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Contact Mizeta at mizetasworld@live.com, or Howard at fhschneider@comcast.net

Making Beds


As a young maid just starting out and willing to do any job, she was shown the best way to strip and remake a hotel room bed. And she had followed their instructions for the first few weeks, but when she realized no one was watching, she changed it up. Now she could strip a bed without bending down and without moving from one corner. And with a flick of her wrist and from that same corner, she could lay out the fresh linens. Paid by the room, she was doing just fine.

She was used to finding all sorts of things left behind in the beds and that’s why she always wore vinyl gloves when working. Sometimes she even had to bring out her tongs for some of the more bizarre and moist leftovers. But today was very different. Today she found something she never expected.

It might have been the slightly pungent smell that prompted her to peek under the mattress. The smell wasn’t very strong but strong enough for her to get down on her hands and knees to sniff out where it was strongest. And it was strongest right under the mattress. So she pushed the mattress aside a bit with her shoulder and the smell got worse. She pushed it some more and it got really strong and the undercarriage showed some discoloration. Whatever it was, she thought, it was inside the mattress!

She got up and leaned over the mattress and pushed down on it. It was one of those memory foam things that was supposed to be soft all the way through. This one wasn’t. There was something in there and she felt it! Recoiling, she tried again and found that whatever it was, it wasn’t small!

She stepped back, looked at the situation and at her watch and decided she had only one option. Because she was undocumented, she couldn’t have the police involved and looking into who she was. Calling her supervisor was out. Instead, what she did was to call her cousin, Yoli.

“Yoli, don’t ask any questions. Just do what I tell you. Call the hotel where I work and book a room for tonight—specify room 439. Tell them the room number has special significance for you and your husband. Pay with a credit card and I’ll pay you back. Call me as soon as you get to the room, okay,” she instructed her cousin. And before leaving the room, she sprayed the room heavily with room deodorant.

When Yoli and her husband woke up in the hotel room the next morning, they called the front desk to report that they had a rough night, just like her cousin had instructed them. They said the room smelled funny and that the mattress was very uncomfortable. Turned out there was a dead body stuffed into a hollowed-out section of the mattress. Suitably horrified, Yoli sued the hotel.

The hotel settled with Yoli and her husband for a tidy sum and comped them a different room for the next ten years. Yoli was generous with her cousin and told her to keep an eye out for other opportunities. She could always use the extra money.



Air Jims


As the man dressed in black approached the podium, the crown went wild. Shouts, whoops, whistles and applause all greeted the man who only appeared once a year in public. And he was why they all were here.

“So, let’s get started everybody,” he said smiling out on the raucous crowd. “You all know me. I’m Barry Wexford and you’re all here because you want to work for me, right?” Again, the crowd exploded with riotous applause.

He got them settled down and seated at their computer stations and then he continued his spiel. “Once a year, my company, CodeWorks, uses this venue to hire coders like yourselves for our gaming division. You have all been screened as potential employees but we really need to see your coding skills before we hire any of you and this is where that happens.”

Wexford went on to say that each candidate had three separate problems on their computers. Choose one and try to solve it in under an hour was their task. At the end of the hour their work would be evaluated by his staff and those showing the most promise would be invited back for interviews.

What none of the candidates knew was that the problems could not be solved. They looked simple enough but even the best coders at CodeWorks using supercomputers were never able to solve either problem. What Wexford and his staff were looking for were patient coders with perseverance and an elegant approach to each problem. And each year, a small group of successful new employees emerged from this process because it really worked.

The clock on the wall read 10:20 and the candidates were told that their time had started and that they had one hour. Wexford always liked to stay around for the first twenty minutes or so because that was when most of the ‘flame-outs’ occurred, coders who just erupted with frustration and left in disgust and shame. He loved this part.

Seven minutes had passed when he first noticed the young man in the fourth row. He had apparently fallen asleep at his workstation, so Wexford had one of his assistants wake the fellow up and ask him to leave. What happened next was so surprising as to defy explanation. The assistant returned and reported,”The kid says he's finished all three problems, Mr. Wexford! He thought it would be alright if he napped for the rest of the hour. What do you want to do with this guy, sir?”

Wexler told the assistant to bring the young man and his computer back to Wexler’s suite. He wanted to get to the bottom of just what in the hell was going on. He suspected a practical joke, but whatever it was, he’d get to the bottom of it, and fast.

Wexler wasted no time as soon as he and the young man got to his office. “Okay, son, you must know something about coding in order to get through our screening process. But before we look at your work today tell me a bit more about yourself. What’s your name, what do you do and where did you learn to code, for starters.”

The young man confidently answered, “My name is Jim, I’m a cobbler, uh, I make shoes, that is, and I’m self-taught, Mr. Wexler.”

“College?” Wexler asked.

“None. No high school diploma either, sir.”

“Cobbler, huh,” Wexler continued. “Get that from your father, maybe?”

“Yes, sir,” the young man added, “He taught me all I know about making shoes. I run a high-end shoe business. I make made-to-order shoes for a very well-heeled and intelligent clientele, sir. They taught me how to code while they waited for me to make their shoes, sir.”

Just then Wexler’s coding manager entered, went over to Wexler and whispered something in his ear. Wexler’s face showed his amazement as he looked up at his manager and then over to the young man. “Son, my people tell me you actually solved all three problems . . . in under seven minutes and they’re still trying to figure out how you did it. You used some techniques they’ve never seen before and some constants they’re not familiar with, too! So, it’s going to take them a while to figure out just how you did it.”

“I really need to get back to my shop. I have someone flying-in this afternoon for a big order. Could take me a week or so to finish the job, sir” the young man replied.

Wexler was puzzled but he thought he had a way to keep the kid in the building for a while longer. “Look, your coding skills are remarkable, Jim. I’d like to make you an offer, right now, if I could. How does two million a year sound for starters, huh? And it would only go up from there. In five years, you could be making twice that. What do you say? Want to come on board CodeWorks?”

Jim got up from his chair, smiled politely and said, “Frankly, Mr. Wexford, I make more than that in my shoe business. A lot more, actually, and tax free. So, I thank you for your kind offer but I really must be on my way. My client will be landing anytime now.”

“Hold on now, Jim!” Wexford boomed. “You’re telling me you make millions cobbling shoes one pair at a time. C’mon, Jim. Let’s get real. I’ll go as high as three million to start, okay? But don’t give me this stuff about making millions in the shoe business.”

“No, really, Mr. Wexford. It’s true. You must realize that some of my clients need more than just one pair of my shoes. Why, the Chantilians, who are landing right about now need twenty-seven pairs, and that’s just for one of them,” Jim proudly announced. “And they’ve travelled a long way to get just the right fit, sir. A very long way! It’s a big universe out there, sir, but once they find the right cobbler, they tell their friends.”

As Jim headed for the door, Wexler pleaded, “Jim, maybe we can work something out! You can still make shoes for them but code for me on the side. Four million?”

Jim turned, swept the hair from his eyes, and replied, “You know, Mr. Wexford, that does sound good. I’ll finish up with the Chantilians and reschedule the Mantrixians. That should give me enough time to help you out for a few weeks. I’ve got some good ideas for a new video game, too.” He waited to see Wexford’s facial expression before continuing. “It’s about a young cobbler to the ‘stars’ and how he develops his craft and fights off his celestial competition. Interested, sir? My residuals could be huge!”

Wexford’s brow wrinkled and his eyes narrowed but he nodded anyway. Just what’s really going on here ? he thought to himself, And what the hell am I getting myself into, anyway?


Finding Billy


She rushed to the phone and picked it up on the second ring. Her heart was pounding as she answered. “Hello!”

The caller was terse as if in a hurry, but the message came across loud and clear! They’ve found Billy! Still holding the receiver, she yelled for her husband and her children to come. She could hear their footsteps on the second story floors as they headed for the stairs. They sounded as excited as she was even without knowing what was happening!

Her husband was the first to arrive on the ground floor and breathlessly asked, “What?”

“They found Billy! I just got the call from the pound. He’s fine, just a little worn out. Can you believe it, he got all the way to Santa Monica!” she answered, barely able to contain her glee.

Just then her son peered over the stair rail and screamed to his sisters who were still upstairs, “They found Billy! They found Billy!”

It had been almost two years since Billy had disappeared from the back yard and the family had searched for him ever since and had never given up. But Santa Monica! That was almost eight hundred miles away! And he was just a puppy when he went missing.

Soon, the whole family was excitedly standing together near the front door, laughing and talking and gesturing all at the same time. Ultimately, the father calmed everybody down and announced, “Okay, everybody, let’s decide what we’re going to do next. Mom, what did the pound tell you about when we can pick Billy up?”

She thought for a moment and then relayed what the pound had told her. “Billy needs some work done. They can’t do it at the pound, so I gave them permission to have the procedures done at a local place. It’s nothing serious, just some simple diagnostics and repairs,” she announced. “They say he’ll be ready tomorrow afternoon!”

Everybody got excited all over again and then Julie asked, “Did they say exactly where he was found, Mom?”

“Yes, they found him outside the place where we bought him, of all things. They’ve seen this kind of thing before. The factory puts homing devices in all their robot creations so if they get lost, they know they can always return to their place of origin.” Mom looked around and then added, “Apparently, it’s quite common for these android pets to just get up and head ‘home’, so to speak. It’s something the factory is working on.”

The rest of the family looked over at Julie who was standing silently, not moving. Finally, her brother Colt cautiously asked, “Julie, have you ever had any feelings like that?”

She smiled, shook her head slowly, the servo-motors in her neck whirring quietly. “No, not yet,” she answered.


The Right Tool


He had always admired people who could fix things. He was a klutz and a dangerous one at that. Put a tool in his hand and something was going to get broken. So when the repairman arrived, he let him in with a sense of relief knowing that the repairs were in good hands.

“So, Mr. Rauch, what seems to be the problem here?” the repairman asked politely.

“Ah, well, as you can see, she’s not breathing, or doing anything, for that matter. It started about a week ago with some minor glitches. You know, inappropriate comments, dropping things, moving aimlessly in circles, stuff like that. Then she just shut down yesterday and has been like this since then. That’s when I called you,” he explained.

“Okay, I always have to ask this question. Did you remove her access panel cover at any time since she started acting up? Tell me the truth, now. I’ll be able to tell by looking at the access log when I open her up,” the repairman said.

“Well, yes, I did take a look inside her. But I didn’t really touch anything. I just pushed the little reset button inside the panel. Is that going to be a problem?” he replied worriedly.

The repairman excused himself for a moment to make a phone call and he could hear the muffled conversation from the next room. The repairman returned after a few minutes and announced, “Since you opened her access cover, your warranty is voided, sir. I’m sorry, but those are the rules. So, whatever work I perform today will be billed directly to your account. I can get her working, but my experience suggests that the repairs could cost you at least $25,000, maybe even twice that. Do you still want me to proceed?”

He moved closer to the repairman, smiled and coyly asked, “What if I paid you $5,000 in cash right now to repair her? And we leave it at that. You make five grand tax free, I’m not lonely anymore, and your company is none the wiser. And you just say it was a simple reset problem, all under warranty. Okay?”

He watched as the repairman considered his proposal. It was a pretty sweet deal, he thought to himself. The guy would be an idiot not to take it. He waited for about a minute and when the repairman hadn’t responded, he asked, “Did you understand my offer? Look, I’ll go as high as $7,500, okay. But don’t push me. That’s my final offer. Yes or no, pal?”

The repairman nodded that he understood the offers and then said something very odd, “I appreciate your offers, sir. And it’s a real tribute to my creators that you actually think I’m human and thus subject to corrupt overtures. But, of course, I’m not. Money means nothing to me.”

He hadn’t dealt with androids before other than for companionship and he was taken back a bit. Of course, he had heard of their existence and their presence in the marketplace for some time, but he never thought he’d ever have any interaction with them on a professional basis. So, he had to think fast before this robot repairman left for good.

“Look, I know you guys don’t need money and all that. But you must have some needs, right? I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you fix my little friend over there and after you’re done, you and she can go upstairs to the bedroom for an hour or so, and . . . well, you know. What do you say?”

The repairman put down his tool pouch, stood up straight, brushed off his overalls, and smiled. “How about two hours, sir? She’s really good looking and I’ve been so lonely lately.”



Collect Call


The voice-mail message had requested that she come to Number 49 Hemlock Lane at nine, alone. She double-checked the address, saw the name ‘Renfro’ on the mailbox, and tentatively knocked on the front door, almost backing out at the last moment. She heard footsteps from inside, then the door opened slightly, and a man asked, “Are you Mareya?”

“Si, senor. I translate for you, yes?” she answered meekly.

The door opened wide and there stood a man and a woman still in their pajamas, holding coffee cups. “Come on in, Mareya. I’m Mr. Smith and this here is Mrs. Smith. Coffee?”

“No, gracias, Senor Smith. I translate for you, yes?”

“Sure, sure, Mareya. Just like I said on the phone message. I’m going to get a call from a guy in Mexico in a few minutes, and he doesn’t speak English and I sure don’t speak any Mexican. So, you’re going to have to handle both ends of the call. Just for this one call. That’s it. Two hundred bucks. Cash, okay?” Mr. Smith explained.

She nodded and said nothing.

Then the phone rang in the background and Mareya noticed that Mrs. Smith visibly flinched. Mr. Smith picked-up the phone, verified the voice on the other end and handed the receiver to Mareya, but not before telling her pointedly, “Tell him you are my translator. And that you can be trusted, okay?”

Mareya followed his instructions, listened for the response, and then told Smith, “He says he wants my real name and address or he’ll hang up and take things to the next level.”

Smith thought for a moment then said, “Give him your name and address and I’ll throw in another two hundred bucks for you.”

Mareya shook her head and held up five fingers and waited for Smith’s reaction. She knew he was in a bind and probably had plenty of money. Smith just stared at her for a moment and then agreed. Then he handed her the receiver and added, “Okay, tell him that the package arrived, but it’s not what I ordered. Not even close!”

Dutifully following Smith’s instructions, Mareya conveyed the message and then listened as the Mexican’s voice got louder in response. She turned to Smith and said, “He says he sent just what you ordered, nothing more, nothing less.”

Smith’s face was flushed red as he put his index finger in Mareya’s face and demanded she tell that Mexican son of a bitch that he had a few options of his own if he didn’t get what he ordered. Standing her ground, she held up three more fingers and waited. Smith almost blew his top, but knew he had no out, so he nodded furiously and told her to translate his answer word for word, which she did.

At this point, Mrs. Smith moved close to her husband, took his arm in hers and tried to calm him down a bit. They both stood there, arm in arm looking at Mareya and waited for what the Mexican would say next. It didn’t take long.

Mareya listened and showing no emotion turned to the Smiths and slowly translated the Mexican’s last message. “He says he’ll kill me if you keep threatening him, Senor Smith!”

Mrs. Smith squeezed her husband’s arm tightly and exclaimed, “Bob, you can’t let him kill her! Just tell him you’re sorry and hang up, please!”

Reluctantly Mr. Smith told Mareya what to say and then to hang up. At the end of the conversation, he looked at her and in a stone cold voice asked, “What do I owe you?”

She told him and he went into the other room and returned with ten one hundred dollar bills. Handing them to her without comment, he walked to the front door and held it open for her. She said goodbye to Mrs. Smith and brushed past her husband as the front door slammed behind her.

Still clutching the thousand dollars, she got into her car and took a deep breath. She hadn’t heard from her cousin Paco in Mexico for years, but when she heard that gravelly voice over the phone, she immediately recognized it. And he probably recognized her voice initially but had to verify it. Paco was always the best negotiator in the family, by far. And she knew he wouldn’t have killed her, but for a moment there she had her doubts.


End Zone


The small chapel was almost empty, but the minister couldn't wait any longer for more mourners to arrive. He had to preside over a marriage in an hour. So he adjusted his vestments and strode purposefully to the podium before taking one last look out over the pitifully small group of people randomly scattered among the pews.

"Welcome, everyone, to the Celebration of John Stacey's life," he intoned. "Known to his family and friends as 'Bucky', he will always be remembered as someone who lived life to the fullest, right to the last.”

She sat quietly near the front with her hands in her lap thinking, Yeah, sure, Padre. You tell 'em. You never even met old 'Bucky' and here you are talking about him like you knew him all your life. But I keep forgetting, you guys are experts at talking about things you've never experienced, like, uh, God,  for instance.  Jesus, the hypocrisy of it all.

"Bucky Stacey had a heart as big as all outdoors," the minister continued.

There ya go again, pal. Talking through your hat, or whatever you guys call that thing on your heads. He was maybe five foot one, if that. The only big thing about him was his mouth, she said to herself as she discreetly looked around to see if she knew anyone else at this pathetic gathering. That's why they're so few people here today. He drove them all away with that mouth of his.

"Bucky never let differences of opinion get between him and his friends. He was a forgive-and-forget sort of man, a fellow who saw the goodness in us all."

She had to stifle a snicker. God, give me a break, will you! He left over five million bucks to some right wing outfit in Alabama that is best known for its political efforts to suppress the black vote, and a buck to each of his relatives with a little note in the will 'not to spend it all in one place'. They didn't call him 'Bucky' for nothing. But you're right about one thing. If you differed with him, you were no longer his friend.

"Buckey is now in a better place, a place that rewards us all for our good deeds in this life and our generosity towards our fellow man."

Hmm, she though, If by that you mean in a place where for eternity he'll be sweating it out over a hot lava pit, yeah I guess you're right. But if he's true to form, he'll end up running the place and renting out air conditioners!

"So, in conclusion, I would just say to you all, remember the life of John 'Bucky' Stacey as a template of how we all should aspire to live our own lives. Keep his memory alive as you leave here today and try to live up to the high standards he set for us all."

Whoa, big finish, Mr. Memorial Guy, she smirked. Better go home and shower and say a few prayers or whatever you guys do to remove the stink of a performance like this one. You sure earned your hundred bucks or whatever paltry sum you got paid today. I may even have you do my own memorial service. My life story is going to need some 'airbrushing' when my time comes, too.

Closing his notes, the minister stepped away from the podium and down the steps to shake hands with the few family and friends in attendance. She was first in line and she held out her hand for his and said, "Fine service, Pastor. Dad would have approved."


Director's Cut


She was famous, blonde and powerful and she loved every minute of it. All eyes turned whenever she entered a room and she held sway over who did what in the movies in Hollywood. She was as powerful as any studio head yet she owned neither a studio nor a theater chain. Instead, she was a gossip columnist and as vicious as they come.

As she toyed with her second martini, she noticed a funny little man across the room ogling her. Turning to her publicist, she asked, “Who’s the fatty in the corner staring at me, Sal?”

He didn’t have to turn his head to know who she was talking about. It was his job to know everything about everyone in any place his client went. Taking a sip of his scotch, Sal replied, “He’s a British director who has just been signed by Selznick. He’s only been here for about a week but writers are lining up to get scripts to him. And, by the way, I’ve heard he’s partial to blondes, my dear. Hence the staring.”

She wasted no time. Finishing her drink in one swallow, she got up and confidently strode across the crowded restaurant. Sal could see her stop in front of the chubby little director’s table, remain standing and engage him in conversation. After about ten minutes, she returned to her own table, sat down, ordered another drink and looked across the table at her publicist.

“Just another Brit loser trying to make a splash in the bigtime, Sal. Can you imagine that he didn’t even know who I am! And I didn’t tell him, either! He gave me his card and said he was looking for a blonde for some new projects and to call him if I was interested. The cheek of that little creep is incredible, just incredible. And when he told me some of his movie ideas, I almost lost it, Sal.”

Sal looked at the director’s card on the table. It read ‘Alfred Hitchcock’.

Taking a long swig from her drink, she looked at Sal, shook her head and laughingly added, “I told him right to his face that his movie ideas were for ‘the birds’, Sal. I told him that if he thought he could come to Hollywood and be successful he must be a ‘psycho’. And you know what that pudgy little limey did, Sal! He thanked me and started writing something down! God, what an idiot! How do they even let these guys into the country, anyway?”


Protected View


It was late and he wasn’t expecting any visitors, so the slight knocking on his front door caught him by surprise. He closed his laptop and put it aside, paused for a moment and then got up and walked cautiously across the room. Stopping a foot or so from the door, he called out, “Who’s there?”

An unfamiliar gravelly voice answered, “You the guy writing stories about Joey Randozzo?”

“Maybe,” he responded nervously. “Who wants to know?”

“You the guy or not, smart ass?” was the harsh reply.

“I’m going to call the police if you don’t leave right now. I’m dialing 911 if you’re not off my porch by the count of three! One, two, . . . .”

Laughter came from the other side of the door and he heard something from the direction of the back porch. Oh, God, he realized , there’s more than one!

“We just want to talk, pal. Don’t need cops to talk, do you? Open up. This won’t take long,” said the voice on the porch.

Jesus, he’s trying the doorknob! “I have a gun!” he blurted out.

“Who doesn’t? Just open up.”

He looked at his phone and realized it was somehow being disabled. He couldn’t call out or receive calls. He thought of running upstairs and locking himself in his bathroom, and as he went through some other options in his mind, he tried another stall tactic. “Okay, I’ll talk, but not face to face! What exactly is it about my stories that bothers you?”

He could tell that the man on the front porch had been joined by someone else and they were talking in whispers to each other. Then he heard another voice ask, “Who said anything about being bothered? We just want you to correct some errors. You open to that, Mr. Writer?”

“Sure, sure. Anything to get you guys off my porch!”

“Okay, go back to your laptop and open up the story titled “Randozzo Owned Hoffa.” Call out when you’re ready,” the gravelly voice directed.

He did as he was told and yelled out that he was all set, his voice cracking a bit.

“Right. You see in the third paragraph, the one about how Joey paid Hoffa secretly through an offshore account in the Cayman Islands. You see that, Mr. Writer?” the second voice called out.

“Yes,” he answered, his hands shaking.

“It wasn’t the Cayman Islands. It was Bermuda. Change that, okay?”

A little confused, the writer prepared to make the change. “Is that it? Any other changes?” he tentatively asked.

“No, that’s it.”

His story was an explosive expose that ripped open the connection between The Mob and the Teamsters Union under Hoffa. It revealed previously unknown details that had escaped even the FBI’s scrutiny and pointed very directly to Joey Randozzo as the key figure behind Hoffa’s disappearance.

And all they want is to change the country where the offshore account was held? Very odd, he thought. Was there something about the Cayman Islands that he had missed in his research? Maybe he’d better retrace his steps!

“Okay, I’ll make the change and I’ll make sure my readers are informed about it,” he said through the closed door. “Are we done here?”

He heard some more whispering on the porch. Then the gravelly voice said, “And don’t get any ideas about travelling back to the Caymans, Mr. Writer. That would be a big mistake. The biggest!”

The Caymans are the key to this whole thing! They’re scared shitless that I’ll turn up some connection between The Caymans, The Mob, Hoffa and someone or something else much bigger. That’s it! Jesus, what idiots. What clumsy, stupid idiots. They’ve just given me the lead of a lifetime!

“Okay. I understand completely. Can I go to bed now?”

“No problem. Your phone works now. So why don’t you call your daughter before you go to bed. She had a few people over tonight, too.”

A cold chill ran up the back of his neck as he stared at the highlighted changes in the third paragraph and hit ‘save.’



The Meryl Streep School of Acting . . . Apply Now!


They all met every Sunday for brunch at the Country Club, but today was special. Their children's college acceptance letters had arrived during the previous week and the eight women had decided to wait until Sunday brunch to reveal the good news that would form their children’s futures. All eight were coiffed and made-up specially for the event, and each had bought a new outfit and hat for the occasion. It was time to brag!

Most of three bottles of wine had been consumed before Marilyn tapped her goblet to get the others’ attention and announced, “Well, ladies, it’s time to reveal the news that we’ve all been dying to tell each other. Who wants to go first? Anyone?”

Beth raised her glass , politely cleared her throat and said, “Okay, I’ll go first. As you all know, our little Megan has worked so hard to get into Georgetown. And she got accepted!” She let that little piece of news sink in before adding, “But then she got the letter from Stanford, and, well, Georgetown is good, but Stanford is the best! So, it’s Palo Alto for our little dearest, ladies”.

Mary Belle was the first to comment. “Oh, Beth, that’s such great news. Yes, Stanford is a very good choice. Of course, our Harold applied there, too, and would have accepted their offer, but then Harvard accepted him, and so, Harold is off to Cambridge! Can you believe it!” Beth squealed with false joy at this news as the other ladies clapped and cooed.

And so it went for the next fifteen minutes. Each proud mother in turn extolling the virtues of their children and their college destinations . . . Yale, Cal, Penn, USC, Radcliffe. It was a veritable checklist of colleges for the white and privileged. And all but one mother had spoken.

It was no secret that Teresa’s daughter, Linda, was not really college material. But Beth never really liked Teresa much and so in an act of minor cruelty she turned to Teresa and sarcastically asked, “And what about Linda, Teresa?”

No one else moved as they all recognized this question as a clear jab at Teresa. An air of awkwardness now hung over the table as Teresa took a small sip of wine, patted her mouth dry with her napkin, looked around the table, and began to speak, “Oh, Beth, thanks for asking, dear. Well, as you all know, Linda has had her challenges over the past four years or so. There’s been the drug thing, and that little morning-after episode, her bad choice of friends, and the car crash. But through all of that, she’s persevered, playing her music, singing, and getting ready.”

Beth pushed harder, pointedly asking, “Getting ready for what, Teresa?”

Teresa paused for effect and then excitedly announced, “She’s been accepted to the ‘Meryl Streep School of Acting’! Oh my God! Can you believe it? My little girl and Meryl Streep!”

Joan stifled a laugh at the end of the table which, luckily, Teresa didn’t hear. The others just sat motionless, not knowing how to react, although some wanted to snicker but were better mannered than Joan. Finally, Beth said, “Really. Just where is this acting school, Teresa?

“Oh,” Teresa added guilelessly, “It’s in Summit, New Jersey. Meryl’s birthplace, of course! Linda found out about it online, did the application all by herself, and only came to us when she was accepted. And it only required us to send in $20,000 for the first year! God, what a bargain! And my husband, Hank, is just thrilled.”

Jeri was an attorney and she quietly asked, “Have you been to the campus? Have you talked to any administrators? Is it accredited? Do you know of anyone who has graduated from the school? I’m just asking because you just never know about some of these online things, Teresa.”

Teresa just laughed and retorted, “Oh, really, now. Do you think Meryl would lend her name to an acting school if it wasn’t legitimate? We went to the website and it had the pictures of the campus, the biographies of the teachers, and a slew of testimonials from graduates. And we talked to the admissions director, a  Mr. Soprano. So, yeah, we’re pretty sure this is a home run for our little girl.”

Again the table was silent as seven women quickly checked their phone browsers for the school’s website. After a moment or so, they all looked up at each other and then as one, over towards Teresa. Jeri spoke first. “Teresa, have they cashed the check yet?”

Her answer was quick and assuring, “Oh, yes. They required a cashier’s check, so it went through without a hitch. Why do you ask?”

Jeri went into her purse, removed one of her business cards, slid it over the table to Teresa, adding, “Call me tomorrow at my office. Maybe we can do something before it’s too late. Oh, and I'll want to talk to Linda, too.”


The Flies Here Are Fat


Cletus “Possum” Rogers had been the Sheriff of Jessup County for thirty-seven years. He liked to joke that the county had so few people when he was first elected that the New Year's baby was born in August. He ran successfully in eight consecutive elections with the last four being uncontested. The county had grown quickly with the discovery of shale oil and gas and it needed a firm hand at Sheriff. “Possum” Rogers was that firm hand, and people knew when Sheriff Rogers promised to do something, like reducing crime, he meant it. So, if you were a recent parolee, and you decided that Jessup County was a good place to start over, Sheriff Rogers had a one-way bus ticket with your name on it.

Most of the Sheriff’s deputies hadn’t been born yet when he was first elected. They all looked up to him as their leader and protector and they’d do anything he asked of them. All he required in return was that they do their jobs to the best of their abilities, and if anything came up that might affect the reputation of the Sheriff’s Office, they were to call him first, no exceptions.

So, when Sheriff Rogers found Deputy Jimmy Buck sitting in the anteroom to his office at two o’clock, he figured something urgent must have happened.

“Why aren’t you out on the road with what's-her-name, Jimmy?” Rogers asked as he had the Deputy sit across from his desk.

“Well, Sheriff, that’s why I’m here. Somethin’ happened about two hours ago and I figured I better tell you about it face to face instead of callin’ it in,” Buck answered.

Rogers had been through this drill many times with his men. His first rule was to have his deputies start from the beginning and leave nothing out. His second rule was for his deputies to keep on talking even if the Sheriff did some paperwork while they talked. So, while the Sheriff opened up his email folder and a budget proposal on his desk, he told Deputy Buck, “You know Rule Number One, Jimmy. Go ahead.”

“Right, Sheriff. Well, that environmental scientist the Commissioner insisted we use in a review of our open cases was riding with me this week. So, each day I’d pick her up at her motel, go eat breakfast, and go over the county crime scenes we’d be visiting that day. I’d have the case files and answer any questions she had. And today was my last day with her, so we were down to four crime scenes left,” Buck recounted.

Rogers nodded as he read his emails and indicated for Buck to continue.

“So, we’re on the road between the third crime scene and the last one. She’s got her window down and her arm out. She did that to catch insects, you know. Said they could tell you things about what was goin’ on in nature and stuff like that.”

“Keep talkin',” Rogers muttered, looking over some budget figures.

“And then just like that, Sheriff, she tells me to pull over and stop. Which I did, and asked her why and she said ‘because the flies here are fat’,” Buck said slowly, watching the Sheriff's reaction.

The Sheriff looked across his desk at Buck and asked, “Where’d you stop?”

Buck breathed deeply and answered, “Mile marker 47. At our ‘special place’, Sheriff.”

Rogers closed his laptop, put his budget proposal away, clasped his hands, leaned in a bit, and growled, “You have my complete attention, Deputy!”

Buck fidgeted a bit and then continued, “So, she gets out, puts one of the flies under her microscope that she carried in the back of the car, does some tests and then tells me ‘these flies are feeding on blood, probably human blood, nearby’. And with that, she grabs a shovel and heads up the hill.”

“Now wait a minute, Deputy! You’ve been burying troublemakers up there for, what, ten years now. And my instructions were to bury them deep, at least seven feet, right? So how in the hell could flies get to them, Deputy? Tell me that,” the Sheriff demanded harshly.

“Right, Sheriff. We always followed your instructions to the letter. No buzzards, no coyotes, no nothin’ could get a whiff of those bodies. But this here woman says that the soil up there could have allowed rain water to make little vertical channels down into the ground for the flies to work through. So she starts diggin’, Sheriff, right where she shouldn’t have!” Buck explains.

Rogers leaned back in his chair, looked at the ceiling, then back at the Deputy and said, “Okay, Buck, what happened then?”

“Well, sir, she died a lot sooner than she thought she would.”

“I trust you made it look like an accident, Buck,” the Sheriff asked rhetorically.

Buck nodded, “And then I called 911, waited till they got there and pronounced her dead and took her away. And then I came right here, Sheriff.”

The Sheriff got up and walked around his office, thinking. Finally, he stopped and turned to Buck and announced, “You know the Commissioner is just going to send us another environmental scientist as a replacement. He thinks it’ll help our closure rate.”

Buck agreed but didn’t know where the Sheriff was going with his thinking.

“Sure, Sheriff, whatever you say,” Buck responded quickly.

“So, I want you to buy as many cans of Raid as you can and go out and kill every damn insect within a hundred yards of our ‘special place’. You got that, Buck?” the Sheriff demanded.

“Yes, sir. Raid! Will do, Sheriff. Anything else?” Buck asked obediently 

The Sheriff stood over Buck with his hands on his hips and said, “And for the next six months, Buck, I want you to drive by that place every day with your arm out the window, okay? And if even one fat fly hits your palm, you get out and spray the hell out of that place again. You hear me, Buck! Because having another one of those scientists show up dead at the same place would raise a lot of embarrassing questions. Questions that we can’t have asked, Deputy Buck!”




They both poked listlessly at their salads, ordered another round of martinis and continued to gossip shamelessly. It was what they were good at and they thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company twice a week for lunch. The only caveat was not to drink so much that they couldn’t sober up before the night’s series of cocktail parties began. Their husbands could drink all day and keep a buzz on well into the evening, but for them, politician’s wives, that wasn’t an option. It just wasn’t done.

Bev picked-up the check and the two of them weaved gingerly towards the front door of the cafe and the brutal humidity of the Georgetown summer awaiting them outside. Finally on the sidewalk, Eunice whispered to Bev, “I don’t think we should drive just yet, dear. Let’s get out of this sun, though. I know of a cute little art gallery around the corner where we can cool off and dry out a bit.”

Supporting each other, they rounded the corner, found the gallery, and entered, relieved to be out of the heat. The gallery had a large showroom right off the street, then a connecting hallway, and a smaller showroom in the rear. The two women slowly moved around the larger room, stopping from time to time to discuss a piece of art, and then strolling on to the next one, arm in arm. They were the only customers but the owner knew enough to leave them alone as they perused the collection. Moving into the smaller showroom, they saw one of the employees mounting a new set of pen and ink drawings that drew their attention from across the room.

They moved closer as he finished mounting the last drawing in the set and busied himself with attaching a nameplate to the wall next to the drawings. Eunice was still a bit under the influence as Bev stopped her, put her hand on Eunice’s shoulder and quietly insisted, “Don’t look around, act natural, and don’t say anything until you look at these drawings . . . very closely.”

Which Eunice did and then after a moment exclaimed, “Oh, my God, Bev! No!”

“Quiet now, Eunice. Just take it easy. I’m seeing the same thing you are, so you’re not mistaken. Just follow my lead and don’t say anything,” Bev instructed as she motioned for the gallery owner.

“Yes, may I help you today?” the owner inquired.

“Why yes, Miss . . . . Tramour. We’re fascinated by these drawings. Could you tell us a bit more about the artist? All it says is ‘anonymous’. It would mean so much if we knew something about the artist,” Bev asked delicately, and then added, “Especially if we were thinking of purchasing them today.”

Ellie Tramour hadn’t sold anything in a week, so she was motivated today. “Ah, ‘anonymous’. Well, the artist is a fiftyish woman, Sorbonne trained, who only came to her art later in life. Interestingly, she was in the ‘Intelligence Community’ for years and later was a lobbyist. She left all that behind to pursue her art, which you can see is delightful. I have met her, of course, but I don’t have her name or any other details, but I can contact her for you if you are interested.”

Bev smiled politely and responded, “I just love this set, and I want to buy it today. And I’m interested in seeing more of this artist’s work. So, let me write you a check and tell you where to send these pieces, and then I’ll ask you to have ‘anonymous’ call me. How does that sound?”

Ellie was thrilled, not just to sell this work but to probably sell more of the unknown artist’s output. When she saw the card Bev handed her, she instantly recognized who she was dealing with and reacted accordingly, “Ah, you’re Senator Billings’ wife. What a distinct honor to have you in my shop, madame. I will definitely let ‘anonymous’ know the situation. I’m sure she’ll call you very soon.”

And that was that. The art was taken down from the wall by the employee, Bev wrote out a check for $13,500 and the two friends said goodbye to Ellie Tramour and left the gallery. Eunice waited until they were in the car to say anything. But she couldn’t contain herself as the doors closed, “Bev, that artist, how could she have known about our husbands, that Russian, and the money? Nobody knew! But there it was, cleverly portrayed in those drawings. Any ten year old kid could have figured out what was going on.”

Bev didn’t start the car, but instead looked over at her friend and said, “You heard about her background, right? Spook and lobbyist. Who knows how she found out, but she did, and this little artist routine is just a very slick way, and I mean very slick, to blackmail us. Do you think it was a coincidence that those drawings were being mounted just as we walked in? No, dear, this is some well planned, well executed operation, intended to make sure our husbands toe the line when the time comes. They are showing us what they know and what they are capable of.”

Eunice nodded and then asked, “If she calls you, what are you going to tell her?”

Bev smiled coldly, started the car, and without hesitation answered, “Oh, don’t worry about that, dear. She’ll call. And when she does, I’m going to tell her that if she lays off our husbands, I’ll give her ‘goodies’ that nobody, and I mean nobody, knows about what goes on around here.”

Bev maneuvered into traffic and then continued, “And Eunice, before it’s over, our little artist will be hanging her trashy little drawings all over Georgetown with price tags in the stratosphere. And I intend to get a piece of that action, sister!”


The White Cat


She looked up at the clock and saw that it was almost 11:30. Putting down her magazine, she went to the fridge, retrieved a cold beer and headed for her husband’s study. She figured he should just about be done for the day or at the very least just putting some finishing touches on his latest story.

But as she entered the study, she immediately knew that something was amiss today. There he sat, stock still, staring at a blank computer screen. She tentatively knocked on the door which aroused him a bit. He moved slightly, turned and looking at her said, “I got nothing”.

She put the beer down and slowly sat down near him. For several years he had entered his study each morning and without fail had produced a short story before noon. And as always, she had come in around 11:30 with a cold beer to review and discuss his latest story. But today was going to be different.

She tried to raise his spirits by telling him that it happens to everyone, but he was having none of it. “My mind is as blank as that computer screen. I’ve been here for three hours and absolutely nothing has happened. It’s scary, let me tell you!” he responded dejectedly.

“Okay, then, no beer for you today, husband,” she laughingly added, but knew immediately that it was a mistake. He grabbed the beer from her hand, chugged it, and angrily clanged the empty can down on his desk when he finished.

She was taken aback for a moment, but then knowing her husband as she did, she shifted gears a bit, “So, your ‘muse’ didn’t show up today, did she? After years of faithfully helping you write nothing but bleak, dark, and even cruel stories, she just stayed on the other side of some magical door and refused to enter.”

“And your point is?”

“Well, think about it. Maybe she wants you to drop all the murder and mayhem and take up something a bit more redeeming, a bit more life affirming as a story theme. I mean, even your ‘muse’ might have a conscious.”

He pondered her words, nodded, and replied, “You know, you may be onto something about my ‘muse’ , my ‘other woman’. And while it’s easy for you to say it, I'm still the one who has to come up with a storyline. Even muses can’t do all the work. So, I need to find a theme that works for her, right? Any ideas?”

She thought for a moment and then said, “Okay, so your ‘muse’ won’t come through the front door, but maybe she’ll come through the pet door. Over the years you’ve written some stories about cats or dogs that people liked. I mean who doesn’t like cats or dogs. Why don’t you give that a try. A nice little story about a stray dog, a little boy, and the adventures they get into. Why not?”

She could tell that he was getting excited and that he wasn’t stuck anymore. She patted him on the head, got up and assured him, “I just know that you’ll have something by 3:00 this afternoon. Tell you what, I’ll bring you some lunch while you work, okay?”

He was already busy typing something into his computer which she couldn’t quite make out, but she knew that he was going to be just fine as she quietly left him alone in his study and closed the door behind her.

Time flew quickly and at 3:00, cold beer in hand, she knocked lightly on his study door. She heard him say ‘come on in’, and as she entered, she could tell that he had just finished a new story. The printer was at work and he was carefully reading the pages as soon as they were printed. His lunch had gone uneaten, which was a good sign.

He smiled at her as she sat down and handed him the beer. “You were so right,” he said. “All my ‘muse’ wanted was a little change of direction. And the dog and cat idea was brilliant! Here, read the first page and tell me what you think,” he gushed, taking a sip of his beer and grinning broadly.

The title of the story was ‘The White Cat’ and she nodded, thinking of the little white cat they used to own but who ran away several years ago. She wondered if that was the storyline as she read the first short paragraph:

“The stray cat strolled into his apartment on the same day he bombed the synagogue. It was the best day of his life.”


The Obvious Explanation


The widow and her visitor sat together on the couch in the living room, each clutching their tea cups.

The awkward silence was broken by the visitor who apologized for missing the funeral. “I’m so sorry, Fran. I was out of town and couldn’t get back in time. I hope you understand.”

“Of course. It happens. But you’re here now, and that’s what counts, dear,” the widow answered understandingly.

“By the way, your home looks amazing,” the visitor continued.

Fran explained that she had a professional cleaner come in right after the funeral guests had left. It took three women all day, but it got done. Not a speck of dust or a spot of dirt anywhere. Just the way she liked it. The visitor nodded and smiled, but thought it a bit odd.

“Anyway, Fran, I was just so surprised as was everyone. How old was Bill, anyway?”

“He’d just turned thirty-eight.”

“Gosh, in the bloom of youth,” the visitor continued. “I’ll always remember him as the outdoorsy type, always going fishing or hunting or something, leaving his stuff all around the place.”

The widow managed a weak smile as she said, “But he died doing what he loved. They say he must have passed out or slipped in the stream while fly fishing and fell and hit his head on a rock. They found him there, dead. They never did find some of his stuff, like his sunglasses or his baseball cap.” She stopped, forced another smile and added, “Which made his behavior before his death that much odder, you know?”

“Odd? What do you mean, Fran?”

“Well, we all know that Bill was a bit untidy to say the least, right? Nothing where it was supposed to be. Loose ends everywhere. But about three weeks before his death, that all changed. He became a very different person, if you know what I mean?”

The visitor shook her head, indicating she didn’t really understand.

“Okay, well, the first thing he did was to insist on getting a big term life insurance policy, real big! And then he insisted on me signing a joint will! Can you imagine that? Bill taking care of paperwork! And there were other changes, too,” Fran explained.

“Like what?”

“Well, he started being real neat and orderly, putting things away. Folding his underwear, hanging up his shirts, arranging the magazines in the living room, putting away his tools, stuff like that.” She let that sink in with the visitor before she continued. “And he stopped being that chatty Bill we all knew and loved. He became very directed and a bit withdrawn. It was all very strange, dear, especially as I think back on it.”

“Fran, you don’t suppose that . . .” the visitor stopped what she was going to say and left the sentence hanging in the air.

“Don’t suppose what, dear?

“Well, I was just thinking. What if Bill had a ‘premonition’ about his death? That could explain the changes in his behavior, right?” the visitor posited.

“Premonition? Oh, dear, I don’t know. That’s a bit far-fetched, don’t you think?”

“Maybe, but it’s plausible. It would explain a lot about why he would so radically change his ways that near to his death." A silence took over and then the visitor said, "Anyway, Fran, I’ve taken up enough of your time.” The visitor set down her tea cup, leaned over and hugged the widow and wished her the best. “I’ll keep in touch,” she added as she walked out the front door. “By the way, I hear you’re returning to work at the hospital next week. I think that’s a good idea, Fran. It’ll keep your mind off things for a while.”

They hugged again and Fran closed the door, locked it and returned to the living room to collect the tea service. As she placed the cups on the tray, she smiled to herself. It always came as a surprise that everyone she told that same story to always came to the very same conclusion and almost at the same place in her narration. ‘Premonition!’ they would all announce, as if it was the obvious answer. They all rose to the same bait!

As she cleaned the tea service in the kitchen sink, she glanced over at the list of people on her refrigerator. Fran was the last to be scratched off. She'd now told all their close friends the same story. They were now all on the same page. But she couldn’t use that same baloney on the insurance investigators. They’d be sniffing around pretty soon and would be looking for more realistic reasons for Bill’s sudden demise.

But they would never find it. The untraceable compound she’d saturated his hat band with was now lost on some distant river bank. When he started to sweat while fly fishing, the compound would have been activated and caused him to pass out. She wanted it to look like an accidental drowning, but hitting that rock was fine, too. Maybe the insurance guys would figure he just slipped and fell.

The really hard part of her plan had been getting Bill to sign the insurance policy and the will. But every wife knew the little tricks of the marriage trade to get their husbands to do things they really never would do on their own.

It had just taken a bit more time with good old untidy Bill.


The Fading


His passion in retirement was growing roses. During his working life he dabbled in their cultivation, but now that he had time on his hands he was intent on growing them full time. He liked to think that the roses taught him things. How to be silent, yet bold in presentation. How to respond to changes and be resilient. How to attract attention but also be self-protective. And how to die well.

Over the years he had mastered the art and science of blending the traits of several different types of roses into one that he thought was near perfect. And these he planted in his backyard where only he could see and enjoy them and where nobody else could. And he maintained a separate section just for the very first rose he had ever bred. So it was with surprise that he found that during the night someone had crept in and secretly taken cuttings from his beauties.

He knew who did it . . . one of his neighbors who was also interested in cultivating roses. The guy could have asked him, but of course he would have refused, and the guy probably knew that up front. So he just stole them. Not too long ago he would have confronted his neighbor, but those times had passed.

He sat and went through his options. His thoughts drifted back to his working years when he was an independent contractor, driving all over the country wherever there was a need for his services. Always alone, often never in any one place longer than a week or so. But he always managed to bring a few roses in containers with him in the car. He never flew, always drove, and it could be a challenge keeping them alive if he was in Phoenix one week and then in Chicago the next, and so on. It went like that, just him and his roses, driving endlessly. New Orleans, New York, Dallas, Miami, Los Angeles, Memphis. He remembered each like it was yesterday.

The police knocked on his door five days later. It was a couple of homicide detectives from downtown investigating the mysterious disappearance of his neighbor the other day. He told them that he’d read about it but didn’t have anything to add to what the article recounted. The three of them sat on the patio within view of his roses as they asked him a series of routine questions. After about fifteen minutes, they left.

It was a few days later that the two detectives were sitting at their desks going over what they knew about the neighbor’s disappearance when the older one leaned back, put his hands behind his head, and remarked, “You know the old guy who lived next door? The one with the roses? There was just something about him that bothered me. Couldn't put my finger on it at the time.”

The younger one didn’t look up as he scanned his notebook, but answered anyway, “Really? Seemed like just some lonely old guy who was into gardening. Did you follow-up on your hunch?”

“Yeah, I did. I checked our FBI database about anything to do with ‘roses’ at a crime scene. I went back sixty-years, just to be on the safe side. And it jumped right out!”

The younger one put down his notebook, stubbed out his cigarette, leaned forward and excitedly asked, “What jumped out? Jesus, you really got me going now.”

“Okay,” the older detective continued, “they have a whole group of unsolved mob murders and some other stuff, too. No info on who the killer was, but over the years some of their informants remember hearing about a hitman who always wore a rose in his lapel whenever he took somebody out.”

The younger one settled back down, chuckled to himself, and said, “That’s a little thin, partner. Anything with more meat on the bone? I mean lots of old dudes grow roses.”

“Well,” the older one replied, “the FBI files also indicated they found a red rose on the Grassy Knoll in Dallas in '63. Just laying there, really out of place, you know?” He paused for a moment and then added, "And what was weird was the picture of the rose in the FBI file looked a lot like one of the old guy's beauties. Coincidence?"


Lydia Meets Her Psychiatrist


She had never been in a psychiatrist's office, but the minute she entered, she felt an instant exhilaration she had never experienced before. It was like the emotions of hundreds of tortured souls were pouring themselves out to her, all at once. It was wonderful.

Dr. Pei rose from behind his desk and introduced himself. She held out her hand and they met. She liked him immediately. As she sat down, he began, “Lydia, I’ve taken you on as a patient on the recommendation of David Bloom, whom I believe you know. I normally wouldn’t have taken on a new client, but David explained your unique circumstances and I became intrigued. I think I can help you. By the way, you are everything David said you would be.” He moved out from behind his desk and sat close to her in another chair.

She pretended to be impressed by his remarks and thanked him. She watched him closely as he started to speak again, “Now, David tells me that you own and operate a high-end sadomasochistic dungeon business and that you are considering getting out of the business. And as part of that process, you want to make sure you deal with any residual emotions that might linger after the sale. For instance, guilt, shame, regret, certain longings, and what not. That’s why you are here. You seek a therapeutic separation from your past. A clean break. Am I stating your situation correctly, Lydia?”

She crossed her legs and replied, “Precisely, Doctor.”

“Fine. I think we should start with a two hour session today, and then see where that takes us. Now, be aware that some of what will transpire over the weeks and months may be traumatic for you. This won’t be easy. Are you sure you’re ready, Lydia?” he asked in earnest.

“Absolutely, Doctor. I am in your capable hands.”

“Fine. Now, can you tell me at what age you first realized you had certain powers over men?”

“Yes. I was about ten when my step-father first started molesting me. By the time I was thirteen, I endured every degradation possible at his hands, but in the end I owned that son-of-a-bitch. He danced to my tune and for the next three years, he was mine to experiment with daily. When I was sixteen, I left home and went into business for myself.”

“How did you feel about yourself at that time, Lydia?”

“I was in survival mode, so feelings were a luxury for several years. But if you’re asking was I depressed or suicidal or whatever, the answer is no. I just got better at understanding the male libido with all its back alleys and hidden rooms. There wasn’t a personality quirk that I couldn’t recognize and exploit. I was the Queen of giving men what they wanted. That’s how I saw myself.”

Dr. Pei wrote something down and then asked, “Did you manage to give yourself anything in return during those years, Lydia. Anything healthy, like a stable relationship?”

She laughed, caught herself, and replied, “I think you know the answer to that one, Doctor.”

“Okay, Lydia, I’d like to explore for a moment some of the emotions you are dealing with now, in the midst of leaving the business. Try to be frank and realize that I’m not judging.”

She adjusted herself in her chair a bit, thought for a moment, and then replied, “I want to be able to look at men and not see their dark sides. I’ve been catering to that aspect of men for so many years that it’s all I see now. But there must be more to men than just lust and sex and depravity. That’s really what I want. I want my innocence back. I want to be ten again!”

Dr. Pei handed her a tissue to wipe her eyes. He waited as she composed herself and then asked, “If I could make you feel ten again and emotionally healthy, what would you do with your life going forward?”

She straightened her dress, paused for a moment, and asked, “What do you charge an hour, Doctor? Five hundred dollars?”

“Why, yes. Why do you ask, Lydia?”

“By coincidence, that’s what I charge. And I noticed when you thought about me as a ten year old girl, you got aroused.”

Pei was clearly caught off guard by this remark and didn’t answer. Lydia continued, “But, I’d say that if I could continue to see you, then you could, begin seeing me, if you know what I mean. And no money needs to change hands. Shall we say at my business, tonight, at ten p.m. for starters?"

Dr. Pei took her card, smiled awkwardly, looked at the clock, nodded his assent and then composing himself, asked the next of many questions.


Lakeville Bait and Tackle


                         Part 1

He hadn’t been up to the lake since he was just a kid with his father. They’d drive up on weekends, stay in one of the old rundown cabins, fish all day and talk until late at night. Every once in a while, his dad would give him a beer to drink. It was great.

But the years had gone by quickly with the whole deal of marriage, kids, businesses, divorce, and parents dying consuming his energies. It wasn’t until he hit fifty-five that he decided it was time for his very first real vacation and the lake was the first thing that came to mind. It would be just him, a case or two of expensive craft beer, and a long weekend with a little fishing thrown in. It would be great.

As he approached the small community by the lake, he was struck by how much it had changed for the better. No longer was it just a small grocery store and bait shop with the ramshackle cabins in the back. Now there was a real store, a real bait and tackle shop, a real motel, a restaurant and what looked like a happening bar. He hoped he hadn’t made a mistake, that he hadn’t thought the vacation would be a remembrance of the past. Because if that’s what he was thinking, he was obviously way off base.

He parked in front of the ‘Lakeville Bait and Tackle’, locked his car, and strolled inside. Remembering back forty-five years, he thought of Old Ben, the grouchy old codger who ran it back then. He was a handful and wouldn’t tolerate city slickers much, but he knew his fishing. So when he saw who was behind the counter, he was a bit disappointed.

“Yes, sir, may I help you?” the skinny, pasty kid with glasses and a pocket protector asked politely.

He cleared his throat and replied, “Yeah, what happened to Old Ben, kid?”

The young man looked up from his computer, adjusted his glasses, and answered, “Oh, you mean my grandfather. Well, he passed away and then my father passed away, and I inherited this place. My name is Jake, by the way.”

The customer looked at Jake, looked around at the sleek newness of the shop, and was impressed. “You do all this by yourself, Jake?

Jake smiled and told him that after he had graduated from college, he made a few bucks and decided to plow his money into the lakeside property, and so what you saw here and outside was all his doing.

“By the way, what did you study in college, Jake?”

“I was a double major in Math and Astrophysics at MIT,” he answered.

“Okay, well good for you. Me, myself, I made my money in used cars. Anyway, what’s biting out on the lake? Any tips for me today?” he asked, not expecting much from this geeky smart aleck behind the counter.

Jake went back to his computer, started typing, and was heard muttering to himself, “Let's see, humidity, water temperature, insect season, hmmm. . .” After about two minutes, he pressed a button and the printer was heard spitting out a report.

“Okay, I’d say your best bet is this afternoon under the shelf at Bigg’s Cove. You know where that is, I guess. Troll at no more than two knots, down to about twenty feet with this jig here, and I think I can guarantee success with the largemouth bass to a 97 percent certainty. Any questions?”

The customer just stood there watching Jake and smirking to himself. Who in the hell does this little shit think he’s kidding, anyway? The apple sure fell far from the tree with this pompous kid. But hiding his true feelings, he asked, “So, you developed an app to help the fisherman, is that it?”

Jake nodded and said, "Yep."

“And if I come back empty handed, do I get a refund?”

Jake nodded and added, “Less 3 percent, yes. And that includes a refund on the boat and gas, too.”

Without showing his disdain for the kid and his attitude, he went ahead and bought the jig and rented a boat for that afternoon. And by that evening, he returned after only 90 minutes with his limit on largemouth bass and with a completely new attitude about the kid behind the counter.

Jake looked up as the customer walked up to the counter. “How was the fishing? Any complaints?”

“Absolutely no complaints, Jake. None whatsoever. It seems like you’ve brought metrics to fishing and it works. But, do you mind me asking something a little personal?”

Jake smiled and replied, “No, not at all.”

“Okay, you’re up here in the sticks, behind a desk all day and night, helping fishermen, running the businesses, up to your eyeballs in problems. Believe me, I know, I’ve run a lot of businesses.”

Jake smiled some more and asked, “And what’s your question, sir?”

“Well, and don’t take offense, Jake, but what about women? I mean, is there any time for a social life? Because you’re not exactly Brad Pitt, you know.”

Jake folded his arms and without showing any offense replied, “I do okay.”

“C’mon, Jake, really?”

Jake held up his hand and asked the man to wait just a minute as he bent down and extracted a small computer from under the desk. Placing it on the counter, he powered it up, played with the keyboard a bit, and then turned to his customer and announced, “We have a motel, a restaurant, and a bar up here, and the motel is almost sold out for the weekend. Anyway, if you tell me what kind of female companionship you are looking for, I can guarantee with 97 percent satisfaction that you will find what you’re looking for if you decide to stay the weekend. Just follow the instructions on this printout.”

“Refund on the room if I come back, shall we say, empty handed?”

“Of course. With a 3 percent hold back.”

The customer was pensive as he rented a room and glanced at the computer printout. Then he chuckled to himself, “Well, I guess they don’t call it 'The Lakeville Bait and Tackle' for no reason.”

                     Part 2

The early morning sun’s rays glinted off the lake and directly through the curtains of his motel room. He squinted and slowly rolled over, trying not to wake his bed partner. There she was, the beauty he’d met the night before in the bar. He’d followed Jake’s printed instructions to the letter and voila’, there she lay, quietly sleeping. He smiled to himself, smug in the realization that he still had ‘it’.

Quietly he crept out of bed and silently dressed, being careful not to trip over the two unopened cases of craft beer stacked at the end of the bed. What was supposed to have been just a quiet mini-vacation with him and a few beers had miraculously turned into one of the most exciting times of his life. He slowly turned the doorknob, opened the door just enough to slip through, and stealthily walked to the ‘Lakeville Bait and Tackle’ to have a little chat with Jake.

Sure to form, Jake was behind the counter working the computer. “Refund?” he joked as the customer approached.

“No way, Jake. It went great, way better than expected. You’re a genius, kid. But I have to ask you why you just give this stuff away? You could make millions off of just your fishing and hook-up apps, right?”

Jake just smiled and replied, “Well, I have made millions, but not off those two. It was off another app I developed while at MIT where I made my big money. Poker tournaments!”

“You mean you’ve got a winning poker app?

Jake looked around and summoned the customer to come closer. As he did, Jake confided in him that he had developed an app that predetermined who would win a Poker Tournament. That’s what Jake bet on. And it worked, tax free, no hassles.

The customer was transfixed. He prodded Jake for more details. It turned out that Jake started with a list of the top forty poker players in the tournament. He then hacked into their school records, their social media accounts, their criminal files, and anything else that would feed information into a psychological profile of each person. His app then would score each player according to how they ranked in an array of twenty-five key personality traits. He then laid big bets on the top three. Worked like a charm.

The customer just stood there smiling, shaking his head in wonder at the genius of the kid’s plan. “Look, Jake, I sell franchises now. But my big problem is weeding out all the flakes who want to open one, if you know what I mean. Do you think you could build an app for me that would do that? You know, winnow the list down to just the winners.”

Jake thought for a moment, then nodded and answered, “Sure, as long as we don’t have to hack any accounts. Just give me their financial details and have them fill out a brief psychological profile and that should be enough for the app to get the winners. I’ll have a prototype ready for you next weekend, if you want to come up. No charge. You’re a nice guy.”

The customer thought about the woman sleeping in his motel room. He wasn’t quite sure he wanted to come back to the lake too soon. He might run into her and it could be a bit awkward.

“But, we will have to test my new app with actual data,” Jake continued. “How about if we use your data? That way, when you see the output of the app, you can verify its accuracy easily.”

“No way, Jake. That stuff stays my secret.”

“No, I understand. What we can do is this. I give you a disk with a simple input program on it. You take it home, fill in the blanks, password protect it, and then you run the app when you come back up here next weekend using your password protected data. I never see your data. You leave with your disk intact. Safe enough for you?”

The customer nodded. “You know, Jake, I trust you, but I don’t know my schedule for next weekend just yet. So, why don’t you put your input program on a disk for me today and I’ll just complete it in from my room. I mean, I have my laptop in my briefcase with all my financial information in it. This way, you can do ‘dry runs’ and perfect your app and then let me know when you’ve done it. Then I’ll come up. How’s that?”

“What about the password?”

“Can you give me external control of the app for a few minutes so I can type in the password from a remote location, say next Wednesday night around nine or so?"

Jake agreed and the customer returned to his hotel room and his newfound friend. His phone vibrated about an hour later. It was Jake and he had the disk ready. The customer said he’d be right over to pick it up.

By the time he got back to his motel room, his bedmate was showering. He poked his head into the bathroom and said ‘morning, gorgeous’. She laughed and threw a hand towel at him as he quickly retreated to the bed, where he extracted his laptop from his briefcase.

It took just about ten minutes for him to fill in his financial details and to answer the fifteen psychological profile questions. As he was finishing up, she entered the room wearing just a towel. He smiled and asked her how to spell her name. She turned and smiled, “It’s Dianna . . . with two ‘n’s’, you rascal. Writing me a love note?”

“No, just typing in a password. We’ll get to that love note later, baby.” They both laughed and passed the rest of the day in bed and out on the porch, laughing and enjoying each other’s company.

The last two things he did was to promise to call Dianna and to leave the disk with Jake. That Monday evening as he drove back to the city he went back over the events of the long weekend and marvelled at how mysterious life was.

He gave Jake a few days to work on the app before calling him late Wednesday night.  He was anxious to learn of Jake’s progress on his app and to give the app access to his data. But it wasn’t Jake who answered. It was a woman.

“Oh, I’m trying to get ahold of Jake. Is he there?” the customer stammered.

“No Jake workin’ here, sir. You must mean Jimmy, skinny kid with glasses?”

“Uh, well that sounds right, but he told me his name was Jake. Anyway, is he around? I need to talk to him.”

“Jimmy was just a temp we hired to run the counter. He worked for room and board and yesterday was his last day. Him and his mom lived in one of the motel rooms. She helped around the place, cleaning and all. Jimmy wasn’t too bright, but he knew a lot about fishing, I’ll say that for him.”

The customer was silent for a moment, then replied, “His mother, was she a good-looking brunette, fortyish, about 5 foot six or so?

“Yep, that’s her alright. Dianna . . . with two ‘n’s’ she’d always say,” the woman answered with a chuckle. “She’d had some problems with the law a few years back, but she was just fine with us. No problems at all.”

The hairs on the back of the customer’s neck stood straight up as he processed what the woman just recounted. He slowly put his phone down, his hand shaking a bit. Just then, his phone vibrated time after time as numerous text messages came through.

They were notifications from his bank, his credit card companies, and his brokerage houses indicating that withdrawals over his specified $25,000 limit had been made within the last few minutes. No need to respond. The withdrawals had been processed routinely.


A Casket for Fluffy


It truly was the only time of the day he actually enjoyed,  sitting in his easy chair before the sun was up, sipping a freshly-brewed cup of coffee and reading the morning paper with all his worries on the back burner. Then his wife would arrive from the upstairs bedroom to interrupt his reverie.

“George,” she bellowed today, “Did you feed Fluffy and give her the medicine like I instructed?”

He sheepishly peered over his newspaper and admitted that while he had fed her beloved cat, when he tried to administer the medicine, she scratched him and ran away.

“Put down that newspaper and find Fluffy right now, George! She’s dying and needs that medicine to relieve her pain. Get going, buster, and don’t stop until you’ve finished the job!”

He pocketed the vial of pills and started his search for the elusive feline. His bad back made it difficult to look under furniture but he suffered through it and after twenty minutes he found Fluffy under the guest bed. It took another twenty minutes to coax her out and then the struggle to administer the pill began all over again. But George won this time and returned to announce his success to his waiting wife.

“Now, George,” she demanded, “I’m going to tell you one last time to get cracking on building a casket for my little darling, you understand? And if I don’t see a design and materials list by the end of today, I’m cutting off your allowance. No more Friday night poker games with the boys or weekend fishing trips, either. This is your last warning, George!”

He acknowledged the order with an obedient nod and padded off to his workshop to finally start on the casket project. The reason he’d avoided it up to now was that he always felt that it would result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Build the casket and the cat would die. Period. And he would be left with an even more insufferable wife than now. But he couldn’t avoid the inevitable. The casket had to be built regardless of the consequences.

That night at the dinner table, George presented his wife with a three-dimensional drawing of the intended casket along with a materials list. She carefully reviewed both, made a few changes in writing to the list, and handed them back to George. “I want the Lime Green satin lining. Goes better with her coloring. And I want a bigger name plate. As you can see, I’ve made it five inches by ten inches instead of two by five.”

George indicated to her that he thought he would need about a week to complete the project and that he would appreciate it if she didn’t look in on him until he was done. She agreed and they went to their separate bedrooms to sleep on it.

For nine days, George diligently worked in his shop, cutting, joining, staining, polishing, upholstering and a dozen other functions required to construct the casket. By the evening of the last day he proudly announced to his wife at dinner that the unveiling would happen after breakfast the next day and not one minute before. She took the news without emotion, not expecting too much from her husband of thirty-two years.

The next morning she was surprised when she found her husband busy in the kitchen making a special ‘casket day’ breakfast for the two of them. Scrambled eggs, sausages, english muffins, fresh squeezed orange juice and hot coffee awaited her.

“Well, George, this is a nice touch. Too bad you couldn’t have been more of a husband over the years. But, it’s never too late to start. So, when do I get to see Fluffy’s casket? Hmmm?”

“Eat some eggs, dear, and have some coffee and then we’ll go to the workshop and you can see what I’ve accomplished. I just know you’re going to be pleased,” he answered.

Within minutes, she had finished her scrambled eggs, had scooped up Fluffy in her arms, and was herding her husband towards the workshop. He got to the shop door first and warned her, “It’s dark in there, so when I open the door you won’t see anything at first. I’ll click on this remote I have and the casket will be illuminated by a spotlight. Nice touch, huh?”

“Just open the door, George, and do what you have to do. I don’t have all day, you know.”

He slowly opened the shop door and allowed her to peer into the darkness. “Turn on the spotlight, you idiot! It’s pitch black in here!” she yelled.

With that, a tiny focused light on the ceiling came on illuminating a beautiful polished walnut and bronze casket sitting on two sawhorses in the middle of the shop. Half of the tiny casket lid was open revealing a Lime Green padded satin interior.

For the first time in her married life, she was impressed by her husband’s work. As she stepped closer she remarked, “This is just what I wanted, George. A casket of quality befitting Fluffy’s status in my life.” As she continued to admire the workmanship, she heard a soft rattle coming from Fluffy’s throat and felt the animal go limp in her arms.

At that moment, George illuminated a second focused spotlight which revealed a similar, but much larger casket in the rear of the workshop. She gasped as she looked across the room and read the nameplate.

George stood at the workshop door with his arms folded proudly. “I’m glad you enjoyed your scrambled eggs, dear. Fluffy had some, too.”


A Last Flight of Stairs


As they sat in their den together, her phone rang. She looked at who was calling and mouthed to him, “It’s Adele . . . again.”

He just shrugged and continued reading the sports page as she answered the call. “Oh, hi, Adele. So nice to hear from you again, dear. How can I help you?”

For the next minute or so she listened, nodded, and sometimes responded. Finally, she said, “Alright, dear, I’ll be over soon. Don’t you worry. Bye now.”

Her husband lowered his paper, scowled at her for a moment, and said, “That’s the fifth time this week. That old dame’s got you running ragged.”

His wife smiled weakly as she got up and headed for the laundry room. Halfway there she stopped, turned and responded to her husband. “She’s got no one. She’s alone and stuck most of the time upstairs in her bedroom. I’m all she’s got. Somebody has to be there for her, Lou.” She let that sink in and then continued, “Besides, it gives me a purpose and a little exercise to boot. I think it’s good for me.” With that she disappeared into the laundry room and returned a few minutes later with a basket full of clean laundry.

Lou didn’t hold back. “Don’t tell me she’s got you doing her laundry, too? You know what the doctor said about you and stairs, dear. Now you’re going to be lugging that bundle up her stairs, too?”

As she started to fold the laundry, she replied a bit testily, “If I feel a little chest pain, I just stop on the way up her stairs and wait for it to go away. I’m not stupid, Lou! I can take care of myself, you know.”

He adjusted the paper and continued to read it, muttering, “Well, if you want me to carry that bundle, I sure will.”

She smiled, shook her head, and said a silent thank you that she had such a good man for a husband. Now, if he could only fold laundry, everything would be perfect, she joked to herself.

It was about a half hour after she left with the basket that his phone rang. It was Adele. He got right to the point, “What’s going on?”

The old woman took her time answering, but finally stammered, “Your wife fell down my stairs. I think she’s dead.”

Lou coldly replied, “Are you sure?”

“I was sure enough to tell it to the 911 operator. They’re on their way here now. Don’t forget our deal, Lou.”

He sighed and reminded her again about the deal. “If she’s dead, you’ll get your money when the insurance pays off, okay? Now hang up and get back into bed. It’s going to be a busy afternoon and I have to be convincing as the bereaved husband.”


Crawl Space


For over thirty years, Hoyt had a good thing going. In a sultry part of the American South known for every sort of creepy crawly thing, Hoyt was the only good ol’ boy in the whole county who would go under any house any time for any reason, no questions asked. He was the “go-to guy” when things went wrong under the numerous old houses found along the tree-lined back streets of the county’s many small towns. Hoyt new them all well. While other men would just shake their heads when asked to enter the county’s dank subspaces, Hoyt wouldn’t think twice. He would just pull on his filthy old overalls and jacket, don his miner’s hat with the netting attached, tape his ankles to his boots and his sleeves to his gloves, turn on the head lamp and go in. He never turned down a job in over thirty years and probably would still be at it were it not for what happened late last Friday afternoon under Mrs. Hanson’s century-old mansion. But more on that later.

Every once in a while Hoyt would get word that some youngster was getting ready to enter the business as his competition. He would find out who the fellow was and where he drank and casually arrange to run into him. Hoyt would let it slip that he was thinking hard about hiring an apprentice to help him out and he’d throw out a healthy starting salary to get the kid interested. After a few more drinks and some additional promises about an interest in his business, Hoyt would shake hands with his new employee and would suggest that the Hanson mansion would be a good place for a beginner to get his start. The two would typically agree to meet at the mansion at 8 o’clock the next morning.

From the street the Hanson mansion was fairly typical of old postbellum mansions in this part of the South. A red brick exterior, a pillared entry, high ceilings and a steep roof made it a classic of the period and Mrs. Hanson had managed to preserve it from the unrelenting onslaught of humidity, mold, vermin and decay. The Hansons had moved in about twenty years earlier when Mr. Hanson had retired from his position as a highly-paid oil geologist in South East Asia. They were a quiet couple and few knew anything about them until Mr. Hanson passed away five years ago. The local paper reported that his estate had donated his huge and impressive collection of asian wildlife to the local University. Details were few but apparently the creatures ranged from large snakes and such to small spiders and moths, all alive.

What nobody knew, except Hoyt, was just how bad it was under the house. Rats the size of cats, venomous snakes, hairy huge spiders, and a variety of unknown slithering things lurked in the murky darkness of the Hanson crawl space. For years, Hoyt had repeatedly entered this nightmare of the unknown, done his work, and hid from the Hansons the carcasses of whatever he had killed. It was the perfect workplace to let Hoyt’s new employees learn the harsh truth of Hoyt’s work.

Right on time, Hoyt’s new employee would show up at the Hanson mansion. After explaining the work to be done, Hoyt would show the kid how to suit-up and tell him that the best way to learn was to just go in alone and get a feel for the job. The kids, always filled with confidence, would dive right in. Hoyt would usually talk them through the first minute, shouting at them from the opening that the debris on the dirt was pretty typical. Nothing to worry about, lots of dead things end up under houses in these parts and rot away. It always worked. Nobody lasted more than ten minutes. One kid was done in two. And they told their stories without fail for weeks at the local bars. It usually took a few years before anybody new tried to break into the business. The stories and the Hanson mansion saw to that.

So, late last Friday, Hoyt was working under the Hanson mansion alone. He’d been working for several hours and during that short time he’d dealt with a variety of spiders, snakes, and rodents. Over the years, Hoyt had crafted an array of traps, snares, and barriers that had served him well in his daily contest with the creatures he encountered. He’d become an untutored expert on their habitats and behaviours and was confident of his ability to deal with whatever threat he faced. Today was particularly muggy and the sweat dripped down his face as he struggled to replace some rotten floor gussets. In the low light of the crawl space, he was just finishing-up his work when he caught movement out of his left eye. This movement was different, he thought.

He slowly wiped the sweat from his eyes and with his other hand he carefully moved the lantern just a bit to shed more light on the spot where he sensed the movement. Something told him  not to make any sudden moves. He sensed a threat in that dark recess of the crawl space that he had never sensed before as he slowly turned his head to the left. For the first time in years he could hear his shallow breathing and for the first time in years he regretted that he no longer took his .38 revolver under houses. The dim light revealed something huge, maybe fifteen feet long or so and it was breathing and its breath stank bad.

Hoyt figured he was about ten feet from whatever it was and he was about thirty feet from the crawl space door. He needed to know how this thing moved around before he decided to make a run for it or not. He carefully moved the light about an inch closer to the thing. The light revealed its powerful forelegs and claws, its darting forked tongue, and its penetrating black eyes staring back at him. He thought there was a large tail, too, but he wasn’t sure. Not an alligator, that’s for sure. Bigger, stronger, maybe smarter. Escape was too risky, Hoyt thought.

Just then, in the far corner of the crawl space, a large door in the floor opened and light from the room above flooded into the crawl space. Hoyt held his breath, not knowing what to expect next. The voice of Mrs. Hanson was unmistakable.

“Veronica, you bad girl. Get back up here in your cage, you bad Komodo dragon, you. You probably scared our Mr. Hoyt half to death.”


Garbage Day


He sat where he could watch the street but couldn’t be seen from the street. It was important not to be seen. It had to look like a normal garbage day pickup, nothing special, nobody watching. It could be hours before the trucks arrived, or maybe not. But he had to be watching when the pickup happened to be absolutely sure that it went off without a hitch. And so he waited and watched, unseen.

He rethought his disposal plan as he waited. He had finally decided to leave the ‘package’ intact instead of breaking it up into pieces and putting it into the garbage bins of others in the neighborhood. He figured that leaving it in one piece in his bin reduced the chances of somebody finding something very unusual in their refuse and then reporting it. Once it was picked up, the odds that it could be traced back to him were astronomically low. It was just that short period of time between the arrival of the truck to the successful intermixing of his garbage with everybody else's that worried him.

For weeks, he would watch the trucks perform their curbside duties around the neighborhood during his walks. Only once in five weeks did he see a truck spill any garbage during a pickup and that was because the bin involved was defective. So he made sure all of his bins were in perfect shape with wheels good, lids good, sides good, interiors clean, all ready to go. He was taking no chances. He even made sure to camouflage the ‘package’ as used cat litter to ensure that anybody rummaging through his garbage when he wasn’t watching would leave the ‘package’ undisturbed. He had thought of everything.

As the sun rose over the eastern hills he could hear the garbage trucks in the distance, their distinctive mechanical noises breaking the quiet of the morning. It was hard for him not to get up, start walking, and monitor the progress of the trucks as they approached his street. But he resisted the impulse and sat and waited. It wouldn’t be long now. And it wasn’t.

The large truck lumbered into view and turned the corner onto his street. It was one of the newer models, a bit quieter than the older ones and faster. He recognized the driver as the regular route driver, a guy he had intentionally waved to over the last few weeks when he stopped in front of his house. He wouldn’t wave today, but he felt that giving the driver a little recognition couldn’t hurt. Maybe make him do just a little better job knowing that the homeowner was watching.

The truck was next door on his left now, smoothly reaching out and retrieving the neighbor's bin, each movement of the robotic arm carefully designed for maximum efficiency. Now the truck was in front of his house, stopped. The arm moved out, grasped his bin, retracted, and quickly emptied the contents into the waiting truck. He realized he hadn’t taken a breath for about thirty seconds as he watched the truck move on to his neighbor’s bins on the right. He took several deep breaths, stood up, closed the curtains and went to the kitchen for a coffee refill, a huge grin on his face.

The truck driver moved to the next set of bins, stopped, looked through his side mirror and moved the joystick to start the pickup sequence with the truck’s arm. The arm slid out, its jaws opened, grasping the neighbor’s bin. But as the arm retracted and raised the bin for dumping, the side of the bin fractured spilling some of its contents onto the street with the rest going into the truck. The driver stopped the sequence, swore to himself, shut off the truck, got out and grabbed the shovel mounted on the side of the truck. This didn’t happen often, but when it did, he had to go ‘old school’ on the garbage in the street, and he didn’t like it. As he bent down and started shoveling, he stopped. He knew what meth lab residue looked like, and there it was, in a pile on the street.

He picked up his walkie talkie and called dispatch. “Mary, this is truck 47. I am at 153 Second Avenue. Get the cops over here right now. We have an issue. And have a retrieval crew sent over, too. We’re going to have to go through the top layer in the truck, too, just to make sure we get everything.”



Fair Trade


He sat in his kitchen, thinking. After a while, he nodded to himself, opened a beer, and waited for the kid to drive through the neighborhood again.

At four-thirty, he heard the familiar sounds of the kid’s car, the screeching of the tires and the gunning of the super-charged engine. He watched as the kid sped past his house and raced on down the street, oblivious to the dangers he was posing.

The kid was just locking the convertible top when the old man approached him. He got up close to the kid and said, “There’s going to be a speed trap out on River Road between mile marker 13 and 15 tomorrow from 6 a.m. until 9 a.m. Just a word to the wise.” With that, he turned and walked slowly away. He didn’t have to look back to know the kid was just standing there, looking at him, wondering.

Two days later, there was a knock on his door. It was the kid and when he opened the door, the kid asked, “Hey, old man, how’d you know about that speed trap, anyway? Two of my friends got popped. Thanks for the heads up.”

The old man stepped out onto the front step. He was old but you could tell he’d been a tough customer once as he told the kid, “Look, as long as you drive safely in this neighborhood, I’ll let you know about any speed traps this summer. Deal? And don’t tell anybody else, or the deal's off, okay?”

The kid nodded, but again asked how the old man knew where the speed traps would be set. He didn’t get an answer as the old man retreated into his house and closed the door without saying anything. The kid just shrugged his shoulders and walked to his car. And for the next few days, he was careful to do as the old man had asked. Why not?

It was on Thursday that the old man approached the kid as he was washing his car. He motioned for the youngster to come over to his side of the street, and as the kid got close, the old man said, “ICE will be in the neighborhood next Monday. They know about your uncle from El Salvador. Just a heads up. And don’t tell anybody else, just your uncle, okay.” With that, he walked away, again leaving the kid wondering 

On Tuesday, the kid knocked on the old man’s door. He wanted to thank him for the warning about ICE, and he really wanted to know how the old man was getting all this information. Again, the old man stepped out from the house and talked to the kid, but this time he added, “You don’t need to know my sources. But next time I give you tip, it’s going to cost you $100, up front. It’ll be worth it, believe me.” The kid balked a bit , thought about it and finally agreed.

Early Friday, the old man approached the kid outside his house. He didn’t waste any time and put it right to the youngster, saying, “You got the $100 on you?” The kid looked around and then handed the old man $50. “That’s all I could get, honest.” The old man shook his head, refused the money, and turned to walk away, but the kid stopped him. “Okay, look. Here’s the $100. But this better be good, dude.”

The old man pocketed the money and then spoke quietly but with authority as he said, “The cops have a grainy video of somebody robbing the mini-mart out on Highway 74 last night. The attendant was pistol-whipped, and the robber got away with over $1,000. Somebody got a partial on the license plate. They think they have enough for a warrant for you. Got that? Any questions?”

The kid was stunned as he stammered, “No way, man. That wasn’t me.”

The old man didn’t waste any time. He got right up in the kid’s face and growled, “For $500, I’ll tell them you were with me at the time of the robbery. Believe me, they’ll buy it. I’m known around here.” He smiled coldly and waited.

“That’s half of what I . . . .” the kid exclaimed, catching himself. But he knew the old man had him dead to rights. Finally, he relented, and handed the old man the money, but he was furious as he turned, got into his car, slammed the door hard, and drove off.

The old man didn’t approach the kid for several weeks even though the kid’s driving was getting close to being reckless again. Finally, on a Wednesday morning, he approached the kid as he was washing his car. It was obvious that the presence of the old man was now a problem for the young man. “What do you want, grandpa? More money, is that it?”

As the kid leered, the old man again got real close and coldly said, “The cops have a girl who was raped last night. She’s given a full statement and has I.D.’d you as her assailant. No DNA, but she stands by her identification. You give me $10,000 now and I’ll give you a solid alibi, just like last time. Remember how well it worked, kid? So, what’s it going to be? Pay me or spend the next ten years in a prison cell. And I know you got the cash. By the way, they’ll be here in about ten minutes.”

The kid was furious. “You nuts, you old fool? $10,000! No way. I didn’t rape no girl, you clown!”

“Okay,” the old man said calmly. “They’ll be here in about eight minutes. If you don’t want to pay me $10,000, I got another proposition. Interested?”

“You’re not getting my car, you hear. What else you want, you old fool?” the kid yelled.

The old man got close and whispered something into the kid’s ear. The kid just laughed when he heard it. He wasn’t religious and didn’t believe in that shit. “You’re a joke, old man. Sure, you can have it, you idiot. Are we done here, ‘cause the cops will be here soon?”

“Oh, yes, we’re done here. You got your alibi and I got what I wanted,” the old man said, smiling strangely. Just then a police cruiser came into view. The old man patted the kid on the back and told him to have the cops drop by. He’d be happy to alibi him out.

As the old man walked back towards his house, he started to think about a young drug dealer he’d heard about who lived nearby. He might have to come up with a different plan than he’d used on the kid, but he’d never failed before to get what he wanted. Not since the beginning of time.


Near Perfect Dad


She hadn’t seen her father for almost a year. He lived alone since his wife passed away, and while she promised herself to visit him more often, she knew it was probably not going to happen. So she decided to get right to the point.

“Dad, remember when you were a Master Sergeant at Beale? We had a great time there, didn’t we? You’d come home every night and we’d always do something on weekends. Remember?” she asked.

“Sure, I was in charge of squadron maintenance. Good bunch of guys. Everybody pitched in. No slouches. Your brother was born there, too. And your mom loved it,” he added, smiling wistfully.

She continued, “And then we moved to Nellis, outside Las Vegas. You got that promotion as maintenance supervisor on the ‘Blackbird’ Project. Do you remember taking me out on the flight line and hoisting me up to peek inside the SR-71? I still remember all the dials and switches. Really something, huh, dad?”

He laughed nervously, “And I got in trouble for that little stunt, too. The Colonel almost wrote me up. Anyway, it was a long time ago. Why are you bringing it up now, sweetie?”

She moved a bit closer to him on the couch and asked, “Do you remember when you’d go away for four or five days in a row? You know, you’d tell us you were going to 'Tonopah', but mom told us where you were really going. Area 51, right, dad?”

He didn’t respond right away. A distant look came over him as he just nodded. His daughter continued, “And mom told us that they’d blindfold you guys, walk you out to a small plane on the tarmac at Nellis with its windows blacked out, and fly you to Area 51. No flight plan, no radar tracking, nothing. Remember?”

Again, he nodded. “And when you’d come home, you were different, remote. We never did things as a family anymore and mom got depressed, then she got sick, and then she died. But you kept going on those secret trips right up until you retired from the Air Force. You even left us with the neighbors when you were away. Remember?”

He turned to her and unapologetically said, “Look, I was involved in some very ultra-secret stuff back then. I couldn’t even tell your mother. You probably noticed that our house was under continuous surveillance after I started making those trips. And there were phone taps, mail intercepts, spying on you kids, the whole works. Even now, after having been out for over twenty years, I can’t tell you anything. Nothing! You hear? ” The look he gave her was cold and distant. He certainly didn’t expect to hear what she said next.

“I’d respect that if it was said by my father, but you’re not my father. You look, act, and sound like my father, but you’re not him. He never came back after that second trip to ‘Tonopah’, did he?” she demanded. “It was you who came back, whoever you are. Mom sensed it, too. It’s what really killed her.”

She got up from the sofa, walked quickly to the other side of the room, and turned to face him. “And you know how I figured it out? It took a while, and for a long time I wasn’t sure. But I knew there was something not quite right. Then it hit me, like a ton of bricks!”

“What are you talking about? Of course I’m your father. Get a grip on yourself.”

“No, you were almost perfect except for one detail. A detail that nobody would ever notice, so they didn’t bother to program it into you. Only somebody who lived with you day in and day out would notice it, and only if they looked really close. And do you know what it was?”

He sat silently, although through the front room curtains he could just see a surveillance van parked across the street.

“Well, I’ll tell you what it was! You never once, not once for eight years after that second trip to ‘Tonopah’, ever got a haircut. Your hair never grew, not one bit!”

He got up, his expression unchanged, went to the front room curtains, and opened and closed them three times quickly. Then, turning back to her, he said, “Soon yours won’t grow either.” 


Shot on a limited budget


She’d never quibbled over price, ever. Price was always fixed, and the details and payment were handled by her ‘manager’. But he died last month, and she found herself selling her services face to face for the first time since she started killing people. And that was a long time ago—and like they say, it’s hard starting over.

It was the only pickup in the lot at that time in the early morning. A late-night rain reflected the parking lot lights in an interesting pattern on the pavement as she approached the truck from the rear. She had instructed the ‘client’ to sit on the passenger side and to make sure the interior light was on. She stopped ten feet from the truck’s rear bumper and called the ‘client’. “You alone,” she asked.

“Yes, and please hurry. I’m a little nervous,” the client answered. “Where are you?”

She tapped on the passenger side window with her .38, which caught him by surprise. He quickly rolled down the window and she told him to ‘move over. She thought it was better to take charge in these situations. The gun, the verbal orders, the menace, they all went along with killing for hire, she figured. But she was definitely playing this one by ear.

She slid into the passenger side, closed the truck's door and turned off the interior light, keeping her .38 trained on the ‘client’. “You wired or strapped?” she demanded.

He shook his head. The look on his face convinced her he was telling the truth. But she frisked him anyway. Jesus, she thought, I’ve got to get another ‘manager’ and fast.

“Are you really PeeBee? I mean, how do I know you are who you claim to be?” he asked nervously.

“You don’t. So, either we trust each other, or we don’t,” she answered, holstering her weapon.

He sighed heavily and put his hands on the steering wheel and started up, “I want my wife dead, okay. That’s it. Make it look like a home invasion or something. I’ll be away on business in another state. But I can’t pay your asking price. 

Here we go, she thought. The bullshit she always avoided because she had a ‘manager’ who dealt with this kind of crap. She paused for a moment and then responded, “The price is the price. Wife gets dead with no trace to you. You get what you want—I have to get what I want. I’m the best. You know that. So, what’s it going to be?”

He straightened up a bit, and answered, “But I know what you look like? That ought to get me a discount, right?”

For almost twenty-seven years, she’d killed for money and nobody ever knew what she looked like. Her ‘manager’ had made sure of that. No wanted posters, no descriptions, nothing. And now this idiot was threatening all that.

She pulled her .38 from its holster, put it up against his temple and said, “Sure, I’ll give you a discount.”

He nodded his head and agreed to her price. She smiled coldly, put her weapon away, and opened the door. She peered in before she left and said, “Leave it open. Let the smell out.”


Yard Work


The Southern California sun’s reflection off the backyard pool was intense, so the three of them moved closer to the work area. The contractor, the homeowner, and the homeowner’s young girlfriend stood over the excavated area and continued their discussion.

“Okay, so you want me to form out this entire area, lay in a gravel base, put down rebar, and pour concrete. Is that it?” the contractor asked.

“Exactly, and use colored concrete, and we’ll want a stamped effect on top. You can do all of that, right?” the homeowner asked.

“Sure, we do that all the time. By the way, who recommended me to you?” the contractor inquired.

“Roy Williamson told us you were reliable and discrete. He’s a good friend of ours,” the girlfriend replied.

“Oh, yeah, Roy. He still owes me some money for a job I did for him last year. Nasty divorce he went through, right? They never found his wife, I understand? Wonder what happened?” the contractor replied.

The homeowner and his girlfriend looked nervously at each other and then the homeowner asked, “Well, can you give me an estimate? Again, Roy speaks highly of you and we’re motivated to get this job done soon!”

The contractor took out his tape measure, walked around the work area, wrote down something in his notebook, and then came back to where the two love-birds were standing. “Okay, normally for a job of this size I’d go, maybe, $65,000. But I’ve been reading the newspapers, too, and I know a bit about your little problem. So, let’s say $175,000.”

The homeowner was incensed. “Are you kidding? That’s outrageous! Roy told us you’d be cooperative. C’mon, give us a break.”

The contractor wiped his forehead with his bandana before replying. Then, without changing his tone, he replied, “It’s pretty obvious what’s down there, folks. So, if I do this job, I’ll make sure no cadaver-sniffing dog will ever get a snout full of what’s under my concrete. That’s my specialty, and I’m sure Roy has filled you in. So, you pay my price, or you take the risk that some other contractor doesn’t do, shall we say, as good a cover-up as my crew, okay?”

She looked at the homeowner, took his arm and held it tightly, and nodded. He turned to the contractor and said, “Okay, $175,000.”

The contractor smiled and put his hand on the homeowner’s shoulder. “Look, scratch my back a little and I’ll lower the price to $125,000. Same deal, only I want to add something to the pile before we pour concrete. What do you say?”

The homeowner was wary, but he asked the question anyway. “Do you mean what I think you mean?”

The contractor looked at the girlfriend as he replied, “I’m going to have to check Roy’s schedule, but if you agree, I think we can start tomorrow. You know, before things get too ripe.”

The girlfriend gripped the homeowner’s arm tightly and nodded.

They had a deal.


Scar Tissue


The porch had looked out over the plantation for two-hundred-and-fifty years and the family that owned the land had a connection to the soil that only deepened with time. The old man, his cigar in his hand, rocked slowly back and forth as he sipped his cool drink. He seldom spoke, but when he did, his words carried weight. And the words he spoke had echoed throughout the halls of the U.S. Congress as well as in many courtrooms throughout the South. 

“They’ve taken away our flag, our statues, and our heroes, haven’t they,” he drawled to his Chief of Staff. The other man nodded and looked out on the fields, saying nothing. The old man continued, “I think we need to respond, and respond in a way that they will never forget.” The other man knew that something important was about to be uttered, so he waited. Finally, the old man said, “I think we’ll do something big about this abortion thing.”

Over the next thirty minutes, the old man laid out the political strategy. It was designed to so infuriate the North and to be so effective that they would never again try to crush the pride of the New Confederacy with their liberal ‘tom foolery’. "Push us and we push back. We may not have an army, but we have something just as powerful. An idea, land, and a population to back it up!"

And so, within months, the legislatures of Southern and border states started to move in the same direction. It was based on the ‘heartbeat’ and it gained momentum with fierce speed. It stunned the North and caught them flat-footed. It would be the political battlefield in the courts for years to come. In the meantime, women across the nation held their breaths.

And the old man sat on his porch and thought about his next idea. And it was one that even he knew might rip the nation apart.


Job Interview


As she entered the General Manager’s office, she was immediately struck by the mess, everywhere. The desk, all of the shelves, and some of the carpet were covered with papers, folders, unopened mail, and empty Styrofoam coffee cups.

He brushed the  crumbs off his shirt, got up, grabbed a nearby chair, cleared it of stuff, saying, “Welcome to the Nanaimo Chiefs, Ms. . . .uh,”  glancing at his interview sheet, “. . .Ms. James. I’m Don Wainwright, General Manager. Please, have a seat.”

She made sure the seat was, in fact, clean before sitting down, holding her briefcase on her lap and smiling. Wainwright navigated his way back through the debris, moved some junk on his desk enough to clear a small area, and sat down. “So, you want to be my Administrative Assistant. Let me start by asking what you know about the game of Hockey?”

She continued to smile as she replied, “It’s a game played with sticks on ice by men with teeth missing.” It was her greatest strength and greatest weakness; she was brutally honest and what she just said was in fact all she knew about Hockey. Period.

The G.M. nodded, pulled a pint of whiskey from a desk drawer, and poured some into a foam cup. “Want some?” he asked her. She shook her head as he shrugged and swallowed the whiskey. Now she knew what the problem was as she looked around the office again. . . a little alcohol-fueled chaos. She’d seen it before . . . growing up, with her parents.

He leaned back in his chair. “So, you don’t know much about Hockey. That probably won’t be a problem. You’ll learn as things go along. Let me just read your resume for a minute and then we can get to know each other better.” And for the next ten minutes, she sat there watching Wainwright sip whiskey, read her resume, and belch from time to time. It was quite a performance, she thought, even for eight thirty in the morning.

Wainwright may have been a slob, but he was no fool. He quickly determined that Ms. Wilma James was exactly what the Chiefs needed to get back to a winning season. She was smart, experienced, organized, and dedicated from what he could glean from her resume. His next question was his honest attempt to find out if he could work with her as he asked, “Given what you’ve seen so far, Ms. James, what would you do on your first day as my Assistant?” He sat back and listened, making eye contact with her.

She looked around the office again, continued to smile, and replied, “Well, I’d clean up this mess by getting stuff into files, put you in touch with a good nutritionist I know, and check you into at a weekend rehab place that really works! That’s for starters. I’m sure there’s more I could accomplish once I get my sleeves rolled-up.” She continued to smile as she watched for his reaction.

He had played pro Hockey, coached pro Hockey, and now was managing pro Hockey. It had been a rough and tumble life so far, lots of injuries, lots of fights, lots of pushing and shoving on and off the ice. But he knew things were about to get a lot tougher as he said, “Welcome to the Nanaimo Chiefs, Ms. James. Can you start tomorrow?”


Back Problems


His lower back had caused him problems for years, but this most recent episode was real bad. He was older and he didn’t have the same muscle mass as he once did. Virtually every movement was painful and doing just ordinary things like getting in and out of a chair was excruciating. And the indignity of not being able to care for oneself was wearing on him.

This morning was nothing exceptional except his wife was in a bigger than normal hurry to leave the house. She had helped him go to the bathroom and as she helped on with his pants, socks and shoes, she talked on her cell phone, getting things arranged for her day. Within minutes, she was out the door and gone. It was then that he discovered that his pants were on inside out.

This was going to be a problem. His pain pills, heart medication and cell phone were in his pockets, so he unbuckled his belt, but was unable to maneuver his hands into the pocket openings. He thought about dropping his pants, sitting down, and then reaching into his pockets, but he knew instinctively that the pain would be too much to bear. He heaved a big sigh and thought some more about the problem.

He could have called his neighbor or even 911, except his phone was in his pocket. If he wasn’t hobbled so badly, he would just walk next door and ask for help, but in his condition the risk was too great. He couldn’t even yell out the window for help because his neighbor was almost deaf.

That’s when he saw the scissors on the desk and decided the only way out of his predicament was to literally cut the ends off his pants pockets to liberate their contents. He looked at the clock and saw that it was almost 8:30, time for his heart medication. He would have to work quickly; to delay even one dosage was to invite lightheadedness or worse.

Checking the scissors, he determined they were a little dull and small for the job, but he was determined anyway. He looked at the clock, 8:28. He’d better hurry, he thought, as he turned slowly to his left, squatted down a little, and tried to grasp the reversed front pocket. He managed to get two fingers on it, but the pain was too great. He rested for a moment, and then retrieved his long-handled grippers. They weren’t intended for what he needed to do, but time was fleeting, and he had to do something.

Holding the handle-end of the gripper in his right hand, he held it up and to the right across his chest so that his left hand could guide the tongs to the left pocket. He then squeezed on the handle with his right hand and grabbed the pocket with the tongs and managed to pull it towards his left hand. Grasping the pocket, he dropped the long-handled gripper, grabbed the scissors in his right hand, and started to cut the bottom out of the pocket. It was 8:36 and he was already feeling a bit dizzy and the scissors were duller than he expected.

By 8:43 he had cut a small hole into his left pocket but realized to his dismay that his heart medication was in his right front pocket. It was his cell phone that he felt sticking out of the left pocket. He continued to widen the opening in the left pocket, but he was getting weaker and dizzier by the minute. He was confused, but still able to choose between getting the phone out and calling next door or start cutting on the right hand pocket. Problem was the long-handled gripper was on the floor and he had no way to get to it. That left only one choice, the phone. It was 8:51 by now and he could feel his legs weakening and his heart beginning to race.

Frantically, he slashed at the left hand pocket with the scissors, opening the hole a bit more, but also cutting his upper thigh. He pressed against the wound with his left hand as much as he could to try to stop the bleeding. It wasn’t helping much, and his hands, pants and pocket were now bloody. At that instant, his phone, slippery from the blood, fell from his pocket onto the floor.

He stared at the clock. It was 9:02 and he knew he only had minutes left. There was only one alternative. He fell to his knees, turned painfully to see where his phone lay, and then flopped down next to it. A searing pain shot through his lower back, almost blacking him out. With his last energy, he reached for his cell phone and tried to dial 911. But the blood on the phone and his hands made that impossible. He tried to wipe it clean, but between his blood loss and his heart problem, he passed out.

His wife had called him several times during the morning and got no answer. She called the police to do a ‘Welfare Check’, knowing that the front door was always unlocked, and waited for their call back.

Twenty minutes later, her phone rang. It was a Sgt. Billings. He told her it looked like her husband had been a victim of a crime inside their home. Somebody had stabbed him and tried to rob him. He told her that she’d better get home, fast. The EMT’s were working on him, he was awake and semi-alert, but not speaking. The Sgt. ended the call by telling her that her husband was a brave man. It looked like he fought back hard.


CSI-Fort Vermillion AB


Both bodies lay face down with blood pooling around the head of the female. Even though it was February, the flies had already picked-up the scent and were swarming like crazy, so he decided to wear his head net before making his examination of the bodies. Years earlier when his was just a technician in New Orleans, he remembered the flies, but nothing like this. He always knew this was going to take some getting used to in Alberta, Canada . . . in February.

His assistant was already kneeling over the male, bagging his hands. She looked up, nodded as he approached, and remarked, “I just took his body temperature, Chief. It’s 101.7 F, same as ambient. Sorry, no help there, I’m afraid.”

He admired her for not being bothered by the flies. It figured since she'd lived here all her life, knew the country, knew how it was changing with the climate, and had adjusted. She joked that she’d never seen a fly until she was nineteen. That was twenty years ago, and he suspected that she’d never seen a sunburn, either. Must be nice, he thought. Sunburn and flies were just about all there was left from where he used to live and work.

He looked over his shoulder and saw his other assistant checking the site for tire tracks, shell casings, cigarettes, and anything else that might indicate what happened here. Sweating profusely, he headed back to his air conditioned van to cool down and think about what probably happened out here.

As he settled into the front seat and closed the door, the cold air hit him and instantly brought back memories of home and Winter. He smiled and remembered as a kid how his mom would bundle him up for school. Jesus, the word ‘cold’ didn’t really mean the same as it used to. He shook his head as he couldn’t remember the last time he had shivered. That was another word nobody used much anymore.

He pulled off his head net and wiped his face with a handkerchief. He looked at the computer and saw that his assistants had already scanned in a lot of information from the scene. Both of the bodies were from Idaho. Different last names, and no wedding bands or rings, but they were together in the same car, with Idaho plates. Female was shot in the back of the head. Male was a likely suicide. Pistol found at scene, recently fired. GSR found on male’s right hand and sleeve. No note.

He leaned back and knew what this was, or at least what it probably was. He’d seen it before, and, in fact, Fort Vermillion was getting a reputation for this kind of thing. Young people fleeing the heat and drought and the chaos down South, thinking that if they drove far enough North, they could find a climate refuge. They get here, it’s Summer all year long, and they got no place else to run. They wait a couple of days to see if things get better. They don’t, even though the sun is only above the horizon for an hour or two a day. They drive out to this place where there are still trees and they end it.

He’d made the same migration years earlier. He knew the science was right even back then and he also saw the wealthy making the same adjustment. Fort Vermillion went from a hamlet with a population of 750 in 2019 to a population of 825,000 in 2042. He got here in 2025 but knew that ‘the Fort’ was not the solution.

And he had no idea where to go next.


Easy Street


His phone rang late one night while he was studying in his dorm room. His college roommate was asleep, so he didn’t think he’d have to leave the room. “Hello?” he answered.

“Son, this is your father calling. Sorry it’s so late, but I have something important to talk to you about. Can you talk without being overheard?

“Sure, Dad, go ahead. What’s up?”

“Your mother and I are in a bit of trouble out here regarding your admission to college. We may have, um, done some things that weren’t exactly legit to help you get into Yale.”

“Dad, from what I hear from my fellow students, there are all sorts of things their parents did to give them a leg up, too. Don’t feel bad. Everybody does it!”

“Well, I’m afraid we went above and beyond, son. Not just run-of-the-mill bribes or fake sports credentials or cheating on entrance exams or things like that. No, your mother and I got into a whole new level of chicanery.”The boy paused before asking the next question, wanting to make sure he didn’t embarrass his father, but also wanting to get to the bottom of what happened. “So, Dad, just what did you and Mom do, anyway? Are you in legal trouble?”

He could hear his father sigh on the other end of the phone, and he figured his father was struggling to find the right words to tell him just what they had done wrong. “Legal trouble, no. But, okay, you know that Yale has a Divinity School, right? Well, we got a tip that your admission would be looked upon favorably if we met with a certain representative from that School, which we did.”

His son processed this last set of information and asked his father to continue.

“Well, we flew out and took a meeting with a certain Mr. Abaddon. He explained that if we simply signed a few documents that you were certain to be enrolled in the upcoming year. We didn’t have our lawyer with us, but we read through them, your mother and I, and then signed them.”

“Sounds innocent enough to me, Dad. What seems to be the problem then?”

“Well, and, uh, this is the tough part, son. Somewhere on page 12 of those papers is a clause in which we, as your parents (you were 17 at the time), signed over your, uh, immortal soul. Believe me, we would never have done it if it was Cal State, but let’s be frank, we’re talking Yale here, son.”

His son laughed but caught himself so as not to embarrass his father unnecessarily. “Oh, Dad, don’t worry about that. You tell Mom that it’s no big deal anymore. Everybody’s doing it. I mean, Goldman Sachs even has a lawyer who comes around and explains everything. How else could some kid right out of school make millions of dollars on Wall Street, anyway? It’s just the way it’s done today. And can you imagine the alternative? Being some schlub in the 99%, grubbing away for pennies all his life. No, Dad, this is the way to go. But thanks for being concerned! Give Mom a big kiss for me. Bye.”

His father put down his phone and looked over at his wife who was knitting in her comfortable chair close to the fireplace. “You lied to him?” she said. “Why not tell him the truth?”

Her husband leaned forward and chose his words very carefully. “You remember how hard we had to work for years to save enough for him to go to Yale? Both of us had two jobs, little time off, and what gratitude did he ever show us, right?”

She nodded knowingly as he continued, “So, yeah, I lied to him a little. He thinks he’s got it made. Life will be just one big glorious party for him as part of the 1%. Let him think that. When he finds out the truth, he’ll be a better person for it.”

“So,” his wife pondered, “Are we ever going to tell him that it was our souls we sold that night in New Haven, not his?”

By that time her husband already had the newspaper in his hands, and he replied with a sly smile on his face, “Oh, look, dear, I won the lottery!”


Leave Somebody Alive, Please


His literary agent lit another cigarette, flipped through the manuscript again, shook his head and observed, “But, Joe, everybody dies in your books. Your publisher is looking for something a little different, okay? Just rewrite it a bit. Leave somebody breathing at the end, please! Don’t be so predictable.”

Joe moved to the edge of his chair, his hands on the agent’s desk. He looked down for a moment, then up, directly into his agent’s eyes, and said, “It’s the way they die that makes the story, Ben. If the publisher can’t see that, then they don’t understand what my stories are about. Maybe we need to approach another publisher, Ben? And can you put that damn cigarette out, please?”

The agent laughed and stubbed out his smoke. He leaned back in his chair, his hands behind his head, and mused, “Okay, what if you rewrite it so that it’s up in the air whether everybody dies or not? Leave it open, just a bit. You know, in the last chapter, in the final climactic scene, leave some doubt in everyone’s mind. Could cause some interesting chatter among the critics, right? See where I’m going with this? The impact would be just about the same as if they all died, but a bit mysterious.” He absentmindedly reached for another cigarette, but stopped short and sheepishly looked back at Joe, asking, “What do you think, Joe? Willing to give an inch?”

By this time, Joe was already running with this new concept in his head. It might just work, he thought to himself. Change a few things, rewrite some dialogue, drop a few hints in earlier chapters. Yeah, it just might work. Besides, he really liked his publisher. So what if somebody lives. Big deal.

For the next hour or so, Joe and Ben ran through a variety of scenarios that might work and that wouldn’t really affect the ultimate impact of the story. Two stood out. He decided to do two rewrites and submit both to his agent to get his opinion which one was best. They agreed that the scenario that created the best mystery within a mystery was the one they’d use.

But after years of killing off every character in every book he’d ever written, Joe found the rewriting process harder than he’d expected. It took him over two weeks at his beach house before he had what he thought were two credible versions. He was pretty proud of the subtlety with which he manipulated the plot to leave just enough doubt in the reader’s mind about who might have survived. He called his agent and told him he was sending over both versions by courier in the morning. For some reason, his agent asked him to make sure that these were the only copies for the time being. Joe thought that was a bit strange but went along with it. Probably had something to do with making sure nothing leaked out before the publisher got ahold of the final version.

He decided to give his agent plenty of time to read both manuscripts, so he waited ten days before calling him to arrange a meeting to discuss which manuscript was the best. The phone was answered by a police detective who abruptly asked him who he was and why he was calling Ben Jacobs. Joe hung up quickly without responding, but knew immediately something was wrong, very wrong. He sat for a while before deciding to call his contact at the publisher.

She answered on the second ring and he blurted out, “Mimi, this is Joe. I just called Ben’s office and the police are there. Any idea what’s going on?”

Breathlessly, Mimi responded, “Oh, God, Joe. It’s terrible. Ben’s parents, his wife and kids were murdered last night, and Ben is missing, and the cops aren’t sure whether he’s dead, too, or still alive. Have you seen him?”

Joe’s mind was swimming with confusion as he mumbled, ‘No, not for ten days. We were working on my new manuscript.”

Mimi, now a bit calmer, added, “Oh, yes, Joe. Ben sent it over about two weeks ago. We love it. We’ll be in contact with you over rewrites, but it’s a perfect follow-up to your other mysteries. Everybody dies, right?”

Joe was really confused now as he hung up. He went to his computer and ‘googled’ the most recent news about the Jacob’s family murders. The facts were sketchy, but there was enough that Joe recognized the elements of the best version of his rewritten manuscript.

One new twist was that the police had thoroughly searched Jacob’s home and office, but their efforts had failed to turn up any manuscripts Jacobs was currently reviewing. They were continuing their search, their thinking being that a manuscript might yield a clue to what happened.

Joe knew why the police hadn’t found the manuscripts. He quickly got up, locked all his doors and windows, closed the blinds, turned on his alarm system, and sat down. Sitting in the dark, his pistol cradled in his lap, he waited for the last scene.

The scene he’d written for the third version, the one Ben didn’t know about.


What's on the Menu, Rupert

Rupert Murdoch just opened his new luncheonette in lower Manhattan last week and this reporter took the opportunity to sample the menu. And was I ever surprised! It was wonderful.

Rupert’s new eatery is politically-themed, so be prepared if you’re a Democrat to be a little surprised because each lunch option is named after a famous Democratic politician.

For instance, there’s the Bernie Sanders inspired “Price is Right Burger.” There are no set ingredients and customers can order from a long list of available choices without regard to his/her needs or abilities. Rupert warns that the ingredients will only be available if the delivery unions or the farmers don’t go on strike. And here’s the best part, it’s free. That’s right, you pay nothing. (But the guy in the booth next to you has to pick up your tab). I loved mine.

Then there’s the Joe Biden-inspired “Snuggle Bunny BLT”. It’s a specialty item just for you guys older guys whose nose is the only sensory organ still working. The sandwich is brought to your table on an elevated tray which is just nose height. It’s not meant to be eaten, just sniffed, nuzzled, and maybe held or even stroked. I can’t vouch for this one, but I could tell that the older gentleman next to me was in absolute heaven with his order!

One of the most popular according to Rupert is the Bill Clinton inspired “One Vote Short of Impeachment Entrée.” It consists of a bun, topped with an unknown cut of meat, slathered in mayonnaise and a secret sauce. It’s served by one of Rupert's small army of attractive female interns who deliver this delicacy to a small separate room off the main luncheonette. And don’t worry guys. Rupert tells me that the interns all wear plastic aprons! Oh, and there’s not enough room for wives.

Another popular choice of Rupert’s customers is the AOC inspired “Green New Deli Sub.” Nobody really knows what’s in it except that Rupert says all the ingredients are ethically sourced and that people are lining up for this one. One of my secret sources tells me that the actual cost of this item is astronomical, and that Rupert is only serving it for tax write-off purposes. Whatever! It was delicious and I plan to go back for another one. I just hope the lights don’t go out like the last time I ordered one!

How about the Elizabeth Warren-inspired ‘In Your Open Face Sandwich’ consisting of tasty piles of savory meats attractively arranged on a shingle?

And finally, my favorite, the Beto O’Rourke- inspired “No Borders Burrito”, a fanciful amalgamation of Mexican chorizo and melted American cheese blended together on a bed of dried weed. Looks substantial, but really isn’t for all you weight watchers.

So, until next week, I remain your faithful reporter keeping an eye on NYC so you don’t have to!


Full Figured

The man in the suit thumbed through a file folder and then looked up at her and asked, “Do you know why you’re here?”

Unsure of herself, nervous and worried, she answered, “Not really, except maybe it has something to do with my college application?”

The strange smile on his face was not what she expected as a silence engulfed the small room while she waited for his response. He turned slowly to the right in his swivel chair, crossed his legs, and looked at a picture he took from the file as he hummed to himself. She couldn’t see the picture from where she sat, so she stayed very still and said nothing.

Finally, he turned to face her and still holding the picture, asked, “On your college application, you said you were a size 24, correct?”

She froze, scared to answer. Now she knew what this was all about. After a moment, she managed to stammer, “Uh, I’m not sure. I had some. . .  help . . . filling out the forms, you know. I just signed them. Not really sure what was in them.”

Again, he smiled that strange smile. He pushed a document across the desk at her and asked, “That’s your signature, right?” She glanced at the form and nodded. Then he placed a photograph on the desk and asked, “And you provided this photograph with your application, correct?” She nodded in agreement, hung her head and started to sob quietly to herself.

The man gathered the documents and the photograph and put them back in their folder. He rose slowly, came out from behind the desk and put his hand on her shoulder. “Just one more thing. Take off your shoes, please, and step on that scale in the corner.” She wiped her eyes, blew her nose, composed herself and followed his instructions.

“Tell me what weight the scale shows,” he asked, standing behind her with a pen and notebook.

She looked down, sighed and answered, “103.”

He wrote something in his notebook as she stepped off the scale and then told her, “You know what this means, don’t you?”

Visibly slumping, she sighed heavily and started to sob again.

The man looked at her and in a steely tone said, “Your deception denied a deserving plus-sized applicant a position at this university.” He paused before continuing, and then added, “But since you’re a junior, you can stay, but you’ll have to pay double tuition going forward and in arrears. Do you understand?”

Nodding, she breathed easy for the first time since entering the small room. As she gathered her things and left the room, she wondered to herself why she ever lied on her application. In retrospect, she had so much else going for her that she probably didn’t really need to lie. She was the perfect applicant with top grades in high school, a national fencing championship, great SAT scores, perfect extra-curricular activities, mixed-race parents, the works.

But if they ever discovered that she lied about being a Democrat, there might be hell to pay.



The War Prisoner

He had risen to the rank of corporal right before his capture by the Americans. Three years earlier, he had been just another German farm boy, proud to fight for the Kaiser and his country. Now, in POW stripes, a cloth hat and thin sandals, he marched with hundreds of other POW’s to the prison camps in the west of France. His fate was uncertain, but he was alive and in one piece. His war was over.

At his interview, the Americans were more interested in his farming background than his military information. He spoke some English and he freely described his experiences with pigs, cows, plowing, seeding and harvesting with his interrogators. One of them was a Captain Wesley who had also been a farmer before the War. Wesley took him aside one day and told him that he was going to be sent to America, but not to worry. He would be treated well and have a good job when he got there.

The ship that took him to America was huge, but he was seldom allowed on deck during the entire ten-day crossing, and then only at night. He lay in his hammock for hours, thinking about his family and their farm back in Germany and what was to become of them. Several of the other POW’s spoke English quite well, so by the time the ship docked in a place called New Jersey, he was speaking English better than ever.

He was quickly separated from most of the other POW’s, and with those few remaining, he boarded a train car whose windows had been blacked out. They were told that they would be restricted to that car and the adjacent bathroom for the next seven days while they moved across the country to an unknown destination. They were also told to speak to the guards only in English, and that they were encouraged to do so.

For the next week, the train moved slowly, stopping infrequently and only for short times. The weather changed remarkably, from cool to very hot. The only view of the world outside the train car was from slits in the blackout curtains. Very different from Germany, he thought. Very flat, dry, and barren. He was puzzled about where they were headed and why.

Finally, on the morning of the eighth day, the train stopped for good and the guards ordered them to the exits. As they slowly emerged and stepped onto the train station’s platform, the first thing they noticed was a sign that declared ‘Welcome to Twin Falls’ and a very small group of people gathered under the sign. The POW’s looked at each other and shrugged. None of them had any idea where they were or who these people were, but they knew enough to stand up straight, smile, and speak English!

As the day went on, it became clear that they were in a place called Idaho, one of America’s western states. And they were there to help out with the local farms whose owners had in many cases gone off to fight the War. A room had been set up where they were shown maps of the immediate area indicating where the farms were to which they would be assigned. He was assigned to the Malcolm Farm, seventeen miles from town, and he would be living with Mrs. Lena Malcolm and her two children. Mr. Malcolm was an artillery sergeant in France and the farm needed an experienced man to help keep it up.

Late that afternoon, he was driven by car to the Malcolm Farm by two Army personnel. He was shackled during the entire trip, but he was fascinated by the landscape they passed. It looked so much like his own country. The Army personnel explained to him that he was going to be on his honor while working at the Malcolm’s. No running away, no shirking, and no hanky-panky, a new word that he was unfamiliar with. They told him that if he left the farm without permission, he could be shot as an escapee. He let them know that he completely understood the situation.

The Malcolm Farm consisted of 640 acres of bottom land alongside a stream. It was partially fenced to keep the cattle out of the cropland. The surrounding landscape was rugged enough in itself to keep the cattle on the rest of the property, which was pasture, and there was not another farmhouse for two miles. Around the barn were pigsties, goat sheds, and chicken coops. Hay was stored inside the barn, and the horses were kept there, too. Looking around, he recognized how run-down this farm had become. It was going to take a lot of work just to get it working again, but that was all he had to do for the foreseeable future.

The farmhouse was a ramshackle affair. Thrown together over a period of time, the only thing that was holding it together was the old roof, he thought, and that needed work, too. Lena Malcolm was out front with her children as he and his Army escort approached. It was clear to him that under the grime and dirty clothes, Mrs. Malcolm was a fine looking woman. He was unshackled and introduced to Lena Malcolm. Her rough hand took his in a handshake, and their eyes met for the first time. She smiled and introduced her children to him. They hugged their mother’s dress, but he bent down and in told them in English that he was glad to meet them both. The girl giggled and the boy stuck out his hand and said ‘howdy.’

The adults laughed and then entered the farmhouse to show him around. He would not be sleeping in the house, but instead in a small cabin about fifty feet out the backdoor near the outhouse. They took him to the cabin with his gear and got him settled before returning to their car and leaving after making sure that he fully understood the situation. He told them not to worry. He wanted to prove his worth.

He slowly walked back to where Lena Malcolm as standing on the farmhouse porch. She indicated for him to come in for a cold drink while they talked about the farm and the work to come. He sat down at the table, and as the children played outside, Lena explained in simple English the problems she was having with the animals and the crops. He nodded his understanding and told her that he could help in those areas. As the sunlight started to fade, she gave him some food and said she would serve breakfast at six o’clock the next morning. He left for the little cabin through the back door and into the beginning of a new and unusual chapter in his life.

For the next year or so, he worked as hard as he ever had getting the Malcolm Farm into shape. With little money, no machinery, and just his hands and wits, he accomplished what Lena Malcolm said was a near miracle. They both just took it a day at a time, one task after another, and the little farm soon blossomed into health. And so did their relationship. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did, and Lena Malcolm gave birth to her second son right there in her living room with her kids watching. There was no doctor, and he helped by strictly following Lena’s grunted instructions.

The end of the War brought a visit by two Army personnel to the little farmhouse. They were there to retrieve him and repatriate him to Germany. He had just a few minutes to collect his things and say goodbye to Lena and the family before he was swiftly driven back to town. He was told that he would be transported back to New Jersey, but that the homebound soldiers, including Mr. Malcolm, had transport priority. So, he had to stay in town for a few days awaiting his train.

The night before he was to board his train to New Jersey, a knock came to his door. Opening it, he saw two Army personnel, and standing behind them was a large fellow he didn’t recognize. The two Army men came into his room and closing the door behind them informed him that Mr. Malcolm had returned two days ago and wanted to see him. It was Mr. Malcolm on the other side of the door, and he knew exactly what probably was going to happen. He took a deep breath and told the Army men to let him in.

Malcolm was not just big, he was huge. He towered over the other three men as he slowly walked into the room. Malcolm walked up to him, and looking down, said, “You the Kraut that worked my farm while I was getting shot at over in France?”

He nodded, and then something strange happened. Malcolm grabbed him and gave him a huge hug. “The pigs are fat, the cattle are healthy, and we have six calves, the goats and chickens are fine, and the crops and pasture are better than ever. You did a great job.”

He smiled as Malcolm continued, “And the boy is fine, too. Just fine.”



The Live One

As the elderly man shuffled into the large office, the Producer shot a glance at the casting agent, who shrugged her shoulders slightly as if to say, “It was the best I could do.”

“Please, have a seat, uh, Mr. Sanders, is it?” the Producer politely asked. 

“Yes, Joe P. Sanders. I see you have my resume and head shots on your desk. I’m prepared to answer any questions about my acting career that you may have. So, go ahead,” the man offered in a slightly raspy voice.

“Well, okay, then, Joe. You have read the script, so I assume you understand what we’re trying to achieve with this film, is that right?”

The old man shifted slightly in his seat as he thought about his reply and then he answered, “The James Bond franchise is nearly over, and everyone knows it. The last two 007 films barely broke even. What you’re planning is an homage to Bond in his twilight years, a last and final episode to his life. And you want to use someone who is actually old to play the part, correct?”

The producer nodded while the elderly man continued, “This old Bond will have the same medical conditions of many of his most ardent fans including arthritis, bad back, cynical attitude, and maybe even some memory loss, if I’ve read the script correctly. Am I close?”

Again, the producer nodded and waited for more from this impressive older actor. “So, when old Bond is pulled out of retirement in his early eighties to save the world, there's the inevitable tension between his diminished abilities and the huge task he is being asked to perform for his country. And that's where the story will take the moviegoer until the very bitter end. Right?”

The producer smiled broadly as he remarked, “Well done. You’ve got the gist of it and I’m impressed with your accent. It’s good. Now, I have a few questions before we go much further, if I may”?

The old actor preempted the Producer by asking, “You mean about the love scenes? Will my heart take it?”

“Well, without putting too fine a point on it, yes,” the Producer added. “You’re no spring chicken, so we have to know if you can pass a rigorous physical exam and you get insured? Bottom line,  we need to know if you're going to survive the process.”

The actor shifted slightly in his seat, glanced over at the casting agent, and asked, “Well, a lot depends upon who you’ve cast as my ‘Bond girl’”

“Ah, that is a good point. As of this morning, that part is down to two actresses. You probably know them both, Glenda Jackson or Shirley MacLaine. Any preferences there, Joe?” the Producer asked in a generous tone.

Joe pondered for a moment before replying, “You want me to do love scenes with either of those two old ladies? That’s a deal breaker. Either get someone in her thirties or I’m out!”

With that, the Producer stood up, put out his hand and stated, “Joe, that’s just the kind of attitude Bond would have, even at eighty-two. Welcome aboard, 007. We’ll get somebody younger for you, but don’t get your hopes up too high. I’m thinking maybe Charlize Theron, but only if your EKG is solid.”

Joe vigorously shook the Producer’s hand and said, “Don’t worry, I’m solid, top to bottom.” Just then his dentures slipped and as he adjusted them, the other two in the room broke into uncontrollable laughter.


Compatibility Mode


She heard the garage door open twenty minutes earlier, but her husband still hadn't come into the house. Wiping her hands on a kitchen towel, she went out the side door and found him sitting in his car, goggles attached to his face. Shaking her head and smiling, she knocked on the driver’s side window, which surprised him. He quickly took off the goggles, gave her an embarrassed grin, and slowly got out of the car. 

“Well, how was it?” she asked as soon as they both got back into the kitchen. “Did they work like they said they would?” 

He sat down and held the goggles in his hands. He didn’t say anything for a bit, just fondled the goggles and smiled. Then he answered, “You wouldn’t believe it! Amazing. I dialed in August 28, 1960 when I left this morning, put these babies on, and it was like I was back there all the way to work!”

“But it’s safe, right? It’s just that the goggles adjust the appearance of things as if it was back in 1960. Like you remember them?” she asked. 

“Exactly. They somehow can tap into my memories and then superimpose them on buildings, cars, people, landscapes, the whole thing. It really was like I was driving to work back in 1960. And it was not just fascinating, but it was relaxing, too. The commute just flew by, and I really looked forward to the drive home, too,” he explained excitedly.

She pressed him a bit more, “What did they do with the Home Depot at the Junction?”

“Okay, let me remember. Oh, yeah, that was a walnut orchard,” he answered. “And the mall near the freeway, that was a fruit stand. Just like back then.”

“What about the people? What did they look like?” she asked.

He paused, smiled, and then answered, “They were all dressed like it was 1960, and they all appeared younger than they really are.”

She just shook her head in wonder and returned to getting dinner ready. Behind her, she sensed he was doing something, so she turned around and saw him with a package. “Surprise. It’s for you, honey. I bought a pair for you. There’s a little DVD that explains how they work.” She was thrilled, hugged him, and took the package and put it in the bedroom.

After dinner, while he watched TV, she unwrapped the package and watched the DVD. It was an amazingly simple device. All you had to do was set it for either People, Surroundings, or All, then set the date. After that, you just placed them on your head, and it took over. It really worked well even in the low light of the house. She couldn’t wait to use them.

It had been a long busy day for both of them, so he went to bed a bit early while she took a shower. She was careful not to make too much noise as she dried herself off, put on her nightgown, turned off the bathroom light, and crept quietly into the bedroom. Even in the dim light, she could see that he was not asleep but instead seated upright in bed, his goggles firmly on his head.

Which was a pleasant surprise because she was wearing hers, too.


Easy Street


His phone rang late one night while he was studying in his dorm room. His college roommate was asleep, so he didn’t think he’d have to leave the room. “Hello?” he answered.

“Son, this is your father calling. Sorry it’s so late but I have something important to talk to you about. Can you talk without being overheard, son?

“Sure, Dad, go ahead. What’s up?”

“Your mother and I are in a bit of trouble out here regarding your admission to college. We may have, um, done some things that weren’t exactly legit to help you get into Yale.”

“Dad, from what I hear from my fellow students, there are all sorts of things their parents did to give them a leg up, too. Don’t feel bad. Everybody does it!”

“Well, I’m afraid we went above and beyond, son. Not just run-of-the-mill bribes or fake sports credentials or cheating on entrance exams or things like that. No, your mother and I got into a whole new level of chicanery.”

The boy paused before asking the next question, wanting to make sure he didn’t embarrass his father, but also wanting to get to the bottom of what happened. “So, Dad, just what did you and Mom do, anyway? Are you in legal trouble?”

He could hear his father sigh on the other end of the phone, and he figured his father was struggling to find the right words to tell him just what they had done wrong. “Legal trouble, no. But, okay, you know that Yale has a Divinity School, right? Well, we got a tip that your admission would be looked upon favorably if we met with a certain representative from that School, which we did.”

His son processed this last set of information and asked his father to continue.

“Well, we flew out and took a meeting with a certain Mr. Abaddon. He explained that if we simply signed a few documents that you were certain to be enrolled in the upcoming year. We didn’t have our lawyer with us, but we read through them, your mother and I, and then signed them.”

“Sounds innocent enough to me, Dad. What seems to be the problem then?”

“Well, and, uh, this is the tough part, son. Somewhere on page 12 of those papers is a clause in which we, as your parents (you were 17 at the time), signed over your, uh, immortal soul. Believe me, we would never have done it if it was Cal State, but let’s be frank, we’re talking Yale here, son.”

His son laughed but caught himself so as not to embarrass his father unnecessarily. “Oh, Dad, don’t worry about that. You tell Mom that it’s no big deal anymore. Everybody’s doing it. I mean, Goldman Sachs even has a lawyer who comes around and explains everything. How else could some kid right out of school make millions of dollars on Wall Street, anyway? It’s just the way it’s done today. And can you imagine the alternative? Being some schlub in the 99%, grubbing away for pennies all his life. No, Dad, this is the way to go. But thanks for being concerned! Give Mom a big kiss for me. Bye.”

His father put down his phone and looked over at his wife who was knitting in her comfortable chair close to the fireplace. “You lied to him?” she said. “Why not tell him the truth?”

Her husband leaned forward and chose his words very carefully. “You remember how hard we had to work for years to save enough for him to go to Yale? Both of us had two jobs, little time off, and what gratitude did he ever show us, right?”

She nodded knowingly as he continued, “So, yeah, I lied to him a little. He thinks he’s got it made. Life will be just one big glorious party for him as part of the 1%. Let him think that. When he finds out the truth, he’ll be a better person for it.”

“So,” his wife pondered, “Are we ever going to tell him that it was our souls we sold that night in New Haven, not his?”

By that time her husband already had the newspaper in his hands, and he replied with a sly smile on his face, “Oh, look, dear, I won the lottery!”


The Cooling Room


The mortician gratefully patted his assistant on the back and commented, “You did a good job assisting me with that accident victim yesterday, Mort. Today I’m going to have you help me with something a bit different, a bit more challenging.”

“Sure, Mr. Wilson, whatever you need,” young Mort Felix replied eagerly.

They both walked together into the processing room where a body was laid out under a sheet. Even in the dim light Mort could see that it was a large man but was unsure why the mortician thought it was going to be a challenge. They had both worked on large cadavers before and it had always been routine. His interest was piqued about why this one would be any different.

“Okay, Mort, remove the sheet and I’ll fill you in on what needs to be done,” the mortician instructed. With that, Mort pulled back the cover revealing a large elderly man of about ninety years of age. He hadn’t been dead long, but other than his length, Mort didn’t see what the challenge would be. Pretty typical situation. Shriveled muscles, sagging and discolored skin, bald, slightly obese. Looked like a routine embalming and cosmetic job to Mort.

The mortician tied on his apron and while pulling on his gloves asked Mort, “You watch many old movies?”

Mort shook his head. “No, Mr. Wilson, I’m like a lot of my kind. I just do social media.”

“Well,” the mortician continued, “if you had been around in the late 20th century, you would have seen a lot of this fellow here. His name was Arnold Schwarzenegger. He made some real blockbusters back in the day.”

Mort started to get interested. “A movie star, huh. What was he known for, anyway, Mr. Wilson?”

“Believe it or not, this decrepit corpse in front of you used to be a world class bodybuilder who made his fortune making action movies. He had an incredible body, and some say he was the most perfect specimen of manhood on the planet for decades. And thus, our challenge, Mort,” Mr. Wilson added. Mort perked up as the mortician concluded, “his family wants an open casket and they want him to appear as he did when he was in his prime. 

Mort whistled softly as Mr. Wilson laid down an array of pictures of the deceased when he was younger. “Whoa,” Mort exclaimed as he scanned the photos, “this is a big order, sir. How much time do we have?”

“We have enough time, but we have to work on this project and this project only until it’s done. It’s going to be expensive and complicated, but when we’re through, he’s going to look like these pictures. And we’ll be known as the funeral home that did it!” the mortician boasted. Mort looked from the body back to the pictures. He slowly whistled again and shook his head. “I guess we’d better get going then, Mr. Wilson!”

They worked through the afternoon and late into the night. They used all their skills and knowledge and all the little tricks of the trade as they painstakingly reconstructed the corpse. Mr. Wilson had amassed fifty pounds of silicone implants, the latest skin cements, inert facial putty, hair weaves and a variety of spray-on cosmetics to complete the process. By seven thirty the next morning, they were finally finished. And their work was stunning! A shining example of the mortician’s highest art.

As they cleaned up, Mr. Wilson chuckled to himself and mumbled something about the irony of it all. Normally, knowing his place, Mort would have let such comments pass without comment, but he moved a bit closer to the mortician and softly asked, “Ironic? Why’s that, sir?”

Mr. Wilson looked over at Mort and smiled. “Well, it’s like this, Mort. That fellow on the table over there made millions acting in movies about robots from the future. You really should watch them sometimes. The first one was the best. It was called “The Terminator.”

Mort continued to wash his hands as he nodded his head in response, “Ah, it’s ironic because I’m an android. Is that it, Mr. Wilson?”

“That’s right, Mort. Say . . . you’re getting pretty good at this conversation thing, you know. Instead of just going back into your closet, why don’t you and I grab a bit of lunch. I think you’re ready to be out with live people. Whatta ya say, Mort?” the mortician suggested. “We can talk shop!”



The Cane March


She considered herself a strong, independent woman, but when her Mom and Dad both died within weeks of each other, it was almost too much. The resulting stress forced her to reevaluate how much she could take from life without giving up. But somehow, she kept going and got through it all. Or at least most of it.

Her parents stayed with her until they died. They brought all their belongings from their home in Utah fully intending to move into a retirement home near where she lived. But their health faltered, and they could only afford minimal care, and when they passed, she was left with a house full of their possessions, stuff that had been accumulated by two people over a lifetime of marriage. Much of it was worth little, with only sentimental value. But she handled it all with the care and attention she felt it deserved. Next to their burial, it was the toughest thing she had to endure.

The bulk of her parents' items were sold through an estate sale, with the rest given away to family and friends, with the exception of photos and keepsakes she decided to keep forever. Even when that process was finished, she still ran across the odd items left behind. Rusty old tools, clothing, musty books, and such. Most of it ended up in the trash. When the house was finally clear of their things, she felt a sense of closure, a cleansing. She had done what was needed and expected and she had done it well. Her friends praised her, and she felt good about herself, but on a day to day basis.

It was on one of those days when she was feeling good about herself that she found the cane. She was prowling through her garage looking for an extension cord when she saw it, hanging in open view. She was stopped in her tracks, astounded. It was her mother’s cane, and somehow, she had missed it in the process of dealing with her parent’s possessions. But how could she have missed it?

She wracked her brain. She had been meticulous in her process. She had gone through the house numerous times. There was no way she could have missed the cane, no way . . . unless.

She began to think that maybe it was her mother’s way of communicating with her from beyond the grave. Could it be? Would this explain the sudden appearance of the cane? Her mother’s cane had special significance because she had given it to her two months before her death and she had it engraved with her mother’s name. They had spent special time together discussing this gift and her mother was especially moved. She felt closer to her mother then than at any other time. They had held the cane together that day 

When she got home from work, she would lie with the cane in the bedroom her mother used before her death and close her eyes. She could feel the energy from the cane, the connection with her mother. Unmistakable. Somehow the cane was connecting her with her mother and allowing her to relive those precious close moments they had together before her death.

She spent more time at home with the cane than she should have. Her job suffered, and she was warned by her supervisor. But she couldn’t give up the sense that she was connected through the cane to her mother. She ultimately was let go from her job, but she couldn’t stop obsessing about the cane. The cane became her life.

She made a special place in the house for the cane. She surrounded it with the keepsakes she had retained, and it became a shrine of sorts. Her friends were concerned and worried, but she assured them that her connections with her mother was more important than anything else. At some point, she asked her friends to leave and not return. And she was alone in the house with the cane.

For weeks she was isolated with just herself and the cane. She ordered out, took no calls, and never answered the door. Her conversations with her mother dominated her life and she was never more emotionally involved. She and her mother finally were able to complete their relationship.

One Tuesday, her doorbell rang. For some reason, she put down the cane, crawled out of bed, and answered it. As she opened the door, she shielded her eyes from the unaccustomed light and saw her neighbor standing on the doorstep, smiling 

“Hi, I just stopped by to ask if you’d seen my cane. I left it here a couple of weeks ago when you were selling your Dad’s tools. It has my name on it.”


Talking to Dogs


It caught him by surprise when he first saw it. How he had not noticed it before mystified him because it was fairly obvious and was probably happening all the time.

He was at the stoplight about a block away from the middle school with his two kids in the back of his Volvo., He glanced over at the driver stopped next to him for some reason and he caught her smiling and talking and looking down to her right towards the passenger seat. He knew she wasn’t talking to her kids because they were in the back seat with their headphones on and intently watching their phones. He leaned against his seat belt to see just who or what she was talking to. A small nose attached to a white snout came into view. She was having a one-way conversation with her dog.

He quickly straightened back up into his driver’s seat, but then couldn’t help himself. He looked at the other cars stopped next to him. Sure enough, several of the drivers were also talking to their dogs. Then the light turned green and everybody was ‘eyes front’ and driving away. But he found it fascinating that for that short period of time when stopped at the light, many of them took the opportunity to talk to their dogs.

It dawned on him that people felt safe in their cars and knew that they could say almost anything they wanted while driving. It was the perfect environment to do something they probably wouldn’t do while shopping at Macy’s, for instance. They conversed with their dogs unapologetically in the privacy of their cars.

He wondered why it was fine to talk to your children in public, but not your dogs. Sure, people talked to their dogs in public, but they didn’t have conversations with them. It was much more basic. Sit, No, Down Boy, Good Girl. But in their cars, when ‘nobody was watching’, things were different. You’re such a good girl, I just love you so much. We’ll go walking later, okay? You’re so smart.

He was amazed by the huge dog food industry, the extensive vet network, all the cable shows, and the billion dollar doggie accessory business. He knew about the commonly held theory that Man domesticated the dog for his own purposes. 

But, maybe, just maybe, he thought, it was the other way around.


Letting Go


They read separate sections of the morning paper as they sat at the kitchen table eating breakfast. He had the sports page and was grousing under his breath about those damn Patriots while she enjoyed the local news. 

As he poured himself another cup of coffee, she excitedly remarked, “Oh my God, you know who just died? It’s right here in the obituaries! Walt Johnson!”

He quickly put down his newspaper and growled, “Good, I always hated that son of a bitch. Remember when he and that useless wife of his screwed us on that business deal? Serves ‘em right.”

She tried to calm him by saying, “That was a long time ago, honey. Let bygones be bygones, okay. You don’t have to go to the service, but you should really put those feelings to bed. It’s not healthy to hold that anger in.”

He leaned forward and asked her, “You heard all the rumors about him and other women, right?” 

Not wanting to continue this conversation, she looked at her watch and said, “Oh, look at the time. I’ll be late for work if I don’t get going right away.” 

He nodded and then asked, “By the way, when’s the funeral?”

She looked back at the obituary, found the date, the time and the place and told him. She watched him turn quiet, as if he was pondering something. Then he surprised her by asking, “Does your friend Susan still run that talent agency?”

She nodded and commented, “That was out of the blue. What are you up to, anyway?”

He got up slowly, said, “Never mind. Just get me her number, will you please. And we’re going to the funeral.” With that, he left the kitchen and went upstairs to dress for work.

Two weeks later, they were both seated in the rear of the chapel as the funeral service started. She was seated introspectively next to him, but he was scanning the large crowd seated in front of them. She thought he seemed to be counting, or at least looking for something specific.

And he was. He had asked the talent agency for a dozen tall, young and attractive women. They were to be dressed in black, to be scattered throughout the chapel audience, and to weep quietly throughout the service.

Satisfied that his ‘order’ had been placed, he was also pleased to see the widow turn from her position in the front row and look back from time to time at the assembly of crying women whom she didn’t recognize.




The court-appointed psychiatrist sat down next to her patient and quietly asked, “Jim, do you know what day it is today?”

He nodded and answered, “Sure. It’s Tuesday the 24th, Doc.”

“Good. Okay, how about who the President is?” she asked, smiling.

“That’s easy. Trump,” he answered unhesitatingly.

She then asked, “Now, do you know why you’re here with me?”

“Of course. I told my neighbor that he was going to die on November 24th. He got scared, called the cops, and I got arrested for making a terroristic threat,” he responded. “So, the court sent me to you to find out if I’m nuts, right?”

She scooted her office chair over to get a bit closer to him and asked, “Let’s focus on what you told your neighbor, okay. Why did you tell him he was going to die? Was that a threat because you were having a dispute with him about a tree on your property?”

Jim hesitated before answering, and then responded, “It had nothing to do with that tree thing. That’s completely different. I told him he was going to die on November 24th because that’s what’s going to happen. I just know it. I might even know when you’re going to die, Doc?”

She moved her head slightly upon hearing his last remark, but then caught herself so as not to encourage this kind of response. “You are saying that you somehow know what day your neighbor is going to die, correct? How do you know?”

Jim shook his head slightly, then answered, “I’m not sure. These dates have just come to me ever since I hit my head in the garage last summer.” He let that sink in, then added, “But I don’t make a habit of telling people, you know. My neighbor was the first person I’ve told. He pissed me off, so I just told him.”

“So you didn’t intend to kill your neighbor on November 24th. You’re just passing on information from some unknown source, is that it?” she asked.

“Yeah. I have a list of people and death dates that have come to me since my injury. I didn’t give it to the police, but here it is,” he said, reaching into his pants pocket and handing a crumpled piece of paper over to the psychiatrist.

She spread it out on her lap and read for a moment. Then, looking up, she asked, “Some of this is a little hard to read, but it looks like a list of penciled names and dates, with check marks. Can you elaborate a bit more, Jim?”

“Sure. When a name and date comes to me, I write it on the list, and when that person dies on that date, I put a check mark next to it. Pretty simple,” he commented.

“Well, Jim, how is one to know that you didn’t just come up with this list after you were arrested? You know, as a way of fabricating a diminished capacity defense,” she pointedly asked.

“Not all the names and dates are checked. That’s because they’re still alive. Did you see the name at the bottom? I know it’s a little hard to read,” he replied.

She flattened out the paper a bit more and held it close to her face. “Why, that’s my name and tomorrow’s date?” Just then her mobile phone vibrated, and she saw that it was a text from Detective Martin. It was short and to the point, “Your patient’s next door neighbor died an hour ago, just like he said he would. Heart attack. I thought this might be important.”

She quickly sent “Thanks” and calmly placed her phone down, but she could feel her heart beating faster and her anxiety level rising quickly. Looking at Jim, she could hear him saying matter of factly, “That’s about my neighbor, right? I need to make another check mark, I guess.”

She quickly got ahold of her emotions and asked, “But, Jim, you only told your neighbor because he made you mad. But now you’ve told me by giving me this list. Why? Did I make you mad?”

Jim smiled and replied, “Good point, Doc. Maybe if you tell the court I’m not responsible for what happened, I might just take you off the list!” He paused to see her reaction, and then added, “Whatta you say, Doc? Can I erase your name and date, or do you want to wait and find out? Your call.”




His doctor washed his hands in the examination room sink as George quietly got dressed. Drying his hands, the physician commented, “Well, George, you have to start losing weight. Your blood pressure and blood sugar levels alone are worrisome enough, but I’m also concerned about your heart.”

George had heard this all before and replied, “I’ve tried dieting, Doctor. Believe me. But you know the results.”

The doctors smiled and took something from a nearby cabinet. “Okay, but today we’re going to try something different, George. It’s the latest in wearable medical devices. Here, let me show you how this works.”

What George was shown was a remarkable device. It slipped on like a sock and was worn all the time for a month except when bathing or swimming. It collected a mass of biomedical information from its wearer and transmitted this data to a smartphone app. What was of special interest to George was that it continuously and accurately monitored his weight. And this was exactly what George needed. Something to help him corral his impulses and keep him on track.

He took home the free sample, watched the CD that accompanied it  and activated his new ‘sock.’ It was truly amazing. When he ate breakfast that morning, his weight changed. As he went through the day, his weight changed. If he drank a cup of coffee, his weight changed. If he put on his jacket or took it off, his weight didn’t change. How did it know?

And it tracked dozens of other key health factors and graphed them all on his phone. It was truly a medical breakthrough, but one that was so complex that George knew he would never fully understand it. After the first month, George was hooked, and purchased a year’s supply of ‘socks’, and he joined a Support Group of other patients of his doctor who were also wearing the ‘sock’.

The Support Group was a bunch of older, obese patients who had a lot of serious medical problems. The ‘sock’ was a life preserver to them and they all knew it. They grasped its power to help them heal themselves and they flung themselves full-force into learning how to use the app. They met each week on Friday night and discussed in depth their experiences with the device. George could feel the enthusiasm rise each week as the Support Group more thoroughly understood the device’s capabilities.

On the fifth meeting, someone asked about the series of red lights that were appearing at the bottom of her app. “See,” she said, passing her smartphone around the group, “there are three little red lights at the very bottom of my app. Dim. Hard to see. Anybody else have these?”

Nobody else had any red lights, which standing alone meant nothing to the group. They discussed what the red lights might mean but came to no clear conclusion. George was curious by nature, and he rewatched the CD when he got home that night but saw nothing that explained the row of red lights on the app. On Thursday, he was called by the leader of the Support Group and was informed that Linda, the woman who first brought up the red light issue, had died that morning. She was found by another member of the group, her smartphone was in her hand, and it showed five little red lights at the very bottom of her app. The leader of the group suggested that they convene an emergency meeting for that night, Thursday, to discuss this new information.

The mood of the group was solemn that night. Everyone had their phones out and were hunched down in their chairs staring at them. Martin was the first to hold up his phone and say, “I just got a red light. Anybody else?” Everyone shook their heads slowly. George was the first to respond when he stated, “I think our doctor has to be asked what this red light thing is and fast!” The group agreed and appointed George as the point man to make the contact with their doctor, which he did early the next morning.

His doctor was calm and reassuring the next day. “I can assure you, George, that the red lights had absolutely nothing to do with Linda’s death. She had a heart attack. It could have happened at any time given the state of her health. Regarding the red lights, the device developer indicates to me that it is just a diagnostic tool in ‘beta testing’ at this time and only useful to the developers. It’s a techie thing. Not to worry.”

George passed this information on to the group leader, who thanked him, but also informed him that Martin now had three small red lights on his app. And further, Martin’s previously scheduled knee replacement surgery was postponed by the HMO that morning. He’ll now have to wait another month for the surgery. Coincidence? Or something more significant?

George was bothered by the accumulating ‘coincidences’. His brother-in-law was a tech nerd of sorts and he knew he had some equipment that could look at the code written into the chip on the ‘sock’. His brother-in-law was fascinated by the challenge and took a day and a half before he got back to George with his ideas.

“Okay, I read the source code. Sophisticated. But the red lights are driven by a subroutine titled ‘LSI’. That’s it. It looks like ‘LSI’ accumulates all the incoming medical data the device is getting and feeds it into a large algorithm whose outgoing data drives the number of red lights. All I can tell you is that the most you get is five red lights,” his brother-in-law reported. “I don’t know what ‘LSI’ stands for or what the algorithm calculates. Hope this helps you, George. Oh, and George, they have gone to great lengths to conceal what ‘LSI’ does. But I can tell you that what your doctor was told was total bullshit.”

George pondered telling the group about what he had just discovered. But he hesitated, knowing that it would just further confuse an already disturbed and confused group of people. What really bothered him was that the developer had probably lied to the doctor. And that the number of red lights might have something to do with Linda’s death and the postponement of Martin’s knee surgery. His phone rang and it was the group leader. “Martin is in the ICU. His wife is with him. Doesn’t look good. She said his app had five red lights showing.” George thanked him, told him nothing of what he knew about ‘LSI’, and closed the connection. But he now knew there was a definite connection between five red lights on an app and the death or imminent death of a patient.

He took a quick look at his app and was horrified to see two red lights. His app also showed that his blood pressure and heart rate were quite elevated and that his heart function was slightly impaired. He quickly called his doctor and  set up an emergency appointment and headed for the clinic with his smartphone on the car seat beside him. Halfway to the clinic, the third red light popped up, and as he pulled into the clinic parking lot, the fourth red light appeared.

George staggered into the reception area with his phone in his hand. His doctor and assistant helped take George to the examination room where the doctor quickly determined that George was in cardiac arrest. Before any further assistance could be rendered, George passed away on the examination table and was declared dead by his physician.

An hour later, after completing his report on George’s death, the doctor brought up George’s app on his office computer. The five red lights were clearly showing on the doctor’s screen under the label, ‘Life Span Indicator’. He made sure the data was forwarded to the developers and then erased the ‘LSI’ input from George’s file. The doctor wasn’t sure how the developers could so accurately predict the death of a ‘sock’ wearer, but he knew that it was saving the HMO millions. Postponement of surgery savings  were probably going to top five million dollars this month alone.


Barrel Aged


He never entered a saloon without first looking over the swinging doors.  It was a lesson learned the hard way in Tascosa ten years earlier and he was lucky to have survived the experience. The shoulder wound still bothered him and probably always would. He wasn’t too bothered about the man he killed that day, though. He just hoped that today would turn out better.

As he entered the saloon, he saw the Sheriff seated at a table near the bar. The deputy was at another table nearby guarding the prisoner who was manacled to a post. The Sheriff blew the dust from two shot glasses, poured two whiskeys and motioned for him to sit down next to him. The bar was empty except for the two lawmen, the prisoner, and the bartender. And the dog in the corner.

 “You got my telegram?” the Sheriff asked him.

“Yep,” he answered. “I got some questions, though.” He slowly sat down across from the Sheriff and put his boots up on the table. He faced the door; it was just a habit.

 “I figured you would,” the Sheriff responded as he quickly downed his whiskey and poured another one.

“Why not just put him on the 3:10 to Yuma? Why go to all the trouble of having me escort him to Ruidoso?” he asked the Sheriff.

“Well, we tried that with another prisoner last year. Didn’t work out too well, as you might recall,” the Sheriff answered.

“Yeah. So I take your prisoner to Ruidoso and theygive him a fair trial, followed by a first-class hanging!" he said. “That sound about right?”

The sheriff looked over at the prisoner who was listening to everything closely. “That’s about right, Yancey,” he answered. “There’s three hundred in gold in it for you if you finish the job. What do you say?”

“What about his horse and rig? I want them, too,” Yancey demanded.

The Sheriff slowly poured himself another whiskey and drank half of it before answering. “You drive a hard bargain. But, okay, you get the horse and rig, too.”

“And the rights to the story, too. I don’t want you or that deputy of yours selling my story out from underneath me, you understand? Could be worth a lot of money someday. I’ll need a written release,” Yancey added, his eyes squinting hard as he looked directly at the Sheriff.

The Sheriff indicated to the bartender to bring another bottle and to go get the town lawyer and be quick about it. “Anything else, Yancey?”

“Yeah, I’ll need medical coverage in case I get hurt. Can you handle that? No deductible, no co-pays. Gold plated. Understand?” Yancey demanded.

“Sure, no problem,” the Sheriff responded. “How about disability insurance? You want that thrown in, too?”

“Sounds about right. And my agent’s commission. Don’t forget that. Ten percent. Will that be a problem?” Yancey asked.

The Sheriff shook his head. “Anything else?”

Yancey thought for a moment and then added, “I’m going to need an indemnification agreement. You know, in case something happens to dipshit over there on the way to Ruidoso. I got sued once by some lawyer in Nevada for ‘negligence’ in handling a prisoner. Cost me plenty.”

The Sheriff chuckled and said, “I heard about that. Okay, no problem.”

Yancey swung his boots off the chair and onto the floor. He slowly stood up, his tall lanky torso casting a shadow onto the Sheriff still seated at the table. He put both hands on his six guns and said menacingly, “One more thing, Sheriff. You or that idiot deputy of yours get any ideas of trailing me to learn how I do my job, better think again. I’ll have you in court so fast for ‘Invasion of Privacy’ it’ll make your head spin.” He leaned forward, put both hands on the table and said, “You got that, Sheriff!”

The Sheriff nodded and looked at his deputy who nodded, too. This was not their first rodeo.





It had been a very long night and the press secretary hadn’t had a chance to shave as he approached the podium to address an emboldened media. He pulled a sheaf of papers from his jacket pocket, adjusted the microphone, looked out over the assembled correspondents and in a tired voice, stated, “Okay, I’ll take some questions. Mabel, you go first.”

“Sir, how do you explain the numbers? This recent election must have come as a huge disappointment to your boss, right?”

“They wanted it more than we did,” he answered flatly. He pointed to a young man in the rear, said, “John? You’re up.” John nervously asked, “Does this mean your boss won’t run for reelection?”

He paused as if to think about his answer, then responded, “He won't retire until he gets that ring”. He pointed to an older woman in the third row. “Gina? Your question?”

“Some say this is the sunsetting of the GOP. Any comment?”

“We've still got plenty of game left,” he answered coldly.

An older man in the front row yelled out his question without being acknowledged, “You were expecting a tie, weren’t you? What do you say to your base about this devastating one-sided loss?

“A tie is like kissing your sister,” he answered quickly. “But, let’s be honest, we're still missing a few pieces to the puzzle.”

A sea of frantic hands shot up. He pointed to someone whose name he didn’t know. “You, state your paper and ask your question?”

“Rose Martin, Nevada Star. Some have speculated that your boss is very disappointed in his Vice-President. Do you foresee any changes in that area?”

“We need someone who can take us to the next level. Everyone has to be held accountable. We're going to right the ship. We're going to get things turned around. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

The hands all lowered as the journalists all looked around in frustration. Finally, one of their senior correspondents yelled out, “What are your plans now?”

The press secretary quickly answered, “I plan to spend some time with my family. Any more questions?” No hands went up and with that, the press secretary ended the press conference.

Two of the younger correspondents turned to a grizzled veteran as the group shuffled towards the exits. “What did that guy do before he was press secretary?”

The old reporter lit another cigarette, looked up through the smoke and answered, “ESPN.”    



Shelter in Place


Joyce toyed with her glass of wine as she gazed out the restaurant’s window. She was somewhat lost in thought as Linda, her dinner companion, asked, “A penny for your thoughts.”

Sighing, Joyce turned back from the window and replied, “I’m not going to the Stephenson’s party on Friday!”

“Babe, why not? It’s going to be a blast. C’mon, what’s the problem?” Linda asked in a worried tone.

“It’s the politics of it all, Linda. God, I can’t stomach their political rants. It’s too much, and when you try to fight back with reason, they just dig in more, you know,” Joyce responded dejectedly 

“Look, I get it. Bill and I don’t socialize much anymore for the same reason. Jesus, the battle lines are drawn, and the swords are out everywhere. We haven’t partied with anybody in months. But the Stephenson’s, really?” Linda remarked.

“Yeah, I know. They were always a pillar of rationalism. But they’ve gone to the dark side, too. Mark and I don’t know who to trust anymore. We’re pulling out socially, too. Retreating to the safety of isolation. God, remember when it was fun?” Joyce lamented.

Linda continued, “Even at work, you have to be very careful what you say. And forget church gatherings or book clubs. The slightest remark can send people over the top.”

Joyce motioned to the waiter for the check as she added, “Our kids came home from college last week, and none of us have had a civil conversation since. You can’t believe some of the things that they are being taught. Mark and I have agreed just to keep it very superficial until they leave. You know, ‘how’s your day going’ and stuff like that.”

“Yeah, I get it. My daughter didn’t even bother to come home this year. Something about ‘what’s the point?’”, Linda added.

“You know, I was at the grocery store yesterday buying some Oregon Pinot, and some woman who I don’t know called me on it. Can you imagine? She called me a ‘Pinko Bitch’ under her breath. And the checkout person just laughed. I’m going to start ordering groceries online from now one,” Joyce angrily announced.

The waiter arrived and asked if they wanted anything else. They said ‘No’ and he gave them the bill. When Joyce got the credit card receipt to sign, she noticed that it had been annotated ‘Libs’ by the server.

Not coming back here again, she muttered under her breath.


Pain and Suffering


The surgeon, still in his operating gown, strode proudly to the podium, adjusted the microphone, looked out over the assembled press gathering and confidently announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have good news. Rama Baj Babba is out of surgery, in the recovery room, and is expected to make a full and rapid recovery. Questions?” 

The senior correspondent from CNN asked, “Is it true, Doctor, that no anesthesia and, in fact, no pain killers were used during his surgery? There were rumors.”

The physician smiled broadly and responded, “Normally, I would not comment on the details of a surgery, but RBB has agreed to let the press in on such details. To answer your question, yes, neither anesthesia nor painkillers were used today. And none in recovery, either. Next question?”

“A follow-up question, sir. If RBB required no pain killers, why did he need knee surgery in the first place?” the reporter inquired.

“Well,” the physician replied, “he kept falling down due to the deterioration of his knee. It was getting to be a problem, particularly with his worldwide spiritual activities. Next question, please?”

A young reporter from the Times asked, “In a nutshell, Doctor, how was RBB able to do this? I mean, the physical pain must have been incredible during the operation, right?”

“All I can tell you,” the physician answered, “was what RBB told me himself. He is able to separate his pain from his observance of the pain. It is in this latter aspect, his relationship with the pain, that RBB is different from the rest of us. His mindfulness practice has removed pain’s power over him. The pain is still there, but he has been able to reduce his suffering to almost nothing. It’s really quite amazing. Next and last question, please?”

“Doctor, we’re only a short distance from RBB’s recovery room, and, well, pardon my frankness, but it seems like he’s yelling quite a bit. We all can hear it. How do you relate what we’re hearing with what you just stated?”

The physician paused for a moment as if pondering his next comment, and then leaned forward, and spoke slowly into the microphone, “Some things are more difficult to conquer, I’m afraid. We’ve had to tell RBB he can’t have any Starbucks for a few days. It’s become a bit on any issue, as you can obviously hear.”


Night Visitors


The phone on his bedside table chirped softly. On the seventh ring, he groaned, rolled over, looked at the clock, and answered, “Yes, what is it?”

“Sir, it’s Filburt at the front desk. Sorry to wake you at this hour, but I have a situation here that needs your guidance.”

“Very well, Filburt, give it to me, but please be quick about it!”

“Well, sir, I have a middle-aged couple who are seeking shelter, and . . . .”

“For God’s sake, Filburt, that’s what we do. We provide shelter as long as our customers can pay and are married. Now, unless there’s more, I need to go back to sleep?”

“Well, yes, sir. There’s more. They are frightfully filthy, their clothes are ragged, and they smell very bad. You can see why I . . .”

“Filburt! Give them a room with a bath and I’m sure they’ll look and smell much better. Really, Filburt, is there anything else?”

“Uh, sir, they have no luggage, and while they are married, they don’t actually want a room. They have no money, and just want to stay out back by the pool, under the pavillion, out of the weather.”

“Good Lord, Filburt. We’re not a crash pad, you know! Send them along their way and don’t bother me again, you hear!”

“But, sir, the woman. She’s quite pregnant and she’s exhausted. Isn’t there something we can do, sir?”

There was a moment of silence on the phone, and then the manager spoke forcefully, “Filburt, I bet you were going to tell me they came in on a donkey, too, right?”

“Well, sir, now that you mention it, yes, there is an animal involved, too.”

“Filburt, can’t you see what’s going on. It’s so obvious. It’s Christmas eve, and some media outlet like TMZ or some atheist organization is trying to pull a prank on our little hotel. If we fall for this, we’ll be on the front page tomorrow and the laughing stock of the industry. Stay on the phone, send them packing, and then let me know when they’re gone.”

The manager could hear muffled discussion over the phone, and after a minute or so,  Filburt’s voice came back on. “Sir, they are leaving now. She’s on the donkey and he’s leading them down the street. The night is quite clear and the starlight overhead is remarkably bright. I’m sure they’re gone for good. Sorry to bother you, sir.”

The manager hung up and lay face-up in bed for a few moments. As he started to drift off, the phone rang again. He picked it up and gruffly said, “What now?”

“Sorry to bother you sir, but there are three older gentlemen here now who are inquiring about the couple on the donkey.”

“Filburt, didn’t we just discuss this. This is all part of the same prank. I bet they are all bearded, bearing gifts, and dressed in ornate robes, right?”

“Well, yes, sir. I just wanted to . . . “

“For Christ’s sake, Filburt. Send them packing now! And don’t call me again tonight. I have to get up for the early Christmas service tomorrow, and I don’t want to be exhausted. Do you understand me, Filburt! No more calls!”


Taking Roll


It was the children’s first day in First Grade in Mrs. Olsen’s classroom. Like the western Georgia county in which they lived, this group of kids was diverse and about equally split between girls and boys. And they were lucky because Mrs. Olsen had taught school for over thirty years and she was a kind, fair, and compassionate teacher. And most of all, she was patient and even-keeled. Everyone knew that Mrs. Olsen was a rock.

“Welcome, children. I’m Mrs. Olsen, your new teacher. This is First Grade, and you are all assigned to your seats for this entire year, 2025. I will now take the roll so please listen closely and respond with ‘Here, Mrs. Olsen’ when you hear your name,” she patiently explained to her brood.

“Janey Arnesson?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“Lionel Belchick, Jr.?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“LaKeisha Bremmer?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“MAGA Christiansen?’

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“HopeyChangey Clark?”

There was a titter from the group, with several students looking around and some stifling laughter.

‘“Now, students. Be respectful. Hopeychangey Clark?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“Lockherup Drummond?”

Again, the class laughed.

“Class, I won’t tolerate this anymore. A person’s name is his or her name. We must respect that. Now, Lockherup Drummond?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“Lance Erickson?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

The rest of the process was uneventful until Mrs. Olsen got to the last name. She did a double-take at the name and started to chuckle. She quickly caught herself, placed her hand over her mouth, and prepared to continue, but was quickly overcome by an uncontrollable fit of  laughter.

The students didn’t know what to make of their teacher’s behavior. Their mentor, their role model, was doubled-over in front of the class in complete and uncontrollable hysterics. They looked at each other and then around the room until their eyes settled on the only student whose name had not been called. She was seated calmly, her hands firmly on her desk, looking straight ahead with no expression on her face.

The boy in back of her tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “What’s your name, anyway?” 

Without changing her expression, and still looking straight ahead, she proudly announced, “I’m Buildthatwall Wilson.” 


A Brief History of Chores


He stuck his head into the next room, saw his son playing with his slide rule on the sofa, and asked, "Can you give me a hand in the yard, son? We've got a lot of work to do, right?"

The son, without looking up from his slide rule, casually asked, "Dad, do you know how old the universe is?"

His father, taken aback a bit by his son's response, decided to enter the room. Instead of insisting on the son getting up and doing his chores, he answered patiently, "Well, I think they've settled on about 14.35 billion years, give or take. Why?"

His son, still not looking up, continued, "Oh, nothing, Dad. And during all that time, stars were created and exploded, creating 'stardust', the stuff we're made of, correct?"

"Yes. The very elements thrown-off by exploding stars became the building blocks of our earth and all living things in it," his father answered, getting a bit perturbed. "Is there a point to all this? We've got a lot of work to do?"

"And the earth. How long has it been in existence, Dad?" his son asked.

"About 4 billion years. And life began on earth about 3 billion years ago. And two plus two still equals four, so get your bum off the couch now! Enough of this 'Twenty Questions'," his exasperated father answered, his voice a bit louder than before.

"Just one more question, Dad. How much longer will the Universe continue to exist? When will it probably end?" the son asked, finally looking up at this father.

"Well, the best guess is that it will end just about the time our own sun dies. But that's billions and billions of years away. We still have to rake the leaves in the yard! Let's go," his father responded, holding the front door open and motioning with his hand.

As the son put down his slide rule and got up off the sofa, he muttered to himself, "There must be some way the Universe gets reborn. There must be."

His father stood in the doorway, his hands on his hips, impatiently waiting for his son. "Stephen, you're just going to find yourself in a 'black hole' of nothingness with all these open-ended questions."

The little six-year old, lost in thought, continued to mutter to himself, "Dad, that's interesting what you just said. 'Black hole,' yes, interesting."

"Well, Stephen, let's get to those leaves," Mr. Hawking said, his arm on his son's shoulder. "They're not going to rake themselves!"

"Ah," his son answered thoughtfully, "probably not, but what if time were to . . . "

"Stephen," his father barked, "just grab the rake! Please."



Pickled Beets


"Have you heard the story about your grandpa and his pickled beets?" the boy’s father asked as the two sat on the porch looking out on the front pasture. The boy shook his head even though he’d heard the story many times before. He knew his Dad just wanted to tell the story again to somebody. It was his turn tonight. Again.

"Well, there’s an old root cellar under the tool room, "his father continued. "You know, in the back of the farmhouse," his father said, indicating with a flick of his head. "You’ve seen the double doors that are part of the floor back there. They lead down to the root cellar. We don’t go down there anymore. Rats."

The boy feigned interest as his father continued. "So, your grandma used to can every summer. She’d can just about everything they grew . . .  beans, corn, cucumbers, the works. And of course, beets. She pickled them and the cucumbers." His father stood up and stretched, then said, "I remember her slaving away over that old wood stove back in there many a morning. But those canned goods kept us in vegetables throughout the winter. That’s the way it was back then."

Sitting down again, the boy’s father lit his pipe and puffed for a while. The boy knew the story word for word and understood just what was coming next. He looked at his watch, sighed to himself, and waited. His father turned to him and started the rest of the story, "Grandpa and grandma would take the cooled canned goods down to the root cellar and put them on shelves. By the time they were finished, those shelves were jammed with jars, each one dated and labeled."

Here it comes, the boy said to himself. The surprise, the part of the story that Dad loved the most. The boy knew this part by heart and understood just when to smile and express amazement, even though he had to fake it. No use in spoiling his father’s fun.

"Okay, so grandma’s part was done, but my Dad, his part was just beginning," his father chuckled. "Now, you won’t believe this, but he’d take his fiddle down there every day and play for an hour, sometimes more. He swore it sped-up the pickling process, especially for the beets!" his father laughed. His son brought his hands to his mouth and exclaimed, "No, really?"

"Yes, really. And grandma and me would be in the kitchen with the double doors closed and we could just barely make out the muffled music coming from down there. Fiddlin’ and picklin’, she’d say," his father concluded, a faraway look coming over his face.

The boy knew this was the end of the story but that he should stay seated for a few minutes until his father snapped-out of his reverie. He speculated that his Dad was listening to a distant memory of fiddle music in his head and holding on to that as long as he could. It was creepy watching his Dad’s reaction the first few times he’d heard the story. But now it was routine, and he just sat patiently until the strange look on his Dad’s face faded away.

As his father relit his pipe, the boy knew he could leave the porch now and go into the farmhouse. Story time for him was over for tonight. He carefully got out of his chair and headed for the screen door, but not before taking a look back at his father. Just then, the screen door opened, and his sister walked out onto the porch.

"How is he tonight? The same?" she asked her brother.

The boy nodded and then whispered in her ear, "You know what to do. Just sit down and wait for him to tell you the story. Just like always. I know it’s hard, but . . . "

The girl nodded knowingly and quietly moved towards her father and the empty chair next to him. As she sat down, her father looked over to her, smiled, and said, "Have you heard the story about your grandpa and his pickled beets?" She shook her head, looked at her watch, and waited. It was her turn.

She remembered vividly what her grandma had told her before she died. "It was the fiddlin’.  It pickled our brains!"


Family Night


“You’re not going out tonight in that get-up, young lady,” her mother announced angrily.

“It’s not a get-up, mom, it’s a costume. And c’mon, it’s Halloween, everybody is dressing up”, the daughter pleaded.

Her mother paused for a moment before saying, “Alright, but you can’t be showing so much . . . skin. It’s just dangerous out there with all the perverts and such. Tone it down some, okay. Don’t encourage the weird ones. Believe me, I’ve known a few in my time!”

“Okay, mom. I’ll wear a t-shirt without all the rips in it, and I’ll wear jeans instead of these short-shorts. Is my makeup too much, or can I keep that?” her daughter answered in a tone she thought her mother would appreciate.

Her mother moved nearer to her and looked closely at her makeup. She held her daughter’s chin in her hand as she moved her daughter’s head from side to side. “No, your makeup is probably fine with one slight change. I’m a little worried about the fangs. They tend to show up against your white makeup. Do you think you could maybe tone down the whiteness a bit? Hmmm?”

The daughter laughed and said, “If I could see myself in a mirror maybe I’d know what you’re talking about, yah know?” She hugged her mom and headed up to her room to make the necessary wardrobe and makeup changes.

Just then her husband returned from the basement where he’d been resting. “What’s up, I heard voices?” he asked.

His wife sat down and indicated that he should sit next to her. As he sat down, he looked at her and said, “Is there something wrong? What’s going on?”

She reached out, held his cold hand and said, “How many Halloween’s has it been, Bob? Two Hundred and some? Hmm?”

Her husband thought for a moment and answered, “Well, we met in 1803 in New Orleans, so it must be about two hundred and fifteen. And each one a delight, I must say, my dear. Is there something about this Halloween that’s different than all the others? And who were you talking to, anyhow?”

His wife spoke frankly and directly as she said, “I’m quite worried about the current political climate. In the past, when a few kids went missing on Halloween, no big deal. But now, what if they find out about us, Bob? Do you really want to go through that pitch fork and burning torch thing that happened in Hungary again? Really. I think we have to just ride this Halloween out, Bob. No dead kids, no bite marks, no blood, nothing. It’s just too dangerous. Bob, I mean they’re shooting people for just crossing the border. Can you imagine if . . .” She trailed off and started to cry quietly.

Bob smiled and patted her hand knowingly. “You were talking with our daughter, weren’t you? It’s her first real Halloween on her own and you’re worried she might make a mistake that leads back to us,” he said before continuing. “I’ve felt the same way for a while. You’re right about the political situation. Until the Democrats get back in, it’s just too dangerous for us out there.” 

He stood up and paced the room for a while before turning back to address his wife. “I’ll talk to the guys down at the Blood Bank. I think I can convince them to tide us over for a few months until after the election. Then, well, . . . the gloves can come off.” His wife smiled as their daughter walked into the room.

“How do I look, you guys?” she asked confidently. “Do I pass inspection?”

They all laughed as she pirouetted in front of them. Her mother smiled at her and said, “You are just perfect. Now, your father has something to tell you about tonight, okay?”

Bob wrapped his arm around his daughter’s shoulder and spoke softly to her, saying, “You know we said you could actually draw blood tonight. Remember? Well that’s all changed. No blood tonight, no flying, no nothing. We have to lay low for reasons you don’t need to understand.”

“For how long, daddy? The urge is powerful.”

Her father looked his wife and then back to his daughter, finally saying, “I know about the urge, believe me. Okay, look, I’ll bend a little, but not much. You can take the kid on the next block, you know, the one who taunts you. But don’t drain him. Just take a couple of pints. Okay? Are we clear?”

His daughter nodded, smiled, kissed him on the cheek and answered, “Crystal, daddy. Crystal.”






He handed the cabby a twenty and asked for change. There was a time when he would have given the cabby a C-note and never looked back. But these days things were different. He slid across the back seat of the cab and slowly got out. Evening had just fallen, the street lights were on, and the sidewalks were starting to get crowded. He looked at his watch. Two hours until showtime. Time for a couple of drinks.

As the cab drove away, he looked across the street at the marquee on the small theater. His name was fifth in a list of five and in much smaller letters than the other four. He didn’t even recognize two of the acts, but he did know the headliner. She was the one who got him this gig even though most of the industry had turned against him because of his . . .  irregularities. He reminded himself to thank her after the show, if he was still sober. Even with his career in near collapse, he still couldn’t face up to his problem. The Amy Winehouse thing had scared him for a couple of days, but then he fell right back into it. She really had problems, anyway. He wasn’t that bad.

He was smart about his drinking before a show. Rule Number One, don’t drink near the venue where fans or critics can see you. Find a little dive far enough away and crummy enough to avoid unexpected recognition. He was lucky he was a one man act. Nobody else would put up with his drinking, especially before a show. So, Rule Number Two, never drink with other musicians. And Rule Number Three, uh . . . he told himself he’d get back to that one when he remembered it.

The bar was appropriately named ‘The Drop Off’. One of the swinging doors was open to the street as he looked in. Typical, dark, dirty, shit music on the jukebox, and smoky. The bar was lined with the typical denizens, hunched over their drinks, looking down at nothing in particular, some muttering to themselves. Nobody noticed when he walked in and slid into a booth in the rear with his back to the door. A good start, he said to himself.

He held up a twenty and, looking at the bartender over his shoulder, ordered a double whiskey. He slid over all the way to the wall, leaned back with one arm on the table and one leg up on the bench and waited for his drink. He felt at home in dumps like this. Which was exactly when the song hit him.

He sat bolt upright and scrambled for his ball point pen and a napkin. His drink came, and the bartender grabbed the twenty, but he didn’t even notice as he furiously wrote the lyrics on the napkin, all the while humming the melody. By the time he was finished, he had five napkins covered with his scrawl and an untouched drink on the table. He looked at his watch and was amazed that forty minutes had passed, just like that.

For the first time in years, he felt some of his old stuff coming back. And the song, man, the song was good! No, not just good, it was killer! Tonight, with him sober, with his voice strong, and with this new song, it could start his career again! He collected the napkins, waved to the bartender, and left with the song going through his mind, bar by bar. By the time he got to the theater, he had it down. He didn’t need the napkins anymore he told himself as he tossed them into the garbage. His whole being was now possessed by this new song. There was an energy about him that was unmistakable. He was back.

In the green room, he adjusted his guitar strap and tuned his instrument as he listened to the acts on the speaker. He strummed the new tune over and over again, singing softly to himself, recognizing a renewed vitality. He looked up as the door opened and the theater manager entered and said, “Sorry, Johnny, we ran over tonight. We had to cancel your act. You’ll get paid, but no stage for you tonight. Maybe next time.”

He sat down, disappointed. But he still had the song and there would definitely be a next time, somewhere, and soon. He picked up his guitar and started to strum, but somehow he had lost the beginning of the new song. Try as he might, he couldn’t get it out. It was right there on his fingertips, but he couldn’t get it out. And he couldn’t quite recall the lyrics, either. Things were kind of a jumble.

He reached into his jacket pocket for his flask. Maybe that would help. For the next ten minutes, he drank and tried to play the tune. It just wouldn’t come. Then he remembered the bar napkins in his pocket. He reached for them.


Me Too


The old playhouse had a majesty that could not be duplicated at any cost today. Directors and producers vied for time on its stage, using every trick they knew to capture a hint of its legendary past in their productions. When a play worked in this theater, it was like magic. Critics came from around the country to watch, to wonder, and to praise. Actors dropped everything to work for just a week or two on its stage. It was an experience that few would have, and it was special.

Rehearsals were scheduled to begin in two weeks which is why the director, the lead actor, the producer, and the casting agent were together to discuss casting the play. The four of them sat at a large table at the rear of the stage and were prepared to go over each part, one by one, to determine who would be the best actor for each role. 

They all knew each other and had worked together many times before. George, the lead actor, and Grant, the director, had known each other at Yale and had worked together over the years both in America and in Europe. Mary was respected in the industry for her skill in casting talent. And Doug, the producer, was the best money could buy.

The Director spoke first, “Okay, Mary and I have preliminarily determined who we think would be best for each part. But, George, as lead actor, you have final approval, so here we go. Are you ready, Mary?”

George was an easy-going actor. He was successful and completely committed to his craft. Single, he had many partners in the past, but when he took on a role he left everything personal behind. He became the character, and everyone knew it. It was why they loved to work with him.

Mary stood and went over a large display board. “Can everybody see this o.k.?” she asked. The others nodded as she then proceeded to put character names on the board, and began addressing the issue, “Alright. Each character in the play is now on the board, and beginning with the least important, I am going to put up the picture of an actor Grant and I have determined to be the best fit for the part. Got that? Then we’ll go to you, George, and get your approval. Does that sound like an appropriate process?”

Mary and Grant really didn’t think that George would contest any of their choices. They had all worked together like this in the past and George was always quite malleable about who he would work with in the plays. It wasn’t a ‘done-deal’ by any stretch, but Mary thought this wouldn’t take too long.

George nodded, and as he looked as his watch, Mary put the first head shot up under the character name of ‘the Butler’. George immediately agreed. “I’ve worked with him before. Excellent choice. Who’s next?”

George had worked with hundreds of actors throughout his career. He was generous to a fault about who he would work with on a play. Remembering his earlier days in acting, he made every effort to assist those actors struggling to make their way in the business. The actor he had just approved for the role of ‘the Butler’ was one of them. George felt good about what he had just done, not just because he had chosen a fine actor for he part, but because the actor he chose was in dire need of a good part.

Mary continued the process, each time putting up a new head shot. If George did not recognize the actor, Mary would give him the actor’s resume. She was even prepared to show video clips if George was hesitant. But the process went quickly. George knew most of the actors, and for those he wasn’t familiar with, he accepted Grant and Mary’s opinion. Until they got to the part of ‘the Sister,” that is. 

George reacted quickly as soon as the head shot was pinned to the board. “Uh, no. Definitely not! Won’t work for me. Sorry. Got another actor? I can’t work with that one,” George said adamantly. He crossed his arms as he looked over to Grant.

Grant looked at Mary and raised his eyebrows. Mary looked down at the resume of the actor George had just rejected and pushed it over to Grant. Nothing was said as Grant appeared to read the actor’s resume. But in reality, Grant was confused by George’s response. It was uncharacteristic, to say the least. He thought for a moment before reacting.

Grant decided to take a stand by this actor and looking back to George said, “She had the part on the London stage for two years to critical acclaim. She is box office, George, and she’s a true professional. I’ve worked with her before, and she’s an absolute delight. Won’t you reconsider?” 

George shook his head and refused.

Grant was about to make another try when Mary interrupted and asked a question. ”George, is it personal with her? Did you have a relationship with her that went bad? Care to share?” 

George slowly rose from his chair and paced a bit before answering Mary. “We knew each other at Yale. We went together for three years and were engaged. Then, out of nowhere, she dumped me and went off to Europe with some other guy. I almost didn’t recover,” he confessed. “I just don’t know how I would react if she suddenly came back into my life. Why take the chance?”

Grant stood up and got closer to George. “I have something to admit, George. It was me she ran off with to Europe. I’ve never told you, but there it is,” he said with a quiver in his voice. “I didn’t know about you. Honest. If I did, I would never have taken up with her.” 

George stood very still while he absorbed what Grant had just related. Then, quietly, he said, “Okay, that makes sense. But I still haven’t forgiven her. It still might affect the production. By the way, what happened between you two anyway?” 

Grant just shrugged and sheepishly admitted that she had run off with some woman while they were living together in Paris. He added that he had lost touch with her, but that he had no lingering problems with her being in the production.

Mary coughed and told the group that she had something to say. “It was me in Paris with her. We met one night after a play and we never looked back. I didn’t know about either of you guys in her past. It just happened,” she confessed. “Our past together has nothing at all to do with me wanting her in this play. She is the right actor for the part, believe me!” 

Grant looked at Mary and with a slightly pleading voice, asked, “What happened between you two?” 

Shrugging, Mary just said that she had just disappeared one weekend and she thought it was with a man, but she wasn’t sure and frankly, she didn’t really care. 

The producer was the only one still sitting at the table. As one, the three of them turned to look at the producer. He stared back, took a deep breath, and slowly said, “What are the odds, huh? Four people with the same woman.” He put his hands palms-down on the table and gradually got up. “I haven’t seen her for years. But you’ve got to admit she must be a hell of an actress, right? She had us all fooled!” 

They all laughed, and George went to the board and put her picture back under the role of “the Sister”.


Honey Do List


It was still dark outside as he lay in bed. His wife was already up and out of the house, on her way to work. He sighed, knowing that she had left him a list of things to do on the side of the refrigerator. She was determined to give his life some structure, some aim, some meaning so that his long hours alone would not be wasted in idle activity. At least that was the plan. He preferred idleness but got out of bed anyway and prepared for a day of carefully planned activity. It was the least he could do to maintain marital stability.

By the time he finished showering and dressing, the sun was nearly up, and he could safely navigate downstairs without turning on too many lights. She had strategically placed the list of things to do so he would have to pass it on his way to get his morning coffee. No missing it, each task clearly spelled-out in magic marker in the recommended order of performance:

  1. Put out garbage. Sort!
  2. Vacuum your car. Don’t forget the trunk.
  3. Feed the alien. Use the food from last night.
  4. Sweep the patio.
  5. Call Ginny about the party Saturday.

When she came home for lunch, she would update the list and would expect the morning activities to be completed. He figured he could finish today’s list in about an hour and still have plenty of free time. As he sat down over his morning coffee, he amused himself with the idea of training the alien to do some of the simpler tasks. He had been thinking about doing something with the damned thing for months, but it was only recently that the idea of using it for something purposeful had become realistic. For one, they could talk to it now. They understood it and it understood them. But, God, if his wife ever found out he used the alien to do household chores, there would be hell to pay. But, still, if she never knew?

He used the hand vac to clean the car without opening the garage. The regular vacuum bothered the alien a lot. Something about the pitch of the motor. So he used the smaller vacuum which didn’t seem to bother their ‘guest’ much. It just curled up in its cage and went back to sleep. He often wondered if it dreamed. His wife seemed disinterested in having anything to do with it and left the day to day maintenance of the alien up to him. So, for most days, it was just him and it. As he finished up with the car, he called over to it and indicated that breakfast was on its way. The alien, still curled up in its bed, raised one hand as if to indicate it understood and would be ready when the food arrived.

Figuring out what to feed it had been a hit and miss affair. Pet food didn’t interest it at all, nor did table scraps. But yogurt worked. So did anything made of tofu. Cold soy noodles drenched in sesame oil were its special treat, but they made him gassy, so they served this only occasionally. It was when it passed gas that they first started to communicate with it. One day after a large plate of noodles, it farted as they watched. Then it said a word and what looked like a smile came across its face. They looked at each other, laughed, and said, “fart”. It looked back at them and repeated the word. From then on, it was one word at a time. They figured it had a vocabulary of maybe a hundred or so English words by now. Probably enough to train him how to sweep the patio.

He picked up the breakfast dishes from the cage and left the cage door open, as well as the door into the house. From the kitchen, he could hear it enter the house and move into the living room. It liked to sit and look out the window onto the patio as the sun warmed the day. He poked his head around the corner and shouted, “Warm enough?” The reply he got was, “Warm enough”. First time it had ever used the word ‘enough’. Interesting, he thought. Maybe if he played his cards right, sweeping the patio would be a thing of the past for him. He grabbed the broom and the dustpan and headed for the living room. As he entered, it was still sitting, staring out onto the patio.

It turned to look at him. He held the broom out in front of him and said, “Broom”. It repeated the word and then pointed to the dustpan. He said, “Dustpan”, and it repeated the word. Then he went about sweeping the living room floor slowly and using the dustpan, all the time watching the alien. It turned away from the window, came over to him and held out its arms. He handed the broom to it and watched it tentatively sweep the floor. It didn’t come naturally to it, but within a minute, it was sweeping up a storm. And using the dustpan!

He opened the patio door, went out and determined that none of the neighbors were watching. He signaled for the alien to come out and asked it to sweep the deck, which it did, expertly. He sat in the chaise lounge, observing, and realized that things around the house were about to change for the better.

After coaxing it back into its cage, he called Ginny about the party on Saturday. As he finished his phone conversation, he heard the garage door open and realized his wife was home for lunch. Right on time! He had learned to say nothing until she had a chance to look around and update the list on the refrigerator. Seemingly satisfied with his progress on the morning list, she added five new tasks for the afternoon before leaving: 

  1. Clean upstairs bathroom.
  2. Hand-wipe wood stairs.
  3. Feed alien. No noodles today!
  4. Clean your workbench.
  5. Organize storage in laundry room.

As the garage door closed and she drove off, he pondered the list. If the alien could do the bathroom and the wood stairs, he could do the workbench and the storage, and they could be done in no time. He went to the garage and opened the cage and returned to the kitchen, where he sat down at the kitchen nook. He watched the alien enter the kitchen as he patted the seat next to him and indicated for it to sit, which it did. He opened the pack and took out its contents as the alien watched closely.

“Okay, we have some free time before we have to go to work,” he explained slowly. The alien indicated he understood.

“So, I’m going to show you a card game. It’s called Poker,” he said, slowly shuffling the new deck.

The alien smiled. He had waited a long time for this.




Writer's Cramp


The desktop was arranged in the same manner as yesterday and the day before. The small Tiffany lamp was to the left, the phone on the right, his name plate in the center, and a single blank sheet of white paper lay on the ink pad, with a pen nearby. He sat with his hands folded in his lap, patiently staring at the paper, just as he had done for days in a row, waiting for inspiration.

This was a new experience for him, having to wait for the words to come. They had always come easily to him, almost as if the paragraphs were already created in his head, and all he had to do was transcribe the words to paper. But, again today, his frustration continued with no indication when it would end.

It began last week during his brief daily conversation with his wife. She was demanding that he write something unique, something she had never asked for in all their years together. She had somewhat forcibly mentioned that he should get busy now and complete the whole damn thing in a single sitting. He knew that arguing with her about it would only end with more arguing, so he begrudgingly agreed. It was the sort of thing you only write once, so he had never given it much thought until now. He agreed with himself to start first thing the next day and complete it in one sitting. He flirted with the idea of looking at the local paper for examples but decided that was kind of a weird form of plagiarism, particularly given the personal nature of the subject matter. At any rate, he didn’t give it much more thought until the next morning.

He slept well, arose refreshed and committed himself to the task at hand. As usual, he and his wife didn’t speak during breakfast, but he could tell she was somehow going to make sure he followed through on his promise. As he got up from the table, he muttered to himself something about getting down to business in the study, glanced very briefly at his wife, and realized that she was satisfied for the moment. As he walked towards the study, he whistled softly to himself (something he hardly ever did), thinking that this also would placate her. The idea being that a happy man is not a reticent man, so she wouldn't have to check in on her happy man.

As he closed the study door, he almost locked it, but didn’t. He turned and looked at his large desk, located near the high study window. The morning sun was starting to shed into the room. He took a deep breath knowing that this was going to be his home for a while. The well-padded chair was still pushed in against the desk, just the way he left it last Friday. He pulled it out, swiveled it towards himself, and sat down. He was committed now, no turning back. He reached into the lower left drawer, extracted a piece of paper, set it in front of him, and took out his pen she had given him for their anniversary years ago. Resting his hands with the pen on the paper, he waited for the words to come, just as had always done in years of successful writing. But nothing came to him. Not today, and not for endless days of sitting and staring.

It wasn’t that he didn’t have ideas. He did, and some were credible. But he was having trouble with the opening line or lines. Once these were accomplished, he felt certain the rest would flow quickly. But at lunch with his wife, after a fruitless wordless first morning, he could only shake his head when she asked about his progress. Disgusted, she left the table, and this same charade went on at each meal for days. He had never felt so impotent in his life, even given his recent health challenges. And she was unable to give him any suggestions, given her own mental limitations. All he could tell her was that he was trying, really trying. And she kept reminding him that time was running out, fast.

He wasn’t angry, just frustrated. He felt like a sculptor who could see the potential in a piece of stone, but who couldn’t chip off the first piece. There were so much to say, so many important areas to investigate, so much context to develop, but no words came to him. He gave himself one more hour, and if nothing happened, he decided to use some boilerplate language he had seen years ago in the paper. It was anathema for him to use stock phrasing after having avoided it successfully for so many years in his own writings. But the hour came and went, and he was left with no choice. He picked up his pen and slowly wrote the first lines.

“Herbert William Rose and his wife, Ethel Campbell Rose, died suddenly together at their home on April 15, 2018. Family and friends will remember them for their valiant struggle against unrelenting disease, and request that donations be made in lieu of flowers to The National Euthanasia Association.”

The rest of the words came quickly. He knew she would be proud of the result. He put the pages into a large envelope and left it on the ink pad, propped up by his name plate. As he left the study, he turned to look at it for the last time. He smiled and slowly took the long walk upstairs, where his wife was waiting for him in the bedroom, where she had the pillows already arranged.



The Bell Is Tolling


He sat alone in the doctor’s waiting room, nervously playing with his phone and watching the receptionist from time to time. The irony was not lost on him that he sat in this same waiting room forty years ago awaiting his own father’s final diagnosis. The place had changed dramatically since then, but now here he was, waiting for his own dreaded news. 

The doctor had requested that his wife accompany him in case the news was bad. It often helped if a loved one was near, the doctor had explained, as the impact could be devastating. She said she couldn’t cope. You have to do this alone, she said. I can’t be there with you for this. He understood, even though it hurt. 

At 10:12, the receptionist looked up and said, ”The doctor will see you now, sir.” 

He breathed deeply and slowly walked towards the door held open by the receptionist. In her hands were his medical records, and her eyes betrayed nothing about what was in them. A slight smile was all he got as he entered the doctor’s office. 

“Please be seated, sir. The doctor will be with you shortly. Do you care for some water or perhaps a nutrient beverage?” she asked matter-of-factly. 

He shook his head as she placed his records on the doctor’s desk. For some reason, as she turned and walked towards the door, she placed her hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her face and could tell. It was going to be bad. God, he would give anything to be somewhere else. 

The doctor’s side door opened, and he entered quickly, holding files and a coffee cup. He sat down behind the desk and did not make eye contact for several moments as he arranged the files, the cup, and a picture of his family. Finally, he looked up and asked, “Is your wife with you?”

He shook his head. 

“Okay then, I have rerun the tests performed by Dr. Orlasky and we have the results. I have read Dr. Orlasky’s diagnosis, and I concur with his conclusions. Your condition is terminal, Mr. Weingate.” 

His shoulders slumped, and he stopped breathing momentarily, his eyes staring at nothing in particular as his mind was flooded with the echo of the doctor’s words. For some reason, he remembered his father’s reaction when he heard his bad news. The slight gasp of disbelief, the big arm wrapping around his shoulders and pulling him close, and then the pat on the back as acceptance set in. 

He finally took a deep breath and started talking. “Well, my wife somehow knew this was going to happen and she just couldn’t face it. All I have to ask is why me? I’m one hundred and four years old, I feel and look great. Why am I the one?” 

The doctor closed his file and answered, “The advances in longevity that have taken place since your birth have been nothing less than spectacular. Your wife, for instance, can look forward to a lifespan of somewhere around seven hundred years. And your children, perhaps twice that! But for some, a very few, the advances don’t work as well. At best, you have probably eighty years left, maybe one hundred at the outside. I’m sorry, but the test results are incontrovertible, Mr. Weingate.” 

He sat a little straighter in his chair as the doctor continued, “I would suggest you start to get your affairs in order, and soon. Don’t procrastinate, it will only make things worse.”

He nodded his understanding. 

“And don’t fall into the old traps like drugs, alcohol, religion, or even suicide,” the doctor continued. “Stay focused and take it one day at a time. You’ll be surprised at how your life will become more vibrant, more immediate, more real as a result of this diagnosis. Don’t waste these eighty years. They can be the best of your life!” 

The doctor got up and came out from behind his desk. They hugged, and he was shown to the office door. The receptionist avoided his look as she escorted him out of the office. The last thing he heard was her saying, “We’ll bill you, Mr. Weingate.” 

Alone in the outer hallway, he collected his thoughts. He had not contemplated death since he was sixty-four at his father’s funeral. As all the older people around him died, the concept of death nearly disappeared as the advances in medicine saved the younger generations from its specter. Nobody talked about death anymore. It just didn’t happen. And now this! He dialed his wife on his phone. 

“Oh, God, no!” she cried. “How long did he say?” 

“Eighty, maybe a hundred at the outside.” 

She could be heard breathing heavily as she finally responded, “First, you can’t tell the kids. They won’t understand. You got that! Don’t tell the kids.” He said he agreed. 

“Now, you’re going to have to go someplace to deal with this, okay? We’ll come up with a story about why you’re not around anymore, right? If the word got out about this, it would ruin me and the children. You got that?” she said forcefully. 


“I’ll always remember you. But you know how it is. We just don’t deal with this anymore! I have to start over,” she said. He said nothing. 

“Okay, goodbye and good luck. I’ll take care of everything on this end. You’re on your own.” 

As she hung up, he realized for the first time that he was between two worlds. One that was spoken of, and the other that wasn't. A never-never land that few occupied, a land he knew little about. He wiped a tear from his eye, opened the door to the outside, and stepped out. He had no idea what to do next. 


Shoal Waters


The cargo area of the SUV was almost full as the daughter handed the remaining box to her mother. 

“Mom, why does Dad make us do this? I mean, c’mon. Over and over again? Nobody else does it. Why?” the daughter asked with exasperation.

Her mother pushed the box into the vehicle and answered, “He wants us to maintain some semblance of normalcy, some sense of place. He’s explained that to you and your brother, hasn’t he? He doesn’t just want to give up and quit.”

Just then, the son emerged from the house and announced, “Dad says everything that’s staying is on the shelves and he’s sealing the doors and windows. He’ll be out in a minute with the dog.”

The mother closed the rear hatch to the SUV and looked at her watch. She mumbled something about the traffic heading uphill this time of the day, but her daughter couldn’t quite make it out. Just Mom being pissy again, she thought. The boy slid into the back seat and buckled himself in as his sister leaned in and asked, “What do you think about this? I mean, twice a day? Does it make any sense?” The boy just shrugged and played with his phone and hummed to himself.

The mother told the daughter to get in the back seat and then honked the horn twice. It was time to go, but as usual her husband was pushing it to the limit. She could just make out his movements inside the house as she grumbled something about normalcy being overrated. The car radio was tuned to the Emergency frequency and the announcer was saying something about the water already entering downtown and rising quickly.

She honked the horn three more times and was almost ready to go back to the house when her husband emerged with the dog in tow. He was smiling as he sprayed Flex Seal around the front door and headed for the car. The mother slid into the passenger seat and closed her door. She looked back at the kids and satisfied herself that they were safe before she checked herself out in the rear-view mirror. God, she thought, I look like shit!

He gave the dog to his son through the side window and looked back towards the house before getting into the car.

“Okay, all set. Sorry I’m running late. I slipped on a wet spot in the kitchen, but I’ll be alright,” he said. He looked at his wife and asked, “Where’s the water now?”

She looked straight ahead and coldly answered, “If we don’t leave right this second, we won’t make it through the intersection.” The daughter put her head in her hands in the back seat and shook her head side to side. Without looking up from his phone, the boy leaned forward and tapped his father on the shoulder and indicated with his finger to get going.

The father chuckled and remarked, "Portland at high tide with climate change. What are you gonna do?" He slowly backed the car out of the driveway and turned to head towards the main road and the intersection.

As he turned onto the main road he checked out the house through the mirror one last time. He could just make out the water mark of the earlier high tide on the side of the house. Damn, he thought to himself, almost up to the porch light! When it hits the roof vents, we're screwed.


Branson Bound


“Come on, honey, the taxi is waiting!"

“Okay, two secs,” she answered breathlessly.

The taxi driver put the last suitcase in the trunk, crossing his arms, and shot a look at the husband.

“Just a minute. She’s always like this,” the husband said, apologetically.

The driver got in the taxi, closed the door and started the car. He could see the wife shutting and locking the front door of the house. The husband held the back door of the taxi open for his wife as she hurried down the walk.

The husband, closing the taxi door as his wife slid into the back seat, said, “We can just make it if we hurry, driver.” He looked nervously at his wife.

“I wouldn’t mind a bit if we missed this flight, you know,” she said sarcastically.

“Honey, we’ve discussed this for weeks. Come on, let’s just enjoy the trip, okay?” the husband said. 

She didn’t waste any time in responding, “Ever since the election, all you said you wanted was to visit the center of ‘fly over country’, remember?”

He didn’t say anything. The taxi driver looked in the rear view mirror and caught his gaze.

“Look, the country is changing. It’s time we learn about what’s happening in the midland, right? We’ll have a great time. You’ll love it,” the husband answered.

She didn’t hesitate. “Give me a break, will you? We don’t belong with those people. They just don’t get it, okay. I’m sorry, honey, but you just don’t get it, too.”

He said nothing for a few minutes. Finally, he leaned forward in his seat and said to the driver, “Let’s go back to where you picked us up”.

The driver looked in his rear-view mirror and responded, “No problem. Maybe next time."

Generation Gap

The three of them sat on the front porch of the old farmhouse in the coolness of the late summer evening. The corn crop out front rustled in the light breeze as the boys focused on their smartphones and Grandpa fussed with his pipe. 

Finally getting the pipe started again, the old man puffed away for a bit as he watched his two grandsons lost in their digital worlds. He thought for a moment, put down his pipe, and spoke slowly to them for the first time since supper.

“You know, boys, there’s a big world out there. And what seems like a well-controlled, orderly state of things is actually something quite different. Things are much more random and dangerous than you might think!” he mused. The boys seemed to hear him but did not respond.

“Take that cornfield out there. Looks pretty orderly, right? Everything in neat rows, ready for harvest. Nature pretty well under control, huh?” he added. The boys continued tapping on their phones.

“Well, let me tell you a story about what really goes on in those cornfields. And it’s not at all what it seems,” Grandpa continued. “I was just a kid, out in the corn with my two dogs, Buck and Jenny, one summer. They were up ahead while I was walking along one of the corn levees between two wet checks. Your great grandfather had just finished irrigating the field, and there was a lot of deep mud out there, mind you!”

“Anyway, I had a hoe to deal with any morning glory I found, and I was just as happy as could be when I heard the dogs barking wildly up ahead,” he said. “They were into something, but I didn’t know what until I see this skunk headed down the levee towards me just as sure as you’re sitting here, boys.”

“Well, if that skunk ran up against me I just knew what would happen, so I jumped out of the way into the muck, and sunk up to me knees in that stuff,” Grandpa said, chuckling to himself. “Damn, I struggled for quite a while trying to get out, and nearly got bit by one of those big snakes they got out there in the corn. And rats, too, the size of cats! That hoe probably saved my life. I’ll tell you, boys, by the time I got back home, I was a real mess. And that gave everybody a real laugh for days.”

He looked over at the boys who were still engrossed in their phones, and he continued, “And that’s why I say that things are not always as they seem. No sir, not under control at all. Not safe at all. Just seems that way.”

The boys were seemingly disinterested in what their Grandpa had related. There was no indication that they had heard or understood what had been said. Grandpa thought about this for a moment, and then added as a footnote, “And I remembered that situation every day of my life, even that day in Dallas when I shot the President.” He closely watched the boys for any response.

The boys looked up, and one of them off-handedly asked, “What’s morning glory, Grandpa?”
"It's a scourge that has to be ripped up by its roots or it will ruin everything, and the earlier the better," Grandpa answered, coldly recalling a distant past.

"Okay, Grandpa, great talking with you. Fun story. You'll have to tell us again, though. We were sort of distracted and didn’t hear everything."

As the two boys got up and entered the farmhouse, Grandpa rose from his rocking chair slowly, his clear steely-blue eyes slightly squinting as he stared at a point on the edge of the corn field. He muttered to himself, "Badger, two-hundred and ninety meters give or take a meter, wind west at 5, humid . . . piece of cake." With that, he reached for his hand-crafted rifle and started to slow his breathing.

Source Material


The Writer bent down and collected the morning mail that had just come through the slot in the door. He slowly straightened up, being careful not to strain his lower back, and sorted the mail as he walked towards the kitchen. One letter caught his attention.

It was hand-addressed, not local, and from someone whose name he didn’t recognize. It had been a long time since he had received any fan mail, a long time! He put the rest of the mail aside, sat down, and opened the letter. Fan mail was always a good way to start the day.

"Mr. Lewis, 
Years ago, when I was a college student, I was up against a deadline in my English Composition course. I needed a short
story or I would flunk the class. I saw one of your stories, "Love Me Last", posted on social media, and I stole it. I made enough changes so that it looked like something I would write. I got a C+ on the story and passed the class. But, I’ve felt guilty for years, so I am writing this to you as an apology. I am an alcoholic in recovery, and as part of my treatment, I am contacting the people in my life who I have wronged. I hope you accept my apology.

Gary Spaulding”

The Writer recalled that short story well. It was the reason the New York agent had called him and asked if he would be interested in professional representation. It was the reason he won numerous awards, made a fortune, and was adored by millions of readers. It was also the story that he himself had stolen from another author.

The Writer was living in Albuquerque at that time, working part-time in a shabby little bookstore. Most of his time was spent sorting used books and magazines, pricing them, and placing them in the shelves. From time to time, he would read something that caught his attention.

He recalls the moment he read "Western Waters", a short story by Wilbur Roblett. It had been written in 1910 and published in an obscure, now-defunct literary magazine. He read and reread the story. The impact it had on him was profound. He took the magazine home with him that night and wrote "Love Me Last" in one sitting, confident that no one would ever connect his story to Roblett's story. And he had been right, but it always bothered him.

Not expecting Roblett to still be alive, the Writer checked him out on Wikipedia and discovered that he died in 1976, had a middling career as a writer, but that his daughter was still alive and lived nearby. He sighed, but decided it was time for him to confront his literary theft and confess to Roblett's daughter. Nobody would care, but it would be the right thing to do. He picked up his phone.

"Of course, Mr. Lewis, I know who you are," Rhonda Roblett responded. "So nice of you to call and inquire about my father's work."

"Well, I've struggled with what I am about to tell you for years. But, do you recall a story your father wrote titled "Western Waters"?" the Writer asked hesitantly.

"Oh, yes. He wrote that when he was very young, and it started his career. Not many people know about that story today, though. What was it about that story that interests you, Mr. Lewis?"

"Well, the story was remarkable, especially for such a young writer, wouldn't you agree?" the Writer asked, hesitating to come out and just tell her the real purpose of his phone call.

"Mr. Lewis, we're both adults here. I think we both know what's going on here, don't we?" she responded pointedly.

"Yes," said the Writer, cautiously.

"Okay, well, Dad stole that story. You have obviously figured that out by now, or otherwise why would you be calling, right? He's dead now, so there's no reason to hide the truth anymore," she continued, sounding relieved. "I feel better now that it's out in the open. He stole it from a story titled "Bitter Water", written in 1876. What do you intend to do with this information, Mr. Lewis?" she asked tentatively.

"Oh, nothing, I was just checking some details from the past, and it came up sort of unexpectedly," the Writer added, relieved.

Ms. Roblett came back on the phone and added, "But Dad didn't really feel so bad about what he did, Mr. Lewis."

The Writer was puzzled and asked, "And why was that, Ms. Roblett?"

She chuckled as she responded, "Well, he did some checking and found that the author who wrote "Bitter Water" stole it from somebody who wrote a story titled "Everybody Wins" in 1834! Can you believe that, Mr. Lewis? Unbelievable!" 

Suspicious Activity Report


The evening light was dim, but she could still make out what they were doing. There were at least three of them, young, playing by the big tree at the corner. One was a lookout, while the others silently went through the motions of some long-forgotten game. It only lasted for a few moments, but it was enough time for the old lady to recognize the boys. 

She closed the narrow opening in the draperies and sat down in the one chair she still owned. It only took her a few seconds to send in The Report on her phone; she’d done it many times before. 

Her report was queued with the others sent in at about the same time. The program prioritized the incoming reports and the most important were dispatched immediately with instructions to mobile units. Her report, categorized as “Priority 1-Prohibited Group Activity”, resulted in five mobile units converging on the big tree within minutes of receipt of her report. 

The boys were rounded-up and processed for reprogramming, while the old woman received fifty bonus points credited towards her Community Penalty File, which lowered her total to two-hundred points. 

The old woman went back to her draperies and continued to peer out into the darkness. Maybe someone would try to walk their dog tonight. That was worth twenty points. 


The Piano Lesson


The father stood on the second-floor stoop, knocked on the door again, and waited with his son for the teacher to come to the door. The Viennese weather was clear and brisk, typical for this time of year, and the boy shivered slightly as the door opened. 

“Herr teacher, good morning and thank you for agreeing to interview my son for piano lessons. May we come in?” the father asked.

“Of course, please enter. Forgive the clutter. I have been busy composing. But I look forward to listening to your son this morning. We will soon see if he has the talent to proceed with his training,” the teacher said.

The cramped second-story apartment was dominated by the piano, and shabby even by lower-class standards. The father helped the son remove his coat and draped it over a nearby chair, being careful to avoid the food scraps and wine bottles left on the chair. Had this instructor not come so highly recommended, the father would have left immediately with his son, given what he was now seeing. But, it was rumored that the teacher was a genius, and any student of his would surely benefit greatly.

The teacher explained, "Today, I will listen to your son, and afterwards, I will discuss with you his talent level and whether I agree to continue with lessons. Is that still agreed?"

"Yes, of course. I will return in, say, half an hour or so," the father answered. He turned to his son and looking down, said, "Pay full attention to Herr teacher, do as he says, and perform at your best. Your future depends upon it!" With that, the father left, and the son stood alone in the middle of the apartment.

"Come, sit. We will begin," the teacher stated, patting the piano bench. The boy nervously slid in next to the teacher, his hands to his side.

"Now you will warm-up for a few minutes. Perform the following just as I am doing," the teacher said, playing C-D-E-F-G and then G-F-E-D-C using 1-2-3-4-5 and 5-4-3-2-1 fingering beginning at middle C, one hand at a time. As the boy commenced to warm up, the instructor rose from the bench and tapped the floor with his cane.

The teacher closely watched the boy for a few moments. Even now it was clear to him that the child had no talent and could not possibly benefit from further training. But, his mistakes were intriguing. They were not common mistakes of child pianists. Instead, they were almost magical blunders and as the teacher listened closely, he started to compose a piece based upon these very mistakes. By the time the child had finished his first warm-up exercises, the teacher had finished a composition in his mind.

"Fine. Now we proceed to scales," the instructor ordered. He showed the student how to start with the major scale on middle C, focusing on each hand individually and then together. Again, the student was left alone at the piano with his instructions, while the teacher strode about the apartment, tapping the floor with his cane. And again, the child's mistakes were so profoundly different than his other student's mistakes that they sparked a creative response in the teacher. And again, his mind launched into a new composition, exciting, provocative, and difficult.

The child looked at the teacher and said, "I have finished, sir. What do you want me to do next?" The teacher was wrenched from his reverie and walked over to the piano, just as there was a knock on the door. It was the father, returning. The teacher quickly jotted down a few bars on a sheet of paper before hurrying to the door to let the father in.

The teacher and the father spoke for a few moments, at the end of which the father paid the teacher and thanked him. He collected his son and left abruptly.

Out on the street, the child looked up at his father and asked innocently, "Will I return for lessons, father?"

"My boy, we will find a more appropriate teacher for you. That swine had the impudence to suggest that you had no talent! Can you imagine that?" the father bellowed.

The child walked in silence, his head down.

"And while he refused to give you lessons, he said he would like to listen to you warm-up for free! Can you imagine the gall of the man! No, son, there will be no more contact with young Herr van Beethoven, that's for sure. What a fool!"


Coin of the Realm

He put down his coffee cup and answered the phone. He knew who it was. “Did you serve the search warrant?” he asked.

“Yeah, and we found the computer, just where the informant said it would be. I’m on the way to forensics with it now. We should know more in about an hour.”

He hung up the phone, put his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair, grinning. This case had been the most challenging in his career as a detective, and seizure of the computer tonight had the potential of breaking the case. The suspect had lawyered-up almost immediately after they started questioning him five months ago, and it looked like he might walk until they got the tip about the computer. He couldn’t wait to tell the assistant district attorney the news.

Almost an hour later, the phone rang again. “Jake, they can’t get into the guy’s files. The computer has been taken over by some hacker who’s demanding a big ransom to release control of the thing. Forensics say they’re stuck. What do you want to do?” His partner’s frustration was obvious, even over the phone.

“What’s the ransom?” he asked.

“The hacker wants $50,000.”

“Jesus. Let me talk to Wilkes, will you?” The detective waited until the forensics technician could be put on the phone.

Wilkes spoke slowly as he laid out the situation, “Jake, sorry about this, but it happens. No way into this guy’s hard drive as of now. By the way, we’ve traced the hacker to a computer in Albania. My guess, he’s connected to organized crime there. I talked to my contact at NSA and he verified it. No tickee, no washee, sorry.”

“Okay, Wilkes, thanks. Put Jerry back on the phone, will you?”

“Yeah, Jake, what do you want me to do?” his partner asked.

“Nothing until I get back. I’m going to make a quick trip to Albania. Maybe I can work a deal with this hacker, who knows?” Jake answered.

There was a momentary silence on the other end of the phone. Then Jerry cautioned him, “Jake, that’s the wild west over there. You’ve got no protection, and you don’t know the situation. Are you sure? It’s dangerous, partner.”

“Don’t worry, Jerry. I learned a little Albanian from my maternal grandmother. I’ll be alright. Give me ten days. If you don’t hear from me after that, send in the cavalry. Fingers crossed, partner,” he said, hanging up the phone gently.

Jake knew more than a little Albanian. And he had relatives there. He picked up the phone and dialed an international number. An older man answered and spoke in Albanian. He agreed that Jake would be picked up at the airport and driven directly to the Albanian’s home. Before hanging up, the old man said in halting English, “Is good you come, Jake. I take good care.”

It was late Thursday night before Jake got his luggage and left the airport, heading towards the old Albanian’s home. He wasn’t followed and to anyone interested, he was just another foreigner visiting the country on pleasure. The car sped through the countryside along narrow roads, only occasionally meeting other cars, until the driver pulled off the road and drove up a steep winding driveway, blinking his headlights twice. He turned his head and told Jake they had arrived, but for him to wait in the car until security had a chance to clear the car.

An efficient team went over the car quickly, presumably looking for explosives or hidden weapons. The door opened, and the old Albanian stood with his arms open and a wide smile on his face. They hugged energetically, and Jake was whisked quickly into the house by the security team.

The old Albanian, named Adrian, directed Jake to a quiet study, where the two hugged again. Jake expressed admiration at the professionalism of Adrian’s organization. “Well, Jake, the country is run by organized crime and we have to be careful,” he said, speaking slowly in Albanian.

“Okay, Adrian, what do you have on my hacker?” Jake asked, getting right to the point.

“Ah, Americans. Always direct, yes. The hacker is freelance, loosely connected to a crime family. He is protected by them, but not a member. If the ransom were to be paid, he would kick-back maybe 20% to the family. We know where he lives, and can get you in, but getting you out could be very dangerous. Are you still interested?

Without hesitation, Jake answered, “Definitely. I just want a few minutes with him. But it has to be a surprise visit. No warning. I won’t be armed, and I won’t threaten him. No rough stuff. I’ve got an idea for a deal, but I won’t know if it will work until I’m in the room with him and have a look around. Just give me ten minutes alone with him, then get me out.”


Adrian put his arm around Jake’s shoulder and answered, “Jake, get some rest. We’ll arrange everything for tomorrow night. Don’t worry, ten minutes, no problem.”

The hacker's apartment was on the sixth floor of a run-down apartment house near downtown. Adrian’s men were posted on the ground floor and the sixth floor and verified that the apartment was occupied. Jake tried the door knob; it was locked. He used his tools to pick the lock and quietly entered the hacker’s apartment. A low light emanated from a room at the end of the hall, and Jake could hear the gentle clicking of a computer keyboard. Fast food wrappers, cookie boxes, and an assortment of other food packaging littered the floor as Jake slowly made his way towards the light. He caught the hacker completely by surprise and was out of the apartment in seven minutes flat.

Back in the U.S., Jake settled into his chair for the first time in five days. It felt good, he told Jerry, who was sitting across the desk from him. Jerry was obviously excited, and after offering Jake a cigarette, said, “Okay, partner. We got into the computer and our suspect is toast. Good job. Ready to tell your old partner how you did it? 

Jake shrugged and said, “No big deal. I just figured out what was more important to the guy than money. Made him an offer, and he went for it. You know, in that part of the world, money is easy to come by, but some things are really scarce. Precious, you know what I mean, Jer?”

“Not really, partner. I mean, I checked your expense account for the whole trip. I couldn’t wait to see what the Lieutenant had authorized to buy this guy off. But nothing really stood out. Just some cigarettes, and, oh yeah, four dozen Krispy Kreme donuts FedExed in from Greece. Come on Jake, what was it you gave this guy, really?”

Jake just smiled and leaned back in his chair.

Honeymoon Rebuild

It was 1969, and we were broke and in love, so we decided to do what a lot of people do in that situation. We got married. My mother-in-law loaned us her new Chevy Chevelle for our honeymoon, and off we went, headed for Mexico and our future together. On the way home, with all 250 cubic inches of that little Chevy humming along somewhere between Tijuana and Tehachapi, my new wife looked over at me and said, “Len, let’s buy this from Mom when we get back. Can you imagine having our honeymoon car in the garage for the rest of our lives? What memories!” That was all it took. My mother-in-law agreed, gave us a great deal on the car, and we couldn’t have been happier.

We used that little ‘69 Chevy for years until we could afford to replace it. By then, it had accumulated huge mileage, so we just parked it in the garage, washed it every so often, and only occasionally brought it out for special occasions, like anniversaries or my wife’s infrequent road trips with her friends. The memory of our honeymoon in that little car was renewed every time we drove it, and it was an unhappy day when the car couldn't be driven except for very short trips. For the next fifteen years, it basically just sat there, rusting away, seldom driven, with neither of us knowing what to do about it.

Fortune smiled on us during those years, and one day I suggested to my wife that we should rebuild the little Chevelle to its original condition. It would be expensive, but we could afford it, and what fun it would be having that little car to drive around. And our friends would know it was really a recommitment to our relationship, not just a renovation. Sheila agreed, tearing up a bit as she recalled how her recently departed mother had sold them the car after their honeymoon. We hugged for several minutes in the kitchen and then excitedly started discussing how to go about the rebuild.

She suggested that our friend Charlie do the work because he knew and loved the car, and he was a meticulous guy. We called him, and he readily agreed, as long as his bad back didn’t act up. Charlie also agreed to do the work in our garage, and we roughed out the budget and timeline and his fee. As I hung up the phone, I grinned at my wife and said that we had a deal! She was thrilled and couldn’t stop talking about the car for the next hour or so.

Charlie took over the garage for the rebuild, bringing in his tools and other items he would need. For the next few weeks, Charlie’s radio could be heard all day long, blaring out vintage rock as he worked alone on the car. Each night, he would clean up and take his beer empties home with him, only infrequently talking to me about the small problems that typically came up from time to time. By the end of week three, the engine was out and at the rebuilders, as was the transmission. The doors had been removed, and Charlie had taken out the seats and sent them off to the upholsterer. I caught up with him as he was cleaning up for the weekend. As I approached him, he looked around to see if we were alone and then said, “Len, I found these things under the back seat. Look, it’s none of my business, but I thought you should see them.” He handed me a paper bag, shook his head, turned and left for the weekend. 

I took the bag to the workbench and emptied it. It was obvious why Charlie had been so circumspect. I just stared at the items, knowing full well the implications they presented to my marriage. They were fairly fresh and had obviously not been under the seat for very long. The only question for me was whether I should confront Sheila with them, or whether I should destroy them and live with the knowledge. I knew Charlie would say nothing, but what was happening really made me rethink the whole idea of rebuilding the little Chevy as a tribute to our "enduring" relationship.

That night, after dinner, I retreated to my chair in the front room. Sheila followed me, and as I sat down, she confronted me, saying, “Okay, Len. You’ve been brooding all evening. What is it?”

I said nothing as I reached into my pocket and handed her the contents of the paper bag. She slowly looked at them, then put her arms down to her side and cautiously asked, “Who in the hell gave you these?” Her eyes were welling up with tears.

I looked directly at her and said, “Charlie did. They were under the back seat of the Chevelle. What should I think? Is it true?”

“Would you believe me if I told you it wasn't?”

I didn’t answer. She made a good point.

“Okay, it’s true. I shouldn’t have hidden it from you, but I did. I know how devastating this must be. But see my side of it. You have been taking me for granted for years. I had become just an appendage of you. I needed to be me for once!” As she wiped the tears from her cheek, she haltingly added, "It was only that one time, Len."

As I slowly got out of my chair, I reached out to her and held her closely, and as she sobbed for the first time in years, I comforted her. Then, I gently took the items from her hand and threw them into the roaring fireplace.

“I understand now, honey. I get it. But next time you decide to vote for a Republican for president, please, think about what you’re doing first and don't bring the evidence home, whatever you do.”



Class Reunion

The jeweler took out his loop, put the ring on the counter, and politely addressed the customer, “I can give you $3,000 for the ring, but if you’ll let me remove the diamond and take a closer look, I might be able to give you more.”

The customer, an older man, was adamant, “No, I’ll take the $3,000.”

“Very well, sir, just let me get the money together, and prepare the bill of sale,” the jeweler responded. Then, as an aside, he added, “You’re sure you don’t want me to take a closer look for perhaps a significantly higher amount, Mr. . . . , uh, I didn’t catch your name?”

“Cramers the name, and no, and let’s make it snappy, okay.” It was apparent the customer was in a hurry.

After a few minutes, the paperwork was signed, the money was handed over, and the transaction was complete. The jeweler stood behind his counter, carefully watching the customer as he left the shop, and waited until the door closed before angrily muttering under his breath, “You son of a bitch, after all these years. You come in here, push me around, and don’t even acknowledge that I was one of your students.”

It had been twenty-seven years since the jeweler had graduated from high school, but not a day went by that he didn’t remember the years of brutal harassment from his teacher, Mr. Cramer. There were only about a hundred students at his small high school, and only four teachers. But Mr. Cramer had taken a special interest in tormenting him, whether it was in the classroom or on the athletic field, where Mr. Cramer was also a coach. It had got so bad at one point that the young student had even contemplated dropping out. But he stuck to it, took the daily humiliation, and graduated. And while the scars of the brutally unfair treatment at the hands of Mr. Cramer were still with him, he never really contemplated doing anything about it. That was about to change.

He closed the shop early, giving his five employees some excuse. Quickly driving to his expensive penthouse apartment where he lived alone with his cat, he sat down with a stiff drink and his high school yearbook. Slowly, he turned to each dog-eared page, the ones showing pictures of him. A gaunt, lost youth stared back at him from each page. The pictures showed only the one-dimensional results of Cramer’s actions. He wept slowly as the fear and anguish of those days flooded back into his awareness. He knew that Cramer had stolen from him something that couldn’t be replaced. Cramer had stolen his youth and as a result, he never married, never had children, never had friends and devoted his entire existence to his successful jewelry business in downtown Chicago. Closing the yearbook, he wiped his eyes, finished his drink, and got busy planning on how to deal with Mr. Cramer once and for all.

Being in the jewelry business was essentially a sales job. To be successful, a jeweler had to be able to read people. The jeweler prided himself on that skill, and he figured Cramer as an elderly, poor, lonely man, living frugally in a big city without too many years to live. He justified what he planned to do as being no big loss to humanity. His plan was simple, as are most good plans. Cramer would receive a call from him in a few days saying that the jeweler had resold the ring for much more than he had anticipated, and that he wanted to share his windfall with Cramer. Could they meet at some place, say a bar, where he could deliver an additional $2,000? It would set his mind at ease, he would add.

Cramer was cranky on the phone but agreed to meet the jeweler at a dive neighborhood bar around the corner from Cramer’s apartment. The meet was set for 10:00 p.m. next Thursday evening. It was the jeweler’s plan to kill Cramer in the parking lot before he entered the bar, but not before letting Cramer know who was doing the killing.

The jeweler scouted the bar for several nights, making sure there were no cameras, and determining the best place to lay in wait for his prey. For the first time in his adult life, he felt a surge of self-confidence, a powerful feeling he savored as he reviewed his plan over and over again. He made small changes by perfecting his getaway, disposal of the gun, and establishment of an airtight alibi. Finally, Thursday night came, and he was surprised how calm and determined he was, a far cry from the frightened, awkward man of a few weeks ago. Who would suspect a meek downtown jeweler with a trouble-free history of such an act? It was going to be perfect.

The jeweler knew Cramer would be walking from his apartment to the bar. There was only one entrance to the bar and that was from the rear parking lot which was dimly lit, although the jeweler planned to knock out another light just before ten o’clock. He could just barely see a lonely figure approaching the bar way down the street, so he broke the light and carefully hid behind the dumpster in wait. As the figure approached, the jeweler removed his silenced pistol from his jacket, checking it once more. He could hear the footsteps now, but they were getting fainter, not louder. He peered around the dumpster and saw the figure walk past the bar on the sidewalk into the darkness of the street. Just then he felt a gun pressed up against his head.

“Well, Johnson, we meet again. Thought you’d have your little revenge, didn’t you, you sniveling little twerp,” the familiar hated voice announced. “Drop the gun now, dipshit!” The jeweler dropped his pistol and slowly turned around to face Cramer. Shaking almost uncontrollably now, the jeweler could only stare at the pistol Cramer was pointing at him. He was speechless, scared to death.

“I didn’t forget about you, Johnson. I haven’t forgotten about any of my special projects,” Cramer proudly stated. “You were just one of them. I had one for each class for almost fifteen years. Sixty little wimps, just like you.”

“I couldn’t teach forever, but I knew that many of my little projects, like you, would seek revenge someday. It gave me hope that my retirement wouldn’t be without some excitement.”

The jeweler could just make out the gleam in Cramer’s eyes.

“It’s the same with all of you idiots. I show up one day years later, pretending not to remember you. All the memories flood back in, and you start planning my demise. I took immense pleasure watching you over the last several nights casing out this joint. You might even find some solace in that you’re the thirty-seventh. Well, anyway, adios, Johnson.” With that, Cramer shot the jeweler in the head , took his watch and wallet, and slowly walked away.

He always kept a souvenir. He thought he deserved them after years of faithful service as a high school teacher.


A Story for the Children


The old house on the lake was the perfect place to ride out the latest winter storm that was fiercely lashing the southern Oregon coast. It was built with large, hand-hewn timbers and field stone, and as the builder had often said, it was like a plough horse, tall, wide, and strong in all the right places. While the electricity had been out for several hours, the inhabitants were warmed by the fire in the huge fireplace that dominated the living-room, and which sent heat and a low, flickering light throughout the living- room and into the adjacent kitchen.

Grandma sat in her large, comfortable chair, quietly knitting and occasionally sipping cold tea from the large mug on the nearby table. Her two granddaughters played together with their dolls on the plank floor near the hearth, totally unaware of the storm’s fury outside. Their mother toiled in the dimly lit kitchen, almost out of earshot, knowing that grandma was watching her children closely.

Grandma stopped knitting when she heard her daughter say something from the kitchen. She responded, “What was that, honey? I didn’t hear you very well. The rain, you know.”

Her daughter poked her head around the corner and said, “What I said, Mom, was why don’t you tell the girls one of your stories about the old days here. You know, a little local history. We’re going to be here for a while before Mark returns. What do you say?”

Grandma nodded and motioned for the girls to come over by her feet. “Come, girls, grandma is going to tell you a story.” The two girls bundled up their dolls, and crawled over to grandma’s chair, giggling in anticipation.

“Grandma, why do you wear a baseball cap all the time?” one of the girls asked innocently.

“I just love my baseball, dear, and it makes me feel like I’m sitting in the stadium watching the game.”

“Mom says it isn’t very ladylike, grandma,” the other girl remarked with a grin.

“Well, we can talk about that later. But now, grandma wants to tell you the story about the “Donner Party”, girls.”

From the kitchen, she could hear her daughter yelling, “Mother, NO!”

Grandma reacted calmly, saying “Okay, okay, not that one. How about the one about the four local men who got into trouble with giant jellyfish while swimming just beyond the surf line?”

The daughter’s reaction from the kitchen was swift and sharp, “Mom, either tell the girls a suitable story, or they will have to go to bed RIGHT NOW!”

Grandma waited for a moment before continuing, “Well, girls, I guess it’s time you learned how Cream Puffs first arrived in southern Oregon, hundreds of years ago!” She waited to see how the girls and her daughter would react. With no comments coming from the kitchen, and with the girls raptly looking up at her, she decided she had the go-ahead to tell the story.

“A long time ago, there was a big storm like the one tonight. A Russian ship was blown off course and had to anchor near the river mouth to make repairs. They were explorers, sent by the Russian Tsar to find new sources of wealth, like seals and walrus.”

One of the girls asked, “What’s a Tsar, grandma?”

“Well, he was the all-powerful ruler of Russia. And he had sent his grandson along on the voyage as his personal representative in case the explorers needed to negotiate sealing rights. And he sent his personal chef, too, to make sure his grandson ate well on the voyage.”

The girls were nearly motionless as grandma continued, “One day, the Captain, the Tsar’s grandson, the chef, and a landing party went ashore to cut wood for repairs and to scout the area for seals. Instead, they encountered a group of local Indians, and there was a brief, but violent, battle. The grandson and the chef were taken prisoner by the Indians and held hostage for ransom.”

“What’s ransom, grandma?” asked one of the girls.

“It’s like if I took your doll and said you couldn’t have it back unless you gave me something valuable in return,” grandma answered. The child nodded that she understood.

“Anyway, negotiations for the release of the grandson didn’t go well, and the Indians were just about ready to do away with the grandson and the chef when something amazing happened!”

“What, grandma, what?” the girls shouted in unison.

“The chef made Cream Puffs for the Indians, girls. He used what he had when he was taken prisoner, and the Indians had never tasted anything like it before. They decided to spare the grandson and the chef, but they never returned them. The ship went back to Russia without them.” She stopped, smiled and waited for the girl’s response.

Instead, her daughter, who was also listening from around the corner, said, “That was wonderful, grandma. I’m sure the girls loved it. Now, whether it’s true, well . . .”

Just then, the front door opened, and a rush of wind swept through the house as Mark entered and quickly closed the door.

“I’m home, everybody! What a storm! I got dessert.”

“Daddy, daddy, what did you get?” the girls excitedly shouted as they ran to meet their father.

“Cream puffs, of course. We always have cream puffs from Sergie’s Bakery when there’s a big storm, remember?”, he said, putting down the box and shaking the rain off his hat and coat.

Grandma slowly got up from her chair and hugged her son-in-law. “How is old Sergie these days, Mark? Still hard to understand?”

“Oh, yeah, grandma. What a strange mixture he is, part Russian, part Indian. How did that happen?”

Grandma just smiled and returned to her knitting.

Ground Control


Capt. Rey took a deep breath, adjusted his headset, and spoke slowly and distinctly, “Houston, this is Ranger 3, we have landed on Mars. It is 09:42:33 GMT, 5 March, 2034. New worlds and new hope."

He turned to his co-pilot, smiled, gave him a thumbs-up, and said, “Major, commence routine shutdown procedure.”

“Roger, Captain. By the way, did Houston ever get back to us on the orbital parameters we requested for the return trip?”

“Yes, Major, they’re in the database and ready to use. Anxious to get home?”

The Major laughed as he took off his headset and began the shutdown procedure. Capt. Rey remained at his console, double-checking his fuel numbers 

Without warning, the Major poked the Captain’s shoulder. Rey took off his headset and looked at him.

“Captain, did you just hear what I heard?”

Rey shook his head and answered, “What are you talking about, Major? I didn’t hear anything." Then, with a grin, he added, " You’re not coming apart on me, are you?”

The Major was adamant. “No, wait, Captain. Now, there it is again. A knocking on the hatch. Did you hear it?”

Rey nodded, assumed a serious demeanor, and turned on the video display to the exterior hatch. Both men watched as the figure knocked again on the hatch.

Capt. Rey activated the PA system and hesitantly asked, “Who are you? What do you want?”

The figured looked up at the video camera and responded, “You don’t know me. I’m Jim Ames, 3rd unit director from Studio B. Mr. Spielberg took ill an hour ago, so I’m handling the shoot. We have a major technical problem, so I’m calling an early lunch.”

Rey looked at the Major, shook his head, and chuckled, “It’s getting harder and harder to fake these landings, isn’t it?”




Gun Control


The loaded pistol sat on the table in front of him next to a half-empty vodka bottle. He had always kept the gun locked away and only brought it out to clean it every so often. It was only for self-protection he had told himself all these years. But now it was going to be used for something different, something he had never contemplated until now.

Nobody in his family had ever taken their own life, much less the life of another. It was something that always happened to others, especially the weak ones. The obituaries always dealt with it in their own way. “So-and-so died unexpectedly at the age of 28.” The actual act was only discussed later in whispers. “Can you imagine the mess? And the shock when they opened the door?” And now it was legal in many states, and the stigma wasn’t quite as harsh as it used to be. But still, he thought, this one was going to shock the community.

The last few months had been horrific. The accusations came suddenly and without warning, and they were detailed and believable. At first, he thought the denials would be enough, especially when they were videotaped and shown on the local news. But police reports were filed, and the follow-up investigations had unearthed additional victims who themselves came forward. Nobody believed the denials anymore, and the town’s blood was up for retribution. There was no mistaking what was coming. A messy trial, salacious press coverage, endless shame, and ultimately prison. Even the lawyers were pessimistic under the circumstances.

He thought about his marriage and his children. He and his wife had always been stalwarts in the community, with children who mirrored their parent’s virtues. His pride ran deep when he reflected upon the years of upright living and the successes of his children as they matured and had children of their own. It was with those grandchildren that the problems emerged. It was inconceivable how such acts could have been perpetrated on those innocents, but they were, and on others. He had no excuse for what happened, nor had he any explanation for the impulses that drove the actions.

The revelations had torn his family apart. His wife, shocked, horrified, and repulsed, had retreated into mind-numbing medication. She sat alone most of the day, looking at family pictures and often sobbing. His daughters could do little except stroke their mother’s hair and talk softly to her. His wife was inconsolable and not likely to recover from the shock. While they cared for his wife, his daughters left him alone. They seldom spoke to him and showed little emotion when they did. It was understandable, given the circumstances.

As the trial date neared, he drew closer to his oldest son. They often talked at length together in the small bedroom upstairs, their frank discussions somehow alleviating the guilt and shame for a while. Blame wasn’t on the table during these conversations, nor was justification. It was just a father and son trying to understand what went wrong.

Most contact with outsiders had ceased by the time the trial had begun. While neighbors had brought food to their door early in the process, that generosity had stopped when full details of the crimes were released by the press. Even taking a walk around the block was risky. People tended to yell things from cars or houses. Their world had become very small, consisting of just the trial and home. Even the family minister had stopped dropping in.

The suicide option was raised in one of the conversations he had with his oldest son. It came up after an unusually difficult day in court. It was becoming clear that the jury would convict, and the judge would sentence to the maximum. They were both concerned about how the family would fare afterwards, given the community’s ire. It seemed to both of them that suicide would somehow bring a more rapid closure for the community than a long prison sentence, and thus allow the family at least a chance of redemption and peace.

It was the day before sentencing, and he was in the small upstairs bedroom with his oldest son. The decision had been made, and only the two of them knew about it. They both were exhausted, but felt sure that they had made the right decision. They held each other, looked into each other’s eyes, and felt a closeness that few knew in this life. As they sat down at the table near the window facing each other, he took the pistol in his right hand, pulled back on the receiver, checked that it was loaded, released the safety catch, and set the weapon back on the table with the butt towards his son.

He pushed the gun across the table and slowly said, “Do it the way I told you, son. You won’t feel a thing. But wait until I’m out of the room and downstairs with your mother and sisters, alright?”

Mind Moves


The detective’s office was neat, unusually neat for a cop working a hectic schedule. But the psychiatrist was less focused on the detective’s behaviors than he was on those of one of his own patients.

“Now this is the point I want to focus on, Doctor. Please continue what you were saying about the clock, and remember, the suspect has waived his privacy rights,” the detective said as he leaned forward on his desk.

“Yes, the clock is the crux of the case, detective. Anyway, as I was saying, after I diagnosed the suspect’s condition, I decided on a therapeutic program whereby I would cause small changes in his behaviors in an attempt to help alleviate his suffering.” The Doctor riffled through his notes as he continued to speak. “I felt that he had to confront his obsessiveness, but gradually. So, I insinuated small changes in his physical surroundings, and then told him to document how these changes affected his behavior.”

The detective stopped writing for a moment and asked, “Let me see if I understand your thinking. Your plan was to slightly rearrange the suspect’s physical world, and then determine whether his behavioral reaction to these changes was therapeutic, is that correct?”

“You’d make a good therapist, detective. Yes, that’s what I was trying to achieve. I anticipated that when the suspect confronted how he felt and behaved regarding the changes, he would begin to understand how his obsessiveness was undermining his wellbeing.”

The detective asked the next question very earnestly. “So why did you choose the clock as the first physical change? I mean, you could have moved anything. Why move the clock?”

“Time is at the center of many obsessions, detective. I think we know this intuitively. So, my thinking was to alter his relationship with time just a little. As it turned out, it was a huge mistake.” The Doctor retreated into silence as the detective got up from his chair, looked out the window, and contemplated his next question.

“That’s the part that has us stumped, Doctor. All you did was to move the clock in his bedroom from the desk to a nearby table, is that right?” the detective asked.

“Yes, you’ve been to his bedroom. I moved the alarm clock to the right about 3 feet. But as we now know, that was enough to precipitate the series of events we are now dealing with. But, as you can probably guess, I had no reasonable anticipation of any of this happening. Unprecedented, in my experience, detective.”

“Would I then be correct in concluding, Doctor, that the suspect’s worst behaviors were being held in check by the physical arrangement of his world? And that moving the clock somehow unleashed his most sinister impulses?”

The Doctor paused before answering. He adjusted his tie and looked slightly to the left of the detective as he answered, “Yes, that would be a fair conclusion, detective.  You could say moving the clock let the psychological genie out of the bottle.”

The detective probed a bit with the next question. “Is there any doubt that moving the clock caused his reaction? Any doubt at all? Could it have been something completely separate happening in his life at the same time, Doctor?”

“I asked myself the same question, detective. I have done little since those horrible occurrences except to verify that moving the clock was the cause. My other obsessive patients have responded unusually to small physical changes, too. None of them became violent, but their behaviors fundamentally changed. No, there is no doubt that the clock move caused his reactions. I plan to write a paper to document my theory. My understanding of the process is such that I can now accurately predict the type of behavioral change that will occur.”


“You know, Doctor, the victims of the suspect will probably try to have your license revoked.” As he spoke, the detective rose from his chair and looked out the window again before turning around and continuing. “And the fact that you continued to “experiment” on your obsessive patients won’t help your case at all. I’ll probably be called at your revocation hearing to testify about what we’ve talked about today. Comments?” 

“Oh, I don’t worry about anything you might testify about, detective. By the way, when you just looked out the window, I took the liberty of moving the picture of you in Iraq about six inches to the left on your desk.” The psychiatrist half smiled as the full impact of that statement took its effect on the detective. 

As the Doctor carefully backed out of the detective’s office, quietly closing the door, he marveled at the ability of the human mind to let go of sanity so effortlessly.

Cats Don't Cry


The little girl sat quietly in the big chair, her feet not quite touching the floor. The room was dimly lit and shabby, but that didn’t bother the child. She was used to having very little. But she knew her mother loved her very much.

“Mommy, where do you think Fluffy is now?”

The little girl’s mother was used to questions like this. Her daughter was a thoughtful child, often asking questions well beyond her age. She liked talking to her daughter when they were alone. It made her feel there was purpose to her life.

“Fluffy’s time here was over, and her time at some other place is just beginning. It’s the same with all living creatures, even you and me. But we’re not meant to know about the other place. Sometimes it’s hard even to figure out this place.”

The child smiled. “Remember how quiet Fluffy could be? And then something would happen, and she would arch her back, and growl, and hiss, and sometimes scratch.”

“Oh, yes, honey, I remember. Cats are like that.”

“Daddy was like that, too.”

The mother sighed. She had spent years dealing with her husband’s moods and trying to protect her child. She was exhausted. “Fluffy couldn’t help herself, baby. That’s how cats are. But Daddy was like that sometimes just because he could.”

The little girl played with her doll for a few moments before speaking again. “Fluffy would see something and get scared. But we couldn’t see it, only Fluffy could see it. Was Daddy like that?”

“Daddy saw things that we didn’t see, you’re right. Things that came out of a whiskey bottle.”

“Mommy, are the bad things still in the bottles even when they are empty?” the child asked, buttoning up her doll.

“No, baby. The bad things leave the bottle. Remember that when you grow up. You see an empty bottle, you know where the bad things went!”

“Daddy was mean to Fluffy sometimes. I cried when Daddy hurt Fluffy. She never did anything to Daddy, but he still hurt her. Just like he hurt you, Mommy.”

“Remember the night Daddy came to my room and hurt me, Mommy? And Fluffy, she bit me right after he left?”

The mother brushed away a tear as she answered, “Yes, baby, I remember.”

“And remember the next day when Daddy cried? But Fluffy didn’t cry. They both hurt me, Mommy. Why didn’t Fluffy cry?”

“Baby, Daddy was feeling something that Fluffy could never feel. It was kind of a pain he had to deal with.”

“What’s it called, Mommy?”

“It’s called shame, baby.”

“Could Daddy take a pill to make it go away, Mommy?”

“No, baby, there’s no pill for shame.”

They both sat quietly for a few more moments. The mother got up and looked out the window. It was still dark, but the morning light was starting to shed into the eastern hills. She grabbed her hat and coat off the table, walked over to the big chair, and knelt next to her daughter.

“Did you ever see Daddy cry again, Mommy?”

“Just once, one last time.”

“Mommy, where are all the empty bottles?”

“Daddy dug a big hole behind the shed down by the creek. His one goal in life was to fill that hole with bottles. He got a good start.”

“Is that where Fluffy is, Mommy, in the hole with the bottles?”

“Yes, baby.”

“Is Daddy there, too?  Are all the bad things gone from the hole, Mommy?”

“Yes, baby, Daddy is there, too, and the bad thing are all gone. Now you get up and go back to bed. I’ve got a few things I have to do down by the creek before the sun comes up.”                           


A Simple Two Bullet Job


The two had known each other for years. He handled details like who, what, where, and how much. She handled the killing. They worked well together. She never met the clients, never handled the money end, and nobody knew anything about her except she was the best at what she did.

“O.K., those are the details. It’s pretty straight-forward, Pee Bee. In and out, except the client’s paying extra for the face to face.” The man pushed a folder across the table to her.

She opened it and read the single-spaced typed page. “These two, they’re old, right? Usually together at home most of the time. But the client wants them to know who sent me, right? He wants me to say, ‘Jimmy says goodbye,’ then one to the head of each?” She looked back at the man.

“Yeah, that’s it. An extra five grand for three words, Pee Bee.” He never smiled, but she could tell he was visualizing the hit in his mind right now. She never did that.

She killed her first man when she was fifteen. Turned out, she liked it. But she knew she had to not only be good, but careful. She hooked up with the man quite by accident in West Virginia when she was on a job in her early twenties. He was the one who helped her develop her craft and gave her a nickname, Pee Bee. He knew that anonymity was crucial, but so was mystique. Pee Bee, short for Point Blank. Her specialty.

She had a knack for stealth—she could pick almost any lock and was good with alarm. He saw to that. He always said it wasn’t the hit, it was everything before the hit. Each job was meticulously planned by the man. They’d done twenty-four jobs together over the past thirteen years and she still had no criminal record. Proud wasn’t how she’d describe her track record, maybe satisfied was the word. She slept well at night.

“When does the client want it done? I got that out-patient thing, you know.”

“No later than the 10th.”

“Right. You and me, no contact until after it’s done. Then we take a break while I get fixed. Then, back to work.”

“O.K., Pee Bee, see you when it’s done.” The man got up, picked up the folder, and left the motel room. It was always like this. Straight-up business. No nonsense, and it worked.

He arranged a stolen car for her with phony plates for the night of the hit. She never carried the weapon. It was always either in or very near the location of the hit. She typically drove in from about a hundred miles out. No traces like motels or gas stations. He carefully arranged her routes to avoid cameras. She was a ghost for all intents and purposes.

She parked two blocks away and waited. While the man knew the police patrol schedule, she just wanted to double check. As the last patrol car left the area, she started her slow walk towards the location. She walked past the house on the opposite side of the street and noticed nothing out of the ordinary.

She then walked on the same side of the street and quickly slipped through the hedges until she was against the house. No alarms, no cameras, no dogs, just like the man said. The weapon was where it was supposed to be, left there by the gardener. She slowly moved around the house to the side door opposite the garage.

The door opened easily, and she quietly entered the utility room. She could hear some people talking, and she mentally reviewed the house plan the man had sent her. Her weapon was out with the safety off now. The silencer was screwed on. Careful to not cast any shadows, she moved one step at a time towards the living room.

The voices continued as she moved within a few feet of the living room. Two people, older, talking. Nobody else. She made her move.

As she turned the corner, with her gun out and ready, prepared to say the words and shoot, there was no one there. Just a tape recorder. She immediately understood.

The first bullet hit her in the left shoulder. She returned fired and was hit again in her right side. She fired again. Both her wounds were through and throughs. But she hit the shooters, she knew that. She crawled to the back of the couch and listened. The pain was intense, but she was not going to pass out, not yet.

No footsteps, no movement. No shadows. Nothing.

She crawled around the living room and found the shooters. Dead. She managed to get to her feet and hobble out the front door. She half expected another shooter, but there was none. It took her twenty minutes to get to her car.

She picked up her phone and made a call. It went to voice mail, so she made it quick. “It didn’t work. You’re next.”

As she slowly drove off, she swallowed some pain pills her doctor had prescribed. She felt pretty good, considering. And she was going to feel a whole lot better when a certain someone was dead.

Small Town Excitement


The town was small, and the town budget was smaller. The result was that the town library and museum were housed in the same wood building on Main Street, right next to the small police station. Anyone walking into the building would be immediately impressed by the fine wood paneling adorning the library walls. The books were arrayed in neat shelving all around the single library room, and seven large tables filled its center. The lighting was just right for reading, and it all was neat as a pin.

The museum was on the other side of the entrance. It was a semi-circular room which one entered on the left and exited on the right. The middle housed a diorama from floor to ceiling, so that when you entered, you were in a time tunnel of sorts, surrounded by pictures, artifacts, and memorabilia from the town’s past. People were known to have spent hours in the museum, and would have been locked in were it not for the librarian’s cautious eye.

Cynthia had left the big city seven years earlier after her second husband had died. She sold her publishing business and left it all behind to reconnect with her roots in the town of her youth. The Town Council was thrilled to have someone of Cynthia’s talents and experience take over as manager of the library and the museum. They especially liked that she only required one dollar per year as a stipend. Her foresight and organizational skills had transformed both the museum and the library into fully functioning town centers, and they were in the black for the first time.

There usually was a line at the entrance each morning when Cynthia arrived to open. The library and museum had become social centers and literally teemed with locals all day long. Cynthia didn’t mind the noise. She knew just how important these two places had become in the life of the small town, and in her life as well. Everyone was proud to have her running things. They always said Cynthia knew how to manage things—she knew books, and she knew people, especially men.

And was she ever organized. Not only did everything have its place, but she also knew the budget down to the penny, who the best volunteers were, and where to get money if she needed it for any special projects. And she was punctual, always opening and closing on time. And if anybody left anything behind, it went immediately into the Lost and Found. And if it was expensive, it went next door to the town police officer. Cynthia and Officer Larsen had a deal going. She would pop-in just after library closing with an item, place it on the desk and say something like, “Here’s some more Lost and Found stuff, George. You know what to do,” and walk out.

The only problem Cynthia saw on the horizon was Will Clayton. Will and his wife were wealthy and lived out of town on a hill in a large estate. They frequently threw lavish parties for out-of-towners, and there were rumors about Will’s behavior around women. The Claytons had a hard time keeping help, and everybody who went to work with them had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement. So the rumors remained just that. Will wasn’t really a problem for Cynthia yet, but she knew the type. She’d seen enough of them in the city. It was probably just a matter of time.

Usually around mid-afternoon on any weekday, Clayton would ramble into the library. There often was a whiff of alcohol on his breath. He would wave and smile as he made his way around the library tables. He had perfected several moves as far as Cynthia could determine. One was the one-arm hug. Clayton would amble up to a woman, grab her opposite shoulder with his hand, and pull her close to him with a big hug. Another one was the stop and hover. He would stop where a woman was seated at a table, hover for a moment engaging in conversation, and eventually place one hand on her shoulder while he bent over to catch a peek. None of these standing actions alone were concerning to Cynthia, but it was the total behavior set that bothered her. No woman had yet complained, but Cynthia was watching. And he had never done anything to her, yet.

It was near closing time, and Cynthia could see that the library was empty. She loved that she never had to hustle any of the locals out the door. It was small town behavior like that which had brought her back from the city. She moved quickly around the library, picking up books from the tables and placing them back on the shelves. She made a quick check for items that people may have left behind, but found nothing.

Cynthia then crossed the entryway to the left side of the museum. It was her intent to walk through the exhibition and check for any late-stayers. But her eye caught something to her right, on the table at the exit of the museum. It appeared to be an airline bag. As she approached, it was clear that it contained clothing, as the top was partially unzipped. And there was a name tag. She reached out to pick up the bag when she heard a noise to her left.

Turning slightly, she saw Clayton standing about five feet away in the tunnel, wearing nothing but a pair of socks and an obviously excited attitude. He had a slight grin on his face, and his hands were down to his side. Cynthia turned to face him squarely, and smiled broadly. At the same time, she started to unbutton her blouse with her left hand. Clayton’s grin turned into a smile as he backed up slowly, motioning Cynthia to follow him into the recesses of the tunnel. She made a one step in his direction, quickly turned, grabbed the airline bag, and ran out the library door.

Officer Larsen was at the desk as Cynthia rushed in, put the bag down, and said, “Here’s some more Lost and Found stuff, George. You know what to do,” and then walked out, the smile still on her face.

Mashed Potatoes for Thanksgiving


Grandpa was a huge hulk of a man. Now in his eighties, he had a physique that was envied by men in their fifties. He was a product of decades of hard physical labor, with great wide shoulders, a narrow waist, large forearms, and particularly big hands. And he was a caring, kind man who never raised his voice, even though there were hints of violence in the scars around his eyes and ears. It was this man who every Thanksgiving made his special mashed potatoes for his large family.

It was almost a ceremony the way he went about preparing the potatoes. He insisted that he be left alone at the sink, although small children would be allowed, if quiet, to watch him from the doorway. What they saw was this brooding hulk of a man carefully and lovingly washing and peeling each potato. His sons always said he had a zen-like demeanor while preparing the potatoes. It was like he was washing the bottom of the baby Jesus, they would joke, with each potato disappearing temporarily into his huge hands while being scrubbed and peeled.

After cooking, Grandpa would carefully mash the potatoes and then add his secret ingredients from a small plastic bag he would always bring. No one knew what they were, and no one asked. But whatever was in that bag resulted in the most delicious mashed potatoes anyone had ever tasted. They were the dish that everybody loved at Thanksgiving.

What no one knew, because Grandpa never told anyone, was that he was a Polish Jew from a small town outside Krakow. When the Nazis came to his village, he was out in the fields and could just see his parents and his brothers and sisters being taken away. He hid silently as his home and barn were burned. That night, he fled to the farm of a nearby Christian family, who took him in as one of their own.

He was given papers by the local priest and others who supported the story that he was a Christian child, son of the farmer and his wife. For the duration of the war, he maintained this identity, and he never saw any of his real family again. His most vivid memory of that time was the mashed potatoes the farmer’s wife would make on special occasions. She showed him her secret and vowed him to secrecy, and ever since her death, and after he emigrated to America, he honored her memory by making her mashed potatoes whenever he could.

He continued as a Christian in America, blended in and worked hard at many jobs. He was a logger, a merchant seaman, a carpenter, and finally a superintendent at a lumber mill. Success came with hard work. He stayed out of trouble for the most part, and his calm demeanor served him well. Every so often, however, if someone got out of line about “the Jews”, he would straighten them out in a way that made similar statements unlikely in the future. And he never told anyone about his past. He figured he was just one of millions with a similar story. What difference would it make if one more story was told.

This Thanksgiving was no different. The large family gathered at his son’s home, and Grandpa was the honored guest, and everyone was full of anticipation for his mashed potatoes. As the family mingled in the home, Grandpa noticed that one of his grandsons was sporting a new look. A closely shaved head, piercings, some new tattoos, and a T-shirt with the phrase “White Christian Power” in very small letters on the front. It was clear by the fresh scars on his face and hands that he had been fighting recently.

As Grandpa went about his usual secret preparations in the kitchen, he was particularly somber this year. He was still careful and solemn with the process, but he was feeling something different this time. He was going to have to do something he had been avoiding for over seven decades.

The family gathered around the table and sat down one by one. Grandpa, as usual, was at the head of the table with a huge bowl of mashed potatoes in front of him. His large family was arrayed around the table, with the skin-head grandson near the end, but in full view of Grandpa.

It was a tradition for someone to raise their hand each year and ask the same question. It was a family tradition and kind of a joke, and everybody loved it. His youngest son raised his hand and asked, “Dad, please tell us the secret of your mashed potatoes. We beg you, please.” There was laughter around the table as people started to reach for food and drink, expecting the same time-worn denial Grandpa was so well known for. But this year was different.

“If you please, I have something to say,” Grandpa said in his typical slow and gentle way. “I am going to tell you the story about the mashed potatoes, so please give me your attention for next few minutes.”

He didn’t rise, he didn’t have to. He was heads above everyone else. As he spoke, he looked from person to person. As he told them about his Jewish upbringing on the farm, he noticed his grandson was clenching his jaw and balling his fists at the end of the table. All eyes were on Grandpa as he detailed his family’s destruction, his rearing as a Christian, the story about the mashed potatoes, and his decades in America as an émigré. No one ate or drank. They hardly breathed as he reached the end of his story. Then the crying started, slowly at first, and then the whole table let loose.

Grandpa was not crying. Instead, he was focusing on his grandson at the end of the table. The young man with the skin-head and T-shirt was sobbing, but smiling, his jaw and fists no longer clenched.

After a few moments, his oldest son stood up with his arm around his grandson and quietly said, “Father, we would all be proud to sit Seder with you this year.”

Local Knowledge


The agent glanced down at the documents in the file and thought about the next question. This was her first interrogation as an FBI agent, and she wanted to be sure she followed Bureau protocol to the letter. “When you arrived at Majuro, who did you first meet and what did you learn?”

Colin adjusted himself in his chair and replied, “Well, I met with a Mr. Adjuri of the Kwajalein Education Committee. He welcomed me and said I had to have a physical examination to insure I could deal with the rigors of my new job.”

“I thought you were just going to be teaching English to school children. What rigors was he talking about?”

“Mr. Adjuri told me I was going to be posted to a small atoll several days by boat from Majuro. This was the first time I knew I wasn’t going to be teaching in the capital. I was a bit surprised, as you might imagine, and had visions of head hunters, cannibals, that sort of thing.” Colin stopped to take a drink of water before continuing. “It turns out that food was scarce on the atoll and I would have to spear fish and climb trees to supplement my diet.”

The agent held a document from Colin’s file in her hands. “I see that you passed the physical examination. It says here that you are 23 years of age, 153 pounds, in good physical shape, with no communicable diseases or limitations on physical activity. Is that correct?”

“Yes, that was correct at the time. Mr. Adjuri then told me I had to board an inter-island boat that would drop me and my supplies at the atoll in two days. He indicated there were fifteen villagers on the island, they had a working radio in case of emergency, and that the boat only visited the island once every six months.”

“But you signed a one-year agreement, correct?”

“Yes, I would get a ride back to Majuro on the third boat to visit the island.”

“Did anything of importance happen on the boat ride?”

“No, other than the boat was a real rust bucket, no beds, and a latrine hanging over the fantail. I got ahold of a tarp and strung it over the back side of the anchor windlass and stayed there for the entire trip. The deck was full of passengers and it was filthy.”

“You arrived at the atoll and disembarked. Who met you and what happened?”

“No one met me at first. The pallet with my supplies was left on the pier and the boat departed. I just waited for several hours until someone walked out to meet me.”

“Who was that person?”

“Turned out to be the Head Man. We managed to roughly communicate. I know three languages, so I was able to determine that I was not welcome to live in the village, but instead was directed to live about half a mile down the beach in a separate hut. Turned out to be just four sticks and a flat roof. For the first week or so, I was on my own for everything.”

“How did you survive?”

“Not well, that’s for sure. I climbed trees for coconuts for the meat and the water. I spear fished for my meals, and ate local pumpkins that grew wild. Of course, I had some food from the boat, but not much. And all the while, almost out of sight, the people of the village watched me and did nothing.”

The agent checked her watch. “How long before you made contact with the rest of the villagers?”

“I’d say about ten days. After that, they became friendly and welcomed me into the village from time to time. It was clear there weren’t fifteen villagers anymore. Just twelve. And no working radio. And they all were very undernourished. It was a sad situation.” He paused before continuing. “I know what you are going to ask. When did I start teaching English to them?  The Head Man showed me where I could leave my teaching supplies, and that was that. The kids came first. They were eager and they loved the picture and word booklets I  brought. Within a few weeks, they had vocabularies of about a hundred English words, and I learned those words in Micronesian. Then the adults started to show interest, and since I knew a little of their language, things went quickly.”

“What about the deaths?” the Agent interjected.

“It turns out when anyone in the village becomes sick or injured, they are brought to the Head Man and left alone with him. He treats the disease or injury, but if a villager dies, the Head Man immediately disposes of the body to avoid spirits endangering the village. The family of the dead person only finds out later what happened.”

“How did the Head Man dispose of the bodies?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe he just rowed out to sea a bit and dropped them over the side, or something like that.”

“And everyone just accepted this process without question.”

“Oh, yes, without question. They really believe that the spirits of the dead are dangerous. Now, only two villagers died within the first six months. But in the last six months I was there, things got much worse. All the villagers died except the Head Man. It was just the two of us at the end.”

The Agent took a few minutes to write down a few notes before continuing the interrogation. “But not two when the boat arrived to pick you up, correct? The Head Man was missing. You were the only person left on the island, correct?”

“Yes, he was alive the night before the boat arrived. We discussed his situation, and he had decided that he would return to Majuro with me on the boat. But when I awoke the next day, he was gone along with one of the canoes. I just assumed he took off during the night. Two days later, I was on Majuro, took a second physical, and now here I am with you in Los Angeles.”

The Agent opened a second file and retrieved a document. She read it to herself slowly before addressing Colin. “Yesterday, the body of the Head Man was found in a canoe about ten miles off the atoll. He was dead, and his right leg was missing. Can you shed any light on how this situation might have come about?”

Colin slowly shook his head. “No, no, it was just as I told you. Maybe he was so depressed over the loss of all his relatives that he took off in the canoe and maybe a shark got ahold of him, or something.”

She was writing as Colin was talking, and then looked at him. “O.K., Colin. That’s all for now. I’ll forward my report to headquarters. I assume you’ll be available for any follow-up questions. Is this address and phone number correct?”

Colin nodded, shook the Agent’s hand, and was directed to the building exit by another Agent.

For seven weeks, the Agent heard nothing from her immediate superior about her report. She assumed she had done a good job, and was busy working on another case when she got a call to meet with her boss that afternoon about the Kwajalein case file.

As she entered her superior’s office, she sensed that something was amiss. In addition to her superior, a ranking member of the Brazilian consulate was also present. She was directed to sit as her superior began speaking. “Turns out that Colin didn’t hang around after you finished interviewing him. Seems he took a job as an English teacher with the Brazilian Department of Education. He’s now teaching Portuguese to primitive natives deep in the Amazon jungle where he can’t be reached for months, if not longer.”

The young Agent responded defensively, “I wasn’t instructed to take his passport, sir. I assumed it was just a courtesy for him to remain in the States.”

Her superior sat back in his chair as he glanced over at the Brazilian official on his right. “Okay, fair enough. But in your “extensive interrogation” of young Colin, did you review the results of the second physical examination he took before he returned home? Did you find anything out of the ordinary, anything that raised a red flag?” he asked in an accusatory manner, his voice slightly raised.

The young Agent was very nervous now. She was sure she missed something important when interrogating Colin. “No, no, I don’t recall anything that . . .”

His booming voice interrupted her in mid-sentence as he waived a document in her face. “You mean the fact that after a year on that god-forsaken atoll, young Colin weighed in at 187 pounds! That didn’t catch your attention, Agent? Really?”





The Bamboo Lover


Like so many long-term relationships, Bruno and Mary’s marriage had seen its ups and downs. But lately, it seemed to Bruno that it was hitting new lows. Sure, the ardor had waned, and the conversations had become mundane and predictable, but Mary seemed to be distant lately, remote. Bruno wasn’t paranoid, but he did have a healthy suspicious side to his nature. He suspected she was seeing someone.

He considered a private detective, but rejected the idea as being too heavy-handed and expensive. All he really wanted to know was the name of the other guy and to get Mary back in the marriage. The other guy was going to pay for their treachery, not Mary. She was a victim, too, Bruno concluded.

Over the next few weeks, Bruno methodically went about monitoring his wife’s activities by reading her text messages, identifying incoming and outgoing phone numbers, where her phone was when she wasn’t at home, and following all her social media. No pattern really emerged until the third week.

While scrolling through Mary’s text threads, he discovered that she was frequently in touch with her best friend, Brenda. This was not particularly unusual, except that her recent texts repeatedly referred to her new “Bamboo Lover”. She gushed repeatedly about her new friend, her Asian gift, her port in a storm. Bruno recalled that Mary had been dating a Japanese fellow before they met, and his suspicions focused there.

But it turned out to be a dead end. The fellow lived in Phoenix with his wife and two kids, and hadn’t been anywhere near Mary for years. Bruno knew, however, that he was on to something with this Asian boyfriend thing. He decided to take his surveillance to the next level. He started following Mary whenever she left the house.

He knew where she habitually went. Tracing her phone location for weeks showed that Mary followed a simple pattern. Shopping on some days, friends on other days, the gym from time to time, and the odd public locale the rest of the time. It was clear to Bruno that she was meeting her lover at one of those locales. It had to be either the public park, the walking paths, or the museum or zoo.

His patient shadowing started to pay off within days. By photographing her every ten minutes or so, Bruno was able to determine that several Asian men were in the photos of her at the museum and the zoo. Bruno struggled to tell them apart physically, so he categorized them by haircut. Two particularly looked promising, “buzz cut” and “Hollywood”. They appeared close to Mary in several shots, and while there was no interaction between either of them and Mary, that didn’t bother Bruno. He knew they were playing it cool. Smart.

Bruno concluded that Mary and her new boyfriend were probably connecting by phone when they were close to each other. It made perfect sense to Bruno. He patiently waited to catch either of the two men on the phone at the same time as Mary was phoning. On Thursday afternoon, at the Zoo, he saw it happening.

Mary was strolling about, stopping from time to time. Then, she pulled out her phone and started taking pictures. As she did, she waved and smiled and said something. Bruno looked around, and sure enough, “Hollywood” was nearby, also on the phone.

That was enough for Bruno. He finally figured out what they were up to. They were disguising their contacts very cleverly. Probably having phone sex, he concluded. But he had his culprit, and today was the day to put a stop to this treachery and get his Mary back.

His focus switched to “Hollywood”. Bruno tailed him for over an hour. The guy was good, Bruno concluded. Hard to spot what he was up to. But Bruno’s plan was clear. He’d get the guy in the parking lot. It would be a hit and run in a place with no cameras and hopefully no witnesses.

Bruno put an end to the treachery with a glancing blow with his sedan to “Hollywood”.. The man rose quickly in the air and came down about ten feet from where he was struck. As Bruno drove off, he looked in his rearview mirror and didn’t see anybody gathering around the body. Good news.

All he had to do now was wait for Mary to discover her loss, deal with it, and return to the marriage. The papers and internet covered the story for a couple of days, complete with the name of the victim and his picture. But Mary went about her life as if nothing had happened. She was still distant, but seemingly happy.

And then Bruno saw her most recent text to Brenda. It was clear that he had got the wrong boyfriend. She was still effusive about her Asian cuddly boy, and even mentioned to Brenda that she was going to visit him again today!

Bruno had no choice. He would have to repeat his attack on “buzzcut” this time. Mary had to be free to return to the marriage. It was the only way. He hid from view as Mary strolled around the Zoo. She stopped and took out her phone and started taking pictures and saying something. Bruno was positive “buzzcut” was nearby, but he didn’t see him anywhere.

As Mary moved on, she was talking on her phone, smiling and laughing. This enraged Bruno as he stalked her closely, knowing that “buzzcut” must be close.

He passed the place where Mary first stopped and took pictures. Looking around for clues, he saw nothing until he looked down at the plaque in front of the display. It read: “The Chinese Panda Bear is found only in northern Chinese mountain forests. This cuddly, loveable creature is a lover of bamboo and . . .”

Bruno stopped reading and slumped against the railing. He wasn’t aware of the two policemen who were approaching him, and the zoo employee who was pointing at him and saying, “That’s him, officers. That’s the guy who was in the parking lot.”




Off Trail


The last five days had been a living nightmare for Angela Marino. The words of the mysterious man on the phone saying her life was on the line still echoed in her mind. Then there was the huge forest fire that had nearly destroyed the town and terrorized the inhabitants. And finally, Phil’s brother-in-law, a battalion chief with the local fire department, had been grievously burned in the West Canyon fire three days ago. He was expected to live, but the burns covered over half his body.

Angela was stuck for the first time in years. So, she decided to do what usually worked for her in this type of situation. She decided to go for a short hike in East Canyon. It was unaffected by the recent blaze, and she knew the trail well. She could just get in a short hour hike before the sun left the forest.

As she neared the small parking lot at the trail head, she noticed a familiar pick-up truck parked about a quarter of a mile away from the parking lot. At least there would be somebody on the trail she knew and liked, she thought. She parked near the trail head, pulled on her pack, and started up the trail.

The going was easy as the trail had been well maintained all summer. The forest was beginning to change as cooler weather was fast coming in, and Angela enjoyed the fresh, brisk air filling her lungs as she hiked up the gradual slope. She remembered clearly how Phil hated these hikes. Not a real outdoorsman, that Phil.

It was at the half mile mark that she first heard the noise. It was faint, but it was human. She picked up her pace as the noise became a voice and the voice became words. “Help, help, anybody, help!”

Turning a sharp bend in the trail, Angela saw a small bag and flashlight by the trailside. The voice came from down slope to the right. As she looked down, she could barely see Bill but she could hear him clearly. She yelled out, “Bill, it’s Angela. I’ll be down in a minute.”

She took off her pack, but kept her phone in her pocket. Before heading down, she looked into the bag to see if there was anything that might be useful. What she saw startled her. And then came the anger. There was no mistaking what the bag’s contents suggested. She removed a few items from the bag, stood up and slowly but carefully edged her way down the slope to where Bill was trapped.

Bill was on his back, his left leg wedged tightly between a large fir tree and a rock. He clearly was in pain. A hand-held radio was nearby, but smashed to pieces against a rock.

“Angela, thank God! I think I broke my hip when I fell. I’ve been here overnight and all day. You’re the first person to come along. I can’t move and it hurts like hell.”

“Yeah, Bill, I noticed your little goodie bag up on the trail. You’ve been a busy boy, haven’t you, Bill?

Bill said nothing. He just stared at Angela with contempt.

“Well, Bill, it looks like you have three options. Want to hear them?”

Again, Bill was silent, wincing occasionally with pain.

“O.K., I’ll assume that’s a yes. Let’s take option one. You call the search and rescue guys on your phone and when they arrive, you can do some quick explaining about those balloons filled with gasoline and the white phosphorous sticks in the bag. Hmmm?”

Bill held out his hand and Angela gave him his phone.

“Shit, no service.”

“Just as well, Bill. I don’t think the search and rescue guys are in any mood to play around with the likes of you, anyway. They’d probably just drag you up the hill by your left leg. So, ready for option two?”

Bill remained silent.

“O.K., again I’ll assume that’s a yes, too. Well, option two is real easy. I leave, you stay here and I tell no one. One more night with these cold temperatures and exposure and shock should solve your problems. When you are found, the bag will tell the tale. I’ll give you a few moments.”

“I pass.”

“O.K. That leaves us with option three. It’s the most interesting, but as with all interesting things, it does entail some risk. Ready?”

“Just get it over with.”

“Right. I’m going to put one of your little balloons and an igniter right over here next to this tree you have become so attached to. You won’t be able to grab them, but I will give you a stick which is long enough. You starting to catch on, Bill?”

Bill looked puzzled, but then his eyes widened.

“That’s right. Just burst the balloon onto the igniter with the stick, light up the tree, and the firefighters should be here in less than an hour. Could be a long hour for you, Bill. Or a short one, depending upon how the fire goes. Whadda ya say, friend?” Angela stood up and handed Bill a stick.

“Angela, don’t do this. Just go back to your car and phone for help. You don’t need this on your conscience. I have a wife and kids.”

Angela turned and started up the hill. The stick hit her in the back, but she kept climbing. Under her breath, Angela muttered, “Option two it is.”

Bill’s yelling had no effect on her as she reached the trail. Picking up the bag and flashlight, intending to leave them in Bill’s truck, she headed back down the trail towards her car. As she did, the answer she had been seeking about her other problem came to her. She smiled as the voice in the background turned to noise, and then went silent. At the trailhead, Angela connected the chain between two posts. The sign on the chain read “Trail closed until further notice”.



Bill’s wife wouldn’t sleep in the same bed with him whenever he came off the fire line. She said the stink of smoke still hung on him, even after he showered, and would force him to sleep in the spare bedroom. So tonight, after covering a fire for three days, Bill was alone in the spare bed with just his thoughts and a rising wind outside.

He was exhausted, but the wind kept him from falling asleep. It had shifted direction since he returned home, and had freshened considerably. Bill knew what that meant to the men on the line and to the town. Without hesitation, he swung his feet out of bed, sat up and reached for his flashlight.

He was careful not to wake his wife and sons as he quietly padded his way downstairs, guided by the flashlight’s low glare. As he did, Bill was always amazed how much stuff two young boys could leave strewn around a house in just three days. As he slowly maneuvered between plastic trucks and toy baseball bats, Bill started to wake up and think about his situation.

He was the local newspaper reporter embedded with the fire department. His air force training in firefighting was welcomed by the fire chief, and his dispatches from the fire line were recognized as second to none. Throughout the years, he and the department had been involved in numerous tough blazes throughout the county and he was proud of the bond between himself and the crews.

Bill had made a study of fire. He understood fire. He saw it as a nemesis to humanity that, once released, had to be controlled or it would destroy everything in its path. Other civilians didn’t give fire a second thought until it was right on top of them. Bill thought about fire all the time. Other civilians panicked and ran whenever threatened by a blaze. Bill ran towards fire in anticipation of meeting the foe one more time. This fire was no different.

After getting a drink from the refrigerator, Bill walked to the locked door in the hallway that led to his private office. Unlocking the door, he didn’t turn on the light, but instead navigated again by flashlight, finding the soft chair in the middle of the room. Sitting down, he turned on the fire department’s incident radio, tuned it to the operational channel, and sat back to listen.

He set his flashlight so that it shone on a topographical map mounted on an easel in front of his chair. An array of pins showed the status of the fire three days ago, and Bill listened intently to voices coming over the radio giving him the latest fire situation. Over the next hour, he patiently listened and moved pins on the map until he had an updated and clear picture of the current situation. He turned a small weather vane mounted on the map to show the current direction of the wind in the affected area.

Bill put his hands behind his head, and pondered the information the map was telling him. It was clear the shifting wind resulted in a redeployment of personnel and equipment to the west. The situation commander had made an important decision within the last hour and the department was in the process of implementing that decision. It would take hours to make the changes, and Bill definitely thought it was a mistake, a big mistake.

“Bad move, Chief,” Bill muttered to himself. “You left the back door open. East Canyon.”

He pulled his tired body out of the comfort of the stuffed chair and went to the closet. He slowly dressed in a set of clothes he kept inside just for such occasions. After dressing, he reached down for the Go Bag he kept ready on the floor. After checking the contents, he zipped it shut, and went back to the chair. Taking a last look at the map, he turned off the incident radio, put it in his pocket, picked up the flashlight, and slowly left the office.

The house was still quiet as he made his way to the door leading to his truck outside. Being very careful to make as little noise as possible, Bill stepped outside and looked around the neighborhood. A thick smoke lay over the area and made street lights and house lights fuzzy in the distance. Bill listened for a moment before he determined that no one else was moving in the neighborhood.

He quietly climbed up into his truck, put his Go Bag on the driver’s seat next to the radio, and then adjusted the rear view mirror. He put the truck in neutral, let off the parking brake and slowly coasted down the driveway until he reached the street below.

Just before starting the truck, he looked into the rear view mirror again, caught the reflection of his eyes looking back at him, and said quietly to himself, “Time to light up East Canyon, buddy!”

A Walk Down the Beach


The beach house had been in Ted’s family since the late 1940’s. His grandparents had bought it as a retirement home, and for the first six years of Ted’s life, the beach house was his summer paradise. Filled with grandchildren and bustling with grown-up activity, the beach house was the perfect place for a young man and his grandfather to share a special time.

The house was perched on a low bluff overlooking a long strand of beach. From its front windows, you could view the magnificence of the beach for several miles as the fog lifted each morning. His grandfather would faithfully wait for the clearing before he carefully navigated the rickety staircase that connected the house to the beach to begin his walk. He always walked alone, sometimes with the dog, and always with the gnarled walking stick he kept in the large vase by the door. Ted loved his grandfather dearly, and couldn’t wait for him to return from his daily walk so they could begin their day together.

When circumstances required Ted’s family to move out of state when he was six, he never realized that he had seen the beach house for the last time in his young life. He often asked his Dad about visiting the house again, but for one reason or another the family never got around to it. The beach house and all its memories faded slowly from Ted’s mind as the years went on. The house stayed in the family, but few visited it any more. So, it was even more unusual that a certain memory intruded into his mind when he turned seventy years old.

His health had been failing in recent months, and he spent a lot of time just sitting at home, reading and thinking. Milly was not feeling well, either. He had married her forty years earlier and together had raised three children, and now had seven grandchildren. Milly knew little about the beach house except for the pictures Ted kept on the mantle.

It was right after his birthday party, after everybody had left for the evening, that the two of them were sitting in front of the fireplace. For some reason, Ted’s attention was drawn to the little picture of the beach house, and as he smiled fondly, the old forgotten memory flooded back into his consciousness. He remembered it like it was yesterday. He was six, and still in bed at the beach house, when he was suddenly awoken by his parents rushing about and yelling at each other. The other kids were just getting up, too, and nobody knew what had happened. His Dad was on the phone, anxiously talking with someone. “He never leaves this early! The fog is especially thick today and still hasn’t lifted. He’s never been gone this long! No, he didn’t tell anybody and he didn’t take his walking stick. Yes, he has been quite ill lately. We’re scared. Can you send someone down the beach to check?”

When they found Ted’s grandfather, he was about a mile down the beach. He had probably lain down, as they found him on his side. His hat was nearby, and his feet were wet from the incoming tide. There was no note, but the suspicion was that he knew his life was ending, and he wanted to die on his beloved beach, and away from the grandchildren so as not to disturb them.

Ted knew why he was remembering now. He wasn’t scared, but he knew what he had to do and it comforted him greatly that his grandfather’s memories were guiding him at this moment. He looked at Milly, who knew nothing about his grandfather’s death, and said, “Honey, how about we take a trip to the old beach house? It would be fun, with the kids and the grandkids. One last time. What do you think?”

Milly turned slightly towards Ted. “That’s an odd coincidence, I was thinking the same thing recently. It would mean a lot of work, but I know it would mean so much to you after all these years. Yes, let’s tell the kids and see if they’re up for it!”

Their kids were thrilled with the idea. The whole family pitched in and in just a few days, they found themselves safely moved into the beach house for two weeks of summer fun. The grandchildren played endlessly on the beach, while anxious mothers peered down from the bluff. The men drank beer and scanned the beach constantly with binoculars. Ted and Milly were not allowed to lift a finger. This was their vacation, and the family was set upon them having the time of their life.

Ted mounted all his strength every morning to take a walk down the beach after the fog had lifted. Family members constantly tried to talk him out of it, or else insisted that one of them accompany him. But he was adamant. He walked alone and would be fine. After a while, no one bothered him and that’s just what he wanted. He wanted it to be routine. Millie never asked to go along. She had been taking Ambien at night, so she often was still asleep when he started his walks.

And he checked the weather reports daily. He knew that in three days, the fog would not lift until after noon. That would have to be the day, as his energy was failing fast. One cold, hard last walk, and then it would be over. He spent the next two days comforting Milly during her bouts with the pain in her side. They had been putting off going to the specialist her M.D. had recommended. Ted could tell that whatever was happening to his wife, it was very bad. The sleeping pills gave her some respite, but not enough. Ted was struggling with his decision, as he knew that without him around, Milly would decline rapidly. But he had made his decision, just like his grandfather had done, and he was bound by it.

On the night before the third day, Ted prepared for bed as always, saying goodnight to the family and then retreating to the bedroom with Milly. She had prepared him some warm milk to help him sleep, and they held each other as he dozed off in her arms.

He awoke with a start the next day. Milly was not in bed, and he saw that the clock said 10:48!  He’d overslept, how could he have . . .? Then he saw the empty Ambien capsule next to his cup. He got out of bed as fast as he could, threw on his robe and headed towards the main room. He could hear his kids yelling and one was on the phone. “She’s never done this before. She apparently left early this morning alone. That was three hours ago. We’re scared to death. Can you send someone out to check down the beach in the fog? Please hurry!”

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