Full moon. Dark sky with light wispy clouds over the moon's face of craters. Tinguely Querer was driving in the middle of the high plains. She heard yaps of coyotes and yowls of something feline. A dark, feral shadow lurked along the edge of the blacktop county road, with gravel shoulder. Was it a chupacabra? Tinguely shivered. Would the chupacabra smell her clammy, perfumed sweat, chase her down, feed on her blood, and swallow her soul?
The cattle guard rattled as she drove over it to enter a dark, shambling ranch. She hoped it was the Freestoner Ranch. She had been looking for it and wanted to approach Mr. Freestoner to sign him up for an oil and gas lease.
* * *
"Monkey's Paw or Death Ruby?" asked the man wearing a faded red bandanna, narrow boot-cut Wrangler jeans, a jean jacket, and rodeo belt buckle. He looked like the kind of cowboy you'd never see in a cowboy movie. He was too weather-beaten. His eyes were vaguely feral. His nose was all the way wild, totally coyote.
"If given the choice, and you HAD to make a choice, which would you go with?" he asked. "Monkey's Paw or Death Ruby?"
"What are they anyway?" asked Tinguely. She had driven seven hours, non-stop from central Oklahoma, and was in no mood for cryptic, Yoda-like pronouncements from a retro cowboy washed up on the beach sands of time.
"And imagine you can't say no. You can't refuse to choose."
"Mr. Freestoner, I have the documents ready for you to execute. You'll be glad you did this." She wanted to get it over with. Drive to Amarillo. Get a room at a comfortable discount version of upscale hotels. The idea of lying on a soft mattress at a Hyatt Place or a Marriott Courtyard seemed more important than anything else at this point.
"Ma'am, Mr. Freestoner's been dead for 10 years."
"What?" Tinguely was not amused. "How did I miss that? I checked the records myself. I never make mistakes like this."
"I'd say this was a pretty big one," said the cowboy, unsympathetically. "So. Ma'am. What would you do? Which would you choose?"
"Sir. I think I'd choose the one that would get me away from this place as quickly as possible." He looked crestfallen.
"Sorry. I don't mean to be rude. I'm just really tired. And this means I'm going to have to go back, recheck records, reissue leases and drafts."
"The Monkey's Paw grants you three wishes, but each one comes with horrific price. You'll pay. Yes, missy, you'll pay. But the Death Ruby's no bargain. The Death Ruby will make you fabulously wealthy. But all who touch it, except for the owner, die."
"That's easy," said Tinguely, still annoyed. "I'd go with the Death Ruby. Good secret weapon. I'd be rich. Good way to get rid of the competition."
"For having such a sweet face, you sure have some mean thoughts," said the cowboy.
"You haven't heard the half of them," said Tinguely. "Got any coffee around here? It was a long drive, and, to tell the truth, I'm in a bad mood."
"You don't say," said the cowboy. "See you at the bunkhouse."
"By the way, I'm not sure I quite buy it that the owner of a Death Ruby stays healthy. I would think that everyone would eventually be killed by the thing. Some people more quickly than others."
"Think what you want," said the cowboy. "I wouldn't want to tangle with you, though."
* * *
"Sign up Freestoner. Then, keep going. See if you can get information. We've got a chance to lease Morrell's granddaughter's interest. I'd like to find the location, drill a new well, and test the formations. It will be good for all of us if it works out," said Dad.
"What makes you so sure?" asked Tinguely. Why not leave well enough alone? Something was wrong with the story she had been told. Something was behind the scenes, between the lines.
Tinguely pulled up to the rock-and-mortar ranch house. The clock on her dashboard said 4:40 p.m. She took her keys out of the ignition of the Blazer she was driving. The keys felt cold and metallic in her hand.
She walked under a stunted sycamore tree. The ranch house and office were on the edge of a wash or, as the locals called it, an arroyo. That meant there were a few trees.
Acquiescing to the cowboy's insistence that she take a look around the ranch, Tinguely attempted to mind her manners. It was not easy.
Cattle shuffled slowly, mesmerized by the wind turbines spinning round and round, silently, slowly, both positive and negative, in direct response to the currents of cold air flowing down from the north in North America's most prominent wind corridor.
"If you'll pour me a cup of coffee, I'll work on it while you show me around," said Tinguely. She fully expected coffee the consistency of tar and the pH of battery acid. She was pleasantly surprised that it was fresh, tasted like caffe americano—espresso shots with hot water.
She was in the middle of a ghost ranch. No one had the courage to admit what it was, but Tinguely Querer knew immediately.
At first, she wondered if the cowboy she was talking to was a phantom. She realized, after he drank boiled "cowboy coffee" with the grounds at the bottom of the mug, unrolled a yellowed newspaper from 1955, then started talking about how people had started buying up all the water rights to the Ogallala Aquifer, that there was really no way of knowing. His language hinted at transporting people from Mexico. He could be an apparition from the past. He could be from right here, right now. He could be a strange living outlier rafted in on a glacier of time. He could be the bones of a memory to be held by someone sometime in the future. Who could know?
"Have to admit, it's nice to have company for a change," said the cowboy. "Oh, and by the way, my name's Chance."
"I'll bet people called you 'Lucky' when you were a kid," said Tinguely. She realized she needed to sound folksy. Sometimes being down to earth came easily to her. Sometimes, though, it didn't. At times, she seemed standoffish or detached—something like a process server, paid for putting her emotions in a bucket by the door.
"Nope. I never was," he said. "That was the cat. Now he was lucky."
Tinguely smiled. If she could, she'd put her emotions, not in a box or a bucket, but in an air-sick bag. There was something warm about the breeze, although the air was chilly.