NEWS FROM RISING FALLS

[first chapter:RISING FALLS NEWS]

RISING FALLS NEWS
“Because No Story is Too Trivial for Us”  ~  March 27, 2012
Larry L. Little, Editor and Publisher

RISING FALLS NEWS is Back
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – Publisher Larry L. Little announced that RISING FALLS NEWS will resume publication effective March 27, 2012 and will be published on Fridays until further notice.

“I’ve heard from several people who miss their weekly news and want it back,” said Mr. Little, “and I guess I’ve begun to miss doing it, so I’ve decided to give it another shot.”

For now, weekly copies will be available for pick-up Friday mornings at McPherson’s One-Stop and the Volunteer Fire Department.

Personnel Change at Township Meeting
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township  – With the reading of last month’s minutes, township trustees learned that longtime township secretary Betty Biggs has resigned. Here is the transcript of Mrs. Biggs’s final set of minutes:

“Present were Trustees Harry Trout, Maynard T. Roof, Wanda Capps, and three residents. Three hours of arguing about everything and nothing decided about anything, as per usual. Drove home with a headache from Maynard’s cologne. What is that stuff – Yuck for Men? Another three hours of my life I’ll never get back. I quit.

Signed, Mrs. Betty Biggs”

Trustee Harry Trout, who read the minutes into the record, expressed gratitude for Mrs. Biggs’s years of service and said, “I think I speak for everyone when I say Betty will be missed.”

Trustee Wanda Capps agreed. Trustee Maynard T. Roof didn’t express an opinion one way or the other.

Trustee Wanda Capps asked if anyone wanted to discuss any old business. Nobody did. She then asked if anyone had any new business. Resident Martin “Marty” Minor of Dead Oak Road raised his hand and wanted to know if there were any laws on the books against someone standing in his front yard and yelling at cars driving by.

Trustee Maynard T. Roof asked him if he could be more specific.

Mr. Minor said that his neighbor, Ralph Nebbitts, makes a habit of standing in his front yard every day and yelling at a car as it drives by.

Mr. Roof said, “At a car? One car only?”

Mr. Minor said, “One car only. To be specific, it’s Casey Fjord he’s yelling at. Casey takes Dead Oak on his way home from school every day, and every day, old man Nebbitts is out there yelling at him to slow down.

Trustee Wanda Capps asked if the Fjord boy makes a habit of speeding.

Mr. Minor said, “He drives about as fast as anyone else who cuts through on Dead Oak. Really, I think old man Nebbitts has a bug up his a— about Casey for some reason.”

Trustee Trout said, “I know Ralph had some sort of a feud going with Casey’s father.”

Trustee Roof said, “That’s right. I remember that. When old man Nebbitts had to get his car towed out of a ditch during that big blizzard last December, he claimed Gunnar messed up the alignment or something.”

Trustee Trout said, “I wonder if that’s why Ralph’s out there yelling at Casey.”

Mr. Minor said, “I don’t know anything about that, but if there’s a law against him standing outside yelling at that kid every day, I’d sure like Constable Turley to bust him for it.”

Trustee Trout said he’d check with the township constable, Len Turley, as to whether or not there is such a law.

McPherson’s One-Stop Announces Citrus Special
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – Saturday and Sunday, be sure to stock up on your lemons, limes, and oranges, as McPherson’s will be running a special citrus sale, according to Arnie McPherson.

Also, Mr. McPherson mentioned that he wishes everyone would stop complaining about gasoline prices. “We buy it as cheap as we can and we take as low of a mark-up as anyone in the county,” Mr. McPherson said, “so I wish everyone would quit b–ing about it.”

Brownie Scout News
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – Brownie Troop 927 will be having a bake sale on Saturday from ten AM  until 2 PM in front of the Volunteer Fire Department unless it rains, according to troop leader Mrs. Howard (Candi) Rollings.

Mrs. Rollings suggests you arrive as early as possible, because there are only five girls in the troop this year so there won’t be very much bakery.

Constable’s Report
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – Constable Len Turley issued the following citations for the week ending March 27, 2012:

Traffic citations:

Mrs. Howard Rollings, traveling forty-five mph in the school zone, cited for
speeding

Mrs. Wanda Capps, cited for failure to yield at the intersection of Main Street and County Road BB

Mr. Joe R. Fabeetz, cited for public indecency, urinating behind Rising Falls Beverage

Constable Turley reports that no progress has been made in determining the identity of the culprits who altered the sign in front of Rising Falls Elementary School by using black spray paint to change the F to a B.

“This happens near the end of almost every school year,” Constable Turley said, “and it’s usually the seniors that do it, but who did it this year, I don’t have a clue.”

Anyone with information is asked to call the Volunteer Fire Department during regular business hours.

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RISING FALLS NEWS


“Because No Story is Too Trivial for Us”  ~  April 6, 2012
Larry L. Little, Editor and Publisher

Township Trustees Meeting
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – Present were trustees Maynard T. Roof, Wanda Capps, and Harry Trout, and residents Mrs. Frank (Kimberly) Grabowski, Mrs. Richard (Linda) Werble, Mrs. Len (Tina) Turley, and Ralph Nebbits.

There was no reading of the minutes, as township secretary Betty Biggs resigned the previous week.

Trustee Harry Trout suggested that, in order to have minutes of the present meeting, the issue of the new secretary should be addressed first.

“Mrs. Tina Turley was the only one who applied for the position and she is here tonight. I move that we appoint her as our new secretary so that she can begin taking the minutes right now. Any seconds?”

Wanda Capps said, “Mrs. Turley, will you be willing to attend every meeting and take comprehensive minutes?”

Tina Turley rose and said that she would.

Maynard Roof said, “Your husband is the township constable. I’m wondering if there’s any conflict of interest.”

Harry Trout said, “Well, now I hear the groans, but I guess that’s a fair question. Does anyone see a conflict of interest?”

No one seemed to think so.

Wanda Capps said, “Mrs. Turley. Can you take shorthand?”

Mrs. Turley admitted that she doesn’t know shorthand. “But,” she said, displaying an electronic device, “I have this tape recorder. That ought to do the trick.”

Harry Trout said, “If there are no further questions, do I hear a second?”

Mrs. Capps seconded the motion and it was passed unanimously. Mrs. Turley plugged in her tape recorder and turned it on.

In old business, the issue of grading County Road BB was discussed. Mrs. Capps said, “The potholes out there are big enough to swallow my PT Cruiser. What are we waiting for? I move we send the work order to Gunnar Fjord and get that mess taken care of.”

Mr. Trout seconded the motion and it passed by a vote of two to one, with Mr. Roof  opposing.

In further old business, Resident Kimberly Grabowski raised the issue of township beautification. “It’s time to get started,” she said. “Linda and I will do the work for free. Just give us the money to buy the plants and we’ll do the rest.”

Mr. Roof said, “What exactly do you want to beautify?”

Resident Linda Werble stood. “We’ve been over this before, Maynard. Quit stalling and vote.”

Mrs. Grabowski put a calming hand on Mrs. Werble’s shoulder. “As we mentioned before,” Mrs. Grabowski said, “we want to beautify that strip of weeds in front of the Fire Department and also that triangle full of weeds at the intersection of Main and Pearl.”

Mr. Roof said, “What are you going to do come July and August? Anything you plant will dry up. Then it’ll be even worse of an eyesore.”

Mrs. Grabowski said, “As we’ve explained before, we already have volunteers lined up to water the plants regularly.”

Mr. Roof mumbled something inaudible and then said, “What are you going to plant, anyway?”

Mrs. Werble sighed loudly. Mrs. Grabowski said, “As we showed in our diagrams, we plan to plant yellow and purple bulbs which will bloom early and late, and hydrangea and lobelia for summer color.”

Mrs. Werble said, “I know you’re trying to stall ’til it’s too late to plant. You did the same thing last year. I want a vote right now.”

Mrs. Capps said, “I move we grant the Township Beautification Committee the funds they’ve requested.”

Mr. Trout sighed loudly. “Second.”

Mrs. Capps said, “All in favor?”

Mrs. Capps and Mr. Trout raised their hands. Mr. Roof sighed loudly. Mrs. Grabowski and Mrs. Werble cheered.

Mr. Rood said, “Is there any other old business?”

Resident Ralph Nebbits stood. “My blinking yellow light,” he said, referring to his earlier  request for a blinking yellow caution light at the intersection of Dead Oak Road and County Road BB.

Mr. Roof said, “I move that the matter of installing a blinking yellow caution light at the intersection of Dead Oak Road and County Road BB be tabled until next week. Is there a second?”

Mr. Nebbits shouted, “I object.”

Mr. Roof said, “You can’t object. You’re not a trustee.”

Mr. Trout said, “Second.”

Mr. Roof said, “All in favor?”

All three trustees raised their hands.

Mr. Nebbits said, “What a load of b—s—t.”

Mr. Roof said, “Is there any new business?”

Resident Ralph Nebbits of Dead Oak Road complained about teenagers speeding past his house. The trustees were observed to exchange knowing glances.

“Except for the spring when it rains a lot,” said Mr. Nebbits, “those d_ed teenagers driving h_bent for leather up and down the road in front of my house raise a lot of dust and it’s a d_ed nuisance.”

Mr. Roof observed that at the present time there’s only one licensed teenager in Rising Falls. “And, as we all know, it’s Casey Fjord.”

Trustee Wanda Capps said, “We have more teenagers than that, surely.”

Mr. Roof responded, “Yeah, but Gunnar Fjord is the only parent so far who’s been willing to drive the thirty miles to the county seat so his kid could take the test.”

Mr. Trout said, “I don’t know why he bothered. That kid’s been driving farm vehicles since he was seven.”

Mr. Roof added, “Yeah, and he’s been driving Arnie McPherson’s tow truck since he was twelve.”

At this point, Mr. Nebbits said, “Can we get back on the subject? My porch swing and my garden gnome are covered with fresh dust nearly every morning and my wife can’t keep the windows clean. We have a dog. One of these days, one of these crazy teenagers _ ”

“Namely,” Mr. Roof interjected, “Casey Fjord.”

“ _ is going to hit our dog and kill it and then it’ll be too late to do anything about it.”

Trustee Wanda Capps asked Mr. Nebbits if he cared to offer a solution to the problem.

“You bet your sweet a_ I do,” said Mr.Nebbits. “I want a twenty-five mph speed limit sign, and I want Barney Fife out there every d_n day in his so-called patrol car ticketing those kids until they stop it.”

Mrs. Capps said, “Who’s Barney Fife?”

Mr. Trout said, “He means Constable Turley, and I don’t think it helps your case, Mr. Nebbits, to demean township employees.”

“Or township vehicles,” added Mr. Roof.

After further discussion, most of it repetitive, it was decided that Mr. Roof would look into obtaining a twenty-five mph speed limit sign and if he could get one, he would go ahead and have township maintenance man Ben Biggs install it.

Rising Falls Youth League
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – An organizational meeting of the 2012  Rising Falls Youth League will be held on Wednesday, April 11 at the home of Mr. Jack Bender, 35090 County Road CC, at 7:30 PM. All those interested in coaching or umpiring for the 2012 season are invited to attend.

Representatives from Cherokee Township have been invited to attend in order to discuss ways they have addressed the problems of player and parental sportsmanship and to answer questions.

The Martha Circle at Rising Falls Township Community Church
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – Mrs. Vernon L. Minor invites all ladies of Rising Falls Township to join The Martha Circle.

“We’ve been meeting in the Fellowship Hall at church once a week continuously for seventy-five years,” Mrs. Minor said. “Ladies of all ages are welcome to join us at noon on Wednesdays for lunch followed by a social hour. Please bring a dish to pass.”

Constable’s Report
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – No citations were issued.

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RISING FALLS NEWS

“Because No Story is Too Trivial for Us”  ~  April 13, 2012
Larry L. Little, Editor and Publisher

Brownie Troop 927
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – Brownie Troop 927 wishes to thank everyone who participated in their recent bake sale.

“We raised $31.67,” said troop leader Mrs. Howard (Candi) Rollings. “The money will be used for our upcoming Fathers’ Day project.”

Pinkie’s Diner Announces Meatball Mondays
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – Pinkie Sinatra, proprietor of Pinkie’s Diner, announced that until further notice he will offer a meatball dinner special on Mondays. Diners can enjoy a heaping plateful of spaghetti and meatballs for the low price of $5.99. This includes bread and side salad.

“We hope local families will take advantage of this great special,” Pinkie said. “Because, hey. Who doesn’t love spaghetti and meatballs?”

Township Trustees Meeting
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – Present were trustees Maynard T. Roof, Wanda Capps, and Harry Trout; Secretary Mrs. Len (Tina) Turley; and residents Ralph Nebbitts, Mrs. Frank (Kimberly) Grabowski, Mrs. Richard (Linda) Werble,

New Secretary Mrs. Len (Tina) Turley read the minutes of the previous meeting. There were no additions or corrections. In fact, Trustee Maynard Roof complimented Mrs. Turley for doing a fine job.

Mr. Roof then asked if there was any old business.

Mr. Ralph Nebbits of Dead Oak Road stood and said, “Who do I have to kill around here to get my speed limit sign?”

Trustee Wanda Capps said, “Ralph, Ralph, Ralph,” and remarked that Mr. Nebbitts’ question was poorly phrased. “I really feel that kind of talk is out of line, Ralph,” she added.

Trustee Harry Trout said that he had been working on the problem and was in the process of arranging for the purchase of the sign. Mr. Nebbitts seemed mollified.

In further old business, Mrs. Frank (Kimberly) Grabowski and Mrs. Richard (Linda) Werble, co-chairladies of the Rising Falls Beautification Committee, reported that they have finished the planting at the Rising Falls Volunteer Fire Department and at the triangle at Main and Pearl.

“And it really looks nice,” added Trustee Wanda Capps. “Thank you for all your hard work.”

Also, Mrs. Wanda Capps announced that the pothole on County Road BB has been filled.

Art Program Planned
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – Miss Barbi Bender has announced that she will demonstrate Pet Portraiture in Pastels in the cafeteria at Rising Falls Elementary School on Saturday from 2-4 PM.

Miss Bender, who teaches second grade at the school, will be accepting commissions for private pet portraits, which can be done in various sizes – specify rectangle or oval.

Miss Bender will also be registering people for classes in pastel which she will conduct over the summer at her home on State Route 3.

Rising Falls Volunteer Fire Department to Hold Car Wash
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – The Volunteer Firefighters of Rising Falls Volunteer Fire Department will hold a car wash on Saturday and Sunday. Proceeds will be used to repair and replace worn equipment.

Rising Falls Township Youth League
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – The annual organizational meeting of the Rising Falls Youth League was held at the home of Jack Bender.

“We had a good turnout,” Mr. Bender said, “and we look forward to another great baseball season. I especially want to thank the folks from Cherokee Township Youth League for coming. They gave us a lot of great suggestions for promoting good sportsmanship in our league.”

Mr. Bender added that a meeting of the Rising Falls Township Youth League Board will be held this week to finalize rules and regulations for this season and copies will be distributed at sign-up.

Constable’s Report
by Larry L. Little

Rising Falls Township – Constable Len Turley issued the following citations for the week ending April 13 , 2012:

Citations:

Ralph Nebbitts, cited for open burning without a permit

Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor,

As many know, the Thursday Ladies’ Bridge Club has been meeting at eleven A. M. on Thursdays in Fellowship Hall at Rising Falls Church for many decades. We play a set, break for lunch, and then play several more sets.

Several Thursdays ago, imagine our surprise when a group of retired gentlemen of this township walked into Fellowship Hall, dragged several tables to the far end of the hall, and proceeded to play Pinochle. Some of them even helped themselves to our Sweet ‘n Low before we realized what was happening, and two of them smoked cigars.

When questioned, they said that they’ve been holding their game on Thursdays at Rising Falls Volunteer Fire Department for several years, but that they recently decided to move to Fellowship Hall at the church because they thought it would be more “convenient.”

We think it’s fine that they enjoy getting together and playing Pinochle, but we don’t want them to do it when we’re there. They’re boisterous, and we object to their smoke, and they’ve continued to help themselves to our Sweet ‘n Low even after we explained that it is private stock. Some of them seem to think it’s funny.

If they have to play Pinochle in Fellowship Hall, we feel they ought to choose another day. Thursday, as I said, has been our day for many decades. We regret having to air this matter in public, but we’ve brought this matter to the attention of Reverend Pitts, and so far nothing has been done about it.

Thank you,

Mrs. Vernon L. Minor

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Posted in LT Fawkes | 2 Comments

FILLMORE SAVES THE DAY

Preface

FILLMORE SAVES THE DAY by L. T. Fawkes is the second book in the FILLMORE CHRONICLES series.

 

FILLMORE SAVES THE DAY is available in its entirety on Kindle.

Chapter 1

For most of the year, there’s almost nothing that can make me leave my home in Paradise Valley, Arizona.  But every year at holiday time, I return to the family enclave, an estate in Bratenahl, Ohio, on the southern shore of Lake Erie.

The drive into North Cliff is beautiful in all seasons, but in winter it takes on an especially interesting quality.  That’s because, about a football field’s length past the big iron gate, there’s a traffic circle.  And in the middle of this, there’s a large fountain with water spouting from the mouths of three naked, chubby, winged babies.

In winter, the water is heated to prevent it from freezing, and when the temperature falls below a certain point, steam begins to issue from the babies’ mouths along with the water, which gives them a sinister ambience I’ve always treasured.

The traffic circle is trisected by three drives:  the one from the front gate; the one on the right that leads to the Hall, which is where my Aunt Iris and Uncle Hamilton Winthorp live; and the one on the left that leads to the House, which is where I grew up and which is now mine by inheritance.

The interiors of the House and the Hall are quite different, but the two buildings are nearly identical from the outside.  Both are large, fieldstone-faced edifices which sit high above the surrounding terrain and both have broad, deep front porches, the roofs of which are supported by equidistant arches which are also faced with fieldstone.  The buildings were designed by my great-grandfather and his three brothers.

It was a few days before Thanksgiving and we had just arrived at the House after the four-hour flight from Sky Harbor and the forty-five-or-so minute drive from Cleveland Hopkins Airport.  When I say we, I mean my personal assistant, Fillmore; Richards, our chauffeur and chef; and Margaret, a former employee of my evil Aunt Gazel, hired by me the second Aunt Gazel (or, as I call her, Gazilla) fired her.

I said that Fillmore is my PA.  That’s his job description according to me.  His job description according to him is gentleman’s personal gentleman.  It doesn’t bother him that I’m not a gentleman.  I am in fact a young person of the female persuasion.  But Fillmore has always taken the liberal view that my failure to be a gentleman is irrelevant.

Oops.  I see I’ve strayed from my story already.  Getting back to our arrival at North Cliff, then . . . Extensive remodeling was being done on the House at the time.  Fillmore and I (but mainly Fillmore) had been long-distance supervising the work for months.  When we arrived, Fillmore went straight back to the kitchen, which, at the time, was the center of operations for the work crew, and I ran upstairs to see my newly remodeled bedroom.

The master suite had been completely transformed.  Gone were the tired old paneling; the heavy furniture; and the oppressive, light-killing drapes.  Now there was new mint-green carpeting, fresh mint-green paint, new furniture (cherry) including a new bed exactly the same as my bed back in 85253, and a new flat-screen television mounted on the wall.  My new bedroom looked more like a bedroom in my Paradise Valley house than anything that lived in North Cliff.

I hurried into the bathroom.  A wall had been knocked out, doubling the size of the old bathroom.  The old fixtures were gone, replaced by a gleaming new Jacuzzi sitting right up in the big new bay window overlooking the gardens and Lake Erie, new sinks, and a new multi-headed shower without walls.

Beyond the bathroom was a spacious new walk-in closet, completely built out, and I was surprised to see that someone, probably one or more of Aunt Iris’s upstairs maids, had arranged all my stuff in there.  I was surprised, now that everything didn’t have to be crammed together to fit, how much stuff I had in Cleveland.  Huh.  I wondered why Fillmore had bothered to pack suitcases for me.

I wandered back into the bedroom, shed my traveling clothes, wiggled into a sweatshirt and jeans, and switched on the new flat screen.  I had just stretched out on the bed and was scrolling through the menu when my cell phone started up.

I didn’t recognize the number but I answered it anyway.  “Hello?

A throaty, dramatic female voice said, “Melly.”

After you’ve heard that voice a time or two, you recognize it.  It was Gloria.

“G-L-O-R-I-A,” I sang.  “Gloooo-ria.”

She groaned.  I always sing the Gloria song at the beginning of our conversations, and she always groans.

Gloria Dalrymple and I have been BFFs since birth.  And in the two-and-a-half years since we finished college, Gloria has become a celebrity.  It’s not that she’s ever actually done anything to distinguish herself in any way, except to be born to rich parents who died young, as was I.  But the cameras love Gloria, and she loves the cameras.  I guess you could say that the Gloria/camera relationship is a match made in heaven.

When I’m out in public with Gloria, I’m sort of a celebrity, too.  Our cameras caught heiresses Gloria Dalrymple and Melinda Shrop . . .  that sort of thing.  When I’m not with Gloria, people leave me alone, and that’s the way I prefer it.  Unlike my best friend Gloria, I’m not comfortable being a celebrity.  Or, in my case, a semi-celebrity.

Gloria said, “Melly.”

“Present.”

“Tell me you’re in Cleveland.”

“I’m in Cleveland.”

“Shut up.  You are not.”

“Am so.  Just got here.”

“For real?”

“I’m stretched out on my bed getting ready to watch TV.  Where are you?

“I can’t believe it.  I didn’t think there was any chance you were in Cleveland already.”

How many times was I going to have to tell her I was before she believed me?  “Why?  Where are you?”

“Hopkins.”

“Get outta here.”

I hadn’t expected her to come until Christmas.  If (if I’m being honest) then.

“Seriously.”

“I’ll send Spratly.  Where will he find you?  What airline  . . . ”

“I’ll grab a cab.  It’ll be faster.  Did you eat yet?  No, of course not.  It’s not time yet.  I’m starved.”

Dead air.  She was gone before I had a chance to ask her what was wrong.  Because something was.  I could tell.  We’ve been friends since birth.  I guess if there’s anyone alive who can hear when there’s tension in Gloria Dalrymple’s voice, it’s me.

I was concerned, but all I could do for now was phone out to Kremnitz at the guardhouse and let him know she was coming.  To call him, I needed a land line.  I looked all over the bedroom and bathroom and there wasn’t a single one to be found.  Oops.  Someone had overlooked that little detail at the end of the remodeling.

I found Fillmore in the kitchen.  Which, by the way, was a disaster area.  The old cabinets and appliances were gone, leaving gaping holes, and the ceiling had been torn out.  It looked like the new floor was down, but it was completely covered with some kind of heavy khaki-colored paper to protect it.

As I watched, two guys struggled into the room from the back drive carrying a tall pantry unit.  Another guy was fitting a corner cabinet unit into place.

Fillmore seemed to be fascinated by what he was hearing from a rugged-looking young man who stood with his flannel-shirted chest out, his heavy work boots wide apart, a clipboard tucked under one arm, and his thumbs hooked into his tool belt.  Richards leaned in, also listening.  The young man said something in a low, quiet voice and Richards laughed.

Fillmore looked up and spotted me.  He spoke quietly to the flannel-shirted man and they walked over.

“This is Chris Zima, Miss.  He’s the contractor who’s been organizing all the work on the house.”

Chris Zima shifted the clipboard he carried to his left hand and shook my hand with his right.  His hand was warm and calloused.  Blond hair.  Light green eyes.  Just the suggestion of a blond five o’clock shadow.

Fillmore said, “Mr. Zima was just telling me they finished the natatorium at the end of last week, Miss.”

“I can’t wait to go look.”  Before Fillmore could turn away I said, “Fillmore, Gloria Dalrymple just called from the airport.”

On hearing Gloria’s name, every head in the room (except that of the attractive young contractor, who seemed to be absorbed in something on his clipboard) jerked my way.

Someone dropped a hammer.

Someone said, “Gloria Dalrymple?”

“She’s on her way from the airport,” I told Fillmore.  “I’m looking for a land line so I can let Kremnitz know she’s coming.”

He looked around, but without real purpose, as if he didn’t hold out hope there might be a land line still lurking in the kitchen somewhere.  “Maybe in the library, Miss.  No changes have been made in there.”

I followed him through the house to the closed library door.  He opened it and reached around the corner to switch on the light.  The venerable old library came to life.  The most modern thing in the room was the PC Fillmore had set up the first year he came to North Cliff.  The second most modern thing was the old black rotary-dial phone which sat on the desk where it’d always been.

I dialed five and Kremnitz, the ancient keeper of the North Cliff gate, answered on the first ring.

“Guardhouse.”

“Hi, Kremnitz.  This is Melly.  I’m calling to let you know Gloria’s on her way.  She just called from the airport.”

“Gloria?  Well, isn’t that nice.  I’ll watch for her.”

That done, I ran upstairs to make sure Gloria’s bedroom had been made over to her specifications.  Ever since Gloria sold the house next door where she grew up, she uses that bedroom at my house as her Cleveland headquarters.

I held my breath and crossed my fingers as I opened the door, but I needn’t have worried.  It looked great.  It was all done in her favorite shades of pale blue and lavender.

I went into the bathroom to check whether the Jacuzzi had been installed.  It had.  A glance around her walk-in closet showed that hers had been built out almost exactly the same as mine, and that all her possessions had been situated.  I was surprised to see that she had almost as much stuff at North Cliff as I did.

Back in the bathroom, I was just checking to make sure there were towels and supplies such as toothbrushes and soap – there weren’t – when a soft clearing of a throat sounded behind me and Fillmore walked in holding in his outstretched arms all the towels and supplies I had just found to be lacking.

He stared at my bare feet.  “If I may make a suggestion, Miss.  You ought to wear shoes until we’ve had a chance to vacuum thoroughly a few times.  You never know where a stray nail or staple may have fallen.”

He put away Gloria’s supplies and headed back to the kitchen.  I stopped off in my room to pull on socks and trainers.  I whiled away the time watching television, and when I judged it had been about forty minutes, I went downstairs to the library and parked myself at the desk near the front window to wait.

As it turned out, I cut my timing pretty close.  No sooner had I sat down than a cab rolled up the driveway.  By the time I reached the front door, Gloria was raising her hand to the knocker and the cab was pulling away.

The last time I’d seen her she’d been blond, but Gloria changes hair styles and hair colors the way other people change clothes.  Now her hair was black and styled in a dramatic shoulder-length razor cut.  I stared at the field stone on either side of her stiletto-heeled boots.

“Where’s your luggage?” I asked, alarmed.

I thought the cab must have driven off with her collection of luggage in its trunk.  I was mistaken.

“On its way to LAX, I guess.”  She laughed as we hugged.  “Remind me to call somebody later and get a trace put on it.  This place looks great.”

She brushed past me and turned circles in the middle of the newly-redecorated foyer.  I pushed the door closed.

“I love this.  It’s so much brighter.  Let’s see the great room.”

I hadn’t forgotten the stress I’d heard in her voice during our earlier phone conversation.  I wanted to know what was wrong.  “Listen, Gloria . . . ”

Wow.”

She walked from furniture grouping to furniture grouping, switching on lamps.

“I can’t believe this is the same house.  Look at this place.  Look at my arm.”  She pushed up the sleeve of her sweater to expose bare arm.  “This room used to be so dark and creepy it gave me the heebie-jeebies.”

“Gloria . . . ”

“Is Tyler here yet?”

“I don’t know yet.  Gloria . . . ”

“When’s he coming?”

“I don’t know.  I haven’t talked to Aunt Iris yet.  Gloria, what’s . . . ”

“I can’t wait to see him.  Call over there and see when he’s coming.”

“Okay, but first . . . ”

“What’d you get Iris for her birthday?”

“Huh?”

“It’s this Sunday.  You didn’t forget . . . ”

“Of course not, but . . . ”

“So?  What’d you get her?  I found a really old photograph of Public Square on eBay and had it sent to a place downtown.  They’re matting and framing it.  Spratly was going to pick it up for me Saturday, but now that I’m here, I’ll go get it myself.  You’ll come, right?”

“Sure, but . . . ”

“Great.  So what’d you get her?”

“A copy of Craig Ferguson’s autobiography.  Fillmore has a Facebook friend who got it autographed at a book signing in New York.”

“Iris likes Craig Ferguson?  I didn’t know that.”

“Loves him.  Adores him.”

“She doesn’t stay up that late.  How does she even know who he is?”

“She records him and watches him after lunch.  And she first became a fan because of two words.  Drew Carey.”

“Oooh,” she said, as she put Craig Ferguson together with the old Drew Carey Show and then made the Cleveland connection.  “Nice.”

“Yeah.  I think she’ll like it.  But listen, Gloria . . . ”

“Is my room fixed up?”

“Yes.  I just checked it.  It’s gorgeous.  But . . . ”

“Let’s go see it.”

She ran out of the room, across the foyer, and up the stairs.  I was about to follow her when Fillmore stepped into the doorway holding out his cell phone.

“Pardon me, Miss.  It’s Mrs. Winthorp.”

Chapter 2

I sighed and took the phone.  “Hi, Aunt Iris.”

Her big, loud voice blasted out through the earpiece.  They say that from her position at third base on her varsity women’s fast-pitch softball team, her chatter could cause the toughest opposing batters to weep.

“Where have you been, you little rodent?  I should have known to call Fillmore’s phone first.  I’ve been trying to call you for hours.

“No, you haven’t.  I would have heard the ring tone.”

“Oh.  Well, I’ve tried to call twice.  You didn’t hear those times.”

“I had to come down and let Gloria in.  She’s . . . ”

“Gloria?  She’s here?”

“Yes.  She just . . . ”

Aunt Iris wailed, “But Gloria was supposed to come for Christmas.”

Well, now I’m going to have to stop and explain.  In the middle of September of the year I’m telling you about, Aunt Iris, during one of her regular phone calls, mentioned that she was beginning to make plans for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.  In connection with that, she wanted me to do her a favor.  Aunt Iris is an extremely excellent aunt, so I’m happy to do her favors when I can.

“How may I help you?” I asked in my interpretation of a nasal, customer- service-representative type of voice.

“None of your sass, young Melly.”

That’s my name.  Melinda, or Melly, Shrop.

“I want you to get Gloria here for Christmas.”

Our two families, the Shrops and the Dalrymples, have been friends for generations, and Gloria nearly always joins us for at least part of the holidays, but it’s always on a when she shows up, she shows up, sort of basis.  I was surprised when Aunt Iris made a special point of inviting her for Christmas.

I said, “Gloria?  For Christmas?  Why?”

“I’ll tell you why.  I’ve just learned there’s going to be an opening on the board of the Council on American Creative Arts, and I want that spot.”

“What’s that got to do with Gloria?”

“I’ll tell you if you’ll shut up and listen.”

I took the phone away from my ear and found it a new position several inches out into the atmosphere.

“I want Gloria here for Christmas because the chairman of the CACA board is Paulette Peabody.  Paulette Peabody has only one child – a son, on whom she dotes.  And the son is obsessed with Gloria Dalrymple.  If I can tell Paulette that Gloria is joining us for Christmas, then she’ll accept my invitation for same in the blink of an eye.  And if I can get Paulette Peabody here for Christmas, I’ve as good as got that spot on the board.”

“Devious.”

“Thank you.  So.  Can you deliver Gloria?”

That was a good question, and I said so to Aunt Iris.  I went on to explain that I could ask Gloria to come, and she would almost certainly say, Of course.  Love to.  Which I did, and which she did.  But, as I explained to Aunt Iris, did that mean Gloria would definitely be there?  No.  Because Gloria is a free spirit, and she blows whatever way the w bs, and at Christmas time, the w was as likely to be b-ing away from North Cliff as toward it.

So the matter stood.  And now we can return to the story.

Aunt Iris wailed, “But Gloria was supposed to come for Christmas.”

I said, “Well, she’s here now.”

“Well I hope she plans to stay right through Christmas.  Because I told Paulette Peabody . . . ”

“Aunt Iris.  Calm down.  She just got here.  We’ve barely had time to say hello, much less review her travel plans for the upcoming months.”

“What time are you coming for dinner?”

“Uh, dinner?  Um . . . ”

“Yes, dinner.  It’s that meal you eat between lunch and breakfast.”

“I know what dinner is.”

“Well, good.  So it’s not true what everyone says.”

“What who says?”

“I know your kitchen is all torn up.  I was just over there this morning.  So you have to come over here if you want a meal.  So I want to know what time.  What’s so hard about that?”

“Who did all the work upstairs, organizing Gloria and my closets?

“The two new maids, supervised by Dawes.”  Dawes is Aunt Iris’s major domo, or butler.

“They did a beautiful job.  Is Tyler here yet?”  Tyler Powers is Aunt Iris’s son by a previous marriage.  He grew up with Gloria and me and the three us are still as close as siblings.

“He’s coming sometime tomorrow.  He’s bringing a girl.”

What?

“I said, he’s bringing a girl.”

I didn’t know what to think about that.  He’d never done that before, and he hadn’t mentioned bringing a girl the last time I talked to him.  My first instinct was to think his having a girl hanging around was going to ruin all our fun.

She continued, “And Amanda’s bringing a young man.  I don’t know when she plans to arrive, either.”

Amanda is Uncle Hamilton’s daughter by a previous marriage.  I don’t know her very well, since she lived with her mother growing up, but she’s not my favorite person in the world.  My feeling was that she could bring fifteen or twenty young men if she wanted to, for all I cared.

“And now, I’d appreciate it if you’d stop changing the subject and tell me what time you plan to do us the great honor of letting us feed you.”

“Who is here?  Would we have to dress?”

I was thinking that Gloria was going to have a major wardrobe problem until we managed to get her luggage brought back to Cleveland, completely forgetting about that fully-stocked closet adjacent to her bedroom.

“It’s just Ham and me.  You can come in ’jammies and bunny slippers for all I care.  What’s the problem?”

“Gloria doesn’t have her luggage.”

“The fatheaded airline lost it?”

“No, I don’t think so.  It sounds like her luggage is on its way to LAX . . . ”  I glanced at Fillmore, who was listening with interest.  “ . . . despite the fact that she’s here.”

“I suppose that makes sense to the two of you.  You can explain it over dinner.”

“Um, and I don’t know if I mentioned it, but I brought Margaret and Richards, in addition to Fillmore.  Can you feed them, too?”

“No problem.  Dawes and the folks love it when they get fresh faces to look at over the dinner table.  Breaks up the monotony around here.  Is seven okay?”

“Seven?”  I looked around in vain for a clock.

Fillmore, who had walked across the room to gaze out the French doors at the lights along the lakeshore, turned and said, “It is now ten of six, Miss.”

The man’s a mind reader.  That’s what it has to be.  A Svengali, if Svengali’s the word I want.

“Seven ought to be fine.”

As I returned the cell to Fillmore, Gloria ran back downstairs.

Fillmore,” she cried, and threw her arms around him in an exuberant hug.

Gloria appreciates Fillmore almost as much as I do.  The three of us were at school together, back when we were all students.  In those days, we knew Fillmore as Will, and he was far and away the best server at the little bistro where Gloria and I almost always had dinner.

Fillmore said, “Did you have a nice flight?”

A cloud seemed to pass over her creamy complexion, but she rallied.  “Sure.  Great.  Gosh, you know?  I feel filthy.  Do I have time for a quick shower before dinner?”

Fillmore and I exchanged looks.  Mine said, Something’s really troubling Gloria.  His said – well, his said nothing.  Other than a slight raising of an eyebrow or a slight dip at a corner of the mouth, Fillmore’s face never betrays what he’s thinking.  But I knew what he was thinking.  He was thinking the same thing I was thinking.

I said, “Plenty of time.  Go for it.”

She ran back upstairs.

Fillmore fixed an impassive eye on me and waited.  He didn’t have to wait long.

“Something’s wrong with Gloria, Fillmore.”

“Yes, Miss.  I noticed, too.”

“She’s going to make me pry it out of her, but I guess it’ll have to wait until after dinner.  Aunt Iris wants us all over at the Hall at seven.”

“Richards, Margaret, and I can eat here if necessary.  I’ll . . . ”

“No.  You’re all invited, too.  Aunt Iris says Dawes and that bunch will enjoy having some company.”

“Very good, Miss.  While we wait for Miss Dalrymple, I’ll arrange for her luggage to be located at LAX and brought back to Cleveland.”

Once Gloria was ready, we hurried through a light snow toward the Hall.  Fillmore insisted that he, Margaret, and Richards go around to the service entrance.  Gloria and I climbed the front steps and I banged the knocker.

Aunt Iris and Uncle Ham were kicked back in the great room enjoying cocktails when Dawes showed us in.  Iris Shrop Winthorp is a big, warm, loud woman.  Think Julia Child, only twenty or thirty pounds lighter.  Uncle Ham is tall, snowy-haired, handsome, and courtly.  He jealously guards his privacy and despises the holidays because the holidays inevitably mean house guests.

Dawes announced us and the A and U greeted us warmly with hugs all around.  They asked after Gloria’s extended family, what’s left of them, and Uncle Ham moved to the bar to mix drinks – for Gloria, her usual rum and Coke, and for me, once I spotted the little bowl of fresh lime slices, a gin and tonic.

Once we were all seated and cocktailed, Aunt Iris frowned at Gloria.  “Now explain to me what happened to your luggage.”

Gloria said, “Well, I decided at the last minute to fly to LA for a few days, and the only plane I could get made a layover in Cleveland, and once we were on the ground at Hopkins, I thought I’d rather just come straight here.  So I did.”

I watched her closely as she spun this little tale.  She laughed when she finished, and the A and U laughed and shook their heads at the whimsicality of this younger generation, if whimsicality is the word I’m thinking of.  I stared at Gloria.  Before this night was over I was going to make her tell me what was going on.

Dawes announced dinner and we filed into the dining room.  All the leaves had been taken out of the massive table so that we could be a somewhat cozy foursome.  I noticed that the door that led out to the kitchen had been left open.

That was a first.  It didn’t take me long to figure out why.  Since Gloria was born and raised on the estate next door to North Cliff, most of the older staff knew her, but there were a few newish young maids who only knew of her.  From time to time, one or another of them peeked around the doorway and stared until a soft but sharp word from Dawes caused her to jump back.

From where I sat, I could look through the doorway and see part of the staff table and several of the people sitting there.  They spoke in soft voices, not wanting loud chatter or laughter to draw attention to the fact that the door was open.

Dinner was pleasant.  Gloria entertained us with several celebrity stories.  Uncle Ham teased Aunt Iris about wanting so badly to be named to the board of CACA.  He insisted on making it a rather unfortunate noun instead of an acronym.

Aunt Iris, beside herself with anxiety as to whether her plans to woo this Peabody woman by producing Gloria would achieve the desired result, asked several times whether Gloria would be staying through ’til Christmas, and Gloria reassured her several times that yes, she would.

As dessert was being served and coffee poured, Uncle Ham said, “Did Iris tell you what she’s done?”

I grinned at him, thinking he was about to make one of his jokes.  “What’s she done?”

“My fatheaded sister called from out of the blue and invited herself and her fatheaded family here for Thanksgiving, and Iris, who is my light and my oxygen, said, Sure.  Come ahead.”

I was stunned.  “I didn’t even know you have a sister.”

“We’ve been estranged for many years.”

Gloria, who is well aware of the way certain of my aunts have plagued me all my life, said, “Oh my God.  You mean Melly has another aunt?  What’s her name?”

Aunt Iris said, “Adelaide.  Adelaide Crenolia.”

Uncle Ham said, “At least it’s just for Thanksgiving, I’m happy to say.”

I blinked at him.  “You mean you don’t like her?”

“I can’t stand the moron, and I like her moronic husband even less.  They’re bringing a daughter I’ve never met, but I feel safe in assuming that she’s a moron, too.”

I said, “Generous columbia, um – hey, Fillmore.”

Down the hall, Fillmore’s face appeared around the doorjamb.  “Miss?”

“What’s that thing you said that time about the Ankleworts?”

“Miss?”

“Our Paradise Valley neighbors, the Ankleworts.  Or rather, their kid.  You said, generous columbia something . . . ”

“Ah.  Non generant aquilae columbas, Miss.”

“That’s the puppy.  What’s it mean again?”

“Eagles do not beget doves, Miss.”

Uncle Ham nodded.  “And it follows that morons do not beget rocket scientists.”

I said, “Thank you, Fillmore.”

He said, “I’m happy to be of help, Miss,” and disappeared from the doorway.

Uncle Ham said, “Oh, I guess in a way I’m glad Adelaide has made this overture.  I know she hasn’t contacted me for no reason.  I know she’s going to want something, but, even so, it has bothered me to be completely cut off from my only sister and her family all these years.”

Aunt Iris said, “That’s the spirit.”

Gloria said, “You said she’ll want something.  What will she want?”

Uncle Ham said, “Dawes, please tell Mrs. Dawes that this is the best caramel apple pie in the history of caramel apple pies.”

Dawes, having finished topping off Gloria’s coffee, smiled.  “Thank you, Sir.  She’ll be pleased to hear it.”

Uncle Ham said, “What’ll she want?  Oh, money or some kind of favor, I imagine.  Why else would she get in touch after all this time?  And if it’s within my power, I’ll probably go along with her, just to restore peace in the family.  But speaking of people’s sisters, have you heard the other big news, Melly?  Your favorite aunt, one Gazel Vanderlay, is also coming.”

Chapter 3

I ought to pause here to say a word or two on the subject of aunts.  I have any number of them.  If you laid them all out on a line, a sort of aunt spectrum, as it were, with Aunt Iris Shrop Winthorp way, way over to the good aunt side, then you’d have to place another of my aunts, Aunt Gazel Shrop Vanderlay (or Gazilla, as I call her), way, way, way over at the extreme end of the bad aunt side.

Not to say she’s ferocious, but if you were to tell me that the woman snacks on lightly-salted radial tires, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

The reason I mention my various aunts is that this Gazilla, who lives in Boston, had called me several months earlier and mentioned in passing that she and hers would not be going to North Cliff for the holidays.  They had decided to go to Cancún, arriving before Thanksgiving and staying through New Year’s Day.

To say I was astonished by this news would be an understatement.  An entire holiday season at North Cliff, completely Gazilla-free, was almost beyond imagining.  I couldn’t wait to tell Fillmore.

His reaction caught me off guard.

“Many people do enjoy tropical vacations during the holiday season, Miss.  I’ve been meaning to suggest that you might consider spending a few days at Miss Dalrymple’s house in Costa Rica this year.”

I was stunned.  I said, “But you know we’re going back east.  We always go back east.”

He said, “Yes, Miss.  I meant to suggest that sometime during our stay in Ohio, we might fly to Costa Rica for a few days.”

I said, “No, Fillmore.  Some other time, sure, but flying back east for the holidays is more than enough holiday traveling for me.”

“I only thought,” he said casually, “that a few days in Costa Rica might make a nice break from the ice and snow, Miss.”

I said, “No, Fillmore.”  Sometimes you have to be firm, even if it makes for unpleasantness.  “What’s so big about Costa Rica, anyway?”

“I find Costa Rica to be very agreeable, Miss.  Also, I’m eager to re-visit the Twoaday Stables.”

“You got a large charge out of visiting those stables, didn’t you?”

“It was most interesting, Miss.  I’ve always had a fondness for horses.”

“I remember how much you enjoyed our visit to Senator Wordsworth’s horse farm in Kentucky.”

“I enjoyed that very much, Miss.  And I found it interesting to compare Mr. Twoaday’s operation in Costa Rica to the senator’s.”

“Yes, well.  I’m sure there’ll be other opportunities to visit Costa Rica.  Maybe sometime when Gloria’s going to be there.  But not during the holidays, Fillmore.”

“But Miss . . . ”

“No, Fillmore.  Not during the holidays.”

The conversation ended on a sour note, which I felt bad about.  And, unless I was imagining things, Fillmore was just the tiniest bit distant for several days thereafter.

So you can see why I specifically remembered that conversation, and the content of Aunt Gazel’s phone call which had precipitated the trouble, as well.  It came as quite a shock to hear that the witch was coming to North Cliff for the holidays after all.

I said, “What?  I don’t understand.  Aunt Gazel told me they were going to Cancún this year.”

Aunt Iris said, “Gazel’s coming for Christmas, Ham.  I told you that.  Gazel and Adelaide will miss each other by weeks.”

I said, “Aunt Iris . . . ”

She turned her attention to me.  “They were going to Cancún, but they changed their plans at the last minute because of the swine flu.  Now they’re . . . ”

I said, “But I don’t understand.  Why would some kind of pig disease force them to . . . ”

Aunt Iris gaped at me.  “Oh my God.  You really don’t have any idea what goes on in the world, do you, young Melly?”

“No.”

U H said, “Well, I’m relieved to hear they’re coming at different times.  If they were both here at the same time, they’d have each other by the throats.”

Gloria said, “Don’t they get along?”

Uncle Ham snickered.  I took that as a no.

I looked from A to U.  “So your sister and your sister hate each other?”

Aunt Iris said, “My, how quickly you grasp things, young Melly.  Actually, most of the Winthorps dislike most of the Shrops, and vice versa.”

“But this is all new to me.  It reminds me of something Fillmore said once about the Ankleworts.  What was that?  Fillmore,” I yelled toward the kitchen.  “What was that jingle you said that time?”

Fillmore reappeared in the doorway.  “Miss?”

“What was that thing you said that time about the Ankleworts?  Hiz’n and hiz’n, blah-blahdy blah-blah.”

“Oh.  It’s a poem by Mr. Benjamin Franklin King, Jr., Miss:

Her folks an’ hiz’n
An’ hiz’n an’ her’n
Never speak to each other
From what I can learn.”

That’s the one.  Thanks, Fillmore.  I’ll try not to bother you again.”

“I live to serve, Miss,” he said, and disappeared from sight.

I said, “Aunt Iris.  I just thought of something.  You have Aunt Gazel coming for Christmas at the same time this Paulette Peabody of CACA will be here?  What if Gazilla and Paulette Peabody don’t get along?”

Uncle Ham said, “That’s a good question, and apt to be the case, since Gazel doesn’t get along with anybody.  And I gather from what you’ve told me, Iris, my life’s blood, that this Peabody has a strong personality, to put it kindly.”

Aunt I said, “So I understand.  But Gazel and Paulette already know each other, and they’re friends.  Anyway, the Vanderlays came late to the guest list this year, so they’ll be staying at the House, of course.”

What?”  To say I was stunned doesn’t begin to cover what I was.

“The Hall will be full to the rafters, so the Vanderlays will stay with you at the House.”

“The Vanderlays?  Plural?”  Realization hit me like a bucket of ice water.  “Are you saying I have to have that little monster, Arthur Jr., in my beautiful new House?  No.  I won’t do it.  No.”

Aunt I gave me her patented Aunt I look.  “You will do it, young Melly.”

“No I won’t.  No.”

Aunt I smiled.  “Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.  I don’t expect them for nearly a month.  Anything can happen between now and then.”

 

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COLD SLICE

[first chapter:Preface]

COLD SLICE by L. T. Fawkes is the first book of the Working Man Mystery Series. Terry Saltz, fresh out of jail, is determined to start over and get it right this time. Things are looking pretty good until . . .

COLD SLICE is now available in its entirety on Kindle.

Chapter 1

I want to tell you a story. It’s a little story about friends, hard work, bad love, and murder. I’m a physical guy. I’m no writer. So getting this story on paper won’t be the easiest thing I’ve ever done. But I’m thinking, how hard can it be? What if I just rock back and fire, like you and me were sitting at my kitchen table having a cup of coffee, shooting the breeze?  I don’t see why that wouldn’t get the job done.

Here’s me: Terry Saltz. Six-five. Twenty-six. Smart-ass. Long hair tied back with a piece of leather shoelace. Black mustache that tends to turn down at the ends. Plaid flannel shirts, and the elbows on most of them are threadbare or blown out altogether. Old faded jeans, and I didn’t buy ‘em that way. Work boots.

I’m a carpenter. I build stuff. I like the smell of sawdust. Put me up in the air walking a beam with a hammer in my hand and my tool belt riding low, thumpin’ and bumpin’, and I’m a happy man. Yeah.

My story started like this: Back in the early nineties I hit a rough patch. I guess I let some things pile up on me and I guess I wasn’t handling the stress or whatever. I got stoned and drunk in a bar one night, trashed the place, hit some guys, got arrested, pleaded guilty, and went to jail.

Besides the jail time, I got a big old fine, about a bajillion hours of community service, and a shitload of probation. While I was in jail I lost my job, my wife, my truck, and my mobile home. Losing that truck was the part that hurt the most. It was the first vehicle I ever bought new. I loved that truck.

I thought it was pretty much the end of the line for me. I was a busted, divorced, unemployed loser. Sitting in jail. The future looked like a big ugly brick wall.

Danny Gillespie was about the only one of my friends who stuck by me. Old Danny, he visited me in jail, kept a straight face while he listened to all my bitching and moaning, and eventually asked me what I was gonna do when I got out. Which I said I had no idea. He said I could move in with him. I said that was really decent of him and I’d think it over.

I’d lived with my wife, Marylou, the party of the first part, hereinafter referred to as the Bitch, in the southernmost tip of Grand County, which is in northeastern Ohio. But the courthouse, and therefore my probation officer, were in Spencer, in the northern part of the county. And Danny lived in Spencer. And I didn’t have my truck anymore. So I thought about it and decided moving in with Danny was a good idea because at least I’d be in walking distance of my PO.

Another plus for moving in with Danny was that I’d be at the other end of the county from the Bitch. So I called him and said if his offer was still good, I’d take him up on it. He said great.

On the day I got released, Danny took off from work and drove all the way down to what was now the Bitch’s trailer to get my hand tools and my clothes, which she’d left in a heap in the carport. Then he picked me up at the jail and we cruised up to Spencer.

Danny lived in the attic apartment of an unrestored century home on Oak Street, two blocks down the hill from Spencer’s town square. His place was old, tiny, and grim compared to my ex-trailer, but at that point I was just happy to be with a friend and have a roof over my head.

Once we got my stuff carried up to his apartment and stashed in his spare bedroom, Danny opened his refrigerator door, pulled out a six-pack, and brought it into his living room. He flopped his lanky frame down onto the worst-looking  piece-of-shit sofa I ever saw – which I couldn’t even tell what color it was supposed to be – pulled a can loose, popped the top, and made to hand the other five cans to me.

I shook my head. “Nope. I’m done with that shit for a while.”

He looked at me funny. Then he pulled his bowl out of his pocket and started packing it. He looked up at me with his shaggy golden eyebrows raised.

I wanted to help him burn it. I wanted that beer, too. It was a hot day for early June, and his attic apartment was stifling, and I was having the first day of the rest of my life. But I shook my head.

“Done with that, too,” I said.

I went into the bathroom, which I couldn’t even stand up straight in it, since it was crammed against the sloping attic roof, and splashed cold water on my face. Then, carefully ducking my head to get through the low doorframe, I went into what was now my bedroom and looked at my boxes and bags of hand tools and clothes lined up along one wall.

I’d been hanging around for twenty-six years, and that was all I had to show for it. Nice.

Since there was no bed, I stretched out on the ratty old extra blanket Danny had left in there and took a nap. His floor was only a little harder than the bunk I’d been sleeping on in jail.

Danny’s a big guy, just a little shorter than me. He’s got freckles and he smiles a lot. Most days he wears his reddish gold hair in a ponytail like me. He’s a roofer, same age as me, and has a girl here and there he can call when he feels like it. He’s pretty happy with himself, and by the time I moved in with him, he was pretty set in his ways. He liked to start off every working morning with a shower and then breakfast at Brewsters’.

Danny likes Brewsters’. It’s a hometown restaurant, bacon-smelling, holes-in-the-burgundy-vinyl kind of place. It sits at one end of a long strip mall, looking out across a big parking lot at another strip mall. Most of the waitresses know most of the regulars by name, and the menu never changes.

It’s a big, wide-open room with windows all across the front, so the retired and unemployed who like to sit in there all day, drinking coffee and trading conspiracy theories, can monitor the comings and goings in the parking lot, which also serves the Thriftway, the hardware store, the hair salon, the bank, the drugstore, and a bunch of other little shops and businesses.

There’s a line of booths down each wall, a double row of booths down the middle, a lunch counter in back, and tables down each side of the center booths. Back in the early nineties you could smoke in there, and talk loud, and hit on the waitresses, and nobody cared.

That first morning I got up and threw on a pair of jeans while Danny took his shower. While he was still in the bathroom, he yelled for me to come on to Brewsters’ with him and get some breakfast. What else did I have to do?

So I pulled on a T-shirt and a flannel shirt hanging open over that, dragged a comb through my hair and tied it back, and tagged along. I hated that he had to pay for my number four, but he said bullshit, I would have done the same for him, and that was true. I would have.

That’s how the first week or so went. Every morning we went to Brewsters’ and got breakfast.  Then Danny went off to his roofing job and I walked back to the house on Oak Street and spent the day reading the help wanted ads or staring at his crappy little TV, cursing myself for being such a loser asshole that I had lost everything I had, including my employability. Or so I thought.

The walk home from Brewsters’ took me past Carlo’s, a busy little pizza place down in the opposite corner of the same strip mall as Brewsters’. Every day I looked at all the little green Carlo’s Hyundai delivery cars sitting in their back parking lot, and, when Tuesday rolled around, I noticed a big sign somebody had stuck in the window that said Help Wanted Drivers Waitresses.

Of course, at eight in the morning, Carlo’s isn’t open yet.  I walked on by and continued up to the courthouse for my scheduled heart-to-heart with my probation officer, which she was out sick and they said I should come back the following Tuesday at ten a.m.

I couldn’t stand the thought of going back to the house, so I kept on walking. Spencer is kind of a busy little town. Pretty, too. Lots of big old century homes with interesting architecture hunker along the wide tree-lined streets that run in all directions down the hill from the town square.

That day I walked up and down some of those streets, studying the houses. At one point I made use of an old stone water fountain on the town square and then sat at a picnic table for a long time, watching the traffic crawl around the perimeter of the square, and watching the happy lawyers and the miserable defendants going in and out of the county courthouse.

After a while I got another drink from that fountain and went roaming again. In the middle of the afternoon I found myself back down in the parking lot between the two strip malls. I walked to the end where Carlo’s is and more or less wandered inside without giving much thought to what I was doing.

The woman at the front counter was about my age, maybe a few years older. She was attractive, slender, and had short brown hair and smart green eyes. She was busy telling a guy to run up to the Thriftway for a bag of onions. Then a phone rang and she took an order for two large pizzas.

I stood there long enough to see that she was large and in charge, so I might as well tell her my worst news right up front, because she’d do what she was gonna do, no matter what kind of bullshit I tried to lay on her. You know? I mean, some women you can bullshit. Others, not so much.

When she looked at me and smiled, signaling me to state my business, I said, “I’d like to apply for a job as a driver, but I just got out of jail.”

She blinked and looked me over for a minute, a smirk beginning to show at one corner of her mouth. The kind of smirk a woman has when she’s maybe known another man or two who just got out of jail. Then she said, “How’s your driving record?”

“Perfect,” I said, and I remember being surprised to realize that in all the garbage heap of my life I did have one perfect thing. My driving record. I stood a little straighter. No I didn’t. Come on.

She said, “Do you have a car?”

“No. I’d have to drive one of those little Korean pieces of shit you have parked in the back.” Then I smiled at her and said, “Heh.”

She nodded and thought about me for a bit. Then she said, “How do you take your coffee?”

__________

 

 

Chapter 2

A few minutes later we were sitting in a booth across from each other with coffee cups in front of us. She said her name was Barb Pannio. Then she asked me what I was in jail for. I told her. She nodded and asked what I did for a living before I went to jail. I told her.

I also told her how I’d been fired as a result of my troubles, filed on for divorce, and fucked in every possible orifice.

Figuratively speaking. Don’t think I got made into an Alice in jail or anything like that. I’m plenty big enough to take care of myself, and anyway, it was just little old Grand County Jail, with a basketball court and red geraniums by the front doors.

I told her that. She laughed. Then she pushed an application across the table to me. I filled it out.

She said, “How soon can you start?”

I shrugged.  “Now?” I said, smiling. I was joking.  Showing that I was gung-ho. I expected her to laugh and say, like, Monday would be soon enough, or something.

But she looked at her watch. By then it was just about two. She said, “Good.  Let’s get you trained. By the time we get busy with the dinner rush you’ll be ready to take deliveries. Okay?”

I shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

She said, “How late can you work tonight?”

I shrugged again, thinking how funny that was. Like I had anything else to do. “Until the place closes?”

She smiled and sipped her coffee and, from out of nowhere, I started to get a funny feeling about Carlo’s. I wondered why she was so happy to hire a guy who just got out of jail, and why she was in such a hurry to get me started. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s this:  Whenever something seems too good to be true, it is.

I looked around, wondering what was wrong with the place. I glanced at her. She was watching me.

She said, “You’re maybe wondering what’s the big hurry.”

“Kind of.”

She nodded. “It’s like this. I was already hurting for night drivers and then, night before last, one of my full-timers had an accident.”

“Was he hurt?”

“She. No, just shaken up. Bumps and bruises. But the accident means her insurance rates go up. I can’t afford to keep her driving.”

“You had to fire her?”

She nodded.  “She was lucky the job was all she lost.  She went into a ditch out on Spencer-Ladonia.  You know that road?”

I shook my head.

“Well, it’s rural, lined by drainage ditches.  The speed limit’s forty-five, and all the driveways have cement culverts.  If she’d hit one of those culverts, it would’ve been bad.”

“Yeah.”  You didn’t need a good imagination to see that.

“Yeah.  God.”  She shuddered.  “Anyway, that’s why I need you to start right away.  Okay?”

After we finished our coffee, Barb led me down the hall that ran off the back end of the dining room, a few steps along that, and, hooking a right, into a little office.  She quickly wrote my name on a time card, showed me the clock and told me to punch in, and then led me back across the hall to the waitress station.

She said, “Beverages are free.  Food’s half price.  Grab yourself a Styrofoam cup and write your name on it so nobody throws it away.  Try to make one cup last all shift.”

I drew myself a Coke.  Then I followed her through the hall, past the office, around past the bathrooms, and into the back room where all the food prep and dough making and stuff was done.

It was pretty obvious to me that the guy she introduced me to was the ass-kicker who rode the vintage Harley I’d noticed in the back parking lot.  My first sight of him, he was leaning against the work counter, smoking a cigarette, watching a big blob of pizza dough being badly mistreated in a huge metal bowl by what looked like an outboard motor blade.

Barb told me, “Terry, this is Greg Bellini.  We call him Bump.”

Bump wore a black leather vest over his black Carlo’s T-shirt, which was tucked into black straight-leg jeans.  This is Bump:  He’s at least six-and-a-half feet tall and has very long blond hair tied with a black leather strap in a wild hit-or-miss ponytail.  His pythons bulge like, well, pythons.  His clean-shaven face looks like it was carved out of oak with a chain saw.

Bump Bellini makes quite a first impression.

Barb said, “Bump, this is Terry Saltz.  He’s gonna be a night driver.”

We nodded at each other.

Barb said, “Show Terry how to wedge potatoes while you wait for those deliveries to come up, okay?”  She turned and started out of the room without waiting for him to nod, but then turned back.  “Get him started and then I need to talk to you in the office.”

“Yup,” Bump said.  But he didn’t move until he finished his cigarette.  When he’d smoked it down to the filter, he slowly raised himself out of his leaning position, slowly walked into the hallway that led to the back door, and slowly ground it out in an ashtray on one of the shelves that lined the hallway wall.

The wall opposite the shelves was metal, with a big metal door in the middle.  He pulled the door open, went inside, and came back out a few seconds later in a frosty cloud, carrying a twenty-five pound bag of Idahos.  He carried the bag over to a bank of big stainless-steel sinks, dumped the potatoes out into one of them, and turned on the cold water.

He picked up a potato, rinsed it, turned around to the counter behind him, stood it up in a big wall-mounted tool that worked sort of like a drill press, positioned a plastic tub under it, jerked down the handle and voilà.  The blade shat out six or seven instamatic potato wedges.

“Knock yourself out,” he said.  “There’s more tubs up there.”  He jerked his thumb at the shelves above the sinks and walked out of the back room the way I’d come in.  I watched him go into the office and close the door behind him.

I went to work on the potato wedges.

You might be thinking I resented having to do that gofer work.  How far the mighty carpenter had fallen?  Something like that?  Naw.  I was on somebody’s time clock again.  Also, I’d never stopped to wonder how potato wedges get that way.  It was kind of fun slamming that blade down through the potatoes and watching the wedges squirt out the bottom.

After a while, a guy came walking in from the parking lot door.  He stopped in the middle of the room and stared at me.  I glanced at him and went back to work.  But he kept on standing there, duck-toed, staring at me, so I looked over at him again and this time I smiled.

He was a strange-looking little dude.  I made him to be mid-fifties.  He was mostly bald, with just a ratty little fringe of gray hair running in a line around the back of his head.  Wilted athletic socks sagged down over black high-tops.  Baggy black Bermudas hung down over his skinny, trout-white legs, and a fanny pack was strapped tightly around his waist.

He stared at me, blank-faced, like it was taking him that long to process that there was a guy he didn’t recognize wedging potatoes.  I waited for him to say something, or even to develop an expression of some kind on his wide, pasty face, but he didn’t.  I turned my attention back to the wedger.

After a few minutes, I saw peripheral movement and realized the guy was walking toward me.  He came up close beside me, so that his ear was nearly touching my arm, and said quietly into my armpit, “Y-you’re a new g-guy?”

I had to lean forward and tip my head to get a look at his face.  “Yeah.  Terry Saltz.”

With him tucked into my armpit the way he was, I didn’t see any good way to shake his hand, so I didn’t try.

“Y-you’re taking C-C-Carrie’s place?”

“Carrie?  Is that the girl who got in the accident?”

He snorted.  “Accident.  Is that what they t-t-told you?”

I took a step back from him so I could see him better.  “That she accidently put a car in a ditch.”

He shook his head scornfully.  “Unb-believable.”

He glanced around and then closed the space up between us.  “Th-that was no accident.  S-someone ran her off the r-road on p-p-purpose.  Someone tried to k-kill her.”

Then he gave me a look of exasperation, like he thought I was the weird one, and walked away.

__________

 

 

Chapter 3

By the time Bump came back from the office, I had filled three of the tubs with wedges and was working on the fourth.  When I glanced at him, he gave me a friendly smile like he had just now met me.

He said, “So.  You’ve been away at County, huh?”

What had happened, obviously, was that Barb had called him into the office to tell him about me.  Well, good.   It saved me from having to explain myself again.  And now he was smiling at me.

He said, “I know a guy who’s in County now.”

“Yeah?  Who?”

“Louie something.  You know Louie?”

I laughed.  “You know Louie?  That poor dumb fuck.”

Everybody in County knew Louie.  He was a seriously deranged, skinny little pothead burnout who couldn’t seem to do anything right.  I’d never been able to make up my mind whether he was stupid or just had bad judgment.

Not to get too sidetracked from the story I’m trying to tell here, but Louie was in jail this latest time because he’d tried to rob an all-night gas station right there in Spencer just as a cop pulled into the parking lot.  He got caught trying to run away across a field.

See, he’d decided it’d be better if he did the job on foot, and then he wouldn’t have to worry that his car would be recognized.  But trying to get away in a hurry put him in kind of a bind because he was on crutches at the time.  He had a broken leg.

Bump got busy filling the finished potato wedge tubs with water, putting lids on them, and carrying them into the walk-in cooler, getting down more empty tubs, and so on, and we made fast work of the rest of the potatoes.  Then we went into the back hall to smoke and wait for the deliveries to be ready.

I said, “There was a guy here a few minutes ago.  Weird-looking little . . . ”

Bump laughed.  “Flute.  He’s the other day driver.”

I took a drag on my smoke.  “He mentioned Carrie.”

He gave me a sideways look.  “Yeah.  Carrie Hall.  Used to be a night driver.”

I said, “Yeah.  What happened to her, exactly?”

“She ran car three into a ditch night before last.”

I nodded.  “Yeah.  I got that.  But was it an accident, or wasn’t it?  Flute seems to think it wasn’t.”

Bump snorted.  “Listen, do yourself a favor and don’t pay any attention to anything Flute tells you.  He likes to make a problem where there isn’t one.  That’s how he entertains himself.”

I said, “Oh.”

“Here’s the straight shit on Carrie and her accident.  She’s ditsy to begin with, plus she keeps her cell phone glued to her ear.  I warned her a couple times not to use her cell phone when she’s driving for us. So did Barb.  Customers were even calling to complain that she went to their door talking on her fucking phone.”

I started to get the idea.

“So, she’s out night before last, prolly gabbing away, and drives car three into that ditch.  Now she’s got a prom.  Carlo’s insurance won’t cover her with points on her license.  So she comes up with the story that someone ran her off the road.  Thinking, if it’s not her fault, she won’t get fired.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Yeah.  She tells her story to the cops, only the cops investigate and there’s no evidence there was another car involved.  No skid marks, even.  I know one of the cops who was out there.  Alan Bushnell.  He says they don’t buy her story at all.  Neither do I.”

As he stubbed out his cigarette, a good-looking girl appeared.  Her sand-colored hair was pinned up in back, but little blond curls had worked their way out here and there around her pretty face and, oh yeah, she had a great body.

Bump introduced me and told me her name was Lauren King, but to call her Jackson.  She smiled and nodded.  When she turned around and pulled the metal door of the walk-in cooler open, Bump said pleasantly, “Nice ass,” and she said pleasantly, “Fuck off.”

The tone of voice they used was the same as they would’ve used to say, How ya doin’?  Fine.

This was when I realized that working at Carlo’s was going to be different from being a carpenter.  I’d been a carpenter since I was fifteen and my brother brought me into his crew as a gofer.  There generally aren’t any girls around the job when you’re a carpenter.

Jackson came back out of the cooler carrying a tub of grated provolone cheese and hurried around to the front.  A few minutes later a female voice from the front yelled, “Driver.”

I followed Bump out to the little green Hyundai that was parked just outside the back door.  There were big white number twos on the right front fender and on both sides, just under the Carlo’s logo, and on the left rear bumper.

There are no front passenger seats in Carlo’s delivery cars.  They take them out so drivers can stack deliveries on the floor where the front seat used to be.  Bump had the driver’s seat pushed back as far as it would go for legroom and also had the seat back laid down about halfway for headroom.  From outside the car, it looked like he was driving from the backseat, which he practically was.   I climbed into the backseat on the passenger side.

While we rode around to the front of the store, he started explaining things. “Remind me to show you where the car logs are when we get back in.  You have to write down your starting and ending mileage.  You full-time?”

I shrugged and nodded.

He said, “Full-timers get three Carlo’s shirts and one baseball cap.  Plus a fanny pack like this to put the money in.  Park in back, pick up in front.”

I said to myself, Fanny pack? and thought I might have a serious problem with wearing a fanny pack.  But as I followed him inside I decided, okay, it’s sorta like a tool belt.  I watched him pick up the three deliveries that were stacked on the counter and then followed him back to the car.

Once we were out of the big parking lot, he said, “I’ll warn you right now, people in this town love narcing on Carlo’s drivers.  If anyone sees you do anything—hell, they don’t even need a reason.  They love to call and complain about us.”

I nodded.

“Course, when someone does call, the managers just fuck with ‘em.  But they keep track of who’s getting called about.  If they get a couple of calls on you, they’ll talk to you.”

“The managers fuck with ‘em?”

“Yeah.  Like last week, this real old dude called about me.”

“Why?”

He chuckled.  “I was heading out on a run, along the front of the shopping center, heading down toward Brewsters’.  I saw him come out of the hardware store.”

He flipped on his turn signal and started to brake.

“You gotta watch out for people coming out of those stores.  Sometimes they’ll step off the curb without looking.  Anyway, I saw him come out of the True Value and I started braking because I knew he was gonna walk right out in front of me.  He did, and then he looked and saw me coming and jumped back up on the curb, shaking his fist.  Like it was my fault he walked right out in front of me.  It made me laugh.”

“Laughing like that, you probably made him mad.”

“No shit.  By the time I got in from the run, he’d called Barb and given her an earful.  Barb goes, ‘I’m sorry you were annoyed, sir.  I hate to fire him, because he’s raising those three little kids all by himself since his poor wife died, but that’s company policy.  He’ll be terminated.’ ”

He chuckled warmly.  “They say shit like that.  Then the same person usually doesn’t call back again.”

I said, “You don’t have three little kids.”

He snorted. “Fuck no.”  He pulled up to a red light, stopped, and looked back at me.

“I do all the minor maintenance on the cars.  I got a rule.  Don’t abuse the cars.  The managers may go easy on the drivers, but I don’t.  I can tell when a car’s been abused, and I only have to check the log to see who did it.  I get irate when someone abuses a car.”

“Gotcha.”   I liked irate.  I decided to use it myself first time I got the chance.

He lit a cigarette and was taking his first draw on it when the light turned green. “Not allowed to smoke in the cars.”

I nodded and tapped out a cigarette from my pack.

“When these cars were delivered, they took all the radios out and put them on the shelves in the office.  Yeah, right.  Like the drivers are really gonna ride in these cars all day or all night without a radio.  That same day, me and Gruf put them all back in.  Gruf’s the night manager now.  You’ll meet him later.”

He said, “I scare housewives the first time they see me.  Like the last delivery on this run?  She’s a first timer.  They’ll be scared of you, too.  So you gotta be smiling when they open the door.  Then right away you gotta say something friendly.  Usually they tip pretty good after that, because they’re so relieved you’re not gonna go nuts and kill them, or something.”

“They tip?”  It hadn’t occurred to me yet that I’d be getting tips.

Bump looked around at me. “Fuck yeah.  That’s where you make your money.”

We made our first delivery and then we headed north out of town.  At the End Speed Zone sign, Bump stepped on it.  He said, “Hey, this is Spencer-Ladonia Road.  I’ll show you where little Carrie totaled car three.”

After a few miles, he slowed to a stop.  Right in the middle of the road.  Nothing was coming, but still.  He opened his door, climbed out, and, leaving his door hanging wide open, began to walk along the middle of the road.

He turned back.  “Come on.  Have a look.”

I climbed out over the stack of stay-warm bags and caught up with him.  He pointed.  Off to the right I could see the deep parallel gashes of raw black earth car three had plowed along the inner edges of the deep ditch.  The gashes were a good fifteen feet long.  I pointed that out.

He nodded.  “Fuckin’ Carrie.  And you can see, no skid marks whatsoever.”

We climbed back into car two and continued on our way.  I noticed that the first cement driveway culvert came up less than fifty feet past the end of the tracks.  I pointed that out and said, “She was lucky.”

Bump said, “No shit. She was lucky the car hit the ditch square, too.  If she’d gone in crooked, it coulda flipped.  Fuck, for that matter, the front bumper coulda stuck and she coulda gone end-over-end.  But, anyway, car three is totaled and Carrie’s ass is fired. End of story.”

We made the Spencer-Ladonia delivery.  Then Bump drove on down to the next intersection and turned left on 89.  After a mile or so, we came into an area of new, widely spaced McMansions with a lot of woods in between, built on winding cul-de-sacs.  Bump turned onto one of the cul-de-sacs, and halfway along it, into the driveway of a big new colonial.

This was the home of the first-timer he’d mentioned, and he was right.  The woman who opened the door got wide-eyed when she saw us standing there like two scruffy miscreants.

But we smiled, and Bump said quickly, “Hi.  We’re from Carlo’s.  Dude, your yard looks great.  Who’s your landscaper?”

“I . . . ah . . . ” she stammered.  I saw that the hand holding the wallet was a little unsteady.

He pulled the pizza box out of the stay-warm bag.  “What’re those little blue flowers?  I gotta get some of those for my yard.”

She took the box from him and set it on a table by the door.  “They’re, uh, lobelia.  They’re pretty, aren’t they?”

He looked at the ticket. “It’s ten ninety-nine.”

She pulled a ten and a five from the wallet and handed them to him.

He said, “Ya want change?”

She smiled.  “No.  You can keep it.”

He said, “Lobelia, huh?  Gotta get me some of those.  Hey, thanks a lot.  Have a nice day.”

We climbed back into the car.

I said, “You called her dude.”

He was backing out of the long driveway by looking in his side mirror.  “Huh?”

“That lady.  You called her dude.”

He chuckled.

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KINDLE FORUM

INTRODUCTION

Here’s a brand new Kindle resource where Kindle readers can quickly and easily find book titles in the categories and price ranges they want without a lot of hype.

It’s a place where Kindle readers can list books they’ve enjoyed by category with concise descriptions.

And it’s a place where Kindle authors can list their books for readers, and network and share marketing ideas with other Kindle authors.

To add a book to the list, leave the info in the “comments” box. Please give the title, author, and price; a very brief description; and the genre or genres. I’ll copy and paste your info into the appropriate genre. If I don’t have the right genre for your book, don’t worry – I’ll add it!

CHICK LIT


CLASSICS

THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins, Free
A young drawing instructor has a chance meeting with a mysterious woman who reappears on the remote estate where he has found employment. Classic early mystery.

Contemporary Fiction

Wicked Good by Joanne Lewis and Amy Lewis Faircloth. $2.99.
A single mother and her adopted 15 year old son who has asperger’s syndrome seek his biological family.

CRIME

ONE MAN’S DARK by Robin Crawford, $2.99
Joey is the heir to a powerful crime family. Winston has been a victim since birth.
When they meet in prison, the reader knows nothing good can come from it.

FUNNY FICTION

THE FILLMORE CHRONICLES by L. T. Fawkes
The misadventures of young semi-celebrity heiress Melly Shrop and her devious
personal assistant, Fillmore.

FILLMORE TO THE RESCUE, $2.99
The peace and tranquility of Melly’s Paradise Valley manse is shattered by the arrival of two aunts, two cousins (not Melly’s), two suitors from Houston, one yellow Lab and one extortionist.
FILLMORE SAVES THE DAY, $2.99
Celebrity heiress Gloria Dalrymple joins Melly for Thanksgiving at North Cliff, but the holiday is threatened by the relatives’ hanky panky and ulterior motives.
FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN, $2.99
Fillmore and Melly, visiting Gloria Dalrymple’s house in Costa Rica, quickly become entangled with squabbling houseboys, a reality show personality, an aging film star, a reclusive billionaire and his estranged great-nephew, and the neighborhood gossip.

THE SCHMOLDENESE FALCON by John Northern, FREE
This is a short, silly little alien detective story with a lot of corny gags, but it’s free and I did keep reading.

UNEASY MONEY by P.G. Wodehouse, $.99
A young English lord’s fiancee won’t marry him until he makes some money so he heads for NYC seeking opportunity.

HISTORICAL FICTION

A Mummers Tale, by Anatole France, FREE. Through the trials and tribulations of a young French actress, France artfully depicts the manners and mores in Paris theater life in the early 1900s. Terrific characters, good plot, unsatisfactory ending.

In the Shadow of Vesuvius.  A young slave’s fight to escape and save the life of the child in her care before Vesuvius buries Herculaneum and all who live there. $3.99

THE CORNET OF HORSE: A TALE OF MARLBOROUGH’S WARS by G.A. Henty, FREE
A sixteen-year-old joins the military under Lord Marlborough’s wing and has lots of surprising adventures. A lot of detail about the wars, but you can easily skip those if you want to and pick back up when the young man’s story resumes.

SUMMER by Edith Wharton, FREE
A peculiar tale set in early 20th century rural New England about a dissatisfied girl and her judgmental, narrow-minded fellow villagers. Unlikeble characters nd an unsatisfying plot.

HISTORY

LETTERS OF A WOMAN HOMESTEADER by Elinore Pruitt Stewart, FREE
Early in the nineteenth century a woman homesteader in the high desert of Wyoming writes letters to a Denver friend about the people and country she’s helping settle.

Atlantis: The Antedeluvian World, by Ignatius Donnelly, Free. Awesome description of Atlantis based on ancient writings. Published in early 1900′s.

HORROR

THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO by Horace Walpole, FREE
A generations-old curse falls on a noble family. Not single likeable charcter, dense prose, speechy dialogue, stupid plot.

MYSTERY

THE CLARESBY MYSTERY by Daphne Coleridge, $1.38
A twofer: The Claresby Mystery, in which a famous painter disappears during the Claresby Art Fair, and The Black Widow of Claresby, in which the new female vicar is suspected of murder.

A COLD DAY FOR MURDER by Dana Stabenow, FREE
The first book in the Kate Shugak series. Set in Alaska. A Park Ranger is missing along with the investigator sent to find him. Alaska police and the FBI turn to Kate.

PROMISED LAND by Robert B. Parker, $2.99
The second novel in the Spenser series. Susan is a school counselor and Hawk works
for the competition.

VEGAS MOON by John Locke, $.99
Donovan Creed, a one-man weapon of mass destruction, is hired to assassinate
himself, and things only get more messed up from there.

WORKINGMAN MYSTERIES by L. T. Fawkes
COLD SLICE, $2.99
Carpenter Terry Saltz gets out of jail determined to build himself a new life in a new town. Things are going well right up until the murder.

LIGHTS OUT by L.T. Fawkes, $2.99
Awakened by gunfire, Terry, John, and Danny find a body in a deserted trailer.

BURN OUT by Traci Hohenstein, $.99
A female firefighter in Florida disappears while fighting a fire. Would’ve benefitted by better editing but story’s good.

MAIDS OF MISFORTUNE by M. Louisa Locke, $2.99
In Victorian San Francisco, a boarding house proprietess and clairvoyant investigates the mysterious death of a wealthy client

NOIR


ROMANCE

MISS FRANCIE’S FOLLY by Fran Baker, $2.99
Francie learns that her shy younger sister is about to become engaged to the very
man who betrayed Francie three years earlier. Somehow, she must protect her
sister. Regency.

Sci-Fi, Military

FIRST ENLISTMENT: WAR FOR PROFIT by Jed Fisher, $2.99
Three friends graduate from a military academy and go straight into a mercenary
unit.  From then on it’s wall-to-wall interplanetary action.

SCI-FI, FANTASY

DRAGONVERSE by Doug Farren, $.99
A young nuclear scientist’s mysterious uncle is missing. Where is he? Why was he
so interested in dragons? And is there really such a thing as a parallel universe?

SHORT STORY COLLECTION

RIVER RATS AND OTHER STORIES by Jed Fisher, $.99
Stories about young (early-twenties) men on the Ohio river and in the army, among others.

WESTERN

DON’T POKE THE BEAR by John Locke, $.99.
A saloon in Dodge City inherits a dancing bear. Lots of corny names like Lou Slips. Entertaining.

AUTHOR-TO-AUTHOR

Facebook site for Kindle reviews: https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/groups/160775681779?ap=1

Facebook site for book reviews:
https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Quickie-Book-Reviews/137122006372049

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FILLMORE TO THE RESCUE

Preface

The Fillmore Chronicles by L. T. Fawkes is a humor series featuring clueless young semi-celebrity heiress Melinda Shrop and her droll personal assistant, Fillmore. Think P. G. Wodehouse meets Paris Hilton.

FILLMORE TO THE RESCUE is the first book in the series.

“Hilarious.”                              

“Smart. Funny.”

“Couldn’t stop reading.”

“Refreshingly different. Loved it.”

Read the first three chapters of Fillmore to the Rescue here and then buy the book on Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/FILLMORE-RESCUE-CHRONICLES-ebook/dp/B004M8S8N2/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=digital-text&qid=1305179611&sr=1-3.

FILLMORE TO THE RESCUE
by L. T. Fawkes

Book One: The Fillmore Chronicles

The following is not a mystery, a political thriller,
or a poignant memoir.  No one’s about to be murdered.
There aren’t going to be any ticking bombs, biohazards,
alien invasions, eco-disasters, or car chases.

The future of the world does not hang in the balance
within these pages.  There’s almost no crudity.
And if you come away with any valuable life lessons learned,
you may feel free to take full credit, because nothing in this novel
will have given you any information whatsoever in that regard.

This is just a silly story.  My advice is, approach it
as you would a bag of gooey candy or a bowl of salty cashews.

Thanks for reading it.

L. T. Fawkes


Chapter 1

My toes braced on the ledge of the Jacuzzi, I was idly shaving invisible fuzz from my calf.I was half-watching Real Housewives from somewhere or other on the flat screen and half-singing, half-humming Try to Make Me Go to Rehab.

It was a hot, sunny Thursday in the middle of September, but before sinking into the tub I had opened the large window above the Jacuzzi in order to enjoy the intoxicating scent the midday sun was coaxing from the eucalyptus along the wall.I had no plans except to dawdle over a very late breakfast and maybe have a long, delicious afternoon swim.And by swim, I mean a nice long drift on my floatie.

There was a soft k at the d.

“That you, Fillmore?”
I called, which was a pretty lame question because who else would it be?Fillmore and I were the only two souls in my sprawling Paradise Valley house, and that’s just the way I like it.In fact, that was another reason I was singing happily in the t.I’m all balloons and streamers when the place is not infested with relatives, the staffs of relatives, and other miscellaneous visitors.

One drawback (and sometimes it’s a big drawback, I don’t mind saying) of living in the Valley of the Sun is that relatives and friends (thinking I won’t notice they’re vacationing on my dime) frequently blow in from the cold, rainy, or snowy northeast or the humid, buggy, or stormy south.
You can’t blame me for being happy about our current guest-free status.

I called, “Come in, come in.”

Fillmore followed a stack of freshly-laundered towels to the linen cabinet and tucked them carefully inside.

“Morning, Fillmore.”

“Good morning, Miss.
Would you like your coffee in here?”

I let the razor plop into the water.
“No, I’m finished.I’ll come downstairs.”

“Very good, Miss.”

By the time I’d toweled off, thrown on my robe, and run a c through my h, he had my day clothes neatly laid out on the bed.
I dressed quickly in a white cotton tee and bleached denim skirt while he busied himself tidying up in the bathroom.

As he came back in I was eyeing the navy flip-flops he’d left on the floor beside the bed.

“Not the flip-flops, I think, Fillmore.
The Converse tennies.”

He stared at me.
“Miss?”

I groaned inwardly, knowing that the pleasant mood of late morning was about to hit a little speed bump.

The previous day at Saguaro Commons (which I call the Sag) I walked right past the adorable, old-fashioned, white canvas high-top Converse tennis shoes.
Walked past them a second time.Then I went back and bought them.

Fillmore had frowned at me as he unpacked them.
When I say he frowned, what I mean is that the nose end of his left eyebrow drew slightly downward.That’s as close as
Fillmore comes to frowning.
But I noticed.

Fillmore knows everything there is to know about hair, skin, fashion, and, well, everything else.
Easier to say, Fillmore knows everything there is to know about everything, and be done with it.The only aspect of fashion he doesn’t fully grasp is, um, what’s the word?Whimsy?

“The new Converse sneakers, Fillmore.
I want to wear those funny Converse tennies I bought yesterday.”

I watched him from the corner of my eye.
His lower lip jutted a fraction of a millimeter.
I saw I had to be firm about these new shoes, so I said somewhat pugnaciously, if pugnaciously is the word I want, “What.”

“Miss?”

“Is there a problem?”

“No.
Miss.”

With great deliberation, he replaced the flip-flops in the closet and, from a high shelf, produced the Converse sneakers.
He set them on the floor as if he were handling three-day-old fish and vanished from the room.

I dug a pair of white socks from a drawer, pulled them on, and undertook what turned out to be a pretty tedious process of loosening the laces enough to struggle into the shoes and then re-tightening the laces and tying them.

The flip-flops Fillmore had brought out would have been infinitely less trouble.
I knew that.But I had liked the way those Converse tennis shoes looked on that shelf in the shop window, and I had bought them, and I was determined to get some mileage out of them.

My breakfast dish, covered with a silver lid to keep it hot, waited on the breakfast bar.
The newspaper, neatly folded, was tucked under it.I settled onto my cushy bar chair and lifted the lid as Fillmore poured my coffee and added exactly the right amount of c and s.

“Ooo, is that a spinach crepe?”

“Yes, Miss.”

“And bacon.”
I sliced off a bite of crepe with the edge of my fork and gnawed hungrily.Well, Fillmore.What’s new this morning?”

“The usual trouble in the usual spots, Miss.”

Fillmore is an early riser.
Every morning, hours before I’m up, he ingests the newspaper over his morning coffee.Then he puts the thing back together so meticulously no one would ever know it had been opened, and tucks it under my plate.

As I chewed the next bite I discarded the front sections of newspaper and idly began to sort the advertising inserts.
Fillmore knows I have no interest in world events, or in federal, state, or local events, for that matter, but we always go through this ritual of him giving me the meat portion of the newspaper along with my advertising inserts, and me casting it aside.I don’t know why.

“Any calls this morning, Fillmore?”

“No, Miss.”

“Emails?”

I don’t check my email every day.
Sometimes several days go by before I think to check my email.So Fillmore checks my account regularly, along with his own, and keeps both humming.

He said, “One,” and delicately pushed the printout, which I had failed to notice when I came in, nearer my plate.

“Oh?
Who from?Read it, would you?”

I sliced another bite of the crepe as he said, “It’s from Mrs. Vanderlay, Miss.”

I raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Aunt Gazel?”I moaned.“Don’t tell me she’s discovered the net.”

“Apparently so, Miss.
You will remember that young Arthur, Jr. has been threatening to show her how to use her email . . . ”

“Please don’t mention that little mutant while I’m eating my breakfast.
Well, what news has the she-troll decided to share with us this morning?”

Even then, I didn’t sense the impending d.
I cringe now, remembering my careless, dismissive attitude.

He scanned the sheet of paper.
As if he hadn’t already read it.

“She’s coming to Arizona, Miss.
She wishes to be retrieved from the airport this afternoon.Allow me, Miss.”He stooped to retrieve the fork which had tumbled from my suddenly nerveless fingers.

What?

“She wishes . . . ”

“Not to stay with
us . . . ”

“Yes, Miss.”

“Not
this afternoon . . . ”

“Yes, Miss.
She wishes the periwinkle bedroom to be made ready.”

“Oh,
no.”

If I didn’t actually shudder, I certainly
felt like shuddering.

“Fillmore, are there any cigarettes in the house?”

“Miss?”

“Cigarettes.
You know, those little white – um – cigaretty things.”

“No, Miss.”

“Maybe a guest left a pack poolside and you grabbed it while you were cleaning up and absentmindedly stashed it in a drawer or something.”

He shook his head.

“There must be some cigarettes
somewhere in the house.Think, Fillmore.I need a cigarette.”

“You don’t smoke, Miss.”

“I don’t?
I wish I did.She’s not dragging the brat A, Jr. along, is she?”

“No, Miss.
Arthur, Jr. has begun boarding school this year.While there have been several disciplinary conferences to date, so far he has managed to remain enrolled.”

I knew this information had not come from Aunt Gazel.
She would hardly indulge in a tête-à-tête, if that’s the phrase I want, with Fillmore, who, if truth be told, comes as near as any soul alive to intimidating her.

No, I knew without asking that Fillmore had gleaned this information, and plenty more like it, through his Facebook friends – namely, a vast network of emailing staff persons across the country and around the world.

I don’t know how he does it, but apparently one minute Fillmore shoots off an email introducing himself to somebody’s gardener or upstairs maid, and the next minute that person is telling him in great detail how the employer’s new smothering, pot-smoking trophy wife is destroying the lives of his children by his previous marriage, or what the next door neighbors are up to.
Or about A, Jr.’s misadventures at boarding school.

“But she wishes the lavender bedroom to be made ready for Mrs. Glumly-Shrop.”

I stared at the man in horror.
“You’re kidding.Right?”

“No, Miss.”

“Not Aunt Eleanor, too?”

“I’m afraid so, Miss.”

“But why?
Why?”

“Mrs. Vanderlay asks that you arrange for the services of a personal trainer and a vegan chef.
She states that she has decided it is time for Mrs. Glumly-Shrop to become fit.”

Gazel Vanderlay is big on the subj of fitness.
She was a star athlete in her school days.She pretty much covered the full gamut of sports opportunities.The family albums are crammed full of photos of her, now in this uniform, now in that, now in this team shot, now in that.

Neatly printed underneath nearly all the team shots is the terse caption,
Gazel Shrop, Captain.One guess who felt the need to inscribe that information for the ages.
She always posed for the individual photos with whatever item of sports equipment went with the uniform.You’ll find softball bats, basketballs, tennis racquets, field hockey sticks, volleyballs, soccer balls . . . Aunt Gazel did it all.Even now, in her mid-fifties, she’s quite the athlete, but these days her activities run more toward golf, tennis, spinning, and weight training.

Aunt G’s currently married to her fourth husband.
I don’t think she particularly quarreled with the first three. Well, show me the fool who would dare quarrel with Aunt Gazel, or Gazilla, as I sometimes call her.No, I think she just wore the first three out.

But I digress.
Is digress the word I want?Sometimes words just don’t look right.

Fillmore turned as if he were about to leave the room.

“Fillmore,” I said sharply.

“Miss?”

“How long would it take to make this place look deserted?
Have all the windows boarded up?Weeds and scrub brush transplanted into the front yard?Possibly a lot of litter – beer cans and fast food wrappers, that sort of thing -strewn around the driveway.

The left corner of his mouth twitched slightly.
In Fillmore’s world, that’s a hearty guffaw. “Would you like me to make arrangements for the additional staff, Miss?”

I groaned.

“Yum.

__________


Chapter 2

Before I go any further I ought to explain about Fillmore.He’s roughly my age, possibly a year or two older, tall and exotic-looking, and keeps his shiny black hair very short.There’s something of the Comanche in his cheekbones and I think anyone would say he’s attractive except, perhaps, for his slightly overbroad forehead.

You may have inferred a certain stiffness in his manner.
And your intuition is correct.The man has virtually no facial expressions, he stands as if he’s attached at many points along his spine to an extremely straight slab of marble, and he has the vocabulary, though not the accent, of a turn-of-the-century (twentieth, not twenty-first) British headmaster.

He hasn’t always been like this.
When I first met him a little under two years ago, he was as slouchy and slangy and laid-back as the next guy.In those days, his longish black hair was free to curl and tumble wherever it liked.It was near the end of the fifth year of my five-and-a half-year college education.

My roommate, Gloria Dalrymple (Gloria wasn’t a celebrity then), and I, had formed the habit of eating dinner nearly every night at a cozy, ye oldie bistro kind of place, and this guy, Will, who worked there, became our favorite server.

He was funny and efficient and cute in a slightly dangerous way (I mentioned the quasi-Comanche cheekbones) and we liked him a lot.
Gloria decided pretty early on that he was gay.Not because he exhibited any of the stereotypically-gay mannerisms (he didn’t), but because, as Gloria said, no hetero man would be that attentive or care that much about all the little details.

Where was I?
Oh, yes.As graduation (finally) approached, a cabal of my aunts, led by my Aunt Gazel, held a secret meeting and emerged swearing blood-oaths that they would force me to hire a personal assistant before I left the warm embrace of the academic community and went out into the cold, cruel world.

As Aunt Gazel tenderly phrased it when she broke the news to me, “You ridiculous little fathead.
Without a PA they’ll eat you alive out here.”

I chafed.
I didn’t like the idea of a personal assistant.Like all soon-to-graduate collegians, I thought I knew it all.I thought I was a woman of the world.I’d had all I wanted of regulation, restriction, and time management.

I wanted freedom.
Having a personal assistant trailing me around everywhere, so that every time I turned around I bumped into her, and probably spying on me for Aunt G, sounded exactly like everything I didn’t want.

I delivered many long and defiant monologs to Gloria in the
warm embrace of the bistro, all the while knowing that no one who values life and limb actually goes up against my Aunt Gazel, who is the odious creature neurotic people fear is lurking under their beds at night.When Aunt Gazel tells you to do something, I don’t care who you are, you say, Yes, ma’am, and hop to it.

One night in the bistro, as I sounded off on the subj for about the millionth time, how there was no way I was going to hire a stupid PA even though I knew I [was] going to have to or
else, and, anyway, where in the world does one even find a stupid personal assistant, Will said, “Melly.Hire me.”

I hadn’t noticed that he was at our table.
Even then, Will seemed to appear and disappear tableside without any actual approaching or departing.Sometimes he was just there, and other times he was just not there.

Gloria and I stared at him, our mouths hanging open.

He said, “I’ll be your personal assistant.”

I suddenly had a frightening vision of the expression on Aunt Gazel’s face were Will and I to announce that he was my new PA.
I burst out laughing.

He said, “You’re laughing because you think your aunt wouldn’t go for it?”

I nodded energetically, unable to speak.

“If I get her okay, will you hire me?”

I said, “You’re joking, right?”

He gave me a long, steady look that said no, he was not joking.

I finally recovered enough from my laughing fit to say, “Will, if you’re a talented enough salesman to sell the aunts, particularly my evil Aunt Gazel, on [that] idea, you’d be seriously wasting yourself as a PA.”

He continued with that long, steady look.

I wilted.
“Or not . . . ”

Gloria said, “Anyway, why would you even
want a job like that?”

This remark stopped me.
I was about to ask her, job like what?I mean, it wasn’t as if being my personal assistant would be all that horrible, was it?I was about to point that out, but Will got in ahead of me.

He said, still looking at me, “You’ve got money, right, Melly?”

That’s my name.
Melly, short for Melinda, Shrop.

“I’ve heard you talk about the house you inherited in Scottsdale, and there’s another one in Key West?
And another one in Cleveland?And there’s a lot more besides?”

I shrugged and nodded.

“So you’ll live pretty well.
Rub shoulders with the rich and famous?Do a little traveling?”

I shrugged and nodded.

“And when you fly, I guess you fly first class.
As your PA, would I fly first class?”

I shrugged.
“Well, sure.How could you assist me if you were stuck back in tourist?”

And I thought, assist me with what?
Because I wasn’t at all clear what PAs do, beyond, apparently, preventing the cold, cruel world from eating one alive.But, I wondered, what else?Because it seemed like that prevention business in itself wouldn’t add up to a forty-hour work week, would it?

Meanwhile, Gloria said, “I hate flying tourist.
It smells like poverty.”

Will, ignoring Gloria, said, “See?
A few big houses to look after, not to mention flying first class, is all I need to make me happy.Just pay me more or less what I’m making here, which is not exactly enough to buy my own first class seat to anywhere, and I’ll be happy.”

Skip ahead a few months to Graduation Day.
Somehow it had become established fact that, if Will could put the idea of himself as my PA past my Aunt Gazel, he was hired.

Beginning the day before the Big Day, or the Eve of the Big Day, if you like, my relatives began to arrive from every direction.
The campus of the small private Midwestern college was crawling with aunts.Not to mention uncles and cousins.

I couldn’t get enough tickets for everyone to attend the ceremony, so, when the rite of passage was over, the somewhat resentful (if I read the vibes right) Non-ticketed met the Ticketed around the columns of the portico for photos and the procession to the party center.
Chauffeured limos idled along the long driveway.

Will was there, too.
One minute I was drowning in a churning sea of relatives, and the next minute, there was Will.He was still dressed in black, like when he waited tables in the bistro, but now it was black dress shirt and trousers (as opposed to black tee and jeans).His black hair was now homicide detective short, and his erect, formal posture made him look five or six inches taller than he had appeared to be when he was waiting tables and pouring wine.

I grabbed his arm and dragged him through the camera-wielding relatives toward Aunt Gazel.
If you recall, I have already touched on the personality of the family ogre.My paternal aunt is of average height, lean and mean, brindle-haired, and her nose and chin are sharp and pointy.What with her lean, pointy face and that short, severely-layered reddish hair, she looks a lot like a fox.
I pulled him into The Presence.Aunt Eleanor and several other relatives, sensing a breaking news event, drew near.

I was scared.
So I was glad Will, er, Fillmore, as I was now supposed to call him, had, during planning sessions, promised that I need not worry about a thing.That he would handle everything beyond the introduction.

We’d had several of these planning sessions, during one of which, in answer to my questions, he’d explained that from early childhood he’d always wanted to grow up to be like a character he’d discovered in some old British movies and books.
This was a character named something that sounded like “Cheese.”

Will explained that people with only general knowledge remember Cheese, or Jeeves, or whatever his name was, as having been a butler, but he was actually a gentleman’s personal gentleman, whatever that is, for a rich and privileged young man in London.

Will wanted to grow up to be this Cheese, or whoever, the way other little boys want to grow up to be firemen, or Johnny Depp.
Becoming my PA was as close a shot at the sort of life to which he aspired as he might ever get, so that was why he jumped all over it.

But I’ve gotten off the track again.
Where was I?I think I was explaining that Will had promised to handle the aunts beginning right after the introductions, and that I would have no worries.

So I said, “Aunt Gazel, I’d like you to meet Fillmore.”
That was what I was supposed to call him, starting now.He had explained that gentlemen’s personal gentlemen are always addressed by their last names.Whatever.

I said, “I’d like you to meet Fillmore.
I’ve hired him to be my personal assistant.”

I hastily backed away to get out of the line of fire, and to let Fillmore have at it.
Unfortunately, I backed up onto Uncle Edwood’s toes.Uncle Edwood yelped and said, “Hey.”

There was a little commotion as a result of Uncle Edwood’s yelp, so I missed what was said initially between Aunt Gazel and Fillmore, but I couldn’t have missed much more than a back-and-forth or two.
As I tuned back in, Aunt Gazel was saying, “But . . .”

The left corner of Fillmore’s mouth twitched slightly, which, from that day to this, is the closest he has ever come to smiling, and he said, in a voice several octaves deeper than I’d ever heard him use before, “
Ingens telum necessitates, Madame.”

Aunt Gazel looked completely baffled.
Her jaw dropped.She said, “Uh.”

Fillmore said, “I shall endeavor to give satisfaction, Madame.”

Aunt G took Aunt Eleanor by the elbow and they turned like sleepwalkers and headed for the row of limos – lean, mean Gazilla teetering on her four-inch heels and plump little Aunt Eleanor’s ankles swelling visibly over the tops of her more sedate beige dress pumps.

I heard Aunt Eleanor’s whispery whine.
“Was that Latin?”

Aunt G whispered, “You’re asking me?”

Aunt Eleanor said, “I think it was
Latin.”

Aunt G said, “Think away, Eleanor, if it makes you happy.”

Aunt Eleanor said, as they faded into the general din, “But I don’t
understand Latin.”

I turned to Fillmore, who had pulled his cell phone from his hip pocket and was scanning his directory.
I meant to ask him to repeat that Latin phrase and tell me what it meant, but found myself asking instead, “Who are you calling?”

“You stated that closing the town house was the first order of business, Miss.
I’ve arranged for the movers to arrive this afternoon, so I am now confirming with the cleaners that they will be there first thing in the morning.As soon as they’ve finished, we’ll be ready to go.”

The next evening we caught the last flight from Cleveland to Sky Harbor.
Thanks to Fillmore, the town house had been packed up, moved out of, cleaned, and turned over to the real estate agent in a day and-a-half.If I’d tried to do all that myself, I’d probably still be there.

It wasn’t until later, after the seat belt light had gone off and we’d settled comfortably into our first class seats and had beverages in our hands – white wine for me, coffee for Fillmore (it was then I learned for the first time that Fillmore rarely drinks because he says it makes him lethargic), that I remembered to ask him about that L bomb he’d dropped on the aunts.

“Fillmore.
What was that Latin quote you laid on Aunt Gazel yesterday?”

The attendant had supplied him with a pillow which he had tucked behind his head, and he had bought a
New York Times on the way to our gate.He was reading it now, looking slightly smug.He looked up.Ingens telum necessitates, Miss.”

“Ah.”

I had hoped he would also supply the translation, but he didn’t.
I didn’t want to ask, because asking what it meant would make me feel pretty stupid.I let a long silence go by.But eventually, since it was hardly going to be the first time in my life that I felt pretty stupid, and I wanted to know, I nudged him with my elbow.“What’s it mean?”

He looked up.
“Miss?”

“That Latin.
Ignum whatever.What’s it mean?”

Ingens telum necessitates, Miss.It means, necessity is an enormous weapon.”

I said, “Oh.”

Fifteen or twenty minutes later I said, “Huh.”

We were probably high above Oklahoma or somewhere when I finally gave in.
The thing was, okay, even after he’d told me the translation, I couldn’t really fathom why he’d said it.Because, okay, thanks to Aunt Gazel’s controlling personality, it was necessary that I have a PA, but how was the necessity a weapon?I didn’t get it.

I said, “Fillmore.”

Again I had interrupted his reading.
By this time he’d finished his coffee and worked his way into the back sections of the Times.He looked up.“Miss?”

Why did you say it?Enormous weapon.I can’t figure out . . . ”

The left corner of his mouth twitched.
He cleared his throat quietly.“Actually, Miss, that wasn’t the quote I meant to use.I meant to say, Non quo sed quomodo, which means, not by whom but how.In other words, what does it matter if your PA is not a matronly woman with blue hair and orthopedic shoes, but me, as long as I prove to be adequate in the position.You can see how that one would have been appropriate.”

“Oh, yeah.
Perfect.”

He nodded.
“That was the phrase I had prepared.But, for some reason when the time came, I found myself reeling off the other one, which didn’t really apply.I suppose it happened because your aunt intimidated me a little just at first.”

The corner of his mouth twitched again.
“I was relieved when I saw she didn’t have the slightest idea what I was talking about.”

“I guess you could have said
anything in Latin to her and it would have had the same effect.”

“Very true, Miss.”

“Didn’t even have to
be Latin.If it just sounded a little like Latin.”

“Possibly so, Miss.”

“Fillmore.”

“Miss?”

“You’re going to keep on with this, aren’t you?”

“Miss?”

“Exactly.
Miss this and Miss that.All this Fillmore stuff.”

“Yes, Miss.
Complete submersion in my role, as they say.”

“Is this anything I should be worried about?
I mean, you’re not having some kind of, oh, what did they call it in Psych 101?A blahdy blahdy episode, or something?”

“A
dissociative episode, Miss?”

“That isn’t exactly the term I was thinking of, but I guess it’ll do.
The term I had in mind started like the name of the class.Psych something or other.”

“Is psychotic break the term you had in mind?”

I smiled.
“That’s the puppy.You’re not having a psychotic break or something, are you?”

“No, Miss.
I assure you, I am of perfectly sound mind.”

I nodded.
“Good to know.”

If Will and I were actually going through with this attempt to get him approved as my new PA, Aunt Gazel was the one we would have to stare down.

__________


Chapter 3

I said, “Didn’t we redecorate the periwinkle bedroom and turn it into a burgundy bedroom?”

I was finishing my crepe and Fillmore was looking through his cell phone directory.
He’d already arranged for a personal trainer and he’d also called our maid service to let them know we were going to need a live-in instead of the two day girls who come once a week.

He told the person at the maid service it was possible we’d need the live-in for as long as a month.
When he said this I squeezed my eyes shut and silently prayed, Please, please, not a whole month.

“No, Miss.
It was the beige bedroom that we redecorated in burgundy.”

“Oh.
Right.”

“Ah,” he said.
“I knew it was in here somewhere.The caterer we used for your pool party last month.I remember one of the chefs mentioned he was available for temporary live-in service, and, if memory serves, he also said he did vegan.”
He turned and headed back toward the kitchen to make the call.

I said, “You may as well find us a chauffeur while you’re at it.
You know the aunts’ll want to shop at the Sag every afternoon.All our out-of-town guests do.And I know neither one of us’ll want to drive them.”

He nodded.
“Very good, Miss.Will you want the chauffeur to provide a car so that the Navigator will still be available for our use?”

I nodded.
“And if we’re going through with this physical trainer who-ha, you might as well call At Home Fitness and tell them to bring us that new Landice treadmill you’ve been salivating over.”

“Thank you, Miss.”

“I guess you should let them know we’ll want them to take the old Pacemaster away.
Unless you want it upstairs in your spare room.”

“I would like very much to have it upstairs, Miss.”

“Have them move it up there, then.”

“Thank you, Miss.”

As it turned out, the chauffeur he found was immediately available.
He was also willing to go to the airport and meet the aunts’ plane, which saved Fillmore the aggravation.

During the course of their conversation, the chauffeur expressed a willingness to
live in during his employment, explaining that he had recently purchased his limo and was temporarily staying at his brother’s home at the far end of Chandler to save money.
I got my afternoon swim in after all.
It wasn’t one of my usual long, carefree swims, but oh well.At least I got in the pool.I didn’t think I’d be doing much swimming for the foreseeable future.

As much as I dislike having to share my house, I really hate having to share my pool.
When the house is crawling with relatives, I don’t feel the least bit guilty about locking myself in the master suite and only coming out for brief encounters and occasional meals.My house offers plenty of ways for guests to amuse themselves.There’s a home theater with seating for eight, there’s a billiard room that also has several arcade games along one wall, there’s a library which Fillmore is carefully stocking, there’s a fully-equipped fitness studio, and there are flat screens in nearly every room.

And there’s also the pool.
Which I avoid like plague when there are houseguests.It’s too galling.I want to swim laps, and there’s someone in my way, sprawled on a floatie.I want to sprawl on a floatie and there’s someone Australian crawling past me and making the icy drink in my cup holder slosh out all over my hot skin.

No.
When we have guests, I stay away from the pool.And once they’re gone, I don’t go back in until after Fillmore has given it a good chlorine blast.I wouldn’t say I’m a germophobe, but please.

Huh.
Where was I?Oh, yes.I dressed after my swim and annoyed Fillmore by putting the Converse sneakers back on.He glared at them.Ignoring this, I suggested we sit at the breakfast bar and enjoy the peace and quiet with glasses of iced sun tea, since the current p and q would soon be nothing but a distant m.We did so.

Fillmore said, “There has been another email from Mrs. Vanderlay regarding Mrs. Glumly-Shrop’s fitness regime, Miss.
In addition, Mrs. Vanderlay texted while they were waiting at the departure gate in Boston.”

I groaned.
“What now?”

“In the email, Mrs. Vanderlay went into great detail as to the sort of food she will require.
She states that there are to be absolutely no sweets or fats of any kind anywhere in the house.Meals are to be strictly low-calorie.She also expressed the desire that you not mention anything regarding this fitness regime to Mrs. Glumly-Shrop.Mrs. Vanderlay . . . ”

“Fillmore.
Call them Gazel and Eleanor for once.All this Shrop-this and Glumly-that is giving me a headache.”

“Forgive me, Miss.”

I waved my hand at him.

“Very good, Miss.
In the email, as I said, Gazel advises that Eleanor is unaware that the purpose of this trip is to, er, trim her down and tone her up.Gazel warns you not to mention anything about diets or fitness regimes.”

“Okay.
Got it.And the text?”

“The purpose of the text message was to place additional emphasis on the need for . . . ”

“The text was more of the same.”

“Yes, Miss.”

“Possibly with some threats, implied and/or spelled out?”

“Yes, Miss.”

“Got it.
My lips are sealed.”

Fillmore had no sooner said, “Very good, Miss,” than we heard the doorbell.

I followed him to the foyer and he opened the door.
I expected to be confronted by a swarm of aunts, maids, and luggage.Instead, our visitor was a small, slumping wraith, wrapped in a black scarf.I stared at it in disbelief.

Soft whimpering noises came from somewhere under the black scarf.
Fillmore bent closer to hear, and then he turned to me.

“It’s Miss Wiltbank.
Apparently there has been some sort of medical mishap.”

I said, “
Courtney?

Courtney Wiltbank is one of my cousins, and at school she was also, briefly, one of my roommates.
In spite of having been roommates, and continuing to be blood relatives, Courtney and I have never been BFFs.I hadn’t exactly wept at the news when she decided to leave the town house and move in with her then boyfriend who, if memory serves, was pronouncedly nasal, was allergic to nearly everything, and lisped.

The Courtney wraith turned in my direction.
“Oh, Meddy,” it groaned in a voice I didn’t recognize.“It’th tho tebbible.”

The voice had a strange quality to it, like the mechanism had a lot of extra moving parts.
Flapping parts.“I deed a beb.I deed a pwathe to thtay.The bwue bebwoob wiw be fide.”

By this time I had moved closer.
I leaned in, trying in vain to see through the heavy scarf, but she shrank away.“Doh,” she cried.“Tay bag.I dut bant to thweeb.”

I couldn’t imagine what was the matter with her.
Courtney isn’t my favorite person on earth.She isn’t even in the top fifty, if you pin me down.But she is a cousin, and she had once been a roommate, and she seemed to be in dire straits, so what choice did I have but to help?

“The blue, or periwinkle, bedroom, if that’s what you said, isn’t available, but Fillmore can make you comfortable in one of the others.
Are you going to be okay?Do you need us to find you a doctor?”

The black scarf moved in an east – west direction, which I took to indicate a negatory.
I jut deed to thweeb.”

If she hadn’t seemed so pitiful, I’d have asked her why, if she wanted to thweeb so bad, she didn’t just go thweeb in her own beb, which was in her three-bebwoob condo just a little over a half-hour’s dwibe away.

I was oddly dispassionate as I watched Fillmore lead her away up the stairs.
I was a little surprised to realize that, since the peaceful household was already due to be turned upside-down by the arrival of the aunts, Courtney’s sudden and mysterious appearance seemed hardly to matter at all.

A thought occurred to me.
Courtney was in for a very unpleasant surprise when she found herself under the same roof as Aunt G.Courtney isn’t any fonder of Gazilla, and vice versa, than I am.I’m not proud of this, but the prospect of the two of them coming face to face was, well, sort of tasty.

I was in the kitchen when Fillmore returned a few minutes later.
I had dumped the rest of my iced tea in the sink and was mixing myself a nice Kahlua and Coke.It seemed like a good idea.

I said, “Courtney’s all settled?”

“Yes, Miss.
I put her in the orange ochre bedroom.I gave her one of the guest gowns from the linen closet and reviewed with her how to use the intercom.In case she needs anything.”

I nodded.
Knowing Courtney, I felt safe in anticipating that she would need quite a bit of stuff in the coming hours.Courtney’s a pretty needy type of person.

“Did she explain?
Did you see what . . . ”

“No, Miss.
I think I understood her to say it had something to do with a Botox injection, but I could be mistaken.”

I sighed.
“I think we’d better see if we can get a doctor over here to take a look at her.Or at least a nurse.”

“Yes, Miss.
I . . . ”

“We wouldn’t want her dying all over the orange ochre bedroom.”

“No, Miss.
I . . . ”

“Then we’d have to re-redecorate it.
Recreate the beige bedroom, or something.”

“I have already attended to the matter, Miss.”

This stopped me.
“Huh?”

“I have put in a call for a visiting nurse.
We should be hearing from her shortly.”

I had to laugh.
I mean, that Fillmore . . . you know?

Once I stopped laughing, I managed to say, “Um, okay.
Good.”

We were quiet, Fillmore sipping the last of his iced sun tea, me sipping my Kahlua and Coke, me wishing I had gone a little stronger on the K and a little less strong on the C.

I said, “Botox, huh?”

“That is what I believe she said.”

“I swear, when I saw her huddling there all wrapped up in that black scarf, I could almost hear creepy organ music.”

I thought I detected a struggle, but he managed not break a smile.
I decided to take another stab at him.

“At least she didn’t show up with a hunchback dwarf trailing her . . . ”

That one might have done the job but we’ll never know because at that moment the doorbell rang a second time and he hurried away to answer it.
I followed.As I entered the foyer, an infestation of aunts, chauffeur, maid, and luggage swarmed through the door.

By maid, I mean to say that they had only brought one maid, she being Margaret, a junior maid from Aunt G’s Boston staff.
I wondered why Aunt G had brought Margaret instead of her personal maid, Doris.

Aunt Eleanor hadn’t brought anyone from her own staff.
Maybe Aunt G had decided Aunt Eleanor didn’t need a maid, or maybe Aunt G had decided she would share Margaret.If the latter was the case I thought, good luck with that and, also, poor Margaret.

“Aunt Gazel,” I forced myself to say warmly, taking the bull by the horns, as it were.
I threw my arms wide and fully intended to go ahead and hug the witch, but she stopped me short.Her radar vision had run a quick ultra-perceptive scan and her eyes were fixed on my Converse shoes.

Melinda Shrop,” she said.What do you mean by those shoes?”

Meanwhile, Aunt Eleanor was in the midst of a whiney monologue directed at the baggage-laden chauffeur.

“ . . . why they make you arrive at these airports two hours early, and for what?
So you can sit at gates for an hour and-a-half, that’s for what.Just set those there by the wall.My niece’s man will show you where they go.”

She blinked rapidly as her eyes adjusted to the indoor light after the brilliant Arizona sunshine.
She spotted me.

“Oh, hello, dear.
I was just telling this young man here it was a ghastly flight.Have we missed lunch?They give you ghastly cardboard food on the plane.I’m starving.What’s the name of your chef?Oh, that’s right.You don’t employ a chef.It all comes back to me now.Which way is the kitchen?Never mind.I’ll find my own way.”

I said, “Uh, wait . . . ”

But she was already out of the foyer.
Fillmore gave me a meaningful glance and hurried after her.

Aunt G watched them go.
“That woman.One complaint after another.I don’t know what my brother was thinking.”

This stumped me until I realized she was referencing Uncle Edwood’s marriage proposal.
Thirty-some odd years earlier.

She continued.
“Well, never mind.There will be an extra guest for dinner, Melinda.A young man of good family is flying up from Houston.I expect you to make an effort.I’ll have more to say on this later.You there.”

This last was to the chauffeur.
“Take this bag and that one and that carry-on there.Not that one.The one that matches the other two . . . ”

She glanced my way and rolled her eyes nastily, indicating she thought the chauffeur was a moron.
She pretty much thinks everyone is a moron.

“ . . . and Margaret,
get as many pieces as you can of Mrs. Glumly-Shrop’s luggage, and the two of you follow me.”She turned back to me.“I’m going to freshen up.I don’t suppose you thought to put out clean towels . . . ”

“I’m sure
Fillmore did.”

Actually, I didn’t know for sure whether Fillmore
had managed this, but I knew it was a pretty safe bet that he had.

“Wait a minute, Aunt G.
This dinner guest you mentioned.You said it’s a guy from Texas . . . ?”

But I was interrupted by the doorbell, which rang again.
Everyone froze in place.

Sometimes stress has a paralyzing effect on me.
Systems cease to function momentarily.Palms sweat.Breathing becomes labored.Knees wobble.Vocal chords freeze.Brain goes to a happy place.This happened now.

As brain began to snap back to reality, I ran down a list of bad reasons the doorbell might be ringing again.
More aunts arriving.Miscellaneous uncles.Worst case scenario – little Arthur, Jr.the mutant had come after all and been forgotten on the porch.

I forced myself to snap out of it, danced my way through and around luggage and people, and pulled open the door.
A pair of red-shirted delivery kids stood on the porch, their out-stretched arms stacked with red leather food bags.

A soft
ahem sounded behind me and I realized Fillmore had rematerialized.One moment there had been empty air behind me and now there was Fillmore.The last I’d seen of him, he’d been hurrying after Aunt Eleanor, who’d been streaking for the kitchen.

“I took the liberty of ordering food earlier, Miss.
Just to tide the household over until the chef arrives.”

I said, “Uh . . . ” and moved aside to make room for the little fast-food procession.

Fillmore said to them, “If you’ll follow me . . . ”

Aunt Gazel interrupted.
She turned on Fillmore and fixed him with an absolutely furious glare.

Pizza?she thundered, outraged because pizza was definitely not part of the fitness regimen she had outlined.She paused to inhale deeply, preparatory to giving Fillmore several large chunks of her mind.

But he cut her off.
Forum holitorium alieni generis, Madame.”

I said, “Abso-
lutely.”

Fillmore said to the kids, “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you where to unpack your cases.

This Fillmore readily agreed to.

“Doh.

__________

 

 

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FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN

Preface

FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN

by L. T. Fawkes

The Fillmore Chronicles: Book 3

 

Hi, book buyer . . .

If you’re looking for taut fiction, gripping suspense,
and edge-of-your-seat action . . . OMG. You totally picked up the wrong book.

However, if you just don’t need any more drama in your life right now, this might be the book for you. What I mean to say is, this is another silly Fillmore story.  That’s how I roll.

Thanks for reading it.
L. T. Fawkes

Fillmore Rides Again is now available on Kindle.


Chapter 1


I don’t know if your experience is the same as mine, but for me, trying to be a good sport is exhausting.  I imagine there are people who get a lot of practice at having to be good sports, what with one thing and another, but I’m not one of them.  As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, I have things my way most of the time.  So on those rare occasions when I find myself faced with the challenge of being a g s, I struggle.

This trip to Costa Rica I’m going to tell you about illustrates my point.

I had just survived the harrowing family holiday we Americans call Thanksgiving.  Originally, if I remember right, this holiday was called Thanksgiving because the Pilgrims were thankful they hadn’t starved to death yet or something in the harsh New England wilderness.

In my opinion, we continue to call it Thanksgiving because it’s an occasion when families gather in big churning masses for the turkey and cranberry sauce, and those hardy souls who are fortunate enough to emerge from all that forced togetherness with their faculties still intact are profoundly grateful.

I survived T still ambulatory and coherent, and almost before the leftovers had been made into hash, my best friend, Gloria Dalrymple, and my personal assistant, Fillmore, decided we all needed to go to Gloria’s house in Costa Rica for a few days.

Gloria wanted to go because the Stawicki brothers, a pair of pudgy, middle-aged identical twins who work as her houseboys at the Costa Rica casa, were in one of their bickering phases and their constant arguing was driving her chef, Asdrubal, out of his mind.

Her attempts to mediate via cell phone were unsuccessful.  Asdrubal was threatening to quit if something wasn’t done.  She decided it was going to be necessary for her to go to Costa Rica.

She wanted me to go with her for company, and she wanted Fillmore to go because Fillmore, with his uncanny understanding of human psychology, was sure to make quick work of resolving whatever was agitating the twins.

Fillmore wanted to go because, A, he’s fond of Gloria and he wanted to help;  second, he thought a little break from the wintry weather in Cleveland would be nice;  and C, he was eager to make a return visit to a place near Gloria’s Costa Rica estate called the Twoaday Stables.  Fillmore, apparently, can’t get enough of horses.

Whatever.

Oh, and also, Fillmore loves to fly first class and he doesn’t care where the plane happens to be going when he does it.

I did not want to go.  I’m not a big fan of travel in general, and just days earlier we (and when I say we, I mean Fillmore and I) had made the pilgrimage, if pilgrimage is the word I want, from my primary residence in Arizona to North Cliff, the family estate in Bratenahl, Ohio.  I felt that was enough traveling for the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday.  A person doesn’t need to go jamming trips to Costa Rica into the middle of it, is my point.

But the arguments advanced by Gloria and Fillmore were persuasive and, more importantly, I owed each of them for services rendered.  Gloria had provided the moral support necessary to get me through the recent family Thanksgiving, and Fillmore had pulled off a major miracle by enabling me to give my Aunt Iris the best birthday present ever.

In the end, they won and I lost.  Despite my opposition, we were going to Costa Rica.  As we loaded into Aunt Iris’s comfortable old Rolls for the ride to Cleveland Hopkins airport, I was faced with a choice.  Be a good sport, or not be a good sport.

Poor sports, and we all know at least one, are not popular people.  It’s unattractive to mope and pout, complain of headaches and what-not, and heave frequent deep sighs.  I didn’t want to be that girl.

So I was still making a conscious effort not to complain as Gloria and I began to settle in on the second leg of our trip – the connecting flight that would take us from Atlanta to San Jose (Fillmore had the seat across the aisle) and I realized I had parked myself on the seatbelt.  I felt around trying to find it without standing up and as I was doing so, Gloria elbowed me.

I thought I had jostled her so I said, “Oh.  Sorry.”

She gave me a funny look.  “What for?”

“Didn’t I elbow you?”

The funny look deepened.  Or intensified.  She looked at me funnier.  More funnily.

“No.  I elbowed you.”

I sighed.  If this inability to communicate was a harbinger, if harbinger is the word I want, of things to come, this trip was going to suck even worse than I thought.  “But . . . huh?”

She sighed.  “I elbowed you because I wanted to make a remark.”

“What’s stopping you?”

Another, deeper sigh.  “I wanted to know if you saw the kid.”

It took me a minute, but I quickly realized what she was talking about.  As we turned into our row, I, too, had noticed a young patent-leathered infantazoa squirming in the row behind us.  More specifically, in the seat behind me.

“I saw it,” I said darkly.

“It looks like trouble to me.”

And she was so right.  Just minutes after we reached cruising altitude I suddenly felt a jolt so sharp I thought something seriously catastrophic had happened.  I was so startled I sloshed my gin and tonic, but fortunately the overflow went onto the tray rather than into my lap.

I was just about to say, What was that? when I felt five more sharp jolts, but these were accompanied by a loud juvenile whine saying, “No.  I.  Don’t.  Want.  To,”  and I realized the source of the jolts was not, as I initially feared, crucial parts being wrenched from the undercarriage of the plane, but little infantazoa feet kicking the back of my seat.

That kid could kick.  I glanced Gloria’s way, intending to ask her if she felt it and saw without asking that she did.  She was scowling over her shoulder, which was pretty pointless, since her seat back blocked any attempt at non-verbal communication with the child or its clueless mother.

I whispered, “How long is this flight?” and hoped the kid would fall asleep at some point and the kicking would stop.  But it didn’t, and it didn’t.  By the time we landed at Juan Santamaría International Airport in San Jose, Fillmore still looked fresh as a daisy but I was pretty much wiped out.  I still hadn’t complained but the effort had about done me in.

Then we found out that all the puddle jumpers that fly people from San Jose across the mountains to Jaco and Quepos on the Pacific coast were socked in by heavy fog, and a car was coming from Gloria’s house to drive us via an extremely scary stretch of road to Gloria’s house  . . . a narrow road through mountains, just to put a fine point on it . . . even then I managed to bite my tongue.

Wait.  Hang on.  I see I’ve gotten slightly ahead of myself.  Let me back up a little.

We weren’t the only ones standing around the airport in San Jose wondering where all the puddle jumpers were.  In fact, there were numerous travelers milling around, waiting.  A painfully-thin, bespectacled, shaggy-haired young man about the same age as Gloria, Fillmore, and me, stood in our immediate vicinity, as did a brassy young woman with a cell phone growing out of her ear.

The brassy young woman was, shall we say, of solid build.  She wore too much jewelry and had giant platinum-blonde mall hair.  And she was angry with the unlucky person on the other end of the call for failing to see her off at JFK.

As she continued to expel X-rated verbal abuse into her cell phone, indirectly providing us with way TMI about the history of her relationship with the person on the receiving end, Fillmore remarked that the little plane that was to carry us to Quepos wasn’t sitting out on the tarmac where it ought to have been by that time.

He wondered aloud if there was some sort of problem and then he wandered off to find someone who could give him the 411.  Several minutes passed and I gradually became aware that the mall-hair girl’s phone conversation was growing even more heated.

Her back was to us and her shoulders were hunched.  She yelled into her phone, “You’ve always got a . . . ”

Oops.  I see I’m going to have a problem reporting what the mall-hair girl said, because she used an adjective that isn’t really fit for mixed company.  In fact, as her phone conversation continued, she used this same word a lot, and not only as an adjective.  She also modified it into other parts of speech including nouns, verbs, and adverbs.

It’s not really a word Melly Shrop (that’s me – Melly, or Melinda, but I prefer Melly – Shrop) has (in any of its forms) in her daily vocabulary, so I think I’ll just mark each spot where the word occurred by putting ibid in parentheses, and you can fill in the blank yourself if you feel you need to.

Okay?  Good.  Now where was I?  Oh, right.

She said loudly, “You’ve always got a (ibiding) excuse, don’t you?  It’s never your (ibiding) fault . . . ”

Are you following me with the ibids?  Are we cool?  Good.

Meanwhile, the skinny guy, having watched Fillmore go, used his pointer finger to push his glasses higher on his nose as he approached Gloria and me.  “Excuse me, b-but isn’t this where p-people are supposed to find the p-plane for Quepos?”

Gloria said, “It is, but the plane isn’t here.”

“Isn’t here y-yet, you mean.”  He had an odd speaking voice.  It was subdued, as if he were speaking underwater, or from a great distance, or something.

Gloria said, “Okay.”

“Isn’t here yet.”  He sniffed.

Gloria said, “Okay.”

Fillmore returned.

I said, “So what’s the hold-up?”

“It seems there’s a weather-related problem, Miss.  The plane is still in Quepos.”

Gloria said, “You mean it’s not coming?”

The skinny guy said, “Of c-course it’s coming.”

Fillmore turned to him.  “I’m sorry, sir, but the plane is not coming.”

The skinny guy said firmly, “It is c-coming.  M-Mother made the arrangements.”

Fillmore said, “Well, sir . . . ”

I’ve noticed, over the two-and-a-half years that Fillmore’s been my PA, that he often begins sentences with Well, Miss, or, in this case, Well, Sir, when his patience is being sorely tried.  I think it’s his way of counting to ten.  I think if he didn’t have this crutch of saying Well, Sir, or Well, Miss, he might blurt out, to use this conversation at the airport in San Jose as an example, Look, fathead, I don’t care what kind of arrangements your fatheaded mother made.  The plane’s not coming.

But he didn’t say that, of course.  What he did say was, “Well, Sir.  I beg your pardon.  I expect you’re correct in that the plane will most certainly come at some point after the heavy cloud bank along the Pacific coast has lifted.  I probably should have asseverated that the plane is not coming any time soon.”

The young man turned to me.  “D-d-does he always t-talk like that?”

I said, “Yes.”

Fillmore turned to Gloria.  “Your staff has been in touch with the airline, Miss Dalrymple, and, on learning of the problem, one of the twins set out to retrieve us with the car.”

The skinny guy turned to Gloria and gave his glasses a mighty shove up his nose.  “D-Dalrymple?”  He squinted at her.  “Hey. You’re s-somebody.”

His voice had risen in pitch, and that attracted the attention of the loud young woman.  She turned, stared at Gloria, stared at me, said into her phone, “Gotta go,” and flipped it closed.

Heiress Gloria Dalrymple,” she breathed, charging at us.  She turned to stare at me.  “And you’re . . . ”

“Not,” I said helpfully.

But she had turned her attention back to Gloria.  “What the (ibid) are you doing here?”

Gloria said, “We’re here for the big monkey festival.”

Well, of course, there’s no such thing as a big monkey festival.  It was Gloria’s subtle way of telling the brassy girl to move along and mind her own business.  I glanced at my lifelong friend.  There were faint telltale smudges under her eyes, and that meant she was tired.  For as long as I’ve known her, and I’ve known her since birth, those under-the-eye smudges have always been the early sign that Gloria is reaching the end of her rope.

The brassy girl said, “Vanessa Gonorría,” and stuck out her hand.  Gloria shook it.  The one handshake seemed to satisfy this Gonorría person, because she didn’t stick her hand out to me.

She said to Gloria, “I expect you’ve heard of me, too.”

Gloria, in her fakest fake celebrity voice, cried “Of course.”  Then she turned to me and rolled her eyes.

This Vanessa Gonorría looked around disdainfully.  “I gotta say, I didn’t expect San Juan to (ibiding) look like this.”

I said, “San Jose.”

The Gonorría fixed me with a cold stare.  “Huh?”

“You said San Juan.  This is San Jose.”

She frowned.  “Whatever.  I didn’t expect it to look like this.”

Meanwhile, Gloria had turned to Fillmore.  “Oh my God, Fillmore.  I just want to get home.  I can hardly stand up I’m so tired . . . ”

I looked at her more closely.  She did look wiped out.  Her black, shoulder length, razor cut hair had gone somewhat flat, she was pale, and she had an all-over sticky aura.  In short, she looked like I felt.

“ . . . and could it get any hotter in here?  I wonder what time the car left the house.”

“It left some time ago, Miss.  In fact, it may already be waiting for us.  If I may, I suggest we go down . . . ”

“Yeah.  Okay.  Let’s go.”

The AC on the upper level of the terminal wasn’t anything to write home about, and the temperature rose dramatically, as it always does, as we rode the escalator down to the lower level.

Stepping outside onto the sidewalk was like diving into hot soup.  The heat and humidity were  smothering, the carbon monoxide hung so heavily in the air I felt like I was drinking it, and there was the usual hubbub of humanity all along the building.  Families and tourists and vendors milled about on the sidewalk and cars and buses and every other sort of vehicle you can imagine were jammed together along the drive.

I was following Fillmore and Gloria as they threaded their way through the crowd when I heard a voice shout, “Gloria.  Over here.”

And there was one of the Stawicki twins waving his hands in the air.  He began to cross behind the limo and was nearly pinned there by a bus.  We hurried toward him.

__________

Chapter 2

Everyone seemed to talk at once as Fillmore and Twin began to pile the luggage onto the luggage rack.

Twin said, “It’s great to see you, Gloria. Hi, Melly. And Fillmore. This is wonderful . . . ”

“Don’t try to sweet talk me, Twin,” Gloria said crossly.  That’s the thing about Gloria when she’s tired.  She’s also short-tempered.  “I’m so mad at you and . . . ”

The twins, as I may have mentioned, are Gloria’s houseboys.  Nicholas and Michael Stawicki, aka Nicky and Micky, are identical, so there’s no future in trying to keep them straight.  Everybody just calls both of them Twin.

I stared at him.  “Twin.  Look at you.  You’re not chubby anymore.  And look at those biceps.  Oh my God.  Where’d your tummy go?”

“ . . . your brother I can’t see straight  . . . ”

Twin briefly noted Gloria’s ongoing rant and then he turned and grinned at me.  “Nicky and I’ve been working out.  Lifting and heavy cardio.”

I said, “So you’re Micky?”

“I prefer Michael now.  I mean, I’m gonna be thirty in a few years.  Micky seems a little juvenile.”

I said, “Okay.  Michael, then.  And you say Nicky’s all fit and buff now, too?”

“Yup.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  I’d known the twins all my life, and they’d always been pudgy.  As I looked at this twin now, this new, cut version of a twin, I felt like I was seeing him for the first time.

A petulant male voice behind me said, “Here.  T-toss my suitcase on there, t-too.  If the p-plane M-Mother arranged for isn’t coming, I b-better catch a ride with you.”

I turned around and nearly bumped into the skinny guy.  I hadn’t realized that he’d followed us.

The mall-hair girl, Vanessa Gonorría, was right behind him.  She said to the skinny guy, “You’re going with them?

Gloria’s diatribe continued,  “ . . . have driven Asdrubal half out of his mind with all your bickering . . . ”

Skinny Guy said, “C-correct.”

“ . . . to the point where he’s threatening to quit . . . ”

The Gonorría pushed her luggage forward.  “I have no idea what the (ibid) to do, but I’m not (ibiding) staying in this (ibiding) place by myself, so you might as well throw my (ibiding) luggage on there, too.”

Gloria was still going strong.  “ . . . what gets into you two.  What are you fighting about?  Are you even fighting about anything?  Or are you just fighting for the sake of . . . Wait a minute.  What’s going on here?”

She said this last part when she noticed for the first time that we’d picked up two extra customers.  Everyone turned to look at her.

The skinny guy gave his glasses an upward shove and said, “I have to ride along with you, G-g-Gloria Dalrymple.  I have to g-get to Q-quepos.  Mother said I have to m-meet my uncle.”

Vanessa Gonorría said, “Yeah.  Me, too.”

It seemed to me that the possibility was remote that she could have had a pressing need to meet the skinny guy’s uncle, but Gloria said, “Oh, it’s too hot to argue.  All right.  We’ll drop you off in Quepos.”

“My name’s B-B-Babcock, by the way.  Ronald B-B-Babcock.  But you can call me B-butchie.”

Gloria said, “Whatever.  Twin.  Start the car and crank the AC.  I’m melting.”

Fillmore rode in front with Twin.  Gloria took one of the side benches and almost immediately stretched out on it with her face turned to the seat back.  I took the other side bench.  I was pretty exhausted myself but, knowing what kind of a road we were about to tackle, I had my doubts about trying to keep my balance stretched out on the bench like Gloria was.  I was pretty sure I’d roll right off onto the floor the first time we went around one of the terrifying mountain switchbacks that I knew lay ahead of us.

I thought I’d do better sitting up.  I tucked a pillow behind my head and tried to get comfortable.

The Babcock and the Gonorría sat together on the back seat.  I started out dividing my attention between the soft murmur of voices coming from the front, where Fillmore and Twin were talking about things like ellipticals and kettle bells (Fillmore’s quite a fitness fan), and the sporadic bits of conversation as the Babcock and the Gonorría attempted to communicate.

I remember thinking that I wished I could fall asleep so I wouldn’t be conscious during the harrowing trip that loomed before us, and the next thing I knew, the limo had come to a stop and I heard a female voice shrieking, “Gloria. Over here.  It’s me.  Nicole Van der Vander.  Melly’s friend.”

There was a sharp rapping on the window behind my head and from outside the limo Gloria said, “Melly.  It’s for you.”

I straightened, tried to shake myself conscious, and scrambled out the open car door.  A quick reconnaissance showed that the sun had set far out over the Pacific, the stars were twinkling in the tropical heavens, and the limo was idling at the curb in front of the main entrance to La Pacifica – a massive newish resort hotel – really, more like a little city unto itself  – that sits high on the cliffs just south of Quepos.

Fillmore and Twin were removing the Babcock and Gonorría luggage from the top of the limo and Gloria and Nicole Van der Vander were hugging.

Nicole spotted me and shrieked again.  “Melly. Oh my God. Are you down here right now?”

I don’t know about you, but I can’t answer a question like that without feeling stupid.  I’d have felt stupid had I answered yes, because, I mean, obviously I was down there . . . and I’d have felt equally stupid had I answered with a sarcastic no.  So I did neither.  I made a small gesture with my hands that more or less communicated the implied, Duh.

I met Nicole Van der Vander in a yoga class in Phoenix a little over two years ago.  It was shortly after I graduated college, packed up, and moved to my Paradise Valley house, bringing Fillmore along as my PA, or, as he likes to call himself, for reasons of his own, my gentleman’s personal gentleman, overlooking as he does the minor detail of my extra X chromosome.

Here’s the thing about Nicole:  she’s a nice person and everything.  She’s fun to go to lunch with, as I do once a week or so when I’m at home in the Valley of the Sun.  I say she’s fun to go to lunch with because I don’t have to talk.  I can kick back, fully confident in the knowledge that she’ll carry the conversational burden all by herself without breaking a sweat.  In fact, once she gets rolling, you almost need to hit her in the head with a shovel to make her stop.

So I like her and everything.  It’s just that she’s so enthusiastic all the time.  Very, very enthusiastic.

Nicole gave me an enthusiastic hug.  “This is great.  We’re just going for dinner right now.  Most of the family’s down here for a family reunion they put together at the last minute.  Isn’t that fun? We’re at my Uncle Al’s house.  Look at this.”

She thrust a large bronze-ish handbag at me.  “Is this the cutest thing you ever saw? Don’t you love it?  Louis Vuitton.  Could you die right now?  You’re at Gloria’s, huh?  How fun.  Oh my God.  Do I know you?”

These last two sentences were directed at the Gonorría, who was standing just behind me.

Nicole began to snap her fingers.  “Don’t tell me.  I’ll get it.  And I have it.  Real Families of Trenton, right?  Hah.  You’re the daughter.  Well, one of the daughters.  Vanessa, right?  Did you see my handbag?  How do you know Melly?”

The Gonorría, smiling broadly, assuming she’d been recognized by a fan even though Nicole hadn’t actually offered an opinion on the relative merits of Real Families of Trenton, said, “I . . . ”

That was as far as she got, because Nicole is Nicole and the Gonorría isn’t. “Well, Melly, I can’t keep the cousins waiting.  We just came down for dinner.  Look.  This is my cousin Jim McGuinn right now.  And this is another cousin.  Cody Chanticks.”

A large party of Nicole’s relatives stood by, watching her mingle.  Two male members of that party stepped slightly forward as Nicole introduced them.   They nodded in a friendly manner.

The Cody Chanticks cousin was tall and dark and the Jim McGuinn cousin was somewhat shorter and lighter over-all and had a nice smile.  The Cody Chanticks cousin turned to the Jim McGuinn cousin and said something I didn’t catch and the Jim McGuinn cousin burst out laughing and punched the Cody Chanticks cousin on the bicep.

Nicole continued, “We have to get together.  I’ll stop over at Gloria’s.  Don’t worry about directions.  I’ll find you.  Gotta go.”

We all watched her melt into the crowd flowing through the wide La Pacifica doors.  I was left feeling a little, I don’t know.  Limp?

While I slept, it had been arranged that we’d drop the Babcock and the Gonorría at La Pacifica and they could shift for themselves from there.

The Gonorría, looking over the La Pacifica façade and the steady stream of tourists oozing in and out of it, remarked that this was more along the lines of what she had expected of San Juan, to which everyone replied that we were no longer in San Juan, which was, in fact San Jose, this was Quepos, to which the Gonorría said, “Whatever.”

Once their luggage – and by their I mean the Babcock’s and the Gonorría’s – had been removed from the top of the limo, the remaining luggage was re-strapped and we rolled away down the driveway leaving the Babcock and the Gonorría standing aimlessly in the busy entrance staring at each other.

It was a short trip on down the coast toward Manuel Antonio and Gloria’s house.  Before long Twin shifted into park at Gloria’s front door and she and I stumbled out of the Rolls.

From the front, Gloria’s house almost looks like part of the jungle if you overlook the collection of satellite dishes sprouting out of her roof.  I swear you can pick up every channel in the world on the TVs at Gloria’s Costa Rica house.

The stucco-ed, three-story, spot-lighted building is painted lime green and it’s nearly buried by every kind of rapidly-growing, constantly-blooming type of tropical vegetation you can imagine.  Various species of monkeys frequently swing from the tree branches and brilliantly-colored parrots and other exotic birds chatter and screech from their perches.

The house was originally built for Gloria’s grandparents, or, no, it must have been her greats, or even her great-greats, sometime in the twenties, when Quepos was a major banana port.  Gloria’s people had something to do with shipping and were friends with many of the planters, so when they decided to have a second home in Costa Rica, they built down in Quepos instead of farther north in Playa Flamingo which was, at that time, beginning to be popular with the Hollywooders.

Later, when the banana industry was decimated by a disease of some kind and land prices dropped through the floor, Gloria’s family bought up a bunch of it.  Land, not bananas.

In recent times, suddenly everybody and his brother have decided they desperately want land to build a marina or a major resort hotel or at least a breathtaking mansion somewhere along the coast between Quepos and Manuel Antonio.  Gloria’s been taking advantage of the soaring land prices by slowly selling off some of her vast holdings.

That night the hot, humid tropical air was sweet with the intoxicating scent from some blooming plant or other.  Since I’m not up on my tropical flora, I can’t tell you what it was.  We left Fillmore and Twin to the luggage and dragged ourselves inside, barely bothering to speak before we dragged ourselves, each to her own room, and bed.

I was just tucking my knees under the sheets when I heard a light tapping at my door and Fillmore came in, preceded by a tray with a frosty glass on it.

“I thought you might like a nightcap before retiring, Miss.”

“Thanks, Fillmore.”

“You’re welcome.  Will there be anything else tonight, Miss?”

I lifted the glass and sipped contents.  “Kahlua and Coke?  I didn’t know Gloria stocked Kahlua down here.”

“I saw several bottles of Kahlua, Miss.”

“That’s good to know.”

“You have decided to forego your usual bath tonight, Miss?”

“I’m too tired.  I’m going to call Aunt Iris just to let her know we got here and then I’m crashing.”

“Very good, Miss.  Then if there’s nothing else . . . ”

“Just . . . get to work on the twins if you can, Fillmore.  The sooner you get those two straightened out, the sooner we can go home.”

“I understand, Miss.  Aut inveniam viam aut faciam.”

“Huh?”

“I will either find a way or make one.”

“Uh, oh.  Okay, then.”

He streamed out and I, after another refreshing sip, called Aunt Iris.

Spratly answered, but a few seconds later Aunt Iris bellowed, “Hello.  Is that you, young Melly?”

Aunt Iris is a wonderful, terrific, excellent aunt, but she’s loud.  From her position at third base on her college fast pitch softball team, they say her chatter could reduce opposing batters to greasy residue.  And I sometimes think that the farther away the origin of the call, the louder she thinks she has to yell.

“It’s me.  I’m just calling to let you know we’re at Gloria’s, all safe and sound.”

“No flocks of Canada geese flew into the plane’s engines?”

“None.”

“No crazed, gun-wielding highjackers tried to divert you to Havana?”

Where does she come up with these things?  “Not that I noticed.”

“Well, very good.”

“How’s everything in Bratenahl, Ohio?”

“About the same as it was this morning, you young fathead.  Have a good time and we’ll see you when you get home.”

With that, she was gone.  Aunt Iris doesn’t linger over long goodbyes.

__________

Chapter 3

Soft tapping at my b d Tuesday morning brought me to full consciousness.

I said, “Come in, Fillmore.”

Once you’ve heard that tapping technique several times, you quickly come to recognize it as Fillmore’s.  He entered, preceded by a breakfast tray.

“Good morning Miss.”

“Good morning, Fillmore.”

“Did you sleep well?”

I struggled to sit up.  “Like a ton of. . . What is it people sleep like a ton of again?”

“Bricks, Miss.”

“Oh.  Right.  Bricks.  You can put the tray over there on the table.”

“Very good, Miss.”

“What time is it?”

“Just after ten, Miss.”

“Oh.  Perfect.”

I padded into the bathroom to splash water on the face, brush the teeth, and wrap up in a robe.  Fillmore was stirring the perfect amount of c and s into my coffee as I reentered the room.

“Well, Fillmore.  Here we are in beautiful Costa Rica, huh?”

“Indeed, Miss.”

I stepped out onto the balcony.  The air was very hot, but not as steamy as it might have been because of a refreshing breeze blowing in off the Pacific Ocean.  Gloria’s front yard may be busy and jungly, but her walled-in back yard is neat and disciplined.  The wall is eight feet high in order to discourage the wildlife, but, since the land quickly falls away toward the ocean just past the patio and pool area, the wall doesn’t impede the view.

The Pacific was streaked with shades of beautiful pale green that morning.  The jagged little rock islands in the near distance were all present and accounted for.  As I contemplated the infinite Pacific beyond, a sudden soft hissing sound told me the misters that surround the pool had just been turned on.

Gloria appeared below my balcony carrying a coffee cup in one hand, a bottle of sun block in the other, and with a towel draped over an arm.

I waited until her coffee cup was resting safely on a table before I yelled Hey in my deepest, loudest voice.  She jumped several feet into the air, whirled, and spotted me.

“You moron.  Get down here.”

“I gotta eat my breakfast first.”

“Breakfast schmeckfast.”

“I’m coming.  Keep your shirt on.”

I turned back to Fillmore and lifted the silver lid from the breakfast plate.  “And what have we here?”

“One of Asdrubal’s creations, Miss.”

I think I’ve mentioned that we had come – or should I say, Gloria had dragged us – to Costa Rica because her chef Asdrubal was complaining that the twins were driving him crazy and threatening that, if Gloria didn’t do something about the situation, he was going to quit.

Since Asdrubal is universally recognized as that region’s premier chef, and Gloria had pulled out all the stops to get him after the death of his previous employer, movie star Ava Diamond, every effort had to be made to restore his serenity.  Remembering this, I said,

“Speaking of Asdrubal, how does he seem this morning?  Still in his right mind?”

Fillmore considered this question.  “My assessment is that he seems hopeful, Miss.”

“So am I.  Hopeful that you can sort the twins out and make them stop bickering so we can all go back to Cleveland ASAP.  Have you made any progress yet?”

“Regrettably no, Miss.  I have not yet had an opportunity to spend any time with the twins.  They’ve been busy hovering over Miss Dalrymple.”

“Well, get after it, Fillmore.  The sooner you get those twins straightened out, the sooner we can go home.  Tempest fugitives.”

Tempus fugit, Miss.”

Tempus fugit, then.  Whatever floats your boat.

“It is not a question of what floats my boat, Miss.  When conjugating the Latin verb . . . ”

I showed him my shut it hand.  “Whatever, Fillmore.  Anyway, breakfast smells delicious.  Is the green stuff guacamole?”

“Yes, Miss.”

“And cheese, diced tomatoes, tortilla, and is that refried beans?  Kind of heavy for breakfast fare, isn’t it?”

“It is not refried beans, Miss.  It is a creation of Asdrubal’s with sausage and eggs in a special sauce.”

I tried a small bite.  “Wow.  That’s very good.  Want a taste?”

“No, thank you, Miss.  The staff ate earlier.  Asdrubal has given me the recipe.”

I nodded, chewing.

“Would you like me to draw a bath, Miss?”

I shook my head no, chewing.  “Do dank.  Gworia bub be dow by da boo.”

Fillmore said, “Very good, Miss.”

I joined Gloria a short time later.  No sooner had we tossed floaties into the pool and slid into the warm water than we were startled to hear voices coming from the side of the house beyond the wall, followed by the sound of the tall wooden gate’s latch being violently rattled, followed by determined rapping.

Gloria stared.  “What the . . . ?”

One of the twins hurried outside looking fierce.  “We’ve got trespassers, Gloria,” he said as he hurried toward the gate.  “Don’t worry.  I’m on it.”

And I’ll just take a moment here, if I may, to say that this twin was extremely buff.  I was startled again by the narrow waist and bulging pecs.  Because of this, I deduced that he was the twin who had picked us up from the airport the previous day.

A familiar female voice called from beyond the gate, “Melly?  Gloria.  I know you’re out there right now.  Open up.”

Fillmore rushed outside, followed by the other twin.  Both of them hurried after Twin A, and I was startled to see that Twin B was just as cut as Twin A.  They’d both undergone the remarkable transformation from the pudgy, sloppy individuals they’d been in the not-so-distant past.

“Melly?  Melly.”  Nicole Van der Vander (by now I had put the voice together with a name) yelled from beyond the gate.

Twin A released the latch and pushed the gate open.  “This is private . . . ” he began in a scolding voice, but Gloria stopped him.

“It’s okay, Twin.  It’s a friend of Melly’s.  You can let her in.”

“Then she should have come to the front door like normal . . . ”

As he turned to look at Gloria disapprovingly, Nicole pushed past him into the backyard.  She was followed by the two male cousins she had hurriedly introduced to us the previous evening, and an older couple.

Nicole said, “See?  I told you I’d find you.  I’ve brought Jim and Cody and look.  Here’s my aunt and uncle right now.  Aren’t they the cutest . . . ”

At the same time, the older man charged the pool, smiling broadly.  “Good morning, ladies.  Al Flagler.  Flagler’s Fine Furniture.  My card.”

He produced a business card in each hand and extended them toward us.  Then he seemed to realize for the first time that we were wet, and that we were far out of reach in the middle of the pool.

“Oh.  Uh.  Well, here.  Why don’t I just set them here on the table . . . ”

“ . . . little aunt and uncle ever?

How to describe the cutest little aunt and uncle ever.  Huh.  Let me take a run at it.  He was plump, sported a sparse orange comb-over, and wore a loud Hawaiian shirt, white Bermuda shorts secured around his ample waist by a wide baby blue leather belt, white crew socks and tasseled baby blue loafers that matched the belt.

She wore piles of orange curls, color- coordinated with her husband‘s crowning glory, shorts and shirt that matched her husband’s, and a pair of white platform sandals.  While her husband and niece continued to talk, she minced toward the nearest chair, which happened to be pushed up to one of Gloria’s umbrella tables, pulled it out, and collapsed onto it.

Nicole continued.  “Al and Betty Jean Flagler.  Look at Betty Jean’s sandals.  Aren’t they cute?  Who did you say they’re by, Betty Jean?  Was it . . . ”

Al Flagler continued to address us.  “We just moved down here this month.  Bought the old Rimbaud . . . ”

Listening to them was like standing in the television section at Best Buy with all the TVs turned up loud.

“ . . . Prada? Anyway. Melly, their house is just two doors up from you guys right now.  Can you believe it?  Or would it be down?

Al Flagler said, “ . . . place.  It’s in pretty good shape.  We won’t have to do much to it.  Course, the wife’s gonna hafta put her own touches . . . ”

The cousins walked to the edge of the pool and the tall, dark one said, “Nice view.”

I glanced at him.  He had raised a hand to shade his eyes and was staring out across the vast Pacific.

The shorter, lighter one said, “Yeah.”

I glanced at him.  He was staring straight down at me.

I felt something nudge my floatie and looked around.  Gloria grinned at me.  “He’s cute,” she whispered.

I said, “Huh.”

Grinning wickedly, she said, “He reminds me of someone, but I can’t think who . . . ”

I grimaced and nodded the way a diva does when she knows the joke’s on her.  This Jim McGuinn character bore a striking resemblance to a certain mutual acquaintance of ours.  Well, more of an acquaintance of mine than of Gloria’s, actually, but whatever.

I said, “Gunnar.”

“Ya think?”  She grinned at me again.

Repeat customers might remember Gunnar, as in Gunnar Finney, from a previous episode.  If you’re not a repeat customer, don’t worry about Gunnar Finney.  Don’t give him another thought.  He’s not a significant person in my life at all.  Absolutely not.  At all.

Nicole had continued talking because Nicole always continues talking.   “Anyway, we asked Bonita – that’s Betty Jean’s housekeeper . . . ”

Al Flagler hadn’t broken stride, either.  “ . . . on it, natch.  That’s a woman for you.  Always gotta tinker with the day-cor.  Our place is good-sized, but it’s not as big as this place.”

He ran an appraising eye over the back of Gloria’s house.  “You’ve got yourself quite a dump here.  How about giving us the Grand Tour?”

“ . . . if she knew where you live, Gloria . . . ”

Betty Jean Flagler spoke up for the first time.  “Oh, for Pete’s sakes, Al.  You and your Grand Tour.  You can see they’re swimming.  Say . . . ”

This last was directed toward Fillmore and the twins, who remained, open-mouthed and staring – sort of dazed and confused, as the saying goes – where the Flaglers, the cousins, and Nicole had left them near the gate.

“Say,” Betty Jean Flagler said.  “What are the chances of someone scaring me up a nice cup of coffee?”

“ . . . and of course she did.  She knew exactly where . . . ”

The twins exchanged a quick glance and one of them said, “Of course.  I was just about to inquire . . . ”

“Yeah,” Al Flagler said with a big smile.  “A nice cup of Joe would go down good.”

The twins, indicating to Fillmore by sign language that they’d take care of the coffee-making, hurried inside.

It occurred to me that maybe Gloria and I ought to get out of the pool so she could better play hostess.  I was just about to glance at Gloria to see if it was occurring to her that maybe we ought to get out of the pool so she could better play hostess, when something caught the corner of my eye.  The something was Fillmore, who was now standing at the top of the pool steps waiting for us to get out of the pool so Gloria could better play hostess.  Two white terry cloth robes were tucked over his arm.

I never saw the man move.  I don’t know how he knew where to find two terry cloth robes and I never saw him looking for them.  I don’t know how he got from the vicinity of the gate with no white terry cloth robes, which is where he was the last I’d noticed, to the top of the steps with two white terry cloth robes, but there he was.  I mean, you tell me how he does it.

We wrapped ourselves in robes and joined the she-Flagler at the umbrella table.  Nicole and the he-Flagler and the cousins joined us.

The he-Flagler eyed Gloria.  “Hoo, Mama.  If the wife ever dumps me, I’m calling you.”

I think I must have been the only one who saw the look of horror on Gloria’s face because the she-Flagler spoke up right away.

“Al, you idiot.  Why would I dump you when it’s taken me most of my life to get you trained?”

Gloria had settled on the chair closest to the business cards the he-Flagler had tossed onto the table.  She picked them up, took a quick look, and passed them to me.

Al (the Kid) Flagler, the card read.  Flagler’s Fine Furniture.  A Terre Haute address was provided at the bottom left corner.

I said, “Terre Haute?”

“Best little city in the nation,” Al (the Kid) said.

Nicole was, of course, talking all the while.  She’d been continuing her detailed report on how she’d asked the Flagler housekeeper, Bonita, if she knew where Gloria lived, and on Bonita’s response.  Now she moved on to a new topic.

“And you’ll never guess what happened at La Pacifica last night.  You remember that Vanessa Gonorría?  Who rode over with you from San Jose?  You remember how she kept saying it was San Juan?  Well, guess what right now.”

Gloria said, “She was actually supposed to be in San Juan.”

Nicole said, “Hah. That’s what I kind of wondered about, too.  But no.”

Betty Jean Flagler said, “I’ll tell you what, Al.  I wore the wrong shoes.  My dogs are killing me.”

Nicole said, “Apparently, once she got into the lobby at La Pacifica, she phoned the friend she was supposed to be meeting, and it turns out . . . ”

Betty Jean Flagler said, “Look at the back of my foot where the strap rubs.  I’ve got blisters the size of quarters coming up.”

“ . . . she was supposed to be in St. Bart’s.”

The he-Flagler bent to examine the she-Flagler’s heel and winced.  He whistled softly.  “That looks bad, Toots.”

I said, “How’d she do that?  St. Bart’s? She didn’t even come close. And anyway, how did you find out about it?”

Nicole said, “She charged into the restaurant, found our tables, dragged a vacant chair over next to me, and told us all about it.  Oh my God.  I’ve never heard anyone swear like that right now.”

Al the Kid, rubbing his palms together enthusiastically, said, “Here comes the coffee.  Just what the doctor ordered.”

The twins, working in close choreography, covered the table with cups and saucers, dessert plates, cream and sugar, spoons and napkins, and a plate stacked with scones and muffins.  One twin poured while the other stood by with a second pot.

The he-Flagler dug right in.

Gloria chuckled.  “Now she’ll have to catch the puddle jumper back over the mountains . . . ”

“No,” Nicole interrupted.  “She got in a fight with the friend in St. Bart’s and decided to stay here right now.”

I said, “At La Pacifica?  By herself?

“No.  At casa Flagler. She’s there right now.”

Gloria frowned.  “How’d that happen?”

Nicole frowned back at her.  “I’m not sure.”

I said, “Huh.”

Nicole said, “But it’s okay.  I mean, she is on Real Families of TrentonThat’s pretty cool, right?”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Al Flagler said through partially chewed blueberry muffin.  “That kid’s got a mouth on her.”

Betty Jean said, a trifle irritably, “Watch it, Al.  You’re spraying.”

Al made a show of swallowing.  “Sorry.  Say, these are great muffins.  I think I’ll have to go again.”  He looked over the plate, chose one, and held it up for inspection.  “Where do you get these things, Toots?”

This last sentence was directed at Gloria.  I think I’m pretty safe in assuming it was the first time in her life she’d ever been called Toots.  She blinked at him several times and shot a quick glance my way before answering,

“My chef makes them.”

Nicole said, “I mean, wait’ll the gang back in Phoenix hear I spent the holidays hanging out with a real TV star.”

Betty Jean gave the he-Flagler a meaningful look.  “Her chef makes them, Al.”

“I hear ya.”

“It’s just what I’ve been saying.”

“I hear ya.”

I just had time to deduce that the he-Flagler and the she-Flagler had some sort of controversy going on re chefs, or possibly re their chef specifically, before Gloria turned to Nicole.

“Speaking of the Gonorría, what’s she doing?  Why didn’t you drag her along?”

Nicole said, “Oh, I imagine she’s still sleeping it off right now.  She and some of the cousins stayed out by the pool partying most of the night.  Right, guys?”

The cousins laughed.  The Jim cousin said, “That crazy woman can drink.”

The Cody cousin said, “She drank me under the table . . . ”

The she-Flagler laughed.  “It sounded like you were all having a high old time.”

The he-Flagler had made fast work of his second muffin.  He washed it down with the last of his coffee and dabbed daintily at his lips with his napkin.

“That hit the spot.  Now how about that tour?”

Gloria said, “Tour?”

The she-Flagler said, “He wants to see your house.  He calls it the Grand Tour.”

Gloria frowned.  “Oh.  Um.  Twin?”

One of the twins stepped forward.

Gloria had a look on her face like she’d tasted something sour.  “Maybe you could show the Flaglers through the house?”

“Of course,” the twin said.  “If you’ll come this way?”  He swept an arm toward the sliding glass doors.

The he-Flagler groaned as he got to his feet.  He started in the direction indicated.  Then he turned back.  “Coming, Toots?”

I felt Gloria stiffen, but she wasn’t the Toots he was addressing this time.

Betty Jean said, “You’re on your own, Al.  My dogs are killing me.  I’m not budging.”

Al shrugged and followed the twin into the house.

I turned to Nicole.  “So how many cousins and what-not are down here?”

“Oh my God.  I have no idea right now.  Aunt B. J.?”

The she-Flagler shook her head.  “I don’t know, either.  We’ve got a houseful, that’s for sure.”

“A bunch of cousins, aunts and uncles, even a few greats.  Oh, wait until you meet my Aunt Tulip.”

Betty Jean said, “She’s my aunt, hon.  She’d be your great aunt.”  Betty Jean turned to us.  “You’ll love Tulip.  Everybody does.  She’s a fun gal.”

A voice from on high called out, “Hey.  How’s the weather down there?”

We all turned to see the he-Flagler waving happily from a third floor balcony.

The she-Flagler chuckled softly.  “That Al.  What a card.”

The complete novel FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN is now available on Kindle. Go to Amazon Kindle Store and search by title, Fillmore Rides Again. $4.99

__________

Posted in LT Fawkes | Leave a comment

FITNESS

Preface

A person ought not to sit around reading and writing all day – sometimes one has to get up and move. 

For the past several years, Aaron Dorksen has been writing inspirational and informational pieces on the subject of moving for At Home Fitness, one of the U.S.’s leading retailers of top-of-the-line fitness equipment.  Here are some of his recent blogs.

TEN TIPS FOR BEGINNING WEIGHT LIFTERS

by Aaron Dorksen

Strength training with weights can help people of just about any age, from teenagers to people in their 80s and older. There are even some 100-plusers who appreciate the benefits of light arm curls and leg lifts.

Recently, my mother-in-law, who is in her 60s, was diagnosed with early stage osteoporosis.  Her doctor suggested she begin a controlled weightlifting program to strengthen her muscles.

When people think of weightlifting, they often picture the hulks on the covers of muscle magazines, or mammoth football players who look like they could lift a small car out of a snow drift. But the truth is that weightlifting benefits people of all ages, men and women alike.

If you’re interested in weightlifting but you aren’t sure how to get started, here are ten basic tips you should know:

* Before starting a weightlifting program, or any new fitness regimen for that matter, check with your doctor. A doctor can help decide if you face any risks or need to make modifications for your health and safety.

* Talk to a trainer or do a little basic research on your own to find a beginner’s program that fits your goals.

* As you begin, remember to focus on using the proper form rather than trying to lift the most weight you can.  Proper form is important because if you’re doing your exercises wrong there’s a greater risk of injury.

* Make sure you can do 12-15 repetitions of an exercise several workouts in a row before you increase the weight you’re lifting.

* Remember that diet is just as important as the effort you put into strength training. You will make the biggest strides if a healthy diet is combined with a sensible weightlifting program.

* If you work out at a gym, don’t be intimidated by other weightlifters. We all start somewhere and we all face adversity from time to time. Work hard, do your best, and observe the basic courtesies (wipe down equipment after you use it, wait your turn, don’t laugh at the guy next to you . . . ) and you’ll feel just as worthy of being there as the next guy or gal.

* Find a workout partner if at all possible. Workout buddies give each other added motivation and encouragement.

* Write down your workout records in a log book. This will help you chart progress, set goals and provide motivation.

* Remember to schedule at least one or two off days during the week as recovery time is crucial to strengthening and/or building muscle.

* Finally, don’t give up. Stick with it and you will see results in no time. A strong, well-toned body will help you feel years younger.

To read more of At Home Fitness consultant Aaron Dorksen’s blogs, go http://www.athomefitness.com

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The Best Gym Membership I’ll Ever Have

by Aaron Dorksen

It started with a set of sand-filled weights, a small bar, and a bench bought from Sears in the 1970s. Now, more than thirty years later, it’s the stuff of legend – at least in our family and among our hometown friends. I’m talking about the weight room in my dad’s basement.  At 5-foot-11, he didn’t like when his weight climbed to a “soft” 210 pounds, so he bought those Sears weights, which had Ted Williams’ signature stamped on them.

I made my first contribution to the weight room at about age 10, when my doctor said it would be okay for me to lift light dumbbells and do push-ups and sit-ups – but that I should put off heavier lifting until I started puberty. The pair of eight-pound Wilson dumbbells I eagerly picked out are still down there. They were the first step on the path to me getting big.

From then on, more and more stuff appeared in dad’s weight room and he became the owner, manager, and most consistent customer of what he named “Old Iron Gym.”

Dad used to squat with some impressive weight and he soon saw his poundage shrink into a solid 180-pound frame. The tattoo on his arm popped out when he did curls.  He taught us and our friends the basics of working out and took a lot of pride in seeing us grow.

The personality and character of the basement is unmatched for me. It saw a peak for use in the 1980s and early 1990s when my brother, sister, and I were in high school and college. My brother and I lifted by ourselves, with our dad and each other, and with friends. A lot of friends. 

(My mom and sister worked out down there, too, but they chose times when the place wasn’t infested with “smelly boys.”)

My dad told me recently one of his best memories ever is coming home from work in the city at night and hearing the weights clanking away and music blaring in the basement. Neat.

We soon passed him in the poundage we were pressing and lifting as we blossomed into successful varsity athletes, but he kept working hard at his own pace.

Today there are lots of different kinds of apparatus, ranging from an Olympic weight set and bench to dumbbells, kettlebells, and Indian clubs. There’s a hip sled, squat rack (of course), an exercise bike, and there’s a collection of weights from dozens of different manufacturers hanging as decorations on the walls.

On the other side of the staircase there’s boxing equipment – a heavy bag and a speed bag. A small corner on that side actually looks like other people’s basements, with boxes of stuff like Christmas decorations and unused kitchen-ware.

Now that my brother and I live out of town, we still make it a point to get in as many reps as we can down there if we have time on visits home. Sometimes we get so nostalgic being down there again that we get sidetracked telling old stories, but no one seems to care.

Today, as he approaches the 70s, our dad still works out regularly in the old basement. He might go weeks or months without using certain equipment, but he’s always consistent in his training. A big lesson he taught me is that changing things up is the key to staying fresh – and avoiding injuries.

I work out in a club gym nowadays and have trained in many other impressive high-tech locations. But there’s absolutely no place in the world I’d rather work out than in the Old Iron Gym and I know my brother, sister, and mom feel the same way. Thanks dad, for the best gym membership I’ll ever have.

For more of Aaron Dorksen’s fitness blogs go to http://www.athomefitness.com

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MAKE A BUCKET LIST FOR FITNESS

by Aaron Dorksen

Staying physically fit definitely requires certain sacrifices. You have to make the time to work out, you have to stay motivated, you have to watch your diet, etc.

But have you ever thought about where you want your fitness program to take you? I think it’s important to set short- and long-term goals when it comes to your workouts. And while you’re at, if you get some free time, how about setting your ultimate fitness goals?  Call it a “Bucket List for Fitness.”

Since these are your personal objectives, no one else should tell you how to go about making the list.  But for me, I took into consideration my age (38), fitness level (pretty good, but not elite), economic means (average, but hopefully improving), and family (I’m married, we’re expecting our first child, and I have some physically-fit relatives who might be up for helping me reach some of these goals).

I also considered some of my past achievements – I played baseball, basketball, football, and even ran cross country one year in high school.  At one time I was able to bench-press 300 pounds, slam dunk a basketball, and I once ran a 5K in just over 16 minutes.

I still play slowpitch softball but, at age 38, I don’t think I could match some of those other feats today even if I had a full-time trainer.

Without further ado, here’s the “Bucket List for Fitness” I dreamed up for myself on Nov. 1, 2009:

1.  Enter a 5K race and complete it in under 25 minutes. I’m six feet tall and weigh 215 pounds, so that seems like a good goal today.

2.  Go on an overnight bike trip.  I’ve become more interested in biking in the last few years, riding 15-20 miles per outing. I think it would be a great experience to go on a more extensive trip.

3.  Hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  My sister and I have talked about doing this together and if a good opportunity ever presents itself, I’d love to make it a reality one day.

4.  Hike to the summit of a mountain.  I’ve done some mountain climbing in the Rockies with family, but would love to go on a guided tour to the top of a mountain.

5.  Attend a yoga class.  My wife has often asked me to go to one with her.  That would be a new experience – something interesting to try.

6.  Go on a trail run – It would take me back to my cross country days in high school.

7. Learn to play golf.  I’ve gone out a few times and taken some bad swings, which had my friends laughing pretty hard.  One of these days I’d like to learn to do it right.

8.  Fine-tune my abs.  I exercise regularly, but I also regularly indulge in a diet that could be a lot better.  If I were to tweak my diet and up my workouts, I bet I could get back the six-pack abs I had in high school.

9.  Play sports with my kid(s) – Since my wife and I are expecting our first, this is something I think about a lot.

10.  Stay injury free.  I’ve been blessed to have only a few minor injuries over the years.  I know it will take more good fortune and being even smarter to keep it that way as I get older.

I plan to print out this list and keep it as a daily reminder of my fitness dreams.  Some of my bucket list items are going to be a challenge.  Others will be pretty easy to achieve.  I plan to keep modifying my list as time goes on, crossing off things from time to time as I either achieve them or decide they’re no longer that important to me, and adding new ideas.

What goals would you put on your bucket list?  No matter what fitness challenges you might decide to tackle, I wish you the best of luck.  Remember that just about anything is possible if you believe it and work for it.

For more of Aaron Dorksen’s fitness articles, go to http://www.athomefitness.com

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Tips for Healthy Eating

by Aaron Dorksen

Your mom told you.  You’ve read the articles.  These are tips you’ve already heard a million times, but now they’re gathered together in one place.  If you need help making better decisions about your diet, print this list out and keep it in a place where you’re likely to look at it every day.

1 Eat a good breakfast – It will start you off to a productive day and actually help you eat less the rest of the day.

2 Don’t go to the grocery store hungry – It will be a lot easier to leave the potato chips and Ho-Hos on the shelf if you eat a hearty meal before you leave the house. Seriously, it’s embarrassing to think about what my shopping cart has looked like when I’ve walked into the store hungry.

3 Don’t keep junk food in the house – This follows up No. 2. If you shop smart, and there’s no junk food in your house, you won’t be as tempted to eat food that’s bad for you.

4 Put your fork down between bites – If you slow down at meals, you’ll consume fewer calories. It takes 20 minutes for the brain to get the signal from the stomach that it’s full. So come up for air and talk more during dinner.

5 Drink eight or more glasses of water a day – The benefits are really almost endless – including it will help fill you up.

6 Reduce salt from your diet – You’d be shocked how much salt is in the food we eat. Lately my wife and I have been reading labels and choosing items that have less salt. Even seemingly healthy frozen food meals can have huge differences in salt levels.  And guess what – salty foods don’t satisfy hunger.  They make you hungrier.

7 Cut way back on sugar, too – Sugar produces insulin, which causes the body to store fat.

8 Stop drinking soda, including diet pop – The biggest and easiest sugar source to cut out is soda. It’s tough if you’re hooked, but try to switch to water, hundred per cent fruit juice, or even unsweetened instant ice tea mix.

9 Load up on raw fruits and vegetables – They’re good for you, they’ll satisfy your appetite, they’ll help you stay regular, and once you’re into the fruit and veggie habit, you’ll crave them just like you now maybe crave the bad stuff.

10 Cut back on restaurant meals – Here’s your shocking stat of the day: restaurant meals average about 750-850 more calories than meals cooked at home. Side benefit – you’ll save a lot of money eating at home.

11 Limit alcohol to weekends – This is a good habit to start and will really help you trim down.

12 Drink sparkling water in between alcohol – When you do drink, if you mix in something non-alcoholic, like sparkling water or water, it will cut the calories about in half.

13 Get plenty of fiber- Eating high-fiber will also help fill you up and stay regular. And we all want that.

14 If you screw up, don’t throw in the towel – Everybody goes off the regimen from time to time.  It’s only human.  When you do, don’t give up.  Get right back on track the next day.  

At Home Fitness consultant Aaron Dorksen’s blog deals with a variety of fitness topics, ranging from workout tips, motivational ideas and feature stories on how exercise impacts people’s lives. E-mail him with comments, questions or ideas for future blogs at aaron@athomefitness.net
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SMILE, YOU’RE ON A BIKE TRAIL

by Aaron Dorksen

There are two places where I’ve almost never seen anyone act anything but friendly: in church and on a bike trail.

The first one is no surprise, as a church naturally puts people in a loving, peaceful mood.  But a bike trail?  You know what?  Most people seem to be in a naturally loving and peaceful mood there, too.  Riding a bike out in the fresh open air seems to cleanse your spirit.  If it’s been a while since you’ve been on a bike, you might think about giving it a try.

If you don’t have a bike, maybe you can borrow one your first time out.  If you enjoy the experience, and I bet you will, an investment of a few hundred dollars or more can put you in business.  Your bike will pay itself off in a matter of months compared to the price of other recreational and fitness activities. 

Make sure to purchase a bike helmet as well.  Better safe than sorry.  And depending on how into it you are, you may want to invest in a pair of padded bike shorts and even add a small pack for the back of your back in which to store items like water, trail mix, sun screen, etc.

Riding on a bike trail, whether it’s a flat rails-to-trails type or a mountain bike course, is a great experience.  You might go solo, with a friend, or even make it a family outing.  In Ohio where I live there are countless beautiful scenic bike trails to choose from, many of which are converted rails-to-trails courses that are flat and easy to ride.

Riding a bike is something people of just about any age can do.  Bike riding is a lot easier on the joints than running.  You can start out easy and build up your confidence and endurance on the bike in no time.

My dad is almost 70 years old, and he knows he’s not exactly the first guy I’d call to play on my men’s slow-pitch softball team.  But because he’s always worked out and kept in good shape, riding a bike trail together is a great way we can both get a great workout. We routinely go on 15-20 mile rides.

It’s a great activity to do together and most people we encounter on the trail offer a warm hello or tip of the cap.  When we take a bike ride together, it leaves me in a good mood for days to come.

The local bike trail is a wonderful fitness resource everyone should try.

At Home Fitness consultant Aaron Dorksen’s blog deals with a variety of fitness topics, ranging from workout tips, motivational ideas and feature stories on how exercise impacts people’s lives. E-mail your comments, questions or ideas for future blogs at aaron@athomefitness.net

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MUSIC VIDEO

Preface

Music is the oil that keeps everything else humming.  Here’s an amazing bass guitar solo featuring Craig Martini on bass.

For more on Craig Martini, go to:

http://www.myspace.com/craigmartinibass

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Craig Martini Bass Solo

 

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HUMOR

Introduction

I’ve been fortunate to find some pretty funny writers to join me here in the Reading Room. I like these stories so much I decided to give them their own book. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I do:

Why Clancy Went West, by Fred Baker

MIRACLE ON A STAIRWELL, by Daniel J. Durand

Two Mates at a Pub: A Massive Misunderstanding, by Hugh Morris (Dags the Drover), a tale of a brawl Down Under.

Shotgun and Herons, a tale of Black Orpington hens, gentleladies with grievances, and revolution at Twilight Lawns plc, by Ian Dorking-Clark.

BOB’S DISCOUNT TATTOO AND GROCERY by Daniel J. Durand.

A Pale Blue Felt Hat, also by Ian Dorking-Clark – further adventures at Twilight Lawns plc.

Vlad the Inhaler by John Daulton – a fresh spin on the old horror classic.

Thigh Pains Drifter by L. T. Fawkes.

A Trip to the Sacred Persimmon Spires: I by Larry Caringer.

Washboard Vlad by John Daulton.

The Adventures of Shadowski and Powell by L. T. Fawkes.

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WHY CLANCY WENT WEST

One Muleheaded Horse

by Fred Baker

Jeremiah Clancy couldn’t believe the size of this crowbait.  In the predawn darkness, he could swear the animal looked a whole lot more like one of them desert camels from Arabia than anything else.  He was seventeen hands at the withers if he was an inch.

He hoped the green-broke young gelding would look a mite better come daylight.  If not, there was one young drover who was going to be helping Jackson move his herd across the river with his eyes closed, afraid he’d be struck permanently blind by the pure ugly of the critter.

Clancy was eighteen that summer.  He was small for his age but wiry and rattlesnake-quick with his fists.  Growing up in the orphanage had learned him that.  Learned him good, too.

Big Henry’d said it best after losing a scuffle to the smaller man:  “It’s true that Jeremiah Clancy barely come up to my chin.  Trouble is, he come up there way too often.”

Climbing into his A-fork saddle took some doing, him being barely five foot six, but he wasn’t complaining.  Uncle Judd was letting him use the tall gelding for the day.  Wouldn’t take anything for it, either.  Judd was just like that, blood uncle to nobody in Mississippi as far as folks knew, yet willing to help out anybody he could.

Jeremiah’s pay for today’s work was to be one full dollar.  He couldn’t of took the job without a horse, and Uncle Judd couldn’t let that happen.

“It’ll do that barn-sour jughead good, getting rode for a day, doing some actual work.  You’re doing me a favor.  He’s in the corral behind the lefthand tobacco shed.  Just be sure and get some work out of ‘im.  He can be more’n a little lazy when he wants to.”

Jeremiah didn’t much believe he was truly doing the old man a favor, but he did appreciate the loan of the horse, even as mule-stubborn and hard to turn as this jughead appeared to be.

By the time he rode into Jackson’s yard, Mrs. Jackson had breakfast on the table.  Eggs sunny side up, thick bacon straight from the smokehouse, and a pile of flapjacks fit to fill ol’ Paul Bunyan’s belly.  They all dug in, hurried down one last cup of black coffee, and headed out.

Jackson was glad to have Clancy along.  The boy was a good hand.  He tended to sometimes avoid admitting when he didn’t know how do to something, but he was a good hand all the same.

The giant gelding turned out to be even uglier in full daylight.  His ears were short and ragged at the ends.  They looked like they’d been chewed off.  Maybe a painter had jumped him and mostly missed, chewing on the tips of the ears and nothing else.  His head was awful long for a saddle nag, ending in a Roman nose and oversized, rubbery lips.  Worst of all, both front legs come out of the same hole with no chest between ‘em at all.

Didn’t neck rein all that good, neither.

Still, beggars can’t be choosers.  Clancy knew not to look a free-rent gift horse in the mouth.

The four of ‘em rode single file across the river, Mr. Jackson in the lead, then his two daughters riding astraddle like men, with Jeremiah pulling up the rear.  Camel – he’d taken to calling his borrowed nag Camel – fair pitched a fit when he seen all that running water.  Being corral-raised, he’d probably never eyeballed any body of water bigger’n the frog pond Uncle Judd used to water his stock.

It was working out okay, though, until they hit the deep part of the ford where the water finally got up high enough to tickle that throwback’s underbelly.  Camel reared up, up, and crashed over backwards, smashing into four feet of water with his rider trapped underneath.

The Jacksons all turned in their saddles when they heard that big splash.  When he didn’t pop up right away, they figgered their hired hand for the day was one dead orphan.  But they underestimated the fella.  He wasn’t hurt.  He was just too smart to raise his head till he could scramble around on all fours on them riverbed rocks, making sure he come up under that cursed critter’s head instead of under his hind hooves.

When he did get vertical again, the horse was back on its feet, too.  And Clancy still had hold of the reins.

“You okay, Clancy?” Jackson asked calmly.

“Yep.”

He led Camel the rest of the way across.  He wasn’t about to try mounting up in the middle of that river.

By the time they’d rounded up the ninety-three cow-calf pairs from pasture and started the herd back toward the river crossing, he was about half dried out.  Dumb horse didn’t know one end of a cow from the other, naturally.  Looked like Jeremiah was going to surefire earn his dollar that day.

Now, historians would be wise to remember:  Young Jeremiah Clancy had been hankering to head out West from the time he was big enough to spell wagon train.  Nor had he give up on the idea.  But he’d been talking without doing for so long, most folks had gotten to hearing nothing but wind when he spoke.

There was a train circled out west of town that very day, matter of fact.  Just half a dozen wagons with as many families mending harness and greasing wheel hubs, getting ready to push on for Oregon.  None of the local folks knew Clancy had already been out to see those people but had been turned away by the wagon master.

Nobody wanted a penniless kid tagging along, dragging them down, eating their supplies and getting evil ideas about their girls.

Jeremiah had still been burning with rage and shame over that rejection when he’d started his day.  Getting dunked in the water by fourteen hundred pounds of horse had pretty well washed that out of him, though.  Now it was a matter of getting these cows to cross the danged river.

Which none of ‘em wanted to do.  They’d been on the south side pasture for more than four months, and every last idjit bovine seen that running water pretty much the way idjit Camel did, as an absolute barrier to progress.

The four drovers battled the herd until close to noon without any success whatsoever.  They finally got the lead cow to take to the water just above the main ford, but that just drew the whole bunch to Jackson Island, no more than five acres of dry land and not one bit closer to the north side.

Jackson thought about that for a while.  Then he said, “Clancy, you stay out here on the point.  The girls and I will cross over to the island and push the herd back this way.  You holler ‘em out away from the point.  Once they get to swimmin’, they should angle across jist about right.”

The younger man nodded, got off his horse, and tied that dinosaur freak off to the nearest bush.  The critter weren’t no cow horse.  A man yelling at them cows from the shore could likely do better on foot than he could forking a danged Camel.

But yelling at the herd didn’t work.  The lead cows were veering back toward the #$&!! south bank yet again.

Nothing for it.  It was now or never.

Clancy took a flying leap, jumped into the river, and swam out right alongside the lead cow, bellowing into her left eye:

“HYAH!   HYAH!  GIT ON, GIT ON, GIT ON!  HYAH!  HYAH!”

It worked.  The lead critters shied away from this in-their-faces crazy-assed human.  Their feet found the shallower ford, and – thankfully – the entire herd followed.

He’d done it.

But he was in trouble.  The cows had found the ford, but in getting them there, Jeremiah himself had been washed down below the ford, into a section of river where the water ran too swiftly over rounded stones for a man to stand erect against the current.  He was being washed rapidly downstream.  Straight toward Dead Man’s Bend.

The Bend was a sharp curve where the bottom dropped out of the river and suddenly changed from three feet of fast water to a somewhat slower but infinitely more dangerous eight feet of depth.  Well over even a tall man’s head.

And Jeremiah Clancy was no tall man.

A pair of western-style leather chaps added to his peril.  He had acquired the chaps, seldom seen in Mississippi, from a retired mule skinner against the day he could live his dream under those big western skies.  He never got on a horse without them.

Now his dream was about to kill him.  He could swim, but not well.  The leather on his legs would drag him under, if not at Dead Man’s Bend itself, then somewhere in the next half mile of equally over-his-head river.

Not that he’d go down easy.  Unable to stand but keeping his head facing upstream, he began rolling toward the nearer shore, over and over.  He was making progress.

It was going to be close.

Mr. Jackson saw his predicament.  Came galloping down the shore on his beautiful black Saddlebred.  Threw him a rope.

Missed by a hair.

Roll, roll, roll.

It was going to be very close.  The Bend loomed dead ahead but Jeremiah’s feet suddenly found shallower water.  Two feet deep now, one foot . . .

. . . made it.  Forty feet farther downstream, it would have been all over but the drowning.

Not that the workday was over.  One late calf, mere days old, hadn’t made it across with its mother.  Mr. Jackson might could have balanced the little guy across the saddle in front of him, but Jeremiah, still dripping wet yet determined to earn his dollar in full, volunteered.  Camel, utterly worthless anyway, was led across the ford behind the boss’s mount.

Clancy clutched the calf to his chest and walked across.

Mama was waiting for her baby on the other side.  The job was done.

They all rode back on up to the house then.  The half-drowned, would-be drover shivered uncontrollably in eighty-five degree sunshine until, along with that precious silver dollar, Mr. Jackson handed his top hand for the day a double shot of hundred proof whiskey.

“That should fix you right up,” he advised.  And it did.

Back at Uncle Judd’s tobacco sheds, Clancy pulled his tack from the poorest excuse for a cow horse ever seen on God’s green Earth and forked a bit more hay into the manger.  Shouldering his saddle, he was turning to head back down toward town when something caught his eye.  There was still plenty of sun time.  He figgered he’d go have a looksee.

Behind the other tobacco shed was another corral.  Jeremiah stood there for several minutes.  He stared through the rails, turned back toward Camel’s enclosure, and turned back to peer through the rails once again as realization crept over him.

There was nothing for it.  He would have to leave Mississippi now.  Today.  That wagon train had rebuffed him, but he’d tail ‘em and find a way to make himself useful.  He could hunt, he could shoot, he could sleep alone away from the wagons if he had to until he could prove his worth to ‘em.  There was no other option.  The humiliation would be just too much, otherwise.

Because the Jacksons would talk.  They’d mean nothing by it.  They’d just be sharing with their neighbors and friends, telling how young Jeremiah Clancy had been a hero today, danged near got himself killed trying to turn the herd, carried that baby calf across when he was already worn to a frazzle from fighting the river, took that whiskey down like a man . . .

Yep, they would talk all right, and the truth would come out.  Folks might not ever figger he just never could be sure which was his right hand and which was his left, but no matter.  They’d know the worst of it.

Because in the dark, not knowing his left from his right and fearing to admit as much to Uncle Judd, he’d gone before daylight to the wrong corral behind the wrong tobacco shed.  He’d saddled up the wrong critter.  Camel truly wasn’t a sorry excuse for a green-broke young cow horse.  Truth, he wasn’t any horse at all.

Jeremiah Clancy had ridden out to do a full day’s droving work on Uncle Judd’s old plow mule.

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MIRACLE ON A STAIRWELL

by Daniel J. Durand

For the third time that day, Adam found himself falling down the flight of stairs in front of his apartment. It was becoming a familiar feeling.  Thirty-seven steps.  Thirty-seven jolts to the face, chest, stomach, and legs, the force of the impacts nearly jarring the fillings out of his teeth.

As he rolled past the fourteenth stair, he cursed. At the twenty-third, he found himself pondering life, and just how funny it all is. By the twenty-ninth, he was cursing again, this time more loudly.  The onlookers at the top and bottom of the staircase blushed at his colorful use of language.

With only five stairs till the bottom, Adam felt a little depressed and found himself wondering if the pain would ever end. His head smacked against the second-to-last stair, which caused his lower half to flip over him in a sort of reverse somersault before it came to rest on the floor. As he gazed at the ceiling through the space between his ankles, he realized how much this was going to hurt the next morning. Slowly, he untwisted himself and sprawled out into a more comfortable position.

He did a quick check to make sure nothing was broken.  He flexed his legs.  They were a bit sore, but otherwise fine. Next he tried his arms and hands.  They seemed to be in decent condition as well.  Then he ran one of his hands through his now-disheveled hair.  He felt a small bump on his scalp but, after closer inspection, there didn’t seem to be any blood.  He stood up and brushed himself off.

The onlookers, still onlooking, began to disperse, as the fun was now over and everything else seemed sadly anti-climactic. Adam began to climb the stairs back up to his apartment, very carefully stepping just one foot at a time to ensure maximum balance.

He noticed a peculiar squeak at the twenty-first step, one which hadn’t been there before the fall. He smiled upon discovering this, satisfied that he had at least inflicted a little damage back. Now, when friends asked about his bruised appearance, he could say “You should see the other guy!” with some truth to the claim.

The smile went away at the top of the stairs when he almost slipped again, but despite the near miss, Adam was able to get back inside his apartment and pop a few pain pills.

Adam knew he was lucky for not being more seriously injured as he had terrible insurance. Falling down the stairs would be considered a “Gravitationally-Assisted Injury”, and therefore not covered.  The company firmly believed that such injuries were easily avoided in this day and age, thanks to the marvel of the “Wet Floor” sign.

Needless to say, no one took into account people like Adam, who had waged a private war against gravity since early childhood. In Adam’s mind, gravity was a snobby know-it-all who took just a little too much advantage of the precious “Laws of Physics”. That the Laws had so far won every major encounter with Adam was no deterrent, and he swore that one day he would track down that know-it-all and give him a stern talking-to. Adam would have no part in such an unimaginative reality. He wanted to fly.

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TWO MATES AT A PUB

A MASSIVE MISUNDERSTANDING – TWO MATES AT A PUB

by Hugh Morris (Dags the Drover)

Mac eased the throbbing V8 Ute into the car park and chose a space well away from the assortment of four wheel drives, work trucks, and other cars scattered around the parking lot. He was pretty impressed with the paint job and didn’t want it adjusted. He slid out of the moulded driver’s seat, smoothly closed the door, and stood back with a fat sense of satisfaction.  Then he headed into the pub.

The near new Ute sat low and square on its modified suspension and low profile tyres. The chrome mags, custom skirt, and factory-fitted fibreglass tourneau cover finished it off in fine style. Aussie blokes take a lot of pride in their vehicles and any bloke who rocked up to the pub in this Ute sure would be the envy of the locals.

Tony Macpherson, known simply as Mac to his mates, had arrived at the pub about on time this Saturday arvo. Drummer, his mate, whose actual name was Rod Drummond, was late, because he wasn’t there already.

Being late to the pub was very un-Drummer.  Drummer might drag his feet at work Monday to Friday.  He might offer to pack and unpack the dishwasher regularly and actually do it occasionally.  He might even wash his wife’s car once or twice a year, whether it needed it or not.  But he was never late to the pub on Saturday to watch the game on the big screen TV with his mate Mac. Of course, this was before it was normal for everyone to have big screen TVs and Wii’s and things at home.

Mac bought two beers from the bar (the Sports Bar at the Royal).  One was for him and the other was for Drummer.  He walked through the few other regulars to the back wall and placed the beers on the high standing table. He pulled two stools round behind the table up against the wall with full unfettered view of the big screen, and started on his first.

The commentators were running through the players – who was in, who was out, what last week’s injury count was, what the team doctors said, who the ref was, who’d done this, and who’d done that, etc.  Where was Drummer?

Mac pulled his phone out of his pocket, flipped the lid, and brought up Drummer’s number on speed dial.  There was no answer – just the normal crap about being busy and leave a message and he’d get back.

The game was about to start so it was getting serious.  Mac decided to send a text message.  “WairRU.”  Mac held the phone in his hand and stared at it intently, as if by doing so he would make it respond.  However, there was no reply.  Naught, zip, nothing, none, not at all.

Mac thought for a minute.  Mac was pretty bright.  He’d been to Uni.  So he knew how to figure things out.  “Something must be wrong,” he thought.

The ref’s whistle blew, the kickoff was kicked, and they were into it.  Mac felt a bit funny watching the game without Drummer.  A bit like, well, disloyal, really.  But what could he do?  So he watched it anyway.

He finished his first beer, left Drummer’s on the table, and went to buy another round.  As well as being bright, Mac was a man of principle:  “Ya can’t drink ya mate’s beer.  That would be just plain wrong.”  That was one of Mac’s creeds.

Johno, one of the other regulars, who was also sitting with his back to the wall just on the other side, looked at Mac and said.  “Where’s ya mate today?”

Mac shrugged his shoulders and took another sip.  As well as being bright and a man of principle, Mac didn’t say much.

The game went pretty much as games do.  Someone played the ball, dummy half passed it, someone caught it and got tackled by half the opposition.  This theme was repeated by each team with minor variations.  Occasionally, they’d pretend to have a scrum just for a bit of light relief and everyone knew that in the end, one team would win and the other team would lose.

Then there’d be the post mortems – one on TV which was civilized, and one in the pub which wasn’t.  But they weren’t up to that bit yet.

Just before half time Mac heard, just through the big glass sliding doors, the familiar drone of Drummer’s Ute pulling into the car park.

Drummer was proud of his Utes.  The one he had before this one, being a relic of his younger days, still had a “ROUND UP YOUR MATES.  The Deniliquin World Record Ute Muster 2002” sticker on it, as well as a “Yass B & S Fine Wool Ball” sticker, which wasn’t repeatable in respectable company, when he sold it.

Mac watched as Drummer strode up to the glass doors.  He thought Drummer looked a bit dark, but then he remembered the doors were tinted. The doors slid open and the bloke doing the striding, whom every one recognised as Drummer, strode straight over to Mac, still looking dark.

Mac was about to say something when Drummer pulled back, his right fist clenched, and let Mac have it.

Well, time stood still for a moment.  This wasn’t your average Topless Girls on Friday Night, bikies kinda pub where you’d expect a bit of biffo.  No, this was a respectable normal family pub.  So a bloke king hitting his best mate on Saturday arvo while the footy was on was a bit unusual.

Mac, who was just as surprised as every one else, struggled to get to his feet and tried to find his composure.  The table was on the floor, along with three glasses of beer (one of Mac’s and two of Drummer’s) and Mac’s stool half on top of him.  Drummer looked darker still and let Mac have it again, this time with words.

“What sort of a mate are ya?” said Drummer ripping into him, his voice clearly strained.  “You know I’ve been drooling over that V8 Ute down at the Holden dealership for weeks now and you go pinch it from under me nose just when I got the dough together and the missus on side.  Of all the low-down things for a so-called mate to do.  So that’s it for me ‘n you, ol’ pal, ol’ buddy.  And by the way, you better stop hang’n round my missus, too, or I’ll really sort ya out – YA GOT THAT?”

With that, Drummer swung on his heels, marched straight back out the open sliding doors, kicked in the driver’s door on Mac’s “new Ute” as he walked past, jumped in his own and roared out of the car park smoking up the back tyres as he went . . . again.

Mac, still a bit stunned, stood there for a whole minute, rubbing his jaw with his right hand as he tried to brush the rest of the spilt beer off the front of his shirt with his left.

Johno, who’s always pretty quick to work out what’s going on, leaned over and said, “Looks like Drummer’s a bit upset, mate.”

“Yeah,” drawled Mac at length.  “ ‘E’s gunna be more upset when ‘e discovers it was his missus who got me to go buy that Ute for ‘im, so no one else could, because he was working away this week.”

__________

SHOTGUN AND HERONS

By Ian Dorking-Clark

Is it poetry?  Is it serendipity?  Is it chance?  Is it the Great Architect of the Universe telling us that nothing occurs randomly, but that there is a great and changeless symmetry, a universal pattern, if only we could stand back far enough and see and understand?  Or is it just poultry?

Take Wednesday July 14th.  Several seemingly unconnected incidents came together in glorious concert to provide a talking point and a cause for smiles and genteel laughter for months to come.  It was a pivotal moment in history – in personal history.  Many there were who used that day as a benchmark:

“It was the day after . . . ”

“Where were you on the day that . . . ?”

We had been experiencing the most dreadful invasion of feral pigeons.  They were squatting on the roof in colonies and their constant crooning and moaning was driving us to distraction.  The pigeon droppings were defacing the portico above the main entrance.

The Secondary Building with its fine eighteenth-century battlements was showing the effects of a great number of nesting pigeons also.  There was also the tumultuous roar when some silly bird felt the need to fly and the whole colony would ascend with a great flapping of noisy, creaky wings – the noisy clapping sound of a less-than-well-bred audience at a second-class concert hall – only to make a couple of circuits above the main drive before returning to their roosts and resuming their incessant soft coo-coo-cooing.

Tom Mould, our Head Gardener, came into the dining room on that particular morning during breakfast, muttering and grinding his teeth and complaining that there appeared to be fewer giant carp in the Virginia Woolf Ornamental Lake than he thought there should have been.  His eyes raked the assembled Residents as if he expected one or more of them might be secreting a giant carp or two about her or his person.

Raj, the Gardener’s Lad, came in behind him and stood by his side.  It was patently clear that he had important information to convey.  Raj was fidgeting.  Raj always fidgeted when he had something to say:

“It’s herons, Innit,” said Raj.  “Dey’s eatin’ da fish, Innit.”  And then as an afterthought, he added, “Nowah Amin.”

Very few of the assembled Residents noticed this little interchange, but Maude, ever the observer, thought she heard Tom Mould mutter under his breath, “First it’s bleeding pigeons shitting on the roof and now it’s herons . . . Bastards!”

Absent mindedly Tom scooped a handful of bread rolls from a table as he left the dining room.  Raj followed him, explaining as he went that he had seen a heron on the roof and it had been eyeing the Virginia Woolf Ornamental Lake in a suspicious manner.

“Dey do dat,” he explained, darkly.  “Herons is like that.”

Raj also expressed his anger that almost half of the chicken feed he was buying for his Black Orpington hens seemed to be ending up in the crops of the marauding pigeons.

They made their way together to Tom’s Hideaway where Betty would, no doubt, be waiting to offer him consolation.  Betty, his constant companion.  Betty, the light of Tom’s life.  Betty.  To Tom’s eyes, the most beautiful sheep in the world.

Tom was usually a taciturn man, yet this morning there was a slight tremor in Tom’s voice.

“Bleedin’ herons!” he muttered, partly to himself, partly to Betty, and partly to Raj.  “Those carp have been there for years.  Herons!  Ha! . . . Bastards!

oooooOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOooooo

The postman had delivered several letters that morning.  In one, Lillian was informed that “Her Majesty’s Government Pension Service have decided that due to greater expenses incurred  . . . blah blah blah . . . by Members of Parliament . . . completely, honestly, and above board . . . blah blah blah . . . and within the law been making claims  . . . blah blah blah . . . irrevocable deficit in the Exchequer  . . . blah blah blah . . . your pension for the work you claim you have put in at the Royal Courts of Justice . . . blah blah blah . . . Lord Chancellor’s Division . . . blah blah blah . . . no record of you ever having worked here.  Your pension ceases forthwith . . . blah blah . . . You have fourteen days to reply to this letter.  If no response is received by that time the case will be permanently closed . . . blah blah blah.”

oooooOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOooooo

Later that day, Tom and Raj drove to the nearby quaint little market town of Streatham-in-the-Vale.  Tom went directly to the local ironmonger’s.  Above the door were emblazoned the words, TACK, IRONMONGERY & EVERYTHING FOR THE COUNTRY GENTLEMAN.  Raj stayed in the van, talking to Betty in case she should fret due to missing Tom’s company.

Tom appeared after some time carrying a parcel.  It was long.  It was wrapped in brown paper.  Tom unwrapped the parcel as soon as he entered the van.  In it was a long cardboard box.  In the cardboard box was a shotgun.  A twelve bore shotgun.  With ammunition.

Tom turned the shotgun over and over in his hands, he broke open the breach to expose the chamber for effect, he looked Raj in the eye and spoke two words:

“Herons,” he said emotionally.  “Bastards!

Raj was fascinated.  Betty looked calmly out of the rear window of the van.  Nothing surprised Betty.  Sheep, on the whole, are singularly unemotional animals.

oooooOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOooooo

The postman had delivered several letters that morning.  Lillian had received the first.  In another, Katriona was informed by Fortnum and Mason that following a complaint from several of their Staff and also from members of the public following a fracas at a wine tasting in their food hall on the previous Christmas Eve, Mrs Katriona Piesporter-Michelsberg was to have her Store Card withdrawn until a full investigation could be made into the incident.

oooooOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOooooo

It was about this time that the heron made an appearance; some while between the delivery of the letters and Tom’s excursion to Streatham-in-the Vale.  The heron had been feeding himself very adequately in a pond behind the Sports Pavilion at Crystal Palace, and thought he would rest his wings for a while before he made his way home to Surbiton where he lived.  His mother had always warned that too much exercise after a decent lunch would not be wise.

So he came to rest to take in the scenery and to encourage healthy digestion in his rather full tummy.  He perched on the roof of the Secondary Building and gazed around at the scene.

“Bucolic charm,” he thought to himself.  The sun was shining, the pigeons scattered around him were doing what pigeons do best – making the noises for which pigeons are famed.  Their call was a continuous, bubbling moan.

If the heron had been one of the Residents and Staff of the building on which he was standing, he would have noted that the call of a feral pigeon is remarkably similar to the call made by Sharon when Raj is in the vicinity. But he was not, nor had he ever been, a member of Staff nor a Resident.  The heron was a stranger, never having been in the vicinity before.

As he looked around at the roofs of the buildings he noticed that there was quite a large expanse of water at the back of the grander house.

“That looks like an ornamental stretch of water,” he mused, “and ornamental stretches of water frequently contain carp.”

He was about to investigate when there was some movement behind him.  He turned to look.  Two old women were standing on the roof very close to him and looking over the edge.

He moved out of their way politely and considered whether he would investigate the stretch of water he had just noticed, or stay for a while and take in the warm sunshine.  After all, he had just eaten and his investigations could take place at another time.

And to fly away at precisely the moment when the two old women had arrived could have been seen as a sign of rudeness.  Rude he was not.  He had been brought up and spent most of his life in Surbiton and had the good manners to prove it.  Regardless, the old women weren’t bothering him, so why bother them?

Lillian and Katriona had climbed onto the roof in order to make their own completely unrelated protests concerning Lillian’s letter from the Government Pension Service and Katriona’s letter concerning her Store Card at Fortnum and Mason.  They stood, half obscured by the late eighteenth-century battlements of the Tower over the entrance to the Secondary Building – they, the only thing marring the beauty of the Main Tower in the early afternoon sunshine; they, a minor blot on the roof above the Portico on that lovely day; they, Lillian and Katriona, destroying the calm that hung like a whispered prayer over the Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst Memorial Billiard Rooms and Gymnasium.

Below them, Matron (Mrs Hilda Plantagenet-Featheringstonehaugh) was walking beside Sister Mary Perpetua.  They had indulged in a very pleasant lunch together and were enjoying a postprandial stroll, the lovely morning having developed into a glorious afternoon.  Matron was telling Sister Mary Perpetua how Tom Mould (in his capacity as Head Gardener) was maintaining the beautiful rododendron border so expertly.Matron and Sister Mary Perpetua spoke in well- modulated voices, unaware that above them stood two old ladies and a heron.

Suddenly there was a cry from above.  Both ladies raised their eyes to see two of the Residents standing just behind, but not concealed by, the late eighteenth-century battlements.  Two ladies of advanced years.

“Fairness to Pensioners,” called out one of the ladies on the roof.

“Death to Fortnum and Mason,” called out the other.  “Death to the Oppressors.”

“Don’t look, Sister,” said Matron. “It’s most probably somebody cleaning the guttering.”

There was a slight movement as the heron, somewhat embarrassed by the noise and the less-than-genteel raised voices, moved slightly to the left so that the two old women on the roof could take as much room as they required.

“And fairness for pensioners,” shouted Lillian, with less conviction.  Death to the Oppressors sounded so much nicer.  She wished she had thought of it first.

“Polish chaps, I should imagine,” said Matron.

Suddenly, as if from nowhere, there appeared a third female figure on the roof.  The new arrival was Old Mrs Prendergast (Ghastly Prendy, as she is affectionately known to her fellow Residents).  Being on the roof was no new experience for her.  She began to shout obscenities to those below.

“Attagirl,” said Katriona.  “We’re here to protest.  All visitors welcome.”

A voice came from below.  It was Matron.  She stood looking up at the protestors. Beside her stood Sister Mary Perpetua.  Matron didn’t look as if she was enjoying the situation.

“What’s going on?” she called.  “Desist.  Stop it at once.”

“To the barricades,” shouted Katriona.  “Death to the Oppressors!”  And then unaccountably she began to sing in a loud and particularly strident voice:

“Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !”

Maude and Cook had just come out of the doorway of the Secondary Building.  The noise had drawn them and several of the other Residents.

“Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé !”
continued Katriona.

“I don’t know what that’s all about.  I’ve never heard her speak French before,” said Maude, turning to Cook.  “She’s from The Isle of Wight”

L’étendard sanglant est levé !
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats ?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
Egorger nos fils et nos compagnes !”

“Death to the Oppressors,” chorused the three rooftop ladies.  “And up yours!” added Ghastly Prendy.

At this juncture, Tom Mould, accompanied by Betty and Raj, appeared in the van.  As they drove past the quickly-swelling crowd of Residents and Staff, Tom leant out of the van window.

“Wozzup?” he asked.

“On the roof,” came a chorus of those watching the protest.

“Bleedin’ pigeons and herons . . . bastards,” growled Tom.  “I’ll be back.”

He shortly reappeared with Raj.  They were carrying a ladder.  Leaning the ladder against the side of the portico, Tom started to climb.  He held the cardboard box under his left arm and drew himself up with his right hand; his pockets bulged with cartridges.

Quite a large gathering of the Residents were making a day of it, singing along with Katriona:

“La-la la-la la la la laaaaaa la-la,” they sang in chorus . . . more or less.

Tom Mould scrambled to the top of the second story window that projected over the drive.  A crashing of wings and a cloud of pigeons rose in the air and began to describe a slow circle of the ground in front of the Secondary Building.  Bending down, Tom drew the shotgun from the box, broke it open and inserted a cartridge.  Hardly taking aim, he fired at the flying pigeons.

There was a crash and then momentary silence except for the sound of Katriona’s voice, still passionately singing:

Aux armes, citoyens !
Formez vos bataillons !
Marchons ! marchons !
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons !

Then a flurry of feathers and four pigeons fell to the ground, followed almost immediately by a slate from the roof.  Ghastly Prendy stood there with another slate above her head.

“Death to the Oppressors!” she shrieked, and almost as an afterthought, “Up yours!”

“Oh, Sweet Jesus!” exclaimed Sister Mary Perpetua.  “I can’t look.”  She brought her hands up to her eyes.  Then, peering slyly through her fingers, she said, “Let them get down safely.”  Then she murmured more quietly, half to herself, half to a Greater Being, “Please! If they fall, don’t let me miss it”

“Death to the Oppressors!” shrieked Ghastly Prendy once more and with that, hurled the slate to the ground.

“Be careful of the rhododendrons you wicked, wicked woman,” bellowed Matron, and turned towards Sister Mary Perpetua to see if she had noticed her rage.  Sister Mary Perpetua was too busy looking through semi-closed fingers to notice.

“If you don’t come down immediately, there’s no supper for you tonight, you naughty girl,” called Nurse Smythe.

“Alright,” said Old Mrs Prendergast and looked over the late eighteenth-century battlements to see what was happening at ground level.  She withdrew her head as Tom let off another round at the by now swirling pigeons, and suddenly she was beside Cook, at ground level.  No one knew how she got down from the roof so quickly but Old Mrs Prendergast hated to miss supper.

The heron thought better of staying and decided to fly off.

Several more pigeons now lay on the gravel.

“Shotgun,” said Maude, turning to the Reverend Hugh Halitosis who had just rounded the corner on his bicycle.  He gazed at the scene before him and a shudder went through his slight frame.  The sound of the shotgun had brought him, but it repelled him also.

“I don’t like violence,” he said, and turned to go, head bent down low over the handlebars as if to shut out sight and sound.

There was another resounding crash from Tom’s firing piece, followed almost immediately by the thuds of little feathered bodies landing on the gravel and in the rhododendron border.

“A shotgun, also known as a scattergun, peppergun, or, historically, as a fowling piece, is a firearm that is usually designed to be fired from the shoulder,” said Maude.  “Always had them around the house when I was a girl.  Useful for hunting birds and other small game.  We were a country family.  A hunting family.  Killed a lot when I was growing up.  Slaughtered any amount of rabbits and grouse and things.  Came back home with hands full of them.  Up to the elbows in blood.”

The Reverend Hugh Halitosis fled, pedalling as quickly as he could whilst attempting to retain the dignity required of a man of the cloth.

It was at that exact moment that the whole concoction came together in one glorious confection.

It was at that precise moment that Tom, looking up directly into the bright sun that hung in the afternoon sky, saw movement from a large creature.

“Heron,” he intoned.  “Bastard.”

He thrust one more cartridge into the breached chamber and, aiming directly over his head, pulled the trigger.

It was at that very moment that the heron, feeling that Surbiton was a much more restful place to be, bent his legs slightly and prepared to fly off.  With two mighty flaps of his wings he took to the sky and flew gracefully in a gentle arc towards his home and family.

At precisely that moment Lillian looked over the late eighteenth century merlons and embrasures and shrieked, “Death to the Oppressors.”

At exactly that moment, the flock of pigeons decided that it was safe to return and did so, wings clattering, directly over Tom Mould’s head.

“CRASH!”  There was a report that shook the watching crowd.  Feathers floated down gracefully in a light breeze.  The heron flew off gracefully to a well-earned rest amongst his nearest and dearest.  Lillian, describing an arc as elegantly as possible under the circumstances, fell from the roof, headfirst into the rhododendron border.  Several dead pigeons fell with and on her.

There was a monumental silence for several seconds, broken only by the sound of the Reverend Hugh Halitosis gently falling off his bicycle.  The noise and the bloodshed and Maude’s graphic description of her childhood days of slaughter had been more than his constitution could bear and he had fainted.

“Oops!” said Tom.  He climbed slowly down the ladder and immediately went to seek solace with Betty.

Sister Mary Perpetua removed her hands from her face.  She wore a seraphic smile.  She hadn’t missed a thing.

The rooftop demonstration came to an end.  Katriona came down and had a lovely afternoon telling everybody about the fracas at the wine tasting at Fortnum and Mason.  Most of the Residents went for their afternoon nap.  Tom told Betty everything in the minutest detail.  Raj fed his Black Orpingtons.

Sister Mary Perpetua went back to the Convent of The Little Sisters of Selective Charity a happy woman.  Matron, on the other hand, decided that rhododendron borders were all very well but did need an awful amount of care.

Sharon gathered up several of the dead pigeons and returned with them to the house.  When she reappeared with a laundry basket there were enough dead pigeons remaining from Tom’s carnage to fill it almost completely.

Cook, after having hung the little corpses for a couple of days, created a lovely meal, the main course being pigeon pie with juniper berries.  There was the happy sound of Residents dropping shot onto the edges of plates, and a feeling of well being throughout the dining room.

And Lillian?  Well, she had received that letter from Her Majesty’s Government Pension Service and the gist of it had been, “ . . . no record of you ever having worked here.  Your pension ceases forthwith . . . blah blah.  You have fourteen days to reply to this letter.  If no response is received by that time the case will be closed, permanently . . . blah blah.”

Nobody seemed to miss Lillian, so we thought, “All’s well that ends well,” and left it at that.

__________


BOB’S DISCOUNT TATTOO AND GROCERY

by Daniel J. Durand

Graveyard shift sucks. No two ways about it, no making lemonade from those lemons. Graveyard shift is a soul-sucking, mind-sapping experience that only the rare person who gets off on misery can enjoy. Naturally, it was the only type of work I could find for my summer vacation.

The local grocery store, Bob’s Discount Tattoo and Grocery, decided to start offering twenty-four hour service to the strange folk who need to buy a gallon of milk or a carton of cigarettes at 3 o’clock in the morning. They needed brave young men and women to man the front lines of the night shift, and, needing a reason to get out of the house during the summer, I applied and was fortunate enough to be hired. It didn’t take me long to realize that working the graveyard shift sucks almost as bad as being unemployed.

For the earlier part of the evening, there are a few people here and there who come in for the odd item, people who, for whatever reason, just can’t wait until daylight to purchase an entire week’s worth of frozen TV dinners and the latest tabloid magazine. After a few hours or so, the place starts to slow down to the point where even the half-crazed insomniacs on their third energy drink are blissfully blacked out on the sidewalk.

That’s why it’s called the graveyard shift; everything is dead, save for myself and the other night guy, Paul. Paul is the type who, no matter how long you’ve been around him, you always feel a little on edge in his presence. He mumbles to himself constantly, carries the trace odor of French onion dip, and dresses like a Vietnam flashback. I swear, he’s just one foil hat away from the loony bin.

We hang out a lot, there not being anyone else around for company between helping baggy-eyed customers and stocking shelves. I try not to get too comfortable around him, but his insane rants are somewhat amusing and help pass the time. It was during one of these rants about two weeks into my employment that I started to understand why nothing good ever happens after midnight.

“Getting back to my earlier point,” said Paul to the cart full of cleaning supplies he was sorting up onto the shelves, “it can be said with frightening accuracy that creamed corn is a proclamation of the true power of the American government. When you open the can, you pour out the contents, heat it up, and serve it with a spoon. Then you remember how much you don’t like creamed corn, and make a mental note to buy another vegetable the next time you go out.”

My mp3 had died about an hour before, so I couldn’t help but overhear Paul’s stimulating conversation. I had left the earbuds in so that he wouldn’t know I was listening, but he didn’t miss a beat when I turned to him and chimed in.

“But Paul, what if you do enjoy creamed corn?” I asked, “I personally find it quite charming.

Paul motioned to a container of sanitary wipes. “I believe Mr. Fields can put to rest that particular conundrum. It was, after all, the subject of his graduate thesis.”

The container of sanitary wipes began a long and detailed explanation of exactly why it always seems to rain only after a car is waxed, to which Paul nodded knowingly.

“Thank you Mr. Fields, that was quite inspirational. Any other questions, Rodney?”

“My name isn’t Rodney,” I replied. “But no, I think it’s beginning to make more sense now. Thank you, Paul.”

“What were we talking about?” asked Paul as he placed the sanitary wipes onto the shelf.

“Nothing, Paul. Let’s finish stocking the shelves, shall we?”

Paul wasn’t listening, as he was busy staring down a speck of dust that had landed near to his left shoe. I laughed silently to myself, finished restocking the shelves, and then walked over to the checkout stand to wait out the rest of my shift. Paul joined me a few minutes later, muttering something about the irony of dust build-up in the cleaning aisle.

About an hour after the creamed corn interlude, as it came to be known, I was enjoying a soda while waiting for customers to arrive. None came. I was about to hit what we in the grocery biz call “The Wall” – that moment where your shift is nearly through, but despite your best efforts you can’t help but count the ways you could end it all with a single, well-placed swipe from a box cutter. I began to pray to God that something, anything at all, would happen.

The power went out.

Luckily, management likes to keep a few emergency-type items under the counters like mace and adhesive bandages. While thinking that maybe I should start praying a little more quietly from now on, I fumbled around in the darkness for a flashlight. After a moment or two, during which the only sounds were my cursing the dark and Paul’s angry muttering, I found the flashlight and turned it on. I turned to Paul, and found him to be even more entertaining than usual.

On his head, he wore what looked like a Jerry-rigged helmet made from what appeared to be a colander, a bit of string, and with pennies glued to the sides. A tool-filled bandolier rested over his left shoulder, and his shop apron, instead of hanging in front of him as usual, was turned around over his back to be a sort of make-shift cape.

“What are you wearing?” I asked, a smart grin spreading over my face.

“This old thing?” asked Paul, “Why, this is just my battle armor. One must always be prepared, you know, should disaster strike.”

Paul reached behind him and pulled forth another object, made from a pair of earmuffs with a roll of toilet paper attached to each side.

“I made some for you, too.” he said.

At first I almost laughed out loud, but then I saw the look in Paul’s eye; I could tell he had put considerable care into this. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I took the apparatus and put it around my head. As it turns out, it was a good thing I did, because that’s when the noises started.

It sounded like a sort of shuffling, almost like when an old person walks to the bathroom in a pair of slippers. Sort of a ruffled sliding sound where both feet stay on the ground and shift one after the next. This was followed by a short pause. Then we heard a muffled thud like someone had dropped a heavy box.

Next we heard something being torn, and after that a sort of… crunching.

Paul gave me a brief look of excitement before pulling a machete from his bandolier.

“Let’s investigate!” he whispered, running off into the black.

I tried to follow, flashlight in hand, but didn’t make it very far before I realized I had lost him. I decided to follow the noise instead, and after an uneventful walk I found myself just outside of the snack food aisle.

Before I could investigate further, two arms wrapped around me. One hand grabbed the flashlight and turned the beam toward the floor while the other covered my mouth. I nearly panicked until I whiffed French onion dip.

“Don’t scream.” whispered Paul into my ear. “Just hand me the flashlight.”

I gave Paul the flashlight. Slowly, he raised the beam up across the floor and down to the opposite end of the aisle. There, surrounded by a mess of tortilla chips, was a creature straight from the nightmares of the criminally insane.

It had two massive red eyes, set high up on what looked almost like the head of a wolf. Covered in scales, the creature was approximately the size of a large coffee table, with two short, spindly legs and great, long arms ending in massive talons. Jutting from its face were two sharp fangs, which somehow didn’t at all impede the rate at which the creature was cramming the tortilla chips into its mouth.

Terrified, I leaned my face closer to Paul’s ear.

“What… the hell… is that?”

“Chupacabra,” Paul said.

What?

“Chupacabra. Native to Central America. I haven’t seen one of these in ages.”

“Paul,” I asked, shocked. “How do you know it’s a choppa-whatzit?”

“Chupacabra,” Paul answered. “I saw it on the Discovery Channel. That, and because he’s only eating the tortilla chips. Probably reminds him of home.”

“Do you think we should call animal control?” I asked, the concern not unnoticeable in my voice.

Paul thought for a moment. “Nah. He’ll probably leave on his own once he’s done eating. Give him a minute.”

With that, we both watched the majestic chupacabra devour the poor, helpless tortilla chips in what can only be described as a feeding frenzy. The beast would finish off every last crumb on the floor before violently eviscerating a new bag, spilling the contents, and raking up the chips with its razor-sharp claws.

Paul kept the flashlight trained on the display, but not once did the creature even raise an eye to us.

Several hours later, the power came back on. The creature, having eaten nearly all of the tortilla chips at this point, was startled by the sudden change as the overhead lights winked back to life. Rearing up onto its hind legs, the chupacabra let out a blood-curdling wale before leaping up into the rafters and clambering into the ventilation shaft.

Paul and I remained motionless for a moment, amazed at what we had just witnessed. Neither of us said a word.

The silence was finally broken by the alarm function on my wristwatch. Our shift was over. We clocked out, put away our armor for another evening, and walked wordlessly to the parking lot. The day shift guys were just showing up to relieve us, looking well-rested and at the same time drained by the thought of another day working for a living.

As I pulled away from the store in my car, I could only wonder if they knew about our friend from the snack aisle. More importantly, I wondered if I should ask for a raise.

__________

A Pale Blue Felt Hat

by Ian Dorking-Clark

Everything is relative in this World and beyond; from the grandest plans of the Great and the Good; from the eternal symmetry of the planets of the solar system, nestled comfortably within the magnificence of the Milky Way; to the irrefutable simplicity of the Decalogue.  All, each and every part, moves in perfect synchronisation, down to its smallest fragment.  And one of the immutable parts of that whole is the set of rules that apply to all of the inhabitants of that entity.  In this instance I refer to Millicent.

Millicent is a Long Standing Resident at Twilight Lawns plc (Residential Home for Persons of Better Class).  If you were to pass Millicent in the street, you would probably not think that she is remarkable in any way because she is quite ordinary.  She is a lady of advanced years, of average height, of average weight, with that average dotty expression of most of her kind.  She tends to wear grey or beige and also, as with a lot of ladies of advanced years, she is never seen without a hat; in Millicent’s case, a Pale Blue Felt Hat.

Now, if so far you’ve been a little inattentive, or felt your mind wandering, this is the time to perk up.  This is where the story really begins.  Millicent’s hat went (as they say) missing.  The powers that be at Twilight Lawns were informed almost immediately . . . In fact, they were notified within seconds of the loss being noticed.

It was at breakfast on Friday morning when Millicent began to wail uncontrollably.  She had been partaking of her second or third plateful of kedgeree and seemed to be enjoying herself as much as any of the old dears do at Twilight Lawns, when Nurse Smythe did one of her random dress checks.  As you will be aware, Twilight Lawns likes to maintain all the decent standards that are expected of an establishment of similar good name and civilized repute.  In accordance with this, as you also may know, there is a very strict dress code which must be adhered to at all times, and standing out fair and proud amongst the other regulations is the following:

“Ladies are required to wear hats at all time – at breakfast, at luncheon, at dinner time, at supper time, and when out and about in the grounds or on the way to and from the bathroom and/or lavatory.”

Nurse Smythe, as I have said, began a spot check and, Horror upon Horrors, Millicent was discovered to be hatless.  How this could have occurred, one cannot imagine, but the truth stood out like the nose on Clementine Purst-Lyppe’s face.  (Poor Dear Clementine.  One wonders whether a couple of slices from the plastic surgeon’s knife wouldn’t help just a little).

Regardless; the truth stood out quite clearly:  Millicent was not wearing her customary Pale Blue Felt Hat; or any other hat for that matter.

Millicent began to wail, and Millicent’s wailings have been known to cause Ocean Liners, Pleasure Boats, and even Harbour Tugs to run aground.

A Small Digression:  A Little Family History

When Millicent was just a slip of a girl, the family lived in Hampshire, directly opposite the Isle of Wight, close to the environs of Portsmouth.  But, one must hasten to add, not in the more Lower Middle Class areas.  It was an altogether nicer, and certainly more Upper Class area.  Her siblings (now defunct) took no little pleasure in telling the young Millicent horrendous tales concerning lost kittens and lame puppies, all of which would cause Millicent to burst into tears and then commence to wail.

Many a Cunarder or Steam-Driven Pleasure Boat or Fishing Smack had been known to be driven off course by the less-than-dulcet tones emanating from the young girl’s diaphragm.  “Vocal chords to which one could harness a team of dray horses,” as her father would say.

So Millicent’s sensitive nature became legendary.  Fluffy kittens and puppies may have been high on the list of stimulants for her lachrymose glands and vocal chords, but her range of sensitivity to hurt, anguish, and tragedy rapidly broadened to enfold most of her immediate environment, including, specifically, her Pale Blue Felt Hat.

That Pale Blue Felt Hat has been a garment close to her heart and never far from her head during the previous fifty years.  The original piece of millinery had been bequeathed to her, indirectly, by a Lady-Who-Does who had worked for her family off and on throughout Millicent’s childhood.

The old dear had handed in her dinner pail, so to speak, one day when she came to clean.  The family found her feet up in the larder where she had been giving the oilcloth shelves their Spring wiping.  Please note:  she was only half-way through the task.

Of course the family were most distressed to discover that this charlady person had snuffed it, as they say, so early in the season.  As I have already pointed out; Spring cleaning was afoot, and it seemed most inconsiderate of the old woman to die before the job had been completed.  There had long been a suspicion that there was very little recognition of the I’ve started, so I shall continue ethic in the Lower Classes, particularly the serving orders (menials and the like) and it was felt that this case just proved the point.

She was replaced post haste and life went on until the new charwoman, on one of her early visits, discovered an old and somewhat threadbare black coat on the back of the scullery door, along with a Pale Blue Felt Hat which was in remarkably good condition.  These had belonged to the previous incumbent of the post; the defunct Lady-Who-Does.  The coat, being worth little and somewhat the worse for wear, was given to the Sisters of Selective Charity but Millicent took a fancy to the Pale Blue Felt Hat and wore it the very next day when she accompanied her siblings on a visit to a Maiden Aunt who was, at that time, living on the Isle of Wight.

The Maiden Aunt was inordinately near-sighted, extremely vague, and frequently sluiced to the eyeballs in Madeira, Sherry, Port, or whatever came to hand.  But she was also inordinately rich, and the family were trotted out before her on a regular basis in the hope that she would leave at least part of her enormous wealth to at least one of the children when she passed on.

So, as I have been leading you to appreciate, on that memorable day, Millicent (wearing the pale blue felt hat) and her siblings were herded into the Maiden Aunt’s presence and made to curtsey or bow, according to their sex, in the hope, as explained, that the Maiden Aunt might be persuaded to show a modicum of affection towards at least one of her blood which would result, beneficially, in an eventual annuity.

The Maiden Aunt was already in her cups when they arrived and vagueness hadn’t lifted, but fortuitously, as the Young Millicent stood compliantly in her place in the queue (the heirs-in-hope had been arranged according to age) a ray of sunshine burst like the Angel Gabriel through the window and lighted on the young girl’s head.

Drunk the Old Lady may have been, vague, of course she was, but the combination of Pale Blue Felt Hat and bright golden sunshine were enough to pierce the near-sighted gloom for the Old Duck.

“Now don’t you look lovely in your pale blue hat . . . err . . . What’s your name, child?” asked the Old Bird.

“Millicent,” said Millicent, and she beamed.  No one had ever said a complimentary word to her in her whole life.  It wasn’t that her friends and relatives were unkind.  It was just the honest truth that she was a rather plain and awkward child, and her family and friends, being economical in speech and sentiment, thought that compliments to, or concerning, the child were wasted, dishonest, or both.

“Now doesn’t Millicent look lovely in her nice blue hat?” said the Old Lady.  All those present agreed.

Whereupon, the Maiden Aunt drifted off into inebriated sleep.  The interview was over.

Whether an annuity resulted or not has been lost to history.  But what is certain is that from that day forth (since habit may be acquired over long stretches of time or it may be born in an instant – in the present case, it happened to be the latter) Millicent was never to be seen in public or in a domestic situation unless she was wearing a Pale Blue Felt Hat.

Over the years, many Pale Blue Felt Hats came and went, but not one of them differed in the slightest from the hat that Millicent had worn to her Aunt’s home on that Spring afternoon.

At this point, one adds an interesting footnote to the day’s outing:

On the return ferry journey from the Isle of Wight, Cedric, one of Millicent’s younger brothers, noted that Millicent was watching with great interest the flight of a seagull.  She of the plain little face stood gazing as it swooped and circled the boat.  Elegantly it soared and plunged, and Millicent gazed, enraptured.

“Seagull,” observed Cedric, never one to waste words.

“I know,” said Millicent.  “Isn’t it lovely?”

“They look nice,” said Cedric, and then added darkly, “but they’re nasty really.”

Millicent turned towards her brother, tears were starting to form in her eyes.  She knew that Cedric seldom had a kind or compassionate word for anyone or anything and the inevitable cruelty of his next statement made it no less harrowing.

“Seagulls wait until baby seals are all alone and then they peck their eyes out so they can never see their Mummies ever again,” said Cedric, and with a nasty smile on his equally-nasty little face, he turned away from his sister and, veering away from the plausible, he added, “Especially if the baby seals are wearing silly Pale Blue Felt Hats.”

A wail even more deep-throated than usual, more plaintive than usual, plangent but voluminous, emanated from Millicent with such force that even young Cedric realised immediately that perhaps, this time, he had gone too far.  Millicent wailed.  She bellowed.  Tears streamed down her plain little cheeks.

The seagull, being sensitive to noise, returned to his mate complaining of a headache.

It had been a pleasant evening with only a slight swell and a soft evening mist.  But the wail that sprang from little Millicent was so horrendous that none could credit that it came from the small, lumpish child in the pale blue hat standing on the deck and clutching the rail with her small hands.

Suddenly the ferry and all souls on board were believed to be in extreme danger.  The reason?  The Captain, sensing that all was not well, imagining that he was hearing an unfamiliar fog warning on a gargantuan scale, in fact, assuming that his vessel, with passengers and crew, were in extreme peril, panicked and gave the order to abandon ship.

Within minutes the crew were lowering the lifeboats and scrambling over passengers to take prime place in them.  Chaos reigned (as chaos does during these situations) but only briefly as the ferry came to a juddering rest on a sand bar where she stayed until next morning.  The Captain had forsaken his post, the wheel was unmanned, the wheelhouse was empty.  The passengers and all the crew who had managed to reach the lifeboats refused to return on board as long as Millicent was still there.

N.B. All these details have been catalogued in “Strange Tales from the Ocean Main” by Captain Harry Whores de Light, that Jolly Old Sea Dog known for his ripping yarns of life on the ocean wave.

Returning to the disappearance of the Pale Blue Felt Hat of the now much older Millicent:

As you can well imagine, when the hat was discovered to be missing, Maude (a Resident of Long Standing. a Plantagenet-Featheringstonehaugh, and the Epitome of the Rock on which the British Empire is founded) would have been all too ready to organise a search party, and all would have gone to plan.  However, Maude had been called away unexpectedly, as a mini-crisis had arisen. She had been summoned to Bournemouth, there to assist the Reverend Hugh Halitosis with the Cub Scouts, East Surrey Pack.

The Cub Scouts, East Surrey Pack, along with the Reverend Hugh Halitosis, had booked rooms for a week at ‘Mon Repose’ Boarding House (Lovely Views) which is situated just off the Esplanade.

However, by serendipity (or otherwise), Sister Mary Perpetua’s Little Friends of Jesus were also in Bournemouth and so were the Fourth Battalion Brownie Pack, Streatham-on-Sea, who had arrived all by themselves, having lost their Akela, Baloo, or Grey Owls on route at Victoria Station.  All three groups of discordant youngsters had converged on ‘Mon Repose’ Boarding House at approximately the same time.

An explanatory note to our Dear Transatlantic Cousins: The former group of animals: Akela. Baloo and Grey Owl, etc., are all characters from the Jungle Books written by Rudyard Kipling.  These names are taken by the women who run and organise Brownie Packs, the smaller version of the Girl Guides Movement.

So to lose one’s leaders if one were a Brownie, would be tantamount to mutiny, or shooting one’s commanding officers… or worse, throwing tea into Boston Harbour to annoy an Overseas Monarch.

Maude (who had managed to organise most of the Home Counties Refugees during that nasty episode with Mr Hitler, and simultaneously, almost single-handedly, set up one of the most efficient Battalions of Land Army Girls the War Effort had ever known – thus emerging as that Stalwart of the British Empire, Maude Plantagenet-Featheringstonehaugh DCMG (Dame Commander of The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George), an honour awarded her for her sterling and fruitful work by a Grateful Monarch and Country) seemed to be the only person in Post War Britain capable of sorting out the mess.

If anybody could separate and find suitable billets for over sixty mobile phone-carrying, fractious, and enuretic young children and prepubescent teenagers, Maude was the one.

So the search for Millicent’s little Pale Blue Felt Hat fell on the less-than-capable, and, initially, not-particularly-enthusiastic shoulders of Sharon.

Cook had given Sharon the day off from her kitchen duties, and as Raj was away with his little friends at a Bollywood Bonanza and Shisha weekend in Southall, Dear Sharon had some time on her hands.

What she lacked in expertise, she made up for in force.  Unfortunately, as usual, Sharon had been texting a message to Raj as her instructions were being carefully outlined, and she paid no attention to the details.  She got it into her head that she had to find as many Pale Blue Felt Hat wearers as possible, when, in fact, she had only been told to locate Millicent’s Pale Blue Felt Hat

Sharon wandered off to look for Tom Mould our Head Gardener; found him; commandeered Tom and our all-purpose vehicle, Charlotte, the old Twilight Lawns char-à-banc.

Sharon was somewhat precipitate in organising her search.  She forgot that Raj had been keeping his Black Orpington Hens in Charlotte and had, in fact, left them there when he went to his Bollywood Bonanza and Shisha Festival, as the weather had been a trifle inclement.

Regardless, the Black Orpingtons were up for a ride.  Sitting indoors all day with nothing to do and nothing much to look at can be quite boring, so the thought of a drive through the countryside outside the main gates of Twilight Lawns appealed to the hens enormously.  Black Orpington hens, given the chance, rather tend to live in the fast lane.  They are a breed of poultry noted for having a hedonistic attitude to life.

Waving a fond goodbye to his beloved sheep, Betty, Tom Mould joined Sharon on her search for Pale Blue Felt Hat wearers.  In the space of four hours they scoured the streets and alleyways of rural Surrey (actually the environs of Norbury-sur-Mer and the charming little hamlet of Thornton Heath and the equally pretty Olde Worlde Village of Streatham).

Between them, they rounded up between twenty-five and thirty Old Dears, all wearing Pale Blue Felt Hats, all looking remarkably like Millicent; but as is usually the case with the elderly, it was: Try to divest them of something that they hold dear, and there is all hell to pay. Each Old Dear wore her Pale Blue Felt Hat with pride, and not one would be divested of hers.

Sharon and Tom Mould returned to Twilight lawns – Tom driving Charlotte, the old Twilight Lawns char-à-banc, and Sharon trying to prevent any of the Old Dears from escaping.  As they swung through the main gates of Twilight Lawns, Sharon was hanging onto the leg of one old woman who was squawking loudly that she wanted to go home and in the other hand, Sharon was holding firmly onto the leg of one of Raj’s Black Orpington Hens.  The Hen and the Old Dear seemed to be in competition as to who could squawk the louder.  The Hen came second… but only marginally.

As Charlotte came to a skidding halt in front of the main doors, Nurse Smythe looked in horror out of one of the windows, having heard the cackling and complaining.  The latter came from the Old Women.  The Black Orpington hens weren’t complaining at all.  They’d had a lovely time.

Much ado and great confusion ensued until Nurse Smythe was able to assert her view that the expedition had been a disaster and explain that the objects of the search should have been only Millicent and her Pale Blue Felt Hat.  She further complained that the genuine Millicent and her Pale Blue Felt Hat remained, noticeably, among the missing.

Tom Mould looked at his feet, muttered something about having missed Betty, and sloped off.  Sharon said, “It’s not fair.  I did my best, innit.” and went to her room to send some texts to Raj.  The Black Orpingtons settled down in Charlotte for the night, happy and fulfilled.

Meanwhile, all the Old Ladies had begun to wander aimlessly around the unfamiliar grounds; chattering, chattering, chattering.  We rounded them all up, had a head count – well, a Pale Blue Felt Hat count (it all amounted to the same), herded them into the Queen Alexandra Amenities and Day Room, filled them with tea and Battenberg cake, and waited for the Police to come and sort out the problem.

The Police arrived a couple of hours later, but it seemed apparent that they were grossly unfit for the task.  All they could offer was the suggestion that Kidnapping on a Very Grand Scale had been perpetrated, and there could be dire consequences.

After some heated and very earnest consultation, all sotto voce, it was decided that a couple of phone calls should be made to some Very Important People.  These calls were made, and eventually it transpired that One Person, and One Person Only, would be able to untangle the Gordian Knot that Sharon and Tom had presented to the Management of Twilight Lawns.

A discrete telephone call was made to a certain number in Bournemouth.  The Chief Police Inspector, who had been called in to assist, had the call transferred to Nurse Smythe’s Office where he spoke in hushed tones to a Personage on the other end.

He then returned to the Queen Alexandra Amenities and Day Room where he had a hushed conversation with his Sergeants and Constables.  Several more phone calls were made and within half-an-hour the sound of police cars and several other vehicles were heard on the gravel drive leading up to the main doors of the Home.  All the Old Dears were escorted out the front door, hardly a word was spoken, and then, as if by magic, there wasn’t a Pale Blue Felt Hat in sight.

Or so it seemed at first.  As it turned out, actually there were two.  Suddenly, and almost ethereally out of the blue, Millicent came downstairs wearing hers.  She had accidentally worn her Pale Blue Felt Hat in the shower that morning and had left it on the radiator in her room to dry.  It was generally believed that it must have been the first time that she had been so careless.  Or hatless.

But there was another Old Dear sitting in a corner, sipping tea and eating Battenberg cake, without, or so it seemed, a care in the world.  Nurse Smythe asked her where she came from.  She didn’t seem to know.  Cook asked her what her name was.  This detail also evaded her.

The last policeman had gone and it seemed unwise to make another telephone call to Bournemouth so late in the evening.  And the VIIP (Very Important and Influential Personage) was in the process of making sure that sixty young people and a couple of adults were being properly billeted at ‘Mon Repose’ Boarding House, Bournemouth.  So we decided to keep this new Millicent look-alike until we could decide what to do with her.

She fits in nicely, and no one seems to notice that there is what looks like another Millicent at Twilight Lawns.  Same Pale Blue Felt Hat, same soppy gaze.  So we call her Millicent as well.  She doesn’t seem to mind.  She’s almost house-trained and doesn’t eat much, unless there is Battenberg cake to accompany afternoon tea.

If we ever need to know who the real Millicent is; the original Millicent, whether they are both wearing Pale Blue Felt Hats or not, we just bung them both into a room together and start telling sad stories about fluffy kitten, or canaries being taken down coal mines, or little birdies having fallen from their nests.  That always works.  One of them starts to wail, and as nobody in the history of this planet has ever wailed like that, we know which one is the real Millicent.

But as the seagull said, “It gives you a headache when she starts.”

Thank you for listening so attentively,
Your obedient servant,
Mrs Hilda Plantagenet-Featheringstonehaugh (Matron)

___________


VLAD THE INHALER

By John Daulton

Tracing the gentle curves of Earth’s bosom, the setting sun slipped a finger of light through the velvet slit between the curtains of Vlad’s otherwise-dark apartment, ejaculating a luminous shaft upon the rug and leaving as a token a golden pool of light that glimmered mockingly before it evanesced away. Night had come.

Vlad sat upon the edge of his bed and snarled at the wan light as he watched the circle fade.  The vampire was engorged with contempt for the sun, even for a sun in retreat. Feral teeth shone blue-black in the dimness as the room grew darker still.

He turned and ran slender fingers through the soft auburn tresses of the lifeless female form lying beside him.  A smile played upon his lips. So beautiful. Such soft, pliant skin. She’d surrendered completely to him, but now she was cold. She lay face down, framed like a photograph in the tumult of silken sheets gathered in wrinkled piles around her nakedness.

He turned from her and watched the orange gauze of sunset through the slit in the curtains, watched the sun die a red death upon the horizon. He stood. He was not tall, not broad at the shoulders or chest.  His was a diminutive body destined for a life of shadows and darkness. He went to the closet and donned his hunting clothes:  black trousers, white linen shirt, black waistcoat, and long black cape lined with crimson silk.

The soles of his polished shoes made no whisper as he stepped out into the deserted street.  He glanced only once at the moon above, watched it as it ducked and wove round the pillowy clouds that tried to smother it to lightlessness.  Good hunting weather.

He passed rows of shabby tile-roofed buildings, avoiding the circles of light that flickered around gas lamps set regularly along the cobbled street. A cat called piteously from an alley, caterwauling for the attention of its owner, a bowl of warm milk, and a place beside the fire.

Vlad walked on, peering through windows in search of prey. He was weak and in need of life’s vital red nectar.  He came to the base of a long hill and slowly climbed the winding road. His breathing grew labored with the effort. He stopped half way up, gasping for air, and his trembling hand reached for his waistcoat pocket, but he resisted, fought back the urge, and pressed on.

Sudden movement in the second story window of a shabby, grey-planked inn caught his eye.  Back-lit, ghostly, a lithe female form moved across the open window, little more than a flash of pale, bare skin.  She was lovely.

He paused and sniffed the air.  His nostrils tingled with the aroma of the warm blood coursing through her veins.  Sweet red currents.  Wine of the undead.  Anticipation took him and his heart began to race.

He moved to the door, but hesitated. The innkeeper would ask questions. He was not in the mood for questions. Not in the mood to kill beings beneath his dignity.

With a quick glance over his shoulder, he slunk round the side of the inn into the blackest shadows and, with a word, transformed himself to his bat form.  His slight human body became mouse small. Wings that unfolded like leather kites sprouted and carried him aloft. He darted triumphantly from the alley, soared out over the street, swung round, and dove into the window through which the nubile and naked beauty had so recently been exposed.

He struck the screen with such force he was nearly knocked out. His little bat body bounced back and tumbled down the roof tiles like a wounded bean bag, his wings whumping audibly as he pattered noisily downward and lodged firmly in the rain gutter, stuck sound.

“Son of a bitch!” he said, though the words sounded naught but a squeak upon his batty lips. “When the hell did they install screens?”

It took him a few moments to regain his composure, but soon he set himself to the task of extricating himself from the rain gutter in which he was fairly wedged. He flapped and thrashed for some time, squeaking inarticulate profanities that echoed down the metal drainpipe and trumpeted feebly into the night, until, at length, he acquiesced to the futility of his circumstance.

Face pressed into the bottom of the rain gutter as it was, little bat rump pointed skyward and not enough legs to give any sort of thrust, it became obvious that his only hope of escape lay in resuming human form. He sighed, a whole bodied thing that swelled his furry bat body briefly tighter in its trap. Knowing well this was not going to turn out pleasantly, he made the shift.

The weight of his body tore the gutter loose from the roof, and he fell to the ground with a cacophonous crash of hollow aluminum drain-piping and a litany of profanity. Landing on his back with a thud, he had what little wind he still possessed torn from him. He gasped and felt the familiar clutch of alveoli slamming shut, his lungs defiant despite his body’s demand for air.

“God damn it,” he said for the fortieth time in less than a minute. He tried to resist the urge again, still wanting to preserve the dignity of the night, but he could not breathe. His gasps risked becoming audible. He reached into his waistcoat pocket, pulled out the little white “L” of his inhaler, and placed it to his lips. With a squeeze and “thwwwk” of expelled mist, he drew his asthma medicine into his lungs and felt the cold relief turn warm inside of him as his airways opened up again. He took the time to let his breathing return to normal before putting his inhaler away.

“Son of a bitch,” he said.

He looked up at the window and listened, certain that his victim had heard all the noise.  He saw no sign of her, but as he listened, he heard the sound of a shower running somewhere inside the room. Huzzah!  She had not heard. There was still a chance. He might still dine tonight.  Still taste her.

He considered climbing the lattice on the side of the inn, but his arms were thin and his enthusiasm for feats of physicality had abated some with the debacle as a bat. He went to the front door and entered the inn.

The innkeeper greeted him merrily. “Can I help you?”

Vlad gave his most rictus hiss, fangs bared and both hands raised talon-like before him. With a subtle quiver of his head to lend ferocity to his breathy snarl, he whirled, the silken underbelly of his cape flickering in the lamp light, and stalked up the stairs exuding menace.

The innkeeper’s chin retracted and his round face pulled back into his fleshy neck.  He frowned a wide, fat frown. “Odd duck, that,” he muttered, and went back to his newspaper and tea.

Vlad found her room. He placed his hand upon the knob and his ear against the smooth wood. He could still hear the hiss of the shower spout, could picture her naked in the steamy wet. He drew in a long, hungering breath and turned the knob slowly so as not to make a sound.

It was locked.

“Shit.

He tried turning the knob the other way but it wouldn’t move. He jockeyed it back and forth a few times, making more noise than he would have wished. The knob would not budge. He swore silently in his mind.

He leaned away, still holding the door knob but tilting away to the fullest reach of his slender arms. With a great heave, he threw himself against the door. Pain shot through his shoulder and down his arm.

“Ow,” he cried, wincing and grinding his teeth. “Mother . . .” He forced himself to silence, cutting the oath in half. Jeezus that hurt.  Wow. What was that thing made of, black oak for God’s sake? Who the hell put doors like that in a village inn?

Just then an ancient old crone came along pushing a rickety room service cart. “Can I kelp you?” she asked in a heavy accent.

“Um, yes,” he said, his vampire mind ever quick as the night. “I seem to have lost my room key.  Can you let me in?”

“Oh chur,” she said. “I wheel let ju een.”

He stood impatiently as the woman opened the door.  He thanked her and she tottered on down the hallway.

He slipped inside, catlike and silent, and pulled the door closed behind him.  The sound of the shower was still audible across the room.

He crept toward the half-open bathroom door.  He could see the shower curtain drawn, steam rising thick from behind its blind and the mirror obscured with fog.  He smelled jasmine soap and blood. His heart began once more to race.

He slipped into the humid space and allowed himself a moment more to scent his prey.  Then he drew back the curtain to expose her nakedness.  He stared.  She was sublimely feminine, glistening and wet.

“Hah, hah!” said he, lowering his voice an octave and injecting a Transylvanian accent as best he could. “Good Evening. Tonight, you will be mine.

She turned and regarded him coolly, a querulous eyebrow raised. She had a pit bull tattooed on her right tit. It was extraordinarily large and the expression on its face was almost bored.

She punched him in the mouth twice in rapid succession. Bam. Bam. He stumbled back and hit his head on the wall. Bam. She hit him again and he actually heard his left fang bounce into the sink with the clink of enamel on porcelain.

She drew back her fist to punch him again, but he raised his fierce talon-like hands, fingers splayed, and begged her to stop with wide apoplectic eyes. “I give, I give!”

She frowned at him and shook her head in disgust.  Water and steam glazed her perfect body and the pitt bull stood steady guard upon her shimmering breast.

“Get out,” she snarled, fist still cocked.

“Okay, okay. Just let me find my tooth.”

He turned and scanned the sink.  The bloody incisor was resting against the stopper.  He plucked it out, quickly turned, and fled before she could change her mind.

Out in the darkness once more, the night air cooled the steam that lay upon his skin. He took out his inhaler and drew in a long burst. The hunt was not going well. His mouth really hurt, and it was going to cost a fortune to get that tooth put back in again. He sighed.

He moped his way back down the hill, kicking pebbles and cursing his fate. Once again he heard the cat yowling in the alley just down the street.  He heard his stomach growl.  How humiliating. Left to feed on animals.

He moved into the alley and spotted the cat right away near the back. He hoped he wouldn’t have to give chase. He had so little of the hunter left in him tonight. But the cat came right up to him and wound itself round between his feet. It purred loudly.

He picked it up and held it to his bosom, stroking it softly for a while. He didn’t want to do it. It was too disgraceful. But he could smell its blood, could hear its tiny heart beating inside, pushing nourishment through the hot tributaries of its veins. He was starving.

He raised the kitty to his lips, turned it so that its neck was exposed, and bit. He winced a little as the tender hole where his fang had been gave him a jolt of pain, but he greedily drew the warm sustenance from the cat. The ecstasy of satiation overwhelmed him, but he had only managed a few swallows when the light came on.

An alley door opened and an old woman stepped out with a bowl of warm milk in her hand. “Wilhelmina,” she called.  “Here, Pussy, here.”

Then she spotted Vlad. “Oh my,” she gasped.  Realization dawned as she took in the scene, and for the second time that night he found himself being charged by a woman bent on his destruction, albeit this one a good forty or fifty years the senior of the last.

“What are you doing to my Pussy?” she cried, outraged.

Vlad, still clutching the cat, turned and ran.  The old woman gave chase. “Wilhelmina, Wilhelmina,” she cried. “Help, help.  Someone help me. He’s eating my Pussy!”

Vlad dashed toward the street. By now, the cat was a writhing spasm of claws and teeth. It bit and scratched him mercilessly.

He yelped as Wilhelmina set to shredding him.  “Shit,” he cried.  He extricated kitty claws and kitty teeth from his forearm and wrist and tossed the shrieking cat away.

Just then, two young men came round the nearest corner.

“Help me,” came the shrieks from behind him.  “Get him.”

“What did he do?” asked one of the young men, pushing up his sleeves and preparing for a fight.

“He tried to eat my Pussy.”

Vlad made ready to sprint from the alley and up the hill, but a tall and elegant blonde woman, having heard the commotion, stepped from a doorway into his path.  She stared squarely at him with a curious expression dawning on her face.

The old woman trundled toward him from one direction and the two young men drew near from the other.  The company regarded him severely, their eyes traveling back and forth between the vampire and the cat, who had crept under the old woman’s skirts and was now only identifiable by its twitching tail.

“Don’t you ever touch my Pussy again,” the old woman hissed.

Vlad looked left and right.  He was trapped. The pretty blonde looked as if she might vomit, but the two young men were not so kind.

“Sicko,” spat one.

“Pervert,” muttered the other.

Vlad at first thought to argue, to defend, but at length decided there was no point.  He crossed the street and slunk silently home.  Once he had reached the sanctuary of his room, he sat down on his bed, took off his shoes, and tossed his cape onto the floor.

The motionless female figure still lay on his bed exactly as he had left her.  He turned her over and stared into her vacant face.  One of her eyes was stuck closed and an eyelash was coming off.

It was the same one that always came off.  It really irked him, because he’d spent the extra money to get the very best model that money could buy.  And still this eyelash was always coming off.  It wasn’t right.  He thought he might fire off an angry letter.

They just didn’t make sex dolls like they used to. Not even the expensive ones.

His life sucked.  Eternity was going to last a long, long time.

__________

John Daulton’s books, THE GALACTIC MAGE and AT THE AUCTION, are now available on Kindle.

 

Thigh Pains Drifter

by L.T. Fawkes

Little Eustace “Willy” O’Woanty stared out the window, wiped the grime from the window pane, and stared again.  He couldn’t believe his eyes.  It couldn’t be him.  But it was.

Pa,” he shouted.

He turned toward the back of the tiny dry goods store.  “Pa,” he shouted again.  “You better come out here.”

“Land o’ Lakes,” his pa yelled.  “What is it now, Willie?  You know I’m in the back room a tryin’ to get these here burlap bags trimmed so I can . . . ”

“Never mind the bags, Pa.  You’ll never guess who jes rode in to town and tied up his horse over in front of the Plug Nickel Saloon.”

Ma O’Woanty pursed her thin, dry lips as she looked up from the penny candy jars she was restocking. “No, I don’t guess he ever will guess, Willie.”

Willie said, “You’re asking me?”

Ma said, “Huh?”

Willie said, “You said you don’t guess he ever will guess will he.”

Ma shook her head sadly.  “You’n your Pa are both dumb as cow pies.  Who did you see tie up over yonder? Reckon you better jes tell us.”

Willie turned to his ma and swallowed hard.  “Bernard the Kid.  The famous gunfighter.”

Ma O’Woanty burst out laughing.  “Oh, Willie. What would Bernard the Kid be a doin’ here in Vulture Gulch?  Next yer a goin’ to tell us someday the Arizony Territory’ll be a state.”

Meanwhile, over in the Plug Nickel . . .

The saloon was crowded, as it was every day during Happy Hour.  The tall stranger stood just inside the batwing doors, fingers twitching at his sides, and surveyed the scene.  He lifted his left dust-caked boot several inches off the floor, winced, shook his leg briskly, and winced again.  Then he repeated the process with the right boot.

The piano player was hard at work.  What he lacked in talent he made up for in volume.  Men shouted and laughed, girls squealed, and a dog sat near one of the poker tables rubbing his ass on the uneven hardwood floor. He paused every so often to let loose with a long, loud howl.

The stranger was bone-tired.  Every orifice was caked with sand. He was saddle-sore and drier than a temperance rally. There was only one thing on his mind.

Squinting into the dim interior, he ran his eyes down along the bar and back again.  Men were packed in tight all along it shoulder to shoulder, so he selected two who looked from the back like they had it coming, and shot them.

As it happened, both of them did have it coming, so nobody minded, but a brief silence fell over the large, crowded room.

The Plug Nickel proprietor, Buddy Johnson, yelled, “Ox. Where is that . . . there you are.  Oxnard.  Drag these bodies out back and toss them on the corpse heap.”

A great lunking oaf who looked at first glance as if he ought to have only one central eye but actually as it turned out had the customary two, grabbed the left ankle of one of the men and the right ankle of the other and dragged them away.

Buddy Johnson signaled to the piano player to get at it.  The merry tinkle resumed and was accompanied, almost instantly, by the shouting and laughing and squealing and howling.

Buddy Johnson leaned an elbow on the business side of the bar and smiled at the stranger as he stepped into the sudden gap.  “What’ll it be, pardner?”

“Whiskey,” the stranger growled, slapping down a twenty dollar gold piece.  “Water back.  And leave the bottle.”

“Yessir.  But if you are, as I imagine, Bernard the Kid, put your money away.  Your whiskey’s on the house.”

The stranger glanced to his right and then to his left.  Then he fixed a steady gaze on the man to his right and stared until the man looked over.

The stranger said, “I still don’t have enough elbow room. You look to me like you’ve got it coming, too.”

The man blinked, slammed the remainder of his drink, and made a hasty exit.

The stranger chuckled good-naturedly.

Johnson returned with a whiskey bottle, a shot glass, and a tall glass of water, and poured a careful thimble-full of whiskey into the shot glass.

The stranger glanced at the shot glass, flexed his knees, grimaced, drained the water glass, ignored the shot glass, picked up the whiskey bottle, and guzzled heartily. Eventually slamming the half-empty, or, if you prefer, half-full, whiskey bottle down, the stranger said, “Happens I am Bernard the Kid.  Have we met?”

Buddy Johnson said, “No, Sir.  Haven’t had the pleasure until this very minute.  My name’s Buddy Johnson and I’m pleased to meet you.”

He stuck out a hand and Bernard the Kid shook it.

Buddy Johnson continued, “I recognized you from hearing about your legendary Stepson eleven-gallon hat.”

Bernard the Kid nodded.  “In burnt orange, and I got the matching burnt orange chaps, too.  I expect you noticed the chaps when I paused in the doorway over yonder.”

Buddy Johnson hadn’t noticed the chaps as a matter of fact, because, standing in the doorway with the late afternoon sun behind him, Bernard the Kid had been nothing more than a leg-shaking shadow.  But explaining this seemed like a lot of trouble to go to, so Buddy Johnson just nodded.

Bernard the Kid guzzled the rest of the whiskey bottle’s contents and slammed the bottle down on the bar.  Buddy Johnson replaced the empty bottle with a fresh one lickety split.

Bernard the Kid eyed the new bottle.  “Is this one free, too?”

Buddy Johnson grinned.  “You bet.”

Bernard the Kid frowned.  “What’s the catch?”

Buddy Johnson was puzzled.  “Catch?”

“What do you want in return for the free whiskey?”

“Oooh.  Well, I hadn’t really thought about it . . . how about in return you don’t kill any more of my customers?”

Bernard shook his head in a rueful manner.  “Uh uh uh.  You saloon keepers.”

“Huh?”

“Let me explain something to you.  I look around and I think to myself, sure, nobody’s offending me right now.  I can promise not to kill any more of this man’s customers.  But how do I know that in the next minute somebody won’t become offensive?  And here I’ve went and took and promised in advanced not to kill him.  Then what do I do?”

Buddy Johnson nodded.  “Point well taken.  Okay, how about this?  Promise not to kill me . . . and I assure you I would never knowingly do anything to offend you the least little bit.  Not only that, but if at some time in the future I should inadvertently offend you, I would apologize sincerely the second you made me aware of my mistake.”

Bernard the Kid nodded.  “That seems reasonable.  Anything else?”

“Pardon?”

“Do you want anything else in return for the free whiskey?”

“Oh, I see.  Well . . . yes.  See that little redhead over there leaning on the piany?”

“I see a red head, but she don’t look all that little.”

“Okay, that nice big red-headed gal.”

“The one with the feathers?  I see her.”

Buddy Johnson nodded. “Don’t shoot her, neither.  She’s my favorite little gal, and that’s a easy promise because she ain’t never done nothing to offend nobody except maybe the ladies from the church. You promise not to shoot me and not to shoot that little red-headed gal and your bill’s paid in full.”

Bernard nodded, and as he did so, he shifted his weight and winced again.

Buddy Johnson noticed the gunman’s grimace.

“You okay there, Bernard?”

Bernard grimaced again and took a mighty slug from the fresh bottle.  “I’m as stiff and sore as a . . . as a . . . well, I’m plenty stiff and sore.  I been in the saddle too long.  My legs is numb and I got the shooting pains all up and down, and that’s a plain fact.”

“What you want . . . ” said Buddy Johnson “ . . . is a good long soak in a good hot tub.”

Bernard the Kid nodded.  “When you’re right, you’re right.  Where does a man go to get a good hot bath around here?”

“Look no further.  Ox.  Hey, Oxnard.”

The big oaf stuck his head around the corner from the back hallway.

“Start heating up some water.  Got a man here needs a good long soak.”

Bernard smiled.  “Well, now, that’s right nice of you, Buddy.”

Before long the tub was full of steaming water.  Buddy Johnson himself led Bernard the Kid up to the best room in the house.  It was the room Buddy Johnson liked to call the Presidential Suite, even though chances were slim to none that a president of anything would ever get anywhere near Vulture Gulch, much less that particular room in the Plug Nickel Saloon.

He made sure the famous gunfighter had everything he might need for a pleasant and relaxing bath, and then he departed and left the aching man to it.

Bernard the Kid set his half-finished whiskey bottle and the unopened spare whiskey bottle on the old, scarred dresser.  He set his trademark burnt orange eleven-gallon Stepson hat next to them.  Then he began to peel off his dusty, sweaty clothes.

And he had just stepped out of his filthy pants, thus becoming naked as a jay bird, when the door suddenly opened and a young boy stepped into the room.

“Holy cow, Mr. Kid,” the young boy exclaimed.  “I told my ma it was you and she didn’t believe me.  But it is you.  Gee-munee.”

Bernard the Kid wasn’t the shy retiring type – not by a long shot – but he knew enough to know it’s wrong for young boys to walk in on a man when the man’s naked and getting ready to ease his aching body into a steaming tub. And he was just gathering his thoughts to express them aloud when the boy continued.

“Look, Mr. Kid.  I brung you some penny candy.”  The kid began emptying his bulging pockets.  “I’ll just set them right here next to your famous hat, okay?”

Bernard the Kid said, “Look here, boy . . . ”

“A lot of it’s just pulled taffy, but it’s pretty good.  Mr. Kid, you used to be my third favoritest hero, but now I get to see you in person, I’m making you my first favoritest.  Jesse James’ll slide on down to second and Wyatt Earp’ll take third place where you used to be.”

“Boy.  Didn’t your Ma teach you . . . ”

“There,” the boy said, dumping the last few pieces of candy onto the dresser top.  “That’s all of it.  Tarnation. I can’t hardly believe – hey.  Mr. Kid.  What’s that line around your middle?”

Bernard the Kid blinked at the boy.  “Huh?”

“That line . . . ”  The boy pointed in the general direction of Bernard the Kid’s waistline. “Right there.  And look.  There’s another one around each of your legs right above your knees.  And hey.  There’s another one down around boot-top territory.”

Bernard the Kid bent forward to see what the boy was talking about and the movement caused another wave of acute pain.  He winced.  “Oh.  Those.  I guess that’s from where I tie on my famous trademark burnt orange chaps.”

The boy nodded wisely.  “The ones that match your famous hat.  But listen here, Mr. Kid. Those lines . . . are your legs hurtin’ you bad?  Are they numb-like, and pains all shootin’ up and down?”

“Why . . . ” said Bernard the Kid “ . . . yes.  How did you know?”

A slow knowing smile spread across the boy’s face.  “Let me tell you a little story.  A few years ago, my ma . . . ”

Bernard the Kid interrupted.  “Speaking of your ma, does she know you’re here?  Starin’ at the indentations on a famous gunfighters nether regions?”

The boy paled.  “Oh, golly no.  I snecked away when she weren’t lookin’.  And don’t you tell her, neither.  She’d skin me alive if she knew.  Now where was I?  Oh, yeah.  A few years ago, she started getting bad pains in her legs ever Sunday.  She called ‘em her church pains.  Her legs’d go numb and it got so she couldn’t hardly walk for the pains Sunday nights and the next few days after.”

Bernard the Kid became interested in spite of his annoyance.  “That sounds like what I’ve got.”

The boy nodded.  “It got worser and worser.  And then finally she figgered it out.  My ma’s a figgerin’ out kind of person.”

Bernard the Kid nodded.  He’d known a few figgerin’ out kinds of ladies in his time.  “Well, what was the answer?”

“She’d been puttin’ on weight over the years.  But ever Sunday she kept on wearing her special Sunday stockin’s.  She sets a lot of store by them stockin’s.”

Bernard the Kid nodded.  He knew how certain ladies get pretty attached to their special stockin’s.

“Well Sir?  Ma’s legs kept getting bigger and bigger, but those Sunday stockin’s stretched to a certain extent and then they got to a point where they didn’t have any more give.  They was just plain too tight.  They cut off her legs from circulatin’.  And she finally figgered out that’s what was miscomfortin’ her. Once’t she quit squeezin’ her legs into those Sunday stockin’s, the pains went away.”

Bernard the Kid weighed this information.  “Well, I’m happy for your ma, but what’s that got to do with me?  I ain’t wearin’ no tight stockin’s.”

The boy said, “No, Sir, you ain’t.  But you’re wearin’ your trademark burnt orange chaps.”

“Oh, now you jes hold on,” Bernard the Kid cried.  “You ain’t ever a tellin’ me I got to give up my special trademark burnt orange chaps as matches my special trademark burnt orange eleven gallon Stepson hat.”

No,” cried the boy.  “You oughn’t never to give up your trademark burnt orange gear.  All you got to do is, you got to stop tying them chaps on so tight.”

__________

A Trip to the Sacred Persimmon Spires: I

New Golf Resort – Persimmon Spires

from the book Golf Beat: A Year in the Life of Persimmon Pines

by Larry Caringer

Persimmon Spires at Poking Buffalo Lake . . . the name alone inspires visions of spectacular mountains and bucolic settings balanced along the shoreline of this pristine and sacred Chockasoutauk Indian site just thirty minutes west of Persimmon Pines via State Route 13.

Of course, because it is a sacred site, few of us of European ancestry have been privileged to see the area unless we took one of the $40 mule-ride tours of the area led by Chockasoutauk guides and only offered on weekends during the summer.

So imagine this Reporter’s surprise when, a few days ago, well-known area golfer and land developer T. Earl Gerbley contacted me to ask if I would like to accompany him on a trip to this sacrosanct natural wonderland.

He said he wanted to show me something. Or, to quote him exactly: “I want you to be the first to hear about some plans for a new golf course development that are gonna blow your socks off!”

We made the drive out of town last Thursday afternoon in Gerbley’s Mercedes. Our guide was Proudfoot Dibbledick, Chockasoutauk Indian and the Natural History Professor at Traylor County Community College. As we turned off Broadway onto Route 13, the developer put his right arm over the back of the passenger seat and slouched sideways, steering with only the first finger of his left hand.

He looked in the rearview mirror to make eye contact. “Of all the land I’ve had a hand in leveling and reshaping to my liking, I have never been more excited about a project than this one.”

We swerved slightly across the yellow line as Gerbley tousled the hair of Professor Dibbledick. “And this guy is the one who is making it possible. He went to bat for me with the elders of the Chockasoutauk Nation at their annual tribal meeting over at their casino in Looseneck Falls last month.”

Dibbledick smiled sheepishly. “My role in all this is fairly small. I simply presented the elders with the visions, philosophy, and spreadsheets Mr. Gerbley gave me. But I’m glad to be onboard as an advisor to Mr. Gerbley. You know, so we can preserve the Chockasoutauk heritage as we provide public access to our reservation and an area our religion has always seen as off-limits to outsiders.”

We were pushed back in our seats momentarily when Gerbley floored the Mercedes and blew the horn.  We slipped over the double yellow around a slow moving pickup, just ahead of an oncoming coal truck.

“So Professor,” I managed after catching my breath, “tell me about Persimmon Spires.”

Dibbledick paused a moment to collect his thoughts. “Well, as a Natural History teacher, I can tell you that Persimmon Spires is a natural granite formation created over millennia by the forces of erosion, wind, and water. It is said that the three perfectly-sculpted rocky outcroppings look exactly like huge persimmons. It was probably this amazing resemblance to the very fruit which sustained my ancestors that caused them to conclude this was a holy place.”

We drove in silence onto the reservation’s gravel road. I asked how the lake got it’s name. The Developer was quick to answer. “I know that one. When the Braves went out to hunt buffalo, they’d force ‘em down the Chumtaw Crick toward the shore of the lake where the women would be waiting with spears.”

“Poking Buffalo Lake.” I weighed each word carefully.

Gerbley chuckled. “Indians knew how to get to the heart of it, didn’t they?” He stopped the car and flung open the door. “We’re here.”

We got out of the Mercedes under the awe-inspiring spectacle of Persimmon Spires. I have lived here all my life. But, like most Persimmon Pineseans, I’ve only seen the Spires in vacation brochures published by the Chamber of Commerce.  Never in person. They do in fact look like three perfectly sculpted 200 foot long persimmons standing on end.

Just beyond lies the unspoiled beauty of Poking Buffalo Lake. Proudfoot Dibbledick turned his palms skyward and seemed to be offering a silent prayer to the long-dead spirits of his ancestors.

Gerbley patted him on the back. “We’ll put pictures of Indian chiefs in the golf course club house . . . which we’ll build right here.”

Over the next forty-five minutes, Gerbley walked us through his designers’ plans to “improve the natural flow of the environment by imbedding architectural creations that will illuminate the landscape and create vistas heretofore unknown to those who, until recently, held sole title to this land.”

The plans, while too huge to go into right now, are quite impressive. Thumbnail sketch: Three Championship golf courses, a marina with access to the Plunker River via private canal, 50,000 square-foot clubhouse, and four gourmet restaurants open to the public – including a 20,000 square foot Olive Garden.

Impressive. Yet, I had to ask myself . . . and later, T. Earl Gerbley himself, “How were you able to persuade the tribal elders to allow you to build a golf community on their holiest site?”

Proudfoot Dibbledick turned away and bowed his head as Gerbley smiled and pointed to a spot over my shoulder.

“Right over there . . . I’m gonna build the Indians a newer and bigger casino.”

WASHBOARD VLAD

By John Daulton

The sun loomed heavy in the summer sky, baking the dirt and steaming the air to molten humidity. Men worked beneath that white-hot orb, bent by its fire, digging, lifting, making. Some drove tractors, sheltered by small metal roofs as they stirred up clouds of dust. Others worked shovels and picks, sweating under yellow hard hats and dust-streaked tank-top tees which clung to the corrugated sculpture of labor-chiseled flesh.

Pam sat behind the wheel of her minivan and sighed wistfully as she watched them work. The air conditioner lifted a lazy strand of mouse-brown hair and sent it fluttering against her pale and slender neck. Traffic moved slowly through the single lane of orange cones until she finally found herself at the front of the line.

He stood in the center of the intersection, tall, swarthy, and sinewy. His leathery skin, stretched taut across muscles that were toned and deeply carved, glistened with a sheen of sweat that reflected the sun’s hot rays.

“Good lord,” she thought. She watched him directing traffic. His arms were strong and brown, his biceps young boulders that shifted each time he waved another vehicle through. A thrill ran through her body as her eyes traced the lines of his powerful frame.

Finally he turned to wave the cars in her lane through. He paused, caught her gawking at him, and gave her a knowing, deep-eyed look. His grin was almost a smirk. His eyes narrowed just enough to let her know he’d read her mind and sensed the girlish thrill coursing like electricity through her loins. His grin widened with her blush.

He was waving her onward, his sign turned to the “Slow” side, and the car behind her honked. She shook herself and drove past him, mortified. He stared as she went by, watched her every moment as she crept through the orange corridor of cones. He gripped the shaft of his long stop sign and leaned upon it with a single-noted laugh, the wind of humor expanding his brawny chest. His cheeks dimpled, and his grin became a smile.

The whole way home she wrung the steering wheel and swung back and forth between laughter and gasps of nearly teenage delight—and her at forty-something too! “Good God,” she giggled.

She thought about him constantly as she trudged through the tedium of another suburban day, and as the late afternoon approached, she could not help but wonder if he was still there.

Stupid, she thought even as she was walking back out to her car. What are you doing? But she got in and started it and headed back to the construction zone. It was after five. There was little hope that he’d still be there. But he was.

She pulled up and waited her turn. He was turned away from her and she had time to admire his wide shoulders and the angular taper of his strong back, his wedge-shaped grace. It made her think of a manta ray; simple, brown and elegant; a thing of Nature.

She noticed a large tattoo on his right shoulder and squinted, leaning near the steering wheel straining to make it out. It was a vampire, rendered in black, supporting a woman collapsed over his arm, her head back, her tender throat exposed to the predator hovering above her with his teeth bared and prepared to bite.

Something about that tattoo thrilled her, and she was startled when he spun to face her suddenly, staring straight into her eyes and staking her to her seat with the raw ferocity of his gaze. He shimmered in the super-heated air. She blinked several times. Did he just shimmer? That had to be the heat. Right?

He grinned and waved at her. She raised a hand and, with fingers barely unfurled, waved back. She could see him sort of chortle at the meekness of her wave, and he moved to her left as she passed. Something compelled her to roll the window down an inch.

“Pull over,” he said. Just that. He pointed to a stretch of dirt alongside the road with the simple motion of his head. One side of his mouth twisted up a bit.

Only an idiot would pull over.

So why was she doing it? She couldn’t even believe it as she put the minivan in park. He was walking over to her, his stop sign thrust unattended into the open mouth of a traffic cone behind him, left to mind the traffic on its own.

Shit, shit, shit, she thought. Her heart was racing. She kept thinking about the tattoo on his shoulder. The vampire. He was almost there.

He approached and she rolled the window all the way down. He presumed the invitation and leaned in, veined forearms resting on the window’s edge, a film of dust sticking to sweat-damp hair that looked very soft. He paused, closed his eyes and inhaled the air-conditioned air. Or her.

He looked at her. She could smell him, hot and near.

“Follow me,” he said. Half command and half question, his voice barely rising at the end.

Of course she wasn’t going to follow him.

Were his incisors longer than normal?

He straightened, walked past her car, and climbed into an old pickup parked nearby. It had a stretch of red tape bandaging a broken tail light.

There was no way she was going to follow him.

He drove off.

She blinked, incredulous, as she pulled out behind him and followed him a few miles until he pulled into a dilapidated old trailer park near a riverbank.

Jesus, she thought.

He got out of his truck and took a few steps towards a rather wilted looking trailer sitting on six blocks of cement. It was awfully small.

But she got out.

He turned, walked to the front door, and opened it. She couldn’t stop staring at the tattoo. The vampire moved on his skin as his muscles worked with the small effort of turning the key. It had to be that, the movement, that mesmerized her. This close, she could see the vampire wasn’t looking at his inken prey. It was looking out. At her.

Inside, the trailer was dark. The only light came coffee-brown through a drawn window shade. A lance of sunlight cut a plane of dust motes in the air.

He turned to her and reached around her to pull the door closed. The space was close. She could feel the heat coming off his body again. His chest brushed hers and she throbbed with the fervor of her pulse.

He smelled incredible. Unearthly yet entirely of the earth. Otherwordly. So unfathomably male.

She had to say something. This was getting intense. Her mind raced. Anything.

He turned and scraped a heap of clothing off the dilapidated couch. The motion scared the dust motes. Set them churning like a swarm of frightened gnats. She could see the vampire on his shoulder dimly as he stooped.

“Nice tattoo,” she said. Stupid! That wasn’t what she wanted to say.

“You like it?” he said.

“Yes. Very much.”

“Me too. I like vampires.”

She smiled.

“I am one,” he said.

“What?”

“I am one.” His voice was changed. Less baritone than she recalled. But the grin was still exactly as before. Disarming.

She gave a nervous sort of laugh. Looked at him. His expression was blank except for the grin. Finally, she stammered a nervous, “What?”

“Nothing.” He motioned for her to sit.

She drew in a long, speculative breath, but still her body placed itself beneath him on the couch. He sat next to her, turned slightly to face her. A long, sinuous arm stretched towards her and rested muscular along the back of the couch.

“You’re pretty,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“I like pretty girls.”

“Um, thanks.”

He leaned forward and nuzzled her neck. She felt him breathing, heard the sound of air drawn in as he scented her. Warm skin touched her neck as his nose and mouth brushed the ivory flesh beneath her ear.

Her body quivered, but her mind still raced. What if he tried to bite her? That vampire thing was a joke, right?

He nibbled once, softly, mostly, and her hand moved reflexively to his chest just beneath his shoulder. She pressed her fingers so that they bent gently against him. His skin was damp and warm, his body yielding but firm, powerful beneath her touch. She felt her fingers tremble slightly. She still hadn’t decided if she was going to push him away or pull him close.

He kissed the nape of her neck again. Down to the softest turn of her tender throat. She could feel the rough stubble of his jaw. She leaned into him, felt him shudder, his thick-fingered hand sliding into her hair. He suddenly clutched her tightly with an impassioned fist. He pressed against her and gasped. His breath was a hot wind upon her flesh. He was going to bite her. She could feel it in her soul.

“Shit,” he said, and leaned suddenly away. “God damn it.”

“What?” she moaned. “What?”

The silly side of her, the hoping side, wondered if he was struggling with his conscience. Couldn’t bring himself to do it, couldn’t turn her, was unwilling to subject her to the life of a vampire.

He stood and turned away from her. He moved the half a step that brought him to the kitchen part of the trailer in, well, half a step. He seemed to be fighting within himself. His posture was anguished. His powerful hand gripped a dish towel seemingly of its own accord.

“Damn it,” he said again. “I hate that. That always happens. Son of a bi . . . ”

He didn’t finish. He fumbled with the towel before him, out her view, and then slammed his fist against the wall. “Bad vampire. Bad!” he cried.

“What?” she repeated.

“Sorry.” He turned back to her, the towel jammed into his waistband, dangling like a tattered loincloth over the front of his jeans. “I was hoping this wouldn’t happen again.”

“Wait, what?” She squinted in the dim light.

He stammered, looked away, mumbled something stupid, did everything to avoid looking down at his pants. Her eyes discovered, by his ocular omission, the vestiges of a still-blooming patch of darkness. She froze.

“Woah. Wait. Dude, are you serious?”

He looked sheepish. She rolled her eyes in utter disbelief.

A vampire? She must have completely lost her mind.

A plastic statue of Spongebob Squarepants stood on a shelf above the door, fangs and a black cape marking it as a kid’s meal toy dating back to Halloween. She saw it, shook her head, and moaned,

He shrugged.

She stood and, with as much dignity as she could resurrect, left him. She climbed into her car, and resolved to, in the future, fantasize about doughier but much more intelligent men.

– The End –

The Adventures of Shadowski and Powell

by L. T. Fawkes

Some years ago, on a brisk spring afternoon, my entire Spanish 4 class got sent to the principal’s office. Here’s what happened:

It was probably the same at your high school: Freshman year there were three or four Spanish 1 classes, each of them crammed with twenty-five or thirty awkward and acned fourteen-year-olds, but by the time senior year rolled around, the number of Spanish scholars had dwindled down to a single class of seventeen or eighteen short-timers.

This particular class I’m telling you about had an odd dynamic. The girls, with one or possibly two exceptions, were studious people who tended toward cardigan sweaters, unfortunate hairdos, and poor posture. (The couple of exceptions were not particularly studious young ladies. In fact, they – how can I put this delicately? – um – it wasn’t their first rodeo?)

I can’t tell you for sure how those studious girls ended up in Spanish 4, but I mean, if you’re a studious girl and there’s a Spanish 4 available, are you going to stop at Spanish 3? Cash it in? Call it a day? I think not.

The boys, oddly enough, were mostly jocks, and I can tell you how they ended up in Spanish 4. The guidance counselor at our high school was a rabid sports fan who enjoyed chatting it up with the jocks, and he’d been guidance counseling for a long time. You don’t spend several decades guidance counseling and not end up with quite a lot of wisdom, and this guy had distilled all his accumulated wisdom down into one bit of advice which he shared freely with his friends the jocks. It was this:

Take Spanish 4. Then you don’t get stuck with a language requirement in college.

Now, I don’t know if this is a universal truth, but the way the studious girl/jock dynamic worked in that Spanish 4 class was that the studious girls (who, up until they walked into that classroom, had led pretty sheltered existences), on finding themselves surrounded by a bunch of jocks who were used to pretty much doing anything for a laugh and usually getting away with it because they were jocks (jocks who were, for the most part, fairly attractive young specimens of man-hood) the studious girls thought everything the jocks did was hilarious, even when it wasn’t.

In short, the jocks had the studious girls rolling in the aisles.

Our high school had a pretty rapid turnover when it came to Spanish teachers. The rate, as I recall, was one per year, and in either Spanish 2 or Spanish 3, we had two different teachers in the same term.

The Spanish 4 teacher, whose name I can’t remember so I’ll just call him Señor, was a young carrot-top with nervous indigestion and allergies. He was pale and frail and started the year with a bad case of the shakes and we certainly didn’t help him any.

It was not uncommon for him, each time the jocks got the studious girls wound up, to run out into the hall. Through the long window that framed one side of the classroom door, we could sometimes glimpse him dry-swallowing pills which may have only been antacid tablets but who really knows for sure?

Where was I? Oh, yeah. The two starting linebackers for our football team were best friends, they were both in that Spanish 4 class, and, due to incredibly poor judgment and lack of foresight on the part of Señor, they sat right across the aisle from each other.

I don’t know if you know about linebackers, and if you don’t, it’d take up too much room to give you a complete picture, but let me just say that they are ferocious-crazy on the football field and in all other places they pretty much do what they want because who’s going to tell them they can’t? Not me.

Shadowski thought Powellwas the funniest guy to ever walk the earth, and Powell appreciated that fact. Powell, besides being funny, also had an artistic bent. For as long as I’d known him, he’d entertained himself in classrooms by inking humorous decorations onto the pages of his textbooks. Then he double-dipped on the entertainment factor by surreptitiously holding the books up for those seated around him to enjoy.

The fact that authority figures frown on people decorating their textbooks in black ink didn’t deter Powell whatsoever. Each year as time for textbook inspection and collection drew near, Powell’s textbooks magically became decoration-free and other people’s mothers found themselves writing checks to the school board.

All during the Spanish 4 year, Powell hunched over his Spanish 4 textbook inking in his traditional humorous decorations, most of which had to do with providing excretions in various forms and exaggerated body parts to the folks in the photographs and illustrations.

But that spring day, he added something new to his arsenal. Was it Dali who had a blue period, and then a green period, or whatever? Well, Powell added something new to his folio, and the something new was carpenter ants.

He began to draw lines of carpenter ants winding up and down the margins, in and out of the text, up the pant legs of people in photographs and into their noses and ears. And he put a lot of effort into his work. His carpenter ants weren’t your run-of-the-mill black blobs. Oh, no. He carefully sketched in the tiny little segmented bodies and the tiny little legs of each and every ant. No detail was too small for Powell.

If you’re sitting bored silly in a hot, stuffy Spanish 4 class taught by a neurotic young teacher and somebody holds up a textbook for you to look at and you stare at it, trying to understand what you’re looking at, and you suddenly realize it’s lines and lines of carpenter ants winding their way through the text and pictures, it’s funny . I don’t care who you are. I don’t care if the guy holding up the book is Powell and you’re Shadowski or not. You’re going to laugh.

Señor was writing a homework assignment on the blackboard. The fact that he had his back turned to the class was what gave Powell the opportunity to display his artwork. Shadowski burst out laughing, and so did I (I should have mentioned that I sat right behind Powell), and so did several of the girls who sat in our immediate vicinity.

On hearing the sudden burst of laughter, Señor spun around, glared, and slammed the book he held onto his desktop with a loud bang. The loud noise startled Shadowski and he sat up straight as a board.

“Señor Shadowskii.  Qué hace usted?”

And I may be misremembering this because it’s been a long time since I had any reason to speak Spanish, but what I mean to indicate the teacher said was, “Mister Shadowski. What are you doing?”

What Shadowski meant to say in reply was, “Nada, Senor.” Pronounced nah-dah. Which means, “Nothing, Sir.”

What he actually said was, “Nadie, Senor.” Pronounced nah-dee-yay. Which means, “Nobody, Sir.”

Spanish 4. That’s Spanish 1, then Spanish 2, then Spanish 3, and finally Spanish 4 – and Shadowski thought nadie meant nothing.

The laughter this time was universal.

Shadowski looked around, pleased with himself. Señor pounded on his desk and then pointed dramatically toward the classroom door.

Shadowski. Office ,” Senor screamed.

Powell raised his hand.

Senor glared at him. “What.

Powell said conversationally, “I’ve been thinking it over, and I really feel that I ought to go to the office, too. Seriously.”

The crowd went wild.

Senor pointed at the door again.

“Go,” he screamed.

Powell pointed at his chest. “Moi?”

More, and louder, laughter. French. See?

Senor screamed, “All of you. Get out.”

Our class straggled down that long, long hallway toward the office. I’m pretty sure I heard at least one of the studious girls sniffle. It seemed like it took a long time before we arrived in the office doorway.

There were three secretaries who worked in the office. They all had tight perms and bad attitudes. One of them looked up as we reached the open doorway and a look of horror mingled with fear spread over her face as she took us in. Fortunately for her, and probably for us, too, our good buddy the guidance counselor, holding a coffee cup in one hand and what might have been a jelly donut in the other, happened to be standing near her desk.

“Ho,” he said, taking in our large number. “Let’s go over to the library. There’s more room over there.”

He ushered us across the hall to the library and we all settled around tables. I noticed several of the girls looked a little ashen, and one or two of us might’ve smelled like teen spirit.

The guidance counselor said, “So, Shadowski. What’s up? Powell?”

Powell said, “We got kicked out of class, sir.”

The guidance counselor said, “What. All of you?”

Shadowski said, “Yup.”

The guidance counselor scratched his tummy. “What for?”

Powell shrugged.  “We were screwing around.”

The guidance counselor looked a little flummoxed. “Huh.” He looked around the big room and he might have been looking for a little counseling himself, but he didn’t find any.

“Huh,” he said again. Then he stood up from the table and gave the surface several gentle pats before turning to leave. “Well,” he said over his shoulder, “Don’t do that anymore.”

____________

Posted in LT Fawkes | 1 Comment

AGATHA BLISS

Introduction

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.

II

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.

III

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.”

IV

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.” 

II.

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.

 III. 

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. 

IV.

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.”

 “Hmm.”

“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?”

IV.

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

 I.

“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.”

 II.

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.”

“Bummer.”

“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.”

“Ahh.”

“I don’t think Sissy liked them very much, either.”

“Ahh.”

“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.

 III.

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

I.  

“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?”

“No.”

“Have you read any of them?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

 II.

“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.

 III.

 “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

 I. 

“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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.

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 

 I.   

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.

II.

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.  

III.

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. 

IV.

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.”

V.

“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.

VI. 

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.” 

VII.

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

 I.

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.”

“Marph?”

“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.

II.

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.”

III.

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.”

“Oh?”

“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?”

“Yeah.  Robert.”

“Why?”

“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.

IV.

When he returned to the garage Lewis asked, “Do you think I’d look good in glasses?”

 “Do you need glasses?”

“No.”

“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.

V.

Later that night Lewis said, “Sissy, there’s something I’ve got to tell you.”

“Oh?”

“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?”

“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?”

Hi shrugged.

Edith smiled fondly at her husband.  “My husband forgets nothing.”

“Oh, my.”

“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.”

Edith nodded.

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.”

Ray nodded.

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.

“Scotty?”

“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.

___________

MURDER INDEED

by Susan Pierce

 I.

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 MarphBut 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.”

II.

 “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.”

“Very sad.”

“Well yeah, but the thing is, is that Mr. Mackey didn’t like watching TV.”

“Oh?”

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.”

III.

“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 itHe’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?” 

IV.

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?”

Totally.”

“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.

 V.

 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.

__________


Judah’s Tears

by Susan Pierce

 I.

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.”

“I see.”

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.”

 II.

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.

III.

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.”

IV.

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.

V.

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.

__________

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