| Chapter 2 |
I rush into the first stall in the old white tiled toilet and collapse to my knees. Holding on to the bowl with both hands, I feel my suit pants sop up wetness from the floor, which I think is pee. I make my way to the old-chipped hand-basin and hold on, then throw-up the beer and rum. The Boy Scouts law flashes through my mind. Loyal: A Scout is true to his family and friends. I look down at my watch and, it’s only forty-five minutes to closing time. I must tell my mates no pussy will ever come between us again. I stagger back through the pub and stand with me mates at the bar, but the words just won’t come. I try to put my foot on the brass-rail, but someone keeps moving it. I feel alone in the crowd and shake my head, trying to clear my alcoholic brain.
“Christ! Drink up. It’s almost the last call.” I say, trying to reconnect with me mates. “That’s right, Wills, and it’s your turn to buy, so get us another round,” Dave says.
Suddenly, the incessant chatter in the now packed bar drops to a whisper. I then follow everyone’s eyes towards the front door. To my horror, there stands Kurt Reichmann, the German gang leader from School, I sober up instantly. Behind Reichmann, there is a solid wall of the grizzliest cutthroats and villains that I have ever seen. Reichmann is even bigger and uglier than I remember. His neck is over half the width of his massive-hunched-shoulders. Even though he has an ape’s posture, he is still head and shoulders above everyone else in the pub. This six-foot-six, over three-hundred-pound monster yet has not seen me. “‘Er… boys!” I whisper, “Don’t look now, but Kurt Reichmann just came through the door.” I look down as I speak, hoping that the floor will open and swallow me up. “Holy shit!” Dave says, almost without moving his lips. “What the fuck is ‘e doing ‘ere? I ‘fought ‘is local pub’s The Bell.” “It is,” Danny whispers. “and if ‘e’s ‘ere, there’s ‘gonna be trouble.” Ed is looking around the bar. “Why the bloody ‘ell didn’t they build a back door to this fucking place? Cause I ‘fink it’s way past me bedtime.” Danny starts to look around as if he would suddenly find Ed’s missing back door. “Which one of ‘yah ASSHOLES,” Reichmann bellows into the now silent bar, “put the finger on Billy ‘ere, to the bleeding Coppers?” Billy Ratner is the one-legged hulk on crutches standing almost as tall as Reichmann, to his left. There are many stories about how he lost his leg, but no one knows for sure. Billy always plays the poor helpless cripple, especially when questioned by the police about pub fights. ” ‘ave a ‘eart Constable,” Billy would answer. ” ‘ow can a poor one-leg cripple, the likes of me, be involved in a fight?” The truth is, when standing wedged into a corner, Billy is a vicious fighter who swings his heavy wooden crutches and inflicts very nasty injuries. Everyone knows that to turn him in would be a death sentence. Reichmann’s beady eyes scan the bar, unfortunately. he picks me out of the crowd. “I don’t believe me bleeding eyes! If it ain’t the ‘eadmaster’s pet, Alan bloody Wills, the ‘ead Boy. You’re the type of bleeder what would turn Billy into the Rozzers! I shout back to him. “School’s a long time ago Kurt, I ain’t been in Walthamstow for donkey’s years. We moved away, you know,” I try not to sound nervous despite the giant butterflies beating the hell out of my stomach. “There’s ‘ya pencil-neck, sissy mates? They always squealed on me gang in School.” I yell back. “No, Kurt, we’ve all gone our separate ways now. This is the first time we’ve all been together for ages. Like a reunion, ‘ya know?” “So, what about that little weasel next to ‘ya! Who’s ‘e?” I turn to the stranger next to me. He is less than average height, but on closer inspection, he looks very muscular. Plus, he seems self-assured, with a determined look in his eyes. I had never seen him before. “Dunno who he is, Kurt. ‘Ain’t with us.” “Ma name’s Scotty. I’m from Glasgow!” “A bloody Jock!” Reichmann says in a very demeaning tone. “Maybe we’ll ‘ave ‘ya do a ‘highland bloody fling or play ‘ya bagpipes.” You can hear a pin drop as Reichmann takes a couple of steps forward. I look up at the ceiling and say a silent prayer. God, don’t let this little Jock defy Reichmann. You, of all people, know that Scots have a reputation of being hardheaded. “Get outta me way, you big oafs!” A woman’s voice shouts from the front door. Again, I look up at the ceiling. Excuse me, God, you sent a woman? I ask silently. As she pushes her way through his gang, we can see that she is wearing the navy-blue Salvation Army uniform. This poor little gray-haired dove surely doesn’t realize that she is landing in the middle of a potential battlefield. “I’ve never heard this den of iniquity so quiet. What’s going on?” she asks. “None of ‘ya fucking business,” Reichmann growls. “‘Ya watch ‘ya filthy tongue, ‘ya big moose,” she says, facing Reichmann. “Look, lady, d’ya mind? We’re in the middle of a bloody inquisition! So why don’t ‘ya go on ‘ya merry way and push God at the next boozer down the road?” “God’s work is far more important than whatever mischief you’re about.” She says. Then she shakes her tambourine holding it out in front of Reichmann. “A donation please?” “Get the fuck out of here, ‘ya fucking bible junky, before me gang throws ‘ya’re ass out,” Reichmann pushes her to one side with a swat of his left hand. She falls back, held up by a couple of gang members. She takes a few steps to be back in front of him. “You might bully little people, mister, but you can’t bully God!” Again, she thrusts her tambourine at him. This time, it hits his bulbous belly. The crowd lets out an Oh, then waits for the inevitable. “Look lady, I’m Kurt Reichmann. I’m sure you’ve ‘heard of me.” “No, can’t say I have. I’m Gladys Little, glad to meet ‘ya! Now, how about a little something for the Lord’s work?” Again, she shakes the tambourine, then taps it twice on Reichmann’s obese belly. An “Ooooo” goes through the bar. “That does it, lady. You just pushed ‘ya luck too bloody far! OK, boys, throw this old bible-bashing-bitch out in the street.” Four of his thugs pick up this poor little Salvation Army lady by her arms and legs. With one exception, none of the pub patrons lift a finger to save her. The wiry Scot leaps to within a couple of feet of Reichmann. “You’ll have ‘ya men unhand the wee lass, Mr. Reichmann!” The little Scot says “You must be off ‘ya ‘ead,” Reichmann chuckles. “One of ‘ya …” he points to his gang. “This ‘ere little Scot’s fly, what just landed ‘ere, needs swatting!” “Donee move! Not a one of ‘ya, or I’ll be forced to put a bad hurt on ‘ya boss.” The Scot’s eyes narrow as he stares up at Reichmann’s massive head. “You! You’re going to ‘hurt me?” Reichmann laughs heartily with his hands holding his big stomach. His gang follows suit and breaks into roars of laughter. Without a word, the Scot jumps into the air, and with a loud thud, his forehead smashes Reichmann’s forehead, much the same way a football player powerfully heads the ball. The giant falls like a rock to the floor, knocked out cold. The four thugs instantly drop the Salvation Army lady on to the floor and join the other gang members around Reichmann. Slowly he recovers conscience. and shaking his head, then shouts, “Get that little bastard!” The Scot’s courage must have touched all the local lads the way it inspired me. Without a word, we all leap on Reichmann’s gang, and the onslaught begins. All around me. I hear the painful sound of fists pounding flesh. I block a punch from a gang member, grab his hair and smash his nose onto my up-thrusting knee. His blood splatters over my trousers, and he hits the floor holding his face. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dave jump clear as a wooden table is overturned by one of Reichmann’s thugs. Dave then demolishes a wooden chair across the thugs head, and he is out for the count. Blood splatters everywhere; bottles fly through the air and smash against walls. I see Danny duck a punch, then raise his head and poked his fingers into the gang-members eyes, and the thug screams out in pain. Looking around for Ed, I block another punch. The public bar is full of fighters, with fists missing and connecting, heads ducking and weaving. I then see Ed hiding under a table. I smile. Maybe he is the smart one, I think. “Scotty, look out!” I yell. “Reichmann has a blade.” With the precision of a goalkeeper, he kicks up, and the knife flies from Reichmann’s hand up into the air. Miraculously, Scotty catches it and lunges at Reichmann, ripping open a gash of the full length of his right inner arm. Blood squirts all over the fighters next to him. “Christ! ‘e’s cut me bad,” Reichmann screams, holding his wounded arm to his chest, blood covers his huge belly. He heads for the door, closely followed by his gang. The four of us lift Scotty, our hero, on our shoulders, high above the battered and bruised crowd. The cheers are deafening as we step carefully over debris in what looks like a war zone. Holding Scotty high, we circle the bar to the cheers of the crowd. All the locals help clean up the mess, and we pass the hat around to pay for the damage. In return, the Governor buys everyone a beer. Dave, Danny, Ed, Scotty, and me, close The White Swan with the much-needed last beer at the bar. Scotty, we discover, is a famous football player. He is in London to play in the England v Scotland cup match. He had come to Walthamstow to meet an old army mate at The Swan. “Laddies & Lasses, us Scots have mighty hard heads in more ways than one, as your Mr. Reichmann can surely attest!” Are his parting words as he walks toward the front door, to the cheers of us all. Just then, Scotty’s army friend comes through the door, and asks “Scotty, why are they cheering you?” “Auk, I just straightened out the David and Goliath story with these Londoners. They didney know that David was a Scots soccer player.” During Sunday lunchtime, at the Swan, we learn that Reichmann was not able to go to the hospital Friday night due to a police warrant. Many eyewitnesses swore they saw him sew the long knife wound to his inner arm himself, using an ordinary needle and thread from a sewing kit, which luckily a woman outside the pub had in her handbag. Chapter 2 is from my sequel Book More Confession of a Wanker.The first book Confession of a Wanker is available from Amazon Books in Soft Cover, or as a E-Book for $4.95.It is selling like hot cakes! More Confession of a Wanker is being edited and should be available in approximately 3 months. However, I might suggest, you read the first book as it is the continuing story,about a boy growing-up in the tough East End of London ReplyForward
I’m in the front yard of my bungalow in Venice, California, sitting on the roots of the only Oaktree in the Oakwood area. I have a couple of minutes before an early online video meeting. Breakfast is coffee and sunflower buttered toast. A tiny round warbler peers at me through the branches of the old oak. It one-eyes me with thought, pondering my existence in his world, deciding whether I am a danger. My computer makes a noise that sounds like a submerging submarine. Alerted, the warbler’s head turns to the sound. I dash into the house.
A voice cries out, “Joan? Joan, are you there? It’s Elsi!”
Elsi is a prosecuting attorney. She’s got a problem regarding a celebrity who was caught shoplifting in one of those horribly expensive boutiques in Malibu. VaVa. VaVa is my ward. Her fame qualifies her as a media madness concern. Something we deal with a lot on the fifth floor, Homicide, Special Section, at Parker Center. The fact that she is my ward, makes it an issue that is even more delicate for the department. Elsi is a rabid prosecuting attorney with big plans for her future. She’s Latina, younger than me, shorter than me. In some ways, we are from the same tribe. In other ways, not so much. This call is a special favor to me. If you know people in the department, things can go easy on you, or they can go very hard. The actress in question, VaVa Terraza, my ward, is only seventeen. She lives in Mandeville Canyon, has an entourage of servants and a custom jeweler who creates diamond jewelry in rainbow motifs. VaVa, with the overkill on cotton candy colors and unicorns, lives up to her amatory name. She does these online performances, streaming videos and film and has a massive following. Besides VaVa’s drug problem, I suspect it’s all the rainbow diamonds that Elsi finds particularly abhorrent. I don’t think they’re so bad. I mean, they’re not illegal. Maybe it’s VaVa’s mix-ins of kid stuff with her young sexuality that perturbs Elsi the most. I get that. I understand her ire on that subject. It bugs me too, and it would, even if I weren’t her guardian.
“Here I am,” I call out to the video.
I bring my face into view. “Yes, fully clothed.” I had slipped on a pair of black men’s slacks and a grey shirt without even thinking about it.
“Too bad, was hoping to catch you full Monty. Sorry, Joan but it’s the detention center for VaVa, not her first offense.”
“No, nope, it’s rehab,” I insist.
“What’s wrong with detention? Teach her a lesson.”
“She’s a winning candidate for drug rehab.”
“How’s that?” Elsi asks derisively.
“It’s painfully evident on the security tape that VaVa was zonkers on her meds while shoplifting.”
“Not so painful for me.”
“You obviously never lost a loved one to drug abuse.”
“You sound more liberal every day. Thought you were from Missouri.”
“Yep, the Ozarks. Alcohol and drug abuse are a sickness, Elsi.”
“I would argue that she is a flagrant, repeat offender.”
“Rehab. She reimbursed the store $50,000 and signed a statement promising not to return. Send her before a judge, it’ll waste time and money. He’ll say the same. She’s only seventeen, Elsi. Give her a chance.”
“Fine. Call over there to Rodeo Drive and ask them to drop charges and it will be a non-issue. You can notify her. I’m busy putting people behind bars.”
“Only the guilty ones, I hope.”
“Very funny. If she doesn’t report to rehab, it’s on you. I’ll go ahead and take her off the detention track. I know a judge I can get to sign off on it. You’re her guardian, make sure she checks in. You might also like to know that you’re scheduled for a visit at a women’s college and you’re listed for a mandatory interview with Jesse Cand.”
“What woman’s college? Be serious. A mandatory interview? How do you know that? Why on earth?”
“Bye Joan, I have work to do.”
The submarine noise signals the end of our conference and Elsi is gone.
In some ways, VaVa is a typical seventeen-year-old and I was hoping she’d stay out of trouble, but, I’m not terribly shocked that it hasn’t worked out that way. The only good thing about this is that VaVa will get real professional help. She has trauma that she hasn’t dealt with and other issues besides a drug problem. Maybe I am empathetic. Perhaps I could be more so.
I remember that I have my own scheduled therapy session tomorrow. So far, I’ve had a successful run working in Special Section on an elite squad. They push me in the front for all the high-profile events, but truth is, my success is despite, not because of, department policy. I hadn’t talked to Jesse Cand, an investigative reporter, for some time. I’d heard he was being courted for a television show. I could only pray that he didn’t have the intention of featuring me. It was looking likely that I would have some good material for my therapy session manana.
My cellphone makes the sound of a freight train. It’s a real estate agent. I tell her to come that evening. I’ve decided to sell my Venice bungalow. I hang up the phone and my cell immediately emits a hard-hitting blues riff before I can even get my finger off the button good. It’s the unique ringtone I created for Satch Johnson, my boss. He’s what they call Homicide Coordinator.
“Your old beau came around asking for you.”
“What now?” Satch is a big bear of a man with a red beard like the dodger pitcher.
“Not the last guy, not that surfer dude, the one before him, your old partner, Carl, the PI? He’s looking for someone to help him out with new business and wanted to know if you were available. I guess he was hoping that-”
“No, please! I’m with you, Satch. Don’t even tell me about it. I don’t want to know. Seriously.” I was shocked how fast the word got out to the department about my recent crash and burn. Offer from an old ex through my supervisor? “Satch, may I ask how many people you told about my breakup with Eddy?”
“Just your partner, Gus.”
“Oh, kay. So, that explains it. Men are worse gossips than women. Alright, what’s going on?”
“Just thought I’d check on you.”
“Don’t lie. I’m ready. Let’s go, what is it? What do you want to tell me?”
“Okay. But the truth hurts.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“How do you feel about nuts?”
I pause for a moment, thinking I’d make a joke about liking to kick them, or about being one myself. Satch waits, expecting something along that line but I demur.
“What kind of nuts?”
“I like them quite a lot, but they are pricey.”
“You just said a word.”
“A homicide case about pistachios?” I reflexively sketch a cracked pistachio nut in a small notebook.
“Like you said, they’re very expensive what with tariffs and climate change.”
“Quite a few have gone missing.”
“Oh! Hard to trace I bet.”
“And where’s the body?”
“Meet Gus at the Firehouse Diner in 45. He will fill you in and explain how the case comes to us. It’s a little squirrely.”
“In 45? Give a woman time to brush her teeth.” I could be there in fifteen if necessary.
“Firehouse in 45.”
“I’m with Gus? Again?”
“Yes, Gus again.”
“I’ll be there.” I finish with my cracked nut sketch and pocket the notebook.
Truth is, Gus is the greatest. I like to pretend that I’m tired of him, that I don’t need him. I don’t let on that he is my respected elder. Or that I count on his guidance, except for when I don’t. Gus knows of course. The guy knows everything which can be tedious. I always get teamed up with Gus since Carl and I are no longer partners. Maybe cuz’ nobody else wants to work with me. I’m a little young for the position, but hey, I started young, when I was a kid. I wonder how the hell pistachios come into a homicide investigation. I leave immediately to meet Gus, as Satch directed, in downtown Santa Monica. It’s an upscale seaside town a few minutes from my place so I walk. Gus also lives in a beach town. Pacific Palisades, a little more upscale than my neighborhood, heading Northwards towards Malibu. We tend to have breakfast together and then drive to Parker Center downtown in the same car or even straight to the crime scene depending on where it is.
I stroll by The Brig, the only early morning joint serving alcohol. I survey the reliable line of drunks holding up the brick wall, waiting to get in, as I pass. No eye-contact there, which is fine.
I step it down Abbot Kinney, quiet this early, and finally approach Rose Avenue. I easily spot the Firehouse, a bright red building plainly in view on the corner of Main St and Rose.
I enter the big wide doors of the engine house and instantly, my appetite is back. I spot the back of a head, a thick peppered gray mane. Gus has already ordered us avocado omelets with basil and Gouda cheese. I slide into a roomy black leather booth and show Gus my teeth. People who wear the blues, as we say, love to eat at firehouses converted into restaurants and there are a few of them in Los Angeles. My clothes are hanging on me. I’m down with having a real breakfast, looking forward to slathering butter and jam on my biscuits.
“Are you ready?” Gus asked.
“Nevermore.” I answer.
“How very Poe of you.”
“I think it’s apropos.”
“Carl asked about you.”
“Stop. Don’t even go there. Carl? No way.” Can’t understand why people insist on talking to me about him. Just because Eddy broke my heart, it doesn’t mean I’m going to run back to Carl. Anyway, Carl has a new girlfriend already, a very beautiful Korean woman who works in Missing. Debby.
Gus points at me. I hate it when he does that. “You know what the problem with you is?”
“No, I don’t. Why don’t you tell me?”
“You and Carl are exactly alike.”
“Neither of you ever want to go by the book. He has that new PI firm up and running and you oughta go work for him. He’s getting respectable cases, not just divorces and cheating spouses. He’s already raking in cash money baby, more than we will ever see and he needs your expertise in his corner. I think that big rock star just hired him. There’s been quite a few threats on that guy’s life.”
“Yah, I saw something about that on the news this morning. Austin Mears? Uh, no thank you.”
“You and Carl being together. That’s right as rain. You’re a great team. Never saw two people who could crack a case like you two. He was good for you. You should help him out.”
“Why would I do that? Gus, listen to me.” He looks dead at me, unimpressed. “One, I have a job, thanks. Some people think I’m good at it. Two, rock stars are not my thang. Three, under no circumstances, do I want you to talk to me about Carl, ever again.”
“What happened, anyway?
“Two words: overly protective.”
“You know I’m right about this.”
I glare at him. I try to make steam shoot out of my nostrils.
“What about country singers, how do you feel about them?” he asks.
With Gus it’s better to say nothing. I look around the room. The wait staff are dressed in yellow firemen overalls. Some of them even wear helmets. I stare for a moment at the shiny fire pole that glistens in the corner and listen in on a conversation going on in the booth behind me about a woman’s disappointing sexual encounter the night before. I glance behind me, pretend to look for the waiter, to see a distressed redhead with mascara running down her face. Seems to me she’s way too pretty to get burdened with a lousy lay, but I guess it can happen to anybody.
My cellphone rings with woo-woo music. That could only be one person. A woman who wears flowing silks, semi-precious stones, who recently dyed her hair a blazing red color. Kunda. Kunda explained her new look to me as having something to do with her kundalini rising and spouting like a fountain at the top of her head. Recently, several D-List actresses have taken to seeking Kunda’s advice for a renewal of energy and psychic insights. I hope it’s helping them. I can’t help but wonder how these actresses feel about being referred to as D-List. The Hollywood hierarchy is so, uh, I dunno.
“Hello, Kunda.” I say into the phone so she doesn’t take up time saying this is Kunda.
“Joan! I had a dream about you this morning.”
This should be good. “Not about me?”
“All about you. You are in for a great transformation.”
“Transformation? Ummm. Is that a good thing?”
“It’s revolution, revelation, a rebirth.”
“New could describe it but not wholly new.”
“This is a fun game, Kunda.”
“It’s your life, your sacred journey, your soul.”
“You come into your power, Joan. You come into your power.”
“I don’t know what that means but I take that as a positive transformation then, correct?”
“We should meet in person.”
“No, uh, thank you. It’s very kind of you to communicate such a message from the Universe.”
“You do need to be careful.”
“In my business that’s par for the course.”
“I mean, really careful.”
“About what do ya think?”
“People you love and trust.”
“Okay, noted, I need to go now, Kunda. Thanks again. Bye.”
“Joan – “
I cut her off before she can say more. I despise fortune tellers who make people feel paranoid. It’s such an old trick. In my last investigation, Kunda was a dubious but admittedly helpful psychic who has a habit of providing us cryptic clues. I find her unsolicited advice galling.
“That was Kunda,” I say, “with unsought guidance. Now, what are you and I talking about? Career and love advice?”
Finally, Gus relents. “Okay, I get it, nevermore. I’m not going to mention Carl again.”
“Good. I’d appreciate it.”
“Everything okay with your klepto?”
“Her name is VaVa.”
“That’s a name.”
“I begged Elsi to send her to rehab and she said yes. I don’t know how I got conned into being her guardian.”
“One word. Vernice. How could you say no?”
“Wish I wasn’t so judgy. I feel like I’m always frowning at her.”
“She certainly gives you reason to.”
“Children who steal want love.”
“Did you read that in a book on how to raise other people’s kids?”
“It’s Forensic Psychology, Gus.”
“You have a degree in that now?”
“More like a Ph.D.” Gus chuckled at me. “Yah. Okay, Gus, what’s the point here, enlighten me, wise one, as to the location of this pistachio plant. What’s the dealio?”
“Sounds prophetic. Not our usual territory.”
“A bit far from the red carpet and the typical action but it’s connected.”
“I’ll see why we’re chasing our tails looking for someone who stole some pistachios?”
“We haven’t started chasing anything yet. And it’s more than a few pistachios. A truck, Joan. A truck. It’s not like someone stole a bucket of nuts and sold them at the Farmer’s Market.”
“Okay, a lot of pistachios. Where’s the homicide?”
“A man is missing from his home, a renown healer. We think we have a kidnapping and there was blood at the scene.”
“What does that mean, a renown healer?”
“A highly esteemed holy man in the Hollywood community.”
“Oh, well then, that’s why qualify. Whose blood?”
“We don’t know yet. Could be the drivers or it could belong to the healer. We’re running tests now.”
“The blood was found… where?”
Gus sips his coffee, “On the sidewalk leading from the holy man’s home out to the street where presumably he was put into a pistachio truck.”
“We are presuming this because there is no witness and no real reason to believe there is a connection between the darling healer’s disappearance and a pistachio truck parked on the street? I just want to be sure I have a clear understanding of what we’re doing.”
“The man is a very celebrated and beloved healer, husband and father. The blood is no joke, it was quite a bit more than a few drops.”
“And some famous person called the DA? Who was it?”
“Donna Freed, she’s a distinguished activist with a strong grip in Hollywood and the political scene.”
“How about you take a look at these photos?” Gus put a stack of xerox sheets on the table under my nose. He knows I can’t resist the perusal, it’s part of my arsenal, my ability to recall faces. I do take pride in my skills on the job.
Gus doesn’t like to distract me when I’m examining photos and so he allows me my own thoughts and we eat our breakfast in silence, each of us in our own worlds.
The department xerox machine is nearly as good as a photo printer and Gus can have the photos enlarged so that each face gets a full page, which he does. That gives me more of an idea of how people really look. It’s almost the same size as the average human face, and they stick in my mind better, especially if I’ve seen them before. It’s something I noticed when I first started working as an investigator and now it has become usual procedure for me. You’d be surprised how many people I’ve identified this way. People joke that I’m better than a face recognition scan, which isn’t true at all, but I am good at it. Maybe because I can make associations that computers don’t. My memory is not photographic by any means, but I did have it tested once before I came on the job and the results said that only 1 percent of the population had a memory as good or better than mine. I think that’s why I got the job, to tell you the truth, or maybe it just helped push the verdict to a yes on my behalf. There’s been some outcry about the justice department using the facial scan recognition devices. I can’t recall at this moment what the exact objection is. Something to do with surveillance or incrimination, some legal concern.
I start off sort of slow, not really committed to it, not quite familiar with the case but the images are going in my brain and I’ll be able to access them if I run into someone down the road that looks like one of these guys. I slurp down coffee every few pages and eat a few bites of my yummy omelet, allowing the images to sink in while I chew. I’m feeling good. I’m back on the job. I’m flexing my muscles, firing up the pistols of my high-performance brain when, it happens. I recognize one of the men.
I look closer and it’s as if a ghost has appeared before me. Condor. My best friend growing up. Condor is his actual name. I was flabbergasted to bump into my childhood pal on a case. What was Condor’s chiseled face doing in this photo stack of pistachio drivers. Though I had lost track of him, I was pretty sure he played college football on one of the University teams. Harvard has a football team, right? I recalled that somebody told me Condor was going to Harvard, taking courses in humanitarian endeavors, leadership during crisis and other goodwill skill type programs. Soft skills they call them. He’d always been bright, and I had imagined that he’d become an engineer or scientist or maybe even an animal conservationist like his father. Not a trucker, delivering overpriced pistachios.
Gus indicated that the waiter should bring the bill. His cell phone rang.
“Sling it!” he said.
Gus raised his eyebrows at me, then nodded meaningfully at the phone.
“We’re right here, boss. Two blocks away. We got it.”
What homicide could have taken place since I last talked to our boss, Satch, that would prompt him to assign us two blocks from here? The area was expensive real estate, Main Street, Santa Monica, luxurious office buildings, pricey boutique shops, yoga and Pilates studios. You get the picture, money. New money.
“What’s up?” I ask as Gus slips his cell into his designer suit pocket.
“Some real estate king is dead in his bookkeeper’s office just up the road. We can walk. The pistachios will have to wait.”
“Can I finish my omelet?” I asked.
“Yah, sure, but let’s not dawdle.”
Being a cop, you learn to eat quickly, like record time. I didn’t say anything about recognizing Condor. In fact, I slipped Condor’s photo back in with the others. I wanted to fold it and put it in my pocket but that would be too conspicuous. I hand the xerox stack back to Gus; he places it in a folder, then tucks that into a portfolio with a zipper. I chow down my food and chase it with coffee.
We walk out of the restaurant and onto the street where I was nearly run over by a woman flying by on what looked like a skateboard with a motor and handlebars. She dons big black goggles and a tiny black tankini, with thong bottoms and leaves behind a strong fragrance of coconut butter. I saw the brand logo, Blackbird, whizz by.
“Watch out, those things will jump out and clip you.” Gus advises.
Her bare cheeks are well exposed for the whole of Main Street to see. She flies off down the road, her butt jiggling about, probably on her way to the beach. I look at Gus.
“Save your outrage for murder,” Gus says.
“It’s rude on so many counts.”
“I know, let’s keep steppin’, got a body getting cold as we lament young people these days.”
“I’m still young. Speak for yourself,” I insist.
We walk two blocks past hip coffee joints with artisan bakery goods and customers thoughtfully clicking on their laptops. We pass a covered bus stop bench with a poster of the movie remake of SHAFT. On the ground are three homeless men. They were sleeping, completely unconscious in various positions. One is asleep sitting with his upper torso propped up against the SHAFT poster, unintentionally making a social statement. There’s no room for anyone who might be waiting for a bus under the cover but in Santa Monica no one would publicly resent what was certainly a group of homeless friends setting up camp. We move past them. A smell of feces rises from their slumbered bodies.
Several different storefronts featured mannequins sport short skirts, heels and workout apparel. A taco stand is serving egg burritos and Mexican coffee. At the corner, we enter a century-old building. The kind I like. Gus had been given the code to enter. The elevator isn’t working so we climb five floors of the stairway and walked down a dark hallway to suite five hundred. An overweight Santa Monica police officer with a bad over-comb of greasy hair greets us with a self-serious demeanor. He’s large, his stature looming, a belligerent air about him. He’s well-grown out of the uniform he was wearing
“Ms. Rand is inside, sitting on the couch in the foyer. She’s the bookkeeper. The body is in her office. She discovered the owner, dead on the floor, and called 911. I didn’t take a full statement from her.”
“Why bother since you knew we were on the way?” said Gus.
“Where is the body?” asked Gus.
“In the first room on the left. Seems to be an electrical closet turned into an office. The deceased is one of the owners and the chief financial officer. He’s lying face down in a puddle of blood with a pencil in his eye. His name is Donald J. Flunk. His family owns Santa Monica. Well, they share it with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Cosby. They own about a third of Santa Monica, to be correct.”
“Anybody else around?” I ask.
“There’s an ex-girlfriend of the deceased, who lives downstairs on the second floor. She’s the property manager or used to be. She has a key to the office as does Ms. Rand.”
“I thought you said you didn’t take a statement, uh, Kent,” I said as I noticed his nameplate.
“I received that information from the woman in Suite 506, she’s a television writer-producer, some series. One of those Hollywood wives or something or another wives type thing. She lives in an apartment that includes several suites.”
It was odd to me that he considered the size of her apartment an important detail to convey. Always aware of status, those Santa Monica police officers. They were known for that. I recognized his name, Kent, from research I did once on a case.
“Okay, we have it from here, thank you,” said Gus. We both pull out gloves and paper shoes from our pockets. Gus and I enter the office.
The first room is an improvised foyer. It features an old couch in what I assume was originally a living room. On the ratty couch is a tiny old lady in a pink print dress and rubber-soled sandals. Her head is covered in thick grey curls. Round green eyeglasses that make her look like a strange owl. Her hands are folded in her lap. She could have been praying but I wasn’t sure. She stares directly at me as we enter as if she’s hoping someone will rescue her. I assume she didn’t like the first officer on the scene. I look into the office off to the left and see the body face down on the floor. A man in a suit, a pool of blood using from under his face. Gus and I exchange a look. I walk over to Ms. Rand and sit beside her on the couch and purposely slouch a bit as if I was tired and making myself comfortable. She stares at me with those owl eyes. Gus enters the bookkeeper’s to more thoroughly check out the body. A lovely cloud of fragrance floats about Ms. Rand. As Gus disappears into her office, I notice a thick utilitarian chain hanging from the frame of the doorway of the office and a hook on the opposite frame post. Why would there be a chain across the doorway like that? There’s another doorway eight foot into the foyer to that same office and it has a similar setup, a chain hanging on the doorframe with a hook across from it. Was there some need to chain the bookkeeper in her office? Was such a thing even effective? I turn to the little old lady in the pink dress.
“I’m Detective Joan Lambert, Ms. Rand. Are you okay? Do you need a glass of water or anything?” She silently shakes her head no. I notice there are beads of sweat on her forehead. The room is unusually hot. I assume because heat naturally rises, and we are on the top floor.
“What happened, Ms. Rand?”
She shrugs and looks up to the heavens. Her mouth opens in an expression of horror like that famous Munch painting, but she says nothing. I watch as Officer Kent finished up with tying off the crime tape across the front door.
“Are you going to need additional assistance?” Kent asked.
I looked at him with distaste. Yes, of course. “Someone on the both ends of the hall and at the front door.”
He nods and made a call on his cell.
“You found the body?” I ask Ms. Rand.
She nods yes. Tiny jerky nods of her head.
Was Mr. Flunk your boss?”
She nods yes.
“Did you like him?”
She turns to me, her blue eyes get bigger. I didn’t think bigger eyes was possible. Betty Davis eyes.
“Not exactly fond of him. Not much to like often, but perhaps, I was empathetic. He had deep issues.”
“Mental health issues? Money issues? What exactly?”
She looks down at her hands. I did as well. Her knuckles sre white from clasping her hands so tight. I’m hoping she isn’t too stressed out to answer my questions. I decide to continue to ask the questions as if I were a friend who wanted to know what happened to her. It’s a technique that works better than a terse interrogation anyway.
“Those chains across the doorways, were they a symptom of his issues?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Tell me honestly, Ms. Rand, do you think anybody wanted to kill him?”
She nods her head yes.
“A lot of people?”
She nods yes.
Slowly, she nods yes again.
“How many is that? Tenants.”
“What about the ex?”
She glances at me.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said softly, she held my eyes. “He pays all her bills, kids are expensive, living on the Westside. It was an accident.”
“The man’s heart was as hard as hickory. He was cruel. He enjoyed tormenting the disabled. Lots of people could be suspect. But, really, I think it was an accident. Is it okay if I make some coffee? I usually make coffee first thing and I’m not sure I can answer many more questions without some Joe.”
“Where’s the kitchen?” I asked.
I entered the most beautiful kitchen I’d ever seen. It was in stark contrast to the foyer and the accounting office. Gorgeous woodwork around the windows matched the cabinets. A stone counter made a u-shape with the oven and stove in the middle. A wooden dining room table dominated the rest of the large room. I could go for another cup of java.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Rand as soon as we finish this conversation you can leave and go buy some coffee down the street. Are there a lot of disabled people living in the building?”
“Yes, the original owner, the father, was extremely kind to the disabled and many of the elderly here are people he helped get government paperwork filed so they could have discounted housing. He built his empire on compassion and goodwill.”
“That’s remarkably admirable.”
“Yes, and he was admirable in other ways. But not so his son.”
“Why do you think the son was so different from the dad?”
“Spoiled, debauched, perverted. He had Commodus complex.”
“I’m not familiar with that.”
“You could Google it. You young folks like to do that.”
One thing I know about elderly people, they don’t mind telling you what to do. I pulled out my iPhone and Googled Commodus. In no time I learned that Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor. Apparently, Commodus sucked at his inherited reign as Emperor, making everyone wish his father was still alive. He alienated the senate and deeply offended the gladiators, killing them in the arena providing them with only wooden swords while he wielded a very sharp one. He pretended they were true battles instead of executions. Alienating gladiators is never a smart thing to do. Essentially, Commodus was the beginning of the fall of Rome.
I look up from my phone into the face of Ms. Rand. There’s a defiant edge to her expression.
“I see, learned something not so new today.” I said.
She smiles for the first time and revealed nearly perfect white teeth. I note that she’s wearing mascara, eyeliner and lip gloss to good effect. In fact, if you took off her glasses, you might notice that she didn’t have wrinkles, none. A stroke of pinkish bronze dances across her cheekbones. She’s damn pretty and youthful, and her skin glows impressively for what might be considered a much older woman. In different clothing she would come off significantly younger than this granny personae she’s sporting. I began to wonder if those big grey curls are a wig.
“He’s a lousy guy, but you don’t think anyone killed him. Even though, he was known to be cruel, to abuse the disabled tenants?”
“It was an accident, I’m sure.”
She’s sure. “Why was he cruel to them, do you think?”
“Because he thought he could, that he could get away with it.”
“What exactly denotes abuse in your mind?”
“Verbal abuse, a certain undercurrent of hatred and violence, constant threats of eviction. Sometimes he disappeared their leases.” She frowns when she said the last bit as if that was what really bothered her the most.
“The ones the tenants signed under his father.”
“But the tenants had their own copies, to argue that point, I’m sure.”
“Some of them are mentally or emotionally challenged and since the lease was signed with Mr. Flunk’s father over a decade ago, not everyone has a copy of their lease anymore. A couple of times I had to do recon work to get a copy of the original lease and provide it to the tenant.”
Recon is a military word. I imagined her parachuting and fighting her way through a bureaucratic jungle of files and backrooms. “Did any of this recon work endanger life or limb?”
“Only if I had been discovered,” she replies with a coy and satisfied expression.
“But you’re absolutely convinced none of these disabled individuals or their family members would kill him?”
“No. No way. There was nobody here this morning but me. It was,” she paused for a moment, gave me some heavy-duty eye contact before she said, “an accident.”
“Nobody here but you, ya say. You mean when you arrived and discovered the body?”
She nodded yes.
“Maybe he was cruel to someone who was not so disabled,” I suggested.
“Maybe.” She sighed. “Sometimes he picked on the ex-cons. Or the Mexicans.”
“We have a couple in the building. Nice people really but they have a history.”
“Hmmm. The Mexicans?”
“I should say the Maintenance Men. They’re not all Mexican. He was abusive to them; he would make jokes of them, humiliate them at every opportunity, called them stupid and he wouldn’t allow them breaks of any kind, which is against the law. But they can’t exactly fight back… it’s not like they could file a complaint to the labor board.”
“Maybe some of them don’t have their real IDs.”
“Real IDs. You mean, the new ones that the DMV is requiring?”
That’s not exactly what she meant. But I got the drift. She had a funny way of telling the truth without saying it.
“You can be sure that situation was by design. Everything Donald J. Flunk did was by design. They need their jobs. Of course, Mr. Flunk knew that.”
I look at her for a moment, taking in her meaning.
“Let’s just say, he always arranged things in his favor,” she added.
“Okay, Ms. Rand, let’s go back to something you said. “Why do you insist that it’s an accident?’
I give her a wry look.
“Please put these on your feet.” I hand her some paper shoes from my pocket. She dutifully pulled them over her open-toed shoes. I noticed her toes were painted a perfect shade of pink that matched her long-nailed manicure. She wore no stockings and her leg skin was smooth, oiled. She virtually smelled like a field of flowers.
“That’s a nice fragrance you’re wearing,” I said.
“Flower Bomb by Victor Rolf.” She beams, “They use gun powder as a component to stabilize the fragrance.”
“May I ask your age, Ms. Rand?”
“Why I’m 62 years young.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
She smiles diffidently. “Ms. Rand, please stay here for a moment.”
I leave Ms. Rand on the couch. When I ducked under crime tape, I found Gus squat down staring at the body. The dead man was on his stomach facing the floor. Blood oozed out from the front of his face, raised a bit off the floor by the end of the pencil sticking out the right eye. The deceased had blonde fuzzy hair with a large bald spot. He was dressed in a blue plaid suit. I couldn’t see his face. Usually, by now I would have pulled out his wallet, but I didn’t want to do anything to move the body as it might change something about how the pencil was lodged in his eye that could mean a compromised crime scene.
Gus was frowning.
“Do you think he fell like that?” I asked.
Gus shrugged his mouth a contorted shape. “His fist is wrapped around the pencil.”
“Maybe he was holding the pencil in his fist when he stumbled and fell.”
Gus exhaled, his cheeks puffing out. He does that when he is at a loss.
“Ms. Rand says it was an accident,” I offered.
“That’s what she says.”
“Maybe she’s protecting someone.”
“Yes, well, we have to interview the ex-girlfriend. Ms. Rand is protective of her for sure. And she’s protective of all the disabled tenants in the building.
“Are there a lot of disabled in this building? How on earth do they afford to live in Santa Monica?”
“Yah, that’s the thing. I’ll tell you about it. The government helps with the rent.”
I bumped into a xerox machine, bruising my hip. It was at this moment that the point was driven home to me that the room was short on space. Not much air to breathe either. Not one window or vent in the room. Wires were spread out all over the back wall making it rather uninhabitable except for one corner. Small paintings of personable birds, cows, goats, dogs, cats, and other charming critters surrounded the walls around what had to be the bookkeeper’s desk. Stacks of account books on shelves over the desk area and a photo of Ms. Rand with a sweet little lamb in her arms gave me the strongest clues for that deduction. Kids and old folks are my weak spot. Animals too. I’m pretty sure it would be impossible to convince a judge that Ms. Rand was a murder suspect. It would necessitate strong evidence. The strength it would require committing the crime was a factor that excluded her. Pretty much the disabled were not strong suspects either. But apparently everyone else in the building was. That’s a lot of interviews.
Just then, the crime photographer showed up. Satch had called him. Police photographer, Craig Jones, is a black guy, slight of build, shy and quiet. He nodded at Gus and me, saw the body, and started snapping pictures.
It was getting a little tight in the room so I got out of the way so Craig could properly document the body. Gus followed me out for the same reason. Gus turned to me then looked past me, over my shoulder. “We’re going to have quite a few visitors,” he said to Kent who appeared in the doorway. “We’ll need you to handle the front line, okay?”
Kent nodded, “Got it covered,” he turns and walked down the hall.
“Ms. Rand is on the couch?” Gus asks. I nod. “Find out why exactly she thinks it’s an accident. You don’t think she’s a suspect?”
“I find her suspicious, indeed. But murder? I don’t think so. She’s grandmotherly with an undercurrent of something else. Know what I mean?”
Gus appears to be evaluating what I meant by that. Maybe he’s thinking about the dead man and wondering if an old lady could jab a pencil into a man’s eyeball and then into his skull that deep. I thought that perhaps a fall could have caused an eye injury to be fatal. One reason you want to avoid physical confrontations, if possible, is that often people are seriously hurt and die.
“I think I do. Remember, there’s investigative protocol in place for you to follow. Protocols provide steps professionals follow during investigations. These protocols help provide standards of expectations and processes so there is continuity and uniformity for each investigation. It also helps to reduce chances of cross-contamination.”
“I know, Gus, and I know you know I know. This is absurd.”
“How’s it go, again?”
“The Investigative Protocol includes: first and utmost one must preserve the crime scene, retain/segregate witnesses, conduct a walk-through of the scene, search for evidence, record the crime scene, locate all evidence and number, tag or bag it for preservation.
“To maintain the integrity of the investigation and the evidence.”
“Don’t play it loosie goosey with Ms. Rand.”
“I’m working her.”
“She’s not working you. What is it? She remind you of your gramma?”
I looked up at the ceiling. “Have I ever destroyed, lost or compromised a crime scene, ever?”
“No,” I said directing my gaze back to him, “In fact, I care deeply about the preservation of evidence. I’m pretty good at discovery, too, and, oh! Look who’s here to help make sure that all the right things happen.”
Rose Torres, a Filipino woman from the crime lab, appears in the doorway. After a quick handshake to Gus and a hello, she gazes at the body for a moment, then turns her inscrutable face to me. Thank God she showed up just then, Gus wouldn’t continue his admonishing tangent with anyone from the department present. I stand above Rose, nearly two feet taller. But she’s a woman who knows how to hold her ground.
“Thinking it’s an accident,” I say. Her eyes go to Gus who shrugs and then to the hardwood floor. Rose doesn’t waste much energy on words, but she didn’t look particularly convinced “Usual search for fibers,” I say. “I need to know that it’s only his prints on the pencil for one.”
She nods and moves her short thick body into her well-known efficiency mode. Rose is instantly in the office inspecting cabinet doors, pen holders, holding several items up to the light.
“This one is for sure odd, Joan.” Gus assures me.
“Right, I get it. Did you see those chains across the doorways of the bookkeeper’s office?”
“I did,” mutters Gus. “What are those for?”
“To keep that monster of a bookkeeper under control?”
“On the weird side,” adds Gus.
“Doesn’t sound like anyone in the building will miss him much.”
I walk out the front door to the hallway, at the end there was a little curve to the wall, I follow it. It led to an old-fashioned fire-escape. I open the full-length windowed door with gloved hands and let in some air. I leaned against the door frame and took some nice deep breaths. You must have oxygen for your brain to work. There wasn’t much air at all in the bookkeeper’s office. How many times had Ms. Rand stood in this exact spot, getting a little fresh air? Down on the ground, in the parking lot, I spotted the newly arrived news crews, all microphones, cameras, and notepads. They had followed the coroner’s truck, like dogs on a trail. I thought it odd that they had no idea that I was looking down on them, observing.
Gus comes up behind me. Looks over my shoulder. “Here comes his ride downtown with the first group of mourners,” he observed.
“I have a funny feeling not many are going to be mourning this guy,” I say.
“Do you approve of him chaining Ms. Rand in an electrical closet?”
“What’s that, Russian?”
Gus looks at me curiously. How could I explain that the photo of my childhood friend, Condor, prompted me to recall the days of my youth and my father? My dad carried on speaking Russian long after he won the light armored Kombat vehicle from Oleg Krasnov at the St. Louis car show. It’s a story, tell you more about it later. Gus has the portfolio with the photos tucked under his arm. I thought of Condor’s face in black and white and I grinned at Gus. He gave me a droll look.
Outside, an ocean breeze picks up, handing out a bad hair day to the newshounds that snarled and whine around the Coroner’s truck. Kent made way to allow the coroner’s staff out of the truck. Looky-loos gather on the sidewalk and down the street. People come out of their storefronts. A tall black woman exits the death wagon. Monica Sutton, ME from the coroner’s office, a modern-day African goddess.
“A wealthy real estate man is dead in Santa Monica,” says Gus. “People are going to want to know why. Do you have an answer?”
“The price of rent in this area? Driving up the rising tide of homeless? Higher than it’s ever been? Regular people are having trouble making it work. Seniors, homeless, on the street. Maybe nobody will question why,” I say. “I have a few ideas, but who knows, maybe it was an accident. Not even murder. Certainly not one to muster up much of an outcry.”
Gus joins me and leans on the other side of the door frame. Then he spots Jesse. Jesse Cand of the LA Times has a thing for me that I find exasperating. I don’t want to make a statement. I don’t even want to be on this case. I’m not feeling it. Jesse looks thicker and stronger, much more studly.
“Looks like he’s been working out since we saw him last,” I said.
“For who?” asked Gus. “You?”
“I certainly hope not,” I answer.
“I thought you two were trying to get along lately.”
“I’m not trying that hard.”
When Monica, the stately coroner, finally makes it up the five floors with the gurney, Gus does the talking. “No indication of foul play or violence, particularly,” says Gus. “The time of death and the issue of likely suspects is dodgy at this point. Maybe it was an accident. You and the lab guys should be able to say for sure.”
Her arm muscles flex as she sets down and prepares the gurney. She has an assistant helping her, but I bet she could carry that thing up five floors under one arm. Her amber eyes alight with curiosity when she peers into the office at the scene as opposed to her ordinarily detached manner. Monica shook her head like a disenchanted sovereign while she waited for the photographer to do his thing.
“It’s hot in that room. Any known conditions?” asks Monica.
“We’re pretty sure he died from the pencil lodged in his eye,” says Gus.
“Right, and there’s probably a family doctor, I’ll give him a ring,” I say.
Monica asks with an elegant hand gesture if it was time to move the body.
“Give me a moment more,” I said.
I go back into the small room and stand over the body. I look around the room. Those chains that hook across both doorways add to the claustrophobic office. Rose places Mr. Flunk’s wallet in a cellophane bag. I watch curiously as she presses a button on some new-fangled gadget attached to a cord around her neck. It’s the size of a large cellphone that issued a red scan with square-shaped meridians. It appears to take 3-D x-ray type records.
“I’m recording information to be evaluated about the gesture of the body and the bloodstain.”
I can hardly breathe so I go out to the foyer where Ms. Rand is waiting for me. She rolls her big pretty eyes at me. If I didn’t know better, I’d says she’s flirting. Maybe she’s an aging actress, they try to seduce everyone. I’m almost thirty-four and my doc says I’m in excellent shape, except for one knee. I’m crazy powerful for a woman. I suspect my unusual strength might be driven by rage. I take a moment and ask myself how strong will I be at the age of 62? I decide I would still be badass. It’s not something that you want to lose if you can help it. I’m going to have to ask Ms. Rand more questions. More about her past. I sit back down on the couch.
“He was debauched.”
“How do you know that?” I give her my best tough cop look.
She shrugs her shoulders. Debauched is an elder person’s word. So maybe she is sixty-two after all. “I overheard him bragging about things to his Billionaire Boys Club friends on the phone.”
“Got a name?”
“One of them races horses, that’s all I know. Just terrible, they know exactly why all those horses are dying on those racetracks. Forty this year.”
“Why are they dying, Ms. Rand?”
“They are racing them too young, Two years old. You’re supposed to wait until they are four, not before.”
“How do you know that?”
“I overheard Donald on the phone with his friend, he’s hard of hearing and puts the speakerphone all the way up.”
Ms. Rand looks shamed.
“Why do you keep insisting it was an accident, Ms. Rand?”
“Just, um a feeling I have?”
“Was he still alive, did he say something to you?”
“No, he didn’t say anything, I don’t think he was still alive. I didn’t check to be honest. He looked dead to me, so I called you right away. I believe he fell on the pencil. Is that something possible to prove?”
Patrice Ann, the Hollywood Wives producer, sports short black hair and is dressed in a tight black body-con dress. She’s in a red pair of very expensive looking shoes, by that French designer, Christian Louboutin, if I had to guess. And red eyeglasses. The kind that float in front of your eyes as if suspended by magic. Titanium, I think. Patrice Ann is impatient as I had interrupted her writing schedule. I thought writers worked in their pajamas, not like they were on a hot date. I walk into a spacious living room with large movie posters, most of them vintage. They feature Clara Bow, the “it” girl and Louise Brooks, the flapper, an early film star and I also recognized Mary Pickford tied to train tracks with that character, the banker, Snidely Whiplash, stroking his mustache as a train came steaming down the tracks.
“I already gave information to an officer,” said Patrice Ann. She was standing in front of a poster of Dolores Del Rio, known as the Latin “orchid” of the screen.
“Yes, thanks for that. But I was curious, did you hear anything?” To her left was a poster of Maria Montez from the Cobra Jewel movie. Montez was a dark beauty in a tight green dress with a volcano spewing red lava behind her. An angry cobra was curled and poised to attack at her feet.
“Nothing. I heard nothing,” said Patrice Ann.
“Were you on good terms with the deceased?”
“I don’t know who was.”
Patrice Ann gave me a sullen look and I noticed that she had the smallest, barely visible piece of tape just above her eyebrow near the hairline on the side of the forehead. I checked and noted the same above the other eyebrow. Her dark bangs were pulled back into a headband.
“Do you have a photoshoot or something today?”
“No, but I do have to go the set and justify my existence.”
“Okay, I’ll try to make this quick.”
She backed into her apartment and indicated that I should have a seat on what was obviously high design furniture: wood, suede and odd shapes of color. I sat on what looked like a Ralph Lauren chair. All her accouterment was extremely high priced.
“Don’t get the wrong idea but many of us joked that we wanted to murder him but, we were just, you know, releasing tension, blowing off steam, making fun of the situation.”
“What situation?” I scribbled in my notebook.
“Really? Okay, sure, in my case, I wanted to knock down a wall, and he didn’t want me to do it, that sort of thing. He said it was illegal but it’s not like he cares about legal, really. He’s controlling or was… anyway. A strange guy. A total pothead, the office always smelled like weed. Sometimes my whole apartment smelled like a pot den, because of the vents I suppose.”
“Did you complain?”
“Of course, I complained but I was cool about it, only because I was vying for my remodel. But there were times when I was sure I was experiencing a contact high.” I stopped writing and looked at Patrice Ann. “You know when you come in contact with pot even though you aren’t smoking it yourself.”
“Right.” I went back to scribbling.
“I guess I can knock down my wall now. Who’s going to stop me?”
“I can’t comment on that. I’m merely trying to figure out how Mr. Flunk died.”
“That guy was always stoned. I’d bet a thousand bucks that he fell on that pencil.” She stood up and peered into a mirror on the wall, noticed the tape on her temples was showing. She pulled off her headband, mussed up her bangs, the tape now well disguised. A tight smile crossed her face.
I remained sitting, stared for a moment at a gorgeous painting of a flapper. I marveled at how the painter managed the beads and fringe of the dress, the jewels in the headpiece. She was doing the Charleston and grinning, a flask in her garter belt at her thigh. “Just one more question, what were the other issues?”
“That the other tenants were angry about?”
“Oh, I don’t know, really. The guy was an asshat. I think Tracy had constant fights with him over the storage. Nothing too serious, I suppose. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but on several occasions, I witnessed him screaming at one of the elderly renters and I didn’t like it. She’s a lady with mental health issues and he was just railing at her.”
“Why do you think?”
“There were bedbugs and moths in her place. You’d be shocked at the roach problem I had for nearly a year before he did anything about it. I must say, shook me up the way he bullied her. The hatred in his voice and the tension in his body as if he was going to leap at her or attack her or something. She held her space though. I admired her for that. So, maybe I sort of hated him. Not actively or anything but I won’t be going to the funeral or crying in my cups.”
“Makes sense. What’s this renter’s name?”
“Oh, she didn’t kill him. She’s a little old lady.”
“I understand what you’re saying, but can you please tell me her name?”
“Her name is Tina. She lives on the second floor. Is that enough now, can I go back to my work? I have a deadline and places to be.”
“Yes, thank you for your time.” I made for the door but just as I was about to exit, I turned back. “I may have to ask more questions, later.”
“Fine. Whatever. Bye now.”
I exited feeling like the dead man’s story was filling out and not painting a pretty picture.
Down on the second floor, Tina was a woman in her late 70’s with wiry hair, a gaunt look to her demeanor with energy that indicated she may be drinking too much coffee. She was wearing a cashmere sweater with holes in it. At first, she opened the door with the chain lock still on. I offered my badge and she allowed me in.
Her place was neat with little old lady knick-knacks and comfy furniture. I was hesitant to sit on the couch with the warning of bedbugs and such. Tina hadn’t heard of her landlord’s demise. She was quite disturbed to hear he was possibly murdered.
“You don’t think I did it, do you?”
“Why would I think that?”
“We had lots of fights over the years.”
“Not physical, but loud arguments I should say.”
“Well, just look at my sweater!” the volume went up as she emphatically pointed to the holes in her cashmere sweater. “I’ve got many more of these with holes in them. They were gifts to me, and they are all ruined by moths because that cheap ass… Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t mean… and there’s these awful bed bugs. They are in my bed, but I think they are also in my books. I love my books! He’s dead, I suppose I must forgive him. I’ll just get rid of the pests myself. I suppose they will hire a management company to take his place.”
How much rent do you pay, Christina?”
“Nobody calls me that, it’s just Tina. And to answer your question, 250 bucks a month.”
“Okay, well thanks, Tina. I may be back with more questions.”
“I don’t know anything.”
“Just that I hated him.”
“Enough to kill him?”
“Yes, but I didn’t.”
“Because I don’t want to go to jail, obviously, but mostly because I’d really hate to lose my apartment for any reason.”
“Especially at that rate.”
I met Gus in the hallway. He was strolling toward me and we met in the middle of the hall.
“Who did you interview?” I asked.
“Some Latin lover guy who was ripped off fifty bucks by Donald Flunk.”
“Fifty bucks? The man was a multi-millionaire, why would he rip off a tenant for fifty bucks?”
“That’s the same thing Latin lover said. The guy returned his garage key and tried for months to get the garage key deposit back.”
“Sounds annoying but hardly worth killing him for. Anybody else?”
“A nice couple with a five-year-old daughter who is suffering from asbestos poisoning.”
“Omigod, that’s serious.”
“Suspects, ya think?”
“I don’t think so. Mostly, they wanted the girl’s dolls and pajamas back, that is if they were deemed safe. They have moved to another suite while their place is being repaired or de-asbestode.”
“The place will be safe after that?”
“What’s he like?”
Gus is disgusted by the whole thing. “Guess that’s why the elevator isn’t working. It’s been out for a year.”
“Not having an elevator must be very hard on the disabled.”
“And the pregnant, and people with kids, and the elderly. One guy has to scoot down five floors on his ass to get out of the building.” Gus spit out the words with anger.
“Maybe they get discounts on the rent.”
“Harumph! I wouldn’t assume that, no. Let’s wait and see what the ME says before we move further with the interviews, huh?”
“Okay. You’re thinking it’s an accident now?”
“I sure as hell hope so.” Gus rubs his neck. He does that when he’s incensed. I could see the trial unfolding and countless witnesses being brought to testify as to their motives. Beyond a reasonable doubt would be a miracle.
“Yah,” I agree, “Otherwise we’re going to be interviewing and re-interviewing for weeks.”
“The guy has pissed off quite a few people over the years.” As Gus says this, he looks up and down the hallway as if the angry tenants will come out of their apartments shouting accusations.
“What? Ya think they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? Or maybe they did like the Roman Senate, and all convened to stab him in the eye with a pencil.” Gus deadpans me, I moved on to what I think is a logical question. “Did you talk to the Maintenance men?”
“Right, yes, I did. They’re mostly Mexicans. Do you think it’s believable that don’t speak much English?”
I laugh. “Did you get a look at the video picked up by the spy ring?”
“Yes, just now.”
“Donald J. Flunk came in, used his key to enter the bookkeeper’s office. Shortly thereafter the bookkeeper came into frame, put her key in her office door. She appeared surprised that her door wasn’t locked; with suspicion she entered her office and came out within a couple of minutes. She called the police immediately on her cellphone.”
“Did she cry out or look distressed?”
“She looked vexed.”
In my mind’s eye, I see Gus on the stand saying those exact words, exactly the way he said them. We learn to talk like that, like we’re in the witness box. “How long was Mr. Flunk in the bookkeeper’s office before she arrived? Exactly how long after Ms. Rand entered, did she exit?”
“I’ve got it all down precisely in my notebook, in answer to your question. We also entered Donald Flunk’s office, or should I say office/bedroom, sex-toys, a swing, two giant pot plants.”
“Mmm, interesting, sort of. More like a cliché, I have to go,” I say, “gotta meet with VaVa and explain to her the conditions of her rehab deal.”
“Oh, Christ,” says Gus. “Can’t you just Facetime her?”
I’m not really in the mood for a chic luncheon with my unicorn girl, “Why not?” I say.
“Do it in the car on the way to the pistachio plant, right?”
“We’re still going there?”
“Ordered by Satch.”
“We don’t know whether it’s a non-case.”
“Okay. Sure. Facetime then. Good idea.”
We start our exit outta there. We’re on our way down the stairway when Ms. Rand appears on the stair landing one floor above us. She calls down to us, “Are you leaving?”
“Yes, I say, “Is there another way out besides the way we came in?”
“If you take the stairs all the way down the basement, where the Maintenance office is,” she looked at Gus, “and take a right you can walk out of the parking entrance onto the street. You’ll be at the back of the building.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“And thanks for the coffee,” adds Gus.
Ms. Rand gives him a shy smile, “welcome” she says and skips away.
“Did you see that?” I ask.
“She skipped away.”
“I think that’s odd.”
“Odd, yes. Let’s go, Joan.”
I didn’t know what to make of it. I’m thinking that I can avoid Jesse, the news guy. It’s an old game we play. He rushes to my crime scene. I do everything I can to avoid him. If he catches up with me, I try to scrap all his questions. Today, it looks like Ms. Rand has advanced my ability to vacate the premises without even seeing Jesse face-to-face. That could induce even me to skip. Something I haven’t done since grade school. Gus and I race down the rest of the stairs, past a few concerned tenants on the way. I guess it’s obvious we’re cops. I assume word is out that a criminal investigation is in process and that the landlord is dead. I’m intent with getting out of the building and remarkably unconcerned about the image of two cops running down the stairs. At the main floor, in the lobby, I see Jesse standing trying to get in but the glass door had a mirror effect so he can’t see in. I guess he doesn’t have the code and there’s nobody in reception to buzz him in. Too bad.
We turn on the stairway and continue down the stairs to the basement. The basement door opens to a very large SUV painted candy apple red. Imagine the sportiest SUV you’ve ever seen. This is like that but on steroids. It has long muscular lines. It seems about to pounce. A big healthy panther. I glance into the window and note a luxurious leather design with individual rear seats and a cool looking instrument display on the dash.
“What is this?” I ask Gus.
“That’s what you call a red Lamborghini SUV.”
“It has a presence.”
“It should, it cost enough.”
“Starts at 200 thou.”
“Who do you think it belongs to,” I ask.
“Three guesses,” smirks Gus.
“What does it do?”
“It’s got a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8 that puts out 650 horsepower. Lamborghini says the zero-to-62-mph time is 3.6 seconds and the top speed is 190 mph.
“Well now, you seemed to know quite a bit, Gus.”
“I wouldn’t mind one.”
I look around the basement and spot a video camera. “Maybe before we book it outta here, we should look at more video,” I say.
“Hmmm?” Gus looks where I gestured.
“The maintenance supervisor has access to that?” I ask.
“His office is right here.” Gus strolls about four steps to the door with a sign that reads, ‘maintenance,’ and knocked.
We viewed the tape several times but see nothing except the deceased parking the Lamborghini, locking it and moving out of frame. Usually, we get something but nada.
Gus is a little miffed. Disappointed. I guess he thought he might see something more revealing. He takes down the time of arrival of the deceased and thanks the supervisor who clearly has a drinking problem. I might get a contact drunk just off his fumes. We make our way out of the basement. We have to step it up a small incline. The supervisor manages to press the button for us, opens the iron gate, and we walk out onto the street. Gus called Kent and asks him to secure the crime scene until we officially released it. I’m steppin’ it back toward the Fire House café with Gus, to his car, when we turn the corner and run smack dab into Jesse Cand, news reporter. He leans against the building, a big camera on his shoulder and a grin on his face. How did he do that? He’s so waiting for us. He snaps off a few pics.
“Investigative team on the run,” he’s captioning his photo.
“Jesse!” I rankle.
“Where are you off to?” he demands.
“What?” I bark back. “I don’t report to you.”
“Just ignore him,” whispers Gus. “Don’t engage, keep walking, get to the car.”
“I’m your ally,” insists Jesse, “I have questions.”
“Talk to me tomorrow, then I can say something.” Gus starts a quick gait, I follow. Jesse chases.
I turned around back to Jesse and he nearly runs into me. Snaps more pictures into my face.
“Stop that. What are you, the nightcrawler?” I say into his camera.
“It’s 9 AM, Joan.”
“Never too early to increase your value and leverage your position.”
“Please don’t denigrate the service I provide to the LA community.”
We are both loosely quoting lines from the movie, Nightcrawler.
“Thought you were a global guy. Weren’t you in Denmark last month?”
“You’re following my career?”
“I read the newspapers.”
“You know, Nightcrawler is actually a LA noir love story,” insists Jesse.
“Between a news director and her number one video newsman,” he adds.
“You’re not well, you know that, right?”
Gus intervenes. “If only this little sparring match was amusing. Let’s go, Joan, we have a long drive.”
I turn away from Jesse and pick up my pace to stay in step with Gus. His legs are so long. I look back to see Jesse staring after us. When he sees me turn back, he takes more photos. Yep, I was back on the job. Fo sho.
Select all writings of Eva Montealegre
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The RED-CARPET NOIR series has been researched by Eva Montealegre who began her writing career working first as a historical researcher for the Department of Defense in radio and television. She created THE SHAPING OF AMERICA, featuring little known facts about contributions to American history by women and minorities based on her research all of which is now on file with the United States Information Bureau. The first in her crime series is BODY ON THE BACKLOT. Luckily, Montealegre’s crime writing research includes interviews and time spent with homicide detectives, the coroner’s office and convicted criminals. She has also interviewed numerous crime writers including Barbara Seranella, Robert Eversz, TJ Parker and Michael Connelly.
Montealegre grew up on her father’s showboat restaurant, The River Queen, docked in St. Louis. It was a hotbed of adultery, politics, delicious food and great music. Her mother, a researcher & investigative journalist for the papers and St. Louisan Magazine, dragged Eva through every neighborhood in St. Louis from aristocratic homes to crime-infested alleys. A combination of earthy artistic expression and intellectual pursuits formed Eva from a young age with in-depth engagements into the worlds of art, film, theatre, and music, ultimately forging her into the LA crime author of Red-Carpet Noir featuring female investigator, Joan Lambert. Visit the author’s page at www.redcarpetnoir.com
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I rush into the first stall in the old white tiled toilet and collapse to my knees. Holding on to the bowl with both hands I feel my suit pants sop up wetness from the floor, that I think could be pee. I throw-up beer and rum. I make my way to the old chipped hand-basin and hold on. The Boy Scouts law flashes through my mind. Loyal: A Scout is true to his family and friends. I look down at my watch and it’s only forty-five minutes to closing time. I must tell my mates no pussy will ever come between us again. I stagger back through the pub and stand with me mates at the bar, but the words just won’t come. I try to put my foot on the brass-rail, but someone keeps moving it. I feel alone in the crowd and shake my head, trying to clear my alcoholic brain.
“Christ! Drink up. It’s almost last call.” I say, trying to reconnect with me mates.
“That’s right Mr. Wills and it’s your turn to buy, so get us anov’ver round.” Dave says finishing his beer in one gulp.
Suddenly, the incessant chatter in the now-packed bar drops to a whisper. I then follow everyone’s eyes towards the front door. To my horror, there stands Kurt Reichmann, the German gang leader from school. I sober up instantly.
Behind Reichmann there is a solid wall of the grizzliest cutthroats and villains that I have ever seen. Reichmann is even bigger and uglier than I remember. His neck is over half the width of his massive hunched shoulders. Even though he has the posture of an ape he is still head and shoulders above everyone else in the pub. This six-foot six, over three-hundred-pound monster still has not seen me.
“‘Er… boys!” I whisper, “Don’t look now, but Kurt Reichmann just came through the door.” I look down as I speak, hoping that the floor will open and swallow me up.
“Holy shit!” Dave says, almost without moving his lips. “What the fuck is ‘e doing ‘ere? I ‘fought ‘is local pub’s The Bell.”
“It is,” Danny whispers. “and if ‘e’s ‘ere, there’s ‘gonna be trouble.”
Ed is looking around the bar. “Why the bloody ‘ell didn’t they build a back door to this fucking place? Cause I ‘fink it’s way past me bedtime.”
Danny starts to look around as if he would suddenly find Ed’s missing back door.
“Which one of ‘yah ASSHOLES,” Reichmann bellows into the now silent bar, “put the finger on Billy ‘ere, to the bleeding Coppers?”
Billy Ratner is the one-legged hulk on crutches standing almost as tall as Reichmann, to his left. There are many stories about how he lost his leg, but no one knows for sure. Billy always plays the poor helpless cripple especially when questioned by the police about pub fights. “ ’ave a ‘eart Constable,” Billy would answer. “ ‘ow can a poor one-leg cripple, the likes of me, be involved in a fight?” The truth is, when standing wedged into a corner, Billy is a vicious fighter who swings his heavy wooden crutches and inflicts very nasty injuries. Everyone knows that to turn him in would be a death sentence.
Reichmann’s beady eyes scan the bar, unfortunately, he picks me out of the crowd.
“I don’t believe me bleeding eyes! If it ain’t the ‘eadmaster’s pet, Alan bloody Wills, the ‘ ’ead Boy. ‘Ya’re the type of bleeder what would turn Billy into the Rozzers?
I shout back to him. “School’s a long time ago Kurt. I ain’t been in Walthamstow for donkey’s years. We moved away you know.” I try not to sound nervous despite the giant butterflies beating the hell out of my stomach.
“There’s ‘ya pencil-neck, sissy mates? They always squealed on me gang in school.”
I yell back. “No, Kurt, we’ve all gone our separate ways now. This is the first time we’ve all been together for ages. Like a reunion, ‘ya know?”
“So, what about that little weasel next to ‘ya! Who’s ‘e?”
I turn to the stranger next to me. He is less than average height, but on closer inspection he looks very muscular. Plus he seems self-assured, with a determined look in his eyes. I had never seen him before.
“Dun’no who he is, Kurt. ‘Ain’t with us.”
“Ma name’s Scotty. I’m from Glasgow!”
“A bloody Jock!” Reichmann says in a very demeaning tone. “Maybe we’ll ‘ave ‘ya do a ‘ighland bloody fling or play ‘ya bagpipes.”
You can hear a pin drop as Reichmann takes a couple of steps forward.
I look up at the ceiling and say a silent prayer. God don’t let this little Jock defy Reichmann. You of all people know that Scots have a reputation of being hardheads.
“Get outta me way you big oafs!” A woman’s voice shouts from the front door.
Again, I look up at the ceiling. Excuse me God, you sent a woman? I ask silently
As she pushes her way through his gang, we can see that she is wearing the navy-blue Salvation Army uniform. This poor little gray-haired dove surely doesn’t realize that she is landing in the middle of a potential battlefield.
“I’ve never heard this den of iniquity so quiet. What’s going on?” she asks.
“None of ‘ya fucking business,” Reichmann growls.
“‘Ya watch ‘ya filthy tongue, ‘ya big moose.” she says, facing Reichmann.
“Look lady, do’ya mind! We’re in the middle of a bloody inquisition. So why don’t ‘ya go on ‘ya merry way and push God at the next boozer down the road?”
“God’s work is far more important than whatever mischief you’re about.” She says, then she shakes her tambourine then holds it out in front of Reichmann. “A donation please?”
“Get the fuck out of here, ‘ya fucking bible junky, before me gang throws ‘ya’re ass out,” Reichmann pushes her to one side with a swat of his left hand. She falls back held up by a couple of gang members.
She takes the few steps to be back in front of him “You might bully little people, mister, but you can’t bully God!” Again, she thrusts her tambourine at him, this time, it hits his bulbous belly.
The crowd lets out an “Oh” then waits for the inevitable.
“Look lady, I’m Kurt Reichmann. I’m sure you’ve ‘eard of me.”
“No, can’t say I have. I’m Gladys Little, glad to meet ‘ya! Now, how about a little something for the Lord’s work?” Again, she shakes the tambourine, then taps it twice on Reichmann’s obese belly.
An “Ooooo” goes through the bar.
“That does it, lady. You just pushed ‘ya luck too bloody far! OK, boys, throw this old bible-bashing-bitch out in the street.”
Four of his thugs pick up this poor little Salvation Army lady by her arms and legs.
With one exception, none of the pub patrons lift a finger to save her. The wiry Scot leaps to within a couple of feet of Reichmann.
“You’ll have ‘ya men unhand the wee lass, Mr. Reichmann!”
“You must be off ‘ya ‘ead,” Reichmann chuckles. “One of ‘ya …” he points to his gang. “This ‘ere little Scot’s fly, what just landed ‘ere, needs swatting!”
“Do nee move! Not a one of ‘ya, or I’ll be forced to put a bad hurt on ‘ya boss.” The Scot’s eyes narrow as he stares up at Reichmann’s massive head.
“You! Ya’re going to ‘urt me?” Reichmann laughs heartily with his hands holding his big stomach. His gang follows suit and breaks into roars of laughter.
Without a word, the Scot jumps into the air, and with a loud thud his forehead smashes Reichmann’s forehead, much the same way a football player powerfully heads the ball. The giant falls like a rock to the floor, knocked out cold. The four thugs instantly drop the Salvation Army lady on to the floor and join the other gang members around Reichmann. Slowly he comes to. Shaking his head, he shouts, “Get that little bastard!”
The Scot’s courage must have touched all the local lads the way it inspired me. Without a word we all leap on Reichmann’s gang and the onslaught begins. All around me I hear the painful sound of fists pounding flesh. I block a punch from a gang member, grab his hair and smash his nose on to my up-thrusting knee. His blood splatters over my trousers and he hits the floor holding his face. Out of the corner of my eye I see Dave jump clear as a wooden table is over-turned by one of Reichmann’s thugs. Dave then demolishes a wooden chair across his head, and he is out for the count. Blood splatters everywhere; bottles fly through the air and smash against walls. I see Danny duck a punch then raise his head and poked his fingers into the gang-members eyes, and the thug screams out in pain. Looking around for Ed, I block another punch. The public bar is filled with fighters, with fists missing and connecting, heads ducking and weaving. I then see Ed hiding under a table, I smile, maybe he is the smart one, I think.
“Scotty, look out!” I yell. “Reichmann has a blade.” With the precision of a goalkeeper, he kicks up, and the knife flies from Reichmann’s hand up into the air, Miraculously, Scotty catches it and lunges at Reichmann, ripping open a gash the full length of his right inner arm. Blood squirts all over fighters next to him.
“Christ! ‘e’s cut me bad,” Reichmann screams. Holding his wounded arm to his chest blood covers his huge belly. He makes for the door, closely followed by his gang.
The four of us lift Scotty, our hero, on our shoulders high above the battered and bruised crowd. The cheers are deafening, as we step carefully over debris in what looks like a war zone, and circle the public bar holding Scotty high, to the cheers of the crowd
All the locals help clean up the mess and we pass the hat around to pay for the damage. In return the Governor buys everyone a beer. Dave, Danny, Ed, Scotty and me close The White Swan with the much-needed last beer at the bar. Scotty, we discover, is a famous football player. He is in London to play in the England v Scotland cup match. He had come to Walthamstow to meet an old army mate at The Swan.
“Laddies, us Scots have mighty hard heads in more ways than one, as your Mr. Reichmann can surely attest!” Are his parting words as he walks toward the front door, to the cheers of us all. Just then Scotty’s army friend comes through the door, and asks “Scotty why are they cheering you?”
“Auk, I just straightened out the David and Goliath story with these Londoners. They did’nee know that David was a Scots soccer player.”
During Sunday lunchtime, at the Swan, we learn that due to police warrants Reichmann was unable to go to the hospital Friday night. Many eyewitnesses swore they saw him sew the long knife wound to his inner arm himself, using an ordinary needle and thread from a sewing kit, which luckily a woman outside the pub had in her handbag.
By Alan Wills
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The Cursed Earth stretched out for thousands of kilometers. It witnessed the rise and fall of the living. Many thought of it as cursed for the multitude of plagues, mutants and other problems that inhabited the wide berth of land. One human living in it thought it cursed because no longer could it grow green things. One day, maybe, long after her, it would turn green again.
Nately ‘Nat’ Emmett stood atop a rock formation that was also her home. Upon closer inspection one might discover that it was a marooned ship buried in rock. She held binoculars against her eyes scanning the view around her. The nearby valley village of Idrian, over twenty kilometers away, looked quiet from her vantage. She rotated towards the great western wall of Mega City One, standing as a seamless sentinel of civilization on the far horizon. Something in the foreground caught her attention. She changed her focus and spotted some dust clouds and glints of metal amongst the dust. She pulled the binocs closer. Someone was being attacked. If she left now, she might be able to help them. Ask questions later, if alive. At the very least, she could check on the situation.
She disappeared into the ship. Moments later she came out of the base and uncovered a motor cycle. She wore light dusty desert robes. A weapon lay on her thigh and a rifle hung from a strap on her back. She pulled a helmet over her light brown hair and started the engine. It started quietly and off she went.
As she approached the location, she stopped short and went in on foot. There was enough rock for cover. She surveyed the area for henchmen on look-out. All clear. Five members of the Red Rock Gang and another figure were down in the open space surrounding a Judge. Nat’s eyes squinted against the light. A Mega City One Judge in her valley. The gang had dragged him from his bike. He had already been shot. The Judge had killed one of their gang. As Nat found a safer better vantage point, they shot him again before she had her rifle ready. A body lay in the back of their truck. They started beating and kicking the Judge. She heard someone yell above the other screams. Would a Judge sentence her for killing his assailants?
She aimed, took a breath, released it and fired three rounds. She hit the legs of the gang members. Three members went down in screams. The remaining members stopped and looked around. They didn’t know exactly where the shots came from. The Judge immediately looked for his gun. Nat looked to the rock around her, listening for movement. She was safe. The Judge started crawling. The gang members hurried to get their members to their truck. Two of them turned to finish off the Judge. They aimed their weapons. Nat aimed for their weapons and fired. The guns shattered in the mutie’s hands. She hoped they wouldn’t come calling for a doctor. That would be awkward. They looked in her general direction. They moved again and Nat aimed for the ground around their feet. They ran back to their truck swearing and drove off in a plume of dust.
The Judge crawled to his bike and passed out. Nat waited a minute before moving, scanning the area with her binocs. Gritting her teeth, she moved down off the rocks and quickly walked to the area with the judge. The dirt thirstily drank up the blood. Whether human, alien, or mutant it made no difference. Shell casings and a hat lay in the dirt.
She looked up at the Judge resting near his bike, gun loosely held in his fingers. His dented helmet firmly in place. She swung her weapon across her back and placed her hands, palms forward, in the air. He didn’t move. She could see him bleeding on his torso and right thigh and it looked like a possible broken shin bone. She approached the bike carefully. When nothing happened she carefully reached out to feel for a pulse under the helmet. Weak and thready. She looked at the wounds. She pulled a small bottle out of her pack and sprayed it into each wound. The Judge could still feel that.
She looked at the badge. Dredd. Her eyes went wide. She studied the bloodied mouth. She rocked back on her heels calculating.
“Judge Dredd! Can you hear me? Judge Dredd?” she asked. He mumbled something. Gritting her teeth she slapped him.
“Is help coming for you?”
“Negative,…solo mission,” barely came out of him. She nodded, thinking.
“Will your bike help or follow us? I can help you but you are coming with me.” Dredd made a sound in his throat. Nat took a deep breath and pulled out some clean cloth from her hip pack and stuffed them into his various wounds. She unsnapped the shoulder pieces and put them on the side. She tried to lift him and up and check for exit wounds and those as well. His shin felt swollen,
but she had no splints handy. She studied the bike.
“Law Master? Can you respond to me?” she asked. Nat moved Dredd to his back and tied his legs together. She had a herculean task ahead of her. She needed to make a pallet. She ran to her bike and rode it over to him. She pulled out something that looked like a bag with poles from one of her bike packs and started to unfold and lock it. She placed it next to the Judge. She pulled on his hips to create distance between his head and the bike. Nat feared the bike would shock her and time was critical for the Judge, if she could help him. She stood between him and the bike. With her foot on the pallet she leaned forward and placed her arms under this armpits, lifted and heaved him over to the pallet. She did the same with his hips and legs, meanwhile repeating over and over, “Sorree.” While clipping him onto the pallet and then to her bike, she addressed the Law Master.
“I’m going to save Judge Dredd’s life, if no one from the city is coming. I’m taking him to where I live, so I can remove the bullets and repair the damage. Follow me, track, me…if you can. I will hide you as well.” With a towel, she picked up his Lawgiver, wrapped it and put it in her bike pack. Finished with everything, she got on her bike and slowly drove off. She looked at Dredd to make sure he wasn’t worse. Halfway home, she noticed the bike was indeed following and the pallet left nice clean lines in the dust. The rest of the way, she planned how to get him up into the ship. Thankfully she was not completely alone. The ship’s AI touched her consciousness. “Yes, I need help getting him ready. – No! I can’t trust the trainee. – Alone, with you. Keep me alerted,” she said to the presence. They worked out the details before she arrived.
She lay on the floor of the infirmary, panting at the ceiling. Dragging ninety-three kilograms of dead weight up through rocks and up through a hatch onto the med bed made her dizzy. She pulled a few muscles too. To no one but herself she said, “If the waiting doesn’t kill him…GET UP! Get up. Get up. Get up!” She sat up. Safe inside the ship that was her home, she rose unevenly, stumbled to a sink and kit. She spoke out loud often. No one had taught her to be ashamed to think out loud but then again there weren’t many people in her daily life. “What would he think of that?”she asked the air. “No, not you,” she said to the AI. She stripped off her desert clothes and cleaned up, sterilizing as best she could and to herself said, “I need a chair.”
She stood over Dredd checking his pulse. From the time she stopped his bleeding in the desert, to the time she stood over him ready to operate, not more than 30 minutes had passed, but it felt so much longer. Nat had removed the helmet, studied those most private of facial features and attached the anesthesia. Dredd’s clothes lay neatly folded on a table nearby. With the help of the AI, wound by wound Nat, methodically removed bullets, stopped bleeders, closed and treated the wounds. Then she examined the leg and splint it. She placed several blankets over Dredd’s body. She cleaned up all the rags and instruments. His pulse and breathing were steady.
She desperately wanted to lie down. Instead, she made her way back outside to see how big a trail she left with the bike and the litter. The winds had kicked up and little of her passing could be seen. A storm approached. She should really take out the bike to get a better look but she was too tired to trust what could happen. Turning back to the ship, she talked to the AI as she re-entered, “Stay alert. I’m going to sleep. Wake me if I need to check on the Judge. – Thanks.” She fumbled her way up to the main room. She paused to look at the Judge and went on through the nearby hatch, locked the door in the open position and collapsed in her bunk.
After several hours, Nat woke and struggled to get out of her bunk. It seemed every muscle group complained. She got up and checked on the Judge. Steady readings. Good. She went back to bed.
Dredd dreamed disjointed images of past and current enemies and the job. Standing on a corner watching citizens pass by, he became aware of pain. The citizens turned to climb all over him and bury him. The pain seemed all over his body. In the quasi drugged state of his consciousness, he opened his eyes. His helmet? Where is it? He could barely move his neck. He looked down. His right leg was uncovered and a woman had her hands on his leg! He couldn’t think the next question before she turned brown eyes to him mouthing words he couldn’t hear as he slipped back into sleep.
Dredd surfaced from his nightmares slowly. Something was in his hand. It was not his gun. He squeezed and it squeezed back. An alarm went off in his head. He felt the pain afresh as he tried to move. He opened his eyes. Again, No Helmet! A woman sat there holding his hand. He looked at her hand around his and back at her. She let go before he could shake it off. Like a whisper it felt as if with her release the pain felt worse. She spoke in clear tones.
“Do you know what happened to you?” she asked softly. Her eyes were guarded but kind.
“I was ambushed,” he said. She nodded.
“What’s your name?” she asked then added, “It helps me assess how you’re doing.”
“Dredd,” he said.
“My name is Nately Emmett. Many call me Nat,” she shrugged before she added, “You were ambushed by the Red Rock Gang, alien mutie combo. By the time I arrived you had killed one of them. You had been shot several times and have a fractured right shin.” She stopped and looked away. She licked her lips.
“What happened?” he asked. The Judge in him moved back into position. There was fear in her eyes.
“Things are different here in the Cursed Earth…I lucked out spotting you and them. I got my rifle and bike and rode over. I wounded 4 of them. I would have killed them so that I could save you. I don’t know if what I did deserves a sentence from Mega City’s toughest Judge. I saw a Judge in need. I didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t want a Judge killed. I didn’t know who you were,” she paused at her babbling. His silence unnerved her. She couldn’t read him at all. She stopped talking. She pulled a small flashlight out of a pocket, put it back. Mentally, as a defense, she put on her doctor hat. “I have more…um, Let me check you out this morning.”
“You sustained three bullet wounds and one fracture,” she said. She gently removed the bandages and checked for infection as she kept talking. “It was a tough call. I didn’t know if the city would send help for you.” She noticed a slight shake of his head. She rolled him over on this side to check the bandages on the exit wounds.
“I got out the bullets. Disinfected the wounds and put a splint on your leg. You’ve been in and out for two and a half days, mostly out. So far, no fever and you appear to be healing quickly,” she said. She finished looking at his thigh bandage. She looked back at him and pulled out the small flashlight.
“Now, look at my finger as I shine this light in your eyes. Follow my finger.” She looked intently at his pupil dilation as she move her finger and light. His eyes tracked with her finger perfectly and pupils were dilating fine. “Good.” She moved to his feet and uncovered them. “It was a challenge to get you up here so I’m checking everything.” She ran her thumb up the arch. “Do you feel that?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. She switched to the other foot.
Nat let out a deep sigh she didn’t realize she had been holding. “You’re doing well. I don’t have Mega City med services to speed this up. I heavily recommend 5 more days of rest before testing the stitches and the leg. I know you don’t want to be here, but I want to you to make it back,” she said.
“Where is my uniform?” he asked gruffly.
Embarrassed suddenly, she pointed to another table but told him when he couldn’t turn to see them. He slowly turned and saw them. They were mostly cleaned and folded neatly. She moved closer to that table.
“I repaired most of the damage,” she said. “I tried to salvage them. I’m sorry for any indignity my actions may have caused,” she said as she fidgeted with her flashlight. She couldn’t look at him. Silence stretched out between them, the first of many.
“Would you have preferred I left you out there to die? Did I make a mistake?” She mustered the courage to look over at him.
“There seem to be some – extenuating circumstances.” It was not a verdict but kept it open ended. He watched her accept it and added, “You fixed me. Thank you.”
Dredd tried to sit up but he felt a dagger of pain and felt a moment of dizziness. He sorely missed the Justice Med Bays. He felt her next to him. She pulled him up with effort and quickly put a roll of blankets behind him and made sure it didn’t rub the exit wound.
“Good enough for now?”
“I can leave you for a while now. Do you object?”
“We’ll talk again later. Ask me any question you want,” she said. She pointed to a switch for the light that he could reach. She moved to a bag on the floor and pulled out a book. Dredd wondered who this woman was.
“Your bike makes me nervous. I wanted to find one of your law books I suspect you always carry with you, but I didn’t dare. Here is a law book that my father had from his days. It is well worn,” she said. She held the book, caressed it for a moment. She handed it to him with both hands. His face softened ever so slightly and snapped back. He wondered at her statement and accepted the offering.
Nat nodded and left the room silently. Off in what sounded like a great distance, he heard a door and then a motor start and fade away. He studied his infirmary living space. It looked like a ship. Writing on the walls, key pads and doors looked unfamiliar, so he made a mental note to find out what galactic language later in Mega City One.
He looked at the law book in his hands. The copyright was twenty years previous. Her father’s law book? Emmett? The name was unfamiliar. Inside the book cover was the written name, Wilson. He repeated the name in his mind. He would look into that when he had the chance. The pages were worn. It could be a good review of historical precedence. He read until he fell asleep.
Nat had high hopes for this Judge. She wanted or needed, depending on how she felt, to go to MC1, as she called it, for further medical training and more. She hoped that Judge Dredd would agree to take her back with him. She approached the small village of Idrian. A few locals saw her and they exchanged waves. She intended her visit to be short. She had to find her assistant in training. Together they would check on a few neighbors and she wanted to talk to the mayor. She intended to let them know of her plans and talk them into the long range goals she had for them. They might not be so happy about it. She told herself it was for them that she was doing this. She had a lot of ideas.
When Nat returned to her ship, buried in the red rocks of the valley, Dredd was fast asleep. In her bunk room which also doubled as the kitchen and all purpose room, Nat prepared another meal and some soup. She plated the food and sat down in Dredd’s direct eye line, if he woke up. After eating, she made a tisane, in her room.
“Emmett?” he asked from the other room.
“Yes, Dredd. I’m here,” she said. It never occurred to her to use his first name. She walked into his field of vision. “Do you need anything?”
“Hungry?” There was a pause.
“Yes,” he said, more like confirmation to himself.
“Good sign.” She helped him sit further up. She brought a tray with the soup and tea and placed it on the small table near him. She sat at the table across the room. A pile of books at her shoulder. “Sorry, it’s all liquid for now. It’s best for your guts.”
Dredd smelled the food and cautiously tasted it. No worse than anything Walter had prepared and possibly better.
“You’re not a mutant. Why do you live here?” he asked.
“Not a mutant?” she mused, “Hmm. I’ll tell you my story while you eat. My parents left Mega City One, I’ve shortened it to MC1, before Cal built the wall. My father, Thomas Wilson, went through the Law Academy but quit shortly after being a judge. He didn’t wall off his emotions. I don’t know how he made it through the academy. He fell in love with my mother, Breeze Emmett. She was a teacher, I think, or wanted to be. She had studied medicine. I had passed the assessment. I entered the academy and then I was out here in the Cursed Earth. They never explained. I’ve never known why. I don’t know if they ever regretted that decision.
“We went as far as this valley…They survived about 4 years, then they were killed by slavers because they got in the way. Close friends protected me at that time. I don’t know if what I was told is the truth but I had no recourse. One day wandering alone, taking stupid risks,” she grimaced, “I found this ship. I think he’s been here for a long long time. I say ‘he’ because of my preference. The AI is a high functioning intelligence….The AI actually installed an implant,”she pointed to her head, “..longer story. He talks to me through the implant. We have helped each other – stay sane…surrogate parent….I moved in here when I thought I was old enough and slowly I’ve been repairing the systems and studying,” she took a breath and paused before continuing, “I started to help the villagers with broken bones and sickness, with his help. He scans the surrounding area, alerting me when I need to go on the offensive. We’ve stayed safe. For now.”
“You operated,” he said. She nodded.
“Yes and he helped with what I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve read a lot of law and medicine books over the years.” They talked. Most of the talking done by Nat until they both grew tired.
They sat there silently for a few moments. Nat looked inside wondering about answering his initial question. She had tried to leave. There had been life threatening attempts.
“I’ve stayed here for several reasons,” she said. Her gaze lost some of her focus. “Let’s call it a night,” said Nat. She yawned and stretched.
“I would love to know more about MC1 and your day to day life, your job,” she said as she eased him back down.
“Tomorrow,” he said.
“Of course,” she said.
She continued to make eye contact with him. He always had his helmet on and so no one could make eye contact. They were intimidated by it. He was the face of the Law. He longed to put it back on. Longed to see again through polarized filters and the HUD. He felt her still in the room. Little noises gave away her activities. He processed all the information she had provided about herself, the ship and the valley. She had dedicated herself to their care and protection. Admirable and very likely foolish without support of the Law. If her story proved to be true, it was a miracle she was still alive. Her days were likely shorter than his. He admitted an inkling of respect for her and gratitude for saving his life and then filed it away.
As these thoughts flowed through his mind, he relaxed and went to sleep. Across the room Nat finished putting away the books. She watched until his face relaxed. She moved closer. His chin the most prominent feature and his mouth relaxed into a more natural downward line leaving fuller lips then suspected. Care and frown lines around his eyes smoothed out. He wasn’t conventionally handsome but he wasn’t ugly. He had a good face. She moved her hand up to block half his face with her hand. Soon enough, she knew that would be all she would ever see again.
“G’night Dredd,” she whispered. She lightly touched his hand and left the room.
Nat woke up and laid in her bunk half asleep. She heard sounds – grunting – and adrenaline flooded her body. She bolted out of bed with a weapon in her hand, scanning the room. Memory flooded back. Judge Joseph Dredd lay in her care in the next room. Rubbing her face, she walked into the infirmary room. He had managed to sit halfway up and put the blankets behind him. He looked at her.
“Dredd,” she said. The gun was still in her hand. She put it behind her back.
“Emmett” he said. She changed topics.
“Ready for some food?”
“Yes.” Nat went back to her multipurpose room, changed her clothes and prepared food. She brought it out.
“Dredd, yesterday, I answered maybe all your questions. May I ask – please tell me about your daily life. What’s it like to be a judge? Is that OK to talk about?” she asked as she placed the food down for him and moved to sit at a nearby table. Dredd checked the page of the law book and laid it down carefully. He picked up the soup and tasted it.
“Being a street judge in a dying city is hard work. Violence, aliens, invasions, and weird situations all come into play. We are called in to handle all sorts of cases,” he said and drank some soup.
“Maybe tell me about an average day,” she said.
“No day is average but I think I understand your meaning,” he said. Dredd proceeded to tell her a play by play detailed account of a day and the multiple calls he answered and assisted. Nat listened attentively filling in gaps with memories of childhood. She heard his selflessness, dedication, his leadership, his rigid will and zealotry for the law and his care for the greater good of the city. She also heard and felt what he denied himself. Her eyes slowly brimmed with tears. Dredd noticed and stopped.
“Nately – You’re an empath,” he said. The authority and insight floored Nat.
“I was a frequent disappointment to my father. He wanted me to be what he failed to be but passed it on to me,” she said, thinking out loud. She felt uncomfortable. “It seems to me, with the life I’ve had so far, that a judge needs to be a machine. Some of the Regs make more sense to me now…but I didn’t realize how lonely and painful it can be. I shouldn’t be surprised. I–I don’t know how you do it.”
“Fifteen years of training. Some judges crack under the pressure. Some take the long walk. Judges die every day,” his voice more gruff. “The Law is life. The law is everything. We should study it daily and be focused on the law all day. There is little time for else.”
“So many laws. How can a good citizen keep track?” she asked.
“Ignorance is no excuse,” he said.
“I’ve lived in the lawless cursed earth for 10 years. All the people out here have done something,” she said. She moved her hands as if to brush away a fly and said, “I talk too much. I – I need to check on a few things. I’ll be back.” She walked out of the infirmary. She walked through the ship. And stopped near the top hatch. She stood there several long minutes thinking things through.
Nat stood in her room looking into the infirmary. She stared at the helmet. She sensed he wanted it. Didn’t know why he didn’t demand it. She walked into the room over to the helmet. Dredd looked up from his book and watched her. She picked up the uniform and helmet and turned to him.
“The world is a cruel place and so it seems the law can be as well. I want to ask you something else,” she paused as she handed him his clothes of office, “Let me know if you need assistance.”
She looked him in the eye for the last time expecting to find cold assessment and saw something else, perhaps approval or relief that he had his uniform. With his hands full and without much thought on her end, she reached over and kissed him. Being a Judge, he didn’t kiss back. It was as if she kissed a warm rock.
Nat quickly disappeared through the infirmary hatch into her room. Once in that room, she jumped up and down, not in excitement but more like she had just burned her hand on the stove. I am going to jail, she told her herself. Why’d she do it? There were lots of reasons. He is a healthy male. He is from the city. He is a Judge. He is her patient. Am I falling for my patient she asked herself. That’s just wrong she told herself and moaned. She sat in her bunk waiting to hear anything. Now, she didn’t want to face him. Fifteen minutes went by and she edged closer to the door. She swallowed.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“I can’t cover my right leg,” he said. Nat went to a small box with alien writing and pulled 2 pieces of cloth from it. Nat stepped into the infirmary. The helmet glanced at her with only his chin available. She moved over to his leg and changed the splint to the unassuming cloth. The wound looked clean and the leg was healing fast. She slipped the cloth around his foot and up his shin until it felt firm against the bone.
“How does that feel?” she asked.
“Like a glove,” he said.
“I’m sorry Judge. I shouldn’t have kissed you. In the city, no doubt, there would have been a sentence,” she said as she worked.
“Six months in the Iso Cubes,” he said.
Nat accepted that with a sigh. There could be mercy. She fixed the suit around the high tech splint. She moved closer to his torso. He grasped her forearm.
“Nately, you’ve done the near impossible in this place. I’ll allow it, this one time, as a warning. Do it again, once inside the City, six months in the Iso Cubes,” he said. Nat looked at him with big eyes. “How much time for an impulsive hug?” she asked. He let go of her hand and she backed up having sensed his annoyance.
“Don’t make it a habit. You haven’t earned familiarity yet and a judge cannot love anything but the law. Attachments are distractions and we cannot afford them; therefore, they are against the law,” he said. “It can also be dangerous for you.” She nodded. This was the most she had talked to anyone in ages other than the AI. She felt ashamed and slightly confused.
“It sounds so lonely,” she said quietly, not looking at him and then added as she looked at him, “You look ready to go,” she said.
“Not without the rest of it,” he said. She smiled.
“Try to stand up,” she said. She watched as he sat all the way up and tentatively put his weight on his right leg. Nat put a small glass jar with a lid on the table next to the law book.
“Inside is a salve to put on the wounds to keep them clean. I think from here on you can do that without me,” she said.
“Judge, can I go back with you? I was hoping I could go to school, get real training and come back here. Can I get training?” she asked. She pulled another piece cloth out of her pocket. She picked up his knife and handed it to him.
“What are you doing?” he asked. Nate held up the piece of black fabric as tightly as she could between her hands.
“Please. Stab the middle of this,” she said. He hesitated and thrust the knife forward. “Again,” she said. Dredd attempted to pierce it again. Without her saying, he tried harder driving Nat a few steps back. She handed the cloth to him. He looked at it closely.
“That’s all I have of that. I and the AI have been working on a formula to recreate it. I want to work on the formula and make enough of it and wear it back here….and offer it to the justice department.” Her demeanor changed. She looked at him with passionate determination.
“Nately, I’ve had every intention of taking you back to Mega City One,” he said. He expected an emotional response and another attempt to hug him. She looked at him and nodded. Good, he thought.
“Thank you,” she said. She put the cloth away. She left him to himself. She went into her room and started to think about what she could take that would be hard to replace. She didn’t know if she would be gone a year, 5 years or forever. She also kept in mind that she’d probably be riding with the judge on his bike rather than hers. No room for sentiment, only necessity.
Dredd dismissed the frustration he felt. The Med Teks could have healed his leg in ten minutes. Remarkably, it didn’t feel as bad as he knew it could. He limped around the infirmary testing any limits and pushing himself. The wounds still hurt but he didn’t notice them as much. He had had worse before when he was younger. He looked into the hatch opposite the one Nat walked through. Then he checked out her multipurpose room. She watched him out of the corner of her eye as she packed and organized things. She used this activity to think and plan.
The rest of the day went quietly. The One window Dredd found was dirty and it looked like a sand storm was moving through the area. Storms could be minutes or hours…perhaps days. He frowned.
The next morning, Joseph Dredd dreamed again. He sat in a classroom. Rico sat next to him. They laughed. Joseph frowned at the laugh. “Joseph.” He heard his name called. “Joseph.” A woman’s soft voice. He turned from his brother’s face to the sound. His eyes opened and looked into Nat’s brown eyes close to him.
“Nothing’s wrong. The Storm has blown over. Willing to go topside with me? Fifteen tight steps going up and a top-side hatch,” she said.
“I’d like to get my bearings,” he said. He forced himself to sit up. He could smell that the same food cooking. His boots had been moved and waited for him. Wincing, he leaned over and put them on. The right leg proved a little tricky but once the boot was on it felt better. Standing on it felt rough but doable. He hated the pain but pain taught lessons. Pain humbled the proud. Pain pointed to strength. Pain distracted.
Nat waited for him in her hatchway and nodded her head to follow. She led him through a few more hatches then to the stairs that spiraled up to an outer hatch. Nat went up the steps to the top. These 15 steps reminded him of limitations. Each one gave him more determination to put them behind him. She opened the hatch and covered her face from the dust, sand, and pebbles falling in. Dredd paused behind her. Nat took a short ladder and hooked it up under the opening. Halfway up the ladder she put her arm out and pulled herself up through the hatch. Who needs grace, she thought. She turned around to watch Dredd pull himself up through the hatch and straighten up. Nat put the binocs to her eyes and looked toward the village. Figures were out and about. She watched them for a moment to see if she could tell what they were doing. Dredd scanned the horizon and found the western wall with no problem. His HUD helped him judge the distance left to go. He scanned the rest and stood next to her looking towards the village.
“You see the village?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“So far this year we have about 60 residents. Right now they aren’t too happy that I’m leaving. Fear I won’t come back. And not happy with the assistant I left down there either,” she said. She turned to look at the wall. We lost our advantage for today. Traveling in the dark on bikes is dangerous -” she stopped herself. “Look who I’m talking to…sorree,” she asked.
“I’m ready. Are you?” he asked her.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she said. Another moment of silence in the dusty breezes.
“Golden reds and browns, wind sun and moon my companions, haunted by green things,”she whispered. She looked through the binocs again. He looked at her. Dredd looked at the orange, gold and red tones of rock and sand. The sky hung over them in an odd shade of blue. Had he ever looked before? It didn’t matter.
“You’re a poet too,” he said. Whether a declarative or a dismissal, that statement made her blush.
“Yeah. Maybe. We should go. You’ll be easy to spot if someone is looking, so we shouldn’t stand here any longer,”she said. She made her way to the hatch. “You first.” Dredd squatted and swung himself down with a grunt. Nat put the binocs on her back and sat in the hatch and swung her legs over to the ladder and lowered herself down. She unhooked the ladder and closed the hatch. Next she took him down to the bottom of the ship and out the hatch to check on the Law Master. He didn’t see his bike at first but a similar shape. Nat pulled off the cover. Remarkable. It totally disguised the bike, he thought.
Dredd proceeded to check functions and talk to Mack, his Law Master computer. Nat left him so she could survey and watch for dust trails and talk with the AI. “I don’t know how long I’ll be – maybe. Could be a year or 5…I..I don’t know. Life is unpredictable. I will miss you too. No. Don’t trust them and neither should you,” she said to the ship. When Dredd was ready, he found Nat looking over her bike inside the ship.
They went back to the infirmary. Dredd propped up his leg and checked the circulation of his foot. Nat went to her room to prepare under the guise of giving him space and herself time to say goodbye. No matter the pain, Dredd had supplies in his bike. He would take Nat with him. He’d give her the chance to do what she wanted. The rest would be up to her. He calculated the journey ahead. In time they ate, talked of what to expect at the gate, the city, the Council of 5, and went to sleep.
By Jennfier Packard
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Jennifer Packard grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. She received a BA in Liberal Arts, an MFA in Film and Television Production and an MA in Second and Foreign Language Education.
She has lived in Maryland, Southern California, Southern Florida, British Columbia and Washington State, and Southern California once again. She is an adult education teacher and has served the community as a volunteer along the way.
Jennifer enjoys nature and macro photography. She writes science fiction, cosmic horror, various pieces of flash fiction and the occasional Judge Dredd, British comic book lawman, fan fiction. She makes the occasional water color or illustration. She is currently a member of the California Writer’s Club.
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At the table over tonight’s dinner, I put my hands on my growing belly. I sigh and lean back in my chair.
My husband Marty looks up from his crab salad. “Well, it’s only about a month more, isn’t it?”
“Yep.” I nod and smile at him, happy to be having a child.
“I do hope it’s a boy,” he says. “What do you think?”
“I do, too, if that’s what you hope for.”
Marty leans back in his chair, looking satisfied and takes a bite of the salad.
My mind wanders, considering the future. I’m not sure how I would do with a little girl. All my life I was surrounded by boys—father and two brothers Gary and Tim, doing their boy things–whooping it up, going to ball games, fighting to see who was the strongest. Mom and I were not a match for them. It seemed that whenever a decision was to be made, one of the boys or Dad made it. My mother held back, tentative as she usually was, and the the boys had their way as if it were promised them at birth.
I learned to do as my mother did–to take the back seat, to say “no thank you” when offered the last piece of cake, to go to a ball game instead of to the city for shopping. The boys always held sway. They learned to express themselves, take chances, abandon caution, and assert their position. Mom was on the side of acquiescence, of keeping the peace. In those days I followed in her footsteps as the only way I knew for a girl like me.
In summertime we took our vacations in the Rocky Mountains, an hour’s drive from our home. We loved the brisk mountain air, the aroma of the pines and the clear blue skies. The year I turned thirteen we rented a cabin next to a rushing stream in Estes Park. My dad loved to fish and often came home with a enough for a good trout dinner.
“Come on, guys, we’re going fishing,” said Dad, waving his hand to include me.
I looked at Mom and she nodded. “Go ahead. You all have fun!”
Dad, my brothers and I took off in the station wagon and made a stop at the bait shop. “Fish are biting this year,” they told us. We bought live worms and shiny lures designed especially for trout.
“We’re all set,” said Dad. “Let’s catch us a good dinner!”
Dad found a flat spot alongside a rushing stream where we stopped and unloaded our fishing gear. My brothers and I prepared our rods with the bright trout lures and worms and chose our positions along the stream.
I planted myself on the bank and watched the glistening water as it rushed over the boulders. When I threw my fishing line out over the water, it wavered in the breeze, then settled down into the current. I watched and waited. When there were no nibbles, I tried again and again.
Finally I felt a tug, saw the pole dip, and my father called out, “You got one! Pull it up! Pull it up!” Dad rushed over to track every movement of my line. I held tight and pulled the line just enough to make sure the fish was hooked for good.
“Bring him in! Bring him in!” Dad shouted.
I gripped the pole and reeled in the line till I could see the fish come out of the water. It writhed on my line, my hook in its mouth, its rainbow scales shining.
“Good girl,” my father said, beaming and puffing up as if he had caught the trout himself. The boys each caught one, too, but I smiled to myself; mine was the biggest one. At the end of our day, we proudly showed off our catch to Mother. She ooh-ed and ahh-ed like it was the first time she ever saw such a catch, and we basked in the glory of our successful expedition.
Mother and I were left to clean the fish and fry it over the old stove while Dad read the local paper and the boys took up their comic books.
Mother laid out the three fish on the cutting board. “Oh, these fish are beautiful,” she said, “and this one is so big!”
“That’s the one I caught,” I tell her with a note of pride. I waited for her to ooh and aah some more, but she just shook her head. “Here, slice them open. Be careful of the knife.”
I sliced each fish along the bones and cleaned all of them, while my face burned in shame. Should I not be bragging about my catch?
I handed the cleaned fish to my mother and she fried them up on the iron stovetop. At dinner we sat around the small kitchen table and Mom set down a plate of freshly fried fish in the center next to the potato salad.
Dad set his cowboy hat aside and looked at Mother, grinning. “A fine catch, wouldn’t you say, Helen?”
“A fine catch indeed,” she said, beaming across the table at my brothers. They drank it all in, each nodding and taking another bite.
Nobody mentioned my part in the expedition, so I kept my sense of satisfaction to myself. That’s the way it should be. A girl has got to learn what it is to coexist with the boys, to balance herself on the tightrope between pleasing them and holding her own. Hanging tight and not falling.
Now at the table I glance at my husband, rub my belly again and lean in. “Marty,” I say, a bit louder than necessary, “if we have a girl, she’s going to keep up with you boys.”
He looks at me a little puzzled, then nods and takes a swallow of wine. “What’s for dessert?”
By Gail Field
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You Know Dave
My best friend is dying. There’s nothing I can do to change that. You know Dave; he’s your father, your brother, or the man who walks his dog past your house at 8am. As they say in Dave’s state, Ohio “he’s good people.” One day Dave will be you.
My Dave is a lot older than me. Forget that eighty-seven years young crap. Eighty-seven is old. Medicine can extend a life so that one can exist, but it is a long way from making ones octogenarian years a culmination of a life of joy. The smart ones find joy from a diminishing life menu, a cup of coffee, birdsong and if they are really lucky holding the hand of a wife or partner who loves them.
My Dave is not that smart or lucky. He spent too many years “going to” rather than doing. Too many years single rather than nakedly standing in front of another soul and saying know me and allow me to know you. When we first met one of the joys of David was that he had done so many more things than me, been so many more places and had experienced things I’d only read about. He’d met people that death prevents me from meeting in this lifetime.
We met at college believe it or not. I a complete newbie to America, not knowing anyone and coming from a village that still had cobblestones and a stocks in its center. He would take me for groceries once a week in his car and then we’d have dinner. His stories dazzled me but as the years went on and I had graduated, had children and sadly gotten divorced it became ever more apparent that his “life” was in the past. There was no present; there was no future and each day the sun rose and set twenty years earlier for him. His self-imposed isolation accrues interest with each year.
Ironically this blind spot in him did not obscure his vision of others. He was the one that taught me that the present doesn’t have to repeat the past. It is written by the choices that one makes right now. For that and many other things, I’ll always be grateful to him.
Our thirty-year friendship will not reach thirty-one years. It might, but I doubt it. System by system his body is shutting down and pain erodes his spirit. On a daily basis, I try to give him dignity when time and ever-stronger medicines are taking it way from him. Today I’ll do the life needs of cutting his nails, pulling his pants up and down and making him a tasty meal, I’ll clean his apartment and sort out his paperwork. Those are existing things. If we’re lucky and he’s up to it, we’ll go for a drive on the Pacific Coast Highway, we’ll have a glass of wine somewhere he’s never been before which his doctors would probably frown upon, but which he’ll enjoy, and I’ll introduce him to the wonders of ITunes. Those are living things.
After I’ve finished looking after him, it’s home to my rascals ages 2, 6 and 13. Never is the circle of life more apparent than when you are loving and caring for such extreme ends of the lifespan.
Today is your day. The clock is ticking, and there are no refunds. Be it your professional or personal life make the most of what you’ve got and give your Dave, a call. I know he’d appreciate it.
By Michael Jeremy Savage
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Select biography of Michael Savage
I am probably the only person you have ever met who has fallen down a manhole in Spain, been bitten by a penguin & peed on by a tiger. The fact is I’ve always had a sense of wonder, a taste for adventure & a great interest in the world around me. I succeed not by being inherently brilliant but by my love of a challenge & never giving up until I have accomplished the objective in front of me.
I’m fascinated how technology is changing the way we communicate, establishing new communities & forging new pathways and possibilities in entertainment, business, entrepreneurship, media & politics. Of particular interest to me, are scalable projects that ride the wave that the confluence of You Tube, wearable tech, smart phones & tablets is creating.
I was named one of the top 100 producers in the U.S.A. & awarded a Google scholarship in 2018. I’m not afraid to say I’m still in awe of Skype , & despite every day not being a bed of roses I always count my blessings.
Select all writings of Michael Savage
If Maria Cortez hears the word “gorgeous” again, someone’s getting it in the nuts. Never been kissed and never will. She hides behind grandma glasses and unflattering makeup, but not even clothes that cover every inch of skin, besides her hands and face, can save her from the curse of beauty.
Maria sits in an executive suite with the feel of a teenager’s bedroom. A half-built Lego battle cruiser and robotic components clutter the elegant decor. Science fiction posters wallpaper the room. Near the door, a couple of dozen ants tunnel through space-age gel, in an ant habitat lit up like an alien world.
At the rear of the room is an enormous oak desk. Alvin Renquist presides in the seat of power. He is all teeth, a shark eater. If greed is good, he’s a saint. Six chairs surround the desk, for those who might seek an audience with him.
Maria wonders why James picked Renquist to buy the company. He acts like he owns the place, but he doesn’t yet. “The purchase closes today. Why haven’t your funds hit escrow?”
Renquist slips into the adjoining seat. “I want you as interim CEO, under my guidance.”
Maria eyes him suspiciously. “If I’m CEO, what about James?”
“I’ll make you the face of the company.” Renquist slides his hand onto her thigh.
She retreats a seat closer to the door. “Answer my questions.”
Renquist pursues and sits next to her.
Maria’s leg quivers.
He reaches towards her thigh again but pauses.
“Of course, a makeover!” Renquist undresses her with his eyes, imagining every hidden contour. “Take off those glasses. Add some makeup. Put on a big smile. I can see it now. Billboards. TV. You’ll be everywhere.” The words slither from his mouth as he tries to caress her cheek.
Renquist grazes her face before she swats his hand away.
Maria tries to stay professional and composed, but her whole body shudders. Is it fear, or rage, that stirs within her? She fends off his advances and stands. “Stop! Let’s pretend we have a safe word, and I used it.”
He closes in.
Maria won’t be a victim. She takes a karate stance.
Renquist withdraws, with his hands raised. “Fine. Grab James, and we’ll sort this all out.”
She flings the door open and strides outside. Tiny helicopters, inflatable sharks, and small drones buzz around an unremarkable cubicle farm. Nerf Darts whiz by Maria’s head. A six-inch helicopter crashes to the carpet. She smirks, but her apprehension remains.
James Wong advances down the aisle with a cardboard tower shield and homemade lightsaber. Software developers shoot him with Nerf guns. Their projectiles bounce off his tower shield.
More creative supernova than businessman, it’s moments like these where Maria isn’t the only one to see his inner child.
When he sees Maria, James drops his tower shield and sprints towards her. “Do you remember our first hit app?” He clicks a button on the hilt of his sword and thrusts. Fart sounds change pitch as he swings his weapon.
“May the fart be with you, always,” James says. Maria and James chuckle together. “From fart app to billion-dollar company. We did it. Today is the best day of my life.” James fist pumps.
Her smile crumples. “The buyer wants to see us.”
The intercom turns on with a hiss. “James Wong to my office now.” Over the speakers, Renquist’s voice sounds like an angry school principal.
James puts down his lightsaber. “Why does the Eye of Sauron have to summon me every time I’m having fun?” He grins. “At least it’s good news.”
The employees scatter. Cubicle airspace clears. The programmers put away their toys, slink into their Aeron chairs, and return to work.
Distress fills Maria with every step. It’s like a roller coaster rising farther and farther into the sky.
James seems too preoccupied with his perfect day to notice. He struts into the executive suite.
Maria follows closely.
Two burly bodyguards flank Renquist.
James checks his bank on his phone. “What is your bidding my…” He points to his empty bank account on the phone. “Oh wait, you’re not my master.”
Renquist rips an Aliens movie poster off the wall. James lunges at Renquist, but the security guards intervene.
“Every time you make a movie reference, I destroy a poster.” Renquist rips the poster into strips, and then into oversized confetti.
“This isn’t your office.” James takes a deep breath. “Not until the money clears.”
Renquist squints at the ant habitat. “Everything will be clear in a minute, but first, what kind of freak has ants in his office?”
James says, “Ants are my reminder that with determination and teamwork, anything is possible. As many as a million ants can work together in a colony. Imagine if humans could accomplish—”
“I didn’t ask for the whole Wikipedia entry.” Renquist shakes his head.
Maria retreats to the back of the room. She can feel her roller coaster about to plunge.
“Well James, I’ve got good news. You’re fired.” Renquist throws up poster confetti.
James does a double take. “I think I misheard you.”
“I didn’t say the good news was for you,” Renquist says. “I’m taking Adaptive Unlimited in a new direction, without you.”
“You said you wanted me, along with my company!”
“I lied. I tend to do that.”
James puffs out his chest. “You’ll never find a replacement who knows this company as well as I do.”
“I already have.” Renquist smiles.
James looks at Maria. How could she? Shock. Fear. Betrayal. “Maria? Maria.”
There’s an eon of silence.
Maria bolts from the room without a word. The door slams behind her.
She zips into the adjoining office and dashes straight to her desk. Monitor on. Keys clack. Live surveillance of the executive suite displays on the monitor. Maria listens, as she pulls a dusty box from the bottom of her cabinet. She opens the box and smiles at the provocative clothes and boots inside.
James pleads, in the other room. “This company is my life. I sleep more in the office than I do at home. Don’t do this!”
“You couldn’t even lead a Boy Scout troop. You’ve only muddled this far because Maria covers for you.”
Maria monitors events in the next room as she undresses. She flings her conservative outfit on the floor one item at a time.
“I built this company one crazy idea after another, a whole trainload of them,” James says. “Maria follows me. She’s the caboose on the crazy train.”
“Is that what you think?” Maria grumbles at her screen and scrunches her nose in anger.
“If you, Maria, or anybody, doesn’t want to ride the crazy train, this is your stop.” James points to the door.
Maria slinks into knee-high boots with stiletto heels. It’s the first step of a sensual self-makeover. She puts on her power suit. Form-fitted leatherette pants and a scandalous front-zip black bustier hug every curve. Her personality shifts, molts, leaving her old self on the ground. Confident. Powerful. Invincible.
James says, “I’m not selling!”
“Just hand over your $150 million cancellation fee, and you can have your company back,” Renquist teases.
“Fine. When does our $1.2 billion arrive?”
Renquist says, “The money’s never coming. You didn’t catch the resale clause. I can resell your company to another buyer before the purchase completes, extending the contract. Profits and control in the meantime go to the seller.”
“Right, and I’m the seller.”
“Wrong. During a resale, I’m redefined as the seller. So, your company will go through one resale after another, for years, decades, if it’s worth the trouble. I get the profits and control. You get nothing. Where did you get your lawyer? A park bench?”
“You reassigned variables on me,” James murmurs. He slumps to his knees like a deflated tire.
Maria springs up and pounds the table. She gets self-conscious, worried they might hear her in the next room. She scrutinizes the screen for a reaction to the noise.
He spreads out the fingers in his hand and stares at them, as he imagines all that cash slipping away. “Nuked from orbit. Game over.”
“That sounds like movie talk to me. Were you born in a theater or something? Talk normal.” Renquist rips an Avatar movie poster off the wall. He tears through it like an impatient child unwrapping a present.
Renquist circles James, a predator finishing off his prey.
Maria roots for him, riveted to the monitor. “Fight him, James. Don’t let him do this to you. To us.”
Renquist leans towards James. “Crazy smart works for startups, but not in Corporate America. You should know your place on the org chart. If I say wear a pink dress, or eat out of a dog bowl, that’s what you do. You don’t respect the chart. You don’t belong on it. That’s why security is gathering your toys as we speak.”
The bodyguards snicker and high five. Their body language suggests they no longer consider James a threat.
Renquist grabs his briefcase from under the desk. He opens it and removes a can of Raid Ant and Roach Spray.
Maria pulls a mirror from her desk. She fixes her makeup and applies ruby lipstick with deliberation as war paint.
James eyes the spray can. He pushes off the floor to lunge at Renquist. The guards tackle James before he reaches his target. Renquist steps over James, approaches the ant habitat, and flips open the lid. James watches helplessly on the ground, pinned underneath 500 pounds of hired muscle.
“You’re an ant, and I’m top of the food chain.” Renquist sprays into the ant habitat. The deadly liquid flows down the gel tunnels. Chemical odors waft through the air. The ants scamper no more.
Renquist crouches down towards James. “I’d say you were a worthy adversary, but even I have a limit on how many lies I can tell in a day.” He gets back up and motions to his guards. “I want people talking about it for weeks. Remove him.”
Each guard grabs an arm and drags James backward, beyond the edge of her monitor. Maria can no longer see him. She rushes to her doorway, just in time to see him dragged into the hallway.
James glares at Maria. He fixates on her lipstick and snickers. “You’re going to pay for your betrayal.” He tries to kick free, but only kicks metal filing cabinets along the hallway.
Bystanders peek their heads out of their cubes like gophers to catch the spectacle.
The guards yank James around the corner, out of sight.
Maria creeps back into her office. She pulls three external solid-state drives from under the desk. She covers them with bubble wrap and slips them into pre-addressed packages. Maria peers out to check if Renquist has his door closed. Confirmed.
Thelma, the company’s only executive assistant, sits at the reception desk across from the executive suite.
Maria slips Thelma the packages and nods.
Thelma nods back. She pushes the intercom button. “Maria Cortez is here to see you.”
“Thanks, Thelma, buzz her in,” Renquist says.
The door opens. Maria slinks in, fully transformed from drab female to sex goddess. She’s on the prowl for big game.
Renquist forgets who she is for a moment. The whole day is forgotten. He focuses on her.
“How’s this for a makeover?” she purrs. “I hope you brought a pill. I might need a full four hours.”
All the blood rushes from his brain. If he were any more brain dead, he’d require life support.
She saunters to his desk, one sensual step after another.
He fumbles for the intercom key. “Cancel all my meetings. I don’t want to be disturbed.”
“Is this seat taken?” Maria asks innocently, as she slides onto his lap. Her hand explores the contours of his chest. He gently inhales the scent of her perfume. His smile barely fits on his face.
She yanks at his tie and whispers. “Do you like it rough?”
He nods vigorously.
She chokes him with the necktie.
He turns red. A gasp. Panic. Renquist slams the table with his flailing right arm.
Maria loosens the tie. With a soft caress, she lulls him back to the fantasy.
Thelma buzzes the intercom. “Are you alright, Mr. Renquist?”
“Disregard any disturbances. It’s going to get noisy.”
“Understood.” Thelma sighs, with disgust. “Since I have you, the 11 o’clock mailman is here if you—”
“I don’t want to be disturbed. That includes you, the mailman, and everyone else. I don’t care if your hair is on fire. Don’t bother me.” Renquist disconnects the intercom.
“Nibble on my ear. Lick me like a dog.” He sticks out his tongue to the max and pants.
She strokes his ear and pats him on the head. “Good doggy.”
Maria rises off his lap and pulls him up. He attempts to embrace her, but she backpedals. The desk blocks her retreat.
Renquist shoves everything off the desk. His water pitcher shatters, creating a puddle. “I hope the carpet isn’t the only thing that’s wet.”
It’s too much. It’s all Maria can do to stifle a snort of contempt. She turns away and rolls her eyes. She turns back to Renquist and smiles seductively.
He heaves Maria into the air and plops her on the table. He leans in for a kiss. Maria shakes her finger no and points to the floor.
Renquist throws off his suit jacket, kneels down, and imitates a dog begging for food.
She tips him over onto his back. He loosens the top buttons on his shirt.
Hostility seeps through her facade. “I’m sorry about earlier. I must have forgotten to take off my ‘please fuck me’ sign.”
Renquist looks confused. He laughs nervously and unbuttons down to his navel, slower with each button.
Maria jabs Renquist playfully in the thigh with the toe of her boots. She circles him counterclockwise and kicks as she goes along as if tenderizing meat.
His face reflects a battle between a libido clinging to a fantasy and his brain attempting a reboot.
Sexy ends, anger starts. In an instant, fire in Maria’s eyes. “You want to fuck me? Am I meat, for you to devour? Did you think I was yours? I’m not for you. I have feelings. I. Am. A. Person.”
Her words hit him like an instant cold shower. He’s back. “You’re too hot to be a person.”
The assault escalates. Repeated blows crush his ribs. Crunch.
Renquist groans in pain. He scoots across the floor to flee. “I’ve never hit a woman, but there’s always a first time!”
“Security!” They aren’t coming. He eyeballs the intercom. Disconnected. He fishes his cell phone from his left pants pocket.
Maria punts the phone from his hand. It flies across the room and hits the wall. Shards break off, but it’s intact. She feigns an attack.
He cowers and holds hands up defensively.
“For months, I made vids of every dirty thing you’ve done in this office.” Maria towers over him with a cocky smile. “I’ll ask you for a favor someday. You pay up. I destroy everything. Until then, you owe me one.”
Renquist rises to his feet. “The only thing I owe you is an unmarked grave!”
Maria does a roundhouse kick to his head. Her right stiletto heel slices his cheek. The heel breaks on impact but remains attached to the shoe. She wobbles, then regains balance. “I’d better not get hurt. If this evidence gets out, they’ll bury you next to me.”
Renquist breathes heavily through gritted teeth. He clenches his fist and strains every muscle to hold back. Blood trickles down his cheek.
Maria stumbles out the door, with one high heel dangling. She leaves a small trail of bloody heel prints. After a few yards, Maria groans and intentionally breaks off the other heel. Maria lumbers away on her tiptoes. The heels flop with each step.
Select all writings of P.G. Sundling
Select biography of P.G. Sundling
I was born in Los Angeles, and other than a few years in Colorado, I’ve lived here my whole life. As an honorary member of Toastmasters, I gave my first speech on dinosaurs, at the age of seven.
I’ve loved role-playing games since my childhood. In Dungeons and Dragons, I was drawn to the role of dungeon master because I liked being the storyteller. I created and destroyed many worlds.
I graduated from UCLA with an Aerospace Engineering degree in 1992.
From working in IT at UCLA to coding on billion-dollar e-commerce systems for multiple Fortune 500 entertainment companies, I’ve worked in technology for almost a quarter century. I was a programmer in a small team that got awarded P.C. Magazine’s Editor’s Choice for Best Virtual Desktop. I write novels and code software in Los Angeles.
Select all writings of P.G. Sundling
“No way!” I said, louder than I intended. “You and Frank went all the way?” My sixteen-year-old best friend, Nancy, had just admitted to having first-time sex with her boyfriend.
“Shhh,” she said, closing her bedroom door.
“What was it like?” I whispered, too stunned to wait for confirmation.
It was l965. Sex talk was whispered only to close girlfriends and, even then, only when there were no adults within earshot. The dirty deed, as one friend called it, was a forbidden act reserved for married couples only—unless you were male, then the boys will be boys rule applied.
Growing up in the gender-specific fifties and sixties defined my father as head of the household and the breadwinner who disappeared into the workforce Monday through Friday. My apron-wearing mother wiped noses, cleaned house, cooked meals, polished our shoes, and shared with me her hard-earned words of wisdom including, “you just make men think they’re the boss, honey.” My brothers rode bikes with a playing card attached to the spokes, owned Bee-bee guns, played Little League, and gathered on the school playground during recess for a game of marbles. My sisters and I cut-out paper dolls, ironed my father’s handkerchiefs, watched our brothers play Little League, and wore dresses to school. Girls wearing jeans or any other form of long pants were against the rules, no matter how cold it might be. I knew to address the parents of my friends as Mr. or Mrs. and if I accidentally let a ‘bad’ (curse) word slip out, I was on the receiving end of a stinging lip-thump via my mother’s thumb and index finger.
My expected teen-role during this era was to earn an “A” in Home Economics (I got a “C”), wear a panty girdle (a sixties version of a chastity belt), and to slap boys if they got “fresh.” All of which played an important role in establishing one’s reputation as a good girl. For my teenage brothers, it was auto shop, bullying bookworms (nerds), and getting a girl to “first base” (breast fondling). These conquests earned them admiration and locker-room bragging rights as a bad boy.
My sex education came by way of my mother (sorta) when I was thirteen. She lay soaking under the bubbles in the bathtub while I sat on the closed lid of the toilet. Privacy was hard to come by when you lived in a house with five children, your parents, and one bathroom.
“Do you know how women get pregnant?” my mother asked.
“Yes,” I responded, avoiding eye contact by pretending to admire my freshly painted toenails.
“Do you have any questions?” She asked, putting me in the position of having to decide whether or not I could say words like penis, sexual intercourse, and vagina and not provoke a lip-thump.
“No,” I said, thankful my older brother (when we were eleven and ten) had already explained what going all the way meant…sorta.
“You know how Aunt Norma got pregnant,” my brother had asked, smug over his knowing and my not knowing. “Uncle Harold put his you know what in Aunt Norma’s po-po. So if you want one baby, you do it once; if you want twins you do it twice.” I now knew this explanation wasn’t exactly right-on, but for the moment it was close enough.
After a long silence, my mother put a strong emphasis on the word ‘free’ when she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You know what they say, why buy the cow when the milk’s free?” I assured her I understood with a silent nod and made my exit. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
The True Romance magazines my mother kept hidden under her bed took my sex education to the next level and later it was my friend Nancy who, as I mentioned at the start, had first-hand experience. Nancy’s response to my “what was it like?” had been, “Awful. It hurt.” I was mortified. In all of my mother’s romance magazines, there had been vivid descriptions of bliss and dizzying ecstasy. I made a silent vow to join a convent.
“I’m never going to go all the way,” I told my mother, after sharing Nancy’s experience with her.
“It’s only awful if you go all the way in the back seat of a car,” she said, but I didn’t change my mind about becoming a nun until she followed it up with, “and it doesn’t hurt, if you’re married.” I was so relieved!
Because the subject matter was considered taboo, sex education for most of my friends was limited to each other and school rumors. French kissing or occupying a toilet seat after a boy (if it was still warm) was thought to be a pregnancy risk while drinking a can of Mountain Dew before partaking in the dirty deed was a sure-fire means of birth control.
Pregnant teens were considered a bad influence on the other girls so until they gave birth, home-schooling was their only educational choice. When the once popular Nancy left her newborn in the care of her parents and returned to school, she was snubbed by the same girls she had been friends with for years. They feared boys would see them as an easy target if they maintained their friendship with a bad girl. Sadly, they were correct. High school mindset was that any girl who went all the way would thereafter always be ready, willing, and able with anyone, anytime, any place; and so would her friends. When I questioned my mother about the injustice of this ostracism, she said, “The only difference between Nancy and the rest of those girls is she got caught, and they didn’t. If you’re truly her friend, you’ll stand by her.”
When Nancy attempted to re-enroll in her favorite basketball class, she was informed she wouldn’t be able to participate in Physical Education (PE) because she’d had a baby. “It’s too dangerous physically,” Coach said. In spite of her love for the sport, she pretended she didn’t care and worked hard to complete the rest of her required coursework. When graduation day came, I put on my cap and gown and went to ceremonies without her. The school principal had called and informed her parents she was a half unit short of meeting graduation requirements. The missing half unit was for PE.
Years later I convinced Nancy to return to the high school to find out what she needed in order to get her diploma. Without it, her finding much-needed employment was next to impossible. When the new principal reviewed her file and saw she was lacking a half-unit for a PE class, he signed off on her coursework and handed her the diploma. Her bad girl status had no doubt been the underlying reason she was barred from graduation ceremonies.
“Not fair,” I said to my mother. I was furious. Hiring an attorney and suing for discrimination wasn’t an option back then and even if it had of been, it wouldn’t have undone what was already done. Mother’s hard-earned words of wisdom were limited to, “Life isn’t easy. Which is why you shouldn’t be either.”
By the time I entered my twenties, men’s hair grew longer and women’s skirts grew shorter. Then communes popped up and free love challenged the earlier and stricter codes of sexual behavior—the sexual revolution had begun.
Though my sex education in the early sixties was limited to romance magazines, my best friend’s perils, and my mother’s metaphors I will forever be thankful for all three. Without them not only would I not have learned how friendship is only a word—until you give it meaning, but I would have missed seeing the consequences of giving in to hormones at too young of an age. Worst of all, my sex education would have been limited to my older brother’s knowledge and the sexual tittle-tattle of my high school friends…OMG!
By Kathi Hiatt
Select all writings of Kathi Hiatt
Select biography of Kathi Hiatt
I am a retired California State University, Chico administrator with an earned degree in Social & Behavioral Sciences. I have authored two non-fiction paperbacks and one children’s picture book.
Additionally, I am the recipient of The Butte Literacy Council’s 2015 and 2016 Literacy Fiction Awards, and the CWC Sacramento 2018 Short Story Award. More of my works are published in the North State Writer’s 2017 and 2018 Anthologies, and the 2017 and 2018 CWC-California Writers Literary Review.
I currently serve as President of the CWC-North State Writers and reside in a small mountain community with my husband, three Bassett Hounds, and a blind and deaf Australian Shepherd.
Select all writings of Kathi Hiatt
I’m bigger than my sister.
She’s much smaller than me.
I do things that she can’t do,
And sometimes she pesters me.
I’m older than my sister,
She’s much younger than me.
I’m taller too – I can do,
A very much more than she.
I can jump so much higher,
I can even tie my shoe.
I can also write my name,
That’s more than she can do.
But still I love my sister,
And she sure looks up to me.
Soon she’ll grow, and then she’ll know
Well, almost as much as me!
I’m not so big or little,
I fit right in the middle.
Like the cream in a cookie,
I’m as sweet as I can be!
I sure don’t like to be teased.
Sometimes I really feel squeezed,
So then I push up up up,
And I push down, down and down,
Because I’m in the middle.
Too many times I do hear,
“You’re too small for this, my dear.”
“You’re too big for that, my dear.”
And they always do compare!
Now I ask you, is that fair?
Really, truly, I’m just me,
That is all I want to be.
So please just let me be me,
Then I promise you’ll see,
How special I really am!
By Sylvia Molesko
Select all writings of Sylvia Molesko
Select biography of Sylvia Molesko
A retired Elementary School teacher, member of CalRTA and CWC, wrote memoir, Memories Revisited, now writes mainly poetry. Working on a Children’s Picture Book, in poetry.
Select all writings of Sylvia Molesko
Description: The third installment of “The Legend of V” series: Psycho Star Showdown! Join V, his brothers Z and D, his best friends Griff and Azilez, and new Omoh sapien friend Vizor on a journey to the Space Garden, a series of asteroids connected by a black hole in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. They will unravel the secrets of the government-hidden Project Mutant, a research experiment disguised as the first manned space expedition designed to give humans supernatural abilities.
Absolute monarch, huh? That’s impressive, and she barely looks older than any of us. Maybe I should be studying royalty to be like her one day. I mean, this queen seems way better at her job than the king. I wonder how she became queen this young. That’s probably a touchy subject though, as typically, the queen’s mother has to die for that to happen. Better not ask ‘till the time’s right… if it’ll ever be right.
“Come along, everyone. I will give you a PROPER tour of Castle Kusondela.” The queen glares at King Veniss. He just puts his hands behind his head as if he’s on a hammock. “This way, please. Veniss, follow. I’ll teach you how to properly give tours of the castle again.” She guides her hand to where she came from. All of us follow up. “Be sure to follow only where I go. This castle has a peculiar… how should I put this… glitch.”
“What do you mean by that?” Azilez asks making sure her brush is still in her back pocket.
“It’s one of the consequences of being powered by a black hole. You see, occasionally, a dark blue-lit room will randomly appear in which there is nothing but a podium and a cassette tape. If you ever see this while in the castle, run back to the door in which you came. Otherwise, the black hole will consume you.”
“WHAT? That’s a big glitch.” Azilez’s heart skips a beat.
“Do not worry, for I can sense when this will happen because of my uncanny ability to manipulate light at will.”
“Wait, so that fireworks show when you greeted us wasn’t the staff’s doing? That was you?” Griff asks.
“Yes.” He shows approval and nods. “Now then, let me see…” She places her left hand on one of the diamond-shaped carpet doors. “This room is not glitched. Enter.”
“She’s so poised.” Azilez whispers to Vizor.
“So it would seem.” Vizor agrees, except he forgets to whisper.
“So it would seem… what?” Queen Neona slowly turns her head. “Umm…” Vizor freezes from the chills Neona sends down his spine. “Hahaha! Do not fret. I’m simply joking.” Huh. I didn’t expect that from
her. Who knew a monarch so commanding could have a decent sense of humor too? “Come, please. I insist.” She guides us with her hand once more.
Inside the almost opaque room, there seems to be a giant computer monitor with a few hundred smaller monitors surrounding it. At each small monitor, there is an employee with a bright yellow jumpsuit on with an orange biker helmet. The big computer screen seems to be depicting a radar map.
“What is this place?” I ask.
“Our military head. This is Star Security’s headquarters. You may have noticed the lack of anything other than houses outside of the castle.”
“Yeah, we did.” I reply.
“Well, that is because everything in our society is run through this castle. The black hole powers the castle, and the castle powers the houses and the people
within them. This proves to be an effective system because nothing in this universe can counteract a black hole. Not even light. It is the ultimate energy source.”
“How advanced!” Vizor is suddenly fascinated with the potential technology in the room.
– Hold on, Vizor. Griff interrupts. – This is the military headquarters, right? They might know about Project Mutant, and I’d say right now is the best time to ask.
– Keen senses, Griff. Thanks. “Excuse me, Queen Neona?”
“What troubles you, err… what are your names? Forgive me for not asking.” She bows.
“No trouble. My name is Vizor.” “I’m Azilez!”
“D. I love the flowers outside.” “Griff.”
“Hey! Aren’t you going to introduce us too, Griff?” His backpack moves by itself. He grabs the straps with both hands to make sure the backpack doesn’t fly off his shoulders.
“My, my. What do we have here?” The queen tilts her head.
“Uh… nothing, nothing!” Griff quickly shakes his hands.
“Are you certain? I’m positive I heard a sound emitting from your sack.” “All in your imagination!” Griff smiles. – Wisdom! Tell Speedy to shut up!
I don’t want the queen knowing about you five.
– Why is that? I see no harm in it.
– Just do it, please. Sorry I snapped. I just sort of panicked. – Very well. Murmur… murmur
“Oh okay. Sorry.” The Speed Prophecy actually whispers.
“All right then. If there is nothing of interest in the sack, I shall introduce you to our commander. Rod! Front and center.”
“Huff… puff… huff… puff. Yes, ma’am! Reporting for duty.” Rod salutes the queen. He’s wearing a different uniform from everyone else in the room. This consists of a dark green military jacket, probably to contrast the rest of the soldiers, a cap with a bright yellow star in the middle, and black cargo pants. He also has extremely long, silver hair that goes out in ten different directions. Now that’s a wild hairstyle, and that’s coming from me.
“Calm.” The queen raises her left hand. Rod slams his hand to his side. “What is the command, your majesty?”
“Nothing of dire importance. Merely to introduce yourself to our guests.” “Right away, ma’am! Hello everyone. I am Commander Rod, head of Star
Security. Are you enjoying your tour of the castle so far?” “Yes! Yes! Yes!” D jumps.
– Okay. My powers are broken. Griff concludes.
–Why do you say that? I ask.
– You can very clearly see that this commander is in a good mood, right?
– My powers are telling me that he has crippling depression.
– If I were you, I’d just ignore your powers here.
“So, commander. What do you generally protect your people from? I doubt
you get many visitors, being this close to a black hole.” Azilez asks. “Excellent question, miss. Our primary threat is our neighbors in the
“The Phantom Pipeline?” D asks.
“Yes. It is a world filled to the brim with derpy-looking gray ghosts. Lately,
many of them have been invading our territory, so it’s my job to lead the fight to drive them away.”
“Teehee. He said derpy.” Azilez chuckles.
“No seriously. That’s the most accurate description I can give those things. I have a picture of one. I can show you.” He reaches into his jacket pocket and finds a crumpled picture. He straightens it out and blows on it to make it more visible. “They all look the same by the way.” Would you look at that? He’s right. This ghost is a rounded trapezoid that has four droplet-like figures coming from the bottom of it. It kinda looks like snot that just won’t fall out of a nose. It also just has two big white circles for eyes and no mouth.
“I think it looks cute.” Azilez holds her brush in both hands.
“That’s really the only thing you can say about it?” Vizor rolls his eyes. “Where do they come from?” D asks.
“The Phantom Pipeline.” Rod replies.
“Oh no. I meant to say where is the way to the Phantom Pipeline? How do
they get here?”
“Ah! Excellent question. If I knew, I’d be at their territory. That’s actually
what we’re working on right now.”
“So that’s what the radar map is for?” I ask.
“Bingo, kid.” Rod puts his hands on his hips. “Your majesty. Might I ask
that I return to my position immediately?”
“Permission granted, commander.”
“Thank you, your majesty!” He salutes her once more and pants back to his
post at the main computer.
“I believe you have seen and heard everything the headquarters has to offer.
Shall we depart?”
“Please!” D tugs on her dress. The queen smiles in return. She taps D’s
wrist with her staff, signaling him to stop tugging.
“So where are we now?” I ask. It looks like some sort of factory. 100-foot- tall steel supporters erupt from the ground to the ceiling. The temperature in here
is colder than the foyer and Star Security’s headquarters. I eye some laborers in loose white suits that seem to be packaging that tough orange fluid I saw everyone drinking earlier.
“This is the Manufacturing Operative.” Queen Neona responds. “All items that my people require are made in this room.”
“This factory doesn’t seem too big considering it makes everything for your people.” Griff points out. “How much do your people need exactly?”
“Well,” the queen adjusts her posture, “in terms of food, hardly anything. Syrusima is all they need to thrive.”
“Seee-rooo-sym-uh?” Vizor tries pronouncing that, syllable by syllable.
“Your people only eat one thing for their whole lives?” Azilez looks like she’s seen a ghost. “I’d rather suffer purgatory!”
“Hahaha! You amuse me, Azilez.” The queen lets out a child’s laugh. “But in all seriousness, Syrusima contains all the nutritional value my people need. And it can be mass-produced. Not a soul in the Space Garden has gone hungry ever since my team came up with this concoction.”
“We should tell the people back home about this. It’ll solve world hunger!” Griff gets excited.
“I’m afraid not.” Neona’s face dips. “The ingredient for this to be made can only be found in the Ophoozi Flower. These flowers can only grow here in the Space Garden and their properties arise from a combination of the black hole powering Castle Kusondela and the meteorites they grow on. I’m sorry, but getting Syrusima to the humans on Earth would be an impossibility.”
“Aw…” Griff’s internal light bulb turns off.
The queen then shows us what other types of products they make in the Manufacturing Operative, from furniture, to clothes, and even to the houses that the people here live in. Then we reach the magnetic section.
“What are those?” I ask, pointing.
“Ah yeah! Dude, check this out.” Veniss finally speaks. He runs up to one of the scientists and snatches a “U”-shaped magnet. He flicks the switch on the arc of the magnet, and it turns on. Everything in the room starts to get pulled in by its magnetic pulse.
“Veniss! Turn it off, this instant!” Neona snaps at him.
“’K, geez, sis.” He flicks the switch in the other direction and we all stop. “You’re no fun at all sometimes.”
“That’s because I actually know how to take my job seriously!” Neona barks. Veniss squints but doesn’t stop smiling.
“What just happened?” D’s eyes widen.
“That is our latest project. Infusing the properties of a black hole inside a magnet. Although, the magnet cannot consume objects, it can attract anything to it.”
“That’d be an amazing weapon in battle.” Vizor points out. “Let all of your enemies come to one area then drop this on them to ensure they can’t move. Finally, annihilate all of them at once with a large explosive.”
“It seems someone is well versed in the field of battle.” Neona smirks. “Yes, it can be used that way. Though, they are difficult to make. That is one of the few we have created so far out of a few thousand attempts.”
“What do you do with the ones that don’t work?” D asks.
“Well, a few years ago, we collected all the defects in a pod and sent it to the Asteroid Belt of your solar system.”
Wait a second. Magnets in the Asteroid Belt? I’ve heard that before! “I think your magnets may have formed sentient life forms, your majesty.”
“What causes you to think that, V?” She crosses her arms.
“About two months ago, while on an adventure, Griff and I stumbled upon a race of floating magnets in the Asteroid Belt on a small, magnetic planet called Zapzoid. Their planet was destroyed by artificial means, but the remains were
taken near San Francisco and built upon. It became its own city called Zaptropolis.”
“Good heavens! Are you certain they’re magnets? And are you certain they are sentient?”
“100 percent yes to both of those questions, your majesty.”
“Then it seems I must send a team to investigate. Thank you for the information.”
“Not a problem.”
“Anyway, it is best we not get too distracted from the tour. Come, there is more to see.”
Next, we go through a door that leads us above a place that has the architecture of a theatre, but the structure of a courthouse. A shiny, wooden witness stand, a marble tile floor with a picture of the sun on it, two wooden attorney benches, and a protruded judge’s chair. We can see that a trial is going on but can’t hear anything because of a thick, glass dome in front of us.
“What you are seeing now is the work of the Absolute Court. This is where criminals, both domestic and foreign, are tried for the crimes they are accused of, as it is the only court in the Space Garden.”
“What’s going on in there now?” Vizor asks.
“I suppose it’s… a foreign case. It seems the Phantom Pipeline is still a problem here. When you leave the castle today, I will have the king escort you to your quarters to ensure safety.”
“How nice of you! Thanks!” Azilez claps her hands together.
“Since the trial is currently in session, we cannot observe for long, so come. We wouldn’t want to distract them, would we?”
“No, miss!” D tries his best to sound official.
“And this is the end of the tour.” Neona opens the final door. “This is my private quarters.”
“How extravagant! How big are those Corinthian columns? What type of canvas is that painting of you made of? What is…” Azilez can’t contain her questions.
“I see you like my choice in design, Azilez?” The queen detects. “ABSOLUTELY! I could study this room for days.”
“Calm down, tiger. We should let the queen get back to her business. She is
a QUEEN after all.” Griff holds Azilez’s shoulder.
“Y’know? You’re right. Bye, your majesty!”
“Please, call me Neona. No need for such formalities.”
“Okay! Bye Neona.”
“Thanks for the tour. It was awesome!” D tugs her dress again.
“Not a problem, little D.” She bends down and taps his forehead with his
staff. D giggles and runs back to me. “Veniss!” “’Sup?”
“Please escort our guests to their quarters.” She reaches for her bedside drawer, takes out some sticky notes, tears one off, and clicks a pen open. She scribbles some directions then thrusts the scrap of paper into Veniss’s hands.
“You got it, sis.”
“Excellent. Now if you’d excuse me, I have some military matters to attend to.”
By Varak Kaloustian
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Select biography of Varak Kaloustian
Varak Kaloustian is eighteen years old in his freshman year of college. He lives in Los Angeles, California with his mom, dad, and two brothers. He likes to play basketball, travel, cook, manage his YouTube channel for Yu-Gi-Oh!, and spend time with his friends and family.
Varak began writing at seven years old. He loved writing comic books and illustrating them. During this time, he tried writing a book four times and failed each time. However, during the sixth grade, he was given an assignment to write for a half hour every week. This allowed him to practice the writing process, and while the story he wrote was not good, he now knew he enjoyed the writing process. So after sixth grade, he started over and wrote The Solar System’s Prophecies, which was published in 2015 during his freshman year of high school and the first in his The Legend of V series. Two years later, he published Triangle Corruption, the sequel. The Solar System’s Prophecies is now mandatory summer reading at Laurel Hall School, Varak’s alma mater. Varak’s third book is now in development.
Select all writings of Varak Kaloustian
I confess I sometimes want to forget you. Do you also?
I was twenty-five years old; you were forty when we met. Every year that has since passed, your place in my life has changed, and what I felt with you thirty years ago has metamorphosed from exhilaration to an undefined irreplaceable comfort.
I often set the clock aside and think of that night when we were swept away.
It’s eleven o’clock in California, and I write this letter in the belief it will never see the light of day. No one except you knows of the existence of our love. I still have the coral necklace you gave me and wear it when I am blue.
Do you remember you asked me why I loved you? I didn’t know the answer then but I know now. I loved you because of your gypsy ways, your estrangement from society. I loved you because you doubted everything. They said you were a beast, reckless, outrageous. I found you only generous and loving.
The setting sun had set the sea alight when you told me you had a family. I had one too, but I fell short. I did not want to sign you off, so I let you think I was free to love you. The glint of gold in the earring you wore in your left ear mesmerized me. You were aware how handsome I found you with your dark flowing hair, your brooding eyes.
We made love under the stars on that lonely island, and the passion of a lifetime seemed compressed into those few hours. We forgot who we were and let the tides sweep us away.
After I met you, I tried to read everything which had been written about the lives of the indentured Indians who came to these islands looking for a better life. Did your grandfather know that freedom would come at a price, and growing sugar cane for the white masters, his children and grandchildren would feed this land with their blood? You described your hunger when you stole a chicken and cooked it on a treacherous fire of sticks. The overseer discovered you and beat you until you could no longer sit on the bullock you rode to plow the fields.
Your life had been hard, but you were still full of hope for your children. You had put yourself through night school and found a job, but restlessness like in a chained beast still possessed you.
When I came out on the hotel terrace that night I was with other girls, but you were looking only at me. You recognized me in spite of my western clothes – I was someone from the country of your ancestors. You had never been outside of your island, but you knew there was another world where the free Indians lived.
A week became a fortnight but our hunger refused to be satiated. I knew I had to stop now because if I did not, I was never going to. The day came when I told you I was leaving your island, and I told you about this other life which was going to keep me away from you. You did not reply. You just looked away at the tumultuous sea.
You put the coral necklace you had brought for me around my neck.
I had nothing to give you in return.
I knew you’d never be allowed to come to the mainland. After I left I knew you tried to find me through my unlisted phone, searched for me through the memberships of the medical societies I belonged to, and you wrote to my alma mater whose ivy-covered walls protected me.
I never wanted to meet you again.
I wanted to remember us the way we were when we were swept away.
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Select biography of Ishrat Husain