Category Archives: Fiction

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.”

Bad Sister

I SAID SOMETHING and I wanted to say something else, but held my tongue. I heard a sound invasive as a sliver. It came from behind me and I knew it well enough. In exactly ten seconds I would dive to the floor and bullets would scream over my head from behind the thin closet door in back of me.

I’d had fourteen years living on the edge as a green beret and even the muffled sound of a cocking M-16 existed as a part of my being. Yes, I played a part in all this. I knew what would happen. Why then, you ask, would I want to say something to the woman in front of me?

Well, the sister I’d lost track of twenty years before stood there calmly holding a Glock nine. She didn’t hesitate as a rule, but I’d just finished calling her “Sis” and it stopped her, hopefully long enough. I bet my life on it.

Carmine’s mouth curled in a bitter twist and she said, “Roland, I can’t believe you’re a Fed. You engineered this?”

“Yes.”

“You knew it was me?”

“All along.”

“Now I have to kill you.”

“Actually, no,’ I said, and dived for the floor

Her gun followed my motion and I heard the roar and felt pain at the same moment. Got a lung, but missed her heart shot. A half-second later, holes appeared in the door behind where I’d stood as the M-16 cut loose. Carmine went down in its hail of bullets and smoke.

I coughed as blood began to fill the lung, but managed to cry out weakly, “I’m down.” I couldn’t get my breath, but I knew the symptoms and I also knew I’d live if they got me to the hospital in time.

My agent partner ran through the door, first checking to see that Carmine had nothing further to say and not being sure, put a shot between her eyes. The woman much too dangerous to take any chance with, Bob had to make sure. We knew she’d lived for the thrill as much as for the money. We also knew she was as cool a customer as they made them.

I had no regrets. I lost her twenty years ago. I’d stayed good, gotten into a career that used my military skills while Carmine had turned evil; drugs, selling illicit weapons and especially murder. In a sense I could understand. We were the last of our family and every one of them had met violent death. Happens in some families. You don’t get used to it.

This goes back and the story is worthwhile if for nothing more than the object lesson; trust nobody. I’d tell it now but I needed medical attention, something like removing a slug from my right lung.

Bob Ratchett, my second, got on his cell, gave our position and requested an ambulance stat. It seemed like only seconds later I heard the wail of an ambulance siren, but things began to fade about then. I heard Bob shout, “Rol, don’t leave me.”

Unconsciousness has a way of doing that. I woke up four days later in a private room with an armed guard outside the door, my chest taped and flying on some neat drug they’d pumped into me. Guess the department didn’t want to take a chance on a loose end popping up and finishing the job. That kind of made me man of the hour.

I mean it. Assistant Director Burke sat quietly in the chair near my bedside. He glanced up as I woke. “Feeling better?” he asked.

“No pain,” I said.

“I should think not.” He smiled at me. “Good job, but I don’t recall getting shot as part of your job description.”

“It’s in there somewhere.”

“Feel like talking?”

“I can manage.”

“Good. Bring me back to the warehouse part. We have the rest covered.”

“Bob okay?”

“We got his part. Your turn.”

“Okay.” I proceeded to put it together in my mind and launched my five-minute dissertation. “As special hitter for Carlos Magana, Carmine left virtually no trail, so when we put surveillance on the warehouse hoping we’d get the final evidence to put him away, I didn’t have a thought that we’d catch up with her. I think the “E” in her middle name meant “Elusive.” Then I had a thought. I’d been bait before.”

Burke nodded.

“I knew it was dangerous. Carmine had no compunction about murder, but she hadn’t seen me in many years and I felt relatively certain she didn’t know I was FBI. She might or might not recognize me, but I hoped she would. I set it up with Bob to infiltrate the closet behind where I could stand while Carmine got the drop on me. On entering the room she would naturally stand in a position facing the closet.

“Now, I’d checked that closet out at a different time and it wasn’t wide, but it had depth and I figured Bob could easily fire through the door and take her down. I really counted on her recognizing me and I know it isn’t department procedure to handle things that way, but I believed it was the only way we’d get her.”

Burke sat attentively still.

“When she came through the door, I yelled, “Sis!”

She had her finger on the trigger, but she had enough control to look at me and it dawned quickly who I was. The rest is history.”

“Except that you have taken one of my best agents out of commission for a few months.” But he smiled.

“I’ll make it up to you. Is Carlos in the bag?”

“You’ll have to. And yes he is.” He got up, uncharacteristically mussed my hair and left the room.”

Bob came in. “How you doing, buddy?”

I looked out the hospital door at the assistant director’s retreating back. “I think he loves me.”

“Don’t kid yourself.”

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.”

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.

Underbelly

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

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

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

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

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

I oughta know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asshole never had balls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me? I’m going hunting.”

Incident at Northern Sky Lodge

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

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

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

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

I’m the one says prop jockey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus, Jack, you gone paranoid?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Steep for beer.” Bob says.

“You know nothing’s cheap up here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Drop the rifle, mister.”

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

“Brad, what happened here?”

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

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

“Both dead. Sorry, mister.”

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

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

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