Great stories about good people caught in difficult situations.

Chapter Four Hundred and Ninety-five: Step forward


Monday morning — 6 a.m.

Paris, France

“Sissy,” Claire Martins said. She came into Sissy’s room. “Sissy.”

Sissy felt like she hadn’t slept a wink. Her mind worked overtime in a spiral of panic which led to despair. She should have gone home with Ivan or better yet, with Sandy.

Who did she think that she was? Every passing moment took Ivan away from her and left her alone in this strange country and strange house.

Sissy was lonely and terrified.

The dark ceiling gave her no answers, so she tossed and turned. Giovanni didn’t come in to help her as he did in New York. Giovanni had gone home with Ivan.

Sissy was here and home was a long way away.

“Sissy?” Claire asked and turned on the light.

“What is it?” Sissy sat up like a shot.

“It’s okay,” Claire said in accented English. “Nothing is wrong. You need to get up for school.”

“Oh,” Sissy looked at the clock. “Classes start at eight.”

“You must be there at seven for stretching,” Claire said. “They were to pick you up and bring you to school.”

“They?” Sissy asked.

“A female teacher — I do not know her name — and her assistant,” Claire said. “They were excited so they are waiting downstairs.”

“Oh no!” Sissy said. “I am already late?”

Sissy jumped up and started throwing on clothing.

“No,” Claire said. “Stop.”

Sissy stopped in place.

“They are early,” Claire said. “You do yourself no favors by hurrying. This is a little game played by every Parisian. Don’t let it shake you. Take your time. They can wait.”

“But it puts you out!” Sissy said as she pulled over a sweatshirt.

“No,” Claire said. “We get up early. I have already met with a client for a dress fitting.”

Sissy gawked at Claire.

“The early morning is the most private time,” Claire said. “My husband and I nap in the afternoon when the children are at school.”

Sissy nodded. She jammed her feet into her snow boots.

“You were going to tell me your rules,” Sissy said as she tried to brush her tangled hair.

Claire took the brush from Sissy and started working through the dance party induced knots. Sissy sat down at the chair in front of the mirrored table.

“They are easy,” Claire said. “We believe in self responsibility. You ask for what you need, as much as you need or as little, and we will care for you. Don’t expect us to know what you need or hover around trying to guess. My husband and I have way too much to do to live like that. Please call if you’re going to be late.”

“I don’t have a…” Sissy started.

Claire pointed to the phone on the table.

“Your secure phone was here when you got home, but you were so exhausted we didn’t tell you,” Claire said.

Sissy picked it up and saw that it was the exact model Sandy had bought for her. Sissy nodded.

“You will get a replacement once a month,” Claire said.

“Once a month, wow,” Sissy said.

“Sometimes sooner,” Claire said. “Dinner is at seven. Try to make it no matter what. You will see a lot of people at our dinner table. It is a place of much joy, but must not be spoken about.”

“I have spent time at Alex’s house,” Sissy said. “They say, ‘Enjoy much, speak little.’”

“Exactly,” Claire said. “Now…”

Claire put a band around Sissy’s long blonde hair.

“You will have to speak French today,” Claire said in French.

Sissy nodded.

“If you get stuck, just call me and I will come right away,” Claire said. “I am in your phone under ‘Claire.’ But do not worry. The school has agreed to give you a week to see if they need to get you into French classes.”

“And they are here at six in the morning,” Sissy said.

“Yes, well…” Claire looked at Sissy through the mirror. “You are famous. Everyone is excited to meet you. It takes a lot of patience to be famous. You will do fine if you take your time.”

Sissy got up from the chair and Claire hugged her.

“One last thing,” Claire said. “My son is in Paris this week. He will pick you up from school every afternoon. It will help you to be seen with him, so plan on stopping for une café after school with him. Let the world think that you are his friend and guess that maybe you are his lover.”

“What about Amelia?” Sissy asked about Frederec’s girlfriend, Amelia Hutchins.

“It was her idea,” Claire said. “You will gain some social status through him. You may not need it, but you may. And Frederec is always willing to drink coffee with beautiful women. He will show you around the city after school so you can get your bearings. Ivan thought it was a good idea too.”

Sissy swallowed hard and nodded.

“Are you ready for this?” Claire asked.

Sissy vigorously shook her head. Claire kissed her cheek.

“We will be here if you need us,” Claire said. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. You will not live this day again. Go. Enjoy it. Drink deeply in all of the panic — the excitement of the new, the sorrow for the old — and most of all, the sheer joy of living your life. You will remember today the rest of your life. You may as well, just enjoy what happens.”

Sissy hugged Claire tight.

“Come now,” Claire said. “Let’s have some café. Benjamin has made your morning shake. He has it downstairs. You will meet your new friends, have some café and your shake, then leave for school.”

Claire turned to leave. For a moment, Sissy felt panic course through her.

“Sissy?” Claire asked.

Claire turned and held out her hand. Sissy took Claire’s hand and walked forward to her future at the best ballet school in the world.


Monday morning — 5 a.m.

New York City, New York

After dropping Nadia off at the hospital, Ivan left Giovanni at the apartment before stopping by the school. He sat in the cab for a long moment before heading inside.

He’d come to this school with Sissy. Everything that had happened at this school had Sissy in the center of it. In this moment, he wasn’t sure how to go on.

“Hey,” the cab driver said. “I don’t have all day.”

“Sorry,” Ivan muttered.

He paid for the cab and got out. Taking a breath, he let himself into the school. He reviewed the messages in his box and left a message for the staff that he’d given the Esprit de Corps men the day off. He and his students would return to the school tomorrow after a day of rest today.

He was just leaving when the secretary arrived to open the office. She didn’t like Russians so always treated him with steely distrust. He nodded to her, told her of the status of the Esprit de Corps men, and crept out of the building.

He was in a cab heading home before he took a full breath.

This would be his life for now — possibly forever. It was tolerable, not too bad, but the sheer joy of every moment had faded the moment the plane had left the Paris airspace. The cab arrived at his building. Rather than linger, Ivan paid the driver and got out. He swallowed hard, nodded to Nadia’s mother’s boyfriend, and went up to his floor.

The elevator doors opened to the odd little hallway that held the door to his flat. When he’d first lived here, the elevator opened to the flat. No door. Just the flat. Nadia had insisted on this weird wall and door after she’d developed the entire building.

She’d insisted on the door and then moved in. Ivan snorted a laugh and unlocked the door.

He loved that moment of stepping into the suite. He stepped into the space, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and sighed. He’d never noticed that he’d had this little ritual until Sissy pointed it out.

Just another moment made better by Sissy Delgado.

“We need to talk,” a man said in Moscow Russian.

Ivan opened his eyes to find the man they called “Otis” standing in front of him.

“It can wait,” Ivan said.

“No,” Otis said. “It cannot.”

“Giovanni?” Ivan asked.

In the horrible past, Giovanni would have been killed simply for being there when Otis arrived.

“I sent him to bed,” Otis said. Reading Ivan’s relief, the man laughed. “What? You think I am still a brute?”

Ivan grinned in response which caused Otis to laugh.

“Espresso?” Ivan asked.

“Of course,” Otis said.

The men walked into the kitchen together.


The previous day

Sunday morning — 7:12 a.m.

Leadville, Colorado

Delphie woke up with a start. The room was dark, but she could sense that the sun had already risen. She always got up before the dawn to listen to the day before it happened. For the first time since her aneurism, she’d slept long past the dawn. She felt Sam in the room.

“Where are we?” Delphie asked.

“Leadville,” Sam said. “We came up here last night. Do you remember?”

“I was having the most intense dream,” Delphie said.

She closed her eyes to capture the dream again. When she opened her eyes, it was clear that hours had passed.

“What happened?” Delphie asked.

“You slept,” Sam said. “You woke up about seven and said something about an intense dream?”

Delphie nodded. Sam sat on the side of the bed and gave her a glass of water. She drank it down. He refilled her glass from a pitcher on the table and she drank that down.

“So thirsty,” Delphie said.

“Jake said that you would be,” Sam said.

“Jake,” Delphie said, sitting up in bed. “Leadville. We’re here to … “

Sam nodded.

“Jacob told me that you’d sleep in,” Sam said. “He took Yvonne and Abi to the Marlowe Mine to check things out and so that Yvonne could practice whatever fairy skills she might have.”

“Good idea,” Delphie said.

“Jacob said that you came to him in a dream and told him to do it,” Sam said.

“I must have wandered last night,” Delphie said.

“That’s what he said,” Sam said. He leaned over and kissed Delphie’s cheek. “Would you like to tell me about it?”

Delphie looked at Sam for a long moment before smiling.

“Let’s have breakfast,” Delphie said. “I can smell something …”

“Maresol is making brunch,” Sam said.

“And Dionne is making her sweet potatoes,” Delphie said. “I have the best friends.”

“Yes, you do,” Sam said.

“What is the plan today?” Delphie asked.

“Jake said that you told him that we are safest to approach the Fire of Hell at night,” Sam said. “Abi said it didn’t matter to her, so we are planning on going tonight. Why don’t you get ready? Jake said no showers. For any of us.”

“Makes sense,” Delphie said.

Delphie kissed Sam and got up to use the little bathroom in their room. When she came out, there was a mug of green tea steaming on her bedside table and Sam was gone. Delphie stood for a moment, in the middle of the room.

“It’s time,” the ghost of Celia Marlowe appeared in front of Delphie to say.

“Yes,” Delphie said.

“Dress in jeans,” Celia said. “You want to be ready when Jake gets back.”

Delphie grinned at the apparition of her best friend. She dressed quickly in clothing she almost never wore — blue jeans, a T-shirt, and a sweatshirt that said: “Sub Specie Aeternitatis.”

“Delphie?” Maresol called in a singsong voice from downstairs.

“Coming!” Delphie said.

She grabbed her outdoors jacket and left the room.


Sunday morning — 7:12 a.m.

Leadville, Colorado

“Have you been here before?” Abi asked. She leaned forward to the front seat. “This mine? It’s a place you’ve been?”

They were driving to the Marlowe Mine. Jacob had just turned onto the highway out of Leadville. Outside their windows, they were surrounded with the shocking beauty of stark cliffs carved by a river and the tall evergreen trees that clung to the mountain. Yvonne was turned looking out of the passenger window.

“Do you know something that I should know?” Jacob asked from the driver’s seat of Sam’s SUV.

“I would not be so impertinent to believe that I know what you know,” Abi said, mildly.

Jacob looked at her in the rearview mirror. She shrugged.

“I’m not sure,” Jacob said. “I think I came here as a child.”

“It has the feeling of an ancestral memory,” Abi said.

Sitting next to him in the passenger seat, Yvonne nodded.

“I’m not sure I know what an ‘ancestral memory’ might be,” Jacob said.

“You do,” Abi said. “You just don’t believe in it.”

Jacob opened his mouth to speak but Abi continued.

“That’s okay,” Abi said. “Tell me about this place. Start with your family stories about it.”

“Family stories?” Jacob asked.

“Surely your mother spoke of it,” Abi said.

“She told me that her great-grandfather’s brother was a miner,” Jacob said. “He was prospecting in these mountains. He kept everything a secret until one day, he climbed out of the mountains with a sack of gold.”

“Let me guess, he wouldn’t tell anyone where the gold came from, just that he found it in a mine,” Abi said.

“He had a few mine claims — ten or twelve, I think.” Jacob nodded. “I inherited them.”

“Did he drink himself to death that night?” Abi asked.

“Drink, drug, and sex,” Jacob said. “Mom used to say ‘If not for whiskey, laudanum, and cheap whores, we’d be millionaires.’”

“What is laudanum?” Abi asked.

Yvonne laughed as if this was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.

“Sorry,” Yvonne said.

Absolutely unoffended, Abi grinned at Yvonne.

“Clearly, I have been on the Isle of Mann for too long,” Abi said.

“I mean, you are the Mother of the Earth and you don’t know this scourge of mankind,” Yvonne said.

“Laudanum is a tincture of opium,” Jacob said. “It was legal over the counter in the US until the mid-1970s.”

“Opium, yes,” Abi said. “I know opium.”

“It was a favorite trick of the Spider,” Yvonne said. “Slip a little laudanum into my food or drink and he would get whatever he wished for. That’s how he hurt my Tannie.”

Abi’s hand shot out to grab Yvonne’s shoulder in an act of almost violent compassion.

“I am all right, mother,” Yvonne said. “You can see why I thought it funny that you didn’t know it.”

“Yes,” Abi said.

They drove in quiet silence for a while until Jacob turned off the highway and onto an overgrown dirt road. They pulled up to a gate. Jacob gave Yvonne the key and she jumped out to open the gate. He drove through the gate. Yvonne closed and locked the gate before getting into the car again.

“My dad grew up around here,” Jacob said. “He still owns the land. I do know that he tore down the house he grew up in. ‘Horrible place.’ That’s what he calls it.”

They drove for a few minutes in silence as the SUV made its way over the rough road.

“How did you know that my ancestor drank himself to death after finding the gold?” Jacob asked.

“Oh …” Abi gave Jacob a slight grin. “Let’s just say that I’ve heard the story before.”

“What does that mean?” Jacob asked.

The SUV hit a rock and Jacob’s entire attention was drawn to the road. When road cleared, Jacob looked into the rearview mirror. Abi was biting her cheek and looking out the window.

“It always felt a little weird to me,” Jacob said. “When Blane was in treatment, I went to codependency counseling — still do sometimes. They said that the story is one of addiction. The miner was dry and then drank up to his capacity before he went mining.”

Abi didn’t say anything.

“Are you saying that the story isn’t true?” Jacob asked.

“I’m only saying that I’ve heard it before,” Abi said.

“I think you’re not asking her the right question,” Yvonne said. She turned around in her seat to look at Abi. “Jacob wants to know what you’re really saying. He’s able to hear a truth under your words, but he lacks the human capacity to ignore it or know what question to ask.”

“Your daughter is like that,” Abi said with a nod.

“What can you tell me?” Jacob asked.

“This story has been told since the beginning of time,” Abi said. “The miner finds gold or diamonds or silver or salt. He goes into town and talks about his luck, the fortune he found, the secret he’s holding. Sometimes, he’s killed for the information, which is later found to be false. Sometimes, he drinks or drugs or whores himself to death. In every telling of the story, this man arrives with a fortune and dies hours later leaving everyone wondering where the fortune came from. Is that the story your mother told?”

“Yes,” Jacob said. “What is happening here?”

“This is a story of someone misusing their skills to turn a lesser valuable substance into something of great value,” Abi said.

“Alchemy,” Jacob said.

“Exactly,” Abi said. “Changing one true thing into another thing breaks the fundamental laws of this world. It depletes life force. Your ancestor died of exhaustion. The other things only eased his way to death.”

“Huh,” Jacob said.

“My question is how does this story relate to this mine?” Abi asked.

“That is a good question,” Yvonne said.

“My great-grandfather was deeply upset by his brother’s death,” Jacob said.

“Went looking for the gold?” Abi asked.

“Spent the rest of his days tracking his brother’s actions,” Jacob said. “This mine was one of his mining claims.”

“From the brother’s claims?” Abi asked.

“Yes,” Jacob said. “They found diamonds — blue ones. Just a few. Twenty or thirty total, I think. They found a small a vein of silver, just enough to make some money. There’s a story that this mine holds something more precious than diamonds or silver.”

“Another family story?” Yvonne asked.

“Exactly,” Jacob said. “It’s to be mined by the ‘right heir,’ whatever that means.”

“Are you that heir?” Abi asked.

“How would I know?” Jacob asked. “In the last year or so, we’ve been approached by a couple of mining companies. This area has a large supply of precious metals used in electronics and bicycles, of all things. They’ve depleted the mines that are currently in use. That brings them to us.”

“Why you?” Abi asked.

“We own this whole mountain,” Jacob said. “Between the mine, my mother’s family property, and my father’s family property, we’ve got the whole thing. The only piece that doesn’t belong to us — where we’re driving, in fact — belonged to Levi Johannsen. He won it in a card game when my mother was a child. He and Delphie lived nearby.”

“Delphie owns the rest now?” Abi asked.

“Lipson Construction comes up every year to maintain the road since she inherited,” Jacob said.

“Huh,” Abi said.

The road changed and Jacob was too distracted to speak. When he glanced at Abi again, she was looking out the window. She turned to look at him.

“We must expect anything,” Abi said.

“Always,” Jacob said.

They drove the rest of the way to the mine in silence.

Denver Cereal continues next week…

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