Welcome to Sunday Night Cliffhangers at NT Publishing Company where we post entire books a chapter at a time. We are pleased to present the wonderful off beat novel, Naked Tao, by Robert Grant. Last week we posted Chapter 12 And here is Chapter 13 for your enjoyment!
“Having a cup of coffee with Buddha.” – Padma
I hoped it wasn’t the same SUV that tried to run us over in the parking garage, but of course it was them. The passenger side head lamp was smashed in and there were streaks of green paint on the SUV’s front bummer. I just wished I knew who I was dealing with.
Since the damaging file memos seemed to trigger this messy chain of events, they were probably thugs working for Pathogen. Speaking of the memos, who had left the documents in my office and why did they give them to me? There were a lot of unanswered questions, but right now I needed to do something about the SUV.
There were several options. I could try to lose them in traffic, but River Road doesn’t have much traffic to speak of, unless you include the occasional biker enjoying his favorite scenic byway. I didn’t think the old truck would outrun the SUV. So that was out. In the movies, they run traffic lights or make last minute turns, but neither would work here since there are very few traffic signals and a last minute turn would most likely end up in the river. Trying to lose them just wasn’t a good option.
We could stop and confront them, but the last time I tried to do that they shot at me. I did have a .357 magnum under the seat of the truck, but a wild-west shoot out in a residential area did not seem like the best option. The last encounter we had with the SUV was in a parking garage. It’s possible they would be less likely to shoot on a public road, but I didn’t want to risk it. There were homes along this street and I didn’t want an innocent bystander to get hurt.
We could set a trap. I liked the sound of that option best. I just needed to figure out how to do it and we were less than ten minutes from Uncle’s Jim’s house. Since they didn’t know where we were headed, I could use that to our advantage. Uncle Jim is an ex-marine sniper who knows how to set a trap better than anyone, so I called him and told him we were being chased by some maniac in a SUV and asked him for his help. I knew I could trust him with my life and he didn’t let me down. He told me to get everyone to his house as soon as possible.
My dad died in a motorcycle crash when I was eight years old. Mom was on the bike with him. A hit-and-run driver ran them off the road and left them to die in a ditch. Mom survived, but she was incapacitated by a serious brain injury. Her brother, Jim, took me in after the funeral, but it wasn’t easy.
Some know-it-all social worker wanted to place me in foster care. She kept telling the Judge I needed the positive influence of a woman in my life. The social worker didn’t like the fact that Uncle Jim had lived all over the world, mostly on military bases, and she was suspicious that he had never married. She was convinced that a single man knew nothing about raising a son.
The social worker picked the wrong man to attack. Uncle Jim knows a few things about winning a fight. The Marine Corps trained him for some hush-hush special ops unit that he never talks about. A legal battle is no different than any other fight and Uncle Jim put up a tough fight. He convinced the Judge that it was in my best interests to be with him. As far as I’m concerned, the Judge made the right decision. What kind of crazy person would think foster care is better than a loving family member?
I kept an eye on the SUV as we made our way into Prospect. I wasn’t sure what Uncle Jim had in mind for them, but I was about to find out. It was only a few more blocks until we reached his street. The SUV followed close behind as we turned into his upscale subdivision, but stopped short when I made the last turn onto Uncle Jim’s quiet cul-de-sac.
Uncle Jim lives in a red brick two story on the cusp of the circle. As I pulled into his driveway, I felt a little uneasy about leading the SUV to my Uncle’s home, but Uncle Jim knows what he is doing. We found him sitting on his covered porch dressed in his usual faded jeans and Harley t-shirt. His bare feet were crossed at the ankle and his right hand held a smoldering Cuban cigar. Don’t ask me where he gets them. Lying across his lap was a hunting rifle intended for large game.
A hand carved staff he uses when an old injury is acting up was leaning against the brick wall. He managed to escape the Gulf War unharmed, but fell rock climbing in the Red River Gorge a few years back. He survived the fall, but broke his back and lost an eye. The doctors said he would never walk again. Uncle Jim proved them wrong of course.
Thanks to a lean muscular frame, he looks younger than his age. His hair is more pepper than salt, with only a touch of a receding hairline. He wears an eye patch over the missing socket like a proud pirate. The remaining blue-grey eye was locked onto the SUV idling on the street corner. I thought it looked like a dangerous beast that couldn’t make up its mind whether it should venture into the cul-de-sac or not.
Uncle Jim waited. The tension was thick. I wondered what would happen next. Of all the things I imagined, it sure wasn’t what happened. A splash of rainbow descended from the heavens, squawking “Death from Above”, and splattered bird shit all over the SUV’s windshield. It was my dad’s crazy macaw. That’s all it took for the mighty beast to tuck tail and run. Of course, the sight of Uncle Jim’s high powered rifle might have had something to do with it too.
I suspected we weren’t finished with the SUV, but it was a welcome relief to see it leave. Uncle Jim flashed his Cheshire cat grin and shouted Generalissimo. I stuck my left arm out the window and waved.
Ginny poked me in the side. It really hurt the broken rib, but there was a smile in her voice as she said, “Generalissimo.”
“He says I might be a reincarnated Civil War general…he just can’t figure out which one,” I said sheepishly. “He’s partial to Grant.”
“Grant or Lee,” she murmured. “But isn’t your last name spelled Li?”
My mom’s family is a distant relative of U.S. Grant on her mother’s side. She and Uncle Jim had different fathers. He is lily white in a Nordic sort of way and every bit the Viking. My mom is half African-American.
Dad was Chinese and always said we were related to a famous internal martial artist who lived a ridiculously long life. It was someone named Li Ching-Yun that the New York Times reported to have lived to be 256. I think my dad believed the crazy long life nonsense to be true just because it was in the newspaper. This very interesting bloodline explains my somewhat exotic, foreign look.
I was about to explain the nuances of my mixed heritage to Ginny, but was distracted by a flash of color and a screeching, “Aaawk, Grant’s a peckerwood.”
It was dad’s macaw with his usual greeting. The bird flew across the hood of the truck, up the windshield, and landed on the top. Hanging upside down he stuck his head in the driver’s side window and looked around.
“I love you too bird,” I grumbled.
He cocked his head at me. “Aaawk, get a life,” said Bird.
“Dad loved this bird,” I said. “He belongs to me now. He hates me.”
“Aaawk, I belong to no one. Hate will be the death of us all.”
Ginny looked mystified and said, “Did he just respond to what you said? I thought birds only mimic speech.”
“Aaawk, such a pretty girl.”
Ginny cooed, “Oh such a flirt. I like him.”
“Aaawk, give us a kiss.”
“How cute, he just winked at me,” said Ginny. “What’s his name?”
“Bird,” I answered.
“No really,” said Ginny. “What’s his name?”
“Dad always called him Bird. I’ve never heard him called anything else.”
“Humph.” Clearly she wasn’t satisfied.
“Aaawk, my name is Senor Juan Ponce de Leon.”
Ginny asked, “Did he just say he is Ponce de Leon?”
“Aaawk, the one and only, pretty girl.”
“It’s news to me,” I said.
Uncle Jim limped over to the truck. He handed Bird a peanut and said, “That’s enough Bird.”
Then he opened the truck door, pulled me out, and gave me a bear hug. I winced as pain shot through my ribs. Uncle Jim doesn’t miss anything. He felt me stiffen from his embrace. He leaned back until I was at arm’s length and looked me in the eyes to make sure we were good.
Satisfied, he looked me up and down, only pausing a moment to take in the blood stains. He knew I was there for a reason, but waited for me to begin an explanation.
“We should talk before we call the police,” I said.
He nodded his head and then shifted his one-eyed gaze to Ginny. A slow easy smile spread across his face.
“Don’t pay any attention to that crazy fluff of feathers,” he said. “I’m Jim.”
“Aaawk, not crazy.”
Uncle Jim took a lazy swipe at Bird, who flew off squawking, “Aaawk, PETA alert! Someone call 9-1-1.”
Ginny smiled at Uncle Jim and said, “I think you hurt his feelings. I’m Ginny.”
“Don’t let him fool you,” said Uncle Jim. “That bird is tough as nails. Girl, you look just like your father.”
If Ginny was surprised that Uncle Jim knew her father she didn’t let on. Instead she said, “Well except for my dark hair, green eyes, and assorted girl parts.”
Uncle Jim flashed a wolfish grin and said, “Your girl parts are welcome in my home. Who’s your friend there?”
“This is Padma Ganesha,” said Ginny. “He’s my guest. I invited him to America to talk about his book. He was speaking tonight at the Kentucky Center for the Arts when someone tried to kill him. I think he was just about to reveal a secret about living a long life when it happened. We barely escaped with our lives thanks to Grant.”
If Uncle Jim was surprised by any of this, he didn’t show it. Instead he gave Padma a long appraising look before saying, “I just lit the grill. Come on out back and have a bite to eat. Grant, come inside for a moment, so I can take a look at that wound. Then, we can talk about your adventure over a cold drink.”
He and I went inside where he cleaned the shallow gash with peroxide, and then protected it with gauze and first aid tape. I had told everyone it was just a scratch, but it was a little more serious than that.
Uncle Jim is fond of telling people he has everything he needs in his own back yard. He is most proud of a 1970’s style barbeque pit he built himself. Every evening the barbeque sends puffs of smoke into the sky as he grills burgers and sips cold beer. Its distinctive smell is a like a call to prayer for friends and neighbors, who heed the call religiously.
Folks wander in from all four corners of the neighborhood. Gathering around the grill, they talk about the day’s events and watch meat sizzle over hot coals. Later they sit in Adirondack chairs grouped under an ancient oak tree and watch the setting sun paint the clouds coral and blue. These are simple salt of the earth people sharing simple pleasures. There are no fences separating them. They move freely from yard to yard, house to house. It is a community in its truest sense.
As promised, Uncle Jim led us to the back yard where we settled into comfortable chairs and watched a squirrel gather acorns for the winter. Up and down the tree he went, never venturing onto the low hanging branch with the bug zapper. The distinctive sound of the zapper’s grim work was balanced by the refreshing sound of bubbling water coming from Harrods Creek bordering the rear of the property.
The creek deepens enough at its mouth to provide a safe haven to area boaters who like to idle and party before emptying into the Ohio River. However, at this location it looks more like a mountain stream as it runs white over large flat rocks. This familiar scene calmed my nerves and the day’s events began to feel surreal.
Uncle Jim disappeared into the house and then returned a few minutes later with tall glasses of Jim Beam and coke. He flashed his trademark confident smile and told Ginny it was for medicinal purposes only. She returned his smile, saying she could use all the medicine she could get.
Uncle Jim looked at me and winked. “Grant”, he said, “this one’s a keeper.”
Ginny beamed at Uncle Jim. I took another sip of the bourbon and relaxed into the scene playing out before me.
We sat quietly for a few minutes and listened to the evening’s sounds. It felt good to not talk for a while, but then Uncle Jim spoke up. It was the last thing I wanted to talk about, particularly in front of Ginny.
“Grant, you want to tell me what’s going on?”
I stiffened and felt the first twinges of a headache. Rubbing my temples I said slowly, “I don’t know where to start.”
“Do you remember calling me last night?” he asked. “You must have been about halfway through a bottle of Patron. You said you had won a big case for Pathogen yesterday, but it didn’t sound like much of a celebration. Instead, you got yourself fired. Your boss hung himself. Ch’ing, your martial arts master has gone missing and you showed up here being chased by gangsters with guns. Does that about cover it?”
“Actually, no, but I’m too wrung out right now to elaborate,” I answered.
Uncle Jim looked like he wasn’t about to let it go, but Ginny asked me about my law practice. I think she was trying to help by changing the subject.
I was grateful she was trying to change the subject, but didn’t really want to talk about it. “Corporate defense litigation,” I answered reluctantly.
Uncle Jim had a tear in his eye. “Last night you said you were done being a lawyer. You told me they were going to disbar you, maybe throw you in jail. Please tell me that was just crazy drunk talk. All of this can be figured out. As far as Ch’ing goes, he can take care of himself. You need to focus on your current predicament.”
“Aaawk. Lawyers get to lie and cheat,” squawked Bird. “Peckerwood wants to give up all that good fun. Aaawk.”
“Bird, you’re supposed to be guarding the perimeter,” said Uncle Jim.
“Aaawk. Eyes and ears on it. Perimeter secured. Aaawk.”
I shook my head at Bird. “Things can turn on a dime,” I said. “I think I’ve made some powerful enemies, either because I defended Pathogen, or because some possibly incriminating evidence has fallen into my hands. I’m not sure who the players are in all of this.”
“Your enemies have given you the gift of change,” said Padma.
I had a flashback of Ch’ing teaching us baguazhang, one of the internal martial arts. The student is encouraged to overcome their natural resistance to change. High-level fighting techniques can be found in the transition moves, if the student has the courage to embrace change.
Ch’ing liked to spar ten-on-one and was always the last man standing. He moved like a whirling dervish teaching hidden techniques as he laid waste to all ten opponents. When the session was over, he’d look at our bodies on the floor and tell us we needed to do a better job embracing change. We’d ask him how to do that, but he’d just shake his head and tell us to keep our feet moving next time.
Uncle Jim pulled me back from my reverie with a question. “Do we need to talk to someone about getting you an attorney?”
“Probably,” I answered. “It doesn’t look good. I’m their number one murder suspect for John’s death.”
“You would never do such a thing!” said Ginny.
“No, but my word won’t mean much under the circumstances,” I said. “I need proof of my innocence or I’m in for a rough time.”
“What kind of proof?” asked Ginny.
“For starters, I need to get those documents back,” I answered.
“Documents?” asked Uncle Jim.
I nodded. “That’s where the disbarment comes in,” I answered. “I had possible evidence that they are involved in an illegal bio-weapons project. I disclosed this confidential information to Eric and now to you.”
“You said you had evidence,” said Ginny. “What happened to it?”
“No, that’s where John fits into the story,” I said. “I gave the evidence to him, and now he’s dead.”
Uncle Jim knows me well. “You think it got him killed, don’t you?”
I nodded grimly.
“Do you think this has anything to do with the murder at The Center?” asked Ginny.
“I’m not sure what the connection is, but there definitely seems to be one,” I said.
“Wait a minute…you mentioned a gunman earlier, but you didn’t say anything about someone getting killed at The Center,” said Uncle Jim.
“A security guard was stabbed,” I said. “He was a friend of Eric’s. A biker named Tiny.”
“The leader of the Dragons,” asked Uncle Jim.
I nodded. “I had a run in with the murderer,” I said. “He broke a couple of my ribs and escaped.”
“The Dragons will be out for blood,” said Uncle Jim. “To bad he got away.”
“I wished I had caught him,” I said. “It all happened so fast. I went after him with the murder weapon. My prints are all over it.”
“That’s not good,” said Uncle Jim in his best deadpan voice. At this point, I don’t think anything I said could have fazed him.
“This is bad, very bad,” I said.
“We need to find the murderer,” said Uncle Jim. “What did he look like?”
I shrugged. “I didn’t get a good look at his face,” I said. “He wore a hooded monk’s robe. I just saw a monk. They all look the same to me.”
“Ch’ing will not be happy to hear you weren’t more observant than that,” said Uncle Jim. “Have you called the police?”
“I know I should talk to them about all of this, but I must get proof of my innocence first,” I answered.
Uncle Jim nodded. “What were you doing at The Center?”
“Working as a body guard,” I answered.
He looked astonished, “Body guard…who were you protecting?”
“Padma,” I answered.
Uncle Jim raised an eyebrow.
“I am a simple monk,” said Padma. “I have no need for a body guard.”
“You didn’t request protection,” asked Uncle Jim.
Padma shook his head.
“Eric hired me,” I said. “The strange thing about the whole thing is that his client specifically asked for me.”
“Who are they and why you?” asked Uncle Jim.
I shrugged and turned to Ginny. “Since your company sponsored this event, maybe you know something about the security arrangements.”
She shook her head.
“Eric is looking into it,” I said. “We should know something soon.”
There was a flutter of feathers as Bird landed softly on Padma’s shoulders. Bird looked lovingly at Padma and then gently rubbed his beak against the monk’s cheek. Padma welcomed the comforting gesture, but looked like he was exhausted and fading fast. In a tired voice he said, “It was a long journey from Bhutan and I must rest now.”
“Not to mention your night of sexual debauchery”, I thought to myself.
Uncle Jim turned to Padma and asked, “Do you have any enemies?”
“Enemy…friend…two sides of the same coin,” answered Padma.
The corners of Uncle Jim’s mouth tightened, “You don’t give straight answers to simple questions, do you? Why is that?”
Bird inched closer to Padma’s cheek and glared at Uncle Jim. Padma reached up and gently smoothed his ruffled feathers, stroking from the back of the neck downward to the tip of his tail.
“Easy my friend,” whispered Padma.
Ginny reached out and placed a soothing hand on Uncle Jim’s forearm.
“Padma came all the way from Bhutan at my request,” she said. “He planned to reveal an ancient secret. Someone tried to stop him.”
“What secret?” asked Uncle Jim.
Padma smiled gently before answering, “Something that will change everything.”
Uncle Jim shook his head, “You’re not going to tell us, are you?”
“Now is not the time,” replied Padma. “Be patient. Events must run their course.”
“Run their course…people are dead and they’re trying to kill us,” I growled.
Uncle Jim looked thoughtful and nodded toward the house, “Padma, you can use the bedroom at the end of the hall. I’ll show you the way. I better call a few friends at the station and see what I can find out. Just sit tight until we figure out what to do next.”
Bird stayed glued to Padma’s shoulder as he followed Uncle Jim into the house. In the fading light, he looked like a strange two headed beast.
Thank you for reading Chapter 13 of Robert Grant’s quirky novel, Naked Tao. We will see you next Sunday night for Chapter 14. In the meantime, we invite your comments and by all means, spread the word.