EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mystery DESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned.
CHAPTER 3: FIRST COYOTE
Quiet filled Desert House, most of its souls still slept. Frank had been awake for some time. He sat with his back against pillows propped up on the headboard. He had pulled the curtains and had the glass doors wide open to the desert morning. Wrapped in a blanket, Frank sat in the chill of the desert and watched the intruder come closer. Something the house had drawn in from the hills, a coyote with a white marking on one ear.
Frank had spotted the coyote when it climbed out of one of the gullies and paused to look over the terrain. The coyote had made its careful way through the desert moving in an arc toward the house. It seemed to have no real destination in mind, but still it moved steadily toward Ryan’s house. Now it paused at the boundary between the yard and the wild.
“You’re one careful dude,” Frank said. Taking a decisive step, the coyote crossed into Ryan’s domain. Confidently the animal walked toward the collection of human things on the grass. Probably looking for food. The animal stood, half-turned for flight, looking over the house. Then it seemed to forget the house and sniffed around the dead fire in the chimnea. It stood unmoving for most of a minute, then followed its shifting thoughts and trotted off toward the drive.
Once downstairs, Frank switched the alarm system to its daytime settings. Exiting through the kitchen, he circled the house and then the garage and studios checking the windows and doors. He stretched, and then jogged to the top of an incline that formed the beginnings of the foothills of the Chocolate Mountains and looked back over the house. It wasn’t much of a run but at least it got him started.
The day was critical to his assignment. It would give him his first look into the lives of the people at Desert House before they began to react to his presence. Frank wanted to see them as they were before they had taken up their daily roles. He had identified some of the groups among the residents. The second step would be to find out what held the groups together.
When Frank came in it was still quiet in the house. No one else was awake, or at least no one else was moving around. He decided to take the initiative and fix breakfast before the quiet disappeared. A good observer, Frank had watched Johns move around the kitchen preparing dinner and setting the table, and thought he could find everything he needed.
He entered the cool kitchen and, without switching on the lights, got to work. Frank stood, surrounded by glass-fronted, white cabinets loaded with dishes, familiarizing himself with their contents. Finally, he took down a mug from a cabinet that seemed to hold everyday things rather than what he thought of as more formal dinnerware, a cup less likely to be missed if broken. Johns had taken a frying pan from a cabinet behind the island and below the counter. So Frank began opening and closing the doors beneath the counter. He found a bin of potatoes. One cabinet held a collection of stock pots. The next was full of large skillets. Frank felt that he was getting closer to his goal. Finally, he found them: frying pans of a usable size. He chose one with an insulated handle.
Frank measured coffee into a paper-lined plastic cone filter and fitted it into the coffeemaker. He opened the glass-fronted refrigerator, selected three brown eggs from a drawer, and lined them up on the black and white speckled granite beside a package of bacon. He found tomato juice and poured himself a glass. Next he had to deal with the big Wolf stove. Frank had watched Johns clean it the night before. The stove gleamed from polishing like a new car. Red knobs ran along its front. Below them were two oven doors. Six cast iron burners and a griddle filled its broad top. Frank turned one of the red knobs. The gas lit with a soft pop. He put the frying pan on to heat. He placed four strips of bacon in and watched them cook. Then he replaced the bacon with the eggs.
He put the juice on the table along with silverware. The elaborate, wooden kitchen table had been designed from a light pine to look the way kitchen tables should have looked in some New Yorker’s idea of the rural 1900s. So much of the things wealthy people surrounded themselves with were newly manufactured duplicates for the things of a poorer America.
He heard water running somewhere in the house. A sound suddenly loud and then soft as a door opened and closed. Someone was coming downstairs with a shuffling step. He took a step back from the counter so he had a view down the hall. The soft, padding step was moving toward him through the house. Susan Yee appeared in the hall walking toward him. Her long black hair was now held by a clip at the back of her head setting off her high cheekbones and full-lipped mouth. She carried her cell phone, a thick copy of Vanity Fair, and a Franklin Day Planner. On her feet were bunny slippers.
“Is someone fixing coffee? Did you make it strong? I have to have at least three cups of strong coffee. Nobody here makes it right.”
“I make it strong. There’ll be enough.”
“You’re cooking. Nobody cooks but Johns.”
“Where did you find those?” Frank gestured toward her feet.
“You mean foot-foot and foot-foot-foot.”
“They have names.”
“There as alive as you and I. Or as I will be once I have some coffee.” Frank poured her a generous cup and put it on the table. “You shouldn’t cook. Johns really likes to cook for us. He has a love affair with that Viking. He’s going to feel very hurt that you didn’t wait for him.”
“Oh, I think he’ll cope.” Frank put his plate with the bacon and eggs across the table from Susan. He loaded up his coffee with cream and sugar, surveyed his creation, approved, and began to eat.
“Who are you, Frank? Where do you come from? How did you get into the protection business?”
“I tried boxing and that wasn’t going anywhere.”
“Did you like beating people up?”
“Yes. I liked it. I liked the training. The build up to the fight. Then, just you and the other guy in the ring.”
“Mano a mano.”
“Ever get your butt kicked, Frank?”
“A few times.” Frank took a sip of coffee. “It’s part of the learning experience.”
“Trust a guy to turn getting his ass kicked into a valuable learning experience. What did your father do?”
“Construction. And he boxed.”
“Kicking ass runs in the family.”
“Yes. He had seventy fights by the time he retired.”
“That’s a lot of fights. Is he all right? I mean he’s not like damaged or anything.”
“No, he’s doing okay.”
“Good.” She sat quietly for a while. Looking into her cup. “He must be one tough guy. It’s good you quit boxing when you were still young.”
“Well, I miss it sometimes.”
“Don’t be macho, Frank, take care of yourself.”
“I do okay.”
“You didn’t catch that guy. But don’t worry, trying is everything.”
“I feel a little like a fool for running after that car.”
“I wouldn’t go out into the desert chasing somebody. He could have shot you. Maggie thinks it was an insane thing to do.”
“Maggie’s probably right.”
“What do you think of Ryan?”
“I like him. I’ve always listened to his music. From what I’ve seen since I’ve been here he’s okay.”
“You think he’s okay?”
“Yes. Now it’s my turn. What do you do, Susan?”
“I sing, dance, model, and act. I met Ryan working on his last video. They were doing this elaborate storyline that tied together all the videos and I got to be in three of them. That was almost two years ago now.”
“What’s Ryan like?”
“Ryan is okay.”
“Do you live here?”
“And you like it here.”
“Maggie and I come out every few weeks or so, people just show up, lots of musicians and entertainment people and actors and environmentalists and politicians and everybody. We went to this party with him and met the mayor. The mayor asked me if I was famous.”
“You’re an interesting girl, Susan Yee.”
“Yes, I am.”
“How did you get started in show business?”
Susan laughed, “I’m not in show business. I just do things like videos or work as an extra or a spokesmodel. I stand by customized cars smiling, presenting the car, and showing the girls. You see . . . I started out as a princess. I had this cute tutu and this silver plastic tiara I always wore to dance class. I was so happy being a princess that I decided to stay one. You’re smiling.”
“I was picturing you in your tiara.”
Light filled the space. The intimate world vanished, a rumbling voice broke the mood.
“Who is messing up my kitchen? Someone will pay.”
“Sorry, Johns. I just couldn’t hold out. There’s some coffee left. I can offer that as a gesture of peace.”
“Coffee?” Johns took out the plastic cone, sniffed it, and dumped it in the trashcan. “Never leave coffee grounds around after they’ve served their purpose.” Then he took the top off the coffee carafe and sniffed that. “We’ll see.” He poured some into a cup and sipped at it. “Passable. As a cook you’re a good primitive.” He began cleaning up the dishes.
“I can take care of those,” said Frank.
“No, you might make a mistake and wash the omelet pan. It will eventually get over the bacon. The bacon goes in the oven here and the omelet pan is wiped out with a paper towel. You’ll learn.”
Johns took a large coffee press from a shelf and held it up.
“This is what we use for coffee. A press makes the best coffee. If you just want a lot of coffee fast, then you use the machine.” He plugged in the grinder and took a bag of coffee beans down.
“Today, Papua New Guinea.”
Frank understood that he was getting a lesson.
“We start out by grinding the coffee.” Johns poured beans in the top of the grinder and started it.
Susan leaned close to Frank and said in a stage whisper, “He’s very strict about who he lets use his kitchen.” Then, aloud to Johns, “Will you ever forgive me for those eggs benedict I made and the way I just dumped everything in the dishwasher?”
“Let’s not speak of that. At least Frank used the same pan you used for your construction. So nothing was really damaged.” The coffee went into the glass cylinder. Johns added hot water and paused with his hand on the plunger. “How are you finding things here, Frank?”
“Fine so far. You have a very tight routine here.”
“It has served Mr. Ryan well. There were times when everything was extremely loose and that did not serve anyone. You may have come just in time, Frank. This house has needed protecting for a while. Maybe you can be the one to hold things together.”
“A general feeling of uneasiness.”
“And a few things going bump in the night,” Susan added.
Johns took Frank and Susan’s coffee cups and replaced them with new full cups.
“Thank you,” said Frank.
“I’ll just put some muffins in to bake and then join you for coffee. It’ll be nice to have at least one person clearly on our side. Mr. Ryan has been through quite a bit in the last year. He deserves a rest. Maybe it’ll be fun here again. I’ve dealt with overdoses, breakdowns, thieves, singers in the middle of delirium tremens, God knows how much vomit, and mobs of freeloaders and drunks. But this last year . . . I can take care of Mr. Ryan. You handle those people out there,” he gestured toward the window.
“I’ll do my best.”
“Ryan and I are friends going way back, way back. I’ll stand by him. I spent a night walking him up and down the floor trying to keep him alive when he overdosed. I’m his friend. Maybe you’ll be his friend too.” Johns turned back to the counter and began taking down and arranging the things that would become breakfast.
“When does Ryan usually come down?”
Johns paused in his work, “He’ll be down after his Yoga and meditation. Would you like something else?”
“No I’m fine. Ryan does Yoga?”
“Rock has entered a new age.”
“Good morning.” Maggie entered. She wore jogging shorts and a top with UCLA logos. “I’m going to run before it’s too hot.” She continued through and out the door.
Frank was by the quick entrance and exit. Was she like this or was he the cause. He turned to Susan. “You don’t run?” he asked.
“I run,” said Susan. “I pulled something yesterday, so I’m taking today off.”
“Mr. Ryan said you had never been a bodyguard before, Frank,” said Johns.
“No. I haven’t been the primary. I have worked security though. In the Army and while I was getting my license.”
“You have a bodyguard license? You’re official?” asked Susan.
“I have a California Private Investigator license and firearms permit from the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services.”
“I never thought you had to have a license. Did you have to take a test?” said Susan.
“Yes, you take a test. And you need to have at least 6,000 hours working security. Do all of that and they give you your license.”
“I want to become a private investigator, Johns. When I retire from the runway, I’ll open my own dingy private eye office and get a secretary named Biff.”
“Biff?” said Frank.
“You’ve already got the gun,” said Johns.
“You have a gun?”
“Yes, Frank. I walk around packing heat. Not right now, of course.”
Ryan walked into the kitchen wearing a white and brown caftan. “Susan is the John McClane, the Trinity, the Jason Bourne of Palm Springs. Watch out for her. She is deadly.” He put a CD case on the table beside Frank.
“Damn straight I am,” said Susan. “I’m one bad motherfucker, Jack.” Susan took an exaggerated swig from her coffee cup.
“You’re so sexy when you talk tough,” said Ryan.
“I gotta get me one of those leather coats like Morpheus and some cool sunglasses. A big black leather trench coat with lots of buttons down the front. And a sword.”
“Is that because of the things that went bump in the night?” Frank asked.
“Breakfast is ready,” Johns said to Ryan, and began putting plates at the head of the table.
“Someday I’ll tell you the story of that thing that went bump in the night.”
Frank looked at the CD. The cover photo showed a group of armed men on horseback, riding fall landscape into a small town. Above the picture was the band’s name, Longriders, in period western script.
“A gift,” said Ryan. “That’s our first album, ‘Northfield.’ You can get a feel of the band from that. Doesn’t get as much airplay as it used to, but it still holds up.”
“It’s a classic,” said Johns.
“They tried to rob the bank and got shot to pieces,” said Ryan.
“The First National Bank of Northfield. September 7, 1876. Bad luck,” said Johns. “And too many Civil War veterans.”
“Yeah. That too,” said Ryan. “But that started the band. Got us out of high school gyms and fairs, and put us on the road.”
“Left the small town behind, and discovered the world,” said Johns.
“City boy.” Ryan hooked a thumb in Johns’ direction. “Out of London.”
“The center of the world, despite what New Yorkers say,” Johns countered.
Frank realized that Johns might be the key to Desert House. He seemed to be the quiet center that held everything together. The day before, Frank had begun to realize that Johns was more than just the cook and house manager. Ryan had called him the majordomo. Maybe his job was holding Ryan together. He’d have to find out Johns’ story.
ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.