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The hills are alive... with the sound of hammers and all the racket that goes with building a house. The hill in question, on acreage along the commanding coastline of central California, is part of Bennet Ranch. The House, squeezed in right next to the summer house Elizabeth calls home, is the source of serious distress. She’s been robbed of her privacy, her lifestyle, and not a little sanity. The new guy on the block, an unpopular out-of-towner, has gotten off on the wrong foot with the locals. Especially the local next door. The only certainty in this situation is... things will never be the same for the two on the hill.

 



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Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

 

Mr. Popularity

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes
Oh, look out you rock and rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Changes, David Bowie, 1972

Chapter One

The woman leaned her arms against the stout railing, a safeguard crafted by proficient hands from generations past, and looked at the night shades of the ocean, the clouds, the sky. She'd missed her favorite time of day, when the sun sunk in the west; she was so late leaving work tonight that she'd not even caught a glimpse of the sunset on her drive home. It would have been spectacular from up here, with vivid colors from the retreating storm clouds multiplied against the ocean.

She slipped on the night and let it caress her like a clingy satin evening gown. Soft and sensuous. Her slender hand raised her glass up for another sip of her wine as she listened to the still of the May evening. With a tilt of her head, she waited for the wind's whistle to snake up the canyon or the muted, distant shore break to crash over her. Eventually, the crickets pierced the inky night. They were her only neighbors, residing in the scrub that surrounded her hilltop home.

But all that was about to change. Delicate features creased in annoyance as her concentration shifted to her right and a source of great displeasure commanded her attention: the angular outline of The House.

A year ago only wide open space had been there. Now, it was God's Country defiled. Actually, God didn't have much to do with it these days. Paid for in full by her savvy great-grandfather, the land had been void of anything other than the summer house, already built when he purchased the parcel. For decades it remained as it had always been. Pristine. Sweeping. Gaping down to the sea.

The sharp angles of the superstructure next door barged back in on her thoughts. Built much too close to her property, the offensive edifice was out of sync with everything: the landscape, the lifestyle, the locals. Make that local. Elizabeth was flying solo up here on the hill, on borrowed time though, thanks to The House. She was rubbing shoulders with the product of a creative mind gone mad. Its grand design took on monstrous proportions in the dark, looming large as if it might swallow up her more humble abode in one architecturally-innovative gulp.

She dared it to try.

Looking around for Hook, she saw the gate on the far side of her hot tub ajar. He'd opened it again and gone out for a wander. Just as she called for him, the rendition of a Motown great alerted her to an incoming call. Elizabeth answered her cell phone before it went to voicemail and listened to the latest from her elder sister. Eventually she reciprocated with her news from work, claiming bragger's rights to the intelligence of a Harbor seal she'd nurse back to health.

'Radar's nearly mended. Once his weight's back up, we'll be able to release him. He's eating more fish than my bucket will hold.' At the mention of fish, Elizabeth smelled the ends of her hair and wrinkled her nose, 'I need to shower.'

'You haven't showered yet?

Hook had returned and settled against her leg. She gave soft his ears a massage. "Late day. I've only been home about 20 minutes.'

'You didn't skip dinner again, did you?'

'Nope. I had a deluxe chicken bacon cheese burger. Gotta love the drive thru.'

'Don't tell me you're lounging around on your nice couches before you've washed all that gunk off?' spoken like the true city girl she was. Elizabeth's sister left the confines of San Francisco and ventured to far-flung locales only if 5-star comforts were pre-paid and confirmed in writing. She'd experienced Peru, Botswana, and India from a sanitized distance. Pictures from her vacations showed Jane in air-conditioned cars, restaurants or hotel rooms, perfectly made-up, dressed head-to-toe in her crisp, clean trademark white, looking ready to sail into Macy's instead of exploring exotic terrain.

'Actually, I'm having a glass of Pinot Grigio on the deck. Hook doesn't care what I smell like.' Her dog had no reaction to his name; Hook only looked up when she stopped her massage.

After a pause, her sister said, 'So, I'm waiting.'

'For what?'

'Your weekly rant. If you're out on the deck, you're staring at The House. Have your new neighbors moved in?'

'The House still isn't finished. I saw carpet and tile delivered a couple of weeks ago. Enough to fill a warehouse or, in this case, a triple car garage. It'll take a month to fit it out.'

'Haven't they been building for an awfully long time now? It seems like you've been...talking...about the construction for ages.'

'Go ahead and say what you really mean: complaining. I have every right, Jane. Would you like me to rehash what I've had to put up with for the last,' she paused and did a mental count, 'eight months?'

'No, please, let's not revisit all of that. Let me just say, The House is almost finished and it's time for you to move on and get back to some normalcy with your routine -- and your attitude.'

'Nothing will ever be normal here again.' She added a familiar lament, 'I'm not alone anymore.'

'It's called civilization. Get used to it.'

'My opinion's been disregarded. My feelings have been violated. I'm going to kill Mom.' When Elizabeth had discovered her mother sold a section of family land to outsiders, the woman who brought her into the world had been penciled in at the top of her hit list. The land hadn't even been on the market; the mysterious buyer had appeared almost as if by magic. 'She sold out my privacy for a few measly dollars.'

'At least get your figures right. Two point four mil is not a few or measly.'

'Can you imagine? Have you got her to tell you what she's done with the money?'

'All I know is, besides her appointments with Dr. Collins, who sounds like a cross between her spiritual advisor and the town gossip, she's paid off her mortgage and set up trust funds so all the grandkids will be able to go to college and buy houses. Never mind she doesn't have any grandkids yet.'

'Speaking of houses, what do you think the chances are that they built The House but don't plan to live in it?' The only thing Elizabeth and Jane knew for certain, via their mother, was it was purchased by a company located in Los Angeles.

'Not a hope in hell.'

'Maybe it's just a weekender.'

'From your description, it sounds like its big enough to be a corporate retreat or a rehab center.'

'God, I hope not. Why did you have to say that? How could I enjoy a relaxing drink outside if I've got recovering alcoholics with their faces pressed against the windows, salivating at my glass of wine?'

Her sister laughed, 'Or if you're ducking paint balls while middle management plays war games in the name of workplace bonding. Calm down. Better still, have another glass and go take a shower. I've got to go. Speaking of your favorite person, we're meeting her for Szechuan.'

'At Lotus Garden?' It was Elizabeth's favorite restaurant; real Chinese without up market pretense. Downsides came with her location 100 miles south of the best city in America; not being able to pop into Chinatown after work was one of them.

'Yes, and I'm late. She's bringing her latest and we're under threat of punctuality and our best behavior.'

'What's this one's name?'

'Does it really matter?'

'Well, call me this weekend and fill me in on him. And, tell my favorite brother-in-law hello."

~ * ~

Elizabeth disconnected the call and browsed through selections to change her ringtone. Omni-present, The House stood grim and unwavering, mocking her. In a fusion of what she'd coined "Cubist meets Cape Cod", the end result of The House had been hard to picture from the beginning. It started with surveying and group consultations on the sloping land, as all parties involved in the construction carefully insured the structure about to be erected didn't take a tumble into the sea. Then the days of serious attention to deep, noisy drilling followed and on it went. Once the walls had been enclosed, the hillside appeared littered with building blocks from a giant toddler. With charcoal-colored paint, white window trim, and metal roofing, it officially became the oddest looking house in Monterey County, a stark collection of boxes with no apparent rhyme or reason to their placement. The unconventional design must have come with a hefty price tag. The owner had to be a loony tune. Elizabeth was unimpressed.

Every time she mulled it over - and she mulled with some frequency - a slant of injury and injustice cozied up for a little snuggle. They led to a generally grouchy outlook out of character for Elizabeth. As much as she hated the idea, for the hundredth time since the hard-hatted workers had broken ground on the site, she let thoughts of moving into town go round her head. A cute shuttered bungalow for her and Hook, in an established neighborhood with severe restrictions on redevelopment, could be theirs. People called her crazy for living here. They tossed around words like remote, dangerous, and dull. They said ocean views could be seen from lookout points. But, she'd never taken much notice of what people had to say. This was her private party up on the hill.

Well, it had been.

The moon ducked behind the clouds and darkness distorted perspectives of the structure next door. The House looked close enough to reach out and touch. She counted the windows dressed in their new white frames. There were 18 along the back alone, all divided by neat checker-boarded panes. As she walked to the end of her deck to close the gate, the moon returned and the light caught on the paned windows. Her heart jumped as a figure appeared to move in the closest one. She wasn't ready for strangers next door. They'd be the only people for miles. A sense of dread crawled over her. The window received her undivided attention until she was reassured it was nothing more than a trick of the clouds crossing in front of the moon. Her heart stilled and she stood in motionless assessment of the monstrosity that clashed with the natural beauty of the hillside. Eventually, the moonlight retreated again. Elizabeth turned to go inside and in doing so, missed a silhouette moving carefully from room to room, pausing at the various windows to take in the view of the coastline, the hillside, and the woman on the deck next door.

~ * ~

The day dawned yellow in Elizabeth's house. Because there were none, drapes were never drawn across the lofty windows of the erstwhile summer house. Seclusion had its perks and complete privacy was one of them. Perched on her hillside, she engaged in a variety of activities on her deck, weather permitting, without threat of observation. Morning coffee, afternoon sun bakes, twilight hot tub sessions, and shared evening interludes on top of the patio table -- all in the buff or pretty damn close to it -- without a worry she'd be seen. The only chance to spy on her, and any company she might have, would be from a stakeout in the rugged chaparral or an anchorage out in the Pacific. Good quality binoculars would be required for either and if someone wanted to go to all that trouble, she hoped they enjoyed the show.

But, that was before The House. Now, all the windows would have to be dressed. She couldn't face it yet so a sheet had been recruited as a temporary measure to keep prying eyes out of her bedroom.

With The House came the workmen; and they came early. Like every other day, Elizabeth didn't have to get out of bed to know they'd arrived. Pearl Jam and power saws had replaced her alarm clock months ago. The heavy sound of engines gunning up the dirt road was followed in quick succession by men, and a few women, starting their work day. She didn't mind getting up early, in fact her job required it, but she liked to do it her way, in measured degrees of re-entering the world. During the work week, activity at The House made that impossible.

She turned on her side and came face to face with Hook, graced with one black-patched eye, just like a pirate. He smiled when he saw her eyes open and, after nudging her with his nose, disappeared through the doorway. Elizabeth got up and slipped on shorts and a tee shirt, resenting the need to dress for a shot of espresso. After starting her morning brew, she let Hook out through the deck's sliding door and watched him make for the gate. He effortlessly unlatched it and bounded down the stairs.

The party was already in full swing next door. Two men, tanned and shirtless, banged away on a section of the metal roof. Another touched up trim paint. Inside, men could be seen scurrying in all directions, like worker ants with one mission in life. As she checked out the males à la mode, the one perk in this dismal affair of house-building, she heard Hook's bark above the music and the drilling and hammering. It was his happy bark; the construction workers must be playing with him again.

'Morning, Elizabeth!'

The greeting came from a man replacing a glass panel in the railing along one of the many decks, a friendly guy whose name she'd forgotten. She smoothed it over with a simple, 'Happy Friday.'

'Where's your coffee?'

'Brewing.' The name of his buddy, who'd been with him once, came to her. 'What are you and Kyle going to do over the long weekend?'

He stopped to talk to her. 'Well, we were going down to Mexico until Kyle got fired. Now he's gone to San Jose to look for work. I guess I'll just hang around here.'

'What happened?'

'Steve fired a bunch of guys.' Elizabeth knew Steve, the foreman on the site. He'd introduced himself the first week work had begun, and made several apologies over the course of the construction for various inconveniences afforded to her. Elizabeth began to reassess her opinion of the foreman when her nameless acquaintance continued, 'He's got a lot of pressure on him. The House is behind schedule. It should've been finished in March. The owners have some kind of big deadline to meet but they keep changing their minds about things. And every time something gets changed, we have to rip something out and redo it. Or wait for new materials to be delivered. But they expect us to keep on schedule.'

'I can't believe he'd fire people for that. It's not their fault.'

'Well, what happened was, he fired everyone who went surfing Monday morning. It's always been, if the surf's good, we're there. Sometimes we go and work a half day. It was never been a problem before. Until this job. I've heard the owner is a real --'

'John!' Steve stood on the slope looking up at him, 'As soon as you finish there, check the panels at the patio off the kitchen.'

'I already checked them.'

'Check them again.'

John, who had now been identified, gave her a half-smile that had nothing to do with being happy and went back to work while Steve walked off without so much as a hello to Elizabeth. She retreated inside, speculating about the people moving in next door. They sounded like demanding flip-floppers blaming delays from their whims on the poor workmen. What was wrong with a morning of surfing if you didn't expect to get paid? When she returned, cup in hand, John had disappeared. Contrary to all hope, The House was still there. It was worse than simply one tasteless home on the hill. Crowded together where no crowds existed, it was right next to her house and then there was nothing else in either direction. The placement was comical, or would have been if it wasn't so distressful to Elizabeth. The land her mother had sold was close to two acres. It was beyond reason why the owners had built The House right against hers.

She sensed her blood pressure surging. Putting it down to her nameless enemy instead of the strength of her caffeine jolt, she was about to call for Hook when her phone discharged a musical salute to Nazis in the spring. After quick consultations with the caller, plans for a second cup were abandoned. Her morning schedule had just been thrown into disarray. Instead of heading off to her charges at the Institute, she was on her way to rescue a dolphin.

~ * ~

The Oceanus Rescue and Rehabilitation Institute cradled a small bay carved out of California's central coast. Born from the exceptional mind of Mark Wieggoché, she was his only child. He'd nurtured her from conception and through her floundering infancy to watch her mature into one of the country's foremost centers for injured and stranded marine life. The road to success had its potholes but, as a formidable contender for recognition and acclaim, Dr. Wieggoché had no qualms about doing whatever it took to keep the Institute on course and moving forward. Its gains of prestige and stature within the field were proof enough of his determination and now, as the Institute was about to celebrate her 25th birthday, she showed no signs of advancing years; she experienced regular upgrades and only a few months ago had some cosmetic work to keep up appearances.

Bent over her keyboard, Elizabeth paused. After spending the better part of the day assisting in the rescue of a Right whale dolphin that had been stranded upriver, she'd just opened her research about Southern sea otters and sat studying the picture of one lounging amongst the kelp beds. She didn't hear Dr. Wiegghocé enter her office as she reached for a Tootsie Roll. He hovered quietly behind her before he spoke.

'Would you like some news?'

She swiveled her chair around and their eyes met, immediately triggering the camaraderie he favored her with. 'Is it good?'

Every program, every rescued animal, every inch of the institute received hands-on attention from Dr. Wiegghocé. As did his employees. He used his highly acclaimed reputation, inside connections and at times less honorable means to get his pick of best and brightest. His criteria for employment extended beyond academic achievement; Dr. Wiegghocé had the foresight to understand that enthusiasm and hard work could carry people much further than simple book smarts. Graduate students scrambled for the chance to show him what they were made of in order to nab one of the Institute's prized internships. Elizabeth's passion had caught his eye.

He glanced out the window, taking time with his announcement, his attention on a lone albatross making lazy circles in the sky. 'It's about your sea otters.'

He didn't have to say anymore. Working in conjunction with several centers worldwide, ORRI intended to take the lead in establishing a breeding and release program for Southern sea otters. For close to two years, Dr. Wiegghocé had been soliciting grants from any sources that would listen -- federal agencies, state departments, private businesses -- to find funding for the breeding program. It was vital for the survival of the species, whose numbers were dwindling. Elizabeth had chosen to earn her PhD by specializing in the depletion of their population and the good doctor had designed the project for his most passionate employee. Its mention flipped Elizabeth's switch. She crossed her leg and jiggled her foot, waiting for him to continue.

'I got an email today from SRH.' Seamus Richter Hoffmann. Huge German Corporation. Known to dole out a handful of grants every few years. Preferably for environmental causes. Very selective. 'Their board voted yesterday.'

The laces on Elizabeth's boot tapped against leather. 'Uh huh....'

'It was close, 7 to 5.'

Elizabeth's foot jiggled faster and her chair began to roll sideways. She set her feet squarely on the floor. 'For God's sake, do we have the money or not?'

Wiegghocé turned to her. Blue eyes twinkled under heavy brows. He answered with a smile, 'I've been at it all morning, crunching numbers with what they've committed to us. I---'

He got no further. Elizabeth's enthusiasm sent her flying into his arms. She hugged him tightly and bubbled over. She paced the room as they shot ideas back and forth. Overcome with excitement, she hugged him again. And Mark Wiegghocé, eminent marine biologist, experienced businessman and above all opportunist, made no attempt to pull away from her.

Chapter Two

Oh, mercy, mercy me.
Ah, things ain't what they used to be.
What about this over crowded land?
How much more abuse from man can she stand?

Mercy Mercy Me, Marvin Gaye, 1971

At the old wooden sign marking Bennet Ranch Road, Elizabeth eased off the paved highway and rolled to a stop by her mailbox. It still lacked a companion. Maybe her new neighbors didn't get conventional mail. She tossed envelopes and the local throwaway paper onto the seat and began the last leg of her drive home, up the dirt road that ended at her house. The bouncy ride was anything but unpleasant. Her '58 GMC pickup, with battle scars from its years of service, was made to drive through the surrounding acres of rural ranch land. Elizabeth never tired of it. With the interstate cutting inland several miles south at San Ramona, the world zipped past this sleepy stretch of forgotten California coast at 70 miles per hour. Acquired as far back as the nineteenth century in some cases, the expansive tracts of land had always been privately owned and, apart from the unfortunate digression of Elizabeth's mother, monetary incentives had not succeeded in parceling them off to developers.

Bennet Ranch Road progressed unhurriedly through oak clusters and open spaces. As Elizabeth drove, the remains of her work day faded away and she lost herself in the chaos of late season wildflowers. As a familiar grove appeared and the blanket of color changed from yellow and orange to a patchwork of purple, there was an out of place glint on the road ahead. It tore her away from nature's handiwork. A double take confirmed that a sleek silver car was barreling down on her at an alarming speed. The driver was either unaware they were sharing the back road or had a lack of concern for the truck in the middle of it. Definitely not in the mood to play chicken with a road warrior, Elizabeth had to turn the wheel sharply to avoid the oncoming car. Her old pickup came to an abrupt stop against a dirt embankment as the silver bullet whizzed by.

In the rearview mirror, she saw taillights flash through the settling dust. Instinct to stick it to the idiot behind the wheel kicked in. Elizabeth gathered up her indignity to hurtle at the rogue driver but before her feet hit the ground, the car pulled away and cheated her out of issuing a verbal lashing. She stood in the middle of the road feeling completely helpless. Impatience for all things intrusive bubbled and boiled inside Elizabeth before surfacing like a Seawolf class submarine. With the heel of her boot, she pulverized a clump of wildflowers growing along the edge of the road. It didn't make her feel any better.

She stared in the direction the speeding car had vanished. She'd never seen it before. It was definitely not the type a construction worker could afford. And, anyone from around here would know better than to drive like that. She jumped to the obvious conclusion. The only other people who had any business up here would be her new neighbors. They had nearly run her off the road! If everyone in LA drove like that, it was no wonder road rage was as prolific as Beverly Hills liposuction.

The fields of flowers had lost their charm. Elizabeth hopped back into her truck, anxious to get home. Eventually, she reached the dead end at the summer house where the gentle hillside descended to the Pacific. After hellos had been said and Hook had his obligatory respite amongst the undergrowth, Elizabeth peeled off her fishy work clothes and took a shower. Padding around in fluffy slippers and well-worn jeans, her outlook reclaimed a more positive path. She turned to a stack of mail while meals were consumed, saving pizza coupons and allocating a pest control voucher to the throw away pile. The electricity bill was shoved aside unopened. A thin envelope, embossed in the upper left-hand corner, caught her eye. From a law firm. As she turned it over and over, taking in the feel of the expensive paper, she did some inner searching in case she'd forgotten about anyone she'd ploughed into recently on the highway. Maybe someone she didn't know had left her a bundle because no one she knew had recently moved on to the next life.

The return address in Los Angeles registered with her. L.A. It meant only one thing to her these days. The new neighbors. A lawsuit from the owners of The House?!

She shredded the envelope to get to the heart of the matter. After a quick scan, she slowed and re-read the paragraphs more thoroughly. When she was done, she stared expressionless out a full-length window into the ocean. Then, Elizabeth erupted.

The letter flew towards the ceiling. 'Of all the nerve!'

She gestured dramatically, 'I was here first. Buy the family's land and then get rid of them. Pick them off so the place is all yours. Never in my life have I ever seen such a calculating, manipulative, scheming ploy. Can you imagine?'

Hook sniffed the letter, resting by a floor lamp, and jumped back when Elizabeth snatched it up. She read it again.

Dear Ms. Bennet,

With the completion of construction on 1A of what is commonly known as Bennet Ranch, Monterey County expected within the coming month, imminent changes to the lifestyle you have enjoyed will occur. When our client takes possession, there will be necessary adjustments to be made that may not be to your liking. To that end, for the convenience of both parties, our client is prepared to assist you with relocation.

She broke off to demand of Hook, 'Can you believe this crap?'

Each point made in the letter extracted a boisterous response from her. 'Sub-let your property - as if it's on the market. Reasonable amount - ha, that's a laugh. Additional compensation for moving expenses - give me a break. If this offer is unacceptable, we would be open to a counter offer - counter offer my ass. I wonder if they can see this counter offer through the L.A. smog?' Elizabeth faced south and flipped her middle finger. She continued to mutter for some time before she came to her senses and grabbed her cell phone.

When Jane answered, she came straight to the point, which was as clear as a therapeutic mud bath. 'They're trying to push me out.'

'Of the Institute?'

'Of course not! Here, at my home.'

'Are you talking about how close The House is to your property line? That's last years' news.'

'Just listen to this.' Elizabeth read her letter, spreading liberal sarcasm wherever she deemed it appropriate.

'Actually, that's not a bad offer. What do you think?'

'What do I think? What do you think I think?

Referring to her highly-charged state, Jane observed, 'Elizabeth, you need to take it down a few notches.'

'But Jane, they're trying to get rid of me! Then, when no one lives here, they'll catch Mom, Mrs. Pushover 1987, in her perpetually vulnerable state and grab some more land! It's easy pickings with her.'

'Maybe now's a good time to think about joining the rest of the world, at least the portion of it living in San Ramona. After all, the nightlife's not exactly rip-roaring in you neck of the woods. You come home from work, you clean up and you're so far away from everything that you never stick your big toe out the door. Since you broke up with--'

'No, no, nonononono. Not going there.' She wouldn't let Jane analyze her last relationship.

'You don't go out to meet anyone or join in anything to circulate. I think the isolation is affecting your judgment.'

'Jane! I'm with people every day, all day and the day can be very long.'

'Don't you mean wet, smelly animals?'

'Mark wouldn't appreciate you calling him that.'

'Mark? Are you talking about Dr. Wiegghocé?'

'Yes.....'

'When did he become Mark?'

'Last year.'

'About the time you broke up with---'

'Jane....'

'Fine, it's none of my business anyway except he's your boss, which should be taboo right there, he's way too old for you, that's the yuck factor, and I never really liked him, which represents my gifted insight.'

'Don't try and connect the dots. There aren't any.'

Veering back to her original point, Jane kept the ball rolling, 'What did you do last weekend?'

'I did my laundry. I worked on my otter research. I made a great batch of chili.'

'Translation: you opened a can of Hormel's.' When Elizabeth didn't respond, she asked, 'Did you see another living, breathing human?'

'I shopped for window coverings.'

'In the flesh or online, Elizabeth?'

After a long pause, she said, 'I'm not answering that. And, what difference does it make anyway? I called you about an attack on me and you've turned it all around.'

Jane's next remark was full of sisterly concern. 'No I haven't. I simply took the opportunity to point out some things that you conveniently avoid on a regular basis. Someday you're going to wake up, middle-aged and lonely, and wonder why you've got no one to cuddle up to but a slimy sea otter.'

They hadn't had such a direct exchange about this particular subject before. It cut painfully close to issues Elizabeth didn't want to explore. 'I'm not ready yet, Jane. Something will make me want to get back out there, but it hasn't happened yet.'

Her sister knew when to back off. 'Alright, let's get back to the letter. From a practical point, if you took the offer, the monthly fee they'd pay would more than cover any rent you'd have in town. Heck, it might cover a mortgage payment. You'd come out way ahead financially by having someone subsidize the purchase of a home. It's a sweet deal.'

'You just don't get it, do you?'

'I get that you're stubborn.'

'But, they're trying to prejudice me into moving by paying me off. They're people with no morals or concern about anyone but themselves.'

'Who's being prejudiced, Elizabeth? You don't even know them to make that judgment. Do you like The House?'

'You know I don't.'

'Is it the source of recurring distress?'

'Yes.'

'Does the thought of people living in it, yards away from you and your deck, repulse you?'

'Of course.'

'Then, take the money and move.'

'I'm not moving. I'll never move. And, let me tell you something,' she waved the letter around, 'They'd better not expect to exchange friendly hellos or favorite recipes with me.'

'Somehow dear, I don't think that's going to happen.'

Elizabeth had no intention of answering the letter. It was dispatched to the fireplace, and even though the late spring night she'd received it on was pleasantly warm she built a fine blaze and burned it. The reflection of the flames licked the oak panels of the house and lit up her face. As satisfying as it was to watch the letter turn to cinders, the exercise did nothing to vanquish the resentment she felt at the invasion of her entire lifestyle. She felt like crying but relented, judging it was stereotypically female. But, she was more than ready to wallow in some self pity. She spent a good portion of that evening lolling in a mix of anger and loathing from her one-sided analysis of her new neighbor's character and how it had been inflicted on her.

Two weeks later, Elizabeth worked a half day only to come home and find her road clogged. Vehicles of every type were parked helter skelter and it was impossible to get closer than 50 yards away from her place. She parked at the end of the line, behind an up market deli's van. Halfway to her house, she met the delivery woman trudging towards her carrying an oversized white bag.

When she was close enough, Elizabeth asked, 'I parked behind you. Do you have enough room to get out?'

'Yeah, I think so.' The overweight woman paused to get her breath. 'Fair warning. When you get to The House, steer clear of the stick woman with the lips. You should be able to hear her screaming from here.'

'Huh?'

'All hell's broke lose inside because the carpet in the master bedroom isn't the right shade. It's not going to photograph right. You'd think the rotation of the earth was going to come to a grinding halt because they'd installed Medieval Pewter instead of Quaker Gray. Heck, it looked great to me.' Confidentially, she added, 'And really, with a husband who looks like that, why would you be worried about the color of the carpet when you were in the bedroom?'

Elizabeth didn't attempt to answer that question. 'I'm not going to The House. I live next door.'

'To that woman? My condolences. Have you had lunch? ' Before Elizabeth could respond, a bag was pressed into her hand. 'Here, take theirs.'

'Are you sure?'

'Yeah, it'll just go to waste. It's Croque-Provencal for two.'

'Why didn't they want it?'

'Stick woman stopped shouting at the carpet company long enough to shout at me. I've been told that because good ol' Myrna feeds her goats anything she's got lying around, that's not an organic diet, so the goat cheese is inconsumable.' The exasperated woman shook her head. 'Why didn't they ask when they ordered? Now I've got to go all the way back to the shop for Salade d'Onglet. If the hanger steak is anything other than grass-fed USDA certified beef, free from herbicides, pesticides or any other thing-a-sides, I'm not going to tell them.'

'Well, thanks for the lunch,' she said to the woman, who continued on to her van.

Elizabeth walked through her carport and up to the door. A notice tucked behind the screen slowed her progress. She plucked it out, read it, narrowed her eyes and looked at The House, before she unlocked the door and went in. Hook quickly diverted his enthusiastic hello to the smells emanating from the white bag. While Elizabeth put it on the counter he sat down, striving to be all things perfect to qualify for a handout. He was out of luck. Elizabeth forgot about the bag due to the message left for her by Caltrans. They were coming in two days time to honor her by paving her road. She was advised have her vehicle down at the main road by 6 am or she would not be able to get it out. Her road would not be accessible again until after 4 pm the following day.

She was outraged, an easy state to get her into these days. She wasn't going to take this lying down. She'd just have herself a little talk with Caltrans. About her dirt road, her wishes and her rights. If they didn't want to sort it out through reasonable discussion, she'd resort to yelling the loudest, since those folks were the ones who generally got what they wanted.

With a robust cadence, she shook the floorboards on her way to get the phone book. Too upset to find the listing, she finally realized it was printed on the notice. Before she could dial, her mobile phone exploded with the 1812 Overture.

'What?!'

'Hey, what's wrong?'

'Five minutes.' Elizabeth hung up on her sister and dialed Caltrans. After a futile exchange with the operator, she left a message for the district administrator to call her. Then, she called Jane back.

'It's me.'

'What's going on?'

By now, Elizabeth had pulled out her free lunch. While she filled her sister in on the latest plot her new neighbors had hatched against her, she munched on grilled eggplant with assorted veggies, sun dried tomato aioli and the infamous "non-organic" goat cheese.

'What exactly do you have against paved roads?'

'We've gotten along fine without them for decades. Why change things now?'

'If I remember, when we were little, Daddy tried to get them to pave that road.'

'I'm sure he didn't. Daddy and I always thought alike.'

'I think he did and they wouldn't do it because it was on private land.'

'If that's the case they were smart. We don't need a paved road here.'

'Elizabeth, you know what I think?'

'No, and from the tone of your voice, I can tell I'm not going to want to know.'

'No matter what your new neighbors do, you're not going to like it. You're predisposed to dislike them.'

'Oh yeah? Well, wait until I tell you what happened.' Elizabeth filled her sister in on the carpet tantrum.

'Building can be really stressful. Remember how whacked out I got when we remodeled the bathroom last year? And look at yourself and what The House has done to you! Maybe the woman next door is a bitch, maybe the husband and wife are unreasonable people that will be horrible neighbors. But, since you burned the letter from the lawyers, you're stuck with them. Judge them for yourself, though. Why not go next door, introduce yourself, thank them for lunch, and check on the carpet!?'

'Pffffttt!' At that moment, Elizabeth looked out the window. 'Hang on, what's this!?!'

With the phoned glued to her ear, she went out on the deck and looked over at The House, or more precisely at the narrow space between her house and The House. A trench had been dug while she'd been gone and workmen were busy filling it in. They were on the fourth row of concrete blocks rising to the sky. Her neighbors were building a fence.

'What's what?' Jane asked.

Elizabeth ignored her sister's question and hung over the side of the railing directly above the workmen. 'What are you doing?'

Two faces looked up at her. Eventually, one stated the obvious, 'Building a fence.'

'I haven't approved this.' The workmen shrugged their shoulders and went back to work. 'How high is it going to be?'

'Seven feet.'

Jane cut in, 'What's going on?'

'They're building a fence. Right next to my house! Don't I have to approve that?'

'I don't think so, unless it's on your property.'

'That does it! I'll call you back.'

'Take ten deep breaths and don't say anything--' She cut Jane off and tossed her phone on the couch before she tromped back out the front door with Hook at her heels.

She was just in time to see her neighbors leaving. There was no mistaking stick woman. Thin enough to have lost all her curves - except the fake ones up top - her lips were as big and bright as a mandarin orange. A man who towered over the silver bullet closed the passenger door for her and rounded the back of the car to fold himself into the driver's seat. The door closed and his window lowered. While waiting for a truck to move out of the way, he scanned the commotion from behind sunglasses, lingering in the direction a crane lowering a mature Mexican Blue palm into place and finally coming to a stop at Elizabeth. She crossed her arms, then uncrossed them and launched herself in his direction. If he thought she was coming over to address him, he certainly didn't care. The truck cleared a path and the man shot the silver bullet down the hill, about as mindful of the car crunch along the road as he had been of Elizabeth's truck the other day.

Elizabeth saw a harassed-looking Steve try to slip by her unnoticed. Over her dead body was he getting away. She cornered him by a palate of fence blocks and started in. 'Steve, when did they decide to build a fence?'

Steve didn't look her in the eye. He didn't even answer her. The crane swinging the palm around nearly hit an eave of The House. He yelled some very colorful instructions to the operator.

Elizabeth stuck her face in his line of vision, 'When did they decide to build a fence?'

His tired eyes met hers. 'It was always in the plans.'

'Can they do that without telling me?'

'As long as the plans have been approved, and they have.'

'I'm surprised about that because it sure doesn't fit with a county that embraces all things in harmony with the environment.'

'You'll like it better when it's been painted.'

'Painted?'

'Charcoal, to match The House.'

'A black fence?!?! They must have bought off the inspector to get that passed.' '

Are you suggesting someone was bribed?'

'What do you think?'

Steve stated flatly, 'What I think doesn't matter. I just work for them, I don't have to like them, uh, it.'

Elizabeth glanced towards the space between her house and The House. 'A solid seven-foot high black wall is overkill. They're building a fortress.'

'It's only like that next to your house. The other sides are metal grillwork so the views are unobstructed.'

'Are you saying that building the block fence has nothing to do with keeping the mountain lions out? They're just trying to block their view of me? Well, isn't that a shame. The fence isn't high enough for that. They've got three stories of outside patios across the back of The House.'

'Yes, but eucalyptus grows pretty fast. It won't take any time for them to reach 30 feet.'

Her eyebrows scrunched together. 'Eucalyptus?'

Right on cue, two open-bed trucks rumbled up and Steve pointed to their leafy cargo, 'A thick stand of them planted along the length of the block fence.' He left her to ponder that while he went to direct traffic along the narrow road.

As the clock closed in on midnight, under a weak moon, Elizabeth walked down the dirt road to move her truck. The latest developments had left her feeling fractious. Instead of blowing off unproductive steam, she'd spent the afternoon channeling her energy to something useful. She'd started a list of every change perpetrated against her since construction on The House began. The task was meant to be a therapeutic outlet, but a feeling of general morose still hung over her.

It was the cocktail of night air and dominating quiet that lightened her outlook. With evidence of the frantic action of the day gone and the road emptied, Bennet Ranch was unchanged again. Elizabeth could pretend the last year never happened. And nothing could contradict that until she looked back to the construction zone that engulfed The House. So, she didn't face that way. When she reached her truck, she leaned against it and drank in the moon.

Just when Elizabeth was well into symbiotic balance with the lunar rotation and fresh fields, a man-made source of light barged into her Zen zone. Make that two. A pair of headlights cut across the road followed closely by a car. One she'd never seen before. This was a nondescript sedan.

It stopped alongside the neighbor's new driveway and the driver hopped out. Elizabeth could see he wore a military uniform. The back door was opened and another man in snappish dress stepped out. He carried a large satchel. The driver returned to wait in the front seat while the visitor walked to the front door, disappearing from Elizabeth's view. She watched for the porch light to come on or lights to go on inside, but all remained dark. There were no signs of life in The House.

Elizabeth continued to turn it over in her mind while she refilled Hook's water bowl. Talk about weird. It was kind of late for someone to be dropping by, wasn't it? Had she not seen the car stop next door, she would never have known they had a visitor. She locked the doors, a new task only recently added to her routine, and thought that she hadn't known that the owners were even there full time. There never seemed to be signs of life around once the construction crews left. Maybe they'd been staying there already without her knowing. That gave her a creepy feeling. She checked the battery of her mobile, absently scrolled through ringtones, and calculated how long it took to drive into San Ramona where safety in numbers, approximately 8,000 of them, lay waiting. She made her choice, Thriller, and turned off the light.

Chapter three

Day after day
Alone on a hill
The man with the foolish grin
Is keeping perfectly still
But nobody wants to know him
They can see that he's just a fool
And he never gives an answer
But the fool on the hill

Fool On The Hill,
John Lennon and Paul McCartney, 1967

Caltrans had done a first-rate job erasing any traces of the dirt road, making a smooth transition from the highway to the new pavement. It irked Elizabeth. She didn't see asphalt as an advantage only as another change belched up from a bottomless pit of unwelcome changes. She could hardly stay ahead of them. They constantly nipped at her heels these days.

She pulled up next to her mailbox, now dwarfed by an officious piece of work, done in charcoal with white trim that was her neighbors' excuse for a mail receptacle. It matched The House perfectly. The obnoxious boxes were multiplying.

Presented with the perfect opportunity to get to know her neighbors better, she weighed up taking a peek into their world by rummaging through their mail. After all, these people were blank slates. She could be living next door to anyone. Butcher, baker, axe murderer, the possibilities were endless.

She inched out of her window, stretched past her box, and touched the replicated handle of a miniature front door. But there she stopped short. It might be construed as a federal offense subject to a $10,000 fine and stiff jail time. Elizabeth had never been the sort to run foul of the law, but the stress and frustration of weeks - months -- of everything she'd put up with threatened to unduly influence her. After all, this was Bennet land and these people were outsiders building their big black fences and sneaking around in the dark.

It was all rather sinister and she had a right to know about them.

Her hand wavered uncertainly by the tiny door when it swung open on its own and mail poured out, scattering envelopes across the asphalt. Elizabeth wiggled back inside the truck and flung her door open. It smashed right into the side of the fancy box. The entire black and white affair began to wobble on its support before it settled at a decided angle.

Appalled, Elizabeth gathered up the letters being nudged towards the main road by an inconvenient breeze. She sorted them into a neat pile and stuffed them back inside. Then, she pulled the box back into an upright position, let go, and watched it lean even more precariously towards the ground. As it went into tilt mode, the door swung open and mail began to slide out again. She slammed the door and went back to work trying to shore up the support. Shifting some dirt against it didn't work so Elizabeth hunted around for some rocks she could pile around the sides.

While bent over to fetch a pair of nice sized ones, she heard the downshift of an engine much more sophisticated than hers. She stood up, rock in each hand, as the silver bullet came purring to stop behind her truck. Fully flustered, Elizabeth approached the car as a tinted window glided downwards.

She noticed his hands first, one gripping the wheel, the other resting on the door. Large and well-proportioned with uniform nails that appeared to have regular attention by a manicurist. His hands were perfect, or would be with a little wear and tear on them. Up close, his features looked to be chiseled from travertine: a sublime profile in warm tones, flawed only by a stony expression.

Despite this, Elizabeth pronounced him handsome and this only flustered her more. The trials and tribulations he'd put her through were temporarily forgotten. The stuff that got her blood racing in the presence of a good-looking man kicked in. She bumbled through a white lie to explain her two hands full of rocks.

'Hi. I'm your next-door-neighbor. While I was getting my mail, I noticed that your mailbox was falling over. I was going to try and prop it back up for you.'

His reaction was concealed behind his sunglasses. Thinking he was studying his damaged mailbox, she turned towards it and, as if on cue, it creaked over even further. The door swung open and the mail threatened to fall out again. Elizabeth dropped the rocks and grabbed for it. Like a sinking ship before its death plunge into the deep, the mailbox creaked and hovered and then fell over. A cloud of dirt rose.

As the cause of its demise, guilt prodded Elizabeth to try and stand it back up. Her neighbor's voice, laced with acerbic authority, stopped her in her tracks.

'Don't bother, please. I'll have my---' At that moment, the breeze reawakened, sending that certain smell that clung to Elizabeth at the end of the workday in his direction. It arrested him mid-sentence. An odd look crossed his face, evident even without benefit of seeing his eyes. Elizabeth sensed his attention had shifted and that he was watching her from behind his sunglasses. She broke the awkward pause by handing him his mail.

'Thank you,' he said coolly as she watched one superb hand take it. Confirming that lingering roadside was not on his agenda, he rolled his window back up and pulled away.

As he drove off up the hill, he left her standing there, wondering about his eyes. Even though he was handsome, he wasn't necessarily an attractive man. Eyes told the truth about that but she hadn't seen into his to probe what really lay inside of him.

Attractive? Inner self?? Elizabeth was shocked that she'd slipped so effortlessly into a forgiving frame of mind with the intruder from LA. Simply because he was good looking! It was an unforgivable digression. She went through a check list of everything she already knew about him. It confirmed the man was about as appealing as a steamy mound of garbage trucking to the dump. She should've grabbed the moment and given him some of his own back.

He deserved a thorough grilling. She should have asked him how the road really got paved.

He deserved a traffic citation. She should have brought up road safety and quoted the California Driver's Handbook.

He deserved to be brought down a peg or two. She should have advised him that bribery was best left to lobbyists and politicians, or mothers who were desperate for the co-operation of their toddlers.

His whole attitude was rude as hell. He hadn't even introduced himself. Her first hand experience qualified her now to label the guy presumptuous, sneaky and generally undesirable. Elizabeth couldn't wait to tell Jane just how right she'd been all along. Even better, she could call him by name. At least by his last name.

Delarango. It sounded like a truck tough enough to take hard driving by a hard-working man.

When Elizabeth coasted into her carport, she didn't notice the latest progress to The House. It wasn't until she went back out after dinner to get some CDs she'd left in the truck that she spotted the finished front gardens. In the twilight, strategically placed lighting underscored their completion. At varied elevations healthy grass, variegated pebbles and trickling water competed for attention. Artistic finesse led her eye to each focal point. A stone figure. The Mexican Blue palm. Some waxy purple thing. Elizabeth inched to the edge of her drive and saw running water rippling ponds framed by lush plants. A perfectly planned setting. A first rate effort. She would have been disappointed by anything less.

In the middle of this botanical handiwork appeared an entity the neighbors hadn't counted on. Hook. Elizabeth heard the rustle of plants and the soft crunch of pebbles. She saw his head bob from between some bushes before it disappeared. She whisper-shouted to him but he didn't come. Lapping started. And stopped. And started again. He was drinking from one of the ponds. She scanned all around but couldn't see him and suddenly there he was in the spotlight by the palm. She used her 'you're in big trouble' voice to call to him again. He looked at her as he raised his leg and marked the trunk. By rights the Mexican Blue palm was his now. Elizabeth needed to get him out of there before he left any other housewarming gifts.

'Hook! Come. Here.'

He stared at her, and then at a rippling pond. Just as she was about to go drag him home, he came over with a spring in his step, clearly thrilled with his new garden. She lifted his dripping muzzle and set some ground rules, 'No Hook, no! Do not go over there.'

Elizabeth retrieved her CDs and started for the house when the bushes next door rustled again. She quietly closed the door of the truck. Her right hand firmly gripped Hook's collar and she pulled him back out of the light. From the shadows, a tall figure could be seen walking about. He moved with measured care, inspecting here and there, eventually stepping out into the open. With the spotlights lights slicing the garden in sections, he stood in the sapphire blue of early evening, his face obscured from Elizabeth. He held something in his hand, the same impeccable one that took the mail, tossing it up and catching it like a kid with a baseball, as he moved over to the palm.

She didn't want to talk to her neighbor and this was her cue to escape. Elizabeth crept towards her door, pulling a resisting Hook with her. He'd spotted Delarango and wanted to meet the new guy next door. He whined and tugged and tried to worm his way free while Elizabeth scolded and tugged and tried to hang on to him.

Delarango turned towards the sounds. He took a few steps in their direction and moved into the light. Gone was the distant man from the car; even from where Elizabeth stood, the contented expression lent an entirely different air to his appearance. He was at ease in the setting and it showed. He actually looked friendly.

Elizabeth was unmoved since this was contrary to everything she already knew about him.

All she wanted to do was go back inside, so she stepped out in the open and faced him. She decided direct eye contact was the way to go and made it a point to say everything on her mind optically. She silently relayed her message, especially the part about her never moving and waited for his response.

His head inclined and a light from his garden shone in his eyes. He dropped what he was tossing. It was left where it landed as he shaded his eyes and looked right at her. But, he didn't say a word. If the guy chose to avoid talking to her, she could play that game, too. And, she'd had enough.

'Come on. In the house.' She tugged on Hook's collar, turned on her heel and led him inside without a glance back at Delarango.

Elizabeth had been through two clerks and a supervisor before the head of Building and Planning came over to greet her. Tucked under his arm was a bulky bundle of blueprints and papers pertaining to Bennet Ranch. As he sat them on the counter, he introduced himself, 'Hello, Ms. Bennet. I'm Ed Gardiner. I understand you're looking for some answers.'

She decided to start all over from the beginning. 'Yes. Is there some sort of law that makes it compulsory to advise your next door neighbors when you build a fence?'

'Well normally nope, not if you follow the codes in place. However, if you want to make any variances, then yep, it is possible you might have to.'

'I'd like to know if the fence that's been built next door to me meets building code or regulations or whatever you call it.'

Ed shuffled through his paper trail and paused at a neat clipped stack. He flipped through the sheets and told her, 'Yep, it certainly does.' He cited the stages of approval the plans had gone through and the inspection date of the fence.

'What's the height limit for residential fencing?'

'Six feet,' he answered confidently.

'Well, the fence my neighbors have built is just over seven feet. Now, why wasn't my approval necessary to have the fence built that high?'

"Like I said, it might be necessary to get the a-okay from your neighbors. Then again, there could be gray areas involved.'

'Does my case have gray areas?'

'Yep. You see, this land -- yours -- Bennet Ranch and other parcels in the area, aren't zoned residential so even though you've subdivided a parcel with approval for a residential dwelling, it's not residential. It's zoned rural and that's a whole different kettle of fish.'

'So Ed, what's the height limit for fencing in rural areas?'

'It's discretionary.'

'By that, I guess you don't mean my discretion.'

'Nope, it's up to the city council that has jurisdiction to decide.'

'Did the council decide, Ed?'

He looked through the papers. 'Yep, they sure did Ms. Bennet. On March 15. The vote was unanimous.'

'Ed?'

'Yep?'

'There's not a thing I can do about this, is there?'

''Fraid not Ms. Bennet.'

Elizabeth was going to take her cue and make a graceful exit, when she remembered another little matter. She decided as long as she was crashing she might as well go down in flames.

'Could you tell me why my private road was paved by Caltrans? I'd never even contacted them about it.' Elizabeth had no illusions that her neighbors were behind it all, but she wanted to hear it, with all due respect to Ed Gardiner, from the horse's mouth.

Her question baffled Ed. He spent some time looking through his paperwork and eventually went to the information highway. His eyes brightened when he found what he was looking for at Caltrans' website. 'Here it is. Yep, it's simple enough Ms Bennet. Since there's more than one residence on the road, an agreement was needed by the owners of all the properties that border onto it regarding private upkeep and maintenance. Since no agreement was in place, Caltrans took over jurisdiction. Calle de Oro is considered a public road now and must meet the standards of any public road. You're real lucky you didn't have to pay to pave it yourself. As long as that road is, it would have cost you a pretty penny.'

Elizabeth stopped listening when he said Calle de Oro. Not only had her road been paved, now Caltans thought they should rename it. This was where she drew the line in the sand.

'The name of the road is Bennet Ranch Road.'

'Hmmm.' He re-checked the website and referred to paper notes, 'Nope, not according to what it says here...and here.'

'Ed, my family's been there for generations. It's been called that forever.'

'According to Caltrans, the road never had a name.'

'There's been a sign at the turn off the highway since I can remember that says Bennet Ranch Road.'

'Well, did you ever register it officially?' Elizabeth looked crestfallen. 'You should've registered it officially, Ms. Bennet.'

More to herself than to Ed, Elizabeth asked, 'How did it get the name Calle de Oro?'

'Anyone can submit a name for a road.' Ed looked at the monitor again. 'Here, the council meeting on April 8 approved the motion and referred it to Caltrans the next day.'

'Ed, can you tell me who made the motion?'

'Sure can. A Mr. Delarango did.'

Afterwards, when she was ensconced in the well-worn seat of her truck, Elizabeth couldn't remember if she'd thanked Ed Gardiner for the information. He'd walked her out on his way to lunch and they'd paused at a new bronze sculpture in the courtyard. Designed to be viewed from any angle, its "in the round" presentation emphasised the psychological realism of its Modern Classic design. All Elizabeth knew was it reminded her of a pack of dogs fighting over a giant pretzel. Ed said he'd heard it portrayed man's eternal conflict between good and evil. When Elizabeth questioned the quality of the piece, Ed indicated to a tasteful plaque mounted nearby. Proclaiming to all that stopped to read was the inscription:

Donated to the City of San Ramona
March 1, 2006
by F. R. Delarango

'Well, what coincidence!' Elizabeth turned up her nose as she walked around the slick bit of tit for tat. 'I think Delarango came out on the better end of it all with his new road.'

'Mr. Delarango sculpted it just for the courtyard.'

'Huh?'

Ed chuckled, 'He spent a lot of time out here tryin' to get a feel for where it was going to go.'

'Ed?'

'And he made sure it was turned just the right way when they trucked her in and set her down.'

'Ed?!'

'Yep, Ms. Bennet?'

'Delarango made this?'

'Sure did.' Elizabeth looked at Ed for his take on it all. He succinctly surmised, 'No one can argue, it's a high falutin' thing.'

'Jane, I swear, I'm an a vortex, stuck in some weird universe that's pretty close to ours until anything to do with The House comes up. Then I might as well not exist, because anything I say or do -- or want -- is totally irrelevant. It's like my mouth is moving but no one hears me. Or they just don't care. Or I don't have enough money to influence them to care. It's a sympathy-less world.'

'There's no such word.'

'Did I tell you I can expect a new street sign? Whoop-tee-do. Maybe we can crack a bottle of bubbly over it. Make an afternoon of it with some fireworks, speeches, awards. Don't be disappointed, but the Biggest Asshole of the Year is going to Mr. De La Rango.'

'Listen to yourself. You've lost your grip when it comes to The House and its owners. Lizzy, you need to regroup and move on. This isn't going to go away.'

'Jane, you know I've never been great when it comes to change.'

'But, this disruption to your life is dominating your time and messing with your sanity. You say you want to stay. Okay, I respect that, but if you stay you need to be able to let it go. And I don't hear that from you.'

'Come on now, with what I've had to put up with you can't blame me --'

'I don't blame you. Now, if you want to blame someone..."

'I'd better not get in the same room with Mom again.'

'I wouldn't worry. She's avoiding you.'

'It's no wonder. I've been put through hell because of her.'

'For your own peace of mind, you have to let it go.'

'There are too many 'its'. Wait, I'll get my list. Let me read them to you and then you tell me if I'm taking this too far.'

'You've made a list? Of what's happened since this began last year? Now, I will say that you've gone over the edge.'

'I have not.'

'With all due respect honey, you need a big time out. What about that business trip?'

'It's in a couple of weeks.' She'd already outlined the six-day, two city tour to Jane, highlighting her meetings with government representatives in Washington and a marine rehabilitation center in South Carolina. Now that ORRI had the funding, they could move forward with the groundbreaking program for the Southern sea otters. Elizabeth's job was to get the word out, try and shore up more monetary support, and examine a prototype program in place in South Carolina.

'Take some extra time. Use some vacation days and forget about everything. Get back to who you really are because we've lost Elizabeth somewhere over this last year and I'd really like to have her back.'

The day before she left for the nation's capital, Elizabeth took Hook for a walk in the hills. The tawny grasses and stately oaks, so typical of great portions of the California landscape, drew them further and further from their house, crossing over one invisible property line after another.

The height of summer meant shorts, a floppy hat and a pack with water and sunscreen. As per the usual routine, Hook bounded ahead to explore and waited for Elizabeth to catch up only to take a big lead again. Sticks were thrown, bushes were sniffed and the occasional boulder was sat on. They passed old wells and even the remains of a crumbled house from another era.

The hike proceeded along on a splendid note until their peace was interrupted by an intruder. The infamous intruder on the hill. The man least likely to make it onto Elizabeth's Christmas card list. Delarango.

He wandered through a field downhill from Elizabeth and Hook. Clad in Bermuda shorts and topsiders, he looked lost, like he should be cruising along a fashionable strand of beachfront restaurants instead of sailing though rural brush. From her perch, she saw him walk to one spot, look around and then move to another locale just like the last one and do the same thing. Someone needed to teach Delarango how to hike because he didn't get it.

Hook's reaction to their neighbor was three-phased: first he stared, then he barked and finally he ran flat out for Delarango, gathering speed as he went downhill and passing him before he could slow down and make a u-turn.

He greeted Hook like a long lost fiend. Elizabeth was certain this show was for her benefit, although exactly why Delarango was pretending to like Hook wasn't clear at this point. Mostly likely, he wanted something and this was a means to getting it. With sunlight flashing on his sunglasses, his attention diverted to her. He continued to pat Hook while they gawked at each other. And he didn't say a word. Delarango was doing it again.

It had been a long day and Elizabeth still had a lot to do to get ready to leave. She called once for Hook and struck out in the opposite direction, disappearing over the ridge of the hill. Hook joined her and the rest of the way home she tried, and failed, to understand her neighbor's behavior.

That night, Elizabeth had to run Hook over to San Ramona. He was so excited about taking a ride in the truck and she felt like a first class heel knowing at the end of the line he was going to be left at a work colleague's house. He'd jumped into the cab when Elizabeth opened the door and claimed the passenger seat, eager to get going. Once she'd loaded his gear in the back, Elizabeth started up and began to back out of the carport.

At the same time, her neighbor's garage door opened, spilling light across their driveway. The silver bullet pulled out, head first, and went down the drive. The cars kept going and Elizabeth's tail end inched out into the road at the same time the bullet nosed onto the asphalt.

Both vehicles stopped and engines idled as drivers sized each other up. At least, Elizabeth's experience told her that was the case. It was impossible to see what the other driver was doing since the bullet's tinted windows made that impossible at this time of night.

This was getting them nowhere, so Elizabeth backed further out into the road. Her neighbor had the same idea and as she went backward, the bullet went forward. Both vehicles tried to occupy the same spot on the narrow road.

Precision engineering won out and the bullet swung effortlessly around Elizabeth's truck, paused alongside her and then jetted away before her old truck could even think about engaging its elderly gears.

It defined her entire relationship with Delarango. He was always one step ahead of her.

Delarango. It sounded like a cowboy's favorite tobacco for chewin' and spittin' on the range.

Chapter Four

Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Blowin' In The Wind, Bob Dylan, 1962

A shiny new street sign welcomed Elizabeth home from her east coast trip. It took pride of place at the corner where the wooden Bennet Ranch Road sign had stood for years. The headlights from her truck caught the reflective surface and identified Calle de Oro. She made a slow pass like a true rubbernecker.

During her two weeks away, Elizabeth had immersed herself in work and play. She'd done her thing in DC and South Carolina. In representing the Institute for the first time, she'd put herself forward as the face of ORRI. It felt great and she was grateful to Mark for trusting her with the role. She'd traveled on to Florida for days of uninterrupted sun baking on a stretch of panhandle sand. Never mind there was a shark alert that kept everyone but the totally oblivious from entering the water. And, never mind Mark called her ump-teen times a day to talk about the project. Most of all, never mind The House. It had been 3000+ miles away.

What she'd confirmed by removing herself from the immediate proximity of her woes was that life existed outside her little cranny on the California coast. Elizabeth faced what Jane pointed out: she'd overblown what had been going on for the last year. She needed to turn things around. This time away was the first step. She didn't plan to stop there.

With Hook still at the babysitter's, it was a quiet homecoming. She unpacked, started a load of laundry, and heated a can of soup. Just before 9 pm she was out on her deck cupping a mug that sent waves of steam upwards. Warmth from the day had diminished. The July night was full of brisk air and the sweet scent of dried grasses, mellowed in the thick of the summer, riding on the wind. Elizabeth was glad she'd put on her navy track suit. Its fleecy feel was just right for the night.

Turning her recliner away from The House, Elizabeth settled in and toasted her recovery with a sip of minestrone. Time slipped by, as did a ship on the horizon, and her mug grew cold. She replaced it with a glass of her favorite Pinot Grigio, and returned to the balcony.

The last day of her vacation took on elements of the melancholy as it drew to a close. She was ready to get back to work and yet, something felt unfinished. Habit took her to the gate at the end of the deck to check that it was secure. The fence below looked like a big, fat black marker had slashed the hillside. Eucalyptus peeped over its top. Amongst the multitude of windows and doors of The House, heavy drapes softened a single shining light. So, the owners did have electricity. Elizabeth speculated. Maybe Delarango fell asleep with the light on. You'd think his wife would shut it off for him. They should have the drapes open. She couldn't imagine building a house in such a location and not wanting to take advantage of the views. That got Elizabeth going about arranging her own window coverings and she got lost in alternatives.

She considered the window again, wondering if behind it was the room with the carpet trouble, when she was jolted back to the present with one of those terror-sweat moments. Something moved on Delarango's balcony. The one with the lighted window. It was so unexpected that it scared her.

As her heart rate slowed back down, Elizabeth locked in on the dark void waiting for a repeat. She concentrated so hard that spots began to appear before her. Her hand squeezed the railing when she saw it again. Either Delarango or the missus was taking some evening air. Maybe they both were, maybe they were.... Elizabeth refused to go any further about what they might be up to under the cover of darkness. She silently gave them credit for getting up to whatever with the great view and as was about to turn to go in when the man himself appeared, sans spouse.

He had presence, there was no denying it. Even his eyesore of a house didn't downplay his initial impression. Silhouetted against the lighted window, Elizabeth pinned that Latin macho man stereotype onto him. To her, he was the looming enormity of The House come to life: imposing, dominant, imperious and completely out of place on her hill.

He leaned against his railing, looked out to sea and occasionally sipped from a wine glass of his own. Apparently content with his pricey view, he passed a good long while there. Elizabeth watched him watching the sea and belatedly realized she was spying on her neighbor. Before she could look away, Delarango turned 90 degrees to his left and made Elizabeth the object of his reflection.

He gave her that same blank stare he had the night Hook had christened his palm tree. And when she'd watched him aimlessly wander in the hills. Why did he never acknowledge her presence? In this instance, with a relatively narrow space separating them, it was awkward to remain standoffish. Never mind that this was exactly what Elizabeth had done to him, Delarango received no leeway for his behavior.

Enough was enough. If this guy couldn't find his manners, at least Elizabeth could point out he needed to look around for them. She cracked the icy stretch of silence that had separated them for weeks. 'Are you just going to stand there and look at me?'

He seemed to zero in on her voice before he offered a cagey reply, 'I don't have a chair to sit on.'

'Well, that seems to be the only thing you've forgotten to bring up the hill.'

'Did saying hello go out of style around here?' he asked as he moved towards the corner of his balcony, closer to Elizabeth.

'Shouldn't I be the one asking that?' He was hard to see in the cover of darkness. Elizabeth wished she could make him out better, she'd like to have a good long look into his eyes.

'I don't think so. You're the one who started this conversation.'

'You've been standing there for ages without saying a word. What else am I going to do?'

'Say hello maybe?'

'You're off your rocker if you think I want to say hello to you.'

Through the darkness, she thought she detected a smile from Delarango. 'Maybe you should call me perceptive instead Ms. Bennet, because I get the idea I bother you. You are Ms. Bennet, aren't you?''

Elizabeth answered him indirectly, 'How do you know my name?'

'When I purchased my land, it was mentioned the owner's daughter lived in the old house.'

'That's right Delarango. I've lived up here for a long time and I'm not going anywhere.' She saw no reason to be subtle.

His response was hardly what she'd expected. 'I can see why. It's an exceptional spot.'

But, Delarango could never understand what this land really meant to someone whose family had preserved its beauty for generations. 'You don't know anything about this land.'

'Why do you say that?'

He was the interloper, the guy from the city who'd come in through the back door and scarred his two acre parcel with that perversion called The House. 'How could you? You just came in, plunked down your check and bought our land and built your...house. Your history here is about as old as this wine.'

'Wine can't be judged solely on how long it's been around. What are you drinking?'

'Pinot Grigio.'

'So, the age of your wine has nothing to do with its quality. But, it is too bad.'

'About what?"

'That you're not drinking a red. You're not getting the health benefits from anti-oxidants. There's resveratrol and phenol present in the skin of black grapes.' He inclined his glass, 'Drinking red wine can protect against coronary disease. There are proven reduced rates of cancer, diabetes, and liver problems as well. Your glass of white wine doesn't give you that.'

As far as Elizabeth could tell, the only thing that was a shame was that she had to listen to this. Before she could tell him she really didn't care, he continued.

'Look!'

Delarango's head tipped back and Elizabeth followed his lead, but she couldn't see anything. 'What? There's nothing there.'

He seemed to size her up. 'Have you been here so long that you don't see them anymore? The stars have been shining down on this hillside since way before we made our marks on it. They bear witness to events that we'll never know. Our time here is just one wink from them.'

How could Delarango talk about Bennet Ranch as if he actually had a connection with it? How could he have such a laisser-faire attitude about taking possession of the place? It was time to take this guy down.

'Who are you to assume that I take for granted the beauty that surrounds us? Every day that I wake up, I look out my window and see unspoiled beauty. Or at least I used to, until your house blocked a good portion of my view. And now that I have to buy drapes, I won't even get little bits of beauty anymore. You've really done it with coming in and buying your land and building this bunch of boxes so close to me.'

The exchange did nothing to support the state of mind she'd returned home with. Opening peace talks this was not. But, she couldn't stop.

'You know what? I hate eucalyptus. And black is my least favorite color. And you need to learn how to drive.' She took a breath before adding the last one, 'And there's nothing wrong with my liver.'

Delarango contemplated her homily before he replied, 'Actually, black isn't a color, it absorbs all colors and reflects none.'

Her nature dictated she get in the last word of the night. 'Just what planet are you from, Delarango?'

Delarango. It sounded like a randy bandito in an Italian western.

~ * ~

'Elizabeth, have you picked up this month's copy of Architectural Genius?'

'Have you ever seen me with a copy?'

'Maybe you should get this month's.'

'Why?'

'You know, I'm really tempted to tell you, but I'd hate to ruin a great surprise.'

'This has to do with The House, doesn't it?' Her sister didn't answer. 'Doesn't it, Jane? Jane?'

The supermarket she usually went to didn't have a copy of AG. She had to go to The Superstore -- a combination market, dry cleaners, sushi bar, hair-extension salon and drive-thru car wash. Finding it wasn't easy, it took five minutes just to locate the magazines. Lined up, ready for purchase, were publications to please even the most discerning of readers. She spotted AG in all its glossy, full-color glory and pulled it out. The cover featured a converted barn in Minnesota. She flipped to the index and saw it halfway down the listings. In a box was a picture of a bunch of boxes. Charcoal with white trimmed windows. Next to it, some misguided person had written a description of The House using words like innovative, ground-breaking and masterpiece. Elizabeth shook her head in disagreement as she found the 10-page spread and began to read.

She made some fascinating discoveries.

Delarango's full name was Francisco Ricardo Delarango, but he liked to be called Rick. If the article was to be believed, just about everyone in the Unites States except Elizabeth knew him by his first name. It turned out he ran a family business that was more accurately described as a huge corporation. They made "the most popular brand of Mexican foodstuffs in the USA".

But, back to The House. It had been conceived by the latest darling of east coast architecture. The nit-wit's claim to fame was fashioning raw, modernistic twists from tried and tested original themes. Americana gone crazy. But wait, he wasn't alone in his defamation of tradition. Delarango had contributed as well, marking it his first foray into the world of architecture. The magazine congratulated the men on an excellent collaboration. When the text turned to the interior of the home, focus shifted to some designer who was also supposed to be a household name. She sure wasn't in Elizabeth's house.

Elizabeth rolled her eyes and decided not to read anymore. Jane could fill her in on anything of vital importance she'd missed. She left the magazine in the comic book section.

Wandering out down another aisle -- chosen purely at random -- she came across the Mexican food section. Delarango's brand was familiar, but because it wasn't sold under the family name she didn't know how people connected him with it. Stylish packaging set it apart from the other brands and it seemed to dominate the shelves. Elizabeth stopped counting the products on offer under his label when she got to 17. She picked out a large jar of his blazing salsa and turned it around. Sandwiched between the nutritional information and the bar code was a message from the owner. A sketch of his face aimed to persuade consumers that he was just a regular Joe. Elizabeth stared at the drawing, unusual for two reasons. First, he was smiling. Second, he didn't have sunglasses on. Finally, at glimpse of his eyes! They looked beady but that might have been because the drawing was only about a half an inch big. Alongside his portrait, a money back guarantee of satisfaction was offered by Rick Delarango.

Each year, Jane and Elizabeth swapped visits. Elizabeth fit in time to drive to San Francisco whenever she could get away from ORRI; Jane usually came to the ranch over Memorial Day weekend, but this May having just returned from traveling in Sri Lanka, doing ten days on the Ceylon Tea Trails, and she was too pooped to make it. Since this was the first time they'd gotten together since her trip, Jane's gift from abroad, loose leaf fancy Orange Pekoe tea, was tasted for the first time. The teapot sat on the serving bar that separated the kitchen from the large, lodge-like main room of the house.

Even though they spoke almost daily, there'd been plenty of catch-up talk. More details about Elizabeth's jaunt to the east coast, updates on her sea otters, and consultations about the drapes. They'd also fit in some chat about happenings at the ranch. Like The House. It was Jane's first time to see it in its finished state. Or to catch a glimpse of its owners. The elusive wife and the lead-footed husband.

'Have you talked to them?'

Elizabeth skipped over the less-positive aspects of her interaction with Delarango. 'I had a little chat with him the night I got home from my trip. I'm trying to make a new start.'

'That's good. What did you talk about?'

'Oh, wine and the stars.'

'Great. Congenial topics that can't get you into trouble. Keep it up.'

Conversation switched to food. Jane vowed that, while she was staying at the ranch, the menu would consist of good quality meals. Since the only way food like that would appear at Elizabeth's house was to order it in or hire a personal chef, Jane was named chef cuisinier du Ranch Bennet. For the umpteenth time, her house guest offered to hit the Farmer's Market for all the fresh produce. Elizabeth looked her sister over. Attired in jeans, a t-shirt and moccasins, all as white as virgin snow, she imagined Jane trudging through the dirt field the market traded from and rejected the idea again.

'Let me. Besides, I thought you wanted to answer some emails. You'll be too busy for that when I get back with all the stuff.' Despite its location, this was the Cadillac of farmers' markets and while Elizabeth dressed, Jane gave her specific instructions about how to pick a ripe casaba melon and why the grapeseed oil couldn't be substituted. Elizabeth declared her shopping competency while she pulled on her boots.

'Just because I don't cook, doesn't mean I can't follow a list.'

'Well, be sure you do, and call me if you have any questions.'

~ * ~

On her way out, Elizabeth spotted Delarango's garage door open, the one closest to her carport. As she strained her neck to get a view of what he had inside, Rick rounded the corner and headed straight for her.

Today, he was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and his hair was slightly in disarray. As a female, she had a duty to her sex to acknowledge palatable men and Delarango looked Saturday morning yummy. "Looked" was the operative word. Here was a perfect example of how looks could be deceiving. She was over his eye-catching exterior. He didn't fluster her like he had the day at the mailbox. Let him push stick woman's buttons.

She'd kept him at a distance since their bantering exchange on the balcony. Delarango just wasn't the kind of guy she was interested in knowing any better and Elizabeth highly suspected his wife fell into that category as well. Regardless of what she knew about her neighbors, apparently they were here to stay and like she'd told Jane, Elizabeth appreciated she needed to turn a new leaf with them. Exchanges like the other night weren't the way to go about it, but superficial antics were exactly why she didn't want neighbors. Bottom line, she didn't want the obligation of saying "Hi", "Merry Christmas", or "How's the new hemorrhoid medication working?"

Delarango's attention was focused on a mug in his hand and he advanced full speed ahead until he was a scant few feet from his neighbor. There he paused to inspect the contents of his cup. Happy with what he saw, he raised his head for a sip and spotted Elizabeth. Their unexpected meeting clearly caught him unaware. He choked.

As he recovered, he screwed up his eyes. Elizabeth suspected it wasn't from the sunlight but because he realized his challenging next-door neighbor was smack dab in front of him. Since she was in a hurry, she decided to make it easy on him.

With forced friendliness, she ventured, 'Morning Delarango. Enjoying your coffee?'

'Good morning, Ms. Bennet. Actually, it's green tea.'

'Green tea?!' There could be no mistaking what she thought of that.

'Yeah. Japanese studies indicate that it can lower the odds of dementia. Researchers have found that older adults who drank two or more cups of green tea per day were about half as likely to show cognitive impairment as those who drank ...' Their eyes met; his were squinting, hers were gazing over. 'Umm, I like green tea.'

'Terrific, well, I'd better get going. I'm already late for the best stuff at the Farmer's Market.' Elizabeth hopped in her truck before he could say anything else and backed out. She saw him still standing on the drive, sipping his green tea as she drove down the road.

She hadn't been at the market five minutes before her phone rang. It was Jane, making changes to the menu. She wanted her to pick up some edamame. Edamame was identified as green soybeans. When Elizabeth questioned the likelihood of green soybeans being available, Jane swore there'd be no problem finding them. Before she hung up she also added kale and brown rice to the list.

'Do you still want me to get the jasmine rice, then?'

'Yes, get them both!'

Just when Elizabeth had located the elusive soybeans, Jane phoned again, asking if Elizabeth, would like some sort of berries for dessert and breakfast. When Elizabeth professed no particular preference, Jane rattled off blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, and cherries. And oat bran.

'And, will you pick up some wildflower honey?'

Elizabeth hung up thinking this trip to the market was going to cost her a small fortune.

Jane called three more times before she got home to make additions to the shopping list. When she arrived, Elizabeth muscled open the screen door with her elbow and lugged in a box heaped with goodies to the kitchen. As she made for the counter, over the fruits and vegetables, she looked out past the sliding door. To the balcony. Where Jane, in all her marmoreal glory, stood. With her attention directed towards The House. With her mouth moving. And her laughter pealing across the span of the black fence.

Jane was making nice with the neighbors! Oh Jane, you traitor.

Jane heard the box thud onto the counter. She waved and indicated that Elizabeth should come outside. Elizabeth chose to unpack the box. She'd just covered the counter's surface with her bounty when Jane came in.

'Did you get everything?'

'I think so.'

'Do the berries look good?'

'I think so.'

'Are you upset with me?'

'I think so.'

'Why?'

'Who were you talking to, him or her?'

'Rick.'

'When did he become Rick?'

'When he introduced himself. You don't call him Delarango to his face, do you?' Elizabeth didn't answer. 'Are you mad at me for talking to him? That would be incredibly childish and not at all in keeping with the newfound neighborly disposition you told me you've adopted.'

'I'm not mad at you. But, do you have to be so nice? Smiling and laughing? Detached and indifferent would have been better.' It was Jane's turn to say nothing. 'How long were you out there?'

'Oh, not that long.' Jane washed out the tea pot and started to rifle through a cabinet. 'Don't you have any green tea?'

Elizabeth shook the kale at her. 'I knew it.'

'What?'

'Rick the nut case was talking to you about healthy food, wasn't he?'

'So what?' Jane was still determined to find some green tea and had taken all of Elizabeth's coffee supplies out of the cabinet in case some was stuck in the back. "And, he's not a nut case. He's very interesting. He has such a wide range of talents. Did you know he has had his work exhibited at the Fisher Museum?'

'Come on, USC only displays famous, talented artists in their museum. Not a Mexican food manufacturer. I've seen his sculpture, remember?'

'Oh, Lizzy, while I'm here, you'll have to take me to see it!'

'You're hopeless, you know that?'

'Well, I do know something you don't.'

After a lengthy silence, Elizabeth bit, 'What?'

'There is no Mrs. Delarango.'

'Yes there is, I saw her.'

'Well, you may have seen someone, but she wasn't Mrs. Delarango.'

'So, they aren't married.'

'No Lizzy, you don't get it. He's unattached, single, on the market.'

'Then, who's the stick with blow up boobs?'

'I don't know, but this certainly changes the dynamics up here on the hill.'

'Alright Jane, I'll eat your food, I'll let you pick out my drapes, but if you don't wipe that look off your face right now, I'm taking you to the airport.'

'He seems like a nice man, Lizzy.'

'He's out for what he wants.'

'He's very convenient."

'He's a trespasser, Jane.'

'He's absolutely gorgeous, which by the way, I can't believe you didn't mention.'

'Delarango's not my cup of tea,' Elizabeth said as she took the pot away from Jane.

'Well, he doesn't have to be your 'cup of tea' to have dinner with him.'

Elizabeth gaped in disbelief and whispered, 'What have you done?'

'I figured since I'm cooking anyway and he's over there all alone, he might as well join us.'

'You should have told me I couldn't leave you here alone. I'm not going to be hungry tonight. Better tell him there's been a change of plans and you're not cooking.'

'Don't be silly. Like I said, he's interesting and---'

'I heard you the first time.'

'You can get to know him better and put some of these issues from the past year behind you. Isn't that what you want? Maybe we'll get an invitation over to his place. After the write-up in Architectural Genius, I'm dying to see it.'

'I can't believe you have me eating dinner with Delarango.' Elizabeth complained. 'er' 'Delarango. Don't you think it sounds like a brand of men's briefs at the bottom of the laundry hamper?'

Chapter Five

Walk out!
Girl, don't you walk out,
we've got things to say.
Talk out!
Let's have a talk out,
and things'll be O.K.
Girl, I don't wanna fight.
I'm a little bit wrong.
You're a little bit right.
I said, "Girl, you know that it's true.
It's a little bit me.

It's a little bit you." A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, Neil Diamond, 1967

'Look at him, Jane.'

Elizabeth's excuse for being in the kitchen was to help with dinner, an unbelievably see-through pretext for the inexperienced cook. She'd done nothing more than rinse the kale twice and ruin Jane's salad dressing. In fact, she was trying to avoid one on one time with their guest. Delarango had been there a good fifteen minutes and, except for a half-hearted greeting, she'd backed off and let Jane do the talking.

She sipped her red wine, his contribution, and didn't feel any better for drinking it. Over the rim of her glass she brooded, 'What could he possibly find so interesting in those old photos? He doesn't even know anyone in them.'

Her house was a time capsule with contributions and cast-offs representing the best and worst of Bennet taste and sensibility. The oldest were a pair of cherry wood Mission chairs hugging a braided rag rug that circled in an explosion of color. Marginal pieces included a horseshoe shaped coffee table, picked up on a road trip through the Southwest, and a lamp influenced by old time fashion sporting a ruffled brown shade on a milk-glass base. Under Hook's friendly escort, Delarango had been pouring over a wall of framed family photographs that captured events at the ranch from as far back as the 1920's.

As Jane tossed her green soybean salad, silk sleeves fluttering like the wings of a white peacock butterfly, she reminded her sister, 'Remember, this is your chance to smooth things over and get on a good footing with him.' When Elizabeth finally nodded in agreement, Jane turned her attention to their guest, 'What do you think of our family photos, Rick?'

'You're lucky to have them.'

'Our great-grandmother, Mama Gertie, was a diligent writer. She chronicled the time she spent here. From her efforts, we have a combination historical record, family album and stream of consciousness journal. She was a great fan of Virginia Woolf and Henry Miller.'

'Which one is she?' he asked, scanning the rows of photos on the paneled wall.

'The one on your right, with the women down at the beach. She's the tallest, wearing a bathing cap.'

One of the few things that could entice Elizabeth to join the conversation was a discussion of her infamous great-grandmother. They'd always been compared as similar in looks. When Elizabeth was little, her grandmother predicted she would possess the same temperament as Mama Gertie. Elizabeth found this a great compliment. She thought of her as a trailblazer, a forward-thinking, modern, no-nonsense woman.

She told Delarango, 'There's another of her sitting in a rattan chair out on the deck. In the pants and the cardigan.'

He studied the images in both photos and squinted back at her. 'You look a lot alike. There's definitely a resemblance.'

'I've been told we have similar personalities, too. She was a no nonsense woman. She was headstrong and didn't let things get in her way.'

'Is that a book she's holding, Elizabeth?' Her face screwed up when he said her name. He'd learned it from Jane.

'It's not a book, Rick, it's one of her journals. Look on the shelf.'

Delarango diverted his attention to the bookcases that shared space with the photos. It showcased favorite books from generations of Bennets, works consumed at the ranch over the decades. Amongst the choices across the top shelf were several of Mama Gertie's dog-eared Virginia Woolf titles, Cannery Row, Steinbeck's masterpiece about the local area, and eyebrow-raising works for their times including Ulysses, and The Tropic of Cancer. Her personal journals were there too, and Delarango easily spotted the one in the photo. He pulled out a worn leather volume embossed across the front with "1934" and cautiously turned the yellowed pages as he sat on one of the few contributions Elizabeth had added to the house, a new couch.

Hook lounged at his feet while he had an unhurried look through. 'Do you feel closely connected to the ranch?'

This guy's as thick as the extra chunky salsa he makes. Here he was encapsulated in a time warp of questionable Bennet decoration, staring at a plethora of family photos stretching back for generations, standing in a house so old that it could only still be standing for sentimental reasons, and he asks if she feels connected to it? Boy, he didn't get it. Or, maybe he had some other motive for asking. Like another offer to move ready for her to sign on the dotted line. Oh, Delarango was smooth. And, unbelievable. And, she was about to eat vegetarian stir fry with him!

She talked over Jane, who launched into a courteous answer, to clearly state her position, 'Papa Joe came out to California and, on the way to San Francisco, saw this land. He risked everything to buy it and worked for years to pay it off. The ranch is so much a part of me that if someone were to try and take it away, it would be like cutting off my arm. If I had to leave here, you might as well rip my heart out because it would stop beating and I would die!' That was as close to announcing her position over a bullhorn as she could get. It should squelch any ideas he had of trying to buy her out again. He had to have gotten that message.

The room was quiet after her outburst. Jane let the silence wash away some of her sister's heartfelt, if overemotional, speech before she once again offered her honest perspective, 'As I was about to say, I understand the significance of the property being our family's heritage but I don't think of it as anything more than a vacation home. The only reason I come here now is to see Elizabeth. If she didn't live here, I would never come.'

'Jane! How can you say that about our legacy?'

'I just see it differently. I'm not as emotional as you.'

'I can't believe you really feel that way.' It was tantamount to defecting to the other side.

'That doesn't mean I condone the way Mom went about it all. That was way out of line but, if she called us all together about selling the ranch and buying beachfront on Kauai, I know how I'd vote.'

'But that wasn't Papa Joe's intent. He meant for it to belong to our family.'

'Elizabeth, you can't possibly know that. Maybe if Papa Joe had traveled to Kauai, he'd have sold the ranch and bought there.'

'I don't believe that. And, don't you care that you'll leave me homeless?'

'Lizzy, it was a hypothetical example. Don't get upset.' The doors to the deck were open and a gust curled through in a poor attempt to lighten the air.

Maybe Jane needed to hear this as much as Delarango. 'If this land didn't belong to our family, I wouldn't care where I lived. I'd live out of my truck on the side of the road.' Elizabeth switched her focus to their guest, practically daring him to wade in, mention anything to do with his part in all of this, and have his head cut off in the process.

'I admire your passion,' he told her. She clicked her tongue against her teeth before he continued. 'And I share your viewpoint about the connection with the land. For me, if I'm going to own something, I want to feel that there is a reason for it besides the financial investment. It needs to be a part of me in some way.'

'If you really feel that way, then why did you make me that offer? You should have known that I wouldn't take it.'

'What offer are you talking about?'

She shot Jane disbelieving look and answered, 'Last May? Lawyers in LA, a moving offer, compensation, dinero?? Does this ring any bells?'

'I don't know anything about that. It wouldn't have been from me.'

'Oh please, it had to have been from you. There's no one else my mother's been stupid enough to sell any land to but you.'

'What was the firm's name?'

'I don't remember.'

'Would you mind showing me the letter?'

'I don't have it anymore.'

From the kitchen, Jane piped up, 'She burned it!'

'Did you really?' Delarango looked at her a little differently, lingering over her with an expression she couldn't interpret. He appeared not to be bothered at all with the direction in the conversation. He dropped it as easily as he built evil dwellings and walked into the kitchen to give Jane a compliment about the menu. Hook followed him and Elizabeth was left on her own to eye the fireplace and wish that amongst the ashes there was just one bit of the letter left intact. It didn't matter. After all, who was he kidding? She knew it was from him!

Dinner was to be consumed out in the September night, under the watchful supervision of The House. As Elizabeth gathered serving dishes to carry to the deck, Jane leaned in as she breezed past, 'You're sounding a little antagonistic towards Rick, Lizzy. Try and tone it down, huh?'

Elizabeth deliberately took a seat with The House behind her, Delarango sat opposite her and Jane staked out the buffer zone in between.

Delarango made a big to-do about Jane's cooking, especially the soybean salad. While they were eating, Jane did all she could to keep the conversational drift going in a convivial direction. She asked Rick about his artistic forays and Elizabeth was treated to tales of how Delarango's painting was included in an exhibit at USC's Fisher Museum, how Delarango had been a contributing author to an anthology of Principles of Leadership and Personal Achievement in Business Excellence, how Delarango had collaborated on the design of The House, and how impressed Jane was with Delarango. She couldn't stand it any longer.

'I saw your sculpture at the city council offices.'

'You did? I'd be interested to hear what you thought of it.'

'It reminded me of a pack of rabid Dobermans.'

Neither missed it when Jane loudly inhaled but Delarango's full attention never wavered from Elizabeth. Ever since he'd arrived on the hill, she'd felt invisible around him. He deliberately didn't speak to her. He didn't even seem to see her. Now the recipient of his exclusive appraisal, she wished he'd go back to ignoring her. She squirmed and picked at her tofu and kale.

'That's not a bad interpretation, Elizabeth. Raging, uncontrollable beasts is an excellent depiction of evil. That's the nucleus of the subject and I'm glad I was able to express my meaning to you. The work represents man's eternal conflict between good and evil.'

'That's what Ed told me.'

'Who's Ed?'

She looked sideways at him, 'Never mind.'

In the kitchen, as they prepared a tray of dessert bowls filled with berries and homemade yoghurt, Jane scolded Elizabeth, 'You're not trying, you know.'

'How much do you want to bet he's making this stuff up? Who could possibly be accomplished in such a variety of things? And at his age? He's not some old man that's been at it for decades.'

Jane glanced out to the deck, 'He's definitely not some old man. Have you noticed how his green shirt enhances his eyes?'

'Green doesn't enhance brown eyes.' Elizabeth's wish had finally been answered tonight when Delarango arrived and handed her the wine. With no obstacles to limit her view, he set a pair of dusky brown ones directly upon her. With that kind of unobstructed view, she grudgingly admitted they rounded out his overall gold star looks.

'So, you noticed them?'

His eyes had nothing to do with what was going on here. She pressured Jane, 'There's nothing we know about him that's been above board and honest. And, what kind of help are you? You're so easily influenced. You've taken up as head cheerleader for Delarango's team. Don't expect me to fall into place behind you.'

'You're exaggerating. And slipping back into the state of mind you've been stuck in for the last year. I'm just trying to make up for your lack of graciousness towards our guest. Now, pull yourself together!'

As she set the spoons and napkins on the tray, Elizabeth advised, 'Jane, someone has to remain objective here.'

When they returned, Jane blithely switched the subject of the conversation to Elizabeth, bringing her occupation out of the closet, mentioning her recent business trip and her sea otter project.

It looked like a light bulb switched on over Delarango's head, 'So, you're around marine mammals at work?'

'I used to be every day. Now I spend most of my time in my office. The sea otters have priority and I'm devoted almost exclusively to that program's development.'

'That's very impressive, Elizabeth. When do you expect to have it up and running?'

'I don't know.' Things weren't moving along fast enough to suit her. The majority of the funding hadn't been released yet. 'I'm just getting everything lined up, waiting for the word to go from Mark.'

'Is Mark your boss?'

At the introduction of Mark, Elizabeth let her guard down and gushed, 'Yes, Dr. Mark Wieggoché. He established ORRI back in 1980. He's a genius, really, he's built the place up from nothing into one of the most prestigious centers for marine rehab.' Elizabeth spoke at some length about the facility and Mark, she couldn't talk about one without other, and left no doubt of her admiration for Mark Wieggoché's years of work.

'And now that he's helped Elizabeth with her sea otters, she's going to be a pioneer in the field. It's pretty exciting, even for someone like me who doesn't know a seal from a walrus.'

'Well, he sounds like he can get things done.'

'He can. Not only is he brilliant, he's powerfully persuasive. His efforts are why we have the funding for the sea otter program. He can talk anyone into anything. Last Christmas, he got me to work a 24 hour shift so everyone with families could have the day off. I still don't know how he did that!'

'That doesn't sound ethical. I hope he doesn't do that too often,' Delarango ventured.

If anyone asked, Elizabeth would swear the sun rose and set with Mark Wieggoché. She took umbrage at Delarango's remark and considered it further proof of the poor character she judged him to have. Sidetracked from her scathing analysis of him during the praise-fest of her boss, she veered back onto her path of neighbor bashing, lying in wait for her next opportunity.

Jane presented the perfect one when she asked him, 'What do you think seeing your house from this angle?'

He glanced fondly towards his property, something he'd done more than once while they'd been outside. 'It's like sitting in the passenger seat of your own car.'

'Speaking of cars Delarango,' Elizabeth reverted back to calling him by his last name, 'do you have a valid driver's license?'

Delarango didn't seem to notice that Jane closed her eyes and mouthed an expletive. His polite answer belied that anything was out-of-line with such an enquiry.

'Yes I do.' They faced off across seasonal berries and when Elizabeth didn't respond, he asked, 'Why are you asking me that?'

'Well, seeing that you've run me into a ditch, that you don't know a thing about safe speed limits on a road like this,' she gestured off in the distance, 'or anything about yielding the right-of-way, I figured you might have had it revoked for too many infractions.'

Jane tried to diffuse the hostility Elizabeth was determined to escalate, 'I don't recall seeing any speed posted on Calle de Oro.'

She inadvertently opened the file on another contentious matter. Elizabeth practically demanded of Delarango, 'And, why did you go and name the road Calle de Oro?'

'Because it didn't have a name.'

'It certainly did have a name. It's been Bennet Ranch Road since Papa Joe bought this place.'

'Not according to Caltrans. They had no record of any name for it.'

'Why didn't you come and ask me about it?'

'Because if there was no name for the road, you'd have already known, having been here before me.'

'Well, I didn't know it.'

'She found out when she went to check about the height of your fence.' Apparently, it was too tempting to remain on the sidelines, but every time Jane joined in, she seemed to make things worse.

'What?' Revelations about Elizabeth's activities were opening Delarango's attractive brown eyes. He was getting more than he bargained for with his invitation to dinner.

'That's right,' Elizabeth crossed her arms, 'I went into San Ramona to see if your fence was built too high.'

Brows rose and furrowed. Delarango asked, 'Was it?'

'No, but if it was, I was going to make you tear it down.'

'I'm sure you would have tried.' Something that sounded very much like a challenge slipped into Delarango's reply. It set off a flurry of an exchange.

'That's when I found out you changed the name of the road.'

'I didn't change anything. There was no name for the road.'

'What about the sign?'

'That old sign that was down by the mailboxes? That indicated the turn to Bennet Ranch.'

'No, it didn't. It identified the name of the road. You should have come and asked me first, Delarango.'

Delarango seemed to be trying hard not to lose his cool. 'Well, you should have come and asked me about the fence, Elizabeth. As far as the name of the road goes, I thought a long time about it and picked a very good one.'

'Lizzy, if it's not Bennet Ranch Road, Calle de Oro is nice.' With an unappreciative look from her sister that said to pipe down, Jane took a big mouthful of yoghurt.

'If you'd asked me, then it could have officially been named Bennet Ranch Road. That has significance. Calle de Oro means squat!'

'You say that from only one perspective!'

'You want to talk about limited perspectives? Have another look at The House.' Delarango seemed momentarily confused by Elizabeth's nickname for his residence. He looked over the old summer house. 'Not my house, your house!'

After he had a quick glance at his black boxes huddled across the way, she made her point, 'That hulking spectacle has caused me to take in your perspective on what constitutes a house for the last year. Never mind that I think it's probably what Picasso would have come up with if he'd designed a house-'

He pointedly interrupted her, 'Comparing any talent I might have with Picasso is not an insult, Elizabeth.'

'-after consuming a few bottles of your precious red wine.'

'Oh?' It was a frosty, one syllable response.

She wasn't deterred. 'Your perspective has become my perspective whether I like it or not! Why did you have to build it so close to my place? You bought two acres- '

'Actually, it's one point eight five-'.

'Okay, fine. Why didn't you give me some breathing space with your one point eight five acres? Better still, why didn't you buy land in Santa Barbara?'

Elizabeth was practically shouting. She'd risen from her seat and emphasized the picturesque coastal town she'd much rather see Delarango living in by hitting her palm against the table. The bowls shook, Jane jumped, and he leaned back in his chair to candidly appraise her. Even in the limited light she saw his color darken. He looked at her just like he had earlier. Differently.

Hovering above him, she refused to feel embarrassed about what she'd said. Let him look. He can think whatever he wants about me. She'd shed her baggage and felt better for it. Elizabeth was hitting aces from her side of the court.

And, she robbed him of his chance to return service and rack up some points of his own by gathering up the dishes and stamping into the kitchen. As she scrubbed and dried, and saw Jane talking earnestly to him, her euphoria evaporated. By the time she'd put the last bowl away, she knew she really didn't feel any better at all.

What had she achieved? Nothing. He was a defiant bastard that couldn't even apologize for the mess he'd made. What had changed? Nada. He was going to skulk around in The House until time immortal. He was here to stay. Even when she won, she lost with Delarango.

Delarango. It sounded like the number 6 combo plate at Lupe's Taco Pit.

He didn't stay much longer. Jane followed him inside and they went over to the bookcases, talking low and perusing the shelves. Before Elizabeth could say anything about it, Jane had helped him pick a few of Mama Gertie's journals to take home and read. Souvenirs in hand, as he walked past the counter he made a concerted effort to end the evening on a polite note, 'Thanks very much for dinner, Elizabeth.'

From the other side, her standard polite reply slipped out, ridiculous under the circumstances, 'Your welcome, Delarango,'

Once he was gone, Jane got a glass of water, downed three aspirins and propped her elbows on the kitchen counter. She rubbed the tender spots of her temples as she stood side by side with her sister. 'Sometimes you amaze me.'

'I don't suppose that's meant as a compliment.' Eventually she asked, 'It was pretty bad, huh?'

'How bad do you think it was?'

'As bad as when I tripped up the stairs at Fisherman's Wharf on prom night and broke my ankle?'

'At least you knew your ankle would heal and there wouldn't be any scars. You know, there are two things that you could offer to redeem yourself: an explanation and an apology.' Jane slipped on an optimistic outlook, although it sounded forced, 'You can/could move forward from there. Now that you've got this all out of your system, I'm sure Rick will improve as you get to know him better.'

'Jane, you still don't get it. I'm not at fault here. I'm not to blame. I don't want to get to know him any better. I don't like him. He's a bragger. He's a manipulator. He's dishonest.' After a moment's thought, she added, 'And, I hope he builds another road just to avoid driving me off of Calle de Oro again.'

Before she could go on, Captain Kirk interrupted and instructed his helmsman, 'Warp factor 5, Mr. Sulu!'

Elizabeth reached to answer her mobile. It was her brother-in-law, calling on her phone because Jane had switched hers off. She turned it over to her and plonked herself on a couch.

It was late. Weariness weighed Elizabeth down. She felt like she needed to sleep for a week but she couldn't free herself from her thoughts. She chose a remedy that always worked when she couldn't unwind. Leaving Jane talking on the phone, she called for Hook, pulled on a heavy cable knit sweater and headed out the door.

Completely out of character, lights blazed next door. Maybe Delarango had indigestion and was looking for antacid tablets. Hook looked up at her, questioning whether she was going to lead him next door, over to the rippling ponds he favoured. She deliberately walked the other way, following the sliver of a new moon down the paved road, until she came to a path she knew well.

Autumn wasn't officially here, but the late night had hints of its impending arrival and Elizabeth wrapped her sweater tightly around her as she stepped off the road. She never worried about walking in the hills like this with Hook; he was alert to other animals. If something was out there, he'd let her know and they'd turn tail and head back home. Sometimes, he wouldn't even venture out the door if he sensed a threat close by. Tonight he sniffed liberally and sensed no danger. But he detected a presence.

With a bark and a bounce, Hook dashed off over an open field. Elizabeth lost sight of him in the darkness but that didn't matter. What she heard explained everything.

'Hey boy, what are you doing? Does Elizabeth know you're out?'

Delarango. Obviously, he couldn't see her either in the thick veil of the night.

Elizabeth followed his voice and he slowly materialised under the midnight sky. She found herself sharing a vast field guarded by an abandoned apple orchard. The wooded stand shielded the world away, as if it didn't exist beyond the trees. A whim of nature created the private place. Its existence was secure only until dawn lit the hillside.

'Yes, I know he's out. What are you doing? Do you want to be a midnight snack for a mountain lion?'

'That would solve a lot of your problems.'

The secluded atmosphere did nothing to soften Elizabeth mood, 'Well, we can just leave you out here to await your fate.'

'What is it exactly that makes you dislike me so? I understand you didn't want a house built here. Why didn't you tell your mother?'

Elizabeth tugged her sweater tighter, 'My mother didn't tell us she wanted to sell off a portion of the ranch. One day I saw surveyors from the deck and I called her about it. We had words, lots of words, over several weeks. The last time we spoke was when she told me she'd signed the papers.'

'Your mother's shortcomings have nothing to do with me. She certainly wasn't cheated. She got above the value of the land.'

'That's the only plus out of all of this.' The insinuation to Delarango's unwelcome presence left him silent so Elizabeth continued on, demanding more than asking, 'Have you really done all those things? The painting, the writing, all the creative stuff?'

'Why do you think I'd make it up?' The intimate setting unknowingly influenced the pair to close the distance between them. Scarcely an arm's length separated them. With Elizabeth's frame of mind, it was like vinegar and water.

'Come on Delarango, I wasn't born yesterday. It's very unlikely you've mastered all those things and run your Mexican food factory.'

'I don't care whether you believe me or not.'

'And, just why did you move here? Aren't you out of your element?'

Delarango seemed in no hurry to answer her. He took a step away, which still left him close, and eventually said, 'I wanted to get away from running my business on a day to day basis. I was looking for a certain place and when I came here, I knew this was it.'

'But, the land wasn't for sale.'

'Everything has a price. Your mother heard hers and that's why she sold.'

This brought more brooding silence and as they stood in the concealed clearing, the night wrapped them even closer. He bent down to pet Hook and Elizabeth stole a look at him. His hair had fallen loose over his forehead and a 12 o'clock shadow brushed his face. His packaging was something to admire but not something to be swayed by.

'You know, even though I've put up with all kinds of crap from your house and your blatant disregard for my position as a resident here, I think the thing that has pissed me off more than anything is that you kept ignoring me. I could be standing right in front of you and you never said a word. It happened over and over again. Why were you so rude?'

Delarango stood up. His eyes were black now, and they pulled her in and held her fast. Without a word, he took his answer out of his pocket and held it in his hand for some time, as if it were a closely guarded secret. Then, he revealed what he had by slipping on a pair of glasses. And still he said nothing; he just looked at her with that same expression she was unable to read.

To be continued


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