November 6th, 1974.  7:20 AM

            “Whoo-hoo!” Sage screamed for about the tenth time.
            “Yee-haw!” Lenny K. responded once again.
            “Okay, all right,” I said.  “You can slow down now.”
            “We showed ‘em, didn’t we, Sam?”  She asked.
            “You sure did, Sage.  You sure did.  But I thought I told you to wait at the hotel.”
            “I thought you said to stick with Lenny K.,” she said with a flirtatious smile.
            “You know what I meant.  So where’d you get the car?”  It was a question I’d been afraid to ask, but it had to be answered eventually.
            “Stole it.” Lenny K. offered matter-of-factly.
            “Just what kind of stuff has Moondagger been teaching you, Lenny?”
            “I never took you for a male chauvinist pig, Sam.”  Sage said.  “Who says a female couldn’t have hotwired this buggy?”
            “You?”  I was dumbfounded.
            “I figure we all have a couple of years as teenagers that we can spend doing things that aren’t very nice, but it still doesn’t make us bad people.  Before I became a respectable business woman I used to go joyriding on weekends.”
            “Who am I to judge?” I asked, remembering some bad choices I’d made in my youth.
            “We weren’t going to interfere, Sam, I swear.  We were just going to check up on you,” Sage said.  “But when we saw that metal bar keeping the back door shut, I knew…”
            “That I’d been double-crossed by Celia.” I finished her thought.
            “I guess I was wrong, maybe she’s not in love with you after all,” she laughed.
            “I think that’s a safe assumption.”
            “Did you get the bead?” she asked.
            I opened my fist, which had been clenched so tightly there were fingernail marks in the base of my palm.  The bead, the ugly, ugly bead, was back in my possession. 
            “God, that’s hideous,” she said.  “So that means we have four of the seven, right?”
            “No, that’s not what it means at all, Sage,” I said.
            “Oh yeah?”  Sage opened her purse and took out the satchel of phony beads.  “Celia should have kept a better eye on her purse.  I was going to take her gun, too, but I thought she might notice that missing.”
            “Those are fake, Sage,” I said, and watched her smile drop into a frown.  “Celia and Sarah have the real ones, and the other three.  They have six, we have one.”
            “So how do we get the others?” she asked.
            “We don’t,” I said.  “We use that bead to get Moonagger, and then we’re out of it.”
            “And how do we do that?” Lenny K. asked.  He perked up even more when he realized I wasn’t about to forget about his mentor.
            “First we drive around a while.  We need to get out of town before this car is reported stolen, if it hasn’t been already.  And we need to keep moving so Moondagger can’t get a bead on us.  No pun intended,” I said as an afterthought.  “Then later, we come back.  We’ll meet Sarah, trade this thing for Moondagger, then the drinks are on me.”
            “You sound pretty confident,” Lenny K. said.
            “I have a plan, and eventually things have to go my way, right?  I mean, the law of averages says that everything can’t continue to move against me, can it?”  I asked, not sounding nearly as confident as I had moments ago.  Sage knit her brow worriedly as Lenny K. looked back and gave me the most forced, troubled smile I’d ever seen.”

November 6th, 1974.  11:05  AM

Lenny K. drove up the winding driveway to Beth Pencole’s house – the last time I’d been here was the day this whole thing started.  I’d called Beth from a payphone earlier to make sure she’d be home and to expect me, but I’d been less than truthful in telling her the reason for my visit.  I said something about beautiful new heart charms and Czech pressed beads that I just had to show her.  I hated being dishonest, but if I’d said I’m running away from mercenaries and need a place to have a meeting that may go south, she may not have invited me into her home with such enthusiasm.  Since the wheels of this summit were already in motion, I couldn’t risk her saying no.
            “Wait here,” I told Sage and Lenny K., and once again I had to duck underneath the ostentatious sign hanging above Ms. Pencole’s front porch.
            “Sam, how great to see you!” Beth said, swinging open the front door before I’d had a chance to knock.
            “And it’s better to see you,” I said.  “Thank you so much for letting me stop by.”
            “Letting you?” she said.  “Without your magic beads, Sam, my business wouldn’t be as strong as it is.”  I winced at the term magic beads, and I silently made a wish that I’d never hear those words again.  “So what did you bring me?”
            “Well, Beth, to be honest, I don’t even have my samples,” I said.  “I’m actually with a couple of friends, and we need a place to sit tight for an hour or two.  I apologize for the dishonesty, and I promise we won’t be any—”
            “Sam,” she said patting my shoulder, in a tone usually reserved for a parent consoling a child.  “There’s no need to apologize.  I’m happy to have you, and your friends, as my guests.  Besides, I may have told a slight fib, also.  I don’t need any more beads, I was just happy when you called because I could use some company.  Have you had lunch yet?”
            “Actually,” I admitted, “we haven’t even had breakfast.”
            “Well tell whoever you’re with to get up here, and I’ll put something on.”

November 6th, 1974.  11:25  AM

Unlike most people living in rural southern Ohio, Beth wasn’t the least put off by the appearance of Sage or even Lenny K.  In fact, she took an instant liking to their free spirits and unconventional ways.  She apologized to me a handful of times, and promised to start preparing a meal soon, but kept getting into conversations with Sage about the difficulties of being an independent female business owner, and was completely taken by Lenny K.’s  childlike enthusiasm for the trinkets she created.  It didn’t matter to me at all, for I was too nervous to enjoy a home-cooked meal anyway.
            When I wrote the letter to Sarah, I still thought she was being held against her will despite what Celia had told me.  Still, I had to admit to myself that there was a chance I hadn’t been lied to, so I chose my words carefully so as to be noncommittal in that regard.  I wrote that Sarah could contact me at Beth’s number, and that so long as Moondagger was released and no “goons” showed up, I would turn over the last bead with no resistance.  If Annie had given her the note, and if she was willing to play by my rules, Beth’s phone should ring in about five minutes.  It was the longest five minutes of my life.

November 6th, 1974.  11:30  AM

“Excuse me,” Beth said when the phone rang at exactly 11:30.  She handed Lenny K. a wooden plaque with the legend “We don’t swim in your toilet, so please don’t pee in our pool” written with inlaid chunks of dalmatine.  For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, Lenny K. was incredibly fascinated with the piece.
            “I think it’s for me,” I told Beth, and though I could sense she was taken aback, she simply smiled and handed me the receiver.
            “This is Sam,” I said as if nothing was out of the ordinary.  But in truth my heart was beating at twice its normal rate.  Not because I was worried, rather it was just from the anticipation of hearing Sarah’s voice.  I was soon disappointed.
            “Sam,” the unmistakable voice of Celia Andrews responded.  “Oh, Sam, Sam, Sam.  I’m still reeling from that escape act you pulled at the diner. Nice work.  Just when I promise myself I’ll never underestimate you again, you pull something like that.  Unfortunately, I was the only one who saw the humor in it, but since it appears things are winding down, maybe soon we can relive the whole thing over a few cold ones.”
            “Is Sarah there?”  I asked, not wanting to relive any of the events of the past few days.
            “Yes, she’s here, but she wanted me to make the call.  So, how does it feel to be on the brink of having this whole thing behind you?”
            Instead of answering the question, I gave Celia Beth’s address and told her to make sure Sarah arrived at noon.  I finished by letting her know that if I suspected any more surprises, the bead they’re after would be flushed down the toilet.
            “Okay, noon,” Celia said.  “And no funny business.  But Sam, I have to warn you, if you do send that bead on a roller coaster ride through the plumbing system, we’ll eventually find it regardless.”
            “I’m sure you will, Celia,” I told her.  “And if I wasn’t in such a hurry to get on with my life, I’d love to watch you go through the process.”
            “That won’t be necessary, Sam,” she said.  “You’ll get Moondagger, there will be no mercenaries, and I since I probably won’t get another opportunity, I’d like to take this chance to wish you the happiest, most uneventful of futures.  Now that it’s all over, with the benefit of hindsight I can honestly say, if there wasn’t a hefty paycheck in this for me, you alone would have made it all worth it.”
            After I’d hung up the phone I noticed Sage and Beth staring at me.  They must have sensed something in my voice, for they both wore expressions of concern.  Lenny K., however, seemed oblivious.
            “One day I’m going to own a swimming pool, Ms. Pencole,” He said.  “Just so I can buy a sign like this.”

November 6th, 1974.  12:00  PM

When I saw the black Lincoln Continental make it’s way towards the house I checked my watch and wasn’t surprised to see they’d arrived at exactly 12 o’clock.  I had a slight feeling of panic at first, for I could only see Celia in the driver’s seat.  Once the car moved past the shade of a large oak tree and turned to follow the winding drive, however, I noticed Sarah in the back next to Moondagger.  I would have preferred it to have been only Sarah and Moondagger, but I could live with Celia’s presence as long as the two mercenaries were absent.
            I moved to the living room where Sage, Beth and Lenny K. were chatting about beads.  Not the phantasmagoric beads responsible for our being here, but just plain old ordinary beads.  I envied the innocence of it all, and made a mental note never to take a conversation about toggles for granted again – I’d learned life is treating you pretty good when you can spare the time to talk about the mundane.
            I asked Beth if it would be okay to borrow her dining room for the meeting, and she said it would be.  Sage asked if she should sit in, but I told her to wait in the living room and promised her it would all be over soon.  I took the ugly bead from my pocket and handed it to Lenny K.  I pointed him towards the bathroom, and instructed him to hold the bead over the commode, and if he should get the word from me, drop it in and flush without a second thought.
            “What’s the word?” he asked.
            “I’m sorry?”
            “You said if I get the word from you.  What word is it?  Aren’t we going to have a code word?”
            “Sure, whatever word you’d like,” I said.  Looking out the window I noticed Celia had parked next to our stolen station wagon and Sarah was getting out of the car.
            “Spaceship,” Lenny K. said.  With my eyes on Sarah I had already forgotten what we were talking about, so the word took me a bit by surprise.
            “What?”
            “Spaceship.  That’s the word.  If you want me to flush the bead, just say ‘spaceship’ real loud.”
            “Fine, Lenny,” I told him.  “That’s the word.  Now, hurry up and get in there.”
            When I heard the clunk of Sarah’s high heels on the front porch I opened the door before giving her the opportunity to knock.  Standing there, staring at her, I suddenly realized I had no idea how I was supposed to react to her.  Was I to lean in for a kiss?  Probably not.  Maybe a hug?  A handshake?  Maybe she was expecting me to take a swing at her.  I stood there, stiff as a board and completely uncomfortable for what couldn’t have been more than two seconds, but felt like two years.
            “Hello, Samuel,” she said pleasantly, but with little real emotion, as if we were barely acquainted and happened to pass each other at a garden party.
            “Sarah,” I replied, moving aside and allowing her to enter.
            “Quaint,” she said, looking around at Beth’s baubles and creations as I ushered her into the dining room.  I pulled out a chair for her and then took a seat directly opposite.  I tried to detect some sort of emotion in her face, but couldn’t.  Not happiness at seeing me, not sadness that we may never meet again, not even any joy in the fact that she was about to get her last, precious bead.  She was as stone-faced the Sphinx.
            “It’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it, Samuel?”  She was doing nothing more than making small talk.
            “Yes it has,” I responded.
            “So, let’s get this over with, what do you say?  You have the bead, and I have the mystic hippie.  I’m just as anxious to get the latter off my hands, as I am to finally possess the former.
            “Moondagger’s okay?”  I asked.
            “Of course, Samuel,” she answered.  “It’s never been my intention to harm anyone, and I certainly don’t plan on driving away from here with that man.  What good would he do me?  I won’t be able to barter with him any further, because after I leave with that bead, Samuel, there will be nothing you can offer that I would possibly want.”
            That last remark hurt me deeply, like a sharp blade right through my heart.  I tried to tell myself that she didn’t mean it that way, and then I got angry with myself.  Just how long would it take, how much would have to happen, before I realized Sarah wasn’t in love with me?
            “I want to see the other beads,” I said.
            “I can see no harm in that,” Sarah eventually said after thinking it over for several seconds.  “After all you’ve been through, I guess you deserve to give them a fond farewell.”
            Sarah took two satchels from her purse and handed them to me.  From each I poured three beads onto the table.  I stared at them for a few seconds and was taken aback at how little I cared about their history, their supposed powers, or their worth.  To me, they were just six beads that ranged from slightly attractive to downright ugly.   After I’d put three of the beads in their satchel and handed them back to Sarah, I started to put the other three back in theirs when I changed the subject.
            “You know, your father was in a pretty bad car accident,” I said.
            “I know, Celia told me.”
            I looked up at her, hoping for a reaction, any reaction really, for my mentioning her father was meant only as a distraction, and it worked.  Sarah turned her head and looked out the window and away from the table.
            That’s when I made my move.

*        *        *

When I was a boy I knew a man who went by the name Sparklin’ Jacques, who plied his trade on and around Bourbon Street.   Sparklin’ Jacques always wore the same outfit, and to me he looked like a 19th Century undertaker; a black coat with tails over a white shirt, and a black necktie thickly wrapped around his throat causing the points of his collar to peak just below his sharply cut beard. His shoulder-length black hair fell down from underneath a stovepipe hat with a wide, silk ribbon resting just above the brim. 
            Though the ‘Jacques’ part of his moniker may have been given to him by his Cajun parents, the Sparklin’ was all his doing, for he had a penchant for beads -- lots of beads.  Though they were probably nothing more than cut glass, or crystal at best, to the eyes of a 13 year-old boy they were priceless treasures attained through an earlier lifetime spent pirating on the high seas.  Diamonds, rubies and emeralds, I believed, were draped around his neck, over his shoulder like epaulets, around his wrists, and inlaid into the gold rings on his fingers.  Even his watch chain, which looped through a buttonhole on his vest, utilized sliver and gold jump rings to showcase faceted gems ranging in colors from jonquil to sapphire.
            If Sparklin’ Jacques were to have filed a tax return, which I’m sure he never did, he would have listed his occupation as ‘performance artist.’  But according to my father – and the police, who on several occasions I witnessed chasing him down the streets of New Orleans – he was nothing more than a thief and a con man.  I was always curious as to exactly what he was doing and saying to the people who would crowd around the cardboard box he used as a makeshift table, but every time I saw him I was with one of my parents and my pleas to watch him at work fell on deaf ears.
            Then one afternoon in the middle of August I was sent home early from my job in the audio-visual department of the local library.  Instead of heading directly to my house I caught a streetcar and took a detour by way of Canal Street, then walked to Bourbon Street to watch the tourists and listen to the street musicians.  And -- to my surprise because I hadn’t seen him in weeks -- there was Sparklin’ Jacques with the usual throng of out-of-towners surrounding him.  Being short and of slight build at the time, I easily wormed my way past the others and had a front row seat – or rather, front row stand -- to Sparklin’ Jacques’ presentation. 
            I wasn’t paying too much attention to the specifics at first, for I was instantly dismayed at the harsh words I’d heard said about the man from every authority figure in my life, and appalled at the stupidity of those who had chosen to partake in the unrealistically lopsided game presented – unbalanced, as it were, in their favor.  I straightaway observed Sparklin’ Jacques presenting three playing cards, two aces and a queen of hearts. He then turned them face down, moved them about slowly and in plain sight, and asked whomever was willing to wager a few dollars to point out which card was the queen. Without fail, the gambler hoping to take Sparklin’ Jacques’ money would point to a card that was revealed to be one of the aces, thereby forfeiting his or her wager to the ever-smiling, and momentarily sorrowful, Sparklin’ Jacques.
            It couldn’t have been as hard as it seemed, so I took the five dollars my mother had given me to pick up groceries on the way home and plunked it down in font of Sparklin’ Jacques.
            “You sure you want to be playin’ this here game now, boy?” he said in a thick Cajun accent.
            “Sure do,” I said, putting my hands in my pockets and looking around at the tourists.  I was about to show them how it was done.
            Sparklin’ Jacques showed me the cards, turned them face down and made just a few motions with his hands.  He then smiled, indicating that if I had followed the queen I was about to double my money.   I pointed to the card I was sure was the queen of hearts, but, of course, it wasn’t.
            “Sparklin’ Jacques’ grin grew broader as he scooped up the five dollar bill from the table.  The onlookers groaned, letting the performer know they weren’t too keen on his taking money from a kid.  Soon they had all turned and left the street corner, most of them with a few dollars less in their wallets. 
            “See what you did, boy?”  Sparklin’ Jacques barked.  “You run my customers all away.”
            “Sorry,” I said.  Wait, why was I apologizing?  “You know, that five bucks wasn’t mine, and I’m really too young to be placing wages, mister.”
            “Well,” he said, leaning back and unconsciously twisting the hairs of his beard, “I would hate to see you leave here empty-handed, now.”
            Alright!  I thought.  He’s not such a bad guy after all!  He’s going to give me the money back, and I’ll have learned my lesson.
            “Or rather,” he corrected himself.  “Empty-headed.”
            “Huh?”
            “I’m going to give you some advice, boy, and I want you to listen good.  It may be the single most important thing you’ll ever learn.  You ready?”
            “So you’re keeping my money?”  I asked.
            “Yeah, for sure.  Now listen up.  The most important thing to know, the most important lesson in life is this: even when you’re sure you’ve won, even when there’s no risk of losing whatsoever, that’s when you’re most vulnerable.  That’s when you’re sure to walk away defeated.”
            “Thanks,” I said without meaning it.  I cast my eyes downward and pouted a pitiful frown.  It was a gesture that I was able to use to get my way a lot when I was younger, but it seemed to have less and less effect on adults as I got older.  Still, it was the last card I could play.
            “I tell you what, boy, I’m not going to give you your money back, but I’ll give you the chance to earn it, what do you say to that?”
            “What do I gotta do?” I asked.
            “Work for me, I could use a good shill.  Be here tomorrow at 10 o’clock in the morning.  Meet me at the soda shop across the street there, and I’ll tell you all you need to know.”
            I had no idea what a shill was, but the idea of working in real honest-go-gosh show business was too much for a kid with my imagination to turn down so I emphatically agreed to the job.
            The next morning I took the suit my mother bought me for the previous Easter Sunday service as well as a cheap bowler cap I’d found on the street after Mardi Gras, and raided my mother’s jewelry box.  I took two strands of pearls, one faux and the other irregular shaped freshwater, a gold chain, and a silver brooch with onyx beads and Aurora Borealis crystals hanging from it.  I draped the objects about myself in the best imitation of Sparklin’ Jacques I could, and as I stood at the mirror I bestowed upon myself the name Shimmerin’ Sam in front of a roomful of imaginary audience members.
            When Sparklin’ Jacques saw me at the soda shop he shook his head and laughed.
            “No, no, boy, you got it all wrong,” he cackled.  “You and me, we can’t look like we’re on the same team, you see?  As a shill, you stand around like a tourist, play a game or two and I let you win.  When the grown-ups see how easy you found the queen, they’re sure to hand their money over to me, and later I give you your cut.”
            This shill thing was becoming much less exciting than I thought it was going to be.  What good was being a performer if no one knew I was performing? Still, I had to earn back the five dollars that I told my mother I’d left at the library, so I took a chance and worked for Sparklin’ Jacques.
            I was good at my job, and though my boss paid me only a miniscule percentage of what he took in it sure beat work at the library – which I’d quit after my first day as a performer, and had no idea just how upset my father would be when he found out. 
            Though he kept a lot of secrets, Sparklin’ Jacques taught me much about the game of Three Card Monte.  I learned moves like palming, The Throw Down, and The Mexican Turnover (which, though he was good at it, Sparklin’ Jacques never used on a rube.)  When things were slow, or on days when it was raining, Sparklin’ Jacques taught me other tricks and bits of prestidigitation, and soon I was impressing the kids at school and on more than one occasion filled my pockets with nickels meant for their milk money.

*        *        *

            And as I sat across the table from Sarah I realized that Sparklin’ Jacques kept his promise.  He did teach me something that was to be one of the most valuable things I’d ever learned.  It wasn’t his advice about losing when you’re sure you’re winning, no, it was the slight of hand.  I had only a split second when Sarah had looked away to switch the satchel of beads with the fakes Sage had stolen from Celia’s purse.  Since I had been out of practice for more than 20 years, the pass didn’t go off as smoothly as I’d hoped, and for a moment I was sure she’d seen me.  But when she didn’t mention it, the hard part became me not giving it away by acting nervous.
            “I’m running late, Samuel,” she said.  “And I’m sure your friend would like to be reunited with your little band of do-gooders.”
            “Of course,” I told her.  Then I called for Lenny K., being very careful not to use the word “spaceship” in my beckoning.  I took the bead from him and handed it over to Sarah.
            “Is that it?”  I asked.
            “That’s it,” she said.  Sarah then stood, offered a handshake, and walked out of the front door.  As she made her way to the car she made hand gesture to Celia who opened the door and let Moondagger step out.  Then something very odd happened.  As Moondagger passed Sarah on his way up the front steps, he stopped, turned and followed her.  He called out to Sarah, but she ignored him, entered the Lincoln Continental and Celia gunned the engine while waving goodbye through the open window.
            “No!”  Moondagger yelled.  “No, no, no!”  He then turned, and rushed into the house.  “Why did you do it, Sam?  What were you thinking?”
            “Calm down, Moondagger,” I said.  “What did I do?”
            “You gave her the beads!”
            I was impressed.  I’m not sure how he knew what I’d done, but he needed to calm down so I ushered him to the living room where he took a seat on the couch.
            “Why, oh, why, Sam?”
            “Take it easy,” I told him.  “I switched the real beads Sarah had for the fakes.”  I held the satchel up so all in the room could see it.  Sage smiled broadly, Lenny K. started laughing, and even Beth – who had no idea of the significance of any of this – clapped her hands like an excited child.
            “No you didn’t, Sam.”
            “What do you mean?”  I asked.
            Moondagger explained to me some of the things he’d seen and heard during his abduction.  It seems Celia was worried that if Moondagger brought Sarah to the one missing bead before I took her to it, there would be nothing keeping Sarah from just taking off without paying her salary.  Celia insisted that if she were to continue in this game that she wanted to hold onto at least three of the six genuine beads that Sarah possessed.  An insurance policy, if you will.
            I’m not sure when or how they communicated, but they did, and the three fake beads had been switched for the authentic ones during our little run-in with the police.  That’s why Lenny K. kept saying something was different, because after the roadside search of Celia’s purse we were in custody of three of the real beads.
            There’s no doubt Celia noticed them missing from her purse, and I guess in her line of work The Ol’ Switcheroo is a fairly common tactic.  I can only surmise that she told Sarah to look out for it, and she did see my imperfect attempt at slight of hand.
            I took the beads I had from the satchel, and sure enough, there was the imperfection that I’d pointed out to Celia at the bus station.  I’d switched the real thing for the fakes.
            I guess I should have given Sparklin’ Jacques more credit, for if I’d taken to heart the fact that I can still lose when I’m sure I’ve won, I wouldn’t have felt so awful at that moment.  As I walked into the living room to face the others I made a half-hearted attempt at looking relieved that the whole thing was over.  Apparently I didn’t do that good of a job of hiding my real feelings.
            Sage sensed how downtrodden I was.  She put her arms around me and kissed my cheek.
            “It’s okay, Sam.  You didn’t want those beads, anyway.”
            It wasn’t about the beads, of course, and Sage knew it.  For days I had just been wanting to get back to life the way it had been, but standing in Beth’s living room I realized that was impossible.  I had been traveling the highways and side roads of America by myself for quite a while, but I was never truly alone; my companion was always the hope that one day I’d be reunited with Sarah.  Well, I had been and it didn’t work out the way I wanted it – could never work out the way I wanted it – so I was facing two choices right then: be alone from now on, or make some changes.
            I chose the latter.
            “You want to come with us?”  I asked Beth.
            “Where are you going?” she asked back.
            “Yeah, Sam, that’s a good question.  Where are we going?”  Sage asked, standing back and giving me a quizzical side-glance.
            “First we have to return a stolen car,” I reminded them.  “Then, as I promised earlier, the drinks are on me.  I’m going to start doing things a bit differently from now on, and I’d like to get some input from you guys.”November 6th, 1974.  7:20 AM

            “Whoo-hoo!” Sage screamed for about the tenth time.
            “Yee-haw!” Lenny K. responded once again.
            “Okay, all right,” I said.  “You can slow down now.”
            “We showed ‘em, didn’t we, Sam?”  She asked.
            “You sure did, Sage.  You sure did.  But I thought I told you to wait at the hotel.”
            “I thought you said to stick with Lenny K.,” she said with a flirtatious smile.
            “You know what I meant.  So where’d you get the car?”  It was a question I’d been afraid to ask, but it had to be answered eventually.
            “Stole it.” Lenny K. offered matter-of-factly.
            “Just what kind of stuff has Moondagger been teaching you, Lenny?”
            “I never took you for a male chauvinist pig, Sam.”  Sage said.  “Who says a female couldn’t have hotwired this buggy?”
            “You?”  I was dumbfounded.
            “I figure we all have a couple of years as teenagers that we can spend doing things that aren’t very nice, but it still doesn’t make us bad people.  Before I became a respectable business woman I used to go joyriding on weekends.”
            “Who am I to judge?” I asked, remembering some bad choices I’d made in my youth.
            “We weren’t going to interfere, Sam, I swear.  We were just going to check up on you,” Sage said.  “But when we saw that metal bar keeping the back door shut, I knew…”
            “That I’d been double-crossed by Celia.” I finished her thought.
            “I guess I was wrong, maybe she’s not in love with you after all,” she laughed.
            “I think that’s a safe assumption.”
            “Did you get the bead?” she asked.
            I opened my fist, which had been clenched so tightly there were fingernail marks in the base of my palm.  The bead, the ugly, ugly bead, was back in my possession. 
            “God, that’s hideous,” she said.  “So that means we have four of the seven, right?”
            “No, that’s not what it means at all, Sage,” I said.
            “Oh yeah?”  Sage opened her purse and took out the satchel of phony beads.  “Celia should have kept a better eye on her purse.  I was going to take her gun, too, but I thought she might notice that missing.”
            “Those are fake, Sage,” I said, and watched her smile drop into a frown.  “Celia and Sarah have the real ones, and the other three.  They have six, we have one.”
            “So how do we get the others?” she asked.
            “We don’t,” I said.  “We use that bead to get Moonagger, and then we’re out of it.”
            “And how do we do that?” Lenny K. asked.  He perked up even more when he realized I wasn’t about to forget about his mentor.
            “First we drive around a while.  We need to get out of town before this car is reported stolen, if it hasn’t been already.  And we need to keep moving so Moondagger can’t get a bead on us.  No pun intended,” I said as an afterthought.  “Then later, we come back.  We’ll meet Sarah, trade this thing for Moondagger, then the drinks are on me.”
            “You sound pretty confident,” Lenny K. said.
            “I have a plan, and eventually things have to go my way, right?  I mean, the law of averages says that everything can’t continue to move against me, can it?”  I asked, not sounding nearly as confident as I had moments ago.  Sage knit her brow worriedly as Lenny K. looked back and gave me the most forced, troubled smile I’d ever seen.”

November 6th, 1974.  11:05  AM

Lenny K. drove up the winding driveway to Beth Pencole’s house – the last time I’d been here was the day this whole thing started.  I’d called Beth from a payphone earlier to make sure she’d be home and to expect me, but I’d been less than truthful in telling her the reason for my visit.  I said something about beautiful new heart charms and Czech pressed beads that I just had to show her.  I hated being dishonest, but if I’d said I’m running away from mercenaries and need a place to have a meeting that may go south, she may not have invited me into her home with such enthusiasm.  Since the wheels of this summit were already in motion, I couldn’t risk her saying no.
            “Wait here,” I told Sage and Lenny K., and once again I had to duck underneath the ostentatious sign hanging above Ms. Pencole’s front porch.
            “Sam, how great to see you!” Beth said, swinging open the front door before I’d had a chance to knock.
            “And it’s better to see you,” I said.  “Thank you so much for letting me stop by.”
            “Letting you?” she said.  “Without your magic beads, Sam, my business wouldn’t be as strong as it is.”  I winced at the term magic beads, and I silently made a wish that I’d never hear those words again.  “So what did you bring me?”
            “Well, Beth, to be honest, I don’t even have my samples,” I said.  “I’m actually with a couple of friends, and we need a place to sit tight for an hour or two.  I apologize for the dishonesty, and I promise we won’t be any—”
            “Sam,” she said patting my shoulder, in a tone usually reserved for a parent consoling a child.  “There’s no need to apologize.  I’m happy to have you, and your friends, as my guests.  Besides, I may have told a slight fib, also.  I don’t need any more beads, I was just happy when you called because I could use some company.  Have you had lunch yet?”
            “Actually,” I admitted, “we haven’t even had breakfast.”
            “Well tell whoever you’re with to get up here, and I’ll put something on.”

November 6th, 1974.  11:25  AM

Unlike most people living in rural southern Ohio, Beth wasn’t the least put off by the appearance of Sage or even Lenny K.  In fact, she took an instant liking to their free spirits and unconventional ways.  She apologized to me a handful of times, and promised to start preparing a meal soon, but kept getting into conversations with Sage about the difficulties of being an independent female business owner, and was completely taken by Lenny K.’s  childlike enthusiasm for the trinkets she created.  It didn’t matter to me at all, for I was too nervous to enjoy a home-cooked meal anyway.
            When I wrote the letter to Sarah, I still thought she was being held against her will despite what Celia had told me.  Still, I had to admit to myself that there was a chance I hadn’t been lied to, so I chose my words carefully so as to be noncommittal in that regard.  I wrote that Sarah could contact me at Beth’s number, and that so long as Moondagger was released and no “goons” showed up, I would turn over the last bead with no resistance.  If Annie had given her the note, and if she was willing to play by my rules, Beth’s phone should ring in about five minutes.  It was the longest five minutes of my life.

November 6th, 1974.  11:30  AM

“Excuse me,” Beth said when the phone rang at exactly 11:30.  She handed Lenny K. a wooden plaque with the legend “We don’t swim in your toilet, so please don’t pee in our pool” written with inlaid chunks of dalmatine.  For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, Lenny K. was incredibly fascinated with the piece.
            “I think it’s for me,” I told Beth, and though I could sense she was taken aback, she simply smiled and handed me the receiver.
            “This is Sam,” I said as if nothing was out of the ordinary.  But in truth my heart was beating at twice its normal rate.  Not because I was worried, rather it was just from the anticipation of hearing Sarah’s voice.  I was soon disappointed.
            “Sam,” the unmistakable voice of Celia Andrews responded.  “Oh, Sam, Sam, Sam.  I’m still reeling from that escape act you pulled at the diner. Nice work.  Just when I promise myself I’ll never underestimate you again, you pull something like that.  Unfortunately, I was the only one who saw the humor in it, but since it appears things are winding down, maybe soon we can relive the whole thing over a few cold ones.”
            “Is Sarah there?”  I asked, not wanting to relive any of the events of the past few days.
            “Yes, she’s here, but she wanted me to make the call.  So, how does it feel to be on the brink of having this whole thing behind you?”
            Instead of answering the question, I gave Celia Beth’s address and told her to make sure Sarah arrived at noon.  I finished by letting her know that if I suspected any more surprises, the bead they’re after would be flushed down the toilet.
            “Okay, noon,” Celia said.  “And no funny business.  But Sam, I have to warn you, if you do send that bead on a roller coaster ride through the plumbing system, we’ll eventually find it regardless.”
            “I’m sure you will, Celia,” I told her.  “And if I wasn’t in such a hurry to get on with my life, I’d love to watch you go through the process.”
            “That won’t be necessary, Sam,” she said.  “You’ll get Moondagger, there will be no mercenaries, and I since I probably won’t get another opportunity, I’d like to take this chance to wish you the happiest, most uneventful of futures.  Now that it’s all over, with the benefit of hindsight I can honestly say, if there wasn’t a hefty paycheck in this for me, you alone would have made it all worth it.”
            After I’d hung up the phone I noticed Sage and Beth staring at me.  They must have sensed something in my voice, for they both wore expressions of concern.  Lenny K., however, seemed oblivious.
            “One day I’m going to own a swimming pool, Ms. Pencole,” He said.  “Just so I can buy a sign like this.”

November 6th, 1974.  12:00  PM

When I saw the black Lincoln Continental make it’s way towards the house I checked my watch and wasn’t surprised to see they’d arrived at exactly 12 o’clock.  I had a slight feeling of panic at first, for I could only see Celia in the driver’s seat.  Once the car moved past the shade of a large oak tree and turned to follow the winding drive, however, I noticed Sarah in the back next to Moondagger.  I would have preferred it to have been only Sarah and Moondagger, but I could live with Celia’s presence as long as the two mercenaries were absent.
            I moved to the living room where Sage, Beth and Lenny K. were chatting about beads.  Not the phantasmagoric beads responsible for our being here, but just plain old ordinary beads.  I envied the innocence of it all, and made a mental note never to take a conversation about toggles for granted again – I’d learned life is treating you pretty good when you can spare the time to talk about the mundane.
            I asked Beth if it would be okay to borrow her dining room for the meeting, and she said it would be.  Sage asked if she should sit in, but I told her to wait in the living room and promised her it would all be over soon.  I took the ugly bead from my pocket and handed it to Lenny K.  I pointed him towards the bathroom, and instructed him to hold the bead over the commode, and if he should get the word from me, drop it in and flush without a second thought.
            “What’s the word?” he asked.
            “I’m sorry?”
            “You said if I get the word from you.  What word is it?  Aren’t we going to have a code word?”
            “Sure, whatever word you’d like,” I said.  Looking out the window I noticed Celia had parked next to our stolen station wagon and Sarah was getting out of the car.
            “Spaceship,” Lenny K. said.  With my eyes on Sarah I had already forgotten what we were talking about, so the word took me a bit by surprise.
            “What?”
            “Spaceship.  That’s the word.  If you want me to flush the bead, just say ‘spaceship’ real loud.”
            “Fine, Lenny,” I told him.  “That’s the word.  Now, hurry up and get in there.”
            When I heard the clunk of Sarah’s high heels on the front porch I opened the door before giving her the opportunity to knock.  Standing there, staring at her, I suddenly realized I had no idea how I was supposed to react to her.  Was I to lean in for a kiss?  Probably not.  Maybe a hug?  A handshake?  Maybe she was expecting me to take a swing at her.  I stood there, stiff as a board and completely uncomfortable for what couldn’t have been more than two seconds, but felt like two years.
            “Hello, Samuel,” she said pleasantly, but with little real emotion, as if we were barely acquainted and happened to pass each other at a garden party.
            “Sarah,” I replied, moving aside and allowing her to enter.
            “Quaint,” she said, looking around at Beth’s baubles and creations as I ushered her into the dining room.  I pulled out a chair for her and then took a seat directly opposite.  I tried to detect some sort of emotion in her face, but couldn’t.  Not happiness at seeing me, not sadness that we may never meet again, not even any joy in the fact that she was about to get her last, precious bead.  She was as stone-faced the Sphinx.
            “It’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it, Samuel?”  She was doing nothing more than making small talk.
            “Yes it has,” I responded.
            “So, let’s get this over with, what do you say?  You have the bead, and I have the mystic hippie.  I’m just as anxious to get the latter off my hands, as I am to finally possess the former.
            “Moondagger’s okay?”  I asked.
            “Of course, Samuel,” she answered.  “It’s never been my intention to harm anyone, and I certainly don’t plan on driving away from here with that man.  What good would he do me?  I won’t be able to barter with him any further, because after I leave with that bead, Samuel, there will be nothing you can offer that I would possibly want.”
            That last remark hurt me deeply, like a sharp blade right through my heart.  I tried to tell myself that she didn’t mean it that way, and then I got angry with myself.  Just how long would it take, how much would have to happen, before I realized Sarah wasn’t in love with me?
            “I want to see the other beads,” I said.
            “I can see no harm in that,” Sarah eventually said after thinking it over for several seconds.  “After all you’ve been through, I guess you deserve to give them a fond farewell.”
            Sarah took two satchels from her purse and handed them to me.  From each I poured three beads onto the table.  I stared at them for a few seconds and was taken aback at how little I cared about their history, their supposed powers, or their worth.  To me, they were just six beads that ranged from slightly attractive to downright ugly.   After I’d put three of the beads in their satchel and handed them back to Sarah, I started to put the other three back in theirs when I changed the subject.
            “You know, your father was in a pretty bad car accident,” I said.
            “I know, Celia told me.”
            I looked up at her, hoping for a reaction, any reaction really, for my mentioning her father was meant only as a distraction, and it worked.  Sarah turned her head and looked out the window and away from the table.
            That’s when I made my move.

*        *        *

When I was a boy I knew a man who went by the name Sparklin’ Jacques, who plied his trade on and around Bourbon Street.   Sparklin’ Jacques always wore the same outfit, and to me he looked like a 19th Century undertaker; a black coat with tails over a white shirt, and a black necktie thickly wrapped around his throat causing the points of his collar to peak just below his sharply cut beard. His shoulder-length black hair fell down from underneath a stovepipe hat with a wide, silk ribbon resting just above the brim. 
            Though the ‘Jacques’ part of his moniker may have been given to him by his Cajun parents, the Sparklin’ was all his doing, for he had a penchant for beads -- lots of beads.  Though they were probably nothing more than cut glass, or crystal at best, to the eyes of a 13 year-old boy they were priceless treasures attained through an earlier lifetime spent pirating on the high seas.  Diamonds, rubies and emeralds, I believed, were draped around his neck, over his shoulder like epaulets, around his wrists, and inlaid into the gold rings on his fingers.  Even his watch chain, which looped through a buttonhole on his vest, utilized sliver and gold jump rings to showcase faceted gems ranging in colors from jonquil to sapphire.
            If Sparklin’ Jacques were to have filed a tax return, which I’m sure he never did, he would have listed his occupation as ‘performance artist.’  But according to my father – and the police, who on several occasions I witnessed chasing him down the streets of New Orleans – he was nothing more than a thief and a con man.  I was always curious as to exactly what he was doing and saying to the people who would crowd around the cardboard box he used as a makeshift table, but every time I saw him I was with one of my parents and my pleas to watch him at work fell on deaf ears.
            Then one afternoon in the middle of August I was sent home early from my job in the audio-visual department of the local library.  Instead of heading directly to my house I caught a streetcar and took a detour by way of Canal Street, then walked to Bourbon Street to watch the tourists and listen to the street musicians.  And -- to my surprise because I hadn’t seen him in weeks -- there was Sparklin’ Jacques with the usual throng of out-of-towners surrounding him.  Being short and of slight build at the time, I easily wormed my way past the others and had a front row seat – or rather, front row stand -- to Sparklin’ Jacques’ presentation. 
            I wasn’t paying too much attention to the specifics at first, for I was instantly dismayed at the harsh words I’d heard said about the man from every authority figure in my life, and appalled at the stupidity of those who had chosen to partake in the unrealistically lopsided game presented – unbalanced, as it were, in their favor.  I straightaway observed Sparklin’ Jacques presenting three playing cards, two aces and a queen of hearts. He then turned them face down, moved them about slowly and in plain sight, and asked whomever was willing to wager a few dollars to point out which card was the queen. Without fail, the gambler hoping to take Sparklin’ Jacques’ money would point to a card that was revealed to be one of the aces, thereby forfeiting his or her wager to the ever-smiling, and momentarily sorrowful, Sparklin’ Jacques.
            It couldn’t have been as hard as it seemed, so I took the five dollars my mother had given me to pick up groceries on the way home and plunked it down in font of Sparklin’ Jacques.
            “You sure you want to be playin’ this here game now, boy?” he said in a thick Cajun accent.
            “Sure do,” I said, putting my hands in my pockets and looking around at the tourists.  I was about to show them how it was done.
            Sparklin’ Jacques showed me the cards, turned them face down and made just a few motions with his hands.  He then smiled, indicating that if I had followed the queen I was about to double my money.   I pointed to the card I was sure was the queen of hearts, but, of course, it wasn’t.
            “Sparklin’ Jacques’ grin grew broader as he scooped up the five dollar bill from the table.  The onlookers groaned, letting the performer know they weren’t too keen on his taking money from a kid.  Soon they had all turned and left the street corner, most of them with a few dollars less in their wallets. 
            “See what you did, boy?”  Sparklin’ Jacques barked.  “You run my customers all away.”
            “Sorry,” I said.  Wait, why was I apologizing?  “You know, that five bucks wasn’t mine, and I’m really too young to be placing wages, mister.”
            “Well,” he said, leaning back and unconsciously twisting the hairs of his beard, “I would hate to see you leave here empty-handed, now.”
            Alright!  I thought.  He’s not such a bad guy after all!  He’s going to give me the money back, and I’ll have learned my lesson.
            “Or rather,” he corrected himself.  “Empty-headed.”
            “Huh?”
            “I’m going to give you some advice, boy, and I want you to listen good.  It may be the single most important thing you’ll ever learn.  You ready?”
            “So you’re keeping my money?”  I asked.
            “Yeah, for sure.  Now listen up.  The most important thing to know, the most important lesson in life is this: even when you’re sure you’ve won, even when there’s no risk of losing whatsoever, that’s when you’re most vulnerable.  That’s when you’re sure to walk away defeated.”
            “Thanks,” I said without meaning it.  I cast my eyes downward and pouted a pitiful frown.  It was a gesture that I was able to use to get my way a lot when I was younger, but it seemed to have less and less effect on adults as I got older.  Still, it was the last card I could play.
            “I tell you what, boy, I’m not going to give you your money back, but I’ll give you the chance to earn it, what do you say to that?”
            “What do I gotta do?” I asked.
            “Work for me, I could use a good shill.  Be here tomorrow at 10 o’clock in the morning.  Meet me at the soda shop across the street there, and I’ll tell you all you need to know.”
            I had no idea what a shill was, but the idea of working in real honest-go-gosh show business was too much for a kid with my imagination to turn down so I emphatically agreed to the job.
            The next morning I took the suit my mother bought me for the previous Easter Sunday service as well as a cheap bowler cap I’d found on the street after Mardi Gras, and raided my mother’s jewelry box.  I took two strands of pearls, one faux and the other irregular shaped freshwater, a gold chain, and a silver brooch with onyx beads and Aurora Borealis crystals hanging from it.  I draped the objects about myself in the best imitation of Sparklin’ Jacques I could, and as I stood at the mirror I bestowed upon myself the name Shimmerin’ Sam in front of a roomful of imaginary audience members.
            When Sparklin’ Jacques saw me at the soda shop he shook his head and laughed.
            “No, no, boy, you got it all wrong,” he cackled.  “You and me, we can’t look like we’re on the same team, you see?  As a shill, you stand around like a tourist, play a game or two and I let you win.  When the grown-ups see how easy you found the queen, they’re sure to hand their money over to me, and later I give you your cut.”
            This shill thing was becoming much less exciting than I thought it was going to be.  What good was being a performer if no one knew I was performing? Still, I had to earn back the five dollars that I told my mother I’d left at the library, so I took a chance and worked for Sparklin’ Jacques.
            I was good at my job, and though my boss paid me only a miniscule percentage of what he took in it sure beat work at the library – which I’d quit after my first day as a performer, and had no idea just how upset my father would be when he found out. 
            Though he kept a lot of secrets, Sparklin’ Jacques taught me much about the game of Three Card Monte.  I learned moves like palming, The Throw Down, and The Mexican Turnover (which, though he was good at it, Sparklin’ Jacques never used on a rube.)  When things were slow, or on days when it was raining, Sparklin’ Jacques taught me other tricks and bits of prestidigitation, and soon I was impressing the kids at school and on more than one occasion filled my pockets with nickels meant for their milk money.

*        *        *

            And as I sat across the table from Sarah I realized that Sparklin’ Jacques kept his promise.  He did teach me something that was to be one of the most valuable things I’d ever learned.  It wasn’t his advice about losing when you’re sure you’re winning, no, it was the slight of hand.  I had only a split second when Sarah had looked away to switch the satchel of beads with the fakes Sage had stolen from Celia’s purse.  Since I had been out of practice for more than 20 years, the pass didn’t go off as smoothly as I’d hoped, and for a moment I was sure she’d seen me.  But when she didn’t mention it, the hard part became me not giving it away by acting nervous.
            “I’m running late, Samuel,” she said.  “And I’m sure your friend would like to be reunited with your little band of do-gooders.”
            “Of course,” I told her.  Then I called for Lenny K., being very careful not to use the word “spaceship” in my beckoning.  I took the bead from him and handed it over to Sarah.
            “Is that it?”  I asked.
            “That’s it,” she said.  Sarah then stood, offered a handshake, and walked out of the front door.  As she made her way to the car she made hand gesture to Celia who opened the door and let Moondagger step out.  Then something very odd happened.  As Moondagger passed Sarah on his way up the front steps, he stopped, turned and followed her.  He called out to Sarah, but she ignored him, entered the Lincoln Continental and Celia gunned the engine while waving goodbye through the open window.
            “No!”  Moondagger yelled.  “No, no, no!”  He then turned, and rushed into the house.  “Why did you do it, Sam?  What were you thinking?”
            “Calm down, Moondagger,” I said.  “What did I do?”
            “You gave her the beads!”
            I was impressed.  I’m not sure how he knew what I’d done, but he needed to calm down so I ushered him to the living room where he took a seat on the couch.
            “Why, oh, why, Sam?”
            “Take it easy,” I told him.  “I switched the real beads Sarah had for the fakes.”  I held the satchel up so all in the room could see it.  Sage smiled broadly, Lenny K. started laughing, and even Beth – who had no idea of the significance of any of this – clapped her hands like an excited child.
            “No you didn’t, Sam.”
            “What do you mean?”  I asked.
            Moondagger explained to me some of the things he’d seen and heard during his abduction.  It seems Celia was worried that if Moondagger brought Sarah to the one missing bead before I took her to it, there would be nothing keeping Sarah from just taking off without paying her salary.  Celia insisted that if she were to continue in this game that she wanted to hold onto at least three of the six genuine beads that Sarah possessed.  An insurance policy, if you will.
            I’m not sure when or how they communicated, but they did, and the three fake beads had been switched for the authentic ones during our little run-in with the police.  That’s why Lenny K. kept saying something was different, because after the roadside search of Celia’s purse we were in custody of three of the real beads.
            There’s no doubt Celia noticed them missing from her purse, and I guess in her line of work The Ol’ Switcheroo is a fairly common tactic.  I can only surmise that she told Sarah to look out for it, and she did see my imperfect attempt at slight of hand.
            I took the beads I had from the satchel, and sure enough, there was the imperfection that I’d pointed out to Celia at the bus station.  I’d switched the real thing for the fakes.
            I guess I should have given Sparklin’ Jacques more credit, for if I’d taken to heart the fact that I can still lose when I’m sure I’ve won, I wouldn’t have felt so awful at that moment.  As I walked into the living room to face the others I made a half-hearted attempt at looking relieved that the whole thing was over.  Apparently I didn’t do that good of a job of hiding my real feelings.
            Sage sensed how downtrodden I was.  She put her arms around me and kissed my cheek.
            “It’s okay, Sam.  You didn’t want those beads, anyway.”
            It wasn’t about the beads, of course, and Sage knew it.  For days I had just been wanting to get back to life the way it had been, but standing in Beth’s living room I realized that was impossible.  I had been traveling the highways and side roads of America by myself for quite a while, but I was never truly alone; my companion was always the hope that one day I’d be reunited with Sarah.  Well, I had been and it didn’t work out the way I wanted it – could never work out the way I wanted it – so I was facing two choices right then: be alone from now on, or make some changes.
            I chose the latter.
            “You want to come with us?”  I asked Beth.
            “Where are you going?” she asked back.
            “Yeah, Sam, that’s a good question.  Where are we going?”  Sage asked, standing back and giving me a quizzical side-glance.
            “First we have to return a stolen car,” I reminded them.  “Then, as I promised earlier, the drinks are on me.  I’m going to start doing things a bit differently from now on, and I’d like to get some input from you guys.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 ..................to be continued

 

2007 Brightlings Beads and M. Robert Todd