All posts by Nuallain House, Publishers

Contents Vol. 3 No. 1

Welcome to Volume Three, Number One of Dime Pulp,
A Serial Pulp Fiction Magazine

In the first issue of 2023, Dime Pulp, A Serial Pulp Fiction Magazine celebrates Colin Deerwood’s long running 40’s pulp detective serial, Better Than Dead, at the beginning of its third year! According to author Deerwood, he had not started out to write a serial fiction but was merely writing descriptions of the actions portrayed on the covers of old pulp magazines. “They began as sketches,  no more than a couple of paragraphs,” he said in a recent interview, “With few exceptions, never longer than a page.” Deerwood would be the first to admit that what had started out as an idle exercise has taken on a life of its own.

For Phyllis Hularsdottir, Cheése Stands Alone was a chance to make imaginative use of her degree in the Psychology of Speculative History and her interest in the multiverse theory of cosmology. “I wanted to posit a shift in the science world at a point in history where biology takes the lead as the premier science and physics is just something engineers do,” she replied recently to a query. In Lydia Cheése’s post axial shift world, the reader enters an unfamiliar historical realm peopled by historically familiar names.

Pierre Anton Taylor, known around the office as ‘Pete,’ revealed at a recent writers meeting that he thought that the post-war pulp heroes were unrealistic and had gotten too big for their spandex. “There is never a good reason for revenge, no matter what ghosts are haunting you.” His Just Coincidence is a classic tale of just such vengeance gone wrong with overtones and correspondences from popular illustrated hero literature.

Patton D’Arque made his debut in Dime Pulp with his two-part short story, Gone Missing (Dime Pulp, Vol. 1, Nos 2,3) about a couple of grumpy and dangerous ex-cops turned investigators. He returns with the conclusion of his two part short story, Polka Dot Dress, a tale of conspiracy, assassination, hypnosis, and a mysterious woman in a polka dot dress. “I had no idea how it was going to end until I got there because I actually thought I was going someplace else with it,” he wrote in a recent email. But as a famous poet once said, “Speculation is the brain’s bread and butter.”

FYI: Dime Pulp Yearbook 21 contains the novels (The Last Resort and Better Than Dead) and the short fiction (Hard Boiled Myth and Gone Missing) of Volume One’s 12 issues,  available for perusal in their entirety. If you missed a few issues or lost the thread of a serial, clicking on the link at the beginning of this paragraph or on the menu bar above is a good way to catch up.  Dime Pulp Yearbook 22,  featuring all the fantastic serial stories  from Volume 2 in their entirety, will be available before too long.

If you’ve made it this far, go ahead and follow the links below to reading entertainment with the serial contents of Volume Three, Number 1

Special Note: Dime Pulp, A Serial Pulp Fiction Magazine has changed its posting schedule from  monthly issues to about once every forty-five days. Thus Volume Three will consist of eight issues (much to the relief of the overworked writers and production staff). Thank you for your understanding.

 —Perry O’Dickle, chief scribe
and word accountant

Knapp-Felt 1930 1930s USA mens hats

“Lackland Ask is the name. ‘Lack’ to my friends, ‘Don’t’ to those who think they’re funny. You might have seen my portrait on the cover of Black Mask, the crime fiction magazine. This is my story. It starts with a blonde. This kind of story always starts with a blonde.” Thus begins the seemingly non-stop, endless narrative of Better Than Dead in which women are not the only trouble although most of it, told with the wit and street savvy of Runyon and Parker.

Better Than Dead—23

PD dress1The violent event that occurred more than half a century ago is brought into focus in an assisted living home for an elderly woman whose memory of that time is blocked much to the frustration of an academic researcher and her partner who who see the old woman as the key to uncovering who was behind the conspiracy that changed the course of history.

Polka Dot Dress II

LCinset21In March of 1892, a Scotsman by the name of Arthur C. “Artie” Doyle was hanged by the neck until dead after being found guilty of a string of grisly murders of prostitutes in Whitechapel. At that moment, history veered off its presumed course and headed in a direction all its own in which the Great War never happened because the Kaiser was afraid of offending his grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose life has been prolonged by the wonders of biology. Her reign, known as the Pax Victoriana has lasted 180  years maintaining as many Victorian airs as possible while making accommodations to rapid advances in bio technology. Cheése Stands Alone poses a steampunk question, can Captain Lydia Cheése  (pronounced “Chase”) find her father, the antigovernment turncoat and radical, Commodore Jack “Wild Goose” Cheése. And furthermore, will her quest take her around the globe and through alternate world histories in the requisite 80 days or is it the beginning of a lifelong journey?

Cheése Stands Alone VI

Batman-Logo-1In Just Coincidence, a privileged young man with the unremarkable name of Wayne Bruce returns to the site where his father once had his business, a battery manufacturing plant, and where he often spent his childhood days hanging around the factory and the neighborhood. His return is haunted by the mysterious circumstances surrounding his father’s death and the vague feeling that his uncle is somehow involved.  Appalled by the poverty and crime of the place he remembers fondly, he is moved to resolve the injustice of the socially marginalized and to wreak vengeance on those he believes are responsible for the death of his father. A personal coincidence brings together dark prince and dark knight joined in a fateful and tragic quest for justice.

Act Two, Scene 1, Part 1

Act Two, Scene I, Part 1

by Pierre Anton Taylorheadlines A2S1p1

The tattered crime scene tape in front of the shuttered candy store fluttered in the brisk wind. Dirty snow piled up along the curb and in shallow drifts against the brick wall of the old Battery Works now scrubbed clean of graffiti and ivy creepers. Wayne Bruce steered his black 1960 Plymouth Fury out of the secure gate and turned onto Central driving the few blocks to Basin Avenue. The tall steeple of Second Emanuel Sanctified Church in the distance on the crosstown thoroughfare stood out like a stiletto against the expanse of a steel gray wintery sky. He turned into the chain link fence enclosed parking lot adjacent to the historic old church. A small group of people were gathered out front dressed in dark overcoats and hats, some held purses, dabbed their eyes, spoke somberly, and shook their heads in sorrow.

He recognized one of them as Bion and apparently, by the wave of his prosthesis, he had been recognized. He parked at the far end under the basketball hoop that served as a half court when the lot was empty. On the other side of the fence was the windowless brick expanse at the back of the St. George Gospel Mission. He locked and set the alarm to his classic car before heading to the front of the church and the awaiting mourners. It was his second funeral in a month, and for someone else he held a deep affection. It made him angry. It made him mad.

Bion Ripley, in a brown suit and sober red tie, acknowledged the troubled countenance with a nod and said, “Come on up, they’re just about to start.”

By the entrance to the old wooden church a tattered lightbox marquee proclaimed in bold black letters, Funeral, Mr. Richard Richards. Beneath the name of the church and affirmation of its history, Est. 1922, Reverend Warren Locke, Pastor was simply stated. The funeral goers were mostly elderly, some attended by younger relatives or caregivers. He and Bion appeared to be the youngest of the mourners in attendance, and Bion was easily a decade older. His presence was noticed and he was side eyed and blinked at curiously.

Despite the fact  that he should have been honoring the memory of the avuncular Mr. Rick, he was puzzling over his meeting with Charlotte Taste and what she hadn’t told him of his father’s last hours.

After introducing himself from the pulpit to those gathered there who knew very well who he was yet the occasion called for formality, the Reverend talked about travelling through the valley of death before seeing the light of salvation.

Wayne let his gaze wander across the sparse yet tastefully appointed vestibule, the large gold cross set up against the back toward the peak of the roof where a set of amber windows let in a celestial light, the spare marble altar, nothing more than a marble slab crossed by a white linen runner.

The Reverend declaimed what a selfless decent man Richard Richards was, cantankerous at times, but someone you could count on to do the right thing, a man with a strong sense of justice. “Alas, poor old Rick, we knew him well!” he exclaimed

A loud noise sounded at the back of the church as if something heavy had fallen. Wayne craned a glance over his shoulder. An older woman in a shabby brown overcoat and round fur hat pushing a walker tried to maneuver into a pew at the back accompanied by a slender young woman in a short leather jacket, tight jeans, and dark knit cap pulled down even with her brow. She stared back glowering, insolent, at those turning at the commotion. The reverend had not missed a beat and cued the choir of five women and two men dressed in similar vestments to start in on their version of Amazing Grace.

Wayne knew he’s seen that angry glare before but events of the previous day intruded. Despite the fact  that he should have been honoring the memory of the avuncular Mr. Rick, he was puzzling over his meeting with Charlotte Taste and what she hadn’t told him of his father’s last hours.

They had met at Ciro’s, the trendy upscale eatery in the Pavilion Arcade, the equally upscale shopping district a few block from his downtown penthouse at the Legacy. She had been sitting alone at a table for two overlooking the promenade behind the restaurant’s plate glass panorama. Blonde, strikingly beautiful in a dark linen pants suit, a puffy fox fur coat draped over the back of her chair, she looked serious, almost sad, and maybe a little tense, not the customary nonchalance of the wealthy she usually exhibited. She’d given him a wistful smile when she saw him approaching.

As he seated himself opposite her, she’d said. “Black suits you, but you’ve always worn black haven’t you?” with a crooked smile. “It’s like you’re in perpetual mourning.” She could be cruel. And she’d seemed refreshed, combative, as she always did when she just returned from cures and which indicated that she had been using again and felt the need for her periodical “oil change.”  But then she had the money to accommodate her whims..

He’d answered with, “perhaps you’re right,” and then asked if she had met with his father the evening of his death. At the Joker’s Wild?

She’d denied it, tilting her head to the left to make the calculation, averting her eyes. That he knew about her encounter was clearly unexpected, and she sought to deflect when he told her he had a witness.

“You’re crazy,” she snapped. “You have no idea what you’re talking about! Whoever witnessed what they think they observed in the club parking lot saw me with an older man, not a usual club goer, and you automatically made the leap that it was your father. It wasn’t your sainted father, Wayne, it was my former guardian, Linus Pall.” Then she’d set her jaw as that was all she was going to say.

“It’s all your fault!” The voice, angry, a woman’s, came from behind him.

Linus Pall, lawyer and medical doctor, had leveraged himself onto various boards across the business and non-profit community, famously as a deal maker and fixer, although no one could ever accuse him of practicing either medicine or law. He was old Dad’s confidant and to keep it confidential, his lawyer. And he was always ready with the right medical advice or prescription. As he was also Lotte’s doctor, he had once been her and her brother’s guardian as executor of the Taste Estate before they’d reached their majority. She’d admitted that he had confronted her on her relapse into drug use that evening, and that she’d promised to reenter the clinic, of which he was the founder and director. And then the old man had died. She’d waited until after the funeral to go in for the cure. She’d been incognito and not answering calls over the last few weeks. And now after the necessary transfusions, she felt much better.

At the level unemotional gaze of one who understands they’re being lied to and the heavy silence of disbelief, she felt compelled to offer an explanation. It was just by chance that she was in the parking lot partying with a few friends when Pall’s limo had driven by and he’d recognized her—there had been a pile up on the Arnold Expressway and the driver had taken a short cut to their destination on the surface streets through the warehouse district where the club was located. They’d waved and giggled when the limo came around to stop in front of them thinking that a celebrity had arrived to go clubbing. She’d been startled almost sober when she’d faced an angry Linus Pall who proceed to berated her in front of her friends. He’d told her that if he hadn’t been in such a hurry for an urgent meeting he’d have shipped her off to the clinic immediately. And then he left. There were other men in the back of the limo, businessmen she thought, and one of them was old Dad.

After the choir’s soulful rendition of Mary Don’t You Weep, Reverend Locke extracted a final “Amen” from the gathering and the congregation stirred from their mourning pews and shook themselves to their feet, a few with audible moans and grunts, and straggled back down the aisle toward the exit. Wayne and Bion rising from their pew exchanged glances with the understanding that there was more to talk about outside.

The Reverend was already at the portal greeting several of the mourners that he knew, shaking hands, blessing them, shaking hands, thanking them. He smiled large when Wayne approached, extending both hands in fraternal greeting. “Mr. Bruce, so nice of you to come. Mr. Richards would certainly appreciate the honor of your presence at his memorial.”

The Reverend’s squeaky obsequiousness required a further appraisal. The man was not short on style although short in stature, well-coiffed, manicured nails, soft hands grasping his, in a stylishly expensive suit beneath the equally stylish robes of office, tasteful touches of gold and maybe make-up, and the smell of sandalwood, a scent Wayne found unpleasant. He nodded solemnly, “He was like a great uncle to me, family. I cherish his memory. He. . . .”

“It’s all your fault!”

The voice, angry, a woman’s, came from behind him. He turned and recognized the woman in the large brown coat and fur hat, a she-bear with her cub, steel gray hair down to her shoulders, and pushing her walker toward him.

“It’s all your fault!” she repeated, the young girl with her, smirking and mocking, as if his reaction to the woman’s accusation was hilarious. “You are the reason old Rick is dead!” She pointed an accusing finger at him.

Wayne took a breath, looking at both Bion and the Reverend to gauge if they were as surprised as he was at the outburst.

“Old Rick is the first domino to fall. I curse you, Wayne Bruce, old Rick’s ghost will be revenged!”

The Reverend stepped forward, “Now Laverne, you behave yourself and show a little respect. Mr. Bruce was Mr. Richards’ beloved friend. Why are you casting aspersions at a time like this?”

“Doesn’t matter!” the older woman retorted, “What he thought he was doing was good was actually bad. If he hadn’t started in on doing all that work, tearing down and building up, evicting all those poor critters off to the inhuman society where most likely they’ll be euthanized, and all of a sudden old Rick’s smelly old candy store which was ready to die all on its own gets brought back from the dead. . . .”

The young woman at her elbow sneered a chortle, “Zombie candy store next door to a bat factory. . .dark, ma.”

The older woman paid no noticed to the interjection. “Because he was getting new customers from the work going on at the factory and all of a sudden he’s doing business and business means money, something a lot of people around here don’t have, and money attracts the criminal element who think they can take what they want, and it’s not just the down on their luck, some who already have, they want it all.”

“I hardly see. . . .” Wayne started to say.

“You hardly see? Here’s what you need to see, Mr. High and Mighty Rich Man. You may think you’re doing the community a favor by coming in to revitalize! These dribs and drabs you are doling out are just tokens like some lord passing out his benevolence. But you see, there’s real people you’re dealing with, some living in shabby rundown apartments, some living in basements, coal bins, in their cars, or on the street under the Central Overpass, and there are consequences for meddling in our lives.

“All of a sudden you drop down from above in your antique toy car and think you’re going to make everything better. That candy store and that cranky old man could have struggled along until they just wasted away in the way of nature intended and then the city could come and tear it down, that and that pile of bricks next to it. He didn’t deserve to die the way he did. It’s all your fault! You provoked the change! Things will never be the same. Old Rick is the first domino to fall. I curse you, Wayne Bruce, old Rick’s ghost will be revenged!”

The Reverend leapt in, “Now, now, that’s enough, Laverne Early, I will not allow cursing in the House of the Lord! I demand that you leave immediately! You have committed a sacrilege! I will pray for you to find solace in your bitter feral soul, but you must go,” and pointing to the door with an outstretched vestment draped arm assumed the classic pose of expulsion, clearly distressed and embarrassed.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Ms. Early.” Wayne said, a little perplexed but still feeling the sting of her accusations. “Old Rick told me that you were once  an employee at Bruce Enterprise, is that right?”

Laverne glared at him with smoldering hate. “Old Rick was a fool! Out of my way! Come on, Cat, we’re leaving!”

“The police say it was a robbery.”

Wayne watched the woman negotiate the steps with the help of her daughter, saddened by her anger. He wanted to acquit himself of the accusation that he was responsible for Rick’s death. The words had stung and his motives, seeking justice, had been challenged, put into question.

The Reverend assured him. “Pay her no mind. Laverne has seen some hard times. She is without a home, a roof over her head, much of the time, particularly at this time of year, and having a hellion for a daughter has only made the pain, the bitterness, the sense of futility and injustice, worse.”

They watched as Laverne Early pushed her walker across the cracked concrete of the sidewalk, never glancing back, although her daughter, Cat, managed a couple of surreptitious smirks in their direction.

“But while we are on the subject of youngsters and at risk youth,” the Reverend had laid a manicured hand on Wayne’s arm, “I would like to invite you to visit our Youth Guidance Resource Center and Recreation Hall. With your offices soon to be located in our area, your interest in the wellbeing and practical education of the next generation of our community would be a greatly appreciated. We offer counselling, job interview orientation, tutoring, home economics, household repair, and apprenticeship programs. All these activities require staff and that is an ongoing expense.”

“I understand, Reverend Locke. I would be happy to make a recommendation to my mother’s Be Well Fund.”

Locke grinned, pleased, and gave a nervous laugh. “Thank you so much, Mr. Bruce, can I call you Wayne? We have been blessed by a grant from the Be Well Foundation for which we are exceedingly grateful. It helps us keep a roof over our heads and our space, the recreation hall and offices, functioning. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details, so it is in the incidentals of the center’s day to day operation. Your interest, perhaps as a member of the board, would be a valuable addition to our out-reach mission.”

There was no mistaking the drift of the preacher’s spiel, and Wayne smiled to himself. If you’re going to grift, do it for a good cause. “I’ll talk to my attorney and get back to you.” He shook the reverend’s hand and faced his eyes. “I would be glad to help when I have the time. I’m certain that we can come to an accommodation. Mr. Ripley,” he indicated Bion waiting at the bottom of the steps, “can reach me if necessary.”

Bion chuckled under his breath as they walked to the entrance to the parking lot. “You can always count on the Rev to pass the plate. Praise the Lord who help themselves help themselves.

Wayne grinned. “You have to be bold to save some souls.” They’d reached the curb by the chain-link gate. “So what’s the word on the robbery on the street? It hasn’t caught much coverage in the newspaper and almost nothing on TV. I talked to the Assistant DA, Ray Tso, an old school friend, but he can’t say anything. The detective I know at Robbery Homicide said he’d like to tell me but as it is still an ongoing investigation, and he can’t divulge any of the details. I can’t even get a copy of the initial police report. What I’ve pieced together so far is that someone heard the gunshot and called it in. I’m guessing it was someone in the apartment above Penn Quinn’s tavern. The report in the paper was that he thought it was a backfire at first, and then looked out the window to see a couple of kids tear out of the front door of the candy store. He thought it looked suspicious and called the cops. The cops found Rick shot in the throat bleeding out behind the counter. They checked the register and it was empty so concluded that it was a robbery. Does that sound like what you heard?”

“I don’t want to rule out the possibility of something malicious. Did someone have it in for him? His shooting was a grave injustice. Otherwise it might just be as Laverne Early said, my fault.”

Bio shook his head, remembering, “I was coming back from the hardware store with some door hinges and locks for the office remodel and drove up just as the cops were getting there, like I told you at the hospital. I went right in behind them. I knew it was bad when I seen him. See enough of them and you know which ones are going to survive. But there’s one thing that still bothers me. That it was kids. Now old Rick had a rep for being a hard ass old cuss, but he looked after them kids, and some of those kids had kids of their own that he looked after too and over the years he earned a kind of grudging respect from even some of the most stubborn of the bunch. I don’t think none of the kids around here would have done it. They needed the money, old Rick would have loaned it to them. No need to shoot him.”

“The police say it was a robbery.”

“Because they found the register empty.”

“That’s right.”

“But was the register opened or closed?”

“Good question.”

“If it was open there’s reason to believe robbery. Buit if it was closed? What robber would close it after grabbing the cash. It’s an extra step.”

“What are you saying?”

“Ol Rick had what he called ‘the hole.’ It was a hole in the floor behind  the candy counter. He’d rigged that pipe railing along the wall so he could get around without his canes. One of the pipe footings was loose and he could swivel it to uncover the hole. When business was good, two or three time a day he would tally the register and roll up the bills and stick them in the hole. Saved him a trip of having to go to the safe in the back room. After closing, he’d take the money out of the hole and put it in the safe. And he slept with a shotgun in easy reach just around the corner.”

“So if the drawer was open, it was a robbery but they might not have got much, and it wasn’t likely to be local delinquents. If the register was closed, it was what, on purpose, an accident, revenge?” Wayne recalled I Van’s threat to kill Rick the night before the shooting. But as far as he knew, I Van had been in the hospital, and J Van was walking with crutches. It might have been others in the gang who had taken their revenge. But Ripley didn’t need to know that.

“What are you saying?”

“I don’t want to rule out the possibility of something malicious. Did someone have it in for him? His shooting was a grave injustice. Otherwise it might just be as Laverne Early said, my fault.”

“Naw, man, that’s crazy talk. I mean she said some things that you got to understand about how the underprivileged are kept down by the overprivileged and their so called humanitarianism. They only give because it makes them feel good, absolves them of the guilt of all that accumulation of exploited wealth. And sometime, as she said, it does more bad than good. You just have to get used to the fact that no good deed goes unpunished.”

Over Bion’s shoulder, Wayne watched a large black Town Car sidle up to the curb.

“You just have to accept, “Bion continued with a grin, “ that all the money you got is just going to make you suffer one way or the other,” and stopped to follow Wayne’s eyes to look behind.

A large man exited the front passenger side and adjusted his oversized overcoat around his wide shoulders before lumbering to the rear of the Town Car and opening the back door.

“Looks like we got company.”

“Well, you were going to have to meet up with him eventually.”

“Oh yeah, who’s that?”

“Joe Kerr.”

Next Time: Act Two, Scene I, part 2

Cheése Stands Alone VI

by Phyllis Huldarsdottir

Chapter XIII

Lydia set the near empty flagon on the roughhewn table between them and gave Peyare the benefit of her frown. Was he just stupid or willfully ignorant? His knowledge of current affairs was largely rumor, Icer propaganda, and conspiracy theories. She’d heard it before, that the Admiralty controlled the box broadcasts and the plasmovid media so they were unreliable as sources of the truth. It was not so much the outright lies but the half-truths. Truth had a relative value. When something could be ascertained as true, or at least partially so, it gave weight to the lies that accompanied it and downgraded the veracity of anything claimed to be true. The world is out of balance, he claimed, a popular catch phrase broadcast daily from the antiroyalist underground.

She gave his expectant expression a slight shake of her head. He was pitiful, and pitifully unaware of it. Naïve, and he did not care about anything that had not occurred during his life time, and hardly anything remarkable prior to adolescence. He’d received just enough education to make him arrogant, adopting the swagger of an air ship pilot, or what he believed was litherian swagger as depicted in lurid biopulp story boards. He was full of himself and youthful ambition. He was not uncomely, she had to admit, with a rugged virility that might serve him well if he could constrain his impulsiveness.

Yet he dismissed the entire extinction event of 77 PV, a bacterial explosion that ravaged large parts of the Northern Hemisphere and, to a lesser extent, the Southern, leaving behind bare mineral dead zones, barren frozen wastelands. As for the Queen’s Jubilee Proclamation that bound the industrial nations to a concerted effort in battling the plague that threatened humanity and ushered in an era of peace and prosperity under Victorian guidance, he rejected that as ancient history and suspect, especially after the forced Reconciliation and Alignment Act of 101 PV which he claimed, as preaxial shift adherents, so-called preaxers, did, that history had been revised and adjusted to suit the overall fiction of Pax Victoriana. And the idea that the Queen in her eightieth year of reign had become alarmed by the increased pace of life and declared that the brakes must be applied because, along with peace, she wanted quiet was a fairy tale told to children and which Lydia had to agree was a much simplified version of the actual Imperial motivation.

“Listen, this may be news to you, but I was at the siege of the Bushwhackers at the conclusion of the PanAm War!”

The Queen’s peace had been in jeopardy due to her belligerent nephew Willy’s threatening to go to war with Nicky, their Muscovite relations to the east, and with the regicide republic to the south. And her quiet, the story went, was threatened by the racket created by the development of the internal combustion engine to say nothing of its abhorrent stink. The greed and pretentiousness of the social climbing industrialist, biochem barons, and bankers whose titular aspirations were beneath dignity also was a factor. And those were the reasons given for why the Queen had formed a royal commission to look into these matters, known thenceforth as The Queen’s Royal Commission To Ensure The Queen’s Wishes, known to most as The Queen’s Wishes which he found both humorous and absurd.

Lydia wanted to slap that smug expression off his face. For someone who was so uninformed, he certainly rose on the heat of his own hot air. It was almost like he was chuckling to himself, amused by his own self-satisfaction. “What do you find so amusing? Do you find it funny that I am stuck with you in this fetid wine cave? Held prisoner by your underground group at the behest of a carnival snake doctor? I have been kidnapped and made to perform with snakes! And you are an accomplice to my captivity!”

Peyare didn’t restrain his guffaw. “I was just thinking of the expression you made when Leon told the gendarmes that you were a famous porn box courtesan. Shock would be an understatement.” He slapped the table for emphasis.

“How could you have possibly witnessed my reaction?”

“I was hiding in the shadows. I was the one who alerted Leon. I followed you to the café. I knew who you were when you bought those fancy boots. A good choice for where you’re going, I might add. I know the bootmaker. They’ll last a good long time.”

Maybe it was the wine, but she felt the lines of her otherwise staid Victorian demeanor blurring. She raised her voice. “You know where we’re going?”

Peyare was surprised by her question. “You don’t know where you’re going?” He shrugged matter of factly. “All I know is that Leon will arrange transport to Autre Lyons and pass you along to those who have the lighter-than-air.”

“A dirigible.”

“I don’t think it’s a balloon. An airship, but of an older generation.”

A derelict, no doubt, Lydia thought to herself. Anytime anyone referred to an airship as ‘older generation’ it inevitably meant something from the Zeppelin era.

“I would be honored to accompany you but my role is to keep you safe until you can leave Oldest Orleans without attracting attention. IOTA has their spies everywhere. Leon will provide you with new papers. You don’t need to be frightened.” He said it condescendingly.

“Do I look frightened to you?” She stood up in the low ceilinged wine cellar to make her point, a tall redheaded woman, blue scarf over the shoulder of her snakeskin jacket, pleated, pocketed trousers bloused over her new boots. “Listen, this may be news to you, but I was at the siege of the Bushwhackers at the conclusion of the PanAm War!”

Lydia could still picture the flaming wreckage falling onto the crowded tenements of the Outer Houllas slums and catching the tinder dry dwellings on fire.

That did the trick. Peyare, suddenly dead serious, sat up interested. Be it fighting and killing but deemed heroic and valiant, boys, men, have a precise affinity for legendary exploits. “PanAm One or Two?”

“Do I look old enough to have been in One?”

The young man grinned sheepishly, “No, I guess not. And besides the Siege of the Bushwhackers happened at the end of PAW II. You weren’t with the Royal Marines who rescued the hostages and broke the siege in the Greater Houllas Megalopolis, were you?” His eyes widened with disbelief on the verge of fawning respect.

Lydia managed a smile. “No, nothing so heroic. I was a young ensign assigned to the dirigible fleet at the Crown’s Embassy in the Slave State Republics confederation capital. I helped extract some of the hostages once a ceasefire was negotiated with the Counterforce Bushwhackers aligned with the rebellious slave republics.”

“You flew the rescue operation? That was heroic. I heard you lost some HV Airships.”

Lydia could still picture the flaming wreckage falling onto the crowded tenements of the Outer Houllas slums and catching the tinder dry dwellings on fire. The greatest loss of life was on the ground not the few hostages and embassy personnel killed by the rebels. The fire had practically razed the entirety of the makeshift sub-metropolis, the pall of smoke wreathing the tall buildings of the ruling elite in Greater Central Houllas for weeks. And she had known the pilots of the two HV Lighters that had been shot down, or had at least seen them in the Embassy cafeteria. She had flown high velocity lighters when she had trained at the Academy and realized that she was too sane to be a lighter pilot. Lighter pilots were a breed of their own.

“Yes, the negotiated truce was to allow for safe passage of the hostages as well as the obviously outnumbered Bushwhackers back to their home territories. But some in their ranks preferred death with honor over retreat and disgrace and began firing on the rescue airships as soon as we lifted off. The highvel escorts took fire to protect the dirigibles. But as soon as the shooting started, the Royal Marine Bionic Brigade aboard my airship deployed their glide platforms and neutralized the threat with only a few further casualties.”

“Bionics? You worked with Bionics? The indestructible air marines?”

Lydia could tell by his expression that she had made an impressionable fan. “Well, yes, as much as you can work with a bionic.”

“Really, what are they like?”

She thought that the name alone should have made it obvious. “They’re machines.”

A noise at the door drew her attention. Someone had lifted the bar and the heavy door creaked slowly open. There were two of them, revealed in the orange glow of their bacsodium torches. Behind them was pitch black. Then another figure moved in the shadow of the reflected light.

Leon strode in, raising a questioning eyebrow to Peyare, followed by Serre-Pain, grim jowled to a slow simmer, dark eyes flashing darkly. Then Serpina appeared at his side, her eyes shooting daggers.

Impulsively Lydia blurted. “Where’s Vlady?”

“Vlad had to prepare the wagons for transport.” The snake doctor’s tone was flat, impersonal. “I had hope to have more time to make preparations. But because of your foolishness we must now separate. Vlad and I will take the wagons on the main road to the northeast to throw IOTA off the scent. Leon has arranged for you and Serpina to leave from the south gate and travel with a group of agricultural workers. We must depart immediately. You will not see Vlady or I until we rendezvous at our destination.”

“But I know him, I know Vlady from my childhood. He knew my mother. We traveled with a circus!”

Serre-Pain threw her a concerned look and then glanced at the flagon at her elbow. “How much wine have you had to drink?”

Chapter XIV

At the break of dawn when they arrived at the transport, an ancient repurposed streetcar easily a century old. A cold gray brume had settled over the open air market and on the crowds of laborers in their brown canvas overcoats, hoods or scarves hiding all but a sliver of visage, a beard, made-up eyes, and jostling against each other to achieve their conveyances at the start of the work day.

Lydia and Serpina were attired similarly and mingled with the crowd of women before boarding the transit car to the work destination. According to Leon’s instruction, they were to travel to the fields several leagues south of the ancient city. Peyare would make sure they boarded the right transport but from then on they would have to be on their guard. Once passed the exit inspection to verify identities and head count, they would be met at the work site by someone who would take them up into the hills to a lumber mill where the operator of the mill would secret them in a special compartment of the lumber wagon and take them the rest of the way to Autre Lyons to meet with another agent of the League who would then take them to the rendezvous with the airship.

In return she would be led to the illusive Commodore Jack Cheése, her father.

Leon had provided her with a set of false papers. Lydia was now Odette O’Day, a Class III worker, one class above Class IV transient, but still at the bottom. Serpina had an assortment of identity papers and chose the one that would attract the least attention. He had warned her to keep her face covered and make sure no one looked at her too closely. He delicate features could easily be identified as a Victorian. And he had rounded up the rough working togs including a pair of gloves. “Wear these. If anyone sees your hands they might become suspicious. They’ve obviously never done any labor.”

To make matters worse, Serpina’s hostility toward her was undisguised and intense. Once aboard the ancient tram hitched to an equally ancient steam mule belching puffs of acrid smoke from its fore stack, the young woman had chosen to sit apart from her. Instead Lydia found herself next to a short round woman who smelled of cooking oil and who could not help staring at her all the while babbling in some argot that was barely comprehensible. She realized also that if she tried to engage in conversation, she would be quickly identified as a Victorian. Her Standard was just too proper and uninflected.

She caught Serpina giving her a smug smirk at her predicament over her shoulder. Fortunately she had the window seat and feigned that she was going to take a nap by placing her palms together and leaning her cheek against them. Then she rested her head on the discolored real glass of the window and watched the bustle of the marketplace through half closed eyes.

She understood that the further away from any large population centers she traveled, especially outside of the influence of the Clockwork Commonwealth, her obvious non-Class III mannerisms would give her away, that she was a World Citizen, t’zen as they were commonly called, and not just a Class I, but legacy ranked. Yet she found herself a prisoner of the Doctor’s manipulations and as much she chaffed at her constraints, she accepted that she had to play along until the circumstances turned in her favor. Serre-Pain had once again emphasized the importance of their mission and her role in bringing about its success. But even his persuasion had seemed muted when he had remonstrated with her in the wine cave, his dark skin ashen, a weariness around his eyes. She did not doubt that the intention of his mission was reasonable and dire. She wasn’t being given a choice in the matter.

In return she would be led to the illusive Commodore Jack Cheése, her father. She did want that, not having seen him in over a decade. He had mysteriously disappeared soon after she had entered the Air Academy. And the chance to reason with him, convince him, as only a daughter can, to reconsider his opposition to the hologram succession, the legitimacy of the Commonwealth, the Admiralty Court and the Lord High Inquisitor. She thought his hostility to the Crown foolish. After all had he not once been a loyal subject, rising through the ranks of the Admiralty Medical Corps, to become a Commodore in the Advanced Research Division? What had turned him. She’d heard it said that after her mother’s passing that he had gone rogue, publishing secret documents that pointed to the Commonwealth’s complicity in covering up the cause of the vast defoliation that ensued after the battle against the BMI, and aligning himself with Icers and anti-royalist factions. She believed in the benevolence of the State toward its t’zens, which was perhaps a little naïve considering her life of privilege growing up in the exclusive enclave in the Empire of Brazil’s vast Sao Rio mega province, attending the best schools in Lisbon, and obtaining a legacy appointment to the Admiralty Air Academy. She could conceive of no reason not to support the Crown and Pax Victoriana. She considered herself to be a Victorian and proud of it. The Queen had set the example long ago. As long as nations kept talking when they could go to war, a modicum of peace could be insured. It was the model of consensus. Although opponents to the Pax Commonwealth called it coercion. Her father being one of them. But she was following the Queen’s example. She just wanted a chance to talk to him. In person.

She sighed and let her eyes wander across the plaza beyond the pocked glass of the tram wagon. A considerable confusion of conveyances, some steam, some spring driven mechanicals, and even a few with live drayage teams sought purchase through the maze of merchants setting up their stalls.. The street carriage lurched forward with a sudden jolt and she realized that they were underway, pulled by the large wheeled steam tractor. They made their way through the packed market place and she got a better view of the streams of transports arriving, some of more recent vintages powered by the latest bacteria drives, known to all as bacteries, obvious from the pale breath of water vapors emitted by their exhaust stacks.

At the gate to the old city, their transport idled in line with others while teams of gendarmes worked their way through the vehicles checking identifications. A pair clambered onto her carriage and marched up and down the aisle looking bored and acting agressive.

Lydia averted her eyes and pretended to be sleeping. She felt the presence of one of the policemen hovering near her. He was demanding to see her papers, or so she assumed. The woman seated next to her was saying something to the official, imploring and repeating what sounded like the word “dorm.”  Finally the gendarmes disembarked and Lydia cocked a cautious eye and saw her companion give a reassuring nod and smile. She was about to express her gratitude when out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of the square black chassis of an armored carrier and watched as the men in the black hats, agents of IOTA, took up positions at the periphery of the waiting traffic.

Next Time: Flight From IOTA

Polka Dot Dress II

by Patton D’Arque

PD dress1Pam pestered her with new documents and had new questions about old documents. She had scanned and copied them as files to her tablet.

It took her a while to get the knack of focusing on the device. She didn’t even own a smart phone though she knew some of the residents had tablets they could do something called ‘facetime’ with and which became very popular during the lockdowns. But she had no known relatives, that is until Pam and her companion claimed that she was not who she thought she was and she did have a close relative, now deceased. And cousins undoubtedly.

Pam showed her how to pinch the screen of the device to make the document larger. It showed a handwritten letter, a scribble of underlined words and exclamation points that she had no trouble reading. “We did it! We stopped the Communists There won’t be anymore Cuban Marxists or Chinese Maoists threats to our beloved country from within! The evil Kidney Beans have been eliminated!” She felt a pulse of revulsion when she read the words and caught her breath.

Pam noticed and inquired if she were all right, had what she read triggered a memory? She shook her head no and stared at the name singing off, “your devoted niece, Mary.”

Pam, showed her another file, this one she recognized as a text Pam had previously asked her to copy out. “Do you see the similarity of the two sample?. I submitted them to a graphologist. He stated that there was a very high likelihood they were written by the same person.”

“You’re saying I’m the same person who wrote the first letter.”

“Yes, the one dated June 19th, 1968. Does that date have any meaning for you?”

She shook her head, confused, why that date, so long ago? All of her time before she was rescued was a blank or a blur, vague shapes and indistinct voices, an amnesia caused by the trauma of her imprisonment and sexual assault. “But my name is Sharon,” she insisted.

Pam gave her a tight lipped smile and glanced at her companion, the man who would be a woman, typing on the small keyboard of the laptop computer with her large hands.

“Jean has prepared a short video for you to view. It’s a documentary about the sixties, that period of time you are having difficulty trying to recall.”

And when she seemed reluctant, Pam insisted. “It’s quite short, right, Jean?”

“Less than fifteen minutes,” Jean answered in a low raspy timbre giving a vague orange lipstick smile.

“Kidney beans,” the large woman said, “It is some kind of code. We have come across it in several other instances. I am convinced that it is a key. A trigger, perhaps, or a safe word.”

Sharon acquiesced and Pam touched the screen to begin the video. After a while she recognized some of the images as ones she had seen before on TV shows, particularly the ones that depicted various decades in the past. Karen, her former roommate liked watching them, and she didn’t mind them all that much although she felt no nostalgia for those bygone days. The narrative started by showing trending fashions of the time, an actress wearing dark sunglasses and a polka dot dress, comedy shows, upbeat popular music TV spectaculars with large sparkling floating spheres or dots, strobing lights and dancing musicians, some looking decidedly scruffy and uncouth. It was all very amusing except for the occasional bright flash of light that blanked out the screen. After the first few times she found it annoying and said so.

Pam waved a hand, dismissing her concerns. “It’s a glitch in the software. Don’t worry about it, you won’t notice after a while.”

She continued watching and the fun and games of the sixties era had subtly shifted to footage of mushroom clouds and submarines launching missiles, mobs of protesters and men in uniform beating them with clubs, bombs being dropped on jungle terrain, a man in a motorcade slumping forward, and a military funeral, a black man giving a fiery speech and then a picture of his dead body. The images of violence picked up their pace showing buildings set afire, flaming bottles thrown aloft, police cars being overturned, National Guard cordons, and then another man in the arms of others, blood on his shirt front and superimposed on the image, the date June 18th, 1968. It was all overwhelming and fatiguing, causing a spike of senseless emotion to well up. She had enough and closed her eyes, handing the tablet back to the researcher.

“Are you alright? Did any of these images trigger a memory. Do you remember where you were when those events occurred, especially of June 1968?”

She began trembling as she often did when she encountered the barriers to remembering, as if she were in a maze whose walls became narrower and narrower as she sought the memory that would allow her to exit. It frightened her. She was standing on the edge of a precipice overlooking a smoky fiery abyss. She repeated the words that seem to rise out of the void like a vapor. “The kidney beans, the kidney beans. Kill the kidney beans!”

Pam frowned and turned to her companion, “I think we’re done for today, Jean.”

“Kidney beans,” the large woman said, “It is some kind of code. We have come across it in several other instances. I am convinced that it is a key. A trigger, perhaps, or a safe word.”

Pam nodded in agreement. “I think you may be right.” And then regarding Sharon with concern, “I better ring for the attendant and get her something to ease her agitation.”

Sharon did calm down after the drug took effect but she was still upset and fearful. She told the aide that she didn’t want to see those people again, and the aide agreed that they should not be allowed to get her all worked up like that and that she would mention it to Mr. Ray. But she did have some good news. Her old roommate, Karen, had been released from the hospital and would be rejoining her and May.

The day Karen moved back she was in a wheelchair and on oxygen. And the same day All Souls was locked down again because of another outbreak in an adjacent wing of the facility. And Christmas was less than a week away.

“What a great Christmas present!” she’d announced as the aides helped her into her bed, “From the frying pan into the fire!” At least her sense of irony was still healthy. “Where’s the remote? I can’t watch this garbage!”

And she’d caught a different virus while she was in the hospital, conspiracy, and of course she’d known all along, just as she’d suspected. “Stop the steal!” she would yell at the TV,  the breaking news that flickered across the wide screen with regularity, the scenes of violence and war, or threats of civil war. It was just as depressing as the video clip of the sixties the man who would be a woman had made her watch. Fifty years separated those events and nothing had changed except that the definition was sharper and the color better. She found that she spent more time in the recreation room, doing puzzles, or watching movies. Fortunately Karen slept more because of her medication and would often doze off with the remote in her hand offering a little respite from the constant badgering of pro and con pundits.

The sudden blackout was almost a comforting relief. And as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, her memory returned as if it had never left.

It was sometime after the beginning of the new year and the quarantine had been lifted that the day shift supervisor informed her that the team from the college upstate had asked for another appointment for the next day and Mr. Ray had agreed. But not to worry, the attendant had reassured her, “With this snow storm they predicting for overnight? Ain’t nobody going nowhere unless they got a sled and a dog team.”

All evening she fretted about the visit from Professor Pam and the She-Hulk, a name one of the aides had dubbed Jean. Just the thought of them made her shiver. And it didn’t help that Karen couldn’t decide what to watch and was flipping from channel to channel, surfing for the right wave of pixels that would keep her attention. She finally paused on a news broadcast, the chyron under the young woman talking to the camera read Governor Denies Parole, and then footage of a grey haired compact little man whose parole had been turned down.

He looked older, of course, but the mannerisms hadn’t changed, the way he held himself, erect, unbowed, and a complete obliviousness as if he were existing in another world. She couldn’t help thinking, hypnotized. The picture of him when he was first sentenced was more familiar. She recalled being in the same room with him, they were playing an odd card games, a droning deep voice guiding them. Had she dreamt that? It was all too real. She gave a little sigh and tried to push it from her mind. Karen took notice and commented for her benefit. “It was a conspiracy. He didn’t do it, he didn’t have the brains to plan it, and nobody’s that lucky! But who’s to say? That guy in Dalles wasn’t so lucky. At least this one’s still alive.”

Then the lights flickered and the power went out. An emergency generator switched on somewhere in the maintenance room and powered the dim emergency lights in the hallways and the bedside monitors in some of the rooms. The aides could be heard assuring everyone that it was just the storm, a powerline had probably been knocked down, and that everything was going fine. They should all close their eyes and relax.

The sudden blackout was almost a comforting relief. And as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, her memory returned as if it had never left. There it was in a dusty corner of her consciousness, obscured by a tangle of specious suggestions. She could visualize it all, the faces, the names, everything.

Because she was the only woman in the room she felt at the periphery although the men gathered there in celebratory post mortem of whiskey and cigars, fumes and smoke, the careless jocularity, boastful claims made in confidential conviviality, had thrown her an occasional curious glance of the will-she-or-won’t-she variety, they were intent on what the distinguished older gentleman was saying. He spoke with persuasive assurance, what one might expect from a university lecturer in tweed, tartan vest, horned rimmed glasses, and hand tied bowtie, a Doctor of Psychology, perhaps, and the talk had turned to hypnotism and the idea that a hypnotized subject could not be made to commit a crime, say a murder, if it violated an innate moral sense.

She had carried one hundred thousand dollars in cash in her make-up case along with a sachet of gems to deliver to the mysterious Mr. Chad.

“We have just proved that idea erroneous. It has nothing to do with morals at all. And there’s nothing innate about morals to begin with. Man is the only animal that is possessed of them which would lead to the conclusion that morality is something that is learned, and if it is learned, can it be unlearned or at least modified? It is primarily about survival, the will to survive and how strong is the life force in a particular individual. You’d be surprised by whom possesses it. One might naturally assume that the archetypical he-man would be a repository of such a force, but it is often the scrawniest, most unassuming of vessels that have the greatest resilience. The ancient Greeks had a saying, the bigger the pot, the easiest to crack. And as we know even a rabbit will attack when cornered.

“Combine that with the concept of the heroic, a romantic notion of eternal life, something that will bring acclaim, live on the lips of men, so to speak, leave a mark on history, the catalyst for chaos and change. If those two traits can be brought together in the same mind set, the heroic and the survival of the embodied ideal, any ideal, then those conditions create their own moral basis and justification. Certain individuals can be hypnotized to do just about anything. In some cases, hardly any conditioning is required, especially among the chronically depressed when potential questions overwhelm potential answers. Given the notoriety that comes with being associated with a cause, however fleeting, these subjects can be easily convinced to surrender their lives because the most momentous of all decision has been made for them.

“Of course the Ruskies were on to that early on, but we caught up with them. Now the Chi Coms and the Koreans, they’re not very subtle about it. They’ll take a square peg and fit it into a round hole, and they’ll use a big hammer to do it with. Brutal. Our thinking on this matter, and I mean the community, it is more instructive and cost effective to get the square peg to think it is a round peg and will fit easily into the hole. It’s called ‘rescripting’ among the academics. They know that it can be done and they’re wondering why it can be done. We only care that it can be done. And we did it. A reliable untraceable patsy is the key to this type of operation.”

She had grown bored of the stuffiness and the words she didn’t understand, and after all, being a good looking eighteen year old in a polka dot dress like the one Audrey Hepburn had worn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, yet no one was paying any attention to her and she’d given Eugene the look she hoped he’d recognize as one of bored agony.

Eugene was the one who had met her at the Los Angeles Greyhound  Bus Terminal. Over the Christmas holidays she had left the snow bound east and spent a week crowded, cramped, and cold crossing the continent, and Eugene, or Gene in less formal moments, was like a knight in shining armor in his dark suit and narrow tie, trilby cocked to one side of his mischievous expression, long sideburns, and an accent she just couldn’t place, Southern perhaps. He had come to escort her to the location where she would be staying, a horse ranch on a bluff overlooking the Pacific that was home to a two story farmhouse and a collection of mobile homes and trailers. She had carried one hundred thousand dollars in cash in her make-up case along with a sachet of gems to deliver to the mysterious Mr. Chad. She did not see him again for the six month she had stayed at the ranch or in the Los Angeles area until the day before everything was set to go, and then only in the distance, talking to Gene out by the stables. Otherwise she played cards with the cook and her sister who lived in one of the trailers. Or watched TV, comedy shows mostly. And participated in the sessions, but that was only toward the end. Gene would come around to relieve the boredom. There was a private airfield nearby and he said he was training to get his pilot’s license and fly planes down south of the border where there was a lot of money to be made. It was always about the money for Gene, but they got to be friends, then more than friends. He would take her to the racetrack on occasion. He knew many of the grooms and some of the jockeys.

Still, those six months had passed so quickly and she was sitting in the living room of an expensive home in Palm Springs while a group of men inflated their egos by venting hot air.

“Wouldn’t you also say, Hal, that along with an untraceable patsy, a backup plan is essential should things go sideways.” The man posed the question with stiff military severity.

“Agreed, General, but we must also trust our expertise and planning will succeed so as to avoid using a second option.”

She’d became aware that their eyes had turned to her as if they had expected her to join the conversation. And her mind had gone blank and she blurted the first thing that crossed it. “Is it possible to erase someone’s memory by just hypnotizing them?”

The man who’d been holding forth nodded sagely and steepled his fingers. “Erase memories?  I don’t think that is possible, but blocking memories, that can be done, and has proved to be quite therapeutic in some cases. But only on the most susceptible of subjects. Never on a strong willed individual such as yourself, that would be near impossible.”

“Surely there must be some sound scientific basis for the method,” the General insisted.

He explained that had the first scenario failed, the second was the bomb. She would have been ushered into close proximity to the target.

“Of course,” and the man in the horned rimmed glasses had launched into a long explanation about the science and theory behind the method and what was occurring in the cognitive pathways, and it was once again very boring.

The men had laughed and she had laughed although she couldn’t recall anything funny being said. And Gene had left, she hadn’t noticed him leaving. One of the other men, a rougher darker sort with shifty eyes and gold caps, had slapped his knee, laughing, “You gotta be kidney me!”

She was certain she’d heard it right. Her uncle would fly into an apoplectic fury at the mention of their names, and she had come up with an alternative that he could accept as demeaning and because she had thought of it, precious. The Kidney Beans became their private code, the ‘beans’ standing for the  brothers, in their shared loathing for them. And Diggs, that was his name, Harold Diggs, the hypnotist, knew this private detail. It had come out during the small talk after the sessions. Had he shared it with the others and she had not noticed? She had felt suddenly very self-conscious because she suspected that they were laughing at her. That was when she excused herself and went to find Gene.

She found him, or rather he had found her, putting his hand over her mouth with a whispered “quiet” and led her out through the patio doors, past the pool, and out the gate to where his car was parked. When they were in the car and he had started the engine, he’d explained.

They were going to get on the 86 and make the run down to Mexicali before the men in the house knew they were gone. But why? He was getting to that. Because those men would not let her leave the house alive and he was certain that they had the same intentions for him. Knowing what they knew, they were loose ends that needed to be tidied up. Of course, she didn’t want to believe what she was hearing.

And then he told her that she was the ‘backup plan’ the General had been talking about, and she didn’t understand at first but then he told her about the purse. But she couldn’t remember. She had carried the purse with the bulky radio inside, he insisted. The one that was supposed to monitor the security detail frequency and that they had never used. It was a bomb, he’d told her, and still disbelieving, she had looked over her shoulder at where a rather conspicuous white leather purse was sitting propped up in the back seat, certainly not someone with any sense of style would have been caught wearing with a polka dot dress. He explained that had the first scenario failed, the second was the bomb. She would have been ushered into close proximity to the target.

Sharon stared out into the darkness of the room and listened to the sounds of the attendants dealing with the demands and complaints of their charges, assuring them that the power would return soon.

And he would have been the one to detonate it. But he was glad that he hadn’t had to because he had feelings for her, and once they got to Mexicali he knew some people who could help them with new identities and get them out of the country, down to El Salvador. And she remembered thinking even then what he was saying was just so fantastic and unreal that she had feared for her life, his behavior becoming more delusional and driving more erratic. He’d claimed that they were being followed, they had been found out, and they were gaining on them. And a large vehicle had indeed come up behind them and then passed them to speed ahead in the trafficless night, taillights disappearing into the darkness. And then frantically, as another delusion had overtaken him, he demanded to know what she had done with her purse, and they had both looked over their shoulder at the back seat.

He’d jammed on the brakes and she’d been thrown forward against the windshield. He’d pushed his door open scrambling to reach into the back seat. She had forced her door open as well and had stepped out in anger at his antics. He had the white purse in his hand when it exploded in a ball of fire. The shock wave had knocked her off her feet and down into the roadside ravine where she lay stunned trying to process what had just occurred. She had got to her feet and surveyed the flaming wreckage of what was left of Gene’s muscle car and her impulse had been to run, run as far away from where she was at the moment.

At an approaching vehicle slowing to assess the fire in the middle of the highway, she had cut away from the headlights to hide in the shadows off to the shoulder. She had not noticed that the ground fell away into a dry arroyo. And that was where she had been found by Luke. She couldn’t recall how long she had lain there, leg broken, in pain, going in and out of consciousness, but she did remember the sense of relief at being found.

She fell asleep savoring and replaying those recovered memories and at each instance feeling more complete, more complete than she had ever felt in her life.

When she awoke the power was back on and the aides were distributing breakfasts and checking on the residents. Karen had already turned the TV news on to reports of the snow storm that was paralyzing roads and causing accidents, some fatal, among them a prominent researcher from the college upstate  and her companion, a transitioning male by the name of Jean DuBois, who were killed when their car slide off an icy rural road into a ditch and caught fire.

Well, that will save some explaining, she thought. A wave of relief engulphed her, one that she could compare to having been found and regaining her life, no matter its fraught tragedy.

The attendant had been handing her a tray. “Aren’t those the people who’ve been interviewing you?”

When she didn’t answer, Karen chimed in. “Is that true, Sharon, you knew those people?”

“My name is Mary,” she said, and at Karen’s surprised expression, she laughed and laughed and laughed.


Better Than Dead—23

by Colin Deerwood


I felt like a house had fallen on me. A dead house by the stink. And by the taste, like I had a mouth full of rotten eggs. It took a few tries to crack open an eye. I slammed it shut immediately. The light was too bright and heavy, and the weight of it hurt my head which seemed larger than I remembered it. I didn’t remember being a pretzel either but my arms and legs told me otherwise. My groan sounded faraway but maybe that was because of the ringing in my ears. I put my hands over my face and tried the eyes again, and encountered the same blast of white light and the space it occupied. I managed to get myself upright and sitting once I untangled my legs from under me and slowly pieced together what I was seeing.

I was in the cabin on Little Lake. Uncle Ned’s Indian was parked in the middle of the floor, the bright light streaming in through the one window casting unflattering rays on the rest of the tumbledown cobwebbed furnishings. I felt like I had broken my back on what could have been a bed of nails but was actually a crude cot that was much harder. The reason I hadn’t felt anything until I opened my eyes was on the floor next to the bed, a half pint of Uncle Ned’s high-octane joy juice.

The stink got my attention again and made me gag. I bolted to my feet and yanked open the door only to be blinded by the intense brightness of an otherwise welcoming morning. I stumbled up to the pump platform, shading my eyes while little birds made annoying high pitched squeaks like they were either happy to see me or happy to torture me, and tried my luck.

I almost broke my arm trying to bring the pump handle down. It was frozen. I tried again as if the first time hadn’t hurt enough. This time I wrenched my back. I sat down on the pump platform and looked out over the dark blue scintillating waters of Little Lake. It was like an apparition, a story book picture, and of the times I’d visited as a kid, I don’t think I ever saw it that way.

What made it worse was that she was a beaut, blond hair cascading down to her shoulders and a figure like a young sapling, a shapely young sapling.

The sun had been up for a while judging from the slant of rays through the trees, but there was an after the rain freshness to the air. In the distance swimmers frolicked on a float set out from the shore near a collection of green and white summer cabins. A green canoe creased the waves paddled by two women with a third in a large sunhat lounging between them, dragging a hand in the water. Maybe I wasn’t the only one with a hangover. And the sounds of joyful shrieks and laughter of bathers on the docks of the resort around the bow of the lake reached me like a long ago memory of my own delight at being here.

I grabbed a tin pot from the clutter among the washtubs and picked my way carefully down the overgrown path to the dilapidated dock at water’s edge. I’d watched granny do it before. Sometimes the pump needed priming.

I bent over the lapping waters and reached down, got a handful of water and threw it on my face. The shock of the cold wet helped a little. I cleared more of the tadpole scum from the surface and dipped in the pot, filling it to the top and straightened up to get my bearings. That’s when I saw her.

I’d caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. About fifty yards down the shore a sleek silhouette emerged and pulled itself effortlessly up to the top of the large boulder. She shook her hair out of a bathing cap, water dripping off of her in sheets and extended both arms out from her body, arching her back, resembling a little T.

And T always stands for trouble as far as I’m concerned. Just what I’d come up to the country to avoid. What made it worse was that she was a beaut, blond hair cascading down to her shoulders and a figure like a young sapling, a shapely young sapling.

I may have been hungover and groggy but my better instincts kicked in. I held my breath until she turned and walked up the cut in the bank and disappeared behind a stand of birch trees. My luck with women hadn’t been all that great of late. Now not only did I have the thought of Becky gnawing at me and pointing an accusing finger of guilt, but I had a water nymph tormenting me with the prospect of moonlight swims. My goose was cook. I could almost taste the sauce.


I didn’t have a man named Friday, but I went about fixing up the place like a man on a desert island anyway.

The pump wasn’t broke, just dry from lack of use. It took a couple pots of water poured down the gullet but I got it to squeak, working the handle slowly down and up and down until I heard the slurp of the uptake and a spurt of rusty water sloshed out into the trough. A couple more hearty pumps and it gushed out clear and cold onto my upturned face and mouth and splashing across my chest. It was a tasty quenching drink with a mineral tang that I remembered fondly, and it revived me.

If I was going to live in the cabin I was going to have to get rid of the rotting stench of the dead. My nose told me that the stink was strongest near the stove and the chimney pipe up through the roof. And as I suspected whatever it was, possum or coon, had crawled up in there, got stuck and died. I shucked my soggy clothes and borrowed the greasy coveralls hanging on a hook on the wall near the toolbox. They fit loosely. Ned was a bigger man. Dismantling the stovepipe was nasty work but I got it done and dumped the remains in the heap behind the cabin. By then I realized that I was famished and set about devouring much of the grub the cook had packed for me.

I watched the sunlight play over the expanse of Little Lake from the front porch of the cabin and knew that I had to put Becky’s death aside and concentrating on my plan. It had been a good idea to drop out of sight as quickly as I did. It might look like I’d been knocked off and was feeding the eels at the bottom of the East River. But I couldn’t count on it for certain. I had to get as far away as possible from the cops and the mob as I could and stay there. The threats to my life from the Thieves of Bombay were not something I was too concerned about yet. The news of an upcoming draft, on the other hand, made me nervous.

The bruises on my face were starting to fade but dark enough around the eyes to resemble a black mask like on some pulp magazine character.

The fly in my ointment was my lack of the do-re-mi. My broken C note would eventually play out to its last nickel and I’d end up sawing a violin on a street corner. My best bet to get some traveling cash was the art piece that Ted had left me. If Alice could find a buyer then I’d have enough money to leave all my troubles behind. Now that the diamonds and Rebecca were out of the picture, my plans of expanding my confidential investigation business and going upscale were nothing more than coal dust.

For the time being I had to make like a hermit hiding in a cave, not get friendly with anyone, especially nubile young girls and their shotgun toting fathers, and stay out of sight. But it wasn’t in my nature to skulk around in the shadows—except when I was on a case, of course. I had to keep busy.

I set about taking inventory of the old cabin and figuring out how I could make it livable. The cobwebs met the old broom as did the floor. Granny’s room, the forbidding sanctum, smelled moldy and I figure that it was probably due to a leak in the roof. The water stains along the far wall confirmed my suspicion. Otherwise, it was just a jumble of old furniture and boxes full of musty old clothes. A bedframe held a lumpy feather mattress that the mice had chewed through. A set of drawers had a mottled discolored mirror propped above it. I opened the only other window in the cabin and let in some air and light. A shaded kerosene lamp sat in front of the mirror and when I reached for it I gave a start. The face in the mirror was mine but I almost didn’t recognize it, smudged with soot, hair uncombed and standing straight up. The bruises on my face were starting to fade but dark enough around the eyes to resemble a black mask like on some pulp magazine character.

I took my time rooting around, getting a feel for what was there and might come in handy, accompanied by the pleasant memories of the previous stays of my younger days. I visited the outhouse, the door hanging on one hinge and not offering much privacy. I knocked down an old hornet’s nest above the plank seat and swept away a thicket of spiderwebs and egg sacs. Mice had nibbled most of what was left of an old Sears Roebucks catalogue. The old red lime bucket was still there, the lime as solid as a rock with the large kitchen ladle lodged in it. The memory came to me of Ruthie showing the younger boys how girls pee and how it seemed pretty disgusting and shocking at the time and someone had gone to tattle to one of the adults and how Ruthie got in trouble for it but it was one of the most talked about events that summer.

And that reminded me that there was a root cellar set in the downslope of the cabin’s foundation. The rough wooden double doors were still intact. When I yanked them open, I heard something scuttle away. Critters were living in there, maybe relatives of whatever it was that had died in the stove pipe. There were shelves set against the back and the gleam of glass, a wooden egg box with something growing out of it and a huddle of burlap bags with tiny pale sprouts poking through. The glass on closer inspection were mason jars. Some appeared to be empty and others were dark and mottled, green and white. I pulled a few out to get a better idea of what had been tucked away all this time. Much of it looked like it might have gone bad, some were preserves, loganberry jam I guessed as that was granny’s specialty. And to my surprise, the empty jars were not empty but contained a clear liquid. A twist of the lid and a sniff told me I’d stumbled on Uncle Ned’s emergency supply. As if I needed any more trouble.


A pair of old dungarees chopped off just above the knees made passable swim shorts if I was of a mind to engage in bathing frolic. Mainly I’d just jump in the lake to cool off after I’d swung the axe and made myself a nice pile of fire wood to feed to the stove. The early summer heat was sweltering, thunderstorms booming regularly on the horizon. By the time evening arrived so had the mosquitoes, but it was also the best time for fishing. I braved a few evenings to be able to feast on lake trout. No one had fished off the end of the old dock in a while and they and the insects were biting. Good as it is, fish will only do you for so long and I had a craving for some variety. I knew to stay away from the berry patch after I’d stepped in what a bear had left there. I had to take in supplies and that meant the farm stand down Lake Road or firing up the Indian to go into Big Lake and the Big Lake Market.

I was sitting at the table with a stub of pencil making up a list when I heard a tapping on the door frame and got an eyeful of trouble.

I had figured right, she was the girl I’d seen swimming the morning after I got here, the moonshiner’s daughter.

She stood about five foot four, her blonde hair tied up in pigtails that dangled down to just below the collarbone, a pert little nose and pouty lips, and a playful sparkle to her predatory blue eyes. The rest of her looked like it belonged on a pinup calendar: a pair of overalls, patched at the knees, over a thin undershirt. Barefooted, all that was missing was a piece of straw to chew on and a come hither look. I had to blink. She was a stunner.

While I untied my tongue to find something to say, even “hello” or “come in,” she stepped into the cabin and glanced around like she’d been there before. “You look just like him.” It wasn’t an unpleasant voice, young, in the upper register. Lips set serious, she said, “Except younger.”

When I didn’t respond, she offered, “Ned, old Ned. And a little worse for the wear.” She meant the bruises on my face.

“Maybe, I’m his ghost.” I thought I’d be cute.

She shook her pigtails and threw me a smile that hurt. “No, I saw you use the outhouse and I don’t think ghosts do that.”

“You’ve been spying on me?” I tried to sound grave although I was amused.

“This old cabin been almost abandoned after old Ned died. Maybe once in a while some of the cousins will come up and get drunk and even that don’t seem to happen as much anymore. I used to come round when I was younger, when Ned was up fishing and trading pa fresh caught for shine.”

I had figured right, she was the girl I’d seen swimming the morning after I got here, the moonshiner’s daughter. It was like a bomb with a lit fuse had just stepped into my life. And for obvious reasons, I didn’t want to stand up and shake her hand..

She smiled at my discomfort. “My name’s Marie. I live on the property over yonder. My pa is Abner Wilson though most know him as Crazy Man Wilson on account he’ll shoot at you if you come round uninvited. But as long as I can recall, he ain’t never shot nobody, scared them mostly.” She went on like she’d missed talking to anyone who’d listen. “If you’re one of the cousins, I ain’t ever seen a one of them look as much like the old man as you do. And you got his old Indian setting on the porch. He never lent his cycle to nobody, let alone let them ride it.” She cast a wistful gaze in the direction of the porch. “’Cept maybe for me. He would let me ride it on the old dam road out over by Middle Lake. Ride fast enough and the skeeters won’t get ya, he’d say.” She gave a nervous little laugh, worried that she might have said too much.

“Yeah, I’m one of the cousins.” I remembered the alias I’d given Ruthie, “Stan Gardner. Ruthie’s the one let me borrow the motorcycle. Me and her used to vacation up here when we were kids. Probably about your age. How old are you?”

I could tell by the way she shifted her eyes she was going to lie.

“Seventeen. I’ll be eighteen in another month.” And when I didn’t respond. “Honest.”

“So Marie, is this just a neighborly visit or did you come by to borrow a cup of sugar?”

Next Time: Hiding Out At Little Lake

Contents Vol. 2 No. 10

Welcome to Volume Two, Number Ten of Dime Pulp,
A Serial Pulp Fiction Magazine

Issue Ten of Dime Pulp, A Serial Pulp Fiction Magazine, continues its crime spree with two new pulp fiction serializations, Cheése Stands Alone, a steampunk adventure by Phyllis Haldursdottir, and Just Coincidence, Pierre Anton Taylor’s play of brooding vengeance, as well as the continuing serialization of  Better Than DeadA Detective Story, by Colin Deerwood. And last but not least, Patton D’Arque returns with Polka Dot Dress, a dark tale of a lost memory whose recovery could point to a deadly conspiracy put into play half a century ago.

FYI: Dime Pulp Yearbook 21 contains the novels (The Last Resort and Better Than Dead) and the short fiction (Hard Boiled Myth and Gone Missing) of Volume One’s 12 issues,  available for perusal in their entirety. If you missed a few issues or lost the thread of a serial, clicking on the link at the beginning of this paragraph or on the menu bar above is a good way to catch up.

If you’ve made it this far, go ahead and follow the links below to reading entertainment with the serial contents of Volume Two, Number 10

Special Note: Dime Pulp, A Serial Pulp Fiction Magazine has changed its posting schedule from  monthly issues to once every forty-five days. Thus Issue Ten will be the last issue of Volume Two for the year 2022. Volume Three will consist of eight issues, the first of which will post at the beginning of 2023 (much to the relief of the overworked writers and production staff). Thank you for your understanding.

 —Perry O’Dickle, chief scribe
and word accountant

Knapp-Felt 1930 1930s USA mens hats

“Lackland Ask is the name. ‘Lack’ to my friends, ‘Don’t’ to those who think they’re funny. You might have seen my portrait on the cover of Black Mask, the crime fiction magazine. This is my story. It starts with a blonde. This kind of story always starts with a blonde.” Thus begins the seemingly non-stop, endless narrative of Better Than Dead in which women are not the only trouble although most of it, told with the wit and street savvy of Runyon and Parker.

Better Than Dead—22

PD dress1The violent event that occurred more than half a century ago is brought into focus in an assisted living home for an elderly woman whose memory of that time is blocked much to the frustration of an academic researcher and her partner who who see the old woman as the key to uncovering who was behind the conspiracy that changed the course of history.

Polka Dot Dress I

LCinset21In March of 1892, a Scotsman by the name of Arthur C. “Artie” Doyle was hanged by the neck until dead after being found guilty of a string of grisly murders of prostitutes in Whitechapel. At that moment, history veered off its presumed course and headed in a direction all its own in which the Great War never happened because the Kaiser was afraid of offending his grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose life has been prolonged by the wonders of biology. Her reign, known as the Pax Victoriana has lasted 180  years maintaining as many Victorian airs as possible while making accommodations to rapid advances in bio technology. Cheése Stands Alone poses a steampunk question, can Captain Lydia Cheése  (pronounced “Chase”) find her father, the antigovernment turncoat and radical, Commodore Jack “Wild Goose” Cheése. And furthermore, will her quest take her around the globe and through alternate world histories in the requisite 80 days or is it the beginning of a lifelong journey?

Cheése Stands Alone V

Batman-Logo-1In Just Coincidence, a privileged young man with the unremarkable name of Wayne Bruce returns to the site where his father once had his business, a battery manufacturing plant, and where he often spent his childhood days hanging around the factory and the neighborhood. His return is haunted by the mysterious circumstances surrounding his father’s death and the vague feeling that his uncle is somehow involved.  Appalled by the poverty and crime of the place he remembers fondly, he is moved to resolve the injustice of the socially marginalized and to wreak vengeance on those he believes are responsible for the death of his father. A personal coincidence brings together dark prince and dark knight joined in a fateful and tragic quest for justice.

Act One, Scene 5

Better Than Dead—22

by Colin Deerwood


The cook handed me the steaming java and looked me up and down in the daylight spreading through the kitchen window. “You ain’t like the other ones, but I doubt miz Ruth knows the difference. You don’t want to be here when Thorny come around. You smart to get out to Lil Lake, far enough he won’t pay no mind when he finds out another man been here.”

“Thorny? Who’s Thorny?”

“The Constable.”

Just about then Ruthie sauntered through the door tightening the sash on her bathrobe giving me the lowered sultry lashes and then flashing a mind-your-own-business frown at the cook.

Before she could say good morning, I said, “Hey Ruthie, I noticed Uncle Ned’s old motorcycle under the tarp in the shed. Do you know if that old Indian is still working?”

She sipped at the cup the cook had handed her and slid in the chair across the table from me. “Whadya want with that old thing?”

“Well, if I’m going to be staying out at Little Lake I’m gonna need some way of getting around. That would save me walking the five miles just to get a soda pop or scare up some grub.”

“He was always taking that thing apart and putting back together again. If he wasn’t tying fly, or drinking, always a lot of that.” A little cloud crossed her brow. “Funny. Old Ned sure liked the fishing up at Little Lake. That’s where he spent most of the summers toward the end.”

“Moonshiner on the property next to yourn was probably a good part of it, too, I’d say,” the cook interjected.

“Oh, Crazy Wilson, he doesn’t believe repeal happened. He and Ned had a deal, fish for hootch. You’ll have to watch out for him if you’re out there.”

The cook nodded emphatically, “Shoot you soon as look at you.”

“Ok, I’ll remember that.” I stood up and pushed back the chair to go see if the old Indian would kick over.

Ruthie fixed me with a regretful gaze that I wasn’t going to stick around to chat and sigh. “He also has a daughter who lives out there sometimes. She’s just a little older than Paul.”

“All the more reason to watch where you step,” the old cook said, “Might be a bear trap. Lose your leg.”

motorcycle12A quick once over told me that Uncle Ned and his old Indian Scout had had two things in common, they were both battered and well oiled. The tires were in need of some air, and something had been nibbling the edges of the leather seat. I rolled the motorcycle out into the backyard with a little effort. I throttled up and gave it a kick. I got a chuckle from the pistons. At least they weren’t frozen or screaming. Now that I had its attention, I gave it another go and it sputtered like it might do better next time. I goosed the gas and it caught with a loud shot and then a roar. But it didn’t last long, a cough and a shudder, and it was dead. I knew I would have to be poking around in places I wasn’t too comfortable in. But other than that, the motorcycle had definite possibilities.

I rummaged around in the shed and uncovered a pair of saddlebags that fit over the rear wheel. They were outfitted to carry fishing gear, one rod still attached under canvas straps. In one of the pockets I found the tire pump and a repair tin. And a half pint of clear liquid. I unscrewed the top and took a whiff. I drew my head back in a hurry. It hadn’t gone bad, it had started bad.

Uncle Ned, a bachelor all his life, kept his space orderly for the things that meant something to him, mostly fishing, his machine, and his booze. The tools I was going to need were rolled up neatly in a canvas tool bag. I figured I could poke and prod the best I knew how, and if worse came to worse, the Ridley Livery advertised a mechanic.

I spent a couple of hours fiddling with the iron pony, taking one thing off and putting another thing on, I’d spent enough time in the old neighborhood watching curbside mechanics make a machine behave. It is slow, methodical work, and I finally got it running, roughly, but running.

When I was about done and admiring my work, cook came down to the shed and handed me a bag. “Preserves, apple butter, pickles, cow’s tongue, and such until you get yourself set up out there. After a while you be eating fish and berries.” She smiled a wide smile, “Just like a bear.”


I pulled up to the pump in front of Ridley Livery and shut the engine off. A lanky gent in blue coveralls squeezed through the gap in the barn door wiping his hands on a greasy rag and sauntered over, eying me and eyeing the motorcycle.

“Gimme fifty cents worth, Ace.” I dismounted and moved the goggles up onto my forehead, thinking again as I had when I’d first found them in a pocket of the saddle bag, the guys that had attacked Alice had worn similar pairs, and the crew that shot up Rabbi Joe’s place, they had, too, and that made me think of Becky, and thinking of Becky only made me hurt.

“This old Indian is Ned’s, ain’t it.” He unscrewed the gas cap and inserted the pump nozzle. “You buy it?” and he gave me the skeptical eye.

Adjusting the strap holding my satchel in place, I met his eye. “Just borrowing. Ruthie Walker is my cousin, you can ask her.” I fished out the change and handed it to him. “Heading up to Little Lake.”

“Yeah, Ned liked to go up to the cabin.” He held up a finger as if a thought had just struck him “You look something like him, but younger. My pop has pictures of a fishing trip up in Canada, of him and Ned. You’re an Ask, then?”

I put a finger to my lips, “Yeah, but keep it on the QT. I got in a bit of trouble and now I need to lie low.”

He drew his head back a bit. “You don’t say?” And squinted an eye again, “Rob a bank?”

I laughed, “Naw, nothing like that. I was having some fun with this young gal and her husband didn’t appreciate it.”

“That why you look like a raccoon?”

“It coulda been worse if she hadn’t beaned him with a frying pan.”

I’d impressed him, “Now that’s something!”

“So if anybody gets to wondering, just tell them my name is uh. . .Dick Sales.”

“Dick.. .Sales,” he repeated and nodded not knowing what to think. He pointed at the motorcycle. “Sounded kinda rough when you pulled up. Ned always had it purring like a pussy cat. Start ‘er up, might just be a valve adjustment. It can be tricky.”

I did as he said and he reached under the tank and fiddled with something and the rough sputter of the engine turned to a throaty growl. He stood up, proud of himself, “That should do it. You tell Ruthie Walker if she ever wants to sell this old Scout, I’ll give her a fair price for it.”

“Why don’t you tell her yourself? She lives right down the road.”

He shook his head. “No, Thorny found out I’d been round to see her, I’d get nothing but grief.”

Thorny again. I thanked him and handed him another two bits for his trouble. I got some advice in exchange.

“Stay wide of the Wilsons. He’s the old coot with the still and the shotgun, ready to shoot, on the property next to Ned’s family cabin .”

“So I’ve heard. Thanks for the tip.”

“Oh, the old guy ain’t so bad so longs you don’t set foot on his property. It’s his daughter you got to watch out for.”

“His daughter? I heard she was just a kid.”

“Not any more. One day she was just this skinny little tomboy and the next thing you know she’s fully equipped and anxious to put it in gear. Only problem is that Crazy Wilson’s property line goes all around her. You set foot or any other part of yourself on her and you got a problem that’s more than just a angry husband.”


About half a mile out of town a large billboard advertising Big Lake Resorts, Sandy Beaches, Motor Boating, Shoreline Cabins, Fine Dining, Night Club Entertainment punctuated with a martini glass and a large arrow pointed the way. On a post nearby a smaller white plank shaped like an arrow with a crudely printed Little Lake indicated the rough dirt road branching off.

biglake1The road was familiar in that I recognized the climb toward the rolling hills across the wide open farmland dotted on either side by towering elms or stately oaks. Wild grasses and cattails, pollywogs and frogs ran wild in the ditches I liked to remember. Fields of young corn and rows of walnut trees glimmered in the sunlight. Towering white clouds edged with gray on the horizon added to the mugginess. I noticed a few flashes of lightning in the direction I was headed and figured the chances of my getting wet were pretty good. I had to get out of the open before the storm reached me. I gunned the Scout and it leapt forward like a good pony.

By the time I reached where the road butted into Lake Rd and Little Rd, I could smell the rain in the air and my skin was itchy with sweat. Both roads followed the lake shore around where the summer cabins were located in groves of sycamores and birch and the scattering of pines and firs. No one lived at the far end of the lake where the dam marked the beginning of the wide mosquito marsh and swamp known as Middle Lake.

Lake Rd was a well-travelled double track with only a stubble of weeds growing up the center. It got a lot more use because most of the summer cabins were on east side of the lake, and that down the road a bit a farmer had a stand selling local produce to the summer vacationers. Little Rd was rougher and overgrown, the double rut not as clearly visible. Granny’s cabin was off Little Rd, about a mile down.

Thunder was rolling overhead as I set off and a large raindrop splashed on my cheek. About the time the overgrown ruts had turned into a single trail, the clouds let loose and I was drenched to the skin in less than a minute. The dirt track had turned to mud just as quickly. I had to dismount and push the motorcycle ahead of me. It felt was like I was swimming underwater through the white haze of heavy downpour. I could barely see two feet ahead of me but I trudged blindly forward. At that point I realized that I had no idea where I was or how far down the road it was to the entrance of Granny’s property.

Eventually I saw a parting in the weeds alongside the road and realized that it was a narrow dirt scar of a clearing crossed with a gushing rivulet wending its way down to the lake. I set out to follow it. The white of the streaming rain changed to a few shades darker as immense black clouds moved overhead. The stands of trees and clutter of underbrush added their own shadows and limited my vision even more. In my memory the track to Granny’s cabin took a similar turn and I was looking for the shelter of the shanty around the next bend. Just then a flash of lightning lit up the entire understory of whipped and moaning trees and illuminated for just a brief second a sign that had been tacked to a tree. It was immediately imprinted on my brain.


I believed every word and did an about face back toward the road. I had to assume that it was Wilson’s place so Granny’s couldn’t be much further. The intensity of the rain slowly changed to a steady insistent pelting instead of the sheets of white water disgorged from buckets of clouds. I plodded through the mud until I found a less obvious track through the undergrowth but one that now was much more familiar and lifted my spirits so that I found the extra energy to slog through the stream cutting grooves in the path to the lake and the cabin. Partway down I found the proof positive that I was on the right path. There was the little sign that Granny had Ned carve for her. It read ASK N U (picture of a shell) B (picture of a wishing well plus a comb). Granny always loved her word puzzles and rebuses.

biglake cabAnother flash of lightning revealed the old cabin as clear as if it were daylight and the thunder let out with an earsplitting bang before rolling away in a series of less loud concussions. I could smell the fried air as I hurried the motorcycle onto the shelter of the tiny front veranda. I stood there for a minute catching my breath and watching the rain wildly leaping off the eaves. The accompanying wind battered the tarpaper sides of the small cabin, blowing swirls of tree debris in every direction. Then the chill of being soaked through caught up with me and I pushed open the door to the shelter of the cabin.


Something had died. Not recently. But the stink of decay took up a lot of the air I was breathing. I had to step back out onto the porch. I left the door open and the stench streaked out like a flock of smelly ghosts in need of laundering. I waited a while, gazing through the steady rain to where I could see the dark waters of the lake agitated with tiny whitecaps. I would have to move everything into the cabin as day got darker I realized, including the Scout. I reached into my inside jacket pocket and carefully extracted my half pack of Luckies praying they weren’t soaked. I was in luck, the pack was wet but the inside foil had managed to keep them pretty dry. I fired up my trusty Ronson and filled my mouth with smoke. I figure that a nose full of tobacco smoke might help with some of the reek.

The Scout was a tight fit getting in through the narrow door. The one double window, given the circumstances, was letting in as much light as it could,. Most of it fell on a tabletop covered by a ratty oilcloth and barely illuminating a variety of indistinguishable objects. The corners were deep in shadows. I switched on the headlight and that helped some. I could make out what looked like a cot against one wall. Across from it was the shape of an old tin stove with the pipe snaking up and through the roof.

I steered the handlebars in a wide arc, memory filling in what I couldn’t completely make out. The narrow ladder I remembered led to the loft where us kids used to sleep, packed together on thin mattresses. Granny had her room at the far back and the dark rectangle of the doorway reminded me that we were not allowed in there. If we did get to curious, there was always a switch to remedy that. I felt a kind of excitement course through me, like the kind I used to feel when I was a kid. When I was going to do something daring. Or foolish. Or dangerous. And I could feel myself smiling.

oil-lampLooking behind me at the back of the door, it was where I thought it would be, the old kerosene lamp, hung on a nail next to a greasy leather apron. It was what us kids used to call the “outhouse lantern” in case it was the middle of the night and more than the spirit was moving you to unload your bad conscious and you didn’t want to be stepping on anything that might be out there crawling around in the dark. Mostly it was the adults that used it, the kids were no strangers to wetting the bed. And to my unbelievable luck, there was a handful of wood matches in the apron pocket, just like they’d always been. I carried the lantern over to the table and held it up to my ear. I heard a faint slosh. I lifted the glass chimney and sniffed the wick. There were enough fumes that it might catch. I scratched a match on the window sill and it burst to life like a sulfur flare. I rolled the flame carefully along the wick, adjusting the length. The flame leapt alive just as the match was about to burn my fingers. I lowered the chimney and the dark cabin held a warm amber light.

I didn’t waste any time reorienting myself and getting a better idea of my situation, memory now rushing in to fill in the gaps. The old footlocker that Uncle Ned had brought home from when he served in the Great War and in which he kept his tools, an axe and a couple of types of saws, among other things was where it always was behind the door. And the red kerosene can with the capped spout at the top. A good shake revealed that it would refill the lamp a couple times or more. Leaning on the wall next to it was the old portable stove with its legs folded up. I remembered that the well and the pump were on the up side of the cabin along with the washtubs, and on the down side, the rickety old outhouse. I was in no hurry to use it, not with the rain still pouring down and the thunder rolling through the clouds. I was looking out the window in the direction of the outhouse, outside now much darker and shadowed than when I had arrived. I heard another loud crack and immediately fingers of lightning crackled up from the ground on a further shore of the lake. I’d forgotten how spectacular they could be. I figured the way things were going I’d soon see another one.

That wasn’t what surprised me. The next lightning strike was right outside the window, multiple tines of blinding light illuminating the entire landscape, outhouse and all. I jumped back instinctively. In the dark the lamp had illuminated my reflection on the warped glass pane, but as the white flash of electricity lit up the outside, I saw a face staring back at me, and it was not mine. And just like that it was gone. The face of a young girl. My mind leapt to the only person it could be, the person who had been on my mind almost constantly the last few days. It was Rebecca.

But it wasn’t. I raced out the door and around the side of the cabin where the warm glow of the lamp shined out onto the empty blackness of rainswept trees. I could have sworn it was her. My mind was playing tricks on me and I hadn’t even had a drink. But I knew where I could get one. I took the half pint of everclear out of the saddle bag and gave it another sniff. It wasn’t nearly as bad as whatever it was that had died. It even had a smell you could get used to, the tang of oblivion.

Next Time: Lady On The Lake

Polka Dot Dress I

By Patton D’Arque

They showed her a blowup of a blurry black and white photo and wanted to know if she recognized the polka dot dress.

“I’d never wear something like that.”

PD dress1The woman in the robin breast red pants suit brought the high heels of her black pumps together and looked down at her notes. A professor at a small college upstate, she had a grant to do archive research, and that had brought her to All Soul’s Care Home. The man with her was large boned, long limbed, square faced with the pale eyes of a northerner. He wore a dark blue suit that was not his, or one he had outgrown many years ago. His scuffed brown oxfords were massive. The professor had introduced his instantly forgettable foreign name which he acknowledged with an expressionless nod. He didn’t say what he did.

The window onto the small patio porch let in a muted gray light. A lamp was switched on over in one corner of the private room by the bedside table but not much use where they were, seated crowded together on the settee across from  her armchair. A polished wood coffee table sat between them. Among the piles of mail,  the TV remote, and next to a struggling underwatered potted violet, the professor had placed her smart phone on a tiny tripod and was recording the interview.

She wanted to know about the letters. The pictures and the letters, and what the letters said, and what the pictures showed. There was a picture she said that looked like her in a polka dot dress although the young girl had a different name. Yet their body signatures were the same, the DNA matched that of a Connecticut woman born Mary Ellias Anders.

She waited for what the professor would say next. Yes, there was a picture of young woman in a polka dot dress if it was her as they claimed. She appeared young, very young, with a crooked mischievous smile. It could be, but she had no supporting memory of that being her. There was a block as solid as if it had been made of granite when it came to remembering a certain time in her life, the time the professor was interested in, and, presumably, the man. The other picture, not posed, was of what appeared to be the same dress. A glare of streetlight overhead, silhouette of a narrow brimmed hat and dark masculine profile, a fall of blond hair over the shoulder of a black and white polka dot dress blurred by the couple’s movement. She couldn’t imagine herself in such a dress. She favored pastels and florals, something that made her feel anonymous and unnoticed. And besides, her name was Sharon, Sharon Salton.

The professor, Pam Pearson, was asking questions that she didn’t know the answers to although they made her feel vaguely uncomfortable, almost as if by not remembering she was deliberately lying.

The things she did remember they didn’t seem interested hearing about. She did suffer from memory lapses, but that wasn’t unusual at her age. And she had only a dim recollection of her life over fifty years ago.

She had been in an accident, a car accident, maybe. She remembered being told that, repeatedly, by the man who raped her, also repeatedly, and that she should be repeatedly grateful that he had saved her life and had not left her to die in a dry arroyo full of snakes, rats, and coyotes. She had suffered broken ribs and a broken leg. The man, Luke, she recalled, had applied basic first aid and kept her immobile. The pain was just a vague memory. He had acquired pain killers and while they helped, they also left her confused. She was kept in a drugged stupor, and only dimly aware of her surroundings. The smell, she would always remember. A cool dankness mixed with a rancid clammy sweat, his. But also bacon, and burned beans, and bitter coffee. In a lucid moment, tied to the wooden bedframe, she realized that she was underground, and sometime later, that she was being kept in an abandoned mine.

In one of the letters the professor claimed she had written she announced her arrival in Los Angeles. It was dated December 12th, 1967, and addressed to the Honorable Mark Edwards Anders of Sharon, Connecticut. The professor said that Judge Anders was a controversial political figure, a staunch anti-communist and John Bircher, in Western Connecticut with an estate on the outskirts of Sharon near the border with New York State, and that he was her uncle.

She could tell by the professor’s questioning look that this revelation was supposed to light up some dark corner of her memory and substantiate her identity as this other person, Mary. They had reached this point before, on the professor’s previous visits, and all she could express was bewilderment because she really had no memory of her past before her imprisonment in the abandoned mine. Amnesia was a likely diagnosis. And when she forced herself to go back further in her memory an uncontrollable fear shook her, as if she were poised to hurtle down a deep dark hole like the mineshaft that Luke had threatened to throw her down when she didn’t act the way he thought she should. It always made her tremble. Her eyes would water, she would stutter gibberish as if she were having a fit.

At that point Angel Baby would rise from her chair in the darkness by the door to the room, shake her head, and inform the professor that they were done for the day. The professor, eyes flashing with exasperation, would gather her notes and smart phone before rising and following the care center director out of the room.

Angel Baby wasn’t her real name. She was Doctor Babba Angeli, an East Indian woman, and the director of the psychiatric care home. Most of the residents just called her that. Not to her person, but she was probably aware of it. It was an affectionate turn. She had reluctantly agreed to allow the interviews on the condition that she could end them if she thought they were becoming disruptive. She hadn’t wanted to allow it at all but there were considerations. The trust fund paying for Sharon’s care had been impounded by the Justice Department. She might have to be moved to assistance and shared housing. And she didn’t want that, did she?

The professor had a grant that might guarantee her continued level of care if she agreed to the interviews. She always felt that Angel Baby had her best interests at heart. A lot of the residents felt that way about her.

They did not feel that way about Mr. Chowdray, or Mr. Ray, or to some, evil Ray. He was vice president of operations for the corporation that owned All Souls as well as many other care and assisted living facilities. When he was around, every one became agitated, from the director to the janitor. The overworked aides were pushed by their own scheduling conflicts as well as the emotional disturbance of the man’s presence. Extra meds were then doled out.

Then Angel Baby became ill. Everyone was getting sick. Not a few residents and staff died. Angel Baby was one of them. They were made to wear masks and were not allowed visitors. And the aides stopped coming to work because members of their family were getting sick or dying. It was always on the TV, pictures of helpless men pretending to be doing something. And Mr. Ray was appointed the director of All Souls, something he made sure that everyone knew he wasn’t happy about, at all. And because the care home was not getting any new referrals, only the most desperate cases, it was floundering financially.

Sharon was forced into a three bed living space with no private patio or any of the amenities her single private room had afforded her. She had two roommates, a woman who was borderline catatonic and Karen, someone who felt that she had to voice her opinion about everything, and when she didn’t have an opinion, she had a complaint. And she smoked, which was against policy but she did it anyway, standing by the outside window open a crack even in the coldest weather. One of the night duty aides sold her the cigarettes. She never wore her mask and claimed they would have to kill her before she allowed them to vaccinate her.

Sharon did get the shots, and got sick, but her symptoms were mild compared to some. She’d got the booster, too. Karen got very sick and they had to take her to the hospital. She hadn’t returned and for a while Sharon had the room to herself and the vegetating woman addled by treatment and medicine. May, as the aides called her, as she was at any one time May Be or May Be Not.

And she now had full control of the remote and didn’t have to always give in to Karen’s choices, silly crime dramas or twenty four hour news infusion, nothing that actually represented real life. Her own preferences were cooking shows and outdoors living. She only checked the news channel for the weather forecasts. No matter that she didn’t go anywhere and was hardly allowed outside. Because of staffing shortages, the number of hours residents could be supervised safely outdoors had been cut back. But weather reports were her one abiding interest. It punctuated with regularity her days.

Then Mr. Chowdray informed her that he was allowing the interviews with the professor and her associate, once a large boned man in an ill-fitting suit now apparently a woman in an ill-fitting wig, to continue. The professor herself had put on a few pounds and her Kelly green pants suit strained in places. And they both wore masks. The professor’s was a custom brocade design and the large boned associate wore an out of the box blue surgical mask that struggled to contain all of her nose and large jaw. All she could see of their faces was their eyes, the professors more expertly done up then her associate’s.

“Call me Pam” wanted to review some of what they had covered in the previous sessions, and pointedly asked Mr. Ray for permission, bypassing Sharon and assuming she was compliant. Mr. Ray nodded in agreement and then looked at his watch and announced that he had pressing business to resume.

They told her again who they thought she was. They asked her questions she didn’t know the answers to, again. She had no clear memory of long ago events, especially around the dates they were interested in, June of 1968. It was all a blur. However, during the lockdown and travel restrictions, Pam explained, she’d been busy with additional research.

For instance, the trust fund that was paying for her residence was one set up by her uncle, Judge Anders, something that had already been established. Pam had traced the credit lines to an offshore account that was on a watchlist of foreign government sponsored assets used either for money laundering or funding intelligence operations or both. Because of the ongoing investigations the trust fund had stopped paying into the account. And which explained why Mr. Ray was eager to allow the interviews to go forward. Her cooperation might mean a return to the comfort of a private room he’d intimated.

They wanted to clarify some points that they had covered before. How she had come to be committed to All Souls. Why the attorney and doctor named in the court documents committing her to psychiatric care were untraceable and had been employed by a firm that was no longer in existence, and may have been a dummy front funded by the same trust fund set up by her uncle, leaving only the barest of records.

Sharon couldn’t answer those questions. She had told them before, a lawyer, an associate of the private detective who had contacted her, came and made her sign some papers and told her that by doing so she would be set for life. It was part of her husband’s insurance policy they said. When she thought of her husband, it made her sad and she would blubber and lose composure. Usually that would end the interview, at Angel Baby’s insistence. But Angel Baby wasn’t there anymore and the professor and the large man dressed as a woman simply waited until she stopped.

Her husband was a plant mechanic for one of the big casinos in Reno. He died in a vehicle accident on his way to work the night shift just a few weeks before his retirement. She met him while she waitressed at the restaurant that was part of the casino, kind of an upscale Denny’s. Up until then her life had been a careening pinball bouncing from bumper to flipper with no hope and no future.

Hikers had found her chained to the bed in the abandoned mine tunnel. She didn’t remember how long she’d been there without food or water. Luke had just stopped coming back to abuse her and yell at her and rant his antigovernmental conspiracies. The hikers had called the sheriff who had called the ambulance who’d called for the helicopter. The hospital, after determining she was indigent but with no serious health problems other than a poorly healed femur that caused her to limp, contacted the county welfare department who put her in a home for abused women after they’d heard her story. She didn’t remember her name and that was a problem for the case workers because they told her that she could only remain a Jane Doe for so long. If she could remember her name, they could begin a search for relatives and process her package. They had fingerprinted her only to learn that she had never been in jail or in the military. She was not on any national missing persons roster as far as they could tell.

A name had come to her, out of the blue fog that consisted of her memory, Sharon. It was a start. And she remembered the green road sign they’d passed when they were driving her to the shelter. She told them her name was Sharon Salton. And they gave her a temporary ID card with that name on it. To get a driver’s license she would need a birth certificate. But in the meantime she would be able to find work which she did in a soup kitchen in Bakersfield but that did not last long because they sometimes served kidney beans and she hated kidney beans. Just the thought of them sent her into hysterics. Then she met a woman who told her she could make good money in Vegas as a cocktail waitress and she would never have to see a kidney bean again.

What she did see however was a parade of handsome ugly men and ugly handsome men all with one thing in mind, possession of her body for a short time or longer, none, after a while any different than Luke, the man who had chained her to his bed. She understood she was damaged goods, besides the slight off kilter gait to her walk. Some men said that’s what they liked about her, and her smile, she had a nice smile, even after all she had been through.

renoWhen Vegas got to be too much and the man she had been living with was arrested for murder in the course of an armed robbery, she left for Reno, taking the bus upstate, all that she owned in one suitcase. Her impression of the biggest little city in the world was that it was a gritty bleaker version of Vegas, that the glitter and neon was hardly bright enough to hide the desperation of so many of its inhabitants.

She’d found a job in housekeeping in one of the downtown hotels, and then waitressing in a couple of chain restaurants. She didn’t mind the winters, they reassured her for some unfathomable reason, and she loved to ski which she did on occasion with the new friends she had made. And in the summers she hiked the mountain trails of the Sierras. There, camping in the rough desolate wilderness, she found relief from the anxieties of not being able to recall anything of her life before her rescue from captivity in the mine tunnel. With the exception of bouts of sleeplessness and the occasional nightmare that had her waking in sweats, her life had settled into a predictable routine and slowly remade itself as if the first twenty or so years were incidental and not worth the worry.

Then she met Mack, Bill McKensie, an older man whose kindness provided her with a sort of refuge. He was easy to like, undemanding, with a sense of humor and a hearty laugh, ex-Navy so he liked to drink and only occasionally to excess. Everyone has their demons he’d told her and they have to be let out every once in a while. The last time she remembered was at the turn of the century, the eve of the year two thousand. They’d been together that long. How time flies was a cliché that never grew old. But they had grown old, together, and Mack was due for retirement although he dreaded the thought of it because he knew he would go stir crazy without a job to go to. They’d often talked of getting a fifth wheel and hitting the road and seeing some of the country, looking up some of his long lost relatives in the Midwest. He had long ago stopped asking her about her kin, knowing how much it upset her and caused her sleepless nights. She’d been prescribed pills but she hated the way they made her feel.

One Christmas he’d surprised her with a genealogy test that might trace her heritage and perhaps lead to some long lost relative. At first she had been angry, and fearful. The great unknown of her past after all that time might be waiting to reveal who she really was. But she was content with who she was, those two decades conveniently erased were nothing to the more than three decades she could remember. But Mack had insisted and so they had sent her spit off to be tested.

The results must have come back around the time of Mack’s death. It sat on the tiny writing desk in the front room along with all the other unopened mail, bills, and such, nothing that she could bring herself to look at or deal with. And she was taking more pills and sleeping whole days away, not answering phone calls, stumbling out into the late night to the 24 hour supermarkets for more of the same frozen dinners. She was slowly letting herself die. I’ll be dead by the time I’m sixty she’d told herself. As if it had been a promise. And then a man who said he was a private detective showed up at her door.

Next Time: Under Hypnosis

Cheése Stands Alone V

by Phyllis Huldarsdottir

Chapter Eleven

Startled, at first Lydia didn’t quite understand the request, the policeman’s accent being of a rough sort. She was still struggling with the image she had of Vlady, but he was not known as Vlady then, he was Samson Trismegistus, the circus strongman who had carried her on his broad shoulder as if she were nothing but a sparrow, a three year old sparrow, and even then only offered silent protection to her, her mother, and the acrobat troupe from their rivals, the clowns and the carnival attractions. That was the reason behind Vlady’s mystifying and knowing smiles.

The short policeman emphasized his demand by speaking it louder and adding contempt to the twist of his mouth. “Your papers!”

Lydia stood, and realizing that she was in danger of being found out, echoed him questioningly, “My papers?”

The taller one leaned his narrow head toward her, “Are you under the influence of controlled substances?” Now they were both on alert. The short one had his hand out.

cafe1Lydia held up her own hand signaling she would comply and fumbled for her shoulder bag. There were only two of them, with her training and the element of surprised she could render them unconscious. She didn’t want to have to kill them, the viper stiletto nudging against her ribs. But that would only complicate things. Her Aerosud Executive Airship Pilot’s ID identified her as Lydia Cheése, Airship Commander, and if Doctor Serre-Pain’s words were true, the authorities within IOTA’s sphere of influence, as Oldest Orleans was, would be alerted to her fugitive status.

“I’m afraid that I don’t have them with me. How foolish of me,” she said appeasingly and gestured toward Place D’Arc, “but I’m with. . . .”

Now the tall one’s eyes narrowed, “A vendor? Where is your vendor’s permit?” And he nodded to his companion. “You will have to accompany us to headquarters so we can verify your identity. We have a plasmoviz there that will verify who you say you are.” The shorter one emphasized, “It is unlawful to be in public without proof of identity.” They each moved to encircle her to ensure her compliance.

Lydia had to act, and damn the consequences.

A voice hailed them. “Ah, there you are, Louise!”

The gendarmes pivoted, annoyed. A rotund man in an elaborate topcoat and purple gray tuglemust was approaching with his hand raised. “Louise, there you are. We thought we’d lost you!” He had the jolly confident smile of man who often got his way, the latest gasket frame eyewear giving him an almost comical appearance.

The tall officer gave a nod of recognition, “Lord mayor.”

The other one looked perplexed. “Do you know this person, your honor?”

“Of course! Don’t you recognize her? This is Louise Bouchdor. An honored guest of the Victoriannasence Festival.”

The policemen looked at each other and then at Lydia and then back at the mayor. “You mean the Louise. . . ,” said the one. “Bouchdor?” said the other.

“Of course,” said the mayor, “the porn box courtesan, nothing to be ashamed of. Her voice has titillated men the world over. I would ask her to give you a little trill but that would be very unprofessional.”

“So she is with you, your honor?”

“My party of  guests. We were returning from viewing the entertainment by Madame Ophelia,” and he gave her a knowing look, “when she must have wandered off. The newly released bio-vintage is particularly pleasant this year, and perhaps unusually strong.” The mayor inclined his head conspiratorially to the officers, “Especially for fairer constitutions,” and they agreed with knowing smiles.

“Very well, lord mayor, if you vouch for her then we will be on your way,” the short one said magnanimously. He saluted Lydia with a little bow and a smirk, “Madame Bouchdor, always a pleasure.”

When the two patrolmen left to return to their rounds, the roly-poly man’s face angrily confronted her. “Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve jeopardized the entire plan!” He seized her by the arm with a surprisingly strong grip. “We must hurry!”

Lydia resisted, ready with a defense move. “Wait! Who are you? The mayor? Did I hear correct? You said I was a porn box courtesan?”

The mayor turned to her fiercely, “A mere diversion, I assure you. My apologizes if you are offended. That is of no matter now. Serre-Pain, and transporting he and his skills, is what is important. I am Leon. With the League Bousculier Francaise Du Sud. We are charged with getting the good doctor and his wagons to a rendezvous with an airship for which you are the pilot, if I am not mistaken. Lydia Cheése. daughter of the infamous Commodore Jack. A pleasure to meet you despite the circumstances. But we must hurry. They will have to report their encounter and will learn that Louise Bouchdor left Oldest Orleans a few days ago.” He led the reluctant airship commander down a narrow path between the towering walls of the old town. “This way,” he hissed.

A shadow separated itself from the stone wall around the next turn. Lydia recognized him as the money changer at the boot stall. He was clearly a confederate. Leon instructed him, “Take her to the cellar until we are ready to leave.” He gave Lydia a meaningful look. “I will return, with Serre-Pain.”

The young man motioned to her to follow unaware that she was looking for an opportunity to bolt. She was on her last nerve, and didn’t like the feeling of desperation that was creeping up on her. She took a breath, she would have to bide her time. The guide proceeded down steps under a narrow stone arch and to a large wooden door. When he shouldered it open, she could tell it was a wine cellar from the sour fetid air that escaped. He activated a small bacsodium lamp from inside and set it on a shelf by the rank of barrels. Lydia saw her chance and turned to leap back through the doorway. A large shadow crossed the threshold and a hand reached in to slam the door shut in her face.


Chapter Twelve

Lydia had the money changer by the throat, the viper stiletto to the point of his chin. “Open this door!” she growled through her gritted teeth.

The young man caught by surprise held his arms up in surrender. “Please, the door locks from the outside, there is nothing I can do!”

“You have the key! Give it to me!” she insisted, scanning his alarmed expression.

“No! No! The door is barred from the outside! I am in the same fix as you. This is what Leon wants.”

“To hold me prisoner? Why are you here?” Lydia had not let loose of his collar nor toned down her vehemence.

“To keep you company. You are not a prisoner. More of a guest of the LBFDS. And to keep you safe while Leon and the snake doctor come up with a new plan. The local security force works closely with IOTA. I have been shown a plasmovid bulletin with a description and a biosketch with a striking resemblance to you.” The money changer caught his breath staring down at the tip of the viper blade. “You are Airship Commander Lydia Cheése. I am a great admirer of your father, Commadore Jack. All my life I have wanted to be an airship pilot. Please, I mean you no harm, but we are here together until Leon returns.”


Lydia relaxed her grip and pulled the stiletto back but ready to strike. “You expect me to believe you?” She took in the low ceilinged cellar in the amber glow of the bacso lamp and saw that there was no other exit, merely rows of wine casks, a low bench and a crude table set against a stone wall.

“I can offer you a drink,” he pleaded, “Dried fruit, dates?”

Lydia released him and pushed him away, sheathing the viper blade. “Well, this is awkward,” she admitted, eyes still alert for any means of escape. She fixed his awkward smile with a hard stare and resigned herself to the situation. She was locked in a wine cellar with a not unhandsome young man who was offering her wine and dates. It was almost comical. She was going to have to make the best of it. And not let down her guard. Any drink might be drugged, any food tainted. “Sit over there,” she motioned to the bench, “Where I can keep an eye on you. And I should warn you I have been trained in combat martial arts and can disable you with one blow. What’s your name?”

The young man let a relieved amused smile cross his face. “Pyare. And I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain Cheése, I much admire airship pilots. I myself have applied to the Admiralty Air Academy under the Affiliated States quota but unfortunately I did not pass the examination. I have studied aerodynamics and hydrodynamics, my understanding of reproductive drives is not great but I don’t want to be a drive engineer. I want to be a pilot!”

Lydia was disarmed by his earnestness. She remembered her own enthusiasm in the pursuit of a berth at the triple A. Becoming an airship commander had been her singular goal, and she came from a long family line associated with the Crown and the Admiralty. “You can retake the exam,” she offered and remembered that she had passed the exam on her first attempt.

Pyare shook his head. “I didn’t realize how heavily the historiopolitical weighed toward the final grade. I don’t understand what any of that has to do with piloting a double hulled luxury liner.”

Lydia had heard that complaint often, especially among the quota candidates, and especially those without a sponsor. As a citizen of the Commonwealth and sponsorship from Aerosud, her own appointment had been assured. The reason for the grievance had been explained to her by a young Panafrika officer, a woman like herself, who was quite cynical about it. “They want to make certain that you believe what they want you to believe, their version of history, the Succession, the myth of Pax Victoriana!” It was all nonsense as far as she was concerned. She had no patience with conspiracy theories. The irony was that her father was one of the leading theorists of conspiracies

“The Admiralty takes history and politics very seriously. Piloting a luxury liner requires more than just knowledge of the ferro-mechanics. Comportment toward the passengers, the crew, and ancillaries is also part of an airship commander’s job, and that is accomplished by a good working knowledge the politics of history.”

“I’ll bet you aced the WorldPol section of the exam,” Pyare said sullenly.

Lydia could have admitted that she actually had. “Just the fact that you say you admire my father is a strike against you. Even if you had passed the exam, you would have likely failed the IOTA background check with opinions like yours.”

“You don’t know what my opinions are!”

“If I’d venture a guess, I’d say you dispute the Succession, and judication of the GSC, the Global Supreme Council.”

“I don’t care about any of that!” Pyare was getting red around the collar. “Politics doesn’t mean anything to me. Piloting is what I want to do!”

“You could always get a commercial license,” Lydia offered by way of appeasement.

“No, no,” the young man shook his head, “No rigs or semirigs for me, nothing less than full flex certified dirigible!”

“Navair companies will not hire you without Admiralty approved training.”

“Why would an airship company care if I could name all the Slave State Republics in the USSR? Aren’t they all under sanctions as rogue states? ”

Lydia remembered an old history professor’s comment that the Northern Hemisphere’ west was a puzzle whose pieces were always changing shape. While the world was fracturing into numerous hostile states in the early years of the Pax Victoriana, the London Berlin Moscow Accords had forged a stable alliance that eventually became the foundation of the Clockwork Commonwealth. The old academic was well known for his pronouncements, particularly, “The Past will always revenge itself on the Future.”

“I speak Standard well enough,” Pyare continued his complaint, “I have skills, ambition. I would be a good airship captain! Just because I did not make the distinction between the Republic of Texas and the Republic of Tennessee. And what of the Panam Wars? Those border hostilities have been going on forever. Who can keep up? These are things in which I have no interest!”

Lydia nodded her understanding. “Yes, ROT and ROTN are two distinct entities withing the United Slave State Republics and I can see how they might be confusing. Nomenclature is political, it is the ownership of boundaries and superstructure. It is as necessary as knowing Euler’s Equation, or the workings of Bénard Cells or Fourier’s Theorem if you are to navigate the GCC, Greater Commonwealth Cooperative and prove your citizenship to the Crown and Pax Victoriana.”

Pyare snorted his contempt, “Pax Victoriana is a sham! There are still parts of the globe that have no intention of complying with the Jubilee Calendar Reset and resist the Crown’s Global Recalibration. As for peace, the wars may be smaller but there are more of them.”

“You have obviously been listening to ICER box propaganda and anti-globalists like my father. The JCR and the CGR are the basis for the Cooperative of Nations in which all geopolitical entities signed on as partners and that would include the APT, Artisan Protection Treaty of 55 PV, the CET, the Carbon Emission Treaty of 75 PV, the Hydrogen Helium Concorde, the H2C of the same year, the AFSP, the Antiseptic Food Safety Provisions of 80, The FAC, Famine Alleviating Commission formed in 90, and ACSA, the Admiralty Commonwealth Security Accords which were finally signed in 100 PV. The world is a much better place for the many. The few who have to suffer will always complain.”

Lydia was surprised by the irony that she had just parroted something spoken by the Lord High Admiral at her graduation from Admiralty’s Airship Officers Academy. She had accepted it without question. Why did it seem so hollow when she spoke it herself? “There are those who would willingly undermine the protection that the Pax provides for its global citizenry, whether it’s in the Empire of Brazil and its African Colonies or the unaffiliated Western Pacific polystates that run like a backbone from the Aleutians to the Isthmus, predators and thieves sheltered by rouge states who would fatten themselves on the spoils of a fractured Commonwealth if they could.”

“Ha!” Pyare replied accusingly, “You sound just like one of those police kiosk plasmovids. Spreading a biowashed version of history. If I can’t be a lithairian, I’ll settle for being a heavairian.”

Lydia shook her head. “You would be a heathen? You must be contemplating suicide. What if your noisy contraption runs out of petrol, and who can afford black gold but bandits and the super-rich, you will plummet like a large odiferous stone. Flight in a lighter-than-air is dignified transport whereas the noisome roar of internal combustion would vibrate you to a jellied mass. The internal combustion engine is an ICER invention that was never sanctioned by the Crown, especially after bioclean reproductive drives were developed. Even if eradication after the first global Black Mold Infestation led to the unexpected mutation of the biocide used to control it into a petrophage that essentially turned all the oil reserves in the Northern Hemisphere to ash, the wasteful application of the precious resources to an inefficient technology goes against everything the RCA, the Resource Conservation Act of 60 PV, stands for.”

“All that’s ancient history as far as I’m concerned. And who is to say that the BMI actually happened, that it was not a ploy by the Admiralty to extend its dominion over the dissident and defiant masses? No one is allowed into the Blank Forest Zones, the BFZ as you would have it. There are parts of the Northern Hemisphere that are still highly toxic, especially along the Baltic Estuary, and the North American Outback. Everything there has turned into a depolarized particulate cement landscape allowing no regeneration of any sort up from under its crust. It is uninhabitable and only fools and adventurers dare stray into the fringes with their wind driven sail trollies. The Lords of the Admiralty control all information and entry to the Access Restricted Zones. Yet where are the multitudes coming from? The north, the majority from above the 48th parallel. And no one is talking about this migration. Is it like the ICERs say, the world is cooling at its poles and if we don’t do something soon, the globe will be encased in ice?”

Lydia sighed, put her fists to her hips and gave her predicament another once over. What had started as an inquiry into her father’s whereabouts had turned into a kidnaping by a carnival snake doctor to have her pilot a humanitarian mission to non-aligned HOAR, the Horn Of Africa Republic, in exchange for a way to connect with the elusive and controversial anti-globalist, Commadore Jack, someone IOTA would very much like to get in their grasp, and the reason why she was wanted for questioning. And now she was trapped in a musty damp wine cellar with one of her father’s disciples, an ignorant country boy and ICER sympathizer. Men are such idiots. Was she going to have to set him straight?

“I’ll have some of that wine after all.”

Next Time: Lydia Heads For The Hills

Act One, Scene 5

by Pierre Anton Taylor

headlines S5

Wayne Bruce gingerly lifted himself out of the jacuzzi and reached for the large white bath towel emblazoned with the Bruce monogram. He glanced at the large purple bruise along the length of his thigh. He stood keeping the weight off that leg and wrapped the towel around his waist, cautiously taking a few steps toward the door of the penthouse bedroom before grasping the frame to keep his balance.

He lowered himself onto the unmade bed and as his head hit the pillow his eyes turned to glance at the cadenza under the wide mirror and confirm that the amber bottle was still there. He always kept a reserve of pain medication for the inevitable mishap on any one of his adventures, parasailing, base jumping, sky diving, even full contact martial arts, and he’d manage to keep from getting seriously hurt. So far. Everything had happened so fast.

It had been earlier the previous day and he had taken a break from overseeing the renovation of the office building at the old battery works, the job of tearing out had been completed and the rebuilding was just beginning. Bion had assembled a crew of local men to do the demolition and now some of them would be kept on to continue with the rough carpentry. They’d gone over to the candy store to get out of the cold and discuss scheduling the work in the coming days now that the permits had been approved. Old Rick was all smiles. Business had picked up since work at the battery works had started. Workmen coming in for doughnuts the bakery delivered, smokes, coffee hot, sodas, even candy.

candystore21Bion had looked up from his cup and said, “What you call this, Rick, coffee or taffy? The cream just sits on top.”

“Only sissies put cream in their coffee. This here put hair where you need it. I guarantee you’ll be wide awake and rattling like a two stroke engine.”

From the look on his face, Bion’s appraisal hadn’t changed. Through the front window still festooned with cutout pumpkins, black crepe, and now a large vintage cutout of a turkey, they turned to glance as the delivery truck, gears meshing into reverse to drop off another load of lumber and building supplies, backed in through the gate.

“You keeping those goods under lock and key I’m gonna assume,” Old Rick addressed Wayne, “I wouldn’t put it past some folks to be taking advantage and engage in a little pilfering. ‘Specially after what happened to that heavy equipment you brought in.”

He’d agreed with the old man and Bion had assured him that the supplies were securely locked up every night in the shell of the renovated office building and the storage containers. The vandalism to the dozer and the loader, aside from the gas being siphoned, was something they had to deal with, juveniles’ propensity for vandalism. Wayne had contacted the precinct and asked for additional patrols around the building site overnight. If it continued to be a problem they would hire private security, but so far Wayne was not too concerned.

“You gonna have to buy extra tickets to the Policeman’s Ball if you expecting them lazy cops to do anything. But I’m here, I’ll keep an eye out if I see anything suspicious.”

Wayne smiled to himself as he remembered Rick’s words. Later that day he had touched bases with the Corporation lawyers and learned that the pause in decision making occasioned by his father’s death may have given Bruce Enterprises the path to getting out from under suspicion of fraud as the Superfund application had not reached its final review and could be withdrawn without further scrutiny from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Harold had insisted that he knew nothing about the consultant that had been hired to do the toxic site survey, that it had been his brother who had undertaken the plan, that he was merely following through. Although the contracts had been signed with the out of state toxic cleanup contractor, the agreement stipulated a kill fee would be paid should the deal go sideways.

Robin had done the deep dive background check on JKR Drayage which turned out to be a shell company for a hedge fund that was operating out of the Caymans, most likely a laundry operation in Robin’s opinion. The board of the company included two city council members, as well as Larry Taste and Linus Pall among its token directors. All of which seemed too coincidental for Wayne and drew his suspicions to the shadow workings of the attempt to defraud the government under the umbrella of Bruce Enterprise in such a blatant fashion. Something must have assured them of success for the scheme to get as far as it did. Bruce Enterprise had dodged a bullet.

He checked his pager readout again. Lotte had not returned his call. He had questions. Had she been with his father the evening of his death? Was it the same night she had been seen with friends at The Joker’s Wild nightclub? If he didn’t hear from her soon, he would have to drive to her estate in Longwood. He had asked some of their mutual friends for news about her, but either they had nothing to tell him or they took him to task for breaking off the engagement, over the phone, the same phone he was calling her on now. The world did not lack in irony. Some claimed that she had gone to the Taste Plantation in Hawaii or that she had fled to Spain where she kept a villa. She held the key to old Dad’s final hours. What light could she shed on his mood, his well-being, his final demeanor?

And he saw that there was another call from the BATS lab that he would return once he got around to getting dressed. They might have been able to trace where the toxic material had originated by comparing chemical signatures from other known toxic cleanup sites. Judy, the lead chemist and lab manager, knew not to get too technical with him otherwise they’d never get any work done. Just being able to trace the sample that had been planted at the old battery works would give him something to go on and confirm his suspicion that the two were linked, his father’s death and the Superfund scam.

legacy towersHe forced himself to don his sweats and stretch the aches out of his bruised muscles. He didn’t want to overdo it, but he had to get blood flowing, working out the stiffness and swelling. He had a call in with the service and made an appointment for some body work in half an hour. By then he might be in good enough shape to face another board meeting. One of the things to be broached was the renovation of the old battery works in memory to his father and founder of Bruce Enterprise. And how that would be funded through a number of grants, federal and state, as well as the charitable foundation BE WELL, founded by Trish, his mother,. He had the votes and only Harold was against it. The consensus though was that it was a positive public relations move. They could feel good being civic minded without really having to do anything, aristo cake crumbs to the plebs in proclamation of their benevolence. If Harold made too much of a fuss, he would have to bring up the toxic site review and explain what the BATS lab has discovered. Harold was nervous over the government contracts being paused while the leadership issues were being worked out. He was heading to DC after the meeting with a plane load of lawyers for a big pow-wow with Agency lawyers.

Favoring his leg, Wayne wandered into the den once occupied by the old man, a guy surrounded by stacks of papers, happy as a kid in a sandbox, and took another swig from the protein shake. His gaze stopped on the photos of his car collection gathered for the catalog for the opening of a show in Los Angeles in a few months. Rich men once kept horses, it seemed like a natural progression to the motor vehicle, and like horses, some were for show and some for speed. He had a handful in storage on the coast, a few others he would have to ship out by cargo jet. He just had to decide which ones. He had a couple of vintage motor carriages from the early beginnings of private motorized transport in storage outside of Carmel that he entered in the annual Concours D’Elegance in Pebble Beach. For this show he wanted to display the iconic post war models as well as a few rare restored finds.

He picked through the glossies. His favorite was on top, the Pacific blue1948 Mercury Saturn Bob Hope Roadster Convertible, a look into the aerodynamic sleekness of the future and the beginning of marketing the automobile as a lifestyle accessory to the newly prosperous suburban middle class. He’d picked up the 58 Edsel Pacer Convertible for a song, red over white, white walls, spoked rims. Ten years later it signaled the demise of the fin, victim of its own popular excess. No one wanted it, but it was a place marker in the evolution of automotive styling. And the 1954 Packard Pacific two door white hardtop over deep purple, not much to distinguish it from the cheaper Ford models of that era, a brand that lost its pizzazz after the war. Staying with the blocky dreadnought design of the previous decade was its downfall. The 1958 Ford Ranchero was considered by some purists to be the only Ranchero worthy of the name. The three years that it was produced, from 1957 to 1959, marked a wily change in marketing strategy, gearing an essentially station wagon platform to men without the wife and kids cachet. On the other hand, his 1956 Dodge LaFemme hardtop convertible, mauve over white, white walls and chrome rims, was a finned confection marketed to the better half’s suburban counterpart. The motor vehicle would have never prospered and taken on a life of its own if it hadn’t been for the suburbs. The 1954 Cadillac Coupe De Ville hardtop, bronze, white walls, scooped fender skirts, he realized was an awkward blend of the old dreadnaught style of the postwar years and an inkling of the windswept style with its vestigial fin. Or maybe he’d read it somewhere. The 1958 Chrysler Firesweep four door, black with red side trim was a match for his all black 1960 Plymouth Fury, essentially the last of the finned dynasty that ruled for less than ten years.

Taste is changeable and the marketeers depend on that. What he was presenting at the show was a look at the transition from an industrialized post war economy still dependent on broad consumer consensus to the individual marketing that would ride the wave of post war affluence. Each of the classic cars depicted an economic trend and the move toward suburban two car families. Cars were no longer machines of utility but status objects, to be seen in, and with an annual style obsolescence that required the changing out of models yearly.

studebakerAnd then there was the nostalgia market that gave new value to well preserved auto relics of the past. His fire engine red 1954 Studebaker Commander Convertible, a restoration from a barn find, and from another company that did not make the postwar transition especially after its failed merger with Packard, taking down the venerable carriage company known for its elegance and reliability. It wasn’t about quality anymore, especially if the consumer was buying a new car every year, it was about looks. Now everyone appreciated the durability of the older cars like his 1948 Chevrolet Fleetmaster Coupe, a pale green over forest green, it was built like a tank but totally uneconomical to manufacture. For personal use, the public wanted something light, fast, the kind of transportation that might appear in comic books or science fiction movies.

The concierge rang that the masseuse had arrived while he was shuffling through the stack of pictures, weeding out the foreign and prewar models. His name was Raymond and he’d used him once before, a tall well-built man with silver hair and a diffident professional manner. He set up his table in front of the wide windows in the large common room with a panoramic view of the city skyline.

Wayne stripped except for a towel and positioned his face in the well. He heard a low whistle as he felt the expert hands probing his shoulders.

“You’re pretty bruised to your upper arms. Fall?”

Wayne grunted, his field of vision restricted. “It was a pretty intense full contact session at the dojo. I got a few bumps.’

“I’ll say. That bruise on your thigh looks serious. Are you going to have that looked at?”

Wayne grunted an assent knowing that he wouldn’t. Raymond asked him to flip and he did.

“Caught a couple of good shots to the ribs, too. Think you might cracked one? Ok, and the forearm. I’d say you were tagged just about any place that could be. Except your face. You must have a good defense.”

He did, but against half a dozen thugs in a dark room, he needed a better game. He’d walked into a trap. The right shoulder the masseuse was working had taken the first hit when he went through the door. And he wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been for the phone number on his pager, old dad’s office number, the one that had been discontinued, the phantom account.

It had been late the previous night, after a full day of going over the details of relocating the BATS administrative office to the old battery works. The tech division’s schedule for testing of the new high powered portable battery backpacks for use by the military to power light mobile terrain equipment was proceeding and they were awaiting a technical overview from the Defense Department. He knew that the battery worked to specs so he was confident of that they could soon begin the funding phase through DARPA. In fact his lab crew had modified one of his off-road Spyders and fitted it with a compact battery pack that was lighter than the conventional engine with just as much torque. Other than that, it had been routine phone calls, mostly with lawyers.

pagerThe out of service number was telling him something he was convinced. Nor did he think of it as random. He knew he would obsess over it. So why not start at the source, his father’s old office in the very building he was currently renovating. He resolved to find out and suited up in his riding leathers, the most obvious conveyance to make a stealth approach to the battery works was the modified Spyder XR he kept in storage and easily accessible. The black balaclava under the lightweight off road helmet was for an especially cold longer night.

The streets in front of the battery works had been deserted. The neon in the round window of Penn Quinn’s bar fluttered in the dull cold gel of drizzle, the gaping entrance forbidding in amber light. Otherwise no one was about. He’d steered the noiseless bike into the alley behind the battery works, a light from the back of the candy store where old Rick lived lessening the shadows on the overgrown gravel track, and parked it against the brick wall. Standing on the seat he was able to get a good grip on a row of damaged bricks to pull himself up high enough to reach the top of the wall. He had the key to the new installed reinforced gate but he didn’t want to announce himself. He landed in the employee courtyard in a crouch. He loosened the compact utility flashlight from the zippered pocket of his jacket and set the filter to red, keeping it low. The door to the back office area was secure, the windows boarded up. He worked his way around to the front of building where the street light in front of Quinn’s made long shadows near the front gate and illuminated the stretch of parking lot leading to the padlocked storage sheds.

He’d been about to step out into the open when he heard voices beyond the storage container and then movement as if someone were dragging something heavy. Then a few dark shapes come into view, men by their size and slope of shoulder, and the tenor of their hushed voices. One of them went over and pulled on the lock to the container and motioned to the others carrying something weighty between them, five men or boys altogether.

A light flashed over his shoulder illuminating the group. Wayne had ducked to the ground as he heard a voice demand, “What you boys doing over there? Get away, or I’m calling the police!” It was Rick. “Gowan, git!” He was perched on the scaffolding for the brick work repair on the other side of the wall.

“Go to hell old man!” the one fondling the lock shouted back, shading his eyes.

“I know that’s you I’Van. You and J’Van and those young’uns have to leave elsewise I’ll call the cops. I ain’t lying.”

The group carrying what looked like a piece of discarded machinery from the old factory had set it down and looked at each other before they started drifting away, the one called I’Van pointing a defiant fist at Rick had raged “I’m gonna kill you, old man!”

“Yeah try that and find out what happens,” old Rick had retorted and trained his flashlight on them until they had run off into the shadows before he clambered back down to the candy store.

He had raced after the departing group knowing that the two homies he’d encountered before meant trouble. He could hear them talking among themselves, spitting expletives, bravado building, swearing revenge. Eventually the walking and talking stopped when they’d reached the far end of the battery works property and a cluster of rusting machinery overgrown with weeds, grass and brush positioned against the crumbling brick wall. He’d watched from the shadows as one after the other climbed over the wall and dropped to the street of the neighborhood beyond, the last one he’d recognized by body size was J’Van who had scanned their retreat for anyone following before joining the rest of the group.

He’d waited a few beats before climbing in their path to the top of the wall. He spotted them trotting up D Street like a dog pack on the prowl in a stretch of neighborhood with an assortment of abandoned buildings and vacant lots on either side. He remembered it as a once thriving neighborhood of shops and apartments when the Bruce Battery Company was still in operation, before it had moved away to become Bruce Enterprise.

neghborhoodHe’d followed them, keeping to the shadows cast by the partial moon playing peekaboo with trundling clouds ready to drop more of their cold wet. They’d disappeared around a brick corner on Central and when he’d given a quick glance in the direction they had headed, they were no longer in sight. A few doors down was the entrance to the apartment space above an abandoned vacuum cleaner store. The door was open to the stairs leading up. A bare bulb flickered at the top of the landing. Unless they’d raced down to the next block where a street light illuminated the frozen air with a brilliant halo, they would have had to veer off. The stairwell was the only likely and immediate option.

He’d taken to the steps on the balls of his feet, putting his weight closer to the side of the tread to avoid the exhausted groan from the center of the plank. A strong scent of fresh body odor gave him confidence in his choice. At the top, the hallway stretched to a grated window at the far end. The first two doorways lacked doors and by the shadows of rubble appeared to have been trashed. The next one had a door but the reek that seeped from under it said that it was used as garbage pit and latrine. That left the last doorway, open a crack to reveal a faint light and sounds of movement. He’d pulled back just as the door swung open revealing I’Van’s cruel grin. He felt the rush of air behind him and the blow shoving him forward and off balance.

He’d blocked the blow from the man in front of him and catapulted himself into the room into the midst of the others, catching a few misplaced shots to an arm and a rib. The feeble light was coming from a battered lamp on the floor next to the socket. A kick sent it across the room plunged into darkness as he parried a charge from his left with a dropkick to the center of the body mass. He heard the effect, a violent exhalation from the solar plexus. The dark added to the sudden confusion. The trap had not been well planned. The next attack came from in front, a fist looking to make contact whose wrist he caught and cracked while using the inertia of his grip to swing the man by the arm like a cudgel into the bulk of the approaching J’Van and delaying him enough that he could deal with someone who had obviously watched too many martial arts movies. And the one with the pipe raised over his head.

He’d activated the strobe function on his flashlight and flipped it into the melee. The pulsing light illuminated the small space with an intensity that upset the equilibrium. He had practiced with a strobing light in combat sessions before. It was unnerving at first until you fell into the rhythm. It had given him the advantage. The faux martial artist froze long enough that he easily foot swept him, landing him on his back, the breath knocked out of him.

He’d tried to sidestep the pipe and elbow the face behind it. He felt the blow on his ribs. I’Van  had got past his guard. His leathers absorbed most of the blow but he still felt it and it had thrown him off balance and into the clutches of J’Van who reached around to get him in a bear hug and pin his arms. He’d first disabled the ankle with a kick and with the grip loosed, he dislocated the large man’s knee with a twisting flat footed kick. J’Van fell to the floor with a howl. Someone was trying grab him by the leg and bring him down. He untangled himself and crushed a hand with his heavy boots. His focus was on I’Van who had tossed the pipe away and was backing away toward a boarded window, reaching into his jacket pocket for something that looked like a pistol.

He’d taken a running jump across the room and tackled I’Van just as he pulled the gun out. The pistol fired with an ear splitting flash of bright orange as the momentum of the tackle sent them both flying, crashing through the weak boards and broken window.

He’d felt suspended at first and then they dropped, I’Van screeching in his ear, the two stories to the partially covered dumpster in the alley below. I’Van had broken his fall and possibly broken his back. He wouldn’t be killing or threatening to kill anyone any time soon. But his leg had hit the edge of the dumpster and that had practically put him out of commission. He’d hobbled back to the battery works to retrieve his electric Spyder, pausing in the shadows to let a squad car creep by. Old Rick had likely called the precinct.

“Whoa, you’re tensing up on me, Mr. Bruce,” the masseuse said leaning down to catch his ear. “Just relax, we’ll work these knots out.”

After the session,  he took a cold shower and then stepped into his closet to choose his clothes for the meeting, corporate casual which meant a top end sports coat, tieless silk shirt, dark slacks, and tasseled oxblood loafers. He returned the BATS lab director’s call once he was dressed and seated at his desk. He’d expected more on the source of the toxic material. It was instead about the vomit sample that the detective had pulled from the scene of his father’s death.

“We’ve detected a higher than normal amount of contaminants, especially in acetates that are used in manufacturing carpets. It’s an anomaly but we’ll run additional spectrometry to see if we can’t detect telling signatures.”

“Thanks, Judy, and why the focus on this particular compound?”

“It can be used as a poison, Mr. Bruce. The question then becomes why is there such a high concentration in the vomit sample. It can’t be solely contamination from the carpeting.”

Wayne rang off after instructing Judy to call him back as soon as she had additional information. Poisoning. Was that why there was a such a hurry to bury the old man? Would an autopsy have revealed traces of the poison? Was that why Linus Pall had rushed the death certificate? Red flags were signaling a conspiracy. Harold? Harold and Trish? How deep did it go? And how would a disinterment look? It would smudge BE’s brand with scandal. None of that mattered, his father demanded that his death be avenged.

The phone rang again and Wayne picked up expecting it to be Judy from the lab. It was Bion. His message was direct. “Rick’s been shot. Hold-up attempt. I’m on my way to the hospital. It doesn’t look good. He might not make it.”

Next Time: Act Two, Scene 1