Joan Sledge: The Mucky Duck by Barry B. Wright

mucky-duck

V

Ouch! It was totally unexpected. Her home form lockers should not have been anywhere near mine. Yet, there she was, five lockers down from me. I couldn’t help but think that it was going to be an ugly school year.

She smiled. I smiled back. She spoke to me but I neither remember what she said nor what I said to her. The exchange was cordial enough but awkward, similar to strangers forced together in a social setting out of their control. But, we were far from being strangers. Or was I wrong?

When Chris was present, he became the center of Joan’s attention.  As for me, I became nothing more than cellophane. I did not exist. Passing each other in the hall, as we frequently did each school day, I wondered: Do you know I’m there?

Growing up is darn right painful.

My feet dragged academically. Hurt had turned into anger. I had become consumed with thoughts of revenge. I found no solace in my brother Ron’s carelessly doted out wisdom: “Suck it up buttercup…plenty more yet to come.” Did he not know I felt diminished? That my heart was broken? That my life was in tatters?

Did Joan even care about the depths of my despair?

I’ve been told too often that time reveals all to those who are patient. But, I’m a kid. Isn’t that in part why I’m called a kid and not an adult? Being patient takes the fun out of things. Doesn’t it? Hmm…I felt as if I had followed the rabbit down the hole into a scary horror show of Alice in Wonderland. The idea of being late for a very important date escapes me because my life was at a standstill.

Life is full of surprises.

The school year trudged on and so did I. Then one day Joan approached me out of the blue. I was dumbstruck. Blood coursed through my veins so quickly that words were washed cleanout of my brain. I could only listen. During those precious moments together space and time stood still. There were no recriminations, no rancor, only clarity. By the time she had said what she wanted to say, I knew there was nothing I needed to add. A quick reminisce drew laughter and we parted as friends.

Though she was with Chris, a quick glance and a knowing smile as we passed in the hall, assured me that she knew I was there. I still loved her; I guess that was the saddest part: loving someone who used to love you.

Two weeks later, everything changed.

I had just exited Sam’s, the neighborhood variety store, when I noticed Joan walking toward me. Her head was slung low. I called out to her and waited. She barely glanced up as she scurried by me. “Joan,” I called out. “Are you okay? What’s the…?” She had already disappeared down the walkway at the side of the strip mall.

Why did I not follow her? It’s something I’ve always regretted.

Toward the end of the week I went around to her house. There was a For Sale sign on the front lawn. And the house was empty.

I never saw her again.

Time passed like tumbling tumbleweed in a strong northwest wind.

I had become an adult. I now could vote.

As a sophomore at a prestigious university, I had become, according to my parents, the proverbial know-it-all. I’m sure they would have frowned on my regular late night debates over pizza and beer. My defense: it was a yummy experience for fertile minds that provided fresh perspectives and clarity to the world’s problems. The debates were coed. Now that would have raised an eyebrow or two in my family. Mum’s the word was decided by me right from the start especially since I was interested in one of the participants. As of late, my active participation in the learning experience had waned. It leaned toward more lascivious endeavors. My daily state of being groggy and bleary eyed did not add to my hopes of remaining on the Dean’s List.

The lecture I was trying to follow was exceedingly boring. The professor contributed greatly to lulling my brain to sleep. The attention span of a gnat had suddenly become my norm. Not good, when the content of the class—thermodynamics—was a must go to in order to achieve my degree in chemical engineering. Glancing around the hall it was easy to deduce that I wasn’t alone in my struggle. But that was scant solace.

I took in a deep breath and attempted to refocus when a ball of paper ricocheted off my head, landing on the floor at my feet. A quick scan of the lecture hall turned up empty-handed. Bending down, I picked up the paper-shot and unfolded it. A drawing of a female stick-figure and the words “Do you remember me?” was scrawled on it. I must admit, it did not ring a bell. I took a cursory glance around the hall. There was no obvious source of the projectile. Unable to stifle a yawn or two, my attention refocused on the chalkboard several rows down.

Another balled-up paper careened off my head and onto the floor. But it disappeared from view under the feet of the exiting mass of people at the end of the lecture.

Gathering my textbook and binder, I began the steep climb to the exit. In the very back row, in the middle, a very attractive girl smiled at me. She beckoned me to join her.

I sat on the seat beside her. Though there was a familiarity about her, facial recognition eluded me.  “Do I know you? I have a sense that we have met before.”  The corner of her lip curled up slightly but she did not reply. There was playfulness in her eyes that could not go unnoticed. I held up the crumpled paper. “Was that you?”

She nodded. “Not a bad shot…eh? The second one would have solved the mystery I can see swimming around in your head. Though the student stampede may have put you in danger,” she chortled. “Put that down to bad timing on my part…like… in Mister Roberts’s class.”

That hint hit my memory banks like a lead balloon. “Alison!? Gee…It’s great to see you…but…but…”

“If your jaw drops any lower you’re going to hurt yourself.” She glanced at her watch. “When’s your next class?”

“Who cares…the rest of the day’s yours. Lunch? It’s on me.”

“Well, when you put that way…You got a place in mind?”

“The Mucky Duck.”

I’m not big on nostalgia but our walk across campus to the pub was most pleasant. When she mentioned Joan’s name my ears perked up. Unable to get a word in edgewise, Joan somehow got lost in the many twists and turns of Alison’s catch up tales.

As we sat across from each other waiting for lunch and nursing our drafts, I brought up Joan’s name again. I learned that she and her dad had moved to Montreal, Canada. Unexpectedly she and Alison had corresponded by letter for a short time.

“Do you still write each other?” I asked, hopefully.

She stared at me long and hard, took a swig of her draft and cleared her throat. “She stopped writing after… the baby was born.”

I could feel my whole body deflate like a punctured inner tube. The pain on my face must have been obvious because Allison hesitantly continued.

“Chris Brannon…as you knew at the time …Well…She was head over heels in love with him…and…She trusted him implicitly. Misplaced trust…” She took in a deep breath. “It’s the only kind way I can describe it.”

“Then… Chris… was the father?”  I reluctantly asked.

“One day while she and Chris were at Ted Lacey’s…No…She… never knew who the father was from that day. Her father, wanting to protect her, pulled up stakes and took her with him. He had a sister who lived outside of Montreal.”

We sat in silence for what for me felt like an eternity.

Finally, I asked: “Does she still live there?” When my meal was placed in front of me, I had lost my appetite.

Alison’s gaze skirted away from me. I could see that a teardrop had formed at the corner of her eye. She pushed her plate aside and reached across the table to hold my hands. Her grasp tightened. Her words did not come easily; they carried much pain. “About a year after the baby was born, I received a letter from her father. In it, I was informed that …she…had committed suicide.”

When Alison and I parted, it was dusk. We promised to see each other again.

Beside the entrance to my residence was a small copse of trees. Standing in front of them was a young girl smiling and waving at me. She was radiant and beautiful. She appeared to shimmer from the overhead light above the door. My pace picked up from a lumbering gait. But, by the time I got there, she was gone. I could have sworn it was Joan.

Joan Sledge: New Realities by Barry B. Wright

martin-45

iv

Some people are alive only because it’s illegal to kill them. In my book, Chris Brannon fell into that category. So, when I turned to face him and saw the way he looked at Joan and her at him, I couldn’t help myself.  My fist slammed squarely into his mocking face. It was with great satisfaction that I watched him hit the floor like a ton of bricks. Up until then, I prided myself in having a handle on life; now, that handle was broken. And I feared my hand was as well. From Joan’s expression, I saying “I’m sorry” just wouldn’t cut it. Anyway, it would have been one whopper of a lie. She’d have every right to scream “liar liar pants on fire, nose is long as a telephone wire.”

“As soon as his eyes are uncrossed he’ll be just fine,” I blurted out.

Now that was a dumb statement, I thought. The wiser choice would have been to have said nothing and hung my head in shame. If earth is the insane asylum for the universe, I had just become its most favored inmate.

Joan elbowed me aside and knelt beside Chris. Needless to say, I didn’t protest. Damn it! How could I? I had ruined her birthday party before it had even got started.

She peered up at me. It was apparent to me that any love I thought she had for me had been washed away. Her face had turned a cherry red. It was as though she were being boiled. Her eyes shot arrows that her lips silently enunciated.

I needed no translator.

“Get my dad!” she screamed, venomously.

“You don’t understand,” I shouted, “Chris’s …” I stopped mid-sentence. I felt as if I’d been hit by a Mac truck. This was how she had spent her evenings. WITH HIM. Like a hurricane across an unprotected flat plain, my new reality swept in cruelly.

She glared at me. And I recoiled.

Love had lured me here. I was hooked in hopeless battle. How was I not aware?

Escape. Now! Gather your thoughts.

My mind churned with panicked possibilities.

A wall of pursed lips of saucer eyed guests gasped.

When had they arrived? How long had they been there? Had they witnessed my strife and persecution?

She continued to scream for her dad.

But, her dad had gone AWOL.

I glanced back at Joan and thought: we had been in a time and space separate from the rest.

No more.

I cleaved my way through the startled onlookers. I did not care who I knocked aside. My mind did not need to dwell on their faces. I knew them all.

“Where is my guitar?” I demanded. “Where is my FUCKIN’ guitar?”

“Here asshole,” Ted Lacey bellowed, holding it up threateningly like a wood splitter.

Chris and Ted belonged to a gang known as the Lacey Gang. They had bullied me and others since kindergarten.

Ron? Were my eyes deceiving me? No!

 I never felt so happy to see my brother’s face.

Like a bear trap, Ron clamped down on Ted’s arm with his grip

“Put it down or I’ll break your wrist. Now! And carefully,” Ron threatened.

Ted did what he commanded without hesitation.

Ron waved me over. He stared at me long and hard before speaking. “Take the guitar and get the hell home. Dad’s waiting for you. Oh, and one more thing nerd-head. Your language… I think I’d better wash your mouth out with soap later.”

I was about to ask why he was there when out of the corner of my eye I saw Chris making his way toward us. Ron had seen him too. Grabbing me by my shirt sleeve, he positioned me behind him. “Scram! I’ve got some business to take care of here.” I cringed when I saw him pull out a set of brass knuckles. An attitude of tangle with me at your own risk, my brother always had this scary aura of invincibility. Now I knew why.

To say I ran home was an understatement. I flew. Faster I bet than Jesse Owens. That journey was filled with no small degree of trepidation. Every moment I expected members of the Lacey Gang to pop out to exact revenge.

Dad met me at the door. Relieving me of the guitar, he allowed time for me to catch my breath. Then the harangue began. Boy, did he chew my ear off. I was grounded for two weeks. Based on how I felt at that moment, two weeks for taking his old guitar was no big deal. Stupidly, I told him so. Anyway, Joan had hurt me more deeply than he ever could. Silence hung over us like a heavily soaked blanket. I dared not breathe. He had a strange habit of curling over his tongue when angry. Vexed, his stare cut straight through me. I waited.

“Bill, leave the boy alone. Talk later when all’s cooled down,” my mother encouraged from the kitchen.

Like turning off a switch, my dad mellowed.

“What happened to your hand? You’ll need ice on it.” Gently he examined it.

After he had put together an ice pack and wrapped it around my hand, he gave me stern instructions not to remove it and sent me to my room.

Two hours later I was called down to supper. I had just reached the bottom step when there was a heavy knock at the front door. A chair scraped along the floor in the kitchen and dad appeared. With a quick nod of his head, he directed me to take my seat at the table, while he answered the door.

Curious, I decided to linger.

Two policemen met my dad at the open door. Between them was my brother.

“Jesus…” I murmured under my breath.

A bulging piece of liver for a nose and slits for eyes, Ron quietly listened to the conversation, nodding occasionally. Whatever they were agreeing to seemed to be going well. The three of them shook hands as my brother brushed passed me on his way upstairs.

“They won’t bother you anymore,” he whispered through swollen lips. His painful smile revealed a bloody hole where teeth once securely sat.

Supper was tensely quiet. After a very brief exchange of words between my parents, mom won out and took a supper tray up to Ron’s room. By the time she had started down empty handed, dad had already banned me to my bedroom.

My parents had never raised voices at each other until that night. Nor did they ever do it again. Lying in my bed, above the kitchen, I heard the angry muffled tones of my dad, punctuated by my mom’s crying.

Clasping my hands behind my head I reflected on events leading up to today. I felt cast away on a stormy sea where not even the shore wanted part of me. There were too many questions still to be asked and answered.

The night was long.

Haunting shadows became my nightmare.

How do I mend a broken heart?

Joan Sledge: Brother’s Advice by Barry B. Wright

Holding Hands Silhouette

ii

There is nothing like the first love. I remember reading something about it. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the book. I do wish I’d paid closer attention.  Never felt feelings like these before. When I’m with her my senses are so charged up I think I will explode. Who knows about stuff like this? I’d ask my closest bud, Tony, but he still thinks girls are yucky. I can’t imagine that my parents would know the slightest thing about it. It’s too personal to share that kind’a stuff with them anyway.

Whom do I go to, my brother, Ron? Until recently, his social interactions with me were an unequal mixture of grunts and beatings, the latter being favored. He told me I wasn’t worth spit. It was something about not standing up to him, and earning my right of passage.

A guy can only take so much before reaching the end of the road. I reached it about a week ago. Boy! Did I get pummeled! At least now I only receive grunts. But, I keep my guard up nevertheless.

Still, our truce is timely. Six years older than me, surely my brother must know something about such matters?

Standing outside his closed bedroom door about to knock, old memories came to the fore. I broke out in a cold sweat.

Here goes nothing, I thought.

“Is that you runt?” he called out.

“How did you know it was me?”

“Are you kidding? Wimpy knock, wimpy brother. So bugger off.” His command was punctuated with a resounding fart.

The pit of my stomach churned in ways I had never felt before.

He must have heard my heart pounding in my chest because he yelled out: “Well, are you coming in or not?”

“I’m thinking about it. Anyway, you told me to bugger off.”

Unexpectedly, his door swung open and we were face to face. Hooking his fingers inside the front of my T-shirt, he pulled me in.

Silence reigned for several minutes. Feeling captured, I sat obediently anchored on his bed.

Drawing up his chair, he turned it around, sat down and rested his arms across its back and stared at me.  “What d’ya want?” he asked, continuing to scrutinize me.

My mouth moved but nothing stepped out.

“Hey!  Give it here!”

Reluctantly, I followed his direction to make eye contact.

“That’s better. I just want’a see if I’m right.”

“Right? Right about what?” I asked, somewhat confused.

“Pull my finger and I’ll tell you.”

“Must I?” I hated doing this.

“Yipe.”

The pungency of his fart was worst than any outhouse I’d ever been in. “What the heck, Ron…That’s awful! “ I complained while waving my hands in front of my face. I would have left right then and there but my legs were wedged between his chair and the bed.

Once he stopped laughing, he took on a more serious demeanor. “How’s it goin’ between you and Joan, anyway?”

“I love her. What can I say? She’s perfect.”

“Oh…I see. She’s your first.” He shrugged. “Watch your backside.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s a pretty piece of stuff; other guys are going to want her.” He straightened up in the chair. “Have you…you know?”

“Kissed her? Of course I have…many times.”

His forlorn askance glance told me that I had completely missed the target of his query.

“Move it,” he said, removing the chair and gruffly sweeping me off the bed with his arm. Reaching under the mattress, he pulled out a Playboy magazine and handed it to me. “Mom and dad can’t know. Do you hear me?”

I nodded.

“Okay then, read and enjoy. It will tell you all you’ll need to know. But, I want it back in clean condition. Oh, another thing…” He pulled out his wallet from his back pocket and retrieved a small square package and handed it to me.

It felt squishy and I could feel the outline of something circular contained in it. “Aww…?”

“It’s a condom. It’s for your banana.”

“My banana?”

“It’s for your hard-on, nitwit. Once you’ve figured out what to do with it, you’ll need it.”

I shoved it into my pocket.

Ron left the bedroom, stood in the hall listening, then returned. “Strange. I thought I heard… dad. What I’m going to tell you is super hush, hush. Mum’s the word. Got it?”

I pinched my forefinger and thumb together and drew it across my mouth.

“I’ve got a film. Just knock if you need it. A little word of wisdom: first love’s no big deal. You’ll be over it by summer’s end. Just remember nerd-head, that there’s plenty of fish in the sea. Now get out!”

 

A few minutes later I was practicing grounders by throwing my Indian rubber ball off the back wall of the house. My first League game was tomorrow and I had managed to secure the position of Short Stop on the team.

I was surprised to see dad’s Ford Fairlane pulling into the drive. He has never been home this early. I called out but he didn’t hear me and entered the house directly.

Until my tête–à–tête with Ron I never thought of the possibility of Joan and me breaking up. Why would I? It’s never happened to me before. What does Ron know anyway? Why did I take that damn Playboy? It’s probably a setup. If mom and dad find out, I’ll be up a creek without a paddle. I can see it now: baby brother caught red-handed in the act of a taboo ritual. “Shit!  I’ve got gel all over the inside of my pocket. Why did I squeeze it so hard?”

Anger can sure change the intent of an action because when I released that ball I knew immediately that I shouldn’tve. I was already in flight when it crashed through the dining room window; four yards away, I was well hidden behind a bush.

Boy! Dad was pissed!  Scared, I huddled lower and watched as he surveyed the damage. Under the circumstances, the last thing I expected to feel was giddiness. Nevertheless, I did. I think it came about when I foolishly marveled at the break neck speed with which I had hopped over those fences. The reality of my situation soon brought me to my senses. The promise and optimism of my summer had… well…to say the least…definitely gone sideways.

Punishment of some kind was a certainty. Only its severity was in question. So, I settled down to wait. My chances would be better, I thought, once my mother came home.

Dusk was beginning to settle in when the worried calls from my parents and hunger pangs drew me home like a magnet.

Joan Sledge by Barry B. Wright

Holding Hands SilhouetteI

Spring had arrived early and, along with it, hopes that our home team, the Milwaukee Braves, would take the World Series again. Last year was the first time they had won the pennant since moving from Boston in 1953.

A cornucopia of scent wafted through the open window. Riding its gentle warm breeze like sweetness from heaven were spicy dianthus, the heavy scent of gardenia, nicotiana, lily-of-the-valley and lilac. My mom had taught me well and as she had promised, identifying those blossoms and more had become as easy as printing and writing my name.

This was my senior year and I felt especially grown up. Graduation was two months off. Though next year meant travelling to another school to complete grade eight, it was not without some degree of trepidation. Still, for the most part, I eagerly looked forward to it.

Chin saddled against the heel of my hand, I was locked in a daydream. Baseball tryouts were still a month away and the newly formed Duffield Baseball League portended tougher competition. So, when the snow had melted and the ground barely dry, I eagerly began to practice with my Indian rubber ball. I was always amazed by its speed as it coursed its way through the uncut grass. Agility in catching and accuracy in throwing were paramount as the ball bounced off the narrow section of wall beside the dining-room picture window. A nasty hop the other day left me with a shiner. Boy, did I get a ribbing from my friends when they found out.

Mister Roberts was one heck of a great teacher but somehow today his voice was surreal and did not resonate with me.  Dipping the nib of my pen into the ink well, I neatly scratched his notes into my notebook from the chalkboard. I casually glanced around. My peers’ expressions said it all. I was not alone in my mental truancy.

Mister Roberts stopped teaching. Bracing himself against the front edge of his desk, he faced us with his usual toothy smile. “No sense me trying to teach you science when you’re not thinking about it. Huh? So let’s stir things up.” He glanced out the window. “What a beautiful day. Real learning begins out there.”

My attention suddenly piqued.  The collective mental slothfulness of the class began to evaporate like falling dominoes.

He picked up a book from his desk and began to read:

“Who has seen the wind?

Neither I nor you:

But when the leaves hang trembling,

The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I:

But when the trees bow down their heads,

The wind is passing by.”

Tilting his head slightly, he asked: “Hmmm…Now, what does this poem by Christina Rossetti have to do with science?”

The class shared a dumbfounded collective except Karen who waved her hand wildly in the air.

“Go ahead, Karen,” he said.

“Observation,” she replied.

“You’re right, the first step in the Scientific Method.”

He went to the back of the classroom and returned with a large brown empty cardboard box from the supply cupboard and placed it in the middle of his desk. “Soon we will be going outside.”

The energy level in the class jumped a few notches.

“Quiet down and listen,” he instructed half laughing and beaming a large smile.

Suddenly, a frown etched across his face; his demeanor became unusually stiff as his attention was directed behind us.

I could feel the energy being sucked out of the room.

The class turned.

Time and backbones noticeably became rigid.

The principal stood in the open doorway. His stern and uncompromising appearance sent a chill up and down my spine. An unpleasant twist gathered in my gut.

Conditioned on how to acknowledge his presence, the class in unison said: “Good morning, Mister Monkman.” He barely acknowledged our greeting.  And, without so much as either a smile or an apology for interrupting the class, he waved our teacher over to him.

Beside Mr. Monkman stood the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. To say that I was mesmerized did not do that moment justice.

“Finish copying the notes from the board, class,” Mr. Roberts said, joining them in the doorway. “Once done, write down and explain the skills and tools you will need to do an effective job in observation.”

The three of them stepped out and closed the door behind them.

Every guy’s gaze—that’s fifty percent of the class—was fixed on the window in the door. That’s fifteen pairs of eyes including my own vying to be noticed by her. But, I was sure she was looking at me. I smiled and nodded. She returned it. I gave a circumspect wave. She did the same.

A ball of paper ricocheted off the side of my head and rolled onto my desk. This ticked me off. I knew it came from Alison. Lately, her favorite pastime was bonking me on the head. Once, every day for a solid week, she had left a yucky clump of her hair on my desk. I cringed with the thought of what came next. And I didn’t have to wait long.

Straddled between her desk and Diane Dawson’s, Alison performed a bizarre series of acrobatics. My glare was assailed by a screwed up face and a rude thrust of her tongue.

Ignoring her, I drew a bead line between my nemesis, Harry Brewer, who continued to smile, nod and wave, and the door. One conclusion resulted. And, it did not favor me.

Miffed, I had barely about faced to cocoon myself in a huff when a cacophonous sound of cascading desks followed by a resounding thump turned the room into chaos.

The pain was immediate. The desk beside me had wedged itself against my ankle.  Everyone around me scampered to the door.

Splayed out on the floor between overturned tables and empty ink wells was Alison in a puddle of ink. Her red hair had turned a weird color of blue. Each time she  wiped the tears from her face, she increasingly took on the appearance of a boxer who had been severely pummeled in the ring.

Not without great effort I restrained myself from giggling as I could feel Mr. Monkman’s cold stare squarely on me.

“Don’t move, Alison. Stop touching your face,” urged Mr. Roberts. “Someone, get the nurse.” He retrieved a bundle of paper towels from the back cupboard and fastidiously layered them around her to sponge up the ink. “Now, Alison, please remain still while I clear away these tables.”

Mr. Roberts’ tall muscular frame made easy work of uprighting the topsy-turvy desks on top and around her. I felt a great deal of relief when he removed the desk against me.

“You alright?” asked an unfamiliar voice.

I turned towards its source. Her face was so close to me that I was swimming in the deep blueness of her eyes. I had lost my words.

I felt flush with embarrassment when she used the back of her hand to lift my jaw into the closed position.

“A fight?” she asked pointing to my eye.

“Ah-huh.” I lied without hesitation. There are lies and there are dumb lies. This was the dumbest. But, at that moment, I felt a need to puff myself up. Some might say like a peacock during mating season, and, quite honestly, they would have been correct.  “I’ll tell you about it if you’ll let me walk you home today.”

She smiled. “Okay.”

“What’s your name?”

“Joan…Joan Sledge.”

A low hum settled over the class. The nurse had arrived and was examining Alison. A few minutes later she gave the class thumbs up. Alison was A-1 okay. Nevertheless, she and Mr. Monkman escorted her to the school dispensary. A full week would pass before we saw her again.

By the time graduation rolled around, I had fallen head over heels in love with Joan as she with me.

Time seemed to sprout wings as grade seven ended. And, like a spring board, we were launched into summer. Little did I know at the time that heartache and mystery awaited me at its end.

 

An August Morning Better Spent by Barry B. Wright

Girl Under the Window

It was 4:00 A.M. Rain smashed against the bedroom window; howling winds pushed tree branches to and fro along the siding like fingernails across a chalkboard.

Too driven by daily routine to remain spooned against my wife, I carefully, so as not to disturb her, slid out of the comfort of our warm bed and into my slippers. Grabbing my dressing gown from the chair beside the door I put it on before heading downstairs.

I stared out the living room window. Ugh! Depressing, I thought. It’s more like the grey days of November than early August. An involuntary shiver seemed to emphasize that very point as the wind threw another bucket of water at the window.

Normally, I met each day with vim and vigor but today my oomph was beginning to poof.

I must change my perspective; I must re-focus. Some soft jazz and a shave and shower should do the trick, I thought. And, sure enough, by the time I returned to the kitchen for my granola, milk and fruit, I was loaded for bear.

To my surprise, my lovely wife, who usually slept late on weekends, was curled up on the loveseat under the side window in the living room. I could not pass without stopping to drink in her beauty. I had to touch her and smell her hair. Close to her, I knelt on one knee. Her eyes opened and she smiled.

“I didn’t mean to awake you,” I said stroking her hair.

“You didn’t. Go get ready while I fetch you your breakfast.”

As always, I had prepared my gear the night before and had left it in the mudroom. Unless I got a lucky break in the weather, which seemed unlikely, my forty kilometer cycle today would likely be a difficult one.

Fifteen minutes later, after she gave me a very warm, lengthy and lascivious embrace, I cycled away feeling somewhat flushed and reflective.

The tall trees on either side of the road afforded me a brief but pleasant respite from the sheets of rain. I glanced back at our home. Our bedroom light turned off; at the window was her outline; then, the curtains were closed.

The land opened up into flat fields on either side. Nature was furious and I was her prey. Cycling into head winds was grueling as rain pellets stung sharply and slashed at my face. I had prepared with my weather-proofed gear but, nonetheless, I felt soaked through and through. And, I had barely begun.

It wasn’t long before my senses came to a consensus that my mettle was not up to the challenge…today.

I turned for home.

The house was dark and quiet as I slipped out of my gear. I hung each item on a makeshift clothes line in the laundry room and dried myself down.

Butt naked, I ascended the stairs to the bedroom.

Climbing into bed, I snuggled up close to her and wrapped my arm around her waist. Her hand touched my thigh and followed it up. She moaned and backed in closer.

“We’ve got lots of time,” she giggled. “That silly husband of mine is out cycling in that mess and won’t be back for hours.”

For a flicker of a moment I froze, stunned by her remark. That is, until the light bulb in my head went on.

Part Nineteen of Angel Maker: Cricketers Arms by B. B. Wright

Bournemouth Pub Explosion in Angel Maker

Famished and well past noon, Diane Waumsley parked her bike outside the Cricketers Arms on Winham Road. Securing the bike with her combination lock, she entered the pub.

She wore a woolen sweater with a slight roll at the neck and flared pants. One pant leg had been tied off to prevent it from becoming ensnared in the bicycle chain. A bob of her long hair was enclosed in a loosely knitted snood which held it close to her nape.

It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior. There were booths on both sides and tables in front of her. The smell of spilt beer and fish and chips permeated the air. Her stomach gurgled. It was busier than she expected.

Someone at one of the tables called out: “Don’t be shy lass, come in and sit with me,” he suggested, patting his lap.

“Put a sock in it, Gordie. Leave the girl alone,” the bartender bellowed from the bar. “Or you’ll be out on your duff.”

It was a straight bar counter painted brown with thick yellow imitation graining on the front panels. Four yellowish white china handles with shiny brass atop stood up from its counter. Behind the bar rows of bottles and glasses reflected themselves on shelves along a large mirror.

The bartender-proprietor leaned on the counter. “What can I do for you young lady?” he asked, watching her approach him.

“Have you got a menu?” Diane asked.

A broad smile filled his face. “Nothing fancy here,” he replied. “That’s it…” he continued, thumbing toward the sign beside the bar. “But…”

The signage written in chalk read: Fish and chips, BLT and ham sandwich.

He came around the bar and erased the first two. “We’re fifteen minutes away from the two thirty closing,” he said with a shrug. He waited for her reply.

“Two, then, please, wrapped to go.” she replied.

A heavy set man strolled into the bar with a box under his arm. Before he sat at one of the booths he tilted his cap; the bartender-proprietor returned his salutation with a slight dip of his head.

“Two ham sandwiches it is. You must be hungry?” She nodded. Distracted by a group of men at the far table he yelled out: “Enough there… you blokes finish up and get on your way. As for the rest of you, the same goes. I want you all gone by the time I return. He smiled at her. “We’ll see what we can put together for you out back.”

Pressing his fists in on either side of his waist he put on the stiff, stern demeanor of a drill sergeant and waited until the tables began to clear. The pub almost empty of clientele, he disappeared along the hall beside the bar.

“Miss Waumsley? What a surprise. Please, join us.”

This unexpected and familiar voice took her by surprise. She glanced at the mirror. Klaus Becker’s reflection greeted her from around the arm of one of the booths. She turned to face the hospital administrator. Not knowing what to say, she nodded and smiled back. He continued to beckon her to join him. Half looking back for the bartender, she walked to his table.

“What a coincidence, we were just talking about you…I mean your uncle,” Klaus said cheerily. “Do you normally come here?”

“No, it’s my first time.” She glanced back at the bar. “Actually, I’m on my way to see him and I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

“Forgive my rudeness, this is my friend Pavel. He’s come all the way from Murmansk. Are you sure you don’t want something to eat, Pavel. Maybe I can get this establishment to put together something for you.”

Pavel declined.

On the table was a handsome box of chocolates with the Ukrainian crest on it. Klaus noticed Diane eyeing it. “Perhaps you and Inspector Collier might like some?” He reached out to undo the wrapping when Pavel’s hand stopped him.

“I do have another box, Klaus. If you’ll tell me where to have it delivered, I’ll send it around today.” He glanced at his watch. “Now, I really must go. Supper at Bournemouth pier this evening is set, Klaus. There’s nothing you need to do. I am very pleased to meet you, Miss Waumsley.” He said standing. “I’m sorry it had to be so short. ” As he shook her hand, his attention was diverted behind her. “I think your sandwiches may be ready. Remember to always do what the bartender tells you, it could mean the difference between life and death,” he chortled.

“Pavel, what a strange thing to say,” complained Klaus. “Explain yourself.”

“All I’m saying is that a great deal can be learned from listening. Unfortunately most people don’t listen but bartenders generally do.”

“Here’s to listening then.” Klaus agreed and lifted his glass of Burton in salute.

Pavel smiled, bade Klaus farewell, and exited the pub.

The bartender gestured to Diane for her to join him. After a brief conversation, he escorted her down the hall beside the bar.

Pavel was a safe distance along the street by the time he heard the sharp explosion. A timing device had detonated the bomb in the chocolate box.

Part Eighteen of Angel Maker: The Noose Tightens by B. B. Wright

1180476-snow-covered-country-road

Inspector Collier turned onto the road outside the gates of Lambert Manor. Earlier, light snow had fallen making the road slick. An inky, cloud spattered and brooding sky blotted out the moon. Gusts of wind rattled windows in the Wolseley. His unfamiliarity with the country route made driving conditions treacherous. He slowed down. At each turn, light from his headlights splashed off the embankments but on the straightaway barely sliced through the moist-laden darkness. The route’s edge had become his only means of navigation as it shimmered at the periphery of the car’s beams. Beyond the shoulder lay deep, unforgiving gullies. A film of perspiration had formed on his forehead

Captain Hall turned on the overhead light.

“Oi,” complained Collier. “Turn off that damn light.”

The car swerved one way then the other before sliding to a stop.

He reached up to turn the light off when her hand locked onto his wrist like a trap. Gently with strength she redirected his intent.

If Collier could have spit bullets he would have done it right then and there. Biting down on his lower lip, he let his eyes say it instead.

For a long moment neither said a word. Finally she broke the silence.

“I’m sorry.” She looked out the windshield before turning back. “I was thoughtless. But, I thought if I could decipher the code before we got back to the Station…Well…it would speed up things.”

“What code?”

“The one I found in Werner’s bedroom.” She pulled up her collar and wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the chill.

“You took it? Was that wise?”

She smiled. “No, I didn’t take it, at least not in a manner of speaking. It’s here.” She pointed to her head.

“Uh-Huh. Okay. Is he likely to know that someone has been rummaging through his things?” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“Not likely, there wasn’t enough time. The paper the code was scribbled on was in plain sight. So either he hadn’t decoded it or he had and hadn’t yet dispensed of it in the fireplace. I think his sweet tooth got the better of him. Remember? That’s how I met him, in the pantry.”

“I remember. You took a bit of risk doing that.”

“Perhaps,” she replied with a dismissive shrug. “It’s interesting, you know.”

“What is?”

“When your quarry doesn’t know he is the quarry and that he’s been found by the hunter.”

“Well…” About to rebut, Collier rethought it. “So, what did you think of him?”

She stared at him for a long moment before replying. “I felt as if I’d been licked all over by a cat and now I’m in need of a bath.”

Collier shivered from the image she had just conjured up. “Evil, aptly described.”

“Since we’ve stopped and the light…well…it’s on, do you mind?” She held up her notepad and pencil retrieved from her shoulder bag.

He cleared his throat and surveyed the weather outside. “Weather doesn’t…appear…to be…getting worse. I guess not. But, are you sure it can’t wait…”

His words trailed off when he realized she was no longer listening to him. He watched with great interest as she wrote numbers grouped in threes on her page.

“How could you possibly remember all of that?” he asked, pointing at her notebook.

“I have an eidetic memory.” She hesitated. “It has its good side and bad side.”

She scrutinized the coded message for a few seconds before shaking her head in disgust. Hurriedly, she began to translate it:

INTEL HIGHEST PRIORITY
GLEIWITZ CONFIRMED
PREPARATIONS FOR FALLWEISS CONCLUDED 20 AUG.

When she was completed, she hammered the point of her pencil into the page. “There! Now, why anyone would continue to use a QWERTY code is beyond me. No matter. This here, I think, ” pointing to (………) “R “Q “I ! “is the signature of the sender. And, based on our Intel, there’s a very good likelihood that signature belongs to an Otto Imhoff—a key person in Werner’s sleeper cell. Beyond that we know nothing else about him. The informant who was to pass that information on to us disappeared. And, the NKVD whom we believe do know won’t—to say it politely—share with us.”

“The Russians are part of this?”

“As it turns out, the NKVD is important to getting your son and his fiancé safely home. Whether you know it or not the Soviet Union has the most active and best-resourced intelligence organization in the world. Our asset is that they hate fascists. But, more often than not we are at cross-purposes. And there, Inspector, lies the rub.”

He attempted to discern the full translation but was unable to since most of it was in shadow. “Any idea what GLEIWITZ CONFIRMED means?”

She nodded. “Thanks to ‘Queenie’ we do. But I can say no more.” She closed her notepad and returned it along with the pencil to her bag. “Queenie has an important job to do this night if our plan is to work.”

He sighed deeply. “You appear concerned.”

“Not about that.” She opened the car door. “Switch spots.”

Before Collier could complain she had made her way around to the driver’s side and pulled him out, taking his place. “Hurry up,” she shouted, patting the passenger seat. Once he was seated, she turned and smiled at him. “I thought it best.”

Putting the vehicle in gear the back wheels spun. Then, with a sudden jerk, the wheels gripped the road and the Wolseley sped off.

“I don’t know whether I told you, Inspector, but I used to drive racing cars State side. So, you’re in good hands. Anyway, from where I come from, I’ve had a lot of experience driving in this slop.”

Unnerved by her driving, Collier held on tightly to his seat as they slid, yet again, into another bend in the road.

__________

Humpty Dumpty once on Lambert’s wall stood
His intent to bring a great fall within;
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t stop Humpty from killing all within.

Werner Gruener felt a great deal of satisfaction as he walked through the gates of Lambert Manor. The Robert McTavish disguise discarded, he was ready for the next leg of his mission.