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property of Donna L. Bloomquist ã2002

What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is Pride, the never-failing vice of fools.
--Alexander Pope

THE PROLOGUE--Ashes to Ashes

February 28, 7:10 P.M., London, England

Rick Meiers stood near a streetlight, which gave off a modicum of illumination.The faint glow of his cigar provided a greater hint of his presence than the dirty globe.

"Painting your lungs with black tar will definitely make you more difficult to see."  Those weren't Marta's exact words--but close enough.  

He could imagine her voice and look of loving concern. His wife was an artist, but gifted with words as well as the brushes and easels.

He gazed across the river, listening to the rumble of lorries on the other side.There were sounds of stop-go coaches welcoming new fares from the neighboring pubs where many customers reluctantly downed their last pints before finally heading home to cold suppers of potatoes and tripe.

Few tourists wandered the periphery of the Tower of London this evening. It was the season for renovating and regrouping with towers closed and tourist shops making the best of the calendar-dictated annual holiday. Winter usually discouraged visitors to London from the continent or abroad. Many Americans and Europeans were already entrenched in their own weather reports of icy highways and sub-zero temperatures and consequently inclined to postpone their guidebook tours of Great Britain.

Rick gazed at the reflections on the water and thought of a familiar line of verse . . . where Thames with pride surveys his rising towers. When did he first hear those words, maybe when he was an Oxford graduate student, advancing his credibility in criminology? Of course, his family had owned a big chunk of Austria then, so no one had expected him to be anything but a playboy. Scotland Yard gave him his experience as a criminologist; later, espionage satisfied his blood lust and hunger for higher levels of excitement.

Extreme adventures always found favor in his life. Skydiving, mountain climbing, and cycle road racing sated a hunger for adventure until the auburn-haired artist he'd met rock climbing in the Sierras of California altered all his goals and redirected his passions to the confusing webs of matrimony.

The smells of petrol and exhaust were irritating his nose now even as the expensive cigar gave off its last aromatic wafts. It was nearly burning his fingers. He laughed to himself. It isn't as though I don't have a couple of Cuban reserves in my pocket!

Two weeks in London playing CIA operative again wasn't exactly the planned business trip he'd reported to Marta. In the past month he had lied to her more than he had in their entire five years of marriage. Supposedly, he had retired his secret and dangerous life as an intelligence expert once he had fallen in love. There wasn't anything he wouldn't do for Marta--not then--not now. However, somehow he neglected telling Marta about his past with its many circuitous, questionable turns.

It was Rick who contacted the CIA and former colleagues from the Yard, U. S. federal investigative agencies, and American Embassy, in December, when he recognized a Sedona, Arizona patron of the arts as a drug cartel member. A month of surveillance revealed plans and names of associates for a London meeting of international drug members.  

The black stretch limo pulled up beside Rick. The driver opened the window.  "Howdy, Mate," he called. "I recognized the glow from your cigar before I even saw the bloody tower."

There were two CIA agents and a New Scotland Yard Superintendent in the limo. The driver was CIA and Rick's former spy partner, Barry Sullivan.

Barry said, "The transfer is on for 8:00 P.M.  The chartered jet will be ready when we arrive with our special cargo. In the meantime--the Morelli boys are cooling their heels at the Queen's Inn with the mod squad."

The transfer from the Queen's Inn was uneventful, especially with the Morelli cousins shackled.  Martin Morelli hadn't known he would be accompanying his crime boss cousin, Vincent, to the United States instead of to their intended destination, Rome, Italy. For the past four hours the Morelli cousins had been sleepy and relaxed. However, as they shuffled to the limo and its contingent of plainclothes American and British agents,they started to awaken.

An hour later, Vincent Morelli recognized Rick Meiers. "You damn spook," he shouted, "did you think we were just waiting in our rooms for you guys to drop by for a visit?"

Rick answered, "No way--we had our welcome parties spotted around your inn for days!" He continued, "Several of your countrymen will never eat cod cakes or pasta--or much else ever again."

Barry said, "That reminds me--I'm hungry."

They were traveling on a dark stretch of highway, where Channel seawall flanked their right and cliffs absorbed the blackness on their left. Suddenly a small sedan sped by and swung into their forward lane. A hooded man with Uzi, thrust through an open window, fired point blank at the windshield of the limo. Several agents exchanged fire with him; then the sedan and limo collided, the sedan exploding into a ball of fire. The limo careened into the guardrail, bounced back against the cliff, and finally came to a stop.

Three figures ran out onto the highway. One of the shackled prisoners disappeared into the darkness.

There was frantic activity as two men opened the limo doors and began searching for and depositing items. Luggage was removed. A dead body lay slumped in the back seat.

The limo was pushed to the edge of the highway, soon careening down the rocks, onto a small beach, where it burned, rapidly converting much of its cargo into ash.

March 13 Sedona Arizona

Vincent Morelli had returned to the United States, arriving in Sedona, the same day Marta Meiers received her husband's ashes, her husband's wedding ring, and a personal visit from the CIA director, Jason Carlson.  

Jason proclaimed Rick, as a former intelligence agent, an American hero, even though he had died tragically in a senseless traffic accident outside London.
"Rick was a special breed of CIA agent--he was always determined to keep his personal life safe from all elements of crime--no matter what it cost him."

Vincent Morelli, attorney at law, had political plans and a large political war chest, and his own determination to punish his enemies for altering his agenda. His law partner, John Walker, was talking of running for office too. There was no stopping either one of them. Although Vincent already had most of the Arizona influential politicians in his pocket, he did have one major concern.  

He swore, "I don't think John has the balls to stand up to a smart detective, let alone a congressional hearing. I'll be keeping a sharp eye on him!"

The man beside Vincent wore a frozen smile. He murmured, "John won't be visiting his banker or his mistress without a tail. I don't know why you ever trusted him in the first place."

"I didn't--I don't."

"You sure as hell give him more power than he deserves."

"I've often thought the same regarding you and John's demented son."

Jimmy raised his hand as if to strike Vincent Morelli, his brother. Then, reconsidering, he dropped his arm to his side.



Over one year later, April 10, Sedona

The house perched high above the city on pillars wedged between massive boulders, its red-tiled roof disappearing beneath a ledge of red rock that looked tentative in its moorings. Little did the casual visitor realize the rocks had been there millions of years?

The shifting winds churned the valley dust and arid rock-laden landscapes like the helicopter rotor-blades that regularly powered airborne chariots about the red rock country, giving tourists a bird's eye view of the city sprawled between cliffs and ragged rock formations.

Today, no helicopters or hot air balloons hovered between the Airport Mesa and city's northern buttes.Today, storm clouds gathered between the mountains and multicolored rocks of northern Arizona. They promised more of the monsoon-like rain storms, when gullies and streams frequently become raging torrents in minutes. The monsoon season was paying them an early visit. It was only April.

Marta pulled her green Range Rover onto the Parker's driveway; then rang the doorbell of the two-story Spanish mocha-colored home, where she would be house sitting the next two weeks. She gave the neighboring house a long look, noting its front door opened from a small, manmade terrace with short wall that topped maybe a three-hundred-foot steep slope dotted with nursery-bought mesquite and rosemary plants. There were no trees in the immediate area. Wind chimes were attached to poles, bolted to the house and terrace. The wind created a cacophony of sound with American and East Indian chimes competing with "whop" noises of a flopping awning. She thought the effect interesting; albeit, the property showed signs of neglect with the banging screen door, broken ceramic chime, and mail bulging from the box at the top of the stairs. Marta was nosy by nature, so little escaped her most perfunctory glances.

She rang the bell a second time, and a blond man, of medium height, maybe a little less than 6 feet, perhaps in his late thirties, greeted her with a breathless apology. "Sorry--I was in the middle of a conference call that should have ended long ago."

"No problem--I was checking out your view and the weather."

"Never dull--that's for sure--but it looks like we'll be getting more rain before I make my getaway to Phoenix. I have a 9:10 departure from Sky Harbor, so I should be okay--rain or not. Come in."

After a quick re-acquaintance tour of the house, exchange of phone numbers, explanations, and further additions to an already long list of instructions, Dr. Parker finally got on his way. His parting comment to Marta was, "Don't let Danny lead you around by the nose. I know I give him a loose rein--but even he needs a few rules now and then. He's ten going on thirty--or at least he seems to think so! Could you remind him to unplug the computer when the weather looks threatening? He usually forgets to do that?"

Dr. Parker backed his silver-colored Audi out of the garage, then hurried back into the house for some forgotten item. He waved to her, and was on his way.

Marta moved her car into the doctor’s relinquished space, deposited her luggage in the guestroom, and poured herself a glass of Perrier. She made herself comfortable in the immense great room, where a wall of glass provided nonstop views of red rocks and swirling black clouds.The room had a massive gray fieldstone fireplace, with bookshelves taking over much of the wall space, although much of the area had already been appropriated by the wall of glass. It covered nearly the entire west side of the room.

Wall niches were filled with small Navajo vases and bronze sculptures. There were portholes with blackened glass on each side of the front door. A reading loft with small second fireplace, and a winding staircase accessed the upper areas. Marta was aware of music coming from hidden speakers. The great room contained a pull-down television screen with surround sound to dazzle one's senses.  There was a state-of-the-art stereo system. Not too shabby, she thought.

 She made herself comfortable on a long, black leather couch. Because she was chilled from her drink and the air-conditioned room, she wrapped herself in a heavy, maroon woolen serape that had been artfully placed on the back of a leather chair.

Marta was nervous. She had exchanged polite conversation with ten-year-old Danny Parker at one of the previous interviews, but he had seemed bored and distracted, if not unfriendly. Marta had few illusions; she and Danny were not likely to become bosom buddies. She hoped they could at least come to a meeting of minds regarding menu planning. Although she didn't consider herself a gourmet cook, she had an extensive recipe collection of successful entrees, with strong leaning toward vegetarianism and lo carbohydrate snack foods.

Marta had been widowed almost thirteen months earlier, the result of a traffic accident outside London. Rick's driver had been taking him to a luxurious small inn outside the city. According to the police, the car was traveling too fast for conditions and went off the road, rolling several times, killing Rick instantly. The limo caught fire and burned, destroying nearly everything in the vehicle including one unidentifiable body. Rick's driver lived, after being thrown clear, but suffered partial memory loss. The police revealed a curious detail. No evidence of luggage or brief case were found in the limousine. Several inspectors suggested ghoulish thieves might have picked through the wreckage before police and ambulances arrived on the scene.

Marta's entrepreneur husband left her well-provided-for, but decidedly at "loose ends." At thirty-four, she was rich, healthy, fit, but bored. Her Sedona home was spacious and luxurious; full of memories that seemed to worsen her painful, lonely moments.

 She stayed focused on the future rather than the past by meeting people, trying out new places, and being on the go. A BA in fine arts, with painting and photography her major interests, kept her grounded in beauty, such as the spectacular landscapes that surrounded her house from nearly every direction.
Going back to school for advanced studies was an option.Travel was not. It was an activity she and Rick had already enjoyed to excess. Somehow, the Parker's request for a house sitter and chaperone sparked her interest. She thought, maybe it will give me a break from my big, lonely house with all its sad reminders.

Marta had brought along her well-used and cherished Hasselblad camera, more out of habit than anything else.There were days it hung around her neck like a talisman, whether she was shopping for groceries or cutting roses for the bud vases. Just the hint of a natural rose scent improved her mood as effectively as a prescription of Prozac.

For several months after Rick's death Marta was depressed and dependent on medication to control her mood swings. After several counseling appointments, she found the psychiatrist about as helpful as a tarantula peering at her from under the cover of Arizona primroses, but without the beauty and charm of the flowers. The psychiatrist wore bifocals that kept slipping off his nose. Whenever she looked at him she forgot what she was going to ask or tell him about her dreams. He kept reminding her to write down the dreams. At first, she intended sharing the personal journal she'd started on her laptop. But his bored manner soon killed the idea.The therapy sessions were abruptly ended.

A door opened from the garage. Danny entered the room, a boy small for his age, several inches under four feet, a miniature version of his father. Dressed in baggy cutoff jeans and a Diamondbacks T-shirt, his fair skin hinted at a proclivity for indoor activity. His hair was on the long side, brushing the top of his shirt, with the ends curling from perspiration. His large, gray, piercing eyes reminded her of a cat she had long ago lost to a speeding automobile.

He said, "Hello, Mrs. Meiers--how are you?"

A pint-sized gentleman, she considered. Maybe this job won't be too bad, after all.  She said, "Hi, Danny--you may call me Marta--I'm just fine."

"Did Dad talk to you about what we like to eat?"

"He certainly did."  She continued, "If you cook at all, maybe we can work up some treats together."

 He smiled and suddenly seemed friendlier than he had during their first meeting.  He said, "I can show you how to make great tofu burgers." Danny went to the front door and directed a night scope through one of the porthole windows for several minutes without speaking. Then, he commented that although he could see out, no one could see in.

Marta asked, "Are you watching for someone in particular?"She wasn't sure she approved of his spying antics. His zeal seemed particularly disturbing as he screwed the glass to a tripod, pulled up a chair, and concentrated on his task at hand.

Danny replied, "We have weird neighbors . . . hardly ever around. The mailman says he's going to kill them one of these days if they don't pay up the thirty cents they owe him. Besides . . . the mailman is a drunk. You should see him wobbling up their spiral steps when he's ending his day. Oh, oh, here he comes now." He watched the postman fumble in his mail sack for a minute or two, then Danny stood up to stretch. He said, “I think I'll get myself a snack." He started toward the kitchen. Just then the phone rang. Danny went to his room, seeking a private conversation.

Ronald Jones parked the postal service jeep on the narrow incline with the emergency brake set. He reached into a small duffel bag, retrieving a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey. He often sought comfort in the bottle. It had been another long day, full of tiresome detail and repeated efforts.

Determined to finally confront the homeowner, Ronald had climbed the winding stairs the previous day, with no one answering the bell. It wasn't the first instance of monies due from D. D. Reynolds, and Ronald had yet to collect a dime. I guess the notices don't mean a damn thing to them. He'd stuffed the day's mail between the doors, leaving the screen door slightly ajar.

Three days earlier, he'd left a reminder for postage due in the oversized black box, located at the top of the spiral-like stairs. The mail was addressed to D. D. Reynolds. Along with the mail, he'd left a warning about possibly stopping mail delivery.

Tomorrow, he would have a day off and he was glad of it. Ronald took several more swallows of whiskey before starting up the stairs. His face was blotched with crimson spots, a result of angry thoughts and heavy drinking. I know--anger doesn't lower my blood pressure--neither does climbing these damn steps every day with nothing to show for it, he thought. It seemed rich folks were always trying to cheat working stiffs like himself. Maybe things would be different if they thought of something besides their pensions and golf handicaps!

At the top of the steps, Ronald paused for several much-needed breaths. He was not a young man and his thick paunch hinted strongly at distaste for exercise.

This day, the screen door swung wildly, its springs broken. One of the ceramic chimes had fallen, its broken pieces scattered about the terrace.  

Ronald rang the bell repeatedly. Thunder and lightning made threatening moves in the rocks above him. He cursed the weather. He cursed D. D. Reynolds. Glancing across a one-hundred-foot wide deep gorge to the north, Ronald studied the side of another cliff-hanging house. His thoughts were venomous and unrelenting. This town is full of SOBS--with more money than brains--I wonder if any of them know what work is. He considered that at least D. D. Reynolds' neighbor was a homeowner who sometimes answered his own doorbell.

It began raining, not a gentle Arizona shower, but something resembling a South Seas' hurricane. Instantly, water poured from the roof onto the terrace, where it rushed to its edge.

With rain drenching his uniform, covering his face, and spilling into his mailbag, Ronald's fury rose to the boiling point, white hot and out of control. He had D. D. Reynolds' mail in his fist, when he stepped to the back of the terrace. Just as he went to fling it over the wall, the tip of one of his boots caught in a cracked quarry tile.

Ronald fell forward, joining the collection of catalogues, bills, and junk mail dispersing over the rocks. At first, Ronald's body fell freely like a skydiver without a parachute; then it bounced from ledge to ledge, finally coming to rest on a talus, of sloping coarse rock. Rivulets of blood punctuated the area, like a giant bottle of red ink, shattered. Broken flesh and bones resulted from Ronald's compound fractures.

An UPS envelope, dropped by the front door earlier in the afternoon and already caught in the breezes, moved erratically about the terrace. It was soon soaked from the heavy deluge of rain, and then skewered by sharp needles on a low-growing barberry shrub.

An hour later, a black Lexus sedan cautiously made its way around the postal jeep and parked in front of D. D. Reynolds' garage. A gray-haired man was the driver.  A tall brunette, wearing a beige business suit, and carrying a briefcase, opened the passenger door. They entered the house together through the garage, closing its door behind them with the remote control. The man retrieved two pieces of matched gray luggage from the Lexus trunk.

He reassured her, "You'll get your money, D. D., before the week is up--I'm betting--maybe, even today. It looks like everyone is making late deliveries." He gave her a proprietary pat on the behind and added, "No one would ever guess a sweet thing like you for our kind of money management. And no one would figure that kind of money to go by regular UPS--not in this town!"

Danny returned to his perch by the porthole, his phone conversation apparently ended, resuming his surveillance with one hand resting lightly on the night scope. He had seen nothing of Ronald's tragic end.

By early evening, the sky had cleared. A sunset of riotous color melded the clouds with a double rainbow that nearly reached around the city.

Two dogs chased each other from the foot of the narrow-paved road to the bushes on the D. D. Reynolds' property. They stopped to sniff each other until one discovered a thick envelope beneath a water-laden bush. The dogs tugged at each end of it until it split and spewed some of its contents on the driveway.

Small gusts of wind returned. The terrace puddles dissipated.The meddlesome wind distributed paper and moisture all about the precipitous acreage of red rocks. To the north, new dark and ominous clouds gathered, promising another cloudburst.

Danny made no mention of what he had seen and heard to Marta. However, he had already made up his mind to gather the money after it got dark. Neither had he mentioned the listening device he frequently used, to listen to voices, behind closed doors, perhaps as much as 150 feet away. Many times he had eavesdropped on D. D. and her companions in the past, even taping several of their conversations.

Danny knew some of their loss--drug money--could be his gain. Studying "Soldier of Fortune" magazines and websites with surveillance tools on sale for would-be spies had whetted his appetite for expensive toys.

He was a precocious boy lost in dreams manufactured by computer games, seductive web sites, and loneliness.