Sunday, January 30, 2011

Modern Times

The thicket wall was taller than the height of a grown man. It made slightly more than one complete circuit around the Village. An easily guarded entrance was formed where it overlapped itself. Originally intended as a barrier against predators, the wall also protected against raids by nomad tribes. The Village didn’t need another name. It was the only village in the world, so it could be mistaken for no other. The diameter of the misshapen circle within the wall averaged some 80 meters, though the meter would not be invented for another 100,000 years. The village was only a few days walk from the end of the world – the southern end. The world ended at the salt sea by the big flat topped mountain.

The Lion stood outside the entrance of the Village, fingering a lion’s tooth that he wore around his neck. It was an heirloom from his father. He was the chief of his people. There were other men named Lion, but he was The Lion, and everyone knew the difference. He was respected by all except the Sorceress whose remarks to him always could be interpreted as insults if he thought about them. He wished the People could do without a sorceress, but the Villagers were a superstitious lot. If he challenged her openly, the Villagers more likely would oust him than her. They both knew it. Besides, whether or not there was anything to her spells and potions, she did have some practical knowledge that was useful. She knew how to treat some illnesses and wounds, and she always knew when the dry and wet seasons approached. Still, at the very least he wanted to tip the power balance away from her and in his direction. In truth, he wished the Villagers would do without the Village itself. The old nomad ways were better.

The Lion had found one way to undermine the Villagers’ trust in the Sorceress at least a little. The way was her son, Meerkat, an absolute fool of a boy. The Lion made it a point to demonstrate the boy’s incapacities whenever possible. The fact that the Sorceress couldn’t produce a son of even modest attainments was evidence to the people of the limits to her magic. He often wondered who the father of the boy might be. If the Sorceress knew, she wasn’t telling.

The boy couldn’t keep his mind on anything. Once, he walked up on Meerkat when the boy was chipping a hand axe out of chert as an older craftsman had taught him to do. When The Lion’s shadow fell across Meerkat, the boy stopped working, looked at up at the sky, and then turned to ask, “Why doesn’t sun’s fire burn out?”

“What? The chert, boy!” The Lion roared.

“The sun is made of chert?”

“No! I mean, I don’t know! Don’t ask foolish questions. Pay attention to the stones in your hands, boy!”

The Lion then looked at what was in the boy’s hands. The tool was an irregular

“Fix it!” he ordered.


“No buts! Fix it! “Make the tool the way you were taught! Bring it to me when you are done, and I want to see it with a proper shape!”

The boy later had shown him a normal axe, which may or may not have been the same stone. The boy’s fingers had bled on it on account of some clumsiness,

Yet, for all the boy’s backwardness, at times he would say things that unsettled The Lion for days. There was one night when the moon slowly turned a deep dark red and then changed back again. The boy said something about a shadow on the moon, a notion that disturbed The Lion because he almost understood it.

Today, he could see Meerkat sitting by the stream below the Village. The Lion couldn’t tell what he was doing, but no doubt it was frivolous. The odd young girl called Mosquito was standing next to him. He didn’t think that was the girl’s real name, but everyone called her Mosquito for her annoying ways; he even had heard the girl’s mother call her that. It was another sign of Meerkat’s backwardness that he would keep company with her. The boy was due for his ritual of manhood. The Lion himself didn’t much care for women of any age, but if the boy liked their company he at least should be looking at older ones – anyone except his own daughter Cheetah, of course. Cheetah was his sole offspring. Her mother had died in childbirth, which relieved him of any further necessity of performing marriage duties; he had gotten through those only by thinking of strong young hunters. 
**** ****

Meerkat sat next to the cedar tree by the stream. It was away from the places along the stream where the villagers liked to wash themselves and fill water skins. No one ever bothered him here except Mosquito, who seemed able to find him anywhere. As her words buzzed in his ear, he instinctively waved his hand as though in fact fending off her namesake.

His fingers were still sore from when she had distracted him a few days earlier. On that day, rather than just copy the same old tools he had been taught to make, Meerkat made something new. It was a combination axe, knife, and scraper with three distinct edges. The Lion saw it. After saying something about the sun being chert, which Meerkat doubted was true, the chief had ordered him to fix the axe. Meerkat had tried to explain it wasn’t an axe, but the chief would have none of it.

“Fix it!” he had shouted.

When Meerkat sullenly turned to the task of turning the tool into a conventional one, Mosquito had startled him by saying, “I like it. Give it to me. Make another axe for The Lion.” Meerkat hadn’t heard her approach, and he smashed his fingers.

Today, it was clear she would give him no peace by the stream. Meerkat felt Mosquito poke him in the ribs.

“I said, let me see it,” Mosquito buzzed. “I promise not to laugh. I didn’t laugh at the tool you made.”

Reluctantly, Meerkat showed her the figurine he had made out of blue clay from the stream bed.

“It’s just like a little zebra! I’ve never seen anything like that before!” she exclaimed.

“As far as I know, no one ever made one before.”

“Have you made any others?” she asked.


“Why didn’t you show them to me?”

“I showed one to my mother. She said that unless I could mold a new brain for The Lion, I should keep my clay works a secret. I’m not sure what she meant by that.”

“I’m sure. The Sorceress may be right. The Lion doesn’t like anything new. I’m glad you showed me, though. Why a zebra?”

“My solo hunt – my manhood ritual – is tomorrow.”

“I know.”

“I was planning to get a zebra.”

“So you made the figure as magic to help you?”

“No, I never thought of that. Zebras were just on my mind, so I made it.”

“Why are you after zebra in particular?”

“It’s big enough game to be respectable without being unduly risky.”


“Besides, I have a plan. There is a small valley to the south near the end of the world. I noticed a herd always enters and leaves it the same way.”

“So you are going to set up a trap or ambush,” she deduced instantly. “Don’t tell the others about that either. They might not think it is sporting.”

She spotted a small bulge under a patch of hide next to Meerkat’s knee.

“You’re hiding something else,” she said. “Show me.”


“Oh, come on.”

She reached down and pulled away the pelt. Before Meerkat could stop her, she picked up the female figurine it had covered.

“Well, there is no mistaking what else is on your mind. The question is who. This is too full to be me, isn’t it? Oh no, it can’t be! Yes, it is. It’s Cheetah, isn’t it?”

He snatched the figure from her. “What if it is?”

“Meerkat! She has her pick of anyone, and the only ones she likes are big, dumb, muscled idiots, just like the ones her father likes. She doesn’t understand dreamers. Don’t be a fool!”

“And you wish you could be just like her, don’t you?”

“No, not just like her.” Mosquito lowered her voice and looked serious. “Meerkat, don’t give that to her. She won’t appreciate it and her father will act like a crazed rhino.”

“We’ll see.”
**** ****

The Lion laughed. At first he had been outraged, but he soon realized Meerkat had done him an enormous favor. When Cheetah showed him the clay figure given to her by Meerkat, he saw genuine fear in her eyes and heard the quaver in her voice. She was terrified that the son of the Sorceress was working some magic on her with the image. Cheetah normally would have laughed rudely at any flirtation from Meerkat, but she had been so taken aback by the gift of the statue that she simply had accepted it quietly and listened to the boy announce his intentions to call on her after his manhood ritual.

The Lion showed the statue to the handsome young hunter Wildebeest, who was foremost in Cheetah’s affections at present, and told him Meerkat was bewitching Cheetah. The man was frightened, horrified, and angry. The Lion knew at once that the other Villagers would respond similarly. For once, he could turn the Villagers’ fear of sorcery against the Sorceress and her son. It possibly was a chance to turn them against Village life itself.

Even as a youth The Lion didn’t approve of the Village. He considered it a perverse deviation from natural nomadism, which he so much had enjoyed as a boy. Founding a permanent settlement on this kop had been the work of his father, a self-described “visionary,” which The Lion believed was another word for “fool.” The old man was in all too many ways like Meerkat, a thought which bothered him for some reason. By the time The Lion had become chief in his place, the Villagers had grown accustomed to their homes and didn’t wish to leave them. Now the Sorceress was suggesting raising animals rather than hunting them, an appallingly decadent notion. The Villagers had lost their way. Meerkat, of all people, might rescue them from their rot.
**** ****

After dark, under the full moon, and by the fire in the central plaza, the Sorceress announced the names of the boys who would begin their manhood ritual at next daybreak. The list included her son Meerkat.

At the mention of Meerkat’s name, The Lion interrupted her, evoking a collective gasp from the Villagers.

“Meerkat won’t be doing anything tomorrow,” he said as he walked up to her and faced her. “Both of you will leave the Village now and forever, or suffer the consequences.”

“I’d say you’d taken leave of your senses, but you can’t leave what you’ve never had, can you?” she replied.

“Do you think I’m joking?”

“It doesn’t matter. I remove you as chief. You are no longer The Lion. Sit down.”

“I do not acknowledge your authority over me or over the Village.” He held up the lion’s tooth from his necklace. “This talisman protects me from your witchcraft and from the spells of your demon child, too! It protects all of us!”

Still not recognizing the deadliness of his challenge, she answered, “‘Demon child’ is a trifle harsh, at least since his second year. Put down that silly tooth before it bites you.”

“You wish that I would, don’t you?” He addressed the Village crowd. “Look at the black arts this woman has taught her son!” He held up the zebra figure he had taken from the Sorceress’ hut a short time earlier when he went in to look for more evidence. “Meerkat planned to hunt with magic. If you think that is a minor offense, what of this?” He held up the figurine of Cheetah. “He fashioned this image to control my daughter. Come here, Cheetah. Look what happens when I squeeze the middle.”

Cheetah screamed, grabbed her stomach and fell to the ground.

“It’s alright child,” he said bending over her. “Touch the tooth.”

She touched the tooth and recovered, getting back to her feet. “Thank you, father.”

“What else can Meerkat do to you with this image?” The Lion asked her.

“He made me think wild thoughts,” Cheetah said. “He ordered me to come to him tonight to make love to him and to join him in some wicked ceremony! If you hadn’t broken the spell with the tooth I would have gone! I had no choice!”

“Oh, this is nonsense,” the Sorceress said. “The girl is just playacting for attention.”

“If only that were true!” The Lion barked back. Addressing the Villager again, he warned, “These two fiends will make images of us all if we let them!” He pointed at Meerkat. “Imagine what this beast will do to your wives and daughters!”

Meerkat was stunned by what he was hearing. He saw that all the Villagers had moved away from him. Even Mosquito had vanished from sight.

“Seize them! Gag them both so they cast no spells!”

A small troop of hunters led by Wildebeest, obviously by prearrangement, rushed forward. They grabbed the Sorceress and Meerkat, and gagged and bound them with strips of hide.

“Throw them into their witches’ den!” The Lion ordered.

The two were tossed inside the Sorceress’ thatch hut, which had been built against the north wall of the Village. Wildebeest closed the entry with more thatch. The Lion tossed a torch on the roof.

Smoke quickly filled the interior of the hut and the flames began to lick inward. Meerkat felt his skin burn where an ember fell on him. He struggled fiercely but couldn’t loosen his restraints. He heard his mother thrashing, too. Suddenly, someone was cutting the thongs binding his hands. Mosquito had appeared out of nowhere and was using his multi-tool. She freed him quickly and the two unbound the Sorceress.

“This way,” Mosquito said.

She pushed herself into the north wall of the house, which was also the wall of the Village, and the others followed. The passage through the wall was blocked only by loose tendrils which were easily pushed aside.

“I found this rabbit hole to your house months ago,” Mosquito said once they were outside the Village and running for the nearest cover.

“That’s why I built against the wall,” the Sorceress said. “You never know when you will need a back door. I thought it was well hidden, though. Apparently it wasn’t.”

“It was, to anyone who wasn’t looking for it.”

“We’ll leave aside the question of why you were looking for it. Hurry, we need to get away as far and fast as we can.”

As they ran, Meerkat looked back. He saw that the fire had spread out of control.

“Is The Lion crazy?” Meerkat asked. “The whole Village will burn down.”

“No. he’s not crazy,” the Sorceress answered. “He wants it to burn. He wants no more Village. But he is stupid. He didn’t realize the fire would spread so fast. He trapped himself and everyone else inside. See, the fire already has spread along the wall. The entrance is blocked by flames.”

They stopped to catch their breath behind some brush.

“What do we do now?” Meerkat asked.

“You two are going to make yourselves scarce," said the Sorceress. "If there are any survivors, you won’t be popular with them.”

“But I didn’t burn the Village.”

“Trust me, they will hold you responsible.”

“What about you?” he asked.

“I can handle myself and turn blame where blame is due, but only if I’m alone. You two don’t need me. These people do, if any are left. If not, a Sorceress always can find people somewhere who will take her in. In one way, The Lion got what he wanted. None of the survivors will want to live in a Village again after this. Someday there may be another one, but not now.”

“But where should we go?” Meerkat asked.

“Anywhere you like. Be careful of other tribes, but not all will be your enemy. Go.”

“Goodbye mother.”


“So where do you want to go?” Mosquito asked as they walked side by side away from the flames.

“How about the end of the world?” Meerkat suggested.

“I’ve been there.”

“No, I mean the other one. If there’s an end in the south it stands to reason there is an end in the north.”

“I suppose it does. You wish you were going with Cheetah, don’t you?”

“No, her charms have worn off somehow.”

“Good. OK, the northern end of the world it is. It’s probably a long way off.”

“We have time.”

Close Counts in Horseshoes

Five years ago, Ray never would have considered himself capable of murder. Not only did he assume he simply wasn’t the type, but he had watched too many Law and Order and CSI shows to believe it was possible to get away with it in the modern world. His mind had shifted on the first point over the course of the past year. He now believed anyone was capable of murder given the right motivation. His friend Benny, who sold life insurance, was in the process of changing his view on the second point. Ray had stopped after work at a local pub for a drink with Benny and the boys. Benny urged they all buy insurance on their spouses.

“Haven’t you ever seen Double Indemnity? he asked.

As it happened, Ray was the only other classic film buff in the group. “Yes. The conspirators get caught,” he said.

“So don’t enlist the aid of Barbara Stanwyck. Do the deed all by yourself.”

“No one gets away with anything like that.”

“You know, that’s where you’re wrong,” Benny said, turning more professional. “Don’t believe all those TV shows. Strangely enough, even though the national crime rate keeps dropping and the technical tools available to police keep getting better, the solve rate for murder in the US keeps getting worse. Back in the 1960s 90% of cases were solved. Nowadays the rate is only 65%. And most of those cases require no brains at all to solve. Most murders are stupid acts of violence by stupid people. Half the time they are committed in front of witnesses or security cameras. The perps leave evidence all over the murder scene, sometimes literally including a smoking gun. True planned murders are another matter altogether. How do you think serial killers become serial killers? It’s by not getting caught for the first several. If the police have a prime suspect and if he has made some stupid mistakes, all those new CSI techniques may help build a case against him, but the odds are a lot worse than you think.”

“Is this part of your usual sales pitch for life insurance?”

“No. Why, is it working?”

Though Benny merely had been indulging in dark humor, his remarks reminded Ray that in fact Emilie and he each carried $200,000 in term life insurance. Had they been whole life policies with cash values, they likely would have been cashed in already in order to feed Emilie’s worsening drug habit. Oddly, it was Emilie who originally had insisted on buying the life insurance the week after they married; in order to make the idea more palatable to him, she had suggested they each carry identical policies.

Ray was acutely aware that he was largely to blame for his predicament. It wasn’t as though he didn’t know Emilie was wild and troubled before they were married. Their relationship had surprised everyone who knew either of them, her friends more than his. Before Ray, she had dated bad boys as volatile as herself; all of her affairs had ended in alcohol and drug fueled fights. Unlike her other men, Ray had a good job and he owned a cozy brick ranch house with acreage and a four horse barn in back. An enjoyment of horses was among the few things they actually had in common, and it largely had explained Emilie’s willingness to date him in the first place. Emilie was aware her own lifestyle precluded her ever achieving anything so stable on her own, and she had answered yes to Ray’s proposal without a second thought.

Ray, on the other hand, always had been as cautious and conservative in his dating habits as in any other part of his life. Not only was Emilie pretty, but walking on the wild side with her was an appealing departure. Their dates were a roller coaster of excitement. Her drug use concerned him a little, but she assured him she had it under control. He shared none of her enthusiasm for ecstasy and cocaine, a disinterest that didn’t seem to bother Emilie one way or another. Except for an occasional Jack Daniel’s and a few sociable puffs on a joint now and again, he avoided mind altering substances altogether. Yet, he didn’t object to her enjoyment of them, especially since they usually resulted in a night of long and enthusiastic sex. Their dates sometimes even included something he never expected to experience: a threesome with her attractive, mellow, and far more sober roommate Brittany in the trailer the two shared not altogether platonically at the edge of Fernley, NV, east of Reno. Emilie told him that Brittany usually gave such performances only for cash and was indulging him with this lagniappe only as a favor to her. When Ray proposed marriage to Emilie, he failed to consider that a roller coaster might be a fine ride but a dubious lifestyle. He also failed to recognize the extent to which Emilie’s drug use was addiction rather than recreation.

Their marriage had started auspiciously from Ray’s point of view. There were no more threesomes, to be sure, but Ray had not expected those to continue. Emilie made an effort to settle down and the evenings they spent together were pleasant. She abandoned hard street drugs, though she succeeded at this only by smoking vast amounts of pot. The persistent odor of marijuana in the house caused Ray to lose what little taste he ever had for the substance, but he suspected he experienced a contact high almost every night. Emilie also distracted herself with their horses, and they both enjoyed long rides in the desert. Things changed for the worse after only a few months. Emilie ratcheted up her spending as yet another way to get her mind off drugs. She spent on everything from bric-a-brac to silver studded tack. Increasingly, she also sought out opioid painkillers on the internet, costing hundreds per bottle, to supplement her pot. Then one night the catastrophe happened; she went out with “the girls” and rediscovered crack cocaine. Her hard core drug dependency returned with a vengeance. Since then Ray’s life was in a spiral toward disaster.

Ray’s work suffered from worry and lack of sleep. Having received two official warnings for lateness and inattention, he fully expected to receive a pink slip before long. Often Ray would come home from work to find strange men and women “partying” with Emilie in his house. They still would be there the next when he arose groggily to drive off to work. Sometimes Brittany would show up on party nights, though apparently less for the drugs then for Emilie. He would hear them in the spare bedroom while he tried without success to sleep in the main bedroom. Despite her obvious affection for Emilie, Brittany, in an odd act of betrayal, once leaned in his driver side window wearing only a bathrobe as he was about to leave for work after a party night.

“Get out while you can,” Brittany warned. “She’s going to destroy herself, and if you are in the way, she’ll destroy you first.”

He never mentioned the remark to Emilie.

As he drove home from the pub after the talk with Benny, Ray decided Brittany had been right. Emilie’s reckless spending was part of a determined effort to destroy her own safety net. She, for whatever reason, really was plotting her own self-destruction. The drug bills alone had risen to thousands of dollars per week. He had refinanced as far as was possible. Emilie repeatedly had promised to reform, and seemed to mean it when she said it, but her resolution always would fail within a day or two. Now they faced the loss of everything. She was destroying him. He was merely collateral damage in her attack on herself, but she was destroying him nonetheless. Ray resented it. He admitted to himself that he hated her. He hated her as only someone in love can hate.

Even so, Ray would have put Benny’s remarks out of his head had it not been for a serendipitous accident the previous evening. He had come home to find Emilie limping out of one of the paddocks. She had intended to bring in a paint quarter horse named Goblin. On this particular evening, Goblin decided he didn’t want to go. As Emilie approached him, he had turned, fired off an exuberant kick, and then run off. It is unlikely he actually intended serious harm. If a horse wants to hurt you, he will. However, the kick had caught Emilie in both thighs, taking her off her feet. A horseshoe shaped bruise on each thigh developed quickly. Emilie demanded to go to the doctor in order to wangle an oxycodone prescription out of him. The doc reluctantly gave her one.

If the horse had aimed higher, Ray realized, his troubles would be over. An idea formed in his mind. Her doctor visit had put a horse accident on record.

It might have remained an idle idea had not his cell phone rung on his drive home from the bar. It was Emilie. She was in Reno and wanted him to pick her up.

“How did you get to Reno without a car?” he asked.

“One of the girls drove me here.”

“Why can’t she drive you back?”

“We had a fight. Are you coming to get me or not?”

He turned his car around and headed back to Reno. The GPS guided him to the downtown address where Emilie waited. Emilie got into the car.

“Go,” she said.

As he found his way back to I-80, Emilie fumbled in her purse and removed a spoon, a lighter, bottled water, baking soda, and a baggie of white powder.

“Do you have to do that now? Wait.”

“I don’t want to wait. All they had was fucking powder,” she said.

She mixed the cocaine, baking soda, and water in the spoon and held a Bic lighter under it.

“Do you always carry baking soda in your purse?” he asked.


The nuggets of crack quickly emerged in the spoon as the water boiled away. She stuck one of the nuggets into a tiny bronze pipe, held the Bic over the bowl, and inhaled. The car filled with a smell like burning plastic. Ray drove quietly. They almost were a mile from their driveway when Emilie spoke up.

“Don’t go home, just drive.”

“Why don’t you want to go home?”

“The police are watching our house.”

“I don’t think so. I’m not driving you around the desert while you smoke that shit. I’m going home.”

“I hear the horses galloping. They’ve gotten out.”

“Then we definitely should go home. But they haven’t gotten out and you aren’t hearing them. No one’s ears are that good.”

“I hear horses.” She fiddled with the A/C, turning it up full blast. “The air conditioner is busted. It’s blowing hot air.”

“It’s blowing ice cold air. It’s freezing in here.”

“It’s hot air!”


“What’s wrong with you tonight? You’re really freaking me out.”

“Nothing that can’t be fixed,” he answered.

He pulled in the driveway. There were, of course, no police, and the horses were still in the main paddock.

While Emilie called friends to come over and party, Ray walked out back to stable and feed the horses. He worked out his plot in his head. Guests arrived quickly as they always did when free drugs were offered. They were not, of course, free to Ray. They had cost him dearly.

Ray petted the horses, though their attention was entirely absorbed by their grain buckets. He went to the tack room. He picked up a steel shoe one of the horses had thrown a few weeks earlier. He slipped it in his pocket and returned to the house.

No one saw him enter the back door or cross to the stairway that led from the kitchen to the basement. The guests were in the living room where a rap station blared loudly on the radio. In the basement, Ray groped under the stairs until he found the baseball bat he still owned from his teen years. He carried it to the basement work bench and took the horseshoe out of his pocket. He nailed the horseshoe to the bat with 7d flooring nails.

Ray experimentally swung the enhanced bat. The balance felt good. He tugged on the horseshoe to be sure it was secure. It was, but he cut his finger on a nail head, smearing blood on the bat. He sucked his finger until the bleeding stopped. He swung again and accidentally clipped a wrench kit, which clattered onto the floor.

“What are you doing down there?” called Amy from the top of the stairs. She couldn’t see the workbench from her position.

“Putting some things away. I’ll be up in a minute.”

He stored the bat back under the stairs and went up to the kitchen. He was surprised to see Brittany at the kitchen table.

“Oh, hello Brittany.”

“Brit isn’t staying,” Emilie said. “I think she disapproves of me tonight, but she brought over some homemade lasagna. Isn’t that nice of her?”

“Yes it is.”

“Stop flirting with her and come outside,” Emilie said.

“I wasn’t flirting.”

“Maybe not on purpose.”

“Nice to see you Ray,” Brittany remarked. “I’ll be going as soon as I finish my coffee.”

“Uh, yeah. You too.”

Ray followed Emilie out the door.

“I need some money and the credit cards are maxed,” she said.

“Ask your friends.”

“They’re losers. They don’t have anything.”

“And you want me to pay for drugs for all your loser friends so you can play Queen of the Crack Den. No. I want them out of my house now.”

“Our house. Ray, I need money.”

“No. OK, I’ll compromise. Tell them you are broke and get rid of them. Then and only then will I give you my last emergency stash.”

“Why are you being such a bastard?”

“Those are the terms. And don’t invite these people back later tonight.”


He waited until the last of the guests had gone. Then Ray went to his car and removed his last emergency cash from inside the spare tire wheel. As unsafe a place as this was to hide money, it was safer than in his own house. He handed Emilie $1500. She quickly left in her Suburban, scattering stones on the grass in her hurry.

Ray sat in the dark house eating lasagna. He knew Emilie would go to one of her friend’s places because she hated to smoke alone. He figured she would be back sometime just before daylight. Rather than go to bed himself, Ray cleaned up the kitchen, read, and then watched DVDs of The Twilight Zone.

At 4 a.m., Ray went down to the basement, retrieved the bat, and walked back to the barn. He put the bat in an unoccupied stall. He sat in the dark on an upturned bucket in the aisle where he could see the driveway. He waited. The headlights of the Suburban lit up the driveway. Ray turned on the floodlight above the barn so Emile would know he was there. The light blinded him to anything beyond the exterior illuminated area. Emilie walked into the light, her face a pasty white. Her mood after a drug party was unpredictable. Sometimes she was sentimental. Sometimes she was giddy. Sometimes she was in a rage. It was too soon to tell for sure, but this time she looked somber. She entered the barn and her features were lost in the dark. He could make out only her silhouette. He reached into the stall and laid one hand on the bat.

“What are you doing back here,” she asked quietly.

“Hanging out with the horses.”

“Yeah, I do that sometimes, too.”

He tracked her shape as she walked past him to Goblin’s door. She petted his nose. The roan across the aisle grunted jealously.

“They just accept you for who you are,” she added.”

“They have that luxury.”

“Look, Ray, I know you’re mad at me, and I know I make life hard for you.”

Ray lifted the bat and felt the weight of the horseshoe. He waited for her to move away from Goblin. He didn’t want to hit the horse by accident.

“I don’t know why I’m this way,” she said. “You’re a good man and put up with a lot from me. Don’t give up on me yet. I’ll try to get better someday.”

Goblin backed away from her and nosed the hay rack in the corner. Emilie kept her back to the aisle. Ray moved into position and lifted the bat over his shoulder. Emilie was a full head shorter than he. She looked so small. He caught a whiff of her shampoo, something he always noticed when they made love. Hands shaking, Ray lowered the bat. He put it back in the vacant stall. He walked wordlessly to the house and sat in the living room in the dark. He held his head in his hands. Complete disaster would overtake him in months. Perhaps weeks. The destruction that Emilie had engineered would envelop them both, as Brittany had warned, and it simply wasn’t in him to do what was necessary to prevent it.

Ray heard the back door slam.

“Why are you sitting in the dark?”

The voice sounded peculiar. “Emilie?” he asked.

“No, it’s me.” Brittany flicked on the light switch. “Emilie came over to my place after she scored her coke. I insisted on driving her home when she was done because she was too drunk and high.”

Relief and nausea hit Ray. Brittany’s presence meant his crime would have been exposed at once.

“I see.”

“I think you should take me home.”


“Call the paramedics when you get back.”

“For what?”


“Where is she?”

“In Goblin’s stall, of course. I knew you wouldn’t do it. It was a clever idea, though. So, I finished the job.”

“You looked in the basement when you were here earlier?”

“I did. I want to settle down, Ray. I always liked this place and you, too.”

“Me? I’m awful. Look what considered doing.”

“Oh, everyone does. The point is you didn’t. That’s what matters. You couldn’t.”

“But you could?”

“Something you should keep in mind. By the way, I’ll be taking the bat with me. It has your fingerprints, your blood, and Emilie’s blood on it. I wore a pair of work gloves. Don’t worry, I wont let anyone find it unless you give me a reason to be unhappy with you. We’ll wait until you settle the insurance thing before I move in. I think that would be wise. OK?”


“You’re a sweetheart.”

“Th-thank you,” he stammered.

“Don’t mention it. Ever.”

Monday, January 24, 2011

Return of the Judi

It was the first murder at the orbiting Worldview Arms, and Security Chief Bryon Lasko knew his employer Cosmocorp wanted it kept quiet. Byron wasn’t sure he could oblige. He hadn’t expected ever to face such a quandary in this job. Until now, Byron’s security work had been routine and pedestrian. It just happened to be pedestrian in orbit.

Byron once had a modestly successful career as a private detective in Denver, until a difference of opinion with two federal law enforcement agencies motivated him to leave the United States. A creative resume helped him get the security position at The Worldview Arms. Sometimes he suspected his employers knew perfectly well he had lied about his past and preferred it that way.

The Worldview Arms catered to the very profligate among the very rich. The cost of a week’s stay exceeds the lifetime earnings of a typical middle class family. The hotel is sovereign territory of the nation of Kiribati, the island group once known as the Gilbert Islands. The spaceport from which all shuttles to the hotel originate and depart takes up nearly all of Abemana Atoll in Kiribati. The spaceport’s location near the equator simplifies launches, and Kiribati sovereignty places Cosmocorp safely outside the reach of the civil and criminal courts of the big countries. It also placed Byron outside the reach of his creditors and the feds in the USA, at least for as long as he kept the job.

The hotel was the image of the classic 1950s notion of what a space station should look like. It was a great pinwheel spinning on its axis to create artificial gravity inside. The gravity was nowhere higher than .20g, because any higher rate of spin would make the guests sick. The slight difference in speed between guests’ heads and their feet was the source of the problem.

In the hub of the wheel, where the gravity was zero, a large spherical globule of water formed a swimming pool. Few guests used it more than once, but all visited it at least once. It was featured in all the travel ads, because it looked interesting, but most visitors found the experience of swimming in it disturbing. The hub also was where shuttles arrived and departed. The docking bays abutted the swimming pool room on two sides. Once a shuttle was properly docked, arriving passengers took an elevator four at a time from the bay to the lowest, which is to say outermost, level of the station. Luggage, no more than one small bag per customer, would be unloaded by the hotel staff and delivered separately to the guests’ rooms.

Byron tidied his uniform and strode to the lobby to greet the newest batch of guests. His employers believed that his presence in the traditional accoutrements of law enforcement helped make new guests feel more secure. Byron enjoyed doing so anyway. He met many celebrities. He also met many wealthy and powerful people who preferred not to be famous. It never hurt to make contacts of this sort. After all, what job was permanent these fays?

He did little actual security work on the station. Theft is nearly impossible on an orbiting hotel where all baggage is examined on entry and exit. Not a single theeft ever had been reported to him. Violence was all but nonexistent. Billionaires are a pretty mellow lot. On very rare occasion he intervened in a domestic dispute. Once he explained he had the authority to order the two sedated until the next shuttle arrived, the fighting couple always settled down. No one wanted to spend such an expensive trip asleep.

The elevator door slid open. Byron hid his surprise.

“Welcome to Worldview,” Byron said as he smiled and bowed.

Judi’s double-take when she recognized him was so quick that her companion never spotted it.

One hand grasping the arm of a gray-haired gentleman 30 centimeters shorter than herself, Judi held her nose aristocratically in the air and walked past Byron a sureness of step uncommon in someone unused to low gravity. The coiffe of her dark hair looked more expensive than everything Byron was wearing combined. The other two guests, also a couple, were two men of vaguely Eurasian appearance. They responded to Byron’s greeting with a perfunctory nod. The elevator returned to the hub for four more of the new arrivals.

In a way, Byron wasn’t surprised by Judi’s presence on the station. She always had a knack for keeping company with the very rich. He had no intention of disrupting whatever game she was playing.

When the guest last guest had been welcomed, Byron returned to his office and poured himself a cup of coffee. He called up the new guest list on his computer.

“Hello, sheriff.”

Byron hadn’t heard Judi enter.

“Chief,” he answered.

“Chief? How primal. It doesn’t suit you. Of whom are you chief?”

“I am the whole security staff, so I’m chief of myself.”

“As are we all.”

Settling lightly into a chair in the low artificial gravity, she added, “Thanks for not raising a fuss back at the elevator.”

“The hotel management frowns on fusses. So does the whole nation of Kiribati. It has a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy with regard to vacationing international criminals. The space tourism business comes first.”

“You mean Cosmocorp pays off the government officials.”

“They prefer to think of it as a tip. I suppose you are here to see if I plan to call the earthside authorities, but, you see, they don’t care. You’re safe. Enjoy your stay.”

“You still could cause trouble by informing authorities outside Kiribati. I’d like to leave Kiribati someday.”

“Not to worry, Judi.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“Right.” Byron tapped his LED screen. “I see your travel documents identify you as Cadence. Very euphonious. This is quite a pricy holiday, Cadence. I’m impressed.”

“I wish I could say the same about you.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere. I like my job, Judi.”

“You’re better than this. You’re just a hotel snoop, even if the hotel is in space.”

“No, I’m not better than this. Thinking I was is what got me into trouble down there.”

“Do you hate me?”

“Yes. But don’t let that worry you. I hate lots of people. I don’t plot revenge on any of them. I am curious, though. What happened to all the money?”

“What makes you think anything happened to it?”

“Your new Mr. Right makes me think so. You say I shouldn’t have to be a hotel snoop. Well, you shouldn’t have to be an arm decoration.”

“I’m not. I’m Madam Trang.”

“So your documents say. My observation stands.”

“The money from our little enterprise wasn’t so very much, really, Byron. Oh I could have retired in a nice beach house somewhere, but I wanted something more. I wanted to play in a bigger league.”

“Nguyen Trang is a bigger league?”

“The biggest.”

“Well then, congratulations.”

“Always congratulate the man, Byron. Best wishes go to the woman.”

“On the theory that he won a prize but she’ll need all the luck she can get, I suppose. Well, best wishes then.”

“So where is the swimming pool? It’s the big attraction, isn’t it?”

“Climb any ladder. Follow the signs.”

“No elevator?”

“Yes, but you usually have to wait for one. It is quicker to climb. It’s easy. You can climb with one hand. By the time you’re halfway to the hub you can use your pinky. But don’t go today. Wait until the day after tomorrow. Everyone goes there the first day or two but hardly anyone ever goes back. In a couple days you’ll have it all to yourself.”

Judi looked thoughtful. “Thank you, maybe I’ll take your advice.”

“I guess anything can happen once.”

“Is it really a melted comet?”

“The pool? Yes, basically. Capturing it with a robot spacecraft was a big publicity stunt and it was cheaper than hauling water up from earth.”

“So what else is there to do in this tin can?”

“Try the observation bar. There is a spectacular view.”

“At these rates, there had better be. Until later, Byron.”

“Until later, Judi.”


“My apologies, Madam Cadence Trang.”

**** **** **** ****

The next day was unusually busy for Byron. There were two domestic disputes, but the sedation threat was, as always, effective. Next he was called by a nervous bartender to the High Point Lounge. As Byron entered, he spotted the Trangs in a booth with a breathtaking window view of earth. Nguyen ignored the view. His eyes were locked on Judi. Byron wondered how long they had been married. The bartender waved at him and pointed to two men at the bar, who were in an animated argument over some South American political issue. He interposed himself.

“Gentlemen, I’m willing to bet you won’t resolve your differences here.”

“This is not your concern, Officer.”

The other fellow nodded. They at last had found something on which to agree.

“I’m Chief Lasko. The tranquility of this hotel and the peaceful enjoyment of it by the other guests are my concern. I can order anyone I deem a threat to that tranquility to be sedated.”

“Do you realize how much I paid to be here?”

“To the penny. Please consider it yourself.”

“I see your point.”

“Do you?” Byron asked the quieter man.

Once again, he nodded.

“I was hoping you might. Good night then.”

The two shrugged at each other as Byron walked away. They did not resume their argument. Byron kept watch on the Trangs in his peripheral vision. He had caught Nguyen’s attention, but Judi studiously ignored the affair.

The following day passed without incident. Chief Lasko caught up on his reading rather than attend yet another showing of 2001, a Space Odyssey in the hotel theater. It always was a favorite of guests who enjoyed its quaint vision of space travel.

On the day after, he was not so lucky. His phone vibrated. He answered it.

“Emergency in the pool room,” said the desk manager’s quavering voice. “Get up here now, Lasko.”

Byron climbed a ladder to the pool. He hoped one of the guests hadn’t drowned. It had happened before. No publicity had reached the ground thanks to a generous settlements from Cosmocorp to the victim’s family. The hotel doctor drained the lungs of the victim and passed off the death as a heart failure. Other swimmers had had close calls. The absence of any sense of up and down in the weightless sphere of water disoriented most swimmers. It was an unpleasant feeling and was one reason few people returned to the pool after the first visit.

Byron entered the pool chamber. Nothing appeared to hold the central ball of water in place, which gave it a menacing appearance. Electrostatic charges in fact acted to stabilize the sphere, but it was possible to overwhelm them by mechanical forces, which is to say by splashing around energetically in the water. The ball then might bounce from wall to wall until equilibrium was reestablished. This was scary for any guest who happened to be against the wall.

Byron pushed himself into the chamber and peered into the pool. The naked body of Nguyen Trang rotated slowly inside it. It looked like a drowning. Judi held onto to a wall rung as her hair floated in the zero gravity. She wore only a large bath towel. The desk manager looked far more distraught than she.

“Why is Trang still in there?” Byron asked.

Without waiting for an answer Byron reached through the surface tension and grabbed an ankle. The sphere wobbled like a shaken bowl of Jell-O as he pulled Trang out. Trang was dead and past hope of revival.

Doctor Melo, hotel physician, entered the chamber. Her eyes were glazed. Byron assumed she was self-medicated as usual.

She quickly and carelessly checked his vitals.

“He’s dead,” she said.

“Thanks.” Byron turned his attention to Judi. “What happened, Mrs. Trang?”

“You can see damn well what happened.”

“Tell me anyway.”

She huffed, but answered, “I was in the dressing room and when I came out he was like this.”

“Did you try to get him out?”

“He’d already drowned.”

“That’s not what I asked you.”

“No. What would be the point?”

“Resuscitation. It’s been done, you know.”

“I called for help.”

“Mr. Trang was a very very rich man, was he not?” Byron asked.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“You now are a very very rich woman.”

“You son of a bitch.”

The hotel manager’s eyes gleamed with respect for Lasko. Here was a chance to pressure the widow into keeping mum about the accident without even a cash settlement. The threat of murder charges might be enough. In truth, Cosmocorp wouldn’t want any publicity about a murder, but she needn’t know that.

“This man didn’t drown,” Dr. Melo stated. “He’s been shot.

“That’s impossible!” said the manager. There are no firearms on the station.

Melo repeated, “He’s been shot.” She looked at Byron. “Let’s get the body to the medical station.”

“Wait! You can’t drag the body through the hotel corridors,” the manager complained.

“There is not much choice.”

“At least bag it first, and try to avoid being seen by other guests.”

“My husband is not an ‘it,’” Judi objected.

“I apologize, ma’am.”

“Madam Trang, was that the changing room you used?” Byron asked.

“Yes, why?”

Byron floated over and looked in. There was a smock and a purse. He opened the purse.

“Hey, you can’t do that without a warrant!”

“Yes, I can, Madam Trang. You signed a waiver before you bordered the shuttle. All our guests do.”

There was nothing in the purse but make-up. He put back the purse.

“I’ll help Doctor Melo move the body and then give her a chance to work,” he said. “Madam Trang, I’ll have more questions for you.”

“I’m obviously not leaving the hotel before the next shuttle.”

“Please don’t speak to the other passengers about this until then. One of them, it seems, is a murderer and you may be placing yourself in danger.”

If there was a firearm on board, they all were in danger. A bullet puncturing the hotel’s hull would be very bad.

**** **** **** ****

“Are you sure he was shot?” Byron asked Dr. Melo.

“Chief, you know I wouldn’t be in this tin can if I were competent enough to get a decent position on the ground.”

“You judge yourself harshly.”

“No. I wrap scraps, bind sprains, dispense aspirin.”

“And opiates.”

“Where they’re needed,” she answered. “But even I can see a bullet hole.”

“What caliber bullet?”

“There is no bullet.”

“You mean it passed through him? Then the bullet is still in the pool room.”

“No, there is no exit wound. There is trauma from a bullet but no bullet. I don’t have an explanation.”

“An explosive round?”

“No fragments. Nothing. Besides, explosives would have shown up on our chemical scans of the passengers.”

“What is your theory?”

“I don’t have one.”

“That’s not good enough. Keep working on it. Come up with an educated guess. Something.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you.”

**** **** **** ****

For the second time since her arrival, Judi sat across from Byron in his office.


“Cadence. You’re lucky I’m letting you call me by any first name after what you said in the pool room.”

“Let’s get the obvious question out of the way. Did you kill him?”

“Of course not.”

“Tell me again what happened.”

“There is nothing more to tell. I went into the dressing room and when I came out I found Nguyen drowned.”

“Not drowned. Judi, who exactly was Nguyen? Did he have enemies?”

“Lots. Arms dealers make enemies even when they sell to both sides. Maybe especially then.”

“Are any of these enemies aboard this station so far as you know?”

“Any one of them could have interests threatened by my husband’s customers.”

“I see.”

“Nguyen’s death hasn’t been mentioned on the hotel news feed.”

“I know. We’ve shut the swimming pool for a couple days. We’re telling everyone it is for filter maintenance.”

“Unless you have more questions I’m going to the bar. If it makes you happy, I won’t talk about it to anyone yet.”

“That will make me happy. ”

**** **** **** ****

Byron returned to the pool room to search for a weapon or a bullet. He expected to find nothing but he had to be thorough. The lights in the room went out. Someone shoved him. He found himself underwater. He kicked and stroked though for all he knew he was swimming in a circle. Just before his breath ran out, he broke the surface and gasped. He nearly had drowned.

Without stopping at his quarters to change, Byron dropped down the ladder tube to the lobby. Several guests stared and whispered as he squished his way back to his office.

A message from Omar Tyler, the Cosmocorp CEO himself, was flashing on his screen. It ordered him not to search guests for weapons or to harass them with questions.

Byron left his office and climbed two levels to Melo’s medical station.

“Doc. Turn up anything new?”

“Most people shower without their cloths.”

“I’ll try to remember that.”

Dr Melo said, “Nguyen Trang died of a heart attack.”

“What are you saying? The bullet impact scared him to death?”

“If you’ll recall, there is no bullet. There is no bullet wound anymore either. I’ve been ordered to do a partial autopsy that will obscure the entry wound and then to issue a death certificate saying ‘heart attack.’”

“The order came from CEO Tyler?”


“Was Madam Trang consulted about the autopsy?”

“Mr. Tyler said she was.”

Byron left Dr. Melo’s office and headed for the trash bay. Tyler hadn’t ordered him not to look for evidence there.

**** **** **** ****

Byron sat in Judi’s room and waited for her. She showed no surprise when she entered and saw him.

“I don’t have to talk to you,” she said. “Your boss told me Nguyen had a heart attack and I agree.”

“I’m pleased you’ve grown so much more agreeable than when we knew each other years ago. Cosmocorp is my employer, not my owner, Judi, and I have a question. I’m sure you’d rather I raised it with you rather than with, say, some tabloid columnist.”

“You’d be fired.”

“I’ve been fired before.”

“OK, ask.”

“You use little or no makeup. Why would you need a purse full of it when you went swimming?”

“Do you empty all your pockets of unnecessary items every time you walk out the door?”

“No, and that is what I thought at first, but it bothered me all the same.”

“What’s your point?”

“How do you make a bullet disappear? Imagine a bullet made of an organic resin that dissolves inside the body or when in contact with water.”

“Ok, I’ve imagined it.”

“Could you please hand me your lipstick?”

“I don’t think it’s your color.”


“I seem to have misplaced it.”

He reached in his pocket and withdrew a lipstick case.

“Are you playing magic tricks now?”

“No magic. I found it in the trash. It was scheduled to jettison and burn up in the atmosphere.”

He removed the cap. The tube was hollow. He sniffed it. He wrinkled his noise from the acrid odor.

“When you boarded, the scanners didn’t pick up the propellant because the projectile, which looked like lipstick, made an airtight fit. Did Nguyen sell many lipstick guns?”

“No, it isn’t practical in most circumstances,” she answered matter-of-factly. “You need to be very close to your target and you need time to mount the lipstick on a handle to spread the recoil or else you’ll break your own fingers and hand. The face powder case is the handle – there is a slot for it. The target is almost sure to be alerted by the time you are ready to fire.”

“Unless he is distracted. By swimming in zero g, for example.”

“So, what do you want from me?”

“I want to know why.”

“Pre-nup. I get nothing from a divorce. This way, most of Nguyen’s money still goes to his kids, but a very respectable sum comes to me.”

“You always liked to be respectable. Did you expect to divorce?”

“Odds favored it, don’t you think? I don’t like playing against a house advantage.”

“And why did you try to kill me? Never mind. I guess that one is obvious. I gather you know Omar Tyler, the Cosmocorp CEO, personally.”

“We’ve met. I honestly didn’t know you were here, though, before I arrived. It never occurred to me to ask Tyler the name of the security chief.”

“I believe you.”

“So what happens now?” she asked.


“That’s it?”

“That’s it. Nguyen died of a heart attack. The hotel physician says so.”

Byron got up to leave.

“You know,” she said as the door slid open, “you could have gotten me to do anything for you by threatening to expose me to Nguyen’s family.”

“I know.”

“You are really over me.”

“Let’s just say I’m letting you go. Enjoy your widowhood.”

“I will.”

“The shuttle arrives tomorrow. Stay out of trouble until then.”

“Anything for an old flame, Byron.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Robert leaned on the starboard rail of the cruise ship and gazed at the crumpled Norwegian shoreline with its improbable acclivities and deep inlets. White foam frothed around the rocks at the water’s edge. His eyes remained reasonably sharp when viewing things from this distance, barring the few floaters which sometimes distracted him. A glance at his watch, however, told him nothing. He put on his reading glasses. It was 10 a.m., time for brunch, one of the endless series of meals aboard ship.

Robert turned his attention to the deck. It was a late spring day under sunny skies, and the clothes worn by his fellow passengers included t-shirts, frocks, tennis shorts, and even bathing suits. Robert wore suntan pants and a long sleeve shirt, but he still felt cold. He also felt every one of his 85 years.

This was his first excursion on a full size liner. He enjoyed being on water, but until now had avoided cruises. He had spent many hours in a much smaller craft, his own garage-built sea skiff. 60 years ago he skillfully had cut and assembled the wooden frame. He had soaked plyscore in order to get it to bend properly to the gentle curves, and then layered sheet upon sheet of fiberglass cloth over the top. Mahogany trim, a windshield, lights, control hardware, and a 25 horsepower Evinrude completed the boat. She had given decades of service until dry rot became too advanced to repair. Lately Robert felt the rot had spread to him.

He had sailed the North Sea before, too, but that was nearly 70 years earlier and there had been little pleasurable about it. After all these years, the sharp bite of the North Sea air in his nostrils was starkly familiar. Every sea, every ocean every gulf – to say nothing of every port – has a distinctive odor. It has something to do with the mix of sea life, currents, winds, and any nearby human activity.

A breeze that seemed to refresh the other passengers chilled Robert. He decided it was for the best that no cruises had been available in March. He had requested one, but, while cruises sailed along the Norwegian coast even in mid-winter, the Russian port of Murmansk was closed to such traffic until late May. The travel agent strongly had recommended booking for July or August. Robert compromised and chose June.
**** **** **** ****

In March 1945 Robert was first Bo ‘sun on the Caesar Rodney. Most of the Liberty ship’s crew were civilian, but officers and petty officers typically were Navy, as were the gun crews. Robert was Navy, after a fashion, and a chief petty officer. It was “after a fashion” because he was Coast Guard, but the Coast Guard had been absorbed into the Naval Reserve for the duration of the war.

The convoy of 20 ships kept as far from the Norwegian coast as was practical, but that was close enough. Even this late in the war, German aircraft and submarines operating from Norway posed a constant danger. At this time of year, however, ice to the north was as dangerous as the Germans to the south.

Robert stood next to the 3-inch gun at the bow. The frigid wind sliced through his peacoat as though it were a cotton tee-shirt. The sea was choppy. It frequently sprayed onto the deck, stinging his eyes, and freezing on cables and winches.

Robert was permitted to work the civilian deck crew, all union members, for up to three hours per day to scrub, scrape rust, paint, and perform other maintenance. He had the option to save the hours and use them all at once, which he often did on warm routes so that the ship would come into port spanking clean. On the Murmansk run, however, he used a more conventional schedule, because the ice could not be allowed to build up.

The afternoon sky was gray and dreary, but the visibility was still too good for his taste. His four hour duty was almost up. The four-on/eight-off schedule required that he return to duty at midnight. Most of the men hated that shift, since it meant not getting to their bunks until 4 a.m. Robert, however, rather liked the dark solitude of the night hours.
**** **** **** ****

The late morning sky was a painfully bright blue. Robert stifled a sneeze as he glanced at the sun. He walked past the onboard swimming pool. Poolside were couples of all ages, a smattering of children, and a large number of singles. His eyes strayed to a bosomy young woman overflowing the top of her pink bikini. He suspected she wouldn’t remain single for long.

At brunch Robert found himself seated at a table occupied mostly by young singles. Robert smiled at his own tendency to consider “young” anyone under 50. In the service, anyone over 25 was likely to have been called “Pops.” Robert became aware that one of his commensal companions was talking to him.

“Excuse me?” Robert asked.

“I said, ‘Have you ever been married, or are you an old bachelor?’” asked a well-groomed man in his 30s.

“I was married, and I guess I’m now an old bachelor.”

“Good for you!” the fellow said with a slap to the shoulder that dislodged crabmeat from Robert’s fork. His duty to the elderly done, the self-satisfied younger man turned his attention to a woman next to him.

“So which do you recommend?” asked a young woman seated across from Robert.

“About what?”

“Should you get married or not?”

“Either way, you’ll regret it.”

“Well, that’s depressing,” she said.

“Yes, it is.”

No one else talked to him for the remainder of the meal.

Robert had met his wife Rachel in Morristown High School in 1941. They married in 1946 after he had left the service. They remained married for the next 52 years. During those years, they raised two children, built a home, built a business, built a life. Then one day she was gone. Heart failure, the doctors said.

After leaving the table, Robert again walked past the pool. Spray from splashing children caught his cheek. He no longer was used to children. Both of his own offspring soon would be collecting social security. His son lived in San Francisco with constantly changing male companions. Though his son’s lifestyle puzzled him, Robert at least admired his vital post-60 libido. His daughter had given him the closest thing he ever had to grandchildren: her two stepchildren from her second marriage.

Robert walked to the stern to watch the skeet shooting. The passenger with the shotgun wasn’t a bad shot. One clay pigeon after another disintegrated.
**** **** **** ****

The Caesar Rodney vibrated as the engine pushed the blunt bow through the choppy sea at nine knots. The ship was heavily laden with food, ammunition, truck parts, engine parts, and, of all things, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, but still it could have sailed faster. The speed was determined by the slowest ship in the convoy.

A seaman pointed out to Robert a dark dot in the sky. “PBY two o’clock,” the AB said casually.

This was not unusual. British and American PBY Catalinas kept up long range patrols over the North Sea. German Condors and flying boats did the same, of course.

The aircraft closed on the convoy. As the silhouette grew, Robert distinguished twin stabilizers on the tail. A bulge above the fuselage looked suspiciously like a third engine. It wasn’t a PBY. Just as Robert reached this conclusion the General Quarters alarm went off. The aircraft soon was close enough to identify as a Blohm and Voss 138. Primarily used for reconnaissance, it nonetheless was heavily armed and often attacked surface ships on its own. The crew also would radio an alert to any German submarines in the area. The aircraft was headed straight for the Caesar Rodney.

Liberty ships were armed with eight 20mm anti-aircraft cannons as well as 50mm machine guns, but hitting a fast-moving target took a stroke of luck. New warships were armed with fancy radar-controlled triple-A, which were much more effective, but these weren’t installed on merchant ships. Earlier in the war when still just an AB himself, Robert had manned a 20mm, but now he stood by feeling helpless.

The 138 had a 20mm of its own, which opened fire. Shells raked the deck and obliterated the chest of a gunner. Robert pulled the man out of his harness and took his place at the 20mm. He got off four rounds. On the fifth, there was no report but just a hiss. He yanked the smoking magazine off the gun and threw it over the side, burning his hands in the process. The round went off as the magazine hit the water.

The 138 strafed two other ships and dropped 110-lb bombs at a third. It is difficult for anything other than a dive bomber to hit a moving vessel, even a lumbering Liberty, so Robert was not surprised when the bombs missed. The aircraft turned and withdrew to the east.

Robert inspected the lifeboats before going off watch, but he didn’t place much confidence in them. He placed his hopes instead on the four large rafts, and he made sure their launch racks were greased and ice-free. These could be in the water seconds after the ship was hit. There often was no time to lower boats in such circumstances. The Liberty hull was a half-inch of steel, no match for a torpedo. In fact, more than a few Liberty ships had gone to the bottom when the hulls cracked along welded seams for no other reason than metal fatigue. In the cold of the North Sea, hypothermia would overtake a swimmer in ten minutes.

Robert ate his meal and returned to his tiny quarters, which he shared with a petty officer second class from Georgia named Bunson. Bunson wasn’t in the cabin when Robert entered. He lay down and fell asleep almost instantly. As usual, Robert awoke before his alarm clock went off. Bunson was in the other bunk.

The cold night air shocked him into alertness as he walked out onto the deck. Only seconds after his eyes adjusted to the dark, the central ship of the convoy exploded. An escorting British corvette immediately turned, apparently having detected the location of the attacking submarine. Robert didn’t much like the British, but he preferred them as escorts. American warship crews were competent enough once they went into action, but there always was a noticeable delay, as though they invariably were taken by surprise. He also had grudging respect for the German submarine crews who, if anything, were in more danger than the merchantmen.

The Caesar Rodney’s gunners manned the 3-inch and 5-inch guns even though there was nothing visible at which to shoot. There were no further attacks during the next four hours. Robert had no idea if the corvette had any luck. The one sinking wreck was left behind. It would be up to the escort ships to circle back and pick up any survivors.
**** **** **** ****

Aboard the cruise ship, Robert’s nose betrayed him. This wasn’t the odor of the Barents Sea he remembered. Part of the difference might have been the weather. He never before had been here on such a glorious day. Another part no doubt was Murmansk itself, whose odors had changed in more than 66 years. Patterns of sunlight and shadow played over the approaching shoreline. The city nestled prettily below low hills.

On one of the hills, Robert saw the solitary figure of a man. He instinctively waved, even though he knew it to be a statue, and a huge one at that. Something about the hill with the statue tugged at his memory. What had been there before? Gun batteries, he recalled.

He hadn’t seen more of the place on his previous visits than he could see from the deck and dock. At the time, the Soviets viewed their Western allies with suspicion. NKVD internal security troops had kept the dock area cordoned off with barbed wire, and allied sailors were not allowed past the wire. This time around, the docks were free of troops and barbed wire. Everything looked decidedly civilian.

For a moment, Robert wondered what had motivated him to come here again. He knew it had to do with some sense about time – not just time remaining to him, which he knew was short, but time in some larger sense.

He debarked with the rest of the passengers and joined a bus tour. The bus took them first to the museum and then up into the hills. The destination was the figure he had seen from the ship. It was a 360-foot statue of an unknown soldier, affectionately named Alyusha by the locals. During the war, anti-aircraft batteries had been located in the same spot, guarding against Axis aircraft based in Norway and Finland that could and did reach Murmansk. Not all of the tourists at the site were from his bus. Some were bored Russian children shepherded by teachers.

In the blue harbor below, Robert could see the cruise ship shining in the sunlight like a white pearl. At this time of year, the sun scarcely bothered to set at all. Robert’s focus blurred and then sharpened and then blurred again. He felt exhausted. He looked for a place to sit. He felt a pain in his chest. 40mm anti-aircraft guns stood to his right and left. A soldier smoking a foul-smelling cigarette spoke to him with a confused expression. Robert couldn’t hear him. Robert waved to the Liberty ships approaching the harbor.