Category Archives: Drama

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.”

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!

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.”

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.”