Beware the Ides of Smarch, Days 1-2: Every Which Way, But There

“Oooh!  Lousy Smarch weather.”—Homer Simpson

“AAUUUGHHHH!!!!!”-Chris Elston

Boy, it felt good to get that one out of my system.

I intended the title of this series to be simply inspired by The Simpsons, but I truly have had need to be wary of the Ides of Smarch for the start of this trip.

Together with my compadre, David Sundberg, I was returning to Phoenix, AZ to visit my old friend, Mat O’Donnell, and his wife, Carolyn.  Relatively speaking, we threw this trip together on the fly and only about two months out.  We also decided to make it an extra long trip and go out on a Friday and come back 10 days later on a Sunday.

With the multiple whammies of leaving on popular travel days, being out of the statistical sweet spot, leaving during the start of the spring break month for many colleges, and heading to a warm locale, I was unable, for the first time in over 20 years of travel, to find a good deal.  Even my old stalwart, Southwest Airlines, wanted over $700 for a round trip ticket.

I managed to score a passable deal through Orbitz, but even had a challenge with that as I had to go through different airlines coming and going to score any type of a deal.  Still, it was all worth it for another period of adventures with Mat & Carolyn.

Omaha had been blasted by its first real winter in nearly 11 years with over 59 inches of snow dumped on us to date.  But we seemed to have found a respite with a week of clear, if cold, weather.

I awoke to a beautiful day on Friday with nary a cloud in the sky.  It looked like ideal traveling weather so I spent the morning getting in a hard workout, getting my new car registered, picking up Dave and making certain I had all of my gear in order.

My friend, Craig Ristow, had graciously offered to give us a lift to the airport and, as he left to go put air in his spare tire, I happened to check my e-mail and found a message from American Airlines with the subject line “Your flight has been changed.”

“Oh, goody,” mused I.  “We’re delayed.”

I opened the letter and found to my horror and shock that our flight had been canceled.

IMPOSSIBLE!!!

It was a beautiful. . . nay, a perfect day.  How could the flight be canceled?

American Airlines tried to rebook us on Saturday with a flight leaving at 5:33pm and would get us to Phoenix slightly after midnight.  No way, Jose.

They had a list of alternative flights, but none of them were good flights.  Most required 8+ hours of travel.  The best of the worst was a flight leaving at 6:31am which would take us to Charlotte, NC and then back west to Phoenix.

Yep, you read that right.  We had to go east to go west.  However, it would also get us to Phoenix at 2pm so we booked it.

And maybe it worked out for the best as Craig’s spare tire could not hold air and he would have not made it to the airport.  Instead, I guarded the rear of his van as I watched his spare fall to pieces on the road as we drove to Tires Plus for him to get a replacement.

Afterwards the three of us went to lunch at Burger King and had some wonderful conversation while waiting for a new tire to be mounted on Craig’s van.  Dave and I dropped Craig off at the tire store and returned to my home where I called American Airlines to find out why the flight had been canceled and to see if they would endorse our tickets for a direct flight through Southwest on Saturday.

The message suggested that severe weather had canceled the flight, but I have doubts about that as Mat later informed me that ours was the only flight canceled and the plane was coming from Phoenix.  The agent, while friendly, told me airlines no longer endorse tickets for other airlines so Dave and I were set for a convoluted day of flying.

We made a run to the grocery store to get supplies for a late dinner and turned in early as we had to get up at the crack of doom to get to the airport.

I didn’t sleep much and gave up trying to find slumber at 3am.  At 3:30am, Dave woke up and I checked my e-mail to make sure we weren’t delayed or canceled again.  Mercifully, we weren’t.

I drove us down to the airport where we parked at the Budget lot.  The parking spots, understandably, were still laden with snow.  I drove up onto a little patch, uttering a quick prayer that the weather would warm up enough over the next 9 days to melt the patch down to size.

Dave and I checked in and waded through a moderately long security line, but got to our gate in plenty of time for our flight to North Carolina.

This was the smallest plane I had ever flown on.  Not only was the plane small, but each row was only 4 seats across.  We were slightly delayed due to deicing, but a powerful tail wind got us to Charlotte on time.

So there we were in Charlotte, WOO!, North Carolina:  stomping grounds of the famed professional wrestler, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.  Dave and I were hungry, but we had missed the breakfast run and lunch was being served in the restaurants.  I didn’t want a burger that early in the day, so I bought a piece of string cheese while Dave ordered a Double Whopper combo.

Well, that was the idea, anyway.  We had to rush to our concourse for our next flight and Dave found he had been shorted his fries.  For him, “the icing on the crap cake”, as he said was that he was able to purchase a shot glass at a nearby store.

We boarded our flight and I caught my first break of the trip.  The third person in my row on the sold out flight did not show up, so I moved to the aisle seat to enjoy a bit more space.  Also,we will be arriving on time, so there’s still time for adventure on this day.  I needed to eat so I paid $10.99 for a fairly healthy Valencia Chicken sandwich which had chicken, Havarti cheese, pickled veggies, and an almond romesco sauce on a ciabatta bun.  The bun was quite crumbly, but it tasted decent and even included a good chocolate chip cookie.  I also got a full can of Dr. Pepper to sip on while I read a book and worked on this article.

We ended up landing on time where Mat was waiting to greet us and he informed us he had booked an escape room at 4:30pm over at Escape Games AZ.  So we dashed on over to his place, got set up in our rooms, and headed over to begin our escape attempt with friends of Mat and Carolyn.

The room was called Blaine’s Basement and the plot of the room was that the FBI was holding a suspected serial killer named Blaine Everbleed who they think killed 4 people and possibly a fifth.  He could only be held for 24 hours without evidence to charge him and he was now in his 23rd hour.  Desperate, the FBI called in a group of mediums to find the evidence needed to put this psycho away.

I enjoyed this room a lot more than the previous one as it focused on different puzzles and had secret passages and red herrings.  It was another nailbiter, but we managed to escape with slightly over 7 minutes to spare, though the ending was just kind of there.

Afterwards, we all headed to dinner at The Cornish Pasty Company which essentially serves gourmet hot pockets.  So many delicious choices, but I went with a spicy asiago chicken as it sounded healthy and tasty.  Not too bad at all, though it needed more spice.

Lack of sleep and a long day began to tucker me out, but I managed to summon enough juice to battle Mat and Dave in Super Mario Party on the Nintendo Switch, though Mat managed to edge me in a pyrrhic victory.

But, now, to bed and another round of escapades tomorrow.

A Holiday Excursion, Days 2-3: Mushing and Slushing to Dug Road Inn

020

It was a gray and blustery day.

I’m still in shock that I am able to tell you this story.  The winter storm caught up to me with a seething ferocity.  The snow blew so hard that it was nearly a complete whiteout.  Then it happened.  Some nut in a red Corvette came roaring by in the other lane like a bat out of heck.  The unknown driver cut me off and clipped the front end of my car.  My car careened off the road and rolled over 4 times.  I have a vague realization of my seat belt coming loose and being thrown from my vehicle.

I awoke in a hospital somewhere around Dows, IA.  Both of my arms were broken and the nurse to whom I’m now dictating this story informed me that my gas line had ruptured and my car had exploded.  Its burning carcass was seen through the snowy haze by motorists who summoned help and I was found thirty feet from the smoldering remains of my Focus.

Wow!  That’s a great start to a fiction story.

But what really happened was that the drive was not too bad.  Des Moines was the worst of it so I took things very slowly until I reached I-35.  There wasn’t a lot of snow, but it was blowing around quite a bit due to the strong wind and would get whipped around pretty good when semi trucks drove by.  I kept things well under the speed limit to be extra safe unless I was on completely clear stretches of road.  I was aided by the fact that the roads were virtually empty and what few motorists were on the road also drove quite safely with one or two exceptions.

Due to my safety measures, an extra 90 minutes were tacked onto my drive, but I wasn’t in a rush in the first place.  About 2pm, I found myself in the Norwegian community of Decorah, IA.  Thankfully, the owner of my next inn, Dug Road Inn, had given me a call to check to see if I were still coming and he let me check in an hour early due to the weather.

Dug Road Inn is an Italianate style home originally built by Lt Colonel William T Baker back in the 1860s.  Its current owners are Doug and Shirleen Sturtz and the inn is touted as an eco-friendly B & B famed for its 3 course organic breakfasts.

I was greeted in the driveway by Doug who helped me get my luggage into the house.  He led me to the Duncan Room which would serve as my headquarters for the next 2 days.  After getting my stuff settled, I returned to the living room where Doug brought me a glass of wine and we spent a little time conversing about my project and Iowa football.

After our conversation, I returned to my room where I continued reading a new Nero Wolfe novel before the exhaustion of my long drive caused me to doze off for a brief nap.

When I awoke, I glanced out the window and was met by a night and day difference.  The storm had reached its peak and snow was falling steadily and the wind was howling.  I really did not want to go outside, but I needed to eat.  Luckily, the main drag was only 2 blocks away, so I donned my coat, hat, and gloves and headed outside.  I decided not to press my luck and just eat at the first available place I could find.

That would end up being the Old Armory BBQ which is one of the top 10 BBQ restaurants in Iowa.  When I entered the place, it seemed as if they were closing up and that fact was confirmed a few moments later by one of the employees.  They still had some food left out and said they could prepare something for me.

I settled for a hamburger with homemade pickles which was pretty good, though I couldn’t linger over it as I didn’t want to keep these people in here longer than necessary.  I’m grateful that Old Armory kept me from going hungry that night so I left a good tip for the sandwich before trudging back to Dug Road Inn.

I drew a hot bath after I returned to my room though the jets on the Jacuzzi tub didn’t seem to be working.  But I enjoyed the bath as it was just the right temperature.  Afterwards, I read myself to sleep with Rex Stout’s brilliant, if slothful, detective.

The next morning, I met Doug’s wife, Shirleen, who had prepared my breakfast.  The first course was a dish of mixed fruit (apples, grapes, and, I believe, pomegranate) in a dish of cream.  The second course was baked bacon with a small salad of greens and tomatoes, scrambled eggs with mushrooms, and a wonderful food item that I could best describe as a stuffed pancake.  The third course was a dessert course consisting of chocolate gelato and lefse.  This meal I did do justice to as I blissfully enjoyed every bite.  Regrettably, I had forgotten my camera upstairs so you’ll have to use your imaginations for this meal.

I wanted some exercise so I got into my winter accessories and wandered around the downtown area to work off the meal.  Downtown Decorah reminds me very much of my grandparents’ old hometown of Storm Lake, IA as it is mostly locally owned businesses.  There is even a small J.C. Penney on one of the corners just like the one in Storm Lake.

My meanderings brought me to GamesXP.  If you’re a vintage video game connoisseur like I am, then this is the store for you.  I was amazed by the classic games and systems this store had.  Odyssey, Intellivision, Atari, Super Famicom, this place had it all.  I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to continue building my Sega CD library as their selection was limited and didn’t have anything I wanted, but this is a store that I will surely visit again if my journeys bring me back.

I returned to the inn where I found Doug scraping the ice from my vehicle, a personal touch of hospitality which I very much appreciated.  I read a few more chapters before getting into my car and seeing what there was to see.

I had hoped to visit the Ice Cave, but when I reached the road leading to it, I found it covered with snow.  Remembering my misadventure back in Greenfield, I opted to turn back.  However, I did find Dunnings’ Spring which has a 200 foot waterfall.  I hiked up the steep hill through the new fallen snow and managed to grab some good pics of this natural beauty.

Afterwards, I drove back to the inn where I read for a while and dried out my clothes.  Around 4:30, I decided to take another hot bath to get the chill out of bones.  After soaking for nearly an hour, I headed back downtown in search of supper.

I ended up at Restauration in the famed Hotel Winneshiek.  This is a small fine dining establishment that is well worth a visit.  My meal began with a mixed green salad with a homemade ranch dressing with some homemade bread.  The main course was an Iowa specialty, pork chop, with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables (broccoli, carrots, and red onions).

The salad was excellent, though I had hoped for hot bread.  The presentation of the main course was superior, especially the grill marks on the Iowa chop which was, mmm, cooked to perfection.  The vegetables were fresh and crisp, but the potatoes needed some more garlic.

After the satisfying meal, I went back to Dug Road Inn and called it a night.

I really didn’t want to get out of my comfortable bed the next morning, but the smell of fine cooking galvanized me to make the attempt.  The Inn’s regular chef was able to make it in today and the meal once again began with mixed fruit (orange, grapes, pomegranate) with cream and granola.  The main entrée was a tiny dish of cherry tomatoes in a dressing with Eggs Florentine cooked with parmesan cheese and spinach.  Also included were fried potatoes with feta cheese, oregano, and chili powder and sausage.  Each bite was heavenly.  For dessert was apple-cranberry crisp with whipped cream that melted in my mouth.

I was disappointed when my meal ended for I knew that my stay had come to a close.  Dug Road Inn is certainly well worth a visit and Decorah is a fine little city, though probably best visited in the warmer months when there is more to see and do.  If your travels brings you to Decorah, get a room at Dug Road Inn where you’ll enter as strangers and leave as friends.

The Arizona Chronicles, Vol. 3, Night 3-Day 8: Arizona Mat and the Voodoo Blue (Woo Woo!)

After our escape from Schulte and the traitorous Johnny V, Arizona Mat zipped through the interstate traffic and we found ourselves in Las Vegas in slightly less than 2 hours.  We arrived at the Rio where we checked in under a pair of assumed names:  Drs. Alvin Koholic and Sy Schwardo.

“Which of us is which?” I asked.

“Does it really matter?” countered an exasperated Arizona Mat.

I shrugged my shoulders and we made our way to the 19th floor with a good view of the pool and mountains.  Believing we had shaken off the Oatmeal Gang, Arizona Mat suggested we go downstairs for some dinner and make some plans.

We chose the All American Grille.  Arizona Mat enjoyed fish and chips with a beer while I settled for French Dip.  The food tasted great and felt good after the long day of driving, escaping, and not eating.  As we dined, Arizona Mat laid out the scheme.

“There’s a fan fest for the Final Fantasy series of video games going on this weekend.  I have a contact attending who has the clues I need to ferret out the location of the Voodoo Blue (Woo woo!).”

“Would you stop that?”

“I try, but I can’t.  In any event, I’ll attend the fest tomorrow to meet my contact.  I suggest while I’m investigating, that you just relax and enjoy yourself.”

That sounded agreeable and I wandered around the Rio while Arizona Mat registered for the fan fest.  Upon completion we wandered across the street to the Palms where John Fogerty was playing a concert.  I found a new slot machine based on the 1960s Batman TV series and Arizona Mat and I tested our luck on it.  I dropped $20, but it was the most fun I had losing money in quite a while.  The machine was true to the spirit of the TV series, complete with campy fun and bonuses with narration done by Adam West.

After spending some time there, we went back across the street to wander through the Gold Coast.  Arizona Mat found a Wylund machine that treated him fairly well.  Upon winning a bit of cash, we returned to the Rio for a good night’s rest.

The next morning we had a quick breakfast at the BK Whopper Bar.  We agreed to meet at our room in the evening.  Arizona Mat headed off to the fan fest while I returned to the Gold Coast where I considered playing a little Bingo.  As I walked past the Port O’Calls buffet, I froze.  Walking out of the exit were Robert Schulte and Johnny V.

I decided to follow them to see if I could find their base of operations and discover if they were any closer than Arizona Mat to discovering the Voodoo Blue.  I trailed them to Bally’s where I joined the Total Rewards club in order to better blend into the background.  As a new member I was gifted with some slot free play which I utilized while I kept my eyes on the dangerous duo.

I seated myself at a Goldfish slot machine where I hit a bonus almost immediately and ended up banking $40 in profit.  As I pocketed my winnings, I saw my quarries leave Bally’s and begin heading across the street to the Cromwell.

Since my last visit to Vegas, the area had undergone some massive renovations.  The area around the High Roller (the world’s largest ferris wheel) had been completely redone.  One of the changes was the Cromwell (formerly Bill’s Gambling Hall).  The outside looked brand new; like a 5 star resort.  The inside matched the outside.  Very classy and elegant.  I slipped over to a Jurassic Park machine where I promptly lost the $10 in free play.

I glanced over my shoulder and saw that Schulte and Johnny V were no longer in the casino.  I quickly swept  the Cromwell and wondered if they might not have headed over to the Quad (formerly the Imperial Palace).  I was unable to find the Oatmeal Gang, but did find a Phantom of the Opera machine.  I hit a Music of the Night bonus which earned me a bit more money.

Thanks to the bonus I was able to earn enough Tier Credits to earn a pull on the Million Dollar Slot Machine at the front of the building.  I didn’t win a million dollars, but I did win a buy one, get one free buffet at most of the buffets owned by the Las Vegas Harrah’s properties.

From there, I investigated the Linq (which is where the High Roller is housed).  I was still unable to relocate Schulte and Johnny V, so I returned to the Rio where I relaxed in my room and worked on Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright, a puzzle/mystery game Arizona Mat had brought along on his 3DS.

Late in the afternoon, Arizona Mat came into our room all excited.

“I’ve found the Voodoo Blue (woo woo!)!”

“Where?”

“Based on the clues I’ve received from my contact, I’ve concluded that the Voodoo Blue (woo woo!) is somewhere in the vicinity of the Voodoo Lounge at the top of the Rio.  When the club opens later tonight, we’ll go and obtain it.  For now, let’s eat.”

Arizona Mat and I went downstairs to the Seafood Buffet where we supped on salmon, seafood gumbo, sushi, and other delicacies.  After a very filling meal, I told Arizona Mat I would walk off the meal and would meet him in the room later.  I took a shuttle over to Harrah’s where I walked over to the Bellagio to watch one of their famed water shows.

As the show reached to its climax, a man next to me said, “Beautiful sight, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” I agreed as I turned to face the man.

I felt the blood rush from my head as I stared into the hard, cruel eyes of Robert Schulte.  I felt the barrel of a revolver press against my ribs.

“How did you find me?”

“Find you?” replied Schulte.  “I’ve been trailing you. . .for hours.  For an amateur, you’re not a bad tracker.  It actually took me until the Cromwell for me to notice you.”

“So that’s why I couldn’t find you.”

“Correct.  I saw you over at the Jurassic Park machine.  Johnny V and I slipped outdoors and into the crowd and began following you.”

“Now what?”

“Now we return to the Rio and you and Arizona Mat lead us to the Voodoo Blue.”

Keeping his gun pressed to my back, Schulte forced me into the Rio shuttle at Bally’s and made me lead him to our room.  As I unlocked the door, I saw Arizona Mat sitting on the couch.

“Arizona, I’ve got some bad news.  They found me,” I said sheepishly.

“Don’t feel too bad.  They found me, too.”

As Schulte and I came further into the room, we saw a grinning Johnny V seated on one of the beds, his German Luger pointed directly at Arizona Mat.

“All right, Arizona Mat,” said Schulte, comfortably seating himself in a chair.  “Where’s the Voodoo Blue?”

“Woo woo!” cried Arizona Mat.

“If you do that one more time, I’m going to yank your tongue so hard that your ears will flip like window shades!” I snapped.

“Sorry,” said Arizona Mat.  “It’s somewhere on the roof around the Voodoo Lounge.”

“Excellent,” said Schulte.  “Let’s go and retrieve it.”

Schulte and Johnny V forced us into the elevator leading to the Voodoo Lounge.  Within a matter of moments, we were whisked up to the 52nd floor and we entered the rooftop nightclub.  As we weaved our way through the dancing partygoers, Schulte began to get impatient.

“Where is it?” he snarled.

“I don’t know, precisely.  I just know it’s somewhere up here,” said Arizona Mat.  “It’s going to take a bit of time to search for it with all of these people here.”

Despite having my life threatened, I had to admit that the view was pretty good.  I scanned in all directions, trying to enjoy the sparkling lights and awesome vista of the city.  I happened to glance down towards the Voodoo Zipline, a zipline that stretched from the top of the Masquerade Tower and went down to the Ipanema Tower.  Towards the end of the zipline, I saw a curious blue flash shining in the light.

“Arizona Mat, look!” I shouted, pointing towards the glow.

“It’s the Voodoo Blue (woo woo!)” said Arizona Mat.

Upon seeing the legendary stone, Arizona Mat broke out into a spastic dance out of sheer excitement or so I thought until he gave Schulte a hard shove into Johnny V.  Grabbing my sleeve, Arizona Mat pulled me down the stairs towards the Voodoo Zipline.  Shoving his way past the attendants, he bolted the door shut behind him.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“You’ll see,” said Arizona Mat, pulling out his trusty foam noodle.

Flinging it over the zipline, he motioned for me to grab one end of it.

“Are you crazy?” I yelled.

A shot from Schulte’s revolver whizzed over my head and I immediately grabbed one end of the noodle.  Arizona Mat and I screamed bloody murder as we slid towards the Ipanema Tower.  Bullets flew over our heads and the wire began to saw through the noodle.  It fell into two pieces just as we reached the Ipanema Tower.  I crossed myself in sheer relief as I peered over the edge of the building.  It was a long way down.

Triumphantly, Arizona Mat climbed the pole and removed the Voodoo Blue from its perch.

“I’ve done it!  I’ve found the Voodoo Blue (woo woo!)” crowed Arizona Mat.

“SHUT UP!!!” I thundered.

“Simmer down, friend.  Let’s get out of here before the goon platoon catches up with us,” said Arizona Mat.

We found a service ladder and made our way down to street level.  In order to stay hidden from the Oatmeal Gang, Arzona Mat and I spent the night in a dumpster where I used a rat for a pillow.

The next morning, Arizona Mat and I slipped into the Gold Coast where he picked the lock of a, thankfully, empty room where we were able to get cleaned up.  We chanced a Sunday brunch at the Port O’Calls Buffet, hoping that the Oatmeal Gang wouldn’t suspect us of remaining so close to the Rio.  Luckily our gamble paid off.

We spent the day wandering the streets of the Strip, slipping in and out of casinos.  Towards the evening, we sneaked into Planet Hollywood where we “borrowed” an unoccupied room.  Starving, Arizona Mat and I went to BURGR for a meal.  Arizona Mat once again feasted upon the Farm Burger while I savored the Gordon Burger (a pork patty with duck breast bacon, a relish, tomatoes, and butter lettuce).  Slipping into our room, we managed to get a good night’s sleep and I hoped against hope that we had finally managed to elude the Oatmeal Gang.

Arizona Mat insisted that we spend the day at Qua Baths and Spa in Caesar’s Palace, arguing that the Oatmeal Gang would never look for us in there.  I reluctantly agreed.  Amazingly, Arizona Mat was right.  We truly seem to have evaded them.  I enjoyed a hard workout on their updated equipment and began to relax.

After a Thai massage I found myself relaxing on one of the heated lounge chairs in the Roman Baths, a towel draped over my face.  Arizona Mat brought me a bottle of water which I thirstily drank.  After a day of relaxation, we headed over to Harrah’s to get some supper.

Arizona Mat stopped at a food court where we ordered some ramen.  Shortly after ordering, a wave of nausea passed over me and I began sweating profusely.  I sat down in a chair and Arizona Mat asked if I were tired and I said I just felt very flush.  We took our ramen and sat at a table.  I could only manage a few bites.

To make matters worse, two very unwelcome guests sat at our table:  Johnny V and Robert Schulte.

“Give me the stone!” demanded Schulte.

The last thing I remembered was losing my few bites of food as everything went black.

I awoke a few hours later back in my room at the Rio.  A cold compress was pressed to my forehead and I saw a concerned Johnny V looking down at me.  I weakly tried to shove him away, but lacked any strength.

“Take it easy,” said Johnny V.   “It’s OK.  He’s awake.”

Arizona Mat came around the corner of the vanity area.

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” said Arizona Mat.

“What happened?  What’s going on?”

“It was all part of Arizona Mat’s plan,” said Johnny V.

“What plan?” I asked.

“A plan to retrieve the Voodoo Blue (woo woo!) and capture Robert Schulte.  Johnny V was really a triple agent.  I used him to get close to Schulte to keep an eye on him and keep me apprised of his movements.  We were never in danger at any point.”

“But then why did we go through the motions of being pursued?”

“To lull Schulte into a false sense of security.  I told Johnny V to bring Schulte to the food court.  Your spell of nausea got Schulte off his guard.  After you purged, Johnny V managed to karate chop Schulte at the base of the neck and knock him out.  Then the police officers waiting in the wings came out and arrested him.  Johnny V will take the Voodoo Blue (woo woo!) back with him to Omaha and place it in a museum,” said Arizona Mat.

“Kind of chancy.  What would have happened had I not fallen ill?”

“That was part of the plan.  The water I gave you was spiked.”

“It was what?”

“It was spiked.  I needed you to be genuinely sick to throw Schulte off balance.”

“I see,” I said, my hands balling into fists.  “And what happened after Schulte’s arrest?”

“Well, we brought you back here and Johnny V and I went and rode the High Roller and then watched people do the jump off the Stratosphere.”

“So you not only poisoned me, you had fun without me?” I asked.

“I suppose that’s one way of putting it,” admitted Arizona Mat.

I felt my right eyeball begin to violently twitch as I spied a foam noodle on Arizona Mat’s bed.  It was quite a strange sight that night as I chased Arizona Mat throughout the casino swinging the noodle like a baseball bat.

By the next morning I had forgiven Arizona Mat and he, Johnny V, and myself had a final breakfast at the Port O’Calls buffet where we enjoyed fruit, corned beef hash, French Toast, chicken fried steak, biscuits & gravy, bacon, O’Brien potatoes, sausages, coffee, and juice.  We checked out of the Rio and began the long drive back to Gilbert, Arizona.  A drive made longer still by road work which tacked an additional 90 minutes onto the drive.

After returning to Arizona Mat’s home, we stretched our legs a bit and then walked over to Café Rio where Arizona Mat and Johnny V partook of steak and taco salad respectively and I ate the most delicious chicken quesadilla I had ever tasted.  We returned to Arizona Mat’s and gathered around his fire pit sharing stories of the adventure we had just shared while sipping Blue Moon Pumpkin Ales.

Today Arizona Mat dropped me off at the airport.  We shook hands and I knew I was fated to join him in another adventure at some point in the future.  As I headed towards my gate, I saw a nearly emaciated Tall Square still squeezing the dummy’s hand with all his might.

“Submit!!  Submit!!” he grunted.

“Open your eyes, son,” I said as I patted him on the back as I passed him.

I saw him open his eyes and freeze in shock as he stared at the mannequin’s appendage he was holding.

“5. . .4. . .3. ..2. . .1,” I counted down.

“MATTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!” bellowed Tall Square.

Well, the more things change the more they stay the same.