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Not a Weasel (Beastly Human Tales)

Not a Weasel

(Beastly People Tales)

§

by Dai Alanye © 2017

Edition 1.0

Some of these tales, humorous essays and poems have been published previously.

Not a Weasel (Beastly People Tales) has almost nothing to do with animals—merely humans, beastly or otherwise.

The book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only, and the author retains all rights of reproduction and licensing.

If you wish to share this book, please acquire an additional copy for each person. If you are reading this book and did not acquire it yourself, or it was not acquired for your exclusive use, please return to the retailer and obtain your own copy.

Not a Weasel (Beastly People Tales) is the original work of the author. Except for public individuals and happenings all characters and incidents are creations of the writer’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual happenings or to persons living or dead are otherwise strictly coincidental or of a satirical nature.

 

Not a Weasel

The Foot, Old & New

Might Be Lost

H. E. L. P.

The Adventures of Farmer Mudd

Tolkien’s Crime

You’ll Not Be Wanting That!

Humbug!

I Hate Romance

What’s in a Name, Huh?

Cleverest Hans~A Grim Fairytale

Neighbors

Non-prose & Nonsense

Excerpts from Incomplete Works

§

Not a Weasel

Chapter 1 – It’s a Marten

Lying in a curtained space of St Edmund’s ER, George Boggs felt worse than he could ever remember—in pain despite having been doped-up, and apprehensive despite having been told by two doctors, a nurse and an aide that his life was in no danger.

The aide, though, had qualified her statement.

“But I’m not a doctor, you realize.”

And the nurse was a guy… with an earring.

·

“I feel awful.”

“I can imagine,” detective Fred Lassman said. “Tell me how it happened.”

“He just…”

“From the beginning.”

“Oh. Well, I’m in my apartment, see…”

“When was this?”

“Five-thirty, five-forty maybe.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Normally I eat around seven—seven or even eight, ya know? But for some reason I was feeling hungry, so…”

“You can skip that. Get to the meat.”

Meat? Is that some kind of a joke?” Boggs felt dismay to think his problem might be a subject for gustatory humor, but the cop shook his head.

“Well, er… So I go down to the lobby, and there’s usually somebody hangin’ around, and maybe I’ll see if anyone wants to go along, ya know? But there’s nobody, so I head for the doors…”

“Doors?”

“Double doors.”

“Okay.”

“Are you recording this?”

“Certainly.”

“You don’t write stuff down any more? I watch Dragnet, ya know? Well, not much now, but I used to get the reruns and…”

“Hold on—can we just have the facts, mister?”

George looked at the cop, and the cop looked back at him. They both laughed until George groaned.

“I can’t believe I said that,” the cop said.

Man! Now I know what they mean, It only hurts when I laugh. Hurts more, that is.”

“Get on with it, please.”

“Okay. So I head for the doors and this guy busts in…”

“Looks?”

“Sure, naturally I looked.”

“No, what were his looks?”

“Oh, sorry. Tall, skinny, dressed kinda casual but not too criminal, if ya know what I mean.”

“So, no hoodie.”

“That’s right.”

“Race?”

“Movin’ pretty fast, yeah.”

“No! I mean, what was his race.”

“Oh. White guy. And he was carrying—in one hand, ya know, down by his side—like this limp piece of fur. And I look and see it’s some kind of animal…”

“An animal—go on.”

“So I say, Whatcha doin’ with the weasel?

“Yeah?”

“And he says, right like this: It’s not a weasel, it’s a marten. Then he shoots me.”

“I see… Was it a marten?”

“Looked like a weasel to me, for crying out loud!”

“You a zoo-ologist?”

Zo-ologist.”

“Sorry. Are you?”

“No! So why’d he have to shoot me? Not like it was a mink, fer gawdsake!”

“Or maybe a ferret.”

“Sure, or a skunk or something. Wolverine, even. All related, ya know.”

“Badger?”

“That too, could be. Or an otter.”

“And you’re not a zoologist.”

“Like I said.”

“Maybe he is.”

Chapter 2 – Lorayne

When Lassman arrived at oh-seven-hundred next morning, the office—a high-ceilinged dingy room, dimly lit by dusty fluorescent fixtures—was practically empty, everyone else either late or getting coffee and doughnuts. He squeezed into his cubicle, flicked on the desk lamp, sat and opened his case to extract the recorder and notes he’d made last night before hitting the sack.

“…Lassman…” A harsh nasal voice penetrated his concentration.

Lorayne! What the… He grimaced—he’d have to deal with her this morning.

“I don’t blame you,” one of the women replied in a bored tone.

“…Lassman… ever… out wi…!”

What was she gassing about? He’d never asked her out—never would. Not if she begged on bended knees, he assured himself.

“Yeah,” Lorayne repeated, coming nearer, “Not if he was the lass man on Earth.”

Some giggles and the group broke up, Lorayne continuing to her own cubicle—against a wall, larger than his, and with higher partitions. There to gloat, no doubt, about her victory over another poor soul attracted by her remarkable sexuality. And getting in a cut at Lassman himself while doing it.

Or maybe he was paranoid. But I’ve got good reason to be, he told himself.

Lassman blushed once again to remember his first encounter with her, shortly after she had started two years back.

·

The young woman had walked away from a group after relating her spirited response to an approach by a lecher, and Lassman—though on the shady side of thirty-five, yet hoping to gain the notice of this aphrodisiacal newcomer—had fallen into step, choosing a confidential tone.

“Let me tell you, Lorayne, I really admire your scruples.”

She abruptly halted to glare at him, teeth bared in fierce outrage.

“You shut your dirty mouth, bastard!

Shocked and astonished, it took a day before he realized the word scruples might have meant… meant who knew what, to someone so stupid? He’d never since approached her except on work issues.

Adding to his chagrin, this shunning seemed to bother her not the slightest.

·

And now he needed to deal with her again. Blast!

Get it over with, he told himself, wriggling out of the cubicle to go see head detective Casimir Ferguson.

Ferguson, who couldn’t have been in for more than ten minutes, already had two dead fags in his ashtray and seemed to be working on his second coffee… unless the empty cup was from yesterday.

“I need to get a sketch.”

Ferguson took a deep drag and blew smoke. “The weasel thing?”

“Yeah.”

“So get it.”

“Lorayne’s not stacked up?” Lassman said, looking for a smile because A), Lorayne was definitely stacked, and B), she always claimed to be behind in her work.

Ferguson duly responded with a slight widening of his mouth.

“Even so, Fred, this is important. Tell her to get on it.”

Lassman ran a hand through his thinning hair and mentally girded up his loins to stalk toward Lorayne’s cubicle. The door, as usual, was closed, and he flipped it open in hopes of catching her at some misbehavior.

She jerked back from her desk. “Hey, dope! Ya almost made me spill my polish.”

“I need a sketch. Right away at Saint Ed’s.”

He held out a paper with Bogg’s name—which she refused to notice, rolling back against the desk and dipping the brush into a bottle of pale pink lacquer.

“Go right over. If he’s out of ER, check to see what room. “I need it quick like a bunny.”

“Tell the boss.”

“I have, so get to it.”

She flicked an angry glance at him but deigned to look at the paper.

“D’you have any idea how much…” she began.

“Now means now!

“Tell the goon ta come over here.”

“He’s in the hospital, for crying out loud. In bed with a bullet in his gut. Take your kit and go see him!

Her air of disgust was palpable. “Fine! I got two nails yet, then I’ll go.”

“Thank gawd,” Lassman mumbled, turning to leave.

“When they’re dry,” she called after him.

Chapter 3 – Redo

Next morning after canvassing Boggs’ building—seven apartments besides the man’s own—Lassman accepted defeat. Not a soul admitted to hearing or seeing anything, nor had the manager/maintenance guy even been in the building. Lassman stood outside near the entrance in hopes of either seeing something or having someone stop to offer evidence but no dice. He checked nearby apartment buildings and businesses to ask of anyone suspicious-looking or running away at the time of the shooting, but no one could help.

Boggs had been writhing on the floor right after the shooting and had no idea in which direction his assailant had fled, or even if the man had fled.

Lassman took a turn up the block across the street and back down again, searching hard for surveillance cameras but saw none. What the hell?

He could only think of going to the news media with Lorayne’s sketch. That and maybe checking with institutions and psych-benders to ask about men with some kind of animal fetish—assuming their privacy ethics would even let them give info. If only there was a record of similar behavior in the files… There might be but he remembered nothing like it

He took an early lunch.

[ * ]

Back at HQ he was astounded to find Lorayne’s sketch on his desk. But then he looked at it.

Over to Ferguson—and after a rap on the unlatched door just in case the man was napping, Lassman entered and stood by the desk.

“Lorayne finished her sketch,” he said, his voice flat.

“She’s quick, no doubt of that. Let’s see it.”

Lassman handed it over.

“Take a pew,” Ferguson said, studying the paper. “Whadaya think, release it to the news?”

“Take a look at it.”

“Looks fine. A pro job as usual. Once she gets going on something…”

“The guy’s black.”

Ferguson looked up. “Yeah?”

“The perp ain’t black, Kaz.”

Ferguson glanced again at the sketch, frowning now. “Fred?”

“Yeah?”

“The features are white—Caucasian, I oughta say. Siciliano maybe? Indian… from India-type Indian?”

“Check his hair.”

Ferguson fumbled on his desk, picking out Lassman’s written report.

“Yeah, I see where you got Caucasian checked here. The vic sure about it?”

“I specifically asked.”

“Huh!”

“She ought to be fired.”

“Now, Fred—you know that’s not going to happen.”

Yeah, Lassman thought, and I know why, too. Rather, both he and Ferguson knew who. Her friend, higher in the department, was suspected by almost everyone.

And Ferguson was smiling, reinforcing Lassman's belief the man enjoyed these intra- departmental squabbles.

·

On the way to Lorayne’s cubicle Lassman wasn’t particularly unhappy. Quite the contrary, in fact. He’d been waiting for this day and only had to make sure he didn’t overplay his hand.

He opened Lorayne’s door and stepped in.

“What’re you after?”

“Your sketch…”

“Just put it there. “ She nodded toward a pile on the desk next to her drafting board, waiting for him to leave. When he failed to, she half turned her head. “Well?” she said, her tone medium-belligerent.

“A few details need changing.”

She swiveled her chair to face him, crossing her arms over her chest. “Like what?”

“Oh… minor stuff but important.”

“Oh yeah?” She sounded skeptical. “Well, like what?”

Lassman struggled to suppress a grin. “Let’s go see the victim together—head down there right now.”

“What? No way.”

“Way! Right now. Bring the sketch and let’s go.”

“I ain’t ridin’ with you!”

“Correct. You leave immediately and wait for me at the front desk. Don’t go to his room till I get there.”

She leaped to her feet. “I’m gonna see Kaz.”

Lassman shrugged. “Be my guest, but make it quick.”

She glared at him, assessing body language—then licked her lips, threw her head back and strode toward the locker room. Lassman smiled. Round One might have been a draw but Round Two was all his.

[ * ]

Lorayne awaited him near the reception counter, resentment showing in every line of her body. He asked the Gray Lady for George Boggs’ room number and got it but…

“These aren’t regular visiting hours for that ward, I’m afraid.”

“Police business.” He showed his card.

“Second elevator,” the elderly volunteer told him.

As Lassman followed Lorayne to the elevator—and soon down the fourth-floor corridor—he became aware of how warm it was. She was like a primitive sex fetish come to life—merely half-pretty, complexion muddy and a bit rough, her wavy black hair lusterless, though perfect teeth and large eyes gave her face life.

Her figure, the key feature, was voluptuous and highly feminine, the rear view earning her the nickname of Sweet-tush. From his position a few steps behind, high heels and a stiff-legged strut demonstrated remarkable action.

“Hold it,” he said as she approached the door.

Boggs was the only occupant, on the bed near the window out of which he gazed in deadly boredom. His face lit up as he turned to Lassman.

“Detective!”

“How are you, Mister Boggs?”

“Oh, I’m…” The man shrank into the bedclothes as Lorayne entered the field of view, and his voice went thin. “…okay, I guess.”

“Fine. And you know Miss Nicolescu, of course.”

“Evening, miss,” Boggs whispered.

Lorayne made no response.

“Show him what you’ve done,” Lassman told her.

She opened her book and thrust the sketch at Boggs, who looked briefly before glancing at Lassman.

“What do you think,” Lassman said, feeling a thrill inside.

“It’s not exactly…”

“What’s that? Speak a bit louder.”

Boggs seemed to gain resolve from Lassman’s taking charge.

“It’s, er… it’s not quite right.”

“Not right? Be more specific, please.”

“The, the guy…”

“The perpetrator, you mean?”

“Yeah. He was a white guy.”

“White. The perpetrator was white? Anything else?”

“The hair.”

“What about the hair?”

“He mighta had a hat on.”

“Would you describe it?”

“I was kinda busy, ya know, what with taking one in the gut and falling down and stuff like that.”

“We perfectly understand. Go on, please.”

“And the hair… I couldn’t see much, ya know, cuz he had on this kind of watch cap, ya know?”

“Pulled down or on top of his head?”

“Up high so some of his hair stuck out, and it was straight, I think.”

“Good enough. Color?”

“Maybe navy blue.”

Hair color.”

“Oh! Brown or black, I guess. His eyebrow was dark, I think. Kinda hard to…”

“I understand. What about the rest of it? Shape of the face, the nose, the mouth?”

“Looks pretty close.” His eyes shifted to Lorayne and his voice fell. You actually done a real nice job, miss—just these few things.”

Lorayne’s nostrils expanded but she showed no other reaction.

“Except,” Boggs continued, “the nose.”

“Thinner?” Lassman said.

Lots thinner.”

Lassman took the sketch and handed it to Lorayne.

“First thing tomorrow? Might as well get a start on it now.”

She ripped it from his hand, spinning and charging from the room. Lassman turned back to Boggs.

Wow!” Boggs said.

“Did we get everything?”

“Think so.”

“I’ll give you another look before we put it out. That’s about all the evidence we have… and your statement, of course. Any idea how she came to miss those details?”

“That gal…” Boggs voice was low.

“Yes?”

“Scared me.”

Lassman’s eyebrows rose.

“She leans over me, practically sticking those big… And then I see the look on her… I almost screamed!”

Lassman frowned but Boggs continued, his voice urgent.

“If it hadn’t been daylight… You ever seen them vampire movies, or read books about the female ones? They come after you like… I always used to laugh when I’d see a story about women rapin’ a guy, but…” Boggs’ voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “I thought she’d suck the blood right outa me.”

Lassman straightened, dismay on his face.

Poor jerk, he thought. They’ll tear him apart in court.

Chapter 4 – Action on the Northern Front

Around ten-hundred next morning Lassman sat in his cubicle, nerving himself up to go after Lorayne for the sketch.

From behind came, “Kaz wants you.”

“Huh?”

“Now!” Lorayne added.

He shoved his chair back, feeling bile rise. She’d beaten him to the punch.

·

Lassman stood in the doorway, urging himself to be calm. Before him was a scene of dissolute living—a full ashtray and several cardboard cups.

“C’mon in,” Ferguson said, a burning cigarette in one hand as he held out the sketch. “Whadaya say to this?”

Lassman looked hard for a mistake before grudgingly admitting, “Alright, I guess, far as a shot-up guy can describe anyone.”

“Best we can hope for, and they usually have problems in recollection.”

“I suppose. He’s got cheekbones, though.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“The vic—Boggs—didn’t say anything, but I guess it can go out.”

“You’re gonna get to use it sooner than that.”

Lassman raised one brow.

“Similar deal in Quaker Heights,” Ferguson said, “and they’re willing to give us a look-see.”

“I’ll be darned. Check in with their chief, I suppose?”

“All taken care of. Go right to North Foster, off the Interstate.” He handed Lassman a note.

“This is a break, Kaz. We’ve got practically nothing on the Boggs deal.”

“Let’s hope Lorayne’s enough Rembrandt to get us a match.”

Lassman felt encouraged, going down the hall. A lead of this nature, assuming a corroborating identification, was the best to hope for, and doubled the chances of gaining a response from putting the sketch on the news.

As physically lethargic as Ferguson was, his mental equipment stayed active and quick—he’d heard a scanner report and immediately called the chief in Quaker. Lassman attributed that alertness to massive intakes of caffeine and nicotine.

[ * ]

The weather in Bedford City was fine for the time of year—clear, cool, breezy but not windy, the sky a delicate smog gray. Traffic was moderate and unhurried. A fine day, in other words, for taking a giant step toward solving one more pesky crime

Boggs, when Lassman entered his room, was seated on the edge of his bed. He gave a start, twisting to see behind Lassman, then put a hand to his belly with a moan.

“So, Mister Boggs—they’ve let you up!”

She’s not with ya?”

“No, nothing like that. I brought the reworked sketch.” Lassman opened the oversize folder, turning to allow Boggs to glimpse it. “What do you say?”

“Fine, fine,” Boggs muttered, barely looking.

“There are cheekbones, you see.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Do they look right?”

“Sure, sure.”

“You didn’t mention them to me.”

“Is she… That is, does she have to come back?”

Lassman’s heart sank a little. “Not if it looks okay.”

“Well it’s… it’s okay, I guess.”

Lassman paused, scratching his nose. “If you see a need to make any minor change, I’ll pass it on. She doesn’t need to come here.”

“Uh-huh, uh-huh. Really?”

“Sure.”

“Well, uh… Well, I could be wrong, ya know.”

“Certainly. Go ahead, now.”

“I don’t remember any cheekbones, but I was down on the floor, ya know.”

Lassman nodded in what he hoped was an understanding matter. “I understand.”

“And the hair—it’s like…”

“Too long, perhaps?”

“That’s right, and too shiny. I don’t remember shiny hair, but…”

“Writhing on the floor.”

“You got it.”

“Good enough. Thanks for your help, Mister Boggs.”

“And she don’t have to come here again?”

“Doubt it.”

“Thank you, detective.”

[ * ]

Arriving near 1485 North Foster Lassman parked well down the street from any emergency vehicle, pulling into a small strip mall and hiking up a slight incline to the address. He ducked under yellow tape and approached a glass door which sported large bullet holes and radiated a thousand cracks.

A beefy arm in blue abruptly extended.

“No entry. What’s yer business?”

Lassman proffered his ID. “I want to talk with Detective Gorrell.”

“No can do, mac—he’s busy. Go see HQ.”

The blue hadn’t glanced at the ID. Lassman stepped onto the threshold, giving The Look.

“Gorrell,” he enunciated slowly. “I want to see him now.”

The patrolman’s eyes flicked down to the ID and back to take in The Look. After a long second he began to move inward, saying huskily…

“I’ll, uh, go ask.”

·

“Detective Lassman?” A hand shot out.

“Fred Lassman.”

“Art Gorrell. You made it real quick.”

“Just a short stop, then right up here.”

“Traffic.”

“Not much.”

“Well.” Gorrell swept his arm from left to right.

The shallow lobby was halfway toward being a shambles—glass and splinters on the floor, bullet holes in the wall and ceiling, the counter smashed and dented, even the back wall showing damage.

“Holy mackerel, Andy!” Lassman said in awe.

“Arthur.”

“What?”

“It’s Arthur. Art for short.”

“No, I mean… It’s a line from a radio show.”

“Radio?”

“Old radio, old show. Hey! Have you checked the video yet?” A camera sat high in one corner.

“Nah, that got it too.”

“Too bad. What happened, the guy come in here with a automatic rifle?”

“Heh-heh! Heh-heh-heh-heh!”

“What is it?”

“Too good to waste,” Gorrell said. “I’ll let you talk to the owner.”

They went through a doorway in the back wall into a storage room and office where a policewoman was administering coffee. In a decrepit swivel chair sat a spare but vigorous-looking old man with white hair and an angular jaw. Furs in various shades hung all over the walls, the air holding a strange odor. Strange odors, in fact. Skunk, maybe?

“Anything hurt back here?” Lassman asked.

“Not much, I guess,” Gorrell said, “but who can tell?”

The policewoman swivel-hipped past, giving Gorrell an eye-roll and strange expression.

“This,” Gorrell said, “is Mister Pointer, the proprietor and victim of the attempted… Attempted we don’t know what, just yet—robbery, assault, whatever.”

“It’s Poniatowski,” the man said. “Ponter’s for business.”

“Is he hurt?” Lassman thought the old guy should be headed for hospital.

“Apparently not. The EMTs looked him over, and not a scratch.”

“The other guy ain’t so lucky,” Pointer/Poniatowski said. “But I gotta admit, I’m a little shook. I ain’t shot at nobody since Nam.”

Lassman stared from him to Gorrell.

Gorrell said, “This is Detective Lassman from downtown Bedford—gonna give us a hand. Why don’t you describe what happened?”

“Well, like I told you, this jackass come in here with a handful of white pelts, and I says to him, Well now, short-tailed stoats, huh? And he says, These ain’t stoats, they’re ermine.”

What!” Lassman interjected. “Were they?”

“Sure—I guess I know my business alright.”

“No, were they stoats or ermine?”

Both, acourse. Ermine is the winter phase.”

“Huh? Then why’d you say…?”

“Kinda makin’ a joke, for one thing. And they mighta been dyed mink, ya know.”

“All related,” Lassman said.

“You’re right there, sonny. All in the weasel family, from sea-otter to bear-cat.”

“Bear-what?”

“Bear-cat. Wolverine in other words. Or glutton, the old-timers called ‘em.”

Lassman was speechless for a second before asking, “What next?”

“Something about his look… And he was reaching for his waist, so I hit the deck. He shoots but it misses me by plenty, and quick like nothin’ I get out Old Betsy.”

Betsy.”

“Webley four-fifty-five with mark-two cartridges. Big old man-stoppers.”

“Go on.”

“He leans over the counter but I’m ready for him, and crank one off. He misses.”

“Hit him?”

“Mighta nicked his cheek, cuz he jerks back and I don’t see him no more.”

“I see. Then what?”

“Well, he’s shootin’ and I’m shootin’ and… And then I’m empty, so I grab Black Bart, scootin’ on my backside to reach him…”

Black what?

“Nineteen-eleven ay-one forty-five cal.”

“Oh—the old military pistol.”

“At’s right. So he’s shootin’ and I’m shootin, and, er… Well, I run out of ammo but I don’t hear him no more, so I ease up real slow-like, and see he’s gone. And I’m leanin’ there kinda dazed when the guy next door yells for me, and I say, Call the cops. And that’s about it.”

Lassman frowned, looking at the tremendous damage, especially to the front and back of the counter. “How many rounds total did you get off?”

“Well, it’d be fourteen, I guess, cuz I always leave a round in the chamber of Bart.”

“Any idea how many hits you got?”

Hell no, man! D’ya think I’m gonna stick my head up? I was aimin’ where I figured he’d be, and hopin’ he’d run outa shots ‘fore I did.”

Poniatowski seemed upset, red-faced and breathing hard. Gorrell gave Lassman the high sign, and they returned to the lobby.

“Forensics been here?” Lassman said.

“They didn’t find much. EMTs were before them, and other people in and out. No useful footprints on the glass, no blood, one possible palm-print on the counter where maybe the perp leaned to take his first shot.”

“All this damage…”

“We figure the perp got off maybe two shots with a twenty-two, though we need to check more, specially where all those pelts are hung.”

“You mean…?”

“Yep, Most likely he skipped immediately after the old boy put one near his head. And everything else—including the video recorder…” Gorrell nodded toward the rear room.

Wow!

“Wow is right. Old fella made sure, didn’t he?”

Lassman chortled for a few seconds.

Gorrell said, “You can see how he made it safe outa Vietnam, cantcha?”

“Couple more loaded guns and the ceiling would’ve come down.”

“He got a car out front, too.”

·

“Had your laugh, did you?” Poniatowski growled.

Lassman glanced at Gorrel before saying, “Better safe than sorry, I always figure.”

“Damn right!” Gorrell added. “Lead’s cheaper than hospital stays.”

“Yeah, well…”

Lassman took the sketch from its folder. “Look at this, Mister Poniatowski. Seem familiar?”

“I was kinda busy, you know.”

“We realize that.”

“But more or less, I guess.”

“He have a hat on?”

“Didn’t see one. Say… What’re these things on the sides unner his eyes?”

“Uh, cheekbones.”

“Really? He wasn’t no chink, ya know.”

After a bit more chit-chat Gorrell suggested they leave.

But Poniatowski said, “One thing.”

Gorrell halted. “What else.”

“That girl—policewoman?”

“Yeah?”

“Just wanna tell you how nice she was.”

“Good to hear it.”

“I was a bit… I dunno—excited?”

“Understandably.”

“She swabbed my face for me, talked real calm to me. I could feel my heart slow down as she was doin’ it.”

“That’s fine.”

“Got me a coffee while she’s takin’ all the personal info—askin’ about my family and my background.”

“That’s her job.”

“She oughta get a commendation.”

“Really? Uh, I’ll be sure to pass this on to her supervisor.”

“She deserves it. Nice looking, too.”

“I’ll definitely pass on what you’re saying.”

“Not single is she?”

Chapter 5 – No rest For the… Whoever

“What the hell happened here?” Lorayne’s nostrils flared till Lassman feared she might expose her tonsils.

“The old guy got a little excited, and I couldn’t rescue it quickly enough.”

“So what am I sposta do, draw it all over again?”

“He’d just been through a gunfight, Lorayne—bullets flying all over! What was he supposed to do?”

“What do I care?”

“And your fabulous cheekbones? Get rid of ‘em.”

“I will NOT! They stay.”

“Two witnesses didn’t see them.”

“Yeah? So what!

Lassman headed toward Ferguson’s office.

·

Without preliminaries he said, “Got another problem with Lorayne, Kaz.”

Ferguson butted a cigarette. “Life or death, Fred?”

“Well…”

Ferguson handed him a paper. “Scoot over there—place in near southwest. Forensics is held up by a request for a warrant. See what you can do.”

“Not another one!”

“This guy never rests. Assuming it’s him, of course.”

“Good Lord!”

“Better hurry—almost quitting time.”

Right, Lassman said to himself as he left, give it to me a half hour before quitting time.

Nearing his cubbyhole he heard voices raised.

A deep voice said, “Get yer butt in gear, ya dumb broad!”

And Lorayne whining, “I gotta…”

Lassman flung the door open. In a chair directly across from him slouched a big greasy guy in motorcycle leathers—tatts on his arms and face, nose ring, dangly earrings, iron cross on a necklace, small-billed cap tilted on his long-haired poll. They exchanged glares until Lorayne said…

“Get outa here, Lassman!”

Lassman turned The Look on the tattooed one, glaring extra hard. “Who is this, Lorayne, and what’s he doing here?”

“None a yer business, that’s who. Now get outa here.”

The guy began to straighten up and Lassman took a guess, still employing The Look, his voice hard.

“What’s your parole status?”

“Huh? It’s fine, jus’ fine.” Greasy straightened all the way, pulling his feet in.

Lorayne’s tirade continued but neither man paid attention.

“Let’s see I D.”

The guy licked his lips while digging through a chained pouch. Lassman took the ID card into his cubicle to make a phone call, the voices across the hall dropping as the guy attempted to shush Lorayne.

In a couple minutes Lassman had a laugh with the felon’s parole officer, learning the guy was on early release from a conviction for attempted armed robbery.

“Pocket knife,” the parole officer said, “and he ran off before he got anything. Behaved real well in prison, too.”

·

Lassman returned the I D. “You’re not allowed in here.”

“I unnerstan’, sir.”

Lorayne did not, however. “You dumb blankety-blank, Lassman.”

“Shuddup!” The guy told her, raising his arm as if threatening a backhand slap.

“None of that,” Lassman warned.

“Sorry, officer.”

Lorayne thrust her chair back, eyes flashing. “He come here for me, you dumb…”

“Escort him to the lobby, Lorayne, and don’t ever bring anyone back here without permission.”

She opened her mouth to respond but the guy grabbed her shoulder.

Lassman waved them out. “And where’s the sketch?”

“Find it yourself!” was her parting shot.

A copy was underway on the drafting board. He found the original and a folder to put it in before taking the back entrance to parking.

·

Maxon Street was in a marginal area next to what once had been called The slums, then The colored section but now The ghetto. The address was a narrow three-story sandstone with shared walls—light brown turned mostly black due to ancient bituminous coal usage and newer vehicle exhaust.

Two blues awaited him.

“You have the warrant, detective?” the clean-cut one asked.

Lassman shook his head. “Call forensics.”

“He,” the cop swung an arm toward the interior, “won’t let us in the room.”

“Call ‘em anyhow,” Lassman ordered, stepping through the entrance toward a sullen dumpy man in green work clothes.

“You had that attended to?”

“This?” The man raised a wrapped left hand. “Not ezackly.”

“How serious is it?”

“He missed me and I’m runnin’ away. Scraped it on a door latch.”

“Let’s see his room.”

“I tole these guys—nobody gets in less there’s…” He paused as The Look began to take effect.

Lassman said, “How’d it be if we left now, and then came back after he’s had another crack at you?”

Dumpy man, by his expression still thinking hard, slowly turned and led to the elevator, snatching a plastic bag from the floor.

“He dropped this one.”

Inside a clear zippered bag which might previously have held a sofa pillow was a dark fur. Without looking, Lassman handed it to the officer behind him.

“How many was he carrying?”

They entered the elevator and Dumpy shrugged. “Whole armful.”

“We got some of this down, detective—from what he said before.”

Lassman nodded to the officer, asking Dumpy, “Where’d you confront him?”

“Front-what?”

“Where were you when he shot at you?”

“Out there,” Dumpy said, indicating the rapidly receding lobby. “He comes outa this very elevator…”

“Rushing?”

Dumpy gave a puzzled look. “I dunno, man—we don’t ask where they come from or nothin’. Pay in advance.”

Lassman looked a question at the blues.

“I imagine he thinks you said Russian, tec. Got a hearing problem, maybe.”

Lassman had his own ideas as to what the man’s problem was.

·

Upon reaching the designated room Lassman shunted everyone to one side, put on latex gloves and took the key from Dumpy. He reached from the side to unlock the door, gently pushing it open.

“Police!” he called, then peered past the jamb. Seeing and hearing nothing, he took out his father’s thirty-eight police special—a firearm that had never in a generation and a half fired a shot in anger—and pushed the door wide.

·

With the two patrolmen standing guard over the empty room, Lassman took Dumpy back to the ground floor to await forensics. He was shown the fatal door latch at the rear of the lobby, and a scrape on its metal door from the missed shot.

“Only one bullet?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Stairs led downward.

“Where’d you go?”

“My apartment’s down there, and I locked the door. But then I figured he might come after me, so I come out and hide behind the furnace.”

“How long before you called in the crime?”

“Maybe half hour or so.” Catching Lassman’s sidewise glance, he defended himself. “How’d I know what he’s gonna do? Coulda been waitin’ on me to come out.”

“So he had a good half hour start before we even heard about it.”

“I dunno—maybe.”

Chapter 6 – Time Off

At The Porterhouse Diner—a place that wouldn’t know how to cook a steak if they’d raised it from a calf—Lassman studied the menu, a stained document usually stored in clips behind the condiment rack. It was snatched from his hands and returned to the rack simultaneously with a glass of water being set on the table.

“You ready to order yet?”

He sighed. “Number five, I guess,” he told Gloria, a skinny woman of forty or so with features beginning to crease—bottle blond, wearing a blue-checked dress, tiny white apron and white sneakers—still attractive despite the weight of years.

He flicked the glass, speaking from the side of his mouth. “Why can’t you ever put an ice cube in this?”

“Why can’t you order without studyin’ the card? You sure got it down pat by now.”

He’d been eating supper here four days a week for more than three years, starting shortly after his mother passed away. Fridays he treated himself to a more gracious form of cuisine, and on weekends foraged in his own pantry.

“Sides,” Gloria continued, “you know it ain’t our policy to pamper customers. Coffee?”

Lassman nodded.

“Fries?”

Lassman again nodded.

“See,” he said, “you’ve got it memorized, too.”

·

She returned with a mug of coffee, a glass containing four cubes of ice, and a small plastic bowl holding a tossed salad.

“What’s this?”

“Figured you need some green stuff.”

“I’m not paying for this.”

“You can’t beat the price, believe me. Seems there’s a little problem with the bread, so it’s to make up. He…” she nodded toward the kitchen, “got his order in late.”

“What?” He felt a small stab of fear, not liking change. “You can’t have a reuben without rye!”

“It’s rye—just no seeds.”

What? You can’t have rye bread without caraways!”

A couple of other diners turned to look.

Gloria patted his shoulder. “Easy there, scout. Just eat your bunny food and hope for the best. Go on—try it.”

Lassman studied the green jumble. “What’s on it?”

“Dressing, acourse.” She thought fast. “House ranch… or somethin’.”

He touched the tip of one tine to a glob, cautiously bringing a drop to his tongue.

“Oh, fer gawd’s sake,” she said, “you act like a little kid!”

The customers again rotated their heads, ready to have their repast livened by minor drama.

Lassman stabbed a leaf, working to fold it double before putting it in his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully.

“Well?” Gloria said.

“It’s okay.”

“I figgered you’d like it.”

“What about the caterpillar?”

He got her to look but response was quick.

“No extra charge, hon.”

·

The other customers paid and left. Gloria bussed their table, coming out of the kitchen with his bill and a slice of pie.

“Lemon, huh—that all you have?”

“All I have what you’d want.”

She perched a bony hip on the chair opposite.

“You’re lookin’ down, Fred.”

“I’m feeling down—this lousy fur case.”

“You gonna tell me about it?”

“You want to hear about it?”

“No, but if you gotta talk I figure I gotta do somethin’ to earn my tip.”

“Heck with you then.”

She continued to stare at him—elbow on table, chin on fist.

He finished his sandwich, ate a last fry, sipped some water, wiped mouth and fingers on a paper napkin. Then…

“Off this weekend?”

“You know we close Sunday.”

“Want to see a play?”

“What is it—Shakespeare or some highfalutin thing?”

“Hillbilly musical.”

“Country? I like that well enough. What’s it called?”

“Something about a bride and robbery, or maybe robbery and a bride.”

Good grief! Right up your alley, then… Is there a meal involved in this deal?”

“Dutch treat okay? I’ll call you tomorrow if you’ll write down your number.”

She snatched a napkin from the rack and scribbled on the back.

“But if it’s Dutch, don’t waste your nickel.”

He mimicked her pose, and they looked at one another.

“You need something, Fred.”

“What makes you think so?”

“The way you look, plus the fact you’re sittin’ here starin’ at me.”

He slid left to ease away from a crack in the Naugahyde. “You live alone, right?”

“With my brother. And, unfortunately, my sister-in-law.”

“Huh!”

“But there’s a couple a kids, and I figger some day they’ll want relief from their cranky maw, and then I’ll get my share of attention.”

“Not a lot to look forward to.”

She shrugged and leaned back. “It is what it is.”

“You ever… think of getting married, Gloria?”

“Oh, I’ve thought of a lot of things, hon.”

He continued to stare, putting her on edge, used to his tricks though she was.

“What are you getting at, Fred?”

A thought began to form in his mind—something along the order of, I’m not getting any younger.

“When do you plan to retire?”

She smiled and looked to one side. “I can go on Social in about twenty.”

His thoughts ran on. She’s no raving beauty but I get along with her. Still, ten or a dozen years difference. On the other hand, women outlast men in any case.

“I’m forty-one, Fred, if you wanna know. What are you gettin’ at?”

So only four years, he thought. And I can retire on thirty in less than nineteen. A pretty good pension and there’s savings besides. The house is free and clear—don’t owe anyone.

“Fred! …You awake?”

“Oh… Just the thought of being in a rut. Eat here every night, go home to a big empty house. Go to work…”

“Same with everybody, ain’t it?”

“Empty house—that’s the problem.”

“How the heck big is it?”

“Small, actually, but big for one person, of course.”

Gloria forced herself to chuckle, half sensing what he was getting at. “Tell you what, Fred—I think you miss your mom.”

“My dad, too. I’m not ashamed of that—I’m lonely.”

She frowned and stood, easing toward the kitchen. “See you Sunday, maybe.”

[ * ]

Lassman drove home—not very far—to his little story-and-a-half on a forty-foot lot. It would be cold inside, and not only because he lowered the thermostat when leaving in the morning. It was small—small living room, small kitchen and breakfast nook, three small bedrooms and a small bath.

But one person merely rattled around in the place.

Gloria was easy to get along with. They’d gone out three—no, four—times since his mother’s funeral—two restaurants, a bad movie, dancing at a respectable roadhouse. Strictly social. She looked older than himself, he figured, but no one had mistaken her for his mother. He’d attempted no romance nor had she seemed to invite any. Just a pal who’d eased his early intense loneliness.

On the other hand…

[ * ]

They dined at a somewhat fancier place than he would have ordinarily picked, Lassman altering his first choice when he saw how Gloria had dressed. Not high-style by any means but in a classy flattering outfit—heels and black slacks made her hips look slim rather than bony, a high-necked, long-sleeved silky blouse in a champagne tone went well with her coloring, the ruffled front enhancing a modest bosom. In the restaurant’s dim lighting she appeared younger.

And what better had he to offer? Ordinary looks, prematurely balding, his suit off the rack and less than well-fitted. Instead of him doing her a favor maybe it was the other way round. And she was jolly as always, ready with small jokes and repartee.

He said, “You’re in a good mood tonight.”

“Ain’t I usually? Can’t take life too serious, I figure. You’re lookin’ better yourself.”

“A couple day’s rest.”

“That job keep your interest?”

“Pretty much, but frustrating. Mostly routine stuff, the same petty crimes over and over.”

“You’d think folks’d learn.”

“There’s always a new generation coming along, ready to make the same stupid mistakes.”

“Much dangerous stuff?”

“They mostly shoot each other. Domestics, though—those can be touchy. You’re invading a man’s castle, interfering with his rights as lord and master. And now the women are acting up more often.”

“What about the fur thing that was botherin’ you?”

“Going nowhere. I don’t even want to think about it.”

·

They were early at the theater, and once in their seats he again examined her.

“Whadaya starin’ at, cowboy?” She’d picked up on his recent mood—was responding to it.

“You look different.”

“Had my hair done.”

He put on a goofy look, touching his heart with his fingertips. “Just for me?”

She laughed. “Who else? No, it’s a regular appointment but I moved it up a week cuz of goin’ out. Look good?”

“Yeah, it does.”

But it had to be more than hair. Even under the bright pre-curtain lighting she looked younger—her skin smoother, more color in her face. She must have put on makeup—a touch of lipstick, at least, perhaps some delicate attention to her eyes. His tentative thoughts took on more form.

The theater filled, and they heard a bustle behind the curtain. A fiddle began to whine.

[ * ]

They let the crowd thin, staying in their seats—smiling but saying little before heading into the cool night air.

She clasped her arms and shivered theatrically. “Gettin’ chilly, ain’t it?”

They started toward his car.

“Whadaya think, ace?”

Lassman said,“So that’s bluegrass.”

“Sure is. Pretty great, huh?”

“A good play, and the music fit.”

“Sure did,” she said, skipping in a little dance, twirling and snapping her fingers. She stumbled and he reached out, his arm falling naturally around her waist. She was more of an armful than he’d expected, and his pulse rose. But only briefly, though he sensed she’d be happy to retain his arm.

She eyed him. “What’d you think of that little gal, huh? Somethin’, wasn’t she?”

·

There was the problem. The character of the heroine was a young girl living on a large wealthy plantation, ready for love but without prospects. She wanders off, complaining Ain’t nothin’ up! in a sweet hillbilly voice, and longing to meet a boy. She wanders into the woods and is accosted off-stage by the dark-faced robber—the Bandit of the Woods, no less—who robs her of her expensive clothing.

In the heavy, ornate costume of the pre-1800 period she had looked pleasant but not striking. Naked, she returns home, now on-stage. An opaque body suit did little to disguise a remarkably voluptuous figure, and Lassman’s thoughts deserted Gloria right in the middle of the first act, coming to focus on an idealized vision of Lorayne.

·

Gloria elbowed him. “Wasn’t she?”

“Uh… yeah, she was.” He knew the purpose behind the question, and struggled to change the arc of her thoughts. “She, uh… she had a real sweet voice with just the right twang, I thought.”

“Oh?” That wasn’t what Gloria had in mind. “Well, in any case, what song did you like best?”

“By her? Er, maybe the lullaby.”

“Oh yeah? Sure, that was nice, acourse, but I liked the one where she’s dreamin’ in bed, or maybe the one where she’s wanderin’ round the woods.”

Driving home, their conversation tapered away as Gloria absorbed his lack of response. At her home she apologized for being unable to invite him in, slipping from the car before he could beat her to the door. He got back behind the wheel, regretting having disappointed her but busy with other thoughts.

Chapter 7 – Get a Clue

Come Monday the office seemed dingier and dimmer than ever, and the work more tedious. The shopping area of Bedford city was, it seemed, having an epidemic of purse-snatchings and street robberies—gang related, the hierarchy believed, despite a lack of intelligence from usual sources. So far only minor violence had been utilized by the perpetrators—jostling, a few knockdowns, the display of knives and a few pistols—but who knew when it might escalate? Every officer—blue or plain-clothed—who wasn’t on a hot case would be patrolling, setting ambushes, spying from vantage points, scouting locations for surveillance cameras. So seriously was it looked upon that overtime was authorized and schedules altered to concentrate forces in the late afternoon through midnight hours.

The word came down Monday morning of a need for a few quick arrests, and before shift-change in the afternoon Lassman was hailed into Ferguson’s office. Despite heavy coffee rations and lit cigarettes in both the ashtray and one hand the man was in an evil humor, his lethargic style not adapting readily to an upset in routine. He eyed Lassman with an aggravated gaze.

“Take this.”

“What’s up?” said Lassman, glancing at the offered sheet.

“Faulkner County. Fur storage break-in.”

“Great! Beats this snoop work, at least.”

“Forget it—you’re not going. Just hang onto it.”

Lassman’s brows rose. “What! I’m being taken off?” He immediately assumed fault had been found with his progress.

“It’s dead. We’re not spending any more time on it, especially with these muggings.”

“But Kaz…”

“It’s dead! Nobody killed, no recent shootings, nothing happening in our jurisdiction. Put it in the cold file.”

“After all this work, all the evidence?”

“Plenty of work, for sure—but evidence? Your descriptions haven’t brought in any useful tips, ballistics has nothing…”

“Prints!”

“Same deal. Prints galore from the apartment and even the one store hit, but your perp isn’t on the record anywhere—must be a first-timer.”

“But what if…?” Ferguson’s scowl stopped his protest.

·

Late Tuesday afternoon arrived and found Lassman mentally girding his loins for his next boring evening patrol. He studied the schedu…

“Hey, jackass!”

Lorayne again! To irritate her he intensified his pose of interest in the papers on his desk.

“I know ya heard me, doofus. Fergie wants ya, so better get your fat butt in gear.”

This was too much to ignore. The idea of someone with Lorayne’s callipygian attributes criticizing his derriere went too far. He shoved back his chair, looking directly into her grinning face.

“You’ve got the manners of an ape,” he sneered.

“Oh yeah? Like yours is better!”

Disgruntled and feeling reckless, Lassman upped the ante.

“Did I say manners? I meant looks—the looks of an ape.”

Eek!

Eyes protruding, nostrils flared, teeth exposed—Lorayne thrust herself forward like a striking cobra. Lassman shot to his feet, tensing his muscles as he recalled George Boggs’ description of his encounter with her.

Yo-ouu…” she hissed. “Yo-oouuu!

·

Shaken in body and spirit, Lassman hesitated near Ferguson’s door. Not only had he let Lorayne startle him, he’d lowered himself to her level. In Heaven, from which she could see everything, his poor mother must be feeling embarrassment at his behavior. Besides, everyone in the office knew of his long-running snark-war with Lorayne, and now he’d provided the whole place with new ammunition for jokes at his expense.

He jerked open Ferguson’s door and entered so abruptly the man dropped his cigarette, scrambling on the desk to retrieve it before scorching papers.

What the hell, Fred!”

“I’ve had it with her! You gotta stop using that b… using her to send me messages.”

Ferguson quickly recovered both cigarette and mood, smiling sardonically.

“Easy there, old buddy. I simply like to keep her busy and out of trouble.”

“And me in trouble.”

“Yeah, I caught a few rumbles.” His smile widened. “And here she’s doing you a favor. What ingratitude, Fred!”

“Favor my…”

Ferguson held up a hand. “Favor right here.” He showed Lassman a paper.

“What is it?”

“A printout.”

“So I see, but what’s it got to do with anything?”

“It’s a screen capture of Drago’s-List. Read it—down near the middle.”

Lassman read but in his agitation failed to fully comprehend.

“Is this a joke or something? Drago means dragon, you know—like Dracula.”

Ferguson frowned. “I don’t know, and what’s more, I don’t care. It’s a lead… of sorts. Lorayne picked this up off her computer.”

“Screwing around instead of working?”

“Well… that’s not the point. You familiar with this outfit? It’s an advertising spot for everything from soup to nuts, including fast women and hot goods. So tell me what you see there.”

Too stirred-up to concentrate, it took Lassman three tries to absorb the words.

“C’mon, Kaz! You really think the guy is gonna post this where anybody can see it?”

“Just check it out, Fred. Get on the horn to him before you go on patrol.”

Peltzer—what kind of name is that?”

“It’s a moniker—a goofy alias. C’mon, Fred—at least make some kind of effort and show the poor girl we take her seriously.”

·

Poor girl, huh? And seriously! He’d take her seriously, alright, but not the way Ferguson meant.

Back in his cubicle he studied the listing, settling himself into a thoughtful frame of mind. Why not seriously? Why not treat the clue as he would a genuine lead, if only to embarrass Lorayne when it proved to be a farce?

It would take more than the casual phonecall Kaz had mentioned. For one thing, there was no phone number in the listing, only an email address and a demand for a code word. Give a syninym for what youre after.

Okay, so he would—poor English and all. And when his thorough efforts proved useless he’d play it up real big—not only rub Lorayne’s nose it in but give Kaz a workover as well.

He clicked on a search tab, looking for a thesaurus and wondering whether he should go for a general synonym for fur or a specific one for a type of fur. Marten, maybe? And come to think of it, he’d better send the reply from his home computer in order to have an anonymous return address—even go to the effort of further hiding his identity by opening a new email account.

Sure, he’d treat it seriously—as seriously as anyone could possibly want.

And if nothing better it might get him off some patrol duty.

[ * ]

Early Friday afternoon he made it back to the office after having booked the suspect and scheduled lineups. He’d missed lunch but felt too much satisfaction to care.

The exchange of emails had gone briskly, using pelage for his code word despite fearing it might be too advanced a synonym. But evidently the guy could also use a thesaurus, and response was swift.

Delaying the next email, he’d called Poniatowski for some pointers. Poniatowski figured the perp as ignorant—Or else he ain’t got a sense a humor—and would be impressed by someone who seemed knowledgeable.

Using the phrase, I’m a glutton for pelts, Lassman asked whether he was offering both American and Russian marten. Fine so far, and the third email resulted in an offer to meet. The guy was eager—all this accomplished in only two day’s time.

He went to the man’s apartment with another detective for backup but left him in the hallway. The furs were displayed, with Lassman looking wise but saying as little as possible lest he make a slip.

“Can I bring in my associate?” he’d said. The man refused, showing nervousness. Lassman then asked how the furs had been acquired, resulting in a further show of nerves and a questionable gesture. But Lassman was ready, displaying something of his own—his father’s police special. All went smoothly, and the pistol remained virginal.

·

The resulting arrest brought congratulations from Ferguson and most of the crew both upstairs and down. Not as if he’d solved the crime of the century, certainly, but everyone felt gratified to have taken this particular crazed zoologist off the street.

Now, standing in the hallway next to his cubicle, he nerved himself up to get past his next obstacle—dealing with Lorayne. His sense of rightness demanded he thank her, and a feeling of attraction—suppressed ever since the original confrontation with her—encouraged the move. He reached for the knob but withdrew, raising his hand to completely break with precedent.

He knocked before opening the door.

“Yeah,” she said with a cool look, “so what is it this time?”

She had to be aware. Rumors probably started yesterday after he’d cleared his arrest plan with Ferguson, and surely news of the criminal being in custody had been today’s biggest topic.

Lassman cleared his throat and licked his lips.

“Your tip… You know—the listing thing.”

Her features relaxed and a slight smile appeared.

He swallowed. “You, uh… that is… I mean, it all worked out.”

Her smile broadened. “Oh, it did, huh?” She rose and stretched herself, accenting certain of her physical charms. “So it helped ya?”

“I just want you to know that… that I appreciate…”

She stepped nearer, eyes demurely lowered. “You ain’t thinkin’ of askin’ me out, are ya?”

“No, no!” he rushed to explain. “What I… That is, I’ll see you get full credit. I mean, without your tip I’d of… You broke the case.” He managed to stop blathering as she stepped within his personal zone, gazing at him from beneath unnaturally long lashes. The thought intruded that an affordable bit of plastic surgery would surely improve her flawed complexion, and another bit would help the slightly spatulate nose.

Lorayne said, her voice low and husky. “J’ever think a girl’d maybe like to go out—have dinner or somethin’?”

Words froze in his mouth.

“I broke up with that guy,” she breathed, “so you don’t hafta worry about him.”

“I…”

Her smile intensified, became fully inviting. “So maybe sometime…”

Paralyzed, Lassman was unable to respond. Matters had advanced far beyond even his dreams.

“Sometime?” he finally managed to blurt.

“Yeah,” she said, raising her head to look him straight in the eyes. “Sometime—like maybe when hell freezes over!

He stood rooted, her laughter clanging in his ears as she pivoted away to stride down the hallway and repeat the joke to her cronies.

·

As the office emptied Lassman remained in his chair, leaning back and rocking gently while drumming the fingers of one hand on his desk. This had been his posture for half an hour after he’d stopped pretending to do paperwork.

Dave Sturgill, this morning’s backup, leaned in to slap his shoulder.

“Nice work today, buddy.”

Lassman made no acknowledgment. He knew even Sturgill had enjoyed Lorayne’s telling of the trap she’d baited.

As the last footsteps faded he reviewed his plans and found he had none. There was no way he could get even without making matters worse. He’d thought of refusing to respond to any messages passed to him through Lorayne but it would merely leave the impression he was a bad sport, giving greater credence to her version of events.

Thank goodness he’d been unable to make a positive response to her invitation. To think if he’d said something like, Would you go out with me? He’d be a complete laughing stock! It hadn’t been intellect—plain fear had prevented a glaring error.

No, there was nothing to do except admit to himself that she’d stung him good—to stand even more on his dignity in the future, while hoping the story faded rapidly. By Monday it would already be stale news for most.

He stopped his drumming, slowed his rocking and prepared to rise and do his weekly fine-dining stint. His informal schedule called for Bradan’s, a moderately upscale seafood house. Cod, haddock or sole was the only other decision needed, though he briefly teased with the thought of rainbow trout, something he’d never quite nerved himself up to try due to its being served head, skin and all.

Still, surely it was time to add some variation to life—to lurch out of his yards-deep rut and celebrate acceptance of the last lost hope of any intimacy with Lorayne.

He left by the back way and entered his car.

·

Despite it being Friday the Porterhouse was half empty, and Lassman’s hind quarters had barely kissed the Naugahyde before Gloria was over with a glass of lightly-iced water.

“Well… And what brings you here tonight, mister?”

“I’m feeling a need to break out of my rut.”

“Oh yeah? Let’s start with this.” She snatched the menu card from its rack, tossing it into the next booth. “Just by memory now—what’ll it be, cowboy?”

She grinned at him and he grinned back, both seemingly elated by this miniscule alteration to regularly scheduled events.

“Before we get into that, cowgal—what are you doing Sunday?”

§

The Foot, Old & New

I’m sure practically everyone has wondered about the origins and odd quantities of some of our measures—especially the rod, furlong, mile and acre. I know I have. So here is the (perhaps accurate) explanation:

 

The North German foot of 335 mm (13.2 inches) was presumably introduced into England either by the Anglo-Saxons and/or other Germanic invaders circa 6th century A.D., replacing Roman and unknown Celtic measures.

 

But by the Statute of Ells and Perches (circa 1266-1303) Norman busybodies introduced the statute foot with a different measure—exactly 10⁄11 of the Germanic foot. The barleycorn, inch, ell, and yard also shrank, while the rod, furlong, mile and acre remained unchanged in size. Note that the rod, a pole used to guide three tandem yokes of oxen; the furlong, the distance oxen could reasonably plow before resting; the mile, one-thousand double paces; and the acre, 4 rods by 40 rods—all measures of real things—were not altered in actual size.

 

Thus the rod, originally 15 North Germanic feet, became 16-1/2 of the shorter statute feet.

The furlong, originally 200 yards, became 220 yards.

The mile, originally 4800 feet, became 5280 feet.

The acre, originally 36,000 square feet, became 43,560 square feet.

[The pestilent meter had not as yet been dreamed of.]

 

If we were using the old system today there’d be closer agreement with the metric system—the yard, for instance, would contain 39.60 inches compared to the meter’s 39.37.

I long for the older, simpler days.

§

Might Be Lost

Yeah, just back for the holidays. I mean, Lansing’s a okay place, and I figgered to stay after retirement but then the cold began to get me, so first I become one of them snowbirds, they call em—but then I decide to stay permanent.

At Venice—that’s right. The Island, they call it, halfway down the Gulf Coast. Ain’t bad if ya don’t mind a little heat and some alligators.

Naw, just kiddin’. Ya hardly ever see ‘em, ceptin’ sometimes.

Sure, but like I was tellin’ your buddy Larry, I made this friend down there—met him on the beach. He’s a funny guy. Not funny ha-ha, but like ‘centric. Same business as me—cop.

But he’s got this quirk. Like Lansing is no great metropolis—we know that, right? So this guy’s from Cleveland, which also is no big deal for about a century, yeah?

But with him it’s always the Browns, the Indians, whatever—like they done anything lately. And crime—bank robberies and murders and kidnappings. Almost like Chicago or Miami, to hear him. He slings a lotta bull, I’ll tell ya. But still it’s nice to have somethin’ in common to go on about, and I can more or less see through the smoke.

But this one time…

He musta scuffed the captain’s shoeshine or somethin’. Spite a seniority they give him a turn on parkin’ duty, and he’s got to play meter maid, fer cryin’ out loud.

Now, I know you civilians always think we got quotas, but that’s just bull. Sure, we gotta produce, else the bosses accuse ya of loafin’. So ya just naturally learn there’s this informal number ya better meet if you want any attaboys, right? But not a quota—I mean, not a real quota.

So, anyhow, he’s workin’ some place—I think it’s Carnegie Street—but the fine inhabitants of Cleveland are behavin’ this day, and he starts thinkin’ he’ll have to put in some free overtime if he can’t drop a few more tickets pretty quick.

So he tries some side streets, and pretty soon he’s on the one where there’s a Y. The YWCA—Young Wimmin’s Christian Sociation. Like a hotel fer girls, is what it is.

So he’s workin’ his way down the opposite side from it, and he notices this one girl hangin’ out in front of the building. He gets to the end and crosses, and she’s still there—kinda wanderin’ around, not makin’ contact with anyone. And he starts up that side, and she’s still there.

So he’s beginnin’ to get the idea she’s a workin’ girl, if you get my drift. But it’s not the right locale, and she ain’t dressed fer the part. In fact, as he gets close he can see she’s kinda grubby, like she’s been sleepin’ rough. Not a bad lookin’ kid, understand, but she’s got no makeup or jewelry, and her hair looks like it’s been maybe done with hedge-clippers, all whacked off short and uneven-like.

A runaway maybe, he thinks, or might be lost, and he oughta offer some help—or maybe not, cuz he’s got his own problems. But his conscience wins out, and he steps over by her.

Miss, he says, polite as all get-out, can I give you some directions?

She says, I don’t know.

And this burns him, because he’s offered to help but she’s playin’ like a airhead. So he opens his mouth, gettin’ ready to chew her out…

But then he catches the look of her eyes.

·

Yeah, that’s it—why? Whadaya mean, no ending? That’s it!

He gets outa there, acourse. I mean, the eyes. Maybe she’s a striga, he’s thinkin’.

Striga! Old country witch. Witch, vampire, werewolf all rolled inta one. Tricks a guy into thinkin’ he’ll get somethin’, then whango!

No, course he don’t believe. But he came here as a kid, ya see, and the old folks… You know how it is—Grammaw always tellin’ scary tales, his folks speakin’ the old lingo in the house. Kids pick things up.

Albanian, I think. Somewheres thereabouts.

Arrest her? She wasn’t breakin’ no laws, and why’s he gonna make trouble with what’s maybe a striga? I don’t blame him, do you? You go lookin’ for trouble, maybe trouble finds you!

No, that’s it—that’s all the ending you get. But I heard this one from South Bend…

C’mon man! Don’t take that attitu… Hey! Ya didn’t finish yer drink.

Huh. Er, barkeep! You ever hear…? Oh, ya do? Didn’t you just wash ‘em before?

Man, this place is slow. You normally get any trade this time a day?

[ * ]

As twilight blends into darkness on Hough Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio—in the cellar of a single-family house placarded for demolition a large packing crate quivers as a hand from within grips the side.

§

H.E.L.P! — Highways (full of) Erratic Latent Psychotics

Following seven straight hours of sharing the road with what seemed to be an ever-increasing number of poorly driven 30-ton trucks, I stopped for gas at a truck-stop on the edge of Schleprock, Arkansas. After filling up, I headed into the restaurant to relax over a cup of coffee. And in one of those strange coincidences that seems to happen all too often, I saw an old high-school chum sitting in the professional-drivers-only section.

Feigning formality, I slid into the booth across from him and said, “Good morning, Mr. Royd.”

“Well I’ll be a horse’s… If’n it ain’t the Halster! What’s it been—five years?”

“About that. How have you been, HM?” (His given name was Herbert Morton Royd but everyone called him HM.)

“Great! Yerself?”

“Pretty good.”

“Whatcha doin’ in Schleprock, Hal?”

“On my way to Texas to work for a few weeks. What have you been up to?”

“Oh, I been a stud trucker fer about four years now. Say—If you’re headin’ fer Texas ya musta seen that nasty ol’ accident north a’ town.”

“I couldn’t see too much except fire trucks and ambulances around a semi. Know what happened?”

“There was talk on the CB he was pushin’ five.”

“Pushing five?”

“Five days, Hal.”

“Five days isn’t such a long trip.”

Nah! That’s trucker lingo fer five days drivin’ without sleep.”

“You’re kidding! I hardly make it through a tank of gas without stopping for a nap.”

“Only a fool tries to push five. Acourse there’s some what does it regular, but they’s nuts. Three er four’s about the limit fer most.”

“You drive that long without sleep?”

“Sure, all the time when I’m doin’ coasters.”

“Coasters?”

“Goin’ coast to coast.”

“Why during coasters?”

“Well, if I leave on Monday an’ don’t git no tickets, I can get to Shakytown, sleep six hours, hook up to a new trailer and make it back to the Dew Drop fer last call on Friday night.”

“Isn’t that dangerous? Don’t you worry about falling asleep?”

“No, not really. But ya gotta take percautions a’ course.”

“Precautions? Like lots of coffee and loud music?”

“Yep. All kinds a’ stuff like that.”

“Isn’t working that long against some kind of labor law?”

“Nope. Less’n you start leavin’ tire tracks over the tops a’ VW’s er somethin’ like that, nobody gives a dang.”

“So all those trucks are driven by guys who haven’t slept for days?”

“Not them teamsters, they got it easy. But the rest of us get mileage.”

“Mileage?”

“You know, Hal, paid by the mile.”

“So the further and faster you drive the more you make?”

“Zactly.”

“What happens if you only drive eight hours a day?”

“You’d best be goin’ about ninety!”

“Ninety!?”

“Ain’t quite that bad, but it’s gettin’ worse. I ain’t had a raise fer two years.”

“Sounds like the trucking industry, since deregulation, is imitating monopolistic competition, and your short-run economic profit is being reduced by the influx of new firms, causing your average total cost to rise to the point of tangency with your demand curve.”

“Huh?”

“Every year more people start trucking, so the extra competition keeps wages down.”

“Where’d you learn that fancy talk?”

“In college.”

“Oh yeah? I gravitated from college, too.”

“Really? Where did you go?”

“Triple C.”

“Cuyahoga Community College?”

“No, the Cautious, Courteous and Courageous School of Professional Drivers.”

“Impressive! Must have been tough.”

“Sure was. Took the best part a’ two weeks an dang near three-hunert dollars.”

“I mean all the studying and cramming to get certified.”

“Oh sure. Radar Detectors 110 an’ Advanced Map Reading 130 were rough, but Weigh Station Bypasses 200 was a killer—a whole hour a’ rememberin’ and figurin’. Give me a headache fer two days.”

“But don’t you need special certification?”

“Heck no, but ya gotta have a chauffeur’s license.”

“I’ll bet that was hard to get.”

“Sure was. I had to mesmerize a whole pamphlet before takin’ the test.”

“Just a written test, no driving test?”

“What fer? When yer doin’ eighty downhill in a forty-ton monster everybody gits the hell outa yer way—ya don’t even need to switch lanes. Why just the other day some ol’ lady had the gall to do sixty-four in the fast lane, but after a couple minutes a’ tailin’ her about three inches from her bumper she pulled over an let me by.”

“I see what you mean.”

“Er, you don’t have no Christmas Trees ya’d wanna sell, do ya?”

“Christmas trees?”

“How ‘bout some White Cross? Black Beauties? No? Well, at least I got plenty a’ No-doze.”

“Oh! Amphetamines. What about the coffee?”

“Willy Nelson ain’t gonna be doin’ no drivin’, an’ neither is Juan Valdez ner his mule.”

“But don’t you have to take drug tests?”

“No way! It’s unconsciontutable. Besides, you never see no cops er pollutetricians er teachers havin’ ta take ‘em, so how they gonna make truckers take ‘em?”

“I suppose.”

“Well, it was good ta see ya, Hal, but I gotta hit the road if I’m gonna make it back to Ohio fer my Saturday bowlin’ fer beer league. You take care now.”

“You too, HM…

He left, and I signaled to the waitress.

“Er, excuse me, Miss, may I have my check? And do you know of any decent motels nearby?”

§

The Adventures of Farmer Mudd

It’s common enough for books to be turned into comics. I well remember the old Classic Comics that attempted to encourage the “reading” of books by lazy schoolboys. Ivanhoe, Tom Sawyer, Last of the Mohicans and the like—exciting and often humorous stories were reduced to something with less content than Cliff Notes. Sad, in a way, but the illustrations were fascinating.

But enough reminiscing. What about the opposite—turning comics into the written word? How often do we run into that, eh?

Without further ado I hereby introduce the reader to an experimental concept: a comic strip in words.

***

Farmer Mudd is middling tall, spare of frame, and sports a pot belly. His expression is permanently lugubrious. He wears baggy denims with a checked shirt, lace-up rubber boots, and always—outdoor or in—a billed cap with various logos: John Deere, IH, Landmark, So-n-So’s Feed, etc.

Mrs Mudd is short and round, wears granny dresses and scuffs in the house, plain rubber boots and a babushka outside. Her hair is pulled back into a bun, and her main accessory is a pair of granny glasses.

Mudd’s neighbor, Jesse Planefokes, is short and rotund, wears bib overalls over a T-shirt, with work boots and a striped railroad cap.

All wear appropriate outer gear in cold or rainy weather.

***

Strip #1: Weather Prediction: Mudd.

Panel one, labeled July 10.

Mudd stands on the house porch looking into a baking hot yard from which heat rises in waves. His wife is next to him, knitting in a rocking chair, and looking at him with a blank expression.

Mudd says, “If this drought don’t end quick we’re goin’ta go broke this year.”

~

Panel two, labeled July 25.

Same scene except pouring rain, duck and ducklings swimming in a big puddle. Wife still knitting, stares at him over her glasses, mouth open.

Mudd says, “If this rain don’t end quick we’re goin’ta go broke this year.”

***

Strip #2: Economic Policy.

Farmer Mudd and Jesse Planefokes stand on the edge of the road near an open mailbox from which projects a large envelope labeled Crop Support Payment. Mudd holds up a folded newspaper to his neighbor’s view.

With finger prodding Jess’s chest, Mudd declares, “It beats me how our gummint kin afford to pay these city folk unemployment fer lazin’ aroun’ and not workin’.”

***

Strip #3: Rural Finances.

Mudd and Planefokes are standing by the end of a barbed wire fence-line. A fencepost sign on the left states, The Mudds, while one on the right states, The Planefokes. In the background are several gas and oil wells, with a drill rig in operation.

Mudd says, “If the gummint don’t do somthin’ right quick, the fambly farm’s goin’ta be extink as the dinasoares.”

***

Strip #4: Transportation.

Jess Planefokes is driving a dilapidated pickup truck with Farmer Mudd in the passenger seat. The license plate is, MA-NURE, Ohio 20xx. A bumper sticker reads, The Farm: Love It or Git the Hell Off My Land. They have halted next to a pony-tailed hitch-hiker with backpack.

Mudd, with his thumb pointed to the rear says, “This here’s a country limazine, sonny—you git ta ride in the rear seat.”

***

Strip #5: Computerizing Milk Production.

Mudd sits in front of a computer, looking down at the keyboard. The screen reads, DEPRESS ANY KEY.

Mudd says, “Yer stoopid! You’ll never amount to nuthin’! Nobody likes ya!”

***

Strip #6: Syrup Time.

Mudd is driving a spile into the trunk of a maple tree. Beyond him, running down the road, is a line of vertical objects, all bearing spiles with buckets hanging therefrom. These are labeled variously: Poplar, Spruce, Oak, Utility Pole, Maple, Elm, etc.

***

Strip #7: Air Quality Standards.

Mudd and Planefokes are again conversing beside the road. Behind them, appropriately labeled, are a Pigsty, a Manure Pile, and a heap of Spoiled Silage.

Mudd says, “So kin ya amagine? This feller what lives in the city with all them car fumes and fact’ry chimneys belchin’ gawd knows what, is tryin’ ta tell me our air don’t smell good.”

***

Strip #8: Respect for Animals.

Mudd, Mrs Mudd, and a dressy woman wearing a fancy hat are sitting at the kitchen table, knives and forks in hand, with large steaks before them.

Mudd says, “So ya think our critters’d be like pets, do ya? Well, meet dear Petunia.”

***

Strip #9: Chores.

The Mudds are in bed with the covers pulled up, he with his hat on, she with her babushka. The alarm clock is jumping, and the bedroom window bears a sign that reads, Pitch Black and Pouring Rain.

Mudd says, “I’m a leetle bit ache-y, Maw. How’d you feel about doin’ the milkin’ this mornin’?”

Mrs Mudd says, “How’d you feel about eatin’ with the hawgs this week?”

***

Strip # 10: Public Service.

Mudd stands behind the kitchen table, which is covered with posters.

LESTER MUDD FER TOWNSHIP TRUSTEE

LES MUDD WILL TELL IT TO YA STRATE, NO LYES FROM HONIST MUDD

MY CAMPANE PLATFORM IS CLERE AS MUDD:

1. I will help my friends.

2. I will stick it good to my enimys.

3. I will keep the Feds off yer back.

4. I will do my levil best ta keep food prices high.

***

Strip #11: Mudd’s Sartorial Secret.

Both Mudds are rocking on the porch—Mrs Mudd with her knitting, Farmer Mudd with a newspaper. Little Patsy, their five-year-old granddaughter, is visiting.

Panel one.

Patsy asks, “Why do you allis wear a hat, Grampaw?”

Mudd says, “Ta perteck my head, Patsy.”

~

Panel two.

Patsy asks, “Why do ya wear it in the winter, Grampaw?”

Mudd says, “Ta keep my head warm, Darlin’.”

~

Panel three.

Patsy asks, “Well, why do ya wear it in the summer, Grampaw?”

Mudd says, “Ta keep my head cool, Sweetie.”

~

Panel four.

Patsy turns to Mrs Mudd. “Grammaw, why does Grampaw…”

Missus Mudd says, “Cuz he’s bald, that’s why.”

§

Tolkien’s Crime

I have nothing personal against John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, although he was certainly a bit of a snob, didn’t think much of Americans, and drove his publisher nearly mad. But the latter trait might be considered a virtue, and the first two can be overlooked.

His writings are quite enjoyable. The Hobbit can be appreciated by both children and adults. The Lord of the Rings is a superior classic—a bit slow-moving perhaps, does less with female characters than might be desired, and fades after the final victory, but worth reading more than once. The Silmarillion is a great piece of creative scholarship, more to be admired than enjoyed, but worth a survey by enthusiasts. And some of Tolkien’s minor works are charming.

The early movies aren’t anything to write home about, and the Peter Jackson efforts, while loaded with fine imagery, distort the plot and characters for no reason other than to satisfy the producer’s ego. We can’t blame that on Tolkien, of course.

LotR will probably outlast other fine works of fantasy due to its monumental premise, nothing less than the fate of the world. The Lyonesse trilogy by Jack Vance is perhaps better written, a greater imaginative effort by a far more prolific author, and an easier, more enjoyable read in some ways. But it essentially concerns the fate of individuals and one imaginary archipelago which Atlantis-like descended beneath the waves before our time, leaving behind naught but legends.

LotR, though, is in Tolkien’s view a part of our world’s history.

LotR is somber as well as monumental. Despite its temporary happy ending it is essentially a tragedy, for we know Tolkien’s world faces ultimate decline. Lyonesse contains tragedy but the premise of LotR is tragedy. And tragedies are more memorable than comedies. Check with Shakespeare if you doubt—Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Lear, Macbeth—these stand far above the comedies and the histories.

To get back to our main subject, however—what is Tolkien’s crime?

It can be stated it in a word—elves.

That’s right, elves. Before Tolkien, elves in recent literature were wee tiny things on the order of Brownies and Leprechauns. Often conflated with Fairies, they could be mischievous, even dangerous, but were not beings of power as with Tolkien.

The Anglo-Saxons took them more seriously, as did most Germanic peoples. In fact, they had a name (names, actually) for them: elf-warrior [Alvar], elf-counsel [Alfred], elf-friend [Alvin], elf-spear [Algar, Alger], elf-rule [Alfric, Alberich], and others, no doubt. Our Germanic ancestors took their elves seriously. Elf-shot, for instance, could cause disease, weakness, death.

But literature generally forgot the power-elves until Tolkien. Since him, however, the genre of fantasy has not only increased to huge proportions, but you can hardly find a sword-and-sorcery epic that isn’t loaded with elves, and they’ve even invaded the paranormal genre.

It’s true that Tolkien built the popularity of other denizens of mythical worlds—dwarves, trolls, dragons, sorcerers—and they’ve brought along associated creatures, especially witches, whom Tolkien left out, as far as I know, with the exception of a witch-king. But dragons and witches we have long had with us, while dwarves and trolls haven’t made pests of themselves to the extent of elves.

By way of a subsidiary crime Tolkien increased the popularity of another fantasy convention—the gadget or gizmo. Rings, primarily, but magic swords and armor also.

Give Tolkien credit, he handles the ring well, making it into something far more insidious than the usual magical device of myth and legend. For him no paltry ten-league boots or cloak of invisibility. No… The One Ring not only allows its wearer amazing control over events—it also controls its user. Pretty good plot device.

One of the early re-imaginings of LotR was Sword of Shannara. In this Tolkien take-off a sword (obviously) is the gizmo. Magic swords are old-hat, of course. It is difficult to think of a mythical hero who wasn’t equipped with one, typically named something on the order of Brain-biter (which, I believe, might have belonged to Hereward the Wake, who was less mythical than the typical hero.)

Tolkien’s books are rife with named swords, but let’s not stop there. Arthur had one, Siegfried had one, Beowulf had one, Charlemagne’s buddy Roland had one (and a horn, too,) Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have them. Anjin-sama of Shogun has his named Oil-seller after it is borrowed by a rather militant Japanese to filet a peaceful but stubborn merchant. Lewis Carroll introduces the vorpal blade which goes snicker-snack.

Even Childe Roland has his father’s brand which never struck in vain, and when he to the dark tower comes for to rescue Burd Ellen, uses it to slice off the head of nigh about everyone he meets. (And to think all the trouble started over an innocent game of soccer.)

There is reason to think Childe Roland’s sword might be named Excalibur. Indeed, scandal would have it that he is the son of Guinevere, and has inherited Arthur’s sword. The question is, inherited sword not availing, who is Childe Roland’s father? Because we know Guinevere had her weaknesses.

[Interestingly—to me, if not to you—childe is Anglo-Saxon for heir, and burd is synonymous with bride, but probably going back to birth, meaning of high birth. So the Childe Roland story of kicking a ball and running widdershins around a church is not about children but high-born adults. Just as well, for we wouldn’t want some kid running into Elfland and indiscriminately whacking-off heads. If you read the original myth, not Browning’s take, you’ll also note that Roland is the youngest of the brothers, and I’ll bet Ellen is not Roland’s sister but some king’s youngest daughter, because that’s the way faerie tales should work.]

But I had better stop with the swords lest these gizmos take over the whole essay. Let us get back to elves, those mystic magical creatures who presently infest almost all fantasy. And since this essay is becoming too long, I’ll truncate it.

In brief, I assert there are far too many elves in today’s popular literature, and it’s all Tolkien’s fault.

Therefore, authors, enough with the elves already! They’ve been overdone.

§

You’ll Not Be Wanting That!

(My Trip to Ulster & It’s Restaurants)

Twas at a comfortable cafe in County Down when I, a rapacious reader of Regency and Victorian British fiction, asked for the most common dish of the British Isles—mutton, according to out-dated literature.

“Och!” the waitress said. “You’ll not be wanting that trash.”

So I fell back on my favorite, fish and chips. That, at least, had not gone out of style in the 90s.

I like food. Indeed, I can hardly imagine life without regular ingestion of it. What’s more, I’m a tea drinker—plain black by preference, or Earl Grey. A brief trip to Ulster was just the thing for someone like meself, a fan of British literature, sure and begorra, and with some knowledge of English history.

Let’s see now, was it the eight wives of Henry the Sixth or…? Well, however many that early example of Mormonism managed to collect. The point was, I knew something of the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes and their national fabric (burlap); the Brythons and their relatives the Goidels; the Danes and their female counterparts, the Dames. Furthermore, Ronald Reagan was an Ulsterine from way back. What could go wrong?

First, O’Hare airport in the US, where I learned something of Chicago hospitality. Oi! Given the chance, I’d advise the use of another exit-way from the US. And entryway as well. On my return I noticed an official using the preferred American method of communicating with foreigners—shout! And when the foreigner stubbornly refuses to understand, shout angrily!

Second, my seatmate on the huge cross-Atlantic plane—a muscular young woman who, evidently protecting something of high value, kept her backpack between her thighs the entire thousand leagues. I had an aisle seat, so was forced to shift my knees to where the stewardii ran the beverage cart into them with suspicious frequency.

My son’s family and I landed at Heathrow, and immediately transferred to a smaller, more genteel aircraft which flew low enough to give a good view of the Isle of Man. I’d no previous idea of how small it was, capable of fitting into a half-bushel basket. But from our altitude I spotted neither Manxmen, Manxwomen, nor Manx cats.

At Belfast we wandered about looking for the customs check-in. Stopping a uniformed miss I asked, “Where do we go to have our baggage examined?”

“Do you wish your baggage to be examined?”

“Er, not particularly.”

And that was that, quite different from such matters in the land of the free and home of the brave.

On to auto rental, where I quickly learned that not all Irish have a good sense of humor. (Sorry, Mam—I was merely joking.) Then off for County Down, fabled in song and, uh, er… fable. I there began my acquaintance with English/Irish cuisine. Or food, as we call it at my particular social level.

The Irish initially made themselves scarce—our first B&B was run by Englishers. It was brand spanking new, as were the vast majority of buildings we noticed in Ulster. We looked in vain for bog-trotters living in shanties and stone hovels, finding those all replaced by cement stucco moderns painted in shades of gray and tan. The only stone habitations we saw were one tumble-down place, no longer inhabited by any but small wildlife, and a late-model version in the Irish-American Park, also barren of human inhabitants.

But back to food. Breakfast was fine in certain respects. Soda bread I found to be a treat. Bacon was slices of ham, while in the US it consists of slices of fat banded with micro-strips of ham. Toast was strange. In the US we try to serve it hot, while over in Brit-land it was toasted, then put in a rack to cool. Cold cereals, available in wide and often pleasing variety in the US, were not a success, nor was oatmeal, which in the US appears as the more-textured rolled oats. But between bacon, soda bread and buckets of tea I was content.

Our first evening dinner was at a place which advertised continental cuisine. Could be, I suppose, for I’m sure my meat came from some continent or other. I’m guessing northern Asia—frozen mammoth fresh out of Siberian permafrost.

Immediate resolution: no more continental food while in Ulster.

Things began looking up next noon. We went into a quite ordinary fish and chips place where I discovered what became the meal of choice for the balance of my stay. It’s possible to get good fish in America, but always, in my experience, at conventional restaurants. We have two fish ‘n chip restaurant chains, fast food types—Arthur Treacher’s and Long John Silver’s. Both of these gentlemen are, as we know, creations of fiction, and their fish share to some degree in this quality.

That fish is the ubiquitous North Atlantic Whitefish, which also appears in grocery freezers disguised as breaded fish sticks, fish pieces, fish strips and fish lumps. Now I’m no expert piscinologist, but I strongly suspect it is in fact pollock or Trash-o’-the-Sea. It is edible but not especially enjoyable. In Ulster, I’m happy to say, wherever I was able order fish ‘n chips it seemed to be real fish, either sole or perhaps cod, and excellent. I was also pleased with the chips (french fries) and fresh peas often served with it.

Our second B&B, in The Glens, was run by Scots. Or so they claimed to be. The quality of breakfasts declined. We began, however, to meet some Irish. My son and his wife spent one evening at a bar or pub or some such, and were entertained by an Irish patriot who swore to the eventual freeing of Ulster from the treacherous Sassenachs.

My episode took place at a school athletic field to which I wandered one afternoon. Sitting in the bleachers, I watched a loose pack of boys clubbing a small ball with curved sticks. It was curling, I supposed, the national sport of Newfoundland. Or possibly hurley, the Irish substitute for golf.

In time an adult came out, dressed in sport togs similarly to the boys, and introduced a touch of organization to the practice. At this juncture I was joined by an older gent who began to instruct me in the wonders and joys of the game, its value for exercise and the disciplining of youth, and the virtues of the coach, one Rory Guilfoyle or the like.

“Rory, now, was quoite the player in his day, rampagin’ up and down the pitch. None atall could stand before him when camaning the sliotar. And here he is today, still an iligant figger of a man, instructin’ our foine youth in the high points o’ the sport.”

“Tell me,” says I, “are there offsides rules in hurley, as there are in hockey and certain other sports?”

“Och!” says he, drawing a little apart. “I’ve nivver played the game meself.”

Disappointing. Fish and chips, though, disappointed me never. That is to say, nivver a-tall.

§

Humbug!

(The Goofiest Restaurant Concept Ever)

I suppose no-one will be surprised if I admit to reading books. I further suppose you understand that I like free books fully as much as you do. (Ya cheapskates!)

So anywho, I came across one in pre-publication form that deserves attention. It’s present name is The Humbug Bistro, and is one of the most bizarre tales I’ve recently read. Funny, too.

I won’t give a link but you can search for it online or wait until it’s formally published, at which time it will probably cost money.

Although written as fiction, the author admits the story is true to life with only names changed to conceal the guilty.

[ * ]

It seems that the author, Heather, is a chef of some note. She tells us so herself, and who would know better? She has cooked in establishments from the Arctic Circle to the Tropic of Capricorn, from Vancouver Island to the shores of Newfie-land, and always the finest of cuisine has been appreciated by her victi… er, gourmet clientele.

It is conceivable to me that she might have practiced other occupations. For reasons we’ll get to, I’m thinking gangster-rapper or mule-skinner.

The gist of the tale is that Heather, after working for others these many years, wishes to open her own place for reasons that are somewhat obscure. Making money does not seem to be one of them, for if it were, surely she would have gone differently about matters.

Let me interject that Heather was a poor choice of name by her parents. Considering her disposition, Alecto, (the Greek Fury of constant anger) might have been more apt. Or had they wished to stay with the plant theme, perhaps Thistle, Briar or Nettle would have served. Heather, as she readily admits, doesn’t much like people. In addition, she really dislikes people who invade her space, show rudeness, or are intolerant of others. And don’t inquire after her antecedents or native town if you know what’s good for you.

After some introductory verbiage we come to the first memorable scene. In a small and exquisitely provincial town lost in the Canadian prairie, Heather is decorating the building she has leased, a former coffee shop. The back door is open and a neighbor wanders in, curious to know what is happening with the business.

Heather is astounded at this breach of decorum. The very idea that anyone would assume an open door was an invitation to enter! Who could imagine that someone would wish to pry! How possibly could a person from a neighboring business simply saunter in without an invitation? Have these yokels no manners, no upbringing, no decency! What are they, Germans or something?

If I correctly recall, it is at this point that Heather’s mule-skinning background first comes into play, as she requests the departure of her unwanted guest by means of basic Anglo-Saxon terms ordinarily utilized to describe reproductive functions and intimate body parts.

So goes Heather’s first confrontation with the locals, but in time similar incidents follow, generally at the front entrance with potential customers for coffee.

“We don’t have coffee,” Heather claims.

“Huh? Well it’s the coffee shop, ain’t it?”

“It’s under new ownership.”

“But it’s the coffee shop, ain’t it?”

“Not any more—it’s a restaurant now.”

“The town’s already got restaurants, so this has to be the coffee shop.”

“Well, it’s NOT the coffee shop any more, you blankety blanking blanker. So blank off!”

But the best of resolutions can fail. Heather has acquired, within the former coffee shop kitchen, an espresso machine and other coffee-making apparatus. To remove the machine would require repairs being made to the counter on which it sits, so after some dithering and rumination she decides to serve coffee.

Like the fluttering of a Brazilian butterfly’s wings that initiates a series of events which ultimately result in an Atlantic hurricane, this example of Chaos Theory will eventually trigger the downfall of the Humbug Bistro.

Heather raises the price of a cup o’ joe but gives unlimited refills, only to find that many of the coffee-drinkers will not buy food—and it is on food that she makes a profit.

You or I might see ways out of this dilemma.

A: Give but one refill.

B: Charge even more for coffee.

C: Serve beverages only with food orders.

D: A combination of the above.

 

Heather’ chooses…

E: Unremitting battle with the coffee addicts. But while she never loses the thrill of ejecting a customer who shows a lack of sensitivity to her ideas regarding proper dining, for some reason Heather refrains from ordering the predaceous coffee drinkers off the premises, engaging them instead in an unrelenting campaign of psychological warfare. They prove to be her equals in such a contest.

I was reminded of the battle for Guadalcanal with Heather playing the part of the Japanese.

[ * ]

One of the needs of the Humbug Bistro is personnel who can deal with the public, this not being precisely Heather’s strongest point. After a certain number of false starts and failures, the two most prominent employees are a trainee minister and an ex-novice (or whatever) from a nearby monastery. Working for an atheist bothers neither at all.

[On the other hand, Heather is apparently the type of atheist who believes in the spirit world. Later on a ghost manifests itself, and a satisfactory customer it is, too.]

She lucks out in that the ex-monk is homosexual, though doing his best to resist the urge. She is thrilled by the acquisition of a gay server, evidently a requirement for a chichi bistro. The town, though (she assures us) “hates queers,” so her business loses trade. Not a problem, for Heather values a degree of raffishness far above mere lucre. Besides, she gains a new clientele—men who sit against the walls and stare at her swanking server. Regrettably, they also content themselves with coffee, never ordering food.

[ * ]

Matters go from bad to worse. The locals squat over bottomless cups of mid-roast loaded with sugar and cream, ordering neither food nor fancy espressos or lattes. They would probably eat sandwiches but she insists on serving wraps (whatever the devil those are.) They demand soup, but she offers only hot pots or some such.

If Heather were manufacturing cars she would emulate Henry Ford of Model T days, offering her customers any color paint they wanted so long as it was black. Similarly, in the Humbug Bistro her customers may order nothing but grand cuisine, regardless of their bellies’ needs and wants. In the end, coffee and Heather’s attitude doom the bistro.

Before the close, honest and forthright Heather reveals she is, in fact, a deep-dyed hypocrite, so outraging one of her staff that he abandons the ship before it has finished sinking. I’ll keep this particular hypocrisy secret in order to allow you a laugh at the end.

[ * ]

Heather has a decent command of the English language and avoids most Canuckistan idioms, rarely saying “Good day, eh?” or calling her customers hosers. In The Humbug Bistro ordinary errors of grammar and punctuation don’t interfere with enjoyable reading… except in one case. Homophones trip up many writers, but Heather comes up with one I’ve never before seen or imagined. It’s best explained by an example:

“There he is sitting on his thrown, and before I know it he’s throne me out the door.”

As I’ve said, the book is droll and then some except for a few portions where she feels the need to lecture the world on the importance of tolerance, good manners, and a laid-back attitude towards life and business. A great deal of the fun in reading it—no surprise—is to laugh at Heather’s lack of self-awareness. Right to the end she’s convinced of her own righteousness and wisdom, and of the utter stupidity of the Humbugians who fail to appreciate the favor she’s offering by attempting to teach them the joys of fine dining.

[ * ]

Almost forgot. While remodeling the bistro Heather has severe problems with local contractors. Whether painters, plumbers, electricians or carpenters—they all do a job halfway before disappearing, invariably leaving behind an invoice for work only partially accomplished.

Hard-nosed, tough-minded, foul-mouthed Heather actually PAYS these invoices!

I don’t get it. Any experienced person knows that most small contractors are in business for one of the following reasons:

1. They are independent, hard-working souls whose ambition is to acquire a reputation for craftsmanship, build their business to the point of hiring other workers, and gain a fortune so as to retire to Florida and buy a yacht.

2. They have been laid-off from a factory job for so long that unemployment pay has run out, and they must work to survive. These are usually handyman types who have some idea about which end of the hammer to grab.

3. They are independent souls who are simply too independent for the larger contractors to put up with.

4. They are alcoholics, willing to work until it is time for another toot.

5. They are Gypsies, either genuine or by natural inclination.

Type 1 contractors you offer a large down payment in the hopes they’ll move you nearer to the front of their busy schedule.

Type 2 you advance a few bucks so they can buy sufficient gas to get to your site.

Types 3 and 4 you pay after the job is completed and inspected. You supply them with material from your own account at the suppliers, never advancing money.

Type 5 you decline to hire, explaining that your brother-in-law has agreed to do the job for room and board.

The difficulty is, of course, determining who belongs to which type. When in doubt, assume all of them to be 3 or 4, the most common sorts. Good fellows, most of them, and often good craftsmen but… Well, you know.

And what of Heather’s gross hypocrisy, mentioned earlier? While attempting to build her own business she has been writing anonymously to the local newspaper’s gossip column, dropping hints as to her restaurant competitors’ failures: Little tidbits about their problems with food poisoning, sanitary slip-ups, insect infestations and the like. Not true, of course, but all’s fair in love and food fights.

Good old honest, straightforward Heather.

§

I Hate Romance Novels

That’s right. Even though I claim to be a writer and have a romance novel or three to my credit, I hate romance novels in general.

I don’t hate them simply because they are girly and mushy, though they usually are. Nor because they tend to be formulaic, which they certainly do. Nor because they’re the most popular genre, crowding out better and more profound fiction.

No, I hate them for far better and more specific reasons.

·

I hate them because the heroine is always beautiful, sexy, and pneumatic.

I hate them because the hero is always well-muscled, handsome, and cuts a wide swath through the female population.

I hate them because there’s always some weird contrived reason for hero and heroine to meet. And when they meet, in ninety-nine percent of the stories the hero doesn’t like the heroine for some reason—usually due to a misunderstanding—though he can’t help but admit to himself that she’s really beautiful and really sexy and/or really accomplished… but he still doesn’t like her.

The heroine, on the other hand, after the fateful encounter brought about by her sudden poverty or by her inheriting a run-down property or getting lost on the moors or having a slight problem with a runaway horse… or by her coming across his lost/strayed/stolen little boy/girl/beloved pet with whom she happens to get along just stunningly… or maybe after needing to be rescued from drowning or being sold at a slave market or having been forced to work in a house of ill repute or having her chutes fail to open while skydiving… can’t help but be impressed by his manly chest or his rock-hard jaw or his piercing gaze or his tight butt… and his big fortune.

Yes, his fortune, for a wealthy and/or politically-pwerful hero is almost always a requirement in romance novels.

But she still doesn’t like him.

I hate it that the heroine is always feisty or independent or at least spunky, while the hero is domineering, insensitive, in need of taming, or anti-social due to the lack of love from a good woman. Many’s the rapacious pirate, evil robber baron, sweaty cowpoke, bare-arsed highlander, ferocious savage or cold-blooded assassin who has had his better nature brought out by a sweet but uncompromising woman… way too many.

And if due to some authorial quirk the hero is sensitive, I hate the story even more.

I hate the fact that the heroine often has some weird name that regular girls don’t have, although it must be admitted that girls’ names are getting more strange by the year. Consider sixth grade in a small school near me where three girls are named Taylor and four Courtney, plus Kerra, Kira, Keira, and Cara—not to mention Elise, Elissa and Isla. Whatever happened to Mary, Joan, Susan? Or even Harriet, Ethyl, Agnes?

Furthermore, I hate heroes named Drake, Duke, Dai, Damian, Jared, Jaan, Judd, Adrian, Abel and Alpo. Heroes! These are the names of kids we would have picked on in school. (Oh, and I also hate Dougal and Fergus.)

I hate the contrived crises that bring hero and heroine together—the raging blizzards, the hurricanes, the leaky boats and car breakdowns… the predatory lawyers, the imminent serial killers, the onset of dengue fever or contagious leprosy, the plagues of locusts… the need to save a deluded world from your typical mad scientist or a neo-Nazi conspiracy or a corporate contributor to global over-heating or conquest by space-aliens.

It’s always something—they can never merely get used to one another. They can’t simply meet at a dance or party and like each other’s style.

Well, enough of these lists, because what I really hate about romance novels beyond and above these plot gimmicks is… they always end happily ever after.

Yes, happily in every case… and love is inevitably followed by marriage.

Gawd help me—can’t one of them just once end in tragedy or separation?

Ever heard of Romeo and Juliet, writer-folks? [* Tristan and Isolde?? Casablanca??? Gulliver's Travels???? *] (With Gulliver, of course, love of horses replaced love for his wife and family, but still…)

So there you have it. Perhaps in the future I’ll try to explain why I also hate Horror, Suspense, Thrillers, Erotica, Westerns, Mystery, Fantasy, Paranormal, Historical, SciFi and Humor genres.

And Literary.

Yeah, because I really hate literary fiction!

§

What’s in a Name, Huh?

By far the most common English surname is Smith.

How come?

The most common French surname? Martin. Fabre and its variants are far behind.

The most common German name? I dunno, but surely not Schmidt.

Spanish? Something that ends in ez or es, each meaning son of. Not Herrera.

Hungarian? Nagy, which means big. Kovacs comes second.

Polish and other Slavic languages? Kowalski and its variants are popular, but I don’t think they compare with Smith in English.

·

Why is Smith so popular?

The common explanation is that the local blacksmith was generally a prominent man—important to the economy, admired for his strength.

I’m sure that has some truth, but could be it’s not the entire truth, and it sounds too simple. After all, millers were important, too—perhaps moreso.

Smith comes from Anglo-Saxon smite = to strike. But did smiters always strike iron and other malleable substances? Or did they sometimes strike other things… such as men, either in war or friendly rivalry? I’ll claim they did, and that in some cases smith was a nickname for a brawler.

But wait—there’s more! Anglo-Saxon also had the words smethe and smoth, with meanings along the lines of smoothing or of being smooth. In at least one case the name Smith is known to mean smooth. That case is Smithfield, where Queen Mary busied herself with burning heretics back in the sixteenth century. Twas also the scene of the deaths of William Wallace and Wat Tyler, among many, many others. You’d think the word bloody would have replaced smith in the name. At any rate, Smithfield has nothing to do with blacksmiths—you can look it up. Its original meaning was literally “smooth field.”

But all that came later.

What odds that in Anglo-Saxon times the word smooth might have been applied as a nickname much in the way we presently use either it or similar terms such as suave or cool when describing an individual?

No way to be certain without a practical means of time travel, of course, but that’s the way I’ll bet for now. Smith = blacksmith & brawler & Mister Smooth.

All these likely explain the popularity of Smith in English.

§

Cleverest Hans~A Grim Fairytale

The mother of Hans says: “Whither away, Hans?”

Hans answers: “To Gretel.”

“Behave well, Hans.”

“Ja, I will behave well. Goodbye, Mutter.”

“Goodbye, Hans.”

Hans comes to Gretel, who is a pretty girl with no lack of suitors.

“Good day, Gretel.”

“Good day, Hans. What gift have you for me?” For Gretel is used to receiving tokens of regard from young men.

“I bring nothing—I want to have something given me.”

Gretel sighs but feels sorry for the poor fool and presents Hans with a needle that is in her hand, fresh from working at her embroidery.

Whereupon he says, “Goodbye, Gretel.”

“Goodbye, Hans.”

Hans takes the needle, sticks it into a hay-cart he meets along the road, and follows the cart home.

“Good evening, Mutter.”

“Good evening, Hans. Where have you been?”

“With Gretel.”

“What did you take her?”

“I took nothing, but had something given me.”

“What did Gretel give you?”

“She gave me a needle.”

“Where is the needle, Hans?”

“I stuck it in a hay cart, which has gone on to town.”

“Ach! That was ill done, Hans—you should have stuck the needle in your sleeve.”

“Never mind, Mutter, I will do better next time.”

·

“Whither away, Hans?”

“To Gretel, Mutter.”

“Behave well, Hans.”

“Ja, I will behave well. Goodbye, Mutter.”

“Goodbye, Hans.”

Hans comes to Gretel. “Good day, Gretel.”

“Good day, Hans. What gift have you for me?”

“I bring nothing. I want to have something given to me.”

Gretel considers him a dunce but out of pity offers Hans a knife.

“Goodbye, Gretel.”

“Goodbye, Hans.”

Hans takes the knife and sticks it in his sleeve where it soon falls out.

“Good evening, Mutter.”

“Good evening, Hans. Where have you been?”

“With Gretel.”

“What did you take her?”

“I took her nothing, but she gave me something.”

“What did Gretel give you?”

“She gave me a knife.”

“Where is the knife, Hans?”

“I stuck it in my sleeve, where it fell into the weeds and is lost.”

“That was ill done, Hans—you should have put the knife in your pocket.”

“Never mind, Mutter, I will do better next time.”

·

“Whither away, Hans?”

“To Gretel, Mutter.”

“Behave well, Hans.”

“Ja, I will behave well. Goodbye, Mutter.”

“Goodbye, Hans.”

Hans comes to Gretel. “Good day, Gretel.”

“Good day, Hans. Have you a gift for me?”

“I bring nothing—I want something given me.”

Gretel rolls her lambent blue eyes but presents Hans with a young goat.

“Goodbye, Gretel.”

“Goodbye, Hans.”

Hans takes the goat, ties its legs, and puts it in his pocket. When he gets home it has suffocated.

“Good evening, Mutter.”

“Good evening, Hans. Where have you been?”

“With Gretel.”

“What did you take her?”

“I took nothing, but she gave me something.”

“What did Gretel give you?”

“She gave me a kid.”

“And where is the kid, Hans?”

“I put it in my pocket, Mutter, but it soon died.”

“Ach! That was ill done, Hans—you should have put a rope round the little goat’s neck to lead it home.”

“Never mind, Mutter, I will do better next time.”

·

“Whither away, Hans?”

“To Gretel, Mutter.”

“Behave well, Hans.”

“Ja, I will behave well. Goodbye, Mutter.”

“Goodbye, Hans.”

Hans comes to Gretel. “Good day, Gretel.”

“Good day, Hans. Do you bring a gift?”

“I bring nothing—I want something given me.”

Gretel frowns but gives Hans a slab of bacon.

“Goodbye, Gretel.”

“Goodbye, Hans.”

Hans takes the bacon, ties it to a rope and drags it behind him, but dogs come and devour the bacon. When he gets home, he has the rope in his hand but there is no longer anything hanging from it.

“Good evening, Mutter.”

“Good evening, Hans. Where have you been?”

“With Gretel.”

“What did you take her?”

“I took her nothing, but she gave me something.”

“What did Gretel give you?”

“She gave me a bit of bacon.”

“Where is the bacon, Hans?”

“I put a rope round it to lead it home, but dogs took it.”

“Ach! That was ill done, Hans—you should have carried the bacon on your head.”

“Never mind, Mutter, I will do better next time.”

·

“Whither away, Hans?”

“To Gretel, Mutter.”

“Behave well, Hans.”

“I will behave well. Goodbye, Mutter.”

“Goodbye, Hans.”

Hans comes to Gretel. “Good day, Gretel.”

“Good day, Hans. Is there any hope of a gift for me?”

“I bring nothing, but would have something given me.”

Gretel sighs, but feeling sorry for his foolishness she presents Hans with a calf.

“Goodbye, Gretel.”

“Goodbye, Hans.”

Hans takes the calf and puts it on his head, but the calf kicks his face and he lets it run off.

“Good evening, Mutter.”

“Good evening, Hans. Where have you been?”

“With Gretel.”

“What did you take her?”

“I took nothing, but had something given me.”

“What did Gretel give you?”

“A calf.”

“What have you done with the calf, Hans?”

“I set it on my head, but it kicked my face then ran off.”

“Ach! That was very ill done, Hans—you should have led the calf and put it in a stall.”

“Never mind, Mutter, I will do better next time.”

·

“Whither away, Hans?”

“To Gretel, Mutter.”

“Behave well, Hans.”

“I will behave well. Goodbye, Mutter.”

“Goodbye, Hans.”

Hans comes to Gretel. “Good day, Gretel.”

“Good day, Hans. I suppose you bring no gift for me?”

“I bring nothing, but would have something given me.”

Gretel sighs and says to Hans: “I have nothing more to give you but will go with you and explain to your mother.”

Hans takes Gretel, ties her with a rope and leads her to the stable where he binds her fast, then enters the house.

“Good evening, Mutter.”

“Good evening, Hans. Where have you been?”

“With Gretel.”

“What did you take her?”

“I took her nothing, but got something.”

“What did Gretel give you?”

“She had nothing to give me but herself, and came home with me.”

“Where then is she?”

“I led her to the stable and tied her at the manger, where I strewed some hay for her.”

“Ach, mein Himmel! That was the most ill-done of all, Hans. You must quickly release Gretel and beg forgiveness for your stupidity.”

“Never mind, Mutter. Gretel promises if I untie her she will wed me, and clean and cook and wash for us, and tend the hens and garden.”

His mother raises her hands to the heavens.

“Oh du lieber Hans! I surely knew you would someday learn to behave well.”

§

Neighbors

Chapter 01 ~ Sunday Morn

Not again!

On a bright morning in early October Don Lightner glowered behind the curtain of his book room as he saw Lorentz, his next-door neighbor, turn down the driveway and head toward the ramp leading to the front door. For a moment he considered refusing to answer, pretending not to be home—but the idea of timidly avoiding a confrontation was repugnant.

And confrontation, Lorentz’s only social mode, was inevitable.

Would it be the cat trespassing again? Another dead limb fallen across the property line? There was a breeze stirring the half-barren trees, moaning past the window to send leaves scurrying—something might have come down. Or perhaps a new argument about where the property line was, and who was to mow or rake where.

Lightner found himself tensing up, beginning to flush, feeling the old urge to plant a fist into the belligerent deep-lined face of his obnoxious neighbor to the west. He exited the room and stepped toward the front door, waiting to one side for the old man’s banging.

Only to feel another aggravation, as the contrary devil never rang the bell.

Lightner imagined steps heavily planted on the boards as Lorentz’s heavy boots clomped up the incline, hauling his big raw-boned body along by the railing—grasping and stomping as if to claim every bit of territory on which he trod. How Lightner longed for the day the old man would keel over, forevermore venting his poisonous anger into eternal night.

But moments passed with no appearance, no clamor.

Had his enemy—everyone’s enemy, in fact—taken a detour? Was, in fact, Lorentz himself trespassing on Lightner’s property as he so often accused others of trespassing upon his? Lightner stepped forward to peek out the window, then opened the door itself. Nothing! He unlatched the storm-door to step onto the short deck, peering past a bush to see down the ramp.

My God!

He ran a few steps to where the tall form lay on its face, one arm flung in front.

“Lorentz! Hey, Lorentz!” Hesitant to touch the man, he shouted again before shaking a shoulder. A deep groan escaped the form, and he overcame his repugnance. Using both hands he rolled the body partway onto its back, one leg flopping over the edge of the ramp.

A stain showed on the man’s jacket, a larger one spreading over the boards and running through the gaps between them—blood, and plenty of it.

Diagonally across the road he glimpsed Ellie Piper staring at him from her front stoop. He felt an insane urge to yell, I didn’t do it!

His voice was just as paralyzed as his body.

[ * ]

“Donald P Lightner, is that right? Middle name Paul, yes? Okay, Mister Lightner, you say you were waiting for the victim?”

The detective, or whatever he was, put a peculiar stress on the words as if accusing him of—of what?

“Yeah. That is, I saw him coming…”

“Saw him from where?”

“From the library… the book room.”

“You were reading?”

“No, I was looking at the shelves, and I glanced over…”

“So you were sitting there… “

“Standing.”

“And you saw him through the bushes?”

“No! I told you—through the west window.”

“So you peeked out and…”

“I didn’t peek! I just looked out.”

The deputy put on a puzzled expression. “You just looked out? If you were looking at the shelves… Are there shelves by the west window?”

“No—you saw it.”

“Exactly. Why would you just happen to look out at that particular time, in that particular direction?”

Lightner struggled to keep from barking out his answer.

“I don’t know. Maybe I heard something, maybe I saw movement out of the corner of my eye… I just looked.”

“So you saw the victim coming out of the corner of your eye.”

“I didn’t say that! I don’t know what I saw—maybe a bird, maybe a leaf fell, maybe nothing at all. Then I looked. I mean, turned to look.”

The deputy was silent, gazing at him for several seconds. Lightner willed himself not to squirm under the appraising stare.

“Do you own a firearm, Mister Lightner?”

What!

[ * ]

“They wanted my gun—demanded it, I should say. And he seemed—the senior deputy—to be playing up to the TV camera.”

“Like…?”

“Turning to face it while blabbing at me out of the corner of his mouth. Always keeping track of where it was.”

Ellie Piper had come over, enabling him to mull over his concerns out loud. Short, generously proportioned, good-looking girl-next-door type—in her late thirties but appearing a dozen years younger—he’d wanted to befriend her since she moved in three years back but she’d remained stand-offish until today.

Forbidding and detestable as Lorentz had been, his death seemed to have brought the community closer together. Ellie was his only visitor thus far but three others—not counting news reporters—had phoned, two of them offering what appeared to be genuine sympathy as well as satisfying their curiosity.

“Gun? You have a gun?”

Did have!” Lightner was morose. “They said they’d get a court order, so I… And they were already going through the house anyway.”

“You let them?”

He shrugged. “Right then I didn’t feel like making a fuss.”

“I wonder if a lawyer would agree?”

He felt bad enough without her reminder of how they’d kept him off balance.

·

In the kitchen she sipped her drink. He’d brewed tea—always soothing, bringing warm memories of his grandparents.

“You’ll be lucky if they ever give it back. What kind was it?” she asked.

“A rifle.”

“No, uh… I mean, what size? What’d it shoot?”

“Twenty-two. Just for plinking out back. And for… Well, for self-defense in case someone should… That sounds bad, doesn’t it?”

“Long rifle?”

“The bullets? Yeah. Not likely to kill someone with one shot, is it? I mean, even if that was the cause of death.”

Her face pinched together, seeming to reflect his own worries.

“No,” she stated, “one will kill if it hits the right spot. That I know.”

“You know something about shooting?”

“Oh, no! That is, I’ve done some shooting, but… but I’ve heard. You know what I mean.”

[ * ]

Another officer, Sergeant Dreis, had joined Deputy Grassi—coming in as the ambulance left with Lorentz’ body. Three others from the Sheriff’s office collected evidence outside—photographing and swabbing at the ramp, searching the grass and foundation area, running a metal detector over the front yard near the entry, waltzing through the house as if they had a perfect right.

Well, he had given permission. But what were they looking for—another bullet?

Dreis evidently saw himself as bad cop to Grassi’s mild but seemingly stupid cop. Lightner wondered if Grassi watched too many Columbo episodes. And Dreis? The boor probably envisioned himself manhandling witnesses.

Dries said, “Why’d you move the body?”

“I didn’t!”

“Didn’t? You sticking with that?” His attitude bordered on sarcastic.

“I… I checked him to see… That is, I tried to…”

“Tried to face him the other way.”

“No! Rolled him over. Just tried to see if he…”

“Make sure of him, you mean—not waste a second bullet?”

·

He explained all this to Piper while she made appropriate sounds and comments, putting a soothing expression on her face. She sipped while he guzzled one mug after another, trying to get the dryness out of his throat.

The questioners had kept at him for nearly two hours—bringing up the same queries time and again, putting the worst construction on every answer or look, deliberately misunderstanding until he lost his temper—only to have them assure him they simply needed all the information possible.

No, no—he was by no means a suspect—not even a person of interest at this stage.

At this stage.

By the time they left he’d felt drained, until Piper’s ring at the door wakened him from a half-snooze at the kitchen table. He was still answering the phone then—the calls from news organizations and gossip mongers not yet having become intense. He didn’t hesitate to invite her in.

“So… Did they let anything drop? Ask about anyone else?”

“Nothing. It’s odd, now I think of it. They didn’t ask what I’d seen or heard—well, except for seeing old Cham—at all. That’s odd, don’t you think? I mean, it’s like they…”

“Don’t think that.” She rushed to reassure him. “There’s no way they could consider you a suspect.”

“He’s called them about me, you know. Called 911 when my mower kicked a stone against his house, one time. Called in a complaint about my cat.”

Ellie frowned. “Surely they didn’t…”

“They came to see me after the stone. As if they thought I’d thrown it.”

“You’re not serious!”

“Well… No, I guess I’m exaggerating. There was no accusation—just wanted to be sure, I suppose. And the cat was only good for a phone call. This time was a lot different… What I’m getting at is that there’s a record—sorta—of conflict between us.”

“But Don, how is that different from anyone else nearby? Hasn’t he fought with almost everyone?”

“You’ve had problems, too?”

“No, I mean other people. I’ve heard talk up at the store.” She meant the corner store and gas station a half mile to the north up Route 57. “He’s got quite a reputation.”

That at least was true, Lightner admitted to himself. But the questioning and his own shaky responses—those worried him. Why did the old crank have to pick his yard to die in? It was so unfair—unfair and deeply unsettling.

A new idea struck—a relief, in a way. He raised his eyes to her face. “Perhaps he was just a chance target. Should we worry about some nut running around potting random people?”

“Oh, no. No, I’m sure it’s nothing like that. Maybe… maybe it was some kid shooting at a bird back in the woods, and the shot carried. Can’t they travel a mile?”

“A twenty-two long rifle? A mile seems pretty far, don’t you think? But they could tell by the trajectory if it was from a distance. I mean, by the angle of the shot in his body.”

And besides, to the east where such a shot had to have come while Lorentz was climbing the ramp, was mostly open fields and brush. Surely someone would have heard the shot and seen the shooter? Although maybe not, considering how few houses and people were in that direction. And would anyone—even a kid—be stupid enough to aim toward the small cluster of homes that made up their little community? Hard to believe.

“I can’t quite believe… I mean, who’d be so careless?”

§

Chapter 02 ~ Friday

Just before lunch they called Lightner at work. It was Grassi, wanting him to come to the Administrative Building. The jail, in other words.

“What do you want me to…?” His voice petered out.

“Just a few more questions.”

“We went over everything the other day.”

·

And the days in between, for they’d called him twice already this week. How long had he known Lorentz? Did they ever socialize, or even meet casually? If they were both out in their respective yards, how did they greet? You ignored one another—why was that? How usual was it for Lorentz to visit him?

He’d explained the relationship on Sunday and expanded on it during the week.

Visit? With Lorentz the term invade was more appropriate. He stressed that Cham—Chambers was the full name—Lorentz was in a perpetual snit about one thing or another. Ask any of the neighbors. Perhaps he was the man’s favorite target, but he was sure everyone had crossed swords with the old man at one time or another. It was just that Lightner’s home had the bad luck to be sited next to Lorentz’s.

·

“I can’t take off work without a good reason.”

“Don’t you think, fella, that murder is a pretty good reason?” Sergeant Dreis joined the call. His voice was heavy with derision—with innuendo.

Grassi asked, “What about after work? How soon could you get here?”

“Five-thirty, I suppose. But…”

“Let’s make it five-thirty, then.”

“But…” He waited but no response came—no urging. They were working on his nerves with silence, he knew. “Why do I need to come there?”

“You don’t want us to bother you at work, do you?”

“Bother…?”

Dreis again broke in. “You want us to pull up to the front entrance—siren and lights and all? If that’s what you want, we’ll be glad to oblige.”

Surely an empty threat—had to be. But he wasn’t certain, so the fear of embarrassment overcame his fear of an interrogation room with one-way glass and video camera.

[ * ]

The interview proved to be simply more of the same, in a little box of a room with a big mirror in one wall and a camera high in one corner. Grassi asked variations of the same questions, Dreis made the same sort of sarcastic remarks.

Except for one thing, coming as the interrogation wound down.

“Got a piece of news for you,” Grassi said. “The immediate cause of Mister Lorenz’ death was heart attack.”

Lightner sat up straight.

“Don’t get too excited.” Dreis’ voice held its usual jeer. “Brought on by the shooting, though, so it’s still first degree and you’re still looking at life. Ironic, huh? You coulda jumped out and yelled Boo! and got rid of him just as quick.”

§

Chapter 03 ~ Saturday Afternoon

The day was overcast and gloomy, and Ellie Piper had dropped over, the first time they shared anything even remotely social. Lightner’s mood resembled the weather.

“They won’t let it go. Do I… do I look guilty to you? Because they just keep after…”

She reached across the table, resting her fingertips on the back of his hand.

“Hold on, Don. You’re letting yourself get all worked up. They have the bullet—if that’s actually what killed him—and they’ve got your rifle to match it with. You’ve nothing to worry about.”

But he couldn’t shake a feeling of dread. He’d shot the rifle shortly before, not bothering to clean it because the ammo was supposed to be non-fouling. Laziness, really. And did they have the bullet? He’d been told nothing—not one of his questions did they answer. Maybe the bullet had carried through and been lost in the mud of the rear field.

Lightner was so down, answering in monosyllables for the most part, that Ellie seemed to give up on him. She withdrew her hand and pushed back her chair, the tea unfinished in front of her.

“Well…” she began.

“Sorry.”

“No, I’ve just got some things to do. But don’t worry—it’ll blow over.” Her voice trailed off. “Cuz why wouldn’t they find a better suspect?”

He shambled after her to the front door, head down.

She said, “You use the fireplace?”

“What?”

She pointed. “One of those heaterator types, isn’t it? Must warm the place pretty well.”

“Oh! Yeah, it keeps this room good and warm, and a little gets upstairs. Kitchen and bath, too, if the wind’s right.”

“How’re you fixed for wood?”

“Haven’t ordered any yet.” Nor would he bother, the way he felt. Sawing and splitting held no charms in his present mood.

“I’ve got some blow-downs in back from that storm last November. If you feel like helping me…?” She brightened at the idea of forcing him out of his depression through work. “I’ve got the tractor and a trailer—we could share. There’s red-oak and ash, plus some trash trees.”

It required too much thinking in his present state of mind.

“I’m kind of… Have to let you know.”

§

Chapter 04 ~ Sunday Again

It rained during the night but Sunday dawned bright and clear, the little ash tree in his rear yard a stunning bronzish-purple, many of the leaves still hanging on. Across the way, behind Ellie Piper’s, the ashes were mostly bare, but the bright reds and yellows of maples mixed with deep reds of oaks just beginning to light up.

His outlook brightened along with the change in weather. He searched for the phone-book.

“Hi, good morning.”

“Yeah, it’s me. I was thinking about your offer—you know, the firewood? Still stand?”

“Right now’s good for me.”

“Oh, you attend church?”

“No, not really, but…”

“Well I… I’m not dressed, and…”

“Uh-huh. Okay—guess I could. “

“No, I’ll drive.”

·

As they crossed the parking lot Ellie said, “I haven’t been going for about… about forever, really, but with what’s been happening, it seemed like a good time to get right with Heaven.” She laughed.

Lightner suspected she was sincere. And he had to admit it was a good time to let your superstitions take charge, if that’s what it was.

“You’re sure about this?” He waved at his attire.

“You’ll be one of the better-dressed. Look at me.”

She looked darned good, but her sweater and checked slacks were casual enough, for sure.

“It’s quite country. There’ll be people in jeans and t-shirts, and not just the minister.”

It took him a second to catch on, but once he did he couldn’t stop laughing. It had to be relief… or maybe hysteria.

[ * ]

Mid-afternoon of what was looking like a fine day, and in rougher clothes and work-boots, Lightner went to Ellie’s place for a swell lunch. Simple enough—buckwheat cakes and bacon plus apple salad. It was a tremendous pleasure not to eat his own cooking—to get something a bit different. Fine coffee, too.

A great invigorating day, the temperature in the forties but a hot sun, and he was hanging on for dear life as the trailer leaped across the rough field. She looked over her shoulder at him, laughing.

“Don’t worry—I’ll come back for you if you get thrown off.”

“Just keep your eyes on the trail, missie!”

She laughed again, swinging the wheel so as to bring the trailer next to a downed pin-oak.

He unstrapped her chainsaw and handed it over the trailer side, then jumped the tailgate to trample through weeds and coarse grass.

“Sure you want to use that?” She indicated his bow-saw.

“Warms you twice this way.”

“Not for me,” she laughed.

“What is that—sixteen inch?”

“Yeah. It’s a lot of work, too, on these big trunks.”

Lightner said, “Let me take off a few lower branches, then you start where it gets slimmer.”

“No, I’ll cut through down here so we can get rid of the root ball.”

“Is it sharp?”

“Sharp enough.”

“When did these go down?”

“Before Thanksgiving last year.”

“Should be in good shape then.”

“Oh, yeah—specially the ash.”

It was hard work. Lightner imagined his blade dulling with each stroke on the tough branches, managing to stack a dozen six-foot lengths on the trailer, ready for trimming at home. Ellie cut a large notch near the base of the tree, but her saw wasn’t long enough to handle the two-foot plus diameter with ease. By mutual consent they went to a nearby red maple, getting a few good lengths before quitting.

They dropped half the wood at his place, unloading the balance at hers. As she re-started the tractor to put it in the barn, she invited him for supper.

“Not a chance.”

Her face fell.

He grinned. “We’ll eat out tonight.”

 

[ * ]

It was after eight when they got going, having showered and rested. By then in this rural area some of the eateries were already closing. Lightner needed to drive twenty miles to find a place on the edge of Marshallton.

“You do this twice a day?” She seemed dismayed.

“Yep. Not so bad, once you learn to sleep with your eyes open.”

She smiled.

“Really. Sometimes coming home I wake up and wonder where I am—don’t recall leaving the parking lot.”

The dining room was almost empty.

“You folks closing soon?” he asked the hostess.

“We serve until ten, then clean up around you. Take your time.”

“Hey-hey!” Ellie said.

It was a bit shabby but the staff was friendly and casual, the food plain but good. They left well before ten.

She bumped against his side on the way to his car, smiling up at him.

“This was nice. I don’t eat sit-down much, just takeout once in a while.”

“It was… not spectacular, but good.”

They both were silent on the way home but as he opened her car door she asked, “You’re feeling better?”

“I think so. They had me badly shook but maybe I’m over it.”

“That’s good, Don.”

He could have been feeling amorous had she given him a signal, but other than the nudge at the restaurant, nothing had passed between them. Disappointing, perhaps, but he wasn’t quite ready for that sort of thing himself. A pleasant evening, one of companionship rather than romance. And besides, he had other things on his mind.

Standing on the stoop above him, she unlocked her back door then turned.

“Thank you—for the meal and… A big strong guy like you is a real help with work like today’s. Don’t be a stranger, okay?”

It was a good enough start. He’d waited years for this, almost since he’d moved in and first saw her in front of her house. Her looks had immediately caught his interest but except for a howdy or two at the corner store he’d got no chance to know her.

“Never fear,” he said. “I’ll think of you every time I take out the ashes.”

The door closed on her full-throated laugh, and he went home well pleased with himself. Inside, the phone blinked, and he picked-up to dial the code.

Hey, Lightner—it’s Jess. Gimme a call when you get in from tom-catting.”

He seethed a bit, slamming down the phone before thinking to delete the message. Just what he needed to break the good mood.

Jesse Bateman lived on the west side of Lorentz’s, about a football field’s length away. His had been one of the prying calls directly after Cham’s death, and this was the second time he’d called since.

Lightner equivocated about calling back. If he ignored him the jerk might go away… or he might not. Probably take a two-by on the forehead to discourage him. It was too late to call anyway.

On the other hand, if he got the guy out of bed or away from his TV perhaps the annoyance would limit Bateman’s future attentions. He drummed his fingers on the side-boy before dialing.

“Evening. Is Jesse there?” Should have apologized for calling late, but he didn’t care for Missus Bateman all that much, either.

After several minutes Bateman slurred a greeting.

“Yeah, it’s Lightner. What’s the deal, Jess?”

“No. No, they’ve told me nothing. Nothing. No, I mean nothing—not one single solitary fact.”

“Interrogated you? So what! Everyone was questioned, and I’m sure everyone was asked about me. How could they not ask—it was on my property.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Look, Bateman—even if I did know something, which I don’t, why should I tell you?

“What! I’m hanging up.”

[ * ]

An hour later he was still pacing, fuming over the man’s rude intrusion and churning over all that he’d undergone since old Cham had picked his ramp to die on.

What was Jesse’s problem? To demand answers, then accuse him of lying… Had it been fact-to-face Bateman would have been flat on his back within seconds. Lightner didn’t think of himself as a brawler but the man had never been much more than an annoyance, and to pry like this… Did he think he was neighborhood watch or something?

Could it be Bateman who’d called the sheriff with suspicions? Was the man one of the causes of his misery? He wouldn’t put it past the SOB.

No, I sure wouldn’t put it past him.

§

Chapter 05 ~ Monday

Early at work, another call came from Grassi.

“Just checking a few details,” the deputy claimed.

Sure—Lightner would bet that’s all it was. More of their psychological game, probably. But what if he slipped up—crossed wires and inadvertently changed some part of his story?

On and on the call went.

Now Lightner bent over his drawing board, head in hands, rubbing his temples.

His head ached and his stomach was tight. Bile stung the back of his throat. How much more of this…

“Don! Wake up.”

He jerked erect, turning to see Jackass Number Two curtly motioning to him.

“My office.” J N Two—J N Kinterman, young cousin of the owner, took a pace, then half turned. “Now,” he added.

A touch of anger joined itself to Lightner’s unease.

·

He and Kinterman eyed each other across the big empty desk—empty because so little real work ever crossed it. J N Two’s specialty was bluster. Only twenty-four, ignorant of the business and unsure of himself, he had sufficient backing from Number One to get away with bullying the working staff.

“You’ve got problems, we know that.” The voice was flat—cold. “But the company has problems, too.”

J N waited for a response, but Lightner simply held his gaze.

“You’ve missed time and your productivity’s down. And you’re setting a bad example.” Again he waited. “So you need to straighten up.”

Lightner grudged every word wasted on this punk.

“I don’t control the Sheriff’s actions, and I can’t help it if I worry sometimes. But I don’t think my work has suffered, and I feel you’re exaggerating.”

J N reddened. “Or maybe you just don’t appreciate your job sufficiently.”

There was another patch of silence while they tried to stare each other down.

Lightner cleared his throat. Keeping his voice low, he said, “I have a lawyer, John-boy, and I know how to use him.”

“Oh, really!” Kintermann’s voice squeaked at the really. “And just what’s that supposed to mean?”

“If you release me without good cause, be sure I’ll take appropriate action.”

After a few more blustering statements from J N 2, Lightner rose in the middle of one and left the office.

Back at his board he massaged his neck for a few seconds, then tried to figure out where he was in the count of partition modules in a plan entitled, Hampton Mortuary Supplies Warehouse & Light Mfg Building.

It all seemed fitting, somehow.

§

Chapter 06 ~ Friday Evening

“So…” Ellie said, “this is it?”

Lightner had been given the word that morning.

“When Kintermann and his uncle and a couple more company big shots came back from lunch he gave me the word—Clear out your desk!—and I was escorted from the building.”

“That’s terrible! What did you… I mean, did you argue or anything?”

Lightner’s face tightened. “All I said was, Thank God! I was beginning to think you’d never get your nerve up.”

Ellie’s chin dropped in surprise, then she broke into a laugh. “Wonderful! Did you really say that?”

“Yes I did. When I saw the big lunch party I expected it, so I had my speech ready. The guy who escorted me said he was sorry but I merely shrugged. Told him they’d miss me more than I’d miss them—and then I was gone. Two boxes of books and drawing tools, calendar, coffee cup… and there went eight years of faithful service.”

“I’m glad you went out with a bang, at least. Not so funny, though, is it? Will you get unemployment?”

“Not sure. Termination for cause, maybe, since I was insubordinate. I threatened to sue them—earlier, that is—but I don’t have the nerve for it, under the circumstances.”

“Does he have witnesses?”

“No, but they can be manufactured, you realize.”

“I can’t help but feel angry for you, Don.” Her face showed it.

“I’ll get the Sunday paper and scan the ads, then pop into the employment office Monday bright and early—register and see what they have.”

“Much chance?”

“They’re generally useless. But I’ll also get a resume together and start mailing.”

“It’s so unfair!”

“I blame the detectives but that merely gave Kintermann an excuse. He’s a punk and has to throw his weight around to feel important. Still, none of that matters. What’s done is done.” He shook his head. “Let’s forget it, have a good meal and… Want to go somewhere after? Dancing, maybe, to work off some calories?”

“Do you want to cut wood tomorrow?”

“Will the weather be decent?”

[ * ]

Snow drove them out of the woodlot well before dark. Big lazy flakes had been sifting down all day, building a couple inches on the grass by mid-afternoon. Later it began to get serious, causing them to quickly pack and run—Lightner hanging on as Ellie put her foot down while she could see to steer. Still holding on for dear life, they burst into chuckles nearing his house, then back to her place to put away the tractor and wagon, not even bothering to unload her wood.

“You want a meal?” she said, her face glowing with cold and good humor.

“Come over my place if the snow doesn’t scare you. We can watch a movie and I’ll walk you back home”

“Great! Half an hour, so I can clean up.”

·

She came to his door, well bundled-up and covered with flakes.

“You look like a walking snowbabe.”

“There’ll be a foot by morning… or by midnight, maybe.”

She admired his fireplace, the blaze already doing well.

“This the wood we’ve cut? It puts out as much heat as my stove.”

“Oh, I doubt that, but it sure beats a regular fireplace.”

“Can you take my coat?”

Lightner helped her slip it off and shook it over the tile hearth, the snow immediately melting—and when he turned a large bowl appeared as if by magic.

“What’s that?”

“Potato salad.”

“You made it so quickly?”

“I boiled the potatoes earlier. Will you eat some?”

“Heck yes! In fact it’s perfect, cuz I figured to cook weenies over the fire.”

“No kidding!”

“All-beef franks, though from what parts of elderly cows I don’t want to know.”

·

She rummaged in his kitchen to make hot cocoa. They ate, popped corn, watched a movie, related parts of their respective life histories. His recent problems went unmentioned.

She stayed till after eleven, leaving the potato salad in his refrigerator. He walked her back home, both carrying flashlights, the snow nearly knee-deep but light and easily scuffed aside. At her porch, with him a step below, she turned to put a hand on his shoulder, touching her lips to his.

By an instant act of will he refrained from throwing his arms round her, but he must have twitched.

She said, “Did I startle you?”

“Pleasantly.”

She laughed and went inside, and he turned homeward congratulating himself.

Ellie Piper was the best thing to happen to him in almost six years. Lightner had assumed she felt slight interest in men—possibly had some bad experiences to forget. But now… He would remain cautious. Let her make the first moves, do nothing without a clear signal, take no risk of driving her away.

He was inhibited partly by his marital experience—conditioned, so to speak. His wife had hated to be mauled, as she put it. This included pulling her roughly to him, grasping her waist to kiss the back of her neck, hugging and mussing hair or makeup—in other words, anything in the way of spontaneous love making.

Though she seemed different as possible from his ex-wife he’d still be careful where Ellie Piper was concerned.

§

Chapter 07 ~ Next Week

Lightner read not only Sunday’s but Monday’s ads before wasting hours at the employment office. Tuesday he researched online and composed a resume, then made some phonecalls until Grassi spoiled his digestion after lunch.

·

“Where’ve you been, Mister Lightner? I tried to get you at work and home both.”

“What difference does it make?”

“You’re a witness, aren’t you? We need to follow-up.”

“I’m not talking to you any more.”

Grassi was silent for a space before saying in a surprisingly mild tone, “That’s not a very constructive attitude.”

“You go construct whatever you want. You’ve lost me my job, and I don’t intend to play your games any longer. And I want my rifle back.”

“I’m afraid we need to keep that for present.”

“Bull! You know it didn’t fire that bullet.”

“None the less…”

Dreis broke in. “We’re keepin’ it, Lightner. You want it, you get yourself a lawyer.”

“I…”

“Oh, wait! You ain’t got a job any more, so maybe you can’t afford a lawyer.”

Lightner dropped his usually cautious approach.

“You listen in on all the calls, Dreis? What’s the matter, can’t you trust him?”

“Listen, you punk…”

“Sleep with him too, do you?”

Lightner hung up before Dreis could answer, expecting an immediate return call which never came. Small consolation.

He did nothing constructive the rest of the day and evening except feed himself and tend his fireplace, wandering from room to room.

[ * ]

Wednesday, having decided to count the Dreis confrontation as a victory, he mailed a few resumes before making stops at two firms he’d researched. He ate a late lunch north of Marshallton, stopping for fuel at The Corner Place on his way home.

Entering to pay after filling his tank he found Jesse Bateman blathering to Duke the owner and a couple of other locals, each with an open beercan in his fist.

“Well-well, if it ain’t our local hit-man. How’s she goin’ there, Deadeye Don?”

Lightner aimed a glare in midair but made no answer, proffering his credit card to Duke and leaning on the counter while waiting.

Bateman rolled on. “Yeah, we’d better be walkin’ small with Ole Deadeye keeping watch on the neighborhood.. Lemme tell ya, I don’t go outa my front door these days without takin’ a good look first.”

The two listeners chuckled but Duke reacted to Lightner’s expression, putting on his proprietor’s face.

Lightner slipped the credit card receipt into his wallet, turning and leaning one elbow on the counter while keeping his face rigid. He stared through Bateman, who turned slightly to get out of the direct gaze.

“One good thing, though,” Bateman said, “we don’t need to worry about any home invasions now the word’s gone out we got our local vigilante on duty.” He flicked a quick glance over his shoulder. “Think maybe we oughta get him a badge?”

No chuckles came this time as the listeners absorbed Lightner’s mood, but whether from bravado or maliciousness Bateman kept on.

“And the ladies! They sure like the bad boys, don’t they?”

One of the men crushed his beercan and threw it in the trash, walking off with a half-hearted wave. The other said nothing and chugged his beer. Lightner went over to the freezer, thinking it might be good to have ice cream on hand in case Ellie came over again. Ignoring Bateman, he stepped back to the counter to pay.

“Must be the danger,” Bateman continued. “Yeah, the risk factor. In fact, think I’ll go crank off a few rounds, see what it does for my…”

“See ya,” the other listener said, walking off.

“…for my love life.” Bateman finished. Stumped for an audience and not wishing to meet Lightner’s look, he peered after his lost audience for a moment, then shrugged, said “Huh!” and sauntered toward the entrance.

Lightner closely followed, and as Bateman passed beyond the door, took a long pace to step on the heel of the man’s rear shoe. Bateman stumbled and half turned in a confrontational pose.

What the hell!

Lightner followed with a two-handed shove, sending Bateman skipping and stumbling to fetch up hard against the side of a car.

Stealthily watching for a counter-attack, Lightner stooped to grab the ice cream, broken from its bag, and brushed it off while pacing to his vehicle. Bateman leaned against the car—apprehensive and mouth working with no sound coming forth.

[ * ]

Friday night Lightner took Ellie dancing at a cowboy/hillbilly roadhouse, both dressed in jeans and checked shirts. She wore a flat cowboy hat but he went bare-headed for lack of an appropriate chapeau. They spoke little until at a table with drinks in front of them.

“You’re awfully quiet tonight,” she said, “but you look happy enough.”

“Right! Cuz I’m suddenly a working man.”

“You are? That was sure quick.”

“Yesterday I dropped in on Gillespie and Company, and they’d had a man quit them last week. Got a call this morning.”

“A decent job?”

“Better, in fact. Outdoor construction, which beats the piddly work I’ve been doing. Need to learn plenty of new stuff, but there’ll be expediting and field measurements, real design drafting… All in all it’s more of a job and better experience.”

“Good money?”

“He asked what I’ve been making and offered the same. Benefits about the same or better, so I can’t complain.”

“That’s wonderful! Sounds like your luck is changing.”

“I’ve told the Sheriff’s boys I’m through with them, too. No more putting up with their static, even if I have to hire a lawyer.”

“I thought you had a lawyer.”

“No, that was only a bluff.”

“Get your gun back?”

His expression became rueful. “That’s what I’ll need the lawyer for.”

“Reporters still bothering you?”

“I think they’ve given up.”

“You’ve handled that well.”

After his initial confusion he’d refused to talk to the newsies, even the cute chick from the TV station. Didn’t even acknowledge their requests with a No comment, passing them by without a glance. When phonecalls came he hung up as soon as they’d identified themselves or began asking questions.

“They don’t give up easily but I think I’ve got them stymied.”

She chuckled, beaming at him. “And I understand you had a little scrap with our big-mouthed neighbor.”

Lightner laughed and looked to one side, but she kept on.

“I was told you defended my honor.”

“Not exactly… Your name never came up, but he was way out of line and everyone knew it.”

“You hurt him?”

“Not to notice—just a shove.”

“You’d better keep an eye on him. Maybe he’s the one who shot Cham.”

Lightner smiled. “He must have something on his mind, going out of the way to make trouble.”

“Cuz they confiscated his guns Tuesday, that’s why.” Seeing his surprise she added, “Didn’t you know?”

“Guns plural, huh? But if they’re checking others,” he growled, “why won’t they give mine back?”

“They went down the road, stopping everywhere.”

“Those two detective buddies of mine?”

“Not this time—deputies in uniform.”

“They take yours, too?

She grinned and shook her head. “Told them I didn’t have one.”

“But I thought…”

“I bought mine the week after Cham’s shooting, figuring it’d be good to have around. Brand spankin’ new ten-shot semi-auto, and I had my scope put on it.”

“No kidding. Twenty-two?”

“I’ll show you this weekend. If it doesn’t snow we can go in back and break a few caps. Pot a rabbit, maybe.”

“Is this the season?”

She grinned. “We outlaws don’t worry about that, do we?”

He could only grin in return even while feeling a bit uncomfortable at the idea of breaking the law, especially while under suspicion for something more serious.

But Ellie showed no concern, laughing off his fears. “I’m totally clear.”

“But isn’t lying to them a crime?”

She shrugged. “I didn’t have it at the time… when Cham was shot. Something else, Don, she added. “I think I’ve been figuring you wrong.”

His head came up.

“I had the impression you were… Don’t be insulted, please. I felt you were perhaps sort of timid—the type to avoid trouble.”

He frowned. “Aren’t I?”

“Not exactly, my friend. I think you avoid trouble, but when it comes you meet it straight on.”

Lightner reddened. It was exactly how he secretly pictured himself—a quiet and unassuming superhero without cape and tights.

But he was also puzzled. He’d assumed that Ellie owned a gun right along, similar to most homeowners in this neighborhood, though he couldn’t recollect any specific instance of seeing her with one. Then again, they’d hardly exchanged a word before her recent approach to him, much less discussed hunting or home defense.

§

Chapter 08 ~ More Fuss

At Gillespie’s, the morning of his fourth day on the job, Lightner entered the office of Lou Modjelewski, intending to ask for a favor. The room was stark and businesslike, containing a few file cabinets, two visitors’ chairs, an ancient drafting board and a coat rack. Most surfaces were stacked with plans, specifications, reference books and manuals.

Modjelewski himself was stark and businesslike, and he beat Lightner to the punch.

“How’s the Torchell job coming along, Don?”

“Er, pretty well. There are two quotes due for form work.”

“Is Duggan one?”

“No. Are they favored?”

“Give ‘em a shot—their work is sound, and they quote tight. E L Duggan Sons.”

“Okay.” Lightner made a note. “The original estimates for pour look accurate.”

“Reinforcing?”

“Just getting started.”

Modjelewski nodded by way of dismissal, but Lightner wasn’t through.

“I hate to ask this, first week on the job, but I have that trouble with the sheriff…”

“Idiot!” Seeing Lightner’s startled expression he added, “Everyone knows he’s worthless but they keep electing him.”

“It’s these two detectives…”

“A fish rots from the head, Don—you know that.”

“Well, I…”

“Take whatever time you need.”

[ * ]

A large van occupied his drive when he arrived home, forcing him to park down the road, pulling partway off the blacktop with his passenger-side wheels sinking into the muddy verge. Several vehicles were in front of him, and as if law enforcement wasn’t enough, the Marshallton TV station had sent their roving camera crew.

You’d think they’d have their fill by now.

No such luck.

The yard, front and back, was being trampled by several metal detector operators, and the two stooges loitered on the ramp where Cham had died.

“Took you long enough,” Dreis gibed.

Lightner could have pointed out that he was minutes ahead of time. Instead, he said…

“Bring all your gear this time?”

Dreis scowled, as always when a question was put to him.

“Whadaya talking about?”

“You didn’t forget the old target pistol to hide in my closet, I hope?”

More words—quite a few more—were exchanged before the two detectives went over the house, working with surprising speed. Lightner figured they were simply going through the motions to further harass him. In something less than an hour and a half they left, Grassi coming back for a final word.

“Look…”

“You already looked. Didn’t find a thing, did you?”

“Uh… I’m sorry about this. You can forget all about it now—you’re okay.”

“Forget? Oh no—I’ll remember this for a long time, and if I ever get a chance…”

“The sergeant—Dries—he retires end of January. He’s been wanting to go out with a clean arrest, is all. Don’t hold it against him, huh? This has been his whole life, and he’s really not such a bad guy. Can’t blame him for wanting a success.”

Lightner couldn’t speak, could hardly keep from attacking the man.

“So!” He coughed to get his vocal cords working. “How many innocent people have you hounded into prison, you dirty…”

“Hey, hey! Don’t get outa line, now. We had our reasons.”

“You’ve had no reasons, simply going through the motions. And what’s this metal detecting—figure my yard’s full of bullets?”

Grassi scowled and turned away.

Then both deputy and sergeant were gone—out of his life forever, Lightner hoped. The injustice rankled, though, and he failed to sleep until well after midnight.

§

Chapter 09 ~ Ever After

Late February. The weather was horrible but Lightner’s life was bright. His job looked firm, his house was listed with an enthusiastic realtor, and for Valentine’s Day he’d presented Ellie with a ring. She’d been more than pleased—borderline ecstatic. He was the type of man she’d been searching for all her life.

Or so she claimed, and who was he to argue?

The wedding was set for a Saturday in April, neither wanting to wait for June. The weather in their locale, despite the saying about April showers, was generally dryer in April than May.

Sunday night they sat on her couch, limbs entwined and the stove roasting, filled with wood they’d cut together.

“Well…” He stretched, wakening her. “I’d better go. Work tomorrow.”

“I know.”

She straightened, easing away from him. He rose but immediately stumbled, his foot asleep and dragging. He leaned on the couch arm, working the ankle to get blood flowing.

“Oh, good Lord!”

“What’s the matter?”

He’d inadvertently kicked the stack of Sunday newspapers, revealing a partial headline. Sitting on the edge of a cushion, he bent to retrieve the section. After a few moments he turned to Ellie.

“I can’t believe this.”

She gave a peeved look. “Tell me! Before I fall asleep again.”

“They’re not giving up. More problems.”

What problems?”

“The state cops have been called in—gonna drag your stream for the gun again. It’s like they’ll never quit.”

“So? And it’s not my stream, anyway.”“

He read further. “Soon as more ice melts—bring in a fancy metal detector, go over everything once more.”

“I wish you’d quit worrying. It’s nothing to do with you.”

“They’ll be messing around in your pond again.”

“Not my pond. That’s yards beyond my line, and even if they come up with anything it won’t reflect on you.”

He gusted a sigh. “I shouldn’t worry… But you watch these forensic shows and they manage to prove impossible things.”

“So they’ll prove you’re innocent. Big deal.”

He gave her a worried look. “They’ve given up on me, but they might pick you for the next scapegoat.”

“Phooey! There’s no record I have a gun.”

Lightner shook his head. “Not that simple, Ellie. If they find out you’ve lied about ever having a weapon it could set them off.”

“C’mon, Don. Date of sale, you know.”

“They’ll accuse you for lying to law enforcement.”

“Not a big deal… I’ll bat my eyes and play dumb.”

“If they find a gun when they drag they might connect the bullet with it and put two and two together to make five. You bought a gun and failed to admit it, so the one in the pond or stream had to have been yours before. You saw how they jerked me around.”

“It’s been months—anything in there will be all rusted.”

“Yeah, but look what they can do with forensic evidence nowadays. It’s amazing, even if the barrel’s been damaged. And you don’t have to be guilty, Ellie—the shows always mention how juries can be swayed by expert testimony.”

“They’ll never…” She stopped.

“Huh? Never what?”

She made no reply, looking away.

“Never what, Ellie?”

“If the thing’s been in there long enough they’ll never make a match. The scratches and marks’ll be rusted away.”

Both were silent for some time, Lightner still working his ankle. After a few minutes he spoke.

“But look, Ellie—they manage to work miracles on occasion. If that thing—the barrel—settled into mud, lack of oxygen will slow rusting, and the forensics boys will make the best of what’s left.”

“Not if the marks are gone beforehand, Don.”

“Ream it out to a smooth-bore, I suppose? But then the tool it’s reamed with can leave marks. No, if they come up with a twenty-two there’ll be connections made—possible connections, that is, if it’s the actual gun. …Or maybe if it’s not, depending on how badly they want to pin something on you.”

After several moments he added, “ If they find something—anything!—and we get married, they’ll jump on us for sure—conspirators, they’ll claim.”

“You worry too much, Don, and I don’t intend to let you go back on your promise that easily.”

He uneasily joined her laughter.

“You’d worry, too, Ellie, if you’d been through what I have.”

“I don’t intend to worry.”

“Our best hope is in all the miles they have to search. And there are other ponds and streams where someone could have thrown it.”

“They’ll still have to match the bullet.”

“You know what can be done! We see it on TV all the time.”

“Those are the successes, Don! They never show the failures.”

“Still…”

“And there are ways to remove the marks.”

Lightner merely shook his head.

After a pause she said, “Think about it, Don. What could you do if you had to?

“Yeah, sure. Search the internet for a method, I suppose, leaving records on the computer?”

“You could figure it out. Take the thing apart and burn the stock, for starters.”

“That’s nothing.”

“Put everything metal—trigger assembly, bolt, even screws—in a plastic bucket, the big kind drywall compound comes in. Get yourself a tiny plastic funnel, then dribble muriatic acid down the barrel. Do it over a couple days so the acid would have plenty long to work. What’d be left of tool marks by then?”

She looked up, catching his horrified expression.

“I mean… Don’t look at me like that.

His eyes twisted away but the expression remained.

“Don—what are you thinking, Don? Don!

§

Chapter 10 ~ Justified

After a time, voice low and faltering, she began explaining to the carpet.

“What if a father leaves his family—just disappears without warning… mother and child left with nothing? And a kind uncle—divorced—invites his sister to move in, promising to take care of her and the kid for so long as it takes?

“And he treats the girl like his own child. Yes, hugging her, kissing her cheek—all very… fatherly to start out—patting and squeezing her. And she’s only thirteen! Then the mother gets a lousy job—nights. And it goes on—getting worse, with him hinting she ought not to tell, otherwise they’ll be starving on the street, her and her mother.

“And things get so bad the girl nerves-up to tell her mother anyway but the mother won’t believe. Not didn’t, not couldn’t! Won’t believe because she’s weak and afraid—maybe some of the reason the father left.

“More than a year, and her fifteenth birthday is coming. And the uncle promises her—right in front of her mother—a special treat for her birthday. A present like nothing she can imagine!

“And her mother just giggles and grins, refusing to see.”

“So she stays home from school next day when they’re both gone, and puts some clothes in a grocery bag, braids her hair and ties on a babushka and walks to the bus station. Next town she buys a big gym bag and clothes from Salvation Army, dumps what she had, then onto a different bus. Next place, a short haircut and takes a bus south. Then a dye job, lipstick, tweezed brows, better clothes—make her look older.

“That was it, about seven-hundred miles away. Gets her first job and moves up, cuz she’s not stupid and has good reason to work hard. Saves, takes some private schooling, finagles a social security card. Always cautious around men.

“So twenty-some years go by—twenty years!—and the urge hits to come back. After all that time it feels safe, her looks being changed a lot. And I… and she tracks down old Cham—couldn’t find anything of her mother—and this place across from him was on the market. Beat up, so it didn’t sell quickly—was cheap.

“Didn’t plan to do anything about Cham, only watch him—that’s what she told herself. Never spoke to him, never got close. But one day at The Corner with no one else around he sidles up. ‘Thought I wouldn’t know, didn’t you?

“Something had given him a clue or else he finally figured out why I, she… why she must have seemed familiar. She leaves quick and never comes back when his truck is there, stopping only just before closing hours. But one day he caught… catches her. Came whispering up even though there were other people. ‘I ain’t forgot what you owe me, either.’

“Cuz she’d known where his cash box was hidden, back then—bashing it open. Took everything including the change, so many small bills they took more than one pocket. Only left a dollar bill, like thumbing my nose.

“Wiped down everything in the bedroom, even the door and trim.” She chanced a quick glance at Lightner but his eyes were down.

“But then something had to be done, either run again or…”

“So… so she set her old twenty-two by the front window, covered with a towel to help hide it. Greased the lower sash and took down the storm… and then waited. Waited by that window, the curtains a little apart, knowing he’d tackle you or Bateman eventually.

“Didn’t want to shoot too near his house in case the bullet carried through and showed where it came from. Didn’t want to shoot near you, either, but he caught me by surprise—well on his way to your front door, and it’d been weeks. She couldn’t stand to wait any longer.

“By the time I got the sash up and sighted on him he was near your stoop. So she whistled, and he turned to look.”

Lightner continued to sit, his eyes traversing the pattern of the carpet. Nothing could be heard but their breathing and the wind against the eaves.

“It was righteous, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it, Don? She was justified, wasn’t I?” …Don!

 

§

Non-prose & Nonsense

Most Bestest Fortune Cookie Proverb

I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.

§

Jarl Torok’s Death Lay

What use have I of mincing ways—of wile and craft and lie?

I, bred within a thundercloud and born beneath the sky?

Subtle tongue and monkish wile—what use when bright blades ring?

Dog! Haste on and learn to die. I was a man ere King.

 

Why slinkest thou in craven wise? Thy speech was surely brisk.

Thy knees are all a-tremble now—is life too dear to risk?

Thou hast thy shield and mailcoat strong, thy helm and other gear;

Come up, Dog! I’ve a sharpened edge to send a message clear.

 

(Ha! See, the fool advances now, his minions pressing near.

With numbers pushing close about he trusts to hide his fear.)

Come forth a few more steps, thou dog, my arms are not so long.

Thy rear ranks prate of glory… Soon they’ll trill another song.

§

In Space

Cast from my home while in a sleep,

Bereft of all I’ve known,

They’ve put me here—another test

To see how much I’ve grown.

 

The crater where inside I lie,

(Heat and light there’s none)

Is where the answer will be found,

Far banished from the sun.

 

Groping for the nourishment

To physically survive;

Lost is love and will and hope;

Pure faith keeps me alive.

 

The hidden days don’t pass me by,

For I control all realms of time.

And who’s to know or to object?

It only lives within the mind.

 

I close my eyes and yet I see

The force you might call gravity;

Extend my arm and touch with fright

A substance only known as light.

Yearning, striving to be free,

I sense magnetic energy;

While every radiation found

Sweeps by me in a chord of sound.

 

Though shadows stretch beyond and far,

There! Future-door now stands ajar.

I’ve learned well here at your behest,

And long to leave this searing nest.

For six long days I’ve stood this test;

The seventh brings eternal rest.

§

Definitions for the Shipwrecked

Isolation: You alone on a desert island.

Relationship: You and one other person on a desert island.

Politics: You and two other persons on a desert island.

§

Stopping by the Picasso Exhibition on a Rainy Evening

(With apologies to a certain defunct rhymester)

What place this is I think I know.

I’ll sneak in by the back door, though.
The doorman will not hinder here;
Around the rear he does not go.

 

My cabbie looks at me all queer,
As I stroll in this hall so drear.
He thinks there must be some mistake,
To waste a rainy evening here.

 

He gives his fist a fretful shake;
Perhaps the tip was not so jake.
I’ll answer not his charge of, “Cheap!”
So let him think I’m just a flake.

 

The gallery is ill-lit, creep-
y; stairs to second floor quite steep.
But after getting one good peep
At this trash, will I ever sleep?

§

Excerpts from Incomplete Works

Please consider voting for those you consider most worthy of completion. Comment in a review or by email.

§

An End to Light

Chapter 04

There he goes, Moira said to herself. She couldn’t see the garage, but Russell’s car was turning into the road and slowly accelerating. He liked to drive slowly while the engine warmed. In fact, he generally had to be prodded to get up to the speed limit.

Poor Russie. A loving father and husband, but he surely needed a lot of… a lot of encouragement.

She thought more of the job idea. Obvious by this time they couldn’t make it on his pay—the credit card with a balance, owing her parents nearly a thousand. Yes, and living in this dump with a low-class neighbor across the hall. Something must be done, and she would have to force the issue.

Oh! At the door again.

“Who is it?”

“I gotta borrow more food—my kid’s hungry. You got any cereal or bread?”

“Sorry, Elise—I can’t help you.”

“Why not?

“We don’t have enough for ourselves.”

“I just saw your car goin’ out.”

“Maybe when Russell gets back. Besides, you don’t borrow.”

“Whadaya mean?”

“If Russell gets any food you’ll need to pay this time. We can’t always give you stuff—you owe us from before.”

After a moment Elise said, “Just gimme somethin’ now and I’ll pay you later—for sure this time.”

“Oh…” How could she deflect this probable lie? “Why don’t you slip some money under the door. Say twenty bucks to cover what we’ve given you before, and for now, too.”

“Uh-huh.” A few seconds passed with no action. “Lemme see what you got.”

It was now Moira’s turn to pause. “I think I’d better see the money first.”

No answer, then came a kick—bang! The bottom of the door flexed.

“What’re you doing?

Bang!

“Stop that, Elise!”

Bang! Bang! Bang! BANG!

Stop it!

“You stop bein’ a hog!” Bang!

Missus Buranek’s voice sounded in protest.

“Shut up, Carla!” Elise screamed. “My kid’s gotta have food!” She followed with other words, mostly muffled, in an apparent face-to-face confrontation with the landlady.

At least the door-kicking stopped. Moira tiptoed to the kitchen, selecting a small but hefty frying pan as she waited for her neighbor’s next assault. She heard more speech, footsteps down… and eventually up the stairs. And then…

A half-hearted kick at the door. “Stuff it, skeeters! I got mumble-mumble…” Slam!

Puzzling. Had Elise coerced poor Missus Buranek into giving up some food?

Perhaps the freak-out was over but… Moira put down the skillet convenient to the door, just in case.

·

The car! Moira ran to the window, only to see a pick-up truck. Where was Russell? He’d been gone more than half an hour. And who was this? She heard pounding on the front door.

There was talk downstairs, then footsteps coming up. A knock on her door and…

She picked up the skillet, afraid her voice would quiver.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Dad—open up.”

“Oh!”

While in his arms she saw Corben over his shoulder.

“Oh! You’re here too?”

“Best not travel alone,” Hunt said. “Where’s Holly?”

“Fast asleep, and Russ is getting us groceries.”

“He is? By himself?”

“Well…”

“Your car runs?”

“Sure. It’s a piece of junk but it always starts.”

“Huh! Okay, get your stuff—I’m taking you to Peri.”

No! Do I have to? Let’s go home to Mom, instead.”

“That’s where she’s at.”

“Oh. But we have to wait for Russ—he’ll have food and… and whatever.”

If—and it’s a big if—any stores are open. Does he have money?”

“Well… credit card, at least.”

“No cash?”

“He might go home, Daddy—to your house—if the stores are closed.”

“We left notes for Graham, so…”

Oh, Daddy! He won’t read them if they’re addressed to Graham, and he never remembers your combination anyhow. Or is one on the door?”

“No… And come to think of it, they say we’ll be at the cottage. I don’t know if he can find his way there.” Hunt looked over his shoulder. “Corb—hang around here for Russell. When he comes, get their stuff loaded in his car—I’ll be back.” He turned to his daughter. “And you, my girl, grab all your baby things and some clothes for yourself, and we’ll be on our way.”

“That’s all?”

“The truck is jammed full, so anything has got to go in the seat with you.”

Corben said, a sneer in his voice, “How much of their crap you want, Roy?”

“Food, if there’s any—clothing, bedding, kitchen utensils… Anything useful—pots and pans, medicine…”

What?” Corben sounded incredulous.

Moira said, “One other thing, Daddy—there’s a crazy neighbor across the hall.” She gave highlights of her morning’s excitement. “And I think she owns a gun.”

“Bigger than this?” Corben displayed his monster.

“Ooh!” Moira recoiled.

“See—I win. You don’t have to worry about her.”

Hunt gave him a long look. “Don’t do anything stupid, Corben.”

“I know how to use this thing.”

“I’m sure of that, but do you know when to use it? …Let’s go, Hon. Give Corben your key. And you, Corb—go over the place while you’re waiting. When Russ comes, pack his car with anything useful we’ve missed. Okay, help us now.”

·

Going proved not so easy—Missus Buranek stood in the hall.

“You’re leaving! What about my rent?”

Hunt showed his checkbook. “How much?”

“Four seventy-five.”

Hunt raised his eyebrows to his daughter.

She nodded.

Missus Buranek hesitantly took the check. “But I don’t know you or…”

Moira said, “He’s my father.”

Hunt took out his wallet. “In case the bank isn’t open.” He handed her two fifties. “You can consider these a deposit for when she comes back.”

What’s goin’ on?

Elise clattered down from the top of the stairway, shouting as she came.

“What the hell, Skeeters? What’s this?”

They all turned to stare, Corben dropping the box he carried.

Moira looked away. “I’m leaving.”

What! Leave? Where you goin’? I gotta have food. Lemme in your room.”

“There’s no…”

Corben interrupted, flashing his revolver in the woman’s face.

“She’s goin’ but I’m stayin’. Get back upstairs and don’t be screwin’ around.”

Elise halted, mouth open, then sidled up the stairs, her eyes locked on the gun.

When she reached the top Hunt whispered, “Be careful coming back in, Corb, she doesn’t look nearly scared enough.”

·

Packed into the truck with her child now awake and peering around, Moira turned from looking at the street ahead.

“Corben is so mean.”

“It’s a mean world now. Besides, why should you worry about her?

“There’s her little boy, too.”

“I feel sorry for any child of hers, but that’s it.”

Moira remained silent for several moments.

“When am I coming back, Daddy?”

“I wouldn’t think you’d care, paying that kind of rent for a run-down garret. Huh! Not even that—more like an attic. Still, me paying kept your landlady quiet, and she has a few bucks cash to tide her over if everything goes to hell.”

“You think banks might not open today?”

“Could be far worse.” He gave a condensed version of his thinking and plans.

“Oh, Daddy! Live with Corben? How can we, even if it’s an EPM?”

EMP! Just as neighbors. I’ve leased half his acreage—cheaply, too.”

“We’ll be in that so-called cottage? Even a week there would be horrible.”

“We’ll build on—and there’s the shed.”

“Isn’t it full of junk?”

Building materials, dear. Your future house, we can say.”

“Future hovel, you mean. Oh, Daddy!” Tears began, but by then they’d reached Corben and Peri’s place.

[ * ]

The females and children sat in the front room, wearing coats and bundled in blankets. The kerosene heater had been banished to the kitchen, right next to the bathroom. Hunt was on his way to get Corben, prior to heading back to his own home.

Peri idly fingered her four-ten combi. “I wish one of you had learned to shoot.”

“Your father says I must, once we’re down at the cottage. But that seems like such a small gun, Peri. Is it sufficient?”

“In case of rabbit attacks, Mom. Heh-heh. No, my goofy spouse has one of those revolvers that take four-tens or forty-fives, so he stuck me with this. It’s a discourager, not a killer. Though if you hit them in the right place…”

“Right place, what?”

“They’ll be real discouraged.”

Moira grimaced. “What a subject! What about Nonnie, Mom?”

“Oh dear. Please don’t mention that around your father. I think he was crying this morning. Sigh. We all know the answer if things are as bad as he thinks.”

“A retirement community in Florida,” Peri said. “At least she’ll be warm enough, but at her age and with gangs roaming…”

“And she doesn’t drive. We’ve urged her to move in with us, you know, but she hates the cold.”

“And poor Graham.”

“There’s a note, but it’s a long way to Dakota.” We’ll never see him again, Carole thought, not wanting to further discourage her daughters by speaking aloud.

Still cuddling Holly, Moira jumped up and went to a window.

“Where are they? …Oh dear! I hope it’s safe to look out.”

“See anyone?”

“Nobody near. Beginning to sprinkle, though, I think.”

“Great!” Carole said, “Just what we need.”

Peri jumped up. “Think I’ll light that stupid camp stove and see if I can scramble some eggs—rather use ‘em than try to haul ‘em. Call out if you see anyone.”

§

A Frenzy of Chocolate

Chapter 00

A beautiful day in late September—just perfect. Golden sun in a clear blue sky, puffy cumulus drifting on a cool—but not too cool—zephyr. Did zephyrs come from the southwest? Hmm.

Maribelle Madsen couldn’t be sure, but what matter?

Plenty of goldenrod and a few early asters. Trees were colorful for this early in fall—especially the white-ash—and the hum of distant lawnmowers competed with autumn bees. Nothing could be more sublime.

Maribelle had chosen to walk back to the village from the Wolfcomer family reunion, to which she’d been invited due to a distant—probably fabled—relationship. Beer had been handed out, and affairs were getting a bit too loud and frisky for her tastes.

Betsey Wolfcomer should never drink, she thought.

Cuttleside Pike was firm and even this time of year, though spring would find it deeply rutted—in need of grading and a coat of chip-and-seal. But being in a bit of hurry to get back to the bread she’d started, and with the Great Curve coming up, Maribelle thought of cutting across country to save several minutes—choosing the rough slope rather than staying on the smooth road.

She checked the condition of the barbed wire edging Upton’s field.

She would miss the chance of a conversation with Mister Mardell, often to be found tending his lovely and extensive flower garden in the front yard… but then he might be ensconced in his cat-house with his blue Chantillys, or in his library studying breeding records. In any case bread shouldn’t be delayed, and she’d waved to him when passing in the Kulp’s sedan on the way to Cuttleside Park.

She had chosen oxfords and cotton knee-socks today, fortunately, so walking through weeds and tall grass shouldn’t bother too much. Hiking her skirt, she scrambled over the ditch and stepped over the only visible strand of barbed wire.

Ah! That’s fine. The turf was springy beneath her heels.

Maribelle avoided a small patch of briars, picking the clearest if not the absolute shortest way, and soon came across the dry bed of a rivulet that flowed almost straight down the hill during wet months. She stepped down into it, careful to avoid stones that might roll underfoot.

Soon, as it petered out, she neared the top of the slope and stopped for a couple of deep breaths, looking round at the glorious fall scene once more, and picking a spot to step back onto the turf. A few more strides brought her to…

Eeww! What’s that?

A large dark ball of… something—she’d rather not think what—hung almost on the lip of a tiny gully. It was nearly the size of a volleyball, with what seemed a rod sticking into it. Disgust warned her off but curiosity impelled her closer. She took a pace, nostrils flared in readiness for a stench.

No odor. Why, it… it almost looked like dark chocolate—flecked with a few pebbles and fragments of debris but rather shiny. A couple of disgusting slugs explored its shaded side, and clinging to a spot near the upper end, away from the… the handle, was it?—were embedded several strands of what seemed to be long gray hair.

 

Chapter 01

Frank Schultz strode down Cuttleside Pike, a song in his heart and mischief on his mind. Seeing one of his favorite targets near the road ahead he called out…

“Hey there, Willie! How yeh be?”

Wilkie Mardell straightened and slowly pivoted toward the caller.

The boisterous one continued, “How’s the bloomin’ roses today, huh?”

“As you see, Francis.”

Mardell despised the nickname Willie, as he knew Frank Schultz was aware. Francis was Mardell’s counter-dig at the noisy—and nosy—mailman, whom he knew hated being reminded of his girl’s name.

“Mail truck broken down or has the doctor ordered you to burn a few calories?”

“Not a bit. Simply thought I’d get some air, what with it being so nice out.”

“No doubt the exercise will do you good, none the less.” This subject was one of Mardell’s standbys, Schultz’s waistline not being the slimmest.

“Yeah, well… Sniff-sniff. Whew! Do I smell cat?

“You do not!

“Well, I thought with all this fine soft soil, all mulched and all, that those cats of yours couldn’t resist leaving a bouquet or three up front here—fertilized your Mister Lincoln for you, or your, uh… your, uh…”

Roses not being one of Schultz’ studies, he stalled-out after the Lincoln. Still, this was cutting close to the bone.

“My felines are confined to the cattery or the house—never outside for any reason.”

“Cats is sneaky things, though, so you can’t be…”

Never!

“Huh! Thought I had some mail for you, Willie, but I must have…” Schultz made a show of searching his bag. “Maybe still at the office. Well, get you tomorrow. No rush with anything not sent first class, you know.”

“A magazine?”

“I think it was, yeah.”

“The Moggy Monthly?”

“That might have been it. Picture of a cat or something on the cover? Yeah.”

“It came last week, Francis—right on schedule.”

“Hmm. Rose-breeders’ Journal, maybe?”

“And a cat on the cover?”

Schultz cleared his throat, out-maneuvered or stalemated on all fronts.

“So—you hear the news, Willie?”

“I hear so many news, Francis—which particular new was this?”

“Figured I’d surprise you. Old lady Dean’s finally got it—head bashed in.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Knew I’d surprise you with this one. Didn’t see it coming, did you?”

Mardell quickly recovered. “Oh, I knew she’d be done away with eventually, but I presumed poison or a faked accident, not physical assault. No, the murder itself is no surprise to me.”

“You don’t think so?” Schultz showed disappointment.

“Not at all. She and one or two others,” He eyed Schultz meaningfully. “…have been on the Grim Reaper’s watch list for years. It’s been only a question of when antagonism mounted to the proper level, and then… Yes, she and one or two others! In fact, Francis, I can’t help but wonder if we might have a rash of murders now. The old village has been law-abiding for too long a time, and the dam was bound to burst one day.”

[ * ]

Schultz continued his route, strewing rumor and dismay in his wake. A born agitator if not out-and-out troublemaker, his joviality brought him many friendly acquaintances. Almost, in fact, equal to the number of enemies his gossip-mongering created.

Daringly—for whatever was lacking in native courage he made up with plain nerve—he stopped for a brief word at Kellogg’s Kandy Korner.

Placing a few letters and circulars on the counter, he turned from the proprietor, Mrs Ella Kellogg, to her husband Caspar.

“Staying out of trouble, Cass?”

A slight look of guilt crossed Caspar’s doughy features. “Oh yes, oh yes. Heh-heh.”

“How’s the sweet tooth?”

Caspar giggled on cue, but his brow creased with anger or tension.

“Ella!” he called. “Give the postman a sample, why don’t you.”

“No, no—not for me, Cass.” Schultz patted his belly. “Gotta run now.”

·

After the mailman’s departure Mrs Kellogg glared at her husband. He shrugged and twisted his neck as if his collar were too tight.

“I don’t know what you’d expect me to say, Ella.”

“I’d bet anything he’s the one passing those rumors,” she hissed.

“Rumors!” Kellogg stretched to his full five-foot, six inches, nostrils flaring, voice stern. “What blasted rumors are you talking about?”

“About cat fur in my candies, that’s what rumors. What else?”

“O-hhh… those rumors.”

[ * ]

Grace Upton learned of Kenna Dean’s demise late that day. The Uptons’ home being out in the country and their driveway long, Frank Schultz delivered mail in his official truck by depositing it in the large mailbox next to the end of their drive. His only chance to yarn came when a package too big to be jammed into the mailbox must be brought to the door, so her source was someone else.

Henry Upton was rarely on hand to receive mail or answer the phone, usually busy in barn or fields, so Grace decided to tell her husband over supper that evening.

Chores completed for now, after he’d washed and seated himself she served them both. He dug right in as soon as the food was before him, bringing a grimace to her face.

“Can’t you ever wait till I’m ready?”

“What’s that?” he said, twisting his neck to bring his good ear into play.

“Wait for…” Oh, what’s the use! she said to herself, taking a bite and swallowing while gathering her thoughts. She opened her mouth and…

He beat her through the starting gate. “These taters, Ma.”

“Taters! What’s wrong with ‘em?”

“Nothin’, but why can’t we have ‘em fried once in a while?”

“You get the okay from Doc Bill, and I’ll fry ‘em up in lard if ya want.” She considered keeping the news to herself to spite him.

Henry grumbled while downing his boiled potato.

“You busy later?” she said.

“You know I gotta milk.”

“I mean later later. Oh well, I’ll tell ya now… That Dean woman is dead—murdered. Chastity told me.”

“Who?”

Yer daughter Chastity, you old fool!”

“Course! I mean, who’s dead?

“Kenna Dean, that’s who. Funny how things work out, ain’t it?”

“Heh! Not so funny fer the devil, maybe. He’s gotta put up with ‘er now.”

[ * ]

Maribelle Madsen didn’t learn of the murder until the next day. No-one phoned her, nor did she leave her home again after passing that great lump of whatever it was—and Frank Schultz had delivered her mail via truck in the morning directly after he finished sorting the AM delivery.

No chance of conversing with him in any case, for Maribelle went out of her way to avoid the man.

§

Ahtareths’ Dautr

1 Fork

The byroad passing Hwadr-bauains, giving no sign of its status, forks west as the foreroad wends briefly south to avoid rough country. Three kinds trod it: those with doings at the nearest stead, hidden by a rise a half-dozen furlongs beyond; nobles and magnates on rare errands deeper in—mounted and attended by hearth-men; or fools and outlanders unknowingly seeking a shorter way.

Among the unknowing outlanders in the waning hours of one early April day was a sturdy swain, seemingly far-traveled, his gear worn and smudged. He strode the byroad—a rough cloak slantwise over back and breast, a small pack strapped to his shoulders, a large wallet at one side, his only weapon a rude staff by which he assisted his steps.

Clouds loured as his strides slowed, and a broken shoe-winding, mended by a knot, chafed his shin each step he made. Yet he passed by the stead near the fork, wishing to gain the top of a distant hill before turning aside to rest. It was a trick often used over the many leagues of his journey, always promising himself rest once the next hill had been climbed, the next stream forded, the next lea crossed.

The road passed the stead’s entrance-way, narrowing slightly beside plowed land and a wide meadow flanked with the hut of a small cotter or shepherd. Two ruts continued a few furlongs before the way diminished to a path, tufts of grass and weed encroaching as it dwindled further to a mere trail. Only the occasional half-broken branch, hanging but not yet fallen from trees crowding in, showed that any had gone by within the year.

He paused for breath as the hill steepened near its peak, glancing back to think of the rich stead, easily to be reached before dark. But he was not the sort to turn, nor had he come so far were he such. He eased the chafing knot, settled his pack and wallet straps a finger’s width aside, took a last deep breath and leaned into the slope. His body called for rest on the sward but the earth was soaked from recent showers, the trees budded-out with few new leaves showing. A handful of tinder and a few dry twigs in the wallet would serve to make fire, but what shelter or dry fuel might he find in the wet spinney?

Near the crest the way flattened some, and the wood thinned. Afar to the north side he saw a darkness which might be needle-trees promising cover and fat kindling, and his strides lengthened. He would have left the trail but for a low dark hedge which now appeared to the side. Only waist-high and less in depth, he might easily have thrown over his gear to leap it but for a fear of trespass. Of close-set holly-like bushes, the leaves held prickers as long as those of thorn-tree, and it had somehow an evil look.

Searching for a gap, he came soon to a gate higher than himself, strongly made of dark wooden rods fastened with iron nails and wires, and hinged to great posts against which the hedge encroached. A baulk inside led from post to post.

Twenty rods beyond stood the gable end of a house with a door and two high windows of small glass panes. Great dark trees with long needle-leaves shaded it on all sides, two huge boles in front. Its high-peaked thatched roof held a second thatch of dead needles awaiting heavy rain and wind to be added to thick layers in the garth. Chimneys, not a smoke-slot, indicated it recently built, and the owner a man of wealth.

A-oi!” he called. “A-oi the house.”

No-one showed, nor could any sound even of cattle be heard. A few raindrops spattered, skirmishers of the storm to come, for the weather signs had worsened. He called again, louder, hearing a vague echo in return.

Now appeared a figure from round one of the boles—a woman in a kirtle of grayish linsey-woolsey and unbleached linen smock, dark shawl over head and shoulders, her feet bare and muddied to the ankles.

She stepped forth with no words, halting a rod’s-length from the gate.

“Lady or maiden, I wish shelter for the night, as rain is near—any dry place in barn or byre. A skatt or two I can pay… I hight Thrasamers.”

She pushed her shawl partway back, showing a fair smooth face and hair the color of linden-honey.

“I shall ask Ahtareths,” she said, turning to go.

“Ahtareths!” Fearsome-counsel? “Who…?”

“He is frauja here.” She swung an arm toward the house, but the gesture might have included the land, the trees… even the sky as well. She strode off to enter the door.

Thrasamers looked about, uneasy at the name she’d told him. The trees behind swayed as the wind rose, the dark timbers and green-stained poddling of the house seemed to threaten, the needle-trees to lour. Should he go past? Better a wet sleep than a dangerous one. But to lose time by returning held no joy, and to go on… The path ahead seemed to narrow and close in, making him wonder whether it might fade altogether. He stamped his feet and worked his shoulders for warmth, unable to decide.

Now the door opened and the woman came forward.

“He will take you in,” she said, and laid strong hands on the timber baulk, lifting and pivoting it away to drop on the ground, then swinging the gate half open.

He entered, and as she latched the gate he lifted the baulk back into place, finding it no light load. He looked again at the woman—the maiden. No toil-bent thiuw she but stood straight to near his own height, and moved with grace.

§

Lovejoy’s World: Back to Mudberg

Chapter 03 — On Great Waters

Wally woke to a powerful odor of ham.

In the background was the stench of the bilge, highlighted by fish—odors concentrated by the closed hatch, tight shut in order to keep high seas out, though trickles worked their way in to drip down the ladder. He’d no idea of time elapsed but the boat still leaped and plunged and yawed and rolled and…

Coming more awake, he gradually worked out that someone in the crew was waving a hot slice of fat bacon before his nose in an attempt to nauseate him. It failed, but he felt resentment at this cruel provocation of an invalid. He managed to slap the hand away but his head felt loose on his neck as if a quick movement might send it rolling free… and his surroundings still revolved, unaffected by random motions of the craft. He slipped back into unconsciousness.

·

By daylight of an unknown later period he found himself lying on the upper deck near the wheel, the boat’s motion diminished but the curious rotation of his senses continuing. Why or how long he’d been there was beyond his powers of calculation. Unwilling to shift his head, he swiveled his eyes to their full extent, seeing nothing but grainy deck-boards to the right, but making out a boot toward the left.

After swallowing a few times to get his vocal cords working he called out, “Whuttle-timmle?”

An unidentifiable voice said, “What’s that—the time? Oh, coming on toward noon. Getting hungry?” This was accompanied by laughs.

Ha-ha to you, Wally thought. He felt weak and woozy but had yet to suffer any particular nausea.

“Well,” someone else said—probably Roger, “we’ve had our fun. Let’s put him back below. Wally! Can you get up?”

Wally attempted a push-up, bending his right elbow to stay horizontal in the twisting environment—a miscalculation, for he immediately found himself on his back. He sat up and reached for the low pilot house but it swiveled out of reach and he slid onto his side.

Roger laughed. “Grab him, Steve, before he rolls overboard.”

He was lifted and dragged toward the ladder, but it was difficult even for two men to lower a flopping body.

“What a slug! Dime!” Roger shouted. “You down there?”

Some rustling and a couple of quick footsteps, and Wally felt himself supported as he slipped down the steps.

“Drag him back to his bunk—he’s still goofy.”

[ * ]

There eventually came a fuller reality. Early evening light, strong enough to make out details, came through the tiny porthole over Wally’s bunk, and surroundings no longer orbited. Poised for vertigo to resume, he cautiously sat, surprised to feel normal… and hungry.

Bunk and deck seemed remarkably stable, encouraging him to stand. Induced air currents wafted hints of body odor and grime so he decided to change underwear, socks and shirt, passing over any attempt to wash. Sitting back again, he began removing clothing and reached beneath the bunk for his backpack, happily feeling no dizziness as he bent.

Hauling the pack onto the bunk he undid the straps to the upper pouch and…

Wait a minute! Both straps were fully latched.

Strange. Could he, during his profound vertigo and fatigue, have forgot and tightened both? No, he was sure—as sure as could be, under the conditions—that he’d followed habit born of paranoia, and had deliberately half-latched the one on the right side.

Staring for a moment, he tucked his legs up and pulled the curtain across, opening the flap to place all items on the blanket, carefully stacking them in reverse while visualizing their original order.

·

There was minimal privacy aboard the Jolly Roger, so with the three crewman on deck, Wally sat on Roger’s bunk, a candle lantern hooked overhead to give more light.

“Look here.” He offered a dark sphere almost the size of a table-tennis ball.

“Nice biggie,” Roger said. Needs polishing, right?”

“Look closer, Rog… a lot closer.”

“Uh…”

Wally took several near-alike ovoids from a pocket, spilling them on the blanket.

Roger squinted, picking them up one by one to hold them near the lantern. Finishing, he gave his partner a puzzled look.

“Yours were this big?”

“Pretty near, Rog, and better matched in size. All with full luster, and wrapped in this same soft uni-leather to keep them that way, down near the bottom of my pack.”

“Well-well. You didn’t go burrowing in our ballast, did you?—because that’s where these sure come from.”

“I’m aware you have a wonderful sense of humor, Roger.”

“Now hold on, Wally—it don’t extend anywhere near this far.”

“I hope not, because if there’s anything I hate it’s having to kill a good friend.”

Roger looked bemused. “Keira claims you were quite a mild fellow at one time.”

“S’true. She’s taught me many a vicious habit.”

[ * ]

Mid-afternoon of the second day following the storm, and with the soil half dry Keira stopped work to breathe and swipe her forehead with the back of a hand. An upward glance was rewarded with a flicker of bright color—a bluejay descendent of those transported from Earth to Touchdown many years back, and evidently now spread clear over here where so few birds other than gulls existed. The jay’s raspy blare was aimed at a grinnie, Lovejoy’s version of a predatory ground squirrel.

Mildly homesick but warmed by the sight, Keira gave another swipe and a sigh then turned back to her task, spading the third row in her garden-to-be. Following the contour of a gentle convex slope about ten meters long, the first row was destined for potatoes, the second for onions, this third for she knew not what, depending on seeds or sprouts the Jolly Roger would bring on its return trip.

On Farside in the midst of a forested wilderness, few spots were available for a garden, and the size of most trees made felling them with hand tools more work than it was worth. But with only the effort of grubbing out a few bushes this place received sufficient sun, though it’s suitability for growing vegetables was yet to be proved.

Giving a mild but satisfying grunt she drove the shovel deep, lifting and flipping the clod then stabbing it twice before shuffling back to make another divot.

“Er, Missus?”

She spun round. “Hey, Joel! What’s the word?”

The man rubbed his whiskered jaw and stubbed the ground with one toe.

“Er, you want some help here? Kinda tough to be workin’ when… you know.”

“I’m fine for quite a while yet, and you have your own garden to keep up.” But surely the man hadn’t come by to pass the time of day. “Anything else?”

“Well… seems we can’t find Feathers.”

“Hiding out from work again?”

“Don’t look to be.”

“So?”

“Well, he come in late last night, then today we gets up and he does a few things with the rest of us, then back for breakfast, and afterwards we go out again, and he heads out alone to go for wood…”

“His regular task?”

“Well, no. But he simply tells us he’s goin’, and we’re happy to see him workin’ without bein’ pushed for once… So he grabs an axe and takes off, and we let him go just to be rid of him—but then he don’t bother to show for noonings, and we haven’t heard no axe strokes.”

“How long’s he been gone now?”

“Mebbe only six or so hours. But missing lunch—that ain’t at all like him.”

Not like any of us, Keira thought, considering the amount of heavy work they all did, practically from dawn to dusk.

“Do you think we ought to worry?”

“Well, Missus, his clothes are gone.”

“Oh! Do any of you guys have things missing?”

“Not that we noticed yet.”

“Your guns?”

“We gen’rally keep ‘em with us.”

“We needn’t worry about ponies or something getting him, do we?”

“Most likely not, cuz we’ve seen hardly a one lately. What should we do, though—down tools and hunt fer him?”

Keira pondered. “It’s not as if we own him, of course, even though we have a sort of contract. But if he hasn’t swiped anything…?”

“Have you checked your own stuff, Missus?”

·

As she’d feared, the house door was unlocked, its heavy planks offering a mere illusion of security.

“I’ve become way too careless, Joel.”

“Ain’t we all.”

But after a thorough search nothing seemed to be missing.

“Well!” Keira stepped out and spun the lock dial. “I’m glad Wally insisted on bars for the windows. And your place is okay?”

“Far as I know, yet.”

“You’ve no bars, though.”

“Our windows is small and kinda high, so…”

“We’d better talk this over. Why don’t you all come for supper tonight?”

“Okay, but we ain’t got no lock, you know, so he could come back and…”

“That’s right. Blast! I’d better eat with you.”

“But you don’t wanta…”

“It’s hardly a hundred meters, Joel.”

“Yeah, but still…”

“One of you can walk me home, and I’ll keep the blaster loose in its holster.”

She’d been having the men to supper in turn while Wally was gone, simply to keep track of their activities and for a bit of converse. Nothing unusual in that, for she and Wally had often had them in for meals. But rarely Feathers, her conscience reminded her, and never since Wally had sailed away. And now the man had either skipped or been…

No, it was surely voluntary if he’d taken his gear.

Still, her conscience was acting up. Fulcher was repulsive in so many ways, but shouldn’t she have made some kind of effort? And now his departure hinted at a kind of menace. Seemed like payback for her disdain—a sort of karma.

“We’ll work things out tonight. And you always keep your weapons with you?”

“Mostly, that’s fer sure.”

“We’ll talk at supper.”

§

The New Emperor’s Clothes

03 Dangerously Impulsive

The Gardens at Szoke Var, Aquincum

Princess Madalina paced the garden terrace, a long shawl covering her head and protecting her from a wet mist. She had dismissed Lady Kocsis and sent her ladies to the shelter of the portico, wanting to be alone with her thoughts.

It was not to be. Prince Istvan, a short cape over his shoulders, entered onto the portico. He bowed in response to the ladies’ curtsies, clapped his bicorn onto his head, and strolled toward Madalina.

“Princess?” He lifted his hat a finger’s breadth and slightly tilted his head.

“Yes?” Against all polite convention she kept her back turned.

“Let us stroll toward the whimsey. The seats there might be dry, and we can discuss our differences in more privacy.”

“Very well.”

After a few paces Istvan said, “Your shoes will suffer in this dampness.”

“No matter.”

The paths were graveled and well-enough drained. They occasionally ducked under moisture-laden twigs, mist wetting their faces but not uncomfortable. In a minute they arrived at a roofed shelter, the replica of a round classical temple open on all sides. Stone benches showed no standing water but dampness quickly struck through the Prince’s thin breeches, while Madalina’s shawl and petticoats protected her.

Once settled, Istvan gazed at her with a fond yet satirical expression.

“You gave, I felt, a fine theatrical performance, if somewhat over-played—one historical reference, one mythological, and one metaphorical. All in all, a credit to your education.”

She took her time to reply. “I assure you, Brother—though I failed to control myself, my protests were sincere.”

“You have no desire to become Empress of Norica-Onogur—to become the first woman in the continent, to achieve all you desire in goods and wealth and pomp.”

“To give myself to a man of low birth, raised up by the whim of a senile ruler.”

“The son of a king.”

“Third in standing to the throne of a minor power, whose house itself is but three generations old, the progenitor of which lorded over a forested mountain and a few fishing sheds. Markgraf he was called by courtesy. I could laugh at such a pedigree.”

“He rose in a time of conflict when the previous house decayed. And think, Sister—he who during the recent convulsions came near to ruling all the continent—what was he? The second son of a provincial lawyer, his father the most minor of nobility. Yet he wed the daughter of an emperor.”

“Another female sacrifice, my Prince and brother, and little good did it do either one—he overthrown, she dead without living issue.”

Istvan’s voice hardened. “Yet she responded to the imperatives of her position—obeyed her ruler and the dictates of her nation. She upheld the honor of her family, while you risk the name of Szoke. And to burst out in front of my council, making me look the fool! I warn you, Madalina—there are penalties if you refuse.”

“As for fools, why invite that one of Bansag? His low behavior set me off.”

It was a weak excuse but adequate to divert her brother.

“With him guesting here I could not avoid the invitation. And say what you will, he rules his province effectively. Would that Scepusium were as tranquil.”

“Perhaps he amuses the folk by acting a clown.”

“I’ll wed you to him, if you prefer. No complaints of his ancestry, I expect.”

“If his allegiance is important, better yet you wed one of his many cousins.”

“I would rather choose one of your ladies… You know which one.”

“My favorite—she of the Karpanti. An act of state rather than fondness.”

“Precisely. A distant region, sparsely peopled, and a rude but traversable gateway to our richer lands. More, she has both beauty and wit.”

[ * ]

The Chancellory in the Schloss, Vindobon

“Come, gentlemen.”

Unruh beckoned to his colleagues, leading the way to his Chancellory in the North Wing. After a long walk, they passed through an outer room filled with clerks who leaped from their stools to bow.

Unruh waved his hand to the underlings. “Continue.”

He led his guests to a door behind which lay his personal offices. An armed sentry opened it for the party.

“Egon!” A servant appeared. “Absent yourself.”

After the man bowed himself out Unruh looked pointedly at the Chamberlain and the Marshall.

“So, what think you of the latest indignities? That impudent puppy…”

“Hardly a puppy at seven and thirty,” the Marshall said.

“Very well—insolent cur. Impossible! We have among us more years of service than his life, but he would upset the entire order—ways honored through decades.”

“You may leave me out of your calculations, Chancellor. The two of you have enough years between you.”

“Indeed—my nineteen and the Herr Chamberlain’s two and twenty are more than sufficient. Your four add little. Yet you wouldn’t deny, my dear War Minister, that these new notions are disturbing.”

“Possibly so.”

Certainly so—and dangerous. To upset the order of things at a time when all crowned heads have been shaken by recent disturbances… Who can predict what will come next?” Unruh shook his massive head. “Factotum discharged almost immediately, Dresser gone after a few sessions and now the Valets have no direction. Equerries dismissed with a crude rebuke…”

“A mere joke, Herr Chancellor, and somewhat to the point. Have we no horses for them to harry? Indeed, I laughed out loud.”

Unruh gave Jelenczyk an outraged look but continued.

“His Majesty’s Personal Secretary generally ignored, and in two days another Audience. He played the fool last week—I tremble to think what will be blurted forth this time… And have you heard what he said after this Sunday Mass? The Archbishop asked for the honor of the King’s attendance at service Wednesday eve, and the man replied, Today’s homily was so comprehensive, Reverend Sir, that it will last me the full week at least.

“Yes, smile if you wish—it was witty enough, I suppose. But the disrespect was obvious to all nearby… And this idea that he must be consulted with regard to secret communications—that is what he leads up to, be very sure. Ludicrous! Does chasing a few savages through the squalid territories of the New World qualify him to interfere in negotiations with foreign powers?”

“The Minister of Security,” the Chamberlain tentatively offered. “Could he subtly warn His Royal Majesty of…”

“Of the dangers of abandoning tradition—of interference with experienced men? A thought, Herr Stoppelbein. Distasteful as I find that man, I shall have a word with him—and the Herr Treasurer, as well. But I hope, gentlemen, that none of us encourage this anarchical spirit our new ruler displays.” He looked pointedly at the Marshall.

“I deny encouraging him, Herr Chancellor, but the man’s charm is difficult to completely resist.”

“Not for me, I assure you—not for me at all. Further, let us remember—the proper marriage is still a requirement. If he fails in that for some reason… Well, don’t let me hold you from your duties. As for me, I shall immediately leave for my residence—in my present disordered state of mind I can accomplish nothing useful here.”

The Marshall accompanied the Chamberlain to the latter’s offices before leaving the Schloss for the Tannenaufsatz—the Fir Tower, so called for the trees that once surrounded it—behind the Guard barracks and stables. He attempted to speak but was shushed by Stoppelbein.

“Not here, if you please.”

They entered rooms similar to the Chancellor’s, slightly more ornate if less populated. The Chamberlain gave a nod in return to the bows of his clerks, and they passed through to the private rooms. Here the Chamberlain sent his servant for coffee before turning to Jelenczyk.

“So, Herr War Minister—we are alone.”

“I wish to ask this: Do you think it wise, the way Herr Unruh gives voice to his opinions?”

Stoppelbein looked away, his face tense. “No. He counts on His Royal Majesty being new and hesitant to interfere.”

“Hesitant he is not, I would say.”

“True, Marshall. The King appears dangerously impulsive, all too eager to act.”

“Dangerous to us, you mean. I suspect the Herr Chancellor goads him, counting on the fact that for many years he—and you, of course—served Franz Leopold, and therefore will hold office forever, being too influential to dismiss without strong provocation.”

“I believe you correct.”

“He fails to recognize that the confusion the new King first showed is rapidly dissipating, replaced by impatience.”

“Just so.”

“So I ask you—should we point out to the Chancellor the perilous course he is on?”

Stoppelbein stood silent for several seconds, playing with a millefleur paperweight on a table covered in documents.

“I believe, Herr Marshall—though I offer no advice… I believe I shall say nothing, only showing my disapproval of such potentially treasonous speech by my attitude. Further, I shall in future avoid even such exchanges as we are now having, keeping my thoughts to myself and being deaf at appropriate occasions.” He gazed directly at Jelenczyk, a slight smile on his lips. “Indeed, I have already forgot of what subject we’ve been speaking.”

[ * ]

The Office of Imperial Security, Vindobon

Chancellor Unruh, accompanied by only one servant, took his circuitous route on foot to Etzel Gasse, a narrow street in one of the commercial districts of the capitol. Threading his way past hand-barrows and wagons, pushing through throngs of workmen and women he came to a large bakery with a corner door beyond the main entrance. He and his servant climbed stairs to an obscure doorway on what would be the second above the ground floor in most buildings, but was here the first above the ovens’ high ceiling. The alcohol-scent of rising bread was near overwhelming.

“Once I enter,” Unruh told his brawny servitor, “go down to the entrance and allow no one else through. I shall soon come out.”

Before Unruh could knock, several latches and bolts were heard operating. The door opened a crack, and…

“Herr Lord Chancellor! Please be so good as to enter.”

Unruh forced a smile to his lips and returned a bow. Despite the man’s apparent surprise, the Chancellor’s presence had obviously been detected earlier.

The room was low and dark due to few windows, and those small and grimy. A couple of tallow candles did little to relieve the gloom. It was nearly filled by a large desk and several tables, every surface holding stacks of papers and registers. Each stack was topped by a buckram sheet cryptically inscribed with numerals.

“My thanks, Herr Security Minister. It is kind of you to welcome me without notice.” He repressed the disgust this man created in him.

The Minister of Imperial Security was thin, near skeletal-looking. He cultivated, Unruh felt, the appearance of a bird of prey, his sharp dark features and stooped posture vulture-like. Undressed salt-and-pepper hair hung almost to his shoulders, and a day’s growth of beard bristled on jowls and chin.

The name Black-star was certainly false, and his reputed true name of Hakenzunge—Hook-tongue—while appropriate, itself seemed doubtful. Though Unruh had been in office when the man was appointed—had, in fact, assented to his nomination—he knew little of whom he was or whence he came. All had been done per the late Emperor’s wishes, supposedly based on recommendations of retired councilors.

“I am come, Herr Schwarzenstern, in regard to the prospective Emperor.”

“Ah, that so-intriguing individual. Do you know, Herr Chancellor, that we have located his son?”

“Son? What is this?”

“Yes. Intelligence has but recently come to me. His morganitic wife—if in fact he ever wed her at all—we knew had perished in childbirth. Or so it seemed. But it now appears she died after childbirth, probably of childbed fever in the primitive conditions of that place.”

“But this son?”

“Yes. Difficult to trace, or even to know if the child had lived. Of three years or so, and residing with the woman’s father, supposedly the offspring of another daughter.”

“How do you know this?”

“My agents are assiduous, Herr Chancellor.” Schwarzenegger leered with sinister triumphalism.

“No—how do you know it is Odensvik’s spawn, rather than the other?”

“They are dark—the woman’s family—all dark, even the husband of the younger sister. This child is quite light, with flaxen hair.”

“Bah! It proves nothing—all young children are blond. It could be a bastard of either woman, raised by the grandfather to avoid shaming the husband. What name has the brat?”

Schwarzenstern’s grin disappeared. “Not all children are fair, Herr Chancellor.”

“Northern children are, unless of Romani or Saracen descent. What is the name of this cuckoo’s whelp?”

“The, uh… The grandfather…”

“What is he—his condition?”

“Common, of course. An iron-monger.”

“Wealth?”

“By the standards of that colony, well-enough but no magnate. His name is Donnghaile, which in the Ierne means brown-valor. Dark again, you see.”

Unruh repressed a sneer. Joachim Schwarzenstern now seemed less impressive, flitting after remote conspiracies. How many poor souls, the Chancellor wondered, languished in prison or rotted in the grave due to this man’s Byzantine reasoning?

“Well, Minister, enough of this—although when your evidence is complete I shall be glad to hear of it. But my errand today concerns other matters. To a surprising degree this King of ours displays a lamentable tendency toward flippancy and disregard of tradition and formality. You can imagine how difficult this makes my task of guiding him toward conservative policies.”

Schwarzenstern bowed in acknowledgment. “Yet I maintain that my theory of the son remains most likely, Chancellor.”

“Yes, yes… What I have come to ask of you—with the concurrence of my colleagues—is to stress in this afternoon’s conference with His Royal Majesty the fragile nature of effective governance in Norica-Onogur. To bring home to him the possibilities of revolution, the dangers of unrest which might tempt a foreign power to encroach upon the realm’s interests—the possibility, even, that he might lose his opportunity for the Imperial Crown. In short, if you could convince him he totters upon the lip of a precipice, it might induce more gravity in the man, which Heaven knows our realm presently requires.”

“I see, Chancellor. Too well do I see.”

“You know the workings of incipient rebellions, and of foreign plots.”

“Most certainly, Lord Chancellor.”

“Then we may count upon your assistance?”

“Absolutely, since I fully share your concerns.”

“Very good, then. I shall take my leave of you, confident that with your aid some amelioration of His Royal Majesty’s flighty tendencies might be expected.”

Unruh bowed, then turned to make another survey of the room. A single small door led to a rear apartment where, he knew, a larger room filled with desks separated by head-high partitions kept each clerk’s work secret from the others. There Joachim Schwarzenstern met his agents, secret or open, who entered from stairs off the rear alley. That entrance was no doubt well-guarded.

And as for this door he had entered by… Unruh detected a round device set in the wall, a pivoting disk. So! He went through the door, and as soon as it closed behind him, examined his surroundings. Yes! There it was, a glint of glass in the side wall—hidden in the dimness unless one knew where to look. Schwarzenstern had a sort of bent telescope to view the stair and landing. Turn aside that pivoting cover behind the door and the secretive man could examine his visitors at leisure.

Clever, Unruh said to himself, but not so clever as he thinks. Yet as he descended to the entrance the Chancellor’s back prickled.

[ * ]

The Gardens at Szoke Var, Aquincum

Madalina and her ladies practiced archery in the side garden, accompanied by equerries. The odor of early blooms sweetened the air while the ladies primarily engaged in gaily teasing the two men when they failed to outscore any of the females. Madalina, bored with the foolishness, looked round and saw General Szendrei, followed by his aide, step through the hedge behind them. She strolled over and dropped a curtsey in response to the gentlemen’s bows.

“General, Major—have you no other amusements this afternoon?”

“Absolutely none, Your Highness,” said the General.

“What amusements could possibly be superior to this display of nymphal enchantment, Your Highness?” The major attempted by a graceful flourish of his right arm to add sincerity to his words.

Holding her face stiff to avoid laughing, Madalina proffered her bow and quiver.

“It would be a favor to my equerries, Major, if you would join them and dilute the ladies raillery.”

“Much as I would prefer to attend you, Highness, your wish is as an edict from Olympus.”

When he sauntered out of hearing Madalina whispered, “That is a particularly stupid young man, General, claiming to prefer the company of one woman to six.”

“All too true, Princess, but he comes of a notable family.”

“And such a man might command a battalion? What damage he could do!”

“With luck he will see only staff duty, relaying the commands of headquarters to the fighting officers.”

“But tell me, General Mihaly, have you come to watch the arrows fly or to collect a couple of lost gold pieces?”

Ha-ha! You fooled me well, Princess. It is worth the penalty to again learn a good lesson—to never underestimate an opponent. Would that young men such as the Major were as crafty as you.” Seeing her intent look, he added, “Have I offended you?”

“Not in the least. How sincere are your words?”

“Quite sincere, in a sense. That is, I have a higher regard for your craftiness, although we all have been long aware of your understanding, which is rather astounding in one so young. Therefore, yes—I do wish we had your degree of intelligence in more of our young officers… But you still stare at me, Highness.”

“Forgive me. Your words are gratifying but merely increase my longing. Would that I had been born a man, to take my place in the ranks of officers and lead men in battle. It has long been a dream. Prince-ensign is a more desirable title than Princess.” Her words rang out. “To ride with brave comrades, to take part in a valiant charge…” She broke off. “Ach! What’s the use?”

“You astonish me, Princess. I knew of your interest in military matters but never thought you unhappy with your lot in life. Every woman in Onogur must envy you.”

“Women, yes, but what of men? Would they change their sex for the false glory of sitting in the highest chair?”

“Heh! Some might do so even without the privilege of being first served at table.”

“This life is nothing to me compared with the thrill of going on campaign… Oh dear—your pestiferous aide is returning, rejected by my ladies, no doubt.” She raised her voice. “Oh, major! Does chivalry run fast in your blood? Cool drinks would be strengthening on this sunny day. Would you be so good as to have the kitchen prepare them for all of us? Sweetened lemon-water would be indescribably delicious.”

After accepting the Major’s further gallantries she turned again to General Szendrei.

“Can you sympathize with my yearnings, dear General?”

“I can, since martial glory is a heady thing. But for you, born as you are, you may never follow the guns in this age. True, there have been many cases where females have gone to war. Even today camp-followers tag behind an army or among the baggage trains on the march—women who cook and wash for their men, who sell goods of various types… And those who perform other services, if you grasp my meaning.”

“Of course.”

“But these are of the people, as you can well understand. There are others, but few, who have disguised themselves as men, and by being sly have kept up the impersonation for some time. Further, some among the camp-followers have picked up the musket during battle, or the rammer of the artillery-man, or the drum and sticks of the music. These are often celebrated in legend, but if there were many of them the legends would be fewer.”

“What of Jeanne d’Arc, General?”

“A moral leader—an inspirer of the soldiers but not a true commander. There have been commanders—Boudicca against the Romans in Albion is an instance, though we know little of the circumstances. Whether she climbed into a chariot and wielded a lance is unknown. On the other hand, many queens and wives of commanders have on occasion defended fortresses or ordered detachments into battle.”

“How sad, how very sad. I would prefer the ranks.”

“Let me disillusion you, if I may, Highness. To begin with, war is not all glinting points and flaunting banners, nor dashing uniforms and spirited horses. Most of war is the drudgery of training and the boredom of camp and the march, all this punctuated with brief intervals of exaltation and fear… and horror. The scene after a battle, particularly large and lengthy fights, is something soldiers must forget or go mad. And once the corpses bloat or wounds turn foul and limbs require amputation, the stench of corrupting flesh can never be forgot.”

“Are there not medical units, and those detached to clean up the fields?”

“Certainly—and if the numbers of wounded be not too great, or if the fatally-struck don’t crawl off to die in hidden spots, things are not so bad.”

“Still horrid.”

“And there is this. The non-soldier thinks in terms of wild charges—two bodies of horse galloping at one another to crash in gleeful rage. I’ll share a secret with you, Princess. When two forces of cavalry face one another, in near half the cases one flees, sometimes before swords are crossed.”

“No!”

“We are hussars by history and inclination, supplying most of the light cavalry to the Empire. When a body of hussars is face to face with Cuirassiers or Uhlans, and packed in by topography or formations of infantry with no room to maneuver, they often turn tail at the approach of those others. And wisely so, for the longer weapons of both types and the armor of the one mean we are dead men before we can get in a slash.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“One never wishes to advertise a lack of valor, even when wisdom is the better part. It’s a different matter in open country, for then we have the advantage. Lighter quicker horses and less awkward weapons at times induce the others to run away. And it is different when we are up against saber-armed cavalry or light dragoons. Then the odds are even, depending upon training, spirit, quality of men and horses, and perhaps generalship.”

“Oh dear!”

“Excuse me if I have dismayed you, Princess.”

“Worse—you have convinced me I must join the infantry.”

{End}

If you’ve made it this far I applaud your determination. Other essays and tales might be added at some future time, or you may visit my website in hopes of reading more free content. If so inclined, consider sacrificing a pittance to read those below.

Feel free at any time to email me flattering comments, sincere or otherwise, or to inform me of possible typos or other errors.

 

Other novels. Read the samples online:

Hide the Child. Jancy abducts Robbie to keep him from his father.

Blood & Dirt Roger rescues Vera from a kidnapper… against her will.

You’ll See! A campaign in the war between the sexes.

Hair of Gold Valys, disguised as a boy, joins a treasure expedition.

Time + Conflict Change history a millennium at a time. (two books in one)

Goblin Realm Girl Scouts and Marines abducted by aliens.

Additional works are in various stages of completion, including sequels to some of those above.

And remember: In my fiction there are neither superheroes nor anything supernatural. Merely ordinary people, much like you and me, caught up in extraordinary situations.

Dai Alanye


Not a Weasel (Beastly Human Tales)

Short stories, essays, excerpts from longer works, poems and doggerel, miscellaneous subjects Two mysteries, two historical essays, a short horror story (mild), humorous tales, critiques of two literary genres and an anonymous author, a brief travelogue, a stolen fairytale, a verbal cartoon series, miscellaneous nonsense and several chapter-length excerpts from works in progress. Not too painful to read, and the price is right.

  • ISBN: 9781370430338
  • Author: Dai Alanye
  • Published: 2017-02-22 23:35:15
  • Words: 37871
Not a Weasel (Beastly Human Tales) Not a Weasel (Beastly Human Tales)