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Case V: Salvation & Sabotage

 Chapter 1: Dueling Divas

Isabella Duncan met regularly with La Doña Jaramillo, at least once a quarter, typically for a modest lunch at one of several family-owned restaurants near Old Town. Each of these establishments was also a beneficiary of Señora Jaramillo’s community support. Señora Jaramillo never interfered with the day-to-day operation of La Vida Aureo. The primary purpose of these luncheons was simply to serve as a constant reminder to Isabella that La Vida Aureo existed because of Señora Jaramillo’s largesse and that her very high standards of excellence were inviolate.

Isabella knew that she would have to update Señora Jaramillo about all of the recent incidents that had occurred at La Vida Aureo and how she had dealt with them. Isabella had known Señora Jaramillo long enough to assume that she was already aware of many things and Isabella could not leave out any of the major details. She decided to focus on the potential impact of each incident on La Vida Aureo and how, in dealing with it, she had strived to protect the institution and its residents.

Señora Jaramillo was pleased that the death of the Maintenance Man had been an accident and that young Maria had been exonerated (Case I, September 2014). “I know her family quite well and she is an intelligent girl with a bright future. I’m glad that Paloma has taken her under her wing. I expect you to encourage Maria to pursue her education. That drug business was potentially very damaging but you were able to resolve it quickly without any adverse effects on La Vida Aureo (Case II, October 2014). I remain upset about the death of that woman and the complicated circumstances surrounding it and I understand that the District Attorney is still reviewing all the evidence (Case III, November 2014). I am grateful, Isabella, for the way you dealt with Martina Trujillo and her difficult situation. Father Michael has talked to me in depth about the situation at Our Lady of the Valley and enlisted my help. I am confident that we can provide some level of assistance (Case IV, December 2014). Father Michael also mentioned that you have been fortunate to have located a valuable ally among the residents, one Señor Dudley. Tell me about him.”

“Oh, Señora Jaramillo, he has been quite helpful and I appreciate his support more each day that passes. It was actually Paloma who was instrumental in my discovering him. He had known her children before and she was the one who enlisted his help in the death of the Maintenance Man and the accusation of Maria. I’ve asked him to remain at La Vida Aureo and serve as our resident Handy Man. I’ve encouraged him to sell his home with the hope that he will stay indefinitely. He is an interesting man and has many qualities that will benefit the residents and me, but, most importantly, he shares my vision for the future of La Vida Aureo.”

“He has no family?”

“He is a widower and his children live far from here. He has a group of friends locally that he meets occasionally for coffee, but seems to be growing more content in his role at La Vida Aureo.”

“You must suggest that he and his friends try the coffee and pastries at Saville & Sons here in Old Town. The owner, Hector Guzman, is an old friend of mine.”

“I will certainly mention it to him.”

“Isabella, I am pleased with the progress you are making despite these unfortunate incidents. I know you will remain ever vigilant for the safety and wellbeing of all residents. I would like you to start thinking about the future of La Vida Aureo in more detail. I grow a bit more concerned each day about our ageing population and what the future holds for them. I know we cannot accommodate everyone, nor meet every need, but I want you to begin to develop a plan for the future.”

“I agree, Señora, and commit to doing so. That is another benefit of Señor Dudley’s involvement; he has considerable experience in planning and I plan to call upon him for his input.”

Isabella enjoyed these conversations with Señora Jaramillo and believed that all her comments were intended as constructive. She knew that Señora Jaramillo had confidence in her and her ability to manage La Vida Aureo. Isabella was relieved, nonetheless, that the incident with Warren Pearson (Case IV, December 2014) wasn’t mentioned. That situation just raised many more questions than it answered and Isabella was content to follow Hannah Halverstrom’s advice and let sleeping dogs lie.

At this point, Isabella assumed that the meeting was over, but remained seated out of respect. She knew that Señora Jaramillo would be the one to indicate that the luncheon was over, typically by asking Isabella to give her regards to Isabella’s husband, Edward. Instead, Señora Jaramillo leaned forward and said, “Isabella, I want to ask you to do something for me”

“Of course, Señora, anything.”

“Señora Ynes Tafoya Barela, one of my oldest and dearest friends, has recently suffered some serious health problems and I believe that she would be more comfortable at La Vida Aureo. I would greatly appreciate it if you would take her in as a resident.”

“Certainly. Can you tell me a bit about her and her situation so that I can find the most appropriate arrangements for her?”

“Ynes came to Albuquerque as a young girl when her family fled Spain during the Franco years. In those days, it was not safe for a woman to speak out for women’s rights and Ynes’ mother was quite active in the women’s movement in Madrid. She was arrested while speaking in public many times and imprisoned for over one year and frequently tortured. When she was finally released, she was a broken woman. The family was able to escape the country and eventually made their way to America. Her father decided that New Mexico would be the most suitable place to settle and they came to Albuquerque in the early 1960s. Señor Barela was an educated man and was able to become a lawyer and provide for his family by assisting other Spanish-speaking immigrants as they arrived. Although they had a relatively comfortable life here, Ynes’ mother never fully recovered from the abuse she endured while in prison. She was constantly troubled by nightmares and endured periods of extreme physical duress. She never took any of this out on her young daughter, but remained distant and unable to provide Ynes the love and nurturing a young girl so desperately needs. Ynes gradually withdrew further into herself as a means of protection and grew to be a lonely and often bitter woman. On the outside, Ynes appears strong and confident and a very capable woman and has assumed the persona of a wealthy and privileged Spanish aristocrat. It is my opinion that she has assumed the role that she always wanted for her mother. But, underneath, Ynes is deeply insecure and afraid. She hides this well with her external persona which can be quite irritating at times; one might describe her as haughty and arrogant. Because of this, she has had few friends in her life and certainly no romances that lasted very long. Despite these things, she has always been open with me and I consider her a true friend.”

“Years of living this very rigid life style have taken their toll and her physical health has suffered. She remains quite capable for the present, but I can see that soon she will need more care. Since she is alone without any family, I believe that La Vida Aureo would be the most appropriate living arrangement for her.”

“I understand, Señora Jaramillo and I am certain we can make her comfortable at La Vida Aureo. There are other women there who feel alone and I would hope Señora Barela could eventually develop some friendships, if only just casual ones.”

“Thank you, Isabella. I will make all the necessary arrangements and you can expect her by the end of the month.”

A few weeks later, a limousine arrived at the front door. Isabella had been thoroughly briefed and assumed she was totally prepared to welcome their new resident. But the woman Isabella saw exiting the limo could only be described as “imperious”; “haughty” was not an adequate adjective to capture the total effect of Señora Barela. Despite her years, she was strikingly beautiful in the classic Spanish sense, tall and dark with a fine-featured face. And the way she carried herself!

During her first few weeks at La Vida Aureo, Señora Barela proved to be quite difficult. She treated everyone with disdain, particularly Paloma and any other Spanish-speaking employees or residents. She considered herself an aristocrat from Spain and all of these other people were really not to Spanish; their Spanish blood had been mixed with a variety of peoples from the New World. Although she had been in America most of her life, Señora Barela preferred to speak only in Spanish and in a dialect common to Spain rather than New Mexico. Señora Barela eventually pressured Isabella into inviting a local priest to speak at La Vida Aureo and within short period of time, she had arranged to for a Catholic mass to be held in the chapel several times a week.

Paloma approached Matthew Dudley one day and shared her feelings with him. “I believe, she said, that Señora Barela is really a good person in her heart. I believe that the way she behaves and treats people is really nothing more than her way of keeping people from getting too close to her. I had a brief conversation with Señora Jaramillo to learn a bit more about Señora Barela. I believe much of her unhappiness is because of the loss of her mother when she was still young. She is afraid to let anyone close to her for fear they might die or leave her much as her mother did. I would like your help, Señor Doc, to try to break through that hard exterior shell and find the true person. But I will need you to keep a secret so that we do not upset other residents, particularly ones like Mrs. Branch. I would like to prepare a traditional Spanish dish of paella for Señora Barela and Señora Isabella. Could you help me set up the small conference room next Isabella’s office to serve this meal? It is my hope that this meal would begin to let Señora Barela know that she is welcome here and that she could develop friends. There is nothing for her to fear here.

Dudley thought this was a very positive gesture from Paloma, particularly in light of the way Señora Barela had been treating her. She had referred to Paloma as simply a servant. That had offended Dudley and made him realize what a remarkable woman Paloma Angostura really was to suggest this special meal. Dudley began the necessary preparations, doing most of the work late in the evening after most of the residents had retired. He was particularly careful to avoid the prying eyes of Mrs. Millicent Branch.

Although there was no particular reason for it, Millicent Branch took an immediate dislike to Señora Barela and decided that she would use Matthew Dudley as the focal point for her displeasure. She complained often that La Vida Aureo was becoming too Spanish for her. It further irritated Mrs. Branch that those individuals who spoke Spanish seem to gather and talk together. She began to refer to Isabella as Queen Isabella, just another one of those Spanish bitches. One day she told Dudley that she was concerned that pretty soon everyone would be required to speak Spanish to live at La Vida Aureo. And it will only get worse from there she said, this used to be a place a nondenominational service on Sundays and now it looks like the Catholics are taking over and there won’t be any place for anyone else. “Someone has to do something about this terrible situation”, she said. Dudley realized that Mrs. Branch’s underlying discomfort was that she felt that she was no longer the most important female.

As is too often the case with people like Millicent Branch, her behavior and its underlying cause, was not that dissimilar from what she found so distasteful in Señora Barela. For generations, the Branch family had lived in rural Oklahoma where they had initially settled as Sooner Pioneers. They were God-fearing people who farmed the land and lived a modest life. The Branch family were not prosperous but were self-sufficient and satisfied with their life-style. But then the rains so necessary for their survival stopped and the winds started to blow with ever increasing frequency and intensity. The crops failed and the family began to struggle. Millicent‘s mother was most affected by the constant wind and the ever-present dust that seemed to be everywhere. Millicent was a young girl at the time and was unable to understand why her mother would just sit for hours and rock back and forth. Often, her mother would go outside and scream at the wind to stop blowing so much dust into her simple prairie house. Finally, Millicent’s father realized that the situation was hopeless and that staying would only further jeopardize his family. So, he packed what few possessions they had and loaded the entire family into his pick-up truck and headed to California with its promise of a new life.

Perhaps it was the prolonged exposure to the blowing dust, but the truck began to falter after just a few days on the road. They had just passed Grants, New Mexico when the truck coughed its final smoke from the engine and died.   Millicent’s father looked around and decided that this open space looked much like Oklahoma and decided to try his luck at farming here rather than attempt to get to California with a worn out family and exhausted truck.

Conditions for farming in Grants were not much better than those they had left behind. It wasn’t so much the wind, but the ground that was more rock than farmable soil. Despite valiant efforts, the Branch family struggled almost from the outset. They bought a few cattle in an attempt to become ranchers as well as farmers, but with little success. Hope was fading and Millicent’s mother had become almost completely withdrawn into a constant state of depression. Her father planned to make another attempt at reaching California when a large deposit of uranium ore was discovered on their property. It was the late 1940s and the United States was soon to embark on its Atoms for Peace programs. Uranium was perhaps more valuable than gold and its discovery changed the Branch’s fortunes forever.

The family became wealthy almost overnight and the fear of survival vanished almost as quickly. Millicent’s father bought more cattle and the feed and supplies necessary to insure their success as ranchers. But this was not necessary to support his family; the royalties from the uranium mining company provided income sufficient to live comfortably. Millicent and her sisters were sent to private boarding schools in Santa Fe while her father stayed in Grants to care for his wife. Millicent’s sisters were hesitant to leave, but Millicent realized that her mother had been essentially gone for many years. Millicent assumed the role of surrogate mother for all of the years that the girls were away at school, forcing her toward adulthood while bypassing those adolescent years that are often so full of joy.

Millicent never married; she felt that she simply did not have time for such frivolous pursuits. To everyone who met her, she was the mature, responsible, intelligent young woman with so much promise. Deep inside, however, Millicent was a lonely little girl who longed for the love and tenderness that her mother was incapable of providing. By the time Millicent’s younger sisters finished school, married and moved away, Millicent had accepted her fate as a woman who would remain alone her entire life. In subsequent years, several young men had shown an interest, but none ever seemed to measure up to her standards. Eventually, she did marry a man from Grants whose family owned the land adjacent to the Branch’s. They met at a public meeting held by the mining company to discuss a series of recent accidents that had occurred at the mine. Millicent considered their union less a marriage based on love than a joining of forces to combat unsafe practices at the mine. Unfortunately, her husband developed terminal cancer soon thereafter and died a painful death. Millicent believed that his death like too many others in the area were the result of the mine’s unsafe practices and she was determined to press for change if not permanent closure of the mine. She fought an unsuccessful battle for several years without success; uranium was just too important a commodity to allow an individual to impede progress.

Eventually, Millicent realized she had been defeated. She sold her interest in the mine and invested the proceeds in companies that she believed were more responsible and respectful of the environment and their employees. She also sold the land and moved to Santa Fe where she became active in social programs. The significant amount of family wealth generated by these careful investments provided a source of income for Millicent and her sisters for their entire life. At some point, she decided that she needed to be in a safer and more secure living arrangement and after some investigation, decided to move permanently to La Vida Aureo.

Chapter 2: A Visit to The Plaza in Old Town

One afternoon, Mrs. Branch and her friend Martha Arthur were shopping in the Old Town section of Albuquerque with Martha’s niece Denise. It was a pleasant afternoon and they decided to stop in the Plaza square and rest for a while. Mrs. Branch noticed a young man standing in the corner of the square with a small crowd gathered around him. It was a mixed group, consisting of young and old, smartly and poorly dressed, some who looked like lawyers from their offices on Lomas as well as a few obvious tourists. As they got up from their bench to continue shopping, they walked past the gathering and realized that the young man was talking about the environment and how people were destroying the beauty of God’s creation. Mrs. Branch turned to Martha and her niece and said, “This is the kind of message that I think the residents of La Vida Aureo need to hear, not all of that guilt-ridden Spanish Catholicism. This young man has the right perspective of in terms of honoring nature as God’s creation.”

Martha’s niece said, “Mrs. Branch, I would be a bit more careful if I were you. This man seems to be just a crazy druggie whose real goal is to panhandle for money. I work here in town and come to the plaza often to have my lunch and enjoy the beauty of this place. All too often, there is some crazy person standing around trying to get people to give him money. I don’t think this man is much different from those people at the highway intersections with those signs claiming they are homeless or some other excuse to shame people into giving the money.”

“No, Denise, you are wrong. This man sounds sincere. He just needs a shave and a haircut, and probably a good hot bath. I don’t think he’s crazy or on drugs. He just seems to be totally caught up in the importance and passion of what he’s saying. I think it would be appropriate for him to come and talk to some of the ladies at La Vida Aureo. Yes, I believe that’s what I will do.”

The three of them stood there for a while listening to the young man talk. His message was relatively simple and his delivery was measured and without any hysterics. His basic theme was that God had given Man dominion over the earth and had entrusted him with its preservation and care. But Man had been tempted by Satan to distort this charge of dominion to mean that Man must control Nature and force it to do his bidding. This approach seemed to work for a long time, but now Nature was fighting back. “God will ultimately prevail in this struggle, the young man said, and Man will be once again sent out from God’s presence, just like in Eden.”

These words affected Millicent Branch deeply as she stood there listening. She knew that Man had tried to control uranium and bend it to his will, but did not fully appreciate its powerful and harmful side effects. In his greed, Man had been punished by the cancers that had killed so many. She believed that there were many other similar instances and that this young man was simply trying to increase people’s awareness to the dangers of trying to act like God and exert too much control over nature. She was more convinced than ever that she should meet this young man and learn more about him and his message. Because, underneath everything, Millicent Branch was a pragmatic person and she needed to assure herself that this young man actually had some constructive thoughts. She was not interested in supporting anyone who just talked about problems without having some practical solutions to address the key issues. The only way she knew to do this was to have a serious one-on-one conversation with him. Millicent turned to Denise and said, “Please take your aunt back to La Vida Aureo. I’m going to have a little chat with this young man. I’ll get a cab when I’m finished. “

“Mrs. Branch, I really don’t think that’s such a good idea. You don’t know anything about him and it could be dangerous. “

“Nonsense, Denise. I’ll be fine. I intend to have my discussion with him right here in the middle of the Plaza.   There are lots of people around and I promise not to stay too long.”

Millicent Branch walked up to the young man when he finished speaking and the crowd was dispersing. She waited until the last of the tourists finished taking pictures and spoke directly to him. “Young man, my name is Millicent Branch and I am interested in what you have to say. Tell me your name and describe your basic message in just a few words.”

He was somewhat surprised by her directness. Most people simply saw him as a curiosity and just wanted to have their picture taken with him. “I’m sorry. What did you ask me?”

“I want to understand your message. If you can’t describe it to me succinctly, then you probably haven’t thought it through or just don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Wow! OK, lady. I am called The Steward and I believe that Man should use the power of his intellect and technology to be responsible stewards of the gifts of nature that God has blessed us with rather than using them to destroy.”

“I asked you what your name was, not what people call you. If you cannot answer a direct question, we have nothing further to discuss.”

“My name is Stuart and people who follow me began calling me The Steward because of my message.”

“OK, Stuart, that’s a start. I assume you have some practical examples of exactly how Man could go about using these skills to be a responsible steward or are you just about a bunch of pie-in-the-sky platitudes? ”

“I most certainly do. I’ve given this matter considerable thought over the years and believe I can describe specific actions that could be taken immediately.”

“I did not hear all of your speech today, but it sounds as though you are sincere and not some tree-hugging crackpot. I will want to talk to you in much more detail in the very near future. Would you consider talking to an interested group of people in my community?

“Most certainly. I would welcome the opportunity. I believe if more people hear my message, the chance for positive change increases.”

“That is all I need to know for now. How can I get in contact with you?”

“I usually come here to The Plaza every Wednesday to catch the lunch crowd and that is also a pretty good time for tourists as well.”

“I’ll be in touch.” Millicent turned away and began walking the short distance north on Rio Grande Boulevard to catch a taxi at the Hotel Albuquerque to return to La Vida Aureo.

Stuart Montgomery was still slightly confused by this elderly woman as he packed up his papers into a well-worn canvas backpack and began to walk slowly in the other direction. As he approached an old VW van, the woman driver was having a heated conversation with two young girls in the back seat. “You’ll just have to do better, she complained. All you got today was some cheap jewelry, a watch and some cash. You’re not trying hard enough.”

“We had to be careful, one of the girls whined. There was a bicycle-riding cop who kept circling the crowd and looking at us. And, it was a small crowd today, mostly locals. Anyway, we did better than yesterday when we were standing on the frickin’ side of the road trying to look pregnant and homeless.”

“Fine. Can it. Here comes The Steward and he will be displeased to hear your complaining.”

Stuart settled into the van’s passenger seat as Rosalie Ribera drove away. She successfully navigated the entrance onto Interstate 40 heading east toward the Big I where she turned north on I-25. Rosalie turned to Stuart and asked, “Well, who was that old biddy you were talking to and what did she want?”

“I’m not completely sure. She said she was interested in what I had to say about the environment and my philosophy of stewardship. She also mentioned something about talking to some people in her community.”

Rosalie thought to herself that this could be an interesting opportunity if it were handled correctly. But, she needed time to think through the details of how to proceed. “That is interesting and could be a benefit to your ministry, Steward. We can discuss it more fully this evening.”

By the time Mrs. Branch arrived at La Vida Aureo, she had formulated a basic plan of action. She would convince Isabella, as Executive Director, to allow this young man to come and talk to any interested residents on a regular basis. She also realized that she would have to coach this Steward fellow about the details of his message. She agreed with the notion of protecting the environment through responsible stewardship, but wanted to avoid too much of that New Age nonsense common in parts of New Mexico. She would insist that his message also include examples of Jesus’ teachings and how they applied to daily life. If that didn’t get enough people’s attention, she would encourage Stewart to incorporate some good old-fashioned Old Testament Fire and Brimstone-type warnings about making God angry by ruining His creations. If he could incorporate these references, it would be viewed as semi-religious and relatively non-denominational. Her goal wasn’t to push any particular Protestant theology, just to counteract the growing emphasis of culture and religion surrounding Señora Barela. As she headed for Isabella’s office, she mused to herself, “I’ve always been a Protestant. I just never knew what I was protesting. Now I know!”

Millicent Branch was able to convince Isabella Duncan that bringing Stuart Montgomery to La Vida Aureo to speak would be a harmless activity. Millicent described Stuart as a young man who spoke primarily of nature and it would be an uplifting experience for many of the residents. In Isabella’s desire to placate Millicent, she agreed to a trial run with this speaker. “Let’s see how it goes and how many residents are interested in what he has to say. After he speaks here a few times, we can talk again about whether this is a good idea or not. I hope that is acceptable with you, Mrs. Branch.”

“That is just fine, Ms. Duncan. I’m sure everything will be just fine.”

 

Chapter 3: Stuart Montgomery, The Steward

Rosalie left Old Town and began the drive north toward their camp located approximately 30 mile away. She stayed on the feeder road along I-25 and stopped at a major intersection where she picked up a young girl. “I made about twenty five dollars today,” said Tessa as she moved toward a seat near the rear of the van. This process was repeated at several more intersections and each young girl that entered the van made a brief report to Rosalie. The final stop was at the Tramway exit near the large and luxurious Sandia Casino & Resort. Jane climbed into the van and was smiling broadly as she removed the pillow from under her coat. “The appearance of pregnancy really improved my take today, she said. I rubbed a bit of dirt on my face to make me look desperate and that really helped. I collected almost one hundred dollars since this morning. I probably could have done even better if I had stayed until the late afternoon gambling crowd started to arrive. I’d like to try that the next time.”

“I’m proud of each of you, said Rosalie and we can share our experiences this evening after dinner. I’m sure we can figure out more ways to do better.”

That evening, all of the girls sat around in the mobile home trailer that had been converted into a make-shift dormitory to compare their day’s experiences and make suggestions to each other. Stuart and Rosalie shared a separate trailer and were also reviewing the events of the day. “Tell me more about this lady who approached you today, Steward and what exactly she wants you to do.”

“I’m not exactly sure, but it sounded like she wants me to be a speaker to a group of her friends. I would guess by her age that she lives in some kind of retirement home or something. Or maybe it’s just her neighborhood.   But she was awfully insistent that I tell her about my philosophy.”

“That sounds a bit nosey, if you ask me. What did you tell her?”

“I just repeated my basic position that we should respect nature because it’s God’s creation and that man seemed to be screwing things up because of his actions. I told her that I believed that man should use his knowledge and technology to preserve and improve the environment rather than continuing to destroy it.”

“Did she happen to say whether she would be willing to pay for you to talk to her friends?”

“She didn’t mention it, but it sounded to me like she was trying to make some kind of a deal with me, so I assume she would be willing to pay. I’ll be sure to ask the next time I meet her.”

“You be sure to do that! It is very difficult to support everyone on the meager amounts we get by begging around town. And, it certainly isn’t enough to make any real progress with our Cause.”

“I agree. If we were able to raise more money, we could print that pamphlet I’ve always dreamed of to educate people to our Cause. I believe that, if people had more knowledge, they would begin doing the right things.”

“Oh, Stuart, sometimes you seem so naïve. I believe that your Cause would be more effective if we were to take some real action. Remember how those acts of open defiance helped bring about removing those horrible dams in California?”

It was not a coincidence that Stuart and Rosalie lived in a rural setting approximately thirty miles from Old Town and six miles northeast of the historic village of Placitas in the Sandia Mountains. This was near the site of the original the Tawapa Commune and Stuart had migrated back there after many years wandering. But, much of Placitas had been developed in the intervening years and he found it necessary to locate even further away from the new residential areas to achieve the isolation he desired. He and Rosalie had purchased several old mobile trailer homes which now served as the center of a growing community of followers, primarily young girls who had run away from home.

Stuart Montgomery was born in the commune of Tawapa where his father James Montgomery was one of the founding members. Within the commune, James was known as Jumpin’ Jimmy, not because he was always high on “uppers”, but because he jumped from girl to girl and had impregnated many of them. One of these young girls was Stuart’s mother but she and James were never married, consistent with the free love philosophy of the commune at the time. When the commune broke up, Stuart’s mother took him and began to wander westward adopting a gypsy-type lifestyle, traveling in an old VW bus. It seemed as though they were always moving and he could only vaguely recall some of the people, mostly men, with whom they stayed for a short while. After what seems like many years of wandering, they arrived at a place call The Slab in the southern California desert where his mother eventually died of a drug overdose.

Stuart was introduced to a variety drugs very early in his life, particularly hallucinogens, as they helped ease the pain of his mother’s early death. Stuart also suffered progressive brain damage due to his persistent use of mind-altering drugs. After his mother died, Stuart drifted throughout Southern California wandered through Arizona and into Mexico. In each place, he adopted the drug culture of the locals. In Mexico and in Arizona he was introduced to the peyote culture of the native populations. Stuart always preferred to live in the desert where he could sample many of the native plants as potential hallucinogens.

At some point, Stuart found a letter from his father in his ragged backpack. The envelope had an Albuquerque return address and Stuart set out once again. He spent considerable time with the Native American peyote culture near Gallup and Grants, New Mexico which was where he met Rosalie Ribera. She found him along a jeep trail in the desert, unconscious and not really sure where he was. She nursed him back to health and listened to his tales of visions that he had experienced throughout his travels. She was captivated by his apparent view of the better life and decided to stay with him.

As Stuart traveled throughout the Southwest and became deeply involved in various native peyote cultures, he claimed that he saw the basis for a more peaceful life by becoming more at one with nature. He was able to extract bits and pieces of the culture and philosophy of each of these native groups and could envision a philosophy which combined the better elements of each of these. He believed that it was not a coincidence that peyote was a natural plant and that it was which gave him insight to a better way of life based on harmony with nature.

Rosalie encouraged Stuart to move to Albuquerque because she saw more opportunity there to accomplish her goals. She wanted to destroy something to demonstrate how the rich and powerful had a history of destruction. Rosalie believed that all corporations were inherently evil. She knew that the railroads had destroyed her home town of Las Vegas, New Mexico by dividing it into two separate communities. Her initial intent was to destroy something associated with nuclear energy which she saw as the most destructive creation of man. She saw Albuquerque as a place to attack the nuclear arsenal stored at the Kirtland Air Force base or at one of the government research labs like Sandia or Los Alamos. But, these were too heavily guarded so she set her sights on the pipelines that ran through Placitas because they were doing the same thing as the railroads had.

When she first mentioned this to Stuart, he rejected the idea completely. “Rosalie, I am afraid that would be too dangerous. I know we could accomplish so much just through education. My basic philosophy is based on stewardship of the environment. Sure, we’ve made some mistakes, but I don’t see how any act of destruction would help. It could turn people away from supporting us in the future.”

“Well, Stuart, you are The Steward and it is your philosophy that matters. I am just concerned that education alone won’t stop the major corporations from doing much more harm than good. They are really the ones with the power and the resources to get things done. Somehow, we have to get their attention.”

“But we must be careful.”

“Stuart, it might be a good time for you to embark on another vision quest. You always emerge from those sessions with a much clearer idea of how to proceed. It is what you experience during your visions that provide so much wisdom and guidance to us all.”

“Perhaps you are right, Rosalie. Would you make the necessary preparations?”

When Stuart first came to this spot and decided to locate his camp, he insisted that a special place be constructed for his vision quests. Although it was rather crude, Stuart believed it embodied the basic design concepts of the kivas he had experienced in his travels and time with the pueblo cultures of the Southwest. The structure would only accommodate two or three people and was furnished simply with numerous rugs and blankets.

Rosalie was responsible for preparing the peyote and pipe for Stuart to smoke to embark him on his hallucination-induced journey. Over their years together, she had also realized that she could influence Stuart’s visions if she provided a guide for him. Rosalie went to the dormitory trailer and called out for Jane to join her outside. “Jane, The Steward has selected you to be his Guide this evening because of your outstanding service to the Cause. Follow me to my trailer so that I can prepare you for this honor.”

Once inside her trailer, Rosalie retrieved a simple white dress from a drawer and instructed Jane to replace her ragged jeans with the Ceremonial Gown. Rosalie carefully brushed Jane’s long blonde hair and sprinkled a few drops of scented oil on her shoulders.”This is a great honor, Jane, and you must do your best to assist The Steward to realize the full potential of tonight’s vision quest. He has been presented with a wonderful opportunity which will greatly aid our Cause and you must guide him to understand how to proceed. You shall assume the role of an older woman who is desperate to share in his wisdom about the environment. This woman will provide the support that The Steward seeks if he only asks her. You must convince him that he has the wisdom to understand her willingness to help and the courage to ask her. Do you have any questions, Jane?”

“No, Rosalie. I am deeply honored to be chosen as Guide and I will do my best. I understand how important it is for The Steward to see clearly and properly interpret his visions.”

While Jane waited in the trailer, Rosalie entered the Vision Hut and handed Stuart the pipe and lit it for him. She stayed long enough for him to take several long drags and deeply inhale the smoke. She helped him lay back on the large pile of rugs as he began to drift and quietly left. She quickly went to the trailer and motioned for Jane to follow her to the Hut. Rosalie held back the large rug that served as a door and motioned Jane to enter. Jane moved quietly to the center of the Hut and laid down next to Stuart. She began to whisper comforting words that she was with him and would be his companion on his quest. Rosalie smiled and let the large rug door fall into place over the door as she left.

Early the next morning, as the sun was beginning its journey to the crest of the Sandia Mountains, Rosalie entered the Hut. She gently roused Jane from her sleep and guided her to through the door and out into the bright morning. “You did well, my child. Return to your own bed and sleep for a while longer. I will call everyone for breakfast soon.”

A short while later, Stuart emerged from the Hut and found Rosalie sitting on the wooden steps outside their trailer. “I am renewed, he said. Last night’s journey was very productive.”

“I am pleased, Steward. You must tell me everything you saw and what you have learned.”

“The woman from Old Town came to me in my dream and we talked about our mutual love of nature. She told me that she would support our Cause and that she would encourage all her friends to do so as well.”

“That is wonderful news, Steward. How can I be of service?”

“Please drive me back to Old Town tomorrow morning so that I can meet her again and continue our conversation. She seemed eager to get started and I don’t want to disappoint her.”

By the end of the week, Stuart had met Millicent Branch in Old Town again to talk in greater detail about La Vida Aureo and her expectations. Millicent told Stuart that she had arranged for him to speak to a small group of her friends as a trial run. “Just keep it simple, Mr. Montgomery, and don’t get too carried away with things. If all goes well, your visits could become more frequent as the interest and audience grows.”

It was with considerable hesitation that Stuart asked about payment for his time and message.

“Let’s just start slow, Stuart, and see how it goes. Maybe on your second visit you could pass the hat at the conclusion of your remarks. Some of these old people are pretty tight with their money, but I’ll work on them.”

Chapter 4: The Steward’s Lessons at La Vida Aureo

The following week, Rosalie Ribera drove Stuart to La Vida Aureo in mid-afternoon for his first speaking engagement which was described to the residents as an introductory talk about Nature. Taking Millicent’s advice to heart, Stuart kept his remarks relatively brief and general. Stuart spoke softly and without much of the passion Millicent had seen when she first heard him in Old Town. “It is important to remember that all of what we call Nature is really God’s creation, his handiwork. We must understand that when God gave Man the gift of dominion over all his creations, He did not intend for Man destroy things; His gift clearly included the responsibility of stewardship. I believe that Man has allowed his ego to get in the way and overstepped his authority by trying to control nature and make it do his bidding. In my travels, I have learned from many cultures that aligning with Nature is the path to understanding. It is the single unifying theme in many cultures. I have experienced many visions of how things can be and I appreciate this opportunity to share those experiences with you.”

Stuart’s initial visit to La Vida Aureo was a modest success. A small group of residents met in the dining room and Stuart talked about achieving a sense of peace and harmony with nature. He spoke only briefly in religious terms stating that nature was God’s creation and being in harmony with nature was simply away to respect and serve God. Most of the residents felt that his comments were beneficial and that it would be a good idea for him to speak again.

Millicent was sitting to the side where she was able to look at the audience and judge their reactions. Many of the residents were nodding in agreement with Stuart’s remarks, precisely the effect Millicent had hoped for. Millicent rose and led a brief round of applause. “If you all agree, I would like to invite Mr. Montgomery to come back again next week so that we may continue to learn about Nature. Perhaps, Mr. Montgomery could also tell us about his Environment First Movement at that time and what we could do to help.”

On the ride back to their camp, Stuart described his initial experience at La Vida Aureo to Rosalie in relatively positive terms. “They seemed to understand what I was saying and I think many of them agreed with my philosophy. I was a bit overwhelmed, though. There were more people than I’m used to and I’m not sure I can handle things if they want to ask question. Oh, and Mrs. Branch told me that I can talk specifically about our Cause at next week’s meeting and also ask for donations.”

“That’s good news, Steward. I knew you would do well. Would you like to have several of the girls of our Flock go with you on for your next lesson to handle some of the questions? They could also assist with the collections for you?”

“That would be most helpful, Rosalie. Since you know them much better than I, would you please choose three or four to accompany me?”

Stuart decided to call his series of speeches to the residents of La Vida Aureo “lessons” since he believed that his mission was one of education. For his second lesson, Stuart decided to focus on technology and its role. “I am not against progress, he began. Man must learn to think about the longer term effects and consequences of his actions.

We must use our technology to solve problems. For example, we have demonstrated that we can make cars that are much more fuel efficient. We’ve even developed affordable electric and hybrid models. But, we’ve reached a point where we must not become so enamored with our achievements that we lose sight of the potential longer-term effects. Suppose we were able to abolish gasoline altogether and only have electric automobiles. We cannot simply ignore the question of where all that electricity comes from to power these cars. Since we decreased our use of nuclear power, most of our electricity is generated by burning something, such as natural gas or coal. So, what we really have done, in effect, is substitute burning one hydrocarbon for another.   Maybe our long-term technological focus should be on figuring out ways to drive less!”

“I’m sure you’ve noticed that several young women accompanied me here today. They are an important part of the Environment First Movement and are here to talk with you in more detail about these lessons. If you would like to break into smaller groups for a few minutes, these women will assist you with any questions and further discussion.”

This approach was well received by the residents in attendance, although Millicent had a few choice words for Stuart about why she wasn’t notified about this change in plans first. But, she was quick to observe the lively discussion occurring in the smaller groups and kept her comments to a minimum. There were more residents in attendance this time and Millicent was achieving her primary objective.

In the small groups, most of the questions were about Stuart himself rather than the context of his lesson. The girls had been well-schooled by Rosalie in advance and spoke in glowing terms about The Steward and all the great things he hoped to accomplish for the good of nature. Rosalie had also instructed that the girls exactly how and when to push for donations and this was also successful.

That evening, Rosalie gathered all the girls together to review their first trip to La Vida Aureo. “Oh, things went pretty well, offered Cassandra. Of course, most of those old biddies just wanted to talk about The Steward; I guess they are not used to seeing any men under the age of 70!”

“Yeah, but I think most of those old people are loaded, suggested Jane. When the woman I was sitting with opened her purse to make a donation, I noticed a huge wad of bills, just sitting there. And there was a bunch of jewelry there, too! She fumbled around trying to get a few dollars out to put in the hat and just stuffed the wad back into her purse.”

The other girls who had attended the meeting made similar comments and seemed eager to return.

Rosalie thanked all the girls for their comments and their hard work in this new situation. “This new opportunity that The Steward has arranged could be the best thing that has ever happened to our community and we can significantly increase the amount of money we raise for our environmental Cause. I want you all to join me in a little celebration that I call a Tea Ceremony. I’ve prepared this herbal tea using an old native recipe and invite you to each take a sip from this cup”

Rosalie dimmed the overhead light and passed the large cup around the gathered circle of girls and each one took a small sip. “Now, just sit back and clear your mind. I want each of you to imagine how much better things are going to be if each of you does your part to support The Steward and further our Cause.”

In a few minutes, the girls began to sway and rock back and forth. Their eyes became glazed and their faces took on a silly grin. “I can see beautiful colors”, said Jane. “Me too”, giggled Tessa. “I see flowers and trees,” said Sofia.” “I’m floating, said Janelle. Similar comments continued for the next thirty minute and the girls gradually regained their focus and looked at Rosalie in amazement and bewilderment.

“OK, has everyone returned to this room, asked Rosalie and are you ready to talk about your role at this retirement home with The Steward and how you can really help our Cause?” Like most things, it will only be a good as we make it. Your role will be to encourage these old folks to make sizeable contributions to our Cause. Since I suspect many of them will be reluctant, I wanted to introduce you to a little persuasion medicine.

“It was wonderful, exclaimed Jane. Can we do it again?”

“We can have our little Tea Ceremony as often as you like, but you each will have to do your part to earn this privilege. The Steward will continue to encourage the residents who attend his lectures to spend some time alone with one of you to discuss the day’s topic in greater detail. When you are alone, you will offer that person a cup of our Special Herbal Tea to relax them. Once they drift off a bit, you can search their room for cash, jewelry or anything else of value. By the time they come back around, you will simply tell them how much they have learned and how important they are to the Cause. Be sure to thank them and rinse out the cup and flush the tea leaves before you leave. Any questions?”

“Wow, Mama Rosa, this could be so much better than standing at an intersection and having people yell at me. I even had a guy spit on me last week.”

“You should never discuss our Tea Ceremony with anyone outside of this group, even The Steward. And, I need not tell you that you must be cautious in dealing with these old folks; some of them can be pretty squirrelly!”

Rosalie smiled to herself as she left the dormitory trailer. She knew that she had provided just enough incentive to the girls for them to do what was necessary. She knew she could count on competition among them to be chosen as The Steward’s Guide for a future vision quest to make the new venture at the retirement home very successful.

Over the next few weeks, Stuart’s lessons focused increasingly on examples of environmental damage and how Man had relied on technology to control nature rather than using it for the purpose of stewardship. He stressed the need for greater education to remind Man of this responsibility. He remained optimistic, but cautioned that there was a great deal of work to yet be done. He spoke with increasing passion and the smaller discussion groups became more frequent. The girls were able to successfully push for more contributions. They also suggested that one-on-one private discussions were available and a few residents accepted the invitation to hold these in their individual rooms. The residents who opted for these private meetings were given a large potted plant with beautiful white flowers which the girls called Angel’s Trumpets.

Eventually, the discussion got around to what Stuart referred to as The Environment First Cause and several residents asked how they could help. Stuart mentioned that his group was involved in several projects to stop environmental damage in and around New Mexico. He was somewhat vague, but warned that these projects must be stopped before God caused some much worse type of calamity. He encouraged the residents to donate to The Cause calling it “God’s Work”. He criticized groups like the Sierra Club for wasting so much time and money lobbying politicians in Washington instead of being on the front lines of environmental responsibility and action.

Stuart believed in education and relied on pamphlets to get his message out. He encouraged the residents to make peace with God and the environment. They should forsake their worldly possessions and provide support to the Cause.

Paloma Angostura overheard several of the residents discussing that morning’s lesson in the dining room late one afternoon. Their discussion eventually turned to the level of support that each was providing and the consensus was that they should be able to do more for this worthy cause. One woman said, “I am considering changing my will and designating a portion of my estate to be donated to the Environment First Movement.”

“Do you think that wise?” another asked.

“It is a good cause, she replied. One of the girls said she would help me make the arrangements so that the money was directed properly.”

“I agree that the Cause seems to make sense, but I think I’ll stay with providing cash or a check each week when they ask for donations.”

As the residents rose to leave the dining room, one woman stopped another and said, “I seem to have misplaced my diamond earrings; did I happen to leave them in your room? I thought I might have taken them off while we were playing cards.”

“No, I haven’t seen them. Are you sure you’re just not getting forgetful?”

“I might be. I seem to have also misplaced some cash that I keep in my room for emergencies.”

“It probably isn’t wise to leave cash lying around. You never know about these girls they hire to clean our rooms. You don’t need cash for emergencies in the first place.”

Paloma decided to mention these somewhat disturbing comments to Matthew Dudley the next time she saw him. She was concerned that perhaps this new found friend of Mrs. Branch’s was taking advantage of the residents. She did not think it was a coincidence that money and jewelry seemed to go missing each time this Steward fellow and his followers showed up.

In the individual sessions, the designated girl prepared a cup of tea for the resident. The dried tea was initially prepared by Rosalie using the leaves of the Angel’s Trumpet flowering plant. In very small does, it acted as a mild hallucinogen and was effective in having the resident experience a temporary form of rapture. With the resident in this state of mental confusion, the girl was able to move freely about the apartment or casita and steal any cash or valuables that were visible.

On one occasion, the resident, Mrs. Anderson, did not seem to be affected so the young girl, Cassandra, added a few more tea leaves to her cup. The resident began to experience more agitated behavior and became aggressive. In an attempt to protect herself and also gain control of the situation, Cassandra pushed the resident. She stumbled backward and hit her head against a coffee table and fell unconscious. Cassandra quickly left the casita and walked toward the waiting van in the Guest Parking lot. She climbed into the back of the van and Rosalie asked, “What happened? You are supposed to be inside with The Steward.”

“Some old lady passed out after she drank her tea and hit her head when she fell over. She was unconscious so I just left.”

“I suppose we’ll just have to be more careful with the tea with these old folks. Were you able to get anything from her?

“I got some cash and some jewelry, but didn’t have time to really search the place.”

The next morning, when the maid showed up with fresh linens, she noticed Mrs. Anderson lying on the floor. She quickly notified her Supervisor who called 911. The paramedics arrived and pronounced Mrs. Anderson dead. At the hospital, the young doctor on duty at the time stated that Mrs. Anderson had probably died of a heart attack. He dismissed the cut on her head as incidental to the heart attack and subsequent fall. When the hospital reviewed Mrs. Anderson’s medical records, the heart attack diagnosis seemed the most likely cause of death and the matter was closed.

The amount of cash stolen, jewelry, etc. stolen and delivered to Rosalie increased with each visit. Much of the jewelry and similar hard goods were either fenced or sold at the Albuquerque Flea Market. Rosalie kept Stuart completely in the dark about this aspect of things. When he questioned her about money (“Do we have enough for supplies, gas, etc.?”), she told him that she had arranged for a large donor for The Cause.

Chapter 5: Visits with Old Friends

Hannah Halverstrom came to La Vida Aureo one afternoon to sign the final sale contract for Matthew Dudley’s house in Cerrillos. The Steward and several of his assistants were in the main dining room setting up for the day’s lesson. While waiting for Dudley to return from a repair job, Hannah listened as Steward began his lesson. “He is certainly charismatic”, Hannah mused to herself. As she continued to listen, an image formed in her mind of another young man from her past who was just as captivating. She gasped as she recognized Stuart as a younger version of James Montgomery from her time at Tawapa years before. “Oh, my God!”

Matthew Dudley had quietly walked up behind Hannah as she stood in the doorway. “Are you OK?”

“Oh, Doc. For a moment, I thought I saw a ghost, but realized that it is a real, flesh and blood person. I’m certain that the young man speaking must be the son of someone I knew when I lived in Placitas many years ago.”

“That can’t necessarily be a bad thing, Hannah.”

“Well, if you believe that an apple doesn’t fall from the tree, it could be. I assume that all those young girls are here with him? If so, it could spell trouble.”

“My understanding from Isabella is that Millicent Branch invited him here to talk about nature. I listened to part of one of his lectures a few days ago and it seemed relatively harmless. He occasionally adds some biblical references, but it’s mostly about environmental issues and how man is messing things up. The girls, whom he refers to as his Flock, have started coming more recently as the number of residents in attendance has grown.”

“I still have an uneasy feeling about this, particularly after my mistake with Professor Pearson. I do not want to see anyone cause trouble for La Vida Aureo or any of the residents. I think it would be prudent if I talked to his father to get a better understanding of what Stuart is up to.”

“That sounds rather ominous, Hannah. Are you sure you’re not over reacting just a bit?”

“I know you’re not a chauvinist, Doc, so I’ll interpret that remark as an expression of your concern. His father works downtown at New Mexico Federated Bank & Trust and I saw him a few years ago while arranging financing for a home I was trying to sell. I was pleased to see that James had turned his life around and was now a responsible member of the community. You’re probably right and it is nothing, but I need to pay him a visit to put my own mind at rest.”

“If that’s what you think is necessary. Anyway, if you’re going to town, could you drop me off at Saville & Sons Coffee on Bellamah Street near Old Town? I am supposed to meet some friends there and OJ is out running errands for Isabella.”

“Sure, Doc. I’m ready to leave if you are. Oh, I almost forgot. I brought the final contract on your house for you to sign. Everything is exactly as we discussed the other day. It is a very good deal for everyone involved.”

“Thank, Hannah. Let me grab a jacket and I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

Hannah entered the lobby of New Mexico Federated Bank & Trust and approached the Information Desk and nodded at the security guard standing there. She handed her business card to the attendant and said, “I’d like to see James Montgomery.”

“He’s very busy, ma’am. Do you have an appointment?”

“I do not, but this is quite important.”

“If you’ll have a seat over there, I’ll see if he’s available”, he said, motioning to a sofa and some chairs across the lobby.

“If you would please tell Mr. Montgomery that I’d like to speak to him about Stuart, I believe he’ll see me.”

As Hannah turned around to sit on the designated sofa, she saw James Montgomery walking briskly toward her. “Hannah! My God, is good to see you.” He opened his arms to embrace her as he neared. Hannah hesitated, not knowing exactly how to react and that was sufficient time for James to engulf her in a vigorous bear hug.

“James, we need to talk, but not here in the bank’s lobby.”

“OK. Let’s go to my private office. What is this about Stuart?”

“I believe I saw Stuart earlier today and he was speaking at an up-scale retirement village near Albuquerque Heights. The Executive Director there is a very good friend of mine and I care a great deal about the residents. I came to see you to inquire what you know about Stuart’s current activities and his environmental movement. I admit that I may be a bit prejudiced by things from our past at Tawapa, but I am also somewhat skeptical when it comes to charismatic, evangelical types.”

James Montgomery sighed and the practiced bank executive demeanor left his face as he slumped back in his over-stuffed leather office chair. “Oh, Hannah, he began. I’ve tried repeatedly to connect with Stuart, but he refuses to have anything to do with me. I had heard through some friends from the old days that his mother had died a rather horrible death some years ago and I tried to contact Stuart, but was unable to. Then, a few years ago, he just walked into the bank and said he wanted to talk to me. Hannah, I tried, but he was so confused and wasn’t making much sense in anything he said. I encouraged him to stay in Albuquerque and allow me to help him get a fresh start. But he is still filled with anger and resentment. I also believe that he is heavily influenced by that woman he lives with and she has convinced him that anyone who is part of the business world is inherently evil and should be avoided. And, I’m afraid that too many years using various mind-altering drugs have affected his thinking. I have been led to believe that, as Stuart wandered from California back toward New Mexico, he lived for a short time with probably every drug-using group along the way and picked up some rather nasty habits. I told him I would help him in any way possible, but he had to first go through a serious rehab program, including an assessment of his brain condition to determine how much damage is permanent. He has repeatedly refused any offer of help and I am at a loss for what to do.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, James.”

“Look, Hannah, I know I did some pretty stupid things in my life and that I cannot change the past. I’ve tried to be a responsible person and use my position here at the bank to help as many people as I can. But, I have been unable to help someone who means so much to me.”

“I appreciate your saying that, James. What do you know about this Environment First movement or Cause that Stuart seems so passionate about?”

“Not much really. I understand that he shows up in the Old Town Plaza frequently and speaks to anyone who will stop to listen, sort of a soap box thing. I’m not sure how he supports himself beyond some meager donations and I think he also sells some pamphlets about his environmental philosophy. One of the tellers here at the bank brought one back with her several months ago. From what I read, Stuart believes that if people were more educated about the environment, they would stop doing so much harm. There are some religious or biblical references included, but it’s pretty general stuff.”

“Do you know anything about the people he lives with?”

“No. I’ve heard that they all live in some sort of farm or compound north of town, but I’m not sure exactly where, but I have a strong suspicion that he has returned to the old Tawapa site.”

“Well, James, I appreciate your seeing me and I am truly sorry about the situation with Stuart. I imagine it must be painful to talk about it. If I learn anything from the retirement village that could help, I will let you know.”

“Thank you, Hannah. Perhaps we could have lunch the next time you’re in town.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea, James. As I said, if I learn anything, I’ll give you a call or something. Thanks again for your time and your candid comments.”

As Hannah exited the bank building into the parking lot, the warmth of the afternoon sun was not able to completely revive her spirits. She thought back to her days at Tawapa and the handsome and charismatic young James Montgomery. Despite his considerable charm and powers of persuasion, Hannah had successfully avoided all of his repeated advances. Even in an environment that espoused free love, she refused to be just another one of Jumpin’ Jimmy’s conquests. Nonetheless, she felt a deep sense of sadness for him and his nonexistent relationship with his son.

Across town, Matthew Dudley was enjoying time with his so-called Curmudgeon Crew. He was always glad to see his friends, but today he was particularly excited to show off the new smart phone that Isabella purchased for him and insisted he carry with him at all times. His friends were sitting down at a table in the corner when Hector Guzman walked up to greet them. “Ah, if it isn’t Los Viejos”, he said loudly.

“But, none of us is as old as you, amigo, replied Abe.”

“Speaking of old ones, Doc, asked Hakim. What is this business about you leaving Cerrillos and moving into an Old Folk Home?”

“It is NOT an Old Folk Home, countered Dudley. It is a retirement village and a very up-scale one at that! As far as leaving Cerrillos, I am the victim of a major conspiracy between my doctor and my kids to get me out of living alone. It wasn’t my idea at all.”

“You must not have fought very hard against this so-called conspiracy, from what I hear, chided Emilio Sandoval. It cannot be too bad if it is called La Vida Aureo, The Golden Life. That sounds pretty cushy to me!”

“Have Doc tell you about becoming the resident House Detective, offered Ray Littlefeather. I suspect that had something to do with his being a willing participant in this conspiracy.”

“House detective?” they all said at once.

“No, no. Ray is exaggerating. I just try to help out when I can to understand some of the unfortunate things that have happened recently.”

“Doc is just being modest, Ray added. What my police buddies tell me, Old Doc here has become a regular Sam Spade.”

“That isn’t true, Ray. I’ve just used regular logic to help solve problems. And many of the residents feel at ease to talk to me. And besides, it’s only temporary.”

“So, maybe you’re the Sherlock Holmes of the retirement home”, suggested Abe.

“C’mon Doc, we know your house in Cerrillos has a For Sale sign out in front. That doesn’t sound temporary to me.”

“I give up with you guys. Alright, I would not have believed it, but I’ve come to actually enjoy living at that place. The people, at least most of them, are nice and I get to help out in a number of ways.”

“OK, Doc, we’ll stop picking on you, at least for today. I guess when you’re as old as you are, this is really the best solution for your golden years.”

“But, I’m learning new things every day unlike the rest of you Luddites. Look, I have this new smart phone and I know how to use it … somewhat. I even have a photo I personally took on the screen. I’ll bet none of you have one as fancy as this!”

“Wow, Doc, we’re really impressed, said Emilio. Pass it around so that we curmudgeons can marvel at this new-fangled technology.”

“I recognize this photo as Georgia O’Keefe’s famous painting entitled “Jimson Weed”, boasted Abe.

Ray was the last to handle Doc’s new phone and he leaned over to Emilio and asked, “What does this look like to you, amigo?”

“Doc, where did you get this picture?” Ray asked in a hesitant tone.

“It’s a rather long story, responded Dudley. We have a new speaker at La Vida Aureo and he has given this beautiful flowering plant to several of our residents. I took a picture with my new phone. Why?”

“Doc, we understand that you are trying to become a modern type guy, but we didn’t think you would take up drugs at this point in your life.”

“What? What are you saying?”

Emilio looked directly at Dudley and said, “Let’s get Hector over here so that he can add to what Ray and I are going to tell you. This is some serious business.”

For the next thirty minutes, Ray, Emilio and Hector talked about the photo of the Angel’s Trumpet flower that Dudley had captured with his phone. “This plant is also known as datura or jimson weed and it is a very dangerous hallucinogen and poison. It is one of the oldest poisons known and there are many references to it in the literature of many cultures over the centuries”, offered Emilio.

Ray and Hector were the most knowledgeable and provided additional detailed comments about the peyote cultures of the Mexicans and Native Americans. “I’ve seen too many young people who have died from this weed, lamented Ray. Kids desperate to get high on the cheap have used this stuff and end up dead. They try to make a tea out of the dried leaves. In very limited amounts, it causes hallucinations, agitated behavior and a very confused mental state. But, most people have no idea that it is also very poisonous and the results can be fatal.”

“We aren’t making these comments to alarm you, Doc, but this plant can be very dangerous. It is pretty to look at, but if you get any of its oil on your skin, the results can be most unpleasant. You might want to alert the residents about this.

Doc was stunned by these revelations and realized that many of the residents at La Vida Aureo had these plants in their rooms and there were several in one of the conference rooms. He realized that he must return to La Vida Aureo as quickly as possible; he had work to do.\

“You guys are invaluable to me as friends and as cohorts in my new responsibilities. Ray, could you drive me back to La Vida Aureo? I don’t know how long my friend Hannah will be in town. “

On the way, Ray asked Dudley, “Should we call Frank Garcia?”

“Not yet. My friend Hannah is checking on Stuart today and that should shed some light on whether this is harmless or there is something more dangerous going on. I am not aware of any problems with this plant or with the new speaker … so far.”

Chapter 6: A Trip to Placitas

Things had been going pretty well for Millicent Branch and she was confident that she was gaining the upper hand in the battle for Resident Diva at La Vida Aureo. She decided to invite Ines Barela for tea in the main dining room as a peace offering. Ines began to feel light headed after only a few sips of tea and then started to shout. “Franco tortured my mother and kept her in prison for many years. She was a broken woman when she was released. He stole my mother from me.” Ines was now standing and waving her arms about wildly. Millicent panicked and encouraged Ines to sit back down and tried to calm her. Millicent called out for Paloma to assist. Ines appeared to recover after about thirty minutes, but Paloma noticed how dilated her pupils were. One of the resident nurses arrived and escorted Ines back to her room and stayed with her until she was confident the spell had passed. Back in the dining room, Paloma quickly removed both cups of tea and took them to the kitchen where she instructed Maria to lock them in the pantry.

Later that day, Paloma called Matthew Dudley to discuss the terrifying experience with Ines Barela. “Those dilated pupils remind me of the way some of the farm workers looked after smoking peyote. There may be something in the tea that Señora Barela drank that made her act so strangely.”

Matthew Dudley related his meeting with his Curmudgeon Crew and what they had revealed to him about the Angel’s Trumpet plant that Stuart Montgomery had brought to La Vida Aureo.

Dudley and Paloma also talked about all the reports of lost and missing valuables and cash. They wondered if these were related and if there was any connection with The Steward. They also realized and acknowledged that some of the residents’ memories weren’t as strong as they thought.

Paloma said that her intuition told her that Stuart was a rather harmless person, but she wasn’t so sure about the young girls that accompanied him. She also said that she had noticed an old VW van in the parking lot each time Stuart and his Flock were present.

Dudley decided that he needed to gather more information about Stuart and his Flock. He called Hannah and asked her if she had learned anything about Stuart from her visit with his father. Hannah summarized James’ story and said that she felt sorry for him. Dudley said that the situation was certainly tragic, but that he was concerned that something was happening at La Vida Aureo that troubled him deeply. He asked Hannah if she would take him to the place near Placitas where Stuart and his Flock were living and suggested that OJ drive, which sounded like a prudent action.

That afternoon, OJ drove Dudley and Hannah in his pickup truck, exiting in Bernalillo and driving east toward the historic village of Placitas. It was a difficult journey for Hannah since she had not been beyond the newer homes nearer to I-25 as a real estate agent for many years. Since none of them knew exactly where Stuart’s camp was located, they stopped at the Placitas Senior Center to ask for directions. The Senior Center was located on Las Heurtas Road which led to the more rural areas of Placitas. Hannah noticed that even this area had become much more developed since her days at Tawapa.

Dudley and Hannah entered the Senior Center where a few volunteers were occupied cleaning up after the noon meal. A woman in a long skirt and apron looked up and started toward them. “Can I help you? She asked as she neared. Before Dudley spoke, this woman shouted, “Oh, Hannah is that you?”

“Oh, dear, Sarah, is that you?” exclaimed Hannah, equally surprised. The two women embraced for what seemed to Dudley like the longest time and both were crying uncontrollably.

Finally, Hannah broke away and turned to face Dudley. “I’m sorry, Sarah, this is Matthew Dudley, a very good friend of mine. Doc, this is Sarah, a person I haven’t seen since I left this area many, many years ago.”

“It is very nice to meet you, Sarah. I am pleased to meet you, particularly if you are a friend of Hannah’s. It looks like you had quite a crowd here for lunch today.”

“Oh, yes, many of the long time residents of Placitas come here almost every day. It has become a gathering place for many of us who are concerned about what is happening to Placitas. There probably isn’t much we can do, but all these new homes down the hill are placing a terrible strain on our limited water supply.”

“Sarah, I promise to come back very soon and we can spend an entire afternoon catching up. There are so many things I want to ask you. But, right now, Dudley and I are trying to locate a camp or compound where a man named Stuart Montgomery lives. He may call himself The Steward and there are probably a number of young girls living at the same place.”

“I guess you’re referring to that hippie bunch that has a camp much further out Las Heurtas Road, at the edge of the Open Space. Much of that land has been developed into more sub-division-type homes, but there is still some land out there that the developers haven’t gobbled up yet. If you stay on this road and just keep driving, you’ll eventually come to a fence that is at the edge of their compound.”

“Can you tell us anything about them?”

“Not much. They pretty much stay to themselves. I do see that old van drive in and out almost every day. I assume they are going to Bernalillo or Albuquerque for some reason.”

“OK, thanks. We’ve got to be going, but I promise I will be back very soon. Here are my business cards with my number. Don’t ask; I’ll explain the cards when we get together. If I don’t call you within a few days, do not hesitate to bug me; I really would like to sit down and talk about all that has happened since we were together.”

Dudley and Hannah got back in OJ’s pickup and continued out Las Huertas Road. The paved road eventually turned to gravel and as they rounded a wide bend, they noticed a high chain-link fence and gate. There were two men standing on either side of the gate and it looked to Dudley that they were carrying some sort of hunting rifle slung over their shoulder. OJ stopped the truck about fifty yards from the gate and Dudley got out and started toward the men. “Be very careful, Señor Doc, I don’t like the looks of those hombres”, yelled OJ as Dudley moved slowly forward.

Dudley stopped about twenty yards from the gate when he noticed both men had taken their rifles from their shoulder and were now pointing them at him. “Hello, shouted Dudley. I’m looking for Stuart Montgomery. Perhaps you know him as The Steward.”

“Go away, Old Man, you have no business here. This is private property and visitors are not welcome here.”

“Look, I don’t want any trouble. I’d just like to talk to Stuart for a few minutes about some lessons he’s giving at the place I live.”

“I said GO AWAY! What part of “you’re not welcome here” don’t you understand? Now get back in your truck and get out of here before you really piss me off.”

“OK, no problem. I’m leaving.”

OJ had already turned the truck around when Dudley climbed back into the front seat. Hannah was crouched low in the back seat. “Señor Doc, I don’t know what they are doing this far out of town, but they are Tecolotes, very, very bad people. They will use their guns on you. Let’s get away from here mui pronto!”

When they had driven for a few minutes, Hannah raised her head and said, “What was that all about? Did those guys really threaten to shoot you?”

“I’m afraid so. And, from what OJ just said, they probably would have. We need to think about what all of this means and what might be going on at La Vida Aureo.”

“Should we call the police, or someone? This isn’t right and it doesn’t look like any hippie compound to me.”

“I don’t know. Let me think about it a while we drive back to Albuquerque.”

That evening, the guards reported to Rosalie about the old guy asking about Stuart. “He said something about lessons at the place he lives. We didn’t tell him anything, just encouraged him to leave.”

Rosalie realized that she must change her plans and act sooner than she had originally planned; timing had become critical. She needed Stuart to alter his message so that it was more in keeping with her plans. Based on how the girls had performed so far, she decided that Cassandra would be the most appropriate Guide to lead Stuart through another vision quest. Rosalie must also convince the girls to become much more aggressive in obtaining money and valuables.

As Rosalie had expected, competition among the girls was a primary motivation for increasing the amount of cash and valuables they were able to bring back after each one of Stuart’s teaching sessions. The girls pushed for more one-on-one meetings, providing them with ample opportunities to steal. The girls would sit around in their dormitory trailer in the evenings and compare stories about how gullible these old folks were and how easy it was to steal. The real underlying motivation, however, remained the chance to be chosen as Guide for The Steward’s Vision Quests. Cassandra in particular had set her sights on becoming the permanent Guide, displacing Jane who seemed to be Rosalie’s favorite. Cassandra knew that if she were able to bring home a large bounty, she would be able to convince Rosalie that she was the most worthy. Once she established herself, Cassandra knew it would be easy to maintain that position. She had watched closely as Rosalie prepared the tea for their ceremonies and felt that she could use this to her advantage with the residents.

When Jane learned of Rosalie’s choice, she was outraged and decided that she must accomplish a major haul on their next visit to La Vida Aureo. Jane knew which of the older women residents typically carried large amounts of cash and she would make sure to arrange a private session with her following The Steward’s upcoming lesson.

That evening, Stuart and Rosalie were talking about his lessons at La Vida Aureo and their progression. “I am somewhat at a loss, Rosalie. I’ve never been asked to present an entire series of lessons before. I have always just stuck to a few basic ideas and assumed people would understand my message. I’m not sure where I should go next. These people seem genuinely interested and want to help. I just don’t know what to say.”

Rosalie suggested that Stuart embark on another Vision Quest to seek guidance about the direction he should take and the specific topics he should cover with the residents. “Go to your Hut and relax your mind while I make the necessary preparations. I am confident that you will emerge with a clear path forward.”

Rosalie summoned Cassandra and began to prepare her for her role as Guide. “Cassandra, this is perhaps the most important Vision Quest that The Steward has ever made. Your role as Guide this evening is to help him see how to talk to the people at the retirement home so that they can more fully support our Cause. The Steward believes that it is time to talk more explicitly about God’s anger and His vengeance. Those people need to realize that God will bring destruction through a great flood or with fire and brimstone if man does not change his ways. You will speak softly to The Steward and assure him that this is the correct direction. You should also guide The Steward to recommend more one-on-one sessions with the members of his Flock. Then, you girls can encourage the residents to be more generous in their direct support of his Cause.”

Cassandra was excited about this opportunity and knew that, if she did as Rosalie instructed, she would gain more favor with The Steward and elevate her position among the girls of The Flock. “I understand completely, Mama Rosa, and you can count on me.”

Chapter 7: The Lessons Turn Deadly

At his next lesson at La Vida Aureo, Stuart took on a more ominous tone. He warned of environmental collapse as man’s behavior was destroying nature and the environment. He told stories of Old Testament type vengeance where God caused man’s destruction through a great flood or with fire and brimstone.

Eventually, the discussion got around to what Stuart referred to as The Environmental First Cause and several residents asked how they could help. Stuart mentioned that his group was involved in several projects to stop environmental damage in and around New Mexico. He was somewhat vague, but warned that these projects must be stopped before God caused some much worse type of calamity. He encouraged the residents to donate to The Cause calling it “God’s Work”. He criticized groups like the Sierra Club for wasting so much time and money lobbying politicians in Washington instead of being on the front lines of environmental responsibility and action. He encouraged the residents to make peace with God and the environment. They should forsake their worldly possessions and provide support to the Cause.

Dudley was walking past the conference room and heard Stuart’s voice in what seemed to be a more passionate tone than previously. He listened to Stuart warn of impending disaster and of God raining down fire and brimstone to punish Man for his actions. As the residents were leaving the conference room to attend the private discussions, Dudley stopped Millicent Branch in the hallway. “Excuse me, Mrs. Branch. I could not help but overhear Stuart’s lesson and he seemed to be a bit melodramatic today. Do you think all this fire and brimstone stuff is appropriate? I hope he’s not just trying to scare people into giving him more money for his Cause.”

“Don’t be silly, Mr. Dudley. It can’t hurt to get these old folks’ blood pumping a bit more than usual. He’s really harmless, I can assure you.”

Jane had selected Lucille Hancock, an older woman who had talked about keeping money and jewels in her room, as her target. At the start of their private session, Jane increased the amount of leaves in the tea in an attempt to get the woman to pass out quickly. Instead, the Mrs. Hancock began to convulse and slumped over in her chair. Jane quickly searched the apartment for anything of value, washed the tea cups and walked quickly to Rosalie in the waiting van. “Look at how I made out today, she boasted as she handed a plastic shopping bag filled with cash and jewelry to Rosalie. I deserve to be the Guide for all The Steward’s Vision Quests instead of the pathetic Cassandra.”

When Rosalie asked how the woman reacted to Jane’s stealing so much, Jane nonchalantly said, “Well, I think she kinda died, probably from rapture.”

“That’s unfortunate, but you did very well indeed, Jane. This will greatly help The Cause. Tonight, after the other girls are asleep, meet me outside your trailer and I will tell you some other special things you can do to really make an impression on everyone, including The Steward.”

Later that afternoon, a friend stopped at Mrs. Hancock’s apartment to accompany her to dinner in the main dining room. When there was no answer to her knock, she tried the door which was ajar. Upon entering the apartment, she immediately noticed her friend Lucille lying on the floor of her living room. She screamed. Matthew Dudley happened to be coming down that same hallway and immediately ran toward the scream. He also noticed the woman lying on the floor and called 911 and then Isabella.

The paramedics arrived within a few minutes and it did not take long for them to pronounce the woman dead at the scene. Matthew Dudley and Isabella Duncan stood silently as the paramedics lifted the woman’s lifeless body onto the gurney to remove it. As they left the apartment, the lead paramedic motioned to Dudley and said, “Look, I’m not a detective, but it looks like something suspicious may have happened here. Many of the drawers are partially open and the dead woman’s purse was lying behind the couch. If I were you, I’d have the police at least check the entire place for signs of robbery, or whatever. I’m also going to recommend that the Medical Examiner have a look at the body. I don’t mean to sound paranoid and this old lady may have just had a fatal heart attack but I think a call to the police is in order.”

“Thanks for your observations, replied Dudley. It’s really the Director’s call, but I tend to agree with you. Something just doesn’t feel right about this. I’m not aware of any serious health problems that Mrs. Hancock had.”

It did not take much to convince Isabella that a call to Lt. Garcia of the Albuquerque Major Crime Unit was the appropriate course of action. “Would you please call him as soon as possible, Doc?”

Lt. Frank Garcia was only a few blocks away when the call came and he arrived as the paramedic unit drove away. He parked and walked up to greet Dudley and Isabella who were still standing outside the main building. “I received a call from Dispatch saying that there was a suspicious death here. Can either of you tell me briefly what happened?”

“There’s not much to tell, Lieutenant, offered Isabella. We don’t know anything more than Doc found one of our residents dead in her apartment just a short while ago. The paramedics arrived quickly, but she was already dead. That’s all we know.”

“There are several things about her apartment that look suspicious, added Dudley. The lead paramedic was the first to notice it, but I can show what he found if you’ll follow me.”

“Doc, I’m going back to my office to see who I have to notify of her death. Can you show Lt. Garcia around and answer any questions? Thank you for coming so quickly, Lieutenant. I hope this turns out to be nothing more than an unfortunate heart attack.”

Dudley and Frank Garcia walked quietly to Mrs. Hancock’s apartment. Dudley pointed out the partially open drawers and the purse and then stood back as Lt. Garcia looked more carefully at the scene. “You may be right, Doc. I don’t know this particular woman, but it seems unlikely that her apartment would look so disturbed, for lack of a better description. And, the purse certainly doesn’t belong where it is. If it’s OK with you and Isabella, I’d like to get a forensic team out here to go through the place thoroughly. In the meantime, would you please secure this apartment until the crime scene guys do their thing?”

“I agree, Lieutenant. I’ll let Isabella know what you recommend and what is planned. Have the forensic team contact me and I’ll arrange things on this end. Oh, and I need to tell you that the lead paramedic was going to have the Medical Examiner examine her body just to confirm that she died of a heart attack. I’m pretty sure he was not convinced that that’s how she died.”

“Thanks, Doc. I’ll be sure to follow up with Dr. Hernandez.” Well, before I head home, I think I’ll stop in to say Hello to Señora Angostura.”

Lt. Garcia found Paloma exactly where he expected, in the kitchen deep in thought. “Francisco! It is so good to see you, mi hijo. I fear you are here once again with bad news.”

Si, Madre. There has been another death. It may just be a heart attack, but Doc and Isabella want to be certain.”

“Sit down, Francisco. There have been too many unexplained things happening here lately and I need to share my feelings with someone I trust.”

Paloma poured out her heart to Frank Garcia and told him about the other woman’s death and about all the recent unexplained losses of money and jewelry. “These may all be just unfortunate events, Francisco, but it was Señora Barela’s eyes that upset me the most. What I saw has haunted me for many days.”

Paloma described the situation with Mrs. Branch and Señora Barela and how Señora Barela’s behavior changed so quickly and so drastically. Paloma said that everything seemed to be the result of the tea she drank and that it was probably the cause of her pupils becoming so dilated. “I fear that someone is using the datura leaves as a tea to affect the behavior of some of our residents. This new preacher that Mrs. Branch invited has been giving the flower as a gift as part of his program and I am suspicious of all of them. I have not seen this for many years, not since I came to Albuquerque. Some of the older brujas from Mexico used datura to poison their enemies. It is very dangerous. I kept the tea cups from that day and I beg you to have then examined as part of your investigation.”

 

 

“All of that seems pretty far-fetched, Madre, but I know better than to doubt your powers of observation and your assessment of people. As a policeman, I guess I’m also suspicious about events that may look like coincidences. Just last week, a man I work with in a youth program was talking about the datura plant and its many dangers. When I asked him to tell me more, he suggested that I talk to Doc. Now, that is not just a coincidence! Doc told me that he also has doubts about the cause of Mrs. Hancock’s death and there was a datura plant in her apartment. I will take the cups and compare the contents with what the Medical Examiner finds when he performs the autopsy on Mrs. Hancock.”