Grand Prize Winner Story Contest – 48th Anniversary Easy Reader Contest The Winter’s Tale 2018: Layla and Velveeta
The Winter’s Tale 2018: LAYLA AND VELVEETA
“A sad tale’s best for winter.”
by J.E. Marshall
“Hey little fella. How did you get here? You’re supposed to be in New Zealand.” Layla Latham adjusted her binoculars for a closer look at the bird nestled in a crevice in the cliffs above RAT beach. It took off like a rocket. It flew 105 mph towards Hermosa Beach. She blasted after it in her power boat but it was no match for the little bird.
“No matter. I think I know where you are going. I know where I would go if I were you,” Layla powered down and docked in King Harbor. It began to drizzle. She went home to pick up her rain gear and more powerful equipment that would allow her to record sound and images from a greater distance. It was going to be an interesting evening. It had been nearly two years since she lost her husband Thomas and birding was how she had come to cope with the loss.
“Oh Thomas, you won’t believe what I saw!” the screen door slammed behind her. She dropped her backpack on the kitchen table and popped a frozen dinner in the microwave. There was no answer of course.
Layla arrived at the abandoned BAYLORD SHOPPING CENTER in Hermosa Beach at dusk. It had been closed so long that some said it was haunted and would never bustle with life again. It’s security lights still came on at night. A warm halo of light rose from the open-air courtyard. There would be plenty of yummy moths and none of your crowds and commotions of the piers. Surely her new friend, the white-throated needle-tailed swift, formally known as: “hirundapus caudacutus,” and casually known as “the storm bird”, would opt for the Baylord bug banquet.
A cluster of giant slippery elms surrounded a sprawling camphor tree and blocked the view of the back entrance to the mall. Layla looked both ways for the security car that occasionally drove by and then climbed up the camphor tree until she was able to reach the rusty fire escape stairs. Once upon the roof she found a comfortable spot with a good view of the open-air atrium.
A mature Japanese wisteria longissimi alba vine snaked around the entire courtyard like a great white dragon. It was December 21st and yet thousands of two-foot long racemes still held their snow-white petals that normally fell off in May. Layla spied a happy swarm of moths circling a lamp post by a beautiful potted bamboo. Layla waited for her storm bird and drifted off into a deep sleep.
A few miles away Mr. Baylord was having a MAGA lobster dinner party with his family and a forty of his richest acquaintances.
“Trump has made me rich beyond my wildest dreams, right Madelaine?” Lee Baylord invited his beautiful wife to give a supporting comment.
“Lee has completely stopped nagging me about my spending. It took some getting used to.” Madelaine smiled.
Paul Rizel, Lee’s friend since childhood, had a lot of empty buildings since the hurricane. He was still a billionaire. It wasn’t like he needed charity. Paul made his fortune in New Orleans and was eager to get home to prepare for Christmas.
“I have a tour bus outside. We’re going to my repurposed shopping center to see with your own eyes how a closed mall is more profitable than an open mall. Ladies and gentlemen, your lives are about to change.” Lee crowed.
“I really can’t stay, Lee. I should be leaving for the airport now.” Paul insisted.
“Oh daddy, let’s see the mall. Max says it’s haunted,” Floyd, Paul’s young son begged.
“Our Maxsimillian is obsessed with ghosts. I must sit by his bed every night so he can fall asleep,” Madelaine explained.
“I promise we will look at your haunted shopping center the next time we come to town,” Paul smiled.
“No. Tonight’s the night. We’ll have champagne on the bus and I’ll have Milo follow in the limo. He’ll get you to the airport if you still want to go. I’m betting you won’t. We’ll have our chocolate cake after the tour.” Lee winked.
The sound of the bus woke Layla.
“The government is leasing properties like this for top dollar. Your properties are approved. All you have to do is sign. You get to serve your country and make a mint. This is perfect for you, Paul. You still want to go to the airport?” Lee’s voice boomed through the courtyard.
Paul nodded yes.
“Madelaine, work your magic, convince Paul to stay. I get a hell of a finder’s fee and Paul will be set for life.” Lee prodded.
Madelaine caught up with Paul in the center of the courtyard. A whirling sea breeze dipped into the atrium and all of the wisteria petals took flight. Madelaine put her hands in the air and spun around like Julie Andrews in THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
“You simply must stay, Paul. It’s a sign!” Madelaine laughed. Paul took her hand and spun her around again.
“You have bewitched me, Madelaine. I’ll stay and take the meeting tomorrow with Lee.” Paul laughed louder. The petals swirled round and round. The children laughed and ran wild screaming with delight. Everyone was laughing except Lee.
“He’s agreed to stay,” Milo told Lee.
“I offer the man the chance of a lifetime, a government contract beyond compare and how does he thank me? He makes a pass at my wife!” Lee burned with irrational jealousy.
On the bus wives asked their husbands why Lee was so angry. Husbands told their wives to ignore it. Everyone welcomed more champagne to calm their nerves.
Lee lingered in the courtyard complaining to Milo that Madelaine never looked with such loving eyes upon him. Surely this was more than the moment. Certainly Paul was Corina’s father.
“The way Paul held the child and sang, “Corina, Corina, I love you so”, who does that?” Lee vented.
“He was just trying to be witty, sir, I’m sure that’s all it was.” Milo suggested.
“Poison him after he signs the documents tomorrow and drown the baby tonight.” Lee fumed.
Layla dropped her camera. Both men looked up. The storm bird fluttered down from the roof and landed on the potted bamboo plant, bobbing about as the wind lifted and lowered the branch. It began to rain hard.
“Let’s go.” Milo urged.
Lee called Otto, his son’s bodyguard and ordered him to keep Max away from his mother.
Layla photographed of the bobbing and weaving white-throated needletail as it enjoyed its bamboo ride in the rain. She mouthed the words: “Thank you.” If the bird had not distracted the men, they might have discovered her. She took her phone from her backpack and turned it on. There were a ton of messages she didn’t dare answer yet.
Back at the restaurant everyone nervously waited for Lee. They didn’t dare cut the cake even though the children begged.
“A toast to investing in Trump.” Archie, one of the richest investors raised his glass.
“Don’t let it get to you. Take care of your family. I don’t smoke, but I made a fortune in tobacco in the 1970’s. You don’t have to believe in something to make money from it. The trick is to move on when it gets too hot. You don’t go down with the ship if you plan right.” Archie explained to a fellow investor who was upset by how the evening was going.
Lee arrived and sullenly ate two slices of cake and three scoops of ice cream. He glared Paul and left without saying good night.
“Milo, take me to the airport now,” Paul held his sleepy son. Floyd rested his head on his father’s shoulder.
“Take me with you,” Milo begged.
“What?” Paul asked.
“He told me to poison you.” Milo exclaimed.
Milo and Paul left so fast they didn’t notice Lee eavesdropping. Only Floyd saw Lee’s seething face. He held onto his father with all his might.
Another of Lee’s men exited the men’s room. Lee yanked him close.
“See, Atticus, see how they run? I heard everything they said. Drive me home, Atticus,” Lee walked out of the restaurant.
“Yes sir,” Atticus quietly accepted the promotion.
Back at BAYLORD’S MALL Layla asked her little birdie friend if she should make her move, go home and tell Thomas what a day it had been. Thomas wasn’t dead. She wasn’t that kind of a widow. She was a 24/7 cable news widow. Ever since Trump took office Thomas was glued to the television. Just as she was about to go, three refrigerated semi-trucks pulled up to the loading dock.
“My wife’s missing.” Thomas Latham told the police.
“You say Layla made you dinner. Her phone is always off so it doesn’t scare away birds. She was gone all day, came home to make you dinner and left again.” The officer confirmed.
“I didn’t see her,” Thomas admitted.
“Then how do you know she made you dinner?”
“Who the hell else would make me dinner?” Thomas blurted. It probably wasn’t foul play. What kind of kidnapper lets you come home and make dinner then resumes the kidnapping?
Atticus ran to the gardener’s quarters. Luis was on the phone talking to his son who was upset because tonight was his first gig at the COMEDY AND MAGIC CLUB in Hermosa Beach and he wanted his dad to be there. Luis never went anywhere. He tended the grounds of the Baylord’s estate and then kept to his cottage at the bottom of the hill.
“For God’s sake, papa, ICE is not after you.”
“My English is not so good.” Luis confessed.
“They don’t arrest you for that,” the comedian assured his father.
“Someone is beating the door!” Luis exclaimed.
“I sent a taxi.”
Luis opened the door. Atticus thrust a screaming baby into his arms.
“Take the child. I have to stop the boss from killing his wife,” Atticus disappeared into the darkness and took the shortcut back to the main house through a wooded area across the dry creek. A coyote pack began to howl.
Luis waved down cars. His speech deteriorated as his blood pressure soared dangerously high. Off in the distance he heard blood curdling screams.
A car stopped but sped off when the driver saw Luis was drooling, the baby in his arms was wailing and a man in the distance was screaming as if he was being skinned alive.
Atticus was ripped apart by starving coyotes.
Luis staggered to the bus stop. Everyone on the bus called the police. ICE intercepted.
At BAYLORD’S MALL, uniformed men unloaded crates. With her birding equipment Layla heard everything.
An undercover ICE vehicle pulled up.
“We’re not operational. No meds,” Doyle waved her on. Doyle and Chance were the initial skeleton crew.
“Get operational. We got a John Doe and a tender one named Velveeta. We have a sting to get back to muy pronto,” Officers Monica White and Doris Warwell were impersonating mothers who needed babysitters.
“Velveeta?” Doyle snickered.
“Doris enjoys making up names for the detainees, what can I say?” Officer White chuckled.
Chance slammed the baby on the stainless-steel table where the grocery store butchers used to prepare meat. He hosed off the baby with ice cold water. Her strong cry altered into a broken bleating sound. He threw her into the freezer and went back to the loading dock.
Layla shuddered from the horror. She reasoned it was only going to get harder to escape with each passing moment. She crawled on her belly, inching towards the fire escape then realized she had forgotten something. Before she could turn off her phone, her Eric Clapton “LAYLA” ringtone echoed through the atrium.