Alchemist's Gift

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Not In The Stars

The icy white glow of the halogen headlights of the large black Mercedes Benz showed up in the rearview mirror of Lila Thurston’s convertible Ferrari. She first noticed her pursuer five minutes after she hurriedly left her stepdad’s office at Fifth and B Street. Lila headed east on University Avenue, away from downtown. She figured no one would look for her in quaint and shabby North Park. In her effort to escape notice, she took several side streets, but always headed back to University Avenue. She wanted to get to the I-15 on ramp at 40th Street. Once on the freeway she could go north or south and easily outrun the Mercedes. Only rookie cops stopped her for speeding, and they only made that mistake once.

At the next light, she made her move. She sped into the left-hand turn lane and through the next intersection, and ran the red light. A quick glance in the rearview mirror and she saw the Mercedes stuck at the light behind four cars. She frantically looked along the street. She saw a young man sitting at an open-air table in front of a restaurant. Lila pulled to the curb and revved the engine until she got the young man’s attention.

“Hey you!” she called out.

Roland was still numb. He almost didn’t bother to look up. Finally, he did. He pointed to himself.

“Yeah, you.” She was frantic. “You’ve got to hide me before they come. They’re after me.” Her voice trembled.

A beautiful young woman in a Ferrari shook Roland out of his self-pity stupor. Lila’s blonde hair flowed over her shoulders. Her blue eyes were wild and primal. Her features were fine except for her pouty lips. Roland immediately looked at the signboard that advertised The Edelweiss. The signboard was on wheels, and Brian rolled it in front of the dead-end alley between the restaurant and a cell phone outlet next door.

“I’m going to move that sign and you pull into the alley.” Roland pointed over his shoulder and Lila eagerly nodded.

“Please hurry,” Lila pleaded.

Roland jogged to the sign and rolled it out of the way. Lila was already backing the Ferrari toward the alley. As the front of the car disappeared into the narrow dark void, Roland pushed the sign back into place and quickly returned to his seat. His heart raced and after a few deep breaths he relaxed. Roland hid behind Alchimista Beneficium.

The big black Mercedes 400 slowly rolled down the near-empty street and stopped in front of Roland. The tinted window whirred opened, and a gruff voice called out, “Hey you, you seen a red Ferrari go by?”

Roland looked up. “Yeah, a few minutes ago. Beautiful car.”

“Where’d it go?”

Roland pointed in the direction the Mercedes was headed. The window whirred up, and the car headed away. Roland watched the Mercedes slow at each cross street and alley. After the Mercedes was gone, he went to the rolling sign board and pulled it away, just enough for Lila to slip through.

Roland took a good look. Her Gucci high heels made her a little taller than most, and her perfect figure and long shapely legs were draped in Dior. Lila wore a gold necklace with a geometric teardrop design, an emerald ring, and matching ear studs. She nervously held her matching Gucci clutch purse with both hands.

“Are you okay?” asked Roland.

“God, you don’t know how much I appreciate what you just did.” She answered in a rush of airy words. She gave a nervous laugh. “God, I’m still shaking on the inside.” She began to shiver.

“You’re shaking on the outside too.” Roland took the sweater from his shoulders and draped it over hers.

“Let’s get inside. They might come back.”

Roland followed Lila into the restaurant. She held her clutch purse up to shield her face and quickly looked at the patrons sitting at the tables and the bar. When she was satisfied that no one knew her, she brought her hand down.

Brian turned the corner from the kitchen with a bottle of wine in his hand. “Coming in out of the cold?” He smiled at Lila and Roland.

“Restroom?” asked Lila.

Brian pointed toward the back of the room. “Ladies’ on the left.” When Lila was out of earshot, Brian continued. “Wow, she’s classy. One of Liz’s friends?”

“No. I just met her.” Roland was wide-eyed and spoke quickly. “These guys in a Mercedes were after her. We hid her car in the alley behind your sign board. She drives a Ferrari.”

“So, what’s her deal?” asked Brian.

“I don’t know yet.”

“Well, are you going to find out?”

Roland heard Liz’s words again. “He doesn’t have to know everything I do.” Something drove him to a spontaneous answer. “I think I just might,” Roland said coolly. Then he silently answered Liz. “And you don’t have to know everything I do either.”

Roland’s quick answer surprised Brian. “Really?” He handed the bottle of wine to the bartender and turned back to Roland. “I’ve seen her somewhere before. I mean, you couldn’t forget a woman like that.”

“What do they say? Carpe diem?” said Roland.

Brian had a memory rush. “I know. I know where I’ve seen her. She was on that Sunday morning TV show, the one where they tour the real cool mansions in Rancho Santa Fe, La Jolla, and Del Mar. Dollars to doughnuts, that’s Samuel Thurston’s daughter. I just know it.”

“That name does sound familiar.” Roland’s adrenaline surged. “Wouldn’t that be cool?”

“Thurston’s kind of like San Diego royalty, a real wheeler and dealer. Remember a couple of years ago? She was all over the news. She was involved in some kind of sex scandal with that assemblyman… oh, what’s his name? Aand then last year there was that shoplifting thing at Nordstrom’s.”

Roland nodded. He did remember something about that in the news.

“That TV show interviewed her. I’ll tell you one thing, though… she lives in a palace. They got stables and everything.”

“Thurston’s daughter… hot, and a bad girl too.” Roland ended the sentence with an ironic chuckle. “Well, Liz, if you want to play, so can I,” Roland thought.

Brian’s demeanor changed. “Hey, some friendly advice… you might want to act like Liz was here with you.”

“Well, Liz isn’t here, and anyway, right now…” He considered telling Brian about being stood up and listening in on the unintended phone call. “Right now this girl needs some help.”


“Maybe I’ll just go with it and see where it takes us. You know…”

“So it’s ‘us’ already? Slippery slope, my friend. What about Liz?” Brian couldn’t hide his disapproval.

“I wouldn’t worry about Liz. I’m sure she’s having the time of her life.”

“You’re right. None of my business. Just don’t do anything you’ll regret. These princess types make snacks out of schmucks like you and me. Just call her a cab.”

Roland softened, “I do appreciate your concern. I seriously doubt anything is going to happen. Right now, my life is just… well, I don’t know what it is. I might need to do something like this.”

“I thought Liz was going to meet you here.” Brian looked around the room, thinking she might have come in unnoticed.

“Yeah, she was, wasn’t she?” Roland spoke through tense jaws and felt a wave of anger that took a moment to ebb. Roland was glad for the diversion to take his mind off of Liz, and Chuck, and his thesis, and the damn dreams and freaky visions.

“Just call Miss Moneybags a cab and beat it before she gets back.”

Lila emerged from the darkness and gave Roland a flirty shoulder nudge. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” replied Roland.

Brian couldn’t help himself, “I’ll make sure to say hi to Liz if she comes looking for you.”

Roland shot Brian a tight-lipped look, “Don’t hold your breath waiting. Liz is a very, very busy girl tonight,” he said with a vehement pout.

Roland’s reply gave Brian pause and his head involuntarily jerked back.

Once outside, Lila quickly looked up and down the street. Roland couldn’t wait to escape into the night. Lila’s perfume was intoxicating. As they walked over to the alley, she asked, “So, is Liz your girlfriend?”

“Don’t know anymore. Tonight I don’t care where I stand. I’m meeting her here tomorrow at ten for brunch, you know, for my weekly relationship report. It should be interesting.”

They stopped in front of the rolling sign board. Roland reached up to pull it away. Lila put her hands on her hips. “Not a good idea,” she said impatiently.

Roland looked at her. The shadows from the street lamp darkened and distorted her features. “Why not?” he asked.

“B’duh. Kinda hard not to miss a Ferrari, don’t ya think?”

Roland was taken aback with her sarcasm. “I suppose you’re right. But you can’t leave a car like that in the alley. Brian does put that sign away every night.”

Lila spoke with unexpected confidence. “Sweetie, I could leave that car with the keys in it anywhere in this city and I guarantee that no one, and I mean no one, is going to touch it.”

“Really? And by the way, my name is Roland. What’s yours?”

“You don’t hear that one too often. My name is Lila Thurston. You know, the retail stores, the real estate, and The Thurston Group.”

“I’m duly impressed.” Roland began to appreciate Brian’s advice. “Want me to call you a cab?”

“No, no, no. No cab. Daddy has his fat little fingers in everything, including cabs.”

“I’ve got a car. It’s no Ferrari.”

“I’d be surprised if it was. Well, look… Roland, is it? I’ve got to get something out of the Ferrari, so why don’t you pull this sign back so I can get it, and you go run and get your car and I’ll wait for you in the alley until you get back.”

Roland had second thoughts and hesitated for a moment.

“Come on, pull the sign back and go get your car. I haven’t got all night,” she insisted.

Roland stopped what he was doing, stood up straight, crossed his arms and looked her in the eyes. He gave her a hard look and subtly shook his head.

Lila’s proud countenance disappeared, and she turned her eyes away from his. She lowered her head and took Roland’s hands in hers, and then looked up into his eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I must sound so awful. I’m just so scared.” Her voice became soft and childlike. “I’ll be waiting here for you.” She implored him with her eyes. “You will come back, right? Please come back.” She let go of his hands and gave him a quick hug.

Once free, Roland continued to pull the sign away from the wall. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.”

Lila disappeared behind the sign, and Roland pushed it into place. He stopped by the table and gathered his books and hurried home.

No sooner had Roland slipped out of sight than the Mercedes made another slow tour down the street. The car stopped in front of the alleyway again. The passenger side window opened, and a cigarette butt arched out and exploded on the sidewalk. The Mercedes started to pull away, traveled a few feet, and stopped. The bright white beam from a hand-held spotlight, aimed by the faceless occupant of the car, tore at the darkness above and below the sign board. This went on for a good twenty seconds. The light beam disappeared; the Mercedes pulled away and sped down the street.

A minute later, Roland parked in front of the alleyway. He watched the sign board wiggle. Lila ran toward him with a briefcase in hand. She frantically pulled at the door handle. Roland reached over and released the lock. Lila opened the door, tossed the briefcase onto the back seat, jumped in, quickly slammed the door, and locked it. Her eyes were red from crying. Her makeup was smeared and streaked.

She threw her arms around Roland’s neck and spoke in a hoarse, quivering whisper. “It was so awful. They stopped right in front the alley. I thought for sure they saw me. They kept shining the light.”

“Hey, it’s okay.” Roland patted her shoulder. “You’re safe.”

Lila relaxed her grip a little, closed her eyes, and put her forehead on Roland’s shoulder. “Please don’t be mad, but I… I wet myself.” Lila lost her resolve and cried a cluster of little sobs.

Roland returned her hug. It was hard for him to believe that this beautiful woman was in his arms allowing him to stroke her hair and be her hero. “Don’t worry about it. It’s okay,” Roland said sympathetically. He let go, and Lila sat back in the seat. “Two questions: where to, and why are those guys chasing you?”

Lila regained her composure but spoke in a childlike way. “We’re going to Coronado.” She sighed and wiped away the last of her tears. “Those guys work for my stepdad, good old Sammy. He thinks I took something of his. But I didn’t. My mom left them to me. It’s my inheritance that I was supposed to get when I turned twenty-five.”

“The bridge?”

“Better not. I hate bridges. Let’s take the Strand.”

Roland made a U-turn and headed west on University Avenue under the Florida Street bridge, left onto Park Boulevard, and then all the way to the horseshoe of the 5 South on-ramp and headed to the Silver Strand.

Lila wriggled around in her seat as she spoke. “My mom left me Krugerrands. Right now, they’re worth about four hundred and fifty thousand. So, I took them. They’re in your back seat right now. I just went into his office and took them out of his safe. It wasn’t as hard as I thought. He left the safe open.”

The news jolted Roland to a much greater awareness of what he was doing. He checked his rearview mirror. “Well, that explains a few things. If the coins are yours already, what’s the big deal?”

“He wants the money. With him, it’s always the money. His lawyers wrote up some B.S. that says that since the coins were my mom’s and they were married, he gets them.”

The traffic going south was sparse. Roland looked ahead to his right at the skeletal cranes that pressed into the night sky of the National City shipyards. His attention was drawn to Lila. She had her dress pulled up to her waist, and she slipped her wet panties down her tanned naked legs until she could catch the elastic with her toe and push them past her ankle and heel. Roland’s car left the lane. When he heard a car horn, he looked up and swerved back into his lane.

“Holy crap, sorry about that!” Roland’s heart pounded. He looked down at Lila’s legs again and then away. “Whew.”

“Don’t be sorry. You can look all you like.” Lila smiled, opened the window, and gave a throaty chuckle. She had her panties on her fingertip and tossed them out onto the freeway. “And just like that… woo-woo.” The breeze rushed through the window and made her dress billow. “That cold air feels so yummy down there and on my legs too. I’ve got goosebumps. Feel.” She took Roland’s hand and slowly guided it up and down her thigh.

Roland swallowed hard. “Lila, please.”

“Is it that non-girlfriend of yours? Is that what’s bothering you?”

“No. Not at all. I meant please continue,” he joked.

Roland allowed Lila to guide his hand. She brought it closer and closer to her crotch and then suddenly tossed his hand into his lap.

“Yeah, there’s a boyfriend out there somewhere. This is just between us, you and me, right now.” She pulled her dress down a little and leaned her head on Roland’s shoulder.

Roland found it difficult to resist being swept up in the moment. Not in his wildest dreams could he have come up with a scenario that included explaining himself to whom he thought was his girlfriend that morning, rescuing this amazingly hot, mystery woman sitting next to him, and having close to half a million dollars worth of gold in the back seat of his car, all on the same day.

“Take the Palm Street exit and go right.” Lila snuggled in a little closer and rested her hand on Roland’s inner thigh. He felt the heat from her hand. “Does this make you feel better?” She let her hand linger in his lap and gave his crotch soft little pats.

“Oh yeah, you feel great.” Roland had to catch his breath.

Lila leaned away from Roland and sat in the center of her seat. She folded her hands in her lap and gave the instructions. “We’re going to go about three miles. The complex is right after the grade school, you’ll see it on your left. I’ve got my secret little hideaway at Bayside Arms.”

They continued down the brightly lit causeway. The vertical shadows of the street lamps rolled across the windshield. To his left the moonlight played on the silver crests of the black waves. Roland slowed down.

“Now take the second driveway. You’re going to park in space 201.”

Roland parked the car. Lila got out, opened the back door and grabbed the briefcase. Roland offered to carry it, and she let him.

“So, this is what a half a million dollars feels like.” It wasn’t that heavy.

Lila carried her shoes in one hand and her purse in the other.

She swiped her ID card through the reader at the front door. The lock clicked, and the lights came on.

The living room was large. The fireplace mantle was decorated with a beautiful cloisonné vase in a glass case flanked by a set of silver Renaissance candelabras. The lighted painting over the mantle caught Roland’s eye. Lila gently took the briefcase from Roland. He barely noticed she had. He was entranced by the antique chairs, the bronze castings and the mid-century design furniture. Lila tucked the briefcase away behind the drapery hiding it quite nicely.

“This looks like a Miro.” He studied the signature. “I’ve never seen this one before.” Roland had his hands clasped behind his back and craned his neck to the left and right as he studied it.

“Well, that is a Miro. It belonged to my mom. One of her relatives was in Europe during World War II, and he brought it back with him. Now it belongs to me. Yeah, and the furniture is original too. Louie 14th settee and there’s a couple of side chairs from some Bavarian Duke Gunter, or somebody or other. I like these better.” Lila pointed to an inviting black leather Eames chair and footstool.

“These things are so cool. I’ve only seen things like these in museums or books.” Roland was wide-eyed and impressed.

“Yeah, they’re all right. I see them every day.” Lila picked a remote control from the granite countertop and dimmed the lights. She crossed the room and settled into the corner of the plush leather sofa. She put her legs up and stretched out, catlike. She pulled her dress up to mid-thigh and bent her knees, leaving almost enough room for Roland to sit. “Sit with me. I’m still a little scared.” The sexy way she spoke belied what she said.

“I’ll sit with you, but I might be the one who’s scared.” Roland sat, and Lila draped her legs over his.

Lila beckoned Roland with her index finger. “Kiss me.”

He hadn’t kissed anyone but Liz since the time they started college and decided to date other people. That experiment lasted for three months, and they came back together without another word about it. Even though none of that seemed to matter now, he was still hesitant.

Lila let out a little hiss and pulled Roland to her face. They kissed slowly at first, then again and again. Lila’s kisses were soft and lingering. She licked her lips and made them wet and silky. They both began to breathe deeper and faster. She put her hand on the back of his neck. Roland felt the smooth, soft flesh of her thigh, and drew his hand up the inside contour of her leg.

Lila put her hand on top of his and held it fast. “What do you think you’re doing? This is my thing,” she whispered a little out of breath.

Roland took his hand away, but she put it right back where it was and waited for the delicious touch of his fingertips on the cleft of her naked sex.

Roland realized there was no undoing what had started; he returned Lila’s kisses with more abandon. He wanted to be swept far away from the familiar into deep unknown waters.

Lila pushed him off and led him to her bedroom. She stood him in front of the bed. They stripped the other’s clothing off and tossed them wherever. Lila playfully pushed him down and fell on top of him. She straddled Roland and greedily took him inside her. He looked up at her strained face and gently swinging breasts as she thrust herself against him. Lila’s face flickered, from its fine features framed in ash blonde hair, to an olive-skinned woman with dark curly hair and a small strawberry shaped birthmark on her neck just below her right ear.

Roland blinked his eyes and hoped his phantom lady would leave. She didn’t. He closed and opened his eyes twice more. The fourth time he closed his eyes and opened them, Lila was back. She slowly rocked back and forth and brought them both to an explosive, simultaneous orgasm. Lila immediately pulled herself away and fell next to Roland.

Roland took her into an embrace that she cut short. Lila rolled over on her back. When Roland tried to kiss her, she pushed him away. He thought she was teasing. He just wanted to hold onto someone substantial, something real.

Lila sat up and covered herself with the sheet. “Well, that certainly was nice. But… you know… we’re done.” She threw off the sheet, found a pale yellow kimono in her closet and put it on. She turned the lights on. Roland had to shield his eyes. Lila sat at her vanity and brushed her hair. “Good Lord, back to the salon tomorrow.”

Roland reeled from his latest hallucination and his sexual release. He wished Lila were still in bed with him. He needed the reassurance of her body against his. He rolled to his side, propped his chin on his hand, and talked to Lila’s reflection. “Can I spend the night?”

Lila rolled her eyes, not caring if Roland saw. “Didn’t you hear what I just said? No, Roland, you’re not spending the night. In fact, you’re getting up right now and dressing. Then you’re leaving.” She gave a throaty little laugh. “Woo-woo, just like that.”

“So, that’s it?” Roland was bewildered and disappointed. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, snagged his underwear with his toe, and brought his foot up to his hand. He put on his blue jeans, and then his socks and shoes. He had to retrieve his shirt that hung from a drawer pull on Lila’s dresser. Roland turned the shirt right side out and put it on.

Lila addressed Roland’s reflection. “You know, before you start… we really have nothing in common.”

Roland leaned on the footboard with his backside and crossed his arms. “Even after what happened tonight?”

Lila turned around in her chair and looked Roland in the eyes. “What am I supposed to do? Fall in love? You don’t know me. You don’t want to know me.” Lila lowered her tone and spoke gently. “Tonight was great. Let’s leave it like that.”

“You mean you don’t feel anything for me?”

Lila shrugged her shoulders and gave Roland a hapless smile. “No, not really. Don’t worry, I won’t forget you.”

Lila cut Roland off before he could speak. “Let me tell you this: I’m a spoiled little rich girl. I get what I want when I want it. Tonight worked out for the both of us. I got away from daddy dearest, and we both had some fun. So, why don’t we just leave it that way, okay?”

Again Roland ventured to speak, and again Lila cut him off. “Don’t make this hard.” Lila put the brush down, stood, and faced Roland. “If anything, you’re not someone I really want to know. You got no money. You drive a joke of a car, and I’m sure you live in some dumpy little apartment in North Park. And hey, Mr. Commitment, I’m not the one who cheated on my boyfriend--because I don’t have one. You’re not going to tell your precious Liz, are you?”

“You don’t have a boyfriend? But you said you did.”

“Nope, no boyfriend. Would that really make it okay if I did? You just jumped in the sack with whoever. I would have thought more of you if you said no. Now, just like that, go! Woo, woo.”

“Right. Just like that.” Roland quietly left the apartment. The electronic lock made a loud, hollow click when the door shut behind him.

Once outside, the cool ocean air brought Roland back to the moment. He was stunned by Lila’s demeaning send-off. Nothing made sense. What did Liz expect for pushing him away and cheating on him with her boss? Why did Brian put tables in front of the restaurant just so he could sit at one? And why did Lila have to drive down University Avenue just at that moment? He came full circle. “Stupid, stupid, stupid! Jesus Christ, I could be an accomplice to a robbery. What the hell was I thinking?” he said out loud.

It began to sprinkle and then rain. Roland got into the car and slammed the door. He knew he could never undo what happened. He scolded and berated himself until the sting of his self-directed insults somehow eased his conscience. He traveled the graceful arch of the Coronado Bridge, and though he did not want to, Roland thought about Liz, about all the time they spent together and all of the things they shared. He ached for things to be like they were. He had to put what had just happened out of his mind. That is what he’d do. Act like it never happened. The solution was so simple. He breathed a sigh of relief. He couldn’t wait to get home and take a shower.

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