Green Key Book
The rider saw the silhouetes of two small buildings in the darkness ahead, so he cut the engine and lights on the big Harley and coasted the rest of the way. No need to announce his arrival, as if anyone on this lonely country road even knew he was coming. That was the beauty of it. Nobody out here knew anything about him. And he planned to keep it that way for a few days until he did what he came to do. Then he would be gone forever.
There were no lights anywhere, not even street lights. The faint glow of a quarter moon through wispy clouds was barely enough to illuminate the pavement ahead. The rider rolled past a driveway leading to the larger of the two buildings. It was an old wood-frame church, all right, with a little house behind it, probably the preacher’s house. And immediately ahead was a dark stand of trees and brush beside the road, just as the old wino in town had said.
The rider scuffed his boots softly on the asphalt, bringing the bike to a stop without brake lights. With the trees and brush between him and the dark church buildings, he used a penlight to find the dirt path through the brush. It took him a couple of minutes to walk the Harley down the narrow path to an open patch of grass the wino had called a “holler.” He found the rustic picnic table he had been told about. There was even a chemical toilet parked under one of the large trees. He clearly wasn’t the first transient to crash here in this place, but tonight he was the only one. And that would do just fine.
The darkened church buildings were visible from the hollow. Flicking off the penlight, the rider leaned the Harley on its stand. Then he pulled off his helmet, sat down at the picnic table, and lit a cigarette. It was well past midnight, and he was ready to sleep, but he allowed himself a few minutes to enjoy the silence of a warm spring night in the country.
Gazing at the buildings across a couple of acres of open land, he drew deeply on the cigarette. It had been a very long journey through parts of the country had never seen before. Up until a couple weeks ago, he never imagined he would ever see the state of Washington in his lifetime. He had neither reason nor interest for traveling almost three thousand miles to this little country town. But things change, whether you want them to or not. So here he was.
Stubbing out his smoke, the rider unloaded the Harley and pitched a two-man tent in the dark as he had done so often on this trip. The front end of the tent, next to the zippered entrance, was for his sleeping bag; the back end was for the leather saddlebag containing the limited possessions he had brought on the trip. Stretched out on the bag ready for one more smoke, he reached into his saddlebag for a heavy canvas pouch. Unzipping the pouch, he pulled out his Ruger Mark II semi-automatic pistol and laid it on his chest.
After lighting up, he studied the blued finish on the barrel in the light of the cigarette’s flaring embers. Reaching into the canvas pouch again, he retrieved a ten-shot magazine and snapped it into place. He always loaded the gun at night and kept it close. What’s the point of having a gun for protection if it isn’t loaded? Assured that the thumb-operated safety was on, he laid the piece next to the small duffel he used as a pillow, on the side away from the tent flaps.
Snuffing out his smoke in the moist grass, the rider glanced once more across the field toward the church. He might have to endure some nosy, gawking church people while he was here. The wino had assured him that they were harmless and mostly kept their distance. He wouldn’t make trouble in the hollow for the few days he was here. And he hoped they would take the same approach.
Zipping the tent netting closed, the rider roller over, touched the butt of his pistol with his fingers, and fell asleep.
Ezra studied the checkerboard for a moment. Then, from his side of the desk, he cautiously pushed a red checker one space forward. He was slouched in an old oak swiveling and rocking office chair that neither swiveled nor rocked without a good deal of creaking. “Your move, Thomas,” he announced.
Thomas Rasby sat ramrod straight in a wooden chair on the opposite side of the desk. He snatched up a black checker and hopped it vigorously over two red checkers Ezra had left unprotected—thack, thack.
“You don’t have to make so much noise with your checkers, Thomas,” Ezra said in a monotone that lacked any force. He ran his fingers absently through the few shocks of wispy white hair left on his head. Thomas’ full head of wavy hair was almost as white, though the church caretaker was twelve years the minister’s junior.
“Sorry, Reverend Sturdevant,” Thomas said meekly.
The noontime game of checkers in the small office of the old church had been played the same way for more years than Ezra could recall. Ezra always had to remind Thomas not to slap his checkers so noisily on the board. The sound really bugged him, but Thomas had been slapping his checkers for decades, and the minister’s harping was only effective for a game or two at best.
“You rascal, Thomas. Look what you’re doing to me,” Ezra ribbed the caretaker good-naturedly. “I’m ruined. You’re beating me once again.”
Thomas Rasby was a crackerjack checkers player because the caretaker didn’t have much else in his brain to distract him while they played. Ezra often amused himself with this thought.
“But it won’t count because you slapped your checkers,” Ezra razzed. “Now put my checkers back on the board, and I will make another move.”
“Oh no,” Thomas chuckled, sounding a little like Goofy in the Disney cartoons. “You can’t take your move back, Reverend Sturdevant. It ain’t in the rules.”
Thomas had lived his entire fifty-seven years by the rules, Ezra knew. As a concrete thinker, life was black and white for him. It sometimes took him a while to understand the choices before him. But the rules deeply etched into that cement block of a brain usually steered him to make the right one. It was a childlike trait long absent among the more intelligent. Ezra admired Thomas’ simplicity, even envied it at times.
Conversation was limited to between games because Thomas couldn’t talk and play at the same time. “Big thunderstorm coming in tonight,” Ezra said, moving checkers into place for another game. “Heavy wind and a lot of rain predicted.”
Thomas chewed and swallowed a bite of egg salad sandwich and wiped his mouth with a napkin before answering. Don’t talk with your mouth full. That was a rule. “We get a couple of them big storms every spring, don’t we, Reverend?”
“You’ll close the shutters all around the church, won’t you?” Ezra said.
“Oh yes, Reverend,” the caretaker assured. “I’ll close them shutters, all right. And I’ll clean out them rain gutters too. I’ll put all my tools in the shed before the storm comes. And I’ll make sure—”
“Thank you, Thomas,” Ezra cut in, knowing that if he didn’t stop him, the caretaker would proceed through the entire litany of his weekly tasks. The daily routine was as important to the caretaker as the rules. Thomas Rasby was predictable to the point of boredom. But he was also dependable and utterly trustworthy, like an aging, finely crafted grandfather clock.
After the next game—which the minister lost in another flurry of slapping checkers—Ezra ate several spoonfuls of leftover casserole from a Tupperware bowl as Thomas set up the board. “Tomorrow I will get them Sunday school rooms in the basement ship-shape,” Thomas recited as he deftly moved the pieces into place.
“But we don’t have Sunday school anymore, Thomas,” Ezra said between bites, launching into the well-worn explanation that never seemed to penetrate the concrete, “because there are no children in our church. They have all grown up and moved away.”
“Maybe some children’ll come this Sunday,” Thomas said with characteristic optimism. “With God all things are possible.”
Thomas’ uncluttered view of what was and what could be always seemed to catch Ezra up short. “You’re right, of course,” he sighed. “With God all things are possible.”
Chapel of the Valley had been a “mature” church long before Ezra was called as minister twenty-two years ago. The children of the members had grown up and left the farming community for urban universities and careers and for suburban homes and churches. There were fewer than a 130 names on the membership roll at the old chapel. Ezra could count on one hand those who were younger than sixty, and Thomas was one of them.
During the next break, Ezra said, “What do you think of our most recent guest in the hollow?”
Thomas finished chewing and swallowing a cookie before answering. “You mean Joe?”
“Is that his name—Joe? The young fellow on the motorcycle?”
“That’s right, Reverend Sturdevant. He said his name is Joe.”
Ezra went on, mainly to himself. “It’s only May. The migrant workers aren’t due in the valley for a couple weeks yet. So what’s a homeless man doing with an expensive Harley? Or is he really homeless?”
It took a moment for the caretaker to sort through the minister’s three-part question. “I reckon he’s homeless, or he wouldn’t be sleeping in a bedroll out there in the hollow. That’s where the homeless people sleep sometimes, Reverend, when the pickers aren’t there.”
The hollow was a seven-acre, pie-shaped parcel of undeveloped church property across a small creek from the church cemetery. It was a peaceful area of wild grass and weeds secluded from the road by a thick belt of trees and bushes. Long before Ezra came to the Chapel of the Valley, transients and migrant workers picking seasonal fruit in this central Washington valley used the hollow for a temporary camping spot, mostly during the warm summer months.
Ezra knew well that such people were technically guilty of trespassing on church property. But as long as these occasional visitors weren’t drunk, strung out on drugs, or destructive, nobody at the church made an issue of them camping out in the hollow for a night or two. Nobody except for Jethro Haig, vice-chairman of the church board. Jethro saw more liabilities than assets in just about everything. The milk of human kindness, Ezra mused to himself frequently, had turned sour in Jethro many years ago.
Thomas, who lived in a small cabin overlooking the hollow at the rear of the church cemetery, was the self-appointed dorm parent for all who camped there. The caretaker made a point to meet each person, welcome him or her, and even provide canned goods from his own pantry on occasion. Ezra tried to get down to the hollow to visit the travelers. And Dorrie Sturdevant, before she passed, often sent with him a hot, covered casserole in a disposable tin-foil pan.
“So you’ve talked to him…this Joe out there?” Ezra said.
“Uh-huh. I went to where he was making his campfire last night. I said I was Thomas and did he need anything. He said he didn’t need nothing.”
“So what’s he look like?” the minister pressed. Thomas scratched his head, thought a moment, then scratched his ear.
“He’s got black hair tied up in back with a rubber band.”
“A ponytail,” Ezra suggested.
“Yeah, a ponytail with his black hair. And he’s got a big cut on his face.” Thomas traced an invisible jagged line down the left side of his own face from the cheekbone to the jaw line with his index finger.
“You mean a scar?”
Thomas nodded. “And he’s got a big bird on his arm too,” he added, moving his tracing finger to his upper arm.
Ezra nodded. “A tattoo.”
“Yes, Reverend, a big bird tattoo on his arm. And there’s something else, Reverend. Joe had—”
Ezra cut in, “Did you tell him he could camp out there as long as he needs to?”
“I sure did, just like I done with all the others. But wait until you see—”
“And if he comes back this evening from wherever he’s gone on that motorcycle, I’ll go out and say hello.”
Finally Thomas blurted out what he had been trying to say. “When you go see him, Reverend, maybe he will show you his gun!”
Ezra dropped the checker he had picked up to move. “Gun?” he said with mild alarm. “Are you saying that this Joe out there in our hollow has a gun?”
Thomas nodded even more vigorously. Then he held up his hand and squeezed an imaginary trigger with his forefinger, careful not to point his invisible weapon at the minister.
“That’s right, a big black pistol. I seen it on Joe’s bedroll. He covered it right quick when I come up.”
Ezra grimaced and scratched the back of his head. “I suppose a fellow needs to protect himself from coyotes and stray dogs if he’s camping out in strange places,” he thought aloud. But he didn’t like what he was hearing: ponytail biker with a scar, tattoo, and now a gun. Jethro is going to have a cow over this one if he finds out, he thought.
“I think Joe’s a nice man, Reverend Sturdevant,” Thomas said. “He wouldn’t hurt nobody with his gun.”
Always looking on the bright side, aren’t you, Thomas? Ezra mused. The cup is always half full, not half empty. Except with you, the cup is always full.
“I’m sure you’re right,” he said, retrieving his checker and making his move. He hoped he sounded sure.