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Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Woman Who Wound Be A Spy: The Interview, A Tale of Zhor, Part 1

Posted 7-8-2020
Revised  7-9-2020


A Tale of Zhor

by Christopher Leeson


Bherdur ob Caron stepped into the administrator's office, her lips pursed, her glance wary. The spymaster looked up from his desk. He had expected that his appointment to pleasant to look at and she was, especially in regard to her lustrous blonde hair.

A chair stood empty before the desk. “Sit down,” Ewien Griff told the interviewee.

Caron drew in a deep breath and complied. Her body language suggested soldier training.

“I have reviewed your service record,” the man at the desk said. "You were a good officer.”

“Sire...” Caron began.

“Speak.”

“I am still a good officer.”

The spymaster nodded. “I believe that you were retired from the First Horse Lancer Troop of Prydferth, after your unit’s unfortunate capture at Mabon Pass.”

“I can still serve my city,” she stated.

“That is no doubt what you truly believe. According to your application, you wish to enlist as an intelligence agent?”

“Yes, Sire!”

He nodded. “I’ve already met several of your former comrades from the Troop. Two of them impressed me and I sent them on for additional examination.  The others appeared to be troubled people that did not inspire confidence. I sent them home.”  Griff suddenly met Caron’s glance squarely. “Do you know the nature of work that a female agent performs?”

“Infiltration, Sire,” Caron answered.

Griff nodded. “Now, tell me, do you consider yourself male or female?”

She reacted as though the question were a hard one. “I am whatever the city of Prydferth says that I am,” Caron replied.

The spymaster accepted this answer without comment. “Here are the facts, Vokshah Caron,” he said, using her decommissioned rank. In most endeavors, women are not very useful in the field. In the business of espionage, their sex is against them. We need field operators who are able to infiltrate into the inner sanctums of the political and military leaders of the enemy. Even their own free women are not welcome in such places. A spy traveling as a free woman may, of course, be of use occasionally. But such opportunities come along only irregularly. When one does, it is best to assign an agent who has been trained more generally."

None of this seemed to be of surprise to Caron.

“Do you know the most efficient method for a woman to insinuate herself into the company of high-ranking enemy personnel, soldier?” He waited, watching her eyes carefully.

“To infiltrate into their homes and into their command centers in the guise of...pleasure slaves,” Bherdur ob Caron answered reluctantly.

“I assume that you have done nothing like that sort of work before. For what reason do you contemplate performing it now?”

“To serve my city, Sire.”
 

“That is a commendable reason. But we need to know whether it is truly your reason. If an enlistee comes with an ulterior motive, it can jeopardize his or her fellow agents.”

Caron raised her chin. “What are the wrong reasons, Sire?”

He glanced down at her service record, but wasn't really reading it. “There are maladjusted serum girls who sometimes come to us not to serve our political and military needs, but to experience the world of female slavery, but they are too proud, or timid, to admit to that.  

Caron’s expression did not perceptibly change. This ex-officer seemed to be a hard one, Griff perceived.

The man continued. “Any woman, and any serum girl, who is curious about experiences of a slave girl should simply become one. In fact, such females make excellent pleasure slaves, but they usually prove to be disastrous as spies. Now, tell me, are you holding back anything regarding you motivations, Vokshah?”

“It is as I’ve said; I wish to serve my city,” she replied.

“And there no less dangerous way by which you could achieve that worthy aim?”

She squared her shoulders. “I would risk any danger, as long as can do something to injure the city of Gendir. One way I wish to serve my city is by vindicating its honor.”

“Vindicate its honor? How?” He understood where she was going, of course, but he wanted to hear the words spoken.

“Revenge for the shaming of my city.  Revenge for shaming my troop. Revenge for the way the enemy used my person to accomplish their sordi aims.”

“To fill the role of a pleasure slave," the officer said, "she needs to have a pretty face, and you certainly do." Caron did not seem flattered by the compliment. What does your body look like?”

Caron pursed her lips, seemingly reluctant to answer the simple question.

“You have been a woman for about two years. Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror?” the man asked.

The girl drew a deep breath. “I have deigned to gaze upon the wreckage that Gendir’s leaders created as seldom as possible.”

“Why is that? Does you body have flaws, scars, or deformities?”

“No, Sire. My body, I think, appears fit and healthy.”

The spymaster nodded. “I have met many serum girls and I know that this whole subject is a difficult one for them. They must get past it. If they cannot, they will not be able to function as a well-trained pleasure slave and they are useless to our service. We need to determine if you, individually, are capable of wearing your beauty with pride, or at least a good counterfeit of pride. Rise, soldier. Step back and remove your garments, piece piece. Then display yourself to me nude. Try to do it without betraying any self-consciousness.”

Caron had tried not to react to the abhorrent instruction but, as yet, she had not stood up.

“Stand up and strip, or else stand up and leave,” said Griff. "I have much else to do, including seeing another candidate." It was not that he lacked sympathy for the First Horse Troop. It had been an excellent group of men, but fate had used it badly. But their sorrows were their owe; he had concerns of his own.

Grimly, Bherdur ob Caron got to her feet, withdrew slightly, and began to disrobe.  Ewien Griff watched the process, remaining professional and detached.

When Caron had rendered herself nude, the officer told her, “Unpin your hair.”

She did so, but with some some awkwardness. Like many raw serum girls, Caron had had no stomach for learning how a women manages her hair.

“Now, let it fall over your shoulders,” Griff directed her.

Any normal man would have been impressed with Caron as a female specimen. Her breasts were full and round. Their jutting nipples might as well have been crafted by a masterful artist. Her legs were long, unblemished, and finely proportioned. If she had a talent for dancing, she could make an excellent infiltrator. 

“Physically, you are superb,” he told her. “Are you a feather-slave?”

Caron took the question as an insult. “We are not --” she stopped herself. The ex-soldier knew very well that some of the knights of the First Horse Lancer Troop had, in fact, already become pleasure slaves since their transformation. She even knew of a siolat tavern in Prydferth that was currently building up a staff of cup slaves who were formerly lancers of her old troop. One of those who was now collared and branded had been a good friend. He -- she -- had become a burglar after receiving Ruk’s Serum. Captured and judged guilty, she was legally enslaved and sold at a public auction. The owner of that vile siolat house had purchased her. According to rumor, she was already ignited.

“In a low tone, the girl said, “I am not a slave of any kind. But, yes, I expect that I was administered Chadwar’s Serum along with all the others. I have not been examined specifically to confirm the fact of this.”

“If a woman receives it, it very rarely fails,” said the officer. “Probably you are aware that the feather punishes a girl severely without doing her lingering injury. All of our female agents are required to receive Chadwar’s Serum. An agent who has been well conditioned to endure the discipline the feather of may convince a tormentor that she is a broken slave, even when she is not. It is much harder to harden a woman against the blows of the girl-whip. Few women who endure a serious session of lashing are able to hold back very many secrets.”

The ex-officer was still listening stoically.

“Turn a bit, soldier; let us see the quality of your pelt,” Griff instructed her.  Caron pivoted slowly, allowing her interviewer to evaluate the blond curls of her peren. “Very lovely,” he said. “You will have no lack of sexual offers. Do you prefer intercourse with men or with women?”

Caron stiffened. “Boy lovers are not accepted into the army of Prydferth,” she reminded him.

“Of course not. But that was before and this is now. The serum is very effective in reorientating a male's sexual preference into a female one.

‘“I have not been with anyone since Mabon Pass,” the enlistee told him tersely, indignation smoldering in her eyes.

“Not even with one of your own slave girls?”

“No!”

“Why not?”

“I do not care to expose this mockery of a body to any woman. Or to a man,” she quickly added.

“Step in front of that full-length mirror on yonder wall. Do not use your hands to obscure what is displayed. Let your eyes remain open. Truly study what you look like. Objectively evaluate the female creature that you will be looking at as a physical specimen of womanhood.”

Swallowing, Caron stepped toward the polished glass.

“What do you see?” the man asked.

“I see...a...nude woman,” she answered, trying to keep emotion out of her tone.

“That is what I see, also. What emotions does the sight of this reflection evoke in you?”

The girl spoke though clenched teeth. “The sight of it infuriates me.”

“Look at it detachedly. Can you see that she could be sexually desirable to a normal male?”

She forced out the word: “Yes!”

“Tell me something about yourself, Bherdur ob Caron. Have you had a robust sexual life? Have brolled many women?”

There was another pause. “Many? Y-Yes,” the girl replied. “I – I would say that I have.”

The spymaster tried not to smile. New serum girls oftentimes remained inclined to boast about their former prowess. “Were some of your partners joy girls?

“Yes.”

“Many?”

“Yes!”

“Were some of them pleasure slaves.”

“Yes...many.”

“Your record records that you were unmarried. Why?

Caron involuntarily swallowed before answering. “Marriage is inconvenient if one is pursuing a military career," she said. "And with so many joy girls and pleasure slaves available, having a wife never seemed more than a luxury.”

“Many soldiers would agree with you. Now, tell me, have you ever taken a free female lover?” As a pleasure slave under cover, she would have to speak about sexual topics often. There was no time like the present to find out if doing so would be especially hard for her.

“No.”

“Why not?

“A woman who dishonors herself is no fit companion for an officer. Women who behave disgracefully are not worth having.”

“Some cities hold adultery and fornication to be serious crimes and wanton women are routinely branded, collared, and sold from some public block. Do you consider that penalty harsh?”

She didn’t answer at once.

“Vokshah?”

“If a woman, of her own volition, disgraces herself and her family by lewdness, it only means that she is a pleasure slave at heart. Such a woman is probably a natural slave.”

“You have not married, but have you ever been in love?”

“Perhaps.” 


TO BE CONTINUED...

Saturday, June 6, 2020

The Belle of Eerie, Arizona - Epilogue

Posted 06-07-20

By Christopher Leeson


Chapter 7, Epilogue

Friday, December 29, 1871 Continued


George Severin pitched his last forkful of hay into the chute and let it tumble down to the ground floor, where the barn animals were. He was having trouble keeping his mind on what he was doing, his thoughts always drifting back to the beguiling face of Abigail Myra Olcott.

Who and what was she?

A sound brought his attention back to his surroundings. On the stone balcony outside, kittens – eager and hungry – meowed. That’s what they always sounded like when he or one of his younger siblings brought t hem their table scraps. He saw a silhouette break the slits of light streaming in between the boards of the loft door. As he watched, it opened.

Easy, kitties,” Rosedale was saying. “You'll get all get fed!”

George chuckled. “If those critters weren't so dumb and lazy, they'd be out catching mice and rats, not begging for milk and breadcrusts.”

That's cats for you,” was all the defense that his sister felt like offering on behalf of the feline pack.

The youth threw the fork he held into the clover hay. Driven in deeply, it was left standing straight up. George jumped to the floor and landed on the soft litter underfoot.

The youth crossed over to the exit where Rosedale was filling the rusty kitchen pans that the cats were fed from. “Where are you off to now?” she asked. “You’ve been awfully quit since the Christmas dance.”

He grimaced, as if something were bothering him. “I guess there isn't much to talk about these days.”

His sister smiled. “You were dancing up a storm with Myra. I’d have thought that you’d still be bragging about it.”

His shrugged. “If I felt like bragging, I’d brag to someone whom I’d really wanted to impress.”

So you want to talk boy-talk about Miss Myra?” she asked.

He shrugged again.

You know, Myra’s dancing was really okay,” the girl continued. “She'll be even better next time. All anyone needs is a heap of dancing to get good at it. Did you ask her to come to the New Years hoedown?”

I'm not sure I should.”

Why not?”

Because I’d expect that she'd say no.”

How come?”

She’ll say no just because it was me doing the asking.”

Isn’t she starting to like you?”

That little Eastern gal is a hard one to figure out.”

Maybe she is,” Dale conceded.

Say, Stockings, “does Myra ever strike you as being somehow – outside the ordinary?”

In what way?”

In any way.”

Dale made a thoughtful face. “I guess so. She likes to talk about what she reads, but it’s not the stuff that most girls like. But, like you say, she’s an Easterner. I’m supposing that they have different ways. Funny, I’d have expected an Eastern girls to be trying to impress folks with her nice clothes and manners. But Myra’s not like that; she’s rough and tumble. I think she’d be a terrible tomboy if her aunt ever let her get away with it.”

Yeah,” her brother agreed, “she’s something else down deep.”

Do you suppose she got that way because she’s an only child?”

Maybe,” said George said distractedly.

You know,” continued Rosedale, “I don’t think she had many friends back home.”

Why?"

"She seems so uneasy around people.”

George met his sister’s glance straight-on. “What do you think about her? Do you like her?”

Well,” the farm girl began thoughtfully,“I guess I do. She's not the warmest young lady that I’ve ever run across, but there's something about her.”

He cocked his head. “What do you mean?”

Something she’s got draws a person to her. I don’t know what it is. She doesn’t come off like most other girls. She's serious-minded. She doesn't gush and giggle. I’m kind of glad that she doesn’t, though. I got enough of that when I was in school.

How about you, Fish Hooks?” Dale asked suddenly. “Do you like her?”

Her brother eased back against the wall. “I’m not sure what I feel. All I know is that Myra doesn’t like me, not from the minute we met.”

Rosedale pursed her lips and nodded. “A lot of girls are shy with boys. Feeling shy sometimes make a person acts like he’s mad. Land sakes! It makes me mad, too, not being able to ask a boy to go walking or to a picnic when I happen to feel like it.”

George smiled. “Better not get too forward with the boys, or else folks are going to start calling you a hussy. But if the shoe fits....”

Oh, you!” his sister exclaimed, scooping up a handful of hay to throw at him. It was never easy to hurl loose hay over a distance and hardly any of it reached her target.

Still grinning, her brother asked, “Which boys do you like? Or are there so many that you can't remember them all?”

She scowled. “A girl can't be telling something like that, not even to a brother. But if you want some advice, your problem with Myra is probably just that you don’t know how to behave around a girl. I could teach you plenty.”

I don’t think so.”

Chicken!” I could so teach you.”

Teach me what? Why most girls act like ninnies?”

She grinned. “I bet you don’t think that Myra is a ninny.”

I don’t know what she is. She's topsy-turvy on everything.”

Dale nodded. “Why do you suppose that is?”

Umm. I've got my theories.”

What sort of theories?”

I’m not telling you anything. You’d just go running off to Miss Olcott to repeat everything that I say.”

I’d be tempted. But here’s a word to make you wise. A good way to get a girl to notice you is to do something that gets her mad at you.”
Young Severin shook his head. “She notices me plenty. And whenever she does, she moves away.”

Dale came a step closer and pretended to sniff for a bad odor. George playfully pushed her away.

Well, if you don’t want to make her mad,” suggested Rosedale, “I’d say that the next best shot is to try being nice. Once she starts feeling easy having you around, she’ll naturally become more friendly.”

George scowled. “I don’t want to be any girl’s friend. If a boy gets to be a girl’s friend, she’ll never let him be anything else.”

You’re silly!”

Oh, yeah, Little Sister, you’re a whole lot sillier than I am.”

Hey, don’t call me that. You're only a year older than me.”

But I'm a lot less silly.”

Oh, pshaw! You're twice as silly as I ever was, even on my worst day!”

Says who?”

Says me!”

The opinions of silly people don't matter!” George answered back.

We'll see which one of us is most silly,” the girl declared, her hands on her hips.

One of these days, I guess we will.” With that, the youth gave his sister a parting nod and pushed the door open to the afternoon light.

He descended from the small balcony via a short ladder. The weather had continued chilly, despite the bright sunlight, and he reflexively adjusted his cap and collar.

George’s chores being done for the moment, he went for a walk across the pasture. His thoughts immediately returned to Myra. The girl had shown up little more than two weeks earlier, but it already felt like he’d known her for much longer. Could there be a reason for that? he wondered.

The young man had a theory, and it was a crazy one. People would have laughed to hear it. Or at least they would have laughed if this was anywhere else except Eerie, Arizona. He had been keeping his suspicions quiet, not just because his idea was a wild one, but also because spreading that kind of talk around might hurt Myra. Especially if it were true.

She had surprised him the first time that he’d laid eyes on her, by naming him on sight. How had she done that? Furthermore, she had shown up on the same day that Thorn Caldwell had gotten shot dead up in the Gap And what about that strange horse that she’d been riding? The saddle on it wasn’t like the one that Mrs. Fanning had kept in the barn. A saddled horse would have had to have run away from somebody, but who? Later, when he’d suggested to Myra that the bay could have been her cousin's horse, she hadn’t seemed the least bit interested. And another thing: she could ride pretty well for a gal who’d just come out of the East.

Beyond that, Myra sometimes referred to Myron as Thorn. She had herself said that she hadn’t been getting any letters from her cousin, and Mrs. Fanning never used that nickname, so why the girl choose to call him that? Moreover, one couldn’t help but notice that the cousins were about the same age and both had been named after the same maternal grandmother. On top of everything else, they apparently liked the same sort of reading material.

And then there was the way that Mrs. Fanning was behaving. Like, why did a church lady like her suddenly become chummy with Molly O'Toole, the wife of the one man in the West who knew how to make a remarkable magical potion? Other proper ladies in town avoided both of the O’Tooles. What had happened to bring the farmer and the saloon-keeper together at exactly the same time that Myra had arrived in Eerie?

Additionally, it seemed strange to him that Myra had come to town with only one dress to her name. She didn’t even have a winter coat. Her aunt said that she‘d lost her luggage in a stage accident. If so, why had every witness he’d questioned sworn that she’d never been on that stage? If the girl hadn’t come in by stagecoach, why were she and Irene trying to make people believe that she had? Mrs. Fanning seldom joked, and never so pointlessly.

Nothing that surrounded Myra made any sense. Why had Deputy Grant allowed a grass-green girl from the East to go with him up to the Gap while he was looking for outlaw loot? Did he think that Myra knew something about the robbery? If she didn’t, how was it that the lawman found the gold in record time?

And how was it that the body of Thorn Caldwell was so deucedly hard to find? The outlaws could have hidden it, sure, but why did they take the trouble to hide it so well?

Then, too, why did Myra have a theory that Thorn wasn't really dead?

Myra was a puzzle with a lot of pieces, but they didn’t fit together. He remembered the funny talk that Mrs. Fanning gave at the memorial. Why had she she suppose that an unrepentant sinner like Myron could still get another chance at Heaven? Was she talking about Purgatory? He didn’t think so. Methodists didn’t believe in any such place.

Beyond that, Myra had been seen speaking to the sheriff at a spot out of earshot of the other party visitors Saturday night. The youth had himself seen her talking to Lydon Kelsey. He knew that Kelsey and Caldwell had been as thick as the thieves until the latter left town. Why would a girl new to the community pick out a roughneck like that to talk to?

George, having certain suspicions, had tested Myra. He had deliberately mentioned Indian Head, a local landmark that a lot of the young people nearabouts liked to visit, mostly to spoon. Myra had replied, “If you hang around up there, I'll have to keep shy of the place.”

It had sounded like she had known what he was referring to. How so, with her being a newcomer? Neither she nor Mrs. Fanning had ever mentioned Myra having taken any sight-seeing excursions into the local woods and ridges during her short time in town.

And then there was the Christmas day visit to his home, when Miss Olcott had been shown all the girlish things that Dale was so proud of. To George’s mind, it seemed like Myra had looked at them with boredom and annoyance, not interest.

It was all a bit too peculiar to ignore but, over the span of two weeks, George had come up with a theory, a theory that he didn’t care for at all.

What if Myron Thornton Caldwell had robbed that stage and gotten shot, just like Mrs. Deeters had witnessed? Then, what if he stayed conscious and had seen the outlaws hiding the gold? Had Myron afterwards been fit enough to ride out of the Gap and meet up with his aunt a couple of miles away? If Thorn had gotten to the farm badly wounded, Mrs. Fanning would naturally have hurried him to Doc Upshaw. As a good friend of the O'Tooles, the doctor would have been able to tell Irene that Thorn had only once chance to stay live – to take the magic potion that Shamus could provide. After all, it had already saved the life of Elmer O’Hanlan. Would Mrs. Fanning have had any other choice but to go along with such a crazy idea?

It seemed to George that if Myron really had become Myra, she probably wouldn’t have wanted to have the whole town laughing at her. It would have been natural enough for the aunt and her nephew – now a niece – to concoct a story about Myra having just come to Eerie. The deception would certainly have needed to involve Shamus, and Molly would probably have pitched in to help, too. Because Myra would have come into existence with no women’s clothes to wear, Molly could very easily have volunteered to go shopping for her. She’d naturally enough to over to Phoenix, where she was less well known and few people would have wondered why a childless woman should be buying clothes for a young person.

Afterwards, George reasoned, Myron would have grudgingly done his best to make a go of things as Myra. Pretty soon, Deputy Grant and Judge Humphreys would have visited the farm, wanting information about the robbery. As Myron, Miss Olcott would had been a witness. The deputy would have asked for her help in finding the lost gold shipment, and Myra wouldn’t have had much choice but to agree.

The youth’s theory, if true, would also explain why Myra had so disliked him from the start. At least it was fortunate that she had. If they’d gotten close, George knew he would be feeling very embarrassed about now. The farm boy shook his head. This was a damned strange town, he had to concede, one haunted by Indian magic, and one where many of its prettiest girls used to be men.

The more he thought about it, the more convinced George became that he was on to the truth. If Myra really was Thorn, her life must really be something, learning how to live a very different sort of life. The thought of Thorn being sentenced a life of wearing corsets and pantaloons should have made him laugh, except that the idea seemed to be such a powerfully strange one.

If George had had his druthers, Myra would have been a natural-born girl. That he had found her to be so interesting and attractive from the word "go" bothered him considerably.

What was making him into a co-conspirator in the keeping of her secret? He couldn’t figure it out. He didn’t want her to be publicly mortified, but why should he care so much?

George looked off in the direction of the Fanning farm. Every time he went over there from now on he would act as a player in one hell of a story. But what sort of story would it be? He hoped it would be a comedy, not a tragedy. A comedy might encourage a certain pretty redhead to start smiling more.

But why should he care how cheerful she was? Myron had been impossible to like. But still, as annoying as he was, George hadn’t hated him -- at least not venomously.

On the other hand, young Severin wouldn't mind at all if Myra ended up living a good life. Miss Olcott was at about Chapter One in her book of life, and he couldn’t help wondering what lay in store for her. But, most of all, he wondered how was he supposed to interact with her from now on.

All these were hard questions – questions that the boy needed to work through very carefully over the long nights of the coming winter.


THE END

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Belle of Eerie, Arizona - Chapter 7, Part 2

Posted 05-07-20


By Christopher Leeson

Chapter 7, Part 2



Thursday, December 28, 1871 Continued

The letter began,

“Dearest Sister,”

“I am at my wit's end. I cannot move one way or the other. It’s like my feet are frozen in ice.  When we came to Arizona, Edgar and I hoped to build a paradise, but the hardships of this harsh land confronted us on the very first day. We were determined not to fail, but every new year increased our difficulties and we made many mistakes. But there was one mistake that has utterly destroyed any chance we had for happiness.


“Irene, I need to tell you the whole story, from beginning to end.  I have suffered from being locked in my own mind, lacking good advice. I am wretched.  I am as King Claudius was in Hamlet when he said, ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’”

At this point, Myra turned a page and saw spots of blurred ink upon the sheets.  The woman writing these words had begun to weep.

Edgar and Addie, the handwriting informed it reader, had worked hard, but were used to cultivating the well-watered and fertile fields of Pennsylvania. They started out wrongly, choosing unsuitable crops.  After two barren harvests, they had run through their savings, including what had been left over from the sale of their old farm. They found no alternative but to borrow against their land value just so that they might eat in the winter and plant again in the spring. The dry needed irrigation, which the Caldwells were forced to learn about quickly. Fortunately, there were ditches left by the Indians who had tilled the flat before the Mexicans came. The struggling couple, taking the advice of their neighbors, started to clear out those old traces and bring streams of water to their fields. 

“The neighbors had good practical knowledge and helped us as much as they could,” Addie Caldwell wrote, “but their work on their own farms took up almost all their time. The lion’s share of the labor had to be carried out by hired labor, mostly local Mexicans. We took on the ones willing to work for wages so low that they only provided for a man’s bare survival. Nonetheless, we could not pay even this without borrowing more money, and this sank us ever more deeply into debt.


By the summer of 1863, the weather presented us with an actual drought, like no drought the East has ever seen. The river sank and our new ditches were left high above the water. It was a hungry winter for us and we were humbled enough to accept the charity offered by friends in the church. We ate more wild game than we did potatoes.  By the spring of 1864, were we desperate, about to lose the farm and all that was on it. Soon we would be turned out onto the road, destitute. We prayed so many times for Heaven’s relief, but no rain came from the great empty sky. What was more frightening, it felt like God’s presence was not in it either.

 “Then, in middle May, something happened, a thing so terrible that I dread to recall it.  It was as if God’s adversary had heard the prayers that we had meant for the Lord of Creation. One night, after dark, Edgar came hurrying into the house, very excited.”

Edgar jabbered out a story. A horseman had been riding swiftly through the darkness and his mount had stumbled near where Edgar was standing.  The man had been pitched forward from the saddle and had struck his head on the hard soil.  Edgar rushed to his aid and found the man to be alive, but senseless. The farmer swung into the saddle of the stranger's roan, which had not been badly injured by its fall. He spurred away, intending to bring Addie back with the buckboard, so that they could safely bring the fellow to the farmstead.  But as the Good Samaritan galloped along, he realized that his borrowed horse was loaded with very heavy packs.  Edgar nonetheless pressed on, until he reached the house, where he started removing the packs so as to improve the beast’s speed. While so engaged, he came to realize that they were full of small, roughly-cast pieces of metal.  Edgar had only had rare contact with gold, but he knew what it looked like in that form. 

“Edgar fetched me and hurried me outside to see what was in the saddlebags.  Not only did they contain ingots, but also bundles of currency.  This was more than enough wealth to excite an outlaw to murder. We spread a canvas over the pile, weighting it down with rocks at each corner, so they the wind would not peel it away and display so much temptation to passersby on the road. 

“We have to handled this carefully,” Edgar cautioned me. Was he even then thinking the same as what I was thinking?  Were such evil ideas sent to us by Satan?  I can only think that they were.”


The couple then made haste back to where the stranger lay, Edgar riding the saddled mount and Addie driving the buckboard.  As carefully as they could, the two of them bore the injured man to the carriage.  Once back at the farm, Edgar suggested, “Let's put him in the barn.”

“Why?” I asked.

“So Myron won't see him.”


Addie didn’t have to ask why he should not see the person. She was already thinking thought so guilty that they startled her.

The pair threw spare blankets over a mound of hay inside the barn and laid him out atop it.  The fellow -- Thomas Mifflin -- Myra knew, remained unconscious.  Who could he be? they wondered.  He was dressed in a suit, though not a fine one.  Even by the dim lantern light, they could see that he was no prospector or adventurer. How was it that a man dressed like a bank clerk should be carrying so much gold?  

“We should take him to the doctor in town, maybe?” Addie suggested.

“Old Scormann is no real doctor,” Edgar answered back.  “He knows more about horses than men.”


 “Maybe – maybe,” his wife volunteered, “we can take better care of...our visitor … ourselves?” 

“Maybe,” Edgar agreed.  He glanced over his shoulder, at the canvas that covered the gold.  “It's not safe leaving it there.  It'll put into into a bin inside the barn,” he said.

“I'll take the horse to the rear pen,” Addie told him.  Her husband only nodded absently, his face stamped with both thoughtfulness and dazzlement at the same time.

For the rest of the night, one or the other of the pair stood watch over the man. Addie, regarding him by lantern light, thought that he must surely die. Or was it a hope? She was shocked to imagine such a thought crossing her mind.   

As the morning’s light brightened the dusty horizon, Mrs. Caldwell made breakfast for Myron and then hurried him out to the buckboard.  She told the boy that she wanted to shop in town and so he could ride in with her. But once he was dropped off at the school, his mother did not proceed on into town. Out of sight, she circled and returned home.

Myra, with a groan, rested back from the pages. She remembered that exact ride.

“Maybe you shouldn't read any farther,” Irene suggested.

“Leave me be,” the girl said. She had to read more. Her imagination was telling her that this story was heading toward a ghastly place and she wanted to find out that it was not going to become a crime story.

Addie, having returned to the farm, found Mifflin yet unconscious but still breathing. She tried to do a few necessary things, but frequently came back to see the sufferer’s position unchanged. The farmers knew that he needed better help than they could give him, but yet neither suggested taking him into town.

Riders came by the farm in early afternoon and identified themselves as workers from the Rexler and Colby mining company.  “Did you see a small man in a suit come out of the west by this road a little after dark last night?” one asked.  “He'd be riding a roan that probably would have its saddlebags stuffed full.”

“You look like a posse. Why are you looking for such a man?” Edgar asked.

One of the horsemen gave a gruff laugh.  “He's a robber.  He took a lot of gold from the mining office.”

“Is there a reward?” Addie asked.  That question made Edgar look her way in surprise.

“We ain’t heard,” a derby-wearing horseman said.  “If we don’t find him by dark, you can bet that there'll be some sort of a reward put up.” The speaker then searched the faces of his companions.  “What do you think of that, boys?’” The other men laughed and some nodded. Without any more talk, the group set off toward town.

Myron came walking home at the usual hour and saw the strange horse. His folks, as rattled as they were, hadn’t remembered to hide it.  “Whose horse?” he’d asked. His folks made up a story that a sick man had asked for a place to rest.  When he asked to look in on the stranger, they wouldn’t let him.

The next day, the Caldwells gave Myon another ride to school.  The robber had so far remained unable to eat or drink, and only his faintly rising chest and slow wheezing informed his keepers that he hadn’t died. They felt dismayed that he he was hanging on for so long. It was like they were subjecting him to torture, making him die slowly of hunger and thirst. The two of them hardly exchanged a word, so deep was their nervous state.  Each felt like a nightmare was sitting on his chest, making speech impossible.   Abruptly, Edgar took off with a shovel upon his shoulder, trudging to the tree-line south of the farmstead.  While he was away, more people, including a deputy from town, stopped by at the rail fence to ask questions similar to the ones that the Caldwells had taken before.
 
Addie managed to tell the lawman that they hadn’t seen or heard anything unusual, except for the news of the robbery. As soon as the riders moved out, she started shaking like a leaf.

Once in control of herself, she checked on the thief again, lying there utterly still.  Leaning in close to listen for his breathing, she couldn't hear it.  The farm wife touched his face.  Was it her imagination?  He felt cooler than before.

Her mind in a whirl, Addie Caldwell ran toward the path that Edgar’s boots had made through the rank spring grass.  Once under the ridge, inside the tree line, she lost the trail and started to shout out her husband's name, not loudly and with a stammer.  Echoes came back, but no return call.

She shouted more strongly.  Additional echoes.

Her third yell was tinged with hysteria.

Edgar appeared momentarily, came up, and embraced his wife distractedly.  They exchanged a few words and then walked back to the barn together. They put the body into the manure cart, hitched it to the horse, and led the beast into the trees, where there was a partially-dug grave.  Addie had brought with her another shovel and together they started to expand the hole. It was hard digging, foiled by roots and stones. They worked until they were tired and then decided to postpone the rest of the labor go until morning. They dragged the corpse from the cart and left it on the littered ground, covered with a weighted blanket.  Subsequently, Edgar quick-stepped ahead of Addie, who was driving the cart, and reached the barnyard first. The farm woman came up and unhitched while her husband took the robber's horse out of the corral. He intended to lead it back to the tree line, feed it there, and leave the beast tethered overnight.

When Myron came home a little later, Addie let him know that it was all right to go into the barn again, saying that the man had gotten better and ridden off.

According to the letter in Myra’s hands, the guilty pair finished the burial the next day.  Afterwards, Edgar went to the bin in the barn and transferred the gold it concealed to the cart. This he drove back to the ridge line. 

Throughout that day, Edgar and Addie scarcely discussed what they had done.  In a silent consensus, they were determined to keep the gold.  The terrible things that they had already done would make no sense, not unless they were able to profit from their crime.  Before the break of the next dawn, Edgar took off for Phoenix, riding the robber’s mount and leading the farm's horse behind it.  If anyone saw him traveling west under the gray morning light, nothing ever came of it.  It was dark again by the time he reached Phoenix. Avoiding all human contact, Edgar tied the horse to a tree at the edge of town and then rode back east. Well away from town, he spread out his bedroll in a concealed spot, needing to sleep. After slumbering some hours, he resumed the dismal trail. Darkness had closed in by the time that the farmer reached home.  To his relief, Addie was able to tell him that no visitor nor neighbor had come by during his absence. Edgar fell into bed, though he slept but restlessly that night.

As the months passed, the Caldwells, little by little, paid off more and more of their creditors, using the greenbacks. They took care not to make all the repayments too quickly, or else folks would have to wonder how they had come by so much money.  Edgar made occasional buckboard trips to Phoenix, bringing back mostly canned and dried food, and making sure that he brought his load home after dark. Then he and his wife would hide what he’d purchased, mostly in the cool cellar.

When their cash was used up, the couple decided that they had to bring a neighbor into the scheme. This man, a sly and greedy sort whom Addie left unnamed, had been augmenting his meager income with a public job. Before this, he had occasionally gossiped with Edgar about how the territorial politicians were all crooks. According to him, he had seen bureaucrats and officeholders dealing with people who should have been dangling at the end of a noose.  These scoundrels bribed office holders lavishly to protect themselves from arrest. Some were smugglers, and some made a good living fencing outlaw loot.  A few sold guns and whiskey to the Indians. Some traded rustled cattle and some dealt in various types of contraband.  The neighbor had insinuated himself in with some of the politicians; these had, in turn, introduced him to many of their civilian “associates.”  One day, the Caldwells caught the neighbor alone and had asked him a few sly questions. The answers he gave satisfied them to the point that Edgar took the chance to tell him that they had come by “a few” ingots that needed to be turn into regular money.

“Where did you two get ingots?”
he’d asked straight out.

“Not in any way that we’d want to talk about.” Edgar told him stiffly. Then he put an ingot into the hand of the curious farmer. “You can sell that one for yourself,” he’d recommended.

Over the next few months, with the help of certain scalawags that their neighbor knew, Edgar and Addie managed to keep their cash box full.  Things were going well enough with the arrangement, but the Caldwells never told him where the main treasure was hidden, though he often argued that he should be made a full partner. Stubbornly, the couple stood their ground; they could not bring themselves to trust a man who trafficked so casually with criminals.

But Edgar and his wife still worried that they were buying too much in plain sight. Their confederate, accordingly, put them into contact with shyster lawyers. These men were apt at forging paperwork to make it appear that they had received modest legacies from deceased relations 'back East.'  A year after the robber had died, the Caldwells managed to get their loans and the mortgage paid off without having attracted much attention. Their next move had to be building up the farm.

“We erected the windmill, which Edgar had wanted since the day we’d arrived at Eerie,” wrote Addie. But the Caldwells decided not to fix the house much.  The best way to look poor would be to continue to live in a plain and homely settlers’ house. But, inside that structure, there were some luxuries hidden from view.

Addie ended the letter by saying, “We did only what we thought was necessary and we harmed no one. But simply avoiding the most evil of deeds gave us no peace. It is a bitter thing to walk in wickedness while knowing that God is seeing everything.  I cannot express how terrible it was to carry around so much shame, but we are not brave enough to climb from the pit that we have dug for ourselves. We are most ashamed of living such a lie before our son’s eyes. We do not socialize very often, feeling unfit for decent company. We are not even comfortable with the neighbor who has helped us. We cannot look at him without knowing that we have tempted a flawed man and have made him worse than he was before. The reverend says that worst of sins is the causing of others to sin. How our helper’s good wife and children would grieve if they ever found out about the dishonest things that their man has been doing for bribes. God will punish us terribly for his sins, as well as for our own.

“I am not binding you to secrecy, deal sister.  I trust that you shall do the wise and decent thing according to our teaching back home.  Do as you must, now that that I have, told you about our our shame and our wrongs.  I am not the person that I was, and neither is Edgar.  Irene, never do anything that might take away your self-respect. You cannot imagine how unsatisfying are purchases that are made with ill-gained money. I can't recall seeing as much as one smile on my man’s face since this long ordeal began. Even in the worst days of our poverty we could still find moments that made us smile, but we cannot smile at all in the midst of this wickedly-acquired prosperity.

“I can’t bring myself to look at my own face in the mirror, except fleetingly. I avoid meeting the glance of my own eyes.  I cannot understand how criminals are able to endure living such a life. Doing constant evil must kill something inside a human being, something that every day makes it easier to do more wrong.  I have given up praying, which is a horrifying thought. But I feel like my prayers mock God. How can He possibly hear us repenting wickedness while every day we feast off the fruits of that very wickedness? We have not turnd ourselves in because we care too much about what the people of the town would surely think. We almost forget what God thinks. I don’t know what is wrong with us. It is not that we do not know that if we die unabsolved we shall be cast into the flames. But we are daunted by the idea of prision. To confess in secret is useless, because the Lord cannot wash us clean unless we first give back all that we have taken. Yet how can we give back the life that we allowed to be lost?

“How I wish that we had been willing to stay poor but blameless. It would have been better to be turned out homeless, bearing all we own in packs upon our backs, living by the side of the road, eating what we could snare, rather than endure the shadow of God’s condemnation.

Your loving sister,

Addie”




Friday, December 29, 1871

Myra was able to sleep only fitfully that night. She kept hearing the words of that terrible letter speaking with her mother’s voice.  The niece avoided her aunt's glances at breakfast and neither of them attempted to begin a conversation.  Afterwards, the girl went out to do her morning chores.

When she was finished, Myra lingered in the chilly air, sitting on a keg and staring at the trees of the southern ridge line.  She was thinking that she had known her parents so well, but now it was as though as if she had been reared by two strangers.  The life she had shared with them, here on this troubled little farm, now seemed to have been a false and empty thing. She felt she was in danger of losing her love for the people who had brought her up with kindness and caring.

The pain she felt didn’t exactly come from knowing that her parents had stolen from a thief and then had let him die.  It was hard for Myra to get worked up about thieving, and everyone knew that it was a kill or be killed world. She remembered well enough that she had herself robbed and, at times, had come very close to killing.  It was something else.  It was the fact that the life she had lived had been no more than one long lie. All the memories that she retained of her ma and pa now seemed tainted, as if by walnut juice.

Why did she so much care about having been deceived?  She couldn't put it into words.  The people whom she had loved most had pretended to be something that they were not. But, yet, didn’t everyone do that? Maybe that was it. Maybe the unbearable things was to know that they had been like everyone else. Some good, a lot of bad. Knowing that left her with nothing special to hold on to. The rocks that she had built her life upon were, she realized, were no more real than the wistful shapes that moved through a morning fog.

Aunt Irene, Myra supposed, surely believed that her sister and brother-in-law were in Hell. It frightened the girl to comprehend that not even her optimistic aunt was holding out any hope for them. Myra didn’t know what to think. She found herself hoping that God didn’t exist, that He was no more than some character from a story book. She wanted to believe that if He didn’t exist, the devil didn’t exist either. If there was no devil, then her parents wouldn’t be suffering like prisoners inside a medieval torture chamber. They would simply have returned to the same non-existence that everyone experienced before birth. If so, their dying would amount to nothing painful. It was better to think that there was no such thing as a soul. After all, there was no Hell for a dead badger that was caught by his head in a trap. 

How strange it was to think that a disbelief in God was her last hope for inner peace.

Not wanting to contemplate the dark history that she’d learned, Myra stood up.  She remembered how the letter had spoken of Thomas Mifflin being put into a grave.  Might her parents have thrown the gold into the same hole? A moment of thought told her no. They would never have wanted to look at those bones when they went to take out some treasure. And they wouldn’t have wanted to put in the same place both the fact of a murder and the evidence to prove it.

But what other spot would have made a better hiding place? If her pa had gone directly back to the ridge from the barn, he probably would have buried the man right there. But would he have chosen to conceal the gold under the trees or in the nearby field? Probably the former.  If it were in the field, snoopy people, like Tully Singer, might look over the boundary line and see them visiting the gold hole repeatedly. It would have been better to hid the horde behind the screen of the trees. The arboreal area was relatively restricted. That would reduce the area to be searched.

But on which side of the gave might the gold be best hidden?  Upon reflection, she realized that the ingots had to be hidden east of the grave. Her pa would never have buried gold on the right side, because the grave wasn’t far from the line fence of Tully Singer. That boundary had ling been in contention and her father would never have risked burying something valuable in a place that Singer might eventually end up owning.

What other clues did she have? Her mother had also said that she and her pa had gone back numerous times to retrieve more ingots.  That meant that the treasure could not have been buried deep. Instead, they would have reasonably preferred to hid it under little soft ground, or in a rock hole, or under a pile of stones.  

It further occurred to Myra that the ridge line was near the places where Myron had caught Grimsley trespassing several times. The man’s information, wherever it came from, had sent him to the very same area that the letter had pointed out to Myra. Was that a coincidence or a confirmation?

Myra suddenly felt excitement. But, just as quickly, she realized that she had Irene to worry about.  The girl couldn’t believe that her aunt would ever let her hold on to stolen gold. If she was ever going to find it and keep it, Myra had to keep Irene from ever suspecting that she was treasure-hunting. Otherwise, her aunt could easily question her and she’d be forced to confess all.  If that happened, Myra would be told to stop looking for the gold.  She couldn’t let that happen.

Myra reasoned that she’d have to cease quarreling with her aunt. She had to stop giving her any reason to look her way, keeper her from wondering what she was up to. The girl needed to wine Irene’s confidence, to let get her mind focused instead on a thousand other problems, not upon her. The best way to do that would be leave off being trouble-making. One way to do that would be to act friendly and cooperative. It would mean working the farm as if she actually liked doing it. It would also mean building up trust so that her aunt would take away the spell that was keeping her close in. That would be absolutely necessary if she were to get away with the gold. It was going to take some fancy play-acting to bring all that off, but the dream of having so much gold would be enough to make all the trouble worthwhile.

All of a sudden, Myra started to think better of her parents. They had always wanted a prosperous life for her, had wanted Myron to become someone important, someone respected. Well, fine. Myra planned to bear down hard and do her level best to see to it that the people whom she loved best got their fondest wish. 


TO BE CONTINUED...

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Wounded World, a story of Mantra, Chapter 20


By Aladdin

Edited by Christopher Leeson


THE WOUNDED WORLD:

A Story of Mantra
Originally written 2006
Posted April 21, 2020




CHAPTER 20



SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES

“In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors.”
                                                                William Blake



"If you're going to get another Coke, Mommy, can I have one, too?" Evie asked hopefully.

I was finally being asked a question that didn’t rip my spirit to shreds and shock my mind into stupefaction. “I don’t know, Evie. You drank the first one so quickly. If you keep doing that, you could get a tummy ache.”

“No I won’t!” she said emphatically.

“All right, but only because this is a time for celebrating.”

"Celebrate what, Mom? asked Gus. "Are you talking dopey because of PMS?"

I ignored his question and replied, "Gus...you're so handsome. How do you stay so handsome?"

"Uh?" 


Don’t lose it, Lukasz. Act like nothing’s happened.

Easier said than done.

I needed to concentrate, had to get a grip on myself. I had been emotionally battered, but I didn’t dare show it. 

"How long have we been at this table?" I asked Evie.

"'Not too long."

I pondered the situation for a moment.  Was I really in my own world? I needed to question the kids.

"Evie, Gus," I said, "do you two know who Contrary is?"

Gus made a face, but Evie answered politely. "Yes, Mommy. She's the UltraForce lady that all the fourth graders like so much. We were talking about her before. Is that something you forgot?"

I actually did seem to be home.


Then a chill coursed through me.
 

Could I stay home?

Had some sort of time-shifting power snatched me from this very mall less than a half hour earlier? Could it sweep me away again?

Then another grim thought grabbed at me.

Tomorrow would be the Ides of September. What if my experiences in that other world had been a premonition of what was soon going to happen in this one?

"Gus, are you and your Dad still going to the Sharks' game tomorrow?" I asked tensely.

"Yeah! It's going to be great!"
 

I didn't like it. I didn't like it. I didn't like it.

I needed to change the march of events. "Say, Gus, what's the use of going to the first high-school football game of the fall? The teams won't be warmed up yet. They never play at their best until October-November. Those kids still have a ton of summer fat to work off. Why don't we instead ask your dad to take you to see the Sharks next month or so? That will leave all of us free for a really fun trip to Disneyland. I’d like to go tomorrow, right after school."

"Disneyland?" chirped Evie. "Yay! Can Daddy come with us?"

Gus frowned. "I'ld be nice, but let's do it Saturday morning instead. That would give us more time to visit all the best rides before closing time. I really want to go somewhere with Dad. It’s been months since we did anything important together."
 

He was desperate to have a closer relationship with his father! But if I had truly glimpsed a future, letting events take their course was out of the question. What if there really was some sort of unknown energy sweeping in from outer space in this dimension, too? I didn't want the Blakes to be anywhere near Leadwell Street at seven o’clock on Friday. I also didn't want Gus to become infuriated by his dad's fecklessness and then go ballistic at the very moment when wild magic was bestowing godlike powers on him.

"Gus, I called your father while you were at school today, to talk about our usual business." This was a fib, of course, but sometimes one needs to fib to prevent disaster. "He mentioned that he was still hoping to take you to the game, but there's a problem."

"What?" asked Gus with startled eyes, as if I'd just given him a hotfoot.

"An important client has been making things difficult for your dad. They'd been planning to visit a property up for sale on Saturday morning. But suddenly the fellow says he has to fly back to Chicago at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday. For that reason, he wants to see the the industrial lot he's interested in late tomorrow afternoon. It's a very important deal and a lot depends on your father closing it. Unfortunately, things almost always take longer than a person expects and he might get tied up for hours. That could make him too late to attend the Sharks game."

"No!" Gus declared. "He's not going to cop out again!"

I took his arm and squeezed it. "It might not happen, precious. Your Father said that things could still work out, but he's just not sure. He wants me to warn you ahead of time. It would break his heart if you got mad at him for something he couldn't help."

Gus set his jaw resentfully. "There's probably no client at all," he muttered. "I bet he met some slut that he wants to go out with."

Careful, Lukasz. Don't rile the boy by scolding him for talking rough.

"Gus, it's not nice to call a stranger a bad name. Anyway, I'm sure that there's no lady involved. Things just happen. Most parents want to spend more time with their kids. I certainly don't go to the office because I want to, but because I have to earn an income for our family. If I were living just to have fun, I’d prefer to be with you and your sister all the time."

The boy was glowering down at his ketchup-smeared paper plate, his face a portrait of disgruntlement.

"Gus, you can't believe that your dad would fib about anything so important. He's not that sort of a man." I'd leave it at that; overselling August Sr.'s virtues to a boy who had been hurt by his flightiness several times already might be enough to set him off.

"If you think Dad's so great, why did you divorce him?" the boy suddenly challenged.

Always that question
. In truth, the divorce had been Eden’s idea and it had happened before I’d ever come on the scene. 

"Love is something hard to understand,” I replied. “It’s all about feelings, Gus. I don't know why, but all too often married people stop loving each other."

"Dad didn't stop loving you!" Gus declared. "You're the one who wanted him to go away."

"That's true. But a marriage isn't good if it doesn't make both people in it happy. There were some grownup-type problems in our marriage. We wanted to fix them, but nothing we tried worked. I’m sorry that the way things worked out left us all with hurt feelings."

"Was the divorce about sex?" Gus asked.

"We'll talk about sex when you're older, darling," I punted. "But I do want you to know that even when a mom and a dad go their separate ways, they almost never stop loving their kids. We both still treasure you as much as we ever did."

"Then why doesn't he come see us every other Sunday like he's supposed to? Did you tell him he shouldn't? Jeff at school said that his mother ordered his dad to keep away -- or else she'd tell lies to the judge and have him put in jail."

"I'd never do that, Gus," I assured him. "I want you and Evie to spend lots of time with your dad. He loves you both hugely and I know you love him, too. When he and I split up, we both intended to go on being your mom and dad in every way."

"That’s what grownups always say," groused the younger Gus. Fortunately, he hadn’t gone into a tirade so far. I glanced over at his sister to see how she was taking in our discussion. The tyke was listening with a serious expression. I was sorry for her. Girls need to have a father at home just as much as boys do.
 

Gus had become sullenly silent and I knew that I had to lighten his mood. But what could I do to cheer him up? Well, when in doubt, bribe.

"You know what, Gus? Your dad told me that if things don't work out tomorrow, he wants to pay for show tickets for me, you, and Evie. I'll get off work a couple hours early and meet you and Grandma over at the Van Nuys multiplex. I think Grandma will like to be able to go home early. That would give her more time to get ready for her date. Gus, what's the best film that’s playing tomorrow? You can pick the one that you most want to see. In fact, we'll have time to take in two movies. Your Dad made it very clear that he'd want to make it a really big night for you. Like, there'd be no limit to the candy, soft drinks, and popcorn that you and Evie can order."

The flutter of his lids told me that Gus was weakening, but he still strove to look pouty. I gave him a coaxing smile and pressed his hand. "Well, think about it -- just in case. And remember, there's only one chance in ten that the ball game won't come off. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it at all.”

Fat chance of that! I was going to have to get in touch with Gus Sr. very soon and find out if he intended to do repeat the mistake that his counterpart made in that other world.

The children continued to dine in silence. That gave me time to think. It was a no-brainer that I had to keep both of them away from Canoga Park between seven and eight o'clock, no matter what.  In fact, even if Gus Sr were to vow that he was coming on Friday night, I thought that I should get home early and take Gus and Evie to a restaurant near the ball field. If he wanted to, their father could pick up Gus there.

But wait a minute! Little Gus wasn't the only one in peril if Friday night went south. I  had to keep Heather's group from turning into Coven. And I couldn’t forget about Lauren’s problem. If she got empowered while still an excitement-loving teenager, she might get herself killed while fighting some ultra-villain -- maybe as early as tomorrow night. Should Coven or Necromantra come at her, it would take only one mistake to end her life.
And if she should get by them, there would be an even more dangerous encounter with NM-E on Sunday.


The very thought that Necromantra might be lurking in a warehouse nearby made me wince. Would I have to kill her again? I didn’t want to, but in her demented state I probably wouldn’t have any choice.  Briefly, I considered luring her out into the open and getting her captured by Aladdin. They had the tech and the training to take down almost any ambushed ultra. While I hadn’t liked the idea of Blythe Ashwin being tortured by a gang of crooked Deep Staters, Necromantra was much more cruel and destructive than Ashwin. Her just desserts were off the chart.

But, alas, that gambit wouldn’t work! In torture, Thanasi could – and certainly would – rat me out as Mantra and then Aladdin would come after me, too! Was destiny determined to force my one-time best friend and me into another death duel?

What a multiplicity of quandaries! How could I juggle so many threats and still go out in public with Gus and Evie? On top of it all, was there anything that anyone could do to save New York City? 

Of course, there was still the possibility, even the probability, that none of these dangers might prove out. But for safety's sake I had to act like they might.


What I really needed was a drink. "Evie," I murmured, "I'm going to refill my cup. Do you still want more pop? "

"Yeah! Only, can I have Sprite this time?"

"You sure can, Dumpling!"


#

That night, after the kids were in bed, I lingered in the living room, still haunted by my memories of that other world. I found myself pacing the carpet, trying to steel myself enough to make a call to Gus Blake. Regardless of how the conversation went, I wouldn't be getting much sleep. I didn’t think that I would be totally myself until Friday the Fifteenth had come and gone peacefully.

As I mulled things over, I noticed that someone else was in the room. Mr. Paws lay on the easy chair, having fallen forward onto his nose. Usually, Evie went to bed with the stuffed pet fondly tucked in beside her. Tonight, unfortunately, she had needed to retire early, after taking a spoonful of bicarbonate to settle her stomach. I smiled sadly at the little fellow, remembering the wrenching events that the other Mr. Paws had shared with his family. On a whim, I transferred the teddy bear to the couch in front of our smart TV. Evie would find her friend sitting there in the morning and probably make up an imaginative story about how teddy bears are able to watch a secret bear streaming service that only plays after midnight.

Letting myself drop into the vacated easy chair, I again asked myself the crucial question: Had any part of the last five days been real? Try as I might, I couldn't lose the feeling that the world around me lay under an imminent threat.  

It also occurred to me that I should get in touch with Strike -- Warstrike, that is. With his psychic talents, he might be able to look ahead and see whether something wicked was coming our way.

Besides the Night of Terror, that other world had held many horrors. Like, could there actually be some sort of danger hidden in Mrs. Dimsdale's garden? As soon as possible, I would have to ask the Dimsdales whether they had noticed anything odd happening on their property. I knew that time and space portals were real. In fact, I knew of one that led to the Godwheel. Could there be something similar impinging upon our own neighborhood? The sensible thing would be to warn the kids to keep away from that garden, but the quickest way to make children curious about something was to tell them to stay away from it. If I mentioned fairies, nothing would keep Evie from going out to look for them. And Gus would tag along, too, just to prove to his sister that fairies didn't exist. I started thinking that I should don my Blackbird outfit and explore that garden this very night, checking it out for anomalies.

And, of course, I dared not delay for very long in contacting Penny. Had the Pinnacle of this world emotionally crashed like the other one had? Was she contemplating suicide? If so, I would I have to go to L.A. and buck her up before something tragic happened.

Suddenly the front doorbell rang.

I stood up to answer it, but when I reached the threshold, my hand refused to touch the knob. It was as if some inner voice was warning me that if I opened this particular door at this particular moment, something very, very significant was going to happen to me.

And whenever a significant event blindsides me, it’s usually an excuse for destiny to run me through the mill several times over.

When the bell chimed for a second time, I told myself that I was just being silly. My enemies weren't the type to come ringing doorbells. Nonetheless, I wrapped myself in a sturdy force field before peering through the door’s small window.
 

An attentive figure stood on the welcome mat, a hopeful smile on his fleshy lips.

I gaped, goggle-eyed. 


It was the Little Man Who Wasn't There. Here was the same stranger who had jabbed me at the Kids’ Club before inexplicably disappearing.

Only he was there.
 

I hate to say it, but it’s at this point that my story really gets crazy. 


The End