Saturday, July 24, 2010

SoML: The Thunderhead Motel (Pt. III)

Note: This is the third episode of a fictional story. Future episodes will appear on this blog under the label "The Sons of Magda Lane." No set schedule, just as it occurs to me. Feedback is welcome.

Read Part II here

"He's out there.  I feel him watching us.  Like tiny needles prickling the back of my neck."  Whistler Lane reclined in the cheap plastic lounge chair next to the pool, his right foot resting on his left knee, forming a figure-four.  His guitar lay across his lap.  He was shirtless and barefoot, thin as a lodge pole.  His long dark hair was pulled back, tied at the nape of his neck.  The tresses fell low, between his shoulder blades.  The cuffs of his khaki trousers were pulled halfway up his shins, exposing his slender, hairless calves.  He strummed the guitar once, frowned, twisted at a tuning peg, plucking the string as he turned.  His eyebrows crowded down on the bridge of his long, sharp nose as he dialed in on the pitch.

"Could be," Stone Gray said.  "Doesn't matter, anyway."  Stone wore tight black swimming briefs, a towel around his neck.  His bushy beard and crazy, kinky hair, black as midnight, hid the workings of his face.  But his eyes were gray and hard; hard as steel, hard as the muscles in his bulky torso, in his arms and legs.  He stood at one end of the pool, and dipped a toe into the water.  His eyes scanned the busy street beyond the motor entry to the Thunderhead Motel, past the neon sign announcing "No Vacancy."

The mid-morning sun only just peeked over the eave of the motel's southern wing to strike the surface of the water, drawing dazzling yellow shapes, rectangles and polygons, that danced on the blue-painted bottom of the pool.

All around was a great bustle.  It was the usual arrangement:  the entire motel was reserved exclusively for Magda and Family for as long as they stayed in Portland.  It was where they always stayed when they came to the City of Roses.  The crew had pulled in the moving vans and were unloading equipment, hauling it into the rooms.  Every door was open. The load-in was in full swing, and the center area formed by the motel's three wings (north, south, and east) was filled with banging and bustling and shouted orders.

"You say it doesn't matter," Whistler said.  He strummed the guitar again, letting the chord resonate.  He nodded to himself, then shot a glance at Stone's broad back.  "I wish I could afford to believe that."  He paused, musing for a moment.  His eyes lost focus, as if he were seeing through the shadowy veils of memory to a midnight snowstorm in the mountains.  He spoke.   "I saw shadows that night.  Dancing against the flames.  They seemed like naked children, frolicking in the snow."

Stone did not turn.  "Tricks of the light.  Nothing more," he grumbled.

Whistler shrugged.  "I didn't feel like waiting to be sure."  Then he grinned, jocular.  "Neither did you.  Neither did brave Stone Gray, huffing and puffing through the snow, hellbent for the highway."

Stone grunted, took the towel from around his neck and threw it, striking Whistler in the face.  They laughed.

"Careful!  You're going to ruin me!"  The voice bellowed out across the expanse of the motel parking lot.  Beren Angel, owner and proprietor of the Thunderhead, was striding across the blacktop.  His red face was square and severe, with a broad jaw and cheeks like slabs of stone.  His close-cropped hair was fine and fair.  He strode as if on military parade, his arms cocked at his sides, swinging back and forth in cadence with his footsteps.  "Look at that!  God!  What are you doing?"  He pointed at the balcony of the north wing.

Whistler craned his neck around to where Beren pointed.  Two of the crew, shirtless, dread-locked, jangling silver and turquoise jewelry from earlobes and nostrils, were struggling with a multi-course pedal harp.  The  body of the instrument was polished, dark mahogany.  The neck was so long that the crew had to tilt the instrument to the diagonal to get through the door frame.

"Easy, Beren," Whistler said.  "A few nicks in the door jamb won't hurt anything.  It's the harp that might get damaged."

Beren leaned on the black cathedral fence that skirted the pool patio.  "Every time you show up here, my blood pressure goes through the roof."

Whistler grinned.  Stone snorted, turned and dove into the pool.  Despite his blocky broad form, he cut into the water with barely a ripple. 

"You think it's funny?" Beren demanded.  "You know how much money this costs me?  Every day you're here is another day that I don't have any paying guests."

"Don't pretend that you don't benefit from our --arrangement," Whistler said.  He strummed on the guitar, idly.

Beren shook his head.  "Benefit?  Your mother's voodoo tricks are fine for children and fools that don't know any better.  For me, it's all smoke and mirrors.  I don't know why I put up with it."

"You put up with it because she demands that you do," Whistler said.  His tone was harsh and imperious.  "You do it because when she pulls your string, you dance.  Just like all the rest of us."

Beren's jaw clenched, but he kept his eyes on the upper balcony, where the two crewmen had managed to wrestle the harp inside the room.  Stone's head emerged from beneath the water at the far end of the pool; his hair was matted down; silver beads dotted his beard.

"And here's our noble brother," said Whistler, sunnily.

Regal Lane appeared from one of the ground floor doors.  He was broad-shouldered and tall, with a narrow waist and long legs.  His jacket and trousers were black leather.  A silver chain with long round links ran through his belt loops. He had a shock of wiry red hair that stood up off his head like a sheaf of grain.  Mutton chop sideburns ran down his jaw, halfway to the point of his prominent, round chin.  His mouth was broad and straight and somber.  Although he was a few years younger than Whistler, his eyes sagged at the corners, like those of a sad old man clinging to hope in spite of everything.  When he saw Whistler and Beren, he stopped dead, his arms cocked at his sides.  He hesitated, then started to turn around.

"Take it easy, take it easy," Beren scoffed.  "I was just leaving."  He turned and walked back in the direction of the motel office.  He hunched his shoulders as he walked.

Whistler waited until Beren disappeared into the office, then turned to his brother.  "What is it about him that bothers you?" he asked.

Regal's face darkened.  "Nothing.  It's nothing," he said.  Then, "I'm on my way to town.  She wants me to look at a tour bus."  He started away with long, swift strides.

Whistler, strumming the guitar, called after him.  "Whatever it is that you're hiding is going to come out eventually.  Wouldn't you feel better just telling me about it now?"

Regal  stopped, mid-stride, then turned slowly to face his brother.  He pursed his lips; his eyes were troubled.  Whistler waited.

After a moment, Regal came to a decision.  "Yesterday," he said.  "I was at Waterfront Park.  Tara Colds was there."

Stone paused in the act of pushing back into the middle of the pool.  Whistler leaned forward, laying the guitar on an empty lounge chair next to him.  "You're sure?" he asked, urgently.

Regal shrugged, reluctantly opened the gate in the waist-high fence, and walked across the white concrete to stand before his brother.  Stone swam to the corner nearest them; he rested his elbows on the rim of the pool.

"She was pedaling a rickshaw," Regal said.  "Riding tourists up and down the waterfront."

"Are you sure it was she?" Whistler asked.  "Did she see you?" 

"I'm sure," Regal said, irritated.  He scowled.  "If she saw me, she gave no indication.  There were a great many people on the promenade." 

"She saw you," Stone murmured.  "She sees everything."

"I need to know how it was," Whistler urged.  "Every detail.  How did she seem to you?"

"As I said, she was pedaling a rickshaw.  There were two people in the seats.  A well-dressed man and a young woman, a girl, really.  She had her hand on his arm.  He was older.  He had an air of importance."

"And what of Tara?  How did she seem to you?"

Regal considered.  "She wore a plain, short-skirted dress.  Sunglasses.  She was all smiles and laughter."

Whistler looked at Stone.  "What did I tell you?  He's here.  What more evidence do you need?"

Stone glowered, but said nothing.

Whistler turned back to Regal.  "I assume you've told mother..."

Regal shrugged.  "She already knew.  She asked me about it as soon as I got back."

Whistler winced.  "So that's why she was gone this morning.  Off to confer with the other Families."  He pinched his lower lip.  "Whatever Stormy has been stirring up since Old Man Grissom's --accident --is about to become apparent.  In any case, we'll learn more when mother gets back."

Stone grimaced when Whistler pronounced the name, Grissom.  "She'll be here soon," he said.  "Vinnie left to get her a while ago."

Whistler leaned back, frowning.  "He has his eyes on us, we can be sure of that.  Whatever he's plotting, he won't want us screwing it up for him."

"Your mother might have other ideas," Stone said.

Regal twisted the toe of his boot on the cement, looking down.  "Anyway, I'm on my way.  I'll be back later this afternoon."  He turned and left the pool patio, walking out toward the busy street.  Traffic was running thick and fast.

Whistler leaned back, pulled up a knee and rested his arm:  wrist limp, the hand dangling.  Stone pushed himself backward, floated, face-up in the water.

A sudden squeal of tires, a shriek of brakes lifted them both out of their reveries.  Whistler shot his glance toward the motor entry of the motel.  He saw Regal spring back with eye-puzzling quickness, arms raised, toes pointed, like a matador avoiding the charge of the bull.  A black sedan lurched in off the street, jumped the curb and swept by him.  No more than a hand's span separated Regal from the streaking black menace.

Whistler leaped to his feet and ran.  But quick as he was, Stone was ahead of him.  Stone exploded out of the water with a sudden burst of strength, and hurdled the short fence.  His bare feet slapped the pavement, leaving wet footprints to mark his path.

The sedan shrieked to a halt, then backed up and zoomed away.  Tinted windows hid the driver.  By the time they reached the curb, the car was lost in the traffic on the street.

Regal stood stroking his jaw, frowning.  Then, it was the three of them, gathered like mourners at a wake, musing silently.  Behind them, some of the crew had stopped their activities and were gathering on the balconies, pointing, talking excitedly.  Beren Angel stood in the office door, a look of outrage splashed across his craggy features.

"What do they call it, Stone?" Whistler asked suddenly.  "In baseball, when the pitcher throws a pitch high and inside, at the chin of the batter?"

Stone stood dripping.  He shot an irritated glance at Whistler.  "You mean a brushback?" he asked.

"Exactly!" Whistler exclaimed.  "A brushback.  That's what it is!"

To be continued...

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