Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hope



“You can get dressed,” Dr. Henry Lindholm said as he removed the stethoscope’s earpieces from his ears and wrote a paragraph of abbreviations in the open chart using his ancient fountain pen. Dr. Lindholm was a thin old man of 70-some years with thick white hair and a crease in his face for every phone call he’d ever received in the night. His face was that of a man perpetually squinting in bright sunlight, or perhaps cringing at the things his job forced him to tell people. He was quick to smile and laugh and seemed to enjoy being alive.

Dr. Lindholm had seen many things and he’d come to believe that there was a balance to the world that his job had allowed him the privilege of bearing witness to on a regular basis. That balance was easier to appreciate when he was younger, for every birth, a death was owed. He understood that his viewpoint was restricted and he had to trust the universe for the rest. Sometimes one side of the ledger got ahead of the other, but in the end they had to balance. It was the burden or lesson to human beings to feel the meaning of that balance so personally. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t kind, but it was the way things worked.

The doctor had seen more than his share of death and the ways that people dealt with it, or didn’t. Those ways didn’t always make sense to him, but he was convinced that people did the best they could.

It was a paradox to Dr. Lindholm that he pictured effects of death as a weight, a burden. But he’d seen that weight lowered onto people time and time again. Sometimes the death was a weight lifted, especially after a long illness, but most of the time it was like some cruel measure of iron or lead bars heaped onto the next of kin.  He felt it was his job to ease that load onto people. Sometimes that was all he could hope for.

But sometimes, sometimes for some people, the loss was too large no matter how slowly it was applied. Instead of breaking their backs, it broke their hearts and souls. Some people were forever trapped at the graveside, as if their hearts lacked a specific enzyme that allowed them to digest and incorporate the grief, to make them stronger or at least carry on. In other people, the loss was so large, so unbearable that they simply could not hear it. It was beyond their ability to understand or accept. This was the sad case of his current patient.

Dr. Lindholm took his time writing his note because he had no desire to turn around and tell this man that he was going to die very soon, just like he’d told him last visit. The doctor wasn’t anxious to discuss pain control methods and end of life issues. He’d known Curtis Whitbeck for over 10 years, and understood that the terminal diagnosis was the least of this man’s problems. Dr. Lindholm once again shook his head and said a silent prayer that Curtis Whitbeck stop his suffering and get on with dying.

“Well, Curt, nothing’s changed except to get worse. Like we talked about.” Dr. Lindholm said sitting down on a stool at the side of the examination table. The doctor’s shoulders slumped as he felt another little blow to his humanity.

Curtis Whitbeck was finishing buttoning the top buttons of his shirt. He held his chin up and his fingers shook with a fine tremor and moved slowly as they worked to slip a small button through the slit in the cotton.

Curtis Whitbeck was 46 years old and looked 90. He was thin to the point that his wrists moved inside his shirt cuffs like a clapper in a bell. The muscles and blood vessels in his thin neck stood out like an anatomy illustration. There was mound of tumor in the angle of his neck and collarbone on the left side. He struggled to force his weak left hand to help his right finish the job of buttoning his shirt.

Curtis nodded his head in response to the doctor’s pronouncement.

“I understand, Henry. It makes it all the more important that I keep looking for her. I’ll be seeing Virginia soon and I need to be able to tell her that her baby’s all right.” Curtis spoke slowly, stopping twice for breath while saying this. He spoke with great conviction, as if what he was saying was possible.

Dr. Lindholm’s face only winced a little as he heard this. It was what he’d expected to hear but, still he’d hoped that somehow this time Curtis would face the reality of, not his own approaching death, but that of his child, Claire, years before.

Curtis’ wife Virginia and their soon-to-be four-year-old daughter Claire had gone to Bogalusa Louisiana in August of 2005 to celebrate Claire’s fourth birthday on the 22nd of that month with Virginia’s invalid mother, Alice and sisters. Virginia, the little girl Claire and Alice had been trapped as Virginia tried to drive them out of the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. All three had drowned in the car on August 29th, seven days after Claire’s birthday. The bodies of Virginia and her mother had been found in Virginia’s rental car, but Claire’s body had never been recovered.

Curtis drove down to Louisiana and began looking for his missing daughter immediately. He never went back to Lee’s Summit, Missouri and the large Victorian house he’d purchased for his family. He never went back to his profession as an optometrist. He had the flood damage to the house in Bogalusa that Virginia’s mother owned repaired and he lived there alongside a box containing Virginia’s ashes, while searching full-time for Claire.

During the fall of 2011 he got sick with a cold that didn’t get better. In January 2012, he went to Dr. Lindholm who found that Curtis had an advanced lung cancer. When he asked, the doctor told him that there was no surgical cure but that radiation and chemotherapy could slow its progression. Curtis went through courses of radiation and chemo but he never slowed the search for his daughter and he never, ever gave up hope that he would find her, alive. 

The court had issued a death certificate for Claire, but Curtis had torn it up. The insurance company had sent a check for $1000 in settlement of her little life insurance policy but Curtis had torn it up as well. He refused to believe that Claire was dead. Any admission of the possibility of her death represented a betrayal of her too great to fit into his mind.

He had abandoned what had been his life and had spent every waking moment of the last 11 years looking for Claire and being available to be found by her. Even during his fitful sleep he listened to her tiny voice calling him for help. He was tortured by the thought that she was alone and afraid and lost and he was not with her to help her, to calm her, to take care of her.

It had been 11 years ago and every day that had passed Curtis felt the pain and panic of the parent with the lost child, not less but more.

Dr. Lindholm had years ago, referred Curtis to psychologists and psychiatrists but he had never gone. He didn’t need help to deal with his loss, he said, he needed help finding his child. He didn’t want a prescription for something to relieve his anxiety, he wanted to hold his little girl in his arms and smell her hair.

Curtis couldn’t imagine a greater betrayal of his daughter than to sooth himself with drugs and role playing platitudes while she remained lost and alone. The doctors wanted him to believe that a lost child had a price in suffering and worry and effort, beyond which a parent was no longer obligated by nature to feel responsible. After that, you were permitted to write it off as a total loss. Curtis saw no limit to the price, finding his daughter was worth so much more than his own life that his death meant only that he’d failed do the one thing he had to do. No more, no less.

Dr. Lindholm opened his mouth once again to try to reason with Curtis but stopped and accepted his defeat. There was nothing he could do to help this man and he knew that he’d carry that with him as another lesson he was meant to learn.

He stood up and helped Curtis Whitbeck down off the examining table. Holding Curtis’ upper arm that way, the doctor felt as if he might accidentally snap the bone with his fingers.

It took a moment for Curtis to stand as upright as he could. Then he held out his right hand to the doctor. “Goodbye, Henry. I suspect this is the last I shall see of you. I want to thank you for all your help over the years. We’ve both got our work cut out for us. If you would do me one more favor I would greatly appreciate it.”

Curtis reached down and picked up the suit jacket that was folded over the back of the chair sitting next to the table. He removed a sealed envelope from the inside pocket that said, Curtis Whitbeck re Claire Whitbeck, on its face and handed it to the old doctor.

“If you would put this with my chart in case I die before I find my daughter Claire. I’m hoping to leave enough clues for her to find, well, at least find out that I never gave up on her and always loved her,” Whitbeck said with a rattle in his throat.

“Curt, I know you must be suffering terribly. Please. You don’t have to go through this. I can admit you to the hospital or at least let me give you something or call hospice to help you with the pain and shortness of breath.” Dr. Lindholm almost pleaded.

Curtis looked blankly at the doctor and remained silent.

“Fine. I’ll put it into your chart,” the doctor said and took the envelope.

“I’m fine Henry. Really I am. I would not like Claire to find me unable to speak with her. There’s so much I need to tell her, so much she never heard from me. I also put a copy of my will in there. There’s little left of my life but I leave it all to her,” Whitbeck said as he put on his suit jacket.

“All right, Curtis. I know. I’ve heard that for 11 years from you. You have —” Lindholm started to say but Whitbeck interrupted him.

“Goodbye Henry. You’re a good doctor. Just a little stubborn, but that’s normal, I guess,” Whitbeck said and he picked up his cane hanging on the back of the chair and tried to raise his left hand to wave but quickly gave up.

Curtis Whitbeck lowered his chin in determination and walked out of the examining room.

Over the next four weeks Curtis made the rounds of all the agencies once again and re-placed his advertisements and notices in papers and websites dealing with missing persons. He’d had the picture that had been taken of Claire just before her fourth birthday at the Sears portrait studio computer-aged so many times that he had trouble remembering that he hadn’t actually seen her getting older. But he had every computer-adjusted picture tacked to the bulletin board near his kitchen table and every August 22nd he had a birthday party for her.

This year was no different. It was Claire’s 14th birthday and he celebrated quietly, alone in his little kitchen and surrounded by pictures of Virginia and Claire. Once again, he said to himself, this would be the day on which Claire would be found, and like all the days before this, he meant it. He took a last sip of his instant coffee and washed his single cup as well as he could with one hand. Then he picked up his cane and left his house. He took the bus downtown to visit the Red Cross office.

It was a hot and humid morning on August 22nd 2016 in Bogalusa as Curtis got off the bus on Montgomery Street and walked along the narrow sidewalk to the Red Cross office. The office was staffed mostly by volunteers who knew Curtis well from his regular rounds. He was one of the dwindling number of sad people still looking for answers about their missing loved ones. The people in the office felt sad they had no information to give him that might end his lonely watch and bring some kind of closure to him. They’d closed the case files on many missing people over the years yet they were maybe the last ones left that hoped, as he did, that one day they might have real news for him. It hurt them to see him disintegrate before their eyes from his disease. It seemed to some of the volunteers that Curtis’ cancer had become a physical manifestation of the spiritual illness that went with losing a loved without having the certainty of a body.

As he reached for the front door of the Red Cross office, his vision left him and he fell to the sidewalk. They rushed to help him and called the paramedics who took him to Our Lady of the Angels hospital there in Bogalusa. Dr. Lindholm’s card was found in his wallet and he was called and explained Curtis’ situation. He arranged for a private room there but not in ICU due to the seriousness of his diagnosis. Dr. Lindholm made a couple phone calls and drove from his office to the hospital to see if there was anything he could do for his patient.

Curtis woke up in a haze in the cool, quiet and darkened hospital room and remembered becoming dizzy at the Red Cross door. He saw the IV in his right hand and Dr. Lindholm at the foot of his bed looking at his chart.

“Hello Henry,” Curtis Whitbeck said in a hoarse whisper. The effort cost him dearly and he coughed and tasted the metallic tang of blood on his tongue.

“Hello Curtis. I wasn’t sure we’d be talking again. I had to allow the IV because you never signed the Advance Healthcare Directive I gave you. I want to tell you that I also gave you some pain medicine in the IV since it was there. How are you feeling?” the doctor said to him.

“A little rough Henry. I can’t seem to catch my breath.” Curtis spoke very slowly.

“I’m sorry Curtis. I’m afraid it won’t get any better. I’ll turn up your oxygen though.” The doctor went to the head of the bed and adjusted something and then picked up the phone and said. “Excuse me for a moment.”

Curtis closed his eyes and drifted in the fog of pain medicine for a bit as he heard Dr. Lindholm in the distance speaking indistinctly.

He dreamt of being at home in the big house in Lee’s Summit with Virginia and Claire at her third birthday party. Claire was sitting in her highchair with a colorful yellow cardboard birthday crown on with a big orange 3 on the front. She was the most gorgeous thing Curtis had ever seen with her blond hair, wide blue eyes and a smile that shone like the sun. She was opening presents before having the cake. Her excitement seemed to be causing the whole room to vibrate and sparkle with static electricity. The little table in front of her was getting crowded with toys and dolls and every new package caused more excitement than the last no matter its size. He saw her tear open a small box he had gotten for her, her breath caught when she unwrapped a sturdy necklace with a medallion with her name engraved on it.

He saw Virginia’s face change in mock disapproval as she looked him and wagged her finger. “Oh no, not yet. That’s a chokable.” She pronounced her Mom judgment and he looked hopefully back at her, his face begging her. But soon, though.

“Soon enough,” Virginia said. “But for now it goes on the shelf. Maybe for next birthday.” Curtis let his shoulder slump in exaggerated dejection. “OK.”

Claire moved right on to the next package and laughed once again with limitless joy.

Curtis slowly returned to the present and opened his eyes slowly, unsure of how long he’d spent at the party and wishing he could go back. His left arm was completely numb and immovable now but nothing hurt and he suspected that his doctor had slipped him a little more pain medicine.

He could feel the closeness of the edge of what was coming. He could slip quietly across any time he wanted. He was not at all afraid of dying, but it would mean that he had failed in the only important thing in his life. What would he tell Virginia? He could not give up yet.

Curtis saw the doctor sitting in the chair next to the right side of his bed.

“Thank you, Henry. How long do you think I’ll have to stay here Henry?” He said very slowly with several pauses between his words.

“The rest of your life, Curtis,” he said without humor. “I’m a little surprised you woke back up.” Lindholm said getting out of the chair and looking down at him.

The doctor took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “On the other hand, I have some good news for you, Curtis.”

“You’re going to write off part of my bill?” Curtis tried to smile but abandoned the effort.

“They found her, Curtis. The Red Cross found Claire. She’s here.” The doctor said moving his eyes from the pillow to Curtis’ face.

“What? What did you say?”

“The Red Cross found Claire. She was in Texas.”

“How did she... It doesn’t matter.” Curtis slurred the words trying to say them quickly. “Can I see her?” He slowed to make himself understood.

“Curtis, she doesn’t know you. She doesn’t remember Virginia or the flooding. She was an orphan taken by the Red Cross and when they couldn’t find her parents she was turned over to Social Services and eventually adopted by a good family in Colorado.”

“Is she here now? Is Claire here?”

“She has a good life, Curtis. Her parents love her, she has a brother and two sisters. I didn’t tell her who you were Curtis. She doesn’t need to know.” The doctor said looking pointedly into Curtis’ eyes.

Curtis swallowed and took as deep a breath as he could. He seemed to gather himself up for what he had to say. When he spoke, he spoke as clearly as he could so there would be no question of his meaning.

“I understand. You’ll see that she gets the envelope when she’s older? Won’t you? It’s important and there’s a small inheritance. She needs to know about her mother. How much she was loved by her mother and myself. There are pictures too. The lawyer has everything, some of Virginia’s things. It’s all in the letter.” Curtis looked up into the doctor’s eyes begging him to understand and accept the charge.

“I will Curtis. I will make sure she gets it when she’s older. I’m sure she’ll want to know. You did the right thing, Curtis. You were right. I’ll make sure that she knows about you and how you never gave up on her. I’ll tell her, Curtis. When she’s older. I promise you.”

“Can I see her now, Henry. I need to see her.” Curtis said lifting his right hand a little.

“Remember she doesn’t know you, Curt.” Dr. Lindholm said once again with tears in his eyes.

“It doesn’t matter. I just want to see her.” He was so weak now he couldn’t raise his head from the pillow.

“I’ll get her.” The doctor left the bedside and returned a few moments later with a slender, graceful looking young woman with pale skin and honey blonde hair and glasses.

The young woman stayed back a little behind the doctor and glanced briefly with concern at the man in the bed. She was almost as tall as the doctor and looked like she was at the awkward age when her body was changing. She looked uncomfortable, shy and uncertain of why she was there. Curtis could see her. She was straight and tall and strong and his heart hurt with love.

“Curtis. This is Claire. Claire, this is Mr. Whitbeck.” Dr. Lindholm said in formal introduction.

“Hello,” the girl said as she stepped up next to the bedside and gave Curtis a quick smile that, to Curtis, seemed to be sunlight breaking through the clouds. There was instantly something so very familiar in the smile. It was Virginia’s smile. Tears came into his eyes as he looked at her face. It was his Claire standing before him. He had endless questions that he realized were all answered simply by her presence. As her gray eyes met his, he looked for and found an end to 11 years of torment and suffering. He didn’t see a frightened, lost panicked little girl. He saw an intelligent, poised, normal, untraumatized strong young woman at the beginning of an entire life filled with promise. He saw everything he had wished and prayed for.

Curtis smiled and opened his mouth to speak and felt peace and warmth rush over him. For the first time since he could remember he felt complete and finished and — happy.

The doctor stepped forward and briefly felt Curtis’ neck on the right side, then with his fingers, closed Curtis’ eyes.

“Is he — gone?” The girl asked with a trembling voice.

“Yes,” the doctor said. “He’s gone.”

The young woman began to weep and an older woman who was standing by the door moved forward and wrapped an arm around the young woman’s shoulders and led her away from the bedside. “It’s OK honey. You were very kind to come here and help Grandpa out. You did wonderfully.”

“Yes, Milly. I hope someday you will understand what that moment meant to this man. I really appreciate you doing this for me. You too, Sandra. Thank you.” Dr. Lindholm smiled at the women.

“Sure, Dad. I could see why you asked us to do this. Come on, honey. I promised we’d go do some back-to-school shopping after this.” Sandra said to the old doctor.

“It was so sad, wasn’t it? Did you see him smile at me?” The girl asked her mother. She was pulling herself together.

“Yes, honey. I saw it. He loved his daughter very much. You could see that,” The mother said and looked at her father. “Are you sure this was the best thing to do, Dad?”

“I don’t know if it was or not. I deceived him, but I’ve watched him suffer for 11 years and was unable to do anything for him. I couldn’t stand to watch the torment any longer. If I was wrong, then I’ll accept the blame.” Lindholm said. “Thank you both again. I owe you one. I’ll see you this weekend, right?”

“Right, Dad. You know, you’re a nice guy and I love you.” The woman hugged the doctor.

“Bye, Grandpa. I love you.” The young woman walked over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

As the door closed behind the pair the doctor turned toward the bedside.

“Curtis. I hope that you forgive my lie. I thought you deserved a little peace at the end of your work. I promise I will keep all of the promises I made to you if I can. I’m glad it’s over.” The doctor looked down at the face and saw that the smile was still there. He reached down and closed the mouth. He pulled out his stethoscope and listened to his chest for about 30 seconds. He lifted his eyelids and shone a penlight first in one eye and then the other. Finally, he rubbed Curtis’ breastbone vigorously with his knuckles. Satisfied, he pulled the blanket up to cover his face then went to make his note in the chart.

#

It was hot and humid on August 22, 2016, so the construction workers didn’t mind having to stop work almost immediately after starting that morning. Some of them sat in the shade while others stood by the backhoe which had been shut down. They were supposed to be excavating the embankment of a creek in order to replace the small bridge where Montgomery Street crosses over Coburn Creek in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Two men were kneeling in the bottom of a muddy hole about three feet in depth. One was the manager of the job site and the other was from the coroner’s office. Some of the idle construction workers stood along the hole’s edge watching as the two men examined the skeleton of a small child that had been uncovered by the backhoe. The man from the coroner’s office held up a necklace covered with mud and washed it off with the bottle of water he was carrying with him on this hot August Louisiana day. He wiped the small medallion with his thumb as he poured the water and he could just make out the first three letters, CLA

The End



Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Crap Shoot



It was a great day. Eleven o’clock on a beautiful sunny Monday morning driving southwest through Arizona and Jared Ingram was enjoying the hell out of cruising down the highway and listening to Grand Funk on the radio. He’d had a wonderful night’s sleep and a great breakfast and he wouldn’t trade places with anybody in the world. He was kind of on vacation, sort of. A friend of his had died and left him some money and he’d decided to see America before something happened to him too. As his dad used to say, life was a crap shoot.

He was in a 2010 Ford full-sized one-ton van that he’d used for work and he’d cleared it out and tossed in a few essentials and said goodbye to Denver the week before. Since then he’d just been enjoying whatever appeared out his windshield and the sound of his tires whining on the road. His original intention was to drive until the money ran out and then go back home, but now he didn’t know. A smart guy with skills, like him, could probably pick up as much money as he needed along the way to keep going for as long as he’d like.

It wasn’t that Jared longed to be an itinerant or spend his life on the road, it’s just that he was still young, only 26, and he wanted to see a few things before he settled down. It would give him something to think on and tell stories about when he got old and set in his ways. Mostly he just loved the feeling of waking up in a different place every day and seeing different things. What was wrong with that?

He was a mechanic by trade and made good money working on cars. He’d liked working on engines since he could first remember. Jared had a natural talent for looking at things and figuring out how they worked. He used to help his dad work on his old cars out in the garage or in the driveway during the nicer weather. He thought on those times with a warm feeling. Him and his dad.

His dad, Casey Ingram, was great guy and a good mechanic too, when he wasn’t drinking. When he drank, he was sunburned-rattlesnake mean and didn’t give a shit who you were. If you disagreed with him or looked at him sideways, there was trouble. Jared figured his dad had punched just about everybody he’d ever met by the time he met his end, and there was a big list of those he’d punched more than once. Jared and his mom, Kalyssa, and his kid sister, Keelee had topped that second list. Jared had learned a lot from his dad. He’d learned about philosophy and how to duck a punch and those two things, right there, had seen him through many tough moments in his life. Jared hadn’t let those punches change him too much.

Jared had learned to be philosophical about death and he took comfort in the belief that death had saved his dad and the world from a whole lot of trouble that was still coming. He tried not to think too much about his dad and his time back home, it wasn’t helpful. He didn’t like all the what-if games your head tried to play with you. Jared preferred to think about things that were yet to happen, things he had some control over. Jared had always figured that it wasn’t his dad that beat him, it was the whiskey. Still there had come a time when it all had to be stopped. That was philosophy too.

He probably should have stopped it all before he did for his mom and Keelee’s sake, but again, shoulda, woulda, coulda. It was too nice of a day to think on things like that.

He rolled down his driver’s side window and took a deep breath of that good clean desert air. This was the life. Aerosmith was on the radio and he grabbed his big stainless steel commuter cup and took a big drink of his coffee. This was really the life.

At around half past noon, he decided to pull over and get gas and go to the bathroom and since he was stopping anyway, he might as well get some lunch. He wasn’t in any particular hurry and you never know what you might find along the way. Life, after all, was a crap shoot.

This wasn’t the busiest part of the country so Jared watched the signs and pulled off at the next exit with a fuel and food sign. It was on the outskirts of a little town called Mesa Springs. It looked like maybe 150 or 200 people lived here, mostly in double-wides. Jared figured 12 of them worked at the gas station and cafe and the rest must either be retired, disabled, or they commute 80 miles a day. As he got out of his van at the gas station he looked around. There wasn’t much to look at, it was pretty flat and hot. There sure as hell weren’t any lumberjacks in town. The tallest plant life he saw wouldn’t reach to his van’s window.

He stretched and smiled to himself, this was exactly where he wanted to be right now. He filled the two tanks of his van and paid for the gas then pulled his van over to the crowded parking lot of the cafe/convenience store a half block down from the gas station. He noticed a State Patrol car parked by the edge of the lot, ready to pull out. It was a good sign if the Staties ate here, they usually knew where the good chow was.

As he walked into the cafeteria he waited by the door while two couples stood in line to pay their bills and he took the opportunity to look around. He could easily see where the locals were seated, some near the end of the counter and others in the nearby tables at the back of the room. That way they weren’t bothered by the constant coming and going of the people passing through their little world. The owners of the cafe knew that the locals’ trade was important to keep the little business afloat during the lean times. They took good care of them he was sure. The locals paid less than the tourists, and the tourists paid based on how busy it was. Jared looked at the room and it was clear to him that was the way it worked.

When Jared looked at something, like this cafe, he saw the connections and relationships that other people missed. The same went for figuring out people, he could watch people and figure things out about them. The more they did, the more he could tell. Most of the time he even saw how to use that information to make people do what he wanted.

When the couples had finished paying their bills and telling the eatery’s boss, the older lady with the big silver hair, fancy red apron and a name tag that said DOREEN and HOSTESS, how good everything was, it was his turn. Doreen closed the cash drawer, spindled the receipts and looked up at Jared smiling, and said, “Just you, hon?” as she expertly snatched a single menu from the vertical stack next to the register. He winked at her and followed her to a seat halfway down the counter.

“The counter OK?” Doreen said slowing down.

“Perfect,” he said and sat down on the rotating stool with the red vinyl top.

A thirty-something waitress with dyed red hair, a name tag that read KAREN and a forearm tattoo that read “Bob Marley Lives” poured a cup of coffee for him while he handed her the menu without looking at it and ordered a turkey club on white and a glass of milk. She made a quick note of the order and gave him a professional smile. He smiled back and asked if she could find him a local paper to look at. She winked and said, “Natch.”

Fifteen seconds later she swept by, arms loaded with full plates, and dropped off a hastily refolded newspaper that he acknowledged with a lift of his chin and a quick smile.

Jared looked over the paper, checking the front page for what was happening in the area, then back folded the paper so that the local classifieds were showing and looked though the listings for items of interest. He’d found over time that the contents of the classifieds were the fastest way to find out about a small town.

He sipped his coffee as he looked down the listings. There was an opening for a mechanic, two estate sales, baby clothes for sale, public notices of probate; a pretty average small town in the middle of nowhere with its deaths, divorces, kids growing up, lives being simplified.

His lunch came and Karen refilled his coffee while she asked if he needed anything else. He said no and she slipped the ticket under his coffee’s saucer face down with a big thanks.

He pulled the little toothpick with multicolored cellophane frill out of one side of his club sandwich and took a bite. It was good enough. The bacon was from the morning and the tomatoes were none too flavorful, but it was good enough. He took a drink of milk and looked around. The tourists were starting to finish up and leave.

The man in the gimme cap and the chain on his wallet sitting next to him, drained his coffee, stood up and said thanks to the kitchen staff through the order window and walked past him to pay his bill. Jared could see the seat on the other side of the man had a young tan guy with dark brown hair and a baby face sitting there with a backpack on the step up at his feet. A hitchhiker.

Jared took another sip of his coffee and looked at the young man who looked back. Jared smiled and looked at the backpack on the floor. “Hitching?”

“Yep,” The guy said and smiled back. Jared looked for hesitation in the guy. Not everybody was comfortable talking with strangers.

“Any luck?” Jared asked. The guy looked kind of new to things. He’d check him out a bit.

“A little more than I wanted. I made it all the way out here in three days,” the hitcher said swiveling toward Jared. Jared noted his openness. It’s like he wanted to talk. No reserve to him.

“Where from?” Jared asked with eyebrows raised, putting his coffee cup on the counter.

“Columbia Missouri,” the guy said without hesitation while maintaining eye contact. You didn’t always run into such open people on the road or anywhere else Jared thought to himself.

“On your thumb?” Jared asked, still smiling but with a confused look. He wanted to show he was impressed with the guy. Try to put the guy at ease. Just to see how he acted.

“Yeah. Surprised me too. I was looking for a little adventure and it was more like taking the bus,” the guy said with a laugh. Jared though he was either confident or innocent or both.

“Jared,” he said leaning forward and extending his right hand.

“Connor Lawson, good to meet ya,” the hitcher said and gave Jared a strong handshake.

Jared was taking all this in. The guy had given his full name when Jared had offered only his first. His handshake was strong and his hand was dry and warm. That said the kid was confident. If he was gay and trying to pick Jared up, there would be signs of nervousness like sweating hands and hesitancy. No, Jared read this Connor as straight or at least not on the make, and sure of himself and his safety. That was good.

Connor hadn’t asked for any assurances from Jared so far. That was a little odd but Jared was ready to give a little here. After all, nothing was going on.

“Yeah, I’ve done a little hitching in my time and I can’t tell you how many times I sat under overpasses waiting a day or more for a ride, and that’s when I was young and innocent looking. So I’m pretty impressed with you making, what, 1200 miles in three days. I’m not even driving that much.” Jared said with mock amazement. “Maybe you ought to buy a Lotto ticket.”

“Not my style to throw away money,” Connor said, at least not until I start making some. I’m still looking for lost change on the sidewalk,” and he laughed and took a sip of his coffee. “How ‘bout you? Where you headed?”

“No place in particular. I inherited a little money, not a lot, but it made me think, you know. So I thought I’d take a little road trip before I got old or crippled or it got to be illegal,” Jared said fixing an open honest look to his face.

“I hear ya,” Connor said. “Life can happen before you’re ready for it.”

“So, are you on summer vacation from school?” Jared glanced around at the gradual emptying of the diner.

“No, I’m graduated. End of this last May from the University of Missouri, Go Tigers!” He laughed. “Got a job waiting for me in Culver City at the end of August and thought I’d see a little of the country before they trapped me in a cubicle.”

“That’s good thinkin’. I know a lot of people who wish they’d done that.” But that wasn’t the truth. Jared didn’t know anybody who worked in an office. He knew a few that wished they could travel before they were in the slam, or dead, but nobody trapped in an office with a necktie. Sometimes, you had to schmooze. That’s what they called it.

“So, Connor. Do you need a ride? I’m not in a hurry to get to nowhere. I’m just lookin’ around.” Jared said checking his bill.

“Thanks, Jared. I’d like a ride. I can chip in for gas.”

“I won’t turn down gas money. I’m driving a one-ton van that I used for work and it is not a lightweight on the fuel. Do you drive? 'Cuz I’d kind of like to look out the window a little more.”

“Man, I love driving. I just haven’t been able to afford the gas and insurance while I was in school.” Connor said and rolled his eyes.

“Well, it looks like we’re covered then. But listen, if you get tired of me and my opinions or company, just say so. I won’t take it personally. We’re both out looking for something and it’s probably completely different. You get me?” He didn’t want to appear eager for a rider, he wanted to make Connor feel safe.

“Loud and clear. Same goes for me. You get tired of my stories or anything, just drop me off anywhere. I got nothing but time,” Connor said.

“It’s a deal,” Jared said and they shook hands again.

“Listen. I got to hit the restroom. I’ll meet you outside. You said you’re in a van?” Connor said dropping a five-dollar bill next to his plate for a tip. Jared saw it and wondered if he was that generous or just wanted Jared to think so.

“White one, big ass thing. You can’t miss it. I’ll get it started and cooling down,” That suited Jared down to the ground. He didn’t want to be seen leaving the diner with Connor for his own reasons. You never knew what people might think.

Jared fumbled at his seat for a moment while Connor paid his tab at the register. He saw that Connor paid from a money clip of bills he had in his front pocket, not with a credit card. He liked this guy more all the time.

Jared started up the van, set the air conditioner to high and picked up a few things in the van to make room for Connor to get in. Connor came out looked into the window then opened the passenger door and said, “D’you want me to drive?”

“No, I’ll take the first shift,” Jared said and then, “side door’s unlocked if you want to stow your pack back there.”

Connor closed the passenger door and slid open the side door to look into the back.

“Wow. You’re ready for a serious road trip.” Connor said looking around in the back of the spacious van.

Jared still had his built-in toolboxes and some shelves for equipment but there was also a small fridge, some deflated air mattresses in a rack, a couple folding lawn chairs, coolers, fishing equipment, camping gear including tools to cut wood, white gas stoves, lanterns. In short, you could live out of the van pretty comfortably.

“Are you car camping too?” Connor asked.

“Not really. Most nights I find a motel, but I’m ready to car camp if I feel like it or nothin’s nearby,” Jared answered.

“I tell you the truth. I was kinda looking forward to sleeping out under the stars next to a campfire myself and I’m bummed I haven’t got to yet.” Connor said.

“Well hell, you’re talking my language. Why don’t we make that happen tonight. I would dig the hell out of that. If we can find a river maybe we can catch dinner too. Otherwise, I got cans of beans and corned beef hash.” Jared sounded enthusiastic.

“Hang on a minute and I’ll go back inside and buy us a sixey of Bud to go with that fish,” Connor said with a smile on his face.

“Now you’re talkin’. Here’s a fiver, grab a bag or two of ice for the cooler would ya?” Jared said and fished out a bill out of his front pocket for Connor.

“Sure thing. Be right back.” Connor said and shoved his backpack in the van and closed door.

Jared thought he should really warn Connor about trusting strangers so much. Everything he needed was in that backpack and he’d just left it in the back of a stranger’s van and walked off to get beer and ice. Jared shook his head. Connor was old enough to know better. He may think he can read people but he needed to understand what Jared’s dad said was true. Life was a crap shoot.

He suddenly laughed out loud. Who the hell did he think he was to straighten somebody else out when it came to life? Especially a nice guy with a college education. Hey, it wasn’t any skin off his nose. Connor’d learn soon enough. Life was short and it was a crap shoot.

Jared got up and slipped between the two front bucket seats into the back of the van and slid open the side door. Then he pulled the big cooler over the open door and drained the water from the last melted ice onto the ground. He pulled out some empty plastic bags and empty wrappers and threw them away.

Connor showed back up at the door with ice and beer and tossed them into the cooler. A few moments later, the van was rolling down the street towards the short on ramp to the state highway and they were off.

Once on the highway, they rode along like they’d known each other for years. They discussed the Rolling Stones versus Aerosmith and they compared Kid Rock to Lil’ Richard. They argued about what made Zeppelin the best of blues rock and they spoke with reverence about Hendrix though they’d both been born after his death.

When they’d first started talking, they’d both tried to keep the conversation alive but after ten minutes they were defending and attacking each other’s positions about almost everything. A little while later it was clear they agreed on more things than they disagreed on.

Jared stopped talking for a while when he had the uncomfortable feeling that he’d never been this comfortable with anybody before and he didn’t know what to think about it. He pulled over to the shoulder when it was about three in the afternoon and Connor took over driving.

Jared enjoyed sitting in the passenger seat with his feet up on the dash looking out his window while they talked. He turned off the radio as the rock station they were listening to faded into the distance and they just talked about their lives.

It was an odd feeling for Jared to talk about his childhood and family. He couldn’t remember ever speaking of his life in such depth before. He felt that there was no reason to hold much back. Speaking to a stranger was easier than it had ever been to talk with his family and it had been years since he’d seen them.

Around four-thirty they saw a sign for Red Mesa River coming up and they both thought it was the chance they were hoping for. Connor pulled the van off onto a side road that was supposed to lead to a campground along the river. When they arrived at the campgrounds and saw all the RV’s and car-campers there, they agreed that they were looking for something a little more secluded and less noisy so they drove on along the road as it followed alongside the river. After about three more miles they found a flat secluded spot that had been used before as a camp.

They pulled over and parked on some high ground next to the river. Connor wandered off to find firewood while Jared pulled out some camping gear and put some rocks in a circle for a fire pit. He collected kindling and piled it on top of some crumpled paper in the fire pit, then got out the fishing gear and tossed a baited line into the river and sat down to wait.

Connor returned with the wood and put some on the unlit kindling, stacking the rest next to the pit. He then grabbed the extra pole and joined Jared down by the river to try his luck.

They fished and talked for an hour or so while they both pulled in a couple fish Jared identified as Apache Trout.

As the sun went down they cleaned their fish and went back up to the campsite and Connor started the fire while Jared assembled some cooking gear.

The dry wood caught well and burned quickly down to embers. Jared placed an old cast iron frypan on the rocks in a corner of the embers and put some oil in the pan. When it sizzled he laid the filleted fish gently into the pan and added salt and pepper.

Connor pulled a couple beers from the cooler and a few minutes later they were eating in silence as the sun set the sky ablaze and then disappeared.

It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie. The only thing missing was the horses and some saddles on the ground for them to lean back on.

They scraped their enamel plates into the embers and added a couple more pieces of wood to get rid of the leftovers of the fish and then they sat back and opened a second beer each.

The two men stretched out and sat in silence. Connor leaned against an outcropping of rock and looked into the night sky.

Jared looked into the fire and thought about the way his life had gone, what had brought him to this place. Life was a crap shoot and sometimes you win. In a way he didn’t feel good about this. He actually liked this kid, which was strange when you thought about it. This guy was going on to live a life which couldn’t be more different than Jared’s. It wasn’t like they could ever be pen pals or anything like it.

This was just another lesson in life for him. He had to admit that this would be the first time he’d felt this way.

“I’ll tell you what. You go ahead and relax and I’ll wash up the dishes so we can put them away. I don’t want to let them sit over night with that fish on them.”

“Let me help you. I don’t mind.” Connor said and started to get up.

“Sit! Tell you what. I’ll clean up tonight if you make the coffee in the morning. Deal?” Jared asked.

“Deal! But I’m getting the better end of the stick.” Connor protested.

“Tell me that in the morning,” Jared said and they both laughed.

“OK. You win,” Connor said.

“I’ll go get it done so I can do a little more fire-watching,” Jared said as he got up off the ground with an exaggerated groan. “I gotta get the soap and scrubber out of the van. You want another beer while I’m up?”

“No, I’m good. I don’t sleep well if I drink too much. Besides I gotta get rid of the two I’ve already had,” Connor said hoisting himself up off the ground.

Jared walked over and slid open up the side door of the van and turned on the interior light in the back of the van and climbed inside. He looked back out and saw Connor walk away from the campfire into the darkness to relieve himself. Jared took a deep breath and looked quietly down at the toolbox thinking. There was no reason to drag this out. He wasn’t sure what was going on in his head right now but he needed to get his shit together and get on with this.

He pulled open the bottom drawer of his tool chest and looked at the hatchet lying there. He felt the familiar rush of excitement charge down his back and the surge of strength rush into his chest. He took a deep breath and picked up the hatchet. This time he’d use the hammer side, last time he’d had to burn his new pair of jeans and shoes.

He grabbed a towel and draped it over the hatchet, turned off the light, picked up a flashlight and climbed out of the van. He’d have to wait until Connor returned to sit by the campfire. He walked back over and picked up the forks and plates and put them into the cooled frypan and took them all of towards the river as if he were going to wash them.

Jared stood off in the darkness and waited for Connor to come back to the fireside. A minute later as he watched, Connor walked back into the area lit by the fire and looked around innocently. Jared watched as the look on Connor’s face changed to a smile and he rubbed his hands together. Then Connor turned and walked toward the van and quietly slid open the side door.

So much for not wanting another beer. Mr. Self-control, my ass, Jared thought to himself and then he saw him pull his backpack and dig around in it. OK, it was something else. Maybe he took medicine or maybe he was getting some heroin out. It didn’t really matter.

There was no time like the present.

Jared walked quickly and silently back across the campsite carrying only the hatchet with the towel covering it. When he was about 12 feet behind Connor he took the towel off and dropped it.

It was then that the dying fire backlit him and his shadow crossed the door of the van alerting Connor who spun around, crouching, and Jared stopped in his tracks with a look of surprise on his face.

Connor was holding a machete in his right hand and a jacket in his left. Connor looked at Jared’s hand and seeing the hatchet, his expression softened.

He slowly stood upright and said, “You are shitting me right?”

“Great minds think alike,” Jared said.

“So what do we do now?” Connor asked.

“I know what I’m gonna do. I guess it’s up to you.” Over time, Jared had worked through most of the problems that had come up, but in all the years he’d been doing this, he’d never considered this.

“Well then we got a problem,” said Connor smiling.

“I guess it’s time to shoot some craps,” Jared said.



The End










Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Arthur P. Allaton



Arthur P. Allaton

November 8, 1940 – September 21, 2012


Bryce Allaton stood next to the grave waiting to feel something. He’d taken the day off work, skipped his dentist appointment and driven all the way out here in the misting rain, and now here he stood, waiting for something to happen. Just what he was expecting, he didn’t know, but it should be moving, profound, life changing. With a little disappointment he looked down at the small dark aluminum frame with the plastic laminated sheet of paper that read Arthur Allaton, his father and thought to himself; yes, it’s the right place, how long does this usually take?

Bryce wanted to forgive his father for dying, and for having the accident that killed him and for doing the things that forced Bryce to change the way he thought about his father. Bryce just couldn’t figure out how to forgive him. It wasn’t as simple as just saying it or even thinking it. He’d tried doing both. He thought if he stood quietly by the grave, things would become clear, maybe he’d cry or hear music or maybe his father’s spirit would come to him and explain everything. You know, like in the movies.

His father, Arthur Allaton, had died last week on Monday, three days after having an “accident” at his house. On Monday Arthur normally would have been at work but normal was a good distance away now. Arthur Allaton was the co-owner of a small investment company that he’d started with a friend in the early 90’s just before investing had become fashionable again. Arthur Allaton had spent most of his life prior to that working in a commercial bank in nearby Port Ludlow in the investment department. At the age of 50 he’d decided it was time to take the next step, to build something for himself and maybe help others to earn their piece of the American Dream through prudent investment. That was what he’d announced to his wife Marilyn and their only child, Bryce, just before retiring and starting the company with his friend, Merritt Halley who worked at the same commercial bank in nearly the same position.

Bryce had always paid attention to whatever his father did. He patterned his life after his father. His father had taught him that the duty of the son was to learn from the life of the father and then do better. To do this, it was necessary to take many of the same initial steps and then using the resources and leverage that a strong background provided, go further and accomplish more. In turn, Bryce’s sons and daughter would be taught the same thing. It was a formula used over time by many elite families to create structures that spanned hundreds of years, like the noble lines of Europe or their American equivalents those family lines acted as examples of strength and power for the rest of the civilization. Those families seemed to be endowed by some supernatural force to raise them above the others. Arthur had taught Bryce where they came from and groomed him to take his place up there in the Allaton Pantheon.

So when Bruce was 24 years old with his newly printed MBA and hearing that his father was retiring from the commercial bank and going into investing with his friend Halley, Bryce saw this in the next step for his father. Bryce had known Merritt Halley as his father’s friend his entire life. Bryce paid attention. He watched his father’s fortune and reputation grow with this step and he did all he could to position himself in life as his father had.

His father and Mr. Halley were lifelong residents and well known to all as having solid reputations as good men of business. They both sat on the city council, the school board, the board of directors of the credit union. They were looked to as pillars of the community, active in their respective churches and the usual civic service organizations. Halley had even been the city manager of Pinecrest for four years.

Bryce acquired a family of his own with a beautiful wife and three wonderful children to carry on after him. He joined the service clubs, went to the business breakfasts and listened and spoke on the principles of citizenship and good business. He shadowed his father in almost every way. His waistline grew with his assets and power and self-interest and inversely to his hairline and his acceptance of new things.

Bryce’s mother Marilyn divorced Arthur after 45 years of marriage for reasons that Bryce never understood and never really cared about. He loved his mother, but they had never had the kind of close relationship that he’d seen in movies and television. He couldn’t explain it. She kept in touch, mostly on holidays.

Then, after 20 years in business with Arthur, Merritt Halley had disappeared. At first, there had been much community concern, what could have happened to him. Kidnapped? Foul play? Had he fallen, struck his head and wandered off under the influence of amnesia? No, his car had been found by the Washington State Patrol in long-term parking at the Portland International Airport, 125 miles from Pinecrest. There was still some doubt about what this meant until an investigation revealed he’d purchased a one-way ticket to Jakarta, Indonesia.

Bryce’s father at first defended Halley but anyone could see that Arthur Allaton was devastated by this turn. Because of its holdings, the Washington State Investment Board and the Attorney General’s office launched immediate investigations and got an injunction from the U.S. District Court to freeze the company’s assets to prevent Allaton or the company from moving any funds in or out until a complete audit had been performed. A federal marshal had placed a padlock and yellow tape with a red seal on the front door of the company.

That was on Thursday, four days after Halley had gone missing and the day before his father’s accident. That was the day Bryce had gone over to the big house where his father lived alone. Alone since his mother had left five years before. When no one answered the door he’d let himself in with a key his father had insisted that he have.

He found his father sitting silently at his desk in the large office he had at the back of the ground floor of his two-story house. After his wife had left, Arthur had remodeled the family room into an office that looked almost exactly like Don Corleone’s office in The Godfather, even down to the leather chairs and dark wooden venetians blinds behind the desk.

It was about three o’clock in the afternoon and the blinds were almost shut so there were only bands of yellow sunlight visible behind his father when he entered the room. Backlit that way he could only see the silhouette of the top of the old man’s head above the back of the chair.

“Hello, son,” his father said to him quietly as he entered the room. “I thought I might see you this afternoon.”

“Hi, Dad. Gabe at the bank told me what happened. Any idea how this will end?” Bryce said and sat down in the large leather chair facing his father’s desk.

“Not well. It’s not going to end well, son.” Arthur Allaton sat quite still behind his large desk and looked at the bookshelf on the opposite wall.

“Do you know how much Merritt took?” Bryce asked. He’d been thinking about his father’s solvency. His father’s company might still be able to weather this storm if it could limit the damage to the integrity of the company. There would be insurance to cover the loss if it were a reasonable percentage of assets. The problem would be regaining the trust of the clients.

“Yeah, I know.” Arthur said quietly.

“Was it a lot?” Bryce was thinking like an MBA. He wanted to show his father he could help out here. This was, after all, a family problem to some degree. He was seen as his father’s son in this community.

“Everything. He took everything,” his father said, quietly and seemed content to leave it at that.

Bryce heard the tone of depression and defeat in his father’s voice. He’d never known his father to be this unhappy or hopeless sounding when it came to a matter of business, or anything in life. Arthur Allaton was known as a take-charge leader. He habitually maintained a positive attitude about everything. But now his voice was without energy, flat, emotionless.

Bryce was disappointed to think that his father was crestfallen by the betrayal of even so close a friend as Halley. Arthur Allaton was his own man and not sentimental about anything. At least that’s how Bryce thought about him.

“Everything? You mean Halley betrayed and disappointed you. He let you down. You’re naturally hurt. He took your trust and used it against you.” Bryce imagined his father was feeling very alone now. But he needed to understand, he stood for more than that, and Bryce was here to help him. He still had his reputation and honesty. People understood he couldn’t control someone like Merritt Halley and his dark schemes. Halley couldn’t take his self-esteem from him.

His father laughed a short mirthless laugh.

“No, I mean he took it all.”

“How could that be? He didn’t have control of everything. You mean he took everything in one fund or one account, right?” Bryce was getting angry that his father obviously couldn’t concentrate clear enough to report the facts. He was being weak and weakness made him seem disgusting. He wanted to reach over the big desk and shake his father. This was not the time to go jelly-legged. This was the time for clear thinking.

“No, I mean he took everything, including my retirement account. I mean even my savings and my money market. I mean everything.”

Bryce shook his head at this. It’s hyperbole. He’s not making sense. This is more serious than he originally thought. Maybe he’s having a nervous breakdown. How could they survive people knowing that his father had lost his mind, temporarily, granted, but you don’t allow people out of touch with reality to manage your retirement funds. Maybe, he could tell the doctor to call it nervous exhaustion or something like that. People would see it as a measure of how seriously his father took his fiduciary responsibility to his clients. Bryce need to call Dr. Lunsby, his father’s physician, and tell him that they needed to handle this whole thing with great discretion.

“Make sense, here. How could that be, Dad? How could he have gotten the account numbers and passwords and codes, let alone the authorization. Only you could have authorized movement of that money. There was no way he…”

His father sat there motionless, slumped a little with no expression at all on his face, at least that Bryce could make out in the dim light. Bryce paused with his mouth open, taking a few slow deep breaths, each breath a sigh, each sigh following the next logical sequence in his thinking. Finally, Bryce spoke again.

“He didn’t, did he? Merritt didn’t get your account numbers or your passwords or your authorization, did he?” Bryce asked and shook his head with each question.

There was a long pause before his father finally spoke.

“Life is short Bryce. You realize that after you’ve lived a while. It’s short and you don’t get another chance. All the little things that we settle for, all the little prizes we carry around, they don’t mean anything. This house, the car, the respect of your fellow businessman, the man-of-the-year award from the Rotary, the Kiwanis, The Lions Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Presbyterian Church, all of them. Little plaques on the wall, for what? Bryce, for what?” Arthur waved his hands at the frames on the walls and the items on the bookshelves.

“I don’t understand. They’re what you wanted. They’re what I wanted. Right? They’re the proof of your life, right?” Bryce spoke slowly.

“I thought so. But I learned, Bryce. I learned but it was too late. Your mother saw it and left. She saw before I did. She saw our life meant nothing. She saw it was stage dressing. It was like a stage play, and we had the worst parts. She went to find a different smaller place, one where she mattered. I didn’t understand when she told me. But I caught on after a couple years alone, thinking about it. She was right,” his father said.

“I still don’t get it. What did you think you were going to do?” This was going too quickly for Bryce. How was he supposed to make sense of this?

“Anything I wanted, Boyo. Anything at all. Go anywhere, do anything. Well, almost. I couldn’t come back here,” he said with a little life in his voice.

“So you made this plan with Merritt? You were going to take everything and leave? Were you going to split it and go your separate ways? Is that it?” Bryce felt as though he’d been dropped into someone else’s life without any warning. He wasn’t equipped to think like this.

“No, no, no. Never that. With Merritt? Merritt Halley? Are you kidding? He was way too conservative and straight-laced for that.” Then he paused for a few moments. “Well, I guess he wasn’t, after all. Was he?” Arthur said this last part with a hint of amusement.

“So, let me understand this. You managed to move all the funds into a single account and then he took it before you could.” Bryce was struggling.

“He beat me to it. I still don’t know how. He never paid any attention to the business. He was the social schmoozer. He wined and dined the clients, I did all the hard work. It’s a miracle he found out about what I was doing. I was set to go on Tuesday. The money couldn’t stay in that limbo for more than a business day. He must have been watching everything I did. It must have been minutes after the last transfer. In 12 more hours, I’d have been gone. In the wind, never to be seen again.”

“Jesus.” Bryce said. “You.”

“Exactly. Me. For once, me,” his father said.

“So what now?” Bryce asked.

“Are you kidding? My fingerprints are all over this. He’s got the money but I have the bag. I’m fucked.” Bryce noticed that his father had never spoken to him in this way before, almost like an equal. It was also the first time he’d ever heard his father use that word. But it was the right word, the only word really, for this situation.

“Are you going to take off?” Bryce asked with some concern, but he couldn’t have said why.

“Oh yeah. I can’t see me in jail, can you? On the other hand, I’m 71, I could use the health care coverage of some posh country club for white collar crooks.” Arthur raised his right arm and spread his fingers in front of his face, as if framing an option.

“I don’t know. There’s plenty of time to consider that alternative. I’ve still got a little bit hidden away for a run.” He continued, finally weighing his choices aloud.

“I can’t believe this is happening. Never in my wildest imagination could I have seen this coming,” Bryce said as his racing thoughts re-entered the conversation at an earlier point.

“Yes, I know. It wasn’t how I pictured things either.” His father said.

“No. That’s not what I … Oh, never mind.” Bryce said. “Look, I got to get home. The kids will be getting home soon and I need to start dinner. If you decide to take off, let me know how you’re doing. Will you?”

“Sure thing, son. Maybe I can catch up with Merritt in Indonesia and convince him to split the dough with me. I could usually make him listen.” Arthur laughed at this.

Bryce looked at his father with a worried look on his face and shook his head. “Take care, Dad. I’ll …,” then he shook his head and turned around and left the office and the house.

In the local paper that evening there were several articles about the local investment company principal disappearing with some of the moneys they were handling for their clients. Bryce could see that they didn’t have any idea of the extent of the embezzlement yet. Interviews with several of the company’s clients contained the usual mixture of anger and disbelief. Bryce knew this was going to get much worse as the investigation got going in earnest.

He thought it would be a wise move for his father to disappear. In the meantime, his father ought to lay low and ignore the phone.

Bryce didn’t sleep that night and got nothing done at work the next day, Friday, for thinking about how his world had changed in the past few days. He was getting ready to drive by his father’s house to offer to get supplies for him when the police department called with the news that his father had shot himself and was being taken to the hospital with a head wound.

Reporters had gone to his house to speak with him when they’d heard the shot and called the police who had found him.

Bryce went to the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit to see his father. He was in a coma with his head wrapped in gauze, hooked up to a ventilator. The doctor explained the situation to him. There were no surprises. By Sunday night he was visited by the Nursing Supervisor who suggested the possibility of donating a couple of his father’s organs to the local tissue bank. His father was a bit old for the heart and lungs, he could donate his liver and kidneys as he had no other major illnesses. Bryce agreed to the donation and his father was pronounced brain dead the following day and his organs were harvested and shipped for transplant.

Bryce thought that his father might appreciate that there was still a chance that part of him might yet catch up with Halley.

Over the following weeks, the police and investigating authorities questioned Bryce several times and even went through his accounts and finances to determine if any of the missing money had made its way into his hands. None had, of course, and the investigation confirmed that. Bryce didn’t mention anything of the conversation that he’d had with his father the afternoon prior to his “accident” and even though there was quite a bit of evidence pointing to fact that Arthur Allaton had moved money, at least from his own accounts into another account containing misappropriated funds, they were not able to rule out Merritt Halley coercing Allaton into transferring the money.

Indonesia had no formal extradition treaty with the United States and Halley’s trail went cold there. Insurance made good on most of the losses by clients of the company but that took another two years to conclude. The $500,000 life insurance policy that Arthur Allaton had in place in favor of Bryce as sole beneficiary was refused due to the circumstances of Arthur’s death, even though Bryce contested their conclusion that it was suicide and not an accident.

Bryce was unable to find the money his father had said he still had hidden away. He’d paid for his father’s funeral and ordered a headstone for his grave which was due to be delivered in the next two weeks. Until then there was a simple marker on the grave; a dark aluminum frame holding a paper, laminated in plastic with his fathers’ name on it. He stood next to the grave in the misting rain waiting for some sense of closure that he was pretty sure was a long way off.

It felt to Bryce that he’d been cut adrift in the world. He looked at his life and everything and everybody in it differently now. He was no long tied to his father’s path and that was a scary proposition at 46 years old. He missed his father but at least he knew where he was. When he had ordered the gravestone, the form asked what he wanted inscribed on the stone other than his father’s name and dates. He’d thought about that for a long while and decided to leave it blank. The father he buried was not the father he’d grown up with and it might take some time to reconcile the two.



The End

Monday, August 15, 2016

A Shooting



My name is Lloyd and I want to tell you what happened to me last Saturday night. It was almost nine o’clock and I was taking my bulldog, Chester, for a walk before bedtime. It was a beautiful crisp clear autumn evening and even with the street lights on you could see the stars and a big yellow moon.

Chester and I were walking along Delancey Street where there were still many people out taking advantage of the dry weather and excellent night. We reached the corner of Madison where there is a small park with benches and a fountain and waited there for a Street Sweeper to pass by. Chester loves to go for walks and is usually very well behaved but as I watched a couple leave a cafĂ© across the street, I felt Chester tugging at his leash toward the little park on the corner. He was interested in something over there but there was no light in the park and I couldn’t tell what he saw. I started to pull him back to cross the street but Chester gave a short bark and I turned to see if I could tell what had captured his interest.

A couple steps carried me beyond the range of the streetlight on the corner and improved my vision. I had to shield my eyes but I saw two men a short distance away sitting opposite each other at a small picnic table. Apparently they had a little bit of light there because I could see that they were playing dice. I hadn’t seen anyone play dice like that since I was a teenager and as I watched them, the game came slowly back to me.

I remembered playing dice during my free time in high school. Any time I had the chance it seemed. My friends and I would play for pennies back in those days. It had nothing to do with the money, it seemed to be a way for adolescent boys to connect and test their personalities. After school we would meet in the park or in a local alley and shoot dice until the last moment before dinner time and then we’d run home with some fabricated excuse for being late.

I suddenly remembered friends and schoolmates that I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years. I only kept in touch with a few of my old chums. I made a mental note to ask Jerry if he had any information of the others the next time I saw him.

My thoughts were interrupted by loud words coming from the picnic table.

“Put that down. That was an eight.” One man said in a slightly grieved tone.

“Bullshit, Bill. That was a seven. Are you blind now?” The other man said lightly, testing the first.

“I’m not blind. It was an eight, man. Now your point’s eight. Put it down and roll ‘em” The first man said loudly and with more energy.

“I’ll roll again, Bill. Because I won the last roll. Give me my money.” I couldn’t tell but it looked like the second man picked up the money that was bet. Then he rolled the dice again.

“God damn. Seven again. I’m hot.” The second man said snapping his fingers several times in a row.

“You sevened out on your point of eight. You lose.” The first man pronounced and I saw the glint of steel in his hand. The first man, the one the other had called Bill, had pulled out a knife to make his ruling stick.

The first man raised his hands. “Now just hold on Billy. You know that ain’t right. I rolled seven twice and won twice. It ain’t right, you robbin’ me like this.”

“I ain’t robbin’ nobody Lee. You know that as well as I do. I’m taking what’s mine.” Bill said and he picked up the money lying on the table and then he reached over and took the hat off the other man’s head. “That’s a nice hat you got Lee. It’s mine now.”

“Bill. That’s my new Stetson. You ain’t takin’ that.” Lee said to his friend in an unfriendly way.

“When you lose your money, learn to lose, Lee,“ Bill said, putting on the hat and backing away from the table.

“Billy.” The man said.

“See you later, Lee,” Bill said and he backed away from the table and turned and walked into the dark of the park.

I stood looking at the lone man, Lee, standing there in the dark by the picnic table and I heard him say, “When you lose your money, learn to lose. I’ll see you later, Billy.” And then the man walked out of the park right past me and Chester and off down the sidewalk.

I stood there another few moments and then shook myself as if waking from a bad dream. I looked down to see Chester sitting comfortably, waiting for me to continue my walk.

Chester and I crossed the street and continued on down Delancey for another couple blocks. I was consumed with thought about the meaning of what I’d seen and heard in that park while Chester was cataloging the scent traces of the thousand dogs that had walked Delancey before tonight.

When we came to the corner of Delancey and Freetown I decided to step into the tavern on the corner for a beer so Chester and I did so. I went up to the bar and ordered a pint of ale and then Chester and I found a small table to sit at next to the front door.

It was a loud evening in the bar and there were several spirited conversations going on. Chester was content to sit by my feet and sniff any patron that passed close by.

As I was nearing the bottom of my glass and preparing to depart there was sudden sound near the front doors and I looked up to see what it was. There was a tall man standing there in a rough tweed jacket with a large revolver in his hand. He was pointing it at someone standing at the bar.

I looked to the bar through a passage made by patrons who had backed out of the way and saw the other man standing at the bar. I didn’t recognize either man but I did recognize the Stetson hat on the head of the man at the bar.

The man at the door said, “Nobody move!”

“Lee, don’t do it,” the man with the hat said, “I got three kids and my wife, Ellen, is sick. You know that. Come on, man”

“Billy. Your turn to lose.” And Lee fired the big revolver.

The glass shattered in the bartender’s hand as he stood behind Billy tending the bar.

Smoke filled the area around the doorway from the big pistol and I thought, how remarkable, how did he miss Billy at this close range?

But of course, he hadn’t missed, the bullet from the big gun had passed right through the man’s abdomen and out his back and just happened to hit the glass in the bartender’s hand.

The man with the gun walked slowly across the room, through the white smoke and took the hat off Billy’s head and placed it on his own and then walked slowly, head up back across the room and out of the door.

I noticed that Chester had moved around my chair and was hiding behind it. I didn’t blame him a bit. I would have been there too if I'd had my youth. But there was no further danger from gunplay that evening in that bar.

Lee the man at the door departed quickly in the knowledge that he’d accomplished his end. I understand the St. Louis Police arrested him the next day. I saw an article yesterday in the newspaper, The St. Louis Republic, saying that Lee Shelton had been arrested for the shooting death of William Lyons at the Tavern owned by Bill Curtis and was awaiting trial in the St. Louis Municipal Jail.

The article was on the second page and will no doubt soon be forgotten by everyone except Chester and myself.



The End



Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Torkan Navegant





Steve Browning sat on the deck against the hard steel wall and looked up at the patch of black sky and stars above him. It was still hot out and there was no breeze. Sweat ran down his face and arms. He was tired but he was almost finished. Then he’d get some sleep. He looked down in the dim light of the distant sodium vapor lamps at the short ax he held in both of his hands and turned his head a little sideways. In the dim salmon-colored light his hands and forearms looked like they’d gotten a bad spray-paint job with a dark primer-red paint, so did the wooden handle of the ax, but the head of the ax was amazingly clean. When you’re at sea, steel has to be either painted or covered with oil to keep it from corroding in the salt air. That coating made the blood just slide off the blade without sticking.

He’d been onboard the oil tanker Torkan Navegant for almost three months. He was one of four crewmen on the ship, well two now. Normally there would be at least 14 people in the crew if the ship was moving but this ship wasn’t going anywhere, at least not for a while. Steve heard a door clang shut somewhere on the port side of the bridge structure behind him. It wasn’t close by but he held his breath and listened for another sound closer to him. No sounds followed, Patel wasn’t coming toward him, at least not yet.

Arup Patel was looking for him, if he wasn’t he would be soon,he was sure of that and when he found him, one of them would die. Joe had been the first to try to kill Steve. He almost did, would have succeeded for sure if Steve hadn’t been alerted to their plan and made the first move. Steve had outwitted them, and he could thank God for that.

It had all started out so good, like God had sent it to him. Steve’d been out of work for months. Waiting for another berth on a working ship. Waiting. Paying the dues on his merchant seaman license. He went to the job center near the docks every day, checked in and sat there waiting for anything to open up. Then he’d leave the center and go to a bar and drink himself into a blind rage every night. He went through the money from the last job pretty quick that way. And then one day this job got posted, the Torkan Navegant.

The job was to be part of small a caretaker crew on an oil tanker that was parked at sea. The tanker was loaded with crude oil that wasn’t needed and so the tanker was being turned into an FSO, basically a huge floating storage unit for the crude oil. The tanker might sit out there for a couple years, maybe more, it depended on the market and that had nothing to do with Steve. There were lots of FSO’s sitting out there in the world’s oceans, the Navegant was just going to be the latest one. A crew of four men, would live aboard the huge ship and make sure that nothing happened to it and keep it safe and secure.

The Navegant wasn’t a normal job for a merchant seaman, it didn't have a starting and a stopping place and a time limit and it paid less than most of the other openings but it was open-ended on how long it would last and right now that sounded good to Steve. Steve was 31 years old and had nothing to show for his life, except some shitty tattoos, a police record in several countries and a drinking and drugging habit that would surely kill him sooner than later while keeping him broke and in trouble until that day. Steve realized that this was his chance to stop his insanely prolonged suicide by drugs and alcohol and salvage some little taste of living before his time was up. This job was the answer to one of those prayers he’d whispered in the night just before passing out. It would be like rehab but without the lectures and meetings.

He’d come to the end of his rope. The last few days before finding this job he’d been on an alcohol only diet trying to conserve the last of his money. So when he heard about this job he spent one shaky night drinking as much juice and water as he could stand then went into the job center the next day and peed into a cup. The idea that this job was sent by God to save his life was confirmed when he passed the drug test and signed the contract for the job. The company put him on a container ship to Singapore the next day where he’d meet the other three guys that would be babysitting the tanker. That was just over three months ago.

He had no idea at the time who those three guys were and how they were going to change his life.

Joe Aromdee was older than Steve and came from Thailand, and had a shitty-looking, sparse beard and what Steve’s mom would’ve called “shifty” eyes. Arup Patel was a short, dark intense looking guy from India who usually worked the engine room in the second or third assistant engineer position, a much more skilled and higher paying job than being a regular deck monkey like Steve. Steve figured Patel must have done something pretty bad to be taking a job like this. But that was his business, not Steve’s. Finally, there was Isaac Latu, maybe 28 years old from American Samoa. Latu was a big handsome fucker with incredibly white teeth and a great smile. Steve wished he had a smile like Latu. Unlike Steve, the women probably lined up for Latu. He was six foot four and maybe 240 pounds of muscle. He looked like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, except Latu had short wavy hair, and if you looked, a cruel edge to his smile.

Those three guys were already in Singapore when Steve arrived and they were all taken straight to the Navegant to relieve what was left of the regular crew there. A company engineer and a trainer from Torkan Shipping Ltd. of Bermuda stayed on the Navegant with the four members of the new caretaker crew for one week and trained them on all the duties they were being paid to carry out. Since there were only four men aboard they each had their own cabin. The men had to learn maintenance procedures, the checklists to be completed, emergency equipment and procedures, everything they needed to know to carry out what would soon become a boring existence of repetitive routines. The rules said that there would be no alcohol or drugs of any kind allowed on board the ship at any time. There would be no other people allowed on board the ship except for company and security personnel. A tender would visit the Navegant monthly to deliver food, water and other consumables. The men were going to work in six-hour shifts, two men on at a time, around the clock to maintain the 900 foot long ship. Anyone breaking the rules would be fired and left in Singapore to find passage home for themselves and they’d be reported to the merchant marine authority, which would pretty much end their lives as licensed merchant seamen. In addition, in some cases, they could be prosecuted under the marine security act.

There was quite a bit of concern about the FSO’s like the Navegant becoming targets of piracy and terrorism. A $65 million ship filled with one million barrels of crude oil would make a huge prize or a huge mess if it were to fall into the wrong hands, so even though the South China Sea off the eastern coast of Malaysia was watched over by the Royal Malaysian Navy, Torkan and its insurors also contracted with private security firms that were on call to respond with massive force if anyone tried to attack or take over one of Torkan’s vessels, including the Navegant. The crew’s job in this case was simply to recognize a problem and radio the company for help if the ship came under attack.

After the week of training the company men left and the four men settled into their duties. The first week was especially tough on Steve as his body learned to function without the constant assault by chemicals. He was shaking and sick to his stomach and didn’t sleep, but he lived through it and by the middle of the second week he felt better than he had in a long time. He began reading books from the ship’s meager library, especially the Bible, while the other three preferred playing cards and watching TV and movies on the ship’s satellite system.

Steve gradually learned a little bit about his shipmates, none of it was too shocking. He picked up that all of the other three members of the crew had had problems in their past. That was, after all, how you ended up taking a job on a ship going nowhere. They all had police records but it couldn’t have been very serious stuff or the company would have never taken a chance on them.

After a few weeks Steve started to notice some things about the other three that bothered him. For instance, they said they hadn’t worked together before this job and even went through elaborate introductions when they first arrived on the ship but they seemed strangely at ease around each other right away and that wasn’t very common in Steve’s experience, but he chalked it up to cultural differences. Working commercial ships was kind of like the French Foreign Legion when it came to men and their pasts. It was better not to ask or answer a lot of questions.

When the three first arrived they’d all spoken some English but the longer they spent on the ship the less English they spoke. When they spoke to each other they used a language that Steve didn’t know, it might have been Tagalog or any one of another 2000-some Asian languages. They seemed to prefer each other’s company and not to hang around Steve. All Steve really knew was he didn’t know what they were talking about and when they were laughing and sneaking looks at him he felt like he was the odd-man-out.

Still, he’d worked in the big world long enough to know you didn’t have to like the people you worked with. In fact, you could even hate each other as long as you got the job done and stayed out of each other’s way, life would go on. Steve did his best to just stay to himself and keep his nose out of anyone else’s business. After all, this was more than just a job to Steve. God had sent him here to save his life, and Steve was going to listen to God for once.

And then one night Steve got a message straight from God. Steve had finished his six-hour shift or watch during which he’d been partnered with Joe Aromdee and even though he hadn’t seen him during the watch, they’d talked on the radio. It was 10:00 PM and they returned to the galley and reported to the other two guys who were just starting their six-hour watch. Then Steve and Joe grabbed something to eat before going their separate ways.

While Joe had stayed in the galley eating and playing video games, Steve had gone to his cabin to read and relax. He got into his bunk and picked up his Bible and instead of opening it at the marker where he’d left off, he opened it to a random page and found that he was in Psalms Chapter 21, the psalm of David, his eyes were drawn to verse 11. It said, “Though they plot evil against you and devise wicked schemes, they cannot succeed.”

Steve closed his eyes and thought about what this might mean and he heard a voice that said, “I’ve sent you this message and you have heard. The other three plan to kill you and throw your body into the sea.”

At first, Steve didn’t think that he’d heard this correctly. He said, “Who are you? Are you God? Why are you talking to me now?”

The voice said, “I have chosen you and shown you the hearts of your enemies. You must strike first. There is no time. You must kill them before they kill you. You must kill them now.”

Steve asked, “Why do they want to kill me?”

The voice answered, “You stand in their way. They are evil men with evil minds and you are in their way. You must kill them now. There is no time. I will send you a sign to show that this is the truth.”

Steve had never had anything like this happen. He opened his eyes and sat on the edge of the bunk. Was it true that the other three were going to kill him? It must be. It might explain so much.

Steve thought and thought and tried to remember all of the things that had happened over the past weeks that made him suspect that they were plotting against him. There was the way they spoke in their secret language to hide their thoughts from him. What other reason could there be for such actions as that? It was clear to him that they all knew each other before they came on board. If Steve was the only one not involved in their plan, they had to get rid of him. Should he radio the company and tell them the other three were planning something? He couldn’t until he knew for sure what it was. How could he find out? He needed to go and look for the reason, he would search their cabins if necessary. Maybe there were papers or something that showed what they were going to do. That was what the voice meant by a sign.

There would be no sleeping for Steve now, he had to settle this thing. He got up and put on his shoes and went up to the galley. The galley was the common area where everyone ate and relaxed and it was lit by fluorescent tubes on the ceiling which cast it in a slightly blue-green light. Joe was no longer there and Steve began looking through the cupboards and shelves. He looked through the magazine rack and books that were lying on the tables. He went into the little room with a toilet and sink, the head, attached to the galley and looked behind the pipes and in the small cabinet. Then he went back into the galley and looked through the large trash can that sat next to the end of the counter where the crew prepared food.

He removed the contents one piece at a time and looked through it then threw it on the floor. He opened empty food containers and looked into them, he unfolded dirty paper towels and checked each side. When he was near the bottom he pulled out a piece of yellow notebook paper that was crumpled and he flattened it out so that he could read it.

It was done in pencil and there were at least two different styles of writing on it. There was a rough diagram that looked like the ship’s deck with a circle or oval next to it. There were X’s at several places with swooping lines with arrowheads at the ends going in different directions. He saw blocks of writing in a language unknown to him. He saw a scribbled bit of English in one block that looked like his name STEVE. The diagram could have been an idea about how to offload supplies from the tender or it might show how to bring people aboard from a boat brought alongside.

He heard a scraping sound and looked up to see Joe Aromdee standing in the doorway across the room looking at him, puzzled, his head cocked slightly to the side. Steve looked down at the trash on the floor around him and started to make an excuse about losing something but then glanced back at Joe and he saw that Joe was looking at the wrinkled and stained yellow notepaper Steve held in his hands. Joe’s face with its scraggly beard changed into a sly smile and Steve heard the voice from his cabin say, “He knows now that you understand. He will go and tell the others. You must kill him now.”

Steve had a just a moment of internal protest thinking that none of this was proof that the others were planning anything and then the feeling surged back into him that he’d been chosen by God to take this job for a purpose and the purpose had been revealed and, like those people he’d read about in the Bible, he needed to get on with God’s work.

He threw the paper down and took off across the room at Joe. Joe’s eyes flared open in surprise and he turned and bolted down the narrow steel passageway. Steve knew he had to get him quickly before he could get outside and call for help. Steve couldn’t beat all of them at once, but one at a time, he had the will for it.

Joe was quickly increasing the distance and getting away as they ran silently down the passageway, and he made a couple sharp turns that would lead him outside the main bridge structure where he could yell for help. Joe slowed more at the turns and was suddenly within reach of Steve’s long arms. He grabbed for Joe’s back and caught just enough shirt to pulled him into the wall and knock him to the ground. Steve didn’t hesitate and dropped viciously on Joe’s back knocking the breath out of him. Joe tried to scream but it came out as a wheeze and Steve grabbed him by the ears and smashed his head into the steel deck. That was it. Joe ceased struggling for a second and that second was all it took for Steve to break Joe’s head on the deck.

Only then did Steve begin to breathe hard and fast. There was a moment of dizzying regret, of wild thoughts of guilt as the frightening realization of what he’d just done washed over him and he gagged and retched. But the next moment it was gone and he felt once again clad in the armor and light of his protector, his God, and he turned to his next job. He needed to find the next one as quickly as he could. Isaac and Arup would be separated while they were on their watch. He didn’t know where they were but all he needed to do was arm himself and move quietly until he found one of them.

Steve stood up and looked at his bloody hands. He watched as they transformed in seconds before his eyes, from shaking weakness to strong steady tools. He took a deep breath and moved off down the passageway.

It was a moonless night as he left the bridge structure which was near the aft end of the ship. He grabbed one of the small axes that were hung at regular intervals on the bulkheads around the ship. Emergency equipment like axes, ropes, life preservers and fire extinguishers and alarm pulls were nearby, wherever you were on most ships. The ax was about two and a half feet long and had a head with both a blade side and hammer/prybar side. Steve spun the tool in his hands as he moved along the walkways. At night the deck was lit by regularly spaced sodium vapor lamps that created large islands of salmon-colored light when viewed from above. He went through the door from the deck into the base of the bridge structure and walked slowly down the metal stairway to the mechanical areas. One of the watch crew would probably be checking the engine room and associated areas. Those areas were the most labor intensive and complicated and took the most time run through the associated checklists.

He saw that the watertight door to the engine area was open and he moved through it and down the passageway listening for sounds of where the next person was. As he approached the noisy room that contained the diesel generators that powered the lights and outlets he saw the door was open. He briefly stood with his back against the wall of the corridor next to the door and savored this moment. He was pleased by how calm he felt.

He turned and peeked around the doorway into the hot noisy room and saw Isaac Latu standing sideways with a clipboard in his hands making notes from the gauges on one of the generators. Latu was looking closely at his work and didn’t notice when Steve came through the door and started down the walkway between the banks of machines. The noise of the running generators drowned out any sound made by Steve’s footsteps.

Latu caught movement in the corner of his vision and looked up when Steve was about six feet away and his expression rapidly changed from a question to business when he saw the ax and the bloody hands. Latu turned to face him and took a couple steps backward to give himself time and space to shift gears. Steve looked at him and thought they were both ready for this. Latu was not that surprised to see Steve and the ax.

Latu took one more step back and reached down picking up two large wrenches from a plastic five-gallon bucket of tools that sat beside the walkway. He must have been working on something down here earlier. Steve thought that this was tough luck but he hadn’t expected this to be anything but what it was. The wrenches were both over 20 inches long and looked like they fit heads that were in the 1 ½” to 2” range.

If Latu was worried or scared his face didn’t show it. He was all business and Steve was OK with that. He wasn’t trying to sneak up on anyone, he was doing God’s work after all.

Latu stood still and Steve walked steadily toward him. Latu seemed to tower over Steve and his massive shoulders blocked out all view of what was behind him. It was over a hundred degrees in the noisy room and sweat dripped from both men’s faces. Steve noticed for the first time a small silver crucifix hanging on a delicate chain around Latu’s shining coffee colored neck. Maybe he had been a good person at one time before becoming evil. It was too bad he wouldn’t have a chance to repent. That too was none of Steve’s business.

Many men would have turned and run away from the sight of Latu with those wrenches, but Steve kept moving forward. As he approached Latu he could feel the energy between them build rapidly and he almost expected to see arcs of lightning discharge into the steel machinery they passed. Instead he saw Latu’s face suddenly break into a brilliant smile that showed almost all of his glowing white teeth. Steve almost smiled himself as he felt a surge of power. This must be the sign he was promised. Latu with his handsome face, appeared radiantly beautiful before him. A fitting sacrifice to God, ready to kill or be killed. No worry, no fear, completely ready. Steve said a quick thanks for this opportunity to be a part of this holy performance. Whichever of them died here would become a part of something much greater.

Steve realized that nothing had been said between them. That was also a sign of how correct this was. He felt proud.

Suddenly, the big Samoan lunged at Steve raising both wrenches high and bringing them down with all his might to break Steve’s arms or shoulders or head. When Latu moved forward, Steve took two quick steps back bringing his ax up and without pausing took one step forward swinging it down as hard as he could, as if he knew exactly where the big man’s body was going to be when the head of his ax finished its arc.

As if it were choreographed on a Hollywood set, the two wrenches passed down between the men striking nothing but the steel floor and pulling the top half of Latu’s body after them. A split second later the ax head arrived. The ax struck Latu in the angle between his head and his massive left shoulder and almost buried itself there. It was all the damage needed to disable and kill the big man but it wasn’t nearly the end of the damage that Steve did to him.

When he finished Steve staggered back and sat on the floor to catch his breath. His arms and shoulders burned from the exertions. As he sat there he looked back down the aisle at Latu’s body and marveled at how much blood had come out of him. Much more than normal, he was sure, enough for two men. And those huge muscles were beautiful in their bright red vitality. As he looked closely he could see the surfaces still twitching and quivering as the life struggled on even at the cellular level. Life was miraculous and beautiful when you really looked at it, he thought.

He got up on legs that were slightly shaking and stretched to regain his balance. One more to go. He left the generator room but not before turning off the lights and dogging the door behind him as per regulations.

Steve climbed the stairs back up onto the main deck and walked around to the other side of the bridge structure. He sat down and leaned back against the steel wall and rested there listening for his last shipmate, Arup Patel to come along. It made sense for him to be on this side if Latu had been on the other side.

He sat there against the wall and looked at the black sky and the stars for a while, they were beautiful. There was beauty and wonder all around him. Then he looked down at this hands and the ax. He heard a door clang shut in the bridge structure and knew it was Patel. Patel might be looking for him or not. But he soon would be. But Steve thought he knew where to find Arup Patel and he didn’t see any need to delay the encounter. Steve was tired and he could take a nap when he finished his work.

Steve wondered if he should go up and disable the radio so that Patel couldn’t call for help, but what would that gain him? Patel wasn’t going to call for help even if he found the other two. Whatever the three had planned was wrong and Patel wouldn’t take a chance exposing it. The tender had been there the week before, so they had at least three weeks before the next check in with the company. Whatever the plan was, it had to take place before the next tender visit, about three weeks from now. After he took care of Patel, killed Patel, Steve would figure out what the plan had been and then he’d call the company to let them know. They would take care of the rest.

He got up and went around the corner and entered the bridge structure from a door in the side. Inside he paused and listened until he heard another noise from above in the distance. He went quickly up the stairway holding the ax by his side in his right hand. When he reached the third level, the level that had the galley and radio room he stopped and waited outside the door. He could hear someone in one of the nearby rooms talking to himself in that other language. Even though he didn’t understand him Steve felt he knew what the man was saying. He was saying what a mess it was in here with the trash all over the floor and how he was going to kick someone’s ass when he found them and then Patel’s voice stopped. Steve listened closely and tried to imagine what was happening.

Steve thought that Patel had probably come up here after not being able to raise his partner Latu on the radio. Maybe he thought Latu was up here eating or goofing off. Then when he got here he saw the mess on the floor and got mad. Now he was thinking something else was going on, but he wasn’t sure what it was.

“Isaac?” Arup Patel called in English. Odd. Why English? “Isaac, are you here?” A few footsteps sounded in the galley. “Isaac, are you in there?” A knock on a wooden door. It could only have been the door to the head, off the galley, Steve thought. OK enough, he knew where Patel was standing.

Steve swept around the doorway and crossed the corner of the room in three strides. Patel hearing the sudden steps behind him said, “Isaac. Didn’t you …” and turned around just in time to see the blur of the ax head coming at his chest. His head turned to see Steve but Patel’s gaze never had time to focus on Steve’s face before he died. Patel’s body fell backward into the little room striking the toilet.

Steve pushed his feet in and closed the wooden door after him. He then dropped the ax and went down to his room and fell into his bunk. He briefly thought about washing the blood from his arms and hands before lying down, but the blood was a sign to God that he was a worthy vessel. He lay there and his mind whirled and spun with thoughts and connections. He thought about being a vessel and the Navegant being a vessel, and washing away the blood and the blood washing away his sins and his past, the blood of the Lamb, he saw the little silver crucifix on Latu’s neck and he thought that the little cross must have been the sign that God had said that He would send. He once again saw Latu’s face smiling at him and wondered at its impossible beauty. Or maybe it was the yellow note paper with the drawing on it. Maybe that was the sign. What did the drawing look like again? He was so tired he couldn’t remember.

As he was about to fall asleep, he heard the voice again.

“You must come to me now. You must take your own life. You must kill yourself. You are the lamb. You are the sign. You have spilled the blood and now your blood must spill.”

“Alright, God. I will. But first I have to sleep. I can’t do it now. Let me sleep and then I’ll do it. Or just take me while I sleep. I have to sleep,” and Steve fell asleep. A deep dreamless sleep, like he hadn’t slept since childhood.

When he awoke it was morning and there was sunlight coming through the tiny window in his cabin.

He lay there for a few moments as the memories of the previous night came back to him one at a time and he wondered if he’d dreamed it all. He started to raise his arms to look at them and stopped. Either way, he wouldn’t know what to think. He couldn’t put it off any longer and he slowly raised his right hand up turning it slowly so that he could see it was covered in dried brownish blood that was flaking off onto the sheets of his bed. His fingernails were caked with dried blood and for another moment he tried to remember how it had all started.

It was like when he was drinking every night, a little like a blackout, except small bits flashed before his eyes. Like a movie he’d seen while drunk.

Oh my God. Had he really killed the other three? Oh my God. oh m, oh my God. He was afraid to leave his cabin. Afraid to retrace his steps and confront the horror of what he’d done.

Could he just sit in his cabin until the next tender arrived? Was that reality?

He got up and walked out of his cabin and went into the head just down the passageway and went to a sink and looked into the mirror over the sink. Dried blood covered his face and chest. He almost couldn’t recognize the face as his own. My God. What had he done?

He turned on the tap full and tried to wash his face clean. He settled for getting most of the blood of his face and forearms. He grabbed a towel and dried off as he left the bathroom and went up the stairs to the galley.

As he walked in he saw the trash all over the floor by the trashcan and he saw the yellow paper lying there. He walked over, picked it up and looked at it. It was two ovals with lines and arrows, X’s. There was writing in another language but he could see nothing that looked like his name. It could have been some variation of tic-tac-toe for all he knew. What had he thought it was? He could see nothing in it now.

A sudden memory came back and his head snapped around and he looked at the door to the little head off the galley. The door was closed and on the floor there was the ax and then he could see the slightest hint of red at the bottom edge of the door. His head began to spin at the realization and he bent over retching, but nothing came out.

He couldn’t deal with this. What was he supposed to do now? And then he remembered the voice and the last thing it told him the night before. It was right. He had to kill himself. There was no way out of this now. But he needed to call the company and tell them what happened. He needed to let them know and then he would kill himself. He could do that much. He went to the cabinet and opened a drawer and removed a small paring knife he could use to cut his wrist.

He went out into the hallway and saw Joe Aromdee’s bloodied body lying farther down the passageway. He turned his head quickly away from the sight and climbed the stairs up to the bridge level.

He went into the bridge and sat down at the desk that held the radiotelephone and the communications computer. He laid the knife down on the desk and pulled out the binder that held the instructions for using the equipment and flipped to the first chapter on calling the company.

The equipment was always left on so that it could accept and log messages from the company to the ship. Most of these would come across as written messages and not voice communications. As he ran his index finger down the checklist for using the system, he noticed a red star flashing on the computer’s screen. Next to the star was the word URGENT in red letters that also flashed. He wondered briefly what to do next, but took a chance and used the computer mouse to move the cursor over to click on the star.

The screen changed and a window opened with a message. Steve read the screen and then sat back in the swivel chair and said, “Fuck!” and his mouth dropped open. He looked at the time and date on the message then moved his eyes quickly to the system clock in the corner of the screen. The date and time of the message was barely eight minutes before.







The message read;









*** ATTENTION - ATTENTION – ATTENTION *** - CREW OF THE TORKAN NAVEGANT: PREPARE TO REPEL BORDERS. CREDIBLE INTELLIGENCE GATHERED BY THE KOR RISIK DIRAJA (ROYAL INTELLIGENCE CORPS) OVER THE PAST 12 HOURS INDICATES ATTACK ON THE TORKAN NAVEGANT IS IMMINENT BY HEAVILY ARMED MEMBERS OF MUJAHIDEEN INDONESIA TIMOR (MIT), AN ISLAMIC STATE AFFILIATE IN INDONESIA. DECODED MESSAGES INDICATE PLAN TO SINK NAVEGANT WITH CARGO, SOME NAVEGANT CREW MEMBERS MAY BE INVOLVED. THIS INTELL CARRIES AN ADMIRALTY RATING OF “AA” FOR RELIABILITY AND CONFIRMATION. MALAYSIAN MILITARY FORCES AND CONTRACTOR HAVE BEEN DISPATCHED. ACKNOWLEDGE! ACKNOWLEDGE! - END OF MESSAGE.



The End.