CHAPTER SIX

3-26-08/Wednesday.

Lunch with Aunt Theresa came with an update for her with the planned family reunion for this summer. Joan notes that she seems surprisingly enthusiastic about this growing gathering, including meeting the stepmother she never knew. With Tyler unavailable until evening, Joan begins to feel a little bored and decides to do the tourist thing in her hometown.

First stop is Millenium Park, which was scheduled to be completed in 2000 but went over by four years – after the Girardis had left Chicago. There is plenty of available parking as it is a damp, blustery day. Joan walks about the park heavily bundled against the weather and admires the modern facility. (She also wonders how a park can run 300 million over budget but makes no comment. After all, she is from Arcadia: 'The Most Corrupt City in America'.) Late March in a cold climate isn't the best time to visit a park, but Joan acknowledges that in warmer weather it must be an enjoyable place to spend time, especially at one of the outdoor concerts at the music pavilion. She pauses to admire the large, shiny modern art sculpture called 'Cloudgate' (but which she thinks looks a bit like a giant bean). The Crown Fountain is also interesting with the many faces of Chicagoans appearing on the sides of the structures inside the fountain area (but Joan feels it is more gimmick than art).

Next, Joan takes the trolley to Navy Pier – a known tourist attraction, but one of Joan's favorite places when she was a kid. The large Ferris wheel is still there, but considering the cold breeze coming off the lake, she decides to forego the eight minute ride. The crowds are small, which is rare, but Joan still doesn't find herself enjoying this visit as she buys some touristy type souvenirs for the family. Maybe the poet is right, you can't go home again. Or maybe these experiences can only be enjoyed if you are sharing them with someone…

Dylan Hunter – he has been on Joan's mind all day. For weeks after their one night of passion, Joan has been holding Dylan off – not completely eliminating him from the picture, but not encouraging him in any way either. Part of this is her admitted concern that Dylan wants to proceed rapidly into a very deeply committed relationship, which Joan isn't ready for. The other part is Tyler Christian, the handsome billionaire who kept sending her flowers and romantic poetry. Joan couldn't get him out of her mind during the time since their meeting in Atlantic City, but now…? She believes Tyler when he said he only used the sexual charisma ability on her once, and only in the mildest form. Some might think it flattering that he would be willing to 'cross the line' for the first time in his life because of the strong attraction he feels for her. But for Joan…it has spoiled everything. There is still a connection between them, but Joan now sees that it is mostly a spiritual one for her… Okay, masked by a fair amount of overactive libido. With Tyler now in the 'assignment' category, Joan is sure she has nothing to worry about when it comes to romance.

X X X X X

On the 50th floor of the Hancock building, Joan waits patiently for the big surprise Tyler has prepared for their dinner. Even as she hears the ding of the oven timer, Joan is sure she doesn't have to worry about anything physical ever happening between her and Tyler. She is here to help him with his God grudge, and maybe lend a hand with the security leak in his company – no more. This time Joan hasn't brought an oversized purse containing sexy lingerie and a spare toothbrush.

"I hope you like pepperoni." Tyler says as he enters with an enormous pizza. "Traditional deep dish –Chicago style, in honor of your return to the old hometown."

"Oh…I love it."

Tyler smiles. "I may not read people anymore, but even I can tell that was less than the truth."

Joan smiles back. "Okay, confession time. I'm a lousy Chicagoan. I like my pizza thin crust, but pepperoni really is my favorite."

"Maybe I should have done the traditional Chicago hot dog with onions, relish, mustard, hot peppers, sliced tomato and celery salt."

"Nope, I prefer mine with just ketchup."

Tyler laughs. "I'm dining with a Philistine."

Joan chuckles too and gives a thick crust slice a try. "Not bad. So, you said you can't read people any more?"

"It's not that I can't, I just don't have the time to spare for all of the hours of meditation it takes to keep in practice. Over time I've let the ability slide, along with all of my other spiritual gifts."

"So tell me, what's your story? Why did you quit serving 'Him'?"

Tyler sighs. "I knew this was coming and thought I was prepared, but it still hurts to talk about even after all of these years. I guess for you it seems unbelievable that anyone would want to leave God's service."

"Actually…I quit last year for a brief time."

"You? Joan, that seems hard to believe."

"The circumstances were difficult, and I soon realized I had made a mistake. God took me back."

Tyler bitterly responds, "He…'took you back'? That old…"

"Careful."

Tyler hesitates and nods. "Okay, you wanted my life story. Ordinary childhood in a working class home with two annoying sisters…that I love. I was always a bit of a science geek with an especial fascination for computers. Then, a month before my 15th birthday, God showed up. On Saturdays I liked to play chess in the park, taking on all comers. I never lost until one day an African-American man sat down and whipped me at the game five times in a row. If that wasn't startling enough, he told me he was God. Of course I thought he was a loon, brilliant at chess but still a loon. Then he began telling me intimate details about my life that no one could possibly know. He told me to try out for the baseball team at school. At first I ignored him, but then 'She' appeared as a sub English teacher, followed by an Asian gardener. By then I was worried I was going crazy, but I did what he said…"

"Good ripples?"

"You know that phrase too? Yeah, I actually made it to second string and then noticed something was wrong. One of the boys on the team had an unusual, intense relationship with our popular and respected coach. Turns out, Coach was a perv who was pressuring my team mate to have sex with him. I encouraged the guy to report the coach and he did. It seems Coach had been seducing boys for years."

"A good first assignment. Mine was to just get hired at a book store, but that set off a chain of events that caused a murderer to be caught."

"So you understand, after a start like that, I was all in. Anything the Big Guy wanted, I was gung-ho for. I served through all of high school, going into advanced training my senior year. After that came college and the assignments kept coming faster and faster. It was dangerous work having to deal with demons, criminals and even the occasional vampire."

"Been there, done that."

Tyler nods. "My personal life suffered, even my grades suffered since there were so many demands on my time. Still, I kept serving but…I began to resent it. What about my life? Didn't I deserve some personal happiness? My relations with my family were always strained. I became unreliable when it came to family plans because God would show up with another assignment. I often came home with injuries I couldn't explain, and there were long absences that were also inexplicable. Naturally it also became impossible to keep a girlfriend under those circumstances. My life became so…lonely and isolated."

Joan gulps hard as she realizes she may be hearing her own immediate future being described. "What made you quit?"

"At first I tried to negotiate with God – have him cut back on my schedule of service. You can imagine his reaction."

"That his needs come first. Yeah, it can be annoying but you knew this when you sign on for advanced training. Our personal lives and ambitions have to be squeezed in between the times he requires us. In the end you have to take solace in the fact that you are doing good work that helps a lot of people."

"I told myself that for years, but in college I started to gain success in the field that had fascinated me all of my life. I developed a couple of websites that really took off and the money began rolling in. But I wasn't just a programmer. I had ideas that could make computers run faster and make better decisions. At first it was industrial applications, but soon I saw the possibility of military computer enhancements. I could make smart bombs smarter and missiles more accurate. Our military would be able to take out the enemy with far fewer civilians being at risk. I saw that this was important work too, and I had backers ready to start me in my envisioned business. But…God!"

"He didn't want you to do it?"

"On the contrary, he said I was free to go in any direction I wanted, and he had no objections to me becoming rich, but I had to choose what was most important to me – serving him or serving my own desires. I knew I couldn't go on the way I had been and still be fair to the people who were investing in me, and trusting me to do the job right. At some point I would have to make that choice."

"I have a feeling this ends badly."

"God told me that while I was deciding, he had an apprentice who was nearing the time of beginning advanced training. She was being raised up a little ahead of schedule in case I bolted from his service, and God wanted me to prepare her for that time of decision by explaining my own dilemma to her. Her name was Sheila Franz…"

Tyler removes a photo from his pocket and passes it over to Joan. Joan sees a much younger Tyler with an attractive young woman with brown hair, medium height and an obvious affection for the man beside her…

"She…sorta looks like me."

"Too Freudian? Yeah, one of the things that first attracted me to you Joan was your vague resemblance to Sheila. She had that bright glow like you do."

"And she loved you. Why are we speaking in the past tense?"

"I laid it on the line for Sheila, told her all of the hazards that awaited and the personal life dilemma I was facing. She still wanted to advance with God, and frankly, I couldn't blame her. At a similar point in my life, no one could have talked me out of going forward either. But the more time I spent with Sheila, the more doubts I began to have. Suddenly there was someone in my life who understood all that I was going through, someone who had the potential to be…a soulmate. I became unsure about quitting God's service. I could see a future, side-by-side with another instrument of God and being genuinely happy. I was falling in love with Sheila."

Tyler's voice trails off as he becomes lost in deep thought. Joan prompts him to continue...

"How did it end?"

"The day came when God finally bugged me one time too many. I had a meeting with some Pentagon brass. They were interested in some of my designs for missile enhancements, but they were also concerned about going into business with a 22 year old fresh out of college and with a reputation for being a little flaky. I had to make it to that meeting and make a good impression. Otherwise, any chance of getting a military contract was out the window and my company would fail only weeks after it got started. On the way there, Cabdriver God gave me a...ridiculous assignment. Something so simple, a boot camp rookie would find it demeaning. I was to go to a certain street corner and wait until I saw a very tall man holding a red umbrella. I was suppose to ask him the time."

"That's it?"

"Yeah, and at any other time I would have obeyed, but I couldn't miss my meeting so...I chose. I got the contract and was ready to celebrate with Sheila when I heard the news. Sheila died in a freak accident, the kind gravelings arrange."

Joan is silent as she contemplates this news. Gravelings are the weakest of all demons: grey, hideous little creatures who delight in arranging fatal accidents. They are a common first asignment in advanced training and normally do not represent a danger to an instrument of God.

"What did God have to say about this?"

"He never spoke to me again, and...I didn't want him to. Why would I want it confirmed that the petty assignment I turned my back on some how set off the chain of events that cost Sheila her life? There, that's my story." Tyler says as he leaves the table and goes into the living room.

Joan follows and joins Tyler as he sits on the sofa, staring at the flames in the fireplace...

"Tyler, you can't be sure..."

"Why else would God stop speaking to me? I caused the death of Sheila through my disobedience. I don't deserve to serve him."

"Have you tried? Did you call out to him, prayed?"

"No. He and I are done." Tyler says, his voice trembling with ill-hidden regret.

Joan feels so sorry for Tyler, and empathizes with what he is feeling. She lost Jimmy and resigned, but God took her back when she realized her mistake. Without thinking, Joan takes Tyler into her arms and gives him a supportive hug. He hugs back, and Joan feels a tenderness for him rising in her heart. How could she be cruel enough to deny him?

Tyler kisses her and Joan responds. More kisses follow, along with tantalizing caresses and Joan warms to the idea that maybe her moment with Tyler isn't over. Perhaps she has been too hasty in not giving him another chance? Their making out intensifies and clothes begin to be discarded. Tyler has rounded second base and Joan is waving him on to third when...a knock at the door.

Both groan in dismay as Joan whispers, "Ignore it."

The knocking gets louder, followed by the call of: "Federal agents!"

Tyler springs to his feet and quickly begins straightening his clothes. He hisses a blunt 'Get dressed' before going to the door. He ever so casually holds a newspaper in front of him. Joan barely has time to put back on her bra and blouse before Tyler opens the door. (These days impatient feds have been known to bust down people's doors - 4th amendment rights be damned.)

"Tyler Christian? I'm Agent Melvin Brown with Homeland Security, these are agents Moore and Laughton." Brown says as he barges into the condo uninvited. He pauses when he sees a rather scruffy looking Joan, red-faced and breathless on the sofa.

"Miss Girardi..." Brown says with a nod and an unconcealed grin. "Mr. Christian, I regret to inform you that a federal investigation of your factory and warehouse has shown serious discrepencies in your inventory. The items missing are all classified and under license to the federal government. We require you to accompany us for questioning."

"Am I being taken into custody? Will I need a lawyer?" Tyler asks.

"At the moment sir, we are keeping this casual. We would like you to come with us to your southside facility, where we will meet with several of your top management people. There we will explore any possible explanation for the missing missle guidance systems we are seeking."

"And I'm coming with you." Joan says having dug out of her bag the Homeland Security i.d. that identifies her as a 'consultant'. Of course since she has been warned off of this case, and Brown has every right to tell her to butt out, but he smiles...

"Always a pleasure, Miss Girardi."

X X X X X

The trip to the southside of Chicago is surprisingly quick due to the flashing lights of the government vehicle they travel in. On the way, Tyler holds her hand in the backseat while all are silent. Joan begins to wonder about her behavior... Why did she so suddenly reverse herself when she had decided there would be nothing physical between her and Tyler? Why was she about to toss him pity sex? Joan takes another read on the man next to her, this time reading Tyler as if she were meeting him for the first time. Yes...she missed something. Subconsciously Tyler has retained one of his spiritual gifts - one that he uses on a daily basis - the spiritual power of persuasion. Joan has only used this gift a few times, but Ryan Hunter use to be a master at it. It involves an instinctual understanding of your audience that manifests in your phrasing and vocal tone. It causes people to naturally want to be on your side, to listen and agree with your point of view.

Tyler is unaware he is doing this, but it explains why a 22 year old was able to convince Pentagon generals to trust a kid right out of college. It also explains why Tyler's story so moved Joan. He wanted her empathy, her support for his position and she responded by...kissing away the boo-boo. Okay, a lot more than kissing. But the fact is, Tyler's story did strike a nerve with Joan. For too long she has been lonely and isolated, and she can see now she needs exactly what Tyler described: a fellow instrument of God to face life with side-by-side, a soulmate.

Joan suddenly realizes with absolute clarity who that is, the only one it could ever be...Dylan. All of the doubts, all of the old hurts and grudges melt away and for the first time in a long time, Joan sees clearly what she wants, what she needs from her life ahead. Joan pulls her hand away from Tyler, that 'special connection' now dead. Is this why God wanted her in Chicago, to have this revealation? Well, one of the reasons.

The local factory and warehouse facility of TC TECH is a rather small place for such a prosperous business, but then the things they make are small and specialized items for industry and the military. They are passed through a security gate and park next to a two story office building of modest size...

"We received a lot of government grant money for building our factory here in an economically depressed area. It is of course high security, which explains the huge fence and alarms on every gate, door and window. All workers are searched before exiting the facility, per government regs." Tyler says as they enter the office building.

Brown counters, "Then why is part of your inventory missing?"

"I'm not convinced yet that it is. There may be a simpler explanation like an inventory goof. People do make mistakes. I'll want a visual inspection of every storage bin."

A rather obese man approaches and says, "We are already on that, Boss."

"This is Nick Salinger, my vee-pee of production. What's the word, Nick?"

"We have suspended second shift work while management and security are going over the plant and the warehouse with a fine toothed comb. If there are any real discrepencies, we will find them. Meanwhile, these...'agents' are holding up our latest shipment from Japan. Production will grind to a halt soon if we can't clear that shipment."

Tyler sighs and turns to Agent Brown. "We have contracts we have to fulfill, and I would remind you there are troops in the field who need constant re-supply. If we shut down too long, stockpiles can get dangerously low."

Brown nods. "What do you need?"

"Let me talk with my shipping manager, allow him to verify and enter into storage the Japan shipment. Otherwise, production could go down for days as orders get backed up."

"Alright, I'll allow it. Miss Girardi, I know you are not officially on this case, but...?"

"I'll be glad to look around and see if I can...smell anything rotten."

"Thank you."

Joan accompanies Tyler up the stairs, feeling his genuine concern for his life's work and the people who rely on the company for their livelihood.

"Are you worried this may become a disaster for your company?"

"No...at least not yet. I'm still hoping this is all some sort of mistake. The government vetted all of the people who work for me, and I trust everyone of them. For instance, the man we are about to meet. He has a lifetime of experience in the shipping industry, and I was very lucky to get him to work for me." Tyler says as they arrive at an office on the second floor. Tyler gives a perfunctory knock before entering. "Andrew, spare a moment...?"

Joan pauses in the doorway and gasps. She hasn't seen Andrew Baker, Sr. since the night of that fateful football game six years ago, but other than some additional grey hair, he looks the same. She was still fourteen at the time, but Baker recognizes her too...

"You're that Girardi girl."

"And you're the scumbag who sued my family after your son crippled my brother. Tyler, this is your thief. He's the one who has been stealing from your company."

Baker snarls, "How dare you? I'll sue you for that scurrilous lie."

Tyler asks, "Joan, are you sure...special way sure?"

"Absolutely." Joan says, reading Baker's guilt like a banner headline.

"I'll get Agent Brown."

Baker protests, "Boss...Mr. Christian, you can't believe this acusation. What proof does she has?"

"I trust her. The proof will come later."

Tyler turns to leave the room, but Baker suddenly pulls a gun from his desk drawer...

"Hold it! Close that door."

Tyler complies, and shakes his head in disbelief. "Andrew, be sensible. There are several government agents downstairs, not to mention building security. One shot and they will be here in a minute. You're already in enough trouble. What good will that gun do you?"

In response Baker removes a silencer from the drawer and quickly attaches it to the pistol.

Joan comments, "Great security you have here."

Tyler answers, "We only search those exiting. I see now that was a mistake. Andrew, what do you plan to do with that?"

Baker is clearly scared, which makes him desperate and dangerous. "Oh God, I never thought it would come to this. I just needed the money so much, and other countries were willing to pay a fortune for just a few tiny parts. I never wanted to...kill anyone."

Joan says, "No? Then why do you have a pistol and silencer in your desk? But think it through. If you kill us, do you think you will be allowed to just walk out even if no one hears the shots?"

"What other chance do I have? I'll just have to bluff my way through. I'm...sorry."

Suddenly a brick comes crashing through the office window. Immediately a very loud alarm begins sounding. The distraction allows Tyler the chance to act, and using his old angelic fighting skills, the startled Andrew Baker is quickly disarmed and subdued. Even as she hears Agent Brown thundering up the stairs, Joan goes to the window and sees the fleeing young man who threw the brick - Jim Dawes, ex-boyfriend and instrument of God in training.

X X X X X

3-28-08/Friday.

The flight back to Arcadia is on time, and Joan is glad to get home. Thursday had been the usual tedious government paperwork and debriefing while the actual evidence for prosecuting against Andrew baker Sr. was accumulated. It didn't take long, and soon the man was making all sorts of deals for leniency in exchange for testimony against those who hired him. Baker is luckier than he deserves and will only serve a short sentence for his crimes in some federal minimum security facility.

Joan's farewell to Aunt Theresa was warm and happy, with many plans for the summer family reunion. Joan also managed to squeeze in a farewell with Martha Danzig, closing that chapter in her life. There was one last farewell as Tyler rode with Joan to the airport in her compact rental. After turning in the car, and riding the shuttle back to the front entrance, they paused for their own farewell.

"Tyler, it was...interesting."

Tyler laughs, "That's one way of putting it. Joan, I'm going to miss you. Are you sure...?"

"Positive. You're a great guy, but I know, really know, who I am suppose to be with. I just hope I haven't blown my chance with him."

Tyler gives a sad smile. "Dylan Hunter is a lucky guy, but if things don't work out, remember there's a lonely billionaire who would always welcome you back."

Joan smiles too. "I suspect a guy like you won't be lonely for long."

"Not being alone isn't the same as being with the right one. I know that all too well, which is the only reason I'm accepting your decision and not fighting for you. I wish you all the best, Joan."

"I wish that for you too, Tyler. That includes your spiritual side. I can see you are miserable without 'Him' in your life. All of the success in the world won't mean squat to you until you settle matters with God."

"It's too late."

"As long as we're breathing, it's not too late. You will never know the truth about Sheila until you talk to him again. Isn't that what she would want you to do? Isn't that what is in your heart?"

"I know I can't lie to you. Yes, but will he speak to me again?"

"Tyler, tou know scripture. 'Knock and he will answer'."

"I'll...think about it. Goodbye Joan, I'll never forget you, and I'll never stop having regrets..."

Tyler leans in and they share a long, wistful kiss. They part and Joan sighs. If only...

Tyler slowly walks away, headed for the cab stand. Joan watches him leave and as Tyler reaches the waiting taxis, a Cabbie opens the door for him. Suddenly, Tyler shakes with emotion and drops to his knees. Joan has never seen this version, Cabdriver God, but she remembers a verse about the great rejoicing when a lost lamb returns...

Back in Arcadia...

Joan collects her bags from the luggage carousel and heads for the exit. Her truck is in long term parking, and she will be very glad to officially end this trip. As soon as she is home, Joan plans to call Dylan. She has no intention of telling him about her 'visit' with Tyler, it would be too hard to explain. Even with the assignment aspect of the trip, she doubts her...boyfirend would be accepting of her original intention to seduce another man. Just thinking about it causes Joan a flood of guilt in her soul...

"Joan?"

Dylan - standing there with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a welcoming smile. He wears his love for her openly on his happy face.

"I know we only have the weekend left of our spring break, but I couldn't resist flying out when I heard you were returning early..."

The smile disappears from Dylan's face as he goes pale. The flowers drop from his hand.

"You cheated on me."

THE END