An Apology Is the Only Way Out

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Journal writing is for the brave. Dark places rise to the top of the page, sometimes obscuring the way forward. Fear not, there is a way out.

Meant as an exercise to move beyond monkey mind, clinging shadow aspects, and unwanted habitual behaviors, it is a way to get in touch with your higher self, your desires, and intentions. One is supposed to write with abandon as if no one will see it.

Thank God. No one ever should.

It works, until one realizes that even her journals are reflective of the one shadow aspect that clings to her for dear life. I like to think of myself as a my-way kind of person, except my way has always been, “What can I do to please you, so you will like me.” Every journal page reflected that. If I had fur and two floppy ears, my tongue would be hanging out, my tail wagging madly, and I would be softly saying, “Woof. Please pet me. Please love me.” Ah, to be one of those people that says whatever they need to say, with abandon, without worry about what the other person would think.

I want to be her.

I have been this way since a very young child, seeking to please parents, siblings, teachers, children, boyfriends, friends, bosses, animals…(oh my goodness, even plants), basically – everyone but myself, in exchange for their approval and love. 

When I realized that, my ego, who has been happily living at the bottom of a deep hole for a few weeks, uncurled its long sinuous and angry dragon body and lifted its head. “Fuck that,” it said. “I am tired of pleasing people.”

For those of you who don’t follow my blog regularly, in July, I buried Ego, along with Anger, in a deep hole after a devastating tree fiasco. I didn’t expect to hear from it so soon.  

A shadow fell over its hole, obscuring it from my sight, the shadow with furry ears and wagging tail. Who would you rather pet?

Well, the last time this shadow-self wagged its tail, I got into more trouble than Ego ever caused.

This next paragraph will seem like an odd segue, but bear with me.

I am a fangirl, completely smitten with a well-known Chinese model and actor. I won’t name him here, but I follow all he does, and he does EVERYTHING: everything I would want in a friend, everything I would want in a man. On top of that, he is beautiful to look at. I am a sap, fangirling in earnest. It is embarrassing but important to this story. He’s captured my attention, for sure.

I love sending him notes of appreciation on his Instagram and YouTube sites. If I had other ways to send appreciation, I would do it. The point is…

…one day, I received a note back.

Oh my gawd! Can you imagine that?

It was WONDERFUL.

He was lovely and sweet and seemed interested in making a connection with a fan of his. I was thrilled. But, then something went wrong. I began to suspect that the person I was communicating with was not the idol I so adored. However, I wanted to please this man, because I so admired the person he appeared to be, so I kept my faith that I was truly connected with the One, and we conversed often for three glorious days. I was my best self: polite, careful with words, not only because of the language and culture differences, but because I so wanted him to like me.  

Eventually, he felt comfortable enough to ask for money for a pet project of his.

What? Why would he ask that?

Fluffy Pleaser Puppy popped up. “Just chill. Find out what this is about. Give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“Isn’t that the way it always works?” snarky Ego yelled from its hole. “Ha, ha! You’ve been Catfished!”

“No-o-o-o!” screamed my heart.

You would think I would have pulled the plug at that moment. But, shadow self, that little shadowy-self that wants to please so much, decided to hear him out and consider his plea.

Ego came roaring out of the hole like a fire dragon. “You will research this before you commit.”

Okay. Little Pleaser was fine with that.

What harm could there be researching the project he wanted me to join. What I discovered was heartbreaking. The “ask” was well known by the FBI, and my idol’s name was on the list of celebrities catfished for this scheme. If someone ever asks you to help an 8 or 9 year old boy in Thailand who needs a kidney…he doesn’t. It’s a scammer from South Africa.

I am living the heartache of getting catfished. It was alarmingly clear that Miss Please You to the Detriment of Self no longer worked. However, putting this behind me has been difficult. I keep asking, “What if? What if I had only been true to self and said what needed to be said instead of seeking acceptance?”

Okay, okay. I know the outcome would still be the same, but one’s brain still asks the “What if. What if it was really him, and I failed somehow. Oh, my god. He’ll never talk to me again.”

I know, I know. You don’t need to tell me.

It’s that flippin’ tail-wagger that needs to be told. How can I get through to her that this course of behavior is NOT an authentic part of self? And of course, that behavior was the go-to for this interaction like it is for every human interaction I have ever had, especially with men. I am a pleaser. Aaugh. I hate myself sometimes.

I tried poetry:

Cat Fish Lessons

I was greedy

when you wrote,

wanting so badly to hear from him.

I jumped

ready to capitulate

completely forgetting who I was

to match perfectly.

Your words were so sweet.

They were exactly what I needed to hear.

I loved each chime of my phone

thinking, “He found me.”

I thought you were him.

Wasn’t that what you wanted?

A light suddenly turned on.

I saw what I had become,

Knew what you were…

NOT.

THE.

ONE!

My heart broke.

But in the breaking, I saw

My brokenness.

I became someone I was not,

to please, to earn love.

Forced to look.

How long had I let this happen?

Every time?

Every time!

Living every moment of my life

to please others

never myself.

Working hard to earn love

You, dear Catfish

were my trial by fire.

This time

I failed.

If the One

contacts me,

I will hold

your lessons in my heart.

And so, I thank you.

You let me know what I needed –

Authenticity.

As you fade into my past,

a well-placed and perfectly timed lesson

I will sail grateful

because you showed up in my life.

Poetry does not seem to be enough.

It’s been at least three weeks since I put aside that poem, and the catfish moment still taunts me, reminding me that I am not whole, not authentic. It reminds me I am still willing to capitulate Self for Other. How can I let go of this?

Perhaps an apology is in order:

Dearest Valarie,

I am sorry I let you down. I am sorry I used a cry of Catfish to stop the roller coaster of your inauthenticity. Please forgive me. I learned so much about my ingrained need for approval at all costs to myself. Thank you for a much needed lesson.

I love you.

“Meh,” said Ego.

“Maybe I can write a letter as a fangirl,” said Fluffy Pleaser Puppy.

Dearest Person Who I Will Not Name Here,

I am sorry I thought you were a Catfish. Please forgive me. Thank you for all the lessons I learned from you and that experience. I appreciate you beyond measure. I hope you write again.

I love you.

“You’re kidding, right?” said Ego, slapping its tail against the floor.

“No, I wasn’t,” said Fluffy, a little whiny, hoping that she had indeed heard from the one who caught her attention. She sat down, a little worried that Ego was no longer happy with her.

Oh, my gawd. These two are so out of control.

There is only one way out of this.

I said, “You two are right. An apology is needed. And I applaud your attempt at Ho’oponopono.”

Dearest Catfish

I am sorry I lied. I wasn’t authentic. If I had listened to my heart when you asked me for money, I would have said calmly and quietly, “No. I don’t want to do that. Why are you asking?” Instead, I ignored ME and tried to please YOU. I ended up hurting both of us.

I deeply regret that.

Can you forgive me?

Whether you can or not, I am profoundly grateful for all I learned from that experience. Thank you for opening a door on an aspect of self of which I was not fully aware. I can’t express how many times I have capitulated to less than me to please others, so great is my need for acceptance. I place this heavy chain around my heart at your feet. I can’t carry it any more.

我无条件地爱你。

This feels like the way out. Time will tell.

A catfish experience can be devastating, but I hope to see it as a practice event, a chance to call out inauthenticity, a chance to find self and reclaim Her. If you, Dear Reader, and I ever meet, I hope to hold on to self for all I am worth and share what I have to give, honestly, without neediness, or expectations of approval. I intend to hang on to ME, because that is the only way I can ever really know and appreciate YOU.

This, for me, is the only way out.

May Peace find you,

AV Singer (aka Valarie S Roddy)

Because You Asked….

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You asked me what it feels like to connect with the imaginal realm, a place where trees and plants speak with scent and with flavor, animals speak with images, angels with colors and ideas, and where humans speak with emotion rather than voice. In this liminal place, the geometry of serenity is a rosy quartz-colored sphere, joy is a sturdy rectangular plane upon which to stand, knowledge is fleeting ether that passes by unless witnessed. The imaginal realm seems utterly empty, profoundly silent until observed; then, it springs to life with all there is.

Those that honor it feel completely bonkers, but only because those cemented in matter cannot smell what they smell, taste what they taste, see what they see, hear what they hear, or feel what they feel, though it is possible for them. It isn’t a matter of a sixth sense. It does not take anything extra. It is a matter of heightened senses, using what is human and extending it to include other dimensions.

Connected as you are, what you really ask is, how does one observe this imaginal space?

Considering you are standing in the middle of it, all it takes is a willingness to believe that what you sense is actually happening. The energy of potential can seem like a mere wish, a daydream or a passing thought. Dismissed as such, it is fleeting and not noticeable…until it is too loud to ignore.

Humans speak in emotion. They can say whatever they want to, but their real language is emotion. Humans are shouting right now. Floods, fires, global warming, pestilence, earthquakes, volcanoes, unrest within and between countries…it’s nuts. Emotions are running at an all-time high.

 I find myself cautioning those around me lately, “Slow down, examine what you feel. Is what you are feeling right now your own emotion? There is a possibility that you are picking up on the emotions swirling around us.” The liminal world is knocking at the door.

What is happening in your life? Where are you this very second? Stop right now, and assess.

Assessing…assessing…assessing.

Is something happening that is truly yours to be sad, angry, or frightened about? Then, by all means, you should be sad, angry, or frightened. Those emotions will help you discern what to do next, but for the rest of us, we need to get out of your way to send you support and strength. The only way to do that is to be in our own space, claim our own emotion, and not add to the fervor of whatever emotion is swirling about.

Stop.

Ask.

Is this my emotion?

If not, instead, breathe. Take into account what is really happening around you. What is the appropriate emotion for that?

Emotional ownership is a thing.

It’s important to know if you want to extend your senses into the imaginal world, because that world is EVERYTHING, with no judgment of right, wrong – good, bad – happy, sad. It is there waiting to be witnessed by YOU. You will witness that which you look for.

This is the first step to observing the imaginal realm. Own your emotions. You are an emotional being. You speak with emotions. Trust me on this. Words have secondary, and sometimes false, meaning. Emotions tell truth. It is hard to believe I am saying this as a writer, but I am and I don’t think I can say this or write it often enough. Emotions are a human’s primary language. Use them appropriately.

Think of it as a mindfulness practice. Pay attention to your first emotion of the morning. Observe emotions that follow. Do you see a pattern? Stop and ask, “Is this really me? Do I really have reason to feel this way?” Watch for stray emotions that don’t match your life, especially loud ones.

There are moments when I burst into tears, or laughter, or quake in sudden fear…for no apparent reason. Extreme emotion is easy to observe. It’s a perfect time to practice. I always ask, “Is this mine?”

For instance, yesterday I was singing Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, recorded by Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles. I had already listened to the song once and thought, “Gee. I can’t remember these lyrics.” So, I looked them up to sing harmony with Josh and Sara. Totally engulfed within the music, I suddenly choked on tears at the line, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now.” Ugh. Tears streamed down my face. Just like a wave, despair washed over me.

Since I have been doing a lot of negative pattern clearing, I first looked at that. I didn’t have any emotions swirling around me from those experiences. I don’t watch the news, I feel safe and happy in a quarantine situation, my friends and family are all well.

Living in California, it’s probable that it came from outside me. I was singing, which is my primary go-to for connecting to liminal space. I live in a fire zone. People have lost everything they have. I live in a high Covid-19 zone. There are people dying from this dreadfulness.

This wasn’t my emotion to own.

I stood tall, and strong. I took a deep breath. The waved washed back over me and disappeared into source. I finished the song. It was, literally, that fast. There was no need to hang onto it.

I have been practicing letting go of that which isn’t mine. You can too. The first step is asking, “Is this my emotion?” Be aware of that which is and that which isn’t. The emotional response won’t stop, but if it isn’t yours, it will pass within 90 seconds for most of us. All you have to do is acknowledge it, and let it move on through you. Simple, huh?

Good luck this week. May Peace find you wherever you are.

AV

P.S. Here is a poem for those on or curious about the Twin Flame path, and a tiny glimpse into my life and the imaginal realm.

You asked me what it feels like to connect.

Your first touch

awakens my body

with a lover’s song.

I gasp and whisper,

I feel you.

I seek liminal space:

silent, luminous, black velvet.

There is only

one question in my heart.

Will you stay?

Between breaths I hover still as stone,

Listening, waiting…waiting.

Eyes closed, I see nothing, but I hear

the world around me.

For each tick, whoosh, and shudder,

I linger breathless,

poised to find quiet that matches the emptiness

in which I sit.

Indigo flashes interrupt

the blackness of inner vision.

A small flare to the right, a color we share,

grows bolder.

I trust you are here.

In my mind,

Your gentle fingers find their way.

Your palm, light and warm,

settles over my heart.

As you move close

you tug the chord between us.

My heartbeat jumps once, twice –

as if to free itself from  

the constraint of flesh and bone.

I gasp again.

Soft twin pulses drum deep within me;

Our hearts, beating side by side.

How did I live without this?

How can I

ever again live

without this?

Cricket’s Lesson

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What is the difference between being and non-being? Is it possible not to be? Virginia Woolf once described ‘non-being’ as unconscious living. For her it was “the cotton wool of daily life” that became unconscious living. Since daily living is mundane, I can see how it feels like cotton wool that shrouds one moment to the next, unmemorable, unnoticed, forever passed, never to be regained. What happens to us when we are conscious every minute? Is it even possible to hold onto conscious consideration every minute? Perhaps it is in paying attention to those moments that are magical that we find consciousness, or being, the easiest.

 Virginia Woolf’s first memory of ‘being’ was as a child looking at a flower. As she studied it, the flower seemed to her more than flower, it was Earth as well and by looking at the flower she was also looking at all of the Earth and feeling her place as part of it all.

Could I pinpoint a definitive time when I realized the difference between “being” and “non-being?” Was there a first moment when life opened and I felt complete, part of the whole?

As a child, there are two possibilities; times I remember well enough to create a blog post. The first is a day when I was nine, and I put on prescription glasses for the first time.  Trees were suddenly more than two-dimensional, giant green shadows. They had leaves, which intellectually I knew of course, but I didn’t see well enough to count their separateness until I saw individual leaves on individual branches as we drove past them on the way home from the optometrist. My mother graciously stopped the car so I could focus completely upon them. I saw separate lines of shadow, pulling each graceful branch into three-dimensional existence. I saw birds. I saw the movement of the wind as it rustled past all that was within a tree. Each tree was different, unique. Trees were amazing and everywhere. Life was miraculous!

The second time that I remember was the day I truly understood “being.” I had an encounter with a cricket….

My maternal grandmother’s yard was an adventure. It encircled her home, a reclaimed chicken coop rebuilt into a house by my grandfather’s love. Nestled in the middle of a quarter of an acre within the city limits of Stockton, California, it seemed to go on forever.

Innately aware of feng shui, my grandmother created room after outdoor room with unique fencing, hedges, gates and trellises, or simply turns of the building. The result was living art, and dreamlike. At fourteen, and labeled a magical thinker, I spent a lot of time outdoors appreciating her creation. Her yard was Wonderland within which a imaginative child could find freedom and peace.

One day, as I was sitting on the back steps leading to the innermost courtyard, I saw a cricket. To look at him, I may not have recognized him as such, but he scratched his wing with a back leg and created that familiar chirp that comforted me to sleep every night.

As I watched him chirp, and wave his antennae, I swear to you, he spoke to me. “Admire the geranium next to you.”

What? The geranium?

I looked to my left at a few squatty, plain green bushes. To my right, beyond him, was a leafy plant with a brilliant red-orange blossom reaching out of its foliage on a long straight stalk. What a pretty color, I thought. I didn’t know what a geranium was at the time, but the flower was beautiful and it was nearest the cricket, so I admired it.

At my side, the cricket chirped, his beautiful bell tone adding magic. Suddenly the slightest of vibrations frizzled around the edges of each blossom, a glow of dark that seemed to soften the solidness of each petal in the stark contrast. It was as if the petals were only a vibration of possible structure rather than coherently in this world. This caused the petals themselves to glow even more brightly as they seemingly strove to hold my attention.

Riveted, I no longer heard the cricket, or any other sound for that matter. I was totally absorbed as the geranium vibrated with red, with life, signaling a magnificence I could not at that time fully understand, except I knew a moment had opened a window onto life, how it manifests and comes into being. I sat in wonder at how beautiful it all was and how grateful I was to be witnessing it.

My grandmother knocked on the door before she opened it gently. I jumped when I felt it lightly touch my back.

“Time for lunch,” she said, quietly. Then she shut the door.

I didn’t look at her, though I could imagine her smiling at me as she shut it. Instead, I looked for my cricket friend to exclaim my discovery and to thank him.  To my dismay, he had crawled into silent invisibility.

But that flower!

I didn’t forget that experience, even when adulting took me away from observing the world with such an open eye. Like all of us, the hustle of living during this time in the United States, and perhaps anywhere, stuffed cotton wool into my brain.

Later, when life slowed as it does as one ages, I began to see those vibrating edges again. I pointed them out to my art students, my math students, really, any student that took to staring at the geranium blossoms next to the entrance to the school for which I worked. Some of them claimed to see it, others didn’t. I hope someday they do.

I hope someday they can see the shadow where a fig tree plans to set fruit, or the joy that glitters around their dog, or the insect that lights up when a bird spots it. I hope they see the light around the people they meet, and smile because it is so beautiful. I hope they understand how beautiful they are.

This world is amazing. I hope each one of us takes a moment when a cricket insists we admire a geranium to watch as life vibrates around each petal’s edges where it meets the whole of Creation and says, “I am.” That is a moment of “being.”

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Breathed By

I just noticed that last week’s title was about breath. We’re doing a lot of breath work in California right now.

I always get excited when I can share my blog space with other artists and writers. Lynnea Paxton-Honn teaches presence and oneness in meditation. An avid horsewoman she bridges the Tao of horse with the Tao of human. Her compassion is boundless, yet she considers herself a student. She joins me today in response to the title of a new song by Shari Anderson, shared on the evening of August 9th at our meeting of the Women Writers of the Well.

Breathed By

Lynnea Paxton-Honn, 8/9/2021

Sitting in meditation

I breathe,

Inhale and exhale,

Stretching exhale into silence,

Jump starting with inhale.

Is it me that is breathing?

And what part of me?

How often do I

Breathe with awareness?

Not near as often

As my body

Breathes me,

As the changing weather,

Changing emotions

Breathe my body,

Lungs attached to

Passing breezes, passing winds.

Only in full conscious awareness

Do I know I breathe

With the cosmos.

When we breathe consciously, of what might we be capable? Life is magical. Even when there is a probable, logical explanation for any given event that happens in this three-dimensional existence, it is always more fun, and many times, more impactful to embrace serendipity and enjoy the magic that unfolds. Breathe with consciousness. Who knows; someone might find the way home.

Nighttime Miracle, based on a true story.

AnaValarie, (remembered lines from Shari’s song: breathes in the light, travels through darkness, breathes out the light.)

A little boy woke up screaming.

As usual, his mother woke, was out of bed, and by his side before she had a chance to breathe out the dream she was in and breathe in the moment. “Shh, shush. It’s only a dream,” she crooned, smoothing the hair off his face.

“No,” he wailed. “Look. There.” He pointed to a shadowy darkness in the corner nearest the closet.

If she squinted, she could almost believe something was there. “Hush, Darling. It’s just a shadow.”

“It’s not. He’s, he’s talking to me. It’s a monster.” He hid his tear-stained face in his pillow. His shoulders shook, his breath labored. Worried that her little one wouldn’t sleep the rest of the night, and quite frankly, neither would she, she said, “This is what we’re gonna do. Sit in my lap.”

The boy climbed out of bed and grabbed her neck. She wrapped him into her arms. “You know how much I love you.”

“Bigger than the Earth? Bigger than forever?”

“Yes. Bigger than all the Earth. Bigger than forever. Let that big love fall right into your lap and hold it there.”

The little boy’s tummy expanded and then tightened as breath filled him with remembered love.

“When you let the air go, blow all that love right into the center of that shadow.” She pointed to the blackness near the closet.

The little boy’s breath whooshed outward as he stared into the shadow, blowing with all his might.

“Let’s keep doing that together; remembering our love, letting it fall into our laps, and then blowing that loving energy right at that monster.”

They hugged each other tightly.

“Stare right into the shadow and think about how much I love you and you love me,” she reminded him.

He nodded.

As they sat together, breathing love into a monster, she felt warmth build between herself and her son. A strong connection had always been there, but she perceived that this was a special moment. She stared at the shadow and pushed that feeling toward it, mother and son breathing in love, breathing out love, sending it to the shadow in the corner by the closet.

The shadow began to quiver.

Must be a trick of the eyes, she thought but she held her concentration, thinking only of the love she had for her son, and offering that love to his monster.

Slowly, a glow of light began around the edges, diffusing its darkness. Suddenly, bright white light flashed in that corner by the closet and disappeared.

She blinked. The corner looked normal again.

“There,” she said, “All gone.”

She couldn’t let on how mystified she felt by what just happened.

“Mom, Mom. It went home. It belongs with angels.”

“Yes. I believe it did,” she replied. She looked into his bright eyes. “That’s what happens when you send monsters love instead of fear. Can you sleep now?”

“Yes,” he said. He climbed off her lap and snuggled into his bed.

His little boy snores greeted her ears by the time she reached his door to return to her own room. What were the chances that someone had flashed car lights in this quiet cul-de-sac at the exact moment a little boy and his mother needed comfort and strength?

She sat on her bed and replayed the event. She was not aware of hearing a car’s engine roar to life, or tires against the gravely road, but…she shrugged. Snuggling under her own covers, she lay content that for this night, something happened that made life a little easier and a little more magical. 

Just Breathe

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I present two offerings this week.

The first is by Lyla Fain, a poet who through her writing constantly pushes to see beyond Self, thereby teaching us to do so as well. It only takes a moment to calm down and see through another’s eyes, to see through one’s heart.

Life Time, by Lyla Fain: Meditation response, Women Writers of the Well, 8/4/21

Breath in love. 

Breath out love. 

Damn. 

That truck guy 

cut in front of my car. 

Now I’ve waited 

five minutes 

of my life 

in line 

to get my prescription, 

which I prepaid 

for faster service. 

Breathe in, breathe out.

Oh, 

the sign 

on the back bumper 

says, Vietnam Vet. 

I’m totally against armed conflict, handgun to military weapon, 

having read, “The Red Badge of Courage” in high school 

and still grieving 

my brother, David’s, 

death, 

while at work, 

shot and killed by a robber. 

World conflict continues. 

Breath in love. 

Feel so relieved 

this veteran survived that war 

alive. 

Breath out love.

Such a calming thought 

to let go of my anger. 

All it takes is a moment, as Lyla reminds us. Breath is life.

The second offering was inspired by Nadia Colburn’s class 31+ Days Meditation and Writing Course. The prompt was from Marie Howe’s poem, “The Gate,” and the line “This is what you’ve been waiting for – this.” Nadia asked, “What is this ness?” The word bank she offered was: sheet, water, gate, sandwich. In this class, we have 10 minutes to synthesize and then write, but really, she expects open-heart writing. A memory popped up for me.

This is what you’ve been waiting for…  AnaValarie Singer, 8/8/21

The evening my father died

my sister and I waited,

watching him breathe.

In, out, pause…in, out, pause.

The room at Kit Carson

was calm and quiet

like my father’s breath. 

We dared not touch him.

Those that had come earlier

in sobbing regret, held his hand,

stroked his cheek.

He rallied,

fighting a body that no longer wished to carry him.

We had a pact, the three of us.

None of that.

We sat calmly,

Quietly chatting, playing cards, telling

stupid silly stories,

packed peanut butter and pickle sandwiches

in case the wait was long.

We were ready.

Except, it just didn’t feel right

to eat in front of someone who

could no longer enjoy sandwiches.

A nurse stepped in.

We are fine, we said.

Glancing at my father’s peaceful form,

she stepped to his side to check on him

then gently rubbed his left ear.

My sister and I stared at each other.

“This is comforting,” whispered the nurse

as she smiled at him.

He did not rally to her touch.

This is what we were waiting for,

that small reassurance that all was well,

even as he stood before that last gate.

She smoothed the sheet over him.

Ready to leave, she stopped when

my sister said,

“How long?”

The nurse nodded.

“Not long now,”

and then somehow

knowing our need for

a short break,  “You

have plenty of time to stretch

and get some water,”

she gifted us Time.

We followed her,

leaving my father to his walk

while we took ours.

Mid-way around the darkened hospital corridors

I saw a light to my left.

When I looked, a voice said,

“Now. You need to return now.”

I touched my sister’s arm softly,

“It’s time.”

Miraculously, she didn’t question.

I could not have said more anyway.

We retraced our steps to the

chairs by his bed.

My father’s breathing had slowed

alarmingly.

My sister, playful spirit,

began to count,

sixteen between, twenty, twenty-two

twenty-five.

The rest between each breath stretching

mile by mile.

She winked at me.

“He’s playing the game.”

“What?” I said.

“Look, he’s so happy when he can make

the between space last

longer and longer.”

A quick glance at her watch, “Thirty-five.”

My father’s lips curled into a definite smile.

The in-between seconds increased until

the space stretched to infinity.

My father’s expression

was full, triumphant, elation.

He had walked beyond this world.

His beauty was beyond reckoning.

It was his final gift for

his beloved daughters.

Desperation in a Public Space

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Pre-Covid-19,

small town 

just want to be home bones

rattle into the local post office.

Older than old after excruciating day

grateful; the line is short.

A small crowd shuffles in.

Buzzing draws my gaze from floor to behind.

Dream stands there, haloed with life.

Room long forgot opens.

Runaway information slams me senseless:

starving cougar snarls

blackbirds flush my heart

mind swirls misty.

Private desperation screams

don’t stare.

Don’t.

Stare.

One furtive glance makes your discomfort clear.

Defensive wall does not stop

roar of attraction.

Shattered

shards of glass at our feet reflect disaster.

Hidden by frump,

I have no breath to fight, BreathTaker.

You are beautiful, and too young.

Cloak of unworthiness is

small comfort to Shame.

Society rules

this day in the post office.

I walk away.

If by chance another day,

we meet in this dimension,

would I step through that open door?

In the long forgot room 

would I close my mind? 

Would I open heart?

Would I stay?

Post Script Haiku

You opened your heart.

I stepped in and I sat down.

Here, I plan to stay.

A Big Hole

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Plants are teachers. Their lessons are as subtle as their language; lesson that are easy to ignore if one isn’t mindful, and time moves so slowly for them, requests never seem urgent.

I felt the Liquid Ambers’ threats. Occasionally I would feel a slight shudder when I walked under them. I envisioned one or both crashing to the Earth. If that happened they would take out fences, smash windows, perhaps hurt animals, or gods-forbid – people. The Chinese Hackberry needed a trim, as did all the trees on this property, but I felt I had time. I made a decision. I would tend to this in January, after leaf fall. It was healthier for the trees.

The trees had another plan.

I was minding my own business when I received a call from a neighbor. “Have you eaten?” He often does this.

There have been times I forget about food. When he offers, I accept with deep gratitude because I am creative and become too caught up in whatever it is I do to deal with simple acts of three-dimensionality like eating.

That day I remembered. “I just ate,” I said.

“I’m bringing it over, anyway. You can reheat it later.”

I said, “Okay.”

Perhaps I should have refused him.

Since moving here less than two years ago, he has hated my trees. I am the crazy tree lady. For him, my yard is an eyesore. There are too many trees. When oxalis and three-corner leaks spread underneath the trees in the spring, the yard looks wild and unkempt. He hates the seedpods that the Ambers drop. Leaf fall upsets him. The trees obstruct his view of the corner above us. But, what he really hates is the shade in his yard. He worries it will kill his grass. There hasn’t been a single time that we have spoken across the fence that he hasn’t complained about my trees. Usually, it seems like banter, a conversation opener, a place to meet in the middle.

However, that day when he brought over the food, he very cautiously informed me that he had called a tree specialist to get a diagnosis for my Chinese Hackberry. It was very sick and needed to come down before it killed somebody.

I was puzzled and said, “My arborist didn’t notice that. Why wouldn’t he tell me that?”

I then explained to him my worry about the Liquid Ambers. They are fragile trees and have grown quite tall, but arborists don’t like to trim them because it makes them weaker. “I plan to deal with them in January.”

“Well that front tree is very sick. It has ants.”

Around here, all trees have ants. “I think my arborist would have told me if there was a problem,” I said.

“I knew you would be like this. You are so irresponsible.”

Really?

“Why do you have to be such an immature baby about this?”

Ego raised one eyebrow.

It suddenly occurred to me that this had been a plan before he bought the house next to mine. He intended to get rid of the tall, offensively shading trees next door. Wow! Was it possible he shared food with me so that he could wear me down? Was he thinking I now owed him? Did he expect I would cut my trees for him because he had fed me so often?

Ego insisted, “Give the food back. Right now!”

I tried. It was sad letting go of Nori sprinkled rice with pickled plums, but I pushed the dish toward him.

He backed away. “Just take it,” he shouted. “Take it.”

My mistake occurred when I said, “Oh, I see now. This was a plan. Well it works for you, doesn’t it? You have wanted this since you moved in.”

The instant the words left my mouth, I felt my mistake.

He retorted, “My house isn’t made of cardboard. It will be expensive to rebuild, and I will be suing for it.” As an afterthought he added, “It will be way more money than you have.”

Ego snapped. An avenging tree angel took over my voice. I have no idea what it said, but I know it called him out.  

“I knew it,” he said as he stormed back toward his house. “You are crazy. God-damned fucking crazy.”

I felt crazy.   

Shaking and dazed, I called my tree specialist. He came that evening.

“This is probably the healthiest Hackberry I have ever seen,” he said.

I knew this but…, “I need proof. Something in writing from an expert that says my tree is healthy.”

“Who are you doing this for?” he asked.

“My neighbor wants to sue me.”

He shook his head, but he called in another specialist who came later that night who confirmed what we all knew. My tree was healthy. If I wanted to trim it, I didn’t have to wait until leaf fall. He understood my misgivings about the Ambers. He said they could wait until leaf fall, or come down right now. Either way, I was right, Ambers in general weren’t suited for this climate or in such close proximity to houses.

Would my neighbor approach the City with a complaint about my trees while I waited for leaf fall? Would I have to take them all down? Would the unprecedented heat of California cause some unforeseen disaster? “Will you write a report? I need to protect myself,” I said.

He had to drive to the Bay Area that night, but he promised to write and send it when he arrived.

I received it that night.

Two weeks later, my Ambers felled and Hackberry severely trimmed, acts that bring pain and tears even today, the neighbor had the nerve to write me a thank you letter for fixing my trees for him.

Ego awakened again and said, “Shit.”

How does one shut up inner dialog when every step onto the front porch reminds my poor little Ego that it no longer has the protection of three loyal trees? How can I stop anger when I see my burned roses, and dead blackberry vines no longer sheltered from the brutal sun? How can I stop the tears as I watch my generous fig tree that has lived its life as understory burn away in the heat?

A few nights after that tragedy, I went to my weekly meeting with the Women Writers of the Well. Driving there, I promised myself I wouldn’t write about this event. It was time to let go.

Who was I kidding? I couldn’t find equilibrium. I didn’t know who I had turned into that day. What kind of person blindly lashes out after downloading information that should have remained a hidden knowing? I wish I could have quelled his fears instead of adding to the insanity of his accusations.

Then, one of the writers shared this prompt: a big hole.

A door opened. My pen flew across the page.

I picked up Ego, along with Anger and threw them into a big hole. I watched them fall, until darkness sucked them up.

Like all things, Valarie, they didn’t stay in that deep oblivion. As I turned, Anger grabbed me.

“Fix this,” it growled.

“No,” I said, fully prepared to kick whatever crawled out of that hole back into its depths.

“Where is this going?” Ego pleaded.

“Back into the hole, with you,” I shouted, pointing an angry finger.

Shaking my head, I stormed off. Sometimes it’s best to turn your back on a thing. 

As if reading my mind, it shouted, “Not true. I’ve always been there for you. You need someone to protect you, guard against that world out there that doesn’t understand.”

I flashed a middle finger at it. “I can protect myself. I make good decisions. I don’t need anybody telling me how to run my life. I have rights, you know. I deserve to be free of the likes of you.”

“You’re ungrateful.”

“Oooh. And you’re gone,” I said, shoving at it, hard enough to knock it back into the big hole.

It wouldn’t stay there. I knew better than to expect that, but I didn’t want to listen anymore.

“You need me,” I heard it shout from a deep, deep place. It wasn’t going to leave me alone until I grappled with it.

“Dammit!” I hate when Ego whines like that.

Sometimes it is hard to see a train wreck coming. Sometimes we can’t step out of the way. So, here I stand in front of the computer, grappling with the story I started during a writer’s meeting a few weeks ago; writing and rewriting, wondering if it will ever be smooth enough for a blog. Time will tell.

In the meantime, does anyone have a shovel I can borrow?

When I Find It

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Aaugh!

Bristol board, white as white can get for paper.

I can’t do this. I don’t have the talent. It has dripped off my fingers to sully the floor instead of inking this paper.

Dang, it’s dusty in here. Where’s the broom?

I forgot to wash the dishes.

I need to wash clothes for tomorrow…

…I don’t have the time to do this right now.

Time. What else do I have? I live alone with no one to attend but myself, I retired from twenty-four years of teaching one year ago precisely to make more time for projects like this…I have time.

I need another excuse to avoid this impenitent white.

I’ve accomplished a lot this year avoiding this project: published a novel, finished another. I maintain a blog site, I have created two book covers for projects not mine, taught art lessons, voice lessons, drawn 36 portraits. I have done all kinds of things that have ousted the premier project I promised to do, a project of the heart, a project for and with a writer whom I love, my son.

Why?

I ask my body, listening to the senses given to navigate this dimension. What does it have to say when I think about this project? I imagine the heroine, Colenso, and all the people with whom she connects. I start to feel hollow, constricted…saddened.

Tears start flowing from my eyes.

Aaaugh. There is so much pain here.

She is beautiful. She is brave. She is creative. She has the energy of a younger woman desperate to follow her purpose on Earth. Where will it take her?

Abandoned by parents, raised by a grandmother who committed suicide to escape untenable lower class working conditions, and burdened by magical gifts that drive her to right impossible wrongs…I…I feel…I feel trapped by her. I do not know how to express a grief that closely matches the vibrational magnitude of my own pain, the pain of a single mother raising two fatherless children, another layer of generational abandonment heaped upon generations behind us, so much suffering.

Will Colenso find peace before she ages and becomes inexorably tired? Will the monsters that hunt her catch up before the Old Ones bring her to her proper place?

Only if I can forget that I am the old, tired one.

There must be a way to reclaim my youthful strength, an ability to put myself in her shoes, to jump ship and put myself in the shoes of the other characters, to face the evil with her, and not flinch from my ego who warns me of my own reflections, “Don’t go there.”

I will go there…when I find the strength…when the dishes and floor are clean and I find enough self-love for both of us. I will go there. I will.

I will go there….

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I Wonder

I knew the instant he turned and looked into the camera that he was the emerald I had lost so many lives ago. Also, he was the man I had sketched into the middle of the night, nineteen years ago.

For as long as I can remember, I have been looking for another, the one that vibrates with me, someone who was supposed to come to Earth when I did. I often felt him even as a child, but I could not see him. During the summer Solstice of 2002, his presence was strong. I attended a full moon ceremony with some friends. The hostess and I were chatting when she stopped, stared over my shoulder, and loudly proclaimed, “Who is that tall, dark man standing behind you?”

I could feel him.

She could see him.

I was jealous.

That night, after settling my children, I took up pencil and paper and asked, “Who are you. What do you look like?”

Hours and several attempts later, I had an image that spoke to my heart. I hung it on my wall, grateful that he had appeared. I no longer felt alone as a single woman raising two young children on her own.

I have drawn him often through the years when I have felt his presence touching mine.

Trapped inside by Covid-19, I watched endless hours of Netflix. Suddenly – there he was. My phantom friend, no longer a ghost as narrowly defined by me.

Like a hawk, I hunted through vaults of images on the internet, seeking matches to my own images of him. It felt surreal when I found them, creating more questions than answers. Six thousand, seven hundred, ninety-two miles away, there is a man I have been drawing for years, standing  next to me in some other dimension, who is actually alive and successful.

How does that happen? Why does that happen? We don’t speak the same earthly language, but somehow there is a communication between us.

I hope he is blissfully happy. I am forever grateful he has graced my life with his presence from time to time. I don’t know if we will ever meet during this lifetime, but I hope we do.

I wonder – when I imagine him, does he feel me?

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Caretaker

Caring For Others – May 31, 2021 Women Writers of the Well

The week prior to May 31st was rough for most of us in the writers group. I was in the middle of a course called Healing the Mother Wound, an exploration of shadows held within me, some created by myself, some by my own mother in our dance together, some passed down to the two of us from the women who came before us. I was in a fragile spot. A tiny shimmer of compassion for all involved slowly blossomed and I wanted to care for it.

Another woman had an awakening encounter with a homeless man, and realized her first reaction was fear, fear of him simply because he was a man and then because he lived wild, and looked it. It was the learned behavior of a woman growing up in the United States of America, most probably the reaction of any woman meeting a man in an unpredictable situation anywhere in the world. In the end, this one experience was positive, opening a door for both of them, but it left her in a fragile space wondering how, as women, we had come to fear men so.

A third woman in our group was caring for a devastatingly ill family member. She was inexorably disappearing as the ‘caretaker’ role took over. Alone with the task and afraid of losing herself, she was extremely fragile. Because many of us in the group have grappled with the same situation, her story, along with the meditative prompt, sent us over an emotional edge, which became public to each other when we read our pieces aloud.

This was mine:

“As a woman, caring for others is easier than caring for self. Caring for self requires looking too closely at who we are, what we are, how we define ourselves. Healing ancestral mother wounds has opened my eyes to how much my personal definition has been shaped by patriarchal conditioning handed down, not by the men in our lives, but the women.”

While reading, I looked up at the screen. Heads were nodding, eyes filled with tears. I thought, Oh dear, how will I read the rest of this to them?

I took a breath, and continued, “All of us define our worth according to how we care for others, whether on the job, in the home or within our communities. We ignore Self because we are valued only as Helper. We keep the machinery of life running.

“As I breathe in, I realize how much I don’t know about the “who” of me. I know what I am, I know what I do, I know about the people I tend. As I breathe out, do I freely let go, giving to others, or is there a part that I zealously hold onto, knowing there is not enough, not enough – not enough. Who am I? How do I define myself? What information could I give so that you could decide whether or not we would trust each other? If I don’t have full Self on board, I don’t have full Self to give and right now, in today’s world, it is paramount we offer full Self.”

Some of the comments to this piece were:

We are sic not whole if not perfect.

You can murder a woman without taking her life.

We are always whole, but it’s hard to see it if we tired, distracted, or sick.

How do we fill empty moments, spaces of silence?

How do we choose to fill them? Who are we in those empty moments not spent tending others? Recently, my Guides advised me to sit at the base of one of my trees to ground myself. It was less a suggestion and more an imperative. I was to sit and let the tree do the work. This is not easy for me, to sit and let others do…even trees. The Guides advised me that if I wanted to continue journaling, I should do it grounded at the base of a tree. After these past three weeks of doing so, I finally started asking, Who am I? – not my placement in the world as daughter, wife, mother, ex-wife, teacher, retiree – not that which I do to fill the empty moments and spaces of silence: writer, artist, singer, gardener, housekeeper, reader, student, dreamer, (well, maybe dreamer).

Who.

Am.

I?

What snippet of information could I come up with to give you a hint of who I am? What bits do you need to decide whether or not we will enjoy each other’s company, work well as a team, or just simply “be” together. What do you need to know to decide a friend stands before you?

Who am I?

I calculate risks before I take them,

Then jump in with my whole, tenacious heart.

Extreme imagination

Informs me of past, present, and future

I dream in color

A seamless wave

Of knowledge.

I see the path before me

Before I take a single step.

I fly on wings of music.

Therefore, sound distracts me because

Music is EVERYWHERE.

Profound quiet

Creates a space to regroup

But then,

I want to fly again,

Let the beats of a song

Erase my stasis.

I am an empath.

Your pain,

Your joy,

Your fear, your sorrow

I feel it; I feel you.

Sometimes I cannot tell

The difference between us.

Oh yeah.

You wear that separate meat suit.

Intuition guides me

To recognize and honor authenticity

But, I have no time for masks

Or deceit.

Once I see your true self

Shining from your eyes

I will love and honor you

And steadfastly

Hold space for you.

I soften with sensuality

Drawn by sound, texture,

Color, smell and taste.

I lose myself

With a single touch.

In the trappings of sensation

I have to work to stay present.

Therefore,

I am grateful for trees.

 …so very grateful for trees. I am learning a lot from them. I plan to make sitting under trees a regular part of my meditation practice. For the first time, I am beginning to feel as if I belong, as if I am a part of Earth, as if I am an amazing contribution to all there is. I am re-establishing who I am.

Who are you?

I would love to know you. Are you a risk taker? Are you someone who will reach out, leave a comment? Have I given you enough information to make such a decision?

Thank you, Dear Reader, for waiting these last three weeks for another post. I appreciate your interest and the time you are willing to spend with me. May you find Peace and a sense of Self as you go about your days.

AV

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Music – Soundtrack to Life

Do songs or melodies stick in your head? Like me, and my good friend Danae, do you find comfort or inspiration in them? Danae C. Little, author of Grant Us Mercy, an inspirational tale about survival after an apocalypse, shares my blog space this week. An amazing, empathetic person she is always willing to give any help she can. In our group, Women Writers of the Well, she leads the rest of us towards becoming published authors. As a teacher, she leads softly, but determined that we have success.

She has had several bestseller titles. You can see her collection of work on her Amazon author’s page:

https://www.amazon.com/Danae-C-Little

She wrote this piece during our group meeting last Monday and when I asked her to share it, she agreed. I am elated to share her words with you.

Music – Soundtrack to Life, by Danae C. Little

Music is our soundtrack to life. Oftentimes I wake with a song in my head. The melody strumming forth, the words repeating like a stuck needle. In those moments between sleep and wake, I swear I actually hear the song as if I’m being serenaded until the notes fade out as I open my eyes.

I find that these mornings when I wake with my own soundtrack, my life follows the tune, my perception shifts towards the song’s meaning. 

Music has always been an important part of my life, drawing on emotion, deepening moments, and pushing back depressing thoughts. I used to sing my way through the day as a child, much to my brother’s dismay, who would repeatedly ask my mom to make the tone deaf girl stop. 

I was tone deaf. I’ve had three surgeries on my ears, two of them major leaving me mostly deaf on one side. It never stopped me from enjoying music though.

I spent my childhood, before the self-conscious years of adolescence, performing in church musicals. Then came my years of silence, years of only freeing my voice when I was alone.

When I became a mom, something shifted and released, freeing my voice once more. It started with softly sung lullabies to soothe my infant, turning into silly songs to make my toddler laugh, and now we sing popular songs together while smiling at each other.

I had missed singing, but I’m back, and maybe not even as tone deaf. At least, my son never complains about me being off key. Now, if I’m feeling down, I’ll find my favorite artist on YouTube and belt out the lyrics. It always lifts my spirits.

So, I’ve decided to choose my own soundtrack for life. What will yours be?

Fumble – Part Three

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(Author’s Note: I want to start this last installment with the words of two writers I admire. Their words speak to me.). 

David Roddy co-writes the podcast “Worker’s Cauldron” with Mercedas Castillo. He advocates for the marginalized and homeless. The “Worker’s Cauldron” originally called “Sh!t Gets Weird” focuses on “the cultural politics of the paranormal.” Each program is a lesson about history you probably did not learn in school, at least not here in the United States. You can catch the podcast at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-workers-cauldron

David states: 

The most dangerous person is one who never questions the efficacy of his or her hard work to overcome adversity, who doesn’t take into account circumstance, outside help, or sheer luck. It is dangerous to disconnect racial disadvantages, disadvantages that are especially hard for those who are single mothers. A person is doomed to callousness and a heartless inconsideration of others as long as they idealize that hard work is the sole cause of success. 

The other is poet Lyla Osmundsen, a member of the Women Writers of the Well. At our Monday evening meeting, she responded to the prompt: “Have I invented the world I see?” Vibrant with emotion, shining Love with the heart of an angel, Lyla wrote from the core of her being, which she does – always. She completed the first two lines during our meeting and read them to us. I was so touched I asked if she could complete it to add to this blog entry. Thankfully, she agreed. Her book is available at: Wa(o)ndering to Poetry (9781717396556): Osmundsen, Lyla Fain: Books 

Have I Invented the World I See? – Lyla Osmundsen, 3/10/21

Does my anger vibrate in unison

with the anger of others,

causing volcanic eruptions of

daily gun violence?

Does my careless waste

of food

constitute a crime

against a starving individual?

Does stuffing my house

with thoughtless trifle

transform into the tragedy

of a child with no home?

Lyla asked the hard questions of herself. Those of us that hear her words, in turn ask them of ourselves. What are the ramifications of our emotions, our patterns, our wants and desires? We all need to ask, “What world have I created?” Is it the one we want to see?

To live, a human needs water, food, and shelter. These are not privileges. These are necessities. According to most articles that I read, the top four reasons for homelessness are: lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, and low wages. Contrary to popular belief, more than one third of people who are homeless are not jobless. They work long hours, sometimes more than one job, even more than two or three jobs at a time. Housing is too expensive and there aren’t enough developments to house all the people that need housing. Even if there were, the average wages for the average worker cannot cover mortgages, or even skyrocketing rental costs.  

The housing problem compounded in California when yearly firestorms became the norm, forcing people to leave established living accommodations. As a teacher, I worked with families displaced by fire. Some lived out of their cars, more fortunate ones found safety with family or friends. Others, unable to find work in California, left the state, abandoning their old lives entirely. These were the lucky people.

The rest careened into homelessness and took to the streets, or the edges of parks, or under overpasses of highways. People of small towns and rural areas, areas with limited job availability especially develop an attitude of looking down on the displaced citizens that hover in their areas. The typical response I heard was that the hardworking taxpayer shouldn’t have to subsidize lazy vagrants.   

Then Covid-19 hit. Stimulus packages were not enough and came too late. Workplaces were shut down, people lost their businesses, mortgage holders weren’t compassionate enough because their own livelihood was compromised. Homelessness was no longer an issue of “you just have to work hard.” I wonder, do those angry people bemoaning their taxes still feel the same? Are some of them now living on the edges of society, possibly still working hard, still paying taxes, living under makeshift tents on the edges of town?

Covid-19 gave most of us time to realize our good fortune is largely due to luck. Having or not having is often a matter of who you know. It’s almost always a matter of what color am I?

As early as the 1970’s Federal investment in housing was threatened. In the 1980’s there was already an unwarranted number of families with children considered homeless. In 2008, financial crises created foreclosures forcing people to give up their homes and take rentals instead. Unfortunately, affordable and safe rental construction could not meet the demand of displaced homeowners. Rents rose, but working class wages did not. By the time Covid-19 was a pandemic, rents were too high for most people working full time year round as minimum wage workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in a survey completed in 2019, 82.3 million workers 16 years and older, represent well over half (58.1 percent) of all wage and salary workers in the United States. These are people struggling to maintain shelter. Six percent of white households are extremely low-income renters. (2,3,4)

For people of color, the statistics are bleak. “Twenty percent of Black households, 17 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native households, 15 percent of Hispanic households, and 10 percent of Asian households (compared to the white households), are extremely low-income renters and are often locked out of affordable housing due to systemic and structural racism and decades of racist policies.” (1)

I think about other single mothers like myself. What are those statistics?  Over 85% of homeless families are headed by women, specifically, by single women with children, and domestic violence is a principal cause of homelessness among single mother families. (5) 

Reading a statistic such as this raises the ugly face of my own fear. My fear was real. I was afraid of homelessness, however, that fear was as irrational then as it is now. I always had people who cared for me. I had places I could go. I am white. Job opportunities, even in this rural area, were presented to me, largely because of who my family knew. There was no way I would find myself on the street.

Even now, as a retired person living on barely adequate retirement wages, when the fear stops me in my tracks, the truth is – I remember that money is adequate. I have shelter. I have water. I have food.  

I will never know who that huddled person in front of Starbucks was. I didn’t stop to ask their story. Where was that person’s luck? Did my callousness leak some of it away? Were they as terrified of me, as I was of them? Were they huddled under the mound of clothing in defense and shame? Could I have alleviated part of that shame for one transitory moment if I had stopped to smile, at the very least? Could that one moment have made all the difference in the world for that one person?

December 31, 2019 was a lost opportunity. Today, as I rewrite this article, terror washes over me again as I remember being a single mother of two very young children. My heart crumbles as I remember the person I left behind at Starbucks. Before my fingers touched the keyboard, I sat on my bed sobbing. I lived on the brink of disaster, that person lives the disaster.

I have to own that terror and let it go. I also have to own the pride that covered it up and made me callous. Yes, I worked hard, but I was fortunate. I was presented with opportunities that I was in a position to grab; opportunities that a great many of us don’t have.

In the future, will I find, at the very least, the courage to smile if I have nothing else to give? I need to look behind the pride that covers my near miss and move forward one encounter, one opportunity, one story at a time.

Works Cited

Aurand, Andrew, Dan Emmanuel, Dan Threet, Ikra Rafi, and Diane Yentel. 2020. “The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes,” p.13. Washington, DC: National Low Income Housing Coalition. https://reports.nlihc.org/sites/default/files/gap/Gap-Report_2020.pdf.

 Chetty, Raj, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz. 2016. “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Project.” American

Economic Review 106 (4). https://scholar.harvard.edu/hendren/publications/effects-exposure-better-neighborhoods-children-new-evidence-moving-opportunity.

Gowan, Peter and Ryan Cooper. 2017. “Social Housing in the United States,” p.1. Washington, DC: People’s Policy Project. https://www.peoplespolicyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/SocialHousing.pdf.

Fumble – Part Two

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Pride pushed me to achieve stability for myself and my small family. I took advantage of opportunities available to a white person with education. I bought a house from my parents’ estate, taking advantage of a generous, no interest payment plan. I raised my two children in a safe, small-town homeschooling situation while working as a teacher in the school they attended. All the things one expects out of life came true. I was proud of my achievements, proud of my children, and happy in my situation. 
Ironically, pride is a powerful screen that can hide something as huge as the terror of living through untenable uncertainty. Terror not faced cropped up in a mysterious, inconvenient, and unfortunate way.  
Last year, twenty-four years after becoming a teacher with a steady income. I published an article about my failure to respond to someone in need. It seemed a lifetime had passed since living with the terror of the world falling out from under my feet as a single mother and sole provider for two souls, a lifetime since I had worried about homelessness. I was hard working and successful. I had avoided the calamity of which I was most afraid. People were impressed with my story. I had come far. I believed them when they congratulated my strength and fortitude. I was finally in a league to “pay it forward” by seriously donating to charities and food drives.
Like me, many of us experience the act of “paying it forward” whether in a grocery line, contributing to Food for Families, or donating to local food pantries. Perhaps like me, many purchase a sandwich or a cup of soup for a cleanly dressed person on a street corner who approaches and asks politely. Most of us donate money to organizations like the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, or causes for veterans. There is an endless list of worthy causes to make us feel we are doing something to help. Those efforts are safe. They don’t take much time, they don’t require person to person contact. This is all fine, but what happens when one is confronted with an individual buffeted by a pauper’s life on the street? 
On December 31, 2019, the last day of a difficult year that cinched my decision to retire at the end of the second school term, and with no way of knowing that in seven short weeks, 2020 would be a worse year, I pulled into Starbucks. This was my special treat for coping with a drive to Stockton, California. Stockton is a rough town, rated 3 on a scale where 100 is safest.
I went there to see a pain specialist because of injuries sustained while struggling as an apartment manager, exasperated by single motherhood, and a bad fall. Good news or bad news, I always stopped to give myself some sugary, caffeinated love. Even though I did not feel safe in Stockton, the treat had a calming effect that negated my need to race home beyond the posted speed limit like a barn-sour horse. 
I entered Starbucks’ parking lot.
A beggar huddled on the island in the middle of the entrance/exit split off Hwy 88 and Hwy 99. To enter Starbucks, a driver had to pass him (or her) coming and going.
I shut down, as I often do when confronted with this choice. I could not tell if the person was a man or a woman, crouched as the person was under a mountain of clothing. Was he or she young, old, black, white, or any other color in between? Were they on drugs, did they have hidden weapons? He or she held a sign, but the lettering was so faded I could not read it from the car. Did it say, “Out of work,” or “Homeless,” or “Need money,” or “Clothes,” or “Food?” This was Stockton. The unidentifiable person under the mound of clothing was panhandling, either by default or by “choice,” as so many people insist.  
I entered Starbucks wrapped in thought, eager to use a gift card one of my dear students had given me for this treat, but seeing a person huddled and begging for something brought forth a deluge of anxiety I didn’t really define at the time.
When I stepped outside, the person was still there, unmoving. I took a few steps toward him or her and tried to catch their eyes, figuring I might be able to size up the situation if I could see their expression. When I couldn’t, I didn’t look twice. Truth be told, I didn’t try very hard. My heart was pounding with unreasonable fear, and I think pride was blocking my access to the real cause of that fear.
However, I blamed it on the gift card I held in my hand. There was money left on it. I could hand my gift card through the car window, but what if caffeine was detrimental to their mental or physical health? What if Starbucks wouldn’t let them in? Should I step back into the shop and buy a banana?  What if they, like me, reacted poorly to bananas? Did my student have a re-gift in mind when she gave it? For this particular student, her gift had been a tremendous act of generosity. 
From the safety of my car, I regarded the person on the island through my side mirror. My heart was crying for action, but my ego justified not acting. As a young girl, I heard grandfather stories. One story taught me, don’t give money. There was a McDonald’s next door. I didn’t have much cash on me. The amount I had wasn’t enough for a hamburger, which was at best a momentary fix. Would coffee do? What if they needed shoes, or medication? What if, what if, what if?
My anxiety told me – run away. My head argued with my heart, calculating all the ramifications of helping or not helping. Was I prolonging someone’s helplessness, the same helplessness I felt when raising two small children by myself? Was this someone taking advantage of others panhandling like this? The guilt I felt taking advantage of Food Stamps, and payment plans grew like a swarm of locusts as I sat there. People in need taking advantage was another common stereotype and one I had worked hard to get out from under.
A percentage of homeless people lacking jobs and living on the streets have severe anxieties and mental health disorders. They can’t find jobs; or if they do, they can’t keep them. Housing prices in California are astronomical, and housing is generally unavailable. It was a stroke of luck that I found the job I did. Or was it? Had that luck come from white privilege?
The question pummeled my ego which took a different tact. I was older, less equipped to defend myself should the need arise, even though I knew that it was more likely that a homeless person would be attacked rather than perpetuate an attack. Still, my ego told me, don’t get out of the car. For a few moments I sat there in conflict, trying to intuit the right course of action. 
In the end, I ignored the huddled person on the island and drove home. The treat did not slow my flight as it usually did, nor did I enjoy it.
I fumbled.

​What was this huddled person’s story? I will never know. I threw away my chance to ask. It was an opportunity to reach out, to ease a moment, to hear Story and I drove away. There are many reasons for homelessness, seldom is it a choice like some would believe.  I invite you to check out next week, Fumble – Part Three, when I explore some of those reasons. 

Fumble – Part One

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My eyes snapped open. It was dark, but I didn’t need to see. A familiar, heavy weight pushed against my chest. My heart pounded against it. I gasped, frantically gulping air. Terror, a nightly visitor, was back to remind me I was one step away from losing all I had worked for.

I jumped out of bed to check on my children. They slept soundly in the second bedroom of the small apartment. I closed their door, fighting against the consuming tears that threatened to shut me down, and tiptoed to the kitchen.

It was dark and private, especially if I huddled in the corner against the cupboards under the sink. With cupboard handles digging into my back, crushing despair overwhelmed me, and I dissolved into quiet, painful, body-consuming sobs. I couldn’t handle this – single motherhood, sole support of two young children, working as an apartment manager, a job my body was not equipped to handle. There was nothing else…no job that paid enough to keep me and my two babies housed. I had made my bed. Now it was up to me to lay in it.

I was a survivor. I felt a sense of pride that while I was a single mother that received no child support, I could keep us off the streets. That sense of pride pushed me to achieve more stability, stability I had not had before.

As an artist, I was always one dollar away from destitution, but that one dollar kept me off the streets and under a roof. So, when my marriage dissolved, it took a long time for me to find the courage to initiate a divorce. Once I found courage, I took full custody of our two small children without support from their father. In fairness, he had more than he could handle fighting mental illness. It was unfair to ask for support, so I didn’t.

My parents, while available for occasional help, were not emotionally equipped to live full time with two small children. They had earned their freedom after raising four kids of their own. I felt the idea of a grown child coming home with two of her own children was too great a burden; so, I wheedled my way into an apartment manager’s job, a job set up for a married couple. It would now be handled by one, unqualified, single mother. Even though the job was more than I could handle, I never let people know what I was going through. In fact, except for shameful nighttime sob-sessions, I didn’t admit it to myself. After all, I was a strong American woman. The world could hear me roar. I had put a roof over my children’s heads. I wasn’t the daughter leaching off her parents.  

The apartment job took its toll physically, mentally, and emotionally. My five foot, two and a half inch body was not equipped to handle the manual labor part of the job. My poor little vessel had not yet fully recovered from gestation complications nor had it fully recovered from breast feeding. But payment was a free apartment in exchange for that work. All I needed money for was life in general.

In Northern California there is a lot of resentment towards people who use the welfare systems. People using it are caught in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. In the State of California, at that time, to be eligible for public assistance, one could not work more than forty (40) hours per month. Let me write that again. To qualify for help, I could not legally work more than forty hours per month. I was required to be on call 24/7 as the apartment manager. I was not eligible for Welfare assistance because it was considered a full time job, but I still needed money to pay for utilities, groceries, and childrens’ needs. 

I took odd jobs on top of the management position. At the end of the first year, I discovered that the Federal and State governments counted free rent as income for which I owed taxes, but had never received a monetary exchange. My family wasn’t keen on helping me pay that. I complained but didn’t ask for help because I had been raised to believe that if you made your bed, you laid in it. I had made that bed getting divorced. The management company that hired me found out I was working off the premises and frowned upon the odd jobs I had taken because I was to be available to their clients 24/7. I could quit the jobs and be a full-time manager and not be able to buy food or keep the jobs and lose housing.

I cried on the floor of my kitchen in the middle of the night.

Because I was a single mother with two small children and had a bill for Federal taxes, I was eligible for Food Stamps. However, using this type of assistance embarrassed my family, which in turn shamed me.

I cried on the floor of my kitchen.

But what does one do? One takes care of the kids and moves on. That’s what. No matter what it takes. So I felt a sense of pride in this, or at least pretended that I did. I went without health care for myself so I could set up payment plans to pay for my children’s health care and dental needs. 

Too many times, I heard family and friends talking about “What a shame it was” that I had put myself in this situation.

I cried in the dark on the kitchen floor. 

Pride kept me going. I took out student loans to go back to school for a teaching credential, something I could do because I had a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Art with a minor in music, but hadn’t made a lot of money as a street or gallery artist. I had not yet made any money as a musician. “What a shame,” I heard. “So much talent going to waste.” 

Teaching brought in a steady income, something I had not experienced before. Yet, I still feared homelessness. To remind myself how close I still felt to it, I practiced the art of facing my fear by dressing every Halloween as a bag lady. My kids and family were not impressed with my choice of costume, but it helped me face the fear that was still haunting me. Dressing up in such a way confirmed that I had something to be proud of: at least I wasn’t a bag lady living on the street.


Pride of accomplishment can be a powerful smoke screen. It can hide something as huge as the terror of living through untenable uncertainty and color one’s memory of that uncertainty with self-aggrandizement. Pride-cloaked terror popped up in a mysterious, inconvenient, and unfortunate way. Next week, read Part Two of “Fumble,” when I share the memory of a missed opportunity to help someone else facing homelessness.

Tiny Balls of Light

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I am delighted to share my blog space again, with another writer from Women Writers at the Well, Dianne Chapman McCleery. She is a talented essayist, and her fiction always explores the depths of relationship no matter the era. Usually, her stories have a western theme, such as her novelette, Seeking Solace, about a woman who lost her significant other, her trusted horse, and her peace of mind all at once. I will post a link to this book at the bottom of this offering. 

Lately she has been shining as a flash fiction writer. Flash fiction stories are the same as any story be it in short story form, novel, or any designation in between. The difference is they are typically only 100 to 1000 words long.  This story is 183 words, yet it is perfectly delightful and paints a full picture. You will not be able to forget it after you read it because it will have touched your heart, which most of her stories do. 

This was prompted by our opening meditation on April 12, 2021. I was so enchanted I wrote to her afterward (we are still meeting on Zoom) and asked, “Please, please, please, may I share this?” Immediately, she responded, “Yes.” Thank you, Dianne!

She presents to you:

Tiny Balls of Light – Dianne Chapman McCleery

For as long as she could remember, they were there, tiny balls of light, sometimes so many she couldn’t count them, but at least one kept her company at all times.

If she were sad, many showed up, tickling her so the sadness couldn’t stay. If she were happy, usually three would circle around her, joining in her joy.

As she grew old enough to go to school, they hid in her backpack, snuck into her desk, and at recess hid under her hair.

For some reason, she knew never to mention them to others. Somehow, she knew that not everyone, maybe no one, had balls of light as friends.

She grew older, wiser, and surprisingly, happier. Eventually, her thoughts and her gaze turned to boys. She held herself apart, never really knowing how to interact with other girls, much less boys. Then one day in English class, sitting behind Brian, Brian of the blue eyes and friendly smile, she saw a tiny ball of light peek over his collar and disappear again. She realized that finally she  might have found a friend.

Encounter

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A petite, tow-headed, ten-year-old girl slumped in the last pew in the dark corner at the back of the old Methodist Church. Her feet didn’t touch the ground, so she curled against the bench as a shield against the physical discomfort of having to sit there quietly. Today’s sermon had already lost meaning for her. Instead of sitting inside a building listening to old words that in her mind had little relevance, she had to leave, to find solace under the sky, to sit under an oak tree by the creek that meandered through town. Making herself as quiet and as invisible as possible, she slipped out of the pew. She could feel the Pastor’s scowl with the entire left side of her face and body, though she steadfastly ignored it as she walked out the door, down the steps, and into the light of freedom.  

It didn’t take long to get to the creek. She sat on the bank near a deep pool watching water warmed by the summer’s sun bubble past rocks. Her mind wandered and she closed her eyes. Sound, scent, sensation washed over her. Usually, her inner eye opened onto a similar scene, one from a past that felt like hers alone, though she had recently discovered that it was an ancestral place of prayer. This place was nestled in a wilder valley, its creek shadowed with heavy vegetation. There she listened to colder water burble over rocks, listened to different animals than the ones in her town rustling the foliage on the far bank, watched birds flutter from branch to branch. She found comfort when  a sharper wind brushed past her, making her fine hair float around her head. Sunlight played against nature’s surfaces with a soothing exchange of color. This mental place was where she felt close to her concept of God. This is what she thought: Just sitting, listening to nature was more informative than stale words written by humans. 

But today, when she closed her eyes to slip into the subtle world of her inner mind, she was on the top of a hill like the ones that surrounded the little town in which she lived. The hill was steep and the sky above was big. She found a stump to sit upon and looked up at the blue expanse above her. A flock of starlings danced in the air. They twirled in and out of fantastical, amorphous shapes like a gigantic organism responding to stimuli that pushed them one direction, then another.  

She heard someone approach and looked to her left. 

A youthful-looking, dark skinned man, dressed in a dusty, white tunic, tramped up the sharp incline toward her. His appearance was exotic, like he was from somewhere on the other side of the world. When he reached her position, he smiled and sat next to her, crossing his legs in front of him. He arranged his tunic and smoothed it with his graceful hands. He didn’t look directly at her. Instead, he watched the birds and their aerial display. She immediately felt  a kinship.

Intellectually, she knew she should be alarmed, but she wasn’t. His energy was calm and focused. He smelled like sweet, wood smoke, and for some reason that soothed her.   

He said, “Hi,”while watching the dance in the sky. His low voice seemed to rumble in his chest. 

Alert, she replied timidly, “Hi.”

One of his eyebrows rose up as if he was surprised. “You don’t remember me?”

Something about him seemed familiar. 

He sighed. Then, he bumped shoulders with her. “I want to tell you something,” he whispered.

She thought, Don’t tell me to go back to church. She turned to him with more than a little defiance and said, “What?” 

He chuckled and said, “Not that. You are here to develop Self. That is why you came to this planet, in this Now. Do you know what that means?”

Of course she knew what he meant, she was smart for a ten-year-old. It was just that she was expecting admonishment for ditching. Furthermore, she was already a Self, like everybody else, wasn’t she? She spent a lot of energy trying to change that. Why would she want to develop it?  

Intelligence had made her a target, so she was learning to hide it. Where she lived, smart kids were looked down upon. It was fine to be pretty, but not if you were smart. She worked to fit in: pretended she didn’t know answers in school, pretended to find humor in the antics of other children her age, pretended she was at least entitled to hover at the edge of the “it” crowd. Compliance was important for acceptance. Unfortunately, in her heart, she was as far from compliant as a person could get. All anyone had to do was ask her parents. Her entire Self didn’t fit in, and she didn’t like it. Why develop something one didn’t like?

Though she had not uttered a single word, he said, “I can’t say I disagree with your assessment, but that’s the problem, isn’t it? I would really like to see you develop who you are. That’s why you are here, to explore and grow your individuality, your Self.” 

It suddenly occurred to her who she might be sitting with. “Have I died?” she asked. 

He laughed and then he looked at her and said, “No.” 

His smile was so warm, and his laugh so inviting, she decided that if she had died, she would want to go with him wherever he ended up going. 

He shook his head and bumped her shoulder again. Still reading her thoughts, he said, “You won’t always feel so all alone. Developing your individual Self is what this World needs. I want you to do that, whatever it takes.” He shook his head, sadly. “Most people just stumble through life, never finding out who they are, what makes them happy, sad, scared, angry, ashamed. What makes them, THEM. 

“What do you like, what do you dislike? Where do you want to be? Who do you want to be with? What do you like to do? When do you like to do it? What makes you happy? What makes you sad? What makes you, YOU?”

She crossed her arms in defense. He was asking a lot of a ten-year-old.

“I’m not asking, I’m telling,” he replied to her unspoken retort. He pushed the spot between her eyes with his forefinger. “That is your job. Develop Self. Individuality is everything.” He seemed like an authority on the subject. He patted her head and looked straight into her eyes. “I love you.”

She could see that love. She mumbled, “Okay.” It suddenly seemed like a logical thing for a child to do anyway, to develop who they were as a person. Who was she to question him?

He stood, brushed dried grass off his tunic, and sauntered down the hill. She watched as he disappeared into a beam of light and immediately missed him. Her soul felt deep longing for the first time. Her heart squeezed as if it was struggling to hold its shape, to beat the next beat, to keep her here on Earth. 

She quietly woke up, sneezed, and sat up under the oak tree next to the creek that ran through town. She didn’t question what had happened. She believed it had happened. Now she just had to figure out what Self was and how to develop it.

Self is elusive. Finding It is still a struggle. This is what I think I know so far: It is not the same as Me. Self is something one holds inside as a pillar of assuredness and strength. It allows one to reach out to others without concern for Me. Me is the opposite. Me is wanting, Me has needs, Me is lacking, and it worries about what others think of it. 

It seems Self is a journey, not a destination. It’s a practice: mindful, deliberate attention paid to as many moments as one can, a gathering of sensation, feeling, desire, and pleasure, with the understanding that even adversity is part of life and therefore a treasure to be experienced and gathered. It is not knowing, yet having deep knowledge at the same time. It is an act of generosity and a road to compassion. It is holding gratitude as a precept for life. Self comes in moments of clarity, flashes of perception that disappear as soon as one becomes aware of the ah-ha that comes with them because one has to live Self, not be Self. Self is weird. 

However, as Self, life is FUN, especially on Earth. Earth is a playground, NOT a battleground. Filled with wondrous life, diversity has no boundaries. Surrounded by such breathtaking beauty and Light, it is sometimes  achingly difficult to assimilate all the colors, sounds, and sensations. 

When I, as Self,  think about the diversity this planet offers, I feel joy, the bubbly, roly-poly joy of a playful puppy, ecstatically happy to see its person. I want to feel that all the time, but then Self disappears because I want to hang on to joy. Joy shatters my patience for a quest for Self. So each moment and whatever it offers, I refocus, attempt mindfulness, and open to the practice of awareness. Practice  never ends. There is too much to learn. 

Occasionally, like today, I remember the meeting on that hill and feel grateful that He caught me at a time when my questioning was clear enough to turn into Quest. This Quest has given me a compass with which to navigate life and a reason to share Story about that life.    

Think about your quest for Self. Collect your joys, your troubles, your Story. Collect it all. There is Story unfolding right this very second. A story that becomes your Self. 

I love that. 

I love you.

May Peace find you today.

AV

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Guest Author Anne B. Jeffries

Dear Readers,

Have you ever tried to imagine a scene only to discover you couldn’t? Have you ever looked at a common word and suddenly it looked foreign to you, or like it wasn’t spelled correctly, or you wondered “how the heck is this word spelled?” even though you have been writing it for all your life, or maybe especially because you have been writing it your entire life? You will want to share Anne Jeffries experience.

Every Monday night, a group of women called Women Writers of the Well, meet for about an hour and a half to respond to prompts, read what we have written, and feel like we are a part of something larger than ourselves. As writers, words are important. But sometimes words are coyotes, tricksters, puzzles to brain and sanity. 

Anne is one of those rare writers whose written word is truly authentic. That is why when she shares her prompt response during our group time, the rest of us say to ourselves, “Oh yeah. Been there, done that,” or “My gosh. I wish I was that alert.” 

During the week she tends to children in need either virtually or in a physical classroom. Monday nights she joins us to get away from that, but does she? I can’t tell you how many Monday nights I have walked away from our meetings marveling at how much I have learned about spirit, authenticity and…quite frankly, prose. She is a poet, a story-teller, and a sharer of life. Words come from somewhere deep in her soul, crawl out of her psyche, or simply escape before she can catch them. We are so lucky she doesn’t catch them. 

She has published a book, filled with heart-based writing called Crossroads. Check it out. You can find it here:

Please keep reading. Her poetry shows up on this blog site after this graphic.

In the meantime, I present her offerings from the prompts of March 29, 2021. The first was a meditation. Anne connected with the word “Imagination” in a unique way, but perhaps you have experienced the same. The second was a simple one-word prompt, “Vision.” Perhaps, you identify with this dilemma. As usual, I walked away enchanted. I asked her to share them with you and she lovingly agreed.

Imagination by Anne B. Jeffries, March 29, 2021

Why don’t we say, Image -In-ation?

Because imAgine is the verb?

Imagine…from ‘image’.

When I think of the concept of imagination,

Visual imagery doesn’t come up.

It is essence, and story, and texture, and movement.

For instance, 

If I actively try to see a chicken in my mind,

It’s like a broken projector:

Flashes of clawed feet,

a smooth white back,

Maybe the uneven ground and dirt clods underfoot

But not the whole chicken.

And if I REALLY try to will an image,

There is nothing.

It’s like an imprint of “chicken”;

What it leaves behind.

My Image -in-ator is stubborn.

Vision by Anne B. Jeffries, March 29, 2021

Here we go again.

What Vision are we settling on?

20-20 Vision?

A Vision of Jesus?

What is your vision of the future?

As I repeat it in my head

What vision do I have for the word?

While I close my eyes and feel, 

See what words come,

What concept drops in place most prominently?

Which one wants to speak?

It’s less of a vision and more of an experience.

Ever say the word, “the” enough times that you wonder if it is a real word at all?

And that it cannot possibly be spelled like THAT?

What the hell?

How does my mind categorize “the” and pull it up without any conscious effort?

But, then to LOOK,

Really look at it, 

Use your conscious vision,

Your actual retinas and corneas.

The word

-Vision-

Looks like a jumble.

My God, early onset Alzheimer’s? 

Probably not far off.

Like a ViewFinder (that toy),

I turn to a new picture,

A new Vision.

Thank you, Anne, for this moment and for sharing this week’s blog space. And thank you Readers for visiting my blog and allowing me to share one of my favorite authors.

May your week be peaceful, 

AnaValarie

Twin Flame

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Covid-19 gifted me Time.

So, my heart learned things.  

For instance,

You exist.

But, not in my Here.

Not in my Now.

Yet, my arms ache to hold you.

My hand misses strong muscle

Under silken cotton T-shirts,

Remembers running a course of love,

Gestures of tenderness so sweet

My heart –

A terracotta vessel, shatters

Against Dawn colored Earth.

I pick up one palm-sized piece,

Polished smooth by someone else.

Someone else’s incessant rub of stone

Softened the course grit of sand in this clay. 

I run a finger over it, feeling you.

Gloriously feeling you.

Gloriously remembering,

It was once you 

Loving me.

As I stretch my fingers.

Light catches my eye

Sunlight flashes like facets from a diamond.

Was that an answer?

Could it be so simple?

Could tangibility remove uncertainty?

Nestled in my jewelry case.

Is a ring, the middle of three,

Not an everyday, mundane,

Get-your-hands-dirty ring,

It is loud,

An in-your-face statement.

Like you.

Is it right to consider

This seal of connection?

Would one of these other rings work better?

The first is demure and polite,

A humble token.

The other, similar in style

Flashes timidly.

You whisper in my ear.

Choose bold.

I do.

Like a hundred stars

Twinkling in the night,

This ring reminds me of your

Audacious, daring, sparkle of fireworks.

It roars I am here, We are one,

You belong to me and I to you.

Can I wear it?

Our connection flares,

Strong and sure, a knowing

So acute my heart shatters again.

Who am I?

Quantum entanglement,

Mirrored opposite,

Kindred spirit,

Ring-wearer?

How does insanity feel?

Should I know?

Can other people see it?

Will they let me wallow in delusions?  

Will pity overrule truth?

Admiring the dance of light,

My heart becomes a furnace

As I wear this ring.

Until the day the cables

Break on the bridge

We built.

Physical reality

Does not

Include

You.

What am I supposed to do?

Heartbroken,

I give up fantasy,

Become solidly three-D.

Joy steals away in the murky night.

Self-doubt colors what is right.

I wear this ring

Bravely hoping sense will rise.

But a puddle of sorrow

Is drowning me.

I take it off.

Ring set aside, will I settle?

Get my bearings?

At my keyboard, I sit to write

Firmly resigned

That foolishness led me astray.

“I am alone.

Mind-speak isn’t real.

Phantoms are illusions.

Imagination is a fool’s game.

Six thousand, seven hundred, ninety-two miles

And twenty-two years

Across any gulf of time or space

Is too far

No matter how strong the bridge is.”

You feel the same. Right?

A soft caress strokes my finger.

Nerves sing a response.

Tap, tap, tap.

My heart ignites,

And answers,

“I know.”

I walk to the bedroom,

Pick up the ring,

Take a deep breath.

Words flutter

Across my mind:

Patience.

Believe.

I put it on.

A second rhythm

Beats inside me.

Two hearts drum as one.

Imagination amends deep,

Lifelong knowledge

That you, Twin Flame

Exist

Not my Here, 

But, my NOW.

This ring,

This loud, flashy statement

Is a bond not only with you,  

But, with myself.

I am.

I AM.

I am; I am.

I am worthy of Love.

I am worthy of your Love.

I am worthy of Loving.

I am Love.

You are;

We are. 

The Promise of Spring

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Here in Northern California the angle of the sun speaks Spring, but at this moment, it is only a promise, not reality. I want to nurture plants, sit in the sun, and enjoy time spent outdoors. The weather is capricious, and it is too cold. Outside my backdoor, the temperature gauge reads 36ºF. Winter’s wood smoke hangs in the air. Cats snuggle on chairs and the back of the couch.

Yesterday, a cold wind roared through the valley and slammed tree branches with their fragile buds against my windows, ratcheting a level of anxiety I could barely contain. My friendly, Yellow Warbler, Jenn, did not come to visit.

Yet Spring’s promise compels me.

Those wiser than I am remind me again and again, “Be patient. It is not yet time.”

Monday night, during a meeting of the Women Writers at the Well, one of our prompts was “The Promise of Spring.” A perfect antidote to this malaise of waiting, my sister writers poured out their hearts during ten, intense minutes of recording an inspiration based on that prompt. Then we read our offerings to each other. Marilyn Crnich Nutter, scholar and author of “On the Path of Sophia – A Catholic Woman’s Journey to Wholeness,” a brilliant book speaking to anyone’s spiritual journey no matter the path, offered this and touched all of us.

The Promise of Spring

Marilyn Crnich Nutter, 3/22/2021

Winter lags on and on, or so it seems.  Like the song says, “Funny, that rainy day is here,” the Winter of our lives comes all too quickly and memories enter in, which we cannot relive in flesh but only in thought, snap shots held close in hopes that time will somehow go backwards and we are there again with loved ones long gone and babies now grown.

So, in the Winter we wait, for Spring comes in ways we least expect.  Hugs from grandchildren, a husband’s sweet recollections of our first meeting, laughing about past events that make us blush with embarrassment—how much of life we lived, and loved, and worked, and made those memories that keep us warm while waiting for spring blossoms to come once again.

Thank you, Marilyn, for allowing me to share this here.

I offer a humble wish:

The Promise of Spring

AnaValarie – 3/22/2021

Promise of Spring – 

Sing.

This time of year quickens our mood, sends our souls to the stars, and makes laughter bubble up over the tiniest act of silliness.

I will bury a sliver of Spring in my heart where it will prick the oppressing heat of Summer into a remembering that when the sun sets, the cool of night will be delicious.

I want that sliver to itch when the leaves fall, reminding me that here there is also joyous color.

Let that sliver of Spring ache during the cold, harsh dark of Winter when I miss a warm touch most of all. Remind me that Spring is just under the surface, waiting to sprout into a rush of glory.

Promise of Spring – sing.

Sing to me

Of Love.

Dear Readers,

May Spring quicken your mood; send your soul to the stars, and make laughter bubble up over the tiniest act of silliness.

Peace be yours,

AV Singer

Mother’s Gift

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 Ana had to get out. Erupting, Mt. Shasta incarnate, she ran past the staleness of cigarettes and coffee on her mother’s breath and clothes, the sickly sweet Jean Nate she used to cover them up.

Bang! Hurtful words followed through the back door that slammed against the sill as if shot from a slingshot. They didn’t stop her. She jumped down all four steps off the porch, dashed out the back gate, and hit the pavement running. The slap, slap of her tennis shoes echoed like buckshot fired across the river.

Her mother called her name, once, twice, but Ana was too far along her escape route for the sharpness of her mother’s voice to pin her in place. Stares from three blocks of curious neighbors goose bumped the hair on her arms. She ran until she reached the field. There she crumbled, resting shaky and sweaty palms upon the pricks of the barbed wire. Somehow, the pain felt right.

He nickered when he looked up from grazing in the middle of the pasture. Green drooled from his mouth as he lipped a wad of succulent grass past his teeth. He shook flies from his sides, and his earthy scent beckoned.

She pulled open the wire gate and slipped through.

He took three lazy steps toward her and stopped.

She stopped and gazed at him.

He lowered his head, unsure of her intent.

She whispered his name.

He shook his head. His ears flopped from side to side. He licked his lips.

She softened and slowly walked toward him. When she reached him, she slipped her fingers under his thick mane. The soft warmth of his new, coppery, spring coat underneath the long, black, stranded curtain soothed her in ways she had yet to define, wouldn’t define, could not define. His salty scent spoke of dark woody roots, freshly turned fertile Earth, hugs, and safety.

He took another step, offering himself.

She wrapped her fingers around a handful of mane, jumped, and threw her leg over his broad back.

He sighed, lowered his head, and continued to graze. Muscles on his shoulder twitched, releasing tension between them.

She leaned back until his round rump became a welcome pillow.

The blue, Spring sky was all she could see. For a long time he rocked her with his gentle search across the field for the choicest clumps of grass.

Her heartbeat slowed. Flies buzzed. His tail swished, and flies scattered. A flock of tiny, brown birds landed in the arms of the big oak beside them, chittering from branch to branch, appearing in sunlight and then disappearing into shadow. Traffic rolled down the main road. Neighborhood boys played a rollicking game of dodgeball in the church parking lot down the street.

It seemed like just yesterday that she used to play too, not as one of the guys but not separate either. That had all changed with this awful, crushing metamorphosis.

For a moment, anger rose its ugly head like a rattler coiled at the base of a rock, daring her to come closer. But the clouds were so fluffy, so starkly white against the blue. They rolled into passing sailing vessels, which sent her dreaming about faraway places. An ostrich rose up, then melted just as fast. A wave of rolling boulders tumbled toward the Sierra Nevadas. Anger gave her up and slithered back under its rock. Beneath her, her horse shifted his weight as he grazed, swaying her back to sanity.

As the sun slipped behind a bank of heavy clouds, her thoughts turned to “mother.” Mother took bits of Ana’s soul with her words of warning: You have to watch your weight. We have to do something with that stringy hair. Must you sniff like that? Boys won’t like it. Your belly is getting too round. Put on that bra.

Why was her body betraying her? Why did her mother constantly point it out?

Her horse jerked, raising his head to watch a dog snooping around the edges of the field. For a moment, Ana’s mind blanked as she prepared for the possibility that her horse would chase the dog. But, the dog moseyed on, and her horse lowered his head to graze. She settled back onto the pillow of his rump.

Hadn’t “mother” also given her this refuge? Hadn’t she insisted upon it, even after the first mare died of extreme old age, and the second one met her fate in a tragic, heartbreaking, trailering accident? Hadn’t Mother brought the Goddess into herself to fight for this union of girl and horse?

Maybe the bits she stole were nothing more than unneeded facsimiles of self, little girl bits that would no longer serve who Ana was to become. Could that be true?

Her horse snorted. He stamped his back left foot, shaking her off the center of his back.

She scooted back into place.

Maybe this was truth, right here, on this warm, rocking back with cool breezes gentling past her under a clear, blue, Spring sky. Maybe this was all she needed. Nothing more.

The sweet scent of freshly broken grass under his feet that sent a warm, welcome rush of pleasure through her body was a portent to womanhood. Nothing more.

The awful burden of budding Goddess scared the desperate little girl living inside. Nothing more.

Her steady companion, who swayed beneath her, was a fearless steed who could carry her away from the mischief-maker of puberty for one more day.

Maybe this was all she needed. Her steed was a Mother’s gift. 

Nothing more…nothing less.

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Never-Ending Begin Again

Dear Readers,

As we wrap up Self-Love this month, I “celebrate” February 24, 2021, three-hundred, sixty-nine days of isolation, house-bound due to Covid-19. It’s a familiar story that many Americans share. One would think after all this time spent alone, that plenty of opportunities presented themselves with which to grapple with anger and get rid of it.

Well, I am still angry. However, it is not serving my best interests, nor is my anger serving anyone else. In fact, I think anger is contagious.

The idea that emotions are contagious hit me hard yesterday as I was working with a fifteen-year-old art student. He expressed how exhausted and sad he was, angered by environmental destruction, political upheaval, and, in general, adults who can’t understand that there needs to be change in our thinking, our attitudes, and our behaviors. He is a compassionate warrior on the precipice of starting his life and it sickens me that at fifteen he is sad and exhausted. 

As one of those adults, I need to sever my ties with anger. At my age, I have accrued anger that colors my reactions to most life events, but I have to let go. I want a clean slate.

This idea was heavy on my mind when I joined my writing sisters at the Well on Monday. We always begin our gatherings with a meditative circle, and that didn’t change when we switched to Zoom meetings last March. Now, we circle virtually. During Monday’s meditation, I grabbed the words: roundness, circle, soul star, and higher self. Our first writing always reflects the meditative message. We have ten minutes to write, but I couldn’t let go of my conflict with anger.

Then this happened:

It is impossible to entertain anger in Circle. Circle is consideration, compassion, round, buoyant Love. Circle is a Never-Ending Begin Again. Mistakes have nowhere to stick in Circle, and so they become unjudged experience as they fall away.

Anger is angular. Mistakes stick in corners and crevasses and fester. Eventually, rigid structure devolves and softens, morphing into Circle, becoming a Never-Ending Begin Again.

Hmm. I want a Never-Ending Begin Again. How do I soften the rigid structures of my anger so they can fall out of Circle?

That night I remembered a vivid experience that occurred during my childhood. It was a tiny piece of anger that had hidden in a corner.

As a pre-teen, sometime between the ages of ten and twelve, I was studying to become a pianist. I am from a musical family, and it was logical as the eldest child to follow in the footsteps of my elders. I liked the piano. I didn’t really hate practicing for at least an hour a day, but I resented that my younger siblings didn’t have to, especially since I had been working since a very early age, competing in State and National competitions. Maybe my parents could only handle one child at a time who brutalized notes as they learned them. I was a successful performer. It was, however, not my dream. My dream was to sing.

So one afternoon after school while I was practicing on the keys, I was also singing along with the music created by my fingers. I don’t really remember which one of my brothers was responsible for this heinous act. They were twins, so perhaps they were both in on it. In the middle of producing a high note, one of them threw a live grasshopper into my mouth.

They knew I was terrified of grasshoppers!

You can imagine the chaos. I believe a double glass door was broken, perhaps a lamp, and a screen door was pulled off the hinges in my desperation to escape and get the grasshopper off my tongue.

As I write this, I can’t stop laughing. I wonder if either of them remembers this incident. Today, this event became Story, and because of this telling, the rigid structure of this tale has devolved and become Circle. I judge it funny, but I am still disgusted.   

A grasshopper in my mouth!? How can I change that?!?

So, Monday night, after having this ridiculous memory, I dreamed I was at a fancy restaurant and the menu was indigenous food. One of the offerings was grasshopper. It was sautéed in lemon and spices, all sharp parts had been removed, and I was brave enough to try one. It was tasty, but in this dream, I wanted to eat a whole, unflavored grasshopper. I didn’t want any happy flavorful colors clouding the confrontation between my foe and myself.

The chef honored my wish. He brought a roasted hopper, head and all. I picked it up with chopsticks and held it in front of me. I looked at it a long time, wondering if I should eat it with the exoskeleton or peel it. In the dream, mind you, I left it intact. I told it my story. I forgave it for terrorizing me. I thanked it for offering its life for my nourishment. I popped in my mouth and tasted buttery sweetness. Then I abruptly woke up.

Instead of feeling disgusted, I felt a kinship for this creature that originally I had abhorred. I have tasted Never-Ending Begin Again.

It is time now to use this tool to hunt in the corners and crevasses of my psyche and create Circle wherever I find a hidden anger. I must cut ties with this contagious polluter.

It is impossible to entertain anger in Circle. Circle is consideration, compassion, round buoyant Love. Circle is a Never-Ending Begin Again. I hope you do not battle anger, but if you do, maybe gathering it into Circle can give you peace as well.

Sincerely,

AV

Deep Pool of Quiet Energy

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This weekend, I read in a Facebook post that the body holds onto trauma. If that is true, might it also hold onto pleasure and delight?

1971

Seductively, night draped its dark cape over California. Crickets sang in the bushes outside the dining room window. A soft breeze brushed leaves against the pane. A dog barked, joyfully, down the street. Perhaps someone had thrown it a ball. My brothers and sister had left the table. My mother was fussing in the kitchen. My dad still sat beside me, waiting I guess, for me to finish dinner.

I took another bite. Homemade mashed potatoes. I squished the mouthful between my tongue and palate. The smooth, warm nubbles were a silky textured ecstasy for my mouth. Did life get any better than this?

“Hurry up and eat. Other people have things to do, and you’re holding them up. Honestly, you are the slowest person I know,” snapped my mother as she started clearing the table.

Slow. It was a word used often to describe me. I was slow. Not intellectually, I knew they didn’t mean that, but I moved slowly through the world. There were other words used: “Get your head out of the clouds, daydreaming again, why does it take you so long to do anything, you can’t just sit there, get up and do something.” Why was how I moved through the world so hard for them? Granted, all those words described what others saw in me, and they were true, but I took offense to “slow.”

I was a dreamer, creating worlds in my head, dreaming about imaginary people that I had yet to meet, sensing the world around me. My skin felt each breeze, each stroke of fabric, sometimes even sound as it rumbled past me. Scents filled my nose, throat, and sinuses with a rush of pleasure, or revulsion, both of which stopped me in my tracks. Everything I put into my mouth created what as an adult I would name an orgasmic experience or I never put it in my mouth again. And the world was loud. It was so loud, I found it difficult to decipher whether or not someone was speaking to me because of the sound around me. The one sense that wasn’t acute was sight. At seven I saw green leaves on the trees for the first time with a pair of thick lensed glasses. The world that I “saw” sensuously became so much more, and consequently, I spent more time observing.   

Why use the word slow? Why not observant, meticulous, contemplative, introspective, and a dozen other words that do not connote slow?

2021

In my group of friends, we have declared February as Self-Love Month. I realized this week that I use the term “slow” on myself. I worry because it takes so long to pound out a novel, and then I spend months rewriting while others I know are publishing a book a month. I am lucky to be publishing a book a year.

The graphic novel I am working on will take forever. It is daunting. It is daunting because I am slow. Shouldn’t I be able to whip out a page a day? It takes three, working fast, I assure you, to get one drawing done. And while I sit here typing my thoughts for this blog, my attention is arrested by flashing beads of light strung along each tiny branch in the winter trees outside my window. Rain left them as a reminder that the sun still lights Earth. A memory sings across my awareness. A perfectly placed sunbeam turns dew into diamonds that flash and spark on the delicate filaments of a spider’s web. I am riveted. Time loses all meaning in one long moment of wonder. How long have I been sitting? A minute? Twenty?!? Does it matter? Has time been lost or added? It is this very reason I am so damn slow. I need to retrieve some body memories of all those childhood years I spent gathering timelessness. Back then, every day, all day long, I was deliberately attentive as the world enveloped me with thousands of little pleasures or signals that captured me just like today. (Wow, this cotton shirt floats against my skin. Lovely. I am never getting rid of it.)

Dang, another moment lost or added?  

Do other people have this issue? In the United States, it feels like we rush around as if we are constantly battling a fire. Most of us burden ourselves with incredible industriousness trying to reach status quo. Because of this, do we ever take time to notice what is around us?

What have I noticed lately? The plush throw blanket I added to my bedding for extra warmth is so fat and fluffy against my palm. I could rub it all day long. The house ticks and creaks as the rain patters against it. In this light, there seems to be a vibrating halo around each leaf of every houseplant in this room. It reminds me of spring when each petal of the red geraniums sports a shimmering green halo. I see ghosts of figs on the tree to my right, as it plans where to place its fruit this year. A cat is purring in the living room, grateful to be inside. She must be dreaming, because she squeaks every so often, and her feet rub against the grain of the chair’s fabric. Is she remembering the hunt? What does that feel like to be so focused, on task, and persistent?

When later I draw, the pencil will scritch-scratch against the paper like a welcoming relief for an itch. My keyboard clacks in percussive rhythm with my thoughts and visions. Everything around me is music.

At night, the dark will shroud me in velvet silence. My blankets become a comforting hug as I sink into the mattress under their weight. The house will settle as the air cools, and I will remember how it ticked-ticked as the old wood warmed up in the sun just yesterday afternoon.      

I don’t know when I stopped feeling so aware, but I am returning to this state of wonder. I suspect it had to do with adulting in America, completely convinced that I was slow. In this society, we aren’t putting out fires; we are fire, busy as hell, conquering whatever profession or lifestyle we have chosen. We are all striving to be “Not Slow.”

As a retiree, I return to myself. I have discovered a deep pool of quiet energy I had forgotten. I believe that is what confused the people around me when I was young into thinking I was slow. I prefer to consider that I am deliberately attentive, savoring little moments of pleasure that offer themselves multiple times a day. I am collecting them, storing them in my body, building muscle, tendons, and fascia with delight. I wish to become a bottomless pool of quiet strength and energy as Earth constantly delights and renews me.

What are you collecting? I invite you to join me when you next eat. How does your food feel as you savor each mouthful? Did the taste of it sing to you? I hope so. Are you sitting in a room where the light creates luscious shadows through which your eyes can dance? Are there soothing sounds around you? How does the napkin feel on your fingertips, against your lips? How is your food settling? I hope you feel full and happy. I hope you find your own deep pool of quiet energy.

Happy February. Happy Self-Love Month

AV

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Endless Question

As I sit here avoiding the work I have to do on an illustration for a graphic novel I am working on, I try to figure out why I am so afraid of starting it. I have such confidence in other areas of my work and my life, but not this. Drawing terrifies me. As I grapple with “why,” my thoughts turn toward a question that came up in one of my illustration classes and again in a life studio class while I was in college.

What is the difference between a work of art and an illustration? When I was young, I argued that there was no difference. My fellow students disagreed with me. They were of the mind that there were two camps: those that were artists and therefore creators, and the others, those that were mere renderers.  

The argument was that an artist portrays the soul while an illustrator merely depicts what is seen.

I always took offense to this. At the time, I was preparing to become a scientific illustrator, eventually focusing on botanical illustration. When I studied a plant, was I less of an artist because I strove to capture the reality of it instead of its essence? Or did I capture both with my intense scrutiny of its architecture?

What is architecture? Everything in this three-dimensional world is built with arranged atoms, electro-magnetic force, and desire to hold a shape, the tao of becoming, if you will. Eventually, energy dissipates, chaos wins, and the physical form dissolves. However, for that moment in time when all is organized and held together in perfect order, a miracle has transpired – in the case of my study, a plant shimmers in Light. At this point, it does indeed appear that Life is the artist, and I, the mere observer of its architecture.

However, what happens the moment a person captures that plant by pencil, ink, paint, three-dimensional or soft media, or even film? Is this a mere portrait of its architecture? Do we call it illustration or art? What if that plant is captured in the agony of dissolution as chaos overwhelms it? Is this then art because of a possible emotional component, or is it still mere illustration? If not art, what is the additional ingredient that makes it more than “mere.”

In my opinion, anyone who attempts to communicate by form or picture creates art. By the very act of attempting, that extra “something” occurs. The renderer adds Self in the act of observing and recording. No one can negate this factor.

Is every attempt to intentionally render order to be considered art? I found strength for this conviction decades after attending college for the first time, when I re-enrolled to work with clay. In class, the age-old argument was still taking place. What is the difference between a potter and a sculptor? One is utilitarian; the other creates. Really? The professor was lovely, stating that even though one threw a pot that conformed to size, shape, and utility, no two could ever be alike because each potter put his or her hands on the object, thereby changing it and making it uniquely precious.

Her words struck me.

The truth is: There is no difference. The instant a person picks up a lump of clay and squishes it into his or her hand, the mille-second a thought forms as to what that lump of clay will become, creation takes place. The holder of the clay ceases to be merely human and instead becomes creator, transferring essence from Self to object, thereby creating art.

It is the same with everything we do. When clothing is folded with care into a converted shape to accommodate placement into a drawer in such a manner that it won’t lose texture, art has taken place. When dishes are lovingly stacked in a rack to dry in an order specific to the person stacking them, art has taken place. When a shovel is shoved into the ground with the intent of the shoveler’s vision of change upon Earth, art has taken place. When (insert an activity, any activity) is done with intent, art has taken place.

Finally, when an illustrator puts pen to paper and creates an image where there was none – art is created. The question “what is the difference between art and illustration?” is ridiculous, because there is no difference.

I suppose professors will continue to allow the argument to zing around their classrooms, lovingly aware that each artist has to form a conclusion for him or herself.

Right now, it is time for me to stop worrying whether or not these illustrations are “art enough” and just become the artist that I am. 

It’s time to draw.

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A Love Letter

A dear friend and fellow author invited her readers to join her this February for a self-love fest. She inquired, “Have you ever written yourself a love letter, addressed to you, as you are?”

No. No, I haven’t. What would that feel like?

Last night, as I was lying in bed planning today, I thought, “I am going to do it. I am going to write a love letter to myself.”

It sounded so simple last night as I was nodding to the world around me and slipping into dreamland. But this morning I wonder, “How should I address myself?” Should I start out with “Dear Valarie,” the name most people use when they refer to me? Perhaps I would use the name my father wanted to give me, “Dear AnaValarie,” or the name on my birth certificate, Valarie Jane. Maybe I should simply use “Ana,” which at least one friend uses. I could address myself as AV, which is the pseudonym I use as a fiction writer, but then it occurred to me, “How can I write a love letter to someone whose name I don’t even know?”

So, I started listening to self-talk. This is a mistake. I assure you. Forget the self-talk. It will not get you near enough to love to pen a letter, especially when you are two days into foregoing coffee due to the multiple requests of body and spirit screaming “Enough.”

I am left with nowhere to go except to the computer for research, something every writer spends hours doing. I looked up my various names. The name Valarie, spelled multiple ways including the way I spell it, has a couple of meanings: In French it means STRENGTH, in Latin it means BRAVE.

A writer with the handle Nisse mjukr offered a definition in The Urban Dictionary on February 4, 2010. This writer defines Valarie as: Brave. Strong heart. Heroine of the people; She who walks with steadfast surety. (She is) the female form of eternal innocence battling eternal evil…born from a seemingly ‘other-worldliness’ who takes to battle the evil ones who recognize and fear her powerful seeing of the good and the evil in others…

…strong heart, steadfast surety, innocence, ‘other-worldliness….” Hmmm. Is that who I am? This writer goes on to say that: Valarie is one who refuses to be victimized and confronts injustice…she uses her gifts to protect others who are unknowingly, or deny being, the victims of lies and injustice. Others less hardy will avoid her with the fear of being targeted by the corruption that she takes to battle, but when in dire need will seek her wisdom, and guidance as she lovingly gathers them under her protective wings. She carries great strength and inner beauty even as she mourns the human/earth condition. Valarie will lead us to the truth.

Oh! Well, in that case, maybe I do deserve a love letter. I wonder, what does Ana mean?

In Spanish it means gracious and merciful. It has a similar meaning in Chinese. In the Urban Dictionary one writer, who uses the pen name Lifey, wrote on April 14, 2015:

Ana is very caring.  She is always there for you and you can trust her…she is also very funny. She has a childish style that will cheer you. Ana is sensitive and (a) very beautiful girl. She is always full of joy and ready for a new day.

Full of joy, ready for a new day, that’s true. Lastly, I looked up Jane, a name from my mother’s heart. In Hebrew, it means, “God is merciful,” or “God is gracious.” Gracious and merciful. Didn’t I just read that following the name Ana? It seems my parents were on the same mental wavelength, pulling ideas of who I was from different cultures, using different names for it. What is grace? What is mercy? Do I embody either of those attributes?  

I decided to use the name I have always favored the name my father wanted to give me. The letter goes like this:

 Dear AnaValarie,

Your teaching style was certainly a reflection of your name. You defied convention and did for each student what she or he needed, holding their precious images up to a mirror so they could see how lovely, competent, and brave they were and how much you valued them. They grew to understand and trust themselves, and when you let them out from under your wings, they flew straight and true.

You treated your own children like equal creators in life, which they certainly have become, admiring, guiding, and cherishing them each moment as they grew under your care. You will cherish any grandchildren that grace your life and feel a deep kinship with them as well.

You bravely took roads less traveled with choices taken as a teen, as a young adult, becoming a single mother, an alternative education teacher, following your dreams of becoming a vocal soloist, a graphic artist, a writer. You provided for your family as both male and female. It took guts to buy a house, wrangle ownership of cars, figure out the ins and outs of doing it all on your own. You appreciated help when offered. That took bravery. I love that you are brave. You lived up to your name.

I love that your primary focus is peace, an attitude reflective of grace and mercy. You are compassionate and seek connections with and between others. You find those connections when sometimes others do not see them for themselves.

Now, we bring in a new way of being, one that favors the path you have always walked. Here is your chance. When you write, sing, or draw, your words, songs, and images will be true to your needs as well as to those who receive them. I appreciate this ability so much.

I appreciate how easily amused you are. This is something not reflected in your lofty name, but you are silly. Life amuses you. I love that.

I love you. I love being here, a participant in this journey. Let’s live a long time. There is much yet to give, and I know you want to do that. I will make space for you to shine because in doing so, we all shine.

Thank you, dear AnaValarie for being here on Earth. You mean the world to me.

Love,

Myself…

How do I feel now? I feel empowered. I feel renewed strength. I am ready to move forward.

I invite you to write a love letter to yourself, especially right now at the start of this month. There is a lot we have all been through with world conflict, the pandemic, and personal tragedies. I will hold a space for you and your love letter to self. I love you, even if I don’t know you. I know you are there, struggling in this world. We are the same in that, as is everyone. That makes you brave and strong no matter what your name means. My name gives me the power to see that in you, so please accept my gift, Brave One.

If you wish to share your experiences of this love-thyself-month, or be a member of my newsletter, please contact me at:

anna.morningsong.54@gmail.com or you can leave a comment at the end of this blog. 

You can catch my friend’s blog at: https://www.hereiswhereiam.com/blog

May you find moments of Peace, wherever you are,

AV Singer

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From My Cave

(Author’s Note: The following is AV’s response to a meditative prompt offered on 1/18/2021, by a member of the writing group she belongs to. It is a 10-minute, raw (unedited) quick write, followed by a drawing she promised her writing Sisters at the Well. AV lives in California. Though it is a continent away from the US Capitol, the state of California is also prepared for upheaval. We are all trying to find our place of balance as the political world around us heaves like an earthquake.)

From the cave within, I see the ocean. The waves roll in…and out, matching my breath, washing away the detritus of anger from the glittering sand.

Why didn’t I think of coming here earlier?

This cave reminds me of life as Homo erectus, a time when hominids were territorial, before we became city builders. It seems we have returned to our brutish ways of late.

However, in this cave, I am safe. There is room for my family, which includes a tribe of people I love, people they love. There is room for any and all who need to come.

Here we have peace.

The ocean provides, in…out, in…out, bringing gifts, taking refuse. We’ve learned to be thankful for what it gives us. We’ve learned to be mindful of what we leave behind.

Sometimes I wish we could return to those simpler ways, to find a way to make life quiet, attuned to the world around us. Sometimes…I wish.

But, I must find a way to look forward, past contrived dates, to what is beyond the horizon. A vessel of change is blowing this way. I can feel it. I just don’t see it.

Yet.

EPSON MFP image

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Freely Express Your Truth

Background: I belong to a writers group, a collection of strong, wise, and creative women who meet on a weekly basis for an hour and a half to meditate together, respond to crazy prompts with a ten-minute quick-write, and then share what we have written. I have been working with these women for four years; the group has been together for seven. Sometimes…actually often… the members write as if their minds coalesce into one mind. This offering is one of those times.  A few members have agreed to share with me, and allowed me to publish their writing on a meditation prompt for the night of December 14, 2020.

I present their voices, and my own, as I invite you to think about what it means to express your truth. I would love to hear from you. (To any man that reads this blog, I do not mean to exclude you. I just happen to be a woman who belongs to an all-female writers group. There is no discrimination, here.)

Either reply to this post, or if you feel you don’t want to share publicly you can reach out to me at anna.morningsong.54@gmail.com. Please be sure to include “blog reply” in the message in case your unknown email gets sent to my spam file. I will look for you.

Waiting…waiting…waiting.

Joyce Ann Campbell

In the quantum view of this world, I am a vibrating, radiating field of electrical energy dressed for winter in the Sierra foothills.

Magnetic forces within me attract exactly what I need, but not always what I want.

Activity in the back of my head goes round and round in memories, alternating with my imagination, fishing for the future. In between, my mind rests in the present, witnessing and resounding to life within and surrounding me.

And, beyond that, my energies ripple endlessly into space, and flow back to me, pen in hand.

Shari Anderson               

To freely express my truth…what does that mean?

It means to express in an unhindered way, without restraint, holding guilt or fear.

It means to let out what calls to be released in a space expansive enough to allow it to exist. A space in which it is able: to wind its way along rivers of tears and oceans of heartache, to waft through foggy memories and unexplored fields, to percolate up from the muck and mire and finally find the sun.

Laurayne Mae offers the second prompt of the night, “I Am This Kind of Person – But Not Like That.” Her writing always speaks her truth and her piece, Big Grief, is no exception.

Stuck. Sticky stuck.

Can’t lift my feet to see what kind of person I am – let alone what I am not like.

So many changes in such a sick, short span. 

Terrifying times, globally, nationally, personally. 

Stuck. Sticky stuck. Who am I now?

Who I am in this moment is one who feels. I feel sadness and loss. They weave themselves into grief.

BIG GRIEF

Waiting for 

Relief

Release

Renewal

Amel Tafsout returns to the original meditation prompt, “Freely Express Your Truth” in Don’t Burn the Chicken Wings!

“Don’t burn the chicken wings!” he said.

“You already told me that!” I said.

“Why do you react this way?” he said.

“I just would like you not to repeat it to me so many times!” I said.

“I want to be free to talk to my wife… you are never here!” he said.

“You are picking on me all the time!” I said.

“Here we go, that’s why I am afraid of you!” he said.

“You don’t need to be afraid of me, but try to understand me!” I said.

“I just want a peaceful morning!” he said.

“Me too, but you don’t realize that you are picking on me most of the  

time!” I said.

“Here we go again with your pride!” he said.

“I may overreact but there is a reason and I am asking you not to do it!” I  

 said.

“Now my morning is destroyed!” he said.

I kept quiet thinking why can he not see my way when I am trying to make  him understand that I have been blamed so many times in my life and I want to change that to heal myself from it? Am I talking another language? Obviously, I am!

Here is another from Amel Tafsout, called Beheading Me. I choose to leave it as is, with no editing from me. It is a powerful piece about an actual event. Amel is a powerful dancer and one of her online photos was defiled.  

Amel writes:

Hey, You, how dare you delete my face, decapitate me and replace me with a Western white blond blue eyed woman, a sexual object such as Marilyn Monroe!

In my real photo my face is all power, a power that you will never understand – standing my ground in strength, power and beauty like our Amazigh-Berber warrior Queen Kahina, looking at you directly and saying to you I am!

I am that woman from the era of shamans and priestesses, who can make of you dust in one look!

A primal woman connected with ai, water, earth, fire and ether!

A woman who can rip you in pieces while doing nothing.

I am that Amazigh woman, proud of her roots and transcending her ancestry that you are ignoring and disrespecting!

Beheading me will harm you, replacing my powerful womanhood to a sexual object won’t work!

Making money off of me will follow you in hell! And you will get served what you deserve!

I am the power of all energies, gathered in the eye of the tornado that will sweep you away in a second!

AV Singer – Now I ask you

Is it fair for me to express my truth freely? For me, to myself, it is essential. For others, I find it more prudent to allow them space to express their truths while not imposing upon them mine. Why do I do this? Is it a lack of trust? Maybe. But, do we give others a chance to speak their truths or are we so wrapped in self? Maybe I feel most are not yet steady enough in truths of their own to carry my burdens. So I keep it hidden while remaining softly alert, waiting for their truth to manifest.

This is true for many women in the world. They quietly wait. Subjugated and repressed, not only are they silent, many have not had the chance to explore self, to know they have truths. They need space to learn what it means to be fully feminine. They need teachers. Those of us given time and guidance to do so must afford them the space for this vital expression of what it means to fully own womanhood.

Postscript: Waiting…waiting…waiting. Peace be with you as you travel through your week. AnaValarie

Put Them Together

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(Author’s Note: This is my last blog entry of 2020 and the last chapter of BROKEN. I am honored you have followed this story. Thank you, Dear Readers.)

Night shadowed the small party of investigators by the river. Storm clouds wrestled, throwing spears of lightning. A cold rain was set to dump on Detroit and the surrounding area. Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson stood over the shallow grave of a teenager as the ME and her team exhumed him.

Lordy, she needed a vacation. For the third time, in less than two weeks, she stood by the river staring at another dumped soul that had found him or herself in the deadly aftermath of a criminal act. Three bodies, three cases strung together by the mishaps of a single boy. It hardly seemed believable. 

Cadaver dogs had pinpointed this grave using information provided by Jack’s runaway son. Jon and the undercover agent known as Rat Snatcher had done what they could in a grotesquely out-of-control situation. They buried young Lincoln in a beautiful spot overlooking this goddamned river. What was it about this pair of rival gangs that used the river as their dumping ground?

The department could not arrest the men responsible for the death of Lincoln. Charlie Marchesi was an ex mob boss in Witness Protection. They could not arrest him, or his son, Evan Fischer, for child endangerment or murder. Nor could they arrest Rat Snatcher, who also worked for Marchesi, though he was an undercover agent for the FBI. The FBI had jurisdiction and had taken over those cases. Detroit PD couldn’t seek justice from Allessandro Santorini, Marchesi’s right hand man, even though he had organized Lincoln’s rape. Santorini was lying in their morgue, shot by rival gang members. She guessed they would soon find out if Santorini had brutality killed Lincoln, or if he had died of a heart problem, as Snatcher explained to Jon.

Maureen ran Lincoln’s name through missing persons’ records but could not find him. It probably wasn’t his name. She suspected most of the teens embroiled in the dark world of sex trafficking and illegal fight clubs used aliases. Jonathan did. Why wouldn’t Lincoln? Now that she would have a chance to run fingerprints there was a greater chance they would identify him. She would keep looking, for Jonathan’s sake, but she knew in her gut that Lincoln had died anonymously and would remain so.

A sharp breeze blew the hem of her coat. She looked at the darkened sky. Her team needed to hustle before the storm hit them. “Let’s get Lincoln out of bed,” she said. So much had happened to bring them to this place.

As the ME pulled Lincoln’s body from the shallow trench and carefully set him upon the tarp, she thought about the young Taiwanese man left to rot by the river’s waters. This fiasco had started that night. Though she had no proof, Evan Fischer, or someone associated with him, shanked the boy from Taiwan in a dirty fight and dumped him. Like Lincoln, he would remain anonymous, but his journey had been different. He had most likely been lured by the promise of a glorious fighting career, taken from his home in Taiwan to the city of Detroit. Now he would be forgotten. She was still piecing together possible stories about him. Either he had been sent by the infamous Morelli brothers, suspected of human trafficking but slippery as eels, or had volunteered for increased status within their organization to punish Evan Fischer for impregnating their sister, Sobrina.

The same night Maureen stood over the young Taiwanese man’s body, Evan’s grandmother reported him missing. Was it coincidence that she called Jack Tyler to take the missing person’s call on the same night Jack’s son, Jonathan Tyler, had stepped off a bus and walked into the unfolding drama between the missing and the dead. You couldn’t make this shit up. No one would believe it.

Jon huddled against his father where they stood nestled under a tree about twenty-five yards from the burial site. Jack didn’t want his son to see or smell the gruesomeness that was sure to follow as they exhumed his friend’s body. Maureen would just as soon they leave, but Jon was adamant. Something inside him needed to see it through, to see his friend taken care of correctly. She hoped it would give him some closure for this nightmare.

The ME guessed that death had occurred at least six days ago. She collected insect evidence and soil samples to help confirm her guess. It was illegal to bury a body this way, but Maureen didn’t plan to process Jonathan for this one. She suspected that in some twisted way, Agent Phillip Morris, aka Rat Snatcher, was trying to protect Jon by not reporting Lincoln’s demise to his superiors, though she didn’t see how any of this could have reflected upon Jon. Maybe there just hadn’t been the time, but obviously, Snatcher had not told the FBI, or they would have found traces but not Lincoln’s body. People did weird shit when they were desperate. She’d probably never understand all that had happened.

Jon had recognized the man who beat him up in a line of purported Morelli henchmen. The guy had stupidly worn a plaid shirt to the lineup, and that caught Jon’s attention. The tip offs were the boots that Jon had memorized as the man hauled him to the garbage bin, and a large ring he wore on his finger. Maureen had photo evidence of an imprint the ring made above Jon’s eye.

Because he identified Emilio Morelli as the man who ordered the hit, a troop of uniformed cops were currently approaching his reported residence. She expected to hear from them any moment now.

The ME approached her. “We are ready to move him.”

“Good. Let’s do it.” She walked over to Jack and his son. “The next stop for Lincoln is the morgue. The ME will perform an autopsy. He’ll be cleaned up and held until we can identify his true identity.”

“You will look for his family?” said Jon.

“Yes. I will personally let you know if we find them. You two should get home before the storm lands on top of us.”

“Thank you, Maureen,” said Jack.

Social Services had decided it was in Jon’s best interest to stay out of the system until the courts determined the outcomes of his charges. Meghan lost it when they awarded Jack temporary custody. She had conveniently packed their divorce papers and pulled it out so they could see the custody agreement. She threatened to take Jack and Social Services, if necessary, to court. The caseworker would not back down. Evidently, a hotel room situation was not as secure as Jack’s apartment situation, and Jack was a valued citizen of Detroit and therefore trusted.

Meghan tried to use Jack’s OCD against him, but Social Services didn’t buy it. Her son had run away from home three times, a dilemma that they couldn’t reconcile without more research.

“I want to see your so-called apartment,” she had demanded. What did she expect? That he lived in squalor?

Jack invited her and Phillip to join him for lunch. Jon wouldn’t be released until that evening. It gave him plenty of time to quell her fears.

Meghan sashayed in with an air of disdain. She slowly walked from room to room. She opened the refrigerator. She opened every cupboard and closet. She finally sat on the couch and ran her hands across the fabric on the arm. “I guess this place is okay.”

“Be fair, Meg. This is a nice apartment,” said Phillip as he sat in the easy chair to the left of her. “And it is secure with a twenty-four hour concierge service.”

“I’m going to order lunch and have it delivered,” said Jack. “What would you like?”

They settled on Thai food.

“He was bullied at school,” Jack said.

“Oh, bullied. He was picked on. The kid’s too sensitive,” scoffed Meghan.

Phillip didn’t disagree, but he had set up mixed martial arts lessons for Jon and had encouraged him to join a club at school.

Meghan said, “Phil set up a practice floor in the garage. We tried to toughen him up.”

Jack sighed. Would he have done the same if he had remained in Jon’s life? “The bullying was worse than he led you to believe. I don’t think he told Rick how bad it was. I don’t believe Hank knew either,” said Jack.

It saddened him that Jon had not felt comfortable enough to tell anyone how bad it was. From Meghan and Phillip’s comments, he was not sure they would have listened. He would be happy if Jon didn’t return to California.

“What’s next?” said Phillip.

Meghan was quick to explain. “His case will be adjudicated in a special court because he has been charged as a minor. He’ll most likely be placed in a safe house, here in Michigan.”

Worst case scenario was that he would be assigned to a Detention Center. The thought made Jack sick. The possibility of his son being placed in a safe house when he could stay with an actual parent wasn’t much better.

Meghan and Phillip went to the hospital to say goodbye to Jon as he was released into Jack’s custody. Jack was pleased that Meghan held herself together. Jon didn’t whine, he didn’t gaze sadly as they drove away, he seemed content, perhaps because at that point, he was resigned to his fate, but he had a smile on his face when Jack drove him to the apartment. Jon seemed settled as he curled up on Jack’s couch and watched TiVo after dinner.   

That night, after Jon went to sleep, Jack sat at the end of the bed and watched him breathe, so grateful that he was alive. Many homeless children didn’t live through the experience. Rick, Jon’s older brother, was right to worry about him becoming a statistic. He was broken to be sure, but not another number on a death list.

He stood and straightened the blanket around his son’s shoulders and padded to the living room.

He picked up his phone and punched in Tom’s number.

Tom picked up on the third ring. “Hey.”

“Were you asleep?”

“Dozing. There isn’t much else to do when one is confined as a convalescent.”

“Just a few more days.”

“Three. Three more days, if physical therapy goes well. How is the kiddo?”

“Sleeping. Social Services trusted me enough to let him stay here until his case comes up.”

“Pssht. I guess you better take time off. Don’t let him out of your sight.”

“I don’t think he is going to be running again anytime soon.”

“How are you doing, Jack?”

“I don’t know. Exhausted, I guess. I still haven’t recovered from our last case.”

“I know. We need a vacation after this.”

“You’ve had a vacation.”

“This is not a vacation. It’s hard getting well.”

Jack laughed, but it really was no laughing matter. It was hard recovering from injuries as serious as Tomi’s were. Jack then said, “I’m going to apply for custody.”

Tom was quiet.

“Are you there?”

“Just listening.”

“I can’t stand the thought of him being in a detention center.”

“He’s only fifteen. They’ll put him in a safe house with people trained to help him.”

“My OCD will factor into their decision. I want to claim you as my second.”

“You’ve thought a lot about this.”

“He thought I left because I didn’t love him. I left because I did love him.”

“So think about that, Jack. Love him and think about what is best for the both of you.”

Tears filled Jack’s eyes. He let them fall.

“If I was with you, I would wipe those damn tears off your face,” said Tom.

“How did you know?”

“No worries. I’m not getting your psychic shit. I can hear it in your voice.”

Jack chuckled. “I don’t know if I can visit tomorrow.”

“I’m fine. My niece and nephew have worn me out. I’m pretty sure they plan to come tomorrow again.”

“If I can, I will, too. I’ll bring Jon if he is up to it.”

“Don’t force him. We don’t even know what we are, yet.”

Jack sighed.

“Good night, Jack.”

“Good night, Tom.”

 Tom was right. Nobody knew what tomorrow would bring. There was time to think about this decision. He did know one thing: He loved Jonathan and would do anything he had to, to protect him.

Jack checked the doors and shut off the lights. He checked Jon one more time. He settled into a sleeping bag at the base of his bedroom door so he would wake easily if his son needed him. He hadn’t been a father for most of Jon’s life, but he could start now by standing guard every night for as long as necessary.

His runaway days were over.

The End

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Pick Up Pieces

( Author’s Note: For a few weeks now, I have been asking those of you who read my newsletter or my Facebook posts, who read my blog, to find what makes your heart sing. What did you find?

One of my friends told me her heart sings whenever she reads the words of poetry her significant other writes. I could tell it felt like a profound gift. I know her heart sings when she sits outside on her patio surrounded by the natural world. She shared that with me too. I felt honored. Nature was glorious, and my heart sang while I sat there enjoying her company. I will always be able to picture it, and my heart will always sing when I think on it.

For myself, it is the connections I have made with others: family, friends (human, animal, and plant), all both near and far; connections made with colleagues and students in the teaching, art, writing, and music communities, past and present, near and far. My heart is full of songful memories and present experiences. I found my voice again, literally, and sing myself into bliss, a quiet zone of deep meditation, regeneration, and connection.

So, what makes your heart sing? Gather it up. I am inviting you to join me on a short journey, and you will need to take it with you.

The 2020 election is upon us. No matter the outcome of it, a tidal wave of emotion is heading toward us with breathtaking height and speed. My advice: Pick up all that makes your heart sing and come with me to the metaphorical high ground. Go to the mountaintop where you will sit and watch the influx and efflux of rushing emotion below you, because our course of action – manifesting compassion, equality, unity – has not changed. We are still heading for that which we seek. We will find the path when the tidal waters recede, and we will continue building.

When I come off the mountain, I will find that the fear I have been hanging onto these past four years will be gone, because I plan to leave it here where the deluge can roll over it and wash it away. My joy and optimism, all that makes my heart sing, I will take with me.

Come with?

Grab what makes your heart sing and join me on the mountain. We will wait out the tidal wave TOGETHER, and I promise you: We will survive this no matter who wins the election. Our journey toward tomorrow is just beginning. Keep reading to enjoy the second to last chapter of BROKEN.) 

Pick Up Pieces

Marcus Balmario returned with steamed, hot chocolate for Jonathan Tyler. As the boy sipped, he found strength to knit himself together. Marcus clicked on the recorder so Jon could continue witnessing his experience. Marcus had to remember to use less technical, less forceful words. Jon wasn’t a hardened street kid. He was the product of professional parents. He had stepped into a world that had punched him in the face, literally.

“Jon, do you know for sure that Evan Fischer was the father of the baby?” Marcus could barely believe Jon had been tasked with the horrendous job of taking a dead baby from a tumultuous birth to presumably dispose of it.

“I assumed he was, since Sobrina Morelli was his girl. Did Sobrina die?”

“What?” said Balmario.

Chief Maureen Thompson, who was attending Jon’s interview, leaned forward to hear his answer clearly.

“I heard one of the Morellis say his sister was dead. They had guns. Evan was on the ground with Charlie. They were looking for me.”

“The Morellis were looking for you?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know this?” said Maureen.

“When Rat and I got back from burying Lincoln, there was a confronta – .”

“Stop. I want to hear about that,” said Maureen. “You buried Lincoln. The kid you met at the MMA meet?”

Jon was shaking so badly, his hands bounced against the table. “I think I need to eat something,” he said.

Balmario said, “Finish your chocolate. Tell us about Lincoln.”

Jon slurped the foamy concoction and set the cup on the table. “I was following Rat’s orders.”

Marcus Balmario shook his head. He tamped down the frustration that was boiling in a spot between his shoulder blades. “Back up. What happened after you left the baby in the alcove?”

“I ran back to Marchesi’s and heard men shouting from a garage behind it. When I went to investigate, some of Marchesi’s men were cheering because Alles had forced Lincoln to the ground. I tried to break in, to get him out of there, but they grabbed me. Then Rat saved me. He pulled me out of the building, but I knew they were gang raping him. I’ve seen a pack of ramped up testosterone more than once. I was jumped by a pack at school. They stopped short of rape, but they sure made a show of it. That’s when Phillip enrolled me in an MMA club.”

Jackson Tyler, his parent in attendance, said, “You fight?”

Balmario didn’t want to get into a side conversation between estranged father and son, so he said, “Continue, “ though being disciplined in an MMA organization was probably why Jon was sitting in front of them today, instead of rotting at a dump site after being beaten and thrown away as garbage.

“Rat pulled me away, and then we got into a fight. I tried to use moves I learned in my MMA club, but I was no match for him. Rat whipped me.” Jon was clearly ashamed about that.

He said, “Rat told me he knew about the baby, so the Morellis did, too. I was wrecking his plans. I don’t know what plans those were. We went back to Marchesi’s, and I gave Charlie the hundred dollars. Told him I got it doing a blow job.”

Jack looked away and shook his head.

Jon looked at his father and said, “I didn’t do one, Dad.”

Jack said, “I know.”

“Continue,” said Balmario.

“After that, Charlie ordered Rat out to the garage and told him to take me with him. Rat was so sad. So was Hawg. I think they knew.”

“Knew what?”

“That Lincoln was dead. We took him to a wooded place by the river and buried him.”

“Let me recap. You left the baby in the alcove.”

Jon’s shaking intensified.

Marcus leaned across the table to look directly into Jon’s eyes. “I am just going to state it as fact. We need to do this.” Dammit, Jon’s eyes were so big and sad. “You ran to Marchesi’s, saw a gang rape.”

“I didn’t see it. I heard him screaming.”

“Okay. You witnessed the boy Lincoln on the ground.”

“Then Rat Snatcher pulled me away from that. We fought.”

“Then you went back to the Bar and Grill where Charlie told you and Rat Snatcher to take care of Lincoln.”

“Yes.”

“Do you think you can show me where you took him on a map?” 

“Maybe.”

The intercom clicked on, and Captain Jamison said, “Map is on the way. Assembling a team to verify.”

Jon jumped. “Is someone else listening?” he said.

Jack petted Jon’s hair on the back of his neck. “Yeah. They are right behind that darkened window.”

“Huh,” said Jon. He stared at it a minute and then leaned into his father. “Have they been listening the whole time?”

“Yes.”

Jon spoke in a whisper. “They saw me blubbering.”

Jack whispered, “They understand. Nobody is going to worry about that. You shouldn’t either.”

“I’m sorry I am such a big baby,” said Jon.

“I don’t see a big baby in this room,” said Jack. “I just see my beautiful, brave son, who has battled the streets of Detroit.”

“Are they going to find Lincoln?”

Jack caught Marcus’s glance. Would they find anything? The FBI had most likely cleaned up after them. It wouldn’t hurt to try for Jon’s sake.

“With your help. Yes,” said Marcus.

“He was a nice guy, Dad.”

“Yeah. He was caught up in something that was too big for him. Just like you.” Jack continued to pet his hair.

“While they find a map and assemble a team, let’s finish the story, Jon. Then you can go to your father’s house and rest.”

“Are they letting me do that?” He looked toward the woman from Social Services.

“Temporarily, yes,” she said.

Maureen Thompson asked, “What happened after you buried Lincoln.”

“Rat and I went back to Marchesi’s. Rat was nervous about everything that day so he parked a few blocks away. I followed him and stayed quiet like he asked me to. He was afraid of something. He kept stopping to look around. Each time he did it, he was like a mother hen, hiding me behind him. When he got to the restaurant, we heard shouting behind the bar. We snuck around. That’s when I saw the gunmen. Alles had his hands tied behind him and was on his knees. They pulled Charlie and Evan down, too, and tied them up. I heard one of them ask for the other kid, the one that took the money to the curan…curan….”

“Curandera,” said Maureen. “Sobrina’s midwife.”

“Yes. That’s when the gunman said he wanted to thank me, too, for the death of his sister. Rat told me to run. I did. I ran. I heard guns, but I kept running. I didn’t stop. I found a sheltered alley to stay the night, but a homeless man chased me away. The cops chased me away from a small park fountain. I found another alley. It wasn’t as nice as the first, but I felt safe there. Morning came. I had the ten from Rat. I bought food. I wandered the rest of the day. I didn’t want to be seen. I was worried I would get shot because of the money I gave to the midwife.”

“Geezus,” said Jack.

Maureen urged Jon to continue. “Then what happened.”

“I wandered pretty far, I guess. It was late, the sun was setting. I was hungry. I saw people panhandling. I thought it looked pretty futile. Then people started giving me money. I was only sitting there. It was amazing. I had a little over thirty dollars and decided to go into the restaurant across the street. I got mugged. The mugger took my wallet and ran. I ran after him. He threw my wallet away. It landed in a dumpster. He took all my money and your letter, Dad. He left my ID, so I guess that’s something. I had to start over. I sat back down in the spot where people had given me money, but that didn’t happen again.”

Jon sighed. “I guess you’ll arrest me after I tell you what happened next.”

“Go on,” said Maureen.

“A car pulled up to the curb, and a guy offered me twenty dollars for a hand job. I took the money.”

Jack said. “Shit.”

“Oh, Lordy,” said Maureen. Jack had told her about the dream he had, how he hoped he’d been superimposing his attraction to Tomio over his worry about Jon.

Jon looked at him with a questioning look on his face.

Jack shook his head. “We’ll talk later. Continue the story.”

Balmario thought, thank god.

Jon said, “I didn’t get any more offers that night. And panhandling did not work the next day.”

“Why didn’t you just go to a soup kitchen?” said Maureen.

“I couldn’t. My face was plastered everywhere on those FBI posters.”

“Unbelievable,” said Jack.

Jon’s rushed his words together when he said, “Okay, I suspect this is really illegal, but I did it again. It doesn’t pay as well as I thought it would. You know you’d think if you gave of yourself, it would be worth more, but it isn’t. You have to keep giving and giving.”

“Okay, okay,” said Marcus Balmario. They were way beyond worrying about this kid implicating himself in prostitution. He had no clear plan. He was just a kid stupidly responding to each moment as it presented itself with a typical teenaged lack of logic. He was in over his head, like so many of them he pulled off the street. It was one of the reasons that so many states had adopted Safe Harbor Laws. He decided it would do Jon good to tell his story completely, no matter what implications it presented.

He recapped, “You were mugged and lost money you obtained while panhandling.”

“Yes. I had no money.”

“So you committed an act of prostitution.”

“And got money.”

“Yes.”

Marcus Balmario wasn’t sure this child knew the exact definition of prostitution, but it didn’t matter at this point.

“I met these three people who reminded me of Lincoln. In fact they knew him. They took me in and showed me a good place to work. That’s where I met the guy who beat me up.”

“Where did you go after you escaped from the dumpster,” said Balmario.

“I sat under a tree for a while. Then I don’t remember much. I guess I am lucky you arrested me trying to solicit Rodney Heathe, huh?”

“You solicited him?”

“I heard he paid well.”

“Who told you that?”

Jon froze. The fire behind his eyes shut off. “I…I don’t remember. I heard it somewhere.”

“You climbed out of the dumpster, sat under a tree, and someone told you that Rodney Heathe paid well.”

“I don’t remember. Days and days passed. I was hungry, and I hurt all over. I was ready to do anything. I wanted to feel safe for a while.”

He approached a predator to keep him safe. Unbelievable. Marcus was disgusted. If he ever got his hands on the schmuck that told an obviously injured and scared boy about Rodney Heathe, he would kill him.

A knock on the door alerted the team. A clerk stepped in and handed a folded map to Marcus. He opened it and spread it on the table so that Jon could look at it. “Okay. Show us where you buried your friend.”

One tear fell from Jon’s eye, but he quickly wiped it away. He studied the map. “It’s not here, we left the city and drove toward a lake. There was a hiking trail.”

The person from Social Services spoke up. “I know what he’s talking about. There’s a nature preserve on the river.”

“Yes, we were following the river when Rat pulled off the road. He drove down a dirt lane for a while.”

The woman stood up and flipped over the map. Then she pointed. “Here it is.”

“Did you walk the trail?”

“No, we walked off trail so people couldn’t see us. Jon looked at the line of the river. He pointed to a small indentation. “I think it’s about here.”

“We’ll get a team to start investigating.”

Jon said, “I want to go.”

Maureen said, “You’re tired and hungry, Jon.”

“I want to help find Lincoln,” he said.

The entire team collectively sighed, but Jon’s expression was resolute. Marcus knew he would need this closure to battle demons later on.

Maureen said, “If I bring you a sandwich, can you give our artist a description of Lincoln?”

“Yes,” said Jon.

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Witness

Author’s Note: Three chapters of BROKEN remain, including this one. Thank you so much for following this story. America’s presidential election cycle is upon us and I am wondering if anyone else feels like they are holding their breath, hoping to ride out the tidal wave no matter which way it turns? I wish my metaphorical cave was deeper.  I plan to take a short hiatus after posting the end of this book. I need to focus on a graphic novel I am working on, while writing my next novel which I am currently calling The Shaman’s Mirror. I will start blogging again after we usher in 2021. If you want to finish BROKEN quickly instead of reading weekly, follow the link at the end of this chapter.

Witness

A court could argue that everything that happened to Jonathan Tyler was because of a choice he made, but Inspector Marcus Balmario had worked vice too long. He had seen too many unaware teens fall into webs designed to trap them. Hell, adults fell into them. “When did you meet Charlie Marchesi?” he asked.

Jonathan said, “The night I arrived in Detroit. He offered me a place to stay. I couldn’t afford it, but he said I could work the morning shift at his Bar and Grill to pay for expenses.” The boy squirmed, uncomfortable in the cold, metal chair across from Marcus at the table in one of the 12th’s interrogation rooms. His injuries were far from healed, but he had been released from the hospital, and the sooner they conducted this interview, the sooner a decision could be made about his future.

“And did you accept his offer?”

“Yes.”

“So you stayed the night and worked for him the next day. How long did you work for Charlie?”

“I worked that morning, a full shift. He paid me, and it covered my bill, but people don’t make very much here.”

“Just the facts,” said Balmario.

Jon took a deep breath. “The pay for all that work wouldn’t cover the cost of the room for another night. He offered me a job on the night shift.”

“Did he know you were fifteen?”

“No. I led him to believe I was an adult.”

All heads turned toward him. Today’s team consisted of Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler as Jon’s parent in attendance, Chief Maureen Thompson, a defense attorney, and a counselor from Social Services. They knew that Charlie Marchesi, as he was known by this boy, did not believe for one moment that Jon was anything other than a fifteen year old runaway that stepped into his trap. But Marchesi was in Witness Protection, and therefore any crimes committed were FBI business.

“So, he hired you for a night shift. Doing what?”

“Well, I expected to do the same, wait tables, clean, help in the kitchen.”

“But that is not what you did?” said Balmario. What Jon did, he assumed, was probably illegal.

Jon was clearly thinking how to proceed with the story. He had to hand it to the kid. He was quick on his feet. He would either make a good cop or a good criminal. Jon surely suspected that Charlie knew he was a minor, but he had probably used every trick he could to lead everyone around him to the belief that he was an adult. It was an important distinction. Guilty sweat beaded across Jon’s upper lip.

Why feel guilt all of a sudden? What just changed? “Jon, just spit it out.”

“They probably knew I was fifteen. Shit. Rat knew that. He called me on it. I don’t know how to continue.” he said.

Of course. Jon knew he would implicate himself. Balmario said, “Let’s start with the shift you worked in the morning.”

“It was hard work.”  

Balmario leaned forward. “We need to know exactly what you did at Marchesi’s Bar and Grill.”

“I worked the kitchen, slicing meat, making sandwiches, cleaning dishes. I set tables, took orders, served brunch. Then I swept so the next shift wouldn’t have to.”

“So you sliced meat.” It was an illegal job activity for someone Jon’s age. “Did you serve alcohol?”

“Not on that shift,” said Jon. “I did whatever I was told that day. The head cook, his name was Hawg, made sure I got breaks and had food to eat. Rat Snatcher took me under his wing.”

Balmario said, “Rat Snatcher, tell me about him.”

“Is he a suspect in one of your open cases?”

“No.”

“It was weird. Dad?”

“Go on.” It was the first time Jack spoke up.

Jon said, “It was like he was sent there to watch over me. At the MMA meet that night, Charlie was serving food and drinks. Snatcher was a bouncer or something. Whenever Alles gave me trouble, Snatcher pulled me out of it.”

“Alles? Allessandro Santorini?” said Balmario.

“Yes. Rat sent me home that night because I spilled drinks on one of the patrons, and Alles was already on my case. He gave me a hundred dollars and told me to run back to the bar. I was supposed to wait for him there.”

“Who gave you a hundred dollars?”

“Rat Snatcher. He gave me ten more for food. He said the money was for Charlie. Then he told me to run back to the bar and made me follow the man whose suit I ruined with the drinks. I followed him out the door. He tried to pick me up for a ride, but I told him no and ran instead.”

“Let me ask you something,” said Balmario. “Did you know what the hundred was for?”

“I didn’t then, but I do now.” Jon paused.

“Go on.”

“I followed the man so that everyone would think I had picked up some work.”

“What kind of work?”

Jon gazed at his father. Balmario could see the wheels turning. What was he leaving out of his story because his father was sitting next to him? Then, Jon’s resolve kicked in, and his eyes lit with fire behind them.

“Rat wanted everyone to think I was going to have sex with that man.” Then his eyes filled with tears. Shit.

Balmario said, “Let me recap this. You worked two shifts for Marchesi that day. One at the Bar and Grill, the other at an MMA meet where Marchesi’s Bar and Grill provided food and drink. Part of the expectations were that you make yourself available for sex. Did you know that when you agreed to the second shift?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you know that sexual favors might be expected of you?”

“No, but Rat was weird about it.”

“He was weird about it?”

“Yes. He told me to keep my head down, and to avoid talking to the patrons.”

Balmario nodded. Maybe Rat Snatcher was trying to keep this kid safe. “What else did you do? Did you serve food? Drink?”

“I was serving drinks.”

“Was alcohol being offered?”

“Yes.”

“Did you serve it?”

“Yes.” Jon wiped tears from his eyes.

“You spilled drinks on a man and then were expected to follow him and offer sexual services.”

“Yes, no. No. I was supposed to pretend to offer them.”

“If you had to pretend, I am assuming that if you left the meet for any other reason, you would have been in trouble?”

“I guess.” Jon shrugged.

“Were you bullied by these people?”

“I don’t know.”

Jack rolled his eyes, sat back into his chair, and crossed his arms.

If Balmario could throw darts with his eyes, he’d do it now. “Let me put it this way. Was your life in danger?”

“I don’t know.” Jon shrugged. “I didn’t want to be put into a cage.”

“A cage?”

“It’s a thing I saw.”

“I want to know more about these cages,” said Marcus Balmario.

“I saw men in cages, fighters. I was told not to look at them. I know Rat didn’t want to get thrown into one. He said if I was thrown into a cage, people would gladly pay to see me fight and die. Then, he told me to leave. I was supposed to run back to Marchesi’s, and to wait for him there. He gave me the money so I could pretend I had a reason to get out of there.”

Dammit. Balmario and the Vice team had been trying to break into one of these illegal MMA meets for months. They never met in the same place twice. He and his team were still unclear about the method of invitation to one of these things. If Rat Snatcher was part of the staff, the FBI had an in. Jon could have put their entire operation into jeopardy. He was sure that is why the Bureau pulled Snatcher, Evan Fischer, and Marchesi out from under their jurisdiction so quickly.

There was still the matter of under aged children working illegally. “Were there other children at the meet serving drinks and soliciting sex?”

“There were others. I don’t know if they were children.” Jon shuddered and he gasped as tears flooded his face

His father grabbed his hand. “Hey, hey.”

Balmario waited for it to pass.

Jon took his hand from his father’s and wiped his face on his sleeve. He took a couple of deep breaths. “There was another boy at the MMA meet. His name was Lincoln.” Jon hiccoughed. “Lincoln knew how to do the business. He flirted with the patrons. He told me I could make more money that way. He was surprised that Marchesi let me work the fight so quickly. Most of the others had to do grunt work first. That’s what Lincoln said.”

“Okay,” said Balmario.

Jack said, “But Rat didn’t want you participating in the secondary business of sex trafficking.”

“I figured that out the next day.”

Balmario said, “You stayed a second night at Marchesi’s?”

“Yes, uhm, no. My things did. I left my bag there, my letter jacket, but I was out all night. It took me a long time to run back to the bar from the warehouse. I was supposed to wait for Rat, but the boy upstairs called me up for a favor.”

Jon was shaking again. Balmario wondered how far he could push him before he broke down completely. Social Services was getting antsy, but the attorney was calm and attentive. Jack was a rock, and Maureen was madly making notes of her own. He said, “Let me recap this favor, because you have already told this story.”

Jon sniffed and nodded.

“Evan Fischer, purported son of Charlie Marchesi, aka Calogero Conti, had a liaison with Sobrina Morelli. She was pregnant and had asked for help with midwife fees. You were asked to run the money to the midwife. There you witnessed a birth. The baby was dead, at which point you took it, and ran away from the scene.”

Jon gasped. “She handed me the baby and told me to run. Someone was trying to break down her door.”

“You left the baby on the street.”

“In an alcove of a pharmacy. I left it somewhere safe, and it was dead.” Jon was clearly getting worked up.

Clearly hitting a touchy point, Balmario backed up. “This was during the meet, after the meet, on another day?”

“I ran from the meet, and Evan asked me as soon as I arrived back at Charlie’s. I ran to the midwife, and then I ran back towards the Bar and Grill. I got lost, I stopped. I put the baby down. I couldn’t pick it back up. It was dead. It was dead.”

Jon dissolved. Great, wracking sobs choked him. Balmario let the recorder run for ten more seconds, capturing his agony, and then clicked it off. “We’re going to take a ten minute break. Does he drink chocolate? I’m going to get him some.”

Maureen and Jack hovered over Jon as Balmario stepped out the door. Teen interviews were always messy, but this one was heartbreaking, not just because the boy was one of their own, but because in the short time he was in Detroit, his life view had been completely shattered. How was he still holding up his head? Poor kid had lived through enough traumas to be considered at risk for severe PTSD. He would spend a lifetime knitting broken pieces together.

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Interrogation

(Author’s Note: This is the first of the last four chapters of BROKEN. Thank you so much for following this story. It was important for me to write it, and I am grateful to the characters for agreeing to take part in it, but also to all of you for following their story. I will be taking a short hiatus after the end, and will start the blog again after the new year of 2021 starts. If you want to finish BROKEN quickly instead of reading week to week, follow this link. The chapter starts right after it.)

Interrogation

Inspector Marcus Balmario reached for the door to Jonathan Tyler’s room when he saw his father, Inspector Jackson Tyler get off the elevator and walk toward him. He had invited Jack to sit in as Jon’s attending parent while he interviewed him.

“Balmario,” said Jack.

“Tyler.” Balmario nodded. “How’s the ex and her new hubby?”

Jack cocked his head. “He’s hardly new. I suspect she had him lined up in the wings before she divorced me,” he said, but there was not a trace of bitterness in his voice. “However, they are settling into the hotel. Are we ready?”

“Still waiting on Social Services,” said Balmario.

The Social Services Recorder stepped off the elevator.

“I guess your wish is his command,” said Jack.

Balmario said, “Let’s get this over with.”

While Jack explained the proceedings to his son, Marcus set up a small table for the Recorder near the bed. When he finished, he said, “Is everybody ready?”

“I’m ready, Sir,” said the Recorder.

“How about the two of you?” said Balmario, catching Jack’s attention.

“Jon?” said Jack.

Jon nodded.

“I’ll ask questions for clarity, but mostly I just want to hear your story,” said Balmario.

Jon said, “Okay.”

“For the record, please state your name and age.”

“Jonathan Tyler, fifteen.”

Marcus said, “Let it be known that the subject, Jonathan Tyler, aged fifteen is considered a minor and therefore accompanied by a parent, Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler of the 12th Precinct, Detroit PD. Jon has suffered a brutal attack and has agreed to answer questions. Please confirm this is correct.”

Jon nodded.

“Use words, Jon,” said Jack.

“Yes, that is correct.”

“Jon, do you understand you have been arrested for three crimes: truancy, shoplifting, and prostitution?”

“Yes.”

“If, during the course of this interview, it is determined that you have broken laws, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. Do you understand?”

“I understand.”

“Who beat you, Jon and why?”

“I don’t know the name of the man.”

“Can you describe him?”

“He was tall, wore a plaid shirt. He wore boots. His face was angry.”

“Do you think you could describe him to an artist?”

“Maybe. I was scared.”

“How did you meet this man?”

“Uhm. He pulled up to the corner and grabbed me.”

“What corner was that, Jon?” said Balmario.

Jon shook his head.

“Words, Jon,” said his father.

“We were near the university. The guys I was with said – “

“There were others with you at the time you were beaten?”

“No, that’s not what I meant. I was working a corner with them, but they had left. That’s when the man drove up. He came after they left.”

Marcus paused a moment and regarded Jon. His gut told him that this kid was about to admit to a crime. Whether or not he was a teen and protected by Safe Harbor laws, there were still consequences, especially if he was there of his own free will. “Jon, it’s very important to be careful with details and the timeline. Do you understand?”

Jon avoided his eyes, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I don’t know.” 

If Balmario could have a penny for every teen that looked away while shrugging and saying ‘I don’t know’ to avoid answering a question that could possibly get them into trouble, he would be a rich man.

“Just tell me in your own words.”

He could always re-question Jon to clarify if necessary.

The Recorder said, “He pulled up to the corner and grabbed me. Start there.”

“He grabbed me. It hurt. He shoved me in his car and drove away.”

“Can you describe the car?”

“It was silver. I’m sure it was a CT6. My grandfather and I saw one at a show.”

“Let’s get back to what happened next.”

“I tried the doors, but they wouldn’t open. Neither would the windows. I was locked in. I told him I didn’t want to work for him, but he wouldn’t listen.”

Balmario glanced at Jack. It seemed that Jon was guilty of more than one prostitution charge.

Jack bowed his head.

Balmario said, “Go on.”

“He stopped at an auto body-shop.”

“Do you think you can identify it?”

“Maybe. I wasn’t thinking about it. It had lights across the ceiling. I saw them when we went inside. Another man came out of an office. I recognized him.”

“From where?”

“He was in an alley behind Marchesi’s Bar and Grill. The Morelli brothers had taken Alles, Charlie, and Evan as prisoners.”

“Please stop the recording.”

“Sir, I really can’t.”

“This interview may be over. Jon, sit tight a minute. Jack, and you,” he pointed to the Recorder, “hallway.”

Marcus shut the door behind them. “We should have counsel for this kid before we continue. If Morelli is involved in this, I want everything by the book.”

“Agreed,” said Jack.

“I don’t understand,” said the Recorder. “Isn’t this a simple child endangerment case?”

“Child endangerment, yes. Simple no,” said Balmario. “If the person that Jon claims was present, his testimony could be pertinent to at least two dozen open cases of human trafficking and homicide. At the very least, we should call Chief Thompson and Captain Jamison.”

Jack said, “Agreed.”

“The Recorder said, “I have another testimony to take in forty minutes.”

“We’ll have to get our own people in here to finish. Do you have some sort of paperwork I can sign that would exonerate you from derelict of duty and allow our tapes to be used for your purposes?”

“Sure. They’re in my briefcase.”

“Good. Jack, you get the papers, reassure your son. I’ll call Thompson and Jamison and the usual attorney that works for Vice. Maybe we can move a conference table in.” He pointed at Jon’s room.

The Recorder said, “I will have to notify the custodial parents.”

“Understood,” said Jack.

An hour and a half later, Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson said, “For the record, Jonathan Tyler, aged fifteen, is considered a minor and therefore accompanied by in situ parentis, Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler of the 12th Precinct, Detroit PD, and custodial parent, Meghan Bordeaux, Hartmann Law Firm, Stockton, California, and her husband, Mr. Phillip Bordeaux. In attendance are Inspector Marcus Balmario and Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson, both 12th Precinct, Detroit PD, and defense attorney, Mary Styfford.

“Jonathan is a victim of a brutal attack and has previously stated that he was grabbed from the corner of Forest Avenue and Mitchell by a man driving silver CT6. Said man was tall, wearing a plaid shirt and boots. Jonathan has given a description to the Precinct artist and a bolo has been issued. This man took Jon to an auto body shop, which Jon has yet to identify.

“Another man was at the body shop. Jon recognized him as a Morelli. Jonathan. Please verify that this is correct.”

“Yes.”

“You have to say, ‘That is correct,’” said the attorney.

“That is correct,” said Jon.

“Jon. I want you to tell us what happened after the man you identified as Morelli stepped out of the office.”

“He hit me. Then he stole my money and found my ID card.”

“Jon. Is this the man who stole my letter?”

Jon’s face colored. “That was other money. I had money stolen two times. God, is it illegal if someone just gives you money when you are sitting on the street?”

Maureen knew she’d be talking to this boy again. “Jon let’s get back to this story. Morelli stole money and took your ID. Then what happened?”

“He told the man in the plaid shirt to teach me a lesson.”

“What lesson was that?”

“He said I couldn’t work one of his corners.”

“Then what,” said Maureen.

“Then Morelli told him to throw my body into the dumpster so the garbage men would take it away.” Jon burst into tears. “First it was Lincoln, now me? How is that fair?”

“Lincoln?” said Maureen.

“He was my friend. He made it seem like I could earn a lot of money working….” Jon shut his mouth and looked at his lap.

Meghan was horrified if the expression on her face was any indication. Jack wasn’t too far behind her. She caught the eyes of both of them. “Jon, before we open too many cans of worms, if I showed you some pictures, could you pick out Morelli?”

“Yes, I think so.” He sniffed and wiped his nose with his hand.

“I’m going to get some pictures sent over. Then I want to hear about all the things you did, all the people you met, all the places you went while you’ve been in Detroit. Do you think you can do that?”

“Yes.”

“Balmario,” she said. 

“On it.” He quickly left the room.

Ten minutes later, he returned with a folder of mugshots which included any they had of Morelli brothers. He passed it to Maureen. She put it into Jon’s lap and said, “Take your time. Look at them one by one, and let me know if you recognize any of them.”

Jon looked at each of the five pictures one by one. He said, “No,” after the first two and turned them face down on the bed beside him. He stared at the third one for a long time and set it aside. He looked at a fourth and added it to the pile that was face down. He gasped when he saw the fifth. Emilio Morelli, the youngest brother in the Morelli triad. Then he picked the picture he’d placed to the side and said, I think he was at the confrontation behind Marchesi’s Bar and Grill, also.”

It was the oldest brother. “You know about that?”

“Yeah. Rat Snatcher and I were there, but Rat told me to run.”

“Why were you there?”

“We were going back to Charlie’s. We had just buried Lincoln.”

Meghan gasped, again. Jack reached for her.

“That sounds like something we want to talk about later. Right now, we are talking about the people who hurt you. Are you positive that this man…,” she held up the picture of Emilio Morelli, “was the one who ordered the lesson?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. For the record, Jonathan, were you afraid for your life?”

With tears streaming down his face, he said, “Yes.”

“Jonathan Tyler has identified Emilio Morelli as the man who ordered a beat-down to teach Jon a lesson. Jon has indicated it was a death threat.” Maureen clicked off the recorder. “You, young man.” She poked the bed beside him when she said, “You and I are going to record your whole story tomorrow. You read me?”

“Yes,” said Jon. He looked relieved.

She hoped she could find some peace for him, and perhaps his telling of his story would exonerate him from some of his crimes. For now, she decided she had enough information for warrants. She hoped someone would find the man in the plaid shirt. She’d like to give him a beat-down.

Featured

Lay It On The Table

Jonathan Tyler stared at the stark hospital room. Dear ol’ Dad sat in the chair at the end of his bed. His snoring reminded him of a cat. But, what was foremost in his mind was the day his father left him, the day he walked away without ever looking back. Jon’s ever-present anger rose, and his stomach churned. Why was he sleeping there? Why the hell didn’t he just go home?

The anger made the machine next to him beep a warning.

Jack woke and slowly straightened his back until he was upright in the chair. “Hey,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

It was a dumb question. He hated the concern in his father’s eyes, so he avoided them as best he could.

“Well, you will have to speak to someone, because officers will be here soon to get a statement from you. They want to know what happened.” Jack scratched his head. “I want to know what happened.”

Jon was pissed. “I want to know why you left.” It was difficult forcing his voice through his swollen lips, but he was pleased his voice was gravelly and deep. It made him sound tough.

“Whoa. Is that what this adventure of yours was about? Why didn’t you just ask me? Why go through all this?”

“You think I planned this?”

“I don’t know, Jon. Did you?” His father stood and paced toward the door.

A nurse bustled in to check on Jon.

Jack said, “I’m going to get some coffee. Can he have hot chocolate?”

The nurse said, “Yes.”

Jon leaned against the pillows and let the nurse fuss over him. Shame, guilt, he didn’t know what to call it, but he was sorry he snapped.

“Are you okay?” said the nurse. “Should I keep him out of here?”

“No.” He smiled at her. “I’m fine.”

“Your job is to rest,” she told him, and then she left.

Jack returned with coffee and hot chocolate. He handed Jon a one of the bananas he had brought with him. “A peace offering,” he said. He set Jon’s cup of chocolate on the bedside table next to him.

“Sorry,” Jon said.

“I’m sorry,” said Jack. “You were too young to understand, and when I tried to explain, I guess it seemed cowardly to do it in a letter.”

“The letter was stolen with my money. I didn’t come here on purpose. It just happened.”

“I’m listening,” said Jack.

Jon sipped his chocolate.

Jack said, “What happened?”

“I have no idea where to start.”

Jack said, “Why did you get on that bus?”

“I needed to get away from school, so I ran. When I saw the bus station, I went there because I was afraid I would get caught if I stayed on the street. People were staring at me like they knew I had run away. I stepped up to the counter and asked for the first city I could think of. Detroit.” He laughed, but his laugh turned into a cough when he struggled with the extra spit forming in his mouth. He struggled a moment then said,  “I’d already been to Sacramento. I didn’t want to go again.”

Jack looked at his hands. Jon couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He didn’t know this man. He had never known how to talk to him.

Jack said quietly, “Do you always carry enough money to buy a ticket as far away as Detroit?”

Jon had saved for months. If he was honest, he had started saving the day after his parents brought him home from Sacramento, the second time he had run away. He wasn’t running from them. They had worked hard to make him happy. It wasn’t their fault his life sucked. He stared at Jack.

Jack’s gaze didn’t falter. “Carrying money like that implies you planned to run.”

“Fine,” he said, a little more belligerently than he should have. “I planned to run away sometime, just not that day. Geez, I’ve been prepared to run away for a long time, but I didn’t know I was coming to Detroit. That part is true.”

“Fair enough,” said Jack. “Why did you run that day?”

“I was tired of the bullshit.” He looked up to see if his father was shocked.

His father said, “What bullshit?”

Jon shut his eyes. How could he admit that he didn’t have the cojones to stand up for himself at school.

“I know about the bullying,” said his father. “Rick told me.”

“He had no business telling you that.” His brother was such a perfect prick.

“Why didn’t you tell your mother, or Phillip?”

“What was I going to say to them? Hey, I’m a screw up because kids at school are picking on me. What could they do anyway? There isn’t anything that could stop it.”

“They could have talked to the principal,” said Jack.

“He doesn’t give a shit. No one does. It’s dog eat dog there. Always has been, always will be. That’s what Rick said.”

Jack said, “Is that why you ran that day?”

Jon arched away from him and stared at the curtains. What was he supposed to say? He was a total loser, a wimp who practically shit his pants every time one of those jocks threatened him. This man used to be his sun and his moon. Now he sat here as his judge. He said, “They took my only copy of Tom Sawyer, the one Hank bought for me. They threw it in the toilet. They tried to flush it. I was pissed.”

They took it. How many were there?” said Jack.

Did it matter how many there were? If there was only one, did it make a difference in how Dear ol’ Dad would see him? He said, “Five.”

“Five?”

“Shit,” yelled Jon. “Does it matter? It was one guy and another outside the restroom. The point is I was sick of the bullshit.”

“Let me see if I understand this. A bully tried to flush a treasured book down the toilet; you ran from campus, ended up at the bus station, and on a whim, boarded a bus to Detroit. Does that sum it up?”

“Yes.” He glared at his father defiantly. It seemed so monumentally stupid the way his father said it. Why couldn’t everyone just leave him the fuck alone?

To be a snot, he said, “Why did you leave?”

Jack sighed. “I don’t know how much your mother has told you about me.”

“I know you’re fucking crazy.”

Jack laughed.

“Is that why you left?” said Jon. 

“I left because your mother convinced me that my crazy was hurting you and Rick. By staying, I was ruining your lives. Leaving was the hardest thing I have ever done.”

Jon blurted, “I never got to play basketball with you and Rick. You never even turned around. I yelled your name, and you never once turned to say goodbye.”

Jack sat quietly, gazing at him.

“Don’t even look at me.”

Jack said softly, “Maybe we can fix that now.”

Could they? Would the play of a simple basketball game erase all the hurt he’d felt his whole damn life?

“How could somebody as crazy as you work for the police? How in hell did you solve a case like the Vampire Killer?”

“That crazy helped me solve the case.” Jack looked mystified, like he hardly believed the words he was saying.

“That’s the dumbest thing I have ever heard,” said Jon.

“Did your brother tell you about that case?”

“I saw it in a newspaper after I got here.”

Pain scrunched up Jack’s face. “We lived in San Francisco when the crazy started. I didn’t know how to handle it back then. I am still learning.

“The serial killer, known as The Vampire, was my last case. Huh. It ended just a few days ago. Geez. Anyway, I was one of the lead investigators. It was rough. The officer who helped you yesterday, he lost his partner. Two others were injured, including my partner, Tomio.

“Sometimes, I step into a world that isn’t in front of me. It’s like a vision, but all of my senses are involved, as if I am there. It’s as if I am living the experience of someone else, in that case, the killer.

“Something happened to you. I saw those garbage men throw rocks. I was there when the baby was born.”

The world stopped for Jon. Maybe his heart did too. He hesitated before he said, “I felt disembodied, as if it wasn’t me experiencing that. But I was.” He took a deep breath. “You were there,” he said.

“I was. The police are going to need details and names. It’s one of our open cases. I could verify certain things, but the process isn’t exact. I am not the person whose experience I am sharing. I couldn’t read your mind.”

Jon wiped a tear. Then he wiped another. Dammit. His eyes were flooding. “What happened to the baby?”

“It’s safe in the morgue. It was born dead. You didn’t cause anything to happen to it.”

Jon felt the world slip out from under him as he struggled to breathe. His heart lurched. A sob escaped. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I put it down, and I couldn’t pick it back up.”

Jack moved to the bed and sat.

Why was he such a blubbering fool?

Jack said softly, “Hey, come here.” Then he pulled Jon forward and snuggled him against his chest.

Jon caved then. He sobbed so hard, he couldn’t catch a breath.

Jack crooned softly, “Just breathe, just breathe,’ while he petted his hair.

When Jon could talk again, he said, “I don’t know why she handed the baby to me. Why did she do that?”

“I suspect she knew it was illegal to dump human remains in dumpsters unless wrapped properly. She only had the little baby blanket to put it in. I suppose she had her hands full with the girl and wanted to hand off the responsibility of the baby to someone else. You were there.”

 “I didn’t leave it in a dumpster.”

“I know. Balmario and my chief found it in the alcove of a pharmacy.”

Jon sniffed and wiped his face with his good hand. He didn’t want to leave the shelter of Jack’s embrace, but he didn’t want to be a baby, either, so he sat up and looked at his father.

“When I first met her, I thought she was the most gorgeous girl I had ever seen. Watching her like that….” Jon hiccoughed. “There was so much blood. Blood smells. I didn’t know that. I don’t ever want to do that to a woman.”

“You know why she struggled like that, don’t you?”

No, he didn’t.

“When they are born, babies add hormones that help the mother give birth. This baby wasn’t alive, so it couldn’t add those hormones. When everything goes right, the process looks like a beautiful dance. Jon, you and your mother danced beautifully together. I have never seen anything so wondrous in my life. You were beautiful.” Jack patted his arm. “You remember that.” Then he smiled. “I suspect you have a few more stories about your time in Detroit.”

Jon nodded.

“Save the rest for now.”

A nurse walked in with two breakfast trays. “Are you gentlemen hungry?” he said.

Hungry didn’t even begin to describe the hole in his gut.

Phillip and Meghan Bordeaux arrived at ten-thirty. Meghan looked exhausted, and Phillip looked lost. Jack shook Phillip’s hand and said, “You look like hell.”

Phillip said, “I could say the same of you.”

Jack huffed. “Meghan,” he turned to his ex-wife. “Beautiful as always.”

“Liar. Where’s Jon?”

“He’s upstairs. We need to talk first.”

Phillip said, “Whatever you have to say can wait, Jack. We’ve been worried sick. We just want to get him home.”

“Well, that’s one of the things we need to talk about. Let’s go upstairs. There’s a quiet room where we can talk before you see Jon.”

When they were in the elevator, Meghan said, “I just don’t know why he would do this.”

Phillip added, “We give him everything.”

Jack said, “Maybe I can clear things up for you.” He ushered them to the darkened, quiet room and shut the door. “We’ll have some privacy here for a few minutes.”

“So, get on with it. I want to see Jon,” snapped Meghan. The woman he remembered so vividly suddenly made herself visible.

“First of all, someone gave him a good beating. We are investigating. He’ll be questioned today about it. It will most likely interrupt your visit. Be prepared for that. His injuries will heal, but they’re bad. You need to prepare for that also. Don’t expect to take him out of here. Detroit PD arrested Jon for truancy, shoplifting, and prostitution.”

“What?” shouted Phillip.

Meghan’s eyes threw darts when she looked at him. “Michigan has Safe Harbor laws. You know he can’t be prosecuted for prostitution, so why are you even bringing it up.”

“I’m well aware of the law, Meghan, but when he was arrested, he was an unidentified person because of the brutal beating. The charge will need to be resolved. Also, Jon is a three-time runaway, and the court needs proof that his mistreatment wasn’t a direct result of our actions.”

“That’s insane,” said Phillip.

Meghan deflated. “I was expecting that. It just hurts to hear it.”

As a lawyer, Meghan would know the ins and outs of the law. Children’s welfare wasn’t her specialty, but after Jon ran away the second time, Jack was sure she had done her research.

Jack clapped his hands onto his knees and stood up. “Now you know. He’s hurting. I only heard a small portion of his story, because he only started talking this morning. I hope you have plans to stay. It’s going to be a while to get through the process.”

“I want to see my son,” said Meghan, cool as ice.

Jack led them down the hall to his son’s room. Jon was dozing again, but when they walked in, his eyes popped open. Meghan flew to his side and burst into tears. Mother and son grabbed each other and sobbed together.

Phillip walked to the other side of the bed. When he was close, Jon let go of his mother and reached for him. Phillip gathered him into his arms.

Jack watched them for a moment, a family huddled together, something he didn’t have. Meghan had clearly created a new life for his sons. He knocked lightly on the door.

Jon looked up. “I’ll be back later, Kiddo.”

Jon nodded.

Jack walked away to the sound of them sobbing. For the space of two breaths, he was in San Francisco, walking toward the front gate. Behind him, his littlest was sobbing, “Dada. I want my dada.”

(Author’s Note: Click the following link to find the entire story on Amazon.)

Featured

Broken

(Author’s Note: Use this link to find the e-book or paperback version to read the full story: https://www.amazon.com/Broken-AV-Singer/dp/B08JF5FR27/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=AV+Singer+Broken&qid=1601476392&sr=8-1)

Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson suspected she needed to be his strength, but she wasn’t prepared for what she found: Jackson Tyler in skivvies, socks on his feet, socks on his hands. His beard was two or three days old, his hair unkempt. He huddled on the floor in front of his couch rocking back and forth.

“The garbage men, the garbage men said,” he mumbled. “They said, the garbage men said.”

“What did they say Jack?” she said as if crooning to a frightened child.

“The garbage men told him he was trash. He was in the trash. The garbage men said.” Jack looked up at her. In a very clear, authoritative voice, he stated, “They threw rocks at him. They thought he was a vagrant. We have to do something about that.”

Then he caved in on himself and began rocking again. “The garbage men, he was in the trash. He was in the trash.”

Maureen sat on the couch near him.

He shied away from her, but he quit mumbling. After a few seconds, he quit rocking.

It was obvious he had been drinking. She wondered how that worked with the medications she was sure he took. Even so, she didn’t see evidence of abandoned bottles or glasses. Did he clean as he drank?

Was he cognizant enough to understand that the team had found Jon? Was it safe for his brutalized son to see him like this? If Jon was as badly beaten as Benny Brown indicated, would seeing his son throw Jack over an emotional and psychic cliff he couldn’t climb up again?

“Did you find him? Did you find him? He was in the trash,” said Jack. “Did you find him in the trash?”

It was better to stick with simple truth and then try to get Jack back on his feet. She contemplated calling Tomio Dubanowski, but he was dealing with his own shit right now and did not need to worry about his partner.

Slowly and quietly she said, “Yes, Jack. We found him. He is safe now.”

Jack sat up. “I want to see him.”

“I want that too, but you can’t go like this. What can I do to help?”

Jack rubbed his face with his socked hands. “I don’t know.”

Her thumb hovered over the keys on her phone. What would Tomio do? He seemed like a tough love kind of guy. She said, “Get up, take a shower, clean up that scruffy beard. Put on professional looking clothes.”

Jack started rocking. “Get up, get up, get up.”

Maureen, mother instincts on full alert, realized Jack wasn’t capable of retaining a string of commands at the moment. “Get up, Jack.”

He got up.

“Shower and shave,” she said.

“Shower and shave, shower and shave.” He walked to the bathroom mumbling shower and shave over and over. Then he shut the door.

She heard the water turn on.

She stood and went to his closet. All his work clothes were on the floor where he’d heaped them and too wrinkled for a professional presentation. She found a pair of jeans hanging next to a nice gray Henley. She had never seen him in a Henley. He probably looked good in it. It was fatherly, softer and more approachable than what she had first had in mind.

She pulled his trashed bed together and left the clothes on top of it. She hoped he would see them when he stepped out from the bathroom. 

She partially closed the bedroom door to give him some privacy. Then she went to his kitchen. It was spotless. The refrigerator was stocked and orderly. The carton of milk smelled fresh and was empty by half. Damn, had he been eating?  

She found sliced turkey, lettuce, and a tomato which she sliced, and made a sandwich. If he could stomach it, the food might settle his anxiety.

Jack joined her, shaved and dressed. He had shoes on. He was shaking like a leaf, but he seemed calm. “Is he okay?” he asked.

“He is safe, Jack. Eat this sandwich, and then we will go see him.”

“What aren’t you telling me, Maureen?”

He sounded like the Jack she knew, but she had only worked through an OCD attack with him on one other occasion. He needed to stay calm if she was going to take him to a hospital to see his broken son. “I know he has some injuries, but they are caring for him, and he is able to move around on his own. That much I know.”

“He’s a strong kid,” he said. Then he gobbled the sandwich.

Jack strode into the hospital ahead of Maureen then stopped abruptly. He didn’t seem to recognize who was approaching as Balmario stepped up to greet him. When Balmario reached out to shake his hand, for a moment, she worried Jack was going to recoil. Instead, he took Balmario’s offered hand and shook it.

“We found your son. I need to speak with you.” Balmario could have been less terse, she thought.  

“Not now, Balmario. I need to see my son.”

Balmario hesitated before he said, “We need to talk first.”

Jack was a statue. His eyes were distant as if his focus was on a scene that only he could see.

Marcus was visibly unnerved and looked to her for direction.

She nodded and mouthed, “Not here.”

Marcus said, “There is a private waiting room upstairs. The X-ray lab is there, and he is in a treatment room on the same floor. Let’s go there.”

As they stepped into the elevator, Jack’s eyes watered. He said, “He was thrown in the trash.”

Maureen stepped close and grabbed his elbow.

Jack said, “I went there, you know. I went to that alley. I couldn’t find him. They threw him in the trash, like garbage.” One tear rolled down his face.

Balmario looked at Maureen. She shook her head.

The waiting room was quiet, and the lights were low. Maureen was grateful for the sudden peace that enveloped them. Marcus sat across from Jack, but she sat next to him in case she needed to ground him with a touch. She had seen Tomio do it often. It was one of the reasons everyone thought they were a couple. 

Marcus took a deep breath. “Jonathan hasn’t said a word since we arrested him.”

“You arrested him?” said Jack. “He’s a runaway, not a criminal.”

“Well, Jack. That is one of the things I need to talk to you about.”

Jack stood. “I want to see my son.”

Maureen put a hand on his arm and said, “Jack, sit down, and let’s get the report first.”

It was the right thing to say. Jack sat, focused on Balmario, and said, “Get on with it.”

“Okay. We picked your son up at Walgreens for shoplifting.” Marcus took another deep breath. “But also for prostitution.”

Jack stood again. “Safe Harbor laws,” he barked.

“Yeah, we hope so,” said Marcus, alarmed at the reaction. “But we need all the facts first.”

Jack rubbed his face with his hands. Then he sat.

Marcus continued. “Someone beat the crap out of him. It isn’t pretty. The arresting officers did not recognize him. You won’t recognize him, Jack, but his fingerprints matched the ones we have on file. That boy is your son.”

“How bad?” said Jack.

“It’s bad. He’s broken,” said Marcus. “Social Services has called for a psych to evaluate his emotional state. You also need to know that Social Services won’t return him to his family until everyone is evaluated. That probably includes you. Is Tomio staying with you? It may include him.”

Jack looked at the ceiling.

Balmario said, “It’s a lot to process.”

Maureen said, “He’s alive, Jack.”

Jack sniffed and nodded. “I gotta get it together. I’m going to wash my face. I need to call Meghan, my ex-wife. I’ll be right back.” He strode to the door. When he got there, he turned and said, “Thank you Marcus. Thank you for watching out for my boy. Where’s the nearest restroom?”

Balmario nodded. “Across the hall,” he said.

Jack sat in a chair at the foot of the bed, watching Jon sleep. His nose had been set, his ribs taped. He wore a brace on his left wrist, another on his shoulder. He wore compression stockings. The doctor had told him that two vertebrae were cracked, but they would heal with rest. Internal organs were bruised. Jon’s body was a battleground, but Jack recognized him. He would have recognized his son without the warning. His dark eyelashes feathered against his cheek, and he had curled his arm, fisted his hand, and rested his chin against it, just as he had always done from the very beginning of his life. One foot stuck out from under the warming blankets. That was just like Jon.

When Jon was little, Jack woke him up with a little shake of his bare toes. He always said, “Hey, sunshine. Time to get up.” Jon’s eyes would pop open a second before he scrambled from under the covers and into Jack’s arms. They’d laugh together, and Jack would blow raspberries against his neck. He couldn’t imagine Jon doing that now, but he reached for the foot and gently tucked it back under the blankets. The touch forced memories of missed dinners and late nights after a long day of battling the streets of San Francisco, of sneaking in to watch his sons sleep.

Twice, a nurse came in and checked Jon’s IV. They were pumping him full of antibiotics and electrolytes. Jon had not moved once since Jack entered his room. He took comfort in the steady quiet rhythm of his breathing. 

He hadn’t been able to reach his ex-wife the first time he called. Meghan had answered the second time. She and Phillip had booked a flight to Detroit as soon as she heard his first message. They would arrive mid-morning. There was no need to leave Jon to pick them up. Phillip had reassured Jack that they would rent a car. Jack didn’t have the heart to tell them about Social Services. It was Jon’s third time running away from their home. The court would not allow him to live with them while he served time. If the court didn’t place him with Jack or a safe house in Detroit, his son was looking at an extended stay in a detention facility.

He lowered his elbows to his knees and cradled his head. How had Jon’s life turned into this nightmare?

His phone buzzed. Tomio.

Two days ago, Tomio’s medical team had moved him to a convalescent unit in the annex across the parking lot. Until the move, Jack had spent as much time as possible with him. 

Tomi’s text read, “How’s Jon?”

Jack texted, “Same.”

“How are you?” The real  question was, ‘How crazy are you?’

“Pulling it together.”

Tom quickly texted back, “You’ve got this.”

Jack wanted to write, “Love you,” but instead he wrote, “Quit worrying.”

Tom texted, “Bye.”

Jack stood and quietly stepped out of Jon’s room to call Tomio’s sister.

“Kimi, it’s Jack Tyler.”

“Jack, Tomio called me. I am relieved to hear that Jon is safe. I’m driving in with the kids. They are looking forward to seeing their uncle.”

“Good. I haven’t seen him for a couple of days and was feeling guilty.”

“Take care of your son, Jack.”

“I will. Thanks, Kimi.”

He stepped back into the room. Jon’s eyes were open. “Hey, kiddo,” said Jack.

Jon turned his face toward the window, avoiding Jack’s gaze.

“I’m not going to grill you, although I have a ton of questions. I’m just glad you’re safe now.” Jack pulled the chair a little closer to the head of the bed and sat.

Jon looked at him but didn’t say anything.

“Someone worked you over pretty bad,” said Jack, surveying the multiple colored injuries on Jon’s face.

Jon squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head. He lifted his uninjured hand to the railing and curled his fingers around it.

Jack gently laid his hand over them.

Immediately, Jon uncurled his fingers and pulled his hand out from under his father’s touch. Then he turned his face away again and stared at the curtains.

“That’s okay,” said Jack. “That’s okay.” He stood and lifted the chair to the foot of the bed. For now, he could give his son space. However, he planned to stay and informed the nursing staff that he would be spending the night with his son. Then he settled in the chair and dozed while Jon slept. 

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Busted

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Busted

A biting cold wind whipped around the corner of East Jefferson and Mt. Elliot. The boy wrapped his arms more tightly around his ribs. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, trying to ignore cramps that had taken up residence in the muscles of his hips and legs. He stared at the Walgreens building across the street.

People pointedly avoided him as they stepped around his position. He was aware of it, but didn’t have the energy to stare at them. Nor did he have the desire. Dead people didn’t interact with the living, so why should he pay them any mind?

How long had it been? He wasn’t sure how many times night had fallen, how many mornings had come, and how many yesterdays there were. 

The pedestrian light changed and people brushed past him to cross the avenue. It took him a moment to remember how to move his feet. Halfway across, the yellow warning started. He was not able to move as fast as it suggested. He was still a car’s length from the curb when the light flashed, “Wait.”

He stopped.

A driver honked.

He looked up. Was the driver looking for a boy?

The driver hit the dash with his hand, and thrust his middle finger into the air. He honked his horn two more times and revved his engine.

The boy put one foot in front of the other. It was the best he could do.  

When he reached the sidewalk, the man honked again. His tires squealed as he peeled away.

The boy stumbled onto the curb and lurched toward the Walgreens building. He hesitated at the door. Was this the best choice? He had heard that there was a man here who always wore a cobalt tie on the days he was looking for someone. He paid really well, but he would probably want more than a hand job. Soul sapped by the stress of life on the streets, and a beating he had survived, he would probably do whatever the man asked.

He shouldered the door and kept his head down. Edging toward the left row of shelves, he glanced quickly at the cashier’s counter to see if the person there noticed him. She was staring off into space, seemingly unaware of anyone. As fast as he could manage, he hid behind the first shelf, just out of her sight.

His heart was in his throat. God, this was a stupid idea. He could slip out again and take his chances on the avenue.

“Can I help you?” said a man to his right. He was dressed in a hoodie with a ripped front pocket; his jeans had big holes at the knees and rode low on his hips. His runners were impressive and did not match the rest of his outfit.

“Can you see me?” said the boy.

“Are you high on something?” said the man in the hoodie.

“Do you work here?” said the boy. He was looking for the man in the cobalt tie.

“Sure,” said the man. He was not wearing a nametag.

The boy shook his head and backed away from him. He turned and headed toward the back of the store. When he glanced back toward the man in the hoodie, he was playing with his phone. Perhaps aware that someone was observing, he looked up and caught the boy’s eye.

Shit, shit, shit. This was a stupid idea.

On the shelf in front of him was a display of Nabisco’s Fig Newtons. His stomach suddenly cramped with hunger. Did dead men feel hunger? He hesitated a moment trying to remember why he had come into the store. It must have been for food. He grabbed a package and ripped it open.

The man in the hoodie moved closer. He stood quietly in the aisle perusing shaving supplies. When he looked up, he caught the boy’s eyes. Once again, he smiled. 

Mouth full of fig cakes, the boy moved farther into the store. The pharmacy area was empty. Beyond that was a section filled with fishing gear. He stuffed one more fig cake into his mouth and shoved the partially emptied package into his pants. Then he covered it with his shirt and went toward the fishing supplies.

From behind him, someone said, “Excuse me.”

The boy looked up. A thin man in a silver suit with a crooked cobalt tie leaned against the counter of the pharmacy, arms crossed, staring at him.

Oh, yeah. He was looking for a man with a tie.

“Did you pay for that?” The man with the tie spoke quietly.

“Pay for what?” said the boy.

“The Fig Newtons,” said the man. He uncrossed his arms and disappeared for a second. Then he came through a door labeled ‘Employees Only.’ He stepped close. He carefully skimmed his hand over the boy’s torso to the hem of his shirt. Then he pulled it up. “These,” he said. “Have you paid for them?”

“N, n, not yet,” the boy stammered.

“I see.” said the man. “I can help you with that.” As he said it, he lowered the boy’s shirt, letting his fingers gently skim the bruised skin beneath it. “I can help with those, too.”

The boy backed up one step, but the man reached out and wrapped his long, graceful fingers around his wrist. He pulled the boy close enough to whisper, “I pay very well.”

The boy shivered as the man placed a foot in the space between his feet and scooted his knee up his thigh. His cobalt tie tickled his arm where it brushed against it. He leaned into the boy and nipped his ear.

The boy shrank from the touch, but he didn’t step away. He needed food. He needed a warm place to stay. He needed someplace safe where he didn’t have to keep watch for predators.

Behind the man in the cobalt tie, the man in the hoodie stepped into view. “Detroit Police,” he said, flashing a badge that had been hidden under his sweatshirt.

The boy pulled away from the man in the silver suit and tried to run, but he tripped. While he was down, the man in the hoodie cuffed the man in the silver suit. “You two are under arrest for solicitation and prostitution.”

Another man, dressed in uniform, pulled the boy off the floor. He sneered at his face and said, “You like it rough, huh?”

The man in the silver suit swooned.

“Shit,” said the officer in the hoodie. He slapped the suited man’s cheek until he got a reaction.

The uniformed officer patted down the boy and found the Fig Newtons. “Looks like we’re charging you with shoplifting as well,” he said, jerking on the zip ties around the boy’s wrists.

“Hey, careful with that one,” said the officer in the hoodie. “He may be a minor.”

“Well, wouldn’t that be dandy for you,” said the uniformed officer to the boy, but he was gentle as he hauled him out of the store and into the back of his squad car.

Marcus Balmario sat at the counter mulling over the cases he and Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson were working. It was something to do while he waited for the two squads bringing in the prostitution and solicitation cases. The first was a younger man, the second, from his description, was none other than Rodney Heathe. Marcus had a gut feeling that no matter what happened in the next nine hours, today was a win if they could slam cell doors on that man.

Benny Brown strode in dressed in his favorite hoodie, the one he wore undercover all the time. It was a miracle the crooks in Detroit didn’t recognize him by now. He had with him a dapper man dressed in a silver suit accented with a cobalt tie.

“Well, well, well,” said Marcus. “Mr. Heathe. Here you are again.”

Benny said, “We may have a child prostitution case on our hands. Smith is worried about bringing the other one in here. He’s wondering if he should just head over to the hospital.”

Marcus stepped up to Heathe and looked him up and down. He smiled. “Book him.” Then he strode out the door to check on the other detainee.

The uniformed officer was leaning against the roof of his cruiser with one arm. With the other hand, he held the back passenger door open, leaning in toward the person in his backseat cage. He looked up and nodded to Marcus when he stepped out of the building. Then he said, “This one was trembling when I cuffed his hands behind him, sir. Now he’s shaking down to his bones and breathing funny. I’m worried.”

Balmario took his place at the open door and looked at the passenger. His face was a battleground. His gut told him he was looking at a child if fifteen – maybe sixteen years old. “What’s your name, son,” he said softly.

The boy lifted his head, but he was too shaky to look directly at him.

“Are you on something?” said Balmario.

The boy shook his head no and lowered his gaze to his lap.

Balmario ducked into the back seat and propped himself on a knee to get low enough to catch his young prisoner’s eyes. “What’s your name?”

The boy hiccoughed, trying to catch his breath.

Balmario backed out of the vehicle and said, “Get a camera and a fingerprint kit. We’ll start booking here and finish at the hospital. His face looks like someone used him as a punching bag.”

The boy shuddered.

“I know, son. We’re going to take a couple of pictures and get your prints. Then we’ll go to the hospital, probably take more pictures when we clean you up. I want to have a doctor look at those contusions on your face.”

The next breath that the boy took was a sob. Marcus patted his knee.

The boy flinched.

Balmario uttered quietly, “Damn.” Then he backed off and reassured the boy. “We’ll be quick about it.”

Twenty minutes later, Balmario told his officer, “I’ll drive him. You get on those fingerprints. I want to know if this one is in the system as soon as possible.” He was getting a hunch about this boy. The hair color and height matched the description, but he didn’t want to sound the alarm until he knew if he was right, and the boy had no ID and wasn’t speaking to him.

In the hospital, Marcus Balmario stayed with him as witness for the exams but also for comfort. The boy stared into an abyss, shivering while a photographer recorded his injuries. Balmario had never seen such deep contusions. How was this kid alive? He bagged the boy’s clothes. Then he tied his hospital gown so he was fully covered, and helped him sit on the exam table. 

A male nurse from Special Services stepped into the room. “I am here for the forensics exam.”

The boy looked at Balmario with big eyes, eyes that said, “I’ve been through enough already. Can’t you stop this?” His shivering intensified.

Balmario shook his head. “It’s protocol. I will be just outside the door.

When done, the Special Services nurse joined Balmario in the hall. He said, “I see no indication that he has been raped. I took samples anyway. He wouldn’t tell me who beat him or why. He didn’t say anything at all. He just stared at me with those big, sad eyes. I’ll set up Protective Services. Do we know who he is?”

“I’m waiting on fingerprints.”

“Okay. Well, that one cannot go back to his family until we clear them.”

“You’ve seen the FBI BOLO about Inspector Tyler’s son?”

“The runaway? You think that’s who this is?”

Balmario put his hands up. “I hope to God not, but word cannot get out about any of it. We have this kid’s solicitor in booking right now. Jackson Tyler cannot get wind of this until I can confirm my hunch.”

“Keep me in the loop.” He handed Balmario his card.

“I will.” Balmario handed the nurse his.

Balmario opened the door for a second nurse who was entering to start IV’s. He asked her, “Are you testing for drugs?”

She said, “Yes. We are following all the protocols. We’ll be taking him to get X-rays as soon as we have him set up. Has his family been notified? We’ll need signatures.”

“Family has not been determined yet. I’d like to stay with him if I may. Social Services will sign if necessary.”

“Of course.” She held the door with her back, letting him enter first.

While the boy was getting X-rays, Balmario’s phone buzzed. “Benny, what do ya’ got?”

“It’s what you got, man. Jonathan Tyler.”

“Shit,” said Marcus. “Has Tyler been notified?”

“Chief’s on her way to pick him up. No way we’re letting him in here with Heathe.”

“If it’s any consolation, Jon wasn’t raped.”

“Well, that’s one bit of good news then. I’ll pass the word.”

Marcus rubbed his forehead. “ETA on Tyler?”

“Twenty, at most, I’d say. Chief Thompson flew out of here.”

“Got it. I’ll keep an eye.”

“Good. See ya,” said Benny.

“Yeah,” said Balmario. He walked up to Registration and flashed his badge to move forward to the counter. “Anyway I can get word to the folks inside with the boy I brought in?”

“Sure.”

“Tell them his name is Jon Tyler, and his father is on his way.”

“Got it.” She finished scrawling the information.

“How long will he be in there?”

“I don’t know.”

“I am going to go to the main reception area to wait for his father. Please have them call me as soon as he is done in there.” He handed over his card.

“I will.”

“Thank you.”

Balmario hoped to meet Jack at the door and fill him in before he saw his brutalized son. He sure as hell would want some warning if the kid was his.

Featured

Lessons

(Author’s Note: Reading about life on the street is not for the faint or heart. You have been duly warned.)

Lessons

Jackson Tyler often woke disoriented and unsure of reality. It’s just the way his life was. Sometimes his mind focused on reality, sometimes it focused elsewhere. Right now, it was elsewhere. He suspected his host was his son, Jonathan; that this weird dreamscape superimposing the breakfast in front of him was Jon’s actual landscape: dark alleys, hulking dumpsters, street people, and last night a sexual encounter he prayed was his own fantasy about his partner overlaid onto the worry about his son. His right hand still tingled as if he had done the deed himself.

With that hand, he dipped a piece of toast in his second cup of coffee. His phone buzzed in the distance. He threw the toast onto the table and ran to get it from the bedside table where he’d left it. He missed the call, but a text buzzed through. It was from Maureen.

Officers pursued teen. Pulled prints. Matched Jon. Presumed alive & hiding in the city. Alive, Jack.

He punched in her number.

She answered, “Thompson.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“We have people on the street actively looking. Jack, we’ll find him. Keep your phone with you.”

“Thank you,” he said, again.

She clicked off.

Jon grabbed food from a breakfast bar on the Riverwalk. He had money left for a thrift shop purchase. He needed a jacket. He stayed in shadows when he could, dipped into alcoves to watch traffic, and tried to stay alert. Running into a Morelli was a death sentence. Relief washed over him when he stepped through the door of the thrift shop with its jumbled shelves and friendly looking people. He found a jacket right away that fit him. He also bought a knit hat that could fold down over his ears at night. An older woman found a fifty-cent sale on a pair of mittens for him that coincidently matched the hat.

After his purchases, he still had enough money for snacks, but he needed more for a good meal. He couldn’t take a chance at any of the soup kitchens, because his picture was plastered on the walls.

However, what he needed to do to earn money didn’t seem like a daylight activity. So, he wandered for the rest of the day, sticking to shadows and studying people. Lincoln came often to his mind. He spoke as if offering sexual favors was an ideal way to make money. Jon wished he were here so he could learn more from him. His death was a heavy weight to bear. Jon had no illusions about how he died. It wasn’t from a heart attack. The simple fact was that he died from the punishment for skimming money. Jon had no desire to go the same way, face down on the filthy cement with his hole reamed by a dozen brutal men. Lincoln’s problem was that he worked for a pimp. Jon planned to be his own man. All he had to do now was to figure out where sex workers plied their trade when the sun set.

By the time the sun went down, the only people Jon passed were a couple of panhandlers. Where did people congregate to solicit sex? There had to be a district somewhere that folks felt safe enough to advertise their talents.

His wanderings took him back to the soup kitchen where he’d first discovered that the FBI had plastered posters with his face all over the walls inside and out. By chance, he saw the group of three colorfully dressed people that had stood behind him in line yesterday. They were going in to the building, presumably for dinner. He waited outside for them to leave the kitchen, then, quietly followed them.

After traversing one block, the tallest, a young man dressed in flowing silk tie-dye turned and said to him, “Are you following us Young Warrior?”

Jon froze.

The young man laughed. “We have ourselves a shadow,” he said to his fellow walkers.

The other two turned as one and smiled at him. A short, stocky boy with a wolfish grin said, “I remember you. You stood in front of us in line yesterday.”

Jon took a step toward them and stopped.

“So, come on,” said the first young man. “You might as well hang for now. It’s pretty clear you don’t have a damn clue what you are about.” He introduced himself as Sparkle.

The one that grinned was aptly named Smiley, and the other was Girlie, though Jon couldn’t decide whether Girlie was male or female. Jon introduced himself as Sawyer, because by now he was used to responding to it.

Jon told them about his experience the night before and the twenty dollars he had made.

“Damn, girl,” said Girlie, which may have been why he or she was so named. “That’s a lot. Most I ever made was twelve, and that was because the guy gave me a twenty percent tip.”

Jon asked, “Do you work for yourselves or for someone?”

“No one works for themselves, gorgeous,” said Smiley.

Jon told them Lincoln’s story and why he wanted to. Sparkle sniveled and tears ran down his face. “Poor Lincoln. We all hoped he’d be okay when Charlie snapped him up. But then, Alles Santorini came along, and we worried. Rightly so, I guess,” he said with a sob.

“I don’t know if any of them are alive. Rat Snatcher told me to run, and I did. I heard gunshots, but I…I just don’t know.”

“Rat Snatcher watched out for you,” crooned Smiley. He reached out and fingered a lock of hair that was peeking from under Jon’s knit cap. He smoothed it behind Jon’s ear. “Well, you need to learn the trade, then,” he said. “You hang with us, tonight.”

“Are you sure?” said Jon.

“Absolutely,” they chorused.

“A friend of Lincoln’s is a friend of ours,” said Sparkle.

The three friends had a car. They drove north to the University and then turned east, explaining that Downtown was too heavily policed to ply the trade there anymore. They had better luck here, where the lines between city and suburbia were fuzzy. After a couple of hours, Jon wondered where he got the idea that he could make a sizable amount of money doing this? As soon as he thought it, he earned ten dollars for a quick ‘handy.’ Ten dollars wasn’t bad for a few minutes of effort.

Sparkle threw him at two women who wanted to finger each other while watching him jerk off. He earned ten dollars from each of them and had the thrill of his life. He smiled at his money and stuffed it into his wallet. He now had thirty dollars, which seemed like a lot considering that physical effort was minimal and pleasurable.

The trio then decided to move on, and because Jon was having luck with that corner, they wished him luck and left to pursue their business elsewhere. His business as a self-employed man slowed down. It was possible that a corner was good for only a couple of tricks. Maybe this was part of the lesson he had to learn. The others had each worked a couple of johns and then moved on. All totaled, that was quite a lot of business for that one corner. Besides, in his opinion, three was already a crowd. They had graciously added him as a fourth. He didn’t blame them for leaving.

He was about to give up. Thirty dollars would get him through tomorrow. As he stepped away from the corner, a silver CT-6 rolled up and parked in front of him. Jon was a half inch shy of six feet tall, but the man who got out of the black sedan was taller by at least two inches. Wearing a plaid button down and jeans, he grabbed Jon’s upper arm with a grip of iron.

“Ow,” said Jon.

“Shut up, bitch,” said the man. He threw Jon into the back seat of the sedan. 

Jon tried the door. Childproof locks prevented him from opening it.

The man sat behind the wheel and slammed the front door. As he engaged the engine, Jon jerked the back door again. The man glared at him in the mirror as he gunned the engine and pulled away from the curb.

Jon trembled in the back seat with eyes wide open, watching the city roll past. “Where are you taking me?” he asked, in a voice that was not as deep or mature as he would have liked.

“You’ll see when we get there,” said the man.

The tone in the man’s voice set off louder warning bells. “What will we be doing?”

“You’ll see soon enough.”

Terror crawled into Jon’s throat. His voice cracked when he screamed, “Let me out. I don’t want to work for you.”

“You ain’t got a choice, bitch.”

Jon jerked the handle on the back door, even though he knew the safety lock was engaged. He tried opening the window, but it was inoperable as well.

Just when his panic was big enough for him to jump into the front seat and take his chances with the driver, the man pulled into a lot in front of a small auto body shop.

Jon prepared to run as soon as the door opened.

The man got out of his seat and slammed the front door in one fluid motion. When he opened the back door, he must have been ready for Jon’s reaction, because as Jon flew out the door, the man grabbed and jerked his left arm. A shout of pain ripped from his throat and then he fell hard onto his butt in front of the man’s boots. The man hauled Jon to his feet and marched him into the garage, which surprisingly didn’t have any cars in it even though it was lit with flood lights across the ceiling.

A man who was taller than the one that had a vice grip on his arm, stepped out of the office. He seemed familiar, and Jon’s memory flashed on the confrontation he’d witnessed between Marchesi and the Morelli brothers. He couldn’t help gasping.

“Who’s the tough guy, now?” sneered the taller man. “You think you can work one of my corners for free?”

“What?” Jon gulped. “What are you talking about?”

The man swung his hand, using the force of his entire arm to backhand Jon’s face.

Jon flew, landing flat against the filthy garage floor.

“I don’t take kindly to fresh meat comin’ in here thinkin’ they can take over my territory. You owe me.”

“What are you saying?” Jon didn’t want to snivel, but that’s how the question flowed past his lips. In his mind, Alles was shaking his head and saying, “Topino. What did you get yourself into?”

Alles was dead. This man and his brother killed him. They probably killed Charlie and Evan, too. For all Jon knew, Rat Snatcher and Hawg were dead as well, and now he was going to join them. They’d find his body in the river, and his father would be told. He would probably have to identify him. Would Jack be sad?

“Check him for money,” the man said to the driver.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Morelli,” said the man in the plaid shirt.

Morelli. The man in plaid confirmed his worst fear. Jon lay on the cement, unresponsive as the man in plaid emptied his pockets. He found Jon’s wallet and threw it at Morelli.

Morelli took the money. Then he said, “What have we here?” He had found Jon’s ID. “Says here, you go to school in Stockton, California.” He kicked Jon’s hip viciously. The toe of his boot was sharp, and Jon barely heard him say, “You ain’t in Stockton no more,” because the sudden pain took all his attention.

“Auntie Em, Auntie Em,” chided the man in the plaid shirt.

“Teach him a lesson, then throw him in the garbage. A truck will pick up the body for us in the morning.”

So, he was dead. Would his parents, all three of them, miss him when he was gone? Jon looked out the door, calculating his chance to make one last, mad dash for it. A short, stocky kid leaned against the sill. When he noticed Jon staring at him, he grinned. His big, toothy smile gleamed in the glare of the flood lights. Smiley.

The driver grabbed Jon’s aching arm and dragged him toward a door at the back of the garage. Jon scrabbled to get his feet under him, but the man’s strides were swift and long. His spine scraped against the cement, and a flare of burning pain made him woozy. The best he could do was a one-legged kick against the floor, which lifted his body long enough for cool air to sooth his raw skin each time he managed it. The relief from the burn helped him focus. 

Outside the man dropped him.

Jon pushed himself up against the wall. He faced the man and crouched into first position, ready for whatever the man threw at him. He didn’t expect the strike from above as the man jumped up and came down double fisted on his left shoulder. Jon crumpled to the ground.

The man hauled him up and slammed him against the wall. Then the punches kept striking, one after the other until Jon could no longer catch his breath without sniffing blood into his sinuses. The man didn’t stop. He pounded Jon’s ribs and stomach until he couldn’t catch his breath. When Jon fell to the ground, the man savagely kicked him repeatedly.

Barely conscious, Jon was aware of flopping over the man’s shoulder. He could see sidewalk flow past as one foot and then the other heeled into view. The surface of his boot was weirdly reflective, and one drop of blood splattered onto it as the foot passed beneath Jon’s face. Then his vision blacked out.

He was aware of falling, of hitting cardboard, empty cans, and something wet and squishy. Rubber slammed against metal. There was sudden, muffled quiet. He was thankful when he heard the man walk away.

Jon lay in the dark on a bed of trash, wondering if consciousness continued after death. He didn’t believe so before now, but he didn’t see how he could have survived that beating. Time passed. Jon slept and woke, and then slept again.

Beep, beep, beep. The vibrations of a large garbage truck roused him. Beep, beep, beep. The signal was infinitesimally louder with each beep. He needed to sit up. More than that, he needed to climb out of this dark cave.

He felt more than heard the claws bump against the dumpster. It was enough to galvanize his resolve. If he was going to live, he had to leave, now. He pushed on the lid and grabbed the edge of the dumpster. With sudden strength, he pulled and slid through the opening between lid and lip. He fell onto dirt as the great truck lifted the big, metal canister over a gaping maw in its side and shook it.

He limped away from the truck and the dumpster, but not fast enough to avoid the earthquake under his feet when the truck dropped the heavy can back onto the ground. Not fast enough to avoid the small pebbles thrown at him by the truck operator as he hollered, “Get the hell outta here, you filthy vagrant.”

He stopped on the corner, clutching his ribs and peering at the city around him. He had no idea where he was. There was a vacant lot across the street, though, with a small scraggly tree. He stumbled across the pavement, over the sidewalk, and into the empty lot. He sank to the ground. It was all he was capable of for now.

Featured

Trial and Error

(Author’s Note: Warning, warning. Strong sexual content. Do not read if that offends you. You can contact me with a note at the bottom of this blog to get a synopsis, if you want to avoid graphic content.)

Jack gazed out the window in Emilia Rodriguez’s apartment. She was another casualty of this weird, convoluted convergence of cases. Emilia, stressed to near hysteria on the night of the miscarriage and involved with factions addicted to vengeance, undoubtedly suspected that the birth would be fatal. Had she guessed that it would kill the mother also? Had she suspected her own demise? Is that why she chased Sawyer out the window with the evidence? Was she convinced that the people knocking might kill him as well? He couldn’t help wondering what it would feel like to experience someone else’s death as if it was his own.

He shook the dream from his mind. He didn’t question the Morellis’ involvement. There was just no proof. Even if the DNA from hair follicles tied mother to baby, there was no proof that she was a Morelli. There was only his story, and that was nothing substantial. There was no case. As usual. What the hell good was he?

CSI had found multiple fingerprints on the window. There was enough detail for a clear comparison. He had called his ex-wife for copies of his son’s prints, made with a kit she ordered from the National Child ID program that she had stuck in his keepsake book. She had sent them within minutes. It was just a matter of time now as AIFIS compared the prints to a national database, and the shop techs compared them to the ones Jonathan’s mother had sent.

CSI technicians were packing up their equipment. There was nothing more they could do in Emilia’s flat.

The young tech he was working with said, “Sir, would you like to talk about it?”

He turned his attention from the window and directed at her. What could he say that would not sound completely insane?

Her phone buzzed. She listened a moment, nodding and mumbling affirmative. Then, she hung up. Her jaw was clenched, her fingers fisted and then relaxed.

He said, “No match?”

“Not on AIFIS, sir. But, the prints your wife sent….”

Jack’s knees folded, and he sat hard onto the bed. It bounced a couple of times.

She said, “Sir?”

He stared at the floor, but in reality, he saw nothing. The strings in his heart, the strong cords that bound him to the people he loved, tangled and twisted into a hard knot that was difficult to breathe around. “Jonathan, Jonathan. What the hell have you done?”

Jonathan wandered most of the day, staying close to buildings to take advantage of shadows. As the sun fell, he stopped across the street from Wahlburgers. Two people were panhandling next to it. He sat in the shadow and watched as they begged for money. One person stopped to throw a couple of bills at the first person. The second he ignored, just like the rest of the people who scuttled past, avoiding the predicament as best they could. What a futile way to make money.

Two people walked past Jonathan on his side of the street. The second threw a fiver at his feet.

“Uh, sir? You dropped this?” he said.

“No, son, I didn’t. Go buy yourself a sandwich.” Then he walked on.

“Well,” said Jon, shocked. “Thank you,” he yelled after the man. In the next three minutes, two more people threw dollar bills at him. Each time it surprised him and each time he managed to croak out, “Thank you.”

After two more people walked past, an elderly woman with a big purse stopped in front of him. He prepared himself for a chastising.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

He automatically said, “Sawyer.”

“As in Tom? By Samuel Clemens?” she said.

He nodded.

“Then, I am sure that is not your real name, is it?”

He looked at her and smiled weakly.

She opened her big purse and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “There is a thrift shop two blocks from here.” She pointed behind her. “I just dropped off some old jackets. Buy yourself a coat, young man.” She walked on.

Jon stood and pulled his wallet from his back pocket. He carefully tucked the bills next to the three dollars he had left. He did need a coat. His was in the back of Rat’s van. Right now, though, he needed food. Wahlburgers looked like a safe place to eat, and it wasn’t crowded.

As he neared the restaurant, a man ran up behind him and pushed him into the wall. As the man twirled around him, Jon caught a glimpse of his wallet in the man’s hand. “Hey. Hey, that’s mine,” he shouted.

The man took off running. Jon ran after him.

The man dashed down a side street. As he passed a small, garbage bin, he threw Jon’s wallet into the air behind him. It landed on the lip of the bin and then fell into it. The man turned left at the end of the alley and was gone.

Jon peered over the rim. Thankfully, the bin was empty except for a sheaf of cardboard. His wallet lay open next to it. Jon leaned into the bin and retrieved it. His money and the letter from his father were gone. His ID was still in place.  

There was no point staying here. He slumped against the wall and covered his face in his hands. He really wanted to eat, but without money….

This adventure had been his choice. He wiped the tears from his eyes and looked around. He dusted off his pants and wandered to the back of the restaurant. The establishment had garbage bins locked behind a chain link fence. Who locked up garbage?  

He decided to sit in the shadow where he sat before, across the street. Maybe the evening crowd would throw money at him.  

No one stopped. He sighed. It was time to hunt for a food kitchen.

He headed toward the thrift shop, which seemed a likely place to connect with others needing a helping hand. He was right. Next to the thrift shop was a building marked St. John’s House of Rest. The doors weren’t open, but there was a small line of people against the wall waiting. He stood at the end of it. Three colorfully dressed people got into line behind him. They jostled each other and laughed. His ears perked up when he heard one of them say, “He paid fifty dollars just to get a stiffy. He didn’t want to take it all the way.”

“I’ve never heard of that,” said another one.

The people behind him reminded him of Lincoln. Eager to work the MMA meet, he promised it was worth it for the money. When he and Rat tended Lincoln’s body, Rat had confirmed there was a lot of money to be made working the ‘corners.’ At the meet, he had handed Jon a hundred dollar bill which Jon used to impress Marchesi. Jon’s story was that he hooked up with the man whose suit he ruined with spilled drinks. When he gave Marchesi the money, he claimed, “Blowjob.” Neither Charlie, Hawg, the cook, nor Rat batted an eye. A hundred dollars for a blowjob was unimaginable. Was it something he could do? He just didn’t roll that way. However, he couldn’t imagine doing a woman either.

What he could imagine was a hand job. As a freshman at Stagg High School, he had witnessed a couple of the football jocks at school giving each other a hand job. He was shocked, not by the act itself, but because they were touching each other. He and Rollo, his best friend back home, had whacked off together a couple of times, but sleeping bags covered them, and they didn’t touch each other, so he knew what to do. How much money he could get for that was the question. 

His ears perked up, but the conversation of the people behind him had moved on. One of their friends had signed up for business classes at Wayne County Community College. He snorted. He guessed business classes would be helpful in the ‘profession.’

As he sat down at a table to eat the warm meal handed him, he looked at the art on the wall. Most of it was poster work, inviting folks to this or that prayer meeting. One caught his eye. It was a picture of his face on an FBI flyer.

He crouched over his food and shoveled it in. It took him less than two minutes, by his reckoning, to wolf it down. When he returned his tray, he averted his eyes. He couldn’t fly out of there fast enough. To his horror, he noticed that there were flyers posted outside as well. Shit, shit, shit. Why didn’t he notice that before he walked inside?

He ducked into an alley and started walking. Discovering that he was close to the alley near the fountain, he hastened his speed, hoping that his place by the dumpster was free.

Before he got there, a car pulled up alongside him. He watched out of the corner of his eye as the passenger side window rolled down. Dressed in a button down shirt opened at the collar, the driver, a grey haired man who was leaning across the passenger seat,  said, “Hey, baby. Are you working tonight?”

Jon looked at him, and pointed to himself.

“Got twenty dollars for a quick hand job,” said the man.

Of course the universe would gift him. He had practically asked for it. “Sh-sh-sure,” said Jon.

The man leaned across the passenger seat and unlocked the door.

Was he going to do this? Twenty dollars could pay for a coat and another meal tomorrow. He jerked open the door and climbed in.

The man drove another block until he found a parking place protected from streetlights. He set his keys on the dash, pushed his seat back so he could stretch out, and slid open his zipper. “Pull it out,” he said to Jon.

Jon was sure his eyes betrayed his horror, but the man had leaned back and wasn’t watching him. Jon slipped his fingers into the pocket of the man’s whitey tighties and curled them around his floppy organ. He felt a flash of fear. The man was old. What if he broke it?

“Well, what are you waiting for?” said the man. “I’m paying you to get the damn thing going.”

Jon pulled the penis out and wrapped his fingers around it. Then he started pumping it as if it was his own. Nothing happened.

“Come on, kid. Get going. You gotta squeeze the old thing to wake it up.”

Oh god. Jon squeezed. It jerked to life. As the organ stiffened, Jon was shocked at how the slack skin filled out as he ran his hand up and down the shaft. When the skin was taught against firm muscle beneath it, it felt like silk slipping through his fingers.

He almost stopped at the shock of it. When he stroked himself, he never paid attention to the sensations in his hand. He was too intent on the rising heat of the volcano within.

The old guy started grunting, “Come on, come on, come on.” He bucked his hips, and his spunk drooled over Jon’s hand. Jon averted his face. If he couldn’t see it, he could pretend it was something other than another man’s jizz.

The man fell back into his seat, slack and silent.

Jon stared at his sticky hand. He tried wiping it off on the floor mat at his feet, but that didn’t get rid of it.

The man snorted awake, gave Jon a stiff, new twenty and a pat on his cheek. Then he stuffed his gear back into his pants, zipped himself in, and told Jon, “Get the hell out.”

Jon stumbled over the curb and backed away from the vehicle, clutching the twenty in his clean hand. His soiled hand, like a foreign appendage he didn’t recognize, was balled up, held at an odd angle away from his body so it wouldn’t accidentally touch him anywhere.

The man gunned his car as he speeded away, never once looking back at him.

Jon shoved the twenty-dollar bill into the front pocket of his jeans, jamming it into the bottom as best he could. All he could think about was washing his hand. However, he wasn’t dying, he wasn’t getting sick. He wasn’t sorry. He had money. He scurried to the drinking fountain to wash his hand.

Holding the spigot in his clean hand, he let cool water rush over his tainted hand. He stopped after humming all of “Happy Birthday” twice and scrubbed his hands together. Then he wiped them on his pants, and for good measure, held open the spigot while he rinsed off the memory of pleasuring a man other than himself for the first time in his life.

He didn’t see the policemen until it was almost too late. He looked up briefly and saw the officer in the passenger seat step out of the marked vehicle. The officer looked at him squarely in the eye. Jon backed up two steps, staring back, and then turned and ran.

“Hey, stop,” yelled the officer. Jon heard a car door slam behind him and knew the officer’s partner had joined in the chase. Jon didn’t stop running for blocks.

When he stopped to catch his breath, he did not see or hear his pursuers. He couldn’t go back to his alley. Lost and tired, he wandered. He wandered until he was standing on the corner where it all started, across from Marchesi’s Bar and Grill. The building was dark. The business sign was off. Yellow police tape criss-crossed the door and the windows. He wandered to the alley behind the building. Tape cordoned off both ends. He slipped under it.

Huddled in the corner between the staircase and the back wall, and shivered to sleep.

Featured

And Found

(Author’s Note: You have not missed a chapter. Due to global warming and fires in Northern California, I did not post last week.)

Anger tastes metallic, thought Jack. He understood why he was sent home, but at home didn’t ease the terror he felt for his son or the anger with the FBI and its machinations. At home, he wasn’t Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler. He was Dad, a scared shitless dad, a dad who had seen the kinds of bad things that happened to runaway teens too many times.

His phone buzzed against his thigh. His little toe kicked the solid foot of the couch when he jumped at the sensation.   

Struggling to pull his phone from his pocket while hopping on one foot, Jack prayed it was his son, Jonathan.

Instead, it was Chief Thompson. She had texted, “Jack, meet us at Emilia Rodriguez’s apartment, ASAP.”

He gathered strength to type back the one question he couldn’t voice, the one that was foremost in his mind. “Did you find Jon?”

Her response was immediate, “No. This is about that dream you had.” An address followed.

“Weird,” he said when he saw it. He knew the address. Why? When had he been there and for what reason?

He rested the phone against his forehead, trying to gather thoughts, letting his heart calm. Following a case would take his mind off the panic he felt about Jon.

He texted, “OK.”

Emilia Rodriguez. He had interviewed her about Evan Fischer’s case. She had picked up a pain prescription for him and claimed she was only an errand runner. Neither he nor Maureen felt that running errands was her entire story, but they had no evidence otherwise. He could see her face so clearly in his mind right now. He’d met her once and had not thought of her since, so why were her features so front and foremost in his mind?

He quickly changed into presentable clothes and raced out his door.

He parked in front of Emilia Rodriguez’s building and waited for the Chief. She was riding with Marcus Balmario, with whom he had an uneasy rivalry. During their last case, he and Balmario had eased their relationship with shared grief, but it was a new chapter for them, and Jack planned to be cautious. He couldn’t handle jibes right now.

He leaned against his hood with his arms crossed and studied the building. It seemed creepily familiar, like he’d been here recently, but then it was a typical building for this area. He’d been to at least a dozen others just like it.

Marcus Balmario pulled into a space across the street.

“Jack,” said Maureen as she and Balmario crossed it.

“Maureen, Marcus, thanks for the call,” said Jack.

“How’s the little wifey?” said Balmario.

“Not in the mood,” said Jack, and little angrier than he intended. He added, “He is fine.”

“Okay, there is no time for this, boys. Get your professional investigative hats on, now.”

Nobody messed with Maureen.

Emilia Rodriquez lived on the second floor at the end of a very short hallway at the back of the building. The hallway was dark and smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and mustiness, probably from mold. Halfway down the hallway, Jack noticed a trail of what he suspected was blood. The stain was heavier in front of her door.

It hung off its hinges. Someone had kicked it open.

Like dancers that had rehearsed the move, all three pulled their guns and approached in silence. They entered a short hallway adorned with photos. Jack flipped a light switch next to the door, but nothing happened. To the right was a living room, which he cleared. Across from it was a bathroom, which Maureen cleared. At the end of the dark hallway was a closed door. He knew it was the only bedroom. Balmario opened the door and cleared the space behind it.  

The only room left was the kitchen past the bathroom. When Jack stepped into it to clear the space, a wave of dizziness punched him back into the hallway.

“Jack?” said Maureen.

“I’m okay,” he said and stepped back into it. The dirty dishes were still in the sink, but someone had cleaned up the floor and the bloody towels. He flipped the switch next to the door, and the kitchen lit up, a hazy, yellow, postage stamp of space that was exactly how he remembered it.

“This is it,” he said. “This is my dream. I stood right here.”

“Are you sure?” said Maureen.

“Yes.”

Maureen said, “I thought there was more to her than what she told us.”

Jack pulled a chair from the table and leaned his hands upon the back of it. The grit of peeling paint dug into his palms right where he imagined it would. “She was on the floor, right there.” He pointed to the spot in front of the chair.

Maureen squatted. “Yeah, the bleach smell is really strong right here. And, ugh. Is that hair?” She pulled tweezers and a small plastic zip lock bag from her kit. She carefully lifted strands of black hair from the connecting bar between the chair’s front legs.

“Each time a contraction hit her, she would raise her head. I could feel her bump against the chair.”

“Well, it looks like there are some roots here. Maybe we can match the mother to the abandoned baby we found yesterday morning.”   

Marcus was watching Jack. Jack could feel the skepticism seeping off him. He braced for the inevitable sarcasm Balmario was sure to throw at him. Balmario had been the one person that had razzed him the longest about his seemingly psychic insight.

Marcus didn’t say anything; he just watched.

Jack’s mind floated back to the dream. “I knew the girl.” He fisted his chest over his heart. “She was someone I thought was stunning, even as pregnant as she seemed to be. It was a horrible juxtaposition seeing her on the floor suffering compared to….” She stepped out of a shiny Lincoln and walked toward him, an undulating vision of blatant beauty. It stopped his breath.

“Compared to what?” mumbled Balmario.

“What?” said Jack. He shook his head and was back in the present.

“Go on,” said Maureen.

“I was delivering money to pay a midwife, so I guess Emilia was a midwife as well as a donkey. Right? Damn.” He bowed his head.

“What?” said Maureen.

“When I woke up the morning after the dream, I was so scared that Jon was involved in all of this. I ignored the hints that my mind was giving me, that somehow I knew the midwife. The kid who was actually here did not know her…so, I did not…know her, I mean…as him. I dismissed it.”

Marcus snorted.

Maureen glared at him.

Marcus said, “I’m going to call CSI and get them out here.”

Maureen said, “Good idea.”

Jack’s arms and legs buzzed, his jaw hurt. What had he neglected here? If Emilia Rodriguez was injured, or worse, because he had not considered this vision, he didn’t know if he could forgive himself. They had to find her. He backed out of the kitchen into the darkened hallway to catch his breath. The bedroom at the end of the hall drew him forward. He could almost feel the baby in the crook of his left arm. The girl was alive when he left. She was still moaning on the kitchen floor. There was a commotion at the door. The midwife was screaming at him to get out.  

He escaped out the bedroom window, taking the infant with him. Why had she handed him a dead baby? He went to the bedroom window and looked down at the alley below. “Maureen,” he said, “I’m going to check out the alley.”

She hollered, “Okay.”

Jack put on gloves before he wrenched open the window. It was as sticky as he remembered. He clambered onto the rickety, metal landing to climb down the fire escape. At the base of it, he tried to figure out which direction he had run. He was so afraid then, afraid of what he had seen, afraid of the people pounding on the door, terrified of the death cradled against his side. Standing here now, disoriented and churning the same way he had in the dream, he could not remember which direction he took.

He slowly turned three hundred sixty degrees, scanning the area. Four of his long strides took him to the mouth of the alley. There were skid marks snaking across it. He pulled a partial roll of crime tape from the right pocket of his coat and stretched it across the alley to block auto and foot traffic. Then he jogged down the alley toward the other entrance. He saw nothing that could be used as evidence, but he taped off this end of the alley, anyway.

Maureen leaned out the window. “Jack.”

A chill went through him. “I’ll be right up,” he said.

As he climbed through the window, he heard Maureen say into her phone, “Just cover the body until we get there.”

“No, no, no,” he moaned.

She lowered her phone. “A woman, Jack. A woman washed up on the river.”

“Okay, okay,” he said. “Okay.” He quickly looked around the small flat, at first relieved it wasn’t news about Jon, then horrified when instinctively he realized that it was probably Emilia Rodriguez.

CSI arrived and began unpacking in the hallway. Maureen and Balmario were right outside the front door. Jack expected to join them on the body call. Instead, Maureen called to him, “Jack, you stay here and direct CSI. Maybe something else will occur to you that we can use.”

“I’m worried it’s Emilia,” he said.

“Just stay here and help CSI.”

“Maureen.” He took two steps to follow.

She shook her head.

He froze.

“Sir?” said one of the CSI techs. “Sir?”

Jack turned slowly toward her while Maureen left with Marcus Balmario.

Maureen and Marcus stood over Emilia Rodriguez. Her body showed signs of being in the water for at least twelve to sixteen hours, maybe more. There was a neat hole through her forehead.

Maureen said, “They are cleaning house.”

“Who was Jack talking about back there in the apartment?”

“Well, I have my suspicions, but of course, if Jack didn’t get names, we can’t know. Evan told us that he’d asked one of his father’s employees to bring money to his girlfriend’s midwife. Seems like a coincidence since Emilia and Evan knew each other.”

“Uh, huh.”

“Another coincidence, the baby was a stillbirth.”

“In Jack’s vision,” said Balmario.

“Have you ever actually worked a case with Jackson Tyler?” said Maureen.

“Not as a primary,” said Marcus with a great deal of relief.

“Well, I have. When he gets this way, you might as well take it as if you are listening to someone who witnessed the event. Because he has.”

“It’s so damn weird,” said Marcus.

“Yes. Yes, it is,” said Maureen.

“If the Morellis are cleaning house, we need to find this other player. What was his name?”

Maureen scrunched her eyes and said, “Sawyer. Evan Fischer said he sent one of his father’s employees to pay the midwife. His name was Sawyer.”

“So you think Jack was there as Sawyer?”

“Maybe,” she said.

The medical examiner’s crew was bagging the body.

Maureen said, “We need to follow her back to the morgue.”

When they were in the car following the ME’s van, Marcus said, “I have a question.”

“Yes?” she said.

“Everyone knows about Tyler’s weird mojo, but I have never seen it in action. He didn’t seem to have a lot of helpful information. If he saw this woman before she was taken, why didn’t he say something? Maybe we could have prevented her death.”

“He did say there was a commotion at the door, but he didn’t make the connection. Why would he call if he didn’t know where to send help, or who to send it to?”

“But you just said it was as if he was there.”

“But not as Jack. If our suspicions are correct, and let me remind you, we are talking about suspicion, not fact, if they are correct, he was this kid named Sawyer, who was delivering the money and got caught up in something he couldn’t handle.”

They were silent for a moment.

Then Maureen said, “I did ask him. I did ask him if he had seen the midwife’s face, because it was after we had found the abandoned infant.”

“What did he say?”

“He couldn’t really. I got the impression he felt like he knew who she was, but the connection wasn’t there.”

“Shit,” said Marcus.

“It doesn’t work that way. It’s not his fault.”

“No, I wasn’t thinking that. Tyler is going to shit bricks when he finds out she is dead. I know I would. Whether I want to admit it or not, he’s one hell of a good cop, and compassionate. He isn’t going to take this well.”

“If we can get DNA off this hair, we can at least connect the mother to the baby. If we can connect the mother to the baby, and Jack can confirm in his vision he was Sawyer, that will help a lot,” said Maureen.

“Then we can assume that the baby we found is Morelli’s?”

“Perhaps not in court, but for our sakes, I would stake my life on it.”

“How can we facilitate Jack’s memory?”

“Good question.”

Marcus snorted again.

“We need to find Sawyer,” said Maureen. “I think he’s our best bet for fitting the pieces together.”

Featured

Lost

Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson combed through her reports, trying to fit Jonathan Tyler into the web of connections created by the reports in front of her. There was no sense to her fervor except a gut feeling, especially since the FBI was now in control of all but the abandoned baby case. They didn’t know her precinct had a directive to find Jonathan Tyler before they did.

Damn. She could use another cup of coffee. The flood of information squirmed through her brain like tunneling worms trying to get away from rising water. She reread the words. They crawled into her mind and then got lost in the intricate web that seemed to weave each of the reports together: dead teen at the river, missing person reported by grandmother, abandoned baby, gang retaliation over a birth gone bad, one of their own missing. Still unanswered: Who was the mother? Where was the midwife? Who was the kid that delivered the money?  

Evan Fischer stated twice that he had sent one of his father’s employees, a young male, age unknown, named Sawyer, on an errand to run one thousand dollars to the midwife of his pregnant girlfriend, Sobrina Morelli. Marchesi had hired Sawyer the night before.

Sawyer, Sawyer. What kind of parent named their kid Sawyer nowadays? Why would Evan trust him, someone he didn’t know, with that amount of money? Why didn’t he wait for his father’s right hand man, Allessandro Santorini?   

Evan Fischer, age nineteen, reported missing.

They now knew that the Morelli clan had sent an enforcer to teach Evan Fischer a lesson because he had knocked up their sister, Sobrina, sixteen years of age. That enforcer was a young Taiwanese national, dumped at the river.

Cause of death, stab wound.

They now believed he was the Morellis’ best new fighter, trying to make his way into their organization. Evan would not admit he had taken a knife to the fight. He repeatedly stated that he was not aware of a knife. Thompson’s team did not find a knife. 

A miscarried baby lay in their morgue. The FBI whisked Evan and his father away before she could ask about the baby, before she could swab for DNA. Without it, she could not confirm that the abandoned baby was his. Her wild card was Jackson Tyler. He had dreamed of watching a young woman give birth to a stillborn baby.

The timing of it got to her. She didn’t believe in coincidences.

One thousand dollars to the midwife…

…young man, age unknown, named Sawyer….

Had Jack seen through Sawyer’s eyes? Was the unfortunate witness to a tragic birth part of the equation, or was this birthing completely unrelated?  Sawyer. Wouldn’t it be more likely for Jack to see through Evan’s eyes? Or Jonathan’s?

“Oh, lordy, would Jon use an alias?” she said aloud.

“Talking to yourself on the job. Not a good sign,” said Officer Marcus Balmario. He was geared and ready to go when he approached her desk.

Until Jackson Tyler was fully on the job, Marcus Balmario was Maureen’s choice for temporary partner. He was young and unmarried, but he was extremely level-headed. She was comfortable working with him. Their last case had ended tragically with the loss of his partner. Like Jack, he preferred to keep working to keep his mind off his grief.  Even though he and his partner had worked together less than six months, she would keep an eye on his stress levels. At the first sign of trouble, he was going home. She could work alone.

“Thanks,” he said. He sat across from her. She knew he was referring to her willingness to keep him busy.

“No problem,” she replied. “I sent Jack home to make phone calls, but you and I both know he isn’t going to stay put for very long.”

“His emotions are too high,” said Marcus. “That’s dangerous. We should put someone on him.”

“That’s a little extreme.”

He shrugged. “I sent the FBI BOLO out on our wire. Every cop in this and the surrounding areas will have Jonathan Tyler’s picture by noon,” said Marcus.

“Good, thank you,” she said. Her desk phone rang. “Thompson.”

“Transfer from a gentleman named Rodney Heathe, asking for you. He’s reporting a missing person.”

“Connect us please.”  Maureen motioned for Marcus to stand by. “Mr. Heathe.”

“I don’t know what is going on with my people, but another employee has not checked in, and like Evan, she is extremely punctual and never sick. I am quite frankly worried that somebody is trying to sabotage my business.”

“Walgreens isn’t a franchise, Sir. Unless you fail the corporation, no one is after you. Who may I ask is missing today?”

“Emilia Rodriguez, one of my cashiers.”

Maureen capped the phone with her hand to tell Marcus, “Pull a car. We’re taking a trip.” To Mr. Heathe, she said, “We will be there in about twelve minutes.”

“Thank you. Thank you,” he said.

Maureen felt like she was approaching a hornet’s nest. During her original interview with Emilia Rodriguez, Maureen’s gut told her that Emilia had more responsibility than running errands and delivering pain medications. She had pulled Emilia in on Evan’s case because he needed pain medicine after his mix up with the Morelli gang. She had delivered them.

Had Emilia Rodriguez found herself in the Morellis’ crosshairs as well?

Eleven minutes later, Marcus pulled their marked car into the parking lot, front and center of the store. She was glad they were in a marked car, instead of her Corolla or Balmario’s Jeep. A show of police on the premises was just good business in case Heathe was part of Marchesi’s gang, which they suspected he was.

Together, they entered the store and jogged to the back where they found an agitated Rodney Heathe pacing in front of the ‘Employees Only’ entrance.

“Thank you,” he said, grabbing Maureen’s hand. He was a different man today, not the arrogant SOB they had interviewed earlier. “I can’t reach her. I’ve called a dozen times.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s sit in your break room. There is so sense in scaring your other employees.” Maureen guided Mr. Heathe with a hand on his elbow and ushered him down the hallway. She pulled a chair and settled him against a wall.

Then, she dialed dispatch, relayed Emilia Rodriguez’s contact information, and asked that they attempt contact.

While waiting on the return call, Maureen asked, “Have you worked with Sra. Rodriguez for a long time?”

“Three years,” he replied, but didn’t offer any more information.

“Has she always been a cashier?” asked Marcus Balmario.

“No, she started in the stock room, but she is quiet and pleasant, so I put her out front. It pays better, and she was a good employee. Still is, I mean.”

“Of course,” said Maureen. “What about calling in sick? Does she always call when she can’t make it?”

“She has never called in sick,” said Heathe. “And with Evan’s disappearance, I thought I should report hers right away.” Her gut told her that he was worried about more than another absent employee, but she was more worried about Emilia Rodriguez than his legal troubles or his involvement. Should they conclude that he was involved with Marchesi or the Morellis somehow, they could deal with him then.

She was, however, tempted to show him the picture of the dead Taiwanese boy again just to ask if he thought Emilia knew him. She was interrupted by her phone. “Thompson.”

“Dispatch. There is no answer from your contact. Over.”

“Roger that. Out,” said Maureen.

Maureen’s suspicion that Emilia Rodriguez could be the midwife involved in the tragedy of Sobrina Morelli’s death after birthing a stillborn child was growing exponentially. Jack had…suffered, for want of a better word, a remote viewing of a birth. In need of all her resources, she decided to include him, even though she had sent him home. She texted, asking him to meet them at Sra. Rodriguez’s address. Maybe, if he wasn’t too distracted by his runaway son and his recovering partner, his mojo would turn on and lead them to her.

“Mr. Heathe, you should know we found Evan Fischer. He is well. However, he will not be coming back to work at this time.”

“Why?”

“I am not at liberty to discuss that,” she replied.

Rodney Heathe folded his hands in his lap and looked at the ceiling. It was clear that a million different thoughts were bombarding his mind. Maureen and Marcus gave him a few moments for the information to sink in.

“We will check on Emilia. She has been implicated in treating Evan Fischer for some injuries he incurred during a fight.” She watched his expression carefully, looking for any hint that he knew about the fight. She added, “Sra. Rodriguez may be involved with the same people Evan was involved with.”

His facial expression showed distress, possibly knowledge, but she didn’t read complicity.

As they left, Maureen said to Marcus, “He automatically assumed someone was out to get him. Did you notice that?”

“I did,” he said.

“He’s involved in this whole mess, somehow. I’m putting someone on him.” She called the Captain and set that up. “I texted Jack, invited him to meet us.”

“I thought we agreed he was unstable at this time,” mumbled Marcus.

“Again, that’s a little harsh. He had a dream about a birthing experience. With all that we know, I think we need to factor in the possibility that he remotely saw something that may give us information. I don’t know if Emilia is involved, I don’t know if Sobrina is involved, I don’t know if the stillborn we found yesterday is involved. Maybe he can figure that out.”

Marcus didn’t say anything. She knew about his rivalry with Jack. She knew about the constant teasing he gave and the razzing that Junior Inspector Tomio Dubanowski put up with because he was Jack’s partner, but at this point, it was all in-house fun. They were professionals on the job. She expected the same today.

“I don’t feel right about putting him in that position,” said Marcus. “It’s too much.”

“Too much,” she said, revved to defend Jack if she needed to.

“Yeah. His son is missing. The FBI thinks he’s here. His partner is still in the hospital. He can’t have gotten over the last case. I haven’t.”

“Yet, here you are, ready, willing, and I assume, professional.”

“Yes ma’am. I’m just worried for him. You know?”

Relieved by his compassion, she said, “I know, believe me, I know.” Finding Emilia would go a long way towards relieving some of that worry.

Featured

Mixed Messages

Jon hit a wall.

Literally.

When he tried to swerve around a large cardboard box, he tripped and slammed into the back wall of a building. His knees gave way, and he slumped down the bricks, scraping the bare skin of his elbows in an attempt to brace himself. His butt slammed the cold cement beneath his feet. He pulled his knees to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, shut his eyes, and heaved great, rib-breaking sobs.

When he opened his eyes again, his body had finished crying, but his ribs were sore. He was in a narrow corridor between two buildings. There were no back doors leading into them. It was as if when the builders put them side by side, they left a hallway between them to create a watershed. Above him, wide eaves created shadow and shelter, seemingly built to direct the rain away from the base of the buildings. Beyond that, was a dark velvet sky.

Night had fallen. How long had he been asleep? The alley was sheltered, a cave in the wilderness of a big city he knew nothing about. He scooted back until he could fully lean against the wall to rest his head. It was blissfully quiet. There was no sound of traffic, no people talking; there was no commotion anywhere. He should get up and scope out the area. He should. He honestly would, if he could move. He shut his eyes for just a moment. He could stay forever in this quiet.

“This be my place,” a voice grumbled. “You is in my place. Get out.”

Jon rocked his head against the brick behind it.

“Is you deaf? I said, get outta here. This be my place.”

With difficulty, Jon opened one eye, a tiny slit through which to peer. What he saw couldn’t be real. Dressed in multiple layers of rags for clothing, a man weaved in front of him.

“I said, get out,” the spectacle said.

Jon opened both eyes. He was real.

“This be mine. You be in my place. You get out.” The man lunged toward him with hands ready to strike.

Jon tried to move out of the way, but his legs refused to cooperate, and he fell onto his side.

“Get out.” One of the man’s shoes appeared right in front of his nose. He had tied the shoe onto his foot with jute string. He could see two dusty toes peeking out of a hole on the outside curve. That same foot came off the ground and pushed at Jon’s shoulder. “Get out,” his voice grumbled again.

Jon tried to move again, but all he could do was crawl a few inches forward.

“You be hurt?” said the man. “Wha’da matter? You in a fight?”

“No, n-n-no,” stuttered Jon. He barely recognized the croak of his own voice.

“You stay,” said the man. His foot disappeared.

A few minutes later, it was back. This time, the raggedy man knelt in front of him, with a 26-ounce Campbell’s Tomato Soup can in his hands. He grabbed Jon’s arm and hauled him into a seated position. Then he held the can to Jon’s lips and said, “Drink this.”

Jon turned his head.

“Drink. Is water,” said the man. “From de fountain ou’dare.”

Jon sniffed at it.

“You calm down, drink,” said the man.

Jon took a sip, then he placed his hands over the man’s and pulled the can toward his mouth. Greedily, he gulped, but the man took away the can.

“Slow down, you,” he said.

“Th, thank you,” said Jon.

“Alright,” the man replied.

The man sat next to him. After a few breaths, he handed Jon the can. Jon took it and sipped twice, then held it in his lap. He was monstrously thirsty, but the man was right. If he gulped it too fast, it would all end up on the ground. After a few more breaths, he took another sip.

“Thank you,” he said again.

The man nodded. “Alright.”

When Jon finished the can of water, he handed the can to the raggedy man. The man pushed the can back toward him and said, “Keep. Now get out, this be my place.”

Jon didn’t understand at first.

“You get outta here, go, go. This be my place.”

“But, I, I…?”

“This be my place.”

Jon used the wall to brace his weight upon his shaking legs, and slowly pulled himself up. “Th-th-thank you,” said Jon.

The man nodded. Then he leaned against the wall, folded his arms and shut his eyes. “You be gone. This be my place.”

Jon wobbled out of the alley, which opened onto a small plaza. A drinking fountain was in the middle of it, surrounded by a patch of neatly shorn grass. Jon had no memory whatsoever of passing it when he ran through, yet here it was, a tiny oasis in downtown Detroit.

In his mind, he heard Rat say, “Run to the river. Don’t stop.” He could smell the river, but he had no idea which way to go.

He filled the tomato soup can to the brim and drank about half. Then he sat next to the fountain while he thought about what to do next. He was supposed to run to the river but what difference did it make? It seemed like anywhere he went in Detroit he was doomed. Either he contacted his father and met trouble that way, or he hid until the Morelli gang found him.

“Where’s the other one,” Morelli had said. “You know who I’m talking about, don’t you? The little creep who gave that old witch money for my sister, my dead sister, Sobrina. I want to thank him, too.” Jon had no illusions about what that meant.

Was she actually dead? He could not superimpose the beautiful girl in the alley with the one who fought for two lives on the floor of the kitchen in the midwife’s apartment.

How was any of that his fault? He was just an errand boy. That was all. How did that make him involved in any way that justified retribution? Maybe they wanted to know where the baby was. He had no illusions about that either. He had put it down and couldn’t pick it up again. He chose to abandon it in front of a derelict pharmacy. What would have happened if he’d taken it back to Marchesi’s Bar and Grill with him? Would that have changed the course of the lives that had been lost?  

While he sat there agonizing over the choices that he had made, a police cruiser rolled up to the plaza. Jon watched it approach and quickly scooted behind the fountain so he was not in direct sight of the officers in the car. The doors opened and shut. Headlights flashed. Through a bullhorn an officer stated, “Detroit PD. Clear the park immediately.”

Had they seen him?

“Clear the park,” the officer barked again.

They weren’t asking him to present himself; they were asking him to leave. So, he stood and trotted as best he could away from them toward another space between two buildings. However, he didn’t stop in its shelter. He tottered straight through, into an empty lot, and beyond that to an avenue that stretched forever in both directions. The whole time, he was asking himself, “Why?” Why didn’t he approach the officers and ask for help? It would have been so easy.

He stopped a moment to get his bearings. The officers had not followed him. Were they still there? He could go back, or he could go forward. He froze between the two choices.

A few feet ahead of him was another opening between buildings. Maybe it was another alley. He slowly walked toward it. This one looked large enough to hold a dumpster with room for a vehicle to pass. About twelve feet into the alley, the dumpster was flush against a wall. Cautiously, he wandered toward it. There was no one else here. He hunkered down and hid beside it, protected from any onlookers that might pass by. His eyes began to water, and his breath hitched. A sob escaped, and then another, and then another, until he couldn’t stop. He cried himself into oblivion.  

The beeping of a garbage truck backing up, alerted him. He scooted away from the dumpster just as the large arms came down and clamped onto it to lift it over the yawning hole in the side of the truck. He trotted up the alley away from the racket it made. The workers didn’t pay any attention to him at all, which made him think that they had probably seen their share of drifters hiding the same way he had.

Grilled chorizo, the tangy scent reminiscent of the Mexican food truck near Stagg High School in Stockton hit his nose. His stomach rumbled. In a lot next to a service station, a Mexican food truck was rolling out its wares. He still had some money in his pockets: the ten Rat had given him, and a few bills that Charlie Marchesi had given him that he had yet to use. He was the truck’s first customer. The breakfast burrito cost him four dollars and twenty-five cents with tax, an hour’s wage in this town. He wandered back to the little park and filled his can with water. He found a bench on the street that led back to the tiny park with the fountain, and sat. There he ate his burrito. He had never tasted anything so good in all his life.

The city didn’t seem so scary now that morning had come. He was sure he could be successful here.

As he sat enjoying his breakfast, a shiny Lincoln with blackened windows pulled up to the light a block away. How many people drove Lincolns in this town? How many had windows so black they obscured the inside of the car?

Jon shoved the last bite of burrito into his mouth and ran. He made it to the alley where he’d sheltered for the night and hid behind the empty dumpster. The Lincoln rolled past the alley. Perhaps he should have turned himself in last night, to the cops who chased him away from the fountain.

It was too late to worry about that. Now, he had to learn how to stay out of sight. 

Featured

Catch and Release

Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson wanted to scream – or punch a wall – or shoot the hell out of a target practice mannequin. Her recourse was to bite off a hangnail. Now, the darn thing burned like a bitch.

Sooner or later, Captain Jamison would call on her, ask her why she was holding Rat Snatcher in interrogation so long. She needed answers. That’s why. He was a possible suspect, possibly posturing as an FBI agent. He was a silent stone sitting in that hot seat. She directed question after question. He didn’t ask for counsel, he didn’t answer. He didn’t twitch. But the most peculiar thing was his calm, softly alert eyes. They weren’t the eyes of a criminal.

Damn this day. It had started with huge questions and was now ending with more. Who left the baby? Poor little girl never had a chance. The coroner confirmed she was too premature to survive. Where was the mother? Who was the mother? Why had she left it on the cold, dirty cement in front of a derelict pharmacy?

Her office phone rang. “Thompson.”

“My office, now.” Captain Jamison sounded as snappish and tired as she felt.

He didn’t even wait for her to get all the way through the door when he barked as predicted, “What the hell do you know about this guy in Interrogation One?”

She and Balmario had raced to the scene and then changed course when he roared past them in his beat up van. It was apparent he was fleeing something, and coming from the direction of the shootout.

“He’s not talking, Captain. Balmario has worked him. I’ve worked him. He’s a clam.”

“Has he lawyered up?”

“No, he hasn’t done that either. He just sits and stares.”

“So we cannot confirm that he was the shooter. What about the other two? What are they saying?”

“Charlie Marchesi and Evan Fischer. I have them separated. I’d like to call Jack Tyler, sir. He was first on the Fischer case. I’ve already called the grandmother.”

“Do it.”

Jack answered his phone before the first ring ended. “Tyler.”

“Jack, it’s Maureen. How’s Tom?”

“Slowly hobbling down the corridor fighting every second of having to use a walker.”

Maureen chuckled. “Sounds about right.”

Jack mumbled, “For someone who wants to go home he grumbles a lot.”

Maureen listened as Tom called Jack’s name and said something she could not decipher. She was sure it was a snappish quip in Jack’s direction.

Jack replied, “Keep walking.”

Tom mumbled again, and Jack said, “Whatever.”

Maureen chuckled and then she said, “Jack, Evan Fischer is in protective custody.”

There was silence on the phone. She assumed he was updating Tom on the missing child case.

When he came back on the line, he said, “I’ll be right there.”

“You should know; we put his father in protective custody as well.”

Jack jumped to the same conclusion she had. “Conti?”

She said, “He is using the name Charlie Marchesi. He owns Marchesi’s Bar and Grill.”

There was silence. When came back on, he said, “What? Do you think one of them called me earlier?”

“I don’t know why they would ask for you specifically.”

“I have been obsessing about that since the call came through.”

Jack had received a phone call from someone who asked for him, but the caller hung up. He traced the call to a street booth in front of Marchesi’s Bar and Grill.

Maureen said, “I arrested Rat Snatcher, aka Phillip Morris.”

“Whoa, really?” said Jack. “I can hardly wait.”

“Mr. Snatcher is sitting in Interrogation One. There is a lot to tell you. Fill you in when you get here.”

“Roger that.”

Twenty minutes later Jack leaned against the wall near the door to the bullpen watching a tearful Claudine Fischer reunite with her grandson. He had no idea what they were saying, but he was relieved to see them together. Evan’s face was a mess. Poor kid lived through a brutal beating to witness the execution of Allessandro Santorini. His own life had been threatened by the eldest Morelli brother, Santorini’s executioner.

There was no information on Santorini other than what Evan had haltingly explained. Santorini was his father’s right hand man, helped to run the staff at the restaurant and at the food and drinks booth during mixed martial arts meets. He kept everyone in line. Now he was dead. They would never know for sure, but this explained the name “Alles’ on the mysterious note that Maureen found on her windshield while she was interviewing at Walgreens. It was clear after today’s events that Alles Santorini would have known Evan’s whereabouts at the start of their investigation into his disappearance.   

Jack left Evan and his grandmother to their business. He walked past the room where Charlie Marchesi sat. It was hard to believe that Marchesi was Calogero Conti, the notorious mob boss turned State’s witness. He was a short man, light boned and much younger than Jack imagined. Now he sat with the slumped-shouldered posture of defeat. Jack was unimpressed.

He turned and went to the observation booth adjacent to the interrogation room that held Rat Snatcher. Maureen was there, staring at Snatcher through the mirrored window.

“Is he the shooter?” said Jack.

“Don’t know. He doesn’t have residue on his hands, his jacket, or his shirt. The lab is testing a pair of gloves we found in the back of his van.”

Jack stared at Snatcher. He was every bit the bear sitting in the chair behind the table, as he was the night he first met him on the street in front of Evan’s apartment building.  

Maureen grabbed the tagged evidence bag with the FBI credentials off the table in front of them. “This was found on the console between the two front seats. No other identification was found on him.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s his,” said Jack. He took the bag and stared at it a moment. Then he said, “Claudine Fischer called him Phillip Morris. This could be real.”

“He won’t talk to any of us. Maybe he will talk to you,” she said.

Jack kept the bag with the credentials and opened the door. Before he stepped all the way through it, Rat Snatcher reacted by standing. The look on his face was that of shock, mixed with recognition.

Jack froze, and stared at Snatcher.

“Hey, Pig,” Snatcher said.

Jack’s shoulders dropped. He closed the door behind him and walked to the table. He pulled out the chair across from Snatcher, sat down, and said, “So nice to see you again, Mr. Snatcher, or should I call you Agent Morris?” Jack held up the evidence bag with the credentials. Then he threw it onto the table.

Snatcher stopped it from sliding off onto the floor and sat down to hold it in front of him. It seemed like the reaction of a man who was taking care of something that belonged to him.

Jack tapped open a picture of Evan Fischer on his phone and held it up toward Rat. “Tell me about this kid,” he said. “Why was he threatened with execution?”

Rat looked at him with a sharp, surprised expression.

Jack stared back for a full minute. “He’s in protective custody,” he said.

Rat relaxed an infinitesimal amount.

Jack was an intuitive thinker. Otherwise, he may not have noticed that change.

Rat said, “That’s not the kid you should be looking for.”

“What?” said Jack.

Snatcher shrugged.

“Where did he take the baby?” Jack was surprised at the words that just rolled unbidden out of his mouth.

If the look on Snatcher’s face was any indication, he was as surprised as Jack was.

Maureen knocked on the window.

“Excuse me a minute.” He pointed his finger at Snatcher. “You will be telling me when I return.”

Maureen was agitated. “Whoa. Jack?” she said. “What the hell?”

Jack glanced at her. He glanced at Rat.

Rat, stunned, bent over the table and cradled his head in his arms.

Maureen scolded. “What do you know about the baby?”

Jack threw his hands into the air. “Hey, I’m not the one in Interrogation.”

“You sure as hell are if you are going to crawl into everybody’s head.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean the baby. How did you know about the baby?”

“It was just a dream. I have no idea why I said it in there.” He pointed to the interrogation room where Rat still cowered under the cover of his arms.

“Oh Lordy, Jack.” Maureen put her hands on her hips and paced a circle. “Okay, listen. Before we got the call about a shooting in North Corktown, Balmario and I were investigating an abandoned infant case north of there. Someone left a premature stillborn on the steps of a shut-down pharmacy.”

Jack’s expression turned inward. “Oh god,” said Jack. “I wondered what happened to it.”

Maureen stared at him for a full ten seconds. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, okay. Quickly, in as few words as possible, what the hell do you know?”

“Umm. Woman struggling on floor, baby born still, midwife shoves baby in arms of the person I was. I assumed that was Evan, prayed it wasn’t Jon. People were knocking hard enough on her door to break in. I left…took the fire escape and ran. Does that help?”

“No. sort of.” She shook her head at him. She took a deep breath. “Did you see the midwife?”

“No.” Jack pinched the bridge of his nose. “I mean, yes. No.” He shook his head. “I saw her, but…,” but, he would have to sit somewhere quietly to try to remember what he saw. “She did seem familiar at the time.”  

Maureen said, “That is not helpful.”

She pointed at Rat. “He’s rattled. See what you can get from him. I am going to go find out what Evan can tell me the abandoned baby.”

Jack nodded. “Fine.” He returned to his chair in the interrogation room.

“Sorry about the interruption,” said Jack. “You were saying about the baby?”

“I wasn’t sayin’ no thing about a baby,” said Rat. “What are you anyway, some sort of psycho?”

“Uhh, the word is psychic, but I suspect you know that.” Jack glared at him. “Let’s start again.” He pulled out his phone and flipped on the recorder. “Please state your name.”

Rat glared back. “Rat Snatcher,” he said very deliberately into the phone.

“And, I’ll ask again,” said Jack. “Please state your given name, not your street name.”

“And I’ll say again, Rat Sna – ”

A tall FBI agent stormed through the door and flashed his badge. Maureen, obviously agitated, stood behind him.

Jack jumped up.

The agent announced, “We’re done here. Let’s go.”

Rat stood, grabbed the evidence bag, and retrieved his ID. Then he threw the bag on the table and stuffed his ID into his back pocket. Defiance shot from his eyes, slapping Jack as he watched the proceedings in disbelief.  

As the agent ushered Rat Snatcher out the door, Rat turned to Jack. His eyes were gentle, as if he suddenly dropped the charade. He said quietly so only Jack could hear him, “I told him to run toward the river. You need to find him before they do. You need to find him before we do.” He took a step out the door, then turned again to Jack. “It’s remarkable how much he favors you.”

The scene in front of Jack disappeared, replaced by a gray mist. Feet slapped pavement. Cars honked. Tires squealed. Someone shouted, “Fuck you.”  

Maureen grabbed his arm.

Slowly the interrogation room came back into focus.

The agent pushed Rat Snatcher into the hallway to usher him out of their precinct. Four other agents awaited them, ushering Charlie Marchesi, Evan, and his grandmother Claudine Fischer out of the building, as well.

Jamison shouted, “Debriefing. My office. Balmario, Tyler, you too.”

As they clustered in the office, Jamison barked, “Shut the door and listen up. The FBI now has jurisdiction over the shootout behind Marchesi’s Bar and Grill. It’s a turf war I would rather our officers stay out of. The word is that the Morellis were out for blood over the death of their little sister. Seems she and Evan were involved.”

“What about the abandoned infant, Cap? Is that part of it?”

“Unknown. Pick a team to follow up on that. You three have a bigger problem.”

Captain Jamison grabbed a bundle from his chair and spread it on his desk: a green and gold letter jacket. In one of his visions, Jack had grabbed it while transported to a Greyhound bus. At the time, he thought maybe it was Evan’s jacket, and it gave him comfort to think that maybe Evan was safe.

Jamison slapped a flyer on top of the jacket – an FBI BOLO for a missing teen.

Jonathan Tyler.

Jamison said, “Seems our little boy here was involved with Marchesi’s gang. He was not at the scene. The Morellis are looking for him. If they find him, he’s dead. The FBI is looking for him. If they find him, he is arrested as a State’s Witness and disappears in the system. We are going to find him first.”

Jack barely heard what the Captain said. His heart was beating so hard, it hurt.

In his mind, he heard Rat whisper, “He favors you. You need to find him before we do, before they do. I told him to run toward the river.”

His running feet slapped the pavement beneath him.

Featured

Choices

Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson stood over the tiny wrapped body, wondering if she was going to find a dead, teen aged girl close by. “Have you searched the neighborhood?” she asked Balmario.

“We have two teams doing that right now. Nothing to report, yet,” he said.

“Look at this,” said a young member of the investigation team. He knelt in the corner next to the boarded up door of the closed pharmacy.

Maureen squatted next to him. Someone tried to scratch the cement. “It looks like an address.”

“This isn’t knife scratch, maybe a rock,” he said.

The team looked around for the rock, but nothing popped out at them.   

“Well, at least get a picture of it,” said Maureen. When she stood, she felt the pressure of a rock under her shoe. She bent down to look at it. “Do these look like scrape marks to you?”

Marcus Balmario grabbed a tweezers from his kit and picked it up. He walked into the street to catch an early morning sunbeam and turned the rock this way and that. “No,” he said.

“Bag it anyway, but keep looking. Look for anything. Something made those marks in the cement.”

“We don’t even know if these marks mean anything,” said the young investigator.

“No. We don’t,” said Maureen. “We don’t know anything, so we look at everything. And we look everywhere for it. Search the sidewalk and the gutter. Maybe the person tossed it when they finished scraping that message. We don’t know what he or she was thinking, but we do know they were hurting.”

Her phone buzzed. “Chief Thompson,” she answered.

Dispatch said, “All available units, Pine and Brooklyn, shots fired. Repeat, shots fired.”

“Balmario, we can leave this with the CI’s. Come with me. Shots fired about five blocks from here.” She ran to her car.

Balmario jumped in the passenger seat as she finished radioing intent to attend the call. Radio chatter was coming in from multiple units. This was bigger than a simple domestic altercation. As she turned south onto Brooklyn, a van sped past her going away from the call. The driver looked hell bent on getting out of the area.

“That can’t be good,” said Balmario.

“No. Call it in. We’re changing course.”

While Maureen turned around, Balmario called it in. “Dispatch, this is car 1132, disengaging shots-fired call, redirecting toward possible suspect driving a gray van, plate white on blue, Andy-Robert-Sally,  niner, niner, three. Northbound Brooklyn, repeat Andy-Robert-Sally, niner, niner, three. Over.”

“Car 1132, directing assistance. ETA one minute. Over.”

“Ten-four, out.”

“Here we go,” said Maureen. The driver in the van slowed the vehicle and pulled into a deep vacant lot behind an indoor mini-mall. He came to a stop in the shadow of the large building. If they had not been following him, he would now be undetectable from a casual street drive-by, especially if the persons exceeded the speed posted.

Balmario got on the radio and redirected back up, while Maureen parked. Maureen hoped the CI’s had packed up the abandoned infant scene and left. She wasn’t sure how she felt about leaving an unarmed crew alone at an investigation in a neighborhood that was experiencing a shoot-out somewhere. She radioed Dispatch to send them packing if they hadn’t done so already.

As Balmario’s secondary teams arrived, they lined up with her, one behind and one in front essentially creating a barricade with their vehicles should the need arise.

She grabbed her field glasses to get a look at the man sitting at the wheel. The driver was a statue, young and probably impulsive.

 “He’s not moving,” said Balmario.

“No. I’m a little worried he’s been hit, but I can’t see blood.” She passed the glasses to him.

He watched for a minute, and then said, “No. I don’t either. If he was hit, he was hit low.”

“He could be bleeding out.” Maureen took the glasses back from him.  

Rat Snatcher sat in the vehicle contemplating the decision he was about to make while the officers sat in their vehicles watching for his next move. He could not believe all the time he’d spent on this case, wasted, blown to bits with one stupid act by a horny teenager who thought he was in love.

Fuck.

He stared at his hands for a while as if he could find answers there. His head was telling him this was over, his heart was weeping it wasn’t. While he stared at his hands, he could see the officers in his peripheral vision gearing up.

A woman, armored with a vest, stepped out of the unmarked police car and pointed her service weapon at him. She kept her focus as she stepped between the cars. He knew what she expected: black man behind the wheel of a vehicle fleeing shots fired.

Choices, choices, choices.

He pulled his wallet from his pocket as unobtrusively as he could. He didn’t want to make any sudden changes. He knew that any movement they saw could trigger a response, and it would not be in his favor. He flipped it onto the console between the seats.

Choices.

Should he try to preserve his cover or blow all his efforts these past months? He hoped to God that Detroit PD had Marchesi and his son in custody. It was the best way to keep them safe. However, there was no chance they rounded up all of Morelli’s men when they raided the event. If he was right, the second Morelli brother had probably slipped back into his hole after sending his men to hunt him down. He had just killed the older Morelli brother. That was a fact, however righteous it was. Rat was now a marked man.

Which meant they had eyes on this – whatever this turned out to be. Choices.

He shook his head slightly as if that would help. He turned and watched the woman step across the sidewalk. Her entire team aimed their weaponry at him. Choices.

He sat straight and slowly slid both empty hands around the wheel of his van until they rested on top of it where her team could see them.

She slowly approached.

He kept his eyes forward, looking straight ahead instead of at her and kept his hands still.

He heard the click, as she engaged the handle of the door.

“Step out of the car and keep your hands where I can see them,” she said, calm and collected as if she was accustomed to being obeyed. Impressive.

He knew when he stepped out of the vehicle, her attitude would change. He was big. Big and black. A perfect scenario for regrets if he didn’t handle this exactly right. He let her open the door, then slowly raised his hands to clasp them behind his head. He shifted his legs to stretch them toward the ground so he could stand in front of her.

“Get down on your knees,” she said.

He did. It was at that moment he noticed that another officer had joined her. That officer quickly stepped behind Snatcher and grabbed one of his wrists, a little more roughly than he should have. He allowed it. He allowed the officer to zip tie his hands behind him. He let the cop haul him to his feet.

Maureen said to him, “Name please.”

“Rat Snatcher,” he said, lowering his gaze to look at her directly. He knew it would seem defiant. Might as well keep up appearances.

The woman, who was obviously the ranking officer, wasn’t intimidated. She chuckled and said, “Mr. Snatcher, it’s so good to finally meet you.”

“What?” he said. What the hell?  What was she talking about? Why would they ever have a need to meet each other? It threw him, and he backed up slightly.

Five officers, including the woman in front of him, prepared to shoot. The man holding him threw his body into the hold.

“Easy, easy,” said Rat. “Just lost my balance for a moment.”

Keeping her gun focused on him, Maureen said, “We are detaining you as a suspect in a shooting incident. Furthermore, we wish to question you about another case. You were seen by one of my officers in front of the building of a missing teen aged boy.”

Rat nodded. Evan Fischer. He remembered the cop that took the call. The man had not backed down when Rat hassled him. 

To the officer holding him, she said, “Read him his rights.” She lowered her gun. She backed up a few steps while she stared at him, daring him to make her reestablish her aim. When he didn’t respond, she turned and walked toward her Corolla. The other officers at the arrest surrounded him to accompany his walk into custody.   

Choices. As they go, keeping his cover was probably the best one for now. He had no idea what Detroit PD had found at the Marchesi/Morelli showdown. He knew only his part. He had shot the eldest Morelli because he’d executed Allessandro Santorini, and then had threatened Charlie and his son. Rat had run like hell after that. He hoped it was enough to distract the other brother from taking the shot at them. He prayed to God that Sawyer, aka Jonathan Tyler, had turned into a rabbit. It hurt to think that another lost boy might not survive this monumental fuck up.  

As the team secured Rat Snatcher in the car behind Maureen’s Corolla, Balmario combed the van for evidence. He ran back to the caravan with two evidence bags in hand. “Found this in the car.” He held up the first bag so that Maureen could see the gun within it. “Also this.” He held up the second. It contained an open wallet with the prisoner’s ID.

Badge number on an FBI insignia.

Maureen turned to glance at the car behind them. Great. “What did we step into?” she muttered.

“There’s more,” said Marcus. “There are shovels in the back covered with fresh dirt. I found a green and gold letter jacket that is clearly not his. There seem to be traces of body fluids, maybe blood, at least that’s what it smells like. He has a lock box in the spare tire well. I think we need to tow that thing before we take eyes off it.” He glanced back at the van.

Maureen sighed. “Agreed. Call for a tow. Send the car with our friend to the precinct. We’ll wait for the tow and cover for each other.”

“You don’t want to talk to him?” Balmario tipped his head toward Rat Snatcher who sat gazing at his lap in the back seat of the car behind them.

“No, not out here. Somewhere safe. We need to get him to the precinct, play the game to an expected result.”

“Roger that,” said Marcus Balmario. He popped out of the car and ran to the one behind them. He spoke to the officer in the passenger seat. When he was done, he tapped the car, nodded, and ran back to Maureen’s Corolla and got in.

“Guess we hang out for now,” he said.

“Yep,” she answered.

They watched as the car behind them pulled away with their prisoner on board. Whether or not he was really FBI she would know soon enough. She could hardly wait to hear his story.

Featured

Retaliation

The van wasn’t cold after sitting in the sun by the side of the trail. However, Sawyer’s teeth chattered. He clamped his jaw to stop them. Silent and shivering, he was empty, a husk instead of a boy. He wondered if death felt hollow like this. Was it cold like this? Did the fear keep stabbing like this? He couldn’t get rid of the idea that Lincoln was still alive, even after he saw a shovel full of dirt hit his face. Why couldn’t he let go of that?

Rat Snatcher glanced at him, but said nothing. What could he say?

They had just illegally buried a young boy in the woods next to the Detroit River, a young boy who had been brutally gang raped. Rat said he probably died of a heart attack. Sawyer would have had a heart attack if he’d suffered what Lincoln suffered. He wasn’t sure it would have killed him.

“Tell me again,” he said. “He was dead, right?”

Rat glanced at him, horror evident on every curve of his face. “Yes. Yes. What kind of question is that?”

Sawyer couldn’t help the tears that suddenly fell from his eyes with Rat’s rebuke. He quickly scrubbed them away.

The drive back to Marchesi’s Bar and Grill seemed twice as long as the trip to the woods, defying his conventional understanding of the return-trip effect. Under normal circumstances, the return would seem shorter. In fact, it was provable that it often felt shorter by more than five minutes. Sawyer turned to Rat to tell him about this observation, but Rat was laser-focused straight ahead as if the only thing holding him in place was the concentration it took to negotiate the city traffic. Sawyer resisted the impulse to geek out, figuring it was counterproductive in this situation.  

As they neared North Corktown, Rat sat up tall, peering ahead for all he was worth.

Sawyer looked too, trying to figure out what made Rat nervous. A shiny black Town Car with darkened windows caught his attention as it pulled across an avenue ahead of them at a light. Beautiful and sleek, it was a car he’d always admired. His grandpa Hank drove one when he was younger. Sawyer had a picture of him standing in front of it as a young reporter. “That’s the life,” he thought.

As memories rolled through his mind Rat shouted, “Hold on.” Then, he gunned the engine and raced to the nearest parking space. The tires of his van squealed and the chassis rocked as he pulled into it and yanked on the brakes. He unlocked his door, but he didn’t get out. Instead he stared through each mirror and ahead at the street in front of the van, as if counting every car parked around them.

“What?” said Sawyer.  “Why did we stop?”

“We walk from here. Keep your head down, follow me, and for chrissake, keep your mouth shut.” Rat flung open the door and stepped out.

Sawyer did the same. As they walked away, Rat aimed his key fob toward the van and locked it.

Sawyer could smell the sour stench of fear rolling off Rat as he kept a brisk pace. But he stopped often, and pushed Sawyer behind him while he scoped the area with a 360º sweep of his gaze. Each time the stench of fear grew stronger. Each time he muttered, “This is stupid, this is stupid, this is stupid.” 

After the third time, Sawyer said, “What? What is stupid?”

Before he could blink, Rat rounded on him and grabbed Sawyer’s shoulders as if to shake him. “I told you to be quiet. Did you think I was kidding?” His fingers dug into Sawyer’s triceps, pinching muscle to bone.

Then he dropped his hands from Sawyer’s shoulders, put a paw on top of his head, and looked straight into his eyes. “Keep. Your. Damn. Mouth. Shut.”

Sawyer gulped and nodded.

When they were across the street from Marchesi’s Bar and Grill, they heard men shouting. The sound seemed to come from the alley behind it. Rat grabbed Sawyer by the front of his shirt and growled, “You stay behind me. If I tell you to run, you run as if your life depended on it. Run back to the river. You don’t stop for nothin’. You hear me?”

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t know yet, but I know it isn’t going to end well. Just do as I say.”

Sawyer nodded again.

Rat shoved Sawyer behind him and sauntered toward the noise. He stopped before turning into the alley and grabbed Sawyer’s arm. He whispered into his ear, “Quiet as a mouse, Topino. We listen from here.”

Sawyer sank into the shadow against the wall, but not before he caught a glimpse of the shiny black Lincoln Town Car parked across from the back door of Marchesi’s Bar and Grill. He was barely able to comprehend the rest of the scene in the alley. 

Allessandro, the tattooed man, was on his knees at the base of the staircase with his hands duct taped behind him. Two giant men, one dressed in greasy coveralls and the other that looked like he just jumped off his cruiser, stood over him with large automatic rifles. Marchesi was on the stoop near the back door. Evan cowered behind him. The door was shut.

Sawyer thought, “The door automatically locks when it closes. You won’t be able to get back inside.” Those were the words Marchesi said to him his first night as he showed him the room he was renting. That seemed like years ago.   

He couldn’t help himself. He grabbed the back of Rat’s shirt and hung on. Rat’s attention was diverted momentarily to acknowledge his clinging, then he held up his finger to his mouth to remind him to keep quiet.

There were several other men in the alley standing guard around the men with guns. Two of them stomped up the stairs and grabbed Marchesi and Evan. They pulled the couple off the staircase and shoved them to the pavement, forcing them to their knees next to Allessandro. One of them taped their hands behind their backs.

“Where’s the other one,” barked a man as he stepped out of the Town Car that Sawyer had so admired. He was dressed in a black tuxedo. His polished shoes seemed incredibly out of place as he stamped across the greasy pavement. “Where is he, huh?” He loomed over the three captives and pulled Evan to his feet. “You know who I’m talking about, don’t you? The little creep who gave that old witch money for my sister, my dead sister Sobrina. I want to thank him, too.”

Sawyer gasped and tightened his hold on Rat’s shirt.

Evan started to sob. The man threw him back to the ground.

Marchesi leaned toward Evan and said something in another language.

Rat muttered, “Be a man. Don’t give them anything.”

One of the armed men used the butt of his gun to club Marchesi’s ear. The cartilage cracked and his ear began to bleed.

Rat Snatcher turned to Sawyer and whispered, “Listen up Bitch. I have to get help, and you have to run. Run.”

Sawyer froze.

Rat shoved him and vehemently whispered, “RUN!”

Sawyer ran. When he passed the van, he realized Rat was not behind him. He heard three loud pops. His feet didn’t wait to process the information. They kept running. In the distance, sirens screamed toward him. Lots of them. His feet didn’t wait for those either.

 Sawyer’s feet slapped the pavement behind him, moving farther and farther away. Rat pulled his phone from his pocket and punched the number three. He said, “Extraction, Marchesi’s Bar and Grill, send back up, armed confrontation.” When he hung up he crept to the corner. He was a good shot. He knew he could knock the automatics out of the hands of the goons standing there, but he knew the Morellis. The backup gang would come at him like a herd of crazed elephants.

At that moment, the eldest Morelli brother pulled a twenty-two from a vest holder hidden under his fancy suit. He shot Allessandro Santorini in the head. Evan screamed as Santorini fell against him. Little twit, this was his fuck up. When Morelli trained his gun on Charlie Marchesi, Rat Snatcher aimed and took him out. Then he ran.

He ran as if his life depended on it, because it did. He hoped his runaway bitch had run far enough. If anyone from either side saw Jonathan Tyler, he was dead. He beeped open his van, raced to it, and climbed into the driver’s seat. It took a half a second to ignite the engine. He heard shots. A bullet pinged off the back of the van. He roared out of the parking space as flashing lights headed toward him. He only hoped he’d created enough distraction to save the lives of Evan and his father.

Rat had a choice: find a place to hide or give himself up. With either choice, it was case closed, blown to smithereens. All these months trying to find the connection to the traffic business out of Taiwan, to derail the train, was wasted. The greedy belly of Detroit would continue to feed off Taiwan’s primed-to-fight young men. It made him sick.   

Featured

Nothing To Do But Follow

Sawyer, aka Jonathan Tyler, runaway, scared out of his wits and subdued, followed Rat Snatcher into the alley behind Marchesi’s Bar and Grill to go to work. Technically, he didn’t need to work, he hadn’t stayed in the room last night. That meant he hadn’t rented it. Didn’t it? However, his bag and his jacket were still there. How much did it cost to leave stuff somewhere?

He had not eaten for…he couldn’t remember when. He could hand Rat the ten he had given him and walk away right now. There had to be a soup kitchen he could find somewhere downtown.

He hesitated at the stairs and looked beyond to the garage where Marchesi’s men had raped Lincoln, the other boy serving drinks with him at the fight. Several of those men stood in the shadows just inside the open doorway. The low growls of their bickering carried across the alley, but he couldn’t make out the words.

“None of yo’ business,” said Rat from the top stair. “None of what goes on here is yo’ business. Understand me, Bitch?”

Sawyer nodded and followed him to the kitchen.

As soon as they opened the door, Hawg said, “Get your asses in gear.” He stood at the counter, slicing bacon. Hawg seemed bigger and more imposing today than he did yesterday, but when he turned to look at them, he said, “What is this?” He stopped slicing and grabbed Sawyer’s face. “Who did this?”

Rat Snatcher shrugged. “He had it comin’.”

Hawg glared at Rat. Then he grabbed a cloth draped over the edge of the sink and swiped at the blood on Sawyer’s face. “Just the one bruise,” he said.

The cloth, saturated with the smell of bleach, was rough against his skin.

“He has more,” said Rat Snatcher, as he ran his eyes up and down Sawyer’s body.

Hawg lifted Sawyer’s shirt.

Sawyer winced when Hawg’s massive fingers skimmed over his ribs and shoulder as surveyed the bruises littering his torso.

“One day on the job, and already askin’ for a beating. Go figure,” said Hawg. He let go of Sawyer’s shirt and shoved him.

“He’s fine,” said Rat.

“Shivering from hunger again,” said Hawg. He went to the stove and splashed batter on the hot grill. Then he took three eggs and cracked them onto another, smaller grill, fired up especially for eggs. He quickly scrambled them and added bits of bacon over the top.

Sawyer sat in the corner of the kitchen, behind the door, and inhaled the food that Hawg made for him. Even if Hawg charged him for it, he could pay for it with the extra ten dollars that Rat had given him when he handed him a hundred to give to Marchesi. There would be no need to work another shift here. As he stuck the last bite of pancake into his mouth, Marchesi slammed into the kitchen and rushed Rat Snatcher where he stood slicing side pork.

“Who do you think you are?” shouted Marchesi, as he grabbed a handful of Rat’s shirt.

Marchesi was half of Rat’s height, so Sawyer was surprised at the fear in Rat’s eyes. “What’s this about, Boss?” said Rat.

“Seems we have a little problem on our hands in the garage, and you’re just the man to take care of it. Get it done.”

He turned to storm out of the kitchen and saw Sawyer.

Sawyer froze, mouth stuffed with pancake.

“Where have you been?”

Silently, staring at Marchesi, Sawyer pulled the folded bills from his pocket. He handed the hundred to the angry man in front of him.

“What’s this for?” said Marchesi. “Where the hell did you get it?”

“Blow job,” said Sawyer, around the mushy pancake in his mouth. He gulped but the mush didn’t slip down his throat. Instead, his stomach flipped. Marchesi, the kitchen, Rat, and Hawg faded away as an imagined, giant stiffy waggled in front of him. He gagged as his body physically reacted to the picture his brain conjured. Did the horror show on his face? He tried to swallow past the gag reflex. The mush caught in his throat. He gulped again. It slid down. He hiccoughed and bile soured the sweet taste of what had been a decent breakfast.

Marchesi noticed something, because his glare became amusement. He turned away to glare at Rat. “Word is,” he nodded toward Sawyer, “he’s yours. Take your little bitch with you,” he said, as he slammed out the door.

Rat slowly finished slicing the piece of meat he was running through the machine. More slowly than that, he took off his apron and hung it over a hook on the back wall of the kitchen. He didn’t look up at either Sawyer or Hawg, but he kept shaking his head. Finally, he said, “Damn.”

Hawg clapped his shoulder. “Do what you can do,” he said. There was a glint of sadness in his eyes that Sawyer didn’t understand. An understanding passed between the two that seemed to say, “We’ve seen this before.”  

Since Sawyer had not known either of the men for more than a couple of days, he figured it was a quiet moment between them he should not have seen. When Rat caught his eyes, Sawyer felt the same fear he had felt in the curandera’s flat, one he recognized now as an inescapable knowing that his life was about to change forever. “What?” he said.

Rat shook his head. “Get that dish cleaned and meet me in the garage.” He shuffled out the door, seemingly half of who he was.

Sawyer followed Rat to the garage. It took a second for his eyes to adjust to the change from bright to dark, but when they did, he saw Rat sitting on the floor next to Lincoln. Lincoln didn’t seem to be responding as Rat smoothed his soft blond hair away from his face.

Sawyer joined the two of them and sat on the cement facing Rat Snatcher.

Snatcher didn’t look at Sawyer. His eyes followed the movement of his hand as he continuously ran his fingers through Lincoln’s hair. He said, “Marchesi found him on a street corner seven months ago, skinny, full of drugs, trickin’. Mostly men, but women too.”

He looked at Sawyer. “There’s a lot of money to be made in the sex trade. He made a lot of money, but he was skimming Marchesi’s share. No one meant for it to end up this way.” 

“He’s dead, isn’t he,” said Sawyer.

“Poor kid probably had a heart attack.” Rat Snatcher frowned and shook his head. “We have a job to do.”

“What?” said Sawyer. He couldn’t catch his breath. The sound of his heart pounding against his ribs echoed in his ears, a sudden chill shook his bones.

“You sit with him. I’m going to get my van.” Rat shuffled out of the garage and disappeared as he passed through the beam of light streaming through the open door.

Sawyer gasped. He stood, wanting so badly to follow him, to get away from death and follow Rat into the light. Instead, he simply backed up until a workbench stopped him. There, he froze, keeping watch. As he did, he thought he saw Lincoln breathing. Timidly, he approached and stared at his chest. It didn’t seem to be moving when he looked at him from this angle. Did he dare touch him? He watched, holding his own breath, listening for Lincoln’s. Nothing. Not one single part of Lincoln moved. It was as if he was frozen in time. In a way, Sawyer guessed he was.

He returned to his spot at the workbench. Again, did he see Lincoln take a breath? Sawyer looked away. His eyes could play all kinds of tricks on him. It didn’t alter the fact that Lincoln was lying on the cold cement, unresponsive. Dead.

When Rat Snatcher returned, he had a tarp with him. Together they wrapped Lincoln’s body with it, then they hefted him to the back of the van.

As they pulled out of the alley, Sawyer said, “Where are we taking him?”

“Well, that’s a good question,” said Rat. “Normally I would drop him off at the morgue, sign the paperwork, and get back to my job, but today…today we have a bigger problem. Eyes are watching us. Your little stunt with the curandera last night caught the attention of Marchesi’s rivals, the Morelli Brothers. I can’t be seen going to the morgue. That information could get back to people who could use it against Marchesi. I can’t have that happen.”

“Why? Why would he care?”

“He just would, okay. There’s some stuff you just don’t need to know.” His voice was sharp and his eyes were fierce.

Sawyer got the picture. “Okay.”

“I outta shove you back onto a bus and send you home.”

“No,” said Sawyer.

“Exactly, you would just run away again. Am I right?”

Sawyer didn’t answer him. He wasn’t sure he was right. He wasn’t sure of anything at this moment. The thought of sleeping in a real bed, in a safe room, his room, eating breakfast at a table with family instead of on a bucket in the corner of a steamy industrial kitchen appealed to him right now. Would he run away again? He didn’t know.

“Can’t take the chance of being seen doing that either. You’re Marchesi’s property now.” Rat glanced at Sawyer. “My bitch and Marchesi’s property. What a dilemma, huh?” Rat reached across the center console of the van and quickly squeezed Sawyer’s leg.

Maybe it was because he was thinking about the safety of his parent’s house and how far away that was, or maybe he was just exhausted. He didn’t take the gesture as a creepy ‘come on.’ Instead, it felt more like a promise that whatever happened next, Rat had his back.

Rat drove to the river and followed it until it headed south toward Lake Erie. Was he planning to dump the body in the river or the lake? Did he dare ask? Rat’s jaw was set, and it was obvious he was grinding his teeth. Whatever he had planned caused him to hold onto the wheel of the van with an iron grip. He slowed and turned left onto a single lane road. They crossed a cattle guard after which the pavement became a loose rock path. Rat drove to a trail head and pulled off the path to park.

He disconnected his seat belt and turned to Sawyer. “We carry him from here.” He pointed to the right. “Through those trees. We won’t take the trail in.”

“We are going to leave him here?”

“Yeah. We’ll find a pretty spot to lay him to rest.” Rat jumped out of the van.

Sawyer didn’t move. He was having a hard enough time processing the fact that he knew this boy, spoke with him last night, and now he was dead, a body that was to be disposed of in the woods. What about Lincoln’s family? What about his friends? Did he have either?

Rat pounded on the van door.

Sawyer jumped.

“Now.” Rat’s mouth moved, but Sawyer wasn’t hearing, he wasn’t seeing. The world was fuzzing around the edges.

Rat pulled open the door, grabbed his arm, and yanked him out of the van. “We have to move now.”

At the back door of the van, Rat handed Sawyer a second tarp, a shovel and a rake. He took them.

Rat lifted Lincoln’s body and threw it over his shoulder. Then he trudged toward the trees. There was nothing to do, but follow. 

Sawyer did.

Featured

Payment Due

(Warning: Street life often ends in violence. This is one of those scenes.)

Sawyer huddled in an alcove, leaning against the door of a small pharmacy, hidden from the terrors of the night. The body of the baby rested next to his feet. He never should have put it down, but he was cold, hungry, and scared out of his mind. In his haste to get away from whatever terror was knocking down the door at Emilia Rodriguez’s flat, he ran past the streets he recognized. He would have to retrace his steps to find his way back to Marchesi’s Bar and Grill.

He stared at the body. He couldn’t bear to pick it up. Would it be safe here? Surely, someone would find it when the shop opened in the morning. He had to get going. Rat was expecting him. Marchesi expected the hundred dollars. Evan expected to hear the outcome of his desperate plea for help.

Sawyer couldn’t bear to leave it. But he had to, didn’t he? Shaking, he stood. With his back solid against the door, he said, “Bye, baby.” His feet refused to move. With as much will as he could muster, he pushed away from the door and took one step. “I have to go now,” he said to it, shaking his head. “You’re safe here. Someone will find you in the morning.” He took another step.

Three more steps took him out of the alcove. He stopped, wanting so much to look behind him and reassure the little baby that all would be well. Tears blurred his vision.

The baby was dead. There was no baby, just a body. Sawyer felt his stomach lurch, but before he allowed it to empty the sadness that filled it, he ran. He ran back the way he had come.

Numb and cold and shaking with shock, Sawyer stumbled down the alley behind Marchesi’s Bar and Grill as the first kiss of dawn rose above the building. He felt death in the crook of his arm, though the tiny stillborn baby was no longer there. A scream ricocheted off the walls of the alley, but it registered in his mind as an after burn of the screams of a broken, beautiful girl birthing death.

The second scream, as desperate and haunted as the first, surrounded him where he was, in the alley. The person screamed a third time. It came from an empty garage beyond the bar. He ran to it and froze outside a sliding door made of corrugated metal. From inside, he heard jeering men, like the men in the warehouse championing the mixed martial arts fighters of their choosing. Yanking on the heavy door, he pulled it half way open.

Inside a mob of men circled around a commotion on the floor. The same voice screamed, “No-o-o-o,” before gasping another sobbing breath.

Sawyer ran to the edge of the circle. He couldn’t see what was happening, so he jostled the preoccupied men until he slipped through them to the center. Allessandro, the tattooed man, pressed Lincoln, the other server at the fighting event, into the cold, grease stained, cement floor. His heavy hand smashed the poor boy’s cheek into his own spit and tears. 

Lincoln’s clothes, ripped and bloodstained, hung off his naked arms and legs. A second man stepped up to him. While Alles held him down, the second man grabbed his torn pants and yanked them to his knees, leaving Lincoln bare-assed. Then he motioned obscenely to the crowd, rousing a cheer before he pulled down the zipper of his own jeans.

Sawyer yelled, “No,” as he shoved the man away from Lincoln. Sawyer fell onto his knees and put a gentle hand on the younger boy’s face. Alles let go of Lincoln to grab at Sawyer but immediately slammed his hand on the younger boy when he tried to squirm away.

Simultaneously, three men grabbed Sawyer, one on each arm and another that pulled him by his hair. He twisted and kicked. He tried to grab the hand that was clawing at his scalp, but the men on each arm held him too tightly and he couldn’t reach the fingers digging into his head. Sawyer shouted and bucked, trying to free himself. As a team, they jerked him out of the circle, which opened up to let them through. “This ain’t your business,” shouted Allessandro. He sat on Lincoln who sobbed uncontrollably, face first on the cold, dirty cement.

“Leave him alone,” said Sawyer, jerking against the hold on his arms.

Someone in the crowd tittered.

“Or what?” sneered Alles. “You gonna take me down?”

Someone else said, “Yeah, he’s gonna slap you with a dishcloth.”

The crowd roared with laughter.

“I’m not going to let you hurt him,” said Sawyer, furiously struggling with the men on either side of him.

A woolly, bearded man with a slashed and scarred face said, “The new little kitchen pet is gonna bust our butts.” He made kissy noises at him. “Thinks he’s gonna take away our fun.”

Several grumbled, “Yeah right. No way, fool. I’d fancy his ass, next.” The crowd agreed.

A loud crack resounded against the metal garage door. Everyone froze. The men that held Sawyer turned. Rat Snatcher stood in the doorway with a jaggedly cut two by two in his hand. His face snarled when he growled, “Let Sawyer go before I break some heads.”

Alles sneered. “He’s interrupting some business. That’s going to cost him.”

The crowd hooted.

“He’s my business. I’ll deal with him.”

“Since when, Rat,” said Alles, stepping away from Lincoln to yank Sawyer’s hair.

Rat swung the two by two against the door, and the crack resounded through the alley.

Allessandro let Sawyer’s hair go, and the men threw him at Rat.

Sawyer fell to his knees in front of Snatcher who also grabbed his hair to pull him up.

Sawyer winced and cried out in pain. With both hands, he grabbed Snatcher’s wrist.

Alles said, “Get your bitch outta here before we jack roll him after we’re done with this little thief.”

Lincoln’s screams escalated.

Alles strode back to the struggling boy, squatted over him, and shoved one of his filthy hands into Lincoln’s mouth to gag him.

Snatcher yanked Sawyer out of the building.

Lincoln’s screams turned to agonized gurgles. Sawyer fought, swinging his arms ineffectually. Snatcher tightened his hold. When they were clear of the alley, Snatcher sat and pulled Sawyer down with him, wrapping his neck in a bear choke.

“They are gang raping him,” gasped Sawyer, struggling against the hold.

“Obviously,” said Snatcher, tightening his arms around him. “He’s been pocketing money. He’ll have to pay for that. Ain’t nothin’ nobody can do about it. It’s best if you mind your own business or you’ll find yourself on the floor of that garage in the same position, Jon.”

Sawyer quit struggling and lay against Rat’s chest, panting and trembling.

Snatcher loosened his hold slightly. “That’s right. Jonathan Tyler, fifteen. That’s what the flyer said, you little twit. How the hell do you get the name Sawyer out of that?” He jerked Sawyer, aka Jon, firmly against his chest and tightened the bear choke.

Jon squirmed and kicked against the pavement trying to loosen Rat’s hold on him. “My name is Sawyer. Who are you anyway?”

“Yeah, that’s a good question, isn’t it? One I’m not going to share with you. This is what’s going to happen next. That hungry crowd back there is expecting you to crawl back to them with some sense beaten into you. Guess that falls on me.”

“Who are you!” screamed Sawyer, trying to twist out of Snatcher’s arms.

“I’m the guy that’s going to teach you just what you stepped into. Stand up.” Snatcher let him go, stood, and backed away two steps.

Sawyer scrambled to his feet, swaying on the corner like someone who was too drunk to see straight. Snatcher crouched in a fighting position, one leg back and angled for good balance. Recognizing the basic stance in mixed-martial arts, Sawyer mirrored him, but he couldn’t focus.

Snatcher sent a forward jab against his right shoulder and knocked him to the ground. “Get up,” he ordered.

Sawyer put his feet under him and rose.

Snatcher jabbed his cheek.

Sawyer’s head flew back and he fell flat against the cement. For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, he saw stars.

Snatcher straddled him, hand held out for him to take. Sawyer took it. Snatcher, pulled him up, threw his arms around him, and rolled. He locked Sawyer’s right knee between his legs.

Sawyer’s leg muscle bunched into a Charlie horse and he screamed, “Aaugh. Stop. Stop.”

Snatcher held tight.

Sawyer’s leg slowly relaxed and with it, the fight went out of him.

Snatcher did not release him. “Detroit’s a long way to come from Stockton. What are you running from?”

Sawyer hunched a shoulder, the only part of his body he dared move.  

“Not an answer,” said Rat Snatcher. For good measure, he pulled Sawyer’s body into a tight bear hug. The pressure pulled against his trapped leg, causing pain. It also caused Sawyer’s breath to whoosh out of him in a grunt. Then Snatcher let him go and sat on the sidewalk next to him.

Sawyer rolled onto his belly and lay there, too stunned to get off the ground. He mumbled, “What now?”

“Now you tell me where you’ve been all night.”

Sawyer wiped his nose with his fingers. They came away bloody. “Here, in the alley.”

Snatcher slapped his back.

Outraged, Sawyer sat up and faced him.

“I don’t appreciate it when people lie to me,” said Snatcher, backhanding Sawyer’s chest. “I saw you run out of the alley last night. You’ve been gone hours.”

Sawyer shook his head and pushed away from Snatcher, putting some distance between them.

“Not going to talk? Let me see if I can fill you in. Evan talked you into taking some money to Emilia Rodriguez, Sobrina Morelli’s midwife. You delivered that money, but you never came out of the building. Where did you go? Obviously, the Morelli brothers didn’t catch you, although Sobrina and Emilia were hauled outta there pretty fast.” He stared at Sawyer.

Sawyer stared back.

“Okay. I will finish the story then. You ran out the back window and down the fire escape. However, that was hours ago, and it doesn’t take that long to get from there to here. So I will say it again, where were you?”

Sawyer bent over his knees and grabbed the back of his neck with his hands. Who was this guy and why did he care so much?

“We can’t sit here much longer waiting. I’ll be late again. Hawg, our esteemed cook, threatened to throw me in the cages, and I have to stay outta there to get done what I need to do.”

Sawyer looked up, still crouched beneath the shelter of arms thrown over his head. “Why do you care?” 

“I do, that’s it. That’s all you need to know. I told you Hawg and I will look after you, but if you can’t be straight with me, I gotta cut you loose. A run-away puts a monkey wrench in my plans.”

“How, how did you find out?”

“My business. Assume I know a lot. You still have that money I gave you?”

“Yes.”

“Now we go back and face the consequences. First thing you gotta do is pay Marchesi. He thinks you’ve been working. You owe him.”

Sawyer looked up. “Why? Why do I own him?” Sawyer had a suspicion but refused to wrap his mind around it. “Why did you give me this money?”

Rat Snatcher scrubbed his face with both hands. “Oh my god, kid. He thinks you ran out of the venue last night to go with the man in the brown suit. Why do you think I gave you money to give to Charlie? That is how much you are worth, at least for a good blow job.” 

Sawyer crawled to the curb and gagged. The only thing he had left to heave was air.

“You shittin’ me?” said Rat. “Haven’t you been payin’ attention? Marchesi owns every fool’s ass in this place.”

Had Marchesi been in the garage directing the attack on Lincoln? Sawyer didn’t see him there. 

His face must have shown his surprise because Snatcher said, “That’s right. Who do you think ordered that little display of affection?” His voice dripped with sarcasm, but it didn’t make Sawyer feel any better or any less scared for Lincoln.

“He owns that mob, he owns that boy on the floor, he owns Hawg, he owns me. He owns you.” Snatcher stretched a leg and kicked the sole of Sawyer’s shoe.

That was the last straw for Sawyer. Defeat crashed down on him. He felt no bigger than the beetle scuttling across the sidewalk away from the heat of his body.

Snatcher’s face softened. “I have your back, but you are my bitch now. You go where I say you go, you run when I say you run, and you hide when I say you hide. I can keep you safe, but only if you follow my lead. You hear me, Bitch?”

Sawyer gulped and nodded. He sure as hell didn’t want to end up on the floor of that garage at the mercy of Marchesi’s mob. Who was Rat Snatcher? What did being his bitch mean? Rat Snatcher extended his hand to help him off the ground.

Sawyer took it.  

Featured

The Favor

The Favor

At a full run, Sawyer left the mixed martial arts venue full of rich patrons with money to spend on any pleasure they desired. He ran down the dark lanes of the industrial park following the train of parked cars. He passed the man in the brown suit who startled where he stood next to his blue Lincoln Continental.

“Hey, kid,” he said. “Hey!”

Sawyer didn’t answer, nor did he look back. He ran until he came to a wider street with a marked middle line that ran north. He paused, overcome by nostalgia as river smells filled his sinuses. He was so far from Stockton, living a life in direct opposition to the sheltering of his mother and stepfather.

The brown suited man in the blue Continental pulled up to the curb and rolled down his window.

“Hey, kid. Can I give you lift?”

Sawyer didn’t know anything about this stranger, other than he’d spilled drinks all over him. He shook his head, and backed away from the car.

“Hey, no problem,” said the man, throwing up his hands. “I’m not out for anything other than offering a ride.”

Sawyer backed up two more steps, and said, “Thanks mister, but I’m alright. It’s not far.”

“Suit yourself,” said the man. Then he pulled forward and turned right, heading north.

The truth was, Sawyer wasn’t sure where he was, but he did know the general direction in which to go. So he ran, following the red taillights of the blue Continental. If the man noticed, he didn’t slow his car.

Sawyer ran until he reached W. Jefferson, frantic with traffic as one would expect for a city of this size. He would have to cross at a light. He ran east until 21st Street. Impatient, and aware of everything around him, he waited for the cross signal.

Then he ran north again. He ran past hookers catcalling as cars rolled past. He ran past a group rapping on a corner. He zigzagged until he found Howard, a name he recognized. He ran some more. He ran though the muscles in his legs burned. He ran though he couldn’t swallow, his mouth was so dry. He ran until his heart pounded hard enough against his chest to crack his ribs. 

He stopped and hid in a doorway to catch his breath. A National Dry Goods building was ahead of him. He remembered seeing it from the window of the Greyhound when he arrived. Was that only last night? Geezus.

He bent over, wondering for a moment about how angry his mother and stepfather must be right now? Shaking off that worry, he ran east until he saw the Greyhound depot. After that, Marchesi’s Bar and Grill was no more than a mile away.

Knowing where he was, he ran following the course he took last night, block after block through darkened neighborhoods and past street gatherings through which he wove. A loud crowd of hip-hop artists jeered at him when he ran through a performance. He didn’t stop to apologize.

He ran to Marchesi’s Bar and Grill, and then he ran around the block to the alley behind it. He ran past the staircase to the corner where he had used a bucket as a seat earlier in the day. He threw his hands against the wall, and though that stopped him, his legs twitched, trying to run on.

He gasped, and gasped, and slowly slid his hands down the wall until they rested on that bucket. His heart slowed in increments, his breathing eased, he twisted until he could sit his aching glutes down. Gently, he eased his weight onto them. He leaned against the wall and rested in the corner, the blessed dark corner, in the alley behind the building belonging to the man who sought to make him his tool. He leaned over his legs and combed his hands through his sopping hair.

“Psst.”

Someone from above him was trying to get his attention.

“Psst.”

He twisted to look up.

“Hey,” said a slurred male voice from a window above him. “Hey, can you hear me?”

Groaning, Sawyer stood and stepped away from the corner.

“Hey, come up here.” It was the boy with the mangled face. What was his name?

“Evan?”

“Yeah. Come on man, I need help.”

Sawyer laboriously climbed the steps to the apartment above the bar. Timidly, he knocked on the door.

Evan opened it. His right eye was completely swollen, a tennis ball of reddened oozing skin. His other eye, though swollen, was at least a slit through which he could see. One arm was in a sling, and he leaned heavily against the wall, bent with pain.

“Sit,” he said, slurred because his lips were swollen, his jaw lumpy. He nodded toward a small dinette before he tottered toward it and sat heavily into one of the chairs. “I need a favor, like, tonight. I know you don’t know me, but I am a good guy. You met my girl this afternoon. The pregnant one.”

Sawyer was listening hard, trying to understand Evan’s slurred speech.

“I need to get money to the curandera. Can you do that, man? You don’t know me. I don’t know you, but no one else is going to help.” Evan’s eyes betrayed his panic.

Was he asking for money? Sawyer had a hundred, ten dollars in his pocket, but Rat had been very clear. “Give Marchesi this hundred, all of it.” The words, “all of it” rang loud like a chime in his mind, echoing, ‘all of it, all of it, all of it.’ He did not want to end up looking like Evan.

He had a ten he could give him. Sawyer would live if he skipped a meal.

As if reading his mind, Evan said, “I don’t need money. Look.” He picked up an envelope thick with bills. “I have money. Take it. The curandera’s name and address are right here. See? Tell her it’s for Sobrina Morelli.”

Sawyer took the envelope.

“Get there as soon as you can.”

Sawyer held the fat envelope, staring at it.

“Please, man.”

He was supposed to wait for Rat. What if he wasn’t back by the time Rat returned?

“It’s not far. Only a few blocks north. It won’t take long.”

Sawyer nodded. “Okay. Sure. I’ll do it.”

“Thanks, man.”

Sawyer let himself out of the apartment and stumbled down the stairs. He took off, hoping that after a few moments his legs would warm up, but his heart beat wildly. It wasn’t the stress of too much exercise; it was the possibility of seeing Sobrina Morelli again. He headed further into town.

“Only a few blocks further north,” he said to his protesting muscles.

The block where the curandera lived was deeply shadowed, but the light was bright over the entrance. He stopped under it to catch his breath. He had no idea what time it was, but he knew it was after midnight. How would he do this? Knock? Slip the bills under her door with a note? He climbed the steps and tested the outside door. It was locked. There was a call button to the left. He hunted for Rodriguez and pushed the buzzer. 

“Si. Who is it?” Her voice was loud and abrupt. 

Sawyer was surprised that anyone answered and felt badly that she did. “I have money from Evan for Sobrina Morelli.”

The door clicked open.

Her flat was on the second floor. He sighed as he looked at the darkened stairwell. “Grow some balls,” he thought and took the stairs to the second floor two at a time. If the numbers were in order, her flat was at the end of the hall.

As he stepped up to the door, it opened. A small, frazzled, matronly woman with gray hair dyed black said, “Come in. Come in.”

Someone moaned in the background.

She said again, “Come in. You stay.”

A loud moan morphed into a scream.

Emilia Rodriguez hurried down her long dark hallway toward the source of the moans and screams. Sawyer stood just inside the opened door as she disappeared into a lit room to the left at the end of the hall. He slowly turned and closed the door. Did she mean for him to stay by the door or follow her? Hesitantly, he walked toward the light.

He stepped into a tiny postage-sized kitchen. The first thing he saw was a sweaty, half-naked girl sprawled, legs open, upon towels and blankets placed on the cracked and dingy linoleum floor. When he realized he was looking at Sobrina Morelli in thrall to labor, he looked up, around, everywhere but at her heaving and shaking body.

A bare yellow bulb hung over the round dinette beneath which she lay and created the pall of hazy golden light. To his left, dirty dishes filled the sink. Beyond that, pots half full of grits with ham and over-cooked broccoli remains stunk like a sewer. Some kind of yellow sauce, that may have been that color only because of the pervasive light, was in a small white porcelain bowl between the burners.

Sobrina screamed again. Sawyer couldn’t help it. His eyes followed the sound. Her dark hair spilled beneath one of the four chairs around the table. Each time her belly heaved, she raised her head, and a lock would catch on a roughened dowel between the chair’s legs. When she set her head down to catch a break from the heaving and groaning, hairs ripped from her scalp and hung from the dowel like a weird talisman. 

“Come on, Sobrina. You can do this,” said the curandera. Her wizened hands shook as she rested them atop Sobrina’s cramping belly.

“It’s too early. Weeks too early,” sobbed Sobrina.

“Breathe, just breathe,” said the old midwife.

Jackson Tyler opened his eyes. There was no dingy kitchen, no screaming girl; there was only quiet, velvet darkness. He threw the blankets from his bed and struggled to catch his breath. The horror felt by the person who watched the girl bleed onto the towels as she tried to push a child into the world gripped his heart like a vise. He glanced at his clock. Two am. His eyes fluttered shut as the vision took him again.

The girl tried with all her might to push the child into the world. Only, he didn’t see how she could do it. There was so much blood.

A loud knock ricocheted through the front hallway. He froze. The old woman attending the girl froze. The girl heaved one more time. The knocking became angry, as if someone meant to bust down the door.

When he looked back at the girl, a tiny body lay between her shaking legs.

The woman lifted the impossibly small infant and sadly shook her head. There was no life in its body. She tied a string on the cord dripping between the girl and the baby and then cut it. Quickly, she wrapped the baby in a blanket and shoved it into his arms.

He backed up a step, horrified at the bundle he was holding.

The knocking grew more insistent.

“Quick mijo. The fire escape is in the back bedroom.” The woman urgently waved, twisting her head to look over her shoulder at the room across from the kitchen. The knocking had turned into frantic pounding. “Now, sal de aqui!” She slapped his leg.

Too stunned to disinherit the impossible task given him, he backed into the darkness of the hallway behind him.

“Go-o-o-o,” screamed the girl from the floor of the kitchen.

He crossed the hall, ran through the old woman’s bedroom to the window. Outside was the fire escape. He cradled the baby against his chest with one arm and with the other hand he curled his fingers into the cut out at the base of the window frame and pulled up. The window caught. He considered setting the baby on the floor but knew he wouldn’t pick it up again if he did. He pulled one more time. It moved up enough for him to get his hand under the frame. He pushed it as far open as it would go and climbed out. Clambering down the rickety metal staircase to the alley behind the building, he decided which way to run. He hit the pavement at full speed, heading south.

He ran, crossing the first street without a care for oncoming traffic. Cars honked and brakes squealed. He didn’t look back. He ran down another alley and crossed a second street. Midway through the next alley, he stopped. Hidden from lights over doorways and street lamps he lost it. Painfully, his stomach heaved. Again and again, long, stringy, sour rivers of bile splashed against the pavement under his feet. All the while, he cradled the dead infant against his chest held in the crook of his arm.

“Oh, my god,” said Jack. He ran to his bathroom. In the darkness, he swished the taste of vomit from his mouth. He lurched to the wall and flipped on the light. Tea. He needed a cup of tea to settle his stomach. He flipped on the lights in his bedroom, turned them on in his living area, the front hallway, and the kitchen. Even with his apartment lit up, he could not shake the darkness of that alley, running from an unknown danger with a dead baby in his arms. “Please, God,” he said, shaking as he turned on the gas under his teakettle. “Please don’t let these be Jonathan’s eyes.” 

Featured

Second Shift

At 9:45 pm, after packing boxes of sandwiches, the kitchen crew drove to the venue. Rat parked the van in front of a warehouse in the middle of a cul-de-sac above the river. The area was eerily quiet for a city at this time of night. However, long trains of parked vehicles lined both sides of the lane fronting the warehouse for more than two blocks past it in either direction. Carrying two heavy crates of sandwiches stacked atop one another, Sawyer quietly followed Rat Snatcher and the other two members of the kitchen crew, also carrying crates, around the building to the back where they slipped into a door that was ajar. They left it that way.

The small room was dark. Muffled cheering seeped through the wall. Rat opened the next door and a wave of sound crashed over them accompanied by the glare of floodlights. Sawyer ducked his face behind the crates he carried to give his eyes a chance to acclimate. He noticed that the smaller boy that had packed sandwiches with them did the same thing. His name was Lincoln, and he was part of the regular night shift.

There were not thousands of rowdy men crammed into the warehouse, but it seemed like it. The pit was in the middle, carved out of the warehouse floor and surrounded by chain link fencing. Two men shoulder to shoulder fought bare handed with no protective head, arm, or leg gear, but Sawyer recognized the moves. A small, dark skinned man was fighting a tall Nordic type. The little man aimed a rear T into the inguinal fold of the taller man. He bent in half. The little one grabbed him and rolled until he pinned him in a rolling knee bar. It was an impressive tactic.

Large dog cages lined one side of the warehouse. Inside each, sat a human fighter. Sawyer remembered an admonishment the morning cook, Hawg, had given Rat Snatcher when Rat was late arriving to work. He said, “You’ll find yourself in a cage.” Sawyer shuddered. Then he noticed the shackles on the fighters’ wrists and around their ankles. What kind of fighting was this?

Rat nudged his shoulder. “You’re not here to watch.” He led the crew around the crowd toward a booth on the far side of the main floor.

Sawyer followed behind them, eyeing the cages as they pushed through the crowd. As they approached the booth, Rat stopped, blocking them from moving forward.

Marchesi was spitting mad, gesticulating and yelling in the tattooed man’s face.

“Looks like Alles stepped over the line, again,” said Rat. 

Sawyer cocked his head and stared at the tattooed man. “His name is Alice?” Suddenly he didn’t seem so scary.

“Alles, Alles,” said Lincoln, who had stopped right in front of Sawyer. “His full name is Allessandro.”

“Oh,” said Sawyer.  

Marchesi shoved Allessandro. As Alles slunk away, Marchesi looked out over the crowd. When he saw the kitchen crew, he motioned for them to join him.

Sawyer paused next to Lincoln waiting for him to move forward. Rat muttered in Sawyer’s ear, “Here we go.” 

Sawyer hunched his shoulder against the intrusion of Rat’s breath against his neck. Geezus. 

Marchesi didn’t waste any time barking orders at them. He put Rat on security, teamed Sawyer and Lincoln as servers, and put the cook at the bar.

Sawyer was fine with it. Serving would be easy to do, and he could watch some of the fighting as he walked through the crowd. He grabbed a tray of plastic cups filled with a sweet smelling, bubbling, iced drink. All he had to do was offer libations. He didn’t have to take money or orders. Everyone was drinking whatever was in these cups. He remembered the advice Rat gave him before the shift started, “Keep your head down, don’t engage, don’t look into their eyes.” Round one went okay. By the time he circled the pit once, the cups were gone. He grabbed another filled tray. Half way around, Allessandro stepped in front of him.

“Stupido. You move too fast. No one can grab a cup off a moving target. Stay here a moment. Let them come to you.”

Sawyer stood. He stood for a while. He watched Lincoln flirt with the crowd. Lincoln looked at the patrons, caught their gazes and returned them with a smile. They took his cups. Should he follow Rat’s advice or Lincoln’s lead? No one was taking his cups. Lincoln’s second tray was already empty.

Allessandro jostled him again. “Why are you just standing around? You are supposed to be delivering drinks.” He shoved Sawyer sideways.

Sawyer’s sharp reflexes saved the cups from tipping as he struggled to counteract the motion of Allessandro’s aggression.

“Get moving,” Alles barked.

Sawyer moved away. He walked slowly, but his gut told him to follow Rat’s advice, so he didn’t look anyone in the eye, but he did quietly offer the tray. Slowly, the patrons responded, and his tray emptied.

Lincoln was at the booth waiting for the cook to fill another tray.  

“You make this look easy,” Sawyer told him.

“Oh, thank you,” he said. He curtsied. “My first day was hard, too.”

“How long have you been working these events?”

“Almost three months. You’re lucky. Marchesi must think highly of you. Most of us start with grunt work.”

“Well, I did work the morning shift at the bar today.”

Lincoln cooed, “That ain’t grunt work, baby.” Then he leaned away to ogle Sawyer. “You are pretty. I can see why he’s given you this opportunity so quickly?”

“Opportunity?”

“To earn money. These clients pay big. It’s better than being thrown on a corner. Smile and touch them while you’re serving. One of them will take the bait. Show him, or her, a good time and you can come away with twice the money you make in the kitchen or on any of the grunt jobs.”

Lincoln grabbed his tray and left the booth.

What bait would the clients take? His intuition screamed at him, “Keep your head down, don’t engage, don’t look them in the eye.” So, he followed it.

By the end of the second hour, Sawyer’s feet ached and his shoulders were losing strength. The trays themselves weren’t that heavy even loaded with drinks, but weaving in and out of the boisterous crowd and keeping them level so the drinks wouldn’t spill was harder than it looked. 

Several of the fighters were on their second or third rounds, and it was easy to tell they were tiring. One of the best, the small man that he first admired when they arrived, was currently fighting his third bout. At least the man he was against was similar in size, but he was similar in experience as well. He stopped to watch. His opponent threw a roundhouse, but the wily man sprawled, and somehow, as he bounced back to his feet, he pushed backward, away from a second kick.

“You,” Allessandro yelled while simultaneously bumping Sawyer’s shoulder. The tray jumped in his hand and liquor sloshed. “You drop that boy, and I’ll have your hide.”

Sawyer sidestepped and Alles followed. Someone crowded Sawyer on the right. His muscles tightened on the tray, which shuddered in his hands. The ice in the drinks jumped. He looked up.

Rat stood next to him, staring at Allessandro. Alles put up his hands and said, “You deal with him.” Then he slunk into the crowd.

“Keep your head down, do your job,” said Rat. Then he too disappeared.

Sawyer finished this tour and returned to the booth to fill his tray. Marchesi counted money at the bar, lots of it. He looked up at Sawyer when he stepped into the booth. “Entry fees and wagers,” Marchesi said, holding a wad of bills.

Sawyer nodded. 

Marchesi said, “Don’t let Alles get to you,” he said. “His panties are in a twist because I rode his ass over splitting your lip.”

“Uh…thank you?” said Sawyer, not sure if he should speak at all.

Marchesi chuckled. “I have plans for you. Can’t ruin that pretty picture.” He gathered the money and placed it into a locked box, which he then put under the bar. Then he poured cheap champagne with a chaser of Triple Sec into twenty red, plastic cups to fill another tray. “Off you go.”

The cups went fast. He was on his way back with five drinks on his tray when the crowd roared. Sawyer glanced down into the pit. A spectator raised his arms in celebration. The tray flew. A large man in a brown business suit took the brunt of the accident.

“Sorry. I am sorry,” said Sawyer, scrambling on his hands and knees to pick up the empty plastic cups that rolled around the big man’s feet.

The man reached for the towel Sawyer had over his shoulder and wiped his head and face. He halfheartedly scrubbed off his suit.

At that moment, someone grabbed the back of Sawyer’s shirt and hauled him off his knees. Rat.

Rat Snatcher said to the man in the brown suit, “I am so sorry for your inconvenience. Please, accept this in return.” He handed him a hundred dollar bill.

Then he hauled Sawyer to a dark corner and shoved him against the wall. 

Sawyer didn’t need Rat to tell him he was now in a lot of trouble. Suddenly, the excitement of the fighting, the crowd cheering, and being free as his own man soured, overlaid with pungent odors of male sweat, tangy spit and vomit, coppery blood, and a moldy warehouse. He was aware of timid little girls and pretty boys cowering next to the jeering and betting male patrons. An inkling of why Marchesi wanted his face unharmed began to slither into his mind. 

“Listen to me, and you listen good. If Alles had caught you after that little stunt,” said Rat, as he looked over his shoulder, “you would be sitting in one of those cages waiting to be slaughtered by one of those fighters. You would lose, but the organization would make a ton of money watching you die. Is that what you want?”

Sawyer shook his head, his knees gave out and he slid down the wall. Rat grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled him back up.

“Here’s what we’re going to do. They’re not done for the night. Not by a long shot. The man in the brown suit is leaving. See him?”

Sawyer looked at the man heading for the door and nodded.

“Give me that tray and follow him outside. Once you get out, you run back to the Bar and Grill. You hide outside until you see me. Understood?”

Sawyer nodded, yes.

“I’m going to tell Marchesi you got picked up tonight. Next time you see him, you give him this.” Rat handed him a hundred-dollar bill. “Hand him all of it. If you’re hungry use this.” He handed Sawyer a ten. “Get out of here.”

Sawyer shoved the tray at him and ran after the man in the brown suit.  As he passed the crowd, Lincoln gave him a ‘thumbs up.’

Featured

Little Mouse

The long bus ride from Stockton, the demands of his first paid job, and the stress of calling his father had exhausted him. Sawyer needed to decompress. Calling Dad had been more of an emotional experience than running away to Detroit. He grabbed an empty bucket from the kitchen and went out the back door. The alley was empty. Careful to prop the door with the brick that was there for that purpose, he stomped down the back stairs, and set the bucket against the wall in the alley behind the staircase. It was relatively quiet except for the expected city noise. He sat on the bucket and stared at his feet, grateful to be blessedly alone.

Why stay? He had a few dollars in his pocket. Marchesi had not paid as much as he expected, but his debt was covered. However, he wasn’t any better off than he was when he arrived last night. He didn’t have enough money to set up another situation. At least here, he had a job that paid for a cot and a daily meal, and Marchesi offered him a second shift.

A loud bang reverberated through the streets. Sawyer crouched against the building in the corner between it and the staircase. How fast could he scurry back into Marchesi’s Bar and Grill?

Scurry…like a little mouse, Topino. The tattooed man had given him that nickname when he woke Sawyer this morning. He sat up a little. The noise was probably backfire from an old engine.

The back door banged against the wall when Rat Snatcher stormed out.

Again, Sawyer crouched as the noise reverberated around the alley. Don’t look this way, he thought. Rat was a whisper-in-your-ear kind of guy, and Sawyer needed some peace.

“Hey, Topino. Whatcha doin’ out here?” said Rat.

So much for peace. Sawyer sat up. “The name’s Sawyer,” he said, as anger flared at the nickname.

“Yeah, whatever. Answer my question,” said Rat, as he jogged down the steps.

“Just taking a breather.” Sawyer stood, tall and straight.

“Yeah, well you’re gonna need it,” said Rat, standing in front of him, close enough for Sawyer to feel his words when he added, “The night shift is rough.”

The morning shift was a brutal learning curve, but Sawyer had survived it. How much worse could a night shift be?

“There’s a meet tonight, big money, lots of clients. You know what I mean?” Rat, playfully punched his cheek.

No. Sawyer had no idea.

As Rat moved a step closer, Sawyer shrank the wall.

Rat’s face darkened, and his voice lowered when he said, “Word of advice? Don’t look into the eyes of the people you serve. That’s an invitation. Keep your mouth shut, just… don’t engage them. If you can do that, you’ll come out unscathed.” Rat pushed a button on the key fob he held in his hand. In the distance, a car beeped. Rat slapped the railing, then, poked Sawyer in the chest. “Just keep your head down.”

Rat jogged out of the alley.

What the fuck was he talking about? Keep your head down? No problem, head down, mouth shut, don’t look. How hard was that? Sawyer settled back onto the bucket. As the day cooled to sunless gray, he was confident the evening shift would be easier, even though a little voice in the back of his mind whispered, fool. But if he ran into real trouble, he could call Jack again.

Could he? Would he be brave this time and speak up?

Hearing his father’s voice had spooked him. He wasn’t a little mouse, not a little mouse. He was almost a man. No way would he let his father send him back to Stockton.

He shifted on the bucket and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. Tucked inside, next to the measly ten-dollar bill, was a worn and ragged piece of stationery, a letter from his father. He didn’t need to read it again; he had it memorized by now. Jack had written it after his last visit because during it, they barely said two words to each other. In it, his father had apologized that they hadn’t taken more time to get to know one another again. He was sorry he hadn’t made more of an effort to stay in touch. Sawyer didn’t know his father, didn’t know how to talk to him. Rick, his older brother, shared camaraderie with Jack Tyler that Sawyer just didn’t feel. Most times, Sawyer never thought about his dad, but every time he did, anger clogged his throat until he felt like screaming. He slipped the letter back into his wallet and stuffed his wallet back into his back pocket.

So, sue him, he had hung up on his father. He didn’t need to run to Daddy. He could make due here until he figured out something better for himself.

A shiny black CT6 with windows tinted black pulled into the shadows at the end of the alley. Fear frizzled through him, so he hunkered into his corner once again. He lifted his head just enough to peek over the landing.

The door opened and a young woman stepped out. Her clothing floated around her body like a diaphanous cloud, giving her an air of seduction that hit him in the gut. As soon as she shut the door, the driver gunned the engine and the car leapt away from her, tires squealing. She stared toward its departure, presumably watching to see where it went.

She flipped her heavy, dark hair behind her. It cascaded into place like liquid, black silk. She turned and began walking toward him. Her hips swayed, her heavy breasts rolled. Each step sent shivers of delight through him. Sawyer’s fear slipped away, and he sat straight up, heart pounding with a different emotion. As she neared, her eyes knocked him breathless. Dark pools of coffee, ringed with fire, flashed danger he didn’t understand until that fire ignited his manhood. Embarrassed, he pulled his shirt as low as he could.   

“Hello?” she said.

He stared, her captive.

“Excuse me,” she said again.

He stood slowly, careful to pull the hem of his shirt lower.

“Do you speak English?” she asked. “English?”

“Uh, uh, yes. Yes, I speak English,” he finally said.

“I came to see Evan?”

“Evan?” He had not met anyone named Evan. “I-I don’t know who that is, but if you wait right here, I can get someone who does.”

She turned as if to look back at the car even though it was not at the end of the alley. As she did, her swollen, turgid belly was very apparent under her flowing clothes. When she saw that he noticed, she covered it as best as she could with her arms. “Evan,” she repeated, “I want Evan.”

Sawyer motioned to the bucket and offered it to her. She eased herself onto it, and said, “Grazie.”

“Uh, you’re welcome. I’ll be right back.”

He ran up the stairs and banged into the kitchen. It was empty. He heard men talking in the bar.

Marchesi and his men sat at a table in the far corner speaking heatedly in a different language. They quit talking and stood when he stepped into the room.

“What do you want, Topino?” said the tattooed man.

“There is a woman in the alley that wants to see someone named Evan,” said Sawyer.

Marchesi pounded a fist on the table. “Take care of it,” he ordered.

The tattooed man strode toward Sawyer. As he passed, he grabbed Sawyer’s arm and said, “Where is she?”

“She’s sitting out back, behind the staircase, on a bucket.”

Tattoo Man laughed and clapped his shoulder, but then he shoved Sawyer forward. “Introduce me.”

“Uh, I don’t know her name.”

The tattooed man looked down at Evan’s crotch and laughed again. Evan pulled his shirt low.

“Heh, I do,” said the tattooed man.

Well, why then did he need an introduction? Sawyer stumbled after him, holding onto his shirt.

The girl was on the bucket, rubbing her swollen belly.

“Bree, che diavolo.” Tattoo Man rushed down the staircase and grabbed her, pulling her onto her feet. She tottered, unbalanced by the heavy load in her belly, and fell against his chest.

“Bitch,” he said, and shoved her.

She fell against the staircase, and her elbow hit it with a crack. Her eyes filled with tears. “I need to see Evan. His baby,” she looked at her belly. “She’s due and I need money for the curandera.”

Marchesi appeared in the doorway. “Why is the Morelli bitch still here,” he said in a threatening voice.

“Please, I just want to see Evan.” Tears flowed freely down her face.

“She needs money for the curandera,” said Sawyer, pleading with him.

Tattoo Face backhanded his mouth. It knocked him hard enough against the wall of the building that he saw stars and scraped the knuckles of one of his hands as he fell to ground at the base of the staircase. “This ain’t no business of yours,” he growled.

Tattoo grabbed the trembling girl and shook her. “Fuck the Morelli clan and their get. No one cares if Evan is the father. You hear me? Least of all, Evan.” He looked up at Marchesi.

Marchesi had murder on his face.

Tattoo Man grabbed the sobbing girl and hauled her down the alley. She fell once, landing hard on her knees and hands. As she struggled to her feet, Tattoo Man yelled back at them. “Bitch comes back here, she won’t live to regret coming.” Tattoo shoved her forward. By the grace of God, she remained on her feet. Sawyer, frozen, too horrified to look away, watched until the tattooed man and the scared, pretty girl were around the corner and out of sight.

He didn’t notice Marchesi who had walked down the steps until he offered his hand to help him up. He ran his thumb over Sawyer’s lower lip. It came away bloodied. “Get yourself cleaned up. There is a lot to do tonight, and I expect you to show well.”

“Show well?”

“Yeah. You’re running drinks tonight at a meet. Put on some clean clothes.” He walked up the steps and disappeared into the bar.

Sawyer slowly followed. He couldn’t get the sobbing girl out of his mind. He failed her. He hated that he had not protected her. Who was Evan and where in hell was he?

Was Evan the boy that Marchesi’s men carried up the stairs last night? At first sight of him, Sawyer thought that the boy was dead, but then he heard his labored breathing. His face was a nightmare of bruises and rips. It made the couple of beatings that Sawyer had endured at Stagg High School seem like mild harassment. The tattooed man seemed enraged, Marchesi was yelling. Sawyer had run back to his closet to hide.

He looked toward the apartment above the bar. Upon consideration, it was probably why Tattoo Man had dubbed him ‘Topino.’

He went back to that closet now and sat on the cot. Which emotion was burning hotter: shame, anger, or fear? What kind of person stands by and watches while a crazy man beats a girl? Why didn’t he see the strike coming toward his own face? How did he let Tattoo Man get him like that? Where was his head? He needed to grow some balls.

God, Marchesi looked at him like, like…he didn’t want to think about how Marchesi looked at him. He was beginning to suspect that Marchesi did not have altruism in mind when he rented this room. What the fuck did he want? To be truthful, the danger he felt the moment he walked into the pub intrigued him, and was in part, the reason he stayed for a second shift.

And now, the wheel turned back to shame. Why didn’t he keep walking last night?

“Hey, Sawyer.” There was a knock against the wall. “Hey, Topino.”

Dammit. Rat was back. It was probably time to go and he hadn’t changed his clothes.

Featured

Where is the Evidence

Captain Jamison, nicknamed ‘Grizzly’ because of his gruff manner, was an imposing man, both physically and metaphorically. He had to be. Growing up in Detroit was tough in the sixties, and for decades after the 1967 riots, anyone who wanted to be somebody had to fight for a place to thrive. He was one of the lucky ones. His father had owned a profitable business in Black Bottom. He was used to community support, and in all his time as a street cop, he never forgot that support. He returned it to his community then, and now to his officers, but still his mannerisms intimidated most of them. Not Maureen Thompson, she had fought her way to the top as well, and loved him as one loves a dear, favorite uncle who has led the way to success.

She knocked on his door before she opened it.

“Come in,” he growled.

He sat slumped over a stack of reports on his desk, disheveled and pale, as if he held the world upon his shoulders, and as such, it was a fight he couldn’t win.

“You okay, Cap?” she said.

He sat up and attempted to smile at her. “Fine. Just fine.”

He could say that, but she was under no obligation to believe him.

Jack stepped into the office after her. Jamison placed both hands on his desk as if by doing so he could gather strength from it. He sighed and said, “What do you two want?”

“We wanted to talk to you about the cases we are working on,” said Maureen.

“I’ve just finished your reports. What I want to know,” he glared at Jack, “is why I have a report from an officer who is supposed to be on medical leave.”

Maureen said, “My fault. I called him last night. Got a call while on scene at a murder.”

“This one.” He picked up a file. “Says here, there was a body dump at the river.”

“That’s where the evidence points. A Taiwanese boy, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, maybe nineteen, stabbed and left there for us to find. While there, I received a second call about another boy. He didn’t make it home last night.”

Jack spoke. “Evan Fischer, nineteen. He’s been missing nearly twenty hours now.”

“I called Jack because I was working with rookies last night, Cap. Didn’t want to send them on a missing child case.”

“Why do I get the feeling you two think these cases are connected?”

Jack looked at Maureen. She took a deep breath when she caught his eye, and said, “Well, we have two witnesses down the hall that seem suspiciously connected to both of them. One is a cashier from the same Walgreens where Evan Fischer works. I pulled her in because she lied about picking up a prescription for Percocet for the boy. It’s a heavy painkiller. It suggests that Jack’s suspicion that he’s been in a fight is correct.”

“That weird second sight thing?”

“Yes,” said Jack.

“But no direct visual evidence.”

“None, Sir,” said Jack. He added, “The second witness is the manager for that same Walgreens.”

“What’s his story?” said Jamison, rubbing his jaw.

“He recognizes the tattoos on Maureen’s Taiwanese boy.”

“He told you that?” said Jamison.

“No, but it is very obvious he recognizes the tats.”

“So this manager knows both Evan Fischer, who you believe has injuries, and the dead Taiwanese boy, who also, according to these photos, was in quite a fight. And in your minds, without any evidence to corroborate this collaboration, these two cases are linked because….” Captain Jamison pursed his lips.

Jack stuttered, “J-j-just let us continue.”

Jamison waved him on.

“During my interview with Heathe, he confirmed a tip that Maureen got from him earlier in the day when she interviewed him at the store. Evan has a girlfriend named Bree. Coincidentally, a girl named Sobrina Morelli –.”

“Let me interrupt you. The Morelli gang?”

“Not confirmed, but possible. She quit Walgreens before Christmas, which is why Evan now has a full time position there. The manager says she was pregnant and looked beat up, but he wouldn’t confirm it. Says she might have fallen.”

“Which is it, beat up or injured falling?” said Jamison.

Maureen said, “We have yet to confirm, Sir.”

“Seems that a lot still needs to be confirmed. Well, Balmario’s team has been following the Morellis. His report says there was a possible retaliatory event last night that may have included one or two of their members. Did either of your witnesses bring that up?”

Maureen said, “No.”

“How long have they been in the hold?” said Jamison.

Jack said, “Almost two hours now.”

“Hold the cashier for obstruction.”

Maureen said, “Captain, I’d like to release her and put a tail on her. If Evan Fischer is really the one taking the Percocet, she may lead us back to him.”

“Done. We have three undercovers on the street. I will let them know.”

“Thank you.”

“I think we can put some pressure on Heathe, the other witness, Sir,” said Jack.

Jamison stared at Jack, waiting for him to continue.

“He frequently makes purchases to indulge in, in the back offices of Walgreens.” Jack made a semi-obscene pumping gesture with his hand.

Jamison scowled. “He told you this?”

Maureen said, “No, Emilia Rodriguez, the cashier, indicated as much.”

“That’s hearsay,” said Jamison.

Jack said, “Yes, but she says everyone knows. We can corroborate.”

Jamison looked at Jack, but pointed to Maureen. “She can corroborate. You can take advantage of your sick leave. You’re outta here.”

“Sir,” said Jack, squirming. “I’m just trying to help.”

“And I appreciate it, but I need you at your best. If you are seeing this with your mojo, I need your head clear, and your partner, bless his heart, is not in any shape to be helping you with this. Take care of him first.”

Maureen looked at Jack and shrugged her shoulders.

Jamison told her, “Let the cashier go, but put the fear of God into her. Hold Heathe. Let Vice work him. If they can prove his indiscretions, we can hold him; otherwise, we have to let him go. In the meantime maybe someone should find Sobrina Morelli.”

“Yes Captain. We’ll get right on it,” said Maureen.

“You’ll get right on it. He’s outta here.”

As Jack stood to leave, someone knocked on Captain Jamison’s door.

“What now,” he said. “Come in.”

An officer from Dispatch stepped into the office waving a piece of paper. “Just in, a BOLO from the FBI in Stockton, California, CARD division.” CARD was an acronym for Child Abduction Rapid Deployment. He handed it to Jamison.

“Wonderful,” Jamison said, sarcastically. “We have another missing boy. Have either of you seen this one?” He showed them the picture.

Jack fell into his chair. Maureen grabbed his forearm and took the flyer. “Yes, Captain. This is one of our own. Jonathan Tyler is Jack’s son.”

Captain looked at Jack with a laser-focused stare that pinned him to the chair. “Your plate is full. Get outta here.”

“Yessir,” said Jack who attempted to stand. It was clear he was in shock. Maureen held onto his arm as he shuffled toward the door.

“Get him out of here, and don’t let him come back,” said Jamison.

“Got it,” said Maureen as she hauled Jack out the door.

He leaned against the outer wall.

“You okay?” said Maureen.

He scrubbed his face and then grabbed his hair. “Gotta see Tomi,” he said.

“Go, Jack. Get out of here. We’ll find your boy, Jack. You know we will.”

She clapped him on the shoulder and left him glued to the wall where he stood, trying to regain some strength to move again.

She couldn’t imagine what Jack was feeling right now. All she could see was her own little one, waving goodbye this morning at the window. She would do everything in her power to save her little Michael from such a fate.

She had no doubt that Jack would do the same. 

Featured

Where is the Evidence

Captain Jamison, nicknamed ‘Grizzly’ because of his gruff manner, was an imposing man, both physically and metaphorically. He had to be. Growing up in Detroit was tough in the sixties, and for decades after the 1967 riots, anyone who wanted to be somebody had to fight for a place to thrive. He was one of the lucky ones. His father had owned a profitable business in Black Bottom. He was used to community support, and in all his time as a street cop, he never forgot that support. He returned it to his community then, and now to his officers, but still his mannerisms intimidated most of them. Not Maureen Thompson, she had fought her way to the top as well, and loved him as one loves a dear, favorite uncle who has led the way to success.

She knocked on his door before she opened it.

“Come in,” he growled.

He sat slumped over a stack of reports on his desk, disheveled and pale, as if he held the world upon his shoulders, and as such, it was a fight he couldn’t win.

“You okay, Cap?” she said.

He sat up and attempted to smile at her. “Fine. Just fine.”

He could say that, but she was under no obligation to believe him.

Jack stepped into the office after her. Jamison placed both hands on his desk as if by doing so he could gather strength from it. He sighed and said, “What do you two want?”

“We wanted to talk to you about the cases we are working on,” said Maureen.

“I’ve just finished your reports. What I want to know,” he glared at Jack, “is why I have a report from an officer who is supposed to be on medical leave.”

Maureen said, “My fault. I called him last night. Got a call while on scene at a murder.”

“This one.” He picked up a file. “Says here, there was a body dump at the river.”

“That’s where the evidence points. A Taiwanese boy, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, maybe nineteen, stabbed and left there for us to find. While there, I received a second call about another boy. He didn’t make it home last night.”

Jack spoke. “Evan Fischer, nineteen. He’s been missing nearly twenty hours now.”

“I called Jack because I was working with rookies last night, Cap. Didn’t want to send them on a missing child case.”

“Why do I get the feeling you two think these cases are connected?”

Jack looked at Maureen. She took a deep breath when she caught his eye, and said, “Well, we have two witnesses down the hall that seem suspiciously connected to both of them. One is a cashier from the same Walgreens where Evan Fischer works. I pulled her in because she lied about picking up a prescription for Percocet for the boy. It’s a heavy painkiller. It suggests that Jack’s suspicion that he’s been in a fight is correct.”

“That weird second sight thing?”

“Yes,” said Jack.

“But no direct visual evidence.”

“None, Sir,” said Jack. He added, “The second witness is the manager for that same Walgreens.”

“What’s his story?” said Jamison, rubbing his jaw.

“He recognizes the tattoos on Maureen’s Taiwanese boy.”

“He told you that?” said Jamison.

“No, but it is very obvious he recognizes the tats.”

“So this manager knows both Evan Fischer, who you believe has injuries, and the dead Taiwanese boy, who also, according to these photos, was in quite a fight. And in your minds, without any evidence to corroborate this collaboration, these two cases are linked because….” Captain Jamison pursed his lips.

Jack stuttered, “J-j-just let us continue.”

Jamison waved him on.

“During my interview with Heathe, he confirmed a tip that Maureen got from him earlier in the day when she interviewed him at the store. Evan has a girlfriend named Bree. Coincidentally, a girl named Sobrina Morelli –.”

“Let me interrupt you. The Morelli gang?”

“Not confirmed, but possible. She quit Walgreens before Christmas, which is why Evan now has a full time position there. The manager says she was pregnant and looked beat up, but he wouldn’t confirm it. Says she might have fallen.”

“Which is it, beat up or injured falling?” said Jamison.

Maureen said, “We have yet to confirm, Sir.”

“Seems that a lot still needs to be confirmed. Well, Balmario’s team has been following the Morellis. His report says there was a possible retaliatory event last night that may have included one or two of their members. Did either of your witnesses bring that up?”

Maureen said, “No.”

“How long have they been in the hold?” said Jamison.

Jack said, “Almost two hours now.”

“Hold the cashier for obstruction.”

Maureen said, “Captain, I’d like to release her and put a tail on her. If Evan Fischer is really the one taking the Percocet, she may lead us back to him.”

“Done. We have three undercovers on the street. I will let them know.”

“Thank you.”

“I think we can put some pressure on Heathe, the other witness, Sir,” said Jack.

Jamison stared at Jack, waiting for him to continue.

“He frequently makes purchases to indulge in, in the back offices of Walgreens.” Jack made a semi-obscene pumping gesture with his hand.

Jamison scowled. “He told you this?”

Maureen said, “No, Emilia Rodriguez, the cashier, indicated as much.”

“That’s hearsay,” said Jamison.

Jack said, “Yes, but she says everyone knows. We can corroborate.”

Jamison looked at Jack, but pointed to Maureen. “She can corroborate. You can take advantage of your sick leave. You’re outta here.”

“Sir,” said Jack, squirming. “I’m just trying to help.”

“And I appreciate it, but I need you at your best. If you are seeing this with your mojo, I need your head clear, and your partner, bless his heart, is not in any shape to be helping you with this. Take care of him first.”

Maureen looked at Jack and shrugged her shoulders.

Jamison told her, “Let the cashier go, but put the fear of God into her. Hold Heathe. Let Vice work him. If they can prove his indiscretions, we can hold him; otherwise, we have to let him go. In the meantime maybe someone should find Sobrina Morelli.”

“Yes Captain. We’ll get right on it,” said Maureen.

“You’ll get right on it. He’s outta here.”

As Jack stood to leave, someone knocked on Captain Jamison’s door.

“What now,” he said. “Come in.”

An officer from Dispatch stepped into the office waving a piece of paper. “Just in, a BOLO from the FBI in Stockton, California, CARD division.” CARD was an acronym for Child Abduction Rapid Deployment. He handed it to Jamison.

“Wonderful,” Jamison said, sarcastically. “We have another missing boy. Have either of you seen this one?” He showed them the picture.

Jack fell into his chair. Maureen grabbed his forearm and took the flyer. “Yes, Captain. This is one of our own. Jonathan Tyler is Jack’s son.”

Captain looked at Jack with a laser-focused stare that pinned him to the chair. “Your plate is full. Get outta here.”

“Yessir,” said Jack who attempted to stand. It was clear he was in shock. Maureen held onto his arm as he shuffled toward the door.

“Get him out of here, and don’t let him come back,” said Jamison.

“Got it,” said Maureen as she hauled Jack out the door.

He leaned against the outer wall.

“You okay?” said Maureen.

He scrubbed his face and then grabbed his hair. “Gotta see Tomi,” he said.

“Go, Jack. Get out of here. We’ll find your boy, Jack. You know we will.”

She clapped him on the shoulder and left him glued to the wall where he stood, trying to regain some strength to move again.

She couldn’t imagine what Jack was feeling right now. All she could see was her own little one, waving goodbye this morning at the window. She would do everything in her power to save her little Michael from such a fate.

She had no doubt that Jack would do the same. 

Featured

Circumstantial at Best

Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson and Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler had just finished gently grilling Emilia Rodriguez who they had pulled in for questioning about the disappearance of Evan Fischer, aged nineteen. His grandmother, Claudine had reported him as a missing child. Sra. Rodriguez had picked up a pain prescription written for him. Claiming that she was just an errand runner, she refused to say anymore.

Seemingly demoralized, she cowered in the first interrogation room.

Maureen said, “Maybe if she sits there long enough, she’ll be more cooperative.”

Jack had doubts as he watched her deflate in the chair.

The two of them entered the second observation booth to observe Rodney Heathe, the manager of Walgreens, where Evan worked. Maureen had sequestered him in the room next to Emilia Rodriguez who worked for him. Arms crossed and chin defiantly jutted forward, he leaned against the wall in the far corner of the interrogation cell and stared at the mirror, challenging those behind it.

“He obviously knows his way around,” said Jack.

“Or he watches too many cop shows,” said Maureen. “For someone who highly values an employee like Evan Fischer, it seems very strange he knows so little about him.”

“He’s very put together,” said Jack, noting the silver suit, cut to perfection, cobalt tie that matched his eyes, and polished nails on obviously manicured hands.

Maureen nodded in agreement. “Not this morning, though. When I interviewed him at the store, he was a wild bird. It looked like he threw on his clothes in a hurry, as if I caught him in the act. Know what I mean?”

“Hmm,” said Jack, wondering how Heathe spent his time in the back offices.

“He was together by the time I went back there, more business, less breathless. Not quite this arrogant, but it was obvious he was capable of it.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “Maybe he was exercising before you came the first time.”

“Yeah, right, exercising.” Maureen scoffed. “When I showed him this…,” she opened her phone and shared the picture of the tattoos on the shoulder of her river victim, “…I could swear he recognized them. But, he claims no. Claims he doesn’t know anyone who practices mixed-martial arts, that he isn’t from the neighborhood, just works there. He didn’t lie about that. However, this is an interesting coincidence. He lives in North Corktown.”

Jack’s spine stiffened. What was the deal with North Corktown? “The phantom caller,” he said.

Maureen nodded her head. “The one who hung up on you.”

Jack stared at Heathe, trying to read something, anything, but there was nothing to read except a haughty attitude by a man affronted by entrapment in a brick cell.

Jack said, “Let’s do this.”

Jack entered before Maureen and said, “Mr. Heathe, please take the seat.” He pointed to a chair on the opposite side of the table, away from the door.

As he sat across from Rodney Heathe, he placed his phone on the table between them. “This will be recorded.”

Heathe glared. “That’s fine, I guess.”

Maureen sat and added, “It’s protocol.”

“Fine,” he reiterated.

Jack said, “State your name for the record.” It was a by-the-book routine when interviewing suspects, not necessarily witnesses as they already knew their names. He didn’t know why he was asking such a formality of this man, but his instincts told him to do so, so he did.

Maureen quickly caught Jack’s eye and questioned him with an eyebrow.

He glanced back with a mental shrug.

Rodney Heathe looked at the two of them and said, “She has my name.”

Maureen said with the sternness of a mother scolding a child, “State your name, please.”

Mr. Heathe leaned over the recorder and said very deliberately, “Rod-ney Hea-thhhh-huh. What am I being charged with?”

Maureen said, “Mr. Heathe, we are not here to charge you with anything at this time. We are here to find out what you may have remembered since our talk earlier today.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know what you want me to say. Evan Fischer was…is…an employee of mine. He didn’t come in today.”

Jack said, “When was he supposed to arrive?”

“I told her already,” he nodded toward Maureen.

“Well, tell me again.”

“Don’t you people confer?”

Maureen stood up. “Inspector Tyler, would you like some coffee? How about you Mr. Heathe? Would you like some?”

Jack sat back into his chair and looked at her. “Sure,” he said, with a question in his voice. Then it dawned on him. Heathe wasn’t going to talk with a woman in the room. Heathe had to know she would be right outside, behind the mirror.

Maureen said politely, “Mr. Heathe? Coffee?”

The man was wily. It was clear he could tell something was up. “Is this like good cop, bad cop stuff?”

“No, sir,” she said. “That’s not real. We don’t play those games in real life.”

Like hell we don’t, thought Jack.

“Yes. Thank you. Coffee would be lovely,” Heathe replied. When she left the room, he visibly relaxed.

“So tell me the story from the start,” said Jack.

“You can get your information from that perky policewoman.”

“Perky,” said Jack. “First of all, she is Chief Inspector. You don’t want to mess around with her.” Challenging Heathe with a stare, Jack thought, “You are so lucky she left to get coffee. She could break you in half.”

Heathe stared back, but then something in his expression changed. “She said that Evan is missing. I guess that explains why he didn’t show up for work at nine.”

“Probably,” agreed Jack.

“She asked me a bunch of questions, and I answered them.”

“Like what?”

“Things like what kind of employee he is, is he part-time or full-time, does he have a girlfriend.”

“And what did you say?”

“I told her. He was one of my best employees, always on time, a good worker. He’s been working for me for two years, never missed a day. I just moved him up to full-time to take the place of another employee who left right before Christmas.”

“Oh? Who was that?” Jack sat forward and rested his arms on the table, knowing he was about to get some information that Heathe had not shared before.

“An employee named Sobrina. Sobrina Morelli.”

Morelli? Jack leaned back and scratched his head, gazing offhandedly at the mirror. He knew Maureen was on the other side slotting the name into her mental files. The Morelli brothers were part of a gang that roamed throughout the city. He wouldn’t be surprised if they were involved with mixed-martial arts and that avenue of the human trafficking business.

He said to Heathe, “So, Evan Fischer is part-time, and takes a full-time position after Sobrina Morelli leaves.”

“Yes.”

“Why did she leave?” said Jack.

“Something about a pregnancy, I think. She came in looking kind of beat up one day and informed me she was quitting?”

“What do you mean, beat-up?”

Heathe shrugged. “I don’t know. She had a bruise on the side of her face and one on her forearm. She could have fallen. I didn’t ask her.”

“But she quit the job, and you moved Evan into the slot.”

“I was able to give him more hours, yes. He said he needed them. He is a good employee. It was logical.”

Jack was quiet for a moment. Maureen knocked on the door and came in with two coffees. She nodded to Jack, held up her phone, and then slipped out again.

Jack slipped his phone off the table and set it on his thigh to turn it to silent mode. It was still recording. While Heathe sipped at his coffee, the screen flashed. Jack clicked on Maureen’s text, “Evan’s girlfriend is called ‘Bree.’”

‘Bree’ could be a nickname for Sobrina. Surely, Heathe put that together. Jack looked at Heathe. Maybe not. “Mr. Heathe, you said that Sobrina was beat up.”

“I said she looked like she was beat up. She could have fallen.”

“Or someone could have hit her. Did you say Evan had a girlfriend named Bree?”

“Something like that.”

“Have you ever seen Evan display a temper of any kind?”

“What?”

“Is Evan the kind of guy who could get rough with his girl?”

“How the hell should I know? And why would I care?”

“Well, Sobrina was one of your employees. Didn’t you care about her?”

“Her personal hours are just that, personal. I don’t ask questions. And what does that have to do with Evan?”

Jack’s screen flashed again.

The text from Maureen said, “MMA.”

“Mr. Heathe, is it possible Sobrina got her injuries in a fight, like say…mixed martial arts?”

“How many times do I have to say this? I don’t care, and I don’t ask about my employees’ affairs. I care if they are doing their jobs well. That happens? I don’t have a problem.”

“Okay. Fair enough.” The screen flashed again.

She had sent a picture.

Jack put the phone back on the table. “I have one more question for you right now.” He tapped his phone, and then showed Mr. Heathe the picture of the tattoos on the river victim’s arm. “Mr. Heathe, you said earlier you didn’t recognize these.”

Heathe looked and then arched away from the table. He turned his head toward the door.

“It seems you do recognize these tats, Mr. Heathe. I don’t want to hold you for obstruction, so tell me the truth. Where have you seen them?”

“I…I.” Mr. Heathe crossed his arms across his chest and bowed his head. “I don’t know anything about those tattoos.”

“Oh, come on. It’s obvious you recognize these. Where have you seen them?”

Heathe struggled to regain composure. Jack could tell he was working on a story. Jack prepared for a tale about tattoos, knowing that there was a good chance he wouldn’t hear the truth about these particular renderings.

“Spit it out, Heathe. All I am asking for is the truth.”

“I see tattoos all the time. I can’t say where. I see them everywhere. Doesn’t everybody? Maybe I saw these, maybe I saw others. I don’t pay attention.”

“Well, how about this. Have you seen this?” He scooted a small scrap of paper across the table with the words ‘go ask alles.’

Heathe said, “Why are you showing me this piece of garbage?”

“This was left on Chief Thompson’s window this morning. I want to know if you put it there.”

“Of course not.”

Recognition flashed in Heathe’s eyes. Jack didn’t know if it was the note itself or something on the note. Maybe he knew the name Alles. Maybe he recognized the handwriting.

“Who is Alles? Does he know Evan?”

“How should I know,” Heathe said. He banged tightly closed fists on the table.

“You know what? I am going to take a break. You sit here and think about tattoos, truth, and the consequences of lying during an investigation. And remember, one of your best employees is missing, and we are trying to find him.”

Jack grabbed his phone, stood, and strode out the door.

He said to Maureen, “I see what you mean. He recognizes these tattoos. He seems more afraid than Emilia Rodriguez does. He recognized something about this as well.” He handed the little piece of paper to Maureen. “You have one more question for Rodriguez.”

“I do, huh? Okay.”

 

Maureen knocked on the door to alert Emilia Rodriguez she was stepping in. She sat down and said quietly, “You seem calmer.”

“Yes. I feel better, thank you.”

“I have one more question for you. I noticed that after you told Mr. Heathe I was there to speak to him, that you were quite nervous after that. What was he doing in his office?”

“Oh, you cannot ask me that. It is none of my business.”

“Was he indiscreet?” said Maureen, in a gossipy voice.

“It is none of my business what he pays for. None of my business.” She shook her head.

“Do you think other employees know about his back office purchases?”

Emilia Rodriguez nodded her head. “Yes. I think they do.”

Maureen glanced at the mirror and nodded. Jack understood.

He stepped back into the room with Mr. Heathe. “Rodney Heathe,” he said, “seems you are quite the player. What is it? Girls? Boys? Both? Did you see the tattoos on one of your visitors? Is Alles one of your playthings?”

“I have no idea what you talking about,” snapped Heathe.

“I am talking about getting a little action in the back office. Who do you pay? Do you pay Alles? Is he or she a private contractor, your pimp, or your madam?”

“That, that is…I am scandalized,” Heathe retorted.

“Me too,” said Jack. “Unfortunately for you, I am sure that with a little inquiry, I can find out exactly what you do during your break time, and who you contract with. Get comfortable. You’ll be sitting here for a while.”

With that, Jack left the room.

Featured

This is Personal

Jack Tyler hated it when people hung up on him. How many seconds did it take to be polite, to say, “I’m sorry. Wrong number?” As a police officer, he now felt obligated to follow up on the call in case someone was in an abusive situation. He glanced at Tom, who slept soundly, tucked safely into a hospital bed. The beep of the monitor was steady and reassuring.

He redialed. He let it ring five times before he gave up. He replayed the call in his head. The person on the other end gasped. Why? Because he answered as the police, and the caller was not expecting that? Or had the person gasped because they had been caught? Dammit. What other sounds had he heard? A car passed. Bells jangled. People laughed in the background. Then the line went dead. This was ridiculous. He traced the call. It originated in a phone booth in North Corktown, probably in front of a bistro, or a bar. Someone misdialed and became flustered when Jack answered as the police. He wished whoever it was a safe day.

He walked back to the chair by Tom’s bed and sat down.

Tom’s head rolled toward him.

He took Tom’s hand. “Hey, Tomi. Are you waking up?”

There was no response.

Jack said, “Come on, Tomi. It’s time to wake up.” He gently shook Tom’s hand. He stared at his partner. The nurses had told him to keep talking. It didn’t matter what he said. Hearing his voice would be enough to awaken his partner. “I have news from California. Hank called. Told me my youngest son, Jon, ran away. Again. Again, Tomi. More than once. Can you believe that? He’s been gone for…” 

…a bus ride from Stockton to Detroit would take about thirty-five, thirty-six hours. Geezus. Could it have been Jon on the phone?

He squeezed Tom’s hand and said, “Hey, Fly. I have to make a quick run out of here. When I get back I will fill you in on everything.” He ran the backs of his fingers across Tom’s cheek and watched Tom breathe for a moment. Then he grabbed his keys and ran. 

 

He parked across the street from an establishment called Marchesi’s Bar and Grill. The mysterious call had come from the phone booth in front. The place was quiet. There was a sign on the door that read, “Doors open at 4 pm.”

“Why would Jon call from here?” said Jack. 

He would use the booth at the Greyhound bus station, wouldn’t he? Maybe it was out of order. If Jon was the caller, why didn’t he say something when Jack answered? Jack muttered, “Because it wasn’t Jon, doofus.” 

Now that he’d thought it, he couldn’t get the notion out of his head. Jon was not a talker, especially on the phone. His son had never said more than a few words to him. If Jon had come this far, and if he had called, would he hang up the second he heard his father’s voice? It was possible. They didn’t know each other at all.  

Jack pulled back onto the street and drove a large loop that included the Greyhound  station. He didn’t expect to see Jon. Why would he? But it didn’t stop him from making a second loop. “Think, Jack. Which direction would he walk?”

He stopped at a light. “I would go downtown.”

Jack headed for the Avenue. A strong, young boy could have easily walked a mile or more by now. He scanned the storefronts looking for a brown-haired boy that looked like he did as a teenager: sullen expression, hair hanging over his eyes, tall and gangling.

Forty minutes later, he again pulled across from Marchesi Grubs and Suds and parked on the street. He did not have a current picture of Jon to show to anyone, so there was no reason to wander into the bar to question people. It wasn’t open until four, anyway.

He turned on his phone’s recorder. “Call Greyhound for a list of drivers on the route from Stockton. Call Meghan….” He rubbed his brows, soothing the angst that tightened there at the thought of having to speak to her. “Get a current picture from Stockton PD.” He shut his phone and leaned against the backrest.

Maybe Jon was inside a building when he passed the first time. Maybe he walked toward the river instead. Maybe he had a long-distance friend that picked him up. Jon could be anywhere. He could have gone to Sacramento again, or to Los Angeles this time. What if he went to San Francisco? San Francisco was where he was born. It seemed like a logical place to go. Why would he come all the way to Detroit without calling first?

Because, in Jack’s experience, sometimes kids ran away looking for an estranged parent. 

His phone buzzed. “Inspector Tyler, Detroit PD.” He hoped his phantom caller was on the line.

“Jack, it’s Maureen.”

His heart sank. 

“Dispatch out.” The line clicked between them.

“Jack? You there? There’s been a development. Can you come to the shop right now?”

“Yeah, I guess. I’m a few blocks away.”

“What’s going on?”

“Tell you when I see you.”

 

Maureen waited for Jack in the small booth behind the interrogation mirror, staring at the nervous woman sitting in the cell on the other side. Her clasped hands rested demurely on top of the cold metal table. Her body jiggled, probably because her feet were drumming the floor.

Due to a tip from one of the pharmacists at Walgreens, Maureen had pulled Emilia Rodriguez from her job as cashier. If the tipster was correct, Evan Fischer could be in a lot of trouble. Rodriguez’s boss, Rodney Heathe, had a shit fit, but honestly, she didn’t care. Maureen had pulled him off the job at the same time. He was fluffing his feathers in the box next to this one.

The door to the observation booth opened, and Jack stepped in.

“Jack, thanks for coming,” said Maureen. “How’s Tom?”

“Still out. I was in the neighborhood because I just found out my youngest son has run away. Can you believe that?”

“Oh Lordy, Jack.”

“This is the third time. No one notified me about the first or second times. Anyway, someone called while I was sitting with Tomi and then hung up. Never spoke a word. It was a long shot, but I had to check it out. I traced it to a booth in North Corktown.”

“Not far from the Greyhound station.”

“Exactly. Truthfully, I have no idea how Tom is doing right now, but I had to see if the call was from Jon. I have been driving around looking for him.”

“Geez, Jack. Should we put out a BOLO?”

“I don’t know that he’s here. He could be anywhere.”

Maureen fiddled with a torn slip of paper in her hand.

“What is that?” said Jack.

“I don’t know. I found it on my windshield under a wiper. It was there when I left Walgreens the first time this morning. I thought I would show it to our guests to see if they recognize the handwriting.”

She handed the note to Jack. He turned it twice before settling it to read. “It’s really hard to read. It looks like it says, ‘Go ask…it looks like Alice or Allis.”

“Yes.”

“On your windshield?”

“Yes.”

“Someone put it there.”

“Had to. There was no other way for it to be stuck under the wiper like that. I could use a second on these interviews. You up for it?”

He said, “Yes.”

Maureen nodded to the mousy woman in the booth. “This one is a cashier at Walgreens. She apparently picked up a pain prescription for Evan Fischer yesterday evening.”

“Oh.” Jack nodded. “Then, it was Evan’s battered face I saw, asleep on a pillow.”

“Seems so. Anyway, when I spoke to her at Walgreens this morning, she denied knowing him, explained she was only part-time, and didn’t speak much to other employees. That may be true at work,” said Maureen, “but if my informant was correct, Emilia returned after her shift the day before, to purchase a full script of Percocet prescribed for Evan Fischer.”

“It seems you did not get the truth this morning.”

“Not from either one of them.”

Jack’s left eyebrow raised in question.

“Tell you about that after we interview this one.”  

Jack and Maureen entered the small interrogation room. Emilia Rodriguez shrank into her chair, more mousy and terrified than before.  

As they sat across from her, Jack said, “Senora Rodriguez, I have to notify you that we are recording this interview.” He set his phone on the table.

She nodded.

Maureen said, “Tell us what you know about Evan Fischer.”

“Is he in trouble?”

“Yes, I think he is, and I think you know that,” said Maureen. The mother tiger rumbled in her chest.

Rodriguez’s eyes jumped from side to side as if she was watching for cars before crossing a road.

Maureen said, “Just tell us what you know.”

“Nothing.” She shook her head back and forth. “Nothing.”

“Ma’am,” said Jack. “You lied to my colleague this morning. Why did you purchase a prescription for a boy you don’t know?”

Emilia Rodriguez was a clam, locked tight and uncommunicative.

Maureen slipped the scrap of paper with the cryptic writing across the table. “Is this yours?

Emilia shook her head, no.

Jack said, “Do you know what obstruction is?”

She said, “Yes, yes, I know.”

Maureen said, “Who is this? Did he or she ask for the prescription?”

Emilia curled over the table.

“Was the prescription for Evan?”

Emilia rocked into the table and away, again and again, counterpoint to the side-to-side jumping of her eyes.

Maureen reached across the table and laid a hand upon her arm. The poor woman stopped rocking, though her eyes continued to jump. Maureen said, “Was – the – prescription – for Evan?”

Emilia moaned, “I just run errands. That is it.”

Jack said, “If this is a forged prescription, we can charge you with accessory. You really need to talk to us.”

Maureen said, “Who? Whose prescription was it?”

Emilia Rodriguez sat tall and focused squarely into Maureen’s eyes. “I have nothing to say.”

Like a cat watching a mouse, Jack stared at Emilia Rodriguez.

Maureen very much wanted to know what was going on in that head of his. She said to Emilia Rodriguez, “You relax here a moment.” 

Emilia said, “Thank you,” and closed her eyes.

To Jack she said, “We need to speak to one another.”

The second they were outside the door, Jack said, “No. I am not seeing through her eyes.”

“Okay. I wasn’t going to ask that,” she said.

“Oh, well…I was trying to figure that out.”

Maureen had learned when last she worked with him that Jack often saw details of a crime while it was in progress. He saw it as if he were there, looking through the eyes of someone who was involved.

Jack mumbled, “I know. It’s a weird affliction.”

“Strength, Jack. It’s a weird strength. When are you going to realize that?”

He shrugged and stared at Emilia. “Poor woman. She is terrified.”

“The question is, by whom?”

“She’s resolute. Whomever she is protecting means a lot to her. She isn’t going to tell us anything,” said Jack.

Was it unwillingness to speak to a cop, or simple furtiveness? Maureen didn’t feel any waves of guilt off her. However, she said, “I don’t believe she was only an errand runner.”

“Agreed,” said Jack.

“I don’t get the impression that she acted out of mischief,” she added.

“So, what is your choice here?” said Jack.

“Well, I can arrest her for obstruction, but what is the point? She isn’t the one we want, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Jack said.

“I could put a tail on her. Maybe she will lead us to Evan.”

“Why don’t you let her sit here while we speak to the manager? We can decide after that,” said Jack.