Emma Meets the Other Dogs

Emma, the little black and tan dachshund woke into the silence that was her everyday life. She could see the younger dogs leap from their perches and run barking through the house. Sometimes she followed, sometimes she just lay back down. She didn’t know their names, just their smells. But that was fine. She was content.

It hadn’t always been that way. In the beginning there was sound, and there was Vic and Sarah. They told her she was a good girl, and called fetch when they threw her ball. She loved to stand on Vic’s lap as he drove the car. He’d roll the window down on sunny days and she’d stick her head out and let her ears flap in the wind. She smelled the world as Vic drove through it.

“Careful not to fall out,” he’d say, and brace her with his arm. Vic would never let that happen, she trusted him. He was so big. A giant. So was Sarah, but they were gentle, and she knew they would never hurt her.

Emma knew something was different when they stopped taking her for walks. They looked tired, and Sarah quit sitting in her chair. She stayed in bed. Vic cooked for her and helped her walk to the bathroom. Emma knew she must stay out of the way, that Sarah could fall. So she did. Sometimes, she stood on her back legs against Sarah’s bed and she would lift her so they could lay together. Or, she’d jump into Vic’s lap as he watched television. But it wasn’t the same.

One day Vic lifted her onto Sarah’s bed. Emma looked up into her face, it was different, and Sarah started crying. When she hugged her, Sarah’s arms felt thin and weak. Emma tried to lick away her tears but they just came faster. That was the last time she saw her. There were days after that, strangers came to feed her. She was lonely.

Emma didn’t notice at first. Her world was so small, the yard, her bed, sometimes Vic’s lap. He never drove the car, and she never felt the wind in her face. Then one day everything was silent. It took Vic a while to realize. She saw his lips move and he lifted her into his arms and hugged and kissed her. After that it was gentle nudges if he wanted her to do something. But that was ok. She was just happy to be with him.

One day Vic opened the door to a lady. Emma picked up her ball and dropped it in front of her. The lady smiled and tossed it. She did this a few times and stroked her fur. Emma liked her. She came everyday and would toss the ball. One day she stayed. Men came with a bed, they moved Vic and Sarah’s chairs and put him into it. The lady let Emma sit with her. Sometimes, she’d let her lay with Vic, but all he did was sleep.

One morning the lady had tears in her eyes. She hugged Emma, set her on Vic’s chest and stroked her. He felt funny. The lady cried, and Emma blinked. Men filled the room and Vic and the bed were gone. There was only the lady and her. Emma stayed with the lady for a while, but it was different. Then the lady took her to another place. She hugged Emma, cried and walked away.

Emma wasn’t scared, but she didn’t know anybody. There were other dogs. She learned their smells and slept on a blanket in a cage. After many days the cage was opened. She was carried to a grassy yard where there was a man, a lady and another dog. Emma sniffed them, they petted her and threw the ball. They petted her some more and the new lady lifted her and hugged her and took her away. She let her sit on her lap as the man drove, but he didn’t roll down the window.

They brought her to a new place and she was happy. After a while she found she was tired most of the time. Her stomach hurt and she couldn’t see like she used to. Emma still liked to go for rides, and the man let her stick her head out the window. She felt his arm brace her so she didn’t go too far. Her ears flapped in the wind, and she smelled the world as the man drove through it.

Emma walked through the doggy door into the backyard. She had to go to the bathroom but she dreaded it. It was so painful, it made her shake, sometimes she vomited.

“Are you alright?”

Emma jumped. She hadn’t heard a voice for a long time. She looked all around her and sniffed, but there was nobody. She hurried back into the house and burrowed under the blankets. Her food didn’t taste good so she stopped eating. The lady took her to a building that smelled funny. They poked her. Emma shivered, and watched the lady’s lips move, her lady started to cry.

She got special food, then it didn’t taste good, and going to the bathroom was even more painful. Emma heard the voices almost every time she went to the backyard. There were three of them. They told her things would be ok. They told her they were waiting for her. The rest of the time Emma’s world was silent, and it grew smaller. Her bed, the water bowl and a few steps outside the doggy door.

Emma couldn’t get up. She wanted to, but her legs were too weak. The man pet her and cried. He left and came back with the lady. She cried too. Emma blinked as the world went by. She was in the car, but she couldn’t poke her head outside. The lady hugged her and stroked her fur. Then she was in the funny smelling building again. They put her blanket on a metal table and laid her on it. Emma heard the lady and man’s voices for the first time.

“We love you Emma,” they said. “Thank you for being such a good dog.” They stroked her side. She lifted her head and felt something poke her.

Emma opened her eyes and three dogs were staring at her. “Hi Emma, do you remember us?”

“No, but I’ve heard your voices.” Emma looked around and noticed she was in the backyard. She saw the dogs from the house explode out the doggy door and bark at the fence.

She looked at the two red, and one black and tan dachshunds gathered around her. “Who are you?”

“We’re the other dogs.”

“The other dogs?”

“Yes, you’re one of us now.”

“I’m one of you?”

They all nodded. “All dogs that are loved never go away. We just wait for our people to come and get us.” The three dachshunds turned to the gate.

Emma jumped to her feet and ran happily barking as Vic and Sarah walked into the backyard. She jumped into Vic’s arms. He hugged and kissed her while Sarah stroked her fur.

“Look Emma,” Sarah pulled a ball from her pocket. “Come on girl. We’ve been waiting for you for such a long time. Let’s go play.”

Prologue

Hedwig van Sweiten fastened the end of her long blond braid with a blue ribbon and walked to her bedroom window. She stared out at the dark rainy city of Wien, Vienna, and felt a chill run down her spine. This doesn’t feel right, it’s like I’m not supposed to be here. I remember a young man name Alexander, and a specter with red eyes. I thought it killed me. She shook her head and went back to her dressing table. I guess it was only a dream.

Glass shattered and wood splintered. She spun. The window was nothing but a jagged hole, and a huge wolf with glowing red eyes bounded toward her. Her hand flashed up and blocked it, she twirled and kicked it to the side. The wolf slammed into the wall and sprang back. She punched it in the head and knocked it to the ground. It shook its head, jumped to its feet and glared at her.

Hedy glared back. “Let me guess, Satan sent you? The wolf’s eyes twitched, it exploded off the floor and snapped at her face. She caught it by the throat and threw it back toward the broken window.

“Donner, Blitz, come, I need you.” Nails clattered against wood and two miniature dachshunds appeared at her ankles. One was red with a white lightning shaped slash on it’s chest. The other, black and tan. She pointed. “Get him out of here.” They touched noses, their eyes glowed blue and they charged.

The wolf licked it’s lips.

A bolt of lightning arced from Blitz’s jaws and dropped it in its tracks. Hedy smelled singed fur, and smiled. She went to her schrank, wardrobe, took out an ankle length blue dress and a pair of low healed black boots with brass buckles.

“Are you alright?” Sister Adelbert, Hedwig’s quasi chaperone called through a gap in the door

“I’m fine Sister,” she stepped into the dress. “There’s a giant wolf in here so don’t come in, Donner and Blitz are just getting rid of it.” She put her arms in the sleeves and turned back to the hound from Hell. “This is your last chance. Leave now, or we’ll hunt you down and hand you back to Satan as a pelt.”

The wolf’s eyes shifted from Hedy, to Donner, to Blitz and back again. She raised an eyebrow and shook her head. The wolf lunged. Lightning shot from Blitz’s jaws and thunder roared from Donner’s. They blasted it out the side of the house like a cannonball.

Hedy closed the curtains.“You can come in now Sister. The wolf’s gone.” She bent down and pet both dogs on the head. “Good boys.”

The nun came in carrying a small lantern wearing her robe, a tight fitting night cap and slippers. “Just look at this mess! First it was demons from Hell, now giant wolves. You certainly have some strange visitors.” She walked to the window, pulled the curtains back and shook her head. I’ll clean this up and fetch the carpenters in the morning. Are you going out?”

“I’m afraid so. Would you please fasten the back of my dress. The boys and I have to find the wolf. I gave him a chance to go back to Hell on his own. Now, it looks like I’m going to have to deliver him to Satan in person.”

Hedy moved her long braid to the side and Sister fastened the buttons. She pulled on her boots and threw a blue wool hooded cloak over her shoulders. “Come on boy’s. I want to catch that beast before he does anymore damage.”

“Take care Freiin van Sweiten. You’re not invincible.”

“I know, Sister.”

Hedy took the lantern from her and guided them through the dark house to the back door.

Her eyes darted to the older womans. “We should be back before dawn.”

“I’ll have hot coffee and fresh rolls with butter when you return. I’ll have breakfast for your doggies, too.”

Hedy stepped into the darkness.

Lantern light flickered on the nun’s face. “God be with you.”

“Thank you. We’ll be careful.” She glanced at her dachshunds. “Ok boys, find that wolf!” The little dogs sniffed the air, touched noses and ran toward the courtyard gate. Hedy pulled her hood up and followed.

The moon glowed in the cloudy sky and angels swooped in like giant birds. They perched on rooftops and watched through windows as their earthly charges slept. Some carried the souls of the poor and innocent to their final reward. Others, the rich and worldly pleading for mercy and begging forgiveness.

Donner and Blitz slowed to a walk. The angels are busy tonight. Hedy shook her head. To most fräulein this would seem impossible. But it’s normal to me.

She pressed her hand against Saint Quiteria’s relic. How many 18 year old girls can talk to God? Well, I guess anyone can talk to You, but how many do You answer back? She took a few steps. And how many have a relic that lets them see angels, or allows them to channel Your limitless power?

It’s all because my Mutter, chose to trade her life for my destiny. I guess I got to choose, too. But, You already knew what my answer would be, didn’t you? She sighed, and looked up at the cloudy sky. I don’t think I’d have been happy being ordinary, anyway. I’m not a saint. I’m just the girl You chose to save the human race. The howl of a wolf echoed in the darkness and Donner and Blitz started to run. Here I go again.

Hedy and the dogs ran through the dark rain soaked streets of Wien. They ran past demons scurrying in the shadows. They ran past The House Under the Blue Bottle, Hedy’s favorite coffeehouse. They ran until the streets opened into a wide square, at its end, Saint Stephen’s Cathedral.

Stephansdom was a huge Gothic and Romanesque style church. It’s roof was covered with colorful tiles arranged in wild designs and patterns, and its soaring south tower the tallest object in the city. As Hedy watched, the sky cleared and moonlight so bright it cast pale shadows illuminated everything in front of her. Mist rose from the paving stones, and Lucifer and the giant wolf stepped from the shadows.

She lowered her hood. “Here we go. You boys keep your eyes on the wolf. I’ll concentrate on that bastard, Satan.” She pinched her cheeks, put a smile on her face and walked out into the moonlight.

Her footsteps filled the square and echoed off the silent buildings. Hedy looked straight ahead and didn’t say a word until she was staring into Lucifer’s dead, black eyes. “They say your name means bringer of light, or Venus the morning star. You’re as handsome as I remember.” Her eyes traveled over his exquisitely tailored black suit, frilly white shirt, crimson waistcoat and handkerchief. She focused back on his eyes. “But then again, looks are so superficial.”

He sneered. “You’ve grown up.”

“You haven’t seen me in a few years. Not since you and your lackey Azazel tried to molest me.” She pointed at the wolf. “ I see you found your dog.” Her blue eyes hardened. “Next time, why don’t you just knock. I don’t like having to cleanup your messes.”

He laughed. “There won’t be a next time, you’re mine now. So are they.” He swept his arm, the reality of Wien disappeared and she was standing in the Throne room of Hell. Suspended by chains shackled to their arms over a hoard of writhing rats hung her Vater Gottfried, Stepmother Maria, Godfather and mentor Pfarrer Schaaf and her fiancé Alexander.

Hedy gasped. “How?”

Lucifer motioned with his finger and Manfred’s specter walked into the blood red torchlight. “I believe you two have already met.”

Hedy raised her arm and sent a stream of searing white light coursing toward it. The specter burst into flames and disappeared in a flash of smoke. She shifted the beam of light and turned the rats to charcoal. Hedy twirled, slammed Lucifer in the face with a right cross and kneed him in the groin. The wolf charged and Donner and Blitz attacked.

Blitz’s lightning burned her clothes and singed her hair. Donner’s thunder knocked her to the icy ground. She scrambled to her feet and blasted Lucifer with heavenly light. He screamed in pain and she ran to where her loved ones were suspended. Hedy freed each of them and caught them as they dropped. “Stay behind me. Donner, Blitz, cover our back, we’re getting out of here.”

Everything stopped. All Hedy could move was her face. Satan rose to his feet and walked toward her. He didn’t look happy. “You can’t usurp the power of Satan. Not in Hell!” He twitched an eyebrow.

Hedy felt like the inside of her body was burning. Lucifer leered at her and the pain got worse. “You’re mine now, Hedwig. You’re mine for all eternity.” He ogled her exposed legs and torn bodice. “I am really going to enjoy that.”

Hedy willed her eyes to meet his and using every bit of strength, spit in his eye.

Lucifer wiped away the spittle and a look of rage spread across his face. “You shouldn’t have done that!”

Hedy swallowed hard and braced herself to face Satan’s wrath. At least I’ll go down fighting.

A voice yelled, “Stop!”

Lucifer spun. “Who said that?”

Saint Quiteria walked into the light. “I did!”

“How did you get here? You have no right to be here.”

A female dressed in rags with wild unkempt hair walked over beside her. “I brought her!” Christina the Astonishing walked up to Hedwig, touched her cheek and whispered in her ear, “Remember, my dear you have friends in high places.”

She turned to Satan with flashing eyes. “This is for you!” She held out a scroll and shook her head and fanned her nose. “Wow, you stink!”

“What is this?”

Christina The Astonishing smirked. “You can’t read? Or, are you just stupid?”

Satan looked at the seal. “From, Him?”

Quiteria stepped forward. “Of course it’s from Him. Do you think we’d deliver a message from just anybody?”

Lucifer pulled the seal loose and scanned the scroll. His eyes flicked to the two saints. “Is this for real?”

“It’s straight from The Most High and Mighty One,” Christina replied.

Lucifer turned to Hedy. Her clothes were in tatters, her bare legs visible to the thigh and her long blond hair singed short. “He wants me to give you a second chance. All you have to do to get it is defeat me.” He laughed. “Ok, I’ll play His little game.” He stared into Hedy’s bloodshot blue eyes. “What do you say girl? It’s all or nothing. Are you up to it?”

Hedy twisted her head and looked at the saints. She turned to her Vater, Maria, Alexander and Pfarrer Schaaf. They all looked scared except for Pfarrer Schaaf, his eyes were smiling. She wrinkled her forehead. What do you know that I don’t, Herr Pfarrer.

She straightened her back, thrust out her chest and looked the Devil in the eye. “I’ll take that challenge! If you win, me and everyone I love will be yours forever.” Her eyes bored into his. “But if I win, you’ll never bother any of us again.” She stuck her hand out. “Is it a deal?”

Lucifer smiled and grabbed it. “I accept. When do you want to begin?”

Hedy’s clothes and hair returned to normal and her blue eyes sparkled. “Right now. It begins right now!”

Hedwig’s Adventures in the Great Beyond

A Sin of Omission

Jess Story stepped through the door of the Hotel Excelsior and knew he didn’t belong there. His gray wool suit, white shirt and wrinkled black shoes were twenty years out of date. He walked self-consciously to the registration desk and waited behind a floral delivery man with a huge basket of red roses. He glanced at his own small bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums and tried to hide them with his arm. The delivery man nodded to the desk clerk and moved toward the elevators.

Jess stepped forward.

“May I help you?”

“Could you please direct me to Jackie, ahh Jaclyn Story’s room.”

“Is Miss Story expecting you?”

“I wrote I was coming.”

“What’s your name? I’ll call and let her know you’re here.”

“Jess, Jess Story. I’m her father.”

The clerk’s eyes narrowed, and he picked up the phone. “Miss Story, this is Miles at the front desk. There’s a gentleman to see you. He says he’s you father. The clerk stared at Jess. “He said he sent you a letter. Very well, I’ll send him up.” He cradled the handset. “She’ll see you. She’s in the Governor’s Suite. Tell the elevator operator, he’ll take you to the right floor and direct you from there.”

Jess stepped out of the elevator into soft carpet and low light. He followed the operator’s directions and ended up in front of a polished mahogany door. He twisted the bell.

“What are you doing here?”

Jess looked at the beautiful raven haired young woman wearing silky pink pajamas with a matching robe. She smelled of sex and perfume. He just about didn’t recognize her. “You’ve changed. You look different.”

“I’m not a schoolgirl anymore.” Her brown eyes flashed. “What do you want?”

“May I come in?” He looked over her shoulder and saw the huge arrangement of roses. He held out the chrysanthemums. “I brought you these.”

She picked them up with the tips of her fingers. “For just a few minutes. I need to get cleaned up. I’m expecting another visitor.”

He walked past and waited for her to close the door. “Can you reschedule him for later?”

She dropped the chrysanthemums onto an end table. “Why?”

“I’m dying, Jaclyn. I have a brain tumor.”

The girl he remembered appeared on her face for just an instant. “Oh Dad. Can’t they do anything?”

“No one can do anything, but you.”

She looked surprised. “Me?”

“I have committed a sin of omission; Jaclyn and I can’t rest until I’ve rectified it.”

“What’s that got to do with me?”

Jess studied his daughter’s powdered face and curvy body. “I believe you’re the only person who can redeem me.”

Princeton Porter parked his big nineteen forty seven Chrysler Fifth Avenue in front of the Alton Bank and Trust where Dalton Prewett would be sure to see it. He didn’t really need to. Nothing happened in the town of Alton without Dalton Prewett knowing about it or without his permission. It was his town. He’d dug it out of the ground from a lode of silver two feet wide and two feet thick that never seemed to narrow.

Porter slid out of the big car, put on his businessman’s fedora and looked down Alton’s flag strewn Main Street. The most patriotic city in America. He shook his head and walked across to the only building without one, the office of the Alton Examiner. A bell jingled when he pushed the door open. A woman in a maternity smock looked up from the front desk. Her eyes looked tired.

“Can I help you, sir?”

Porter took off his hat and smiled. “You must be Sharon. I’m Princeton Porter.”

“General Porter.” She stood and extended her hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you, sir. Thank you for coming.”

“Princeton’s fine, the wars over.” He took her hand, guided her back to the desk and sat down beside her. “Tell me what’s going on?”

“I should get Wes.” She tried to get up, but he blocked her.

Porter’s voice was smooth and firm. “I’ll talk to him later, now I want to talk to you. Tell me what’s been going on.”

“It’s as if the whole town has gone crazy. Dalton Prewett either murdered Jess Story in cold blood or hired it done and everybody knows it.” Her hazel eyes darted to his. “But nobody cares. It’s as if as long as business is good, and the price of silver is steady the murder doesn’t matter. I’ve heard people say Jess would have died eventually, anyway. He just died a little sooner. Can you believe people could be so callous?”

“Why do you think Prewett was involved?”

“Jaclyn. Jess’s daughter.” Sharon shifted in her seat. “It’s ironic. Her father did everything he could to raise her right, but she turned into a gold digger. There’s even rumors she’s a high priced prostitute. She’s drop dead gorgeous and she learned a long time ago she could use her looks to get what she wanted.” Her expression hardened. “She wanted Dalton Prewett. She even got him to ask her to marry him, but her father said no.”

Porter leaned back in his seat. “This isn’t the Victorian Age, she’s over twenty one isn’t she?”

Sharon nodded.

“Her father doesn’t have any say in the matter. She doesn’t need his permission.”

“As amoral as she is, Jaclyn must have been old fashioned about that. She told Dalton the wedding was off unless he could get her father to change his mind. I think his persuasion might have gotten a little out of hand. But like I said, nobody seems to care.”

“What about Miss Story?”

“She wore black to the funeral, but nobody saw her cry.

Porter shifted in his seat. “What’s this about you and Wes receiving threats?”

“It started when Wes printed an editorial about the killing. He didn’t say Dalton Prewett was involved. He just said there should be an outside investigation. It must have hit pretty close to home because we lost about ninety percent of our subscribers and advertisers over it.” She touched her stomach. “Then the threats started. Hang up calls and anonymous letters. Prewett calls the news we print “Phony” and threatened to start his own newspaper. I don’t know how we’re going to make it.”

The door to the press room opened and Wes Archer walked out holding a sheet of newsprint. His face lit up when he recognized Porter. “General. How long have you been here? Sharon, how come you didn’t get me?”

Porter stood and offered his hand. “It’s just Princeton now, Wes. I left the General back in the Pentagon. It’s good to see you.” Porter could tell things were bad. You learned to read a man’s face after working with him twenty four hours a day seven days a week.”

“Thanks for coming. I, uhh, didn’t know who else to call. You’re the only man I know who has a chance of getting us out of this bind. You sure pulled the rabbit out of the hat a few times back in the war.” He sat down at the desk marked ‘Editor.’

“Couldn’t have done it without you. You were the best assistant I ever had. What’s with the flags?”

“That’s Prewett’s idea of patriotism. The old bastard never served a day and made a killing off the war while you and I were risking our lives. It makes me sick. That many flags hanging around looks more like laundry day than the Fourth of July. Forgive my language, darling. It’s just that he’s so damn fake. I bet Freud would say he’s compensating for something.”

“Don’t worry about hurting my sensibilities. I wouldn’t have married a newspaperman if I had any. Especially an honest one.”

The door jangled and a man in a blue suit and tie walked in. Wes jumped to his feet, the tendons in his neck sticking out. “What are you doing here, Warner? Did Prewett send you?”

“So what if he did, Archer? I don’t see a Do Not Enter sign on your door. I came to see him. Mr. Prewett would like to see you up at the manor, General.”

Porter looked between Archer and his wife. “Looks like news travels fast.” He got up and lifted his hat by the pinch. “I wouldn’t mind talking to him myself.” He started for the door and turned. “What was Jess Story like?”

“Practicing Catholic, honest, hardworking, a good man to have as a neighbor.” Wes replied.

Porter placed his hat on his head. “His wife?”

“She’s dead.” Sharon answered. “She died when Jaclyn was a girl.”

“Thanks.” Princeton turned to the man in the blue suit. “I’ll take my car. Call Prewett’s gatehouse and tell them to expect me.”

“I don’t know,” Warner replied. “The boss said we were supposed to deliver you.”

Porter walked over so he was only inch’s from Warner’s face. “I said I’d drive myself.”

Warner swallowed and stepped aside.

Porter’s first impression of Vue sur la vallée, Prewett’s manor house, was that he had more dollars than sense. It looked like a French impressionist’s interpretation of Yellow Stone Lodge. It wasn’t a good combination. He parked the Chrysler and walked up the wide flagstone walk to the home’s massive front door. A maid answered the bell.

“I’m here to see Mr. Prewett.”

“He’s expecting you, General Porter. I’ll take your hat and show you the way.

The inside of the house was as ugly as the outside. It seemed all it took to fit into the décor was the price of the item.

The maid showed him into a room with a large glass wall and told him to wait. The view from the windowed wall was as spectacular as the view from the drive. It looked out onto a smooth concrete deck and large swimming pool with a fountain at one end framed by a backdrop of snow covered mountains. A beautiful young woman with long black hair raised up from a chaise lounge. The top of her one piece bathing suit was folded down and he could see her breasts. He turned away.

The door opened and Prewett entered the room. All the money in the world couldn’t have made him handsome. He walked to the window and stared at the half naked young woman.

“Shouldn’t a gentleman avert his eyes?” Porter asked.

“She knows I’m here. She doesn’t care if I see her that way.” He turned. “I’ve seen more of her than that. A lot more. We’re going to be married.”

“She’s a lucky girl,” Porter replied sarcastically.

“Damn right she is, I’m a hell of a catch!”

“What are you, forty years older than she is?”

“Look, I didn’t have you come up to flap your jaws. I had you come up here to warn you. You and that newspaper publisher and his pregnant wife should all leave while you can. This is my town. What I say goes.”

Porter stared him down. “No man’s above the law, Mr. Prewett. You can’t kill a man and not expect to face justice.”

The old man’s face turned red. “That’s a lie, Porter. That’s a damn lie. I didn’t kill Story. I’ve been exonerated by the Town Marshal and the State Police. You say that again and I’ll sue.”

“I don’t believe them, and I don’t believe you. You own them. They’d be foolish to say anything else. The whole towns the same. As long as your mine is the main employer, and the price of silver is stable, those people will let you get away with murder. They might already have.”

Prewett pulled a pistol from inside his jacket. He pointed it at him. “I told you this is my town. I make the rules. I could kill you right now and nothing would happen.”

The glass wall opened and the young woman with black hair stepped inside wearing a short see through robe. She walked up and took the pistol from Dalton’s hand. “That’s not going to work this time darling, General Porter here is a certified war hero. She set the pistol on the desk and kissed Prewett on the cheek.

She moved closer to Porter and studied him. “You’re younger than I thought. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Jaclyn Story.”

He shook it. “Princeton Porter.”

She held his hand for a fraction of a second longer than necessary and continued to look into his eyes. “I think you should go, General. Don’t concern yourself with Dalton here, or Alton. Everything is fine.”

Porter reached into his pocket and wiped his hand with his handkerchief. “You feel greasy.”

Her brown eyes looked away and she replied in a voice only he could hear. “Sometimes.” She walked over beside the ugly old man and kissed him on the lips. “Come on baby. You look tense. Why don’t you let me give you a back rub.”

Prewett smirked. “Yeah, we’re done here.” He stroked the back of her naked thigh. “Remember what I told you.”

The maid opened the door with Porter’s hat in her hand. He looked at Jaclyn and wondered what the note she’d passed him said, then took his hat and followed the maid out.

Porter eased the Fifth Avenue to a stop when Jaclyn Story showed up in the headlights. She was standing right where she said she would be. He leaned over and unlatched the door. “You wanted to see me, Miss Story?”

“Thanks for meeting me. Drive ahead, there’s an old homestead around the corner, we can pull in there.” She looked at him sideways. “The magazines say you went back into the family business, is that true?”

“Yes, I’m practicing law.”

She pointed to a rutted path. “Pull in there and drive to the end. We can’t be seen from the road that way.”

Porter did what she directed, shifted to park and turned off the ignition. He left the dashboard lit.

She handed him a neatly wrapped bundle of papers. “I need you to fix this.”

“What is it?”

“Dalton’s Will. I want you to change it. This one says I don’t inherit a dime unless we’ve been happily married for five years.” She shuddered. “I want you to take that part out. I want to inherit everything without any restrictions.”

He gave her a cold look.” I can’t do that, Miss Story. It’s unethical and illegal. Besides, you made your bed now you’ll need to sleep in it.”

She turned; shadows fell across her face. “My dad hated Dalton Prewett. He hated the power he held over the people of Alton, and he hated most of the people of Alton for putting their money before the law. He’s a power hungry, vicious, evil man and Dad said he couldn’t rest unless he knew he’d face some kind of justice.”

“Your father was dying?”

“A brain tumor. The doctors said his death was going to be slow and painful.”

“He asked you to arrange Prewett’s justice?”

Her eyes peered into his. “Men like me, General. I’ve known it for a long time. I can make a man do anything I want. Dad knew Dalton Prewett was above the law. He used to try and stop me from using my body to get what I wanted. He told me I’d go to hell. He told me people would think I was a tramp.” She looked into his eyes. “Now it might be the only thing that saves me.”

“It wasn’t hard to get Prewett to fall in love with me. It was even easier to get him to ask me to marry him.” She exhaled. “I’ve been asked at least a dozen times and I’ve always said no. This time I said yes, but only if Dad gave his permission.”

“Why?”

“He wanted to tell Dalton no. He wanted to spread it all over town there was finally something, or someone Dalton Prewett couldn’t have. Dad wanted to humiliate him in front of everyone. I played along. I told Prewett if he couldn’t get Dad to give his permission the wedding was off.” Her eyes went to the dashboard clock. “My body wouldn’t be available either.”

“Dad knew this would enrage him. He knew Dalton would stop at nothing to get his way, and he knew Dalton carried a gun.”

Porter pursed his lips. “Your father wanted Dalton to kill him. His religion wouldn’t let him commit suicide, so he got Prewett to do it instead. You even helped.”

Jaclyn grabbed his hand. “Damn it, General. They’ll put a dog down to keep it from suffering, but they’ll let a man wither away in agony! Does that make any sense?”

Porter looked away. He’d seen too much death to see any glory in suffering. “No, it doesn’t.”

She removed her hand. “Everything was going as planned until I found out about that will. Dad’s express wish was that I get rid of Prewett and use his money for good. I can’t be with him that long. The things he makes me do…It’s disgusting. You need to change it; you need to take that clause out.”

“Look at me.” Porter directed. “You had something to do with Wes getting a hold of me didn’t you? You knew I’d come if he called.”

“I needed an attorney from out of the area, General. Dalton doesn’t let me go anyplace by myself. I just asked Sharon to mention something to her husband.” Her forehead wrinkled. “She and I are the same age. I hear she’s going to have a baby.”

Porter nodded.

She stared at the hand closest to his. “Is her husband a good man?”

“One of the best.”

She took a deep breath and exhaled. “I’ve never met many of those…” She looked away, then back. “Are you going to help me or not? If you won’t do it for me, do it for Dad. He was a good man.”

Porter pursed his lips. “What if his attorneys have other copies? It’s not going to work if they’re not all the same.”

Jaclyn pushed the bundle of papers closer. “There are no other copies.”

“How can you be sure?”

She stared into his eyes. “Do you want me to tell you why I’m sure?”

He stared back. “No, I don’t think I really need to know.”

“I need them by tomorrow. I’ll meet you at the same place and time.”

“That might be pushing it.”

“What do you mean? I got you your own printshop and printer. Why won’t you be able to get it done?”

Porter exhaled. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow at the same time, Miss Story.”

“Call me Jaclyn.”

“Princeton.”

Porter rubbed his eyes and focused across the room to give them a break from fine print. The intercom buzzed.

“Mr. Porter, there’s a Jaclyn Prewett on the line. Do you want to take it?”

“Send it through Emma, I’ve been expecting it.”

“Porter here.”

“Princeton. This is Jaclyn. I want to hire you. Dalton’s estate has attorneys and I want someone here on my side.”

“I’m not sure I want you as a client, Mrs. Prewett. I uhh, don’t usually associate with murders.”

“For god’s sake Princeton, call me Jaclyn, and I didn’t kill Dalton. He had certain, uhh preferences in the bedroom. Please don’t make me tell you anymore it’s too degrading. Let’s just say they got out of hand. Will you help me?”

“Where and when?”

“Ten o’clock next Monday morning in the boardroom of the Alton Bank and Trust.”

Porter put a note on his calendar. “I’ll be there…How are you holding up?”

“I miss my Dad.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Princeton?”

“Yes?

“Just come, ok?”

“I will Jaclyn.”

Porter parked the Chrysler in the same spot as before. The town had changed. It wasn’t the circus of red, white and blue it had been. Now the only flag displayed was by the door of the Alton Examiner. He picked up his hat and briefcase, checked the time and walked across the street. The bell jingled when he entered.

Sharon pushed her way out of her chair. “Mr. Porter, why didn’t you tell us you were coming?”

“Please sit down it looks like that baby’s due any day.” He helped her back to her seat and sat beside her. “The town looks different. Where did all the flags go?”

“They came down a few days after Prewett’s death. It looks like there were a lot of phony patriots. Once he was gone I guess people began to think for themselves. Our readerships up, too. It’s even larger than before.”

“I’m glad. Is Wes around?”

“No, he’s out selling ads.”

“Tell him I’ll stop by later.”

“Mr. Porter, are you going to see Jaclyn?”

“Yes. I’m going to be representing her.”

“Would you please tell her thank you for me?”

He put on his hat. “I’ll make sure I do.”

Porter entered the boardroom and hardly recognized Jaclyn. She had on little or no makeup, was dressed in a conservative black jacket, skirt and white blouse with her hair tastefully arranged off her shoulders. She stood to greet him. “Thank you for coming, Princeton.” Her dark eyes looked flat.

“Of course. Are you all right?”

“I just want it to be over.”

“The reading of the will?”

“Everything. I want everything to be over.”

One of the attorneys tapped on the table. “Could we have everyone please take a seat. I think we’re ready to begin.”

After the reading, Porter guided Jaclyn out the bank’s front door by the arm.

“Will you drive me home?”

“I promised I’d stop by the Examiner for a few minutes. Would you care to join me?”

“I can do that.”

Porter opened the door to the newspaper office and let Jaclyn in first. Sharon tried to push herself out of her chair.

“Please don’t get up.” Jaclyn hurried to her side.

“Would you give me a hand?” Jaclyn reached out and Sharon grabbed her arm and pulled herself to her feet. “Thanks. How did everything go?”

Jaclyn fidgeted with a pen on a chain. “Fine, I inherited Prewett’s estate without a problem. He had no other beneficiaries. You look wonderful.”

Sharon looked down at herself. “I do? I feel like a whale.”

“Is Wes back?” Porter asked.

“No, he’s still out.”

He glanced at Jaclyn and knew she wasn’t up to waiting. “I’ll come by before I leave town. I’ll call first.”

Jaclyn touched Sharon on the hand. “It was nice to see you.”

“Did Mr. Porter give you my message?”

“No he didn’t.”

Sharon stepped over and hugged her. “Thank you for all you did. I know it wasn’t easy.”

Jaclyn’s shoulders dropped. “I’m nothing but a whore.” She pushed the door open and ran out into the street.

Porter didn’t say a word on the drive from Alton to Vue sur la vallée. Neither did Jaclyn. He tooled the Fifth Avenue smoothly around sharp corners and gentle curves until they finally reached the impressionistic monstrosity. He opened the door for her. Jaclyn stepped out and stared at the majestic view. “Did you know all Vue sur la vallée means in English is valley view?”

He nodded

She started up the flagstone walk. “Will you come in? I have an idea I’d like to talk to you about.”

The same maid as before opened the door. “Margie, please take Mr. Porter to the windowed study. Would you like anything to eat or drink? Some sandwiches and iced tea perhaps?”

“That would be fine, thank you.”

“Very well, take Mr. Porter to the study and bring some sandwiches and iced tea. I’m going up to change. I’ll join you in a few minutes.”

Porter looked out the glass wall at the concrete deck, sparkling pool and fountain surrounded by mountains. For the briefest of instants a picture of Jaclyn naked to the waist popped into his mind. He cleared it and turned. She was standing a few feet away with her long hair in a ponytail wearing pleated blue calf length pants, a pink cotton blouse and a pair of tan beaded moccasins.

“I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I didn’t want to disturb you.” She walked to the window wall.

Porter appraised the young woman with the eye of a man used to judging the character of men. It didn’t work, but he knew something about her had changed.

“Princeton, I want to give Prewett’s money away. I want to make a charity or something. I want it named after Dad. The Jess Thomas Story Charitable Fund, or something like that.” She spun. “Can you do it?”

“I can…Are you sure? You’re a very rich woman. Are you sure you want to give it away?”

Jaclyn turned back to the mountains. “I’m done. I’m done with it all.” She walked slowly away from the window, sat on a pretentious looking chair and tucked her legs under her.

There was a knock on the door. The maid opened it pushing a linen covered cart with two plates, a tray of diagonally cut sandwiches, a pitcher of iced tea and two crystal glasses.

Jaclyn swiveled. “Just leave it, Margie. We’ll serve ourselves.”

“Yes Miss.” The maid bowed and left.

Jaclyn unfolded herself, walked to the cart, arranged two sandwiches on a plate and poured a glass of tea. She brought them to Porter and set it on the coffee table in front of him. She did the same for herself.

She sat back in the chair, took a small bite and a sip of tea. “Did I ever tell you why I did all this?”

Porters blue eyes went to her brown. “It was for your Dad, wasn’t it?”

She stared at him silently for a few seconds and swallowed. “Dad said he could never rest because he’d committed a sin of omission. You know what that is?”

“I’m not Catholic.”

“Dad said you’re guilty of a sin of omission if you fail to do something you know you should do, but don’t. He said he couldn’t die knowing he didn’t do everything he could to stop Prewett…Including using me as a whore.” Her face contorted and she started crying. “My Dad thought of me as nothing but a whore, Princeton. He thought since I’d chosen to be one, he wouldn’t be degrading me any further by asking me to trick an evil old man out of his fortune.”

Porter gave her his handkerchief and watched her sob. After a few seconds she calmed.

“For the first time in my life I felt dirty.” She leaned back, blotted her eyes and stared at a spot above his head. “Before I’d just seen men as chumps who’d do anything to be with me. Now I realize Dad was right, I’m a whore.” She dropped her gaze to Porter’s. “I’m going to hell, aren’t I?”

He didn’t say a word.

“Damn it Princeton, say something! What are you thinking? What’s going on behind those calm blue eyes of yours?” She threw his handkerchief at him. “Are you trying to picture me naked? Are you trying to imagine what it’d be like to make love to me? I’ll do it, I’ll make love to you right now.” She stood and started to unbutton her blouse.

Porter’s eyes glared. “Stop it! Just stop it, Jackie, I’m not saying anything because I don’t know what to say.” He felt his face turn red. “I’m used to dealing with men. Women have never been anything but a pleasant distraction from reality. Just objects. Then there’s you.”

“You called me Jackie?”

Porter took a deep breath and exhaled. “That’s because you’re not Jaclyn anymore. For God’s sake button your shirt and sit down.”

He stared into space and spoke in monotone. “You say you’re going to hell; well I’ve been there. I’ve seen friends die in a hundred different ways. My days of black and white, right and wrong, good and evil are long gone.” He sighed. “There’s a hell of a lot of gray in the world. I’ve sent men to fight and die for a few square miles of dirt that didn’t mean anything two months earlier, and don’t mean anything now. But the men are still dead, and I feel guilty I’m not one of ‘em.” He closed his briefcase and stood. “You’re still young. Don’t give up on yourself.” He stared out the windowed wall.

“What are you looking at?”

“A sin of omission. You said it’s when you know what the right thing to do is, but you don’t do it.”

She got up from her chair. “It’s something like that.”

He turned his head. “How old are you, when’s your birthday?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Just tell me.”

“I’ll be twenty seven on December fifteenth.”

His eyebrows tensed. “Twenty three years.”

“Twenty three years?”

“That’s how much older I am than you. I’ve never felt about a woman the way I feel about you. It would have been a sin of omission if I didn’t tell you that.” He walked over and kissed her hand. “Call me when you turn twenty eight. I think we’d be good for each other.”

Her expression softened. “Why wait?”

He smiled and touched her shoulder. “You need to get used to being Jackie, or whoever you are, now.” I’ll get some preliminary paperwork drawn up about forming a charity and send it over. In the meantime think about it.”

She kissed him on the cheek. “So this is what it’s like?”

“What’s like?”

“To meet a good man.” Her eyes smiled. “Come Princeton, I’ll walk you to the door.”

We’re all gonna end up at Larry’s

It was a dark and noisy night back in 1990 when the scourge of my youth became the savior of my sanity. Picture it. I’m alone, young, and relatively inexperienced. None of the usual procedures were having any effect. Hungry, no. Thirsty, no. Diaper, surprisingly no. Rocking useless, threats pointless my daughter was only 15 months old after all. Nothing I did made made any difference. She would not stop screaming.

In desperation I turned to the boob tube, television, the babysitter of millions. I clicked up through the stations on the Magnavox console one at a time. Each click another nail in the coffin of hope. With only one station left I up channeled to UHF 68. My daughter inhaled, gasped a few times then finally succumbed to the rhythmic melodies of Lawrence Welk and the Champagne Music Makers.

Lawrence and I go way back. Back to Serutan, Geritol and the Kimball and Baldwin placards on his pianos and organs. Some of my earliest memories are interactions with my paternal grandparents as they watched his program. Fifty plus years later I can still remember them telling me to be quiet, or go out and play. I don’t think they gave a hoot where. I could have been playing in the middle of the street for all they cared. It was Lawrence Welk time.

They loved Lawrence so much they wanted to sell their house and move to Lawrence Welk Village Mobile Home Park in Escondido, California. Bobby and Sissy, Norma Zimmer and Jimmy Roberts were considered personal friends. So were Jo Ann Castle, Larry Hooper, Irish crooner Joe Feeney and Arthur Duncan the black tap dancer. How Lawrence got away with that stereotype I do not know. My grandma was suspicious of Guy and Ralna, though. She thought they were just to lovey dovey to be real. She was right. They divorced in 1984.

My mother just turned 89. For the better part of her life she watched whatever we kids or my dad wanted to watch. I don’t think she ever touched the remote except to move it to dust. The Lawrence Welk Show was not a big deal to her. But it is now! She and the other ladies at the retirement center are religious viewers. We don’t even bother to call or visit while it’s on. I learned my lesson a long time ago.

Mom’s conversion got me thinking. If I live long enough will I fall prey to the siren’s song of the Lawrence Welk Show? I’m a Rock and Roll guy. Remember New Wave? Buggles, Video killed the Radio Star? Hey I helped them! I was all MTV, narrow ties, Blondie, The Go Go’s even the Talking Heads. Certainly I’m immune.

But am I? Will I look back on the Saturday nights of my youth when Lawrence and his musical family came to visit and ask them to stay? Somehow I already know the answer. If my mother is any indication I believe one day we will all end up at Larry’s.

Welcome to New Edgarton

The purple awning and gold balustrades of the Raven’s Plume stood out on the staid Main Street like an Amethyst ring set in concrete. Pepper Johnson, one of the owners of the avant-garde boutique swept the sidewalk and polished the brass ‘till it gleamed. When she finished, she walked to the edge of the street and inspected her work.

Dressed in a flowing red patterned skirt, green print blouse and red scarf trimmed with dime sized metal discs, she elicited as many stares as the purple and polished brass of the shop. That didn’t bother her. She just smiled and waved as gawkers stared from car windows and said good morning to the conventionally dressed as they walked hurriedly past.

It’s beautiful, but it’s kind of scary, too. I hope we get some customers.

Nathaniel Irving, Pepper’s partner, pushed the front door open with his hip and brought out two chipped porcelain mugs. He stood out as much as she in his yellow and black striped pants, ruffled red shirt and yellow and black striped vest.

“Morning Pep.” He kissed her on the lips and handed her a mug. “Beautiful isn’t it?” He put his arm around her waist and pulled her close. “You feel good. Soft in all the right places.”

“You like it?”

He patted her butt. “I love it.”

“Oh Nate.” She pushed his hand off her bottom and smiled. “The shop, what do you think of the Raven’s Plume?”

“You know it’s always been a dream of mine to have my own business. Like the emporium Grandpa Irving used to have out at Four Corners. You did a nice job on the balustrades.”

“Thanks. I still can’t believe it’s ours.” She took a sip and rolled her eyes. “Wow, this is good coffee. Where’d you get it?”

“At a coffeeshop down the street called Kávé Luna. It’s kind of a cool place, but it’s only open at night. I met one of the sisters who owns it. Her name’s Claudia. I think her last name’s Moroaicâ. When she heard we’d moved in up the street she gave me a pound of their house blend as a welcome gift. She said she and her sisters would stop by today before they opened to check us out.”

Pepper raised an eyebrow. “Moroaicâ. That’s the Romanian word for a female vampire.”

“I thought that was Strigoi?”

“That’s a general term…Moroaicâ is specifically female. This is really good.” She stepped over to the shop’s front window and wiped a smudge with her rag. A black crepe cape with dark red trim hung on a headless mannequin. Behind it, a dead tree decorated with hammered brass and stained glass jewelry sparkled in the sun.

“It needs something. What do you think?”

“I’m working on an ebony skull and horns with a triple moon outlined in gold on its forehead. What about that?”

Pepper cocked her head and squinted. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’d have to see it.”

“I better get busy then.” He raised his cup and took a sip. “Are you happy, Pep?”

“Yeah.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I just hope we get some customers.”

“We haven’t had our Grand Opening yet. I’m sure we’ll do great. Besides, Mrs. Marzanna said she’d be flexible with the rent.”

Pepper bit her lip. “I know. That’s another thing. Marzanna, Moroaicâ. They’re both from Slavic folklore.” Her eyes flicked to his. “The Goddess Marzanna is the goddess of death.”

Nate gave her a squeeze. “You’re eating’ this up aren’t you, Pep? You’re digging this. I can tell.”

Pepper put the mug to her lips. Her eyes were smiling. “This is pretty cool. All we need now is a Vârcolac, that’s like a zombie werewolf, or a Pricolici, that’s a kind of a werewolf and vampire combo.”

“Who knows, maybe a couple will come riding by on a bicycle.”

Pepper gave him a hip bump. “Come on, I’ve got more of those Gypsy blouses to sew, and you have that Satyr’s skull to finish.

He laughed. “Oh, you are so digging this.” He grabbed her by the arm and led her inside.

Leonard pulled the rusty metal and glass door open with a loud screech and tried to slip in unnoticed. A tall woman with pale skin, high cheekbones, neatly styled raven hair in a tailored black suit with a white rose bud on her lapel stood behind a podium in front of a huge room. She stopped speaking and glared at him. Everybody in the audience with a head still attached swiveled and stared. He turned invisible.

Uhh oh, she’s not gonna be happy about this.

The woman pounded on the podium and the heads swiveled back. “As I was saying. Regardless of what you just saw, you cannot exit through the side doors. Once you’re here, you can’t leave until you’re called, or someone has come to fetch you.”

“Those of you destined for Heaven, or Paradise, or whatever you choose to call it are all going to the same place. If that’s your final destination your name will be called, and you’ll be transported directly from your seat.”

She stared out over the audience. “If you didn’t realize that all good people go to the same place regardless of their religious beliefs you’re more than likely not going there yourself.” Sobs and sorrowful wails echoed through the crowd. “The criteria for admission were very straightforward. All you needed to do was love thy neighbor as thyself. That meant everybody. Not just those you agreed with, or who had the same religion. I’m sorry.”

She turned a page. “Now, for those of you going to Hell you don’t have to do anything. The Devil will come in his own good time. You’ll find a selection of Better Health and Fitness magazines on the table in the corner if you’d care to look at something while you wait.”

“I guess that’s it. Oh, just one more thing. If you have any bloody wounds or organs hanging out, please keep them as contained as possible. The custodial staff would greatly appreciate it. Good luck. I hope your afterlife is everything you expected it to be.”

The stately woman left the stage and brushed off questions as some of those waiting approached her. She made her way across the room that was lit by bare overhead fluorescent tubes. It looked more like an inner city bus station with its utilitarian plastic chairs and faded linoleum tiles than the waiting room for the recently deceased. She opened a door marked “Private,” and stepped inside.

Leonard swallowed hard and walked invisibly through the crowd. He knocked on the door.

“Come in Leonard.”

He entered a tastefully decorated office that looked out onto New Edgarton’s Main Street and became visible. “Uhh, sorry for coming in when I did Mrs. Marzanna. I ahh, didn’t check the time. I won’t do it again.”

She looked up from her desk. “You know I give the orientations at the top of the hour.” She lit a cigarette in a long black holder. “Now, what do you want?”

“You ahh, haven’t heard anything yet, have you?”

“No. I’m just as frustrated as you are. I’m not used to having a soul be unassigned. I’m not even sure how you got through the waiting room the first time. There’s more going on with you than they’re telling me. As soon as I hear something, I’ll let you know. Until then you’re stuck here.” She pulled a paper from the basket on her desk and scanned it. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Yeah. You know where Mila is?”

She shrugged. “That’s one thing even the goddess of death has no control over. I can’t even get her to call me. Have you tried Redemption Park Cemetery, or her apartment?”

“Yeah, she wasn’t there.”

“Well, she’s probably walking around the city then. She’s taken up charcoal drawing.” Mrs. Marzanna held up her hands and made quotes in the air. “She says she’s trying to find herself. Look for something artsy, or a bowl of fruit.”

“A bowl of fruit?”

She raised an eyebrow. “It’s a joke, Leonard. Still life. Get it?”

“Oh yeah, now I get it. That’s a funny one.”

The phone rang and she answered it. “Yes? The mayor? Sure give me twenty seconds and send him in.” She put the handset back on its cradle and stubbed out her cigarette.

“Leonard, do me a favor. Turn yourself invisible and go stand in the corner. I need to talk to the mayor.”

“Ok.” He took a few steps and vanished.

Mrs. Marzanna got up from her desk and moved across to the office’s main door. She put a smile on her face and opened it. “Mayor Browne, what a pleasure. Please come in. Coffee?”

“No, I’m fine.”

She indicated a chair and sat back at her desk. “Now, what can I help you with?”

The mayor rubbed his gray mustache. “The city council appreciates what you’re doing, Mrs. Marzanna. We like our city the way it is, and you seem to like it too.”

“I do. I think New Edgarton’s quite charming. I’d like to keep it that way as long as possible.” She tapped the paper on her desk with a white fingernail. “I’m thinking of purchasing the parcel Mr. Diamond was interested in.”

The mayor moved forward in his seat. “Was? You mean he’s not interested anymore?”

She made an I-don’t-know-gesture with her hands and shoulders. “I thought since I hadn’t heard anything the deal must have fallen through.”

The mayor puckered his lips. “You haven’t heard anything from Mr. Diamond?”

“No, not a word. Why?”

“Well, nobody knows where he is. Not even his wife.” He frowned. “She doesn’t seem very bothered by it. Anyway, I’m expecting three of his, uhh, business associates later today. They don’t know where he is either.” He pulled a note from his jacket pocket. “I have their names here, Mr. Salvador Barr, Mr. Izzy Pence and Mr. Valentine Giuliani. Apparently, Mr. Diamond’s desk calendar had the words New Edgarton and Kávé Luna circled on it in red the day he disappeared.”

Mrs. Marzanna looked to the ceiling before focusing back on the mayor. “Why don’t you direct the gentlemen to me? After all, I own the building where Kávé Luna’s located, and the Moroaicâ sisters are my tenants.”

“That’s very accommodating, Mrs. Marzanna. Thank you.”

She waved her hand as if it were nothing. “Please, call me Stephaná. It’s no trouble at all. I’m glad to do it.”

“Ahh, thank you, Stephaná. And please feel free to call me James…, Jim.”

She lifted an eyebrow. “James-Jim?”

“No, just Jim.”

“I’d be happy to, Jim. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have some other things to do.” She rose from the desk and guided him to the door. “Let me know when I should expect Mr. Diamond’s associates.”

“I’ll give you a call.”

“Perfect.”

Leonard waited until the goddess closed the door before becoming visible. “Didn’t the Moroaicâ sisters have their way with Donny Diamond?”

“Yes, and two of his thugs. I believe Marie described them as, a Mr. Bushy Brows, and a Mr. Pimples.” She blinked. “They’re still waiting for Satan to take them to Hell. They’ve probably read the Better Health and Fitness magazines hundreds of times by now.” She shook her head. “Better Health and Fitness magazines in a waiting room for the dead. Satan certainly has a wicked sense of humor. Well, as long as he pays for the subscription.” She sat back at her desk.

“If you run into Radmila, tell her it wouldn’t hurt her to call or stop by every once in a while. But then again, I’m only her mother.”

Leonard nodded. “I’ll tell her if I find her. May I use the front door?”

“Just don’t let anyone see you.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem.”

Sal steered the Cadillac Escalade onto the New Edgarton exit and looked through the windshield as the old city wrapped around them. “We should probably call the mayor and tell him we’re here.”

“Not yet,” Izzy Pence called from the back seat. “We’ll ahh, look around for ourselves a little first. We still wanna get our hands on that property. It’s gonna be worth a fortune when they build that high speed rail line between New York and Boston. This may take a little longer than I thought.” He glanced over at Donny’s wife, Melena. “You ok with that, honey? We might haft ‘a stay overnight. You got a nightgown?”

“You know I don’t wear a nightgown, baby.”

“Shut up honey, you’re a married woman. How am I supposed to know you don’t wear a nightgown?”

She looked confused. “But Izzy? Oh yeah, right. I wasn’t supposed to say anything about us.”

“Yeah honey, I’m not sure Donny’s dead…, yet.” He patted her thigh. “Ok boys, let’s go look for that Kávé Luna joint.”

Mila hung the black shoulder bag containing her sketch pad and charcoal on the end of the park bench and plopped down. An old man on the next bench tossed a few crumbs to the pigeons clustered in front of him and smiled.

She bent her lips at him and took a nearly empty bread sack from her bag. She tore it into crumbs and tossed it out in front of her. Crows, ravens and blackbirds flew down from the treetops and began pecking them up. The old man stared at her with an open mouth. She shrugged her shoulders and sighed.

I can’t even feed the birds without standing out. She looked at her thin wrists and small almost skeletal hands. I had to take after Dad, at least Mom has boobs. It’s hard meeting guys when you look like a cadaver. It’s hard to make friends too. When they hear your Mom’s the Goddess of death people tend to shy away. The old man picked up his cane and looped out into the grass giving her a wide berth as he walked away. Like that.

This new guy I’m seeing is pretty cool. He’s nice too. Maybe I’ll tell Mom about him. She shook her head. Nah, she’d just make a big deal about it. Mila dumped the last crumbs from the sack and put it back in her bag. The glint of gold reflected in sunlight caught her eye. I wonder what that place is?

“Sorry birds, it’s all gone.” She put her bag over her shoulder and walked toward the reflection. This must be new. The Raven’s Plume? Ooh! I like the purple awning and brass balustrades. The front windows cool, too. I think I’ll sketch it. Hmm, I wonder what other stuff they have inside? She hung her bag on the balustrades and opened the door.

Alice, Peppers orange tabby meowed. She looked up from her sewing machine.

“What is it Alice?”

A tall thin young woman with pale skin, long black hair wearing a short black skirt and tee top, matching torn nylons with a safety pin through one nostril stood in the entry way.

“Her?”

Alice nodded.

Pepper got up. “Hi, can I help you with something? “

Mila let her eyes wander. “You got some pretty cool stuff here.” She felt the fabric on a black skirt trimmed in gold similar to the one Pepper was wearing. “Cotton?”

“No, it’s a blend you don’t need to iron. You can tumble it in the dryer, or it can be line dried.”

Mila looked at Pepper with almost black eyes. “No wrinkles?”

“No, look.” Pepper grabbed the skirt and wadded it up in her hand. When she let go the material went smooth.

“Cool. That is so neat!” Mila exhaled. “I don’t suppose you have it in my size? I’m pretty thin.”

“I’d call you waif like.” Pepper replied. “Your features are very delicate.”

Mila looked down at herself. “I kinda wish I was a little more, you know, developed.”

Pepper furrowed her brow. “If you wore kind of a loose blousy top over a flouncy skirt you might look a little…, fuller.”

Their eyes met. “Fuller?”

“Yeah. Fuller. You like black, right?”

Mila nodded.

Pepper picked a size small skirt and a petite black blouse with gold embroidery. “Try these. You can adjust the skirt’s waist if you need to.”

Mila took them in her arms.

“Wait a minute.” Pepper handed her a black tooled leather belt with a gold skull buckle. “Are your ears pierced? I have matching earrings.”

Mila nodded and her eyes opened wide. “Yeah, they’re pierced.”

“Cool, try these too. The dressing room is over there.”

“Wow, like thanks!”

“Let me know what you think?”

Pepper watched her open the dressing room door and go inside. I hope she likes the way she looks, that’d be a nice sale. She went back to the sewing machine and pressed the pedal. She’d just gotten started when the door opened and three young women wearing large dark sunglasses, wide brimmed straw hats, long sleeved shirts and yoga pants walked in. They looked like sisters.

Alice meowed.

Pepper let up on the pedal and called out. “I bet you’re the Moroaicâ’s.”

The tallest sister had skin the color of coffee, short black hair and wore bright red lipstick. “How’d you know?

My partner Nathaniel said you might stop by on the way to work.” She got up from the sewing machine and walked over. “I’m Pepper Johnson, Claudia gave him some of your coffee. It’s like the best! Can we buy more?”

The sister took off her sunglasses and smiled. “Sure, or maybe we can swap for some of your merchandise. I’m Ariel, that’s Claudia and Marie.”

“Yeah, we could probably do that. It’s nice to meet you. Thanks again for the coffee.”

Claudia was shorter than Ariel and had a slightly lighter complexion. “No problem. It’s an old family blend. It used to be Saladin’s favorite.”

Pepper wrinkled her forehead. “Saladin, the Arab leader who died in the tenth century?”

Marie joined her sisters. She was the shortest and had Ariel’s same coloring. “Yeah, the blend has been passed down for centuries. It’s our favorite.”

“That’s fascinating. Why don’t you ladies look around the shop and I’ll go get Nathaniel. I’m sure he’d like to meet you.” She left the front of the shop and followed the sound of a Dremel tool to the basement. She covered her nose and tapped him on the shoulder.

He turned the tool off and removed his dust mask. “Hey Pep. What’s going on?”

“The Moroaicâ sisters are upstairs. You ahh, didn’t bother to mention they all could have been fashion models. They’re gorgeous.”

He grinned. “Only if you’re into the beautiful, dark, sultry, well-endowed type. I prefer the more wholesome looking auburn haired girls with freckles myself.”

“I don’t have freckles.”

“Yeah ya do, Pep.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Give me a minute.” He took off his gloves, brushed himself off and combed his hair. “Ok, I’m ready.”

“Why’d you comb your hair?”

“It was full of dust. I didn’t want to make a mess.”

She gave him one of her looks. “Uhh huh.”

He grinned. “They really show up when you’re jealous.” He hurried out of the room.

Pepper followed right behind. “What do?”

“Your freckles.”

Nate ran into the back of the shop while trying to keep Pepper from tickling him. They screeched to a halt and pretended like nothing happened.

The Moroaicâ sisters were holding articles of clothing up against themselves. Mila was dressed in the clothes Pepper had suggested and was looking at necklaces.

“Here he is. He was working in the basement.”

“Hey everyone, thanks for stopping by.”

Claudia hung up a spangled belt. “Hi Nate, Pepper said you liked the coffee.”

“It was great, thanks! Amazing really. “

“You’ll have to stop by the shop. There’s nothing better than our fresh baked pastries and a cup of our house blend espresso.”

“That sounds delicious.”

“Marie, Ariel come over here and I’ll introduce you to Nate.” Claudia glanced at Mila. “I’d introduce you, but I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”

“I’m Mila.”

“Cool. Ok, so these are my sisters Marie and Ariel. She pointed at Mila. “And this is Mila. May I?” She adjusted Mila’s belt, so it hung at an angle. “You look pretty hot.”

Mila smiled. “Do I?”

Claudia nodded. “You do.”

“It’s nice to meet you girls,” smiled Nathaniel. “You too Mila.”

“Yeah, nice to meet you.” Mila’s eyes lit up. “Wait a minute. You’re the girls who own the coffeehouse, right? Kávé Luna.”

“Yeah, that’s us.”

“Would you mind if I sketched your sidewalk seating and torches some night?”

They glanced at each other. “No go ahead. Have a cup of coffee while you’re there.”

“What if I came over tonight?”

“That’d be cool,” Ariel replied. She looked at Nathaniel and Pepper. “Why don’t you guys come down, too? It’d be fun.”

“What do you think, Pep? You wanna go? Might be good for business.”

Pepper’s eyes sparkled. “Are you asking me out on a date, Mr. Irving? You know that means flowers.”

“Sure Pep. I’ll get you some flowers.”

“Can I bring someone?” Mila asked.

“Sure,” Marie replied. “Why don’t you all come by at about eight o’clock. I’ll set a table up for us on the sidewalk.”

The door opened and a pudgy man with plastic rimmed glasses and a dopey expression walked in. “Hey. Do any of ya know where Kávé Luna is?”

“It’s just down the street a couple blocks, but we’re not open yet,” Ariel answered.

Pudgy’s eyes looked the sisters up and down. “You work there?”

“My sisters and I own it. Why?”

“You girls stay here. I’ll be right back.”

Pudgy came back about a minute later with two other men and a woman in a calf length coat.

“Which one was she, Sal?”

Pudgy pointed at Marie. “That’s her.”

He snapped his finger for her to come.

“Excuse me?”

“Are you dense? I want you to come here.”

“I’m not going anywhere if you ask me like that.”

Izzy turned to the other man. “Valentine, bring that bit of arm candy over here.”

The three sisters crowded together and glared at him.

“Boss?”

“Sal, help Valentine.”

Melena tapped him on the shoulder. Her narrow eyes were even narrower than usual. “I think you should leave them be.”

“What? Are you scared of some girls?”

“You’re not from the old country, like I am. You leave them alone.”

“Shut up, honey. We’ll take care of ‘em.” He pulled a pistol from under his coat. “Now, you broads aren’t gonna make any trouble, are you?”

The sisters eyes grew fierce. “We’re not scared of you.”

Mila stepped between the sisters and the men. She plugged the barrel of the pistol with her finger and looked Izzy in the eye. “Hi, I’m Mila. Do you, or any of these other gentlemen have a subscription to Better Health and Fitness magazine?”

Izzy pushed her aside. “Move it beanpole or you’re gonna get hurt.”

Mila’s black eyes flashed. “I’ll just have to assume then that you don’t.” She snapped her fingers and they crumpled to the floor. “I sure hope I was right; they’ll have a very long wait.” She walked over to the woman. “You should go home and forget this.”

The woman looked into her black eyes and nodded. “I go. I forget everything. I never come back.” She ran out the door. Mila bent down and took the keys from Sal’s pocket. When the woman stuck her head back in she tossed them to her.

“Now get out of here.”

Pepper went to her side. “Your last name’s Marzanna isn’t it?”

Mila nodded. “Yeah.”

She turned to the sisters. “You’re vampires, right?”

“How’d you guess?” asked Marie.

“Your last name for one thing. You also didn’t use the mirrors to see how the clothes looked.”

“Oh yeah,” Claudia replied. “I didn’t think about that.”

Mila looked down at the three dead men. “Now we just have to get rid of the bodies.”

Pepper pursed her lips and looked at the calendar. “You know, it’s a full moon tonight. I don’t suppose there are any werewolves running around?”

Mila smiled. “Oh, there are a couple. I think they’d really like these guys.”

“Great, then all we need to do is get ‘em into the back alley. Give me a hand Nate. You girls grab the other two.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Mila. “I’ll have Leonard do it.”

Leonard materialized beside her. He was a huge hulking man almost seven feet tall. He stuck his hand out. “Hi, I’m Leonard.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” Pepper shook it. “When did you get here?”

“I saw Mila’s shoulder bag hanging outside and followed those guys in.”

He turned to the sisters. “Hi, I’m Leonard.”

They answered in unison “Hi Leonard.”

Nathaniel walked over and shook his hand. “I’m Nathaniel, you can call me Nate if you like.

“I’m Leonard.”

“Leonard, if you don’t mind my asking what are you? Are you a ghost or something?”

“I’m something? I’m mostly just stuck here, for now.”

Mila looked up at him and rubbed his arm. “But he’s a real nice guy. Hey Leonard, ya wanna go out with us for coffee tonight?”

His face broke into a huge grin. “Sure Mila. Gosh, you look pretty.”

“Thanks Len.” She looked at Pepper. “I’ll take these things and maybe a few more. Mom got me a credit card.”

“Wow,” Pepper exclaimed. “Thanks a lot.”

Nate put his arm over her shoulder and whispered in her ear. “Are you going to tell ‘em you’re a witch?

She made a face and whispered back. “Are you going to tell ‘em you’re a warlock?”

He kissed her cheek. “I don’t know why not. I think we’d fit right in. Welcome to New Edgarton.”

Dad Said

Les Paul and Mary Ford played on my Pandora Station the other day. It was How High The Moon. Dad used to listen to them on his old 78 rpm records when I was a kid. They were cutting edge for their day. Multitrack recording. One guitar could sound like a hundred, one voice a choir. Ole’ Les invented the solid body electric guitar. That’s what Dad said.

Turns out the military was using multitrack recording before he did. They used it with Sonar. I’m not sure what they did with it, but they used it. Les Paul did invent the solid body electric guitar. He invented Mary Ford, too. Her real name was Colleen. They married in 1949 and divorced in 1964.

When I was a kid Dad was a Disc Jockey. That was back when Disc Jockeys were really something. He told me you had to have at least a months notice when you did a remote broadcast. You needed to call the Bell Telephone Company and have them install a separate phone line.

Dad said there was a radio station whose local High School Basket Ball Team went to the State Championship. The owner wanted to do a remote broadcast but the designated phone line would be too expensive. Dad said the owner wondered if he could hook all the barbwire fences between the radio station and the state capital together and use that instead of a phone line. Dad said it was an interesting idea. Sometimes when I can’t think of a solution to a problem I think about that idea. Sometimes, you just need to think differently to find the answer.

Dad said he had certain records he’d play when he had to use the bathroom. Dad said he had them timed down to the second. Dad said he liked to put on Ernest Tubb singing Waltz Across Texas and sing along with him. Dad said anyone can sing along with Ernest Tubb singing Waltz Across Texas. He was right.

Dad used to make flying ducks out of cedar. He’d sand them smooth and finish them with Kiwi Shoe Polish. My brother has a portable fireplace he burns to stay warm on Halloween Night. We found one in an old box of wood scraps and put it on the fire and drank a toast to him. Dad would have liked that.

Dad died four years ago on February 13th. He chose to use Hospice and I had plenty of time to say goodbye. Dad said he wasn’t perfect. Dad said he made a lot of mistakes. He was right. But that’s not the point, really. We all make mistakes and nobody’s perfect. But Dad said anyone could sing along with Ernest Tubb. And Dad played Les Paul and Mary Ford, even though her real name was Colleen. So I’ll play them both and think about what Dad said, and remember.

Christmas in a divided Country

It’s Christmas in a divided country and even Gods been called on to take sides

But Jesus was born to save us all from sin

Our political beliefs don’t apply

Loving God with all thy heart

And your neighbor as yourself

Is where we need to start

So stop what you’re doing to keep us apart

And live by the Golden Rule

You can’t keep Christ in Christmas

Without keeping Christmas in you heart