Posts Tagged ‘story’

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The first chapter of Buffalo Bayou Blues:

You don’t know it’s a dream when you’re in it, usually.

I was borne along on the inexorable currents of the river, caught in the main flow between the distant banks of the fast-moving water, which was brown from the silted runoff from eroded ditches, construction sites, and perhaps washed-out back-country roads. My body turned and rolled this way and that, and no matter how hard I struggled against it, I was pushed along, of no more consequence than any other piece of flotsam. After awhile I became philosophical about it, even as I tried to right myself and swim toward shore. Should I stop struggling? The more I struggled it felt as though I fueled the power of the river with my own efforts against it.

There was something eerily familiar about being caught in the river; the deluge, the flash flood, whatever it was. The inescapable power of nature had finally caught up with me through the long years of my evasion, and was not going to let go. But even as it carried me along, I felt as though I knew this stretch of river. We had once been friends.

I detected that someone was watching me. Someone standing on the shoreline. I kicked and tried to spin that direction, and caught a fleeting glimpse of him, but was thrown beneath the surface.

I came up, sputtering muddy waters and trying to take on fresh air in the same instance, and even as I did, I felt his eyes on me. He was watching me. Watching me drown.

And that’s when I knew it was a dream.

I came out of it, abruptly, gasped and sat bolt upright.

*****

Hank Sterling was sitting in a chair beside the bed.

“Hank! What the hell?”

“You were dreaming. Didn’t want to wake you. Almost did there for a second, but you came out of it yourself.”

“What are you doing…in my room?”

He nodded. “I know it don’t seem right, but I had to tell you something. And seeing as how Julie and most of the kids are up at Nat Bierstone’s ranch for a few days, I didn’t think you’d mind me coming in and waking you up.”

“Except you didn’t. Wake me up, that is. I knew someone was watching me.”

“You couldn’t have, Bill. I was quite as a church mouse on Sunday morning.”

“Maybe you were, but a fellah knows when someone is looking at him.”

“Well,” he said. “Maybe you’re right. I doesn’t matter. The deal is that I’ve got a problem I need your help with.”

“What time is it?”

“Oh. Going on about four-thirty.”

“You’ve got a problem. At four-thirty in the morning?”

“I do,” he said.

“Well,” I reached for my shirt and slid it on, pushing my arms through the arm holes one at a time. It was my favorite around-the-house shirt, about fifteen years old, gray with light gray vertical stripes. Julie hated the thing, and kept threatening to throw it in the trash. I’d saved it from destruction time and again. I was attached to that stupid shirt, though more from her disdain, I realized as I thrust my hand through the narrow sleeves, than because I truly loved it. Sometimes the war doesn’t end. “What’s the problem?”

“I have to be in two places at once. I’m a pretty smart guy, Bill, but I never figured that one out satisfactorily.”

“No? A fellow who can defuse a landmine, can walk through a rocket barrage without a scratch, and he can’t be in two places at once. I’d say you’re slipping, pardner.”

“Maybe I am. Maybe I really am. Anyway, the deal is it’s not only two places at once, it’s two separate locales at the same time.”

“Uh. Okay,” I said. “Tell me about it.” And, of course, I found myself wishing like hell I hadn’t asked.

*****

Hank had gotten a call from an old friend, Willard Morgan, who was calling in a marker. It was an old promise going back to their days together during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, when Willard had, as the story went, saved Hank’s life by going into a cave system near an airfield and bringing a wounded and bleeding Corporal Henry S. Sterling back to the light of day. At about the same time as the call from his old Army buddy, Willard, Hank had gotten a text message from the East Texas town of Carter in Atchison County, and specifically a lady name Bee, who was having second thoughts about dumping him forever.

“Hoot?” I asked.

“That’s Willard’s stage name. Hoot Morgan.”

“What kind of stage?” I asked.

“A music stage, Bill. Willard is a blues musician down in Houston. He’s up to his chin in something—he won’t tell me exactly what—but not only his own life, but that of his family is in danger. And I don’t know how to be in two places at once. It’s probably something stupid like a gambling debt, and that’s easy to handle. I’ve got enough money laying around to buy a damn casino. You said so yourself.”

“You do. And you do not want me to go visit Miss Bee on your behalf.”

“Not exactly,” he said.

I thought about it for a moment or two, then said, “I need to take a shower. Also, I’m hungry.”

“Of course. Not a problem whatsoever. You shower, I’ll get the coffee going and throw some bacon and eggs on the grill.”

“You know Julie’s kitchen rules, right?”

“I know. I know,” he said, and got up from the chair, headed for the door. “No metal utensils on the non-stick pans, no high heat on the aforementioned pans, no…” Hank went out the door and down the hall and his voice moved into other parts of the house, continuing the litany as he went.

I slapped myself lightly in the face as I looked in the bathroom mirror. “That, my friend,” I said to my reflection, “is for inviting your best friend to come live with you.”

I disrobed and turned the shower on, got the water good and hot.

“Hoot,” I said to myself, and climbed into the deluge.

I don’t know what this is, nor where it’s going, but…hmmm…here it is:

Of all the tales of great adventure that come down to us from the old days and the older ways, nary a one is any more moving, any more adventurous, nor more affecting than that of Craypipe and Stovelilly. As you all know, Craypipe lived in the Wide Valley and Stovelilly kept her abode up in the Laurel Range of the Saw Teeth, and only upon great peril would Craypipe adventure forth from his shack among the stands of paper reeds; but the weather was fine and Craypipe was still young and less set in his ways, and he wondered what sort of land lay beyond those far, high and jagged peaks, and as you well know, there is no stronger motivation than simple curiosity. So one clear and bright morning, after all the chores had been done, Craypipe cursed to himself, threw up his hands—those hard hands were already gnarled with great strength and abrasive and harsh toil, even then—and put a paper note on his door saying, Gone Explorin’, put a blanket and one of his old belts around the mule, put some crackers, cheese and jars of honey wine in his burlap sack, grabbed his stick and set to walking.

Now, as you also know, Stovelilly got her name on account of her odd birth—her mother, Pratelin, was cooking that day for the Savior Man’s Feast and all the extended family in the hills, and the babe chose that precise moment when two or three things were ready to come off the stove or out of the oven all at once to come into this screaming world. Pratelin felt Stovelilly start to drop and reached down in a flash and caught her by the foot, lifted her up and set her in the cooking pot on the back of the stove—there was no fire under that burner, don’t you know, because it was nothing there but water for cooling things down with—and the new babe settled into the cool water, looked up at her mother and smiled. In the next instant, Old Ames came into the kitchen, took one look and stated, “Now Ma, what you cooking over there on that corner? Because I don’t think the folks will want any of that!”

“Oh shoo!” Pratelin said, damping down the fire under the taters. “That’s nothin’ but my little stove lilly.” And as you know, the name stuck.

But that was a long time ago, close on to thirty years, and Stovelilly lived in the cabin perched on the saddle of land between the two valleys all alone. Old Ames had died of white rot and Pratelin got herself struck by lightning—and that is a whole other story, let me tell you—and it’s a hard world when you’re living on your lonesome. The family didn’t bother to come and state when they were moving off to the valley. They had forgotten about Stovelilly, as people sometimes do when they are deeply involved in their own affairs.

Now there was still magic in the Earth in those days. Some believe that it originally came from the great volcanic vents in the ocean, mixed with the water, was skimmed from the waves by the great winds that blow unceasing, and was dropped upon the mountains in great rain deluges, and ran down across the land and found its way into the very crops and the animals that we eat. It didn’t, then, take a lot of magic to manifest itself in ordinary ways such that no one thought of it as being quite…magical. They will see a tree growing from a little nut and think nothing of it, or a water spring up from a rock and pass it off as simply the way of the world. But it takes magic to move things, to cause them be when they weren’t before, and to generally bring forth life and living.

However the magic came to be there, it so happened that Stovelilly was particularly sensitive to the ways of magic. She saw it everywhere around her, and was quite versed in pushing it along, of spreading it around such that little things throve and grew in profusion near her. Consequently, the saddle of land between Laurel Mountain and Forrestal Peak became ringed with a great forest of birch and pine, black walnut and maple, and fruit trees were everywhere such that there was no need to plant any crops nor slaughter any animals—for it wasn’t in Stovelilly’s nature to kill anything that could gaze upon a sunset or grow tired or thirsty. Thus, she walked alone in the forest, singing songs to herself to bide her time, and wondered as she walked if she would ever hear the voice of another human being ever again.

She had no way of knowing that a human being would be coming to visit her, and very soon. The magic didn’t speak of it, and her Dream Spirit kept the secret of his coming, for if she had any inkling of what would thereafter occur, she might have blanched at the aspect of it, and hidden herself, and not answered when the call came, borne of the wind that blows about the misty peaks in the morning.

It was seven days for Craypipe from the morning he left the shack until he came to the foothills beneath Laurel Mountain. He spent much of his time talking to his mule. The mule listened, but to his credit didn’t talk back. Nor had Craypipe ever named the beast, other than to call him, properly, Mule.

When Craypipe laid his head down that last evening before attempting the peak, he looked up at the stars and saw that they had not changed one iota from where they were back home, and he wondered at this. He had always heard that the stars were different in the southern climes. This, from the tales of old explorers, handed down through the years. But those old explorers had great boats, and all he had was an old mule who couldn’t talk or even curse back at him. Maybe it was all foolishness. How could the stars change?

Sometimes the most fun writing these things is the dialogue. Here’s a little snippet from the forthcoming The Lone Star Express:

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Apparently anything can go wrong.

The train was slowing. Not majorly slowing, but the vibration and the rocking seemed less, and the lights passing in the night seemed to go by more slowly. I had swept most of the broken glass—all that wasn’t beneath Frank—into the corner where I had gotten the blankets, and Frank was trying to get to his feet.

“You want to help me up?” he asked. He had his left arm braced on a bar, trying to lever himself to his feet.

“I want you to lay there,” I said.

He faltered for a moment and lay back down. “I’m gonna try again in a minute. By the way, you make a terrible nurse.”

“I do.”

“Bill? Over!” The voice over the radio JoJo’s.

I picked up the radio and keyed the mic. “Yeah? Over.”

“Get up here. I need an extra hand. Only came with two of them. Charlie’s coming back there to spell you because he can’t…”

I waited. “Can’t what? Over.”

“Never mind that. Can you come on over?” Then, uncertainly, “Over.”

“Come over where? Over.”

“Come forward until you find me. Over.”

“Can we stop saying ‘over’? It’s getting old. Over.”

“Sure. Over.”

“Okay. I’m coming…uh, over.”

There was a beat of a pause, then, “So when are you going to stop saying ‘over?’ Over.”

“Right now,” I said, and released the mic. I waited, then keyed the mic again. “I’m also leaving off the ‘out’.”

“Uh huh.”

With that done, I looked back down at Frank. “You gonna be okay there for a few minutes? Charlie’s coming back here.”

“I heard.”

I turned to go, but then heard him whisper, “Amateurs.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just go.”

I opened the door onto the narrow brim beneath my feet, and for a moment began to doubt where I was going anywhere. The problem was the blackness of the night outside the caboose. The dim lighting from inside cast my shadow onto the rear of the refrigeration car in front of me. When I stepped a little to the side, I could see the brim of the car three feet in front of me and the faintly illuminated rungs of the later, but the problem was that when I stepped back in order to prepare myself to lunge forward, the ladder vanished into the darkness.

JoJo saved me with a squawk over the radio: “Bill, there’s a light switch by the door.”

I flipped it, but at that instant it decided to burn out. The flare was brief, and I knew if from all the times I had turned on my closet light or my back porch light and the tiny filaments in the bulb of glass decided to take the opportunity to check out.

I keyed the mic. “Just burned out. Here goes nothing.”

“It’s a piece of cake,” she said, and silence ensued.

“I now officially miss ‘over’,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Will you two can the chatter?” Corky’s voice came over the radio. “We’re losing pressure fast.”

“I know. I know,” JoJo said. “Give us a minute.”

“Or five,” I said.

“You’ve got about four, and then this thing is coming to a stop and we’ll have to bank the fire.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“Starve it of oxygen,” Leo’s voice stated.

“Just aim and jump,” JoJo said.

“Okay,” I said. “Everybody shut up. Here I come.”

I turned the radio off, put it in my pocket, stepped to the side to let the dim light through.

Behind me, Frank shouted, “Just jump!”

“All right, already. Everybody’s a critic.”

I studied the rung I was going to grasp, and where I would have to put my feet. I counted from ten to one, then decided to start all over.

It came unbidden into my mind at that moment. One time Jessica and I were playing one-on-one basketball in the driveway and she was standing her ground from well past the free-throw line, and I couldn’t get past her. I dribbled, held the ball, dribbled and stepped, held it again, and then a feeling came over me. It was a sense of rightness. Why was I trying to get closer to the basket when all I needed was that feeling? I had height on Jessica, and I knew there was really nothing she could do. I dribbled once more, made as if I were going to step again, but instead leapt straight up and threw. The ball sailed up in a beautiful slow motion arc, as if what I had done was the laziest thing in the world, then went through the net without touching the hoop. It was game point. Jessica’s shoulders slumped and she said, “How am I supposed to defend against that?” to which I replied, “You don’t. There’s no defense against that.” “What do you call that?” “It’s a thing wonderful and rare. It’s called a sense of rightness.” The next morning I was awakened by the sound of a basketball banging off of the backboard. I looked out the window, and there was Jessica, practicing from past the freethrow line. She would jump straight up and throw, miss, try again and miss. Finally, as I watched, she got it. Then she stood there and I watched as the implication sunk in. And that was my gift that day to her.

I stood there in the night and waited. When it came, I recognized it and didn’t hesitate. I jump forward and my overly large shadow in front of me shrank. The rung of the ladder came into my hands at the same moment that my feet came down exactly where they were supposed to land. I started up without a second thought. There’s something to be said for rightness.

It’s coming down the embankment at you with a full head of steam! Here’s a taste:

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Our reverie was interrupted by a blast from the horn.

“Do you think…?” I began.

“Probably just coming to a crossing and he’s giving it the horn. Have to do that by law.”

The horn blasted again, was cut short, and then once more.

“Crap!” Corky said, and was suddenly in motion. “Something’s wrong.”

I dropped Perry’s baseball on the nearest seat, tucked the note in my shirt pocket and followed.

We went hurriedly through the next car—an even more dilapidated passenger car—through a door and across to the engine. I followed Corky up a small flight of steps. At that moment the brakes began to engage.

Out the front window, about two hundred yards away, was a truck sitting across the track. The single headlamp from the train speared it and light reflected back at us off the driver’s window, the hubcaps and the front bumper.

“I’m not sure I can stop in time without…really stopping.” Charlie said, and there was fright in his voice.

However sharp Charlie’s eyes were—and they had to have been terribly sharp to pick up the truck from more than half a mile back—my vision has always been excellent, particularly my night vision.

Several other vehicles were stopped off to the side of the tracks, a little closer to us than the truck that was blocking our path. I noted two figures closing in toward the tracks ahead of us, and then a third running up. They had rifles or shotguns in their hands.

“Don’t,” I said.

“Don’t?” Charlie asked. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t stop. The truck won’t hurt this train, will it?”

“It might scratch the paint, but that’s about it.”

“Then don’t stop. We won’t even feel it, will we?” I asked.

“No, we won’t,” Charlie said. “Why not stop?”

“Because, it’s a trap. They put the truck there to scare us into stopping. And those guys are gonna start shooting the minute they realize we’re not. Stopping, that is. But if we stop, then they’ve got us for sure.”

“Damn.” Corky said. “Up, Charlie. Let me do this. Ya’ll get down.”

The side window was open, and the second Corky hit the driver’s seat, he stuck his head out the window and squinted.

“Yeah, they’re gonna shoot,” he said.

Then he poured on the juice. I had to reach a hand out to check myself from tumbling back into Charlie.

The first shot was a pang off of steel somewhere on the exterior. Charlie and I ducked and Corky hunkered down in the driver’s seat. The front glass picked up a spray of buckshot, but it merely chipped the glass. Then there were many such sounds, like someone setting off a string of firecrackers.

“We’re gonna hit it!” Corky shouted, the excitement in his voice both fearful and amused in the same instant. Then he stuck his arm out the window and shouted: “Go to hell you sonsabitches!”

His arm came back inside and there was the sound of something crumpling, not unlike someone clapping a paper bag full of air between their hands, followed by the spectacle of a large object coming up over the windows and onto the roof above us. The truck tumbled across the steel roof like a giant eating its way through a stack of steel fifty-five gallon drums. An instant later there was a loud, shrill scrape as what was left of it fell off to the side. Which side, I wasn’t sure. I realized then that Corky must have given them his middle finger in conjunction with his words.

I stood up, went back down the steps to the deck and went through the doors of the first passenger compartment. I was met by JoJo.

“What the hell was that all about?” she asked.

“You okay?”

“Yep.”

“Someone tried to stop us. The put a truck in our path, we ran over it, and they started shooting at us.”

JoJo laughed. “They tried to attack a train? With a pickup truck and some guns?”

“Yeah.”

“Idiots,” she said.

“Yeah. Only, I’m wondering who the hell those guys are, and what they want?”

“Hmph.”

We exchanged nods and passed each other.

A bit more on the Antarctic mystery:

No fires were to be lit upon the ice. This was well understood by Gleese, by Tomaroff, and Kroones, but a few of the Argentinians started a fire and this nearly unhinged Kroones, who cursed them and made a show of stamping it out. The language barrier was thus overcome by example.

From the story that Gleese had, Kroones was missing two of his toes to frostbite. He was on one of the early Arctic exploration teams with Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, who had found the northeast passage during the Vega expedition of 1878, and after a falling out with Palander of the Swedish Navy, had become an explorer in his own right, albeit a penniless one.

Gleese liked the Dane. He was a hard-bitten soul of few words, preferring the company of dogs to men, and could abide no ignorance or foolhardiness in any man other than himself. Gleese had found him alone —but for a small pack of dogs—in a room above a tavern in the extreme northeastern Greenland village of Qaanaaq, that launching point for many of the early Arctic expeditions, including the trips to Prince Patrick Island where the fabled graveyard of the whales was believed to lie. He had put the question to Kroones by way of a local Inuit interpreter: was Kroones searching for the valley of the whales, the place where the great behemoths went to die? Gleese could not get a verbal answer out of the man, so he’d removed his necklace and showed him a small golden locket. Upon opening it, the scent of ambergris filled the room and the dogs began to howl. Kroones’s eyes grew wide in wonder.

Gleese assuredly had been looking for the mother lode of ambergris, and hired Kroones on the spot.

They found no ambergris—the strange, cancerous growth found in the guts of sperm whales which was the base of all perfumes, more valuable than gold or diamonds. Instead they had found death and all but bankruptcy. But that was seven years before.

Antarctica, Gleese believed, was made for men like Kroones. If there was any man alive who could see to it that he made it to the pole and returned, it would be the strange Dane.

Just a little bit on this Antarctic story:

CHAPTER TWO: THE SHELF

The Antarctic
September 16, 1888

The Invincible lay at anchor before the blue and white cliffs. The first rope, attached to Gomez’s harpoon, was fired up and over the ice shelf by the twelve-pounder prow cannon—which equipment was the last vestige of her fighting past, but which the navy could not easily remove from the prow emplacement before her auction—and the breathless spectacle of watching Manuel Ortega shinny up the rope with three other rope bundles and an additional forty pounds of steel spikes bound about his form made for the single-most riveting moment for the passengers and crew during their brief voyage from The Falklands, apart from the bloody taking of the narwhal the previous day. If the harpoon, embedded somewhere above in the implacable ice, were to give way, then Ortega’s fifty-foot climb would be his last, this everyone knew.

When he disappeared over the cliff’s edge, a cheer went up.

“Hurrah! Ortega!”

“Mr. Gleese,” Captain Kuralt stated, “you and your men may now disembark, and with my compliments.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Gleese said, and shook the Captain’s hand. No wind blew here beneath the cliffs of ice, and as the cheering about them ceased a silence stole like death across the deck as the men returned to their work.

The cargo hold was thrown open and the supplies were hoisted forth.

Mr. Kroones—Gleese’s Danish dogman—led the pack up from the stern stairs and onto the deck. The pack was composed of a mix of grey Huskies, white Lapps, and black Alsatians—and it was a marvel that Kroones somehow kept them all from tearing one another to pieces. At night the man sang them to sleep, his melodious and nearly falsetto voice reverberating off the interior of the hold as if he were in some grand Opera house. Kroones waved to Gleese and Gleese nodded. Kroones and the dogs would be first up onto the ice after Ortega.

“You’ve marked the coordinates well, then, Captain?” Gleese asked.

“Yes. Hmph. We’ll see you here on December fifteenth, sixty-nine degrees, fifty-fourth minutes, forty-nine seconds south by sixty degrees, twenty-nine minutes, fifty-five seconds west. And Godspeed, Mr. Gleese.”

“Godspeed, Captain. I shall reach the pole and return.”

Kuralt nodded, but did not speak further. He had meant to say, “See that you do,” but he could not bring himself to tempt the Fates, or otherwise put voice what he felt in his chest—a disquieting foreboding, much like the coming onset of some malady that might prove a challenge to the doctor, if not to the clinging hand of life itself. Instead, he turned his eyes from the already tired explorer, placed his hand on the railing and gazed down upon the men at work.

*****

Twenty-five men and forty dogs watched as the Invincible belched steam. Her whistle blew a shrill goodbye as two sets of men who had been intimately intermingled for the past week waved to each other across the Antarctic air.

“Let’s move a bit towards land, shall we?” Gleese stated. “I wish to be away from these cliffs before we make camp for the night. Mr. Tomaroff, how far off is the land mass, would you say?”

“Fifty kilometres, no less,” Micail Tomaroff said. Tomaroff opened his pocket watch, then glanced up at the southern stars, as if confirming his calculations—a nod to the seemingly arcane science of celestial navigation. The sun was on the horizon, and would not quite disappear below it for several months to come, or at least not until the Antarctic fall, which would commence sometime in February, long after they were scheduled to depart this desolate and forbidding land.

“Very good. Mr. Kroones, please prepare the sleds for travel.”

“Sehr gut, Herr Gleese.”

Danish, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese were four languages that Gleese had not learned, or at least not well enough to carry on a conversation beyond an exchange of idiotic pleasantry. He could read Latin, some Greek, Gaelic, Chinese and Nipponese, and could speak some pidgin of the two Asian dialects—which was necessary in the far away Arctic—but English was his native language. While the language of Tennyson, if not of Chaucer and Mallory, was his favorite reading, he was forever mentally tethered to the American dialect of New England; that of Washington Irving and Thoreau, of Thomas Paine if not Thomas Jefferson, was how he best thought. That few of his own expeditionary party could converse with him intelligently could ultimately prove costly if luck refused to hold, as Kuralt had pointed out to him when the Argentinians had signed on en masse, lured as they were by the legendary weight of Gleese’s purse. He had largely and single-handedly depopulated the Falklands of male Argentinians, and all for filthy lucre. Some might die during the expedition, particularly if they did not heed the regulations—no wandering away from camp solo, even to relieve themselves, and not without rope.

The most dangerous foe, if it were not the ice and the wind itself, was the stealthiest, most hidden quarry imaginable; that of crevasse. He had personally witnessed a man swallowed whole by an opening in the ice that had not existed a moment before. Swallowed so utterly and completely that it was as if the man had never existed. And it did so even more abruptly than a cry could escape the lips.

No. He would not allow this to be. He resolved to spend a portion of time each evening learning Portuguese, Danish and Russian.

Here’s a short story, penned by my late friend,  Milton T. Burton, that about summarizes my attitude for this day. I hope you enjoy it.

THE WATCHERS
Milton T. Burton

I was coming out of the Wal-Mart Supercenter yesterday when an earnest-looking fellow who appeared to be in his mid thirties came up and tried to hand me some kind of lurid religious tract.

“I can’t accept that,” I told him.

“Why not?”

“I’m an Alpha Prime.”

“Huh?” asked in obvious confusion. “Alpha what?”

I decided to take the time to explain it all to him. “Prime,” I said. “Alpha Prime. Surely you know as well as I do that there are only three types of people in this world. Alpha Primes, Control Agents, and Subsidiaries.”

“Subsid. . .”

“That’s right,” I replied. “And I know you’re not an Alpha Prime because we always recognize one another. And you don’t look focused enough to be a Control Agent, so it’s pretty obvious that you’re just a Subsidiary.”

For some reason he seemed to find this mildly alarming, so I moved in closer and put my arm around his shoulders and gave him a reassuring squeeze. “You see,” I said, “the sole purpose of Control and its agents is to keep us Alpha Primes from detecting the Pattern. That’s the reason they try to annoy and distract us as much as they possibly can. But I’m onto them.”

“You are?”

“Right,” I said, giving him a conspiratorial wink. “I became aware of the Pattern a long time ago.”

“The Pattern?”

“Right again. Let me give you an example. I’m sure you’ve seen that insurance ad that features the British rock guitarist, Peter Frampton. . . Right? It’s on TV all over the country.”

He gave me a hesitant nod, and his eyes were growing ever wider.

“Well, surely you realize that there is no such thing as a Frampton.”

“No?”

“Absolutely not,” I said firmly. “Can you imagine anything more absurd than a Frampton? I mean, have you ever actually met one yourself?”

He shook his head. “No, I can’t say that I—”

“Of course you haven’t. You see, the Control Agents just gave that guy the name because they realize that ‘Frampton’ is one of those words that we Alpha Primes are genetically predisposed find utterly loathsome.”

Here I stopped speaking and gave his shoulder another squeeze and then continued in a knowing whisper. “And if we’re all bent out of shape about ‘Frampton,’ then we’re sure as hell not going to notice the Pattern, now are we? And that’s any Control Agent’s whole purpose in life. Obscure that Pattern. Get it?”

“I, I’m not sure,” he said dubiously. “But I really have to go.”

“But you haven’t given away all your tracts.”

He shrugged. “I haven’t had much luck here, anyway.”

“Luck?” I asked. “Why, my friend, there’s no such thing as luck.”

“No?”

I shook my head gravely. “Of course not. There’s only the Pattern. For example, have you ever been about ready for bed and then realized you just had to have a soft drink or something? So you find yourself dragging your shoes back on and driving a couple of miles to the convenience store and dealing with some Pakistani idiot who can barely make change. That’s because you had to be in a certain place at a certain time, either to cause something or to prevent it. A car wreck or whatever.”

“Well, I. . .”

“No doubt about it,” I said and gave him a resigned shrug. “The grim truth is that we’re all slaves to the Pattern, whether we realize it or not. Even the Control Agents. But you should be grateful that you Subsidiaries only get the small assignments. We Alpha Primes get the big jobs. Why, I once had to fly all the way to Budapest and eat a liverwurst sandwich in a certain café to prevent a dormant volcano from blowing up in Iceland. And I hate liverwurst.”

At this he bolted and sprinted to his car and then sped quickly from the parking lot. No doubt he was eager to fill his friends in on what he’d just learned about the Pattern. I regretted that I hadn’t been able to tell him about the Watchers, but there’d be plenty of time for that later on. I’d memorized his license plate number, and I have a helpful friend in motor vehicle registration.
It was a lovely day.

Desperate Crimes

When Jennifer Travis’s piano teacher, Todd Landry, goes missing, Bill Travis has to pull out of all the stops to find him before her upcoming piano recital. Along for the ride is not only Jennifer herself, but also her pet ferret, Morgan Freeman, and Bill’s old running buddy, Hank Sterling. Zig-zagging all over the map on the trail of an elusive Todd (whom people keep calling “Sam”) the team encounters a host of interesting characters including the members of a dynastic millionaire family with enough skeletons in their collective closet to fill a boneyard. It’s murder, mayhem, conspiracy and intrigue at a fever pitch for Bill Travis and company. Desperate Crimes is the 11th installment in the Bill Travis Mystery series.

GET YOUR COPY NOW!

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It is my firm belief that Captains Malicious is one of the best science fiction/space opera books ever written. I’m rather proud of it, since I’m one of the co-authors. Also, my hat is off to TR Tom Harris for his excellent writing. Here’s the beginning of the book, a hefty portion of Chapter One:

CHAPTER 1

Captain, I don’t like this,” said Commander Javon Steele as he hunched over the proximity screen, shielding it with his body from the glare of the lights on the bridge. “It sure looks like a six-master. I’ve heard rumors of one prowling around, and this could be her.”

“And you don’t think we can take on a little six-master?” Captain Robert Kincaid asked with a smile. He remained seated in his command chair, knowing that joining his Executive Officer at the screen might be read as panic and negate the air of confidence he was trying to convey to his bridge crew. He could tell by their fidgeting and furtive glances that they were growing nervous knowing full well that if they could detect the other ship, then the alien warcraft could detect them as well. And if this was the rumored Vixxie DN-Z then trying to outrun her would be a waste of time. Their fate was sealed the moment the image on Steele’s screen resolved clear enough to show the gravity signature of the powerful starship, along with her six deadly dots of light.

Steele left the proximity screen and went to where his captain sat, with legs crossed and appearing completely at ease. The tall, slender black man leaned in close so the others on the bridge couldn’t hear.

“Robert, we cannot go up against a ship that big. I know it, you know it…and so do they,” he lifted his hand to indicate the remainder of the bridge crew.
Kincaid kept a placid smile. “Your look of absolute dread isn’t helping things, Javon. The crew is scared enough already.”

“This is serious, Captain,” Steele said, growing frustrated. “And by the way, you ain’t foolin’ nobody. Everyone knows we’re in some deep rhino dung when you start wearing that goofy grin. They’d feel better if you were the irascible, top-deck-dictator you normally are.”

“Dictator! Dammit, Javon, I’m a captain, not a dictator.”

“Six of one….”

Kincaid took a deep breath and let the smile fade away. Shedding his fake countenance made him feel better since it was so out of character for him to mask his feelings just for the sake of his mostly-rookie crew. And his XO was right, it did betray the seriousness of the threat they faced.

There were a total of twenty-two men and women aboard the Malicious, with eight on the bridge, including himself and Steele. Since going to General Quarters, the tension within the ship had notched up palpably. The remainder of his crew were either nervously sweating it out at weapons batteries or sat huddled in passageways with damage control equipment at the ready—just in case. The news of the possible six-master was no doubt spreading rapidly.

Robert narrowed his focus on the forward viewport. The enemy ship was out there still light-years away, yet it represented the gravest threat his crew had ever faced—and everyone knew it. It was now time for some serious captaining. After all, one didn’t sit in this chair because you knew how to coddle a crew. You sat here because you knew how to survive.

“Helm, bring us to one-eight-zero degrees, down fifteen, all ahead flank.”
Steele backed away from the command chair and gave his Captain a nod.
“The Drift Current?” he asked.

“Yep, the Drift Current. If this does turn out to be the Vixx’r forty-gun dreadnaught then she hasn’t been in the Reaches long enough to get a lay of the land. We just may catch her off-guard.”

“It’s worth a try,” Steele said. “Seeing that we’re all going to die otherwise.”

“Have faith, Number Two. Besides, they’re going up against the Malicious. They may be aliens, but they can still shit bricks, and I’m sure that’s what they’re doing right about now.”

“Target tacking to starboard, sir,” Lt. Sean Sinclair reported from tactical.
“They’re coming after us, Captain.”

Kincaid noticed the sudden attitude shift on the part of the bridge crew—the abrupt passage from uncertainty to a resolve to carry on. This was what these people had trained for—even if hastily and mainly on-the-job. Yet already his young crew had four successful raids under their belts, and with each they’d gained proficiency, experience, and most of all, courage. Of course, none of their other prey thus far had been a 40-gun six-master.
From pollywogs to shellbacks in such a short time, Kincaid thought. I’m proud of you people.

Robert Kincaid shook his head as the series of strange terms came to mind. He had no idea where they originated, just their context as they referred to a time long ago and on a far-distant planet called Earth. He often wondered what life was like back then, in the days of real seafaring pirates, when all a man had was the deck beneath his feet and the wind in his sails? He’d read it was glorious.

Many of the terms and traditions from those ancient nautical times were still in use. Sure, the sails they now unfurled were space-bending neutron projectors, and the winds they chased were ribbons of dark matter that guided the creation of the unpredictable and often dangerous stellar warp-currents they sought to catch. Still, the experience had to be the same. And now, like then, the price of failure was death.

Captain Robert Kincaid—formerly of the United Peoples of Earth, 9th Tactical Assault Group—was a seasoned veteran of space warfare and experienced enough to know the reality they faced. It was simple: They would either live today, or they would die. There was no in between. And yet there was still hope, a way for Robert to cheat destiny’s deadly stare.
All he had to do was reach the Drift Current in time.

Take a few hundred trillion tons of the rich soup of the interstellar medium, lace it with a jumble of strands of invisible dark matter the size of a planetary system, and then stretch it over three parsecs of space. What you’d end up with is a region of space called the Drift Current, an almost invisible, nebula-like pool of gravitational spider-silk, strings, ropes and cables. The masts of interstellar starships, with their neutron projectors and electromagnetic accumulators, are but teacups in the roaring maelstrom of swirling, stellar stew. Navigationally, the Current is a hazard for even the most-seasoned helmsman, and its expanding boundaries are carefully marked on star charts as close to actuality as possible in light of the ever-changing conditions.

Captain Kincaid had witnessed what happened to ships caught in the Current. The closest analogy was watching a vessel dashed to pieces on a coral reef. The trick for him would be to lure the Vixx’r into the Current without diving Malicious into the morass as well. It wouldn’t be easy. Not one bit.

“They’re still closing, sir. Weapons range in five minutes.”

“Very good, Mister Sinclair, steady as she goes.”

Robert pressed a button on the armrest of his command chair. “Attention crew of the Malicious. Target will be in range in five minutes, and even though she may outgun us two to one, it’s a pretty good bet she won’t be expecting what we can bring to bear, so we’ll have the element of surprise on our side. Cannon crew: Wait until we’ve made the turn before locking on target. Once we change course, we’ll only have one chance to deliver a salvo, so make it good. And there’s going to be some rough seas for a few minutes after we drop anchor, so factor that in before committing. Anchor crew: Stand ready to drop on my command. Everything must go smoothly; that’s an imperative. Four minutes everyone. Stay frosty. This is where the fun begins. Captain out.”

Robert turned to Javon Steele. “Get down to forward steering and make sure the anchor crew gets it right. We can’t afford to be off by even a degree.”

“Roger that. I’m on my way.” Steele ran from the bridge. It would take him forty seconds to reach the small compartment five decks below the bridge where a nervous anchor crew waited.

“Picking up current anomalies, Captain,” the helmsman reported. “I’m having to fight her quite a bit.”

“That’s the idea, Mister Devlin. Keep us in the channel the best you can, and get ready for a course change to zero-one-five, up twenty. Execute with anchor drop. On my order, not before.”

“Aye, sir.”

Robert looked out through the forward viewport just as the stars began to change color, shifting more to the blue, while their single points of light began to stretch out. They were entering the edge of the Drift Current, and if the anchor wasn’t set precisely, they would be sucked all the way in, with deadly consequences.

“Blast detected from the Vixxie ship, Captain!” Sinclair reported. “Tracking on target, contact in fifteen seconds.”

“Crap,” Robert said. This is going to be close.

“Captain?” the helmsman cried out.

“I know. Five more seconds.”

When Robert saw the surrounding starlight suddenly streak to port he pressed the intercom button. “Anchors away; prepare for heavy rolls! Helm, execute course change!”

The ship suddenly shifted to starboard, sending the bridge crew surging against their restraints, inertial compensators pressed to the max. The rest of the crew should have been similarly strapped in by now—and if not, there were going be some serious injuries. The Malicious swung by on a course now one-hundred-eight degrees out from her original heading. The stars in the viewport became nothing more than streaks of white and blue lines across the field of view.

Kincaid had a small tac monitor attached to his command chair and on it he could see a graphic representation of the Malicious as she followed an arcing course to starboard—just as the monstrous alien warship shot past them to port. Flashes of cannon fire erupted from the Vixx’r ship’s weapons deck, and for a moment his blood froze in his veins. He watched with relief as the plasma shells from the enemy vessel folded in upon themselves—an effect of the Current—revealing the alien’s inexperience with this region of space.

“Cut the anchor!” Kincaid commanded. Commander Steele was a split second ahead of him, as the Malicious broke free from her radically-arcing course and shot away from the Drift Current at a ninety-degree angle.

“Fire!” Kincaid shouted.

From their new vantage point behind the Vixx’r dreadnaught, multiple clear targeting sights were presented to his hungry aft gun crews. Unlike the Vixx’r, his gunners were quite familiar with the odd effects the Current would play on their shots and had already compensated for them. Now Robert watched as the Vixx’r ship was bathed in small puff-balls of fire and light, a result of his crew’s dead-on accuracy.

“Fire at will!” Kincaid yelled into the intercom, simultaneously—it turned out—with the first jolt of the ship as the main port cannon unleashed a deadly salvo of fire.

Apart from the hellish onslaught from the guns of the Malicious, the unfathomable clash between regular and dark matter in this region of space also wrought its own brand of havoc upon the warp-sails of the alien starship. She lost all control and began to drift helplessly to starboard, drawn in by the invisible hand of the Current.

Even more holes were blasted into her superstructure just below the main deck from the accurate aim of his gunners; however, Kincaid watched with interest as one of their plasma shells missed the side of the alien ship altogether. To his delight, the treacherous Drift Current plucked up the errant shot, and by a strand of dark matter, swept it back toward the aft mast, shearing it off completely. The giant, billowing sail broke apart and began to flutter off into space, appearing to be under the influence of some hidden breeze.

“Sighting on target, sir; we’re really giving it to them now!” Sinclair turned in his seat.

Kincaid’s smile—this time—was genuine. “Let me know when they can no longer return fire, Mr. Sinclair. I think I might want a souvenir from this battle.”

“Aye, Captain.” His weapon’s officer swiveled back to his panel. “Readings indicate…plasma ignition onboard.” At that moment a brilliant sunburst lit up the bridge through the forward viewport. Hands lifted to cover sensitive eyes, even as the monitors polarized to block out the damaging light.

“Damn…is she gone?”

“No sir; that was her magazine. She’s…sir…she’s dead in the water.”

“Cease fire!” Kincaid shouted, and watched as the salvos from his ship halved in number.

“Cease fire, dammit!”

Finally the deadly eruptions dropped to zero. Their blood is up, he thought.
Years of Vixx’r occupation has made a simple command not nearly enough. By God, they hate them as much as I do.

“Open a ship-wide channel, Mister Sinclair. I want to hear what’s going on below decks.”

The sound of cheering washed across the bridge.

“Well done, people,” Robert said.

“We did it, Cap’n!” an ecstatic voice called out, and he wondered who it was? He couldn’t help but smile.

“You sure did, and you all deserve medals, if pirates gave out medals. Now secure from General Quarters. Set condition yellow. Damage control crews stow all gear. Gunners take inventory and then secure all armament.”

Steele arrived back on the bridge a few minutes later, a big grin on his chocolate brown face. “I see now how spending your misplaced youth wandering around this part of space finally came in handy. Great job Captain.”

“Same to you, Mister Steele.”

“I guess we can learn something from this little mishap, like make sure we know what we’re up against before committing to an engagement.”

“What, and take all the fun out of pirating? No way! But our job here isn’t done, not yet.”

Steele frowned. “What do you mean?”

“That,” Kincaid pointed at the viewscreen. The Vixx’r ship still struggled on the edge of the Drift Current, appearing as though she might break free at any moment. Somewhere aboard the dying ship, there was a Vixxie at his post, working earnestly to get the ship to clear space.

“What about it?” Steele said. “Done deal.”

“If we leave them they’ll eventually make their way out of the Current. We have to go mop up the mess we’ve made. And for our trouble, I think a six-master should be a fair trade.”

“Make that a five-master now, Captain…for what good it will do. We barely have enough crew for the Malicious.”

Kincaid frowned and pursed his lips. “That is a problem; a fancy new starship and with no one to drive her.”

“She’s not so new, not anymore.” Steele now mirrored Robert’s furrowed forehead. “You know every time you make a pitch for new recruits you run the risk of being found out. And then what would we do if the Vixxie have you for dinner?”

“Hopefully I’d give them indigestion.”

“Robert—”

Kincaid raised his hand. “I know, Javon, and thanks for your concern, but we both know the time will come eventually.”

Steele grimaced. “I’m your friend and shipmate, but that thing there—the dreadnaught—could be a lot more serious than the revelation that you’re the infamous Captain Malicious. It could have some very dire consequences for the rest of the Human population in the Reaches.”

Kincaid nodded. “Rest assured, Commander, plans have been made to prevent that from happening. We just have to trust the UPE when that time comes.”

Steele’s frown turned into a sour smirk. “Trust the government to do the right thing, like defend the Reaches against the Sludgers? We all know how that turned out.”

“That was different, Javon, and you know it.” And then he smiled. “Besides, all they have to do in this case is betray one person—me! I’m sure even the government of the UPE can’t screw that up!”

It was a young graduate student in the mid-21st century named Holland Norvell who first came up with the formula for faster-than-light travel.
While working on his doctoral thesis in quantum mechanics, Norvell kept hitting the brick wall of a mysterious thing called “gravity,” something that had never been previously well-defined. From not long after the time of Sir Isaac Newton, gravity had been labeled as “the weakest of the nuclear forces,” the implication being that gravity had something to do with the atom and with the laws of cohesion and adhesion. But nothing seemed to fit the model of the universe the young, eccentric genius envisioned—that of mankind traveling throughout the stars in real-time and not over centuries as was the present level of technology.

As the historians record, in the wee hours of the morning, a week before his thesis defense, Norvell picked up his yogurt spoon and dropped it. He picked it up again, and once more let it fall to the table. Again and again he repeated the process. Lift the spoon. Drop the spoon.

It’s then believed he asked the empty room, “What am I looking at?”

His own voice answered: “Gravity.”

Norvell’s mind must have then gone off into a fugue state or a black hole or something—the other side of the universe perhaps—because he was soon asking aloud, “But what would it be like if I dropped the spoon on the surface of something other than a gigantic electromagnet spinning in space?”
It dawned on him that no one in recorded history had ever asked that question, and as the mythology goes, Norvell then opened his computer and erased the title of his thesis, and replaced it with large block letters that read:
GRAVITY IS DEAD.

He then began to reconstruct the universe based upon the supposition that there was no such thing as gravity, that there was only electromagnetism.
The day of Norvell’s thesis defense came and went, and nobody saw him and he wouldn’t answer his pad. He emerged from his room three weeks later, much thinner, yet with the answer to his question. Within that time he had figured out how galaxies adhere and why they pool into squashed spirals. It was so obvious to him now. So-called gravity was instantaneous.
Einstein must have turned over in his grave so fast that he blurred to invisibility.

From Norvell’s early theories came many more, including the equation that permitted travel to the stars.

In the Captain’s lounge aboard the Malicious, Steele raised a glass of rare specialty port and toasted, “To Norvell!”

“To Norvell!” Kincaid replied. After draining the glass of its potent contents, Robert got down to business. “As soon as we get the tow lines secured, let’s make best speed back to base. Then we’ll take my flitter back to Ione. We should be home by late afternoon the day after tomorrow.” “So you’re still going through with it?” Steele asked.

“I don’t have a choice. You said it yourself: we barely have enough crew for the Malicious. I need bodies, and I need them now. And after that, there’s a meeting scheduled at KST that I don’t want to miss. Gaolic’s going to be there, I believe.”

“You need to be careful, Robert. That old Vixxie is a patient son-of-a-bitch, while you’re the most impatient man I know. That’s not a good combination. Also, I wouldn’t expect much out of your friends at the Duck. It takes a special breed of fool to do what we do.”

Kincaid smiled. “I hear that. But I’ve only invited the ones I believe have what it takes.”

“What’s that—a terminal illness and with nothing left to lose?”

“You are one sour cynic, aren’t you, Commander? I’m expecting you to make the meeting. I’m going to need your back-up.”

“I’ll be there. In fact I think it might be quite entertaining watching you explain our mission to a bunch of landlubbers.” Steele them lifted his glass and observed the dark burgundy color through the light. “Good stuff this port of yours. Beats the hell out of the swill they’re brewing in the Reaches these days.”

“The recipe’s been in my family for hundreds of years. A distant branch of the family still owns a winery back on Earth—or so I’ve been told. I’ve never been there myself.”

“You could go, you know?”

“To Earth?” Kincaid shook his head. “No way, I have to stay here and nursemaid this glorious revolution we have going against the Vixx’r Occupation of the Reaches.”

“I don’t know that it’s technically a revolution yet, not until….”

“Until what?”

“Until the people rise up. That’s why they call it…an uprising. It seems to me everyone is settling down for the long run, everyone except us.”

“That’s why I can’t go to Earth. Someone needs to light a fire under them. Too many are accepting the current situation as a permanent state of affairs.”

Javon Steele nodded.

At that moment Sinclair’s voice intruded over the comm. “Captain, tow lines are secure. We’ve got the ship.”

“Very good, Mister Sinclair. Captain out.”

“I still say you should cancel the meeting at the Duck,” Steele said. “We can find recruits in a less public way, more one-on-one.”

“I have to go, Javon. Besides, I know all these people; have my whole life. I’ll be fine.” Robert Kincaid was tired, and he wore his exhaustion on his face and in his every movement. He set the empty glass on the coffee table. “Give the word Mister Steele: Best speed back to base. Our destiny awaits.”

Get Captains Malicious.

 

 

 

Here’s a never-before read short story (the rough one I was talking about a week ago). It’s called THE GOLD POT:

“Need is no factor in luck,” Lattie said as she dealt the final round. I sniffed. Any professional gambler will tell you that statement isn’t entirely true. The fact is, the greater the need, the less likely luck is to strike, which definitely makes it a factor. A negative factor. It’s a reverse proposition, and any player worth his salt knows this from hard experience. The problem is, when you’re in it up to the short hairs, it’s that much more difficult to fold. Which was why there were, as yet, no vacant chairs at Frank Somer’s poker table.

The game began seventeen long hours before. The chips segued back-and-forth and from side-to-side, like some damned slow kiddie amusement park ride. Only it wasn’t amusing. Not one damned bit. Around two in the morning, just three or four hours after the first hand, I got a flush, and my stack of chips multiplied in size, and then for another five hours dwindled down and up, down and up. Me, I’m cursed with luck. Nothing goes right because of it. But I had no idea how much things were going to change by the end of that final hand.

It was a stupid trick Lattie pulled, and she did it because she knew what we would all think of it. She dealt a hand of Maverick: seven cards—two down, two up, two down, one up—with a bet each round after each up card. It’s a blow-out type of hand, sort of like Mexican Sweat, and the pot mushrooms in size. It’s the ultimate final hand. Most pros hate it—or, at least in my estimation, you’re not a pro unless you do hate it. I hate it because I don’t like to win that big in one whuff. When I do, the odds go up incredibly high that someone’s going to get pissed enough to jump me afterwards, or possibly even during. And I already knew what no one else at that table could: I was going to win, and in a very bad way. It was right then that I could have folded. Ah well. Live and learn.

My first up card was a seven of clubs. Innocuous. No danger to anyone there. I dared not look at my hole cards. The ante was a mere twenty-five bucks. Then Mercer, to Lattie’s immediate left, chunked in a hundred based on his King of Diamonds. There were six of us, and so the pot swelled to seven-fifty on that first up-card. Thankfully, nobody raised the bet.

To my left Aubrey Pike threw in a small stack of chips. Aubrey had a mean grin on his pock-marked face. He had lost his job at the cell phone plant last month. Also, I knew his wife was up for a liver transplant and he was twenty-five thousand short of what he needed and there was no insurance left to him. A guy like that can get pretty desperate.

Aubrey detected my stare, squinted his eyes and turned my way a fraction. I looked down at the table and the growing pot.

Second card up for me was the eight of clubs.

I know what you’re thinking. Don’t. There was no chance of two of those in the same game, fourteen hours apart or not.

Lattie’s bet, with a pair of threes showing, both red. Lattie used to house-keep at the Governor’s mansion. Her husband was one of the first African-American cops in Austin. The guy got blown away during a routine traffic stop ten years ago, and Lattie lays a wreath on his grave every September second. Meanwhile, the remainder of the year, she plays cards. Lattie has the heart of a great white shark, which makes me love her in no small way. She’s probably the wealthiest black woman I know.

Lattie paused, looked at each of us in turn. A flare for the dramatic, that woman. “Thousand,” she said, and moved over a whole stack of chips.

Somewhere off the coast of Sri Lanka, there is a unlucky sailor, drowning. I understood him.

Mercer Underwood whistled. “Lattie, my dear,” he said. “I truly love you. Will you marry me?”

“You’re already married, you glass-eyed pervert. In or out?”

“In,” Mercer said. A drop of sweat rolled down his right cheek. I supposed he was hoping no one noticed. It was like sixty-two degrees on Franks Somer’s back porch. Outside the cicadas stopped droning and got interested in the game.
Mercer had closed his plumbing supply shop awhile back. I’ve got a real estate buddy who’s been trying to get me to invest in foreclosures. Last week he showed me the list. Mercer’s house and his shop were on it. I recall wondering at the time whether or not Kitty knew. Both properties were going on the block in two weeks. So far, that made two who might kill for that damned pot.

Frank Somer added another thousand to the pot.

Frank was the only bona fide felon sitting at the table. He had been out on parole since ‘95 after twenty years in the clink. Strange, the kind of people a guy like me hangs out with. Frank had killed a man in cold-blood, or rather, cool blood. He’d waited a week after finding out his wife was cheating on him before he walked into the Lago Vista Country Club and shot the man right between the eyes. A week. A lot can happen in a week. Frank scalped football tickets for a living. No one hires a felon, after all. The last time I saw him, I had to pay his bar tab for him. That made three.

It was to me.

I pushed a thousand in chips to the center of the table and noticed I wasn’t breathing. When was the last time I had breathed? And because I couldn’t answer myself it sort of ticked me off and I did something really, really stupid. Moronic, in fact. I shoved over two more stacks and said: “that’s three to you, Aubrey.”

Aubrey looked at me. Then he looked at his cards.

“I hate you,” he said. “You haven’t even looked at your hole cards, you bastard.”

“I know,” I told him, and smiled. I thought of how cold the Indian Ocean might get in the south latitudes.

Aubrey had maybe five thousand left, and there were far too many rounds to go. I watched as he slowly counted out three thousand in chips.

“There!” he said. The neat stacks in the center spilled. It was all one pile now.

“It’s to you, Perry,” Lattie said.

Perry Tanner ran a title company office. He was middle-aged, totally bald, and was being thoroughly and completely divorced by a petite little college girl who had seen Perry for his true value. I discounted Perry as a potential violence factor. But, then again, who knows?

“Yeah, yeah,” Perry said, and pushed over about half of his chips.

Everyone else stayed in. Lattie smiled. Mercer sweated. Frank grimaced. I breathed. Aubrey shook from head to foot. Perry yawned.

Two cards down and no bets.

“Would you please look at your goddamned hole cards?” Aubrey raised his voice.

“Okay,” I said, and did.

A seven and an eight of spades. Huh. Two pair. Lousy. I looked at the other two. An eight of hearts and an eight of diamonds. Ha! Four of a kind!

At that moment Lattie dealt the last up-card.

“Not so pretty now, are they?” Aubrey asked.

“Man,” I said. “You have no idea how much it’s going to cost you to find out.”

Mercer had the bet, with a pair of Kings showing. Mercer bet a mere hundred.
When it got around to Lattie, she immediately raised him by nine hundred. You can say one thing for Lattie: the bitch is consistent.

It came to me again. I shoved the rest of my chips forward.

“How much the hell is that?” Lattie asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Nobody here can cover it.”

“I can!” Perry said, and the room became golden. That is to say that Perry reached into his pocket where a jingle-jangle could be heard, and a stack of one-ounce gold krugerrands, about fifty of them, joined the stack of chips.

Cards slapped the table all around, Lattie included. But I sat firm.

“Well?” Perry asked me, a smirk on his face.

“That makes it about a hundred and fifty thousand,” I said.

“Well?” Perry repeated, and opened his palms. I caught a quick glimpse of his cards, but that no longer mattered.

“Hold on,” I said. I reached behind me, into my rear waist-band.

“Unless you’re gonna pull the Hope Diamond out of your ass—” Perry began, but then he and everyone else saw my real hole card.

“I don’t believe it,” Lattie said.

“Believe it,” I said.

I shot Perry first, the silencer making for a pea-shooter sound. Everyone sat frozen as Perry’s head thunked on the table. Aubrey I shot second, mostly because I couldn’t stand the sonuvabitch. The others, all except Lattie, tried to make a break for it.

Phhwwtt. Phhwwt.

Which left me and Lattie.

I turned over my four eights.

“Well,” Lattie said. “You win.”

“I guess so. Damn, but I hate my luck,” I said.

I shot Lattie through the heart.

I looked down at the gold pot. Outside the cicadas started up their drone again. I like hearing those damned things.

Me and that Sri Lankan fisherman. Both of us trying to breathe and both of us drowning.

Sometimes a guy will do anything, especially when he’s down. You just can’t trust them.

Finis