Tarnished Stars : Pagosa Cliffs Book 1

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There is nothing that can warm a cold soul until it chooses to be warm again.

Tank stood staring out the window watching the clouds roll over the mountain like slow motion waves. The blue tourmaline sky reminded him of the sea and the golden dawn-glow on the mountains, the sandy shore. A memory he cherished of a life lost. But this beach was upside down, like his life. It had been Irene’s birthday and he had taken her to Key West after the Miami game that weekend. It was warm and beautiful and she looked like a goddess walking the tide line in a red and gold sarong. He ached because he missed her so much.

A woman stirred on his bed, but she wasn’t her. She wasn’t Irene. Stacy Bell was just someone he was training with, someone else going through the motions. They had one week of training left, then she would go back to wherever she came from and he would go back to Pagosa Cliffs. Both of them had fallen off the wagon, but he was only drinking on Saturday night after ride-along patrols, Stacy drank every night. No one knew they were more that training partners and drinking buddies. No one suspected the scars they gave each other’s souls in their self-loathed passion because she wasn’t his her, and he wasn’t her him.

The hotel had doors that connected the rooms and on the first Saturday night three weeks ago, he had heard her crying and knocked to see if she was okay. That night they got drunk together on his whiskey and her tequila. Stacy told him about Harris and how she was raped by his brother Reese after a bachelorette party she could barely remember, then publicly humiliated because no one would believe her, not even her family. She had moved to Colorado when her sister, the only one who believed her, was accepted to Colorado State University in Fort Collins. The course was so she could transfer to the Colorado Highway Patrol.

He had told her about Irene and the morning on Mike’s boat that he could barely remember, and how Irene wouldn't believe him. How he had to protect the man he thought was his friend and was almost killed and Irene never even called, how she kept his son from him. They had woken up at noon on the first Sunday, hungover, sore, and stinking of sweat and sex. They made a deal that it wouldn’t happen again, but the next week it did, and again last week, and again last night.

She didn’t care that he called out for Irene and he didn’t care that she called out for Harris. They never kissed, and they never looked at each other’s faces. He didn’t even look over his shoulder when the door between their rooms clicked shut. He watched the sky turning silvery gray as snow moved in and the illusion of his upside down memory vanished. Today was going to be as cold as his soul felt. He watched for an hour or more.

He answered his phone on the first ring, “Tanner here.”

It was the training sargent offering a chance to go out with the highway patrol as extra help in the face of the oncoming storm. Tank only hesitated a moment before he said yes. He really didn’t want to stay inside and watch football today. Mike Simons was having a record breaking season and it seemed like he was the topic of conversation during every halftime and between game break. The receiver had been shifted between three teams before finally settling with the Falcons. No one talked about Tank anymore or the fact that it was Simons’s fault he would never play football again. Glutton for punishment, Tank turned on Sports Center while he showered, cursing a man he had thought was his friend and his own nature for trusting him. He went down to the hotel dining room ordered a big breakfast. Stacy and three other trainees were sitting at a table.

“You going out too?” Stacy asked as he sat down.

“Yep, y’all?” He asked back. A chorus of yeses answered.

“So what where you going to do this morning?” Tank asked the table.

“Stacy and I were working out in the Gym when the call came,” Sanchez answered. “Did yousleepin, Tank? You usually beat us down there.”

“I didn’t sleep well,” he answered almost honestly.

“Really? Because you snored like a bear all night,” Stacy grumbled as she speared another slice of bacon. “Seriously, I will trade rooms with anyone on our floor to get away from the noise. Any takers?... Oh come on, you guys suck.” She complained. Tank’s room was on the very end, hers was the second on the floor, the other three were further down. Truthfully, the sound-proofing in the rooms was good enough that no one hear the truth.

“Grizzly or Kodiak?” Tank asked with a chuckle.

“Yogi,” She taunted. Sanchez, Reynolds and Meyers all laughed at his offended expression.

“Excuse me?”

“You know, Yogi Bear, the fat, stupid, picnic basket thief from those old cartoons,” then she leaned back and pretended to look under the table. “Not much in that picnic basket by the looks of things, maybe you’re just Boo-Boo.”

“Yeah right, Penelope Pitstop.” Tank snapped, invoking the name the intercept driving trainer had given her for her crazy driving. They bickered back and forth like this all the time, almost like they couldn’t stand each other, which was closer to the truth except when there was booze and sex involved.

Stacy smirked and sassed, “Well, at least I know how to drive a stick and can handle more than one lap around the track.”

“I was going to watch movies all day, but watching the two of you go at it is way better,” Reynolds chuckled.

“Naw, man, they should date.” Sanchez laughed as he said it and everyone at the table looked at him like he was insane, both Tank and Stacy hiding the shock that someone might be figuring them out.

“You’re crazy, Sanchez.” Meyers shook his head disagreeing, “It would be like waiting for world war three to start.”

“She’s not my type,” Tank declared as Stacy snarled, “I don’t do blondes or jocks.”

“Why not?” Sanchez demanded. “You two have passion, if you could love instead of hate...”

Stacy leveled him with a look, “Tanner’s too high maintenance. And I’ve dated and dumped prettier.”

Tank raised an eyebrow, then added, “And I’ve already divorced tall, dark, and demanding. I want someone light and sweet that won’t shoot me in the ass with my own gun if she gets pissed.” Reminding them all of the hostage training scenario where Stacy had not only disarmed Sanchez when he was trying to catch her but shot him in the butt with three dummy rounds from his own gun. They all laughed as Sanchez held up his hands in defeat. A few minutes later the training Sargent came in and they headed out to work the blizzard.

It was a long day, Tank got back to his room after midnight. There was a covered dish by the small microwave in his room. ‘Dinner for you, see you tomorrow morning in the gym. S.’ He opened his room door and was about to knock on her door when he heard something coming from Stacy’s room. The sound was one he was familiar with from the last few weekends and last night, so he closed the door. He ate, showered and turned on the TV, deciding he was too tired to care who else Stacy was sleeping with.

Sports Center repeat was talking about how Mike Simons could be out for the season and Tank smirked. It was the first good news he’d gotten in a long time. Five days later, he was driving back to Pagosa Cliffs, deciding not to wait to see if Stacy wanted a last booty call before she left, he as sure Sanchez could handle her before he went back to his wife and kids.

Tank arrived home to find his AA sponsor sitting with his grandfather in his kitchen. “Pappy. Mark. How are y’all doing?”

Mark appraised him then frowned slightly. “We’re doing well but someone didn’t keep up his end of the bargain to catch a few meetings while he was gone.”

Tank knew there was no point in lying but he answered evasively, “Sorry. I was too busy during the day and too tired at night to go running around to find a meeting and listen to a bunch of strangers complaining about how their mistakes screwed their lives. I needed to focus on my training so I can start working.”

“How much did you drink while you were gone?” Pappy demands in a quiet tone.

Again Tank evaded giving a straight answer. “I didn’t go to any bars, I stayed at the hotel or trained at the law enforcement center, that’s it.”

“Have you worked on the twelve steps?” Mark asked.

Tank pinched the bridge of his nose, and breathed out slowly. His smoldering rage at the interrogation began to burn. “Number one I know I’m a fu*ck up. Numbers two through seven; He ain’t answered me or fixed me yet. Numbers eight and nine; I have tried to make things right with Irene but she hates me and she’s moved on. Now I’m just trying to do right by T.J.. Number ten; I still like whiskey and sex and I still hate myself, but I am not going to be getting much more of the first two so I might as well have plenty of the third. Number eleven, He still ain’t listening so what’s the point and last but not least, number twelve, I know I am too fu*cked up to help anyone.”

Both men sat there and looked at him for a long quiet moment, then Pappy said to Mark, “I told you, just as stubborn as you were.”

Mark handed over a five dollar bill, and retorted, “Double or nothing he has an open bottle in his bag or truck.”

“Doubt he’s tell us, he’s just as prideful as his father,” Pappy pointed out.

The way they talked about him like he wasn’t there had Tank’s fuse threatening to explode. Tank opened his bag and pulled out a sealed bottle, setting it on the table. “You’re both wrong. This sealed one is because I want to keep one without having opened it. I’m trying, Pappy, but I can’t do things your way. Sorry to disappoint you but I’m weak like my father. Without the wife I love, I don’t see the point, just like him. I got nothing left but two weeks a year with my son and a job I don’t know if I want.”

Tank walked back to his bedroom, put his bag on his bed, then he turned and walked out, growling. “I’m going to town to tell Sheriff McConnell I’m back and find out when I start work. Search my stuff if you want, I don’t care. I’m not a teenager anymore and if I need a drink to take the edge off, I’ll damn well have one.” Then he slammed the door behind him.

When Tank arrived at the town offices, he waited while Ruby got his paperwork and gave him two uniform shirts, a badge and a standard issue revolver which he refused. He preferred his M&P-357 over the six shot Colt-45. He signed the contract for a one year term as a Deputy of Pagosa county.

Ruby smiled and shook his hand. “Good to have you on board, Thomas. Goodness knows we could uses an extra set of hands.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Ballard, but please, just call me Tank.”

“Then you must call me, Ruby. And I will see you tomorrow morning at eight sharp.” She handed him a schedule. He was working three days; morning, afternoon, then morning again; off for four days, then three overnights. On-call with no scheduled days the entire next week, the six straight days for Thanksgiving week at different times.

“Thank you Mrs. Bal... I mean Miss Ruby,” he corrected himself at her scowl.

When he got home, his grandfather and his sponsor were gone. The bottle was where he set it but there was a note under it.

“Went to dinner with Mark. Meeting at the usual place, hope to see you there, Pappy”

Tank crushed the note in his hand, he was determined not to go, but the longer he stood there staring in the refrigerator trying to decide what to eat for his dinner, the more guilty he felt. There were all his favorite TV dinners and breakfast groceries. His grandfather had stocked his kitchen before he got home. Grumbling, he called the cafe for a pick-up order and headed to grab his food and meet his grandfather and sponsor at the AA meeting. It was the same old group complaining about the same thing, he said nothing, and left.

He stopped and got a second bottle of whiskey on the way home. He changed and worked out until he ached, took an ice-cold bath, and had one shot before bed. The next morning, he went to work after driving out and dumping range pellets for the cows. That became his routine. Ranch work, deputy work, AA meetings occasionally, and always a shot of whiskey before bed. Sometimes he would see Sports Center on at the Thursday All-You-Can-Eat at the Brewery. He would sit there with his grandfather eating the special, and wishing he could order a beer instead of the pitcher of ice tea they shared. In a way he was glad they didn’t have cable or satellite TV at the ranch because every time he saw or heard news about Mike Simons, he found himself hungover by morning and having to replace the spare bottle he kept hidden from his grandfather.

Everything he did when he wasn’t working as a deputy or working on the ranch seemed empty and pointless as it got closer to the holidays. He worked through the twelve steps of the AA program. He went shopping for T.J.’s Christmas present and came home with a case of whiskey instead because he didn’t know what his own son wanted.

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