The Dark Eagle

Book 1 of the Ruin & Restoration Series

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The Recent Past

The Muslim Messiah

August 20th, 2017 - Damascus, Syria

Mohammad Arsalan Malik nudged the rocket launcher into place while his men checked the dials. Sweat trickled down his face as he aligned the feet of the launcher with three marked points in the middle of an empty cotton field. Every second wasted decreased the chances of success and they all needed this attack to go well. He was running out of time.

The summer heat beat down on them, making Arsalan wish they’d stuck to their original timetable of early morning. Why the market would be more crowded in the heat of the day, he couldn’t understand.

Karim started to load the mortar round.

“N-no!” Arsalan shouted, the stress making his stutter worse. “Check the l-level first!”

“Sorry, Mahdi,” Karim said as he pulled the ammunition back out.

Arsalan was known to his followers as Mohammad Al-Mahdi, though some were starting to doubt. While he was tall enough, fair complexioned, was the son of Abdullah and Aamina, and even stuttered, his fortieth birthday had already come and gone without an official pronouncement.1 One of the many prophecies said the 12th Imam would be forty years old when he revealed himself to the world. If he turned forty-one before that happened, it was too late. There were too many signs2 which hadn’t been fulfilled and even Arsalan was doubting whether he could accomplish all that was required of him before his next birthday.

They got the launcher leveled and dialed in. If their practice sessions and measurements were accurate, this would land right on the doorstep of the fairgrounds. Today the government was reopening the fair as a sign that the fighting had died down. His forces may be diminished, but they weren’t entirely defeated.3

“We are ready, Mahdi,” Karim said.

Arsalan quickly checked the settings and said, “Do it,” as he backed away.

Karim dropped the mortar shell into the tube and Hamoud pressed the launch button. The rocket-propelled grenade soared into the air, leaving behind an acrid smell.

Ten seconds later Arsalan’s radio buzzed. “Get out of there! The military is on their way!” the spotter shouted.

No one needed to be told twice. They threw the rocket launcher into the back of the van and piled in. The driver gunned it and they were on the road in less than a minute.

“Mission accomplished,” the spotter said. “Direct hit.” The only round they’d been able to fire had hit the market in the fairgrounds.

It was a tight squeeze, but the driver managed to get to regularly trafficked roads before the troops arrived. Three minutes after that, they were on the 110, heading south. It wasn’t much, but it just might be enough for the Shadow Council to let him live.

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The Great American Eclipse

August 21st, 2017 - Sublimity, Oregon

"Rise and shine, sleepy-head,” Tonya said. “We’ve got to get to the meadow early to pick out our spot.” Her blonde hair tickled Scott’s face as she leaned over and kissed him.

“Alright, I’m up,” Scott said as he rolled out of bed. He stretched and tried in vain to reach the ceiling. For the first time in more than a week, he’d gotten to sleep before midnight and he almost felt fully rested. Despite being deep in the forests of Oregon, they had nearly all the comforts of home, including hot showers.

Scott and Tonya Knox were on the ninth day of their honeymoon, and the sixth day at Silver Falls Lodge. He had booked the cabin when he was eighteen and learned that The Great American Eclipse4 would pass right over the cabins where his parents frequently went on vacation. It had been a bit of a rush getting the wedding planned in time, but when his parents learned he was taking her to the lodge for a week, they insisted it wouldn’t be a problem.

He knew he’d married the right woman not only because they were the same height, but by her enthusiasm for seeing both of the twice-in-a-lifetime events. They were already planning a trip to Missouri in 2024 5 to see the next total solar eclipse on American soil.

As they entered the dining hall half an hour later, Scott almost moaned at how crowded it already was. Most of their week here had been fairly quiet, at least in terms of seeing other people. But today there were people everywhere. Well, that was to be expected for such a spectacular event. It took twice as long as usual to get their food, and there was no way they were going to have a table to themselves this morning.

“Scott! Over here!” Kevin called. He was Scott’s best friend all through high school, and easy to spot, still having the build of a linebacker.

“What is he doing here?” Tonya asked as she came up beside him.

“Well, right now he’s got two seats for us.”

Tonya scowled at him.

“Hey, at least we get to sit next to each other,” Scott shrugged as he headed for Kevin’s table.

“I knew I’d find you two this morning,” Kevin said as the couple sat down. “I’ll bet you didn’t even know I’ve been here all weekend.”

Tonya gaped as she scowled at Scott. “All weekend?”

Scott shrugged. “We originally planned this together, along with Mark and Patrick. They were all bummed when I hijacked the entire cabin for just the two of us.”

“Hey,” Kevin broke in, “I stayed out of your way, didn’t I? You didn’t even know we were here.”

“We?” Tonya repeated.

As if in reply, Mark and Patrick sat down across from her.

“Morning, lovebirds,” Mark said. He was the shortest one at the table by a couple of inches.

“I told you we couldn’t avoid them today,” Patrick said. His red hair always made him stand out. “Everyone’s going to be in the same place at the same time this morning.”

“Did you know about this?” Tonya asked Scott.

Scott nodded. “Of course.”

“And when were you going to tell me?”

Scott just shrugged and said, “Surprise!”

“You know I hate surprises,” Tonya said.

“Like I said,” Kevin interjected, “we’ve stayed out of your way so far, and after the eclipse, we’ll disappear again.”

“Just like the sun,” Patrick said with a grin. No one laughed.

“You don’t have to sit with us in the meadow if you don’t want to,” Kevin offered.

Tonya sighed. “I guess it’s okay. I just thought I’d have my husband to myself on my honeymoon.”

“Tonya, honey,” Scott pleaded, “we knew we were going to be surrounded by people this morning. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you three of those people would be my best friends. We’ve barely seen each other since high school. All three of these knuckleheads are in college.”

“So how come you didn’t go with them?” Tonya’s eyebrows were raised the way they always were when she asked a question he’d already answered a dozen times.

“He’s still working on that charity app, right Scott?” Kevin said with a smirk. “You know, the one that will change the world.”

Scott scowled. “Do you have to bring that up now?”

“Ouch!” Patrick said. “Sounds like the honeymoon is over.”

Scott set down his fork, leaned over and Tonya obliged him with a passionate kiss. “Definitely not over,” Scott said.

Tonya smiled back at him. “Don’t you ever let it end.” She paused before adding, “And no more surprises, okay?”

 

An hour later, Scott was sitting in a lounge chair with Tonya at his side staring at the sun through their special flimsy glasses. The moon started to move into place. There were almost a hundred people around them doing exactly the same thing.

“Looks like the show has started!” Patrick shouted.

Whoops and hollers came from the crowd. He’d heard weaker cheers on opening day of Rouge One.

Kevin leaned over to Scott and asked, “You’re not superstitious, are you?”

“No, of course not. Why?”

“Well, they say that an eclipse is a bad omen,” Kevin explained. “That it marks the beginning of difficult times for the lands touched by it.”

“I don’t believe any of that stuff,” Scott said.

“Neither do I,” Tonya added.

“Good,” Kevin said as he sat back. “I’d hate to see your marriage ruined by superstition.”

Tonya gasped. “What an awful thing to say! We just got married, and already you’re talking about our marriage being ruined?”

“Well, no,” Kevin said. “Not if you don’t believe in that stuff.”

“Well, I don’t!” Tonya said.

“Good,” Kevin shot back.

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Gideon is Waiting for Something Bigger

August 21st, 2017 - Marion, Illinois

Gideon Shumway studied the star chart on his laptop in awe after reading the latest blog post about the upcoming alignment of the planets. He had skipped the first day of classes at Notre Dame and gone on a mini-vacation, staying in a tiny hotel room so he would be close enough to witness a total solar eclipse. Yet it was a blog post which now had him in total awe.

“Come on, Gid!” Duane said. “I want to get out of the city before the eclipse starts!”

Gideon was a foot taller with red hair and freckles, almost the opposite of Duane’s black hair and brown eyes. They had only one class together the previous year; Introduction to Comparative Religion. Yet they had become great friends.

“I’m coming,” Gideon replied. He pulled on his shoes, picked up his laptop, and followed Duane out of their hotel room. “Don’t forget those silly glasses you bought.”

“They’re not silly!” Duane protested. He dug the glasses out of his backpack. They looked like cheap 3D glasses from ten years ago with stars and stripes on the side behind the words American Eclipse August 21, 2017. “These things allow us to look directly at the eclipse without burning out our eyes.”

“Okay, ‘Mom’,” Gideon chuckled as he climbed into the passenger seat.

Duane got behind the wheel and put the glasses on the dash. “Hey, I’m not kidding. You’re a football player. If you damage your eyes you could lose your scholarship.”

Gideon rolled his eyes, even though he knew Duane was right. Staring at the sun, even with most of it covered by the moon, would damage his precious eyesight. How could he throw the ball down the field with pinpoint accuracy without his perfect eyesight?

“By the way, what were you reading about?” Duane asked as they pulled onto Highway 13 and headed east.

“It was a blog post about the alignment of planets and stars next month.”

“Oh, yeah? ‘Cause right now we’re about to witness the most spectacular alignment of this planet with the moon and our favorite star. Yet you seem more engrossed by whatever you were reading.”

Gideon chuckled. “That’s because next month the stars could be fulfilling a prophecy straight out of the Bible.”

“You don’t think ‘The Great American Eclipse’ qualifies as that?” 6 Duane asked as he passed another car.

Despite the many signs telling them not to, some people were already pulling off to the side of the highway and setting up their observational equipment.

“Eclipses happen all the time,” Gideon replied. “There’s going to be another one in America in less than seven years. It’s even going to hit this same town. How could we possibly identify this particular eclipse as the fulfillment of prophecy when there’s nothing extraordinary about it?”

“You mean besides being the first total eclipse in centuries to only cast its shadow on American soil?”

Gideon shook his head. “That’s not enough to fulfill biblical prophecy.”

“But this alignment of stars next month is?”

“Revelation 12 says, ‘And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.’” 7

“How does a group of stars give birth?” Duane asked as he pulled off the highway onto a rural road.

“Well, according to this blog, Jupiter has been inside the ‘womb’ of the constellation Virgo since December of last year. It won’t exit that area until September 23rd, 2017.”

“That doesn’t sound too unusual,” Duane said. “Jupiter goes into retrograde motion about every thirteen months. I’m sure it’s been in that region of the sky for nine months before.”

“And how, exactly, do you know that?”

“My dad. He took me camping almost every month to show me the stars through his telescope. He taught me all about planetary motions.”

“Then I guess you would know,” Gideon conceded, “but according to this blog, it’s never happened with the moon at the feet of Virgo and the Sun on her shoulder with three of the planets in the constellation of Leo.”

“What does Leo have to do with it?”

“It’s right over her head, acting as a sort of crown.”

“But only three planets will be there. I thought you said there were supposed to be twelve stars in her crown.”

“That’s right,” Gideon said. “Add the three planets to the nine stars of Leo and you get a full dozen.”

Duane chuckled as they pulled onto a dirt road. “You’re more excited about a sign in the future you won’t even see with your eyes than you are for the eclipse which is about to blot out the sun.”

“I came because you invited me,” Gideon said.

“Thanks, man,” Duane said. “Who would have thought a Mormon and a Muslim would become friends while studying comparative religion at a Catholic University?”

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Moroni’s Helping Hands

September 1st, 2017 - Houston, Texas

Moroni Whitefeather heaved the remains of the last sofa on one shoulder and headed out of another Houston home flooded by Hurricane Harvey. With the black mold growing on it, this couch, like so much else in this city, had become hazardous waste.

“Slow down, big fella,” Thomas Pahona said. “Leave some work for the rest of us.” They’d grown up together on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, and he was the one who’d asked Moroni to join him on this service project.

Moroni laughed but didn’t slow. He’d already taken the other three sofas out of this house by himself, and it wasn’t the first house they’d emptied that day. Nor was it their first day here. He was covered in sweat from the combination of heat and physical exertion, but he didn’t care. The rank smell of the area had nothing to do with body odor.

Once all the furniture was gone, he went back inside and helped tear out the lower row of drywall. This was the most costly hurricane the world had ever endured, and the costs were still adding up as the black mold spread over and through everything.

He was on vacation, volunteering his time to help during this crisis. Yet as a headhunter for Sanctuary Foods, the fastest growing all-natural food company in the world, he couldn’t help but notice the kind of people he was looking for everywhere he went. He’d already found two couples who seemed perfect for leadership training and he couldn’t resist offering jobs to them.

It was always sad to see people lose all their worldly possessions, and there were plenty of people here who had lost everything. He hadn’t yet spotted the owners of the house he was helping to clear at the moment. They were usually easy to spot as they cried over the water damage to their family heirlooms. Even he sometimes cried at seeing pieces of history being tossed into the trash. Occasionally he spotted people digging through the hazardous waste looking for treasures they thought they could restore. Just the thought of all the irreplaceable history being ruined brought a tear to his eye.

This particular home looked like it belonged to a younger couple, which usually didn’t have many heirlooms. He still expected to see someone crying over their photo albums, sofa or television.

“Excuse me.”

Moroni turned to see a man in a dark blue polo with the FEMA logo on it holding a clipboard. “Can I help you?”

“Are you the homeowner?”

“No. I’m just a volunteer.”

“I’m the homeowner,” a woman in her early twenties said.

Moroni was surprised to hear her speak up as she’d been working alongside him during the last four homes they’d cleared. She acted more like an out-of-state volunteer than a neighbor. Although, now that he thought about it, she did seem to know several people here.

“Your name?” the FEMA worker asked.

“Patricia Redd.”

The man wrote on his clipboard. “How do you spell Red?”

“R-E-D-D.”

“And who else lived here with you?”

“Just my husband.”

“And, where is he?”

“Staying with his parents in Utah,” Patricia said. A tear formed on her cheek, the first sign of sadness she’d shown that day. “His flight home from his business trip was canceled.”

Moroni pondered this amazing woman as she gave her information to the FEMA worker. Here she was, throwing away nearly all her worldly goods, and the only thing that fazed her was thinking about being separated from her husband.

The FEMA representative handed her a yellow piece of paper with instructions for filing a claim before moving on to the next house. Moroni knew those claims would only pay enough to fix most of the damage to the home, with little, if any, left over to replace everything else.

 

Moroni couldn’t keep his mind off her for the next several hours as they finished clearing her home of damaged items and moved on to the next house. When they took a break for dinner he finally approached her.

“I must say, I’m quite impressed,” Moroni said.

“With me?” Patricia asked.

Moroni nodded.

“I can’t imagine why. You’re the one who picks up couches by yourself.”

He chuckled. “I’ve always been strong, physically. But I was impressed by your spiritual strength.”

“How so?”

“Most of these homeowners are devastated to lose all their worldly goods. Even I have a tough time throwing away a treasure from the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, you helped us clear several of your neighbors’ houses before you even entered your own home.”

She shook her head. “It’s not my home anymore. My husband’s job washed away with the flood from Hurricane Harvey. There’s no way we’ll be able to make the payments and make repairs. It was a house we lived in. We’ll eventually find another.”

Moroni smiled. “See? That’s what I’m talking about. That kind of eternal perspective is quite impressive. I’m a representative of Sanctuary Foods, and I’d like to invite you and your husband to consider applying for our leadership training program.” He held out his business card.

She looked down at the card for a moment before hesitantly taking it. “You’re a Native American right?”

Moroni nodded.

“Navajo?”

“Hopi,” he corrected.

“And you’re working for a food company that sends you here to recruit people in a disaster zone?”

Moroni shook his head. “No. I’m on vacation and volunteering my time here. But when I see someone who feels right for our program, I can’t keep my mouth shut.”

“What kind of program?”

“We’re expanding our leadership training, and I think you’d be a good fit. I’m hoping your husband will be as well, if he’s anything like you.”

She studied the card, then looked up at him. “How do I know this isn’t a scam?”

“Does it feel like a scam?” he asked.

“No . . .”

“Well, you don’t have to decide right now. Think about it, talk to your husband, and if it feels right, give me a call.”

She pocketed the card while she studied his face. “I’ve never met a man named Moroni before.”

He smiled. “It takes all kinds.”

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Scott Takes a Spin in Mexico City

September 19, 2017 - Mexico City, Mexico

Scott Knox kissed his wife goodbye outside the movie theater.

“Are you sure you won’t join us?” Tonya pled one last time.

Scott nodded. “The movie is in Spanish, and I only know enough to read the title.”

“The captions will be in English,” Tonya explained. “No one else is objecting.”

There were three other couples joining Tonya, all of them here on a week-long vacation to Mexico City, provided by Juuva. These were the second quarter’s newly crowned double diamond earners and their spouses. Tonya was by far the youngest among them.

“Even if it was in English,” Scott replied, “I don’t think I’d be interested in a movie titled “Mi Nueva Yo. It sounds like a coming of age story.” He’d spent almost every moment of the last week with her, and he needed a break.

Tonya laughed. “Most coming-of-age movies don’t have a forty-year-old single mom as the main character.”

Scott frowned. “Sounds like that new Romcom you wanted me to see. What was it called again?”

Home again,” Tonya said, nodding. “And, yes, it’s the same movie. They just gave it a different title here. So instead of sitting in the theater, holding my hand, you’re going to what, wander around the city?”

Scott nodded. “Don’t worry. Wherever I go, you can find me with the locator app I created and installed on your phone. It’s accurate within three feet.”

Tonya scowled at him. “I told you not to install any of your apps on my phone without asking. The last one corrupted the system and I had to get a new phone.”

Scott raised his arms in exasperation. “That wasn’t my fault! It was that fake anti-virus program you installed. All the apps I design are clean and tested for compatibility.”

She smirked and shook her head. “Okay, whatever you say. I gotta go before the movie starts.”

They kissed one last time before she ran to catch up with the others.

Scott turned around and took a deep breath. The combined scents of bread, cheese, and tomato grabbed him and he followed his nose. Crossing the street, he found a Peter Piper Pizza. He ordered a personal pan size and looked around at the games while he waited. They were all kids’ games designed to keep little children busy while the parents enjoyed a semi-delicious meal. He needed something more challenging to keep his interest. Something with a real element of risk.

As it was the first pizza Scott had eaten in a week, it tasted better than he expected, but that wasn’t saying much. All too soon the meal was over, and he wandered back outside, looking for more distraction.

With his hunger partially satisfied, the noise of the casino next door drew him in. He looked for the buffet but found instead a short-order cook. He ordered a cheeseburger and fries, watching the news while he waited.

The reporter talked about the moment of silence observed that morning to remember the 5000 people who’d lost their lives in 1985 because of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake.8 They also mentioned another, larger earthquake which hit only eleven days earlier in Southern Mexico.

He wandered around for more than an hour, eating his second meal and looking at all the games. He debated back and forth in his head whether to play or not. These were certainly more challenging than the games next door, and the rewards were much greater.

He’d never gambled in his life, as his parents had strictly forbidden it. But he wasn’t a child anymore, and he could make his own decisions. They were in Mexico to celebrate Tonya’s success. Certainly they could afford to gamble away a thousand pesos. That was only fifty dollars, after all.

He found his way to an electronic roulette table, watching for several minutes as others gambled. There was an actual wheel in the middle with nine electronic displays around it where the players placed their bets. The wheel spun one direction, while the ball circled in the other. There was also a small light show which highlighted the slots corresponding with the bets.

He’d always wondered what the thrill of gambling felt like. Why shouldn’t he waste a little money to get a cheap thrill? He checked his phone and saw it was 12:47 p.m. He had to decide quickly and get back, before the movie ended.

Scott sat down at one of the electronic displays and put a thousand peso note into the slot. He bet it all on 12 Red, as he was born on January 12th.

A soft female voice counted down in Spanish. “Cinco, cuatro, tres, dos, uno. No más apuestas.” A box popped up on the display reading, “No more bets.”

The wheel lit up with a simulated lightning storm, striking the numbers 12, 17, 22, and 36. which remained highlighted.

The machine said in a more excited voice, “Lanzar el balón!” The display read, “Launch the ball!”

He swiped to the left to launch the ball.

The wheel spun counterclockwise and he felt his pulse quicken as a little ball spun clockwise, letting fate decide where it would land.

“Doce,” the machine said.

Scott looked down at his display. He’d won! The credit line now read $36,000, sending his heart pounding. The rush of endorphins was intoxicating. No wonder people enjoyed gambling!

But now he had a problem. How would he explain the extra money? Tonya wouldn’t be happy to hear he was gambling, even if he’d won thirty-five thousand pesos, whatever that was in American money.

“I just have to bet it again,” he told himself. So once more he bet the whole amount, but this time on Black 17, as Tonya was born on November 17th.

The machine once more did its countdown in Spanish, lit up the 17, 21, 28, and 35. Then it begged Scott to launch the ball.

He hesitated. A fifty-dollar loss was easy to swallow, but he now had thirty-five times that much on the line. He tried doing the math in his head, but his mind wouldn’t function. He looked for the button to cancel his bet, but it wasn’t lit. His winnings were already committed to the next spin.

As he launched the ball a familiar voice said, “What do you think you’re doing!”

Scott shot up from his chair and turned around. Tonya stood there with a confused look on her face. “Hi, honey! Is the movie over already?”

“It let out ten minutes ago,” Tonya said.

“Diecisiete,” the machine said behind him.

Scott turned around to look at the display. It said he now had a credit of $1,296,000 pesos. His mouth went dry. He’d just won over a million pesos! He quickly pressed the “COLLECT” button.

The display changed to, “Please wait for attendant.”

He turned back to Tonya and tried to swallow. “I just won a million pesos.”

“You what?”

“I won!” The thrill in his heart was barely diminished by the sour look on Tonya’s face.

“You are the one placing bets here?” a big man in a gold vest and bowtie asked. Scott had never seen a Mexican that tall or broad. He was bigger than Kevin, who’d played linebacker in high school.

“Yes,” Scott replied.

“Follow me.”

Scott and Tonya followed him into a hallway marked “Casino Employees Only.” It wasn’t long before they were sitting in the office of the casino manager, though there was no one else there.

“Has he done something wrong?” Tonya asked the big man.

“You wait,” was all he said.

Scott swallowed hard, trying to think whether he’d done anything wrong or illegal. He certainly hadn’t intended to.

“What did you do?” Tonya asked.

Scott opened his mouth to protest his innocence, but the muscle said, “You wait silently.”

Scott clamped his mouth shut, while his mind raced for what to say to her. Would she believe this was the only time he’d ever gambled in his life? He doubted it.

A woman walked in wearing a dress suit and sat down behind the desk. “You can go, Roberto.”

The muscle left the room, closing the door behind him.

“My name is Veronica, and I’m the manager of the casino. Sorry for the delay, but I had to check the tapes before we talked. Congratulations! You’ve won a million pesos!”

“You mean he wasn’t cheating?” Tonya asked.

“Not that I could see,” Veronica said. “Why? Has he cheated other casinos before?”

Tonya shook her head. “I’ve never seen him enter a casino before.”

“I’ve never gambled before,” Scott said quickly.

Veronica turned to stare at him. “Never?”

Scott shook his head.

“Not once?” Tonya asked. Her face showed she didn’t believe him.

“No,” Scott protested.

“You’re telling me that the first ever bet you placed was that roulette wheel?” Veronica asked.

Scott nodded.

Veronica smiled. “That makes you the luckiest man I’ve ever met. Now, let’s get some information from you so we can send you your winnings.”

“You mean I don’t get it in cash?”

Veronica laughed. “Do you really want to walk around with a million pesos on you?”

“Yes.” Scott said.

Veronica frowned. “As you wish. I’ll have it brought in. Do you have a way to carry it inconspicuously?”

“Not with me,” Scott said. “Do you have something for situations like this?”

“We do have a metal briefcase you can purchase for $2500 pesos.”

“Yes! That’s perfect!” Scott’s broad smile was diminished only slightly by Tonya’s scowl. He knew she was upset with his gambling but figured he could find a way to appease her with his winnings.

“Of course,” Veronica said. “I’ll be right back.”

As she left, Scott turned to Tonya and said, “Isn’t this exciting?”

Tonya just scowled deeper and said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Scott tried to wipe the smile off his face to appease her, but he couldn’t. Ever since high school he’d felt like a loser. None of his apps were taking off the way he’d planned. His wife made all the money in the relationship. This was the first serious money he’d brought into the relationship, and he intended to relish every moment of it.

Veronica returned with a metal briefcase, just like he always saw in the movies.

But when she opened the case, Scott was confused. “Are you sure you counted it right?” Scott asked. “I expected a million pesos to fill the case.”

Veronica gave a brief smile. “If I used $100-peso bills, it would fill the case. But these are $1000-peso bills. Do you want me to take it back and get $100-peso bills?”

Scott chuckled a bit, about to say yes, but one look at Tonya told him she didn’t want to spend one more minute in this casino than she had to. “No, this is fine.”

Scott closed the case and headed out the door with Tonya right behind him. She didn’t say a word as they walked out of the casino. His knees buckled with excitement at the thought of carrying around a million pesos.

Somehow his excitement engulfed the world around him as everything shook.9

Tonya grabbed his shoulder and shouted, “Earthquake!”

The ground shook hard and continued to shake, longer than Scott had ever experienced. It felt like hours, though it was less than thirty seconds. Noises increased around them as apartment buildings fell over, or had the front sheared off by the shaking. Power poles and street signs fell as well. The theater was hit by a falling power pole, setting it on fire.

As soon as the ground stopped shaking, Tonya grabbed Scott’s hand and pulled him away from the casino entrance. He was confused by this for only a few seconds as a mob of people ran outside, some of them screaming.

“Was that an 8.0?” Scott asked, thinking back to the news report of the 1985 quake.

Tonya shook her head. “I doubt it. It felt stronger than the Eureka quake of 2010, and that was a 6.5. This one might be a 7, or 7.5, but probably not an 8.”

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Big Government Finds Scott & Tonya

September 20th, 2017 - San Francisco, California

Scott and Tonya Knox flew home after their Mexican vacation with a level of tension between them that deserved its own seat on the flight. Scott was carrying his million pesos in a steel briefcase. Part of him regretted not having them change the $1000-peso bills for $100-peso bills so it would fill the briefcase, but at least this way there was room for the other souvenirs they’d purchased on their trip.

Five minutes after the plane took off, Tonya asked, “What are you going to do with all that money?”

Scott smiled at the question. He’d spent all the previous night and that morning pondering the best way to turn his winnings into some sort of income. “I’m not sure yet. All I know is that I want to invest it. Find some way of making money on my own.”

Tonya scowled at this response and went silent again.

Scott spent the rest of the flight trying to decide why that was the wrong thing to say.

As they passed through customs, the officer opened Scott’s briefcase and examined the contents. “I see you got your standard collection of knick-knacks and knock-offs,” the officer said. “What isn’t standard is all this money. Where did it come from?”

“I won it,” Scott said.

The officer raised one eyebrow. “Where exactly did you win this money?”

“At a casino in Mexico City.”

“Okay,” the officer replied. “You’re going to have to fill out form W-2G, and I’m going to need to see two forms of ID.”

“Why?” Scott asked.

“Because you have to report your winnings to the IRS.”

“But I won it in Mexico. Why does the IRS care about that?”

The officer sighed. “Look, if you have issues with the IRS, take it up with them. I’m required to collect thirty percent of your winnings for taxes and . . .”

“Thirty percent!” Scott shouted back. “That’s outrageous!”

“No, Mr. Knox. It’s the law.”

Scott grumbled as he filled out the form and watched the customs officer confiscate $388,000 pesos of his winnings for the IRS.

Tonya insisted they go straight to the bank, and when the teller counted what was left, he barely had nine hundred thousand pesos. Still, that came out to more than fifty thousand dollars, which wasn’t a bad haul from his initial fifty-dollar bet.

As they drove back to their apartment, Tonya asked, “What are we going to do with all that money?”

“I’m not sure,” Scott said, not for the first time. “I’ve never had this much money in my life.” He was still getting over the shock of having thirty percent of the money confiscated. It no longer felt like enough to launch any kind of successful business, or enough leverage to buy out someone else’s. He would have to think of something less grand, and perhaps something to appease Tonya.

“Maybe we should invest it in the stock market. It’s been doing really well lately.”

“I’ll think about it,” was all Scott could manage to say. He was still upset at President Towers for taking thirty percent of his winnings, wishing now that he’d bought cryptocurrency to hide it from the government. Nothing he could do about that now, but he didn’t think he could handle watching what was left of his winnings go down in value if he picked the wrong stock. Plus, he knew the IRS would take another chunk of whatever increase he was able to achieve.

The rest of the drive was in silence, which had become the norm since they left the casino the day before. As Scott carried their suitcases up the stairs to their third-story apartment, a new idea came to mind. He hauled the suitcases into their studio apartment and flopped down on the couch, panting from the effort.

He flicked on the TV for distraction while he caught his breath. When he could finally breathe normally, he said, “Why don’t we use it for a down payment on a house?”

Tonya turned to him. “Really? Are you sure?”

Scott nodded. “You make plenty of money now. We should be able to get something nice. Fifty thousand must be enough for a down payment. Even in California.”

Tonya climbed onto his lap, facing him and gave him a long kiss. “I thought you were going to buy some ridiculously expensive truck or a boat or something. But buying us a home . . . That almost makes up for placing the bet in the first place.”

“What else would it take?” Scott asked.

“I can think of a few things.” Tonya laughed and kissed him again. They kissed for a long time as all the tension between them finally melted away.

 

An hour later they were watching the news together, discussing each story that came up. A report came on about the ten wildfires currently raging across Northern California, and the two-dozen others that had already been contained in the last three months alone.

“Maybe we should move to Southern California,” Scott suggested.

“You may have a point,” Tonya conceded.

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