Disclaimer: The following story has been written with no intention of claiming ownership or solicitation, nor does the author claim the movie character(s) as his/her own. The movie character(s) have been borrowed solely out of a love of the particular movie and is not intended for any other purpose but amusement and entertainment.
Before her little blue Nissan truck slid and skipped to the bottom of the ravine, Chloe Navratil’s very last thought was not the regret that she had put off replacing the tires for another month, or the last flailing invocation of a Supreme Power to stop all time and action, nor an angry, bitter curse that she would, indeed, be very late to her destination. No.
It was: “the clouds look like dragon’s breath.”
That was all. Just admiration for the puffs of light gray trailing across a black-rimmed sea of clouds in a downward-dog to the horizon, which her trajectory seemed to follow with no resistance. And then, virulent gray pounced on her with a sharp gasp.
When she opened her eyes again, the gray still sat on her with its full weight, no sign of any dragon to breathe it away. Her chest felt like one big muscle caught on a limb, twitched in pain every time she tried to draw in air. Sharp whispering cut through it all, to her side, and she tried to turn towards it, but her head hurt too much.
“Is he coming?” was the one phrase that she could make out, while another voice shushed him in low tones. “We’ll have to move her if…”
“He’s coming, now be quiet,” said a second voice. She tried to open her mouth to speak. The gray fuzz wouldn’t let her.
“But the others, they need to know…” continued the first voice.
“It’ll happen. She’s out of danger now.”
A crow cawed. Eventually, Chloe could make out two shapes beside a small fire. She had the impression of two children, one taller than the other. The gray fuzz melted at the the snap and pop of wood in the flames. She smelled the smoke. Something about the voices…what did they remind her? When they spoke again, she realized distinct accents.
“And what of her metal beast?” asked the first, worry rounding his tone. “How will that be explained? Should she even return to it?”
“It’ll be obvious enough, don’t you think, Pippin?” replied the second, replete with the patience of a big brother.
She must have made a sound after all, because the two figures turned in sudden interest. Seconds later, they were hovering over her.
“That’s a good sign,” one of them said, cheerfully. Chloe felt his fingers brush her cheek and she tried to focus on the face – was it really true? Is that who she thought it was…?
“Fetch the bowl,” the other commanded. When it arrived, Chloe took another breath, this time to drink in the sudden herbal fragrance wafting from its rim. Basil, wintergreen…grassy vanilla? The more she breathed it in, the more complex the notes became, a perfume of green fields, sun, and earth. It lingered without fading, and Chloe began to feel a little sharper in consciousness.
“See? The athelas will do you right.” When the speaker sat back in satisfaction, Chloe found she could see his clothing – a deep black tunic with a silver tree embroidered on it. “Merry says…”
“Shhhh!” The other figure scolded, glaring at Pippin for a moment, then relenting with a sigh. “There come people who will be better able to take care of you,” Merry said to her.
“You’re…” she croaked. Even with the bolstering athelas, she spent energy saying just one word.
“…not important. Not as important as what’s to come,” Pippin replied. “Merry is all business, but do not be afeared. Let the athelas do its work.”
She didn’t even protest when they began smearing the herb treatment on her forehead and cheeks, rubbed it on the pulse points of her wrists, and left the bowl to rest at her shoulder, while they tamped out the fire. Then, they stood close together, heads bowed as they appeared to debate. Pippin returned and knelt at her head once more.
“You must not move, lass,” he whispered. “Athelas is refreshing, but it will soon bring you sleep.”
He met her gaze, his eyebrows ticking upwards in a tacit question for her understanding. She willed her head to give the slightest nod in agreement. She could smell sweet tobacco and old leather wafting from Pippin’s clothes, mingled with a thready tinge of apples and leaves.
“Look at me,” he said, and held up a round white object. A pebble? Chloe stared at it in puzzlement and then, understanding dawned.
“No…no…don’t do it…” she rasped, tried to reach for it, to take it away from him. How could she get him to see what flashed before her eyes?
Pippin’s green eyes held her gaze, all seriousness.
“I am giving it to you,” he said and pressed it into her palm, wrapped her fingers around it.
“You want me to throw it down…?” she asked, completely horrified now.
“I want you to keep it with you, until we speak again. Do not toss it away,” he told her.
She felt herself relax and they spent the next several moments staring at each other.
“Pip, he’s almost here,” Merry warned.
Chloe tried to speak again, to tell them not to leave just yet, but Pippin laid a finger over her lips. The benevolent hymn of the salve had changed. Instead of bracing, the fragrance was now morphing into a lullaby, leading her back into forgetfulness.
“Pippin, what are you doing?” she heard Merry demand and her eyes popped open again..
“Farewell, lass.” She could see Pippin’s eyes lit with mirth, but before she could ask what was so funny, he pressed his lips to hers in a firm kiss. When he rose to his feet, he added, “remember: do not be afraid and have faith. It will be as real as the pebble in your hand.”
When she knew she was alone, Chloe still felt pain, but it was far away, like drifting clouds. Her final impression before oblivion was of soft cushioned ground beneath her and carved wood braces above in the dark.
Like Rivendell, she thought, and then, nothing.
Consciousness pulled at her until she lay blinking in the full bore of sunlight as it streamed through a tall wood-framed window and warmed up the room with soft amber. A deep covered porch lay outside the window; rough-hewn columns inside led her eyes upwards to the brace of rafters above. The thick woolen blanket that covered her looked like ones imported from Mexico and sold in El Mercado in San Antonio, drawn to her chin. As consciousness continued to make her more and more aware of her surroundings, she realized she was on her back, head propped up with a cushion; at her feet, the curvature of an overstuffed leather arm of a couch. The air smelled of juniper and stone and a bit of smoke. She lay very still, taking it all in, unwilling to move.
She was told not to move…wasn’t she?
But she was on a couch, right? The more she blinked, the more the dream faded away, until it was a vague mixture of panic and confusion, resolved in comfort. This was the second time she’d opened her eyes to something strange and unexpected. Was this real? She’d been driving to see her friend, Tina Biebe, and taken an unfamiliar road…
“Oh, thank the Lord. You’re awake.”
Chloe burrowed beneath the blanket, startled by the sound of the voice, a deep voice, male. She knew instantly it wasn’t the voice from the dream. When she ventured a peep, the owner of the voice came into view. Nope, definitely not a hobbit. He was much taller, more grounded in his demeanor, with broad shoulders and the plain dress of a man who had been birthed in the country: long sleeved shirt the color of butter and blue jeans, with braces instead of a belt. He had hair past his chin but not long enough to touch his shoulders and green eyes that were both sharp and kind. He had a faint shadow of a beard and the features of his face were very well known.
Something flaky fell from her forehead and blinded her. She reached up to touch and more flaked into her palm. Athelas. It was real. Her forehead was coated in athelas.
Horrified at the thought of what she must look like, Chloe groaned and buried herself deeper under the blanket. To her dismay, she heard the man giggle.
Oh, yes, she knew exactly where she was now.
“It’s all right,” he assured her, stepping closer. “I figured you took a roll in the pasture. Wouldn’t mind findin’ out why, though,” he added. “Are you hurt, miss? Is everything all right?”
“Am I at the Point?” she asked in the closed air of her shelter.
She poked her head out again, her cheeks burning.
“Am I at the Point?”
Please say yes please say yes please say yes…
“Is that what you were aimin’ for?” he asked.
“I’m looking for my friend, Tina Biebe,” Chloe went on, unable to meet his gaze. If this man was one of the Brothers, then she was beginning to think that maybe she shouldn’t have come. It was hard to contain the sudden well-spring of response inside. Something in his voice made her want to choose his arms as a blanket instead of the scratchy, multicolored serape.
“I’m Chloe Navratil, from San Antonio,” she finally said, her throat dry. “She’s expecting me.”
“Oh yeah, she mentioned that. Gotta tell ya, wasn’t expectin’ you to show up here.” He gestured at the room they were in. “You mind tellin’ me what happened? And you never answered if you were hurt.”
“I’m fine,” she replied, feeling a little defensive at the moment. His gaze was straight and steady and all she could think about was crawling to a bathroom somewhere to wash whatever remnants the bizarre dream had left from her face. “I guess I had a wreck. The weather was nasty, but I’d promised I’d come today…yesterday. I think. And my tires slid…I slid off the road…into a ravine! I know I crashed my truck but I can’t remember anything after that…not much.”
“So you do belong to it. I found the thing upside down, just down the road.”
“It was horrible,” she concluded, feeling a sudden drain in her spirit. She wanted someone else to explain what happened, because she sure couldn’t.
“It’s a thing of wonder you found your way here, inside. I thought I’d locked the place.”
Chloe very nearly said “I apparently had help,” but kept it to herself. Athelas aside, it had to have been a hallucination of pain.
“It’s not what I was expecting either,” she replied, instead. “The way Tina described the hotel, I was expecting something more…grand.” She wanted to sit up but wasn’t quite sure if her clothes had made it through the wreck. She cleared her throat as she tried to make up her mind.
“This isn’t the hotel. Just our guest ranch. I can see you’ve been through somethin’ awful and if you need first aid…”
“I’m fine,” she repeated, after she sat up and wiggled her toes. “Apart from my dignity, I don’t think I have any issues.”
“Then…are you thirsty? I have cold water and coffee.”
“Actually, I’d like to know your name,” Chloe said.
“You haven’t…” he began, a little surprised, and then sat down on the couch opposite of hers, thoughtful. “My name. Of course. My name is Cort. Usually, I use the last name of Thompson, but that’s only for the Outside. All anyone ever says around here at the Point is Cort. Preacher Cort.”
He was right: she had not seen the movie from which this particular character hailed, but Tina had spoken of him plenty of times before, often in glowing terms. Chloe had been so focused on the prospect of meeting the Royal Navy Captain, Jack Aubrey, and Maximus that she’d not absorbed much detail about the other movies represented at the Point. The image she had made up in her mind was of a much older Creator, one a lot more subdued and meek than this young man. He practically bristled with life and humor. Apparently, Chloe mused, she also missed the part where Tina described him as gorgeous.
“Preacher Cort, I’d like some water,” she said, with a small grin. Do I have broken teeth? I hope I don’t have broken teeth!
“Water it is,” he said, cheerfully, and strode away to a door at the far end of the long hall.
That gave her some privacy, at least, to peek under the serape and find out if she’d be nominally decent. Using her right hand to lift the blanket, she found to her relief that she was fully clothed. She ran her tongue over her teeth: none missing or chipped. However, evidence of the hobbits’ herbal poultice was everywhere. Well, nothing to it now but to go retrieve her suitcase if it was still there in the truck and get a new set of clothes.
It wasn’t until she pulled out her left hand from the blank to find it still formed a fist. She turned and put both feet on the ground to steady herself and opened her palm.
In the center was the smooth white flattened round of a pebble.
“Won’t take but thirty minutes to…you sure you’re alright?” Cort asked her as he returned.
Chloe shook herself out of the reverie. The sight of the pebble had brought anew a whole range of emotions that might have had something to do with the dream. She wanted to leave it, forget it now, but something held her back. He stood over her, looked down in concern, water bottle in hand, which she took with a nod of gratitude. The chill of the bottle and the expression on his face made her feel a bit weepy for some stupid reason.
“Can you call Tina and tell her? I’m really confused,” she said after a few sips. “I’m really sorry for all this. I don’t have a good answer right now for how I got here or why I’m covered in this gunk. If I can’t get to the Point, then I’ll just go back home.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Cort replied, hastily. “Did you bring anything with you?”
“My suitcase, which is probably strewn all over kingdom come, now,” she laughed in slight bitterness.
“Give me a few and I’ll drive you to the truck. We can get what you need and I’ll take you to Tina. Just sit tight.”
While he disappeared once more, ostensibly to lock up, Chloe stood to check herself. For someone who’d seemingly been in a violent car crash, there was little to no evidence of bruising or scrapes or concussion or any other sign of trauma.
Which left her with the annoyance of the athelas crusting on her clothes and skin. And her shoes were missing. Not her socks: those were still on her feet, a greyish pair of sports socks. The jeggings and long tunic she wore weren’t high fashion by any means, but they were her most comfortable clothes. She didn’t want to know what state her hair was in. It would only make her more anxious.
The only place to put the pebble was a breast-pocket on her shirt, which she did.
To her surprise, the water gave her a boost in energy and she took a few steps to see if she was able to keep her balance. Those steps brought her to the tall window where she could get her first look at this new environment.
It was as if she hadn’t left her home in the southern stretch of the Balcones Escarpment, where the limestone hills had been carved into craggy mesas and gentle valleys. A chamfered hill or two rose up from a basin of prairie like the hunchbacks of subterranean creatures and a river wound its way nearby, its limestone filtered water glittering in the sunshine. It reminded her of several swimming holes in the Texas hill country she used to frequent on vacations.
“Truck’s just outside,” Cort said when he returned.
“Can I use the bathroom before we go? I know I must look awful!” She asked, suddenly realizing that they were going to see other people now.
In the mirror in the very large and beautifully tiled room, Chloe found that she didn’t look quite as bad as she expected: her dark curly hair looked relatively unsoiled and it took just a few passes of a wet paper towel to clear the herbal remnants away. For all intents and purposes, she looked more as if she had spent a day running around in the wild than lying in painful convalescence.
When she was done, she followed Cort through a very large and well appointed kitchen and out onto the carport.
His truck was an old green beat up Ford, with a grill that reminded her of her grandfather’s truck, and rickety well-worn leather seat that spanned the length of the cab. The roar of the engine didn’t give her much time to wonder if she was still in her dream. Cort threw the shift into gear and they were trundling down the road before she could get her seat belt on.
“That was the main guest house that we just came from,” Cort said, elevating the volume of his voice a bit over the sound of the engine. “Built it last year. Been spendin’ a lot of our time getting bunk houses ready and stables and all the other things that people are gonna want to do around here. We’re ‘bout a thousand acres of ranch land, lots of trails to explore. That river down there has some good spots for boating and fishing. We’re just about ready to open it.” He flashed her a grin that went straight to her heart. “Feels like that sales pitch is about all I say these days,” he added with a laugh.
“And your church services,” she said.
“Actually, that changes week to week,” he replied. “Only thing that stays the same is the Good Lord’s providence and love. So you’re just in time to see it all blossom.”
They rounded a bend in the road and she could see blue metal poking out of brush at the bottom of a tall limestone cliff. It wasn’t until Cort came to a halt several yards away that Chloe realized she’d been bracing herself against the door, as if to slow down the approach.
“I’m afraid it’s in bad condition,” Cort told her in apology as she climbed out of the cab.
It lay on its side like a forlorn little dragon, its front end crunched and wheels askew. The safety glass from the windshield lay scattered all around, little shards of shattered diamonds at their feet.
Chloe opened her mouth to speak and a sob escaped. She spent the next few minutes with her back toward Cort and gulped down air to keep herself from falling apart. When she heard movement, she turned back around to find that Cort had pulled out her suitcase. It looked as if it had stayed closed the whole time and not suffered a scratch.
She took her tunic and wiped her nose.
Great. Snot all over me now. Give me back the athelas.
Stupid thunderstorm. Stupid truck.
“Might could look around and see if anything else got thrown out,” Cort suggested gingerly. His expression was surprisingly accepting and sympathetic, instead of the usual discomfort men had around weepy women.
She shook her head in denial. What good would that do? She had no way of going home now and whatever was in the suitcase was all she had at the moment. But Cort started a scan on one end of the truck and she followed suit at the other end. Apart from the suitcase, there wasn’t anything she expected to find. She’d cleaned out pretty much everything a few days ago, except for…
There it was: a small white box that had been delivered to her a few evenings ago, an unexpected gift from Tina. Chloe had taken it as a sign and encouragement to toss aside doubt and try for the Point. It was standing open to reveal a necklace, a beautiful net of clay and glass beads from Africa, something that Tina knew would please her for her birthday. That, and a picture of her with husband, John Biebe, and a few of the other Brothers, had been the deciding factor.
Chloe’s plan had been to wear it once she got to the Point. She bent down to pick it up and hell erupted.
Somewhere behind her, Cort shouted, but she could not turn or respond. A dense tunnel enveloped her and pulled at the hand with the necklace until it and her arm was stretched. A detached part of her thought of black holes and event horizons – the vortex was taking her someplace she would never be able to leave – but she became too concerned with the lack of air. Her lungs screamed. She was drowning in a tube of liquid fire. The necklace popped apart and the beads were slurped into the void.
The air around her began to cavitate. She became vaguely aware of being pulled in two different directions. Would she stretch and grow thin, two-dimensional? Unexpectedly, she felt a sudden yank, and she was face down in the grass. A heavy weight lay on top of her. Air rushing back into her lungs felt nearly as painful as the deprivation.
It was Cort, his arms around her waist. A flight or fight reflex made Chloe wriggle away from him, shouting that she was fine. He let go and rolled to the side.
“I don’t mind close calls, darlin’,” he told her, breathing as if he had lost air as well, “but that’s a little too close!”
Cheeks burning, Chloe sat up.
“Did I kick you?” she asked, embarrassed as hell.
“No, no. I’m fine.” He sat up as well. “Are you all right?”
Chloe turned to see where the necklace had fallen. It was gone, but scorch marks were in the grass as if it had left a distinct swath of fire in its wake. The box had been ripped to shreds and scattered like confetti. She crawled to examine the burns more closely. Smoke still wafted from singed grass.
“What was that thing?” He pursued his line of questioning after he got to his feet and helped her up.
“I don’t know…” she stammered. “The thing was a necklace Tina sent me.”
“What happened?” He sounded as bewildered as she felt.
“I don’t know. I’m not a magician,” Chloe grumbled, then regretted her remark. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Cort replied. “Look…I grabbed you because you were….” He pulled his description up short, as if he suddenly realized how crazy it was. “I hate to sound like a fool, but you were fading. In and out. Like you were gonna get sucked into something.”
She considered that for a moment. “That’s what was happening,” she replied, which seemed to disturb him more.
“I’ve seen some weird things here at the Point, but that was, by far, the strangest.” He focused his green eyes on her in concern. “Hey, I landed on you pretty hard. Are you hurt?”
“No,” she said. “I’m just glad you’re a fast thinker.”
“Fast enough, I suppose,” Cort replied with a wry smile. “What a way to be welcomed by the Point!” He added with a laugh.
“I guess we have everything,” Chloe said as she stepped over to the wreckage. She suddenly wanted to put as much distance between herself and the remnants of the disaster as she could. Cort grabbed her by the arm before she got two steps.
“Don’t touch anything else,” he warned when she looked at him in surprise.
“What about my suitcase?”
“Well…” he pondered. “I guess it’s fine. I touched it and nothing happened.”
“That doesn’t seem to mean much,” Chloe said, darkly.
“I have a feeling it was all in that necklace,” he replied. “But we’re gonna need to tell Tina about it, at least. C’mon, daylight’s burnin’ and we have a lot to do.”
Okay Johnny…Yeah, yeah…Well, I appreciate it. I know Chloe appreciates it too…Of course I’ll tell her. As she said this, Tina Biebe smiled over at where Chloe was sitting. Okay then. I’ll see you later! Oh Johnny! Yeah, call me if anything comes up…Sure…Bye now.
Sighing, Tina’s elegantly appointed finger tapped the red button on the smartphone to end her call to the Point’s garage.
“Well, you heard my side of the conversation. Johnny, Dom, and Colin are taking their equipment out there in a little bit. They’ll retrieve your truck; get it back to the garage, and…Look, I know it’s hard to believe right now, but they’ll have it better than new. I’ve seen them take absolute piles of junk and turn them into enviable cars. You’ll see. It’s insane, but you’ve given them a great challenge. They’re going to stay at it until it’s perfect, okay?”
Seeing Tina again, plus the generous cup of chamomile tea, helped to cheer Chloe up. It seemed to have her friend’s brand of extra magic in it, relaxing and kind. As a final punctuation to a very harrowing day, news that her vehicle would be returned to a workable condition brought tears to her eyes.
“Ok, thank you,” she replied with a smile and took a long sip to hide behind the brim.
“Cort, how do you like the coffee?” Tina asked. The preacher sat in a stuffed armchair, fully at ease, sipping a brew that filled the room with plummy richness.
“Different from the last time I was here, and just as good,” he said with a genuine full smile. “It’s not a visit to your house without the coffee.”
Tina’s mood switched as she turned back to Chloe, her brown eyes filling with pain. “Hun, I don’t even know what to say. You have no idea how sorry I’m feeling right now…I mean it happens sometimes…”
“Taking a long dive off a longer cliff is what happens sometimes?” Chloe asked jokingly. She knew what Tina meant, but her natural mode of sarcasm was filling in where the shock wore off. Before her friend could reply, she went on. “Don’t feel sorry. I should have waited until the storm passed. It’s just once I’d made up my mind to come, I didn’t want to wait. I guess I also hoped it wouldn’t take me long to find the right turn-off…or the right passage way. The storm came down fast.”
“But the Point threw you into a ravine!” Tina exclaimed, sitting on the couch next to her. “I mean, it’s not like the Point to just let you get tossed into a ravine like that. This place can get weird, but I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
Chloe glanced at Cort, who nodded in silent agreement, then looked down into her tea. She hadn’t considered that maybe the Point itself might have activated a response to her coming. Remnants of what Pippin had said in her dream tried to remind her of something important, but she couldn’t think about that right now.
“Maybe it’s me, then,” she proposed with a light laugh, but the possibility made her feel cold.
Cort leaned forward at that, on the verge of saying something, when Tina said it for him.
“Maybe it’s…no, it’s not you! Get that out of your head right now!” She chided gently and shook her head. “No, something’s off.” Her crooked right index finger and thumb eased to her lips as she thought. Tina’s eyes searched the space in front of her, the way she might have done on a crime scene, as if the evidence were right in front of her or hidden away and she couldn’t see it right away. “Something’s not right, something’s not right.”
“I think so, too,” Cort intoned.
Chloe thought about the pebble in her pocket. Should she mention the strange “dream” she’d had before waking up in the guest house? Cort caught her gaze and she decided against it at the moment. Her intuition told her he saw things that most took for granted, but she couldn’t bear the thought of looking crazy in front of him. Dreams weren’t proof of sanity, pebble or no.
With the perception of many years as a crime scene technician, Tina caught the shared look and asked with trepidation, “What? What’s up?”
“We were just getting to what happened when we were collecting her things from the wreck,” Cort said.
“It was a necklace,” Chloe stammered. “You know the one you sent me a couple of weeks ago? You said you got it when you were visiting me in San Antonio and that you wanted me to have it. I had it in my back seat and I guess it got thrown out of the truck when it fell. Cort and I, we were walking around to make sure we got everything when I saw it and I bent to pick it up when it…”
Chloe faltered because Tina was shaking her head emphatically.
“You can’t have forgotten! That necklace I saw in that shop on the Riverwalk?” She pressed. “You wrote that you bought it when I wasn’t looking and wanted me to remember your visit…”
“Chloe…I…I don’t know what…Chloe, I never sent you a necklace,” Tina said, perplexed. “I mean I do have your birthday gift for you, but I was waiting until your visit to give it to you. The only thing I’ve sent you were directions on how to get here, and I did that through my email. I haven’t written a handwritten letter in…oh my God, it’s been forever.”
Now Chloe was flummoxed.
“But, it was your handwriting…” she replied. “Are you sure? You even mentioned what the little note card in the display said about it, that they were Zulu tribal beads from South Africa.”
“You’re the one with the interest in Africa. Remember how I joked with you after you told me you loved it? About me being a huge Anglophile. I barely have a clue about African anything, even with my ancestry.” Tina gave a short laugh. “I can’t tell those things from a hole in the wall. And if the note on the display card said all of that, I’d have written it down or took a picture. I don’t think I would have remembered all that information off-hand.”
Tina went quiet again, the side of her index finger rubbing against her teeth as she thought. “Look, I hate asking, especially on top of everything else, but are you sure something didn’t get mixed up? You’re sure it said it was from me?”
Chloe stood up to pace as she forced down a new surge of panic.
“Well, I’m not absolutely positive, but I can’t imagine there’s anyone else who knew what to get and when. The note was very specific.” She threw up her hands in minor defeat. “Well, so much for not looking crazy!”
“You’re not crazy,” came Cort’s comforting voice. “At least, you’re not the first one to think that way when they arrived. My brothers, included! When we have time later, I can tell you a pack-load of things that’ve happened here to make us all feel loco…”
“Lord, you got that right,” Tina added . “Makes some of my old crime scenes feel normal…The stories… Remind me, hon.” She addressed Chloe again. “Stories. Stories about the Point. We need a story night over a bonfire and wine. Wine or bourbon.”
Chloe hesitated, wondering if another shoe – or an entire closetful of them – was about to plummet onto her head. “What kind of stories?”
“Oh, just the kind so you’ll know Cort’s right. Take Dr. Nash. I need to introduce you to him ‘cause I know you haven’t seen his movie yet. He’s much better now; the Point can do wonders for people, too…even when it has a weird way of going about it. Anyway, I know you haven’t seen his movie yet, and he’s another John. John Nash, Johnny, my John, a couple of Jacks and…”
A tap on the door jamb caused everyone to give a slight jump as they jerked and looked toward the entrance. It was Tina’s loud exhalation and chuckle which made them relax.
“I was getting ready to say ‘knock, knock’ but…” The Alaskan looked at the room’s occupants, then rubbed the back of his neck as though embarrassed he had interrupted a conversation of importance. “Sorry. Did I…?”
“No, no, you’re good, you’re good.” Tina sprang to her feet and rushed to his side, giving him a quick hug. “You’re good,” she repeated a third time, as though trying to ease her nerves.
“Okay.” Deciding to let any further inquiry wait until later, John smiled at his brother and bowed his head in acknowledgement. “Cort – how’s it going?” His smile widened on seeing his wife’s friend. “Chloe! I didn’t know you were coming!” He glanced at Tina as if to silently ask Did we know she was coming?
“Hi, John!” Chloe replied. “Sorry, I didn’t give y’all any warning.”
“You caught us in time,” Cort said, wryly. “We were on the verge of telling Tina that Chloe’s necklace exploded and I had to pull her out of a vortex. Kinda like the way you have to pull me off Sid when he decides to play serpent in the Garden with the visitors.”
“Oh my God!” Tina uttered, returning to her seat.
Chloe watched the two men as Tina gave her husband a short summary of their conversation. It was very hard to not stare at either of them as the latter sat in a nearby chair, if for no other reason than to sort out whether or not the two would mirror each other. It was even harder when she realized they had very distinct mannerisms for two people that looked nearly identical. So much alike, so separate!
“The necklace was still in the box,” Chloe said to take up the story. “And when I picked it up, this vast hole opened up in the air above me and I got sucked in like a vacuum cleaner. I didn’t know how to stop it or myself and I nearly lost consciousness because all the air was taken from my lungs. If Cort hadn’t grabbed me, who knows what might have happened!”
“So the necklace? You think it did this?” John asked after several moments of absorbing the story.
Chloe paused for a nano-second to see if he was less than receptive to the idea, but his facial expression was neutral. Did she believe that idea? She wondered. But she also recalled that, like his wife, John had been in law enforcement, an occupation that always left a deep impression to seek balance and perspective upon its people. She knew both Tina and John were mentally mapping as many angles as they could on the matter.
Still it was one thing to think about, another to say it out loud.
“It seems awful coincidental,” she replied with as much certainty as she could muster. “There wasn’t anything else that could have triggered something like that…was there?” She asked of Cort. “Did I miss something?”
“I’ve been here longer than John,” he replied. “Haven’t seen anything like it.”
“It started breaking apart,” she concluded, “and when I fell back out of the vacuum, it was gone. The box was in shreds, but the necklace had disappeared. And I felt as if we’d been stretched like silly putty.”
“Silly putty…?” Cort repeated, puzzled. Apparently, he’d never heard of it.
“Oh, it’s a toy. Looks like a wad of gum, but doesn’t stick,” John replied. “Anything else?”
“No. Cort had already taken out my suitcase and there was nothing else laying about.”
John fell silent, pondering the story for several seconds before falling back into his seat, visibly baffled.
“Where is your vehicle now?” he finally asked. “More importantly: how are you?”
“Confused. This was not how I imagined arriving here.” she replied, and found herself blinking back tears again, much to her chagrin. Once more, her emotions were getting the best of her. I must be exhausted, she thought.
“It’s not too far off from the retreat,” Cort added. “You know the part of the road overshadowed by the big limestone cliff? At the bottom of that.”
John’s eyes widened considerably but said nothing.
“I mean, do I even file a report?” Chloe asked. “And what am I going to say to the insurance company?”
“I just spoke with Johnny,” Tina broke in to inform her husband. “He, Colin, and Dom are going to hook it up, bring to the garage and do their best to work their magic on it.”
“Well, if anybody can do it, it’s those three,” John agreed. “And if they take care of it, there’ll be no need to say anything to anyone.”
“Yeah, exactly…Um, Chloe, would you like me to call down to the Hotel and see if there is a room ready for you? I know you must want to unpack and relax after all this!”
“I’m sorry…,” Chloe stammered. “I mean, yes. I would love to get to a room. But my brain is still stuck on the fact that you didn’t send that necklace to me. I mean, maybe I was mistaken…but why would it do that? Why would it create a black hole and suck me in? Is that a Point thing?”
All three unanimously declared immediately: “no!”
“Somethin’s not right,” Cort conceded. “And like I told you, it has to do with that necklace, not you. Just give us a little time to figure it out and enjoy yourself here. Get settled at the hotel and a bite to eat and things look a little easier to deal with.”
“Cort and Tina are right. You should go,” John said as they all rose to their feet. “It’s good to see you again.” He reaching out to shake her hand, but then, as was his nature, he pulled her into a comforting embrace. “Sorry about all this. Not the way we like to welcome our newcomers, but we’ll probably talk with you some more about it later.”
She hugged both John and Tina in gratitude. “Thank you so much!”
“Cort, you take good care of her. Give her some real Point hospitality.”
“I can do that,” Cort asserted.
“Don’t worry, hon,” Tina told Chloe as they went out the door, her arm eased about her friend’s waist. “You’re safe and sound now.”
“I know it,” Chloe replied with a big smile.
“I’ll go ahead and call the Hotel; let Arthur know to expect you. Then we have a load of catching up to do! I can’t wait to show you around the Point! You picked a great time to visit. There’s so much going on this week, you’ll have plenty to take your mind off things.”
They rode for a mile in silence before Cort ventured to point out various spots associated with his Brothers on the way to the Hotel. The scenery had changed from the wild seascape of coastal England to a long stretch of tall trees lining the road and fences outlining vast pastures where horses and sheep were corralled. A road branched off to lead away from the main and it disappeared for a bit until she saw a tall square castle-keep rise up through the trees, which Cort classified as a reconstruction of Princeton University and its library. A turn and a dip into a valley took them into a broad open plain where large metal buildings were laid out in military fashion, some of which revealed small aircraft. As they drove past, a Cessna came gliding in to take its track along the landing strip. There were other spots Cort told her about as well, but it began to blend together and the personalities they were associated with began to have little meaning to her. The thought of getting into a hot shower and shedding the rest of her journey overrode any curiosity. It wasn’t until they passed by stables and some other outbuildings that they entered a park and she saw the majestic lines of the Hotel before her. Cort laughed softly because she sat back in her seat with visible signs of relief.
As Chloe got out of the truck, an ever-hopeful seagull from the beaches hovered with intense beady eyes for any sign of food-scraps. Cort shooed it away and then whistled. From somewhere on the other end of the parking lot, a young man stepped into view and Cort shouted for help. When he came closer with a baggage cart, she could see he was not one of the Boyz.
“My guess is everyone’s down at the Tavern,” Cort said as they trundled across the parking lot, her large overstuffed suitcase rattling on the flat stage of the cart. He pulled out a pocket watch to check the time. “Yep, right about now, they’re orderin’ the first round.”
“Always five o’clock somewhere, right?” Chloe asked with a grin.
Cort stopped for a moment and looked at her intently.
“I know you’re feelin’ pretty wretched, but would you come down to the Tavern when you get situated? My Brothers and I are always looking for a chance to cheer someone up after a rough day and it might do you some good to know you’re welcome here.”
She blushed under his gaze, not used to so much deference or good will. For the first moment since she woke up, Chloe felt as if she had, indeed, arrived at the Point.
“I’ll come down as soon as I can,” she promised.
Arthur Baskin, a much younger but serious version of “The Creator,” greeted them cheerily at the concierge’s desk and handled her check-in with business-like efficiency. Cort offered to help her take the suitcase up to the room, but the bellboy was already juggling the cart into the elevator and someone in the lobby called out to him for attention. The look he cast back at her as they parted ways made her glad the doors shut as a pleasant warmth spread through her face. Chloe often mistrusted initial feelings about a person, but this time, her imagination was already activating in ways that didn’t bode well for rationale. She sighed one long sigh, already curious about what lay ahead for her at the Point. Was she ready for any pitfalls?
She didn’t dare look at the bellboy, either, even though he did nothing to hide his own amusement.
All that was forgotten when she walked into her room.
Or rather, the foyer of her room, which had been preceded by a long walk down an open column-lined gallery overlooking the wooded portion of the hotel grounds. Glass paned doors twelve feet high marked each suite, and walking in revealed a green-house styled nave with enough room for a couple of settees and bistro tables. A second set of French-doors and paned transoms rising higher than the first set revealed an interior bedroom warmly lit with large lamps and sconces. A mahogany canopy bed was rimmed with sheer netting and there was enough seating to have a small informal party. There was even a small kitchenette. Beyond the bed was another doorway hung with drapes, hinting at a bathroom with numerous luxuries.
Fortunately, she was able to find a wad of cash to give to the bellboy and he thanked her warmly and left. Chloe sat down on the small couch to let the whole room sink in. The confusion of waking up in a strange place after such strange dreams were long since sidelined for the lush beauty of the Point. Unprompted, she remembered the pebble, and pulled it out, held it in her palm for several long moments. The more she tried to remember the exact voices, the exact words, the more the details faded away until all she knew for certain was that she needed to keep it close. Not much longer than that and she was digging out a fresh change of clothes and introducing herself to the luxuries of the bathroom.
With the athelas gone, her skin scrubbed down, and her curly hair tightening up into ringlets after the shampoo, Chloe dressed in a gauzy cotton dress and sandals, applied light makeup, and spritzed herself with body spray. Then she came to a dead halt in the doorway of her room, feeling a sudden anxiety about re-entering the unknown. What if she looked and sounded stupid? What if no one paid any attention to her? What if everyone paid attention, and it wasn’t the kind of attention she could handle? Tina had told her about the some of the wilder evenings the Boyz spent in the Tavern, and while Chloe was not averse to high spirits, she preferred knowing the people she cut loose with first.
Buck up, Chloe, she reprimanded herself, hating the social anxiety that always sandbagged her in times like this. You came all this way because you wanted to experience it all. Show some backbone!
The lobby was empty except for a replacement concierge, a woman who smiled brightly at her as she approached. Chloe then realized she wasn’t even sure where the Tavern was, so she stopped to ask and was given a map. Pausing at the hotel door, she took another deep breath: the next step of plunging into the heart of the Point was like deciding to take a dive in the Pacific Ocean. There was no telling what she would end up facing. For someone who had experienced mild social anxiety all her life, the prospect of a room full of boisterous look-alikes was a bit intimidating.
To her relief, she didn’t see anyone on the way down the path, which was a winding stone walkway lit with footlights in the growing dusk. Turning a bend in the path, Chloe stopped to make sure she was at the right place. Before her stood a three story building out of the Victorian era, looking more like an old fashioned hotel, with the first floor dominated by a brightly lit entrance way that announced the presence of the pub with painted lettering on a large picture frame window. Seating lined the outer walk and the entrance was a tall arch over an aged wooden door and stained glass shining from light within. Ornate iron railing adorned the balcony of the second floor, reminding Chloe of the beautiful buildings of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Whatever style the old-fashioned exterior held was belied by the sleek, modern decor of the interior. Somehow it all fit with the bare brick wall and dark ceiling. The bar held fewer patrons than she expected, but not so many to hide the barkeeps working away with their orders. Televisions adorned practically every wall, bright with the current sports events, and both tables and booths filled the rest, some occupied, some not.
“Don’t be shy!” one of the barkeeps called, a woman who beckoned her with a friendly smile and a wave of her hand. “We’re on the low side of the usual this evening,” she went on when Chloe chose a stool to sit. “Name’s Caroline. That’s Jeff Mitchell down at the other end. Usually you have to use texting in order to talk by now,” Caroline added with a laugh. “Things can get pretty loud around here, especially when there’s a big game.”
“You just arrive?” Caroline asked when Chloe shared her name.
“What’ll it be?”
Chloe thought for a minute. It’d been a long time since she’d hung out at a bar. The hesitation she’d felt melted into good memories of being with friends. She was up for this, after all.
“Can you make a sazerac?”
Caroline swept off to find the necessary ingredients and Jeff made his way over. Before Chloe could find a way to explain that she wasn’t familiar with his character either, he introduced himself.
“Won’t bother you with the usual chit chat of when you arrived or who you’re here to see,” he said, revealing an Australian accent. “You’ll get plenty of that in the next hour or so. Just came to say hello and we’ll meet again. I handle breakfast at the Hotel, as well, so just tell room service what you want and I’ll bring it.”
The drink had just been plopped in front of her when she felt a presence at her shoulder. It was Cort, who leant on the bar and grinned down at her. He’d changed, too, into more modern clothing, in a shade of green that made his eyes stand out even more.
“Word’s getting around there’s a new lady in town, so if you want a different place to sit, choose now,” he said to her.
“The usual?” Jeff asked of him.
“You bet. Keep the tab open.”
“Can I hide in a booth?” Chloe asked in an attempt to be playful.
“You can run, but you can’t hide,” said a voice behind her and she turned to find another incarnation sitting next to her, someone who had been ostensibly unnoticeable.
“Bud White,” said the man, turning to her with a smile and held out his hand.
“I tried,” Cort said in a mock whisper.
“Interesting choice of drinks you have there,” Bud said, after Chloe shook hands with him. His large hand wrapped around hers like a warm paw and she instantly liked him. “What’s in it?”
“Ice-cold glass lined with absinthe, sugar cube flavored with Peychaud’s bitters, then rye whiskey. A little taste of New Orleans I discovered on a trip.”
“Bitters?” Bud grimaced. “Why are you ruining perfectly good rye?”
“I’m intrigued by the use of absinthe,” Cort added. “A little dangerous, don’t you think?” He winked at her.
Oh Lord. She knew she was being teased and liked it, but how to say she was utterly inept when it came to flirting back?
“Just enough to taste,” she replied with a smile. That was all she could manage without embarrassing herself, so she took a sip. She caught Cort’s eyes as she looked over the brim.
Good stuff. Definitely could be dangerous.
“Is it alright if he joins us?” Cort asked of her as Bud slid off the stool.
“I don’t mind.”
“I got the tab,” Cort reminded her, as she went digging in her little purse.
“Tina called and said I should come and act as a buffer,” Bud told her when they slid into the booth, Cort on one side, Bud beside her.
Chloe’s eyebrows rose in surprise, but somehow that fit with her friend. Amused, she asked of Bud, “I need a buffer?”
“Just against the younger Brothers. They’ll be here once they get a chance,” Bud explained. “They love greeting the newcomers, especially when they hear you’re a friend of Tina’s.”
A waitress came by and took a new round of drinks. Chloe hesitated on a second sazerac. Her nerves would definitely need numbing, if what Bud said was true; but then again, she hated the idea of being a little too influenced by the alcohol. This is like walking fifteen tightropes at once, she thought, and ordered a sweet tea with lemon instead.
“So let’s get the prelims out of the way,” Bud went on, turning to her in his seat with a wide grin. “Who are you and where do you come from? And Tina mentioned something about a rough landing. What happened and are you alright?”
“Good Lord, Bud,” Cort joked, shaking his head. “Let her catch her breath.” Glancing at her, he smiled while pointing a thumb in his brother’s direction. “You’ve got to forgive him. He tries not to go into cop mode, but I guess it’s a hard habit to break.”
Chloe laughed softly at White’s questioning. She was definitely familiar with Bud’s story, but the thought she always had about him was how it would be cool to have him for a brother. A real brother, someone who would stand and fight for her, no matter what, because she was his sister and he’d do anything for family. Knowing his childhood made her heart ache: having to live with the horror of watching his mother get beaten brought out the maternal in her.
“You don’t have to tell him everything,” Cort interjected when she got to the part about the necklace.
She knew he meant hold off until they had more details.
“Well, I guess the part I’m the most baffled by was that I was covered in this green gunk,” she concluded, skipping over the vortex completely. Bud frowned at Cort, not pleased at being cut out, but her words distracted him. “It was this crazy poultice kind of stuff, all over my face, my arms,…”
“What? Don’t look at me. I didn’t put it on her!” Cort exclaimed when Bud looked at back at him in askance. “I thought she’d been playing with the horses or somethin’.”
“I don’t know where it came from,” she concluded. “But I was really glad to get to my hotel room.”
“I’ll bet you were!” Bud asked. “So how do you know Tina?”
“Online book club. We connected over Patrick O’Brian. She and I wrote out these long discussions and when we realized we were hogging the forum, we started emailing, then phoned each other. Found out we have a lot in common. And then she told me about…here. I didn’t believe her for a very long time.”
“So you’re not law enforcement?”
“Me? Oh no, I’m not a policeman or a crime scene tech like Tina used to be. Not anywhere near. Although, I will say, I’ve played with my share of bones.”
“Played? That sounds suspicious,” Bud teased.
“Well, I have a degree in anthropology…”
“Is that what you do for a living?”
“Actually, right now, for a living, I have a job in civil engineering, as an AutoCAD operator. AutoCAD is basically computerized drawing. If a project manager comes to me with a request for a diagram of a fitting, or the layout of a flowchart, or they create a map of pipeline in an area where a subdivision is built, I use the computer program to draw to specifications, or correct changes or mistakes. I like it because it pays good money.”
“And you call that anthropology? I thought they dug up stuff.”
“Archaeologists do. And that was what I had originally wanted to become…but actual archaeology jobs are hard to come by and I have to pay the bills in the meantime.”
“So where do bones come into this?” Cort asked.
“When I was a student, one of the things I used to do for the anthro department was clean skeletal material brought in from the digs in Belize. It was really interesting…and I guess I could have gone into criminal justice because of it, but after the forensics class I took, I decided I was too much of a chicken. With all the stories Tina told me, I decided I preferred dry bones, not the material she had to deal with.”
Eyebrows furrowed, Bud was momentarily quiet. Hitting the tabletop with the side of his fist, he excitedly asked, “Hey, Cort, don’t we have someone who drops in now and then?”
“We have a lot of someones who drop in now and then.”
Rolling his eyes, Bud said, “He knows who I mean,” to Chloe, then back to Cort, “that professor. Well, claims he’s a professor. He comes in here dressed like he belongs in the 30’s or 40’s, but then sometimes…” Bud laughed, taking another sip of his drink. “Sometimes he looks like a bum. I told the fellas that the first time I saw him dressed that way, he reminded me of Bogie in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, all unshaven; covered in an inch or two of dirt. Looked as much like a professor as Cort here.”
“Boy, you should hear the stories he tells! Sounds like something out of a Quartermain novel.”
“Allan? Allan Quartermain?” Chloe’s voice lowered to a near whisper. One reason why she and Tina had become fast friends was an enduring love of books and film, especially the old, forgotten, obscure ones that had inspired modern stories. The Victorian author, H. Rider Haggard was on her To Be Read List, albeit far down the page, but she knew enough about his books to understand Bud’s inference. It couldn’t be true…Here? Was he suggesting…?
The look on her face must have led the Los Angeles cop to believe she didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I threw that name out there and…they’re the stories I grew up on – Allan Quartermain, Tarzan, John Carter, Red Ryder, Superman, Flash Gordon. Do you even know who Allan…?”
“Oh yes, yes, I know who Allan Quartermain is,” she managed to calmly reply, even though her heart was beating fast.
“Well, yeah, he comes in here to have a drink now and then and tells us these stories and they’re real whoppers. I don’t even think Haggard or Burroughs could dream up the stuff he tells us.”
Chloe framed her face with her hands, torn. How much of this was teasing and how much was the truth? Only one way to find out…
“Describe him,” she commanded.
Taken a little off-guard, Bud asked, “what?”
“How tall is he? What color are his eyes? Does he have a scar on his face?”
“Um…tall, I guess. Blue? Green? Brown? And yeah, a scar, right here,” Bud replied, pointing to a spot on his chin. “Said he got it fighting, but after seeing him drive, I have my doubts…”
“You said he looked like he came out of the 30s or 40s…so he wears a fedora?”
“Yes. All the time. Won’t let anyone touch it.”
“Leather jacket? Always carries a whip and a pistol?”
“Sometimes…look hon, I thought you said you weren’t in law enforcement? You’re asking questions like a cop!”
“Archaeologists have to ask the same kind of questions!”
“Goes by some state name,” Cort broke in. His expression said he knew the identity as well, but he wasn’t going to say. He was enjoying Chloe’s interrogation.
“Yeah, he does…Indy five hundred!” Bud exclaimed with a snap of his fingers.
“No, you fool,” Cort laughed.
Chloe laid her head on her arms for the moment, to catch her breath and quell the excitement. She’d have to see him to believe. Like the Point….
“You okay, hon?” Bud asked.
“Indiana Jones. You’re telling me Indiana Jones comes to the Point?” She said as she sat back up. Why was she so surprised? Practically every character Russell played was in this one utopian place, and she was astonished about a fictional archaeologist…?
“I heard it was Henry Jones, Junior,” Cort supplied.
“Don’t call him Junior,” Chloe quipped. “Big mistake.”
“Never been to San Antonio,” Bud said, reasserting his position as inquisitor. “In fact, never been to Texas. Were you born there?”
“Yes, actually born and raised much of my life in Houston. I chose to work in San Antonio because I like living in that part of Texas. Plus lots of relatives in that area,” Chloe replied. She wondered if the men caught the slight hesitation in her voice: relatives who basically ignored her presence is what she wanted to add, but that was a tale for another day.
A cheer went up as someone new entered the bar.
“Oh, Jack’s here,” Cort said, who was facing the doorway.
Chloe held her breath as Cort and Bud waved him over. Jack! It’s Jack! Jack Aubrey! Omigodomigodomigod…what do I do?! What do I say?!
Whatever she was expecting, it was NOT the Captain in bluejeans and white button shirt with long sleeves. No sign of the gold epaulets, no black neckerchief, no weskit and knee breeches with high boots, no Nelson hat athwartship. Even so, his carriage made even those simple items look elegant and commanding, and he still wore his gold hair in a queue with a long black ribbon. What was more, he was carrying his violin.
He stopped at their table and looked down at them with happiness.
“You gonna play for us tonight?” Cort asked.
“Indeed, I am,” said the Captain in his deep voice. “I have had the opportunity to plumb the depths of the musical library, and I chose a few to practice. I may even become persuaded to perform at these upcoming festivities, if I break a leg. But, good sirs, not one word more before introductions. You have a lady present,” said Jack, turning his bright eyes towards her.
Chloe thought she was going to melt on the spot, while Cort did the honors.
“Jack, this is Chloe Nav…what is your last name again? Navratil. Of San Antonio, Texas. She arrived this morning.”
“Captain John Aubrey, of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, at your service,” Jack replied, making a short, courteous bow. “A pleasure to meet you.”
What her insides wanted to do was laugh like a chipmunk and faint, but Chloe squelched that and stuck out her hand, “the pleasure is all mine!”
Jack did what any proper gentleman of the Regency era would and bent to kiss the top of her fingers. With that, she couldn’t do anything more than beam. Chloe caught Bud chuckling, but he stopped when he saw something in Cort’s expression. The preacher was too quick in covering it up, so Chloe couldn’t ask what happened.
“Do you have time for a bottle of port, Jack?” He asked when Jack bowed once more, excused himself, and strode toward a hallway at the back of the room.
“Bring it to the dance hall,” the captain called out.
The only proper response to that was to slide out of the booth and oblige.