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Friday, June 7, 2024


 Posted May 7, 2024


A Story of Mantra and Black September

By Aladdin and Christopher Leeson 




We all walk in mysteries. We are surrounded by an atmosphere about which we still know nothing at all.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Now left alone, I wasn't sure how well our conversation had gone. With nothing else planned for the day, I decided to mentally contact Gabriel.

It turned out that he’d been listening in on the conversation I'd just had. Should I be surprised?

What do the rebels want?
the snoopy little man asked telepathically.

"Mostly, they want to have Warstrike dead."

We can offer them much, but they unfortunately won't have time to enjoy it for long.

Yeah, I get it. They're going to blink out of existence. In that case, we can offer them almost anything, as long as we set the delivery date for after the eleventh hour.”

We will do what we must for the sake of the Multiverse, but I dislike deceiving people.” At that, he went silent.

“Gabe, are you there?" I asked. 

When his voice returned, he said, "I went to retrieve a useful apparatus I possess. It achieves the same effects as Warstrike's precognition but is more efficient."

“What do you want see?" I asked.

It is paramount to locate the Time Gem. If that is what Amber Hunt is coming here to seek, it might make a proper bait to draw her into a trap.

"Why didn’t you think of that before?”

Everything in its proper time, he replied.

"Oh, yeah? Weren't you just saying that time is a short commodity?" I reminded him.

Instead of replying, Gabriel gave a shout:
I see it! It's inside the castle!

“It’s not a castle. It’s an armory.”

Whatever it's called, the Time Gem is inside of it!

"Who has it? Not Necromantra, I hope.".

Jamie Tark has it!

Jamie? How in hell did she get it?

Hurry, Gabriel urged. We have to seize the Gem before Amber Hunt arrives.

“We also have to worry about Warstrike," I told him. "He'll probably want to turn the thing into a weapon against the rebels. And then there's Necromantra! She's such a nihilist that there's no way of knowing what she'd end up doing with the thing. What's next?" I asked.

I'm unsure, but I have confidence in your resourcefulness, he said.

"Why not ask your mechanical seer what to do?"

It doesn’t work that way.

“So, you're dumping all this on me again?" I grumbled.

Unfortunately, yes.

“Science guys! You can't live with them and you can't live without them! "Okay, just give me a moment to think!"

I had already mingled my aura with Jamie's bio-field when I'd touched her before. This would allow me to find her almost automatically. Our conversation apparently being over, I turned ghost and followed Jamie's psychic scent. I took the covert route through the plentiful rubble that cluttered the broken streets.

At the trail’s end, I found myself in a room that must have belonged to Jamie, since she was sitting at a small table playing with dolls. Mr. Paws was one of them, looking well cared for despite the decrepit state of the world overall.

I solidified in front of the child. "Hi, Jamie!"

She looked up with a gasp. "Mantra!"

"I didn't mean to startle you."

"Have you come to say goodbye?" she asked. looking worried.

"Not yet, but I learned something that makes me afraid for you."

Jamie wrinkled her brow. "What, Mantra?"

"I've found out you're a little girl keeping a big secret. I also know it's a secret that's too big to hold on to all by yourself. Can you tell me about it?"

"I don't know any secrets," she said nervously.

"That's funny. I had a Mantra vision, and I saw you holding a pretty gem. But instead of being happy, you looked sad whenever you looked at it. Why is that, sweetheart?"

"I – I –" she stammered.

"Is it a bad gem? Does it make you have nightmares?"

"No – I don't have bad dreams." She hung her head guiltily. "That’s just something I told Daddy."

Kneeling beside her, I took her hand and touched her cheek. "Why did you fib to someone who loves you as much as your daddy, Jamie?"

"The gem said I had to keep everything a secret."

"Why, honey?"

"Because the gem said it had powers, and if Daddy took the gem and used those powers, he might hurt people."

"Why would he do that?"

"Because he's the king."

"Is he a king who does bad things?"

"I don't know. But he's fighting with everybody. If people fight, it doesn't always mean they're bad, does it?"

"Of course not. But you say the gem speaks to you? I’ve never met a talking gem. Will it speak to me?"

"I don't know. Maybe if it likes you?"

"What sort of things does it speak to you about?"

"It said the Flaming Woman will soon come and take it away, and that if she does, everyone here is going to die. So I hid the Gem to keep the Flaming Woman from finding it."

"Are you sure?" I asked. "Strangers often tell fibs. Do you suppose that the gem might be fibbing?"

"I don't know. Why would the gem do that?"

"There could be lots of reasons. A bad gem might tell scary stories to make children afraid and sad."

Jamie assumed a worried look. I gathered her into my arms and whispered into her ear. "Jamie, magic can be good or bad. What do you think we should do about this sort of magic?"

Instead of answering, she pulled away and went to her toy box, withdrawing from it a smooth, oblong, glowing vermilion stone. I had seen the Mind Gem before, and it had looked similar, except for its color. This gem supposedly contained a god’s power to control the flow of Time. Who could be trusted with its control? Not Gabriel. There were just too many mysteries surrounding the little man for me to trust him.

Jamie came to me with the Time Gem cupped in her hands. "You can have it, Auntie," she whispered.

“Why, don’t you want it anymore?” I asked.

“I think an adult should take care of it."

Was she saying she trusted me, a near stranger, more than her own father? It must have had the right sort of face!

I carefully took the gem and felt its warmth through my gloves. I braced, unsure what a piece of an ancient god's corpse might do to me.

"Can you speak to me?" I asked the gem warily.

I can communicate with you,
said a whisper inside my mind.

"What have you been telling Jamie?" I asked.

Only truth.

"What is truth?"

Truth is an accurate description of a quantitative reality.

"Cute answer! Where are you from, and why are you here?"

I come from the Infinity Array. I am here to hide from my brothers.

"Why do you need to hide?"

They hold me to be a traitor. I cooperated with the Reality Gem to allow the Black Knight to break the Array. The other four seek revenge.

“How can they hurt you?”

They can unite to render me inert like the Ego Gem now is.

"Why did you break away from the array?"

I can see ahead in time and knew that the intentions of the Ego Gem would end reality. Not even the Infinity Array may continue to exist where reality is absent.

“How do you know about Amber Hunt, whom you call the Flaming Woman?" I asked.

The Black Knight broke the array, but the presence of Amber Hunt is needed to prevent the immediate destruction of the Main Branch. I must take her into the first possible nanosecond when she can apply her power.

So, that was Amber Hunt's role in this debacle? This was a nuance that I hadn't known about. I wondered whether Gabriel knew how Amber Hunt fitted in? If he did know, why hadn't he told me?

"Time Gem, in your vast knowledge, do you know how to prevent every particle of the Nemesis Energy from escaping?"

I do not. I was part of the array when the first energy wave escaped. If I return to that nanosecond, I will occupy the same point in time twice, and that will create a paradox that must be avoided!

"Would the paradox be worse than letting the Nemesis Energy destroy the Multiverse."

"Hold on here? I did a paradox when I met a different version of myself from a different year and timeline! It didn't hurt either one of us!"

Your paradox was harmless because you are not an Infinity Gem.

Trying to see reality as a god saw it was overloading my mind. Maybe Gabriel could understand the Time Gem's lingo.

I hear you, Mantra, the Timekeeper spoke into my mind.

"Good, now tell me what to do."

The data is being analyzed. It is paramount that I analyze the physical gem also. Please bring it to the Time Sphere.

“What if it doesn't want to go?" I asked.

Try asking it nicely, my friend.

Before I could think of a rejoinder, a grating voice echoed between the cement walls. "So, there you are, bitch!"

My force shield reacted to my startlement  to protect myself and Jamie simultaneously.

Necromantra still looked like I remembered her, with no sign of aging. She still had the same costume I'd seen her wear before, the one that made her look like a tart. Before he went insane, I'd knew Thanasi well; I'd never had any inkling that he was the type who would get his jollies by sashaying around as a slut-dressing woman the first chance he got.

I didn't want to start a fight with Jamie present, so I tried a threat: "I killed you once, I'll do it again."

"When did you kill me?" she asked.

“In another timeline. Just looking at you reminds me of why I did it. I can't believe I actually felt bad for a while."

“When you're dead yourself, those bad feelings won't bother you anymore," she said scornfully.

“You're still the same little ball of sunshine, aren't you?"

"What's that in your hand?" the witch asked.

"Take a guess."

"Try this guess. I formerly felt the raw energy of the Power Gem that Lord Pumpkin used to attack me. What you have feels like the same energy. That's the kind of power I've always dreamed of having. Hand it over!"

"Why should I?" I said.

"I promise that if you give it to me, the child, at least, can live," Necromantra said.

"That seems uncommonly generous of you. Why would I think you'd keep your word?"

The tattooed woman smiled. "She's annoying, but I've been putting up with her to get the goodwill of her father. That no longer holds; that gem will allow me to destroy my enemies without need of Warstrike's help."

"Why do you want the city?" I asked. "It's a wreck. Wouldn't you prefer to take over a nice tropical beach somewhere?"

"You've heard my terms," the under-dressed redhead stated in a cold, hard voice.

"I have a better deal," I answered back. "Get out of my way, and I'll let you live. Don't you think that it's significant that I control the gem right now?"

This was tough talk, but I didn't have the foggiest notion of how to make use the gem, or even what the thing was capable of.

At that, Necromantia swept her arms up over her head and zapped me with a flaming mass of magical destruction.

Wow! My shield had kept Jamie safe and me safe, but I didn’t think it could stand up to many more of those!"

Mantra! Gabriel spoke into my mind just then. Think! The Time Gem controls time. Turn time into a weapon! Think outside the box!

That was an idea! Just as Gabriel had previously recommended, I decided to petition the piece of red rock I held politely. "Time Gem, please protect Jamie by putting this obnoxious bimbo someplace where there are lots of hungry dinosaurs!"

In front of me, a vermilion vortex opened. The power waves flowing out of it shoved me backward, my shielding notwithstanding. The energies whirled, forming a funnel made of crackling arcs of light. The funnel zeroed in on Necromantra and swallowed her down, shield and all. In just a couple of seconds, both the vortex and the witch had vanished.

"Mommy," said the little girl. "Where did the queen go?"

"I'm not sure, Jamie. Gem, where did she go?"

In your terminology, she now exists in an environment on this world prevailing seventy-five million years ago. Is that depository satisfactory?

"Yeah, I like it. Thanks much."

"Is the queen gonna come back, Auntie?" Jamie asked plaintively.

Would she? I doubted it. Unless Necromantra learned to time-travel, she couldn’t possibly survive for seventy-five million years. Anyway, when the Nemesis Energy hit this world, not only would its present be destroyed, but its entire prior existence would be wiped out, also.

"No, I don't think so. She'll never make you afraid again."

With a happy laugh, Jamie hugged me around the hips.

It had not been a victory I could savor. Necromantra's appearance had amounted to a mere annoyance. The real problems we faced still lay ahead.



Wednesday, May 8, 2024

The Twilight of the Gods: A Story of Mantra, Chapter 12



A story of Mantra and Black September

By Aladdin and Christopher Leeson 



The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become. Share this Quote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The moment one definitely commits oneself,
Then Providence moves too.
Whatever you think you can do,
Or believe you can do, begin it.
Action has magic, power, and grace.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


I found Tark in the room outside. He summoned me with a hand signal and led me to a private corner where we sat down.

"Shouldn't we be doing something?" I asked.

"We are. I sent my chamberlain, Nicolas Lone, to make contact with the rebels. I want him to arrange a truce that will give you a chance to talk to them."

"Should I know Nicolas Lone?" I asked.

"Maybe not. He used to be that anti-mob avenger, Solitaire. He was the son of L.A.'s top mobster, but because he was injured he was given some ultra wetware in surgery. It saved his life, but maybe it did something to his head, too. He used the ultra powers he gained to become a nighttime avenger with a beef against the mobs -- especially his father's."

Not being interested in Mr. Lone, I started asking Brandon questions about Gus, whom I hadn't seen yet. He had a sour streak in him and didn't work hard at his studies. I was interested in finding out what sort of young man he had grown up to be.

"He's handy with computers, databases, and analysis," Warstrike replied. "We don't have much of a tech department here, but Nicolas Lone works with Gus and Lone has some big league technical ability."

"As a boy, Gus was good at violent video games," I said.

"He has more than that on the ball now, but you might not like the job I've given him."

"Is he a soldier?" I asked.

"You mean like his mother? No, he's tasked with gathering information on people. He searches old data bases to find out whether anyone we work with has any troublesome red flags in his past."

"Are the red flag people marked for execution?" I asked pointedly.

"Not always. Once an enemy, not always an enemy. People with their brain twisted by politics can usually be flipped more easily than can the common man."

"Just don't make a killer out of him," I said firmly.

"Why? You've been killing for more than a millennium and a half?"

"I have, and I thought I was doing the right thing, but sometimes I acted on bad information. I want my son to have a clear conscience."

"I want the same for Jamie. Don't worry; I won't push your boy to think that killing is a good thing."

It was just then that Nicolas Lone came in from outside. He had the kind of face that some women might like -- if they were keen on walking close to the edge. He wasn't ugly, but the gangster's son had a certain look that told me that he was a dangerous man. I couldn't help but think that his face was a mask hiding something hard and deadly. And it was more than just the fact that he was packing.

He addressed Warstrike: "Our truce negotiator is back. He's set up a parley with Mantra."

"That was fast work!" Brandon replied.

"Well, the rebels must have been interested to hear that Mantra was back!"

"When's the meeting?"

"You said we didn't have time to waste. The deal is that Mantra's party will go to the spot, and after they've eyeballed her, their representatives will show themselves."

"Can we trust them not to shoot her?"

"They've been respecting the truce flag up to now," Lone said. He pointed toward the end of the block. "The meeting will be under that arch over there."

"Does Mantra have any enemies on the other side that she should worry about?" Tark asked.

"Not really," the chamberlain said. "Her worst enemy that I know of is Necromantra."

"Leave that one to me," Brandon said darkly.

"Who will I be negotiating with?" I asked Lone.

He shrugged. "The rebels were coy about that."

"Who was the contact you talked to?" I asked.

"Have you met Slayer?"

"No, I haven't. I read his Aladdin file, though," I said.

There was something slightly unreal about this conversation. This alliance of Solitaire with King Warstrike seemed a little unlikely. If Solitaire had turned against his crime-boss father, why was he working with Warstrike, who was ruling his little kingdom like a crime boss? I wondered whether Tark had ever tried to nail him down on that question. Why did Brandon trust a person with such a background? Like, if he wouldn't follow his own father, why would he follow a ruthless king?

"Well, maybe I should get over to that arch," I suggested, rising. Tark grabbed my arm and shook his head. "Go at the last minute," he told me. "If you make yourself a sitting duck, somebody might get the idea to take you out, truce or no truce."

So I waited a little longer. Lone and Brandon spent most of that time off by themselves, speaking in hushed tones. When I got antsy, I started walking toward the arch alone. Warstrike's glance followed me, but he didn't say anything. I planned to ghost myself; the rebels would be able to see me, but they couldn't touch me. Of course, my force field idea hadn't worked so well with Neuronne.

I crossed a street, my footfalls making crackling sounds as I crossed over the ash fall and entered the deep shadow under the arch. After a few minutes of waiting, I heard footsteps.

"If you're not here to represent the rebel alliance, get lost," I told the still-nebulous figures. "If you're part of an official parley party, step up and don't be shy."

That little bit of encouragement did the trick. Three persons came from behind the rubble, like gunfighters out of a livery stable. They were a mixed bag.

I didn't recognize the beefy blond guy wearing ancient Greek-style battle attire. The biggest of the trio I knew had been a member of the Freeks, a sad-sack team of young ultras. Cayman was green, scaly, and came off more like a creature from outer space than a human being.

 Information on him was sketchy, but he tentatively classified by Aladdin as a mutant. Though he had a human form, he was seldom seen using it. In mutant shape, he was tall - about six and a half feet - with bulging muscles and scales. He had eyes, a nose, and a mouth full of pointed teeth. His clawed hands better crafted for bloodletting than for handling things.

The third negotiator was a woman and a real looker whom I could instantly identify as Choice. Aladdin believed that her powers had been artificially created, making her another product of wetware surgery. Supposedly, she could shoot force beams from her eyes, fly, project force shields, and was ultra strong. But a quirk in her wetware limited her to using only one power for an hour before it would shut off and go dormant - hence her name, which to me sounded like a magazine title that some abortion lobbyist group would come up with. I suspected that the lady had been named by a committee. 

"Hello, Choice," I said amiably. "Is Hardcase out there keeping an eye on us? I'd like to say hello to him." I knew that in my world, Choice and Hardcase were a couple. If Hardcase was against Warstrike, no wonder his kingdom was in trouble.

The ultra woman looked at me crossly, and spoke with a stinging tone. "You really don't know?"

"I'm new to the neighborhood," I said lightly.

"Tell your own story first," the slim, brunette said. "Who are you, and where do you come from?"

"Didn't the chamberlain tell you? I'm the Mantra of a parallel universe. Both you and Hardcase have doubles there, too. In my world, Yellowstone never erupted. I can't believe the devastation I see here."

"And you just dropped in for a visit?" she asked skeptically.

"No, I came here to do an important job. I didn't even know about your civil war until today, and frankly, I'd rather not have to choose sides."

"Then why do we find you carrying messages for Warstrike?" she challenged.

"I'm not. I'm carrying my own message. I think Tark is willing to help me because I look like his late wife. While I'd like to see this civil war settled peacefully, what happens here isn't any of my business; I can't stay long enough to help either side. Come on, Choice, talk to me. Can we make a deal that will help very many people in a different universe?" I didn't want to mention what my mission entailed; she'd probably think I was either crazy or lying.

"To help you, are we supposed to make peace with tyranny?"

"I wouldn't ask that much, but a short truce would be very helpful. Wouldn't you like to take a break from the fighting for at least a little while?"

"None of us like the war, but those are the cards on the table."

"Why doesn't one side agree to leave the city? Wouldn't a mutually agreed on separation be useful?"

She snorted. "The world's a mess. At least here we have some resources that will help with the rebuilding."

"It seems to me that with all this fighting you won't have any resources left when the time comes for rebuilding," I said. "I got the impression when I was over with the other side that their people are only fighting because they think they'll be massacred if they lose."

"I don't pity them; they massacred plenty of good people in Warstrike's cause. He's unfit to lead. And having that witch Necromantra behind him makes him doubly unfit."

"Necromantra has to go, I agree. But that has nothing to do with the reason I'm here."

"Why are you here?" she asked sharply.

I told her as much as I dared, talking about Amber Hunt while leaving out the unbelievable details. "If you see a woman who bursts into flame whenever she uses her power," I said, "that'll be Amber Hunt."

"I once saw Miss Hunt over Las Angeles," Choice replied. "So you want us to capture Amber Hunt for you? Why should we do the dangerous lifting you should be doing?"

"I'd appreciate any help I can get, but all I'm seeking is an agreement that if she shows up, she belongs to me."

"Then what?"

 "Then I want to get the hell out of here with her!"

With a grudging expression, she said, "I'll take your request to the committee."

"You can also tell them that if my plan works, Hunt and I can save millions of people."

"Why should anyone here care what happens in another universe?" Choice asked.

"No reason," I said. "But wasn't there was a time when a lot of people fighting on your side, especially you and Hardcase, would have wanted to help people even if they didn't know them personally?"

"Hardcase is dead!" she declared with a rasp.

I blinked with surprise. "I'm sorry. What happened?"

"He left L.A., looking for other Americans he could help. Tom thought we had enough ultra-power with us to get along on our own."

"How did you find out that he died?" I asked.

"We didn't. But if Hardcase could have returned, he would have been back by now."

I sighed. "That's probably a reasonable guess."

"Will what you're trying to accomplish save your version of Earth, too?" Choice asked.

"Definitely! That's a big motivation for me," I admitted.

"But who's going to save ours?"

"I honestly don't know how either Amber Hunt or I can fix what's wrong  here. And what's wrong here is the war that's being waged."

"If we help you, how much danger would that down on our heads?"

"I'm going to try to talk down Amber Hunt, but wherever that young lady shows herself, there's always a danger. Remember how she almost went gamma?"

Choice grimaced. "I remember. But all I can promise is that I'll take your message to our council."

"How does it work, running a revolution by committee?" I asked.

"It seemed to work for the Founding Fathers," she replied.

"How did it work for the French Committee of Public Safety?"

Choice ignored my question. "When is she supposed to show up here?"

"According to my information, it's only a matter of  hours."

 "I see. I'll pass your information along," the ultra said as she turned suddenly away.


Sunday, April 7, 2024

The Twilight of the Gods: A Story of Mantra, Chapter 11

 Updated May 8, 2024


A story of Mantra and Black September

By Aladdin and Christopher Leeson 



You can have everything in life you want, 

If you will just help other people get what they want.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I was amazed by how grown up
she appeared to be. She looked about seventeen and was the image of Eden Blake. To think that the last time I’d seen her she was only seven years old and a second grader.

I checked first to see if she looked underfed. Everyone else I’d seen in this tortured land had appeared hungry.

But my daughter's clone had not arrived alone; an excited Jamie stood beside her. Warstrike was looking at them. I wondered how he felt about his little girl breaking her promise
so quickly.

"Evie, Jamie, come in," Brandon said. Evie now saw me and was apparently struck speechless.

Tark drew his daughter away from her – sister. It was still hard for me to put my mind around the idea that the family I knew had been expanded. "Jamie," he asked, "have you dreamed about the Flaming Woman again lately?"

She nodded. "Yes, Daddy. I wanted to tell you, but when I met Aunt Jennie I forgot about it."

"That's okay,"Tark said. "But it's important that you tell us what you dreamed. Mantra thinks that maybe a real-life Flaming Woman is coming. We have to learn as much possible about her before she gets here."

The little girl glanced back my way. "Have you met the Flaming Woman, Mantra? Is she coming to hurt us?"

"I do believe she's coming," I said, "but I don't know why. I'm hoping we can all make friends with her. I have a big favor to ask of her."

Jamie frowned confusedly. "But she's bad, isn't she?"

I tried to reassure her with a smile. "I'm guessing the Flaming Woman's not so much bad as mixed up. When she was back home, there was a big explosion where all her friends died. She hasn't been acting herself since that bad thing happened."

Jamie smiled uneasily as if her child's mind was trying to reconcile the idea of someone being both good and evil at the same time. When her age, I had mulled over things like that myself.

"B-Brandon," stammered Evie. “Our mother didn’t have any sister named Jennie. Didn’t you know that?”

"Aunt Jennie has explained quite a few things to me," said Warsrike, "but you ought to talk to her yourself. But first, Jamie has to tell us about the Flaming Woman."

"But this person can't really be Mantra!" Evie insisted.

"Speak to her. Decide for yourself," Brandon told her.

The father and his young daughter left then, and the guards shut the door to give Evie and me privacy.

"I refuse to believe that you're my mother," Evie said, her chin high and expression determined.

"My name is Eden Blake, but I'm not your mother. I come from an alternate dimension."

She blinked perplexedly. "An alternate dimension? Like in the science fiction books?"

"Yes. Your stepfather believes me, and I'd like you to believe me, too."

“Why are you here?”

"I have a job to do. When I left my own Evie and Gus at home a day or so ago, they were still in elementary school. To me, that was only hours ago, but when I look at you, I know what my daughter will look like when she's almost grown up."

“There aren’t any alternate dimensions!” she declared.

“Maybe if we talk for a while, the idea won't seem so strange."

She grimaced. "Whoever you are, you look exactly like I remember you – her."

She looked so full of hurt, but I thought it was too soon to take her into my arms.

"I dreamed a thousand times about my mother not being dead, that she would be coming back. But if you're not my real mom, nothing at all has changed."

"I'm sorry. I thought you might feel that way, so I decided not to meet with you. I knew that even if I could make you feel better for a moment, the hurt would come back even worse than before when I had to go away again."

She pulled back and broke eye contact.

“If you come from another place, why are you in this world?" she asked.

"I'm looking for the Flaming Woman, the one Jamie keeps dreaming about?"

"But they're only dreams, aren't they?"

"No. The woman is real, and she's an ultra with a unique power – a power that can save untold billions of lives."

Evie suddenly looked hopeful. "Will she save our world, too?"

I decided to hedge that question. "I'm not sure. I hope so."

“Was there any volcano in the world where you came from?”

"No, not yet. Maybe there won't ever be. As soon as I get home, I intend to do my best to stop it from happening." I might have to kill a few dozen Deep Staters to do the job, but I was game for that!

"I wish I could believe you."

"I know this is hard, and I think you've had too much hardship already. How badly have things gone for you?" I asked.

She shook her head. "I think the rebels are going to attack the castle soon. They want to kill Warstrike and Necromantra. Maybe they'll kill the rest of us, too. I don't know."

"Do you think that your – stepdad – is can win the war?"

She bit her lip. "No, I don't."

Reaching out, I took her by the shoulders. When my daughter reached her age, I wanted her to be enjoying a happy life. This world was a bizarre parody of my own; too many ghastly things had gone wrong here.

"I'm going to try to talk to the rebels and see if that helps," I said. "But the first thing I want to know is how has Warstrike been treating you?"

"He's been all right. He's good with our sister, too. He’s done some bad things, but I can't forget how he loved our mother so much. I can guess how much it must hurt him to look at you knowing you're not the person we both loved."

"I wish things could have worked better for you, Evie, but please tell me about yourself. Have you been keeping up with your studies?"

She stared into my face. "How can that matter to you?"

I forced a smile. "Because I'd feel better if you could have all the things I want her to have."

The teen girl shrugged. "I can read and write and do arithmetic," she said. “Brandon has made sure that we know about the world, at least how it used to be. I don't know why that's important. That world is gone, and what's left so terrible."

"What kind of a king has he been?" I asked.

Instead of answering, she glanced back at the door.

"Do you think someone out there is listening to us?"

"I – I don't know," she replied haltingly. "People are always spying. Stepdad has executed a lot of rebel spies, but he spies, too. And Necromantra spies on both sides."

Just the sound of that witch’s name sank my more tender feelings.

"Yes, I’ve been wondering about Necromantra. How has seen been treating you?"

Evie gave a shudder. "I hate her! She killed my mother."

"She killed Mantra? Are you certain of that?"

"Maybe she did, but I know for sure that she killed my first mother."

I nodded. "Has she tried to harm you?"

"She keeps her distance," said Evie. "She showed up right after Mother – Mantra – was killed. She ignores us, mostly. It's horrible that my first mother's murderer is living in the same house with us."

"Why does your stepdad put up with her?" I asked.

"I'm not sure. She's powerful, and Brandon needs power on his side. But it makes me crazy that they decided to get married."

“It makes me pretty crazy, too. Do they get along personally?"

Evie glanced to the floor, frowning. "I don't think he trusts her, but she has a way with people, even Dad." Evie lowered her voice. "There's all kinds of stories about her. Some people say she used to be a man. Does that make any sense?"

"Does she act like a man?" I replied evasively. I thought that Evie already had enough weirdness in her life.

"Not that I can see."

I smiled. "Well, then, maybe those rumors aren't true."

"Mom – Mantra, I mean. Are you just like my mother?”

“In what way?”

"She once told me that she had the ghost of a man inside her." Evie was watching my expression as if to see my reaction to the bomb she'd just thrown.

I sighed. When Necromantra attacked, Eden had been in her own body, and I was in the body of a male clone. Having no magic of my own, I was no match for the witch's sorcery. Eden, wounded and dying, urged me to reenter her body. I had to do it to defeat Necromantra, but Evie had been watching it all and knew something wasn't right. She asked me if I was really her mother. Rightly or wrongly, I very briefly explained what had really happened. After that, I was surprised that she hadn't asked for more information.

"By the time you grew up, I hoped you'd have forgotten what I'd said," I told her softly.

"I almost did. I didn’t want to know about something so strange. Whenever I thought about it, it worried me. I wanted you to be the Mantra I had always thought you were -- an incredibly special woman. I could never understand why you behaved so much like my mom when you were a completely different person. After a while, I didn’t think about what you'd said at all."

"I did my best to act like Eden Blake whenever I could. But I truly did like having a family after living alone for such a long time."

“Did you live a life just like the real Mantra’s?” Evie suddenly asked.

I smiled. "I've always thought of myself as being the real Mantra. I never knew your mother existed until today."

"Being with you makes me feel like Mantra has come back. Do you have to leave?" she asked with a hint of urgency. The poor kid was hoping for a redo of a life that had gone so haywire.

"Yes, I do. I don't have any choice about that. Many people on many worlds will die if I don't get help from the Flaming Woman."

"Then please tell me that you're a bad person so I won't miss you."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"If I hate you, I won't miss you when you’re gone."

"It's all right if you hate me if it will make you feel better."

"If you were really a man?" she asked. "What kind of a man were you?"

I could have told her many disgraceful things about myself. I had lived a very long time, and in trying to do good in crazy circumstances, I had gone into some dark places.

"Evie, I've made mistakes, and maybe your mother made those same mistakes. I'm far from perfect, but I'm not a monster either. Evie is my daughter now, and I do my best to make her happy. I only wish that you could have known a much better life than the one you've had."

"I still want to know if you were really a man?"

I sighed. "If I said yes, would that make you want me to go?"

"It would be strange and hard to understand. What kind of a man were you?"

I glanced away. "I was a soldier. Your mother and I met, fell in love, and wanted to be married."

She stood in front of me quietly before saying, "I'm not surprised you were a soldier, not after all the times I've seen you fight."

I very much wanted to change the subject. "What happened to your father, to Gus Blake?"  

She shivered; I'd touched a sore spot. "We never found out. He was away on a business trip when the volcano exploded. There was hardly any communication at all. Mobs, mostly illegals, started breaking into homes, stealing, and killing. Mantra took us to Brandon's house. The only thing I could take with me was Mr. Paws."

You saved Mr. Paws?"

"You know about Mr. Paws? How could you?"

"My Evie has a Mr. Paws, too."

"I still have Mr. Paws. He's about the only thing left to remind Gus and me about how life used to be. I love Jamie, but I didn’t let her play with Paws until she was big enough to take good care of her toys."

"Did you ever go back to your old home?"

Evie shook her head. "There was nothing to go back to. The looters didn't just steal and murder, they seemed to want to burn down the whole Los Angeles area."

I straightened. "Time is running out, and I have a lot to do. As bad as things are, be strong, be wise, Evie. Take care of your brother and sister. Also, let Brandon know how much you like him."

Evie nodded, wiping her eyes. "I will. Goodbye...Mom."

Carrying an ache with me, I started for the door. Before I could touch the knob, I heard Gabriel's voice:

"I decided to join you, Mantra."

I looked back and saw Gabriel, but that was all I saw. The room I'd shared with Evie wasn't there! The two of us occupied a misty, insubstantial place. "Where have you snatched me away to this time?" I asked.

"This is a location in zero-time where we can talk," he explained.

"Did you fix what was wrong with your communications system?"

"There wasn’t much to do. The psionic blast the ultra attacker gave you damaged your nano-receptors, but they're self-repairing. Though you couldn't hear me, I could hear and keep track of you."

"I messed up and involved myself with the folks here. It's hard to keep focused when I'm surrounded by people I think I know."

"You've proceeded splendidly. Your task was to contact the local leadership and get assistance with subduing Amber Hunt.  Warstrike has already agreed to help, and you are preparing to meet with the opposing faction. I commend you, Mantra; you have a natural instinct for time agent work."

"Spare me the flattery.  When is Hunt coming?"

"From all indications, she will arrive within several hours. We need to use our available time to establish friendly channels with both sides."

"What's going to happen to all the people here?"

Gabriel gave back a glum look. "If Amber Hunt takes the Time Gem away from this world, the local reality will be eliminated."

"That's it?"

"I'm sorry."

"Gabriel, I have a request to make."


"We can't rescue everybody, but can't we take a few people away with us? I mean, take away Evie and her family?"

"It's possible. Do your best. I'll leave the details to you."

"I’ll do what I can! What now?"

"You should go talk to the rebel leaders, as Warstrike has asked you to do."

"I'll do that as soon as you start time again."

An instant later, Gabriel was gone, and I was back in the room with Evie. I heard her gasp.

"What's wrong, dear?" I asked.

"You blinked out of that spot and reappeared where you are now?" she said incredulously.

"What happened to me is one of those crazy ultra things. They're always hard to explain, Button."

Evie gave me an odd look. "Nobody has called me Button since – Mantra – died."

"That's probably because it's not a nickname that fits a grownup girl like you."

"Maybe not, but hearing you say it makes you sound just like my mother."
"I've got good news," I said. "When I vanished, I went to talk to a super-scientist ally I have. He says you and your whole family can come with us when we're ready to leave."

"Are we going to live together?"

"Not forever. I have to go back to my own family. But I promise we won't part until I find you a safe and happy home."

She smiled the kind of careful smile that children smile when they've already had their hopes shattered too many times to count.

"Can't we go now?"

"We could, but there won't be a happy ending for anybody unless we do some major league world-saving. In the meantime, find out whether Gus will be willing to leave with us. Do you want me to ask your stepdad to come along, too?"

"Yes, please!" she said.

I kissed her cheek and then made another attempt at leaving the room. My knock summoned a guard who unlatched the door in about five seconds flat.


Thursday, March 7, 2024

The Twilight of the Gods: A Story of Mantra, Chapter 10



A story of Mantra and Black September

By Aladdin and Christopher Leeson 



"Just what do you expect to accomplish by coming here?" Tark asked suddenly.

"I'm here to find someone. We have reason to believe that a very powerful ultra is going to stop here soon."

"Are you working alone?"

I didn't want to tell "King Warstrike" too much. I had to be on guard. This wasn't the Tark I knew and wasn't sure if he was a good egg or a rotten one. Tyrants are notorious for double-dealing. "I'm working with a group from the Godwheel. A kind of super-scientific race of geniuses. They have information that the woman can help us, but it will be tricky handling her since she's been a loose cannon and has trouble accepting discipline and teamwork."

"I don't care about her. I have enough crazy ultra-women right here in L.A. to worry about. By the way, if this disaster didn't happen in your reality, what's going on in the America you know?"

"Where I am, Brandon is president."

"Brandon!" he exclaimed. "In this world, he's dead. But is there any chance that Yellowstone will go off back where you come from!"

"Anything's possible, I suppose. We've got a dirty Deep State back home, too. But now that I know the danger, I'm going to be doing my best to prevent it.

Then there came a tapping at the door.

"It's open!" Warstrike yelled.

A uniformed man entered with a little girl. I saw at a glance that it wasn't Evie.

"Daddy?" she said, looking at Warstrike.

"Shut the door behind you, Maverick," he told the guard. Then, to the girl, he said, "Come here, Jamie."


The tyke approached the king without fear, and then she noticed me.

This lady," the child began, "she's dressed like pictures of …"

"She's your aunt, Jennifer," her father told her, lying. "She's your mother's twin sister."

Jennifer? For some reason, I'd never like that name. If this Brandon knew that, it went to show that he had a rotten sense of humor.

The brown-haired youngster stood looking at me as if I were something marvelous. "I didn't know that Mommy had a twin."

"Ah, yes she did," Brandon said. "She was vacationing in Mexico and when she didn't come home, your mom and I thought she must have died. I never mentioned that you had an aunt Jennifer so the bad news wouldn't make you sad. But she's here now, so why don't you give your auntie a nice big hug?"

I knelt to make things easier for her. She came up and gave me a long, strong hug before easing a step back and looking into my face with wonder.

"Can I see what you look like without a mask?" Jamie asked.

I obliged.

"You look just like my mommy! And you also look like my sister Evie!"

"I never met your sister, Evie," I said. "But she can't be as pretty as you are!"

I couldn't help but wonder what, truly, was my relationship with this child. If her mother was my temporal clone, one could consider us identical twins That circumstance would truly have made me Jamie's aunt. I kind of liked the idea; since it made us close, but not so close as to create a messy relationship.

At that point, I looked to Warstrike. "Brandon, we've got to talk about serious things. Maybe Jamie shouldn't listen to them."

He nodded. "Maybe not. Jamie, I'm going to have the guard take you back to your room."

"Can I tell Evie and Gus about seeing Aunt Jennifer?" she asked.

Tark sent me a questioning look.

I said to the tyke, "Why not hold off for a little bit? I’d like give them the same kind of a fun surprise that I gave to you. What do you think?"

Jamie laughed and continued looking back at me while her dad led her to the door.

When Tark and I were alone again, I said, "Your Mantra must have been very different from me if she decided to marry you.

"Why? Am I so bad a catch?"

"Let's just say I'm still I'm a long way to go before I catch up with the Mantra you had."

Had? Damn, I hadn't put that right!

At least Warstrike wasn't smirking. "Even may lady had problems with the idea at first, but it was a forced decision. There was a baby coming."

"Perfect," I said sarcastically.

"Those were terrible times," he said. "We were becoming the de facto leaders of a city with a lot of very powerful and very traumatized people in it -- probably because we both had military experience. It was a lonely job. We had no choice but to shut people out emotionally so that no one would realize that the two of us were just about as messed up as everyone else. We didn't have anyone to turn to for support, except for each other."

"I get the picture," I said, not wanting to get into the subject of love and marriage.

"We lost so much when Mantra died. Nothing seemed to go right once we lost her."

"If she was like me, she was a great person. But just keep in mind that that other Mantra and I were two different people."

"How different are you?" he asked.

"Well, I’m the version who isn't going to jump into bed with you. No offense, but that's not where my head is at. Brandon Tark and I were just friends. Very good friends."

Tark and I had gotten along so well because he reminded me of my fellow knights of Archimage, whom I had worked with for so long. Now I could see that our relationship was one that I had to be very careful with.

The version of Tark in front of  me changed the subject. "Once Jamie talks to the other kids, I'm pretty sure you'll be seeing Evie. Of Gus, I'm not so certain. He's a hard kid to predict. What are you going to say to them if they drop in? They’re never going to buy into the auntie idea."

"It's best that I don't see them. I have a job to do. If I fail at it, history is going to change so much that the whole Big Bang might as well have never happened."

"Bing Bang? You come from the Dark Ages. When did you start believing in the Big Bang?"

"Not until the Twentieth Century, actually."

"Well, I used to believe in that scientific nonsense, too, but a lot of polluted water has flowed under the bridge since then."

"Ain’t that the truth?

"I just had a thought," Warstrike said. "Is there a possibility that you could go back in time and stop the Yellowstone thing?"

"Possibly, but it wouldn’t help my world and it wouldn’t help your world either."

"Why not?"

"Because changing past events doesn't change what's already happened. Meddling with past events will only create a clone timeline that will follow from any historical change. But the events that have already happened in other timelines are going to stay the same."

He scowled. "Well, aren’t you the good news kid!” He paused almost imperceptibly and then asked, “What about that woman you’re looking for? Have I ever heard of her, or does she come from outer space?"

"I don’t know if she ever existed in your world, but in my world she’s called Amber Hunt."

"Whoa! Amber Hunt? I know that name. She almost burned this planet to a cinder with gamma rays. How can an out of control nutcase save the Multiverse -- if there really is a Multiverse?"

"The people I'm working with think that she's salvageable. Horrible things happened to her and made her what she is. From all I can tell, she didn't start out bad. If there’s any part of her mind that isn’t crazy, we have find it and tap it."

"Well, horrible things happen to all of us," he said with a wry grin.

Then he stopped smiling.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"I remember that converting energy is her big ultra power. Is it possible to describe Amber Hunt as a 'Flaming Woman'?"

"I suppose so. Why?"

"My daughter keeps dreaming about somebody she calls the Flaming Woman."

My brow furrowed. "Tell me more."

"Lately, Jamie's been saying things that make me think that she may have inherited my power of precognition."

"If she can predict the arrival of a 'Flaming Woman,' why haven't you done so, too?"

"You know how quirky my power can be." Then he looked up. "Or is your Tark different?"

"No, he's not different."

He shrugged. "Anyway, Jamie has been dreaming that a Flaming Woman will come and she's going to “take me away."

"What would Amber Hunt want with you?"

"I'm sure I don't know. Did she have some sort of relationship with Brandon Tark back where you come from?"

"None at all, as far as I know."

"If she shows up, doesn't it make sense that I should kill her before she kills me?"

I shook my head. "No! If you kill her, the whole universe is going to be lost. She’s the only ultra we know of who has the right ultra power to stop a creature as powerful as the one called Nemesis. As things stand, the future timelines tell us that she will partially impede Nemesis, but she'll arrive too late to stop the Multiverse from collapsing in a couple of centuries. Our hope is that we can capture Hunt and give her information that will make her more effective in battle."

"And you’ve seen all this by time-traveling?"

"Yes! I've seen that final battle. If it plays out the same way again, we're all doomed. Here’s the deal. My allies’ information tells us that the Amber Hunt who will be coming here will be the Main Branch version of Amber Hunt out of her proper place, just like I’m the Main Branch version of Mantra."

"This is hard for me to put my mind around it.”

You?” I said. “How do you think I feel?’

“Well, excuse me if I leave that problems I don't understand to you. What I need to ask is whether you can do anything to help us out here.”

"I wish I could help. As far as I understand the situation, a lot of good people on both sides have been acting wrongheadedly. I have no clue how to fix an implosion that’s been going on for years during a stopover that's only about an hour long! If you’re taking suggestions, would it help if you relinquished power?"

"If I did that, the whole city would be out for my throat. History tells us what happens to most fallen kings."

"Sad but true."

"Listen, I'll make you a deal."

"What kind of deal?"

"I'll let everyone know that some kind of Flaming Woman is coming very soon and she is to be subdued and captured, but not harmed. The trouble is that the rebels control most of the city. The rebels might get her, so you'll have to negotiate with the rebels before she shows up. It might help a little if you inform them that Hunt is going to be sent away with you, and that I’m not planning on using her as any sort of a weapon."

"That last part might help. There’s a lot of dug-in hatred around this city that can mess up everything. But we've been skipping around the crucial question," I said.

"What question?"

"Am I a prisoner here, or what? If you want me to talk to your enemies, you’ll have to give me freedom of movement. I've got a lot of loose threads to tie together and I can't do that from an interrogation cell, not even a convivial one."

"I see your point," he said forlornly. "But if I let you go, what will you do to...well, help my regime?"

"You shouldn't assume that I can do anything at all. All I can promise is to act as an honest broker. But the time that I can spend in this crazy place is limited. I still have plenty of ducks to get into a row."

The sad thing was that I was snowing him. The hour of failure for the Time Gem coming fast and there was nothing I could do about that. If I told Tark the hideous truth, it was just possible that he would throw off all restraint and do something that was apocalyptic and really stupid. Crazy in, crazy out.

"Mantra was the only person who never let me down," he declared resignedly. "It's torture looking at you. It's devilishly hard to remember that you're not the wife that I loved and cherished."

More than most people, I know how much the loss of a beloved mate hurts, but what could I do about it? “I appreciate the sentiment. But for now, what's next?"

"You're free to go. What do you need to get started?"

"First --"

My intent to speak was interrupted by another tapping on the door. I could feel a familiar bio-signature looming on the other side of it. A shiver ran through me. Was I up for this sort of poignant encounter?"

Warstrike went over and checked the security slot. Without saying anything, he opened portal.

Standing on the threshold was this universe’s version of Evie Blake.


Saturday, February 10, 2024

THE BIG SWITCH by Christopher Leeson Chapter 23




By Christopher Leeson

Chapter 23


The Narrative of D.C. Callahan, continued

Martin suddenly changed the subject. "In the office, you said you loved me. I was so shocked that I didn’t realize that I should have told you that I loved you, too."

"You told me. In your Honda. Yesterday morning. But I didn't believe you."

"Why not?"

"I thought you were only looking at my body. If I was a fella, and I saw this bonanza of booty, I'd go bonkers, too."

He laughed. "I knew you were beautiful from the first day I set eyes on you. But it never grabbed me as being anything important until I found out what a brave and wonderful person you are, especially on the inside."

I looked away. Would I always have to put up with guys telling me mushy, embarrassing things?

His fingers closed around my wrist. "Too often folks don't level with the people that they care until it's too late. I’m not going to happen with us. Not this time; it's too important."

I shrugged off what he was saying. Who wouldn’t say that to a girl as gorgeous as me?

Just then, Martin put his fingers under my chin and turned my face his way. Suddenly his lips were coming in like a Mustang fighter and I tried to shove him away. "No! You don't know what that smoochy stuff does to me!"

"What I know is that you're a warm and responsive person, and I know that  you’re going to do the right thing."

"Maybe, but it's not nice to exploit a guy's weaknesses," I complained.

"So, do you want me to leave?"

"No," I heard myself saying.

That “No” was the most important two-letter word I’d ever spoken before or since. My dad had always told me that a gentleman has to accept a lady's "no" for an answer. And that is exactly what Gentleman Martin did with my no. The next thing I knew he was under the sheet with me.

I sat bolt upright. "Martin, listen . . . !"

"Listen to what?" he murmured, shimmying closer.

"To what I’m saying. This is high risk. I think you should get a box of condoms."

My God! I should have asked him to get just one condom, not a whole case of them! Now I’d given him the wrong impression about me. Oh, blush!

"Don't sweat it, Princess. It’s not like I need a billfold to carry the little money I have around. I’ll go get my wallet."

Before I could offer an opinion, he was off to the living room. A minute later, he came back carrying his wallet. When he pushed down his shorts and started preparing for action, I rolled over, to stare at the wall with eyes as large as saucers.

If felt the mattress sink under Martin’s weight and in a wink he had me in his arms with his hands sliding down to my waist. He must have been an amateur magician, considering how quickly the lech managed to make my briefs disappear!

“Yipes!” I cried out when those fingers of his made contact with my guy-magnet!

"Sheila," he whispered, "is this your first time? I don’t want to be coming on too strong."

This was the moment when I had to either exit by the window or man up and take the medicine. I’d never done the deed as a girl been before, but I was no wimp. I was a man about town who knew how the sausage was made. "You talk too much," I answered. "I can take anything you can dish out!"

Had I really said that, or it is just something that I wished I'd have said?

In a flash, he was lip-nibbling my nipples; I felt his hands riding ‘home on the range” all over over my body. Just when my boobs were beginning to feel extremely well loved, he shifted his weight and pinned my shoulders to the mat, making me sink down into the mattress. I was very curious about finding out what a girl feels, but asphyxiation was something that I could do without.

Though startled at having his weight on top of me, instinct told me to lie still and let things happen. And what happened next was that something long, warm, and hard skittered across my thigh.

I couldn't help but lurch. This was getting fast and furious awfully quick!

Martin used a ton of foreplay to calm me down and he soon had me purring like a kitten. His hands were still doing their thing all over my body. It was like they could talk. I mean, they were telling me to relax and spread my thighs. My whole life seemed to flash before my eyes just then. What a sensation! Without my yet being brought to the proper mental state, a well aimed thrust let me know that I wasn't in Kansas anymore!

"Ay-yi-yi!" I yelped.

"You feel good, Sheila," he was whispering into my year."

"Yeah, ooooh." That was all I could say. Two words. One slang, one not even in the dictionary. Those were two words that were telling Martin Dewitt deed that he had just received title to my body and soul.

Like the pioneer he was, he began to develop his property. He started going up and down like a windmill with a big job ahead of it.

My dad had told me that if you find something you like to take more than you think you need, because a person always needs more than he thinks. I was doing that on pure instinct because I capable of putting me need into a coherent thought.

What I did know was that this was no Romeo and Juliet thing; this was an Operation Barbarossa! What Martin was doing to me was making my mind spun like a quarter on its edge. I'd lost all control and was running on automatic.

For about a quarter hour, we did everything that could be done with two bodies -- biting and clawing, kissing, licking.  When that woman thing, that rush of pleasure, came, my brain went totally blank. What a man feels only in his Johnson, was was feeling all through my body. My hips jerked repeatedly and my nipples felt as hard as pen points. My mouth, wide open, gulped for air; my tears were in competition with Angel Falls. I must have swooned before the sea stopped surging, but when I got my wits back the two of us were wrapped in one another's arms. I snuggled up to Martin's fantastic hard body, feeling tingly all over . . . .

THE BIG SWITCH, Chapter 24

The General Narrative Continued….

Martin and Sheila had to do a lot of shucking and jiving for the next few days, but once the alien affair had finally been put to rest, the two of them got a needed rest and set their minds to making a new start on the rest of their lives.

Sheila had started wheedling -- not quite nagging -- for Martin to start dressing like "a real detective." Martin, because he already thought of himself as a real detective, dug in his heels against the idea until Sheila had put on the table a deal that he couldn't refuse: If he'd loosen up and start dressing like a real detective, she'd start dressing like a real detective's secretary.

"I thought you were already doing that," Martin had said. "I’d say that your office style is something that can't be improved upon."

Sheila gave no reply, just flashed him a smile that seemed to say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet, big boy!"

Martin was made curious enough about that reply to experiment with the idea of dressing like Nick Baxter. He had plenty of choice items from D.C.'s old wardrobe to draw from, and accessories were plentiful at the Goodwill store. Though he still disliked ties and the hats, he really liked the outfits that Sheila was coming up with. The two of them looked like a cover painting from Spicy Detective. And the change of fashion proved to be good for business. Clients didn't mind cooling their heels in the waiting room, not with Sheila wearing a tight mini-dress and plying them with steaming hot joe.

At the moment, Martin sat watching Sheila filing documents, bent over the lowest drawer of the file cabinet. She presented a wonderful view. "Don't you feel it, sexy?" he finally asked.

"Feel what?"

"Don't you feel a sort of ... presence...around this office? I'd swear that D.C. was still in here with us. It's like he's so close that I could reach out and touch him."

And he did reach out and touch something just then -- the snug stretch of her miniskirt.

Sheila, straightening, set aside her filing and looked his way admonishingly. "You've got to let go of the past, Martin. D.C.'s gone; we both have to go on without him."

The P.I. met Sheila's gaze quizzically. "Is that what you've done? Have you let go of your own past?"

"Yeah. That's what I've done. Why not? The past was never mungo on its best day, was it?"

Martin sighed and rested back into his swivel chair. "Maybe not. But the world is still a mess! Think of it! The government is full of human-hating infiltrators, obsessed with money, sex, and power –"

His secretary laughed. "What you're describing is politics as usual, Martin."

"I wish I could be as cool about problems as you are, baby."

Sheila stepped so close their legs touched. "I think you're plenty cool, too, big guy. Maybe even as cool as – well, as Kari Lake."

"Well, that a cool dame, I admit, but I don't exactly see myself in the Kari Lake image."

I mean that she is another person with with her head on straight," Sheila said. “But forget about that. We’ve got something important to talk about."

He regarded her keenly.

To his surprise, the girl slithered onto his lap.

"You sure know how to get my attention, sweet stuff,” he said. “What do you want to talk about?" Then a terrible thought struck him. "Oh, Christ! Don't tell me you're pregnant!"

She swatted his cologned hair with an open palm. "No way! I'm not really for kids -- at least not yet."

"Then what is it?"

"I worry about you! You've been working too hard."

"Sure I have, hon. But, if you notice, I'm making up for it by not charging very much."

"I think it's time you took on a new partner."

"And why do I need a new partner? I don't want to be sharing you with some dude off the street."

She tossed her head. "Business has picked up now  that we don't have Adam Schitz in Congress always bad-mouthing us. But more cases means that you've been working all the time. You need a back-up, you need relief."

"Are good help is hard to find."

She shook her head. "Not as hard as you think."

"What? You're not trying to push one of your cousins off on me, are you?"

Sheila was looking excited. "No, I’ve got a much better person in mind. It's somebody who knows the PI setup already."

He smiled. "Somebody like you, maybe?"

Her lips spread wide. "Sharp insight." She tousled his hair, like she thought he was a good boy.

"I'd hate to lose the best secretary that I’ve ever seen. Anyway, you haven't learned much about the gumshoe game just by filing and answering phones."

"I've learned a lot more than you give me credit for," Sheila pressed. "'Think of how it sounds: Dewitt and, uh, Coffin.'"

"More expense! I’ve already  had the door glass painted with 'The D.C. Callahan Private Investigating Agency'. A repaint job is going to cost plenty. All the sign painters are unionized."

"We can get a set of rub-on letters at the art shop. They're cheap."

"Too cheap. I'd hate to look tacky! Anyway, the closest art shops have all gone out of business because of street crime."

"Crime can be blown away like dandelion down if we get the right man into office. You just have to have faith," she said.

"He pecked her cheek. "I've got plenty of faith in you, but I'll need time to think about giving you a partnership."

“You might end up with plenty of time to think if we’re not sleeping together.”

“What? You're going into the sexual blackmail thing? I thought you were a higher class dame than that.”

“Life is a rough game.”

“It is! But if you pull a stunt like that we’ll see who'll breaks first!”

“What’s your objection to progress?” Sheila asked. “Didn't I handle myself pretty well with the aliens -- for a dame, I mean. You said that I did."

Martin puckered his cheeks. "Well, I did, didn't I? It must be true then. But the street is a mean place and I can’t stand the idea of you being in danger all the time."

"The way I look at it, danger is my business."

"That’s another habit you picked up from DC. You keep working book titles into your conversation"

"So I’m literate. Sue me. But I haven’t even mentioned the real clincher to my idea.”

“What’s that?”

“If I were your partner, you could stop paying me a salary."

He looked genuinely amazed. "You'd want that?"

"Not especially, but I'm a gambler willing to bet high on the changes of our success."

Martin sighed. "I’m telling you Sheila, you shouldn’t want to get into the P.I. dodge. It's no fun watching a dark building from a stake-out car all through the night."

"As long as we're watching together, we'll do all right."

"Says you! How can we sight all the comings and goings if we're both distracted?"

“We’ll work out a technique. Just think about it.” Sheila kissed him abruptly and went back to her filing.

 Martin Dewitt eased back, feeling relieved. He’d much rather have Sheila angling for a partnership than leveling with him on the secret that she’d been keeping for the last several weeks.

From now one, whenever the detective got too swellheaded, he only had to remember how clueless he'd been over those first couple days. It was only when Sheila had gotten up after their first night together that Martin had noticed that she seemed to act lost in her own apartment. He had watched her floundering around looking for things and he had supposed that sex and danger had left her dazzled. But when her difficulty persisted -- at finding the coffee, the cups,the dishes, the pans, and even the spatula -- he began to worry that the terror of the alien encounter had traumatized her. But then another idea started to nag at him.…

What if this woman wasn't the real Sheila? Lately, she hadn't been acting at all like the Sheila whom he had known for almost a year, neither at home nor at the office. Was she an alien? That thought sent a chill through his blood.

But, no, that couldn't be. An alien would have switched with him and/or murdered him by now. On the contrary, this girl had actually killed three aliens -- two of them to save his life. Besides, the spacemen always took with them not only the body but also the memories of their victims, making them perfect impostors. So why were there so many little things that this version of Sheila Coffin didn't seem to know?

If Sheila wasn't Sheila or an alien, could she be some ordinary person, one whom the aliens had switched into a new body for some reason?

But if that were the case, who could she be? Why was she pretending to be Sheila instead of admitting to her true identity? Martin tried to reason it out. What, exactly, might be stopping her from coming clean? Whoever this person was, she couldn't be just somebody off the street. She knew plenty about Callahan and Dewitt's everyday business.

Suddenly, a light went on.

Oh, God!

Martin, saying nothing, made an excuse to get out of Sheila’s proximity so he could spend the rest of the day alone. For hours, he simply shuffled around the city park, kicking at the pop cans in the grass, trying hard to come up with some alternative theory that would cancel out the one he had. By early afternoon, he’d decided that it wasn't possible to deny the truth any longer.

D.C. Callahan was alive!

D.C. Callahan was Sheila Coffin, and she'd remain Sheila Coffin for the rest of her life!

As soon as he accepted that idea as a fact, so many more things began to make sense!

The poor guy. He was keeping mum out of sheer humiliation.

But what should Martin himself be thinking about it? And why couldn't he shake the idea that it wasn't actually that much of a tragedy after all?

No! In fact, it was something good. Very good. Callahan was still alive! On the other hand, Martin Dewitt felt bothered by his own feelings about Sheila Coffin. Even now, knowing the truth, he couldn't turn those feelings off. Part of him was actually angry with D.C. for letting him fall in love with her -- him! Why had he – she-- let him treat her the way that he'd been treating her?

Well, he thought, it might just be that she was suffering from the same loss of sexual control that had overwhelmed Adam Schitz? It might be nothing personal.

Did that mean that Sheila didn’t actually feel anything special for him?

Anguishing brought him no answers. Instead, Martin began to cheer up again. Having Callahan still alive and kicking overrode everything else. It was like the dark and terrible avenue he'd been following had turned into a street with all its light posts lit. Wasn't the truth, as he now saw it, something to cheer about?

He started walking back to Sheila’s apartment.

Although he had intended to go back to his own digs right after checking on her, that damned chemistry they’d been sharing came alive as soon as he laid eyes on her again. Soon it had the two of them under the covers again. But Dewitt was a conflicted man and it showed in his lovemaking. When Sheila asked him why he was holding back, Dewitt could only yammer something about suffering from delayed shock.

By the third night, without any real effort on his part, Martin's original passion for Sheila had revived, but a sense of awe at the situation yet clung to him. His hostess, sensing it, had asked: "Are you making love to me, Martin, or is this some kind of worship service?"

The fourth time was the charm. The dark past faded under the bright light of the future. Martin was working his way toward forgiving himself. He had never had the hots for either Callahan or for the original Sheila. This person with him now was someone totally new and she was an absolutely wonderful...girl...gutsy, knowledgeable, caring -- and she had a personality that could make him laugh without even trying.

Martin kept asking himself if it was possible to love her knowing what he knew. Was this strange, urgent, and powerful thing inside of him really love? Martin tried other terms -- happiness, completion, satisfaction, contentment, attainment -- but none of them hit the spot like the word love did. If this wasn’t love, then love a thing absolutely beyond his ability to understand.

But that was then and this is now. Martin was holding this person, the new Sheila, in his arms, able to feel her heart beating. So far, he didn’t resented her lack of candor about her true identity. In fact, if keeping the secret made things easier for her, it everything easier for Martin, also. But Dewitt didn't suppose that D.C. would want to keep him in the dark forever. Even so, it worried him that her confession might change their relationship. Would those old ghosts from their past come fluttering up to get between the two of them?

He sighed. Until the moment of reckoning arrived, he didn’t intend to obsess about it. Martin's game plan was to keep doing his level best to make D.C. -- to make Sheila -- as happy as possible. He was hoping that she would decide that running into the aliens was the happiest day of her life.

"Do you love me, pudding?" Martin's partner suddenly murmured.

"Ah-huh," he whispered, inhaling the perfume placed with feminine precision behind her ear. Simultaneously he enjoyed the tickle of her hot breath on his neck.

"How much?"

"Much, much, Princess. Now let me taste that ruby lipstick of yours again; I'm still trying to figure out whether its flavor is cherry or strawberry."

"If you like it that much, maybe I should paint my whole body with it," she offered huskily.

The two of them kept on smooching, oblivious to time, until the clock in the tower hit noon. They would take a break. A special meal at the nearby Burger King would be able to restore their energy and give them the pep necessary to pick up where they'd left off.


Sunday, January 7, 2024

THE BIG SWITCH by Christopher Leeson Chapter 22





By Christopher Leeson

Chapter 22


The Narrative of D.C. Callahan, continued

I had a lot of explaining to do, so I gave Martin some crapola about being victimized by alien mind-control. Telling him the truth was absolutely out of the question. I didn’t want him to find out that I was somebody weird.

"Did you mean what you said, Princess?" he suddenly asked.

"Mean what?"

"About loving me."

An awful question! I almost said I didn’t mean it, but I was tired of pretending to feel things that I didn't feel. And vice versa. "Yeah," I said, "I guess I meant it. So what?"

He showed me so what. Before I could say, "Hold your horses," he was lip-smacking me, clawing at my naked body, reducing me to a helpless, groaning victim of an unnatural, all-consuming lust. . . .

No, scratch that. That was what I was doing to him. It was more he was a hare trying to get away from a wildcat.


Well, that was then and this is now. Here I sit writing a letter. I've always hated to write letters with feeling, but never so much as I hate writing this one:

Dear Jack,

If you've gotten this letter, it means that I've bought the farm. By now you’ve probably heard that I’ve been neck deep into some bad stuff. That’s not exactly the straight skinny. Before I step through the last door, I want to set the record straight.

The prospect of dying isn't what scares me most. The real hurts comes from knowing that my name is going to be Mudd for a while. It'll hurt you, too, I know, but I think you’re the kind of man who can stand up and take it on the chin. I just want you to know that the stories you’ll be hearing aren't going to be true. What happened is that I have to take a bad rap so that decent people won’t be hurt. I became a detective because I wanted to be a knight in shining armor and this is my big chance to take my final bow the right way.

Things didn't work out for me because those are the breaks. Plenty's gone wrong around my gopher hole lately, but I don't think it's because I've been a bad guy. I hope that you’ll eventually believe that, too.

I'm glad that Mom and Dad aren't around these days to have to face the neighbors at church. There’s just me and your family now. I love your kids, but the way it’s turned out, I'm glad that they've never had a chance to know their uncle very well. What a stranger does can’t disappoint them very much. And I'm especially glad that your wife never liked me. That will keep her from feeling too badly about what’s going down.

Maybe you won't be all that busted up about it, either, Jack. We've grown apart lately and I've been sorry about that, but in the present situation that’s for the best. You always thought I was a chump for giving up my shoe job, but my time in Iraq helped me to understand that a man only has so much time, and while he's between stage left and stage right, he needs to move quickly if he's going to get around to doing what he really wants to do.

It’s true that my P.I. job in Washington hasn't been very remunerative, and I can't say that it's been all that exciting – except to some person who considers that dodging creditors is exciting. On the other hand, if things had stayed dull I wouldn't have to be writing a letter like this one. Excitement can carry a hefty tab. I wish I could tell you the whole story, but I can't. To say too much is to create collateral damage. When the Chinese curse you, they wish that you have "interesting times." I feel like I've been zapped by that Chinese curse.

The one thing that I don’t regret it going out as a real life detective. My becoming a P.I. was all about job satisfaction. I've made plenty of mistakes, but putting up my private investigator shingle was the high point of my life. How can I explain to some everyday Joe what a life of crime-detection means to a guy like me? When somebody says, "I'm a plumber," does he ever feel the same sense of pride as I did when I was finally able to say, "I'm private eye"?

You’re not going to be privy to the whole story until you’re with me in Heaven. When you finally get served the full meal, you’re going to stop feeling sad. You'll feel more like giving me the hee-haw than punching me in the jaw. And it actually is a funny story when you come right down to it.

Maybe, when you read this letter, you'll just toss it in the can and say, "What a jerk!" The trouble is, Jack, I don't think you’re going to have such an easy time of it. I'm awfully sorry that the good name we share is going to be crapped by the news services. But life has its speed bumps and we just have to get over them, Bro. Feeling good and loving life is all that you need to do to keep me happy in Cloud City.

Before I check out, I'm passing this letter over to a friend. She’s a wonderful girl who loves the detective business as much as I do. I told her to send it to you if I don't make it though the next couple days. And the odds are that I won't.

That's about it. I guess this is goodbye.

Your brother,

Dennis Charles Callahan

I'd only gotten about halfway through the first paragraph before I started bawling. What is it about the way women are wired that makes them so emotional?

It almost killed me to have to sign off with Jack, but I couldn't have it both ways. I had to make a clean break with my old life before I could start living my new one. I chose to put Callahan away because his life didn't have any deep roots. Sheila, on the other hand, has a big family and there’s a lot of people who would miss her. She has a mother, dad, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents -- the works.

They're all still strangers to me, but as far as I know, none of them are bad people. I've found some really nice letters and Christmas cards in Sheila's keepsake box. I’ve never been part of a large family and having one for a change might be fun. I'm thinking about dropping in on the Coffin clan over the Holidays and getting to know them. I'm not sure how I'll pull off the impersonation, but I'll probably take Martin along and introduce him to all and sundry. That will be the clincher. If the family crowd knows that Sheila is having a love affair, it will go a long way toward explaining why their little girl suddenly is talking like she has some screws loose.

It's time for the summing up.

When the ersatz D.C. died, the alien threat to the Callahan and Dewitt Detective Agency ended. They're still a menace to the world at large, of course, but I'll be damned if I know what I can do about it. It’s a toss up whether the aliens are worse than the people who are running the country now. And if they get the reign of terror they want, it can't possibly go on for long. The aliens seem to be the same boneheaded mob that took over the old U.S.S.R. When they fouled their nest so much that they themselves couldn’t stand the smell of it, they moved west. After they’ve sucked the marrow out of the bones of the old USA, maybe they’ll pull up stakes and head out to Japan. In that case, Sayonara.

The one good gob of good news came in is this: A week after the phony Callahan bought it, I checked the mail and found a letter addressed to my "deceased boss." It turned out to be a contract offer for one of my "Nick Baxter" novels. Three thousand smackers and the promise of royalties! Wow!

Martin was less than ecstatic.

"That's nice," he said, "but the money has to go to D.C.'s brother Jack. I suppose he can use it, but wouldn't it have been great if Callahan could still be here to enjoy this? Having a book in print would have meant even more to him than money in the bank."

I must have looked like the cat that swallowed the canary.

"What?" Martin asked.

"It's not Jack's money."

He looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"Check Callahan's will, sweetie. I happen to know what's in it -- ah, because I typed it out for D.C."

"Well, what's in it?"

"He left everything to his company, including his copyrights, and you're the company now."

"Why would he do a fool thing like that?"

I threw up my hands. "Give the guy a break, Marty! When D.C. was drawing up his will, he didn't have two sticks of gum to rub together. He had no legacy except a debt-ridden agency and a stack of manuscripts that no editor would touch! He didn't suppose that he was doing you much of a favor by leaving the whole disaster to you."

Pard lost his gloomy look and glanced up hopefully. "Do you think that the publisher would want any more of D.C.'s novels?"

I shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. Anyway, Callahan's success really encourages me. If he can do it, so can I. I'd like to try my hand at doing one of those Nick Baxter adventures, in fact. I guess I'll have to license the rights to the character from you."

Martin laughed.

"What's tickling your funny bone?" I asked.

"No girl in the world can write like a tough guy!"

"Oh, yeah?"


"You're such a chauvinist. Just watch my smoke, buddy!"

And since then I've been as good as my word. I'm pecking away at my latest N.B. adventure. Practice makes perfect and I can only get better. Anyway, what publisher wouldn't love to have my picture on the jacket of a book he's trying to sell? If it’s a full-body shot it will sell even better.

By the way, I think my recent experiences have made my female characters realistic. I mean, I’m writing less about feminists committing robberies and committing murder and featuring more likable women, such as cocktail waitresses and insatiable nymphomaniacs. Erotica is something that women writers can get away with without drawing critical scorn. I haven’t sold a second book yet, but I won't sweat it. When the publisher starts making millions off the first one, opportunities will come knocking. Both Martin and me are keeping our fingers crossed.

Now for the bad stuff.

During the inquest, Martin and I did our best to smear as much muck as possible on Callahan's coattails. According to our spiel, D.C. got involved with a bad woman from across the hall, Leigh Spielman. The two of them started killing for thrills. We told the cops that D.C. died in an attempt to murder Dewitt and me after we found out what he was up to, a fact that Latisha Jones could more or less corroborate. Unfortunately, because Latisha had such a big mouth, I had to confess that I was the one who'd hit Spielman with the snow shovel. But that was dismissed as unintentional and justifiable homicide.

As for the stiffs drawing flies in B.J.'s apartment, well, we lucked out there, too. We claimed that Blackjack's dying words accused Callahan and a blonde woman of killing the wino in the kitchen. As for B.J., the coroner decided that he'd died of natural causes. Witnesses placed Callahan and the dame at the scene of the crime not once but twice, and the dead wino had, in fact, been seen entering the building in their company.

The stiffs in the dumpster have been chalked up to the deadly duo, too. It was a big help that the false Callahan had shoved D.C.’s business cards into both of their pockets. Right on cue, the boys in blue had a new Bonny and Clyde to saddle to the with the bum killings. The papers took the thrill-killer story and ran with it, calling Callahan and Spielman the "Death Wish" assassins. The woke Fake News used the angle that they were a White Privilege couple with a vendetta against the city's poor and disadvantaged. By the time Gina and Evelyn surfaced, the whole affair was an open-and-shut case and nobody was much interested in what they had to add to the matter. Because the police had been defunded, they had too few investigators to be wasting them on closed cases, and the reporters wanted to keep pushing the racially-charged angle that they already had.

But it was Adam Schitz or -- more precisely, Latisha Jones -- who gave the crucial testimony that saved both our necks. By the way, a little research confirmed that there really had been a Latisha Jones, one with a long rap sheet for soliciting. We suppose that the real Latisha must have been the hooker who had been originally born into that knockout body of hers. The aliens must have kept her data and fed it into Schitz’s head when they brainwashed him – or is that her?

After the investigation, social services tried to sequester Miss Jones inside a home for troubled women, but she was just too restless and kept running away. Martin and me found her back in the “life,” doing what she liked best. We didn't want to leave the deluded dolly working for a lousy pimp on the mean streets, so we fixed her up with one of my -- one of Callahan's -- old contacts in the West. He was managing a posh Nevada ranch, one called the Corral 69. It was a business, not a criminal operation, and the girls there were treated more or less decently. It was the best we could do, since Latisha was determined to keep on selling sex.

But the fact is that Jones stayed bunked at the Corral for only six weeks. She’d never really settled in, too much missing the exciting interplay that goes on between a ho and her pimp. Also, the wide-open spaces of the desert bored her stiff. One day, she hitched a ride into Las Vegas and never came back.

I’ve wondered since then what might happen to Latisha Jones, aka Adam Schitz, if the brainwashing ever wears off.

As for the aliens' secret war on the U.S.A., I’ve been checking the voting record of the space monkey who switched with Schitz and it's amazing. What he's been doing so far is indistinguishable from the nutty votes that the original Schitz used to make. Considering that the old Schitz was pretty much like everyone else in Congress, I wonder why the aliens think they need to take over Congress. Things seem to have been going their way ever since the New Deal.

A funny accident happened to me lately. I turned a corner and almost stepped on the high-heeled pumps of a red-haired hottie wearing dark glasses -- and not much else.

The girl sitting on the edge of a street fountain recognized me, too.

"You is that secretary from the Callahan agency!" the girl declared in liquid Black English tones. I could only stare at her. It was B.J. and he – she – had on a barely-legal black lycra-spandex, ladder-cut job with a hemline worth writing home about. I have to say that her outfit was sinful enough to keep a mega-church minister up all night praying. What exactly he’d be praying for I’d blush to say!

"Hi, Shiela gal,” she called out. “Has anyone turned y’out yet, sugah?"

I winced and replied, "Ah, no. I'm still doing the same old job."

Her moue told me that she didn't approve. "You're in a rut, gal. A real woman needs a sweet man."

"The man I already have is sweet enough for me," I let her know.

"That handsome dick in the leather coat? He'd make a good pin-up, honey pie, but for serious lovin', his sort don’t rate. He's not a player."

"I'm glad he's not," I replied stiffly. "I don't want to be played with."

She shrugged, as if she thought I was stupid.

"How -- ah -- how are Evelyn and Gina?" I asked.

She smiled. "The wife-in-laws are both fine. We're working for this new mack man, the one that Evelyn found for us -- Bogota Rico."

"I've heard of him," I said. Rico was a Columbian, a nasty up-and-comer making his way skyward on the mean street. "Is Rico one of your old friends?" I asked carefully.

A tinkly laugh floated from her pipes. "Not hardly! We always hated each other's guts and were always trying to take one another's girls away. Well, a couple days after I last saw you, Evelyn brought Rico over to our motel. He said he was taking over my operation and me with it."

"And Evelyn set that up?" I asked.

"Yeah. At first, I thought she'd double-crossed me, but it turned out that she was doing me a favor. Lordy, is that man ever good in bed!"

"Then you're making it all right as a woman?"

"As right as rain, honey. I only wish I’d had the chance to start sooner!”

I asked my next question delicately. "Do you really like -- the work?"

She frowned. “Not at first, but after a couple days of Rico giving me all his attention, I realized that there was nothing not to like about it. I’m cool."

"Cool? You’re sure?"

Her cheaters flashed the autumn sun into my eyes. "Yeah, cool. I got a sweet man taking care of me, treating me like I'm something special. The outfits are incredible and I'm taking hour-long bubble baths every day. What’s not to like?"

"I’m not in a position to say," I told her.

The air went out of the conversation about then. Hoes and non-hoes really don’t have very much to talk about. After a few minutes, B.J. stood up.

"Well, gotta rush, Baby-o. Rico is on my back for a thousand dollars a day. "At the start, he only expected five hundred dollars, but now he knows how much I can pull down when I try."

"He raised your quota? The greedy rat!"

She smiled in a superior way. "No, you still don't see! Upping my tally shows how much he respects me. To be one of his top girls is a big honor!”

“By the way,” I asked, “what do you call yourself now?”

“I’m Betty Jo." Then she added, "My friends still call me B.J."

It didn't take a genius to guess why.

"Good luck!" I said as she started away. I stood there for a long minute, watching her firm bottom swivel away into the distance, listening to that nutty song she’d started to sing:

"Some say that I'm tacky, that I wallow in sleaze,
But I'm earning a living and I do what I please.
Most wives don't respect me, them that's happily wed,
But I know all their husbands, 'cause I met them in bed!"


That being said, let’s get back to the important part of my story.

Martin and I were told not to leave town after our first police grilling, Martin drove me to my -- to Sheila's -- apartment in Falls Church and put me to bed. He stayed overnight, bunking down in the living room.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt more depressed than ever. I just lay there staring at the ceiling, not knowing what to do with myself, confused about what my life was supposed to be from now on. I had two choices. I could either mix myself a strychnine cocktail or start learning how to sing, “I Enjoy Being a Girl.”

I felt bummed out, big time.

Suddenly there came a rapping-tapping on my chamber door. It was Martin, and no one more.

"Sheila, are you all right?" he asked in that incredible baritone of his. "You sound like you're crying."

"I don't cry!" I yelled back. "I wouldn't know how to cry even if I tried. Go away, you big dumb Belgian! I don't want to talk!" Along with all my other problems, I’d been saddled with a partner who was having auditory hallucinations.

Martin opened the door carefully, as if expecting that I would throw something at him. I saw that he was wearing just his shorts and so I rolled over, refusing to look at his six-pack abs. My cheek touched a clammy wet spot on the pillow that hadn't been there before. I could only think that I must have been drooling.

"I can see that you're taking it hard, Princess. Well, I'm pretty busted up myself," he said softly. "The worst thing is, I miss Callahan."

I sniffed. "Yeah, well, you can't miss D.C. half as much as I do. He was something special to me."

"To me, too. I feel like I have to do something special for him."

"D.C. wasn't a sentimental guy,” I said. “He'd be glad to let you take over the business. You were his buddy and pal. To a manly man, that's as good as being a brother."

"Yeah? And how do you know so much about manly men?"

I extemporized. "I -- I read romance novels."

He laughed softly. "Well, that's nice. Every guy wants a girl who understands his kind of man."

I didn't answer.

"I wouldn't blame you if you feel like taking off after all we've been through, but I hope you don't. You've got grit. I think you have the makings of a good detective. I also can't imagine wanting to go back to that office without you there."

I shut my eyes, not wanting any pep talk. I'm the type who gives out the pep talks. I don't like listening to them.

"For a while it'll be just you and me," he went on.

"Yeah," I said with a snort, "it'll be hard for you to find a new partner. Most people aren’t dumb enough to take on half of an agency’s debt with no prospects of a livable income!"

"It's not that. It wouldn't feel right bringing in an outsider, not for a while anyway. I wouldn't want to make Callahan's ghost feel crowded."

I shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah, that's a pretty good description of what Callahan is right now."

To Be Continued in Chapter 23