Woodcut illustrating Shanghai Massacre
Previously in the novel: Leon, a novice mercenary, is foiled in kidnapping the Archbishop of Canterbury by a mysterious man in black. The man in black turns out to be Edward the Prince of Wales. Soon to join the world of espionage is Wallis Spencer, an up-and-coming Baltimore socialite.
(Author’s note: this chapter contains mature situations.)
Lady Elvira Chatsworth could not contain herself. At the exact moment of climax with the Prince of Wales, she emitted a scream, a glass-shattering scream. Not that it mattered because it was eight o’clock in the morning in the prince’s stateroom aboard the HMS Wyndemere one day out from Shanghai. They had danced and drank champagne all night. Her husband, the ambassador, went back to his cabin because he had an important diplomatic strategy session that morning, which allowed her to have an experience of a lifetime—being bedded by the future king of England. And no one could hear a sound.
David nuzzled her neck. “I am pleased the British ambassador was so preoccupied with his staff that I had the opportunity of entertaining his wife.”
“Yes, he’s quite upset,” Elvira said, trying to keep her body from tingling for the third time. “Everyone at Downing Street is in a dither over this Shanghai Massacre scandal.”
“Massacre?” David asked as his tongue darted into her bellybutton, tasting her body. “What massacre?”
“Don’t you know about the Shanghai Massacre? It’s the current world crisis!”
“That’s why the Royal Family has prime ministers, ambassadors and such to worry about unpleasant matters.”
“Unpleasant indeed.” Elvira tried to continue even though her breath was becoming labored. ‘The embassy in April overreacted to a student protest and ordered soldiers out onto the street. Several students were shot down. Now we are in a fix. If we relieve the ambassador in charge it would been an admission of guilt which Great Britain cannot do. But we cannot ignore the entire incident. The empire’s reputation is in shambles.”
“And when did this happen?”
“Of what year?”
“This year, 1925.”
“Of course! The whole world is shocked.”
“I thought it was still 1924.”
“You are such a naughty boy.” She giggled.
David drew himself up and planted a kiss on her lips. “Those things have a way of resolving themselves.”
Elvira turned her face. “You mean you don’t care?”
“My dear, I don’t care much about anything.” He smiled. “Right at this moment I care about you.”
“And why is that? Why are you always involved with married women? Why weren’t you interested in Princess Stephanie of Germany? What a diplomatic coup that would be. A royal wedding between Britain and Germany. But no. You’re mad about women who belong to other men.”
“But, right now in this place, aren’t you glad?’
“That’s what my father calls me.”
“I know very most of the women you romance believe you will demand they divorce their husbands and marry you.”
David nibbled at her ear. “Gossip.”
“I loathe gossip,” Elvira announced.
“Rot. You love gossip. You did nothing but gossip about the affairs of London high society from midnight until the sun rose. You almost bored me to tears. Most of what you said was wrong.” He clucked her under the chin. “I know you can’t wait to disembark at Shanghai, have tea with the other ladies of the embassy and tell them you have slept with the Prince of Wales.”
“You are a scoundrel.”
“In fact, why don’t you tell them I am ill equipped to mount any woman and you spent the entire evening listening to me complain about my father?”
“How low can you be?”
“Oh, much lower. Tell them I’m a homosexual and am using all these wives as a cover.”
She slapped at his bare shoulder. “Why would you spread such lies about yourself?”
“If people keep busy spreading the lies they can’t figure out the truth.”
“And what is the truth?” For a flickering moment Elvira anticipated hearing some truly outrageous admission by the Prince.
“I want to make love to you one more time before breakfast.”
She studied his lean, tanned, handsome face. One eye squinted more than the other, making him more intriguing. She didn’t know why she pretended to be indignant. His reputation was as clear as a polished goblet. He traveled the world shaking hands for his country. And he shook hands like an expert. That was no gossip. Sliding down under the covers, Elvira smiled.
“As you command, Your Majesty.”
Mary Louise and Santy
Mary Louise could hardly contain herself as she sat by candlelight, sitting as still as a child on Christmas Eve could sit while her mother brushed out her hair. It was the middle of the Civil War and their plantation home in South Carolina was in ruins, but Mary Louise just knew Santa Claus would answer the letter she wrote.
“Now, don’t you go wishin’ for the moon, young lady,” her mother lectured her as she began to tie pink ribbons in Mary Louise’s brown hair, making two, perfectly divided pigtails.
“But if Santy got my letter….”
“I didn’t send Santy’s letter,” her mother said abruptly. “He couldn’t run the blockade anyway if I had sent the letter.” She finished tying the second ribbon. “Blame the Yankees if you don’t get no Christmas this year. It’s their fault.”
Mary Louise knew not to argue with her mother when she got into one of those moods, and she seemed to be in one of those moods all the time recently. After her mother left the bedroom, she scrambled to her desk and pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil and proceeded to write the very same letter over to Santa Claus. She had but one wish.
“Please, Santy, let me see my daddy one more time.”
Folding the letter neatly, Mary Louise went to the window, opened it and tossed it out in the cold night air. Her mother always told her Santa Claus was magical so she knew her letter would reach him on the winter wind of Christmas Eve. Content she had done all she could do to ensure a merry Christmas, Mary Louise closed the window and ran to her bed where she buried deep underneath the many layers of down-filled quilts. No time had passed since she closed her eyes, it seemed, when she felt a cold blast, a gentle ho ho ho and the familiar baritone chuckle of her father.
“Daddy! Santy!” Mary Louise whispered excitedly.
Jumping from bed she ran to give her father a big hug. She knew it had to be her father because no one could hug as well as he did. She sniffed. Yes, it was the smell of his sweat and a slight hint of his favorite Cuban tobacco. But Mary Louise detected another scent, unfamiliar, acrid, almost taking her breath away.
“I can’t stay long, darlin’,” her father said. He pulled her away. “Let me look at you. You’ve grown an inch since I last seen you. And still got that purty smile.” He hugged her again. “Always keep that purty smile, darlin’.”
“Oh, Daddy, I just have to give you a Christmas present!” She turned to Santa Claus. “Isn’t that right, Santy?”
“Yes, Mary Louise, that’s right,” Santa replied.
“And I know just what to give!” Mary Louise stuck out her hand. “Give me your tobacco pouch, Daddy.”
Her father pulled a leather pouch from his tattered, soiled gray trousers and handed it to her. Mary Louise ran downstairs to the parlor and opened a drawer in a large old desk. She gently lifted the lid off a humidor and carefully scooped out the last of the fragrant Cuban tobacco into her father’s pouch. She quickly returned and proudly presented it to him.
“It’s the last, Daddy. I knew you would want it.”
“That’s mighty kind of you darlin’. I’ll never forget it.”
“It’s time to leave,” Santa said.
“But I have to give my little darlin’ something.”
“Oh, Daddy,” Mary Louise said in a soft voice, “just you being here is all the Christmas I need.”
She watched her father’s eyes fill with tears as he pushed his long dark hair from his forehead. Her nose crinkled as she noticed his hair had begun to turn just a touch of gray. Mary Louise’s head cocked when he pulled his pocket knife out and opened it.
“I know. This will be from me to you for all the Christmases in your rest of your life.”
The next morning Mary Louise jumped from her bed and flew down the stairs to the kitchen. She felt one side of her neatly parted hair fly free of the pink ribbon, but she did not care. She had to share with her mother the happiness of her visit with her father, all thanks to Santa Claus.
“Oh Mommy, Mommy! It was wonderful last night! He came! He came! Santy came and he brought Daddy with him!”
Her mother looked up from her cup of coffee as she sat at the table. Her hands covered a letter.
“What on earth are you talking about, Mary Louise?”
“After you left me last night, I wrote another letter to Santy and threw it out the window. And he got it. He woke me up with his ho ho ho and when I opened my eyes I saw Daddy!”
“You were dreaming, child.”
“No, I wasn’t dreaming! It was real!”
“That’s foolishness! Now sit down and eat your breakfast.”
“No! I’ll prove it!” Mary Louise ran to the parlor, brought back the humidor to the kitchen table and put it down. “See, all the tobacco is gone.”
“That was the last of your father’s favorite tobacco. Very expensive tobacco from Cuba. What did you do with it?”
“I gave it to Daddy. I put it in his pouch. I wanted him to have it,” Mary Louise said softly.
“You dreadful child! You threw away your father’s tobacco as part of this cruel joke that he was here last night!”
“But it’s not a joke, Mommy. Daddy was really here. Santy brought him.”
She watched her mother sink into the chair, dissolve into tears and hold up the letter on the table.
“Because this letter says the Yankees killed your father at a place in Maryland called Antietam. I got this letter three weeks ago, so there’s no way your father could have been in this house last night! And why would he have come home and not….” Her voice choked. “…and not visited me?”
“Maybe,” Mary Louise whispered, “because you didn’t write a letter to Santy.”
Her mother arose abruptly and shook Mary Louise’s shoulders.
“You terrible child! How can you be so mean to me, especially here at Christmas?” She stopped and reached out to touch the loose strands of hair on the side of Mary Louise’s head. “And you lost one of the ribbons from your hair. Do you know how expensive ribbon is now?”
“I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“I’m so angry I can’t stand the sight of you! Go to your room and stay there all day!” She stepped away, picked up the letter and folded it. “I shall spend the day in prayer, asking God to give me the strength to forgive you. Perhaps all will be better tomorrow.”
Mary Louise turned and without another word went to her room. There she decided she would never write another letter to Santa Claus again. It was not that she no longer believed in Santa; no, it was because she decided there was no use in asking Santa to give her something if no one believed her when it happened. She pulled out a lock of dark hair streaked with gray tied with a pink ribbon. It was her present from her father. Mary Louise was afraid to show it to her mother because she might throw it away, and Mary Louise wanted to keep it forever.
Her mother forgave her the next morning and gave her extra jam to go on her biscuits. Her mother never celebrated Christmas as long as she lived. This is not to say Mary Louise never had a merry Christmas again. She had a life-long love affair with Christmas, starting with her eighteenth year when she relented and wrote another letter to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, folded it and tossed it out in the winter wind.
“Dear Santy, Since Mommy hates Yankees so much, please bring me a nice Yankee boy to marry.”
On Christmas Day, a school friend, who knew Mary Louise’s mother never celebrated the holiday, invited her over for dinner. In the parlor was a tall, willowy young man with long straight dark hair and soulful eyes.
“Mary Louise, I want you to meet my father’s new assistant, Thomas. He’s from Ohio.”
Mary Louise was impressed with Thomas’s strong but gentle handshake. By that evening they were sitting close to each other by the parlor fireplace. Instinctively she leaned into him and he placed his arm around her shoulder. With her head on his chest she sniffed. His sweat smelled like her father’s. She sniffed again.
“Do you smoke a pipe?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “It’s my only vice. I buy the tobacco from Cuba.”
Mary Louise and Thomas were married by the next Christmas. On Christmas Eve she pulled out the strand of hair tied with the pink ribbon and told him the story of her Civil War visit from her father. She also told him about her letter asking for a nice Yankee boy. He believed her. They had five boys and three girls, each carefully taught to write letters to Santa Claus, fold them neatly and throw them out the window onto the winter wind of Christmas Eve.
Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton held President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. Duff and Alethia find pretending to be the Lincolns difficult, especially with Tad coming down sick. Stanton interrupts their dinner to make sure Duff is not eating too much.
“Sit down and resume eating.” Stanton paused to smirk. “Enjoy it while you can.” He pulled out his notepad and handed it to Duff. “This is what you’ll say at the Cabinet meeting in the morning.” Going to the door, he stopped and turned to look at Alethia. “Oh. How’s the boy doing?”
“The boy?” Alethia looked up, a bit distracted.
“Yes, the Lincoln boy. Tad. Is he well?”
“Yes, he’s fine.” She paused. “His forehead was hot tonight, and he said he didn’t feel well, so he went straight to bed.”
“I’m so glad you cared to ask,” she said, trying to smile at a man she both feared and loathed.
“I don’t care.”
“His mother asked.” With that, Stanton left as quickly as he had appeared.
When Phebe arrived with a tray of fried chicken, potatoes, and collard greens, Duff put on a good show of not being hungry. Alethia noticed a glint in Phebe’s dark eyes. Was it a recognition that something was wrong? Feeling panic rise from the pit of her stomach, Alethia tried to control her emotions while deciding what to do. Out of her chair she bustled to Phebe and placed an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
“Dear Phebe,” she said, “we work you to death, and for what? Willy-nilly appetites. We’re so sorry.”
“That’s all right, Mrs. Lincoln.”
Again seeing the cloud of doubt cover Phebe’s eyes, Alethia pulled away.
“Of course, we do pay you well to accommodate our peccadilloes.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Phebe bit her lip and then looked at Alethia. “I hope you don’t mind my being so bold, ma’am.”
“What is it, Phebe?”
“I’m just glad to see you feeling better, since the passing of little Willie,” she cautiously said.
Alethia was taken aback by Phebe’s observation, knowing true mourning continued in the basement. Momentary shame crossed her mind for not grieving for Tad’s brother.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, Mrs. Lincoln,” Phebe said. She turned to leave. “I probably shouldn’t have said nothing at all.”
“No, thank you.” Alethia reached out to touch her. “Not too many people care how I feel anymore.” She smiled. “No one much really likes me. Mrs. Keckley, and now you. I can count you as a friend, can’t I?”
“Of course, ma’am.” A grin flashed across her dark face.
After Phebe left, Alethia sat and looked across at Duff, who was staring at his empty soup bowl. “Did I do right?”
“What I said to the cook. Did I blather on too long? I worry my own personality comes out instead of Mrs. Lincoln’s.”
“Oh. No. You were fine.” His voice sounded hollow.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Duff shook his head, refusing to look up. Before she knew what she was doing, Alethia was in the chair next to Duff, hesitantly touching his large, bony hands, becoming aware how sensitive they seemed, despite the calluses and scars.
“Please, tell me.”
“I can’t eat like this no more.” He raised his head, his cheeks wet with tears. “It reminds me too much of Libby Prison. I can’t go on. Mr. Lincoln may be able to live on vegetables and fruits, but I can’t.”
“In Richmond. I spent a year there before me and a handful of others escaped.”
“That’s where they sent you after you were caught as a spy?”
“Yes.” Taking his napkin, Duff wiped his eyes, averting them from Alethia.
A lot of people don’t know this, but Santa Claus hasn’t always lived at the North Pole.
Way back in the Middle Ages, he lived in the Netherlands. His original name was Sinter Klaus which was Dutch. He got started carving those wooden shoes for the children. Soon he found out kids weren’t all that keen about shoes. Their parents got them shoes all the time. Who cared if he carved them to look like squirrels, rabbits and deer? Then he wised up and started carving toys and making dolls. The word got out, and Santa became a fan favorite in December.
All was cool for a couple of hundred years until the Goths and Visigoths began raiding the Low Country. He kept trying to tell them they didn’t have to steal the toys. He was going to deliver them to the Goth and Visigoth children anyway. At least some of them. Goth and Visigoth kids can be real little brats if truth be told.
“We don’t accept charity,” the leader of the pack said. “If our little boys and girls want a toy for Christmas I’ll get it for them.”
“Even if you have to steal it,” Santa said.
“That’s right. Even if I have to steal it. At least I know what they really want. They don’t have to settle for what you decide to give them.”
Now Santa knew why the Goth and Visigoth kids were horrible. Their parents were horrible. So Santa decided it was time for a change of scenery. Each Christmas Eve as he flew his sleigh and eight tiny reindeer around the world he noticed Florida was a nice place. Lots of sandy beaches, very warm and not so many people to crowd his space.
He, the elves and the reindeer packed up their stuff and moved right after the first of the year in 1492.
Bad timing. The Spanish were on the way, but he didn’t know it then. He knew when children were naughty or nice, but Santa didn’t have a clue about adults. When people got to be adults, they were apt to do anything, especially anything naughty.
Santa and the gang managed to last a couple of hundred years before the Europeans started to settle in. The worst part of living in Florida, however, was that the elves were completely distracted by the sandy beaches. It was too cold in Holland to do much except make toys; but in Florida the sun was out and the surf was up.
The big guy himself didn’t care to spend the day at the beach. His cheeks were rosy enough without getting sun burned. And that little round belly might look cute when all covered up in a red suit and white fur, but when it was exposed in a pair of cargo pants, well, fuhgeddaboutit.
The elves, on the other hand, loved splashing in the water and body surfing. They found a new use for coconuts. Santa thought it was cute to carve them to look like gorilla heads, but the elves liked to chop them open and pour in rum. Few people know the fact that an elf named Ralph invented the pina colada.
When the United States pushed the Spanish out Santa decided it was time to move on. First he considered the South Pole but there were too many penguins and walruses. They waddled around and knocked over all the tables, and they have extremely poor hygiene. The North Pole, on the other hand, was nice and secluded.
The elves, by the way, have never forgiven Santa for leaving Florida.
Three fir trees on the edge of the forest were chatting one morning in early December.
A huge fellow, about twenty feet tall and wide at the base, ruffled his limbs. “I don’t know what you two guys are planning for Christmas but I expect to be center of attention downtown this year. Oh yeah, on the square overseeing the Christmas parade. Anybody who is anybody will be there with their kids watching the parade pass in front of me. I’ll be lit to the max with lights and a star on top.”
“That’s nothing,” a ten footer with lush green boughs replied. “I mean, if you go for that common man scene where they let absolutely everyone near you, I suppose that’s okay. As for myself, I’m selective about my company. Not saying I’m better than anyone else, but let’s just say I have discerning taste. I’m winding up in the grand foyer of a millionaire’s mansion, decorated with only the most expensive ornaments and lights. I’m talking Waterford crystal here, and I’ve got the branches to hold them.”
The third tree, not more than three feet tall and with scrawny limbs, just stood there without much to say.
“What about you, junior? What do you expect to be doing on Christmas morning? Brunching with the chipmunks?” The middle-sized tree blurted forth a forced ha-ha-ha. A nice baritone but shallow as could be.
“Now, now,” the largest tree chided. “We shouldn’t make fun of our inferiors. We all can’t be the best, most important Christmas trees in town. Not even second best, like you who will be charming to a small group but not as the official town tree.”
The littlest tree felt like he was about to ooze sap out of sadness but knew it wouldn’t do any good. The other trees were right. Who would want him except for kindling for the fire? He wasn’t big enough to make a decent Yule log.
Just at that time a caravan of cars leading a large tractor-trailer truck pulled up in front of the three trees. A group of important-looking dignitaries crawled from their cars and circled the largest tree as the crew pulled its equipment from the truck.
“Oh, yes, I think this one will do fine,” a large bald man announced as though he was thoroughly practiced at making important decisions.
“Oh yes, Mr. Mayor, this one will be more than fine.” The others standing next to him quickly agreed with him.
The crew started its chain saw, chopped the fir down and laid it on the flatbed truck.
“See you never, suckers!” the biggest tree called as the municipal procession disappeared.
“Commoner!” the middle-sized tree replied.
A couple of hours passed before a long limousine with shaded windows rolled up to the two remaining firs. A chauffeur jumped from the driver’s seat and opened the door for a couple elegantly dressed in fur and leather. The woman, with her artificially colored blonde hair piled on her head, sipped from a champagne glass, while the man fixated on his cell phone.
“Oh, Maxim,” the woman cooed. “You did a wonderful job scouting out the most beautiful tree in the forest.” She ran her fingers across the chauffeur’s broad shoulders. “Of course, you do everything well.” She turned to the man on the phone. “So, what do you think Joey? Is it big enough for our grand staircase?”
“Yeah. Sure. Whatever.” The man didn’t look up from his phone. “Max, cut it down.”
The chauffeur cut down the middle-sized tree, carefully tied it to the top of the limousine and they got into the car to drive away.
“Good luck, shrimp! You’ll need it!” the tree called out as the car disappeared around the bend.
At the end of the day, the sky darkened, and a small old car rambled up to the small tree and stopped. Three small children poured out of the back seat and ran to the little tree.
“Oh, daddy, this one will be perfect!” they sang as a chorus.
“That’s good,” a young man in ragged overalls said. “Anything bigger wouldn’t have fit in the car.”
A wispy haired young woman came around the car. “Stand back, children. I don’t want you close when your daddy starts using that axe.”
“Oh, Mommy, you worry too much,” one of the children said with a laugh.
On Christmas Eve, everyone in town gathered on the square to watch the Christmas parade and ooh and ah over the beautiful lit giant tree. Floats rolled by, and the people on them pointed and shouted at the town’s big Christmas tree. Bands with drummers, tubas and more marched past. Each one made the tree feel prouder and prouder.
On Christmas Eve night, elegantly dressed couples gathered in the millionaire’s mansion and oohed and awed over the beautifully decorated tree by the grand staircase. They all drank champagne and nibbled on appetizers served on a silver tray by Maxim who also turned out to be the butler. The ladies in their lovely gowns asked the millionaire’s wife when they were leaving for their estate in the Bahamas.
“Midnight,” she replied. “We always spend Christmas day in the Bahamas. It’s our family tradition.”
Also on Christmas Eve night, across town in a small wooden house, the family decorated the little tree which they placed on a table in the corner of the living room. The room smelled delicious from the freshly popped corn which they strung and hung on the tree. The children kept busy coloring, cutting and hanging the new ornaments on the little tree. The room was alive with the constant giggling of the children, and the little tree decided this wasn’t a bad place to be.
The next morning, everyone in town was home, opening presents and enjoying Christmas dinner with family and friends. The large tree downtown had already been forgotten. It kept hoping to hear another oom pa pa coming down the street but it didn’t. The enormous fir shivered first from the cold wind and then from the loneliness. It couldn’t decide which was worse.
In the millionaire’s mansion, everything was dark and still. All the elegantly dressed people were gone. Numbing silence replaced the insincere wishes for a happy holiday season. The middle-sized tree decided all that Waterford crystal was making its branches droop. Not even Maxim was there.
Meanwhile, in the small house across town, the family gathered around the tree to open presents. The children tore away wrapping paper to see new socks and underwear and hugged their parents gratefully for it. Then they cooked their modest Christmas feast and settled back around the tree with their plates in their laps and ate every bite of it.
Now you tell me. Which was the grandest Christmas tree of all?
Doorman Thomas Pendel
Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton held President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. He guided his substitute Lincoln through his first Cabinet meeting. Then he told Lincoln’s bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon that Lincoln and his wife were in hiding because of death threats. Lamon comes to the White House to find out for himself.
Old Tom Pendel walked down the hall on the second floor, lighting the gas lamps as the last rays of the sun faded, creating vague, sad shadows lurking around the corners. Giggling, Tad ran in front of him, trying to trip him up. Alethia stood in the doorway of her bedroom and watched. Pendel was kind, patient, and understanding to the little boy with a lisp. She knew she should not, but she was falling in love with the Lincolns’ son. She and Tad had come to a silent agreement: he knew she was not his mother, nor the man his father, but they both were kind and meant no harm to him, so he accepted them and went along with the “game.”
“Taddie, it’s time for supper,” she said as the boy approached.
“Aww, do I have to?” Tad scrunched up his face.
“It’s best that you eat, Master Tad,” Pendel said as he continued down the hall lighting the lamps. “Or else you’ll end up funny-looking like me when you grow up.”
Tad giggled as Alethia ran her fingers through his hair. She could not help but think how wonderful it would have been if she were married and had children.
“You know, he’s right. I don’t know why you have to put up a fuss.”
“But tonight I really don’t feel good, honest.” He looked up earnestly with his light brown eyes.
“Have you been into your father’s licorice again?”
“Very well.” She felt his forehead, and he did seem a little warm. “But if you don’t eat, you must go straight to bed.”
“That’s all right by me.” And Tad scampered down the hall to his room, stopping only to pull on Pendel’s coat one last time, which caused the old man to put up a comical protest, eliciting more giggles from the boy as he closed his door.
“So Tad isn’t eating with us tonight?” Duff said as he stepped from his bedroom.
“No, Father, he says he’s not feeling well.” She smiled, and her eyes lit. Here was another person of whom she felt herself growing fond. When Duff stood close and towered over her, she imagined it was how the Virgin Mary felt when she was overcome by the Holy Spirit, and conceived.
“Then we’d best be on our way,” Duff said with a smile.
Alethia took his arm, and they went down by the service stairs. She leaned into him as they crunched on the straw mats.
“Do you imagine I could get away with eating his dinner too?” he asked.
“I don’t see why not.” Alethia laughed, squeezed his hand, and chose to ignore his stiffening at her show of affection.
They settled into the dining room chairs and graciously thanked Phebe as she placed bowls of potato soup before them. Their sipping of the chunky broth and chatting about the day’s events abruptly ended when the door opened and Stanton marched in.
“Stand up,” he ordered.
Duff meekly put down his spoon and stood. Alethia watched as his eyes glazed over with acquiescence. Her heart ached to see him humiliated.
“Unbutton your coat.”
Duff obeyed the order, and Stanton brusquely placed his small hand on the long expanse of Duff’s abdomen. Alethia turned her head away, unable to watch the ritual the war secretary had been conducting for the past two months. Her eyes closed as she heard Stanton’s low grunt.
“You’re gaining too much weight.” Stanton glanced at the bowl of soup. “You may finish the soup, but tell the cook you don’t want the main course. The same tomorrow night also.”
Clarice had serious moral reservations about having fun based on her genetic inability to smile or laugh. The best she could muster were slightly upturned corners of her mouth which her church friends interpreted as sweet and gentle. Those relatives who were required to observe the traditional Sunday dinner and afternoon gossip session knew that expression was neither sweet nor gentle.
On one particular Sunday, an attendee squirmed in the silence which had lasted five minutes or more had the audacity to speak up.
“Did anyone see the story on television last night about the little boy who sneaked into a balloon which his father launched over Los Angeles? It seemed the whole thing was a hoax. He hid under the bed while his father pretended to be horrified that his son would be killed in the accident. The plan was to land the family its own reality television show based on the adventures of the real-life Dennis the Menace son.”
Clarice arched an eyebrow. “I watch the Christian station from Pensacola. It has such nice music, and the pastor is a Bible scholar.”
Properly chastised, the relative lowered her head and remained silent the rest of the afternoon along with the other monastics seated around the room, one daughter, her husband, two children, an aunt, uncle and a couple of cousins.
“I don’t understand why my grandchildren don’t want to sit next to me. After all, they don’t know how long they will have their grandmother with them.”
The mother elbowed her son and daughter and nodded toward the dining room where the most elegant and uncomfortable chairs waited to be carried into the living room and placed around Clarice’s lounger. When the children finally managed to squeeze the chairs around the oversized recliner and sit, Clarice sighed.
“You didn’t have to go to all that trouble. The children could have just sat on the floor.”
Another hour of silence passed before Clarice announced it was time for her nap. The cousins were the first to escape through the front door. Aunt and uncle were next. Before her daughter’s family could make it out, Clarice sighed again.
“You could nap in the spare bedrooms and then we could have leftovers for supper.”
“The children have homework, Dan is expecting a call from his parents, I have laundry to do, you really need your rest.”
“If you really don’t want to stay I won’t force you. But I did buy those games I keep in the spare closet for the children to play, and they’ve never played with them.”
The following Sunday, upon instruction from their mother, the son and daughter pulled out the games and tried to engage their grandmother in a rousing afternoon of Monopoly.
“Do we really need to use all these pieces?”
A couple of years later, when the relatives arrived for Sunday dinner, they found Clarice dead in her bed from an apparent heart attack. The aunt and uncle cried, the cousins comforted them and the mother was the one who sighed. All of the relatives and church friends attended the lovely funeral and spoke incessantly of Clarice’s sweet smile and how they would miss it. By the time the last car pulled away from the cemetery, Clarice’s ghost returned to her home where she was appalled to see that her daughter had already begun packing up her heirlooms and marking each one, “Salvation Army”.
This was not the last indignity Clarice was to suffer. After a year of rambling through her empty house, Clarice observed her daughter finally selling it to a nice couple with children. The very first act of impudence by the family was painting each room a different bright color. Clarice was astonished that they didn’t realize that white made a house look more spacious. As the family members talked among themselves Clarice was further confounded that this was the very same family that had pretended that its son was on the balloon floating over Los Angeles. They had moved to Florida and now resided in her house which had always been a monument to silence and grace.
The son was now a teen-ager with shoulder length hair. The father converted the garage into a rock and roll studio and coached his son on how to twist his head around so his hair would fly in all directions.
“My dear Lord,” Clarice whispered, “why did you allow this family to move into my home?”
Immediately she heard a voice.
“Because, unlike you, I have a sense of humor.”
Previously in the book: Nebraskan Hal Neely began his career touring with big bands and worked his way into Syd Nathan’s King records, producing rock and country songs. Along the way he worked with James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, who referred to Neely as his favorite uncle. Eventually he became one of the owners of Starday-King, until the other owners bought him out.He found himself sitting further back in music industry room. He eventually moved to Florida.
(Author’s note: Chapters in italics are Neely’s memoirs.)
In 1989 we decided to move to Winter Garden, a suburb of Orlando, Florida, where she had friends. We sold our condominium for a good price. Victoria’s college roommate Ann now lived with her husband in central Florida. We gave a lot of our things away, sold the rest of our furniture and shipped the things we wanted to keep including kitchenware, bedding, clothing, etc. We kept only Victoria’s car and headed for Orlando. We took our time and enjoyed the trip. In Florida I became active again in the music business. We did things together with Ann and her husband Charlie who lived close by. Victoria was offered a sales manager job at a new Days Inn on the west side of Orlando. We moved into a large nice two-bedroom apartment in a nice area.
My divorce from Mary was finalized on October 23, 1990. The next day Victoria and I were married in Orlando, Florida. That same year Victoria enrolled at the University of South Florida in Tampa. We traveled three times a week between Orlando and the university. In 1991 I had prostate surgery and a pacemaker inserted. We moved to Tampa into a big rental house with our friend Dr. Arthur Williams. After the house was sold, Victoria and I lived in several Tampa houses and apartments.
Victoria and her best friend Ara Rogers were working for Lee Levengood in the USF student affairs department. In 1992 Victoria became a department head in the USF College of Public Health under Dr. Betty Gulitz. She (Victoria) developed fibromyalgia, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. In 1993 Victoria was appointed on a special grant to be administrative assistant to USF Provost Kathleen Moore, reporting to Dan Gardiner. She fell and broke her foot and was in a wheelchair. I cared for her. In 1995 Victoria graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
In December of 2004 Victoria and I, and two couples who were related to Victoria went on a one-week cruise to the Caribbean. It was a great time and we had fun.
However, on Feb. 12, 2005, Victoria and I had a bitter disagreement. My music business and her career at the University of South Florida were incompatible. She moved out to live with her friend Ara Rogers. I moved out of the apartment in March to stay with Roland Hanneman and to be close to the Clarence Simmons family in Orlando. (Another new friend he had met in Florida.) In April John Wise (Victoria’s brother) came to Tampa and helped Victoria move her stuff into storage. I did not see Victoria for several months. She moved into her own apartment in the Carrollwood section of Tampa.
In the meantime, James Brown worked steady–one nighters and concerts, working out of New York City. His international fame led him to Europe and Africa. He was the most popular American artist on the continent. His American dates diminished, and he spent more and more time abroad in Europe, Africa and South America. He was getting older–but, always James Brown–dancing and singing.
I sued James Brown in Orlando federal court in 2005. On the witness stand under oath he “claimed not knowing a Hal G. Neely or any association with Mr. Neely.” Never even heard of me. My lawyer asked to approach the bench and placed in front of the judge a folder of King legal documents (contracts etc.) signed by James Brown and Hal Neely. The judge awarded all James Brown “phonograph master recordings and tapes to Hal G. Neely, subject only to legal applicable royalties, commissions and fees.” I saw a black man turn white.
He was one of the great icons and talents of our current global music era. It is unfortunate that in his later career and life he became a liar and a cheat. He has not kept faith with those who helped him. So be it.
Roland Hanneman sold his house in Orlando in 2005 and built a big new house off Croom Road in Brooksville, Florida, 40 miles north of Tampa. I rented a nice one-bedroom apartment in the Candlelight Apartment Complex in Brooksville. I lived alone with my music. I didn’t have a car and couldn’t walk, but I had good neighbors. I was 84 years old and living on my Social Security. I had no fear of death, but I didn’t intend on volunteering anytime soon.
Roland Hanneman and Clarence Simmons, music associates and friends for many years, moved me on June 5, 2006, into Tangerine Cove, an assisted living community in downtown Brooksville. By this time I was 86 years young and very happy. With my mobility scooter, I was able to get around.
I had always been an Irish/Scotch Protestant– born a Methodist, joined and supported the Presbyterian Church for years. My friends George and Bobbi Rubis took me to their church several times. Pastor Vic McCormick, his wife LaDonna and Abe Guillermo were its leaders. Abe taught Sunday morning’s lesson. He was a brilliant man and the best Christian scholar I ever met. Abe baptized me in the swimming pool at the home of Gene and Sharon Bell. Most of the congregation attended.
James Brown was getting older too. He spent more and more time on his estate in South Carolina across the state line from Macon, Georgia. His daughters ran his office in Macon. He married again and had a son. A problem arose because his new wife’s divorce had never been finalized.
James died suddenly on Christmas Day 2006. His will left all his assets to his five living children from previous marriages. There was a problem with his new wife and their son because they had not yet remarried. It went to the courts to determine the inclusion of this wife and their young son.
I was invited to his funeral but had to decline. I was 86 years young and could no longer travel. We had known each other for 41 years.
(Author’s note: This story contains mature dialogue.)
Dammit, I had to pick up my brother Royce at Love Field again. He would be drunk and would slur insults all the way from Dallas to our home in Gainesville, an hour’s drive away.
One thing I liked about my father was that he had confidence in me not to get in any trouble. One thing I didn’t like about my father was that he made me go to the airport when my brother was flying in on leave from the Marines. I was eighteen, and today that would be considered child abuse but in 1966 it was okay.
Experience told me to skip going to the gate. Go straight to the main concourse bar, and there Royce was, sitting at the bar bending some guy’s ear.
“…and that’s why you should never eat breakfast.”
As soon as I walked up, the guy mumbled something about Royce’s ride being here, threw some bills at the bartender and got the hell away from my brother as fast as he could. In a few minutes we were driving on Mockingbird Lane toward the interstate when my brother ordered me to take a left at the next block.”
“Just do it! Dammit!”
One thing I learned about driving with a drunk in the car. Go ahead and do what they say. A lot less hell to pay. Next he pointed to an apartment complex on the right and demanded I pull in there. After I stopped the car and turned off the engine, I guessed that Royce had progressed from mere alcohol to marijuana, and this is where his dealer lived.
“Go ahead and thank me. I’m going to get you laid.”
“Just get out of the car! Dammit!”
So we got out of the car, and Royce staggered toward an apartment and banged on the door.
“Candy! I got some business for ya!”
“Is that you, Royce?” a woman with a husky Texan drawl called out. “Haven’t I told you time and time again I don’t do that shit anymore? I’m gonna be an actress, so go to hell!”
“It’s not for me, Candy. It’s my baby brother.”
“No! Go away!”
Royce repeated the name Candy loudly in a sing-song voice until the door opened, and a dirty blonde in capri pants and a loose man’s shirt grabbed my brother’s arm and pulled him in.
“Shut up for God’s sake!” she hissed. “The neighbors will call the cops!” Then she looked at me. “You too, little boy. Are you really this drunk’s brother?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied softly as I entered the apartment. It wasn’t as run-down as I thought. Actually, it was rather expensive looking.
“I want him to lose it tonight,” Royce announced, pointing at me. “And you’re the girl to do it.”
“Royce,” Candy said with a sigh and shaking her head, “you have pulled some stupid shit before but this is absolutely crazy.”
He ignored her, fumbled with his wallet, pulling five twenty dollar bills and shoving them into my hand. “Now don’t you dare give her the money until you got what you came here for.”
“You’re not going to watch, are you? I mean, you’re not going to tell me where to put my elbows and things like that?”
“Dammit, kid. You don’t know what I’m doin’ here. This bitch is Candy Barr! The best whore in Dallas!”
“I told you, Royce, I don’t do johns anymore! I’m a dancer!”
“Then why did you lay me?” he shot back.
Candy smiled slightly. “Because you looked so pitiful when you came into the Colony Club that night. You didn’t even know what kind of drink to order.”
“Well, he’s more pitiful than I was, so get in that bedroom! I want to get home and get some sleep!”
Candy motioned at me, and I followed her into the bedroom.
“First thing, go into the bathroom, take off your clothes, take a hot, soapy shower, and when you come out I’ll be in bed.”
“I took a bath before I drove down here,” I replied weakly.
“Dammit, do what she says, kid!”
Royce must have had his ear crammed next to the door.
“I’m so nervous I don’t think I can turn the shower knob on. Could you show me?”
Candy was smarter than she looked because she cocked her head, as though she knew what I was thinking.
“Sure, little boy. This way.”
After we entered the bathroom I turned the shower on and closed the door so Royce couldn’t hear us.
“So you’re the Candy Barr, Jack Ruby’s girlfriend?”
“Well, let’s just say friend. Jack’s not exactly boyfriend material.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “So you know a lot about who killed Kennedy?”
“You don’t want to know, little boy.”
“Yes, I do. Listen, I’m not going to go to bed with you. You seem like a nice lady, but, no offense, you’re really too old for me.”
“Thank God, somebody in Royce’s family has some sense.”
“So we’ll go back into the bedroom, bounce on the mattress while you whisper stuff about the assassination in my ear. Then I give you the hundred bucks, and Royce will get off my back, okay?”
She nodded and turned off the water. As we walked back into the bedroom she whispered, “Your brother likes a lot of noise, you know what I mean?”
“Oh, you’re really hot!” I screamed as we sat on the bed and started bouncing.
“Thatta boy, kid!” Royce yelled on the door, banging it with his open palm.
“Oh, yes, yes, yes,” Candy purred as she leaned in and began murmuring all the good dirt on what happened that day three years ago.
“Wow!” That was actually in response to what she told me, but it also pleased Royce to no end.
“That’s it! That’s it!”
I had some theories of my own about who shot President Kennedy, but I would have never guessed the truth.
“What’s goin’ on in there? I don’t hear any action!”
“Now! Now! Now!” Candy was in hysterics. I decided she would be a good actress.
My mind went blank, so I had to improvise.
“Oh, come all ye faithful!” I sang. It was all I could think of.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Royce was enjoying this way too much.
While I put my clothes back on, Candy muttered one last thing in my ear. “By the way, little boy, you can’t ever tell anyone this, because some big thug will come in the middle of the night and blow your head off.” She put her hands on my face and smiled. “And it’s such a sweet little head, too.” Then she kissed my forehead.
I handed her the hundred dollars and opened the door. Royce hugged me, unintelligibly congratulating me on my transition into manhood.
“Was it great?”
“Words can’t describe it.”