Lenny K. just grinned at me when I asked why he wasn't working for Moondagger anymore and decided to go into the luggage business instead.  He waved his hands over several steamer trunks and suitcases, presenting them like an escape artist offering a crate for inspection before a routine, and though each time I told him I wasn't interested in purchasing any luggage, he seemed not to hear me and just smiled as he moved onto the next set.  After he'd exhausted every possibility, he told me to be patient by holding up a finger, and then he disappeared into the back room.

            I had no idea why I was in the store and decided to leave, but when I turned around not only did I notice there were no exits, but also that I was no longer in the store. Instead I found myself in a medieval-looking prison cell of some kind.  Sage Parker, dressed like an actress from a Shakespeare play, was holding a torch – now the only illumination in the room – and wore an expression of great concern.

            “Hello, Sage,” I said without emotion.  But instead of replying to me, she looked over my shoulder and spoke to someone behind me.

            “I checked his pockets, he doesn't have anything,” she said.

            I turned and noticed that when I looked behind myself I was back in the luggage store.  Since this was the more preferable of the two locations, I faced Lenny K. as he came from the back room carrying a leather-bound cube that strongly resembled my display case.  I walked up to him and examined it more closely.  Each scratch and faded area told me that this didn't just look like my case, but that it was.

            “Hey, that's mine,” I told Lenny K.

            “Just let him be,” Sage said from behind me.  “He'll come around soon enough.”

            I didn't know whether she was talking to me about Lenny K., or to Lenny K. about me, and either way it made no sense.  I then reached for the case, but Lenny K. pulled it quickly from my grasp.  Again he held up a finger, letting me know he wished me to remain patient, and after he set the display case on the counter he copied the dramatic gestures of his former employer as he opened it.  There was nothing remarkable inside, just the usual beads, findings, charms and pendants that I usually carried.

            “That's mine, Lenny,” I said, but he just ignored me.

            “How many beads should he have?”  Lenny asked Sage.

            “We were hoping for four, but we expected at least three,” she answered.

            I turned to look at Sage, hoping for some explanation for her strange behavior, but I got nothing.  When I turned back to Lenny, I noticed that my usual inventory had somehow magically been replaced by a sparkling, priceless collection of gems: diamonds, rubies, and a variety of crystals in dozens of colors that I didn't recognize, but knew had to be worth a fortune.  Neither Lenny K. nor Sage seemed as impressed with the dazzling assortment as I was.

            As a matter of fact, Lenny K. seemed so disinterested in them that he turned the case over and emptied its contents into a wastebasket.  When he set the display case back on the counter it held only one bead; the ugly brown-gray thing that I'd given to a waitress in Nastoria, Ohio.  I reached for it, but I was too slow, as Sage's hand quickly snapped the foul bauble up.  When I turned and questioned her, she ignored me as she strung the brown/gray bead onto a golden wire and nestled it in the center of a truly disgusting piece of jewelry:  the seven supposed Thibaut's Beads.

            Lenny K. came from behind the counter to help her clasp the necklace, and they both began walking to a door that had suddenly appeared.  Outside I could see Moondagger's van idling, waiting for them.           

            “Hold on,” I yelled out, wanting so badly to leave with them.  But when I tried to step forward, I found that my feet were somehow fastened to the floor.  I called out louder and the pair stopped, but still didn't seem to be paying attention to me.

            “He doesn't even have one of the damn beads,” Lenny K. said in a voice that sounded too deep and well spoken to have come from him.  It was then that I noticed a slight pain at the base of my skull that seemed to grow at a surprising rate.  Within seconds it was almost unbearable.

            Lenny K. then headed for the door once again, but stopped when he noticed Sage had sat on a large steamer trunk and was staring at me with pity.

            “You're right, he's probably of no use to us.  But I think we should at least stay until he wakes up and let him know what's going on.  Well, what's going on as far as he's concerned, anyway.”

            Ah, stay until I wake up, I thought. So I'm just dreaming all this.  And with that knowledge I opened my eyes and left the dream.

 

November 5th, 1974.  3:40 AM

 

Though there are several obvious exceptions, ceilings as a whole are pretty unremarkable.  We rarely notice them, and they're so very plain that if we find ourselves staring at one we should recognize, chances are we won't.  That was the situation I found myself in, looking at a ceiling which refused to give me any hint of where I was.

            I tried to lift my head from the pillow, but the pain had other ideas.  It mutliplied and concentrated itself until I gave up.  I moved my eyes around, but still couldn't grasp where I was, what time of day it might be – or even what time of year for that matter.

            As the details of the dream began to evaporate from my mind, I had vague recollections of standing in the parking lot kissing Sarah...and then nothing.

            "You've taken a pretty nasty hit," said a female voice that sounded like Sage had in the dream, but not like Sage does in real life. 

And then the person who had stood in for Lenny K.’s voice chimed in:  “Alright, he’s awake.  Can we go now?  I need to get at least a few hours sleep before I can sort any of this out and come up with our next step.”

The female leaned over me, and I could see her face.  It was a pretty and familiar, but not one I wanted to see.

“Ceila Andrews,” I said.  “Did you need to see me about some Christmas shopping?”  I started to laugh, but the base of my skull told me it was a bad idea.

“Get him something to drink,” she said to someone I couldn’t see.  She gently lifted me by the shoulder, and used the pillow to prop me up into somewhat of a sitting position.  It was slightly comforting to see that I was in my room at Ed & Lucy’s Moto-Lodge and not some clandestine government-run interrogtion center.  When my eyes focused I noticed a small, wiry man sitting at the table going through my display case.  He was older, his gray hair fell to his shoulders, and he had a full yet nicely groomed beard.  He was wearing bellbottom jeans and a faded T-shirt showing a peace sign followed by a question mark.  He took his attention away from a string of freshwater pearls just long enough to acknowledge me.

“It’s nice to have you finally join us, Mr. Louviere,” he said with a noticeable British accent.

Another man then came out of the bathroom holding a glass of water.  He wore a three-piece suit, and even at this time of the morning the vest was buttoned and his tie was knotted to his neck.  He was probably about 45, and though his hair was jet black, there were streaks of gray at the temples.

“Say, you are distinguished looking,” I said, figuring this must be Celia’s often talked about cohort.  He said nothing as he handed me the glass of water.  As I drank it, Celia admonished him.

“Come on, Justin, he’s in pain not dehydrated.”  She went to her purse and took out a sterling silver flask.  After unscrewing the lid, she gently cradled my head as she poured about half a shot’s worth of strong – but good – bourbon into my mouth.  It seemed to make me slightly more aware.

“Where’s Sarah?” I asked all three of them, but short laugh was the only answer I got, and it came from the bearded man.

“We were hoping you could tell us,” Justin said sternly, folding his arms across his chest.  I didn’t like his attitude, and even though I felt awful I didn’t want to look to be incapacitated around these people.  Though it hurt, and an onrush of sudden diziness threatened to send me tumbling to the floor, I stood and stared at him as close to eye-to-eye as I could get, considering he had a good two inches on me.

“Let me get this straight, Justin,” I said, putting as much contempt into his name as I could muster.  “You people knock me on the head in the middle of the night, take my girlfriend…”  hearing this last word made the old man chuckle again for some reason.  “Take my girlfriend,” I continued in a louder voice, “and then when I wake up you want me to tell you where she is? What kind of sick game are you people playing?”

Celia and Justin looked at each other, but said nothing.  It was the old man who spoke, but it wasn’t in response to my outburst.  He was studying a large brown jasper bead.  Alternately looking at it through his wire-framed glasses, and then lifting them to study the bead with the naked eye.

“Brown jasper,” he said.  “Though there’s a slew of spiritual and psychic abilities associated with it, bravery comes to mind right now.  You see, I have a bead very similar to this one.  Very similar indeed.”

“That’s nice,” I said, taking the bead from him and placing back in the display case.

“It’s been said that El Cid believed in the power of jasper to increase one’s courage, and that he had a special pocket sewn into his trousers to carry such a bead with him when he rode into battle.”

“Do they now?” I responded dryly, holding up a large turquoise bead.  “They say Ed Sullivan carried a bead like this in his really big shoe.”  Though the pain in my head begged me to stop, I saw this laugh through to the very end.

“I don’t get it, American humor always escapes me.  Anyway,” he continued, “as I was saying, the jasper bead I own is, suposedly anyway, that very bead carried by El Cid.  It’s one of my favorites, if one can have a favorite bead in a collection as large as mine.  And one of the most expensive for that matter”

“Look, I’m glad you fancy your beads, mister, and maybe one day we can sit down and I can tell you all kinds lies about all kinds of gemstones and crystals, and you can overpay me for them and brag about your collection to all those you kidnap in the middle of the night.  But right now, all I want to know is…”

“Where my daughter is.  Yes, you’ve said as much.”

What the old man said hit me almost as hard, and in the same place, as the injury I’d acquired earlier.  The room started spinning, and when my legs gave out it was lucky that I’d been standing by the bed becaue I could have just as easily found myslelf on the floor.  I had to admit to myself that it did all make sense, an older British man who collected beads for their anthropological importance.  But for some reason I’d never pictured Sarah’s father to look more like an audience member at a Mary’s Painted Wagon Concert than an actor playing Dr. Watson in a community theater presentation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

“The reason I brought up the jasper bead that El Cid allegedly owned, Mr. Louviere, is to give you a little insight into human behavior.”

“I know a little bit about people, Mr. Sangrayall,” I said.  “I deal with all kinds of them on a daily basis.  And I don’t know what this has to do with…”

“…your girlfriend?”  He laughed again at the word, but then apologized.  “I’m sorry, really, forgive me.  It’s just that if I had a bead with historic or anthropological significance for every middle-class schlub who thought of Sarah as his girlfriend…Hmm, come to think of it, I probably do.”   His laugh crescendoed for a moment, but when he met my gaze he thought better of it.  After clearing his throat, he continued.  “Look, Mr. Louviere, or can I call you Sam?”

I just stared at him.

“Okay, then, Mr. Louviere, I own gold chains worn by Cleopatra, beads made from human bones by headhunting shaman, jade that had been plundered by Ghengis Kahn, a necklace made by Captain Briggs’ daughter aboard the Mary Celeste to pass the time, as well as some of the last beads Anne Boleyn ever wore around her ill-fated neck.  I spend my time studying them, verifying them and cataloguing them, Mr. Louviere, I don’t have the time – or the desire – to scour the world looking for them, now do I?  So I employ a handful of competent people to do that for me.”

“Like these thugs?” I said, indicating Celia and Justin.  To my surprise, Celia seemed to take no offense in the use of the word, while her partner appeared ready to punch me.

“This isn’t the first time that I’ve hired Miss Andrews and Mr. Rogers, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Mr. Rogers?”  I laughed so hard I almost fell off the bed.  Justin didn’t think it was funny.

            “I truly cannot grasp your idea of humor, Mr. Louviere,” Mr. Sangrayall said.  “It must have something to do with American television.  But as I was saying, I do employ a number of people to acquire what I need.  How these people obtain the objects, I don’t ask.  Do I think there is some dishonesty or trickery involved on their part?  I have no doubt of it.  However, Mr. Louviere – and this is very important – I know they’re sincere with me, and that’s really the only thing I’m concerned with.”

            “And what does all this have to do with Sarah?” I asked.

            “If you’ll let me finish, I’ll tell you.”

            I said nothing, just nodded.

            “These ‘thugs,’ as you call them, they’re no different from anyone else.  Sometimes they’re honest, and other times they’re a bit more crafty in getting what they need.  With them the difference is a bit more polarized to be sure, but every human being – with few exceptions – is exactly the same.  So don’t blame them, Mr. Louviere, don’t look down your nose at these two, or at me for that matter.  We’re no different from you or anyone else.”

            “You did say this had something to do with Sarah?” I asked.

            “Ah yes,” he said, getting back to the point.  “She’s one of those few exceptions.  She’s just plain evil, nothing but selfish.  It was Sarah who was behind your injury, it was she who left you lying unconscious in the parking lot.  She didn’t need you anymore, and it was one of her ‘thugs’ who took you out of the picture.”

            “The three strange beads you have, where are they?”  Celia asked me.

            “In my coat pocket,” I answered.

            Celia took my jacket from the back of a chair and threw it to me.  “Can we see them?”

            I searched all the pockets, the beads weren’t there.  I shot Celia a hard stare.

            “We don’t have them. Sam.  Sarah does,” she said.

            “No, I won’t believe that,” I told them.  “Things were just starting to come together.  Why would she disappear on me now?”

            “Because she doesn’t need you anymore, Sam.”  There was an honest look in Celia’s eyes, as if she knew Mr. Sangrayall was telling the truth, she knew it hurt me, and she had great sympathy.

            “Something happened,” Sarah’s father said.  “Last night Sarah realized that she doesn’t need you anymore.  That she can find the missing bead herself, and no longer needs you.  What was it, Mr. Louviere, that she learned?”

            “Wait a second,” I said.  “Missing bead?  Only one?  If my count is correct, there’s four missing.”

            “Yes, and you know we have three of them,” he said.  “She’ll make an attempt at them, to be sure.  But there’s still one bead remaining, one out there that she doesn’t have, nor do we.  That’s the one she’s most worried about.  And the only reason she would have left you is if she figured out a way to acquire it without you.”

            My head started hurting again.  If Sarah was the person they said she was, my whole world had just collapsed.  On the other hand, couldn’t they be just as tricky as they were acussing her of being?

            “Mr. Louviere, please, think.” Mr. Sangrayall said.  “What happened last night?  Why doesn’t Sarah need you to find the bead?  Who is she going to get to find it for her?”

            If, and I’m not saying I believed them, but if they were telling the truth, there was a good chance that Sage, Moondagger and/or Lenny K. were about to find themselves in a whole lot of trouble.  I stood, putting my jacket on, and headed for the door.

            “If you people are being honest with me, then follow along.  If you’re not, you’d be best to just leave me be now, for you don’t want to be around me when I find out you’re lying.”

            “Where are we going?”  Celia said, grabbing her coat and following close behind me.

            “Cincinatti, then a town about a hundred miles away.  And I want to get there as early as possible.”

            “What? No sleep?”  For being such a distinguished looking man, Justin Rogers could whine like an nine-year-old girl.

 

 

 

 

 ..................to be continued

 

© 2006 Brightlings Beads and M. Robert Todd