Category Archives: Steampunk Fiction

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

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

NO ???? I WILL SHOOT U.

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.

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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.”

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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

Contents Vol. 2 No. 9

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

In Issue Nine, Dime Pulp, A Serial Pulp Fiction Magazine,  Wayne Bruce continues the investigation into his father’s death in Act One, Scene 4 of Just Coincidence.  Brooding in his penthouse high above the cityscape, he has come across evidence of fraud that might implicate his uncle. And as he reconstructs the last hours of his father’s life, the three hours prior to his demise remain a mystery.

It is the year Pax Victoriana180.  For Airship Commander Lydia Cheése (pronounced “Chase”), Victoriana rules the waves as well as the airship lanes. In the continuing saga of Cheése Stands Alone. Captain Lydia Cheése  has fallen down the rabbit hole and finds herself in the clutches of a herpetologist by the name of Serre-Pain and his traveling snake show, Madame Ophelia’s Ophidiarium. If she is to find her father, the notorious Commodore Jack Cheése, she must bide her time and masquerade as the snake enchantress, Madame Ophelia.

Number Eleven of On The Road To Las Cruces marks the last chapter in this fictional retelling of the last day in the life of a legendary Western lawman. His death has left many things about his final hours unresolved.  Verandah speculation and dark conspiracies have found fertile ground in the barren lands of the New Mexico Territory about who killed the man who shot Billy, The Kid.

And last but not least, Installment 21 of the 1940 detective story, Better Than Dead (Dime Pulp’s longest running serial),  hapless confidential investigator Lackland Ask has to get out of town, and quick. With a price on his head put there by the mob, sought by the police and a gang of international diamond smuggler saboteurs, and now in the sights of the mysterious Thieves of Bombay, his only recourse is to make himself scarce.

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 continues its crime spree with two new pulp fiction serializations, Cheése Stands Alone by Phyllis Haldursdottir and Just Coincidence by Pierre Anton Taylor, as well as the continuing serialization of the pulp crime fiction of  Better Than DeadA Detective Story and the Western, On The Road To Las Cruces . 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 9

 —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—21


otrpic1fi2In late February of 1908, a one-time drover, buffalo hunter, saloon owner, hog farmer, peach grower, horse rancher, US Customs inspector, private investigator, county sheriff, and Deputy US Marshal set out from his adobe home on the mesa above Organ, New Mexico accompanied by a young man in a black buggy on the journey to Las Cruces. He would never arrive. This is the story of that journey, a novel account of the last day in the life of a legendary lawman.

On The Road To Last Cruces ~Eleven~


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 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 IV


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 4

Act One, Scene 4

by Pierre Anton Taylorheadlines s4

Wayne had been impulsive. He knew that. The whole idea, the lie to cover his suspicions. It was a pipe dream. Even Old Dad would have considered it foolish. Leave the past, look to the future. Well, his future had passed. And what was left of his beginning was the old Battery Works, and the nostalgia for what he remembered as a happier time. His formative years, before being packed off to a succession of elite boarding schools that were really just warehouses for the children of the idle rich where he learned that wealth equaled power and privilege, it was the Ur currency. And that no one was ever equal or happy in their constant and ruthless jockeying for status as an endless savage battle to be king of the hill. There was only room for one at the top in a world of corrupt patricians and to remain at the top required a brutal inhumanity. The kindness and equanimity he had observed in Old Dad in his younger days had been undermined by a spiteful meanness and blatant cruelty. And maybe he wanted to recapture that innocence of those bygone days by turning the dilapidated battery factory into a monument to that memory.

nite viewHe was occupying his father’s penthouse apartment now, a perk on the company dime. He could survey the entire city from his perch at the wide window looking out onto the marble deck of the balcony. The landing lights of a passenger jet heading for the municipal airport that the city council was now slated to vote on naming the Wallace W. Bruce Airport crossed his field of vision. The parallel arrays of lighted city streets and the winking red tail lights and white bright head light beams that travelled them. The cacophony of neon marking nightclub entertainment and dining, the garish ostentation of major brand billboards, the imposing corporate skyscrapers with their lighted empty offices emblazoned with their two story logos. Bruce Enterprise being one of the pretentious eyefuls with it cryptic minimalist brand of three horizontal lines followed by a full height vertical line and the three mirrored parallels again. BE, a minimalist icon if there ever was one. How many times had he stood at that window, taken in the night lit panorama and stopped his gaze at the office tower only to be nudged by that famous quote he often parodied: “To be or not to be is not the question.”

Beyond the bright lights at the far east edge of the city center, the haze of the old industrial district sodium flare streetlights cast a stark shadowless orange on the abandoned buildings and neglected apartment blocks. Out there, in one of the pockets of dark, he was going to direct all eyes to his accomplishment, a memorial, a museum, a community center and park. The trick was to not draw attention to himself. Inevitably it would leak to the press that the scion of the Bruce fortune was applying to the planning commission for a variance on the property. One of the BATS staff would release a statement indicating that the Advanced Technical Systems division would be relocating its administrative offices to the old battery works pending an EIR and a clean bill from the EPA. Everything by the book.

Wayne wandered away from the window. The lab report on his desk. Something was not right. He looked at it again. They had done a thorough scan of the contaminated area, grid by grid. In only one section did they get a hit. It was an anomaly. And it hadn’t penetrated very deep. Heavy metals associated with battery manufacture. The toxic sample was a match with the one listed on the Super Fund document. It claimed that the entire area was contaminated. The millions of dollars the cleanup contractor was charging was preposterous. The cost of the actual cleanup was negligible, it was the paperwork and the lawyers and politician, the machinery of local government whose gears needed to be greased that bled the budget. Someone was going to make millions skimming off the top. He recognized it as a scam. The site was not toxic. A lot of Federal money was poised to be spent on the cleanup, and someone would be getting a hefty percentage. He remembered plaques and civic awards on Old Dad’s office walls had been awarded for his conscientiousness, his concern for worker safety. Old Bruce had been diligent in securing and disposing of any waste, toxic or otherwise. The site had been seeded and the report falsified.

And Harold was complicit in the plan. How much did he know? He could come to no other conclusion. But why? Was it possible that the old man had found out and confronted his brother? If it were ever to come to come out, the fraud would jeopardize Bruce Enterprise’s government contracts. Old Dad would never allow that.

Ray Tso had returned Wayne’s call with the answer to  his inquiry. According to a friend of his who was in the US Attorney’s office, there was an interest in policing instances of fraud associated with the Toxic Superfund. It was one of those government programs that attracted dishonesty, he’d added. There was something else that might interest him. A message had been left for him on his answering machine in the DA’s office overnight. Nothing verbal, but the machine had identified the caller’s number. Out of curiosity he had called the number only to be informed that it was no longer in service.

“So I called someone I know at the phone company and had them trace it. It took a while, but when I heard back, they confirmed that it was out of service and had been so for quite a few years. It was part of a bundle of numbers Bruce Enterprise had purchased years ago. Its physical location was the old Battery factory. It came from your old man’s office.”

“When was the called placed?”

“Not more than a week ago, I can get the exact date for you. I think it was the same day that there was that strange altercation on the Arnold expressway, the van fire and something about a kidnapping, some guy on a motorcycle, if that’s any help.”

“I didn’t hear about that.”

“They think it’s the same guy, some kind of vigilante doing nobody any favors. The odd purse snatching, petty theft, vandalism are just a consequence of the larger crime by people who don’t get their hands dirty.”

“Remind me again, you work for the DA not the Public Defender, right.”

“Yeah, sometimes I think Tara wonders as well. I’m the token idealist. Anyway, I thought I’d run that by you. It was weird, and I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“What was the number?”

Wayne had reason to suspect that it was the unknown number he’d received the day he’d discovered an office full of cats and that someone had been living in the old office building. Scrolling through his pager he found it and the two most recent. He had called the number when it no longer seemed like a coincidence and had bumped into the same out of service dead end. His own search of the reverse directory had only confirmed that it was no longer functioning. He didn’t want to believe in ghosts, either, or coincidences.

The BATS lab report on the sample of vomit the homicide detective had provided had not found anything other than what had been ingested by Wallace Bruce the evening of his death. Absent an autopsy, there was no real evidence of foul play. Yet the absence of evidence seemed to confirm his suspicions.

Reconstructing the old man’s last day had not been difficult. He’d had his usual breakfast at the Empire Club, once the haunt of rail barons, now catering to the more well to do among the well to do. It retained its 19th century stuffiness like a badge of honor. The staff were only too pleased to be of assistance, and the manager inquired if he had given any thought to becoming a member, follow in his father’s footsteps. If so, they’d be delighted to have him.

foursomeThe car service had picked him up and taken to the country club, his regular driver, Cornell, affirmed. That was just before ten. The country club listed his tee time for a foursome at ten. Linus Pall was one of the quartet, Aldo Ring, a city councilman, and also a name that was not familiar to him. One of the staff at the Pro Shop said she’d heard that there had been a loud argument in the locker room between Doctor Pall and another man who was not a club member but a guest. The restaurant staff served Mr. Bruce at his usual table and he had had his usual French Dip and iceberg lettuce salad with tomato and mayonnaise. And of course iced tea.

The midday shift host was Emily and had probably been there since the restaurant’s beginning. Wayne knew her and she knew Wayne. The only thing unusual was that his father had lingered longer than he usually did. Maybe he was waiting for someone or something. Another round of golf. It was not unheard of, but it was usually the younger guys who had the stamina to attempt it. Cornell had picked him up at three from the country club and took him back to the penthouse. The boss told him he wouldn’t need him any longer and he could take the night off. On his dime. Cornell knew what that meant.

The lobby camera was focused on the main banks of elevator doors, the penthouse elevator appeared only as a peripheral image but enough to show the old man insert the key followed by the doors sliding open. The time date stamp read 3:30 and the concierge had noted his arrival in the register as well. Confirmed by the doorman who had been minding the door at least as long as Emily had been hosting tables, Rodrigo was his name.

Rodrigo flagged a cab for him at around 8 PM. A Red Dot cab. He didn’t recognize the cabbie. The woman answering the phone at the Red Dot Cab Company was polite but firm, “If you ain’t the cops, get a court order.” He had consulted with Gordon James. The detective knew someone, one of the drivers owed him a favor, unofficially, of course. The driver remembered the old man because of where he dropped him off. In the warehouse district where they hold raves and fly by night clubs that are essentially transient drug shops trying to stay one step in front of the law. In the detective’s opinion. The club he dropped him off at was called Joker’s Wild.

joker's wildWhen Wayne showed up at the club, it was closed but someone was inside cleaning up. It was a large open warehouse bay, painted black, catwalks skirting what was ostensibly a dance floor, cluttered with the debris of the previous night’s activity. There was a bar near the front of the door. The man sitting at the bar stool with the push broom in his hand was the manager as well as one of the bartenders, the DJ, and sometimes the doorman. His name was Peter. He’d looked at the corporate photo of Wallace Bruce and shook his head.

“No, I’ve seen old guys come in here before but they never stay long. I know this guy, right? On TV?”

“My father, Wallace Bruce. And I agree, he would not normally come to this kind of night club. He was more of a Bach Brahms Big Band Swing kind of guy. Does anything strike you as unusual about that night? More old guys than usual? Bigger crowd, smaller crowd?”

“The only older guys that come here regular are the gorilla suits sent by Joe Kerr and they only stay long enough to pick up their cut. That night was like most nights, although it doesn’t get as crazy as the weekend, but it was hopping. One night blends into the next, as you can imagine. Yeah, sorry I can’t help you. . .except, wait, maybe that was the night the society dame was in here with a gaggle of spoiled brats. I don’t know what they were wasted on, but they were in the upper stratosphere. Teeny, one of the waitresses had to deal with them. They commandeered a booth by the stage and were capping on the dancers, you know ridiculing their moves, that kind of privileged it’s-all-about-me attention seeking. So Teeny says, ‘You know who that is, don’t you? That’s Charlotte Taste.’ That’s how I knew they weren’t just some uptown trade. And ok, you may be right, because, Teeny again, stepped out the side door to get some air. It can get pretty smokey and close in here, as you can imagine. And I put it out of my mind, but Teeny said she saw Charlotte Taste arguing with her sugar daddy out by the parking lot. And I thought that it was just Teeny talking because she does do that to make up for her size, you know, because she’s tiny. But she’s tough, don’t get me wrong. Anyway. I dismissed it because I thought, if she’s this high class society dame, what’s she need a sugar daddy for?”

The lobby camera at the Legacy had caught Old Bruce crossing to the penthouse elevator at around eleven that night. Wayne had replayed the ghostly low resolution footage numerous times as if it would reveal what had happened to his father in the three hours from the time he had been dropped off at Joker’s Wild and his return to the penthouse. With the exception a slight slowness and weave to the old man’s walk and his leaning a hand on the wall next to the elevator to steady himself while he searched for his keys, nothing seemed unusual or out of place.

What was unusual was his meeting with Charlotte at the night club, if it had been him the waitress had seen arguing with his fiancé, ex-fiancé, and that seemed so out of character. Old Dad was always so circumspect when dealing with volatile issues, the calm in the midst of a storm, his management style firm but one of consensus and de-escalation. He would have to talk to Charlotte to get her side of the story. Another loose end he had yet to tie up. She hadn’t returned any of his calls. He didn’t blame her after the way he had broken off their engagement. His father’s passing had dropped into his otherwise uneventful life like a landslide of huge boulders obstructing the path ahead, and until the roadway was cleared, he could not move forward and resume the life that had been mapped out for him as part of his father’s business legacy and, of course, his mother’s outsized social ambition.

denAccompanying by his cogitations, Wayne’s pacing in the book lined study had brought him in front of the gas fireplace and the large portrait oil of his father that hung above the marble mantel. The old man hated the painting Trish had made him sit for as a mark of his status as a captain of industry. Old Dad had made many disparaging comments about the painting, particularly at the pretentiousness of such a display, and had hidden the canvas at the back of the wardrobe in master bedroom of the penthouse. Wayne had found it and restored to its spot above the flickering flames of the fireplace.

He contemplated the painted figure with a bitter sadness that slowly transformed to a helpless rage that brought tears to his eyes. If the picture could talk it would insist on vengeance for the old man’s murder, he was convinced. It bothered him that his suspicion centered on his uncle, Harold. Could the Superfund scam have gone ahead without his says so, without the old man knowing? Add to that Harold’s now vehement opposition to the restoration of the old battery factory as a memorial to the old man’s memory. He kept insisting that it was too late, the contracts had been signed, that they would be sued. He had yet to confront the new president of Bruce Enterprise with his evidence of fraud, details of which he was perhaps already familiar.

Turning, he lifted the contract from the folder and read again the name of the company, JKR Waste Management & Drayage, Inc., an address in the next State over. Near where the old man had gone on his golfing junket not long ago as a matter of fact. He picked up the phone and dialed a number, let it ring twice, and hung up. Shortly the phone on the desk rang and he put the receiver to his ear. There was silence. Then a voice said, “Speak.”

“Robin, I hope I didn‘t wake you.”

“Night is the best time for what I do. I never get to bed before dawn.”

“Like a bat.”

“Yeah, except my name, Robin, is a bird. What can I do you for?”

“I require your off the books research skills. A deep dive into tax records, incorporation papers, who their lawyers are, a full work up. Can you fit that in you nocturnal schedule?”

“As they say, the early bird gets the worm. What they don’t say is that the early bird has been up all night waiting for that worm so that he can get it and go take a nap.”

“I’m sorry I asked.”

“I’m still tracking the source of that DARPA leak. I’ve been dialing in on a lot of conference calls and the talk is that rogue engineers are getting to be like rock bands, they’re working out of their garages. IBM is pissed. They want to go after the independents like they did Olivetti.”

“That must be interesting to eavesdrop on.”

“Unfortunately like any group discussion there are a few lucid moments, the rest of the time it’s like being in a ping pong ball free-for-all, everyone bouncing their crazy ideas off the wall.”

“This shouldn’t take up too much of your phone phreak time. JKR Waste Management & Drayage, address over the State line. The usual work up.”

“That figures, the tax break State. For the right people, at least. It goes to the top of the list.”

Thanks, anything else in the wind?”

“No, nothing, the usual chitchat and scuttlebutt. Oh, but that there might be some kind of vigilante operating in the east end. Beating up people. It’s not very credible. Someone’s been reading too many comic books.”

“Maybe. One last thing. Is it possible that a phone number that has been out of service for almost a dozen years could be dialing up my pager?”

“Not likely. Unless someone has found a way to reactivate the number. It’s either that or a ghost.”


Next Time: A Final Scene

Cheése Stands Alone IV

by Phyllis Huldarsdottir

Chapter Nine

Serpina was quite a practiced liar, and practical joker. Her laugh, a shrill whinny, was playful yet dangerous. Lydia had to reassess her assumptions about the young woman. Nor was she very talkative, and often inobtrusive as if she could make herself invisible. Orphy, the python, was kept soporific on a steady diet of who knows what, Doctor Serre-Pain didn’t specify or explain after he had rushed into the cabin at Lydia’s scream and had once again soothed her nerves with his calm, hypnotic voiced assurances, gently patting the blood back to her cheeks. His disapproving frown had caused Serpina to pout and after a long deliberate silence to mutter a reluctant “sorry.” Lydia would not have to interact with the other snakes, Serre-Pain swore, with the exception of Orphy, and then only on briefly while they were at the festival.

tristan_0123The inspection official and two sinister looking men in black hats had roamed over the barge examining the cargo, and when they came into the cabin, stared wide eyed at her propped up in one of the bunks with the python wrapped over shoulders. Her terrified look might have suggested an otherwise haughty imperious annoyance at the intrusion. The station inspector apologized profusely, and the IOTA agents, not in the habit of showing deference to the general public, dropped their gazes awkwardly.

Once past the inspection station and well up the Loire River approaching Oldest Orleans, the doctor had Vlady bring in a big trunk into the cabin. She had not seen much of the large man on their journey up the river. He spent most of his time on the deck of the barge with Serre-Pain. In the light of day, without the bear suit. he was still an imposing figure with a thick mane of steely gray hair that hung down to his shoulders. His dark eyes seemed to laugh as did the large white beard punctuated by the red dot of an imbiber’s nose. There was something unsettlingly familiar about his manner toward her.

“We have to change your attire,” Serre-Pain was saying, “Your fashionable dress will make you stand out as a privileged Victoriate, especially where we are headed. In the trunk you will find clothing that might fit you and conceal your identity. Even if where we are going is technically outside of IOTA’s jurisdiction, they have spies and informers everywhere. It is important that we avoid any hint of suspicion.”

Serpina stood back as Lydia lifted the heavy lid. The blouses befitting a snake priestess were laid out in layered trays, billowy sleeved embroidered with flowers, birds, animals, and snakes. Colorful skirts, long tasseled and tiered, none of which she felt she could wear with any conviction. Nor was it bioweave but actual antique cotton and silk. And could she ever convince herself to don someone else’s underwear? Pulling away another tray, she uncovered on the bottom a pair of folded trousers much like Serpina was wearing, possibly wool by the feel of the material, and a robust rust fabric shirt with a wide collar, two items she thought she could live with. There were also several pairs of spangled gold slippers that didn’t appear to be made for walking.

She pulled her hand back quickly when she felt under them. And she looked closer with Serpina peering over her shoulder and drawing a breath. For a moment she thought that it might be another of Serpina’s tricks. Then she made out the sleeve and lapels. An overcoat. But one of snakeskin. Dark mottled scales outlined the sleeves, large turned back cuffs lined with dark blue satin, the three quarter length of the coat ending with a slight upturn at the skirt and fitted with large slant pockets. The row of ovoid buttons were of a faded amber. And Lydia recognized them. Orphy had an identical pair. Holding it out at arm’s length, the scales seemed to undulate, tricking the eye with their meandering pattern. The coat lining was also a dark blue satin. A faded label sewn beneath the rear collar read SA I   E RO and spoke of its antiquity. “This is gorgeous!” Lydia exclaimed in spite of herself.

stilettoThe yoke fit comfortably across her shoulders as she shrugged into the coat, the sleeves extending a little ways past her wrists, the hem, past her knees. She was surprised, expecting it to be heavier. Her hand in the right pocket extracted a heavy dark blue cotton scarf. The left pocket was empty although it was shaped as if some object had had a permanent residence there. Lydia pulled on the lapels pleased by the way the coat fit. She felt something hard nudge under her left breast. Inside she found the pocket and the narrow object protruding from it. Throwing open the coat she extracted a long ornate double blade stiletto.

Serpina nodded her head, looking at the gleaming blade admiringly. “The fangs,” she said.

Chapter Ten

The streets of Oldest Orleans were filled with rubble, dust, debris, and choking air. The Victorianasance Faire was held in arcades along the perimeter of Place D’Arc. Outside the walls of the old city, in Older Orleans, vapors from the bioturbines of the factories warped the air adding a gloomy orange pall over the rooftops and the refracted rainbow sparkles of larger particulates gleaming like minor stars. Serre-Pain always staged his performances at dusk when the shadows were long. One of the Medicine Show wagons converted to a stage with a proscenium. At the back behind a red velvet curtain was a narrow antique settee upon which she was obliged to lounge with the coils of Ophy across her shoulders for several excruciating minutes while she was introduced as the descendant of an ancient Minoan queen who was in possession of the secret recipe for an antivenom elixir. Once the pitch was made, Serre-Pain would begin his lecture on the fascinating history and myths of snakes, and  the reason snakes were believed to be immortal. By then the curtain had come down and Serpina would come to get Orphy off her neck.

In the side closet Lydia changed out of her priestess garb and donned the snakeskin coat, wrapping the dark blue scarf around her head and over her nose, masking all but her eyes. She stepped down from the wagon and into the space behind where she saw Vlady getting into his Bear suit. He was just about to fit the head on when he turned and smiled at her with such childish mirth that she felt compelled to smile back. It was the sparkle of his eye. Once the costume was complete he maneuvered his prop, a large ball painted with serpents and moons, ready to make his entrance at Serre-Pain’s cue, and with amazing agility leapt to the top of the ball and rolled it with his feet to maintain a casual balance.

arcadeAt the cheers from the crowd Lydia made her way out from behind the large ophidiarium on wheels that attested to Serre-Pain’s claim of herpetology and proof of his knowledge, like an old library full of old books. The crowds had thinned out further under the arcade where merchants had set up their wares, most everyone wearing a face covering, and some, goggles, against the silicate laden air. Serre-Pain had asked her not to go out in public unaccompanied by one of them. She would appear out of place and thereby attract attention. She was willing to chance it. She had friends who might be able to help her slip back to Sao Paulo. Even though The Empire of Brazil had an extradition treaty with the Clockwork Commonwealth, she doubted that the Emperor’s court would allow it over such a trivial matter as a Citizen of the World Order searching for her paternity. She would have to stay out of IOTA’s jurisdiction which would make her an exile from the world hub of Greater London. She would certainly not be allowed to pilot airships outside of the Empire’s zone of influence which spanned the southern hemisphere and the Atlantic to the inter desert zone of New Mali and Congola further south. She would no longer be an airship commander in the glamourous passenger fleets like Aerosud or Canamair. Most of the navair traffic in the Free Corridor of Cancer was freight and third class which meant much of the world’s poor and retched, refugees from the camps adjacent the dead regions and the encroaching tundra.

A loud noise startled her and she turned to seek it’s origin. A crowd had gathered in front of the stall from where the noise was emanating. She glanced over a shoulder at the edge of the gathering. She could see clearly a man standing in front of a square block of gray bioluminium that was vibrating to a low purr of its working. A propeller whirling at one end and a small tube emitting gray vapors at the other. She identified it immediately. An internal combustion engine. Icers. She didn’t know why she was surprised. Many nonaligned nations allowed the development of petrol powered engines despite the scarcity of the fuel. The Scarce Resources Treaty of Pax Victoriana 80 had banned oil as a fuel source, with the exception of lighting. The bacteria that had been released to eradicate the Black Mold infestation of Pax Victoriana 75 unfortunately had had the characteristics of a petrophage and rendered practically the entire oil reserves of the Northern Hemisphere to a watery nonvolatile solution of less than seven percent accelerant.

She shouldn’t have been surprised. The most standard motor source in the Commonwealth’s zones of influence was the bug drive, the bio repro engine that powered everything. The giant factories that produced the bacterial strains, or seeds, were the same ones that were polluting the skies above Oldest Orleans and stretched further north up the valley past the precincts of Old Orleans. The waste accumulated in piles, attaching itself to the lifeless sands of the devastated deadlands, was blown about in the atmosphere by fierce hyperborean winds. The giant windmills erected around the perimeter of the old city on biostyl stilts were not that effective at deflecting the bitter cold of the poisonous sand storms of the north.

The man in front of her stepped back unexpectedly and stepped onto her slippered foot. He glared at her as if it was her fault after she had pushed back. She apologized. No need to draw attention to herself. She quickly moved through the throngs and clots to the end of the arcade where it made another turn paralleling the edge of the square. She could see the orange bacsodium lights of the medicine show and Serre-Pain leading the faux bear in the open space in front of the wagon. Serpina was likely in the tiny dressing space behind the stage fitting into her snake costume. The young woman’s contribution to the entertainment was her hyperflexability. She could literally twine herself around herself, but mostly she slithered along the stage and up the wall and then provocatively curled around a projection overhanging the top of the stage at which time a red round object like an apple appeared in her mouth.

To this backdrop the snake doctor made his pitch. The little pamphlet he held high over his head contained the secrets of Madame Ophelia’s most famous recipes for making antivenom, revealed for the first time, which he offered for a meager sum but within the affordable range of most everyone in a crowd of people who were not particularly interested in reading. As a bonus he offered free of charge with the purchase of Madame Ophelia’s Secret Recipes, a sample bottle of one of her most potent antivenom elixirs.

After the entertainment  ended and the crowds drifted away, the stretch of the Place D’Arc where the snake show had been held was littered with pamphlets but not one tiny bottle. Serpina had told her that the secret recipe’s ingredients were a local fruit distillate mixed with cayenne, the “dash of snake venom” Serre Pain claimed in his sales pitch.

Lydia look down to see a women pointing at her slippers. She had stopped in front of a footwear stall. Arrayed on neat shelves were a variety of sabots, some painted bright colors, others with intricate designs burned into the particulated nearwood. They were quite popular in Greater London where there was a strong artisan market and certain guilds and houses were recognized by name, their products highly sought after. Along with the display of shoes, apparently locally sourced, was a collection of boots. They attracted Lydia’s eye by their sturdy design, one pair reaching to calf length made of a stiff dark material, some kind of fauxhide. The boots had round pale buttons near the top and across the ankle. She was partial to that type of footwear, similar to the style she always wore but more rugged. She felt the dark material between her thumb and forefinger as the woman in the stall nodded approvingly. At first touch she realized that she had been mistaken. It was real leather, a forbidden pleasure as along with ivory and live animal pets, it had been banned by treaty among the states aligned with the CCCP, the Clockwork Commonwealth Cooperative Protocols that were at the foundation of the Pax Victoriana, hammered out over a hundred years ago. She fingered the buttons, tapping one with a fingernail. Bone, maybe ivory.

steampunkThe woman nodded her head and spoke a single word in dialect, “O.” And again pointed at Lydia’s slippers seeming to infer how puny they were when compared to the rugged specimen Lydia was holding in her hand.

Lydia asked, “Is this real leather?”

The woman canted her head to one side as if making a calculation and then nodded. “Queer.”

Lydia understood the problem. She had assumed the woman spoke Standard. She’d come across these language gaps before. Often they could speak Standard but chose not to in resistance to contempt that World Standard had for their native language that was thousand years in the making while WS was an Anglo-Saxon based universal language only recently seeded over the breadth and width of the Victorian Empire.

“Do you speak Standard?” Lydia was casting a practiced eye over the foot of the boot and at the same time removing her right foot out from the slipper.

The woman in the stall held up her thumb and forefinger to indicate how little, shrugging her shoulders in the heavy blanket coat covering her stooped figure. She too had a scarf wrapped around her head and pulled across her nose. She made agreeable noises as Lydia pulled the boot up around her ankle.

“How much,” she asked, “How much do you want for these boots?”

“Katrevaindees.”

Now it was Lydia’s turn to calculate. She shook her head. “How much? In Victorines.”

The woman showed her a faded piece of paper. The number 90 followed by three zeros was written on it, and slightly below, the letters nfr, meaning New Francs.

“All I have are Victorines. Is there somewhere I can exchange them for the local currency?”

The woman looked over Lydia’s shoulder and held up her hand to wave someone over. “Iceepyare!”

A young man in a beret, scarf slung below his wispy little chin beard and showing the beginnings of a moustache joined them. The woman rattled off something to the young man while pointing at Lydia, the young man nodding in understanding. Suddenly Lydia felt very conspicuous.

“I can help you with the exchange.” He reached into his inside coat pocket and retrieved a large mouchoir enveloping a sheaf of cash. “You wish to buy these boots it will cost you one hundred victorines not counting the exchange fee of ten percent.”

Lydia was astounded. She couldn’t believe her good luck. She had paid twice that much for her cold weather zipper boots and the workmanship had been shoddy. She tried to cover her elation by negotiating. “Ninety, but I’ll go as high as one hundred victorines to include your commission.”

The young man shrugged and turned to walk away, returning the cash to his pocket and revealing the dagger in the sheath at his waist. Lydia was reminded of the stiletto in her inside breast pocket. At the fringes of the civilized commonwealth a knife fight would not be unlikely.

The woman in the stall implored the departing banker. He stopped and looked over his shoulder at Lydia. He had read her.

She sighed and nodded her acquiescence. “Very well, one hundred and ten victorines.” She had a thousand victorines in her wallet. She was an easy mark when it came to footwear. And they fit perfectly as if they were made for her. She admired how nicely they suited her, the square stubby toe and sturdy utilitarian heel.

The woman in the stall was delighted to make such a big sale, shaking Lydia’s hand as did the young man congratulating her on her purchase. He looked at her closely.

“You are not from here. A guest of the Victoriannesance Festivities, perhaps?”

Lydia pointed across the square at the snake show. “I am with Doctor Serre-Pain.”

“Ah,” the young man raised his eyebrows, “The mysterious Madame Ophelia, am I correct?”

“At times,” Lydia admitted and at once realized that she might have revealed too much. She disengaged and moved swiftly away. She had acted frivolously and dallied too long. She was due back to the wagon for the finale of the snake show. Serre-Pain would raise the alarm and come looking for her.

Light spilled across her path from an alcove and she glimpsed the empty tables of a café from which emanated the sounds of Einstein’s first violin concerto, Relativity, her favorite, E in Minor C sharp. And it was the first thing in her flight from IOTA that beckoned to her with its familiarity. She found a table in a dark corner beneath some anti-IOTA graffiti, a common sentiment in the old city she had come to realize. It was time to consider her next step.

bear1Having spent time in an Admiralty intelligence unit when she was stationed at the Commonwealth embassy in Houllas in the Republic of Texas, she knew that she would have to secure new papers if she were going to cross physical borders. And that she would have to avoid travelling by air. It would have to overland until she was safely out of the reach of IOTA. The Capricorn Free Corridor was her best bet. Surely there was someone in Older Orleans who could provide her with a passport that would escape detection, especially if she stayed off the main routes and avoided the busy checkpoints. The strains of the violin concerto had a soothing effect on her although at times she knew that it could also be quite stimulating. She closed her eyes for a moment, amusing herself with the fact that the President of the ISR, the Invincible Swiss Republic, was Albert III, the great grandson of the world famous musician. Unexpectedly her mental image changed, as often happens in reverie, to that of Vlady fitting the bear head onto his own and she realized then why he seemed so familiar to her. How could she had forgotten?

When she opened her eyes there were two uniformed men standing in front of her table. Their patches and canted berets identified them as local gendarmes. “Your papers, please,” the shorter one spoke.


Next Time: The Massive Escape

Better Than Dead—21

by Colin Deerwood

Ads 93

I waited for the loudspeaker to announce the boarding of my cross country bus from a booth with a view of the door in the Happy Trails Bar and Grill next to the terminal. There were a few salesmen at the bar with their hats on the back of their heads washing away the taste of exaggerated claims with another shot, not looking forward to telling more lies to the missus behind the white picket fence in the suburbs. I’d spotted a few eyes I wanted to dodge but so far the mug in the flashy suit only had them for the young gal who’d just got off a bus in a summer dress, her best Sunday hat, and a suitcase tied with a length of rope. The beat cop was too busy paying attention to the giggly woman at the Traveler’s Aid desk. I nursed my beer and shoveled in another spoonful of chili. It was my second bowl. I was famished.

busbarAfter I’d left my disappointment in the coalbin, I made my way to the railyard by the Serbian Social Club. There were a couple of squad cars parked out front and the guard at the front door was now a boy in blue. There was no chance that I was going to get close or even inside the building. Becky was gone, I had to face up to that. Kovic’s mob probably dumped the body somewhere it wouldn’t be found any time soon. If anyone looked like a sad sack that day, it was me. I had no choice but to pick up my gear at Alice’s and head out of town.

Alice was all smiles when I got to her studio but I didn’t like the looks she gave me once I told her what had happened to Rebecca. She’d wanted to tell me that someone was interested in buying some of her art but I kind of rained on her parade with my news. I couldn’t tell if she was mad at me or that the news hurt her so bad that it made it look that way. Either way it was a crushing realization. I was responsible. Rebecca had been swept up in my blind quest for revenge. I should have ditched her and gone after Kovic on my own. Now I’d lost her for good. I needed a drink.

But Alice wasn’t having any of it. She walked me through the ordeal she had suffered when Ted died. She had gone on a binge she reminded me. And I remembered finding her a few times at Sid’s or Sammy’s Shamrock, and helping her home and to bed, limp as a washcloth wrung out of all her tears. She still felt the pain of the loss, and bitterness, and disappointment with herself that she hadn’t done more or noticed sooner. Most of all she was lonely. Drink wasn’t going to bring Rebecca back and I’d only end up doing something stupid. She was right, and I listened.

The plan that had come to me while I was on Annie’s tug involved taking the bus upstate to the one horse town of Ridley up in the Three Lakes district where my granny had lived. She’d passed away but I still had cousins up there I hadn’t been in touch with in more than a decade. Back then, when the market crashed, folks lost everything, businesses closed and homes were foreclosed on, and the streets crowded with homeless families looking for a handout. The only people with money were crooks and politicians although I don’t know how anyone could tell the difference. Granny had been smart, her mortgage paid off, managed to keep up with taxes so she still had a couple of acres of apple trees and a ten room two story house to which the less fortunate of her children and grandchildren flocked when the money ran out along with the jobs. I’d heard that it had become a zoo, and fortunately for the old gal she didn’t last much past the repeal because then it became a drunken zoo. I aimed to become part of that menagerie.

Alice promised to ask around for a legit buyer for Ted’s art piece. I was going to need the moola once my safety c-note ran out. And she gave me a goodbye present along with a heartfelt hug and squeeze, one of her mementos of her dead lover, Ted’s fedora.

“It suits you well,” she said as I flicked the brim. “Too bad it doesn’t hide your shiners. You look like you’re wearing a black mask.”

Ads 94

bustermI’d waited till the last person in line had boarded and the driver was about to close the door. The man behind the wheel gave me the ‘there’s one in every crowd’ squint as I made my way to the back and humped my satchel onto the seat next to me. I’d given a quick eyeball of the occupied seats and what I was seeing was a smattering of overdressed travelers, men and women looking out the window, some with children in their laps. Some were obviously vacationers heading up to Big Lake, one of the three lakes and most popular summer resort. And some, by their defeated expressions, were going back where they came from with only the clothes on their backs. Maybe I fit into that last category, but behind the dark glasses I had picked up at the terminal newsstand and my hat tipped back once the bus turned onto the road leading to the outskirts, I didn’t care. I had a half pint of Old Hickory and a pack of Lucky Strikes to while away the three hours it would take to get to where I was going.

Ridley was named after Colonel P.J. Ridley who owned the local livery and dry goods store and was given the rank of colonel for providing horses to the Army for its war in the South. It was a one horse town on the way up to the lakes and the resorts.

There were three lakes, Big Lake, Middle Lake, and Little Lake. The resorts were mainly clustered around Big Lake, and since the repeal they’d added a night club or two. Middle Lake was a not quite as big overgrown snake infested swamp and provided mosquitoes for the entire area. Little Lake lived up to its name, but it was clean and deep and cold. I know because granny kept a cabin up there where I’d spent a few summers as a kid. It didn’t have a big sandy beach like Big Lake and was bordered mainly by big rough outsized boulders and it had a mosquito population almost as dense as Middle Lake which didn’t make it as popular and inviting.

gaspumpstableI’d gone through about half of the Old Hickory and smoked up the rear of the bus with a cigarette haze by the time the bus rolled into Ridley. I found my feet once I stumbled off the bus and watched it kick up the road dust on its way out of town. Ridley didn’t seem to have changed much since they last time I came through. They’d added a gas pump in front of the livery barn and a sign on the side that said mechanic. There was a streetlight I didn’t remember from before out front. Granny’s house was down the elm shaded road running behind it.

The sun was just settling on the horizon and it was still light enough that I found the old house without any problem. I was surprised by how run down it looked. The front yard was overgrown with weeds, the rusty metal gate squeaked, and one window on the upper story looked like it had a black eye or there’d been a fire. There was a familiar scent in the warm night air, rotting fermenting apples.

I glanced around the littered porch. It wasn’t the cozy welcoming place it had once been. I gave the peeling green door a rap with my knuckles and looked over both shoulders like I didn’t want to be caught by surprise. I waited before I gave the door another paradiddle. I heard a sound on the other side and then the handle turned and the door opened a crack. A dark eyeball stared at me.

“Go round the back,” it said and slammed the door.

I made my way through the overgrown path alongside the house to the covered porch that led to the kitchen. It could have used a coat of paint and the screen door was hanging crooked off a hinge.

Inside, the door to the kitchen was open and I stepped to it. The dark woman at the stove looked up with a frown. “Ain’t got no work. I can give you something to eat but you be on your way when you finish.”

I nodded and took off my hat. “Thank you, but you see my this is my granny’s house and I’m. . .”

The cook reached for the knife on the cutting board just as the door from the dining room opened and Ruth stepped through. She was a cousin, distant, about five years older than me. Tall, she’d kept the square shoulders, always kind of a tomboy and bully, beating on the younger kids, me included. Her hair looked like it belonged on Ritzy Ritz as did the big black spidery lash eyes. Her nose was cute as a button. The only thing that spoiled it was that she had a jaw like Joe Palooka. And maybe a little hint of a moustache.

“Sissy said that there’s a blindman begging at the door.” She had her fists to the hips of her polka dot house dress looking at me.

“Even if I was blind I could still hear you, Ruthie. Being blind ain’t the same as being deaf,” I said with a smile.

I thought her eyes were going to leap off her face and she got that set to her big jaw like she was going to let me have it.

I kept the smile froze on my face.

She gave me another gander. “Cousin Lack? Lackland Ask?”

Now the jaw didn’t look so bad supporting the big smile.

“Hello Ruthie, long time no see.”

“Whatever brings you all the way out here? I never thought I’d see you in a million years. Someone told me you were living in the city doing some kind of  investigations, is that true?”

I could tell she was a little confused and asking herself the same questions.

“And why are you wearing sunglasses at this time of day?”

I took them off and even the cook gasped.

“What happened?”

“Funny you should ask.”  And so I told her she was right. I was a private investigator. I even showed her my card where it said, Lackland Ask, Confidential Matters Investigated. I explained how as the result of an investigation I ended up on the wrong side of a mob boss and he has some of his goons worked me over. The cook was looking at me with narrowed eyes but Ruthie was fascinated. I told her that because of my investigation, the assassination of a federal judge and a gold heist had been foiled. Ruthie shivered at the word “heist.” Because I was a witness I had to lie low to avoid being knocked off. She mouth the words “knocked off.” “Nobody is likely to look for me in Ridley because they think I’m a born and bred city rat. So maybe I can lie low. . . .”

As I was talking the eyes that had met me at the front door peeked from behind her mother’s akimbo arms. She looked about seven, then a sullen looking boy of about ten, his hair freshly shorn, came to stand in the doorway, and a younger barefoot girl in a faded shift clung to the calf at the hem of her mother’s dress.

And it came to me. “Out at Little Lake. Does the cabin out there still belong to Granny?”

She had to think about that for a minute. “Granny’s will said that the summer cabin belonged to all of us so I guess it does, but no one goes there anymore. It’s falling apart. No one has any money to fix it up. And it’s so out of the way.” She said it like Ridley was the cat’s meow. “And the mosquitoes.”

“Sounds like just what the doctor ordered. Maybe I can spend my time out there fixing the place up. But no one can know I’m out there. If anyone asks you who is staying out there, just tell them my name is. . .Stan Gardner, a distant cousin, and I’m writing a book and need the peace and quiet.”

Ruthie nodded and said, “Oh, alright, Stan, the gardener. I don’t suppose Cousin Mack and Cousin Myrtle need to know. You can bunk in the shed out back where Uncle Ned tied his flies for tonight.”

The cook handed me a plate. “Siddown. You gonna do all that, you gonna need something to eat.”

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Ruthie came to visit me that night. She wanted to catch me up on some family history, and maybe add to some of it. I was beat and the Old Hickory helped numb the fact that the dusty cot was missing a rib and it was like trying to sleep over a washtub on a mattress that wasn’t much more than a mangled washcloth. There wasn’t much light coming in through the one grimy window of the shed. I banged my knee against something large and hard under a ratty tarpaulin trying to find my way around in the dark, a machine of some kind before stumbling to the workbench and the cot beside it to set down my bag. I was moving dust that hadn’t been moved in a while and it made me sneeze. And I remembered the smell. Uncle Ned was a drinking man, and the walls seeped the familiar vapors of old alcohol. I’d heard my old man say that the only thing his cousin tied in the shed was “one on.” I toasted Uncle Ned with the last corner of the half pint and set about to make myself comfortable.

aunty ruthShe ducked in the doorway with the wick on the lamp trimmed short so that just a dim pale glow lit part of her face. It looked like a face out of a Hollywood photo magazine. All of a sudden I wasn’t all that tuckered out as I thought I was. She came closer and I saw she was wearing a quilted house coat open at the front to reveal a frilly shimmering slip. And she’d perfumed up.

“I just came out to see if you were doing all right.” She glanced around. “I was just about to turn in myself. I hope this is comfortable enough.” It was the smile that said everything.

After the cook had served me and I was allowed to sit at the kitchen table. Ruthie’s daughters had had difficulty restraining their curiosity, the boy, though, keeping a wary distance. And Ruthie, once she got over her surprise, had to explain to the kids who I was and where I placed on this branch of the family tree. “His father was Uncle Ned’s nephew by his sister’s brother who was Granny’s nephew by her brother.”

I’d been curious when I realized that Ruthie and her three kids, and the cook, seemed to be the only inhabitants. “Is your husband working late?” seemed like an imposition as soon as I said it.

Ruthie made a mad mouth and frowned. “Angel’s daddy works at Big Lake Resort and this is the busy season so he’s almost never home,” she said resentfully indicating the youngest. “Polly and Paul’s father went off to find work on the railroad and I ain’t heard from him since.”

The cook was giving me an eat your food and mind your own business glare.

“I heard that more of the cousins and family lived here.”

Ruthie cocked her head to one side and gave a big sigh. “Well, they did and then they didn’t. You musta heard that it was a real three ring circus out here, especially after Granny passed. The boys were always fighting with one another and getting thrown in jail. Or beating up other boys who were showing interests in the girl cousins. Eventually the girls left with their husbands or went to try their luck in the city. The boys kept fighting and causing mayhem so Constable Thorndyke told them if he found them out this way again he was gonna throw them in jail.”

The cook nodded her head. “It took him a few tries but they finally got the message. Ain’t been by in a long while. Ain’t seen hide nor hair of them.” She gave a good riddance nod of her chins.

That explained some of it, and explained why Ruthie was visiting me once the lights in the house had gone dark.


Next Time: Eaten Alive