Monthly Archives: September 2017

Club V-Vampire

(Author’s note: I had been serializing this short story because it was long but Hurricane Irma came along and I had to skip a couple of weeks. To make sure the final segment makes sense, I have decided to run the story in its entirety.)

Alphine Beauregard spent another day going through new boxes of library books and cataloguing them. Occasionally she had to take time out to answer the same old questions about where to find books about every topic. Looking at her watch, Alphine saw she had ten minutes before closing, just enough time to visit her favorite aisle—Victorian vampire romance novels.
Discretely mounting the stairs to the second floor and heading to the furthest dusty back corner of the French Quarter branch of the New Orleans Library, Alphine sought to inhale the freedom found in dangerous love literature. She felt her lungs choked by the total emptiness of her cowardly life.
Creaking rusty book cart wheels made her look down the long shadowy aisle at Ralph who pushed a new pile of Victorian vampire romance novels her way. Ralph, who probably topped out at a six-foot and a couple of inches but only weighed at most one hundred fifty pounds, kept his eyes down.
“Sorry to be in your way. Got another load of books to shelve,” he whispered.
“Didn’t you realize it’s quitting time?” she asked nervously.
The crypt silence of the library made their conversation seem conspiratorial, forbidden. Alphine’s breath quickened and her cheeks flushed. At each of their chance encounters she tried to find out more about him, but Ralph tended to answer with only a word or two and then move on. Alphine detected a secret anguish in his face.
“I just feel bad if I’m not actually working right up to five o’clock,” he explained as he picked up a couple of books to put on the shelf right over Alphine’s head. “Excuse me.”
She did not move much, only enough for him to position the books where they belonged. Alphine enjoyed sensing his physical presence–the heat of Ralph’s tall, lean body and the scent of his cologne. The fragrance was nothing special but at this moment it made her mind fog. She looked up into his dark eyes partially concealed by a shock of black hair.
“Do you like to read this stuff?” he asked.
“What stuff”
“This stuff. You know, vampires.”
“It passes the evening.” She shrugged. “What do you read?”
“Science fiction, fantasy, you know stuff like Tolkien. Marvel Comics. I know that sounds dumb.”
No, it’s not dumb at all. It’s like vampires. Nothing like real life, which can be so boring. She remained mute. Her thoughts choked somewhere in the back of her throat.
”I like to read about war in places that don’t really exist. I don’t want to think about real people in a real war in ugly countries that really do exist.”
He knew. Real life wasn’t boring. It was frightening. The fact he knew the truth excited Alphine in ways she could not comprehend. Her hand went to her neck, her thin, delicate, pale neck.
“Gotta get back to work,” he muttered and pushed the cart down the aisle and disappeared.
She had to confess just being close to Ralph made her tremble. Alphine inspected the stack of books, pulling one out to look at the cover of a virile vampire leaning into the neck of a nubile young woman. Ralph’s words about real people in real war echoed in her mind, making the novel in her hand seem inconsequential. Ralph, with his few soft-spoken words, tore away the fantasy world she read about. Her own life was too ordinary, too safe. Ralph, without knowing it, confirmed what she feared–her life had always been and probably always would be tepid, dry, stale.
This was Friday, and Alphine sighed as she drove home from the library. She had lived all her life at home with her parents in one of the respectable neighborhoods of New Orleans. Alphine had always obeyed every rule set down by her devout parents. They warned her never, under any circumstances, venture into the French Quarter. Evil people lived there who did evil things. After graduating from Tulane University with a degree in library science, Alphine got a job with the New Orleans library system. Her parents approved. Nothing bad ever happened in libraries, her parents told her. Alphine knew better. She asked to be assigned to the branch nearest the French Quarter. Her parents did not approve. After they had some time to adjust to that decision, Alphine announced she was going to rent her own apartment and live her own life. After all, she was twenty-four years old now. They told her she was a delicate flower that would wither without their protection.
Living in a greenhouse was not living. She had become one of the undead she read so much about. If she were to be undead Alphine would rather be undead away from her parents.
“Mom, Dad, it is unhealthy for you to watch me be undead, so for your own good I’ll go be undead elsewhere.”
Before her mother and father could make any sense out of her proclamation she had moved to an apartment in the garden district, the perfect location to be gloriously undead. However, after a year of living alone, she had yet to venture near the dangers of the French Quarter after dark. Now she was twenty-five years old. How she loathed her cowardice.
At the next intersection, she turned left instead of right. She knew where the vampire boutiques were. They sold the black slinky shrouds, the long black wigs, the death-white makeup and the blood red lipstick needed to integrate into the role-playing shadowy existence of New Orleans underworld nightclubs of vampires.
Vamporium was a black brick store cloaked in dead vines. A tickling bell announced her arrival, and an antique buxom woman wearing a tight, low-cut purple velour gown greeted Alphine. A pile of electric pink hair crowned her head. Her skin was a wrinkled testament to a life spent drinking too much bourbon. Her crimson lips opened in a smile, revealing aged, yellow teeth.
“Entre, my dear. I am Madame Du Baucherie. And may I be the first to congratulate you for escaping the stultifying world of suburbia. Welcome to sin.”
Hearing that pronouncement, Alphine wanted to bolt out of the establishment devoted to decadence, but she felt she had gone too far to turn back.
“I want the proper attire to attend a vampire club. You know, one of those places where people role play—“
“I know what you want,” the old woman interrupted. She firmly took Alphine’s hand and led her to a corner of the store with racks of black satin and lace dresses. Dropping the girl’s hand, Madame Du Baucherie grabbed Alphine’s breasts. “Ah good. Not so large. You will be able to wear our most scandalous gown with a neckline plunging to the navel. Women, such as I, could not wear this particular creation because of the risk of a nipple peeking through. Most inappropriate.”
Madame Du Baucherie thrust the filmy dress into Alphine’s hands and pushed her toward a dressing room. “Go meet your destiny.”
Inside the tiny room Alphine tentatively took off her clothes and wriggled into the black garment. The satin against her skin created a sensation throughout her body that scared her. As she smoothed out the dress, she heard the door open and saw Madame Du Baucherie’s shriveled arm presenting a pair of spiked black heels and a shimmering ebony wig.
“These will complete the ensemble.”
Alphine took the items, and the old woman slammed the door. Gingerly she adjusted the wig on her head. Her own hair was a bland shade of brown, limp, lifeless. Then she realized the wig was actually made with real human hair. The room did not have a mirror so she could not tell for certain if it were straight. Next she slipped on the heels which were surprisingly comfortable despite hurtling her toward Amazon-like stature. Taking a deep breath, Alphine opened the door.
Madame Du Baucherie appraised her without emotion. “One final touch—makeup.” Skillfully, she whipped out an eyebrow pencil and filled in the spaces on the young woman’s brow. She flicked the thin eyelashes with a black brush and applied blood red lipstick. Lifting a powder pad, she paused to consider Alphine’s complexion. “Perfect as is.” She put away her tools of the trade. “Ah to have that deathly pallor again. Flawless.”
She took firm control of Alphine’s shoulders and turned her toward the mirror. “Behold yourself.”
What she saw in the mirror both frightened her and edged her toward spontaneous orgasmic combustion. Alphine could not discern one feature that spoke of her past as a protected fragile flower quivering in the breezes from the foreboding Mississippi River. And she liked what she saw.
“You are my most inspiring creation. Of course you need midnight black fingernail polish.” Without a breath Madame Du Baucherie added, “The dress, shoes, wig, makeup and nail polish come to three hundred and fifty dollars, including tax.”
“Let me get my purse and things,” Alphine whispered. If she had even the slightest doubt about her lifestyle decision, Madame De Baucherie had banished it. She picked up her librarian attire and her purse and headed back to the counter where she handed her credit card over.
With efficiency the old woman zipped the card through, punched the proper buttons, extended a pen to her customer to sign and placed her library clothes in a shiny black bag. Before handing the bag to Alphine Madame Du Baucherie extended a thin withered finger, hooked it into the vee of the neckline at Alphine’s navel, pulled it forwarded and peered down.
“Panties. Tres gauche. Remove them before your evening at the clubs. Sally forth unto war.” She pushed the young librarian toward the door. “Go to the clubs. Find a young man and destroy his soul.”
Alphine got into her car, started the engine and drove down the street toward the infamous French Quarter. As the last rays of the sun disappeared, the garish neon lights in the distance flickered. They seemed to be beckoning her to join the evil celebrations of jazz, vampires and illicit sex. Even the thought of illicit vampire sex set to the rhythms of jazz made her tingle.
She wondered if the tall, pale young men dressed in black satin shirts would stand close to her at a bar and look down into her exposed bosom. Would she feel their body heat? Would she smell the essence of their bodies? Would she hear their long languid sighs as they assessed her fine black gown fresh from the racks of Madame Du Baucherie’s Vamporium?
Slowly driving down Rampart Street, Alphine noticed one particular night club, Club V-Vampire, and its name intrigued her. Club V-Vampire. Why did it have an extra “V”? She concentrated on what exotic words began with a “V” that would be related to the word vampire. Alphine began to become exasperated with herself. She was a professional in the world of books and words, and she could not even think of a good adjective for vampire that began with a “V.”
Have patience, she told herself. She would soon find out once she entered its sinister doors. First she must find a parking space. Less than a block away from Club V-Vampire she found a parking lot under a lamppost. Her parents always told her that if she had to go out at night at least park under a streetlight. Alphine rolled down her window to pay the attendant the fee when a young man with a wan face staggered toward her car. His pale features were not painted on so he would look like a vampire. His bilious cheeks showed he was about to retch.
Leaning into her car window, the young man’s blood-shot eyes widened. He motioned to the parking attendant to come over. “Hey, man, this girl’s dress is so low you can see her bellybutton!”
His chest heaved, and she quickly rolled up her window just before the young man opened his mouth and vomited on her car. His eyes glazed over. He staggered into the darkness. Cracking her window, she informed the parking lot attendant, “I’ve changed my mind.”
“That’s all right,” the attendant replied. “It’s two-for-one beer in all the joints. This ain’t the only car that’s gonna get puked on tonight.”
When Alphine reached her apartment complex in the garden district, she took off her wig and her high heels and deposited them in her shopping bag before she went inside. After she carefully hung her new dress in the closet and placed the wig and shoes in a drawer of her dresser, she changed into her cotton pajamas, poured herself a small glass of milk, put five saltine crackers on a saucer and went to bed where she re-assessed her situation.
No one ever vomited in a Victorian vampire novel. Alphine was not expecting that turn of events. Perhaps dissipation was like any other mission—it needed intensive research and planning. She was good at that. That was what properly trained librarians did. They researched. She decided to recuse herself the rest of the weekend to recover her senses. On Monday, fully refreshed, she would launch a well-organized attack on the world of gothic decadence. Alphine was optimistic. After all, she had already learned one vital lesson—don’t go vamping on two-for-one beer night.
Alphine became distracted every time she tried to research the French Quarter’s lurid nightlife when she saw Ralph shelving books. She walked over to him pretending to read the titles on his cart.
“Did you have a nice weekend?” she whispered.
“I guess.”
“What did you do?”
“Just read.”
“Oh yes, I forgot. Science fiction and fantasy.”
As much as she wanted to learn who Ralph was and what made him the way he was, Alphine feared his rejection. Perhaps he was not just shy. Maybe he actually did not like her. Did she have the courage to discover? Her heart began to race.
“I thought all weekend about what you said Friday about real people in real wars in ugly countries,” she pressed on, finding her voice—firm but caring. “It made me wonder if you were in the military.”
“Well, thank you for your service.”
“Don’t thank me. I didn’t do anything, just survived.” Ralph paused and wrinkled his brow. “I’m sorry. That sounded mean.” He pushed his cart down the aisle.
Alphine watched him disappear around a corner and felt her heart break a little. The rest of the day when she caught Ralph’s attention, she did not say anything but merely smiled. Every day that week she found a reason to speak to him, even if it were nothing more than a request that he take down a book for her on a top shelf. Friday arrived, and she was faced with another weekend trying to live out her fantasies of reveling in a world of vampires. Alphine chose a proper place and moment to initiate another conversation with Ralph.
“So do you like working in the library?” she asked him in the back room where he sat applying labels inside newly arrived books.
“Not really. But it gives me time to think about what I really want to do.”
Alphine was taken aback that he found the work she loved to be tedious. “So you find this boring?”
“I like boring.”
Alphine shook her head. Perhaps he liked her because she was boring. That did not make any sense to her. “What doesn’t bore you?”
“I think archaeology.” Ralph finished labeling the last book and stood. “I almost had a degree in history before I joined the Army.”
“Why did you leave college?”
He stopped in the door way. “I don’t know. I thought it was better to live life than just read about it.”
Alphine thought about her own urges to seek out real life. She tried to figure out how to ask her next question when Ralph cleared his throat.
“I found out it’s all living. “No matter what you do or where you do it, it’s still all living.”
After she left work on Friday afternoon, she decided to drop by the neighborhood drugstore to buy a new scent of perfume for her escapade in the French Quarter Saturday night. Inside the store, which looked entirely too modern for its surroundings, Alphine found a modest selection of perfumes, none of them satisfactory. An array of the best brands was locked in a glass case.
Catching her eye was a bottle of perfume worn by her mother’s late aunt Ticey. When Alphine and her parents attended the funeral for Ticey’s husband, she asked her great aunt the name of the scent. Cavort, Ticey replied. It came in a black bottle.
Alphine had only met her aunt Ticey two or three times at family reunions. Ticey looked and smelled like she always enjoyed a good time, which evidently was the reason Alphine’s mother had never invited her to dinner at her sanctuary of piety. If that perfume could put such a happy face on Ticey, that was the perfume for Alphine.
Looking around for a store clerk, she spotted an elderly woman, spraying Windex on the next counter and vigorously wiping it off with a paper towel. Alphine walked to her.
“Excuse me, ma’am, I’m interested in one of the perfumes in the locked glass cabinet.”
“Let me get the key,” the clerk said without lifting her head. “I’ll meet you over there.”
The voice sounded familiar, and Alphine could not quite place it. When the old woman arrived with key, Alphine’s eyes widened when she saw the clerk’s face.
“Madame Du Baucherie!”
Unlocking the case, the woman laughed. “Oh dear me. What a name. And which perfume are you interested in?”
“I know you! You’re the lady at Vamporium in the French Quarter!”
The old woman, dressed in a light blue skirt and white lace blouse, lifted her withered finger to her pale lips and shushed the young lady.
“Oh dear me, no. My name is Bessie Jones.”
Alphine recognized the black fingernail polish. “Of course. You’re right. Perhaps I made a mistake. I’m sorry. Let’s see, I want Cavort. It’s in the black bottle.”
“Yes, miss.”
The old woman brought it to Alphine, opened it to let her sniff the scent.
“Do you recommend this particular perfume?” Alphine asked.
“My gracious. I’m just a drugstore clerk. I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to purchase.”
Alphine handed her the credit card. The clerk ran it through the machine and handed it back with a sweet smile. “Now, you have a blessed day.”
On her way home from the drugstore she drove by the Vamporium where she had bought the dress. The sign was down, replaced with a Realtor sign. For sale. She stopped her car, got out and went to peer into the window. The shop was bare.
Out of curiosity, Alphine also went by Club V-Vampire to make sure it was still there. It was, but rather pedestrian looking in the sunlight. An old man, his long, sparse gray hair dangling over his ears, swept the sidewalk and then rearranged the wrought-iron table and chairs in front to make sure they looked just right for the revelry that night.
Alphine took a long soak in a tub of hot water Saturday preparing herself for an evening as a vampire in the French quarter. She invoked the spirit of the bloodsucking temptresses she had read so much about. They would give her courage to break the bonds of timid respectability forged by her parents. From this moment her life would be her own.
Taking her time, Alphine put on her dress according to Madame Du Baucherie instructions, sans lingerie. She quickly dismissed her revelation that Madame was nothing more than another old woman trying to make a living. Even as Bessie Jones she knew which perfume to recommend to Alphine. Its name excited her imagination—Cavort. Her hands were steady as she applied the lipstick and eyeliner. She knew what she wanted and what she would be willing to risk to attain it.
Shadows had settled comfortably among the buildings along Bourbon Street. Music rang out from every open door, but nothing deterred Alphine from her destination, Club V-Vampire. When she walked in, she appreciated the low, eerie melodies engulfing the room. It was the perfect environment for catastrophic romance. She slowly slung one hip forward and then the other, emulating the stride of a cat. At the bar, an old man, his gray hair slicked back sinisterly, poured a beer for a customer and smiled at her. Two teeth were missing, but no matter.
“What does the young lady desire?”
Alphine looked at the sign listing all of Club V-Vampire’s specialty drinks: Scarlett O’Hara, Bloody Mary, Virgin Mary, Mai Tai, strawberry daiquiri…. She soon caught on that all the drinks were red, blood red. She ordered a Bloody Mary, left a hefty tip and settled at a small table lit by a hanging Tiffany lamp which illumined her bosom perfectly.
Within a few minutes a tall young man in full tuxedo and opera cape swirled up and leaned over Alphine. When he smiled, he exposed perfectly even white teeth with his canines orthodontically transformed into fangs. She breathed in. This was her moment.
“I vant to drink your tomato juice,” he intoned, trying to sound like Bela Lugosi.
Alphine did not protest when he swooped her glass up and drank. So this was saturnine seduction. Her heart was pounding. All her senses were magnified to the point of thrusting her toward insanity. Then she watched his pale face twist in revulsion. He spat the red liquid onto her dress. It was really quite disgusting.
“This isn’t tomato juice! It’s got some kind of alcohol in it!”
“Yeah, Charlie,” the bartender called out in a nasal voice that simply screamed Brooklyn. “That’s why it’s called a Bloody Mary!”
His whole body shook. “I thought this was a vegan place!”
“Vegan doesn’t mean no booze, Charlie,” the old man said as he poured Southern Comfort into a glass of cranberry juice. “We don’t serve animal products. Booze ain’t an animal product.”
“Give me some water to wash this garbage out of my mouth!”
Now Alphine realized what Club V-Vampire stood for—Vegan Vampire. She took her napkin, wiped her dress off the best she could and walked out into the night, passing all the noisy clubs back to the parking lot, hoping no one had puked on her car again.
Another good weekend wasted.
She did not sleep well Saturday night. Nor did she sleep well Sunday night. Her many disenchantments with vampire life in the French Quarter flashed before her eyes. One young vampire vomited on her car but not before commenting on how low cut her dress was. She discovered Madame Du Baucherie was just another old woman making a living as best she could. And then a vegan vampire spat out his Bloody Mary on her because his drink had alcohol on it.
But as morning arrived her thoughts had turned to her fascination with the tall, slender, inscrutable Ralph. He shelved books for a living. His military experience in Afghanistan somehow haunted him. Few words passed his lips, his thin, impassive lips. What was his hunger? Everyone needed a hunger to feed life forces through the veins. He said he wanted to study archeology, but he remained in the library, rolling a cart of books up and down the aisles.
Alphine’s heart raced. A veneer of perspiration kept her from sleeping. No vampire could induce this catalyst in her body. And she did not know if Ralph even gave her a second thought. What a stake through her heart.
Monday morning she went to her closet to select from her librarian couture which her smothering mother had bought for her. Each time she reached for a hanger her stomach tightened, much like the way a poison would cause her organs to spasm. In frustration Alphine grabbed her Madame Du Baucherie creation with the intention of throwing it into a trash basket where all her dreams of desire now resided. Stopping short, she returned it to the closet. She did not understand why but she sensed her very existence depended on saving the black satin gown for another day.
Instead, she took a tight midnight blue skirt which she usually wore with a business imbued jacket. After putting it on, Alphine took an ordinary white cotton blouse from a hanger where it lived with a gray pant suit. After hesitating, she went to her lingerie drawer and pulled out a white lace brassiere which she had never worn and put it on. Then came the blouse, which she left unbutton to give a slight view of the lace.
After dressing she put on the spiked high heels. Alphine took a moment to apply the eyeliner and then the blood red lipstick. As a final touch she lightly daubed a hint of Cavort behind each earlobe. Taking a look at herself in the mirror, she noticed she had forgotten to comb her hair. Her dishwater shade of brown locks looked unorganized after a long night of tousling about in bed. She turned and left for work.
The click clacking of her high heels turned heads as she entered the library. Not acknowledging anyone who spoke to her, Alphine walked up and down each aisle until she found Ralph with his cart of books. She watched him as he looked up at her. A slender volume fumbled from his hands. She stopped unnervingly close to him.
“Have you ever been kissed?” Alphine chose each word and each nuance carefully.
Ralph’s eyes blinked. “No one’s ever been able to reach up that far.”
Alphine put her hands on his boney shoulders and pushed down, causing him to go to his knees. She leaned in and placed her lips upon his. Ralph’s lips were fuller than she supposed. And warmer.
In that split second before he had to react–pulling away or embracing her—she realized this was living. Ralph was wrong. Living was not just living. Her parents were wrong. The goal of life was not security. Madame Du Baucherie was wrong. Living was not destroying souls.
Living was knowing what you desired and not being frightened to fail.

David, Wallis and the Mercenary Chapter Two

Canterbury Castle ruins

Previously in the novel: Leon, a novice mercenary, is in the middle of taking the Archbishop of Canterbury hostage and exchanging for an anarchist during the Great War.

“Why would they treat you like this?” Leon asked the old man and leaned into to hear the reply.
“I suppose they kidnapped me because I am the Archbishop of Canterbury,” he replied in a calm, clear voice. “Recently the police arrested a man named Jack Smith in Glasgow. He was the leader of a group protesting Britain’s involvement in the Great War. Anarchists, I believe they are called. I think the government would turn Mr. Smith over to them to ensure my safe return.” He chuckled from beneath the hood. “Quite a prize, aren’t I?”
A thousand thoughts raced through Leon’s mind. No one in the Bahamas knew much about the war raging in Europe. He did not understand why a government would care so much for the life of one old man while it sacrificed thousands of young men in battle. Leon knew he put his life in danger but only for money. He did not care much about dying for just an idea. Ideas did not fill a starving baby’s stomach. Food first, then worry about things like freedom and justice.
“Do you want anything to eat?”
“Food is the least of my worries at this point, young man. I fear I will be with my Lord by the time the sun sets again.”
Leon glanced up though the open roof of the dungeon ruins. The sun was fairly high in the sky. Perhaps it was noon already. The hours had passed quickly. He was hungry, but he was young and strong and could survive without food. The old man, on the other hand, was already weakened by age and poor health. He studied the hood.
“If I lifted your hood up past your mouth, you could eat and drink something without seeing me. It doesn’t matter if you are rescued but are close to death.”
“I must confess I am hungry.”
Lifting the hood slightly, Leon decided his plan would work. The archbishop could see nothing. All Leon could make out of the man’s face was his mouth. His lips curled around a terrible set of dentures. “I may not be able to get you anything but a crust of bread and some water, but at least it will be something.”
“Bless you, my son.”
Leon stood and left the cell, trudging up the rough stony floor to the upper level of the dungeon. The two men leaned over a radio and didn’t notice him approaching. He cleared his throat which drew their attention.
“You need to feed the old man,” he announced with determination. “You can’t trade a dead man to get back your buddy.”
The older man, with bits of gray spotting his red hair, glared. “Shut up! Ye don’t know what ye talk about!”
“I know about empty bellies!” Leon knew precious little about the ways of the world but he did understand the simple act of survival.
“I said shut up!” the younger man growled. “We’re getting our orders over the damned radio!”
Leon stayed quiet and listened.
“The Archbishop of Canterbury, looking hale and hearty for his sixty-eight years, stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace waving to the crowds.” The radio crackled with static but the message was clear. “Counselors to His Royal Highness George V told the BBC Archbishop Randall Davidson spent the night at the palace with the Royal Family and conducted a prayer breakfast this morning.”
The younger man looked at his boss. “Do ye think they’re tryin’ to fool us?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged his beefy shoulders.
Leon turned and ran down the dank slope of the dungeon, quickly followed by the two red-haired men. They stopped when they saw that the cell door was open. Lying on the ground in front of it were the archbishop’s pajamas, robe, the hood and the crucifix which had hung around his neck. Leon’s gut told him not to move any further, and Leon always paid attention to his gut. The two red-haired men rushed passed him into the dark cell.
A couple of thuds came from inside, followed by screams, one from an older, deeper voice and the other from a younger, more frightened one. Then silence. Leon did not know whether to run away or to look inside to see what had happened.
The decision was made for him when a slender figure stepped out dressed in tight black trousers, a turtleneck and a ski mask. No, Leon corrected himself; it was not really a ski mask but rather a silken covering over the face which would not protect against cold winds on a snowy mountain side. Its only purpose was to hide the identity of the man wearing it. Leon noticed the man held in his hands the awful-looking dentures, only now they dripped with blood. The man held out the bloody dentures for Leon to see.
“My dentures,” the man explained, “dipped in a deadly poison. A single prick of the skin with the venom is instant death. I’m afraid I bit them more deeply than necessary, but I thought they were extremely rude, didn’t you? Would you like to see? I’m afraid their bodies are still twitching quite badly.”
“Oh.” Leon was at a loss for words.
“This is your first job, isn’t it?
“Then don’t look. Ease into the more gruesome aspects of the job, I always say.” He locked the dentures together to render them harmless and slid them into a trouser pocket. “Don’t worry. I can tell you are a good boy. You will live to see your mum another day.”
“Thank you.”
“You won’t be paid for this mission, will you? Frightfully sorry.” As he passed Leon, he handed him several large gold coins. “Perhaps this will get you home. By the way. Take my advice. Find another profession. This one can be hazardous to your health.”

All the Best Cliches Are Taken

Anyone who has been to one of my storytelling sessions knows I like to say, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Imagine my mortification recently when I discovered I didn’t make that up at all. Mark Twain did.
This is not the only instance when I think I’m clever enough to create a snappy turn of phrase. For example, I also tell people, “Don’t let facts get in the way of the truth.” Not mine. Maya Angelou said it first.
I’m not the only person to make this mistake. Of all people Helen Keller got caught writing a poem that had already been written. It’s not like she was eavesdropping and decided to take the words as her own. Her conclusion was that someone recited the poem to her when she was a child. As an adult when she thought she was composing it, she was just remembering it. Needless to say, she was as humiliated as I am now with my mistake.
When you think about it, all the good axioms were created by Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin or William Shakespeare. Just who did these people think they were, hogging all the best stuff for themselves? It’s hard to get credit for anything these days.
In addition to claiming ownership of bits of wisdom, I have also embarrassed myself by misquoting these smart guys.
For example, I gave Alexander Pope credit for writing, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell.” It seems Pope didn’t say that. John Milton wrote that chestnut for “Paradise Lost.” Even more embarrassing was the fact that Milton had those words coming out of the mouth of the devil himself. So this sentence is not meant as words to live by, but as words of encouragement to the folks already living in hell.
Speaking of Alexander Pope, I also recently discovered that I had been misquoting one of his actual sayings most of my life. I thought the expression was “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” He actually said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” It seems most words coming out of my mouth are dangerous things.
I shouldn’t be let out of the house without of a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations under my arm. I can take solace in the fact that all those guys are dead so if I take credit and/or misquote them it’s not a big deal. What they can’t know won’t hurt them.
Another way to look at my misappropriation of quotations is to acknowledge that it is really good for me. After all, who can be impressed with something an old guy in Central Florida says? Who’s he to think he’s so smart? But if they know I am quoting the best writers who ever lived, then they can think, “Wow, he’s spent a lot of time studying literature. He must know a lot.”
At least that’s my defense right now. Maybe I’ll think of a better excuse later. After all, tomorrow is another day.
Darn it, I did it again.

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Twenty-Six

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 even though there were some complications. Then he skillfully maneuvered Lincoln’s bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon into believing Lincoln and his wife were in hiding because of death threats. Lincoln’s secretaries realize something is wrong but are afraid to say anything.

Gabby Zook awoke to disappointment again. Every morning for the last two months he had come from his night’s sleep, forgetting he was on the floor in the basement of the Executive Mansion; he needed the comfort of his sister Cordie, who kept his world intact. With his head aching, Gabby wrestled with his identity, and longed for more mornings when he knew exactly who he was. Thinking back to his days at West Point, he tried to take comfort in memories of some of the courses in which he had excelled. He thought of his logic class, in which his teacher always said he was the best—and if Gabby ever needed logic it was now. Furrowing his brow Gabby fetched scattered bits and pieces from his fragmented brain: let’s see, he mumbled, if a = b and b = c, then a = c.
“That young man is late with our breakfast again, Father,” Mrs. Lincoln said, just loud enough for Gabby to hear from his corner.
He shuddered, for this woman scared him with all her tantrums and orders. Gabby did not like being locked in the basement either, but common sense told him yelling, screaming, and throwing things would not change the situation—at least on those days he had common sense. While it was an elusive quality for him, he was certain he captured its essence more often than she did.
“The scandal of all this will rock the nation, Mr. Lincoln,” she continued with her Southern lilt. “The audacity of holding the president of the United States captive in the White House basement…”
“Yes, I know, Molly,” Lincoln said. Gabby smiled; he liked him. “I’ve heard your scenarios of trials before the Supreme Court every day for two months.”
The president of the United States is being held in the basement. Gabby began using his pattern of logic. That was a = b. I am being held in the basement. That was b = c; so, he hypothesized, I am president of the United States. Gabby shook his head. That could not be right; he never remembered running for election. Jangling keys at the locked door started Gabby’s salivary glands flowing. Breakfast had arrived. He stood to look around the stacks of crates and barrels to see Adam put a tray of breakfast foods on the billiards table.
“You’re later and later every morning, young man,” Mrs. Lincoln chided.
“Yes, ma’am,” Adam mumbled. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
Lincoln ambled over. “Were you able to get me a pear?”
“Yes, sir. Right here, sir.”
“I hope the coffee is still warm,” Mrs. Lincoln said.
“Yes, ma’am. Just brewed, ma’am.”
“Got some fried eggs?” Gabby ventured to the billiards table.
“Right here.”
“And the morning newspaper,” Lincoln added.
“Sorry, sir.” Adam hung his head. “I’ll get your newspaper right away.”
Gabby watched the private go to the door. He did not have the same spring in his step as he had in September. Now, in November, Adam shuffled his feet and rarely made eye contact with anyone. On the off chance Gabby’s exercise in logic was correct and he was, indeed, president of the United States, he decided he should do something presidential and comfort the downcast soldier. He walked up behind Adam as he unlocked the door to leave and patted him on the back.
“Everything is going to be fine, Private,” he said.
“What?” Adam frowned at him.
“All this will be over soon,” Gabby said.
“Things will get better.”
Adam sadly smiled and left the room. Feeling satisfied that he had acted presidential, Gabby went back to the billiards table, took a plate, and proceeded to scoop two fried eggs on to it.
“He’s a good boy,” Gabby said.
“What?” Mrs. Lincoln asked.
“He said, Private Christy is a good boy,” Lincoln said. “And Mr. Gabby’s right. He’s a good boy.”
“He is not!” Mrs. Lincoln sputtered, almost choking on a blueberry muffin. “He’s holding us here against our will! How on earth can you say that young man is a good boy?”

James Brown’s Favorite Uncle The Hal Neely Story Chapter Twenty-Six

Syd Nathan and Hank Ballard

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.

(Author’s note: Italics denote the material is from Neely’s own memoirs.)

Syd Nathan died in Miami Beach March, 1968. I was in New York. Zella called me, and I flew to Miami. On March 25, I exercised my option to purchase the King music assets and formed King Records Inc. of Ohio.
In April Don Pierce and I merged Starday and King. We sold the company to LIN Broadcasting Company in New York, a public company. That October, Don Pels, LIN president and CEO, agreed to a contractual relationship wherein I assigned LIN the “Hal Neely Starday/King music assets”—International Music Associates Ltd., a Turks and Caicos Island company– as a separate LIN division. I was elected as a LIN vice president and member of the board of directors. Don Pierce became only a LIN consultant, and I would keep a furnished apartment at 54th St./First Avenue in Manhattan.
I notified Don Pels in 1971 that I wanted to buy back my library/catalog. The problem was that I was an officer/director of LIN. However, if I could get an offer for the library/catalog from a reputable third-party, the LIN board would sell the library/catalog back to me at the same price. LIN announced it “chose not to stay in the music business if Hal Neely was leaving LIN.”
I obtained three bona fide offers from three nationally known reputable record conglomerates to purchase all of my music assets for $1,625,000. The LIN board accepted the offer with no time limit or interest on said purchase.
I needed funds so I entered into a contractual agreement of sale with an English company, Polydor Records (Author’s note: Polydor was a German company.) Polydor was attempting to become established in the American music scene with the purchase of “certain James Brown master recordings” subject to all licenses, royalty agreements, Hal Neely royalties, fees, commissions et al and the six years remaining on the James Brown exclusive recording contract with me. That cash offer was for $1,412,000. Polydor offered me a top USA Polydor CEO/managerial job, but I refused.
In April of that year I entered into an agreement with Freddy Bienstock/Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller (BLS), and we formed Tennessee Recording and Publishing Company Inc. with offices in the Brill building in New York and the Starday-King complex on Dickerson Road in Nashville. I moved my LIN office and Starday-King personnel to the Starday-King complex in Tennessee. Victoria resumed her “old non-official”– non-salaried—Starday-King functions as an aide to me.
Over the next three years my association with BLS did not work out. Lieber and Stoller spent most of their time in Europe on company funds. They contributed no new songs to our catalog. We disagreed on policy/procedures/expenses/duties. In 1973 BLS called a special board meeting in New York. I was voted out as president/chief executive officer of Tennessee Recording Company on a vote of 3 to 1. Freddy Bienstock’s younger brother was named to replace me. I returned to Nashville and moved out of the Tennessee Recording Company complex on Dickerson Road.
We had an impasse. BLS would not sell to me; I would not sell to BLS. The dispute would go to court. We reached an agreement about the price. We flipped a coin. The loser would sell to the other party. I called heads; it was tails. I lost.
Unbeknownst to me until several weeks later, BLS had entered into a private/personal sale agreement with Moe Lytle doing business as Koala/Gusto Records for this sale to Lytle of all the Tennessee Recording Company phonograph master recordings and the real property complex on Dickerson Road. BLS would retain TRPC/SK publishing rights/catalog. I was too late. The deal was done.
The 1970s was when everything went down the tubes. The record business was zilch. It was time for me to think of a different career. Victoria and I went to real estate school to get our licenses. She moved into a nice little apartment in Madison, and we joined up with a friend of ours in his Madison office renting apartments and homes. It did not take us long to find out this was not our cup of tea.
I had a friend in the coal mining business in War, West Virginia. We picked up an operating coal mine on the mountain. The United Mine Workers went on strike, so we sold our coal for what money we could get. I bailed out and quit the coal business.
I had gotten hooked up with Dick Hawkins, Boots Randolph, and Alex Moran, and we were able to pick up, cheap, 40 acres of wild hilly timberlands north of Hendersonville on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. We could log the timber off, make our investment back and still have our hideaway. It was a log cabin type of two-story house on a small creek with an old but still good barn sitting on a little hill overlooking a beautiful meadow. It was a perfect getaway for all of us. We paid cash. I would handle the books, pay the bills etc.
Hawkins was married and so was Boots. Alex was living with a lady friend. We were all into horses, riding in parades, going to shows, etc. Dick ran a road building company, had a bulldozer and truck and cut a series of riding trails up and around and through the timber. Dick and I purchased a large used two-bedroom house trailer and put it on the hill next to the barn. Boots, Moran and our other guests bunked in the cabin. I was designated “chief cook.” We would go up to the “North 40” several times a month, sometimes on a Friday night or Saturday morning and come back to town Sunday night.
Nashville was changing and growing fast many of the music people moved from Old Hickory Lake into Orange County or to West Nashville. I gambled that the town would grow east where there was lots of good open land and the price was right. I picked up 80 acres for development and started construction on six houses. Hawkins Brothers Company did the land and roadwork. I bet wrong.
I would go there, sit under a tree awaiting lookers. No traffic. I lost part of my shirt and bailed out. Most of America went into a bad turn down. The music business hit an all-time low. It was time for me to try to put the pieces back together. I sold the house on the lake and the land which I jointly owned with Don Pierce. Mary and I moved into a rented house in Hendersonville where she worked as a red lady volunteer at the hospital. I stayed in town most nights to avoid a lot of “conflict and trash.”
I met Sam Martz in 1996. He was a true Christian gentleman who owned a religious music and Bible company and a large building in Madison. Sam and I decided to join forces, combining his religious music with my black music company, Hallelujah. I moved my office to Sam’s building and put my office down the hall from Sam’s front office. I built a recording studio and hired a staff, which included Denise, a sharp beautiful blonde haired young lady who had worked on Music Row so she had a lot of contacts. I put her in the office next to mine.
We hung all my gold records, pictures, awards and commendations on the walls in my big office and in the hallway. I had lots of extra office furniture– conference table etc. — which we placed in a storeroom in the back with all the “Hal Neely big-band arrangements,” contracts, and memorabilia. I hired Moses Dillard, a black preacher who was also a superb musician, as a producer. He brought in some very good black gospel acts. We were in business. I stayed many nights in Nashville with an old friend, Reed Parker, who was a pharmacist on staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital. He had a lot of free time and loved my music business so he joined us there also.
Little Richard had gotten a divinity degree. Sam Martz was his best friend and advisor. When in Nashville Richard was always in Sam’s office. He and I resumed our close relationship from the original James Brown days back in Macon, Georgia.
Some kids broke into the building and stole all my pictures, and awards– took it all, including my golf clubs and my band library. I offered a reward with “no questions asked” for the return of my things. No luck.
My son and his wife now lived in Cookeville. She had a job, and my son was going to college and also working. Mary saw them often.
Victoria worked as a secretary at Vanderbilt University. Mary and I were still married, still friends but living apart in different worlds. She had a nice apartment next to the hospital in Madison. Mary was always very close to our son and his wife, but I was not. We all just sort of went our own way. We agreed to a divorce. I took care of her financially the rest of her life. A beautiful lady. Mary was very close to my parents who now lived in Portland, Oregon. In time she moved back to the Stone farm in Lyons, Nebraska.
It just happened–Victoria and I fell in love. She was 22 years younger than I. We could not get married until my divorce from Mary was final. We made a host of new friends and were happy.
Ellen Tune’s invalid mother lived alone in the Elmington Townhouse Condominiums adjacent to the Westchester Country Club in prestigious West Nashville. It had two huge upstairs bedrooms each with a bath, a full kitchen with everything, a dining room looking out onto a flowered patio, a huge living room, a full basement split into two small guest bedrooms with bath. Mrs. Tune died. Ellen’s brother, an attorney, had his own place. Ellen had her own apartment also. They loved Victoria and offered to sell her the house. The problem was that Victoria had no money, no credit history, and no steady job.
I was able to arrange financing, guarantee the loan, and place the condominium in the name of Victoria and my brother Sam. We moved in. Victoria and I took the master suite and the back bedroom as a guest room. The front door opened off a flowered walkway but everyone used the back door off the kitchen. Our best friends were Stan and Betty who lived several blocks from us. Stan could build anything so I hired him to redo the kitchen and make the other changes Victoria wanted.
I was “supposedly retired,” but remained very active in Nashville’s country music community. One of my best friends ran a catering service with his office on Music Row. Each Monday morning he held a free breakfast meeting for the local “Music Row Reformed Alcoholics”– I wasn’t an alcoholic but I knew most of the guys and I attended the meetings to hear the Music Row gossip. I was now “old hat” in Nashville– no longer sitting at the head table– each year Victoria and I were moved further back into the crowd.

David, Wallis and the Mercenary, Chapter One

When watching a James Bond movie, have you ever wondered about all those mercenaries running around when the bad guys headquarters were blowing up? If they survived, they weren’t going to get paid. The boss was dead. What’s up with that? Besides that, have you ever wondered how boring it must have been for the duke and duchess of Windsor just floating around the world with nothing to do? What if they were super spies–a la James Bond–and MI6 decided they better served the country as spies than on the throne of England? So this is basically what my new novel is about. No, this didn’t really happened, but let’s just pretend.

Leon Johnson did not know how to feel–nervous, afraid, excited or just numb. He sat behind the wheel of a military truck on a moonlit road outside the Old Palace in Canterbury, England.
Most of his life Leon taught himself to be inured to the cruelties that engulfed him on Eleuthera, one of the outer islands of the Bahamas. Rich people did not go there to gamble, bathe in the surf, drink, and dance with other men’s wives. People on Eleuthera were much too busy trying not to die. They were descendants of slaves brought to the Bahamas by their masters after the American Revolution. Somewhere along the way they were freed. Leon often heard the old men in his village discuss which was worse—to die as slaves or die with an illusion of freedom. Either way they ended up dead.
Two hulking men in dark clothes dragged an old man out, down a gravel path through a wrought iron gate and tossed him into the canvas-covered back of the truck. The captive wore pajamas and a fine linen robe. A rough sack was tied over his head, and his hands were bound by rope. Without a word they disappeared down one of the dark narrow streets of Canterbury. Leon started the engine and slowly, as though beginning a routine delivery, pulled away from the Old Palace which, he had been told, served as the residence of the archbishop.
Leon did not know, nor did he care to know, the identities of the kidnappers. The crime syndicate had trained him not to ask questions. Each individual task of a mission had its own minions known only to themselves and their contact in Eleuthera. If they completed their goal they were paid immediately and told to disperse and wait until the next job came along. If they did not complete their mission or if the client did not survive, they were paid nothing and were left to their own devices to return home.
The international business had no name. No one knew who was in charge. The mastermind may have indeed lived in the Caribbean or in the United States, Great Britain, China or South Africa. The contacts reported to intermediaries who answered to regional supervisors who took orders from continental managers. Only those six managers knew the supreme leader.
The Bahamas were a favorite recruiting ground for the organization, along with the jungles of Africa and South America, the High Plains of North America, the deserts of Asia, the Outback of Australia and the slums of Europe. The intermediaries and the supervisors were always on the lookout for young men with an intense need to survive. Leon was one of those. His father was eaten by a great white shark while fishing. If he had not accepted the offer of his Eleuthera contact, Leon might have died himself trying to provide for his mother and sisters. Like the old men in his village used to say, what difference does it make how you earn money if you end up dying anyway? And if he did survive, Leon would be paid enough to support his family on Eleuthera for a year.
Leon drove down the rough dirt road until he saw the massive ruins of Canterbury Castle silhouetted against the cold November moon. Parking in front of the only door to the old Norman fortress he waited, according to his instructions, for men to come down the steps to take the prisoner from the back of the truck. Eventually, two men of ungraceful comportment trudged up to the vehicle and dragged out the old man and started back up the stairs.
Leon leaned out of the window. “What do I do next?”
The larger of the two men turned to snarl, “And what kind of arse might ye be?”
“I’m a new arse to the organization and I don’t want to mess things up and not get paid,” he informed the man.
“Fair enough. Stay where ye are. It might be a few hours before we get word about the exchange.”
“What exchange?” As soon as he asked Leon regretted the question.
“None of ye damned business.”
“It’ll be your damned business if the sun comes up and the townsfolk see a black man in a truck outside Canterbury Castle.”
Spitting, the man acquiesced. “Very well, park the truck in the back and come inside. We’ll be downstairs.”
Hopefully, there would be a fire downstairs, Leon thought. He was not used to the cold winds of the English countryside. After he hid the truck he scampered up the steps into the castle and down the stairs where he watched the two men dragged the old man further down into the dungeon.
“Please, please,” the old man whimpered. “Slow down so I can get my feet under me.”
“Shut up. We’re in a hurry.”
Leon’s neck burned red from anger. He might have turned to a life of crime to survive, but cruelty to small animals, children and old people went beyond the pall of decency. He followed at a distance to see where the men took the old man. They threw him into an ancient cell and slammed the door shut. The bigger man stuck his hand out.
“Gimme the key.”
“I don’t have no key,” the younger man exclaimed. “Who the hell would I be askin’ for a key to a ruin like this? Are ye daft, man?’
“Then stay here and make sure he don’t escape!”
“I’m not staying in this muck ‘n’ mire!” He looked over at Leon. “Have him do it! Make ‘im earn his pay!”
“Sure,” Leon replied. “I don’t mind.”
The leader bumped his way past Leon toward the upper level. “Damned fool way to run things!”
When they were gone, Leon opened the door and knelt by the old man. “Ol’ man, are you all right? Did they hurt you?”
The old man mumbled something. Leon could not understand him through the hood. “Let me take this off your head.”
“No, no. I mustn’t see who you are.” He spoke louder and more distinctly. “Then I would be required to identify you when I am released. I want no harm to come to you, my son. “After a pause, he added, “I am fine, young friend.”

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Twenty-Five

John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary

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 even though there were some complications. Then he skillfully maneuvered Lincoln’s bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon into believing Lincoln and his wife were in hiding because of death threats.

John Hay lay restlessly in his bed awaiting John Nicolay to finish ripping open letters in the office across the hall. As much as he tried, Hay was unable to go to sleep, because something odd struck him about the events of the afternoon and evening.
Hay had met Nicolay in Springfield, Illinois, and both of them met the gentleman who was a lawyer for the railroads. When Lincoln ran for president, he employed Nicolay to take care of his correspondence, and when he was elected, he took Nicolay’s advice to hire Hay. Few secrets were held from the two men, and that was why Hay was he left his bed and slipped on his pants. Walking barefoot, Hay entered to see Nicolay in the dimly lit office, efficiently opening letters, scanning the contents, and assigning them to various piles. Flashing in the kerosene lamp was Nicolay’s Bavarian wood-carving knife.
“Still busy?” Hay asked.
“Ja,” Nicolay replied in a tired accent.
“I couldn’t sleep. This afternoon and evening were so strange.”
“In what way?”
“First of all,” Hay began, while sitting on the edge of Nicolay’s desk, “the whole idea of Mr. Lincoln’s wanting both of us to take Tad to the Willard for pie and cake.”
“It takes two men to contain the boy.”
“I think he wanted both of us out of the building so we wouldn’t witness what was going on.” Hay’s eyes searched his friend’s face, hoping for an answer that would calm his fears.
“And what would that be?” Nicolay kept his eyes down as he continued opening and reading letters.
“Will you please look at me while I’m speaking?”
“I must have these letters ready for the president tomorrow morning. The unexpected trip to the Willard and the late Cabinet meeting put me behind in my correspondence.”
“But didn’t you think it was strange he’d call a Cabinet meeting so late, yet not come to any decision?” Hay’s nerves were being unsettled by Nicolay’s resistance to offer any solutions to his problems.
With a heavy sigh, Nicolay put down his Bavarian carving knife and placed his hands to his chin, narrowing his eyes on Hay, whose left eye was twitching a bit. “What is your job?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what are you paid to do?”
“Take notes at meetings.” Hay knew it would be folly to be esoteric. “Screen visitors to his office. Represent the president at events he doesn’t wish to attend.”
“Correct.” Nicolay continued his duties. “At no time did you mention making unpopular observations.”
“But it’s our obligation—”
“My obligation is to open letters, read them, and assign them to various piles.” He put the letter currently in his hand into the wastepaper basket. “That letter merited nothing. Others I pass on to you—social events and such. Some I pass on to Cabinet secretaries. And very few are forwarded to the president. That’s my job.”
“Are you saying,” Hay said, wrinkling his brow, “you didn’t notice anything?”
“I noticed the president was a half-inch taller,” Nicolay replied. “He spoke in a dialect more likely found in Michigan than Illinois, and there were no stray black hairs peeking above his collar. But those observations are not part of my job.”
“But that’s not right.” Hay shook his head.
“This is another letter from Mr. Herndon.” He held up an envelope. “He’s probably asking for another favor, obviously illegal or at least unethical, and which will certainly be approved by the president.” Nicolay placed the letter unopened in the stack going directly to the president. “If I did the right thing, the ethical thing, I’d take it to the Congress and report the president for impeachable behavior, but that’s not my job, and I won’t embarrass the president.”
“But don’t we have an obligation to the Constitution to reveal possible corruption?” Hay stood to lean over the desk toward Nicolay, who quickly rose and placed his knife to Hay’s throat.
“You do know men have had their throats slit for trying to uphold the Constitution?”
“Yes, sir.” Hay quavered, looking down at the knife.
“Don’t worry, Johnny.” Nicolay smiled, put his knife down, and patted Hay’s pale cheek. “I wouldn’t hurt you. And you’re right—Mr. Lincoln has disappeared and been replaced by a poor substitute. But if you ask questions about the change, I’m afraid someone might use a knife across your neck to keep you quiet.”

Hunkering Down

I’m going to spend the next few days hunkering down because of Irma and won’t be posting on my blog. Please check out my older posts. Read my novellas about Burly Bear and The Man in the Red Underwear. I’ll be back next week if Irma doesn’t blow me away.

I Could Hear Janet Cussing Now

cades cove
A leisurely drive through Cades Cove

A trip to the Great Smoky Mountains is not complete without a visit to Cades Cove. It has a sad history. Cades Cove, noticeably flat in the middle of the mountains, was a viable farm community since who knows when. Then we decided to create a new national park during the Depression, and these folks were told to go live somewhere else. Anyone born there could still be buried in one of the three cemeteries. They could be dead there but not live there.
You can take the one-lane road around the perimeter, visit three old churches, hike five miles to Abrams Falls, inspect a museum of how life used to be and maybe even spot a family of deer or bears. For your own safety you shouldn’t try to get out of your car to take close up photos of the animals or try to feed them. The speed limit is only 10 or so miles an hour. If you’re in a hurry stay on the Interstate highways and out of the park.
My son and I found ourselves behind a van with a retractable roof and four little girls. No one minded the stop and go traffic moving like molasses because, after all, this was Cades Cove. It was our first visit since my wife Janet died. But if she had been there she would have had a conniption fit.
Three of the little girls in front of us stood up through the sunroof, danced around and waved their arms like they were in a photo shoot for deodorant. What would have upset Janet was the thought that if the car had to stop abruptly or if it had hit a major pothole those little girls would have gone flying out of the sunroof like Peter Pan without the pixie dust. They could have busted their pretty little skulls or fractured their fragile spines. Then their happy memories would have been pre-empted by a dash to the closest hospital about thirty miles away.
When we thought it couldn’t get any worse, a slightly older girl slid her butt onto the open window and joined the joyous ballet of waving hands. If the door wasn’t locked she could have made a thrilling plunge into the majestic pastureland. And to top off the circus of fools, one of the smaller girls climbed out of the car window too.
This reminded me of the idiotic meme on Facebook about if you survived riding in the back of an open pickup truck in the fifties type in “It was fun!” and share. No one stops to think about the kids who fell out of pickups and died. They’re not here to share the meme on Facebook. I know the reply would be that they never heard of a child actually dying in the back of a pickup. That may well be true but we were children back then. We didn’t read newspapers and we didn’t listen to our parents whisper to each other about how terrible it was that the little Smith boy died. Just because our parents shielded us from bad things didn’t mean they didn’t happen.
And I could hear Janet complaining and cussing about this very topic as we watched the girls’ carelessly defying death as their parents giggled about how cute they looked. Thankfully by the time the van reached the regular two-lane road leading back to Gatlinburg, McDonald’s and Hillbilly Golf, the children returned to their seats and hopefully buckled up. Their adventure had come to a safe conclusion.
But Janet would have been cussing out the parents for another thirty minutes. Ah, the memories.

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Twenty-Four

Ellen Stanton
Edwin Stanton’s melancholic wife Ellen

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 even though there were some complications. Then he skillfully maneuvered Lincoln’s bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon into believing Lincoln and his wife were in hiding because of death threats.

Stanton entered his home, found the downstairs dark and empty, and proceeded upstairs to his bedroom, where he expected to see his wife, most likely polishing the urn. His steps slowed as he recalled how the death of his son James in February had not sparked the public sorrow and sympathy that did the death of Lincoln’s spoiled boy Willie. His son was a saint compared to the Lincoln brat, but no one gave notice to their grief. Shaking his head to rid it of such feminine thoughts, Stanton tried to tell himself that such slights did not enter into his decision to take control of the government’s executive branch. That would indicate a woman’s emotional disposition in his character, and he would never accept that. When he reached his bedroom door he paused to look in to see his wife Ellen, still wearing black, standing by the fireplace, just staring at the urn. She was fifteen years younger than Stanton and still considered a fine-looking woman of child-bearing age, but in her eyes—her dark, soulful, heavy-lidded eyes—was a silent burden which aged her.
“You’re home.” She kept her gaze on the urn. “You must be hungry.”
“I had a quick supper at the Willard.”
“Very well.”
“It was kind of you to wait up for me.” He stepped into the room, went to her, and lightly touched her shoulder.
“Think nothing of it.”
In the last few months, their conversations had been restricted to courtesies and pleasantries. She rarely smiled, and when she did it was at great emotional cost, as though betraying the memory of her son. This was, of course, all supposition on the part of Stanton, because he had never understood his second wife, unlike his first, Mary, who had been his promise of goodness and light. After Mary died in 1844, three years after their daughter’s death, Stanton had refused the notion of remarriage. Twelve years of aggressively pursuing his law practice and political aspirations had passed before he noticed Ellen Hutchinson, stately, grand, and slightly taller than he. She was quiet, compliant, and sweet in a mysterious manner. Their son James had brought out the sparkle in her eyes, which Stanton had not taken time to appreciate because he had been busy seeking national political power. Now the sparkle was gone.
“Would you care for a cup of warm milk?” Ellen looked at him without emotion.
“No, thank you.”
Could she suspect he was involved in an action that, if discovered, could ruin his career? Stanton wondered as he walked to his armoire, removing his coat. If she did know, would she approve? He softly grunted for worrying about what she would think. What he was doing was for the good of the nation, and he would not change his course now even if she did know and begged him to stop.
“What?” Ellen asked.
“I thought I heard a laugh,” she said.
“As Mr. Lincoln says, sometimes one must laugh to keep from crying.”
Would she care her opinion did not matter to him? Perhaps that was the reason for Ellen’s reserve. She knew her place was behind the deceased wife and children.
“Fine,” Ellen said. “I’ll prepare to retire as well.”
Stanton sat in his large stuffed chair to remove his shoes. He watched her remove the white lace collar and the breast pin from her black silk dress. For all his sorrow and anger that aged him, he reminded himself that he still was only forty-seven years old.
“Did you see Mrs. Lincoln today?” she asked.
“Yes.” Stanton stiffened.
“You don’t like her, do you, Edwin?”
“What makes you think that?”
“The tone of your voice.” She let down her shining hair. “Is she still suffering?”
“Oh. Yes.”
“I feel sorry for her.”
Her compassion stirred him. The flickering lamp revealed her clear white cheeks to be too cold and stolid. Her pale lips never departed from their downward turn. Suddenly he was aware of his passion for her. Stanton, pulling the suspenders down from his trousers, walked to her.
“I think it’s admirable you’re able to be concerned about Mrs. Lincoln through your own grief.” He paused, hoping for a response. “I don’t want you to be unhappy.”
“I know,” she replied as she combed out her hair. “I don’t want to be unhappy either.”
“I want to make you happy.” He tenderly touched her shoulder.
“You make me happy,” she automatically said.
“Do I truly?”
“Of course.”
Her emotionless tone drained his ardor, and he turned away. Stanton may force his will upon the nation, but not upon his wife.