Although written some time following the original story, this is considered a Prequel to By Way of Introduction, which can be found at https://www.scribd.com/document/28229437/By-Way-of-Introduction-MASTER and takes place in late May of the year 2000 – the month which saw the release of the movie, Gladiator.
In all his months there, the sheriff had never seen the Tavern so packed, and for a short time, he and the gladiator paused as they looked over the wood railing and down into crowd. The noise was nearly deafening – almost like the sound of troops prior to battle, Maximus had humorously commented – as the people laughed and talked, casual conversation somewhat impossible over the din of the music on the sound system. Although this main portion could safely accommodate one hundred persons, the way everyone milled around, Biebe could have sworn it had reached its’ maximum. He imagined when they got closer, he would see his fears were exaggerated, but right now, it was appeared nearly overwhelming.
“What do you think?” John teased. “Is that what you faced in Germania?”
“Not nearly – I don’t think they’re as hostile, but one never knows, right? I say we… give it a… shot… as I’ve heard you say.”
“Deal.” Actually he rather welcomed the multitude. It was definitely better than finding the Tavern so cavernous you could hear your voice echoing off the walls. Remember the old saying though, he chided himself. You might get what you wish for.
With his usual trained eye, John did a brief sweep as Maximus descended the steps before him.
Several couples were on the dark hardwood of the dance floor: Lachlan, Alex Ross, young Johnny — each of them entertaining some young women he could not recall having seen before. Sid was safely tucked away in a corner, seemingly enjoying himself as two scantily clad females clung to his arms, but John noticed him looking in the direction of the bar before his attention returned to the ones surrounding him. Perhaps this meant they would not have to endure another evening with the cyber-psycho making a complete annoyance of himself, but the night was still fairly early.
The sheriff also realized that the area at one end of the bar counter was nearly hidden by a small cluster of regulars and…well, he could not make them out entirely, but he figured if there was that much interest, someone new must be there too. He spotted Bud’s haircut almost immediately; heard Jeff Mitchell’s laugh; was glad to hear Cort sound as though he was enjoying himself too; even Zack Grant seemed in a good mood for once. A song was playing, one of those top 40 hits by some current boy group — N’Sync, Backstreet Boys. John was uncertain for at times the groups all sounded similar. His brothers launched into an accompaniment, but the Alaskan could just make out a few female voices joining in with them — and he stopped.
Perhaps it was a good thing he wore the sweater and turtleneck for the Tavern seemed chilly tonight, but no, that was not the cold which caused him to pause. The more John considered it, the more he realized that it felt more like…like….
Like a shock…uh…no…electricity. That’s it…electricity. The way you feel when you walk across a carpet then touch maybe a doorknob, and you get that little tingling.
He looked about, wondering what he might have handled which would have brought on the sensation, then realizing it was sort of silly to linger over something that minor, he took another step…and felt it again. This time, however, it caused him to smile, and he glanced down at his hands, having sensed the touch of soft, small fingers brushing against the palms…and the familiar mouth from his dream lightly kissing his fingertips. First the fragrance, then the voices; next the dream…now… whatever had just happened.
“John?” He shook himself, comprehending that Max had returned to the stair just below him, a concerned look on his face. “John?”
“Are you alright, my friend? I thought you were right behind me.”
Biebe reddened from embarrassment, hoping no one else had noticed the stunt. The last thing he needed was Sid joking that the good-natured lawman was going stir-crazy on them. “Yeah I’m…Sorry about that Max…I…I’m not sure what…I think I tripped or something.”
“Everything all right?”
“I’m okay Max, honest. Sorry. Let’s go.”
But even as he said those words and completed his descent of the staircase, he desired nothing more at that moment than to undergo that enigmatic experience once more. Especially when he had the feeling that both of them were being observed by nearly every eye in the place.
“This table okay?” he asked as they located a booth in what was going to be about the most quiet corner available.
“This will be fine, John, thank you. I just appreciate you devoting another of your evenings to entertain me.”
John scooted across from him, settling in, even as he attempted to shake off what he had earlier perceived. “I’ve already told you Max…it’s no problem at all. Anyway, you told me you haven’t been coming down here while I was gone.”
Max grimaced. “I came down once, but I didn’t stay as there weren’t that many people around anyway. Cort and East kept me company, then I called it an early night so I could meet them the next morning at the stables.”
“Colin said you’ve been riding quite a bit.”
The general nodded, cocking his head as he watched a bit of activity around the bar. The action drew John’s attention also, but neither could really make out what was occurring. “What in the…”
“That’s what I was trying to see. I thought someone was standing on a chair or one of the stools.” He shrugged, laughing as he did. “Knowing this place, I’m surprised somebody hasn’t been dancing on a tabletop yet. That’s probably why they were on the stool — trying to get leverage.”
“Literally or figuratively? About the table dancing?”
“Literally…But seriously Max…how’s it feel to be the object of so much attention?”
Maximus sighed as he sat back against the buttery leather of the upholstery. “You felt it too then? The way they focused on us when we entered?”
“Focused on you, Max. Focused on you. You’re Maximus Decimus Meridias — gladiator, general….”
“Savior of Rome?” he replied, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
“That too. Everyone wants to meet you, but they’re probably too in awe of you.”
“I really wish they wouldn’t be that way. You can’t imagine how uncomfortable that makes me when I think people want to treat me with the reverence reserved for Caesar.”
“Maybe because you had more honor than the bulk of the Caesars combined,” John told him in a matter-of-fact manner. “We’ve gone over the history…The emperors you never knew.”
Max nodded thoughtfully, running a hand about his bearded chin. “You’re right of course. Just because you hold the title of Caesar does not mean you are worthy of it, and when I consider some of the ones we were reading about…” He sighed. “…I never thought I’d say this, but a few nearly made Commodus pale. If I had not known him personally, they likely would have.”
John nodded, then tried to change the subject, not wanting his friend to feel uncomfortable dwelling on a past he could not change. “Honest to God though, I know you’re the reason why activity has picked up at the Nest, and really, I’m sort of glad of it. You didn’t answer my question though. How does it feel to be the object of all this attention?”
“I’m not certain. It’s not like I’ve never had attention before, but that…was of a different sort I suppose. I used to hear my men call my name; then in the arena….” He shuddered, then smiled gently at his brother. “But this…what I often sense here…it seems a mixture of both somehow.”
“You can see the admiration in their eyes — but it’s what I saw on the faces of my troops prior to battle.”
“Like they would follow you to hell and back if they needed to?”
“Somewhat. I would never expect these…fans as you call them to do that for me, and the gods know I wouldn’t want them to. That’s why I said that I feel a bit of what I did in the arena as well…if that makes any damn sense.”
“I think it does.”
“Only they aren’t screaming for blood this time — they only want to tell me how much they loved me, or loved my film, or call me…you know, they want to compare me to that athlete….”
“Michael Jordan.” The Alaskan leaned back, briefly thinking had there not been such a crowd at the bar, he should have attempted to get him and Maximus something to drink. Well, perhaps it would clear out a bit, and then he would try in a few minutes.
“Yes, Jordan…They want to compare me to him. I had a young man a week or so ago. He must have known strategics in military history; wanted to discuss not only the German campaigns, but the great Julius’ battles in Britain. We even discussed one of your modern battles…uh…Gettysburg?”
“Gettysburg, yeah. From the American Civil War. One of the bloodiest battles on record.”
John turned his head slightly, stretching his neck, and he caught sight of Bud White easing through the crowd, then returned his concentration to Max’s words. He was unsure if the cop was trying to find an empty table or booth, or heading for the dance floor, both of which seemed likely as Biebe was certain that his brother was leading someone along with him. Perhaps Bud had met someone nice, he considered. That would be a great thing. Not that Bud hadn’t met ladies before at the Nest; he was quite popular, but John was hoping he would find someone more permanent. Soulmate. Hmm…strange he would think of that again. The second time this evening.
Maximus nodded thoughtfully. “He wanted to talk to me about other military men: Wellington, Grant, Lee, McArthur, Patton, Rommel. Some of those names are only now becoming familiar to me, but when they talk on that level, I can deal with it better.”
“Than when they want to bow and kiss your ring?”
The general chuckled. “Yes, definitely better. I just want to be plain Maximus, John. I know it’s unrealistic for me to think that way…considering.”
“But I hope maybe one day it’ll happen. I’d like everyone to treat me just the way you do, and Bud, and the others.”
Biebe laughed softly. “After they bow and kiss your ring though.”
The Spaniard laughed harder himself. “John…that’s what I love about you. Your…sense of humor.”
“I try. But…I’m…you were saying you and some of the guys have been out riding?”
“Yes and having a great time of it too. There is such beautiful territory around the Nest; I’d love to see as much of it as possible, but then, we have a lifetime don’t we?”
“Yeah we do.” John wiggled a little, glancing at his hands and rubbing them together. There was that tingling again, lasting only a moment; the awareness of soft arms attempting to wrap around his broad shoulders as a sweet kiss was planted on his cheek. It was all barely perceptible, and again the word soulmate came to mind.
“You don’t ride though?”
Maximus raised an eyebrow. “Meaning….”
“Barely at all.” The two laughed. “Up where we lived I just never had much of….”
John and Maximus both looked up to see Bud’s grinning face, and the former noticed that he had been right. There was a woman standing just off to the cop’s right and behind him, as though nervous about being there, and John hoped she wasn’t scared to death. A lot of the newer arrivals were like that, but the sheriff always prayed that as time passed, they would feel more at ease.
“Hello Bud,” John greeted, only able to catch a glimpse of the woman’s simple black dress. Compared to the three of them, she seemed petite in height, but at this point he could tell little more.
“Good evening, Bud,” Maximus added.
Bud now shifted a bit so as to move the guest in front of him.
She was frightened, John thought, for she kept her head lowered, but from the angle he was seated at, he could see into her face, and for a second, his heart leaped so hard, a rush came over him nearly making him dizzy. For a time all activity stopped as she finally raised her eyes…and John held his breath, unable to speak, unwilling to move, stinging tears pushing against the backs of his own eyes as he studied her. It was her! He had never seen her face before; had not even heard her voice yet, but something tugged at his soul and announced it to him just as clearly: It’s her, John. It’s her.
The cop gently held her shoulders, and John smiled, for some reason concerned that his brother not apply too much pressure. No, she was not so fragile as to break at his touch, but the sheriff didn’t want her to feel any more tension than she likely already did. Moving her to the left so that she and John would finally face one another, obviously thinking she needed incentive in these introductions, Bud proudly proclaimed: “John…this is Et – tea – in…Etienne Stewart…We also call her Tina.”
Feeling unsteady, John slowly stood until he knew he had his footing, now seeing that she was indeed rather short — probably only a few inches more than five feet. The sleeveless black dress she wore was loose, but clung here and there — about a full bosom, near curvaceous hips; the hem ending just at her knees to reveal a pair of plump but well-turned legs, the dress, the black stockings and the matching dress shoes showing them off to an even better advantage.
Don’t scare her John. She’s trembling already. I wonder…I wonder if that was her I laughing up at the bar? He recalled a soft, musical laugh that would seem to suit her once she was at ease. She just needs to relax, buddy. Make her feel at home, John…Make this her home.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed some strands of hair back from his face in that way he had, and saw her lips inadvertently part as though she was astonished to see that action. Clearing his throat, he extended a hand. “Hello Etienne Stewart – – we also call her Tina,” he firmly told her, his blue-green eyes glowing, his widening smile visible in his words. “I’m John Biebe.” So that’s her name…Etienne Stewart. Etienne Stewart….Her Christian name’s French, but her last name is…Scottish? Irish? Scottish I think. Hmm…Tina. Tina. I like that. Nice name…I can see where you’d get Tina out of…..
He realized that a small hand was reaching for his and he noticed at once the tiny, almost slender fingers, the nails painted a pale rose color which suited her. John grasped it, quickly reminding himself that he had a powerful grip, so he was careful. That was when she spoke: a melodious, refined, soft-spoken voice, her nervousness hiding what he was certain was one normally filled with strength.
“Sheriff of Mystery, Alaska. Yes, I know. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
John stopped his exclamation of shock. She knows you, you son-of-a-bitch! She knows you and your movie! He tried to study her somewhat more. Brown eyes — with tastefully applied rosy-violet shadow and black mascara — were wide behind a pair of gold-rimmed glasses; there was a hint of blush on her cheekbones, but the blush in her face made it unnecessary. Her complexion was lovely and smooth, quite youthful, he considered, her light to medium skin tone hinting at a biracial heritage. Freckles were sprinkled beneath her eyes, along her cheeks; and her mouth — John had carefully watched as she spoke — small and full, a little chip on one of her upper teeth probably a leftover from childhood. She was full-figured, the way a lot of the women in Mystery had been, but he could see soft curves underneath that dress. There was nothing delicate about her, but he felt a desire to hold her and make her safe. But what suddenly caught his attention were the tight spirals of auburn hair that fell near her shoulders, the lighting when she turned slightly revealing a hint of gold. Just like in his dream!
He finally spoke again. “Same here, nice to meet you. So Bud’s been showing you around, eh?” He still held her hand, drawing from her warmth. Her hands were warm although they shivered, and he was surprised to feel her nearly settle into his grasp as if intending to remain that way.
“Bud’s been very nice to me tonight,” she replied, a slight quaking in her voice.
The Alaskan smiled to himself, for this was one of the first times a woman had been nervous in his presence. “Even saved me from Sid right after I arrived.”
John was trying to detect where she was from. The lower forty-eight most assuredly; but where?
Now it was Bud’s turn to speak again. “You should have seen her, John. She knew him from the very start and it barely bothered her. The two of ’em were in a Mexican standoff when I got there.”
John chuckled, and heard Tina do the same, a sound which caused his lower regions to tighten, almost aroused. That had been her laugh he had heard earlier.
The cop continued: “Hey, wait ’til you hear what she does for a living. Crime scenes.” One of John’s eyebrows raised. “She works crime scenes: photos, fingerprints, evidence collection, the whole deal.”
He would never have thought that of her. She appeared so ladylike, he might have imagined her an actress or possibly an opera singer. To hold that type of job required a certain frame of mind, and a type of steadiness and attention to detail not a lot of people had. He was well aware of the various crime scenes a person might encounter, and the idea of her going into some gruesome murder scene where a corpse had been for days or weeks only made him admire her more.
“I’ll have to hear more about that, Tina.” He suddenly realized they were still holding hands. “Uh – sorry,” he apologized, withdrawing his, although he noticed a sad smile from Tina when he did. He regretted his action immediately, wishing they could have maintained contact somewhat longer, but he had felt it rude on his part. Quickly recovering he asked, “So… this your first night with us then?” She nodded, and John saw her eyes searching his face and figure, making him wonder what she thought of him in the flesh. “I wondered. See I wasn’t in here the last couple of nights. Thought I’d missed you before now.” He would have been sick if he had, and briefly, he realized that since her arrival at the booth, he had not once thought of missing Mystery.
“No… first time,” she managed, smiling back. Biebe wanted to say so much more — to tell her how lovely she was; to talk about their careers; to see how she found the Crowe’s Nest; learn how long had she known about the Creator. And my movie…I want to know how you found out about my movie….I want to know why you’re so sad behind those pretty eyes.
That was her voice he heard in the English gardens — the enigmatic second voice.
It was Tina longing to escape, but instead finding herself running errands. It was her tears he sensed and wished to wipe away; that was Tina whom he had told, Don’t cry darlin’. But here she is. I wonder when all that happened? John wanted to take her aside and talk to her forever — okay, it was selfish on his part, but he couldn’t help it, knowing he had not felt this way about a woman since…. Since Donna…and even then…it was nothing like this. This is…different. For it was Tina he had felt in his room, during his dream!
Realizing that an awkward silence had settled between them, John said, “Well, welcome to Crowe’s Tavern then, Tina.” He loved the sound of her name on his tongue, and bowing his head slightly, he returned to his seat, their eyes still connected. Damn it John! What are you gonna do, eh? Pick her up in your arms and carry her up to your room? Tell her you two are soulmates and you’re meant to be together?! Do you even believe that stuff yourself?
Yes, yes he did believe it. He believed it now, when ten minutes ago he would have said it was a fantasy better left for a romance novel. All these months, he had listened to his Crowe’s Nest brothers speak of the possibility of a soulmate. My God, even Jeff Mitchell had hoped for such a thing. John had only laughed in his thoughts, wondering about a group of adult men, sitting around spouting about connections and soulmates and destiny. But then before his arrival in the Nest, he would never have believed such a thing. He would never have imagined his life was part of a movie. So if all that was possible…why not this?
John was just getting ready to find something more to say, when Bud suddenly took hold Tina’s shoulders and maneuvered her to her right. The eye contact was lost and he heard the cop say, “And Tina,… this is our own most recent arrival… Max, Etienne Stewart… Tina, meet General Maximus Decimas Meridias, general of the Armies of the North, commander of the Felix Cavalry Regiment, and the greatest commander ancient Rome ever produced. Did I get all that right, Max, or did I screw something up?”
Maximus had stood, and was softly chuckling. “Everything was alright, except perhaps ‘the greatest commander’ part.”
“He’s just being modest,” Bud said. “This guy’s amazing, Tina, but hey, you’ve seen the movie. You know that already, don’t you?”
John saw Tina nod, but ever since being turned to face the Spaniard, her eyes had shifted to the table and he realized how even more frightened she was now in the presence of this powerful man. Sighing, Biebe looked at his hands, again recalling what he now knew were Tina’s lips upon them. Now he wondered if he would ever know that for real. He looked back at his Roman brother, know the man was stunning to both men and women alike. Despite the teasing both had done earlier, he knew you could not help but be in awe of Maximus. Hell, even John felt that way, and he probably knew the general better than nearly anyone at the Nest.
And here you are John Michael Biebe. You’re not exactly all that stuff Bud just said about Max. You’re just a sheriff from a tiny Alaskan town, and you love hockey. I wonder if I even have more in common with her besides being in law enforcement? And being her soulmate?
“Miss Stewart?” There was Max’s voice again, attempting to penetrate her nerves and shyness. He tenderly took her right hand — the one John had just held and told her, “You needn’t be afraid…We’re all friends here.” The former gladiator raised her hand to his lips and gently kissed the back of it.
John swallowed hard. Why didn’t you think to do something like that? Because coming from me everybody would have laughed — even me! That’s Max…That’s not me.
“Is she always this timid?” he heard the general ask Bud.
“She wasn’t with me. In fact, she’s very talkative,… aren’t you, Tina? We had a great time. Hell… you just do something to them, Max….”
Boy he sure does, Biebe thought, his heart sinking even more. Momentarily he felt uncomfortable, wondering how anyone would even bother to look twice at him when Bud or Maximus were around. He wasn’t jealous of them; he honestly knew that, but again he thought back to what he had considered up in his room, with the press kit. A little movie that the Creator had felt deeply about. But still…Tina had known it! Maybe he still had a chance, if only he didn’t botch things like some silly school boy. After all, he was thirty-four-years-old…not thirteen! Be yourself and it’ll be fine.
Suddenly, after all her choking, he heard a tiny voice say, “Just…breathe.” John frowned, uncertain what she meant.
“Excuse me?” Maximus asked.
“Just…breathe,” she repeated and all three men heard her visibly exhale. Her hand was still clasped in Maximus’ but now she shook it heartily, and John saw a beautiful smile on her face. It was not the same smile she had given him though. This one was more…again awe came to mind. No, the smile she gave John — it was as if her soul was reaching out to touch his. That was why he had felt more alive than anytime in his nearly eight months in the Nest.
Then John heard her say with utter delight, “General…you don’t know what an honor it is to finally meet you!”
In that moment, John felt as if she was lost to him forever….