Jack Barley braced himself against the steady pull of deceleration. He was wedged into a middle seat in the last row of a stubby, short-hop Air Bounce, his shoulders taking up a third of the seat to either side. He took a shallow breath. A deep breath might crack his neighbors’ ribs. Glancing over the heads of the passengers in front of him, he counted twenty-one rows, with six seats per row—every seat crammed with a fellow traveler. Then he smiled. It was a wild, infectious smile. For despite his discomfort, he wasn’t complaining. On the contrary, he could hardly believe he was there.
The Air Bounce touched down with a modest jolt. The tail hatch opened and passengers streamed onto the ramp. Jack shuffled down the aisle, his six-foot, ten-inch frame bent low under the cabin ceiling. When at last he burst through the hatch, he sucked a huge lungful of thin, dry air.
He stretched and looked around. The snow-capped Rocky Mountains were silhouetted by a setting sun. The air was crisp and clear with not a cloud to be seen. The airport throbbed with activity, an Air Bounce taking off or landing every ten seconds. Jack thought they looked like grain silos that had toppled over and sprouted wings. And they jumped into the air like grasshoppers. He turned and gazed in wonder at the twenty-story steel blade of a nearby Intercontinental transport. It rose silently upward, piercing the bright blue sky, then vanished with a silvery flash.
His fellow passengers swarmed around him, rushing toward the terminal toting carry-on bags. More than a few treated him to curious sidelong glances. He shrugged it off. He was used to attracting attention. Resembling a Greek statue of Hercules, he dwarfed the people around him with improbably broad shoulders, a trim muscular waist, and massive corded thighs. He’d be positively intimidating but for a ready smile beneath a shock of straw-colored hair, and blue eyes that older women described as kind, and younger ones as dreamy. Simply and unstylishly dressed in a wheat-colored shirt, khaki pants and deck shoes, he stood out like an oak tree at a street lamp convention.
He sauntered into the terminal, pulled a battered leather suitcase from the baggage carousel, and strolled toward the exit.
A large, black-clad man followed him at a discreet distance.
Once outside, Jack hailed a taxi. The driver, a wizened old codger who looked not a day over a hundred, waved the car door open with a genial smile. The taxi was a three-wheeler with a large brown dome enclosing the passenger compartment, and a smaller one for the driver. It reminded Jack of an oversized dung beetle, but he kept the thought to himself.
“Help you with your bag, friend?” the driver asked.
“No thanks,” Jack told him. “I need the exercise.” He tossed his bag lightly on the seat and climbed in. “Please take me to The Curtis Hotel.”
“I know it well. A bit different, but comfy.”
“Sounds great. I’m looking for different.” Jack had booked the hotel sight unseen. Cousin Chloe had described the place as funky. He hoped funky included clean and not too noisy. He settled in as the taxi pulled away from the terminal.
Behind them, the man in black slid into a grey touring car and followed.
Jack dug his fingers into the taxi’s cheap upholstery and shivered. An electric surge of emotion washed over him, a profound and spine-tingling release. Free at last! He was finally off the farm, out of Arcadia, and out in the wide world. He repressed an urge to shout out loud, to embrace the whole of creation and suck the juice out of it. He vowed to remember the day: Monday, the fifth of September, 2185.
The driver peered back at him through the rearview mirror, a look of concern on his weathered face. “You all right back there, young feller?”
“I’m just a little excited,” Jack said, and slowly exhaled. “While it’s hard to believe, this is my first trip away from home.”
“Then it’s about time I’d say. What’s the occasion?”
“I’ll be representing the Portland branch of the family at my Cousin Chloe’s wedding, tomorrow night in Aspen.”
“Sounds grand,” the driver said, “and how about tonight?”
“Tonight I’m going to see Denver,” Jack said. “And believe me, I intend to make the most of it.”
Although he was twenty-six years old, he’d never been off the farm until now, and couldn’t understand why. Somehow every opportunity to travel, even as far as the next household, had been stymied by Grandma Ruth or Uncle Elmer. All his protestations had been gently but firmly deflected. He could recite their long litany of excuses word for word. They couldn’t possibly spare him, not now, not at harvest time. Or plowing time. Or branding time. He was utterly indispensable, for after all, no one was as skilled as he. Or as strong. Or as quick. And someone had to supervise the hired help. Surely Grandma Ruth couldn’t be out in the fields with the men. Uncle Elmer was too busy and old Tom Fletcher, the foreman, was slow in the head.
Jack’s hands shook just thinking about it, but he always took care to conceal his resentment. They’d raised him after his parents had died, and he was grateful for that. Uncle Elmer was like a father to him and Grandma Ruth was, well, Grandma Ruth, but she took care of him.
When Uncle Elmer handed him a ticket to the wedding, Jack thought it was a joke. His uncle had a wicked and occasionally unkind sense of humor. For years he’d promised to take Jack on a tour of the wide world, but in the end he’d always found some reason to delay the journey. Now Uncle Elmer was promising to meet him in Portland after the wedding. From there they would set out for Shanghai together. It seemed like a dream come true.
But Jack’s dreams had changed over time, and he now had plans of his own. He would honor the family at the wedding, but would not be returning to Arcadia afterward. He had no desire to hurt Uncle Elmer or Grandma Ruth, but he had a life to make for himself. He’d find a piece of land, build a house with his own hands, and live as he chose to, without the two of them controlling his every action. They’d be upset, no doubt about it, but in time they’d understand.
Jack stared intently out the window. The cabbie drove west, straight at the mountains and the setting sun. Brown prairie grass slowly yielded to suburbs, then wide streets, tall buildings, and hordes of pedestrians. Jack drank it all in. After a 30 minute ride that was by his reckoning all too short, the taxi pulled up in front of the hotel. He paid the driver and hopped out with his bag.
The lobby of The Curtis Hotel was sleek and bright, all primary colors and abstract swirls. He paused just inside the revolving doors. There had to be a reception desk somewhere, but just exactly where was not immediately obvious.
A bellhop appeared at Jack’s side. “Welcome to The Curtis Hotel,” he said. “Are you checking in?”
“Yes, please,” Jack said. “Mr. Barley, one night.”
The bellhop glanced at a tablet he was carrying, then he plucked Jack’s bag from his hand and replaced it with a card key. “Number 210. I’ll see this to your room. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“You can point me toward a cup of coffee.”
“Two blocks to the left for The Art of Joe, or one block right for Java Explosion.”
“Art or explosion?” Jack scratched his head. “Art it is, I think.” The bellhop scurried off before he could thank him. Jack spun a slow 360—this place was different indeed—then strolled out the front door into the deepening twilight.
The Art of Joe featured outdoor café seating. Jack settled down into a sling back chair, clutching a large mug of Italian Roast as he watched the people go by. He contemplated his next move. Wine, women and song—in any order—were his priorities. While there was no lack of delightful women in Arcadia, wine and song were discouraged, so he had a lot of catching up to do. If the coffee was any indication, the food would be excellent. And Chloe said the nightclubs were a world-class adrenaline high.
This happy thought was interrupted by the sudden conviction that he was being watched. He glanced up and locked his eyes on a shockingly beautiful woman. A black, skin-tight body suit accentuated her full figure. Her thick black hair framed pale, flawless skin, and her eyes were veiled by large black shades. She stood with hands on hips, giving him the once-over. On impulse, he gestured to a seat beside him. Somewhat to his surprise, she strolled over and sat down.
“May I offer you a cup of coffee?” he asked.
“Make it a latte.”
Jack had always envisioned Aphrodite as a blonde, but the dark-haired goddess sharing his table might persuade him otherwise. He gestured to the waiter and mouthed ‘latte.’ The waiter promptly delivered one. Jack plucked it off the tray and placed it on the table before his unexpected guest.
“I’m only in town for one evening and don’t know my way around,” Jack said to her. “Where would you go for fine food and great music?”
“All the restaurants in downtown Denver are excellent,” she said. “One place is as good as the next.”
Jack turned her cup until the handle pointed directly at her right hand. “Where would you go?”
She raised the cup and took a sip while she studied him through her big black shades. “Your first time in a big city?”
He sighed. “Is it that obvious?”
“Let’s just say you stand out in a crowd.”
“It’s my first time in Denver and I plan to enjoy it.” He leaned forward. “Why don’t you enjoy it with me?”
She stirred white foam with a long red fingernail. “And you’ll give me a night I’ll never forget?”
Jack held up his hands in mock surrender. “All I can promise is my very best.”
She smiled at this.
Jack’s heart skipped a beat. As he reached for his coffee, his sleeve caught a teaspoon and tumbled it off the table. He started forward but she plucked it deftly from the air and waggled it between her thumb and forefinger.
Jack blinked. “That was quick.”
“Quick can be amusing. Slow is more satisfying.”
Jack froze as he struggled for a response, something clever but not too overt.
“No witty reply?” his guest asked.
“I’m working on it,” Jack said, brow furrowed. “Preferably something poetic.”
“You don’t strike me as the poetic type, more the rugged individualist.”
“True, but what’s on my mind will sound better if it rhymes.” That earned him a chuckle.
“While you’re thinking it over,” she said, “tell me where you’re from.”
“I’m from Arcadia.”
“A farm boy?”
“A farmer,” he chided gently. “We raise organic vegetables and free range beef. I work mostly with cattle.”
“Sounds bucolic.” Was she teasing him? Teasing was a good sign.
“I like it,” he said. “I work outdoors, in beautiful surroundings. It’s quiet, peaceful, and frankly very profitable.”
“Really?” she said. “Synthetic food’s got to be cheaper.”
“People pay a premium for organic food, and Arcadia has a strong brand.”
“So you’re rich as well as handsome?”
Jack shrugged noncommittally. “I try to be good company. But enough about me. Tell me about yourself.”
She swirled the coffee slowly around in her cup. The liquid went right to the brim, but never over. “I prefer to remain mysterious.”
“Well I love a good mystery,” Jack said, animated. “And it’s getting dark and I’m famished. What say we continue this conversation over dinner?”
“And some music, perhaps.” He whispered earnestly, “Say yes.”
She leaned toward him until he could feel her hot breath on his face.
“I like you, but I have business to attend to.” She stroked his cheek with the back of her fingers. “Maybe later.”
Jack settled back in his chair and heaved a sigh. “That sounds like a no.”
She locked eyes with him, a neat trick through sunglasses. “It’s a maybe.”
“I’m staying at the Curtis Hotel,” he said.
She rose smoothly and glided off through the crowd. Jack finished his coffee and stared after her until she disappeared. Then he stretched and hoisted himself up out of his chair. At least he was wide awake, and it wasn’t the coffee.
He paid the tab and headed south. He’d promised Grandma Ruth that he’d pay his respects at the Shrine of the Mother Goddess. He wanted to do his duty and get on with his evening. Grandma led the Righteous Green Party, an ecological movement that worshiped the Earth as Supreme Being. As leader of a spiritual sect, she seemed obliged to make religion complicated. In Jack’s mind it was simple: this world was not all there was; somewhere there was a higher power, and that power warranted respect. Simple. He felt sure the Mother Goddess would forgive his impatience, if She cared one way or the other, which he privately doubted. Grandma Ruth, on the other hand, would not be so forgiving. And given that she was also President of the State of Arcadia, she had ways of finding things out. He hurried on.
The Shrine was located at Civic Center Park, near the Greek Amphitheatre. It was a modest affair, an unadorned standing stone that might have been plucked out of Stonehenge, surrounded by dwarf pines and wildflowers. It looked out of place adjacent to the classical magnificence of the amphitheater.
Family legend had it that a generation earlier, a few of the Greens had offered to burn the park to the ground if the city failed to make room for the Shrine. Jack half-believed that story. While most of the Greens were farmers who lived in simple harmony with the land, a small number of the party faithful were true believers in the worst sense of the word. Grandma Ruth once told him that it was a constant struggle to control the party extremists.
Jack meditated briefly in silence and, restored to his normal good humor, swung around the front of the amphitheater to get a better view of the architecture. What he got was a view of chaos. A bandstand was being assembled on the stage, with high scaffolding for the lights. Workmen swarmed over the construction like ants on a cow pie. Families with picnic baskets were spreading blankets, staking their claim to prime real estate for the show. Not exactly the kind of excitement he was looking for.
As he turned to go, a grating shriek made his blood run cold. He spun. The scaffolding twisted horribly and began to slowly collapse. People scattered. A small girl stood alone at the base of the bandstand. A woman screamed.
Jack sprang forward.