Susan Pierce introduces the charming trio of aged mystery writer Agatha Bliss, her nephew Sissy, and Sissy’s spouse, Lewis.
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DEATH AT THE ABBEY
by Susan Pierce
“Cash, Auntie Ag,” Sissy said with slight annoyance, “they don’t take checks, Travelers’ Checks, or credit cards.” Sissy wrangled the store mannequin out of the front passenger seat of his Subaru, shoved it into the back seat, and carefully maneuvered his elderly aunt into the front seat where the mannequin had been.
“I told you that 900 times already. No British Pounds Sterling, no Euros. US Dollars. Cash only. But don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
Man, he thought, the day she broke ninety-seven years old her whole brain turned into a sizzling wok of otter pucky.
Bringing his elderly Aunt Agatha Bliss to live with him and Lewis was a continuing adjustment for them all. He transplanted her from her quaint cottage in the English village of St. Mary Mod on Thrashing, now the pulsating microbrew-and-club capital of the Midlands, into the cottage he shared with his spouse, Lewis, in Auburn, California.
Okay, it wasn’t a “cottage” in the English sense. It was a stucco-plastered double-wide trailer wedged between olive trees and surrounded by flaming orange California poppies, white day lilies, and wild strawberries.
And Lewis wasn’t Sissy’s spouse in the English sense, either. They met in the Navy, fell in love, didn’t tell what no one asked, received honorable discharges, and then settled in northern California. Lewis became a nurse at the Cal Davis Med Center and Sissy became a reasonably successful organic caterer. They had no debt, few bills, and a combined income in the low six-figures.
Two seconds after they picked her up at the Sacramento airport, Lewis told Sissy that Auntie Ag was suffering from mild dementia. Still, she was Sissy’s aunt and he loved her and he was her only living relative. Everyone Agatha Bliss had known or loved had died.
So had the Bliss Trust. Millions in royalties, book sales, and speaking fees had disappeared overnight when the Bliss Family Trust went south after British Petroleum took history’s biggest leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Sissy was not a violent guy, but if he ever got his hands on the genius who invested 96% of the Trust in BP, he’d knock that guy’s teeth so far down his throat he’d have to shove his hands up his ass to bite his fingernails.
Alternating between perfect lucidity and lunacy, Ag settled into her new life in small-town California fairly well and quickly established new routines. For example, every morning after breakfast she strapped on her sturdy walking shoes and made her way to a particular olive tree. Reaching up to one of its ripening fruits, she mumbled something about God’s infinite power as revealed in the delicate form of the testicles of tree turtles and spent the next half hour or so stroking the ripening olive.
This behavior would have been viewed as a bit gaga in England, sure, but it wasn’t that unusual in California. Aunt Ag wasn’t even the craziest person Lewis and Sissy knew. There was James, for example, who came up to Auburn every Fourth of July so he could crank up Wagner on his ipod, strip himself naked, and jump up and down on the deck while he watched the City of Auburn fireworks display.
Sissy and Lewis were nothing if not compassionate. They adjusted.
Aunt Ag had arthritis and was increasingly hard of hearing. She tended to drool a bit and stuffed used Kleenexes in every chair and sofa. And about a month after her arrival, Lewis began to suspect that Auntie Ag was in constant pain. Sissy and Lewis, being nothing if not compassionate, decided Auntie Ag would experience a better quality of life if she smoked dope.
That’s why Sissy was wedging Ag into the passenger seat of the Subaru. He intended to drive her down to Sacramento, get her a medical prescription for marijuana, and pick up a month’s supply of “medicine.” Of course, he didn’t have to drive all the way to Sacramento to score a bag of weed. But somehow, it seemed like the right thing – the elegant thing – to do for a person like Agatha Bliss. The long drive was, for Sissy, a part of his gift to her of that better quality of life.
Aunt Ag was successfully loaded into the car. The mannequin was tossed into the back seat. Now all Sissy had to do was silently rapid-fire his mantra over the next several hours in order to blow himself into his internal happy place so she wouldn’t drive him completely crazy before they got back home.
The medical “exam” cost $135.00. He got three pre-rolled joints for $10; a couple of $5 brownies; and two eighths of buds to use for cooking because, if smoking proved to be difficult for Ag, he planned to grind up some buds and mix them into sauces, chicken-pot pies, and whatever. Sissy had $250.00 in his money clip and it was more than enough to cover her costs.
The drive back to Auburn was quiet. Sissy was in the habit of swearing at other drivers on Interstate 80, but with Aunt Ag in the car, he fought to curb his natural tendencies. They returned to the trailer in the early afternoon, Sissy micro waved some green tea and gave it, along with a cannabis brownie, to Auntie Ag, who was comfortably enthroned on her emerald green recliner. Soothed by the harmonic vocals of a Chanticleer CD, she took a restful afternoon nap in her recliner and then, at about 5:30, because old people like to eat early, the three of them set out to the Abbey for dinner.
The Abbey is a restaurant and winery just north of Auburn. It’s on the Wine Trail, a quiet two-lane road which winds through rolling hills and vineyards. The outdoor Wine Café is on the east side of the Abbey so that the old granite building shades tasters from the heat of the late afternoon sun. Tables along the east side of the dining room feature floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Wine Café and, beyond them, the rolling vineyards. As night falls, tiki torches are lit out on the charming Wine Café patio.
Lewis, Sissy, and Aunt Agatha arrived at the Abbey at a little after 5:30 and were seated inside in the dining room at Sissy and Lewis’s favorite table next to the windows. They gave Auntie Ag the chair facing the windows so she could enjoy the view of the outdoor Wine Café and the rolling hills beyond.
They dined in leisurely fashion, in an atmosphere of peaceful serenity. Aunt Ag seemed entranced with the view out the windows. She said almost nothing during the meal. With the exception of an occasional sip of wine and a bite of salad or pasta, she barely moved a muscle.
But the serene ambience in the dining room came to a screeching halt at 6:20 that evening. Just as the last of the dishes were being removed from their table and the coffee was being poured – just as the tiki torch nearest their window was being lit – Auntie Ag said softly, “Oh, dear.”
Then came the crash of a bus tray, the shatter of breaking glass, and a blood curdling scream.
Everyone in the large room froze. Sissy jumped to his feet and shot his eyes wildly around the dining room. Diners began to stir. They looked around them and asked each other what could have happened. Auntie Ag sat, still as a statue, and continued to stare out the window.
Slowly, Sissy and Lewis turned their own eyes toward the windows, as did every other pair of eyes in the room. All eyes focused on the scene outside. All eyes stared in horror at the lifeless form which lay on the cold, granite floor of the Wine Café, and at the spreading red pool puddling around the cork screw which stuck out of the neck of the Abbey’s wine steward.
Sissy slowly became aware that someone had spoken his name. He turned to look at Aunt Agatha as she said, “Sissy . . .” for a second time.
“Yes, Aunt Aggie?” he managed to say.
“You know, my dear,” she said softly, “I don’t approve of murder. I had so hoped she wouldn’t do it. But there you are. I suppose it couldn’t be helped. Still, one always does hope for the best, especially after a lovely dinner, don’t you think?”
Sissy sank onto his chair. Lewis stared. Lewis leaned toward Agatha and, propping both elbows on the table, said, “Auntie, what do you mean? Who did you hope wouldn’t do what?”
Agatha looked out the window again and then she busied herself by brushing away a few crumbs from the tablecloth. That done, she turned her sparkling blue eyes to Lewis and said, “Ilene.”
Sissy and Lewis said, almost in unison, “Ilene? Who’s Ilene?”
Aunt Aggie nodded in a meaningful manner to their table’s empty fourth chair. The one with its back to the windows. “Ilene said she would kill him, but I had hoped she wouldn’t.”
Lewis said, “Ilene?”
Sissy said, “Who is Ilene? Ilene killed the wine steward?”
“No, dear,” Agatha was becoming agitated. “Ilene didn’t do it. Ilene said that other woman would kill him.”
Sissy shook his head in frustration.
“Auntie, who’s Ilene?” Lewis repeated.
“Lewis, you’re not a very observant person, are you?” She nodded again to the empty chair facing her at their table. “Ilene is our fourth at dinner this evening.” Then, Agatha closed her eyes and folded her hands in her lap.
Sissy and Lewis looked again at the fourth chair at the table. No one was there.
“It’s totally time to take her home,” Lewis whispered behind his napkin. “And before we get in the car, please stow that awful mannequin in the way-back. Please, Hon. I rode here with a plastic foot in my ribs the whole time.”
Sissy lifted his aunt’s cane off the back of the Ilene-less fourth chair and handed it to Lewis. He stood up as unobtrusively as possible, dropped some cash on the table, and eased his car keys from his pocket. He whispered to Lewis, “I’ll have the car at the front door by the time you two get there.” He cleared the Abbey’s heavy, wooden door as everyone began clamoring toward the windows for a better look at the dead man.
Lewis helped Aunt Aggie to stand and then, taking her elbow to steady her, moved toward the door. Just as they reached it, a manager-type person stepped in their path.
“I’m sorry, Sir, but I don’t think you should leave. I’m sure the police will want to question everyone, and you were sitting right by the windows . . . ”
Lewis said, “Look. My – uh – aunt – is very . . . ” Realizing tact might be called for, he mouthed the word old. “She’s upset, and I need to get her home.”
The manager hesitated. Lewis shot a glance at Aunt Aggie. She didn’t look upset. In fact, she looked completely calm.
“Look,” Lewis said. “I’ll give you my name and address. If the police need to talk to me, they’ll know how to find me. Do you have something to write with?”
This seemed to satisfy the manager. The contact information was provided and recorded, and Lewis and Aunt Agatha proceeded to the car.
It was nearly nine o’clock when they heard a heavy car crunch up the gravel driveway and then the unmistakable sound of a heavy car door slamming. By the time three sharp raps were being administered to the front door, Sissy had already reached out to open it.
Standing in the doorway beneath a gray cowboy hat and above a crisp Sienna Sherriff’s Department uniform was a round, sunburned face topped by close-cut blond hair.
“I’m Dickey,” the lawman, trying to secure his radio mic to the epaulet on his shoulder, told Sissy.
“I can see that,” Sissy replied.
“Placer County Deputy Sheriff Hiram Dickey.”
Sissy opened the door wider and stepped back. “Won’t you come in?”
Lewis nodded. “You’re here about the murder.”
A look of alarm flashed onto Deputy Dickey’s face and his right hand moved toward his holstered gun. “What murder?”
Lewis said, “How many murders have there been tonight? The murder over at the Abbey, of course. We had to leave before you fellows arrived because we needed to bring our aunt home. Since we were there, I left my contact information with the manager, and I kind of expected someone would be along to question us, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly . . . ”
“I’m not here about the Abbey murder. Other guys are handling that. I’m here because you people drive a 2008 Subaru Legacy, sea foam green in color. Correct?”
Sissy said, “That’s right.”
“We had a call from a guy who said he saw your car leaving the Abbey parking lot in a hurry this evening. Said there was a naked lady in it with a look of sheer terror on her face. She was trying to claw her way out of your back cargo-hatch door.”
Lewis threw his index finger at Auntie Ag. “You’d better come clean, Aggie! You been racing around naked in the car again? This guy’s the law, you know. You’d better confess—maybe they’ll go easier on you in Alcatraz if you do!”
Auntie Ag tossed back her white head in laughter. It was one of those delightful moments of Auntie Agatha at her very best. “Oh, Lewis! Alcatraz has been closed for years. And I was with you two gentlemen all evening.”
Lewis turned to Sissy. “Honey, will you pleeeze get that mannequin out of the car?”
Deputy Dickey raised his eyebrows. “Mannequin?”
Sissy nodded. “You see, Deputy, I got a mannequin for the car a couple of years ago. Say, why don’t we all sit down.”
Deputy Dickey settled into an overstuffed living room chair, introductions were made, and Agatha said, “Sissy, won’t you bring Deputy Dickey some tea and one of those lovely brownies?”
For the second time that day, Sissy felt panic. Sure, Ag had a prescription, but a fear of being “busted” had grown in Sissy over the years and didn’t just disappear in an afternoon.
Lewis saw it, Sissy’s twinge of panic at the thought of being thrown in the brig by Deputy Dickey for elder abuse and conspiracy to conceal a prescribed cannabis brownie, and worked to surpress a burst of laughter.
“No, thanks,” Deputy Dickey said. “I’m trying to cut back on white flour, chocolate, and sugar. They’re not good for you. Mind if I take a pinch of chew, though?”
Lewis said, “Not at all. Let me just get you a paper cup.”
A cup was produced and everyone relaxed. “Mannequin, huh?” Dickey said. “Trying to qualify for the high occupancy vehicle lane on the freeway? How’s that working out for you?
Sissy said, “Well, sir, including tonight, it’s brought me two tickets, a visit from a Deputy Sheriff, and a possible felony kidnap charge.”
“Uh-huh,” Dickey said with the straightest poker face ever.
“I’ve paid the tickets and I plan to take the mannequin apart before your tail lights clear our driveway tonight. I plan to take the pieces over to the landfill first thing in the morning.”
“Sounds like a good plan.” Deputy Dickey grinned. “Anything else I can clear up for you folks tonight?”
Agatha Bliss sat up straight in her chair and fastened her clear, sparkling blue eyes on the deputy. “There is one thing, Constable,” she said, “I do hope you’ll be gentle with her. She’s pregnant, you know.”
Lewis blurted, “The mannequin’s pregnant?”
“Lewis,” Aunt Aggie scolded, “This is no time to be flippant with the constable–as busy as he is and as late as he’ll be working tonight.”
“No, ma’am.” Lewis was willing to concede that he’d said something stupid. He just didn’t know what.
“Our Lewis isn’t very observant, is he? No, I was speaking of the bartender at the Abbey. I do think that’s why she did it.”
Sissy rolled his eyes and shot a questioning look to Lewis. Lewis shrugged.
Auntie Ag continued, “You see, Constable, she is pregnant. And she probably doesn’t have health insurance. No doubt she’s been working extra hours to put a little money aside for her near-future expenses. Poor girl must have been exhausted.”
Auntie’s voice softened to a whisper. “And he was such a selfish, nasty little man.” She shook her head. “Evil, really.”
“Who’s a nasty little man, Auntie? You mean the baby’s father?” Sissy wondered.
“Oh, no, dear. I’m sure the baby’s father is long gone. No, I was speaking of the man with the cork screw in his neck – the wine steward.”
Deputy Dickey straightened. “The wine steward? The man who was murdered over at the Abbey?”
Auntie Aggie nodded. “I’m quite sure he’s been stealing from the Abbey. Probably for years. But it really was inexcusable for him to steal her tips. She worked so hard and always with a smile. She went out of her way to do those little extra kindnesses that people do so appreciate. I saw them both quite clearly, you know. Everything in the dining room is reflected perfectly in those enormous windows in the early evening, before the torches are lit.”
The three men stared at her in stunned silence.
Auntie Ag sighed and said, “Of course, one doesn’t approve of murder. Still, the poor little thing was exhausted and worried and probably scared to death, and that was why she snapped. I do hope you’ll be as gentle with her as possible, Constable.”
She sighed a second time, brushed an invisible crumb from her lap, and then said, “Constable Dickey, are you sure you wouldn’t like a nice cup of green tea and a brownie?”
DEATH BENEATH THE BRIDGE
by Susan Pierce
They drove slowly over the single lane bridge. It was a beautiful morning in June, and Lewis and Sissy were taking Auntie Agatha Bliss out for a short drive and picnic. They were on the narrow dirt road that ran from Colfax, California, up to the old Sierra Mountain town of Foresthill.
The bridge took them across a tributary of the north fork of the American River. After clearing the bridge, Sissy pulled off the road as far as he could and shut down the engine.
“Come along, Ilean,” Agatha said as she pulled the cane onto the hydraulic lift with
her. “Fresh air and a brisk walk are just the thing to whet the appetite for a nice picnic.”
Sissy and Lewis glanced at each other while Auntie Ag was lowered to the ground. As she stepped off the lift, Lewis grunted with exasperation, “All right, Auntie, come clean. Who is this Ilene? There’s no one here but the three of us.”
“Oh, but there is. Whoever parked that little red car along the roadside is here.” She pointed to it with her cane. “And there is, of course, Ilean.” She tapped her cane on the ground. “A philosopher said, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ I say, ‘I walk, therefore I lean.’ ”
Lewis giggled. “You, my darling, are a head case.”
“And you, dear Lewis, are not particularly observant, are you?”
Lewis put an arm around her and the two walked to a spot where they could see the river below.
Sissy, once he’d locked the SUV, joined them. They watched the river and enjoyed the deafening sound of water crashing over rocks.
Sissy sighed. “I don’t know another place where the water is so clear. From here you can see everything on the bottom of the river. There’s a big granite mine on the other side of those hills.” He pointed. “And the riverbed here is solid green granite.”
“It is quite breathtaking,” Aunt Agatha whispered. “The green, green forest; the sienna red rocks; the clear, blue sky—and that emerald crystal river. Quite beautiful, really.”
“Alright, Skipper. Where to from here?” Lewis asked Sissy.
“I thought we’d hike a little way down the path. Don’t worry, Auntie Ag, Lewis and I have got you. When you’ve had enough, we’ll haul you back up to the truck for lunch.”
Sissy always called his SUV “the truck”. Calling it an SUV was a little too foo-foo for him. A little too urban. Men drove trucks. Girlie-boy queens drove SUVs and whined about their gas mileage.
But a mere “truck” it was not. Sissy had plowed a ton of money and effort into the four-wheel-drive which Lewis had dubbed the White Cloud. Many of the extra amenities were added for his beloved Auntie’s comfort.
Sissy had re-built the suspension, thus nearly eliminating the bone rattling caused by bumpy back roads. The interior was accented in mahogany and featured oversized side windows with polarized, tinted glass. They gave Auntie Ag a glare-free, panoramic view with minimal distortion of natural color.
Sissy had added beige leather captain’s seats in front, each equipped with a cup holder and a hidden mic on the windshield visor. Each seat swiveled so that, during a pause in their travels, Lewis and Sissy could turn to face Auntie Ag for a chat.
Agatha’s seat was a beige leather recliner with a pull-up tray beneath the right arm rest. It had a seat-warmer and hidden speakers on each side of her headrest so she could listen to music or, when the boys talked up front, she could hear them as clearly as if they had spoken directly into her ears.
To her left, beneath the window, Sissy had installed a compartmentalized boat shelf that held a box of Kleenex; several bottles of water; and small bags of nuts, fruit, and mints. Next to the shelf was a little waste basket.
Sissy’s vehicle was a brilliant demonstration of small-space engineering designed to put ultimate comfort at Agatha’s fingertips without looking ostentatious. A mere truck it definitely was not.
The river ran about fifty feet below the bridge. A twisting footpath down to the water started about ten yards from the end of bridge. The river roared, gushing violently with the snow-melt of late spring. The water was too cold and too fast for tubing in mid-June, and, except for the little red car parked further up the road, the area seemed to be deserted.
As they rounded the second turn of the path, a young woman raced toward them. She pushed past in a flash, her long arms grabbing at the steep hillside on the inside of the trail. Cascades of black, purple, and green hair covered her face. In that split second Agatha saw three scratches running down the side of the girl’s neck just above a dragonfly tattoo. Crawling down from the scratches were faint little streaks of blood.
“Hey!” Sissy shouted as he grabbed for the belt around Auntie Ag’s waist.
“What the . . . ” Lewis screamed as he spun around to see Sissy pinning his aunt’s back to the steep hillside.
Sissy was furious. “She could’ve knocked one of us right off the trail. And she never even looked back.” He turned his eyes in the direction the young woman had gone.
“You doing all right, Auntie?” Lewis’ voice was remarkable calm.
“Oh, I’m fine. Just let me catch my breath.” Agatha closed her eyes, took a few deep breaths, then said, “Quite unexpected, wasn’t it?”
Lewis’ nursing skills kicked into gear. He gently took one of her hands and began to check her pulse by pressing two fingers across her wrist.
“I’m fine,” Agatha insisted. “Do you mind if we stand here for a minute. I just need to catch my bre . . . Oh, dear.”
She stared down at the river. Lewis and Sissy squinted down at the spot and saw, wedged between rocks beneath the bridge, a mop of black hair. Attached to that streaming hair, bobbing face down in the rushing water, was a girl in a pink tee-shirt, black shorts, and black sneakers.
They could clearly see that the body’s right arm and foot must be broken because of the way they bobbed at odd angles. It looked as if a petulant three-year-old had thrown her dolly off the bridge.
Sissy threw a steadying arm around Agatha and pulled out his cell phone while Lewis scrambled down the rocks to the body below. “Dead,” Lewis shouted up to Sissy.
“No service,” Sissy shouted back, holding up his cell phone.
Sissy began maneuvering Agatha and Ilean back up the path. Lewis, hurrying after them, rejoined them at the truck.
“We passed a house about a mile back,” Sissy said. He slipped out of his Birkenstocks, tossed them into the back of the truck, and pulled out a pair of sneakers. Seconds later as he tied the sneaker laces, he continued, “I’ll run down and call the Sheriff. You two might as well get comfortable in the truck. Nothing any of us can do for that girl now. Just keep an eye out, Lewis. Don’t let anyone go down there and mess up the crime scene.”
Lewis and Agatha sat together in the White Cloud. They left the sliding door open and listened to roar of the river and the wind through the forest. Beneath the din both heard the deafening silence of death.
After a minute or two, Agatha said, “Sissy was a member of the track squad at Annapolis, you know. It won’t take him long.” They sat quietly for a moment.
Agatha gazed out the window to her left. Then she said, “I’ve been thinking about Oxford.”
Lewis sipped from his water bottle. “Oxford, huh? How long were you there?”
“Oh, my. Off and on, I should think, over three decades. Maybe longer.”
“How old are you, Auntie Ag?”
“My dear Lewis” she feigned outrage. “Women always lie about age. Young women claim to be older, women over fifty claim to be younger, and ladies my age are content just knowing our own names.”
Lewis laughed. “Okay. We’ll leave the age thing alone. So why are you thinking about Oxford?” he asked.
“At Oxford, every now and then, I’d get a cup of tea at Blackwell’s and sit for a while watching people in the enormous courtyard of the Bodleian Library. A thousand people might pass through the courtyard as I watched. There was such wonderful variety in skin color, eye shape, and, of course, costume.”
“Costume? People in Oxford wear costumes to the library? What a great town.”
“No, no.” Agatha was a bit flummoxed. “Not fancy dress, like a fairy princess or a pirate. In England, ‘costume’ means clothing, fashion.”
“Oh. Wait a minute. You mean like that girl on the path with her dyed hair and that tattoo.” He leaned toward Auntie Ag. “Loved the tat. Hated the hair. But I bet she looks just like all her little friends.”
Auntie smiled. “People from all over the world—China, India, Africa—all kinds of people come to Oxford. They may look different, but beneath the surface appearance, people are very much the same. We all share similar emotions: Jealousy, love, anger, self-consciousness. The trick, you see, is to notice what lies beneath the surface.”
“The trouble is that so many people never look beneath the surface. I mean, the wonderful thing about the river here is that you can so clearly see the riverbed.”
They sat in companionable silence for a minute or two and then Agatha said, “Did the girl on the foot path look like the girl beneath the bridge, do you think?”
Lewis thought about it. “I didn’t turn her over, but it looked like they had the same hairdresser.”
Agatha Bliss looked out the window to her left again, “Young people wrestle with the question of who they are. That’s why it’s so important to them what others think about them. I’m sure he had no idea it would all turn out like this.”
“I don’t get it, Auntie. Who are we talking about?”
They heard the crunch of gravel as a car drew up behind them.
As the deputy shut down his vehicle, Sissy jumped out the passenger side door. “That house down there belongs to the deputy’s son. Dickey was there visiting him. The boy’s an EMT and he’ll be up here in a few minutes with a recovery team. Lucky us, eh?”
Deputy Dickey vanished down the narrow little trail. Sissy slid behind the steering wheel of his truck and swiveled around to face his family.
“So what were you girls talking about while I was gone?” He reached for Lewis’ water bottle and took a hearty slug.
“Three of us went for a nice picnic in Christ Church Meadow.”
Sissy pursed his lips. “Huh?”
Lewis said, “Oh. You mean at Oxford? Auntie Ag was just telling me about Oxford,” he explained to Sissy.
“Yes,” Agatha said. “At Oxford. It was a beautiful morning and just as we were setting the picnic hamper on our little rug, one of my chums pulled a fob from the pocket of her jumper. It was just a silly little fob of blue and white ribbon with a trinket at the end. A boy had given it to her at dinner the previous evening.”
Lewis and Sissy nodded.
“But when my other chum saw it, she gave a little squeak, grabbed it, ran down to the bank of the River Isis, and threw it in.”
Lewis was shocked. He moaned, “Oh, nooo,” and covered his mouth with both hands. Lewis frequently scored higher than Sissy on the Queen-o-Meter. “Why?”
Agatha continued, “Well, as it turned out, she became enraged at the sight of it. But her rage did not come from a broken heart.”
“No?” Lewis looked doubtful.
“She had given that very same fob to a young man a week earlier. She had only stepped out with him once, so she wasn’t in love with him. She was humiliated, not jealous. How little that young man must have thought of her, giving away her gift to another girl only a week later. And what would the other girl think of her when she realized how the young man had got the fob in the first place? Young people are always so very sensitive, aren’t they?”
Lewis agreed. “The boy was an idiot. Everybody knows re-gifting is dangerous.”
Suddenly Deputy Dickey appeared at the open sliding door. Lewis handed him a fresh bottle of water. “Find anything, Hiram?”
The Deputy smiled. “Please. Call me Hi. Everybody does. Well, she’s dead alright. Looks like she fell off the path onto the rocks at the bottom. Looks like one of her legs might’ve caught a stump on the way down. That would have flipped her around so she landed on those river rocks head first.” He shook his head sadly. “She’s just a kid. It’s always worse when it’s a kid.”
Sissy nodded. “Find anything else down there?
Deputy Dickey pulled two evidence bags from his pants pocket. In one was a set of car keys and, in the other, a gold neck chain.
Aunt Agatha leaned forward. “Now, Constable. You will see to it that the recovery team bags that poor girls hands before they move her, won’t you?”
Deputy Dickey gave her a careful look. Sissy said, “What? Bags? What are you talking about, Auntie Ag?”
Deputy Dickey said, “Your aunt has a good head on her shoulders.”
Aunt Agatha smiled. “You will remind them, won’t you?”
Lewis said, “I don’t understand . . . ”
“Well, it’s quite simple, dear. The evidence under the fingernails must be preserved so that, when some laboratory person in a white frock coat tests them, and then tests that chain for blood and tissue samples, the two sets of evidence can be compared.”
Deputy Dickey nodded. “That’s how we do it, ma’am.”
Realization dawned on Sissy. “You think the girl didn’t just fall? You think someone pushed her?”
Lewis clapped his hands. “You go, girl. It was that rude girl on the path, right? The girl with the hot tat and the bad hair? Am I in the ball park, Auntie?”
“Yes, dear, you’re on the cricket pitch indeed. Not a bit thick at all this morning, are you?”
Lewis said, “So the chick that nearly knocked us off the path had just thrown that other girl overboard.”
“Well, dear, not exactly. You’re on the pitch, but you’re not yet at bats.”
Deputy Dickey interrupted. “You say there was another girl? Can you give me a description? Can you describe her vehicle?
“I can do better than that, Constable,” Auntie Ag said. “Both the girl and her vehicle are right up the road there. It’s that little red car, and the girl’s inside it. I’ve been watching her since Sissy ran off to find you.”
“I thought Sissy told us to keep an eye on the footpath. That’s what I was doing.”
“I understood him to be speaking about the young woman in the little red car. She’s the one I watched.”
All three men were squinting up the hill at the little red car. “I see the car,” Sissy said, “but I don’t see anyone in it.”
Auntie Ag smiled indulgently. “Well, dear, that’s because she’s scrunched down in her seat. She doesn’t want us to see her, don’t you think? But every once in a while she reaches up to scratch her head and when she does, one can see her hand quite clearly.”
Deputy Dickey said, “Alright, Ms. Bliss. If that other girl had something to do with this sorry business, why is she still sitting in the car?”
“She dropped her car keys. Once she got behind the steering wheel, she realized that, don’t you think? Then she had no choice but to wait for us to leave so she could go searching for them.”
Deputy Dickey hitched up his gun belt. “I better take her into custody. You folks may as well drive on up to Foresthill for your picnic. I’ll catch up with you there.”
As they watched the deputy walk up the hill, Lewis tsked. “What a shame. I wonder why she murdered her friend.”
Aunt Agatha sighed. “Oh, Lewis. I think you’ve got it all wrong. I don’t think it was murder at all. I think it was just a terrible accident.”
Sissy, baffled, shook his head. “How on earth did you reach that conclusion?”
Agatha said, “Young women today have feelings similar to those of girls when I was young, only some young women today seem to be more violent and less likely to consider the consequences of their actions. My old chum grabbed a fob from another girl’s hand, ran a short distance, and threw into the Isis. The girl beneath the bridge tore the little gold chain from her friend’s neck with such force that she lost her balance and fell to her death, carrying the gold chain with her.”
Sissy grimaced, unwilling to concede the point. “Or maybe, after the dead girl tore off the necklace, the girl in the red car fought back and shoved her over the edge.”
“Perhaps.” Agatha Bliss thought for a moment. “But we don’t want to think the worst of people, do we? The girl on the path didn’t look to me like a murderess fleeing the scene. She looked to me like a terrified child in shock.”
Sissy battened the hatches, cranked up the engine, and steered his “truck” up the mountain toward Foresthill.
But Lewis was still facing Auntie Ag. He whispered, “All right, Auntie Ag. What do you think happened. Murder? Accident? Suicide? Which was it?”
“Dear Lewis.” She brushed a crumb from her lap. “It well may be that the only person who knows for certain lies dead beneath the bridge.”
ALONG THE CANAL
by Susan Pierce
“Auntie Ag,” Lewis chose his words carefully. He’d given it a great deal of thought and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring it up. “There’s something I’ve got to tell you.”
“What is it, dear,” Auntie Ag asked. The two were walking slowly along the path that ran next to the irrigation canal. The Auburn area was riddled with irrigation canals. Without them, nothing worth planting would grow.
Winters in Auburn were chilly and occasionally included a day or two of snow. Springs and falls were wet. But from July through September, the area was bone dry and temperatures hovered around 100 degrees. Without the canals, much of California would be a semi arid wasteland.
Decades earlier trees were planted along the irrigation canal that flowed through Sissy’s land. Cooled by a light breeze beneath the canopy of olive trees and perfumed by a hint of oranges, a stroll along the canal was as soothing as it was invigorating.
Auntie Ag pushed back her big straw hat and let out a bit of length from her chinstrap so the hat could hang casually between her shoulder blades. No need for my hat in the shade, she thought. She liked the feel of the breeze through her hair.
“Auntie Ag, Sissy and I are married,” Lewis said gently but firmly.
Agatha stopped in her tracks. She turned to face Lewis, looked him in the eye, and said, “I beg your pardon?”
“That’s right, Auntie. Me and Sissy are married.” There. He said it. Once and for all, for better or worse, the cat was out of the closet.
She turned as pink as the tea roses on her white sweater. “When?”
“We were married at San Francisco City Hall five years ago.”
“Oh, my. It’s quite shameful.”
“You disapprove?” Lewis was braced, ready for whatever her reaction might be. But now that they were actually having the conversation he wasn’t sure how he felt. Angry? Disappointed?
Auntie muttered to herself, shaking her head. The only word Lewis heard clearly was, “Disgraceful.”
As he listened to the water lap gently against the banks, Lewis watched the current pull a single leaf to the center of the canal and then carry it off. He realized that what he felt was a profound sadness.
“So, Auntie,” he said quietly, “you disapprove?”
“Disapprove of what, dear?”
“Of me and Sissy being married.”
“What on earth makes you think I disapprove?” she asked in surprise.
“Well, let’s see . . . ” He ticked off items on his fingers. “First you said ‘shameful,’ second, your face turned as red as a rose, and third, you said ‘disgraceful.’ Those are pretty good indicators of what you think.”
“Lewis, I am embarrassed and ashamed of myself. I love our Sissy more than anyone on earth. I meant to say shame on me. Quite disgraceful of me, not to send a gift. Of course, I really ought to have been there. To miss Sissy’s wedding and not even send a gift. How rude of me. It’s quite inexcusable.”
He saw tears well up in her blue, blue eyes and wrapped her in his arms. “Thank you, Auntie.” Lewis closed his eyes. “I love him, too.”
They walked slowly along the canal in the late afternoon sun. Lewis said, “You know him better than anyone, Auntie. So tell me some family secrets. How’d he get the name Sissy?”
Auntie Ag took his arm. “Well,” she began, “you know that his mum and dad both taught at Berkley.”
“No.” Lewis answered, scandalized.
“Oh, yes. His mum was a great fan of poetry and nature. Wrote little bits about ponds and lambs, that sort of thing. She was a great romantic and idealist. She idolized Saint Francis of Assisi. ”
“And that’s how he got the name?”
“There’s another wrinkle. Sissy’s dad taught mythology. He was in his dark period when Sissy was born, all very Albert Camus and the absurdity of life.”
“Yikes,” Lewis said, “what a fun guy. I bet his idea of a party was sitting alone in a dark room with a glass of vodka, watching a candle melt.”
“He was very taken with the Greco-Roman god, Sisyphus. Sisyphus had been caught in wrong-doing, and his penalty was to spend the rest of eternity rolling an enormous bolder up a hill.”
“Wasn’t it? He expended all sorts of effort every day pushing the thing up the hill only to have it roll back down. He became the symbol of futile repetition. And interestingly . . . ” she pulled Lewis’ arm a bit closer and whispered up to him with the air of a spy, “Sisyphus became the ‘patron saint’ of politicians.”
Lewis threw back his head gave a loud hoot, “No. How perfect. Those guys shake people’s hands and spend gobs of money and get elected and have their pictures taken shaking more hands and go to long meetings and spend more money—and nothing really changes. Futile repetition. That’s great.”
Then Lewis asked, “But what kind of a mom and dad would give a name like Assisi or Sisyphus to a little baby? I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong.”
“If you repeat this, I’ll deny it,” she began.
“You dish it, girl.” Lewis was a great appreciator of any item of gossip about anyone, past or present. He almost never repeated gossip, but he soaked it up like a sponge.
“Well,” Auntie Ag said in her most confidential tone, “I always thought Sissy’s mum and dad were a bit odd.”
“No,” Lewis slipped a hand over his mouth. “What was odd about them?”
She thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t remember. All I remember is that they were a bit odd. I don’t think I liked them very much.”
“I don’t think Sissy liked them very much, either.”
“Yes, but the great thing was that he came to visit me. Every few years he came and spent the entire summer and we had such fun.”
They walked along the canal, arm in arm. Agatha’s thoughts were swept into a jigsaw puzzle of memories. Lewis felt necessary, appreciated, and content.
As they strolled along the canal, a cloud drifted over Agatha Bliss. She became a bit agitated and said, “A man was in my room.”
“Really? What did he look like?”
“Well, I don’t know.” She thought for a minute. “I don’t think I actually saw him, but I know he was there.”
“When was he there?” Lewis asked.
“Last night. I think he came in to steal something.”
“What did he come into your room to steal?
“My hat. The man meant to steal my hat.”
The psychologist had told him, “Meet them where they are. People with dementia drift in and out of reality. You can’t correct them. It just makes them angry and more confused. But it really doesn’t matter whether it’s Tuesday or Thursday or they’re in their childhood home or somewhere else. You go there with them. Meet them where they are.”
“Well,” Lewis said, “I’ll look into that. Don’t you worry. We’ll guard your hat.” He reached his arms behind her and lifted her straw hat back onto her head.
Agatha sighed in relief.
There was something very assuring about the irrigation canal. The current was strong but quiet. Maybe it was the constancy of the flowing water or the shade of the olive trees. Maybe it was the occasional bird or the silence of clouds drifting across the sky. Maybe it was the solitude. Or maybe it was a combination of things. But there was something rhythmic, steady, and assuring about strolling along the canal.
Lewis caught a faint scent of eucalyptus in the air. Oranges . . . eucalyptus . . . and was that honeysuckle? They walked along alone together. In due time, Lewis turned them around and began to steer them toward the deck on the back of the house.
Agatha Bliss said, “I say, young man.”
“Yes?” Lewis was cautious.
“Are you married?”
He answered carefully, “Yes, ma’am. I am married.”
“Did I send a gift?” she asked.
Without hesitating he answered, “Yes, ma’am. You sent a gift.”
“Was it something lovely?” she wondered out loud to herself.
“It was marvelous.” He gave her arm a little squeeze and helped her up the stairs to a padded rocking chair on the deck.
TOWARD THE DEPOT
by Susan Pierce
“Sissy, I must say your brownies are extraordinary. When I have one with afternoon tea I always end up having a little nap and awaking with an appetite. In England, I often missed the evening meal. I simply wasn’t hongry. But here, my appetite is often tremendous. I find I don’t eat loads of food, but lots of little tasty things are so delightful. Were those cranberries in the green salad?”
Lewis whispered to Sissy, “Munchies.”
It was a relaxing Thursday evening. Sissy always did his trips to the market on Tuesdays, his sales orders and prep-work on Wednesdays, and at 4:00 a.m. every Thursday, his crew arrived to begin the cooking. He joined them in the commercial kitchen he’d built next to the deck by 7:00 a.m.. The crew punched out at noon, and he began deliveries by 3:00 p.m.
Sissy’s Sweets and Savories was a big hit in Auburn. His accounts included most of the locally-owned restaurants and cafes, a couple of the chain restaurants, a couple of churches, and most of the wedding-funeral-company cocktail parties and receptions in the Auburn area.
By 4:00 p.m. Thursday afternoons he was ready for a shower and a nap. Sissy’s week-end began with cooking family dinner every Thursday evening. No guests. No phone calls. No going out. Thursday evening was, without exception, family night at home.
When Lewis whispered, “Munchies,” Sissy ignored him.
“Yes, Auntie Ag, those were cranberries in the salad.”
“Well, they were splendid. I hadn’t thought about mixing sweets and savories but that was very tasty.”
Lewis went into his television announcer’s voice. “Sissy’s Sweets and Savories.” Without missing a beat he sang a little jingle in falsetto: “For weddings, fun’rals, or a simple soirée, call Sissy’s Sweets and Savories for your refreshments tray.”
Back to his announcers voice he added in a speed-whisper, “Some customers have experienced a sticky sensation around mouth and fingers. All savory sauces contain garlic and repel vampires. Real beef, hogs, fowl, and sea creatures were killed in the production of this food.”
Auntie Ag giggled and Sissy rolled his eyes. “Anybody want a refill?”
No one needed a refill. Auntie Ag was settled in her recliner, sipping her after-dinner grasshopper. Sissy and Lewis were taking occasional sips from their white Russians on-the-rocks. Sissy knew no one wanted another drink. He just wanted to divert Lewis, in his enthusiasm, from letting slip the fact that Auntie’s improvement in appetite came because he’d been throwing ground and strained cannabis-soaked cooking oil into the mixing bowl.
“Hon,” Lewis said after a sip, “Auntie tells me your mother was a poet. Do you have any of her poems around here?”
“Have you read any of them?”
“Well? Come on, tell me about them.”
“Junk. Fawns napping, nestled among the forest ferns.”
“They can’t all be that bad.”
Sissy took a deep breath. “If a guy walks up to you some day and gives you a choice between reading one of my mom’s poems or having a crab fork stuck in your eye, think about it. Eye surgery has come a long way but you’ll never be able to get my mom’s poetry out of your head.”
“Believe him, Lewis. He’s not joking.” Auntie took another sip of grasshopper. “She had no grasp of the language, no artistry, and no depth of soul.
Sissy began stomping his feet on the floor, waving clenched fists in the air and repeating the word Yes under his breath.
Auntie took a breath. “All very unfortunate for a poet.”
“You go, girl.” Lewis was thrilled. “What do you really think?”
“What I really think, dear, is that I’d rather not spend the evening on this particular subject. I’ve something much more important to discuss with you.”
Sissy snapped to attention, “What is it, Auntie? Are you alright?”
“Oh yes, I’m fine.”
“Good.” He relaxed back into his chair. “So what’s on your mind?”
“While I’ve been with you, I’ve noticed you have acquired a very bad habit. You both work too hard. It’s not healthy, you know. You’re young and you think that you can keep pushing yourselves. But that’s not at all healthy. You really must take a day here and there for yourselves. Twenty-four hours with no work. That’s what you need.”
“Well darling, you do know that we have to pay the mortgage.” Lewis and Sissy were both tickled by the earnestness of her concern.
“You are paying your mortgage. You are living comfortably. But you’ve got the unfortunate habit of taking no time off. That’s not good.” Auntie Ag tried very hard to be stern with them.
“So,” she said, flicking a crumb from her lap, “I have made reservations for you. Non-refundable reservations. I’m sorry, but once the reservation is paid, which I have done, it cannot be changed.”
Sissy squirmed just a little in his chair. “What reservations have you made, Auntie?”
“On Sunday, October sixteenth, the two of you shall go to Napa. You shall check in at the Hilton. On Monday, the seventeenth, at 10:30 a.m. you shall check in for your tour. Wine tasting begins at 10:35 and at 11:00 you shall board the Wine Train for lunch. The train shall return you to the Napa depot at 3:30 the same afternoon. I’m sorry, but it can’t be helped.”
“My Gawd.” Lewis leapt to his feet, nearly knocking over his drink. “Are you serious?”
“Absolutely.” Auntie Ag closed her eyes.
“Now wait a minute. You never said anything about wanting to ride the Wine Train.” Lewis was wary.
“I don’t. I’m not going. You two are going and you’re going without me.”
“But Auntie, what will you do? It’s not like you can wait in the car.” Sissy was having a logistical melt down.
“I shall stay at home,” she said with the tone of a velvet hammer.
“No. You shall not stay home alone.”
“I’ve got an idea.” Lewis was all about compromises. “This girl I work with could come over and stay with Auntie Ag. She’s a little shy but she’s always pleasant and she does her job with perfection. I’ve told her about Auntie Ag and she loves the stories. Plus, she has a great bedside manner.”
Auntie Ag nodded. “That sounds just fine.”
“Not so fast. We’ll look into it and see what the possibilities are. If Auntie stays here, it’ll cost some money.”
“Yes, Sissy, but if I go with you, it will also cost money. I’m perfectly willing to pay the cost of my babysitter.”
“Now wait a minute. You’re paying the cost of me and Sissy eating on the wine train, which is a dream come true. You’re paying the cost of Lewis and me staying at the Hilton. You’re paying for the tasting and tours. And now, you’re going to pay for someone to come in and take care of you. Our twenty-four-hour day off is starting to look like it could run you around $1,000.”
Lewis chimed in, “You don’t have a thousand dollars to buy us lunch. The Bliss Trust is busted.”
“Yes, thanks to British Petroleum. And how did you know I lost money in BP?”
“When me and Sissy first started talking about bringing you out here to live with us, I looked you up on Wikipedia.”
“I see.” Auntie Ag narrowed her eyebrows. “And you think everything you read on Wikipedia is factually correct?”
“Well, pretty much, yeah.”
“And over the months I’ve been here with you, did either of you ever ask me about my financial assets?”
“No, Auntie,” Sissy was careful. “We thought it would be rude to invite you into our home and right away start asking about money.”
“Quite right, Sissy. It would have been rather off-putting. But this is a good time for me to clear the fog a bit for you.”
“Good.” Lewis was eager to finally get the scoop.
But at that same moment Sissy said, “No. Your private life is none of our business.”
“Both your curiosity and good manners will pay off this time. When the government began to privatize industry with Margaret Thatcher, I bought a large block of shares in BP. I held it for a few years. At that time, BP was drilling in the North Sea and the value of the stock and annual dividends nearly doubled my investment.
“So, I sold off everything above my initial investment. What I left in BP was christened The Bliss Family Trust. At the time, it seemed like the safest place to leave money. I met a very bright young man and engaged him to diversify my investments. He started with real estate in Ireland. We bought small farms, a handful of commercial properties, and a few historic country homes. By the late 1980’s Americans had invaded Ireland and they bought our properties at two and three times what we paid.
“We took profit out of the real estate side and invested one-third in English country estates. Middle Eastern Sheiks gobbled them up like pudding. One-third in American home computer companies like Apple, Micro Soft, something called Gurgle . . . ”
Lewis offered a correction. “You mean Google?”
“That’s it. Google. And, with the final third we played on the currency exchange. Of course, all this was back in the days when world currencies were actually regulated by standing governments and guaranteed by a tangible gross national product and government-owned assets.
“When Belgium came out with the bright idea of all of Europe adopting the Euro as a common currency it seemed the silliest idea I’d ever heard. At about that time, people with all those mini-computers realized they could buy and sell stock at home in their pajamas. They bought stocks that ‘sounded cute’. They sold stocks that had gone up five or ten percent by dinner time. It was appalling—millions of young people living the fantasy that they were financiers when all the while they were actually children addicted to on-line gambling.
“By the time Day Trading was popular, I was out of the investment market. I set aside one third of the total profit I’d gained over the years and hired a solicitor to make cash grants to particular organizations I’d grown fond of. No one could apply for these grants. I knew to whom they would be given and the grants were anonymous.
“Then, I took ten percent of the total profit I had gained and divided it among all my living family members. You may not have known about that, Sissy. You were off somewhere with the Navy and I know your family doesn’t communicate with you. But that’s what I did.”
“My obligation to give something back to the communities that had made me rich was paid. My obligation to share wealth with my family was met. I did it all before British Petroleum lost its corporate moral code. I still had sixty percent of the profit gained over three decades.
Sissy and Lewis were dumbfounded. They stared at Auntie Ag.
“It is true that I did lose 96% of my initial investment in BP. But it doesn’t really matter. In the past five years I’ve given away more than that in grants and beneficent gifts. My long-time solicitor in Oxford manages the sixty percent of profit which accumulates during my life.
“He has instructions that, at my death, all my remaining assets will go to you, Sissy. At some point over the next several years I am going to die. Before that day, I’m going to teach you how to handle money. Step One: Work. You’ve got that one. Step Two: Never speak about your money. You do that well. Step Three: Every so often, take a day off. That’s the one we must work on.
Sissy and Lewis hadn’t so much as blinked in over two minutes.
“And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll thank you for the lovely evening and go to bed. You had better begin laying your plans toward the Napa depot.
“Umm,” Lewis hesitated. “What was that?”
“That, my man, was my brilliant aunt, The Honorable Agatha Bliss.” Sissy carried the dirty glasses into the kitchen.
Lewis followed. “But was all that true, or is she just a crazy old head case making up stories?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t want her to die real soon, ya know?” He wiped down the countertop.
“But how will we know whether she was serious?” Lewis’ eyes followed Sissy to the sink.
“On the credible side, she never gave any specific dollar amounts. Maybe she invested $2.35 in BP forty years ago and it shot up to six dollars.”
While Sissy swept the floor, Lewis went into their bedroom. Sissy straightened the living room, locked the doors, and turned off lights. As he entered the bedroom, he saw Lewis shutting down the lap top computer.
“Well, I found our confirmed reservations for the Wine Train, the Hilton, the tasting, and the tours.”
“Alright, Hon. Those reservations are actual facts. I heard the food on the train is fabulous.”
Lewis bounced off the bed and did his happy dance, complete with the “stir” all around the room to a cha-cha rhythm: “We’ve goin’ to the de-pot. We’re goin’ to the de-pot.”
Sissy slipped into logistics mode, “So we’ll be gone from Sunday afternoon until Monday night. We’re both gonna have to clear our calendars. You’ll have to do that right away. We don’t want to run into a ton of flack with your hospital schedule. Oh, hey, and the faster you get that girl from work to commit, the better.”
Lewis saluted, “Aye aye, Colonel, Sir. I don’t care what your mom thinks, I think your Navy training has given you magnificent deployment skills.”
“I was thinking about my folks when Auntie was talking about those Day Traders living in a fantasy. That’s what my mom and dad did. They were completely wrapped up in this fantasy world of theory and intellect and fairness. But when I went into the Navy, their fantasy cracked.”
“Guess they had to choose between the world they wished existed and the world as it really was.”
“Whatever. I don’t want to go back there. We live forward, we live toward tomorrow in the real world. So, we’d better start making plans toward the depot. We’ve got six weeks to make it happen.”
Lewis gasped. “I don’t have anything to wear.”
“It’s not the Beaux Arts Ball, Hon. It’s just lunch on a train in Napa.”
Death on the Escalator
by Susan Pierce
“What a lovely breakfast,” Auntie Ag declared happily to the kingdom in general as the lift raised her to her beige custom recliner in the White Cloud. “Onward to the Mall.”
Lewis was stuffed. “Those are totally the best pancakes ever.” He was dying to unbutton his pants but he didn’t want Auntie Ag to drop dead of shock right in front of the Auburn Breakfast Club. Out of deference to her, he modified his normal after-breakfast routine and he was about to modify his ordinary Saturday morning mall crawl as well.
He’d look for new clothes to wear to lunch on The Wine Train if an opportunity presented itself, but if not, there was always tomorrow. This trip to the Roseville Mall and Galleria was primarily for Auntie Ag. She needed a new bathrobe.
As they merged into the flow of Interstate 80 West, Sissy turned to Lewis. “See Ramon?”
Lewis laughed, “Yeah, I saw him—all sparkling white teeth and big, brown eyes. He’s gonna be a real heartbreaker by the time he gets out of high school.”
Sissy agreed. “Said he was thinking of becoming a chef, so I told him to drop by the kitchen sometime. I slipped him a couple bucks on the way out.”
“Are we speaking about that delightful Hispanic young man? The one who brought the water and coffee and took away the dirty dishes?”
“Yes, Auntie. His name is Ramon. He’s in high school and he works the early morning shift.”
“What sort of Hispanic is he? Is he Mexican or Puerto Rican or Cuban or Central American? They’re all very different, aren’t they? Different races and cultures, and they even use the Spanish language differently.”
Sissy was a touch embarrassed. “What sort? You’ve got me. I don’t know. I’ve never asked him.”
“Hmm.” Agatha Bliss was disappointed at the lack of information. “How long has Ramon been working at the Breakfast Club?”
Sissy looked at Lewis exactly like a shortstop looks at a second baseman right after he’s snagged a grounder and just before he tosses it.
Lewis caught the toss. “Let’s see. We’ve been going to the Breakfast Club every Saturday morning for nearly five years, and he was working that first day.”
“And he plans to go to culinary school after high school?” She smiled.
“No,” Lewis answered. “I think Sissy misunderstood. He’s planning to go into physical therapy. I told him to stop by the medical center someday and I’ll show him around. I slipped him a couple bucks at the door.”
“I’m afraid, gentlemen, that you’re both mistaken. Ramon admired my hat and said he’s been dreaming of going to design school after he graduates. I slipped him a ten by way encouragement.” She thought for a moment. “For how many years are Auburn children in high school?”
Lewis said, “Four, I think. It used to be four, anyway—grades nine, ten, eleven, and twelve. Or was it grades ten, eleven, and twelve? I think it depends on whether you have a junior high school or a middle school.”
He was pleased to impart the information, and he had more. “Yeah, it used to be three but then they started messing around with everything.”
“Lewis,” Sissy said under his breath. “Let it go. Auntie Ag just wants to know how many years kids are in high school.
“I’m gonna say four, max. Minimum three. Four max.”
They agreed. Lewis turned to face Auntie Ag. “How do they do it in England?”
“Oh, my,” she twinkled. “In England, a nanny rolls each four-year-old up to the school’s front door, lifts the little darling out of the perambulator, and hands it to the doorman. Seventeen years later, a chauffeur opens the boot of a Rolls near a dormitory door and waits. Eventually, someone about twenty-one years of age rushes out of the dormitory with boxes and luggage, throws them all into the boot, dives into a back seat, and lights a cigarette.”
“You’re kidding.” Lewis was aghast.
Sissy stuck out his right arm and flicked Lewis’ ear.
“Yes, darling, I am kidding. Breakfast was delightful and so was Ramon who, after at least five years, is still in high school. After he graduates, he will go to culinary school, which got him a five dollar tip and an invitation to Sissy’s kitchen.”
“Hey, who said I gave him five dollars? All I said was a slipped him a couple bucks.”
“It was a five, darling. After graduating Ramon will also go into physical therapy, which got him another five dollars and another invitation—this time to the medical center. And, of course, after graduation Ramon will also go to fashion design school so he can become either a costumer or ladies’ clothing designer. That got him a ten dollar tip from me.
“Now let’s see, our bill for breakfast was eighteen dollars. We generously tipped our waitress six dollars, two of which she will probably give Ramon, and at the door we gave him another twenty. We just paid forty-four dollars for an eighteen dollar meal.”
“No,” Lewis wailed.
“We’re idiots.” Sissy hit the steering wheel as if were to blame. “Shall we go back there and beat the soup outta him?”
“Maybe we just shouldn’t go there again,” Lewis said, shaking his head. “That Ramon’s a weasel.”
“Darlings, let’s not be too rash, shall we? The food is good, the service is excellent, the other customers are lovely, and Ramon is the floor show. None of us was hurt. Each of us gave willingly. Ramon is what he is and he does what he does beautifully.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Sissy agreed, but he was still a little chapped about being scammed.
Lewis added, “And every time I slip him some money, he plays along. He looks so surprised. I feel like I’m the most thoughtful, generous man in town.”
“Well, that’s it then. Ramon artfully let each of us believe what we wanted to believe. I do hope knowing what the game is doesn’t spoil it for everyone. Is this the mall?”
They turned off the Galleria Parkway and Sissy drove them straight to Macy’s.
Sissy helped Auntie Ag through Macy’s front door. Lewis climbed into the driver’s seat and navigated the White Cloud up toward the second floor entrance of the covered parking lot. It wasn’t easy. Traffic was heavy and it seemed as if not a single driver was paying the least bit of attention to driving. They spoke on cell phones or brushed their hair in rear view mirrors or texted whomever they were planning to meet.
The traffic pushed Lewis into the wrong lane and completely blocked his way into the parking garage. He made the loop around the outdoor lot and eventually managed to make it into the garage. He parked on Level Two and walked toward Macys’ second-floor door entrance.
Meanwhile, Sissy and Auntie Ag browsed through ladies’ handbags and ladies’ casual hats. Auntie wanted a new nightgown and robe and decided to look in Women’s Better Clothing on the second floor. They walked to the middle of the store and found the escalator.
As they approached the escalator, a middle-aged man brushed by them. He was wearing black, looked middle-eastern, and had no expression on his face. His left hand gripped the right arm of a girl about thirteen years old.
She was absolutely beautiful– tall for her age, and slender. She wore a short sun dress covered with brightly-colored sea shells. Her café latte skin was smooth and glowed as if it had been kissed gently by the sun. Her hair was jet black and streamed down her back. She wore lipstick, a touch of mineral blush, and eye shadow.
She was weeping.
Following the man and girl were three tall young men, all dressed in black. Sissy and Auntie Ag allowed a little distance between themselves and the people in black. Like most people, they looked down as they stepped onto the escalator. They looked around the first floor as they rose above it, glanced up to see the second floor approaching, and then Sissy looked down again to prepare for the second floor landing.
But Auntie Ag didn’t look down. She saw the middle-aged man climb up the final two steps, turn to his right, and walk quickly across the brown carpeting toward the second-floor door to the parking lot. He was alone. The three young men behind him moved as one, straight off the escalator. They walked half a dozen steps, dropped a bundle of something where the white marble floor met the brown carpet, and then walked quickly in three different directions.
By the time Auntie Ag and Sissy stepped off the escalator, the white marble floor looked as if a janitor had dipped a mop into a bucket of blood and made a swipe from the top of the escalator to the edge of the carpeting. They saw immediately that the bundle dropped there was the young girl from the escalator and that her head had been nearly severed from her body.
As Lewis locked the car, he saw a man hurrying out of the store. The man was tall, dressed in black slacks and a black, zip-up sweater. He hustled into a black Mercedes and sped off, oblivious to the possibility of pedestrians and other cars. Jerk, Lewis thought. You’re in California. Here, pedestrians always have the right of way.
Within seconds, three other men rushed out the door. They were young, tall, dressed in black, and in a hurry. Two jumped into a blue BMW and the third into a silver Audi. Their actions seemed odd, even for a Saturday morning at the mall. Lewis took note of the BMW’s license plate number. When he opened the door to Macy’s, he saw red liquid smeared on the inside crash bar. It was blood.
Sissy kicked into action before he and Auntie Ag reached the body. He flipped open his cell phone, hit 911, and said clearly, “Roseville. Macy’s second floor. Girl found dead. Repeat: Roseville. Macy’s second floor. Girl found dead.” He snapped the phone closed.
Then he grabbed a dress from a nearby rack in Women’s Better Clothing and gently draped it over the body. All the while, Auntie Ag, her eyes closed and her lips moving silently, stood by the girl.
Sissy stood up and put an arm around her. “You okay, Auntie? Want to sit down?”
“I’m fine, Sissy. I do think we should stay right here until someone comes.”
A sales clerk rushed toward them.
Sissy said, “There’s been a murder. I called 911. Would you please call security and tell them to get over here? Don’t take time to explain. Just tell them to come now.”
The clerk did as Sissy asked. “They’re on their way,” she said a little breathlessly.
Sissy said, “Good. And now, would you please get a chair for my aunt?”
With a quick sympathetic glance at Auntie Ag, the clerk hurried away. In a matter of seconds, she re-appeared with a metal folding chair from one of the dressing rooms. Sissy set up the folding chair near the body, helped Auntie Ag to sit, and posted himself next to it with his back to the escalator.
Auntie Ag said, “It’s so very terrible when diverse cultures don’t agree about what it means to be a human being.”
Sissy bent toward her. “Excuse me?”
“People,” she said softly, “have different answers to the question, ‘What is a human being?’ In some parts of the world, a child is not a human being. She is property.”
“Less than human,” Sissy whispered and shook his head. “And when a female child grows up, the best she can hope for is to be valued as what? Half a male?”
“What happened?” Lewis asked as he rushed toward them.
“Girl’s dead. I called it in. We’re gonna be here a while.”
“Dead? What happened?” Lewis wanted to know.
Auntie Ag said, “I should think it was an ‘honor killing’. He was probably the girl’s father, don’t you think, Sissy?”
“Honor killing? In Macy’s?” Lewis was incredulous.
“I should think she did something her father found disgraceful. Perhaps it was her sun dress or her make-up. Perhaps she was meeting a boy from her school.”
“Sharia.” Sissy shook his head. “But this isn’t the Middle East. This is California, and in California that man just murdered his own little girl. Looks like he got away with it, too.”
“No, he didn’t,” Lewis whispered. “I saw all four men in the garage. I can describe them, their cars, and best of all, I got a license plate number.”
“And we mustn’t forget the CCTV.” Auntie Ag heaved a sigh of relief.
“That’s right,” Lewis said, glancing around. “The surveillance cameras.”
“You know,” Sissy said, “all Muslims don’t go along with Sharia. There are at least as many different expressions of Islam as there are Christian Protestant denominations.”
Lewis shook his head. “How could someone do that to his own child?”
“I suppose if one doesn’t believe his daughter is a human being, killing her wouldn’t be terribly difficult.” Auntie Ag was thinking out loud. “It would be like shooting a horse or putting the family dog down.”
“No guilt?” Sissy asked.
“Certainly not. One only experiences guilt when one causes harm. Ramon doesn’t experience guilt for tricking us out of twenty-two dollars. I should think he’s proud of being clever. This man may experience a sense of loss, but I rather think it’s quite different from the guilt of murdering a human being.”
They heard sirens and the rush of security guards.
Auntie Ag said, “If this awful thing had to happen to this little girl, I’m glad at least we were here to stay with her. A human being ought not be left alone at death.”
DEATH ON THE FREEWAY
by Susan Pierce
The sun set and the lights of Old Sacramento sparkled. Sissy navigated the White Cloud over the bricks of Front Street and turned into the area marked Delta King Valet Parking. He and Lewis helped Agatha Bliss disembark from the comfort of Sissy’s SUV and escorted her across the wooden street. Auntie Ag enjoyed the short, slow walk to the nineteenth century-era paddle wheel steam boat.
“Lovely,” she said. “It’s as if we’ve travelled back through time to the California Gold Rush.”
“The Sacramento River always looks better in the dark,” Sissy mumbled.
The two men helped Auntie Ag down the gang plank and onto the narrow covered deck of the Delta King. They walked along the land side of the steamer, each engaged in fantasies of early California. They entered the narrow wood and glass double doors and climbed the carpeted stairs.
The top of the stairway was the hub of the Delta King’s social life. To their right was the Pilothouse Restaurant and to their left, the piano bar. They entered the restaurant and were seated at a table next to windows at the nearest corner of the room. Auntie Ag sat facing into the restaurant with her back to the windows. Lewis and Sissy chose places to either side of her.
The waiter made some suggestions, took their order for wine and appetizers, and withdrew with the grace of man who had done it many times before.
Auntie closed her eyes and smiled. “It’s such a pleasure to place our evening in the hands of an artist.”
If she’d been a cat, she’d have purred.
“Food here’s supposed to be very good.” Sissy nodded. “Sort of a spy mission tonight. Wanted to come see what’s new from the kitchen.”
Lewis said, “But you don’t do full meals, Hon.”
“Dinner is much more than the entree. I’m looking at the appetizers, the breads and pastries, the presentation . . . ”
Auntie Ag nodded approval, “A student always finds something to learn. Lewis dear, I don’t know if I mentioned it, but you look very smart in your new sweater.”
“What? This old thing?” He made an Oh, get out of here gesture with his hand.
She said, “It’s new, darling, and very handsome. The tangerine color looks lovely against your skin.”
“Well, tangerine is on my color palette. I picked it up at Macy’s last week. I got it for our lunch on the Wine Train but of course I couldn’t wait to wear it. It’s not too bulky, is it?”
“No, dear, not at all.”
Sissy added, “And it doesn’t make your butt look big.”
Lewis swatted at him with his cloth napkin.
Their waiter brought appetizers and the Bliss family enjoyed them immensely.
Two men entered the dining room. They were shown to the window table directly behind Sissy. Both were forty-something. One had salt-and-pepper hair, classic tortoise shell glasses, and a perfectly-fitted grey suit. The other was slightly taller and wore his blond hair combed straight back from his tan face. He wore a white linen sports coat, a peach polo shirt, and dark blue trousers.
Both men were angry and it showed.
“Anyone else feel a ripple in the energy of the room?” Sissy said softly.
“Tsunami,” Lewis replied.
The tension at the next table hung heavy in the air.
Alan and Phillip gave their orders for drinks and the waiter withdrew. Then Alan spat in a hoarse whisper that was clearly audible to the little family at the next table, “I don’t care whose son he is, Phillip. He’s a nit-wit and he’s out.”
Phillip shot back his reply like a machine gun with a silencer. “If the kid’s out, the entire project is gone. I’ve pitched every money source in town. Everyone loves the concept but no one’s willing to put up cash. They’re all scared to death in this economy.”
Alan said, “But . . . ”
“We’re broke, Alan. Over the past three years, we’ve used every nickel we had. Without the kid’s dad, we’re done.”
The two sat without a word until their drinks were served. Then Phillip added, “I swear to God, Alan, if you screw this up I’m gonna blow your friggin’ head off.”
Alan snarled, “You don’t have the cajones, Phil. The kid’s dad has yours at home in his trophy case.”
A young man approached the table where Alan and Phillip were sitting. He wore a tee shirt, baggy pants, and flip flop shoes. His eyes were fixed on his cell phone and he thumbed its keyboard at the speed of light as he vaguely took the seat next to Phillip.
The waiter brought entrées to Sissy’s family table.
Lewis said quietly, “You know, I worry about young people today. Their morals are shocking and their manners stink on ice.” He shook his head.
Lewis worked with lots of young people at the hospital—patients, staff nurses, assistants . . .
“Don’t get me wrong. Lots of them are smart and lots of them have good hearts. But a whole bunch of them are socially retarded.”
Auntie Ag said, “Well, dear, every generation thinks its young lack morals and manners. I’m sure it’s very painful to be young today. So much technology puts a plethora of data instantly at one’s fingertips. One can’t help but wonder if some of today’s young mistake virtual reality for actuality. It must be very difficult for them to know what, in life, is real.”
They turned their attention to the food in front of them. Everything was superb. As they thoroughly enjoyed their dining experience they chatted lightly about one thing and another.
Conversation at the table behind them heated up. Phil stared at the kid incredulously. “You want to run the project? Are you kidding?”
Alan’s voice was quiet but filled with rage. “This is a mega-friggin’-million dollar rebuilding of six blocks of downtown Sacramento. Kid, you’ve got a bachelors’ degree in engineering. Big deal. You’re not qualified to work on a crew, much less run the project.”
The kid tried to be conciliatory. “Look, guys. Dad’s up at Lake Tahoe tonight. Let’s just go up there and I’m sure we can come to an understanding.”
“Anyone getting dessert? What do you think, Auntie Ag?”
“Oh, my” she said, sheepishly. “I’ve just been reminded of two boys I grew up with in St. Mary Mod on Thrashing.”
“How delicious,” Lewis said with relish. “Dish it, girl.”
“Well, the two were best of friends. When they became adults they acquired some property and went into farming. They both bought homes and raised families.”
“But . . . ” Lewis added with anticipation.
Auntie Ag favored Lewis with a fond smile. “But as their business grew it became necessary for them to acquire more land. Money was in short supply and, after a great deal of searching for an investor, they found a wealthy man who was interested. The man had a nineteen-year-old son. They decided that, if they hired the son, the wealthy man would surely invest.”
“Slick,” Sissy grinned.
“Yes. But there were two problems. First, the young man was a complete slacker. Second, he wanted to be manager of all the new farmland they acquired.”
Lewis said, “Hmm.”
“The ill will between the two friends grew until one day they had a terrific brawl. Each had put up his own home as security for the new land. Each knew the boy was not competent to manage dressing himself properly, much less manage a large farming enterprise. One wanted to give him the boot; the other insisted upon hiring him lest his wealthy father decide not to put up the money. Sadly, they came to blows and injured each other quite seriously in the fracas.”
Lewis and Sissy shook their heads and each tsk-tsked a time or two.
Lewis helped Auntie Ag out to the deck. Sissy settled the bill and caught up with them. The valet brought the White Cloud and they began the drive back to Auburn: Left on J Street, left on 16th Street, east on the Capital City Freeway, across the American River, and onto Interstate 80 east toward Reno. Auntie Ag fell asleep in her recliner.
As they approached the curve and underpass just east of Newcastle, Sissy and Lewis saw a flash inside the Escalade in front of them. Bits of glass, red foam, and tissue hit their windshield. Sissy’s reflexes kicked in. He tapped his breaks and swerved to the left.
Lewis threw an arm in front of his face. “What the . . . ?”
Their years of military experience kept them calm.
Lewis said, “That flash . . . ”
Sissy said, “Gunshot? Where’s the shooter? In the car or on the side of the freeway?”
Lewis shook his head. “Something’s totally wrong. I’m calling the Highway Patrol.”
They watched the Escalade. It didn’t slow down and it didn’t swerve. It kept a steady speed of sixty-five miles per hour in the center lane.
“Driver isn’t hit,” Sissy said. “He’s set his cruise control but someone is still driving that car.”
Lewis relayed this information to the CHiPS dispatcher and then turned to Sissy.
“What caliber gun would it take to go through someone and blow out a window?”
“Minimum .357 magnum hand gun. What I don’t get is why he doesn’t pull over.”
Sissy kept a distance between the White Cloud and the Escalade. They passed Auburn and began the long, uphill grade into the Sierras. The Cadillac gave no sign of stopping.
East of Colfax, the freeway narrowed to just two lanes eastbound and two lanes westbound. The east and west traffic was separated by a solid cement wall about four feet high. Heavy, long-haul trucks dominated the right lane as they trudged up the long, winding climb. The Interstate snaked among the pine trees and through the canyons of the Sierra.
There were no towns of significant size between Auburn and Reno. CHiPS monitored traffic in that region with aircraft but the canyons made that impossible at night. Attempting to stop or intercept the Escalade along that stretch of road wasn’t feasible.
Sissy followed at a safe distance and Lewis continued reporting speed and position to CHiPS. “Passing Auburn, sixty-five miles an hour. Passing Colfax, sixty-five miles per hour.”
On they went, into the mountains.
The Cadillac finally began to slow down just west of the Dutch Flat exit. “Good,” Sissy nodded. “There’s a CHiPS station at Dutch Flat.”
“They’re on it,” Lewis answered.
The Escalade turned off the Interstate and onto the steep, winding exit ramp. It came to a stop just one hundred feet from the freeway. Sissy followed and stopped ten feet behind it.
“Bet he’s out of gas.” Sissy snatched his snub nosed .38 from the compartment in his door, jumped out of his truck, and ducked behind the Escalade’s left rear bumper.
Just then, Lewis saw the back passenger’s door open and a frantic man in glasses scrambled out. He was covered in blood. He ran toward the White Cloud yelling, “Help. Phil’s dead.”
Sissy leapt forward, yanked open the driver’s door, and barked, “Freeze. Both hands on the steering wheel.”
The kid sat behind the wheel. Phillip’s body, minus most of his head, slumped against the passenger’s windowless door. The kid was in a sobbing rage. “Bastards. It’s my dad’s money. I get to be boss. Those guys have to respect me.”
CHiPS arrived and took charge of the scene. In less than half an hour, Sissy and Lewis climbed back into the White Cloud. By that time Auntie Ag was awake. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes, Auntie Ag, everything’s fine. We had a little detour but we’ll be home in twenty minutes,” Lewis assured her.
Her keen old eyes surveyed the scene in front of her. “I wanted to tell you the end of my story about the two friends in St. Mary Mod. They had such a terrible disagreement about the boy who wanted to run their farms. You remember? His father was going to finance their expansion.”
“Oh, yeah,” Sissy looked at her in his rear vision mirror. “How’d that turn out?”
“Well, they went with the boy and spoke with his father. The father couldn’t believe that the boy wanted to be boss. ‘You have no experience at all,’ he told his son.
“Then he said, ‘I’ll gladly fund your farm expansion, gentlemen, but not a quid if you put him in charge. Hire him as a worker if you like. Maybe he’d get some experience. But the idea that he could be a manager is beyond the pale. This is business.’ ”
She sighed and closed her eyes again. “So everything works out in the end, doesn’t it?”
In the Garage
by Susan Pierce
Sissy Bliss pushed his chair back from the kitchen table and gave Lewis a stern look. “It’s time. We’ve been putting it off for three weeks.”
“Okay, Hon.” Lewis smiled. “Just one more cup of coffee and I’m on it. Ooo. Marph’ll be here any minute and we might as well wait for her. The garage will still be there in forty minutes.”
“Yeah. I told you last night. Marph Dickey. You know. She works with me in the OR at the hospital.”
“Oh. Martha Dickey. Deputy Dickey’s daughter.”
“Right. I asked her about staying with Auntie Ag while we’re gone for our trip on The Wine Train. I still don’t know what I’m gonna wear. I got that sweater at Macy’s, but after that business on the freeway it’s kind of lost its luster.”
“Quite right,” Auntie Ag nodded. “Murder does rather take the blush off the rose.”
Lewis frowned. “Let’s all please not talk about murder in front of Marph. She’s just a kid.”
Sissy raised his eyebrows as he poured out one more cup of coffee for each of the three at the table. “A kid?”
“Well, you know. She’s in her early twenties. She’s a heck of a sharp surgical tech and gives off a very peaceful vibe.” Lewis chose his words carefully. “She’s awesome in an emergency, thinks on her feet, and has a wonderfully dry sense of humor.”
“Sounds like you’re signing her high school year book.” Sissy sat back down at the table.
“No. I’m just saying. We don’t want to totally freak her out with the murder talk.”
“Well of course no one wants to dwell on the misfortunes of others.” Auntie Ag took an approving sip from her coffee cup. “She sounded lovely on the phone.”
“You’ve spoken with her?” Sissy was surprised.
“Oh, yes. She called about twenty minutes ago to say she was on her way. She even offered to stop by the market and pick something up for me. Very polite and very willing to be of help.”
“Is she perky?” Sissy wanted to know. “I don’t like perky.”
Auntie Ag added, “A very good point, dear. A perky young person in the house can be tiring, especially a perky nanny.”
“No, she’s not perky. And she’s not your nanny. She’ll just be a companion for you while we’re gone. She’s got a lot of positive energy, but she’s pretty laid back.”
There was a knock on the door and Lewis went to answer it.
It was Martha Dickey. She was short, thin, and full of life. Her dark brown hair was short, moderately spiked, and highlighted in purple. The four studs in her left earlobe were just as tasteful as the modest butterfly tattoo on her right forearm. The sweater tossed over her shoulders was covered with neon blue, green, pink, and orange fish and her big, brown eyes sparkled as they seemed to notice everything around her.
Lewis led Martha Dickey to the kitchen table and introduced her. Marph had beautifully straight, white teeth and a smile that lit up the room. Lewis thought, That smile must have cost Deputy Dickey a fortune in orthodontics. Marph handed a small, brown bag to Auntie Ag.
“Thank you so much,” Auntie said as she took the bag from Marph. She put it in her lap but didn’t open it. “Very kind of you.”
“Oh, I’m just glad to help, Ms. Bliss.”
“Do call me Auntie Ag, won’t you?”
Lewis was delighted that Auntie warmed to Martha. So far, so good, he thought. He and Sissy gave her a tour of the house and deck and invited her to come for dinner the following week. During the tour, Lewis noticed that Auntie Ag tucked the little brown bag into her dresser drawer.
It’s probably one of those lady things, he thought.
“You know,” Sissy said to Lewis as Marph drove off, “it might be good for Auntie Ag to have a young woman around. You know, every now and then.”
“I think so. Plus, we can pick up some fashion tips,” Lewis agreed. “Marph has great hair.”
Sissy stretched. “Well, it’s time, Lewis. The garage awaits.”
“I’m on it. Ooo. I just remembered. I’ve got to run to the store and pick something up for Auntie Ag. Go ahead and get started and I’ll meet you in the garage.”
Lewis pulled the Subaru keys out of his pocket and was half way down the driveway before Sissy could reply.
Sissy opened the automatic garage door with resignation. Against all three walls was piled the accumulation of five busy years in northern California. There were boxes, tools, sports equipment, and bits and pieces of automotive supplies.
There was a little space for the interior door that led into the kitchen and there was plenty of room to park the White Cloud and the Subaru. The trouble was that the walls were piled high from floor to ceiling. Unused objects even hung from the rafters.
We really ought to do this every year, Sissy thought. He thought again, Yeah, right. Like that’ll happen.
He decided to launch Operation Garage with a frontal attack on the cement floor. It was covered with leaves and the reddish dirt of Gold Country. He found a push broom hanging from a ceiling beam and began.
But the broom was old and its bristles were bent to the point of no longer actually sweeping up anything. He unscrewed the broom head, threw it in the middle of the floor, and balanced the wooden handle on top of a box. He thought, I can probably use that someday.
“Thought we had a shop vac out here somewhere,” he said to no one as he went to the kitchen closet and found a better broom. Returning to the garage, Sissy decided to set a couple of big, plastic trash cans on wheels in the middle of the floor.
Efficiency, he thought. It’ll be a direct shot for junk. I’ll dig out some bags for usable stuff we can give away. He began looking for yard bags in which to put the give-away items.
Lewis pulled into the driveway. He parked near the garage door and jumped out of the car. “I’m just going to take this in to Auntie Ag,” he said as he hustled toward the kitchen door. “And I’ll throw some laundry into the washer. Then, I’m all yours.”
Sissy didn’t answer. He began pulling things out of a pile next to the kitchen door: waders and a fishing net; a rusty crowbar; two-thirds of a tennis racket.
Lewis came out and went straight to the Subaru. He opened the passenger’s front door and took out two large, cardboard beverage cups. “Time for a break,” he smiled. “Starbucks.”
The two leaned against the front bumper of the Subaru and sipped coffee.
“Haven’t really done anything,” Sissy sighed. “Can’t decide where to start on this mess.” Then he said, “You know, I’m a lot better at almost everything when you’re here.”
They finished their coffee, tossed the cardboard cups into one of the big, plastic trash cans on wheels, and charged the enemy fortress.
“Now listen,” Lewis said with an air of authority, “if we haven’t used it in the last year, it goes. Those waders and the fishing net go for give-away. The tennis racket and crowbar are junk.” He picked up the wooden push broom handle. “A pole? Not on my watch.” He threw it into the trash.
Sissy was relieved of having to make the painful decisions facing a man with one or two tendencies toward hoarding. The piles began to diminish.
“So why do they call her Marph?”
“She has a little brother,” Lewis explained. “When he started talking he couldn’t say Martha. It always came out Marph. The name stuck.”
“Funny how people get nicknames.”
Lewis saw the opening and decided to sail through it. “I asked Auntie Ag how you got your name. She told me about Sisyphus and St. Francis of Assisi.”
“Yeah. I don’t think I’d like your mom and dad.”
“Oh?” They continued to work as they talked.
“Yeah,” Lewis said. “But when we first met I thought your name was Arthur.”
“It was. I changed it when I applied to Annapolis.”
“Really?” There was a major spike on Lewis’ dish-o-meter. Gossip was coming.
“Well think about it. In the military, it’s always last name first. Can you imagine standing in line at attention a dozen times a day and hearing someone bark, ‘Bliss, Sissy!’ or, ‘Bliss, Sissy-puss!’?”
“How awful.” That humiliation hadn’t occurred to Lewis.
“So I re-named myself for the Navy.”
“How’d you decide on Arthur?”
“King Arthur and the Round Table. Knights always ready to fight the good fight.”
“Ooo. I like that. Did you pick a middle name?”
“I read about a Fifth Century Viking named Robert the Strong.”
“Arthur Robert Bliss. ‘Bliss, Arthur!’ I see what you mean. It sounds way better.”
“But Auntie Ag has always called me Sissy. I have a little sister and she couldn’t say Sisyphus.”
“Little brothers and sisters can really screw up a person’s entire sense of identity.” Lewis added, “Of course, older sisters and brothers can do the same thing.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“My big brother hasn’t spoken to me since he left home for college. Not that I care. He’s a mean person.”
“Really? Or is that just one of those sibling things?” Sissy asked.
“Hold that thought. I’ve got to go throw the washing into the dryer.” With that, Lewis disappeared through the kitchen door.
When he returned to the garage Lewis asked, “Do you think I’d look good in glasses?”
“Do you need glasses?”
“Then why would you wear ‘em?”
“I had a roommate in college who got glasses. He didn’t need them, but he said they made him look totally smarter. So, what do you think? Would I look good in glasses?”
Sissy chuckled quietly then said, “You always look good to me, Babe. If you want ‘em and you can afford ‘em, what the heck—get ‘em.”
“Well, I’m just thinking about it. Maybe I’ll get glasses for The Wine Train.”
“Just one thing. If you do get glasses and wear them for a while, then get sick of them, pleeze don’t leave them on a pile of stuff in the garage.”
Lewis threw a rag at him.
By late afternoon they were finished. Trash was separated from give-aways and the garage seemed twice the size it had been that morning. They moved the Subaru and the White Cloud into it and closed the automatic door with enormous satisfaction.
Later that night Lewis said, “Sissy, there’s something I’ve got to tell you.”
“You know when I was putting away the laundry this afternoon? I had some things for Auntie Ag, so I put them in her dresser.”
“That’s nice of you.”
“Yeah, but here’s the thing. She asked me to go to the store and pick up a tin of cloves for her, so I did.”
“So I found it in her dresser drawer. The little brown bag Marph brought her was in there, too, so I looked in it. It was another tin of cloves.”
“Hmm. Maybe she forgot Marph brought it to her.” Sissy turned off the lights and headed for the bedroom.
“Yeah. But here’s the thing.” Lewis followed him. “I looked through her dresser and found like twenty-nine other tins of cloves.”
Sissy said, “Hmm. Well, we know two things for sure. First, it’s probably a good idea for you to get into Auntie Ag’s drawers from time to time.”
“Pleeze!” Lewis giggled and swatted at Sissy.
“The second thing is that if there’s ever a cloves emergency, we know where to go.”
Lewis threw a pillow at him. “Good night, Hon.”
“Good night, Lewis.”
DEATH AT THE HOTEL: PART 1
Part One: The Evening Before
By Susan Pierce
“Seriously. That was the best burger ever.”
Scott Dickey was a healthy growing sixteen year old boy and he appreciated a great cheeseburger. He made an unsuccessful swipe at the ketchup on the side of his mouth. “Yeah. I’ll totally eat another one.”
Sissy, gesturing with the platter, looked around the table. “Anyone else? Ray? Got any room left?”
“Oooo, no thanks, man. Two’s my limit.” Ray Dickey drummed on his stomach with the palms of his hands.
Lewis loved entertaining and Sissy loved Lewis (and Auntie Ag), so every few weeks he invited friends in for dinner. On this Friday evening in late summer the Blisses were hosting Marph Dickey’s family.
Marph Dickey was a delightful young woman in her early twenties who worked at the hospital where Sissy’s spouse, Lewis worked. She had been more or less on call for the Bliss family for almost a month, making herself available a few hours each week so that Auntie Ag wouldn’t be left alone when neither Sissy nor Lewis was home.
Marph’s dad was Deputy Hiram Dickey. Her mother, Edith, was a teacher at Colfax High School. Her younger brother, Scott, was a lively sixteen-year-old with a healthy appetite.
Her older brother, Ray, lived with his wife and their new baby son in rural Placer County. As it happened, the baby had been a little out of sorts that night and his wife didn’t feel comfortable leaving him with a sitter, but she encouraged Ray to go because, since the arrival of their baby, he hadn’t had much time to socialize.
Sissy was an artist with the charcoal barbecue and his potato salad was to die for. The food was perfect and the conversation at the table was delightful. That pleased Auntie Ag enormously. There was nothing she loved better than good conversation.
“Fresh lemonade . . . ” Lewis sang as he carried a big, silver serving tray toward the enormous dining room table. On the tray were a huge pitcher of cold lemonade, clean glasses and small napkins.
Marph jumped to her feet and quickly cleared the table. All except Scotty’s plate.
“Madame?” Lewis bowed to Auntie Ag as he served her a glass of lemonade.
Marph returned from the kitchen with two large bowls of fresh strawberries. She placed one at each end of the table and returned to her seat.
“So you guys are going up to Dutch Flat tomorrow?” asked Edith.
“Morning tea at the Hotel up there,” Sissy answered. “Figure we’ll leave here around ten-fifteen. That’ll put us there around eleven forty-five. We’ll have some tea, look around. Be back here around noon.”
Lewis huffed and rolled his eyes. “So you’ve got the mission planned right down to the minute, Sir?”
Edith smiled. “You’ll enjoy it. It’s too bad they don’t do dinner up there. Breakfast and lunch, Wednesdays through Sundays, are always delicious.”
Edith looked over at Auntie Ag, “I said, You’ll enjoy it.”
Marph blushed and nudged Edith in the ribs. “Mom, she’s old but she’s not deaf.”
Auntie Ag smiled. “It’s quite alright. So many of the elderly do have difficulty hearing.”
Hiram Dickey said, “Dutch Flat? It isn’t much these days. The old town is about gone. The houses are mostly filled with retired people. Most of them do keep their houses up, though. Fresh paint, well-kept gardens . . . ”
“Yeah,” Scott said around a mouthful of burger. “Plus it’s totally haunted.”
“Haunted?” Auntie Ag was intrigued.
“Scotty.” Marph shot eyeball darts across the table at her brother. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. Is there, Auntie Ag?”
She looked to the eldest at the table for affirmation.
“Well, my dear . . . ” Auntie Ag brushed a crumb from her lap. “I’m sure I don’t know. One does wonder. One wonders what happens when people die.”
It was an awkward moment. No one said anything.
Auntie Ag felt everyone’s discomfort. “I beg your pardon. It does make people under ninety quite uncomfortable to hear someone over ninety talk about death. But then, it is really just part of life, isn’t it? We were born. We shall die. That is how the cycle goes. But one does wonder . . . ”
“Sometimes,” she continued, “I think maybe young people, especially Americans, seem to think that death is something optional, something one can overcome. But it isn’t. Death is a fact.”
Edith nodded. “You’re right. We’ve kind of separated death from daily life. And we do kind of act like it’s something we can beat. Like, if you quit smoking, you won’t die. If you eat organic foods, you won’t die.”
Scotty chimed in, “If you jog, you won’t die.”
“If you get a mammogram, you won’t die,” Marph added.
“Exactly. People speak as if the dead had lost a contest. One will say, So sad. He lost his battle with cancer, or She lost her battle with heart disease. But death is not optional and it isn’t a contest. It’s simply part of life.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what.” Ray slapped his stomach with both hands. “If I ate like this every night I’d lose the Battle of the Bulge, that’s for sure.”
Auntie Ag turned to Scott. “Why do you say that Dutch Flat is haunted?”
Scott shrugged. “Everyone says it.”
Lewis looked to Hi. “You know the county better than any of us. What’s the dish on Dutch Flat?”
Hi said, “Hmm. We learned about Dutch Flat in grade school. Let’s see what I can remember. By the 1860’s, Dutch Flat had about 6,000 residents—3,000 white miners and 3,000 tong Chinese.
Auntie Ag said, “You remember that from elementary school?”
Edith smiled fondly at her husband. “My husband forgets nothing.”
“The two big celebrations up there came on the Fourth of July and Chinese New Year. Those two events brought people from everywhere into Dutch Flat. It must have really been something. Hundreds, probably even thousands, of people going up there and camping out and partying in the mountains. The Chinese used to set off fireworks.”
Scott said, “Fireworks?”
“Yep,” Hi continued. “Fireworks, rockets, sparklers . . . the Chinese knew how to do all that kind of stuff. A hundred and fifty years ago, no one else was eager to handle explosives.”
Edith said, “I seem to remember that Dutch Flat called itself the Athens of the Foothills. Didn’t they have an opera house . . . musicians . . . even a theater company? Didn’t they used to have debates, poetry readings . . . all kinds of things?”
Hi laughed. “As a law enforcement officer, I think about fire hazards and crowd control. My wife the high school teacher thinks about the culture.”
“Yeah, but I’ll tell you what.” Ray leaned forward in his chair. “When Mark Twain went up there, he said their poetry sucked.
Marph grinned at her big brother. “Read a lot of Dutch Flat poetry, do you Ray?”
Ray laughed. “I’m just saying . . . ”
“Well,” Edith adjusted herself in her chair, “Mark Twain didn’t exactly say sucked. He just said he thought it was a bit over-written.”
“In the mid-1800’s, over-written probably did mean sucked.” Sissy took a sip from his lemonade.
The idea that Mark Twain didn’t care for Dutch Flat poetry caused a major spike on Lewis’ Dish-o-Meter. Lewis loved gossip. Even vintage 1800’s gossip. “Nooo,” he gushed. “Suckie poetry and ghosts? Tell us more.”
Hi said, “Well, let me think. It was an important stage coach and mule wagon stop. Then, when some guys started talking about building a transcontinental railroad, Doc Strong invited the railroad surveyor and Chief Engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad to come up to Dutch Flat to see if a route across the Sierra Mountains could be built to go through there.”
Lewis was not a person who took particular pleasure in hearing dry historic fact. He sighed. “Cut to the chase, Hi. Get to the good stuff.”
“Hold your horses, Lewis. You have to know the background. Where was I? Help me if I get stuck here, Edith. The engineer was a guy named Theodore Judah.”
Edith nodded. “I remember that part. He was young and enthusiastic and was always talking about a railroad stretching all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific. People didn’t think it was possible.”
Auntie Ag’s eyes sparkled. “In those days it would have taken such a wonderful imagination . . . ”
Hi said, “People started calling him Crazy Judah.”
Lewis said, “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Edith nodded. “Crazy Judah went up to Dutch Flat in the summer of 1860 and then he bounced like a jack rabbit up to Donner’s Pass . . . ”
Scott said, “The place where the cannibals . . . ”
Edith smiled. “The very one. When he returned to Dutch Flat he reported that the grade from Dutch Flat to Donner’s Pass would be an easy climb for a steam engine.”
“And?” Lewis persisted.
Hi Dickey picked up the story, “Even though he was relatively young, Judah had a pretty good resumé. Before he came out here he built railroads back east. And once he was out here, he built the railroad in the Sacramento Valley. When the Dutch Flat deal came up, he was long on experience but short on cash.”
Hi said, “So he went down to San Francisco to start raising money for the project. All the Big Boys, especially the Sacramento Four, ponied up: Huntington, Hopkins, Stanford, and Crocker. The Big Boys put up their own money and then they bled money out of Sacramento County and Placer County.”
Lewis nodded. “They would have needed a lot of money.”
Hi nodded. “But starting in around 1863 they began to keep Judah in the dark about decisions they were making. And – get this – Huntington started going around saying they weren’t going to build a railroad. He said it was going to be an improved mule wagon/stagecoach toll road.”
Ray muttered, “Figures. Big City weasels. If I was Judah, I’da been so pissed.”
“It’s too bad,” Auntie Ag was listening carefully. “An eager young man with brains and vision—but no money of his own? Was he married?”
“Yes,” Edith answered. “He came to California from the east. His wife, Anna, came out here to join him later. They were both church people. Judah’s dad was an Episcopal priest. I don’t know, but they might have had a little bit of that eastern stiffness. You know what I mean? It was the Gold Rush and here were these people, these straight-laced Episcopalians from New York . . .”
“And no,” Hi added, “Judah didn’t have much cash compared to the Big Boys.
Edith asked, “Didn’t the Big Boys trade him stock in the company for the work he was doing?”
Hi nodded. “Yes. At first. But then they changed the game on him. They pushed him out of the decision making side of things, and by 1863 they were demanding that Judah put up cash.”
“Jerks.” Sissy was disgusted. “A deal’s a deal. You can’t just change it like that.”
Hi nodded. “He decided he needed to raise enough money to buy those guys out. But he couldn’t raise the money out here. Everybody thought he was either a nut job or a crook. So he and Anna set out for New York to raise money.”
Sissy said, “Sounds like a real mess: They demand cash, he doesn’t trust them, they stop including him in what they’re really doing . . . ” He sighed. “I’m so tired of hearing about smart, hard-working guys getting screwed by the Big Boys. I wouldn’t last two seconds in Corporate America.”
Edith sipped lemonade. “And when you think about the Judahs’ religious up-bringing, Theodore and Anna must have been disturbed by the general lack of morals and ethics.”
Lewis threw both hands into the air. “We have lift-off. So what was the problem – the moral problem? Were the Big Boys smoking opium or doing prostitutes or what?”
Hi laughed. “Well, I’m sure there were plenty of both in Dutch Flat. It had the biggest China Town outside of San Francisco.”
“So opium dusted the foothills.” Lewis made a snow-falling-gently-from-heaven gesture with all ten fingers. Sissy gave him a stern look that clearly conveyed the message, There are teenagers at the table.
Hi continued, “And as for prostitution, that’s a given. Three thousand miners . . . do the math. At some point they added a second and third floor to the Dutch Flat hotel. Then they built a covered walkway from the third floor of the hotel to the top floor of the knocking-shop across the street. That way the ladies of Dutch Flat didn’t have to see the ladies of the evening on the sidewalks. They couldn’t see the customers, either, for that matter.”
“That’s so cool,” Scotty whispered in awe as he tossed a strawberry into his mouth.
Marph said, “So if Anna and Theodore were from religious families they’d be pretty disgusted by all that.”
“Well you know, dear,” Auntie Ag said gently, “when one finds oneself in a society in which public behavior is beyond the pale, one rather tends to look the other way, don’t you think? One simply does his job and goes home, doesn’t he? One doesn’t actually have to participate in things done by other people.
Hi shrugged. “The Chinese lived and did business in their own part of town. The opium dens wouldn’t have been all that visible.”
“No.” Auntie Ag thought for a moment. “No, I shouldn’t think the Judah’s moral concern had to do with what went on in Dutch Flat. I should think it more likely that it had to do with the dishonesty of his partners.”
Sissy said, “What did Crazy Judah do?”
“Well, in 1863 he and Anna set out for New York to raise as much money as they could get.”
“How much did they get?” Ray asked.
Hi said, “Zip.”
Ray said, “Figures. Those Wall Streeters were probably just as crooked as the California bunch.”
Edith said, “Probably. But Judah never got the chance to find out. In order to get to New York in those days, you had to sail out of San Francisco to Panama, portage across the isthmus, and then get on another ship that took you to New York. But during the portage, Theodore Judah caught some kind of fever—yellow fever or malaria or something. By the time he got to New York, he was so sick they had to carry him off the ship. He died in Anna’s arms the next day.”
Lewis gasped. “Noooo.”
Marph shook her head. “That’s so awful.”
Scott said, “Poor guy.”
Edith said, “Poor Anna.”
The dinner party sat quietly for a moment. Then Auntie Ag said, “It’s all very sad. But it really doesn’t address the question, does it? The question is, why do people say Dutch Flat is haunted? Has someone seen something or heard something? So often there’s something behind that sort of rumor. That’s really what I’m after. People say it’s haunted. But why?”
Edith smiled. “Now that I think about it, I’ve never heard a story about anyone ever actually seeing a ghost up there.”
Auntie Ag said, “One does wonder. What would a ghost look like? Would one actually know in that moment that one was seeing a ghost?”
Scott said, “You have to carry an EMF meter.”
Everyone stared at him.
Auntie Ag said, “I beg your pardon?”
Marph burst out laughing. “He watches that TV show, Ghost Hunters. These two plumbers go around looking for ghosts at night. They shine their flashlights around and they act all spooky – they’re all Ooh. Did you hear that? – and they carry these little computers they call EMF meters. It stands for Electro Magnetic Field or something. Anyway, these EMF meters have lights on them and supposedly, if a ghost is present, the little lights go off.”
Scott said, “Yeah, but it could just be bad wiring. Bad wiring that makes the little lights go off, too. But usually it’s a ghost.”
This sent Marph into a fresh fit of laughter.
Aunt Agatha pursed her lips. “I see. Hmmm. But darlings, if you aren’t a plumber, and it isn’t nighttime, and you don’t have a FLM-o-meter, or whatever that device is called, how would you know you were in the presence of a ghost? One does wonder, doesn’t one?”
Death at the Hotel: Part 2
Part Two: At Dutch Flat
vy Susan Pierce
I. “It’s unsettling,” Auntie Ag said as the custom van made its way east on Interstate 80.
Lewis called the van The White Cloud because Sissy had added every possible comfort when he “tricked it out”. He wanted his elderly Aunt to be as pain free as possible when he and Lewis took her out for short excursions in beautiful northern California.
It was Saturday morning and the Bliss family was on its way to morning tea at the Dutch Flat Hotel. The drive from their home in Auburn would take about half an hour. Sissy, half-listening to what Auntie Ag was saying, was busy planning the morning logistics.
If there was one thing Sissy took with him when he retired from military service, it was the importance of logistics. Failure to plan produces planned failure, and failure was not an option.
He had learned from Edith Dickey that the hotel, the town’s museum, and the little general store were grouped closely together, and that there were chairs, some of them rockers, arranged along the front of the hotel. If Auntie Ag stayed true to form, she would probably rather relax and do some people watching from a comfy chair in front of the hotel than trek through the museum and store, but the close grouping of the buildings meant the men could go exploring yet still be handy if Auntie Ag needed anything. She could rock and observe, they could browse, and he’d have them all back home by noon. Logistics.
But Sissy also knew that, in civilian life, the detail was to plan logistics in such a way that Lewis and Auntie Ag would think it was a relaxed, even spontaneous, outing. All they would see was the duck drifting gracefully across the pond. No one would see his little feet kicking three hundred times a minute just beneath the surface. Life with Lewis and Auntie Ag taught Sissy that no one wants to feel organized by someone else. Plan. Kick like crazy. But make it look like you’re drifting gracefully.
Auntie Ag felt safe and relaxed in her back-seat recliner as the White Cloud made its way into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “It’s unsettling,” she repeated. “Mind you, he doesn’t come every night,” she continued. “But he did come last night. I thought he wanted to steal my hat, but now I’m not sure.”
Sissy’s attention snapped back to the present. He knew Auntie Ag was suffering from mild dementia in her old age. He knew, too, that she sometimes had trouble distinguishing between what was real and what was imagined. The trouble was that as long as he had known her, Sissy himself was never quite sure where she drew the line was between fact and fantasy. He supposed it didn’t really matter, as long as she was content.
But recently, Auntie Ag hadn’t been entirely content. He worried she was becoming the littlest bit paranoid. This was the second or third time in the past few months that she talked about a man in her bedroom trying to steal her hat.
“Don’t know who that guy could be, Auntie Ag . . . ” Sissy winked at Lewis. “You want me to get you one of those EMF meters Scotty w as talking about at dinner last night?”
“Flam-o-Meter, was it?” Auntie Ag tried to remember. “Something to do with bad wiring?”
“Or ghosts . . . ”
“Ghosts? Yes, that was it. Sissy, dear, are you saying you think my bedroom is haunted by the ghost of a man who steals ladies’ hats?”
“No, no” Lewis assured her. “Don’t worry, Auntie. There aren’t any ghosts in your room.”
Auntie Ag smiled and her eyes twinkled. “How would one know, really?” she asked teasingly. “If you saw a ghost, I mean. What would a ghost look like?”
Sissy laughed. “It wouldn’t look like little lights going off on some kind of Gerry-rigged contraption.”
Lewis said, “It would look like a puffy white cloud. Or a kid with a sheet over his head.”
Auntie Ag tittered. “And I suppose any ghost would answer to the name of Casper?” She heard the announcer’s voice in her imagination: A smashingly well-hit return straight at Lewis’ feet! Advantage – Bliss! And the crowd went wild.
II. The short drive from the freeway exit to Dutch Flat was beautiful. The narrow asphalt highway wound its way through the rolling hills beneath a canopy of green. Red and white wild flowers flowed along each side of the road. As the White Cloud rambled down the last grade the Bliss family began to notice well-kept houses with well-kept gardens in bloom.
“Ah,” Auntie Ag sighed, “this does remind me of England. So many different shades of green. Green is a symbol of the life of the Church, you know. Quite beautiful, isn’t it?”
At the bottom of one hill was a small, red building. On it was a white sign with black letters which read, “Depot.” Near the top of the next hill each side of the road was flanked by a handful of little white “ sticks and stones” buildings. Stick buildings were made of lumber; stone buildings were made of river rock.
On the right, fronting a long block, was the Dutch Flat Hotel. Directly across from it was a large, rectangular empty lot. To the left of the lot stood the Masons’ Lodge; to the right was a small general store which was set back from the street by a small, shaded garden.
An old-fashioned wooden sidewalk, raised off the ground and covered above, ran along the front of the Dutch Flat Hotel. A hand full of comfortably-cushioned chairs, some on rockers, stood along the walk facing the street.
“How lovely,” Auntie was pleased and relieved. “I’ll just sit on that porch and perhaps sip something cold. I shall sit there and notice the morning.” Of course there was no guarantee that anything worth seeing would come along. But seeing and noticing were quite different things. From a chair in front of the Dutch Flat Hotel, Auntie Ag could see and notice and the possibilities were unlimited.
III. Sissy helped Auntie out of the custom van. Lewis brushed off two rockers and found a little table to set between them. Lewis went into the Hotel and, a few minutes later, returned with a napkin and a cold drink. “Raspberry iced tea!” He set it on the table with a flourish then bowed.
The British have never been famous for liking iced tea. But Agatha Bliss was always appreciative of receiving a gracious gesture. She smiled and thanked Lewis. She took a sip. “Good heavens,” she blurted out unexpectedly. “This is delicious!” Then, Auntie Ag chugged nearly half the glass.
“Pace yourself, Auntie,” Lewis giggled. “You might have to drive us home.”
“Do stop, darling. I’m quite sure this is alcohol free. But whatever it is, it’s certainly not iced tea. It’s marvelous.”
“Then I’ll just run inside and top it off for you.” With that, Lewis darted back into the Hotel.
Sissy sat in the second rocker just across the little table from Auntie Ag and scoped out the little town, which consisted of the Hotel flanked by half a dozen small buildings. In the center, across from the Hotel, was the empty lot. Sissy wondered if the lot had been created when the ladies of Dutch Flat eventually dropped a couple of Chinese sparklers down the brothel’s chimney. He chuckled. The possibility delighted him.
“Auntie, will you be alright here for a while?” he asked when Lewis returned with a fresh raspberry iced tea. “I thought Lewis and I might walk down that little street to the right. We might go as far as the Methodist Church. You know, stretch our legs a bit. Then we’ll double back and take a look at the museum on the corner. I’ll check in with you when we get back to the corner. Maybe you’ll want to join us for a stroll over to the general store.”
Logistics, Plan B, Sissy thought. Be ready. Be flexible. Adjust to the lay of the land.
Lewis rolled his eyes as if he were reading Sissy’s mind. Then he cleared his throat, saluted, and barked out, “Sir! Assembled and ready to go, Sir.”
Off they walked, down the wooden sidewalk. They turned right at the corner and were no longer visible as they marched onward toward the old church.
Auntie Ag took a sip of her raspberry iced tea and was delighted. It was a beautiful morning. The rocker fitted her perfectly. She closed her eyes after a second sip and said to no one, “I do think if I were a cat I’d be purring right now.” Suddenly, she knew she was not alone. Her sparkling blue eyes flashed open.
IV. “I am so sorry, madam.”
A man was sitting in the second rocker vacated by Sissy, just across the small table from Agatha Bliss. He took off his oddly tall hat and set it on his knee. “I do hope I did not awaken you.”
He was lanky and had a boyish charm even though he was probably in his mid-thirties. His eyes were intelligent and soft. His curly hair fell to just beneath his shirt collar. It was pushed behind his ears which made them stick out just a bit. The black coat went down to his mid-thighs and seemed a bit snug in the shoulders. It was certainly well-worn and, Auntie Ag thought, He’s grown since he first got it. Beneath the coat the young man wore a red and white checkered vest, a white shirt, and a brightly colored neck scarf.
His face was long and he had an especially broad expanse between his nose and upper lip. Auntie thought it was a perfect face for a large moustache. Instead, the man was clean shaven except for a narrow line of chin-whiskers which ran from ear to ear just below his jaw bone. Auntie wondered if the chin-whiskers resulted from some sort of compromise with a wife, a happy compromise between No-beard and Pro-beard factions. He looked fit, intelligent, and kind. Auntie Ag liked him.
“Oh, not at all,” she answered. “I was just resting my eyes and enjoying the sounds of the morning. I thought I may have heard a faint trickle of water. Is there a stream nearby?”
“My goodness! You are certainly observant, madam. Yes, there is a canal running along the side street beside the Hotel. The tong Chinese are digging irrigation canals and sewers all over Dutch Flat. I do not think I have ever seen a race of men more willing to work hard than the Chinese.”
Auntie Ag was impressed. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard a young man begin a conversation by genuinely complimenting the work ethic of someone else. “Were there many Chinese in Dutch Flat?” she asked.
“My goodness, yes. We have as many Chinamen as we have whites. We must have nearly three thousand by now working in the gold fields and mines. And, as I said, they are digging our water system. They will soon begin building the railroad.” The man’s face lit up when he mentioned the railroad.
Lady Agatha Bliss was fascinated. She realized that she was speaking in past tense verbs but he was speaking in the present tense. She had seen no construction, no Chinese, and no gold mines. Yet this man spoke as if Dutch Flat were a thriving metropolis teaming with activity. Very curious, indeed. It seemed as if they were in the same place at very different points in time.
“Railroad?” She was curious as to what the man would say. “Is there going to be a railroad?”
“Oh, my goodness! You must be new to Dutch Flat.” The man scooted forward on his chair, moved his hat to the small table, and planted his elbows on his knees.
“Yes, indeed. There is going to be a railroad stretching across the entire country.” He sat up straight and began gesturing with his arms and hands. “From the Atlantic to the Pacific. Why, people and goods will travel across the continent without walking or riding one of those bone-cracking, horse drawn wagons. The ‘iron horse,’ that’s what will make these United States a nation. Are you familiar with the term, ‘iron horse’? I am speaking of the steam engine. The railroad will run right through this town.”
“Really? How marvelous.”
His enthusiasm was infectious. He went on to describe in vivid detail his surveying trek from Dutch Flat to Donner’s Pass. Auntie imagined she was making every step of the trek with him. She saw the incredible sunsets. She smelled the rain and the forest. She heard the wings of humming birds and the trickle of melting snow running down to fill streams and rivers.
He spoke of the not too distant day when he and his wife would scoop up all their eventual children and put them on the train and take them home to Connecticut to meet their aunts and uncles and cousins for the very first time.
As she listened, Agatha Bliss realized she was swept up into the vision of a man whose heart burned with the flames passion. He wasn’t merely talking about an idea or a possibility. This was a man speaking from the very core of his being. He absolutely lived for his passion. His passion was his work. His work was the transcontinental railroad.
Still, Agatha Bliss wondered. She knew that any number of places employed historical re-enactors – people who dressed, spoke, and even lived as characters from a particular time in a particular location. She might expect that sort of thing in the tourist traps on the Nevada side of the state line. But not Dutch Flat. It was not that sort of place. Dutch Flat was a modest heaven for people who’d worked hard their entire lives and earned the privilege of a lovely garden in the mountains. She was certainly not inclined to think the City of Dutch Flat could afford an historical actor to chat up old ladies in rocking chairs at the Hotel. Nor should it.
A second possibility occurred to her: The unfortunate man was crazy. He genuinely believed himself to be crazy Judah. That would account for the clothing, the enthusiasm, even his pattern of speech. If he believed himself to be Judah, there might even be a certain ring of truth to his apparent passion for the railroad.
But if he were crazy or an actor, wouldn’t someone have interrupted their conversation? A few people had gone into the Hotel while he chatted away, but no one seemed to even notice him. They smiled and nodded to her, but not to him. A handful of people visited the museum and a dozen or so more went into the little store across the street, but no one looked at him. If the man were the local lunatic, one would think someone would cast a wary eye in his direction. But no one did.
She took a sip from her raspberry iced tea. A third possibility, she thought, was that she was asleep. Could this experience be a waking dream? Could it be nothing more than her own imagination? She took another sip. She dampened her handkerchief with the condensation on the outside of the glass and then dabbed her eyes and throat with it just a bit.
No, she thought, I’m not dreaming. I can see and hear and taste and feel. Curious, indeed.
Auntie Ag decided to act. It would be a very rude thing to say. Nevertheless, she had learned in life that on a rare occasion the only way one can possibly get an honest response is to provoke. She was absolutely fascinated. She wanted to nudge the man off his script, if it was a script, and the only way she could do that was to provoke. Lord, she thought, for that which I am about to do, I am most sincerely sorry.
Agatha Bliss looked the man squarely in the eye and said, “Please excuse me. I mean no disrespect and would never want to appear to be argumentative.” She took a deep breath and said, “But I did hear someone, was it Mr. Huntington? I’m not sure. Age does sometimes diminish the events of today in favor of days gone by. But I did hear somewhere that an improved toll road, perhaps even a wooden road, would be built from Dutch Flat to Carson City, Nevada. Not a railroad.”
The young man’s jaw dropped and he jerked back in his chair. His face went completely ashen and he looked as if someone had just bashed him in the head. The light went out of those sparkling, blue eyes. Then he slumped in his chair and stared down at the planked sidewalk, completely crushed.
Auntie Ag was deeply distressed. “One does hear all manner of nonsense. I’m quite sure all that stage and wagon business is rubbish. Uninformed gossip, I’m sure. I did hear that the railroad has raised a good deal of money from local government.”
Life seemed slowly to trickle back into the man. “Oh, yes. Sacramento County is in for eighty thousand dollars and Placer County put up twenty-five thousand. And there’s a rumor that The State of California may allot a great sum to the project. Perhaps over one million dollars!”
“Isn’t that wonderful?”
“My goodness yes. It is wonderful.” His sparkle returned. “I hope you will not take this as an impertinence, madam, but are you from Britain?”
“I live in Auburn now, but recently moved from England.”
“You know,” he said with just the right amount of polite hesitation, “we do have some English investors. Have you ever considered . . . ”
“Hi, Auntie!” Lewis called out from the front door of the little store across the street. “I’ll be right there!”
V. Lewis stood at the street corner and looked both ways for traffic. He immediately felt ridiculous for doing that. He thought, Sure, check for traffic. Traffic! Like Dutch Flat is so noisy, so bustling, so packed with motor vehicles that I’ve got to be careful of getting hit by a bus. It’s so quiet around here I bet I could hear a guy start up the car in his driveway four minutes before he gets to this corner. I hope nobody saw me do that.
He took a couple of loping strides across the street and jumped up to the wooden sidewalk.
“How’re ya doing, Auntie Ag?”
“I’ve noticed that in California,” she said, “pedestrians have the right-of-way. Still, one is never wrong to look carefully before crossing.” The imaginary announcer called out: Game: Bliss!
“Oh, you’re thrilled that you saw me do the only dumb thing I’ve ever done. Well, I’m watching you, girl.” With that, Lewis plunked himself down in the second rocking chair and tossed his car keys onto the little table between himself and Auntie Ag.
Agatha Bliss blinked with a start. Lewis was in the chair. So where was the man?
VI. “Well,” Lewis said with a huff after they were all settled into their seats and The White Cloud was driving back down to Auburn, “We know one thing for sure.”
“And what, exactly, is that?”
Sissy knew Lewis was exasperated. After five minutes Lewis left the museum and went straight across the street to the store. There, he shot the breeze with a mixed group of tourists and locals. Lewis was not the sort of person who, like Sissy, delighted in reading every detail of every label on every wall in a museum. He wasn’t so much a reader as he was a meet-er. Lewis was a people guy.
“What we know for sure is that Hi Dickey’s boy, Scott, is full of it.” Lewis was emphatic.
“Yeah. He said Dutch Flat was haunted. We were all over the place and none of us saw any friggin’ ghosts.”
Sissy gave a scoff of agreement. “Good point.”
The boys up front thought Auntie Ag might be asleep in her recliner until she cleared her throat. “But one does wonder, darlings. How would one know that it was a ghost?”
Was it possible for two human beings living in two entirely different eras to meet for a moment? she wondered. After all, a person can’t be in two places at the same time. But was it possible for two people from two different eras to meet at the same place at the same time? Could past and present intersect for just a moment?
“Thank you both for the morning. You have given me something fresh and fascinating to ponder.” Then she added softly, “It’s so difficult for elderly people to come across something really interesting to think about, isn’t it?” She closed her eyes and smiled within herself. Whenever Agatha Bliss had mind candy to savor, she was content.
by Susan Pierce
Auntie Ag took a sip of tea to wash down her last bite of Sissy’s marvelous Auntie’s Afternoon Brownie. She’d grown quite fond of them. So tasty, and ever-so-relaxing, she often thought.
Sissy and Lewis liked to go out for a few hours on Saturday afternoons and, during those absences, Marph Dickey was kind enough to visit Auntie Ag. At two-thirty Marph had served the tea and a small brownie as usual. As usual, Auntie Ag made a point of offering a brownie to Marph and, as usual, Marph declined because, like every other American woman on the planet, she was on a diet.
“Okay,” Marph began with some hesitation, “so you’re good at murder, right Auntie Ag?”
Agatha Bliss choked on her tea. F0rtunately, the two were sitting at the kitchen table. Marph jumped to the sink, grabbed a sponge, and shot back to the table. She had the table clean again in a New York heartbeat. Meanwhile, Auntie Ag hurriedly mopped her face and the front of her blouse.
Marph was close to tears. “Oh, gees, Auntie! I’m so sorry. I knew that tea was too hot.
I should’ve let it stand for a sec. Are you burned?”
Auntie Ag shook her head and held up her right hand. “No, no darling. I am quite all right.”
“Oh, gees. Turn your face toward the light and raise your chin up.”
As she made the request, Marph turned Auntie Ag’s head, raised her chin, and began searching her mouth, lips, and chin. Auntie’s eyes seemed a bit dilated but Marph charged that up to the shock of choking. There was no redness or blistering in or near the mouth.
Auntie Ag pulled away. “No, no. I have not been scalded by the tea. Really. I am not at all burned. The tea was not too hot and I am not burned. I am really quite alright.”
Marph blinked. “My gawd, Auntie. You scared the crap out of me.”
“I’m terribly sorry.”
Over the years, Auntie Ag had perfected the skill of diversion-by-pseudo -disaster. At this stage of life it was nearly impossible to see through the ruse and know that the choking scene was a complete fake.
Auntie thought, It was rude of me to make such a mess. But really, when a young person just blurts out a question like that, I do think I’m within my rights to take sufficient time to think of what to say. I am old and not as quick on my feet as I once was. Yes. I am entitled to take time when I need it.
“Very clumsy of me,” she said. “Very clumsy, indeed. I’ve always been just a bit left-footed.” She had no idea what left-footed meant, but in the moment it seemed like the right thing to say.
“I thought I’d probably scarred you for life. Gees.”
The two took a moment to catch their breaths and re-adjust themselves at the table.
“Okay. So where was I? Oh, yeah. Auntie, you’re good at murder, aren’t you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Marph leaned toward her and whispered in a rush, “You sure you’re all right?”
“Yes. I am quite all right, thank-you.”
“Well, yeah. Okay. ‘Cause I mean, everyone says you’re great at murder.”
“I’ll have you know, my dear, that I have never murdered anyone.”
Marph drew back, startled. Then she laughed, “No, no—no one says you’re a killer. That’s not what I meant. What I’m saying is that you’re good at figuring murders out. You know, if someone’s been murdered.”
Auntie Ag remembered The Rule laid down by Sissy and Lewis: No talk about murder in front of Marph. But Auntie felt trapped and saw no way of escape.
Head on, she thought. I’m not going to lie to Marph. But I’m not going to break The Rule. The only course of action possible is to take the thing head on.
She smiled like the cat who ate the canary and hoped Marph found no feathers while inspecting her mouth. “And who, pray tell, says that I am good at figuring murders out?”
“Everyone says so.” Marph was wide-eyed and earnest. “Mom, Dad, Ray, Scottie . . . ”
Auntie feigned shock by raising her eyebrows. “Scottie?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, Dad came home and told us all about the guy who was stabbed out at the Abby. Another time, Dad and Ray told us all about that girl under the bridge. Ray was the EMT who came with the ambulance that day. You impressed the crap out of him.”
Agatha Bliss couldn’t help but wince a bit at the mental picture that last statement painted. She thought, It’s strange that Californians use such visual language in the afternoon. She’d noticed that over the past several weeks and assumed it must be a cultural trait perhaps influenced by the Mexican tradition of the Siesta. It never occurred to her that the afternoon brownie might be somehow involved.
“Well, yeah. So Scottie figured you’re like an old lady Sherlock Holmes or something. No offense. But that’s what Scottie figured.”
Auntie Ag tried to keep her face expressionless as she pictured herself clad in a deer stalker hat and a cape, sucking on a pipe and following footprints through the heather. “I see,” she said.
“So I thought you’d be the person to ask. But I have to ask you quick so we can talk before Sissy and Lewis get back. How come they’re so sensitive about murder? Gees. Lewis is fine about death over at the hospital and all. But any time you bring up a news story about somebody killing somebody or something, it’s like he just vanishes. I mean, you look around and poof. Lewis is gone. Usually when I have a question about a patient I just ask Lewis. But I can’t this time. You know, with him being so sensitive about murder and all.”
“Ahh,” Auntie nodded in the most non-committal way possible and closed her eyes.
Agatha Bliss was hooked. Clearly Marph believed there had been a suspicious death at the hospital. Auntie reconsidered The Rule and poof. It was gone.
She leaned forward and patted Marph Dickey’s hand. In the most grandmotherly tone possible she said, “Now, my dear. Tell me what this is all about.”
“Well, yeah. Okay. So we had this patient. Mr. Mackey. He spent a couple days with us. I really can’t go into what was wrong with him because of HIPPA.”
“What is hippo?”
“HIPPA. It’s a law that says you’re not allowed to say anything about patients.”
“I see.” Auntie Ag was quite sure Marph didn’t have a complete grasp of the Privacy Act. She was also quite sure Marph could discuss her concern without violating HIPPA.
“How old was Mr. Mackey?”
“In his mid-nineties. He was in pretty good shape for his age. Impacted bowel, dehydrated, vitamin D deficiency . . . stuff like that. So he spent a couple of days in the hospital and we gave him, you know, like a tune-up.”
“You checked his oil, the air pressure in tires, cleaned his filters . . . ”
“Well yeah. Exactly. I knew you’d totally get it.”
“How long was he in the . . . the garage?”
“About three days. We cut him loose on Thursday afternoon and then first thing in the morning yesterday everyone was all about how he was dead. Mr. Mackey was dead.”
“Oh, dear.” Auntie Ag leaned forward and patted Marph’s hand. “Do we know what the cause of death was?”
“Well yeah. Okay. They said he got all tangled up in the chord to the headphones on his personal TV and strangled himself during the night.”
“Well yeah, but the thing is, is that Mr. Mackey didn’t like watching TV.”
“Totally. He didn’t like the hospital. He didn’t like the food, which who can blame him? Plus he said it was too noisy. He said, ‘Those high pitched beeps and buzzers going off all night. All those inmates watching their little idiot boxes at all hours.’ That’s what he calls TVs. Idiot boxes.”
I would have liked Mr. Mackey, Agatha Bliss thought.
“Yeah. And he said he couldn’t wait to get home and get some peace and quiet is what he said. He liked to read and sometimes he listened to Public Radio. I always wondered who listened to Public Radio but it turns out it’s old people like Mr. Mackey. Which is fine. Whatever. I mean, I’ve never seen you listen to Public Radio. But of course you’re not as old as Mr. Mackey and you’re pretty cool. But when you do get that old, I bet you still don’t listen to it.”
“What do you think happened to Mr. Mackey, my dear?”
“I can tell you what I don’t think. What I don’t think is, is that Mr. Mackey strangled himself during the night with the chord of his headphones. I think someone else did it.”
Agatha Bliss sat back in her chair, closed her eyes, and said, “Oh, dear. Marph . . .” She opened her eyes. “You must tell me everything.”
“Who found Mr. Mackey?” Auntie asked.
The relaxing effect of her small afternoon brownie was beginning to wear off and she was becoming increasingly alert.
“His daughter found him. She’s such a bitch.”
“Now Marph, we mustn’t say rude things about people.”
“I’m sorry, but she is a bitch. She’s divorced. She drinks. She’s selfish and she doesn’t take good care of her dad and I bet she’s sucking every nickel he has right out of him.”
Marph walked over to the sink, got a drink of water, and brought it back to the table.
Auntie Ag smiled. “Yes, do take a moment to catch your breath. This business has been very painful for you—very painful indeed.”
Marph cooled off a bit. “Well, yeah. But you know what? Okay. His daughter didn’t even drive him over to the hospital. She called an ambulance and she stayed home. Home, but it’s not her house. Her mom died of a heart attack twenty years ago and left her some money, but she blew through it. So her dad said yeah, okay, you can move in with me. Her being divorced and broke and can’t keep a job and all.”
Auntie Ag nodded.
“So she moved in. Just like that camel that sticks his head in the tent and the next thing you know the camel is totally inside the tent and the man is outside in the middle of a sand storm. Before long, Mr. Mackey has his bedroom with a chair, a hospital bed, and one of those hospital trays on wheels. She gets him a little TV with plug-in headphones and sets it up on the tray and that’s it. He’s stuck in his room and she has the run of the whole house.”
Auntie Ag asked, “Did she visit him in the hospital?”
“Not even once. I called her to pick him up, packed up his junk, wheeled him downstairs, helped him through Discharge, wheeled him out to the curb, and stood there with him for another twenty minutes waiting for her to show up. They only live five minutes from the hospital. Five minutes.”
Auntie Ag tsked.
“Finally she pulled up to the curb but she never even got out of the car. She kept the motor running while I got him into the car. I put his meds and personal junk in the back seat, and she drove off.”
“Well Marph,” Auntie Ag said with lightening flashing through her blue eyes, “I stand corrected. She is a bitch, isn’t she?”
Auntie glanced at the kitchen clock and saw that it was three-thirty. As they talked, Marph took an apple from the refrigerator, cut it into thin wedges and placed them on a small plate.
Auntie smiled as Marph set the plate between them on the table. “How nice. I wonder if you would be so kind as to add one or two slices of Swiss cheese and a few biscuits?”
Marph did so and arranged the snack, along with a couple of napkins, on the table between them.
Lovely, Auntie Ag thought. The apple, sweet and juicy . . . the savory cheese . . . the biscuits,or, as Americans call them, crackers, for a bit of crunch . . .
“Lovely,” she said aloud. “Since I’ve been here I often feel just a bit peckish this time of day.”
Marph chomped on an apple slice.
“You said the daughter was taking financial advantage of Mr. Mackey?”
“Was he wealthy?”
“Totally. Both him and his wife. They both came from families with tons of money. I was standing right there when he checked out of the hospital. He doesn’t – um, he didn’t – have any insurance. He just wrote out a check for a couple thousand dollars and that was it. They didn’t have any other relatives so when his wife died, all her money went to the daughter. When Mr. Mackey dies, the daughter gets the rest of it. Bitch.”
“Now darling,” Auntie said after swallowing a bite of cheese and cracker. “We are in agreement that the daughter is indeed a bitch. There’s no need to continue repeating the fact. Do remember that vulgarity goes to credibility. The more vulgar language one uses, the less credibility one has with other people. Those who constantly use vulgarity are not taken seriously.”
Marph nodded. “Well yeah. And this is totally serious. I’ll be more careful about what I say.”
“Very good, dear.”
“The thing is, is that the bit . . . daughter doesn’t take care of him. Megan from the hospital drives by Mr. Mackey’s house every day when she comes to work. She says the daughter’s car is gone for days at a time. When he checked into the hospital Megan was thinking about calling her in to County Human Services for elder abuse.”
“When did the daughter divorce?”
“Well let’s see. She was married to this guy over in San Francisco, one of those high finance types with the slicked down hair. She moved in with her dad about six months ago. Betty thinks . . . do you know Betty? The hairdresser down at the Curl Up and Dye? She thinks the b . . . daughter must’ve gotten divorced around then.”
“If she did divorce. She’s often away. I wonder . . . ” Auntie Ag closed her eyes for a moment and thought.
Then she said, “You know, dear, a person in high finance these days could find himself suddenly in need of a great deal of money. This economy is so very dicey, isn’t it? And we don’t really know the daughter divorced, do we? If she’s still married, or at least still in love with the man in San Francisco, and if he suddenly needed money, and her father was both very wealthy and very old, and if she moved into her father’s house but was often gone . . . ”
“Oh my God, Auntie Ag. You think Mr. Mackey didn’t strangle himself. You think it was murder, too.”
“I think it was murder, indeed.”
Just then the two women heard the Subaru coming up the driveway.
Auntie said in a rushed whisper, “Now listen carefully, Marph. The Boys are home. They mustn’t hear us speaking about this. Go now. Go directly to your dad. Don’t speak to anyone until you’ve reported all this to him. Tell him everything we just spoke about. Do not use vulgar terms. He is a Deputy Sheriff and we want him to take this very seriously. Tell him that, if he calls in the police, they will likely find the daughter and her husband persons of interest in the matter.”
“Got it.” In a flash Marph was out the door, in her car, and on her way to her dad.
Lewis burst through the kitchen door. “Hey there, beautiful,” he sang. “What’s cookin’?”
He set three plastic grocery bags on the countertop and began stowing away supplies.
“Did you have fun with Marph?”
Auntie Ag smiled. “Oh, yes. We worked a puzzle this afternoon.”
“That’s nice,” Lewis said as his shut a cabinet door.
by Susan Pierce
Scott Dickey pushed the button, turned around in the front passenger seat of the White Cloud, and watched as the sliding door automatically closed. “Punch it dude. We’re good to go.”
From behind the steering wheel his older sister, Marph, looked firmly at him and said in a cold voice, “Now listen, Scottie: Do not touch anything in this van. Not a button; not a switch; not a lever. Not even a Kleenex. You do, and I’ll pull over and beat the livin’ crap otta ya.”
She saw, in a quick glance at the rearview mirror, the passenger sitting in the back seat recliner turn slightly pink.
“Excuse my language, Auntie Ag, but you have to be firm with them or they walk all over you. The thing is, is that men and boys are born with a genetic malfunction that makes them think they absolutely have to touch every piece of everything that’s electronic. They can’t help themselves. It’s a birth defect kinda thing.”
Agatha Bliss chuckled. She had been looking forward to this outing. First, she knew she would enjoy the company of two young people for the day. Second, she knew it would do her good to get out of the house. Third, and perhaps most importantly, she wanted very much to see an historic likeness of Theodore Judah.
She was quite sure it was he she had seen at Dutch Flat. But she wanted certainty. If there were a way to prove it by means of an historic likeness her mind would be settled. Three excellent reasons for an adventure.
She knew that brothers and sisters tend to tease, but she also knew that, at their ages, good-natured teasing was a form of bonding for the Dickeys. She had decided that, for this outing, she would, as they say, take a chill pill and go with the flow.
“Touuuch. I must touuuch,” Scottie said in a classic zombie voice.
Marph backed the White Cloud up, turned it around, and headed down the driveway. “I can’t believe Sissy said we could take the White Cloud down to Old Sacramento. This, is totally awesome.”
“Totally,” Scott agreed.
“But the thing is, is that this ride is so hi-tech that if you go around touching stuff and screw something up we’ll be totally jacked outta ever getting to do this again—ever.”
“Don’t worry, Marph.” Scott winked back at Auntie Ag. “I’ll try and control myself. But it won’t be easy.”
He stretched out both arms, rolled both eyes up into his head, and droned in his zombie voice, “Sooo shiny. Sooo hi-tech. Must touuuch.”
“Yeah? Well that’s what I’m gonna put on your grave stone: He just haaad to touch it.”
Auntie Ag thought this would be a good time to steer the conversation in a different direction.
“Let me see now. It is ten-thirty on a lovely Friday morning. By now, Sissy and Lewis should be making their way to the Napa Depot for their luncheon on The Wine Train, shouldn’t they?”
“Yep.” Scott nodded.
“Anyone want to guess what they’re wearing?” Marph asked.
“Sissy’s easy. He’s probably wearing what he always wears. He’s got on his sunglasses, shorts, a polo shirt, and a pair of Birkenstocks. He’s probably totally comfortable and scoping out the train and everyone on it.”
Scott thought for a minute and then added, “But who knows what Lewis has on.”
“Yeah,” Marph chuckled. “He was totally hemorrhaging over what to wear. Which you really can’t blame him because we have to wear those stupid scrubs to work at the hospital. They’re comfortable and all and if you get something on them it usually washes right off and all but they’re so baggy. I mean, if I was going somewhere special I’d want to dress up.”
“Oh, yeah. You’d wear, like, a low-cut pink tube top, silver skin-tight camel-toe pants, white high heels, and about a ton of bling.”
“Camel-toe pants?” Auntie Ag asked with interest.
“Never mind, Auntie. It’s a crude expression about a certain part of a woman’s anatomy that can be emphasized by really tight slacks that no one but a total degenerate child would even mention in front of a nice old lady such as yourself so shut up, Scottie.”
Auntie Ag raised her eyebrows and hoped anyone looking at her would somehow mistake her amusement for disapproval. “I see,” she said with measured tone. “And what is bling? Is that something crude as well?”
“No, bling is clean,” Scott rushed to redeem at lease a modicum of his social credibility. “Bling is jewelry. You know—rings, necklaces, earrings.”
“Accessories.” Marph feigned sophistication.
Scott nodded. “Yeah. Accessories. You might find this interesting, Auntie. Young people in America don’t think it’s possible to over-accessorize these days. The more bling, the better, is what they think.”
Auntie Ag pondered the question: Where on earth would a young man like Scott Dickey hear the phrase “over-accessorize” and learn to use it properly in a sentence? What fun, she thought. Young people are always so eager and never fail to inject such unexpected little things into the conversation.
She sighed. Thank-you, Lord, for not surrounding me with people my own age. How dreadfully boring it would be. She smiled out the side window and said aloud, “A lovely morning.”
Marph carefully moored the White Cloud at a handicapped parking meter in Old Sacramento. She took the Handicapped card out of the side door pocket and hung it over the rear view mirror.
“Alright Scott,” she said. “We’re at the dock and I lowered the anchor. Now you get to push some buttons. You’re in charge of getting Auntie Ag and Ilean out of the van and onto the sidewalk. I’ll get our sandwiches out of the back.”
In no time the three stood on the raised wooden sidewalk. Agatha Bliss looked around, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. She could hear the sea gulls squawking; she could smell the brackish water of the Sacramento River; and she could imagine herself a gold digger, newly arrived from England and thrust into the adventure of California in the 1850’s.
The scene she imagined was exhilarating. She opened her eyes and saw her cane, Ilean, in her right hand and Scott standing near her left.
Marph pushed two hours’ worth of quarters into the meter. She hefted the rucksack over a shoulder and hurried over to them.
Scott whispered, “You got the gold, girl?”
Marph grinned, patting the rucksack. “Right here. Three chicken sandwiches on sourdough with Swiss cheese, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, and a dash of Dijon.”
“Excellent,” he whispered with an absolutely straight face. “Say nothing. Spies and Shanghai’ers are everywhere. Act normal.”
“Gottcha,” she whispered without moving her lips. Yeah, little brothers were pain—but they were also more fun than almost anybody.
The three gold diggers and Ilean strolled down the elevated wooden sidewalk that ran in front of the shops along Second Street. As they ambled along toward L Street, they stopped at windows to view merchants’ displays and discuss the outstanding features of each vendor’s domain. About half way down the block they stopped to sit on one of the wooden benches for a spot of people-watching. People they saw differed in color, clothing, and languages.
When she closed her eyes, Auntie Ag could almost imagine herself people-watching in Oxford. “Marvelous, isn’t it?”
Marph caught Scott’s eye and nodded toward a couple embracing in front of a shop to his left. “See them? I’ve been watching them for ten minutes. Every two and-a-half minutes, he comes up for air. Then he sticks his tongue back down her throat. Whaddya think—newlyweds?”
“Naw. I think he’s just a horney toad.”
Auntie Ag didn’t need an explanation as to the meaning of that term.
Scott asked, “What would you rather be—a gold digger or a dance hall girl?”
“Gold digger!” Marph answered without hesitation.
“It’s a trick question.” Scott grinned. “Dance hall girls were gold diggers.”
They could see the intersection of Second Street and L Street as they walked by the frozen yogurt shop. A bit further down the street was another wooden bench. Scott beckoned toward it and said, “If you want, ladies, we can sit right here and eat our sandwiches. What you want to see, Auntie, is in that little park just on the other side of L Street. I’ll double back to the yogurt shop and get us something to drink. What’s your pleasure?”
“Gees, Scott, walking through Old Town has turned you into a regular gentleman. Really. It’s kind of cool. I’ll take a bottle of water. How ‘bout you, Auntie?”
“Well yes. A bit of cool water would be just the thing. Thank-you, sir. May I contribute some money for the good of the Empire?”
Scott threw up both hands. “I wouldn’t think of it.” He bowed, turned, and loped to the doorway of the yogurt shop. By the time Agatha Bliss and Marph Dickey were settled on the bench with sandwiches in hand, Scott was back.
“Madam.” He handed a bottle of water to Auntie. “Madam,” and handed the other bottle of water to Marph. Then he pulled a bottle of Coke from his pants pocket, unscrewed the top, guzzled an enormous gulp, and let out the biggest belch ever broadcast.
Marph handed him his sandwich. “Scottie. Everybody’s gonna think it’s an earth-quake. At least try to chew your sandwich with your mouth closed, will ya?”
Auntie Ag looked at her water bottle. She was puzzled.
“Sorry, Auntie.” Marph knew her well enough to guess what the problem was. “In America, young people don’t use cups. We just chug straight from the bottle.”
“I see,” she answered doubtfully. Then she added, “Well, then, we shall leave the cups and saucers to the elderly today.”
With that, she unscrewed the top of her bottle and took a healthy swig of cool water. “Quite right. We young people shall leave the cups to the wrinklers for the day.”
Her blue eyes sparkled and the three gold diggers clicked plastic bottles in a lively toast.
Sustained by the sandwiches and refreshed by the beverages, the trio crossed L Street. They stopped in the little park for a look at the Pony Express Rider statue and then began looking in earnest for the object of their outing.
“It’s a statue, right? We’re looking for a statue?”
“That’s the idea, Scottie. We’re after the statue of Theodore Judah.”
“Crazy Judah? How come?”
“Dunno. The thing is, is that’s why we came here. She said she wanted to see a picture of him and I said I didn’t know how to find one but that there’s a statue of him down here so Sissy said you and me could bring her down here in the White Cloud when him and Lewis went on The Wine Train so here we are.”
“Sounds kinda weird. But, you know, good weird. We’re here and we’ll totally find the guy.”
In less than two minutes the three stood at the other end of the little park looking at a stone and brass monument. Carved into the stone were a railroad trestle and a stand of fir trees. Overlaid on the stone was the brass likeness of Theodore Judah.
Over the years, wind and rain had weathered the shiny brass to a stained, dull, greyish-green.
Neither Marph nor Scott had any idea as to what to do next. They simply stood quietly and followed the lead of Agatha Bliss. She stood at a distance for a while and then moved closer to the face. She stood near it and gradually squinted her eyes. Then she opened them and then squinted again. The Dickeys did the same.
Suddenly, Marph blurted out, “Oh, gees, Scottie. Look at how the rain and stuff stained his face. If you squint a little bit it looks like he’s been crying.”
Scott squinted and he saw it. “Holy cra . . . I mean, yeah, dude. It does. Gees. I didn’t know they were allowed to make monuments with the guy looking sad. That’s enough to bum out a whole bus load of little kids down here on a field trip. Man.”
They both looked at Auntie and watched her blue eyes well up with tears.
“Dude,” he whispered to Marph. “What do we do now?”
“Shhhh. Just stand here with her as long as she wants. Something’s going on with her and I don’t know what it is but the thing is, is that you and me can just shut up and stand here with her so she’ll know she’s not alone.”
That’s what the Dickeys did. Gently, Marph wrapped her left arm around Auntie’s waist. On the other side, Scott softly draped his right arm around her shoulders. Together, they stood.
Agatha Bliss was gradually able to compose herself. She didn’t know what she had expected, but the profound sadness of the image was certainly not it. She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly a few times and then heaved a deep sigh. She reached into the pocket of her dress in search of her handkerchief.
“Well. That’s it then. He’s not wearing his hat. His hair is thinner and he looks older. And, of course, that dark sadness exudes from him. But it is he . . . ”
Eventually they turned and walked slowly toward the White Cloud.
Marph broke the quiet, “Did you know him very well?”
“Gees, Marph. The guy died a hundred and fifty years ago. She’s not that old.”
Marph tried again. “Well, she said he looked older. Anyways I heard it that way.” She turned to Auntie Ag. “But I don’t get what you’re saying.”
Auntie Ag drew a deep breath. “He was a lovely man, darlings,” and gave them each a pat. “He was young and full of hope. He was strong and enthusiastic and couldn’t think of any reason why he couldn’t do impossible things. His vision was enchanting and he did, indeed, accomplish marvelous things.”
“But he died before the railroad was built, right?” Scott asked.
Marph said, “Oooh . . . I get it, Auntie Ag. He didn’t live long enough to see it finished. Plus he got cheated by his own partners. That’d make anybody sad. Jerks. Do you think he ever forgave them? Or did he die sad.”
“Yeah. Well, I wouldn’t forgive those guys. If they made a T-shirt with that face on it, the caption would say, I brought the railroad to California and all I got was this stinkin’ T-shirt.”
Agatha Bliss laughed. She couldn’t help it. It was difficult to be in low spirits in the company of these two youngsters.
“I shall remember him as a young man of hope and purpose. He was intoxicated by the conviction that anything is possible. He swaggered down the boardwalk as if he had just built this side of the street and was planning, next day, to build the other. He wore a tall hat and a checkered waistcoat and if he couldn’t get through a mountain he would find a way to go around it. That’s how I shall remember him.”
“Yeah, me too. I’m gonna remember him being just like us. Not some totally sad, dead old guy, but young and strong and doing stuff. Look at us: We’re strutting down the sidewalk on a beautiful day and we’re gonna float home on a White Cloud.”
Scott patted Auntie Ag’s shoulder.
“Exactly.” Auntie Ag caught her second breath. “Judah wasn’t crazy. He was young. Like us. And I am quite sure that at lunch he drank cool water straight from the plastic bottle.”
They all laughed.
“He wasn’t Crazy Judah,” Scottie gasped as he tried to catch his breath. “He was just like us. Young and cupless.”
They reached the custom van and Scott gently enthroned Auntie Ag on her back seat recliner while Marph tucked the rucksack into the rear storage compartment. She slipped behind the steering wheel as Scott pulled his door shut.
She looked over at him and, as she turned the key in the ignition, mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
He grinned and winked at her. Then he turned his face to the side window and pretended there wasn’t a lump in his throat.