November 1st, 1974.  12:45 PM

 

When I walked into O’Donahue’s Donald Neitz was seated at the bar.  His lanky frame was leaning over a steaming bowl of Irish stew, and he chuckled to himself after every slurped spoonful.  I took the stool next to him, and it was several seconds before he noticed me.

            “Oh, hi Sammy,” he said, wiping his lips with the cloth napkin that hung by a corner from his buttoned-up shirt collar.

            “Hey, Donald,” I said.  “Ready to hit the road again?”

            “Sure thing, Randy’s gonna drive me to the airport after our meeting.  Nothing wrong, is there?”

            “Not at all,” I told him.  “I just have a couple things to talk about, haven’t really had the chance to have a sit-down with you or Randy, but I wanted to make sure I touched base before I headed back.”

            “You got to try this stew,” he said laughing though his recommendation wasn’t the least bit funny.  Then he abruptly changed the subject.  “It’s that lady who was dressed like a witch.  That’s what you want to talk about, isn’t it?”  For the first time since I’d known Donald, his tone was serious.

            “Celia Andrews,” was all I said.

            Donald pushed away his now empty bowl and once again wiped the corners of his mouth before yanking the napkin from his collar.  “When Toby talked about the blonde with the curly hair at the meeting the other day, I just couldn’t believe it.  And then when he said her name, it was like, wow, I’d met that same girl.”

            “I know,” I said.  “I got that from your reaction.  Did you know you were dancing with her the other night?”

            “Not until you fell and her wig came off.”  His laughter returned with the memory of the debacle Grace had caused.  Since a man never likes to relive fallown down on a dance floor, I decided to brush that part aside and get straight to the point.

            “When you met her on your route she didn’t get a bead from you, did she.” It wasn’t a question.  I knew that if she had her attention would have been elsewhere during the Christmas party.

            “No, she didn’t, come to think of it.”  His eyebrows came together as he sucked at his teeth, now in deep thought.  “Which was strange, because the first time I saw her she seemed to be in dire need of some beads, considering it was…”

            “Her niece’s birthday. Yeah, I know.” I said, finishing his sentence.  “What I’m curious about is why she didn’t leave with anything.”

            Donald chortled and ran a finger under his tight collar while deciding where to start his tale.  Before he could, however, Randy Tutler came into the bar and sat next to me.  He was dressed flashy, as usual.  The colors in his plaid leisure suit were so bright, and contrasting that the pattern fooled the eye into seeing it vibrate against the lime green, double-knit background.

            And it didn’t go at all with his alligator shoes.

            “How’s it going, fellas?” He asked.  Before we could answer he yelled to Ryan O’Donahue who was (as always) tending the bar.  “Give me what Sammy’s havin’, would ya?”  Then he turned to me.  “What are you havin’, Sammy?”

            “A cola,” I replied.

            “Make it a cola, then,” he said to O’Donahue, but then an idea seemed to float into his head from somewhere, and he slapped the bar hard as he looked at me.  “Say, you called this little meeting, right Sammy?”

            “Yeah, I just have a few questions for the both of you.”

            “So this is like official business or something, right?”  He absent-mindedly fidgeted with one of his gold chains.

            “I guess, kind of, yeah.”

            “So is it on the company’s tab is what I’m driving at, Sammy.”

            “Sure, whatever.”

            “Barkeep.  Scotch up, and double it.” 

            I wasn’t sure which annoyed me more, the fact that Randy ordered an expensive drink only because he’d cajoled me into paying for it, or that he used the word ‘barkeep’ when he fully knew Ryan O’Donahue’s name.  Before I could decide, he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed in the opposite direction.

            “Sammy, check her out.” I followed his stare to a far corner booth, where a rather unimpressive-looking woman was sipping tea and reading a newspaper.  She seemed content not to be bothered.  “Let’s make this quick, I think she wants some company.”

            “Donald was just telling me about his first run-in with Celia Andrews.”

            Randy stared at me blankly.

            “The woman dressed as a witch from the other night,” I explained.

            “Oh, yeah, I remember.  Man, was she a looker.”  Randy shook his head as he bit his bottom lip.

            “So you’d also had a run-in with her before?” I asked.

            “Hmm?  No, never saw her before in my life.”

            “Well hold on then, I’ll get back to you in a  minute.”

            She was a real  looker?  I thought.  She had her face painted green, and a big rubber nose glued to her face.  It was quite astounding just how unappealing Randy could be.

 “So, anyway, Donald.”

“I really don’t know what to say.  I was in a restaurant, saw this pretty lady who looked kind of down, and she gave me the story that, apparently, you already know.  Then I went to my car, brought back my display case, she didn’t find anything she liked, and then, well, she left.”

            “What I’m wondering is, how come she didn’t find what she was looking for?  Why didn’t she leave with what she wanted?”         

            “Hey, Sammy, you got the wrong idea.”  Donald was becoming unnecessarily defensive.  “My case is in perfect order.  I displayed all the newest beads properly.  There wasn’t a speck of dust on any of the merchandise, and none of the silver beads were tarnished.”

            “That’s not what I mean,” I said trying to calm him down.  “She didn’t find what she was looking for because she was after a very specific bead.  If it wasn’t in your case, where was it?”

            “Well how would I know?  There’s billions of kinds of beads.  If she didn’t find one in particular, well how would I know which one it was?”

“I’m not talking about a specific style of bead.  I’m talking about one bead in particular.” I looked over at Randy; I wanted him to hear what I was about to say to Donald so that I wouldn’t have to repeat myself.  It’s a good thing I did, because Randy was winking and smiling to the woman in the back booth as she totally ignored him.

            “Randy, this concerns you,” I said.

            “Alright,” he sipped his free drink.  “I’m leaving town this afternoon, anyway.  I guess it wouldn’t be fair to break her heart.  So what’s up?”

            “I was just telling Donald that in his display case, probably when it was first given to him, there was a certain bead, unusual and extremely unique.  When our Miss Celia Andrews was bead shopping, she was looking for that one bead in Donald’s case, and eventually I’m sure she’ll track you down, Randy, and she’ll be looking for that odd bead you have.”  I was pretty sure they were both following me.  “So, Donald, Celia was looking for a bead that wasn’t in your case.  Do you know which one it is?  Had you sold it, perhaps? If so, do you remember who bought it?”

            “Oh, yeah, the funny bead, sure, yeah.”  Donald began laughing again, his Adam’s apple bouncing up and down on the hollow of his neck like a kid on a pogo stick.  I wanted him to continue, but he didn’t.

            “So you know which bead I’m talking about?”

            “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

            “And it’s not in your case?”

            “Nope, nope.  Not in my case.”

            Randy was getting bored with the conversation.  He slid off his barstool and put a hand on my shoulder.  “Look, Sammy, she looks awful lonely.  When you get done with Donald here, just yell over, okay?”

            “Sit down,” I told him.  “This will just take a second.  Okay, Donald.  Had you sold the bead?”

            “No, didn’t sell it.  Can’t think of anyone that would have wanted to buy it, but I just didn’t have the heart to throw it out.  It kind of grew on me, you know?”

            “So where is it?”

            Donald once again hooked a finger under his shirt, but this time it wasn’t just a nervous gesture.  From his collar he pulled a slim, silver chain, to which he had attached his bizarre bead. 

            It was in the shape of a quarter moon.  Yellow paint, which had undoubtedly been applied decades ago, had started to chip, revealing a deep, solid black undeneath, the kind of black that prevents light from reflecting, giving an eerie feeling of nothingness.  It kind of looked like a very small, very bruised, very haunted banana.

            “Okay, Donald,” I said, after examining the bead for almost a minute.  “I can say with a certain degree of confidence that this is the bead that Celia Andrews was after.”

            “Huh.  Well what do you know?  I’m really sorry, Sammy.  Truly I am.  If she just would have described it, well, I would have given it to her right then and there.  Probably wouldn’t have charged, even. Would have just handed it over.”

            “That’s okay, Donald, you did good.  The thing is, I believe there are two people after these odd beads, and they’re working together.  A friend of mine in Cincinnati, who I sold a bunch of beads to, just had her shop burglarized.  Are all these things connected?  Probably not.  But if they are, well, I want to make sure I don’t put you guys in danger when you’re out on the road.  So would it be okay, Donald, if I took this bead off your hands?”

            His head wobbled in a way that I took to be an affirmative nod.

            “Thanks, I appreciate it.” I said, taking the bead off the chain, and handing the strand of silver back to him.  Then I turned to Randy.  He started explaining himself before I could say a word.

            “Hey, Sammy, if you’re going to ask me about one woman I may have met on the road, I probably won’t be a whole lotta help to you..”

            “You just said a second ago you’d never seen this Celia person.”

            “Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.  I don’t know.  I mean, sure, Donald here, the other guys, even you, Sammy, you meet one beautiful girl on the road, she’s gonna stick to your brain, you know?  But with me, blondes, brunettes, redheads, short hair, long hair, I just can’t keep them all straight.”

            I knew Randy could go on bragging about women all day, so I turned the conversation to beads.

            “Okay, Randy, what about a strange bead in your case?  Does that ring a bell?”

            “Sure maybe, yeah, I guess.”  He sounded suspicious of me, and I didn’t like it.

            “Is it still there?”

            “Could be, why?”

            “Because it if it is I’d like to see it”

            He paused for a few seconds before agreeing.

            “Alright, come on.  It’s out in the car.”

            He gulped down the rest of his scotch before waving an unreturned goodbye to the woman in the booth.

            “Grab your stuff, beanpole,” he said to Donald.  “It’s about time we headed to the airport, anyway.”

 

November 1st, 1974.  12:45 PM

 

The 1973 El Dorado convertible Randy rented for his stay in Seattle was, I’d heard, less ostentatious than his own car -- though I did have a hard time trying to wrap my brain around that concept.  

            The outside was all white enamel and chrome, the inside a mixture of red leather and faux zebra skin.  On the dashboard was a plastic hula dancer standing about eight inches high to whom Randy had given the rather un-Hawaiian-sounding moniker “Roxie.”  She wasn’t part of the rental, but Randy’s personal possession.  She was mounted to the dashboard by a suction cup, which allowed her to be moved easily from car to car, and also allowed Randy to enjoy her spring-induced dance – which could be smooth or erratic depending on the road – no matter what vehicle he was driving.

            After he opened the cavernous trunk, Donald put in his luggage and display case while Randy took his case out.

            “Alright, Sherlock,” he said to me.  “Let’s see how long it takes you to spot this mystery bead.”

            It didn’t take long.  Sitting on the far left, upper tier in the center section, amidst a few glass pendants, was a yellowed crystal with what looked like a smear of brown, dried blood suspended within it.

            It was exceedingly unattractive.

            I picked it up, and held it to the sun. The play of light that even the most dull and listless crystals were able to muster was noticeably absent from this atrocity.  With the semi-translucence of the bead, and the dozens – if not hundreds – of facets, its dullness seemed impossible. It was a very, very dreary bead.

            “You don’t mind if I take this, do you?” I asked as I put the bead in my pocket.  I’d assumed the question was rhetorical, but Randy didn’t see it that way.

            “Listen, Sammy, if these beads are worth something here, shouldn’t I be, you know, compensated for handing it over?”

            “Randy, it’s not that valuable, trust me.  Part of the reason I’m taking it is to look out for you.”

            “What’s the other part?”

            I don’t like to argue with anyone, and I don’t even like speaking to Randy, so having a disagreement with him was not something I relished.  Donald came to my rescue.

            “Technically speaking, Randy,” Donald said.  “That’s not your bead, it’s Sam’s; his company, his inventory.  If you want to buy it, though, I’m sure Sam would give you a good price.  Right, Sam?”

            “Sure.  Let’s say 25 bucks?”  I took the bead from my pocket and offered it to Randy.

            “For that?” He said, his eyes bugging out.  “You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding!  I wouldn’t give you five for that.”  Then something behind me grabbed his attention, and all thoughts of the bead left him.  “Oh, Sammy, turn around, check out what’s walkin’ into O’Donahue’s.  What a sweetie!  And she’s giving us the eye!”

            I didn’t bother to look, of course. 

            “You guys have a safe trip now, you hear?” I said, shaking Donald’s hand while Randy ignored us both.  Apparently the woman who had entered the bar was no longer in Randy’s view a second or so later, because he started  paying attention to me again.

            “Alright, Sammy.”  He shook my hand.  “If anything weird happens, should I call the office and tell them to give you a message?”  His laughter was too loud and too forced.  I didn’t like being made fun of.

            “Come to think of it, Randy,” I said straight-faced, “that would be a good idea.  Same with you, Donald.”

            “Sure thing, Sam,” he said before getting into the car.

            The big white boat of a car pulled out into the street, and I watched it disappear around the second corner before I headed back into O’Donahue’s to finish my cola.

 

November 1st, 1974.  12:50 PM

 

I checked my watch as I sat down at the bar.  I had about a half hour before I had to leave, so I ordered another cola and the stew Donald had recommended.

            I took the beads from my pocket and laid them out on a square bar napkin.  There were three:  Donald’s ghostly banana bead, Randy’s yellow, dried blood-filled crystal, and the one Grace had given me.

            She told me that right away, from the first time she’d opened her display case, she’d found the bead disturbing so she put it in her change purse so it wouldn’t frighten any customers.  When I asked her why she didn’t just throw it away, she told me that was a very good question, and one to which she didn’t have an answer.

            Grace’s bead looked like a primitive arrowhead; or maybe it actually was a primitive arrowhead and not a bead at all.  It was made of flint, and the surface was rough from the poundings of a bigger, harder rock that had been used to carve it into its current shape.  But in the center, in relief, was an image of what I can only describe as a demon’s head, done with such precision and craftsmanship that it betrayed having had been carved using primal techniques.

            The demon had twirling, ram-like horns and from their centers sprang horrible pointed ears.  Its mouth was open in an eternal, tortured scream, and the sharp fangs and pointed tongue were so finely carved they could easily be seen without a magnifying glass.

            I tried to figure out just what these beads had in common that made them so desirable.  I had no doubt they weren’t made by the same person, and I guessed that they weren’t made at the same time, or in the same part of the world. 

            I turned them over and compared them, letting my brain wander over the details as I waited for my stew.  There were seven salespeople, so I found it safe to assume there were seven beads.  One was around a waitress’s neck in Nastoria, Ohio; there was no paper trail connecting Annie to it, so I wasn’t too worried about her safety.  Three of the beads were in the possession of Celia and her cohort, and three were in my possession.  If someone is looking for all seven beads, I thought, they still have less than half of what they need.

            Then everything went black.

            Two hands, soft as velvet covered my eyes and I heard a playful giggle.  The perfume on the wrists could not be mistaken.

            “Sarah.”  I said, and turned.  She was even more beautiful than the last time I saw her, in Bali, so long ago.

            “How long have you been here?” I asked, because I could think of nothing else to say.

            “I came in when you were in the parking lot with your friends.  I didn’t want to bother you since it looked like very important business.”  Her voice was musical, with a slight bit of mockery in the last three words.

            I wanted to lean forward and kiss her, but I thought maybe after so long it wouldn’t be appropriate.  While I was deciding what else I should do, or say, I suddenly found the point was moot.

I was kissing her anyway.

 

 ..................to be continued

 

© 2006 Brightlings Beads and M. Robert Todd