Macnamaras woman, p.1
Macnamara's Woman, page 1
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Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Patricia Stancliff, PT, for breaking my heroine's bones, then teaching her to walk again. And thanks to SCCA drivers Anthony Ruddy and Jim Biondi, as well as Dick and Bob of Shine Racing Services, for attempting to instruct me on how to race. As always, all mistakes are mine.
In memory of my grandfather, Fritz Baumgartner, for teaching us so much about family and community.
They called him Spider, but that wasn't his real name. He'd been born Frank or Bob or something generic like that. It had never suited him, so Spider worked well enough.
He'd been a small, scrawny kid who'd grown into a small, scrawny man with overly long arms and legs. When he ran, his limbs bounced around like disjointed attachments, ungainly and awkward. He didn't run often.
Mostly, he tended to his graveyard.
It wasn't his graveyard, per se. Really, it belonged to the dead souls who'd been laid to rest here. He supposed it also belonged to the fine people of Sedona, as one corner of the cemetery was maintained by the Historical Preservation Society. In that corner, all the hundred-and-fifty-year-old slate tombstones and wooden crosses were tumbled together. Some of them had been scoured blank by the dust and wind. Others still bore morbid little rhymes such as "Abe took six in the shoulder, now he ain't gettin' no older."
Spider made sure he dusted these tombstones every night; otherwise the thick red dust made the inscriptions hard to read. He also checked the integrity of the black wrought-iron fence bordering the cemetery. Finally, he inspected the markers themselves for any fresh nicks or chips—you wouldn't believe what people tried to take as souvenirs these days.
Spider took great pride in the fact that during his twenty-five years as caretaker, there hadn't been a single incident of vandalism. Something like that shouldn't mean much, but it did. Time had made people crazy, and these days there wasn't nothing people wouldn't do to a cemetery. Young kids covering loving inscriptions with spray paint. Drunken teens pelting century-old mausoleums with empty beer bottles. Sneaky tourists trying to hack off a piece of history.
As far as Spider could tell, not even dead people were safe. And it was up to him, as the caretaker, to provide the last bastion of protection to those who could no longer help themselves.
Graves were important. People came to remember the past, and they came to seek comfort from the ones they'd loved. Walking through the cemetery late at night, a man could hear the strangest things. A son telling his departed father about the birth of his first child. An old man passing on the day's events to his wife, dead five years now. A mother swearing to her recently buried child that she wouldn't forget, would never forget. Graves were like confessionals. Spider had read once that the FBI even used them to trap killers seeking forgiveness from the ones they'd harmed. Spider knew a thing or two about that. Over time, he'd overhead things he shouldn't have. Over time, he did his best to forget those utterances.
Now he was trying to uncover the nine-year-old riddle of the cognac bottles, which was why he was still up after the time polite folks had gone to bed. The moon was big and clear in the sky, perfect for a midnight vigil. He could hear crickets as he huddled behind Sedona's first mayor's tombstone. He could hear the dry, sandy rustle of the lonely wind.
He waited to hear more.
He waited, as patiently as he could, to hear footsteps.
It was October 15. The night the cognac bottle always appeared.
It had taken Spider until five years ago to put that together. Once a year, he'd find a bottle of fifty-year-old cognac next to this group of three graves. The first year, he'd thought nothing of it. He'd figured some of those white-bread, preppy brats from one of the resorts had left it. Seeing that most of the bottle remained, he'd commandeered it for himself. He wasn't much of a cognac man, the stuff could burn a hole in your belly, but if the rich folks could drink it, so could he.
The next year, he'd been surprised at finding the same bottle in the same spot. He'd marked the date on his calendar.
The third year, he'd been curious. The date had held true.
The fifth year, he'd figured it out. These graves were newer graves, a small family plot. Must've been some accident or fire or something, because all three tombstones bore the same date: October 15. He had a mother, a father and some young man with a different last name. Maybe a nephew. He wasn't sure. They were nice markers—two-foot-high pink marble on a granite foundation. The top of each stone had a carving of an angel, and that stuff wasn't cheap. The inscriptions reported the name, dates and a generic "May they rest in peace."
Spider decided that they had died in a fire, because fire had always sounded like a big way to go.
But somebody still missed them. Somebody drank fifty-year-old cognac in their honor every year, then left them the bottle. Spider wanted to know who that somebody was.
Last four years, he'd waited up without success. Twice he'd fallen asleep. Once he'd heard a noise and gotten sidetracked chasing it down. When he'd returned, there had been the cognac. The fourth time had been the scariest. He must've fallen asleep, because he could've sworn there was nobody there, then suddenly a shape appeared before him, swathed in black from head to toe. He remembered seeing blazing red eyes, then he'd cried out and passed out cold.
He'd woken up and found the cognac at his feet.
Maybe he should've given up then. The demon trespasser wasn't hurting the graves, and that's what mattered. But he couldn't. Somebody—something—came into his place every year. Somebody treaded on the slow, sweet silence of the only land Spider could call home.
He wanted to know who.
He'd planned it better this year. He'd eaten simple foods for the last few days so nothing would upset his stomach. Then he'd drunk coffee instead of his nightly beer. He was ready. Bring on the demon. Spider could handle him.
The moon rose higher and higher. The crickets grew faint.
Midnight came and went. One o'clock followed suit.
Spider's eyes began to sag, his lashes touching his cheeks.
He jerked himself awake.
And finally heard footsteps.
They were fast but steady. Spider grasped a leering gargoyle with his fingertips and peered out from behind the mayor's grave.
At first he saw nothing. Then his nose began to twitch. He caught the unmistakable odor of perfume.
A woman materialized before him, and he sucked in his breath.
She looked like she'd been cut out of the night. A form-fitting black suit smoothed down a figure Spider had only seen in girlie posters. Black-encased legs that went on forever. Dainty feet tucked into spiky black heels. A waist belted so tiny he ought to be able to span it with his hands. And that chest…
She'd swathed her head in black, as well, a veil covering her face. Long, black gloves hid her hands.
She stopped before the graves. She said nothing, she didn't even nod her head. She simply uncorked the cognac, poured the rich, amber liquid into a crystal globe and swirled it three times. She offered a silent toast to the pink marble graves.
Then she raised her veil and tossed back the cognac.
And for one moment, the moon was clear and brilliant on her exposed alabaster face.
Spider shrank back, stunned and terrified. He whimpered without meaning to, and immediately, she stilled.
Was it just his imagination, or for one small moment, did she tremble?
She said softly, without looking at him, "Come out, Spider. I know you're there."
The demon had gotten him after all. He came out of hiding, his head hung between his shoulder
"I never told anyone," he muttered. "I didn't know it was you comin' each year. I thought they'd died in a fire or somethin'… I d-d-didn't know… P-p-please…"
Her face remained impenetrable behind the veil. Abruptly, she took a small step back as if she'd decided to let him go, after all. His head picked up. His eyes grew hopeful.
"I won't tell, I won't tell," he gushed. "Swear it, swear it, swear it Miss—"
A gun appeared. His eyes widened. His throat closed up, he couldn't speak, couldn't beg no more.
Her arm was trembling. God almighty, the demon actually shuddered.
"I … I have to."
She pulled the trigger.
He fell bonelessly beside the graves he'd labored to maintain. And the rhythmic singing of the crickets filled the hushed night once more.
The woman in black drove away. She made it two miles before she pulled over beside the deserted road and vomited helplessly. There was still no one to see. Still no one to know. But it had been like that for a long time now. It had been that way for the last ten years.
She climbed back into her car and continued driving.
« ^ »
"There are two ways of doing this—the easy way or the hard way."
The big man appeared unimpressed. He leaned back in the old wooden chair and crossed arms that were as thick as oak beams over his chest. His eyes carried a dangerous, glassy sheen C.J. knew too well.
He should've never let the big man into his bar. It was obvious the guy and his companions had already had a few too many before ever stepping into the Ancient Mariner. Now C.J. got to clean up some other bartender's mess.
"I don't gotta do nothing," the big man said sullenly. He bent his thick neck toward his burly buddies. "Right?"
Twiddly Dee and Twiddly Dumb both nodded.
C.J. forced himself to stand loose and keep the grin on his face. It was Wednesday night, and on a Wednesday night of all nights, he didn't want a fight in the middle of his joint. But principles were principles, and poor Sheila was still huddled in the corner, terrified, after being pinched by Paul Bunyan here. C.J. didn't stand for disorderly conduct in his place, and he definitely didn't stand for any guy manhandling a woman.
As far as C.J. could tell, there was only one thing to do.
"You got two options," he explained again. "The easy way or the hard way."
He rolled his neck and shrugged out his shoulders. At five ten and one hundred and sixty pounds, he hardly intimidated the larger man. The regulars in the bar who knew better were quietly placing bets with the people who didn't know so much. Behind the bar, Gus was unsheathing her knife just to be safe. If these big brutes thought C.J. was harmless, just wait until they saw what Gus could do with a bowie knife.
C.J. wasn't nervous. He'd faced bigger opponents, tougher opponents, more numerous opponents in his life. At this point, he just wanted these drunkards out of his bar with the least amount of damage possible.
"Okay," C.J. said at last. "The hard way it is."
He rolled up his shirtsleeves and assumed a boxer's stance. "Come on, big fella. I got other customers to flatter."
Big Fella lumbered out of his chair enthusiastically. Obviously, he hadn't walked into the Ancient Mariner for the beer.
C.J.'s pulse picked up. He hadn't been in a brawl for months now, and there was something to be said for a good brawl. Once a marine, always a marine. Semper fi, baby.
The big guy charged, all force and fury. C.J. shook his head and stood his ground. At the last second, he feinted right. Big Fella went crashing headfirst into C.J.'s freshly polished bar.
C.J. winced. "Hell, that's a hundred dollars' damage right there."
Big Fella reeled back and shook his head like a drunken bull. His buddies rose out of their chairs.
"Man, its gonna be an expensive night."
Behind the bar, Gus snorted and said, "You shoulda bought the tranquilizer gun when you had the chance."
"And miss these Kodak moments? Put some money down on me, Gus. I'm going to need the winnings to cover the damage."
"Bah," Gus muttered. "Bar can handle more than that. You, too."
Twiddly Dee and Twiddly Dumb advanced. C.J. let them crash into the bar once apiece just to be neighborly. After a bit of heavy grunting and fist clenching, the threesome decided for a group rush, costing him two perfectly good tables and one already taped-together chair. The locals groaned then cheered as he took a solid right hook, recovered and danced away on the balls of his feet. He knew how to move, take a blow and bounce back up like a human Weeble Wobble. What growing up poor on the streets of L.A. hadn't taught him, the marines had jammed down his throat in eight weeks of do-or-die boot camp.
C.J. got serious. He blocked out the locals' cheers, Gus's scowl and Sheila's concern. He focused on the men before him, the adrenaline throbbing in his veins, along with the small ore of anger that snaked through him on random occasions. The part of him that never forgot the hunger of L.A., or the agony of his mother dying, or his father leaving him that final time for the skies of Indonesia.
C.J. moved. Jab, jab, followed by two feints and a dozen rapid-fire punches. The three men dropped one, two, three, making loud thuds on his red-tiled floor.
Thirty seconds later, C.J. stood in the middle of the floor, his breathing slightly heavy as the locals swapped cash, shook their heads at the drunken fools and returned their attention to the small TV set up in the corner. C.J. lingered just to be sure, but Paul Bunyan and his friends remained down for the count. He was half satisfied, half saddened by that. His little sister, Maggie, was right—he enjoyed fighting too much.
"All right, all right," Gus grumbled, coming out from behind the bar. "I'll show them to the door."
She shuffled her bulk toward the fallen forms, not in any hurry. A Hopi Indian, she was shorter than C.J., but a great deal more imposing. Her thick black hair was liberally streaked with gray and worn in a tight ponytail at the nape of her neck. She never wore jewelry, just the hideous, twisting scars on her face that hinted of untold stories. C.J. had shared the bar with her for almost six years. He had no idea where she came from, what she'd done, or where she might be going. He figured the first time he asked, she'd simply give him her flat, black stare, then pack her bags and leave.
Now she leaned over the groaning men and smiled in a way that twisted her scarred face even more grotesquely. One man opened his eyes, gave a little yelp and squeezed them shut again.
"Taking out the trash, Gus?" one of the regulars chortled.
C.J. left the locals to recap the victory and exaggerate the details. He crossed to Sheila, who stood with her arms wrapped around her middle in a stance that reminded him even more of Maggie.
"How you doing, kid?"
She shrugged weakly. Until recently, her primary occupation had been serving as a punching bag for her alcoholic husband. Then four weeks ago, Mary Campbell from the local church had called C.J., stated Sheila was trying to leave her abusive husband and asked if C.J. would give her a job as a cocktail waitress. He'd agreed instantly, of course. When Sheila had turned out to have no training, he spent Monday walking her through the drill himself. When she'd flinched the first time the bar got too rowdy, he'd harassed his regulars into settling down. When she'd paled at the thought of having to weave in and out of so many men, he'd rearranged the tables so she'd have a wider aisle.
The regulars had been teasing him about it ever since. "Yep, there goes C.J. again, rescuing another damsel, drying another tear. Think if we were blondes he'd treat us so well?"
"Nope," C.J. had retorted. "Because you guys would make damn ugly blondes."
"Don't let a big bully like that scare you," C.J. drawled lightly now. "You're tougher than he is."
Sheila finally smiled, but it still didn't reach her eyes. He gave her another moment.
"Want to take the rest of the evening off?"
"It's only one night. Business isn't that great."
"I'm fine. Really."
"Sweetheart, you look like you're going to faint."
Her lips thinned. She looked uncertain, then abruptly she squared her shoulders. "I can do it. I … I need to do it."
"All right, it was just a suggestion. Prove me wrong, see if I care."
"I'll do that." She slanted him a narrow look. "You didn't have to fight him. You can't fight everyone who pinches a woman's butt."
"In my bar, yes I can."
"I have to learn to handle men like that sooner or later."
"Fine, next time I'll hold him and you can beat him up. You are becoming more like my sister, Maggie." He said that a bit wistfully. He'd always regarded himself as his little sister's protector, her number one knight in shining armor. Maggie didn't need him anymore, though. She'd found herself a convicted murderer instead, and C.J. had given up ever understanding women. "So you're okay?" he quizzed Sheila again, just to be sure.
"Okay, let's get this show back on the road, then."
He strode back to the center of the bar, already picking up the shattered chairs.
"Never met a stray dog or troubled woman he didn't love," Gus muttered from behind the bar to no one in particular. "He sure ain't gonna die of old age."
* * *
At 1:00 a.m., C.J. closed up shop, kicking the last four regulars out the door. It being Wednesday night, most of the locals had work the next day. Sedona existed thanks to year-round tourism, a few plush resorts to attract the really rich moths and a solid collection of excellent art galleries. Most of the Ancient Mariner's clientele were the rugged, blue-collar workers fueling the white-collar vacations. The Jeep-tour guides, the hot air balloon guides, the helicopter pilots. The laundry boys and "customer service representatives" from the various resorts. The kind of people who worked hard looking at how the other half lived and knowing they'd never be them. They worked hard, anyway, and at the end of the day, they wanted to kick back, listen to some good, old-fashioned rock 'n' roll and enjoy a cold beer.
by Alicia Scott / Romance have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes