Random Shot - By Howard Schneider 

Lester Burdett sat on his sagging front porch staring out at a barren patch of yard and a red-dirt road beyond. He was confident that sooner or later the hound dog he was waiting for would show up to spread his scent on the leafless chinaberry tree at the edge of his property. A full moon lit up the landscape like near daylight. He lifted a half-empty gallon jug of moonshine and took a long pull. His gut reacted with a warm rush and his head with a welcome dullness. The Springfield rifle passed down from his daddy was ready on his lap. “I’m gonna kill that sumbitch tonight if ever I was,” he said to no one but himself, then took another swig before setting the jug back down on the splintery floor. 

A little later, Old Mister Jackson’s Bluetick coonhound Baldy came trotting along the road making a beeline for Lester’s chinaberry tree. But before Baldy got close enough to lift his leg, Lester spotted him, lifted the rifle to his shoulder, aimed, pulled the trigger. A puff of dirt erupted well behind the hound and the crack of the shot echoed in the humid air. 

Baldy had barely broke into a fast run before Lester got off another round, missing the dog and disappearing into the night. 

“Damn that dog! I’ll get that sumbitch yet,” Lester said to himself as he reached for the jug. 

Elsie Whyte sat rocking in her rickety rocker as close to the kerosene heater as she thought was safe. A faded patchwork quilt covered her lap and a worn bible was enfolded in her raw, chapped hands. The last chorus of the closing number on the Grand Ole Opry was fighting a storm of static on an ancient radio sitting on an upended wooden crate next to her. Suddenly, the rude shack’s door flew open and her husband Roy Bob stumbled in, his rancid body stench preceded by the fog of his whisky-saturated breath. 

“What the hell you doin’ using up the kerosene?” he bellowed.  “I told you to stay in bed when it turns cold. You ain’t got the sense of a damn grasshopper. Don’t you never pay no attention to nothing I say?” He lurched closer and slapped her hard across her face, knocking her sideways off the chair. He glanced at her lying face-down on the smooth-worn pine-board floor, then spun around and went back through the open door. 

“I gotta pee,” he said, his words slurred and strung out by the drink. He stood at the edge of the porch and with difficulty unbuttoned his trousers. But before he could satisfy his urge, a .30-06 slug entered his right eye and exploded out the back of his skull. He collapsed into the tall weeds that had overtaken the sunflowers Elsie had planted the previous spring. Half-unconscious on the floor inside, Elsie didn’t hear the shot. 

Midmorning the next day she found Lester’s body, stiff, cold, and nearly concealed by a jumble of dense green. 

It was three days later when Lester Burdett caught up with Elsie on the rutted road as she walked up the hill that gave rise to the flat fields where their shacks were located, separated one from the other by no more than a hundred yards or so. 

Elsie hadn’t lingered at the cemetery after Roy Bob’s coffin was lowered into the grave since his relatives didn’t have much use for her and didn’t invite her to the visitation at Roy Bob’s cousin Dora Jean’s house. In private, his kinfolk claimed that Elsie wasn’t up to their level: didn’t even attend the Baptist church. But she didn’t care what they thought, since half of them couldn’t even read, let alone admit that Roy Bob had been a sadistic bully and drank more than his share of moonshine for as long as could be remembered. She never would have married him if it had been up to her. When she was fourteen, her father forced her on Roy Bob in trade for a team of mules, and her life had been pure hell from that time on. But although she was free of that monster, she had no way to survive without the income he brought in from farm labor and occasional thievery. She saw the horror of the county poorhouse as her only option and was in a dark mood. 

“Morning, Elsie.” 

“Morning, Lester.” 

“Right nice day,” he offered. 

“Is it? Could be better. Some warmer too . . . but it is nice to have the sun.” 

 “How you gettin’ on?” he asked. 

‘I ain’t sad about Roy Bob, if that’s what you’re wantin’ to know.” 

“I’m surely sorry about what happened,” he said. 

“I hear tell Judge Popper ain’t gonna charge you for nothing. Is that right?” 

“An accident. He said that’s what it was. Won’t be no charge.” 

After a moment, Elsie said, “Well . . . it didn’t do me no harm, cepting I’ll be going to the county poorhouse. But that surely can’t be no worse than livin’ with Roy Bob was.” 

“Can’t you get something by selling your shack and land?” Lester asked. 

“It ain’t mine. Roy Bob left it to Dora Jean. She said I gotta be out next week. He was a mean one if ever there was. Like all them Whytes is. Always have been, always will be. Meanness is in their blood.” 

They walked on in silence. The sweet songs of red-winged blackbirds were the only sounds interrupting the morning stillness. 

Finally, Lester spoke again. “How ‘bout you come live with me. I always did have a hankering for you. I got a little money coming in from my veteran’s pension. And my melon patch earns some. I ain’t gonna drink no more, either. After what happened with Roy Bob. . . .” He paused, then added, “I’d be good to you.” 

She stopped and turned to him. “You want me to marry you?” she asked, unable to hide her surprise. 

“It’d be better than a cot in the county house,” he replied. 

“Well, I’ll be,” she said. After walking on a ways, she glanced back at him and said, “I ain’t gonna be your slave-woman, if that’s what you’re after.” 

“I don’t expect no such thing. I been on my own long enough to know how to take of myself. That ain’t what I want.” 

“Well then. What is it you want?” she asked. 

“Just you, that’s all. Just you.” 

Elsie looked away and smiled, the first in many years, then said, “I’d like to have some chickens, and grow some sunflowers. And a new radio. And you gotta quit shooting at Mister Jackson’s coonhound.” 

“That sounds awful like a bribe,” he said, a grin taking shape on his stubbled face. 

“Well, I suppose it is. But then, there ain’t hardly nuthin’ good that’s free.  Least of all, not me.”

On the Way to Brooklyn, A Christmas Story - By Howard Schneider 

Early afternoon of the day before Christmas, Al Badowski and his wife Phyllis, and their two kids, thirteen-year-old Patty and her little brother Jason, were stuck in traffic on Route 9 a little south of Catskill, New York. They were headed to the City, intending to get to Al’s parents’ house in Brooklyn in time for five o’clock cocktails and then their annual Christmas eve dinner. 

Crawling along at five miles an hour, Phyllis angrily switched from a book CD to an AM traffic station. She was concerned about the worsening weather. Heavy rain was already making the wipers work extra hard. 

They learned that a heating oill truck had turned over about twenty miles ahead and traffic would be blocked for the rest of the day. None of the detours listed were near where they were stuck. 

“Patty, give your phone. My battery’s dead and I need to do a map search,” Phyliss said over her shoulder. 

“Mom, I’m texting. Use Dad’s,” Patty snapped. 

“Your father forgot his. It’s in the pocket of his other coat. Give me yours. I gotta figure out how to get around this mess.” 

A few minutes later Phyllis said, “Take the next right—Malta Avenue. We can bypass the wreck and get back on Route 9 in thirty miles. 

“Where does this take us,” Al asked. 

“Along the east side of a big reservoir. Just leave it to your navigator. I’ll take care of it,” Phyllis answered, trying to lift the mood a bit. 

“Mom! Jenny’s waiting.” 

“Okay, okay,” Phyllis said, passing the phone back to her daughter. 

After Al turned west onto Malta, Patty said, “Mom, what'd you do to the phone? The battery’s dead. I need the charger.” 

“It was already low. You should’ve charged it before we left home,” Phyllis said, rifling through the glove compartment. 

“What am I supposed to do now? I need to use it!” 

Paying no attention to her angry daughter, Phyllis said, “Al . . . where’s the damn charger?” 

Uh . . .  I think it’s in the other car.” 

“How many times have I told you to buy another one of those things so this won’t keep happening?” Phyllis spat back. 

“Sorry, babe. We were so rushed getting out of the house I forgot about it.” 

“Daaad. How can you be such a screw-up? Now I can’t text Jenny. She’s gonna think we had a wreck or something.” 

Al ignored his whining daughter and concentrated on the narrow road. The rain had turned to sleet and was making a mess on the window. And ice was building up on the road. He felt the slipperiness increase as they got closer to the big body of water, and the heavy cloud cover added darkness to the already shortened winter day. The reduced visibility made it difficult for him to stay in his lane. 

Finally, they got to the reservoir and turned south along the shore. Ten minutes later they reached a hilly stretch and started a slight climb. Then when they rounded a sharp curve in the twisting road, they suddenly encountered blinking red lights. Al hit the brakes and came to a sliding halt next to a state trooper parked across the road. He lowered his window when the trooper approached. 

“Better slow down, sir, it’s icing up fast. This road’s closed up ahead. Landslide’s blocked both lanes. You’ll have to go back the way you came.” 

“Is there any way around it? We've got to be in New York City soon. And Route 9's closed." 

“There is a back road over that hill,” the trooper said, pointing west. “It rejoins this road on the other side of the landslide. But there may be some snow up there. Ice, too. I wouldn’t recommend it without four-wheel drive or snow-tires.” 

“This Chrysler holds the road real good. We won't have any problems. Where’s the turn-off?” 

“Back about half a mile. Just after a big red house. You gonna try it?” 

“Yeah. We’ve already lost too much time.” 

Al made a U-turn and headed back north, easily finding the road the officer described. It was a narrow blacktop that meandered through a dense forest, quickly increasing elevation. The snowfall became heavier as they climbed; a thick wet layer accumulated on the front window except where the wipers were just able to clear it away. 

They'd been on that road about twenty minutes when Jason, who’d until then been focused on his Game Boy, said, “Mom, I gotta to go to the bathroom.” 

“You have to hold it til we get to a gas station or a McDonald’s.” 

“I can’t. I gotta go now. Can’t we stop for a minute?” 

“There’s no place to pull over,” Al said defiantly. 

Then Phyllis said, “Albert! No other cars are gonna come along here. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Stop and let him out. It'll only take him a minute." 

“All right, but I don’t like it,” Al replied. "Just make it fast. We gotta get out of this mess." He took his foot off the gas and gently applied the brakes. But even as gently as he did, the big car started sliding on a patch of ice, shifting to the right because of to the road’s slope away from the center. No matter what he did, he was unable to keep the forward motion in a straight line; the momentum was too great and the road too slick. Powerless to get the car back under control, it slid off the side, crashed half-way into a rocky snow-covered ditch, and came to a jarring halt. It was at a thirty-degree angle with the left-side tires suspended in mid-air spinning wildly and the underside stuck on the raised berm. 

Phyllis and Patty screamed. Al swore and pounded violently on the steering wheel. Jason burst into tears. 

“Oh, my God!” Phyllis shouted. “What are we gonna do?” 

“Are we gonna die?” Patty cried. 

“Daddy. I gotta pee!” Jason pleaded between sobs. 

“Everybody calm down!” Al yelled. “Phyllis, shut up. Jason! Open the door and do your business. Patty, check your phone again." 

A second later Patty said, “It’s still dead, Dad.” 

Phyllis started to blurt out something but caught herself, her eyes boring into Al. Then, after a moment, she calmly said, “Al—we can’t sit here until the gas runs out. We'll freeze to death. Unless a car comes along soon, you’ll have to go for help." 

“Are you crazy? It’s too far. And it’s too cold.” 

“Al! You have to! You can walk back to the main road and use someone’s phone. It can’t be more than five miles or so." 

“I’m not dressed for a hike like that. I’d never make it.” 

“Get your snow boots and parka out of the trunk. We’ll be okay with the engine and heater running if you start now.” 

“Uh . . . I left the boots and parka at home. There wasn’t room after I got all the food and presents and damn luggage in.” 

“What? Well, you can’t walk five miles in a foot of snow in those stupid loafers and that thin jacket. Oh, my God. We are in trouble, aren’t we?” 

Just then Jason climbed back into the car, shivering from the cold. 

Patty sat with the phone clutched in her clinched fist whimpering. “Mom. We're gonna die, aren’t we?” 

Then, without warning, there was a soft tap on the driver-side window. 

“Thank God,” Phyllis cried out, looking past Al to see who it was. 

Al rubbed away the moisture to reveal a scraggly-bearded old man peering at him and lowered the window. “Hello. Are we glad to see you! We’re in a bit of trouble. Do you have a phone we can use?” 

“No. Never needed one. Looks like you're halfway into that ditch,” the old man said. “Probably hung up on the undercarriage. You need a tow.” 

“Yes, sir. We sure do. Do you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and a tow chain or strong rope?” 

“No, but my friend might be able to help. He could probably pull you free." 

“Can he get here soon? Does he have a tow truck or something?” 

“He’s on a break right now, but I’ll call him anyway.” The old man stepped away from the car, looked into the woods bordering the road and whistled a single long note. 

A minute later there was the sound of something crashing through brush and low-hanging tree limbs, followed by puffs of powdery snow erupting in the air. Then a huge form appeared at the edge of the dark woods, still as a statue. Its glowing eyes were focused on the old man. 

In the darkness Al and the others couldn’t tell what it was. Then, apparently in response to some subtle signal, it started coming closer, its identity gradually becoming apparent. It was a gigantic deer, or perhaps an elk, or maybe a moose. It had a magnificent rack of antlers, a thick neck and broad chest. It radiated undeniable strength and power. When it reached the old man it remained unmoving, as if awaiting instructions. 

Leaving the animal where it stood, the old man walked up the road a way, then returned a few minutes later holding a heavy harness which he slipped onto the patiently waiting animal. He mumbled a few words that Albert couldn’t hear, then came back to the car window. “When I signal, hang on tight.” A second later he waved at Al, then yelled something at animal. When the huge beast lunged forward the car sprang up with a jarring jerk and landed squarely on the road with an ear-piercing crunch, leaving a churning trail of snow, ice, and gravel swirling behind. The whole family cheered. 

Al jumped out of the car, ignored the wet cold penetrating his flimsy shoes, and ran to where the old man was undoing the harness. He held his wallet in one hand and several bills in the other. “Here, sir. I want to pay you for your trouble. You saved our lives.” 

The old man glanced at the bills and said, “Keep your money, Al. Your thanks are enough.” 

Al wondered how the old man knew his name, but instead of asking about that, said, “What kind of animal is that? It bigger than a deer, and those antlers are huge.” 

“A Siberian reindeer. Goes by the name Rudolph. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s pretty famous. Anyway, we have to be on our way. Still lots of work to do.” 

With that said, the old man turned toward the woods and whistled two loud blasts. Before Al was back in the driver’s seat and ready to drive off, eight more reindeer had emerged from the forest and made their way to the sled where they formed two columns. Soon the old man had them harnessed. Rudolph was in the lead. In no time the old man was in the sled and tearing past the car. As he sped by, he cried out, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”

Welcome Home, Brother: Episode 5 - By Howard Schneider 

We froze in place when we heard Dragos shout from the bottom of the stairwell. Gloria stood close beside me. Saying nothing in response to his questions, I told her she’d have to shoot Dragos as well, like she did Lupus a few moments before. That as a vampire, he’d be too powerful for us to overcome and escape. We’d never get past him if he’s alive. 

“Alright,” she said, although I detected a slight hesitancy in her voice and not taking the pistol out of its holster. Then, looking at her more closely, I noticed a spattering of blood droplets on her face and more embedded in her short hair. 

“Gloria,” I said, “you’re covered in blood.” 

Gloria rubbed her hand across her cheek and through her hair, then examined what she’d wiped off. She licked her lips, which were likewise splotched with the wolfs fluids. “Oh no,” she muttered, closing her eyes and shaking her head as if she’d suddenly realized an undeniable reality. Then, in a shaky voice she said, “The wolf must have spewed this on me—when it coughed and gasped at the same time I bent down to check its pulse to make sure it was dead. It was its final deed, its death throes.” 

Not grasping the implication of her situation, I said, “Okay. But right now, you just have to kill Dragos. Then we’ll clean you up and get out of here.” 

But before Gloria could respond to my plea, Dragos, who by this point had come halfway up the stairs, and ignoring me, said, “Welcome to our world, beautiful lady. I see from the change in your eyes, that Lupus infected you with the werewolf virus. How fortunate, to be brought into an existence so much more rewarding than the mundane life you have been trapped in. And you, Stefan, must now choose your path. Vampire, werewolf . . . or death.” 

“You’re insane,” I screamed, then grabbed Gloria’s hand and pulled her back up to the landing. “We’re gonna get you cleaned up and get out of here. Come on, there’s a bathroom down this hallway.! We’ll wash that blood off then find another way out of this madhouse. Hurry.” 

But Gloria resisted my attempt to lead her away from the stairwell and, to my great horror, growled in a low gravelly voice. Then, with animal-like quickness, she lunged forward and bit my hand, sinking her emerging sharp canine fangs deep into the muscle at the base of my thumb. 

Still barely able to speak like a human, she said, albeit it was somewhat difficult to understand her words, “This is the only way we can be together, my dear Stefan.” 

I jerked my hand away from her mouth, which by then was turning into a longish snout dripping saliva, and ran down the hall looking for a way down to the lower level. But instead of another stairwell, I found nothing but a dead-end. With no alternative, I collapsed in a dark corner, terrified and overcome with dread. Then, a short moment later, I saw a beautiful, silver-haired wolf approaching in the dim light. She growled sweetly as she came closer. 

“Is that you, Gloria?” I manage to say, even though it was difficult to enunciate the words. 

“She growled gently, maybe even lovingly, then lay down next to me. 

Feeling the comfort of her soft fur and the rhythm of her deep breathing, I relaxed and thankfully accepted my new life.

Welcome Home, Brother: Episode 4 - By Howard Schneider 

Lupus telling me they intended to make me join him and Dragos in their alternate lives, as a vampire like Dragos or a werewolf like Lupus, reinforced my intension to escape their grasp. "I need time to consider your proposal," I said with as much bluster as I could muster. "But first, I desperately need sleep. Leave me now and I'll give you my decision tomorrow." 

Lupus stood, bade me goodnight, and left, closing the thick oak door behind him, the thunk of the ancient lock punctuating its closure. 

An hour or two after I'd fallen asleep, thunderous banging woke me. A few moments later I heard muffled yelling but couldn’t make out the words. Then I heard shuffling steps in the hall outside my room, then silence for a while. But, as I began drifting back to sleep, there was nothing else I could do, I suddenly heard a raucous voice I would have known anywhere—the unmistakable Brooklyn accent of none other than my fiancée Gloria Markovitz. Then I heard what sounded like a scuffle followed by a loud cry, then a loud thump, like a body slamming onto a hard floor. Then silence again. 

"Gloria," I screamed. “Is that you?" 

"Stefan! Where are you?” 

"Upstairs. I'm locked in the first room on the landing. Hurry" 

Gloria’s family, members of a prominent Romanian Jewish business clan, had escaped nineteenth century Pogroms against jews by emigrating from Bucharest to New York, settling and prospering in Brooklyn where they as others of similar circumstance did. Gloria, the eldest and dazzlingly precocious daughter of Saul and Anna Markovitz, for some mysterious reason held an unquenchable desire to seek justice whenever possible, so after a degree in Criminal Justice from New York University she enrolled in NYPD's police academy. After an impressive five years as a Brooklyn police officer, she was promoted to detective. A year later she was selected for an exchange program with the Bucharest Police Department, partly because she was fluent in Romanian, but mainly because of her outstanding record. She’d met Stefan through his coverage of Bucharest crime syndicates, the investigation of which Gloria was assisting the local police force. It was as close to "love at first sight" as that trite saying would allow. Their wedding was set for the coming summer. 

After Gloria picked the lock and rushed through the doorway, I quickly recovered my surprise at her arrival and said, "Gloria. What are you doing here? How'd you find me? Do you know anything about this place? You shouldn't have come. We're in great danger." 

Gloria glanced around the room, then said, "Stefan. Calm down. Your editor called—he was worried he hadn't heard from you. He said he'd learned that there were concerns about this castle he'd sent you to. I figured I'd better check on you. So, what's going on? Why are you locked in this room? And what do you mean by great danger?" 

"My twin brother's a vampire and my older brother is a werewolf. They're gonna make me join them. I can choose which one to be. Then we're gonna seize control of the Romanian mafia. From Uncle Erik." 

Now Gloria had encountered her share of mentally unstable or drug-crazed characters on her Brooklyn police beats and easily recognized the ravings of a deluded person when so confronted. Taking Stefan’s hand in hers, she led him to the chair by the window, sat him down, and then took the other one. "Stefan," she said calmly, "who told you these things? Is there someone here besides that old guy who tried to block my way in? Has someone drugged you? Who locked you in this room?" 

"Gloria!" I said louder than I should of, not considering that Dragos or Lupus might hear. "I'm not crazy. I have a twin brother, and an older one too. They live here. There're related to the Dracula family. So am I. Dragos is a vampire. Lupus in a werewolf. We've got to get out of here. They'll come for me in the morning and turn me into one of them." 

Gloria was growing increasingly concerned as Stefan continued raving about vampire and werewolf brothers. "Stefan," she interrupted, "someone must have drugged you. You're delusional. But we still have to leave this place, to get you back to safety. Put on your shoes and come with me." 

Gloria’s take-charge demeanor and firm command calmed me. I realized she wouldn’t believe the truth about my brothers, so I put on my shoes and jacket and retrieved my travel case from the wardrobe. "Okay, Let's go." Then,  thinking more clearly, I asked her how she’d gotten to the castle? How we would get back to Bucharest? 

"I drove in a BPD patrol car. It’s in the village. I walked here. Can you make it that far?" 

"Do I have a choice?" 

But just as we started to open the door to leave, without warning it suddenly crashed open and the massive wolf rushed into the room. Halting in front of us, its hackles raised, it growled menacingly. Its yellow eyes fixed on mine for a brief moment, then shifted to Gloria, who had reflexively taken a few steps back. At that same moment, the wolf lowered his body as if preparing to pounce, and his mouth opened wider, revealing glistening, razors-like teeth. Then it catapulted forward, Gloria’s throat the obvious target. 

But Gloria, having upon several occasions confronted vicious dogs used for protection by vicious New York gang bangers, was not to be so easily dispatched. She quickly stepped aside, pulled out her 38 revolver and fired. The first shot entered Lupus’s head through his left ear and the second pierced his heart, entering his chest cavity between ribs six and seven. The wolf hit the floor and was soon surrounded by pooling blood. 

“Gloria! I screamed without thinking. “You killed my brother!” Then I came to my senses and realized what had just transpired. That she’s had no alternative. Lupus would have killed her. It was self-defense. “We have to get out of here,” I shouted. “Dragos will have heard the shots.” 

“What do you mean, your brother?” Gloria said, ignoring my mention of Dragos and kneeling next to the body to feel for a pulse in the wolf’s neck. Then she abruptly jumped back and cried out,” Stefan! It’s changing. Look, it’s becoming human. Oh my God. What is this thing?” 

I came closer and saw the body of my brother emerging from its canine form. “Now you understand what I was telling you. My brother Lupus was a werewolf. Thank God, you killed him. I’ll tell you more later. But now, we have to leave.” 

I grabbed Gloria’s hand and pulled her though the open doorway and to the stairs to the lower floor. But when we started down, a loud voice exploded from the bottom of the stairway. “Stefan! Stop. Who is that woman? What were those shots? Where is Lupus?”

Welcome Home, Brother: Episode 3 - By Howard Schneider 

Episode Three 

Exhausted by the difficult journey, confused by discovering a twin brother, and shocked by learning what he was, I desperately needed time to come to terms with my predicament—to figure out how to escape the clutches of this evil family and return to my simple life as a journalist in Bucharest. I rose from the chair again and said, " It's late and I need sleep. We'll have to continue this conversation tomorrow. I must bid you good night." The dog-beast half-hidden behind Dragos followed my every move with his glowing eyes. 

"Stay," Dragos said in a quiet voice, glancing at the dog. Then he called back the servant. "Darko, show Stefan to his room," he instructed the expressionless old man who'd slipped past the doorway curtain and stepped around the two men still blocking my way out. 

The stone-walled room Darko led me to had a single small window overlooking a courtyard thirty feet below and provided no possibility for escape. For now, I was trapped, although still determined to find a way to get away. I couldn't let myself become ensnared by what must be the work of the devil himself. 

When I glanced around the spacious room, I saw a large oil painting of four men of varying ages gathered around an ancient headstone. The writing etched into the weathered surface was still clearly visible: 

Vasilios Lupo 

1258 - 1327 

The following words were incised below the dates: 

Family Power Revenge 

In Life And In Death 

When I approached the painting closer, I recognized one of the two younger men as Dragos. The other one appeared to be slightly older, a little heavier, and darker-complected: a thick black beard obscured the lower half of his face. The two older men bore strong family resemblances, one looking to be in his middle years, the other much advanced in age. Who were they? My father? My Grandfather? 

But my conjecturing quickly gave way to the exhaustion I'd felt earlier, and I turned toward the bed. But then I heard soft scratching at the door. "Who's there?" I queried hesitantly. 

For a few seconds there was no answer, but then more scratching. Unable to stifle my curiosity, I opened the door a small crack, positioning my foot to prevent it from being pushed open further. "Who's there?" I repeated, peering through the narrow opening. 

I saw no one, and there was no response to my probing. But then, like an blast of dynamite, the door knocked me aside and the black beast charged into the room. It quickly scanned the room, then leaped onto a large wingback chair next to the window. As I rose from the stone floor to where I'd been thrown, I was stunned to see the beast transforming into a full-grown man. His black pelt was turning into dark-complexioned skin, his facial features were becoming human, his long, hair-covered dog legs were changing into normal arms and legs. Within a single minute, he was fully human, although unclothed. From the intensity of his yellow-tinged eyes and the extent and color of his facial hair, I knew at once he was the young  man in the oil painting with the thick black beard. 

Before I had my wits about me and able to say anything, he said, "There's a robe in that wardrobe cabinet over there. Please be so kind as to bring it to me. I wouldn't want my au natural condition to impose on upon your modesty. Unfortunately, this transformation process, even as physiologically efficient as it is, is still sufficiently primitive in that it is unable to accommodate clothing, not even a simple undergarment. But I have taken the precaution to have stored appropriate attire in every room in this monstrous castles—there's just no way to know for sure where I might emerge from a shedding." 

My shock must have been obvious to the man, sitting calmly in the chair and watching me scramble to my feet. He smiled and said, "You have nothing to worry about, no harm will come to you. Please, sit down, there." He pointed toward another chair, then continued. "I have much to tell you, brother. And yes, as I assume you have now surmised, I am your other brother, older by two years." 

Finally, I recovered enough to speak. "What are you? I don't understand what's going on." 

He nodded his head as if letting me know he understood my confusion and panic, then said, "No. I wouldn't expect you to. After all, most people don't encounter a vampire twin brother and an older brother who's a lycanthrope every day, do they." 

"A what?" I exclaimed. 

"A wolfen," Stefan, "You know, a werewolf." 

'Oh my god," I cried. I'd heard his words but was having difficulty comprehending their meaning. "How can this be? It's impossible." 

"Calm yourself, Stefan, and I'll make clear how it's not only possible, but how you too can live, even thrive, in two completely different worlds. And I'm sure you'll be happy to know that you will be able to decide which of these two alternate universe you prefer—to be like Dragos . . . or like me."

Welcome Home, Brother: Episode 2 - By Howard Schneider 

The cold meats and hard cheese brought by a servant restored my strength, the roaring fire warmed me, and the smooth red wine he poured calmed my mood. But these offerings did nothing to clear the confusion clouding my mind, and the man sitting across from me, watching my every move, likewise provided nothing in the way of clarification—just  silence as he watched my every move. But then, after the servant took away the trolly, again with no obvious order from the man, he finally spoke. 

"Welcome, brother. We have waited long for this moment. Even though we believed you would eventually come to us by your own accord, our patience ran thin, so we took action to bring you home. Back into the fold of your family." 

What he was saying was complete nonsense to me, but at the same time I was shocked by his words—and by what I saw. The horror of it, the truth of what I beheld—longish canine teeth that glistened between his full reddish lips as he uttered the words telling me who I was. The staggering realization that he was a vampire, and that he claimed to be my brother. 

Before I could overcome my disbelief and gather my senses to respond, he forged ahead. "Obviously, this revelation is difficult for you to comprehend since you have no idea of what I speak. But listen to what I have to say before you draw conclusions." 

Interrupting his words, I sprang from the chair and turned toward the curtain-covered doorway, determined to escape this chamber of horror. 

"Sit down!" he screamed with an authority that froze me in place. In that same instant a huge, black wolf-like dog vaulted forward from where it had been concealed behind the man's chair. Shaken by the power of the man's declaration and the ferocity of the snarling beast, I submitted to his command. When I sat back down, the man who looked like me resumed his calm narrative. "We are identical twins, me older by only a few minutes. I was also more vigorous and larger than you were. According to family tradition, a weaker twin must be drowned in the Black River, allowing the survivor a greater chance to thrive and carry forward the family name. But our mother, being a woman of strong character but with little respect for tradition, family or otherwise, defied that custom and instructed her chambermaid to take you to a safe place. The maid took you to her elder brother in the village to raise you as his own. Years later, when our father died, possibly poisoned by his self-willed wife, and as I was approaching early manhood, she told me I had a twin brother and that one day we must be united—that you must return to our family to assume your rightful place as a Lupo, and that it was my responsibility to see that accomplished. So, brother, that is why you are here. It was through my influence, albeit several steps removed 

I was dumbfounded by this revelation, shaken to my core. For this was a tale I would be incapable of believing were it not for our identical appearances—when I looked at him, I saw myself—although that resemblance quickly vanished when he spoke and revealed his two grotesque teeth. I shuddered when the cause of their reddish stain dawned on me. Remaining silent for a long moment in response to this sinister tale of family intrigue, I gradually came to comprehend the dreadfulness of the situation I had been cast into. I accepted that the monster sitting across from me—my twin brother—was a vampire, one of the dreaded Dracula clan. Monsters of mythic folk tales no sensible person claimed to believe, although deep in their being knew the truth of their existence. After all, this was Romania. But more than that, we were in a special part of Romania, in the much-feared and mysterious Carpathian Mountains, a place unlike any other in the entire world. 

Finally, I recovered my wits sufficiently to reply. "What do you want from me? Why am I here?" 

"I understand your distress, dear brother. No doubt this revelation is a great shock to you. But with time, you will see it was the right thing for me to do. But before I proceed, let me formally introduce myself. I am Dragos Lupo, not only your twin brother, one of three sons of Harnag Lupo, but one of only three living members of your immediate family. Our mother died shortly after giving birth to the two of us, and father, two years ago. But father's younger brother, our uncle Erik, occasionally visits this castle since it is officially listed as his primary residence. But it's far easier for him to control his vast world of criminal business and corrupt politics from his estate in Bucharest. As you have obviously noted, I myself am a vampire, following in the proud tradition of our esteemed cousin, Count Vlad Dracula. Uncle Erik chose not to follow in his path, in my opinion, much to his loss. The powers to be gained from vampirism are well worth the minor inconveniences to which we must adjust. You will meet our older brother in due time." 

"You must be insane," I cried, jumping up from the chair. "I want out of  here. I don't care who you are, brother or not. I don't want anything to do with you or another brother, or Uncle Erik Lupo or, either. I'm leaving now." I started toward the exit to the hall but stopped short when two men stepped from behind the black curtain draping the doorway to block my way. To my surprise, they were none other than the two reporters originally dispatched by my editor to investigate the Lupo empire. Their arms hung motionless at their sides, their faces were devoid of expression, and they said nothing. They stared at me with cold eyes as if I were a perfect stranger. 

"Brother!" Dragos shouted, then, cajolingly and softly, said, "Stefan, as you were christened by the villager who raised you. Come. Sit. Hear me out." 

Having no choice, I returned to the chair and the black beast returned to its spot behind Dragos. 

After the silent servant refilled my glass, Dragos continued. "As to why I brought you here, the answer is straight forward. You will join our elite family, enjoy the benefits of Dracula's magnificent transformation, and help me dethrone Uncle Erik and assume control of his vast criminal empire—an empire which against family tradition he seized upon our father's death—the empire which should be mine since the eldest son, our older brother, is in no way capable of controlling." 

I was astounded by his plan and overwhelmed by the preposterousness of the situation I'd found myself in. I was also confused and unsure as how to respond. After a moment, I said, "You said say there is a third son? That we have another brother? And if he's older, shouldn't he be the inheritor of the empire of which you speak?" 

Dragos was silent for a while, then said, "Yes. Our older brother, Lupus. Lupus Lupo, the rightful heir to the Lupu empire. He is a very special kind of man, although one not one  inclined to assume oversee all that should be ours. As I said before, you will meet him when the time is right."

Welcome Home, Brother: Episode 1 - By Howard Schneider 

It was a little after midnight when the creaky antiquated bus pulled into the shabby village, the last stop on this little-used once-a week rural route. We six hours late due to an unexpected detour around a collapsed bridge over the Black River: we had to take a twisty lane that led to a shallow gravel-bed crossing eighty miles to the south that allowed the rickety vehicle to cross to the east bank. Then the old, bedraggled driver had to slowly negotiate a maze of narrow mountain roads northward to rejoin the two-lane dirt road we'd been traveling since early morning. But my actual destination was another ten miles beyond this desolate village, the castle of Baron Erik Lupo, a distant cousin of the infamous Count Dracula. Lupo, a man of unwavering resolve and feared throughout all Romania, still unexpectantly vigorous in his seventh decade, is said to be Romania's wealthiest citizen, as well as the unchallenged crime lord of southeastern Europe. His castle, an impregnable stone fortress set atop a remote peak in the western flank of the Carpathian Mountains, dates from the thirteenth century, a time when Romania was a powerful state amidst the floundering throng of ruthless despots, inbred royalty, and local bandits who controlled much of the southeastern wilds of the European continent. His family, along with the powerful Dracula clan, traced the foundation of their wealth and entitlement to adventures young knights who returned from the first crusade with immense ill-gotten plunder and treasure. 

I was on this journey because I'd been assigned the job of discovering the fate of two journalists who'd been sent by my newspaper to interview Lupo for an investigative series about the powerful families who controlled Romanian business and politics. I'd been chosen for this task for two reasons: first, before becoming a reporter, I'd been a police detective in Bucharest, and in theory should be able to solve a missing persons case; second, because I too was related to the Lupo family, albeit only remotely—my father was also a distant cousin of Count Dracula, meaning I too was, related to the Lupo lineage. And as far as my editor was concerned, those facts qualified me to confront Lupo and find out what had happened to my colleagues who'd been dispatched to do the job the previous year. 

There should have been someone from the castle to meet me in the village, but obviously because of the detour delay, I was met by nothing other than a deserted hamlet and a full moon. But with the aid of my flashlight and bright moonlight, and my determination to solve the mystery, I made my way to the castle by foot, arriving as dawn broke in the eastern sky. I was tired, famished, and angry—angry that whoever should have met me had not done so. But these annoyances were obliterated when the massive oak door swung open in response to the force of my banging the big brass knocker and I beheld the person who stood unmoving in the doorway. The sudden surprise displayed on his familiar face was apparently as great as my own astonishment which jolted me like a bolt of lightning. The man I confronted was none other than a copy of me. 

After a brief moment of numbing silence, the man stepped aside without uttering a word and motioned me to enter. Quickly recovering my composure, I realized that I was in a wide, dimly lit hall, the stone walls of which were hung with shields, swords, and other ancient weapons of war. He led me to a large, high-ceilinged room with a roaring fire in a cavernous hearth and directed me to a chair next to the fireplace and took the one next to mine. Then, without a word said, a servant rolled a trolly with food and drink to my side, then disappeared. 

"Eat. You must be hungry after your difficult journey," the man who was me said. But before I had a chance to pick up a piece of cheese, he added, "So. We meet at last."

Priscilla Good Henley, Episode 8- By Howard Schneider 

For Jackie and Goody, the morning after the press conference the previous day began like any other—Jackie getting ready for her first day as CEO of the Good Life Cookie Company and Goody looking forward to a meeting about a housing project homeless for Portland’s homeless population. But after refreshing their coffee, Goody dropped a bombshell. "Jackie dear, the time has come for you to move on with your life. To find your own place . . . today, in fact. There's a suite for you at The Heathman Hotel for as long as you need it. Take your time to find a new home. 

"What?" Jackie was stunned by Goody's declaration. "Did I do something wrong?" 

Goody's voice softened. "Of course not. It's just that it's time for you to fly on your own wings." Goody glanced at the wall clock. "But you better get going. Can't be late on your first day as boss. I'll send your belongings to the hotel. So get a move on. I've got things to do, too." 

"But  . . ." Jackie began, but was interrupted sharply by Goody. "It's for the best. Now go!" 

Shocked by the force of Goody's ultimatum, Jackie grabbed her purse and computer bag and left without another word, tears flooding her eyes. 

After Jackie left, Goody called the mayor's office and reschedule the homeless housing project meeting, then turned on the oven. She was going to bake blueberry muffins, special muffins for a special person—that is if her hunch turned out to be correct, which they usually did. 

Meanwhile, Jackie's Aunt Martha was instructing her boyfriend Bobby about her plan for that very morning. "If the car door's locked and she won't open it, smash the window with this hammer, reach in and grab the handle, open the door, and pull her out. Don't give her a chance to drive off—you gotta be fast. Understand?" Martha held out the ballpeen hammer. 

"Yeah. I know. I done this before. Plenty ah' times," he said, taking the hammer. 

"That was twenty years ago. You ain't the same person you was then." 

"I can do it," he said defiantly. "But what if the old bag takes off before I can pull her out?" he added a second later. 

"She might think about that. But she won’t." Martha took a pistol from her jacket pocket and checked the chamber. "She'll cooperate when she sees this. Put her in the trunk of the Toyota and bring her back to this room. I'll dump her car in the shopping center across the street and join you here." She spoke slowly to make sure he understood every detail. 

An hour later, Bobby parked the Toyota next to a dense laurel hedge near a four-way intersection three blocks from Goody's house. Martha and Bobby had seen Goody pass there frequently and figured she might come through there today as well. "Here she comes," Martha said forty minutes later when she spotted goody's Mercedes approaching. 

Goody recognized the tan Toyota when she stopped at the crosswalk. Then, as she had suspected, a scruffy red-head and an aging brute of a man were yanking on her car's door handles and pounding on the windows, one on each side. Glancing to the right, she saw the pistol aimed at her. When their eyes connected, the angry looking woman screamed, "Open up." 

Since Goody had no intention of dying, she turned away from the woman and lowered the driver-side window. She smiled and said, "You must be Bobby." 

Goody's calmness immediately threw Bobby off balance. But before he could think of a response, Martha was standing next to him pointing the pistol at Goody. "Get out, old woman. You're coming with us." 

At that same moment, Goody glanced at the rearview window. "Oh oh. There's a car coming. But I need to talk to you, Martha. We better get out of here. Bobby," she said with a firmness that shocked the two assailants, "get in my car. We'll go wherever you want. Martha, you drive your car. We'll meet up later. Let's go." 

"Seeing the car approaching from behind, Martha said, "Shit. Okay. Take her to the motel." Then she quickly got in the Toyota and drove off. Goody followed with Bobby sitting in the passenger seat. "Fasten your seat belt, Bobby. We wouldn't want to be stopped by the police." 

Bobby, confused and not sure what was happening, did as ordered. "Where are we going?" he asked a moment later. 

"Like Martha said—to your motel. I'll follow her. But if I lose her, you'll have to get us there. Can you do that?" 

"I know the way. You think I'm too dumb to know how to go?" 

"Of course not, Bobby. You seem like a pretty smart guy. Hey, there's some blueberry muffins in that bag there. I was taking them to a meeting I was going to. Fresh-baked this morning. You may as well enjoy them since it looks like I'll be missing that meeting. Right?" 

"Yeah. probably." Bobby opened the bag and took out the first of the three muffins he'd eaten by the time they were halfway to the motel. "These are good," he said reaching for another one. 

"I'm glad you like them. It’s a special recipe." 

Goody pulled into the motel parking lot and parked in the slot next to the one 

Martha had taken. She and Bobby followed Martha across the asphalt drive and waited as she unlocked the room door. 

"What's wrong with him?" Martha asked as Bobby stumbled across the threshold and crashed onto the unmade bed. 

Pulling the door shut behind her, Goody said, "A few minutes ago he was having difficulty breathing. Maybe he's having a heart attack. I've seen that before . . . my first two husbands, in fact." 

A few seconds later, Bobby convulsed three times, let out a loud groan, then stopped breathing. His body became still as a stone. 

"Oh my god," Martha screamed. "He's dead. Bobby. Wake up! You can't die. I need you." 

Goody moved next to Martha and took the distraught woman in her arms. "Martha, my dear," she said softly. "Don't despair. He had a heart attack. His time was up. But his passing could be a blessing in disguise. Now you can shed the responsibility for his pointless life and take advantage of who you are, your strengths, your intelligence, your resourcefulness. And I can help you do that." 

"What do you mean? Help me do what?" 

Ignoring Martha's  question, Goody glanced at her watch, then said, "Come on, Martha. They're still serving breakfast at the New Deal Café. I'll treat you to the best scramble eggs and waffles you've ever had. And I want to tell you about an idea for a business I could use your help with."

Priscilla Good Henley, Episode 7- By Howard Schneider 

7

Jackie returned from her room an hour after she'd abruptly ceased telling Goody about her encounter with Martha and Bobby in the company parking lot and then hurry off to find her laptop. Goody was on the patio hovering over a gas grill. "Smells good. What is it?" Jackie asked. 

"Burgers. There's potato salad in the refrigerator. If you get that, we'll be ready to eat. Grab that bottle of Merlot on the counter, too. Then you can tell me what you've been up to. You want cheese on yours?' 

"The works. I'm starving," Jackie said, heading inside. 

After they'd finished their burgers and slid the empty plates aside, Goody refilled their glasses and said, "Okay, enough suspense. What's your big idea about how to deal with this blackmail situation?' 

Jackie chuckled, then said, "We'll steal their thunder. You know, beat them to the punch?" 

"Is this how you're going to do it?" Goody asked, glancing at a folded up sheet of paper Jackie took from her shirt pocket and held out for Goody to take. 

"It's a statement you could read at a press conference tomorrow. If you agree, that is. After all, we should tell the press about the change in management and the new business plan, don't you think?" 

"We? I'm not involved in the company anymore. Remember? It's yours now." 

"True. But you can still let the press know how you feel about turning your interests over to me. That's new-worthy, isn't it?" Then, after a pause, Jackie added, "You could read that statement when one of your friends in the press asked about me. Why you'd let me take over." 

Goody scanned the first sentence, nodded, then read the whole announcement out loud. "In addition to my confidence in Miss Grant's ability to steer The Good Life Cookie Company along a path of continuing success, I am especially proud of her overcoming an extraordinarily difficult past—an orphaned childhood, being passed from one foster home to the next, abuse by unscrupulous men determined to use her as a disposable commodity, attempted escape from the horrors of neglect and homelessness through drugs and petty crime, and two years in prison for doing what she had to do to survive. But through extraordinary strength of character, formidable intelligence, a stubborn spirit to carry on and do good, and a stroke of good luck, she survived that life. But she did much more than merely survive—she became an accomplished business leader and has proved to be as fine a human being as any I've ever known. I am proud to turn my interests in the company over to Jackie Grant and am confidant she will not disappoint me, her colleagues, her employees, or the public. I fully endorse her as Chief Executive Officer of the Of Good Life Cookie Company." 

Goody laid the sheet of paper on the table, looked at Jackie, then said, "Well, this statement should take the wind from their sail. Normally I'd ask if you are sure about revealing the dark side of your past, but knowing you, I'm sure you've thought it through. And, as I think about it more, you are right to do it this way. Better to have it come from us than from some reporter digging up dirt at some point in the future. I'll be happy to read this at a press conference tomorrow. I'd be proud to tell the entire world what you've accomplished. 

"Thank you, Goody. I knew I could count on you. I'll have Angela schedule a press conference for tomorrow morning. Then I'll call Martha and put an end to her blackmail scheme. She and Bobby will soon be on their way back to whatever rathole in LA they slithered out of." 

Martha stubbed out the smoldering joint on the plastic top of the bedside table in their economy-rate room at the motel they still rented and answered on the third ring. "Jackie. Why are you calling now? I told you tomorrow morning." 

"I won't need to call at all, Martha. There's a new plan. Tune in to Channel Six at eleven tomorrow morning. Have a nice day." 

"What was that about?" Bobby asked, rousing himself from a semi-stupor induced by a pipe of Oregon premium hash oil." 

"I don't know, but I don't like it. She sounded too cocky, like she's ain't gonna pay up. We'll find out what she's doing tomorrow morning at eleven, on TV. She better not be trying to pull a fast one. She don't know who's she's dealing with if she is." 

The next day opened as differently as imaginable in the two locations relevant to this story—one location being a run-down, low-rent, pay by the hour, day, or week motel in Southeast Portland, the other, an exclusive, gated estate in Northeast Portland overlooking the majesty of the Willamette Valley. The inhabitants of each location were focused on the press conference that was to be carried on Channel Six at eleven-o'clock that morning. The futures of both parties were at stake, and each combatant was determined to prevail. Finally, the hour of revelation arrived. 

When the press conference neared its end, one of the Oregonian business reporters asked Goody the planted question about Jackie. Goody's response hit Martha like a jack hammer on full power. 

"Damn her!" Martha screamed as she jumped up from the bed and began ranting and raving as she paced around the ratty room, incoherently, shaking her head back and forth. Finally coming to her senses, she said, "If she thinks I'm gonna give up this money, she stupider than I thought she was. She ain't getting off the hook by spilling the beans like she did. Bobby! We're gonna do what you said we should 'ah done from the get-go. Grab the old woman. Then she'll pay up. She'd be too soft not to. She ain't like me—or her mother. No way we're gonna leave without our million." 

Bobby opened his red-rimmed eyes and looked at Martha. "What'd you say?" 

"I said we're gonna do what we need to do. Get up! We gotta make a plan. It's now or never. And a far as I'm concerned, 'never' ain't in the cards."

Priscilla Good Henley, Episode 6 - By Howard Schneider 

Jackie left Goody's house to go to work alone for the first time in their four years of working together. It was the morning after they'd celebrated reorganization of The Good Life Cookie Company. 

"Good luck," Goody shouted as Jackie got into her car. 

As she eased out the gate, Jackie noticed a grimy, tan Toyota parked half a block away but didn't pay it much attention. She didn't connect it being there when she and Goody returned from the lawyer's office the day before, either. This morning her mind was focused on the board meeting she was soon to chair, the revised management structure she would present, and her plan to increase revenues by acquiring two local competitors. Both were challenges to her company's dominance of the hemp-based chips and crackers sector. She intended to show decisive leadership from the get-go to reassure the board she could achieve their goal of a public offering—the exit plan by which senior management and board members could cash in their stock options. 

"Bobby! That's her, "Martha said, nudging the tattoo-covered brute dozing behind the wheel of the car he'd stolen in Sacramento two days earlier. "Wake up! We don't wanna lose her." 

"I see her," he said, shaking away the sleep and watching her car disappear in the side mirror. He made a quick U-turn and sped ahead. A moment later they caught sight of her, and Bobby let off the gas so she wouldn't see she was being followed. "I'll grab her when she stops." 

"No," Martha said,  "Just follow her. She must be going to work. We'll confront her when she gets out of the car and tell her what the deal is. She's no dummy—she'll know we mean business. She'll do what I say." 

What if she don't?" Bobby asked. 

"She won't want her drug-dealing past known—or her two years in the state pen. But if she won't cooperate, we'll step it up a notch. Don't worry, I won't let this chance slip away." 

Twenty minutes later Jackie turned into her company's parking lot and took an empty spot. Standing in the narrow space between her car and the Ford 150 pickup she'd parked next to, preparing to lock her car, she suddenly heard her name called out. When she turned to see who it was, she saw a stocky, red-headed woman in faded jeans and a grimy sweatshirt. A huge, tattoo-emblazoned man in baggy shorts and a sleeveless grubby tee shirt lurked behind her. They stood at the back bumper of her car and blocked her way past. The tan sedan idled next to them puffing black smoke out its tailpipe. 

The woman took a step closer. "Hello, Jackie. I don't expect you know who I am since we've never met. I'm your mother's sister, Martha. We come all the way from LA just to make your acquaintance. With your fame and all, I figured you'd want to share your good fortune with me, being a close family member—your only one, in fact. And I would sure as hell appreciate your generosity." 

Jackie was startled by these two people appearing from nowhere, and by the woman's outrageous claim to be her aunt. But having survived on the streets of LA and Portland, she wasn't easily intimidated and quickly recovered. "I've never heard anything about my mother having a sister. You'll have to have more than a wild claim in a parking lot. Do you have any proof?" 

Ignoring Jackie's response, Martha continued, "Here's the deal, niece: Tomorrow you're gonna give us one million cash, in twenties, fifties and hundreds. In a suitcase. The kind with wheels. And just in case you're wondering why you'd do something like that, I'll tell you why. Because if you don't, I'll let the whole damn world know about your drug dealing past and your time in prison. I don't think your company, or your old lady girlfriend, would like it if their little princess turned out to be a scheming ex-con and a drug addict. Do you?" 

"I don't believe you. Get out of my way or I'll call the police," Jackie said with as much bluster as she could muster, then yanked her phone from her jacket pocket. 

Martha rushed forward, grabbed Jackie's phone and threw it to the pavement, then crushed it with the heel of her boot. "Here, call me tomorrow morning with this," she then said, tossing a disposable phone at Jackie. "I'll let you know where to bring the money." Then she turned back to Bobby. "Let's get outta here. Jackie's got to get to work." 

In her office after the board meeting, Jackie called Goody. "It's me. I need to talk to you." 

"Was there a problem with the board?" Goody asked. 

"No. Everyone's okay with the reorganization and my revenue projections. It's something else." 

"What's wrong?" 

"I'll see you in twenty minutes. I'll tell you then." 

Sitting in Goody's spacious living room half an hour later, Jackie described her encounter with Martha and her silent giant. "Do you think she might really be your aunt?" Goody asked. 

"Yes. I called the Oregon Children's' Services Department on my way here. They confirmed that my mother had a sister, Martha Grant, residing in California. Evidently, she was judged unsuitable as a guardian because of a criminal record. That's why they put me in foster care." Jackie stood and went to the big window overlooking the valley and stared out at the shimmering lights of the city off to the west. "Her hair is red, like mine," she added on the verge of tears. 

"What will you do?" Goody asked gently after a long silence. 

"I'm not sure. But I don't like the way she threatened me, and I'm sure not going to give her a million dollars. I'd never be able to come up with that much money in one day anyway. And I wouldn't even if I could. It's blackmail. Maybe I can help her out somehow, but not that way." 

"What about her threat to tell the papers about your past?" 

Jackie didn't respond for a few moments, seemingly deep in thought. Then she suddenly turned toward Goody, who was still sitting on the sofa. She hesitated a moment, then said, "But there is one thing that  . . ." Saying no more, she quickly stepped away from the window and headed for the hall that led to her room. "Give me an hour, then I'll tell you."