The guy’s BO made Luke’s eyes water. He had long greasy hair, an eleven o’clock shadow, jeans as brown as they were blue, and a crumpled, stain-riddled Hawaiian shirt.
“This your first time to Agua Rancheria?” He sniffed loudly, wiping his nose.
Luke gave a nod and looked out the bus window, hoping to end the conversation.
No such luck.
“You’ll like it. The desert, I mean. Nothing but nothing as far as you can see.” He sniffed louder.
Luke stole a glance just in time to see the guy pinching away a drip of hanging mucus with his hand. His gloved hand. In the middle of June. Proof that the man was not only homeless but a mental.
“And those stars at night, I tell you — ” another sniff — “God must have been having a fine day creating those.”
This time Luke didn’t respond.
The man didn’t notice. “’Course the casino’s kinda messing stuff up. All that bright light and razzle-dazzle. But get away from it and the place is beau-tee-ful.”
As discretely as possible, Luke cupped his hand over his nose and mouth. They’d picked the guy up in Palm Springs about thirty minutes ago. If Luke’s geography was any good it meant he’d only have to endure another five or ten minutes of his company before stepping off the bus and getting some fresh air.
In truth, the man was only a minor nuisance — the last in Luke’s ongoing campaign to get away from home . . . and Dad.
“You’re smothering me again!”
“I just don’t think being gone all summer is a good idea.”
“Six weeks,” Luke argued, “it’ll only be six weeks.”
“That’s nearly two months.”
“You’ll be in New York half that time.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it.”
“You’re always saying I should get a job, save for college.”
“It’s too far away.”
“It’s two hours. I’m fifteen years old, Dad. Fifteen!”
And so they continued. For the most part it had been a standoff . . . until Preacher Man had weighed in. Good ol’ Preacher Man . . .
“Come on, David,” he insisted, while working on a bag of potato chips at the kitchen counter. “Let the boy go.”
It was an unusual friendship — a middle-class, whitebread family and an old black street preacher. Then again, considering what they’d been through these last couple years . . . his sister’s death, his dad’s visits to heaven and hell, and later where they literally saw each other’s souls and the spirit world . . . well, maybe it wasn’t so unusual after all.
“You already met Pastor Virgil and his wife.” Preacher Man continued munching. “They don’t come any better. And they definitely need help gettin’ that church of theirs fixed up.”
“Yes, but — ”
“Probably do the boy good. Get him out in some fresh air, doin’ some real work for a change, ’stead of always playin’ with that computer.”
“What about his eyes?” Dad argued. “He barely remembers to wear his sunglasses around here. What’s going to happen if he gets out in the bright desert sun and forgets — ”
“I won’t forget!”
“You say that now, but — ”
“I won’t forget.”
And so the war continued. It had taken nearly a month to wear him down. Even at that, Luke had to use every weapon known to adolescence — forced cheerfulness, willingness to do household chores (even when unasked), and listening to the man’s perpetual naggings and repeatings without so much as an eye roll.
It had nearly killed Luke, but somehow he had succeeded. He had won. Now he was heading out to a desert community for six weeks to help some old pastor fix up some old church . . . and to finally enjoy a little independence.
The bus turned off the main road and entered the town. As it did, Casino Rancheria filled Luke’s window. It was a monstrous complex of white limestone, giant waterfalls, and fountains complete with roaring rapids and life-sized bronzed replicas of Native Americans in canoes. Portions of ocher-colored pottery protruded from the walls, where mural after mural of desert wildlife had been painted to look like Indian art. And lining the entrance, a dozen Native American heads, twenty feet tall, gazed toward the desert, their faces creased and weathered by the sun.
It seemed everywhere Luke looked he was reminded of Indian culture. And for good reason. According to Pastor Virgil, that was part of the deal when the casino leased the land from a local tribe.
As the bus passed the red-carpeted entrance, Luke noticed a handful of protestors carrying signs and placards reading:
GAMBLING IS A DISEASE,
GOD IS THE CURE
KEEP YOUR MONEY,
AND YOUR SEX, VIOLENCE, DRUGS, CRIME
A tanned blond guy in his early thirties was leading them. He shouted things Luke couldn’t quite hear while bored security guards stood nearby. Apparently, none of it really mattered, because despite the demonstrators, hordes of people just kept swarming in and swarming out.
Luke reached into his nylon windbreaker and pulled out what almost passed for the broken half of a pair of night-vision goggles — complete with various wires cut back. Although he had trimmed them, he didn’t have the heart to completely remove them.
In truth, he hoped to find a way to make the goggles work like they had for Orbolitz — back when the old guy claimed to use them to see into “higher dimensions.” More importantly, he hoped they would earn him the respect he never fully received. Luke had always felt special . . .
chosen. And, if he ever got the things to work, they would definitely help prove his point.
Imagine how different folks would treat him if they knew he could see into the spirit world. It was one thing for those TV preachers and everybody to be jabbering about that stuff, but if he could actually see it . . . well, that would sure get them to sit up and take notice. At the very least he wouldn’t be treated like some stupid kid anymore.
He raised the broken goggles to his sunglasses and looked at the familiar smears of light and darkness that, for some reason, only he was able to see. Chances are it was because he’d fried his eyes while climbing that microwave tower, or whatever it was, up in Washington. But it made little difference. The point is, despite Dad’s protests, Luke took them wherever he went. And the more he used them, the more he was able to recognize recurring patterns and formations of light.
It wasn’t much. But being able to see the faint traces did set him apart . . . a little.
This time the smears darted about the casino — particularly in and out of its entrance. He turned and focused on the protestors. Although the smears seemed a bit more flighty and agitated than normal, they acted pretty much the same as they did around any other group. He started to remove the goggles when something caught his eye off to the right of the casino — a jagged peak, flattened on one side, part of the mountain range they’d been following for the last hour.
It had no fleeting smudges of lights around it, and Luke wasn’t surprised. The lights usually just hung around people. Instead, what caught his attention was the very top of the peak. It was covered in a shadow. But thicker than shadow. Not as dense as a cloud because he could still see through it. But it was a specific darkness that rippled and quivered. It seemed to pulse ever so slightly . . . almost as if it were breathing.
Almost as if it were alive.
Misty! Misty, where are you?”
Pilar slammed the front door to their penthouse suite, the largest at the casino, and stormed across the white carpet toward the hallway and her daughter’s bedroom.
She was not happy.
She arrived just as her sixteen-year-old appeared in the doorway. The girl still wore her sleeping sweats and flip-flops. Her hair was unkempt, as thick and black as her mother’s.
“Oh, hi, Mom.” She sounded too casual. “What brings you home?”
“You were in the Surveillance Room again, weren’t you?”
“What do you mean?” She blinked, pushing up the world’s ugliest pair of tortoise-shell glasses. “You told me I could never go in there.”
“I know what I told you, and you were there, weren’t you?”
“What? Why would I — ”
Pilar raised the small electronic box she’d been carrying, complete with dangling cable.
“Security found it attached to the back of their computer.”
Misty took it into her hands. “Hm, I wonder what it’s for?”
Pilar sighed wearily. “You know how the casino frowns upon you hacking into their surveillance system.”
“But, Mom — ”
“No ‘but Moms.’ ”
“Why do you always blame me? You’re always blaming me for everything!” It was the girl’s attempt to go on the offense by playing victim. “It’s like you don’t even trust me.”
Pilar crossed her arms. “Nice try, no sale.” She shifted her weight and noticed Misty doing the same, obviously trying to block her from seeing into the room.
“Besides,” Misty quipped, “what do you care? It’s the white man’s casino, and we both know what you think of the — ”
“My personal feelings have nothing to do with it. What you’re doing is wrong, it’s proprietary information, and it makes them nervous. It makes Bianco nervous.” She shifted again and Misty mirrored her action. “What are you doing in there?”
“Misty?” Pilar tried to see past her.
Once again Misty blocked her view. “It’s just video games and stuff.”
“Right, and it’s the ‘stuff’ that’s got me worried.”
“Why are you always so suspic — ” She was interrupted by the howl of a cat. Twirling around, she cried, “Balzac!”
She raced into the room, Pilar right behind.
The place was a Radio Shack gone berserk — electronic consoles, gizmos, and gadgets everywhere you looked, except the floor, which was covered in an equal amount of clothes — some clean, some dirty — but all, Pilar knew, would be dumped into the dirty-clothes hamper.
Then there was the cat box. By the pungent odor, she guessed it hadn’t been emptied in a week . . . or two.
Stuffed off in the corner was a small twin bed with the mandatory grouping of stuffed animals. But the long table in the center of the room was the obvious focus of activity. A table cluttered with wires, circuit boards, soldering iron, and the innards of a hundred who-knew-whats.
Directly behind it, on another table, a dozen different-sized monitors were stacked on top of each other, all glowing.
“Balzac . . . oh, you poor thing!” Misty had scooped the jet-black cat into her arms. “How many times has Mommy told you not to go sniffing around all those mean electrical circuits.”
He definitely looked dazed. And for good reason. As Pilar leaned closer she saw he no longer had whiskers. Well, he did, but they were now melted into little corkscrews. That and the smell of burning hair was a sure sign that the cat had used up a few more of his lives.
“Poor baby,” the girl soothed, stroking him. “Poor Balzac.”
Pilar looked up at the wall of monitors. She moved in closer, not believing what she saw. “Is that what I think it is?”
“I was just — ”
“Is that Bianco’s office? Did you bug the manager’s office?”
“Mom, you know something’s going on. I mean, the way he’s got everyone running all over the — ”
“Did you just bug my boss’s office?”
She turned to Misty.
The girl raised her shoulders in a helpless shrug.
Pilar sighed wearily, dropping her head and slowly shaking it.
a wave of hot fresh air struck Luke as he stepped off the bus. But he was grateful for it — especially the “fresh” part.
“Praise God, there he is now!”
He looked over to see Pastor Virgil and his wife — he’d forgotten her name — shuffling down the sidewalk toward him. The spunky old-timer wore a Panama straw hat, dolphin-print shirt, leather sandals, and khaki shorts which showed off far too much of his brown saggy knees.
Fortunately, his wife was dressed a bit more modestly.
“Good to see you, son.” The pastor arrived, throwing his arms around him.
Surprised, Luke answered, “Thanks, it’s good to — ” he gasped at the old-timer’s strength — “see you . . . too.”
They broke apart as Virgil turned to his wife. “Isn’t it good to see him, Fiona?”
“Yes, it is.” She offered her wrinkled, sun-browned hand and Luke shook it.
“Yes, it is,” Virgil repeated, “yes, it is.” Then slapping his little belly, he looked about, beaming. “Welcome to Agua Rancheria. What do you think?”
“It’s . . . nice.”
“Nice? It’s glorious! Now I don’t wanna be spreading rumors, but folks say God Himself has a time-share here.”
He flashed another grin, laughing at his joke. By now the driver had opened the luggage compartment under the bus and was pulling out Luke’s bags — all four of them.
“Whoa,” Virgil exclaimed. “These all yours?”
Luke nodded, somewhat embarrassed. “Yes, sir.”
The old guy whistled. “Didn’t know we were going to have a fashion devo on our hands.”
“Leave the boy alone, Virgil.”
Luke tried to explain. “I wasn’t exactly sure what to wear, I mean out here in the — ”
“It don’t matter, son.” He reached for the luggage.
“No, here,” Luke offered, “let me get that.”
But Virgil was already trying to lift the largest bag.
“That’s way too heavy, let me — ”
“I got it, son, I got it.” With great effort, the little man finally lifted the suitcase. “Fiona,” he gasped, “wanna give the boy a hand with them others?”
“No, please,” Luke protested.
“Nonsense, she’s as strong as a — ”
“Really.” Luke quickly gathered up the other three.
“I’ve got them.”
“Suit yourself.” Virgil turned and staggered up the sidewalk.
“Car’s just a little ways — ”
He was interrupted by another voice. “We’ll catch you later, friend.”
Luke turned to see the man in the Hawaiian shirt stepping off the bus, heading in the opposite direction.
“Uh . . . right.” With hands full, Luke managed a nod.
“One of your Hollyweird buddies?” Virgil teased.
“Uh, no, I just met him on the bus.”
Virgil nodded. “Probably homeless. We get our share of ’em this time of year. Usually aren’t dangerous — long as you don’t get too friendly. We don’t bother them, they don’t bother us.”
The bus gave a belch of black smoke and started pulling away.
Fanning away the fumes, Fiona asked, “So, Luke, how was your trip?”
“That’s wonderful.” Virgil was breathing heavily.
“’Cause you’re going to need all the strength you got, once we get to working on that church. Twenty hours a day can really tucker a fellow out.”
Luke threw a concerned look to him, then to Fiona.
She smiled. “He’s just playing with you. He calls it — what do you call it, dear? — oh yes, ‘humor.’ ”
Luke smiled. Though he’d only spent a few hours with them when they’d visited Preacher Man in LA, he remembered all too well how the couple communicated.
She continued, “Don’t pay him any mind, Luke. Nobody ever does.”
Ignoring her, puffing harder, Virgil asked, “How’s your dad? And Billy Ray?”
“Preacher Man’s doing great. And Dad, he’s, you know, Dad.”
Virgil flashed a grin over his shoulder. “Still making you crazy, is he?”
“I didn’t know it was that obvious.”
“It’s hard to get much past these old eyes.”
“Right,” Fiona drolly replied.
“It’s true, I see everything.”
“Unless it’s the garbage that needs taking out, or all the repairs that never get done.”
“Selective vision, woman. These eyes see life from a select perspective.”
“Closed and from the recliner.”
“Drip, drip, drip . . . Drip, drip, drip.”
Fiona explained, “That’s his way of reciting the Bible to me.”
Virgil quoted, “ ‘A quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping.’ Proverbs 19:13.”
Fiona countered, “ ‘If a man is lazy, . . . the house leaks.’ Ecclesiastes 10:18.”
The old-timer frowned, searching for a response.
Luke had to smile.
They walked by a large billboard with a picture of the casino he had just passed. Written across its front, diagonally, in big red letters, were the words:
DEAL ME OUT!
“What’s that about?” Luke asked.
“More of Travis Lawton’s handiwork,” Virgil replied.
“Our city’s newest gift from God — least that’s what he thinks. He’s found a loophole in a local ordinance. Thinks we can force a vote and drive out the casino.”
“Why would he want to do that?”
“Lots of reasons,” Fiona answered. “Prostitution, drugs, corruption. Our overall crime rate has gone up 400 percent since the casino moved in.”
“Is that what the protestors are about?” Luke asked. “I saw some folks picketing in front of the casino.”
Virgil nodded. “Pastor Lawton and his congregation — they’re foolish enough to think if they get rid of the casino, they’ll get rid of our troubles.”
“And you don’t think so?”
Virgil shook his head. “The casino is only the symptom. Lawton and his people are fighting shadows. They’re totally clueless about the real sickness.”
“And that is . . .”
“You’ll know soon enough,” the quirky old man answered as they continued down the street. “You’ll know soon enough.”