NOTE: This is part of the new novel I am writing. I am posting it here as a diversion for readers who may be living under shelter-in-place policies while the world waits for the coronavirus pandemic to pass. For an explanation of this project, please click here.
9:30 p.m. May 23, 2019 ~ Casa de Jesus, Coldwater, N.M.
Colleen’s eyes narrowed as she spotted the man at the bar, trying to chat up a woman with long, reddish-brown hair plaited into a thick braid. She was certain he wouldn’t remember her, but she remembered him. She’d dealt with him once before, in this same bar. The woman was leaning away from him. He was nothing to look at and even less to talk to. Texan, if she remembered correctly. He’d hassled her one evening several years earlier. She was surprised Jesus still let him come in.
Before Colleen could consider her next move, two things happened: The guy put his hand on the woman’s ass, and in her effort to get away from him, the woman turned just enough for Colleen to recognize her as the Coldwater High School principal.
Colleen was across the room and insinuating herself between them in a split-second.
“Hey, Sweetie – sorry I’m late. Traffic out of Albuquerque was hell.” She slipped her arm around the other woman’s waist and turned her shoulder to the guy, keeping him visible out of the corner of her eye. “Is this jackass bothering you?”
A series of emotions flashed across Holly’s eyes: confusion, recognition, relief, and gratitude. Colleen smiled and leaned close, pretending to kiss her cheek as she whispered, “Play along. This guy is trouble.”
“I’m glad you made it,” Holly said out loud. “I was starting to worry.”
“What’s your problem, lady?” the Texan snapped, setting down his beer.
“I’m overprotective,” Colleen said, her tone icy. “If you had a girlfriend this pretty, wouldn’t you be a bit concerned if you saw some loser putting his filthy hands on her?”
The Texan squinted. He appeared to be doing some mental calculations. “Waaaaait. So y’all are a couple? Heh. I love lesbians.”
“I’m sure you do,” Colleen said. “Love them somewhere else. You’re not welcome here.”
“I gotta pay my tab.”
“Fuck off now, and I’ll cover it when the bartender gets back.”
The guy giggled. “You’re feisty. I like that. Hey, I know – lemme buy y’all’s dinner and drinks, and then you can come back to my room and we’ll smoke some weed and have a good time, if you catch my drift. No hard feelings.”
Holly leaned forward to talk around Colleen. “She’s told you to fuck off twice, and yet, you’re still here. Why are you still talking?”
Did I just hear Dr. Kavanaugh drop a Malcolm Tucker line on this fool? Colleen stifled a grin. Britcom fans were a rare species in Coldwater.
“I’m not done with my beer.”
Colleen knocked over the bottle. “Oops. Looks like you are now.”
“You bitch!” The Texan stood up, swaying slightly.
“You’ve had a drink. You’ve sexually harassed a random stranger. You’ve been told in no uncertain terms that your behavior isn’t appreciated. You’ve worn out your welcome here. Go.” Colleen made a dismissive gesture that put her left hand in a position to block if he tried anything stupid.
“Who’s gonna make me?”
Colleen raised an eyebrow. “Sir. You are at least sixty pounds overweight, half-sloshed, and on my shit list. I’m sure you were too drunk to remember it at the time, but you came in here four years ago and pulled this same crap on me while you were trying to pump Skinny for information about his daughter. He wasn’t having any of it, and neither are we. I have a black belt and a grudge. Get. Out. Now.”
Holly laid a hand on her elbow. “He’s not worth an assault charge, Honey. I still don’t know how you talked your way out of the last one.”
Colleen took a deep breath. Nice line, ma’am. You’re quicker on your feet than I’d have expected. Aloud, she said, “You’re probably right. Where the hell did Jesus go?” To the drunk, she added, “You’re lucky my girlfriend has more restraint than I do. I suggest you leave before you piss me off enough to make me forget how much I like my job and how inconvenient it would be if my boss had to fire me for beating the hell out of you.”
“Oh, you think you can take me?” The Texan took a clumsy swing at Colleen just as Jesus emerged from the kitchen. Jesus caught the guy’s arm and twisted it behind his back.
“That’s enough,” he said. “I don’t know what they do where you’re from, but in Coldwater, we don’t hit ladies.” The drunk started to struggle, but Jesus put a little more pressure on his wrist and propelled him forward. “Out.”
“All right, all right, I’m going!” the drunk protested. “Let go of me!”
The wizened but deceptively strong Jesus, who had been breaking up fights longer than Colleen had been alive, guided him to the door and gave him a shove.
“Move fast,” Jesus said. “If you’re lucky, you’ll get out of sight before the cops show up.”
The drunk stumbled through the doorway, cussing, and staggered out into the night.
Colleen let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. “What an asshole,” she said. “Jesus, when you get a hand free, can we get a Dos Equis and another of whatever Dr. Kavanaugh is drinking over here?”
“Please — just Holly. I’m off-duty.”
Colleen grinned. “Holly. It does my heart good to see that guy get thrown out. He squicked me out so much when he was in here a couple of years back, I wound up calling Sierra to make sure he was back in his room before I left.”
“Sierra – that’s Grant Loucks’ widow? Morgan’s mother?”
Colleen nodded. “Great girl. Bought the Tumbleweed from Miss Shirley about 10 years ago and whipped it into shape. Takes care of the property and Joey, and both of them are better off for it. Damn shame about Grant.” She shot Holly a look. “You know about Morgan, I guess.”
“I know she’s Sierra’s daughter. Seems like a nice kid, but I spend so much time on my end of the building, I haven’t had a chance to talk to her much.”
“You weren’t in town when Grant died, of course, and given your position, nobody would have told you when you got here. Might have scared you off. Weird things happen around here. I hear about them, of course. You hear everything at the bank.” Jesus set a pair of bottles in front of them. Colleen took a swig of hers before continuing. “There’s a legend about the town’s name. You’ve probably heard it. But that’s not the only story. Miss Shirley – she owned the motel before Sierra – lost a baby when she was young. Whole town called her ‘La Llorona’ behind her back because she lost her mind for a couple of years and wandered out toward the mesa every night, wailing and sobbing, until one night in ’63, she just – quit. Pulled herself together, and that was that. Except it wasn’t. Not really. Word has it that even after she got hold of herself, she’d cry like that every once in a while. Did it the night her husband crashed his rig in a blizzard up in the mountains. Did it the night Nettie’s little granddaughter died of cancer. Did it the night a couple of kids got drunk and drove off the Caprock out between Cuervo and Jordan. She’d wail, and within a few hours, somebody in town would be dead.”
Holly shifted on her barstool. “Morgan isn’t related to her, is she? I thought Sierra just bought the property from her.” She took a careful sip of her beer.
Colleen ran a hand through her sleek, silver-gray bob. “She did. Here’s the thing: You get Sierra drunk enough, and she’ll tell you she saw Miss Shirley after she died, wandering out toward that mesa like she used to do after she and John lost the baby. Shirley’d been in a nursing home up by Rio Rancho for almost a year – Alzheimer’s, we heard – and Sierra and Grant were temporarily on the outs. Sierra was standing outside, drinking a cup of coffee, when she found one of Miss Shirley’s old silver-trimmed combs on the ground. She looked up and saw this figure with long, white hair, dressed just like Miss Shirley always dressed when she went wandering around at night. Shirley’s obit was in the paper the next morning.” Colleen studied Holly. “Sierra and Grant got back together shortly after that. Some little lovers’ quarrel; I don’t know the details, but Sierra said it was mostly about her getting cold feet when he proposed to her. Whatever. Anyway, they got back together, got married, and Sierra found that comb in her pocket again while she was pregnant with Morgan. Didn’t think anything of it. Baby’s born. Sierra names her after a relative – her dad, if I remember right. She thinks she saw him walking with Abuelito the night she and Grant reconciled. Says that’s what freed her up to marry him; she needed her daddy’s approval or something.” Colleen paused again. “You OK? You look kind of – stricken.”
“I’m fine. I think that guy just rattled me a little bit.” Holly shuddered.
“He was a creep,” Colleen agreed. “Anyway, Morgan used to have horrible tantrums when she was little. She’d just get hysterical over nothing. Sierra couldn’t figure it out. She and Grant took her to doctors to make sure she wasn’t colicky or whatever. Took her to child psychologists in Albuquerque. Took her to everybody they could think of who might be able to figure her out. Sierra said it was the weirdest thing – Morgan’s little face would screw up, and she’d look like she was screaming bloody murder, but she was completely silent. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. She’d go months without a peep, and then she’d start up with the hysterics again one night for no apparent reason. Eventually, they noticed Morgan had a pattern to her crying jags, just like Miss Shirley.” Colleen took another drink of her beer. “Grant accepted it easier than Sierra did. Said it matched some family legends about his grandma. Sierra wasn’t convinced. She tried to chalk it up to coincidence until about a year ago.”
“What happened a year ago?” Holly asked. Colleen eyed her carefully. She was pretty sure Holly already knew.
“Grant was murdered.”
The color drained from Holly’s face. She turned away quickly, taking a long pull from her beer. Colleen was quiet.
“That poor child,” Holly whispered almost inaudibly. Aloud, she said, “I just realized I forgot to thank you for coming to my rescue. That was some quick thinking.”
Colleen smiled. “That guy comes into town every once in a while. I don’t know why. Something work-related, I guess. He’s a real shit.”
“Well, you sounded convincing,” Holly said. “And thank you for the compliment.” She gave Colleen a shy smile. “I won’t ask if you meant it.” She looked back at her beer.
“You’re cute as hell. Why do you think that guy was hitting on you?”
“Apparently he has excellent taste in women,” Holly said. “First you, then me.”
“Betcha five bucks he tried it on Sierra, too. Unless she’s not his type.”
Holly snorted. “Sierra’s everybody’s type,” she said. “She looks like a model. I don’t understand how she ended up in Coldwater.”
“You’d have to ask her that,” Colleen said, dropping a ten on the bar and finishing her beer. “I gotta run. You sure you’re OK?”
“Yeah,” Holly said. “I’m all right. Have a good night.”
“You, too. See you around.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I kind of love parts of this chapter, and some of the dialogue serves as useful exposition, so I don’t want to remove it entirely, but parts of it feel kind of clunky. If it ends up in the final draft, it will be on the list for a major overhaul.