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.”