The Journey Begins

With an announced release date of December 9 for The Just Beyond, it’s time to give readers a solid taste of what this book has to offer. Here’s how it kicks off.

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THE JUST BEYOND
by Mark Tucker

Prologue
Spring

IF A WATCHED POT NEVER boils, then love is much,
much worse. Everybody knows that if you watch a cooking
pot long enough, it will, in fact, eventually boil. But it is
quite possible to exhaust an entire lifetime looking for love
and never find it. If you’re holding out for true love – the
kind children dream about, that teenagers think they see
everywhere, and that couples who don’t have it eventually
decide never existed in the first place – the odds are even
longer.

But it does exist, this magical love, this romantic enchantment
everlasting.

Oh, yes.

THEY WERE KIDS ON THE cusp of adulthood, poised
at that singular point in life where the indentured servitude
of childhood is finally behind and a vista of limitless possibilities
lies ahead unspoiled. They had noticed each other,
though neither knew it at the time. Michael had looked away
quickly – it was never a good idea to stare at a girl who
didn’t know you, especially if you intended to introduce
yourself properly when the opportunity arose. Vicki, frustrated
at having wound up in a seat toward the rear of the
classroom that limited her view to the back of his head, got
up and left the lecture on pretense of using the ladies’ room
just so she could steal a look on her way back in and determine
if he could really, possibly have been as teen-crush cute
as the memory of her first glimpse claimed. A discrete glance
on her way back confirmed that he was.

It started to rain. It was the last period of the day for the
University of California at Santa Cruz, and as the storm grew
heavier there were audible groans from freshmen and sophomores
who were banned from purchasing campus parking
permits. Off-site parking was precious, and this particular
lecture hall was about as far from the nearest offsite space
as any building on campus. Looking back, this combination
of circumstances would seem downright conspiratorial, as
though the stars themselves had aligned to herd these two
lives into collision. And maybe they had. Because of course
it would be this way. It had to be.

Against his better judgment, Michael manufactured
a glance behind him while stretching his arms for the momentary
pleasure of one more look. She was breathtaking.
When the rain began, he pressed his luck with another go,
as though the window behind her would give him the best
view of the storm. Their eyes met, and he was sure she was
on to him. But she didn’t scowl, didn’t turn up her nose,
didn’t roll her eyes. She held his gaze a second longer than
necessary – at least that’s how it felt to him. Then, with a
look of embarrassment, she returned to the book on her desk.
Or maybe her expression was fear; it could have been interpreted
a number of ways. But Michael was young and full of
optimism. He smiled.

By the time class ended, the rain had become a downpour.
Michael was first to his feet and out the door like The
Flash. He flew down three flights of stairs and raced through
the storm to the student union building and the little kiosk
store inside.

Among the items for sale were cheap collapsible umbrellas,
stocked for exactly this purpose: life-savers for students
caught off guard by the weather. Michael knew they
were there because he had one himself, black with a dark
wood handle, bought on a similar occasion his freshman
year. He hadn’t brought it today because the morning’s amiable
sky had given not a hint that it might be needed.

He settled on a sky blue model with a blond maple handle,
threw a twenty-dollar bill at the bewildered cashier to
cover the fifteen dollars on the price tag, and dashed back into
the storm toward the lecture hall. He opened the umbrella on
the run, hoping she wouldn’t wonder how a man equipped
with such protection could have gotten so drenched. If he
could have seen himself, he would have realized that was a
futile wish.

He burst into the building and was overjoyed to find
her just coming down the stairs to the first floor. He made
a silly attempt to blend into the bone-dry crowd, braced
himself against his pounding heart, and approached as she
reached the doors.

He had expected, even hoped, that she would eye the
storm with distaste. She didn’t. In fact, she appeared poised
to march out into the rain with Zen-like nonchalance.

“Where’d you park?” Michael hoped the line would
seem casual, the sight of his umbrella confirming it as nothing
but common chivalry.
Vicki was mildly startled, but as soon as she saw who
he was, her eyes went wide and a beautiful smile spread
across her face. “Other side of High Street, over by the theater.

Why?”

“Me, too. That seems like the closest you can get and
count on finding a spot.”

“Yes.”

He tipped the umbrella toward her in a genteel gesture
and smiled. “Want to share?”

It was only there for a fleeting second, that look in her
eyes – surprise, delight, hope, and trepidation all at the same
time. But Michael recognized it at once. It was exactly how
he felt.

“I guess I’d better.” Vicki regained herself. “It looks
like you bought that thing just for me.”

“Huh?”

Vicki pointed to the price tag still dangling prominently
from the umbrella handle.

“Aw, shit,” Michael exclaimed, then cringed in horror
at having let out an expletive in his first conversation with a
woman he was feeling more infatuated with by the minute.
Vicki giggled. It was the easy, heart-warming laugh of
the rarest of souls: a true free spirit.

Michael was falling hard. Is this what they mean by
love at first sight? he thought. Can that really happen?

And there it was again, his romantic thoughts and feelings
mirrored in her eyes. She was looking at the umbrella
now, not with playful disparagement but with appreciation,
with awe and humility that this handsome gentleman may
have actually run out and bought an umbrella just so he
could escort her to her car. Dear God, she thought, shaking
her head in protest at the rapid pace at which she seemed to
be losing herself. Be careful, Vicki. Don’t read more into this
than it is. But God, oh God, she thought, if he really was
doing it, if this dreamy, adorable guy was trying to pick her
up …

Vicki swallowed. Her mind cried for caution, but her
heart was already gone.

THEIR RELATIONSHIP WENT ON FOR two years. Vicki
Valentine, the talented art student whose whimsical paintings
seemed to come from some rich metaphysical Wonderland,
and Michael Chandler, the heartbreakingly compassionate
philosophy major and pilgrim of Truth, were never
long apart. His gentle thoughtfulness felt to her like a precious
gem, and her fairy-like spirit never ceased to surprise
and delight him. They were the perfect couple, soul-deep
lovers, mutually smitten and complementary in every meaningful
way. They had Thanksgiving with Michael’s parents,
where Vicki was grateful for the way they welcomed her like
a daughter, making sure she knew that they saw in her the
very image of a perfect mate for their son. Christmas they
spent with her father, sharp-minded and funny but in failing
health, and Vicki’s heart melted at the sight of Michael openly
flirting with the elderly ladies at the convalescent home.

Toward the end of that idyllic time, he slept at her
apartment more than his own, and it became more and more
apparent where their relationship was heading. Marriage
seemed inevitable, and soon, provided nothing unexpected
occurred. Of course nothing would. Plane crashes and lightning
strikes only happened to other people. Cancer never
overtook the young.

Graduation was coming, and with it the promise of a
blissful life where they would pursue their dreams and grow
old together in comfort and grace. The notion that fate might
intervene with a different agenda was inconceivable.

They planned the years, unaware that only weeks remained.
They knew nothing at all of the impending fire that
would leave one of them broken and the other dead.

Chapter 1
The One-Way Door

IT WAS DARK BY THE time Michael Chandler pulled in
to the carport in front of his lonely San Mateo townhouse on
the last normal day of his life.

It was a Friday in late August, a sensuous breeze scenting
the San Francisco suburb with a nostalgia of mown
grass, sun-warmed honeysuckle, and the distant ocean. A
corona of indigo clung tenuously to the western horizon, a
last glimmer of sun surrendering to a starry summer night.
It was the kind of evening, inherently romantic, that always
reawakened the crippling ache he felt over Vicki’s death.
These sights and smells and the warm air on his skin recalled
carefree picnics in Golden Gate Park, intimate dinners
at Neptune’s looking out over the Bay, sunsets lazily enjoyed
from the bluffs above Seacliff Beach. Even now, ten years
after her passing, the memories could crush him.

As he rolled to a stop and shut off the headlights, his
peripheral vision caught a flicker of motion. Though he
couldn’t place it, as he climbed out of the car with his two
containers of Chinese food from the grocery deli, he was
gripped by a prickly feeling that something was not right.

There it was. An unfamiliar glow was faintly visible
through his upstairs bedroom window. Not a house light or
the power indicator of some electronic device; it was too diffuse
for that, the color was wrong. And it was moving.

He wasn’t in the habit of leaving things on when he left
the townhouse. In fact, he was habitually careful to see that
everything but the air conditioner was off. The first explanation
that occurred to him was the bedroom television. His
morning routine included watching the news while shaving,
so it wasn’t out of the question. A more sinister notion occurred
to him, the possibility that a burglar might be ransacking
the place; the twitching glow might be the cold blue shine
of a xenon flashlight. The thought stopped him for a beat, but
he reasoned that an intruder surely would have heard the car,
seen the headlights, and be flying downstairs, out a window
or through the back door, not still poking around up there. It
must be the TV.

He turned his key and cracked the door open, listening.
Nothing amiss. He went inside and switched on some lights
and the little electric waterfall on the kitchen counter. With
some cheer in the place, his apprehension waned. It’s the TV
for sure, he comforted himself. You’re just edgy from missing
the flight.

Dropping his keys and the food near the microwave, he
grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and cracked it open on
his way upstairs.

He took one step through his bedroom doorway and
stiffened, shivers of fear rippling the hair on the back of his
neck.

The TV was off. But there, cut into the floor – which
he knew to be directly above the kitchen – was a jagged hole
about the size of a door. Wisps of dark flame licked its edges
as though it had burned its way through, and black mists
swirled low over the carpet like a swarm of ghostly cats.
Within the cavity, a rough stone stairway descended down
and down, seemingly to infinity, the steps themselves faintly
illuminated but flanked on either side by utter darkness.

And the steps were not empty. Ascending from the
crevice, drifting toward Michael like steam out of a bog, was
a translucent female figure. An overpowering beauty made
her all the more terrifying, a lithe apparition whose colors
seemed inverted like a photo negative, dark skin contrasting
against a glowing, light-colored gown, a mane of long hair
billowing back over her shoulders. She rippled in unnatural
slow motion while leaf-like fragments of her tore away as if
blown from a tree, twisting strips of garment, hair, and dark
flesh swirling behind her down the stairwell. Yet somehow
her form never diminished, as if the torn-off bits regenerated
the instant they left her. She was staring directly at him with
cold, dark eyes, ascending the last few steps with an aura of
condemnation so enveloping that it felt like a physical force.

Michael was completely unaware that his beer had
dropped to the carpet and was spreading in a foamy amber
pool. He did not believe in ghosts, zombies, or anything of
the kind, at least not as portrayed in popular culture. He had
always held a firm conviction that if such phenomena existed,
they would have long since been documented by serious
investigators using unassailable scientific means. But now
that very conviction robbed him of any sane context for what
he was seeing just six feet away.

THE TIME WOULD COME WHEN Michael, looking back
on that fateful day and the events that followed, would wonder
whether it could have all started with a seemingly innocuous,
almost forgotten gesture he had made ten years before.

The Wal-Mart in San Mateo, California was hiring.
Michael Chandler, owner of a fresh bachelor’s degree in
Philosophy from the University of California at Santa Cruz,
sat in the Customer Service lobby outside the manager’s office,
waiting for an interview. A menial, minimum wage job
wasn’t what he’d planned when choosing his field in school,
but no one had told him that the market for Philosophy majors
without a post-graduate degree was virtually nil. His father,
who had never been to college, was proud that Michael
had gone at all, though a bit perplexed and disappointed that
he hadn’t majored in something more practical. His mother,
whose education had peaked with a community college certificate
in Event Planning, tended to block out any perspective
that involved worrying about the future.

His professors, counselors, and fellow students had
been infected with the blinkered optimism that persists only
within academia, expecting every graduate to toss a cap at the
end of Commencement and walk straight into a career that
made good use of their degree. But nine months of searching
had turned up no calls for a Philosophy B.A. outside the
clergy. Even of those, none paid enough to live on without
a second job, and he didn’t meet some of the requirements
anyway. Not that it mattered. Michael was not impious, but
he was no fan of organized religion, having sought fervently
but unsuccessfully throughout his youth for a denomination
whose message seemed both coherent and genuine. Career-wise
that frustration now proved fatal, because his fundamental
earnestness would defeat any hope of prospering in
an environment toward which he held such misgivings.

And so it was that Michael Chandler, twenty-three
years old with mounting disillusion, found himself frostbitten
by reality and applying for anything, anything at all, that
could pay for canned food, store brand necessities, and his
one-room apartment’s rent. The remains of his student loan
would run out soon, along with the short lease his parents
had helped fund as a bridge between graduation and employment.

A commotion erupted in front of a stuffed animal display
at the end of a nearby aisle, the kind of intentionally
misplaced set-up designed to inspire impulse buying in
mothers who had no intention of going near the actual toy
section. Attention drawn, Michael looked up from the travel
magazine he had been flipping through to see what was going
on.

A young woman was engaged in an animated exchange
with her son. She was homespun pretty, the kind of girl a
seedy club crawler would probably pass up but whose type
of unvarnished genuineness Michael had always found appealing.
She looked roughly his age, younger with the exception
of her life-worn eyes, and at first Michael thought
she might be the boy’s aunt. But aunts can afford to spoil.
Mothers must be practical, responsible, a model of long-term
values like discipline and thrift. Aunts could treat every
encounter as a special occasion, whereas motherhood was
a career, a joy when viewed from well-rested detachment,
but at the minute-to-minute level a physical and emotional
grind that could wear down even the most doting. All the
more so for a struggling single mom; Michael’s bachelor
eyes had registered the absence of a wedding ring, and the
fray of her jeans looked the result of honest wear and not the
pretentious factory-inscribed damage that had inexplicably
become haute couture.

“One,” she rasped tightly to the boy, who looked to
be six or seven years old. He was holding a pair of stuffed
animals: a cushy, football-sized turtle with a pink and blue
checkerboard shell and a small blue cow of the dubious quality
found in coin-op crane machines. “Just pick one so we
can pay for this stuff and get back home.”

The boy was crying, not the kind of incessant wail that
could drive patrons to the other side of the store but rather a
soft whimper of agonized helplessness. “I can’t decide.” His
little voice quivered. “The turtle’s my favorite, but the cow
is sad. She needs me.”

“Sad? Why is she sad?” the mother inquired, choosing
not to question how he could tell the cow’s gender, let alone
its state of mind.

“She thinks no one will pick her.”

“Oh, honey, someone will pick her. She’s sweet and
pretty and I’m sure some little girl or boy will give her a nice
home. She won’t sit there for long.”

“They won’t,” the boy lamented. “Nobody wants cows.
She’s been waiting a long time, she’s all dusty!” He used one
free finger to stroke the cow’s head with motherly tenderness.
“I just want her to feel loved.”

“Then put the turtle back.” His mother sighed in frustration.

“We can’t afford both. We’ve talked about this.”

The boy said nothing. For a moment, his lips trembled,
then he dropped his gaze to the floor and began shaking with
a quiet sob that wrenched Michael to the core. Interview or
not, he could no longer stand by.

“Hi,” Michael greeted her as he approached. “Sorry, I
couldn’t help noticing.” The mother bristled at this intrusion,
but Michael sank to one knee, eye-level with the boy, and
continued. “I had that same turtle when I was a kid. Cool,
isn’t it?”

The boy sniffed, nodding weakly. “You wanna pet
him?”

“Sure!” Michael cradled the toy close to his chest and
combed his fingers through the lush, improbably-colored
fur. “So soft,” he admired. “Smart, too. I called mine Simon,
you know, like the Chipmunk.”

The boy smiled, then sobered as he eyed the cheaply
made, nondescript little cow. “But she needs a family, too.”

Michael regarded the two stuffed animals. He had to
admit that the boy was probably right. On a Christmas list
scale that included furry pastel turtles, cheap featureless
cows were just about off the chart at the opposite end. It was
blue, that was something, but not nearly enough to overcome
its basic lack of appeal.

Michael returned the turtle and stood back up, addressing
the young mother quietly.

“That is one thoughtful little feller you have there.
How about I spring for the cow? If it’s all right with you, of
course.”

“No,” she replied with conviction. “He has to learn that
you can’t have everything in life.”

“Yeah, I know.” Michael leaned even closer and did his
best to keep the boy from hearing. “Look, I can see you’re a
wonderful mother and I know it’s none of my business. But
that heartfelt compassion your son has – especially at his age
– that’s precious, and it seems worth nurturing. The world
could use more of it, that’s for sure.” He smiled warmly. “Let
me help just this once. It’ll make me feel like I did my good
deed for the day.”

“I appreciate the kindness.” The woman softened.
“You’re very sweet. But we have rules, and I don’t want him
expecting some generous stranger to pop up every time he
wants something we can’t afford.”

Michael pursed his lips for a moment, casting about
for a way to reward the little trooper without appearing to
challenge the young mother’s authority or judgment. I could
buy it myself, he pondered. Promise to take it home, feed it
ice cream every day and leave the TV on so it can watch cartoons
while I’m at work. No, scratch that. I’ll say I’m going
to take it by the hospital or an orphanage and make sure it
goes to some kid who’s absolutely thrilled to have it.

That wasn’t right either. It might mollify the boy in the
short run, but Michael had been serious about wanting to reinforce
the little guy’s priceless magnanimity. The best way
to do that was to send him home with a durable, tangible
reminder. And suddenly, an approach occurred to him that
felt like just the right touch.

Shielding the boy’s view, he pried open his wallet
without removing it from his pocket and fished out the lone
twenty-dollar bill.

“All right,” he said. “You’re his mom and you know
best. But take it anyway.” He pressed the money gently into
her hand, so unexpectedly that she closed her fingers around
it by reflex.

As their hands touched, Michael felt an unexpected
jolt. It had been almost a year since the loss of Vicki, and his
romantic faculties had lain so dormant that their reawakening
startled him. He thought he saw something similar flash
across the woman’s face, and his clasp lingered a moment
longer than necessary. Should I just ask her out now? At least
get her phone number?

But he wasn’t ready. His fingers released, and the spell
was broken.

“If you change your mind,” he continued, “you can explain
however you think best. If not, just use it for something
else. Like school supplies. Or maybe caramel apples at the
park.”

“I can’t …” She shook her head, motioning to give the
money back, but Michael was already ten steps away. “Sorry
— appointment,” he called pleasantly over his shoulder. “It
was nice meeting you.” And with that he ducked into the
men’s room to seal the transaction beyond her reach.

He gave his empty wallet a wistful look. He hadn’t eaten
all day, having planned to grab something at the store’s
lunch counter after his interview. But it wasn’t worth dwelling
on; he had simply done what he had felt compelled to do.

After what seemed a safe length of time, Michael
emerged back into the lobby and returned to his seat. The
woman and her son were now in the checkout line. The turtle
was nowhere to be seen; the boy hovered at his mother’s
side clutching only the cow. She didn’t do it, he thought and
pursed his lips. And that little bugger took the high road anyway.
He buried his gaze in a magazine to stifle the tickle in
his tear ducts.

A minute later, his peripheral vision caught something
that made him look up. With only one customer in front of
them, the young mother suddenly broke out from the checkout
line with her son in tow. They hurried back to the toy
display, both grinning. The boy reached for the turtle and
rocked it tightly with the little cow against his chest.

“Thank you, Mama!” he cried excitedly.

“I love you.” She smiled.

MICHAEL WAS THE LAST OF three people Wal-Mart
hired that day for shelf-stocking positions, despite concerns
that a college graduate might leave for a better job before the
company’s training investment was recouped. Such worries
were needless. He was a loyal employee and a good stocker
right from the start, impeccable in attendance and efficient
in his work.

But he proved extraordinary in a role only peripheral
to his position: helping customers who approached him in
the aisles. Michael took this duty seriously, going so far as to
study Spanish on his own initiative so he could serve native
speakers better. It took only six months for management to
note the pattern of glowing feedback from patrons so appreciative
that they were inspired to inform his superiors. Recognizing
his potential, the regional manager created a special
“Customer Advocate” position just for Michael, freeing
him to roam the store with the sole responsibility of seeking
opportunities to create goodwill.

Two years later, they gave him supervisory duties over
the stocking crew on his shifts, mostly to facilitate a salary
and benefits package with occasional business travel that
the company’s policies could not otherwise support. From
a practical standpoint, that hadn’t worked out so well. He
won his subordinates’ adoration by showering them with
praise and encouragement, but he was no good at managing
poor performance. Michael’s empathy ran deep, and he was
pathologically accommodating of excuses for substandard
work, whether due to personal problems, frequent illness, or
even innate incompetence. He always gave people the benefit
of the doubt, assuming they were doing the best they
could under the circumstances, and he believed it was pointless
or even “wrong” to demand more.

Inevitably, his humanistic style sometimes ran afoul of
company standards, and there were times when Michael’s
supervisory conduct seemed incompatible with a long term
Wal-Mart career. But no one doubted his good intentions,
and as a person he was as highly regarded by company officials
as by his co-workers and customers. In the end, with
some quiet dilution of his management responsibilities and
staunch advocacy by those who felt his value justified some
flexibility, Michael kept his job.

And for the remainder of his post-college decade, so
things stayed.

IT WAS JUST AFTER 6:00 P.M. on that August Friday, a
mere two hours before Michael Chandler would encounter
an apparition in his rented townhouse that would disrupt his
life forever. With a sole exception, the Wal-Mart night staff
had taken the store over from the day crew. Michael alone
had stayed past the end of his shift to put his workload in
order ahead of a week’s vacation. He hadn’t fully succeeded
– there were two customer calls and a report for Corporate
he had run out of time for – but if he didn’t leave soon he
would risk missing his 7:55 flight.

He was feeding bills into the break room vending machine
when he heard heavy footsteps and then the voice of
Carl Adams, his first real friend at the store. Carl was the
night produce manager, but they had been hired the same
day and come up together through the shelf stocking ranks.
They seemed nothing alike. Carl was a large, coarse high
school football star whose climb to management was remarkable
for a senior-year dropout. His keenness toward
money and the material couldn’t have been further from Michael’s
view of the world. What linked them was a shared
optimistic gentleness at heart, and they had hit it off immediately,
establishing a friendship that had persisted through the
years. But like all of Michael’s “friendships,” in fact all of
his relationships since Vicki, it had never reached the level
of intimacy required to call it “close.” As well-liked as he
was, no one in the world truly understood Michael Chandler.
He never let them near enough.

“Can I have some?” Carl was saying, leering at the wad
of bills protruding obscenely from Michael’s wallet, five or
six hundred dollars by the look.

“Vacation stash,” Michael explained, stuffing a can
of Coke and pack of chewing gum into a knapsack already
crammed tight with clothing and travel necessities. “I’m fly26
ing down to see that Beatles Reunion thing at the Hollywood
Bowl.”

“Beatles Reunion? Didn’t that just run for two nights
at the Graham Auditorium right in San Fran? Why go all the
way to L.A.?”

“Ever been there?” Michael zipped and shouldered
the pack. “The Beatles’ 1964 gig at the Hollywood Bowl
was one of the greatest concerts of all time, and to me, it’s
the perfect place. It’s going to be electric. Both of the living
Beatles up there with Julian Lennon and Ralph Castelli,
right under the night sky, movie stars in the audience … and
it’s the last show of the tour. Even the band will be stoked.”
Michael beamed. “It’s the concert of a lifetime, man. I paid
fifty bucks to join a fan club just so I could buy tickets on
pre-sale. It worked, too. I was able to get two seats right in
the middle, just five rows back from the stage. I figure that
if you’re going to do something like this at all, you might as
well go all the way.”

“Pffft,” Carl dismissed, the logic seeming to escape
him. Coming from Michael Chandler, it shouldn’t have surprised
him at all.

MICHAEL WAS MAKING HIS WAY through the employee
parking area at a brisk pace when he noticed someone
from the day shift fretting under the hood of his car. It wasn’t
a friend – Michael didn’t know the man’s name – but the
face was familiar, belonging to a cashier he recalled waving
to in passing from time to time.

“Michael! Thank God,” the man called in a strained
voice. “Do you know anything about cars?”

“Not really,” Michael replied, approaching. “What’s
the problem? Oh, and,” he stretched out his hand and clasped
the other’s briefly, “I’ve seen you around, but I apologize for
not knowing your name.”

“Steve Shelby,” the man replied. “This goddamn thing
won’t start, and I’ve got to pick up my kids!” The man’s
anguish was palpable. “It’s not the battery, it’s turning over
fine. It just won’t start. Could you just take a look and see if
you see anything?”

Michael obeyed just to be courteous, but his untrained
eye was no better than Shelby’s. “Nothing obvious, but that
doesn’t mean anything. I’m not much of a car guy.”

“Damnit.” Shelby threw up his hands. “My wife is going
to kill me. She’s on graveyard as a police dispatcher so
I have to pick up the kids from daycare, and they close at
seven o’clock. The thing is …” Shelby made a face like a
dog that knows it’s peed on the carpet. “I’ve been late a few
times, totally my fault. Once in a while, when I could get out
of here a little early, I used to try and squeeze in nine holes
of pitch-and-putt at McInnis Park on the way home. The last
time I was late, the daycare lady said if it happened again,
no matter what the reason, she would kick us out. I’ve gone
hell-for-leather to be on time every day since then. And now
this crap.” Shelby shook his head bitterly. “I know it’s no
picnic running a daycare – that lady has the patience of a
saint. But she’s never going to believe me and I don’t think it
would make any difference if she did.” His eyes moistened.
“It took us so long to find a place good enough to leave them
in good conscience. My wife is going to be absolutely furious.”

“It’s not your fault your car won’t start,” Michael comforted.
“I’m sure she’ll understand that.”

“It won’t matter. I know my wife. She’ll say today may
not have been my fault, but if I hadn’t golfed all those times,
we wouldn’t be at the end of the rope in the first place. She’ll
say I should have taken better care of the car. She’ll say I
don’t give a damn about the kids.” Shelby looked down, utterly
dejected. “I am so friggin’ stupid!”

“How far is the daycare?” Michael asked softly.
“San Rafael. That’s where we live. Clear on the other
side of San Francisco.”

Michael stood silent for one full minute, the joy that
had buffeted him all week now draining like sand from a
punctured bag. He could suggest a taxi, but with less than
an hour to get to San Rafael, a cab’s transit time from the
point of dispatch might be enough to put a timely arrival
out of reach. He looked around them. The shift change was
complete and the employee section of the lot was devoid of
human activity. The distraught father’s options for salvation
were down to exactly one.

“I’ll take you,” Michael said.

Shelby gasped. “You will?”

“Sure,” Michael confirmed, trying to smile through his
grief at the realization that he was putting his attendance at
the “concert of a lifetime” in jeopardy. “Let’s go. I think we
can make seven, but we’ll have to hurry.”

THE SHELBY CHILDREN, A SEVEN-YEAR-OLD girl
and five-year-old boy, fell upon their father as though it
were Christmas and they hadn’t seen him in a year. Even
the daycare matron smiled and waved from the doorway as
they piled into Michael’s old blue Saturn sedan. Traffic had
crawled across the Golden Gate Bridge, and for a while their
prospects of beating the clock had looked dim. But things
had cleared up around Sausalito, and they pulled in to the
daycare with eight minutes to spare. Crisis defused.

Steve Shelby’s exuberance at having avoided catastrophe
was palpable, and the glow of simple family affection
put a wide smile even on Michael’s face. This seemed to
embolden Shelby to voice a further request.

“I hate to ask, man, but … do you think it would be
okay to make a quick stop at the Safeway? It’s on the way to
our house. We do our shopping on Saturdays, and it’s kind of
a tradition to get that deli Chinese on Friday nights.”

“Happy to,” Michael replied. “Maybe I’ll get some for
me.” He was getting hungry now that Shelby mentioned it,
but he would have obliged anyway; a fifteen-minute detour
wasn’t going to worsen his concert situation. In any event,
by this time he was feeling more positive about his travel
dilemma. He had rationalized that since the show wouldn’t
start until around nine o’clock the following evening, there
should be plenty of time for the airline to squeeze him onto
another flight. If it meant taking a taxi straight from LAX to
the venue and possibly losing his rental car, hotel reservation,
or both, he would deal with it. This was just the sort of
contingency his travel cash was meant to insure against. For
that matter, if push came to shove, he could simply drive the
six hours to Los Angeles, leaving the Bay as late as tomorrow
afternoon. He would be all right.

The Safeway parking lot was almost full to capacity,
but as they wove through the aisles looking for an opening,
the rear lights suddenly lit up on an SUV occupying an end
space near the store entrance right in front of them. Michael
braked and the vehicle slowly backed out, two large dogs
panting through the window.

“Perfect!” Shelby exclaimed, then frowned in puzzlement
as Michael drove past the parking space, trailing the
SUV as it headed away.

“Hey! There was a spot right where this guy pulled out,
didn’t you see?”

“Yeah, I leave those for people who need them. I’m
in perfectly good health, I’m not going to take a spot from
some eighty-year-old woman who really needs it.”

“That’s what those handicapped spaces are for.” Shelby
pointed to three empty slots in the next row over painted
with the blue and white wheelchair icon.

“Not everybody who has trouble walking has a handicapped
sticker. It’s not just old ladies, it could be somebody
with the flu. Or some ex-jock with bad knees and a macho
complex. Or someone who’s down here picking up Advil
because they overdid it in the garden and their back is killing
them.”

“What are the chances,” Shelby challenged incredulously,
“that out of all the possibilities, one of those people is
going to be the very next car to pass that spot?”

“Not high, but that’s not the point. It’s not going to kill
me to walk an extra fifty feet on the off-chance.” He glanced
at the back seat. “But you guys don’t have to. Here, I’ll stop
at the curb and you three can jump out while I park.”

“No, no, no,” Shelby protested. “We’ll walk. I was just
saying.”

On their next pass, a car toward the end of the aisle
vacated its spot and drove off as Michael slipped in.

“Okay, kids,” Shelby prompted cheerily as they unfastened
their seat belts. “What are we having tonight?”

AS MICHAEL CHANDLER STOOD PATIENTLY near the
Safeway deli holding two warm boxes of Chinese takeout
and waiting for the Shelbys, back in San Francisco a dark
drama was unfolding in an office suite on the 39th floor of a
deserted high-rise.

“All right, son. You asked for this meeting. What have
you got?” Eldridge Raymore sat behind his desk in a high-backed
leather chair and poured himself a shot of Southern
Comfort. His posture was relaxed, dark eyes boring through
the gloom illuminated by a single Tiffany desk lamp. He was
a handsome and imposing figure despite his sixty-two years,
with a full head of neatly-cropped brown hair graying at the
temples and deep, rapturous facial features complimented by
an athletic frame in a tailored Italian suit. His demeanor was
calm, measured, and charming. Yet there was a subtle undercurrent
of menace, the manner of a man skilled at influencing
through graciousness but unhesitant to employ less
savory methods should the circumstance arise.

“A lot of things.” Eldridge Raymore Jr., best known by
his truncated middle name, Sid, chose to stand even though
his father gestured toward a stylish guest chair at the front of
the desk. Aside from the pair of cultivated “campaign aides”
with vaguely defined responsibilities standing silent and disinterested
near the office door, they were alone.

He consulted the file folder he was carrying with a
grim look. “For starters, the campaign account is missing
almost $2 million. The rules are clear on this, we won’t be
able to skirt around it at filing time. Can you tell me where
that went?”

“Your role does not extend to auditing the finances,”
the older man said. “Leave that to Bernie. He’s good at it.”
He sipped his drink.

“My role is giving legal advice,” his son returned.
“Failure to document the lawful expenditure of campaign
contributions accepted under tax-favored conditions is a federal
offense. And two million is way too much to explain
away as carelessness or ignorance.”

“That is Bernie’s business,” the elder Raymore repeated
sharply. “By the time filings are due, it will all be neatened
up and accounted for. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Do you know where that money went?” Sid pressed.

“I can’t personally keep track of every little expense.
Running for governor bleeds cash. Ad collateral, facilities,
staff pay, including your rather generous retainer, I might
add,” the father stabbed pointedly. “You have to be nimble
and hit opportunities on the spur of the moment. You can’t
always get receipts and make ledger entries as you go. You
hesitate in this game, you lose.” He smiled. “It will be clean
and perfectly documented when the time comes. That’s what
Bernie is for. He takes good care of things.”

Sid Raymore pursed his lips. “Bernie Blenheim is a
convicted felon who spent three years in the Ohio state pen
for corporate tax fraud. I suppose you knew nothing about
that.”

“I do know. I also know that that was fifteen years ago
and that he hasn’t had so much as a parking ticket since.”
The father’s countenance furrowed and his words came out
carefully measured. “What I want to know is what the hell
nonsense you’ve been wasting staff time on to scrape up
something as obscure and irrelevant as that.”

“It’s not going to seem irrelevant if the media gets
it.” Sid returned his father’s bloodless smile. “It probably
wouldn’t make or break you by itself. But it’s not by itself.
Not by a long shot.”

Candidate Raymore leaned forward darkly. “I think it’s
time you told me exactly what you’re getting at.”

Sid Raymore sucked in a galvanizing breath. “I found
one ledger, at least, that seems to have been kept meticulously
up to date. Not a paper file, just an Excel spreadsheet
with a nearly bulletproof password, which I arranged for a
discreet forensic expert to crack. Over the past few weeks,
I’ve had a very intimate relationship with that file. I couldn’t
decipher all of it, but I did figure out a few of the entries. One
of them associates a ten thousand dollar figure with Norman
Tuggs, who happens to be the Assistant Chief of the San Mateo
Police. No doubt his support helps to make sure the PD
plays nice with your ‘creative’ business affairs. But just to
be sure, I checked your bank records courtesy of the Power
of Attorney I had you sign when I joined the campaign. Sure
enough, a ten thousand dollar debit has been fed into some
unidentified account every month for years. Is that the kind
of thing the missing funds are paying for?”

“You have no right getting into my private records,”
the elder fumed. “For your information, Norm Tuggs is a
close friend of mine. And that payment is a contribution to
the police charity that provides juveniles with alternatives to
incarceration.”

“Really?” His son could barely restrain a smirk. “Then
why not make it public? Wouldn’t a generous contribution to
a noble charity enhance your image?”

“I don’t answer to you.” Eldridge Raymore leaned forward
and pierced his son with an icy glare. His tone was
methodical and deliberate. “Now, I have patiently addressed
every issue you have raised. Is there anything else? If so,
spill it in a hurry. I’ve got better things to do.”

“Here’s another entry.” Sid quickly consulted his file.
“This one appears to mention the AFL-CIO and Proposition
2, which happens to be the ballot measure banning mandatory
union membership. I interpret it as ‘support me and I
will make sure Prop 2 never sees the light of day.’ As if you
had personal control over the vote. What a coup! You didn’t
even have to buy them, just make promises you’ll have no
power to keep even if you win.”

This time the older man made no attempt to explain
the allegation away. “Anything else?” he said in a low, even
tone, his features inscrutable in the dimness.

Sid took a deep breath. “Nine years ago, you were
brought in by the police for questioning in connection with
racketeering activities down at the port. Same thing two
years later. Both times, you were released very quickly for
lack of evidence, much to the consternation of the investigating
officers. It’s not public record because you were never
subpoenaed or charged. But if it were ever disclosed, especially
with all this other stuff, it would paint a rather unflattering
picture.”

“All right, Sid.” The father’s tone was quiet, deliberate,
and paralyzing. “You are off the campaign staff as of
midnight tonight. We’ll tell the press you had some private
life issues, which is not untrue.” He smiled dimly. “But you
had best remember – and I mean, you had god damned well
better remember – that this conversation, and everything in
that folder, is protected by attorney-client privilege. You are
going to lay that thing down on my desk, you are going to
walk away and go back to your practice, and you are going
to respect the confidence under which you have been employed
as my election counsel.”

“No.” Sid Raymore shook his head, but his tone was
conciliatory and his face had lost its defiant affect. “I don’t
want to ruin your life, Dad. We’ve never seen things the
same way and we never will. But …” The beginnings of
tears started to pool at the corners of his eyes. “You’re my
dad. You’re the only father I have.” Sid sniffed and straightened
himself. “I didn’t come here tonight to destroy you.
I just want you to leave the race. I can’t countenance you
getting into public office knowing what I know. It’s been
eating me so bad I’ve barely been able to sleep. But if you
drop out – I’ll wait till Monday so you have time to think it
over – I will turn my back on this and never mention these
issues again.”

“That,” his father said testily, “is not going to happen.
And you are going to stay out of it regardless. If you breathe
one word of this outside this room, you will be in violation
of your fiduciary oath. Hell, I could have you arrested right
now for accessing my accounts using a false pretense. You’re
going to get smart about this, or I’ll have you disbarred in a
heartbeat. Your charmed life will be over.”

Did his father really have that kind of influence with
the State Bar? Sid shuddered. He couldn’t rule it out. But
having come this far, he wasn’t about to drop the matter.

“I believe I could make a case that there’s no privilege
violation under the crime-fraud exception,” he challenged
wryly. “And I doubt I’d be prosecuted for any of this once
the scandal was revealed. But it doesn’t matter. I’m prepared
to lose my license or even serve time. I don’t think it would
happen, I don’t believe a jury would treat me too harshly
under the circumstances. But it doesn’t matter, like I said.”
Sid’s eyes were pleading now. “Please, Dad. Just drop out
of the race and go back to your … your … whatever your
business is.”

“And what do you think you can do about it if I don’t?”

“If you don’t,” Sid said, his voice beginning to crack
and his legs to shake. “If you do not decide by Monday to
call things off, then on Tuesday morning I will deliver copies
of this file to the Attorney General, the state Party Chair, and
the publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle.”

Ridge Raymore’s face became a nuclear mushroom
cloud. “This talk is over.” He shot a commanding glance
toward the two men that had been lurking all this time in
silence.

Sid panicked. “What, now you’re going to have your
goons work me over like some junk dealer skimming off the
take?”

There was no reply. His father’s glare was so terrifying
now that it drained Sid of all courage and noble intent. He
made for the door but the enforcers blocked him, the shorter
one leering like a dog about to be thrown a raw steak.

“No!” Sid screamed. “Dad, no!!”

The file folder flew, its contents scattering like bird
feathers in a shotgun blast. Eldridge Raymore drained his
shot glass and poured again.

MICHAEL STOOD FROZEN BEFORE THE manifestation
in his bedroom: the entity that could not exist standing
on stairs that couldn’t be there. Though Michael could feel
himself mentally unraveling and was shocked to the core, he
never had the slightest doubt that the apparition – this horrifying,
impossible being coming at him from a hellish hole
in his bedroom floor – was real. Dreams could seem very
real, leaving residual elation or, more commonly, trauma,
that persisted well past waking. But the reverse was not true.
Pinch-test cliché aside, no mentally-sound person ever mistook
reality for a dream. And it was a clear, terrifying reality
that gripped Michael now, so powerfully that he was afraid
his pounding heart might literally burst and kill him.

As the figure topped the steps, she raised her arm and
pointed a finger at Michael’s chest, fixing him with a black
gaze so terrible that it, too, threatened to kill him outright.

Her voice threatened his sanity, a chorus of dark, female
tones out of phase with each other like a stadium echo,
some clear and commanding, others obscure and distorted
as though passing through water or reverberating off canyon
walls, a cacophony of shifting, overlapping words that
seemed to come from the figure, the stairwell, the hall behind
him, the rooms downstairs, the night beyond his windows,
the private, fear-soaked chambers inside his head.

“Michael Chandler,” declared the hideous choir: “BY
THE TIMELESS ARE YOU BOUND THIS NIGHT TO
LAURIA.”

Michael ran.

——————————————————-

If this excerpt sounds like your kind of story, you won’t be disappointed with The Just Beyond. I hope it puts a smile on your face. 🙂

– Mark

The Offer of Support on those Bad Days

December 3, 2013

A Peek At The Sequel

December 3, 2013

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