Subscribe to Gene's newsletter to learn about upcoming events and ways to connect.

Blog

The West Indian Manner

I sat on the dock jutting into Lindberg Bay. The churning ocean swirled beneath me like a hungry tiger awaiting her zookeeper. I loved the ocean, but was terrified of being in the water. I had been an army guy. No water there. You would think that an island boy with a drunken sea captain for a grandfather could not be a landlubber, but I’m here to tell you different.

I liked the fourteen miles of land beneath my feet called St. Thomas. Named after a great thinker, it was geographically beautiful, but provided haven to ne’er-do-wells, drug dealers, alcoholics, and other shifty characters who wanted to live on the fringes of society. There were good people here too. Despite being surrounded by water, we constantly experienced a water shortage. St. Thomas got very little rain. The twin ironies of the natural beauty and the huge amount of water that surrounded the island, while such ugliness and shortage existed here in reality was not lost on me.

As these thoughts raged through my mind, I pulled my attention from the choppy horizon line to my latest copy of The Virgin Islands Daily News. A handsome sailor’s photo graced the front page as the paper’s lead story this Tuesday morning. The headline read, “Seaman Apprentice Thibdeoux Jackson Found Dead.” The article was written by my closest contact at the News, Dana Gould. This woman would sell her soul for a hot story, a fact that had bitten me on the butt in the past. I had learned over many years of private eye work not to fight faults in my network of information, but to use those faults to my advantage. Give them what they want, just make sure you get what you want too. It’s even better if you can give them what they want openly, and get what you want without them even knowing.

Dana’s article went on to explain that Jackson, while enjoying shore leave with fellow naval seamen and officers, met an unidentified woman at the Normandie Bistro, a local dive in Frenchtown. He had been found dead, the next day. The Naval Liaison issued a statement that, effective immediately; naval ships would not be putting into port in St. Thomas for leave if the local authorities could not insure the safety of its officers and seamen.

I could feel the tension rising in my chest like bad cider. This was the third murder of a sailor visiting St. Thomas in as many months. Press like this threatened tourism, the backbone of St. Thomas’ highly symbiotic economy. In turn, that would threaten my relatively peaceful way of life. It was a life worth fighting for, although, fighting for peace always seemed counterproductive to my way of thinking. Things like this were all the fodder our tyrannical governor needed to reinstate the curfew and bash in a few more skulls in the name of “general welfare.”

I wasn’t Gandhi, out to cure the ills of the planet, but I damn well planned to stop any jokers who thought they could point a gun at my little corner of it. The churning ocean kept out a lot of scumbags, but to who or whatever got through, I attempted to be a second line of defense, for a fee. Little did I know that later that day, someone would offer a fee for my services.

The story bugged me more than it should have because there was another, deeper story that appeared on page one of my consciousness. “West Indian Manner To Be Demoed,” scrolled across my mind’s vision in black and bold. A postcard photo of The Manner appeared below the heavy print like my dying dream house.

The Manner was my home since Evelyn, my wife, had died. It had eighteen rooms on two upper floors. I had told Lucy once that the name of the guesthouse was spelled wrong. She’d laughed and said, “Tink about it.” It sat on a hill overlooking downtown Charlotte Amelie, with thirty-six winding steps leading to the bar on the first floor. The first floor also housed the owner’s quarters and a small dining room. I had my regular seat in the bar, right at the corner, next to the bullet hole.

The Manner echoed the dream of everyone who came to live here. It provided food, drink, and a surrogate family for those who wanted to get away from their real one or didn’t have one at all. Guys like me. It echoed the spirit of the West Indies, hence the name. It wasn’t a manor, but a manner of living that it represented. It had become that for me these last years.

My inner article went on to tell how Payne & Wedgefield, a land-development corporation, intended to tear down the local landmark, built in 1799, and erect shiny office buildings at the base of Bluebeard’s Hill.

After hearing the Wedgefield agenda, I’d gone to see my local attorney-at-law, Alton Adams. Alton’s grandfather lived next to The Manner and had written the Virgin Islands’ National Anthem sixty-two years ago. He told me St. Thomas had no historic landmark protections. He told me that fighting Payne & Wedgefield would take big dollars, bigger dollars than I earned on a private investigator’s salary. He told me that despite being morally criminal, there was nothing I could do except make sure that all the bills were paid so Lucy and Marge could keep the place. I told him that I wished he’d stop telling me things.

A tangle of cirrus and cumulous clouds pelted with orange specks of sunlight filled the sky. I watched as a blonde with sultry strut and an arch in her lower back sauntered through the hot sand, headed for a date with Danielle Steele, or some other smarmy romance in a remote corner of the bay. She didn’t look at me. They never did, and now even less as my gut pushed for the seven-month pregnancy look and my nappy, black beard crawled over my features like a virus. I touched my nose and wondered if it had broadened over the last couple years as well.

My 2000 Mustang, colored silver and dirt, waited for me on Airport Road. I got in and shut the door as a Cessna powered up on the runway. I shut my window and pulled out on the left side of the road. Driving on the left was one of the exotic things about St. Thomas. It caused tourists to get in a lot of accidents on our narrow and windy mountain roads. When I had lived with Evelyn in Los Angeles for all those years, it was one of those things that I subtly missed and felt so welcoming when I returned in spite of being mired in grief.

I got back to my room at The Manner. Marge yelled, “Afta-noon,” as I passed the bar on the way up to my room. Marge and Lucy had run the place for as long as I’d been living there and then some. As I reached the top of the creaking stairway, Marge poked her head out of the saloon style door. “Ay, Boise, what’s da word on dat lady came to see you earlier?”

“Who?”

“Da lady. She was here two hours ago?”

“I wasn’t here.”

“I know. I told her she could check for you in room two, but dat I didn’t see you come back yet,” said Marge as she wiped a brown lock out of her face.

“And?” I grunted.

“An’ notin’. She went up, come down, and leave.”

“You didn’t get her name?”

“Do I look like your secretary? I don’t mind you being a dick out of my guest house beca’ you have a sexy walk and you pay and spend dollas at da bar, but I’m not facilitatin’ your career heah.”

“No, no you’re not,” I replied with poorly disguised sarcasm.

“So, who is she? You finally seein’ a woman?” Marge often teased me about losing my sex drive if I didn’t get laid instead of laying in my self-pity.

“I’m saving myself for you, doll.” I continued up the stairs and down the wooden hall to door number two.

Who the hell was bothering me now? If it was paying work, good. If it was a broad, she probably wanted me to tail her cheating husband so she could skydive out of their failing marriage in a golden parachute. These women married these numbskulls for the money, and then blamed the guy when he didn’t feel the love and wound up cheating with his secretary, who also wanted his money. Ah, the circle of life. My career path had done nothing to improve my desire to go out and get laid, as Marge like to put it. Getting laid seemed to lead to getting dead or at least having your life slowly strangled out of you over a miserable thirty-year marriage of deception.

I scanned my room and made a cursory check for recording devices in the usual places. Old habits refused to let go of me in this way. I had trained for counterintelligence in the army, then backed out, but the stuff they taught me made me see the world differently from then on. I looked out the window and up Dronnigens Gade, the main street through downtown Charlotte Amalie. Cars lined the street as far as I could see. I could walk into the center of downtown in ten minutes from here. Office buildings rose across our tiny street, gleaming like sand on a tropical morning. Someone knocked on my door.

“Yeah?” I called.

“Can I come in?” Marge asked.

“Yeah.”

She entered; worry seeping down her cheeks like gravity. I frowned at her.

“Dat friggin’ developa call jus’ now. He say he getting tired of askin’ me to sell dis heah place. He say he tink taxes on dis place goin’ up soon. Boise, I can’t afford no more taxes from dis heah govament. I already one mont behin’ on the note. Lucy and I need some help.”

“You need money?”

“Or some way to get dis man, Cavenaugh, off our backs.”

“I’m working on it, hon. Tell Lucy, I’m working on it. You get any more info on these guys that ties them to our beloved governor, sent it my way. I know they contributed to his campaign the max allowed, but that’s not illegal. We need more.” I said.

“That’s your job, Boise. You da investigator, not me.” She started to cry. “Sorry, sorry. I’m sorry we can’t pay you.”

“Keeping this place open and my room covers it.”

“If we get trou’ dis, your room covered for a while, I promise.”

“That’s no way to run a business, Marge,” I said.

She smiled through her tears. “It’s da bata system. An exchange of goods and services.”

“Okay,” was all I had left.

She left and I cursed. I cursed the corrupt nature of government where good men were held in inferior positions while Machiavellian sociopaths rose to the top. I opened the Payne and Wedgefield file that sat in the middle drawer of my desk. It was light because despite being major land developers in Tortolla, St. Barths, and St. Maarten, I had found little information of substance on them aside from deals done and in development and propaganda. I did know that the president of Payne and Wedgefield was a fellow named Moutang who hailed from Brazil. He had made a fortune starting and selling a travel website before the crash of 2001 and had cashed out millions. In the intervening years, he had purchased Payne from a British conglomerate and had used its existing presence in the Caribbean to parlay those millions into billions. Buy your own island kind of money. He had done just that and according to business journals, had an eye for real estate and a penchant for raising Dobermans.

Payne’s lower-downs looked squeaky clean with legit backgrounds in real estate from different parts of the U.S., Europe, and East Asia. I could not fathom their interest in sleepy little St. Thomas, and the West Indian Manner in particular. I had gone and looked at some of the office buildings Payne had put up around the island. They stank of a sterility I’d last experienced when tracking a felon to Orlando, Florida. The spotless streets and obsessively planned manner of the entire city felt inhuman. I had once heard that Walt Disney even had his workers scrape the gum off the sidewalks at Disney World in Orlando. All function, no heart. The military was like that, but it served a distinct and vital agenda. Perhaps Payne served such an agenda as well. Problem was, although I loved the ladies and this place was my home, a recession had hit and tourist places, like St. T., took it right on the chin. I had to keep fighting to eat and live, which meant paying gigs still took priority. There was another knock at the door.

“Yeah?”

A sultry voice wafted under and around the door. “Mr. Montague?”

“Who wants to know?”

“Mr. Montague, may I come in?”

I looked through the peep. Even in the convex distortion, her proportions impressed me. Black hair, straight as moonlight, and slightly Asian features on a curvy frame, did nothing to relax me.

“That depends,” I said.

“On?” Her sentences were getting shorter. I liked that.

“Name?”

“Anistasia Jackson.”

I opened the door. My face betrayed my thoughts.

“I see you read the paper,” she said. She held out a manicured, but used hand. “I am Tibdeoux Jackson’s widow.”

I shook her hand. “Hello, Anistasia.”

“If you like, you may call me Asia, like the continent.”

“What brings you to my doorstep, Asia?” I asked.

“I want my husband’s murder solved.”

I thought then that I was not Humphrey Bogart and prayed Asia wasn’t the latest incarnation of Veronica Lake come to lay waste to my wasted life.

“May I smoke?” She asked.

The cliché deepened. I nodded. I felt sterile because I had nothing to light her Virginia Slim with. After she lit up, I realized that Humphrey would have taken her light and still managed. The stuff that works in those movies never flies in my office / apartment.

“Do you have something to start?” I said. She smiled and pulled out ten Franklins.

“Will that cover your initial expenses?”

“I was referring to information. Leads. We can do this first. This’ll cover if I don’t have to take LIAT.”

“What’s that?” She said.

“The local inter-island airline. Stands for leave island anytime.” I replied.

I explained my rate and that I got a 10% bonus for complete resolution of the crime.

“Is there any such thing?” She questioned.

I said I was glad she could quip about Thibdeoux’s demise. “Now, do you have any leads or things to tell me so that I can spend less of your money paying my snitches for info?”

“I only know his life at home, in our New Orleans, with two daughters and a devoted, but imperfect wife.”

I explained that I might discover unsavory things in working toward the killer. If she wanted to know all of these things, I could tell her in my weekly report. If she didn’t want the gory details, I could keep the detailed notes to myself and send her a sanitized version. She elected ignorance. It surprised me that someone would travel two-thousand miles to remain ignorant, but I respected her desires.

“How’d you hear about me?”

“Yellow pages.”

“I pay enough for that ad. Good.” I said.

I did a twenty-minute interview for background then cut her loose. She left her number at Frenchman’s Reef, a big hotel on a southwestern point east of downtown. As she hung up, she said, “I’ll stay on island for 2 weeks and then return as necessary if you haven’t, what do you say, ‘broken the case,’ by then.”

I wanted to know what her elementary school daughters would do with a dead father and a mother who would leave for 2 weeks without them. I kept my mouth shut as the line went dead.

I immediately called Tommy Malone, a native who wanted to be Italian. He had legally changed his name at 18. His knowledge of Italian culture and customs all came from Coppolla and Scorsese movies.

“Tommy, we need to talk about that sailor.”

“You got moula?” I told him yes. “See you at Backstreet Pizza in twenty.”

I walked into the warm pizzeria, nodded to Charlie, the owner, and headed to the back where Tommy already sat at his favorite red and white checked table.

“What’s up?” He said, taking my hand in his and kissing my cheek.

“What do you have for me, Tommy?”

“What’s the hurry, Boise? Have a slice and a smile.”

Tommy liked the European traditions of slow, easy meals, even when doing business. I did not.

“Tommy, I don’t mean no disrespect, but I need some skinny or my employer won’t be pleased.” I liked to play the disgruntled American employer card when in a hurry so as not to insult Tommy’s leisurely lifestyle.

“Deez Americans, always in a hurry. First my fee, plus an extra fifty for overnight delivery.”

“The post office just raised rates again, huh?” I gave him the money.

“Word on da street is, and you ain’t gonna like dis, it happened in Tutu.”

“The paper said he was in Frenchtown. How the hell did her wind up all the way in Tutu?” I asked.

“I don’t write da papa. They lett dat out beca, if da govena sees more incidents in Tutu, Peterson’s gonna kill him in da next election. Frankie took and dumped da body in da Frenchies’ laps so his getto gets left alone. The rub is dis: if you want what really gone down, go see Frankie. He knows, guaranteed.” He finished as a large pizza arrived. “I know it’s not really Italian, but damn, I love pizza. Take a slice to go.”

I got up. The meeting was over. On my way out the door, my stomach tightened. I took my bottle of Pepcid out of my pocket and took one. Halfway down Backstreet, I gave the slice to a wino who accepted it without a word. I was going to have to make a trek out to the east end and visit my ex-friend, Francis “Frankie” Floyd Peterson, on his turf. I didn’t like my odds of getting what I needed. I like my odds of getting my ass kicked a lot more.

I headed for Tutu, the largest ghetto area on the island. As I neared the community, I could smell the desperation hanging in the air. Frankie organized things by taking a piece of non-violent crimes and reducing chaotic violence that served no purpose with his “watchmen,” a virtual police force of his own. I assumed that the sailor’s murder was unsanctioned by Frankie, or he would have disposed of the body more carefully. He would not be happy about the heat from the navy that it potentially brought upon his fiefdom. I planned to play on his anger at my own peril.

I arrived a Frankie’s place at eight that night. The club had just opened. Three prostitutes loitered out front, on doubt on Frankie’s payroll. Few did business in Tutu, legitimate or not, without giving alms to Frankie. He had started in his youth as a thug with a catchy saying. He’d charge the locals for protection. If someone got out of line, usually burglars without his blessing, Frankie would break the guy’s ribs. He’d then stretch a condom over the perp’s head and drop the custom made package that the prophylactic came in on the offender’s chest. It said, “Frankie’s: Ribbed for Your Protection.” He’d leave an unopened one for the business owner to show that the thief had been dealt with accordingly and would not be coming back.

I knocked on the speak-easy style door. A rectangular hole slid open, revealing two black eyes.

“Yeah?”

“To see Frankie.”

“Wait.” The eyes disappeared.

Moments later, the door opened. A truck-shaped West Indian frisked me. I knew the procedure and had left my piece in the car.

“Mista Petason will see you.”

He led me down a long hallway to a door marked “Private.” I entered. He shut it, then knocked me out.

I came to, tied to a chair in the same room. It reminded me of a police interrogation room, complete with one-way glass on my right and a blinding fluorescent in my face. Frankie stood in front of me. I could hear two gorillas breathing behind my chair, ready to do their duty at Frankie’s behest.

“So, Boise, wha bring you out to me dis fine Tuesday?”

“Hey, Frankie, sorry to show up unannounced.” I said, controlling my breathing. “I would have called, but I know you hate to talk on the phone.”

He smiled. “My door is always open to old friends.”

His anger had already presented, so I barreled forward, “You got anything for me on the Thibdeoux murder?”

He stared at me a long breath. “Have you had a broken rib, Boise?”

“Yes.”

“Good, den I don’t haf to describe da pain of breedin’ and movin’ dat come wit it.” He looked at one of his henchmen, “Irie.”

I could tell I had ruined some of his prepared speech on the pain he’d inflict on me to pull my terror into a fever pitch.

“Den le’s get on wit it,” he said.

“Wait!” I yelled, as he pulled out a small bat used on fishing boats for knocking thrashing marlins and sharks unconscious once on deck. “I don’t plan to tell anyone about that. I am not trying to piss you off or disrespect your community. I’m sure you want this killer too because if I know it happened here, it’s only a matter of time before a naval investigator comes knocking. Are you gonna rib him too? If I catch this guy, the heat’s off Tutu, and you can get back to business as usual.” I stopped and waited for his response.

“Wat happened to your accent, Boise? You sound like a whitey from da states.” I said nothing. “Go on,” he said, still gripping the weapon.

“I was hired to find the sailor’s killer. That’s all I want. I know you love this island. Losing all that navy business will affect everyone, even out here. Those ladies out front probably make a killing every time sailors with an appetite for discretion show up out here; so don’t tell me you want this guy to walk. I’m not a cop, never was. I can fix this and keep the Normadie angle intact for the police or make it so they know you had nothing to do with it if it comes out that it happened here.”

When I finished, smoke hung in the air from a still burning cigarette in a glass ashtray too long. Frankie picked it up now and dragged. “All right, boy-z, maybe you da mon to fix dis problem. Two tings. One, I don’ want dem police snoopin’ aroun’ my club. Minimal involvement for Tutu.”

“I told you I’d fix…” I regretted interrupting him before I finished the sentence. Bruno or Tiny punched me hard in the guy. I gasped for air.

Frankie continued, “Secon’, I can provide you wit access to da company responsible, but to find the instrument, you’ll have to do some diggin’. If you get da killa, good, but if you get dem, betta.”

I started to speak, then took another gulp of air. “Are you suggesting solicitation?” I didn’t say any more, but his silence confirmed my suspicion. “Who?”

“Payne and Wedgefield,” he replied. “I don’ have more, but I wan’ dat developa out of my community. I like t’ings how dey is. Dey kill people and our land devalue so dey can buy it up cheap. I don’ have my protection customas no more. I’s bad for business.”

I couldn’t believe my ears or my luck. Ultimately, it didn’t change the task at hand, finding the instrument of death. I could worry about pinning conspiracy and solicitation on Payne and Wedgefield later. What I could do, was use them to get the guy, potentially.

Frankie gave me their addresses and some photos of the body. I asked him why they took these and he explained that he tried to keep a record of all killings on his turf. I guessed that he also used photos of dead people to scare the wits out of any uncooperative folks he dealt with. He still hadn’t untied me.

“What else?” I asked.

“You know.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“You owe me.” He grinned like a vampire at a blood bank, “Big. Now, ge’ da hell out of my establishment before I break you in half.”

They untied me and I left. In the car, I popped a couple of aspirins as I wound back toward the Manner. It had been a long night and it wasn’t even ten. Lucy stood behind the bar. A pirate-looking man in his fifties who stank of whiskey was sitting in my seat. I let it go.

“I didn’t know you’d be here or I would have saved your seat,” Lucy said as she threw a napkin on the bar and fixed my rum and coke. I pulled a bowl of peanuts over, had a seat, and ordered a burger. I had two more drinks before heading upstairs. I was asleep in two minutes.

I walked down to see Marge the next morning and get any messages. “A woman called. Is it that same one who was here yesterday? She seems like trouble.”

“You all seem like trouble, Marge,” I replied.

Marge knew not to ring my room before ten, ever. I read the note. It was Thibdeoux’s widow. I called the number. She didn’t waste time.

Have you got something and do you need more money, were her only questions. I said no and no, but I’d let her know. I asked her if she’d heard of Payne and Wedgefield and she said no. I gave her the “these things take time, be patient” lecture and hung up.

I kept thinking about catching a big bunch of crooks like Payne and Wedgefield for conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation, but realized that for now, they were simply a means to catching the actual doer. That person was what the police, the navy, and the widow would want. With more time and some leverage, we could get to the bigger fish. Catching him was my job.

I tried to think like Payne and Wedgefield. Who would a huge company hire to kill someone and leave no trace? Were they involved with the other dead navy personnel? I contacted a couple of other lowlifes who sold me info, but got nothing fresh. From all reports, it appeared that Frankie Floyd was being righteous with me on this one. I took the address he had given me for Payne and Wedgefield’s offices and headed over there.

The offices of Payne and Wedgefield were across the street from Nisky Center, where there had once been a convenience store and a KFC, before Payne bought the place and built offices. I was beginning to think this company wanted to make St. Thomas one giant office building.

I walked out of the mid-afternoon heat, into a blast of air conditioning. The receptionist greeted me with a smile.

“How may I help you?”

“Let me count the ways,” I said. She laughed a fake laugh she no doubt learned in secretarial school. “I’d like to talk to someone about selling my property.”

“I’ll get someone for you. Please have a seat.” She motioned to a cushy chair.

I took a sucker out of a crystal dish on her desk and sat in the proffered seat. The lollipop always made me feel like Kojack, my idol from the detective world. I figured that a local boy who wanted to sell his inherited, but dilapidated land, would get their attention. She returned and sat back down at her desk.

“They’ll come get you shortly.” She said.

After ten minutes, another attractive woman led me into the elevator, used a key to start it, and took me upstairs. The representative introduced himself as Mr. Cavenaugh. After discussing my beleaguered financial state, which was not terribly far from the truth, he made an offer for my property on St. Peter Mountain. It was below market, but the swiftness and surety with which it was presented made me realize how serious these guys were about taking over. As casually as I could, I asked why Payne and Wedgefield had so much interest in little, old St. Thomas.

“It’s a beautiful island and central to our Caribbean operations.” A canned response delivered with practiced ease in his British accent. All four corners of the ceiling housed motion detectors and in the hallways and downstairs I had seen small black globes that house security cameras.

“I’m just a local citizen who’s concerned that my property will be used to make my island uglier. What would you put up there?” I questioned.

“A beautiful property like yours on the mountainside deserves hoes or a nice hotel with class. That said, I don’t make the call. I wear the acquisition hat around here.”

I stood up and extended my hand. “Thanks for the offer. I’ll think it over and get back if I’m interested.”

He handed me his business card and we shook. “You are welcome to counter. We like to negotiate.” I looked at his business card.

“I don’t, Tod, but if I get desperate enough, I’ll call, or maybe my lawyer will call.” I headed toward the door, then turned back. “Just out of curiosity, who does the development after acquisition?”

“Mr. Moutang handles those decisions personally. He’s our president.” Cavanaugh said.

“Are you trying to acquire that guest house on Bluebeard’s Hill?” I asked.

“I’m not sure which one you’re talking about. We are trying to acquire numerous properties island-wide at this time.”

“This one has a name. The West Indian Manner.” I said.

“Oh, The Manner?”

I nodded stupidly at his question. “Right, The Manner. That house has been there since I was a kid.”

“No doubt, it was built in 1799. Yes, we are interested in that property. Why do you ask?”

“I’m friends with Lucy, one of the owners and she mentioned that you were interested, but wasn’t sure you were still trying. I spoke to her a while ago about it now.” I said.

I had gotten my wish, to see their security. It was out of my league. As I exited the building, I saw a large man in the parking lot with dread locks who looked very familiar. I looked at him a long moment, but could not place his face. Maybe he was a bouncer at one of the clubs. I returned to my thoughts. It would take two pros at least to break into these offices, and bringing others in on something like this was not smart. These guys were big-time and in a lot of pockets. However, the information age was on my side. I could outsource this job so none of my local contacts knew too much. I decided to begin by hacking into their computer systems and see if I could get a name or location where I could begin my search for the killer. An outfit like Payne and Wedgefield must have everything computerized to operate internationally. I had a trusted computer infiltrator in the Pacific Northwest who I called Willow. He called me Steve, and we left it at that. We had worked together on dozens of jobs. Distance and anonymity made us both feel secure in our relationship.

The Cooler

He told her she was drunk. He told her he was foodless. His stepfather was already asleep; chuffing like a tiger on the Barcalounger, while eddies of dust swirled around his form from the recent plop of his butt on the thick cushion. If not for the stench of stale alcohol and unfiltered Camels, he could have been an ugly angel with a receding hairline.

Hugo had shown disrespect. He knew it as he finished the accusation and his ear lobes began to twitter.

He had been sitting at home, surrounded by peeling paint and rotting wood, trying to do homework, while his stomach protested. Hunger made Hugo brave. He rehearsed the encounter over the cold can of green beans he had eaten hours before. He, like Martin Luther King, had a daydream. In it, his mother would be like his best friend Mike’s mother. She would walk in alone and say, “Sorry boys! I got stuck at work, but I picked up two larges with extra pepperoni on them. Is that okay?”

Hugo’s mother did not have a job. Hugo was fairly certain that the words, “Is that okay?” had never been uttered by his mother. It was okay if she deemed it okay. His mother did not have much money for pizza. Her money financed liquid diets. Hugo generally got saltines and peanut butter for lunch, if the jar wasn’t empty. Tonight, there were no crackers and only one spoonful of peanut butter. The other contents of the refrigerator were mustard, ketchup, and moldy bread. Hugo usually threw out the moldy things in the ‘fridge, but he had decided to see how long it would take mother or Bonney, his stepfather was Irish or something, to dispose of the fuzzy loaf.

“How dare you!” mother bellowed. “Go get the cooler,” she said more quietly, which meant there was no talking her out of it.

Hugo pressed his lips together and they turned light pink with the exertion. “Get it yourself,” he said and ran to his room.

Gloria could be fast when she was drunk. Her hand was on the doorknob, holding it firmly to the right so Hugo could not lock it.

“Let go,” he whined as his stocking feet slid back on the pitted hardwood. The door inched open. He let go. Gloria stumbled into the room and sprawled across the bed. Hugo crouched in the corner, starting to whimper with rising anticipation of his inevitable beating.

She settled on the bed, leaning against the headboard like drunken royalty. She patted the pillow beside her. Hands wringing, his thumbs already chapped from too much rubbing. Hugo could hear his Algebra teacher, Ms. Keller, in the conference. “Gloria,” Ms. Keller would say. “Your son rubs his thumbs together so much during tests that he gets blisters.”

His mother’s innocent reply, “Gosh, Ms. Keller, I’ll talk to him about that. He just wants to do well, I think.”

Hugo stopped just out of his mother’s reach. Her smile faded; a displeased queen. “Don’t make me make you.”

He inched closer, wringing faster. Now his lips puckered and moved back and forth, his mouth wrinkled and small. He sat, right where she patted.

“Good boy,” she whispered. “Now, go get the cooler, then pull your father’s belt off.” Here she paused for effect. “Do not wake him, or it’ll be worse. Go now.”

His watery eyes fell on her face and she smiled. “God is watching. Honor thy mother.” She pointed at the crucifix above the headboard. “I’ll be waiting right here.”

Hugo went to the kitchen and hefted the blue and white cooler, then remembered that it rolled. He pulled the handle, lifting it onto the two wheels, slowing down as he passed Bonney. He put it down at the foot of his bed. His mother watched.

“Now the belt.” She pointed up at the cross again.

He stood next to Bonney, who was now snoring more deeply, no longer sounding like a tiger, but more like a pig. A skinny, alcoholic pig with bags under his eyes.

“Don’t wake him,” Hugo whispered.

He knew that Bonney was worse or better than his mother, depending on what kind of booze he imbibed. It smelled like beer tonight, which explained his state. However, he could have had other liquors over the course of the day, creating a much more unpredictable evening. Best to let sleeping pigs lie. He began to unbuckle the belt. Bonney twisted slightly, but did not wake.

Hugo looked down the hall at his open door. Light played across the pockmarked floor and up the beige wall. His mother was out of sight, confident in her invisible hold over him. He had just read about baby elephants who are tied to a stake with a strong rope. They try to escape, but cannot. Eventually, all that’s needed when they become adults is a piece of string because they believe escape is impossible. They truly don’t know their own strength. Over his left shoulder, the front door stood, unlocked.

Hugo went back to pulling the belt apart. The metal buckle clicked once. He winced, then continued. He pushed the end through the first couple loops on Bonney’s right side, barely touching him. Bonney didn’t move. Now came the hard part. He started around the back, but the thick cushion pushed up against Bonney’s waist, sealing the leather in place. He had to push the warm corduroy away from the denim jeans then slide the belt out of each loop.

He got the first one, but the second required him to push down on the cushion on Bonney’s right side, while trying to reach around and pull the belt from the left. Hugo held his breath because he was right against Bonney’s sweaty armpit. It smelled like the pit of hell his mother constantly spoke of. He pulled, but no give.

Hugo backed away and heaved deep breaths, like a pearl diver, he returned. This time, he pushed the cushion down more and yanked. The belt hung under Bonney by only a couple inches of still-trapped leather. Again, Bonney’s hand twitched, then he lay still. The snoring resumed with a snort. With a final tug the belt came free! He buried his nose in the corner of his shirt, smelling his own sweat and cotton. A relief from the putrid stench.

He looked up at Bonney whose mouth hung open. A dribble of drool oozed from the middle of his bottom lip. As his vision swept over the beltless jeans, he noticed something green protruding from Bonney’s right front pocket. The tiny number five in light green glowed like neon and the words, “THIS NOTE IS…FOR ALL,” in miniature marched above the number like soldiers. Five dollars, a fortune at Dunbar’s.

Hugo started down the hall with the brown leather gently knocking against his leg. The buckle was burrowed in his hand like a field mouse, staying silent from the circling hawk. He stopped halfway down the hall as his stomach lurched and gurgled. Then it hit him, red beans and rice, with a hint of mint. It blasted through the open window on the wings of courage. He could see the steaming plate, sitting on his neighbor, Judee’s, dining room table, the smell escaping out her window.

Hugo placed the belt on the couch next to Bonney. He gingerly tugged the fiver free. He walked out the front door, slamming it with all his might, as the string broke with alarming ease. He liked waking Bonney up and showing his mother who the boss was. He ran, and ran until his lungs ached and his legs screamed. He was the third fastest kid in his class, even though he was also the shortest.

He ran down Lowerline Avenue for five blocks. He pulled out the fiver as he ran. He studied Abe Lincoln. Abe did not make eye contact, forever looking off to Hugo’s right.

“You know where we’re going,” thought Hugo as he veered right on Freret Street. Dunbar’s fried chicken was almost a mile down. Hugo ran right by McDonalds with its usual wildlife: two homeless fellows and a surprisingly healthy looking cat in the parking lot. Three cars waited in the drive thru, exhaust lazily rising from tailpipes. A yellow and red sign declared: “$1 Menu: I’m Lovin’ It!”

Half a mile down Freret, Hugo held the fiver crumpled in his wet fist. His feet pounded on the unforgiving concrete as the moist night air enveloped him. He imagined the elephant, standing by a stake that some slave had pounded into the earth, the top of the stake flattened by the massive circle and bash of the man’s sledgehammer. The thick rope, immediately tied around the little elephant’s neck, his freedom restricted so early in life, like a latchkey kid. Did his mother get to nurse him while he was tied up? Did he get to wander in the grasslands before standing in brown all day? The gum-stained concrete beneath his feet and the dark asphalt with the solid yellow lines beside him all rose up. They somehow defied gravity. They rose into eternity.

He looked both ways. No headlights. It was almost nine at night. He darted into the street, running momentarily on the double-yellow lines. Lights loomed ahead. He zipped back onto the safety of the sidewalk. As he passed the store where his mother bought clothes, Bloomin’ Deals, he prayed they were still open.

Hugo arrived in front of Dunbar’s, a plastic blue and white sign sat in the window. It read: OPEN. On the main sign, it said, “Dunbar’s: A Place for Soul Food.” The smell of oleaginous poultry assaulted Hugo’s senses as he opened the door. The place looked like a house, only with a lot more tables and plastic chairs. Everything gleamed white and clean. Fake flowers, like the ones he saw in Mike’s mom’s Volkswagon, sat in plastic vases in the center of every table along with napkins, salt, pepper, and a bottle of Dat ’L Do It hot sauce.

“What you want, baby?” said a large, African lady from behind the counter. Hugo leaned over, catching his breath. He held up Abe and dropped it on the bar.

“I want soul food. All I can eat for $5, right?”

The cook poked his head out. “We closed,” he said.

“Na-ah,” panted Hugo, pointing at the open sign.

“Damn it woman, didn’t I tell you to turn that sign and lock dat door?” The cook glared at the lady as he wiped his butcher knife across his apron.

She looked at him, disinterest thick, then swung her gaze back to Hugo. “You lock that door, baby, and turn that sign to read closed, okay? Then, ol’ grumpy here will fix you a plate.”

Hugo walked to the door, turned the lock, and flipped the sign. This was even better. Now no one else could get in. He felt safe for the first time in his life.

“Pick a table, baby.”

Hugo spotted one with a white tablecloth and a red flower right in the middle of the room. He sat down. She brought him a Coke. “Where your mamma, baby?”

“She’s on a trip. She gave me money to eat tonight. We like soul food.”

Ding! “Food’s up!” said the cook.

“Do I get it?” asked Hugo.

She patted his shoulder. “I got it, baby. You sit. You look like you just run a marathon.”

She brought the plate over. He read the white bottom as she brought it down: “Made in China.” It overflowed with fried chicken, white rice smothered with red beans, and two generous slices of cornbread. She also handed him a set-up, as he began to dig in.

“Baby, I know you hungry, but you gotta put your napkin in your lap firs’, then you say thanks, then you eat.”

He did it while she stared at him. He said a silent prayer of thanks, more for being away from his house than for the food. His soul felt weary. It needed food. He drank in the peace of this place, then began to eat. He finished the plate and said, “I can still eat.”

The cook looked annoyed, then disappeared. He rang the bell again and another plate appeared. She refilled his Coke. He ate and drank. He belched, then asked for another. All the other customers had left. He re-locked the door each time. After the fourth plate, he sat back. Both the lady and the cook had finally sat down with him and were drinking coffee. The cook smoked.

The lady smiled and leaned back. “Stop being a baby and bend over the cooler.”

He looked down at the floor at the blue and white cooler. He looked up. She rested her elbow on the table. In her hand was a belt. She opened her mouth again and alcohol wafted out. He looked down at the table and a pack of Camels stared back at him. He was standing and the table morphed into his bed.

The cook morphed into Bonney who grabbed his hair and said, “Why’d you wake me with that door, boy? You know I don’t like bein’ waked.”

His mother leaned in, “Where’d you ever get the notion you could out run me? I got a car. Now, lay over the cooler, so we can get started.”

Hugo lay over the cooler. His stomach screamed.

Horror Set Death

I never understood why they called it a green room. A spider plant stood in one corner, that was it for green. Sprawled in the middle of the brown carpet lay Frank, the dead director of Island Zombies in Paradise. The faint smell of urine hung in the humid island heat. A ceiling fan slowly beat overhead as I bent to examine the body. The aroma of bacon and pancakes from the food service truck floated in through the open window. My stomach grumbled.

“So, the door was locked from the inside?” I asked Spencer, trying to be calm for both of us because his panic button had been pushed.

“I told you already!” He spat. “What am I gonna do about this shoot. This is costing thousands of dollars per day. I need to keep this under wraps.”

“You climbed in through the window and opened the door, right?”

“Yes, I climbed in through the door and opened…no, I used the window and opened the latch on the door.”

“Okay, relax.” I said. “Then what?”

“I called you. You are handling security on my set, right?” He said.

“Not to your satisfaction I’m sure.”

“Dead directors don’t make me feel secure, Mr. Montague. More importantly, they don’t make my investors feel secure.”

“I’m not on set overnight unless we’re shooting. Why are you here so early?” I asked.

“I always come to set an hour or two before call to make sure no one wrecked the place. It’s my butt on the line with this project you know?” He pointed at his loafers. “The buck stops here.”

“What time did you arrive?” I asked, still calm.

“About six this morning, but I didn’t find him until almost seven. He’s usually here at the same time.”

“Did you touch anything?”

“What am I, stupid? I’ve seen CSI.”

“I’ll take that as a no. Did you see anyone else on set when you came in?”

“No, it was quiet as death,” he said.

“Okay, give me five minutes, then call the police.” I said.

Spencer began hyperventilating. I grabbed his lapel. His eyes locked on mine. “Breathe,” I said. “In through your nose, out through your mouth. I’ll count to ten while you do it.” I kept my focus on him and counted out loud. When I was through, he slumped.

“You good?” I said. He nodded. “Call the police in five minutes. Call from outside.” He started out the door. “Shut the door. Don’t let any of the cast or crew in here again today.” He looked through me then closed the door as he went out.

I slid on latex gloves. I found nothing of obvious significance on or about Frank’s body. The murder weapon, a knife that appeared to have the stabbing pattern of a kitchen knife, was gone. He had been stabbed at least three times, probably because the killer hadn’t been a killer before today. It might also have been because they couldn’t find his tiny heart easily. An orange colored ipod with earbuds sat in a corner. It contained songs by Linkin Park and other alt-rock bands. Nothing telling. It probably belonged to one of the actors. I gave the place one more sweep, taking the ipod with me as I too got out and shut the door. The police arrived minutes later and went in to do their job. I started questioning the players.

I asked Spencer one more question. I needed to know when he last saw Frank.

“About midnight,” came the clipped reply. “I gotta call L.A. and give them the latest.”

He walked off, cell phone perched by his ear, so I moved on to the second-unit director. Martin’s mustache twitched as I approached. “Is it true?” The most common question you hear on a murder investigation the first day.

“Yes,” I said. “Where were you after we wrapped last night?”

“I went back to the villa.”

“Anyone with you?”

“Nope. Went over the schedule for tomorrow, drank a shot of vodka, and dozed off. The vodka helps me sleep,” he said.

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Forty-two. Why? Does my age make me a suspect?”

“We’re all suspects, don’t kid yourself. Wait till the police start in with you. Too bad you don’t have someone to back your alibi. Don’t most of the crew share quarters?” I asked.

“Yes, but I was given my own villa because they needed to appease me.”

“For what?”

“I was supposed to direct this mess, but when Frank decided he needed the dough, he came out of retirement,” he said showing nothing on his face.

“Why are you still second-unit directing at forty-two?”

“Hollywood takes her time kissing frogs, heck, sometimes doing more than that, before trying a prince.” I said nothing. He continued after a moment. “Look, I’m not looking to bad-mouth anyone. Frank came out of retirement for the money. He was strapped because of trouble with the IRS, or something, I heard.” He trailed off.

“Where would you hear that?”

“The on-set rumor mill, where else? Have you spent time on movie sets before?”

“Some. I wonder what they’ll do about finishing this project now?” I said casually.

“Dunno, maybe it’ll be scrapped,” he said. “It’s a shame. I had some big ideas for this script. I thought it could be more than just another zombie picture.”

“But since you aren’t directing, that’s exactly what it would have been, huh?” I said.

“It’s just not the direction I would have gone with the script. They wanted Frank. He has a name. Who am I?” He sounded matter-of-fact about his place, but not like he thought it was right.

“I hope you get a shot. Sounds like you have a passion for it,” I said. “I’m going to interview some of the other cast and crew. You better just hang.”

“I’ll be in my trailer.” He walked off toward the bathroom.

I thought about who I should approach next, when a knockout of a production assistant bopped up. “Hey, you are the security guy, right?”

“Yes, I’m Boise.” I waited a moment then said, “What’s your name?”

She giggled. “Sorry! I’m Daisy. I’m one of the PA’s. I mostly help with second-unit crew. This island is dreamy, but is it true what I heard about Frankie?”

“What did you hear?” I asked coyly. I couldn’t imagine anyone calling Frank, “Frankie” to his face.

“I heard that he was,” she slid a finger across her throat.

“Where’d you hear that?”

“News travels faster than light around a movie set, Mr. Boise.”

“Just Boise is fine, Daisy. Did you hear anything else?”

“Well, not really. He wasn’t the nicest director I’ve worked under. I’m so grateful to be working on movies. I originally wanted to act, but that was a pipe dream that I gave up when I was younger. I got tired of being a mattress, so I decided behind the scenes I could at least stay involved.”

“Don’t call yourself that.”

“Oh, it’s fine, it just means model, actress, waitress. Mattress. Get it? Anyway, I love this work, but Frankie, he did not seem to love it. In fact, he seemed downright angry to be on this movie. Was it gruesome?” She asked with interest.

“Gruesome? Daisy, are you sure you aren’t enjoying this too much?” I said as thoughts of her ponytails flopping as she plunged the knife in and out of Frank’s chest danced in my head.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m sad to see anyone croak, but you have to admit, it’s exciting being at the scene and being a suspect and all. It’s like ‘Murder She Wrote’ or being Colonel Mustard in Clue. Was it a candlestick or the lead pipe?”

I found myself laughing in spite of the dire circumstances. A woman with a sense of humor, who seemed like a ditz at first was turning out to be charming and sexy. I fought the urge to keep talking to her.

“Daisy, thanks for seeing the bright side of this. Listen, I need to keep questioning…”

She interrupted me, “…the suspects, right?” I nodded. “So I’m a suspect?” I nodded again. “Awesome! Wait till I tell Lizzie!”

“Who’s Lizzie?”

“My mom, we’re on a first name basis. She reads mystery novels like a teenager plays video games. Sorry, you have other suspects to interview and I have work to do.”

“What work? Production is halted for the investigation. Besides, there’s no director,” I said.

“The show must go on,” was all she said as she walked off.

“Wait,” I said. She stopped. “Where were you last night between midnight and six am?”

She walked back. “Oooh, I really am a suspect.” She put her index finger to her lips. “Well, I got back to my room at eleven-thirty. I showered. The humidity here is extreme, so I shower as much as possible. I turned on the ceiling fan. Checked my call time and got in bed. I woke up around five-thirty when Sandy came in, then went back to sleep for one hour.”

“You’re rooming with Sandy, the make up artist?” She

nodded. “Where was she?” “She’s been seeing the director of photography. There’s something on movie sets about DP’s and makeup girls, they always hook up.”

“So this is a regular thing for her?”

“For the last two weeks, yeah,” she said.

“Did you make any phone calls or see anyone during that time?”

“Nope.” Then she realized my problem. “Oh, I really am suspicious!”

“You don’t have…”

“An alibi,” she finished.

The show did indeed go on, as the police put “keep out” tape across the door to the green room and proceeded to question each member of the crew and cast over the next days. I continued my own investigation. Spencer called the production company and investors back in Los Angeles and got the go ahead to continue shooting. They would budget one extra day for the shoot, then it would wrap pretty much on schedule unless the dailies were miserable. Martin took over as director. I wasn’t fired, but they did hire an extra security man to keep an eye on things, since I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if they were still employing a killer.

Daisy ate lunch with me over the next week and wanted to know how everything was going. “Did I do it?” She asked playfully.

“The killer does often try to snuggle up to the investigator in these scenarios, “ I joked.

“If I work hard, maybe I could be the prime suspect!”

“Daisy!” A voice yelled from behind a bush. “Daisy!”

“Oh, that’s Martin yelling for me. I gotta go.”

“Do you want to play Clue tonight?” I asked.

“Clue? Like a board gaming date?”

“No, not a date, just board gaming at my place.” My hands were shaking under the table.

“Too bad, I’d rather call it a date,” Daisy said. As she took off she yelled back, “I’ll follow you there when we wrap for the night!”

“Great,” I said quietly. This would be my first foray into dating land since Evelyn had passed away two years before. I felt like a betrayer. “Get over it,” I muttered. The wedding ring burned on my finger. Did Daisy not care that I wore a wedding band? Did it matter? It was time I got off my butt and had dinner and a board game with a woman who I connected with, even if she lived four thousand miles away. A guy had to start somewhere. The sun started to set at six and Spencer sauntered over, intense and chagrined as ever. He wanted to know where I was with the investigation.

“The family and my investors want answers. The police have bupcus,” he said.

“Do they at least have a time of death?” I asked.

“Yeah, they said he died between three and four-fifteen,” Spencer replied. “Why? What have you got?”

“I’m making head-way, but nothing I can move on yet. I’ve spoken to all the cast and crew. A handful, including Martin, yourself, Daisy, Heather, and Ocean don’t have alibis. The others all checked out. Half of them were sleeping or drinking together. Don’t you Hollywood types ever rest?”

“Yes, when we get back to Hollywood we do nothing but go to the gym and lounge around at Burke Williams, but not during a shoot. Besides, most of the cast and crew, outside of the main ones or the prima donnas, are two to a room to keep the budget intact. Not everything in Hollywood revolves around sex. We have three weeks left down here to get the rest of these shots. Just make sure there are no more stabbings and find me a killer, unless the killer is part of principle photography, then wait until we finish principle photography,” he said and started to walk away.

“What are you telling me?” He turned back and stared at me nonplussed.

“We are over budget, ba-by, so we cannot afford any delays for the rest of this fiasco. We need to finish principle photography and put this boat into port before you haul any of my actors or primary crewmembers off to court. Does that clarify? Remember, rookie, ‘the show…’”

“Yeah, I know the saying. I’m not backing off a material witness to satisfy your timetable. If I find a killer, he’s going down. I take it personally when someone gets whacked on my watch, even if no one liked Frank much. How is Martin doing as the director?” I asked.

“He is making a much better mid-budget horror film than his recently deceased predecessor. He also works for half the salary,” Spencer said with a smile. “I gotta get back to work. Find a killer, then watch him till we wrap.”

That night, we finished at eight and Daisy true to her word waited by my car.

“Can I just ride with you? I hate this driving on the left stuff,” she said.

“Sure, hop in.”

We got back to the guesthouse in ten minutes.

“Is this house all yours! It’s gynormous,” she said.

“No, house is owned by a couple ladies. It’s a guesthouse, but I live here in one of the rooms. I don’t like washing my sheets.”

“Sounds like a swell plan, man.”

We walked past the bar and up to my room. I opened my cabinet of board games and pulled out Clue.

“You want some wine?” I asked.

“Beer, please,” she smiled as she said it.

“A lady who drinks beer. Okay, I’ll be right back.”

I went to the bar, and brought back two beers with glasses. She set the glass aside, clinked my bottle and drank. “Ah, nice and cold! Here’s to mysteries,” she said. “What is this stuff? There’s no label.”

“One of the owners, Marge, brews it herself. Good?” “Damn good.” She took another swig. “Am I still a suspect?” She was taking the murder weapons out of the box now.

“Yes, but not the prime suspect, yet,” I said with a dour look on my face.

“Oh, pooh. Well, a girl can dream. Who else is a suspect?”

I considered my next move carefully. I wanted to trust this girl, but what she had joked about bothered me. Wanting to be the prime suspect in a real murder was at least slightly disconcerting. Jokes always contained a grain of truth and ignoring them could get you in a lot of trouble in my business. I shrugged it off and barreled ahead, rationalizing that I had to trust someone on set if I was going to finish this case in two weeks. People were guarded when they talked to me. Daisy could be my set snitch.

“There are five people without an alibi.”

“You mean who work on the movie?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Couldn’t it be someone unrelated to the project? Doesn’t that happen? Some gang-banger or drug-addict from off the street?” She said.

I shook my head, “Of course that’s always possible, but I’m going with probability. Motive ranks at the top of the list.”

“Nuts, I forgot, Clue requires three players,” Daisy said, looking at the cover art.

“That’s okay, we can pretend there’s a third player. We can also just play Monopoly, unless you’re feeling adventurous,” I said.

“What does that mean?”

“I’m a bit of a board game geek.” I opened my cabinet again and waved my hand in front of it. “Behold, every German Game of the Year Winner since 1996.”

She whistled. “Nice. Alhambra, Settlers of Caatan? I’ve never even heard of most of these.”

“They’re all great, but let’s stick with Clue, that way we don’t have to concentrate too much and we can talk.”

She smiled at that and took a sip of beer.

“As I was saying, there are five suspects, including you.” I explained who the others were. “Now, give me the case for each.”

“You want me to tell you why Martin would kill Frankie? Jeez, how about career advancement?”

“Okay, that was my thought too, but do you get the feeling there’s more to it than that?”

“Like what?”

“Martin has passion and has toiled for years in obscurity. Frank wanted nothing but a paycheck. He’s set, but because he’s bad with the millions he made before he hit forty, he’s back for more. If I were Martin, I’d be unhappy with that arrangement.”

“Martin was mad about that, yeah. He’d always second-guess Frank’s shots and say that he was missing the emotional moment because he’d rather focus on blood and guts. Martin likes the actors not the effects,” she said.

“See, that’s exactly the kind of stuff I need to know. What about Spencer?” I said.

“Spence? Hmmm.” She squirmed a little. “I feel a little weird telling you why co-workers of mine would kill someone.”

“I understand it’s awkward, but I really need your help. Do you think someone who killed Frank should get away with it?”

She hesitated slightly, then said, “No, of course not.” She took a breath then continued, “Spence worries about money and Frank wasn’t cheap. Martin’s a much better deal. He is high-strung enough, but has no balls to stab anyone. Besides, staying on schedule’s way too important to Spence to risk getting the police involved,” she said, getting into it now. “Who else?”

“How’d you know Frank was stabbed?” I said.

“Again, movie set gossip mill,” she replied.

“No, I need to know who told you.”

“I think it was Spence,” she said.

“Okay. What about Ocean?” I asked.

“Ocean Connor? He has no alibi? I thought he and Heather were shacked up?”

“Not that night. Ocean said he was so exhausted from all the running in that soft sand when the monster-zombie thing was after him that night that he just crashed in his trailer after rinsing all the corn syrup off. I guess Heather had gone back to her bungalow two hours earlier because she had a five am wake up call,” I said. “She doesn’t have an alibi either.”

Daisy shrugged. “This is giving me a headache. Could you take me back to my car? I get migraines after long days and I need to get back and take my medication. Sorry,” she pouted playfully. “We never even got to play.”

I took her back and gave her a hug goodnight. I decided to walk to the green room and see if something there would jog my deductive reasoning. I heard sobbing in the main stage area. Heather sat alone, crying. “Heather?” I said.

“Oh my god! Boise, you startled me. What are you doing here?” Heather said, wiping her eyes.

“I just brought Daisy back to her car. Why are you still here?” I asked.

“I was going to talk to you tomorrow. I have a confession to make,” she said. I waited. “The ipod you were asking everyone about belongs to me.”

“That’s your ipod?”

“Yes. I also should have had an alibi, but don’t.”

All pretense of concern left my voice instantly, “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I was with Frank last night. He would have been my alibi, except he’s dead.” She broke into fresh tears. I handed her my handkerchief. She dabbed at her eyes with it.

“Did you kill him?” I said.

“No! We were,” she waved her hands around, “you know right in the green room. Jesus, Boise, you are sick.” “I’m sick? What happened to Ocean and you?” I said. She looked at me like I was an idiot. “Ocean said our time was done. He said that our characters weren’t steamy on screen anymore because we were involved in real life. Something about the heat being gone once we consummated our lust. We should have waited until the shoot was over, but since we didn’t, breaking up would have to do.”

“Were you pissed?”

“Damn right I was pissed. Look at me! You think I get dumped a lot? I’m the dumper, not the dumpee. I slept with Frank to get back at Ocean. I felt terrible afterward and left, even forgetting my ipod, which I never do.”

“Let me guess, you didn’t want to admit it was yours because you’d have to explain this to me and you’d become a major suspect, right?” I questioned.

“I was scared to tell you. I thought you’d think I killed the guy.” She paused. “Do you think I killed Frank?”

I sighed, “It doesn’t look good, Heather. What time did you,” I made a circling motion with my hand, “finish with Frank?”

“I remember looking at the car clock when I got in to go back to my room and it said two a.m.”

“Was Ocean at your place when you went back?”

“No, the night before he told me he’d be sleeping in his own villa for the rest of the shoot. I cried, but he couldn’t care less. What a prick. Just because he got some stinking offer to be in the next Oliver Lepus picture, he thinks we’re all beneath him now. I mean, who really wants to do zombie movies, but they pay the bills, right?”

“So that’s it, you forgot your ipod because you were upset about sleeping with the director?”

“Have you looked at that guy? He could be my great-grandfather! He’s not even a nice guy. I slept with him because I knew it would incense Ocean when I told him, but I felt so disgusted afterwards that I decided I wasn’t telling anyone. Anyway, his dying put a crimp in that plan,” Heather said.

“My notes say that you went back to your room early that night around eight. Did you make a special trip back to the set for this rendezvous?”

“Yes, before I left Frank suggested that he and I review my scenes after everyone else went home to be sure that my reactions were spot on because tomorrow morning we were shooting the climax. I said okay, but I knew Frank didn’t care that much about my acting. I knew it was about the couch, not the camera, know what I mean?” She said.

I told Heather to get back to her room. I started mulling over the information I had and realized something lined up too well, problem was, it was going to ruin everyone’s morning, especially mine.

The next morning, I took a jog on the beach, something else I hadn’t done in two years. It’s funny how you can live in paradise, but the rudimentary banalities of living line up the same wherever you are, making it easy to ignore your amenities as time goes by. I debated whether to listen to Spencer and put off fingering the killer for another week and a half, or nail the coward to the cross now as I’d promised. If this movie did well and became a franchise, I could be looking at steady film gigs that paid nicely. I might also meet some nice women with an education, a rare commodity in St. Thomas these days.

After my jog, I got back to the guesthouse to find a woman waiting outside my room. Her soft features stared down the hall with distraught anxiety as I approached.

“Are you Boise Montague?”

“Yes I am, and you are?”

“Yvette Blum. I’m Frank’s daughter,” she replied.

I invited her in after expressing my condolences.

“It’s quite a long trip, Yvette. I assume you live in Los Angeles.”

“Actually, I live in New York. I work in fashion and NYC is the place to be. I also wasn’t close to my father. We hadn’t spoken since mom died. I thought about him frequently over the last year as one of my sons is estranged from my husband and me now. It hurts to have your offspring reject you. I sympathized with my father and was working up the courage to call him or perhaps just show up in L.A., when I heard the terrible news. Death stole my chance to right things with him. Now all I can do is plead with you. I don’t know what else to do for my father. I’d rather have him back, but putting the person who stole our reconciliation in prison or worse will have to suffice. Can you find his murderer?” She continued to stare at me with watering eyes.

She was not a particularly attractive woman, but her sadness made her beautiful. I explained that I had narrowed the list of suspects and believed I had caught a break in the case by analyzing some information I got through my interviews. None of that was admissible in court, so I would have to get a little more evidence, which was more likely now that I knew where to look.

“Could you please let me know the moment you find an answer? If it had been disease, I would have at least gotten a chance to talk to him, but this…this sudden violation…” she broke off.

The sunlight began cascading over downtown as I drove east toward Reichhold Center. I thought about bringing Yvette, but decided that I could do this without causing her more pain. I let her go back to her hotel as I headed over to the set, resolve riding shotgun. I arrived on set at seven and asked Daisy when Ocean, Heather, and Martin would be in.

“Martin and Ocean are having a meeting somewhere off campus. Heather should be here in half-an-hour,” Daisy said. “Why, do you know who did it?”

I ignored her question. “Where are they?”

Daisy got serious. “I don’t know. I think the Greenhouse.”

I sighed. “I need to question those three about some things, then I’ll have the answer. Are you sure Heather’s not with them.”

“Yeah, pretty sure.” She pointed over my shoulder at the parking lot.

Heather’s Rav 4 had just pulled up. I ran for her car. As she got out, I could see that she hadn’t slept, or was already wearing the horror makeup.

“Heather, we have to talk,” I said pulling her aside so no one could see us. “Are you protecting him?”

“Who?” She asked, suddenly looking even more worn out.

“Your boyfriend!” I almost screamed. I looked around then back to her when an answer didn’t come. “Ocean,” I said, growling now.

“I don’t…” she whispered.

“Don’t play games. He’s somewhere with Martin right now. How desperate is he?”

“He’s not going to hurt Martin,” she said with self-assurance.

“Why not? He killed Frank,” I said.

“No, I killed Frank. I made Ocean enraged with jealousy. I caused a crime of passion and now I have to live with it. By punishing Ocean for wanting to put our relationship on hold, I put the knife in his hands. Ocean killed Frank while I ran. He caught us and took the blade right out of the kitchen at the center. He kicked me away and stabbed him over and over, but it was my fault, my selfishness that forced his hand. I couldn’t trust that he’d be with me again after the shoot. I had no idea how much he loved me,” she wept.

Exhaustion swept over me. I whispered one word as I sat down on the pavement, “Love.” I once heard a disc jockey say that love was the undisputed queen of song themes. I think most p.i.’s can attest that love is also the number one motive for murder. I locked Heather in her trailer and told Spencer his investors would be pissed because their lead actor murdered Frank.

“Do you ever want to work on a shoot again?” Spencer said.

“That depends,” I replied coolly.

“Give me one hour to shoot Ocean’s death sequence, then he’s yours.”

“One hour,” I muttered.

“Come on Boise, one hour. A game of pool can last longer.”

“I’ll be watching the whole time. What are you offering in return?”

“I guarantee you work on any movies shot here in the Caribbean, even off-island.” He paused seeing the conflict on my face. “I just need one sequence and we’re done.”

“In one hour I call the cops and this ends. Call Martin and get them back here.”

Spencer knew better than to smile or thank me. He called and got them back on set. I sat behind the cameraman and watched Ocean’s chest get ripped out by a zombie with bulging eyes and stringy hair. Like every scene ever shot, it ran behind schedule, but I didn’t care. I called the cops at the hour mark and Lt. Shibui arrested Ocean on suspicion of murder on my word, which was still good with him.

Daisy came over and hit me in the shoulder with her fist lightly. “Another one bites the dust, huh? How does it feel to solve a killing?”

“Are you jealous we didn’t arrest you?” I shot back.

“Nah, being a suspect was excitement enough for this shoot. Maybe next time. Gotta take baby steps, right?”

“You up for a board game tonight?” I asked.

“Is it a date this time?” She said.

“Okay, it’s a date.” I said smiling. I still felt guilty, but it also felt good to say it. “See you at eight. I’ve got to go give a statement.”

As I drove off I thought: love, what a dangerous and beautiful thing.

Amber Rain

The bar had no sign.

Cheryl said, “This place is, like, Tinsel Town or Tinsel Bar.”

The basement stairs swelled out into a mucky alley. Keisha held her breath as they descended. At the bottom a hallway, two bathrooms, followed by neon signs with flashing arrows above two rooms: one said “drinks”, the other said “dancing.” The “drinks” room was all black and buttons, soft leather stools, chairs, love seats. The “dancing” was stark, silver balls, probably spray-painted Styrofoam, hanging above duct work. Dancers swayed to a beat. Colored light shone up from the Plexiglas floor squares as carpeted feet pounded the energy of fifty moving souls.

“I wanna dance,” Keisha yelled into Cheryl’s ear.

“What?” Cheryl leaned in smacking her ear lobe into Keisha’s flushed cheek.

Keisha grabbed her face in both hands as her purse strap fell into the crook of her arm. “I want to dance,” she said more quietly, but mouthed the words slowly. Cheryl nodded, smiling as she mouthed back, “Okay. Drink?”

Keisha shook her head. Cheryl did not know her well. As the thump diminished, Cheryl slipped in an audible sentence. “We’re at a bar, like, you gotta have a drink.” “No I don’t,” Keisha replied. “Thanks anyway. You go ahead.”

Cheryl was an art brat. Her mom owned a tiny gallery of exclusive Spanish art. She hung out at the museum and sketched Spanish masterpieces then posted the sketches on her mom’s blog or Facebook page twice a month, sometimes less. That was Cheryl’s “job.”

Cheryl momentarily considered renewing her objection, but Keisha was already swimming into the dance floor. She hoped that Cheryl danced terribly, otherwise she didn’t think they could hang out again.

There were a few multiple race couples around them. Of course, the most common configuration was black guy with white girl. One couple featured a stacked brother with a Michael Jordan hairdo and a tiny raven-haired girl, ala Winona Ryder, with large brown eyes and a waist smaller than Keisha’s thigh. They danced badly, but naughtily, against a column of square, gray wood in the middle of the room. They sucked on lollipops.

“You are hard to find,” Cheryl sang to the music as she walked up.

“Me, hard to find? Ha!” Keisha shot back.

“Here.” She handed Keisha a drink with bubbles.

“What’s this?”

“Like I said, we’re in a bar, you gotta drink. We took the metro, so don’t give me that driving bullshit either. Cheers.” She clinked her glass against Keisha’s. Some of Keisha’s drink splashed on her wrist.

Keisha eyed Michael Jordan and Winona, still grinding away. She sniffed the drink as Cheryl took a swallow of her appropriately clear, probably vodka and tonic, concoction. Keisha’s right cheek twitched. She closed her eyelids as the earthquake of rhythm invaded her. Small ripples ran through her drink. Keisha sniffed the Bacardi Rum mixed with the tangy artificiality of diet coke. A ridiculous lime wedge clung to the rim of her rocks glass.

“No thanks,” she said.

“Come on, that security work’s very stressful, Keisha. You, like, need to unwind. Tomorrow is your day off. Live a little,” Cheryl said.

“Thankfully, I’m having a hard time deciphering all your clichés. You should not have wasted twelve or fifteen dollars on this drink because I’m not drinking it.”

Keisha tried to think of some good excuse, then remembered what Trey said she should say: “I have an allergy. Actually, I have many.”

Cheryl searched Keisha’s face like it was a treasure map. She snatched the rum and diet coke away, splashing Keisha’s wrist again, then took a healthy swig.

“Okay girl, I guess you, like, don’t have to drink when you’re in a bar. You’re missing out on some good inebriation,” Cheryl said with very fake, but hearty cheer. ”Will you at least dance and act like you’ve had a drink? How else will some sleazy guys try to dance with us, giving us the, like, chance to reject them, and feel better about ourselves?” Her white teeth glistened as she swallowed more vodka.

“You are a straight-ahead kind of chick, huh?” Keisha said.

Cheryl clinked the two glasses together and drank from each.

They danced next to another group of girls that included two Asians, a Nubian princess, and a girl who looked Middle-Eastern, which was the white girl’s version of a light skinned black girl.

They danced and danced for nearly two hours. Cheryl wasn’t as bad as Keisha hoped, but Keisha was a better, more sensual dancer. Cheryl was twenty pounds Keisha’s junior, so that made them desirable to different men. The mixed couple had started making out and then went into the black room. They had probably left, but Keisha’s mind couldn’t help picturing them getting busy in the bathroom. His face turned into Kendrick’s and his date turned into that white girl from work he now slept with, Geraldine. Who names their daughter a guy’s name with -ine at the end?

“I’m going to the restroom,” Keisha said to Cheryl, who was swishing her head around like that one-armed drummer from Def Leppard. Keisha repeated herself, then headed into the hallway when Cheryl didn’t respond.

The bathroom was also black, but surprisingly clean. Women groomed themselves in the mirror while a girl in black and whites forced cloth-like paper towels aggressively onto each wet-handed patron. Keisha doused her face with water, staring into her dark brown eyes in the mirror. She looked under the closed stalls to find only one set of lady’s shoes under each one. “Was there a white girl and black guy in here?” Keisha asked the attendant.

“I don’t let guys in here,” she said. “Is he your man? He creepin’ with a white chick?”

“No, he’s not my man. My men don’t creep with white chicks,” Keisha shot back.

“Sorry, sister, just tryin’ to support. I know the disease.” She held up a sucker. “Lollipop?”

Keisha sucked and walked. The lollipop was watermelon, but all she could smell was that rum, that Puerto Rican Bacardi that clung to her wrist even after she washed. A slower song played and Cheryl had latched onto the nerdiest nerd in Nerdsville. Keisha had new respect for her since this was not your typical club hookup. She sauntered up and tapped Cheryl on the shoulder. She gazed around at Keisha with blood-shot eyes.

“I’m outta here, you gonna hang or what?” Keisha demanded.

“Oh, hey Kesh, this here’s…what’s your, like, handle, dude?”

“I’m Bobby, Bobby Sullivan. Nice to make your, uh, pleasure, Kesh.”

“It’s Keisha, Bobby. So, Cheryl, am I riding the metro solo or what?”

“Just chill and like have a Shirley Temple or virgin-something, chick,” she said as she playfully patted Keisha’s cheek. “Bobb-o and I are cutting a carpet, right Bobb-o?”

“Yes, we are cutting a carpet,” he said grinning.

“See? Hey Bobb-o, you got any friend-o’s for Kesh to like dance with?”

“No, I don’t have much in the way of friends right now, I just moved here for a job,” Bobby said, still grinning.

“Cool! Hey Kesh, how about that, like a clubber who works!”

“I work,” said Keisha.

“I know, it’s sad.” Cheryl drooped her lips like a fish and looked at each of them. “Worker bees.” “Look, I’m outta here. Nice to meet you, Bobby.” Bobby pushed his glasses up his nose and squinted. “Likewise,” he said.

Keisha walked up into the alley. Steam slid out of a grate at the end of the block, obscuring the downtown lights of Los Angeles.

As she neared the end of the alley, she saw Michael Jordan and Winona stumble out from behind a dumpster. The girl straightened her bra strap beneath her lace top. She stared at Keisha. He wiped his forearm across his lips and spit in Keisha’s direction.

“Whoa, sorry, didn’t see ya there, baby,” he said. Keisha kept walking. She crossed through the steaming vent. Humidity caressed her skin, the closest thing to human touch she’d felt in months. She reached the metro station and dug in her purse for her pass.

A homeless guy held up a cardboard sign that read, “Anything helps. God Bless.” She fished a quarter out of her rubber coin purse and dropped it in his hat. She read the graffiti that littered the walls of the metro stop. A shiny yellow cab idled next to the sidewalk. She dug through her purse some more and found her last twenty. She stuck her head through the cab window. “Will this get me to Manchester and the four-oh-five?”

“Sure, honey, I can find a route for that, maybe less.”

“You’re a prince,” she said.

At home, she pulled out her favorite art book, A Pictorial History of European Art: 1880-1914. The book fell open to a large color photo of her favorite work by Vincent van Gogh, Reaper in a Wheat Field. The reaper worked alone in brilliant sunlight under a lime sky. She had recently seen the painting at a LACMA exhibition. She found every opportunity to station herself in that room while on duty. The photo didn’t do it justice. She fell asleep next to the book, her hand covering the amber halo in the green sky.

Up There

Stacey shifted in the seat of her 1995 Mazda Protege. A rattling sounded from underneath her car intermittently. She gripped the steering wheel tighter hoping it was nothing that would keep her from getting to the house in Lafayette Square. The day before she had dyed her hair into a mass of golden radiance, paying the salon nearly every penny she had left for the privilege. Everyone loved blondes.

“Everyone loves you,” she mouthed to herself in the spotted rear-view mirror. “They love you. They want your radiance.”

To emphasize her radiance, she shook her head so her long locks twirled around her face in a halo. “You are the moon. No, no, no! Not the moon you fool, the f-ing sun. But no one can look at the sun.” This final thought stumped her as she pulled onto the wide tree-lined street.

The house at three-thirty-three lacked imagination. It was big and square and had a spacious front yard with a cascading fountain and a black wrought iron fence. The driveway was far larger than her studio apartment. The fountain was also probably larger than her apartment. Patches of green grass inundated with brown clumps littered the landscape. Most appalling was the color. A faded pink trimmed in white.

“Don’t judge. They obviously have money. A lot more than you.”

Lafayette Square had been ritzy in its day, but that day had passed. The homes were still grand, like an aging monarch, but the swagger was gone. It no longer offered the magic to draw in the rich and famous, but it was still centrally located and gated, making for an astonishing combination of quiet and convenience.

Stacey parked on the street and killed the engine with a final rattle. She opened the visor and raised the lid on the vanity mirror. The little light illuminated, flickered once, then went dark. She tapped it with her clear-coated fingernail. Nothing. The white plastic mocked and for the moment she forgot about the brilliant red lipstick clutched in her other hand. She tapped it again, a bit harder. The light flickered to life. She applied her lipstick and blew a kiss at the mirror.

***

“You know why the president wears a red tie?” her mother had asked her at age eight. Little Stacey had shaken her head in wonder as her mother tried to apply the red lipstick. “Keep still! You only want lipstick on your lips young lady.” The application continued. “Because it’s a power color. The power color. And what do we want?”

“To be powerful,” Stacey said.

“That’s right. To be powerful.”

***

Stacey stared into the mirror, the left side of her face illuminated by the cheap, orangey light. “I am powerful,” she repeated, snapping the mirror closed.

A knock on the passenger window made her jump causing the seatbelt harness to catch. A fifty-something woman motioned for Stacey to roll down the window. Instead of reaching across the seat, she got out.

“Hi,” the woman said. “Are you from Closets By You?”

“Yes I am.”

“Well, come on in. I’m eager to see what you can do with my closet.”

Stacey circled to the back of the car and unlocked the trunk while the woman swiveled her hips back and forth in her designer sweatpants and a headband that held back a mane of bottle-red hair. Was it powerful? No, her mother would have chided, red hair was not the same as the lipstick because red hair wasn’t a power red.

Satisfied that she’d keep her own hair blond, Stacey hauled all of her work crap out and loaded it on the luggage dolly. One of the wheels wobbled, so Stacey had to push extra hard to the right to make it go straight. If she got this job, her first purchase would be a new dolly from Office Depot.

The house next door had a scaffolding erected on the side. A pair of men in jeans and t-shirts washed the windows. One of them stopped, wiped his forehead with a bandana, and looked at her. She could hear the squeaking of the window squeegee as the other man continued working. Their eyes met momentarily, but his blank stare never altered despite Stacey’s attempt at a friendly smile.

Once inside, the woman showed her a large, empty walk-in and explained all the crap she wanted to stuff into the space. People’s eyes were always larger than the space could realistically hold. They forgot the key term in “walk-in closet” was the “walk-in” part: some of the space was necessary for walking in. Stacey patiently explained this to the redhead, who nodded and appeared to understand.

“Well, that’s fine my dear, go ahead and give me your best. You know, you remind me of my Emma.”

Hope filled Stacey’s chest. Reminiscences of a daughter or niece were powerful ways to connect to someone. “Who is Emma?”

“I’ll show you.”

The woman left and returned shortly holding a mouse. “You see it in the eyes and her overall aura?”

Stacey gave the mouse a finger-pat on the head, then said, “I’d better get started.”

“How long will this take?”

“No more than an hour,” Stacey said, clenching for the inevitable.

“An hour? Why would you take so long? Don’t you have a computer tablet or something that does it zip-zap.”

“Actually, no, I create a design on a sheet of paper.” The woman’s mouth was slightly open and the mouse squeaked. “It’s easier to see and I can specify it to your exact needs.”

“You draw?”

“Yes, I use pencil, rulers, all that stuff.”

“Wow! Like an architect.”

Stacey hesitated, the thought of designing The Disney Concert Hall or Union Station filling her mind with a brief history of magic, before returning her to more mundane pursuits.

“Sure, if you think so,” Stacey replied.

The woman glanced at her Apple Watch, then tapped the face with her pinky while still gripping the squirming rodent. She wandered off chattering into her wrist.

Stacey circled the closet, her hand caressing the walls. Raising her hand up, she pointed her fingertips as high as they’d reach in flats. She should have worn heels.

She could hear her mother saying, “Whenever possible, wear heels.”

But Stacey wasn’t a heels woman. She’d twisted her ankle three times. She felt unstable up there. Stacey removed her shoes and measured, viewed, and dwelt in the space for twenty minutes. Then she settled cross-legged in the center of the closet to sketch, detail and imagine good use of the space. At least she thought she had. When she was halfway finished, the closet door tipped open.

“Oh wow, you’re in here. I wondered where you’d gotten off to.”

“I’m here.”

“You know, it’s taking too long.”

Stacey looked at her phone and gasped. “Oh, I’m sorry!”

“Thing is, I have someone else here now, you know, for another opinion.”

A woman twice Stacey’s age stepped from behind the closet-owner. She did not wear lipstick and had a wide stance, as if poised for battle.

“Kinda awkward, huh?” The woman who owned the house said to fill the void. “I thought you’d be done and gone. Oops.”

Stacey pushed up and realized her foot was asleep. She gathered her stuff. “No problem. I’ll let you have the space. I can finish up out there.”

She scurried past the other designer, who was obviously only a salesperson, and took a chair positioned with her back to them. She hunkered over, determined to stay on task.

“You are powerful,” she whispered, twitching her mouth rapidly.

Laughter wafted out of the closet. They called it rapport-building. A metal spinning sound from the kitchen. Stacey cautiously peered around the corner. Emma was running on her exercise wheel.

Stacey returned to her place and completed her drawing. The woman came out of the closet still grinning. Make ‘em laugh, one of the hallmarks of salesmanship. She listened to Stacey’s pitch and attentively followed her explanation of the design.

“Such a nice design. Pretty lines.”

“Thanks.”

The woman seemed to be waiting for something else. When Stacey said nothing, the woman said, “Well, I’ll call you and let you know our decision.”

Stacey’s boss had been adamant on this singular point: you must get a yes or no before leaving and it’s getting more vital you get a yes soon.

“I’ll wait.”

The woman looked confused. “Excuse me?”

“I’ll wait,” Stacey repeated. “Can I sit here?”

Without understanding why, the woman consented. Stacey settled at the dining table trying to admire the view of pine trees, rich houses, and manicured grass. If she listened hard, Stacey could make out the ever-present drone of L.A. traffic. Even the rich weren’t immune.

The homeowner returned to the closet and tried to make small talk with the second designer, but she had to focus on her task, and simply answered with short, non-conversational comments. She couldn’t be salesy and create the design. She wasn’t Superwoman after all.

Adjusting her headband and smoothing her shirt, the homeowner excused herself and tramped up the carpeted steps to the vacant guest room and turned on the television. Halfway through an episode of Real Housewives, a smoker’s yell heralded the completion of the second design. Despite it being a recorded show, she yelled down that she needed a minute. She continued watching for another five minutes, then once more straightened her headband and smoothed her shirt before heading back down.

The scene in the dining room horrified her. The first designer hadn’t moved from her seat near the picture window. Her expressionless face stared out at the neighborhood. The other, older, more reassured lady, occupied a seat at the other end, sipping a glass of water.

“I helped myself,” said the older saleswoman, who had clearly never dyed her hair in her life. Plain old brown. No lipstick. Stacey wondered if the woman cut her hair at home in a mirror.

“No problem,” the homeowner replied. “It’s there to drink. Would you like some water?” she asked Stacey.

Stacey shook her head almost imperceptibly. She felt like a small melting ice cube. Inside she told herself this was no big deal, whatever happened, happened. She didn’t really believe that. The redheaded woman was examining her competition’s design. Stacey heard them talking softly, then they rose and went back to the closet. She wanted to move, to make some plea, so that the inevitable would not happen. Every scenario she considered ended the same way. Do nothing and see, that was the wisest course. She knew her design was best and she should get the job. That was how it should work. She kept waiting for that reality.

“Excuse me? What’s your name again?”

Stacey tried to speak, but her throat had become a raisin. She swallowed and croaked, “Stacey.”

“Hi again, Stacey.”

The saleswoman drank water at the other end of the table like she was relaxing on her front porch on a Sunday afternoon in Savannah, Georgia.

“Well, Stacey, I want to thank…”

“No, no, no, don’t thank.”

“Dear, I’m sorry, but we’ve decided to go with Mr. Closet’s design.”

She walked Stacey to the door. When it opened, sunlight poured in, a mocking reminder of better days: days of preparation, days of dreams. Standing on the steps, safely distant from the saleswoman, the words tumbled out even though Stacey knew they were imposters come to pin her down like Lilliputians.

“We’ll do it for less.”

“Excuse me?”

“Just show me what she said she’d do and I’ll do it for a better price.”

The woman’s finger, which had been twirling one of her perfect locks, stopped abruptly. A fake smile followed by, “Good day, miss.”

The door shut with an oaky click.

Stacey drove through every street in Lafayette Square, studying the large yards and gabled roofs. Her gas tank was nearly empty, so she left the neighborhood and stopped at a discount gas station, filling the tank halfway. Back in the car, she stopped a block from her office, unable to hold back the avalanche any longer.

She opened the sun visor and the mirror. The light blinked to life, then flickered out. Stacey took her drafting pencil, the pointy end needle sharp, and stabbed the silent light. Red lipstick oozed out of the broken plastic. It smelled like raw potatoes.

A powerful book for mythological analysis and understanding of the male psyche

This book takes a lot of patience and slow reading. It’s not easily grasped, so I knocked off one star simply because people often tell me they stop reading because the stories are sometimes difficult to understand, too poetic, not clear enough. I stuck with it and like some science fiction books, accepted that much of the minutiae would be unclear, but in the end the broad picture would come into focus and the lessons would be worth the dig. In my opinion that’s the way to read this book and in the end I felt rewarded with gems of understanding about what it is to be a man and how our culture has lost the ability to bring young men into adulthood through initiation. The stages and types of personality changes are necessary and cannot be skipped or glossed over. I enjoyed his use of the Iron John fairy tale to illuminate these stages. I thoroughly enjoyed the ending as well as his inclusion of the entire tale in the final pages so the reader could review the tale in toto at the end. It made me feel like I understood the story on a deeper level and provided context. He also makes clear that the “wild man” is only part of who a man is. He tries to emphasize that there are men who get caught up in being the wild man and never move on to being a king (complete man), therefore, miss the point of the stages. Although being a wild man or in his analysis, a “playboy,” that is not the point. The enhanced sexuality is intriguing and makes you feel powerful, but should not be confused with maturity. On this point, I believe he brings us full circle and the journey is well worth the effort.

Book Review: Where To?: How I Shed My Baggage and Learned to Live Free

Monahan tells the true and inspirational tale of exactly what the title claims: how she shed her baggage and learned to live free. Who hasn’t considered, nay longed to do exactly that? Well, this book shows how one brave person changed the way she lived and created a life of adventure as well as spiritual substance after she tired of feeling the void. She goes through a lot to get there including a debilitating accident. I won’t spoil anything but it’s a wonderful, intense journey that also makes grandiose changes seem possible when you hear her struggle to deal with limiting beliefs and the expectations of society that I too feel every day. She grabs the tow cable as the balloon lifts off. Inspiring work. Inspiring life.

Review of Thieves by Steven Max Russo

I was skeptical of the subject matter: a home-invasion gone wrong. I’ve seen a few bad movies and read some short stories with this premise that just fell flat mostly. In this case, I was very pleasantly surprised by Russo’s story. It shot write (right) off the page from the moment the story opens. I needed two pages before I was fully committed just because at first I was not sure what was happening, but once the smoke cleared and I understood what was going on, the narrative held tight like cinching a plastic bag over a criminal’s head. The story weaved and bobbed beautifully, taking us on both a captivating interior journey of a psychopath’s thought process and the people around him who are trying to deal with his extremely unpredictable behavior that in the end always has one goal: to cause mayhem and get what he wants by any means necessary. No real caring existed in Skooley’s mind, but you are curious where his manic psychosis will take you next and for that reason, it’s a roller-coaster ride with many unexpected turns. Highly recommended for those who like crime novels and don’t mind some graphic violence. 

Book Review: Sex & Rage by Eve Babitz

About an alcoholic named Jacaranda Leven who goes gets involved with the rich and beautiful people of “The Barge” in Hollywood, then moves to Santa Monica to surf and discovers she has a talent for writing. Her love for a lithe, gay man named Max belies her existence. Once she starts writing, the “dear friends” of the barge no longer wish to associate with her out of both fear and contempt. She spent much time blacked out and awakens with bruises, suggesting she was at least molested and probably repeatedly raped or participated in Caligula-like orgies. In NYC, she gets clean and discovers she and Max and Etienne have little in common except being lost children of the world.

This book is very well written. Unique phrases and poetic license add to the aura of mystique around the world Jacaranda inhabits. It also creates a sense of being lost among imagery and the daily blackouts she experiences. She is different, not a typical character. Her thoughts are more disjointed, presumably from doing a lot of drugs but also because she has a different mind. As for story-telling, the book is confusing and disjointed. You must accept this and explore the poetic aspects of this story rather than get caught up in knowing what’s happening at all times otherwise you will get frustrated. I believe it’s worth reading and is very different, but not for mainstream consumption.