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Authors: Robert Adams

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Stairway to Forever

BOOK: Stairway to Forever
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PROLOGUE

Charity Mathews thought from the very beginning that it was a big mistake to give her eldest son, Calvin, a rifle for his twelfth birthday, but as usual her wishes were ridden over roughshod by her rude, crude, coarse and often brutal husband, Yancy. At her hesitant words, the tall, lanky, rawboned man only snorted in derision and popped open yet another beer, half of which he guzzled, prominent Adam's apple working, before he deigned to give her an answer.

"Shitfire, woman, you ain't got you the brains God give a piss ant, you know that? I was out a-huntin' with my own gun when Is eight, ten year old, not just no fuckin' BB gun, neither, like these dumbass city fuckers give they kids. Calvin, he gettin' on towards being a man soon, and it's high time he had him a real gun for to hunt varmints and all with.

"Now I don' wanta hear no more about it. You

want suthin to do, you git me another beer. You hear me, Char'ty?"

Justly fearing her husband's ill-controlled temper and his big, bony fists, Charity sped to the kitchen to fetch him back another cold beer. Yancy just didn't know but the one side of his sons, she thought. Both Calvin and Bubba behaved themselves around the father they feared, but otherwise they were about as well-behaved as wild Indians, constantly in trouble at school, with the neighbors in the decaying suburb, and now and again with the sheriff and his deputies.

On the morning after his birthday—the afternoon of which, Calvin and Bubba and their father had spent at the county dump shooting at rats, bottles, cans and anything else that seemed a good target— Calvin waited until the rural mail carrier came along in his rusty car. The lanky boy, trailed by his chubby brother, stepped from behind a stretch of overgrown privet hedge and leveled the pump rifle at old Mister Bartlett, saying in his nasal twang, "Thishere's a stickup, Grandpa. Gimme all yore money ... an' all yore whiskey, too." Then, both boys sniggered.

But their plan worked only that far. Bartlett did not cower and beg for his life; instead, he rolled out of the car much faster than they would have thought the old drunk could move. His hand clamped the barrel of the rifle and jerked it away from Calvin so hard and so fast that his grubby trigger finger was both strained and barked.

While he worked the action repeatedly, ejecting all fifteen of the long-rifle cartridges into the mud and water of the roadside ditch, the letter carrier just shook his head and muttered.

"Never did think your pa's long suit was brains and this here just goes for to prove it. Any damn fool would give a damn proved JD like you a damn .22

rifle to raise hell with is got to be God's gift to all morons. Ain't you two nitwits ever heard tell what the FedVal Gov'mint does to bastards as robs the Yew-Ess Mails ... or tries to, leastways? Wont for your poor, long-suf ring ma, Id stuff you two in the trunk and drive you over and turn you in to Sher ff Vaughan. It ain't bad enough she's got her a husband like Yancy, but she winds up with a couple brats who's jailhouse bound if ever any two kids was."

"You gimme my gun back, you old drunk!" demanded Calvin. "Is just a-joshin' you and you know it, too. And I'm gonna tell my pa what-all you just said about him and he's gonna stomp the shit outen you."

"Oh, I'm scared," sneered Bartlett. "Can't you see me shakin' all over? You tell Yancy any damn thing you wants to, kid, he knows better'n to mess with me. I think, though, that maybe I should oughta phone him up tonight and tell him how you're running around pointing loaded guns at folks and saying you holding 'em up."

"You gawdamn old fart, you," snapped the fat-faced Bubba, "you do that and Calvin and me'll slash the fuckin' tires on yore old rattletrap car like we done las' year, too!"

Without a word, the man began to field-strip the rifle, dropping the smaller parts into the puddly ditch and heaving most of the larger as far as he could into the weedy, roadside tangles of brush. When only the barrel remained in his hands, he jammed it, muzzle-down, with all his strength into the soft mud.

And he squeezed back under the wheel, he admonished, "I'm gonna tell the sher'ff about all this here. I'm also gonna have the Postmaster to send a letter to your pa, 'cause if he don't rein you two

hellions in a mite, he can just start comin' and picking up his mail at the post office, is all. We don't gotta put up with vicious dogs or with vicious little brats like of you two, neither.

"Oh, and you better git the mud outen that barr'l fore you tries to shoot it again, elst it'll backfire and blow your damn head off, you li'l snotnose, and good riddance, I'd say."

enced that power or at least witnessed the prodigies it could accomplish.

It had taken both varieties of strength to keep him alive during nearly three and a half years of Pacific Theater combat during World War Two. Although appalled and soul-sickened by the incredible amounts and degrees of slaughter and bloodshed attendant to the seemingly endless campaigns of one amphibious assault after another, Fitz had so proven himself and impressed his superiors with his leadership abilities and survival traits that he had several times over been offered the plum of a regular commission in the United States Marine Corps. And on each occasion, he had courteously but firmly declined, finally leading said superiors to settle by retaining him in a reserve commission when that war ended and Fitz went to college under the GI Bill, married and commenced building a family and a secure, peaceful existence for him and them.

But then, with his son only three years old and the ink still wet on his baccalaureate degree, he and his Marine Corps Reserve unit had found themselves activated, recalled to fight yet another war, this one on a stinking, God-cursed peninsula of the Asian landmass, called Chosen or Korea. By then, Fitz was looking back at his thirtieth birthday and went back across the vast Pacific wearing gold oak leaves, but again his strengths served him well and he survived that war also. At the stalemated conclusion of that one, however, he resigned his reserve commission and plunged into the world of business, not caring to take the chance of staying in the reserves and being force-fed yet a third helping of war in a few more years.

Bearing the cloth-wrapped bundle under his arm

and the rusty spade in his hand, Fitz carefully negotiated the loose, warped boards of the rotting porch, then tightly gripped the flaking iron banister with his free hand as he gingerly descended the crumbling, concrete steps down to the backyard. Once, long, long ago, it surely had been a green, tended lawn; now, there was but a weedy, trash-littered tangle through which the ground squirrels scurried . . . and how Tom had loved to stalk and chase the tiny, striped-brown creatures, although Fitz could never recall that the aged cat had ever actually caught one.

Tom, good old, gentle old Tom. He unconsciously hugged to his side the cold, stiff body enwrapped in the damp, threadbare towel. Tom had not deserved the hard, agonized death of a bullet in the lower belly that had been his lot. Somehow, despite his obscene pain, the cat had made it home, made it as far as the lowest step of the front stoop and, when Fitz found him, had been still warm, his green eyes only starting to glaze over.

But, warm body or not, Fitz knew death when he saw it, knew full well that there by then was nothing that the vet five miles away could do for the cat. He had backtracked the trail of blood and bloody feces, then searched in ever-widening circles around the beginning of that trail until he had found two shiny brass rimfire cases, caliber .22 long rifle.

He then had known almost for certain fact just who had murdered the inoffensive cat. The same cruel, bloodthirsty young brat who had to date shot at least three pet dogs, an inflatable wading pool, a succession of automobile and truck tires and the windshield of a rusty Volkswagen bug. Why any parent would give such a child a firearm to begin with was beyond Fitz's comprehension, and why said

child had been left in possession of so lethal a weapon after all his misdeeds was beyond any semblance of rationality.

Pocketing the two cases, he had considered bearding the perpetrator and his parents in their nearby home, but had instead remembered Tom and his duty to the husk of the animal that had for so long been pet, friend and sole companion. Back in the decaying, rented bungalow, he had first laved off the mess of blood and serum and dung and urine from the furry body, then arranged and bound it so that it would stiffen in the feline posture of sleep, with feet tucked under and tail curled around. Weeping copious and completely unashamed tears, he had sought out the very best of his bath towels and carefully wrapped the body in it, then searched the spider-infested crawl space under the bungalow until he had found the spade he recalled seeing there.

But then, he had had to stop everything long enough for a drink, a half-water glass of the smooth, brownish-amber John Jameson's Irish Whiskey. His father had died of complications resulting from near-lifelong alcoholism, and two of his younger brothers and one younger sister were clearly headed toward that same end, so Fitz normally strictly limited his intake of the "creature," which was what his mother had called spirits of any kind. But he felt this drink and the one that quickly followed it to be, if ever a drink was such a thing, medicinal.

For poor Tom had constituted his last remaining tie with all the joy that once had been—with Janet and Kath and young Fitz, with success and fulfillment and a happy, comfortable life—all gone now, gone forever, irrevocably. And here, thanks to a savage, sadistic boy, Tom was gone, too.

Beyond the initial ten or fifteen yards of weeds

and rubbish, the backyard sloped abruptly upward to level off again some two feet higher than the rest of the property. The miniature plateau thus formed was roughly circular and sported not just weeds but a few scraggly bushes. It was beneath the centermost of these neglected shrubs that Tom had most often been found snoozing and that was where Fitz had decided to bury his dead companion, last member of his death-sundered family.

As he walked slowly up the slope to the site of the unpleasant task that he must perform, Fitz wondered for the umpteenth time just when and why and how the low mound had originated. The agent who had first shown, then rented him the ill-kempt, twenty-five-year-old tract house had scratched at the sparse growth of hair under his straw planter's hat, shrugged and grunted, "Hell, Mister Fitzgilbert, I dunno. Prob'ly it was a layout for crowket or suthin', one time."

But Fitz had even then doubted the verity of that sad excuse for an answer and he thought even less of it, now, after having lived on the place for two-plus years. For one thing, the flat, circular top was too small for such a purpose. Besides, considering the amount of labor involved in raising such a mound, a man would have had to have been absolutely 'round the bend to do so much simply for the occasional game of croquet.

Jefferson Bartlett, the letter carrier, had lived in the general area all his life, save for twenty years in the Army, since long before the former Dineen estate—of which this had been a part—was sold and subdivided and built upon in the late nineteen-forties. While sharing a tall iced tea and several short John Jamesons during the course of his rounds in Fitz's

first summer of renting the decrepit house, the wiry little man had waxed most voluble with the latest in a long succession of tenants of the property.

"Thet or Mistuh Dineen, he won't from 'round here, you know. He's from England, I think. Leastways, he talked that funny, stilty kinda English what them folks all talks. He showed up away Tore I's borned, o'course, musta been back in the 'eighties or 'nineties, but my paw, he tol' me all 'bout it.

"But it won't Mistuh Dineen what built thet mound, it's on some the ol' county maps from clear back to the sixteen hunnerds. I recollec', some fellers come down here from the University, during the Depression, that was, back in the thirties. They aimed to dig inta it, but ol' Mistuh Dineen he sent 'em both packin'. Dint give no reasons or nuthin', just tolt 'em to git off of his land or he'd have the sher'ff put 'em off

"I heered them two fellers a-talkin' down to Bates's Store Tore they got set for to drive their Model A back to the University. In between a cussin' ol' Mistuh Dineen and all, they allowed as how the mound had to be a Injun mound and the onliest one ever heered tell of in this part the country, too. Anybody could of told both them fellers was just a-itchin' for to get inta that mound and mebbe make a name for theyselfs and their university, too. But they fin'ly drove off and they never come back, neither."

"What became of Mister Dineen?" asked Fitz. "Did he die here?"

With an experienced flick of the wrist, the carrier threw down the two fingers of straight whiskey, then shook his head. "Nossir, don't nobody I ever talked to know just what did happen to the ol' genulman. I won't here, see; I jined up in thirty-seven, see. But seems like he was just gone one day when his ser-

vants went to wake him for his breakfast. The Sher'ff and all, they looked all over the place for Mistuh Dineen, but they never found hide nor hair of him. Not only that, but they never could find no relatives as could prove they was, so after 'bout ten years, the state just auctshunned the place off for taxes and all and some bunch of damn yankees bought it and started puttin' up these here crummy little half-asted houses on it.

"Why, yessuh, Mistuh Fitzgilbert, thank you kindly." Bartlett had swabbed at his sweat-running face with a faded, already-soggy bandana, while Fitz refilled his whiskey glass. "Y'know, lotsa folks thinks whiskey's no good in hot weathuh, but really ain't nuthin' better, cause whiskey makes a body to sweat, y'know, and the more you sweats, the cooler you gets from the Vaporation. Eny sawbones'll tell you that."

Of course, the argument that Bartlett used for non-abstinence in winter was that whiskey possessed sovereign warming properties. Fitz had discovered over a period of time that the letter carrier never commenced his route but that a full half-gallon bottle of bourbon reposed within easy reach on the floorboards of his asthmatic, rusty ranch wagon. And Deputy Hagen attested that many was the time he had chanced across that ranch wagon, engine still running, at the end of the mail run, with Bartlett "resting his eyes" in the driver's seat, the empty glass jug tenderly cradled in his arms.

BOOK: Stairway to Forever
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