“For starters, I was hoping that Rudy would be here. But he’s not in until tomorrow night.”

I raised my brow.

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“Rudy owns the bar,” he explained. “He’s also a guy who knows a lot. Knows a lot of people, has lived here his whole life and has seen a lot of things. A lot of things.”

“So we come back here tomorrow night. And what do we do until then?”

Dex impulsively reached over and grabbed my left hand and displayed it for Maximus to see.

“Made an honest woman out of her, like you said.”

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Maximus laughed and leaned back in the booth, giving me a wry look. “Sorry about having you get hitched to Dex here. Will and Sarah are fiercely Christian. At least Sarah is…real old school. Now I’ve dealt with a lot of religious mamas in Lafayette, but she takes the cake. Pretty much walks around with a cross. She’d probably throw holy water on you if she found out you weren’t actually married. Two singletons sharing the same bed? Blasphemous shit.”

He laughed again and got up. “Time for more beers.”

“Jack Daniels,” Dex shot at him. “You owe me a double.”

Maximus waved him off and walked his hulking body over to the bar.

I inched away from Dex to get a good look at him. He had the label off and was working at folding it into an origami figure. He looked pale, his eyes were burning holes into this project, his brow furrowed, jaw clenched, and toe tapping.

Finally, he stopped, put down the paper (a bird of some sort) and closed his eyes. “What is it?”

I looked behind me to make sure Maximus was at the bar and, satisfied, I leaned in closer to his ear. “I just wanted to see how you were doing.”

He let out a chuckle. “You care suddenly?”

He was acting like a little boy, not the Dex I was used to seeing.

“Of course I care. I mean, you know…I’m worried about you. The medication withdrawal, meeting an old friend-”

“He’s not a friend,” he said. He picked up the origami bird and shoved it down the bottle of his empty beer. He took out a match from one of his pockets, lit it on the table and dropped it in the bottle. The paper began to curl and smolder, smoke rising out of the neck. I watched, fascinated.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “You were in the same band, same school…”

He raised the bottle up and watched the smoke snake around. “I don’t have to tell you that it all means nothing. Do I?”

I guess he didn’t. I hated 90% of the people that I went to school with.

“Well, OK then,” I said, annoyed. “You know, I have to work with you for the next few days. I just want to make sure you’re OK…OK?”

I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly. There was something so irresistibly vulnerable about him. He eyed my hand for a moment, then spat in the bottle to put out the flame. Pretty disgusting way to ruin a moment, Dex.

He looked at me. “Don’t worry about me. Just worry about yourself.”

That was easier said than done.

“I am worried about myself,” I blurted out.

He raised his brow, the eyebrow ring glinting. I said too much. Now he looked concerned.

“Remember I said I’d get to the bottom of you…”

I nodded and switched the subject, “So do you trust Maximus here?”

Dex held my eyes for a few beats. I could see he wasn’t satisfied. But he looked over at Maximus who was now walking back over. “I don’t trust anyone Perry. Neither should you. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“Your refreshments,” Maximus said proudly, placing our drinks down. I think he knew we had been talking about him but it didn’t seem to bother him. Wish I had that ability to just shrug things off like that.

As we drank our drinks, the conversation went to more “normal” topics. Unfortunately, they were topics that seemed to make both Dex and I a bit apprehensive. I was asked a lot about my life: what I did, my family, my personal life. I felt like I lied through all of it, even when I told the truth. Guess I was just so used to it now. Dex could tell too, he was watching me, which made me even more nervous. I’m not sure why I still felt like I had to lie and pretend everything was peachy back at home but there it was. It was like I had more power in the lie.

Then Maximus told us a bit about what he had been doing after college and how he got into the business of “ghost mediating.” Apparently he always had the gift, I guess you could call it, but just thought he was a bit mad. But, as interesting as it was to me, the more Maximus talked about the dead, the more annoyed Dex became. And any mention of their times together in college, or in the band, were always approached with caution and tension. Dex reminded me of the sketchy addicts that wandered around in Portland’s Chinatown.

Thankfully, by the time that Dex finished his Jack Daniels (straight up, by the way) and we talked about the show and what we wanted to do with it, he had loosened up considerably.

I, on the other hand, hadn’t. I felt more apprehensive about Dex with each passing hour, I wasn’t sure if I could trust Maximus (though I wanted to), I thought the whole married couple staying with a blind bitch and a poltergeist was ridiculous, and I was freaking starving. The only thing I had eaten that day was a bag of chips I pilfered from the hotel’s vending machine. The beers went straight to my head at a time when I needed clarity.

The heat didn’t help either. When it was ready to roll, we got back into the sweat mobile, dropped Maximus at his motel and followed his truck out of town, and into the rocky hills until we came to a sprawling ranch. We had arrived.

CHAPTER FIVE

The Lancaster’s ranch was spread over a variety of terrain; flat desert, scrubby valleys grazed by muddy-looking sheep and horses, low hills dotted with pine building to a crooked mountain range topped with high alpine plants. It was beautiful, sprawling and a hundred shades of sienna. Fences of gnarled wood framed it all with a poetic bow.

Past the gates with the stereotypical overhanging ranch sign (“The Lancasters”) and open cattle grate there were two barns and various sheep related chutes and shelters, plus the main house. The farm looked deserted and down at its heels, but given the rest of the town, and the harsh surroundings, that didn’t really surprise me. I looked over at Dex as he drove our car over beside Maximus’s and parked it at the side of the house. His eyes were alert and searching, probably thrilled that the location was so photogenic and charismatic.

We stepped out of the car into the dust and walked over to Maximus. He gave us a cautionary look and glanced up at the house. There was a woman standing at the second story A-frame window. I couldn’t see her clearly from our angle but it seemed she wasn’t actually looking at us, rather, past us at the farm. If that was the blind woman, Sarah, then it made perfect sense. It also gave me the creeps.

“Hello there,” a deep voice called out from behind us. We turned to see a lumbering native fellow coming towards us from across the paddock, wiping his dusty hands on the sides of his faded jeans.

Maximus gave the man a quick wave and spoke to us out of the side of his mouth, “That’s Bird, the main rancher.”

Bird stopped in front of us, greeted Maximus like he was an old friend and set his eyes on Dex and I. He was about the same height as Maximus but despite Maximus’s breadth, Bird made him appear tiny. He was built like an ox but with sincere dark eyes, and when he said he was glad to finally meet the “famous duo,” I could tell he meant it. My hand disappeared into his when he shook it, but it left me feeling safe, something I hadn’t felt yet on this trip.

Bird eyed the house and smiled at us. “I think Sarah is having her afternoon nap. This is usually the time that Will does some work around the house, you know, time to himself. I can give you a tour of the ranch first. There will be plenty of time to unpack after.”

I looked at Dex. “Should we bring the camera?”

He looked at Maximus, who in turn looked at Bird.

Bird laughed. “She’s an eager one! It’s probably best to leave that for afterwards, some folk here can be a bit, er, picky.”

His expression on the word picky made me pause. Hesitation noted.

We followed Bird across the dusty paddock and around the side of the larger barn. In the shade of the roof’s overhang, a diminutive man of Latino descent was bent over a bench, hammering some nails into the horn of a western saddle. He didn’t look up, even when we had all stopped in front of him.

Bird cleared his throat. “Miguel.”

Miguel paused ever so slightly, but kept working for a minute. Either to finish the job or to make us wait.

He eventually looked up. His eyes were narrow, as if he prepared to hate us off the bat, his lips set in a dry, straight line that a crowbar couldn’t have pried open. This must be the “picky” one. I’m sure if we did have the camera out, we would have gotten a good Cameron Diaz-style paparazzi beat-down.

“Miguel.” Bird cleared his throat again. Even though he was three times the size of Miguel, it seemed like Bird was a little afraid of him.

Miguel looked straight into Bird’s eyes.

“What do you want?”

I’m not sure if was my imagination or not but I could have sworn Miguel gripped the hammer tighter.

“These are Maximus’s friends, Perry and Dex,” Bird said quickly, with a loud, forced friendliness.

“The ghost hunters, yes?” Miguel said with a trace of amusement. Not the funny kind. He gave Maximus and Dex a quick, dismissive glance then set his sights on me. His expression changed from annoyed to predatory.

“So you’re the girl, yes?” He snarled at me and looked me up and down. Now, I know I was looking all shades of hell which made his lustful gaze even more disturbing. I guess they didn’t get many women out here.

“Easy Miguel,” Bird cautioned. Miguel took a quick step towards me, an uncanny sense of speed at his disposal. He was just inches away, smelling like sweat, dirt and beer.

I tried not to look at him but he made it impossible. Then he smiled.

“You won’t last a day,” he said slowly, exaggerating each word. He leaned in further. I wasn’t sure if he was coming to kill me or kiss me.

Before I could get out of his way, an arm shot out around me and pulled me to the side. It was Dex and I was snuggly pressed up against him.

“My wife would last longer than any of us,” Dex challenged. The term “wife” was jarring to my ears. I had forgotten all about that, again, but I was immediately grateful for my fake husband. He was smiling broadly at Miguel but his eyes meant business. Beat still my heart.

Miguel scoffed and turned back to his saddle. “Just keep out of my way, Birdy.”

Bird nodded grimly and pointed at the smaller barn which was down a bit of a slope and surrounded by spindly corrals. “OK, let’s go see Shan with the horses. He’s a bit more welcoming than Miguel here.”

He walked off and Maximus followed, giving Dex a shrug by way of explaining the situation. Dex took no notice. He kept his arm around me, watching Miguel hammer back at the saddle. He didn’t look up. I wanted to get the fuck out of there but apparently Dex was feeling a bit confrontational. There was now something as equally intense in his eyes as there had been in Miguel’s. I’d seen that look a few times before.

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