Category Archives: Blog

51 – The Winner

THE STAR SPANGLED Banner finished and the crowd now heard, “Runners, on your mark.”

The cannon’s booming crack sent hundreds of men and women bolting across the startup line. Old, young, streamlined, even portly, running outfits’ casual or to the nines they ran. Each one displayed a prominent identifying number.

On West Street some put on a show, hooting cheers for favorites as they listened to heady, frantic calls from the crowd, so they  smiled and hammed it up. Others carried looks designed to impress the crowd about how serious they were.

On their flatbed truck platform podium, embellished with brightly covered streamers, the judges and other race officials kept up a speaker generated, thunderously loud and excited patter to spur the huge group on. They made light of the runners labors and the seven long miles remaining in this grueling race.

All too soon the vast array of numbered runners were out of sight. The great crowd entertained itself. People reached into coolers for sodas or beer or wine or for wrapped sandwiches. They carried on animated conversations with their neighbors. Friends who hadn’t seen each other for perhaps an entire year smiled and laughed and chatted while idly watching the filler, the little people’s races that followed the main event.

First the four and five-year-olds ran from one end of the street to the other amidst cheers and exhortations from Moms and Dads on the sidelines. Then the six to eight group ran and finally came the nine to twelve-year-olds. That group ran a mile. Time passed. The crowd remained excited and happy. At the thirty minute mark, people at the head of the street began to look for the first runner from the big race. Who would it be?

All runners had left the crowd rapidly behind. All concentrated on their pace while sidelong watching their neighbors. They pretended to be friendly when the only thing in life lay ahead of every runner, the finish line. Everyone, man and woman alike, wanted to win this event, to be the big kahuna, to stand in the limelight, to be the winner.

This story is about the winner. This sad, sad story is about the winner. How I hate to tell it! Yet, I must.

The winning runner started in the middle of the pack. No street in this or any town could contain all the hundreds of runners on one broad line and when they left in a bunch they had barely enough room to avoid tripping each other.

Content to run with his fellows at first, the Runner paced along. Inevitably the field began to stretch out and room to gain on the leaders came to each athlete who owned a need to win. Finally he made his move, slowly passing one runner after another. Twenty minutes and more than half a race later he approached the turn onto Gallows Lane. He had the lead!

Sweat running freely; a dark patch had made its way down the back of the Runner’s blue cotton shirt. The moisture didn’t cool him. It didn’t help at all in this too hot day. Deeply tanned back muscles rippled between his pumping shoulder blades. His shirt moved with them, but the front stuck to him like contact paper. Arm and leg muscles driving hard, he tried to put out of his mind the horrible ache in his side. He had the lead, but at what price? Now the Runner made a sharp turn and faced the hill.

A black, glistening shimmer from the macadam surface sent waves of stifling heat into his face and up his nose. It sapped the Runner’s energy. Hot, hot, hot! Ninety-five degrees hot! He alertly kept watch for shiny spots that indicated melted tar. They would be tacky or slippery. They must be as seriously avoided as a hole in the road. Nothing must slow him down!

He reviewed the map in his head. Less than two miles to go! He checked his systems. Arms—legs—stamina—okay. Mental attitude—okay. Tired, yes, but could he make it? Absolutely! He recited his litany again, Like the little train that could, I can do this…I think I can…I think I can…I think I can!

He rushed the low end of the killer hill. They called it Gallows Lane. It had a bad history, but so what! He had run it in a practice session and he could do it again. He would do it again!

Hot air above, hot pavement below; the heat gave no relief.

He checked behind, a quick over-the-shoulder look, never breaking stride. Another runner behind him! Only fifteen steps back. Where did he come from? He thought he’d left the field far behind. The Runner couldn’t be sure in that quick glance, but the man seemed to be flagging. The guy ran, open-mouthed, and his breath came in ragged gulps. No one else in sight. Good! Him and me, then.

A packet of energy he didn’t think he had surged upward and his body began to function more brightly. This is so good, he thought. Then a worry crossed his mind. What about the kick? Will this last until the kick? That’s when I’ll need it. He put the nagging worry down in the euphoria of his new rush.

Halfway up the hill he glanced back again. A tinge of fear crowded his mind. The guy behind him was closer, definitely closer. The runner didn’t want to, but he stepped up his pace. Now his breath came in ragged gulps. At the top the road made a long curve to the left. His legs scissored rapidly. Every sinew spoke to him.

Ignore! Ignore! No time for pain!

Sweat ran into his eyes and clouded the scene. Up ahead he could see one more turn. He ran full steam. He blinked to clear his eyes without changing his gait. As he rounded the turn, in the distance he saw fuzzy images, upturned faces. The distance shortened. The faces began to move and show excitement. He shook his head and tasted salt.

Concentrate!

The Runner got ready for his kick. He made the final turn!

Elation! Hundreds lined the street on both sides. What an audience to play to!

Three hundred yards to go! Under a thousand feet! Two hundred! A sound caused him to look back. My God! Fear welled up! The contender ran three paces behind him now. How could that be?

Am I slowing down, he thought?

He took a chance and glanced at his watch. No! He was ahead of his best time! What kind of a machine could run him down like he’d stopped to chat with a bystander?

At that moment the man drew abreast of him. Can’t be! The runner started his kick. I can’t lose now! My very first win, ever! I have to find more inside; I just have to! The contender ran alongside the Runner without acknowledging him, eyes straight and glazed. He started to pull ahead.

No, man, I can’t lose this! I can’t!

One glance! Number 666 in big, red numerals. Who…?

One hundred yards! The runner reached inside for his dregs of energy and literally pulled them out of his exhausted body. The contender moved a step ahead, running like a robot, the sound of his breath the vocal equivalent of a man running out of total fright, as if something huge and ugly pursued him. But when the man looked over at him, on his face the Runner saw a huge open-mouthed rictus grin.

I think I can…I think I can…I think I can…

He gave it his all. No, more than his all! The Runner caught up with the contender, his own breath coming in whooping, tattered gasps. Twenty yards, God, a few more seconds! His eyes blinked salty runoff from his overheated face! He saw the yellow ribbon across the road, now the only thing in life. He stuck out his chest and “Snap!” the line parted. He had won…he had won!

His energy reserve gave out. The Runner’s chest tightened and a fist formed under his rib cage. His feet carried him to a halt and he stood there, suddenly more frightened than ever before in his young life. From his open mouth came a sound that wasn’t a word and the Runner sank to the road. He heard shouts from those nearby.

“Hey, runner’s down! Get an EMT over here, pronto!”

The shouts faded. Dimly, as darkness engulfed him, over the loudspeaker he heard, “Unbelievable! Fastest time ever for this event! A new course record!”

And near his shoulder, yet from far, far away, the Runner heard, “Ran like something huge and ugly was chasing him. At least three minutes ahead of the nearest contender. He could have loafed in and still got the record. Somebody charge up the defib! We could lose this guy.”

§§§

The Runner’s body jerked as they hit him with electric shock. They tried to bring him back, but it didn’t work. As the closest contender crossed the line and headed for the refreshment tent, two somber EMT’s prepared to move the Runner onto a stretcher and into a waiting ambulance.

When it drove off, the siren’s wail briefly merged with the doleful sound that came from a pretty little widow someone helped into the car that followed.

The Forever Wind

THE WIND RISES, an ear-piercing cacophony of whistling sound. I clap my hands over my ears and try to shut it out. In its torturous wail, a shrieking voice weaves through the malevolent tempest and it rises and ebbs, now loud, now hushed. It seems to reach through the safety of my walls while fingers of icy cold grab at me.

I fight hard for a time. My hands flap and I push against them. Finally overcome, beaten back and sapped of what little power I had, I stop resisting and the horrific penalty of wretchedness and melancholy washes over me.

“Mom, where are you?”

My voice, barely contained in the panic I feel, cries out for her. Some part of me knows she is dead, but I want her with such a wild need to be next to me, to be with me, to hold me, to cradle my head in her lap and sing to me that with my eyes tight closed I conjure her image and make it flesh.

I see her. I reach out to touch her. My hand moves slowly toward her garment.

Don’t be afraid.

She is near; she is here. All will be well. Another inch and I can grasp the edge of her sleeve and pull her to me but at the touch electric shock tingles up my arm! No, please…no.

Like a wisp, the apparition dissolves. Ethereal blackness wells up and surrounds my pregnant instant. I won’t be permitted. Refusing my anguished moment, it closes the veil.

“Mom!” I shriek, “Come back Mom. Don’t go away again.”

Again?

In some small compartment of my brain a distant clock begins to tick. I know that sound. With dread I realize that I must relive the horror of our final separation from that terrible, tragic, long ago event. Tears leak from my eyes. With the metronomic ticking my nightmare begins to recycle.

A little whisper in my mind…why… how? It tears at me. I must have…no you didn’t, truly…I must not… How could it be? My brain edges me closer to the abyss. I am being physically rendered.

I don’t understand. Why can’t Mom come to me? Does she blame me? Should I be blamed? The whirlpool’s eddy suddenly deepens and I am pulled into it, devoured by it.  As I am sucked in, I approach the long ago when I lost her. I would relive it again. Please…no!

This has played out before. I know this. How many times? I don’t know. Calendars with the years imprinted at their tops flash by in an unbroken chain. Cast into the center of my dream I sense the past blow through me and the future dim, lost in some great nebulous immensity. Enclosed in the bubble of my nexus I wring my hands. The world around my bubble brightens. My detached part watches woodenly and  helplessly, as my battered soul enters the maelstrom in real-time.

Mom and I are driving through Alabama on the Interstate. I say I’m hungry and could we stop to eat?  She looks at me and smiles at her twelve year old son. Her smile projects the loving mother, companion, and protector rolled into one and it makes me feel giddy with my own love for her.

“Sure, Henry. I’ll get off at the next exit and we’ll find a place.”

The sign for an exit shows up a few minutes later and Mom takes the ramp. At the end a road goes both ways, but there are no signs.

“Which way, Henry?”

It’s like a game. “Uh, left.”

We see no traffic so she turns and we drive for a while. The good road gives out after a few hundred feet. Now we’re on an old, rutted, one lane blacktop road with trees on every side and I glance at them and they seem to reach for our car. As they begin to overhang the road, daylight fades and I don’t like how they make me feel.

“Maybe not this road, Mom,” I say.

“We’ll go a bit further and then turn around, Henry. No place here.”

“Okay.”

We continue. In a couple of minutes we see a bridge. It looks okay from a distance, but as we get close we can see it has old planks across it and it’s ramshackle. The land drops off precipitously. Even close to the bridge we can’t see water below. It unsettles me further.

Mom looks around for a place to turn but here there are no shoulders. She could either back the car a half mile to a wider part or try crossing the bridge.

“That bridge needs some help. I’ll check it out first, Mom.”

“Be careful.”

I smile my assurance and climb out. I walk to the bridge and look down. Fifty feet below water rushes over rocks that create little falls and rapids and farther down the river turns and disappears around a heavily treed bend. Strangely, though water sparkles below, the noise of the stream pouring over its rocky bed sounds like a cold wind.

I examine the bridge and planking and look at our VW Bug. It doesn’t weigh much. I think it will get across all right. Mom’s a good driver and I don’t worry. I continue to the other side. Immediately beyond the far bridge support I see a large flat area that will serve as a turnaround. Relieved, I call to her.

“Mom, there’s a place to turn around over here. C’mon over. I’ll wait here.”

She waves briefly and drives onto the bridge. Halfway across I hear the sharp report of a plank cracking. Mom panics and stops. Now frightened, I watch the VW sink a few inches.

“Mom, back up quick!”

I watch her put the car in reverse and try to back, but she can’t because the cracked plank settles more. I see what’s happening and I panic.

“Mom, get out and run!”

I watch as she reaches for the door handle and in that same moment the plank breaks and the bridge shudders. Another follows. The bridge shudders again, violently. Then calamity! The back of the Volkswagen drops into a massive hole that opens up beneath the little car and swallows it.

I see it like in slow motion. Dumbfounded, I watch the back of the car go through the hole and hear a terrified scream from my sweet mother. “Heennnrrryyy!”

I stand alone, my mouth open and I could be screaming too, but I don’t know and I can’t move and I’m numb. Mom’s gone. She’s there one second and in the next second she’s gone. Gone forever.

I scream and scream and that’s when the wind begins.

The place where I live has soft walls and a tiny window crisscrossed in embedded chicken wire set head high in a strong door and I shiver and cry every time I hear the clock begin to tick because I know the forever wind will begin to blow through my shattered brain again.

And that sad, little, impotent detached piece of me knows I will hear it…forever.

Cityscape

I EASED OUT of the elevator door onto the observation deck. The night closed over me and I saw a city perforated with a million lights. My heart leapt. What a glorious sight. New York, the Big Apple, here at last!

Years ago Judy had told me the view would blow me away. She nailed it. The bus trip had been tedious, but I’d made it. I reviewed what I had learned from that wizened old man slumped in the Greyhound’s seat across from me. His clothes were shabby but of good quality and he looked clean. He had a prominent humpback and he sat kind of canted in his seat. Bright guy. I’ll give him that.

I’d been mulling my own problems and I didn’t feel like it, but he’d struck up a conversation and once he made contact, he couldn’t stop talking. It’s the way some people handle loneliness, he told me.

I handle it a bit different, kind of why I sat in the uncrowded bus.

A regular motor mouth, the old guy didn’t seem to get that I wanted privacy to think my own thoughts as the bus from Baltimore drove smoothly into the deepening twilight, yet I couldn’t help but listen.

The man touched on some seriously interesting topics. I hoped he wouldn’t want any input from me, because no way would I participate. I needn’t have worried. Once he began, he emoted all over the place. He had a thin voice, but his diction told me a learned man sat in the aisle seat.

I didn’t want to ask him about his loneliness, so I said nothing. Politely, he told me his name, Justin Goodking. His accent said he came from England, probably London: that’s what us Americans think while we stereotype the strangers in our midst. I pictured a retired professor from perhaps Kings College or even Cambridge. He didn’t tell me and I kept my lip buttoned. He’d have been retired a long time and evidently his pension as an educator hadn’t set him up well.

“John.”

I told him mine. I didn’t want to be totally rude. Too many people are so self-absorbed they come across that way. On the other hand, I didn’t want to encourage him. He looked my way to hear my last name, but I gave no more and after a few seconds he looked away and I looked out the window at the countryside slipping by.

One word did it. The chatter began. At first I didn’t care and later I did, but he rattled on without a break, so I didn’t feel the need to kick-start any part of the conversation.

For a long time his reedy drone held me. He did something in science, apparently. He said he had designed a new flying apparatus and went to New York tonight to catch the eye of big business. Why he came to America and specifically to New York got past me, but here he was. Apparently he came from an unhappy family situation, but he would make it right when he arrived at his destination. His thoughts jumped around and at one point I thought he appeared fanatical, but he caught himself and calmed and I continued to listen to his one sided conversation.

I’m a former college professor myself, American University, Sociology, but my trip to New York wasn’t for happy reasons and I didn’t want to be drawn into talking about it. Outside of having the bus seat to myself and having no one to deal with, this worked for me.

Justin was a fountainhead of information and I enjoyed the slants he had. Refreshing, I thought, and not at all what we are taught to believe in America. Different countries, different ways. Glad he spoke English. Arriving at the Penn Station Greyhound Terminal, I smiled at Justin and shook his hand.

I said, “Good luck.” Short and sweet. I started to walk away.

“John,” he called, obviously perplexed, “What about your luggage?”

“No luggage,” I said. Since I’d sat with him for three hours, I felt I had to say, “Appointment at the Empire State Building.” Sort of true.

I thought that would be enough, but Goodking stood staring at me. I couldn’t be bothered with more conversation, so I turned, waved over my shoulder, and walked away. I could feel his eyes on my back.

With no moon and the dry night air, at quarter to nine I would have seen a million stars above, if you could see a star anywhere on Manhattan Island, which you can’t and don’t bother to look. I walked toward the tallest building in New York since the tragedy of 9-11. After a few steps, unaccountably, I glanced back. Justin still stood by the bus, but in my glimpse, I saw him turn and heft the fair-sized suitcase that took up the seat next to him on the bus. It made him look small by comparison. None of my business. I continued on.

Now on a wide sidewalk in New York City I picked up my pace. I too wanted attention, but I only wanted to make people in my hometown perk up and take notice.

I made my way to the huge entrance-way with its three-story high lobby. Immediately I went to the observation platform elevator and caught the elevator. I marveled that the entire eighty-six-floor ride could be accomplished in under a minute. As worldly as I considered myself to be, I’d made my first trip up this wonderful building tonight. The doors opened and I got out. I went for the amazing view.

A few people wandered the platform. I wandered, too, gathering impressions of the vastness of the life that pulsed around me. The two bored guards kept discreetly back. they moved constantly.

Five minutes later the doors opened again and what do you know, out came Justin, dragging his suitcase. I heard a familiar accent on the breath of a voice still panting from evident exertion.

He surprised me. He must have followed me, lugging that case two handed all the way. He smiled briefly and stood, trying to get his breath.

“Why, hello there, John,” he said between gasps.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. A guard glanced at us, but continued walking.

“I mentioned that I had perfected a flying apparatus, yes?”

“Yes.”

“It’s here,” he pointed at the suitcase.

“What do you mean?”

“Remember I told you I came to New York to catch the eye of business?”

“Yes.”

His eyes took on the fanatical look I had seen briefly on the bus. “Well, what better way to catch an eye than to try it out from this tall building?”

My God, I thought, he’s crazy. “You can’t do that, Justin.”

“Why not? This is an outside platform, isn’t it?”

“But what about the guards? Look at the fence they put up in 1947 after five people tried to commit suicide in a three-week period. They’re not going to let you climb it, guaranteed.”

“I’ll take care of that.”

What did he mean? Did he have a gun? He was crazy, but dangerous crazy?

Justin saw my expression and said, “Oh, don’t worry; I’m not going to hurt anybody. I have this, see.”

Goodking took a small aerosol container out of his pocket and showed me.

“What’s that?”

“A mild nerve gas. It will stop anybody for fifteen minutes and that’s all the time I need.”

“But…” I stopped. “You won’t spray me with that thing, will you?”

“No, of course not. I feel I know you a little and I’d like a witness to my feat. Will you promise not to interfere with me?”

I thought hard for a second. It really wasn’t any skin off my nose. He’s going to kill himself. Can if he wants. “Okay, I’ll watch.”

A guard came over and murmured to us. “Last view. We close in ten minutes.”

Justin pulled out his cylinder and quickly squirted the guard. He dropped like a rock. Justin grabbed him and lowered him to the floor. He heard a shout and the other guard, a woman, came running over.

“What happened here?” she asked. Justin bent over and murmured, “Heart attack? Do you know CPR?”

The woman came close and Justin lifted his little cylinder and got her in the face. He lowered her to the floor.

“Just like that.”

The observation deck normally had many people looking at all the views, but not this late. Nobody had looked our way before Justin sprayed the guards, but now they began to crowd around. The Englishman pocketed his vial and stood. He told the people who gathered that he was a doctor and the two people on the floor would be all right and would they all be kind enough to return to street level, that he had it under control, that it wasn’t good to hover over two sick people.

I couldn’t believe how calm and in charge he could be. He spoke with authority and they evidently bought it. Soon the doors closed on the down elevator and the overhead light went out. People…go figure.

Showtime! Goodking bent down and opened his suitcase. From it he pulled a fully intact contraption with wings, which spread out as he pushed a hidden button or catch. He deftly strapped it to his back. Showing surprising agility for an old man, he mounted the fence, hung on in the constant wind that blew at this height, looked at me and said, “Wish me luck, John.”

Amazed, I said, “Luck, Justin. I hope you make it.”

“I will. Goodbye.” He jumped.

The updraft from the sides of the building kept him level for a moment. Then with arm-wings extended he rose rapidly and moved away from the face of the building into less turbulent air. He began to glide toward the street below. Looking through the fence I saw him looking good and I breathed, “What do you know!”

Now the observation deck held one person, me. Well, two paralyzed guards, that’s true. Time for my performance. Judy would miss me after she thought about it. Her anger would disappear in time. Fired from American University for inappropriate contact with a female student. Inappropriate contact doesn’t sound so bad in college parlance, but my fault and shame on me. The insurance will take care of Judy and the kids. Like I said, I handle loneliness a bit different.

I climbed the fence and went over.

Death Takes the Day

“ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER…”

“Murder.”

Detective Pat Bennet gave a start at the sound by his ear. He looked up from musing at the open file on his too small dark green smudged and chipped metal desk. His face broke out in a smile.

“Dave! When did you get in?”

“Just arrived. Wanted to see my bro before I went to the house.”

“Yeah.” Pat lost his smile. Their mother died three days ago. Pat lived with her. He notified everyone immediately. Family had been filtering in for the last two days. Dave came three thousand miles from California, the last of family that could make it. The funeral home had scheduled wake and service for late afternoon and burial for the following morning at Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Death in the family didn’t mean Pat could take time off from the job. It went everywhere with him. He glanced at his case file and thought, one more homicide with a twist. Why couldn’t they be simple? Still, when the Captain called him in and offered his condolences yesterday, he didn’t offer to have another detective take this one on.

“Your baby, Pat. You’ll have to stuff in your personal time around this one. Sorry.”

He didn’t sound sorry. Everybody knew Captain Lance Kreska in and out of the police force. Tough, no nonsense, some said, a cold, insensitive man. He gained national attention six months before when, as a detective lieutenant he solved a vexing string of killings in Minneapolis by tagging an interstate murder-for-hire ring with the dirty work.

Next he coerced one of the thugs into spilling. He then dived in with a SWAT team and took the heart out of the organization, neat as you please. He refused to say how he did it to anyone. The commissioner himself couldn’t pry it out of him, even using the customary threats. Lieutenant Kreska simply stopped talking, removed his badge and handed it to the man along with his Glock 9mm sidearm and stood quietly at attention.

Commissioner Wright looked at the badge and the gun and met Kreska’s eyes. Elections weren’t far off. The commissioner knew what political capital his lieutenant had generated for him. He also knew that other problems in the department had eroded his support base. Winning the seat he coveted had become a crap-shoot with his opponent, a well-known district attorney whose popularity had jumped again a few days earlier.

“Was it legal?”

Steely-eyed Kreska replied, “Of course.”

The commissioner handed Kreska back his personals.

“Dismissed.”

A month later Homicide Captain Garson Waid died from an unsuspected embolism and the next thing they knew, Kreska got the job. Yeah, he passed the tests, nothing dumb about the guy, but no one in the department believed that Commissioner Wright hadn’t had a hand in it. Elections were last Tuesday and the commissioner won handily over his popular opponent.

“Damn Kreska,” Pat said under his breath.

“Boss tagged you again?” Dave said, not without sympathy.

“He’s right, of course. I’m the guy for this one. Just wish he had a little more human feeling.”

“Not the job for it, Pat.”

Yeah, yeah.”

Dave Bennet ran a security firm in LA. Ten years older than Pat, Dave took early retirement from LA homicide five years before amidst some controversy involving his police commissioner.

“Sick of it!” he’d said privately to Dave during one of their rare phone conversations. Pat understood then and understood now. Why a civilian had to head a police organization stuck in his craw. Deep down he knew it must be, but he hated politicians, thought they were worse than bad cops. Didn’t matter. He couldn’t change it.

Pat looked down at his messy desk. Papers and photos from a not too organized file covered it. The hard chair under him suddenly squeaked as he tried to get more comfortable. It came to him that he’d been eyeballing the material for too long and no longer saw it.

“What you got?” Dave said.

“Mercury poisoning.”

“Rare. Tell me?”

He and Dave had spoken for years about cases, sometimes hypothetically, sometimes not. Pat stayed within the letter of the law, but wasn’t too proud to seek alternative answers in tough cases. He believed in two heads being better than one and considered it his credo.

“Herbert Tessler. Lived over in the high-rise section of Mammoth Estates close to the north end. Well off, two estranged children, one living in Buffalo and the other in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, of all places.”

“Why?”

“No reason, I guess. Seems like a strange place to migrate to. Thurber Tessler the son works for DuPont Chemical Corporation and DuPont’s all over the place. They don’t use mercury in the processes he works around, but Thurber is a buyer for them, so all things are possible. The daughter, Maura Tessler, still unmarried at thirty-nine, works for CVS in Buffalo as a registered pharmacist. Again a possible.

“Tessler’s wife Hannah died six years ago, allergic reaction to peanuts. I got strange vibes reading that one. She knew she couldn’t eat them, but autopsy showed a half-pound of the things, masticated and partially digested in her stomach. Suicide or something else? Doesn’t smell like accident to me but there are lots better ways to cash out. I got questions coming out the ying-yang on that one, especially now.”

“Maybe, maybe not. But this case, when’s the last time they could have been around the old man in town?”

“Like I said, they don’t have anything to do with the old man, but curiously, they both got together while they were attending separate chemical and pharmacy conventions in Minneapolis not two weeks ago.”

“That is interesting.”

“Both kids, as I said, she’s thirty-nine, he’s forty-two—the old man was seventy-six—got together on the evening of the sixth at a small, intimate lounge called the Red Deacon on the south side.”

Pat lifted some papers and pulled a statement from the mess. He waved it at Dave.

“Maura’s statement. I called Buffalo PD. One of their guys went out and got it. Faxed me a copy this morning. Pretty good background. Thurber, on the other hand, refused to give a statement. No time, he said, but talked to an officer at his facility, who, fortunately, took good notes. Thurber said nothing about meeting his sister, which I find odd, but neither officer was armed with clairvoyance, so they couldn’t ask all the right questions. We’ll get another go at them a bit later and compare them.

“Meantime, I talked to the two Minn cops who went to the old man’s place initially on a call from the high rise super at Mammoth Estates. Makim Razthan got a call from a tenant below Thurber, water leaking through the ceiling. Said the woman was exercised and demanded him come immediately. Traced it to Thurber’s suite. Sink running over, old man on the floor, dead. That’s when he called the cops.”

“It fits,” Dave said. “Anyone else?”

“Yeah, neighbor told the arriving officers that they heard a big row early evening the day before. Said the old man fired his cleaning lady, something about stealing monogrammed handkerchiefs.”

Dave smiled at his brother. “Doesn’t sound like much, but you know the rules.”

Pat smiled wearily. “Yeah, I’ll check her out, too. Who knows?”

“No other suspects?”

“Not yet, but the floor is open for nominees. Razthan told the officers Tessler wasn’t well liked in his building, either.”

“You need some time away, bro. Coffee?”

“Not the dregs we get here. Let’s hit Mickey D’s. I need to clear my head. We got to talk about Mom and the estate, too.”

“Yeah. Never rains but it pours.”

A Miracle for Mirabelle

THE SAGA ENDED in the mid-afternoon. I’ll never forget those three days. The strain I saw in the eyes of the entire search party I felt to my core and as time ran out, depression set in.

Three long and wearing days packed with disappointment and danger and heroic effort. It started on Sunday. Sheriff Jeff Golder’s strong voice called to the assembled volunteers.

“Find the child! Find Mirabelle!”

We’d set out. The tough minded sheriff of Boulder County knew the mountains as did most of us. He kept the worry out of his voice, but as a father, we knew he felt the need for the search to succeed as much as anyone in the small community of Pine Brook Hill.

That morning we’d assembled in the rugged foothills above Boulder City at over sixty-five hundred feet.

He’d briefed us. Three year old Mirabelle Daws wandered from her home on the morning of October seventh. Her mom had tripped and fallen in her kitchen. She’d hit her head on a table and knocked herself out. Mirabelle evidently came in from the playroom and saw her mother on the floor bleeding. She didn’t know how to work her parents’ telephone, so she went looking for somebody to tell.

The sheriff said when Martha came to and discovered Mirabelle missing she checked the house and grounds. No Mirabelle. Panicked, she ran down the driveway, calling. No answer. At White Horse Circle she hollered in both directions. She knew her neighbors all worked in Boulder daily.

“She ran back and called me,” the sheriff finished. “Martha, you have something to say.”

“Mirabelle is wearing a yellow sun suit with a short-sleeved white undershirt. She can pull on shoes and her green ones are gone, so she’d have put them on. She knows how I feel about going outside without shoes.” We heard a catch in her voice.

The Sheriff said the weather people predicted a cold front would come through early Tuesday. Sunday’s extraordinary weather, mild beyond the character of the season offered us false hope. We knew in our hearts it couldn’t last. Nonetheless, we felt confident we’d find the child before any bad stuff set in.

Mirabelle’s dad, on a business trip, couldn’t be reached. The sheriff put out a call for volunteers immediately, but it took several hours to get the search team together.

The foothills above the mid-sized home-rule city of Boulder were rocky and desolate with cliffs and pitfalls, and wild animals roamed there.

I’d been on searches before and I knew the quicker we found her the better. The survival window waned toward hopelessness too soon in a child search. We knew that Bobcats and Pumas abounded and Grizzly bears roamed the hills north and southwest of nearby Fourmile Canyon.

Sheriff Golder and two of his deputies along with thirteen volunteers incorporated into posse’s organized as groups of four were each headed by someone with search experience. One in each group carried two hundred feet of good hemp line. The others carried knapsacks with food for several days and medical supplies, along with hopefully unneeded pitons and rock hammers.

The beautiful wilderness that lived so close began at the edge of every property cut from it. We human interlopers, when push came to shove and for all the damage and trouble we’d brought with our species, hadn’t made much of a mark on primitive Earth, not out here in Colorado.

The group I headed had Charlie Straw, a Ute Indian I’d known growing up and glad to have as a friend, Herb Woodhouse, co-owner of Boulder Feed and Grain, Dwayne Shaw, a local handyman and me, Rick Paul. I shouldered my thirty-ought-six. You didn’t go far from civilization without that kind of protection. The others went armed, too.

All of us were fit and anxious to get going. It’s not like we’re betting people, but we hoped to find her first. It would feel good.

My group headed northeast from the bottom of Mirabelle’s driveway, cut through a couple of adjoining properties and headed along the ridge. We had good seeing for the most part, but had to watch our feet for rattlers and other footfall dangers. Short, gnarled trees and shrubs clung to the rocky ground and places where a small child could hide or disappear from view slowed us down, but we had to be thorough.

The girl’s mother had tearfully told us that Mirabelle prided on her independence and that she liked the trait, but had to keep an extra eye on her because of it. Viewing the territory in front of us, I wouldn’t believe a three-year-old would trek here, but you never knew, so we had to do it all.

Cells didn’t work in the area, but we had short range radios to keep in touch with the Sheriff. We kept a measured pace, making sweeps back and forth from a predetermined sight-line, trying to miss nothing, calling out repeatedly…and the hours dragged on.

Dwayne spooked a big Mama cat, but it slunk away, so we guessed it had no babies nearby. Scared Dwayne more than the cat. At four p.m. I called a halt.

“Mark the spot on your maps. We have to head back. Sun’s gonna be down by the time we get back to White Horse Circle; too dangerous at night. We’ll start again in the morning.”

Charlie said nothing; I’d expect that. Dwayne nodded, too tired to speak. Herb mentioned he ought to check on the store before he went home to his wife.

“Your partner can do that, Herb,” I said.

We met the other searchers at the head of Mirabelle’s driveway. The rest were there before us, tired and disappointed. They shared stories and compared search maps.

Sheriff Golder said, “Y’all up for it in the morning?”

We said yes. Now we could hear worry in the sheriff’s voice.

“Okay men; here, 6 a.m.”

Monday arrived, mirrored the first and already hope began to dim. Martha had reached her husband and he’d be flying in from Des Moines in the mid-afternoon. She had developed bags under her eyes. I caught the weatherman on TV before I left my house. He said thirty degree drop overnight with thunderstorms across the front.

My heart sank. With the weather balmy last night, independent-minded Mirabelle could have crawled into a pocket of tufted grass and would likely be okay, but the turn of the weather could be deadly. We had to find her today. She had to be hungry and the picture that crossed my eyes brought water to their edges. I thought about my two boys at home, one only two years older than Mirabelle.

“C’mon men. Let’s get it done,” I said to my crew.

We finished the second day like the first, except as we headed back from our new search area we watched thunderheads begin to pile over the Rocky’s. We huddled together near our cars to hear “No luck; try again tomorrow.”

One of the men in another search group said out of the mother’s hearing, “Sheriff, the girl’s dead. Must be! We’ve combed everything.”

Sheriff Golder flashed back at him. “Jed, no talk like that! There’s a chance. We’ve got to try again tomorrow. I’m not giving up. Think you would if it was your boy?”

“No, ‘course not. Sorry, Sheriff. Just tired.”

“We all are, Jed.”

During the night the front swept over the territory and the temperature plunged. Hard rain on my roof, the wind, lightning and thunder told me Mirabelle’s chances took another dive. How could she live through that?

Dejected volunteers appeared at 6 a.m. The sheriff had to pump us up. Everyone’s unbidden and silent thought mirrored Jed’s from last night, not a good sign.

My group headed into another sector farther down the mountain toward Fourmile Canyon. The mountains shed water in their own time and the lingering rivulets spoke to us as we descended. Rocks were slippery, the slope steeper and the going got tougher. The men were silent. No banter today.

We stopped to eat and recover some energy around noon and then began again, thinking about the sheriff’s answer to Jed’s comment. We wore heavier clothes today. Our packs chafed. Then with the sun in the west, Herb stepped into something and called out, “Need a hand here.”

Charlie responded and helped Herb get his foot out of a crack between the rocks. Then, while Herb sat and rubbed his foot out, Charlie looked around and spied a dark, almost circular cave under a slight overhang.

He investigated and, “Hai! Over here!” he called.

We came a-running. The cave went back a few feet. Inside a little girl in a yellow sun suit lay curled up. He said she appeared lifeless. Charlie reached in and with the gentlest touch, gathered the little bundle in his arms.

“She’s breathing.” He took off his jacket and wrapped her in it.

A whoop went up. I keyed my radio and got the sheriff. I said, “Rick here. We’ve found her. She’s alive. We’re heading back. Get an ambulance up there pronto.”

Congratulations all around. Mama had to wait for the hospital doctor to finish his inspection. Diagnosis? Exposure and dehydration, but fluids, rest and a lot of love fixed her up. And what did Mirabelle have to say?

“I got losted, Mama. A big pussycat showed me a cave and he lay down with me when it got cold. He had nice fur.”

A Houston Chronicle

PAUL REACHED FOR his phone. His heart sank. The Houston Reservoir Water Commission, headed by Vince Parks, had watched the rain come down for two days now. He’d alerted Paul to be ready to open the flood valves. This call would open man-made abuse on top of nature’s wrath. He picked it up.

“Yes, Vince.”

“Our data says you’re going over the banks in five hours. Open them up, Paul.”

“What’s your rate of fill?”

Vince sounded somber. “Not sure the locks will do it.”

Paul said “Shit! Starting now.” He hung up, punched buttons on his console and started the process.

Operations Manager Paul Graves had the mostly boring job of overseeing the Addicks and Barker Reservoir’s flood control dams for Buffalo Bayou. Really a meandering river, it drained a five hundred square mile prairie that formed 18,000 years ago northwest of Houston.

Population grew to fill the low-lying areas encompassing the region and as Houston isn’t much over one hundred feet above sea level with a lot of it closer to sea level, it historically suffered from lowland flooding. The city planners built the dams to alleviate uncontrolled flooding. Paul had the job on August 25th, 2017 when Hurricane Harvey arrived.

Paul knew what it would mean. Already Harvey had dumped a trillion gallons of water on Houston along with hundreds of square miles surrounding it, and it kept coming. The planners were as prepared as they could be.

For days a tropical storm in the Gulf, weather forecasters at KTRK tracked the oncoming hurricane. They watched it gain strength and just before landfall blossom briefly into Category Four.

Its winds diminished quickly as it swept over the people below, but as an engine for pulling Gulf waters over southeast Texas, it had no match.

Before Harvey arrived, Houston’s Mayor advised all residents to stay, prepare, shore up and ride it out. Those who wished to leave before the event should leave immediately. Houston had many roads out of town, but the idea of telling seven million people to evacuate three days before an oncoming hurricane he rejected. He pictured highway gridlock that could be far more dangerous and deadly than letting people ride out the storm.

No one, not engineers, planners, residents or government believed one storm would drop more than fifty inches of water over their city, but it did.

Of the thousands of acts of heroism Harvey brought out in the people of Houston, thousands of desperate situations also existed, some with sadness beyond measure.

Renee Perez lived in the Second Ward on Estelle Street. Her husband Chris had just finished his conversation with Renee, put on his baseball cap and prepared to leave for work.

“Chris, you aren’t listening. The rain. It’s too heavy. I know your boss said come to work. You should have said no.”

“I can’t, Nee. The stuff that’s been going on at the plant…never mind. Look, if I don’t get there the boss will have my head. I’m backup and I can’t say no.”

“Honey…”

“Gotta go. Mayor says we’ll be good. We’re stocked up. You should be fine. I’ll listen to the radio on the way in. If the Mayor says shut down and go home I’ll be back quick. Kiss.”

Renee gave her husband a pouty kiss and her shoulders slumped.

“Take care of Baby.”

A tiny smile crinkled the corners of her mouth. Chris called their six month old daughter Katie that so often it suited her better than Katie.

“I will.”

Fated words.

Chris left and drove away in his truck. The streets looked okay and the lawns in the home packed community were green. Rain pelted everything. Chris shouldn’t have much trouble getting to work, she thought. No street traffic I can see.

Baby played with her toes in her crib. She gurgled when Renee looked over the crib top at her daughter and smiled.

“You and me, Baby,” she chortled. Renee took a seat in the rocker they’d left in the room. She could nurse in pleasant tones of pink and peach with the door closed if Chris wanted to watch TV after supper. With Baby’s next feeding an hour away, Renee thought to grab her copy of Patterson’s book, Step on a Crack off the small table nearby. She began to read.

The baby’s crying woke her. Her watch said two hours had passed.

“Oh, God,” she exclaimed. Now Baby’s feeding would be off. How could she! She got up briskly, gathered the baby in her arms and brought her back to the chair. She sat, uncovered a breast and let Baby find her nipple. Fifteen minutes later she burped the child and laid her back in the crib, fast asleep.

Walking into the living room, she listened to the staccato drumming sound of hard rain. That’s what put me to sleep, she thought.

Then Renee looked out her picture window and her heart stopped. The light-toned cement Houston street and green lawns were gone. She saw dusky leaden water everywhere, its glinting surface disturbed by thousands of drops from the windy gray sky. She heard a small sound and looked at their front door. She gasped. Water gurgled in, spreading as she watched. Chris! Why didn’t he call?

Wait, she thought, I turned the ringer on vibrate. Then I went and sat with Baby.

The cellphone rested face up on the coffee table. She turned the ringer back on. I better call Chris. He won’t like it, but…

As she brought her finger to punch the speed dial, the phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Renee, get the baby and get out of there. KTRK just had the Mayor on. They’ve opened the flood control locks. They’re trying to keep the reservoirs from collapsing. Buffalo Bayou is off its banks. You’re in danger.”

“But…?”

“Why didn’t you answer the phone before? I’ve been calling and calling.”

“I had the phone off…feeding Baby. I read a little and fell asleep.”

“Never mind, with the reservoirs emptying, you need to get to higher ground right away.”

“I’ll get stuff…”

Chris broke in, “NO! I can’t get to you. Get out now. Take nothing. You and the baby. Hurry!”

Renee’s confused mind tried to get up to speed. Energy surged and panic followed. Water now covered the floor and crept onto her slippered feet. She stood in it. It felt cold, very cold!

Her mind in turmoil, she breathed, “Got to get the baby. Got to get out.” She focused on Katie. Where will I go?

“Chris, I’m going. I’m hanging up.” With that she ended the call.

A niggling thought. Get away from the bayou a quarter mile away. But it’s flat. No high ground anywhere nearby. Run; have to run!

Galvanized, Renee sprinted to their bedroom, tossed the cell on the bed, shed her robe and slippers and put on jeans and a long-sleeved top. She grabbed some money off the dresser, put it in her pocket and slid the cell into her back pocket.

Water above her ankles, she struggled a pair of sneakers on, her feet too wet to put on socks. Need raincoat. Need sweater. Now for Baby.

She wrapped the baby up snug in a white and pink blankey and carried her to the front door. Raincoat in front closet. She put the baby on the coffee table, retrieved her rain-gear and donned it.

The door opened hard against the oncoming flood, but she got through it. Again she gasped. Water everywhere. No place to go. The roof? They didn’t have a ladder, but the Perkins’ next door did. Chris borrowed it once, years ago.

Renee slogged through deepening water, now up to mid-thigh. She held Baby tightly, a burden she wished she could set down for just a moment. She found the Perkins family shed locked, but the wooden ladder lay on hooks on its side. She could get it down. Where to put the baby?

The locks were open. How much time did she have before the surging water began to deepen? Would she keep her feet? So cold.  One-handed, she lifted an end of the ladder and dropped it into the water. She went to the other side and released it. It fell with a huge splash.

Pelted by driving rain, she watched the ladder disappear beneath the water. Didn’t wood float? The ladder’s side settled on her foot. Lifting a leg, her foot cupping the wood below her, she reached into the water, grabbed a rung and with effort, brought one end above water.

She felt the push of a current. The water rose to her waist.

That’s it, she thought, the final flood is here. Survive, Renee, you have to.

No way could she raise the ladder with one hand onto her own roof. Perkins’ shed, then. Sobbing with effort, she manhandled the ladder upright and laid it against the side of the shed.

Holding Baby she began to climb. So awkward, one handed. Two rungs up she felt a crack and a sudden give as the rung broke. Renee fell back with a cry. She and Baby went under. Disoriented, Renee thrashed around and came up sputtering, her arms empty. She stared at them.

“Katie,” she screamed. “Katie…Baby…Help! Anybody… help me,” her only answer the wind whipped rain.

She searched. She moved back and forth in ever widening circles. She moved her feet hoping to come up against a fold of cloth, any lump that could be her baby.

“Oh, my God, help me. My baby!” Renee stood for a moment as the gravity of what happened hit her.

“No, no…God no!” she cried. She tried again.

Her foot hit something. She reached into water now up to her chest and brought up a bundle of soft white with pink patterns. Tearing at the piece covering her child’s face she beheld her baby.

Her child. Chris’s child. Katie…gone. An anguished sound rose from Estelle Street, wavered and died, and in the same moment the light in a mother’s eyes went out.

In another part of the city, Vince Parks called Paul Graves. “The dams are holding, Paul. Another day and we’ll be good. Nice work.”

A Professor’s Challenge

PROFESSOR COLGATE SAT as the campus bell at Texas Christian tolled. In his chair beside the podium, he crossed his right leg over his left, conveying a typically bored gesture while his class of three hundred filed into the auditorium.

He often decided to arrive early and watch the procession as classes moved in and out of his day, unlike many professors who waited until their class finished seating before making a grand entrance. The beginnings of pompous, he thought.

For Colgate, his time both to teach and to learn. Colgate learned as much from his students as they learned from him.

The last student gathered a seat. The soft rumble of conversation subsided as he stood and went to the podium. Matter-of factly, he reached and flipped the microphone switch, opened a notebook and summarily began.

“Feeling is to perceive through the sense of touch. If you can’t believe the authority of Webster’s or Random House or the American Heritage Dictionary, whom can you believe?”

Here he paused to let a low murmur in one of the upper tiers become the only sound in the quiet hall, muffled coughs and the normal rustling of papers or closing of a book excepted. He stared at the approximate location of the noise and soon two heads came up. Shocked looks identified the culprits and embarrassed, they leaned back in their chairs amidst smirks from a half dozen students surrounding them.

They’d all been in Colgate’s advanced English class for two months and they knew their instructor’s brilliance included two important features. First, he had an amazing ability to recognize every face assigned to his class and put a name to it, and second, he brooked nothing but total attention to the subject at hand. Failure to deal seriously with the edict Colgate pronounced on the first day of class and never again, brought a personal visit to his office and no student left it feeling good.

All learning began with listening. He imparted that thought to the recalcitrant or unconvinced in no uncertain terms and tied his or her final grade to deportment in class as surely as to providing correct answers in tests.

The professor jotted something on a small pad and then cupped a hand around his left ear, moving his head in a sweep that encompassed the entire hall. Should a pin drop in the upper left tier, the student body divined the professor would hear it.

“We take our words from such authoritative works and we rely heavily on them for correct spelling and for precise meanings of the words of our language. English is tough enough to learn, even if you haven’t come from another country and learned its language first.

“Why am I repeating something you learned in high school? The reason may surprise you, but it is, in fact, simple. I am going to move away from the program today,” an involuntary groan escaped some lips, “and I am going to give all of you an opportunity to be truly creative. I am going to satisfy myself that all three hundred of you deserve to be here, that you are intelligent enough to think on your own and that you can formulate an answer to my suggested direction in a work of fiction.

“It does not concern me that this is not a creative writing class. You all have the tools and now I’m going to ask you to use them. Here is your assignment. Write a story that involves never having had a sense of touch. Keep in mind that you have had one for all of your lives and now you are being asked to pretend that no such sense has ever existed. You may find this a difficult concept to get your mind around, but it is what you must do.

“You will use your wire binders, neatly tear out your pages of effort and hand them to the monitor at the back of the hall as you leave today. Your name must be legible and your class and time listed in the upper right corner of each page. Everyone is required to write on this subject. This will count twenty-five percent of your final grades.”

A gasp and shudder went through the professor’s audience even while pages were frantically being located and prepared for the writing assignment.

“You have an hour and fifteen minutes, from…now!”

Surveying the assembly, Professor Colgate saw blond and brunette heads bend over their retractable DeskWriter tables. A smattering of redheads in varying shades punctuated the sea of blond and brown and a small group with black hair sporting tight curls or dreadlocks or ironed hair bent over their work on the right.

Satisfied that his message had gotten through the eyes and to the brains of this group, Colgate sat down in his chair and pulled out a text on contemporary English. His presence and his all seeing eye would be with the student body, even during moments he didn’t survey his scene. Many could not get from their minds the hideous vision of Orwell’s “Big Brother” watching them.

About twenty percent went at it with a will, he noted. The rest joined them reticently or thoughtfully, grimaces to outright fear showing on faces briefly lifted from the desk to see if “the eye” might be watching them.

Professor George Colgate, of average height and build, had a studious appearance. He did not wear glasses, but if contacts were his method of avoiding something hanging from the bridge of his nose, no one knew it for sure. He had a narrow face, a little pinched, and his expression many students interpreted as cross, although most did not know this of him directly. Many teachers ran on reputation, deserved or not. He did not actually warrant being placed into this mold, but to him, it seemed to leaven the conduct of the unruly few and he believed that the student body helped to police this potential through rumor. In any event, he did nothing to dispel it, given the size of his classes.

Today he wore black knife-edge slacks and a white shirt, with tie, covered with a brilliant red cable-knit pullover designed to combat the chill in the large hall. His choice of bright red paid obeisance to Christmas, only days hence, although he had no religious predilections of his own.

He did think the assignment an especially good one so close to Christmas, and perhaps more importantly to the days that followed, a school break that would provide renewal from the frenetic pace he kept during class season. Rather than go somewhere-being single he didn’t need it-he would relax with three hundred pieces of fiction and try to ferret out real gold from fools’ gold.

The Professor hadn’t tried this experiment before and genuinely wondered what would come of it. He glanced up periodically. Yes, Colgate the shepherd, Big Brother indeed, watched his flock today. The knowledge that he had nearly ultimate power over these young people didn’t cause him to smile, because he knew that the grades he gave them could make a difference in their young lives and could send them on their way in directions they wanted or did not want.

An hour passed. Little movement came from the assembled except the furious application of pen to paper. Every now and then someone would shift his weight to get off some part that had gone to sleep. A few began to look up frequently. They were running out of ideas. He casually noted who they were. He’d be seeing them again on paper, but he wanted to see if physical appearance and expression on a student also carried to his or her work.

Ten more minutes passed. He stood and turned the mike on again. “Five minutes to finish up.”

The professor didn’t add anything, but left implicit in his statement the very important element of closure. How many would round out their stories and make them circular? He had an idea who would excel and who would not. His class contained a microcosm of American man and womanhood, but more than that, many of these people would become the leaders of future generations.

Today’s assignment tested them now. In it he offered them a key to the creation of a better world, to an understanding that automatically accepting current thinking was wrongheaded, that humanity’s direction had to diverge, to think beyond present truths and to find new ones. He hoped that a few would grasp the key. Right now he held it in his hands. Soon enough his class would pass from his influence and move into the real world, there to create their own happiness or sadness, to make their mistakes and enjoy their occasional successes.

Professor Colgate wondered how many would be touched by the assignment.

“Time’s up. You are free to leave. The monitor will collect your work as I have said. Enjoy your holidays and we’ll see you back on January 2nd.”

Colgate smiled at them. A few called out, “Merry Christmas,” to which the professor nodded. He had an idea how he would approach the students’ return, what he would tell them. Perhaps he would pose it as a question. “Who among you can tell me the reason for this assignment?”

Regardless, they must be told whether they had succeeded or failed. Three hundred students struggled to their feet, began the climb to the top of the amphitheater and out into lightly falling snow. Jonathan Brown, his grad student monitor would see him within the half hour carrying a large flat bundle of student work. He wouldn’t ask John to read half of them this time. He wanted gold. He’d have to find it himself.

Steve

DAMN! THE OCEAN…coming up fast!

Steve grabbed a few belongings from the side tray and stuffed them into the pockets of his flight jacket. He barely had time, but that picture of Lisa…how silly to think of anything but survival now! His jet plummeted toward the ocean. Eight hundred feet, six…

One minute before, the enemy round that took his jet out of the sky had made a round hole in two parts of his cockpit, drove through his helmet and creased him at the hairline. Way too close! Blood immediately began to run down both sides of his head followed by shock and pain!

Bastard scalped me.

No more time! He hit the eject button. The cockpit blew away and his breath whipped out of his body as the bomb they put under the seat kicked his ride up two G’s.

He blacked out but came out of it quick. Thank God the hatch had gone the other way. Steve didn’t like the idea of a broken neck.

The seat dropped away and his chute billowed, caught screaming air. It pulled him up with a jerk just in time. He crashed into the salty water and bellowed.

“GODDAMN THAT HURT!”

Wrong choice. His mouth filled with water. He gagged and coughed. He opened his eyes now. It couldn’t get any worse, right? Salt water stung but the blood leached away and he began to get a hazy picture. Island off to the left as he came down.

“Where?” Somehow the sound of his voice gave strange comfort, made things real.

He looked around as the shroud settled over him into the water. Kicking told him he was a hurtin’ unit, but luckily nothing major broke. Then another sharp pain!

“Damn!” Finger or wrist on left.

He pulled on the shroud cables with his right hand and got out from under. Treading water, he yanked the cord on his life jacket, which obligingly filled with air. Better. Now he turned in a circle until he could occasionally see a green top appear and disappear in the chop. Then he looked at the sky. Clear. He’d been low on gas.

Probably the same for his airborne enemy, he thought.

Situation serious but not urgent. The islands nearby were uninhabited according to his earlier briefing. Hope the Commander kept track on radar. They’d know when they lost him. Would they send a search party? Probably not right away. Navy Lieutenant Commander Steve Greco guessed Admiral Maynard had orders to beat feet, get his carrier the hell out of there. Still, they’d check back as soon as they found relative safety. They’d send low level recon when they could.

“Meanwhile, Stevie baby, it’s you and the elements.”

He judged he had about a half mile to swim. He’d have to be real careful of the coral breakers. All these islands had them. Coral had to live, too. And sharks. And octopi. His survival manual said warm waters were well occupied. He’d have company, all right.

His head cleared rapidly. Blood would draw the varmints and he didn’t fancy becoming a meal. That would spoil his whole day, not like it wasn’t screwed up enough already. How many guys drop forty million in the ocean?

“Okay, Steve, you made them pay. You got two of them suckers before they ganged up on you. Two for one.”

The “why me” thing didn’t work. Stretch and Charlie coulda taken it same as him. Hope they got away. He’d had no time to look for them.

“Swim, you moron. You like being in a puddle of blood?”

He ducked under, now that he could see. The salt ocean didn’t hurt like it did before. Either numb or body compensating. Looking around carefully he didn’t see anything near, but the experts said sharks can smell blood two miles away. They’d be coming.

He disconnected the harness and buoyed by his life jacket, swam tentatively toward the white foam he could see at the top of an occasional swell.

A strong swimmer, Steve paced himself, gradually moving toward the surf. He found it tough to swim with flight boots, but he gave no thought to dropping them. He’d need them over the reef, and walking barefoot in the sand sounded nice, but not inland. Fine way to pick up something like snakebite or a disease. Instructional vids at the ship showed jungle rot’s not nice, either.

The sun dropped low over the horizon. He squinted. Still two hours before it would get antsy. Plenty of time! He ducked under again and peered around. Did he see a shadow to the right? He looked and looked while treading water. He couldn’t be sure.

Another half hour. He hadn’t been attacked. A wary shark? Nah, no such thing.

Swimming stronger now, Steve began to feel cross currents. The reef, very close. He had to find a sluice way. He cut to the left. After five minutes he thought he saw it. Narrow and fast. Not much depth. Beggars can’t be choosy. He inched up on it, tested limbs and endurance. He wished he’d cut away part of the parachute to wrap around his flight gloves for extra protection.

“Dumb, Stevie!” His brain worked okay now but he still railed at his earlier stupidity.

There! The waves beat back and forth over it like a saw blade. Steve put his body in the middle of the sluice and when he got that extra push from what he knew to be the proverbial “seventh wave” he pushed with all his might. He kept an eye on the coral below. Over! Get over! Watch out! He tried to grasp the coral on any nub he could see and watched for spines. The sea urchins in this island chain were poisonous.

Razor sharp coral ripped at the flight jacket. Buffeted by changing currents, his gloved fingers tore away from the targets his hands sought more than once. He couldn’t ignore the pain in that finger, either and he couldn’t look too closely just yet. He’d rather hope that no bone stuck through the skin and find out later.

Ahh! Deeper water. He swam through, ignoring the pain. Multi-colored fish scattered when they perceived the invader. He made directly for the shore, three hundred feet away. Ten minutes later he arrived, dragged his body onto the sand and gratefully collapsed. At the moment he couldn’t care less if natives surrounded him.

Ragged breath, raw throat. Salt water didn’t help. Not exactly a triumphant entrance, but he’d landed.

Minutes later, after his pulse slowed and he’d caught up to his breathing, he got onto his knees and looked around. Small island, maybe twenty-five acres from what he could see. Rounded green top. At least it had a little elevation. Not bad. Might be longer, he couldn’t remember from the maps. He’d find out. The greenery looked promising. Might be banana trees, mangoes or papayas. Plenty of tropical palms.

Steve inspected the beach. No footprints. Did he think there would be? Just as well. The commander who’d done the pre-flight briefing said that weather in the area had been stable pretty near forever and that it would continue that way. What, exactly, would he think?

They called it Doldrums. Funny how the word seemed to fit the place. Doldrums…dulldrums…ho-hum… There’d be weather either side of ten degrees north and south, but it couldn’t decide what to do here.

He smiled. Astronomy had been his childhood predilection. With that came knowledge of the Earth and how it fit into the cosmos. He remembered it all, Coriolis force, weather patterns, they way things spun in the north being opposite from those in the south and the equator being the dividing line. Had to be a line somewhere.

Storms would be rare or nonexistent where he’d crashed. Gravity did it all and speaking of gravity, he’d better get started finding some food or he’d starve to death.

Steve didn’t want that. He’d just spent half a day surviving. He didn’t want to ruin his record.

Moving initially caused him to reassess his condition. Knocked down and dragged out fit best. Unfortunately, for life to go on until the U. S. Navy found and returned him to the pleasures of non-combat required that he discover a way to stay alive.

“Succinct. Guess my brain’s okay.”

He removed his helmet. He felt his head for the first time since he’d arrived.

“Ow!”

How could something so numb as his head felt suddenly become all nerve endings? Okay, major loss of skin. A nice crease started above his left ear and dug in. A new part? Not sure he liked that. Salt water had helped stop the blood, that and his natural hemoglobin, but he needed his first aid kit.

He felt his side. Blood, oozing, slowing. He unzipped his pants and pulled them down. Open wound, thankfully superficial. He left it uncovered.

Reason having returned along with some strength, he unzipped a left lower pocket and removed his first aid kit. He peeled away the plastic seal and dove into the contents. Holding the kit with thumb and first finger he went about bandaging his broken left third finger.

Everything had survived. He decided, how lucky. Steve patched his injured parts over the next twenty minutes, being particularly careful with the antibiotic ointment. He finished with gauze and bandage strips, checked his inventory and put everything carefully away.

His waterproof watch said twenty-one hundred hours. The huge red sun sat on the horizon. It would disappear soon. With what light he had left he made his way to the tree line. The nearby palms had no coconuts. Maybe in the interior?

Steve kept his eyes open and stayed wary. He penetrated about one hundred yards, saw no wildlife, discovered a stand of date palms and decided that now he needed rest and he’d better get it on the beach.

Before leaving the tiny jungle he picked up a few short sticks and dumped them where he planned to settle for the night. Arranging them like a tripod, he undressed to his skivvies and tee shirt. His clothes were still wet, but he wouldn’t strip down before he felt relatively safe, like now. He laid them over the sticks to dry.

In a right pocket he found a soggy energy bar. He spent inordinate time devouring it.

Supper over, Steve settled down at his spot ten feet from the tree line and twenty feet from the ocean. Finally, he laid his side arm next to his body within hands reach and allowed exhaustion to overcome him. Tomorrow would take care of itself.

His last thought was of Lisa.

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.