Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"The Deal Breaker" by Suzanne J. Warfield

Chapter 1

            “Kitty, get up, get up! The House is on fire!” Tommy begins shaking me so violently, it’s as if the bedroom is being rocked by an earthquake.
            Groggy, I glance around the room. Everything seems fine.
            Mr. Bug, Tommy’s little pug, looks up sleepily from the couch as his master kneels over me, grasping me by my shoulders. “Wake up!” he implores again as he lets go and pulls on his jeans and shirt.
            I sit up and grab for him. He sometimes has flashbacks of Vietnam. “Tommy, it’s just a dream. It’s okay.”
            He rouses me again by my shoulders, his face horror-struck. “Listen to me, The House is on fire! We’ve got to go, now!”
            “Oh, my God, not The House!  How do you know this?” I hear myself say the words but my mind hasn’t caught up with what’s happening.
            Tommy tells me in a rush of words, “Bruno had been calling me at The House, and he just remembered that we said we were staying here. He saw the sky glowing on the way home from the Brass Rail, where he was playing pool until two. The fire engines we heard earlier must have been going to our place.”
            I remember, through my sleepy haze, Mr. Bug’s making a little “O’ with his mouth as the wail of sirens carried through the town.
            I jump up and put on my jeans and pajama top. Tommy grabs my coat and holds it for me as I slip my feet into my boots. In the next instant we’re both out on the street. There’s a cold drizzle falling, and the roadway is glazed over with ice.
            “Oh, my sweet Jesus,” I murmur. The sky is blazing in the direction of The Carriage House, the historic restaurant that has been home and employment for Tommy and me along with a few very close friends for the past eight years. Why we both decided to stay at my apartment instead of his on this particular night is just short of miraculous, since Tommy’s second-floor apartment in The Carriage House has always been viewed as a deathtrap in the event of a fire.
            As everything sinks in, I have no thoughts except for terror and horror—and questioning reality in one way or another.
            “What time is it?” I ask Tommy.
            “A little after three,” he says, choking out his words.
            We round a street corner near the restaurant and are immediately met by flashing lights and a fireman waving a flashlight. The road is closed and Tommy pulls his Mercedes to a sliding stop.
            A young fireman comes up to the car and says, “Hey, Tommy. I’m sorry, but you can’t go down there.”
            Everyone around these parts in upstate New York knows Tommy Defalco, the manager and co-owner of the area’s finest dining establishment, where he also serves as its maître d', And for many years, before coming to The House, he managed The Country Club, which in its way is just as prominent.
            Tommy possesses dark features and a wide, bright smile that coaxes people into liking him immediately. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s extremely smooth and graceful in whatever he does. But tonight Tommy is out of the car and on the move, not concerned with appearances. He grabs my hand as we run to the driveway leading to the main building. The House, as everyone has come to call it, stands cloaked in a hideous film of blazing glory. Brilliant orange flames lick from every crevice of her skin, like a serpent’s tongue flicking and teasing us to try and do the impossible and stop the devastation.
            We hear Bruno, The House’s head chef, calling to us from behind, and we see him pushing past the fireman and running after us. The police hold all of us back as we reach the main parking lot.
Tommy reels as if the wind has been knocked out of him, his face glowering like a jack-o-lantern in the reflection from the fire.
            Bruno comes up to us; his words are hesitant and his voice is choked. “I thought you guys were in there.” He covers his eyes. “I called Troy and told him that you both were okay, that you spent the night at Kitty’s place. Oh, Jesus God, you guys could have died in there!”
            Tommy puts his arm around Bruno’s shoulder and pulls him close. By now my world has turned into slow motion. I’m drifting between universes. I see and hear what’s happening but it doesn’t touch me. Standing in the cold rain, I’m just an observer watching a building burn amid the oddly comforting din of the immense diesel engines in the fire trucks.
            I see Tommy reach out with his other arm to me, and I hear his words, “Kitty, come here.”
            It’s not until he draws me in that I feel the heat, smell the stench, see our working lives swallowed by this now grinning monster. I start to spin into uncontrollable sobs. Tommy hugs me tight as he whispers, “Just hold on to me, sweetheart,” his words most assuredly more for him than for me.
            A firefighter drapes a blanket around our shoulders. He knows all our names.
            We hear the words, “Sorry” and “Too bad” and “Tragedy.” Someone else comes up and asks if we’re okay. Everyone seems to know us. It soon occurs to me just how many people are around us, coming from other bars after their late shifts. This is monumental news for a small town, and the night people utilize a grapevine that races like quicksilver.
            Tommy says, “Look at me, Baby. Was everything turned off when we left last night?” His face is drawn and pale as he searches my face for the answer.
            “Yes, Tommy, I turned everything off. Like always, I checked my bar, the kitchen, and shut off the fireplace.” I’m a little irritated he would question me, and then he persists.
            “Are you sure?” He slowly adds, “Think carefully.”
            “Yes, I’m absolutely sure. Was anything left on in your apartment?”
            He shakes his head, “No, nothing.” He doesn’t press any further—and I decide not to as well.
            Bruno meets Tommy’s partner, Troy Meitzer, coming down the walkway. Troy pushes him out of the way and gasps when he sees The House, appearing now like a defeated dragon with its head lowered in shame. “Oh, my God,” he repeats several times and nothing else.
            Firelight paints age lines across Troy's face, making him look well beyond his thirty-two years. Troy’s father bought him this old relic of a building to fulfill his son’s dream of owning his own restaurant. Troy was only twenty-four at the time, but his father, who planned to be around to help open what was to become an elegant eatery, passed away that same year. Troy’s mother joined his father a few months later, the result of a long bout with cancer. But before she died she contacted Tommy, as they were close friends at The Country Club, and she arranged for him to help Troy open and get settled in the business. Tommy hired Bruno, a highly talented chef, who in turn brought in Victor as his sous chef. With the knowledge of a top wine steward, Phillip Fairchild, and a few polished fine-dining servers, The Carriage House thrived and in a few years became an award-winning restaurant and a landmark in the community.
            Even during the business’s formative years Troy partied hard, and although he was touted as the restaurant’s successful young owner, he never grew into or accepted his responsibilities. Tommy was forced to discipline him as a father might, and he managed to hold a tight rein over the restaurant’s books. However, during the past two years Tommy began to trust Troy more and he relaxed his authority. This allowed Troy to gain control over most everything. Rumors swelled as the staff noticed blatant signs of Troy’s drug use. Tommy worried about the financial health of the establishment. Then it happened.
            Tommy uncovered a massive misappropriation of funds, which he learned were used to feed Troy’s cocaine habit. As a consequence, the business was now in the red. Tommy’s patience with Troy had worn thin and conversations between them had a way of exploding into fiery exchanges. Tommy addressed Troy’s drug use many times, only to drive Troy deeper into resenting Tommy’s counsel in his personal life—as well as his advice regarding the business.
            Troy catches sight of Tommy and rushes at him, pushing him nearly off his feet. Tommy’s face registers his total surprise. Troy shoves him again, and Tommy falls back against a fire truck. Troy shouts, “You bastard! Where in hell were you?  If you were here this would never have happened.”
            He starts to take a swing at Tommy but stops midway, as Tommy is instantly ready to fight. This Italian never needs much of an excuse to lose his temper. So I quickly duck away, searching for someone who might have the courage—and bulk—to intercede.
            From seemingly out of nowhere Bruno comes at Troy and slams him away from Tommy, and against the fire truck. He yells at Troy while holding him back, “Tommy had nothing to do with this, you asshole. The man has lost every goddamn thing he owns, including his home—and he and Kitty could have lost their lives. So back off or deal with me.” Troy knows he’s no match for Bruno, who is built like a bull, so he shakes him off and steps away.
            A fireman, standing nearby, pulls Troy aside. “Let me tell you something, Mr. Meitzer, the fire came up so damn fast that no one would have had a chance in hell of escaping. She went up like a skyrocket due to the Christmas tree and decorations. We had one hell of a time getting this blaze under control. It was just plain lucky that no one was in that house.”
            Tommy pushes past me and walks down the lane. When I reach out, he snatches his arm away. He’s angry and hurt and Bruno tells me to let him go. The two of us stand there shivering in the cold gloom, watching countless memories ride the sparks into the night sky, forever gone now, our beautiful business and life as we’ve known it for so many years just a passing glimmer.
            I imagine the flames consuming the beautiful lounge, licking their way around my gleaming bottles, dancing across the cushions of the sofa in what we called The Pit in front of the fireplace, and sliding down my beautifully polished bar like a massive spilled drink. The countless hours of laughter and fun I created there as The House’s lead bartender, clad in my uniform of tuxedo tails and fishnet stockings that earned me the nickname Legs. All those nights that Tommy and I entertained the customers with our fake arguments and cocky byplay.
            Many memories of past years surface, pushing Roy McGrath to the forefront and causing fresh tears to form in my eyes. Roy McGrath, who loved me, who never tired of asking me for a date or trying to steal a kiss. Sweet Roy, who delighted in seeing me nightly at work, who lived for our mutual banter with one another. Roy McGrath, for whom I was to the point of giving up the bar business—living with the guilt that it was I who almost caused his death.
            Troy comes over to Bruno and apologizes as he shakes his head. He says he is just so overcome. They embrace and pat each other on the back.
            “Tommy’s the one you need to find and say you’re sorry,” Bruno says, craning his neck. “I don’t know where he went.”
            No sooner are the words out of Bruno’s mouth that Tommy appears and wraps his arms around me. I need this. He buries his face in my neck and hair.
            Troy offers his apology but Tommy says nothing, meeting Troy’s eyes briefly and nodding.
            We walk over to the back of a fire truck and sit on the wide back bumper. The House is altogether down now. Only the two end stone walls remain standing. I can’t stop looking at the one with the fireplace, where so many happy times were spent. Strangely, I wonder about the elk heads hanging atop the mantle and how they paid witness to Tommy’s marriage proposal to me on a particularly busy night not that long ago.
            The fire chief approaches us, nods to me and says to Tommy, “I told Troy this, so I’ll tell you the same thing. Right now, this fire looks as if it was started at three locations, indicating arson. We did our best, but there was no saving this one. Whoever set this wanted the place to go up in a hurry.” He shook his head and clasped Tommy by the shoulder. “I’m sorry for your loss. We’re going to conduct a thorough investigation.”
            “Arson,” Bruno whispers as if in a dream, and he looks at us with knotted brows. “What the hell. . .don’t know what to say.”
            The rest of the staff gathers around us in shocked silence as the news of suspected arson spreads. One by one, like war victims, we cling to each other. We’re all in tears. Soon we cluster in twos and threes within the blankets the firemen provide, like lost children.
            Polly, our head waitress, wordlessly falls in with Tommy and me. She wipes her eyes and holds onto us while Bruno and Victor talk with the rest of employees who care enough to come out and hold hands in collective grief. We are all family here, not by blood but through our work. There has never been a more dedicated staff at any establishment. We are the closest of friends, and for most of us the only family we have are those standing around us at this very moment.
            The night becomes dawn and the funeral begins in earnest. Early-morning mourners in car after car slowly file past to pay their respects to the beloved landmark, some stopping to say a few kind words to us as well. The local news teams come and go, with their sound and camera equipment. Holding dour expressions, reporters gaze into camera lenses as smoke still rises behind them. Some interviews are granted. Tommy waves any news person away from us.
            We’re embraced by familiar arms as sad comments come to us from cracked voices; people wiping their eyes and shaking their heads; saying how much they loved The House.
            Mildred Vassar and her son, Mike, appear, and she rushes to where we are all standing. It’s amazing to see her at such an early hour. Millie is my most cherished bar customer. Her husband is a renowned surgeon and president of The Country Club, where I also worked before coming to The Carriage House six years ago. She is enormously wealthy but treats everyone as an equal. Millie is as close to a mother as I could ever hope for, and she views me and the entire staff of The House as her children. She claims her age to be in the early sixties, and she looks it, although I have a suspicion she is closer to the mid seventies. Her blond hair is meticulously styled and her make-up is always flawlessly applied. She has an elegant aura about her; a lady of means and style even though night after night she succumbs with simple gratitude to three gin martinis.
            “I thought you all would be out here,” she says. “It’s all over the local news.” She stands with us, in her fur-lined gloves and expensive fur coat, her diamond jewelry sparkling in what is now a light rain. “You didn’t lose anything. This tragedy heralds a new start. Now you rebuild a bigger and better place to call home. This is a new beginning for everyone. That’s what life gives us when it takes things away—a second chance. Get rid of the old and start new all over. By summer, this will all be a bad dream not worth remembering, and you will be back together and things will be true.
            True to Mildred’s grace and hang-tough attitude, she offers us the first hopeful smile since we all came together. She tells us to go someplace warm, and that all the wishing in the world at this moment isn’t going to bring The Carriage House back.
            The rain is becoming heavier, and Polly suggests, “What do you say we go to my place? This is crazy standing out here in this damn freezing drizzle. We can be just as miserable there as here, and I need some hot coffee.
            Tommy has said little in over an hour. When I ask him if he wants to go over to Polly’s, he peers over my head and into the smoking mess, then back at me and says with a sigh, “I just want to go home.” He stuffs his hands deep in his pockets and shrugs. I know what he means, and my eyes fill with tears for him. He whispers to no one, “Arson. Who would do this—and why?”
            I tell our friends we will see them later. Maybe meet at a local diner we all frequent and talk this out.
               Back at the apartment I start the coffee, and we take a shower together to warm up.
            Our clothes smell so much of smoke that we throw our garments in the washer and then cuddle in bed, where it’s warm and dry. Tommy has nothing to wear, and it suddenly dawns on me that this man came over last night with only the clothes on his back.
            Now, as we lie together with Bug curled alongside us, listening to soft music, Tommy is painfully quiet. When it seems he’s searching for an answer in his thoughts, he looks into the air around him and then meets my eyes with his for a moment as if to see if the answer is in them. Should the answer appear in my eyes, he slowly shuts his for a moment as if in thanks.
            I reach over and take his hand and thank God we decided to spend the night here at my place. We wanted to get an early start moving my belongings to his apartment at The House. Last night was to be my swan song to my little digs in the tiny town of Bigley, New York, where I called home for the past eight years. Now it seems that I’ll be meeting with my landlord to renew the lease.
            I smile and say quietly, “You are a wealthy man, Mr. Defalco. You have this woman who is your best friend and forever lover beside you, your trusted Mr. Bug on your other side, and your baby blue Mercedes parked safely at the curb outside.” I point to his photo albums. “And here are your memories that we took with us—just by chance, to look at this morning—all of which could have been destroyed last night. We have this roof over our heads, be it what it is, so we have a home for now. We have so many things to be grateful for. And Troy will rebuild The House, as Millie said, and it will be bigger and better.”
            “I know that, Kitten.  I’m just so damn tired and confused.” Slowly his eyes focus on me. I feel strange. “Who called last night just before we closed up the lounge? Remember, you ran to the bar to answer the phone?
            I had to think for a moment. “It was a hang-up. No one was there.”
            Tommy rolls out of bed and calls the phone company. After a long while he comes back and sits atop the covers, his face grave. He studies me then mentions one name: Lillian.
             I sit up quickly “You don’t think . . . she could be capable . . . of arson?”
            “I have no idea. But why would she call after closing and not say anything?”
            “What are you getting at? Oh, my god, do you think she wanted us to be caught in the fire? Oh, my God—”
            Interrupting my own thoughts, I feel sick to my stomach. I gather myself and reach for Tommy. I’ve never seen him appear so troubled.

Robert L. Bacon

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

EVERSWEET, by Sue Chamblin Frederick


    By Sue Chamblin Frederick



The screams came from a quarter-mile away, the mountain winds carrying the desperate cry to a ridge jutting out over a deep Appalachian valley. When she heard the pitiful sounds, Lula Starling was sitting on her cabin porch, snapping beans. She pushed the heavy enamel pan from her lap and stumbled down wooden steps that led to the narrow mountain trail that would take her to Hattie Murphy’s cabin.
Panting for breath at the top of the ridge, the thin woman slowed and called out, “Hattie?” Only a few feet from the small two-room shack, she called again, “Hattie? You in there?” There was no reply, and warped slats creaked as she stepped onto the porch and moved toward what was now soft whimpering. Easing through the half-closed front door, she announced, “It’s me, Hattie. Lula.”
A weak voice drifted through the shadows of a small room at the back of the house. “Oh, Lula. Help me. Come help me.” Hattie reached out her hand to Lula as she rushed in. “I done had this baby, Lula. A tiny little thing. And I think there’s another one comin’!”
Two babies…you havin’ two babies, Hattie?” Lula leaned over the bed. “Oh, my. Look at that little thing. No bigger than a mountain trout.”
I already done named her EverSweet,” said Hattie. “Pyune EverSweet Murphy.” She closed her eyes.
Where’s Vernon,” Lula asked.
I ain’t seen Vernon. Left yesterday afternoon, lookin for one of our pigs.”
Lula ran to the sink and returned with a wet towel.
A moment later a scream split the air. “Here it comes, Lula. Here it comes.” Hattie grasped the protruding wooden rail on the headboard and raised her hips, groaning and gasping for breath. “Oh, God in heaven,” she cried as the second baby spilled out into Lula’s hands.
Another girl, Hattie. So tiny.” Lula stared. “Oh, my. Two of them. Now, ain’t that somethin’.”
Lula hummed as she wrapped the squirming little girls tightly. A self-taught midwife in the remote high peaks of the Appalachians, Lula had no children of her own. She snuggled both babies in the crooks of her arms and grinned at Hattie. “Just let me hold these babies a minute. Then I’ll get you fixed up.”
Hattie, her eyes still closed, spoke softly. “Lula, I can’t take care of two babies.” She opened her eyes, tears flowing freely. “You take one,.” As exhausted as she was, she rose onto her elbows. “You got to take one, Lula. You just got to.”


Chapter 1

At The Boardinghouse, where for years the venerable country kitchen had provided Union County’s folks with the most delicious food imaginable, Wiley leaned over the documents placed in front of him and examined each paragraph, one by one. His doctorate in environmental engineering from Georgia Tech was no help at all as he strived to interpret the meaning of a formal invitation with all sorts of instructions. His Scottish-flavored Elizabethan English was buried deep inside his mountain self as he quietly struggled to put together exactly what was expected of Pyune EverSweet Murphy.
Okay,” he proclaimed at last. “I think I got it. You have to be in New York City on Wednesday, the twentieth. Then you catch a return flight on Sunday night, the twenty-fourth.”
You needed all that time to tell me that?” Pyune threw a dishtowel across her shoulder and sat down at her worktable. “I think I’m just going to leave the twenty-five thousand dollars with those people.”
Like heck you are!” Wiley refilled his favorite coffee cup, the one with the faded image of Roy Rogers and Trigger on the side. “This kitchen needs a new stove and larger refrigerators, and that twenty-five thousand dollars will be a big help. You’re going to New York, get that check, and then come back to where you belong—in Ivy Log, Georgia.” Wiley bobbed his head up and down. “Enough said about that! You got four days to get yourself together. You ought to start packing now.”
Can’t you come with me?” Pyune asked, her soft eyes pleading better than her gentle voice.
No, I can’t. We’ve talked about this all we’re goin’ to. This is your time. Pyune EverSweet Murphy is the queen of Bakers’ World Magazine, and you’re going to be the belle of the ball. Just think, yours was the number-one recipe of all! It beat out thousands of entries!”
I know…I know.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Except for where I was born, I’ve never been out of Union County.” She jumped up and began pacing. “Check that paperwork again. Can’t they just send me the check?”
Not from what this contract says.” Wiley waved the papers back and forth. “It’s spelled out—to get that twenty-five thousand dollars you got to go to New York. And that ain’t all. You have to attend a reception on Wednesday night, where all the magazine’s board members will honor you. On Thursday you have a big photo session, and on Friday you and three of New York’s celebrity chefs will compete in a fundraiser to benefit the city’s homeless. You finish up on Saturday night at a big awards banquet when you get the check. How good is that?”
Oh, not good at all. I just want to get the check and come back here.”
Wiley licked his lips. “Oh, Lordy. Says here you’ll be on ‘The Today Show,’ Thursday morning. Reckon you’ll be interviewed by that bald-headed fella?”
‘“The Today Show’!” Pyune drew her hands up to her face. “There’s no way, Wiley! I just can’t do it!”
Wiley left his chair and pulled Pyune into his arms. “You can do it. You’re Ivy Log’s most prominent citizen. This whole town is proud of you, and you’ve got to go to New York for all the folks who’ve supported you and The Boardinghouse for all these years.” He rubbed her back and rocked her gently back and forth. “That’s all there is to it, my little EverSweet.”
Wiley was right, it was Pyune’s time. She had walked barefooted on the mountain trails that led to Ivy Log when she was two years old, one hand holding onto her mama, the other sucking her thumb. In Ivy Log, they’d come upon a deserted Main Street, but when she and her mama heard music they walked toward it and found the town square.
Everyone had gathered around picnic tables, where watermelons lay split open and lemonade flowed from big glass pitchers. Atop a flagpole, an American flag flapped in the breeze. It was the Fourth of July Festival, and the most beautiful sight Pyune had ever seen. Her little feet began tapping to the fiddle music, and she laughed her way to the red juicy watermelons, climbing onto the table and plopping a big slice of melon in her lap and eating it and a few more like it until her mama told her to quit ’fore she got a tummy ache.
This faint glimmer of time had remained in her mind even after forty years had passed. Ivy Log’s town square continued to be the gathering place for all events, important or not, the flagpole the very same one that stood so many years ago when Pyune had first arrived. Nothing much had changed, not even The Boardinghouse, except for a coat or two of paint now and then, and maybe an occasional board replaced on the porch. Pyune’s place in Ivy Log was one of grace, enhanced by a soft refinement that belied her origins in the remote peaks of the Appalachians. She was a mountain woman, true, but beneath her shy, unassuming character, the rest of her lay ready for an awakening. She just didn’t know it yet.

Robert L. Bacon

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

By Dave Mallegol

3000 BC

Chapter #1

Daven and the Botai

It was an early midsummer morning when I awoke to the smell of pan cakes and tree syrup, a new breakfast meal we had learned about from our friends, the Finns.  I had been thinking about these people lately, even without the pleasant reminder provided by the food, since members from their clan were expected to arrive at our village today.

My wife, Ildiko, called to me, “Good morning, Daven.”  I rolled over in our sleeping rack.  Our fifteen-year-old son, Marc, and his fourteen-year-old brother, Arno, were already out of our pit-house, and our twelve-year-old daughter, Liffey, was helping her mother with the cooking.  Their chatter was good to hear as I stretched and got up.  I pulled on my horsehide pants and shirt and washed my face in a clay basin.  I pushed my long black hair away from my face and  went to my beautiful, brown-haired wife of almost seventeen years and hugged her, lifting her off the ground.  She laughed and I put her down to hug my daughter in the same manner.

After a delicious breakfast, I said goodbye and headed to the horse pit-house where I found Marc and Arno grooming and feeding our horses.  Most of the work was already done, so there was not much for me to do except smile my appreciation.  One horse, called Boomer, was the animal I usually rode, but I had a second stallion that was a son of the very first wild horse we tamed, the great steed that my older son, Mikl, had caught and called Gray Boy. 
Last year we extended the side of our horse pit-house, which is a structure built partially below ground, to make room for additional mounts.  My sons and I added water to the trays for all the horses in this pit-house, along with fresh hay and grains that our clan’s women and men gathered each week.  We had just finished with these chores when I heard a familiar voice call to me, “Daven, you old man, what is this I hear that you are the lead hunter for this village, once again, after all these years?”

It was my good friend, Victor of the Finns.  He and his second in command, a man called Saabs, had arrived, along with their wives.  I greeted both men with the hunter’s clasp, a custom whereby each man grabs the forearm of the other.  That was not enough of a greeting for old friends, so a big bear hug followed.  I had not seen Victor and Saabs in two years, and I would never forget how I had met them initially when I needed their help to defeat the primitive warriors known as the Smolens, fifteen years ago.  This current visit was to discuss the recent raids by an unknown aggressor, so once again our meeting involved an enemy.

I smiled and said, “Yes, Victor, what you have heard is true, I am the lead hunter once again.  But I am glad of it.  I was gathering dust and getting bored, and to tell the truth I missed leading the men.  I will explain just how this came about and bring you up-to-date with what is happening here at the Botai village.  But Ildiko is cooking for you at our pit-house, so let’s walk as I talk.  She has made some of your famous pan cakes, and they are waiting for you.”

On our way to my pit-house, I said, “As you might remember, after the war with the Smolens, I gave up my responsibilities as the lead hunter and turned the duties over to a man called Nicholas, the younger brother of Alex, our new leader—or as we call him, our Oldson.”

Victor replied, “I certainly know Alex, and I remember his brother too.  But I hated to see you step down.  You are the best hunter I have ever known, and when it comes to war, there is no one who comes close to you.  I feel sorry for those who might be on the wrong side of the next war with you, now that you are back from gathering cob webs.”  He laughed.

I nodded and said, “I hope we never see another war.  I have had enough of them.  You might recall that my old friend, Bruno, was in favor of both of us stepping aside so others could lead.  Bruno told me that he had been the Oldson of the Botai for long enough.  I remember when he said, ‘It is time for others to take over and for you and me to roam the mountains and explore new lands.’  His words sounded good to me at that time.

Bruno had a large family with his second wife, Jewel, and several married children from his first wife, who was deceased.  I had three children, and I wanted to be free to spend more time with Ildiko and to explore to the north with Bruno and see country that none of us has ever been to, so I stepped down.  It was a good decision for Bruno but not a good one for me.  I missed my job as lead hunter every day.

Saabs asked me, “Where did Alex come from?  I thought you told me once that he was not a Botai by birth.  Am I right?”

“You are right,” I replied.  “Alex was not born a Botai.  He comes from a Russian tribe far to the north.  He was taken captive by the Mongols many years ago when he was still a boy.  He cannot remember the name of the village where he comes from.  We rescued him and his brother from the Mongols, as well as Jewel and her evil sister, Tangee, and several others.  Some of the captives stayed with our relatives, the Krasnyi Yar, and some came here to live at the Botai village.”

“How is it that Alex became the leader of a clan he was not born into?” Victor asked me.

“Alex was a leader from the first day he arrived, and he was the right choice to succeed Bruno. He is smart, strong, and well respected, especially among our young hunters, yet the experienced men follow him easily as well.  Our wise elders agreed that he was the best man to lead the Botai.  You probably recall his winning the wrestling contests at the Summer Gatherings for many years.  Alex was ready.  However, our new lead hunter, Nicholas, was not fully prepared at that time to lead the hunters, so I stayed at his side as his mentor.”

Victor asked, “I assume this new man did not do so well, and you took over again?”

I responded, “Nicholas was a very good hunter and did quite well.  He just needed more experience.  I was his trainer and guide as he worked his way into his new role.  I was there to advise him and teach him.  I did this by letting him come up with his hunt plan by himself, and I reviewed it with him before we went on the actual hunt.  After the hunt, Bruno and I went over what happened and if we felt it was a success or not.  We also talked about what we could have done better.” 

Saabs asked, “How well did this man called Nicholas do?”

“Nicholas progressed very well.  He led many hunts for bears, aurochs and horses.  Bears and horses present danger, but aurochs are the most difficult animal to kill because of their huge size and power.  They weigh many times more than a horse, but while they are very strong they are slow.  We simply wound them and follow them and wound them again and again until they are so weak that they cannot run anymore.  Then they stand and face us.”

Victor laughed.  “I imagine you have found the bears easier to kill.” 

“Yes, but only because we now have trained dogs from your man called Lions.  Before this, I would say that bears were the most dangerous of all.  Now, the dogs do most of the work.  But hunting horses is another story.  They are fast, and they fight, kick and bite when they are attacked.  As you know, we Botai are somewhat different from you Finns because we hunt for meat more than we herd animals, although we now graze sheep just like you.”

“So what happened with Nicholas?” Victor asked, still pressing for why I resumed the role as lead hunter of the Botai.

“The last horse hunt was where Nicholas had a problem.”  We neared my pit-house as Victor and Saab’s wife approached from another direction, and our conversation stopped for greetings.
Robert L. Bacon
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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

By Pete and Judy Ratto

Chapter 1

The woman in the sunburst yellow dress settled behind a small boy who stood between his parents in the front row. In her carefully chosen spot, she would have no problem seeing the senator. More important, he would be able to see her.

Following the presidential candidate’s schedule occupied most of her time. She knew him, and his routines. He was a clever politician, a clever man. At one time, she admired that about him. In spite of his womanizing history, she’d held him in high esteem. She hadn’t cared about the rumors of his less-than-ethical political acumen. He was bright and confident. Like her, he knew what he wanted and achieved it. The one thing he lacked was loyalty. That was his one unforgivable flaw.

A momentary stab of rejection cut through her as crushing memories of betrayal clamored to the forefront of her mind. Another staunch memory held them at bay, protecting her as always from thoughts that could leave her filled with rage or shattered from distress. I did what I had to. He gave me no choice.


Rows of supporters without access to the ticket-only event stood shoulder to shoulder, necks stretched and ready for a coveted glimpse of the man who could be the next president of the United States. Young and old mingled together, most dressed in patriotic colors and wearing Grayson for President buttons. Tabloid reporters and photographers took strategic positions at the iron-gated entrance to the prestigious institution.

The mainstream press had already set up their sound and video equipment on Columbia University’s south lawn. Amsterdam Avenue was closed for two blocks north and south of 116th street. With the absence of thru traffic, the cacophony of city activity hummed in the distance. Escalating murmurs obscured the honking horns, worn, grinding transmissions, and truck trailers loaded with goods booming as they slammed into the streets’ deep potholes. Area residents, intent on going elsewhere, glanced at the restless group and at the clouded sky. Briefcases and umbrellas in hand, they hurried to subway stations or Columbus Ave to hail a cab.


She’d been waiting for the event to begin since spectators and press had started to arrive. Turning toward the reporters at the campus entrance, she caught a brief glance from one of them. She almost shook her head in reproof when he gave her a slight nod. Instead, she ignored his acknowledgement and vowed not to look his way again.

She checked her phone for the time. It was still early, but she could be patient. Another half hour was nothing compared to the years she’d waited for what she deserved or rather, what he deserved.


As if on cue, stubborn puffs overhead gave way to a glorious blue sky on the warm August afternoon. Mounting shouts and whistles alerted all to the arrival of a line of black vehicles crawling at the curb north of the entrance. Men and women clothed in dark suits, more apt for a funeral than a summer outdoor event, exited onto the street. With serious faces, they scrambled to organize their positions before the guest of honor emerged. By all the staff and security Senator Grayson utilized, one would think he’d already won the election. Some criticized his self-importance. Those who knew him well commended his prudence.

All who gathered cheered as presidential candidate Senator Todd Grayson exited one of the limousines. Skilled at working a crowd to his full advantage, Grayson took his time. Straightening to his full height, he smoothed the jacket of his lightweight, ivory linen suit. He looked like a white knight among his entourage of black-clad minions. He faced the street audience, threw up his hands, and waved.

A mass of hand-held banners and American flags flapped like a flock of gulls vying for a prized clam. Classically tall, dark, and handsome, he had as many men fawning over him as he had women. Not since JFK had a presidential candidate charmed a constituency as Grayson had.

Grayson’s staff paved the way for him to enter the campus, shielding him from direct contact with those crammed behind the barricades. In a move that was either spontaneous or a well-contrived plan, the senator turned and walked in the opposite direction and began to shake peoples’ hands. The crowd went wild with whoops and shouts for attention. Surrounded by his campaign staff, his personal counsel Douglas Cain, and his bodyguards, he navigated among potential voters like a rock star.

Grayson stretched over the wooden barriers grasping as many hands as he could. Men removed their caps in respect, nodded, and returned strong, steady shakes. Women squealed and clapped, some patting their beating hearts as if they might swoon. His broad smile bared perfect white teeth that contrasted with his golden skin. Grayson’s careful choice of attire, including the pale blue shirt and tie, conveyed the tranquility of sand and sea. You could hear sighs of contentment at Grayson’s touch.

As president, Todd Grayson would take care of you.

He moved to the end of the narrow walk and back again toward the campus, scanning the adoring crowd. Grayson slowed when he noticed a woman who appeared oblivious to the lively throng surrounding her. She stood still but for a subtle bob and sway, like a buoy when bumped by gentle ocean swells. Tall, with shoulder-length blonde hair, her bright yellow, sleeveless dress set her apart from all the red, white, and blue. Her white designer handbag hung on her shoulder and she clasped her hands low in front of her. Grayson watched her lift her hand to adjust her dark sunglasses. Sharp and adept at reading people, her stance unnerved him. He couldn’t see her eyes, but he sensed her stare. He would have thought she was blind except her head turned to follow his movement.

Douglas Cain nudged the senator’s arm, breaking the connection with the woman. “We need to move along, Senator, if we want to keep to the schedule.”

“I know, Douglas, but this is as important as a stump speech,” Grayson said, his practiced smile never leaving his face.

Cain had been with Todd Grayson from the start of the senator’s venture into politics. With Grayson’s reputation and past, his lawyer’s presence at all functions was paramount. About to enter the campus, where another group awaited the senator’s appearance, one of the tabloid reporters caught Grayson’s attention.

“Senator, you look well rested from your vacation in the Hamptons. What is your response to some of the negative pushback by your opponent regarding your position on defense spending?”

Grayson glanced at the reporter’s nametag. “Tom, it’s not my policy to waste time on the defensive—at least not until the debates. I’ll continue to do what I’ve always done, and that’s to present my ideas directly to the people. It’s the folks’ opinions that count.”

Those standing nearby nodded and applauded their approval. Before Grayson could turn away, the reporter asked another question. “Senator, is it true that you were involved with call girl Sheila Rand and a prime suspect in her murder?”

Grayson did not move. The rapid blinking of his eyes as he processed the question was the only indication he had not turned to stone. Sheila Rand.

He had not thought of the woman for sixteen years. It was true they’d had a brief affair, but he’d had an alibi for when she was murdered. Cain had taken care of it. He’d taken care of that and another matter.

A moment of recognition flashed through the senator’s mind. He whipped his head toward the woman in the yellow dress. A stream of perspiration dripped down his face as he desperately searched the crowd. Where is she? Was it her?

“Senator?” the reporter prompted Grayson.

Grayson eyed the reporter. Cain moved in to stand between them, but Grayson refused to be intimidated. He grinned.

“Tom, you need to check your facts before you ask questions that make you look foolish. I have nothing to hide. Sorry, but I’m on a tight schedule,” he said and allowed Cain to guide him away.

A grin still pasted to his face, Grayson’s thoughts swam with dredged-up memories of the past. His chest filled with anxiety. He couldn’t breathe. Grayson was drowning in thoughts of all that could go wrong. He looked at Cain, his protector—his life preserver. He exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. The lawyer would deal with any fallout. That was his job.

Grayson shook off his concern and strode through the university’s gate to where he would give a rousing speech. Excited college students and faculty packed the stands. They applauded as he stepped to the podium. Another stage. Another performance. Everyone quieted and Grayson began the prepared rhetoric he knew would raise spirits and hopes. That was his job.

As his popularity tide rose, Senator Todd Grayson glided into the hearts and minds of those who would elect him to the most powerful position in the world. It would be smooth sailing, unless the long-ago matter of a murdered call girl surfaced and dragged his political career into a maelstrom of disaster.

Robert L. Bacon
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Friday, November 20, 2015

by Elma Schemenauer

Copyright © by Elma Schemenauer

Chapter 1

Municipality of Coyote, Saskatchewan, March 1940

Tina felt like liverwurst in a sandwich, trapped in the stalled truck between her dad and the man he wanted her to marry. Rich, boring Roland Fast.
From the looks of things, she might not survive to marry anyone. Freezing to death seemed more likely. All she saw through the windshield was blowing snow. Occasionally she glimpsed the fence beside the ditch they were stuck in. Beyond the fence, only a wilderness of white glittering in the afternoon light: no Saskatchewan prairie, no horizon, not even a telephone pole.
She stamped her boots, trying to warm her icy feet. She should never have agreed to come along and sketch Roland's horses. She liked horses, but getting stranded in a blizzard wasn't supposed to be part of the deal.
To be fair, she couldn't blame Roland and her dad. They weren't expecting this storm. It had howled in from the northeast with hardly a whimper of warning.
Her nostrils tingled with cold and the green-banana stench of Roland's hair oil. She pulled the collar of her jacket higher, nudging him with her elbow. "How about trying the ignition again?" If they got the truck going, they'd at least have some heat.
Roland slumped over the steering wheel, his apple-cheeked profile making him look younger than his twenty-eight years. "It's no use. This stupid truck isn't going to start."
"Don't blame the truck, Roland," Tina's dad said. "There's probably snow in the engine."
Roland's sigh puffed out white in the frigid air.
Tina almost felt sorry for him. According to Roland, his 1940 Ford was the most modern half-ton on the road. No other new model had such a powerful engine. But all that horsepower under the hood was useless without a spark to get it going.
Something like her and Roland. There wasn't any spark between them.
Her dad shifted on the seat, jostling her onto Roland's wide shoulder.
She edged away. "Could we brush the snow out of the engine?" she asked, sounding more hopeful than she felt.
Roland gave her a bleak smile, his face too close to hers. "I doubt it in these conditions."
"Okay, I just thought I'd ask." She didn't know how Roland felt about her. Not knowing made her nervous. He was awkward with women, but she sometimes caught him watching her with a certain softness in his eyes.
Whether he was interested or not, she should quit letting her parents throw them together every time she came home from Vancouver. She should simply tell her folks, "Look, I don't want you interfering in my life. I'm a grown woman; I've got a job in the city. Anyway I'm in love with someone else."
She shuddered to think of the avalanche of questions her parents would ask. She wasn't ready to answer them, not yet.
The wind whooped around the truck, rattling the windows.
Roland reached behind the seat, grabbed his hat, and plunked it over his blond curls. "I think we should walk to Frank's house. It's the closest."
Tina's heart jumped at the mention of the man she loved, but she kept her expression blank. She didn't want her dad or Roland guessing how she felt about Frank. They'd be shocked. Her dad would scold and rage. He wanted her to marry a church-going Mennonite, preferably the owner of this impotent truck.
She jerked her chin toward the bottle of pills in Roland's pocket. "What about your mare? I thought she needed that medicine."
"We'll get it to her as soon as we can, but we'll want someplace to get warm along the way." His voice reminded her of a radio announcer booming out news of Hitler's war.
Her dad rummaged under the seat, crowding her against Roland.
She moved away.
Her dad sat up, his head bobbing. "Roland, do you have any blankets? I think we should stay here till the storm lets up. It's too dangerous to walk in weather like this."
Roland shot him a narrow-eyed look. "Obrom, we've got no heat in here. We could freeze to death, even with blankets. This storm could last for days."
"We could freeze outside, too." Tina's dad pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and gave his nose a honk. "The snow's blowing too thick. We might get lost and wander around like drunkards."
"Not if we follow the pasture fence," Roland said. "It'll lead us right to Frank's." He raised his eyebrows at Tina. "What do you think?"
She peered out into the arctic blankness. If they stayed here, they'd probably freeze unless someone came along and helped them—not likely. If they braved the blizzard, they'd either reach shelter or die trying. "We can't be far from Frank's," she said. She remembered passing his neighbour's granaries before the storm hit.
"It's about a quarter-mile," Roland said.
Tina sucked in a chilly breath. "We can make it." It was better to face danger head-on than wait around to see what would happen, wasn't it? She reached into her pocket for her fuzzy woollen cap and tugged it down over her ears.
Her dad's brow puckered like it did when he was deep in thought. With all her heart Tina hoped she and Roland were making the right decision.
Her father sighed, then glanced from her to Roland as if they were a couple. "I guess you young people are right." He put on his cap and lowered the earflaps. Tina helped him tie his scarf over his nose and mouth. Then he opened the passenger door and she plunged out after him.
The wind hit her hard, whistling through her cap and making her ears smart. She pulled her scarf from under her jacket. Fighting the wind, she tied it over her cap.
Her dad motioned for her to follow Roland, who was ploughing through the ditch toward the fence. She struggled along in his footsteps with her father close behind. Snow spilled into her boots, shocking her with coldness.
The drifts were shallower on the pasture side of the ditch. Strands of barbed wire appeared and disappeared between blasts of snow. God willing, that elusive fence would lead the three of them to her boyfriend's house. Tina dared to smile. The good Lord must have a sense of humour.
"We'll walk in the pasture, away from the ditch," Roland bellowed above the yowling wind. He set one boot on the lower wire of the fence, held it down, and lifted the upper one, creating a gap for Tina to climb through. She scrambled between the wires, careful not to catch her jacket on the barbs, then stepped aside as her dad and Roland ducked through.
"Come on," Roland called, heading along the fence. "Single file. Stay together."
Tina followed, admiring Roland's boldness in spite of herself. She knew why her parents wanted her to marry him. He was strong, worked hard, and came from a family who had owned an estate in the old country. Roland's ancestors had the same Dutch-German-Mennonite background as hers. According to her folks, that shared heritage would make a solid foundation for marriage and children.
But Roland was as boring as turnips compared with Frank. Her Frank was hot peppers, red cabbage, and wild mushrooms. He was adventure, music, and laughter. Some people said he didn't have the gumption to buckle down to farming, but they didn't know him like Tina did. He just needed a good woman to settle him down.
Her hands ached with cold, even in the coyote-skin mittens Frank had given her. She clenched and unclenched her fists, trying to get her circulation going, then peered over her shoulder to see how her dad was doing. His tall figure loomed through a whirling smoke of snow. The scarf over his nose and mouth was white with frost from his breath clouding into the air. She motioned for him to shift the icy patch away from his face and turned to follow Roland again.
She didn't see him. Where was Roland? She took a few steps forward, feeling like a ship without a rudder, and almost bumped into a lumpy snow-covered mound. It seemed big, wider than an outhouse though not as high.
"Tina!" Roland's shout came from ahead and to her right. "This way."
A bolt of relief shot through her as she spied Roland chugging along beyond the obstacle. She checked to make sure her father was still behind her, then followed Roland, grateful for the partial shelter offered by the mound of whatever it was.
A rock pile. Of course. Frank's father had picked tons of rocks off his land when he farmed here. This must be one of the places where he'd chosen to dump them. She fought the wind to the far side of the rocks. Once she was clear of them, she caught sight of the fence again and turned to wave to her dad.
He wasn't there.
Tina's heart fluttered like a bird caught in a fox's jaws. She drew a breath to call to Roland, then saw something long and dark slumped beside the rocks. "Roland," she shrieked, "something's wrong with Dad." She stumbled toward her father, fell, picked herself up, and hurtled forward.

Robert L. Bacon

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