Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Man Cave, Chapter 3

- Chapter 3

LC Cooper

Copyright LC Cooper, April 01, 2012
Published by LC Cooper at Smashwords

Smashwords Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

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Chapter 3

Relieved to see that several men were still fishing along the shoreline, I asked Sammy when the fish stop biting. I kept an eye on my prize – the fishing boat out on the lake. I was determined to make that craft mine for the week, for it was no ordinary fishing boat. It was none other than a Carver Yachts 570 Voyager Pilothouse.
I saw one on the cover of a fishing magazine I found in my dentist's office and had to read the story. Listing at over $500,00 new, the story's writer gushed on about the yacht's luxury; as such, I couldn't wait to see what surprises awaited us on Sammy's yacht.
Eric paid for my birthday present, being this week in Manton. Any resort that can host such a magnificent yacht must surely price their vacation packages through the roof. With the kind of job Eric was doing for the utility board, I didn't understand how he could afford this trip. I welled with pride at the realization of just how much I must mean to Eric, but at the same time, my being such a shit to him immediately trashed my good feelings. To distract my thoughts of shame, I returned to staring at Sammy's Carver yacht.
"You like her?" purred Sammy. "Well, you boys are in luck. She passed her trials, and it was only this morning that I got her registered for use on the lake." He glanced over his shoulder at Eric and me and added, "If you play your cards right, you two could be the first to be on her."
"When?" I excitedly blurted.
"I suppose first thing in the morning," he replied, instinctively scratching at his beard as he ran some numbers through his head. "I need to gas her up and get some gear and tackle aboard, but otherwise, I think she's good to go."
He scooped up two sets of keys, walked around the counter toward us, tossed a set of keys to each of us, and then said, "I'll take you to your cabin. Let me tell you, yours is no ordinary cabin. Because I like you guys, I bumped you up to a deluxe suite. The guy who reserved it had to cancel, so I didn't see any point in leaving it vacant. You two seem like good guys; I bet you'll take great care of it."
The three of us, with Sammy in the lead, strolled along the creaky wrap-around porch while he pointed out some of the unique features of Manton, its best hot spots, and the natural wonders of the lake and surrounding mountains. From there, he took us on a brief walking tour along a few of the most popular streets. Voices, music, laughter, and the sound of raucous TV shows entertained us during our stroll. It seemed that everyone was having a great time in Manton.
"Wow, it sure does get hot here, doesn't it!" I exclaimed as I fanned my red face.
"Yeah, the humidity's through the roof," Eric added.
"Although Manton's located in the mountains, we're actually within a valley ringed by the walls of a dormant volcano. Hot springs and thermal vents, combined with evaporating lake water keeps things a bit toasty here during the summer. That's why you don't see anyone outside right now, especially with the sun blazing."
I agreed with Sammy, noting the only guys I saw were those fishing along the shore, and they were able to take advantage of the shore's shade trees.
Sammy said, "Yeah, but I'd be surprised if they last much longer. The smart ones bailed before now, knowing the fish don't bite on much during the heat of the day. Anyone still out now is using fishing as a reason to get sloppy drunk."
We all shared an understanding chuckle at Sammy's observation. Eric and I told a couple of stories each about bizarre fishing experiences. I pointed to the dimpled scar in my left earlobe – my souvenir from when a former neighbor of ours hooked my ear when he whipped back his fishing pole too close to my face. Sammy howled with laughter as Eric and I acted out the scene, particularly the part when the guy kept yanking his fishing pole forward, frustrated that he didn't understand why it was hung, while yelling at me to shut up before I scared all the fish away.
Admittedly, I'm not usually the best judge of character, and as we strolled through Manton, I realized my initial impression of Sammy was dead wrong. I should have expected him to be a bit rough around the edges because he owns and runs a business that caters to every guy's masculinity. Once again during this trip, I found myself apologizing, this time to Sammy for being callous and distant.
He said, "Don't worry about it. As a matter of fact, I didn't even notice. We get uptight and rude guys like you in here all the time. They're the ones who've benefitted most from their stays here. Manton is the perfect place to unwind."
"Which is exactly why I wanted Adam to spend his fiftieth birthday here," added Eric.
I probably should have thanked Eric again, but I was focused on Sammy's snide shot at me buried within his reply. Instead of firing off an equally-snotty comment, though, I decided to let it go. I was in too good of a mood to let the old fart get to me. I turned my attention to a promising bar that was hawking its wares through gaudy flashing neon lights. "Geez, it's lit up bigger than a Broadway marquee," I said.
"Yeah, I figured you to be the kind of guy who enjoys Broadway plays," Sammy lisped. Of course, my pal Eric chimed in. Normally, both of them would be back on my shit list, but I was too excited about having fun that I let it go.
Eric didn't though, noticing I didn't jump all over them for taking a shot at my manliness. "Are you feeling okay, Adam?" He paused to toss a knowing wink at Sammy. "Normally, you would have tightened up your bra, hiked up your big-girl panties, and come at us with nails-a-flailing because of a joke like that."
"Revenge is a dish best served cold," I monotonically and darkly muttered while cracking a slight grin, "like I bet the lake water is, eh, Sammy?" Both of them wrinkled their brows and looked at each other. Capitalizing on their confusion, I added, "Best be careful, guys; we're going fishing on the lake in the morning. Lakes can be very dangerous places where …accidents abound." I then did my best maniacal laugh, which eased the immediate tension and put me back at the top of the insult game. "Gotcha!" I smugly whispered to Sammy. He nodded and slowly blinked, agreeing I got back at him for the dark joke he played on me earlier in the registration cabin. He responded with a gently, knowing pat on my shoulder. I was happy, but the mood soured somewhat for Sammy and Eric. I guessed it was because I was no longer the butt of their jokes.
Nothing else snide or mocking was said as we wound our way through the last of the rustic cabins; strolled through pool areas with their brightly-colored cabanas; peeked into a large garage filled with ATVs, mountain bikes, and camping gear; and selected our fishing poles from a case containing what must have been hundreds of the world's finest. I was very, very impressed with Manton. It felt like the home I'd always dreamed of having.
We completed our tour outside of cabin #275, which Sammy said was ours. I was pleased to see it had a terrific view of the lake's eastern shore. Framed within a group of large pine trees sat the majestic Carver yacht, also visible from the cabin's front porch. It bobbed and teased in the slight wind-blown waves, beckoning me to come aboard and play. "So, this is how the better half lives," I sighed.
"What?" Eric absently asked.
"Oh, nothing," I replied, "just taking in the scenery." I didn't want to share how selfish and wistful I was feeling at the moment. The way guys jump all over emotional things, there was no point in opening up to Eric and Sammy.
While Eric and Sammy chatted, I took in the shoreline and the picturesque mountain range. I thought the large hill on the northern end of Manton made for a nice touch – the perfect backdrop. Sammy was talking, but I blocked out his droning, preferring to stare at the lake and the gorgeous yacht's playful bobbing. Although it was still the afternoon, the sun was already setting behind the soaring mountains; its golden streaks lightly flicked the tops of the waves and rippled across the bow of the yacht. All was absolutely perfect.
"Oh, crap," Sammy groused – a statement that got my attention. I prayed his revelation had nothing to do with the yacht and tomorrow's fishing trip on the lake.
"I forgot your suitcases," Sammy added. "Tell you what, go on inside and make yourselves comfortable," he said as he tossed a small key on a fob to Eric. "It's for the bar in the butler's pantry. Help yourselves to a drink and the snacks you'll find in there. As far back as we are from the registration cabin, it'll take me a little while to bring your things. However, by the time you knock back a drink or two, I'll be banging on your door."
"How can you return so quickly?" I asked. "It took the three of us over an hour to get here."
"That's because we went on a tour of the scenic route. From here, the registration cabin is no more than a ten-minute walk, straight down the path there," Sammy replied while pointing off to his right. He noticed my slight fidgeting and calmly said, "Don't worry, Adam, I'll be back with your suitcases, and I promise not to root through them and steal all your good stuff."
I sighed and rolled my eyes. My reprieve from Sammy's sarcasm had been short-lived. With the exception of joining us on his yacht in the morning, I hoped to see very little of Sammy during the rest of our week's vacation. The guy just rubbed me the wrong way.
Eric distracted me with, "A big swig of alcohol sounds mighty fine to me right now." He juggled the key and fob in his open hand. "I'm ready to get out of this heat and humidity … ugh. Sammy, I don't know how you handle it."
"Living in Manton as long as I have, you get used to it," he said while looking in the direction of the registration cabin. Anticipating another conversation, Sammy leaned against a table attached to the nearby row of barbecue pits.
"Nice touch," mused Eric, "setting the barbecues so close to the docks and waterline. Makes it convenient and easy for anyone fishing to fry up the day's catch."
"Thanks, I aim to please," Sammy replied with lessening enthusiasm.
"You aim, too, please," I interjected, grinning at what I thought was a clever play on words.
"What?" Sammy mumbled, with a puzzled look on his face.
"Ignore him," replied Eric. "He thinks it's funny to mix up the words folks say." Eric shook his head and frowned as I turned red-faced. "This time, he's quoting an old saying that asked men to aim for the open toilet and not whiz on the floor."
"Oh," muttered Sammy, looking pitifully at me and wrinkling his brow. "You're right about one thing, Adam, it probably is good for you that this isn't a Roman coliseum."
Not comprehending, I looked to Eric for translation, but he merely nodded. Then, the two of them burst out laughing. I decided I'd had enough of Sammy. His brief moments of kindness were overshadowed by his frequent insults about my masculinity.
"Oh, my, that was funny. Whoo, I haven't laughed this hard since I don't know when. Oh well, I need to get going. Why don't you head on inside and freshen up," Sammy said, looking only at Eric. "After bringing you your suitcases, I need to take care of some chores, but after dinner, why don't you guys meet me at the ranch house …"
"Ranch house?" I repeated, not understanding.
"Where the guests meet up at the end of each day to watch sports, eat snacks, swap stories; you know, hang out." Again, Sammy turned to Eric and ignored me. "He doesn't get out much, does he?"
I was relieved, for the first time since arriving in Manton, that Eric stood up for me. "Take it easy on the old guy, Sammy. He's a good friend and usually easy to hang with. He's been through a nasty divorce and lost his job. The whole midlife-crisis thing has been messing with him. That's why we're here. So, if you don't mind, tone the jokes down a bit."
Sammy frowned, apparently realizing he overplayed his hand. "Oh, all right," Sammy begrudgingly said as he stuck out a hand to shake mine. "I apologize for being slightly rude, Adam. No harm done, right?" he said, pretending to punch my arm, but done so with enough force to cause me to stumble.
However, Sammy frowned again as he watched me struggle to regain my composure. He sighed and said, "Toughen up, chief. Manton has a few regulars who'd chew you up and spit you out in a heartbeat."
"Will do, boss," I retorted, punching his right bicep with enough force to cause him to wince.
"Atta-boy," he said, rubbing out the pain in his arm. "You'll probably need a bit of that polish while you're here. We have a few dudes who like to pick on little guys like you." Without saying another word, Sammy turned around and hurried off in the direction of the registration cabin.
"What'd he mean by that?" I nervously asked.
"He's yanking your chain, Adam. I swear, you two sounded like a couple of schoolgirls going at it," Eric grumped.
"He ought to show his customers more respect than that," I complained.
"He does. I'm the customer; he's been great to me," Eric said with a smirk. "You are my guest."
"Guest this," I retorted, grabbing my crotch.
"Sure, I'm guessing a pre-pubescent boy's, about 3 inches long when fully inflated." He had turned the word guest into guess and used my joke against me. Eric was doubled over with laughter, but I was furious.
"Keep it up, laughing boy," I mumbled. "Tomorrow, when we're out on Sammy's yacht fishing, we might accidentally run into something in the water that knocks you overboard."
"Careful, Adam," Eric replied, wiping tears of laughter from around his eyes with his sleeve. "You signed an agreement to pay for damages, remember? I'd find another way to do me in than wrecking Sammy's Carver Pilothouse."
"If it means bumping off your sorry ass, it's a risk I'm willing to take."
"Now, there's the stuff I'm used to hearing! I'm curious why you held your tongue a couple of times when Sammy was busting your chops during the tour. I was surprised that the two of you waited until making it to the cabin to turn our b.s-ing into a sparring match."
"Look around," I said while sweeping my arm out across in front of me. "I was enjoying the scenery and daydreaming during our tour. For once, I was feeling good about myself. I felt vital and alive. You know how long it's been since I last said that? Well, I wasn't willing to let Sammy's mouth get to me. It's that simple."
"Well, I'm glad to hear it." Eric changed the subject as he inserted his key into the cabin's door lock. "Sammy said he gave us the deluxe suite. If it's anything like the rest of Manton …"
And it was – absolutely amazing. The chunky weathered timber door opened into a landing of multi-hued peacock marble.
"I-I've seen this stuff before," mumbled Eric, in shock. "My boss' place is tiled with peacock marble." He let out a long, slow whistle. "It doesn't get any fancier than this."
"Wow, who would have known the insides of these cabins looked so great? From outside, they're so plain."
Eric tiptoed through the spacious entranceway and into the living room. I poked my head into the bathroom nearest the door, grateful to find it was free of dainty soaps, perfumes, and lotions. In their place next to the sink stood one squirt-bottle of aftershave, another of Mennen hand soap, and in the shower caddy sat a massive bar of Lava soap. That was all – no foofery, no doilies, no dainty curtains. "Ah," I said, grinning, "I could stay here forever, Eric."
Between the wall switch and a Wyland print was a sign that read, "Be careful what you wish for." I startled and fell back against the bathroom's doorframe. My heart was racing.
Eric dashed in to see what happened, but I casually dismissed him, saying I had slipped on the marble tile and was okay.
A thought was bubbling up in my brain, and I tried to suppress it, but it came out anyway. "I don't trust Sammy."
Eric looked at me if I were nuts. "Where the heck is that coming from? I thought you stopped griping about Sammy right before we entered the cabin." He threw his hands up in disgust, obviously hurt. "I spent a lot of money to bring you here so you'd cheer up."
"Wait, let me explain. Manton is fantastic, the perfect trip and birthday present. It's just that Sammy … gives me the creeps."
"Probably your overactive imagination is getting the best of you, I'm guessing. Were you freaked out by our taxidermy conversation and the dogs playing cards?"
"Slightly, but that's not my issue with Sammy. I can't put my finger on it, but something about that guy isn't quite right. He's been sneering and glaring at me when your back is turned."
"Now look, Sammy owns and manages a fantasy playground for rich guys. He probably has received so many glares and stares from his nouveau riche customers that he's absorbed some of their rude habits. No place is perfect, Adam," Eric sighed. "With all your griping, we should have gone on to Yellowstone. It would have been a heck of a lot cheaper."
"No, no, I do like it here." Seeing the pained expression on Eric's face, I softened my tone and words with, "I may not care much for Sammy's superior attitude, but I'd never downplay what you've done for me with this vacation. You truly are a best friend."
A blood-curdling, very primal scream interrupted our conversation. We ran to the living room's large picture windows, but saw nothing. Listening intently, neither did we hear any more screams.
"What on Earth was that?" Eric spat, scratching his head and pacing nervously.
"You know, it may have been a bobcat. You and I have heard them let go with some god-awful howling. One thing's for sure, it scared the crap out of me," I half-heartedly joked. I walked over to stand next to Eric at the window and scanned the area beyond our cabin, but still didn't see anything out of the ordinary. "It sounded like it came from somewhere between our cabin and that distant warehouse. I don't know what it was, but it can't be a good thing. Whatever it was must have been in excruciating pain."
"No doubt," Eric echoed. "I'm hesitant to go outside in case it's a wounded animal. We don't need it charging at us."
"I'll call Sammy and see if he knows what happened."
We searched the cabin for a phone before realizing that Sammy wouldn't have installed one for the same reasons he made us give up our mobile ones. We searched the grounds behind our and the adjacent cabins, but couldn't find the source of the eerie shriek or any signs of a struggle that would have resulted in such a horrific sound. Knocking on the doors of the nearby cabins produced no results. All were quiet. Eric and I guessed their occupants were at the bars, pool halls, or out on the lake.
Resignedly, we trudged back into our cabin. The exhilaration of exploring our elegant suite was gone, having been replaced with a gnawing worry. We strolled through the rest of the cabin and absorbed what we could of its ambiance, but the thrill was lost. Eric found the wet bar in the butler's pantry and unlocked its liquor cabinet. True to Sammy's word, every top-shelf liquor was there, and Eric and I consumed more than our fair share. Booze never had the effect of cheering us up; we drank to deaden the scream that continued to echo in our heads.
Unaware of how long we were out, Eric and I awoke from our drunken stupor to something banging on our cabin's front door.
"Hey guys, are you in there? Open up, it's me, Sammy!"
Eric attempted to stand, but slid on a rug and fell back into the sofa. I was in the armchair, so I was able to push up and steady myself. I unlocked the front door amidst another round of head-splitting pounding.
"Thank God you two are okay," Sammy sputtered as he peered over my shoulder to see Eric Shuffling toward us. "I knocked and pounded on your door for so long that I was afraid something …"
"You heard it, too?" I mumbled through my alcohol fog.
"Well, I hear stuff all the time, living in the remote wilderness and all, but that was the closest yet. To me, it sounded like whatever it was got into a nasty fight somewhere near your cabin."
"Yeah," added Eric, "we thought so, too, but never did find anything. We probably spent a good hour searching around this area."
Eyeing the bundle beneath his arm, I asked, "Whatcha got there, Sammy?"
"If you'll let me in, I'll show you!" he replied cheerily.
I was glad to see that Sammy had lightened up. Maybe Eric was right when he suggested that Sammy was just a crusty old guy who was too busy for his own good.
"Things slowed down now for you, Sammy?" I said with my eyelids nearly scrunched shut. The sun had set long ago – my squint was caused by the bright porch light.
"For a couple of hours, I suppose. You mind if I come inside? I brought dinner," Sammy said as he politely pushed past me. "I thought you guys should get some food in you before heading to the Ranch house later this evening. He glanced at the open liquor cabinet and continued by saying, "I want you boys to eat to sop up some of that alcohol. No point showing up to the Ranch house drunk. Doing so usually doesn't end pretty."
"What do you mean?" I asked as I accepted a styrofoam to-go box from Sammy. Eric took the next one, and the three of us migrated to the cherry dining-room table.
"Think about it. You arrive drunk and inevitably say dumb things that drunks say. A fight breaks out, and you spend your vacation in jail and the rest of the year paying for property damages and court costs." He shook his head and sighed, "It happens at least once a quarter." He opened a fourth box and removed an apple pie from it, then continued with, "I like you guys, so I brought over dinner. I thought we'd eat together and get to know each other a little better while you two sober up. Then, we'll head on over to the Ranch house. I'm looking forward to introducing you guys to a bunch of my other guests."
"See, Adam, I told you …" Eric whispered to me just before stuffing a bite of crispy catfish into his mouth.
I looked at Eric and raised an eyebrow in agreement. It seemed as if I did have Sammy figured out all wrong. The dinner and his concern about our drunken condition proved he had our best interests at heart.
After completing our meal of catfish and pork chops, but before dessert, I asked Sammy what had happened earlier that might have caused the scream outside. I brought it back up because I didn't remember that Sammy answered the question after entering the cabin.
"I think Eric's first assumption was right," Sammy nonchalantly said before diving into his thick wedge of cinnamon-apple pie. "We see all kinds of wild animals around here, bein' in the sticks and all. From what you two described, probably a coyote or bobcat got hold of a screech owl or maybe a possum. Both of 'em make quite a racket when cornered and gnawed on."
Satisfied with Sammy's explanation, Eric and I changed the topic, hoping to hear where some of the best fishing holes were.
"Oh, you're gonna love fishing from my Carver. Tell you what, instead of me describing fishing spots you'll never find on your own, how about we meet on the docks at 4:00 a.m. As promised, I'll be your fishing guide for the day." He leaned in, as if to let us in on a secret, which seemed to be a compulsive behavior. "We'll fill up the boat with the largest trout and bass you've ever seen – and the great thing is that because Manton is so remote, there's no limit out here." He flopped back into his seat while giving us a knowing wink and a nod.
Sammy startled us when he banged his hammy hand on the tabletop. "Heck, I almost forgot, you guys said you wanted to know more about how I made the display of the dogs playing cards."
No, I didn't, but instead of being rude about it, especially after all the trouble Sammy went through to bring us dinner, I thought the right thing to do was to sit and listen to what he had to say. I wondered, though, if the entire dinner idea was a setup so we'd feel obligated to listen to him brag.
Seemingly unaware of Sammy's ploy, it was Eric's turn to lean in. "Yeah! I'd love to hear how you did it." He looked around the cabin, leaned in, and whispered as if someone might overhear him. "I swear I felt the eyes of those goofy dogs watching us while we checked in. It was unnerving, in a cool way, like knowing when a scary scene is about to happen in a horror flick. You still jump out of your skin, even though you know it's fake."
I didn't care much for Sammy's trick,  and not wanting to listen to his bragging, I gently pushed my chair back and walked over to the kitchen's island and served myself another slice of pie. The vanilla ice cream was so rich and full-bodied, I piled on another serving, barely keeping the scoops and pie from sliding off of my styrofoam plate. I loved the dessert, but I hated the direction our conversation went.
Instead of sitting back down and getting involved in all of Sammy's unnerving taxidermy chatter, I leaned against the counter and watched the game on the kitchen's TV. Every once in a while, I'd tune into Sammy and Eric's conversation, but only until I'd start feeling nauseous. Then, I'd punch out. I spent the next hour half-listening to Sammy's banter. Eric, however, was engrossed. It looked to me that Eric was making yet another friend. Was he pushing me away? I frowned at the prospect, swallowed a big swig of unsweet iced tea, and stared blankly at the TV.
Sammy didn't appear to care that I wasn't interested in hearing what he had to say. He was wrapped up in patting himself on the back. "Those dogs are only the beginning. As I told you, I started a taxidermy business after graduating from high school. Within a few years, though, I was bored. Used to preserving animals, I thought it would be a good idea to get a college degree in chemistry. It was a perfect match for leapfrogging my career. I blew through the course-load in three years, so I pushed on and got my Master of Science degree in Chemistry the very next year."
"Man, that's impressive. Don't you think so, Adam?" Eric said, attempting to rope me into the conversation. I replied with nothing more than a grunt.
"What's the matter with him?" grumped Sammy.
"No idea, Sammy. He gets like this sometimes when he watches sports. I wouldn't read into it – his team is probably losing."
I saw out of the corner of my eye that Sammy was sizing me up, as if he wasn't quite sure what to make of me. From my perspective, I was certain he was nothing more than a blowhole. His next comments clinched it for me. What he had to say sounded so absurd that I stopped listening to the game and focused on his monologue. I still pretended to watch the game because I didn't want to give Sammy the satisfaction that he succeeded in reeling me in.
"As I was saying," Sammy crabbed, adding a shrug, "I was on top of the world  - the chemistry world, that is. While still in my masters program, I was offered a position with DuPont, working within one of their high-profile research labs."
I hoped Eric had caught my expression, but all the eye-rolling and snide throat-clearing didn't pull him away from Sammy's story. He was smitten, and I was getting nauseous listening to the bilge. On Sammy prattled.
"I did good my first year with DuPont. I ended up leading the team studying the use of tetrahydrobiopterin for solving conditions such as autism, ADHD, hypertension, endothelial dysfunction, and chronic kidney disease."
"Huh?" I absentmindedly interjected.
"Good, so you are listening," Sammy snidely chuckled. He grinned, adding, "I'm just getting to the bitter years." Sammy pressed on with his monologue, which became venomous and acidic as he plowed ahead.
"After an unfortunate outcome that occurred during a clinical trial, when two test subjects died because of allergic reactions, I was removed from the team and eventually fired." Sammy slammed his right fist down on the tabletop to emphasize his frustration.
"A few years later, naturally, my findings were vindicated as tetrahydrobiopterin was accepted by the FDA as an exemplary method for controlling such diseases. However, the damage was done. My former employer reaped the rewards of my work while my lab results disclosing a problem were swept under the rug. Even the lawyer I hired couldn't dislodge any information that could reverse the court's ruling. I agonized, apparently for no reason, for seven years in jail for two counts of manslaughter I didn't commit."
I looked down at my feet, unable to make eye contact. I had no idea Sammy had such a complicated background. Manslaughter? He seemed too simple. Astonished, I was caught up in Sammy's history to the point that I had unknowingly pulled a chair up to the table and sat down alongside Sammy and Eric
. Sammy and I made eye contact. He cracked a thin smile and narrowed his eyes, a reaction that caught me off guard. "Why," I wondered, "was he telling us all this stuff, and then pauses to give me an snotty look?"
Sammy finished the last of his tea and sucked in an ice cube, crunching it loudly. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and continued with, "Disillusioned, but determined to create something fantastic, I convinced a chemical producer in Eastern Europe to hire me. To prove my worth, I created a radical and unproven process for converting organic tissue into a rubber-like product. A form of plastination, the process that I created was light-years ahead of anything my co-workers, scientists, and fellow chemical engineers were developing."
"What's plastination?" Eric asked before I did.
"Remember the display of the dogs playing cards?"
"That's plastination?" I asked.
"Bright boy," Sammy sneered.
Eric seemed unaware, but I noticed a change in Sammy that wasn't sitting well with me. Since we arrived in Manton, he came across to me as being very moody, frequently flipping between good and bad moods. Then, when he delivered dinner, he was friendly and neighborly. Then, as his story droned on, I sensed his mood getting ugly. At least when he spoke with me, his facial expressions and attitude became course and confrontational. With Eric, however, Sammy remained charming. "What did I do to him?" I wondered.
"You catch on quick, don't you, Adam," Sammy said while glaring at me. "I see why Eric hangs out with you," he snorted, sharing the demeaning joke with Eric. They bumped fists. I fumed that Sammy was getting to me, and it appeared I was powerless to fend off his barbs. The satisfied sneer on Sammy's face told me he had arrived at the same conclusion.
"Anyway," Sammy went on to say, "the problem scientists and chemists were experiencing was that the resins they used made it impossible to differentiate embedded tissues from each other. For example, when muscles, connective tissue and the brain are impregnated with the same resin, The epoxy- or polyester-plastination technique renders transparent either the tissues without the brain or the brain without the adjacent tissues. This makes studying the brain and its supporting tissues ridiculously complex. I developed a new technique that allows a homogenous transparency of both the head and the brain."
I yawned, pushed my chair away from the table, and reached into the cooler for a beer. Sammy had my attention until he started yakking about the brain. The subject made me queasy.
Sammy noticed my agitation and baited me with, "What's the matter, Adam? Can't handle a mature discussion?"
His face contorted with rage when I shot him down with, "Oh, no, the brain stuff is interesting. I just think you're full of shit." I glared at Sammy and sneered back at him – giving him a dose of his own medicine.
Turned out to be a poor choice because Sammy lurched up onto his feet and screamed,
"Where do you get off challenging me? Are you calling me a liar?"
"Down boy – we're paying customers, remember? For the record, I'm not challenging some of your story, only the beginning, middle, and the end." I smugly grinned. He didn't realize he was dealing with the master of insults, and I was just getting warmed up. Off went the gloves – I was no longer willing to sit there, while Eric remained silent, and take Sammy's intimidating Bullcrap.
I think I got to Sammy because he sort of backed down. He glanced at Eric, and then turned to me, and in a near-whisper, said, "For you, your fate hasn't yet been composed." He looked out the corner of his eye, relieved to see that Eric was distracted by the TV's loud sports commentary. Louder, to get Eric listening again, Sammy said, "You need to calm yourself, son, and not take life so seriously. If you don't mind, I'd like to finish telling my story."
Sammy and I broke our concentrated stares at each other, looked around the room and at Eric, then nodded coolly at each other.
"Are you done, Sammy? Whew, well, I've certainly heard enough. Who's ready to head to the Ranch house?" I said, pretending to care about diffusing Sammy's hostility. I couldn't help but get in that last dig, however.
"Aw, come on, Sammy, Adam's only yanking your chain," Eric said, finally inserting himself as referee. "Correct me if I'm wrong, chief, but you've been busting Adam's balls ever since we arrived. I say, let's cut each other some slack, finish hearing Sammy's story, and then have some fun at the Ranch house."
Not willing to stay another minute in the cabin and listen to Sammy's chest-pounding, I huffed, "Where else can I hang out for the rest of the evening? Where's a bar or the bowling alley?"
"Sorry, sport," Sammy spat. "You guys came at the busiest time of the year, when we're hosting two large corporate-executive retreats and a bunch of bachelor parties. Manton is booked up with private parties through next weekend. Heck, the only reason you got this cabin is we had a cancellation. Otherwise, I would have had to turn you away. What a shame that would have been, eh, Adam? Good thing I made this cabin available to you or your fiftieth birthday would have sucked about as bad as the rest of your life, right, Adam?"
Eric rose to calm me as he recognized the look on my face. I was ready to leap across the table and strangle Sammy. Eric got to me before I had a chance to react, whispering in my ear, "Not a good idea, Adam. I jumped up because he's un-holstered a wicked Bowie knife. He's holding it hidden under the table. He's goading you into a fight. He's so angry, you might get in a punch or two, but he'll win this fight."
I glared at Sammy, who snarled, "You got something to say, Adam?"
Instead of answering, I patted Eric's arm, mouthed the word, "thanks," and slipped out the front door.
"Don't wander off far, sport," growled Sammy. "I don't want you disturbing the other guests with your lousy attitude. They're paying big money to be here, and I won't have you ruin their fun."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," I said with a yawn. "Eric, are you coming with me?"
"I'll catch up with you later. I want to hear the rest of Sammy's story. You know that lab stuff fascinates me."
I didn't. Eric gets bored faster than I do listening to guys whining about their lives. I wondered what he was up to. "Suit yourself," I said before slamming the door behind me.
The night air was cool and crisp, and I gulped it in gratefully. Sammy irritated the crap out of me, but I was shaken by the revelation that he was willing and ready to attack me. What a frigged-up birthday this was. On top of that, Eric's loyalty sucked. Sure, by standing up and warning me, he probably saved my life, blah, blah, blah, but how could he leave me hanging, alone, on my birthday? Then, he chose Sammy instead of me. How insulting. At that moment, if Eric had changed his mind and joined me on the porch, I would have demanded that he drive me home.
Four in the morning came too soon. My excitement to go fishing on the yacht was tempered by the fact that Sammy insisted on piloting his new toy, which meant he'd be with Eric and me all day. Begrudgingly, I pulled myself out from under the thick blanket and sheets, shuffled over to Eric's bed, and gave it a good, hard kick.
There were several ways I could have chosen to wake Eric up, but because he decided not to join me at all outside, being jolted awake by a kick was the most effort I was willing to waste.
"C'mon, traitor, get your butt out of bed. Time to go fishing with your best buddy, Sammy," I sneered.
"Oh, give it a rest, will ya?" Eric groggily moaned. "I'm hung over as shit, and all you can do is piss and moan. You should have stuck around instead of bolting. I learned a lot about Sammy."
"Neato – why don't you wait and save it for your wedding. You'll make the perfect wife for him."
"Shut up and listen for once, would ya?" he hissed. "After Sammy pulled the knife last night, the reason I stuck around was to talk him into settling down." Eric sat up in his bed and, while slipping into his socks and jeans, said, "He absolutely hates you …"
"No love loss from me either, pal," I interjected.
"Anyway, when I saw the knife and then chose to stay, it was to diffuse the situation and learn whatever I could about someone who could really screw us over."
"What do you mean?"
"Think about it, Adam. We're stuck here, in his town, which is in the middle of nowhere. He's got all our things locked up in his office. He could make life quite miserable for us."
"Big deal," I huffed, dismissing his concern. "I believe Sammy is nothing more than a bragger who lucked into a marketing idea – this Manton of his – and uses bullying to control folks." I looked Eric in the eyes and concluded with, "If I were truly concerned about the nutcase, I'd walk over to a nearby cabin and call the cops. Since this place is crawling with corporate executives this week, I'm sure most of them have advanced satellite phones."
"That's the thing, Adam. Sammy's got this place locked up – it's airtight. No signals are getting in or out."
I was startled. "What – what do you mean? What you're kind of saying is that the guy keeps folks essentially prisoners while they're staying here?"
"It's pretty much the way Sammy told the story."
"Go on, you've got my attention," I somewhat whispered. A possible scenario was meandering through my brain, but I was unwilling to jump to a conclusion just yet.
"Turns out that Sammy was fired from that plastination company in Eastern Europe because he froze some poor slob to death."
I shuddered. "What the …"
"Yeah! It was crazy listening to him. He had developed an advanced technique for essentially freeze-drying bodies that cut the processing time in half. It was an extremely volatile mix, and an accident at the chemical plant resulted in an explosion in one of their labs. Desperate to prove that his new process was worth investing in, while walking home one night, Sammy found what he thought was a dead drunk guy in an alley. Next thing you know, he's dropping the dude into a vat of acetone. It does something that evaporates all moisture from the body, so the tissues can then be filled with that epoxy stuff he told us about."
"Wow, he's one bizarre dude," I whispered.
"Wait, get a load of this. Turns out the drunk guy wasn't dead but in a coma of sorts."'
"Oh shit!"
"The bum screamed in agony, partially submerged in the acetone, as it froze his body."
"And we're going out on a boat with this guy? Why didn't you wake me up last night so we could bolt out of here. Are you out of your mind?"
"Settle down, Adam. Turns out that it wasn't uncommon for Sammy's employer to do questionable things. They just weren't expecting to find Sammy pacing, apparently in shock, on the catwalk above a guy stuck in a vat. The end of that story is the guy died and Sammy was fired, although charges were never filed against Sammy. He was kicked out of the country instead of being prosecuted for murder."
"Why not?" I incredulously asked. "Oh, let me guess – stereotypically, the cops were paid off by Sammy's bosses - did I get it right?"
"Nailed it. As he said, it wasn't uncommon for odd things to happen at the plant. The cops didn't get paid much, so the extra cash to keep quiet ensured there was always food on the table."
"And after he lost that job …?" I half-heartedly asked.
"He returned to the USA and started Manton as a vacation getaway."
"What brought about the change?" I said mockingly. "How did Sammy explain how he went from being a mad scientist to a resort owner? It seems stupid to believe there's any correlation."
"He told me that, after being blamed for three deaths, his desire to remain a chemist vanished along with his job prospects in Europe. Disgraced, he came back here and invested in a small cabin on the lake, somewhere south of here."
"And …?"
"When the oil rigs were shut down, jobs in this area were moved to other sites with greater oil deposits. Folks abandoned their homes and property, no longer able to afford them. One by one, Sammy bought up many of the homes and cabins in an attempt to distance himself even further from others. As it turned out, he ran into a travel agent at a grocery store. She talked him into renting out a few of the cabins on the lake. Over time, Sammy grew the operation into Manton."
"Am I supposed to be impressed? If so, I'm not."
"No, no, I'm not telling you this load of crap to convince you to like Sammy."
"Then why would you think I care to listen to his sob story?"
"Because I think the guy's nuts. I stuck around last night to learn just how nuts he is."
"You still want to go fishing with the jerk, even after suspecting he's loony?"
"I got the impression that after years of running Manton, he mellowed."
"Yeah, as evidenced by his almost pulling a knife on me last night."
"I think he must have been stoned or drunk." Eric stood and grumped, "Look, I'm not trying to convince you to like the guy. I assure you, I don't, but I wasn't about to step foot on a boat with him if there was any doubt in my mind that he was okay to hang out with. Besides, you and I earned this vacation, and I'm eager to get on with vacationing. I'm sick of worrying about Sammy. I convinced myself that he would be fine to be our fishing guide, and that was good enough for me. Now, can we get going? Sammy's probably down at the dock waiting for us."
Eric was right. Sammy was on the dock, checking the yacht over, and loosening the lines that kept her tied to the docks.
"Well, glad you could make it, boys," Sammy cheerily said.
I thought his attitude was weird, considering it was only a few hours before when he was drunk and threatening to stab me. Sammy strutted along the boardwalk toward us. I felt a twinge of fear and rapidly scanned him and his posturing, looking for a weapon or anything threatening. I found nothing, so I relaxed somewhat. I was frustrated by his apparent turnaround. How could the guy go from hotheaded loudmouth to peaceful fishing guide in only a few hours? Why wasn't he groggy and irritable from a hangover? His cheeriness and grins told me I wasn't going to get an answer to my questions. I glanced to my left, where some men had already gathered along the lake's shoreline to fish.
"They're up early, don't you think?" I asked, attempting to size up Sammy and offer an olive branch.
Sammy went for it. "Oh, that's one of the best nearby places to fish." He chuckled slightly as he nodded in their direction. "You should see it. Some mornings, guys will almost run each other over to get to where they think the prime spots will be. I think a couple of them," he said while pointing at the men, "spent the night in that tent near them just to get a jump on the others."
Eric said, "I'm surprised they're not slugging it out, based on what you just told us."
"Naw, there's good-natured poking and shoving, but everyone's civil out here. Everyone realizes they're all on vacation, so they cast off hostilities – kind of like what happened between you and me last night, Adam."
I gulped and quickly turned my head to face Sammy. He was sneering, looking me right in the eyes with one eyebrow raised. I shook my head and did a double-take as what I thought was a maniacal face was replaced by a calming smile. I didn't know what to make of it.
"Speaking of shoving," interjected Sammy, "why don't you follow me to the yacht. I'll quickly show you around before we shove off."
"Sounds good to me," Eric said enthusiastically. He gave me a nudge from behind. The three of us marched along the dock to the gangway.
"Welcome aboard my new pride and joy," Sammy said, beaming. "It's going to be a fine day, boys. I can feel it in my bones. Now, how about a quick tour? The sun will be coming up soon, and we'll want to be in place when the fish start biting."
Indeed, the yacht was magnificent, but I wasn't the slightest bit interested in listening to Sammy brag about his toy. Instead, I attempted to rush us through the tour, but Sammy would have none of it. We had to listen to every minutiae about the leather upholstery, the mahogany cabinetry with gold hardware, hand-woven carpets, the marble fireplace in the main suite, and so on. At one point, I tapped Eric on the arm and made a choking sign, which caused Eric to laugh slightly. Sammy, though, saw me and glared.
"Look, Adam, I realize you're here as your birthday present, and as such, I will continue to treat you with respect."
I snorted, which only made Sammy's eyes narrow even more. "Would you, at the very least, extend the same courtesy? I invited you guys to be the first to fish from my yacht. I thought you'd be appreciative and indulge me for a few minutes. I guess I was wrong." And with that, he let out a very audible sigh and said, "Apparently, I'm wasting your time. Let's get up top. You two are welcome to relax in the deck chairs while I get us to the first fishing spot."
Eric frowned at me and crossed his arms. "See what you did? Pissing him off isn't helping us, Adam. After mocking him, do you really think Sammy's taking us anywhere near the best fishing holes? We'll be lucky to even get a bite, I imagine." Before shuffling off to apologize to Sammy, he concluded with, "I'll never understand why you get your kicks out of tweaking and insulting people. We're here in a vacation resort, and so what that we have to take a tour of an egomaniac's new yacht. We could be having fun now, but the vibe is all tense again. Having any fun yet?" He shook his head in disapproval as he climbed the steps out of the master suite.
I, too, shook my head. Maybe I was being too rough on Sammy. I might not have liked the guy, but I guess Eric was correct in that I didn't have to show my aggravation so much. With my hands on my hips, I took in the stateroom's opulence.
It came to me that I was jealous of Sammy. He screwed up a promising career and still landed on his feet. I, on the other hand, crapped all over my marriage and career, almost as if I sabotaged everything whenever life got good. "Was I an adrenaline junky?" I thought – "Unhappy and restless when things get too comfortable and predictable?"
Sammy landed on his feet and carved out an amazing future for himself. Heck, he did so well in such a short time that he was cruising a lake in a luxurious yacht that he just bought. I was living, alone, in my best-friend's basement, afraid of my own shadow. My stomach felt queasy, not from sea-sickness, but from the reality that I needed to eat crow and apologize to Sammy. Maybe he'd lighten up on me as well if I made an earnest attempt to get along with him.
At first hating the thought of apologizing to anyone as arrogant as Sammy, I felt peace inside at knowing it was the responsible thing to do. As the yacht's engines came to life, I strolled to a counter where a pair of binoculars lay.
"Why am I not surprised?" I sniffed as I recognized the precision binoculars, which were none other than Leica Duovids. It seemed God was further humbling me as I saw the still-attached $25,000 price tag. "Sammy certainly enjoys rubbing my nose in his success."
I lifted the hefty binoculars to my eyes and peered out the suite's large window, aiming them at the shoreline crammed with fishermen.
"How is it," I mused, "that they seem to be having so much fun fishing from the shore while I'm miserable, stuck on a snooty yacht with a questionable best friend and a rich jerk."
Through the binoculars, I enviously watched the guys on the shore fish as their bobbers played hide-and-seek in the waves produced by the yacht's slight wake. None of those fishing were arguing or shoving. They were just standing, apparently enjoying the peace and quiet. Again, I felt jealous. I flipped the lenses to get greater magnification to see if I could make out their expressions and what they were saying to each other. I imagined they were swapping ridiculous fishing stories and whining about their cushy upper-management jobs.
The first two guys I focused on wore typical clothes you'd go fishing in – shorts, t-shirts, tennis shoes, and ball caps. I scrunched my face up, puzzled, when I noticed the third fisherman was wearing a black business suit and loafers.
"Must be the new guy," I mumbled, chuckling. "He's probably never been fishing, and to impress the guys … what the …."
At first, I didn't catch on. It took several seconds for reality to sink in before I shouted, "holy sh…" I was staring at the face of a specter. It may have, at some point, been a man, but the ghastly figure was grinning at me in death. My head was swimming, but it was in much better shape than that of the fisherman. I was looking at a guy whose face had been blasted off. What remained was a cracked and tattered skull with chunks of flesh randomly attached.
Shocked and confused, I set the binoculars down on the nearby dresser and then numbly turned to stumble toward the stairs. Relieved, I saw Sammy approach, and I opened my mouth to tell him what I saw. I paused, even more confused, because Sammy's face was red and twisted with rage.
Before I could utter a word, he hissed, "You were never supposed to see that!" Then, his body corkscrewed, then unwound. The last thing I remembered was a blur of an arching oar, a loud crack, and a searing pain engulfing my head.

* * * * *

Chapter 4 will appear here tomorrow night. Please leave me a comment and tell me what you think of Man Cave.

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