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The Hermit

 Premiered August 22, 2003

Chapter Seven


Dawn's first impression of Redstone Canyon was that it was aptly named.  The fact that there were hundreds of canyons in the Rocky Mountain west with the same formations of red stone did not dissuade any of the locals from applying it here.  It was the most notable redstoned canyon within fifty or so miles of Fort Collins, and was thus accorded the appropriate honors.  That's the way they do things in the west.

The drive north along the canyon had an unexpected benefit for Dawn, as the road followed a small stream which had more than its normal amount of water.  Dawn had arrived in mid-June, following one of the wettest months of the year for the Fort Collins Area.  In addition, this particular year had seen much more spring rain than normal.  The result was a proliferation of greenery, evergreen and deciduous trees randomly intermixed, all providing occasional shade for springtime mountain flowers.  It was an enchanting drive.  It was also a time for the local Realtors to take advantage of the unusual greenery, and which they were currently doing with a vengeance!

The only flaw for Dawn was that the road was a mix of dirt and gravel, with occasional stretches of "washboard-style" rough spots.  There has yet to be discovered any effective way to traverse a gravel strewn washboard road without feeling every bone-rattling bump, and depending upon the speed involved, jarring one's internal organs and teeth to the point of the victim becoming a devout believer in the Cult of Asphalt and Paving (CAP).  Ivan, on the other hand, having had experience growing up in Eastern Europe and driving on woefully maintained roads (as well as dodging bomb and mortar craters and other hazards of the less peaceful world), found the rough spots considerably less disturbing.  The Communists had not only been lousy at road construction, but "repair" was an art form even further a field.

What Ivan did notice, however, was one of the commoner sights of Rocky Mountain roads -- paved and otherwise.  "Did you ever see so many gates along a road, all with 'Keep Out' signs?"

Dawn admitted she hadn't, and added, "I just saw one that said, 'No Trespassing -- Use Phone to Discuss Admittance.'  I guess they like their privacy."

"Maybe they just don't like people from California and Texas."

Dawn smiled, thinking Ivan had apparently already forgotten about her alleged home.  She toyed with the idea of making some kidding remark, when he added, "Why you go see this person, this Hermit?  Is he a wise sage sitting on top of the mountain?  You go for advice and direction?" 

Before Dawn could answer, they reached the end of the seven miles of the upper Redstone Canyon road, and found themselves in a small, gravel cul-de-sac.  Around the curve there were nothing but locked gates.  Ivan pulled up and stopped, slightly to one side.  Across the way, a small sign included the addresses further up the canyon, and included 20884.  There were no other signs that Dukas or anyone else lived in the area.  The only item of significance was that the gate was a remote controlled one, hinting at the fact that substantial residences were just beyond.  "End of road," Ivan noted.  The man really had a flair for the obvious.

Dawn shifted forward in her seat in order to take in the lay of the land.  A small house rested atop the rise to the left, but it's number was not 20884.  Dawn was actually relieved as she didn't like the look of the house at all.  It was old, badly in need of some more white paint, and totally blah.  She would not want her only viable port in a storm to live in a place so devoid of character.  As for where Doctor Dukas did reside...?

Fortunately, Fate has its own entertainment.  As Dawn looked at the black wrought iron (but otherwise simply designed) gate, it began opening.  Within seconds, a four wheel drive roared by.  (All four wheel drive vehicles are required by law to traverse all roads in Colorado in a state of roaring.)

Dawn had not the slightest hesitation.  "Quick, while the gate is still open," she ordered Ivan, "Follow that Explorer!  Or Cherokee.  Or whatever it is."

Ivan, however, did have the slightest hesitation.  "But it private gate."

Dawn leaned into the front seat.  "There's an extra fifty bucks for you if you make it!"

Ivan's ear-hand-foot coordination was excellent.  Between the words "fifty bucks" and "make it", he had shifted gears, and surged ahead.  The taxi was through the gate with ten seconds to spare.

During the dash for the inner sanctum, Dawn had obliquely marveled at the power of money.  But the sudden degradation in the road caught her attention, replacing the excitement of going where no one (but authorized personnel and guests) had gone before.  Off to the right was what might be described as a farmland junk yard: a variety of rusting implements and vehicles scattered with little consideration for land value.  The road was a set of one-way twin tracks, laced with grass, weeds, and more than a few rocks along each wheel path.  The four wheel drive vehicle had shot ahead and already rounded a bend.  Ivan, meanwhile, had quickly noted the deterioration of the driving surface and slowed down.  It had occurred to him he did not want to catch up with the other vehicle, just in case questions might be asked.

Dawn couldn't help remembering a statistic she had once saw to the effect that only 15% of so-called off-road vehicles ever leave paved highways and actually drive on gravel or rougher roads.  One could easily see why.  Life was already insufficiently smooth without looking for rough spots.  Rough roads were, in a word, un-suave.  Still fewer people, she guessed, sought out mud baths or massive snow banks to ram their four wheel drive vehicles through -- particularly snow banks since they are almost never composed of fluffy snow, but rather hard-packed ice -- effectively, a brick wall.  So much, she mused, for the hype and distortion of the advertisers of off-road vehicles!

Rounding the hill of the formerly-white house, the road entered a rocky, gravel stretch as it paralleled (and occasionally conjuncted) the stream bed.  But then as the road crossed the shallow stream at one point and was coming out the other side, Ivan suddenly hit the brakes.  Dawn was thrown forward, but was more surprised at the idea of braking than the sudden change in momentum.  When she looked to Ivan for an explanation, he pointed to a vertical sign they had almost passed.  On it was the number, "20884" and a small arrow pointing to the right.  The taxi was on the left fork.  Ivan turned to back up, smiling broadly.  Dawn smiled as well, as the taxi backed into the shallow stream, and then surged forward along the right fork.  Ivan, feeling a great deal more confident -- he had found the address and he was looking at a nice remuneration of cash -- decided on the more humorous approach.  "We on the right track now!"  He smiled broadly, checking the rear view to see if Dawn understood the pun.

She did, gave him a nice smile, but did not quite manage a laugh.  Which was just as well.  They had gone less than a hundred yards, when another, even more substantial gate loomed up before them.  On it were the clearly marked numbers "20884" and the inevitable sign, "No Trespassing -- Survivors Will Be Prosecuted to the Fullest Extent of the Law."  'Welcome home,' Dawn thought.

Ivan's response was more prosaic.  "Uh oh."

The taxi pulled up to within twenty feet of the gate and stopped.  The gate was clearly intended to enforce its no trespassing edict, at least for automobiles.  Dawn stepped out of the taxi, and standing by the driver's door, carefully studied the situation.  There was no other hint of civilization in sight; only a branch of the stream along the right, and a hill rising steeply on the left.  Ahead was a forest of trees and in the distance, more hills -- some grassy and some covered with evergreens.  Dawn decided she could climb over the gate and head out on foot.  But there was no real way to gauge how far she might have to walk.  It could be a very long walk, and it could entail a lot of climbing.  Not the best alternative.

Slowly she began to wonder if there might be a hidden camera or other communication device somewhere around, if only to announce one's presence or a means with which to "discuss admittance."  But as she glanced around, she found nothing.  But where there's a will, there's a way.

"Stay here," she told Ivan.  "I'm going to try something."

Walking forward, she came to within four feet of the gate.  There was nothing in sight that might be used for communication.  Then, thinking she might be overheard, she said aloud, "Open!"

Ivan was immediately impressed by the audacity if not the bravado of this lady.  Then as the gate began to slide open, he was more than impressed -- he was well on his way to becoming the high priest of a newly formed religion he would establish on her behalf.  Dawn, still facing away from Ivan and watching the gate slide by was almost as amazed as her newly acquired devotee.  Then she turned, her face delighted by her new found powers.  That's when she saw the red Firebird behind the taxi.

The brazen qualities of audacity, being what they are, rather demanded that one keep up the charade.  Apparently in full command of the situation, she stepped to the roadside and waved the taxi forward.  Ivan, still blissfully unaware of the red Firebird behind him (he could not take his eyes off his new found deity), surged forward to where Dawn stood.  As she jumped into the car, she ordered, "Hit it!"

Ivan obeyed instantly (his quest for monetary tips completely overshadowed by the thrill of being a favored disciple of the planet's most recently anointed goddess).  The road curved slightly to the left, then back to the right, where it crossed the smaller stream.  Dawn sat on the edge of her seat, placing herself where she could see where they were going, and at the same time, situating herself between Ivan's rearview mirror and the red Firebird following them.  The road abruptly headed up the hill, and slowly came into an area of sparser trees.  Near the top of the rise, flanked by rocky cliffs on one side, and a hillside of trees on the other, was a house Dawn was certain was the residence of the reclusive Doctor Dukas.

Dawn smiled as they drove up the improved road, for it was a very nice house.  Not by its size, or manicured landscaping.  Not even by surrounding buildings or other signs of outlandish display.  But rather by its shape.  The main portion, as Dawn would eventually see, was a seven sided regular polygon with a cupola at the peak of the roof.  It was flanked on either side by wings of equal size.  Behind, was a larger third wing, which included a three-car garage.  Coming up the hill, the front of the house boasted an almost double story of glass even though it was only a single story -- but with high ceilings and floor to ceiling glass walls.  The deck in front of the house had also been lowered some four feet to prevent any diminution of the view to the south from inside the house.  All along the right wing, was a brick wall, containing the paved area immediately outside of the garage.  The latter contained ample space for visitors to park, and Ivan took advantage of the situation, pulling over to clear the closed garage doors.

Dawn was out of the taxi, immediately.  From her perspective, it was time to plant the flag -- she was here to stay!  "Please get my luggage," she asked Ivan.  He jumped to respond to her command.  (He was still in the early stages of his initiation into her high priesthood -- only later, when the religion had matured would he become fat, lazy, power hungry and generally unmindful of anyone else's requests.)

The red Firebird, with less reason for haste, pulled up just as Ivan was carefully setting Dawn's luggage on the raised sidewalk, the one adjacent to the paved area.  Dawn noticed none of the garage doors had opened at the Firebird's approach and the car had parked on the side of the paved area opposite to where Ivan's taxi was.  That seemed strange.  The taxi had left enough room for the Firebird to easily get into any of the three garages, and it seemed unlikely the driver would leave his new car in the sun.  Perhaps, Dawn thought, 'someone didn't want to open the garage door with a stranger on the premises.'

Dawn otherwise ignored the red Firebird and turned to Ivan.  He quickly intuited her unspoken question, saying, "Thirty dollars!"  Then hastily, he added, "Each way."  He was about to add, "plus fifty," when Dawn pulled out three fifties and handed them to him.  The generosity was such he almost committed the ultimate blunder of taxi drivers the world over and ask if she needed change. 

Dawn saved him from this most grievous error.  "Keep the change," she said.  Ivan smiled the smile of recent orgasmic fulfillment.

During those spiritual moments, the driver of the red Firebird had gotten out of the car and walked over to them.  Dawn's heart fell slightly, as she had straightened and prepped herself to deal with a male -- she had always gotten along famously with members of the opposite sex.  The difficulty was that the red Firebird's driver was a woman, perhaps sixty years of age, and probably with the presence of mind that she could -- with the wave of her hand -- dismiss any younger female.

Dawn immediately decided to forge ahead and not look back.  With just the right combination of confidence and business-like authority, she announced, "I'm here for my meeting with Doctor Alexander Dukas."  It was time to bluff her way into the august doctor's presence.

Unfortunately, the old woman was not easily swayed by bravado.  With a slight smile, she replied, "No, you're not.  You don't have an appointment."

Dawn was surprised but undaunted.  Faintly insulted, she asked, "Are you his secretary?"

"No," she replied.  "But if you had an appointment, he would have opened the gate."

Dawn felt all of the wind fall out of her sails.  Dropping the facade, she became more earnest.  "It's very important I see Mr. Dukas."

"Doctor Dukas," the old woman corrected.

"Doctor Dukas," Dawn replied, accepting with grace the noting of the error of her ways.  "It is really quite important."

"I'm sure it is.  It's just that Alex Baby is not available for any skirt that happens to come along.  Even it it's a good looking babe with a mission."

Ivan, watching the exchange, decided to take advantage of the temporary lull caused by the old woman's last statement.  Thoughtfully, he asked Dawn, "You want me to wait?"

The old woman answered Ivan, while still keeping her eye on Dawn.  "No.  I don't think the lady will be staying."  It was becoming a staring match between the two women.

Dawn studied the old woman for a second, and then decided to risk it.  "I have a letter for Doctor Alexander Dukas.  It's a very important letter."

"Why didn't you mail it?  The Pony Express does make it this far nowadays, you know."

"It's not the kind of letter that one mails.  It's too important."

The old woman seemed to relent, holding out her hand.  "Oh, all right.  I'll take it." 

"No way," Dawn replied, her forceful answer making an impression, even on the old woman.

She looked at Dawn for a second, before replying.  "Who's it from?"

Dawn hesitated for a several seconds.  Ivan watched the interplay with more fascination than he had ever managed for Monday Night Football.  Then Dawn said simply, "Gilbert Lenki."

The old woman, with wrinkled face and a lifetime of experiences, abruptly changed her tone and posture.  She fairly peered into Dawn's psyche, seeing something far beyond the outward appearances.  Then she turned to Ivan.  "You can leave now.  I'll open the gates by remote."

Ivan was disappointed.  He was enjoying the show, and had rather hoped for more work from the very generous lady.  There was also the question of his next initiatory lesson in her priesthood.  He hesitated and then asked the woman, "How will you know when I'm at the gate?"

"I'll know," she answered, calmly and gently.  The old woman didn't add that the gate had a remote camera and control, but everyone seemed to now know that such was the case.

Smiling one last time at Dawn, he tipped his nonexistent hat, got into his taxi and left.  Dawn and the old woman watched him as he drove off, then both turned to go inside.  Dawn made a point of carrying the briefcase, while the old woman slung the overnight bag over her shoulder like a half-filled sack of potatoes. The two of them passed through a covered, glass enclosed porch, where a variety of flowers lightened the entry mood, a small foyer and into the main room.  The old woman politely asked her to wait, while Dawn glanced around the interior of the main living area.

The seven sided room was impressive.  Twelve foot high ceilings ran along the outer perimeter, slanted up to a center point some sixteen feet above the floor, where they were crowned by a seven sided raised cupola with glass opening on all seven sides.  Seven beams crossed each other in a lattice fashion to support the roof and create within the centermost section, the support for the cupola at the top.  The cupola had sides of some five feet each, while the beam span across the room was easily thirty or forty feet.

Within the room itself, was a formal dining table to the immediate right, a kitchen area just beyond that, a fireplace across the room, and the living area to the left.  The living room area looked out onto a view which included the other side of Horsetooth Rock (but not so you could see the "tooths").  In the center of the room, the hardwood floors yielded to a seven sided pit, furnished with cushions for sitting.  The living room furniture was comfortable and apparently designed to be moved about at whim -- and thus easy to shove aside for those moments when one wanted to dance.  The dining table was a dark wood with glass inserts on the top.  The kitchen, where the old woman had gone, was done in dark green and light oak, with an island jutting out towards the center of the room and in the direction of the "pit".  Pots and pans of the same green hung from the ceiling, providing a nice touch of warmth.

Dawn began to wander about the room, while the old woman picked up the kitchen telephone and began to talk to someone.  Crossing the space and skirting the center pit, Dawn noticed the mantle of the fireplace, where words had been carefully carved.  To herself she read, "The ornaments of a home are the guests who frequent it."  Dawn swallowed, feeling a very nice sense of welcome within the unique surroundings.  Suddenly, Doctor Alexander Dukas did not seem such an imposing figure.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the old woman, who from the kitchen, announced, "Alex baby will join you shortly."  With that, she turned and walked out a door adjacent to the kitchen, leaving Dawn alone.  For a moment, Dawn simply felt very comfortable. 

Then she began to take stock of herself and the situation.  It was not yet time to relax.  She recrossed the room, where she gathered her sparse luggage together and placed it in plain sight on the floor near the front door.  Her luggage, with the gold coins within, had taken on a lot more importance in her life than normal.  Her purse she also left there -- where she could grab it in a hurry if need be.  But the briefcase seemed to cry out to stay in her grasp.  Keeping the briefcase in one hand, she began walking around the room again, enjoying the feel of the room.

There were nice vibes, and she had gained entry quite easily.  Dawn smiled, remembering that the mere mention of Gil's name had given her a Carte Blanche credential.  Say his name, and you're ushered in, everyone suddenly taking notice of your arrival.  She was sure such hospitality would be particularly inclusive, and she thus felt free to check out the room in some detail.

As she did so, the minutes ticked by, and Dawn slowly began to wonder.  'It was not that large a house, and surely the good doctor did not have far to come.  Why such a long time?  Or had it been all that long?'  Dawn hadn't worn a watch in years, and had no clear idea of the time.  But it did seem longer than necessary.  She could actually get bored just waiting.

In response, her feet of their own accord decided to kick off her shoes.  With the hardwood floor so inviting and the small number of throw rugs scattered about leaving an open dance area, Dawn began to pivot and twirl, letting her body dance and gather all the beauty of her surroundings.  The briefcase never left her grasp, and she began to use it to help her twirl.  The feeling was ecstatic.  There are very good reasons women like to wear long dresses when they dance and spin -- it feels fantastic!  The centrifugal force on the skirt helps the spin and affords a sense of controlled pulsing.  All Dawn could think of, in that brief moment, was to dance and spin, spin and dance.  Twist one way, then the other.  Close your eyes and open your feelings to the ecstasy of pivotal flight!

As might have been expected, the Fates had not seen fit to take the day off.  In keeping with their desire for continued amusement from the antics of Dawn Riordan, the Fates quickly arranged for a large Christmas cactus to meet Dawn's slinging briefcase in a close encounter of the third kind, i.e. Contact!  The plant fairly flew across the room, scattering dirt, chunks of plant stalks, and some formerly quite beautiful flowers in all directions.  As if on cue, Alexander Dukas entered the room from the kitchen door just in time to catch the festivities in all of their glory.  With portions of the cactus coming to rest at his feet, he stopped in shocked amazement.  Looking down, he said, a sadness in his voice, "My Easter cactus."  Then looking up at Dawn, who had frozen in mid-twirl, he asked, "You don't like plants?"

For a moment, Dawn was too stunned to answer.  Not only had she been the agent in launching a thousand points of cactus plant, but she had also abruptly recognized Alexander Dukas.  His resemblance to the man in her recent dreams was uncanny!  An exact copy!  'This was too weird!' she thought.

Alex observed the stunned look on her face for several seconds.  When she appeared to have already spaced out the question, he asked again, "You don't like cactus plants?"

Dawn recovered only slightly.  "Have we ever met before?" she asked.

Alex looked surprised at the change of pace, but answered, "Not that I know of."  Then, after a brief pause, "And I think I would have remembered you."

Dawn continued to watch him, trying to reconcile his familiarity and their lack of ever having met before -- at least in the mundane world outside of dreams, visions, and pre- and post-incarnations.  Then she remembered the cactus.  "Oh.  I'm very sorry.  I'm a maladroit, and this kind of thing just sort of..."

"Yes, I know.  I just didn't fully believe the extent of it until your demonstration."

The immediate implication to Dawn was Gil must have told Alex about her.  She wondered about the extent of their personal connection (in addition to the apparent professional one), but somehow it seemed something better left to later.  Instead, she simply offered to clean up the mess.

Alex was more interested in Dawn and what her presence might entail.  "Maybe later.  Right now, we need to talk.  If you'd join me in my office..."

Dawn grabbed her purse from her luggage pile as Alex led her back through the foyer and into an office which constituted most of the upper floor of the eastern wing of the house.  The room had a slightly lower ceiling, but was still over ten feet.  It was well appointed and afforded the same view to the south.  It was, however, not as neat as the main room.  Two large arrays of bookshelves were stuffed with books, while two tables were covered with papers, books and the guts of a stereo system.  There was the suggestion of organization in the room, but only a hint.  It was very clearly a working office with only one human on the planet privy to its secret layout. 

With no reference to formality, Alex took a chair by his computer and made a gesture to a straight backed chair adjacent to his desk.  Dawn took the gesture as an invitation and sat down, carefully and precisely placing the briefcase on her lap.  With no preamble, he asked for her driver's license.  The request caught her off guard, but she obeyed after only a moment's hesitation.  Taking it from her, he quickly looked at it, and reaching behind, turned on his computer.

"Do you know the exact time of your birth?"  Alex straightened himself before the computer and began calling up a program.  Dawn watched the process, thinking the question was very strange.

But somehow it also made sense in a very twisted-logic sort of way.  "6:15 in the evening."

"Place of birth?" 

'The man won't even look at me!', she thought.  Aloud, she replied, "San Diego."

Alex was already putting the information into the computer.  "Navy brat?"

Not being one, it took her a moment to react.  San Diego was indeed a Navy town, but there was more to the city than just the august presence of the U. S. Navy.  "No," she replied curtly.

Laying her driver's license down, Alex, with one eye on the computer and the other on her, began to ask questions.  Personal questions, like the details of her relationship with her parents and if either one of them was still alive, previous marriages (when, where and why), personal preferences in career, health status, and the degree of her domesticity.  Dawn had slowly realized the man was checking her answers against what he knew of her astrology.  In his own very weird way, he was authenticating that she was who she claimed to be.  She felt his approach was a bit brusque and lacking in hospitality, but she maintained her poise, answering each question.  There was, however, a distraction brewing, and it was more disturbing to her than any lack of formal etiquette.

Dawn could easily, for example, have taken offense at the manner of his first degree inquisition.  She would have felt justified in being insulted by his lack of hospitality to a guest who had gone through so much in the last several days.  In addition, she could also have been bewildered by the abrupt appearance of a man who had already insinuated himself into her dreams.  But none of these possibilities stood a chance against the confusion and discomfort that arose from her being attracted to him.

As he continued to ask questions, she began studying him.  Physically, he was perhaps an inch or two shorter than Gil, and carried just a bit more weight, making Alex around 190 pounds.  Alex seemed to have a physical strength and stamina considerably beyond his mild mannered appearance.  His neatly trimmed beard framed a somewhat circular and youthful face -- he would never look old and gaunt as long as he retained his health.  His hair was brown, while the beard showed a clear hint of Irish red and occasional strands of experiential gray.  His eyes were...  Dawn decided to forego an analysis of his eyes -- that was a bit too risky.  She would content herself with noting Alex was clearly not some lightweight.

Then Alex stopped his computing.  He began looking at her, something obviously bothering him.  Picking up her driver's license, he took a longer look at the photo on the license.  Suddenly, it hit Dawn what his problem was.  Laughing slightly, she reached up and whipped off her blonde wig.

Alex abruptly smiled.  Then he almost laughed.  "Thank God!" he said.  "I've always mistrusted blondes.  Avoided them like the plague."

Smiling, Dawn asked, "Did I pass?"

"Oh, yes," he replied.  "It looks like you're who you say you are.  Unless of course, you're about to take off the brunette wig and reveal that you're really a redhead underneath it all."

"No," she answered, "This hair is attached."

"Great!"  Alex's response was now more relaxed.  "So.  What do you have for me?"

"For starters..." Dawn began, sweetly, "Who the hell are you!?"

The turnabout caught Alex totally unprepared.  Men are like that.  But he recovered quickly.  "Oh.  Yeah.  We haven't really been introduced, have we?  I guess I forgot."  Sheepishly, he added, "I've sometimes been accused of being arrogant.  Or just a shade insensitive."

Dawn couldn't resist mocking him.  "No," she replied, strongly emphasizing her belief that such could not possibly be the case.  Then she added, "Arrogant?  You?"

"I know," he replied, as if understanding her dilemma, "Really quite incredible."  Abruptly, he dropped the pretense.  "First of all," he began, "I'm Alexander Dukas.  My friends call me Alex."

Something made her ask, "And your middle name?"

"Actually, Alexander is my middle name.  My first name is Marcus."

"Really?  Marcus Alexander Dukas.  That's quite a name."  Dawn rather liked it.

"It has its power moments -- but it also has it karma."  Alex frowned good naturedly.

"And your initials are MAD."

Alex laughed sheepishly.  "'Fraid so."

Dawn shook her head, delighting in the moment.  "And how do you know Gil?"

"We've been friends for years.  I know quite a bit about him, a great deal of which is not common knowledge.  I know his middle name, for example:  Nash.  As for other possibilities..." 

As Alex began to search his memory for other personal facts, Dawn remembered Gil had told her his middle name only a week ago.  She had asked early on, but he had made it something of a game, turning it into a deep dark secret, making her promise never to tell anyone.  It was a promise she had ultimately made in what she had initially thought was jest.  But when the game did not end, she began to realize the knowledge of his full name had some greater significance to it.

Having gathered his thoughts and with a certain deliberation, Alex said, "I know Gilbert has a second wall safe behind his office pantry, that he uses a manual typewriter almost exclusively, deals only in cash whenever humanly possible, and..."  Alex hesitated, and then said, considerably more gentle, "has recently found himself a very talented personal secretary."

Dawn began to tear up.  She had never had doubts about Gil's approval of her, but the fact of her very private employer sharing his feelings with a friend made her feel very good.  Alex was clearly a good friend of Gil's, but Gil was very private!  His telling Alex about her was significant.

"The only thing I don't understand," Alex added, "is why Gil would send you here on a simple letter-delivering mission.  I would have expected him to show up here himself."

Dawn retained a degree of composure, but the tears began to meander down her face.  Very quietly, she said, "Gil's dead."

Alex was stunned.  "What!?"

"He died from injuries in a plane crash."

For several moments, Alex could only look at her, not comprehending her meaning.  Then, visibly shaken, he muttered, "Oh no!"  Turned away from Dawn, he looked out into the space beyond the south-facing windows.  The news had slammed into his gut like a hammer, as if the results could be disastrous.

Dawn felt the disbelief, the trauma in Alex's mind.  Gently, she explained, "The private plane went down over Idaho.  We were on our way to Lake Mach when it happened.  A helicopter from the Lake rescued us, but Gil was very badly hurt.  He survived just long enough to warn me and tell me what to do.  But then he died early yesterday morning in Seattle."

Alex was still struggling with the news.  Then his mind inserted an alternate line of thought.  "A private plane...  Was it sabotage?  Did someone sabotage the airplane?"

"I don't think so," she answered.  "But I can't be sure."

Alex then turned back at Dawn, studying her.  "Are they after you?"

Dawn swallowed.  She kept her head up, but her eyes down.  "Yes," she said very quietly.

Alex seemed to take the idea in stride.  Looking out the window again, he matter-of-factly said,  "The Patrons don't like loose strings lying about.  Very untidy."

Dawn tried to put a good face on it.  "I don't think they followed me here.  I went to a lot of trouble to divert them to Chicago.  Since then, I've used only cash.  No credit cards or anything else they could trace.  I even stayed in the YWCA last night, and rode the bus to Fort Collins."

Alex turned back to her, more appreciatively.  "Gil must have trained you well."  Then he reached over to push an intercom button.  To the intercom, he called, "Old Woman?  You there?"

"On my way," was the brief reply.

"We can come there," he added.  When there was no answer, he decided the office was as good as any other place.  Then he became very quiet until the older female arrived.  Dawn watched him, thinking the two people must have some sort of agreement to address each other in such a way -- as if their respective nicknames were terms of endearment.  But she said nothing.

When the old woman arrived, she sensed the somber mood immediately.  Alex stood up, and took her hands.  Gently, she said.  "Old Woman...  The Earl...  He's gone."

Dawn could detect almost no outward sign from the old woman.  There was the sense she was not entirely surprised, but a deep sadness nevertheless seemed to exude from her.

"I suspected," she said quietly.  "I had missed his presence."

"But you said nothing," Alex protested.

She looked up at her employer.  "It wasn't time.  A place had to be made for him.  Even though there is still something strange about it all..."

Alex seemed to relax with the answer, while Dawn could only wonder what the woman had meant.  Dawn kept looking at the old woman, until the latter turned to look back at her.  For a moment she seemed to bathe Dawn in a gentle tenderness, as if knowing the grief the younger woman was going through.

"We will grieve later," she said to Dawn.  Then, "You had a letter for Alex?"

Dawn accepted the change of venue, and opened the briefcase, still in her lap.  Her hands still trembling, the briefcase fell forward and dumped much of its contents.  Dawn uttered her standard expletive, but with frustration more than anger.  The old woman dropped to her knees to assist Dawn, while Alex sat back down.  Amazed at Dawn's ability to perform a clumsy in the midst of everything else, he said, "I always thought he was kidding."  Bleakly, he shook his head.

As Dawn and the old woman pulled it back together, Dawn retrieved the letter and handed it to Alex.  But the man was still watching her.  Brazenly, he said, "Have you ever considered..."

Dawn cut him off.  "Don't even think about psychoanalyzing me as to why I'm a maladroit!"

The rebuke was almost sufficient.  "Okay."  But then, "I do know a good therapist."

Dawn glared at him, as he at first flinched from her gaze, and then as a diversion turned to open the letter.  The old woman watched the exchange, and then looked at Alex.  To Dawn she said, "Men are so unconscious.  It's a wonder they survive."  Then she smiled.  "Are you okay?  Can I get you anything?"

Dawn could feel the old woman's nurturing posture, but deferred.  "I'm okay."

"We'll talk later," she replied.  Then she turned to Alex, as if expecting a directive.

Without looking at her, Alex responded to the old woman's unspoken question.  "She'll be staying with us.  Please make up the spare bedroom for her."

The old woman looked at Dawn, who returned her look.  Then the unconscious male picked up the signal.  Looking at each of the women in turn, he finally managed to say to Dawn, hurriedly, "I'm assuming you would want to stay with us.  You're more than welcome."

Dawn smiled and replied, "Now that I've been asked... Yes.  I'd love to."

The old woman took Dawn by the arm, ready to make her comfortable in her new digs.  Alex, concentrating on the letter, dismissed them with the casual wave of his hand (and just after they were out of sight of any gesture he might have made).  As they reentered the main room, Dawn noticed her luggage was missing.  "It's in the spare bedroom," the old woman said.  "I made it up when you arrived."

Both of them stepped around the debris from the plant disaster, and took the stairs down to the bedroom below Alex's.  There Dawn was introduced to her private bath, closet, etceteras; and when the old woman had left, the younger one began to clean up.  Obliquely, she smiled, thinking she could now wear her new dress, the one that actually looked good on her.  That thought then evolved into thinking about one of her other notable experiences of the day -- the mutual attraction she had felt between Alex and her.  That would take some getting used to!


Chapter Six -- Strength

Forward to:

Chapter Eight -- Justice Card



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