Sunday, November 6, 2016


Carter had completed his Grim Reaper with a scythe that originally belonged to his grandfather. His robe was fashioned from an old black graduation robe. He never previously had picked up a needle and thread for any project more ambitious than sewing a button back on a jacket, but his home-fashioned hood fit well; he had reasons not to have purchased a ready-made costume where he might be remembered. The rubber skull mask was store-bought, but it was old and he hadn’t worn it in years, so no one would associate it with him. Carter’s 11-year-old son Keith walked alongside him. Keith was a ghoul, which seemed a suitable sidekick for Death.

Halloween had changed. When Carter was a boy he had roamed the streets with a half dozen of his friends without adult supervision. Only the smallest children back then were accompanied by parents. Now all of them younger than teens were, though not many older children were in evidence this night. Carter suspected older kids, even in disguise, balked at going out in the company of parents. Carter understood that point of view but he understood the parents’ view too. He knew all too well their reason. It was the reason why he accompanied Keith tonight. His own house necessarily was dark for the evening. He hoped no pranks worse than soaped windows would be played on it while he and Keith were out.

Carter and Keith climbed the three porch steps of the 1940s-era suburban house that looked like a suitable home for Andy Hardy. The householder had shown some artistry with the pumpkin, which grinned and slyly winked an eye. It sat on a milk box, which likely was as old as the house. Carter wondered if anyone under 40 knew what a milk box was. He looked around to be sure they were unobserved and then pressed the doorbell.

“OK, son, don’t be too eager. Wait for the moment.”

“I feel ridiculous this outfit. It’s not really cool,” said Keith.

“It’s Halloween. Are you worried some girl might recognize you?”

“Not until now, Thanks, dad.”

Malsworth opened the door and smiled. He was a paunchy middle age man with round glasses and a pleasant face. He held a plastic orange bucket with his left hand.

“Ho there,” said Malsworth. “Death comes calling. And his helpmate.”

“Trick or treat,” said Keith.

“Under the circumstances I’ll definitely go with treat.” He held out the bucket, which was full with a variety of chocolates. “You know, you’re my first callers. I was beginning to think I’d have to eat it all this candy myself.”

“I’ve heard about razors in candy,” said Keith.

Malsworth laughed. “Have you? I’m afraid there aren’t any in mine. You’ll have to mix in those yourself.”

“How about this one?” asked Keith. He pulled an old-fashioned folding straight razor out of his tote bag and flipped open the blade.

Carter shoved the man backward into the foyer. The bucket flew in the air and scattered candy bars inside the house. Malsworth grunted as he landed on his back atop a green and white Persian carpet. He and Keith quickly entered the house and slammed the door behind them.”

Malsworth sat up and tried to catch his breath. “What the hell…?”

A swipe of Carter’s scythe caught Malsworth on the temple. Carter had intended a hit just with the flat of the blade but it struck with enough of an angle to cut the scalp. Blood gushed. Malsworth fell over on his side, stunned but still conscious. Keith positioned his razor under the man’s throat.

“I suggest you stay quiet and don’t try to fight us while I tape your hands and legs together,” said Carter. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” said Malsworth in a low voice. “Take what you want. I don’t have anything valuable but…”

“You obviously don’t understand what I meant by ‘quiet.’ Just nod yes or no. Keith, nick his chin to make the point.”

Keith cut a little deeper than Carter intended but Carter let it pass. “Do you understand now?”

Malsworth nodded.


Carter removed a roll of duct tape from Keith’s tote and wrapped several layers around Malsworth’s ankles. He rolled Malsworth on his face and taped the man’s hands behind his back. He rolled him face up again. The doorbell rang.

“Crap.” He slapped a piece of tape over Malsworth’s mouth. “Keith, hold the razor to his throat again. If he moves or makes a sound, cut it. Did you understand what I told him, Malsworth?”

Malsworth nodded.

Carter gathered up a few candy bars from the floor, put it in the orange bucket and cracked open the front door.

A costumed 9-year-old stood on the porch next to her un-costumed mother. The woman took a step back at the sight of the skull face but then smiled, and said, “Oh my.”

“Not to worry. I haven’t come for either of you tonight.”

“Good to know,” she said.

“Hi sweetie,” said Carter to the girl. “I’m Mr. Malsworth. Let me guess, you’re Xena? Good choice. Always fight back. Here. Take a handful.”

Her mother frowned but said “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Be safe.”

Carter waited until they were out of sight and then turned off the porch light. He wanted no more interruptions.

“Mike Malsworth… May I call you Mike?”

Mike nodded.

 I don’t want you to think that you are the victim of some random psychopath, much as there would be a certain poetic justice in that. Oh no, we sought you out specifically. Oh, you look as though you have something to say. Keith don’t slit his throat so long as he speaks quietly. But the moment he raises his voice…” Carter drew a finger across his own throat.

Keith smiled and said, “Gotcha.”

Carter ripped the tape off Malsworth’s mouth. “Now, what’s on your mind, Mike?”

“Why are you doing this? Who are you?”

“Let me tell you a story. Don’t worry, it’s short. On a Halloween four years ago my wife went out with our daughter, who was a little younger than the ghoul holding a razor to your throat is now. That year he was sick with the flu and was very upset he couldn’t join his older sister and mom. He was lucky – the only lucky member of our family that night. You see, they never came back. Well, the remains of my wife were recovered from a drainage canal about a month later, but my daughter was never found.”

“I’m sorry, but what has this to do with me?”

I don’t know if you’re the sick SOB who did it – if you personally are the reason Keith doesn’t have a sister, but it was a scumbag very much like you. You’re the sex-offenders database and you happen to live the closest to my own house. So, you get the pleasure of our company. Should we start with castration?”


“No? You know, I’m afraid you’re probably right. That might give the police a clue about motive. So let’s make things look more random and Halloweeny. We’ll start cutting the ears and fingers, and then piece by piece until you bleed to death. How does that sound. It will take some time, but at the end the world will be a better place.”

“Listen to me,” pleaded Malsworth. “You don’t understand. I never hurt anybody. I’m on the list because on my 18th birthday my girlfriend was 15 and we…you know. The age of consent was 16. In another four months on her birthday we would have been legal. We were kids in love. Her parents found out and pressed charges. She refused to testify, but I was convicted anyway. It was 30 years ago. But I’m still on the list.”

“Sounds to me as though you should have waited four months. Besides, you’re probably lying. And I don’t want to hear any more of it. Now, don’t try to fight because maybe I’m just trying to scare you and I’ll leave you alive and mostly unharmed if you cooperate.”

Carter duct-taped the man’s mouth shut again, this time wrapping the tape around the man’s head.

“Sorry, Mike. I’m not just trying to scare you and you are going to be harmed a lot. Now, to work.”

Carter removed a second razor from the tote. Malsworth’s eyes went wide with terror.

Carter said, “Keith, you start on the left side, I’ll take the right.”

The Persian pattern first turned red but slowly browned as blood drained into it and dried. Body pieces were tossed onto the hardwood beyond the edge of the carpet. Keith on his own initiative began to work on Malsworth’s face, making it look as much like his jack-o-lantern as possible.

Carter put a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Crap, I think he died on us already,” said Carter. “Might as well stop. He can’t feel it now.”

“That was fun.”

“As that may be, the important thing is that we rid the world of one monster. As soon as the coast is clear outside we’ll leave. We’ll have to burn our costumes when we get home. It’s a nice night for a fire in the fireplace.”

As the two walked home, few trick-or-treaters remained on the sidewalk, and none of them gave Keith and Carter a second look. Many were covered in faux blood themselves. Keith gave each passerby a second look however. He contemplated picking out this one or that for his own reasons next Halloween.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What the Devolved Hominid Is Wearing

Elle’s GPS map told her that she was not driving on a road. In fairness to the technology, the lane beneath her wheels had ceased to be asphalt several miles back and didn’t appear on most paper maps either. The satellite images of her location on her cell phone weren’t much more helpful. It was hard to pick out roadways beneath the foliage in the forested Bitterroot Mountains. The images did show a cluster of buildings nearby. She assumed this was the Braxton country house. A driveway better maintained than the “road” appeared ahead on the right. Elle turned onto it.

Twists in the driveway took her out of sight of the road, not that she had encountered any traffic on it anyway. After another bend she faced closed security gates. She pulled up to a small speaker on a post at window height. Before she could push the button on the box a voice from it demanded, “State your name and business.”

“Hello. My name is Elle Brinke. I believe Mr. Axwood met my sister Emma. She’s a journalist. I’m sorry to intrude but I want to ask him some questions.”

“You should have checked with my representatives instead of showing up at my vacation home. My office isn’t hard to find.”

From “my,” Elle knew she was speaking to Brent Axwood himself, a very rich and somewhat eccentric software entrepreneur. She had known little about him before looking him up on Wikipedia. She learned that for several years after making his fortune he had taken up a peculiar hobby: he showed a Houdini-like delight in debunking spiritualism, alien abductions, Bigfoot sightings, and claims of the paranormal in general. Then he suddenly seemed to lose interest in such matters. While not a recluse, he became much less available to the media. He was single. Whatever romantic liaisons might be, he was discreet about them.

“I tried,” said Elle. “I don’t think anyone passed along my request to see you.”

“Then they did their jobs.”

“I know you met with sister.”

“I remember. She showed up unannounced, too. It’s a family trait apparently.”

“You do know she is missing. Her car was found somewhere nearby.”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I’ve already spoken to the state police about it.”

“They haven’t told me anything. Please, I’d really like to talk to you.”

“We are talking.”

Elle didn’t respond but didn’t leave either. After a few moments motors hummed and the gates swung open.

“Very well. Come on up,” he said.

The driveway snaked for half a mile before the main house came into view. A neo-prairie house style ranch, it was dwarfed by several warehouse structures arranged in an unaesthetic pattern. Open bays on one of the warehouses revealed a helicopter and a Jeep. Axwood stood outside the front door of his house. She recognized him from his online photos. He was shorter than she had imagined and more grey-haired than his pictures. Nonetheless he still retained some boyish features. He wore blue jeans and a denim shirt. Elle stopped next the front walk. Axwood walked up to the driver side window. She slid it open.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Axwood.”

“Yes, well we’ll see how long that continues. Call me Brent. Come inside, but leave your cell phone in your car.”

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t want you recording anything unless and until I choose to allow it. You can leave the cell phone or drive away.”

Elle let her phone remain in its dashboard holder. She tried to hide her unease with a joke. “I feel like I’m in one of those cheap horror movies in which the college kids get picked off one by one at an isolated estate. They never have cell service.”

“One always survives to tell the tale,” he answered, “so you should be golden.”

Axwood stepped back to let her open the car door and then led the way into the house.

The aroma of frequently used wood-burning fireplace was strong even though it was early summer. The most recent fire likely was at least a month earlier. The interior of the home was woodsy with rough-sawn paneling and cedar ceilings. She followed Brent into the living room. The white leather furniture clashed with the rustic architecture. He sat on one leg of a sofa’s ell and gestured to her to sit on the other.

“So tell me why you want to talk to me,” he said. “I’ve already spoken to the police. I don’t see how I can help. Your sister came here, asked a lot questions of the sort I would expect from a tabloid journalist, and left. There’s really nothing more to say.”

“I’m following up leads on my own because I don’t think the police are taking this case seriously.”

“Search teams scoured the woods for days around where her car was found. They looked pretty serious to me.”

“And then they just gave up.”

“I’m sure they haven’t. Has it occurred to you that your sister might have staged her evanishment as part of some publicity stunt for a story? You do know she was investigating alien sightings.”

“I know she was coming here to see you. She texted me excitedly about it. And the GPS records on her phone shows that this was the last place she stopped before she drove up into the woods.”

“So the police have spoken with you after all.”

“Not enough. Could you please indulge me? What did Emma speak to you about?”

“Very well. Emma told me she was a reporter for The Plutonian Guardian. That was a lie.”

“No it wasn’t. She told me she was writing a story for them, too.”

“Not exactly. She didn’t work for them – or for anyone else. I knew that before her car reached the house. The cameras at the gate read her license plate and my security software did a background check. All of us have a big digital footprint nowadays. I know, for example that you are 31, divorced, and an accountant with a credit score of 725. I knew that before the gates opened. She was writing freelance, as she later admitted when I confronted her. Given her subject matter she had hopes that tabloid would print it. She might have been right about that.”

“Yet you talked to Emma anyway,” said Elle.

“Yes. Actually, if she had been a paid reporter I’d have refused. She piqued my curiosity.”

“You say she wanted to talk to you about aliens? I thought she was investigating an old crime or something.”

“She tied them together. An anniversary of an event that is fairly well-known locally is coming up and she thought she could milk the story for more. It involved a missing person case and a supposed alien abduction. Emma developed this theory that the crime was related to aliens – to Bigfoot and cattle mutilations, too.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Of course it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I doubt she believed any of it, but she was hoping to get published anyway.”

“What was this local case about?”

“In 1988 a teenage girl named Janice Ann Morely went camping with her boyfriend named Tom Braxton. It was close to where your sister’s car was found. Janice came back alone. She said she’d been assaulted by aliens and knocked unconscious but that they had left her behind. She didn’t know what happened to her boyfriend but thought that maybe he had gone with them. Police, needless to say, were skeptical. No body ever was found so no charges were brought against Janice. A decade ago when I still bothered debunking stories like this, I came here because of this same local legend. I stayed because I like the countryside. It was the first time I’d been in these mountains. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Was your earlier investigation why Emma wanted to talk to you?”

“Yes. Back then I spoke to Janice Morely who by then was a stout woman in a flowered muumuu and brassy dyed blonde pixie cut. She lived in a small decrepit house outside Boise. I Listened to her nonsense and then came up here to see the scene itself, but while I was interviewing the locals it dawned on me that what I was doing was pointless. People will believe what they want to believe, sense and evidence be damned. It’s when I dropped debunking paranormal claims and cryptozoology and all that.”

“You decided people are too stupid to bother with?”

“Just the opposite. Truly stupid people couldn’t reason so convolutedly or amass quasi-evidence to argue their case. People are too smart for their own good. They are able to convince themselves of anything.”

“Did you tell this to Emma?” asked Elle.

“Yes, but she wanted my quotes anyway. She said they would make her story ‘balanced.’ Emma had spoken to Janice Morely also. The woman told her about me, which is why she looked me up. Then Emma told me her truly outlandish hypothesis. She speculated that homo floriensis is still alive and is hiding in forests and isolated areas around the world – that they’ve learned to avoid modern humans for their own safety but that sometimes they get curious.”

“Homo floriensis?

“It’s a dwarf homo erectus that coexisted with modern humans. Fossils have been found on a small island in the East Indies. She proposed that early peoples took them along on their journeys – including to the Americas – as pets, talismans, mascots or something. She proposed that they are still here and that Bigfoot is really Smallfoot – a three foot tall creature who only seems big when so far away that there isn’t a good way to judge proper proportion. She also said they account for tales of trolls, leprechauns, and aliens. Even though their heads are small, she suggested the heads would look big if you woke up in a tent to see one staring in your face from a few inches away. She said cattle mutilations could be explained by their stone tools, which are very harps and well made.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, and I don’t doubt her story would have been printed. It has all the right elements. I wish she were right, to tell you the truth. Modern people can’t be trusted with guardianship of the earth. We need to return to the primitive,” he said.

“Isn’t that a rather odd view for the owner of a tech company – someone with a personal helicopter in his garage?”

“Precisely. None of us can be trusted. Not even those of us with the best of intentions,” said Axwood. “Not even me.”

“OK, I think we are getting off topic. So, what do you think happened to Emma?”

“I don’t know. But the woods are full of wild animals: bears, coyotes, cougars, and wolves. They do sometimes attack people.”

“That’s horrible.”

“That’s nature.”

“I wish to put this delicately,” said Elle. “Did the police search your property?”

“Indeed they did. I’m sure there are police reports on file to confirm that.”

“Good point. Do you know where the car was found?”

“Yes, roughly. Go out of my driveway and turn right. The road gets rough but it should be passable. About 8 miles ahead turn left onto a narrow wood road. Emma’s car was found there. It’s where Janice and Tom camped too.”

“Thank you for your help. Just one more thing. Do you stay up here alone?”

“Often. But sometimes there are mechanics and groundskeepers. Sometimes I have guests.”

“Was anyone else besides you here the day Emma talked to you?”

“You want to know if someone from here might have followed her. No guests or employees were here on my estate that day. The police asked that question too. I suggest you get a copy of the report.”

“OK. Thanks again.”

Brent walked Elle back to her car. He could see the relief on her face when she started the engine. She really had been spooked by the situation.

As Elle drove away Brent returned to his living room. Two unclothed hairless creatures entered. They knew not to show themselves when visitors were present. Neither was more than a meter in height. The body shapes below the neck were fully human though the heads seemed too small for the bodies. The male held a stone chopper in each hand. He clicked the choppers together as though asking a question about Elle.

“No. You can let that one go. I had to tell her the truth in case Emma had done so already, but she doesn’t believe Emma’s theory and won’t be writing any articles about it.” This was too complex for the creatures, so Brent shook his head and repeated, “No, Hamlet.” It amused him to give them Shakespearean names.

The male looked disappointed but nodded and left. Brent waved to the female. “Here Portia.”

She approached and sat down beside him. Brent envied her naturalness. He long ago had ceased feeling guilty about their relationship. She didn’t seem to mind it.

It was amazing what modern people would do for money, and what was coming out of the biolabs he financed would return the earth to its rightful owners soon. The florienses were naturally immune, while the vaccinations co-developed along with the pathogens would keep him safe; the lab technicians probably thought it was some scheme of his to sell vaccinations, but he had no intention of doing that. He had plans for eliminating the technicians, too. Brent scratched Portia behind the ear. With his leadership, Brent would make sure that humanity would get back to nature.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


Wiley left the administrative offices of Raritan Valley Community College carrying the catalogs and promotional literature that his high school math teacher had tasked him with picking up. Mr. Markov said he would count the favor as extra credit. This was odd now that he thought about it. Until this moment he simply had been annoyed at the extracurricular assignment. Extra credit scarcely mattered in the last semester of high school, but Wiley wasn’t good at saying no. He knew that all this printed information was available online anyway. He wondered if his math teacher was trying to influence him to enroll here by physically introducing him to the place. If so, it was the most interest the rather ineffectual Markov ever taken in him. In truth, it was a likely destination for him. He couldn’t afford private college and had no desire to take on student debt.

Outside the building Wiley realized he had exited by another door than the one he had entered. He was disoriented, but he struck out across the grass in the direction where he thought he had parked. He soon spotted his car. He had guessed correctly.

Despite a half-empty parking lot, a black Cadillac limousine occupied the spot next to Wiley’s aging Honda Civic. The narrow space between the two cars was blocked at the back by two men in conversation. One was middle-aged with gray in his hair, a short beard, and crisp blue jeans with what looked like an expensive blue blazer. His frame was husky but otherwise the man appeared fit. The other fellow was younger, shorter, and wearing a classic blue chauffeur’s hat. Wiley saw he would have to acknowledge them in order to get to his driver side car door unless he circled awkwardly around the front of his car. He then noticed a flat tire on the limo.

“Whoa,” said Wiley sympathetically as he approached the two. “Do you have a spare, dudes?”

“Indeed,” answered the bearded man. “The problem is that we need two.”


The man pointed to the rear tire on the opposite side. Wiley noticed for the first time this also was flat.

“How did that happen, dude?”

“Vandalism is a notion that comes readily to mind. There are people in the world who dislike cars they can’t afford, such as this one.”

“Yeah, maybe. That sucks, guys. Well, good luck. I’ll just slip past you. This is my car and I have to go.”

The bearded man didn’t move aside but instead held out a hand. “Alex. Alex Farkas. This is Yuri. You are?”

Wiley didn’t want this conversation to continue, but he chose not to be rude. He hesitantly reached out to the proffered hand. “Wiley,” he said. He saw no reason to provide more information than that.

“Not a name one hears much anymore. Named after Wiley Post, were you?” asked Alex.


“Wiley Post: the first person to fly around the world solo. He died in a plane crash with Will Rogers in Alaska.”

“I don’t know who they are, but maybe you’re right. I’d always assumed I was named after the Warner Brothers coyote.”

“I can’t refute that possibility either.”

“Yeah. Um, dude…if you don’t mind, I still have to get to my door.”

“Call me Alex, and yes, of course.” Still forming an obstruction, Alex said, “Wait, I wonder if you could do me a favor.”

Wiley wished he had walked around the car and skipped the conversation, but he responded, “What favor?”

“Any chance I can, as they say, bum a ride with you? I have to get back to my hotel for an important meeting.”

“I don’t know who says ‘bum a ride’ anymore.”

“Now you do. Yuri here can handle the tire issues. Can’t you?” The driver nodded. “But it will be some time until the new tires arrive and I have to get back.”

“What hotel?”

“The Olde Mill Inn in Basking Ridge. I can compensate you for your trouble.”

“I’m just going to Bridgewater. Look you could just call a cab or Uber or something.”

“Waiting for a cab will take as long as waiting for the tires. You’d be doing me a service, and Basking Ridge isn’t much farther than Bridgewater.”

Wiley didn’t want this man in his car, but again he balked at saying no. He often berated himself for not sufficiently defending his own interests. He had learned the childhood lessons of generosity and cooperation too well for his own good. He sighed and hoped this good deed would not be too severely punished. This fellow didn’t seem like a criminal – at least not of a type who would be dangerous to him.

Wiley sighed and said, “You won’t care my rusty Honda after your ride.”

“My first car was a Pinto with 140,000 miles on the odometer. Your car is a Lamborghini by comparison.”

Wiley unlocked his car with his key fob as Alex strolled to the Honda’s passenger side.

“Wait a minute,” said Wiley as Alex opened the door. “Let me clear the seat.” Wiley tossed Markov’s college literature in the back seat. He bent over the console cleared the front seat of junk mail, napkins, coffee cups, and books. These joined the catalogs in the back. Alex slid in to the passenger side. Wiley got in and started the car. The rumble was just loud enough to indicate a small hole somewhere in the exhaust system.

Wiley turned out of the campus driveway and accelerated toward I-78.

“So what are you studying at college?” asked Alex.

“Nothing. I’m a senior at Bridgewater-Raritan High School. I was just getting some materials from the registration office. I’ll might be starting there in the fall though. What were you doing there? I’m guessing you’re not a college student either.”

“You guess correctly. It was a personal matter.”

“That’s not very illuminating.”

“Don’t worry I’m not a hit man if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Wiley hadn’t thought any such thing until Alex said it. Now it worried him.

“You seem to know where you’re going,” said Alex fingering his phone, “but my smart phone says 78 to 287 to exit 30B.”

“Yes. I know where it is. I’ve just driven past it a bunch of times. Actually, my high school’s prom is being held there tomorrow night in one of the ball rooms. It’s that time of year, you know.”

“I suppose it is. Are you looking forward to it?”

“I’m not going.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not the sort of thing I go in for – and I’m not really a dancer.”

“I think you’re telling me you don’t have a date.”

“That too.”

“Did you ask anyone?”

“These are very depressing questions and I wish you’d stop asking them.”

“Wiley, I was a lot like you: a real zero in high school.”

“Dude, you do remember that I’m doing you a favor.”

“For which I intend to compensate you.”

“I don’t want money for this.”

“I wasn’t going to offer it.”

“Then what…? Never mind. But you went to your prom anyway, I suppose is your point.”

“No I didn’t and it isn’t,” said Alex. “I never dated at all in high school. I deserved a cover photo on Entertainment Meekly. Plenty of my classmates should have been inside. I’ve always thought that the least realistic aspect of teen movies is all the romantic drama. There are always a handful whose lives are exciting that way, of course, but for most teens their high school years are just not very interesting. That includes prom attendees who by and large are suffering through an awfully awkward evening.”

“Now I’m even gladder I’m not going. It sounds like it still bothers you though.”

“High school always will bother you. They are key years but when I got my diploma I felt it just documented my waste of all four of them. I skipped college to escape more of the same, and my life began to get interesting.”

“You finally got a date?”

“Yes, but beyond that. You don’t need college to become a cultured person. Often it gets in the way.”

“So you’re arguing against college as well as prom?”

“I’m not arguing against either. It depends on what sort of person you are or want to be. And what you’re willing to risk to get there. I signed up for an international security agency and self-educated. I even read some of the books I was supposed to have read in high school.”

“Does that mean you were a security guard and read at your desk when you were supposed to be doing rounds?” asked Wiley who was irked by the trend of this conversation.

“Wiley, my boy, you can be passive-aggressive. Well, that’s something, I suppose. No, ‘mercenary’ better conveys the nature of the job than “security guard.” There was down-time when I wasn’t being shot at. I made a lot of contacts in remote and unstable parts of the world – contacts valuable to a person with flexible scruples. When my contract was up made use of them: gun sales, money laundering, gold smuggling, and so on.”

“You’re messing with me, right?”

“Not at all. Mind you, I don’t recommend you follow my career path. It requires a particular temperament and usually leads to an early death. I was fortunate to make enough to retire and smart enough to quit then.”

“I don’t think there is any risk I’ll emulate you,” said Wiley.

“Such is my impression. So, I won’t pass along my contacts to you.”

“Fine by me. Um…this big meeting I’m driving you to… it isn’t some criminal smuggling enterprise to which I’m now an accessory?”

Alex smiled. “It is not, and I’m not wanted by the law in this country. My appointment is with two young ladies.”


“I gather you mean I’m esthetically too old. In another 25 years you might reevaluate your adjective. Besides, you are making assumptions.”

Wiley leaned against his door as the Civic navigated the curve of the exit ramp onto Maple Avenue. The hotel lay directly ahead. He turned right into the hotel driveway and pulled up to the main entrance.

“Well, here you are,” said Wiley. Good luck on your… um… meeting. It’s been different.”

“Park in one of the spaces over there and come upstairs. Just for a few minutes. I guarantee you won’t regret it.”

“No, sir. I’m sorry, but this has been weird and I think I’m done.” The remark by Alex about assumptions brought another possibility to mind. “Besides, Dude, I’m straight.”

“Don’t be so definitive at your age, but that’s not an issue. There really is someone I want you to meet who won’t challenge your pose in that regard.”

“No, I have to get home. I told my mom I’d be back by six.”

“Call your mom and say you’ll be late. That’s what cell phones are for.”

“I can’t call her at work and she’s working late.” He had no idea why he had revealed this information. He knew he needed to be more cautious with people he didn’t trust.

“So you really don’t have to get home by six. Stop complaining and come on up. I’m not luring you into an abandoned warehouse. This is an upmarket hotel. You’ll be quite safe.”

With his manhood called unsubtly into question, Wiley pulled in to a parking space. He hoped that Alex would exit so that he could lock the door behind him and be on his way, but Alex showed no signs of moving until Wiley stepped out of his own door. Wiley derided himself for not simply ordering the man out of the car. He derided himself more as he accompanied Alex into the hotel and got on the elevator. He needed to get better at confrontation: something for which he effectively had been chided as a child. When the elevator started to rise it was not the movement that made him feel queasy in his stomach. As they exited the elevator and walked down the hall, Wiley was acutely aware of the distinct hotel aroma from the products used by the cleaning crews.

“Don’t look so apprehensive,” said Alex as he slid the key card and opened the door to his suite.

Two women sat watching TV from arm chairs flanking a round coffee table. One was a thirtyish ash blonde in a smart businesslike attire. She clicked off the TV with the remote as Alex and Wiley entered. The second was a long-haired brunette decade or so younger, extraordinarily attractive, and dressed somewhere in between informal and trashy. She sipped from a wine glass. An open bottle of zinfandel was on the coffee table. Wiley could see the age spread was much too narrow to be mother and daughter, but Wiley wondered if they were stepmother and daughter.

“Hey Alex, where have you been? We’ve been lonely,” said the younger.

“I’ll bet,” said Alex. “There is someone I want you to meet. Ophelia and Ariel, this is Wiley. He kindly gave me a lift.”

Unsure what to make of the situation Wiley simply answered, “Interesting names.”

“Well, each is Shakespearean in her own way,” said Alex.

“Thank you, I think,” said Ariel.

“Nice to meet the both of you,” said Wiley. He was no more comfortable than he had been on the walk up. “Well, have to be going. I’m pressed for time.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Alex. “You’ve done me a service and I don’t leave debts unpaid. How old are you Ariel?”


Wiley knew that the question meant Ariel was not Alex’ daughter, a possibility he already had re-categorized as low.

“Ariel, I’m not carding you for that wine glass,” said Alex. “Honestly, how old are you?”


“That’s what I thought. Did you enjoy your prom, Ariel?”

“Never went. I dropped out of high school.”

“Well then we can save the experience for both of you. You’re going tomorrow night with Wiley, if that’s OK with you. It’s being held downstairs.”

“So long as I’m on the clock.”

“Of course. I’m leaving for New York tomorrow morning but the room is paid through the day after tomorrow. The limo will be at your service for tomorrow, if you wish to use it. Wiley, you can pick up Ariel here at this door and before then you can reach her on the room phone if necessary.”

“Well, that’s great, Alex,” said a bewildered Wiley, “and Ariel, you’re just amazing. But I don’t have a tux and doesn’t Ariel need a dress?”

“I’ll take care of Ariel’s needs. And I’ll have a tux in the room here for you. I have good sense of your size,” said Alex.

“But you know,” said Wiley. “I can’t actually dance. I’ve never… well… had the need.”

“Ariel, before the prom tomorrow, show him some dance moves. You don’t need to be Fred and Ginger.”


“Never mind. He doesn’t need to be good. Just let him get through the damn prom without too much embarrassment. Besides, everyone will be looking at you anyway.”

“Again: thanks, I think,” she said.

“Why are you doing this?” asked Wiley of Alex. “This is insanely over the top for a car ride.” He looked over at the silent Ophelia for some indication of what was going on, but he couldn’t read her expression.

“You are prying open the mouth of the gift horse, Wiley,” answered Alex. “Never mind why. Just show up here tomorrow early enough for Ariel to get you into shape.”

“I don’t know what to say,” said Wiley.

“Say goodbye. We’re done here. See? You’re alive and unmolested. Ariel, walk him to his car. Get to know him a little, and then come back.”

“Right. I’ll be back,” she said over her shoulder to Alex as she accompanied Wiley out the door.

The door closed behind them.

“Ophelia?” asked the woman Alex had called by that name. “You should give me warning before springing a name like that on me. Why Ophelia? Do I seem crazy to you?”

“It’s just the first name that came to mind after I introduced Ariel.”

“Wiley is pretty na├»ve but he must know she’s a hooker by now. He probably thinks I’m one too.”

“Well, I couldn’t very well tell him you’re a private detective, could I? Besides, what does it matter what he thinks?”

“I suppose it doesn’t. Doesn’t it bother you out that you and he both…I mean with Ariel.”


“OK.” She shook her head, sighed, and pulled a hand-written invoice from a jacket pocket. She handed it to Alex. “Are you going to settle up now?” she asked. “I added some extra expenses – you told me not to be cheap if I needed to grease a few palms. Wiley’s math teacher was sure I was up to something very funky when I bribed him to send Wiley to the college, and he demanded more money at the last minute than we’d first agreed. I assumed you would be OK with it.”

Alex glanced at the bill. “Hefty, but you assumed correctly. Do you want cash or gold?”

“You carry around gold?” she asked.

“Just a handful of one-ounces.”

“I’ve never been paid in gold before. Lay it on me.”

“I’ll have to make up the last few hundred in C-notes, unless you have change, said Alex.”

“I don’t. Gold and a smidgen of cash will be fine. I gather he’s your son.”

“So the DNA indicates.”

 “OK, I wasn’t going to do this but I have to ask. Why don’t you tell him? Why all this intrigue and expense over a stupid prom and a working girl? Why not just leave him your money like other rich parents?”

“For very good reasons. One: He is happy with the family he thinks is his so there is no reason to rock the boat for any of them. Two: I want to do something special for him that is extravagant. Three: I want to limit my extreme indulgence to a single occasion because I intend to live long enough to spend every last dime on myself and bounce the check to mortuary.”

“I see.”

“You disapprove?”

“I took the job, finished it, and accepted payment so I suppose I’m in no position to judge. But Alex?”


“If you also have a daughter and plan something special for her, hire another detective.”