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Excerpt for Dread the Bunnyman by , available in its entirety at Smashwords









DREAD THE BUNNYMAN

Smashwords Edition



BY

THOMAS ROWE

Copyright 2019









Table of Contents

Dedication

Disclaimer

Before

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Afterward

From the Files

Behind the Mask

About the Author

Other Books

Contact the Author









DEDICATION



This book is dedicated to my father who is a great storyteller and helped introduce me to the fictional heroes of the past.







Disclaimer



This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



The following is a work of fiction. Any similarity to places, organizations, or people living or dead is coincidental.

Dread the Bunnyman and all of the characters contained within the Ranger series are the exclusive property of Thomas Rowe. No content from these books can be copied for any reason or in any form without written permission from the author.











BEFORE



The evening air carried with it the sounds of merriment and music that floated out from the clubs that lined Quarter Street in downtown Arlandria. Men and women walked the sidewalks dressed for an evening on the town. Their thoughts were preoccupied with what the score of the game was, visions of whom they might meet, and how to keep the good times going during their brief escape from the daily grind. They did not notice how the world about them altered after 11:30PM. Young socialites and hipsters hustled into bars, clubs, and dives oblivious to anything outside of their small world.

The night brought out those that hid in dark corners: men and women that lived lives filled with foul intent. The alleys and hidden places were where they congregated. From their hiding places they watched honest people live and work. They wished their victims well. After all, their victims made them rich. It was in one of these crowded alleys that an ambulance sat parked. The ambulance was hidden at the far end of the alley and featured Arlandria City livery. The man that leaned against the back door was thin as a rail, balding, and dressed in a hospital orderly’s uniform. The man’s features were plain to the point of being generic. He changed his appearance to match his current job. With every job came a role he was to play; today he was dressed as an orderly. The man went by the street name of Chameleon. He was a conman that stole from hospitals, the elderly, and those that honestly needed the drugs his employers coveted. Chameleon watched the head of the alley nervously. The ambulance behind him was filled with boxes of hospital grade narcotics and opioids. His cargo was worth a small fortune on the street and was spoken for by the Constrictors.

Chameleon breathed a sigh of relief when a motorcycle hummed into the alley. The rider momentarily blinded Chameleon with the high beam headlight and only switched it off when he was convinced they were alone. The rider then parked the bike, dismounted, removed his helmet, and walked toward the faux orderly. The man was dressed in a biker’s jacket and pants. The left pocket on the black and gold leather jacket featured a crown with a snake wrapped around it. The man had Korean features and cold eyes that he used to study Chameleon and his ambulance. Recent attacks on his gang had forced the head of the Constrictors to work on the streets himself.

Wang was not the birth name of the gang leader. It was a title that he had given himself. In the language of his parents and grandparents, Wang was the word for king. That was just what Wang intended to be. Wang was a king to his gang, the opioid trade that he controlled completely, and members of his own community that he kept in line through fear, violence, and very few bribes. Wang hired very few outsiders to work for him. His idea of equal opportunity was hiring Chameleon, a con man that knew nothing about the rest of his operation. If he were caught there was very little he could tell the police. If Chameleon tried to double cross him they would cut him down and leave him lying in the street as a warning to others.

“Wang, I got everything you wanted,” the con artist called out.

“I have your money right here,” called Wang as he removed his backpack and held it where Chameleon could see it.

Chameleon opened the back doors of the ambulance revealing boxes filled with pain killers and exotic drugs. The same drugs that fueled the opioid crisis that was ravaging the nation filled the pockets of opportunistic criminals with cash that their victims spent in desperate search of the next high. Wang tossed the bag to his hireling and leaned inside to examine the contents of the ambulance while Chameleon greedily ripped open the backpack and gleefully examined the money that had been stuffed into it.

“Wang, we should get outta here. The Ranger might find us. He been crushing us on the street,” Chameleon urged after quickly zipping the bag shut and throwing it over his shoulder.



“I’m not afraid. No one can push the Constrictors around. Not the Chinese, not the Italians, and especially not some freak in black. The others fell to the Ranger because they were not true soldiers. Do what you want, but my crew won’t hide,” Wang called over his shoulder.



The gang leader’s bravado and boasts worked to silence the fears of those that worked for Wang but offered little comfort for himself. He had heard about how the spectral vigilante had hunted down many of his top enforcers. Hunted them was not a strong enough word to use when you described how the Ranger had tracked down the hardened gang members and left them broken men. Now Wang himself was working the street and taking the same chances that had proven to be the undoing of his minions. Wang smoothed back his dark hair and tried to act like there was nothing to worry about, but he desperately wanted to be off of the street.



A sudden crashing sound made Wang slam the doors and dive behind the ambulance. Glancing around the corner he discovered that his BMW motorcycle had fallen against the brick wall of the building he had parked closest to. He immediately assumed that Chameleon had bumped into his bike. With a look of annoyance he searched for Chameleon. He was gone. Wang climbed to his feet and stepped out into the open. He planned on finding Chameleon and teaching him what happened when you "disrespect" his bike. Seconds after stepping away from the ambulance Wang found Chameleon. With a look of terror Chameleon fell into Wang with enough force to send both men crashing to the ground. Wang attempted to draw his gun. An unknown attacker’s foot slammed into the gangster’s hand and ripped the automatic pistol out of his hand and then kicked it away from him. Wang flailed desperately as he watched his gun skid across the asphalt sending sparks flying.

Wang shoved Chameleon off of him and then froze in terror. A man clad in a broad black hat and long black coat towered over him. Wang strained desperately to see the stranger’s face. All he could find were two eyes that glared down at him. The man had no face. His face was hidden in the shadows and behind a black full face mask. Only the man’s eyes were visible. The eyes were cold blue and glared down on him. The man held a large black revolver and it was aimed at him.

“No! You ain’t real!” Wang muttered.

“Am I a dream? Can a dream knock a gun from your hand?” the stranger asked in a harsh and grim voice that sounded like death.

“What do you want here?” Wang sputtered as he cleared his throat.

“I want the disease that you are spreading to stop. Tonight I will start with you and everything you hoped to sell,” the voice hissed.

“This is the property of the Constrictors,” Wang protested.

“No. It is the property of the city and the Great Falls nursing home. You cannot keep what is not yours. It will be returned and I will have both you and the puppet that you employed to dupe the hospital staff,” the man in black continued.

“Chameleon has a bag with thousands in it. Take the dough, take Cam too, and let me go.” Wang motioned towards the backpack.

“I don’t want money. A price has been set on both of you. A price that cannot be paid in cash. The cries of those that you have deprived and those that you have addicted have tipped the scales of justice and they must be balanced. Your very freedom will be the offering.”

Without warning Chameleon sprang to his feet and attempted to run past the man in black. The man reached out and touched Chameleon. With a violent jerk Chameleon crumpled to the ground with a yelp. The man in black spun around and found Wang running to the head of the alley. The gang leader stopped and motioned toward a large black luxury SUV that sat parked at the curb.

“Anacondas! Get over here! The Ranger thinks he’s gonna knock us over!” he shouted.

Four ski mask clad men filed out of the SUV and raced into the alley. They followed Wang with guns drawn. They stood next to the motorcycle searching for the masked man in black. Chameleon lay on the street unconscious and the ambulance sat undisturbed. There was no sign of the Ranger.

“Wang. Man, did you get spooked or something?” one of the men spat.

“Zip it! He’s here! He put the hex on Cam. Look at him.”

Without warning the man in black appeared in front of the motorcycle. The masked man seemed to glow as he stood and glared at the gang. The thugs leveled their pistols on the masked man and fired. They continued to fire until they had emptied their magazines. The bullets passed through the Ranger and dug into the brick wall. Wang’s motorcycle was riddled with bullets as well. The bullets that did not stop in the wall or bike ricocheted off the wall and forced the goons to hit the ground. All the while, the Ranger stood unfazed by Wang’s underworld vanguard. After reloading, the thugs fired again until their pistols clicked harmlessly. Without warning, the Ranger vanished.

The Ranger had watched the motorcycle massacre from a nearby fire escape. When the thugs were out of bullets he switched off his decoy and jumped down onto the roof of the ambulance. His movements were cloaked by the gun smoke that lingered in the alley and the temporary deafness of the gunmen. The ambulance bounced slightly when he landed and it was not until he had taken a few steps before one of the gang spun around, spotted the vigilante, shrieked, and drew the attention of the others. The thugs quickly turned toward the ambulance and stood gawking.

“Fools…” Ranger hissed.

“Take him!” Wang shouted to the others.

"We ain't got no more bullets!" one of the goons replied.

"We won't have no more 'til we knock over the delivery truck at Ace's Sporting Goods."

"Cut him then. I don't care! Just stop him! I order you!" Wang screeched frantically.

The thugs drew switch blades and approached the ambulance. When the Ranger did not join them on the ground they began to climb the metal box that made up the back of the vehicle. The Ranger glanced down at his steel gauntleted right hand, flicked his wrist, and sparks bounced between his fingers. The masked man then crouched and placed his right hand palm down on the roof of the ambulance. Electricity surged through the body of the vehicle. Protected by shielding, Ranger listened as the thugs cried out and fell to the ground stunned. He then climbed to his feet and looked down at the dazed criminals. Wang was not among them.

Wang streaked down the alley desperate to escape. He could rebuild his gang if he was free. The gang leader stumbled to a stop and doubled back when the Ranger appeared in front of him. His fear multiplied when he found himself face to face with the Ranger again. It was as if the Ranger was a spirit that could appear wherever he wanted. In a panic Wang attempted to hide in a stairwell that lead to a delivery entrance that was below street level.



“So kind of you to join me!” the Ranger’s voice boomed in a mocking laugh from the darkest part of the stairwell. With a shriek Wang raced up the stairs and hid behind several trash cans.



The sound of approaching sirens cut through the evening air. Wang wanted to flee but he was too terrified to move. Wang was the head of the Constrictors. He was the most feared man in the Korean community, and he was scared out of his mind. He watched as the Ranger slid down the side of the ambulance and walked toward him with his revolver drawn. How could you counter a force with so much power at his command? Wang threw a talisman made by a temple priest at the Ranger, but he did not stop. He crossed himself and faked prayer. Wang had nothing left. He simply sat and stared up at the Ranger dumbfounded.

“You have finally found a place that you belong,” Ranger mocked as he towered over Wang. Then with terrific speed the vigilante bound Wang hand and foot.



“Paid in full,” Ranger rasped after tying Wang to the rear bumper of the ambulance.

Without another word the Ranger turned and began to walk away. He leisurely reached into his pocket, retrieved a large silver coin, and flipped it into the air. The coin flashed as it flipped through the air end over end. It emitted a high pitched bell-like tone as it bounced off of the asphalt.

Minutes later police cars screeched to a halt at the head of the alley. Police officers jumped out of their cars with guns drawn and quickly secured the area. A woman with dark brunette hair emerged from an old Caprice and walked through the crime scene ignored by her fellow officers. The woman was in her 30’s and dressed in jacket, t-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. Her detectives badge was clipped to her belt and her hair betrayed the fact that she had hurriedly brushed it and bound it into a loose pony tail before answering the call. The woman’s dress and stride were carefully calculated to minimize the fact that she was a woman. The detective took in the crime scene as she walked. The Constrictors were one of the tougher gangs in the city. They controlled 80% of the drug trade in Northern Virginia, and all of it in Arlandria. There was only one man that could rip apart the Constrictors. It was her job to find that man and make sure that he did not meddle in police business.



The Detective found the Constrictors' ruthless leader tied to the bumper of an ambulance. The notorious drug lord appeared to actually be glad to see the police. In fact Wang was confessing to the drug robberies and begging for the police to return what had been stolen.

"Officer, where are the EMT's that go with this ambulance?" Britt asked the nearest policeman.

"According to records this ambulance was stolen a month ago," he replied.

"Something this big was missing for a month?" she sniffed.

"It got lost in paperwork before they noticed it missing," the officer shrugged.

“Take the junk away! The Ranger won’t curse me then!” Wang pleaded.

“Must have suffered a nervous breakdown or be injecting some of his product,” a sergeant commented as he watched Wang be freed from the bumper and then handcuffed.

“Are you new to this beat?” the lady detective inquired.

“I just transferred here from Dumfries,” the sergeant answered.

“I’m Detective Brittani Grant with the Ranger crimes unit. The Ranger is no drug induced illusion,” Britt replied.

“You mean he is for real?” The look of surprise on the sergeant's face matched the tone of his voice.

Britt was about to answer when the beam of her flashlight fell upon a silver object. It was a large coin. Britt put on a pair of gloves and then picked the coin up. The coin had the scales of justice engraved on it on both sides. Above the scales the phrase “Paid in full” was engraved. Britt stood up and dropped the coin into a plastic baggie and sealed it shut.

“What is that?” the sergeant inquired

“The Ranger’s calling card,” she answered.

“That could have prints and all sorts of forensic evidence. That should make things easier,” he interjected.

“It’s a nice thought. Won’t happen though," Britt replied knowingly and then turned and walked away.









CHAPTER 1



The return of the Bunnyman was not proclaimed in the papers or heralded by the evening news. In fact, not many knew that he was real at all. The excited reports of children who claimed to have seen a giant rabbit wandering around with an axe were mostly ignored. Those that did pay attention to what the children said were seldom able to catch sight of the elusive axe rabbit themselves. It was not until a week later that there was any proof that the urban legend existed. Police had responded to a 911 call from a retirement community and were confronted with obliterated mailboxes, broken car windows, and elderly witnesses who were scared stiff. To the chagrin of the investigators on the scene the witnesses described a man in a rabbit costume with an axe. The man had moved quickly and used the fading evening light to his advantage.

A week later the Bunnyman struck again. He had invaded a house party, beheaded an ice sculpture, and then fled. This had been the axe rabbit’s boldest crime yet. However, investigators quickly learned that everyone at the party was under the influence of drugs or drink. None would make a reliable witness. They arrested five people for possession of narcotics, but the Bunnyman escaped.

<>

The Thatch Cider Works was the first orchard that motorists passed after entering Hawksbill County. The orchard had been owned by the Thatch family since the late 1800s. Thatch Cider was well known for its quality and taste. The family had expertly cared for the orchard and the cider works for many generations. During prohibition the cider had gone from being a hard drink to a soft drink. When prohibition had been repealed hard cider returned and the orchard continued selling soft cider as well. The family orchard and cider works had survived through hard times and prosperity. When the family received threatening letters, they laughed and then posted guards.



Aaron Thatch sat in the cab of his old GMC pick-up drinking coffee from a thermos decorated with a green and brown camouflage pattern. Aaron had drawn the shortest straw and had received the unwanted honor of patrolling the orchard and farm overnight. The digital clock on the dashboard reminded the solitary man that the time was only 1AM. Through the open windows the sounds of crickets and an occasional coyote howl invaded the cab. In an effort to conserve both fuel and the truck battery, Aaron had been turning the engine both on and off. This routine had been the only thing that had kept Aaron awake. With a sigh he leaned forward and reached for the key. In an instant Aaron heard something outside and then felt something slam into the side of his head and the world faded into darkness as he slumped forward and hit the steering wheel.



Outside of the driver's side door of the truck stood a man dressed in a bunny costume. The intruder was tall and had all of his features hidden by his furry guise. The costume itself was what you would expect to see in an Easter parade or at an amusement park. It was covered in white fur, crowned with two floppy ears, and was adorned with a colorful bowtie. The rabbit would have appeared harmless if the observer had not witnessed it ram its fist into the side of Aaron Thatch's head. The truck horn belched when its driver had fallen into the wheel. The rabbit froze, glanced around, flung the driver's side door open, yanked the unconscious man from behind the wheel, and then dropped him onto the ground. Aaron did not wake; he simply lay on the ground unconscious. The bunny then stepped over his victim, retrieved an axe from the bushes, and climbed behind the wheel of the truck.

<>

Moses Thatch was the head of the Thatch family and the owner of the Thatch Orchard. To most of his family he was simply known as Pap. Years of work on the orchard had kept Moses thin, and the trees had partly shielded him from the sun. Moses walked through the Cider Works dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. When he passed under one of the hanging lights his brown hair, thin face, and full beard were highlighted momentarily and then he plunged back into darkness.



The family patriarch climbed up a set of stairs to a catwalk that allowed workers to maintain the large machinery that turned apples into cider. Moses paused, rested his arms on the railing, and looked out over the silver kettles that made the hard cider. Another set of kettles took a portion of the cider and slow boiled the alcohol out of it. This was the brew that had carried the orchard through the age of prohibition. A series of hoppers and conveyor belts fed pressing machines that separated the juice that would be poured into the kettles. The orchard and cider works had come a long way and Pap knew it. Each generation of the family had left its mark on the orchard and had enriched the legacy that the next generation would inherit. The Thatch Orchard had survived Reconstruction, the Depression, and two World Wars. It would take more than an anonymous letter to undo the blood sweat and tears that the Thatch family had invested over the years.



The sound of a vehicle approaching caught Moses' attention. The sound was familiar. It was the sound of Aaron's pick-up. There was something wrong though. The truck sounded like it was running at highway speed.



Seconds later the red GMC crashed through the barn doors and slammed into the tank that held the finished cider. The truck ricocheted off of machinery and fishtailed on the cider that was gushing out of the ruptured tank. It finally sputtered to a stop when it struck one of the machines, flipped, and slid under one of the massive cider tanks that the collision had ruptured. Hundreds of gallons of cider gushed out and began to flow across the floor.



Moses had been forced to cling to the catwalk railings as if his life depended on it. The impact of the truck had caused the catwalk to sway violently. After climbing to his feet Moses peered over the railing to discover that the pick-up lay on its side amidst the mangled pressing equipment. The truck's lights flickered as the cider mingled with the fuse box. The driver's side door had been ripped off. The cab of the truck was bent, twisted, and empty.



Terrified that his son might be hurt, Moses scrambled down the warped stairwell and began to search desperately for his son. He used all of his strength and cut his hands as he pried back pieces of twisted metal while he searched.



"Pap, is that you?" Aaron's voice called from outside.



Moses jumped up and turned toward the barn entrance. There standing among the splintered remains of the door stood Aaron with a look of complete shock. Aaron's ball cap was tilted to the side and his clothing was covered in dirt, but he was unhurt.



"What happened?" Moses finally managed to ask after catching his breath.



"I don't know. Someone hit me and knocked me out cold. When I woke up my truck was gone. How did it get in there?" Aaron motioned toward the pile of metal scrap that had been his truck.

<>

Blue Ridge Draft Horses was located just south of the Thatch Orchard. It was here that the rabbit hid in the shadows. The rabbit held the axe close to its body as it took cover behind the farm’s large wooden sign. It concealed the silver axe-head with a furry gloved hand as police cars streaked past the farm with sirens screaming. It would not do for the fabled Axe Rabbit of Northern Virginia to be caught. It was an enigma to be studied--not held in a cage.



After the cars had passed, the rabbit stood and walked over to the white wooden fence that bordered the pasture. It paused and listened. The sound of crickets and an occasional snort from the barn told the vandal rabbit that it was safe. With a grunt and a mighty swing it drove the axe head deep into the fence rails. With a few more swings the top rail was decimated and the axe rabbit turned its attention toward the second. On the third rail the rabbit tripped a motion sensor and a network of crude lamp posts illuminated the border of the pasture.



Lights winked on inside of the farmhouse as well. Before the rabbit could find cover, a portly man dressed in a robe emerged from the house carrying a shotgun. The man stood frozen momentarily after making out the form of the rabbit costume and axe. He quickly recovered and the sound of the pump shotgun being cocked alerted the rabbit that it was no longer stalking prey that would surrender all without a fight.

“Who’s out there?” the man bellowed.

Without a word the rabbit fled. The man ran to his pickup.



<>



Justin Vernon worked as a driver for Parcel Express. When he had picked up his rig at the depot he had expected a quiet run to Winchester. Justin sang along with his favorite CD as he navigated his Kenworth through Hawksbill. He had just begun to build up speed when a white figure darted across the road. Startled, Justin slammed on the brakes and the tractor trailer skidded to a stop. Without warning the truck's headlights failed.



Shaken, Justin set the parking brake, opened the door, and climbed to the ground with his tire thumper in one hand and a flash light in the other. The air reeked with the smell of burnt rubber, brakes, and diesel exhaust. Cautiously he walked to the front of his truck. The truck's headlights appeared to have been smashed out, but the rest of the truck was unhurt. The sound of an approaching semi caught Justin’s attention. He turned, spotted a truck approaching, and waived for him to stop. When the truck did not show any sign of slowing he tried to contact its driver using the CB. There was no response. The truck passed without stopping. It’s payload of two older John Deere tractors appeared to be more important than helping a fellow trucker. Justin searched hoping to find a plate or company name on the truck. There were none.



"Did you see him?" a stranger called out to Justin startling him.



Justin turned and shined his flashlight in the voice’s direction. He found a heavyset man standing in front of a Ford pickup that sat at the end of a gravel road.



"I saw something," Justin conceded.



"It was a giant rabbit, or a man dressed like a rabbit. Whatever it was, it had an axe," the stranger stated.



CHAPTER 2



The rural town of Hawksbill, Virginia was south of Front Royal and north of Luray. On a whim Carl Upton had driven through Front Royal and had followed the rural two-lane highway south as it wrapped its way through the valley. The road followed the Shenandoah River closely and plunged between large outcroppings of stone. The drive was scenic and relaxing. It gave Carl time to review his sales pitch before reaching Falcon's Rest. He was the head of a large land development corporation that planned on building in the Shenandoah Valley. It was for this reason that Carl Upton had bravely ventured out of the urban maze known as Northern Virginia.

Free of traffic, Upton set the cruise control of his Mercedes and adjusted his GPS. Fields, forest, and fenced-in pastures blurred past the window as the luxury sedan closed the gap between itself and Hawksbill.

Twenty minutes later Upton found himself at the Hawksbill town limits. He was certain that Falcon's Rest was just north of Hawksbill, yet he had observed nothing that would have betrayed the presence of a large farm estate. Carl was ahead of schedule so he decided that he would look around town and then ask one of the locals for directions.

Five feet past the posted city limits a sign welcomed visitors to the historic town of Hawksbill. The sign was in good repair and freshly painted. A cluster of dogwood trees stood watch over the sign and a single wrought-iron park bench. Upton veered onto Main Street and dropped down to 25 miles per hour.

Main Street stretched out before the visiting developer. Either side of Main Street was lined with either brick or white washed buildings. Many of the buildings were pre-civil war in construction. Several of the newer buildings were built in the more modern style of the 1930's. Most of the shops had awnings and benches in front of them. The largest building appeared to be the two story courthouse that was built in the center of town. Not far from the courthouse was the second largest building, the Springfield Tavern. Across the street from the tavern was a small brick building. Bronze letters bolted to the brick wall announced to the world that the building in question was indeed the Sheriff's Office. Upton parked in front of Moran's Drug Store and got out of his car. He stood mystified momentarily as he absorbed his surroundings. The town of Hawksbill was pleasant. On top of that, it felt genuine. It was not a tourist trap with a historic façade. A smile grew on Carl's face as he envisioned a gilded Hawksbill with a Mariner's coffee shop on every corner. He dreamed of a community where unpaved and rutted roads and dirty farm trucks would soon be replaced by luxury cars and trendy boutiques. The future would be bright for Hawksbill. The present and the past would have to be cut away first though.



The town square took Upton by surprise. It appeared to be a park that began at the steps of the courthouse and extended toward Main Street and divided it. Out of curiosity the developer journeyed into the park. The park was lined with saplings that were spread throughout. The center of the park was the home of three statues. In the very center of the park were statues of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington appeared to be holding a map and showing it to the Marquis. The two statues stood at the center of a giant compass that was constructed using colored gravel. The other statue was just as ornate. The third statue was that of a woman with her back turned to the north. She was dressed in a gown similar to what was worn during the Civil War. The woman’s head was bent in prayer, eyes closed, and hands clasped in supplication. At the woman’s feet rested a bag of grain and a sickle. A historic marker nearby read “Lady Hope: Lord Give us strength to start anew.” Upton was astounded to find such a park outside of a major city. He had assumed that those that lived in the country were rubes with little taste for the finer things.



Realizing that he was running out of free time, Upton quickly exited the park and entered the first business that he saw. The developer stepped through the pharmacy door swinging it wide open. Stepping inside he found four aisles filled with cures for whatever might ail you. In the back of the shop was the pharmacist's counter. The far right wall featured a bait cooler and a counter that housed a small selection of fishing rods.

"Can I help you?" a voice called to Upton.

Upton turned to his right and found a man dressed in a white lab coat, polo shirt, and slacks. The man was middle aged with graying hair. He stood by his cash register as if he were a captain in authority over a ship.

"I am a bit lost. I was trying to find Falcon's Rest. I think I missed it," Upton explained.

"You sure did. If you drive north out of town, hang a left on Vigilant Lane. You won't be able to miss the place," the clerk replied.

After driving north out of town Upton found Vigilant Lane. Vigilant Lane quickly faded from pavement to gravel and was bordered by two well kept pastures. Ten feet off of the road Upton found an open gated entrance. The gates were black wrought iron and featured falcons in their ornamentation. An arch of wrought iron crafted to look like a vine held a sign above the gate. The name Falcon's Rest was woven into the wrought iron arch.

Upton drove on and soon found himself approaching the farm estate. To his surprise the estate appeared to have a guest cottage. At least that was what he assumed it was. The cottage had fresh white paint, windows that were trimmed with stained glass, and what appeared to be a small flower garden. A silver Lincoln Continental sedan parked in front of the cottage was what Upton based his assumption on. The rest had been supporting evidence.

Upton parked his car in front of the main house. After smoothing his suit, straightening his tie, and checking his reflection in the car mirror Upton retrieved his portfolio from the trunk, closed it, and then casually studied the historic house.

The main house was two stories tall and had been built prior to the Civil War. Upton knew that much. He knew very little about the rest. The home had been subtly modernized. Twenty feet from the house stood a barn. The barn was large, red, and seemed to be slightly different than many Upton had seen. The barn was vastly different from the modern barns that Upton could see one hundred feet to the left of the house. Those barns were occupied by horses and humans. Confident that he knew the lay of the land Upton shifted his attention back to the main house and its occupant, Trenton Stewart.

Carl Upton had hoped for an easy sale when he exited his Mercedes, marched up to the door of the large country estate, and pressed the doorbell. The home he was visiting was a grand antebellum-style home with wrap-around porches on both the first and second floors. Photos of homes like this were often used by his company to attract developers to properties that the company had purchased. They often built five homes this size, crammed close together in the suburbs.

“Can I help you, Sir?” a stout young man with sandy hair and clad in a dark suit inquired after opening the door.

“My name is Carl Upton. I represent Travailian Corporation. I have an appointment with Mr.Trenton Stewart,” Upton explained.

“My name is George. You are expected, sir. Please follow me,” George replied after motioning for Upton to step inside. He then closed the door behind him.

Inside Carl Upton found himself standing in a large foyer that led to a grand stairway that was accented by intricately carved hardwood railings. George motioned for Upton to follow him, walked past the stairway, and continued walking down the hallway that ran to the right of the stairs. The butler stopped at the first door on the right, opened it, and motioned for Upton to enter. With a nod, Upton stepped through the doorway and the butler closed the door behind him.

The office Upton now found himself in was larger than his own. The walls were decorated with paintings of horses. The rest of the room's furnishings were what one would expect in a modern office. However, the decoration that Upton liked the most was the woman that sat behind a large antique walnut desk on the other side of the office. Her hair color was a deep shade of red that could only be natural. The woman's exotic tresses were handsomely arranged in a becoming fashion. The woman's eyes were a pale green and her face was elegant and delicate. Her features were softened by a soft layer of fair skin. The woman appeared to be one or two pounds too nourished to meet the superficial and underfed standards that he set for his eye candy assistants. Still, if Red were to ditch the tailored business outfit for something more “stimulating”, Upton would consider her a quite appealing addition to the office decor.

"I'm here to see Mr. Stewart. My name is Carl Upton. You can call me Carl," he announced with a toothy smile.

“Mr. Upton, I am Miss Roane. Mr. Stewart is ready to see you now,” the woman informed Upton in a tone filled with an accent that Upton could not quite place. “Through there,” she added and directed the visiting executive toward an open doorway near her desk.

“Thank you. You are such a fair Irish rose,” Upton ventured with a smile and leaned against her desk wolfishly.

“I am Bresian,” Caite began with a look of distaste as she slid her chair back increasing the gap between them.

Before Upton could respond he felt something pen-like roll under his hand and slide it forward. Upton recovered his balance but the pen rolled off the desk and landed on the hard wood floor with a clack. Upton glanced down and found that the pen was a fancy roller ball pen. He also noticed that Miss Roane had focused her attention on the pen and appeared to have grown agitated. Upton quickly scooped the pen up and placed it back on Miss Roane’s desk.

“That’s a fine pen. You must be an excellent secretary,” he grasped for a way to ingratiate himself after sending the fine writing instrument crashing to the floor.



“To be precise I am the estate manager,” Miss Roane replied firmly. Upton quickly shifted his gaze to the Tiffany lamp that hung from the office ceiling. A second glance warned the developer that the manager viewed herself as something other than eye candy. Without a word he hurried into the office before he could do any more damage.

Trenton Stewart and his office made Upton do a double-take. Just inside the door was a coat rack and umbrella stand. A brown western style jacket hung on the rack. A Stetson hat dangled from a hook connected to the rack. Sitting on the floor next to the rack was the umbrella stand which was filled to capacity with canes. Every cane in the stand was different. Some were carved, some had wooden handles, and all were unique.

Upton shifted his gaze to the gun cabinet that stood parallel to the wall. The cabinet was made of hardwood and etched glass that had to have been custom made. Inside the cabinet rested four lever action rifles and a shotgun. The rifles were classic in design and the shotgun was plain. The cabinet was surrounded by framed photographs. Some of the photos were taken at the police academy; others were taken at various derby races.

A small bookcase sat in the corner. The shelves were filled with books on equine medicine, law, thoroughbreds, draft horses, and on horse therapy. A huge horse shoe was tacked to the wall next to the book case and under the horse shoe was a “First Place” ribbon from an event called the “Plowman’s Classic” Upton tried to profile Stewart based on what he observed. He was at a loss.

Trenton Stewart was the son of an influential Virginia family whose influence was divided between two industries. Franklin Stewart, his father, was the senior partner of Stewart and Monroe, a powerful law firm that had a stellar reputation. Robert Stewart, Stewart’s elder uncle, owned Falcon’s Rest Thoroughbreds. Rumor had it that Franklin Stewart and his wife had sent their son to one of the finest colleges in the country. To his parents’ dismay he used his knowledge of the law to serve and protect the community as an Arlandria Police Officer. Now, after being handicapped in the line of duty, he had taken over the fortune and farm that was Falcon’s Rest. The articles that Upton had read did not include photos, so Stewart’s appearance came as a surprise. Trenton Stewart was tall, well-built, and dressed in a western cut shirt and jeans. His hair was dark brown and was worn free of any type of gel or oil. Upton would have shallowly pegged him for a hayseed if he had not known better.

Seated behind his large desk, Stewart studied Carl Upton as he approached. In appearance Upton looked like an oily car salesman, not an executive. In fact, the small well-primped man in the designer suit reminded Stewart of several con men that he had arrested when he was an Arlandria police officer. The fact was that Stewart’s impressions were not far from the truth. Over the years Travailian Corporation had built quite a reputation for itself, and it was not good. The most notorious train robbers of the old west would have marveled at the amount of money Travailian Corporation could glean for itself with a pen and paper.

“Mr. Stewart, it is a rare pleasure to meet a man such as yourself. I know our meeting will be fruitful,” Upton greeted Stewart enthusiastically.

“Mr. Upton, I am not certain what kind of fruit you hope for,” Stewart returned the greeting and allowed Upton to begin his presentation.

<>

“Clearly you can see the benefits of encouraging some of your neighbors to sell their land to my company,” Upton finished his pitch.

“I am not certain that I am comfortable with the demographic that you are trying to throw onto this area. $600,000 for a four-bedroom home is a bit much. From the plans it looks more like it is worth little more than $125,000,” Stewart observed skeptically after looking at the floor plans that Carl Upton had placed before him. "My neighbors would say that the price you are asking is too high. I would agree with them too," he added.

“They are not the demographic we are aiming for with this private community. Surely you can’t deny that this community could bring a brighter future to the area,” Upton replied.

"This area is all farm land. There is nothing that would interest the people you want to lure out here and sell a quarter acre to for $600,000. We have orchards, cows, corn, and horses. No golf courses or country clubs."

"The area can change. Trust me, Mr. Stewart, I have developed communities like this before."

"What is phase 1?" Stewart tapped his finger on a section of the proposed community that would be built directly against his pastures.

The large gold ring that Stewart wore on his left hand caught the light and reflected it back in shades of gold. The deep gold color of the ring was out of place in a world that valued glitz. Instead of a precious stone, the ring's bezel was engraved with the image of a hawk perched on a branch. Upton marveled at the ring. It was a reminder of ancient authority.

"Phase 1?" Stewart pressed.

"That will be the Hunter's Retreat club and game range," Upton explained proudly.

"What is a game range?"

"It will be a large fenced in section of land that will be stocked with game animals. Community members will be invited to seasonal hunts. It will be a separate part of the community."

"So you are going to fence in animals to shoot?" Stewart's tone hardened slightly. The look of disgust that he was giving Upton made him worry. He then closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair momentarily.

"I don’t see why that would be a problem. Hunting is not a crime." Upton leaned forward.

"No, hunting is not a crime. Your game range would not be hunting though. There is no sport in going after an animal that cannot escape or fight back," Stewart replied.

"Is that your only concern?" Upton pressed.

"No. What happens when one of your so called hunters shoots one of my horses? They could even hit the house or the guest house."

"That is a matter that can be discussed once the land has been purchased from the land owner. I suspect that he will have the final say." Upton attempted to reshuffle the deck and retake control of the negotiation.

"You think that the owner will sell to you?" a smile grew across Stewart's face.

"I don't see why not. I am offering above the market value for the land."

"I own that land. It is not and will never be for sale," Stewart replied.

"What?" Upton choked.

Stewart’s soft-spoken tone and Virginia accent had lulled the real estate developer into thinking that he would be a push over. He thought the gentleman farmer’s calm nature was a sign of weakness. He quickly learned that he was wrong. Upton reeled from the whiplash.

"If you would have done your research you would have known that I own that land."

"Now see here, you are being greedy about this!" Upton said as he fumbled through his paperwork.

"Greedy, am I?" Stewart casually tapped his fingertips on the arm of his chair.

"I NEED the hunter's retreat!" Upton slapped his hand on the map.

"Not interested in the least."

"Mr. Stewart, you are known to be a generous man. How is it that you would knowingly deny your neighbors the jobs that my company could offer?"

“Jobs? You must think I am a fool. Those contractors will hire crews from all over the globe, and will not offer a single job locally. I have seen it happen!” Stewart shot forward in his chair, startling Upton.

“No need to get upset, Mr. Stewart. I knew that you must have the community’s best interests at heart, so I recommended to the board of directors that we build a library and name it after the founder of your thoroughbred empire, Trenton E. Stewart,” Upton played his ace card. Stewart’s expression darkened.

“So, we have come to the bribe. Mr. Upton, I did not take bribes when I was a cop, and I will not take them now. Your time is up. Get out.”

“But...”

“Leave now,” Stewart repeated his order after leaning forward in his chair.

Unnerved, Carl Upton hopped out of his seat, quickly gathered his portfolio, and hurried out of the office. However, after stepping into the manager’s office and shutting the door, Upton decided to try one more tactic. If he could not deal with Stewart himself, perhaps he could persuade the manager to help him. No doubt his offer would sound infinitely more appealing if it came from the ruby red lips of Miss Roane.

Miss Roane sat at her desk with all of her attention focused on the pen that had fallen. The pen rattled and clicked when she gently twisted the barrel side to side. After a moment’s contemplation Upton strutted up to the estate manager’s desk and sat down on the edge of it. He had strategically chosen the corner of the desk closest to Miss Roane and was quite pleased with the view of the woman’s profile that the angle allowed.

“Excuse me..” he began.

Miss Roane had been so focused on trying to repair her pen that she had not noticed Upton enter the room. When she swiveled in her chair and found the aspiring letch perched on her desk and leering down on her, Caite reacted. Her feet kicked out sending her roller chair backwards. As she pounced to her feet she bumped the piston on her pen and it sprayed ink on Upton. Papers and file folders fell to the floor as Upton jumped to his feet and stared down at the ink that now stained his formerly white shirt.



“So sorry!” he quickly recovered and collected the papers placing them on her desk in an untidy pile.



“WHAT were you doing on my desk?!” Miss Roane demanded. Her cheeks were bright red with suppressed anger and her green eyes flashed with fury as she challenged him.



“Miss Roane, I am so sorry about the confusion. I was wondering if you could help me,” Upton began after double-checking her name on the nameplate which sat on her desk.

“What kind of help do you need?” Miss Roane inquired with an expression that made Upton suspect that the estate manager wished that she was armed with more than a broken pen.

“It’s a delicate matter,” Upton began. “A matter that requires insight other than my own,” he continued after insuring that the door that separated the two offices was indeed closed. When he turned he found Miss. Roane reaching inside her upper desk drawer. If he did not sway her quickly he may end up with a face full of pepper spray or falling victim to a stun gun.

“Please, hear me out!” he pleaded.

“Why would you want my insight?” Miss Roane’s expression was a mixture of distrust and interest.



“This must be a hard place to work and Mr. Stewart a hard man to work for,” Upton speculated. Miss Roane remained silent but he could tell by the look of challenge and indignation that flashed across her face that she found the work to be quite the opposite.

“It’s a fine place to work,” Miss Roane stated.

Upton removed his phone from his pocket, glanced at it, and then returned his attention to Miss Roane. The young woman was standing next to her desk with her hand resting on what looked like a clock radio. He walked up to the desk and glanced down at the pile of papers. One of them had Stewart’s signature.



“Mr. Stewart must rely heavily on you,” he commented.



“He’s his own man.” Miss Roane’s jaw tightened.



“But is he a smart man? I wonder?” Upton mused.



“I will not stand here and l..” Miss Roane began.



“I was trying to tell your boss how beneficial it would be to open this area up for development.” I am afraid he is not smart enough to see it,” Upton began. “I am certain that you could help me make him understand. Of course, I would return the favor. We could get you a special deal in one of our new communities,” Upton explained after stepping closer to her.

Miss Roane’s expression had shifted from one of mild distaste to one of absolute and complete disgust.

“Could you please open the door and repeat that?” the manager replied coolly.

“Why?”

“Mr. Stewart had the door open when he dealt with you. He always has the door open when he does business, and I intend to do the same. Now open the door to his office and repeat your offer, or leave through my door. Your choice.”

“Are you certain that is what you want?”

Before Caite could answer, Stewart’s office door flew open and Trenton Stewart stomped into the room, cane in hand.

“So, you were trying to bribe someone else?” Stewart snarled.

“How did you know?” Upton squeaked with a mystified expression.

“You thought yourself quite the sly fox when you shut the door. I switched on the intercom the moment the door closed,” Miss Roane explained. With a triumphant smile she patted the intercom that she had been resting her hand on.

“The option has now changed, Upton. You can either get off of my property and never return or I can call the sheriff and have him haul you off. It’s your choice.”

Hearing this, Upton quickly retreated. Two minutes and one slam of the door later Carl Upton was out the front door and running for his car.



“Caite, are you ok?” Stewart turned toward her with a look of concern.

“Yes,” she replied after taking a deep breath. “Think we will see anymore of him?” Miss Roane continued as they watched through the office window.

“I doubt if he will show his face here again, Caite, though he will probably make trouble. He’s a little sneak and people like him can be persistent and cowardly annoyances,” Stewart replied and walked back into his office.

After sitting down in his office chair, Stewart propped his right leg up and leaned back. He wondered how long it would be before the mayor called on Upton's behalf. The mayor was an honest man, but he had not gotten over the Paramount Airlines fiasco. The sound of heels and a gentle knock on the door frame turned Stewart's thoughts away from his recent visitor. After shifting his gaze from one of the photographs on the far wall, he found Caite standing in the doorway. She appeared to be observing him.

Caite had pale mint green eyes that sparkled and displayed the craftsmanship of the divine artist as she gazed at him from the doorway. Caite’s doe-eyed expressions often bewitched him almost to the point of staring at her in slack jawed awe.

"I think 'twas noble of you to stand up for the deer," she stated.

"Thanks. I may complain about the deer when they occasionally get into the horse feed, but they deserve to live. If you are going to hunt, actually go out into the woods and hunt."









CHAPTER 3

Not wanting to be arrested, Carl Upton wasted no time in getting to his car. After diving into the luxury sedan, he threw it into gear and tore down the gravel driveway, squealing and bouncing onto the main road and leaving a cloud of dust behind him. Once he was sure that he was safely off the property, Upton regained his courage and composure. He removed his cell phone from the armrest and started to dial. Upton's frown deepened when he found that his phone was unable to maintain a connection with the nearest tower.

Upton tossed the expensive smart phone onto the passenger side seat and drove until he found a Mallard gas station with a pay phone. Upton parked close to the phone booth and watched it for a few minutes. When he was certain that few people would be around to observe him; Upton climbed out of his car, walked over to the battered pay phone, inserted money, and dialed.

“No sale. We will have to use stimulation to get the properties,” Upton informed whoever answered the phone. “Yes, it was foolish of him. His neighbors could have made a fortune. Instead they will take whatever we give them,” he added after listening a moment.

After finishing his phone call, Upton glanced around, pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped the handset and the number pad clean, hung the phone up, and then casually walked back to his car.

<>

Free of the money-grubbing presence of Carl Upton, Stewart sat back down at his desk and returned to reading the latest issue of the Old Dominion Herald. With the visitor gone, the normal sounds of the office returned. The mechanical ticking of the clock on the wall, the rustle of the newspaper, and the sound of Caite working in the office next door were what Stewart was used to--not amoral executives wheeling and dealing. Seconds later the phone rang and Caite answered.

“Mr. Stewart, Mary Jo Ketley is on the phone,” Caite informed her boss after walking into the office.

“Caite, please have a seat and we will see what our arch rival wants,” Stewart smiled. Caite took a seat in the leather chair vacated by Upton earlier while Stewart propped his feet up, snatched his cane, and used it to push the speakerphone button on his desk phone.

“Hello,” Stewart began.

“Trenton, is that you?” a woman’s voice radiated from the phone. It was spiced with Tennessee twang.

“Yes, it’s me, Mary Jo.”

“Oh, Trenton, it is wonderful to hear your voice. I was just thinkin’ about you sittin’ in yer office behind yer desk all alone. You know, it hurts me so to think of you in that forlorn and lonely state,” Mary Jo poured it on.

“I’m not alone. I have Caite, George, and Mrs. Moore to keep me company,” Stewart informed her with a twinkle in his eye.


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