Category Archives: Blog

Silhouette

THE SILHOUETTE ON the shade startled me. The shadow hulked, giving the appearance of wide, powerful shoulders, brutish, muscular. No one should be standing at my window. For a couple of seconds, it didn’t move. Then the shadow slid silently to the right toward my back door. I reached down and hefted the kid size baseball bat I keep by my chair.

Living alone on the first floor of the old house I inherited from my grandmother gave me a place to stay, but the neighborhood had become disreputable and a bit dangerous since my happy childhood years when I visited here. The once beautiful and elegant three-story Victorian house came with all this junk scroll-work that rots away and looks lousy when an owner won’t or can’t keep up on painting and general maintenance.

Somebody took Gram for a ride with the last paint job. Imagine purple with magenta trim above the broad, white painted wraparound porch. All of it started peeling after three years and the paint, now fourteen years old and exposed to a merciless sun had colored dominant gray. It gave the house a tired appearance, so it fit the neighborhood well.

Economics made my move to take the property after Gram’s death necessary. My recent divorce divested me of our common property and dictated that I recoup as well as I could. Gram didn’t die until after the divorce decree finalized. I got it as last heir.

At least my gold-digger ex-wife didn’t get a piece of this property. Shallow bitch! Sorry. Her real depth of character apparently stopped at the “ca-jing” of my personal cash register. No kids. At least she did me right there.

If I wanted any kind of life I needed a place to stay at minimal cost while I recovered my fortunes, or at least stopped drowning in the financial flood. I’m a fighter. I’m okay with that. These were my thoughts when I moved in. Recovering personal stability did not include any more wives; one promise I’d made.

Loss of my place in the country rankled me. The sprawling ranch style house I sold to pay off my ex suited me and I loved the rolling acres. At the time I saw no options, and as low as my heart sank contemplating living here, it beat the hell out of the motel I’d been living in thirty miles away in Harriet.

First thing after I eyeballed the neighborhood I hadn’t seen in thirty years I decided to upgrade my security. Now I had double locks on the doors and my windows had the latest security devices. I didn’t have money to put bars on the windows, so anyone with sufficient motivation could crack out a window and ravage the place if they wanted to. I seriously doubted the next-door neighbors would either hear or care about a locally breaking window. Or gun shots, for that matter. After I acquired a few more shekels I’d get bars.

Sitting quite still in my overstuffed, somewhat tattered easy chair, I’d just glanced up from my newspaper. That silhouette threw danger signals that shivered up my spine. Meter reader? I didn’t think so.

A long, low white picket fence surrounded the property. Tall scrub leaned up against the fence and it shielded people on the narrow slate walkway alongside the house from view. Though only one acre of the original three hundred acre estate remained, the demarcation of the property line made its own statement. Once I’d moved in, most people respected my rights.

I eased out of my chair holding the twenty-five inch long bat. Moving carefully through the dim interior, I tried to match the phantom silhouette’s position along the west side of the house while stepping gingerly to avoid known spots on my thoroughly squeaking floors. Seeing out from inside was easy, since I had shades on all the first floor windows and for my privacy, I kept them down.

Ah, there he goes. The sun in the west showed him up just fine. I moved into the old kitchen, looking and not looking at the familiar place. Servants used to spend hours preparing succulent meals for the master and mistress of this house and their many genteel guests.

A hundred years is a long time. The house outlived four generations of Ripleys but like any nation, state or neighborhood, the life cycle of this old place had run its course and I got the impression it wanted to die. Creaks at night, thumps now and then that didn’t appear to be plumbing issues, and no, I don’t believe in ghosts but it would be a perfect place for them.

Not yet, my fine old house. Maybe when I’m through with you, you won’t want to die, after all, I mused as I walked.

Thoughts raced through my mind, even as I sidled up to the rear door. Yup, there he came. I glanced at the door. Uh-oh, I forgot to lock it after I took the garbage out. If the guy’s legit, he wouldn’t try and open it, right? I moved quietly to the side, standing back of the door on the hinge side. I raised the bat over my head.

Why, that son of a gun! I watched the knob turn. The door opened slowly and a head peered in, blinking away the dim light. Nobody I knew. He opened it more as his bulk moved into the kitchen.

Okay, I’d met the legal requirements. Now I could protect my property and me. I hit the guy on the top of the head with a crack that jolted my arms and he went down like a rock. What a stupid! I made sure he was out cold before I went to a nearby drawer and pulled out a roll of green sisal twine. The Navy taught me to tie knots and I learned how to immobilize anyone from TV, one of those crime shows; very educational.

I quickly bound his feet and then pulled his hands behind him and looped several strands between them. Then I tied them to his feet, drawing the tension up to where any movement he made would cause pain. It didn’t look comfortable. I hoped I got him thinking he’d run into a lost cause.

It came to me that had I not seen the guy’s silhouette in the living room window, he might have surprised me, maybe done some bad things to me. Another little shudder went through my frame. I’ll call 911 this time.

Ever happens again, I won’t call 911. Think I’ll lay in a supply of large garbage bags. Happens again, might get some use out of that big freezer downstairs, too.

Enforcement gets one chance for justice. Then it’s my turn.

Reprieve

AS WE WALKED back to our car from the Price-Rite store in Wal-Mart Plaza, Millie trailed behind me with the lighter bag, half a dozen bananas but mostly paper goods. The day threatened rain but it hadn’t started. I walked ahead, intent on getting my heavier bag into the car before I dropped it. Mostly canned goods.

I’d just turned the corner at the end building. No way could I have expected what I saw. I gulped and stepped back.

A wall of energy that came from a milling group of people ahead hit me, like getting smashed with a brick. It made my hair stand up. I went on instant alert.

I live in a peaceful town, yet that palpable barrage of anger stopped me cold. Without thinking the backward step I took caused my wife to run into my backside with other resultant damage. Somehow I managed to keep from dropping my heavy bag.

“Oww! What are you doing? You stepped on my toe!”

“Sorry, Millie. Something going on around the corner! Bunch of angry people; looks like a lynch mob. I got hit with a wall of hostility like I’ve never felt before.”

“What do you suppose is going on?”

“I don’t know, but my first impulse is to turn around and head back into the store.”

“You’re not like that, Jim. Let’s peek around the corner and see if we can discover the problem.”

“I don’t think it’s safe, honey.”

“Nonsense! This is America.”

“Maybe so, but that crowd is all Latino, and I know all about Latino tempers.”

“Jim, I can’t believe you. You, worried about ethnicity? My Jim, the big lawyer who makes his living fighting criminal cases for mostly minority groups? C’mon!”

“That’s probably why I think we’d better make for the hasty retreat. Alone I might jump into something like this to see if I can help, but you are here, and I don’t feel like taking a chance on your getting hurt. That bunch around the corner is boiling.”

My wife’s curiosity now kicked in. “We really ought to find out what’s happening, Jim. Really!”

I hesitated. Millie won’t be denied if she can help it. I tried to defuse her curiosity. “All right, but I want you to walk back into the store and stay there until I come to get you.”

“Not on your life, buster. I want to know what’s going on and I’m going to find out.” She made a move to pass me. So far our conversation hadn’t attracted any attention.

I stopped her. “Hang on, honey! I’m the man here and you are going to wait for me to check it out. Since when do you become foolhardy?”

“But Jim, somebody might be in trouble. They might need help!”

What do you know, macho worked this time! And I just talked myself into maybe getting killed. How smart I am!

“You can bet on it,” I said.

“Okay, I’ll wait here. You check it out and be careful!”

“My thought, exactly. I’ll put the groceries down here. Now, you trot back nearer the store, or I’m going nowhere.”

“Okay, you fuddy-duddy, I’ll go. Just be careful.”

I set the groceries down. Only a few seconds had gone by while I discussed the situation with Millie. Now I could hear scuffling sounds from around the corner. The tone of the crowd changed, too. I heard guttural sounds that sounded like blood lust.

My better judgment said, turn around and go back to the store with my wife. Not my problem, but somebody in that crowd might make it mine if I butted in. Millie truly did not understand.

I called after my wife, “Millie, call the police.”

She started to pooh-pooh the idea, but she saw the look on my face and said, “Okay.”

After that she began to run. I thought, she’s good, even if she’s overly curious.

I took a deep breath, turned back and walked around the corner. I could see a scuffle going on between two wiry Puerto Rican males. None of the angry people looked at me, intent on the action in what had now become a circle.

Both men had sharp objects in their hands. One held a six-inch hunting knife firmly in his left hand. The other casually held while switching it from hand to hand what I’d learned from some of my less savory clients was called a ‘Pecheucki blade’, a mean looking razor affixed to a wooden handle. The one with the PB had already drawn blood.

I stood in the sight of the mob, still unseen. I considered what I should do to break up the fight. One of the combatants looked familiar. I searched my memory. Pedro Callia y Perrera! Yes, I remembered. Two years ago I had gotten him a reduced sentence on a drug charge, for him, a slap on the wrist. He had knifed a dealer who sold him some bad crack.

The prosecutor told me after the trial they went easy on Pedro because he had inadvertently managed to bring down bigger game. To Pedro the verdict made me look like a star. He might feel he still owed me. The other guy I didn’t know, but he seemed to be getting the worst of it.

“Pedro!” I called.

He didn’t stop watching his adversary, but he heard me. Some members of the crowd turned to look at me, but I wasn’t wearing blue, so they got back to their entertainment.

The other man glanced briefly in my direction and then lunged for Pedro’s chest. Pedro wasn’t there. Instead, a bead of blood now trickled down his sweating right side as the PB exacted its toll. The crowd smelled the blood and started to chant.

I knew some of the language, but dialects are tough and American Spaniards tend to slur over words, making them difficult to understand. I only knew that the crowd had moved to another level. They had joined the combatants in spirit.

I tried something new, knowing it might put me at risk. “Hey, compadres, the cops are on their way.”

The crowd turned to me again and I could feel the ugliness in it. Somebody called the cops. Spoiled their fun. A couple of dark, sinewy, very ugly men started for me. Just then Pedro lunged and blood spurted from the other man’s neck.

The man stood there and grabbed at his slippery, flowing jugular. Blood pumped through thin fingers. Pedro stepped back, the fight over. Now he looked in my direction.

In the meantime, I had more problems than I needed. Blades appeared in the hands of the two who had separated from the crowd. I looked like fresh meat.

“Well, Millie, looks like you get to be a widow today.” They came at me. I’d seen these little people at work, first hand. No way could I stop them.

“Pedro!” I called again, more than a little frightened. He recognized me. He glanced briefly at his enemy, who took that moment to fall to the ground. He spat on him. No one in the mob seemed to care.

“Mr. Faslin! Hey, Paulo, Luis, he is my friend. Leave him alone.”

Pedro Callia y Perrera won the fight. For now he was king. The two men stopped. They seemed disappointed, but they stopped. Pedro came over to me and offered me his hand. I took it.

“We’re even now, hey, Mr. Faslin?”

The sound of distant sirens grew rapidly. The crowd melted away.

More than One Way to Get Iced

I’D MUTTERED, “SO far, so good,” low into my full-length mink coat collar seconds before, more angry than frightened. Jonathan, what a jerk! I’d grabbed my coat and fled; patting my right pocket to be sure the keys were there. They were.

Jonathan had taken my silver-plated thirty-eight special away from me, a gift from a former boyfriend, a cop I’d dated. Dear boy convinced me to take it, unsafe world and all, but not the guy for me. I’m choosy. He wouldn’t take it back when he left for good.

He said, “Nah, you keep it. Someday you may need it, you never know.”

I thanked him and put it into my nightstand drawer, right where it would be when I needed it. Sure, right! Only, Jonathan took it away easily. He must have been very confident, because in my opinion men can be so stupid when they’re thinking macho.

Oh, the stupid? Yeah, then he actually let me out of his sight to go to the bathroom.

“Jonathan, I’m going to throw up. Please, it’s here or in the john.” I gagged for effect.

“Go!” he said. The gun rested in his hand on the bed.

I went straight to the bathroom, crouched over and fast, closing the door with a slam! The glass on both sides shivered. I made all the disgusting sounds a frightened woman vomiting should make. Could have taken time to feel proud of myself for consummate acting, but the truth is, although I might have been somewhat frightened at the turn of events, he didn’t frighten me that much.

Thinking all the time, I waited for a few seconds quietly before flushing the toilet. After a bit I let him hear more retching. Then I made my move.

Silently I exited the bathroom through its second door, the one into the living room foyer, thankful that I’d had this built with a door at both ends as an accommodation. At the time I hadn’t wanted to stand the expense of two bathrooms. The door into the bedroom had been an afterthought of the builder.

“I maka door here, too,” he had said, long years ago, one hand on his chin as he appraised the situation, “so you havada master bedroom suite, okay, Missus Delehanty?”

I loved that man’s delightful Italian accent. An excellent workman, he had built me a solid house on a hillside overlooking the L.A. basin.

I’d said yes. Obviously a convenience, I remember thinking about how in my house such an access would only be used by my husband and me, whenever I managed to land one. I told Mr. Fratelli to disguise the doorway so that guests wouldn’t think of another entrance and would feel comfortable while about their business. He made it look like a full-length mirror. To leave from inside, I push the mirror and a latch clicks and the door swings open. Mr. Fratelli even thought to etch the mirror’s perimeter so it wouldn’t show fingerprints.

This is crazy. I could die and here I am thinking about my beautiful house. Jonathan is definitely not husband material. Now I’ve got to stay alive and get to the police! Fact is; I know too much.

Now outside, I looked up. I stepped out from the overhang and noticed the unusually cold air. I caught the steely glint of something on the railing. Evidently last nights rain had turned to ice. Some freak cold front must have come through. Didn’t think that happened in southern California. First time in my memory and a really bad time to be wrong! I ought to listen to the radio sometimes.

“Rats!” I said it vehemently, purposefully, because Jonathan couldn’t hear me now.

I couldn’t have known. I stood for a moment. I had to get away, but how? I couldn’t leap the balustrade. I looked down thirty feet to the bushes below and how the hillside sloped sharply down from there. I thought Jonathan would hear. I’d hurt myself anyway. Not a good choice.

I wasn’t quite ready for him to know where I’d gone. He wouldn’t be suspicious yet. Lucky for me the main access door had recently been oiled to get rid of an annoying squeak.

I faced the thirty-seven stairs with trepidation. I could see ice on the steps as well as the wrought iron railing. Bunny slippers, why did I wear them instead of my mountain boots? Of course, I knew why. No time! The blow-up occurred much too quickly, my fault, too.

Couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Had to tell him what I thought of him and the crooked deals, I’d learned about quite by accident last week.

Couldn’t believe it, a gangster in my house, and I had even given thought to marrying the jerk! Some gangsters are smooth.

Better try to get out of this without dying. Either way, this is the rock or hard place people always talk about in mundane conversations about finances or their kids on drugs or whatever.

I looked at the surround deck. It went past the floor-to-ceiling picture windows that provided the living and day rooms their spectacular views of the normally smog-filled basin that opened out beneath me. Last night’s weather took care of the smog for today, anyway. Wouldn’t be long…

Okay, so Jonathan could see me if he’s gotten off the bed. Can’t try for the back of the house. Not much cover in the scrub; bad idea.

Got to get to the garage. Got to get the car. Got to get away. Too many things against me! I began to feel real fright.

The door to the garage sat to the right at the bottom of the brick stairway. I leave it open most of the time. Living in this particular community had proved safe and I have felt secure enough to ignore the news that filters out of L.A., you know, crime running rampant, lock your doors and all of that.

Well, I do lock my doors. I’m not that careless, but the garage has no access to anywhere and my Lexus is fully protected, so why bother? Good thing today. The noise of raising the door would surely bring Jonathan running and it would help me gain that extra few seconds I needed to get away from a dangerous man. That’s all I could think of. But first, how to get down these stairs?

I inspected them in a manner I had never done before. They were flat with a slightly raised lip. With care, I could negotiate them. I couldn’t be slow about it, either; seconds were ticking away. Close to a minute since I’d eased out the bathroom door. Jonathan had guts and I hadn’t seen any fear in the man. He’d be antsy now. A minute of silence is too long in a situation like this.

“Margie, what you doing in there? Get back in here!” I couldn’t hear him from the outside, but I would bet a lot that’s dear he’d just said it angrily toward my bathroom door.

Get going, girl, I told myself. I grabbed the railing, thanking my lucky stars I had stayed in shape. Keeping my body straight, balancing everything like a cork standing upright in a puddle of water, I eased down the stairs. In a couple of steps I had it down pat and moved more quickly. I’d made it halfway down, all the way to the landing where the stairway turned when I heard the latch behind me click.

The door opened suddenly. “Come back here, Margie!” Jonathan said. I heard death in his voice.

Grabbing the rail with an iron grip, I turned. “Come and get me, Jonathan. Better not use that gun out here. This place is patrolled.”

The man hesitated for a short moment, made a decision and quickly headed down the stairs. Intent on me, he didn’t see the ice. His feet went out from under and with a yell, Jonathan tumbled down, totally out of control. He grabbed at the railing but ice provided no grip. With a satisfying crack – to me anyway – his head hit the railing at the turn where I stood. I had to move quickly to the side to avoid getting struck, almost losing it in the process.

Silence followed for a few moments and then my gun hit the driveway below…and went off with a loud “Crack!”

That ought to bring the neighbors, I thought gleefully. Jonathan was out cold. Blood started to well on his forehead. Somehow that didn’t bother me a bit.

In a couple of minutes two Security men came racing up the hill. George from next door evidently called them. I explained what had happened and how frightened I’d been and told them how wonderful I felt to have brave men like them watching over the residents of Pine Vista Acres.

They looked grim and oh so masterful and took over. They patched Jonathan up and took him to the hospital, assuring me that the police would meet them there, and “Not to worry, Ms. Delehanty, we’ll take care of everything.”

Later that morning the L.A. police came up and took my statement and would I testify against this man they’d taken into custody.

“I certainly will,” I replied.

When they checked my permit for the gun, “Just routine,” they said, I told them that I’d made a mess of defending myself, happy at least that it went off by itself.

The policemen laughed.

Oh, and one more thing. The ice surprised them, even here in the hills. One of them, the cute one said, “That’s one of the better ways to ice a guy in L. A.”

We all laughed at that one. And speaking of ice, with all the attention I got from our Security and the L.A. police, I figured my day couldn’t get any better!

Like icing on a cake!

Leaves of Fall

MARKAM AND I stood on an interlocking stone patio overlooking our wheat fields. Stonewalls outlined its borders. As a young man a hundred years ago, our ancestor, great, great grandpa Elias cut the trees, dynamited the stumps, gee-hawed them into huge piles and burned them. The family chronicle said the smoke lingered for days. He cursed acres of stone out of glacier-abandoned fields with horse and sledge, a monumental task suited to a driven man.

In sharp contrast to the fall brilliance, two swaths of never changing spruce forest marched up the windward ridge. The air had a brittle October bite, and fall scents came to us in a potpourri mixture that highlighted the first peaceful moment of the day.

Wheat, now golden and ready for harvest stretched a couple hundred yards north. The swath of land covered ten acres east to west, abruptly ending in a forest of maple, oak, spruce, hickory and ash. October’s brilliant red and gold leaves brought a lump to my throat and it made me think about the ends of things.

Beyond the trees, foothills rose into low mountains blue with distance. North of fields that held our gaze, contoured lands spread out for another mile or more and they rose and fell naturally. On them grew silage corn and hay and beyond that our Holstein herd, specks to the eye, dotted more landscape. Everywhere Grandpa Elias’ stone walls checkered the view.

Dad and Mom owned it, but they died and my brother and I owned it now. Six thousand acres, everything our eyes could see.

“Lot of work here,” Markham said.

“Yeah, lot of work,” I responded, my mind on beauty and not on business.

Then he startled me. He said wistfully, “As the leaves of October fell…” and stopped.

Reflection wasn’t Markham’s strong suite “…and red hues waved in counterpoint…”

He stopped again. It sounded like it should be familiar. I turned from the scene. ‘Wordsworth?”

He looked at me. “No. Rogoszewski.”

“Who?”

“Classmate of mine. Hiram Rogoszewski.” Markham went to Boston University for his degree. He wanted Harvard, but his lazy streak didn’t allow it, and with all of Dad’s money, Harvard did prove its august school stood for more than the ability to pay.

Markham took up Economics, Business Practices and Business Law, got his act together and did well. I went to the University of Minnesota and studied Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. With farming and all our cattle, I wanted to be firmly grounded in the land.

I laughed. “Hiram Rogoszewski? Hiram?”

Markham smiled sadly. “He took a lot of heat for it, but he shined like a brilliant star.”

Not like Markham. I wondered what brought that on, but I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. I looked back at the colored hills.

“He died, too.”

I kept silent. What brought that on? What’s with this sensitive side I never saw before?

As brothers we had been far apart. I didn’t like him. As fraternal twins, I favored mother’s side and he favored our father. Willowy Mom took care of herself, exercised and displayed a gentle soul to the world. Dad had mass, but was well formed and strong. Throughout his working years he insisted on working alongside his workers to keep fit.

Markham stood two inches taller than I. He weighed a hundred pounds more, but the antithesis of Dad. I didn’t like seeing him the way he’d always been. He claimed a glandular deficiency, but I never bought it. He liked food too much. It had been an issue for Mom and I took her side, but Dad ruled and provided and wouldn’t hear of it, so what could we say? I knew I shouldn’t hate someone who shared the same womb, but I did.

During our pre-college years Dad got after us to pick a career, so long as it led back to the estate. Education, he insisted, should motivate us. All things would follow from that. So we picked colleges we wanted, far from each other. What Dad wanted he got, and his two sons worked though four years of college, training to become great and hopefully smart landowners. Once back home, he said, we would work side by side with him and he would finish our education, fine-tuning us in estate management.

It didn’t happen that way. We learned skills we could use in running Dad’s giant enterprise, but only weeks after graduation Dad had a fatal heart attack and ran off the road into a pond while driving Mom to a doctor’s appointment in Ashton. Their truck sank to its roof. Mom drowned.

Now for our dilemma. I would have to work with a brother I didn’t like and who didn’t like me. We’d made inroads on that in the past few days. Tragedy changes everything.

Now Markham and I stood together and gazed at autumn’s finery and wondered how to grasp what had been put too soon into our hands. We were twenty-one. We weren’t ripe yet. We knew enough, but with no direction from the patriarch, we would have to do it all ourselves I just didn’t know if we could.

The last of the cars that had come to the big house after the funeral for what we morosely thought of as a celebration of life drove away. We watched it go. My favorites, Uncle Henry and Auntie Leigh came up from South Carolina. I’d asked them to stay. Lord knew we had plenty of guest rooms, but they insisted and after a time I gave up. They had their reasons. I suspected it had to do with my brother. Like me, they never seemed to relate to him, either.

Finally alone and thinking my own thoughts, wondering again about the why of it, I became aware of Markham fidgeting alongside and I turned his way again.

“What?”

“Cancer.”

What?”

“I have cancer.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I’m not laughing.”

“Well, c’mon,” I said.

It came out. Intestinal. Maybe eating the wrong things, blah, blah, who knew? And of course, no exercise; not his way.

I thought, yeah, right. Isn’t this great?

Markham told me he’d had intestinal pain for long enough that he began to worry. He explained that Doctor Reisch, a specialist in Boston did some testing a few weeks before graduation and confirmed it. Markham swore him to secrecy and paid his bill out of his allowance so Mom and Dad wouldn’t find out. After commencement he would deal with it.

“It’s what I wanted,” he said.

“Is it curable?”

“Best guess, sixty-percent.”

“What’s involved?”

“They’ll cut out about seventy percent of my intestines, maybe catch all of it. I’ll lose weight. Look at that, just what Mom and you always wanted.”

“Yeah, but not like this.”

“Choices are out the window. If I make it, I want your help learning how to be what I’m not.”

“You’re my twin brother. What else would I do?”

Our history of agreeing to disagree got in the way of our thinking, but he seemed relieved. And he’d asked for my help. That’s a first.

It’s strange how death or infirmity can change life’s direction. Markham had always been what he wanted to be. Now he would become what I wanted him to be. I took no pride in it, but strangely, it released some internal pressure and my rancorous feelings fled. Maybe we could become the kind of brothers we never were.

Together we’d make it happen.

Le Cafe DuMonde

LOOKING OVER MY shoulder, I quickly entered the Café DuMonde. I knew I’d lost my tail. I searched in the dim light for Gaston. There, over by the fake fireplace he sat, yakking with Michele, the cutie, five-foot-three of gorgeous, delectable womanhood. It figured! Leave the guy alone for two minutes and he’s after all that’s natural.

I’d been gone an hour, not my fault. But my news couldn’t wait. I moved up quickly.

“Gaston!” I whispered loudly. My voice carried enough and he looked up.

“Frank, you’re late.” His face took on a disgruntled look. Why do the French always have to try laying a guilt trip on us Americans? I couldn’t go figure on that one.

“No choice. Got to see you. Now!” I turned my right thumb downward. The news wasn’t good and I wanted Michele to leave, too.

Gaston caught on and spanked Michele out of the way. She pursed her lips and made some kind of an “Ooo” sound, only it sounded like “Ouh!”

How do they do that? I pursed my lips but couldn’t make that sound. I smiled inwardly in spite of myself. How silly, I thought, bad business and me trying to pronounce a word the way the French do?

I love to hear the French language spoken. It’s very liquid and I don’t understand a word of it, let alone try to pronounce it. Made me wonder why “M” sent me into this when we have a French-speaking agent in the department. But, I do what I’m told.

So Michele left and I got close with Gaston. In my brief glance I could see the fat man wore a black silk shirt, maroon trousers, the baggy kind I hate, and a cravat. Did it make him look sexy or something? My stomach churned.

I brought my thoughts up, higher than his had been, anyway. Back to business! We had trouble here and Gaston could stop this from getting out of hand. Still, I stayed dubious.

“Tell me what is the trouble, Frank.”

“It’s your damn French foreign legion, Gaston. You were supposed to arrange for Marcel and Mickel to be at the drop site and out of sight. They’re parading around like they want someone to take pictures of them or something. What gives?”

“Oh, ho, ho, Frank! That is the best cover of all. Who would suspect those two of being undercover agents?”

I wasn’t convinced. “No self-respecting agent would act like that here, Gaston. Our prey is going to fly, I’ll bet a dollar.”

“An American dollar?” Gaston said with a smirk.

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, Frank. You are young and you do not know my people. They are showing themselves to be tourists in a place where you would expect tourists. They will miss nothing. You do not have to worry, Frank. We will be there to catch the “evildoers,” as your President Bush would have said.”

Gaston laughed again. His belly jumped around. Obscene, I thought, absolutely obscene! How could Michele even look at this misshapen man? I kept it to myself.

In the position of go-between, I didn’t feel I was accomplishing much. Still, Gaston and his group had the nod from “M.” What could I do?

“Look, my little friend, in twenty minutes, we will have our answer. Sit with me and have a drink. You are nervous. All will be well, it is my promise.”

“No, Gaston, I can’t. I have to get back to my post. At least I won’t be seen.”

Suddenly a dangerous looking gun appeared in Gaston’s hand. “Sit down, Frank.”

He said it quietly but I caught his meaning, like crystal. Now what, I thought? I sat.

Michelle came over to our table with some duct tape. No smile on the pretty lady, either.

“Put your hands behind the chair, Frank.” He gestured with his gun. I did what he asked.

Michelle took a long strip of tape and expertly bound my hands, first to each other and then to the chair-back. Staying to the side in case I decided to kick, she bound my feet, one to each chair leg. Agent Frank Farber was going nowhere.

“This is for your own good, Frank. I won’t have Michele cover your mouth if you promise not to yell, okay?”

I felt like saying plenty, but I kept it inside. I didn’t want my mouth covered. I felt a cold coming on and it would be tough to breathe through mucus-clogged nostrils. “I won’t yell.”

”Good, Frank, that is good.”

How had this friend of the U. S. Government so suddenly turned against us, and why? A lot more going on than I had any idea, and I didn’t like it. “M” assured me of this Gaston’s friendship and that we could rely on and trust him.

I didn’t like him to begin with, but in the Service you don’t get a choice of bedfellows. I tried not to be judgmental, but he seemed decidedly less like a friend now. Couple of points for my instinct! Anyway, trussed up like this, I could do nothing.

They’d sat me down at the far end of the table in a little alcove where I wouldn’t be visible to anyone walking in the door. In the mid-afternoon, customers were few. I thought Gaston would have Michele lock the door anyway, but he didn’t. He did put his gun away. Then he turned and kept his eye on the door.

It came to me. He expected someone. So Marcel and Mickel were a ruse! Why did Gaston keep me here? I’d have been none the wiser watching the drop site. There must be another reason. Guess I’m dangerous. Either that or Gaston wanted me where he could see me, plain and simple.

Twenty minutes ticked away. I slowly tested my bonds. Very tight and well done, but I had a fraction of an inch of play. Maybe I could loosen the tape enough to rip it, if I got the chance. I didn’t think Michele used a lot of tape.

I’m small and don’t look like much. “M” says I make a perfect agent. Nobody would notice me in a crowd. Maybe so, but I’m wiry and strong, too. I don’t let on and like I say, I don’t look it. I labored at my bonds.

Three things worked for me at the moment. Michele went back into the kitchen to do something. I didn’t know where she could be, but she couldn’t see me. Gaston had his eye on the door and gave me no attention. The table covered my slow movements.

I flexed my right leg, tightening up the muscle. I felt something give. Ripping tape makes a sound. I tried to rip it gently. It took a couple of minutes of intense pressure. When it felt about to give, I flexed the left leg and did the same thing.

Meanwhile I had managed to gain an inch on the tape to my hands. Maybe she wasn’t all that expert, after all. Maybe they underestimated me. I kept glancing at the door. More than twenty minutes had passed. I noticed Gaston fidgeting in his chair. Nervous or worried?

The pressure of breaking the bonds quietly tired me out, but I got a new lease on it when I felt a sudden give behind me. I’d disconnected from the chair-back. Another two minutes and I’d be free.

Maybe I made a sound. Gaston suddenly looked back at me, hard, like trying to figure out what he heard. He started to get up and check on his prisoner when a shadow fell across the door. The knob turned slowly. Gaston turned back, a faint smile on his face, his thoughts elsewhere. I breathed a small sigh of relief.

A tall, dark, broad-shouldered man entered the restaurant. Behind him came a gorilla of a guy. He must have been six-six and three-fifty. My heart sank.

The first man said, “Ah, Gaston.”

“Monsieur le Grande.” Gaston, now totally composed and self-assured, stood and shook the man’s hand.

The tall man looked at me briefly and then at the restaurant owner. Gaston shrugged and said, “Earlier business. I will finish it later.”

They both looked away. I became a piece of furniture.

“Please.” Gaston gestured and then sat back down in his chair. The tall man sat across from him while the big man stood behind him protectively, glancing around every few seconds. Monsieur le Grande put a thin attaché case on the table. I caught a part of Gaston’s expression. The Frenchman seemed about to drool.

I renewed pressure on the remaining bonds. Suddenly, with a little jerk, I got free. No one noticed. I tested my legs. Yes, free there, too. I brought my eyes to slits, my vision darting this way and that, looking for anything that would help me. It concerned me that Michele had stayed out of sight.

Gaston had put his .44 Magnum in his right side pocket. When the man moved in his chair, I could see the bulge shift. I might be able to get the gun. I thought about it and a plan hit me. I almost smiled.

Meanwhile, le Grande opened the case and took out a fair-sized package. He carefully unwrapped it and removed a velvet bag with a pull-tie at the top. Then he laid a royal blue velvet mat down and opened the tie, pouring the contents slowly onto the velvet. With a small tinkling sound, marquee, square, round and oval cut diamonds poured out. They were brilliant, all of them in the two and three carat range. I’d have bet they were all in the vvs category.

I couldn’t see well and dared not move for a better vantage. I guessed there must have been ten million dollars worth of diamonds in the collection. Why Gaston had turned traitor didn’t seem so strange anymore.

The traitor pulled a jeweler’s loupe out of a shirt pocket and ran his fingers through the pile. He chose one and studied it, put it down and took another. I watched him do it a few times. Le Grande let Gaston check out the diamonds, but kept a wary eye on him. Finally Gaston looked up.

He said, “Yes, they are beautiful. I will have Michele bring in the money.”

He snapped his fingers. Michele came in immediately, carrying another attaché case, larger, black and rectangular. From the way she carried it, it seemed fairly heavy. She glanced at me, but did not stop. Gaston took the case from her.

“Merci, mon chere,” he said. Michele stood looking at the brilliant treasure below. Her eyes sparkled and she smiled, but said nothing. Gaston grabbed her hand and looked up at her.

I saw my chance. I rose from my chair, picked up the edge of the table and heaved it at the three men. I caught them completely by surprise and off balance. Le Grande and his gorilla fell back. Gaston, being slightly to the side grabbed for anything he could. As he turned, my hand dove into Gaston’s pocket and I came up with the .44. In the same smooth motion with my other hand, I pushed Gaston into the tall man and they both went down.

The gorilla gained his feet and pulled his gun out, even while trying to steady himself. I put one between the big man’s eyes. He slumped to the floor, twitched, and lay still. One dead gorilla! The gun had a kick like a mule.

Michele turned to run. I didn’t want to kill her, but I couldn’t let her escape. I put one in her right leg and she went down screaming. I didn’t feel right about ruining such beautiful womanhood, but she’d lost my vote as a friend.

I moved around the table and aimed the .44 at the two men sprawled on the floor. Gaston glared up at me, eyes filled with hate. The other man looked at me curiously, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened.

“Move and die. I’ll make it simple.” I found a telephone a step away under a nearby counter. Without taking my eyes from the men on the floor I dialed “M.”

“Got an interesting crew here, boss,” I said when “M” came on the line. I explained where I was and how I saw my situation. I listened for another ten seconds, said okay and hung up.

“Get comfortable. You won’t be here long.” I glanced at Michele, a little worried. She lay whimpering, her leg broken and too much blood flowing from the wound.  I didn’t want her to die. I grabbed a sash cord from a room divider, yanked it down and threw it to her. I knew her leg must hurt like hell, but she took the cord and tied it around her upper leg, twisting it into a tourniquet. She screamed again, but held it and the blood slowed.

The tense situation lasted another ten minutes, when two members of my team came boiling through the doorway, sized up situation and let me off the hook.

“M” came through the door last. “Nice work, Frank.”

“Thanks, sir. I just feel bad about the lady.”

“You’ll get over it.”

Love Story

AN EERIE HOWL woke me. I sat bolt upright, scared out of sleep; scared out of my wits. Werewolves in their human form can be fearful, you know. With difficulty I controlled my fear. I patted the bed next to me. No wife. She must be night running. She’d slipped out of bed quietly so as not to wake me.

A moonbeam searchlight illuminated the bedroom floor. I stared at it. The full moon! Still in a sleepy brain fog, I got up and closed the windows.

In my surface thoughts, I knew she’d lope along in her changeling form, naked but for the furry gray mat that now covered her, hairy arms extended, drool pumping from her excited mouth. I pictured it and felt the bump of her eagerness.

Then it came to me. Full moon? Tonight’s moon is full. I should be out hunting, too. The pangs began.

“No! Wait. My gift!”

I couldn’t join her. Her birthday. I wouldn’t hunt with her on her birthday. Werewolves had made that date sacred for centuries. No sharing, not that night. All hers!

My mind stretched back six hundred years when as a young Were, I anticipated finding my wife, my soulmate, a human yet to be born, yet to be “converted.” I’d only been brought into the fold fifty years before. There had been a succession of Were-women, but none jelled with my psyche.

Then Miranda appeared on the scene. I sensed her while traveling through the small village of Hob in eastern Transylvania. Only a baby then, I sensed she had good, caring parents. She lived in a tiny but well kept thatched house on a small plot owned by the local Count. Yes, I would know her for a wife.

I cast out a charm warning other werewolves away. As a part of the convention they must leave her alone and they would. All except the crazies, that is. I would have to watch out for them, so I made a mental note to swing by this village once every six months and check to see if my charm had been compromised.

It happened twice and almost a third time. Once, after she turned six, I wandered through her village in the dead of night to check my charm. Immediately I got a feeling of being impaled, like a silver knife stabbing deep into my brain. I’d been violated. It made me curl over in fright at first, but instantly anger arose in my belly.

Curses, I thought, it has to be a cast-out crazy. I stopped by the little house in Hob and recast my charm. Being the first charm on this young person, it obliterated the corruption attached to my original. Though they ignored it, even the crazy ones knew the power of first charm.

Again at the age of nine it happened. The unknown crazy must be persistent. Not yet nubile, my recast charm solved the immediate problem and my choice remained mine.

It happened again at age fifteen, a most dangerous time. My life partner had bloomed into a beautiful, dark haired, vivacious, brown-eyed human woman nearly ripe for the taking. Two more years; only two and I could make her mine. I removed the crazy’s corruption again, but knew that such a repeat offender would not likely desist.

I began to frequent the hamlet thereafter, spreading my spoor widely so he would be aware and careful not to range within my territory while feeding at night. Not a guarantee and sick with the thought that I could lose my precious, I began to lay in wait for him, night after night.

Now I hid my spoor and kept my thoughts hidden.  I became gaunt from unsatisfied hunger, unwilling to leave, unwilling to give up my intended.

Perhaps I could catch this crazy who’d defied Werewolf convention. I knew the law. I could bring him in front of the Were council and ask them to “induce” the crazy to avoid this place forevermore. It could be done. The weight of the council’s power could be extremely persuasive.

Finally, nearly crazed myself, he skulked in. About to corrupt my charm for the third time and while focused on my lovely, his defenses down, I opened my mind, froze him to the spot and ordered him to silence, lest he disturb my intended and frighten her. I sent out my signal to the Werewolf clan to convene a council with prejudice and while I waited I smugly watched him writhe in place.

Soon I sensed other Were’s converge on my spot, angry Werewolves anxious to confront this travesty, this outcast, this Mad-Were who had worked his corruption against their law.

The oldest, a Werewolf of a thousand years took over as leader. He quickly assessed the situation, called forth for me to release the crazy into their thrall—excluding me as petitioner—and asked the assembled to lend him their support. As the council transferred power to the leader, his eyes grew brighter and brighter and finally they glowed with unearthly light. Then he blazed away at the bad one.

The Were melted within and his desire for my prize dissolved like the fantasy he’d lived with. At the right moment the leader released him, and with no further thought in his mind except the normal need to feed, the crazy skulked into the night.

“The council is concluded,” the leader said. Each member looked at the other and without a smile, their duty done, returned to their hunting grounds.

With less than two years to go, hardly any time at all, I kept closer tabs on my future wife, but with the area scoured of possible challengers and with the annoying crazy neutralized, I had little to concern me thereafter.

I briefly thought of the night I took her as wife. Such a beautiful time. I’d courted her for several months in her garden, always under the cloak of night. She came to understand that we are simply a different species, not bad, but chained to our need for the sustenance of living flesh.  Frightened at the beginning – who wouldn’t be – I patiently won her over. In the end she wanted me. I ceremoniously initiated her to immortality one night as silver-lined clouds traveled slowly past a glorious full moon atop the sharp peak of a Transylvanian mountain. The joy I felt I will never forget.

My reverie broke with a faint sound, barely heard through the closed windows, but well known, the howl of success. It told me my wife had caught her victim in the night and would soon feed. And though my countenance in the darkness showed not on my face, I felt glad for her.

She would be home before first light, perhaps with a little blood still dripping from her muzzle. I would wipe it gently away and nuzzle her lovingly.

For now I could rest, but I knew sleep would elude me while I waited because I wanted to greet her as she came in.

I wanted to say, “Happy Birthday, my dear Miranda.”

Fireside Chat

I LEAD OFF the discussion. “Friends do for friends, right?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Charlie starts.

Get this. We are sitting around this roaring campfire in the woods up near Talcott Notch. It’s a warm night and insect spray is keeping the bugs off. Our faces are blazing and our backs are cold. Five of us stare into the flames together, me and my four friends. We are unlike, like I mean different! It’s not an encounter session…maybe it is. We’re here to talk out something.

Two rules; we stare nowhere but at the moving flames while we’re talking, and everyone must have something to say.

I better back up a bit. It comes down to an argument we had back in March. That day we’re in Joe’s Bar on Center Street in Waterbury tossing Bud’s and Sam’s and maybe a few boilermakers. Hand to mouth we’re munching chips or cashews or popcorn at one of Joe’s seriously distressed tables. The surface is covered with bottles, most being empty. We’re a bunch of old farts being loud.

To understand this group and where we are you have to get to know the guys. First me. I’m Donnie. I make things happen. I’m headstrong with a bit of a temper. I might know almost as much as I think I do, depending on who you listen to.

So Charlie’s got a load on and throws out the thing that grabs me. “Why are we friends?”

“Why are we friends? You shitting me?” I say to him.

“No law says we have to be,” Charlie says.

“You got no string tied to your ass,” I say back.

I get this sudden thing, like a brickbat to the side of the head. It’s something I’d been mulling for months, but it didn’t have a home until that moment. We’re not alike in any way, shape or form, so why do we stick together? I hold up my hands and wave everybody down.

“Hey, gang, Charlie wonders why we are friends.”

Everybody in the small group debates the point and we get nowhere, as usual, but nobody says no when I offer to head up a special session of the self-styled Raucous Bunch in a place where they’ll have no choice but to think about it. I don’t want asshole answers.

Now it’s July and here we are, camping…and drinking…and munching. Food seems to be part of every social conversation. Maybe food is a catalyst in the nature of friendships, something to do with your hands while you’re thinking, I dunno. Well, if you’re Italian, ha ha.

I plan to test the theory tonight by the fire. Some time ago I gave them all homework, a sheet of paper, a list in fact. Here’s how I figure it will shake out. I’ve had a spotty life, but I’m good with me. I like me. Sometimes I disappoint me, but I rationalize, who doesn’t?

Charlie, the one who kicked this off in my head went to college and graduated an engineer. He stuck with it and had a successful career. That’s in engineering. In marriage, he stunk. He got a girl and had some kids, but the idea of a permanent relationship went south five times before he gave up and decided single fit him best. By then his divorce decrees said he had to pay for seven kids until they became adults. That’s all past him now.  The last one turned eighteen a month ago. He’s pragmatic about it.

Al is short and bull-like and isn’t that smart like a thinker, but he’s the tenacious one. He ended up a laborer, what’d he care? He wins arguments by sticking to what he knows and never rises to a new idea. Still, he’s a sweetheart of a guy and nobody denies that. He married, but didn’t have any kids. His wife died three years ago.

John is quiet and studious when you compare him to the rowdy gang we generally are together so I wonder how he got to be part of the Raucous Bunch. I scratch my head on that one. He told us once he wanted to be a Minister, but life got in his way—didn’t it for all of us—and he became a Librarian his whole life instead. He had the same job when he retired. Advancement didn’t appeal.

Finally we come to Ralph. He’s our big guy, three hundred pounds of mostly muscle gone to seed through inactivity. He worked in the Waterbury school system and from what I heard, when he bellowed, the kids listened. He made them look up to him, so he did well.

There you have it. The Raucous Five, and except for me—I’d been camping for years—the others met at the campground shorn of their natural habitat. I’m thinking I picked it right.

So I ask the question and Charlie already wants to pick a fight.

I say, “Go ahead. You opened you big mouth, BUT what?”

He looks at me. “Rule number one, stare at the fire, Charlie.” His gaze goes back. Now he’s talking to all of us. There’s method in this madness.

“Okay, Donnie, you’re right and you’re wrong. Suppose I turned you in to the police because I was trying to be a friend.”

“Let’s roundtable first.” I look at Al.

“Yeah. Charlie, you’re not being a friend if you rat on a friend.” Al does what I think he’s going to. He’s sticking to the tried and true. He’s honest because he can’t think of a good way to not be. I like honesty, but there are all shades of it.

“Maybe a friend you rat on isn’t a friend.”

John speaks up. “What drew you to him to begin with?”

Ralph moves in his chair. It threatens to collapse and dump him. I’m taking a bet in my head on that. Before John can answer he joins. “Twenty-five years I taught grammar school kids and I saw every kind of conflict, including friendships that came and went. You can’t figure it. It’s chemistry.”

I break in. “The major problem is kids become big people and all people change as they go.”

“Right,” Ralph says, “they grow up, they grow down, they grow sideways, and what’s the cause? Other people, other circumstances, other places and how people react to them. It’s up here where all that happens.” He taps his noggin.

Charlie glances at Ralph and returns to studying the flames. “You know; I like this,” I say. I reach into the nearby woodpile and toss a good sized stick across the burning center. Sparks leap for the sky and everybody’s eyes follow them up and watch them die.

John says, “You like what?”

“Thinking. We don’t do much at Joe’s place.”

We’re silent for a time.

“You guys check out the thing I gave you?” They turn to look at me. They’re going to crack wise, but before they do they get this look and they glance at each other and nod.

“Yeah, thanks. A list of all the values people live by…or should. I thought you were blowing smoke up my butt, but you opened my eyes,” Charlie says. “You want to tell us what you had in mind, Donnie?”

“Sure. I’ve been thinking about our group for awhile and I started wondering about it. Wasn’t till Charlie made his offhand comment a few months back that it gelled with me and I figured I ought to go for some answers. That’s when I grabbed for the brass ring and spilled it to the group and here we are.”

They’re all ears.

“First, friends do for friends. We know this, but did we know that each one of us comes to that conclusion from different places. What is a friend to Al, to John, to Charlie? Ralph may have a different take on what’s a friend to him. See?

I see cloudy confusion.

“Or…maybe there’s nothing to see.”

I deadpan so they can’t read me.

“This sheet I took off the Internet from some guy named Blackwell, on values we live with. I looked it over and shortened all the garbage he spouted to what I figured were the real meanings of what he tried to say. I left one out.”

Nobody looks at the fire now. They pull out the sheet I gave them from front and back pants pockets, one from a shirt pocket, and they study the list in the firelight.

I’m seeing what I want to see so I feel smug, kind of. “What value did I leave out?”

“Tell us,” they say.

“Sure. It’s friendship. Friends are people who sustain us by accepting us as we are.”

The light dawns. So easy you could trip over it. Of course it’s a value!

Charlie says, “You dragged us out to your goddamned campsite in the wilderness to tell us this?”

I make it heartfelt because I feel it in my gut. “You guys, you’re what I have and I’m for you. Isn’t it nice to know why a bunch of guys who wouldn’t look at any of us on the street turned into buddies? You think you’d remember if we’re screaming at each other in Joe’s place?”

The guys sit and think a bit.

“So it’s written on the inside of your brains?”

Nods and, “Yeah.” We share a special moment.

Then Charlie says to the boys, “Let’s grab this old bastard and toss him in the lake.” They get out of their chairs and go for me.

Friends…so nice to be appreciated!

Remember January

I’M SITTING ON a backless swivel stool at O’Brian’s bar nursing a double scotch, my thoughts on how my life went to hell ten years ago. A guy comes in and takes the stool next to me. I look across the bar and eyeball him in the big mirror. Angry eyes! I see a bearded man, big features, blue work clothes. He puts one hand on the bar and leaves the other somewhere in his unbuttoned heavy greatcoat. Impression? Guy’s got a problem.

I shift a couple of inches past a half-full bottle of gin aggravating my view and focus on my reflection. The guy I see is grubby, unshaven, dirty shirt, mouth down-turned in a scowl. I stare at my shirt collar in the mirror. Frayed, just like me. Life sucked.

My parole officer decide to check up on me I’d be up shits creek. I couldn’t be here. Maybe someday he’d find out what down and out means.

O’Brian’s sits in the middle of a row of struggling businesses a hundred and forty steps from my pad. I counted them twelve times before I lost interest. To call the hovel I live in a pad is generous. I’m on the third floor of a nineteen thirties brick tenement that lost hope forty years ago. It ought to be condemned but in Detroit you can go up and down half the town and see the same thing. There’s a word – endemic. Yeah, that’s it. Detroit and me have had better days.

Guy in charge where I live: dirty every way. Never see my super dealing, but some of the types I eyeball walking to his door and looking around like “how guilty am I” says it all. He fits with the dingy halls, holes in the walls, amateur knife carved woodwork, graffiti, and yeah, the smell, urine, rotting garbage and a pervasive undertone of weed. You don’t get used to it.

Derelicts lurch and stagger in the hallways. They can’t hold it, don’t care or are too drunk to know. My plumbing breaks twice a week on average. Ask the super to fix it, I’d wait forever, so I mickey-mouse it.

I look into my whiskey glass. My two hands gently cup it like a lover, but my thoughts keep bouncing back to the long ago January when my hell began. Remember that movie Groundhog Day? Mine goes ten years back…today…ten years back…today, like a yo-yo.

Ten years ago I had a good job, respect, decent pay. How I could embezzle all that money and get caught and do time, that’s history. Looking at life from the other side makes me sick, but you know; I did it and nothing new, I did it for a woman.

The big guy looks me over. He speaks, “Tale of woe?”

Tale of woe?  Sure. Why not? I got time. I could write a book I got time. I look at him direct, first time.

Now the guy has a half smile on his lips. His eyes don’t speak to me like before, but I’m looking into them and they’re dead eyes. I’m immersed in me and if I should see some signal, I miss it. We exchange a few nothing words on the state of who cares and I decide to go for it. You wanna talk, strangers are best.

“You really wanna know?”

He looks at me fixedly. After a short pause, like he just swallows something didn’t agree with him he says, “Tell me…”

Seems like there’s more but he clams up.

I swing my stool towards him and then back and stare into my half full glass. I wind up with a couple of long breaths. “Of all the months of the year, I remember January, because that’s when I started cooking my company’s books.”

The man gives me his ear. Good line, I’m thinking, like the first hook in a novel.  His eyes jump a little when I say January. It makes me wonder, but I let it pass. I warm to my narrative.

“I lived in Des Moines and did the books for this grain company. I had a wife and a couple of kids. I made decent money and no, I wasn’t happy, but life could be worse and I knew it. The kids grew and I worked a lot and my wife got tied up with soccer and plays and PTA stuff.

“She didn’t have time for me, even bedtime. Too tired? Headache? Either the same to me. I took it she began to lose interest in the things a relationship is supposed to be about, the saving graces, if you know what I mean. Ended up she did her job and I did mine.

“I didn’t see it then. Like I say, I figure she’d cooled off. It happens. You see it on TV all the time, disaffected people, sordid romances, whatever. So I worked and that’s what I did for my family. What more could she expect?

“Okay, I don’t get what I need at home so I start stopping at the local bar a mile or so from my house for a couple before going home nights, you know? If she speaks at all she might yell from the TV room, get your supper from the oven. Most nights I ate alone.

“This goes on a couple of years. Resentment builds, right? Well, bars are good places to pick up girls. Also true is hot, needy girls look for the lonesome single, right? Everybody’s looking to fill some void. So this gal comes along one night I’m sitting there minding my business and next thing you know I’m minding her business. She says her name is Millie. She’s cute and she’s hurting and I’m hurting and you got to know what happens.”

I have the sense the guy is tense and contained…like you can’t see a bomb ready to explode but you sense it. I’m too disconnected to read anything out of it.

“Upshot?” I say, still thinking of my story. “Suddenly I’m in need of money. I’m living for the first time in years. I’m enjoying myself. I start cooking the books. It’s easy. I’m Steady Eddie, right? The boss doesn’t suspect…only he does and I don’t see it.

“The yearly audit arrives, but instead of my boss asking me are we straight with the government and do we have plenty of cash reserves like always, he hires an outside company to do the work and next thing you know I’m indicted. Then I’m in jail.”

“That’s ten years ago. Now I got no wife and my kids have been adopted by her new husband and she won’t let me see them and I live in this piece of shit place even the rats don’t like.”

I run out of steam. I turn to look at the guy and I don’t like the look on his face. It’s tight and red and suddenly I stare at him, like what the hell did I say?

Now he speaks. Measured, clipped, holding back like on a short fuse. I swivel towards him again, confused.

“Well, Steady Eddie,” his words dripping with sarcasm, “this Millie, she was my wife. We patched things, but she couldn’t handle her betrayal. She killed herself the January after her affair with you. I’ve been waiting for you to get out. I searched a long time to find you. I’m going to help you…”

His coat opens and the arm he’s hiding comes out and in one motion he plunges a six-inch hunting knife into my belly.

He finishes, his voice filled with hate, “…out of this world.”

The pain is so bright I can’t catch my breath. I double over onto the bar. He gets up and starts to leave but stops, turns and says coldly though the haze of my roaring pain, “I remember January, too.”

Underbelly

THE VISTA CLAIMS my attention until suddenly I feel something wrong with my steering. I top the last rise going up the mountain on a left hand curve. It’s there that I feel a jiggle that shouldn’t be. For a time, while enjoying the beauty of my new Porsche, I let some business problems distract me. I’ve been driving on automatic pilot.

I step on the brake. Soft. WTF? I push harder and they sink to the floor. I didn’t need brakes going up but I would soon.

I’d smooth powered up to the seven thousand foot mountain pass in my new Cayenne going faster than I should. I always go too fast, but I believe speed limit signs reflect outdated 1950’s thinking. As I look for a place to stop, my active brain derails and I ruminate about speed in the 21st century.

Cars are better these days, better rubber, better brake linings, better steering, more safety gadgets and most highways are super good out west. They can handle speeds in excess of the posted limits every day of the week. And I love big, powerful engines. I seldom see a driver doesn’t agree with me.

I know the Man could kick those limit signs up to meet today’s conditions, but they wouldn’t. Lower speed limits slows drivers down, not for reasonability, but for fear of being stopped by Enforcement. More important, they represent a steady source of revenue for the town or State and a good revenue stream means a fat surplus; the golden grail of government. It demands of governors and legislators to spend it for the people and I expect it lines a few pockets for the clever ones.

I oughta know.

Okay. I’m thinking all this extraneous shit while I reach for the emergency brake with my fingers crossed. It works. Up ahead, a dirt and stone vista pull-off. I yank it up and veer onto this outlook built to handle half a dozen cars. The emergency brake stops me easy. I don’t think about it that second, but I do later on. I leave the brake on, shift into Park and shut the engine down. That’s ‘cause I’m reacting.

Then I think about it. I sit very still. I draw a few deep breaths. Okay, it scares me some because I’m already analyzing the whys and wherefores. When nothing happens and my heart gets back where it belongs I open the door. I leave it open.

First thing I gotta do, check under the car. The slight angle of the gravel parking area is okay. Just to be safe, I’ll kick up stone against the downside of each wheel.

I look around. Great view, mountains and valleys and the best fresh air in the world. Boulder sized rocks line the perimeter of the parking area. A sign at one end, vandalized by teens looking for a statement to make against the status quo says, “Danger – Drop Off.” Maybe that takes care of the Stupid Factor…I dunno. Lot of stupids out there.

For me, I wouldn’t blame the Man if I did something dumb like fall off a cliff, but then I think of that woman who spilt hot coffee in her lap and sued the restaurant. Then I think about the jury from another planet that gave her the big reward. What, she didn’t order hot coffee? She didn’t know it would be hot? She didn’t cause her own problem?

I shake my head. Back to now. No one in sight. I study the terrain. Could anybody be parked out of sight? A couple hundred yards or so are clear. I listen carefully. No mountain echo from cars laboring up the pass. Okay, nobody close. A fluke? I shake my head again. No fluke. You don’t get to run a gaming empire by believing in the Goodness of Man.

Something’s going on and I gotta find out. I got enemies who do bad things to people. Before I get out, I unlock my glove box and take my friend Mr. Badass Glock Nine in hand. I grab an extra hollow point magazine and pocket it.

Now on the ground, I take off my Armani jacket and walk it to one of the distant boulders, fold it carefully and set it down. Back at the car I lower myself to the ground and crawl under. Yeah, what I thought. Steering bolts loosened and the bottom of one lateral brake line same. Nice job. Fluid all over the place, but it wouldn’t be evident to the driver, especially one heading into the mountains. This Pro wanted me to be far away from anything before symptoms began and knew I’d be on my Reno run today.

I check for wires I don’t think belong. Yeah, right there. I trace them up into the engine and under the dash beside the cable bundle. My mind is working overtime. I want to kill a rival and send a message, what would I do? Blow him up’s a good way. Get rid of him somewhere far away with minimum collateral damage. Send a strong message to his loyal few.

It’s cool at seven thousand feet. I dust off and put my jacket back on. From what I can guess, I figure the Pro packed the engine with explosives. I reach in my pocket and finger my key, thankful that I never, ever leave my car with the key in it. In Las Vegas it’s a great habit to have.

I stand and listen again. Still clear. I walk across the road and lie down in a deep runoff ditch. I click my remote start.

Holy shit! What the hell did they put in the engine! The car goes up like an IED. I’d be in pieces Humpty-Dumpty with a map couldn’t put back together again.

Back to work. I get up and dust again from habit. Time to find a place to hide. I have an idea. The Porsche burns fiercely, but enough shattered bulk remains to hide behind if it cools before I get company. That will be my first line of offense. Now I walk back to the edge where the sign warns idiots not to get too close.

Drop-off, all right, but to the side of it where the slope graduates to a sensible angle, I see a possible hiding place safe enough so they can’t see me and close enough to get off a few good rounds. Glad I have no fear of heights. Below my second choice the mountain drops away about a thousand feet.

That gives me another idea. Very few patrols come over the mountains in summer. That I interpret to mean that the next car or truck to appear will be my “friends.” I want to welcome them in some fitting way.

I settle into the little declivity and put my ear to the ground. Nothing yet. I visualize probably two assassins seeing the cloud of black smoke rise above the foothills. I picture them smiling and cracking each other on the back and imagine a conversation.

“Let’s go,” one would say. He’d finger his gun.

“Boss wants me to bring back a piece,” the other one might say. He’d laugh.

I had it. Aaron Brustein, he’d be the one. Sneaky bastard. He would be elsewhere preserving his alibi. I wait a minute. His goons can’t be far away now. I put my ear down again. I hear a sound, faint but growing. I take the safety off the Glock. The car has stopped burning, but heat radiates at me. They’d be coming up the hill soon.  Do I dare chance it?

I’m not a coward and I don’t like people trying to kill me, so the whole thing really pisses me off. I move from my hiding place to a spot behind the tail of the Porsche. Smoke and heat rise straight up. It’s hot, but I can take it.

Perfect. I wait, gun in hand. I feel the fifteen shot magazine in my jacket pocket. Not likely I’ll need that. One chance, that’s all I’ll get. My lip curls in part of a smile. It’s all I’ll need.

My guess, the one who wants a piece of me will be riding shotgun. He’ll get out, gun in hand while the other looks front and checks his mirrors. Driver will have a gun, probably stashed on the center console, but convinced I’m dead, he’ll leave it there. Even in his hand, he’d be so close I couldn’t miss. I’ll plug “shotgun,” and then empty the magazine at the driver. It’ll be a cake walk.

I hear it plain now. A black Suburban crawls over the last rise. It pulls in and stops twenty feet from the smoking remnant. I sit on my haunches waiting. The car sits there for a long time. My legs start to cramp. Not now, I tell my body. Through a tiny window created by torn metal, I see the door open slowly. Figured. Brustein’s boys all right, Alonzo and Skippie. Alonzo gets out. He’s arguing with his partner.

I catch Skippie saying, “He’s dead. C’mon Alonzo, get back in.”

Asshole never had balls.

“Uh-uh,” Alonzo says back, “You know what the boss said. I gotta check. Some part of him is here. Make sure, he says.”

“Christ! Check then. I want to get out of here.”

Did I guess it! Alonzo gives him a look of contempt and moves away from the SUV, his eyes searching. Ten feet from the Porsche, I stand from behind my cover and shoot him, chest and head. Without waiting to see what damage I did, I turn to the Suburban and empty my Glock at the front seat, all thirteen remaining shots. I try to miss the front windshield. I do. Practice pays.

I hear a pitying cry and the big car starts to move. Idiot kept it in gear and his foot on the brake. What a rabbit! That’s my ride! I bolt from behind my cover and run at the big car. The passenger’s door is swinging shut and the Suburban is heading for the drop-off.

I grab for the door and catch the handle. I’m running sideways trying to keep my feet while yanking the door. It opens and I stumble but I’ve still got the door. I swing onto the high step and plunge onto the seat. Skippie is slumped with his head out the driver’s window. He’s covered in blood. He’s not my problem anymore.

With a hand I kick the shifter into neutral and yank on the emergency brake. The SUV crashes against the boulder but stops. I jump back out onto gravel and stand there transfixed, lungs heaving from unaccustomed effort. The boulder, dislodged from its place, moves out into space. It tumbles and disappears. I listen for several seconds until I hear it hit and the sound gets back to me with an echo not far behind.

I listen again. Dead silence. Much better. I check out the front damage on the big vehicle. It’s drivable. I finally get out my cell and call Captain John Levine, my contact with LVPD. I outline what happened.

“I’ll cover this end,” he says. “What are you going to do now?”

“Me? I’m going hunting.”

Incident at Northern Sky Lodge

I’VE NEVER BEEN here before. Hell, I’ve never been to Alaska before. Talk about big. I thought Maine covered more territory than I could possibly explore. This place? Miles of tundra, mountains that would literally take your breath away. I mean if you hankered to climb them, you’d need oxygen to breath. We weren’t doing that!

Curt and the boys from the Maine Big Game Hunting Club convinced me to spend the money and take the trip. Curt had been there before and emoted about the big state. They were so animated that Bob and I caught the fever. Little did I know.

Okay, so Curt Travers, Bob Fleece and me, that’s Jack Berson – I’m telling the story here – we prepare and put our affairs in order for an extended trip, you know? Packing to hunt in Alaska is not exactly the same as in the lower forty-eight. Plenty of books and brochures point out the what and why of it.

We catch a United Airlines flight to Anchorage, We get there safe, “flying the friendly skies” and all, pretty boring, but anticipation keeps us on our game. At the airport we find a small hanger, name above it and a sign below that, Flights to Anywhere in Alaska. The plane’s small and comes with a wild looking local prop jockey, guy named Randy Bull.

I’m the one says prop jockey.

“We call them bush pilots up here; take off and land on a 150 foot runway if need be.” He laughs.

“We want to fly up to Nenana Airport,” Curt says. Nenana is only ten miles or so north of Northern Sky Lodge where we’re going.

Randy frowns. “No can do. It’s closed for a few days, hanger fire. I’ll fly you to Clear Airport up near Anderson. You can get a car there to the lodge. Heard of the place; about fifty miles.

That didn’t seem bad. Fifty miles isn’t much in Maine. “Deal!”

Randy flies us to the airport. He’s not cheap but we know everything’s expensive up here. He earns his money in the changeable weather we run into on the way. Guy’s unflappable. I stop wondering about him being a prop jockey. We land, unload and get us a four wheel drive Jeep for off road. My Alaska map says Clear Lodge is pretty nearby.

“Why not stop here, Curt? It’s close and the territory’s wild enough,” I say.

“Nah. I got it on good authority that Northern Sky Lodge is the place to step off for hunting wolves. That’s what you wanted, right?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Stick with me, buddy. I won’t steer you wrong,” he says. “Alaska’s sectioned off for bear and moose and all the other big stuff. 20C, that’s the area we want. Season’s been cut to April 1st, but we’re under the wire on that. We’ll be fine.”

Bob drives. He doesn’t talk a lot. I sit in the rear seat and squirm this way and that seeing first only sights along the way. I find it exhilarating. Highway 3 is a good road. Alaska winters are hard on all roads, but the maintenance people keep up with it, seeing as there are so few highways, and considering the state’s over a half million square miles large.

I’m pumped. The others look pleased, too. We’re gonna have a great time, bag the limit and bring home trophies for the other club members to drool over.

That’s the plan. Ever hear how plans can oft times go astray? Me, too. Northern Sky Lodge is clean and well kept. It’s rustic, log cabin style and comfortable. The owners are Alaska stock. We discover they are selling the place. Just as an aside, I ask why.

“Wife and I want to retire and move south,” Brad Stepel, the owner says. He’s a big fellow and he looks capable. He’s wearing what I call tundra wear, loose cut heavy denim trousers with cargo pockets and a wool long sleeved red-checkered shirt. I can’t see his feet, but I’d bet he wears size twelve hunting boots 24/7. Behind him hanging on hooks on the knotty pine wall is a repeating rifle heavy enough to bring down elephants. I look and look away.

“But it’s so beautiful here,” I say. I don’t exactly have a bad feeling, but I want to conclude our check-in and get to my room. The guy is borderline scary.

“We’ve had the place for years and we’re ready. You interested?”

“Just wondering.” That ends the conversation. We get adjoining rooms and settle in for our week.

Marta’s his wife. She’s a small woman, careworn and no longer pretty.  She looks hardened by the place she lives in and maybe for the life she leads, who knows. She also looks – what – a little weird maybe? She doesn’t speak at all. Her husband’s the player. We ignore her.

Once removed from the hulking presence of the owner, we lighten up. Curt doesn’t seem bothered and Bob grunts and grins when I air my immediate concerns with them.

“Jesus, Jack, you gone paranoid?”

“No, just got some vibes you clowns missed is all.”

“Shit, there’s three of us. What’s he gonna do?”

“Yeah? Well, I’m locking my door and my windows tonight.”

They look at me funny, but there’s nothing else.

Bob speaks up. “Let’s figure out what we’re going to do.” He looks at his digital watch.

Curt says, “Look, it’s three o’clock, late winter time. That means we don’t have much more light. Let’s find a place for a few brews and get a good night’s sleep. Take a few to set up your packs for tomorrow and meet me in the lobby. You okay with that?”

We both say “Yeah, sure.” We separate and spend time, leave and lock our rooms and Curt is there when we arrive.

“I just asked Bart here where we could get a drink. No place close, he tells me, but he keeps beer around for guests, $6.00 a bottle. There’s a small lounge over there.” He points. “You good with that?”

“Steep for beer.” Bob says.

“You know nothing’s cheap up here.”

Bob looks cross for a second but nods. Brad walks in and unlocks his small bar.

“Take what you like and I’ll bill you later.”

“Sounds fair,” Curt says and reaches for a cold one. Bob follows and I grab one. The stuffed chairs are comfortable and we trade stories and we’re blitzed before we know it. Around ten-thirty we’ve had enough. I’d lined up the bottles all evening, kind of anal. I smile stupidly at my impressive assembly.

Brad is back in the private part of the lodge behind the desk. I see him sitting in a chair. I see him look at us from the corner of my eye as we head for our rooms. He’s staring. As I unlock my room I glance up. Unsmiling Marta is looking down the hallway at me. Maybe I am paranoid, but I don’t like what I’m feeling.

We’re pretty drunk and we crash right away, except I’m bothered so I can’t sleep. I can hear Bob snoring through the wall. I have the end room farthest from the lobby. Curt could be snoring too, but I wouldn’t know. I glance at the clock on the nightstand, eleven-fifteen.

My eyes finally start to get heavy, when I hear Bob stop snoring and then I hear a muffled scream. Something is not all right. I’m out of bed and heading for the door when the image of Brad’s face looms in front of me.

So I’m crazy. I get my rifle and chamber a bullet, go to my bed and sit there, my back against the headboard. I hold my rifle at the ready, aimed at the door. I’m scared shitless. I hear a click at the door and a key fumble in the lock, slow and quiet. I picture Bob in the next room dead, killed by this lodge owner driven mad by the loneliness of living far from anywhere, acting out some nightmare in his mind, who knows what or why.

The door opens a crack, then more and in the dim glow of the hallway nightlight, I see Marta, butcher knife in her raised hand as she rushes toward my bed clearly intent on murder.

I shake and tears come and I gulp and fire, but my aim is true. The thirty-ought six slug intended for my first gray wolf smashes into her chest. It blows her out into the corridor. She’s dead before she hits the floor.

I know she’s killed my buddies. I can sense it. I must find out, but what about Brad Stepel? He heard the shot. He must have. What would he do?

I wait. There is no other choice. Yes, there is. I get off the bed. In my bare feet I walk to the bathroom. I load another cartridge into the chamber. He’ll have a gun. It’s him or me.

I hear rapid footsteps. They stop at Marta’s body. There begins a keening wail so incongruous that for a moment I can’t fathom it. The sound goes on a long time. Stepel is grieving. Then, mixed in with the owner’s sound I pick out a siren.

Did Brad call the State Police? He must have. I pad to the door, rifle still ready. Once past the partially open door I see him on the corridor floor, covered in Marta’s blood, cradling her head.

Through his sobbing, he manages a few halting words. “Mr. Berson, she went off her meds. I didn’t know. There were no signs.”

He looks down at the bloody knife on the floor next to Marta. He begins to shake. The siren stops abruptly, and I hear the Lodge door slam. Footsteps; Brad’s name called. Silence, then a big trooper appears, gun drawn. I hear him shout.

“Drop the rifle, mister.”

I have a live round chambered, safety off. I slowly lean down and lay the weapon on the floor, my other hand held high, palm open. The Trooper watches me closely.

“Brad, what happened here?”

“Hey, Tom, not his fault. Marta went crazy. Check the two adjoining rooms. She probably killed the other guests.”

The Trooper asks me to put the safety on and hand him the rifle. I do. A quick check reveals what I fear most.

“Both dead. Sorry, mister.”

I give him my story and he accepts it. Self-defense. My turn to break down. My legs are jelly and I slide down the other wall and grieve.

I’m home now. The flight took far too long. My report at the gun club left a quiet, somber audience. I look back. I wanted to bring down a wolf and I killed a human being. They accepted my resignation.

That’s the end of my story, all but a memory I have to live with forever.