’ve had many years of long conversation about me using the medical offices for my practice.”

“I told him this very thing this morning,” Jacob said.

“While we were moving me into my office,” Blane said.

“This morning,” Jacob said.

“Did you finish?” Nelson asked.

“Moving in?” Blane asked.

Jacob vehemently shook his head.

“No,” Blane said. “In the words of Jacob, ‘Damn, you have a lot of crap.’”

“So we can move him to your office?” Nelson asked, trying to hide his exasperation.

“Yes,” Blane said.

“Let’s,” Jacob said.

When they turned back to look at Mr. Matchel, he was gone. Heather was sitting in his place.

“I moved him into Blane’s office,” Heather said, mildly. “He needed a bath and some clean clothing, which has been taken care of by my associates. He is sleeping quietly.”

Heather smiled at the men.

“I am a goddess,” Heather said. “So I’ll tell you — this man is exhausted. He’s been without any form of nutrition for a long time. He hasn’t had company or interaction either. He’s been stuck in his house without any assistance while the entire world closed down. He’s terrified that he will die and no one will know. He is hungry, tired, dirty, distraught, and very alone.”

Heather stood up.

“He is now a part of our family,” Heather said, standing up. “And, we need to think about every single one of our neighbors because it’s very possible that there are more people in Mr. Matchel’s situation.”

She went into the house.

“Covid?” Nelson croaked.

“I don’t know,” Heather said. “Jill’s out with the kids. I sent her a text. She’ll stop here when they get back.”

Heather gave the men a nod and went back into the house. The men watched her go.

“I’m not making dinner,” Heather said.

Jacob laughed. Nelson trotted into the house after Heather. Blane nodded to Jacob and followed them inside.

~~~~~~~~~

Friday evening — 9:47 p.m.

Tanesha finished her swim and floated back to the seats at the rear of the Swim spa. She was just pulling off her goggles when a towel appeared.

“Thanks,” Tanesha said. “Hang on.”

“I’ll be right here,” Delphie said.

“Good, I wanted to talk to you,” Tanesha said.

Tanesha stood to make her way out of the small pool.

“Oh?” Delphie looked surprised. “I wanted to talk with you.”

Tanesha came down from the edge of the pool and took the towel from Delphie.

“How was your swim?” Delphie asked.

“Good,” Tanesha said. “I want to get one of these, but we can’t afford it after all the house stuff.”

“Valerie doesn’t mind you using this one,” Delphie said.

“She’s lovely,” Tanesha said. “Plus, Jer’s downstairs in that ballroom testing the sound speakers. This gives me something to do. Can you hear them in the house?”

“No,” Delphie said.

“I guess that makes sense,” Tanesha said. She pulled the towel around her and tucked the ends into the wrap. “There’s a whole lot of dirt between the ballroom and the house.”

Delphie nodded.

“You want to go first?” Tanesha asked.

“I was hoping to speak with you about the woman you call ‘Gran,’” Delphie said.

“You mean my non-grandmother?” Tanesha asked. “Brr, can we go inside?”

“Absolutely,” Delphie said.

Tanesha pulled off her swimming cap as they walked through the door to the kitchen.

“I warmed up some dinner for you,” Delphie said.

“Uh oh,” Tanesha said. “Trying to soften the blow.”

Delphie gave Tanesha a soft smile.

“I guess so,” Delphie said.

“How bad is it?” Tanesha asked.

“She only has a day or so left,” Delphie said. “I was hoping to talk to Fin about having her partner return, but I never seem to catch him.”

“They’re having some drama at home,” Tanesha said. “He’s either working in the hospital with me or dealing with bullshit at home. That’s why Abi’s not around.”

Delphie nodded.

“Could you ask him?” Delphie asked.

“I will as soon as we’re done,” Tanesha said.

“Good,” Delphie said. “How is Jabari?”

“You know how Jabari is because he’s here with Maggie and Mack,” Tanesha said.

“Yes, I guess I do,” Delphie said. “It’s a shame about Annette.”

“It really is,” Tanesha said. “I will never understand why people throw their lives away out of stubbornness.”

Delphie nodded. Tanesha poked around on her plate before taking a bite. Realizing she was starving, she started eating in earnest.

“What did you want to talk to me about?” Delphie asked.

“Oh, right,” Tanesha said. “Sorry. This pasta is really good.”

“I’m glad your house is still coming for dinner,” Delphie said. “Nelson made steak and Blane made this pasta. He made the sauce from scratch.”

“I was at the hospital,” Tanesha shrugged. “This is wonderful. I’m so lucky.”

“We all are,” Delphie nodded.

“Did Jer eat?” Tanesha asked.

“That’s why everyone came over,” Delphie said. “His dad and Seth came to. We had dinner and then they went to. . . what do they call it?”

“Jam,” Tanesha said.

“Like apricot,” Delphie said.

Delpie’s eyes danced with laughter. Tanesha grinned. She set her fork down.

“Listen, I wondered if you would like to participate in a vaccine trial,” Tanesha said.

“What’s that?” Delphie asked.

“A vaccine?” Tanesha asked.

“No, I have had all of my vaccines,” Delphie said. “I’m on the Lipson Construction insurance. They send out a nurse to all of the sites. Sam has them stop here so that we all get our vaccines. The spouses who don’t work at Lipson come by here too. It’s kind of a party.”

Tanesha nodded. She’d been to one of these vaccine parties.

“Is this ‘trial’ like that?” Delphie asked. “Does it have a judge? They don’t like me too much.”

“Judges?” Tanesha asked.

“I know too much about them,” Delphie said.

“I bet,” Tanesha said. “This would be a chance to try out the Covid-19 vaccines.”

“Oh,” Delphie said.

“I was asked by my supervisor,” Tanesha said. “He asked if I knew anyone who’d had a stroke.”

“You haven’t had a stroke,” Delphie said.

“Yes, but I am brown,” Tanesha said.

Scowling, Delphie nodded.

“I’m not brown,” Delphie said. She raised her forearm. Seeing Tanesha’s scowl, Delphie asked, “What are you saying? You have to be really plain because I don’t know anything about science.”

“I’m saying this — people who’ve had strokes are getting really sick with this stupid virus,” Tanesha said. “If you can try out the vaccine, they will be able to see if it helps people like you.”

“Oh,” Delphie said. “I want to help.”

“I knew you did,” Tanesha said.

“We should ask Jake too,” Delphie said.

Jacob appeared in the kitchen.

“What are we asking me?” Jacob asked.

“If you’d be a part of a vaccine trial,” Tanesha said.

“You don’t have any immunity because of your new body,” Delphie said.

“You don’t have to convince me,” Jacob said. “Sign me up. In fact, sign Blane up too.”

“What are you signing me up for?” Blane asked as he turned into the kitchen.

“Vaccine trial,” Jacob said.

“I’m in,” Blane said.

“Where do we go?” Jacob asked.

Tanesha grinned.

“What?” Blane asked.

“We’ve been having a tough time finding people,” Tanesha said. “It’s great that you guys want to help.”

“If you need people, I bet everyone here would sign up,” Delphie said. “Maybe Val can do one of those public service things.”

“Or Jer,” Tanesha said.

“What am I doing?” Jeraine asked as he came out of the stairwell to the ballroom. Seth O’Malley and Bumpy Wilson followed behind him.

“Vaccine trial,” Tanesha said.

“I’m in,” Bumpy said. “You need more bodies?”

“It’s not my study, but sure,” Tanesha said.

“You can count on Dionne and your parents.” Bumpy nodded. “Those boys out on your dad’s ranch.”

“I’m in,” Seth said. “Ava and her team will join too.”

Tanesha grinned.

“This is really great,” Tanesha said. “I’ll have them call you.”

Bumpy and Seth said their goodbyes and went home. Blane left, and Jacob went upstairs. Jeraine went to check on Jabari. Soon, it was Delphie and Tanesha again.

“You were going to call Fin?” Delphie asked.

“Fin,” Tanesha said to the air. “My gran’s dying. . . Can you send her partner to see her to say goodbye?”

The elderly fairy appeared in the kitchen.

“Hello, Ladies,” the fairy said.

She held out her arms and hugged Tanesha tight.

“Gran’s in the hospice wing of the assisted living facility,” Tanesha said.

The fairy nodded and disappeared.

“I guess that’s that,” Delphie said.

Tanesha grinned at the woman. Impulsively, Tanesha leaned over to kiss Delphie’s cheek.

“What’s that for?” Delphie asked.

“You’re the heart of this family,” Tanesha said.

“I like that,” Delphie said.

“Come on, Jer,” Tanesha said.

Jeraine coming back from check in on Jabari.

“Let’s go home,” Tanesha said.

Jeraine and Tanesha walked hand-in-hand out of the Castle. Delphie sat at the table for another moment before turning off the lights and going to bed.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Forty-one - Settling in

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FORTY-ONE

Thursday night — 9:11 p.m.

“Fresh from the dryer,” Jill said.

She carried a stack of sheets into Tanesha and Jeraine’s bedroom. Heather grabbed a fitted sheet and a flat and threw them onto the bed. While Jill tucked the sheets into the closet, Heather made the bed. Tanesha came in with a clean comforter. Together, Tanesha and Heather put the comforter into a duvet cover and onto the bed. Jill threw a couple of pillow cases onto the bed. The women grabbed a pillow and began putting them on.

Jill looked around the room. The light bounced off the red oak floors, which had been laid over the heated floor. The walls were a pale green. Mike had spent a couple of days painting a lovely sky with white fluffy clouds on the ceiling. The moldings were a crisp white. The soft rug under the bed matched the green walls in subtle tones of green and blue. The bedding matched the carpet and the walls. They’d added an armoire that was Tanesha’s father Rodney’s along the wall along with a beautiful low cabinet in front of the one way window. The moon peaked through the rectangle windows near the ceiling.

“What do you think?” Jill asked.

“It’s beautiful,” Tanesha said. “Better than we deserve.”

“That’s not true!” Sandy yelled from the couch in the shared space where she was folding laundry. “You deserve at least this.”

“I haven’t asked but. . .” Tanesha started. “I mean, you know, I won’t be in class probably for the rest of the year. And. . .”

Jill gestured for Tanesha to follow her. They walked past Jabari’s room where he was entertaining Mack, Wyn, Eddy, and Maggie. The kids were deep into a game with cars and dolls. Heather picked up Wyn as she walked by.

Jill made a quick left turn and into a room that Tanesha thought was a closet.

“But. . .” Tanesha started.

Jill pushed the door open, and the women went inside a small but gorgeous office. There were high windows for light and privacy. Tanesha’s laptop sat onto of a long table. The cement floors were covered with cork so that Tanesha could have a soft surface while she paced back and forth. There was a comfy couch, big enough for Tanesha to nap on, along the wall. In the corner sat a small floating gas fireplace. On the wall near the door, there was a small counter with a sink. A filtered hot and cold water sat on the counter and there were cabinets above for supplies.

“We haven’t gotten your bookshelves and books in,” Jill said. “I know that you want some here and some in the main room and a few in the bedroom. I thought we could go through them later.”

Her eyes filled with tears, Tanesha nodded to Jill.

“Hey!” Sandy yelled from the couch in the main room. “Pizza’s here!”

Jill hugged Tanesha and left her with Heather.

“What do you think?” Heather asked.

“It’s amazing,” Tanesha said. “Everything is perfect.”

“We’re going to be really happy here,” Heather said.

“We are,” Tanesha said. “You never know what Jer’s going to complain about.”

“Hey!” Jeraine said from the hallway. “For that, I’m going to eat your pizza.”

“You’d better not!” Tanesha said.

She chased him out into the main living area. After the fiasco with the paparazzi, Jill and Jacob had painstakingly put a coating on the wall to ceiling windows and sliding glass door. The coating meant that no one could see inside. The sitting area had large empty book shelves, a wide area for kids to play in, as well as a comfortable sitting area for adults with a couch and chairs. A gas fireplace sat along the wall for when they wanted heat. A screen lowered from the ceiling for when they wanted to watch movies or games from the projected television.

Behind this area was a large gourmet kitchen created to Blane and Jeraine’s specifications. Blane was removing a pie from the oven.

“We’re going to be so happy here,” Heather said almost to herself.

Tres took Wyn from her. Nelson came in carrying the pizzas. He opened the sliding door to give some air flow before anyone took off their face masks to eat. For the next few hours, they celebrated the new home of their best friends.

~~~~~~~~

Friday morning — 7:01 a.m.

“You look swarthy,” Heather said to Mike Roper as she entered her new kitchen.

While the hair on his head was still long, Mike had shaved his heavy beard and his general body armor of hair was trimmed down. Heather was wearing a silken robe that was open over flannel pajamas.

“I do clean up nice,” Mike said with a laugh.

“What’s the occasion?” Heather asked.

“We have to go to some awards thing or another,” Mike said. “Mostly, Alex is in town and the guys got together for some grooming.”

Heather nodded. She filled the electric kettle with water and turned on the coffee maker.

“Dare I ask?” Heather asked.

“You can ask me anything, goddess,” Mike said.

“Was Sandy involved?” Heather asked.

“Not yesterday. She’s going to cut our hair today before I go to LA,” Mike said. “Before you ask, she has a male hair groomer at her salon now. He took care of all of our needs.”

“You look nice,” Heather said.

“Thanks,” Mike said.

Heather puttered around the new kitchen looking in one cabinet after the other. Mike watched her move around.

“What are you doing here?” Heather asked.

“Oh,” Mike said. “Sorry, I’m here for Jeraine.”

“Does he know that?” Heather asked.

“He came out and then said he had to shower,” Mike said.

Heather nodded.

“Jake’s opening the outside entrance to the ballroom today,” Mike said. “Jammy wants Jeraine there to take pictures. So he has to be dressed up. They’re pretty excited about the whole thing.”

“Why didn’t Jammy come?” Heather asked.

“I’m not good enough?” Mike asked.

“Jammy brings pastries,” Heather said.

“Ah,” Mike said. “No pastries for you!”

They laughed.

“Jammy flew from LA to Vegas to Denver,” Mike said. “No pastries for anyone.”

“That’s a sad fact,” Heather said. “Maybe I should get some.”

“Or wake up Blane and make him make some,” Mike said.

“I heard that,” Blane said. He was tying his robe when he came around the corner. “You look. . .”

Blane kissed Heather’s cheek, and they gave each other a hug.

“Swarthy,” Mike said.

“Shaved,” Blane said, looking over Heather’s shoulder.

The men laughed, and Blane and Heather separated.

“Alex home?” Blane asked.

Mike nodded.

“We went to the new guy at Sandy’s place,” Mike said. “He did a great job, I thought. Nice too.”

Nodding, Blane went to the refrigerator and poked around. He pulled out some eggs, bread, and bacon. He started cooking while Heather poured coffee into a travel mug. She added cream and a tiny bit of sugar before setting the travel mug on the edge of the counter.

A moment later, a completely dressed, and damp from the shower, Tres Sierra zoomed through kitchen. He grabbed the travel mug, waved to everyone, and jogged out of the house.

“Mask!” Heather yelled after him.

“Got it,” Tres said. They heard him open the drawer where they stored masks and push it closed. “See you tonight!”

The front door closed. Heather set about making a pot of tea. She set it on the counter to steep.

Jeraine slid out of their area. He was dressed in a modern silk suit with a white starched shirt and some expensive shoes. His tie was in his hand.

“Can you help?” Jeraine asked. He held the tie out the room.

Heather came over to tie his tie. She smiled at him and did one last straighten.

“You look nice,” Heather said.

Nervous, Jeraine just nodded.

“Did you make this?” Jeraine asked, gesturing to the tea pot.

“For you,” Heather said.

Jeraine smiled. He poured a cup of tea for himself and for Tanesha, who came out just as her cup was full. Tanesha was dressed in a dressing gown and a silken robe.

“You’ve been running,” Mike said to Tanesha while she was drinking her tea.

“Hey, don’t look at her,” Jeraine said in mock irritation.

“No disrespect meant,” Mike said with a grin. “I’m not hitting on your woman.”

“You’d better not,” Jeraine said.

“Just ignore him. I’ve been running, swimming, lifting,” Tanesha said. “I’m on my feet all day at the hospital, too.”

Mike nodded.

“I just. . . seeing people gasping for air,” Tanesha said with a shake of her head. “I realized that every breath is precious. So, I feel a need to keep moving.”

“I understand,” Mike said. “You want to go trail running while I’m back? I mean, we have to go to LA today, but we’ll be back tomorrow.”

“Sunday?” Tanesha asked, looking off in the near distance. “I’m not working.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Mike said. “Go to the mountains, some place high.”

“Cooper?” Tanesha asked.

Heather filled Tanesha’s mug with tea and put the rest of the pot in a travel mug with some cream.

“That’s 10, 000 feet,” Mike said. “Talk about gasping for air.”

“My point,” Tanesha said. She swallowed down her tea.

“I’m in,” Mike said.

Tanesha turned to Jeraine, she asked, “Do you want me to come with you?”

“Nah,” Jeraine said. “I’ll be okay.”

“I’m going as your bodyguard,” Mike said.

“You?” Jeraine asked.

The men laughed.

“Are you ready, princess?” Mike asked.

Swallowing hard, Jeraine gave a nod. He and Mike headed out toward the door.

“We have masks,” Mike yelled back to them.

The door opened and closed.

“Did you drug the kids?” Blane asked.

“Absolutely not!” Tanesha said.

“Where are they?” Blane asked.

“They are playing quietly in Jabari’s room,” Heather said. “They fell asleep while they were playing and woke up to play some more.”

“Should we change diapers?” Blane asked.

“I already checked,” Tanesha said. “They’re okay.”

“Even our littlest baby is growing up,” Heather said.

“Yea!” Blane said.

The women gave him an unreadable look.

“Not yea?” Blane asked.

Nelson slid into the kitchen. He took a breakfast sandwich wrapped in a napkin from Blane. Heather gave him a travel mug of tea, and Nelson started out the door.

“Mask!” Heather yelled

“Got it,” Nelson said.

The door opened and closed again. Blane set a plate of food for Heather and another for Tanesha on the new kitchen table. They ate in silence, listening for the children to erupt with a need. Tink came into the kitchen, and Blane got up. She sat at the table while he made her a plate. After a moment, he set it in front of her.

“Where’d the table come from?” Tink asked.

“The box that’s now in the recycling,” Heather said. “I put it together after everyone went to sleep.”

“Really?” Tink asked.

“Pretty handy, wouldn’t you say?” Heather asked. “I even put together the chairs.”

“With help from minions?” Tink asked.

Heather held up her hands. Tink mock clapped for her and they all grinned.

“Not sleeping?” Blane asked, his eyebrows dropped in concern for Heather.

“Just excited,” Heather said. “This is really the first place I’ve ever lived that was made for me. You know? And it’s so nice! I want to get everything unpacked and perfect.”

Everyone smiled in agreement.

“Well,” Tink said after wolfing down her food. “I’m off to for school. I have babysitting this afternoon, but we’re reporting on our books this morning and picking a new topic.”

“Have fun,” Heather said.

“I’m in the office today,” Blane said.

“I’m here unpacking,” Heather said.

“I’m here until 2 p.m.,” Tanesha said. “Then off to the hospital.”

“The kids are. . .?” Blane asked.

“Going to the Castle,” Heather said. “I’ll give them some time and we’ll get them ready.”

“Would you like me to?” Blane asked. “I have a couple of hours.”

“We’ve got it,” Heather said. “Take some time for yourself. You’ve been going hard for months. We’re here now.”

Blane gave her a soft smile.

“Thanks,” Blane said. “I think I’ll head back to bed.”

“Are you sick?” Tanesha got up to check his temperature.

“I have a novel I want to read,” Blane said. “My own comfy bed. It calls my soul.”

“Enjoy!” Heather said.

Blane smiled and headed back upstairs to where his room was. Tanesha and Heather sat for only a few minutes before the kids erupted from Jabari’s room. Tanesha took Jabari and Mack while Heather took care of Wyn, Eddy, and Maggie. The children were bathed and changed and back to playing in a short time. Tanesha went to shower while Heather watched the kids. When Tanesha was done, Heather went to shower.

It was just a regular busy morning in their new home.

It was perfect.

~~~~~~~~

Friday morning — 9:11 a.m.

Jeraine was standing in the mud in a quiet area behind the Castle. The sun was warm on his back and bright against the white siding of this edge of the building. They were protected from the paparazzi by the building itself. His agent, James “Jammy” Schmidt V, was standing next to that casino guy named. . .

Matt?

They were waiting for Jacob and a group of his men to unload a backhoe from a truck. Usually, Jeraine loved this kind of thing. But today. . .

He looked over at the casino guy again.

Jeraine had no idea what that guy’s name was. He’d been nice, really nice. Jeraine couldn’t help but like him. The casino guy had embraced the idea of streaming concerts in “Denver’s most exclusive concert venue.” His team of programmers had already set up a blog page, run by his marketing team, to build interest in the concerts that would start. . .

Jeraine squinted. He couldn’t remember when the concerts were starting.

Soon. They were starting soon. He worried that if he asked, he’d look foolish.

He felt foolish. He should have asked Miss T to come with him. He was too out of it by then to realize how much he’d need her help.

They’d already taken a bunch of pictures. They really didn’t need him anymore. He stayed because. . .

He wasn’t sure.

It was so bright. He squinted at the wall, and then again at Jammy and Matt.

The backhoe started up with a plume of black smoke.

Jeraine stepped back. Instinctively, he shaded his eyes with his hand.

The backhoe delicately backed off the truck. To his surprise, he saw Sam Lipson sitting in the seat of the backhoe.

He felt a hand on his arm. He turned to see Jacob standing next to him.

“Jeraine?” Jacob asked.

Jacob’s eyes were filled with so much caring and compassion that Jeraine nearly cried.

“You look like your head’s bothering you,” Jacob said.

Jeraine nodded.

“Tanesha’s on her way over,” Jacob said. “She said that you forgot to take your medication this morning. She wanted me to see how you were doing.”

Jeraine gave him a slight nod.

“That’s what I thought,” Jacob said. He pulled off his own sunglasses. “Put these on.”

Doing what he was told, Jeraine put the glasses on. The world turned a shade of amber darkness. Jeraine took a breath and then another.

“Panic,” Jeraine mumbled to himself.

“I get it,” Jacob said, putting his hand back on Jeraine’s shoulder.

The men stood together for. . . Jeraine wasn’t sure how long. The next thing he knew, Jacob was tugging Jeraine out of the way.

“We’re heading in for a cup of coffee,” Jacob said.

“I could use one,” Mike Roper’s voice came from Jeraine’s side.

Jeraine had forgotten all about Mike. He looked over at Mike.

“Right beside you, buddy,” Mike said.

Not sure if Mike had read his mind, Jeraine just nodded. He followed Jacob around the back of the Castle until they reached the shaded calm and quiet of the chicken yard. Jeraine took what felt like his first breath of the day.

“Feeling better?” Mike asked.

Jeraine nodded. He looked up to see Tanesha walking toward them. She was dressed up in something she’d gotten from Valerie. She was so much taller and more muscular than Valerie, it was hard to believe that they were almost the same size. This dress was burgundy and little short which showed off her muscular legs.

Jeraine smiled at her, and she smiled back. He heard a camera going in the background, but he didn’t care. He was just so glad to see her.

Tanesha kissed Jeraine on the cheek, and they embraced.

“Love you,” Tanesha whispered before moving away from him.

Jeraine watched as Tanesha spoke to everyone and came back to him. At her insistence, they went inside the Castle.

“Phew,” Tanesha said. “I thought we’d never shake that photographer.”

“He did seem oddly obsessed,” Jacob said.

“Well. . .” Tanesha turned to look at Jeraine. “I need to tell you something.”

Jeraine nodded.

“Do you want your meds first?” Tanesha asked.

Jeraine shook his head. Tanesha winced but continued.

“After you left, I got a call from Annette’s mother,” Tanesha said.

“Who’s Annette?” Jacob asked.

Jacob pressed a cool glass of water in Jeraine’s hand. Jeraine drank it down and Jacob went to get more.

“She’s Jabari’s mother,” Tanesha said.

“The one who gave him Covid?” Mike asked.

Tanesha nodded.

“What about her?” Jeraine asked.

They were so surprised that he spoke that they turned to look at him.

“That’s my Jer,” Tanesha said and kissed his cheek.

Jacob gave Jeraine another glass of water, and Tanesha gave him his medications. She waited to continue until he’d swallowed his medications. He nodded.

“What’s going on with Annette?” Jeraine asked.

“I guess that she got Covid,” Tanesha said. “Her mother said that it happened very quickly.”

“What happened?” Jeraine asked.

“She’s dead,” Tanesha said.

Jeraine sucked in a breath.

“Her mother said that she was fine the last time her mother saw Annette,” Tanesha said. “She. . . Her mother went to pick her up for an appointment and found in her bed. She had been dead some time.”

“When?” Mike asked.

“This morning,” Tanesha said. “About a half-hour ago. The paramedics said that she likely had a heart attack brought on by Covid. According to her mom, she had at least three positive Covid tests. Her mother’s very angry with her for not taking care of her Covid. But you know, Annette believed Covid was a hoax.”

“That’s awful,” Jeraine said. “Where’s Jabari?”

“He’s at home,” Tanesha said. “I already told him.”

Jeraine nodded.

“How is he?” Jacob asked.

Denver Cereal continues next week...


Chapter Six Hundred and Forty - A moving day

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FORTY

Thursday morning — 9:00 a.m.

“I don’t know,” Tres Sierra said to Jeraine. “Did you ask Jake?”

They were standing in the hallway of their new home. Jeraine, Tanesha, and Jabari had starting moving in the night before.

“He told me to ask you,” Jeraine said. “He’s been a little. . .”

Jeraine pointed to his temple and rotated his wrist in a gesture that meant “crazy.”

“Too much to think about,” Tres said with a laugh. “And you just had to drop a murder in his lap.”

“Hey.” Jeraine held up his hands as if he were being threatened. “It wasn’t me.”

Tres laughed. There was a knock at the door and Tres went to the front door to open it.

“Who’s fault is it then?” Tres asked laughing.

“I. . .” Jeraine started but stopped as Tres opened the door.

They expected the movers with more of their furniture from storage.

No one was there.

“Hello?” Tres asked.

He leaned out the door and looked left and then right. Jeraine tapped his arm and pointed down.

Maggie Scully was standing outside the door. She held a tiny pink suitcase in her fists just over her knees. Her usually perfect pigtails were disheveled. Her face, neck, chest, even her hands were bright red. She looked furious.

“Maggie!” Tres said.

“My friends are here,” Maggie said.

She marched into the house. Realizing she had no idea where she was going, she looked up at Tres and then saw Jeraine.

“Is Jabari ready?” Maggie asked.

“Jabari?” Jeraine asked, trying to remember if he forgot something. “He’s downstairs.”

“Where’s Mack?” Maggie asked.

“He’s. . .” Jeraine said.

“Wait,” Tres said. “Just wait. Why are you here, Maggie?”

“It’s Thursday morning,” Maggie said. “We always play on Thursday morning.”

“Does your mom know that you’re here?” Tres asked.

“She went to work today,” Maggie said.

Through the open door, they saw Tink race out of the Castle, through the gate, and across the street. She jogged up the hill to where their front door.

“Maggie!” Tink said, clearly angry.

“I’m not talking to you,” Maggie said. “I don’t have to talk to anyone I don’t want to.”

“You cannot leave on your own!” Tink said.

Dawning awareness came to the men. They looked down at the tiny girl. She was looking angry and more than a little embarrassed.

“You aren’t my mom!” Maggie said. “You can’t make me!”

“Uh!” Tink said. “We’ve been over and over this. You can’t be here because they’re moving in!”

“But it’s Thursday!” Maggie said, as if Tink was dumb or possible deaf. “We play on Thursdays.”

“Did you cross that street by yourself?” Tink asked. Her hands went to her hips and her voice was hard.

“I’m not a stupid baby,” Maggie said in a near perfect imitation of Katy’s latest favorite comeback. The girl gestured to the paparazzi across the street “I had one of those men walk me across.”

Maggie!” Tink said.

Realizing that Tres and Jeraine were standing there, Tink looked up at them. The men gave her nearly identical “It wasn’t me” faces. She looked back at Maggie. She opened her mouth to speak, but Tres cut her off.

“How about this?” Tres asked. “Why don’t we bring Mack and Jabari back to the Castle?”

“I can’t look after more kids!” Tink said. “Noelle and Nash are watching Katy, Paddie, Jackie, Eddy, Máire and Joey. Charlie has all of the other kids — including those wild twins! — while I’m chasing down this one! The girlfriends are getting your stuff out of the storage container! We can’t take any more kids!”

“I’ll go,” Tres said. He gave her a kind smile.

“Who are you?” Tink asked.

“Good philosophical question,” Tres said. “We have met before. You actually know me.”

Tink gave him a deadly look.

“Right now, I’m the person who is resolving this situation,” Tres said.

“Don’t you have something to do over here?” Tink asked.

“I’m in charge of Mack and Wyn today,” Tres said. “I’m off for a few days because of job sharing.”

“Whatever,” Tink said. “Maggie, you need to get back to the Castle.”

“No!” Maggie said. “I won’t go without Mack and Jabari! I won’t go! I won’t go! I won’t go! I won’t go!”

Jeraine winced. He’d been in the middle of a Katy melt-down once. It had permanently scarred him. He held his breath.

“She doesn’t have powers,” Tres said under the sound of the shouting girl.

“Thank God for that,” Jeraine said.

The sound of Maggie brought Mack and Jabari to the door. They saw their friend’s red angry face and her messed up hair. Jabari shifted to hide behind Jeraine’s leg, while Mack waded right in.

“Maggie?” Mack asked. “Why are you mad?”

“He has powers,” Tres said under his breath to Jeraine.

Jeraine gave a slow nod.

Maggie started to sob. Mack went to his friend and hugged her while she talked and cried. Tres made out that her mother went back to work today and her father thought he might not be home tonight and her best friends weren’t playing with her and her hair was lumpy and Tink was mad at her and she’d done something terrible by coming here and she was alone this morning and. . . On and on the tiny child went. She was so grief-stricken that even Tink’s justifiable anger eased.

When Maggie was calmer, Mack stepped back. He looked up at Tres and Jeraine.

“Can Maggie come inside?” Mack asked. He looked up at Tink. “T’nk?”

Mack held out his hand and a golden apple appeared in his palm. Without hesitation, Tink took the apple and bit into it.

“Th-nks,” Tink said with a full mouth.

Smiling at his big sister, Mack nodded. Tink picked him up with one arm while holding the apple in the other.

“May as well come inside,” Tink said. “I need to change anyway.”

She finished eating the apple and held it out to Mack. He blew on it. The apple core flew across the cement path and landed in the dirt. Everyone watched in awe as a tree grew — from sprout to five feet — where the apple’s core had landed.

“I wondered where those were coming from,” Tres said.

“Mama said we could move them if there’s too many,” Mack said.

“Your mama’s brilliant,” Tres said, giving the boy a warm smile.

Tink smirked at Tres. Jabari held his hand out to Maggie, and they all went inside the cool house.

“Can I see your new bedrooms?” Maggie asked.

“This way!” Jabari said.

Maggie ran after Jabari. Tink set Mack down, and he ran off after the other children.

“Well,” Tink said as she walked past the men. “Any idea where my dad is?”

“Blane’s in his acupuncture studio,” Tres said. “I’ll keep an eye on the kids if you want to talk with him.”

“Thanks, funky-dad,” Tink said.

Tres grinned and watched her head inside.

“Funky-dad?” Jeraine asked with a raise of the eyebrows.

“She wanted to call me fuck-dad,” Tres said.

Jeraine laughed, and Tres smiled. There was another knock at the door. Tres went to watch the kids while Jeraine dealt with the movers. Another load of possessions was coming from the storage.

~~~~~~~~

Thursday morning — 10:02 a.m.

Teddy Jakkman was standing on the Castle’s backyard grass watching the children play when Alex Hargreaves appeared. Instinctively, he let out a yelp and jumped. Then he swore at himself.

“Let’s try it again,” Alex said.

“I know you’re coming now!” Teddy said.

Alex grinned. She helped out with the martial arts classes whenever she was home. Right now, they were working on being calm, but prepared for anything at any time. It was a lot harder than it seemed.

“How long did it take you to get it?” Teddy asked.

“Forever,” Alex said. “And I had two annoying brothers, who kept me on my toes.”

Teddy grinned and then scowled.

“How’s Uncle John?” Teddy asked.

“Good,” Alex said with a grin. “Well, better. He’s starting to act a little bit more like himself again.”

“That’s good,” Teddy said.

“Death is sticky,” Alex said. “Every soul leaves a bit of themselves with you. I don’t understand it enough to explain it, but it just is.”

Teddy nodded in understanding.

“I came to see my children,” Alex said.

“Are you taking them home?” Teddy asked, his voice rising in anxiety.

“If they want to come home,” Alex said. “They seem pretty happy here. They’re having a great time here. Should I take them home?”

“No, I. . .” Looking relieved, Teddy nodded.

“Why?” Alex asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Teddy said with a sheepish grin. “If they go, then I’ll probably have to go.”

“Makes sense,” Alex said. “Unlike you, the kids and I need to have a conversation with our family in Afghanistan.”

“Valerie said something about it,” Teddy said with a nod.

“She said she’d set it up for me,” Alex said. “But I know she just had her baby. It would be okay if. . .”

“I think it’s done,” Teddy said. “Well. . . really, you’re just using Jill’s office. She talks to Mike and Val when they travel. It’s quiet and there’s space for everyone.”

“Sounds great,” Alex said. “Is Jill here?”

“The girlfriends are at Tanesha’s storage facility,” Teddy said. “Val’s waiting for you in the kitchen.”

“Perfect. Thanks for keeping track of everyone,” Alex said. “That’s a real skill, Teddy.”

Teddy blushed and looked away.

“Are my kids upstairs?” Alex asked.

Teddy gestured out on the grass. Máire, Katy, Ivy, and Jackie were with Delphie inside the greenhouses while Joey was running after Paddie with Eddy, Bladen, and Tanner close behind.

Smiling, Alex went to the greenhouse. Teddy watched. Even though Maire and Joey went long periods without seeing their mom, they were super close, almost closer because she was gone sometimes. The children could share their raw need and emotion because they knew that their mom could handle it. It was true for Teddy, his sister, and brother and their dad, too.

Máire looked up when Alex opened the door to the greenhouse. The girl’s face flushed red and she began to cry. Alex walked over to the small girl and picked her up. Alex smiled at Delphie and carried Máire out of the greenhouse. Teddy saw the girl cry and talk to her mother. Alex carried Máire over to the deck. She sat down and held her daughter as she cried and spoke.

Teddy went across the grass to get Joey. He was nearly there when Joey noticed his mom and sister. He raced past Teddy and threw himself on his mother and sister. The three of them were such a joyous sight that everyone stopped to watch.

After a moment, Alex got up. She held a hand out to Máire and a hand to Joey. Máire smoothed her long curly hair before taking her mother’s hand. The three went inside.

When Teddy looked back, the boys were playing again and Delphie was working with the girls in the greenhouse. It was just starting to warm up for the day.

Even with the face masks, handwashing, and social distancing, this was going to be a really great spring.

Teddy just knew it.

~~~~~~~~

Thursday morning — 11:30 a.m.

“Who would have thought that we had so much crap?” Tanesha said.

She dropped down onto the ancient couch next to where Sandy was sorting through boxes.

“I do not remember storing all of this crap,” Tanesha said with a shake of her head.

“I’m not sure that you did,” Heather said, holding up an ancient dress. “This looks like. . .”

“Gran,” Tanesha said with a nod. “She must have put some boxes in with mine by accident.”

“By accident,” Jill said with a roll of her eyes.

“Some?” Heather asked.

Tanesha raised a hand to them”.

“I know, I know,” Tanesha said. “Let me just sit over here with my illusions and exhaustion.”

The women laughed. Tanesha leaned back so that her head was on Sandy’s lap and her knees rested on the armrest of the couch. Sandy rubbed Tanesha’s scalp and Tanesha’ closed her eyes.

“Have some iced tea,” Jill said.

She got up to get the thermos and cups from the back of her SUV.

“We need bourbon,” Sandy said.

“It’s too hot for Bourbon,” Heather said. “But champagne?”

“Headaches,” Tanesha said.

“Let’s face it,” Jill said. “We have to get through this and then celebrate.”

The women laughed. Jill sat down on the other side of Sandy and Heather pulled up a box.

“Can you magic something?” Tanesha said without opening her eyes.

“Magic?” Heather asked. “Something?”

She sniffed in a manner befitting of a queen.

“I assume you are speaking to me,” Heather said.

They laughed.

“Oh yes, oh wise goddess, please oh please, help me sort through all of this crap,” Tanesha said.

“Are you sure?” Heather asked. “You didn’t want me to ‘magic’ when we started.”

“I was a fool,” Tanesha said. “Please forgive me, oh, wise woman.”

Jill and Sandy watched and for a long, silent moment, they just looked at each other. Heather laughed.

“It’s about time,” Heather said.

Heather clapped her hands together. The random stacking of boxes and other junk was sorted into a large pile, stacked precariously from floor to ceiling, on one side of the storage unit and a four boxes in a row on the other side of the storage unit.

“Whoa,” Jill and Sandy said in near unison.

Tanesha sat up.

“What in the world?” Tanesha asked. “What is this?”

“On one side, you have the crap that you hate,” Heather said. Nodding, she added, “Most of it is Jeraine’s crap — his high school papers, crayon drawings, the first guitar string he ever broke, the. . .”

“The first guitar string he ever broke?” Jill asked, laughing.

“You see what I have to deal with?” Tanesha asked, laughing.

Ever the practical friend, Sandy asked, “And the other side?”

“Stuff you want to keep,” Heather said. “That little picture Jabari had with him when he came. Before and after pictures of the yellow house. Your college pictures.”

“Anything of Jer’s?” Tanesha asked.

“Some,” Heather said. “But we took a whole lot of it to the house.”

“Don’t remind me,” Tanesha said. “How much of that pile is Gran’s?”

“About half,” Heather said.

“She’s going to be mad if she finds out we got rid of her stuff,” Tanesha said.

“How would she find out?” Heather asked.

“Just don’t tell her,” Sandy said.

Tanesha gave them a worried nod. Her Gran’s lover was forced to return to her fairy realm during the fairy wars. Without the constant care of her lover, Gran had deteriorated terribly. At the beginning of the year, Tanesha had to put her grandmother into a care facility.

Now she worried that her Gran would get Covid. It wasn’t that her Gran hadn’t lived a long, satisfying life. If anything, Gran had lived much longer than she would have otherwise. And, it wasn’t that Gran was a nice person or even a deserving person. Tanesha loved her Gran and wanted her around. Tanesha sighed.

“Don’t you think that we should keep her stuff?” Tanesha asked.

“She hasn’t missed this stuff,” Heather said. “And it’s been here a long time.”

Tanesha gave a slow nod.

“She’s not going to make it is she?” Tanesha asked.

“That’s not my purview,” Heather said. “I don’t know.”

Tanesha nodded. She turned to look at Sandy and Jill.

“What would you do?” Tanesha asked.

“I would put the four boxes in the SUV and go to lunch,” Jill said.

“Life has too much crap,” Sandy said. “We can all use to lose a few boxes.”

Tanesha shook her head.

“It feels like I’m betraying her,” Tanesha said.

“But not Jeraine?” Heather asked with a grin. “What about the ribbon he won for winning first place in that race in third grade?”

Tanesha gave Heather a long look before starting to laugh.

“Oh look, the boxes are in the SUV,” Heather said.

“Wha. . .” Jill got up to look in the SUV.

When Sandy, Jill, and Tanesha looked again, the stacks of boxes were gone.

“Where did they. . .?” Tanesha started.

Heather pointed to the trash and recycling bins. The recycling bin was full of folded boxes. The three trash dumpsters were full. Heather pointed toward the road.

A trash truck pulled into the storage facility. While they watched, the truck picked up the dumpsters and rotated them into the truck. They watched the back of the truck as it exited to the street. A recycling 

“I guess that’s that,” Sandy said.

“Time for drinks!” Heather said.

Laughing, the women left the storage unit. When the couch was free, it moved itself to the back of the storage unit. Tanesha gave Heather a curious look.

“Just in case we want a club house,” Heather said.

“Wednesday drinks club,” Jill said with cheer.

“Today’s Thursday,” Sandy said, laughing at Jill.

“I cannot keep these Covid days straight,” Jill said.

“You and me both,” Tanesha said.

“I’ll tell you one thing.”

The women turned to look at their friend.

“I love these masks,” Tanesha said, gesturing to her face mask. “We did all this dusty stuff and I’m not even stuff up.”

“Me too,” Sandy said with a nod.

“Now that you mention it,” Jill said.

“We should wear them all the time,” Heather said.

“We may have to,” Tanesha said, grimly.

“It always passes,” Heather said.

The friends shared a long look before Tanesha nodded. Tanesha and Heather helped Sandy into the back seat. Heather sat next to her. Tanesha got into the passenger seat and Jill started the SUV.

“Did I tell you that Loki came for a visit?” Heather asked.

“No way,” Tanesha said.

Laughing and talking, the four best girlfriends went to get tacos at their favorite truck with outdoor seating.

Denver Cereal continues next week...


Chapter Six Hundred and Thirty-nine - Building

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and THIRTY-NINE

“It is perfectly legal,” the son said.

“So is this,” William said. “We’ll file by end of day today to take control of the buildings. Unless, of course, you have the money to pay off the loan?”

“You’ll give us a month?” the son asked.

Bernie looked at his lawyer.

“How long did they give their tenants?” Bernie asked.

“Twelve hours,” William said.

“I’ll give you twelve hours from the time we notified you about this meeting,” Bernie said.

“That would be. . .” William looked at his watch, “. . . ten minutes from now.”

The father’s head continued to shake back and forth. The son started spewing words. His flawless, unlined face made every effort to twist around the cruel, rage-filled word. It was odd to watch the plasticity of the skin, so smooth and blemish free, bend around the rage. Bernie and William watched in fascination.

After a few minutes, two security guards arrived at the office and dragged the shouting son and his shocked father out of the conference room.

Bernie and the son of his old lawyer, his current his lawyer, William, sat in silence for a moment.

“That was. . .” William said.

Bernie started laughing.

“Satisfying,” William said. “Yes, yes, it was most satisfying. You have balls of steel, old man.”

“As do you,” Bernie said.

William’s face was covered in a face mask but Bernie was pretty sure he was grinning.

“We become what we hate,” Bernie said, gesturing to the door. “The boy reminded me of the Nazis — then and now.”

“If I’m honest,” William said.

Bernie gave a slight nod.

“He terrified me,” William said. “You’ve seen this before?”

“During the war,” Bernie nodded. Rather than spend time talking about Nazi evil, he said, “Did you know that it was my granddaughter who found the trove of Jewish art?”

“In Poland?” William was either surprised or was polite enough to act surprised. “Salt mine?”

“My Seth helped get it,” Bernie said.

“O’Malley is an incredible man,” William said. “Why do you bring this up?”

“My granddaughter gave me something for you,” Bernie said.

William’s hand flew to his heart.

“You. . .” William started. Overcome, the man’s eyes welled with tears. “You. . .”

“Is your father here?” Bernie asked.

“I won’t let him come into the city,” William said. “It’s too dangerous for the elderly.”

Bernie gave a quick nod. He reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a tissue paper wrapped packet. He set it on the table and pushed it over to William.

William’s eyes held Bernie’s for a long moment before he looked down at what was in front of him. His fingers picked at the tissue until it began to unfold.

A shiny gold pocket watch the size of a quarter and two gleaming rings were nestled inside the tissue. He opened the ornate pocket watch cover to reveal a beautiful face. In an effort to control his emotions, William snapped the lid to the watch closed. Bernie pointed to a set of initials engraved in the watch. William’s thumb moved over the engraving as if he were caressing soft skin.

“It’s on the rings, too,” Bernie said.

When William looked up, tears were streaming down his face. Bernie nodded.

“We may have more of your possessions. It will take some time,” Bernie said. “But I wanted to get this to you as soon as we knew they was yours.”

William had opened the watch again.

“Your great-great-grandfather made that watch,” Bernie said. “He signed it inside the instrumentation. We had it cleaned and a new timing coil put in so that it will work. I thought you should have it, especially during this challenging time.”

William gave Bernie a nod. Bernie grinned at the son of his old lawyer.

Bernie stood up from his seat and left the room. He nodded to the young woman at the front and left the office. He was in the elevator when his cellphone rang.

“Thank you,” William croaked. “My father is crying his eyes out. Right now. These are his parents’ rings.”

“Yes,” Bernie said. “They are.”

“Your granddaughter is Sandy Delgado?” William asked.

“Seth’s child with Andy Mendy,” Bernie said.

“I was going to say that she looks so much like Andy,” William said. “I looked her up. Your granddaughter. What a beautiful person.”

“She’s amazing,” Bernie said. “This effort of hers could use some help.”

“Donations?” William asked.

“Assistance distributing the items, determining their authenticity,” Bernie said. “And, between you and me, more than a few of your father’s friends are acting like jackasses. One of his friends is suing her for not giving him his item long before he or she knew it even exited! Is that how we deal with people now? No patience, no trust — just bring in the lawyers to harass someone who’s done you a favor.”

“I’ll take care of it,” William said. “You can’t imagine what this means to us. Thank you.”

“And it’s our pleasure,” Bernie said.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” William said. “Anything at all. As it is, you’ll take possession of the buildings by five tonight.”

“Thank you,” Bernie said, but William had gone.

Grinning at himself, Bernie left the building. He found Maresol where he’s left her.

“How did it go?” Maresol asked, standing.

“Much screaming,” Bernie said.

“Yes, I saw that,” Maresol said, as she tucked her hand into his arm. “How do you think he keeps his face so still while he spews such hate?”

“No idea,” Bernie said.

“I think he’s the devil,” Maresol said. “A demon at the very least.”

“Could be,” Bernie said. “We did just give him a very, very bad day.”

Chuckling, she squeezed his arm. They walked to the car that was waiting for them. He opened the door for her and she got inside. They returned to Seth’s building where anxious people waited to find out if they would have their homes this winter.

~~~~~~~~

Thursday morning — 9:00 a.m.

Denver, Colorado

Seth O’Malley knocked on the interview room with his foot. A uniformed officer opened the door and nodded. Seth went into the room carrying two cups of coffee.

“Coffee?” Seth asked.

The man in the interview room looked up at him and then nodded. Seth sat down across from the man. For a minute, they both took long drinks from their coffee cups. Seth set his down and looked at the man across from him.

In his day, this man — Gerald Whitestone — must have been a giant. Well into his 90th year, he still held himself with the powerful look of someone to be reckoned with. Thick chest and biceps pushed through the man’s tailored suit. His skin wasn’t quite brown and wasn’t exactly black. His eyes were on the brown side of hazel. What hair the man had left was combed back across his dome.

They had both been tested for Covid-19 before they entered this room. Neither was seemed to have the disease.

“The detectives tell me that you’ve made it through a physical and psychological evaluation,” Seth said.

Gerald Whitestone nodded.

“You’ve had your Miranda Rights read,” Seth said. “Any questions?”

Gerald Whitestone shook his head.

“We’re taping this interview,” Seth said. “Audio and video.”

“Got it,” Gerald Whitestone said.

“What would you like me to call you?” Seth asked.

“Whitestone,” Gerald Whitestone said. “You mind if I call you, O’Malley?”

“Most people do,” Seth said with a grin.

“You know ’bout the cancer?” Whitestone asked.

Seth nodded.

“I’ve got about three months to live,” Whitestone said.

“That’s why I’m here,” Seth said.

“You aren’t po-lice anymore, are you?” Whitestone asked.

Seth shook his head.

“I work special investigations, cold cases,” Seth said with a shrug. “They let me talk to people like you.”

“Why’s that?” Whitestone asked.

“They think that you’ll talk to me,” Seth said with a shrug. He held the cup to his lips. “Two old men in a room.”

Whitestone laughed. The men finished their coffee. Seth replaced his facemask and waited for Whitestone to do the same.

“That detective is older than you,” Whitestone said.

“More miles,” Seth said.

Seth gave Whitestone a long look.

“When I was a kid, I used to spend my weekends playing at the swing clubs in New York City,” Seth said.

“Big Daddy,” Whitestone said, softly, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear.

“I took jazz lessons from his father-in-law,” Seth said, not willing to give up the name of his mentor to the police detectives behind the mirrored glass.

Whitestone’s indicated that he knew who Seth was referring to.

“I spent a lot of my youth in those clubs,” Seth said.

“You can’t charge me for the swing club,” Whitestone said. “Or selling alcohol. They aren’t crimes any longer.”

“Murder,” Seth said. “You’re here for murdering your wife as well as another male, Mrs. Jones and a child.”

“Fair enough,” Whitestone said.

Whitestone leaned back in his chair. Sitting in silence, the men looked at each other for a long moment. Whitestone sighed.

“You waiting for me to confess?” Whitestone asked.

“No,” Seth said. “You did that last night.”

“That’s right,” Whitestone said. “There’s nothing wrong with killing a cheating woman. Not one thing.”

“That’s what I was thinking about,” Seth said.

Whitestone looked up at him.

“According to Wretched Jones, your wife wasn’t cheating on you,” Seth said.

“What about that man?” Whitestone asked indignantly. “She spent a powerful lot of time with him.”

“According to Wretched, the man was a teacher,” Seth said. “He was teaching your wife, and his, how to read.”

Whitestone made a “tsk” sound and shook his head in disbelief.

“Your wife was also learning basic accounting,” Seth said. “I guess you were having trouble with people stealing?”

“That’s just it,” Whitestone said. “I couldn’t tell.”

“She wanted to surprise you by doing all of the books,” Seth said.

“Nah,” Whitestone said. “She was cheating. I knew it the moment it started. Heard it from a guy who said he saw them together kissing and carrying on.”

“This guy,” Seth said. “He wouldn’t happen to be tall, lanky white guy?”

“Jeramiah Simons,” Whitestone said with a nod.

“You mean Sergeant Jeramiah Simons,” Seth said. “Soon to become Captain? Spent his nights and weekends in a white hood?”

Seth gestured with his hands to indicate a pointed hood.

“He the klan?” Whitestone asked. For a moment, his mouth dropped open. “Po-lice?”

“Feds,” Seth said.

“I’ll be God-damned,” Whitestone said with a slow shake of his head.

“They set you up,” Seth said pointing to Whitestone. “They didn’t care if you killed your black wife or Wretched’s, for that matter. They wanted to get rid of the teacher who was giving good hardworking black people an education. And they wanted to get rid of places where black people could congregate, enjoy themselves.”

Seth picked up a piece of paper and read.

“Reducing the native population was the cat’s meow,” Seth read. Seth looked up at Whitestone. “This is a letter he wrote to his superior.”

“How did you get that?” Whitestone asked. “That for real?”

Nodding, Seth set the sheet down. Whitestone picked up the paper and read the letter for himself.

“I. . .” Whitestone started and then stopped. “He. . .”

Seth nodded.

“It’s easy to get led astray when you want to believe it,” Seth said. “You had mistresses? It says here that you have three kids by three other women besides your first wife.”

“Sure,” Whitestone said.

“You thought your wife was behaving like you were,” Seth said.

Whitestone gave Seth a long look. After a moment, his head went up and down.

“You’re right,” Whitestone said. “My wife was a Christian woman. She drove me crazy with all of the praying and church going. I wanted. . . Well, I don’t know what I wanted.”

“You were relieved when you could justify killing her,” Seth said.

“Now where do you come off. . .” Whitestone started.

“Big Daddy told me that a very long time ago,” Seth said. “It’s taken me all of these years to realize it was this speakeasy — you — he was talking about.”

Whitestone looked away from Seth, and Seth waited. After a moment, the elderly man’s eyes flicked back to Seth.

“Big Daddy,” Whitestone said with a shake of his head. “The guy before him gave us the capital to start the club. First time I saw Big Daddy, he was traveling with his parents. Huh. The kid had my number the whole time.”

“Big Daddy had everyone’s number,” Seth nodded. “That’s how and why he was able to be who he was for such a long time.”

Whitestone nodded.

“Your children would like to bury their mother,” Seth said. “I guess there’s a plot already purchased for the both of you?”

Whitestone didn’t move.

“We’ll make arrangements,” Seth said.

“They still okay with me going in the ground there?” Whitestone asked.

Seth gave a slight nod.

“They’ve always known that you killed your wife,” Seth said. “At least that’s what your eldest daughter said.”

Whitestone gave Seth a slow nod.

“Out of curiosity, were you involved in building the ballroom?” Seth asked.

“No,” Whitestone said. “That place been around since the 1890s. Build by some guy named Marlowe. I’ll tell you — he built places all over the city. Secret places where people of all colors could meet up. You know. . .”

Whitestone leaned forward onto the table.

“It’s owned by a guy named ‘Marlowe’ now,” Whitestone said. “That family is an old, old Colorado family. They built places all over. Own a mine in Leadville that’s supposed to be filled with blue diamonds, but I don’t know that for a fact.”

“He found the ballroom,” Seth said.

“I bet he’d find them all,” Whitestone said.

“I’m not sure he knows about them,” Seth said.

“He will now,” Whitestone said. “You’ll tell him.”

Chuckling to himself, Whitestone nodded.

“The Feds want me to about the Phosogene,” Seth said. “Did you fight in Europe in World War I? There’s no record of it.”

“My big brother from my Daddy’s first family. Brought that back from the war,” Whitestone said. “You have to understand — most blacks believed that white people would wipe us out. My brother used to say, ‘There’s going to be a race war and we need to be prepared.’ I used the club to organize our people. Take a stand. Many of the more recent black politicians came out of our movement.”

“And now?” Seth asked. “Do you have any more gas canisters? Bomb? Anything lurking in your storage shed?”

Whitestone shook his head.

“At least I don’t think so,” Whitestone said. “My brother was alive when I. . . Well, you know. He told me to use the gas. I did just what he said. He helped me close up the wall. We left the ballroom and never went back.”

Seth nodded.

“Is Wretched angry?” Whitestone asked.

“Sad,” Seth said. “This entire thing is so sad. I spent an hour with your kids while they wept for their mother. They knew that she wasn’t cheating around. They knew what she was doing. You never asked them?”

“Never thought to,” Whitestone said. “They were kids.”

Whitestone shrugged.

“It was different then,” Whitestone said. “When their mother died, they went to live with her people. I sent money every month. They grew up in California. I didn’t see them again until they were long grown.”

“A couple of them live here now,” Seth said.

“To be near their kids,” Whitestone said. “Not me. They didn’t move here for me. But I’ll tell you, I gave them all I had left from the ballroom — more than $100,000. Those kids went to college on that ballroom. Made good lives for themselves.”

“I bet they would have rather had their mother,” Seth said.

Whitestone’s head jerked up to look at him. Seeing no judgement in Seth’s eyes, Whitestone nodded.

“You’re probably right,” Whitestone said. “Truth of the matter is that I would have had a better life if I hadn’t. . . I spent my life boozing and. . . doing nothing. That ballroom was the best of me. I killed the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“That’s likely,” Seth said.

“What happens now?” Whitestone asked.

“Your kids are asking for compassionate release,” Seth said. “Because of the cancer. That’s really up to the judge.”

Seth looked at Whitestone for a long moment.

“Jeraine is planning on having concerts in the ballroom,” Seth said. “Over the Internet. They think that they can manage the airflow and keep people healthy.”

“That’s good thinking,” Whitestone said. “That boy is smart.”

“He is,” Seth said nodded.

He waited for a moment and then looked at Whitestone.

“Is there anything else I should add?” Seth asked.

Whitestone shook his head.

“I’ve been waiting for this day since the day I kill them,” Whitestone said. “In some ways, it’s a relief to be here.”

Seth nodded and got up.

“I’ll get this typed up and get it to you,” Seth said. “I’ll have it for your signature later today.”

“Thanks, O’Malley,” Whitestone said. “Big Daddy would be proud of you.”

Seth snorted a kind of laugh and left the room. He closed the door and stood behind it for a long moment.

He couldn’t help but feel sad. At the peak of his success, this man had killed his wife and destroyed his family because he believed a cruel liar. That man was long dead. Yet there sat the man who’d acted on the liars words. Whitestone would spend his last days on this earth in prison for acting on the lie.

Sighing, Seth left to go find someone who could help him type up this statement.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Thirty-eight - Mysterious

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and THIRTY-EIGHT

Thursday early-morning — 2:15 a.m.

James “Jammy” Schmidt V pushed open the door to the Castle’s ballroom and stepped inside. He held the door open for his college friend, fraternity brother, and casino owner, Matt Weinreich. They stood in the dark for a moment until Jeraine stepped past them and into the ballroom. Jeraine went to the wall compartment and turned on the lights.

“Whoa,” Matt said.

Matt moved to the middle of the ballroom and began slowly spinning around in place.

“Who built this place?” Matt asked.

“There’s a name but I’m afraid it doesn’t mean anything now,” Jammy said.

“He signed it over there.” Jeraine pointed to up to the North ceiling where they could just make out a scrawl in white paint.

“And. . .” Matt stopped talking. Awed by the ballroom, he seemed to run out of words. “I. . . We. . .”

Jammy and Jeraine watched in silence as the man took in the room.

“Bars?” Matt asked.

“There are two,” Jeraine said. “They push into the walls on either end with a panel covering. That’s why you can’t see them now. That way the entire floor can be used.”

“Makes sense,” Matt said. “Is there a stage?”

Jeraine looked at Jammy, and he nodded.

“It takes all three of us,” Jeraine said.

“To pull out?” Matt asked with a snort. “Like bleachers?”

Jammy gestured for Matt to follow him to the screen. Jeraine unlocked the first set of hinges.

“Push,” Jeraine said.

“On what?” Matt asked.

Jammy gestured to the hand holds. Matt took a set of hand holds, and the men pushed. Section by section, the screen folded. Jeraine pushed the folded screen into the wall and closed the cover.

“How ingenious!” Matt said. “But where is the. . .”

Jammy pointed to Matt’s right.

“Whoa,” Matt said. “It’s a. . .”

“Full stage,” Jammy said. He pointed to the roof. “There’s a set of lights. We replaced a few old bulbs but otherwise it works. The sound system is ancient.”

“Easily upgraded.” Matt took his phone out of his pocket.

“Are you taking pictures?” Jeraine asked. “Jake didn’t want this going out because. . .”

“Not a chance,” Matt said, cutting Jeraine off. “I’m making notes of who I need to talk to and what we need to fix.”

“Good,” Jammy said. “They found four bodies here last night. The police want to keep a lid on the place so that they can conduct their investigation. They’ve closed off the area so as not to disturb it. Plus, Jake doesn’t want to draw unnecessary attention.”

“What about when we start broadcasting?” Matt asked.

“We thought we could call it the ‘Secret Ballroom’ or something like that,” Jeraine said.

Matt pointed at Jeraine and looked down to keep typing into his phone.

“How much is all of this?” Matt asked. “I assume we’re buying this right?”

“It’s not for sale.” Jacob’s voice came from the entrance to the ballroom.

The men turned to look at him. Jacob held Tanner and Bladen on his shoulders.

“Sorry I’m late,” Jacob said. “I’ve been working so much that. . . The boys needed a little attention.”

“Who are you?” Matt asked.

“Jacob Marlowe,” Jacob said. “I can’t really shake your hand. . .”

“Jacob Marlowe,” Matt said. “Jacob Marlowe.”

Matt looked at Jammy. Jacob continued across the ballroom floor.

“We stayed at a lodge. . .” Matt said. “In Maine? Friend of Jammy’s dad’s. . .”

“I own a few properties in Maine,” Jacob said. “Worked on them when I was in college.”

“The place was gorgeous,” Matt said. “I think that’s why it stands out to me. I kept asking who did this or that. . . how. . .”

“My mother bought this building when I was in high school,” Jacob said, moving on embarrassed by this strangers accolades. “We found this a few days before she died.”

Jacob nodded.

“My mother’s best-friend Delphie owns the entire property now,” Jacob said. “She’s not selling.”

“Fair enough,” Matt said. “Did you do all of this?”

“I’ve made it serviceable,” Jacob said. “Replaced this or that. Repaired a few things. But honestly, it was and is spectacular.”

“There’s bourbon in the storage area,” Jeraine pointed to the door.

“Is that where the bodies were found?” Matt asked. “Can we have some?”

“That’s this side of the stage,” Jacob said. “I didn’t know that it was a room until Wretched Jones arrived.”

“You know Wretched Jones?” Matt asked. “He’s alive?”

“He is,” Jeraine said. “I jammed with him for an hour or so this afternoon.”

“Damn,” Matt said. He looked at Jammy. “He’s coming here?”

Jammy nodded.

“We can work out the cost of getting this ready,” Jammy said.

“We don’t believe that it will take too much,” Jacob said. “I’m sure that you have people that you prefer.”

“I do,” Matt said.

“We are prepared to handle the upgrades,” Jacob said. “We will need help figuring out how to make it feasible and how to keep it a secret.”

“We think that the whole thing will be more. . .” When he ran out of words, Jeraine looked at Jacob.

“Special,” Jammy said, rescuing Jeraine. “Mysterious. Jeraine’s in the middle of building a new career so cryptic fits the bill. It will be good for us, and, we think — sell more tickets.”

“We have an online team,” Matt said. “They run our poker and gaming site. I’ll let them know that this is what we’re thinking. They’re all, like, twelve years old. They will geek out at this. I’ll have a list of what we need by the end of the day.”

“Good,” Jacob said. “I know that Jeraine is anxious to get moving on this.”

“What do we owe you for rental of the hall?” Matt asked.

“You keep asking me what you need to pay,” Jacob said with a shake of his head. “Jeraine’s family. He lives here. We’re his family and happy to help him. In any way.”

Matt gave a nod of his head and looked at Jammy.

“We’ll negotiate on the ticket prices,” Jammy said. “Get Jake 1% of ticket sales.”

Matt looked relieved and looked at Jacob.

“I hear what you’re saying about family,” Matt said. “But you’re underestimating how much money this thing is going to make. I want to be sure that, a month or six from now, you’re not going to be pissed that you bear the costs, and we make the profits.”

“Better to work this out up front,” Jammy said.

“Okay,” Jacob said. “Honestly, I’m just too tired to. . .”

“Yeah,” Matt said, cutting Jacob off. “You look it.”

“What’s got you?” Jammy asked.

“Oh, we have two underground sites funded and running,” Jacob said. “The governor made us essential and wants to dig out the funding for two other sites. We have all this pressure from the state to get things moving but we can’t get the money flowing. The bankers are just. . .”

Jacob shrugged.

“Terrified,” Jacob said. “They. . . well, no one knows what’s going to happen with this pandemic and all of. . . everything.”

“Why don’t I make some calls?” Jammy asked.

“I’m sure the money will free up at some point, we just have employees who want to work and. . .” Jacob shook his head. “We have money, but. . . No one has that kind of money and. . . Of all the things I was prepared for — this was not it.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Matt said. “You agree to 1% of ticket sales.”

Jacob nodded.

“Jammy and I will work out your money problems,” Matt said.

“How?” Jacob asked.

“My father owns a few banks and more than a few bankers,” Matt said. He pointed to himself. “Casino owner. Money is our business.”

Jacob nodded.

“Go, get some shut eye,” Matt said. “I’ll have a list for you when you get up.”

Not one to be told twice, Jacob started for the door.

“Wait,” Matt said.

Jacob turned back to him.

“Bourbon?” Matt asked.

“Feel free to have a glass, but it belongs to me,” Jacob said.

“Got it,” Matt said. “Outside entrance.”

“There is one,” Jacob said. “But it’s under six feet of dirt and gravel right now.”

“You can open it?’ Matt asked.

“I closed it,” Jacob said. “I can open it.”

“Good,” Matt said with a wave.

“Good night,” Jeraine said.

Jammy gave him a nod. Jacob left the ballroom.

“Now,” Matt said grinning at Jeraine. “Let’s take a look at this stage.”

Jacob made his way up the stairs through the kitchen and up the loft stairs. Jill met him at the door. They put Bladen and Tanner in the nursery. Jacob went through the motions to shower and went to bed.

He slept ten hours.

He woke with a start. Groggy, he grabbed his bathrobe and went out into the loft. No one was there. He went back into their bedroom to actually shower and dress. He left the loft in search of Jill. He could hear people talking in that distinctive way through masks. He followed the sound into the Castle living room.

Jill, Heather, and Sandy were in the living room with Blane, Aden, and Jeraine. Jill came over to hug him.

“What’s happened?” Jacob asked.

“We have the funding,” Blane said. “What did you do?”

“Some Vegas guy said that he owned banks, bankers. . .,” Jacob said with a shrug. “I don’t know, I was dead on my feet.”

“Matt Weinreich,” Jeraine said. “Family has owned a Vegas casino since Vegas was built. Friend of Jammy’s.”

“I don’t care who he is,” Aden said. “He worked it out. I woke up this morning to money in our accounts. We’re ready to start.”

Shaking his head, Jacob blew out a breath.

“If that’s the case, I’m going back to bed,” Jacob said.

He turned in walked out. He retraced his step and was back to bed in minutes. When he woke next, it was late afternoon.

“Drink this,” Delphie said, giving him a cup of water.

She sat back down on a chair near his bed.

“What. . .?” Jacob asked.

“We thought you might be ill,” Delphie said. “So I told them I would keep watch.”

“Where are the kids?” Jacob asked.

“In the backyard,” Delphie said. “It’s our first really nice day. They wanted to be outside.”

Jacob nodded and sat up.

“It seems like this thing with the ballroom is going to work out,” Delphie said.

“It’s hard to believe,” Jacob said.

Delphie nodded.

“A friend of mine told me that this was a dark time where things could get even darker,” Jacob said. “It was time to think creatively and share all of our resources.”

Delphie grinned.

“Are you sorry you’re sharing your ballroom?” Jacob asked.

“Glad that those bodies were found,” Delphie said. “Their families have been waiting and wondering about them for a long time.”

Delphie nodded.

“We’re going to have so fun,” Delphie said with a grin. “As long as we don’t get sick, wear our masks, wash our hands, you know. . .”

Jacob grinned at her.

~~~~~~~~~

Thursday morning — 10:00 a.m.

New York City, New York

Maresol Tafoya looked Bernie up and down before nodding. Bernie wore a brown wool suit and shoes that cost so much that she hadn’t told him the price. She straightened his silk tie and smoothed his starched white shirt.

“You look great,” Maresol said.

“I do look snazzy,” Bernie said with a big grin. “If I may say so myself.”

“Seth knows his suits,” Maresol said.

“It’s that gangster Big Daddy,” Bernie said. “Always wore the best suits.”

“One like this one,” Maresol said.

“Just like this one,” Bernie said.

Smiling to give him confidence, Maresol nodded. They were standing outside a tall high-rise building in Manhattan.

“You remember where to go?” Maresol asked.

Bernie nodded. Maresol grinned at him. He gave her a quick nod. Without another word, he turned in place and went inside the building. He nodded confidently to the security guard and took an elevator. He marveled that he was the only one on the elevator. He looked at himself in the shining mirror. The brown suit matched his brown eyes. His tie and face mask matched.

He silently wished he had one of those old fedoras. A brown one that matched this suit. He grinned.

“You’ll look like one of those hipsters,” Maresol had commented when he’d brought it up. “Kids. You are not a child.”

“But I am hip,” Bernie had said.

She and Seth had laughed, but they hadn’t disagreed. Children — they were both children compared to him. He stepped off the elevator on the 21st floor. He twisted and turned through the building until he reached the correct door. He went inside.

Being careful to stay six feet away, he told the young receptionist his name. He thought that she might have smiled at him, but he couldn’t see it behind her mask. She got up and walked him back to an office in the corner of the suite. She opened the conference room door, and Bernie went inside.

“Seth Bernbaum,” the man said. “I. . .”

“You can’t believe I’m still around,” Bernie said.

“That too,” the man laughed.

The man got up and gestured to a seat on his side of the table. Bernie passed the man.

“I would shake your hand, but they say we’re not supposed to,” Bernie said.

“So true,” the man said.

Bernie looked at the man. This man was the son of Erik Bearn, his old lawyer. Bernie remembered when the son of Erik Bearn was born. From where he sat, he noticed that the son had deep crow’s feet and little hair on his head, now.

The son’s name was. . . Bernie drew a blank. He tried to remember this middle aged man as a child. He remembered that his father had been deeply scarred by the Nazis, concentration camps, and the horrors of World War II. After changing their family name to Bearber, he’d given all of his children good English names.

William.

The lawyer’s name was William Bearber.

The phone rang and William picked it up. He spoke for a moment.

“They are here,” William said.

“They?” Bernie asked.

“He brought his son,” William said.

Bernie groaned which caused William to chuckle.

“The son’s worse than the father,” William said under his breath.

“And the father’s been to prison,” Bernie said.

William gave a slight nod. The men waited a few more minutes before the receptionist let two men into the office. The father had a full head of white hair. The son had the smooth face of a teenager, brought by an easy life, plastic surgery, and Botox.

Catching sight of Bernie, the father stopped short at the door. The son looked at his father and then, unable to squint, he gave Bernie an open eyed, gaping look. The son immediately dismissed Bernie as an old man. The son pulled out a seat at the table for his father. The father paused for a moment before moving to sit the chair offered by the son. The son sat next to his father.

“You asked us to be here,” the son said. He turned over his wrist. “We only have ten minutes. If you could get to the point.”

“We’re calling in your loan,” William, Bernie’s lawyer, said.

The father sucked in a breath. The son glanced and leaned back in his chair.

“You know who I am?” the son asked with a sniff.

“Do you know who I am?” Bernie replied in Hebrew.

The son’s eyes jerked to Bernie. After giving him another open eyed fish look, the son turned to look at his father.

“This. . .” the son said.

His father nodded.

“You may not be aware of this but I am the father of Seth O’Malley,” Bernie said, in clear English.

“No,” the father said. “No. No. That’s not possible. He is Catholic!”

“I was his father when you asked for a loan to buy those buildings around his little apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen,” Bernie said. “I am his father still. In fact, it’s his money you borrowed all those years ago to buy those buildings.”

“Our annual assessment of your financial situation has determined that you are unable to pay on the loan,” William said. “We’re requesting either full payment on the loan or possession of the buildings as stipulated in our agreement.”

“You promised that you would never do this!” the father said.

“I said it would take a lot for me to call in this loan,” Bernie said. “I held on when you went to prison. But throwing people out of their homes in the middle of winter while a deadly pandemic is killing people left and right? That kind of cruelty is. . .”

Bernie shook his head. Switching to old German, he said, “worthy of the Nazis you are in bed with.”

Unable to translate the language, the son looked at his father. The father gave Bernie a rueful shake of his head.

“It is perfectly legal,” the son said with a trace of righteous indignation.

Denver Cereal continues next week...

 


Chapter Six Hundred and Thirty-seven - Exhausting

CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and THIRTY-SEVEN

Chapter 637

Wednesday afternoon — 3:15 p.m.

Breathing hard, Sandy leaned on her cane. She was standing at the top of the basement stairs. The stairs had a lift, left over from when Honey and MJ lived downstairs. Today, she decided to take the stairs instead.

She made it up five steps! Five steps!

That’s more than she’d done since she was injured.

Of course, there were five more to go to get to the top. It took real determination to get to the top.

But she had!

She never would have tried it if she wasn’t trying to catch the state archeologist. They had traded phone calls for more than a week. Between moving to the Castle and all of this Covid crap, Sandy had been up to her eyeballs in . . . well, everything.

The state archeologist was here! At the Castle!

So Sandy was on her way to the main Castle kitchen.

If she could ever catch her breath . . .

“Tried the stairs?” Ava O’Malley asked, seeming to appear at Sandy’s side.

Sandy could only nod.

“Maresol would kick your ass,” Ava said.

Laughing, Sandy nodded.

“We’re done in the ballroom,” Ava said.

“And. . .” gasp, “the. . .” gasp, “state. . .” gasp, “arche. . .” gasp, “ologist?” Sandy managed.

“I prefer Heidi,” a woman’s voice came from somewhere near. “Please. Sandy. Can I bring a chair?”

Sandy saw the back of a sturdy, fit woman. She returned with a chair and a glass of water.

“Sit,” Heidi said. “That’s an order.”

Ava laughed at the idea of Heidi giving orders. Sandy collapsed into the chair. When she had caught her breath, she swallowed down the water.

“There,” Heidi said. “Come on, Ava.”

They got behind the wing backed chair and pushed. The chair slid easily across the ancient carpet. Soon, they were in the Castle living room. Ava squatted in front of the fire and lit the kindling. Heidi jogged into the kitchen. She returned with a tray with a pot of tea and some sandwiches.

“We had just made some sandwiches when Ava heard you,” Heidi said. “A woman gave me this tray and the pot of tea.”

“A woman?” Sandy asked.

“I think so,” Heidi said. “She was wearing this gold thing and. . . I don’t know, she reminded me of a statue of Artemis. There’s a wonderful bronze of her in the archeological museum in Athens.”

“Heidi always sees statuary in people,” Ava said with a laugh.

Sandy glanced into the kitchen and saw Artemis waving at her. She grinned.

“Problem of the trade,” Heidi said with a laugh.

Sandy smiled at them. When Heidi and Ava were bent over the sandwiches and tea, Sandy pointed up the loft stairs. Artemis grinned in thanks and went up the loft stairs.

“Thank you for your help,” Sandy said.

“No problem,” Ava said.

With her mouth full of sandwich, Heidi looked up. She chewed fast and swallowed.

“Sorry, I’d just taken a bite,” Heidi said. “I bet you’d like to know all about that head you found. But first. . . Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure,” Sandy said, reaching for a sandwich. “What would you like to know?”

“I wondered, well, this is what they asked,” Heidi said. “They being. . .”

“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” Ava said, interrupting.

“Heh,” Heidi grinned. “Good idea.”

“She always forgets that not everyone knows what she knows,” Ava said with a smile.

Smiling, Heidi nodded.

“Okay,” Heidi said. “I’ve always been a little in awe of O’Malley so it was a great treat to go to his house. Ava and I have known each other from college. Dale, too. But I haven’t been there before. I was so excited to see O’Malley’s house that I kind of forgot about the hoard.”

“The hoard?” Sandy asked with a smile.

“Well, isn’t it a hoard?” Heidi asked. “Saved from the Nazis by some ambition and smart Jews?”

“You forgot about the dark objects,” Ava said.

“How could I forget about the dark objects?” Heidi said with a laugh.

Sandy grinned at the woman’s glee.

“I was so focused on the house that I forgot there was even a hoard,” Heidi said. “And then, Ava lead me around the corner and I was like. . .”

Heidi’s mouth dropped open. Ava and Sandy smiled.

“How many items have you returned?” Heidi asked.

“How many?” Sandy scowled a little bit. “A little less than twenty? I think. We’re having a few authenticated — some at the Louvre, some in Israel.”

Sandy nodded.

“It’s. . . a lot,” Sandy said. “Some people are angry with us — well, me — for keeping their object from them. Some people are angry because. . . I don’t know why. Really, the whole thing is a mess. The Polish government is suing us or was. I think that’s worked out. If you can believe it, some descendants of Nazis are saying that the paintings or whatever belongs to them. And, we haven’t gotten through it all. Sometimes, I wish we’d never opened the tunnel.”

“I completely understand,” Heidi said. “I mean, I haven’t found anything like that but it’s really common in archeology to have this kind of chaos. People always want a piece of whatever you find. Do you have good lawyers?”

“Do you know who Nadia Kerminoff is?” Sandy asked.

“The doctor?” Heidi asked. She nodded.

“She’s handling all of the legal crap,” Sandy said. “Or her lawyers are. We were able to get everything out of the mine through her company.”

“You’re lucky,” Heidi said. “I have a friend who fell into a major find. She was out hiking and literally fell into the cavern. She worked for years and has been in court even longer!”

“I’m not surprised,” Sandy said. “I wish I’d known, you know? There are a lot of things I could have spent money on.”

“Eh?” Heidi shrugged. “It just takes time, Sandy. Give it a few years and you’ll see. People will be joyous at the return of their items, safely preserved by the salt mine. It will bring families together and with it, hope. That’s worth any amount of money.”

Sandy nodded.

“You’re right, of course,” Sandy said. “It’s just. . .”

“Infuriating,” Heidi said. “I know.”

“Exhausting,” Sandy said. “That’s the word I was going to use.”

Smiling in agreement, Heidi and Ava nodded.

“What do you know about the head?” Sandy asked.

“Ah, the head,” Heidi said. “Ava and her team took DNA before they passed the head to me. I passed it to, well, someone more familiar with heads.”

Heidi gestured for Ava to speak.

“We haven’t finished the entire sequence, but we know it’s the head of a woman,” Ava said.

“Since I’m running point on all of this,” Heidi said. “I wasn’t sure who to copy to get a DNA sample from. It took me a while but I was able to find a younger sister of Sophie Scholl. Of course, she’s quite old now, and. . .”

Sandy and Ava watched Heidi for a long moment.

“The truth is that we threw them into complete chaos,” Heidi said. “They thought that they had the remains of Sophie, her brother, and their friend. But if we have a head? What does that mean? They were also interested in all of the paper pamphlets and packing around the head.”

“The whole thing was a stuck mess, as you can imagine,” Ava said. “We took it to my lab. Leslie, well, you know Leslie, don’t you Sandy?”

“I do,” Sandy said. “Her kids go to the Marlowe School.”

“Right,” Ava said. “Anyway, she figured out a way to separate everything without losing integrity of the paper or the head. We have a number of pamphlets from the White Rose. Most of them are lost to history. So it’s a significant find.”

“It also implies that whoever packed up the box was sympathetic to the cause,” Heidi said.

Sandy nodded.

“We’re waiting for a DNA sample from Germany,” Ava said. “They are supposed to be sending one from her sister. We think we should be able to determine if the head is Sophie’s or not. In the meantime, they are trying to determine what remains they actually have.”

“Nadia contracted with a lab in Germany to do that work,” Sandy said. “I guess they’ve done a lot of that kind of thing from mass graves and the like. They said that they should have preliminary data in the next week or so.”

“Oh, good,” Ava said. “That’s really good. I was going to offer my lab to do it but if you’ve found one that’s done it before that’s really better.”

Sandy nodded.

“As far as I can tell, we don’t know anything definitive, but we’re on our way,” Heidi said.

“Have you found anything that says why the head is here?” Ava asked.

“As far as we can tell, it was stolen from the Germans to keep them from parading around with it,” Sandy said. “They considered Sophie, her brother, and their friend as true traitors. They were good Hitler Youth until they turned on the regime. They wanted people to know what happens when you betray the Nazis. Whoever stole the head was likely doing it to disrupt their propaganda machine.”

“Have you found any other heads?” Heidi asked.

“No,” Sandy said, shaking her head. “This was the only crate with the roses burned into it. I think it’s the only one. We’re still working through everything.”

Heidi and Ava nodded.

“How many bodies did you find downstairs?” Sandy asked.

“Three,” Ava said. “Did you meet Wretched?”

Sandy shook her head.

“He said that there was a story that the wife of the owner of the speakeasy was cheating on him with someone from the band,” Ava said.

“A black man,” Heidi said with a nod.

“The owner walled them up into the speakeasy,” Ava said.

“Alive?” Sandy asked, horrified.

“They were definitely alive when they were walled in there,” Heidi said with a nod.

“The sad thing is that there were two other remains there,” Ava said. “Wretched thinks that one of them was his wife. She worked at the speakeasy so was likely working when the owner walled off the area.”

“Too horrible to imagine,” Sandy said.

Ava and Heidi nodded.

“Jacob said that they are the twelfth remains he’s found in walls in the Castle,” Ava said. “Not counting Saint Jude.”

“They were in the floor,” Sandy said.

A shiver went up her spine.

“It’s pretty creepy,” Sandy said.

“Just history,” Heidi said. “We give life to these people and their suffering. Imagine — if they had lived, they likely would have died in World War II.”

“Or lived whole lives,” Sandy said. “We don’t know.”

“Either way, they’d likely be dead,” Ava said.

“It’s still pretty creepy,” Sandy said.

Heidi and Ava looked at each other and then nodded in agreement.

“My team and the group from Denver Police are getting forensics,” Ava said. “It looks like one of the people is of native origin so that’s a whole other thing.”

“It’s going to take time to unravel all of this,” Heidi said.

“Is the owner of the speakeasy still alive?” Sandy asked.

Heidi and Ava’s heads went up and down.

“Wow,” Sandy said.

“Yeah,” Ava said. “Wow.”

“They were ‘going to see him,’” Ava said.

“They who?” Sandy asked.

“The Denver Police,” Ava said. “Armed. So before you ask, O’Malley did not go with them.”

Ava turned over her wrist.

“My guess is that he’s in custody by now,” Ava said.

The women looked at each other. Not wanting to say anything, they simply drank their tea.

~~~~~~~~~

Wednesday afternoon — 4:35 p.m.

“Is he asleep?” Pete whispered.

Jacob was sitting in a wooden chair which was leaning up against the wall of the trailer. His eyes were closed. He seemed completely out.

D’Shawn nodded. Jason scowled. Before the other two men could do something dumb, Jason went to Jacob. Jason touched Jacob’s shoulder and stepped back.

The three men were an improbable team which managed complicated sites. They’d originally met through crime — D’Shawn was a drug dealer; Pete bought drugs from D’Shawn; and Jason was a master burglar and D’Shawn’s last cellmate. Together, they kept each other on track, clean, and on the straight and narrow.

Jacob opened his eyes.

“Sorry, man, you were asleep,” Jason said. “You never know what these fools are doing to do.”

Pete and D’Shawn gave loud guilty laughs. Jacob shook himself and sat up.

“It’s about time,” Jacob said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

The men howled with laughter. Jacob grinned at them.

“Sorry,” Jacob said. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“I heard about Jeraine and the ballroom,” D’Shawn said.

“Crazy shit,” Pete said. “Do you know what they found?”

“I haven’t paid any attention to it,” Jacob said.

“Four bodies,” Pete said.

“One’s a lady kind of huddled around a teenager,” D’Shawn said. “My buddy at DPD says that the teen is a Native American. The other two are a man and woman.”

“Any idea how. . .” Jacob started.

“Some kind of gas,” Pete said. “They think they walled them in and then set off the gas.”

“Gas?” Jacob asked.

“Something from W-W-I,” Jason said. “Pso-something. Used by the Germans.”

“Psogene?” Jacob asked.

Jason pointed at Jacob.

“Jeez,” Jacob said, shaking his head. “That’s. . .”

“Yeah,” D’Shawn said.

“You think there’s more bodies in that house?” Jason asked.

“I always hope not,” Jacob said. “But where there’s people, there’s cruelty or stupidity.”

“We know all about that,” Jason said.

D’Shawn and Pete laughed so hard that Jacob and Jacob joined in. Jacob stretched.

“Val had her baby last night?” Jason asked.

“How’d you know?” Jacob asked.

“I follow her on Insta,” Jason said. “Saw the announcement.”

D’Shawn and Pete sniggered.

“They’re pretending that they don’t,” Jacob said with a nod. “They do, too.”

“She’s very beautiful,” Jacob said. “Five fingers and toes.”

“What’s the deal with the name?” D’Shawn asked.

Jason pointed at him and laughed. Jacob grinned at the young men.

“I’m not sure,” Jacob said.

“Oh come on, man,” Pete said. “You can tell us!”

“If I knew, I would,” Jacob said. He sighed, and added, “We had a lot of kids for a while. Val and Mike were teaching; managing toddlers and teens. It’s been nuts. I think they just didn’t get there.”

“Makes sense, man,” D’Shawn said. “I couldn’t hear myself think while I was home. I never appreciated all my woman does.”

The other two men nodded.

“We’re glad to be back at work,” Pete said with a snort.

“Your kids are in college!” Jason said.

“They came home,” Pete said, shaking his head. “It’s. . . madness.”

The men nodded in support.

“What are we doing here?” D’Shawn asked.

“We don’t get the funding,” Pete said. “Aden said that the money is promised but not exactly here. What does that mean for us?”

“We’d like to get this and another site ready,” Jacob said. “Get the equipment here. Make sure you have a crew that can start.”

“You mean, make sure our guys can pass the drug test,” Pete said with a nod.

“We going to hair test them when they get here?” Jason asked.

“No,” Jacob said. “Let’s give everyone a few weeks to clean up.”

“Good thinking,” D’Shawn said. “I had more than a few guys ask me where to get stuff.”

“They can just go to Colfax,” Pete said. “I mean, not that I go.”

“We’re going to piss test you first,” Jacob said pointing to Pete.

Pete looked offended, but Jason and D’Shawn laughed.

“Nah, man, we’ve been keeping each other straight,” Jason said. “We won’t let you down, Jake.”

“That’s not to say that we aren’t thrilled to be called back,” Pete said with a laugh.

The other men nodded.

“When do you think the money will get here?” D’Shawn asked.

“Two weeks?” Jacob asked. “It’s a gamble. But the governor’s serious about getting folks working. So we have to trust that they will get it together.”

The men nodded.

“Is this what they’re doing at the other site?” Pete asked.

“Yes,” Jacob said.

“I’ll coordinate with them,” Pete said. “Bambi and Honey are running the other sites?”

“We weren’t sure how to make it work so Bambi suggested combining teams,” Jacob said. “Jose and Javier combined their teams. Bambi and Honey combined theirs. You and Mark will be the first single teams to try the job sharing.”

“I’ll talk to Bambi and Javier,” Pete said. “They probably have a lot to say about all of this.”

“Honey’s been working from home. I know it’s really hard, but they’ve managed to do it,” Jacob said. “Tres set up a spreadsheet that will help. We have four full teams rotating now. You’ll get two more going. The other site will two teams which will bring us close to full employment. Close. So if you have some wiggle room, remember that there are people waiting and wanting to work. They’d rather be here working than getting paid at home. So bring them here — even if it’s just to get supplies, sweeping, or whatever.”

“Got it,” Jason said. “Our team is set up in teams, so I’ll call the team leaders. I’ll get the other team set up that way as well.”

“Can you help Mark if he needs it?” Jacob asked.

“The black man. . .” Jason put his hand on his chest, “. . . has always helped the white man.”

“Right,” Jacob said. “But we’re talking about Mark. I’m not sure he’s a man.”

Pete, D’Shawn, and Jason laughed.

“Don’t worry, Jake,” Pete said. “We’ve got this.”

“Just let us know if you need anything,” Jacob said. “Dad’s still a little weak, but he’s free of the virus. He can help some. Blane, myself, and Aden are only a phone call away. Tres and his team, too.”

“What about schools?” Jason asked. “My kids miss their friends.”

“We’re working on it,” Jacob said. “We have crews working on the air systems. Our lawyers are negotiating with the state.”

“Right, but what do I tell my wife?” Jason asked.

“Since she’s one of our lawyers, you can tell her that you believe in her ability to work this shit out,” Jacob said. “And, if the kids drive her crazy, she can bring the kids to the Castle. Delphie’s teaching kids about planting and growing.”

“Good to know,” Jason said.

“You want to nap here for a while?” Pete asked as a joke.

“I do,” Jacob said. “But Blane would. . .”

“Oh good, you’re done,” Blane said, sticking his head in the trailer. He nodded to D’Shawn, Pete, and Jason. “We have to go.”

Jacob grinned at the men and left the trailer. D’Shawn, Pete, and Jason went to window to watch Blane talking to Jacob. The men laughed at Jacob and Blane until they got into an SUV. For a moment, they just looked at each other.

Then they got to work.

Denver Cereal continues next week...