My newest project, Eli’s story came to me in a flash of light, a single instant of revelation that took my breath away. As I listened to my Daniel talk to his mother on the phone one day, I heard her say something that inspired me instantly, so really I give, besides God, my sweet mother-in-law full credit. J
Funny thing is, Eli isn’t the kind of character she would imagine, I don’t think. A combination of Lincoln Burroughs from the FOX television show Prison Break (RIP favorite show ever) and West Coast Chopper’s Jesse James (Mr. Sandra Bullock), Eli holds Atlas-proportioned weight on his shoulders – the death of his best friend during their tour of duty in Iraq, the lost love of a girl he would have married, the bitter memories of a family whose oppressive religious practices drove him away. He’s a bartender in middle-of-nowhere, AZ, rides a Harley, sports several tattoos, struggles with his temper.
Little does he know, Someone’s looking for him. And He’s willing to do anything to find him. For Eli, things are about to get a lot worse.
Here’s chapter one… like Charlie (from Someone Beautiful), please be patient with my Eli. Under the tough-guy exterior, you may find someone who just needs a little love.
For Eli Hart, life ended long ago.
Going through the motions didn’t even apply.
More like perpetual motion. Downward.
His motorcycle, a Harley of course, sputtered to a stop in front of Ron’s Roadside Run-in – Triple R for short. Without the engine grind, the startling contrast of desert silence overwhelmed him. Eli sat a moment to listen. The rest of the day promised nothing but out-dated country songs on the jukebox and barstools scratching against hardwood floors as truck drivers, motorcycle herds and a few locals bellied up to the bar to escape the Arizona heat.
Wait. Country songs never out dated.
Parking lot dust whirled as a rusty pick-up skidded to a halt next to him. Eli pushed plain, black Raybands up to his slick forehead and peered at Natalie Dancer, the petite, not to mention pretty, copper-skinned driver.
Eyebrows arched, she glanced at him through the open window. “What? I’m not late yet.” She pulled the keys from the ignition and smashed them up into the sun visor.
Shrugging, he said, “I didn’t say a word.” Just like he wouldn’t mention – again - his objection to where she stored her keys.
“You don’t have to.” She removed a windblown mouthful of jet-black hair. After snatching up a denim clutch purse and a tanned cowboy hat, she reached for the latch. She had to shove on the door to get it open. “It’s written all over your face, Eli.”
He suppressed a smirk. “You never did read too good.”
“Sorta like how you talk?” She slid to the ground and planted the hat on her head. Even with the hat, she only almost reached his biceps.
“Your brakes need a tune up, Nat,” he commented, working to keep his gaze on her face, not the hint of cleavage peeking out from her black tank top.
She slammed the truck door with all her pint-sized might. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“I don’t mind taking a look-“
“Derek’ll be home tomorrow. Thanks, though.” She grinned, then skipped off toward the front door.
Eli pressed his lips together trying not to growl out loud. He dismounted his iron steed, shoved the keys into the front pocket of his Wrangler’s and followed her into the tavern.
Deputy Harold Dancer from the Wellton Station sat in his usual place at the head of the counter where he could see the front door. Nat had her lips pressed up against his leathery cheek. “Morning, Daddy,” she cooed, then flitted behind the bar and through the old fashioned, swinging saloon doors leading into the kitchen.
“It’s almost noon,” the old man grumbled, weathered facial lines deepening into canyons as he frowned. He looked every bit his ancestry, like a Quechan Indian chief presiding over a tribal council meeting, except for the rumpled, sand-colored uniform and varnished, six-pointed star.
“Almost noon is still morning,” Natalie called from the back corner of the kitchen where employees, the women anyhow, kept their belongings.
He rolled his eyes at Eli. “Hello, Son.”
Eli gave him a nod, gritting his teeth against the dive his stomach took every time Harold Dancer called him son, which happened to be most days at almost noon. Longing cowered to guilt as he reminded himself, it had been his own damn fault.
He grabbed a rag to polish an already-clean mug behind the counter. “What’s the scanner report this morning, Harold?”
“So far, so good,” he mumbled before slurping his coffee. He cleared his throat with a quick, snarly hack. “Heading over to Asher to check out a car theft after I calm Mrs. Beatty down at the Park. New RV showed up last night. The partying type, apparently.” He shrugged and his lips turned down as one dark eyebrow went up. “Basic business.”
Eli nodded. Basic business was a good thing, considering the alternative, as well as Natalie’s particular attachment to her father. Anything other than basic made her worry. “Probably need a refill on that coffee before you go.” He picked up the urn and sloshed around the remaining liquid.
With the stubbed tip of his index finger, Harold tapped once on the brim of his cup.
As Eli poured, an ancient– at least classic as phones go – pushbutton rang a genuine ding-a-ling-a-ling. By the second ring, he managed to snag the scuffed, traditional black receiver and tuck it under his ear, squeezing it with a rounded shoulder. He winced at the twinge in his neck muscles. “Triple R, this is Eli.”
After the shortest conversation possible, he hung up and shook his head. “Fantastic.”
Natalie breezed through the saloon doors, tying a tired-looking apron around her trim waist. “What’s wrong?”
“Brandi’s kid’s sick again,” Eli reported.
She rolled her expressive brown eyes. “What else is new?”
Eli cringed and held his breath. He hoped with all his heart this didn’t ruin her good mood. Natalie resembled a hot-wired Mustang Convertible, irresistible, 0-60 in less than ten seconds, a wild ride, but a dangerous one too. He bore the tread marks to prove it. Of course, some of that had to do with his driving record.
“Well, good. Bring it. More tips for me.” She flashed a smile as she ducked under the part of the bar that flips up and headed for the dark jukebox behind the pool table.
Eli exchanged glances with Harold, both of them exhaling in relief.
Situated on Interstate 8 a good thirty miles from any real town, Ron’s Roadside Run-in provided services not unlike the old watering stops along the railroad tracks running across southern Arizona. Sure, they served a dozen or so locals, but most of their clientele consisted of unfamiliar faces, and only the kind willing to stop at what amounted to a shack in the middle of nowhere sporting those special, colorful neon lights flashing in the window. So Eli wasn’t surprised to see the trio of leather-clad members of a motorcycle herd, as he liked to call them, saunter in a few minutes after six that evening. Still, this type he liked to keep an eye on.
They took the last available table, a four top in the corner.
Within seconds, Natalie sidled up to them, tray in hand, offering her dazzling smile. The lanky one with a pitiful handlebar mustache and beady eyes sneered at her and landed a playful tap on her leg, just under her hip.
Eli’s skin prickled with irritation. It’s not like it didn’t happen… all the time.
True to form, Natalie dipped away from another advance, waving a naughty finger at the guy’s nose. A bigger fellow sitting across from raunchy biker number one beamed up at her with puffy cheeks. He said something that made his two companions bust out laughing.
Apparently, he had just introduced himself as raunchy biker number two.
Natalie’s smile turned cautious and she took a step backwards.
Shoving a long glass under the tap nozzle, Eli clenched his jaw. He’d made the mistake of stepping in too early before, but damn, it was hard to wait. Frothy, white foam spilled over onto his hand, diverting his gaze. With the towel hanging over his shoulder, he wiped clean the glass then set it in front of a middle-aged, local farmer. “There you go, Mr. Oliver.”
Bright blue eyes twinkled up at him. “Now, Eli, how many times do I have to tell you? Call me Winchester.”
“Yes, sir,” Eli answered with a half smile, but his eyes followed Natalie as she stalked back to the bar. He met her at the end where the register sat, his pulse quickening at the sight of her distraught expression. He bit down on his tongue.
“Three Buds,” she said, grabbing a bowl of pretzels. Without meeting his gaze, she headed back to the table.
Resisting the need to catch her elbow, he filled the order, keeping his eyes on her the whole time. Besides obvious and objectionable ogles, the guys didn’t attempt to touch her again. Although it grated his last nerve, Eli couldn’t react. Natalie was definitely worth ogling.
He had the beers ready by the time she returned. He watched her every movement, looking for any indication that she’d had enough. A smile almost reached his lips. Of course, she’d never let on that she couldn’t handle a couple of rough necks. Well, as long as they stuck to window shopping.
He turned his head and cringed inside. Madeline Dancer, Natalie’s almost schizophrenic mother, stared at him with icy blue eyes framed by thick, press-on eyelashes. Her Easter egg hair swirled around her head and bright pink lip gloss added emphasis to her every word. She lived in a constant state of 1950.
“Yes, ma’am?” he managed.
“Coke’s out. Might want to keep on top of that, honey.” With a crinkle of her crow’s feet, she clip clopped in platform sandals to the pool table where several local teens hovered. “Justin Quick, if you don’t have your papa’s broad shoulders, I declare.”
“You’d think she owned the place,” he muttered for the millionth time as he threw a cautionary glance at Natalie before pushing through the saloon doors. In the quieter din of the kitchen, he heard the sputtering CO2 that, from the front, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 belting from the jukebox had drowned out.
Ward Diamond, the head grille operator otherwise known as the cook, glanced over his hunched shoulder, a smirk showing through his salt and pepper stubble. “It just started hissin’. Tell her to take a valium.” He plunged a wire wrack into bubbling, snapping grease.
Eli had to chuckle. If he could count on Ward for anything, it was his total and unrelenting loathing of Madeline Dancer. He and Ron survived Viet Nam together and were nigh inseparable… except when she interfered.
Although claiming she had put enough sweat and tears into the Triple R over the years to deserve her fair share in its ownership, Madeline sure worked hard to cozy up to the real owner, who happened to be a decent guy in Eli’s humble opinion. But like most men, especially tired, disillusioned middle-aged men with comb-overs, Ron Nivens had a weakness for flattery… and cleavage. And who could blame him? Eli had the same weaknesses… well, one of the two.
Still, it didn’t make taking her orders any easier.
Task complete, he stood and swiped his hands against the seat of his jeans.
The saloon doors snapped back, cracking like a whip when they hit the walls. Natalie gripped the stainless steal sink. “Sick bastards.”
“Holy Toledo, girl,” Ward exclaimed, ducking behind a spatula he flung up to shield himself from whatever he thought might follow her arrival… shrapnel maybe.
Eli’s fists clenched with involuntary force. “Nat?”
For a fraction of a second, she stared at him with an open expression of fear before her chiseled mask reappeared. “Oh… hey…”
“What happened?” He didn’t move, afraid of his anger, like the Hulk. He even saw green a little bit.
“Nothin’ really,” she quipped, shrugging and grinning an awful, fake grin. “Same old crap, you know. Just needed a little breather.”
He hated when she used that tone of voice, and he winced with angry irritation. His gaze took a systematic sweep over her body, a fact-finding mission only for once. That’s when he saw it. Above her elbow, red impressions blossoming rapidly into purple, the perfect pattern of a set of fingers.
His restraint snapped.