THE MERCHANT OF PEARL
Mani Leyb
Trans. by Marvin Zuckerman

The horses they fly, in the sleigh they are spanned,
The whip, it cracks in the merchant's right hand,
Happily tinkle the bells.

--Girl, go open the door wide for me,
Let me go into your courtyard to see,
I am a merchant of pearl.

Young merchant you come from so far, far away,
But you've come to some poor people who never can pay,
What you ask for your pearls.

--Girl I have journeyed expressly to you,
For your parents are certainly rich people too,
To have such a pearl of a daughter.

O clever young merchant, you come from the world,
But you will not be able to buy me with pearl,
Away from my mother and father.

--Girl, go open the door wide for me,
Let me go into your courtyard to see,
There to talk to your parents.

Good little merchant, speak so no more,
Into this court I'll not open the door,
I am the bride of another.

The horses walk, in the sleigh they are spanned,
The whip, it hangs slack in the merchant's right hand,
Mournfully tinkle the bells.

SAN FRAN CHANT
Jessica Baker

Back in the city of angels but with a little more madness in my skin,

a little more beat to the rhythm pumping through my veins,

a glitter-bombed, Tibetan peach pie-eyed mermaid.

 

Wish I could bottle up the way the sunshine pierced the redwood treetops,

preserve the feeling of rose rewards, of roadside raspberries devoured crab-watching on unnamed coastal cliffs,

savor the succulent visions of the hysterical in Tenderloin, the rambling hippies praising the universe,

whose bodies operate grungy against the pastel paradise of painted ladies, asymmetrical,

whose ravaged hands hammer out drum-circle psychedelia while strangers spin in sacred spirals,

inspired by Haight Street temples, enshrined in endless crystals,

rhapsodizing god in all names and forms.

 

Abducted by an unceasing out-of-body experience, my spirit is still

choking down fernet between beetle-adorned bar walls,

stumbling, intoxicated by exultation, up and down tie-dyed hills,

singing infinite gratitude to our angel-headed hipsters.

TRUNCATE
Sheika A.

Autumn should have arrived ten days ago

but the days are mystifyingly clear

and with a cool breeze today – 

we are probably receiving the residual

monsoon winds from across borders.

 

This stray monsoon doesn’t know it can

never initiate rain on my ground – 

we live under a despot sun.

 

My skin hasn’t started to flake,

darken and wrinkle like autumn-inflicted trees,

but has turned a shade lighter – 

an unwelcome unexpected 

 

Spring never arrived; summer hasn’t left;

autumn is late; the months are shedding

days faster than the leaves in flight

to desiccation.

 

The days carry themselves with eccentric

precision – eight years have seen no change.

 

Winter will be its nonage burgundy self;

the nights crusting with sadness,

the hours condensing with slowness.

AZURE BLUE
BC Petrakos

When Alice got the divorce papers, when she saw his name, a list of assets, a list of agreements written

down on white sheets of paper separating her from the life she knew, she took a deep breath. 

Alice watched herself being erased from what she was, what she thought, from all that was important before and all that meant nothing now. She sat down slowly on the couch and stayed there.  For a year.

She was blue.

Alice only got up from the couch to go to the kitchen or to the bathroom. The man who signed the

paper dismissing her existence paid the rent, the utilities and some other things. But she knew, in truth, he

didn’t do anything personally, he was never personal. Someone at his office sent the checks and paid the bills.

He was now just a signature on paper, a source of confusion and a reason for Alice to be on the couch and to

be blue.

That year, she did not leave the house, ate only what was in the cupboards, did not turn on the TV, or

radio or computer. That year, she was so blue that she cried and took a lot of baths. She couldn’t bring

herself to go into the bedroom or look at the bedroom so she kept the door closed. Mail stacked up by the

front door. Her grass turned brown, her car stayed in the garage. Nothing was done. No one visited. 

Alice was blue.

After a year, Alice decided to take her last bath. She had run out of food and had very little soap left so

she decided it was time. In order to take the last bath, she had to go to the bedroom. She had to open the

door and walk to her closet. She knew it would be the last time she would do it and it took her three days to

complete this task. The only reason she had to go into the bedroom was to get a swimming suit. She reasoned

that someone would find her after the last bath and she did not want to be naked. Her only choice was to go

into the bedroom and get a swimming suit from the closet. She stood, walked to the door that had been shut

for so many days, and opened it. The sight of that huge bed made a sharp pain shoot across her flesh as if it

were yesterday, as if she just saw the notes, heard the conversations. It felt as if she was cut in her guts as she

stood in the room, took a deep breath and tried to focus. She decided to walk to the closet and get a swimming suit as planned. She recognized this was the last of her decisions. In the walk-in closet, she saw half the clothes missing, taken out more than a year ago.  The other halfof the closet was full of clothes, neat and organized

the way she used to make her maid organize it, all hangers and clothes facing the same direction, everything

pressed, hanging color coordinated and perfect.  She remembered scolding that maid for mixing beige with taupe and being in a rage that she did not understand the difference. The maid was right. There was not much of a difference. She saw dresses from big corporate parties, remembered arguments, and drinking, and shopping

sprees that meant nothing. She saw cute outfits and designer shoes that when they were purchased made her

happy, or what she thought was happy. She saw half a closet with nothing and half a closet with neat, lifeless,

once expensive clothes, clothes which have become like her, no longer valid, valuable, or necessary. She

smiled at this thought and went to the custom dresser ‘they’ were not happy with. The little dresser ‘they’

discussed and she whined about. The little dresser in the closet conversation that drove the poor ‘Closet

Lady’ insane. The dresser ‘they’ laughed about, the dresser that was so important, so wrong, so not perfect. It

was the last time they laughed . It was the last time he talked to her, it was their last decision together.

He like a king extending pardon, gavethe ‘Closet Lady’ her check for the balance , even though the thing was not right.  Together they smirked and watched the ‘Closet Lady’ cry. Poor thing, they were royalty in that moment, they held the fate of the Closet lady,  holding back her pay her till the last second, how arrogant they were together?   

 

She realized the swimming suit was a good idea as it was her last bath and who knows what someone

would find her. She thought whoever would find her after her last bath would be unsettled anyway?  Whoever

would find her would not, at the very least, find her naked.

 

 

 

 

Before the divorce, when on a trip to San Francisco, she went into a Chinese market and found an old

fashioned straight razor. It was new and the blade was steel, it interested her. So she bought it. It was just

before the end of that other life of hers, before the papers, the arguments, the betrayal, the discoveries, before

the couch,  the silence, the tears. Before the year of being blue. She remembered standing at the

counter and looking at the strange straight razor, in that moment,  it reminded her of

something she could not put her finger on.  She remembered trying to find a reason to buy it and

 the man showing her how sharp it was by cutting his finger with a swift touch. “Very sharp,” he

warned. There was a part of her that knew exactly what it was for, she realized that now. 

When she got home, she put it in her dresser in the little black box it came in as if it was jewelry, right

next to the diamond earrings he gave her for the first anniversary.

She went into the bathroom turned on the water, as hot as she could stand it and then…she settled into

the tub.

After a year on the couch, looking at the papers, sleeping, thinking, and crying. She heard herself speak

out loud, her voice was dry and scratchy from not talking. She said in a low steady tone “Today, today, today”

She said the word ‘Today’ like it was a chant or a prayer. “Today,” she repeated.

 

It was interesting to open the razor. It took a bit of work, it was long and heavy. The blade was still

surprisingly sharp and the first cut went deep and was a shock. It hurt with a burning sting and poured her

blood into the bath water. She cut again on the other arm, deep and after a moment she cut again, deep. It

was a burning cut, water being mixed with blood, hot and surrounding her. After a moment she couldn’t feel

anything, she got light-headed and her eyes focused on the circle of teardrops at the end of the tub. The part

of the fixture that drained the excess water was sucking excess tub water into its teardrop slits.

Then a strange thing happened. The water turned blue. The mixture of blood and water turned azure

blue, it was the last words that she said… “Azure…it’s Azure Blue,” and she felt herself pour through the

teardrop slits at the end of the tub, and pass quickly through tubes and steel and then she was forced into the

sea,  the swirling life of the sea. Around and up and down, fast and suddenly slow. She moved and she was no

longer she, the body was no longer her, now the azure turned to gold and green and nothing and everything

and all that there is. She was living in every molecule, she was moving and touching and not touching

everything. No more memory, regret, no more thoughts of love, no more couch and paperwork, now she was

not anything but azure, and gold, everything and nothing, touching and cold, warm and for the first time filled with life!

"He didn’t know who he was…"
Pablo Capra

He didn’t know who he was, he was too young,

but he liked white walls and seeing things in front of them,

and most of all he just liked to see.

He liked the wider awareness brought about by extra gazing

as it clarified and cast a light on a deeper reality.

 

There are many colors in white: 

there’s a catoptric surface, a plum-scented wind, wild ducks chime in….

He could never find the bottom.

As the touch perfectly hollows the place where it lands,

his wonder made everything blossom.

 

His paintings were substantial hard-fought battles,

taking up too much time, removed.

“I paint, I look, I erase,”

he gasped, identifying his facture.

“I didn’t do this to become a crusader.”

He liked when things that were normally never still paused:

a bird, a dog, an unplayed guitar.

 

When the bird looked up, it saw its short life:

a small gaze to a gold puff tethered.

When the dog looked up, it saw its intelligence,

and wanted to strike out—which it would never.

When the guitar was leaned against the wall, its haptic seduction grew, 

calling to the player who stroked his chin with haptic pleasure.

 

Childhood had been a game, the birds flying by,

searching for a castle to call home;

making faces fish-like, goat-like

at the limits of what was accepted or what was known;

a minstrel with a poem always in his hand,

and an independence that left him trembling,

chasing maidens on dirt roads to swimming holes,

dusted skirts and wind-blown hair by wind-blown grains yellowing.

 

He was pale from the moon, from staying up until the curtains turned orange,

watching sunlight pirouette down upon the vespertilian skyline of the city.

He marveled as, with the noise of hammers, people began to stir,

making the world flower again with their activity.

His espiègle fellows tried to bring him out on the town.

They put figs in his mouth.

“A life well-lived needs to be celebrated!” they exclaimed.

But they left him alone when he insisted, “I’m working this summer.”

People sympathize with someone trying to live their own way.

 

July was a lizard, asleep in the heat. 

The colors dried on his hands.

He wore them like jewelry.

When he felt lost, he stood very still.

Sometimes he’d stare at his impassioned reflection,

 

wondering, “What can I say about me?”

FRIENDS
Josh Kravitz

“I’m starting to worry about something,” Billy said, a bit hesitantly.  The seven-year-old was lying on a grassy hill, looking at the sky.

“What are you worried about?” said Grontarr, the twelve-foot creature lying next to him.  

“I’m worried that you’re not…that you’re not real.”

Grontarr furrowed his brow, or at least his version of it.  His furry purple face had only one, very large eye that left little room for a forehead.  The eye glared at Billy a long moment before Grontarr finally broke out laughing.

“Hahaha.  Not real!  That’s hilarious!”

Grontarr’s laughs revealed the expanse of his cartoonishly frightening mouth.  Sharp, oversized teeth struggling for space.  A wide maw that seemed built on an endless swivel.  And then there were the two tongues that gave his gravelly voice a lilting tint.

“It’s not that funny,” sniffed Billy.  Grontarr’s guffaws finally ran their course.

“So, what, I’m like, your imaginary friend?”

“I guess.”

Grontarr grew a bit concerned.  He nervously pressed his finger against his own chest, dozens of small horns peeking through his patchwork tunic.

“But…I feel real.  I have a mother.  And a father.”

“But how do I know I didn’t just imagine them too?”

Grontarr looked stumped a moment.

“I guess you’re right.”

“We look so different.  Like we’re not from the same planet.”

Grontarr looked back and forth, comparing his gargantuan Velosian frame with that of the four-foot human.  Tri-fingered hands bigger than Billy’s head.  The small feet of the boy dwarfed by Grontarr’s metal hoofs.

“It’s possible.”

The two friends turned their attention back to the sky, worried as to where the conversation was headed.  Grontarr finally broke the silence.

“Billy…”

“Yes, Grontarr.”

“We’ve had so much fun playing together.  I don’t want it to end.”

Billy turned his head quizzically, as if doing a math equation in his mind.

“Why would it end?”

“Well, if I’m not real, you’ll eventually leave me to play with someone who is.”

Billy’s face quickly grew angry.

“I would never do that to you Grontarr!  Never.  We are friends for life.”

“Really?”

“Yes.  Friends for life.  Say it with me.”

“Friends for life!” the pair shouted, smiling.  Grontarr started tickling Billy, who began laughing hysterically.

“Hahaha!  Stop!”

The merriment dying down, Billy and Grontarr laid back and turned to the sky.  Billy smiled and sighed.

“I love you, Grontarr.”

“I love you too, Billy.”

Just then, the pair heard the sound of footsteps approaching.  A shadow appeared over them.  A scraggly voice boomed out.

“Dinner’s almost ready.  Wash your hands.”

“Okay, mom!” the pair yelled in unison before cracking up with giggles.

“It never gets old,” remarked Billy.

“Are you playing with your imaginary friend again?” asked Mom.

“Who’s to say what’s imaginary?” replied Grontarr.  “Who truly knows what’s real and what isn’t?”

Grontarr and Billy shared a knowing smile.

“I guess you’ve got me there, Grontarr,” replied Mom, shaking the furry purple head that sat atop her nineteen-foot frame.  “But you still need to wash your hands.”

 

TATTOO MAN, Chapter 1
Shirley Cannon

You never saw cars on the road on Sunday mornings.  Hardly ever.  I liked the quiet breath of the air.  I could see crows as they flew down from trees and landed nearby.  They say that when you start noticing crows and counting them, more and more show up.  Everybody said different things about what they meant.  I heard four of them meant good luck.  Two, death.  Eight, pain and sorrow.  There were quite a few that morning.  I lost count.  Nine, I think.  Maybe.  I couldn’t remember what nine’s supposed to stand for.  I loved looking at the crows.  The glistening black of their feathers made me think of peacock coal, that hard anthracite kind, not bituminous coal like we have.  Peacock coal is jet black and streaked with hot pink, Indian yellow, and stripes of acid green like you see sometimes on the back of a beetle.  As I neared the mine, I could hear the low hum of generators, pumps and high tension lines that kept the mine alive six days a week, and then sounded like some kind of slumbering beast on Sundays.  

I’d been walking barefoot on the newly tarred road, just heading up toward the coal mine, like I did every Sunday morning.  When my feet got too hot on the fiery surface, I hopped onto shady patches when I could, cool patches created by the thick, overhanging trees.  Sometimes my toes would sink down into sun-softened spots of tar that covered deep potholes.  It felt good the way the tar would sink in when I poked it with my big toe, and then slowly return to the way it was, like some thick licorice cushion in a hot, hard place.

At twelve years old, I was drawn to the mine like I was a spirit who walked through ghost towns.  Rusted coal cars lay like skeletons on abandoned rail lines.  The mine office, a once whitewashed cement block building, was now charcoal gray, like it’d been picked up and fondled by grimy hands, then plopped down onto that hard piece of earth.

There was no grass or green of any kind to be seen, except when I looked up.  Up was where the trees were.  Up was where the hills were which held the trees.  Up was pure green coolness.  That dark hooker green spotted with sunlight which somehow managed to slip past the hulking mountains that surrounded the black tar road and black coal-covered ground, and the mine with its rusted metal doors and blackened coal tipple, the rusted brown wires and creosote-covered telephone poles.  Up was green.  Down was dark.  All my life, green had been where freedom lay.  My place to play and hide in spots no one else knew about.  But, that black and rust and tar?  That’s where my heart lived.

I followed the coal car tracks toward the tipple and found myself in front of the rusted doors that blocked the entrance to the mine.  I picked up a rock and knocked a few times.  It made a loud, hollow sound.  I dropped the rock and picked up a rusted railroad spike.  It was a good one, and I thought I’d take it home for my collection.  As I walked back toward the road, the tiny rocks covering the mine yard hurt my feet, so I scrunched up my toes to put some space between the soles of my feet and the hot pebbles.

Back at the road, I crossed over to the memorial, a large, three-paneled wood sign that reminded me of Italian paintings on a calendar at Joey Matteo’s house, with one big dirty panel in the middle and one skinny panel on each side.  I’m sure it must have been white when it was new, but it had turned grimy gray, the same color as the mine office.  It was hard to see some of the names, but I liked to read about the men who’d died in the mine.  Charlie Foster, crushed between a coal car and a support timber.  Leonard Ackerby, a ceiling gave way.  Harold Barthlow, slag fall.  Paul Rapach, Gabriel Blackmore, Carl Brady, black damp explosion.  There were almost fifty names in all.  Most of them had died of white damp poisoning.  Some drowned when water flooded through.

From where I was standing, I had a good view of the mine office, so first I heard the car coming, then I saw it pull up and park in front of the office.  Dr. Morris got out and unlocked the door and went inside.  He came out right away and began loading cardboard boxes into his trunk.  Suitcases were piled up in the back seat of the little sports car.  I held my breath as I watched my mother.  She was sitting in the car and wearing big sunglasses.  The top was down and she had her head laid back with her face turned up toward the blue sky and green trees.  She looked like a movie star in that white convertible.  Her hair sparkled like it was filled with orange diamonds.  When he came out with another box, he put it in the trunk, then touched her hair and smiled at her.  Bent down and kissed her on the lips.

I waited for him to go back inside and then walked over to the car.  I was trying to figure out what to say, but my brain wouldn’t let me keep track.  At first she looked surprised, then like she was mad at me for something.

“What are you doing up here by yourself?  You should have stayed home and not be running all over the place.”  She checked over her shoulder then looked me up and down like she was in a store.  “Where’s your daddy?”  She checked over her shoulder again.

“He’s at home, sleeping.” I said.  She seemed to calm down.

“You going to Pittsburgh to live?”  I wanted to add “with him,” but I didn’t.  “When you coming back?”  She probably wouldn’t have answered me anyhow.  She just looked at me through her big glasses.   

“Mrs. Fortley will see to you if you need anything.  You should be in church instead of running up and down this road like some wild thing.”

I could feel my bare feet burning on the hot pebbles as I stood there, but I didn’t move them.  Instead, I reached down to my calf with a fingernail and cut a deep “X” through a mosquito bite that had been driving me crazy.  I rubbed my thumb back and forth on the rough surface of the railroad spike and wished she’d just take off those glasses.  She didn’t.

“I don’t want you to go,” I said toward my leg, and bent down again to scratch the bite.  “I could help out more if you didn’t go.”  

When I straightened up, she looked at my dirty blouse and jeans and said, “How often do you change your underpants, girl?”

I didn’t know what the answer should be.  I was afraid all of a sudden that it would be too often or maybe too long and then I’d lose her forever.  I couldn’t remember what I did.  Or what I was supposed to do.  My mind felt like a jukebox she could see into, big and visible, with hundreds of choices and only one dime.  I remembered how we used to clean up to go up to the doctor’s office every week, so I finally said, “Once a week.”

“Once a week!  What’s wrong with you, girl.  You know better than that!”

Just then Dr. Morris came out of his office with the last box.  He locked the door and dropped the key in the mail slot.  When he turned around and saw me, his eyes got wide and sad for a minute.  Just as he was starting to smile at me, I took the railroad spike and raked it across my mother’s side of the car.  Then I raked it again, harder.

“You’re gonna be sorry some day.”  I whispered it low, but I knew she heard me.  Then I told myself when I headed back home, “From now on, I’m doin’ what I please.  And I’ll change my underpants when I damn well feel like it!” 

…………………

Every Sunday after that, I walked up to the mine as usual, except I kept hoping she’d be there.  I didn’t know how life was gonna happen without her.  One Sunday I picked Johnny Jump Ups.  I put them on the window sill and made myself take a bath and wash my hair.  Most Sunday mornings Mrs. Fortley came down to see how I was.  That particular morning, she knocked gently on the screen door and poked her head into the kitchen.

“Addie, darling,” she said in a long, exaggerated drawl, “Why, Addie, look at you.  So cleaned up and pretty.  And the kitchen fixed up so nice!  Where’d you get those Jump Ups?”  Her huge body made the kitchen seem smaller than it was.  She stood with her hands on her hips and pretended to look jealous, but I knew she had Jump Ups growing all over her yard.  Violets were her favorite flower.  Except maybe for white roses.

“You walk up to the mine again?”  She didn’t wait for me to answer.  She knew I walked up there every Sunday morning mostly.  She just helped herself to a cup of coffee, put milk and three heaping sugars in it, then set it on the kitchen sink.  She stood as close as she could to the sun that was coming through the window so her heavy, wet hair could dry.  Mrs. Fortley washed her hair with Tide every Sunday to keep the shine in it.

Everything about her seemed heavy and wet as she shifted her weight like a wave of fat from one foot to the other and took sips of the hot coffee.  She was close to 300 pounds.  That’s how she’d say it.  “Lordy, I’m close to 300 pounds!”  She always got weighed by a doctor in Morgantown when she went to see about her diabetes.  Her damp hair was the deep golden color of the sulfur creek that ran past the mine and through Flaggy.  It was thick, healthy hair, streaked through with silver.  It was hanging in loose, natural curls that framed her smiling, plate-sized face, freshly creamed and shiny from some mysterious beauty treatment she concocted from her garden.  Her aqua-blue eyes, a little milky from cataracts, were two pools of kindness.

“Better to take a Sunday walk than go to that church, sweetheart.”  She shook her head and rolled her eyes a little then blew gently on her coffee.  “Not one flower growing in that churchyard.  Not one!  That should tell you something.”  She raised a knowing eyebrow.  “Especially no Jump Ups.  Even if there was, those people would never let you pick them anyhow.  Might give you a little too much pleasure to have them on your window sill like that.”  She smiled slyly, and then shifted her big body around a bit to catch more sun on her hair.  She sipped her coffee, and then tilted her head slightly to the right so she could see the flowers.  And me.

“I don’t go to the church anymore,” I told her, even though I knew she knew it.  

I’d tried the church after my mother left and had prayed really hard.  My friend Joey nicknamed it the Holy Roller since it was a Pentecostal church.  I only went there to ask God to bring her back, and I even asked him to bring my sister Marion back, too.  Even before my mother left, Marion had already run off to Cleveland with Baker Hutchins to get married.  Baker got a job in the Ford plant up there and we never really ever heard from them except through Baker’s mother.  But, mostly, I prayed that my father would give up the whiskey and the morphine.  People at the church would pump me about my mother, but I wouldn’t answer them.  I heard what they said when they thought I couldn’t, about how my mother had pulled the wool over the mine doctor’s eyes.  All I could think of was how Jeannie Lucas was right about her being a slut.

Nobody at the church had ever liked my mother.  She never went.  She was a lapsed Catholic.  The only thing worse, I guess, would have been a good Catholic, or maybe a Jew.  But nobody really knew any Jews, just the ones who owned some of the stores in Morgantown, and nobody actually knew them except to buy from them.

The slate dump caught on fire not long after my mother left, and Jeannie’s family saw it as a sign of God’s wrath.  Everybody knew it’d burn for years.  Just pump out black smoke that would eventually kill every leaf on the trees if it got really bad before it finally burned itself out.  Then Flaggy would look like Everettsville at night.  Pitch black everywhere except for the deep pockets of fiery red, glowing out from deep within the burning dump, a giant, over-baked biscuit that never gets removed from the hot smoking oven until it finally becomes a cinder, cooked down, I guess, to some tiny, dried up version of itself until it’s too far gone to even burn or stink anymore.  I can’t believe I was only twelve years old then.  Still, from that time until now, I’m twenty-six now, that’s how I felt, just like that cinder, every time I thought about her leaving us.  I thought about her all the time.  I didn’t know what I was to do without a mother.

So, one Sunday when Mrs. Fortley came to visit, I watched her finish her coffee and wondered if I should tell her what had happened when I took my walk up to the mine the morning my mother left, and maybe tell her how I saw her leave.  Part of me wanted to keep it hidden away, though, to have it be like an open sore in some dark part of myself so I could bring it out at night maybe to lick it.  Then put it away again before it had time to heal.

“I need to talk to your daddy for a minute, honey.  Is he around?”  I told her he was in the living room.

I listened from the kitchen as she talked to my father.  “You mean she didn’t even leave a note?”  I couldn’t hear what all my father said, but Mrs. Fortley sounded mad when she said, “Just left like a snake in the night.”  She’d brought us a pot full of homemade chicken and dumplings.  I put them in the refrigerator and kept on listening.

“Dallas, you should call up Marion in Cleveland and tell her to come home and take care of her sister, or at least come and get her and take her back with her.”

My heart squeezed up into my throat or I would have screamed, “No!  I want my mother back!  I hate Marion.  I just want my mother to come home!”

My father must have said no or shook his head, because Mrs. Fortley kept on and sounded worried about how I was gonna do and who was gonna do for me.  But she didn’t get anywhere.  I could tell.  She looked mad when she came back out to the kitchen.  I figured I should tell her about scratching that car with the spike and that I saw them, but the look on her face said maybe I better not.

“Have some more coffee,” I said.  I picked up the pot to pour her some more. “Thanks again, Addie, but I better not.”  She glanced back toward the living room where my father was, and started to leave.  When I thought about how my mother had talked to me that day, my heart started pounding like that rock on the mine door, so I just said it loud and fast before I lost my nerve, “You think you could start teaching me how to cook?  I need to learn things.”

Mrs. Fortley’s face lost some of its anger as she looked at me.  I looked back real steady, hoping that she’d say yes.  All she said, though, was “Okay, I think I might be able to do that.  Why don’t you come up to see me later today, or when you get the chance.”   She looked once more toward the living room, and then left.  

THE ANGELBIRD
Elizabeth Yochim

The Angelbird is a multi-layered journey for me to remember my own wings and to fly. Following a long held dream to become a street performer in Europe.  -- Elizabeth Yochim

There is also more information available on the website .

 

The attached gallery was photographed by Michele Mattei.

All rights reserved. 

SWEETIE
Jane Zingale

   Street parking is at a premium in my neighborhood and I’m most appreciative for the protected car park under my building.  However, one day when I drove into the garage I sensed a change in the atmosphere. When I stepped out of my car I felt a significant rearrangement in the weight and density of the air. I scrutinized my surroundings and discovered someone had stolen the pedals and wheels from my bicycle— a beach cruiser the color of concord grapes, an imperial purple with white pin striping. I’d named her Sweetie. Not wanting her to be stolen, I’d tethered her to the metal pipe below my storage cabinet.

      When I saw her I gasped, my nostrils winged out as I released a corrosive snarl. Such a vicious and damaging act so infected my nervous system; it forced the arterial pulse of my heart to quiver like a plucked string. Miserable and offended by such larceny I envisioned the moment of the assault. I pictured Sweetie whipping about like a tormented soul while the culprit wrestled her wheels and wrenched her pedals off their attachments. When he finished he’d shoved her up against the damp cinder block wall where bits of crumbling white paint flaked down on her like confetti. 

     Sweetie had become totally immobile on the metal braces that once held her white walled tires. The chain, no longer attached to the rear derailleur pulley, helplessly sagged and drooped into a cataleptic scroll of ornamental design. Her rigid crank arms sans pedals were stark and empty. She was but a skeleton of her former self.

      I feared my clever bicycle would never be the same majestic transporter of my humble self. I finally draped her body in a funereal black plastic garbage bag. It swagged over the handlebars and partially covered her as it draped down on either side of the head tube and fork upon which she rested.                                                                                                 

     Before the thievery Sweetie and I used to ride flat out along the oceanfront. I’d hunch over the handlebars rapidly pumping my legs. My hair flew out behind me as the wind caressed my skin and reassured my countenance. Full of excitement and enthusiastic gusto I felt guaranteed everything was possible. We’d race down the bike path until I was spent. Life in those moments was good. Gradually I’d decelerate, sit tall and allow my legs to circle round and round slow and dreamy-like while I examined my goals and ambitions. I’d mull over other distracting thoughts such as—I’m alone, I live alone, I’m getting older, I’m in the process of getting lonelier and lonelier until I’ve become a solitary person.

     This unwitting thief had no idea the extent of emotional chaos he’d wrought in my sober alcoholic mind. As I stood before Sweetie, my enduring bicycle, my self-worth pinched as it scurried beneath the fragile skin of my pride. I wanted a drink. My ravaged bicycle awakened ancient fantasies that churned inside me. Decades of accumulated sentimentalities revolved into thoughts that spun and hissed around my ears like the hurdy-gurdy of an organ grinder. I was drenched in retaliatory considerations and punitive self-judgments and I wanted to get drunk.

     I touched my face to feel and know I was a physical entity. I did not reach for that drink. I simply stood there alone with my compulsions and then I nodded my head, dipped my chin and sighed as I dwelt on the possibility of changing my skewed perceptions.

3 POEMS
Gerry Fabian

Just Like Streetcars

 

It hasn’t been good spring.

His press is going broke.

Hisbaseball team is rebuilding.

The regular job

he uses to support both

is about to end.

 

The paint on his car

is chipping away

and whenever he looks

for anything;

it's missing.

 

Only the music

stays the same.

"Thank God

for the Glimmer Twins",

he says out loud.

 

Outside, the cat

get in a fight.

one of his children

falls out of bed

 

and his wife still isn't home.

 

Source Origins

 

The stuttering child

still cannot explain

    the source of his fright.

His rapid word-groups

tangle on the tongue.

You quickly pull him

into your warm arms

to show that the source

of adult power

will now protect him.

 

Much later that night

while he is asleep,

you sit and wonder

about the sleepless nights

when your brain stutters

and 

who

will be there

 

to hold you?

 

 

Mourning News

 

I stumble upon your obituary

accidentally

while searching for part two 

of a local news article.

 

I gasp

and quickly read the obit.

Memories come flashing

in segments and bursts.

 

You were the first one

that I ever loved.

You taught me so much

in that kind gentle aura

as we explored

the forbidden sides of life.

 

 

No one has ever kissed me

with the passion you gave.

I have never truly recovered

from the way that you left me.

 

And now,

you've done it

 

again.

 

3 POEMS
Robert Beveridge

Cranberries on Ice

 

This could be

the only hotel in Wales

where live lobsters are served

to unsuspecting customers

 

they must paint them

that peculiar shade of red

only achieved

in boiled lobsters

and the eyes of hardcore drunks

 

one man, drunk, itinerant,

gets fingers pinched

by a mischievous lobster

 

undaunted

he pries it open

and starts to eat

 

 

Doing Lunch with Jesus

 

They thought

about ordering sandwiches,

but He kept dripping

on the rye,

 

so they settled for pizza,

where the stains

wouldn't show as much.

 

They're sitting 

out on the porch

in a little cafe

in New Hope, Pennsylvania,

 

just across the bridge

from that great big glow-in-the-dark

garden Golgotha
He now calls home.

 

He's been incognito these last two thousand years,

shaved his head

and moved to Libya

after the ascension trick,

then emigrated

to America

at the outburst

of World War I.

 

The interviewer, swallowing

a bite of pepperoni,

notes that He

looks like Willem Dafoe

in the epic film

about his life,

except He, in the flesh,

is wearing jeans and sneakers.

 

He did let the mustache

grow back, at least.

 

The two sit

in a momentary lull in conversation

and sip Pernod,

staring out

at West Mechanic St.

 

He speaks

before the interviewer

can grab a pen:

 

“There was a hit and run

at this corner

some years back.

 

The poets

had a field day with it.”

 

Flustered, the interviewer

scribbles a few words:

“Hit and run—W. Mechanic—

poets field,”

 

but his subject

is already talking

about life in Persia

in the 13th century.

 

 

 

Sanctuary

For Allison Beveridge

 

It is a common door, the same 

as the other twenty-five on the hallway.

Brown, handle, peephole in the knocker,

a place to run a fob. It’s the payoff

for the caress of plastic on plastic,

the blink of the green light,

that sets this door apart.

                                        Beyond,

the place itself is small, functional.

A kitchen just big enough to cook

for two, a space for a child to play,

love seat to curl up and watch movies,

comforting and comfortable bed

with two sets of pillows. An escape

from a world full of errands that must

be done just so, endless paperwork

and too many storage boxes. I’ve put

two steaks on the grill, potatoes 

in the oven. All that is required of you

is to pick up a fork, talk about nothing.

3 POEMS
Audri Phillips

Heart of Stars

Darkness has its place Nestling the firmaments The combusting stars Creators of life 

Giving each the courtesy of a separate space 

Darkness has its job
Nestling each heart within its cavity Together yet alone
Woven 

One pin pricked black cushion Bleeding
The heart of darkness Resides within each 

The engine in a cave
Each heart a star beating A light bathed in darkness 

 

Directions

There are masters who draw bamboo with sure quick curving strokes 

I drive on a street that runs flat from dawn to sunset
A city planners grid east to west for the workers
Blinded by the sun in the morning and again on return at night 

Progress is a direction
Driving Sightless west into the sunset 

Forward even if it seems we go back and forth I call it bad road design 

You need those curves to preserve your vision A big ball of twine is what I want
A tangle of sheltering lines
A still spot in the shade 

 

 

Courage

A breeze begins where 

Courage whispers to the waves 

Caressing jagged rocks

UNTITLED
Drew Vandiver

My mother rarely gave voice to her feelings but I never once questioned how she felt about me. When I spent the night with her parents, I never saw either one of them come out of their bedroom without pajamas buttoned at the neck, a robe and slippers. 

Her way was to do things that she thought would make you happy. She made food you liked or bought snacks you craved. She never said a word about it, she just did it. On Sunday mornings, she made breakfast for us and whoever might be around. Friends of my brothers who were sleeping off Saturday night on our couch or any relative who might show up. It was an enormous feast. Dozens of eggs, a pot of gravy, plates of sausage, bacon and ham and pan after pan of biscuits. She made gravy from the grease of the meat and she made the biscuits from scratch. But I did not like them. I liked the flaky biscuits that came in the long cylinder can. In truth, I think I like unwrapping that can more than eating them. You pulled the tab and it unraveled along until the can popped open. My mother bought a can of those every week and made them just for me. She waited on me to get up and open the can. 

I don’t remember how old I was the first time we went on our first family vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. My brothers were teenagers and could drive, so I must have been around 6 or 7. We shared a large condo with Uncle Hoyal and Aunt Judy and their daughter Shanna, who, as an only child and to my great envy over the years, always got to bring a friend along. We arrived on a Saturday and left the next. We stopped at the grocery store on our way into town and shopped. My mother made breakfast for everyone as they got up; lunch was catch as catch can and dinner was usually out at a restaurant. At the store, Aunt Judy bought 

a block of sharp cheddar cheese. I had never seen cheese like that. I thought cheese only came in slices inside plastic. She gave me a wedge of it. My face crinkled up and my eyes shut. It tasted sour at first, but then as I chewed, I liked it more and more. Every day, I would come in from the beach and make a cheese sandwich. White bread with the crust cut off, mayonnaise and a slice of cheese. We ran out one day, so I asked Judy for some of her cheese. 

“Sure, darlin’.” She always called me darlin’ and Uncle Hoyal always called me Sport. 

She had macular degeneration and had begun to go blind in high school. At that time, she could still see movement and tell light from dark. She did not yet have a Seeing Eye dog. She got her loaf of bread down for me. Wheat bread. She laid out the two pieces and I lathered them with mayo. She got a very sharp, little knife out of the drawer. A knife for adults. She sliced thick pieces off the end of the cheese block and I stacked them carefully on the bread so that I didn’t leave any empty space. I placed the second slice of bread on top and asked her if she would cut the ends off for me. 

“Oh, no, darlin’, that’s the best part. That’s where all the nutrients are.” 

I took my sandwich on a small saucer over to the table. The bread was thick and course and had pieces of nuts in it. I didn’t have the heart to tell Aunt Judy that she had picked up a loaf of bad bread. There were so many textures and tastes in that sandwich that I had not yet grown the taste buds to appreciate. I did not like the rough texture of the crusts, but I chewed along because this felt like how grown ups eat sandwiches and that felt too good to stop. 

My mother could make a ham last an entire week. She would cook it in the oven as the corner piece of a Sunday meal. Then she would slice it off the bone and put it in a zip lock bag for us to make sandwiches out of. Finally, she would boil the ham bone and use it to make soup. Again, I was not impressed. I wanted the sliced ham from the Piggly Wiggly that came in a rectangular plastic pouch of water, so she kept that in the fridge just for me. 

On my second day at Oxford, I felt lost and alone and thoroughly out of my depth. I had a break and wandered into a pub. It was Friday, so on the end of the bar was a ham and a loaf of bread for everyone. I sawed off two slices of bread and a wedge of ham and sat over my Guinness and ate. I tasted my mother’s ham and I felt my mother’s love. I felt her protection and support. I was firmly aware of how much she believed in me. Fridays at the pub became a very special place to me. I had a calling card that I used to call mama every day. The first minute was free, so I tried to rush through all that was going on and get off. I told her that there was a little pub where I eat on Fridays and everyone was so nice and they even made her ham for me. In eighth grade, I developed a tremendous crush on a tall, lanky brunette who sat in front of me in math class. One day, as I was walking out to mom’s car after school, I passed her and she smiled at me and said ‘see you tomorrow.’ I got in the car and we drove away. 

“Mama, how do you know when you love somebody?”
“Well, how do you think you know?”
“I guess it’s just something you feel.”
“True. But it’s also something you do. Real love is a verb as well as a noun.” 

Any time I came for a visit after I moved away from home, I took it as a given that there would be a block of sharp cheddar and a zip lock bag of ham in the fridge. 

I wasn’t sure whether I should unpack or wait in the kitchen for dad. I knew he was in the bathroom, reclaiming his energy for the next part of his lecture. And, suddenly, I felt my hunger. I had a pack of pretzels on the plane. I opened the cupboards that used to be stocked with cereals and vanilla wafers and crackers. They were mostly bare. No one had lived here in quite some time. I opened the refrigerator. I smelled the Arm & Hammer baking soda first. It was completely empty. Except for the middle shelf. There sat a loaf of white bread, a rectangular package of ham in water and Kraft American cheese slices. 

AFTERLAND
Marina Muhlfriedel

Dress me, my love,

in organza and satin

Clasp the diamond sparrow

‘round my neck

Slip on those silvery bracelets

I want to look my best

 

Make sure, if you would,

my eyeliner is even

Lips full, and perfectly drawn

Sweep on these cheeks, a measure of pink

Lashes mascaraed full and long

 

On my dresser

You’ll find Shalimar

Dab it on my neck and inner thighs

I need it all to be perfect,

when I turn up on the other side

 

Lay me down in style,

But lay me not to rest

that mahogany limo

will be waiting

And I’ll be on my way at last

 

I’ll step out

when I hear the band play

And enter those pearly doors

To finally dance with all the men

I secretly adored

 

It’s true I seem soft and well-mannered

At peace with my age and place

But I’m just waiting

for afterland

to kick it back up a pace

 

I’ll be shakin’ it on the dance floor

Flirting up a storm

Cackling as loudly

as I desire

Without a glimmer of remorse

 

Here I am an old woman

With crackly lips

and creaking knees

Dying to feel that magnetic pull of

men who can’t resist me

 

Make sure my hair is styled,

Shiny, red and teased just right

I hope to look a bit wicked

When I show up there that night

 

Don’t be offended

if I flash some leg

Distressed by coquettish smiles

Indulge my craving for affection

If only for awhile

 

It will all

be out of my system

before you step through that same door

I’ll have grown tired of the attention

And ready for something more

 

Then we’ll swing each other wild

Leap and twirl

with all our hearts

If we want we’ll dance on forever

And never be apart

 

And if none of it happens?

The door slams shut for good

Then I won’t know the difference

So humor me, if you would

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A MESSAGE
from Jill Schary Robinson

On Sundays when I was a kid, my father was home all day. His funniest friends were over. They’d sit around the outside table and make up stories, shouting, throwing pencils, tearing up pages like kids playing games. 

“I got an idea,” someone would laugh. 

“We heard it last week!” There’d be a fake punch. 

They’d eat deli sandwiches, laugh more. 

“Here’s a great character.” The mood changed as someone came up with a real villain. I’d sit on my father’s lap. They wrote down what they said and took turns reading their words back to each other, then starting again until the sun began to set and the fog rolled in. 

This was my father’s work: writing stories with other men and women. I decided that was the work I’d do, too. 

I learned even more when I started working with tough NYC agencies, living with my kids, writing journalism alone at night to pay the rent, and then trying to set up a gripping chapter by chapter outline for the next book. 

But watching and being included in my father’s world did show me the tough times, too. I knew he’d been up all night. I knew by watching his walk from the station wagon across the driveway under the olive tree that the studio heads had turned down a story he loved. I knew from the fall of his shoulders when he had to rewrite a script they’d said was “fine!” I learned early that you didn’t just “write it out and say ‘done!’” From the first thank you note of mine which my father edited—“Never use the same word twice in one note!”—I knew about rewrites. 

When I look around the vigorous circle of the writers I work with now in my curious West LA loft, I feel close to my father, to his working with other writers, encouraging them, helping them find adventure, not despair, in the search for the conflict. We joust each other into finding the kick of the rocket as we dig our way down to the heart of plot.  

The notion of “making a living” as a writer is harder now, but the newer fresh resources we have online and with writers’ workshops, the restoration of telling stories in series, reminds many of us that once again, it all begins with story. 

Enjoy—

serialized novel


DESERT HOUSE
Romey Keys

Prologue & Chapter 1


EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mystery DESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned. To keep reading, click "next" at the bottom of the page.  

•••

PROLOGUE: ACCIDENT

It is all about speed, driving through the desert. The faster you drive, the more you are lifted up out of the natural world. You move with no effort and the desert flows past you. Until you hit something.

A man, a product of Brighton, England, was taking his evening walk in the desert twilight. Considering the things that had taken him from the shingle beaches of the channel to the desert outside Palm Springs, he could hear the intermittent sound of cars on the road in the near distance. If he had turned to his right he would have seen the lights moving along the highway. But he preferred the shifting colors of the desert and so heard the accident instead of seeing it.

First, the sudden, quickly building sound of skidding tires. The sound of other cars trying to brake. A loud bang. Still the skid screeching. Another long drawn-out bang. A moment's silence. Then a horrible series of crashes as something pin-wheeled off the road, smashing through the desert. Sudden silence. The moment extending. Then, two voices shouting. A sudden scream. Johns stood still looking across the mesquite. It occurred to him that it could have been Ryan. He turned and walked quickly toward the end of the driveway thinking, I'll just go look and make sure. He broke into a run.

Susan Yee opened her eyes and looked up at a beautiful pattern of light coming through shattered glass. The car had stopped speeding smoothly down the road. Now she wasn't looking at the desert sweep past; she was looking at the sky. She remembered the stomach-dropping realization they were going to crash.

Susan finished breaking the side window with her high heel. Glass pebbles showered down over her. She dropped the shoe and looked for a foothold to help her in her climb up and out of the wreck. Maggie Chow lay tossed in a heap against the side window that now rested against the pavement. She tried to keep from stepping on her friend. Blood was seeping through Maggie's black hair. Susan paused, half in and half out of the car, to survey the wreckage around her. The Lincoln Town car rested on its side pointing back the way it had come. Something–she couldn't tell what kind of car–lay twisted and torn apart. And something else was off the road in the mesquite. She slid to the pavement, bent to slip on her five-inch, fuck me heels and carefully started to walk around. A car came slaloming through the wreckage and then gathered speed as it whizzed away.

"Thank you for caring,” Susan said.

"Are you all right?” It was Ryan's voice. She looked for him. He was sitting on the gravel at the shoulder of the road. She looked at him, but didn't answer. "I think I'm fucked up,” said Ryan. He kept flexing his right arm, looking at the elbow.

Two more cars slowed to make their way among the cars and wreckage. A woman stuck her head out the window of one of the cars. "Do you want me to call 9-1-1?”

"Yes. Please. We need an ambulance.” I'm in shock Susan Yee thought, "Am I hurt?”

“I get dizzy if I stand up,” Ryan called.

"Fuck you, Ryan. You almost killed us,” she said.

Susan stopped turning in a circle. She stared at what they'd hit. The wreckage off the road could have been red once. Another SUV came up, made its way through the pieces of cars, and pulled over on the shoulder of the road. A man in tennis whites got out and walked toward her. He pulled his sweater over his head as he came.

"Here. Put this on," He said, lifting the sweater over her head.

Looking down, Susan realized that her blouse had been torn away and she was naked from the waist up. A siren slowly built its alternating sound in the distance.

The ambulances seemed to arrive quickly. Susan looked up and saw the first one coming through the wavering heat. The police arrived shortly after. They seemed to be moving very slowly to the people who, having been moving so fast through space, had come to a stop so disastrously.

The center of the accident, what had once been a classic Porsche, was now red metal, ripped and hammered into a shape that resembled anything but a car. Flung from the highway, it was planted in the sand thirty feet off the road. The hot metal chunk of the engine lay twenty feet from the car. The broken bodies were where the collision had thrown them. The big Lincoln Town Car was on its side, its hood and grill destroyed. And an Audi sedan with one side deeply creased, was nestled under the rear wheel of a black Escalade.

•••

CHAPTER 1: ARRIVAL

Frank Caldwell was driving southeast away from Los Angeles and into the desert, heading down the 10 to Indio and Palm Springs. He had left early from LA with the morning chill still in the air. Now he was coming up on Indio and close to the end of his drive. The car was climbing through a pass in the Chocolate Mountains. He had reached the wind farm by 9 am. Line after line of relentless, three-bladed propellers turning in synch on their towers.

The house was outside Palm Springs. The client was a Rock musician, wealthy of course. The job was armed bodyguard and supervising house security. The client had stressed that, so there had to be a threat, or a perceived threat, involved. Or he wanted the status of having an armed bodyguard escort him around town. When asked about it, Ryan (the client), had downplayed the threat, had been vague, Seacole said his explanations had wandered. Caldwell was curious about that. You never expected your client to be totally honest with you at the beginning. Events usually forced the truth out.

Frank was incredibly focused. That was your first impression of him. He was six-three, 210 pounds, with the build of a Cruiser Weight and wore his hair in a near military cut. The physical confidence of four years in the Golden Gloves capped by another two as a professional showed in everything he did. For the first meeting with his client, Frank had dressed in khaki slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt as a concession to the heat. A lightweight brown and black hound's-tooth checked sport jacket was carefully folded and lay on the back seat.

Frank Caldwell was the top bodyguard at Seacole Security. He held a California investigator's license, one of eight held by Seacole's employees, and a permit for a concealed weapon. He was a realist.

Frank's father George had also been a boxer. Coming out of the south to California at the beginning of the opening up of the Fifties, George had discovered that he could not make his way by what work he could find. When he married he stepped into the ring and began bringing home an extra paycheck to support his wife and the three children that followed the marriage. He wasn't a great fighter; he was a good fighter, a journeyman with a chin like a brick. He had a powerful body shot, a left that knocked out three men in his career. Hard to bring down, he would take a knee, gather himself, and rise at nine. Never knocked out, he fought on the undercards of seventy fights. Trainers sharpened their boxers against George Caldwell's brick. George never expected anything else. He figured he would see how many checks he could bring in; how far he could shift his family up the ladder on his back. The small family settled securely on his back, feared for him. Even now they watched him out of the corners of their eyes looking for dementia, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's, the deadly slowing of speech and trembling hand. So far George Caldwell had eluded it all.

When Frank had tried to follow him into the ring, his father lectured the dinner table on why he had suffered under other men's fists. Frank had persisted. Frank's brother finally shamed him out of the ring. Had taken him to lunch at Roscoe's Waffle House and shamed him. Told him, "You're not Dad and you'll never be him." Told him that he was throwing his father's sacrifices back in his face. And Frank also knew he didn't have the brick, couldn't take the hooks and jabs. He was tired of pissing blood, standing over the toilet in some dressing room waiting for the burst of the thick, red stream once the clots forced through, the toilet splattered red. He wasn't his father, he couldn't stay through the damage done.

Stopping once in Hemet for a date shake, Frank arrived at the house at 10:00 in the morning when the heat began to build. Desert House, a large two-story modern design, landscaped with cactus, agaves, ocotillo, and Joshua trees sat well back from the highway. The guard on the gate passed him through and Frank pulled his Camaro into the drive, stopping on a gravel oval that already held a Lincoln Town car, a red Corvette, an SUV, a 300 series BMW, and a Miata. Through the big windows he could see someone moving around, a shape passing back and forth in the back of the house. Looking over the roof of the car, Frank tried to sort out his impressions.

This was going to be his house, his assignment. This place he had to protect. Ryan, the man was his responsibility. Everything Frank had done to this point in his life would be set against what happened here. He continued to scan the house, the object of his protection. His enemies target.

He walked to the front door, rang the bell, and waited. A man opened the door. It wasn't Ryan. Frank remembered Ryan from his old music videos. This man wore a collarless, white shirt and black slacks, with highly spit-shined, shoes.

"Frank Caldwell to see Mr. Ryan. I'm from Seacole Security."

"Ah yes, we've been expecting you. Welcome to Desert House Mr. Caldwell, please come in."

The man shut the door behind Frank and led him through the great room and down a hall to a room set up as an office. At least it had a table set up as a desk with two leather-strapped Wasilly chairs ranged before it. There was an off-white Berber on the floor and cartoons of musicians on the walls. Behind the table was a console with Ryan's four Grammys arranged on it. A terracotta pot held what looked like the green skeleton of a plant. One wall was a sheet of glass forming one side of an atrium full of cactus.

"If you wouldn't mind waiting here, Mr. Ryan will be with you shortly." Frank waited.

He was looking at the cactus in the atrium when the reflected image of a naked woman passed through the rectangle of the door. Frank turned to look but the woman was gone, replaced by Ryan.

"I'm Ryan." He spoke with a pause, as if waiting for the applause to die down. "Welcome to Desert House." It was the voice Frank had grown up with only huskier, darker with age and abuse. Looking closely, you could still see the younger Ryan. The eyes were tired now. At the beginning, they had been pale grey and looked right at you. He was heavier, his face fuller. The hunger that came out in the early photographs was gone. Ryan wore a white and green short-sleeve bowling shirt and jeans with sandals. He had a turquoise and silver bracelet on one wrist and a bright, stainless steel Rolex on the other. He projected hip wealth.

"Nice to meet you," said Frank.

Ryan gave Frank a quick, firm handshake. He sat in one of the chairs facing the desk. Frank sat in the other.

"Did you find your way down here all right?"

"Yes. Very good directions. Very clear."

"It'll be good to have someone here who can handle things. I'd like you to look around the house and give me your suggestions for security. Do you have a gun with you?"

"Yes. Seacole mentioned that you'd had threats."

"I was involved in an accident a while back and threats were made. There's also a lawsuit coming out of the accident. There are more lawsuits and threats over the band. A couple of my lifelong friends are not happy with the money situation. They're suing over who owns the group name. You know, who can tour with it. And people come by. Crazy fans. They come out now and then. Crazy people live in the desert. Thieves."

"Thieves?"

"There was a break-in."

"What did they take?"

Ryan seemed to stop and rapidly consider possible answers. "Mementos."

Ryan looked into the atrium. He gave a little nod like he was satisfied with his choice of an answer.

 "You file a police report?"

"Yes."

"I'd like a copy."

"I can get it for you. They didn't find anything. Didn't even come out

that night. Showed up the next day. Anyway, I can brief you."

Brief me on what? thought Frank

"Johns will get you settled in," Ryan added. "Then we'll talk some more."

"What about the band members?"

"Well." Ryan turned and looked out into the atrium. Seeing something else. "It's about money. It's always about the money." He stood up, as if to start pacing and then, after three steps nowhere, sat down again. "The formula we agreed on when we started and the division we worked out after Circus when I went solo. My lawyer versus their lawyer versus the record company's lawyers. Managers. Girlfriends and wives. Billy Kelvin had three wives and I swear each one of them hated my guts. Mike threatened me with a gun in Kansas City."

"Mike?"

"Drummer." He looked like he was going to open up about something. "Over a girl. And money. Man, people never forget. Or forgive. Once money gets into your band it is gone. Everything just turns bad, man."

"Anything more specific than that? Any threats while they were cold sober and thinking clearly?"

"It's the life, man. Nobody was ever totally sober then."

"What about now?"

"Now? The band is healing. All of us are healing. Mike and I have our problems. I fucked his daughter. That was a mistake." Silence, then, "I don't want to talk about this anymore right now."

The man Frank assumed was a butler stepped through the door.

"You've met Johns? Johns, Frank Caldwell." Johns extended his hand. His

handshake was dry and surprisingly strong.

"Glad to meet you, Mr. Caldwell."

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Ryan."

"Johns has been with me for ten years. God. I sound like some old Brit. 'Johns has been in the family for centuries.' Anyway. Johns saw me through AA and Rehab and detox and Rehab again and divorces. Lots of craziness. Anyway. He takes care of the house. We've got three maids who come down from Indio to help out, but Johns is the majordomo. That's his official title: Majordomo. Really." Johns smiled. "Johns will get you settled in. Then we'll talk some more."

Frank went out to the car and got his bags. Johns showed him to a room on the second floor down the hall from Ryan's. The room had the same wealthy rock star style as the downstairs. Potted cactus and carved wood objects had been placed around the space. There were framed photographs on the walls and Indian pots on the dresser. By the windows, three leather club chairs and a wood and iron table formed a sitting area. A flat-screen television sat on a chest in one corner. Frank had a view of the pool and the desert.

This was the first time Frank had lived in the desert and known it as a desert, the landscape unchanged by the irrigation and imported plants of LA. He slid open the glass doors and stepped out onto the balcony and into the heat. The impassive humps of the Chocolate Mountains rose in the distance. A few hundred yards out lay a gully choked full of the rubble that had been swept down from the mountains when flash floods came cutting their way through the flats. It was a horrible land and a beautiful land, covered in boulder flows and thickets of thorny brush, wicked Joshua trees, and sudden bursts of flowers.

Scattered through the desert were oases surrounding perfect examples of the architecture of the Fifties. On the other side of the freeway up by the aqueduct there were small shacks pulled together out of the junk scattered through the desert, lone houses surrounded by tall chain-link fencing, and abandoned shells that had once been houses. Places where you never saw anyone moving around outside in the heat.

The band. Crazy fans. Crazy desert people. Thieves. Frank repeated the mantra of bad guys.

There were more than enough bad guys in the desert to account for hiring a bodyguard, like lawyers and retired child actors. But he didn't like Ryan's deliberate vagueness about things. Frank liked clear threats, the kind you could identify, isolate, and counter. But Ryan wanted to play games and not be direct about anything, leaving lots of shadows, blind alleys, and atmospheric fog. He wanted to be kept safe from things without having to name them. He didn't want to admit Frank to the game yet. Ryan was trying to be a character, "the Innocent Client", in a Chandler novel with one of those private eyes with a true heart and a selfless devotion to lost blondes, thought Frank. He'd been listening to his own songs where lonesome strangers moved through a landscape of haunted women in black dresses and lone men drank scotch in empty bars, while the Santa Ana honing everything to a desperate edge. But he was Frank's client. And Frank would protect as far as possible.

The house was closed up, quiet and cool. The downstairs rooms were as big as ten million dollars could make them. In what Americans had taken to calling the great room, the entire back wall was floor-to-ceiling glass. At one end was a massive fireplace made from the rounded stones the mountain sent down. Over it, a Robert Williams painting of a woman wearing stockings stretched out on a giant taco. Two leather couches faced each other across a large wooden coffee table. In the center of the table was a large piece of white coral. Closing off the square were two leather armchairs. Between the chairs was a stand with a large geode broken so it revealed a curving core of purple crystal. A number of highly polished guitars had been lined up along another wall. With their inlays, body shapes, and metals, they dominated the room as Ryan's tribute to himself. By the windows were an eight-sided table and eight high-backed chairs. A backgammon board with a game still in progress was laid out by a carousel of poker chips. All the furniture had inlays of exotic woods and smooth flowing lines.

Frank followed the central hall back to the kitchen. Johns was sitting at a long wooden table reading one of four cookbooks laid out before him. The kitchen had lots of granite counters and wood cabinets with a light stain carefully worked to look old and uncared for. There was a big subzero refrigerator and a Viking stove. Frank continued through, with a nod to Johns, stopping at the French doors leading to the patio. Fifty feet in front of him was one of the biggest pools he had ever seen. There were round metal tables topped with white umbrellas off to his left. Farther left was an outdoor kitchen with a gas grill.

"We'll have lunch at noon. Sand dabs and a salad," said Johns.

"I love sand dabs."

"Good. We'll have a white wine along with it. You do drink don't you? If not, we have all sorts of sodas and fruit juices."

"Wine sounds good."

"Mr. Ryan has an excellent cellar, primarily Californians, but still a quite nice cellar. For dinner, I'm thinking of pecan-stuffed pork chops.

"You eat very well here."

"We try."

Frank looked at the bodies placed around the pool. Ryan and another man sat at a table under a white umbrella. A laptop computer was open on the table and both men were looking intently at the screen. Three women completed the group. A tall redhead had pulled a lounge chair into the shade of an umbrella separate from the men. She seemed focused on doing her nails. Two other women were sunbathing on two of the lounges lined up by the pool, one face up, the other face down. Face down was nude; face up was topless. Face down had propped herself up on an elbow and was talking to the other woman. There were towels on the tile around the chairs and bottles of water, the remains of drinks, and tubes of suntan lotion.

"You could take a photo of that," thought Frank, "and call it Aging Rock Star at Home. Or just Rock Star. You've got the girls, the conference with the lawyer, the pool. Take a picture and put it in Vanity Fair."

"Who else is here?"

"Well." Johns got up from the table and came over to stand beside Frank.  

They looked out over the pool and Johns began naming people. The man with Mr. Ryan is Joshua P. Rubens, Mr. Ryan's accountant. The girl at the table is Naomi Sinclair. The other two are Maggie Chow and Susan Yee."

"Which is which?"

"Susan is the one with the tattoo.”

Something about the two women was trying to fit itself to an image in Frank's mind. He couldn't summon it up just then or remember where it came from but there was something familiar. Especially her ass, he thought. Why does her ass remind me of someone?

As Frank watched, the talking girl turned and looked right at him. Her sunglasses hid her eyes. He couldn't be absolutely certain she was looking at him, but he could feel her gaze. She stared at him not breaking contact until he came out and spoke to Ryan.

Susan Yee was telling Maggie about this guy who had tried to pick her up at Spider the other night, when she looked up and saw the black man standing in the kitchen. He seemed like a distinct piece of existence separate from everything else. He also looked really built. He was looking right at her.

"Don't look. There's this guy in the kitchen staring at us.”

"What?” Maggie turned to look.

"Don't look. I bet it's the security guy.”

"Oh. I got the cast off just in time.”

"I hope he brought his gun with him.”

"Ryan said he was going to carry a gun.”

As Frank came out into the yard, one of the girls got up, face up, posed on the edge of the pool, then dived smoothly disappearing beneath the surface of the water. Her head reappeared at the other end of the pool. Frank got another quick flash of something, a little clearer this time. He couldn't catch it. Frank submitted it to his unconscious for further action. He looked around and went to sit at a table a short distance from Ryan.

"Give us a minute.” Ryan had noticed Frank, he turned back and continued talking to the other man. Frank looked at the reflective surface of the water, the ocotillo and Joshua trees. He picked up his name several times in the conversation. Soon they seemed to arrive at a mutual point of completion. Ryan closed the computer and called Frank over.

"Sit down Frank. I want you to meet Joshua Rubens, my business advisor."

"Mr. Rubens."

"Josh."

"Okay. Josh."

"I was just telling Josh what your duties would consist of. Josh and I go back a long ways." Josh shook a cigarette out of a pack. He looked like a large seal. He was sweating lightly.

"So you finally took my advice and hired a gunfighter."

"Security, Josh, the word is security."

"Executive protection." Frank tossed in.

Josh dismissed both comments with a wave of the cigarette. "You got me to handle the record company and Mal for their lawyers. Now you got him for the thugs. Welcome on board Frank."

"Thanks."

"Could I see your licenses, Frank? A necessary formality."

"Of course." Frank took out his ten dollar wallet and handed it across. Josh actually read both cards with Ryan looking over his shoulder. That was a first, thought Frank. Josh handed the licenses back.

"You filled him in?" Josh looked at Ryan.

"I told him a little."

Josh nodded and flicked the ash from his cigarette. "Well some people are upset over things. As you probably know there was an accident, a fatal accident. Here. Right out in front."

"In the road down from the house," Ryan corrected.

"Wherever. Ryan is about to go to court on this matter. Several weeks ago, there was a request for money, one million dollars in fact. Though we'll negotiate that down."

"You're going to pay?"

"Sometimes it's cheaper than the truth. Also, it avoids a lot of publicity and problems. I'm sure you must have some knowledge about how these things get handled Frank." Josh paused and made eye contact with Frank for the first time. They had reached an important point. Josh was about to give that jerk to set the hook. He was asking Frank to commit himself, to join their little group and accept participation in this confusion.

Frank smiled and tried to look innocently inquisitive. He had expected something like this. When Seacole told him about the trial and the lawsuit, he had known it would happen. It was just a little early. But then Josh probably wanted to get back to town.

"The girls were involved in it. Some other people."

"Sounds pretty bad."

"Bodies all over the road," said Ryan.

 Frank looked around at the "bodies" that were present. "Everyone seems to have come through pretty well."

"Maggie broke her arm and got a bad head wound," Ryan traced an arc on his head. "But they were in the back seat. I almost got killed." Ryan did his thousand-yard stare again. Frank wondered how real it was and what Ryan was seeing.

"The thing is," Josh was saying, "the thing is, people have tried to get into the house."

Frank watched Susan Yee going back and forth in the pool, while Rubens and Ryan talked about the attempted break-in. Susan enjoyed the silence under the water, just the hollow water sounds. Her only thoughts were of her stroke, the movement of the water, and the sounds. Willing herself not to think about anything outside the pool, she tried to attain emptiness, becoming the movement through the water.

"People have been hanging around the house and photographers stalking me ever since I moved down here," said Ryan.

Ryan and Josh were also watching Susan Yee go back and forth.

"This was something different," Josh added. "These guys got in, went to the office, and then left real fast. And they didn't grab anything, coming or going. You see what I mean? They wanted something specific. Knew what it was. Knew were it might be."

"I think it's the Sohn family," said Ryan.

"Stanislaus Sohn died in the crash," Josh added.

"They're out to get me. Rich bastards."

"The Sohns have been here since the Fifties, Frank. They're old Palm Springs. Get written up in Forbes. Vanity Fair did a spread on them. Pictures of old man Sohn in tennis whites eating raspberry ice cream. Bunch of fascists. The family has a nasty history."

"They want to see me hang," said Ryan.

"Who else was involved in the accident?"

Ryan and Josh looked at each other. Two conspirators trying to decide whether or not to tell Frank that the package they gave him was going to blow up or let him find out on his own.

"Well," said Ryan, looking at Josh, "Well." Ryan looked at a cactus. "The Sohns, the Fredericks from next door," Ryan gestured toward a hedge on a rise in the distance. "Then there were the Levins. They were just driving through. That guy from Vegas."

"A lot of damage," said Frank.

Susan pulled herself out of the pool at the far end. She posed, face tilted up to the sky, swept her hands back over her hair, pressing the water out, molding it into a long serpent that coiled down her back. Water flowed down over a tiger climbing toward a branch covered with red flowers. The tiger had planted a rear paw on her right buttock and stretched its muscular body up. The claws of a front paw reaching for a hold on her shoulder. Its snarling head turned to the right. Its tail curled. Red petals fell around the black and yellow stripes of the tiger. The tiger moved as she wrung the water from her hair.

Whether it was a fragment caught from a video, magazine or show, Frank didn't know, but she definitely had set a hook in him. He would have to figure it out.

She looked in Maggie's direction and then began walking over to the table where the three men were seated. Susan performed her walk like a dancer, every step carefully placed for maximum impact.

Frank was aware of Susan's approach. He could just see her at the edge of his peripheral vision. Josh was staring as she carefully walked toward them. Ryan seemed oblivious. Maggie Chow watched, chin perched on her hand, controlling her urge to laugh. Then Susan was next to him, five-foot seven inches of brown body, dripping water.

Frank looked up at her. Susan smiled.

"Hello," she said, "We haven't been introduced. My name is Susan Yee." She extended a damp hand.

"Frank Caldwell. Please to meet you, Susan." Frank carefully took her hand, trying not to reveal any emotion.

"Frank is going to be handling security for me."

"Oh. Do you carry a gun, Frank?"

Frank looked up at her and considered the several possible responses he could make. He rejected, "Yes, want to see it?" and selected something more appropriate.

"I'm licensed to carry a weapon."

"Good. I feel much more secure."

Then she turned and executed a perfect walk back to the lounge. The men watched her go. Frank watched the tiger strain to reach her shoulder. She moved with the studied motion of a dancer. Placing one foot in front of the other. He turned back in time to notice Ryan making a face at Maggie. Something there, he thought.

"Damn, I wish I were that tiger," said Josh. "

When they finished talking, Ryan accompanied Josh out to his car. "I wonder what that conversation is going to sound like," Frank thought. He decided it was time to get to work. He began by taking a walk around the house. A quick survey would let him reconnoiter the grounds and lower the level of distraction. Frank took a small notebook from his hip pocket and began making maps. Later, he would transfer the information to the maps he brought with him. He noted the placement of trees, gullies, rocks that could shelter a man. He marked where the telephone and power lines came into the house. He estimated the distances to the house and the location of the nearest houses. Next, he'd do a walk-through of the house.

Frank had reached the front of the house. He decided to walk to the gate. He'd reached the end of the drive and was beginning to wilt under the heat. The sun seemed to exert a physical pressure on him. A car shot past like a low-flying plane, breaking Frank's reverie. The way people drove, it was no wonder they had accidents. To his left he noticed what could be a roadside shrine. A Mylar balloon tied to a cross waved back and forth in the slipstreams from passing cars. Flowers and candles were stacked at its base. The collection of objects gave the accident a reality none of the talk had. Frank looked at it for a moment and then turned and walked back down the drive.

There were two outbuildings on this side of the main house. Frank decided to check them and then get out of the sun. The first was clearly a garage. Four bays opened onto a large circular drive of crushed red stone. The doors were all down and locked. At the side an outside stairwell led up to a porch on the second floor. There would be a room or two up there, thought Frank.

He angled over to the other building. The door was locked. Looking through the windows he could see a painting set up on an easel. The was a painting of a woman, her back to the viewer, standing on the water in the middle of the pool looking toward the Chocolate Mountains in the distance. Lines of fire burned along the top of the mountains. Other canvases were stacked against the walls. The next room held computers, guitars, keyboards, and a drum kit. There were lots of chairs and stools scattered around. Microphones stood about the room patiently waiting for someone to return.

He abandoned his tour of the grounds, heading back to the house through the pool area. Two heads bobbed in the pool, Maggie and Susan. Frank considered going up and changing into his trunks. The heat was getting bad. He didn't wear a hat and felt like his head might explode. A slight breeze like that burst of heat you got when you opened a really hot oven swept over him.

"Hey, Frank! Join us!"

"You're gonna burn if you stay out in the heat. The middle of the day you're either in the pool or in the house."

"I may take you up on that."

"Do. We can tell you what's really going on down here. Help you solve the mystery." Susan hadn't shouted that last part. She had only meant for Frank to hear it. Frank glanced toward the house. Johns was moving around in the kitchen. He didn't see Josh or Ryan. Sitting in the game room was an older, white haired version of Ryan. A Hispanic woman was talking to him. Frank guessed she was a maid or the old man's keeper.

"I'll go change."

"Don't change."

"Just jump in we're very informal here at Desert House."

"Very."

"I'm on duty."

He turned toward the house followed by their cries. "Frank! Come back, Frank!"

___

ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.

Chapter 2

EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mystery DESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned.   

•••

CHAPTER 2: NIGHT

After dinner, Ryan beckoned to Frank and walked outside. At the end of the pool, out of the arcs of light cast by the house windows, they had built a teepee of logs in a clay chimenea taller that Frank that rested in a wrought iron stand. It was all very rustic and authentic. Frank had watched while Ryan explained how to build a fire of the correct size. They stood and watched the flames lick at the wood. A few sparks went up into the air with the smoke. Ryan searched around on the ground until he found a piece of charred and blackened window screen. He bent the edges to keep it from sliding off and placed it carefully on the top of the chimenea. 

“Don’t want to burn down the desert,” said Ryan.  

Then he went into the kitchen and came out with two single malt scotches, doubles. He handed one to Frank and settled down in front of the fire. Flashed his bad little boy smile.

“Bending the rules just a little, Frank,” said Ryan.

Frank sniffed his glass to get the deep smoky smell of the peat. 

“It helps staring into fires,” said Ryan. “They let you see things clearer. You’ll like it out here Frank. Have you ever been in the desert in spring? When we’ve had a good, wet winter, it just explodes with wild flowers. You have to go over the Anza Borrego. Just carpets of wild flowers. Colors just spread out across the land in big sheets.” Ryan turned into the wind, inhaling deeply. “When I moved out here I decided no lawn, no East Coast flowers. I wanted to be true to the land. Now I’ve got white sage, Saint Catherine’s Lace, that’s Orange Blanket flower. I brought in the Joshua trees.”

Ryan started with the basics. The collision on the road: a smash-up off in the near distance from the desert house. Feeling like he was seeing in broken stop-motion, while being helplessly flung around in the screeching, banging confusion of the crash. Then everything was still and you were trying to collect yourself and figure out what you’d just experienced. 

Johns running toward the wreckage spread up and down the highway. Other cars coming through. Survivors being pulled out of cars. The police arrive. People attracted to the accident take photos. People begin disappearing into ambulances, into police cars, into the desert. A Lincoln Town Car, a vintage Porsche, a Jaguar, and a four-door German car—nine people—so much broken metal and torn humans scattered along the road.

People were dead.

“I was driving. I’ve never said I wasn’t. I guess that makes me responsible for some of it. I was going pretty fast. The police couldn’t really say how fast. I didn’t brake so there were no skid marks.” Ryan looked into his glass. Trying to see the accident clearly. “I was just . . . driving.” He seemed to be struggling with something within him and having a hard time of it. “I admit I was going pretty fast. No faster than I usually drive. No faster than anyone else around here drives. I pulled out to pass and a car in front of me started skidding sideways. And then I hit it. Then I was just bouncing around inside the car. Bounced off the airbag. The car is up on its side. And it’s all over.”

Frank didn’t say anything. He was thinking of the little memorial.

“Then it’s people running around and ambulances and police. I just walked out into the desert, ended up here at the house sitting out by the pool.”

“You left the scene?”

“I just needed to get away and process it all. Then I got myself together and walked back down to the car. I hurt my arm. Man that scared me, I didn’t know if I’d be able to play anymore.”

“What caused the accident?”

A look of perplexity on his face, Ryan raised both hands, then let them drop. “You got me.”

“The police must have reached some conclusions.”

“The police report didn’t really say anything.” Frank knew there was a trial coming up and he knew Ryan was facing manslaughter charges for negligence.

Frank was silent. They watched the fire burn away at the logs for a long minute. Then Frank raised the issue of house security. “Can we meet tomorrow to discuss the security setup? I’ve got a list of suggestions from Mr. Seacole. He felt you needed....”

“I’m certain it was clear to pass. And Sohn just appears in front of me out of nowhere. The Sohns were one of the founding familes. Sohn was so respectable, he wouldn’t even talk to Frank Sinatra. If he were still alive and his family didn’t have all the pull in the world, that son-of-a-bitch would be on his way to jail.”

Frank stayed quiet.

“I mean the man has all the money in the world and he’s driving himself around. Cheapskate.” Ryan stopped and ran his fingers through his hair, his head down. “Why the hell did that old fool turn in front of me? It was such a nice day. Such a nice day.” Ryan’s right hand shaped a curve in the air.

In the silence that followed both men finished their drinks. 

“Yeah. We’ll go over the security system tomorrow. Oh, I think Billy is coming down this week. I’m pretty sure I invited him. At least, he says I did. I invite a lot of people down. Billy is just country enough to take an invitation seriously.”

•••

The fire had burnt down to a red glow among the ashes. Ryan sat looking into his empty glass. Frank stood up to stretch. His back to the fire, he looked out into the darkness. He caught a quick, brief movement. 

“Ryan.”

“Yeah.”

“Go inside now, someone’s out there.” 

“Who?”

“Go. Now.”

Frank began moving away from the house to escape its light. Ryan followed him. Frank could feel Ryan behind him. Without looking around, he spoke to him the way you tell a child to do something.

“Go inside now,” said Frank. 

Ryan looked past him into the darkness. 

“This is dangerous,” Frank added. “I will handle it. You go inside.”

Ryan turned and took two steps toward the house. He turned to ask a question. He saw Frank, hand on the gun at his hip, running into the night. Ryan ran for the house.

Frank stopped in the shadows cast by some Joshua trees and tried to stay perfectly still. A large black shadow of some night predator passed soundlessly overhead. People were moving about in the house, but Frank kept his back to it, letting his night vision adjust. Objects were separating themselves out of the landscape. He stood waiting for the movement. There was nothing. Closing his eyes, he focused on locating the intruder by sound.

There were regular movements slightly to his right. Frank stopped doing the silent warrior bit and broke into a run. The footsteps quickened and Frank heard someone colliding with objects in the landscape. They came to a clear spot. Suddenly a figure scrambled, tumbled and fell up the slope before him, making it to the top. Glancing back quickly, the man raised his left arm to the stars and extended his middle finger.

Frank, stumbling through a stream bed full of rounded river stones, put in an extra burst of speed, and, reaching the top, saw a light-colored Volvo SUV pull onto the highway, the arm and its finger still extended, sticking triumphantly from the driver’s window. Frank started to run after the car, which leisurely rolled toward Palm. Frank decided to stop being a fool and ran to the side of the road to get a handful of stones. When the first rock just skimmed the roof of the car, the driver sped up until he was just a pair of headlights moving away.

The walk back to desert house in the cool night didn’t calm Frank. Several cars blew by him, honking rather unnecessarily. Just before he turned into the drive at Ryan’s, a blue Maserati slowed down. Frank stepped back from the road, watching as the car eased by looking him over. Suddenly the interior lights came on and a blonde man and woman looked out at Frank. It wasn’t a proposition or an offer of help. Frank could feel the hate coming from the car. When they finished examining him and letting him look them over, the woman turned to say something to the man. Then the light went off and the car accelerated away with a low growl. 

“I guess I’ve met the Sohns.”

___

ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.

Chapter 3

EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mystery DESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned.   

•••

CHAPTER 3: FIRST COYOTE

Quiet filled Desert House, most of its souls still slept. Frank had been awake for some time. He sat with his back against pillows propped up on the headboard. He had pulled the curtains and had the glass doors wide open to the desert morning. Wrapped in a blanket, Frank sat in the chill of the desert and watched the intruder come closer. Something the house had drawn in from the hills, a coyote with a white marking on one ear.

Frank had spotted the coyote when it climbed out of one of the gullies and paused to look over the terrain. The coyote had made its careful way through the desert moving in an arc toward the house. It seemed to have no real destination in mind, but still it moved steadily toward Ryan’s house. Now it paused at the boundary between the yard and the wild. 

“You’re one careful dude,” Frank said. Taking a decisive step, the coyote crossed into Ryan’s domain. Confidently the animal walked toward the collection of human things on the grass. Probably looking for food. The animal stood, half-turned for flight, looking over the house. Then it seemed to forget the house and sniffed around the dead fire in the chimnea. It stood unmoving for most of a minute, then followed its shifting thoughts and trotted off toward the drive.

Once downstairs, Frank switched the alarm system to its daytime settings. Exiting through the kitchen, he circled the house and then the garage and studios checking the windows and doors. He stretched, and then jogged to the top of an incline that formed the beginnings of the foothills of the Chocolate Mountains and looked back over the house. It wasn’t much of a run but at least it got him started.

The day was critical to his assignment. It would give him his first look into the lives of the people at Desert House before they began to react to his presence. Frank wanted to see them as they were before they had taken up their daily roles. He had identified some of the groups among the residents. The second step would be to find out what held the groups together.

When Frank came in it was still quiet in the house. No one else was awake, or at least no one else was moving around. He decided to take the initiative and fix breakfast before the quiet disappeared. A good observer, Frank had watched Johns move around the kitchen preparing dinner and setting the table, and thought he could find everything he needed. 

He entered the cool kitchen and, without switching on the lights, got to work. Frank stood, surrounded by glass-fronted, white cabinets loaded with dishes, familiarizing himself with their contents. Finally, he took down a mug from a cabinet that seemed to hold everyday things rather than what he thought of as more formal dinnerware, a cup less likely to be missed if broken. Johns had taken a frying pan from a cabinet behind the island and below the counter. So Frank began opening and closing the doors beneath the counter. He found a bin of potatoes. One cabinet held a collection of stock pots. The next was full of large skillets. Frank felt that he was getting closer to his goal. Finally, he found them: frying pans of a usable size. He chose one with an insulated handle.  

Frank measured coffee into a paper-lined plastic cone filter and fitted it into the coffeemaker. He opened the glass-fronted refrigerator, selected three brown eggs from a drawer, and lined them up on the black and white speckled granite beside a package of bacon. He found tomato juice and poured himself a glass. Next he had to deal with the big Wolf stove. Frank had watched Johns clean it the night before. The stove gleamed from polishing like a new car. Red knobs ran along its front. Below them were two oven doors. Six cast iron burners and a griddle filled its broad top. Frank turned one of the red knobs. The gas lit with a soft pop. He put the frying pan on to heat. He placed four strips of bacon in and watched them cook. Then he replaced the bacon with the eggs. 

He put the juice on the table along with silverware. The elaborate, wooden kitchen table had been designed from a light pine to look the way kitchen tables should have looked in some New Yorker’s idea of the rural 1900s. So much of the things wealthy people surrounded themselves with were newly manufactured duplicates for the things of a poorer America.

He heard water running somewhere in the house. A sound suddenly loud and then soft as a door opened and closed. Someone was coming downstairs with a shuffling step. He took a step back from the counter so he had a view down the hall. The soft, padding step was moving toward him through the house. Susan Yee appeared in the hall walking toward him. Her long black hair was now held by a clip at the back of her head setting off her high cheekbones and full-lipped mouth. She carried her cell phone, a thick copy of Vanity Fair, and a Franklin Day Planner. On her feet were bunny slippers.

“Is someone fixing coffee? Did you make it strong? I have to have at least three cups of strong coffee. Nobody here makes it right.”

“I make it strong. There’ll be enough.”

“You’re cooking. Nobody cooks but Johns.”

“Where did you find those?” Frank gestured toward her feet.

“You mean foot-foot and foot-foot-foot.”

“They have names.”

“There as alive as you and I. Or as I will be once I have some coffee.”     Frank poured her a generous cup and put it on the table. “You shouldn’t cook. Johns really likes to cook for us. He has a love affair with that Viking. He’s going to feel very hurt that you didn’t wait for him.”

“Oh, I think he’ll cope.” Frank put his plate with the bacon and eggs across the table from Susan. He loaded up his coffee with cream and sugar, surveyed his creation, approved, and began to eat.

“Who are you, Frank? Where do you come from? How did you get into the protection business?”

“I tried boxing and that wasn’t going anywhere.”

“Did you like beating people up?”

“Yes. I liked it. I liked the training. The build up to the fight. Then, just you and the other guy in the ring.”

“Mano a mano.”

“Yeah.”

“Ever get your butt kicked, Frank?”

“A few times.” Frank took a sip of coffee. “It’s part of the learning experience.”

“Trust a guy to turn getting his ass kicked into a valuable learning experience. What did your father do?”

“Construction. And he boxed.”

“Kicking ass runs in the family.”

“Yes. He had seventy fights by the time he retired.”

“That’s a lot of fights. Is he all right? I mean he’s not like damaged or anything.”

“No, he’s doing okay.”

“Good.” She sat quietly for a while. Looking into her cup. “He must be one tough guy. It’s good you quit boxing when you were still young.”

“Well, I miss it sometimes.”

“Don’t be macho, Frank, take care of yourself.”

“I do okay.”

“You didn’t catch that guy. But don’t worry, trying is everything.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I feel a little like a fool for running after that car.”

“I wouldn’t go out into the desert chasing somebody. He could have shot you. Maggie thinks it was an insane thing to do.”

“Maggie’s probably right.”

“What do you think of Ryan?”

“I like him. I’ve always listened to his music. From what I’ve seen since I’ve been here he’s okay.”

“You think he’s okay?”

“Yes. Now it’s my turn. What do you do, Susan?”

“I sing, dance, model, and act. I met Ryan working on his last video. They were doing this elaborate storyline that tied together all the videos and I got to be in three of them. That was almost two years ago now.”

“What’s Ryan like?”

“Ryan is okay.”

“Do you live here?”

“And you like it here.” 

 “Maggie and I come out every few weeks or so, people just show up, lots of musicians and entertainment people and actors and environmentalists and politicians and everybody. We went to this party with him and met the mayor. The mayor asked me if I was famous.”

“You’re an interesting girl, Susan Yee.” 

“Yes, I am.” 

“How did you get started in show business?”

Susan laughed, “I’m not in show business. I just do things like videos or work as an extra or a spokesmodel. I stand by customized cars smiling, presenting the car, and showing the girls. You see . . . I started out as a princess. I had this cute tutu and this silver plastic tiara I always wore to dance class. I was so happy being a princess that I decided to stay one. You’re smiling.”

“I was picturing you in your tiara.”

Light filled the space. The intimate world vanished, a rumbling voice broke the mood.

 “Who is messing up my kitchen? Someone will pay.”

 “Sorry, Johns. I just couldn’t hold out. There’s some coffee left. I can offer that as a gesture of peace.”

“Coffee?” Johns took out the plastic cone, sniffed it, and dumped it in the trashcan. “Never leave coffee grounds around after they’ve served their purpose.” Then he took the top off the coffee carafe and sniffed that. “We’ll see.” He poured some into a cup and sipped at it. “Passable. As a cook you’re a good primitive.” He began cleaning up the dishes.

“I can take care of those,” said Frank.

“No, you might make a mistake and wash the omelet pan. It will eventually get over the bacon. The bacon goes in the oven here and the omelet pan is wiped out with a paper towel. You’ll learn.”

Johns took a large coffee press from a shelf and held it up.

“This is what we use for coffee. A press makes the best coffee. If you just want a lot of coffee fast, then you use the machine.” He plugged in the grinder and took a bag of coffee beans down. 

“Today, Papua New Guinea.” 

Frank understood that he was getting a lesson. 

“We start out by grinding the coffee.” Johns poured beans in the top of the grinder and started it.

Susan leaned close to Frank and said in a stage whisper, “He’s very strict about who he lets use his kitchen.” Then, aloud to Johns, “Will you ever forgive me for those eggs benedict I made and the way I just dumped everything in the dishwasher?”

“Let’s not speak of that. At least Frank used the same pan you used for your construction. So nothing was really damaged.” The coffee went into the glass cylinder. Johns added hot water and paused with his hand on the plunger. “How are you finding things here, Frank?”

“Fine so far. You have a very tight routine here.”

“It has served Mr. Ryan well. There were times when everything was extremely loose and that did not serve anyone. You may have come just in time, Frank. This house has needed protecting for a while. Maybe you can be the one to hold things together.”

“Problems?”

“A general feeling of uneasiness.”

“And a few things going bump in the night,” Susan added.

Johns took Frank and Susan’s coffee cups and replaced them with new full cups. 

“Thank you,” said Frank.

“I’ll just put some muffins in to bake and then join you for coffee. It’ll be nice to have at least one person clearly on our side. Mr. Ryan has been through quite a bit in the last year. He deserves a rest. Maybe it’ll be fun here again. I’ve dealt with overdoses, breakdowns, thieves, singers in the middle of delirium tremens, God knows how much vomit, and mobs of freeloaders and drunks. But this last year . . . I can take care of Mr. Ryan. You handle those people out there,” he gestured toward the window.

“I’ll do my best.”

“Ryan and I are friends going way back, way back. I’ll stand by him. I spent a night walking him up and down the floor trying to keep him alive when he overdosed. I’m his friend. Maybe you’ll be his friend too.” Johns turned back to the counter and began taking down and arranging the things that would become breakfast.

“When does Ryan usually come down?”

Johns paused in his work, “He’ll be down after his Yoga and meditation. Would you like something else?”

“No I’m fine. Ryan does Yoga?”

“Rock has entered a new age.”

“Good morning.” Maggie entered. She wore jogging shorts and a top with UCLA logos.  “I’m going to run before it’s too hot.” She continued through and out the door. 

Frank was by the quick entrance and exit. Was she like this or was he the cause. He turned to Susan. “You don’t run?” he asked. 

“I run,” said Susan. “I pulled something yesterday, so I’m taking today off.”

“Mr. Ryan said you had never been a bodyguard before, Frank,” said Johns.

“No. I haven’t been the primary. I have worked security though. In the Army and while I was getting my license.”

“You have a bodyguard license? You’re official?” asked Susan.

“I have a California Private Investigator license and firearms permit from the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services.”

“I never thought you had to have a license. Did you have to take a test?” said Susan.

“Yes, you take a test. And you need to have at least 6,000 hours working security. Do all of that and they give you your license.”

“I want to become a private investigator, Johns. When I retire from the runway, I’ll open my own dingy private eye office and get a secretary named Biff.”

“Biff?” said Frank.

“You’ve already got the gun,” said Johns.

“You have a gun?”

“Yes, Frank. I walk around packing heat. Not right now, of course.”

Ryan walked into the kitchen wearing a white and brown caftan. “Susan is the John McClane, the Trinity, the Jason Bourne of Palm Springs. Watch out for her. She is deadly.” He put a CD case on the table beside Frank.

“Damn straight I am,” said Susan. “I’m one bad motherfucker, Jack.” Susan took an exaggerated swig from her coffee cup. 

“You’re so sexy when you talk tough,” said Ryan.

“I gotta get me one of those leather coats like Morpheus and some cool sunglasses. A big black leather trench coat with lots of buttons down the front. And a sword.” 

“Is that because of the things that went bump in the night?” Frank asked.

“Breakfast is ready,” Johns said to Ryan, and began putting plates at the head of the table.

“Someday I’ll tell you the story of that thing that went bump in the night.” 

Frank looked at the CD. The cover photo showed a group of armed men on horseback, riding fall landscape into a small town. Above the picture was the band’s name, Longriders, in period western script.

“A gift,” said Ryan. “That’s our first album, ‘Northfield.’ You can get a feel of the band from that. Doesn’t get as much airplay as it used to, but it still holds up.”

“It’s a classic,” said Johns.

“They tried to rob the bank and got shot to pieces,” said Ryan. 

“The First National Bank of Northfield. September 7, 1876. Bad luck,” said Johns. “And too many Civil War veterans.”

“Yeah. That too,” said Ryan. “But that started the band. Got us out of high school gyms and fairs, and put us on the road.”

“Left the small town behind, and discovered the world,” said Johns.

“City boy.” Ryan hooked a thumb in Johns’ direction. “Out of London.”

“The center of the world, despite what New Yorkers say,” Johns countered.

Frank realized that Johns might be the key to Desert House. He seemed to be the quiet center that held everything together. The day before, Frank had begun to realize that Johns was more than just the cook and house manager. Ryan had called him the majordomo. Maybe his job was holding Ryan together. He’d have to find out Johns’ story.

___

ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.