"This place feels like a ghost town, except that even the ghosts have abandoned it."
There had been a great war. Thousands were lost from Rancho Nuevo in what transpired. Only a handful remained. They told the story of what had once been and what they all believed could rise again.
"The angel that hangs from the cross on the hill. She is still alive. Why doesn't anyone cut her down?"
"Forgiveness for all we have done. Those of us who remain must be reminded."
"Then I will cut her down myself. I can't bear to see her suffer like that."
"Even if you could, she would never allow it. She liberated what was once a place of great suffering and sorrow. She hoped that souls would learn from the liberation, but as you can see, we are slowly regaining a new population."
"I don't understand. What is this place?"
"A passage from one place to another that all too few know how to navigate."
He was the bartender of Rancho Nuevo, and he knew everything one could possibly know about the town. For most of eternity he had served drinks and guided souls towards oblivion from behind the bar at the Blackjack Saloon. Now he was asked to assume a new role but to maintain his familiar position. He poured the newcomer a drink. She took it and thanked him.
"Something isn't right about this place..."
"That depends on your perspective. Do you know why you are here?"
"I remember driving, it was late at night and I was tired. I was upset about something and then I remember there being a bright light flashing in my eyes and something sounded like it exploded."
"You're not in Indiana anymore. This is Rancho Nuevo. You aren't one of our usual clientele. Then again, no one really is. We lost most of our social structure in the great war. The angels sent you here."
"You mean like that angel hanging from the cross?"
"In a way. There is more that you must do," said the bartender. Noticing she had quickly finished her drink, he poured her another. Then he took a playing card out from under the bar and placed it face down in front of her.
The newcomer turned the card over. It was the queen of hearts. She looked up at the bartender and shook her head sadly. "I hurt him."
"Only a true queen can hurt him. The angels protect the queens almost as much as they protect him. They are part of something even he does not understand. All he knows is that he must seek the queens. The angels won't let him stray too far from the path."
"You know him?"
"He once walked the desert out beyond the Great Mountains. He walked the desert for many years until he returned to the place from which he came. Someone very powerful watches over him, someone who can command armies of angels."
"I don't know what that word means."
The bartender remembered the old days, when Rancho Nuevo was strong. Looking at the newcomer, she was beautiful and possessed powerful charisma. There was no doubt she would have been broken and forced to serve the Master of Whores. These were different times. Everyone in town knew this woman was protected and no one could touch her. The penalty for doing so was impossible to even imagine.
"Am I dead?" the woman asked after finishing her second drink.
"There is no such thing as death here. It is a concept better understood in the place you most recently came from. Some places find it useful. We do not."
A man in dust caked jeans and a red shirt walked into the Blackjack Saloon. His face was riddled with scars, barely hidden by a rough beard. The newcomer looked into his eyes. They were black orbs that left her feeling hypnotized until she looked away.
"Beer," he barked at the bartender, who was already putting one down on the bar for him. He took it quickly, clenching it tightly in his fist, and stomped off to the back room.
"If you like assholes, that's your guy. He was a rider, but those who remained in Rancho Nuevo after the war between the red riders and the angels are pretty bitter about their fate."
"Where did everyone go after this war?"
"Other places. At one time no one could leave Rancho Nuevo. The war allowed an exodus. I've been instructed to show you how to reach the gates."
"So these angels were good and these riders were evil?"
"Good and evil are not so easily defined. Your kind tends to see things in black and white. We see only shades of gray."
The door to the Blackjack Saloon opened again. An old man, badly stooped and no taller than five feet walked into the room. It was obvious that every step he took was painful, but that would not stop him. This was the way of things. He took a seat next to the newcomer and smiled at her with a crooked mouth filled with rotting teeth.
"May I see your card?" he asked.
The newcomer slid the queen of hearts down the bar to him. He looked at it and laughed. "I know my boy's heart. It is not a simple thing. To love him brings many rewards, but also many challenges. Only a true queen can meet those challenges, in her own way. You are a three. You are a healer, but the healer wounds with more precision than one who is not a healer. They say that the line between love and hate is a thin line. It is much the same with the healer. One knows best the two sides of the coin that she carries. I do not know how you will fare upon your return, so you must make the decision."
"We are consigned to this place, you are just visiting. They watch over you," the old man said as he raised his arms and began flapping them, feigning flight. "They have strange ways. Once there were a multitude of souls here in this place. They came here to suffer for their crimes against each other. The healer must understand this if she is truly the third queen."
"I'm nobody. I sell advertising."
"Anyone who is a somebody is a nobody in their own way. Who you are is never important, it is what is locked away inside you that matters. Souls are guarded and locked and some of us have keys. We often aren't aware of these keys, and even when we are, we don't know what they unlock. Sometimes the key fits a lock we stumble upon in our travels. We must be careful not to lose the keys we have."
"This might make sense if I had a few more drinks. You guys are weird."
"Try spending eternity in purgatory and you'll get a little weird yourself. I will take you to the gate, but it is your choice whether you will take that card or leave it on the bar."
The newcomer rose from her stool at the bar and began walking towards the door. The old man took a long look at the queen of hearts, sitting in a puddle of spilled beer left behind by the defeated red rider. He shook his head and began following the newcomer. She stepped outside, gazed into the sun, then went back inside for the card.
She was never spoken of again in Rancho Nuevo. Not even in the quiet circles of gossip and rumor. It was like she had never been there, and in many ways she never had.
The Rancho Nuevo Series: