1 Aug 2012

A Novel by Sierra David Sterkin

Sierra David Sterkin 2012. All rights reserved

For Tina


, (transitive verb)
1. To put out of order.
2. Archaic To unsettle; derange.

a·ri·a, (noun)
1. A solo vocal piece with instrumental accompaniment, as in an opera.
2. An air; a melody.

Chapter 1

The wind cut against my face, slicing through my denim jacket like it wasn’t there. Minnesota in January. In my hotel room the night before, I saw on the TV, some guy from the local news had put a shirt in a bucket of water and pulled it out slowly, showing that the shirt would freeze as it was pulled from the water. My shirt felt like the icy one from the news the night before. The sweat from my chest freezing to a layer of ice against its fabric.

I stood outside the office of Mike Maverick Private Eye waiting for it to open. My watch said 7:30 a.m., and the sign on Mike’s door said he didn’t open until 9:30 a.m.

I wished I had brought a better coat. I was also starting to question whether renting a motorcycle had been the right decision. A standard sedan with a heater would have been a better choice, I thought.

It wasn’t easy finding a place that rented motorcycles, and the $350 I had spent back in L.A. learning to ride and getting my license seemed like a pittance at the time, but now that I was left without protection against the harsh Minnesota winter winds, it seemed like a bad idea.

I considered going to get a cup of coffee and coming back, but riding the bike on the slick, ice-covered roads had been a harrowing experience. I felt lucky for having gotten this far, and I didn’t want to press my luck by pushing further on when I was right outside Mike’s office.

I had found Mike through the local yellow pages. A phone booth outside my hotel had a phone book hanging from a metal arm under the pay phone. When I turned to the “Private Investigators” section of the yellow pages, Mike had a quarter page ad which had caught my attention.

The ad claimed that Mike was the best in the business, and I didn’t have time to shop around. I had come looking for my brother, and Mike’s ad claimed that he could “Find or Investigate Anyone.” It seemed like a lofty claim, but again, I wasn’t in the mood to shop around. Unfortunately, the ad didn’t have Mike’s hours, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have come so early. Now that I thought of it, it was stupid to think that anyone would be opened at this hour, but that hadn’t occurred to me earlier.

I sat on the bike, rubbing my hands and trying to keep warm. I checked the door twice, peering through the windows on the off chance that someone was inside early, but no luck.

I hated waiting. Waiting for anything had always bothered me. I never knew what to do with myself. Waiting out here in the cold was worse because I was afraid I was going to die as I was so miserably underdressed.

The ride over from the hotel had been a disaster. Being a novice rider to begin with, keeping the bike on the slick streets proved nearly impossible. There were several times I thought I was going to slide off the road completely. On the freeway, I kept the bike at a steady 40 miles per hour. A speed at which I quickly gained confidence in my ability to keep both tires underneath my body, but it was so much drastically slower than the 65 mile per hour speed limit that other vehicles, including several large trucks on their morning runs, blasted past me, exploding into view on my left and right as I wobbled along at my steady but drastically slower pace. Adding to the experience, my thin coat provided minimal protection from the howling, freezing wind.

The ride from the hotel had only been ten or fifteen miles, but, horribly lost in this new town, my travel time was increased by multiple stops to unfold and read my shitty hotel map, so in total, the trip had taken me over 45 minutes, and now I had nothing to do but sit and freeze as I waited the painstaking long two hours for Mike Maverick to open his office.

As I waited, I longed for the inside of his office. I envisioned heat and perhaps being offered a cup of coffee. Fantasies at this point, set against the reality of the piercing cold.

At 9:30 a.m., there was still no sign of Mike. At ten, I was fairly certain I was facing premature death, and I decided it was time to go back to the hotel. I kick started the bike and was pulling out of the parking lot when a blue Buick Regal pulled in. A thin man in his mid-fifties sat behind the drivers seat. He had a well groomed mustache and was wearing glasses. Not what I had expected.

The Buick pulled along my motorcycle and the front window rolled down as its driver addressed me.

“You here for Mike Maverick?”

“Yeah. Is that you?” I asked.

“Sure is. Gosh, you must be cold on that thing. Here, grab a spot. Sorry I’m late. I’ll open right up.”

Mike Maverick pulled the car into a space in front of his office and got out. He was a short man wearing a dark brown suit that, from the looks of it, he had owned since the Reagan administration.

“Here, come on in.”

Mike unlocked the door and turned on the heat. The office was ice cold, but at least there was no more wind, I thought.

“What are you doing wandering around here in just that coat? That thing is for spring weather at best.”

“Yeah, well, I flew in from California. This coat was fine for the drive from my apartment to the airport in L.A.”

“Not too good for a motorcycle ride in Minnesota in the dead of winter though, huh?”

I didn’t say anything. Mike smiled a couple of times, indicating that he had been making a joke or at least trying to be friendly, but I wasn’t in the laughing mood.

“What can I help you with?” he said.

“I’m here to find my brother. I’m afraid he might have been captured by a cult.”

“A cult, huh? What makes you think that?”

“Well, he’s gone completely off the map. He took down his Facebook page. And the only trace of him on MySpace leads to some crazy band he used to be involved with, Distempered Aria.”

“So you naturally assumed he was abducted by a cult.”

“Well, I know they’ve got a lot of that crazy religious stuff up here, so I just figured.”

“Crazy religious stuff? Most of the churches up here are Lutheran.”


“I happen to be a Lutheran myself.”

“No offense.”

“None taken. When was the last time your heard from your brother.”

“I stopped talking to our dad back when it became clear that he and I had irreconcilable differences. I haven’t talked to my brother since then either. But I had this dream the other night that my brother was in trouble, and I take that kind of shit pretty seriously, so I decided to come up here and check it out.”

“You’re dad from Minnesota?”

“No. And neither is my brother. He moved up here with his mom when he was little. Got adopted by his step-dad. Changed his last name.”

“So you haven’t talked to either of them since...?”


“Quite a long time. You sure your brother just doesn’t feel like talking to you anymore.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s the case, but like I said, I think he might be in some kind of trouble.”

“Because of the dream you had?”

“That’s right.”

“And because he doesn’t have a Facebook page anymore.”

“He’s a younger kid. They all have Facebook pages nowadays.”

“I tell you, this sounds like the kind of thing where the kid just dropped off the map. Decided to do his own thing.”

“Look, I’ve come all the way from L.A. Do you want to help me or not?”

“Hey, buddy, don’t get mad at me. I’m your friend here. I just don’t want you to waste your money hiring me just to find out that this is all some family feud.”

“What kind of money are we talking about?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Jeez, seems simple enough. Let’s say I find him real quick, no problems along the way - should only run you a couple of thousand dollars.”

“What if it doesn’t go smooth?”

“Well, that’s the thing. You never know in this business. Could run upwards of ten, twenty thousand dollars.”

“Start small and find him. If you run into trouble, we’ll talk later. I’m staying at the Red Cushion Motel near the airport. Call me there and ask for room 23. If I’m not in, I’m at the mall or something. Just leave a message.”

“Okay, sounds like a plan. I usually charge an up front fee of $1,500 to get started on this kind of thing though. That gonna be a problem.”

“No. I’ll bring it for you before close of business.”

“Sounds great, fella. It sure was a pleasure meeting you Mr. ....?

“Christopher. Jesus Marshal Christopher.”

Mike Maverick looked blankly at me from across his desk. At first I just thought he didn’t know what to say, but as the silence grew uncomfortably long, I realized that he didn’t know what to think either. It wasn’t as though he was just having trouble putting the right words to the thought he was having, but in truth, he was having trouble putting thoughts to the situation he was faced with. This happened a lot when people first heard my name.

The tension was palpable, and I decided to break it. “What?” I asked.

“Nothing, it’s just that it’s a very unusual name. You sure you’re not supposed to pronounce the first name ‘Hey-sus.’”

“You meet many grown men that don’t know how to pronounce their own names? Bet not. Are you taking the case or not?”

“I’ll take the case if you can get me the money. What do I care what your name is?”

“Just call me Marshall if the first name bothers you.”

“It’s fine with me, Jesus. I’ll call you Christ the Lord and Savior if you pay me. Work is work.”

“You’ll get your money. Keep in mind, if you’re right, and my brother really did just drop off the face of the Earth on purpose, it’ll make your job all that much easier.”

“If that’s the case, and I suspect it is, I’ll refund any of the $1,500 retainer that I don’t spend. But if you’re right, and he really did get caught up in some kind of cult, this whole thing could get real complex real quick. If that’s the case, the $1,500 might not cover the whole thing. It might not even come close.”

“This is my brother we are talking about. I’ve already come all the way up here and taken the trouble to seek you out. If he’s in trouble, money will be no object. I’ll do whatever it takes to secure his safety.”

“Okay, good, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Like I said, this sounds to me like a kid that just wants some privacy. You already told me he’s been adopted by his step-dad and went to the trouble of changing his last name, so I am assuming that there were some family issues there.”

“You could say that.”

“So that might be what this whole thing is about. For all you know, he might be starting a family and is trying to make a fresh start.”

“I’d agree with you, if it weren’t for this dream I had. It was crystal clear. I woke up, and I knew he was in trouble.”

“Well, Mr. Christopher, a dream isn’t much of a start, but it’s something. Not many people come in here wanting to hire me to investigate a dream they had, but then again, not many people come in here in the middle of January in a denim coat, riding a motorcycle on ice-covered streets asking me to call them Jesus, so I guess there’s a first for everything.”

I got up to leave. Mike Maverick stood too. As he did, I couldn’t help but notice that for all the time we had spent deconstructing my name and it’s significance, his seemed to fit just as poorly. Mike Maverick evoked a tall, dark and handsome movie-star-style private eye who enchanted the ladies and fought toe-to-toe with villainous bad-guys. The real Mike Maverick stood shorter than my already below-average height, wore a wedding ring and a friendly smile that betrayed the wholesome set of family values that he treasured, and had a set of comforting eyes that sought out just a bit too much eye contact such that one couldn’t help but feel he was seeking out acceptance.

“If I’m not in when you come back,” said Mike, “just slip the check through the mail slot on the door, and I’ll pick it up when I get back. I may be out on a case or something.”

“You got a lot of other cases to be worried about?”

“Yours would be on the top of my priority list if that’s what you mean.”

“No,” I said, “I just mean it doesn’t seem like there’s a ton of work for your average private eye up here. Seems like this might be your only case.”

“It would be,” he confessed.

“Well, I guess that means you’re going to have to do an extra good job,” I said, shaking his hand.

“You can be sure of that,” said Mike.

I moved towards the door of his office.

“One last thing, Mr. Maverick...”

He interrupted me. “Please, Jesus, call me Mike.”

“Mike, you mentioned a check, but I’m going to have to ask that you accept cash for this one. I hope that’s not going to be a problem.”

“Lord, no. Cash works.”

He walked me to the door and held it open as I braved the harsh frozen air.

“You need directions to a men’s store where you can buy a more suitable coat?” he asked.

“No, I just figure I’ll head over to the Mall of America.”

“That was going to be my suggestion,” he said. “If you can’t buy it there, it probably doesn’t exist.”

I walked over to my bike and got on as he stood in the doorway of his office, shielding himself from the whipping wind. I pulled the helmet off the seat, put it on, and straddled the bike as we talked.

“So you rented that beast, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It was pretty hard to find.”

“Yeah, I can imagine. Especially this time of year.”

I kicked-started the bike as the loud engine roared to life. The icy ground crunched as I turned the wheel.

“I’ll be back with your money before the close of business.”

“Take your time. Be careful. I’ll be here. Don’t go sliding off the road!”

The back tire slid in place a bit and then caught traction as I slowly maneuvered the bike from the parking lot onto the main road.

Distempered Aria

20 June 2012


John speeded up his pace to follow Lacie, and was stopped by a shout behind him.
"Hey! Wait up!" Melissa jogged up next to him, confused. "Where are you going?"
John motioned at the pair disappearing around the corner at the bottom of the steps in front of them. "I think that's Lacie."
"Your ex-girlfriend?"
"And you're following her into a casino where there's a bomb?"
John flashed an annoyed look. "I don't think she wants to be here, looks like she’s being forced.”
"So you're going to save her?"
"Something like that." John's face flushed.
"Did you ever consider she might be in on all of this?"
"Yeah. Maybe. I don't know. Maybe she was. Still doesn't mean I want to
see her get hurt or killed."
"Right. She screws you over and gets you fired and you're still looking out
for her."
"Whatever. You gonna stop me?"
"No. Doesn't mean I don't think it's a dumb idea. Let's go."
They ran down the stairs and around the corner. Lacie and her escort were
nowhere to be seen.
John jogged down the corridor, looked down the hallway at the other end. "No one here."
Behind him, Melissa paused at a door along the passageway. "Where does this go?"
"Dunno. Service access for heating and air or something."
Melissa disappeared through the doorway. John hurried behind her, almost slamming into her back as she skidded to a stop. They were in a large room, dimly lit, workbenches and ducting crammed along the walls. A man was in front of them holding a gun to Lacie’s skull.
“Stop, or she splatters.”
He gripped Lacie in a headlock, his rough dirty hand over her mouth. Strands of disheveled hair fell over her face. She was gasping and sniffling underneath the suffocating embrace. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, wide with fear. She squirmed to get away from the touch of the gun barrel against her forehead. The man gave her a rough shake to make her freeze, and glared at John and Melissa.
Melissa’s hand flinched toward the gun in her unsnapped belt holster. John grabbed her arm, shouting “No!” Melissa looked sideways at John with a glare that could blister paint off a barbeque, held her hands open and out away from her waist.
“Wise move, asshole. Take that shit off NOW and toss it over.” The man inclined his head, directing where to throw the gun belt. His narrowed eyes never left Melissa’s. He didn’t loosen his grip on Lacie or his gun. He was similar in build and coloring to John, but with a cruel face pocked and hollowed from drugs and fighting.
Melissa unbuckled her belt, slowly pulling the end through the loops of her uniform trousers. As she slid the belt free, she shifted her weight forward onto the balls of her feet. She crouched to sling the belt along the floor toward Lacie’s captor. He looked down, following her every move. In doing so, the barrel of the gun against Lacie’s forehead tilted upward, ever so slightly.
Melissa exploded toward the man with the full force of her body, yelling, driving his arm up to push the gun away from Lacie. A shot went off, filling the room with deafening noise. Following through, Melissa brought his arm around in an arc, sliding her hand down his forearm and hand, using the gun barrel as leverage to send the weapon spinning and clattering into a dark corner of the room. The man’s first reaction was to shove Lacie forcefully away from him. She crumpled against the wall. John ran to protect her. Her forehead was bleeding.
“LACIE! Are you okay?” John pawed hair away from her face, sick in the pit of his stomach. She had a nasty gash on the side of her forehead. Blood trickled down her cheek and her eyes were unfocused. He put his hand over the wound to apply pressure, stop the bleeding.
Her eyes locked on his. “I can’t hear.”
He clasped her to his chest, rocked her back and forth. “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay. I’ve got you. It’s okay.”
A noise behind him caught his attention.
The man had spun free of Melissa. The two were circling each other, each trying to get to Melissa’s gun belt lying on the floor. John saw a spiderweb tattoo on the inside of the man’s wrist. It was Jack Weber. The man who’d framed him.
John looked down at Lacie. She was curled up in a tight ball, shivering and crying in his arms. “Jack must have forced her to steal my card key, then held her somewhere so she couldn’t say anything afterward” he thought. John squeezed his eyes shut and smashed his face into Lacie’s hair. Letting her go, he turned back toward Jack with a glare full of hatred and venom.
Melissa lunged for the gun belt. Jack lashed out with his foot and stepped on the end of the belt closest to him. He pulled it out of her reach, and brought his leg up to knee her in the face. Her nose streamed blood and she staggered backward. Jack closed the distance between them and socked Melissa in the jaw. She spun and hit the floor, not moving.
“Bitch!” Jack spat on Melissa’s limp body.
John launched himself at Jack, pinning his arms and driving him to the floor.
Jack bucked and kicked, trying to get John off of him. John pinned his arms with his knees and started punching him in the head.
“You FUCKER!” John shouted, raining down blows until Jack’s eyes rolled into his head and he lay still.
John sat, breathing hard, heart slowing from a frantic pace. The deafening click of a semi-automatic round being chambered brought him back to himself. He felt a gun pressed into his spine.
“You should have asked him who he was working for.” The voice was cold, hard, and familiar.
John dropped his head, lowered his hands, closed his eyes. The muzzle dug into his back. “Get up!” the voice demanded. John’s arms felt heavy, leaden. He struggled upright. “Straight forward to the wall, by that pipe, and turn around. Slowly, please”. John got to the wall, rotated, and looked straight into the face of David Harvanian. He held Lacie by the arm. Holding the gun on John, he pushed Lacie away and pulled a handful of zip ties out of his pocket. He thrust them at Lacie. “Put these on him. Secure him to the pipe.” She looked at Harvanian, confused. “NOW!” he barked. Lacie scurried to obey.
“It’s going to be okay.” John whispered, as Lacie tightened the ties around his wrists. Her face was turned away, her hands trembled.
Harvanian’s laughter rang across the room. “My friend, it is NOT going to be okay. Not for you. It’s going to be anything BUT okay.” Harvanian stomped over to John, threw Lacie out of the way, and inspected her handiwork. Satisfied, he lowered the gun. John shot a glance at Lacie. Now was her time to get away! She stood there, silent, not looking at him.
Harvanian put his face close to John’s. “You have NO idea WHO YOU HAVE BEEN FUCKING WITH.” Flecks of spittle flew from Harvanian’s mouth, sprinking John’s cheek. Harvanian paced away, motioning with the gun. “You should have left well enough alone!” He turned back to John. “I gave you a chance, no, two chances to just walk away. But you DIDN’T. WALK. AWAY.” Harvanian poked John in the chest with the revolver, emphasizing each word. “You’ve caused me quite a bit of trouble. I had this place all wired to go, just when the progressive paid out, as a little payback to Old man Barnaby for not doing business my way. You’ve caused me to up my timeline.” He kicked Jack Weber’s unresponsive leg. “If you want something done right…”. Holding up a small device with a readout and an antenna, he climbed up onto a work table. Carefully, he inserted wires coming from the back of the device into a block of C4 attached to the ceiling. “Whole string of these through the building. Thanks for the card key. Jack was busy that night.” He patted the display. “So when *this* goes off in 5 minutes, I’ll be well away and all of my troubles will be finished. The best thing is, with you here, you’ll probably get the blame for it.”
John tried to wiggle his hand out of the zip tie. The plastic bit into his skin. Lacie was frozen, staring at the floor. John could just see Melissa’s leg, motionless, off to one side of his field of vision.
The door handle rattled, and the door opened. Charles’ huge frame filled the doorway. “Hey John, you in-“
Harvanian spun and shot him. Charles sagged against the doorframe and fell to the floor, a confused look on his face. John yanked against his restraints, screaming “NO!!!”
“Oh. So sorry. Was that your friend?” Harvanian gloated. “Better a bullet than dying in an explosion. You should thank me. You should beg me to shoot you now.”
John could barely whisper. “Just don’t hurt Lacie.”
Harvanian reached out his hand to where Lacie was standing. She moved, wooden, to take it. “Why” he laughed, “would I even dream of hurting my favorite niece?” He lifted her chin with his hand and kissed the tip of her nose. “And after she’s done such a wonderful job as bait! She’s a treasure!”
John stared at Lacie. She would not look at him. He sagged, defeated.
“I was once like you – alone, friendless. When I first came to this country. The difference between you and me? FAMILY.” Harvanian hugged Lacie to him. She looked miserable. “I made money, and brought my family over, and helped them succeed. Now they help me. That’s what family does.” He and Lacie moved toward the door. “And you. You’re about to die, and who do you have?” He motioned at Charles slumped against the wall. “NO-ONE.”
“He’s got me.” Melissa popped up from where she’d crawled to her gun belt, and shot Harvanian in the chest. A slow red stain spread across his shirt. Lacie screamed.
Harvanian sat down with a thud on the floor, toppling to sprawl in a widening pool of his own blood. The gun fell out of his hand, his dead eyes staring into space.
Melissa grabbed the dropped weapon and shoved it in her belt. “YOU.” Melissa waved her gun at Lacie. “On the floor, face down, hands behind your back.” When Lacie complied, she holstered her gun and whipped out a knife to cut John free.
He motioned to Lacie, prone on the floor. “You do that to everyone you meet?”
“Only on the first date” she replied. She offered him Harvanian’s weapon. “Hold the gun on her. We can’t get out before the bomb explodes, I’ll try to stop the timer.”
“Wait!” John refused to take the weapon. “I work with electronics. I saw how he put it together. I can take it apart.”
“Do it FAST.” Melissa danced from foot to foot, keeping watch on Lacie.
John rubbed his sweaty palms on his jeans. His hands tingled from the circulation returning. “Give me your knife.”
Melissa smacked it into his palm. He climbed up on the table and opened the blade. He eased the timer box away from the explosive, leaving the connected wires trailing behind. He pried the back of the timer box off with the tip of the knife. His lips moved as he traced the circuitry as best he could in the dim light.
By the door, Charles moaned and shifted. John was distracted for a second, forced himself to focus on the timer.
“Best guess! Gotta do it!” Melissa’s voice cracked with strain.
“Got it! I think it’s this one!” John held the knife to a small wire inside the box.
“Any last words?” Melissa glanced from him down to Lacie and back.
“No.” John sliced the wire.
The silence was deafening.
Melissa cringed, then straightened. “Did it work?”
John looked at the face of the timer. It was still ticking down. 10 seconds. “Oh. Shit. No. RUN!” He dove off the table and rolled underneath.
Lacie drew up her knees and covered the back of her head with her hands. Melissa scrambled for the wall and curled into fetal position next to a shelving unit. John could see the timer display, reflected backwards in the glass on a framed safety notice. He watched it click down. 5...4…3…2…1… The display stopped at zero. Nothing happened.
John and Melissa looked at each other. In another second they began laughing.
“I guess it was the right one”, John said, while Melissa pounded on his back whooping with joy.
“Lets get out of here, get Charles some help”. Melissa hooked a thumb toward the door. She turned to Lacie. “Get up. Let’s go”.
Lacie looked at John, tears streaming down her face. “John, I…”
He cut her off, held his hand flat to stop her words. “Don’t. Just…. Don’t”.
Melissa escorted Lacie through the door.
John knelt by Charles and grabbed his hand. “Charles? Buddy, hang on. Help’s on the way.”

Casino of Death
Lisa Farr

2 May 2012
The Grey Door

  BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - A packed commuter train plowed into the buffers at a Buenos Aires station during Wednesday's morning rush hour, killing 49 people and injuring more than 600 in Argentina's worst rail accident in more than 30 years, officials said. Passengers told of chaos and panic as the impact of the collision propelled the second train car into the first carriage, trapping dozens of people as others looked on from the busy platforms at the central Once station. Officials said faulty brakes were suspected of causing the accident. .
Grace sat frozen in her chair. Her mind slipped a gear, her chest didn’t move, she couldn’t breathe.


  *    *    *


    Jess searched through rubble for the saucy redhead. Damn. He picked up a chunk of baby blue fender. He knew she was fuckin’ crazy. That’s what he liked about her. However, he didn’t anticipate playing chicken on the train tracks. He tossed the fender aside. Where are you my lovely? A hand, severed from its owner, lodged between the track and the remnants of an unscathed hubcap. The French manicured nails glittered in the sun. Stupid bitch.  He’d hopped out of the passenger door the second she shifted into park. She’d called him names perched on the back of her seat, removing her blouse, exposing breast he longed to taste one last time. Fuck-in’ crazy.
He missed her already.
  Fire engines squealed to the scene, their sirens blaring. Jess heard muffled moans as he walked through the aftermath, desensitized to the cries for help. Body parts littered the underside of the train, where metal had sliced into flooring. Twisted seats pinned women and children against shattered glass. Smoke rose in the air. The stench of ozone and burning flesh reached his nostrils. He smiled. How many times had he encountered that smell? His left eye began to twitch. His smirk turned deadly. He reached into his pocket and extracted two items. Bye-bye Jess. He stooped down and placed his driver’s license inside the coat pocket of a mangled corpse. Authorities would most certainly have to depend on dental charts to identify the victim. Perhaps my ID will make it easier. He studied the name and address of the plastic surgeon listed on the business card. “Sorry buddy, I know you need a doctor more than I, but hey—we can’t all catch a lucky break.”

  *    *    *


  Paul shoved his hands into his pockets. Skip stood by a tree, his back to the men. Raphael leaned against the back of the car, his ear pressed to his phone. Raphael’s moan caught Paul’s attention. Skip turned midstream. Raphael dropped to his knees, praying in Portuguese.
  “What?” Paul rushed to the man’s side.
  “Two trains crashed in Buenos Aires. My daughter,” he sobbed, “she takes that train to school.”
  “Let’s go. Maybe she’s not hurt.” The three men jumped in the car. Silence pulled them closer. Within the hour, they saw smoke coming from the carnage. The men looked at each other in disbelief. Two commuter trains locked in a deadly embrace thirty feet high. The front end of the train lay on its side catywhompous.  Skip shook his head. Raphael turned white. Paul felt sick. Sirens whined in different pitches. Police, fire, and ambulance attendants maneuvered through the wreckage, loading bodies on stretchers and makeshift carriers.
  “Jesus H. Christ,” Skip whistled between his teeth.
 Paul went to Raphael. His pale face was wet with tears. He broke away from Paul’s grip.  “I have to find her. I have to find my Mariel.” His trot turned into a run. Paul followed close behind. Skip grabbed some gear from the trunk of the car and joined in. All three flashed appropriate ID’s allowing them access to the scene.
  Paul felt for pulses. Skip pulled train parts off potential survivors. Raphael called for his Mariel. When Paul found a tiny hand that moved, he prayed for a strong heartbeat. Charred skin made the tiny body awkward to move and Paul didn’t want to cause more damage. He needed to remove the child from the mess before he lost his life completely. He held the infant to his chest and rose, stepping over the pile of red hair.
  Raphael wondered aimlessly amongst the myriad of rescue workers digging through the rubble. “Mar-i-el,” he called hoarsely, “Mar-i-el. Suddenly, he heard a weak cry coming from one of the emergency vehicles. “Pai?”

  *    *    *

Grace held her face in her hands. The article didn’t prove anything. Sure, it was a coincidence worth acknowledging, but what did this train wreck have to do with Jess? Certainly Jess didn’t tamper with the brakes, or cause the two trains to crash. What would he have to gain? It wasn’t his style.

No, he prefers to tie up women and keep them prisoner in his basement. Besides, Spider would’ve warned her if there was a problem. She knew he worked diligently, trying to find Jess and bring him to justice. Yet, the bumps on her skin had not receded. Her radar was picking up something. She plucked her phone from her purse and dialed Paul. Please answer. She needed to hear his voice. 5:45A.M., he wouldn’t be working this early in the morning, would he? His voice mail provided the answer she didn’t want to hear. She clicked the button to end the call. No message. Is this the way it’s going to be with him? He wouldn’t be available to her when she needed him most? Is that what you want in a relationship? Her question came with a built in answer. No. She spent the last eight years waiting, wanting. She thought Paul was different. Her heart ached for all the years she’d missed out, the years she mourned. Never again, she vowed.

  *    *    *

Paul’s phone hummed in his pocket. He felt the urgency without looking to see who the call was from. He had a good guess. God, he hated deceiving her. Would she understand? Could he be honest? Tell her he was on foreign soil hunting for the man she once loved? Vowing to make sure he never kills again? Would she understand, knowing he had lied to her since the day they met? How could she ever trust him?

Bad timing, it always boiled down to bad timing. Looking at the devastation before him, he wasn’t alone. These poor, poor people happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He considered himself lucky in comparison.
He placed the infant in the arms of a triage field nurse. Paul watched her lay the boy on fresh white cotton sheeting. There was no more to be done on his part. He went back to the place he found the boy and began another search.
When he turned the body over, the charred skin, slid across what use to be a jaw. No hope here. He reached in the man’s pockets. He couldn’t save the man, but he could bring closure to the family looking for him. When he opened the man’s wallet, his hand shook. He reeled backwards, landing hard on his backside. It couldn’t be true. “Son-of-a-bitch,” he seethed, feeling cheated. Fate stole the chance to look into Jess’s eyes when he killed him.
Paul walked over to Skip, who assisted firemen lift what appeared to be a wooden booth from the diner car. The men grunted in unison. What lie underneath sickened even the strongest constitution. Skip turned his face, urped, and resumed his task. Paul held his hand over his mouth and stepped around the pile of smashed limbs.
“He’s dead.”
Skip eased his end of the booth off to the side. “Who’s dead?”
Paul held up the driver’s license. “Bartell.”
Misha’s warning crept into the ether between sleep deprivation and Grace’s first cup of coffee. She didn’t want to heed warning from a person who most likely suffered from disillusionment, so she turned on her computer and waited for the screen to come alive. Suddenly, the headline on her homepage hit like a sledgehammer to the head:

7 Mar 2012
From: Monster at the End of the Hall by Duncan MacVean


There was this Shih-Tzu, Maggie, whose eye had popped out.
Her caretaker lived in a houseboat that was temporarily anchored at the shoreline down the embankment of Miller Park, on the Sacramento River south of the main part of downtown. I parked up top, putting my business card on display in the window of my car, hoping that might keep me from receiving a ticket for not paying a Day Use fee.
Mr. Sanders, “Please call me Bill,” was a short, stocky man with a round face, salt and pepper beard, and a ruddy complexion. His hands were round, like his face; his fingers short and fat, but strong. It was tough to match his grip when we shook hands. His age was obscure to me. I couldn’t discern if his rough skin was born of the sun and wind or due to the passage of time.
Soon after the pleasantries of greeting and being invited to have a chair at a wooden desk in a corner near a worn pot-bellied stove, I started to fill in details for my record.
“How old is Maggie?” He didn’t know. When I examined Maggie, I saw that she had a shallow groove on the outside edge of her lower canine teeth and matching grooves on the inside of her upper canines. This wearing of enamel from teeth rubbing against each other over time indicated she was at least seven years of age.
“Is she spayed?” He didn’t know. I felt tight little bundles of tissue under the skin, scaring from sutures, and saw the white line of a former incision on Maggie’s abdomen. The indication in the middle of her belly of surgery was likely due to spaying.
While I finished conducting the physical exam, Bill told me about Maggie’s jobs--being a good companion and chasing birds off his deck so he wouldn’t have so many droppings to clean up.
Eschewing full anesthesia, I gave a sedative cocktail by injection in a back muscle (faster absorption into her bloodstream than into the thigh).
Some breeds of dogs have naturally bulgy eyes. Shih-Tzus are one of them. Maggie’s right eyeball was extruding out of the bony eye socket, but was not dangling by a cord of muscle and optic nerve as sometimes occurs with severe trauma. There was no exterior bleeding, but there were a few tiny red plaques under the surface of the white part (sclera) of the eye, suggesting rupture of some small veins due to pressure when the eye popped out. There was no swelling in the eyelids or surrounding tissue, which might suggest bruising and edema from a blow to the head or a tumor growing from behind the eye. Trauma is the most common cause of exophthalmia (abnormal protrusion of the eyeball).
The condition was minor and, in my assessment, did not require surgery. Washing the eye with saline (essentially, salt water) flushed the surface dirt and mucus off. The next step was simply applying firm, steadily-increasing pressure with my gloved hand as evenly as possible over the surface of the eyeball. Then, pop, it was back in place.
Bill couldn’t look while I pushed the eye in. So he talked about the weather, the fact that there wasn’t too much debris floating along the river, and finally telling me he didn’t know when the last vaccination boosters were given. “But I think she did have her shots.”
While I was washing my hands in the bowl he called his kitchen sink, I saw a piece of paper lying on a side table. The letterhead read “Dr. Dean Mattleboard, N.D. (Naturopath).”
“I remember this guy,” I said, pointing to the paper. He lived along Garden Highway in one of the houses built on stilts at the edge of the Sacramento River. The Dr. wasn’t at home when I made my house call, but his wife was. She was strung out on drugs, I thought. She had that meth look—thin, skinny actually, with under-eye shadows and prominent cheek bones. Her lips curled in like people with no teeth or like she was sucking on a lemon. Her movements were jerky, and her speech choppy. She had a dog named “Maggie”—the same one?
I asked Bill about it. He answered, “Yes, Theresa
was my daughter.”
“Oh, gosh, I’m really sorry. Forgive my intrusion.”
There were no tears in his eyes, but his lids sagged with sadness. “That’s okay.” Shaking his head, he continued, “She’s disappeared. The next door neighbor realized after a few days had passed how unusual it was that she had not seen either my daughter or son-in-law coming or going. Theresa was
always was on the go, so it was odd that her car in the driveway had not moved. The neighbor went over there and knocked on the door. She tried the knob, but it was locked. She was worried since she heard a lot of banging and shouting a few nights before. The other two cars that were there that night, the doctor’s SUV and someone else’s red Corvette, were gone the next morning. The house became silent after that; nothing stirred. She told me her hair stood on end as she peered inside the vertical window beside the front door, so she followed her intuition and phoned the Sheriff’s office.”
“It must have been hard for you once you heard the news.”
He cleared his throat. “They found a trace of what was later determined to be Theresa’s blood on a sheet on the bed in a small basement room. The room was more of a closet, crowded, only a twin bed, small night stand, and space heater. Drug paraphernalia were on the table. Traces of methamphetamine were found.”
Bill pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at the corners of his eyes. He sighed.
I felt uneasy asking for more details of the story that was clearly still heavy on his heart. I told him I thought I recognized having seen Maggie before because of the way her left ear sagged and had a black spot on its tip.
Bill’s eyes gazed out through the back door, maybe upon the river as if it were a memory flowing by. A horn honked up above, somewhere in the parking lot. He blinked and turned to look at me. He continued his story, while I wondered if that honk was notification from a parking attendant that I was ticketed.
Well, I can’t go check now. Can’t leave in the middle of his misery. I felt bad that I’d turned my attention away from him about a stupid ol’ ticket.
“A deputy rousted me from my bunk on a friend’s barge that was anchored at Ridley. I was hung over, so I wasn’t much help. They asked me a lot of questions about the comings and goings of Theresa and her husband and who their friends were. I couldn’t tell them much. They were interested in the fact that I had witnessed shouting matches between the two of them and that I never saw him ever hit or push her. Quite the opposite, she would throw things at him and slam her fists into him. She would be quiet as a mouse and then suddenly flare up into a rage.”
He walked over to his desk, opened a drawer and pulled out a photo. He handed it to me. “This was taken after she graduated from UCLA.” It was a beaming father and daughter, arms around each other.
“What a great photo. She looks so radiant. She’s gorgeous.” Thinking of him, I added, “And you’re not so bad looking yourself.”
“Was. We both went downhill after that.”
I tried to interrupt and negate that impression, but he went on. “No, she started losing her looks after marriage and wild parties. Her husband, the Doctor, always looked the same—handsome, controlled, a persuasive talker. She just loved to have fun.” He brushed a hand over his beard. “Until the fights started. The drugs, the low lifes who were sometimes there. I quit stopping at their dock. It wasn’t good anymore.”
A pause, another swipe of his beard. “She’s never been found. Some witnesses have insisted they’ve seen her in run-down areas of San Francisco, Seattle, and Miami. I don’t know what to believe. The cops have never been able to pin anything on the Doctor or his girlfriend with the red Corvette, although they still remain ‘persons of interest.’”
I felt bad. I put my hand on his shoulders, which had become slumped by then. “How sad. I’m so sorry for all that.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say at that moment. I felt inadequate to the event. I squeezed my hand on his shoulder.
He shrugged, straightened up, and inhaled deeply. He shook his head, “That’s life. Sometimes it’s like that. No end.” Taking another deep breath and stepping towards the kitchen sink, he asked, “Can I fix you a drink? I need one.”
“Sure. A glass of water will do.” I wanted a shot from the bourbon bottle that was sitting on the counter in front of his hand, but I still had a couple of calls to make.
He got out two glasses. He filled one with bourbon, neat. He handed the other glass to me and pointed to the cask of bottled water at the end of the counter. I filled my glass and took a long drink.
After downing a couple of sips from his glass, he said, “Let’s get on with Maggie.”
Oh, yeah, Maggie.
I looked around and found her out on the bow, sitting on the deck licking up some leftovers from fish cleaning. I inhaled the fishy smell, picked her up, and carried her into the parlor.
Bill was rumpling through a cardboard box. He pulled out a folder and handed it to me. It was labeled “MAGGIE.” “This was given to me by my daughter the last time I saw her. She asked me to take Maggie while she ‘got herself straight.’ I don’t know what else is in the box. It’s too sad to go through it. I’m just storing it for Theresa.”
Just storing for her? Then he has hopes for her return! Hope, that captive that keeps you looking for something, if only out of the corner of your eye.
I opened the file and saw that it was Maggie’s records, including a receipt from the last time I had visited to give her shots, three years ago. Three years, not long. Maybe there is hope.
“It looks like all the shots are overdue, but just. We’ll catch her up right now, Bill; so don’t worry.” Don’t worry? Where did that come from? I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I remember the thought vividly.
I also saw on the receipt that I’d given her two cats vaccinations the same day. I asked about them. “What became of her cats, Sammie and Kit?”
“She said they disappeared during one of the fights she and her husband had. The Doctor hated the cats. He once told me he hated Maggie, too. He said Maggie was a walking ‘allergy.’ Theresa thought he was allergic to Maggie – but also to everything else, including herself and anything she had to say.”
I felt the air get leaden again, so I started chatting. You know, light things. I asked if he lived permanently on the house boat.
He said he did. Not in Rio Vista, where he picked up his mail, but at various places along the Sacramento River Delta. He laughed and said he was a “river rat.” I knew what he meant since my sister often sailed her boat up and down the Delta. She told me stories of the partiers who developed camaraderie at floating bars and at docks and at anchor along the byways.
I asked him why he was anchored here on the river edge of Miller Park instead of the marina just inside the slough on the other side of the park. He said he didn’t want to pay the overnight fee at the “swanky yacht club.” He’d rather just anchor out by the Park; and, for a change of venue, cook a hot dog or steak up at a barbeque pit in the park. “It is pretty,” he said.
Miller Park, an area I knew well. I used to ride my bike from my childhood home at 24
th and W streets to the levee of that milk-chocolate-colored river, right at the end of Broadway. In summer I would fish from the shore—mostly catfish, stripper, shad, and occasional bass. The bank where I stood was muddy and slippery, so I had to be careful when leaning over to bring in my catch. There was no rocky bank or gentle slope nor nearby boat dock like now. Oh, those lazy vacation days of summer.
The park is pretty, as Bill said, but not always quiet since it’s popular for evening family gatherings. He said he sometimes joined the families, even feeling a part of some “familia.” “And the park rangers don’t bug me. They let me anchor overnight. I never overextend my stay.” Then he added one of my favorite proverbs, “Guests like fish. Stink after three days.”
We laughed. Whew, the lead had melted.
I finished the vaccinations, and he asked if Maggie’s eye would be okay now.
“Yep, should be fine. Just a freak accident. Don’t need to suture it in place, unless it occurs repeatedly. Sometimes we have to remove the eye completely if it pops out too often or too far out or is damaged too much. But I don’t think anything like that will be for Maggie. Maggie’s a tough dog. And now that Maggie is a shipboard dog, maybe you should call your dog Popeye.” Then, singing, I added, “Popeye the sailor man. Toot. Toot.”
Bill chuckled and protested, ““But she’s Maggie, not Max!”
“Okay, then how about Sweet Pee?”

* * * * * * *

People tell me things. Unbidden. Sometimes I listen too long. I leave the house call late for my next appointment. After a few blocks I stop and pull over to the curb. My heart twinges, tears well up. I can’t help it.

15 Feb 2012
Murder Most Sacred
Kirk Colvin

Chapter 20

Arons said he was going back to his office. “Check the morgue for stories about Hepburn Miller,” he said. We agreed to meet back at the Headhunter around 10:30.
I had a few hours to kill, and didn’t know how I was going to kill them. I started walking north toward downtown. The word “morgue” got me thinking. Arons’ morgue was full of dead stories, the morgue I knew was full of dead bodies. Back before the internet, the lifespan of a news story was twenty-four hours, maybe longer if it was a big deal. Now the lifespan of news was measured in minutes—must make the Bee’s morgue pretty crowded. Things hadn’t changed for the morgue I knew: stabbings, gun shot wounds, drug overdoses, broken limbs, smashed faces, bodies burned and charred and barely recognizable as human. That’s what filled the morgue I visited.
Downtown Sacramento was dead, too. I was walking through a morgue of empty stores and office buildings—dead businesses, withered dreams, smashed hopes. Every boarded up window and “closed” sign was a toe tag on the corpse of someone’s hopes. The city fathers had spent millions on redevelopment, but the winos and homeless were everywhere, staggering through the wasteland of downtown like zombies. The only place doing any business was a convenience store selling cigarettes and liquor to the hookers, drug dealers, panhandlers and parolees who called downtown home. I walked past a shuttered movie theater that I remembered going to as a kid. Saw
War of the Worlds there and nearly peed my pants. Now it was closed, murdered by the cineplexes in the suburbs. No one wanted to drive to a ghost town to sit in a rundown theater.
I found myself on the side street that housed the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Sacramento. Sitting on the steps was an escapee from the Depression, wine bottle in a paper sack, a shopping cart full of his worldly possessions parked at the base of the steps, a cute little doggy tied to the cart. A hand-written message on a rough piece of cardboard was propped against the cart. It said, “Please help me feed my dog. God bless you.” I climbed the steps and entered the dim muskiness of the Cathedral. My first thought was how much it reminded me of the Headhunter. Probably not the association the Catholic Church wanted. But there was the same dingy, used look; the same lost-in-the-sixties look. I half expected to see Rudy on Duty’s clerical counterpart behind the altar, polishing the chalice and eying the customers. Instead there was a young priest in the sanctuary, apparently preparing the altar for Mass.
I was tempted to burn a few candles, but what would be the purpose? And I wanted to save my money for later at the Headhunter. I wondered if God saw the irony in that. There was something soiled about the interior of the cathedral. It was old and didn’t feel like a happy place. Despite the banner next to the altar that proclaimed Joy!, joy was a stranger here. I stood in the center of the cathedral surrounded by so many icons of death. Martyrs, pierced hearts, a good man hanging on a cross. It was dark and depressing. I felt as though I had lost a friend. Or had I simply outgrown my church? Was that possible? Can you be too old to believe?
To my right I saw a green light above a confessional. On the door of the confessional a sign said “Se habla espanol.” I entered and knelt. Sometimes it’s better not to think about what you’re doing.
The screened panel slid open and a voice said, “Si?”
“Do you speak English?”
“Of course. You may begin.” There was no trace of a Spanish accent.
It all came back to me, as easy as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a ritual buried down there in my long-term memory. Years from now, or maybe not so many years from now, when I was a slobbering old man unable to remember what I’d had for breakfast, I’d still be able to say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been . . . “ I trailed off. How long had it been? “It’s been a long time since my last confession.”
“Are we talking weeks or months?”
I remembered as a kid liking the cozy darkness of the confessional, that safe feeling. What I couldn’t remember was why I had stopped going to confession, or when. “More like years, Father.”
There was a silence. “Many years?”
“Yes, Father.” I felt only a little guilt.
“And why are you here now, my son?” He sounded genuinely interested. As though I might tell him an interesting story, some change of pace from the usual “I told a lie,” “I cheated on my wife,” “I used the Lord’s name in vain.” He was about to be disappointed.
“I don’t know, Father. Just an impulse. Maybe curiosity, to see if it still works like it used to.” I could have said boredom. I could have said the same urge that drags us into the freak show tent at the circus, or the same instinct that leads us back to our parents’ grave every decade or so. I said, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call me your son.”
“OK. It’s your confession. What’s on your mind?”
What was on my mind? Hope Miller—I guess that qualified as fornication. Hepburn Miller, Trey Sullivan, Father Quinlin—they’d fall under incompetence. Though I wasn’t sure that was a sin. My daughter—I didn’t want to think about that. My shitty little life. “Is being an asshole a sin?”
Another silence. I probably could have used a better word than “asshole.” “Could be,” he said. “It would depend on the circumstances. Could you make this a little easier by describing some specific events?”
My knees were beginning to hurt. Another sign I was out of practice. Why did he get to sit, but I had to kneel? “Can you just give me a blanket absolution, sort of a general clean slate? That might be simplest.” I was thinking along the lines of reformatting a hard drive. Just wipe my soul clean so I could start trashing it up again.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. You have to demonstrate some remorse, and promise to do better in the future. I’m not sensing that in you. Are you sure you know what you want from me? From God?”
Good questions. What I wanted right about then was a cold beer. In fact, what I really wanted was to be back in that slippery booth in the Headhunter, that vinyl womb, dim as a confessional but without the pressure of some unseen conscience speaking to me through a gauzy panel. What did it say about me when I preferred the comfort of a gay bar to the musty confines of God’s house?
“I just want to be forgiven for all the wrong things I’ve done. I thought you had to do that if I asked for it.”
“Not if I don’t believe you’re truly sorry. Are you?”
“Most of it I don’t remember. I probably should be sorry, but there’s just a numb place where those things are.” It was coming back to me why I had stopped going to confession. Too many questions and not enough answers. It made for an awkward relationship.
“You do believe in God?” he asked.
“I read the other day that there are probably eleven dimensions. Eleven. And probably an infinite number of universes and parallel universes. How does God fit into that?”
“Well, I don’t know about infinite universes, but I do know if God can create one universe, he can create an infinite number. I don’t see how this answers my question.”
“The other thing I read was there was probably an infinite number of mes in these infinite parallel universes. You think I might be forgiven in one of them?” Any bit of hope would do.
“Perhaps, my son, but not in this one.”


The same homeless guy was sitting on the steps when I walked out of the Cathedral. I sat down next to him.
“You gonna roust me?” he said.
“Nope. Just need to sit and think a minute. And what makes you think I’m a cop?”
He gave me a dark-toothed grin. “Here. This’ll help.” He offered me the paper sack.
I hesitated. Thoughts of AIDS, herpes, little invisible crawly things swimming in wino saliva. “Thanks,” I said and took a drink. It was sweeter than altar wine, and stronger, and undoubtedly cheaper. I didn’t have to worry about catching any disease, nothing living could survive in that stuff. I took another drink. I could see how it could grow on you, drinking, sitting, petting your puppy, watching uptight, unforgiven assholes like me fighting against wave after wave of relentless reality. It offered its own kind of peace. I returned his bottle.
“You get what you needed inside?” he asked.
“I tried confession, but the priest said I wasn’t remorseful enough. I failed the ‘I’m sorry’ test.”
“Well there you go. The church just ain’t what it used to be. Turnin’ away the faithful in their time of need. They won’t even let me sleep in there anymore. It’s a damn shame, you ask me. Here,” he said, offering me another shot of whatever it was in that bottle.
I shook my head. “Thanks. Tell me, what do you know about parallel dimensions?”
He held the bottle to his lips and rocked back his head. He swallowed. I saw the light behind his eyes flicker, dim, then come alive. Good stuff in that bottle.
“This here’s my parallel dimension. And I ain’t never leavin’ it.”
I stood up. I pulled a twenty out of my wallet. “Take this. Feed your dog.”
He took the twenty and stuffed it deep down inside his shirt, maybe into another dimension. “You’re a good man, Mr. Policeman, I don’t care what that priest told you. I can tell you got all kinds of remorse, I can see it soaked all over you.” He made a cross in the air with his right hand while he said, “I forgive you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
“Amen,” I said and started walking back toward the Headhunter. I felt better.


I heard the Headhunter long before I saw it. A thumping bass and lots of laughter. The neighbors must have loved it. Outside were clusters of men smoking, talking loudly, leaning against car fenders and against the pink stucco walls of the Headhunter. It was like a family reunion.
When I entered I was slapped in the chest by the heavy beat of the bass. It was the same kind of music I’d heard my daughter listen to, full of screeches, unintelligible screaming, and endless repetitions of sampled snippets from songs I think I might have recognized if the rest of the crap could have been blocked out.
It was crowded and loud and full of life in the Headhunter. The opposite of the Cathedral, where it had been quiet, empty, and dead. The Headhunter was the new church, where worshippers came to celebrate living. I wondered if they had their own Pope.
Arons waved to me from the same booth we’d had earlier. He wasn’t alone. Sharing the booth with him was a guy in a business suit. He looked like a legislative assistant. Neat haircut, Rolex, power tie, and a pierced ear. I suspected the piercing was for after-hours only. Sitting close to him, close enough to make it clear they were a couple, was a kid in a dark T-shirt who looked way too young to be in a California bar. My cop instinct was to card him, cuff him, and drag his as out of there. But he probably would have enjoyed it.
I slid in next to Arons and he introduced me to Al and Bobby. We shook hands like real men do. Bobby, the young one, said, “So you’re the cop?” Apparently the entire world knew.
“I’m off duty,” I said.
“Doubt it,” he said, then snuggled closer to Al.
“I like your T-shirt,” I said. It featured what I assumed was a musical group whose schizophrenic credo involved doing something obscene to my mother while at the same time preserving the environment. Further proof that I was out of touch with the modern music scene. Where was Elvis when you needed him?
“Doubt that, too,” the kid said.
Arons said, “Did you manage to entertain yourself while I was digging through the morgue?”
I signaled toward a very busy looking waiter, but was ignored. Gender preference prejudice probably. “I spent most of the time in deep theological discussions about the existence of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the possibility of an infinite number of possibilities. I also drank something that will probably give me throat cancer.”
He turned to look at me. “Sounds like you had more fun than I did. And what was your conclusion about the existence of God?”
“Inconclusive,” I said. I grabbed the waiter’s belt as he walked past and dragged him close. I said, “Draft. Two. Now.” He made a sound that was either acknowledgement or indigestion, then broke free. I had a feeling my drink order was inconclusive as well. To Arons I said, “The jury’s still out on the existence of God.”
“I think I can help you there,” he said, nodding toward the bar. “See that guy?”
There were a lot of guys to see. “Which one?”
“Tall guy, next to the dude with all the hair product. The one with his collar up on his pale pink polo shirt.”
Bobby the teenager leaned forward. “So eighties,” he said.
“Well I’ll be. Maybe there is a God.” Standing at the bar, dressed in his civvies, was Father Quinlin.

1 Feb 2012

Murder Most Sacred
by Kirk Colvin
Chapter 19 (continued)

The inside of the Headhunter looked like it had been decorated by the same guy who’d done Graceland. The first rule: good taste is forbidden. Second rule: there is no such thing as excess. Third rule: there is no such thing as too much shag carpet. Fourth rule: there are no rules. The décor was gold-veined mirror tiles on the walls, faux African masks, a few stuffed animals of indeterminate species, and a few ancient Tiki torches. The overall impression was like walking into a time warp, where nothing had changed in thirty years—including the dust on the light fixtures.
It was early afternoon, and the Headhunter was almost empty. It was the awkward hour: the shift change between the mixed hetero/homosexual lunch crowd, there for the best pastrami sandwich in midtown Sacramento, and the after-work gay crowd. That group was made up mostly of college-educated government workers who’d found a safe haven in the Headhunter. The second shift included all known sexual preferences, and probably a few I hadn’t heard about yet.
Behind the bar was Ray Junior’s gay counterpart: but better dressed. He was tanned, fit, and wore a tight light blue silk T-shirt that emphasized his shoulders and biceps. I was sure he’d show me his six-pack abs, if I asked sweetly. He wasn’t quite a flamer, but the short hair, tiny moustache, and pierced ear, made it clear which way he swung. The little plaque above the register said, “Rudy on Duty.” His age was indeterminate: certainly beyond 30, but obviously eternally engaged in a struggle against time. Face lifts? Probably. Butt implants? Possibly. Regular visits to the gym, spa and masseur: definitely.
Arons and I sat in a booth with dark vinyl upholstery. The cynic in me assumed the vinyl made cleaning up fluids an easier task. And it didn’t stain.
Rudy on Duty came over to take our drink orders. I wondered if he thought we were a date. A couple of middle-age fags out for a late lunch before heading off to our Victorian in the Avenues, complete with Greg Kondos prints, Gaggia espresso machine, Bang & Olufson sound system, and an Apple MacBook Pro with a screen saver showing the little African kid we sent money to every month. Didn’t sound so bad, actually.
When he returned with my beer and Arons’ gin and tonic, I asked him if a fellow named Quinlin ever came into the bar. Rudy on Duty was no dummy. I could see him do a quick recalculation of his assessment of the couple at table six. The nature of his business made him less than cooperative when it came to talking about customers. Sacramento might be a reasonably gay-friendly town, but that didn’t mean his customers wanted their private life revealed to the world. In a city that thrived on politics and reputations, being openly gay was not a smart career move. There were a few politicians who could get away with it—particularly if they were from San Francisco, where being gay was a political asset. But interior California was still relatively sexually conservative. So Rudy knew how to keep his mouth shut, at least when it came to discussing his clientele.
“Don’t think I know the name,” he said.
Arons flashed his Sacramento Bee ID and told Rudy it was deep background and off-the-record.
“I like the sound of that ‘deep background,’ sounds kind of kinky,” Rudy said, raising one eyebrow at Arons, “but, sorry, I don’t talk about customers.” As he walked back to the bar, I watched the muscles flex under his T-shirt.
“Nice going,” I said to Arons. “I can see why you’re such a hot-shot investigative reporter.”
“I didn’t see him spilling his guts to you. I think our man Rudy knows a cop when he sees one.”
“Let’s see if we can rattle Rudy’s cage.” I slid out of the booth and carried my beer to the bar. Arons was right behind me.
Rudy seemed intent on polishing beer mugs.
I pulled my wallet out of my back pocket and opened it so my badge was face up on the bar. “Rudy,” I said, beckoning.
He tore himself away from the beer mugs, and began to chew his little mustache when he caught sight of my badge. “Yes?”
“I’d like to revisit our oh-so brief discussion about Quinlin.” I tapped my badge. “I have it on good authority that, in fact, Quinlin is a regular customer. All I’m asking from you is that you confirm what I already know. You wouldn’t be snitching on him.”
Rudy’s prominent Adam’s apple rose and fell a few times; his mustache wiggled. I was finding his mustache annoying, it reminded me of one of my DIs at the Police Academy. He was a broomstick-up-the-butt kind of guy who took too much pleasure in belittling cadets. I still had the occasional fantasy of punching his lights out. Who says time heals all wounds?
Rudy said, “Define ‘regular customer.’”
Arons and I looked at each other. I said, “Let’s say that by ‘regular’ I mean several times a month, but less than once a week. Think we can agree on that definition?”
Rudy nodded.
I waited. “Well?”
“Maybe two or three times a month. This place gets busy in the evening, and I can’t keep track of everyone who comes in.”
“And when he’s here, is he alone or with someone?”
“Define ‘alone.’”
“Christ, Rudy. The standard definition; is he by himself, solo, unaccompanied, sans partner?”
“Yes and no.”
I felt like grabbing Rudy by his little rattail mustache and dragging him over the bar. “It’s not a yes/no question. Is he alone?”
“Yes, he arrives alone. No, he doesn’t leave alone.”
Arons said, “And when Quinlin leaves, it it always with the same person, or is it someone different each time?”
“Depends,” Rudy said.
“OK, Rudy. Depends on what?”
“When you’re talking about. There was a time when he always left with the same guy. Then there was a time when I didn’t see him for a while, and then he suddenly showed up again, and from then on he left with different guys.”
Arons leaned over the bar. “When did this change take place?”
Rudy shrugged his Nautilus shoulders. “A few years ago, can’t remember exactly.”
“You think there was a lovers’ spat?” I asked.
“Could be, the line-up changes pretty often here. That’s what keeps us in business. You know, love is fickle.”
I didn’t think it was love that was fickle, but I wanted to talk to Quinlin’s old boy friend. I had a feeling he could tell me things I wanted to know. “What was the guy’s name, the one Quinlin broke up with?”
Rudy ran his hand over his buzz cut. He squinted, apparently trying to dredge up a name from deep down in his bartender’s database. “Give me a minute,” he said. “Something simple. Some movie star’s name. It’ll come to me, just hang on.”
Arons said, “While you’re working on the name, maybe you can tell me a few things about Quinlin.”
“Like did you know he was a Catholic priest?”
“Yeah, I knew. And the others did, too, but it wasn’t something we talked about. You walk through that door, you leave the world behind. No matter what you guys might think about guys like me, this is a safe haven. Unlike some people, we don’t ask questions,” he paused and gave me a look that I assumed was supposed to make me feel guilty, “and we don’t judge. Outside that door people think we’re freaks, but on this side, we’re the normal ones and the rest of the world can go . . . well, you know.”
Arons took a sip of his gin and tonic, then said, “You didn’t find it disturbing that a priest was a regular?”
Rudy snorted. “We got a federal judge comes in here. In about three hours, you can take your pick of a college provost, a former city manager, a fire chief, and a real estate exec. Preachers, rabbis, priests—we got’em all. You might say the Headhunter’s got its own ecumenical movement. So a Catholic priest is just another swinging dick in this place. Kind of makes me tingle just to think about it. Know what I mean?”
I said, “I’d rather not think about what makes you tingle. You’re looking at a straight, forty-something, whitebread cop from a piss ant town in the foothills. About as wild as my miniscule sex life gets is girl-on-top, so whatever you do in the privacy of your own men’s room stall doesn’t interest me. What does interest me is what you know about Patrick Quinlin, Roman Catholic priest, pastor of St. Christopher’s Catholic Church, and possible suspect in at least one murder. I want facts, rumors, all of it. You can keep the ecumenical crap to yourself.”
Rudy put his elbows on the bar and leaned close. I could smell his cologne, something subtle, yet masculine, with just the slightest hint of vulnerability. It said, take me, please. Or maybe I was over-reacting. I leaned back.
He said, “You want what I know about Quinlin?” He didn’t wait for my answer. “He’s a sexual omnivore. He’s not homosexual or heterosexual or even bisexual. He’s all that and more. I don’t think he gives a damn about labels. From what I hear, he does it all: men, boys, women, girls, you name it. He doesn’t care about age or gender; he’s in a class by himself. If it walks and talks, then as far as he’s concerned, it’s fair game. That’s his reputation here. For some it’s a turn-on, and it scares the shit out of others.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“Me? Mr. Whitebread-from-the-Foothills, I just work here. I serve the booze and sell the condoms. I’m paid not to have an opinion.”
I wasn’t sure where to go with this. The Father Quinlin I knew seemed like another person. The man Rudy described wasn’t the robed representative of Christ who heard confessions on Saturday and passed out Communion on Sunday. The man I knew was a semi-milk toast who was about as edgy as a marshmallow.
Rudy smiled at me and said, “Katherine and Audrey.”
“What?” I said.
“The guy Quinlin broke up with. I told you it was a movie star name.”
Arons said, “Katherine and Audrey as in Hepburn?”
“Yup.” Rudy folded his arms across his chest, making sure to get his fists under his biceps so they’d look huge. “Guy’s name was Hepburn something or other. Supposed to be some big shot up in the foothills. Big tipper, I remember that. He and Quinlin were a pair for quite a while. They’d arrive separately, but always left together. Barely said a word to anyone else. Then he just stopped showing up.”
“Who stopped showing up?”
“Both of them, actually. Then Quinlin started coming back, but I never did see the other guy again.”
“His last name wouldn’t have been Miller, would it?” I asked.
“That’s it. Hepburn Miller. Funny name, if you ask me.”
I took Arons’ elbow and steered him back to the booth. “Hepburn Miller and Quinlin,” I said. “About three years ago. That’s when Miller died. That set off any alarms?”
Arons emptied his glass. “You saying there’s some connection between Miller’s death and Quinlin?”
“I’m saying there was a sexual connection between Miller and Quinlin, and who knows what happened three years ago. Now I got Quinlin somehow connected to the death of at least one young boy, and possibly the death of another. And I find out he’s got a not-so-secret life in the gay community.”
“Being gay doesn’t make him a killer.”
“No, but Rudy on Duty seems to think there’s more going on in Quinlin’s life than the occasional gay hook-up. Men, boys, women, girls. The guy sounds like a sexual meat grinder.”
Arons tapped his glass. “You want another?”
“I’ll pass,” I said.
Arons held up his glass and waved it at Rudy. When Rudy arrived with the fresh gin and tonic, Arons said, “What time does the crowd arrive?”
Rudy said, “Things start to pick up around eight, but they don’t really get going till ten or so.” He gave Arons a look. “You planning to join the party?”
Arons smiled at him.
When Rudy returned to his mug rubbing behind the bar, Arons said, “You up for a walk on the wild side tonight?”
“As in join the fun and games here at the Headhunter, and maybe ask a few of the regulars what they know about Quinlin and Miller?”
Arons said, “Pretty smart for a cop from a piss ant foothill town. And, hey, tell me about that girl-on-top thing. Sounds wild.”

Chapter 7: THE MAZE

by Duncan MacVean

I stooped to pick up the Bee newspaper on Mrs. Robin’s porch. The porch light was on (as Mrs. Robin’s later told me, “I always leave the welcoming light on.” As I rang the doorbell, remembrances of deliveries of papers past paged through my mind. This house was on my route.
         When the curtain of night would fall, early as it does in winter, I would deliver the
Sacramento Bee newspaper in the dark. I rode my bike through neighborhoods that even included the McClatchy city library that was named after the publishing family that started the Sacramento Bee. At its peak I delivered to 126 homes, my bicycle handlebars loaded with a canvas bag of papers. Since I lived in the middle of the neighborhood, I could deliver half of them then return home and load up the rest.
           Serving that same neighborhood later, providing professional services to many of the same houses, brought on feelings of nostalgia and belonging. Perhaps it was the subconscious choice of returning to a home, a 'hood, I felt comfortable with.
           There were two major newspapers back then: the
Union, which was delivered to your doorstep early in the morning, before breakfast, and the Bee, which was delivered in the evening, for relaxing with the newspaper after work. I didn't like waking up early, so, by default, I delivered the Bee after school.
           It was fun, and I loved the challenge of flinging the “rag” from my bike as I rode by on the sidewalk and to see how accurately I could plunk it onto the doormat without hitting the screen door or landing it on the steps (or the bushes!). One of my customers would stand on the porch, and I would pitch the tightly folded paper to him. “Strike” he would call, waving his catch in the air as I rode by. It was so satisfying.
           I was painfully shy as a kid. Not so now.
           Despite my shyness, one of the highlights of my youthful job was to go door to door collecting the monthly subscription fees. Some people would just leave an envelope with cash in it on the doorstep or attached to their mailbox lid. But most would answer the doorbell or my knock, and I would get to meet the people who lived behind the doors. Sometimes I would even get a glimpse into the interiors. The neighborhood was all middle class; but the people, in similar-appearing houses, were different, each unique and with a story of their own. That fascinated me then as it does now. Most of my customers were very kind to this shy kid.
           There is only one major newspaper now in Sacramento, the
Bee, which switched to morning deliveries. Thankfully for my slow-to-wake-up body I no longer work for them.
After Mrs. Robin and I exchanged greetings and I handed her the newspaper, I told her of all the papers I had delivered to this house. Then I spotted them—neat rows in her ‘living room area.’ Piles and piles of newspapers stacked two to four feet high and in such a way that it made aisles, somewhat like the stacks in libraries. I shared my wonder of how many of the papers were delivered by me. But she assured me none in her stacks went through my hands, since she purchased the house a few years after I'd left and moved away to college.
           She said her stacks provided all the knowledge and history anyone would have to know. She remembered articles from years ago. “Now I have something about that. Let's see, where is it?” She would rummage through a stack in the middle of one of the aisles and come up with an issue and rumple a few pages, opening the paper to the article she had in mind.
I saw the mounds of papers and magazines as a metaphor for her mind, as if all her memories were somehow there, stacked in neat, not so little piles, just waiting for a connection to be made.
  Her daughter walked into the room and introduced herself as Sylvia. When her mother left to get Blackie, the feline patient I’d come to see, I talked in hushed tones about the stacks of newspapers. Sylvia informed me, “I know. I can't convince her otherwise. It seems a little touched, but she has her reasons.”
           “What might those reasons be?” Thoughts scrolled through my mind.
The cats are free—living among the newspaper maze. I also thought of how cats could shred the papers while playing or for litter material and, thus, soil their own living quarters. And I was thinking that if any of her seven female cats were pregnant they could shred them for nesting material in which to queen (have a litter of kittens). The thought crossed my mind that litter has more than one meaning in reference to cats—litters they give birth to, and the litter in boxes they eliminate in. What an irony!  
Sylvia continued, “At first Mom kept the papers so she could look up articles later, when something came up. She would say, ‘I remember reading about that. Now when was it?’ and she would rummage through the piles, often actually coming up with the appropriate article. But her memory is not so good now. She used to have them stacked by date, but she no longer bothers with that. It’s kind of her way of remembering things. It's as if she has it in a stack somewhere, it is still in her memory.”
   “You mean the papers are her encyclopedia? Her library of events?”
          “Kind of. Actually it is more like a symbol of her memory. You know what I mean?”
              “Yes, I think so.” I said, as her mother walked out of the back bedroom.

               “Blackie somehow got into my bedroom, under my bed. I tried to get her out, but I haven't been able to.”
               “Got a broom?” I said. “I can use that to get her out.”
               She retrieved the broom. Cocking an eye suspiciously, she said, “You won't hit her with it, will you?”
               I laughed, “Not this time.” I said with a wink. “Lots of my patients have been under the bed or scurry away and hide there when I arrive at the house. I'll just get on one side and push the broom under the bed and slide it towards your kitty. My feline patients usually take flight and move to the opposite edge of the bed. That's where you’ll be. When she comes your way, reach under and get hold of her and pull her out. Or she may just scamper right up to your arms. Usually, just seeing the broom will excite a cat enough to move away from it and go to your side of the bed. But sometimes I have to nudge her with the broom and push her over to your side.”
               She fetched the broom and handed it to me. I beckoned Sylvia to come along, “We might need two of you to catch Blackie.”
Mrs. Robin shook her head. “No, she won’t come to my daughter, just me.” So, the two of us, Mrs. Robin and I, marched to the bedroom.
Closing the door behind me, I said, “We don't want any of your other cats getting in here, nor do we want Blackie to escape.”
               I went around to the opposite side of the bed from the door and looked under. No Blackie that I could see. “Get ready,” I told her. It’s dark under there; maybe I just can’t see him. He is all black after all. I swept the broom back and forth under the bed. But no cat came bounding out.
              “Let's look in the closet. Sometimes they hide there. Sneaky little devils.”
              “Oh, that’s not likely. I have too many piles of boxes and shoes in my closet. It’s jammed full.”
               “Mrs. Robin, you’d be surprised where they can go. They can hide in the most unlikely places, I assure you. One day I found one cat in a dryer and another cat under a washing machine, both at the same house! They are very adept at the hide and seek game. ”
We opened the door. Sure enough, there was a jungle jumble of items on the closet floor. I started sorting through it all, parting hanging clothes as I did so. There were clothes that had fallen off their hangers, stacks of shoes, cardboard boxes of 'keepsakes', more boxes (of photographs and empty picture frames). Oh, and did I mention piles of shoes (to rival Imelda Marcos)?
Musty. A spilled perfume bottle lay on its side poking out from underneath a shoe box. As I picked up the smelly box, out sprang a black cat. It scurried first to the door to get out and then scuttled behind a TV cabinet in the corner of the room.
               “It looks like we found him,” I said excitedly.
              She shook her head, smiling, peeking behind the cabinet, “How did you get in there, Spot? No, Doctor, that's not Blackie. Blackie doesn't have a white spot on his nose.”
             Retrieving the broom and leaning it up against the cabinet, I laughed. “Well, at least we know where to find Spot when we get to vaccinating. Let’s just leave him and the broom here. Now, where can Blackie be?”
  I looked at the closet shelf.
“That’s too high for a cat,” Mrs. Robin said, just as I reached up to feel around there. Suddenly, a cat leapt down. She was completely surprised.
“It is amazing where they can get to. I had a closet-shelf cat once, too,” I told her. “Rusty was very shy of people. I got him from the Happy Tails cat rescue group. No one else would take him because he wouldn’t come up to you. But I’m partial to orange cats, so I took him. He would hide out all day on the top shelf of my two-shelved closet. Then, at night, after I’d gone to bed, he jumped down and started wandering around the house meowing at the top of his lungs. My other two cats seemed to be okay with it. But, me, I had to close the bedroom door to muffle the noise so I could get some sleep.”
              We looked under the dresser, behind the dresser, under the TV stand and behind it. Both sheltered hiding cats, Rufus the dresser cat and Spot; but no Blackie. 
Then I spied a piece of cloth edge hanging down from the bed-spring mattress on the door side of the bed. Yep, a tear.
Could she have gotten in there? We looked under and saw a swelling of the underside of the mattress batting. Could be. I poked. “Meow!” It moved. “Ha, we've got her. Now, how to get her out?”
Good question. I asked Sylvia to come and help. “We'll stand the bed on its side, try to isolate her, or scare her to the tear.” The three of us lifted the bed up to rest on its side, the cat meowing and moving among the spring coils. We had to lengthen the tear, but we eventually got Blackie out.
The rest of the cats got examined, all fourteen of them (that included the litter of five we found nestled in a cave scratched out in one of the arms of her newspaper maze). Those old enough received vaccinations. Mrs. Robin didn’t know who the mother of the kittens was since the find was a surprise to her.
“I guess at least one of your males did not get neutered.” I told her of the health and practical reasons to get all of her cats ‘fixed.’ Her method of birth control was relying on fixing only the “men” (as she called them), but during the exams, I found that Rufus was still intact. I took care of that guy’s surgery right then, since I had the time, and I didn’t need the ultra-sterile environment of a hospital as there is no deep invasion of tissue with a male neuter. Mrs. Robin’s was my only scheduled house call for the day. I made arrangements to spay her potential mommas the following week at a hospital at which I had surgery privileges.
Because of unsanitary conditions, such as the defecation on newspaper litter torn out of the maze, marking of some corners of the piles by Rufus, and blood and uterine discharges on the ‘nest’ in the one of the aisles, I tried to convince her to find other homes for some of her cats and to clean up the newspaper corridors and the floors. I knew the City was considering ordinances to severely limit the number of pets that could be kept at home, and I didn’t want that to become an issue for this lady who clearly loved and wanted the best for her cats.
I continued to see her brood for annual exams and booster shots for a few years. She did clean things up. She even found a way to barricade the living room area where the stacks of papers were so that the cats could not get to them but with a door so that she still could. She did reduce the area covered by the aisles of papers, and she did rescue all unsoiled papers. There were not so many aisles, but the aisles were stacked higher—high enough that the new memory lane would still be a maze to her grandchildren. Her filing system was intact, now if only she could remember in which new stack the record she was looking for could be found.
Driving by her house on an early evening in Fall, I saw a bunch of folded newspapers scattered about the front porch. Leaves from her sycamore tree covered the lawn. I stopped and got out of the car. The porch light was off. I pushed the papers aside with my foot, picking up the freshest looking one with the idea of handing it to Mrs. Robin when she came to the door. I rang the bell. I waited and rang again. No answer.
Looking around, I saw a man next door with his garage door open raking up leaves in his driveway. I approached, introduced myself, and asked about his neighbor lady. He told me her daughter came and got her. She moved a couple of weeks ago. He told me her daughter told him her mother was sick with dementia. “Her memory was failing.”

Disclaimer: This work of fiction in no way reflects the author’s attitude towards the
female gender, whose tribulations he has assuaged as his life’s work.

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Professor Klum/Charisma, losing his mental battle with morality, plunges on as a newly minted Pick-up artist. He takes on a Wing-man, Walter (re-named Snake,) whose main attribute is access to Boston Red Sox tickets. While toying with the heart of lovely Susan, who has swallowed his lies, Charisma takes his Wing-man to observe the techniques of Sleek and Blade, a master Pick-up team at The Hub, as they weave their magic. Klum knows that Belinda, his former student, is pole-dancing in the next room, so avoids this area. While Snake works on his new persona, Charisma does a solo sarge at the I-Tag club. He is shot down in flames by his first target, but his second, Roberta, a tall blonde with an aggressive manner, invites him to her condo for what he feels will be his first Full-close. Charisma there discovers that his erstwhile lover carries XY chromosomes and barely escapes a disaster not mentioned in The Book.

Change of Life
by Nick Rotundo

Chapter Seven

Charisma/Klum was in a blue funk. Two disasters in one night had him re-evaluating this new lifestyle he’d chosen. With self-confidence ebbing, he scanned the index of The Book for what he sought. Between Three-Sets, and Triangle Shuffle, he was expecting to find Transvestites, but it wasn’t there. Was his experience an aberrant one or was it such a negative complication of the Pick-up Life that the author chose to omit it? His most recent journey into the hard edges of sensual male-female interaction was depressing enough to have him pen a letter to the university president, asking to cancel his sabbatical and return to the classroom. The thought of leaving his new life and being Professor Charles Klum again didn’t seem that bad after all.

Just kidding.
Charisma reviewed his instrument in the full length mirror once more. Bruised, but still beautiful—wounded, but still worthy, he would press on. A phone call to Susan was therapeutic. She’d never met anyone quite like him and was so looking forward to their next get-together. Susan had never been to Kenya, and hinted at perhaps accompanying him as an unpaid assistant when next he disseminated his surgical altruism there.
When he hung up, Charisma felt a twinge of guilt. He found himself attracted to Susan, but she was attracted to a fictional world-class physician with impeccable credentials and lofty ideals. The words of Sir Walter Scott danced in his mind:
Oh, what a tangled web we weave
when first we practice to deceive

This reverie was interrupted by his cell phone buzzing. It was Snake, his newly tanned and anxious-to-run Wing Man. When Snake asked about his last sarging experiences, Charisma replied that they could have been a bit more rewarding. He then asked Snake if he would mind delaying their first joint undertaking for another week or so, until he got some personal commitments out of the way. In truth, the idea of getting out of The Life was still beeping in the dark recesses of his brain like a dying smoke alarm. Snake was disappointed but buoyed by being given a specific date-bracket for their initial sarge together.
New England in the fall is ablaze with colors, scents and the crackle of crisp air, nowhere more than on a university campus. Charisma reverted to Professor Klum on his daily walks among the crumbling, ivy-choked reminders of his recent, staid life in academia. His shaven head, deep tan and collegiate windbreaker were enough to make him appear as just another post-graduate student. His senses reveled in the heady aromas of burning leaves, the periodic tolling of chapel bells, the high-pitched screams of a Frisbee game and the chatter of passing students, speaking less of their class work than of the anticipation of the week end.
The food court was at the north end of the quad. This was the place for between-class bantering and where the true pulse of the university could be found. He requested the staple lunch menu—a large order of fries with a side of onion rings. The cement bench he chose was a bit cold, but put him in a key position to listen in on conversations. He’d been gone for eight months and had to admit that he missed being around young people.
A rowdy quartet sat down on a nearby table, their voices very loud and very profane. Klum glanced at them and immediately recognized the four men as members of Phi Gamma Delta, each one having failed his class the previous year. The main subject of their conversations was, of course, women. But the four and five-letter terms they used for the female sex were so shocking to him that he was about to move away. But then, a tangential path of the bawdy conversation had him rapt with interest.
“Sure as hell, the ****s on campus are pushovers, once you get them back to the frat house. I ain’t got shot down even once.”
Another chimed in, “You know, I hears there’s a club over in the Combat Zone that loaded with ****, just waiting to be picked up. It’s called The Velvet Underground. If youse guys is into getting some mature *****, the place heats up after 10 on Saturday nights.”
Klum recognized the husky footballer who now spoke, “Sounds like a plan—I’m ****ing tired of putting the make on young ****s what acts like they never seen a **** before!”
Besides being disgusted at the foul words he was hearing, he was also appalled by the mangled English these supposed college men were spouting. Had they just emerged from the primordial slime? These Neanderthals had absolutely no respect for women.
Although a tiny part of his psyche was whispering that his own recent activities were not too many cuts above the sleazy safari he heard being planned, he gradually felt a new persona emerging from the nether parts of his mind: Captain Charisma—Defender of American Womanhood, Arch-Enemy of All Primitive, Porcine Predators Who Would Dare to Defile Them.
Thus was Charisma re-born like the Phoenix, from the ashes of despair and defeat. He called Snake and told him that their next sarge would be Saturday night at a place called The Velvet Underground. He pictured his hero, Sherlock, saying, Quick, Watsonthe game’s afoot!
Charisma checked out Snake’s attire as Snake did his, both nodding approval. They entered the V.U. at exactly 10 P.M. and sat at an unobtrusive booth, where the violet-hued, velvet-upholstered bar could be seen well. The Phi Gams were certainly correct—the place was packed with people and the females seemed to out-number the men. He thought the name of the establishment probably gave some hint of gentility to the ladies when deciding where to spend their evening.
There was a woman sitting at a booth opposite theirs, who, at first, reminded him of Susan, but when she turned full-face, he was mistaken. This was indeed a very lovely lady, probably in her late thirties, wearing a white pants-suit and matching four-inch heels. Her features were delicate, almost too perfect. His Wing Man rated her as an 800 on the Milli-Helen* scale. But, Snake was confused by his mentor’s inaction. Charisma had already violated the book’s Three Second Rule. He seemed to be satisfied with merely staring at the stunning woman. “Let’s do it, Boss” whispered Snake.
After a moment’s hesitation, his senior partner whispered back, “No, not quite yet.”
Five, perhaps ten more minutes passed before Charisma saw what he was waiting for. Three muscular young men, all known to him, approached the woman’s booth. Each wore an identical red T- shirt, emblazoned with
Phi Gamma Delta on its front and Fijis Forever on the back. They sidled up to White Pants-suit and engaged her in conversation. Charisma could not evaluate her interest in either the conversation or the conversers, but it mattered not. After another five minutes he turned to Snake and asked, “Did you I.D. the A-MOG?” His Wing Man nodded, indicating the male on the far left. Charisma smiled—he’d taught his charge well.
“Let’s roll.” With marching orders given, the pair approached the bar separately. Charisma could see his Wing Man whisper something into the A-MOG’s ear, then lead him to the bar so effortlessly, it was almost eerie. The allure of Red Sox tickets was not to be denied.
He knew that Snake was engaging the A-MOG in an explanation of the labyrinthine path to securing Sox tickets, so there was ample time to pull off the perfect pick-up without finger-signals. After a mental review of the classic approaches for a three-set, he moved in as stealthily as a professional hit-man. All his study, his practice, his cunning and his genius would be put into play in the mini-drama that was about to go down. He would carve the “C’ of Captain Charisma upon the loutish corpi of the remaining pair of frat boys and have them mumbling “W.T.F. ?” to each other as their target walked out the V.U.’s door with him.
He vowed to reward himself by having a white pants-suit hanging from his antique rosewood bed-post by morning.
* Milli-Helen: That amount of facial beauty required to launch exactly one ship.

18 Jan 2012

The Black Door by
Dänna Wilberg

Although Grace arrived at her office in plenty of time, her nine o’clock appointment was waiting at the door. Twenty-five year old Misha Kaminski stepped aside to let Grace insert her key into the lock.
  “Good Morning Misha-- lovely outfit.” Grace admired the young woman’s fitted smoky suede suit, trimmed in shades of heather grey. Her tangerine colored silk camisole complimented long, straight, raven hair, styled like Cleopatra, herself. “Give me a few moments to get settled, I’ll be right with you.”
  “I had to get a ride, that’s why I’m early.” Misha’s voice fit her petite frame, high pitched, and mellow.
  “No worries, I just need to open up the office. Sal is away for a few days.”
  “Yes, she is ill.”
  “Why would you say such a thing?”
  “I get feelings, remember? Perhaps  I should not say them out loud.”
  “Sal is taking a little vacation with her husband.”
  Misha lower her eyes. “Oh. Very well then.”
  Grace sensed Misha’s contrition. Although they had briefly addressed her so-called ‘feelings’ in session, Grace wanted to learn more. She too, had a ‘feeling’ Sal was hiding something. Not only because of what Buns had told her earlier, and Misha’s comment, she had been having doubts about Sal’s remission for weeks. Sal’s symptom’s contradicted the ‘all clear’ she had received from her doctor. Sal was still losing weight, her skin appeared sallow, and she fought to stay awake through-out the day. Their coffee allotment had increased two-fold in the last month.  Grace shuddered at the thought of losing her best friend. But lately, life hadn’t treated her fairly and she held no expectations for change. 
   Once the mail was sorted, and a pot of coffee was brewing, Grace collected Misha’s file. She proceeded to her office, raised the blinds and fluffed the pillows. At 9 A.M., she called Misha into her office.
  “I’m apologize, Miss Simms. I should mind my business. In my country, we don’t speak of --those things. I watch too much American TV. Paranormal.”
  “Are you interested in paranormal topics?”
  “Yes, very much so.”
  “What made you say my secretary is ill?”
  “I see dark when you say her name.”
  “What does that mean?”
  “When I see dark with a name, it means-- sick.”
  “What kind of sick?”
  “I should not say. I don’t know her.”
  “Please, tell me.”
  “Black means death.”
  Grace shivered. “I’m freezing, are you cold? I can turn up the heat.”
  “No thank you, I am comfortable.”
  “Let’s talk about you, shall we?” Grace leaned back in her chair. She tried to steady the notebook in her hand. Why are you shaking so?
  “I told you why I left my country.”
  “Yes, perhaps you can tell me more.”
  “My father told me to leave his house. He said if I stayed in Greece, I would be killed for my beliefs. I see things. I have dreams that my country is in big trouble. My father says this is dangerous to my whole family.”
  Grace peeked at Misha’s chart, curious if she had written the information down. She didn’t remember. Lately, it seemed she forgot things she wouldn’t have in the past. Stress? Most likely.    “How long have you been in the U.S.?”
  “Two years. Kaminski is my mother’s name. She was from Poland. Misha is what my mother called me in the letters she wrote to me before my birth. Melissa is my birth name. Meliisa Veremis.”
  “And you were sent here because you saw things, what kind of things?”
  “I see my government stealing from the people.”
  Welcome to the club, Grace thought. Strife spread worldwide.
  “That kind of information is available to us via our news media.”
  “I know names.”
  “That’s different.”
  “I know who is stealing, when, and how. I feel great injustice not being able to tell someone.”
  “I’m sure there are reporters in this country that would love to get their hands on that kind of information.”
  “My father says, no. I am not to speak to anyone except you, or my family could be in danger.”
  “How long have you had this gift?”
  “You mean my ‘curse’? My mother she gave it to me when she died giving birth to me. My grandmother stopped speaking on that day. She only wears black. My father takes care of YaiYai and my sisters.”
  “What was it like growing up for you?”
  “My sisters, they love me. They played with me, talked to me. My father doesn’t say much to anyone, he works. Olive oil is his life. He is artisan, Yiayia too. We grew up wanting for nothing. Except love.” Misha bowed her head.
  “Do you have family here, in the U.S.?”
  “No. My father arranged for me to live with the Olsen’s. They have imported his oil for many years. Father considers them friends. They are nice. Mr. Olsen---not so much to Mrs. Olsen, but to me-- he’s nice.”
  “Have you spoken to anyone else about your abilities?”
  “No. Who would believe me?”
  Grace’s heart filled with sadness. Another client, Wilde DeFoe felt the same way. Grace didn’t believe he would be buried alive, even though he insisted it was his destiny—until it happened.   “How often do you get these feelings?”
  “Sometimes it doesn’t stop. The impressions come in waves all day long. I don’t like seeing the bad things, illness and accidents, like the one your client had. How terrible it must have been for him to be buried alive, but I do like seeing babies in the womb before the mother knows the seed has been planted, and birthday gifts that are on their way.”
  Tiny bumps broke out on Grace’s flesh from head to toe. “How did you---
  “I’m sorry. See, father was right, I shouldn’t speak.”
  “You caught me off guard, that’s all. I was thinking about Wilde a moment ago.”
  “He’s at peace. His grandfather helped him cross.”
“Yes. His energy body wanted to stay here.” She paused to meet Grace’s gaze. “He was very fond of you.”
  “Is he communicating this to you? Or is this your assumption?”
  “He is telling me, in my ear. He says you liked to touch his hair.”
  Chills raced up and down Grace’s spine. Tiny hairs stood up on her arms. “Yes,” she said, in a voice that didn’t seem like hers, “His hair was---spiked, wild.” She cleared her throat and continued, “Let’s talk about you, shall we? This is your time to share what’s bothering you, we can’t do that if we’re talking about me now, can we? Last time we met you said you were depressed.”
  “I want to go home. I miss my family, my Lhasa-apso, Gigi.”
  “Does your father and sisters keep in touch?”
  “My sisters email me. When they can…”
  “And how often do they write?”
  “Not very. Father keeps them busy, I’m sure.”
  “You said your father fears for your life, what would you hope to gain by divulging the information you’re getting?”
  “I would stop the stealing! My people are suffering because of greed. It is not right!”
  “Misha, greed has no boundaries, is there something specific you can do to make things change?”
  “I would like to think I can.” The woman relaxed on the sofa. Her composure reflected years of the best schools, and social breeding. “There is a cell of people who control the economy. Then there are groups who want to disband the cell, stop the malignancy. Like the body, dis-ease is best remedied with a healthy immune system. My government does not want this. As long as my people are kept struggling, they cannot gain the strength they need to fight. The armies are like what you call anti-biotics, but they too have their place, and are controlled by another power. I know who these people are. I see their faces in my sleep.
  “Have you ever thought about writing a book?”
  “Who is the intuitive one now, Miss Simms? I am working on a manuscript. There are those advanced enough to read between the lines. Fiction isn’t always too far from the truth.”
  “I think you may have better results with fiction. People don’t always want to know the truth.”
  “Yes, I agree.” Misha’s pretty face became solemn.  “You’re friend…”
  “My friend?”
  “Yes, the one who’s ill.”
  Grace couldn’t speak.
  Misha reached for the box of tissue and handed one to Grace. “I am sorry. I upset you.”
  Grace dabbed her eyes. “I think it’s time for us to stop today.”
  “Yes. I will see you in --?”
  “Two weeks. Same time okay?” Grace penciled the appointment in the appropriate place and closed the book. She rose to escort Misha to the door.
  “I am sorry to say such words to you Miss Simms. I’m afraid my truth pours like vinegar instead of honey at times. I will be more careful to hold my tongue.”
  “You don’t have to worry about such things in my office, Misha. You come here to speak your mind. You pay me to listen, advise you, not to censor your thoughts and feelings.”
  “Thank you for the opportunity, and in that case I will tell you another reason for seeking you out. I must warn you to be careful.”
  “Excuse me?”
  “I’m afraid, Miss Simms, someone wants you dead.”

*    *    *

  At 3 P.M., Grace stood outside the schoolyard, waiting for Buns to immerge from the sea of kids pouring through double doors. She felt like a stone until hearing the voice that moved her forward.
  “Hey Aunt Grace!” The boy called from the top of the steps. Two pretty girls flanked his every step. When they reached the bottom, each girl turned and kissed Buns on the cheek. A couple of older boys began to yell.
  “Hey-- big balls!” One boy shouted. Buns ignored the cackling coming from the small group of bullies.
    “Wow, you put up with them all the time?” Grace wanted to hug the boy, but knew that was socially unacceptable at his age and didn’t want to make his situation any worse.
  “They’re jerks.” The boy’s furrowed brow relaxed. “Can we stop for ice cream?”
  “Sure.” Grace wondered if he was looking for a simple fix. “Are you hungry? We can grab a sandwich.”
  “Actually, I’m supposed to meet Rainy Parks and Finley Jones at the ice cream shop in fifteen minutes.”
  “Oh. Hot dates?”
  Buns laughed. “Real hot. They have tomorrow’s history homework done.”
  “I can see the attraction.”
  “Yeah, besides, they’re pretty cute too. For girls.” Grace melted on the spot. This boy warmed her heart. How lucky Sal and John were to have this special little person to enrich their lives. She wanted a son just like him. She could imagine Paul having conversations such as this with their son. Suddenly her heart felt heavy. I miss him. He hadn’t called all day. Hope that cow comes quickly. I can’t bear to be without Paul much longer.
  Grace and Buns stepped inside the ice cream shop. As Buns expected, the two girls were waiting for him to show.  Grace wondered where their parents were.
  “I can take it from here Aunt Grace.” Buns spoke very diplomatically. She got the impression she was being ‘kicked to the curb.’
  “I’ll be right over there,” she pointed to a booth across the room. She handed Buns a five dollar bill and started to the counter to order coffee for her-self. Suddenly, she was aware of the disruption breaking out at the back of the room. The group of boys who had been harassing Buns earlier were standing by the table where he had joined the girls, and were picking a fight. Grace waited for a moment to see if the issue would be resolved, or if she would be called upon to help. Inside she was seething. Her maternal instincts kicked in.
  When the bullies saw Grace approaching, they took off. As promised, Grace walked to the booth across the room and sat down. Buns gave her a wink, and busied himself with his homework, his ladies, and Rainy’s caramel sundae.

*    *    *

  Sal spoke to John convincingly as he eased himself into a tub filled with artesian water and mud. “Relax, try to imagine yourself in a big bowl of oatmeal.” 
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” he said grumbling. “You and your little soul journeys—“
  The comment stung.  “You could’ve stayed home.”
  “Sorry. Me being insensitive-- again.”
  “Once the impurities are leached from your body, you will be thanking me.”
  “Once the money has been leached from our bank account, I’ll be crying in my beer.”
  “I’m worth it, John. Please tell me I’m worth it.”
  “Of course you are, just sayin’-“
  “And chemo isn’t a helluva lot more expensive?” Tears formed in Sal’s eyes, she turned away. “If you can’t be positive-“
  “Damn, I’m an asshole,” he said reaching for her hand. “You knew that when you married me.”
  “Yes, you are--now come, sit beside me and stop your whining, or I may be the one to raise our sons alone.”
  “I love you Sal, don’t say that.”
  “Fine, but I have to do everything in my power to beat this thing, John. I believe cancer starts to grow in a place that can’t be reached with a scalpel. I have to find the cause and stop it before there is nothing left of me.” Her eyes pleaded with his. “Are you in?”
  “Of course I’m in.” John slipped his arm around her bare shoulders. “My God, this shit is slimy,” he said, grinning. ”We could have some real fun in here.”
  Sal gave his manhood a playful tug. “Save it until we get into the Roman pool,” she said, wiggling her brows, “I hear they’re VERY private.”

*    *    *

            Jess snuck out of the Madam’s room, leaving her lifeless body to grow cold. A whore that had caught his eye earlier met him at the top of the stairs. He spoke to her in pesos. She obliged.
     “You’re a little beauty, you are,” he said, unzipping his pants. The little beauty smiled and got to work. When she finished satisfying Jess’s needs, he pulled her on his lap and cuddled her close. “Quiero un carro”, he whispered in her ear. “I need to get out of Dodge.”
  “Si,” she replied coyly.
  “You want to come with?”
  The whore giggled and shook her head, ‘yes’.
  “You don’t even know what the fuck I’m talking about do you?”
  “Si!” she smiled brightly.
   He didn’t believe her. “Carro!”
  “Si!” She pretended to turn a steering wheel in her hands.
  “Si!” Jess stepped into his pants, and donned his shirt. “permite salir de aquí!”
  The whore got the message that he wanted to get out of there immediately and hurried to dress. When she finished, she held out her hand.  “Carrrro,” she purred. Jess peeled two hundred pesos from the wad of bills in his pocket. His lips spread into a toothy grin, his eyes went flat, like a shark.
   “Rapido. Let’s go.”

*    *    *

The next few leads didn’t pan out. At one point, Paul felt they were chasing smoke. Four women, murdered. One from San Diego, a restaurant mogul from Puerto Madera-- the Madam they had spoken to less than twenty-four hours ago, strangled in her bed, and now a whore police thought connected to the Madam’s murder, found in an ally outside Pergamino, gutted like a pig.  If Paul didn’t return to Sacramento victorious, it would take an act of God to find Jess again. His only comforting thought,  Jess was out of the country, away from Grace.
  Raphael spoke with confidence. “The authorities will catch him soon enough.”
     “’Soon’ enough isn’t ‘good’ enough.” Paul directed his question to Skip.  “Where are we off to now?”  Raphael looked away.
  “Mendoza.” Skip and Raphael exchanged glances.
 “What’s in Mendoza?”
  “Jess will most likely try to cross the border into Chile. He can’t stay in Argentina. The whore he killed—happens to be the niece of a Commandant.   
  Paul shuddered. “Raphael, what are his chances of getting across?”
  “This dude’s slippery. He must have passports up the olho do cu. It’s the only way he could be moving so freely. I’ve contacted the border patrol,” he shrugged, “but who knows?”
  “Yeah,” Skip interjected. “Depends how he plans on crossing too. There are flights three times a week into Santiago, but airfare is outa sight, and if he takes a bus, he will have to purchase a ticket ahead of time.” Skip shielded his eyes from the sun and surveyed the sky. “At this time of year, the pass may be closed—Raphael can check the weather report. If there’s been any snow, he won’t make it over.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I have a buddy in Puente del Inca, I’ll put him on detail. If our boy doesn’t morph into lady ga-ga, we may be able to snag him there.”
  Paul checked his watch. Tiny spots flooded his vision. Thirty-six hours on no sleep. “How long would it take him to get into Chile by bus?”
  Raphael pulled his phone from his pocket and began to scroll through his contact list, “Seven hours if he gets a ticket right away.”
  “Okay, let’s do it. Skip, call your buddy. Raphael, check the pass. I need to call Grace. I don’t want her to think I’ve fallen off the face of the earth.”
  Paul half expected a razzing, but none came. Both men took to their cells, following his orders. When Grace answered her phone, Paul stepped away from the men. “Hey, beautiful, did I wake you?”
   Grace thought at first she was dreaming. “Paul?”
  “I woke you, didn’t I?”
  “What time is it? Are you home?”
  “No sweetheart, I’m going to need a few more days. Things aren’t going well. I’ll spare you the gory details.”
  “I’m sorry to hear. I miss you.”
  “You haven’t replaced me then, that’s good to hear.”
  “No, you have a few more days, and then I must consider moving on. I wouldn’t be a good therapist if I didn’t follow my own advice.”
  “I swear this separation doesn’t qualify as desertion, I wish I could be there, next to you, this very moment.”
    Grace twirled her hair, ready with a sexy quip, when she noticed Buns standing in the doorway, his sleep-filled eyes, questioning. “Is that Mom?”
  “No, honey, it’s Paul. Want to say hello?” Grace handed Buns the phone.
  “Hi Paul,” he said, disappointed.  
  “Hey, buddy. You watching out for my girl?”
  “Yeah. She’s fine. Thought you were my mom, here’s Grace. Bye.”
  “Uh, oh.” Grace watched Buns droop as he hurried out of the room. “I better do a little intervention. When do you think you’ll be home?”
  “Hard to say. I’m hoping by the end of the week. If it’s any sooner, I’ll let you know. Everything okay?”
  “I believe so. Sal should be home in a few days. Buns is getting home sick.”
  “Anything else?”
  “Like what?”
  “No one bothering you, giving you a bad time---”
  “No, I’m---”, just then her phone beeped. She checked the caller ID, the number “unknown.”
  “Hang on, I’m getting another call. Hello?” Silence. “Hello?” Dread danced along her spine. “Hello!” She heard his sigh.
  “Hey babe.”
  “What do you want Jess?” The sound of his voice made her want to retch.
  “Why are you being such a bitch? Can’t you say, ‘hello’?” He lowered his voice a notch. “You know what I want. I want you, babe. Always have, always will. It’s just a matter of time.”
  “Try ‘never’, Jess. I want nothing to do with you.”
  “Oh, I think you’ll change your mind once lover boy is out of the way.”
  “What are you talking about, Jess, where are you?”
  “Wouldn’t you like to know? What’s the matter, Grace? Don’t think lover boy can take care of himself? What do you know about him, anyway?” He chuckled. “Face it, we, you and I have something special. He’s an imposter.”
  “You know nothing about him, Jess.”
  “Oh, don’t I? Ask him, Grace. Ask him where he is—who he’s with.” Grace heard Jess pucker his lips and blow a kiss before she heard the >click<. Her hand shook as she switched the line back to Paul. “Where are you, Paul?”
  By the tone in Grace’s voice, Paul could tell she was upset. He rubbed the phone along his shirt pocket, creating static on the line. “Grace? Can you hear me? Are you there?”
  “Paul?” Grace’s frustration mounted. “The call was from Jess, Paul—where are you?”
  Anger burned in Paul’s soul. When I find him, he’s a dead man. He rubbed the phone on his thigh this time, causing havoc with the reception. “Grace? Can you hear me? I think I’m losing you. I’ll call you when I get back into town.  Damnit,” he grumbled, “Grace?”
  Tears welled in Grace’s eyes. She hated being afraid. She hated not knowing, not being able to be sure about life. She threw her phone down on the bed, rose, showered quickly and dressed. One person she could count on was herself, and right now, there was a little boy who needed her.
  Paul slipped his phone into his pocket and climbed into the car. He wanted to tear Jess’s lips off his face. How dare he contact her! Upset her! How much did he tell her? What did he say? “Let’s get to Mendoza. I want to get that bastard before he hits the border.”
   Skip’s meaty hands gripped his sides. “We’ve got the bus stations covered. Raphael called his buddy in airport security. We’ll get ‘im.”

*    *    *

    Grace moved to the edge of the bed where Bun’s lay curled into a ball. “I can’t imagine your mom getting up this early when she’s away. She’ll probably call later, maybe after school. Do you want one of my famous pancakes for breakfast? I can have one ready in no time.”
  “She’s not coming back is she?”
  “That’s not true, why would you think such a thing?”
  “She’s never been gone this long without calling. Dad too. They always called to make sure we were behaving.”
  “You’re with me. Your brothers weren’t thirty-one- year- old psychotherapists with a big dog and a driver’s license. Makes a difference you know…”
  “I suppose. Can I have an egg with my pancake?”
  “Yes, you may. Get dressed. I’ll have breakfast ready in a flash.”
  Grace ruffled the boy’s hair and bounced up from the bed. Being a mother to a troubled boy wasn’t easy. She sensed she had only managed a band aid on the boy’s aching heart. Her own hurt a little as well. Paul had been gone over a week. He said he’d be back in a few days. Their phone calls always seem to end in device failure, and she never received answers to her questions. Was he really with some old lady’s cow? Or was he in a foreign land making deals with the devil? She thought about his house on the beach. Was it really his Grandmother’s? Maybe he was a drug lord, or in some kind of money laundering business. How well did he know Jess? Looking back to when they met at her house, they seemed familiar with each other. Had Jess seen him in court or something? All she knew was that the comfort zone she had been living in lately no longer existed. Everyone was acting crazy. Sal, Paul, Jess, even little Buns...
  In the kitchen, Grace produced the necessary items for the meal, milk, eggs, pancake flour. Soon she got caught up in the ceremony of cooking and left her cares behind.  Ten minutes later, Buns appeared by her side, wanting to flip his own pancake.
  “I can do it, Mom taught me how.” Grace moved aside, relinquishing the spatula to the confident boy.
  “Your Mom’s the best. I think she’s instilled a lot of great things in you. Today, when you’re in school, rely on those gifts. Your day just might go a little smoother.”
  “I’m used to the bullies.”
  “Don’t get used to them-- figure out a way to disarm them. Let me fill you in on a little secret I learned in school. Bullies don’t like themselves very much. They pick on others and act tough because that’s their only way to feel powerful. They’re hurting inside. Being the intuitive young man you are I imagine you can pick out a trait that would make them feel good about themselves, besides acting like a punk. Look for their goodness. Find out what they do well, and compliment them. They’re not used to praise. Got it?”
  “Yeah. I think Steve Macomb’s dad calls him stupid all the time. He likes to call everyone else stupid. He’s bigger than me, too.  His dad’s a big guy. Maybe its like my brother says, shit runs downhill.”
  “I think your brother is very wise.” Grace pretended to walk in goo, stuck on the floor. Buns started giggling, and their morning began to brighten.

*    *    *

  Sal and John pulled up to the hotel in Big Bear. Sal checked the newspaper ad she held in her hand to confirm. “This must it,” she said eying the large plastic banner that read “Psychic Fair”.
  John placed his hand over Sal’s, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
  “Do I have a choice?”
  “This stuff is bullshit, Sal. I think your doctors would know more about your illness than some charlatan.”
  “You can wait in the car-“
 “No, I’m coming with you,” he said, changing his tone. “Maybe I’ll even get my palm read!”
  “This isn’t like the spa we just left, the toxins these people work on are stored in the soul. Are you ready for that?”
  “You mean they peek into your dysfunctional childhood?”
  “Don’t know, John. This is all new to me too. All I know is that I have to believe that the good Lord gave us more options than being cut, poisoned or burned!”
  John slipped his arm around Sal and led her through large glass doors. They stopped to register at the front desk, and then wound their way into the ballroom, where odd looking people in colorful booths beckoned. Sal gravitated towards a man dressed in black. The medallion he wore around his neck resembled an eye. Blue sapphires and diamonds sparkled each time he moved under the canned lights shining down from the ceiling. The silk curtains surrounding his area gave Sal a feeling of being in a Gypsy camp, or a carnival tent. She approached him slowly, as if in a trance.
  “Would you like a reading, Madam?” His voice matched his thick hair and dark features. Honey dripped from his words while explaining his psychic gifts to the couple. Sal reached in her purse, extracted a fifty dollar bill and sat down. John kept silent.
  The dark haired man shuffled a deck of Tarot cards while he stared into Sal’s eyes. He laid out a Celtic cross and flipped a card over. “I see the shadow on your soul,” he said, casting his eyes toward John. “Ten lifetime’s ago, you excited before your cycle was complete. A lover’s tryst—you took your life.  Remnants of this experience are stored in your memory. You attach yourself to others deeply-- you hang on as if you may be snatched from this world at any moment. You have many sons who love you, and a daughter who is not from your limbs, but from your soul group. Your bond with this woman exists through many lifetimes, as does your mate.” The psychic’s intensity appealed to John’s curiosity. He took a seat beside Sal and began to listen closely.
  “Disease eats at your body. The bosom where you nursed your sons, deformed from the woes you carry in your heart. You must let go. You have no control, only destiny. Charted territory. Your friend, your daughter is not your responsibility. Your sons have their own path to explore. You cannot change what is written, only how you perceive it. Fear is a breeding ground for affliction.”
  Tears streamed down Sal’s face. The man’s words cut deep. Yes, she was a worry wart. A control freak, a “cling-on” as Brenton, her oldest son would say. She loved them all so deeply, she feared losing them.
  “May I?” The man stood and came around to face Sal’s back. He placed his hands above her head, and moved them along the perimeter of her body. When he finished scanning her from head to toe, he placed two fingers on her forehead and began to chant.
  John looked around. He felt silly, watching his wife succumb to this man’s hoo-doo. The man caught his vibe and bore holes into his brain with his dark eyes. At that moment John felt hope.
  Sal never saw anything so beautiful as the images presented behind her closed eyes. It was as if a screen unfolded before her, revealing the wonders in nature. Colors so intense and new, defying anything she’d ever experienced, danced like flames in the wind. Suddenly, she felt her body change into another. She was nineteen; her hair flowed to her waist. The gown she wore barely covered her breasts. When she looked down, she could see where her tears had stained her skin, the object in her hand, sharp and dangerous. She heard a voice inside her head say, “He loves you no longer, go away.” Behind the color and the voice, another spoke. “You are loved by many, stay.” She felt her heart shatter in her chest--diamonds against the sky. Peace followed the bright light. A voice whispered to her soul, “go back, try again.” This time, she saw the razor against her skin. Deep grooves oozed red. Tears had dried, pain turned to numbness, resigned to death, she let go. She waited for the light, none came. No stars. Hysterical voices and sobbing brought her to her senses. She was surrounded by sisters and cousins. They wrapped her in love. She felt her heart lift joyously as she ascended to another plane. As Sal floated through space and time, she felt lighter. Brown tendrils fell behind her. Vibrant colors embraced her. Voices of angels sang, her body enveloped by clouds of comfort, tingled. 
  When Sal opened her eyes, she realized she had drawn a crowd. John followed her gaze. Their eyes met and held. In her mind, she heard his question. “Well? Did it work? Are you cured?” She couldn’t say. She felt there was more work to be done. She had built up many lifetimes of cancer. “I have only scratched the surface.”

  *    *    *

  Grace dropped Buns off at school and headed into the office. With Sal gone, she needed to prepare for her day. Another new client coming in, a file would be essential.
  Each time she turned the key in the lock to her office, a feeling of foreboding followed. Months of therapy with Dr. Meltz helped diffuse her anxiety, but with Sal gone, twitching manifested beneath the surface of her sanity, waiting to strike at any given moment. She reached for the light switch before her body entered. Once the room was lit, she exhaled.
  She clicked her computer into life and started a pot of coffee. Sal’s mug looked lonely next to hers. Emotion rose from her gut and settled in her tear ducts. Fear escaped and trickled down her cheek. “Stop it,” she scolded. “She’s coming back. All is well.”
  Grace rechecked her messages. Sal hadn’t called in three days.
  Busying herself, labeling manila folders served as a distraction. Her client would be arriving shortly.  Her line-up for the day would keep her mind occupied and away from distress. “We’re survivors,”
 She reminded herself. There was no need to fret. Sal is coming back. Paul is coming back. Life would resume, like before. She had no say about what transpired behind the scenes. Only what she could do for herself, right here, right now. Thankfully, the door opened and her first client strolled in.
  “Darren Shepherd,” the cool voice stated as the man extended one manicured hand. Grace acknowledged the gesture, excepting his offer to shake. His silk suit easily cost a month’s rent and his diamond ring a year’s salary. She noticed her image reflected in his shiny shoes, and his skin, soft and warm to the touch.  Grace gathered from his original call he was fortyish and worked as a commodities broker. She hadn’t a clue to why he sought her services. He preferred to discuss his reasons in person. Now that he was here, her curiosity piqued. There was something very familiar about him, yet she couldn’t say what.
  “Come this way. You can fill out the forms in my office.” Grace flipped a switch, turning on the surveillance monitors Dr. Meltz insisted she have installed to insure her peace of mind. She virtually thanked him for pressing the issue, now that Sal wasn’t there to man the front desk. Cameras blinked simultaneously as the couple headed down the hall.
  Darren sat, stretching his long legs in front of him. He took the pen in his left hand and began filling out forms Grace presented. She caught herself staring at his well- groomed beard and mustache. Hair so black, the overhead light burst into shards of blue, gleaming each time he moved his head. Grace felt like she was sitting in the room with a prince—or a con.
  “I appreciate you seeing me on such short notice,” he said, handing the neat and completed papers back to her. “I didn’t want to say much on the phone,” he looked around the room, “just in case.”
  “Just in case what?”
  “My phone is tapped, I’m almost positive.”
  “Almost positive?”
  His full lips stretched into a slow smile. Graces eyes gravitated there to watch.
  “’Got me there-- I’m sure my phones are being tapped.” He extracted a slim black rectangle from his pocket and placed it on his knee. “I’m not sure if this one is.” He picked it up and placed it under the pillow next to him.
  “Why would someone want to tap your phone?”
  “Steal my leads.”
  “Go on, I’m listening,” she said, crossing her legs, and relaxing into the chair.
  “It started awhile back. I began hitting it lucky at the crap tables. Suddenly my clients at work started shelling out money for investments that were winners, and I made a butt load on commissions. Next, I bought a lottery ticket, and won two-hundred and fifty grand.” His pinky finger slid up and down his bejeweled ring finger.”
  Grace focused on his every move. Where do I know this guy from? The question echoed in her subconscious and shot warning signals to her brain, yet she couldn’t place him.
  “I’ve travelled extensively,” he said, admiring the glittering diamonds on his hand. “I know my markets. I also know that this business is very competitive. I’ve had a streak of good fortune and my peers are very suspicious as to the nature of my lavish lifestyle. I found the first bug in my Iphone last week, another in the alarm on my nightstand. I find that a bit unnerving, Miss Simms. Don’t you?”
  “Yes.” A chill skittered from her scalp to her toes. “I’d certainly want answers. Any idea who is planting these devices?”
  “I’m not sure yet.” Again, his teeth appeared large and white between his lips. His mustache framed them in contrast. His beard reminded Grace of her neighbor’s lawn. Perfection. Too perfect?
  “Don’t you think?”
  “I’m sorry, what?”
   “When you’re done staring at my mouth, perhaps you can answer my question.”
  Grace’s cheeks felt hot with embarrassment. She imagined bright red, painting her face. “I’m sorry.  I seem to have missed something, would you mind repeating what you said.
  His smile waned.  “I didn’t say anything worth repeating. It seemed as though you were staring.”
  “Deep in thought I guess.” She felt heat recede from her cheeks. All is well. “Please continue.”
   Darren relayed how commodities worked, instructing Grace as though she were a school girl and he the head master. She found the information interesting, however she couldn’t let go of the feeling that she knew this man. Maddening, but from where? The question fragmented her concentration to the point she didn’t blame her client if he didn’t return. Her behavior was out of character, her listening skills unprofessional. What’s wrong with me?
  “My problem is rather unusual; perhaps I am not making myself clear,” he said.
  Grace regrouped quickly. “What do you hope to gain from our sessions together, Mr. Shepherd?”
   “One, you make an ideal witness without me having to worry- silence is golden.” He pretended to zip his lips. “Two, my situation is unnerving. I sleep with one eye open.”
  “You’re afraid?’
  “Wouldn’t you be?”
  “Yes, I suppose I would.” She lied through her teeth. She would be petrified to be in his position, yet, she wasn’t buying it. Why not?   “Let’s talk about your fear. What steps have you taken to remedy your position? Have you contacted authorities’?”
  “And what do I tell them? I’m a lucky dude, someone wants a piece of the action?”
  “If you feel your life is in danger, I would think they’d be first on your list. Talking to me isn’t going to resolve the problem. It would be like me trying to unclog a drain with a cotton ball.”
  “Can’t I talk to you about what’s happening to me? Isn’t that why people see therapists?  I’m in deep drama here, granted. Fate has given me a break. I am a rich man. People don’t like to see others succeed.”
  “I’m not convinced that’s true. There has to be motive. Either someone wants what you have, is looking for revenge, or wants to stop you from obtaining more. Which is it?” His smile broadened. “Are you doing anything illegal?”
  Darren’s eyes became two flints. Grace didn’t want to stare. Yet, she couldn’t look away. His eyes pinned hers. Helpless? No. She cleared her throat and turned the page on her notepad. She felt her own power surge. Her eyes returned to his, barbed wire. Electrified.
  “No. Nothing illegal and you’re right. The police should be notified. There. I feel better all ready. You’re good, Miss Simms. May I set up another session? I have to run--business meeting in twenty minutes. I never leave a client hanging.”
  “Let’s make it two weeks, same time. I am available by phone providing there’s a crisis, or if you need to change your appointment.” Grace led him toward the door. “I’m glad you agreed to share your story with police. I think they can handle the crux of your problem.”
  Darren had nearly cleared the door when he stopped short. “My phone,” he said, his breath brushing her forehead. She wanted to step away, but there was no place to go. She was trapped in the doorway. The heat of his body permeated her thin sweater. She held still until he passed. She watched him snatch his phone from the sofa, and stepped clear of his return. “Don’t want to forget that,” she said her voice shaky. Stepping into the hall, away from the door, she let him pass. When he left the office, her breathing returned to normal.
  Rather than let her suspicions nag her the rest of the day, she went to her computer and typed the name Darren Shepherd in the search toolbar. She scrolled through the list of choices, reading carefully. Darren Shepherd, Sacramento. She clicked on the link. Darren Shepherd, screenwriter, “Wyatt Earps’ Revenge”. She clicked on the link, hoping to see a photo. None available. She retraced her steps and searched again. She found a photo of a Darren Shepherd, again, screenwriter, “Bump City”. Right age, not her guy. She scrolled down the list, looking for anyone with that name who won a prize or dealt in commodities.
She came up blank.

2007 Nicholas Rotondo 924words

© 2011 Nicholas Rotondo 1327 words

Disclaimer: This work of fiction in no way reflects the author’s attitude towards the
female gender, whose tribulations he has assuaged as his life’s work.

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Recap: Professor Klum had transformed himself in body and mind into Charisma, a Pick-up Artist and his first encounter as such was an unmitigated success. His target, Marie, responded to each technique he used and went beyond responding to aggressiveness. Charisma’s first Kiss-close and Number-close were almost overwhelming to the inner Klum, who had to break off continuing the exhibition of his new powers before his coronaries constricted. He knew one thing—this was the Change of Life he’d sought.

Change Of Life

Chapter Five

Over the next few days, Professor Klum/Charisma played and re-played his first sojourn into the Pick-up World in his mind. He’d done well, there was no doubt of that. As he looked at his new persona in the mirror, a habit that was becoming more frequent, he was gradually convinced that fate or destiny or karma had put him in this place, at this time, to show him his true calling. With the same determination and fervor that had earned him his PBK key in college, his Masters and his Ph.D., he scoured the internet for websites and blogs that pertained to his new lifestyle. He found much to be reviewed and filtered there, with nuances of the Game explained by many veteran P.U.A.s.

The chat rooms were of most value, with questions answered, experiences shared and I.M.’s exchanged. The unique terms in the Pick-up Artist’s lexicon fascinated him. Some of these were:
The Sarge: used as a noun or verb—the act of attempting a pick-up. The One-set, Two-set, Three-set, etc., signifying the number of people in the group selected. The Neg (as in negative): a seemingly accidental insult, demonstrating your apparent lack of interest in your mark. The Chick Crack: a subject of interest to mainly women, not men (Tarot, Astrology, Personality tests, Puppies.) The Push-Pull: giving alternate signals of interest and disinterest, to encourage your target to more aggressively seek the former. The Freeze-out: ignoring your target so that she seeks validation. The Hook Point: that moment in the conversation that your target realizes she doesn’t want you to leave. The Kino (from kinesiology): Touching or stroking to enhance the sensuous aura. The Yes Ladder: increasingly pointed questions that can be answered only in the affirmative. (Are you spontaneous? Are you adventuresome? Are there times when you just want to say, “What the hell—let’s go for it?”) The downside of the game was also shrouded in initialed terms: The LJBF (Lets Just Be Friends—a knife to your heart—also used as a verb[I’ve been LJBF’ed!]) The Crash & Burn: complete and utter failure.
There were internet entreaties from newbies to be Wing Men, for the perks of this position were often obtaining phone numbers, kisses or more from the chaff of the professional P.U.A.’s successes. A would-be Wing Man usually asked to observe the P.U.A.’s solo sarging techniques before committing. These rookies were referred to as A.F.C.s (Average Frustrated Chumps) by the professionals, but they were making the effort to become R.A.F.C.s (Reformed Average Frustrated Chumps.) Charisma chuckled at their inferiority.
He thought of Marie as only a test run. Telephoning her could only lead to a premature entanglement, so he demurred. His second sarge took place the following week. He’d chosen a venue which catered to both the straight and gay crowd. It was euphemistically called
The Head-hunter and had a jungle motif. His working outfit was feeling more comfortable now and his opening-night jitters were gone. The vantage point selected was a shadowed vinyl booth, where he ordered a white Zifandel.

There they were—a two-set, leaning against the Zebra-patterned bar. The first was a somewhat coarse-faced brunette of about thirty, with collagened lips, sucking on a cigarette like it was a dying scuba tank. The second was much more attractive, about the same age, wearing a white mini-skirt and red tube-top. She wore large sunglasses, even in the dimness of this bar. All of these observations took a bit more time than The Book’s three-second rule allowed (Approach the target within three seconds of identifying her) but, he surmised, he was still learning. He decided to sarge Ms. Miniskirt. On approaching the pair at an angle, (never directly from behind sayeth The Book) he sidled his way between them, turned his back on his target and addressed the smoker, “Excuse me, Miss, but would you help settle an argument I’m having with one of the other surgeons in my medical group? Ka-ching!
“He says that women lie more than men, and I think the opposite. I thought a beautiful lady like you might offer her opinion.” As this opener was being shoveled, Charisma was completely blocking out his intended target, whose eyes he could feel boring through his back. After a short, inane discussion with the smoker, he turned and walked away from the bar. After a few steps, he stopped, turned to the Mini-skirt and said, “I seem to have ignored you—and you look like someone who’s not used to being ignored. May I buy you a drink to apologize? The next moment, he was leading her by the hand to the dark booth. The tiny reciprocal squeeze of her hand told him what he needed to know.
He started with the Yes Ladder, and after a few answers, asked. “Would you mind if I did a fun test on you?” Of course—Mini-skirt had already admitted to being spontaneous and adventuresome, so what could she say? “I want you to imagine a cube,” he went on. “What color is it? How big is it? Is it soft or hard? Are you standing or sitting, inside or outside your cube? Are there any sounds in or outside your cube?” During this pointless interrogation, Charisma began to gently rub the magical point on her wrist, just below the thumb, then softly entwined his fingers in her hair and finally, stroked the secret place behind her ear. He explained the significance of her answers, each validating her need for physical companionship. Suddenly, he arose and flitted back to chat with the smoker, ignoring Ms. Mini-skirt—it was the classic Freeze-out technique.

After five minutes, he returned to her booth. He might be mistaken, but was his target now exhibiting what the chat rooms described as the DDB —the Doggy Dinner Bowl look? This was the entranced expression a woman may exhibit when she realizes she is hopelessly attracted to a man. He was mistaken.
“Would you like to kiss me?” He was momentarily taken aback by her hesitant reply.
“No, I don’t think so.”
As programmed, he said, “I didn’t say you
could kiss me—I just thought I saw something mischievous in your eyes.” He glanced at his fake Rolex, “I have to be somewhere in twenty minutes—is there some way we could continue this conversation at another time?”
She scrawled her phone number on the back of a business card. “This is my private line. You can call me Sue.” She hadn’t even asked his name. Ka-ching, Ka-ching.
Exiting the Head-hunter, he stopped at a street light and turned over the card:
Susan A. Levine, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Marital Counselor
332 Charles Ave., # 600
Office: (617) 727-3888
He smiled.
That evening, while removing the tight-fitting accoutrements of his new lifestyle, Charisma felt pleased with his most recent Number Close. He knew this was a female whose brains matched her beauty. He went to bed, dreaming of Susan’s white miniskirt and of the adventures it suggested. One would think that our hero/anti-hero had his life well in place and was fueled to predestined success in the Change of Life he’d chosen. He would be sleeping the divine sleep of contentment from now on.
Alas, my friends, I must disappoint you once again. His sleep was not as un-disturbed as you might think. The more moral part of his conscience was in an unexpected death struggle with the life he was pursuing. This life went against his upbringing by a strict minister/father and a quietly alcoholic mother and against his own years of inveighing against sins of the flesh.

Throughout the next day and into the second night, this struggle between Professor Klum and Charisma for his very soul intensified. Finally, he decided to approach his dilemma in a logical manner, for the professor was a most logical man. He used a technique that was common in counseling young collegians who were unsure of the path they should take— unsure about even continuing their matriculation. He asked himself to picture Professor Charles Klum v.s. Charisma, each five years down the road. Which picture was desirable, which repugnant, which rewarding, which pathetic and did this make a decision easier?
Dear reader, his decision also weighed heavily upon your humble author, for if moral conscience won out, this will be the final chapter of the sordid tale thus far told.
T.B.C. ?

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Envy or Jealousy—Which is the Deadlier Sin?

Most scholars believe that the classic Seven Deadly Sins were first listed by Pope Gregory I, in the early seventh century. Although all are mentioned as evils in the Bible, they do not appear there in list form. Deadly is defined as likely to cause or capable of producing death. Deadly may also mean tending to deprive someone or something of force or vitality. One may argue that the death of common sense leads to each of the Sins. As a continuum, do the Sins eventually lead to the death of the soul?
This is the most widely-accepted list of these sins: Greed, Anger, Lust, Gluttony, Pride, Sloth and Envy.
Since Envy and Jealousy relate to the same general emotion and the words often used interchangeably, a question arises. Why does Envy qualify to sit amongst the Big Seven, whilst Jealousy does not? Is the former or latter the greater (deadlier) sin, thus evoking more severe Godly punishment?
Perhaps, if we can dissect the nuances of these two, admittedly similar, but nevertheless distinct human frailties, we can determine whether Envy should be replaced by Jealousy in this septet most foul.
The German word Schadenfreude is defined as that pleasure derived from another’s bad fortune. Envy can be defined is that pain derived from another’s good fortune. The envier resents the good that another has, receives or even might receive. More succinctly, Envy is that passion which views, with malignant dislike, the superiority of those who are really entitled to all the superiority they possess.
So, what about Envy’s non-identical twin, Jealousy? Jealousy involves three distinct parties to the emotion: The Jealous One, The Rival, and The Beloved, whether this Beloved is animate (lover, child, movie star, pet) or inanimate (wealth, material goods, intelligence, power.) The jealous person’s focus of concern is The Beloved—the person, object or quality he wants to possess, is losing or has a fear of losing—not The Rival. The jealous person would be equally upset if the Beloved ended up with The Rival or someone else. Jealousy involves fear of non-possession or fear of loss. This desire to possess the beloved thus implies the emotion of Greed.

Jealous One Beloved

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Let us now return to Envy, looking at it from the same viewpoint. Although Envy is also a three-party relationship; The Envious One and The Rival are center stage here. The third component, The Beloved, is of least importance since, although it may be something desirable, it is, in fact, inconsequential. The main
focus of the envying person is The Rival.

Envious One Rival

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The envious person would be equally upset if The Rival ended up with The Beloved or with someone (or something) else. Ergo, he would not be upset if The Beloved ended up with anyone else—other than The Rival, that is. Envy implies the emotion of Resentment.
Aha! Having endowed Envy with the qualities of Resentment, let us recall that previously, we had found that Jealousy encompassed Greed —another deadly sin. This, alone should make Jealousy the more serious transgression, right?
Maybe—but since we are discussing deadly sins, perhaps we should determine which of the following emotional scenarios is more likely to lead to deadly consequences. Sinning occurs in the real world and here is where we may find the answer to our query.

A) Jealous John’s feelings towards his Beloved, Mary, are such that he feels the same depth of loss whether she elopes with Tom, his Rival for her affections, with Dick, whose torrid Facebook exchanges he’s discovered, or with Harry, with whom she slept last week in Vegas. Is it likely that he would pull out his .357 Magnum and blast Tom or Dick or Harry? Mary, the object of his jealousy, may or may not suffer deadly consequences. In any case, Tom’s wrath, fueled by his jealousy, will be divided, in some proportion, amongst the above four; thus dissipated, said wrath is not apt to lead to a fatal denouement.
B) Envious John has hated Rival Dick for years. Dick is everything John wants to be and may or may not flaunt his superiority. John has feelings for Mary, his main squeeze, but most of his time is spent, not building a relationship with his Beloved, but in building a gnawing hate for Rival Dick and wallowing in his own real or perceived inadequacies.
John discovers that Rival Dick has 1) bought the first Maserati in his town, 2) won the Idaho lottery, or 3) eloped with Mary. Would any or all of these scenarios push John off the edge and lead him to Murder One? Since all the instances benefit Rival Dick, John may finally freak out on seeing yet another nail driven into the corpus of his own mediocrity by that bastard, Dick. Gun shop, here he comes—watch your back, Dick! Envious John’s murderous wrath has been directed, without mitigation, against only poor Dick.
●Having traveled the valley between fact and conjecture, let us return to the question at hand. Should Jealousy supplant Envy in the classic roster of deadly sins? I hope I have convinced you that Envy is indeed the deadlier transgression and must maintain its place in infamy.
Dear reader, the next time you feel the Jealousy/ Envy emotion towards your fellow man or woman, think about exactly what it is that you are feeling. Is it the person (your rival) or the person’s assets (your beloved) that is raising your blood pressure and pulse rate and inspiring you to think or do evil things? If it is the former, you are envious and treading in deadly territory.

The Courageous Comes to Port-au-Prince

Sunday evening Coast Guard Miami called. The Duty Officer told me the Cutter Courageous would be making a port call the next morning. He said it was the cutter’s mid-patrol break, and Captain Fox wanted a briefing on the latest intel on drugs coming through the Windward Pass. I told the Duty Officer I’d meet the Courageous at the dock. I told him I’d set up a briefing for Fox and make arrangements for the crew’s shore leave.
What I didn’t tell the Duty Officer was that Fox didn’t give a shit about the Windward Pass. He was coming to Port-au-Prince to buy cheap rum, play tennis with me at the Ambassador’s tennis courts, and to give his crew twenty-four hours to get laid. If he wanted intel on the Windward Pass he’d have set up a secure phone patch and talk directly to the DEA in Miami. Captain Fox was bored and wanted a little diversion.
Monday morning the
Courageous glided into the harbor of Port-au-Prince. Lines were thrown, orders were shouted, Haitian longshoremen ran along the pier tying off lines. Vendors were already gathered with baskets to sell, mahogany carvings, voodoo masks, fresh paintings in the primitive style, still smelling of oil; wooden bowls, cold Prestige beer, hot kibbe and pineapple spears. Taxis were lined up, the drivers sitting on the hood, waiting. There would be tours of the rum factory, and the mahogany factory and the ice cream parlor up at the Baptist Mission near Kenscoff. There’d be quick runs to the whorehouses at Carrefour and the El Rancho Casino. There was a bus to take sailors to the Club Med north of Port-au-Prince. For fifty bucks the Coasties could spend twelve hours pretending they were rich Americans on vacation in the Caribbean.
Captain Fox wanted to buy his rum at the Iron Market. I tried to talk him out of it, suggested we go to the Barbancourt showroom near Petionville. But he said, “I’ve seen that already. I’ve never seen the Iron Market. I hear that’s the real Haiti.”
I wanted to tell him there was no real Haiti. That Haiti was a dream.
We parked on the street outside the Market and I gave a boy a dollar to watch the car. He leaned against the fender and assumed a regal manner. He shook his finger at the other little boys and told them he would put a curse on them if they touched the
Commandant’s red Jeep.
I paid another boy a dollar to be our guide into the alien world of the Iron Market. His name was Patrice and he said he was fifteen. He looked ten, but the dignity of his position required the additional five years.
Patrice took my hand and led us into the Market. The aisles were narrow and twisted, vendors shouted in a thousand voices: flowers, artichokes, goats, dogs, green beans, oil, sugar, lard, dead chickens, live chickens, a pig’s head grinning from a bed of fresh lettuce on a wooden platter. The Iron Market smelled of urine and shit and fresh roses, there was the smell of sweat and fresh bread, frying goat, and soured milk. A dead rat lay dissolving near a stand that sold limes and oranges. Bananas hung from hooks, potatoes and beets and tomatoes and guava and mango and coconuts. Roasted chili peppers and old magazines from Miami and New York, a pile of T-shirts stolen from the CARE warehouse in Leogane. Sacks of rice labeled “UN” on the side. Sacks of beans that said, “USAID.” The Iron Market was the center of the universe.
I saw a girl giving birth beneath a table of radishes. She groaned and twisted her face, squatting beneath the table, her skirt pulled above her waist. Her mother waved radishes at me while the girl wailed and blood ran down her thighs. I jerked my hand from Patrice and grabbed at one of the iron pillars holding up the roof, it was the only real thing in the world. Patrice and Fox left me clutching the pillar and went off looking for Patrice’s uncle, a very honest man who would sell Captain Fox the best Five Star Barbancourt for very little money. He would make Captain Fox the best price in Haiti, because he was a good man and because Patrice himself would do the bargaining.
I found my way out of the Iron Market and waited in the Jeep. The boy who’d been guarding the car stood by my window and told me the story of his life. He said he was the son of the
Président-à-Vie, but a bad loa had stolen him from the White Palace and sold him to a man who beat him if he didn’t bring home two dollars every day. He showed me a scar on his left arm. “See, this is where he cut me.” I gave him another dollar and he thanked me, now he would not be beaten until tomorrow. So I gave him five dollars and he went away.
Captain Fox was excited when he came out of the Iron Market. Patrice carried two woven sacks full of rum. “Fantastic,” Fox said, getting into the Jeep. “It’s like something from a movie. I bet you could find anything in there.”
Patrice put the sacks in the back seat, shut the door and waited.
“He wants a tip,” I said.
Fox gave Patrice a dollar. Patrice examined it.
“I think he expects more,” I said.
Fox said, “Shit,” and gave Patrice another dollar. Patrice smiled, said, “
Merci, blancs,” and waved as we drove away.
We left the city and drove up the hill to the Ambassador’s Residence. I was having trouble concentrating. I was worried about which ball boy would show up today. Though I knew there was really only one ball boy, I could never be sure how many arms he would bring to the court. Sometimes he had one arm, and sometimes he had two. Each time I went to the courts I made a bet with myself, wagering push-ups and sit-ups on whether it would be a one-armed day, or a two-armed day. Though the odds were fifty-fifty, I seemed always to lose. It was beginning to affect my game.
When I mentioned this to Captain Fox he thought it was an amusing anecdote about Haiti. “I’ll have to remember to tell my wife,” he said. “Which one will he be today? One arm or two?”
My gut said two, so I said, “One arm today.” Out-smarting the
loa was part of the game.
“Maybe it’s not the same boy. Maybe they’re twins. You ever think of that?” Captain Fox made the American mistake of applying logic to Haiti. Everything must have an explanation. I wanted to explain to him that logic did not function in Haiti, it had been repealed.
The tennis courts were inside the high walls that surrounded the grounds of the Residence. The Marine guard waved us through the gate and we followed the drive past the turn-off to the Residence and parked in a crushed-shell parking lot cut into the side of the hill. We walked down the path that led to the courts and were met by Romula, one of the Ambassador’s houseboys. Romula carried a cooler of distilled ice water, and plastic glasses. He also had a small plate of chocolate chip cookies baked by his wife, Tulia, the Ambassador’s pastry cook. Romula wore a white long-sleeved shirt and black pants. He had worked in the Ambassador’s Residence since he was eleven years old. Now he was beyond fifty, but had forgotten his true age since he married Tulia who was twenty-six.
Romula led us to the courts and set up the refreshments while Fox and I unpacked our gear. After Romula had wished us a good match and walked up the path to the Residence, Fox said, “You got a good racket going here.” He waved his racquet at me, proud of his pun.
Before the first ball hit the net, the ball boy appeared. He wore thin khaki shorts, and a T-shirt that said, “CGC
Courageous.” He had grasped the concept of identifying with your target market. Captain Fox was pleased with the ball boy’s T-shirt.
Preparing to serve, Fox said, “Looks like you lose the bet. He’s got two arms today.” The yellow ball went up, and Fox double faulted. Six weeks at sea had done nothing to improve his mediocre game. We played tennis because he wanted to be able to say he had played tennis in Haiti with the Coast Guard Attaché at the Ambassador’s private court and had eaten fresh chocolate chip cookies between sets. He liked the romantic-exotic concept of that. It was a story he could tell later.
I played poorly enough to keep the score close. I did this as a childish bit of diplomacy, not wanting Fox to leave Haiti with bad feelings. And I did it because I was disturbed by what Fox had said about losing the bet. I thought I had won. I was certain the ball boy had only one arm. That the left sleeve of his CGC
Courageous T-shirt flapped empty. I watched the boy as he crouched at the net pole, his right arm feeling the tension of the net, ready to shout, “Let!” if the serve glanced off the top of the net, ready race after the ball should it be driven into a deep leafy corner of the court. From time to time the ball boy caught me watching him, smiled at me because he knew me, knew I would give him two dollars and all the left-over chocolate chip cookies. And he knew he had fooled me again. Knew that I had tried to outsmart the loa today, said “One arm” when my gut said “Two arms.” He had fooled me: for me he had one arm, for Captain Fox he had two arms. That is Haitian logic.
After tennis Fox and I walked out the gate and down the hill a hundred yards to what was called The Country Club. It was the clubhouse of what once had been Haiti’s only golf course. The golf course had long been overrun by goats and chickens, but the bar in the Country Club did business as though foursomes still hacked away at the rocky rough amid the pines, almonds and mangoes. We ordered
citronades, potent lemonade made fresh by a somber bartender who had lost one ear to the dark days of Papa Doc and his Tonton Macoutes. His hands were huge, boxer’s hands. In 1959 he had been Haiti’s heavy weight champion.
“That was fun,” Fox said, putting his feet up on an empty chair at the next table. “You know how to live down here. I’m jealous.”
Our tennis gear was back at the Ambassador’s tennis court. The one-armed/two-armed ball boy stood guard, eating Tulia’s cookies, drinking Romula’s distilled ice water, looking at George Washington on three one dollar bills---two from me and a tip from Fox because of the T-shirt.
After tennis I drove Captain Fox to the rented villa I had inherited from my predecessor, Commander Cassel. I still got his phone calls, hurt women who didn’t understand why I hadn’t returned their calls. “He’s gone,” I told them, but they didn’t believe me. They didn’t care; they said, “Call me, bring me flowers, let me come to you.” They said these things to the Coast Guard Attaché, they didn’t care what his name was, what he looked like---Coast Guard Attachés were all the same. “Why don’t you call me?”
The villa came with a maid and a houseboy. Elmase cooked and cleaned and did the laundry. She was smarter than I, she had told me so many times. She considered me an immature boy who must be told what to do and when to do it. She was the employer, I was merely the person who gave her money and made life difficult.
Alexi was the houseboy, though he was no boy. He was small and innocent and smiled even when I shouted at him. He had no English and he had no French. Sometimes I wondered if he had anything. Creole was the code we used, that and volume and gestures and an occasional intercession by Elmase. When things seemed most hopeless I prayed to Elmase and she descended from her Haitian cloud and reminded Alexi that he had responsibilities other than washing the red Cherokee. Alexi had fallen in love with the Cherokee. When it was in the carport Alexi washed it and polished it, he dusted the hubcaps and wiped down the vinyl seats. It was some kind of Alexi foreplay that culminated in some kind of an Alexi orgasm, but it took so long, and was so public and so repetitious that nothing else got done. If I pointed to the moss-lined swimming pool and suggested he spare a few minutes on chlorination, he gave me a puzzled, damaged look. It was obvious I didn’t understand his relationship with the Cherokee. If I raised my voice and mispronounced my Creole, he turned back to the Cherokee and resumed his buffing. Crazy
blancs were not his problem.
Fox and I sat in our white tennis shorts and white tennis shirts on the second floor balcony above the pool. Elmase brought out gin and tonics and a bowl of roasted peanuts. Her rubber slippers slapped against the terrazzo floor, and when she put the tray on the low wrought iron table between us, she asked if we would be having dinner at home tonight. Her English was very good.
Fox said, “Let’s go out some place. My treat.” He’d taken off his tennis shoes and his feet were bare. “What’s your favorite restaurant?”
A mango tree and a breadfruit tree threw shade across the pool. A purple bougainvillea climbed the wall against the house, an almond tree dropped white petals in the cement bird bath. A clicking sprinkler made a rainbow on the narrow lawn. Somewhere in Haiti someone was thirsty. But my lawn drank its fill.
“La Cascade,” I said.
Elmase made a disgusted sound and slap-slapped back to her lonely kitchen.