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The sun had set hours ago, but Geoff Otto drove through the streets of Fort Collins, the kaleidoscope colors of neon signs and streetlights casting harsh colors upon the busy streets. Fort Collins was one of those university cities that craved all the luxuries of a metropolis but fought hard to keep its Wild West roots. He snorted aloud at the thought. It was a losing battle.
Geoff checked the time on his wristwatch; he was going to be late. He shifted in his seat as he adjusted his trousers. Geoff was not in the best of shape. He had a round belly and a pasty complexion, and much of the hair on his scalp had left him long ago. What he lacked in looks, though, he made up for in temperament and drive. He was slow to anger yet protective of the life he had spent decades working towards. Being the senior partner in an established architectural firm in a city that couldn’t stop growing lent him a great deal of power. With that power came politics and the occasional rabble-rouser who wanted to push him off his throne. Power was not easy to keep hold of. It required constant nurturing and pruning, drafting designs, and cultivating relationships. He’d had a particularly trying day at work today in regard to weeding out a certain problem and was glad to have a pleasant diversion to take his mind off of things.
The lights of the city were fading as he drove north. The next town up was Wellington, a small farm town that had been fashioning itself as a bedroom community for Fort Collins proper. The constant growth of the two towns had brought them so close together you almost couldn’t separate them, but for now, a little unspoiled countryside remained. That was where he was heading, back into the country roads where the city lights and the daily grind of business couldn’t reach. He chided himself slightly as he realized he was dressed so inappropriately for the occasion. He would be lucky to not ruin his trousers and loafers.
As the city fell behind him, the road ahead grew dark. No city lights brightened the road, so he leaned forward to see better. It wouldn’t be the first time a fox darted across the road or an owl swooped along the edge of his vision. He was meeting someone special tonight. Geoff fiddled with the links on his cuffs. He knew he had no reason for butterflies in his stomach; nonetheless, here he was, a grown man nearing retirement and as nervous as a schoolgirl. Following the familiar directions, he would turn off this county road or that one. He had been here enough times that he knew the way by now.
Eventually, he pulled over to the edge of the road. Once he turned off the headlights, he could barely discern the house’s shadowy form. He grabbed the flashlight he’d brought with him and unfolded himself out of the car. Spread out before him was an untamed meadow covered in tall grasses, nettles, and wildflowers. A slight breeze blew through and set the grass to whispering all around him. He wouldn’t be able to live here, so far removed from the bustle of the city, but his clandestine companion felt differently.
Geoff sighed as he stepped into the tall grasses that snagged at his clothing and made his way towards the derelict mansion. He’d done his research ages ago and knew what a beautiful example of Art Deco architecture the place was. It once boasted curved walls of glass and broad expanses of smooth white plaster that were the epitome of smart modern style from the twenties. The entrance had been grand and elegant: bold double doors with vintage geometric designs, covered in chipping paint. The underbrush was treacherous, and he tripped multiple times on detritus hidden within the grass. Eventually, he made his way to the porch, the steps forming a curved fan like a seashell.
One of the double doors was already open, but not enough for him to pass through. She must already be here, he thought. He pushed the stiff door open farther, and a pile of twigs and dried leaves rustled as he pushed them out of the way. He stepped into the dark, derelict mansion and was swallowed up by richly stained floorboards and peeling wallpaper. Outside, the wind was gentle and teasing. The black sky was sprinkled with stars, and the city a few short miles away cast a ghostly glow on the horizon. In the distance, two beams of light drew closer. When Geoff’s car was nearly caught in the growing beams of light, the light extinguished. Tires crunched on the gravel road as a vehicle shrouded in darkness crept by.
Once Geoff stepped inside the decaying manor, the sounds from outside were muffled. He trod among the leaf litter and broken furniture, musing about how well this place was constructed. New construction was never so solid. He entered the conservatory at the other end of the house, and once he stepped into the remnants of the once opulent sunroom with his red face and forehead beading with sweat, he smiled.
The conservatory, like the rest of the house, was in shambles. It had been a very long time since anyone had loved the place. The cracked tiled floor was littered with leaves and the occasional skeletal remnants of small animals. The drapes that covered the tall, broad windows were sun-bleached and threadbare. The several seating areas and furniture remained where they had been abandoned so long ago. In stark contrast to the dreary decay all around him, Geoff couldn’t help but smile at the vision before him. Stretched out comfortably on one of the frayed chaise lounge chairs was Verity Georgeson, an eccentric counterpoint to the current taste of what it meant to be a modern woman. Her fair skin made her easy to spot even in this dim light. Her auburn hair was twisted into a full smooth bun at the base of her neck, and her legs were stretched out and crossed at the ankles.
She looked up from the book she had been reading by the illuminated screen of her phone. When she saw him, she smiled warmly. Geoff found it impossible not to reciprocate when faced with her genuine smile. Her dark mossy green eyes sparkled, the corners creasing lightly. She was in her early forties, but she had a glow of youth about her. Geoff knew her more deeply than most and knew she had suffered through more than her fair share of trauma. The damage could be seen in her eyes when she didn’t know anyone was watching her.
When he approached her, she closed her book and set it down before rising to meet him. They embraced warmly. What a contrast, he thought. A grumpy old man and a vigorous young woman. They were destined to meet. Her vision for this place and his connections would bring this old wreck back to life. A light flickered in a nearby window, and Geoff reflected fleetingly on the early summer storms that frequented the Colorado front range.
“Sorry I’m late, Verity,” he huffed.
“It’s okay. I wasn’t worried.” She gave him a wink.
“But I’m here,” he added with a smile, “with good news.”
“The good news can wait until you tell me what’s wrong.”
Geoff sucked in a breath. “How do you do that?”
“Always know when people are . . .”
Verity’s smile turned slightly sad. “An acquaintance once told me I was empathic.” She laughed.
“I believe it,” he mumbled.
Verity held the large man at arm’s length and gave him an unusual look. “I don’t need to be an empath to see that you look less than your usual self.” She plucked burs out of his silk tie as she straightened it. He dropped his head to watch her slender fingers work efficiently and patiently at the burs. Her patience was a rare quality that most people lacked these days.
He wrapped his hands around her waist. “What’s happened?” she asked.
Geoff looked into her green eyes and saw concern.
“Oh, it’s nothing.” He sunk into the threadbare chaise she had been sitting on and pulled her down next to him.
“It’s nothing you need to worry about.”
“The same thing you’ve been concerned about?” she asked. He nodded. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“That’s kind of you, but no.” He sighed. “I’ll manage. Besides, you’re not here to listen to an old man grumble.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “You’re here for better things.”
“All right, then, tell me your good news,” she said with a soft laugh. Geoff leaned back, stuffed his hand into the inside pocket of his suit jacket, and withdrew a single folded piece of paper. Verity’s eyes grew wide and expectant.
“Did you get it?”
Geoff relished the anticipation in her face and could imagine what a joyful child she must’ve been.
“I don’t know if I should show you,” he teased.
“Oh, come on now, don’t be horrible.” Verity laughed.
He thought about it some more, but only in jest before he handed the folded paper to her. She took it gently from his fingertips.
Somewhere nearby, a tiny twig cracked, and Verity’s head swiveled towards the sound.
“What is it?”
“It’s nothing,” she answered as she turned back to stare at the gift in her hands. “I just think we have a four-legged guest nearby.” She unfolded the paper. The astonished smile on her face was all he needed. “I can’t believe you finally managed to get it.”
“We managed to get it,” he corrected. “This was as much you as it was me.”
“Yes?” he asked. She had been staring intently at the formal document with an ornate blue border and gilded accents. He smiled. He knew what she was looking at. “As long as we stay true to the era, they will gladly put this house on the registry.”
Verity leaned over, wrapped her arms around his generous neck, and squeezed him tight. “Thank you so much, Geoff.”
“It has been my pleasure, Ver. You really have something here. There is no one other than you who would’ve been able to see past all this rot and still be able to dream of what it used to be.”
“I was just lucky enough to have your ear for my crazy idea.”
“It’s not crazy. It’s magnificent and bold.”
“It’s ludicrous, you mean,” she said, and he gave a big belly laugh at that.
“Yes, I suppose it is a little ludicrous, but if you can be patient with me, then I can assure you that by the time we are done with this place, it will be a beacon of opulence.” He pressed his lips against hers, and her hands teased the back of his neck. “Someday, this place will be beautiful. I look forward to the journey with you.”
“Thank you, Geoff. You are an amazing man.”
“Enough already,” he grumbled, but his cheeks reddened and dimpled. “We came here to celebrate, and celebrate we shall.”
He rifled around in another pocket and came out with an elegant stainless-steel flask that was encased in smooth cedar, his initials carved into the exterior. It had been a gift from his wife Mary last year on their anniversary. For a time, he wasn’t sure that they would even have another anniversary. They had strayed so far from what had brought them together, each growing, and each growing apart. Verity had listened to him grieve for a dying marriage and had given him advice and encouragement along the way. Eventually, he and Mary had fallen back in love with each other, even taking special pleasure in being giddy. They were old enough now to not care what other people thought. As long as they loved each other, they could overcome everything else.
He twisted off the lid and offered it to Verity. She took the flask and sipped it before handing it back to him. Geoff, for his part, took a generous pull.
“I would appreciate it if you would keep these for me,” Verity said as she handed the papers back to Geoff.
“Oh no you don’t. Those belong to you.” He slid them back. “You worked too hard to have me take those away. Keep them; they’re yours.”
“Fine,” she conceded. “Thank you again.”
“You’re welcome.” He patted her knee in a fatherly fashion. “I should let you go for the night.”
“I’m sure Mary would be glad to have you home soon anyway.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.” He smiled.
“Good.” She rose to her feet and held out her hands to help him stand. They embraced again. She whispered in his ear, “I can’t thank you enough.”
“It was a pleasure.”
Lightning flashed in the distance, reflecting in a rare clean spot on the mirrors hanging opposite the giant windows. Geoff gave Verity one quick final embrace, holding her too close for too long for it to be just a congenial friendship. Eventually, he released her and navigated through the house and out into the wild, untamed land around it. He sipped from the flask again. He screwed on the cap and pocketed it before climbing back into his car and steering down dirt roads until he was on pavement again.
As he drove into the busy traffic, he pulled out a handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wiped his forehead. He was perspiring more than usual. His stomach tightened slightly, and he wondered if he would need a toilet soon. Brushing the thought away, he remembered that he’d been particularly stressed at work lately, trying to figure out who at the firm was going to make a play against him. He had his suspicions but couldn’t work out how it was going to be done. There were only two ways to gain power in an architectural firm. One was having the most prestigious clients, and the other, well, the other was waiting for one of the board members to die and then making a run to be the replacement.
Geoff came to a stop at a red light. While he waited for the light to cycle through, he checked the time on his watch. He would be home later than he’d planned, but Mary would forgive him. His stomach constricted again. He might be in for a rough evening. Regardless of his round figure, he had a fairly robust constitution and couldn’t imagine what he ate that was giving him trouble. If his opponent was waiting for one of the board members to die, then it would be a long game they were playing. Although the board members were far from young, they were still quite away from kicking the bucket. The subtle inconsistencies he had been noticing were accumulating quickly, and he didn’t think a long game was in the picture.
Geoff was startled when a fit of coughing escaped him. He wiped his mouth ungracefully with the sleeve of his suit jacket and was surprised to see it covered in frothy saliva. What in heaven’s sake was going on? He looked up as the light turned green and blinked away his blurry vision. He stepped on the gas pedal as his gut retched. There was nothing for it now other than to hurry home. He would have to have the car professionally cleaned, but he felt momentarily better. His stomach rolled, and he heaved as another cramp in his abdomen bent him nearly in half.
When his throat closed, his eyes grew wide with fright. Panic took over. He grabbed at the tie around his neck and struggled to release it, but he couldn’t think, couldn’t concentrate, and couldn’t breathe. He lurched in his seatbelt to breathe through his constricted throat. The steering wheel twisted, and the car curved awkwardly on the road, nearly missing a nearby car, but not missing the steel pole of the next traffic signal.
Some drivers slowed down for a time, but for a few minutes, none stopped, other than a black pickup that pulled up behind Geoff’s car. The driver’s door was bent in half and open at an unlikely angle. Geoff’s face was covered in sweat and blood, his body contorted in the wreckage of the car. His body convulsed as he watched the door of the black truck open and a figure stepped out onto the road.
Geoff’s world became eerily quiet. The rushing sound of nearby traffic had been dulled by the shock of the accident, and it was impossible to concentrate on anything but his pain and fear. Footsteps crunched on the broken glass, which was scattered like spring flower petals on the asphalt. The figure crouched down to take his measure of Geoff and the carnage around him. Geoff couldn’t move his body enough to get a look at the figure’s face. Through the haze of blood and sweat burning his eyes and clouding his vision, he could only remain where he was, helpless and dying.
Geoff tried to speak to the figure but only managed a disgusting gurgle. The stranger reached in and fumbled around the pockets of his jacket until he finally pulled away with Geoff’s flask in his hand. He was dying, and this stranger was robbing him of something sentimental? There was no sense to that until, in another fit of choking and wave of nausea, Geoff arrived at a sickening conclusion. The figure stood up, ignoring Geoff’s strangled attempt to beg for help, and took the flask with him, while Geoff heard something being tossed into the backseat just as the footsteps faded. His last fleeting thoughts were of primal fear and helplessness.