To tell you the truth, even though a lot of us suspected Gael Carolina's intentions right from the start, we weren't as worried as we should have been. After all, how could he build those hotel-casinos of his imagination unless someone would sell the Delaval organization the land to do it?
And can you imagine any Hardyvillian selling out for that?
Unfortunately, we didn't have to imagine any Hardyvillian selling out for that. We just relied on the evidence that smacked us between our very own eyes.
One day while making a delivery of fresh bread and muffins to the little shop at the airport, Dora spotted Gael Carolina and the lovely Mirabelle greeting an arriving visitor. The visitor ducked out the door of the prop-driven puddle-jumper that touches down in Hardyville, shook hands, and disappeared behind the tinted glass windows of Señor Carolina's leased SUV.
But not before Dora got a good look at him.
"His face looked familiar," she told Nat. "But I couldn't place it. I'd never seen him before. I was sure of that. So how could I recognize him? But then ..."
Dora handed Nat a color page printed from a web site -- a man's formal portrait inset into a larger photo of a famous building. It was the face of an architect, known for being more flamboyant than his works. The very architect whose works had fueled Gael Carolina's web-surfing dreams.
"I've seen him on PBS documentaries," she explained when Nat cocked an eye at her, clearly wondering what kind of person went around recognizing architects.
The Famous Architect was around town for several days, always in the company of Gael Carolina. They spent hours out at the Harbibi ranch.
The gossip -- and the worry -- went into high gear.
Some of us tried to get information out of Mardi, the Grieving Widow Harbibi -- a challenging task in the best of times. "Information" tended to come out of her in the form of loud complaints. But now ... well, she was too busy snuggling and snogging with her head work-boy, former fed task force leader, John Davis Melvin. She had no eyes, mind, or time for anything else -- other than some obvious real-estate deal making.
We wondered what the heck was going on. But wonder was all we could do.
But speaking of snogging, or someone who would rather be ...
* * *
Jennifer Carolina, with channels of sweat and dirt streaking her face, clutched a Charter Arms Bulldog. She pointed it vaguely in the direction of a man-shaped target, arms wobbling, elbows sagging. But beneath her tinted safety glasses and the brim of a very unattractive baseball cap, Jen's eyes shifted from the target to the twenty-something young man standing next to her.
He'd be hot if he wasn't so damned bossy.
The instructor, chosen by Nat and Carty, was named Brad Downey (Brad McCarty Downey, of Hardyville's toughest clan, a fact of which Jennifer was blissfully unaware). He looked a bit like another, more famous Brad, only younger. But bossy?
"Get those arms up. Pay attention. On the count of three, give me a controlled pair to center of mass, followed by a single shot to the head. And remember -- front sight."
Jen heaved another of her much-practiced sighs, adjusted her arms imperceptibly and, on the count of two, slammed her eyes shut and flinched off one round that thudded into the berm two feet left of the target, followed by another high and to the right. The little .44 kicked twice into her limp wrists and arms.
"Ow!" she whimpered. With her finger still wrapped around the trigger, she lowered the gun and rubbed at her left elbow.
"Finger off the trigger!"
"Oh, all right. Yeah, yeah, finger off the trigger. Big deal." She sighed again and prepared to slouch back into her rounded version of an isosceles stance, ready to attempt the head shot.
But Brad put his hand out. "The gun. Give it to me. Open the action and hand it to me."
"Does this mean we're done?"
"Open the action and hand me the weapon."
She complied, fumbling. He ejected the last round and holstered the firearm.
"Now. Off the line." He grasped her firmly by the upper arm and led her, not gently, to the shooting benches. The benches sat under the dubious shade of a tin roof, where the temperature was a mere 90 instead of 95.
Jen flung herself flat onto one of the tables. But Brad ordered, "UP!"
"Up? Up? C'mon. Isn't there some law that says you have to give me breaks, like every hour or something?"
She dragged herself into a sitting position.
"Jeff Cooper's four safety rules," Brad said. "Give them to me. In order."
"We did that yesterday. We did that already today."
"The four rules. In order."
"This is BS. I'm not some baby, memorizing my ABCs. I know the rules and I don't care who stupid old Jeff Cooper was. I just made one tiny mistake, okay? You want me to say I'm sorry, then I'm sorry. But you don't have to keep hammering on me."
"Okay. That's it. Your shooting lessons are finished. I'll drive you back to your mother's house and you can pay Mr. Lyons back for everything you stole and damaged."
"No! That's not fair! Wait a minute ..."
"Oh, you don't want to have to pay back all that money? Okay then. The rules. In order. And if I ask you 100 times, you give them to me 100 times, without complaint. And you don't just say them, okay? You live and breathe them. Because the rules might save your life. Or mine. Get it?"
"I get it, I get it."
Fifteen minutes later, after considerable prompting and discussion of the whys and wherefores, Jennifer succeeded in stating, and apparently even understanding, all four basic rules of safe firearms handling. Brad gave her a thumbs-up, handed her the Bulldog, action open, and stood to return to the firing line.
Oh good. For my reward I get to go back out in the sun and get skin cancer while blasting my arms out of their sockets.
"Um, could we, like, wait a minute?" she asked (carefully keeping her finger off the trigger and the barrel pointed down and downrange). "I really do need a break."
He sat back down beside her as she carefully laid down the gun. They both swigged from their sports bottles of warm water and gazed silently toward the horizon.
Again, her eyes scanned him behind her shades. Blonde. Muscular. Great profile. Yeah, definitely not bad. For a bully. But she had to admit to herself, even his toughness was kind of cute. Maybe a strong guy could be interesting ...
"You know," she said after a moment, "We could finish this lesson tomorrow. Maybe we could just ... you know, spend some time getting to know each other today."
"Why do I want to get to know you?"
Taken aback (guys always wanted to get to know her), she didn't know how to respond. After swigging down more water, she decided on the direct approach. She gave him her best seductive smile, hoping it wasn't too marred by sweat, dirt, and sunburn. She leaned forward so the neck of her shirt gaped open.
"Well, if you want to be that way about it ... there's lots of things we can do that'll be more fun than giving me boring old shooting lessons."
Brad regarded her stoically. Then he stood up, walked over to the next bench, where two backpacks of equipment rested. He rummaged in one until he came up with a plastic-wrapped package about six inches square. With a small flourish, he tossed the package straight into Jennifer's lap. It landed softly, almost weightlessly.
Jen looked from Brad's impassive face to the package, confused. She picked the package up and squeezed it. It was soft. "What's this?"
"Knee pads?" Jen gulped. "You don't really think I need ..."
"Oh, yes you do need knee pads," Brad grinned evilly. "I'm gonna put you through some shooting exercises that are going to make you wish you had not just knee pads, but full body armor. Now. Back out on the line. Pronto."
* * *
That night at sunset, Jen slouched on the hard metal steps of the dusty travel trailer Nat had provided, far from his ranch house. Far from everything. She felt as sore, as dirty, and as alone as she'd ever been. Feeding stupid horses all morning, shooting stupid guns all afternoon, shoveling stupid horse poop all evening, then sleeping in a creaky trailer a million miles from civilization, without a single person to talk to. She sniffed, then reminded herself, Not that there's anybody I'd want to talk to, anyhow.
Jen sat on the steps as they grew cooler, watching the sun sink, just like her life, into the haze.
A coyote howled, very near. Oh my god, a wolf! Jen fled into the trailer, slamming the door behind her, and burying her face in her pillow.
Had any girl ever suffered so much?
* * *
"Dad," said Tonio, after being invited into his father's elegantly wood-paneled study, "can I talk to you?"
"Of course. Always." Gael waved toward a comfortable armchair.
"Well ... this is kind of hard."
"But I'm your father. You can trust me with anything that's troubling you."
"Then ... Dad, people are starting to worry about what you and Mr. Delaval are planning to do to Hardyville. I'm starting to worry. This place ... it's good the way it is. It doesn't need resorts and stuff. Big buildings. Fancy hotels."
Gael chuckled gently, "Tonio, I appreciate your concern. But forgive me, you're hardly an expert in urban planning."
"Yeah, I know. But you see, Hardyville, it's ... well, Dad, Hardyville needs to be the way it is. That's what makes it Hardyville. If you try to change it instead of just using what's good about it, you might wreck ..."
"Tonio, Tonio, please. I assure you I have everyone's best interests at heart. Including yours. Once you understand my vision, you'll understand that. You'll be proud to be the son of the man who created ..."
"Dad, please don't do it."
"Son, someday you'll thank me."
Tonio took a breath. He recognized finality when he heard it. Now things got even harder. "Dad. You promised me a job with you and Delaval. And ... well, I don't want you to think I'm not grateful. But can't take a job with you. I can't help you do the stuff you want to do."
Gael leaned back in his chair, a hard glint momentarily passing across his eyes. He regarded his son critically. "Your mother did say you're a young man who sticks to his principles. I suppose that is to be commended. Very well, then. I presume you have other opportunities?"
"No. Nothing yet," Tonio admitted. He didn't want to tell his father how it worried and depressed him, to give up a job prospect with Delaval not knowing what, if anything, else might come along. Tiny Hardyville wasn't exactly big on opportunities. "Also ... about your offer to send me to college ... ?" He colored, reluctant to raise the issue under the circumstances.
"Ah." Gael understood. "You're worried I won't keep my promise. But of course, Tonio, that offer still stands. By all means, continue to gather applications. One day soon you and I will discuss your options. I assure you I am as concerned as you are about your education and your future."
"Thanks, Dad. I really appreciate it."
Gael smiled as his son departed, then returned to reviewing a selection of rough architectural sketches spread across his broad walnut desktop.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. And to Oliver Del Signore, faithful font of ideas for stuck writers.
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