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Birthday Party

Birthday Party

Excerpt: Chapter One
Tuesday Evening
Roundup Country Club

The video, saluting Adelaide L. Johnson as the Roundup Cancer Institute's Citizen of the Year, began with Adelaide's parents, Maude and Henry Johnson, who had moved to Wyoming from Ravensden, Arkansas, sometime in the late thirties, after the Great Depression. Henry had been a moderately successful shopkeeper, and he brought all his savings in cash, formed the Henry Johnson & Son Johnson Land Company, and began to buy open range, which he leased back to the cash-strapped ranchers.

"Henry got the cash in the first place because he was the only white man in that part of Arkansas who would lend money to black people," my brother Elias told me behind his hand. "At about fifty percent a week interest."

They also brought their two children: a son, Jefferson Davis "Jeff" Johnson, for whom they had large expectations, and a daughter, Adelaide, from whom, I suspect, they expected nothing.

The video, of course provided none of Elias's editorializing, showing instead old cracked photos of the sturdy, courageous young Johnson couple—Adelaide must have inherited her horse-teeth from her father since her mother didn't appear to have any teeth at all—standing by their Model T pickup, hands on their young children's shoulders, Jeff standing straight, already a bully, Adelaide squinting, her face crinkled up, her choppers lying like sun-bleached paddles across sun-blistered lips, in front of a newly painted sign hammered into the open space, announcing that the big nothing behind them was owned by the Henry Johnson & Son Land Company.

A loud whistle split the air. "Hot dog," Clay Parker bellowed down the head table at Adelaide over the strains of Happy Days Are Here Again. "Look at those damn legs. Those are Saturday-nighters if I ever seen a pair."

Uncomfortable laughter and a few appreciative whistles ruffled through the crowd. I think Clay, an aged cowboy movie star and the television spokesman for Johnson Land, might have drunk his limit.

Directly across from us, the floor-to-ceiling picture windows reflected back dozens of blurred images of Adelaide and her brother growing up. It was a typical rags-to-riches story, a real Beverly Hillbillies/Ma and Pa Kettle deal. Old Maude still scrubbed her wash on the back stoop, while Henry wore garters around his sleeves and scooted a toothpick around his mouth faster than a tennis match, looking to me as though he were rummaging around for missing crown roasts and sandwiches.

They'd sent their son, Jeff, to Dartmouth, and, in 1940, he married a seventeen-year-old New Hampshire girl, Theresa Collacello, whom we saw waving wanly from the steps of the Wyoming Zephyr as she took the train out West to live with her new in-laws.

"Barmaid," Elias sneezed. "Shotgun."

"Will you stop," I whispered back as quietly as I could. "You're making me laugh. Show some respect."

"Moi?"

"What is wrong with you tonight?"

My husband, Richard—who was Chairman of the board of trustees of the Cancer Institute, and with whom we were sitting, on show, at the head table, unobtrusively reached his hand around behind me and smacked my brother in the back of his head.

Chastened, Elias slid low in his seat, crossed his arms over his chest, and sucked in a long, disgusted breath. "It's not like any of this has anything to do with reality."

I took a large bite of cherry pie to keep from laughing. I could tell Richard was starting to get mad.

By the mid-fifties, the company also had an office in England, where the Johnsons made a fortune building ramshackle low-cost housing. A black-and-white photo showed them and their English office staff smiling at the camera in front of Buckingham Palace, holding a sign that said, Henry Johnson & Son Land Company. Ha. Ha. Ha.

At some point, the video was vague, everyone but those left at home in Wyoming: Adelaide, and Jeff's three small children—Tom, Dolly, and Frank—died in a plane crash. Overnight, Adelaide not only assumed the role of the orphans' mother and father, but also, according to the narrator, "bravely" stepped into the position as chairman and CEO of the newly named A.L. Johnson Land Company. Henry & Son had vanished from the face of the earth.

"Oh, brother," my brother muttered.

Today she was in her eighties and had been bleaching her hair for so long that it now looked like a flock of peach-tinted chicken feathers. But her eyes—big, hyperthyroid bug-eyes—were still sharp, as cold and flat as a grouper's.

I glanced down the table just as she tugged up the front of her dress, possibly to keep out the prying, rheumy eyes of Monsignor Abbott, who sat next to her. But he had Tom Johnson's wife, the wondrous former showgirl Lucky, on his other side and even though he was a priest, he was still a man, and knowing men as I do, I think if he were going to peek down someone's dress, he would pick Lucky's not Adelaide's.

Video reflections in the windows showed our once-beautiful state choking to death on houses as far as the eye could see—A.L. Johnson Land Company houses that were packed tight onto curvy streets that all had the same name and, from a distance, looked like rows of cheap embroidery on a some drugged-up hippie's psychedelic vest. Not a tree anywhere in sight.

And the houses were jam-packed with the Chamber of Commerce types who were at tonight's dinner and had lived in Wyoming for only three or four years at the most. Slicked-up, jacked-up, done-up pseudo cowboys and cowgirls who bought their boots in Aspen or Jackson Hole. Flatlanders who wore Bermuda shorts and Reeboks to do their chores instead of Levis and roughouts. Who spent their Saturdays watching their children play soccer or lacrosse instead of teaching them to rope and ride. Who had e-mail and faxes in their cars and drank their coffee out of quart-sized plastic Starbucks jugs and didn't teach their children table manners because they had none themselves. No one smoked. They all drank white wine spritzers or club soda with just a squeeze of lime. Spritzers. In Wyoming, for God's sake. What a bunch of geeks.

Give me a crowd of killers, corpses, felons or socialites over this bunch of cheerleaders any day. My jaw was becoming as tight as Adelaide's dress, and probably just as unflattering. I considered going to the ladies locker room and having a cigarette, except I didn't smoke any more. So I drifted off and stared across the tops of the heads of the rapt audience, into the darkness, to where I thought I could just make out the top of our helicopter's rotors beyond the putting green. I imagined we were sitting in the big Sikorsky on our way home to the ranch, holding hands and kissing.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a figure pop up more than half-way down the center aisle of the darkened banquet room. Clothed completely in black: commando-style trousers caught at the ankles by soft-soled, lace-up boots, a turtleneck beneath a black Kevlar vest, a ski mask covering his head, he had smeared black make-up around his eyes and the flash of the whites of those eyes was sinister and chillingly determined.

I was caught totally off-guard.

The intruder was sprinting now. Moving toward us faster than I could grab my purse, which held my small Glock. He stopped directly in front of Clay Parker, jerked a twelve-gauge sawed-off shotgun into position, and blew such an enormous hole through Clay, we could have shaken hands through it. The explosion lifted the drunk old cowboy's whole body up and off his chair and shot his beating heart, several ribs, and a five-inch section of his spine right out of his back and into the wall. The rest of Mr. Parker followed a split second later, slamming hard into the damaged plaster. A gooey, sequined, slug-like trail on the silver and peach wallpaper pointed the way to where he'd crumpled into a lifeless heap.

By then, I'd recovered myself and vaulted right over the top of the table, spilling and smashing everything in my way, and went after him, screaming, "Freeze, you son of a bitch," and "Somebody call the police—officer in pursuit on foot," at the top of my lungs. But the killer had a big jump, probably because he was wearing trousers and flat, gripper-soled shoes and I was wearing a tight skirt and high-heels and had large glops of cherry pie glued to my legs and thighs and ground into my St. Laurent aubergine shantung.

The shooter sped unimpeded past the tables of stunned guests like a high-speed pin ball and out a side door that led to the club's main entrance, leaving behind ghastly glittering images of Adelaide and her nieces and nephews still whooping it up on the video screens and a dead land developer on the floor. Which, I thought as I sprinted into the main lobby, was like the joke about dead lawyers: It's a start.

I flew in pursuit—racing down the curved staircase two at a time, through the front door, into the night. The doorman lay just outside in a soft heap. The back seam of his red jacket had split open and his braided hat had rolled off the curb and rocked slowly on its brim.

I stopped and listened, not breathing. Nothing. Everything was still, even the wind. The exaggerated silence was eerie. Even the traffic on Cheyenne Boulevard seemed to have evaporated.

The gunman had been fairly tall, I thought as I caught my breath. Maybe more stocky than lithe, but of course that was hard to determine with the bulky protective clothing. It was a crude, coarse, ham-handed murder, done by a person who maybe could not be sure of his aim. Someone who needed fool-proof weaponry. But it was also focused and quick, and the killer never wavered or tripped as he dodged through the tables. Never an easy target. Pretty agile.

I had no idea which direction to go, and as I started down the curved sidewalk, along the snowy beds of frozen geraniums, and ahead of the shrill wave of panic that had begun to engulf the ballroom and would soon billow into the quiet night, I knew my chance had escaped me. This person would not be hiding in the bushes. Whoever this was, was a planner, and long-gone.

And then, the ear-splitting scream of the helicopter's huge twin Pratt & Whitney turbines sliced through the air and by the time I could backtrack and make it to the putting green, the S-76, after a couple of awkward farewell heaves and dips, was seriously airborne. It steadied itself and moved quickly into the night sky. No lights. Gone. I couldn't believe my eyes. Someone had stolen our ride. Where were the pilots? Skyjacked? In Wyoming? They were Marines, Gulf War veterans, not some sissy corporate types who'd hand over the controls without a fight.

"Over here," Richard called from the bottom of the stairs.

The two aviators slumped on a garden bench. Spilled coffee blackened the thighs of their navy twill uniform trousers. They had been drugged.

I looked back at the sky and couldn't help laughing, it was so incredible. So audacious. Plus, the chopper belonged to my younger brother Christian. He was really going to be pissed.

© Marne Davis Kellogg


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