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Friday, April 19, 2013


Chapter One

Informal Agreement




Mr. Scratch was late. Ramon hated waiting. Patience would never be listed as his strong point.
       The vicious bright sun beat down mercilessly on his burnt strawberry red, baldhead. Rivers of sweat rushed down his cheeks and back. His unprotected skin screamed in protest. His energy sucked up into the dry atmosphere.
       Checking his watch, once again, he bit his blistering lips. Ramon felt comforted in the feeling that no matter what happened in his life he could always look on his wrist and see the slow sweeping movement of time, steady and trustworthy.
        His ire quickened as he paced near the feverishly hot bench outside Terminal Six of the Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona. He stopped his aimless pacing and kicked at a lone lizard slithering on the dirt ground. His back started aching. His arthritic knee felt as if large nails were being driven deep into his flesh. His angry mood turned even bleaker.  He was too damned old to wait.
      He stared at the clear, hot desert sky, and horizon shimmering in the sunlight. The desolate location of Terminal Six annoyed him to no end. The small-dilapidated building behind him bothered Ramon even more No other terminals in sight angered him. Void of any other planes in sight angered the usually happy author. His blood increased to dangerous new heights with the fact that there weren’t any signs of other people in sight. The skeletal Sky Captain with the zombie eyes vanished soon after Ramon walked through the greasy glass doors, which were now locked up tight.  The metal, scorching bench sat in front of a pitiful dirt road winding lazily into the mid-day sun.
      Two thoughts dominated Ramon’s heat scrambled-brain. He wondered why the TSA person laughed when he mentioned Terminal Six. Mr. Scratch specifically stated Terminal Six. A flight attendant insisted that there were only four terminals at Sky Harbor Airport. The second question puzzling Ramon on this unseasonably broiling fall afternoon in Arizona was when did he become so stupid? He should be home with his family, not in Phoenix, waiting for a limo that was too late.
     Following eighteen months of unemployment, Ramon became desperate to replenish his bank account, preferably using his as of yet to be discovered talent as an author. True, some may not call it a talent. Some have used harsher terms. Literary agents refused to accept his flair for the written word and simply sent form letter rejections to his queries. Ramon hung onto the hope that his next work-in-progress would be the one to bring about his fame. His previous fantastic novels would be snatched up and become best-sellers changing his family’s fate forever.
       Once, Ramon daydreamed of cruising around the world, driving a new shiny Cadillac. However, he knew the cold hard facts of publishing, sometimes great stories cling helplessly to a piece of paper unseen by the public.
       Last week, after his wife, daughter, and dog retired, the house’s eerie silence flowed around him except for his wife’s blusterous snores. The wind howled against the windows and the gentle dripping of the toilet sang its incessant lullaby, Ramon threw himself a pity party. Talk about a hum-dinger of a bash that included a gallon size Pepsi Max and a large bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and boxes of tissue. The day began with yet another barrage of query rejections filling his email inbox. Dejected, he slumped in his easy chair and brooded. Buried in self-pity, he whispered under his breath, barely even a whisper, perhaps only mouthing, did sound really come out of his mouth? “I would sell my soul to the devil for a chance to be published.” Once said he looked around, surprised that he would dare utter such words after his strong religious Mormon upbringing. He waited but the world around him remained in tack. His utterance had not been overheard and he ate his last Peanut Butter Cup, gulped the last of the Pepsi, and wandered up to bed.
      The phone rang early the next morning. He reached over and picked up the cell phone, the screen flashed unknown number. “Another creditor,” he mumbled but answered the phone anyway, his eyes groggy, his dreams still clear in his mind.
       “My name is Mr. Scratch. My employer would like to hire you to write his biography. It must be very hush-hush. You may tell no one. My employer has endured quite a lot of bad press lately, and he desires an unknown author to write the truth. Are you interested?”
      Ramon dreamt, again of a publisher begging him to let them publish his books and he mumbled, “Sure, whatever.” Then he went back to sleep and dreamed of big cars, the New York Times Best Seller List, and even bigger paychecks. A smile pasted on his once innocent face.
      The next morning Ramon checked his bank account balance on-line to see if he had enough money to put gas in the car today or his wife would be driving to work on fumes. He looked, closed his eyes tightly, and looked again. A substantial deposit mysteriously turned up in his account. A quick call to the bank confirmed it. That’s when Ramon remembered his strange dream last night about writing a biography and the phone rang again, flashing an unknown caller warning.
       “Good morning to you, Ramon. We have already deposited your advance. Feel free to check this out for yourself.  I believe you should be able to fill the car up with gas, barely. The price of gas is so devilishly high these days.” Ramon pulled the phone from his ear as a hearty guffaw exploded from the speaker. “Now, let’s get down to business, Mr. Ballard. A helicopter will pick you up from the field behind your house in Springfield, Missouri in approximately 30 minutes. Pack nothing. The Devil takes care of his guest. It is of upmost importance that you not tell a soul,” another explosion of laughter followed, “Forgive my pun Mr. Ballard. You won’t even need your cell phone or your computer where you are going and the boss would be absolutely displeased if you were to bring them. We don’t want to displease HIM, now do we?”
     “Uh, No, Sir. I guess not Sir,” stuttered Ramon meekly, his hand began to shake uncontrollably.
     “Good. Good. Now, as I was saying, the helicopter will fly you to an unknown airport and board a private jet for your first destination, Phoenix. Upon arrival, proceed to Terminal Six of Sky Harbor Airport. The location is rather obscure. Keep walking East in the terminal and enter through the red door to Terminal Six. A limo will pick you up at noon and transport you to your final Hell. You may tell your wife and daughter only of a potential job offer, which will keep you away for perhaps several days. You can tell the whole story to the fluffy white puppy dog, she has no soul to steal anyway, and I promise she will keep your secret. Well, Mr. Ballard, are we clear?”
     Ramon could not utter a single word.
     Click, the phone went dead. The call ended. No discussion. No mention of a soul. No mention of fame. The phone began to smolder in his hands, before vanishing. “Great, I’m not sure if my cell phone provider replaces phones destroyed by the Devil,” he thought, rubbing his clammy hands on his chair.
     Ramon followed Mr. Scratches’ instructions to the tee.
     Noon had come and passed. The time neared One P.M. and still no Limo. Ramon felt the cooling relief of a gust of warm wind and he pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his face when a flurry of dust followed the squall. “Great! All I need now is a dust storm to brighten my day.”
     Ramon looked out at the horizon at another distant dust storm, headed his way. A whirl of dark dust spun up from the desert floor. Within the depths of the maelstrom, Ramon spied a crimson sphere glowing. He gulped, and his usually placid pacemaker springing to life, as he rushed to the glass doors behind him. Pounding with two fists, he screamed for help as the storm slithered closer. The doors remained tightly closed. He turned around to face his destiny like a man, trembling, curled up on the ground, and thinking of his wife, daughter, and the fluffy white dog.
      The whirlwind sped menacingly in his direction. As it neared, an eerie sound emanated from the storm, a chugging-coughing-rattling of a car choking and stuttering and in dire need of a tune-up. A lone headlight peered from within the dust. Ramon stood there, bewitched, unable to break away as a sleek, ebony limo erupted and the perilous gale dispersed. As the limo approached, Ramon observed the limo was not aging gracefully. The limo chugged weakly to the end of the pavement, hissed briefly and then died. A moment later, a black, ominous cloud burst forth above the limo, casting a gloomy shadow on the pavement. The door eased open. A white, boney hand grasped the window before the driver emerged wearing a blood-red uniform with black epaulets and a gold Devil Enterprises embossed on the sleeve. The uniform looked, obviously made for someone much smaller; it fit way too tight on this extremely tall, overly wide ghoul. He lifted his hand, pointing a skeletal finger at Ramon and motioned to the reluctant author as he opened the passenger door. Ramon waddled to the limo, avoiding looking at its frightening driver, and sat down on the tattered, dusty rear seat. There were no door handles on the inside and a thick, grimy window separated the rear seat from the front seat. The ghoul slammed the door and slunk into the driver’s seat, his head tilted to the right, his left cheek rubbing the roof of the car. Ramon became trapped, his nightmare only beginning. The terminal vaporized in front of his eyes. The ghost-like driver turned the key but nothing happened. He left the vehicle and looked under the hood, wiggled something, screamed something in an unfamiliar language and slammed the hood shut again. Ramon looked frantically for a way out of the vehicle until the ghoul sat down again and turned the key. The ghoul, turned his neck sideways, mumbled some strange syllables, and then shoved his fist several times in the roof of the car, causing a large dent, and then sat up straight in the car, his head fitting comfortably in the newly formed dents.
     He cursed one last time before he turned the ignition key, again. The limo jerked, spurted, coughed, and then chugged back to life. Long boney fingers moved the gearshift into gear and peered into the rear-view mirror again, the bone chilling red of his eyes searing Ramon’s heart and sending icy tendrils down his spine. The ghoul turned his head around, gave Ramon a devious grin, and gunned the engine, darting the car back and forth and throwing his passenger around while he frantically searched for the seat belts. There was none. Ramon remembered; his wife would disapprove.
     The tempest encircled the limo again and the driver turned the radio to an all opera all the time station that sounded mostly like ear grating static. Ramon glanced at his watch. It stopped at 1:11 PM, the exact moment the limo arrived. A horrified look enveloped his countenance for the last vestige of stability in his life had forsaken him.
      Listening to the opera/static, being tossed back and forth in the seat, and viewing the scenery through the dizzying storm, Ramon came to the conclusion: This ride, was slowly becoming the journey to hell.
     Through the twirling dust, Ramon observed a chain link fence looming ahead and approaching quickly. He squeezed his eyes shut, praying the driver would stop the limo in time, then cracked his right eye open a sliver as the driver plowed through the fence without even flinching. The driver pressed the gas pedal to the floor, crashed through the fence, jumped over a curb,  and entered the freeway, followed by squeaking brakes, frantic swerves and one fingered salutes from , all ignored by the ghost driver as he did a quick right turn on the Maricopa freeway. The dearly departed driver did not show any sign of fear, being already dead and all. Terror gripped Ramon’s soul.
      The reluctant passenger said his prayers and attempted to bury his head in the armrests for the rest of the trip, visualizing the headlines, ‘Unknown occupant found dead in a dilapidated limo, only the bones of the driver found.’ The limo merged onto highway 10, leaving a tangled wreck of cars behind and then flowed peacefully onto the US17.
     Aside from the gyrating earth enveloping the limo, the chaotic static and arias exuding from the dashboard, the sweltering heat, and the creepy driver, the rest of the drive went smoothly and Ramon, still frantically checking his watch out of a long established habit, finally drifted into a fretful sleep.
      A prophetic nightmare awoke the bald man and he gazed out the filthy windows of the limo, the mile markers whizzing past at an alarming speed. Snoring in the front seat left no doubt, the driver slept at the wheel. He pounded at the glass separating the driver from the passenger to no avail, peering through the windshield, freeway US17 ended dead ahead and the limo must turn left or right to merge unto US40. Assured of his impending doom, Ramon closed his eyes and formed his final thoughts of his wife, his daughter, and his fluffy white dog. A sharp turn to the right flung him to the other side of the limo, depositing his decrepit knees painfully against the door accompanied by the resounding salutations of honking horns. The limo continued east on US40 and took the highway 89 junction toward Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
     Ramon, now wide-awake, trembled as the limo veered off the highway onto a winding forest service road and picked up speed. Understand, it is one thing to pick up speed on a winding forest service road and quite another to pick up speed on a winding forest service road that ends with a cliff. Ramon faced the latter. The condemned author, destined to have his life flash before his eyes, worried whether his wife, daughter, and fluffy white dog had enough life insurance on him and wonder if they needed a body before they could collect. The already dead ghost driver revved the engine and pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and headed straight for the cliff.