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Red and Darla Clayton-chapter two of two

People make mistakes, but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.
"Mom, we don't hate dad. We never did," said Jennifer.

"That's right mom. Heck, we love him, I guess. But . . ." started Randy.

"Kids, I know what you mean, and your dad, neglectful as he was, and stubbornly so, did things the best he could. He, well, he, he just thought that he needed to do more, well, to make a better living for us. He was always a workaholic. Still is I guess," said Darla.

"Mom, we're willing to see him, talk to him; I mean if you want. Randy and I talked. You know after what you told us yesterday. We've no problem talking to him. But, well, we don't want to have to choose between Marty and dad that's all. Marty's been good to all of us. We, well, we love him too. That said, mom, we'd have no problem visiting with dad now and again. I mean if you want us to," said Randy.

"That's right, mom," said Jennifer.

"Oh boy," mused Darla.

"Kids, I'm going to talk to your dad. But, I have to tell you if the attitude you have shown right now is made clear to him, he probably won't want to have anything to do with us anymore. I mean, 'if I want you too', you have to want to, the two of you, or there is no go on this.

"Kids, your dad loves you. And, I just can't believe that at your ages now that you can't see that. Was he the dad of the year? No. But, he never stopped loving you two, no matter what it looks like.

"Anyway, I owe the guy. And as far as you two are concerned, you owe him too even if you don't realize it now. I assure you, the day will come . . ."

"Mom, we get it. I guess we said it wrong. We want to have a relationship with him too. Don't we, Jennifer," said Randy. "It's just . . ."

"We just don't want to have to choose between our two dads. We love Marty too. Well, and we don't want him to think that we're betraying him. Like we said before, he's the one that's been there for us. Mom, he's our 'real' dad. That's how we see him," said Jennifer.

"Yeah, mom. So long as we can have both were cool with having a relationship with dad, our biological dad," said Randy.

Darla frowned. The attitude wasn't right. It was like the kids were setting conditions. No, challenges, that Red would have to meet or else. If he got the idea, that there was an 'or else' in the mix none of them would ever see him again. She knew it as she knew the sun would rise in the east.

She looked her children in their eyes and knew, just knew, that they would be doing this to please her. Their hearts weren't in it. They didn't love their dad; it was that simple, not enough for sure. Oh, Red, you blew it my good man, she thought.

******

Darla, was fidgeting; she couldn't help herself. "Think she'll be a no show," she said, not looking at him.

"Why wouldn't she show? Roberto said she would. She'll be here. She's only two minutes late," said Marty.

"There she is," he said. "Gray business suit, like he told us."

"Hi, I'm Sally Abrams," she said.

"Hello," said Marty. "I'm Marty Castaign. This is my wife Darla." They all settled into their chairs. The bar girl reappeared having seen the new arrival. They ordered.

"So?" said Darla.

"Yes, he works at a small restaurant in Tyler," she said. "He seems content enough."

"Content?" said Darla.

"He's pleasant to the customers. No apparent angst. Of course I haven't seen him after work or anywhere else either if it comes to that," said Sally. "Just the one time on the job."

"Were you able to speak with him?" asked Marty.

"Not privately. Just ordered coffee and a burger. He served me. He was nice enough. Seemed like a good guy, I thought," she said. "It's none of my business, but knowing what I do about this case; well, I hope you two have a good reason for wanting to mess with his life. I mean if you've already moved on. He for sure has."

"It's about him and his children," said Darla, with a touch of irritation that this, agent, would even have the brass to voice an opinion on their private affairs.

"Okay," said Sally, "Robby said to give you what you needed. Here's his work address. Oh, and he lives there in a small apartment in the back.”

"Okay, thank you, Miss Abrams. You've been a big help," said Marty.

"You're welcome," she said. She rose bowed slightly in Darla's direction, which bow was returned, and then she was gone.

"Tomorrow, Marty. We go there tomorrow. And he's going to talk to us even if we have to tie him down," said Darla.

"Okay, I'm right there with you. I'll be carrying your spear," he said. She nodded her appreciation.

"Marty . . ."

"Yes?"

"I'm going to do my best, my very best, to fix things; but he has to meet me somewhere in the middle. I've thought about this a lot. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that this, problem, is of his making not the kids. My divorcing him, well, okay, that was me, and well, you too," she said.

"It is mostly his fault, I mean about the kids. But, Darla, we blew it in trying to make him suck up to us to get more time with the kids. I knew it at the time. He's one of those guys, who never gives an inch, no matter who's right or wrong. He is totally one way, his way," said Marty.

"I guess. No, I know you're right. But it's water under the bridge now. This is his chance, and ours too, I know that. If he blows it, well, he blows it. We're, I'm, at the end of my tether," she said.

******

"Long time no see, amigo," said Gabriel Montoya.

"Yeah, it's been a little while," I said.

"Two years is a little while?" said the visitor. "And what are you doing here? Mister Roberto was almost embarrassed to tell me where I could find you."

"Whatever, Gabriel. Whaddya got?" I said. It seemed my best bud and workmate had seen fit to find out where I was. Well, I guess I didn't blame him. I probably would have done about the same had the roles been reversed. But, I would be talking to him at some point anyway.

"What I got is that guy Griswald on the stick, skewer," he said. My smile was as broad as all outdoors. "Oh, and that judge Carlson too. The two of them share the same pipe." My informant was smiling to beat the band. It was clear he was having a ball, skewering, a couple of corrupt legal eagles. Bringing them down was going to be his pleasure, that much was clear to me.

"And the other two?' I said.

"They’re clean. Nothing," he said. I nodded. I was surprised that I didn't feel disappointment that we'd come up empty on the two cheaters. I guess I was getting over being screwed over. Helluva thing.

"Gabriel, turn the stuff you got over to this guy." I wrote a short note to him. There was a name and precinct number on it.

"A cop? Who is this Jess Richter guy?" said Gabriel.

"My ex-partner. From back in the day," I said. He nodded.

"Okay, consider it done," he said.

We talked a little more, but then my friend the drug dealer was gone. I knew he'd carry out what I'd laid on him. Hell, I knew he'd enjoy it.

******

"Yeah, I was there when they took him," said Marty.

"But, how, what?" said Darla.

"Drugs. I had not a clue. I'm still in a state of disbelief. We'll represent him, but the D.A. has made it clear that a plea would best serve him. Still, I'll leave it to Malcom to make that choice," said Marty.

"My god!" said Darla. "He could get ten years!"

"More maybe. But, if he pleads out, it could be as little as ten years. Oh, and judge Carlson was in the net too," said Marty.

"What! Do you think . . .?"

"I do think. The two of them helped us in the divorce. I think your ex set them up and lowered boom because of how bad he was shafted in that divorce. I have no doubt we've been under scrutiny too. But, lucky for us there was nothing to find," he said.

When you talk to him . . ." started Marty.

"Yes yes, of course. Do you really think he's after us too?" she said.

"Like I said, I don't know or have any way of knowing, but I'm of the opinion that you absolutely have to soften his heart, Darla. Our Red is likely still one very bitter and angry man if I'm any judge, and I am," he said.

"What are we going to do now, I mean here in the office?" said Darla. "Griswald was the senior partner."

"Take it over, you and me take it over. We'll play it straight with Malcom, keep paying him his base and such. When he gets out, I mean if he's convicted, he'll have something to start over with. He won't be earning anything extra since he isn't working and won't be, but he's the managing partner and therefore has a claim on the profits," said Marty.

"Yes, good. I'm good with that," she said. "Jesus Marty, he and Schwartz founded the firm. It's gonna be real strange without him around. And judge Carlson! Red, if it is him, must really be on the warpath to go after a sitting judge.

"And, add to that, we have eleven employees here that need their jobs. They're counting on us," said Darla. He nodded.

"Yeah, well now we, you and I, and the associates are going to have to be picking up the slack. We are going to be real busy.

"You still going to see him, your ex, tomorrow?" said Marty.

"Yes, and now it's just gotten to be a bit more urgent," she said.

"Okay. I will have to be here though. I'm going to be asking the presiding for continuances on Malcom's cases. I know he currently has four in the hopper. We'll get 'em, the continuances, that is," he said. She nodded.

******

I guess I'd mellowed over the past many months, and one of the reasons for that was Joanna Winthrop. She and her husband were easy to work for, and I did as much as I could to make it easy on them.

"Sooner or later you two will be meeting up, Red, don't blow it on account of an overly sensitized male ego. Talk to her. A casual relationship is better than none when two people break up," said Joanna.

"Yeah, maybe, but personally, I doubt that she and I will ever be meeting up. She doesn't know where I live, and . . ." Suddenly, I began to wonder. Could there, maybe . . .

"Anyway, Joanna, I'll keep what you've said in mind. I find I don't hate her anymore, nor really her lover, I mean husband, either if it comes to that. But, it's been too long now. They're getting on with their thing, and I'm getting on with mine. It works for me," I said.

"Hmm, maybe," she said. "Maybe."

I'd told Joanna Winthrop that I was getting on and that I was fine. I wasn't. Darla was never far from my mind. To say I was jealous of her lover, her husband, didn't begin to cover it. I was super jealous. I still loved the woman more than anything, and, I hated her too. She'd killed me. At one and the same time, I wanted to take her in my arms and love her and stomp on her prostrate and helpless form. Rational? Hell no. It was what it was. And then it happened.

******

She didn't look good; she looked fantastic! White business suit, ever the lawyer. Curled fluffed out tresses. Heels and makeup designed to enslave a man. The woman had to be immortal; she just didn't age; it wasn't fair. Me? I looked poor, average, and harassed; well, it had been a long day.

She stood just inside the door staring at me in my white not too stained apron holding the coffee pot in front of me. I set it down on the counter warmer, turned, and headed back into the kitchen.

"What's the matter, Red?" said Joanna who was busy getting ready for the evening rush.

"Remember what you said a few days ago about my ex and I meeting up down the line?" I said.

"Yes," she said. I turned slowly and looked back at the swinging door I'd just come through.

"She's here?" said Joanna. I nodded slightly.

"Oh my god!" she said.

"Yeah, that," I said.

"Well," said Joanna.

"Well what?" I said.

"You know what, Red," she said. I sighed and nodded.

"Okay, I guess so," I said. She nodded toward the door coaxing me to go through it. I turned and went out to face the music.

She'd taken a seat in a booth. I picked up the coffee pot and headed for her. "Coffee, miss," I said. I wasn't quite being an asshole.

"Yes, coffee would be good, Red. Would you have a moment to sit with me?" she said.

"I guess so," I said.

"Roberto?" I said.

"Yes, he told me where to find you. He's concerned about you if you care to know. Frankly we all are, me especially."

"Oh, that right?" I said.

"Yes."

"Why would that be?" I said.

"Red, I still have a place in my heart for you believe it or not. And, well, I need to apologize for the way, well, the way the divorce went. I thought, Marty and I thought; well, there was a method to our madness. And, it was madness. We realized that too late. By then, well, things just took on a life of their own, and well, here we are," she said.

I stared at her. "Whatever," I said. "So, all of that said, why are you here? I've gotten on with my life. I suspect so have you and—him. So, why are you bothering me?"

"Like I said, Red, I still love you on some level, and I need you to forgive me, me and Marty. Please!" she said. She was being earnest.

"Consider yourself forgiven. Anything else?" I said.

"Red! Please, you’re just shining me on. I can tell from your tone of voice. You need to help me out here. Please," she said.

"I do?" I said.

"And, there is something else," she said.

"Yes?"

"The children. Our children, Red," she said. "They want to talk to you. You know, kinda reconnect. Would you . . ."

"Reconnect. Why? I know what they think of me. I've been replaced by your lover. For the record, nothing you ever did to me mattered but that. And yes, I know it was as much my own fault as yours his or anything else. More in fact. I admit it.

"But regardless of any of that, it is clear to me that they just don't really give a rat's ass about me anymore, and I have the tapes to prove it," I said. "Didn't know that, did you, Darla. Wait a minute! Did Roberto . . ." All of a sudden I was real angry with my ex-bud.

She looked down. "Yes, I heard that there were tapes about, well, not good things," she said.

"Yeah, not good things," I said. "So, why would I believe that they want to reconnect with me?" I said.

"They're older now, Red. They see things a little differently than they did then. Really."

"Let me ask you, Darla. If it came to a choice between him and me, who would they pick?" I said. I could see I'd struck a nerve. "That's what I thought."

"Red, there doesn't have to be any of that. Choices, I mean. Marty's a decent man. He hopes, as much as I do, that you will want to become part of the family again. Frankly, Red, you running off like you did was pretty juvenile. You need to wake up and fly right," she said. "It's always been about you not feeling adequate to the task of fatherhood because of your damn male ego."

I looked at her with narrowed eyes. But, at the same time, Joanna had said pretty much the same to me over the last many months. I had to allow that maybe the two of them were at least partly right. My male ego was it. Well, okay. At least the woman in front of me wasn't actually insulting me.

"When would it happen?" I said.

"You mean you'll talk to them?" she said.

"I'll listen to them. How much I'd be willing to talk to them would depend on what I heard. I heard them opting for that man of yours instead of me. It hurt a lot, ego or not. But, I will listen to them.

"But, you still haven't answered my question," I said.

"What question?"

"If it came to choice between him and me, who would they choose?" I said.

"I don't actually know. They did tell me that they didn't want to ever have to make a choice like that. And frankly, given the circumstances, I think that they're position on the matter is not unreasonable. Do you think it is?" she said.

"Honestly? I don't know. I just know that I'm their real dad. I just know that I worked my ass off to do for them. I just know that all of the money I earned went into the coffers for them I never bought myself anything except food and clothes. Everything else was for them or for you," I said. "And for that, I was accused of neglect and what amounted to passive abuse."

"Red, I know. And, I know you love them still. I know what you heard on those tapes was hurtful, and I know that my divorcing you killed your heart. But, I also know that if you would just lighten up a little, some part of what we cost you, and what you cost yourself might still be gotten back. You owe it to yourself, and to us, to at least try. How about it?" she said.

"Saturday, here, 2:00PM; I have to work, but it's slow that time of day. We can talk then. But, just the kids and you not him. If that's acceptable then set it up.

"Is there anything else? Because I'm getting paid to work not to yak all day with you," I said.

"It's acceptable. I'll set it up. And, Red, thanks for talking to me. It was nice," she said. I nodded, rose, and went into the backroom.

"Well, that was short," said Joanna. Her brow was knitted.

"It was all business. She wants me to talk to the kids. Says that they want to talk to me," I said.

"You going to?" she said.

Yes. I guess so. Supposed to happen Saturday, here, at 2:00PM. That okay with you, boss?" I said.

"Well good. Of course it's all right with me," said Joanna. "Oh, and Rob will be back from visiting his mom, by Saturday. You can take the day off if you want."

"Nah, I wanna work. But an hour or so in the afternoon would be appreciated," I said.

"Like I said, stud, you got it," she was smiling. She was a caring woman was Joanna Winthrop. Rob was a lucky sonovabitch.

******

I saw the red Lexus pull up. I saw them get out. Jennifer took a deep breath as she and her brother, stony faced, made their way up the four steps and into the restaurant.

I stood and met them half way. The place was empty at that moment. I knew Joanna and Rob, who were in the back, would likely be listening in at least in part. But, I didn't care.

"Hello, Jenn, Randy," I said. They nodded. No hello dad, no hugs or smiles. This was going to be a real uncomfortable meeting. I had the feeling that they wouldn't even have been there were it not for pressure from their mother. Well, what was, was.

"Hi," said Jennifer, finally, as she took her seat. Randy remained silent.

"I guess we're supposed to talk," I said. "You kids are what now, 19 and 20?"

"Yes, we are," said Randy. "And, well, mom and Mar . . . mom thought it would be a good idea for us to try and reconnect. That was the word, right, Jenn?"

"Yes, reconnect, that was it," said my daughter.

"Your mom thought it was a good idea?" I said.

"Yes," they both said at once. I smiled. It was so obvious that they didn't want to be there that I almost felt sorry for them. I decided to make it short.

"Look, you two, it's clear to me that 'you' don't want to be here. Since we sat down neither of you has made the effort to call me dad or father. I guess, I wasn't the best of one, so maybe I don't deserve the title anymore. So, anyway, let me make it easy for you.

"Go on back to your mom and her new man, your new dad, and be happy. I'll get along okay. Tell your momma that. And tell her . . ." It finally hit me. I was about to lose it. I stood, turned, and left. I left through the back. I didn't even see their faces; I didn't want to. But, Joanna did, as she would tell me later. I just walked. And I did lose it, but thank god not in front of them.

******

"No mom. We never got a chance to do any of that. He just up and walked out," said Randy.

"Jenn, is that true?" said Darla. Marty was looking on; he had suspicion written all over his face.

"Sort of," said Jenn.

"Dear heart," said Marty, "what did you guys do or say?"

"More what we didn't say," said Jenn. "We were talking, maybe five minutes. Then he looked at each of us kind of funny and held up his hand to stop us from talking. Then . . ."

"Then?" said Darla.

"Well, he made a big deal out of the fact that we hadn't said hello to him or called him dad or father. But I did say hi, I mean after we had taken our seats," said Jenn.

"And you Randy?" said Marty. Randy looked down.

Darla glanced in Marty's direction. "Damn it!" she said. "That poor man." Marty came to her and took her in his arms.

"You did what you could. It's over. It's over for him and for all of us. Time to get on with things," said Marty.

"You two head on back to college. You need to be in the dorms by sundown," said Marty.

"Yes, the dorms, your dad paid for!" shot Darla at her two children. Then she ran out of the room. The silence among the three remaining in the room was deafening, to borrow a phrase.

******

"Happy anniversary, dear," said Darla.

"And to you, dear lady," said Marty. "Five years. Good years."

"Yes, good years," said Darla. We should go back out and mix with the guests," he said. It is our anniversary that they’re celebrating. Must be a hundred folks here today," said Darla.

"Yes, actually a few more than that." He was smiling. He kissed her deeply. "You're wonderful," he said.

"And here is the happy couple," said someone as they stepped into the manicured gardens of the hotel Rob Roy. No one noticed the casually clad figure leaning against the column on the staircase to the right. He was the only one not cheering. The only one not happy to be there. But he was there, and the sadness he felt was large.

"Goodbye forever, my darling wife," I said quietly to myself, as I turned to leave. Be well, and be happy. I am so sorry that I failed you, and the children."

The next days were the most melancholy of my life. More so than even my divorce from her. The divorce was tinged with anger, but, not so much with sadness. The anger was gone. It had been replaced with a kind of emotional malaise. And, now, with sadness, a kind of slow emotional death. And, there was no cure, none I knew of at any rate.

I picked up the phone. The lawyer and I spoke for some minutes. It would be the last time that we would do so, or so I hoped.

The day before Roberto had been hard to calm down, but I'd finally got him to shut up and to just listen.

"Roberto, you've got the business. I signed it over to you for one dollar. Lawyer Hofschneider will collect the dollar from you and hold it for me indefinitely. Sign the documents and do a good job running your business.

Roberto had the business now. The kids got all of my heretofore untouched savings and investments: $180,000 worth. They would each be given half when they graduated from college; now a year distant.

Me? I still had forty-nine dollars in my wallet and a job at Rob and Joanna's restaurant; and oh, but no bank account.

Finally, after some little time, I'd begun to see that life was good, going to be good, and there was evening and morning, five years later. Well, there was no way I could do it in six days; that was for someone in a significantly higher pay grade.

******

2008

My kids, well, them as used to be my kids, were grown. Jenn was twenty-five and Randy was twenty-four. I hadn't got much news about them over the next several years, but then I did. I had a visit from an old friend.

"Well, I'll be damned, if it isn't the ghost of Jess Richter. When was the last time I saw you for Chryssakes!" I said.

"Yeah it has been a while," he said.

"Yeah a dozen years if I remember rightly," I said. "What brings you over here? You're still 'coping' it, right?" I said.

"Yes, I'm a lieutenant now. Fixing to retire in the not too distant future. Twenty-five years is long enough," he said. "But, Red, I'm here on business," he said.

"Business?" I said.

"Yeah. Red, your daughter, Jennifer is in over her head. I'm giving you a heads up because I know deep down you love those two kids of yours and maybe they'll listen to you. It's straight that they haven't listened to your ex or her current hubby. Somebody's got to get through to her, or she's going down, Red," he said.

"The hell you say," I said. "Jess, tell me, what's the beef?" I said.

"Her boyfriend, fiancé, has got her dealing, Red. And before you go off on me, There is no doubt about it. I caught her myself, Red. I caught her dealing. And I let her go. And, the only reason I did that was because I wanted to come to you first and give you a chance to administer s a little tough love," he said.

I sank back into the booth I was standing next to, and stared at him. "Red, this is a zero tolerance state. A first offense is a mandatory five years at the minimum," he said. I nodded. I knew what he said was true.

"Does Darla and her asshole know that you cut her loose?" I said.

"No. I came here first. It was today; well, in the wee smalls that I popped her." I drove her to her parent's house, I mean Darla's house." He'd caught my look when he'd referred to her parent's house.

"Okay, Jess. I'll take care of it muy pronto.

"Jess, thanks a million. If you ever need anything . . ."

"I know. And, you're welcome," he said. We talked a little longer, but truth known I was glad when he left. I had things to do, and I had to do them muy pronto!

******

"Your daughter, huh?" he said.

"Yes. Gabriel, can you do anything about this? Maybe get the boyfriend to listen to reason?" I said. His smile was all the confirmation I needed.

"No problem, my friend. And, I will put the fear of god into her as well. She won't be dealing anymore; I can assure you of that," he said. I nodded.

Roger Dillard was getting out of his car when everything went dark. He was found the next day with both of his arms and both of his legs broken, and his ability to perform sexually in the future in serious doubt.

Jennifer Clayton was walking to her car when five very large fellows forced her into a waiting van. She was blindfolded, bound, gagged, and stuffed into a body bag. She was deposited forty miles from the nearest telephone, food, or water. She was told by a man with a very soft voice, as she would later remember, to never see, speak to, or communicate with one Roger Dillard ever again that this would be her only warning. Her terror would guarantee her adherence to said warning.

Two days later, a chastened Jennifer Clayton, made it to a filling station and called her parents: Marty and Darla Castaign.

******

"Morning, Sally," said Roberto Santana.

Good morning sir," said Sally. "You hear about Jennifer Clayton, sir?"

"No, what's up?" he said, narrowing his eyes. "That boyfriend of hers hasn't messed with her has he?"

"No sir, quite the opposite. He's in traction, and she's half dead from exposure and thirst," said Sally.

"What! How'd you hear about this?"

"From our friend on the force, lieutenant Richter," she said.

"Richter? Get him on the line for me, okay?"

The call was short. It'd likely been a gang thing. But if so, it was muted. Dillard had been hurt real bad, but not killed. The girl had had a long walk. But, she'd had plenty of time to think over her situation.

No one knew who’d done it. The conventional wisdom had it that mister Dillard, a known drug dealer, had stepped on the wrong toes and the owners of those toes had stepped on his in return, real hard. The girl was just along for the ride. She'd evidently been Dillard's squeeze, though now that seemed to be a past tense thing.

He stood in front of his office window and spoke rhetorically to an old friend a hundred miles away. "It was you, wasn't it, Red. I know it was you. Oh, maybe not in person, but you had it done, I know." Roberto turned and went back to work. He had a business to run.

******

"We gave her something to think about. Him more than that," said Gabriel.

"Good, good," I said. "You say she got something to think about, but how is she physically?"

"She's all right. She'll have sore feet for a while. She had a long walk, but she'll be all right. And, she won't be looking to hook up with him anymore that's for sure." I had to smile at the ingenuity and resources of my friend.

"Good, good," I said. "That's very good. I'll buy her a new pair of shoes." Gabriel Montoya smiled.

"You know you really should: buy her the shoes, I mean. It would be like telling her. You know, that you know about what went on without really telling her you knew," said Gabriel. My turn to smile. Then I frowned.

"But, I don't know her shoe size," I said.

"Madre Dios amigo, you know people in the PI business. Figure it out," he said, and laughed.

"Yeah yeah, I can find out. Okay, I'm gonna do it. Why the hell not!" I said.

******

"He's history. Messed with the wrong crowd, I guess. Our baby is out of the woods with that asshole boyfriend of hers," said Darla.

"Yes, Dillard's gone, but we need to keep an eye on her. There are other badies out there that would have no trouble getting her involved again," said Marty.

"No no, not this time. Her own experience set her straight. I'm pretty sure she'd run for cover at the first sign of anyone coming near to her with drugs.

"Marty? She is our baby, isn't she?" said Darla.

"Damn straight she is. Darla, of all of the things that you have done to make my life worth living, number one among them was letting me become an actual part of the family. And, before you say it, yes, I know Red is still part of it too even if he doesn't understand what's happened to him, us, everybody. And, for what it's worth, I'm sure that one of these days he'll come around. We just have to be patient," said Marty.

She shook her head slowly from side to side. "I don't know, Marty, you might be right, but I don't hold out much hope. And if he knew . . ." the thought hit them both at the same time.

"Do you think . . ." started Darla.

"Not really, but maybe. If he did, if he even knew . . ."

"Marty, this has Red written all over it. We may never know, but I am almost certain, thinking about it, that he was involved," said Darla.

"If so, I know a few people," said Marty. She nodded, slowly, thoughtfully.

"Yes, we both do," she said, "and we're gonna tap those resources big time."

******

2009

I was tending the tables getting ready for the breakfast crowd which would begin streaming in at 6:00A.M.

"Hey, Red, you've got a call. Take it back here. The guy said it was important," said Rob Winthrop.

"Hello," I said. "What? Of course. I'll be down there in half an hour. Sit tight." I hung up.

"Rob, I gotta go. Something's come up. Something big. I'll call you after I know what's going on," I said, as I wiped my hands on my apron. Stripping the apron, I was out the door even as my boss was waving at me to get going.

The county lockup was relatively new. I'd never seen it let alone visited it. But, now it had one inmate that I was very much interested in getting out of it even if I had to slip him a hack saw!

I waited in the visiting area for my friend. I stood as he was ushered into the room.

"Gabriel, Good to see you and bad to see you. What's going on?" I said.

"They busted me. My accounts are frozen temporarily, and I can't make bail. I was hoping, well, that maybe you could help me out," he said.

"Drugs?" I said. He smiled.

"Marijuana. My favorite mood medicine," he said.

"That's it? Marijuana?" I said.

"Of course, I don't mess with the hard stuff anymore, too dangerous," he said. "And the cops don't chase us purveyors of maryjane with quite the same enthusiasm as they do other stuff, the hard stuff.

"Red, I got the money, I just can't get to it. You'll be reimbursed," he said. "My boys ain't got no money. And all of a sudden I find I have no friends who do have a buck or two except you. Makes one wonder," said Gabriel.

"The hell you'll reimburse me. I'll get you outta here and defended. And, you will not, I repeat will not, be repaying me. You've done more than enough for me already. Besides we're best buds," I said.

"Have they set bail?" I said.

"No, I'm being arraigned later this morning," he said. "They'll set bail after that."

"Okay, I'll be back," I said.

I learned from the marshall overseeing things at the lock up that arraignments would commence at 9:00AM sharp. I had someone to see and that immediately.

******

I strode into their offices hell bent for leather. I knew which office was hers; it hadn't been that long ago. Well, actually it had.

"Sir, can I help you? Sir!" But, I was past her before she could utter another utterance.

I literally burst through the door. They were both there going over some documents.

I looked at him. "Get out," I said. Did I mention that some people may have considered me aggressive?

"Red! What the hell are you doing here? And, you will not, I repeat not, give orders to my husband who also happens to be one of the owners of this establishment. Now if you have something that needs saying say it. He and I have no secrets from each other," said Darla. I had to smirk; she caught it, and mellowed.

"Whatever. I need money, and I need it now, within the hour," I said.

"What? Money? What? How much," she said.

"Not sure. That'll be partly up to you," I said.

"Me?" she said.

"You're going to bail out my friend and defend him when his trial comes up, for free," I said. I was gambling. I knew that the two of them might make me pay a price for any assistance I was able to get out of them. But, I did have a hole card. Gabriel Montoya had saved my, our, baby. Gotten her out of a bad situation. I'd lay that on 'em if they decided to be recalcitrant.

"The hell we are," said Marty. "Not without knowing a helluva lot more, and you're going to need to calm your ass down, and I mean now." I sighed.

"Listen, I need a favor. I ain't got no money, and I figure you two owe me. Help my friend out, and I'll call it all even. Hatchet buried," I said.

Darla looked from me to her husband and back to me. "Really. And what makes you think that we'd be at all interested in burying the hatchet with you, as you so blithely put it," she said. That stopped me. Her attitude stopped me. I began nodding my head very slowly. I looked from one to the other. My eyes narrowed; Darla picked up on it. She knew she'd gone too far. She recouped.

"Red, I'm sorry. I take it back. But, you do need to calm down as Marty suggested. Okay?" I was just short of snorting. But, I controlled myself. This was for my friend; I'd eat a bus load of her shit if I had to.

"Okay. I need you to help my friend. I owe him. I'll pay you back, and that's a promise. But, I need you to front his bail. And, I need you to defend him in court it if it goes to trial. He's my friend, my only friend, Darla. He needs me, and I need you to help me out here for the short run. Like I said, I'll pay you back. Believe me I wouldn't be here if this wasn't real important," I said. Her turn to nod.

"Bail for who?" said Marty.

"Gabriel Montoya," I said. Marty rose and left the room.

"Okay, Red, why is this Montoya guy in the slam?" said Darla.

"Possession of Marijuana, ten pounds of it," I said.

"Jesus! You do know that this is a zero tolerance state," she said.

"Yeah, I know, and I know that judges can be moved to tolerance anyway if they see it in their interest to do so," I said. "You have to get him out. I will never ask you for anything again as long as I live, but I am asking, begging you, for this." Well, my ego was already in the shitter, adding a little begging into the mix wasn't all that big a deal.

"Okay, Red. I can see that this is a big deal for sure as far as you're concerned. Marty and I will take this on, and, we'll see what we do about the bail. But, there will be a small price for our generosity, mine and Marty's," she said.

Well, I knew they wouldn't be helping me out of the goodness of their hearts.

"And that would include?" I said.

"You become a guest at our house, mine and Marty's, for every major holiday hereinafter forever; and, you stay till the last dog is hung at all of them," she said. She was smiling. I wasn't.

"Okay. I guess, I've got no choice," I said. I ran the major holidays through my mind. The next one up was Thanksgiving. That was a month off.

"Do you have a girlfriend, Red?" she said.

"No."

"No? A nice looking man like you?" she said.

"Cut the crap, Darla. I'm forty-nine years old. What pretty little piece of fluff is going to be interested in a busboy my age," I said. It was not a question.

"Busboy? You're still working at that little restaurant?"

"Don't knock it. The Winthrops have been good to me. Better than some others I could name. Okay?" I said.

"Okay, Red. No offense," she said. She'd offended me plenty, but now was not the time to make an issue of any of that.

"Okay, I've got the skinny," said Marty, entering the room just at that moment.

"It'll be judge Hastings," he said looking at me, your guy has hope. But, eight kilos of weed, Red? What kind of friends do you have?" he said. It occurred to me that it might be time to play by hole card.

"Let me ask you, Marty old bud. Did Jennifer ever get those expensive walking shoes somebody sent her?" I said. I could swear the two of them suddenly had eyes as big as dinner plates.

"What did you say? You mean Montoya . . ." Darla started. I kept my mouth shut. I'd said enough.

Marty was suddenly nodding purposefully. "But of course. He'd know who . . ." His smile broadened significantly. I thought it odd that he'd be so happy about discovering how my kid was saved and by whom. But, then again, maybe Jennifer really was his kid now, at least in any real sense if not the biological one.

The bail was made. The trial six weeks later, and it lasted a full week; and, as it turned out ended in a hung jury. Gabriel was cut loose. The D.A. wasn't thrilled, but he had bigger fish to fry, and would not be retrying the case. But, the fallout from the case would not be limited to my friend getting off, no indeed.

I did make Thanksgiving Day dinner, and I came bearing gifts, sort of.

******

"I see you're keeping up your end of the bargain," said Darla, smiling, "I appreciate that," as she stepped aside to let me into the house that used to be ours, mine and hers. I nodded.

"Yes, well, thank you for that," I said. I looked her up and down. She was still the most beautiful woman in the world as far as I'm concerned. She noticed my look and had the good grace to blush and not say anything. I handed her a card.

"For me?" she said, looking me askance.

"You and Marty," I said. She caught my tone when I mentioned Marty's name: it was friendly. "What you did for him was big. I'm personally grateful."

"You're welcome," she said. But, come in come in. There are people here who want to see you."

Just then Jennifer walked in followed closely behind by her brother. "Hi father," said Jenn.

"Hi dad," said Randy. "Jenn, and I, well, we just want you to know that we're glad you're here," he said.

There were more words and, no, I didn't cry maybe later but not then. And then I was sent out to the patio to carry Marty's spear in the barbecuing effort. Yes, even on Thanksgiving there was a deal of barbecuing going on: it was fish. Well, hell, I liked fish too.

We ate, we drank nog, we talked about nothing important, and then it was time to leave. I was looking for Darla to say goodbye, but she found me, and she wasn't happy.

"What's the meaning of this?" she said. I gave her a look of not understanding. She thrust a certified check into my face and fairly oozed ire.

"It's a check for your services to me and Gabriel," I said. "I promised to pay you back. You knew I was going to pay you back. It's enough right?" I said. Marty who hadn't seen it, took it from her and looked at it.

"Red, this is way over the top. You don't owe us anything. And, even if you did, this is way over the top. Our expenses weren't even half this amount."

"Look, I admit, I guessed at the amount. But you did the work you should get paid," I said. Darla suddenly had a funny look on her.

"Still keeping up with the Jones are we, Red?" It was not a question.

"Look, I always pay my debts. I owed you for that. It was big at least to me. I just hope you'll accept it and keep it in good health, the check, I mean. I can afford it," I said.

I could see that Darla was doing her best not to hurt me. She knew damn well that I was making ten bucks an hour tops, and ten-thousand dollars would have to have drained every dime I could possibly have raised from all sources; that, since I had two years before given all of my life savings to the kids for their college.

"Red, it's unnecessary and too damn much if it were. I will not accept it. We made a deal it's true. But the deal was that you'd be here for every holiday from now on. That was my price, our price, mine and Marty's; and, we're holding you to it.

"We're rich, Red, and you're not. So what! And that's not a put down. We don't need the money. What we need is your friendship if not your love; not your damn money. How about it? No more of this messing with the macho ego thing. Okay? Please!" she said. "Red, you are what you are? We're what we are. I have Marty now; he's my love as you once were. I'm hoping that the next holiday will see you here with a squeeze of your own. You need a woman, and this money should be used by you in courting her. Okay?" she said.

"Well—I—I—okay, I guess. I didn't mean to . . ."

"Oh shut up you big lug," she said. And, she came to me and gave me a hug and a big kiss, on the cheek.

There was more said, but it all boiled down to me taking the check back, and figuring out a way to give it back to the loan company that I'd got it from. That figured to be easy enough, since the guy who'd okayed the loan was a friend of mine from my PI days: somebody who owed me.

Jennifer walked me out to my car.

"Dad, you and I, well, we need to get to know each other better," she said. "I owe you a lot. So does Randy, and we both know it.

"We've both graduated from college you know," she said. "And, mister Hofschneider and mister Santana delivered the money you sent to them."

I did know that they'd graduated. I had kept tabs on them, well, more or less. I had been there for each of their graduations too. They didn't know it, but I had been. They'd invited me, but at the time I was still too hurt to allow myself the luxury of accepting anything from them.

"Yes, I know," I said.

"Dad?"

"Yes?" I said.

"I love you dad," she said. Boy, did that ever hit home to me. I started to mist up.

"I love you kids too," I said. She hugged me, and I hugged her back.

I headed back to my own digs.

******

Darla had made the case that I should start looking for a new woman. It struck me that I hadn't made any effort to do that. I'd had some meaningless dates, but nothing worth remembering, over the years. I'd stayed busy, but almost totally detached socially. I now realized that I had not really been looking. Darla for me was irreplaceable. I had held to the hope, no matter how irrational a hope it was, that her lover would somehow disappear, and I could make a second run at her. I'd have done different the second time around; I'd promised myself that. Well, it was time to cut myself loose from my irrational hopes. No better place to do that than my old haunt: The Lonely Hearts Bar and Grill.

I was sitting there now, at the bar. I had a drink in front of me, but I wasn't really drinking. I was cruising. The bartender was a beauty, a Filipina named Christy. She was looking at me funny. I figured that had to be because I'd been staring at her.

"Something the matter, mister?" she said. I didn't answer her right away.

"How old are you?" I said, finally.

"Huh? What?" she said. I looked pointedly at her name tag.

"Christy, how old are you?" I repeated. She looked suspicious.

"Thirty-five,” she said.

"What would you say about having dinner with an older man who makes about the same amount of money as you do?" I said.

"What? Are you nuts?" she said.

"We can go dutch if you want," I said.

You've got a helluva a line, mister . . ." she started.

"Red," I said.

"Red. You ask me my age. You ask me out. You tell me it's gonna be dutch. Did any girl ever go out with you with a line like that?" she said.

"No, not yet," I said. She looked curious, intrigued.

"Okay, well I guess I'll be the first then. Pick me up at seven tonight, here. Oh, and make no mistake, you're payin'," she said. I nodded. The hunt was on.

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