Rick Payton stumbled, recovered, and positioned himself to throw the lethal pass—aimed at the killer’s forehead, urged on by a primal need to move, to fight—do something!
Faded images flickered through his mind like sepia frames in an old-time movie, a single incident overshadowing everything: a bizarre occurrence that’d put Maggie and him on a winding path downward.
He’d been a high school star quarterback, shoo-in for a college scholarship, scouted for the NFL. Local sport pages celebrated “Payton’s perfect passing”—
Then the car smash-up. And when his knee healed it only bent when it wanted, stiff leg the rest of the time. So, no college, pro ball, cheering crowds or million-dollar endorsements. In the blink of an eye Rick’s rising “star” plummeted into a black hole.
So, not being able to sprint downfield to hurl a perfect spiral bummed him out and he started moping around; friends drifted away, Rick figuring they didn’t want to get any of his failure on them.
But Maggie? Prom queen to his prom king. Sweethearts since seventh grade.
She’d accepted him after the accident just as he was, damaged and depressed; they married and she pulled him out of his dark mood with “special” attention, leaving him blissfully relaxed. At least for awhile.
Maggie’s inheritance, grudgingly accepted from her abusive father’s estate, allowed them to make a down payment on a Fifties vintage ma and pa motel; rundown little place with thirty tired rooms in one long row, begging for paint and varnish, new carpet, mattresses and plush comforters. Sheltered in the cooling shadows of ponderosa pines, right at the northern edge of Flagstaff, Arizona. Red-rock fireplaces in all the rooms.
After renovations Inn the Pines was filled to capacity through the summer months for two great years. He and Maggie hiked in Oak Creek Canyon and down in the red rocks of Sedona, had dinner out twice a week; enjoyed their prosperity, leaving a manager in charge when they were gone. Felt like they’d turned a corner.
But his earlier bad luck remerged—couple of big chain outfits sprang up just down the road, shiny and modern, offering upscale amenities at competing prices. Occupancies not only petered out at Inn the Pines, their fiscal misfortune spawned a local lottery: Guess which room a car would be parked in front of on any given day and you win; get both the room and the day correct and you double your winnings.
Rick knew it wasn’t mean-spirited, you get your kicks where you can in these sleepy little burgs. And hell, a lottery’s innocent fun; probably bet on it himself if he could afford a ticket.
They did get a little income from couples not married to each other, slinking out after midnight unless they’d overslept. When that happened Rick would buzz the room at two in the morning and the couple could escape under the cover of darkness. But then, unable to sleep, he’d sit at his and Maggie’s bedroom window in their upstairs residence, staring out at the motel parking lot, thinking how the Vacancy sign pretty much summed up how he felt.
Then came the fourth Tuesday in June; three in the afternoon and a tipsy wind-turbine technician, Jimmy Ray Hofstetter, plopped down on the barstool next to him, clapped him on the back, causing Rick to spill some of his boilermaker. “Ya got a customer, eh, Payton?”
Rick had just spent a couple hours swilling whiskey shots submerged in chilled mugs of beer, contemplating the hopeless permutations of his and Maggie’s future: bleak, bleaker and bleakest. Be nice if the occupant of the room Hofstetter mentioned represented an upward turn.
He tipped the mug, shot glass of whiskey sliding against his teeth with a familiar click—similar sound to when his helmet guard was smacked by some ginormous lineman. Rick spun off the stool, glancing at the chalkboard over the back bar as he hurried toward the exit, checking to see who’d bet on 6/23 for the lottery.
It was Marv Childress, owner of the hardware store; a good guy and Rick was glad for him.