Dateline: Dallas, Texas, October 31, 11:45 p.m.
For many years on Halloween The Crooked Spigot would be packed. Ben held religiously a costume contest, scarfing up whatever he could for prizes. The recompense to the winning entries had become such a joke that it started a trend in the 90's. It coincided with the advent of haunted-house displays staged by various community groups that reached its zenith in 2000 when two deaths occurred. After that lawsuits scared off any attempt to create those grotesque sites. However, Ben's were innocent and it had become camp to attend, to mock the establishment with the most outlandish of costumes possible. Yet Ben's was now merely a stopping-off point, a distorted oasis in a desert of pushing the envelope for the next pagan thrill.
The gleam of the polished wood reflected the glow of pagan symbols this evening. One of the concessions Ben made for the sake of patronizing the holiday. The plastic jack-o-lanterns with the small bulbs gave the lie to the worn and cracked leather of the barstools and small booths. These nooks and carrels had been the source of many journalistic fervors, of rumor and truth mixed together by the fifth estate. Furrowed stenciled scarecrows peered down from the ceiling beams, seeming to smirk at the numerous polished glasses, which once brimmed with booze. The cardboard cutout black felines, haunted houses, pumpkins and white ballooned ghosts seemed to settle in quite nicely above the length of the bar.
While many had exited the premises earlier, Patrick and Corrie had arrived after a boring Halloween party thrown by Pat's employer, the Metroplex Mirror, at the Anatole Hotel, a modern block of granite and glass rising up between a patch of asphalt between I-35 East and the Trinity River basin. The party was one of those mandatory eclectic affairs stubbornly insisted on year-in and year-out by the owner and publisher Edwin Blix. He had fashioned The Mirror into a mighty media force in a relatively short time, supplanting the competitive publication that had long been a stable of Dallasites. With all the mergers, The Mirror was one of the few remaining independent newsprint papers still remaining in the age of mega-mergers, electronic information, and global satellite uplinks.
Pat hated parties, especially the kind he and Corrie had recently vacated in favor of a bit of quiet time together at The Crooked Spigot. Pat's instincts as a reporter had kept him at the top of his game for nearly two decades. Yet he, too, realized, that the Metroplex Mirror would become a dinosaur before too many more years passed. His mind was not on such matters at the moment. He had eyes only for his cara mia, Corrie, who sat with him in a small booth, where beneath the pipes were humming with steam
as O'Fallon plied the few customers left at the bar and a sampling of tables with various beverages and plenty of peanuts. Tonight he had even thrown in cashews.
Ben did not seem his old self tonight. Perhaps it had been his apparent instant shock at seeing Pat disguised in a proverbial consumer-oriented cliched devil costume, replete with horns and tail sans pitchfork. Ben had always had a loathing for the devil. No matter what consumers thought he looked like, he was a beast not to be reckoned with lightly. Maybe it was the stark contrast of Corrie's costume this night. Dressed in the full regalia of a nun from the pre-Vatican II days, O'Fallon, wasn't sure whether to compliment her or reprimand her for this habit that had once been so sacred and meant so much to so many dedicated nuns; women who had willingly given their lives to God - and vowed it as well - before a liberating Conciliar Church had gone too far, in Ben's estimation, and thrown caution and disciplines to the wind. How times had changed from those pious days of his own youth, his own young adulthood. He didn't approve of the choice of costume his two special customers opted for on this night, but years of tending bar had taught him to say little at the outset, while his eyes observed much. Discretion was the better part of valor. In his earlier, brasher years his Irish tongue would have had more than a few words to say to these two.
The two were whispering together, oblivious to O'Fallon, and unmindful to the small TV mounted above the bar. As always it was tuned to the familiar nightly news channel, volume way down. Yet, between songs, with the place next to deserted, the sound from the TV seemed amplified this night.
Pat looked up once, when the sports report came on. "How'd the Stars do?" he wondered outloud. As the box scores scrawled along the bottom of the screen the result was confirmed. The Wings had shut them out 3-0. "Figures. Don't think it's their year." Corrie, not as big a fan, was clearly not interested in sports tonight and reached to clasp his hand. "Hey, diablo, there's more to life than sports."
"Yeah, I know, Corr, and please don't call me that."
"Sorry, but your getup entices me to say 'diablohhhh," the last syllables formed a kissing friendly demeanor on her soft lips.
"Well, if you want enticement, cara mia..." Standing up and stretching, Pat ripped the hooded horns and cape off, as he quickly unvested himself of the devil costume. Before Corrie could say a word, Pat had completely unfastened the velcro that wrapped the red jumpsuit together. He was back in his familiar attire of jeans and a tee shirt. The devil's costume lay at his feet, which he summarily kicked under the table and out of sight. O'Fallon saw, but said nothing.
"Hot as hades in here, cara mia, how long you gonna stay in that habit?" Corrie took the hint. She stood up and deliberately, enticingly, and evocatively began to disrobe. Pat watched with undisguised fascination and with not a little masculine desire welling in his mind and loins as his loved played well the role of temptress. The tight headdress of the nun's outfit came off, divulging her long, shiny black hair. She shook out her flowing raven locks until her hair touched upon her shoulders, covered in the form-fitting tee shirt she was accustomed to wearing. Then the scapular, belt, and finally the full-length black costume fell to the floor. Much more comfortable in those tight blue jeans and form-fitting tee shirt which barely covered her midriff.
O'Fallon noticed. Sad, he thought how easily the real nuns had done the same, shed their armor for the world, the flesh and the devil. His introspection reminded him of a time when men and women dressed according to their gender, and such attire as Corrie wore would never have seen the light of day, even in a bar.
"Ah, that's better, cara mia," Pat approved, as she kicked the habit under the table where the two opposing costumes seemed to scorn one another where they lay in a tangle. Last time we go to any costume party. That stuff is passé", he remarked, motioning for Corrie to join him on the dance floor as Bill Haley's "Rock around the clock" began pulsing through the juke box.
"Remember the Lindy, cara mia," Pat sparked, holding her hand up with his as he readied to twirl her.
"Before my time, Patrick."
"Mine too, but it'd be fun to try."
"To this music? Tell me you're kidding," as she pulled his arm back around her waist. "Can't help but feel sad for him," Corrie inserted, motioning toward Ben seemingly in a melancholy mood behind the bar.
"He's doing fine," he reassured his partner. "Don't take away his fun. Hey the guy with the giant carp outfit played right along. A trip to Six Flags may not seem like much of a prize, but he didn't seem to mind." His voice strained in trying to justify the charade that had taken place an hour earlier.
"No, it's not just that, Pat, it's somethin' else and I can't put my finger on it."
"You worry too much, cara mia, always have."
Stopping in mid tune, she placed her outstretched fingers on his somewhat stubbled cheeks, stroking the flesh gently, soothingly, "Then why, Patrick, did the place practically empty as soon as the winner was announced?"
He stepped back away from her touch, "So, they were just playin' with an old man's ideas and mocking him?"
"Patrick! Think about it, they didn't even finish their drinks. Couldn't get out of here fast enough."
"I know," he tried to assuage her, "but some were headin' for the Haunted Corral. It was the last night and most of the others were fixin' to go to that private party. 'Member? We turned 'em down."
"Yes, you're right, Patrick, too many temptations out there."
With a glint that betrayed he was really concerned, Pat flirted with the dark-haired beauty, "What say we head over to my place where it's even quieter?"
"Shall we ask Ben?" Corrie gave him a furtive glance.
"Oh, get off the chaperone bit, Ms. Morelli. That's the problem, Ben's ideas just keep crampin' my style."
"Well, it's not cramping mine and you know in your heart it's helping you, Mr. Gallagher."
Corrie pressed Pat's hand, leaning her head on his shoulder as she looked up into his eyes, "Ben keeps us on the straight and narrow, and that's not a bad thing. Besides, lets spend some time with him. He doesn't show it, but I think it hurt him more than you think when they all left in droves."
"Ah, he's used to it."
"Maybe so, but it still hurts. C'mon let's go back to the bar and keep him company."
Pat guided her off the wooden floor onto the matted brown carpeting near the bar. "I'll buy the final round. You're right. Let's cheer him up."
Almost on cue Ben approached the two, "Chivas on the rocks and a Chablis?"
"You know us too well, Benj," Pat answered, scooting up to the bar as he pulled out the stool for Corrie to sit. "Too bad they all left so soon after the contest," Pat opined as Corrie gave him a stiff jab with her elbow.
"You can lead a horse to water, me boy, but ya can't make 'em drink, me Da always told me."
Corrie tried to soothe the atmosphere, "Pat's got a point, Benj. You are so patient, so caring."
"Careful, cara mia, you'll get him goin' and we'll hear all those old stories again. That's the scariest thing I can think of tonight!" Pat's attempt to force the kidding was backfiring as he tried to prevent the scene from getting maudlin.
However, Ben's mind wasn't on chitchat this night. He wasn't even concerned with the mass exodus of customers an hour earlier. After setting down the drinks, with a small napkin beneath in front of Pat and Corrie, he placed a small bowl of fresh cashews between the glasses. Then, without a word, he ambled over to the TV in the corner above the bottles. Pulling out the footstool, he mounted the two steps and switched channels.
"Sports Center ain't on for another 10 minutes, Benj?" Pat queried.
"No sports tonight, my lad. Pope's in Iraq."
"Yeah, forgot. Networks are covering it by satellite. Tried to talk Vic into sending me over there last week but he nixed it."
"You know why, Patrick," Corrie remanded.
"Everyone's protectin' me. If it ain't Ben it's Vic. I'm a big boy. I can handle it. I think you
sabotaged it, cara mia. Don't want me to spread my wings."
"Believe what you will, Pat, but Blix wouldn't approve it and Vic knew how dangerous it was."
"She's right, Paddy. Saddam may be gone, but his hateful legacy be livin' on. That area be a hot-bed of terrorism and don't you believe for a minute, me boy, that this world peace document be a changin' anything." A sad look covered Benjamin's face. The sparkle in those old Irish eyes had lost their glitter.
Corrie sensed it and tried to instill some positives into the conversation. "Well, with the Pope as the cornerstone I think it is possible, Benj. If not, what's the sense in signing it?"
"You can lead a horse to water, but…"
Corrie impatiently interrupted him, "Aren't you the one who says trust in God, Mr. O'Fallon? Well, then, maybe we should put our trust that He's guiding this and…"
This time Ben countered, halting Corrie in midsentence. "This not be God's work, I can be telling ya that. It be the work of the devil, by gorra."
Taken back by the bar-owner's brusqueness, Corrie stammered, "Why on earth would you say that, Ben?"
Ben had turned and was back on the stool turning up the volume. Trevor Anders, a well-known reporter for GNN, was giving his audience the details of the story. Behind him various graphics displayed the significant points. Finally a live-feed via satellite brought into the last minutes before midnight the event that had long been anticipated, had long been sought after, had long been foretold as the 'great miracle' of the new millennium. They were rehashing that on the morning of November 1st halfway around the globe, in that place near Ur of the Chaldeans, where Abraham of the Old Testament had been called by God to gather together the Chosen People, where a great Ecumenical treaty was to be signed by the heads of all the religions of the earth.
"This last scotch was just gettin' me in the mood. Now this!"
Without turning to Pat, O'Fallon said, quite brusquely, "Mood?!!! Go ahead, sneer all you want. Meself, this is the stuff of fairy-tales. Ecumenical treaty! God in heaven preserve us! You, Pat! You should know that." The world's gone off half-cocked believing in this nonsense, and I, for one, be seein' great trouble ahead."
"Yeah, and I'm the devil," Pat chortled.
"Sure n' ya got rid o' the horns. That be that pile over there" he pointed to the small heap where the red and black costumes melded into one grayish mass in the shadows beneath the booth. "Besides, Paddy, 'tis nothing to be jokin' about" was all O'Fallon said, and turned up the sound another decibel.
"Let it be, Pat," Corrie laid a restraining hand on her lover's arm. "It's his place, he only has a few months left. It's his last hurrah. C'mon, let's listen. What harm can it do?"
"Not a damn thing! I shoulda been there. Damn Vic."
"Stop your gripin', Pat," O'Fallon said sternly. 'Tis something we should all be a watchin', 'cause you never know what to make of these things…these meetings that come about only after a lot of the work has been done behind closed doors. Never have liked 'closed door meetings', that's for sure," he went on. "Something secretive about this whole affair, if you ask me."
Pat started to speak, but again Corrie laid her hand on his arm, and he swallowed whatever retort he had wanted to articulate.
Unbeknownst to Ben O'Fallon, Pat Gallagher, and Corrie Morelli, and billions of others there had been much activity around the globe within the past twelve hours. Few would have believed what was going on. Not one would have put any credence in these things. One could only guess what their respective reactions might have been. Only a few kernels remained in the sands of time.
Next issue: First Chapter - Episode Six
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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!