Growing up in a 1950's Southern California post-war housing neighborhood
It seemed there was never a shortage of metal roller skates laying around when you needed them. Or discarded wooden orange crates for that matter. The thick, hard-sided ones. Not those flimsy, lightweight crates you find today. And a good piece of one by six lumber appropriated for the day's skateboard project. It wasn't going to be a run-of-the-mill skateboard, but a super-deluxe bugger with a kid-riding crate on the front end. And if it works out, a rope-activated steering pivot for added maneuverability.
Santos Jr. and I had known each other since we were three when our parents moved to Fullerton, California in the early1950's. Our endeavors spanned the gambit of fort and skateboard manufacturing, to building exploration and hiking to the beach by ourselves on a hot summer day, which was a considerable task from the suburbs to the Pacific Coast Highway. It was like that back then. No fear. And our parents lived with complete confidence knowing we'd be back before suppertime. And we always were. It was a time of moral responsibility that was equally practiced by society as a whole. And we all depended on it. But we also had great role models such as John Wayne, Charlton Heston and Roy Rodgers. I loved Santos Sr. as much as my own father, and other nationalities eventually moved into the neighborhood who exemplified a solid patriotism, moral responsibility, dignity and love for America. The war had brought a fine gathering of the bourgeoisie together in Southern California who happily lived and treasured their moments as demonstrated by their celebration of family, God and country.
It wasn't until much later when we graduated to the solid, hard rubber roller-rink quality wheels for our creations, but that didn't stop our progress. First came the modification of Santos' sister's skates which required the easy removal of the shoe mounts, then the mounting to the board, which took several bent-over nail heads to affix them. With that accomplished we were ready for the final assembly of our prototype vehicle. After carefully eye-balling the center of the crate over the top of the skateboard, a couple ten-penny nails (nuts and bolts came a couple years later) were driven into the crate and through the skateboard. We knew better to hammer over the protruding nails underneath for safety purposes. With that accomplished, Santos eagerly crawled inside the orange crate while I took the helm. I awkwardly gripped the top of the orange crate with both hands and gleefully shoved off on our maiden voyage.
The only problem with growing up in Southern California is that everything is flat. Unless you wanted to traverse the roller-coaster roads of Hillcrest Park in downtown Fullerton, which was well within our radius of exploration, you'd have to make due with the neighborhood streets to road test your creations. Which was just as well since it wasn't long before one of those evil little stones, which have been tripping up kid's skateboards for generations, slipped under a metal skate wheel and caused us to tumble head over heels! Santos landed on top of his father's lush ivy bed from the weight of me crashing into, and bursting, the orange crate. We both shook our heads a couple of times, then took assessment of our wounds. I got stabbed in the side by a piece of the shattered orange crate and Santos ended up with a golf ball sized knot on his forehead. We had both sustained some pretty good scrapes and lacerations; a surprising amount of damage from such a minor fall. But it was kinda neat.
I looked at our sorrowful state and it dawned on me that now would be a good time to reenact that old Indian custom (we believed) of a blood oath. We were the best of friends, and what the heck, we were already bleeding, so now was as good a time as any. We pressed our punctured forearms together, then we both swore, “With this flow of blood we are now brothers!” A great deal of laughter followed.
We took a dip in his family's Doughboy pool to wash and sterilize our wounds, then we laid out, heads down, on a hot summer sidewalk to dry off. A therapeutic childhood ritual.
Dad put a stack of his Billy Vaughn records on the HiFi in the living room while BBQueing steaks outside on the patio to entertain family and friends. He slid open the glass double doors so the two alto saxophones singing, “Sail Along Silv'ry Moon” could be heard throughout the neighborhood.
Life was pretty good.
Michael Vines is a freelance writer who lives in South-Central Kentucky. His "Slice of Life" essays have been published in statewide newspapers and Amazon Kindle ("Ain't Life Peachy")
He told her he loved her.
Looking back, his intentions had been transparent. So easy to see through the lies and between the lines. But back then, she'd wanted only to believe.
It hadn't been the first time Elisa had heard words of love. She knew not to be swept away by a smooth talker bearing a bouquet of gas-station-special roses.
Or so she'd thought.
He had wriggled through her defenses. Made a profound impression. Honest. Decent. Nothing like the others who purred into her ear, whispering honeyed words they were certain she wanted to hear.
Something about him had seemed downright pure.
Elisa barked a laugh at the thought, a cold and ugly sound that reverberated in the unfurnished room.
In the end, he'd been just another smooth talker.
Not like the bad boy in the old films, full of empty flattery. His was something more subtle. More polished.
More studious of his prey.
Words of love emerged, not in a steady stream, but in the manner of a man unused to expressing himself. A man lost in a world of newly-discovered emotions.
False naiveté had been his game. And she'd fallen victim to that strategy, to every calculated move he'd made.
In the end she'd discerned the truth. The damning evidence was well hidden, but not well enough.
Elisa focused on the roses he'd given her.
His shy smile emerges from behind the bouquet.
She'd hung them upside down from a string tacked to the ceiling. Once blood-red blooms had long since turned deathly black. A near match to the dried stains on the floor below them.
A slight breeze wafting across the room disturbed the desiccated flowers, and a single petal drifted to the floor. Elisa picked it up and cradled it in her palm, touched it with one outstretched fingertip. She held it close to her face, but its scent had passed.
She stroked the surface of the petal, her nail softly caressing its frailty.
One hand caresses his cheek as she holds his gaze. The other slips behind him.
Elisa stabbed her finger into the petal, twisting it into the hollow of her other hand, grinding it into tiny fragments.
The dagger plunges.
She envisioned his soul, dried and withered like the roses, drifting down in pieces to be crumbled into dust beneath her rage.
His eyes reflect shock, then acceptance. Then...nothing.
Roses. Such a strange thing to choose as a symbol of eternal love. Dead and desiccated after a week. Every bit as undying as the love he'd professed.
Every bit as dead as him.
At last she released the pressure, her hands aching. Black dust littered her palm, and she rubbed her hands together, washing them in the air. Trying to remove all that remained of him, all that still clung to her.
Elisa stared at the hanging bouquet, willing another petal to fall.
Kurt Hohmann (www.kurthohmann.com) tells stories, builds altars to pagan gods, drums 'round the bonfire, and crafts mad culinary experiments. His tales have been featured in Yellow Mama, Literally Stories, Inner Sins, Chantwood, Abstract Jam, Bookends Review, and Eternal Haunted Summer.
Spread across the dining room table, the newspaper is dissected, absorbed, and devoured voraciously. This rag, running necklaces of dirty type that smudges fingertips, this dirty Herald, the only touchstone with the world outside Bloomsbury Square. Today the paper tantalizes with a headline on a comet streaking through the southern hemisphere; one slice of an onion-thin page and there it is, an artist’s sad rendering that accompanies the story of the Great Meteor shower of 1922, first seen in Cordoba, Argentina.
Over wire-rimmed glasses, Virginia Woolf peers down at the drawing, takes in the words, breathes in an imagined Argentinian starry sky.
By the 12th December—the paper informs her—the nucleus had all but disappeared but the long tail retained a bright viscosity that shot through the wintry sky near Princeton, New Jersey, its breathless magnitude an estimated 140,000,000 miles long and still visible to the naked eye. That said, the storywriter concludes spitefully, “It is very doubtful whether people generally would know anything about the occurrence until they read of it in the papers.”
If she were so inclined, she would track down the writer and slit his miserable throat just for that attitudinal prose alone. Fortunately, it is in her practical nature to reserve homicidal urges (imaginative, of course) for matters of a more pressing nature—most recently, an unknown and heinously boring writer had shunned the press after Leonard declined his manuscript, and thus, her imagination rushed him to an early grave – a razor blade to the throat perhaps, a body slumped in an unmarked grave wrapped in a Persian rug – perhaps the very rug she’d had Nelly send out for just the other day, which had been delivered two hours early, and she herself had had to see in the delivery men.
There is the chink of glass against glass, somebody is pouring her another drink, and Virginia reclines back in her chair, happy to allow the conversation to continue around her. She is back in the room, present again, a flurry of fire-lit faces that had not been aware that she had ever left. She sweeps a thumb across inky fingertips, and crowns a drawing of Tutankhamen on the opposite fold on the paper with her discarded glasses, which distort a thick spray of stars in a farsighted lens. She fixes her expression just over Leonard’s shoulder, to the window - she looks into the winter evening. All that is visible are shadows from the dim light of other buildings, other rooms, gaslights along the street, and beyond that, the eternal vault of the city that harbours so many of her dreams. For long hours the dreary, muddy, rainy winter stays encapsulated in darkness; winters are different here than they are in Rodmell. Even after everything that has happened, she still thinks of London as home. She still thinks of returning. But there is no undoing the past, no returning from Rodmell to here—the precarious edge of the world, where this strange city captures voices unknown to Mr. Bell’s invitation of a dinner party, where the abstraction of the waves of imagination always fit, painful and unerring, in the form of a novel, an essay, a word on the tip of her tongue – a story that takes flight mid stride down a street fuelled and chased by everybody else’s conversation.
How exciting other people were.
She had become lost again, a train of thought abruptly derailed by the door opening, a great oak of a door, creaking on its hinges, and she was back in the room for the second time, transfixed by the sudden entrance of another woman, the conversation, she realised, having taken a rather alarming turn, and Vanessa, blushing, was clutching Lytton’s arm in mock dismay.
“You can either become an actress or a whore,” Clive was saying, though the subject of conversation was lost on her. Then the damning line, aimed at Vanessa: “I’d say the latter, as your acting in the bedroom has always proved a mastery of your performance.”
Somehow, Virginia is neither shocked nor offended, neither does she look across at her sister, Vanessa, who she knows very well will be sinking herself into Duncan Grant’s shoulder, much to Lytton’s despair. She hears Clive’s usual demanding rap upon the table, following, what he thought was a comment of great hilarity, followed by the shoulder-hunched uxoriousness of his posture, as if in the time between the knock and the opening of the door he thinks better of his behaviour, and suddenly, once again, he is in love.
“Who is that?” It’s Dorothy that speaks after what appears to be a considerable amount of time, and Virginia wonderers if she had somehow seen the door open even before it had.
“Mrs Harold Nicholson”, “Lady Sackville-West”, “The Right Honorable…” Whispers pass between the glasses, and Clive stands, chair legs grating fiercely on the flagstone floor, and opens his arms to welcome the late guest.
She shines with a candle lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung. Lytton pulls a chair from the table with the lavish gesture of the half-drunk, and Roger Fry pours wine into her glass as she comments on the décor, touches the fine satin of the curtain, as marvellous as what lies between a woman’s legs, and says, “Virginia Woolf,” slowly, as though she were reading her name for the first time whilst tracing a finger along the spine of Mrs Dalloway, and finally Virginia sees her face in the light, plain, handsome, dark eyes burning as if she were coming out of a fevered dream. Virginia is no romantic, but she imagines her own eyes in response, the perihelion—the blazing comet at its closest point to the sun, so dazzlingly close to immolation—to be this elusive shade of blue, cool and hot at once.
And then, before Virginia can respond, Vita is caught up unexpectedly by E.M Forster, who, sitting to her left, encompasses Vita and her attention half way through a sentence. And then, seamlessly, she is laughing, charming, taking the floor, immediately the highlight of the evening, her being in short (what Virginia had never been) a real woman, and Virginia is left to push her wine glass half an inch further away, leaving a half-moon of condensation on the table, a puddle reflecting the fluttering caprices of the fires waxes and wanes. She feels heat rising within herself, not unlike the heat of the fire itself, only this heat is inside her, and she knows without looking up that Vita is watching her, in between conversational pauses, so, instead, she turns to her right, to Desmond MacCarthy, a man in mid-rant, who points dramatically at John Maynard-Keynes, dark eyes threaded with fine lines of bloodshot, an embroidery of failure and gin. “I trust you’ve made overtures to the fellow?” he inquires. “Suggest that he leave the premises?”
Desmond snorts a laugh through his nose and gestures with an empty glass. “Suggestions, overt, subtle, and all gradations in between, have been felicitously extended.” And John declares that he should be “throw him to the wolves,” which Virginia mishears as the waves, a thought which rolls in, and rolls back with the suddenness of yet more snorted derision from Desmond, and again, Virginia finds herself between half-heard conversation, and, whether deliberate or not, her gaze about the table wanders hand-in-hand with her mind, catches the rise of Vita’s fingers to her lips to conceal a smile that reveals, despite this glamour, grape clusters and pearl necklaces, that there is something loose fitting.
She reaches again for the wine glass, blurs the crescent moon of firelight on the table, and sips the warmth of it, and, like the waves of the sea, the wine consecrates the past in a dreamlike sheen, in memories blurred and comforting, the real and the imaginary indistinguishable in a fragmentary nocturne. For a moment she closes her eyes, imagines the bottom of the sea. Then, with a sigh, rouses herself.
Her imagination lifts up its skirts and tiptoes back to life: the clinking of glasses, the slapping of cards on the table, and the gentle murmur of a piano she had never realised was being played.
Influenced by David Bowie, Virginia Woolf and Sally Wainwright, Elinora Westfall is an Australian/British lesbian actress and writer of stage, screen, fiction, poetry and radio from the UK. Her novel, Everland has been selected for the Penguin and Random House WriteNow 2021 Editorial Programme, and her short films have been selected by Pinewood Studios & Lift-Off Sessions, Cannes Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Camden Fringe Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, while her theatre shows have been performed in London's West End and on Broadway, where she won the award for Best Monologue. Elinora's full-length short story collection, The Art of Almost, and her full-length poetry collection, Life in the Dressing Room of the Theatre, are forthcoming with Vine Leaves Press.
Ger sat at his desk in the office. It was 5:30 on a Saturday evening, and he was trying to work up the nerve to buy drugs.
It was October; the last time Ger had slept for eight consecutive hours had been mid-July. To fall asleep, he required a bare minimum of fifty-five minutes of uninterrupted silence: any sound above a given decibel threshold (the washing machine cheerfully beeping upon completing a cycle, the shutters descending on the garage around the corner, his son Conor hurling a racial slur down his headset while playing computer games) would reset the clock. He’d experimented with a couple of cans of Perlenbacher before retiring, or a mug of sweetened peppermint tea, or even (in desperation) guided meditation via a smartphone app: but even in combination, these could only shave off a few minutes at the best of times.
July was when the client had first contacted Ger’s boss, Ivor. Ger knew the client was an investment firm based in London, but the terms of the NDA were so stringent that even he only ever referred to them as “the client”. Ostensibly, the firm was merely “exploring” the possibility of relocating most their staff to Dublin, as part of a wide-ranging risk assessment. Unofficially, Ivor knew that the decision had been made and signed off less than two weeks after the June referendum: the upper management was only holding off on a public announcement until the logistics had been ironed out, at which point it would be too late for the shareholders to raise an outcry. So, as the most experienced QS in the company, it fell to Ger to plan for the construction of a new campus in the docklands, large enough to facilitate at least 700 full-time staff. Ivor had never undertaken a project of this scale before; if the company managed to complete it in time and under budget, a steady stream of big contracts would be nigh-guaranteed. It was a big “if”, though.
Thus did Ger’s “new normal” begin, in fits and starts. Eight-hour days became nine, then ten; five days in the office became six, sometimes seven; lunch hours vanished. After the first two weeks, Ger’s sleeping schedule and that of his wife Mags had become so skew that he’d started sleeping in the spare room. Within a month, the grey hairs on Ger’s scalp had doubled. His face somehow appeared gaunt and pasty from one angle, and bulging and choleric from another, while his brow settled into a perennial frown, hard and inflexible as granite. His weight boomeranged from fortnight to fortnight: there were week-long stretches in which all he could stomach was coffee and Nurofen, followed by ravenous mornings on which he’d devour three breakfast rolls in ten minutes. Interlocking matrices of tiny grazes covered his cheeks as a result of trying to shave while half-asleep.
To Ivor’s credit, he made every effort to be accommodating: opening Ger a personal expense account, keeping a taxi service on retainer if Ger was too tired to drive, circulating an office-wide memo urging staff to be considerate in the event that certain (unspecified) colleagues were not observing the usual standards of social grace or bodily hygiene. Every day, new design requests rolled in from the client, each more baroque and laden with notions than the last: specialised light fixtures to match the fluorescent characteristics of actual sunlight, motorized desks which could be used for sitting or standing as the user preferred, an in-house physiotherapy clinic so that staff would not need to leave the campus for their sessions.
“Exactly how much feckin physiotherapy do you actually need when your job is sitting at a desk all day selling shares,” Ger growled at no one in particular. “You’d think these lads had just come home from Afghanistan or something.” After nearly three months, Ger couldn’t remember the last time he’d dreamt of something other than mazes of copper wire, roll upon roll of reflective insulation, crates of responsive thermostats. He couldn’t simply leave his work in the office: even asleep, he was clocked in, on call. He’d barely seen Mags in weeks. He was buying so much paracetamol that the girl in the pharmacy had once slipped a Samaritans leaflet in the paper bag alongside his receipt. He was on first-name terms with all of the Polish security guards who had to take turns cajoling him out of the office at closing. He was having attacks of hypertension, his blood pressure was soaring, he didn’t even have time to check who was playing Anfield this weekend. Beer or red wine simply weren’t cutting the mustard to help him relax: he needed something stronger.
His first thought was going to the GP and seeing if he could wheedle a Valium prescription out of him, but Mags would be sure to find out and he didn’t fancy having that conversation. There was nothing for it but to go the illicit route. The problem was, in all his forty-eight years, Ger had never touched anything stronger than Bushmill’s (and only at Christmas). He had nothing but contempt for the spaced-out couples with prams he passed on Talbot Street, cadging coins for fictitious hostels, barely thirty teeth between them. He would read stories about “head shops” in the Sunday supplements, and tsk-tsk, and tell Mags it was “disgraceful” such loopholes could be so easily exploited. Conor might mock him for being unfamiliar with the concept of a “roach” or the “Mary Jane” double entendre, but he took a certain pride in his ignorance.
But now he found himself wanting to buy drugs, but having utterly no idea of how to go about doing so. Never mind not knowing who to ask; he didn’t even know what to ask for. Resting his elbows on a stack of printed ISO documentation, he covered his face with his hands and tried to think of the relevant terminology. “Dope”, “jenkem”, “smack”, “monkey’s eyebrow”, “elderflower extract” were the first few to come to mind. Valium was meant to help you relax, he wanted something like that; but some drugs, he was dimly aware, had the opposite effect; they made you excited, bouncing off the walls.
Well, those spaced-out couples on Talbot Street: perhaps they bought their supplies somewhere close to home? It was something to go on. He glanced at his phone: 5:40 p.m. Trying not to think about how ridiculously he was behaving, he stood up from his desk, marched hastily to the coat rack to don his blue windbreaker, and left the building. A security guard named Kostas, pushing forty with a greasy combover, was on the evening shift today, and looked positively startled to see Ger leaving before sunset.
Ger briskly made his way west along the quays, hanging a right just after George’s Dock, straining to ignore the sinewy surges in his guts: the faster he walked the less nervous he felt. Along the way, he walked past an endless parade of briefcases, greatcoats, pencil skirts, silk blouses – none of these people could help him, they looked far too decent. He might have had better luck with the occasional Brazilian student or Just Eat cyclist he crossed paths with, but decided against it: finding what he sought was going to be hard enough without trying to navigate a language barrier.
He walked up Amiens Street, then left onto Talbot Street. The understated solemnity of the Omagh monument contrasted grotesquely with the stomach-churning aromas emitting from the row of takeaway pizza shops across the road. Passing underneath the DART bridge, he noticed a woman sitting in front of the bookie’s. Her hair was matted and stringy, jagged cheekbones bulging out, skin scarcely distinguishable in tone or texture from the pavement beneath her, dried muck caked on the ends of her navy tracksuit bottoms. It was impossible to gauge whether she was twenty-three or forty-four; you’d have to cut her open and count the rings, he thought. She clasped a battered Insomnia cup in her hands. Ger approached her.
“Any spare change for a hostel pal,” she said. It wasn’t quite a question, it was devoid of any inflection at all, she was going through the motions without any expectation of a response. She didn’t even look at him, her sunken, glazed eyes fixed on a bichon frise tied to a bollard across the street, periodically barking without enthusiasm.
“Sorry love I’ve none on me,” Ger started, then stopped himself. He reached into his pocket and fished out a euro, and dropped it in her cup.
“Cheers pal, god bless,” she said in the same reedy monotone, still staring at the dog.
“You’re grand love, get some food into you,” Ger said, rubbing his wrist with his thumb. “Eh – would you mind if I asked you a question?”
“What,” she said.
“Ask you a question?”
“Would you happen to know, eh,” he began, glancing across the road and running a hand over the back of his head. “Would you happen to know anywhere I could buy some, em, some drugs.”
The word was a shibboleth, a trigger phrase finally prompting her to meet his gaze, furrowing her brow. “I don’t use drugs, I’ve never used drugs in my life, who d’you think you are casting aspersions on me, I know me rights I’ve never done anythin like that, you’re a bleedin tick-”
“No no no, c’mere, it’s not that love,” Ger said, hunkering down next to her, trying to ignore the shooting pains in his thighs. “I know you’re not on drugs, I’m only saying, as in, do you know where I could get some.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Are you a guard.”
“No I’m not,” he said, discreetly gesturing for her to lower her voice.
“You’re a bleedin copper you are, I’m not tick, I wasn’t born yesterday like. Gwan and feck off back to Store Street already-”
Abandoning the attempt, Ger shudderingly stood up. Her tirade continued as he resumed walking towards the Spire.
Half an hour later, Ger had walked all the way to Moore Street and had spent an additional six euro and thirty cents on three other panhandlers, but been met with essentially the same response from all of them. Did he really look that much like a policeman? Patchy stubble and bloodshot eyes notwithstanding, he simply looked too respectable and too old for his queries to be taken at face value: everyone heard his question and assumed there must be an angle. He could hardly blame them.
What on earth was he doing?
In a chain coffee shop, he ordered a cappuccino, then sat down on an overstuffed leather couch. He took a moment to wipe his brow on his sleeve, willing his armpits to stop sweating. His phone buzzed in his pocket, startling him so much he nearly knocked over his coffee. It was a message from Mags, asking if he could print off an essay for Conor in the office printer, as the home printer was out of toner.
He was short on time, and ideas. In resignation and feeling terribly foolish, he opened the browser on his phone and laboriously typed out “how to buy drugs” with his index finger. The search returned Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Cialis and Viagra. He frowned, and amended the search to “how to buy drugs dublin.”
Boots, McCabe’s, Adrian Dunne. He amended the search again to “how to buy illegal drugs dublin.” Finally, something promising: a website he’d never heard of called “Craigslist”, which featured dozens of posts full of alien terminology: “42O”, “Benz0$”, “Quaaludes”. Some were accompanied by photos of round clumps of some furry green substance; he suspected this might be dope, but wasn’t sure. He tapped on the first such post. The description advised him that a range of substances (“ec$tasy”, “premium Moroccan ku$h”, “#dublincocaine” and more besides) could be delivered anywhere in the city centre within two hours, and that he should contact the poster via an app called Kik. The poster’s username was xX_dota_powder_Xx.
After a full hour of embarrassment, Ger had reached his peak: the cold sweats had ceased, the palpitations gradually attenuating in intensity. At this point, no option remained but to barrel through the awkwardness to the other side. Signalling the barista for the same again, he downloaded Kik and set up a profile. When the app prompted him to fill in his personal details, he thoughtlessly entered his forename, but then stopped himself: presumably a degree of discretion would be advisable. He deleted “Ger” and replaced it with “drugbuyer2016”.
He found “xX_dota_powder_Xx” and, taking a deep breath, texted “Hello”.
Three tortuous minutes later, a response: “howiya pal what’s the story”
His right knee jiggling up and down, Ger replied, “How’s it going… I saw your ad… I want to buy some drugs”
“ha ha cool what do you need”
Ger hesitated: if this person became aware of just how ignorant Ger was, he was sure to be ripped off. Best to forestall that revelation as long as practicable. “What have you got on you?” he asked.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ive got everything pal
“got a few ounces of some banger hash in over the weekend
“few grams of ket, 30 quid a gram
“ive about 20 yokes with beamer stamps on them”
Ger was reminded of holidaying in France, arduously piecing his way through menus, looking for solitary words he recognized and hoping to infer the meaning from context, much too proud to ask the waiter for assistance. The word “hash” looked familiar – was that the same thing as dope? That sounded right. That was what people with cancer were after, to help them unwind after the chemo.
Okay, good, let’s try that.
He texted: “I see… how much for a hash?”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ha ha cool
“so the hash comes in 25 bags but the minimum order is 5 bags
“but if you buy 5 bags the fifth one is free
“so it’s a 100 quid for the whole lot pal”
Ger frowned. Was that a reasonable price? In the day job, Ger drove a hard bargain, but now found himself so far outside of his frame of reference that haggling would have been pointless. He’d had no idea drugs were so expensive: how could those spaced-out couples pushing prams afford a lifestyle this lavish?
“Okay grand, that seems fair… send me your bank details.”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ok so
“we only take payment in steam vouchers
“with bank transfers and paypal there’s a paper trail
“it’s too risky
“but they cant trace steam vouchers
“so its safer for you and me pal”
Of course, Ger thought, there was no way it could be that simple. He noticed the barista behind the counter periodically glancing over at him, apparently curious as to why he was hunched over so intently, gawping animatedly at his phone. She probably thought he was anxiously awaiting the results of an endoscopy, or disputing an insurance claim, or something similarly age-appropriate.
“Okay… sorry but where would I get a steam voucher?” he asked; surely this person was already guffawing at Ger’s ineptitude.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “grand
“go to gamestop
“before you go in take out 100 quid from a cash machine
“ask them for a 100 euro steam voucher”
Ger didn’t appreciate being bossed about by this cocky dealer, most likely less than half his age; but there was no sense in objecting. Google Maps told him there was a GameStop just around the corner, but it was already closed: the nearest open branch was in the Stephen’s Green centre, and it was closing in half an hour. He tossed a tenner on the table and raced out of the coffee shop, hailing a taxi. Just a couple of minutes after 7, he had the voucher in hand. Professing his ignorance to the sales assistant, he gathered that “Steam” was a website on which one could buy computer games and download them to one’s PC, not unlike Netflix. He sat down on a marble bench in front of the Gaiety, the only such bench not covered with a sleeping bag, and allowed himself a prolonged series of sighs. He scratched his knee (his legs were itchy from all the walking), then withdrew his phone from his pocket and texted: “Okay I’ve got the voucher… what now?”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “sound pal
“okay I can meet you in an hour
“you’ll see me in a white audi
“I know your not a timewaster but before I come out
“can you send me a pic of the card so I know you have it”
Ger dutifully took a photo of the voucher and sent it.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “deadly
“on the back of the card there’s a bit of foil
“like on a scratch card
“can you scratch it off and send me a pic of that so I can verify it?"
Ger retrieved a fifty-cent coin from his pocket (the one bit of change he hadn’t wasted this evening) and scratched off the foil to reveal a fifteen-character code. He took a photo and sent it.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “cheers pal
“let me verify that and I’ll get back to you in a minute”
A minute passed.
Ger didn’t want to seem pushy, but it had been a stressful evening, and he didn’t even know where he was supposed to be meeting this person. The music blaring from Sinnott’s bar was giving him a headache, and the two cappuccinos taken in quick succession were accelerating his heartbeat again. He unbuttoned the second button of his shirt (his armpits were positively saturated by this point), took a deep breath and then texted, “All good yeah?”
A minute passed without response.
Ger sent a couple more follow-up messages and heard nothing back.
It wasn’t until 7:30 that it dawned on him.
A quick Google search confirmed it: the fifteen-character code was all that was needed to redeem the voucher and claim the cash value.
He’d been had.
Ger growled. He punched his thigh, then the bench. He wanted to break something, dart across to the smoking area in Sinnott’s and smash a rake of empty pint glasses, but common sense prevailed. Frankly, his humiliation outweighed his fury. He’d really been so naïve as to trust a drug dealer called “xX_dota_powder_Xx”; been fool enough to entrust €100 to someone he’d never met, who for all he knew didn’t even have any drugs in their possession and was just waiting to spring traps on easy marks.
What a fabulous evening.
He was too tired to drive home, so instead he shambled over to Great George’s Street and hailed a second taxi, promising the driver a fiver if he didn’t say a word. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this ashamed of himself, but be grateful for small mercies: at least it wasn’t a public humiliation. Mags would never learn of his gullibility; the only person who knew what an arse he’d made of himself was “xX_dota_powder_Xx.”
“You’re home early pet!” Mags exclaimed when he opened the front door at twenty past eight. “Something happen?”
“Oh yeah, nothing really like,” Ger said, carefully removing his windbreaker (his back was giving him hell). “Ivor said he’d been in touch with your man in London and they’re, well, they’re happy how it’s coming on, so he said I might as well take off.”
“That’s good,” she said, brushing her curls behind her ear; she thought he didn’t know she’d been dyeing her greys. “Did you eat? There’s coddle left. We can watch some telly if you’re not too tired.”
“Yeah thanks love, I’ll have it in a bit, just need a sit down first. Could you grab us a beer?”
They sat quietly on the leather couch in the living room, holding hands as he sipped his Perlenbacher, Mags’s beloved Einaudi wafting from the soundboard. The embarrassment was starting to recede.
“Oh pet,” Mags said, startling him such that he dribbled a little beer on his shirt. “Sorry to pester you, did you print out that essay for Con?”
“Feck, sorry love, slipped my mind. He won’t need it til Monday yeah? I’ll do it for him tomorrow.”
“Where is he anyway?”
“Oh, you know,” Mags said, rolling her eyes. “Comes home from school, says hello, straight to his room.”
“Where else?” Ger said, rolling his eyes in turn.
“Yeah. He mentioned earlier that he’d won a competition or something, he got a voucher to buy some new games with. Well for some, eh? Lucky sod.”
Ger blinked. He let go of Mags’s hand, leaned forward and set his beer down on the coffee table. His nostrils flared, bile rose in his stomach.
“Lucky sod is right.”
Fionn Murray is a published writer whose short fiction has appeared in The Sunday Business Post, The Honest Ulsterman, Headstuff and Anomaly. His novel Mayfear was highly commended in the 2022 edition of the Irish Writers' Centre Novel Fair
“Your dad smoked three packs of cigarettes and gave hisself the cancer,” said the old man stinking up my office with the cheap aftershave he’d been bathing in. “Know what that makes him? It makes him a dumbass.”
The kid in the chair shrugged. He didn’t smell much better than his uncle, but at least he knew when to keep his mouth shut. Taking the old man’s bait would have only made it that much longer before we got to the part where I told them how much I was going to cost them.
“What can I do for you gentlemen today,” I asked, my tongue tripping over the ‘gentlemen’ part.
“We want you to solve a crime,” said the uncle. “That is what you do ain’t it?”
“That’s what the police do, and they’re free,” I said. “If you have a crime, you need to talk to them about it.
“We did talk to them,” he replied, pounding his dirty paw on my desk. “They said to come talk to you.”
Somebody at PD had a sense of humor and I had a pretty good idea of who. I made a note to let his wife know he wasn’t with me the next time she called me at three in the morning looking for him.
“OK,” I said. “Tell me about this crime.”
The old man leaned forward and spread open his maw to give me a good view of his shrunken gums.
“Somebody stole my teeth!” he shouted. “I had ‘em in the dish on my nightstand when I went to bed. In the morning they was gone. Wasn’t nothing but the water I was soak’n ‘em in.”
“Who else lives in the house?” I asked. “Any grandkids who might have wanted to play monster with granddad’s fangs?”
“Lunkhead here is the only other person in the house,” he said, gesturing toward his nephew. “I got stuck with him when his dad died.”
My first thought was that ‘Lunkhead’ had flushed the old man’s choppers down the toilet. I know I would have. A cursory examination of the kid told me it wasn’t likely, though. As I watched him stare at the glob of wax he’d just dug out of his ear, I decided he didn’t have that much imagination.
“I charge fifty dollars an hour, plus expenses,” I said. “You could probably get a new set of teeth for less than what it will cost me to find your old ones.”
“That ain’t the point!” the uncle screamed, making me wonder if he had a setting for low volume. “I want the thief to pay for what he did! I expect justice!”
“Justice doesn’t come cheap, pops,” I said. “I need three hundred up front. After that the meter is running until I solve the case, or you call me off.”
“I can pay,” he said, taking it like a challenge. “How’s this sit with you?”
He tossed a brick of bills on the desk that would have made a dent if he’d put some force behind it. I gave it the finger test and found it was composed mostly of hundreds.
“When can I come by to conduct a search of the premises?” I asked, sliding the wad of green into the top drawer of the desk.
“I’ll expect you to be there at six sharp,” he said, using his cane to push himself up off the chair. He seemed taller than when he’d come in, like showing off his money had somehow inflated him. “We’re at 4423 Orchard Lane. There’ll be a red Buick in the driveway.”
I nodded, and he hobbled off, pausing to dress down Lunkhead for not being quick enough with the door. The money in my desk drawer smelled like the old man, but it would spend well enough.
I got to 4423 Orchard just in time to see a blonde in a red cashmere jacket feeling her way down the ice-covered steps of the front porch. She almost made it but slipped on the bottom step. Suddenly, she was a bowling ball and I was the pins. I cleared a path for her and she slid a few feet past me before running out of ice.
“I don’t know why they don’t at least put some salt down,” she said, staring up at me. She hadn’t been outside long enough for the cold to paint her cheeks red, but they were red all the same.
“You alright?” I asked, offering her a hand. She took it and pulled herself up my arm until we ended up hugging. Once I was sure she was steady, I let go and took a step back to take her in.
She was about five foot four, with blue eyes set just a tad too wide over an upturned nose. She wasn’t making the cover of Vogue, but there was something in the smile she gave me that had me thinking of white picket fences and Sunday barbecues. She could have been a Mata Hari for all I knew, but for the moment she was June Cleaver and nobody was telling me otherwise.
“If you’re here to see Mr. Pierce, you won’t find him very congenial,” she said, brushing the snow off her legs. “I just had to collect a blood sample from him, and got a piece of his mind in the process.”
“You don’t look like a vampire.”
“I work for the insurance agency,” she responded. “Mr. Pierce just took out a new policy and I was assigned to collect his samples.”
“Lucky you,” I said. “Don’t be surprised if his blood doesn’t come back ninety percent Old Spice.” The memories that conjured up made her wince.
“My nose is still burning. Why do you want to see him, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“I’m here for the sparkling conversation,” I said, picking a dead leaf out of her hair.
She wished me luck and we went our separate ways. Hers led to a BMW that made me wonder if I was in the wrong line of work. Mine led to a set of icy stairs and the doorway to crazy town. I would have much rather gone her way. By the time I reached the top of Pierce’s death trap, clinging to a wobbly railing that would have probably come with me if I’d slipped; he was glaring at me from the doorway.
“Hurry it up,” he snarled. “You’re making me let all the heat out.”
“Nice to see you too,” I said, stepping into a house that looked like a dump and smelled like a litter box. The furniture, if it existed, was it was buried under stacks of old newspapers and broken toys. A doorless green refrigerator stood in one corner of the room, its shelves stuffed with old record albums and paperback books. A radiator, from what I guessed was a truck, sat on top under a globe spray painted yellow. One corner of the room was full of headless baby dolls.
“I guess you’ll want to look around,” Pierce said leading me through the path to what should have been the kitchen. “I don’t like people going through my stuff, but I guess it can’t be helped.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t steal anything.”
There was a table and three chairs, though one of them was full of what turned out to be old phone books. The table was piled high with junk in the middle, leaving just enough room around the edges to squeeze in a plate. The thought of anybody eating in the place made me queasy.
“Have a seat,” he commanded, kicking away some paint cans from behind one of the chairs so he could pull it out for me.
“I think I’ll stand,” I said, noting the crack in the seat.
“Suit yourself,” he said, taking the seat himself. He sat there for a minute, tapping dirty fingers on the table, and then said: “I think we should start in Irving’s room.”
“Why Irving’s room?” I asked. “Shouldn’t we start at the scene of the crime?”
“I didn’t want to say anything while he was sitting next to me,” he said, glancing toward the door and lowering his voice to what I assume he thought was a whisper, “but I suspect my nephew has something to do with this.”
“OK,” I said. “We start in Irving’s room.”
“Don’t ya even want to know why I suspect him?” he asked, disappointed I had given in so easily.
“Because he was the only other person in the house?”
“Because he hates me,” he said. “He blames me for his daddy’s death, always has. It’s all about revenge.”
“Why would he blame you for his father’s death?”
“We were both in love with a girl named Anabel, but she chose me,” he said. “This was, of course, after Irving’s mother had passed. Anyway, my brother was so distraught he killed hisself, leaving me to tend to the boy.”
“I thought you said he died of cancer,” I said.
“Yep. Suicide by cancer. He smoked hisself to death. The joke was on me though. Turns out he’d knocked up Anabel before kicking off. There was no way I was raising two of his children. I had to show her to the door.”
This had to be some kind of a set up, I thought. At any minute, somebody was going to pop out from around a corner and tell me I was on a prank show. Still, the money in my desk drawer was real enough. I decided to let it play out.
“I ran into the lady from the insurance agency on the way in,” I said. “Is Irving the beneficiary of the policy by any chance?”
“As a matter of fact he is,” Pierce said. “You don’t think that has anything to do with it, do you?”
“Not unless he thought stealing your dentures would cause you to starve to death,” I said.
I let him lead me down a hallway I had to walk sideways to get through because of the stacks of junk lining the walls. The room we ended up in smelled like stale sweat, but had obviously had a different decorator. Aside from the mattress on the floor and a dresser propped up on one side by a paperback romance novel, the room was empty. Pierce hobbled over to the mattress and lifted the corner just enough to reveal the spank mag hidden underneath.
“The boy’s a filthy pervert,” he said. “No tell’n what kind of depravity goes on in here. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found drugs.”
The old man was working hard to sell the nephew as a less than reputable character. It made me wonder what the payoff was. Maybe he just hated the kid, but more likely he hated everybody.
“What’s that doing here?” he asked, drawing my attention to a yellow box with a cartoon rat printed on the front. The big red letters near the top said whatever was in the box was supposed to kill rats and mice. Pierce snatched the box off the dresser and peered inside. From his expression I could tell he didn’t find that decoder ring he’d always wanted.
“That murdering bastard!” he exclaimed. “Take a look!”
He shoved the box at me so I could see the white and pink mixed in with the blue pellets.
“Looks like you found your dentures,” I said.
“Looks like I found a killer!” he shouted. “He was letting them absorb all that poison so he could pretend to find them later and kill me with ‘em.”
It was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was wrong. Stupid killers make stupid plans. Still, it didn’t sit right with me. There was nothing subtle about the way the old man had led me right to the dentures.
“I guess I owe you some money back,” I said. “You didn’t need me after all. You can pick up your money, minus my retainer, at your convenience. Just give me a call to let me know you’re stopping by so I can make sure I’m at the office.”
“Keep it,” he said, waving me off. “I might need you if he tries something else.”
I left him there with his rat poison and his plastic teeth, and headed back to my apartment to see if I could wash the smell off. It wasn’t just the house that stank, it was the whole set up. It was obvious Pierce had planted those dentures in Irving’s room and put on the whole show for my benefit. He didn’t hire a detective; he hired a high-priced witness. Letting me keep the money was his way of ensuring I was in the right corner. Now I just had to wait for the end of the round to find out who else was on the ticket, and the value of the purse Pierce was going for.
I didn’t have to wait long. The very next morning the voice of Glenn Kraft was coming out of my phone, pulling me out of a dream involving a certain blonde reporter, to invite me down to police headquarters to share what I knew about Irving’s homicidal tendencies. Not ready to quit the dream just yet, I called up my reporter friend to see if she wanted in on the fun. Maybe she could make more sense out of it all than I could.
Maggie was waiting for me on the curb outside of her apartment when I pulled up. I got a big kiss on the cheek as soon as she climbed in, proving dreams do sometimes come true, and we headed for the police station, breaking the seat belt laws to take full advantage of the Nova’s bench seats.
“So, what’s this all about?” she asked, breathing it into my ear while she stirred my hair with her fingers.
“I’m pretty sure one of my clients is trying to set up his nephew and wants me to play a part in the scheme,” I said. “I just haven’t figured out why yet.”
“Sure your cop friends won’t mind me tagging along?” she asked.
“Glenn Kraft is running the case,” I said. “I’ve never known Glenn to run off female company.
“I swear to God, Doverman, if you brought me along just to keep your lecherous cop pals occupied while you collect clues I’m going to put all your dirty secrets on the front page of tomorrow’s paper, print and online editions,” Maggie said, scooting far enough away to punch me on the shoulder.
“All my dirty secrets?” I asked.
“Well, maybe not all of them,” she said, returning my grin.
Despite being the one with the invite, I suddenly turned invisible as soon as we walked into the office Glenn was borrowing for our little get-together. The way he ogled Maggie you would have thought she was the first woman he’d seen after doing a twenty-year stint in solitary. I wasn’t worried though, Maggie liked her men a lot less thick and a lot less married.
“So what’s the special occasion?” I asked, letting him know I was in the room.
“We have one of your clients in ICU over at Christ’s,” he said, gesturing to two uncomfortable looking slabs of wood. Maggie and I sat. Glenn sat too, but on the corner of the desk where he had the best chance of sneaking peeks down Maggie’s blouse.
“Let me guess,” I said. “The nephew tried to kill him.”
“That’s what he claims,” Glenn said, “and he has a stab wound in the belly to back it up. The knife missed all the important parts though. The guy will be in a regular room by dinner time. He said you might have some background info, some bull about an attempted poisoning.”
I could tell by the way Glenn laid it out he had doubts. Glenn was a good cop, despite being a lousy husband. If he wasn’t taking Pierce’s story seriously, it was probably because he’d already spotted the holes in it.
“The old guy paid me to attend a production he put on,” I said. “It had set up written all over it. I assume you have the nephew in custody. What’s he got to say?”
“He says he’s innocent,” Glenn said.
“You believe him?” I asked.
“The old guy suggested the kid did it in part to get some insurance money. That would only work out for him if somebody else killed the old man, and we didn’t see any attempt to stage a break in.”
“So it all hangs on the kid being an idiot,” I said. “Like the story about the dentures, it falls apart when you consider anybody with a brain could have been behind it.”
“The kid does come across as being on the slow side,” Glenn said, “You notice the Velcro shoes? I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with him not being able to tie a knot.”
“If this guy is that dumb, wouldn’t you be able to tell if he is lying?” Maggie asked. “Could he pull off a believable denial?”
“He’s been pretty convincing,” Glenn said, discovering Maggie’s eyes for the first time. “The only thing making me wonder is the fiancée. She sounds pretty sharp.”
“Fiancée?” I asked. “What’s her story?”
“I haven’t seen her in person,” Glenn said. “She’s called several times to check on him, and hired him an attorney. Like I said, she seems pretty sharp. She asks all the right questions.”
“I’d like to meet this fiancée,” I said. “You got a name?”
“Tiffany Hughes,” Glen said, reading off a paper he picked up off the desk. She lives over in Terrace Park.
“What would a girl from Terrace Park be doing with a half wit living in a health code violation?” I said as Maggie slid up next to me in the Nova.
“I guess we’ll have to go ask her,” Maggie said. “I’m free for the rest of the day. We can make a party of it.”
“That’s the plan,” I answered, “but we have a few stops to make along the way.”
One of those stops was Christ’s hospital where Mr. Pierce had just been moved to a room on the second floor.”
“Did you tell them how he tried to kill me?” Pierce asked as soon as we were in the room. “We need to make sure he doesn’t get away with this.”
“Sure,” I said. “I told them all about it. They have a few questions though, little details they need to work out before they bring charges.”
“Like what?” Pierce roared, sitting up in the bed. “It’s a clear-cut case! Irving’s a killer!”
“He claims he was with his fiancée when you were attacked, and she’s backing him up. Is there anyway you might be mistaken about the identity of your attacker?”
“Fiancée? What fiancée?” he asked. “The only women Irving’s ever talked to are the ones in his porno magazines.”
“The boys down at PD say there is,” I said. “They say she even hired a lawyer to get him off.”
“That’s impossible!” he said, bolting up, groaning as the stitches in his gut objected to his gymnastics. He fell back onto his pillow and let out a long sigh.
“Better take it easy, Mr. Pierce,” I told him. “I’ll get to the bottom of it. Does the name Tiffany Hughes mean anything to you?”
He shook his head.
“Irving ever seem to have any extra money?” I asked. “He ever come home with new clothes or anything he shouldn’t have been able to afford?”
“All Irving’s money is in a trust fund left to him by his father,” Pierce said. “He can’t touch it.”
Maggie and I exchanged knowing glances. With Irving in jail, or possibly a mental institution, his guardian might be able to get his hands on that trust fund. Now I had a motive for the set up. Like all the rest of it, it wasn’t a good plan, but Pierce was operating on brain power just a few volts higher than his nephew’s, and he was crazy on top of it. We left him there and headed for the address in Terrace Park Glenn had provided.
The house was a Colonial style mansion. Maggie pushed some buttons on her phone and a picture of the house came up, along with the name of the owner, Roger Hughes; the date it was constructed, 1892; and its estimated value, $2,295,000. Whoever Rodger Hughes was, he had money. The groundskeeper arranging the strings of Christmas lights on the hedges out front was dressed better than I was. Parking my battered 1978 Nova in the red-brick circular drive seemed a little like littering. The grounds keeper looked up from his hedges to sneer at us like we were a couple of old rags blown onto the lawn after falling from a passing garbage truck, but he didn’t bother us. That was the job of the stern-faced giant who answered the chimes I’d set off when I pushed the gold button by the stained glass door. Red faced and stiff, he looked like a man who only breathed when he was sure nobody was looking. Maybe it was just the uniform. It couldn’t have been easy stretching the collar and bow tie around that neck.
“Can I help you?” he asked, looking down at us with an expression that said the only help he wanted to offer was directions off the property.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said, trying to sound sincere and only falling a little short. “We’d like to have a few words with Tiffany Hughes. I’m a private investigator employed by her fiancée.”
“I’m afraid you have the wrong residence,” he said. “The only Mrs. Hughes residing here is happily married to the owner of this house.”
“Maybe I have the name wrong,” I said. It wouldn’t have been the first time Glenn’s penmanship had failed me. “Do Mr. and Mrs. Hughes have a daughter?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “Good day.”
The door closed, leaving me alone with my unanswered questions. I’d turned to Maggie, ready to dazzle her with a witty quip, but she wasn’t there. It seemed she preferred the conversation of the gardener. I sulked back to the Nova and polluted my lungs with what turned out to be two cigarettes before she slid in next to me.
“Made a new friend?” I asked, putting the Nova into gear.
“I could see you weren’t getting anywhere with Lurch,” she said, taking the cigarette out of my mouth and grinding it out in the ash tray.
“The garden was my next stop,” I said. “I would have got something out of your friend.”
“You couldn’t have afforded him,” she responded. “He probably makes more than you.”
That stung a little, but I knew she was right. My wallet probably wasn’t going to open any doors for me at that place.
“So, what did your charms get us that my money wouldn’t?” I asked.
“Only that Mrs. Hughes is considerably younger than Mr. Hughes and possesses a very independent nature,” she said. “The people around there hardly ever see her. Oh, and you had the name right. It’s Tiffany.”
“That helps a little,” I said, but it doesn’t get us any closer to her.”
“He did mention she works for an insurance agency,” she said. “He couldn’t give me a name though.”
“Dial up Christ’s Hospital for me,” I said. “See if you can get Pierce on the phone.”
A few minutes later, after another unpleasant conversation with Pierce, I was having her look up the address for the Heartland Insurance Agency. It turned out they only had one office in the area, and it was right around the corner. If my hunch was right, we’d be meeting Mrs. Tiffany Hughes in about fifteen minutes.
We found her in the lobby, leaning against the front counter chatting with the receptionist. The smile she gave us did nothing to dispel my previous impression of her. She was still all puppy dogs and sunshine.
“Can I help you?” asked the woman behind the desk.
“We’re hear to speak with Mrs. Hughes,” I said, extending a hand toward everybody’s ideal housewife.
If me knowing her name rattled her, she didn’t show it. She gave my hand a polite squeeze and invited us back to her office where we settled into chairs a lot more comfortable than the ones Glenn had provided.
“What can I do for you?” she asked, showing no sign she remembered our encounter in front of Pierce’s place.
“I’d like to ask you about your fiancée,” I said. “I understand you’ve hired an attorney?”
The wholesome, good natured look faded as her blue eyes narrowed.
“How’d you find me?” She asked. “I paid the lawyer a lot of money to keep my name out of it.”
“Don’t cancel the check,” I said. “We haven’t talked to him. We didn’t need to. You probably shouldn’t have called the police station. That was sloppy.”
“I was concerned,” she said. “I needed to know Irving was alright.”
“Why?” I asked. “I know you’re not leaving your husband in Terrace Park to go live with the junk man’s nephew. Why the interest in Irving?”
“Because he’s my brother,” she said with a sigh. “Half-brother really.”
“Now it’s starting to make some sense,” I said, though from the look she gave me I’d say Maggie didn’t agree. “Your mother’s name wouldn’t happen to be Annabel would it?”
“It was,” Tiffany said. “She died when I was ten. She never got over what Pierce did to her.”
“And you decided to even the score for her,” I added. “You put the idea of framing your brother into Pierce’s head, and probably helped him set it up. I’m just not clear on what you were trying to accomplish.”
“She wanted Pierce to get caught,” Maggie said. “Pierce would get sent away, and Irving would be appointed a new guardian. Only she didn’t have enough faith in the intelligence of our boys in blue to produce the desired outcome, so she brought in the lawyer.”
“You should have had more faith in your own scheme,” I said. “Pierce’s story would have never held up. About the only flaw I can see is he could have implicated you, but that would involve admitting his guilt, and I can’t see a man like Pierce going that route.”
“He never knew my real name,” Tiffany said. “He doesn’t even know the name of this agency. All the forms he filled out were fakes.”
“Which would have meant he had no policy, and his claim Irving was out for the insurance money would fall flat. That bull about Irving wanting revenge because his dad died of cancer wasn’t going to get him anywhere to begin with.”
“So, what happens now,” Tiffany asked. “You turn me in?”
“I think we’ll just let it play out,” I said. “After all, Pierce is guilty. If for some reason it all falls apart and it looks like Irving’s going to take the fall, I’ll have to step in, but I can’t see that happening. You screwed up with that fiancée bit, but I think we can play that off.”
“I can’t thank you enough for this.” Tiffany said, reaching across the desk to grab my hand. “You probably think I’m crazy,”
“Maybe a little,” I said. “Just make sure you look after Irving. You’ve put him through hell, but I suppose it was no worse than the hell Pierce put him through on a daily basis.”
Maggie and I left her there to wonder who else might show up with questions she didn’t want to answer, and whether they’d be as understanding. The receptionist would probably be the first, judging from the way she’d asked if everything was alright as we were leaving, but Tiffany could handle her.
“So, how are you going to ‘play off’ the fiancée thing?” Maggie asked as we climbed into the Nova.
“I’ll tell Glenn she turned out to be a wealthy older woman who’d been having an affair with Irving and doesn’t want her name dragged into it. Glenn will sympathize with that. He’s been in plenty of spots like that before.”
“You made the right call,” Maggie said. “You got more heart than people give you credit for.”
“And I have enough sense to know it’s good to have friends with money. I just made one. Besides, I didn’t have time to deal with all the questions I’d have to answer if I turned her in. I have a hot date with my favorite reporter tonight.”
“Assuming that’s me,” she said. “I think that date should include dinner at Primavista’s”
Primavista’s was more upscale than the eateries I usually frequented, but I didn’t sweat it. I knew where there was a desk drawer full of money.
Lamont A. Turner's work has appeared in numerous online and print venues including Mystery Weekly, Mystery Tribune, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Dark Dossier, and other magazines, podcasts and anthologies. His short story collection, "Souls In A Blender" was released by St. Rooster Books in October 2021.
In a prison filled to the brim with rotten men, I never found anybody rottener than the warden. Any warden could beat a man’s body, especially when he’s chained up, but Warden Tobias George could beat a man’s soul.
He had a reputation for being a tricky sonofabitch, so when he announced he was expanding the prison courtyard, we waited for the catch. He had one of the walls knocked down and even though we all knew it was a trap somehow, we couldn’t help but think about making our escapes. It looked so simple. Through the wall, two hundred yards over an empty field, and then into the woods. If we made it that far, we could hide.
It wasn’t that easy, though. We had to build the wall back up ourselves, working in a chain gang. Five of us together in shifts. Backbreaking work. Stone, mortar, stone, mortar, stone. All the while, freedom taunting us.
Bull ran on the very first day. The guard in the watch tower had dozed off, and Bull thought we could make it. He had his nickname for a reason. The four of the rest of us combined couldn’t have stopped him from running. Chained together at the ankle, we had to step as a team. We made it halfway to the tree line when Cobb stumbled and fell. He tripped me, and as soon as the chain on my other leg went taut, Bull lost his balance, taking Chambers and Beckett to the ground with him. We were just getting back to our feet when the warden rode up on his horse and shot Bull between the eyes.
I was surprised there wasn’t more blood, but Chambers said if you die quick, your heart stops pumping, and that’s that.
We thought the warden would cut Bull free, have us bury him under the wall we were building. Instead, we had to work around him. Laying stones while chained to a dead man is morbid work.
We kept on through the afternoon, long after the blood on Bull’s face had cracked and turned brown. Chambers and I had to drag Bull over every so often as we made progress. Chambers had the idea to slam a stone on top of the chain and try to break it, but I thought the sound might carry up to the guard tower. Instead, I set Bull up by some of the lowest stones and let his leg hang over. I figured he didn’t need his foot anymore.
It took about ten blows with the sharp edge of the stone. Beckett and Chambers were still chained to the dead man, but Cobb and I were free. I looked up at the watchtower and didn’t see any guard at all. Maybe he was on a break. Maybe he was on his way toward us. Either way, we had to get out now. I told Cobb to run.
Only, Cobb wasn’t so keen on the idea.
He said he had some powerful enemies out there and being in prison was the only thing keeping him safe. He said he tripped on purpose earlier and he’d do it again.
I brought the stone down on his skull. He didn’t even have a chance to cry out. I don’t know if he’d died completely yet, but I picked him up, slung him over my shoulder, and took off toward the tree line, praying no one followed.
My legs were burning from the strain, so as soon as I got into some cover, I stopped to catch my breath. Then, a revolver cocked behind my head.
“You know what happens to escaped convicts?” Warden George asked.
“Get it over with,” I said. “Shoot me.”
“Don’t think I will.”
I dropped Cobb and turned to face the warden. He lowered his gun.
“I think I’ll let you go,” he said.
“Hope is a mighty powerful weapon. Why do you think I took the wall down? If I let you go, then word gets out like wildfire. Everyone’ll hope they can be the next one to break out. All those prison dogs will be looking to make a run for it too, hoping to be like you. I can shoot any that try and I’ve always got an itch on my finger. Give a man hope and you can make him do the stupidest things.”
The warden reached into his jacket and pulled out a bottle of amber liquid and a slip of paper. “If you get caught, they’ll take you right back here and that hope dies. So don’t get caught. Deliver this whiskey to this address. Tell him I sent you. He’ll get you out of town first thing in the morning.” He hopped off his horse, gave me the bottle, and unlocked my chains, leaving Cobb on the ground. “You’re a free man.”
It seemed too good to be true, but I had to take him at his word. I waited until nightfall to sneak into town so my prison clothes wouldn’t be noticed. I finally found the address after an hour of searching and knocked gently on the door. A burly man opened and blinked at me.
I proffered him the bottle and said, “Warden George sent me.”
The man looked me over from head to toe, then ushered me inside.
“Why’d he let you go?” he asked after he shut the door.
“He said it was to give the other prisoners hope.”
“Why would he want that?”
“He said hope makes people do stupid things. Wanted to shoot some who followed me.”
“I’ll be damned. I owe that sonofabitch a hundred bucks.” The man threw his head back and laughed. “He really said that about hope? He ain’t lying. He bet me he could let a convict go free and still get him to turn himself in.”
My heart dropped.
He pulled a sheriff’s badge from his pocket.
“You poor, hopeful fool. You’re under arrest.”
Matthew Pritt is the author of The Supes, published by Future House. His work has been published by Dark Recesses Press, Dread Stone Press, and Cursed Morsels, among others. He is a member of the HWA and he lives in West Virginia with his five cats. You can see pictures of them on his Twitter @MatthewTPritt.
United Talent Inc. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22732661
Conway Twitty impersonator Kirk Jensen worked the lounges. The Prospect Pike was his home base. He was so damned good that some said he must have bargained his soul. “The man injects his entire being into his Vegas worthy performance,” wrote a reviewer for The Beacon Peek, a free monthly. Jensen covered all of Conway’s tunes but didn’t open with the biggie “It’s Only Make Believe.” Fan chanting eased it out of him about halfway through a show to riotous applause. He was often teased and tested by some wise-ass screaming for an obscure number but no one could stump Jensen and that just added to the furor of more than one heckler. Who could place blame? Dates would sneak glances at him when they should have had their eyes closed, lips whispering into ears or planting kisses instead of humming along with Jensen. No disputing he was a handsome guy, 6-3 and slim, blond curly hair and full lips he often slowly licked at song pause as if sharpening his tongue to better phrase the next line. A dental tech leaked he’d spent a bundle capping his teeth. He used the microphone dramatically as a hammer, knife, or pointer to slash at a woman to make her feel chosen but only a dame new to a lounge fell for it. Jensen’s girlfriend Margo was ever on the lookout to ensure that Jensen went home with her. She was reputed to be a tough one, fists and feet. A reliable source reported that Jensen only hooked up with her because he thought she looked like Cher, with glistening black hair and front teeth that tilted inward. It was Jensen’s dream to sing duets with the star as she did with Sonny, “I Got You Babe” in particular but he was a realist. He thought Margo would do and she got off on the right foot, often dressing as Cher did in the movie Chastity, sleeveless mauve blouse and tight brown slacks. Margo held off auditioning and when she did Jensen found she couldn’t sing worth a shit but it was too late. He was in too deep. They were business partners as well as lovers. “Potty Trained” was a septic tank emptying service. The truck was pink as Pepto Bismol and the root of many a chuckle. Another joke was that Margo wasn’t built like a brick shithouse.
Mark Roland was a regular at the Lounge, music night or not. He fancied himself a songwriter. He wore a goatee and sometimes a beret. A front tooth was deadened grey. No publisher, singer or musician ever bothered to comment word one about his efforts. He managed to get what he considered his “top six” to Jensen via a one-armed bartender named Victor. Roland drifted from job to job for a purpose that was likely unique. He was depositing experience in a creativity bank. He believed that the best songs are born of hands-on doing and they could fit folk, rock or pop formats. Before this revelation, he’d been trying to get his lyrics by mixing up the clues in the daily newspaper crossword puzzle. His songs were for the blue and no collar workers everywhere he relentlessly preached so the bar stools next to him were usually empty. When he overheard someone describe him as “a piece of work,’ he took it as a compliment. Roland had been taking guitar lessons for two years but hadn’t gotten beyond strumming.
Margo returned the “big six.” She’d dug them out of the trash. She didn’t spill that news. Roland’s work ethic intrigued her. She’d been a job hopper for a good while. She told Roland about her short order cooking, construction gigs and exercising thoroughbreds at N.E. Country Fairs among others. He was amazed and certain he’d found a kindred spirit. She thought Roland was no dumbbell but he’d stumble on many primrose paths before the grave. She swore, right hand in the air that she saw promise in a couple. A landscaping song called “Balling Trees in Star Fields,” and one about driving forklifts titled, “Blades and Pallets.” “Balling is a wonderful word,” she said. Roland nodded shyly. She asked to hold onto them for a bit longer. He agreed. Roland would have fallen for Margo even if she hadn’t given him hope plus he was worried about her. Her nose was a tad off center and that signaled to Roland that Jensen had once Sunday punched her.
When Margo told Roland about the Cher connection, he imagined himself singing “What Now My Love” with her, alone and naked. He shared that, leaving out the skin part. “I Got You Babe” was a sappy piece he thought. She’d waltz with him occasionally and sexy talk parts of his two lucky songs.
Balling trees in star fields
Is a lusty phrase to choose
But a mind slips and yields
Shoveling spring earth loose
Lift man seeking sweet elevation
After a lunch of shots and chasers
Casual laborer sensing exploitation
Blades slam into pinewood spaces
Her voice carried him off the dance floor and delivered him to his brief stint at High-Green Landscaping where he often laid in a field of fir trees after busting his ass making a root ball to wrap in burlap, secured by penny nails. He associated the trees with the heavens more than Christmas. To him, each one was a triangular star point same as he drew them when he was a kid. Margo could sense his spirit was elsewhere. She’d blow in his ear. When she was treating him to the forklift lines he’d return at Crawford Glass where he’d driven one. He recalled nearly toppling it off the loading dock when distracted by a beautiful braless college girl working in the office for the summer. Five pieces of special order trapezoid-shaped glass fell and was smashed into diamonds. The college girl, Becky, held her face with both hands, and looked horrified before giving him a quick smile. She picked up two fitting pieces and held one to each ear. Roland put Margo’s head on Becky’s shoulders. After the set, he told her about the heavenly trees. She suggested “Constellation” for a title. He bought her a pair of star earrings. She offered “Spacey Pinewood” for the fork lift song. He bought her pine potpourri made in Maine.
A couple of nights later, while they were dancing to Al Martino's “Spanish Eyes,” Margo’s hand came deliciously close to his zipper. He imagined making love to her in star fields in Madrid. He wanted to feed the jukebox more quarters but she lured him to the bar offering to buy him his favorite drink, a Brandy Alexander. “A lady’s drink,” muttered Victor. She confessed she’d merged the two songs into one. She’d found an incense band called Lemons and Lippers that was interested in trying out the eight-line combination. Eight was their favorite digit. Eight Ball’s Ass was the group’s former name. She assured him they wouldn’t change a word, just include in some magical repetition for starters. She gave him their card, “Lepers” was crossed out and “Lippers” added by hand.
Balling trees in starry fields
Forker seeks higher elevation
A lusty phrase is his to choose
A lunch of shots and chasers
A mind slips and easily yields
Casual labor knows exploitation
Shoveling slim earthworms loose
Blades slam into pinewood spaces
Margo took Roland to meet the L & L group at the abandoned Cinch Tape Measure Factory that once manufactured 2-foot miniature models that companies used for promotions. The place smelled of punk sticks used to light fireworks. A light bulb flashed their music style in his head. The leader was a skinny girl maybe early twenties. She wore jeans, greasy and baggy, anchored by a rope belt. Alicka was barefoot. What looked like a daisy petal graced each toenail. She couldn’t have been more than 5 feet tall. Her hair was an off-center Mohawk. She was button-nosed and there was a red mark highlighting a piercing that must have been recent: a gold cross with claws on the vertical and horizontal ends. Her lips were canary yellow. Her eyebrows were missing. There was netting across her blouse. She wore no bra. Two lemons were embroidered above. When Margo introduced Roland, Alicka said, “No, Roll-In.” She tugged gently on his goatee. She strummed and banged her palm on her ukulele and sang “Roll-into my heart and soul, then deeper sink” about thirty times. She yelled more than sang Roland thought. She tweaked his cheek. When she caught him sneaking peeks at her breasts, she growled, “Lemon sized and proud.” Roland surprised himself by saying, “I wasn’t thinking of a defective auto.” She made Vroom noises. The drummer moved in back of her and pulled the blouse taut for an instant. He was bright-eyed and his lips were the color of mustard. He looked about 14 and his set could have come from a dumpster. The snare skin was ripped. He sat down and did a drum roll and tipped his Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap. “I’m Cloutfield,” he said. He had a high forehead and widely spaced peepers. The third member wore an egg-yolky day glow vest that looked homemade, harmonicas sticking out of 6 pockets. He stood about six-five. Tattooed on the length of his left arm was AFGHANISTAN in a striking red with a smoky gray background. What Vet would allow a color tied up with cowardice? His smile was a toothy showcase. He wore horn-rimmed glasses that lacked lenses. He blew a few train whistles. Just one yellow dot lit his fleshy upper and lower lip. He wore an engineer's cap that he removed, and spun around on a finger. His brown hair was streaked with grey. “I’m Loco-motive,” he announced. His eyebrows needed mowing. Alicka pulled a Clinch from her pocket and measured Roland’s chest and then from his belt to his crotch. “Hmm, I found a wealth of punk dimensions,” she said and they broke into the “Balling Blades” song. Margo had left the title up to them. Mark Roland was on the top of their jaundiced world. A pumpkin-hued cat named Lassie rubbed a cheek against his left shin. Alicka put on a cape of the same color.
Day after he was introduced to the L&L group, Roland picked up his ratty, pale blue, acne rusted VW Bug at Sheehan’s garage and put twenty bucks down on the valve job it sorely needed. Sheehan did his usual cursing, “Goddam Nazi cars!” Roland’s new job was at a refrigeration plant where Supermarkets stored hams and turkeys in preparation for holiday demand. It took about twenty minutes to realize he’d made a big mistake. He was freezing his ass off. He should have bought some long underwear. During coffee breaks he managed to write down some song lines. It was a chore to keep a steady pen. He wished they’d put him on a forklift to get some heat under his butt but a beginner pushed a broom. There might have been a longer eight hours in his life but they were beyond recall. He turned on the heat in his VW even though it was unseasonably hot and exhaust fumes accompanied the warmth. They provided a mini-buzz. The traffic was terrible. Finally home he used a heating pad to thaw. He drank tea so hot it burned his mouth. It took a couple of hours to decipher the lyrics but he did and he loved them. He managed to type them out on his ancient Smith-Corona.
Mid-August and I’m as cold
As a stiff Butterball turkey
And lately I’ve been told
I better get more perky
Think poultry avalanche
Tons of gobblers dropping
Not a ghost of a chance
News reports eye popping
Roland couldn’t sleep fantasizing about his new words and hoping Margo and the Lemons would dig them as written and maybe not jumble them like the others but that would be okay too. When daylight came he vowed no more Arctic job and slumber came. He slept the day away, rising at seven. He took a shower and wished the water was hotter. He’d complained but never a change. He opened a can of beef stew and gobbled it up. He had to pick some green spots off three slices of stale rye bread. He called two mushy bananas his dessert.
Margo spent the night at the bus station. A sailor laced her black coffee with vodka. He told her stories about Naples and Barcelona. He was stationed on an aircraft carrier. He made two weak passes. Margo slapped his face softly as a mother might a misbehaving child the first time then balled up her fist. He bowed and gave her the pint and its inch of remains when his bus arrived. She let him kiss her hand. Tequila smashed Jensen had accused Margo of cheating on him with Roland. She believed he was just looking for an excuse to dump her. She laughed so hard a rib hurt and shouted, “Little you know, Shitturd!” He assured her there was nothing in writing about their partnership; she had no monetary claim. He took a swing at her that she blocked as a prizefighter would. She kicked him in the gut using a cool karate move. He fell over a hassock and landed tangled on the couch. He was down for the count. She knew where he kept his greedy stash. She grabbed the $1,500 she’d put into the business. She split, and watched from behind a bush across the street as he threw all her belongings on the weedy lawn. His tipsy and wounded state produced slapstick! She viewed a lineup in her head trying to ID what dame would replace her.
It took Roland five minutes to start the VW. He feared battery death. It finally turned over with a couple of triumphant backfires that sounded like cherry bombs. He took it easy, playing the gas pedal at every stop to keep from stalling. Damned if he was going to chance turning on the heat. Feeling like a fool, he put a threadbare blue beach blanket he kept in the back seat over his legs as if he was in an old west stagecoach. Jensen and Margo were missing at the Prospect and two other lounges he checked. He kept the car running as he popped in and out. It didn’t fail him and who would steal it? Margo had given him the address of the small house she and Jensen rented. He didn’t remember why. It was in a rundown area of course. The shit truck was pink as a flamingo thought Roland. No doubt, it would have caused a revolt or mass evacuation in a neighborhood any better. No lights in the windows, His one headlight found a colorful littering of the lawn as if an outdoor rummage sale had been hit by sneaky gusts. Two dogs showed up. One wore a pink spiked collar. Roland thought that feature could make the gentlest of canines a flesh ripping menace. They might have been some kind of Doberman mix. He headed for Cinch where he found Margo, blanket wrapped around her, hair a mess and face shining with tears, sitting on a pallet with Alicka who was wearing a tiger-striped bikini bra and tight, honey-colored corduroys. Margo looked up and managed a smile. She stood. It was the first time Roland had seen her dressed entirely in black. Well, her sneakers were gold. Alicka bounced up and snapped her fingers in front of Roland’s face. “Your putt-putt announced your arrival sweet Roll-in. Sell it for whatever you can get. You’ll be taking a trip with us at dawn.” Roland’s jaw dropped. “Don’t worry Margo’s coming too.” Margo stood up and walked to him. She took his hands in hers. Cloutfield clicked on a boom-box. Roland and Margo lip-synced “What Now My Love.” Each member of the band made a hand to throat gag motion. Roland kissed Margo and found something metal on her tongue. He pulled away quickly. She winked at him. She told him about her tangle with Jensen and the lawn décor.
Roland drove Margo to retrieve her clothes. On the way, she asked if he could live with the replica of the planet Venus living in her mouth. “Might get one myself,” he said. “Get a magnetized version,” she suggested. The houses on the street were dark, all but one streetlight dead. Jensen’s Cadillac wasn’t in the driveway. The dogs dashed from under the truck barking and growling quickly up on hind legs scratching on the passenger door. “What the hell are we going to do about them?” said Roland, voice quaking. She opened the door and the dogs were all over her. In a flash she was on all-fours with them. They were named Hello and Darlin’. “Of course,” thought Roland. He cautiously exited. Margo was petting, hugging and kissing them. She removed the spiked collar. “That Son-of-a-Bitch,” she said. “I’ve thrown away a half dozen of these. She called Roland over. He slowly approached. “Look at the sky Mark, Venus.” She held the collar across his neck. “No spikes on us,” she said. “Hope never,” replied Roland. She introduced him to the dogs, showed him their sweet spots. His only pet had been a white mouse named Velveeta. He shied away from slobbery kissing. The dogs waited patiently as Margo and Roland gathered her clothing. She left all the lingerie to him, instructed how to fold. She stretched a thong on his across his face. “Hi-Yo Saliva,” she cried. He neighed.
They stuffed the VW as if doing a charitable trip to a Laundromat for a needy neighborhood. Darlin’ suddenly broke away and returned with a yellow vibrator. Margo poked Roland a few times with it all the time laughing like a maniac. He couldn’t help joining in. She slipped it into her back pocket. They succeeded in clearing the lawn. Before a tearful farewell to her pals, she lodged the spiked collar under one of the Potty tires. The dogs sat like statues as if this were not the first Margo parting experience. On the way to the VW, she took the vibrator from her pocket and threw it at the house. It was a star QB toss. A pane of glass broke. Margo yelled “Fuck Yourself, Shitty” and once more without the comma. Roland assured Margo that Jensen would certainly have the means. Margo laughed and said, “Don’t be a dildo Mark Roland.” She smirked and slipped a stick of Juicy Fruit gum in and out of her mouth before breaking it and giving half to him. He actually left some rubber taking off. Roland was relieved that she didn’t want to take the canines. He imagined them Velcro pawed to the roof .There wasn’t room enough for a Chihuahua. Clothes were on Roland’s lap from lap to halfway up the steering wheel. Margo was cradling more than that.
They spent the night together at Roland’s furnished one-room studio apartment. After unloading the VW, they peeled each other’s souls and his hands weren’t holding lemons: “What now?” needed no reply. He traced her Cher teeth with his tongue and then a finger. “Do you have orthodontist dreams?” she asked. “No, just to be your toothpaste and floss,” he said. He kissed her. She softly bit his tongue and then made gargling sounds. She wrapped her legs around him in a manner that had him wondering if wrestling were on her resume. “Are we a team, 100%?” she asked. “1000,” he responded. She used his chest for a pillow. He strummed his thumb on her hipbone whenever he awakened. In the morning she reported she dreamed of a medieval lute. They showered together. Roland recalled his short stay washing cars. He detailed her and she caught on and returned the service. They made love standing and sitting. “We’re flying,” said Roland to Margo’s delight. “We’re under Niagara Falls,” she said and asked if he’d ever been there. He had not. “You’ll see them, The Gateway Arch, Hoover Dam and more and more.” They stood on tiptoes to get closer to the showerhead. They toweled each other off as if they were top of the line Jaguars. Before going out to shop for duffel bags at an army surplus, Margo read his refrigeration lines. “We’ll see kiddo,” she said. That was not what Roland wanted to hear. After they purchased their luggage, Margo said she needed a drink. At Star Liquors she bought a fifth of vodka. Roland ran into a convenience store for orange juice. When he showed it to Margo, she said “Sissy.”
Margo was very fastidious about packing here clothes. She had a hell of a time deciding what items would be dropped in a Goodwill Box. Swigs of the booze made it easier. All the high heels except a pair of red skyscrapers were history. She’d survive with flats and a pair of zippered ankle boots. Roland wished she’d ditch the gold sneakers but she put them in a plastic bag as if they were special. She kept eight of the t-shirts with college names on them. Yale and Notre Dame were among them and three pairs of jeans. Roland sipped his screwdriver enjoying her picking method. She filled two of the duffels. What took the longest to situate were her two sets of Cher Chastity outfits. She hugged each one and rubbed her cheek against them like a cat would do a leg. Roland thought of Lassie marking him. She kept 3 turtlenecks, a jean jacket and a hooded sweatshirt with a Celtic cross on its back. His clothing consisted of work clothes he’d failed to return to jobs he’d quit, two jackets green and blue. His last name was sewn over the shirt pockets instead of just his first. He wouldn’t abandon his favorite Levi’s that he’d had for ten years. He’d lost his virginity with them down around his knees. His one dress shirt had never left its plastic bag. It was a blue Oxford weave button down. His sole necktie was black with musical notes on it. Adding his underwear, socks three berets and a couple of bandanas he filled just ¾ of his bag. His only shoes were his steeled-toed Wal-Mart brand. All that was left to lug was the guitar and a backpack full of song notebooks, photos of his mother, stepfather, actress Audrey Hepburn and toiletries; a small transistor radio, a wind-up alarm clock and a book for beginning guitarists by Burl Ives. He almost forgot his baseball cards, all of the 1954 Red Sox. They were reproductions. He started to lift his typewriter but she stopped him. “You won’t need that,” she said. “You’re in for an upgrade that will make your head spin.” Roland’s eyes welled up. Was he doing the right thing? A Twitty line dawned on him, “You rule my very soul.” Margo got a laugh when he put on his baseball cap, an upside-down question mark where a team or company logo usually lands. “Looks like a meat hook those turkeys and hams were once familiar with,” she joked. They dropped off their luggage at the Cinch. The heavy door was unlocked but the Lemons weren’t there which gave them cause to worry. Margo had faith.
He sold the VW to a shade tree mechanic intent on building an electric powered Bug fleet. That made the loss of apartment security easier to take. They walked to nearby Joy Young’s, shared a pu pu platter and nursed it until nearly dark, then took a cab back to the factory. Roland’s fingers were crossed tightly like a man foolish enough to take a Super Glue dare. Margo kept a jumpy hand on his restless thigh. Roland breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted a light in the partly opened door. Margo kissed his fingers free. The cab driver told them to be careful. “This ain’t Beverly Hills.” Margo wanted to help with the luggage but Roland insisted on lugging it all. “My stud pack horse,” she teased. “More a mule,” he said. The Lemons and Lippers were sitting on pallets in a corner. A dinged, dimpled and dented black Chevy van greeted them. Had it been parked outside a pellet gun rally? A yellow “Knup” was lettered on one side of the vehicle. It was upside down on the other. The pot aroma was strong enough to provide a contact high for every fan at a sold-out Ramones concert Margo thought and then she recalled fans of that group went for speed and cheap beer. “Welcome ‘What Nows’,” shouted Alicka from a pallet in the corner. “Hey, Roll-in, what the hell’s your name doing on your jacket? Are you here to fix the A/C? “ “I’m at your service,” Roland answered. He saluted. “You certainly will be,” she said, picking up his left hand and kissing it. She was wearing a black kimono decorated with sunflowers. Her lips were a shade of yellow that brought goldenrod to mind. Loco was sitting on the floor, eyes closed, back of hands-on knees in a yoga pose. He was dressed in black, four rows of military ribbons pinned to his chest. His shoes were either spit-shined or patent leather. They sparkled. Cloutfield wore a gray blazer, bowtie, corn yellow shirt, and a chauffeur’s cap. He strapped the duffels to the van roof. Margo instructed Roland to open the side slider door. She flipped her hair into a ponytail something Roland had never seen her do. The crew marched around the van like soldiers before entering. Lassie was in step with them, mouse in mouth. Cloutfield was the driver of course. Roland closed the slider and got in the passenger door. There was no seat. The dome light was dim. Roland crawled into the back, and sat next to Margo. She wouldn’t take his hand. She kept her eyes on Loco who’d returned to his yoga pose. Alicka lit a punk stick and was spelling something in the air with it. “This will be the wildest and most inspirational night of your life, Roll-in,” she guaranteed.
Wherever they were headed it took about twenty minutes to get there. It felt to Roland that they were going around in circles. When the van stopped, Margo duck-walked to a handle she hit to open a square panel. Roland wondered if the van had once been an ice cream truck. Alicka unzipped a canvas case and gently removed a rifle that didn’t remind him of his childhood BB gun. It looked like it could down a tank. Roland figured the extension was a silencer. Loco stuck the barrel into the night and eyed the scope. There were ten or twelve pops. Loco saluted. Alicka ordered Roland to look out the window. Margo gripped her hand on the back of his neck for three or four minutes; forehead against metal. He thought of a mischievous child forcing a big hunk of Play-Doh through a door’s mailbox slot. Alicka lived up to her name and tongued his ear. Cloutfield held a strong searchlight on the truck. Its armor wasn’t strong enough. Shit gravy seeped out the bullet holes. Roland had a coughing fit when released. Loco handed the weapon to Margo who passed it to Alicka. He dropped into his yoga pose and cried. Roland figured he’d had an Afghan War flashback. Cloutfield drove away slowly but soon hit the gas. They were tossed about like poorly packed hams and turkeys. Margo was hugging Loco.
An hour or so later they stopped. “Exit stage ridiculous,” shouted Alicka. Loco was over his distress. He played “The Star-Spangled Banner” alternating two harmonicas. Cloutfield carried Alicka’s ukulele and a bongo from his poverty-stricken set. Alicka yelled, “Cesspool” and they played and sang the most outrageous version of Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” ever imagined, scattered with profanity. Margo sang too and Jensen was right about her croaky monotone but it had matching company. When they finished a coyote was howling and geese were honking. More fakery kicked in. Margo fetched two yard-long stiff rolls from the van. Roland and Loco helped her pull away some cellophane strips covering a sticky substance. The side of the van now read “Sanctuary Gospel Singers” over a yellow cross.” The same drill for the other side but that one named them the “Ever Praising Gospel Trio.” The next musical selection was Roland’s frigid song but insanely backward to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”
dna eye snot
dloc sa m’I dna tsuguA-
dim yekrut llabrettub ffits a sa
dlot neeb ev’I yletal dna
ykrep erom teg retteb I
ehcnalava yrtluop kniht
gnippord srelbbog fo snot
ecnahc a fo tsohg a ton
gnippop eye stroper swen
It was a miracle that Roland could identify it as his own work. He shouted out, “Mid-August, and I’m as stiff.” Cloutfield pronounced him dyslectic. Back in the van and on the highway both Margo and Alicka sat down in front of Roland. “You had a good look at that punctured shit buggy, right Roland?” said Margo. He answered “fantastic” view,” sarcastically wondering what she was driving at. Alicka chimed in. “You're going to write the best song ever about that historic event, aren’t you?” Roland swallowed hard then with a cracking voice said, “I don’t think I can. It’s got to be something I worked at. I’ve told you my method. I’d have to have pulled the trigger. It would have to be my job.” Alicka looked sharply at Loco, beckoned with a head jerk. “Say what?” he shouted. Margo added her two cents. “You’re going to work it out Marky, believe it.” Margo had never addressed him that way. “Ditto,” added Cloutfield. “You can work it out” sang the band like an Un-Fab 3. Loco placed the silencer against Roland’s temple. Lassie showed her teeth. Roland closed his eyes and saw flashing black and white squares and he thought of his song writing crossword days. Three answers flashed, “SOS,” “Mayday” and “Alas.” He mumbled the last one so goddamned mournfully.
Thomas M. McDade is a 76-year-old resident of Fredericksburg, VA, previously CT & RI. He is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT. McDade was twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Dam Neck Virginia Beach, VA, and at sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE / FF-1091).
"American Aerial Cruise Lines service to Seattle is now boarding,” said the PA system. Silence followed. The usual hustling, queuing, and shuffling were missing. American Aerial Cruise Lines' boarding process was usually tranquil. The Line flew from a private aerodrome with one gate. Seventeen passengers waited to board.
American Aerial Cruise Lines operated a fleet of a dozen blimps. Each blimp accommodated twenty-four passengers. The blimps offered quiet, gentle trips along scenic routes. Blimps cruised the front range of the Rockies, the Great Lakes, the Hudson River, and the Pacific coast.
Captain Jonathon McLeish stood at the head of the gangway with his first officer, Marie Gupta, waiting to greet their passengers. McLeish was a former Navy pilot. Gupta came from commercial aviation.
McLeish and Gupta greeted their passengers by name. Most received the same greeting, "Welcome aboard American Aerial Cruise Lines. Please, verify all your luggage is in your stateroom. Join us for the mandatory safety briefing in the lounge before departure."
On every cruise, some passengers needed special attention starting when they boarded. This cruise was no exception.
Ramon Trudeau, and his wife Cleo, needed special attention. Cleo was pregnant and rode in a wheelchair. Trudeau pushed his wife's wheelchair. The chair was laden with medical equipment. The Trudeaus were heading for a specialist in Seattle. They booked passage for the blimp's quiet and absence of stress. The blimp could cater to her needs. She needed to soak her feet in a mineral solution every three hours. Three five-gallon bottles of mineral solution were in their cabin as well as extra towels.
Ramon Trudeau must be a dedicated husband, Gupta thought. We're not cheap.
There was one business traveler Gaia Alexius. She was a speaker at a climate change conference next week. She thought she was important. She chose to travel by blimp for ecological reasons.
The final passengers needing attention were a honeymoon couple, Harrison, and Juliet Funar. They planned to spend their honeymoon backpacking in the Cascades. The aerial cruise was a surprise wedding present. "Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Funar," McLeish began. "I hope you enjoy your cruise. Please, ensure all your luggage is in your stateroom. You must attend the safety briefing in the lounge. We don't want to interrupt anything," McLeish said. Harrison Funar smiled. Juliet Funar blushed.
Wonder how many trays they're going to order? McLeish thought.
The passengers congregated in the lounge.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with American Aerial Cruise Lines. Welcome aboard the airship Volans," the captain began. "I will be brief. This meeting takes the place of the demonstration of the seat belts you have on the airlines. We do have seat belts. Please, use them, when directed."
"There is a rail around your beds for the same reason. A curtain pulls down on the open side of the bed to serve as a seat belt. We recommend you use it."
"In case of an emergency, you will find a life jacket at the back of your closet. Emergency exits at the front and rear of the airship and in the lounge."
"We recommend you open windows in your cabin for ventilation. We do have the ability to close all windows remotely. Please, do not rest anything in an open window. Occasionally, we hit a rain squall and close the windows."
"Our estimated flight time to Seattle is thirty-six hours. We will probably be cruising at about five hundred feet and thirty-five miles an hour. We will serve breakfast as soon as I turn off the seatbelt sign. Have a nice flight."
McLeish found Gupta already on the bridge. They ran through the preflight checklist as the blimp moved out of the hangar.
"Checklist complete, captain," Gupta reported.
McLeish opened the PA system. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are ready to depart. Please, have your seatbelts fastened."
A blimp's take-off lacks the drama of an airplane's take-off. The blimp is released from the mooring mast and begins to rise. The six engines channeled their thrust upward. The blimp floats away. Upon reaching cruising altitude, the engines switch to drive the blimp forward. The captain keyed his mike, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are at our cruising altitude. Feel free to move about the ship and enjoy your breakfast."
The captain turned to his first officer, "Marie, get some breakfast and some sleep. See you in six hours."
"Sounds good," she replied as she left the cabin.
The weather was clear. The forecast called for mild winds. NASA said an asteroid would pass beyond the moon sometime tonight. A calm flight is in the offing, he thought. The asteroid could be an interesting nonevent. Hope the stewards get the breakfast trays here soon.
Once aloft, the Trudeaus went to their cabin to allow Mrs. Trudeau to rest. Stewards brought breakfast trays to the bridge. The Funars headed for their cabin after a hasty breakfast. They requested lunch trays. The other passengers spent the day getting acquainted, watching the ships and dolphins, playing cards, and reading. The flight was calm.
At six PM, Captain McLeish sat down at the captain's table. Six people asked to dine with him. Gaia Alexius was seated across from the captain. A retired couple, John and Margot Bucur, were to the captain's right. A pair of travel authors, Petr and Olivia Majerczyk, sat to the captain's left. Henry Gaiser, an EMT, completed the table. Tonight, as on most nights, the conversation went to unusual places.
As they were served, Ms. Alexius directed the conversation to an unexpected direction. "Captain," she asked, "why doesn't the airship have electric motors? Electric motors are better for the environment."
"The company did consider electric motors but chose not to use them," McLeish began.
"Don't they care about the environment?" Ms. Alexius demanded.
"We care about our passengers," McLeish began. "Our tickets are pricey. The space required for batteries would eliminate half the staterooms and double ticket prices. The diesel engines let us turn a ship around more rapidly. Another crew is waiting for us in Seattle. They will sail the next morning after we arrive. Batteries could not recharge that fast."
"The environment should come before profits."
"There are regular sail-only charters between San Diego and Seattle. Why aren't you sailing with them?" McLeish asked.
"They cost too much and couldn't get me there in time," Gaia replied.
McLeish let the matter drop.
Gaiser jumped into the void, "Why the seven AM departure, captain?"
"We want to pass San Francisco after dark. The lights of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge are beautiful. It takes fourteen hours to get from San Diego to San Francisco."
"Makes sense, I suppose," Gaiser said.
"I saw something in the papers about an asteroid," Mrs. Bucur said. "Do you think we will see it?"
"Maybe," McLeish replied. "I don't remember seeing when the asteroid would be visible."
"I hope we get lucky," Mrs. Bucur replied.
The conversation drifted through multiple alleys.
At seven PM, the captain thanked his guests for their company. He excused himself. He was due on the bridge.
Marie Gupta watched McLeish come into the bridge. "I've had a quiet watch, Jonathon. Let's see you keep it up," she said with a smile.
"I'll do my best, Marie," he replied. "Go get some supper and some sleep."
McLeish, Nigel Brockton the copilot, and Nancy Ledesma the engineer/navigator settled into their watch. They reached San Francisco Bay shortly after dark. The lights were outstanding.
The next two hours were uneventful. Then Ledesma asked intensely, "Captain is that the asteroid NASA mentioned dead ahead?"
A red streak appeared in the sky. It was falling fast.
McLeish did answer her question. "Hard aport!" he ordered. "Engines to full power. Come about to a southwest heading. Close the windows and put on the seat belt light."
"What's happening?" Brockton asked as he complied.
"I think NASA was wrong about that asteroid. The red streak looks like a meteor. I don't want to be there when it hits. I hope it burns up," McLeish replied. "Hang on."
McLeish's hope went unrealized. Brockton barely brought the Volans' nose around as the meteor slammed into the cliffs on the shore. A loud explosion followed. The explosion sent a shock wave in all directions. The Volans, being lighter than air, was pushed like a leaf in the wind.
"Keep the nose up!" McLeish ordered.
"Aye, sir," Brockton responded as he fought the controls.
"Try and keep her between five hundred and a thousand feet. Don't be worried about the heading if we don't get turned around," McLeish ordered.
The airship bucked like a bronco. The passengers would later agree if their experience could make a good theme park ride. No one was sure how long the shock wave drove them or at what speed. The designers of the Volans did a good job, and the airship rode the shock wave.
When the winds settled, McLeish turned to Brockton, "What's our heading?"
"Our heading is 220 degrees, sir," Brockton replied.
"We want to head due west. Engines to one-third power," McLeish ordered.
"Due west, sir?" That makes no sense. He wants to go further off course, Brockton wondered.
"I know what you're thinking. We don't know what is happening on shore. I want to assess our situation before we turn east. We know we don't want to go south," McLeish explained.
"Aye, aye, sir," the copilot answered.
The captain keyed his mike, "Ladies and gentlemen, I believe a meteor struck the cliffs to our east, creating a shock wave. We just rode the wave. We are in no danger. My crew and I are assessing our situation. I will be in the lounge in about a half hour to explain our situation. Officers to the bridge."
McLeish turned to his engineer, Nancy Ledesma, "What's our status?" he asked.
Before Ledesma could answer, Marie Gupta entered the bridge.
"Just a minute, Nancy," McLeish said. "Marie, how are the passengers?"
"Shaken up," she replied. "Not everyone got on their seatbelt. I don't think we have any serious injuries. Mr. Gaiser attended to the passengers as best he could."
"Good," he replied. He turned back to his engineer, "Sorry for the interruption, Nancy. What's our status?"
"I am still checking systems. This what I know," Ledesma began. "The pressure in all the gas bags is normal. The engines are all running fine. The impact threw dust in the air. Our radar just shows snow. Hopefully nothing will get fouled flying through it. Now the bad news. The shock wave had an electromagnetic wave with it. I don't know how much equipment it impacted. The GPS isn't working. Either I do not get a signal, or the response makes no sense."
"What do you mean makes no sense?" Gupta inquired.
"We've got a reading that says we're off Japan. I don't think we went through some time warp like the movies," the engineer said. "I can't pick up anything on the radio. I don't if it's our equipment or whether the California stations knocked off the air."
"How would the meteor knock stations off the air?" the captain asked.
"The meteor, probably not. Remember the meteor impacted in California? We don't know what fault lines triggered. I would expect earthquakes which could silence stations."
"Anything else?" the captain asked. If that is not enough, he thought.
"We don't know what time it is. Our timepieces are electronic. The ones I've checked showed very different times."
By the time Ms. Ledesma finished, the other officers had reached the bridge. The captain asked her for a recap for the sake of the other officers.
After a pause, Marie Gupta asked, "What now, captain?"
"We need to ensure the integrity of the ship. I want riggers monitoring the gas bags. They are to report to the bridge by the house phone every half hour, more often if they find a problem," McLeish began trying to sound confident.
McLeish turned to the purser, Samuel O'Grady, "Add Mr. Gaiser to the crew's manifest. He might as well get paid. Inspect every cabin and check for damage. We must know the walls are sound. Note any damage. Drinks are on the house for the next hour. We will offer the midnight buffet if the kitchen is functional."
"I need the engineers to do everything to make radio contact with someone. "
He paused and pulled out a pocket watch, "This is my grandfather's pocket chronometer. I carry it as a token, but it is accurate. According to it, the time is now 2307 hours. We will use that as ship's time. Set your timepieces."
McLeish instructed both copilots. "Brockton, you and Vargas, staff the bridge. Keep steady on our current heading."
Turning to his assembled officers, McLeish asked, "Any questions?" There were none.
He continued, "Gupta and O'Grady, organize our efforts. We don't know when we can go back to normal watches. I am going to the lounge. I need the plan when I get back."
McLeish headed for the lounge.
McLeish found chaos in the lounge. The bartender was trying to keep order. McLeish jumped up on the bar.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please be quiet so I can tell you what we know," McLeish began.
A babble of questions and demands assaulted the captain. He waited a minute and raised his hands.
"Take a seat and be quiet, please. I can't answer twenty questions at once. You will have a chance to ask questions."
The crowd found seats. McLeish met multiple intense expressions.
"Let me begin by assuring you that we are safe. The ship has not sustained structural
damage. We are inspecting all cabins and the airbags. You will hear people walking above your head tonight," the captain began.
He continued, "We think a meteor hit the cliffs east of us. We did not have time to warn you. We turned the ship's bow away from the shore to protect the ship and yourselves. The meteor generated a shock wave. The shock wave drove us out to sea. The shock wave messed with our electronics. Our GPS is not working. We have lost radio contact. My crew will be working through the night to re-establish communications."
He paused for a minute before continuing. "Let me expand on my comment about our safety. We can stay aloft indefinitely as the gas bags are intact.
"We have three limitations: food, water, and fuel. We need to conserve all three. "
"We left San Diego with enough food for one week under normal conditions. We will serve a midnight buffet tonight. A normal breakfast will be available tomorrow morning. We will reevaluate our approach tomorrow."
"We started with enough fuel for a week at our normal cruising speed, longer if we slow down."
"Water is the most problematic. Our recycling facilities are limited. We recycle water from wash basins and showers, not from toilets. To conserve water, we are suspending the laundry service. You will have to make do with the towels you have. Showers will only be available between seven and eight AM and eight and nine PM."
"Finally, I doubt any of you has compared timepieces. If they are electronic, they are probably wrong," the captain paused and extracted his chronometer from his vest. "I am holding a pocket chronometer. I believe its reading is accurate. We are using this as ship's time. If you want to reset your timepiece, the time is now 11:37 PM."
McLeish waited as some people reset their watches. This will get ugly, he thought.
"I will now try to answer your questions. One at a time, please."
Petr Majerczyk's hand shot up first, "If the GPS is down and we are off course, how will we get back on course?"
"Good question, Mr. Majerczyk," McLeish began. "We have options. The best-case scenario is the GPS starts working. Failing that, we have a sextant on board. If we can see the sun, I can calculate our position. We plan to turn north in about a half-hour. We will cross the shipping routes for Portland and Seattle. We can hail a ship and ask for their position. If the ship is heading for Seattle, we'll follow the ship."
Another hand shot up, "If we're going to turn north, what direction are we heading now?"
"We turned southwest to minimize the damage from the shock wave. We are currently heading due west at about fifteen miles an hour. We don't need to go any further south," the captain replied.
"Why aren't we just heading back toward shore?" demanded Ms. Alexius.
"We don't know what is happening on shore. We must pass the meteor's impact sight. If it's throwing rocks, we want to stay away," the captain answered. Ms. Alexis' expression showed she wasn't satisfied.
"When will we get to Seattle?" came a question from the back.
"I don't know. We have lost at least two hours. We are out to sea and must make up that distance. We were nineteen hours out of San Diego when the meteor hit. It will probably be at least another twenty hours to Seattle, maybe more."
"Why not head back to San Diego?" John Bucur asked.
"We were past the point of no return when the meteor hit. I presume we still are," the captain replied.
"When can we open the windows?" a voice demanded.
"I don't know. The meteor kicked tons of dust into the air. Until the skies clear, the windows will stay closed."
"Was this the work of space aliens?" asked a younger voice.
"I doubt it. Even if it was space aliens, they haven't tried to board us," the captain replied, trying not to laugh.
A crew member handed McLeish a note. "I have just been informed the crew finished checking the cabins. We have no structural damage. The shock wave tossed people's belongings about. If something of yours broke, take a picture so the company can make good the damage. The rear observation deck is closed for the rest of the trip. The shock wave cracked the plexiglass. Are there any other questions?"
The captain was met by sour expressions and shaking heads, but no questions.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Either I or first officer Gupta will be at breakfast to answer questions. Is Mr. Gaiser in the lounge?" Gaiser's hand shot up. "Could I speak to you for a moment before I return to the bridge?"
Gaiser approached the captain. "Mr. Gaiser, thank you for caring for passengers. Mostly bumps and bruises?" the captain began.
"You are welcome. You are right about the injuries. We may have a few sprained wrists," the EMT replied.
"I added you to the crew roster. So, you will be paid. We may not be out of the woods yet," McLeish continued, "I'll talk to the purser about where we slot you."
"I appreciate that captain. Thank you. Just so you know, I was an Army medic before I became an EMT," the EMT replied.
McLeish entered the bridge. "What is our status?" he demanded.
O'Grady responded first. "I sent that note to the lounge. We are still checking the kitchen equipment. The refrigerators and freezers are working. We are checking the stoves."
"Very good. Do we have a bullhorn, and an air horn, on board?" McLeish replied.
"Maybe. I will check, sir," the purser responded. Why would he want those things? O'Grady wondered.
"Ms. Gupta, status, please."
"Captain, we have full control of the ship. The airbags are fully pressurized. We checked with mechanical gauges. Our heading is due west," the first officer responded. "Mr. O'Grady and I have worked out six-hour watches to monitor the ship, especially the airbags."
"Very good. Can we see the surface of the ocean?" he replied.
"Ms. Ledesma, status, please."
"Captain, we have run self-checks and diagnostics on the equipment. The equipment passes. The GPS still is not working. We cannot pick up anything on the radio," the engineer replied.
"Very good. Everyone, thank you for your work. At 2400 hours, ship's time, we'll turn due north at the current speed. We need to post lookouts at first light. We need to hail any boat or ship we find. Hopefully, we can get a good heading. We need to implement our plan," the captain said.
Turning to the first officer, he said, "Marie, which one of us sleeps first? Whoever takes the first watch has to answer questions at breakfast."
The first officer laughed, "If that's my choice, I'll get some sleep."
The night passed slowly. Visibility was restricted by the falling dust. Ledesma kept trying the radio and GPS with the same result. The lookouts reported shortly after five AM. Just before McLeish's watch ended, one of the lookouts spotted a sailboat with furled sails.
"Drop to one hundred feet and pull within a hundred yards of that sailboat," McLeish ordered. "Ledesma, try and raise the sailboat on the radio."
"Aye, aye, sir," Brockton responded. I hope this works. We'll be flying way too low, he thought as he complied.
The Volans slowed and dropped. The radio remained silent. When the airship was parallel to the sailboat, McLeish opened a window and sounded the airhorn multiple times. A head popped out of the cabin.
McLeish turned on the bullhorn, "Ahoy!" he called.
The person on the boat cupped his hands and shouted, "Ahoy."
McLeish replied, "We're the airship Volans. What's your heading?"
"Let me check," the person replied. He ducked into the boat's well. "I'm heading five degrees north. My GPS isn't functioning. Are you in distress?"
"We were hit by a shock wave when the meteor hit. Our GPS isn't responding either. Thanks for verifying our heading. Why are you out here?" the captain responded.
"I was in San Francisco Bay last night. A good size tremor hit. I don't know how big. Probably over seven. I saw some fires break out and the Golden Gate sway. I just cast off," the figure replied. "Planning to head to a friend's place in Oregon."
"A meteor struck north of us. You may want to get further out to sea. What's your boat's name?" McLeish asked.
"This is the California Girl," the sailor replied.
McLeish got an idea, "Do you see an antenna hanging under our gondola?"
"If you mean like a long wire, no," the sailor replied.
"Fair winds and following seas," McLeish replied with a wave.
McLeish turned to Brockton, "Bring us to five hundred feet. Heading 350 degrees northwest. Hold the course for a half hour and come about to due north. Make a note of that boat in the log."
Phew, Brockton thought. We got away with it. "Aye, aye, sir."
"Ms. Ledesma looks like we're not alone with GPS problems. More important, the shockwave must have severed our antenna. That explains the radio problems," McLeish said.
"Semi-good news, sir," she replied.
"Can we rig some kind of antenna?" the captain asked.
"I'll have to think about it. Maybe, sir," the engineer replied.
"I don't care if we run cable in the corridor. Do what you can."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The bullhorn and airhorn woke Gupta. She appeared on the bridge early.
"What was all noise?" she asked with a smile.
"We found a sailboat. He confirmed our compass reading is right. His GPS isn't working. If we can get out from under this dust, ours may work. We learned an earthquake happened in San Francisco. We discovered we lost our antenna. Ledesma is trying to figure out if we can replace it somehow. I think we want to stand several miles offshore and then head north at our current speed," McLeish answered.
"Is the radar picking up anything but snow?" Ms. Gupta asked.
"No, ma'am," Ledesma replied.
"You know we're going to be over six hours late?" Gupta asked McLeish.
"We're not technically late yet. I want to be safe," he replied.
"Sounds good," she replied. "Good luck at breakfast."
As McLeish left the bridge, the availability of showers was announced.
McLeish didn't try to nap before breakfast. He showered, shaved, and changed his uniform. He went to the lounge. He knew he'd be early for breakfast, but he needed coffee.
In the lounge he got a cup of coffee and took a seat. He was going to wait until most of the passengers arrived.
The buffet opened at seven. The offerings looked normal. In a few minutes, the rapidly scrubbed passengers queued up.
McLeish stood up, "Ladies and gentlemen, please get your breakfast. Once most of you are seated, I will tell you what happened overnight."
The groggy passengers got their meals and found their seats. When a dozen people were seated, McLeish began his report.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are heading north. About an hour ago, you probably heard an air horn. We found and hailed a sailboat. We confirmed our compass is correct. The sailboat's GPS wasn't working. We discovered the shockwave snapped our antenna. We are trying to create a workaround. Not great news, but positive. We learned the meteor probably triggered earthquakes around San Francisco," McLeish reported.
The passengers took a few minutes to digest McLeish's information. The questions started.
"When will we get to Seattle?" was the first question.
"We will be at least six hours late, probably more."
"Why aren't we going faster?" Ms. Alexius demanded. "I have to attend a conference."
"We know the compass is right. We still don't know our exact position. I don't want to find ourselves in Alaska. We hope our lookouts will spot a ship that might give us our position. Once we have an exact position, we may pick up the pace."
"We are keeping the water limitations in place and the windows closed. We will decide about the midnight buffet by dinner. Any other questions?"
A teenage passenger raised her hand. "In school, we learned a meteor killed the dinosaurs. Did something like that happen last night? Could we be the last people on earth?" she asked nervously.
"Miss, we know we can't be the only people on earth. There was at least one person on the sailboat. If a meteor the size of the one that killed the dinosaurs hit last night, we'd be dead. I'm sure you're not the only one thinking that way," McLeish replied gently. "Anything else?" Silence followed. McLeish got his breakfast and went to bed.
McLeish's alarm went off five hours later. He threw water on his face, dressed, and headed for the bridge.
Just before he reached the bridge door, McLeish felt a tap on his shoulder. "Captain?" an urgent voice sounded behind him. McLeish turned around and found himself facing Ramon Trudeau. Trudeau held a handgun.
This is impossible, McLeish thought.
Trudeau's face was drawn and hard. "My wife needs to get to her doctor! Get in there and stop stalling. Get this thing moving!" Trudeau demanded.
McLeish thought for a minute. "Mr. Trudeau put the gun down. We are doing what we can to get to Seattle."
"I don't want to hear it. We need to get going!" Trudeau demanded, jabbing McLeish with the gun.
"I can't. The door is locked from the inside," McLeish said, trying to get a good idea.
McLeish knocked using a rhythm signaling the door should not open. What next? McLeish thought.
A door slammed open behind Trudeau. A very unpregnant Mrs. Trudeau ran into the passageway screaming, "They're dead! They're all dead! I'm not wearing that gross thing again!"
Trudeau half-turned. His hand holding the gun dropped away from McLeish. McLeish punched Trudeau in the jaw. Trudeau dropped the gun. McLeish had not noticed a second door had opened. John Bucur kicked away the gun and wrestled Trudeau to the ground.
McLeish was stunned. What? How? He thought.
"Captain, do you have something I can use to restrain this bird?" Bucur asked, "Rope, belts, duct tape?"
"Sure," a stunned McLeish replied. He picked up the house phone. He called the purser. "Get to bridge with the cable tie handcuffs!" he ordered.
Mr. Bucur looked up at the captain, "I need to reintroduce myself. John Bucur, retired detective sergeant, Boise Police Department. I heard the screaming, and old training kicked in."
O'Grady hustled up with the cable tie handcuffs. Bucur professionally handcuffed Trudeau. O'Grady was the closest thing the blimp had to a security section. He was over his head.
"If I may make a suggestion, gentlemen," Bucur began. "Mr. Trudeau needs to be arrested and read his rights. You have a solid case for air piracy and unauthorized possession of a handgun on an aircraft. With your authorization, I would be glad to do the formalities."
"Add Mr. Bucur to the crew manifest as an assistant purser," McLeish instructed.
"Immediately," the purser replied. That covers us, McLeish thought.
Turning to Bucur, McLeish said, "Please proceed, sir."
Bucur recited a Miranda warning to Trudeau and charged him.
"Mr. Bucur, I am out of my depth," McLeish admitted. "What do we do next?"
"I think we should find out why Mrs. Trudeau was screaming," the detective replied.
"Would you please find Mrs. Trudeau, Mr. O'Grady?" the captain asked.
The purser left to find the lady.
While they waited, a fishy smell filled the corridor. "What could cause the smell, captain?" Bucur asked. McLeish shrugged.
O'Grady returned a few minutes later with a shaken Cleo Trudeau. Mrs. Trudeau held a large glass of wine.
Bucur took over. "Mrs. Trudeau, my name is John Bucur. I am an assistant purser and a retired police officer. I'd like to ask you some questions."
Cleo gulped wine and nodded yes.
"Mrs. Trudeau, you screamed, 'They're dead!'. Who is dead?"
"The fish are dead."
A puzzled Bucur asked, "What fish?"
"The fish in the shower," Cleo answered, swallowing more wine.
"Would you show me, please?" Bucur continued quietly.
The captain, the detective, and Mrs. Trudeau entered Trudeau's stateroom. She led them to the bathroom. The shower drain was plugged. Floating in the shower were two ugly fishes. The fishes were about eight inches long. The fishes were dead. Lying next to the tub was the prosthetic belly Mrs. Trudeau wore.
Bucur was perplexed. He recovered quickly. "Mr. O'Grady, would you have someone from the kitchen come here with a sealable freezer bag? We should put the fish in the bag and mark the bag EVIDENCE. Have the bag placed in the freezer until we get to Seattle. I'm not sure what the fish are evidence of, but they've got to be evidence of something."
O'Grady called the galley. "I need a large freezer bag in cabin five right away." He listened for a minute and turned to the detective. "He's on the way," he reported.
"Good. Once the fish are in the freezer, seal this room. A Do Not Disturb sign should do. OK?" the detective instructed. O'Grady nodded yes.
The detective faced the captain, "Can we talk someplace else? If I'm in this stink much longer, Margot won't let me back in our cabin."
"We can talk in my cabin," the captain replied. "Mr. O'Grady join us after this cabin is squared away."
A few minutes later, the group reconvened in the captain's cabin. The cabin had a small sitting area. The Trudeaus were seated. The captain, detective, and purser stood. Mr. Bucur began the conversation.
"Mrs. Trudeau…" he tried to begin.
"Let's get one thing straight,' Ms. Trudeau interrupted. "I am not married to that sleazeball. My name is Trudeau. But I'm Ms. Trudeau."
Slightly taken back, the detective resumed his inquiry. "Ms. Trudeau, why were there fish in the shower?" he asked calmly.
"This started about two weeks ago. I work as a stripper. The pay is good if you can put up with creeps. Ramon is one of our least creepy regulars. He approached me with a proposal. I told him no way I was marrying him."
"He replied, 'I have a business proposal. If I said proposition, you really would have got mad. You can make about $11,000 in two days.'"
I replied, "I'm a stripper. I'm not a hooker or a porn queen. How could I make that kind of money?"
"He said, 'You will keep your clothes on. I need help to deliver some fish.'"
"I was getting agitated. No one pays that much to deliver fish!"
"He said, 'This isn't simple. Let's go to Johnny's Diner across the street. Order what you want. Just promise to hear me out.'"
Ms. Trudeau took a drink of her wine and continued, "Johnny's is a safe place. I agreed. We ordered. He started explaining before we got the food."
"He started, 'Sometimes someone finds a kind of fish scientists think died out with the dinosaurs. That kind of fish shows up occasionally in the Indian Ocean. A rare, possibly prehistoric, fish started showing up in a small Mexican village. The fish taste lousy. The people figured they could sell the fish to collectors, like drug lords. Since the fish are rare, there is a market. I distribute exotic fish and animals. My supplier can get some fish. I have a customer in Seattle.'"
"OK, so you rent a car or a truck," I says.
"'Won't work,' he says, 'the only thing that works is a blimp.'"
"I don't have any fancy education, but I'm not stupid. Those things fly over football games. How is that going help?'" I asked.
"'You're close,' he said. 'There's a company that offers blimp cruises between here and Seattle.'"
"I still don't get what you want from me?"
"'Here's the part where you need to listen.' I nodded yes. 'We book passage as Mr. and Mrs. Trudeau. I get a fake ID with your last name. Maybe you've heard, when an actress needs to look pregnant, they put a big bubble thing under her top?' I nodded again. 'We got something like that. We seal the fish inside the bubble and strap it on you to before you board. We tell the blimp people you're having a rough pregnancy and need to see a doctor in Seattle. You put on some pale makeup and ride in a wheelchair. Once in the cabin, you take off the belly and only the belly. I tell the blimp line you need to soak your feet and have big bottles of mineral water in the cabin. The mineral water is seawater. We plug the shower and fill it with water from the bottles. Everything three hours, we change the water. You don't have to touch the fish. You help wipe down the shower with a towel. Your meals will be served in the cabin. And you won't be able to shower.'"
"That's nuts," I told him. "Why would I do that?"
"'When you put on the belly, you get $1,000 cash and a physical airline ticket to wherever you want. You wear the belly to get on and off the blimp. When you get off the blimp, you get $10,000 cash. That's why,' he replied as he bit his burger."
"I had to think about that. A girl can't be too careful. Do know how long it would take to get that kind of cash stuffed in my garter?" I said," I'll do it, but with a few conditions."
"What were your conditions?" the detective asked.
"I had to count the $11,000 before I put on the belly. I needed to see the airline ticket. I got the $10,000 when we got to our cabin." Cleo continued before taking another drink of wine.
"Weren't afraid you'd be involved in something illegal?" the captain asked.
"I'm no lawyer," she said, "it looked like the only thing I might be guilty of was impersonating his wife. I doubt that's a crime."
Trying to get back on track, the detective asked, "He agreed to his conditions?"
"He did. Ramon fixed things with the club's manager. The day before we left, he called and told me to get ready. I packed an overnight bag. When we left, Ramon picked me up in a limo. There was a big jug in the backseat with us. I counted the cash, and we left."
"About a block from the terminal, we stop. Ramon gets the belly out of the trunk. There were fish in the jug. Ramon puts the fish in the belly. My makeup makes me look like a zombie. I strap on the belly. I get in the wheelchair at the terminal, and we board."
"I was glad when the safety briefing was over and we went to the cabin," she continued. "I took off the belly. Big bottles were waiting in the cabin. Ramon showed me how to wipe out the shower. We filled the shower from the bottles and opened the bathroom windows. We dumped the fish in the shower and waited for our breakfast trays."
Cleo took another drink of wine. She noticed her glass was empty. "Can I get a refill?" she asked.
"We'll order a refill while you finish your story," the captain said quietly. He picked up the phone and called the bar.
"OK," she replied. "Not much more to tell. Ramon's plan worked fine until the meteor hit. When the ship started bucking, water got thrown out of the shower. Ramon just kept trying to pour in more water. I tried to mop up the water with towels. I don't know how we kept standing. We noticed the windows were shut, and we couldn't open them. Ramon went to the meeting in the lounge. He came back and told me we had problems. The windows couldn’t be opened. We weren't going to get more towels. And the blimp was slowing down. Keeping the fish alive would be a challenge."
"We did what we could until we were almost out of water. Ramon took linen from empty cabins. There wasn't enough seawater. Ramon went berserk. The fish were dying. I screamed. You know the rest. Where's my wine?" she concluded.
"What do we do?" the captain asked the detective.
Bucur's brow furled. "Let's work through this a step at a time. We must restrain Ramon, whatever his name is. We seal the Trudeau's cabin. I can't think of anything to charge Ms. Trudeau with," he began.
"Was Ms. Trudeau right about empty cabins?" the detective asked O'Shay. O'Shay nodded.
"Let me make some suggestions," Bucur said. "Mr. O'Shay, please make sure two empty cabins have linen. Captain, wait here with Ramon. I will go to Trudeau's cabin with Ms. Trudeau. She will be allowed to pick up her belongings and move to a new cabin. We collect Ramon's belonging and move him to another cabin. We lock him in. We seal Trudeau's original cabin. Does that make sense, captain?"
"Can't think of anything better," McLeish said with a sigh.
"Where's my wine?" interjected Ms. Trudeau.
Ramon broke his silence, "Give me the money back, witch!" Everyone ignored him.
"Sounds good, Mr. Bucur," the captain said.
The Trudeaus had settled in their new cabins when the announcement "Captain to the bridge" came over the public address system.
Gupta has got to wondering what is happening, McLeish thought. I'd better hustle.
McLeish gave the all-is clear knock on the bridge door. The door opened.
Ms. Gupta greeted him, "What adventures have you been having? We lock the door and then nothing."
"Not much," McLeish returned, "We had a hijacking attempt. We were smuggling ugly fish. And we have a new assistant purser."
"Is satisfying your curiosity the only reason for paging me?"
"Our watch is about to end. Two things you should know. Ledesma has rigged an antenna. The new antenna is about a third the size it should be. Ledesma dropped a cable through the ceiling of the rear observation deck. We don't know the range," Ms. Gupta began.
"We think we are picking up a ship on radar. The image isn't clear, but it's not snow."
"Those are two pieces of good news. What is our distance from the ship?" the captain said.
"The ship appears to be about fifteen miles to the northwest."
"Engines to normal cruising speed, but gently. Head for the ship. Your watch is relieved, Ms. Gupta," the captain said.
"Thank you, captain. I can't speak for everyone else. I'll stay here until we know if we found a ship," the first officer responded.
"In that case, have the galley bring us lunch trays."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Twenty-five minutes later, a shape appeared in the fog of dust. The shape looked like a cargo ship and was moving under power.
Ledesma tried hailing the ship. Initially, static filled the speakers. The captain was about to order another hail when a voice erupted from the speakers.
"Airship Volans, this is the merchant ship United Merchandiser, go ahead."
McLeish grabbed the microphone. "United Merchandiser, where are you bound, and what is your heading?"
"We're about seven hours out of Seattle." An exact heading followed.
A sigh of relief filled the Volans' bridge.
McLeish replied, "May I speak with your captain, please?"
"This is the captain," came the reply.
"We were about thirty miles from the meteor strike. Our navigation gear is giving us problems. Will we cause a problem if we tag along with you?" McLeish asked.
"As long as you stay several hundred yards astern, no problem. Glad to help," the Merchandiser's captain replied.
"Will do, captain. What is your speed? We are using a jury-rigged antenna. Could you contact our company to let them know we're coming in?"
"We are holding twenty knots. Give us frequency, call sign, and message," the Merchandiser replied.
McLeish supplied the frequency and call sign. "Message follows," he continued, "Request representatives of our HR department, the U.S. Marshall's Office, and the Fish and Wildlife Service meet us when we arrive."
"I know it sounds screwy. When we reach port, I will buy you a drink and explain," McLeish replied.
"Will do," the Merchandiser's captain replied.
McLeish keyed the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed a ship through the windows. The ship is heading for Seattle. We will follow the ship and hope to be in Seattle in about seven hours." Cheers came from the lounge.
Seven and a half hours later, the Volans followed the United Merchandiser into Seattle harbor. McLeish gave the United Merchandiser's captain his cell phone number, thanked him for his help, and renewed his offer of a drink and an explanation.
The Volans landed at the Seattle Aerodrome. The landing was uneventful. The same could not be said for offboarding. Getting off the blimp wasn't the problem; the world had changed in the forty-eight hours they'd been aloft. The passengers thought they had gone through a time warp. The skies were grey with dust. Seattle's daily rain showers gave way to mud showers. The dust decreased the sun's intensities making solar farms almost useless. Satellite communication and commercial air traffic were sporadic west of Denver. Things were worse in California. San Francisco and Los Angeles experienced significant earthquakes. Some fires broke out, and buildings collapsed. The airports were closed. The biggest problem was the disruption of the electric grid. The quakes hit early in most EV charging periods. People who tried to flee in their EVs experienced inoperative charging stations and exhausted batteries. Thousands of electric vehicles were dumped in ditches. People hoped the situation was temporary.
Most of the Volans' passengers received an apology, a full refund of their fare, and a discount on a future flight. Authors wanting to write books about the passengers’ experiences besieged them.
Majerczyks had begun their book while on board. Normally, they worked hard to make travel sound like an adventure. They had a genuine adventure. This book would be different and could change their careers.
Gaiser and Bucur dealt with HR to get paid. The cruise line asked Bucur to train pursers for handling situations like the one on the Volans.
"Unless the job is part-time and in Boise, no," he answered. "Margot would kill me." He did stick around to help turn over Ramon.
Ramon Trudeau's real name was Ramon Gastonovich. He was silent as the US Marshalls took him into custody.
The Fish and Wildlife Service sent Agent Maria Gomez. She was baffled.
"Why did you ask me to meet the blimp?" she asked O'Grady.
"Come with me," he replied as he led her to the freezer. He extracted the freezer bag containing fish. "We had passengers trying to transport these. The fish originated in Mexico and are valuable to collectors. We called for you as we don't know anything about the fish. Was a crime committed?"
"Dammed if I know," Agent Gomez replied.
Agent Gomez interviewed Ms. Trudeau. Ms. Trudeau stuck to her story. Gastonovich was silent. The agent packed the fish in ice and headed for the University of Washington. At the University, the ichthyologists fell all over themselves. The agent presented them with an unknown species possibly related to coelacanths in the Indian Ocean.
Unknown species cannot be on the endangered species list, she thought. I doubt a crime had been committed.
Agent Gomez gave the scientists the fish and let the matter drop.
Cleo Trudeau gave the authorities dispositions and disappeared.
Ms. Alexius got a huge shock. She was an environmentalist and the environment changed without her permission. Her conference happened. Attendance was low due to transportation issues. Speeches about electric cars and solar panels rang hollow. The phrase most often heard was "The situation is temporary." No one was sure. Scientists noted a phenomenon called Seismic Dominos by the press. The meteor triggered earthquakes on the faults. The earthquakes triggered volcanos. Mt. St. Helens erupted. Popocatepetl showed signs of awakening. There were rumblings in Yellowstone. Each event kicked more dust into the atmosphere. No one knew where it would end. As in the past, the world might adjust its temperature without any environmentalist solutions.
McLeish kept his promise to the captain of the United Merchandiser. After he finished, the Merchandiser's captain asked, "Were you shooting a movie?" They both laughed.
The Volans received a new antenna. Radio direction finders were installed for navigation purposes in place of GPS. Shattered plexiglass was replaced.
McLeish and the crew were hailed as heroes. They received a paid layover during the ship's repairs.
The crew was also besieged by authors.
Aircraft using jet engines were grounded west of Denver until the skies cleared. The blimps were the largest commercial aircraft operating on the west coast. Corporate spied an opportunity. Several cabins were gutted. Airline seats were installed in place of furniture. The remodeled blimps could carry twice as many passengers. The seats were booked almost immediately. The blimps would cruise at a higher speed. Adding more blimps to the west coast was discussed.
What next? McLeish wondered. I still have a good job. I just hope the next flight is not another adventure like the last cruise. The Navy was less stressful. Only time will tell. Better make sure grandpa's chronometer keeps working.
Alan lives in suburban Detroit with his charming and understanding wife. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan. He has been published internationally. His stories have appeared in As You Were: The Military Review, Vol. 16, Round Table Literary Journal, 101words.org (multiple times), commuterlit.com, and CafeLit.uk.co.
Romania sounded like the name of a distant planet located on the event horizon. Dr. Peter ‘Elegant-English-Name’ Worthington explained that to me once. All about how the Anglo-Saxons had a history of going around making everyone else miserable with words strung together to make longer ones instead of inventing new ones, including names, when they waded over to the island off the coast of France for a feast ̶ a black-tie event at sunset. Okay, I didn’t remember the details, but I did remember Dr. Pete.
“Don’t ask me why, but Dr. Pete thinks you’re the guy who ought to investigate one of his long-lost relative who traveled south instead of west, and stumbled into Abrud, Romania about nine-hundred A.D. He asked for you by name. He’s willing to foot the bill, so you’re going, Coulter. Pack a suitcase,” Vincenzo ordered.
As senior manager of the Independent News Service, “Vinny” could order a stringer like me to travel off the beaten path for half the funding, and pocket a few bills for himself. “What am I looking for, Chief?”
“Something interesting about Dumitru Codrin. Snoop. There’s an old stationhouse on the rail-line to Cimpeni that was allegedly built on his grave. Take a few photos. And try not to irritate the Romanian cops. If they have cops. Here’s your ticket and five-hundred bucks. Scram.”
At least it was a round-trip ticket. How dangerous could it be? Gail let me know.
“Are you nuts? Ceaușescu is a Communist. Step out of line there, and …” Gail pretended to be hanging from an invisible rope.
“I’m not going to give anyone a reason to stretch my neck. Besides, I need the money in case I want to buy a ring or something.” That got her off my back, pronto! Women hear the word ring and they hear wedding bells.
I headed over to see Dr. Pete before I headed to the airport. “Who was this guy Codrin, anyway?”
Like most eggheads, Dr. Pete smoked a pipe and wore a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. “I’m a cultural anthropologist. Legends and old wives’ tales are my bailiwick, and legend has it that Codrin was an ancient chieftain who’d kill people with a magic axe. Not for any good reason either. Allegedly, somebody painted a picture of him that hangs in the stationhouse. The picture’s called the Scourge of the Steppes, and it’s said he looks like Rasputin.”
“What do you want me to do, steal it?” If that was the case, it would cost him more than he’d want to pay.
Dr. Pete laughed. “I want you to photograph it. I guess that’s a form of theft. And I want you to get some information about it … who the artist was, that sort of thing. I’ll be on sabbatical at the University of Prague, where I can compare it to the pictures of Rasputin the university has. I’d go to Romania myself only…I’m too famous.”
“I’ve never heard of you.” I was rude, but truthful.
“I…ah…helped some dissidents escape about a year ago. Politically, I’m persona non grata. You’re a political nobody even if you’re a well-known pain in the ass around here.”
For an ivory tower resident, he was he was a down-to-earth kinda guy. After talking to him, I was ready to make a reservation on the next plane to Europe.
“What do you mean there’s no train to Abrud? There’s a rail stationhouse half-way to Crimpeni that’s still on the map.” I unfolded a worn paper map and put in front of a woman as sturdy as the oaken desk that hid her girth. She brought it within two inches of her thick eye glasses, and looked up at me after an eternity of study.
“This map is pre-war. The government closed it and the train no longer takes this route. What do you mean you don’t understand?”
I bit my tongue. “Is there a way for me to get to the stationhouse? I’m on assignment.”
All I got was a stare as she was sizing me up. “You’re not from the government?”
“No. I’m from Los Angeles. USA. I’m supposed to get picture.” I hoisted my camera case on to her desk and opened it to show her my Kodak. “You know, National Geographic? I work on spec.” I know that Vinny and Dr. Pete wanted no publicity.
She niffed and refolded the map. “There’s a man. Giorgi. He has a cart.”
“He has a cart pulled by a horse?” I half expected her to tell me I’d have to pull it myself.
“He has a horse. Rudolph.”
Giorgi could sling a suitcase like a shotput. My camera case I carried on my shoulder. I scrambled into the cart bed and held my suitcase tight. “You want to go to stationhouse, I take you. I follow the tracks, not the road.”
“Is there a hotel nearby?”
“Is there anywhere I can stay the night?”
“Miheala put you up for the night. She my woman. Her house, my house. You should not be at the stationhouse at night. Go in the morning.”
At least I got a look at the historical site as Rudolph plodded past the Victorian-style doll house. Built between two sets of railroad tracks ̶ no doubt designed to provide guests all the expensive comforts of home as they waited to make connections, or sell tickets to civilization ̶ it was surrounded by a thick forest. The front yard, maybe eight square feet, was enclosed with a wrought iron fence and filled with tares and weeds. The steps, divided into two staircases, suggested the place had once been a church. What a great place for an Arkoff movie I thought. Places like this were treasure troves of old-world artifacts and stories of weird locals. Or is it weird artifacts and old-world locals?
It was dusk before Giorgi reached the home of his woman. We fought over the suitcase for a few seconds. Finally I said, “Careful, okay? I’ve got lenses in there,” and Giorgi nodded before he yanked it off the wagon. It landed with a thud! on the gravel driveway in front of a white-washed cottage where a raven-haired slender woman waited at the door.
“Overnight visitor,” Giorgi said to her. “I take his bag upstairs.” To me he said, “Twenty leu. In advance. Twenty-five if you want to eat.”
“The name’s Coulter. Ace reporter.” I handed him the twenty and three American dollars. “Which do you prefer?” I said. He took both. I got a clean room, a ham and cheese sandwich on cardboard-like bread, and warm vodka.
Miheala brought me a towel and soap, and advice: “Get to sleep, Ameriki. Giorgi gets up early.”
Easier said than done with a dog howling a mile off. I wrote notes detailing my ordeal and impressions. I wanted Dr. Pete to know I had suffered in his name. One word notably absent was “fun” in the impressions category. Yet, fall asleep I did and was awakened by Miheal’s incessant hammering on my door. “Yeah, I’m up!” I yelled.
She must have heard ‘come in’ because she charged the bed and was peering down at me with tear-flooded eyes. “Giorgi’s dead. Stone cold dead.” She was sobbing like a wife.
“Let me get dressed. Where is he?”
“In my bed.” She put her arms around my neck, pressing her ample bosom to my chest.
I pried myself loose. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
She wiped her eyes with her apron. “I’ve made breakfast. There’s hot chocolate,” she said as she walked to the door. “The doctor’s coming.”
I checked in on Giorgi before I went to the kitchen. She needed an undertaker not a doctor. “You can take Rudolph to the stationhouse. You’re no use here,” she said. “Just follow the tracks.”
That’s how I came to play the Lone Stranger in a Romanian forest. Rudolph, I learned, had one gait: slow. Still, it was better than walking. I took shots of the surrounding countryside, and frontal shots of the overgrown garden and Drac’s Castle Jr.. Inside, however, was evidence of a former glory. Though there was rotting near the ceiling, the wood paneling was spectacular. I came closer to photograph the intricate carving that made a mural out of one wall. I pulled my camera back quickly. Was I seeing what I thought I was seeing?
Yes, the mural depicted scenes of torture and execution. Severed heads atop trees shorn of the branches, severed limbs strewn around bubbling cauldrons. People on stretching racks, tongs grasping testicles, people pinned to wheels, drownings, quartering, burnings, even a body halved by a plow. I hunted for a signature, not really expecting to find the creator admitting to the horror. Bayeux may have its tapestry, with its depiction of war and mayhem of the Norman invasion, but Abrud had carved historical record of medieval atrocities that would put Hollywood to shame.
I moved on to the ticket counter, separated from the stationmaster’s office by an iron grating turned green with age. It reminded me of a cage and I shuddered remembering all the time I had been inside a jail cell. That weekend in Georgia was especially harrowing … I took photos of the station’s wall, the counter, and a calendar on the wall with the date: 1945. Yeah, I stole the calendar. It fit perfectly in my shoulder bag.
I continued my photographic journey in the stationmaster’s office as the cage’s door was missing its hinges. Piled high in a seven foot rack were valises, suitcases, boxes, and packages. Why all the abandoned luggage? I took a photo. Does leather outlast wood? Because the luggage was looked to be newer. I wasn’t going to steal from anyone, but curiosity got the better of me. I opened an unlocked one and found ladies clothing, a hairbrush, and a silver mirror. A little voice inside me said, “Where she went, she didn’t need a change of clothes.” A travel pass laying on top of a silk dressing gown read: issued in 1942..
I returned to the wall mural. Maybe it was a monument to a local legend … or a cenotaph to a local reality. That’s when I heard a dull thumping beneath the floorboards. I took a step back. “Anyone here?” I put my ear to the floor. “Anybody down there?” The stationhouse was at least six feet above the ground, so I knew there was a basement. I pounded back. “I hear you. I have to look for a door.” I wasn’t frantic, yet. I thought I heard a groan.
I hunted for a cellar door, then checked for a pull-up door in the floor. There had to be one. Maybe the door was outside hidden among the overgrowth. I went outside. No door. No window. Unless one or the other was sealed with bricks. I went inside. “Stop pounding and start talking,” I yelled. It could be a trapped animal. I’d have to pull up the floorboards.
Maybe the abandoned train car contained some tools. Nope. But the seat upholstery was weak from age. I pulled off some material and exposed the metal frame with loose bolts. I managed to pry off the frozen metal bar at the top of the seat ̶ about three feet ̶ that would work as a crowbar.
I had a mission now. No matter what was under the floor, I was going to free it. I started with the boards nearest as metal grate I guessed was a drain. Maybe a heating vent. Wood rot made it easy to dislodge the slats and in twenty minutes I had a made a four by five foot hole. “Hell-ooo?” I leaned into the blackness. It was sealed alright. Not a ray of light illuminated the space. I leaned against the wall, facing the mural. Whatever the pounding was, it didn’t come from anything alive.
I rubbed my eyes. The mural seemed to be moving. Some figures shrinking, others growing, coming alive, congealing into the figure of a man struggling to emerge from the wall. All six foot of him! dressed in green leggings and a leather tunic, and heavy black boots, an animal skin draped over one shoulder, and a silver-bladed axe. He raised the axe as he stared down at me. “Dumitru Codrin?” I said.
His mouth formed a smile, but his eyes narrowed with hate. If I didn’t move quickly, his axe would find its target. I grabbed my crowbar, and rolled into the dark hole. If he tried to follow me in, I’d crack his skull.
I heard his boots pounding above me, but the sound grew faint. I popped up and took a quick look around. He’d gone. I pulled myself up and beat feet outside. Pete never said Codrin might still be alive. He’d be at least twelve-hundred years old, but he didn’t look a day over fifty and fit enough to swing that axe. The only explanation was that he lived in the wall; it made no sense, but I’d seen enough weird stuff in my life to know things don’t have to make sense to be real.
I found Rudolph half a mile down the tracks. Codrin probably needed a faster mount if he was in a hurry. When I got back to the inn, I tried calling Pete. The overseas operator had a hard time understanding me. I talked to a Dr. Ameris in St. Petersburg, Florida and St. Peter’s Church in Trenton, New Jersey, and finally agreed to wait for the operator to call me back when she reached Doctor Peterson in Seattle. That was alright. It gave me time to reconsider recounting my story to Miheala who had returned in the meantime from a meeting with the undertaker.
She fed me goose liver pate and butter crackers, and promised me she would cook a full dinner. Somebody had slaughtered a boar. After my encounter with Codrin, I didn’t want more details.
I know what you’re thinking. What about Giorgi? Am I a heartless bastard? Didn’t I want details about how he died? Well, I’ll tell you. I heard the words heart, bed and Miheala and my imagination filled in the blanks. But it was her morning visit that motivated me to get myself in gear. Female entanglements, especially with someone who’s boyfriend was as rustic as Giorgi dead or alive, were more trouble than they were worth. But now I had a problem that could only be solved with information. I needed her.
“Tell me about the stationhouse. Is it haunted?” Miheala’s eyes were red and swollen from weeping, poor woman. “Who owns it?”
“The government. After the war, they stopped the trains and the mail stopped coming. People around here believed the government thought everyone was dead.”
Her expression changed from grief to fear. “We all knew the government didn’t want to do anything about the ghosts. No one would work there because of them.”
“Who is them? The ghosts or the government?”
“But you’ve been inside.”
“Once. Never again.” I knew she’d seen the mural. “Especially at night.”
“Who’s ghost lives there, Miheala?” Did she realize I believed her?
“There’s more than one. Hundreds, I’d say. But there’s only one station master: the demon, Dumitru Codrin.”
Now I was getting real information. “I saw him this morning.”
Her face flushed. “Oh, my Lord, he’s coming for Giorgi! He’s coming to take his soul to hell!”
I didn’t want to deal with a hysterical woman, but I knew she had cause for alarm. I reached for my emotional wallet … did I have any emotional resources? “Miheala, stop. I saw him hours after Giorgi died. His soul is just fine and I know he died happy.”
Her wailing went from overwhelming to simmer in a matter of seconds. “You saw Codrin?”
“Axe and all.”
“Did you see the treasure, too?”
Dr. Pete’s motives was suddenly as clear as Codrin’s destination. “No. It’s not in the stationhouse. Where does he keep it?”
“In the forest. He captures the souls of the dead, and stores them in pieces of silver. Nobody has lived to tell where he keeps them. That’s how he got his name. Dumitru Codrin. The Silversmith of the Forest.” She stared at me with menacing eyes. “No one’s alive who’s seen him, except you.”
“I told you, I didn’t see a treasure. But…” I purposely kept my pause pregnant.
“We could find it,” she said.
“Where does the legend say he keeps it?”
Miheala stood guard armed with a WWII Nagant pistol and a crucifix while I inspected the mural. I wasn’t trained in hieroglyphics, but I knew enough about them to know the gruesome tortures carved in the wall were the demon’s way of meting out justice. In the center of the wall was a throne, now empty, surrounded by human skulls, chests of coins, and chunks of rocks. Gold nuggets no doubt. And around a pentagram were headstones with printed names and dates.
“Is there a cemetery around here?” I asked Miheala.
Greed covers a multitude of misgivings. “Half a mile east are the graves of the Old Ones. There you’ll find the markers.”
So, Codrin did have a grave. He just couldn’t stay there. Or didn’t want to. An eternal demon had plenty of time to lay in wait for an unsuspecting and uninformed Los Angeleno reporter. “Can you take me there?”
Miheala was smiling now. “I’ll show you the way.”
We crossed the railroad tracks and it was as though we were walking on the surface of another planet. The many trees split the sunlight into shards that dimmed each step. “It’s only as little ways, now,” Miheala said. Her voice had turned raspy and low as though suppressing an inner excitement.
We came to a clearing, a mist arising from a ring of headstones surrounding a huge chunk of granite with a table-top as smooth as a mirror. Miheala climbed up the six-foot crag, and gazed at me crouched like a beast, her face contorted in a triumphal smirk.
“It’s here,” she said. “This is his tomb. Come closer.” She was posing, seductively, but experience had taught me never to enter a circle of evil. Codrin had captured Giorgi. And he’d sent his servant to capture me. “Don’t you want to see his treasure?” she hissed. She reached into the stone and pulled out a long bone that turned from pale white to a golden yellow. “There’s more where this came from,” she sang.
I hated to think of it, but I knew she was lost and in the demon’s grasp. Somewhere on the path we’d trod, I’d find the cross she’d dropped I was sure, for on her forehead was an open wound that oozed blood. “Come to me,” she ordered, her purring now a desperate cry as flames appeared at her feet and traveled up her legs, slowly consuming her until the stone sucked her inside as she burned, screaming in agony. It’s the same for all dictators. Minions who fail were punished with pain.
For me, it was fight or flight ̶ I chose both. I ran though the trees, and found the tracks that I followed to the inn. In the kitchen, I searched for anything I could use as an accelerant. Lighter fluid. Turpentine. A bottle of brandy. If fire was the demon’s destruction of choice, then I would oblige.
The wall undulated when I doused it, the floor, and the ticket counter with every drop of liquid bane. A hand protruded from the wall, and I could see Codrin’s arm forming from the wood, saw the gleam of his emerging silver axe. He’d soon be able to wield it. I struck a match, lit the matchbook, and threw it towards the wall. Instantly, it was ablaze, it’s unfortunate captives in the throes of panic, screaming and begging for mercy. Codrin’s burning body fell out of the wall and rolled on the flaming floor. I rushed to the door...he followed me down the steps and into the yard. I tripped once and he grabbed my ankle, then my shoe as I scrambled away to the fretting Rudolph pacing to and fro as the stationhouse became engulfed. Somehow, I got astride, and turned just as Codrin, his flesh hanging from his bones, explode into green ash.
I was no longer afraid. I reined in Rudolph and the two of us watched the stationhouse crumble from the fire and the weight of its own foul deeds. Who would believe the story? Dr. Pete, probably. But the American consulate? Vinny? The Romanian government? They’d be happy to charge me with arson and murder. I’d like to think I rescued the tormented spirits of Codrin’s stationhouse torture chamber, but I’ll never know if they were his disciples or his dupes.
I still had the calendar, my photographs of the stationhouse, the wall, Giorgi and the inn, but I couldn’t show them to anyone except Dr. Pete without incriminating myself. Vinny would never publish them. I suppose it’s just as well. Even I doubt the camera’s lens as much as I doubt my eyes really saw the ancient Silversmith of the Forest. Only the silver coins I carried in a small leather bag proved the truth of my hallucinations - a leather bag I found in Miheala’s pantry next to a jar of arsenic.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology, and received her MFA from Eastern Kentucky University. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over two-hundred-sixty print and on-line journals. Her how-to book, Writing Beyond the Self; How to Write Creative Non-fiction that Gets Published was published by Vine Leaves Press in 2018. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not Your Color.
The evening did not go well from the very beginning.
Still being awkward at German, he did not realize that the metro station he needed was closed. The old train crept past the platform cluttered with cement sacks. Embarrassed by his language, he did not dare to ask the fatigued evening passengers what was happening on the line. Only having aligned at the crowded transfer station he saw some advertisements on the walls.
Berlin transport authority started to translate all messages into English. Boris understood that he needed to get on a free shuttle bus, transporting passengers between stations.
A fine rain of early spring drizzled outside. A rather large line gathered at the exit of the metro. After two months, he was already familiar with the city.
“Straight, and in front of the square to the right.”
Hoisting a canvas bag over the shoulder, he perched a cap on the top of his balding head. The act could not hide his age.
“No need to hide it,” Boris grunted. “I am going to the life drawing class but I am sure that not only youngsters are expected there.”
He found the announcement of the classes with a live model in a library. Participants paid what they could, which seemed a modest contribution even for a refugee like him.
“Coffee and tea on the studio,” said the announcement. “Come at eight in the evening.”
Gazing at a thrush jumping on a wet lawn, he drank a raw charm of April twilight. The sunset gilded over the house roofs. A yellow tram rumbled along the intersection. The thrush shrilly squealed, fluttering on the garbage can.
The chestnuts lined the street. A couple of days ago a tender green haze wrapped the trees. Passing a crowd of smokers on the pavement, Boris noticed a glimpse of something white in the basement window.
A girl in a gymnastic suit and a tutu put a bare leg on a chair, tying the ribbons of the ballet shoes. A mass of dark curls obscured her face but Boris finished the painting with small freckles and barely noticeable languor under her eyes.
“They are certainly gray,” he decided. “Better even grey-green.”
Having found the correct house, he pressed the studio button.
“The second courtyard,” said a cheerful young voice. “Take an elevator to the seventh floor, we are open.”
The studio was located right under the roof. Boris missed the rustle of pencils, the light debris of eraser, the pristine cleanliness of the sheet. In his canvas bag lay a freshly bought etude album.
“The class is starting soon,” he went through a hollow entrance. “I wonder who the model is?”
He found a high door in the second courtyard, painted in Prussian blue. The thrush was singing somewhere at the top of the roof. Boris pulled a copper handle. At the entrance, several bicycles stuck together in a flock. A children's cart with sheepskin forgotten inside stood nearby.
The elevator buzzed and the door slammed again. Something sweet swept over Boris.
“Wait,” ordered the girl, “I, too, go upstairs.”
He recognized the dark hair, now gathered in the messy bun. Her bare knees were unsuitable for the beginning of April. The suede ribbons wrapped the thin ankles. She remained in the tutu but threw a canvas jacket over the gymslip. A black scarf embroidered with bright patterns hid her throat.
Her eyes, as Boris requested, turned out to be grey-green, but he noticed only a few freckles.
“Few but in the right place, “the specks scattered across rosy cheeks. “It turns out that she is an actress and an artist.”
The girl dragged a bag with the logo of some theater.
“Sorry, “muttered Boris when her thin finger poked into the peeling button.
The girl tilted her head to the side.
“You have an accent, “her dark eyebrows moved. The elevator crawled upward. She also spoke an accented English.
“Russian,” he admitted. “My name is Boris.”
The elevator shaft was built outside the house. Light and shadows changed on her face. Thin lips painted with carmine smiled.
“I am modeling today, “the girl did not let go of his palm. “I am Marta, a refugee from Ukraine.”
He wanted to hit the ‘Stop’ button, but the doors wheezed. The electronic music splashed on the landing, thundering in the studio.
“See you soon, Boris,” Marta dived into the crowd besieging the entrance.
The elevator, barking something in German, pushed him inside, offensively but not painfully. The doors closed and Boris found the bottom floor button. Leaving an empty album on a bench near the entrance, he walked back to the subway.
Nelly Shulman's previous publications can be found at her website at https://nellyshulman.blog/portfolio/
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