by J. A. Buxton
Chapters 01 thru 05. Title page by CrystalWizard.
I have just one request, gentle readers. No, it's a rule carved in stone. Because this novel was published in 2006, it's MUCH too late to make any corrections or changes. A friend of a friend who bought the book found a misspelled word, told me about it, and I've brooded about this ever since.
Therefore, if you have any suggestions for improvement or find typographical errors, PLEASE KEEP IT TO YOURSELF! My hands are covering my ears, and I do NOT want to hear it. La-la-la-la!
Okay, here goes. I hope you enjoy my "short story" about Walker and friends.
Trying to gain access, the thundering storm clawed like a ravenous beast at the many broken windows of the abandoned mansion. Creatures of fur and feather inhabited the place where no human had walked for years. Cobwebs covered the walls, inside and out. Decades of animal excrement added a foul smell to the moldy and disintegrating, green, velvet drapes that hung in tatters from the grime-covered windows. Throughout the three floors, rooms empty of furniture echoed with past and present footsteps.
Next to one of the first-floor windows, a circular metal staircase swayed in the wind, taunting those daring or foolish enough to climb up one flight. Being neither daring nor foolish, Walker turned to the man standing with him at the foot of the stairs. In a deep baritone voice, he said quietly, “I’ll take it. Send me the papers.” With these seven words, many lives would change.
William Walker, unlike his prosaic name, was far from ordinary. Standing well over six feet tall, the 48-year-old dominated any room he entered. Today, his expensive dark-gray suit covered a muscular body devoid of fat, despite his appetite for everything in life, including, but not limited to, food. His dark brown hair, graying at the temples, curled in an unruly manner. The damp air caused one wayward strand to fall down onto his smooth forehead. With no woman nearby to brush it back, as happened so often in the past, it stayed there unnoticed.
When the two men went outside into the rain toward their cars, Walker looked back at his new home, his blue eyes filled with anticipation. Never one to run from a big project, he felt excitement with just the slightest touch of misgiving for the first time in many years. What he planned would affect many people. Did he have the ability, never mind the right, to carry it off? Taking a deep breath, he mentally kicked himself in the ass.
Thus began a new chapter in Walker’s life.
The crews willingly worked around the clock after Walker made it clear that cost was not a problem. Constant activity filled the area, with workers cleaning up the huge house and extensive grounds. When weeks turned into months, they continued to enjoy the double and triple overtime pay.
More than two thousand acres surrounded the old building, and Walker spent long hours exploring and imagining what to do with the land. He pictured paved walkways among the hundreds of mature oak, maple, and pine trees near the mansion where people could stroll on hot summer days. Over the hill, a mile to the west of the mansion, there was plenty of room for more buildings. He had no idea what these buildings would be. With his vast wealth, even a small town was a possibility.
A short walk on the other side of the mansion brought him to a small crystal-clear lake. Fruit trees, among them apple, pear, and cherry, surrounded it. A patch of low blueberry bushes nearby would tempt the swimmers later in the year, he knew. Looking around, Walker could practically taste the pies made from the fruits. Just past the lake stretched a field, filled on this spring day with colorful and fragrant wildflowers.
Looking across the wide field, Walker started laughing. Almost, but not quite, he could see a green shimmering building rising on the opposite side. All that’s missing, he thought, is a cowardly lion and a little black dog. Shaking his head to erase the vision, Walker strolled back to the mansion.
Throughout the long nights, lights shining from every window confused the nocturnal creatures that had made the abandoned mansion their home for years. Dozens of workers went from attic to basement to clear out the resident animals and insects while trying not to hurt any of them. Walker was firm about this rule. He fired a woman who spitefully killed a spider as she pulled down its extensive web. The other workers thought it was a bit excessive but got the message. From that point on, they escorted spiders and mice outside as well as the occasional opossum.
A large red fox did give a couple men pause when it stuck its head out of the pantry located just off the large kitchen. As it watched the men raking the debris from the floor, the fox showed no desire to leave, instead just sitting there with its tongue hanging out. “Phone Walker and get him down here. I ain’t risking my life on no rabid animal,” shouted one of the men, his voice an octave higher than normal.
Within minutes, Walker came into the kitchen and knelt on the floor in front of the curious fox. The two workers backed out of the room, both hoping the animal would not attack and kill the man, leaving them without a job or paycheck. Finally, Walker was alone with the fox. “Okay,” he said when the animal cocked its head to one side and stared attentively at him, “you can stay, Zorro. The mansion is going to be a place for lost and forgotten souls, and you fit the bill.” Standing up, he smiled at his first tenant, finding the name for his new home at that moment. “Welcome to Maison du Renard Rouge.”
With this simple statement, he officially put into action a long-held desire, to open his home and heart to the ignored, forgotten, or just plain abandoned. He still did not know how long it would be before the first human guest would arrive. Leaving the fox in complete charge of the pantry, however, he was more than pleased at the auspicious beginning.
Joe Carpenter was an old man, frail and forgotten. He had the sad look of someone who no longer expected anything from life and received the same. What remained of his gray hair hung lank and nearly down to his shoulders. He refused, however, to let anyone near him to care for it.
The nursing home attendants watched him move from his bed in the morning to a window chair, then go back to bed after his evening meal. It was his unbroken daily routine. Staring out the window through rheumy eyes was his only daily occupation, that and remembering his youth so long ago in Alaska.
“Come on, Joe. I double dare you!” The boyish voice of Billy Okuna, his Inuit friend since first grade, taunted the young Joe. Early one morning, they stood at the top of the steep hill in the village’s cemetery. Dotting the way down were gravestones and the occasional low tree that had survived the bleak Alaskan winters. Both 11-year-old boys wore homemade, wooden skis with leather bindings over their mukluks. They were attempting the hill for the first time, despite warnings from the elders the cemetery was off limits to the village children.
“I’m going to do it,” yelled Joe, “Just hold your water for a sec!” Gritting his teeth and taking a deep breath, he pushed off. Quickly losing his balance, Joe landed in the hard-packed snow. The binding over one of his feet had not been tight enough, and he watched the runaway ski race down the hill without him.
“I knew you couldn’t do it. It’s my turn!” With these laughing words, Billy started down and quickly passed his still-seated friend. Picking up speed on the slippery snow, he went faster and faster, zooming in and out around the obstacles in his way.
Back in the nursing home, the much older Joe winced, as he remembered what came next. He wished it would disappear from his memory like other events had over the years, but unbidden it came back repeatedly to haunt him.
Overconfident as the young can get, Billy dared to look back at his friend standing at the top of the hill. With his eyes off what was in front of him, he did not see the small tombstone cropping up out of the snow until he was right on it. The edge of his left ski caught the corner of the stone, causing him to flip headfirst and crash onto the other side. The autopsy later determined he broke his neck in the landing and died instantly.
The happy-go-lucky boy who had been Joe Carpenter never fully recovered after the loss of his best friend. At the age of 18, he left Alaska to try his luck down in the lower 48 and spent his adult years working at menial jobs. A loveless marriage to an equally morose woman soon ended in divorce but not before they produced a son. After his mother died, the young boy came to live with his father, but he and Joe rarely got along.
Joe had come to the nursing home one sunny day five years ago. His son and daughter-in-law never bothered to visit. Their busy lives allowed no time for an aging parent.
On a rainy day in October, a curious letter reached the desk of the nursing home manager. In it, she read a request from a friend she knew and respected, a private man who came from old money. The manager knew she could supply what he needed and who it should be.
Two days later, Joe Carpenter found himself in the back seat of a black limousine as it drove up a long, tree lined driveway, which ended in front of a beautifully maintained mansion. He held his few belongings, packed in a cardboard suitcase earlier in the day by the manager, tightly to his chest. Joe was afraid someone would steal the last link to his old life. Everything was happening too fast for the old man to grasp, but he at least understood his life was changing.
When the car finally stopped, two young men in cheerful, green and white uniforms came out to greet him. One gently took his suitcase from his reluctant hands while the other held his arm and guided him inside the mansion.
An attractive, redheaded woman dressed in a green silk dress came forward to greet him. “Mr. Carpenter, I hope you enjoy your stay at Maison du Renard Rouge. We have your room ready for you and are here to serve in any way possible.” The old man became even more startled and confused at these words.
“Why am I here?” His voice trembled in part from age, but mostly from fright. A hand on his shoulder caused him to turn around. He felt the fear leave him at the sight of the tall man who smiled at him. Walker, as always, somehow inspired confidence and trust without saying a word, and Joe willingly followed the two young men to his room and a new life.
Joe Carpenter was the first of many lonely people to come under the tender care of Walker and his well trained employees. Some had families who no longer wanted them; others were the last surviving member waiting without hope for the final release of death; a few needed to escape from those who abused them. Each had a story to tell, and Walker and his staff were there to listen.
As usual, Walker stood outside near the front entranceway, watching the limousine come up the long driveway. He had waited here many times before while his recruiters crisscrossed the country, finding and bringing back his elderly guests. This time, though, it was different. It was more personal, since the search for the limousine’s passenger had taken years. He felt his body tensing with anticipation.
“Walker, may I ask who she is? You haven’t given me much information on the woman yet.” He turned around at hearing the voice of Samantha Ward. She was a stunning 40-something redhead with large serious hazel eyes, hired years earlier because of her outstanding management ability. Her skill at keeping his massive home running smoothly went well with her keen intelligence and exotic beauty. Samantha was dainty, standing just barely higher than Walker’s chin. He often thought she epitomized the saying, “Good things come in small packages.”
Walker absentmindedly responded, “Sorry, Sam, I’ll send her file down later today.” His mind was still on the approaching vehicle and its passenger. What is she like? Does she have any regrets?
Samantha watched as one of the male attendants helped the woman out of the limousine. Unknown to her, it would be the first meeting between the elderly woman and the nervous man given up for adoption by her five decades ago.
Back then, 20-year-old Edith no longer was an innocent teenager. She still felt panic at finding herself pregnant and unmarried. The father of her unborn child had long since disappeared, running scared after hearing the news. For months, she hid her condition from her friends and family, but finally her secret came out.
“What were you thinking, Edith, when you shamed the family like this?” She expected those harsh words from her stern father, but it still hurt. Her mother said nothing, just sat there with disapproving eyes and lips thinned in disgust. “You will have to go be with your aunt out in Texas. The neighbors here mustn’t find out. Once you’ve got rid of the baby you can come back, but not until afterwards.” Because the man’s words were law in his family, Edith Cartwright, an obedient daughter with one passionate though unfortunate sexual encounter to her name, left her home in disgrace.
Months later, a nurse handed to an employee of a local adoption agency a handsome baby boy, never once seen by his heartbroken mother. A wealthy and loving family adopted the child within days after his birth. Now he stood there, many years later, wondering whether she would reject him when she found out who he was. Walker decided not to tell her until he felt the time was right.
“Miss Cartwright, welcome to Maison du Renard Rouge.” Walker held out his hand to take the woman’s slender hand in his and led her into the entrance room where Samantha was now waiting. Unobserved by either woman, he studied his birth mother, trying to see any resemblance to what he saw in the mirror every morning. Her blue eyes with just a hint of deep-rooted sadness to them were the same as his, with matching long dark eyelashes. His curly hair was dark brown, while hers was gray and cut short, swept back to reveal small ears with diamond studs in them.
Someone looking closely at them side by side might guess their relationship, but no one did. Samantha stepped forward, also with words of welcome, and turned her over to a waiting female attendant. The elderly woman looked curiously around as they crossed the main room. Walker stood silently watching her walk away.
Opposite the front entranceway on the other side of the main room was a double set of large wooden doors. They were open, revealing a long wide corridor ending in another set of doors, these with panels of etched glass. Behind these doors, Edith saw a sunroom filled with greenery and comfortable white lounging furniture. There were various nooks and crannies for anyone who preferred privacy when reading or resting. Before she turned away, Edith noticed staff members circulating to make sure the elderly guests wanted for nothing, supplying cold drinks on request.
The destination of the two women, though, was the big glass-enclosed elevator on the left side of the far wall. It was next to a wide set of stairs that replaced the original rickety metal stairs and led to the second floor. The elevator rose slowly and smoothly, letting Edith look down at the people she had just met. There was something familiar about the handsome man. When he spoke to her, it was in a voice sounding like velvet over ice, soft and soothing but cold and reserved, as if hiding something. Shaking her head at the whimsical notion, she decided to forget him for the moment. She resolved to concentrate on why the recruiter had chosen her to leave that lonely parental home over 3000 miles away.
Those memories of 50 years ago, however, returned anyway. On her lonely return from her extended visit to Texas and the home of her maiden aunt, her mother had greeted her by saying, “Edith, I hope you’ve learned your lesson and have put those silly ideas about men out of your head.”
Edith, finally, was unable to put up with her mother’s constant reminders about her illegitimate child and unfortunate love affair. She moved out to live on her own the following year. She never again trusted her heart or body to another man. After the death of her mother some 20 or so years later, a still unmarried Edith Cartwright returned to the home where two unloving parents had raised her.
She lived there alone and forgotten for another 30 years until one August morning when a stranger came to her door. He invited her to live with people who would be there with comfort and caring for the rest of her days. Unable to think of a reason not to do it, the woman, starved for affection all her life, accepted and turned her back on her lonely existence.
After the attendant left, Edith explored her new rooms. She vowed not to let the past interfere with her any more. No more memories of what might have been, no more nights crying over her lost child. She would make a fresh start here and live life to the fullest for whatever amount of time she had left.
If Samantha had seen the smile that crossed the woman’s face, she would have immediately noticed it looked exactly like Walker’s smile when he was at his happiest. She was not there to see it, though, so his secret was still safe from the two women who were most important in his life.
They were a sweet adorable couple, Dan and Rose Cochran. Jack Notting, Walker’s recruiter for the area, could not separate them, even though his instructions were to look for one elderly person at a time. Jack, a slender blonde with a slight Boston accent, remembered the first time he had met his employer. It was the day Walker interviewed him for the most important of jobs. Jack came away with the impression Walker would not object to bending his rules just this once.
He noticed the Cochrans never were more than a few feet apart, holding hands whenever possible. They finished each other’s sentences as longtime married couples often do. Dan’s full head of gray hair was short and straight, matching his wife’s simple haircut. Laughter filled their brown eyes most of the time, and they seemed as innocent as two young children. Looking at them for the first time, Jack had thought hurting them would be like kicking a puppy.
“They’ve been with us for three years,” the retirement home’s manager told him. “The daughter, Monica Van Buren, brought her mother here first. The police found the older woman walking around the neighborhood one night, confused and lost. In the following month, her father started to decline in health, and she brought him here, too.”
The manager stopped for a minute and continued with a slight frown. “Since then, Dan and Rose have improved mentally and physically. It seems they are no longer welcome back with their family. It’s sad. Loving people should surround these two gentle souls. Instead, their family shuffled them off to end their lives among overworked strangers.”
Jack nodded and began marshaling his argument, if he needed one, for bringing the two back to Walker’s home. He also knew the crowded retirement home could use the generous stipend Walker always gave to worthy places. Unworthy places were a different matter and ended closed down with their patients moved to better homes. Besides being wealthy, Walker was powerful and did not hesitate to use his power, when needed.
Two days later, after one short and satisfactory conversation with his employer, Jack joined the couple in the cabin of Walker’s private Lear jet. It was their first airplane trip, and the younger man sat back to participate in their excitement vicariously. With the landscape passing underneath them, Jack enjoyed hearing them exclaim in wonder over simple items he took for granted. The two older adults remained glued to their windows as the plane crossed over mountains. When the flight steward came in to pass around coffee, it was as if he had offered them ambrosia from Mount Olympus.
Until Walker had employed him a year ago for the interesting work, Jack’s various jobs always left him feeling dissatisfied and bored. His meeting with the mysterious and private man he had read about in Forbes changed his outlook on life and human beings. Jack considered himself lucky to be working for Walker and looked forward to the meeting between his boss and the Cochrans.
Three hours and many miles later, the black limousine pulled up in front of the mansion where a small group of people waited. Jack, who always felt eager anticipation at these meetings, got out first. He waited as the attendants guided Dan and Rose slowly towards Walker and Samantha, who were standing by the open front door. Walker caught Jack’s attention and nodded his head slightly in thanks for bringing the couple safely to his home.
Later, with the elderly couple settled into their rooms to nap before dinner, Jack and his boss sat with snifters of brandy in Walker’s inner sanctum at the top of the mansion. After Walker bought the building, he had an additional floor added in the east wing. It became his apartment and consisted of four large rooms. Nearest to the door was a well-equipped office. Here, Walker conducted most of the business of increasing his public wealth and doing his private philanthropic duties. A second bedroom, rarely used for that purpose, doubled as a storeroom, a library, a catchall area for Walker’s myriad interests. It was off limits to the cleaning staff, much to their relief.
Besides his Spartan bedroom and bathroom, his apartment also contained a large living area. Comfortable sofas and chairs invited tired bodies to sit and relax. Here was where the Jack and Walker currently were enjoying the 100-year-old Napoleon brandy and the peace and quiet after a long busy day.
“Thanks again, Walker, for letting the Cochrans come. I think they’ll be a good addition here and should thrive. However,” Jack continued, “I understand the daughter was upset at their leaving. I’m just letting you know she might cause trouble for you.”
Walker smiled and took a sip of his warmed drink. “Don’t worry about me. I’ve an excellent law firm on retainer for just such problems. One of the few rules I made for the mansion is no one may visit my guests without their permission. A second rule is the comfort and safety of the guests comes before anything. If Dan and Rose don’t want to see their family, they won’t have to.” Leaning back in his chair and stretching out his long legs in utter contentment, he looked around with satisfaction. “What do you think of the place so far? I don’t mean here, but downstairs where everything is finally coming together.”
Jack paused before answering. He knew the other man valued honesty, but wanted to frame his reply as diplomatically as possible. “Walker, I don’t understand why you are doing this. Do you think it’s safe to have this many elderly people without a hospital or at least a doctor nearby?” He continued, “I looked into it, and the closest doctor is 30 miles away while the hospital is more than 50 miles from here. What will you do if one of your guests or even a member of your staff gets sick?”
At Jack's stunned look, Walker continued, raising his brandy glass in a toast to the other man.
"I'm hiring you back as my new idea man. A hospital is a brilliant idea. Keep them coming.”
With that, the two men got down to business in figuring out where best to build the new hospital on the mansion’s vast acreage. They also discussed who should go out and recruit the best doctors and nurses for it.
Guided by Walker, Samantha, and Jack, Maison du Renard Rouge would continue to be the safe haven Walker meant it to be.