A Dark and Stormy Night

I have a dim memory of an old episode from the tv series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” about a storm and some nervous nurses waiting it out. Something about a nurse killer on the loose. In the final scene we find that one of the nurses is the actual killer. She was a big woman and I think she was a man in a wig. Anyway, that errant memory flittered through my mind and left a seed. Storm, nurses, murder afoot. After a wrote it, I had to go with a tongue in cheek title. Hence “it was a dark and stormy night.”

A Dark and Stormy Night

            A dim flicker of light glimmered at the office window. Candace, ‘call me Candy’, Johnson barely noticed as she continued inventory of the med stocks for what seemed the hundredth time that week. A few moments later a soft rumble could be heard in the distance.

            “Storm’s coming in,” Denise Patrick said. Master of the obvious, Candy thought sourly.  “It’s supposed to be a big one,” Denise continued. “I just heard about it on the radio.”

            “Just my luck,” said Candy, slamming a cabinet door.

            “Huh?” asked Denise.

            “Just my luck to draw the late shift in this rustbucket place with a storm brewing. By midnight we’ll have bedpans all down the hallway catching water from the leaky ceiling.”

            “It leaks? That can’t be very safe.” As I said, thought Candy, master of the obvious.

            “No, it’s not. But we’re not St. Joe’s. We’re a poor little clinic run by a poor little hospital in a poor little section of Philly.” Candy decided the only upside of the situation was they had no patients in their care for the late shift. The decidedly downside was that she had to work it with Denise. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was about Denise that rubbed her the wrong way. Pretty much everything. She was a mousy little hausfrau, seemingly afraid of her own shadow. She didn’t appear all that bright and Candy wondered how she ever got through nursing school. Candy, on the other hand, was a plus size blonde, brassy and full of life. She sashayed her way through her daily rounds, flirting with the patients, keeping up a light banter. It kept the men’s spirits up and she didn’t mind the occasional pat on her fanny. God knows some of them had seen horrors she’d never know. A smile and wink for our brave boys cost her so little, she thought. But working the late shift sucked. Especially with a freak storm coming in. But they were stuck until two am when the overnight relief came on.

            There was a bright flash of light through the window. The rumble came quicker this time.

            “It’s moving fast,” Denise offered.

            “Good, maybe it’ll do it’s thing and get the hell out of here fast, too. I hate having to dash out to my car in the pouring rain.” Another flash, shortly followed by a louder rumble.

            “Lordy, I hate storms.” Candy noticed Denise babbled when nervous. “We used to have bad ones back in Kansas. Big storms, and sometimes tornadoes and hail. I just want to crawl into a cellar and hide.”

            “Well, our cellar is over that way,” Candy nodded with her head, as she lifted a load of towels to be sorted.

            “I can’t go down there,” Denise looked at her with fear bright in her eyes. “That used to be the morgue. I don’t dare go down there.”

            “Don’t tell me you’re a nurse and scared of dead people?”

            “I just haven’t had much experience around them. I’ve only been a nurse for a few years.”

            “Well, honey, it’s something you’ll just have to get used to.” Candy figured Miss Mousy’s patients would be dropping like flies from her tepid care. Candy kept her men’s spirits from flagging with her brazen sexuality. She didn’t dial it down, and her men responded. She was a very popular nurse.

            A brilliant flash and crash almost simultaneously made them both jump. It was followed by the rattle of a hard rain hitting the flagstones outside. Over the next few minutes there were multiple flashes and the rumbling never stopped, rolling and echoing through the air and seemingly through their bones. Candy thought it sounded like a bowling alley with the constant rumble of the balls. Maybe I’ll get Hank to take me bowling this weekend. We haven’t done that in ages, she thought with a smile. Hank was back from the Pacific with everything intact. She was so afraid he would return with a loss of limbs or a shell-shocked zombie like she had seen so many times over the past months. Or not return at all. Stop thinking about downers, she told herself. Hank’s home and all is right with the world. The war is over.

            A sudden massive crash shook the entire building. Denise screamed and her pile of towels flew through the air.

            “Wow, that one was right on top of us,” Candy said. Then she silently chided herself. Now who’s stating the obvious?

            Candy felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned but no one was there. Then a cold splash of water hit her nose. She looked up and got hit in the middle of her forehead with another cold splash.

            “Oh, Hell’s Bells. I need a bedpan for this leak. You take the back hallway and check. I’ll finish looking around up here.” Within the next half hour they found fifteen leaks and had bedpans in place collecting the spillage.

            “At the rate the rain’s falling, we’ll have to empty them before the next shift comes in. What a gruesome night. Glad I’m going home and not coming in.”

            Over the next hour the flashing and rumbling would sometimes abate for a few minutes but always came back with renewed vigor. Candy didn’t know if it were multiple storm fronts or the same storm just circling. Either way, they were receiving severe punishment from the elements.

            Another particularly violent crash hit and the lights flickered and then failed altogether. Denise emitted a short shriek.

            “Oh, ain’t this just grand,” Candy said sarcastically. She had several other choice phrases that came to mind but didn’t want to totally offend Denise’s delicate sensibilities. The sudden darkness was total. After a few moments their eyes had adjusted but it was still nearly impossible to see anything.

            “The generator’s supposed to kick on when the power goes out,” Candy complained. “I wonder why it hasn’t tripped yet?”

            “I don’t like it.” Candy jumped because Denise’s voice was right at her elbow.

            “I think there’s some candles in the supply cabinet. Let me check.” Candy groped her way to the supply cubbie behind the nurses’ station. Within a few minutes she had a couple of white tapers lit and sitting on the desk.

            Candy had just said, “Well, ain’t this comfy,” when the phone rang.

            “Bellhaven Clinic,” she said automatically into the phone. “Oh, hi, Ray. Yeah. Yah don’t say. Well, the power’s out. No, it didn’t kick on. Where? Crap. He said what? No. No. I said hell no.” She listened for a moment more and slammed down the phone.

            “What?” Denise wanted to know.

            “The main road’s flooded. Ray said our relief might not be here till daylight. We have to stay all night.”

            “But, I don’t want to.”

            Candy glared at her. “You think I do? I would walk out on ‘em, but the road is flooded so I couldn’t get home anyway. Either way you look at it, we’re stuck. By the way, Ray told me how to get the generator on. We just need to push a button on the side.”

            “Oh, good. Where is it?”

            “In the cellar.”

            “Oh.” Denise’s eyes were wide.

            “Oh, for Pete’s sake. Are you that afraid of the cellar? Come on. I’m not going down there by myself.”

            “But there used to be dead people there. There might be spirits.”

            “Oh, for crying out loud. Come on.” She roughly grabbed Denise’s arm in one hand and a candle in the other.

            Once in the cellar they found that other undiscovered leaks had let water in and there were small puddles in various places. They found the generator and, sure enough, there was a big red button on the side. Candy pressed it. Nothing happened. She pressed it again, holding it longer. The generator made a wheezing noise. Then after a few burps it began a soft hum. Looking up toward the door they noticed a soft glow meaning the emergency lighting was working. They hustled up the stairs, ready to leave the dank and disquieting place behind.

            The emergency lighting was just sparse dim lights that did little to enlighten the place and nothing to dispel the gloom. Still, they could see.

            Candy decided it was time for a break. She plopped down in a chair at the nurses’ station and picked up her Hollywood magazine. She ruefully noted it was two months old and she had read every article at least twice. She tossed it aside.

            “Well, I ain’t doing much else tonight. I’ll take my double time pay sitting on my bum. How about you, Toots?” Denise approached the desk looking fearful and browbeaten.

            “Yes. Me too.”

            “That’s the spirit, girl. Show some gumption.”

            Denise picked up the Hollywood magazine and looked at it. After a moment her eyes grew wide.

            “What?” Candy asked.

            “Are they really making a movie about that man who killed those seven co-eds? That was so awful. Why would they make a movie about it? I was almost too scared to go to work for a week after it happened.”

            “Sorry, hon. Blood and sex sells. It’s gotta have one or the other.”

            “But that’s so awful.”

            “Yeah, and it’ll make ‘em a bazillion bucks. People love a good horror story. I think they call ‘em slasher movies. You know, like Hookman or the Midnight Caller or the Scarecrow.”

            “I don’t know about that. All that kind of stuff scares me. Especially the Scarecrow.”

            “Listen,” Candy said loudly. Denise clutched her heart. “The rain. It’s stopped.” They both noted how quiet it was for a moment. There were more flares followed by rumbling, but it was no longer directly over them. It still rolled and echoed, drawing out each rumble. “I think we’ve survived the worst of it,” Candy said with as much enthusiasm as she could gather. She looked at the clock and it was just now two am. She should be getting off right now. The long night loomed.

            They went to the front window and looked out. There were no street lights, but by the occasional flashes of lightning they could see tree limbs scattered about. Some lawn furniture was missing or overturned. The yard crew had their work cut out for them. But the rain had stopped.

            “You don’t really believe all those slasher stories, do you?” Candy asked. “They aren’t real. Just stories people tell to frighten each other or the kids.”

            “Daddy said the Scarecrow is real. He wouldn’t tell me a lie.”

            “Well, maybe. But I think he’s overblown. One kook kills a few people wearing a scary mask and everybody goes crazy. I bet the others are just copycats. Or didn’t even happen. There is no demented serial killer running around killing, killing…”

            “Nurses.”

            “Well, yeah. I don’t believe it.”

            “I wish I was that sure.”

            After a few more minutes of desultory conversation Candy said she had to go to the ladies’ room. She could tell Denise didn’t want to be left alone but she was damned if she’d invite her to the bathroom. The girl needs to grow a spine, she thought. Then she got an idea of a fun prank. After finishing her business, she quietly slipped out of the lavatory and crept to a linen supply closet. She grabbed a pillowcase. Using her scissors she cut two eye holes, and drew some black lines on it with a felt pen. She pulled it over her head, cinching it around her neck with a draw cord. She pulled an abandoned old black great coat from the closet to hide her nursing whites. She crept up the hallway, just out of sight of the nurses’ station. She picked up a bedpan, dumped out the water and tossed the pan into the room. The clanging of the pan startled Denise, eliciting a shriek. Candy jumped into the room using the lowest voice she could muster and said “The Scarecrow has come for you!”

            Denise’s earlier shriek was nothing compared to the scream she now emitted. She ran from the station screeching as if all the demons of hell were after her. Barely able to contain her laughter, Candy pursued her down the hallway. Denise ran into a supply closet and closed the door behind her. Candy thought, what an idiot. Now she’s cornered. I guess I need to teach her how to handle an emergency.

            Denise was crying, trembling and hyperventilating so hard she could hardly hold the door handle. She braced herself to keep the Scarecrow from opening it. Oh lord, I’m so scared, she thought. She looked around to see if there were any type of weapon or protection in the closet but it was too dark. She just trembled and moaned, holding on to the knob as if her life depended on it. She never heard the click as the door was locked from the outside.

            After what felt like hours of kneeling hanging onto the knob, her hands began cramping. She whimpered, not daring to let go. She kept catching herself almost falling asleep, jerking upright each time. Finally she did not catch herself and fell into a fitful exhausted sleep.

***

            Denise jerked awake. At first she was disoriented, finding herself on the floor in a closet. Then the fear grabbed her heart like a vise. The light coming under the door was brighter than the emergency lighting so either the power was back or it was morning. She carefully twisted the doorknob. Or tried to. It refused to move. She realized it was locked and she was trapped inside.

            As she considered her predicament she also had another realization. The monster who had chased her last night was wearing a white skirt and shoes under the black coat. It was Candy all along. She played a mean trick on me, she thought, feeling incredibly foolish. Gathering her courage, she rattled the doorknob. She shook the door, shouting, “Candy, let me out!” She beat on the door and pleaded with Candy to let her out, but no one came. She was kneeling by the door crying when she heard sounds outside. Fear still spiked through her, but she knew she needed to get out. She heard what sounded like people talking. Multiple people was good. That would be safe. She pounded on the door, yelling for help. In a moment she heard the click as the door was unlocked. The bright light of day blinded her as it was opened and unknown arms pulled her up. She fought down the urge to struggle against them.

            “It’s okay. You’re safe now,” said a man’s voice. As her eyes adjusted she could tell he was wearing a policeman’s uniform. “It’s all over now.”

            “I was locked in,” Denise began, not knowing exactly what to say, totally disoriented.

            “That’s okay. Come outside and have some coffee.” That sounded like a wonderful idea so she allowed the officer to lead her outside to an ambulance where there was coffee and some doughnuts.

            Denise looked around. There were a number of official looking cars in the parking lot.

            “Where’s Candy?” she asked.

            “You need to drink your coffee first,” said the policeman.

***

            Inside two detectives were conferring.

            “Well, the MO is the same. Slashed from side to side. She bled out in minutes. The same message written in blood. I don’t know why he didn’t take them both, like over in southside last month. Maybe he didn’t know she was hiding.”

            “She was lucky. Looks like she barely escaped the Scarecrow.”

The Attack

Maybe you’ve seen all the stories I’ve posted. If so you know that I had an experience involving a corvette one night that left an indelible imprint upon my psyche. I used this event to write two stories, one a straight up memoir of what happened (Little Red Corvette) and one a gruesome extension on what could have happened (The Undertaker). Well, I’ve revisited that landscape again and come away with another ‘what if?’ While The Undertaker was quite sensationalist, The Attack is much sadder and much more horrifying because it is commonplace. Harming another should never become commonplace. We cannot call civilized any society that accepts this type of incident as just another day, nothing to see here, move along. We need to be better than that. Okay, enough soapbox. On with the show.

The Attack

When I was a kid, my best friend was Will. Our dads had been best friends growing up, and since we lived about 200 yards apart it was logical we would be thrown together. I was a year older and we were quite different, but it somehow worked and we were very close throughout our childhood and adolescence. Will dated Tina during most of high school. She dumped him when he was sixteen. I then broke the Number One Bro Rule. I dated her – twice. It was wrong but she was kinda hot and I was kinda 17. If it’s any consolation, she ditched me on our second date and went home with another guy.

Will and I eventually worked around it and stayed friends. After high school he met a nice girl and they got engaged. Early in the engagement she was killed in a car accident. Will was particularly wrecked because his sister had died in an auto accident when we were young. By this time I was off at college. I found out later he had moved in with a woman in a nearby town. I was just hoping he would find himself, or at least a little happiness after all the crap life had handed him.

***

Will apparently found himself. On his 21st birthday he came to visit me in the small city not far away where I had settled. He said his birthday present to himself was to come out of the closet. Then he said, “I’m gay.” I just looked at him as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. My expression probably said, “And…?” This wasn’t exactly a newsflash. I knew he had broken off with his live-in lady friend and he had spoken a number of times about going to ‘the club’ in my city. ‘The club’ was a gay bar. I guess what he was getting at was that although he was living as if he was not in the closet, he was now announcing it to the world. It apparently didn’t go over well. You have to remember this was about 1980.

When I didn’t say anything right away he sarcastically said, “So, aren’t you going to turn against me like everyone else has?”

I wasn’t surprised by the response he was getting. We grew up, and he still lived, in a very rural, very conservative, very Baptist, very southern community. They are kind of like, hate the sin, crucify the sinner types. I had long ago shed many of the bigoted views I was brought up with. I told him, “Will, you’re my friend. I love you. Nothing would make me turn against you. You’re still you.” He looked like he needed it so I hugged him. I detected a couple of sniffles. He said, “It’s a sucky way to find out who your real friends are.”

But Will was one for living out loud, so he proudly carried on in his community, visiting the club in the city on a regular basis. He sometimes stopped by to see me on the way in or out of town.

***

One particular Saturday afternoon about a year after coming out he showed up at my door

and said, “How about coming to the club with me.” My immediate response was, “Not gonna happen.”

“It’ll be fine. I want you to see this part of my life. I won’t let anybody touch you.”

“Really not gonna happen.”

We went around for awhile until he said, “For years I went with you to straight bars. You can do this for me.” I prepared to argue that this was different, but somehow…it wasn’t.

I grudgingly agreed to go.

He said, “I’ll be with you. Nobody’s going to rape you.”

“Really not helping.”

***

Why was I so unwilling to go? Maybe somewhere down in our lizard brainstem is a primeval fear of ‘other’? At this point in my life I knew a few gay people. I guess I was hypocritically okay they were gay as long as I didn’t have to see it or think about it. Not so much removed from the bigotry I was trying to overcome.

So, I put on my big boy pants and went. We arrived about 10:30 as it was just starting to fill. As we walked past some tables a nice-looking gentleman said, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” He was dressed in a blazer and button-down shirt. A bit old, 35-40, which was ancient to me at 23. I politely declined and quickly caught up with Will.

“You should have accepted the drink,” he said.

“Hell no,” I responded. “He would have thought I was available for negotiations.”

“It’s just a drink.”

“No way. It’s never ‘just a drink’. I’m not selling what he’s looking for.”

“You’re such a prude,” Will laughed.

***

We found a bar with some stools available. I had only sat for a minute when a lumberjack came up beside me. I call him a lumberjack because he looked like the guy on Brawny paper towels, decked out in tight jeans and a flannel shirt. He was nice looking and all muscle, with that little mustache that all gay men seemed to have. He leaned on the bar and smiled at me. I looked to Will in a panic.

“Just ignore him. He’s harmless.” At 6 foot plus and 200 pounds of muscle at the peak of his power he decidedly didn’t look harmless. He decidedly looked like a predator and I decidedly was feeling like prey. He gave me a leer that said I had passed muster and was now on the menu. I studiously refused to make eye contact until he drifted away in search of greener pastures.

“Man, you have been cruised,” Will laughed. Is that what it was?

“Yeah? And I thought you were going to protect me from all this. All you’re doing is enjoying the show.” I was a bit annoyed.

“Hey, you’re doing fine. Can I help it if the guys think you’re hot? Would you rather they

think you’re ugly?”
            “Yes, I mean no, I mean… I don’t know.” I hate hard questions like that. No one wants to

be considered ugly, but I did not come here to find me a man.

            And then I made a connection. Is that the way women feel at bars when we leer at them? We don’t call it leering, just ‘checking them out’, but it’s basically the same thing. I felt so violated while it was happening. Is that what women experience? I whispered a quiet apology to women everywhere.

I had decided I definitely did not want to go the bathroom while at the bar. I would just feel too vulnerable and exposed. What did I expect, an orgy? But a couple of beers settled that. I had to go, no question. So I told Will I’d be right back, and to come rescue me if I wasn’t. I pressed through the crowd toward the men’s room on the other side of the bar. The crowd was fairly thick but there was no excuse for the number of hands I felt on my butt as I made my way through. When did men get so free with their hands? There was also a ladies’ room that did not seem to be used. I hadn’t seen any women. Lesbians are gay. Don’t they go to gay bars, or does it have to be a dyke bar? Or maybe it was for drag queens. I just don’t know any of the politics of being gay.

I steeled myself and went in expecting the worst. What, I don’t know. It was just a fairly ordinary bathroom like in any restaurant or bar. A difference was there were no urinals, only stalls. And no doors on the stalls. I decided not to overanalyze the thought process behind this. I waited in a short line. Most of the patrons seemed to know each other. There was a group of very young guys, probably with fake id’s, clustered around the mirror fixing their hair and makeup and being bitchy. If you’ve ever seen a teen movie with a scene of the mean girls in the school bathroom, this was it. I took care of my business and quickly exited. I endured another grope session making my way back to where I started. No stool and no Will. Oh, crap.

Almost immediately a very handsome young man sidled up to me.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.” Was that his best line? I looked over at him. He was dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, black leather jacket and had his hair combed back like Fonzie in the old Happy Days tv show.

“That’s because I’ve never been here before,” I answered.

“Oh, just come out of the closet?”

What?! I assume the dim light covered the bright red of my face at this point. Without sputtering too much I explained I was NOT gay and was here with a friend. Even as I said it I realized how lame it sounded. The guy accepted it, but instead of walking away, he stayed and we talked. I guess I blushed even more when he told me it was too bad I wasn’t gay because he thought I was very hot. We were far enough from the dance floor to talk without shouting. His name was John and he was a waiter at a local fancy restaurant. He told me excitedly that he had also just picked up a job as a bartender here at the club. He hoped to make enough money so he could have his own place. He was currently living with an elderly aunt and it was really cramping his social life. I talked some about my work with handicapped children. He gave me the standard line that I must be “so special”. I get that a lot.

After a while he moved on in search of prey. I mean, 99.9% of the men were here for one thing only. Then I ashamedly admitted to myself that when I went out to bars, I was one of that 99.9%. Just looking for a different landscape. I had actually enjoyed talking to John. I like meeting people and this is what I enjoy about social situations. Just talking and getting to know people. It was nice. He was nice.

Will came hustling up.

“Sorry, I had to catch up with someone. I didn’t mean to desert you. I see you were talking to John. What do you think? He’s like the hottest guy here. By the way, my friends think you’re cute. They were disappointed to hear you’re straight.”

“Yay, crown me Miss America,” I said sourly. Then I realized my mood wasn’t Will’s fault, it was mine. I’m unfairly putting my straight values on what he enjoys. These are his stomping grounds, where he’s most at home. We all need a place like that. I’m glad he has it. 

  “Thanks for showing me around. It was nice. But it’s time I headed home.” He didn’t object. I think he was ready to go on the prowl also. So I left.

***

It wasn’t far home. A few blocks from the club I noticed a car following me closely. I mean it was city driving, but he stayed right on my bumper. It’s usually annoying, but late at night with the streets deserted and you’re all alone, it’s kinda creepy.

A couple blocks from my last turn, he pulled out of the lane and came up on my right. As I stopped at the red light, he oozed up to a stop beside me on the right in a low, sleek and oh so sexy Corvette. And did I mention it was black? Without the shine, it would be hard to see as it faded into the black of night like it had some science fiction cloaking device on board. I couldn’t help but admire it. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t see the driver. Probably a guy, though. Maybe making up for deficits in other areas I thought enviously. When the light turned green he jackrabbited away. Hey, if my car could do that I probably would, too. I just signaled and moved my old blue Civic into the right lane to make my turn at the next block. As I made my turn I was peripherally aware of the Corvette making a quick right turn a block down the street. My house was the next to last on the block on the right. I blessed my luck that I found curb parking just a few feet from the walkway.

As I was walking toward the steps that led up from the sidewalk, I saw a black Corvette slowly nose up to the next intersection coming from the left. Since I’m the next to last house on the block it was pretty close. How many black Corvettes are running around my neighborhood at nearly 1 am? It had to be the same one. Why had it followed me? My mind raced through about a dozen scenarios, none ending well. There was about a 1% chance it was a gorgeous blonde girl who wanted my body. About a 39% chance it was a perverted serial murderer who also wanted my body, for entirely different reasons. And a 60% chance it was a couple of redneck college students out to roll a queer. Yeah, my money was on that explanation. Had they followed me from the club? It’s not something I generally worry about. I guess you could call it straight boy privilege.

He revved the engine as I reached the steps. The deep throaty sound vibrated in my stomach. He knew I was aware of him. My blood ran cold and I felt panic coming on. I felt exposed. The car was sitting there like a black spider emitting an aura of evil. I don’t know why I got so spooked. It’s just a car. As I stood there on the sidewalk at the base of our walkway the car turned onto my street and quietly, with just a hint of a Barton thrum, glided to a stop in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I nervously glanced over my shoulder at the house. Up three steps to the walk, another fifteen feet to the stairs, up ten steps to the porch, then through the front door and then unlock and get in my apartment. Could I do all that if this went sideways? I expected the window to roll down. Nothing. Just waiting. I was about to shrug and turn away when the doors flew open and two guys surged out. The driver was stocky. Not fat, just meaty, like a wrestler. He had short brown hair and a white polo shirt over jeans. His companion had to come around the front of the car, but he was fast. He was taller and more slender, still athletic looking. Longer blond hair. He had on khakis and a blue polo. One of them, I’m not sure which, said, not loudly but at least audible to me, “Get him!”

I turned and flew up the three steps, fear rising in my throat like my gorge. Halfway to the porch someone’s arms flung around me stopping my progress. It was Mr. Stocky.

“Whassa matter, gayboy? We just want to play,” he cooed in my ear. He swung me around to face Blondie. He open handed slapped me twice, very hard with his right hand. I noticed a chain wrapped his left. Oh shit!

“Filthy faggot! Out cruising around like you own the place. We’re going to teach you your place.” Then I got a right fist to my jaw followed by a punch with his chain wrapped fist in my stomach. Through the pain I realized this was going bad fast. And I wanted to keep that chain away from my face. As Blondie wound up for another blow I threw all my weight on Stocky, lifted my feet and kicked Blondie. I was aiming for his balls but he deflected it.

“You fucking queer. You’re gonna pay for that,” he sneered. Two quick punches to the belly winded me, but I straightened up and threw my head back as hard as I could. I heard a crunch as I made contact with Stocky’s face. His arms released me immediately.

“Oh, shit!” he exclaimed, grabbing his face. “You broke my freaking nose.”

I meant to make a run for it in the momentary diversion but my body had other ideas. I dropped to the ground. As I was on all fours, trying to stand, Blondie got a strong kick to my ribs. I think I heard the cracking. I yelled in pain. Blondie grabbed me by the hair and yanked me up on my knees. He had a crazed look in his eyes. He pressed my face in his groin and rubbed it around.

“You want some of this, fagboy? You wanna suck my dick? You wanna eat my meat? I bet you do, you fucking sicko. Well, you don’t deserve it, asswipe.” He pulled my head away and still holding me by my hair punched me twice in the face, breaking my nose. He unwrapped the chain from his fist and looped it around my neck. He pulled it tight. As I desperately tried to loosen it to catch my breath he walked me on my knees a few steps to his partner. Stocky grabbed my head with his bloody hands and rubbed my face in his groin also. It was gross that both of them had erections. They were really getting off on the violence. I guess I took a little satisfaction that I left blood stains all over Stocky’s jeans. Blondie loosened the chain, twirled it around his head and lashed it across my chest like a whip. The pain was intense and I screamed. As I fell, Blondie got another kick in my kidney. I was on my side and saw Stocky aiming a kick at my face. I twisted my head and he caught me in the chin rather than mouth, but my head snapped back so hard I heard cartilage crunch. They both started kicking me. Luckily for me, they were wearing sneakers rather than boots. All I could do was curl up in a ball and hope it would soon be over.

“Yeah, lay there like a pussyboy. Gonna fuck your ass after this. Bet you’ll love that.” Blondie again. He seemed to be the spokesman for Haters R Us.

“Stop it! Get away!” I heard shouting coming from my house. Jack, one of my housemates, was running down the front steps in nothing but boxers with a baseball bat in his hands.

“Shit,” Stocky exclaimed and the two took off for the car. They were in before Jack could get them, but as they tried to get away his bat took off the driver’s side mirror and bashed a taillight.

Then Jack was kneeling beside me.

“Oh man, Curt. Are you all right? Oh, stupid question. Crap, I don’t have my phone.” He looked up where Ken, his roommate, had come out on the porch.

“Ken, call 911. We need an ambulance for Chris. Some assholes just jumped him.”

I blessedly don’t remember much about how bad everything hurt. I was just one mass of pain. Julie threw a blanket over me, even though it was July. I guess shock is an all-season thing. She also had a wet cloth and was softly dabbing my face. I was still lying on my side in a tight ball. My muscles were frozen. I couldn’t let go. Then the tears started. I felt a sharp tearing in my side with every heave, but I couldn’t stop.

“It’s okay, babe. We gotcha,” Julie soothed. She dug in my pants pocket and found my phone. The screen was shattered but it still worked. She was getting ready to tell Ken to make some calls when sirens split the night in our quiet neighborhood. Two police cars and an ambulance came screeching to a halt in front of our yard. The two EMTs swarmed me and began doing their thing. I tried to relax into their care but couldn’t release my muscles. They gently pried my fingers from around my knees and straightened me out. I howled in pain. They put a cervical collar on me and transferred me to the stretcher and strapped me down. I’m sure every family in the neighborhood was on their front porches watching the show. I wanted to flip them all off. At that moment, I hated everybody.

***

            Everything was warm and fuzzy. My bed was warm and fuzzy. My brain was warm and fuzzy. My mouth was warm a fuzzy. Yeah, I could really go for a sip of water. The warm fuzziness was shattered as I opened my eyes. Harsh light pierced my eyes making me clamp them back shut. Did I leave the curtains open again? But that wasn’t sunlight. There was no heat to it. I slowly made slits of my lids and gradually let in more and more light. Where the heck am I? Looks like a hospital room. Maybe I dropped off while waiting to see a friend. Who do I know in the hospital? As I shifted I realized two things. One was searing pain down the right side of my body, leading to the second realization. I’m the one I know who’s in the hospital. What the hell?

            I appeared to have bandages over what seemed like 90% of my body. Or at least everything above the waist. My arm was wrapped and in a sling. I could feel bandages wrapped around my face. Some thick collar was around my neck. What? Did I fall down the front stairs? I noticed that each breath in was an agony and only slightly less as I exhaled. I moaned, mostly in sympathy for myself.

            “Chris, you’re awake! Oh, thank goodness.” Marcie loomed up beside me. I smiled as she always makes me do, and it turned into a cry of pain as my lips split.

            “Take it easy, baby. Don’t try to do anything. You’re going to be okay. The doctors said so, and they know better than to mess with me when it come to your care.” She narrowed her eyes showing me the evil eye she had given the doctors. I did my best not to smile.

            “Here,” she said, placing a small pad of paper under my left hand, apparently the only part of my body that was currently working properly. She gently placed a pencil in my hand. I’m right handed so it was awkward feeling.

            “Don’t try to talk just yet. Your mouth is banged up pretty good. At least all your beautiful teeth are intact and your jaw wasn’t broken. Mostly superficial damage. Can I get you anything?”

            I painfully scrawled a barely recognizable W.

            “Oh, of course.” She gently slipped a straw through my lips, which felt like hamburger, by the way. The water was heavenly. She pulled it away before I was finished. I whimpered.

            “Not too much at once.” She gave me another long sip. “Do you remember what happened?” I scrawled a large N.

            “You were attacked outside your house late last night. Do you remember any of it?”

            I tapped the N. Then scrawled another W.

            “Well, that could be who, what or why. We’ve established where. Who, just a couple of random assholes. The police have them. What, they apparently tried to kill you. The Why is the big question.”

            I thought for a few moments.

            ‘DAY’ I scratched on the pad.

            “It’s Sunday, babe. You went to The Barn with Will last night, before all this happened.” I considered this. Okay, I went to The Barn. I remembered music and the press of bodies. Especially on my ass. I told Will I was leaving. Did I make it home? The CAR! That black Corvette was following me. My eyes flew wide and my whole body tensed. I started hyperventilating. Which hurts like a sunovabitch with broken ribs. Marcie grabbed my hand.

            “It’s okay. You’re safe. It’s me, Marcie. We’re safe. Breathe deep. Oh, well, you can’t really do that with broken ribs. Hold on to my hand, baby.” I was whining and whimpering, from the pain and from the memories that came flooding in.

            The door opened and Dad and Mom came in.

            “Is he awake yet, oh good, he is. What’s wrong, Marcie? Why’s he crying? Chris? What’s wrong, buddy?” He rushed up, nudging Marcie aside and grasped my hand. He looked so worried. Actually, Mom did, too. Imagine that. Dad started pushing the call button. He did it repeatedly like an elevator button, as if expecting repeated pushing will make it come sooner.

            “Nurse, something’s wrong,” Dad said when she entered.

            “I think he’s remembering what happened. Maybe a flashback,” Marcie added. The nurse, all snow-white efficiency, jabbed a hyperdermic needle into my IV line.  In a moment I felt coolness flowing into my arm. The pain faded. Dad faded. Marcie faded. And I faded.

***

            I guess you’re wondering about my injuries. Here’s the roll call. Three cracked ribs, broken ulna, hairline fracture in one of my neck vertebrae, fractured orbital socket, shredded lips, bruised kidney, concussion, broken nose, black eyes, both of ‘em, ligature marks by the chain around my neck, a chain shaped bruise on my chest and a host of welts, contusions and bruises about my chest, shoulders, back, arms and upper thighs. Seems nothing was injured below my waist other than my thighs. Thank goodness for small miracles.

            The next time I awoke a gentle looking old man was peering at me.

            “Oh, hello. I’m Dr. Goodson. How are you feeling this afternoon?” I was so glad he didn’t say “we”. I tried to speak but nothing came out but a croak. The doctor gave me a sip of water. That felt wonderful.

            “Awful.”

            “Well, that’s to be expected. You took quite a beating. As a doctor, I shouldn’t say this, but I hope you gave as good as you got.”

            “Not hardly. It was two of them.”

            “Well, that’s not sporting. Not sporting at all. There are some gentlemen from the police department who want to talk to you about all this if you’re up to it. I’m perfectly willing to tell them to go away if you’d rather not. You’re in fairly serious condition. I consider it a minor miracle there was no internal bleeding, especially to that kidney. I don’t want to alarm you, but if they had kept up a little longer, they could have killed you. Whatever did you do to make them so angry, if you don’t mind my asking?”

            “I think they thought I was gay.”

            “And?”

            “And I think they thought I was gay.”

            “Oh.” He was quiet for a long moment, looking down at the blanket, seemingly lost in thought. “I see a lot of man’s inhumanity to man here in the hospital. I have to try to put back together what men so callously destroy. Our mean-spirited hatred of our homosexual brothers saddens me the most.”

            “And I’m not even gay.”

            “Such sadness today. Now, about the police?”

            “Let them in. I’ll have to talk to them sometime. Is my Dad here? I’d like him to be here, too.”

            “I’ll send them all in.”

            After he closed the door, it was opened by Dad.

            “Hey, sport. You’re looking better already.”

            “You’re an awful liar, Dad,” I had to grin, which caused me then to cry out in pain.

            A short, matronly woman in a burgundy dress suit and a tall, younger man, snazzy dresser came in.

            “Hello, Mr. Barton. Can I call you Chris? I’m Detective Karen Garza and this is my partner, Detective Blaine Williams.”

            “I’d shake, but, well, you know,” I said.

            “We’d like to talk to you about what went on outside your house yesterday, if you don’t mind. Get the sequence straight, that sort of thing. Do you mind if the gentleman steps out to give us some privacy?” She was all business.

            “He’s my dad. He stays.”

            “You’re over 18, you don’t need a parent present anymore. It’s usual to talk alone.”

            “Dad stays. I’m not steady yet.” Something about Garza rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sure she’s a great detective. I’d just like my dad standing by.

            “OK. If that’s what you want. I understand from Ms. Marcia Grant that you were at a local gay bar on Saturday night. Is that correct?”

            “Yes.”

            “Are you gay?”

            “I hardly think that’s relevant,” my dad interrupted.

            “Please let us handle this, Mr. Barton.”

            “No, I’m not gay. Marcie’s my fiancée. I went because a friend wanted me to go with him.”

            “Did you talk to anyone or make any contacts while there?
            “Of course I talked to people. I’m not a jerk. But no I didn’t make any contacts. I didn’t make any agreements to go home and fuck anybody, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

            “No need to get defensive, Chris. I’m just trying to get all the facts.”

            “Then why am I suddenly feeling on trial? Dad, I don’t feel well. Get the doc.” There was then general confusion as the doctor and his nurse had to literally push the detectives out of my room.

            “Are you going to be okay now, son?” Dad asked.

            “Yeah. She was just making my head hurt.”

            “I could tell you didn’t care for her. I don’t think she’s had a lot of experience with teenage boys.” Dad, being catty?

            “Meow,” I said. He grinned.

            “Maybe Williams can try later.”

            Later that evening they came back and Williams led the questioning. I hit it off with him and we were talking like friends in no time. Garza was silent, shooting daggers at me with her eyes. He got all the particulars of the fight. Once the police had shown up Saturday night, Jack had told them about the Corvette, now minus a side mirror and rear taillight. They put out an apb and had the guys in no time.

            “Now, Chris. I’m going to show you some pictures. The men who attacked you may or may not be in these photos. I have several sets. Take all the time you want. If you need to go back just say so.”

            “Okay.” He laid a 12 inch by 18 inch sheet of cardboard on the tray on my bed. There were two rows of four pictures each. All were well groomed young men in their late teens and twenties. As soon as I glanced down I zeroed on Stocky in the second row.

            “That’s the guy who was driving the car.” Williams put an orange dot on the picture. He had me initial it. Still difficult with my left hand.

            The second set of pictures took longer. They were all blond. At first I was thinking my Blondie wasn’t there. Then I noticed number two on the top row. He was very handsome. Then when I remembered the sneer on my attacker’s face and transferred it to this guy, I realized it was him.

            “That’s him.”

            “You’re sure.”

            “Yeah, he’s the one with the chain. Seemed like the ringleader.” We did the orange dot thing again.

            “Thanks, Chris. That’s all for now. A rep from the DA’s office will want to see you in a few days about charges.” Oh, joy.

***

            The next day they let Will in. He had been frantic to see me but it was family only. The nurse had told him “like a brother” didn’t count.

            “Oh, shit, man. It’s all my fault. I’ll never forgive myself. I know you can’t. But I’m so, so sorry. You know I’d never in the world do something to hurt you. I’d rather they’d beat me up. Supposed they killed you? I’d never get over that. Not losing Scott and then you in one year.”

I had trouble breaking through Will’s apologies to tell him it was okay.

            “It’s not your fault. It’s the guys that jumped me. They were gonna do somebody that night. If not me, then somebody else.”

            “I still feel totally responsible. If I hadn’t asked, you would’ve never been on their radar. I put you in harm’s way.”

            “Will, if you don’t stop it then I WILL get mad. The only ones to blame are those two assholes who wanted to beat up a gay person.”

            “And that’s the injustice of it. You aren’t even gay.”

            “So if I was gay, then it would be okay?”

            “That’s not what I’m saying.”

            “Yeah, it is. You’ve bought in on what the world has been saying, that gay people are lesser people. That they deserve to be mistreated. If it had been a gay guy beat up it would just be business as usual. That’s so fucked up, dude. Check deep in your heart, bro. How do you value gay people? Show me some of that gay pride.”

            “With you laying there all wrapped up in bandages, I can’t even hate you. Damn it.”

***

            I was only in the hospital for a week when insurance wrongly determined I could take care of myself and I was discharged. Dad had decided I would come home so he and Mom could take care of me. I shuddered at the thought of being left in Mom’s care all day long. I told Dad I was staying in my own place.

            “But you need assistance with just about everything. Who’s going to do that? Your housemates have their own lives to tend to.

            “I’ll be there, Mr, Barton,” Marcie spoke up. “Chris’s going to be my husband, and I consider him that already. I’ll stay with him as long as necessary. I’ve already put in notice at the card shop.”

            “You’re sure, babe?” I asked. “You know how your parents feel.”

            “I’ve told them they don’t get a say in this. You’re my life. In sickness and health. What kind of fiancée would I be to just leave you hanging? Do you even think I could do that?”

            “No, I don’t think you could. I know if it were the other way around I’d move heaven and earth to be at your side. You are my all.”

            “Oh brother. Has anybody told you guys that you’re way too mushy?” Dad said, standing up. “I’ll be out in the hall when the lovefest is over. The least I can do is get you settled back in your apartment.”

***

            Once I was in my apartment, Marcie moved in as she said. I had a single bed which was too small for two people. I told Marcie I didn’t mind cuddling, but she said I needed room to move until my ribs and arm were healed. She took the sofa. She daily checked and changed the bandages on my ribs and arm, helped me bathe and cook. What helped most was when the night terrors came. I started having nightmares about being stalked. Even she had difficulty settling me down after an episode.

The bandages were eventually removed from my face and all the bruises progressed through their color palette of black, purple, green and yellow. Within a month I was doing most of my care and the nightmares had receded. School was back in session but seeing as I was only a teacher’s aide I could come in a little later an get off a little earlier for the short term.

            “I think it’s time for me to move back to my dorm,” she told me about a month after school began.

            “In a few more days. First I want a little more practice cuddling all night in a single bed.” I looked at her hopefully.

            “You drive a hard bargain mister. All right. One more week,” she smiled.

***

            I asked the assistant DA what would happen to my assailants, Brendan Langdon and Kevin Adams. It was coming up on elections so the DA wanted to go full blast on them. The assistant DA said they had a slew of lesser battery charges but there were a few biggies.

“Since they followed you it’s stalking and bringing a weapon, the chain, implies intent which leads to premeditation. The doctor says that if it hadn’t been broken up, you might have died. That makes it attempted murder, first degree. That’s a life sentence. And on top of that, it was a hate crime resulting in serious injury. Another twenty years. These two boys will probably never see daylight again. When they and their families were told this the boys turned as white as sheets and then became red faced as they bawled. Their lawyers immediately began asking for a deal. The DA’s not interested. He’s got this one in the bag,” he told me. I actually felt bad for them. They were just boys, younger than me. Nineteen is so young to be ruined. Too young.

***

            In the end both boys agreed to plead guilty if the DA didn’t push for the maximum sentences. Even then, they could each expect fifteen to twenty years in prison. I couldn’t shake the absolute waste of it all.

            “They deserve that and everything they get,” exclaimed Will, in my room. He was excitedly bouncing while sitting on the edge of my bed. “Those fucking assholes tried to kill you. They should be strung up by their nuts. Or horsewhipped. The funniest irony is that they beat you up thinking you were gay, and in a few weeks they’ll be taking dick down the throat and up the ass all day and night. Those two pretty boys will be real popular on their cell block.”

            “Will, shut up! Just stop it, okay? I don’t want to hear any more of that crap. This is my trial, not yours, dammit.” I think I’ve hardly ever been mad at Will before. “This is not the time for you to try to settle old scores, to get revenge for every gay bashing crime you’ve ever experienced. This is about me and two poor sons of bitches who got carried away and now are paying an awful price. It’s tearing me up, so just stop it.” By then there were tears in my voice and my eyes.

            “Hey, bro,” he said, putting an arm around me and making me sit on the bed. He gently pulled my head into his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to upset you. It’ll be okay. We’ll get past this. Just lean on me. You’ll be okay.”

            “But will they?”

***

Since there was no trial the court went directly to sentencing. Before the boys were sentenced they were allowed to have character witnesses speak before the judge. It was the usual group of mother, sister, girlfriend. A lot of talk about what a good boy he was. Trying to personalize them before the judge. I have to admit I didn’t hear a lot of it. I was stuck in my head.

Once they had all said their pieces, mixed with lots of tears, the attorney said they were done. The DA stood and said, “Your Honor, my client, the victim of this crime would also like to address the Court.”

“Proceed,” the judge said.

I stood up and tried to read the paper I had written. It was difficult because I was shaking so hard. I wasn’t exactly nervous, but upset. This whole ordeal had been awful for me. I couldn’t imagine how it had been for Brendan and Kevin and their families. I hated it.

“Your Honor, I am the victim of the crime of assault. Brendan and Kevin attacked me outside my home in July. Through this process called the justice system, I have seen the devastating effect it has had on them and their families. I am appalled. I am appalled that in the twenty-first century we still treat people like animals. Like some disposable thing that can just be tossed aside if it can’t be easily fixed. Brendan and Kevin aren’t men, they’re just boys. Like me. As part of these hearings they have stood and apologized to me. I know they were required to by the court but I sensed true remorse. Not like the thief who isn’t sorry he stole but very sorry he got caught, I’ve seen it in their faces and voices. They have realized how awful they screwed up and would do anything for a do over. Well, I want to give them one.

“If you send these two to prison for any amount of time, their lives are ruined, their lives are over. As young as they are they will be sexually assaulted and come out jaded, hardened, hate-filled criminals. They’ll have nothing to live for and blame the world for it. Can’t we think about fixing them rather than throwing them away? In a sociology course I took the professor said that a society that did not apply mercy to justice was headed toward tyranny.

“Brendan and Kevin. I accept your apology. I forgive you fully for what you did. I wish you no ill. I’ve had too many years of carrying around a load of hate. I’m done with that. Judge, please temper your justice with a little mercy. Thank you.” There was stunned silence for a moment and then many people broke out in applause. The judge angrily banged her gavel demanding silence. As order was restored, I could still hear Brendan’s mom sobbing loudly.

“I must say I’m astonished,” the judge finally said. “In all my years on the bench I’ve never had the victim of such a violent crime ask for mercy for his assailants. That is a true sign of grace. You are a remarkable young man and these two miscreants awaiting sentencing should take a page from your book. All right. The convicted will stand to receive their sentences.” Both Brendan, Kevin and their attorneys stood at the table to my right. Dressed in nice suits they looked as innocent as choirboys. The kind of boy any man would want his daughter to bring home. I didn’t have any illusions about them, however. What they did was disgusting and evil. But I feel they were too young to fully understand the repercussions of their actions. Brendan is just a follower and happened to follow the wrong person. Kevin is mean, but he can change if he wants to; if he accepts that he either has to change or spend his life in prison. If it will save these two boys’ lives then I’m willing to chance it.

“Mr. Langdon and Mr. Adams. The nature of this crime disgusts and disturbs me,” began the judge. “Beating someone nearly to death because they might be gay is beyond the pale for any civilized society or person. However, two of our children, you two, have learned somewhere, whether at home, school or elsewhere, that it is acceptable. That it is a reasonable Saturday night pastime. My first impulse it to apply the maximum sentence just for the sheer meanness of what you did. The plea for mercy from the victim may be misplaced. He apparently sees something in you that I don’t. But he is correct that justice must be tempered with mercy.

“Mr. Langdon and Mr. Adams. To save time I am giving you both the same sentence because you jointly entered this evil deed. On the conviction of attempted murder, first degree I sentence you each to fifteen years in a maximum security penitentiary of this states choosing. On the conviction of committing a hate crime resulting in grievous injury I sentence you each to ten years in said penitentiary. On the conviction of stalking with intent to cause harm, I sentence you to one year. I have combined all the other convictions into one and sentence you to one year for those.” Both Brendan and Kevin had their heads bowed during sentencing and Brendan was quietly sobbing. “Consecutively that is thirty-two years, but I also rule that they be served concurrently. As the hate crime was sexually based you will be labelled as sex offenders. That is the sentence I had walking into the Court today. Now, hearing Mr. Barton, I would like to amend that sentence slightly.

“Brendan and Kevin, I am suspending that sentence and converting it to ten year’s probation. Instead you will serve one year,” there were audible gasps around the courtroom, “a full 365 days, no time off for good behavior or time already served. Instead of going to a maximum sentence prison where you would no doubt be gang raped before the day is out, I am remanding you to the county jail system, to reside there for the length of your incarceration. The most dangerous criminal your will meet there is a drunk or pickpocket. You will be housed separately and are to have no interaction with each other for the length of your probations. And Brendan, in your own interest, you should make it a permanent separation. You will be required to successfully complete a number of diversity and anger management trainings. Once completed your records will be sealed. Hopefully this will serve as a wake-up call and allow you two young men to redeem yourselves and rejoin society. Don’t thank me, thank Mr. Barton. He sees something worth saving in you that I must say I fail to recognize.

“Mr. Barton. Is that enough mercy for you?” she asked looking down at me.

“Yes, your Honor.”

“All right then. Bailiff, remove them.” The bailiff walked over to the defense table and put handcuffs on both Brendan and Kevin. As they were being led out, Brendan looked back and called, “Chris. Thank you.”

            “Court adjourned,” she said and banged her gavel. There was an immediate uproar in the room. Dad leaned over the railing and hugged me.

            “Well done son. I’m so proud of you.” As he was disentangling himself the assistant DA put his hand on my shoulder.

            “The attorneys for the accused said the families wanted to speak with you. Your choice.”

            “Me? Why?”

            “Well, my guess is to thank you. You just saved those boys’ asses. Literally.”

            “Well, sure, I guess.” I didn’t know what I’d say to them. I had kinda hoped I was done. I’d seen the families all through the few days of proceedings and felt terribly sad for them. I hoped this outcome would give them some relief. Mr. and Mrs. Langdon came up first. They both still had tears running down their faces.

            “Chris Barton. I cannot find the words to thank you enough for what you have done. You have saved our son’s life,” he said. Mrs. Langdon just threw her arms around my neck and wept on my shoulder. I patted her a few times until Mr. Langdon pulled her away.

            Mr. Adams was a bit more stoic.

            “Son, that was a brave thing you did. I know Kevin’s got problems. Since his mom died I’ve spoiled him. I knew he was getting into meanness but I never knew that it was this bad. I’m a wealthy man, but all my money couldn’t buy him what you freely gave him. We have a chance to get him back on track. You can’t put a price tag on that. But if there is anything I can do for you, anything you need, just name it. Maybe your tuition?”

            “No sir.” I wasn’t sure if I should be offended that he wanted to pay me for what I did. But I decided some good could come from this. “However, I would ask that you make a contribution to the Boston LGBTQI Alliance. Give whatever your heart tells you to. It may help another kid avoid Kevin’s mistake.”

            “Consider it done. Mr. Barton,” he said turning to my dad. He reached out and shook his hand. “You have a mighty fine son here. You must be so proud.”

            “Yes, he’s tops in my book,” Dad said.

            “Hopefully one day I can say that about Kevin,” he answered. Then he shook my hand and walked away.

            As Dad turned to gather up his notes, Mom laid her hand on my shoulder. “That was a very good think you did, son. I hope you know I’m proud of you, too.”

***

Over time, the terror, and it was terror, I had experienced faded. I still think Corvettes are the sexiest car around, but no matter how long I live, the sight of a black Corvette will send a little frisson of fear up my spine.

On the whole I think I learned some pretty valuable lessons from this. First, I felt totally violated by Joe when he checked me out at the bar. I felt like a piece of meat being evaluated. Never mind that I apparently passed inspection, no one should be made to feel that way. I’m sure I’ve put any number of women in that position in my time (well, not since I reconnected with Marcie) and am resolved to do better. Second I think I may have experienced in a small way the fear all gay people live with every day. That any moment violence may overtake you for no reason. That society has determined that it is open season on you, go out at your own risk. That is no way for people to have to live. I need to do better there, also.

            And my third lesson? All good boys should be home by eleven on Saturday night.

The Undertaker

You may recognize the beginning of this story. It is a take off on Little Red Corvette from last year. I almost named it Little Black Corvette, but that doesn’t have the same flow. Little Red Corvette was absolutely true. At one point I pondered on what had happened and what might have happened. In this story, I’m imagining one possible scenario. I’m just glad it didn’t work out this way.

The Undertaker

When I was a kid, my best friend was Will. Our dads had been best friends growing up, and since we lived about 200 yards apart it was logical we would be thrown together. I was a year older and we were quite different, but it somehow worked and we were very close throughout our childhood and adolescence. Will dated Tina during most of high school. She dumped him when he was sixteen. I then broke the Number One Bro Rule. I dated her – twice. It was wrong but she was kinda hot and I was kinda 17. If it’s any consolation, she ditched me on our second date and went home with another guy.

Will and I eventually worked around it and stayed friends. After high school he met a nice girl and they got engaged. Early in the engagement she was killed in a car accident. Will was particularly wrecked because his sister had died in an auto accident when we were young. By this time I was off at college. I found out later he had moved in with a woman in a nearby town. I was just hoping he would find himself, or at least a little happiness after all the crap life had handed him.

***

Will apparently found himself. On his 21st birthday he came to visit me in the small city not far away where I had settled. He said his birthday present to himself was to come out of the closet. Then he said, “I’m gay.” I just looked at him as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. My expression probably said, “And…?” This wasn’t exactly a newsflash. I knew he had broken off with his live-in lady friend and he had spoken a number of times about going to ‘the club’ in my city. ‘The club’ was a gay bar. I guess what he was getting at was that although he was living as if he was not in the closet, he was now announcing it to the world. It apparently didn’t go over well. You have to remember this was about 1980.

When I didn’t say anything right away he sarcastically said, “So, aren’t you going to turn against me like everyone else has?”

I wasn’t surprised by the response he was getting. We grew up, and he still lived, in a very rural, very conservative, very Baptist, very southern community. They are kind of like, hate the sin, crucify the sinner types. I had long ago shed many of the bigoted views I was brought up with. I told him, “Will, you’re my friend. I love you. Nothing would make me turn against you. You’re still you.” He looked like he needed it so I hugged him. I detected a couple of sniffles. He said, “It’s a sucky way to find out who your real friends are.”

But Will was one for living out loud, so he proudly carried on in his community, visiting the club in the city on a regular basis. He sometimes stopped by to see me on the way in or out of town.

***

One particular Saturday afternoon about a year after coming out he showed up at my door

and said, “Come to the club with me.” My immediate response was, “Not gonna happen.”

“It’ll be fine. I want you to see this part of my life. I won’t let anybody touch you.”

“Really not gonna happen.”

We went around for awhile until he said, “For years I went with you to straight bars. You can do this for me.” I prepared to argue that this was different, but somehow…it wasn’t.

I grudgingly agreed to go.

He said, “I’ll be with you. Nobody’s going to rape you.”

“Really not helping.”

***

Why was I so unwilling to go? Maybe somewhere down in our lizard brainstem is a primeval fear of ‘other’? At this point in my life I knew a few gay people. I guess I was hypocritically okay they were gay as long as I didn’t have to see it or think about it. Not so much removed from the bigotry I was trying to overcome.

So, I put on my big boy pants and went. We arrived about 10:30 as it was just starting to fill. As we walked past some tables a nice-looking gentleman said, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” He was dressed in a blazer and button-down shirt. A bit old, 35-40, which was ancient to me at 23. I politely declined and quickly caught up with Will.

“You should have accepted the drink,” he said.

“Hell no,” I responded. “He would have thought I was available for negotiations.”

“It’s just a drink.”

“No way. It’s never ‘just a drink’. I’m not selling what he’s looking for.”

“You’re such a prude,” Will laughed.

***

We found a bar with some stools available. I had only sat for a minute when a lumberjack came up beside me. I call him a lumberjack because he looked like the guy on Brawny paper towels, decked out in tight jeans and a flannel shirt. He was nice looking and all muscle, with that little mustache that all gay men seemed to have. He leaned on the bar and smiled at me. I looked to Will in a panic.

“Just ignore him. He’s harmless.” At 6 foot plus and 200 pounds of muscle at the peak of his power he decidedly didn’t look harmless. He decidedly looked like a predator and I decidedly was feeling like prey. He gave me a leer that said I had passed muster and was now on the menu. I studiously refused to make eye contact until he drifted away in search of greener pastures.

“Man, you have been cruised,” Will laughed. Is that what it was?

“Yeah? And I thought you were going to protect me from all this. All you’re doing is enjoying the show.” I was a bit annoyed.

“Hey, you’re doing fine. Can I help it if the guys think you’re hot? Would you rather they

think you’re ugly?”
            “Yes, I mean no, I mean… I don’t know.” I hate hard questions like that. No one wants to

be considered ugly, but I did not come here to find me a man.

            And then I made a connection. Is that the way women feel at bars when we leer at them? We don’t call it leering, just ‘checking them out’, but it’s basically the same thing. I felt so violated while it was happening. Is that what women experience? I whispered a quiet apology to women everywhere.

I had decided I definitely did not want to go the bathroom while at the bar. I would just feel too vulnerable and exposed. What did I expect, an orgy? But a couple of beers settled that. I had to go, no question. So I told Will I’d be right back, and to come rescue me if I wasn’t. I pressed through the crowd toward the men’s room on the other side of the bar. The crowd was fairly thick but there was no excuse for the number of hands I felt on my butt as I made my way through. When did men get so free with their hands? There was also a ladies’ room that did not seem to be used. I hadn’t seen any women. Lesbians are gay. Don’t they go to gay bars, or does it have to be a dyke bar? Or maybe it was for drag queens. I just don’t know any of the politics of being gay.

I steeled myself and went in expecting the worst. What, I don’t know. It was just a fairly ordinary bathroom like in any restaurant or bar. A difference was there were no urinals, only stalls. And no doors on the stalls. I decided not to overanalyze the thought process behind this. I waited in a short line. Most of the patrons seemed to know each other. There was a group of very young guys, probably with fake id’s, clustered around the mirror fixing their hair and makeup and being bitchy. If you’ve ever seen a teen movie with a scene of the mean girls in the school bathroom, this was it. I took care of my business and quickly exited. I endured another grope session making my way back to where I started. No stool and no Will. Oh, crap.

Almost immediately a very handsome young man sidled up to me.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.” Was that his best line? I looked over at him. He was dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, black leather jacket and had his hair combed back like Fonzie in the old Happy Days tv show.

“That’s because I’ve never been here before,” I answered.

“Oh, just come out of the closet?”

What?! I assume the dim light covered the bright red of my face at this point. Without sputtering too much I explained I was NOT gay and was here with a friend. Even as I said it I realized how lame it sounded. The guy accepted it, but instead of walking away, he stayed and we talked. I guess I blushed even more when he told me it was too bad I wasn’t gay because he thought I was very hot. We were far enough from the dance floor to talk without shouting. His name was John and he was a waiter at a local fancy restaurant. He told me excitedly that he had also just picked up a job as a bartender here at the club. He hoped to make enough money so he could have his own place. He was currently living with an elderly aunt and it was really cramping his social life. I talked some about my work with handicapped children. He gave me the standard line that I must be “so special”. I get that a lot.

After a while he moved on in search of prey. I mean, 99.9% of the men were here for one thing only. Then I ashamedly admitted to myself that when I went out to bars, I was one of that 99.9%. Just looking for a different landscape. I had actually enjoyed talking to John. I like meeting people and this is what I enjoy about social situations. Just talking and getting to know people. It was nice. He was nice.

Will came hustling up.

“Sorry, I had to catch up with someone. I didn’t mean to desert you. I see you were talking to John. What do you think? He’s like the hottest guy here. By the way, my friends think you’re cute. They were disappointed to hear you’re straight.”

“Yay, crown me Miss America,” I said sourly. Then I realized my mood wasn’t Will’s fault, it was mine. I’m unfairly putting my straight values on what he enjoys. These are his stomping grounds, where he’s most at home. We all need a place like that. I’m glad he has it. 

  “Thanks for showing me around. It was nice. But it’s time I headed home.” He didn’t object. I think he was ready to go on the prowl also. So I left.

***

It wasn’t far home. A few blocks from the club I noticed a car following me closely. I mean it was city driving, but he stayed right on my bumper. It’s usually annoying, but late at night with the streets deserted, it’s kinda creepy.

A couple blocks from my last turn, he pulled out of the lane and came up on my right. As I stopped at the red light, he oozed up to a stop beside me on the right in a low, sleek and oh so sexy Corvette. And did I mention it was black? Without the shine, it would be hard to see as it faded into the black of night like it had some science fiction cloaking device on board. I couldn’t help but admire it. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t see the driver. Probably a guy, though. Maybe making up for deficits in other areas I thought enviously. When the light turned green he jackrabbited away. Hey, if my car could do that I probably would, too. I just signaled and moved my old blue Civic into the right lane to make my turn at the next block. As I made my turn I was peripherally aware of the Corvette making a quick right turn a block down the street. My house was the next to last on the block on the right. I blessed my luck that I found curb parking just a few feet from the walkway.

As I was walking toward the steps that led up from the sidewalk, I saw a black Corvette slowly nose up to the next intersection coming from the left. Since I’m the next to last house on the block it was pretty close. How many black Corvettes are running around my neighborhood at nearly 1 am? It had to be the same one. Why had it followed me? My mind raced through about a dozen scenarios, none ending well. There was about a 1% chance it was a gorgeous blonde girl who wanted my body. About a 39% chance it was a perverted serial murderer who also wanted my body, for entirely different reasons. And a 60% chance it was a couple of redneck college students out to roll a queer. Yeah, my money was on that explanation. Had they followed me from the club? It’s not something I generally worry about. I guess you could call it straight boy privilege.

He revved the engine as I reached the steps. The deep throaty sound vibrated in my stomach. He knew I was aware of him. My blood ran cold and I felt panic coming on. I felt exposed. The car was sitting there like a black spider emitting an aura of evil. I don’t know why I got so spooked, but I instinctively knew that this was bad. I pretended not to see the Corvette as he gunned his engine again and I hustled up the walkway and into the house. I quickly got in my apartment, locked the door and leaned against it trying to regulate my breathing. I usually turn on the lights first thing, but a thought stabbed me, ‘Then he’ll know where I live’. So I stood there in the dark, heart racing, hyperventilating and sweating bullets. After a few moments I was able to move so I sidled up to the window and peeped out. Holy Mother of God! The Corvette was sitting directly in front of the house, idling. I’m sure the occupant(s?) was watching the house. To see which lights came on? I was frozen in terror.

            After a small eternity, the car moved on. I sank down on the couch and waited for my breathing and heartbeat to slow down. What was happening here? At the time I didn’t recognize it as a flashback. I didn’t turn on the lights in case he circled the block and came back around. I just waited until I was in my bedroom with the door closed before turning on any lights. Yeah, I was really freaked. I had heard stories from people who had been tailed before, but you don’t know how unnerving and downright terrifying it can be until it happens to you.

I slept little that night. Had I dodged a bullet or was it something totally innocuous? 

***

Will came by the next day to thank me for coming with him to the club before heading out of town. I opened the door to let him into my living room.

“You’re looking real chipper this morning,” I croaked rubbing my bleary eyes.

“Uh, it’s past noon.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah, you look like shit. You didn’t have that much beer. What happened?”

I told him about the black Corvette. He was silent for a long moment. I could fairly feel the unease radiating off his body.

“Oh, shit! You saw the Undertaker! Oh, crap. I had hoped it was just urban legend. I mean I heard about it but no one I know has seen him. Oh Christ, oh Christ, I’m so sorry. I never would have purposely put you in danger, you know that?”

“Okay, now I’m really spooked. What’s going on?”

“Over the past couple of years about five young guys have disappeared. I don’t really know but one from our club. The others are from other gay clubs locally. Most of them had no family to push the investigation and the police don’t give a damn. Just another fucking faggot to them. They talk about our ‘dangerous lifestyle’. They say there’s no evidence of the missing men being connected and no bodies to indicate foul play. They assume gays are all transients who drift about and these guys just moved on. But at least two of the guys were said to be last seen getting into a black Corvette. I thought it was just people making up stuff. The story is that he follows guys home from the clubs, entices them into his car and then somehow does away with them. No body has ever been found, so we don’t know what happens but the guys are never seen again. We call him the Undertaker because he drives a black car and he disposes of the bodies we figure he’s killing. And as I said, the police aren’t really interested. They say the black Corvette is just exaggeration. But you’ve seen it. Oh, shit man. He followed you home. Oh my god, I’m so, so sorry.”

I was fine with it. For a moment. Then I bolted to the bathroom and threw up in the toilet. A freaking serial killer was after me last night? And he knows where I live! Will followed me, rinsed a washcloth and put it on the back of my neck. I took it and wiped my face. Aw, crap.

“What am I gonna do?” I asked. “I can’t go to the police. What’ll I tell them? That I saw a spooky car?”

“It’s going to be okay. I doubt he’ll come back. Just keep your eyes open and don’t go out at night for a few days. That’s all you can do. That’s been my life. That’s all gayboys’ lives. Always trying to keep an eye on my back. You also got plenty of housemates to watch you.”

“I’ll be fine,” I mumbled.

***

I don’t think I slept more than a few minutes any night that week. I was a wreck at work. People asked about it. I just said some guys kept me up too late. As the next weekend approached I was nearly functioning normally. Then I got the call on Saturday.

“Curtis, it’s Will. You gotta help me. It’s the Undertaker. I think he got John.”

“John? From the club? Oh shit! Are you sure?”

“Not really. He left the bar Friday night and his aunt said he never came home. He wasn’t with anyone when he left the bar. We know the Undertaker’s been in this area. It’s all my fault. If I’d told him about what happened to you he never would have gotten in a stranger’s car.”

“Calm down, Will. It’s not your fault. John’s an adult. He should know better. And we don’t know that’s what happened.”

“But what if it is?”

“And you said the cops aren’t interested?”

“Even if they were, John hasn’t been missing long enough. By the time they come in, it may be too late. We got an ace in the hole, though, but we need your help.”

“If I can help John you know I will.”

“Remember the lumberjack as you called him that you saw at the bar last week? The one that cruised you?”

“How could I forget,” I deadpanned.

“Well, by day he is Officer Joseph Teem, one of Raleigh’s finest.”

“A cop?”

“Yep, one of our ‘brave boys in blue’. Anyway, he has a little group of officers, they call themselves the Gay Strike Force. Totally unofficial and off the record. They are mostly gay and take a special interest in fighting gay bashing and other crimes against minorities in general. A good bit of their investigating is under the radar. As I said, the brass really don’t give a damn about us. But the brass is willing to look the other way on some things. You are the only eyewitness we have of the Undertaker. I need you to talk to Joe.”

“But I didn’t see anything. Just a car. And I was so freaked I don’t hardly remember anything.”

“Please, Curtis. John’s life may depend on it. Joe says every little bit of information helps.”

“Well, okay, but like I said, I don’t think I know anything that will help.”

“Great. Joe says he has time after lunch. We can come by and he can ask you some questions.”

***

What did I just agree to, I wondered. I remembered Joe as very big and very intimidating. I was inviting him to come in and interrogate me. The word interrogate is intimidating enough. Will he want to shine a light in my eyes or break out the rubber baton? No, that’s just foolish. Isn’t it?

By the time Will knocked on my door I had come up with about ten reasons why John was late getting home, none of which involved the Undertaker. One look at Will’s face told me those scenarios didn’t matter. He was truly worried and hurting. I owed him whatever help I could give.

“Curtis, you remember Joe.”

The big man beside Will stuck out his hand. “Officer Joe Teem, Foxborough PD.”

I shook it. “Pleased to meet you,” I said with what I’m sure was a lot of uncertainty in my voice. He still looked like the Brawny paper towel guy, in a uniform. The man was still big and intimidating. And the dress blue uniform just made him more so – both big and intimidating. I bet crooks hated to see him coming.

“Sorry if I shook you up a little the other night, Mr. Bass. Will’s explained how you came to be in the club. I apologize if I made you feel uncomfortable,” the sincerity in his voice helped put me more at ease. I guessed he was good at playing ‘Good Cop’.

“Oh, it’s okay. And call me Curtis. I just wasn’t sure what to expect.”

“Culture shock. Yeah, I understand, Curtis. Anyway, can we sit and talk about what you know?”

He asked me to tell him what I remembered all the way through once without stopping. I couldn’t do it. Remembering made my gorge rise and my heart race several times. He just softly asked me to stop, breathe deeply and continue when I felt ready. I don’t know if that is what they taught him in the police academy but it sure beat the bright light and rubber baton. He was so much gentler than I had imagined he could be. A calming presence.

Then, he asked me to tell it again, but he stopped me after nearly every sentence for clarification.

“The key is the car. Can’t you tell me anything else about it?” he asked.

“It was a black ‘Vette. What else can I say?”

“No bumper stickers, scratches or dents? Nothing? How about the license plate? North Carolina or vanity tag?”

“Nothing. Can’t you just run the make of the car? I’m pretty sure it was new, like only a couple years old at most. It’s a pretty high-end car. How many could there be?”

“You’d be surprised. Several thousand. We’ve checked.”

“Yeah, but wouldn’t it be registered locally, like in Raleigh or at least Wake County?”

“Probably not. A good predator doesn’t take victims in his own back yard. He probably lives not far, because he needs to be familiar with the area, but he’s hit Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, all in the Triangle. He could be anywhere in central North Carolina. Or Virginia for that matter. If he’s from outside North Carolina we may never catch him. Did you see the license plate at all?”

“No. He was behind me on the way home from the club. Then he was idling in front of my house. Again, I couldn’t see anything.”

“You said you saw him come up to the intersection ahead when you got to your house. Maybe you saw his front plate then?” Officer Teem was really reaching.

Suddenly something clicked. I had a memory that I had totally forgotten in the frantic craziness of that night.

“Hold on. It did have a front plate. When it stopped at the intersection it was directly under a streetlight.” Officer Teem was immediately at attention. Will sat up, too. “I barely noticed the plate. Yeah, it was a North Carolina plate. And I remember it started with JPL. I noticed it without thinking because I used to be a NASA and sy-fy geek. To us JPL is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s just one of those things that register in your brain without you even thinking about it. I didn’t remember until you just said that about the intersection.”

“That’s wonderful, Curtis,” Officer Teem said. “Any help with the numbers?”

I closed my eyes and tried to remember. I got nothing. “I think the first number had curves. It wasn’t a 1 or 7. That’s all I can give you.”

“This is incredible evidence. The number of black Corvettes with a license plate starting JPL has to be a very small number. I’ll make sure our guys run this at once.”

Officer Teem excused himself to go out to his cop car. Will immediately grabbed me in a bear hug.

“I knew you would come up with something, Curtis. You’re the best.”

***

What happened next was like something out of a Patterson thriller. Joe told Will and he shared the details with me later. There turned out to be three black Corvettes registered in North Carolina with a plate starting with JPL. The owner of one had been out of the country for several weeks. Surveillance revealed his car was locked up in a garage, unused.

Of the other two, one had a Durham address. The other was in Clayton. Joe favored the Clayton one because Durham was part of his hunting ground, while Clayton was safely removed yet close enough for easy access. However, since the Durham vehicle had an open parking violation, they used that as an excuse for a friendly visit from the police. He and Detective George Rizzo, also on the strike force, took a trip up to Durham to see a Homer Jensen, 43, occupation not listed. It turned out Jensen was home. He answered the door after several attempts at knocking by the detective. Jensen was on the short side at about 5’4” and a little pudgy. His arms showed some muscle development so Joe figured he must lift weights. He had thin hair across the top of his slightly too large head. Joe said he immediately got a very weird vibe from the guy. He said he’d been a policeman long enough to know not to discount his take on people’s vibes. It seemed to be a special gift he had. Detective Rizzo glibly worked them into the front room of the house. Jensen seemed unhappy with this, but apparently didn’t want to arouse suspicion. Too late for that. While Rizzo talked with Jensen, Joe used his special cop senses to survey the place from where he stood. First off, Jensen was as squirrelly as they come. Joe could tell the man was definitely hiding something. As Jensen was doing his best to escort them back out the door Joe thought he heard a soft thud and what may have been a moan. He really wasn’t sure if he heard it, or just wanted to hear something. He decided to go with it.

“Did you hear that?” he asked Detective Rizzo. Rizzo’s eyes said no but he answered in the affirmative.

“Mind if we take a look around, Mr. Jensen?” Rizzo asked moving past the man deeper into the house.

“Hey, I mind very much. You can’t come in here without a warrant.”

“I heard someone moaning,” Joe told him, stretching the truth.

“That’s probable cause, Mr. Jensen. We have to investigate,” said Rizzo. As Rizzo reached to open the door to another part of the house, Jensen lunged at him with a dagger-shaped letter opener he had grabbed from a desk. He plunged it into Rizzo’s back just under his right shoulder blade. As Rizzo cried out, Jensen yanked the blade out and turned to attack Joe. Joe had already pulled out his taser and gave Jensen a good jolt. As Jensen lay on the floor quivering yet paralyzed, Joe flipped him over on his stomach and cuffed him. He turned to Rizzo who was struggling to get his jacket off.

“I just bought this freaking blazer. Dammit!” Joe ripped Rizzo’s shirt open in the back to get a better look at the wound.

“It’s bleeding pretty badly,” he said. Looking around he noticed a dish towel.

“God only knows what germs are on this, but I guess it’s better than bleeding to death,” he told Rizzo as he pressed it against the wound.

“I’m good,” Rizzo groaned, holding on to a table to maintain an upright stance. “We need to search this house.” He took a step and crumpled to the floor.

“Aw, shit,” said Joe. He sat Rizzo up and began unbuckling the man’s belt.

“I always thought you were hot for me Joe, but is now a good time?” Rizzo managed to chuckle.

“Shut up while I save your life,” Joe groused. Once the belt was free, he looped it around Rizzo’s chest and used it to hold the towel in place over the wound. “You should probably lie on your stomach while I call for backup.” He got very little assistance from Rizzo as he lifted him up and laid him stomach down on the sofa he had been leaning against.

“This is Officer Joe Teem. I need assistance at 4306 Rosewood. Officer down. I repeat, officer down. Suspect in custody,” he spoke into his communication unit.

“I’ll be okay, Joe,” Rizzo gasped. “Go take a look around. Someone may need help.”

“I’m on it.”

Joe drew his weapon, not knowing what to expect. He pushed open the door Rizzo had tried to open earlier. It revealed an ordinary dining room, table and chairs, a hutch with china. He slowly prowled around the rest of the house. It seemed ordinary in every way. A middle-aged bachelor’s pad. Why was Jensen so dodgy, then? Standing in the kitchen he stopped and listened. Nothing.

“John!” he shouted. “It’s the police. Are you here?” He listened again. Then he heard it. A small thump. It seemed to be coming from the pantry. The pantry was a large walk in affair. He’d glanced in it already. This time he turned on the light and went all the way into the pantry. At the back, easily overlooked was a small door. He tried it but it was locked. He could hear more irregular thumps from the other side. He looked around and saw a key hanging on a hook beside the door. It slid into the hole easily. Teem pushed the door open. The room on the other side was dark but the thumping and moaning increased. He felt along the wall to his right and flipped the light switch. An uncovered overhead bulb flashed on. He was so unprepared for the sight that he gasped as soon as it registered. The room was small with some kind of metal table in the center. A person was strapped down on the table, apparently nude with a sheet thrown across his lower body. He was gagged and apparently trying to yell through it. By violently wrenching his body he was able to make the table jump and cause the thumps. Joe rushed to the table. The man shied away, a look of pure terror in his eyes.

“Oh my god, John,” Joe murmured. Though the body was covered with bruises and welts, the face was untouched. He immediately recognized John Clark, a man he knew from the club. The man who was reported missing. The man continued to struggle, and only intensified as Joe went to touch him. He was so terrified he didn’t recognize Joe.

“Shh, shh John. It’s me, Joe. You’re going to be alright. We’ve found you. You’re safe. You’re safe.” Some part of that seemed to get through and John’s thrashing about ceased. Joe unhooked the buckle that held the gag in place and pulled the wadded cloth from John’s mouth, tossing it aside. John began breathing quickly through his mouth. Joe could see that he was beginning to hyperventilate.

“Slow, John. Breathe slowly.” He caressed John’s face to calm him. Once John’s breath seemed less ragged he quickly released all the other buckles of the straps holding him on the table.

“Can you sit up? Here, let me help you.” He put his arm under John’s shoulders and heaved him up into a sitting position. He pulled the man’s legs toward him so they could dangle off the side to provide a more comfortable position. He kept his arm around John’s shoulders to give him support. John held on to the edge of the sheet, clutching it against his chest as if cold.

“You’re here? You’re really here. Oh, thank god. I’ve been so afraid. Oh god, oh god. Thank you, Joe.” He started crying, so Joe moved in front of him and took him into an embrace. John released the sheet and grabbed Joe like a lifeline and began sobbing into his shoulder. By the time he could release John, they heard sirens in the distance. John looked around the room and focused on an upright freezer in the corner.

“What?” asked Joe following his gaze. “What’s in the freezer?”

“Don’t open it. You don’t want to know.” That was definitely not the thing to say to a policeman. Joe walked over to the freezer. He pulled the door open and a cloud of freezing mist rolled out. As the mist dissipated he got a better look at what was in the freezer.

“Oh my god!” he cried as he saw over a dozen heads of men, each neatly bagged, staring at him. He suddenly recognized one as Brian, a guy he’d once picked up at the club. He raced over to the sink in the corner and threw up. Immediately there was the noise of people around them as the room quickly filled with police officers. Joe straightened and staggered back to the living room and collapsed in an overstuffed chair. Rizzo had already been taken out to an ambulance. Try as he may he couldn’t stop the tears. All he wanted to do was rip Jensen into little pieces. And then curl up into a ball and die.

No one knows why Jensen did it. He refuses to tell where the bodies ended up. The DA is not too concerned. They’ve identified all nineteen of the victims and Jensen will be locked up for life. Case closed. John says Jensen made comments about “filthy faggots” but also sexually abused him as well as the torture. One of the shrinks said something about “repression” and “homo-erotic denial”. I think he’s just a garden variety nutcase.

***

“There’s still part of this I don’t understand,” Will began.

            “There’s a lot I don’t understand. Like how does anyone get this crazy and nobody notices?”

            “Well, there is that. But I’m talking about another aspect. Look. A girl will not get in a car with a stranger at night, no matter what the circumstances, unless she’s a hooker. A straight guy probably wouldn’t either. He’d figure any guy offering him a ride must be gay and straight men seem to be terrified that someone may think they’re gay. Y’all are wound up so tight.”

            “Thanks.”

            “But gay guys obviously would. I’m embarrassed to say that if I had been in your situation, I probably would have sat down on that stone wall and waited to see what he wanted. I guess that’s what he was counting on. Guys that didn’t get any hoping they still might have a chance to get off. But he was a toad. Who would get in a car with someone who looked like him?”

            “Maybe he offered them money,” I said.

            “I may sound shallow, but it would take a whole lotta money for me to get naked with someone as butt ugly as our Mr. Jensen.”

            “Well, ask Joe. I’m sure that was one of the questions they asked John.”

            “I guess I will, because it really has been bothering me. As successful as he was he must have had some powerful bait.”

***

Over time, the terror, and it was terror, I had experienced faded. I still think Corvettes are the sexiest car around, but no matter how long I live, the sight of a black Corvette will send a little frisson of fear up my spine.

On the whole I think I learned some pretty valuable lessons from this. First, and most obvious, don’t get in a car with a stranger. Duh. Second, I felt totally violated by Joe when he checked me out at the bar. I felt like a piece of meat being evaluated. Never mind that I apparently passed inspection, no one should be made to feel that way. I told him it was okay, but it’s not. I’m sure I’ve put any number of women in that position in my time and am resolved to do better. Third, I think I may have experienced in a small way the fear all gay people live with every day. That any moment violence may overtake you for no reason. That society has determined that it is open season on you, go out at your own risk. That is no way for people to have to live. I need to do better there, also.

            And my fourth lesson? All good boys should be home by eleven on Saturday night.

The Fourth Reich

          Amended again. I reviewed what I posted and found a few typos and one exceedingly embarrassing lapse of perspective. I made a few word changes here and there. I seem to do that every time I go back and reread one of my stories. I think I’ve got everything fixed now.

  I was just thinking one day about temporal distortions, anomalies of time and space, just the general stuff we all daydream about. Actually, I think I’ve seen too much Star Trek. People my age were raised on it. I was a kid, determined to be an astronaut when it was a weekly tv show. By the time I was in high school and college, you could usually find it as an afternoon filler between game shows and the news. I’m one of those people who can identify the entire story within seconds of the opening scene. Yeah, I’m a nerd.

            But I’ll also admit that many of the Star Trek episodes were dreadful on science and heavy on fiction. I liked the more intelligent ones. That’s what I’ve tried to write. And no, Captain Mundy is NOT James Kirk. My knowledge of physics is spotty, but I do know a little bit. I was watching an old SF movie last night from 1965 and its howlers were awful. The writers were seemingly unsure of the difference between a galaxy and a planet. And the meteors in space were flaming. And when they walked (gravity?) into an open airlock on an alien ship, there was an alien making vocal noises (vacuum and absolute cold of space). When he attacked they shot him with a pistol. I’m pretty sure a pistol won’t work in a vacuum. Nor be heard. And they found a wandering moon (with an atmosphere, plants, oceans and sunshine?) “near the Triangulum galaxy”. Say what? It actually got worse as it went on. I hate crap like that. There’s a difference between camp and speculative fiction. I’ve tried to keep everything in this story within the realm of what could happen. It’s one of my longer stories, 23 pages. Anyway, I enjoyed writing it. Hope you enjoy reading it.

The Fourth Reich

            “Incoming gravitational pulse, Captain!”

Almost as soon as Science Officer Karen Jordan got these words out, the ship jolted with a mighty shudder.

            “Sorry, sir. It was traveling near light speed. The signal reached us only seconds before the surge.”

            Suddenly the red beacon on the wall began flashing and a loud klaxon signaled the ship’s computer had initiated a red alert.

            “Computer. What’s going on?” Captain Mundy shouted to be heard over the alarm.

            “The gravitational pulse indicates a black hole in the local star system. Its attraction may overcome ship’s thrust. Event horizon imminent,” said the dispassionate voice.

            “Captain, our engines are struggling to get free of the pulse,” Helmsman Anderson reported.

            “Divert more power to engine.”

            “I’m giving her all I’ve got, sir.”

            Captain Mundy hit the comm button on the arm of his captain’s chair.

            “Jones. I need more power. Divert it from everything but life support if you need to.”

            “Diverting,” Jones called back. “I’m sending you all I’ve got. I’ve cut off everything but the kitchen sink.”

            “Well, cut that off too if you need to. I need all the power we’ve got sent to my engines.”

            “Still sluggish, Captain,” Anderson said.

            “Set a course along the line of the gravitational pull and see if you can peel away. And Karen, see if you can turn off that damn bell,” the captain ordered. The shrill alarm ceased.

            “How did we stumble in this hole anyway?” the captain groused.

            “It’s not on our charts, sir. Remember we are charting new territory. We’re farther out in the Sagittarian Arm than any ship has been. Our sensors had swept this area. The computer should have notified us that space was warped in this area.”

            “Well, log it and report it back to Earth Command. And find out what’s wrong with that computer. I don’t want any more surprises.”

            “Aye, sir.”

            “We don’t seem to be able to pull away, sir,” Anderson told him, his voice a mix of frustration and growing alarm.

            “Are you giving it everything? Hyperdrive and impulse?”

            “Everything, sir.”

            “Can we polarize the tractor beam and push away from the center of mass?” the captain asked.

            “That’s just the problem, sir,” Jordan said. “It’s really like a hole. It feeds on anything we send its way. There’s nothing to push against.”

            “Sir, there’s a small planetoid ahead. It’s in a higher orbital plane. Our thrust plus the tractor beam may enable us to pull ourselves out.”

            “Do it,” Mundy said, wiping his brow and pushing his blond hair back up on his head. Longer than regulation but in space, who cares?

            He watched while Anderson flipped switches and dials expertly at his consol. He’s just a kid, Mundy thought. At 21 David Anderson had zoomed through the Academy and now was on his first space mission.

            “Put it on visual, Karen.”

            On the large view screen they could see an irregularly shaped rock, a couple of miles long and maybe a third as wide. It was slowly pinwheeling like a thrown bowling pin. A fat bowling pin. They could hear the hum as the tractor beam locked onto its target and began pulling. The rock appeared to grow in size, indicating they were getting closer. Anderson’s plan was working.

            “Captain, our engines can’t sustain this much strain. If we don’t cut back soon they may blow. Then we won’t have any power.” Jones was shouting on his comm over the alarm that had begun clanging in the engine room.

            “And if we don’t keep it up, we’ll be having our dinner at the center of a black hole. Keep it coming, Jonesie.” Mundy could visualize Jonesie in the engine room – overalls, stained tee shirt, graying hair sticking up in all directions. In his estimation the best damn engineer in the fleet.

            With an electrical crackle, a spark flew out of one of the dials on Anderson’s consol. He jumped back to avoid being shocked.

            “Captain, we just lost engine two. We’re starting to lose altitude.”

            “See if we can lock onto the rock with our talons. That should give us some room to catch our breath.” Anderson folded his six foot two frame back into the helmsman’s seat.

            As they were near enough to the asteroid the ship shot out several grappling hooks. They reeled the ship in and drove pitons into the rock to secure the ship. The asteroid continued pinwheeling on with the ship along for the ride.

            “Jonesie. How long until the engine is back online?”

            “I dunno, Captain. Maybe never.”

            “Not acceptable. Get my engine running. That’s an order.” 

            “Will do, Captain.” If anyone could fix a broken engine in space, it was Jonesie, he thought.

            “Suggestions, gentlemen?” Captain Mundy said, looking around the bridge.

            “Sir, once we get engine two back online we can wait until the planetoid is between us and the black hole. We could polarize the tractor beam as you suggested and push ourselves toward a higher orbital plane. Once there we could look for other masses to pull or push against. We might be able to crawl out by stages that way.”

            “Mister Anderson, remind me to give you a raise,” the captain smiled. He clicked his comm button again. “Jones, I need that engine.”

            “Working on it, Captain.”

***

Captain’s Log

United Earth Ship Superior

Captain Robert Mundy

Star Date 3428.7

Earth Date April 20, 2316

Our exploratory and mapping mission into the Sagittarian Arm of the galaxy has been interrupted by discovery of a black hole. We were pulled into its gravity well and are working on plans to get out. Engine two is temporarily out. No casualties or injuries in the 20 ship personnel. Captain out.

***

            “Karen, get this and my last five log entries encrypted and sent to Earth Command.”

            “Aye, Captain. It may take some time. I can’t send it via any media except subspace. Nothing else can overcome the gravity well.”

            “How does subspace do it? Maybe we can use that technology to our advantage.”

            “Not unless we can make ourselves microscopic. Subspace uses quantum entanglement to overcome the issues with gravity, speed of light and distance. That only works on the subatomic level. However, if we don’t get out of this black hole’s grasp, we will soon be the size of those subatomic particles.”

            “Explain,” the captain asked. His forte was military, not science and he had no problem deferring to Karen Jordan’s obviously immense intelligence and vast store of knowledge.

            “Yes, sir. As we get closer to the center of mass our bodies will be subjected to greater and greater gravitational pressure. The ship’s force field will protect us for a while. That won’t last long as the force increases. It will give away and we will be crushed. Then the ship will collapse like an old-style aluminum can. Our mass will remain the same but our volume will continue decreasing as we fall into the hole. But the radiation may kill us first.”

            “What happens when we hit bottom?”

            “No one knows. There may be hundreds of star systems already in the hole. The pressure will be so great that eventually the atoms will collapse. When the electrons connect with their nuclei there will likely be a tremendous release of energy but our equations fail us. Einstein theorized an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, what some people call a wormhole.”

            “Time travel, Karen? Surely you don’t believe in that.”

            “If Einstein believed it, it’s good enough for me. He said it would open a portal to another place and time, possibly another universe. Unfortunately, we won’t be alive to see it.”

            “Unfortunately,” Mundy echoed.

            “Our complement of scientists is having a field day with this. No one has ever been able to study a black hole this closely before.”

            “I wonder why,” Mundy said sourly.

            “They understand that we are in trouble, but you know how scientists are. They are feeding the computers data as fast as they can to be encrypted for shipping back to colleagues on Earth. Gloria was just telling me about the anomalies she has spotted just outside the event horizon.”

            “What kind of anomalies?”

            “We don’t know. Wrinkles or tears in the space/time continuum.”

            “Space/time continuum? I think you just exceeded my pay grade, Lieutenant. Carry on.” He watched as she headed back to the labs to ride herd on his “resident eggheads” as he called the ten scientists on the mission. As her superior officer he maintained a friendly distance. As a man he admired how her rear filled her uniform and undulated, creating the infinity sign as she walked, her short blond cut bouncing gaily. She’s twenty-five and I’m twenty-nine, he thought. She’s beautiful and I’m somewhat handsome (he knew some of the female scientists had their eye on him. One of the male ones also according to his First Officer). Any other place and time, he mused. If only we could drop into that wormhole. He smiled ruefully as Major Donovan approached.

“Smiling at your science officer’s ass, Captain? Hardly regulation, but I have to agree with you.” Ben Donovan was a rugged man of thirty-five, decorated and proven on many occasions. He had earned distinction but then was reassigned to a desk. War horses aren’t needed in peace time. He had requested to come along on this mission as security. He said his other option was to put a laser pistol to his head.

“What’s up, Major Donovan?” Mundy asked. As a military man himself, he trusted Donovan as much as anyone on his bridge team.

“A minute of your time, if I may.” Although Donovan technically outranked Mundy, as he was Marine to Mundy’s Navy, he always deferred to Mundy as the commanding officer of the ship.

“Shoot.”

“I want to know if our situation is as dire as it sounds. Some of the eggheads are getting a bit skittish. I need to know if me and Jorgenson are going to have a riot on our hands.”

Donovan and Lieutenant Kevin Jorgenson, the other marine, had been attached as their “security team”, although he wasn’t sure how much security a couple of jarheads could provide. But who knows what they were likely to encounter, and a few hired guns might come in handy.

“We have a plan, such as it is. If it doesn’t work, well, yeah, we’re in dire shape. Jordan doesn’t think our scientist friends will cause much trouble. They’re having fun with their toys and the black hole right now. If worst comes to worst, we can lock’em down.”

“I wanted to make sure I have authorization to keep order.”

“Just use non-lethal force, and only as necessary. I’d hate to get out of this at the last second and have to explain dead scientists to Earth Command. My ship, my responsibility.”

***

“Captain, I’ve got engine two running again. It’s jury rigged but it should hold. Unlessen you try to get it to do more than a ship this size is supposed to do. These are small engines, Captain. Not what you’re used to in the Navy. Fortunately, the failsafe knocked if offline before it had a chance to go kapow.” Jones’ voice sounded weary.

            “Mister Anderson. Do we have a target?” the captain asked.

            “Yes, sir. We do. Another large asteroid. Fortunately, we are passing directly under it while our little rock is between us and the center of mass of the black hole. On your mark, Captain.”

            “Mister Jordan, let me know when we are in optimum position,” he ordered, using official Navy terminology for the lieutenant.

            “Aye, Captain. Position coming up. In three, two, one. Now.”

            “Engage,” the captain ordered. Since the ship’s artificial gravity remained constant and overrode all external stimuli, the only indication that they were moving was a faint rumbling from within the ship.

            “Thrust at maximum, Captain. Tractor polarized repulsion also at maximum. We seem to be gaining ground,” reported Anderson.

            “Alright, Davie,” Mundy had come to stand by Anderson’s chair, bent over, his head close to the second lieutenant. “At the halfway point we flip the tractor and switch polarization at the same time, locking onto the new asteroid. No second chances.” Everyone sat quietly as the seconds elapsed.

            “Now, Davie!” Mundy was amazed at how quickly the young man’s hands flew over his console.

            “Target acquired, and … traction.”

            “Captain, I’m warning you. The engines ain’t liking this one bit,” Jones called almost immediately.

            “I’m not asking them to like it. Just do their jobs. Give me fifteen more seconds.”

            “We got maybe 20. No more.”

            “Come on, Davie. Pull!”

            “Grappling hooks away,” Anderson said. “And contact. Cut engines.”

            “Reel us in and lock it down. Well, done, Mr. Anderson.” He patted the young man’s shoulder. Anderson sat back, somewhat pleased with himself.

***

            The bridge door opened and First Officer Commander Jennifer Newly strode in. Her black hair was pulled into a tight bun and everything about her looking fresh and pressed. She had served nearly five years with Mundy. She repeatedly made sure to be assigned as his second. She knew he had the makings of a great captain and wanted to learn from him. And she had decided he wasn’t that hard to look at, either. She felt that, together, they made a formidable team. Mundy was inclined to agree.

            “Reporting for shift, Captain. You may be relieved if you wish.”

            “Good to see you, Jen. Take the con. Mister Anderson, brief the commander. Lieutenant Jordan, with me. We have a scientist to go see.” He and Jordan left the bridge, with Jordan wondering what this was about.

***

Despite its name, UES Superior was not a large ship. An inelegantly shaped floating box, it was fifty meters long, ten wide and twenty deep. It resembled two old style mobile home units, one stacked atop the other. It was divided into a small bridge, science labs, five closet sized cubicles for the scientists who had to double up, and six for the crew. Only Mundy had a private room. Or private closet as he called it. There was also a small workout area crew were required and scientists were “recommended” to use to maintain their muscle mass while in space. Finally, a dining area/meeting room that would accommodate all twenty of them, with a little crowding. The scientists worked in shifts, five sleeping while five had the labs. Similarly, Captain Mundy and Commander Newly traded off, as did engineer Commander Casey Jones and his assistant Lieutenant Digger Emory. The other four crew, Jordan, Anderson, Cain and Dr. N’dutu also rotated as needed.

***

            It took nearly two days to find another large body to use. At least they assumed it was two days. None of the chronometers worked in the event horizon vortex. They could determine very little except that there was a violent maelstrom of matter and energy surrounding the ship.

            They attempted the maneuver just as before. However, shortly after starting, Karen shouted “Gravitational wave!” Everyone grabbed onto whatever they could as the wave slammed into the ship. It sent them tumbling along the orbital path. Fortunately, the shielding was strong enough to keep them from being crushed as they bounced around the orbital zone like the ball in an ancient pinball machine. By the time they had established a modicum of control over their ship Anderson shouted, “Holy moley, we’re headed straight into the hole!”

            “Pull out, pull out!” Captain Mundy ordered, keeping the panic he felt from his voice. Because of Anderson’s quick thinking and sharp reflexes, they managed to pull the ship up and it shot across the surface of the waves of hot gases like a stone skimming across a lake. They had lost a significant amount of altitude, although they had no way of measuring how much. They could hear the groans and growling of the ship hull as the force field tried to shield them from the crushing gravity this deep in the black hole. They had swung around the hole like a rock in a sling around a hunter’s raised hand.

            “Captain, I can’t get an accurate gauge,” said Anderson. “But it would appear we’ve been slung into a superfast eddy. We’re spinning around the hole like crazy. Maybe as much as 0.9 light speed. This ship isn’t built for such speed. If it weren’t for the force field and gravitational pressure we’d have already spun apart.”

            “So, if we hit light speed we’ll start going back in time and can avoid this mess?” Captain Mundy joked.

            “I wish. Even our school kids don’t believe that anymore,” Commander Newly said.  Considering the predicament they were in, she had taken to remaining on the bridge during her down time. “There’s no going back in time.”

            “Except maybe through a black hole,” said Lieutenant Jordan winsomely.

            “That’s pretty much that, then,” said Mundy. “We’ve got no more aces up our sleeves. Karen, can we get a last dispatch off to Earth Command?”

            “Negative, Captain. We’re so deep in the hole even the quantum realm is affected.”

***

            Over a few days they successfully attached themselves to several larger bodies caught in the same super-eddy and gained a little more distance from the black hole, but were unable to move further. Their velocity made it impossible to grab large bodies outside the eddy. Lieutenant Jordan said it was just as well. The sudden jolt of the reduction in speed would probably tear the ship apart.

            The crew spent a week maneuvering the ship to the upper edges of the eddy only to have the gravity drag them back down. It required constant monitoring to keep them out of the black hole’s hungry maw.

            “I doubt we can do this much longer,” Mundy said, speaking to the entire crew and scientists. “The toll on the superstructure of the ship is too much. It will eventually give. I suppose we have a few more days, less than a week before the hull is breached. I imagine it will be a quick, but quite painful death. I will authorize desensitizing pills for all military personnel who want them, but I expect everyone to be at their stations from now on. We will meet this like a disciplined team. N’dutu, as medical officer, could you take over distributing suicide pills to the scientists who may want a quick exit?”

            “Sure thing, Captain.” She left the bridge to carry out her assignment.

            “I guess this is where I’m supposed to say it’s been an honor to serve with you. It sounds so trite, but actually it sums up how I feel. It has been an honor. Thank you, sir,” Karen said. Mundy could hear the held back tears in her voice.

            “Same here, Karen. Chin up. Best damn science officer ever. I’ll put that in your permanent file,” he said with a grin. She gave him a tremulous smile.

            After Karen left the bridge to confer with the scientists Jennifer Newly came up to Mundy’s chair.

            “I just wanted to echo what Karen said. It truly has been an honor to serve with you. Five years now. We know each other so well. I can almost anticipate your orders before you give them. It’s just awful that it has to end this way. If there’s anything like an afterlife I guess I’ll see you on the other side, Rob.”

            “Yeah, feels like we’re an old married couple. See you too, Jen. If we both go the same way,” he said with a smile.

***

            For the rest of the day they all sat at their stations, pretending it was like any other day. Most of them had no family back home. That was why they had chosen a multi-year mission into space. Anderson kept Mundy apprised of what the psi on the outer hull was, and how much it could withstand. He also reported that radiation inside the ship was reaching critical levels.

            They were near to breaking and another gravitational surge like the last two would flatten the ship. Their hearts barely had time to leap into their throats when Karen yelled, “Gravitational surge, but it’s coming from …”. That was all she managed to get out before the wave struck the fragile little craft.

***

Admiral’s Log

WAF ship Konigsberg

Reich-Admiral Zariah Als

15.13.578 Anno Imperium

The crew has become restless as we have been weeks without a prize. My research into ancient records indicate a ship was lost in this area over 900 years ago, back during the United Earth years. There is no record of another ship salvaging it so it should be somewhere in this star system. I’ll check the black hole first. A smart captain would have devised a way to park himself at the event horizon if he were captured by it. Perhaps that ship is circling there still, with near thousand-year-old corpses guarding their treasures. Admiral out

***

            The scuttlebutt is that we are looking for a ghost ship lost a thousand years ago, thought Bunde Christophe Verhoven. If I’m in a boarding party and come up against a skeleton, I hope I hold my shite together better than poor Bujonjoe did. I had befriended him, although I’ve had to act in the past few weeks as if I never did. I feel like I deserted him. I’m most ashamed of that. Such a sensitive soul as him should never have been in the military. He was not cut out for it. But his family forced the issue. His old man was a hard-core Nationalist. He swore his son would serve and advance or die honorably. Well, Buj did neither. He stuck his laser pistol in his mouth on wide dispersal and vaporized his head. When we found that freighter a couple months ago Buj had been on the boarding party. He stumbled and fell into a partially decomposed body. He screamed and scrambled back, spewing vomit all over himself. Even worse, he pissed himself. The men laughed at him. But they felt he had cracked under pressure. He could not be trusted. He was no longer part of the team. He started getting hazed pretty hard. I saw the bruises from the beatings he was getting. The dark circles under his eyes told me he wasn’t sleeping, or wasn’t being allowed to sleep. He avoided messhall and hardly ate a thing. He confided in me the last time I saw him alive that the three guys who everyone knew were the worst of the sadistic bundesleiters had gang raped him. He was frantic and didn’t know where to turn. It was even worse luck that he was serving with an old pirate like Als. And I don’t use the word pirate lightly. Als, with his one eye and broad girth is much like the lawless brigands that sailed the oceans of old Earth some two thousand years ago. But the Supreme Leader and the Empire turn a blind eye to his activities as long as he gets results. Als pays as little attention to his men as to the law so the worst of the bullies run the barracks. They had identified Bujonjoe as a weak link and he was being removed. As far as he was concerned, he took the only path he could see. I just feel sorry for him.

***

            “So tell me, Reichsmagister, what do you see?” Admiral Als asked his science advisor.

            “There might be something there, might not. If it’s beyond the event horizon we won’t be able to see it.”

            “I’m aware of that. But our quantum entanglement device can detect telltale signs at the quantum level if there is something in there worth pursuing.”

            “Yes, but at the cost of a huge expenditure of energy which we are already running low on.”

            “But think what we might find? The records say a science ship was lost in this area. It may have had those sun charged batteries we lost the technology for. Just think if we found those. An endless supply of energy for me. And for the Empire at the right price of course. And a science ship. No telling what surprising technologies it may hold. So much was lost in the Glorious Revolution.”

            “If it is your command, mein Herr.”

            “It is.”

            “As you wish. Heil!” he gave his admiral the straight arm salute.

            “Heil.”

***

            Poor Buj. Being raped was the ultimate dishonor. Man on man sex was nothing new. On spacing ships with a hundred men and no women it was common. Some barracks had men who liked it and provided for their platoon. In others, the weaker men were just taken and forced. Even that had a modicum of honor since they were providing for the esprit de corps. But to be raped for no other reason than to show that you could be signifies the victim is no man. He is no more a man than is a slave. He is as low as a woman and used as one. I am not sure if that message is what sent Buj over the edge or if it was just a cumulative effect. I’m not sure I could handle it as long as poor Buj did. God, I hope I hold my shite together if I’m on that boarding party.

***

            “Mixed news, mien Admiral,” said the Reichsmagister as he entered the bridge. He stopped and sketched a short bow before continuing. “It appears from the QED signature that a ship is hiding in the jersa surrounding the hole.”

            “Not hiding, Reichsmagister. Just the victim of a power beyond its ability to control. Just as we would be if we ventured too close.” Then, as if just making sure, he turned to the helmsman. “Helmsleiter, be sure to keep a respectable distance from the event horizon or you will feel the sting of my laser baton on your back.”

            “Jawohl, mein Admiral.” Helmsleiter Kell’s eyes grew wide and round at the thought of the Admiral’s laser baton.

            “That sounds like good news, Reichsmagister. Can we get a fix on it?” asked the admiral.

            “Nein. It moves around the black hole at nearly the speed of light. May as well try to capture an electron as it speeds around its nucleus.”

            “That is not acceptable Reichsmagister. A thing that can be measured can be captured. I will not come this far and be denied my prize. It is your duty to determine how we will acquire it. I will give you until this time tomorrow to work it out. Dismissed.”

            “Heil!” said the Reichsmagister with his straight arm salute.

            “Heil.”

***

            It looks like I may be off the hook, after all. Even if there is a derelict to be salvaged we apparently can’t get to it. The admiral gave the Reichsmagister until today to figure it out. The guys say he’s got nothing. The admiral doesn’t like hearing no. The Reichsmagister will at least wind up in the brig and we may be rounded up to see a public torture. It’s been a while since anybody pissed off the old man that much. Word gets around. They say the Reichsmagister was on the bridge till late last shift. He supposedly had some animated conversations with Commandant Michaelik Smits. I don’t know what that was about, but I bet he was trying to work out how not to end up in the torture booth. I don’t particularly like the Reichsmagister but no one deserves the torture booth. And I don’t like being forced to watch the agony of a man as he is tortured. An object lesson, Als calls it. Als is a savage bully who likes hurting people. Unfortunately, he is just the kind of man the Empire breeds and promotes. I hate this whole stinking culture. I hate what they did to Bujonjoe. And I hate what they are trying to make me become.

***

            “Heil, mein Admiral. I believe I have devised a method of extracting the derelict ship from the cloud of jersa.” The Reichsmagister looked haggard from his sleepless night.

            “Oh? Enlighten me.”

            “Commandant Smits. If you would be so kind. Please bring up the black hole with the suspected orbit of the ship as predicted by the QED.” A black sun appeared on the screen, blacker than the black background. It was most visible as a black circle in the group of background stars. A red dot circled the black sun so rapidly it seemed to be a solid line. It was at a forty degree angle to the WAF Konigsberg, only partially visible from their angle.

            “Now, Herr Kell,” he spoke to the helmsman. “Please realign the ship’s orbit by fifty degrees longitudinally.” The helmsman looked to the Commandant.

            “Do it,” he said. Once they had established a new orbit the Reichsmagister said, “You see now that our orbit is perpendicular to the salvage. Bring us to this point in our orbit, Herr Kell,” he said, pointing to a spot on the small map in front of Kell. “Now show us a ship’s view of the orbit of the salvage.” The diagram on the large screen showed the same black spot. But now the red dot was circling the back spot in a wide flat circle, always in sight.

            “We can capture what we can measure, you said, mein Admiral. But to measure it we must see it. From this vantage we can figuratively see it or at least detect it continuously. That will allow us to capture it. I propose to polarize our tractor beam to a circular pattern, set it to detect only metal, turn it toward the orbit of the salvage and see what fish we catch.”

            “Masterful and logical. Just as I expected of you, mein Reichsmagister,” said Als with sincerity in his voice.  “Helmsleiter, make the changes the Reichsmagister has recommended.”

            “Jawohl, mein Admiral.” The young helmsman’s fingers flew over his control panel. He knew Admiral Als had little patience and was not to be kept waiting.

            “Ready, mein Admiral.”

            “Proceed.”  

***

The crew of the UES Superior were near to breaking and another gravitational surge like the last two would flatten the ship. Their hearts barely had time to leap into their throats when Karen yelled, “Gravitational surge, but it’s coming from …” That was all she managed to get out before the wave struck the fragile little craft. “Above,” she barely managed to yell. The hissing, pinging and bonging from the craft moving around the slurry of the black hole increased.

“It looks as if we’re moving against the momentum of the debris, not toward the black hole,” said Anderson peering through a porthole. “That’s not possible.”

“Maybe another black hole has moved into the neighborhood,” offered Jimmy Cain, a helmsman who wasn’t on duty but had decided to meet the end among his friends. He was so young, just out of the Academy, he made Mundy feel like an old man. He was an odd match as Anderson’s counterpart at the helm. At five feet six he was the shortest height a cadet could be.

            “No, we’d have noticed it before now,” said Jordan.

            “Well, we’re definitely moving. And up, away from the black hole. I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.” Anderson was delighted.

            “Well, I don’t like my staff standing around with their collective thumbs up their asses. Something’s going on and I want answers. Pronto!” Everyone scrambled to their stations and managed to look industrious although no one knew exactly what to do.

***

            “We must find a way to slow down the craft. Once it leaves the soupy jersa surrounding the black hole it might fly apart slinging around at nearly the speed of light. Helmsleiter, can you use the tractor beam to retard their speed?”

            “Jawohl, Herr Reichsmagister.”

            “Then do so.”

***

            “Captain. The ship is definitely caught in a gravity wave from above. But the wave is coherent, not natural. It’s as if we’re caught in a tractor beam.” Karen Jordan came up with a theory that seemed hardly plausible.

            “We’re movin’ at near the speed of light. Ain’t no tractor beam can catch you when you’re doin’ that,” Casey Jones gave his opinion. As the expert on what was physically possible with machinery, what he said carried weight.

            “We’re slowing down,” Anderson called from his console. “It’s like our engines are being overridden.”

            “Cut our engines, Davie. Let’s save them for when we need them. Somebody or something has us in a trap. I want to know who or what and why. Give it to me, gentlemen.”

            “I think I know,” said Anderson softly, yet everyone turned. “Look at this.” The screen showed an exterior view from the ship. It was obvious they were rising through waves of gases and energy, star dust and micrometeoroids. And right in the center, possibly light minutes distant was a glowing dot. A dot that the console indicated was a spaceship. A spaceship that was not registered on Earth.  

            “Oh shit,” thought Mundy. “First contact.”  

***

“Captain. I really must demand that you let me speak with the aliens. As the only one aboard with diplomatic experience it is only reasonable,” scientist Harry Albright said. “No offense, but with your military background and military thinking you are liable to cowboy us into an interspecies war.”

            “No offense taken,” Mundy said gritting his teeth. He really hated dealing with these people. That’s what he had Karen for.

            “Harry, you know NASA and World Council protocol is very clear on this. The commander of the ship that makes first contact is to represent Earth unless an actual credentialed diplomat is on board,” Jordan chided him.

            “That’s ridiculous. This is too important a moment to be left to amateurs.”

            “We haven’t even determined if they are friendly or hostile. Before I let you invite them in for tea and crumpets I want to know a little bit more about them.”

            “It’s attitudes like that which get us into wars. I wish to file a complaint.”

            “Take it up with Earth Command.”

            “Hmph! If you are going to continue to refuse to see reason on this, at least agree that Dr. Righter and myself will sit on the committee that receives them. There’s no telling what kind of faux pas you may commit.”

            “Dr. Albright. Let me put this as diplomatically as I can. No fucking way!” He knew Earth Command would be all over him about this, but the momentary satisfaction was worth it. He strode out.

***

            “Karen, is it possible for them to hold us in a tractor beam at this distance?” Mundy asked.

            “I don’t think possible is the question. They undoubtedly do have us in a beam.”

            “Well, they saved our asses. We need to thank them. Establish communication. And give us a little push with impulse, Anderson. I want to at least give the impression that we are coming to them of our own will.”  

            “Captain, I’ve done some scans on them. They don’t have any kind of shield up to prevent scans.” Commander Newly said.

            “So, either their shields are down to show friendly intent or they don’t fear us enough to put up shields or they just don’t have shields. Keep our shields up, Jennifer, until we know more about them. What did your scans find?”

            “A mixed bag. Their engines seem more primitive than ours, but they do have hyperdrive, obviously. They are also heavily armed. I doubt our shields would last more than a couple of salvos. Heat signature would indicate there are warm-blooded creatures inside.”

            “Good. I really didn’t want to meet up with any lizard people. I hate lizards,” said the captain, only half joking.

            “Or bug people. The movies about bug people give me nightmares,” admitted Anderson.

            “Alright. Let’s keep our wits about us. Anything yet, Karen?”

            “Negative, Captain.”

            “Send everything we know so far to Earth Command. Do it subspace. If they detect the message they may mistake it for hostile intent, or they may trace it to Earth. No need in announcing where we’re from until we know more.”

            “Will do, Captain.”    

            “Captain!” Commander Newly called. “I’ve got something on my system. It looks like a message. It’s an old style system of amplitude frequency modulation, we haven’t used it in decades or even hundreds of years.”

            “Good. Feed it into the computer to start working on a translation. Is it directed at us?”

            “No, sir. It was sent in the other direction. I guess back to its base or fleet.”

            “Holy shit,” Jimmy whispered it so only Anderson heard it. “Captain, Captain, you gotta hear this.”

            “What, Jimmy?” asked Mundy.

            “Well, you know I’m a technogeek, right? I mean I have a kind of skill with computer systems. I can hack into just about anywhere. I think I just hacked into the intership system of the aliens. They’re speaking English.”

***

            “Commandant Smits,” called Helmsleiter Kell. “The salvage appears to be assisting our tractor beam.”

            “What do you mean ‘assisting’?” asked the Commandant. Admiral Als walked over to stand near the helmsman.

            “The salvage seems to be pulling away from the black hole, as if trying to come toward us.”

            “That ship has been stuck over 900 years and has accreted a ton of sludge and spacemud. It was probably just stuck and then broke loose. No chance of us losing it?” the Commandant asked, seeking assurance. Losing Admiral Als’ salvage ship would send them all to a prison planet.

            “No sir. We have a good grip and our beam is strong. And as I said, it’s not fighting us. It’s trying to come toward us.”

            “Interesting,” said the Reichsmagister from a nearby console. “I’ve noticed the ship’s energy signature. Its systems seem to be still running. Imagine that. After 900 years. They sure don’t make them like they used to.”

            “Yes. A worthy prize,” gloated the Admiral from his perch above all the others on the bridge.

            “Commandant! I am getting a communication from the salvage ship,” the communications officer said. “It is a regular signal, I don’t recognize the frequency. I can’t tell if there is any message imbedded, just a regular pinging.”

            “Bah. It’s probably an automated distress signal. It’s probably motion sensitive, set to start if the ship is disturbed. You are all as nervous as my maiden aunt. Herr Kell. How long until we get the ship into our cargo bay?”

            “Four hours, mein Herr.”

***

            “English? What the hell? Are you sure about that, Jimmy?”  The captain was out of his chair and standing beside Lieutenant Cain, looking at his console.

            “Their system is primitive. My little sister could hack into this. But look at these interoffice messages. English. Some of the wording is a bit off, but that’s what it is.”

            “Ok. Keep looking. Karen, Jennifer. Thoughts?”

            “Not a clue,” Jennifer said.

            “I’m stumped, too,” Karen said, shaking her head so that a lock of blonde escaped her band and fell in her eye. She absentmindedly brushed it away.

            “Captain,” Jimmy called again. “I can get into the log of where the ship’s been, cargo, armament, registry, personnel. Everything but the captain’s log. The encryption there is more sophisticated. It may take me a while to break it, but I’m sure I can,” he said with a sniff of pride.

            “What have you found out.”

            “Nothing that makes sense. It says it left Earth a couple of years ago. They have 90 personnel, mostly soldiers. Heavily armed. Under an Admiral Zariah Als. A lot of the titles involve ‘reich’. And the system of dates is weird. Apparently, it’s the year 578 AI. And, uh, well there was something about being involved in the Martian uprising. The ship was instrumental in causing the collapse of the dome over the Martian capital, causing everyone inside to die. That was like a million people. My gramma lives there,” there was a note of worry in his voice. “It matches nothing in our computer’s data base.”

            “None of that makes a bit of sense.” Mundy was perplexed as anyone.

            “Ship’s registry is WAF Reichsboot Konigsberg”

            “WAF?” asked Mundy.

            “Uh, it says World Aryan Federation.”

            “Oh my god. Neo-Nazis? That explains all the pseudo-German crap. I didn’t think there were enough of them to make a difference,” Newly said. “Have they taken over while we were gone?”

            “No. We’ve been in contact with Earth the whole time, except when we were in the event horizon. Wait a minute. I noticed something earlier but didn’t follow up. The stars are wrong,” Jordan said.

            “Stars?” Mundy asked.

            “Computer. Analyze star field and match with current star charts,” she ordered.

            “Complete,” said a disembodied voice.

            “Based on star position what is the date?”

            “Star date approximately 5739.”

            “That’s not possible,” said Mundy. “Computer. Recalculate.”

            “Working. Star date 5739, unable to calculate decimal based available data. Earth date 3220, unable to calculate month and day based on available data.”

            Anderson said what everyone was thinking. “But that’s like 900 years difference, in the future.”

            “No. The computer must be malfunctioning, taking in some erroneous information,” Newly said. “Or affected by the black hole’s radiation. Either that or we have to believe that we have time traveled into the future. Which isn’t possible.”

            “I wonder,” said Jordan. “I have a theory. Let me get to my console.” Once sitting at her station, she began typing and bringing up various charts and queries. “Damn. It works out. I never would have believed it.”

            “Karen, what’s going on? What have you figured out?” Mundy asked.

            “Maybe a rational answer. It involves relativity. Science has found that Einstein was correct in most of what he theorized. One of the effects of relativity is that the faster a ship moves, the slower time passes within the ship. A ship going from Earth to Alpha Centauri at half the speed of light could get there in 8.5 years to outside observers, but the crew will have only experienced it as a year or so. Experiments have proven this is correct. Well, we were in that black hole for what, a week, maybe two? Davie said we were accelerated to .9 the speed of light in the super-eddy. According to my calculations and Einstein’s calculations back it up, what we experienced as ten days, at .85 light speed the rest of the universe would experience as 900 years.”

            “No. That can’t be right,” Mundy stated.

            “The math is correct, Rob,” she almost never called him by his first name while on duty.”

            “Ok. I got into their history files. It says the World Aryan Federation defeated United Earth 578 years ago, 2642 CE – old style, hence the date of 578 Anno Imperium – ‘in the year of the Empire’. Shit. Pardon, Captain. It really happened. They’re not aliens. They’re us. We’re in the future. And from what I’ve seen in their files, we’re fucked.”

***

            “Commandant. Come quickly.” Kell motioned to Smits. “Look,” he said once Smits was at his station. “Heat signatures from within the vessel. There are warm blooded creatures inside.”

            “Unbelievable. How many?”

            “Impossible to tell. I’d say maybe 15, certainly no more than 25.”

            “You sure it’s not just mold growing on the decomposed bodies?”

            “No, Herr Commandant. It has to be actual warm-blooded creatures.”

            “Interlopers. Someone may have salvaged it before we got here? How unfortunate. For them,” said the Admiral. “We will have to relieve them of their burden. Anyway, they were stuck in the event horizon. I’m sure they will be very grateful for our rescue.”

            “Communications officer. Can we contact them?”

            “I believe so, mein Admiral. At least I can send a message to them. Whether they answer is the question.”

            “So be it,” barked Als. “Send them this. Attention to anyone who may be on the vessel we have in tow. I, Admiral Zariah Als, have claimed this vessel under Space Salvage Laws of the World Aryan Federation, Third edition. Under Chapter 2, section 7 of said regulations I claim possession of the vessel and all contents. The vessel will be brought into our cargo bay. Resistance will be met with overwhelming force and perpetrators will be dealt with harshly. You will be apprised of your disposition at a later date.”

***

            “That doesn’t sound very friendly,” commented Mundy upon hearing the message from Als. I would like to be ‘apprised of my disposition’ before I deliver myself into his hands.”

            “Sir, I found their Space Salvage rules while digging through their library,” Jimmy said. “It says that any abandoned or stranded space vessel may be taken for salvage only by a military commander. All cargo and contents become the property of the salvager. Section 7 states that any ship that is not registered with the Federation is contraband and any personnel taken are considered criminals and may be sold as slaves.”

            “Slaves?” Jordan exclaimed. “No civilized people allow slavery.”

            “Maybe not in our world. But it looks like we’re not in our world anymore,” Jimmy said. “And it’s worse than just that. Women have no rights. They are the property of their father or husband. They aren’t allowed any kind of public life. Most never leave the house.”

            “Keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant. Isn’t that what they used to say,” said Newly. It wasn’t really a question. Her tone of voice showed it was a condemnation of the whole system.

            “We’re not going to just give up to them are we, Captain,” asked a wide-eyed Anderson.

            “Hell, no,” growled an angry Jonesie. “Gimme a blaster and I’ll take out a dozen or more before I go down. And I can set off a couple of neutron grenades for good measure. Jonesie ain’t nobody’s slave!”

            “But this is a science ship. We have no weaponry,” worried Dr. Harry Albright. He and Dr. Gloria Righter were called in to represent the ten scientists on board. “Surely they can be reasoned with.”

            “Dr. Albright, I’m a reasonable man and I’m all for reasoning with our new friends, but I’m beginning to think that ship has sailed. I’ll make nice for now, but I’m not opposed to letting loose a little of our force against them. Jimmy, how many are on that ship?”

            “Infrared imaging indicates 90.”

            “We have 10 warriors here. Each of us have to take out nine bad guys. I like our odds” Major Donovan said with a grim grin.     

            “Captain, you’re going to get us all killed, or worse,” complained Albright.

            “Maybe Dr. Albright. But I don’t fancy being a slave to some latter-day Nazi. You and the scientists can hang back if you want, but I’m going in with a plan.”

            “What’s the plan, Cap,” asked Jonesie.

            “Well, I think we need to tread softly for now. Much as I’d like to, we don’t need to go in with guns blazing. We’ve determined that their technology is way behind ours. I guess they must have lost a lot of it in some war. They don’t need to know that. Jimmy said even his sister could hack their system. He and Anderson and Jorgenson are tech whizzes. If we can get them into the bad guys’ ship system we could throw a few curves. I imagine they’ll want to keep us together at first. Albright, Righter, you keep your scientists together as much as possible. If we’re going to make a break it needs to be early on. I don’t want to leave anyone behind but if it’s between that and getting everyone else out, I will leave your ass. If I say move, your people need to move.”

“We’ll be ready, Captain,” said Righter, while silencing the blustering Albright.

“Good,” Mundy continued. “Dr. Righter, tell your people to encrypt access to everything they have. If this goes sideways, I don’t want to give them anything easily. My team. Make nice. Get them comfortable. Encourage them to brag about their system. The more we know, the better. Jimmy, encrypt all ship’s documents.”

            In the meantime, Mundy sent Admiral Als a neutrally worded response saying that his crew were a science team and posed no threat to him or the Empire. He said they were stuck in the black hole, but not derelict. He indicated that they were duly registered with United Earth which he assumed was no longer dominant. He asked for asylum for the eminent scientists on board who could undoubtedly provide new and valuable technologies to the Empire. He got no reply.

***

            The Konigsberg quickly became visible out the portholes. It bristled with antennae and what were undoubtedly guns. It was obviously a warship. And it was huge. They later discovered the majority of its size was made up of the large cargo bay. It yawned before them like the maw of some ravenous beast of prey. Soon they were completely engulfed. Their ship settled in the artificial gravity of the bay and their gauges showed the air pressure was quickly approaching Earth normal.

            “Looks like it’s showtime, people. Look lively. We want to make a good impression,” Mundy smiled, hoping to cheer up the somber group.

            His officers all had on their dress uniforms and the scientists, well, they were still a motley looking crew. Through the porthole he could see the main gate into the bay open. A detachment of about twenty soldiers trotted in and fanned out to keep the ship under armed guard.

            A burly man and a slimmer one came in last and looked expectantly at the ship. Mundy unlocked the hatch and a short ramp opened. He led his group out, the crew marching orderly, the scientists crowded together and frightened looking. They stopped short in front of Admiral Als. The man was Mundy’s height, broad and dressed in a uniform with many medals and stripes. His greasy gray hair was pulled back in a queue. A black patch over one eye gave him the look of a pirate. Mundy suspected it was more than just a look. He had a short, grizzled beard and appeared to be a hard worn fifty. The man beside him was shorter, younger and dressed in a black uniform. The insignia on his uniform denoted Commander rank. Looking at Als, Mundy brought up his right hand offering a military salute. Als just looked at him and sneered.

            “My name is Captain Robert Mundy, commanding the United Earth ship Superior.”

Als gave him a backhanded slap. There was the sharp intake of breath among Mundy’s officers but no one moved.

            “You have no name unless I say so. You are a slave and are only to speak when spoken to. You all live and die at my pleasure. Do you understand?”

            “Yes, Admiral,” Mundy replied tightly. No man had ever hit him and walked away unscathed. Als would not be the first, he vowed.

            “As part of the cargo of the salvaged vessel you are my property. Please me and you will be kept in my service. Displease me and there are unpleasant alternatives. Eighteen of you. Is that your full complement?”

“Yes, Admiral.” Als motioned to his soldiers and four trotted up the ramp to search the ship. A moment later they came out and the leader nodded to Als.

“Where is the ship you came on? Did you jettison it into the hole?”

“The Superior is our ship.”

Als grabbed Mundy by the throat and lifted him to his toes.

“You lie! You have slipped onto the ship I have claimed like vermin. My Reichsmagister has ways of extracting information. You will tell me what you know, in time.” He lowered Mundy who had begun to turn blue. As the captain massaged his throat, Als strode over to look at the scientists who cowered before him.

            “I hope you creatures have brains for your bodies are no good for work or sex. I probably couldn’t get fifty credits for the lot of you. The crew is more promising, especially the females. And a negress. There aren’t many out here this far from Earth. I feel certain I can earn a healthy sum selling you.” Dr. N’dutu looked at the captain nervously.

            Dr. Albright shakily stepped forward.

            “Admiral. I represent the scientists of Earth. At least the old Earth.” That was all he got out before Als grabbed him by his mouth.

            “A representative are you? That makes you a leader. Leaders don’t make good slaves. Always troublemakers. Smits,” he said. The man in black drew his pistol-like weapon from his waist and handed it to Als. He turned it and fired a short blast of energy at Albright’s midsection. He immediately crumpled to the floor. Several of the scientists cried out. Mundy made a move to approach him but was stopped by Als’ hand on his chest.

            “I usually don’t waste my resources but I believe this one has more value as a lesson than on the market. You need to reconcile yourselves to your new status. Speak out of turn to a free man and you will get a severe and painful reprimand. Cross me and you will get the same fate as this slave. Take him to the disposal,” he said to Smits.

            Smits crouched over the man. “He lives still,” he said.

            “All the better. To the disposal.” Smits signaled to two soldiers to come and help. They lifted Albright with one under each arm. Though grievously wounded Albright managed to raise his head and mutter unintelligibly. They drug him to a chute marked ‘Disposal’. The soldiers hefted him up and tossed him in head first. They closed the chute. There was a suctioning sound. Several of the scientists gasped.

            “That slave is now free. Free to roam the void as he floats about in space. Anyone care to join him? No? Good.” Turning back to his companion he said, “Smits, see to the disposition of my new slaves.” With that he walked out.

***

            In their holding cell it was pandemonium. Most of the scientists were wailing. Others were throwing recriminations at Mundy for bringing them into such a dangerous situation. One seemed catatonic.

            “Shut up, damn you!” he cried. “You know the situation we’re in. You can work with it or die. I’d suggest you grow a little steel in your spines and show these savages what you can do. If you don’t, they are liable to throw you out the disposal like Albright.” There was silence as they all stared at him as if he were the enemy. He had only told them the truth. He sat down on the floor beside Newly.

            “We might as well work on the assumption they are listening in,” he whispered in her ear.

            “Agreed,” she said quietly without moving her lips. “Then again, their technology is primitive.”

            “You and Karen get around to everyone, including the scientists, without making it obvious. Maybe get Anderson to help. Remind them that they are to cooperate for the time being and keep their eyes and ears open. We need to gather as much intel as possible.”

***

            Mundy had no sense of time. They were in a windowless room with constant lighting. Jimmy had already whispered to him that with a pick Digger had secreted in his shoe either of them could easily disengage the ancient lock on the door. Good to know.

            After what seemed like hours the man in black came in followed by an assistant and four armed soldiers. He carried what looked like an old-fashioned riding crop. Mundy rose and stood in front of his people indicating he was the one to speak to. He didn’t try to speak first. He had learned that lesson.

            “Good,” sneered the man. “You wait for your master to speak. That is the first and often the most difficult lesson for former free men to grasp. I am Commandant Smits. It is my unenviable task to advise you in the ways of slavery, to ease you into your new situation, as it were. This is Bundesleiter von Hoek. You will address us as master at all times.

            “As you may have surmised, while you are the property of Admiral Als, you are to submit to questions and directions of all officers on the Konigsberg. Officers only. You will be advised if you are to entertain the troops.” He leered evilly at this remark. He stepped forward, moving Mundy out of the way with a wave of his hand and looked over the scientists.

            “Mein Admiral wishes to know if his property has any scientific value. You,” he said, pointing the crop at Vince Rhodes. “Yes, you will do to start. Guards, take this one for testing.” Two of the armed soldiers grabbed Vince by either arm and marched him out of the cell. He looked back over his shoulder, terrified.

            Smits casually strolled back toward Mundy and his officers. He stopped and used his crop to lift Mundy’s chin. “If you were five years younger I might use you. You’re definitely attractive enough. But a little older than what I like. Now you, on the other hand,” he said looking at Karen and running the crop down her arm. “You are also just what I like. Guards, take her to my quarters.” He turned and left with von Hoek in his wake as the other two guards grabbed Karen. Mundy and Anderson tried to intervene but were clubbed into submission by the soldiers.

***

            Vince was returned what seemed like many hours later.

            “I was terribly frightened but they just wanted to test my level of knowledge. I quickly outstripped anything they knew. They are terribly backward. I’m amazed that at their level of physics that they are actually spacefaring. They are much like us back at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

            They pulled Maynard Johnson next.

            At long last Karen was returned. She was being dragged by two soldiers. They opened the door and unceremoniously threw her in. Mundy and N’dutu rushed to her side. She was badly beaten and still bleeding from a number of wounds, some serious looking. Her uniform was in shreds. They applied what first aid they could. When she was able to talk she said her right arm might also be fractured. They formed a sling with Mundy’s overshirt.

            “Apparently slaves are also used for sexual pleasure. That is what Smits wanted. I went along for a while, trying to be nice, but put him off. He got a little too personal so I let him have it, and I don’t mean my body.” Mundy smiled grimly considering this. Karen was the best hand at martial arts on his ship. She regularly handed Mundy his ass at sparing. “Yeah, I kicked his ugly ass good until the guards got into it. It took three of them to take me down but I got some good licks in. Two of the guards are in sick bay because of me. And that slimy bastard in black will be walking funny for a few days. Donovan said we each needed to take out nine. Only six to go for me, Cap,” she grinned weakly through swollen, bloody lips at Mundy. “You guys need to catch up.”

***

            A germ of an plan took root in Mundy’s brain. When they brought Maynard back several soldiers arrived with food. It wasn’t anything fancy, just bread, thin soup and water, but they were all famished. Mundy had noticed that when Smits had dismissed him as too old for his sexual tastes, von Hoek’s eyebrows raised. He also noticed after that how von Hoek took a long last look at him. Von Hoek was supervising the soldiers setting out the food. Mundy stood close to him and made eye contact. He smiled in a seductive manner and licked his upper lip with the tip of his tongue. With a smirk he strolled away, rolling his hips. Newly once told him when drunk that he had the “best damn ass in the navy”.  Message delivered, he thought.

            After the meal the soldiers took Larry Bostwick for testing. When he returned several hours later the lights dimmed. There were eighteen blankets piled by the door. They huddled on the floor, seeking comfort in each other. They had only been down a short while when the door opened and von Hoek and four soldiers entered. “You,” von Hoek pointed at Mundy. “And…that one,” pointing at Jimmy. They were both quickly grabbed and hustled out of the room. They were taken down a corridor but then separated.

“Where are you taking him?” Mundy asked.

“Silence, slave. You do not speak unless your master addresses you. Aren’t you concerned for yourself rather than this other slave?” von Hoek asked.

“Jimmy is my responsibility. You’re in a command position. You should understand,” he reasoned.

“Oh, tut. We’re past all that. You have no responsibilities other than pleasing your master. And right now, that’s me. Smits may have thought you were too old, but he likes little boys anyway. I understand the bitch he pulled kicked his ass. She’ll be severely disciplined for that. The admiral ought to have her whipped or throw her to the troops for sport, but with her looks, she’s worth too much. She’ll bring him a fortune on the open market. You probably will, too. But for now, you’re just my type. And don’t worry about your little friend. A couple of the guards I owe a favor to saw him and thought he was cute. They asked for some play time with him. He’ll be fine. They know not to permanently damage the property of the Admiral.” Mundy felt sick at the fate of poor Jimmy.

The guards deposited Mundy in what he supposed was van Hoek’s quarters. Deposited was the best term seeing as they walked him in, dropped him on the single bed and walked out.

“Now, slave. Let’s review. The guards are just outside. One word from me and they will beat you senseless. I can also have you gelded, take the fight right out of you. Make me happy and I’ll see about cutting short your little friend’s time with the guards. I’ve seen the looks you gave me. Let’s not pretend. You can begin by taking off your shirt.” The thought of even touching van Hoek made Mundy’s skin crawl. The man was skinny, had bulging eyes and receded hair. The officer’s uniform did little to improve the image. Still, Mundy had a plan and enough experience to know how to remove his undershirt seductively.

“Nice,” purred von Hoek. “I like a man with a little hair on his chest.” He came close and slid his hand along Mundy’s chest, allowing hairs to slip between his fingers. Stepping back a pace he quickly removed the tunic of his uniform. Mundy was repulsed at the sallow, sunken chest that was revealed. Then von Hoek was back on him, kissing his neck and mouthing the area around his ears and where his neck joined his shoulders. Mundy slid his hands up von Hoek’s chest, slowing to caress his nipples. Von Hoek hissed an intake of breath and then groaned his pleasure. He grabbed Mundy’s head and kissed him on the mouth, his tongue seeking entrance. Mundy slid his hands up to cup von Hoek’s head also. Then with a violent wrench he twisted it until von Hoek could see his backside. But by then von Hoek could see nothing. He was dead.

Mundy allowed himself a momentary shudder to rid himself of the essence of von Hoek. Then tapping his earlobe he whispered, “Donovan. You there?”

“Been waiting on you, Cap. What’s the situation?”

“Where are you and Jorgenson?” They had stayed behind in a hidden compartment when the crew went out to meet Als.

“Still in the Superior. We went out and got the guards. There were four of them and three techs. Those disposal chutes are really neat. Anyway, we have new uniforms and weapons. And sorry about Dr. A. We were watching from inside the ship.”

“Good, just outside the cargo bay is a map of the ship. I’m in a private quarter on deck B, number 25. Think you two can get here on the double?”

“Sure thing. See you in five.”

“I think there are two guards on my door.”

“No problem.”

While he waited, Mundy put von Hoek’s body in his closet. If anyone were to casually glance in the room they wouldn’t notice anything amiss. A few moments later there was a sizzling sound of an energy blast, as if from a laser weapon outside and then a quiet tap at the door. It opened to reveal Donovan and Jorgenson in WAF uniforms with a dazed soldier held up between them and two more lying apparently dead in the hallway. Mundy raised his eyebrows at Donovan.

“Mr,” he glanced down at the soldier’s name tag, “Zmeckis here got a little too interested in our presence. We cocked him and the next soldiers we met we just told we were taking him to sick bay.” Jorgenson had already dragged the two dead soldiers into the room as Donovan talked. He ripped the cover off the bed and tore strips from it. They securely gagged Mr. Zmeckis, tied his arms and legs and loaded him in the closet with von Hoek. It was a tight fit. They loaded the other two into the small bath.

“Von Hoek is, or rather was officer level so he must have some kind of security clearance. See if you can get onto the ship’s systems from his connection, Jorgenson,” Mundy said.  

“Security on this system is for shit,” Jorgenson said disdainfully. “It’s an open book to me.” He went over the ship systems and conferred with Donovan. After a short time Donovan sat on the bed with Mundy.

“Ok, Cap. Here’s the plan. Jorgenson is going to divert all bridge control to engineering. He’ll have to do if from engineering, though, so you and Jorgenson head on down to engineering. Here’s a view of it.” Jorgenson showed him a screen that was apparently a live feed from engineering. They could see three guards and two engineers. “You two will need to neutralize those guys. Jorgenson then can lock all control systems into engineering. Bridge will notice it immediately, but I will create a diversion so don’t worry about them.”

“Still, it won’t take the eighty or so soldiers left long to get there and break in.”

“No, it won’t. That’s why Jorgenson is going to do his stuff in two minutes, tops. Then you two are outta there. He’s going to release the clamps on the ship and disable the tractor beam and weaponry. Then scuttle the whole system.”

“We can’t get the ship out without the bay door open and if the door is open we can’t get to the ship.”

“I got it covered. Jorgenson said there is a fifteen second delay function on the air lock. Once y’all are in, I press the button and run like hell for the ship.”

“What are our chances of pulling this off?” Mundy asked.

“Seriously? I’d say slim to none. You got any better ideas?” Mundy had to shake his head that he didn’t.

“Let me bring Jennifer up to date.” He tapped his lobe again and talked softly to his second in command. She reported that everyone else was in the cell except Jimmy.

“Keep trying to open his frequency. We’ll do what we can to find him.”

“Problems, Cap?”

“Jimmy Cain is missing. Some guards grabbed him the same time they got me. He could be anywhere. Jennifer’s trying to raise him.”

“I don’t like to leave anyone behind but if it’s between getting 18 people off this ship and zero, I know where I stand. You’re the Cap, though. I’ll leave it up to you.” Donovan handed him the laser pistol he’d pulled off a guard.

“Jorgenson, ping me when you’re in place.”

“Roger.”

***

They only encountered two soldiers on the way to engineering. They shot them both and gained two more hand weapons. Mundy hated killing indiscriminately, but this was a battle situation. Jorgenson tugged his earlobe when they were in place. He palmed open the door and they went in all four guns blazing. They quickly had engineering under control and Jorgenson got to work on the controls. Mundy pinged Jennifer and told her to get their people moving. He told her Digger could open the door and she and Anderson could neutralize the guards. The scientists would have to help Jordan. He specifically reminded her that lethal force was acceptable.

By the time he finished giving orders Jorgenson was grabbing him and heading for the door. By this time the red alert lights and horn were blaring.  As they were exiting the control room Jorganson lobbed a couple of neutron grenades behind him at the engine core. The entire ship lurched when they went off, detonating one engine with as well.

They fought their way to the cargo bay. Resistance was light seeing as the ship was caught off guard and chaos reigned. Donovan had apparently disrupted their chain of command by destroying the bridge. As they were getting near their destination they ran up with Donovan. His eyes were bright. It was clear he was in his element. Mundy’s ear pinged and he heard Jennifer saying they had heard from Jimmy. He said he was in pretty bad shape and disoriented. He doubted he could make it to the cargo bay on his own. She gave them his coordinates.

“I’ll get the boy. You two get to the ship,” Donovan said. Mundy wanted to disagree, say Jimmy was his responsibility but the reality was that Donovan had the better chance of getting himself and Jimmy to the ship alive. As they approached the bay they heard laser pistol fire and a familiar roar.

“Take that, you filthy Nazi scum!” Jonesie was giving the Nazis what for. With Mundy and Jorgenson coming up on their rear they were quickly dispatched. No time for prisoners.

“Good work, Cap. Any more of them filthy buggers?” Jonesie asked. He seemed eager for more action.

“I believe we’re in the clear for the moment. You help get all the passengers in the ship. And I want my engines ready to go, pronto.”

“On it, Cap.” He ran for the ship.

Jennifer was warming the engines when Jorgenson pushed Mundy toward the ship.

“You go. I need to be able to give covering fire for Donovan if the baddies beat him here. Then I’ll open the bay.”

“No both of us can give more cover. Then we can all get on the ship. The fifteen second delay…”

“There’s no delay. We just said that to brook argument. Donovan’s plan all along was to get us all on the ship and open the bay himself. He’s got enough neutron grenades in his bag to destroy the entire ship and he plans to do it. So if he doesn’t make it, I need to open the door. I’m not about heroics or any of that shit. I just have a job to do and I do it. It’s the Marine way.”

Mundy remembered when the mission began he had wondered if two Marines would be of any use if the situation got hairy. Now these two Marines had together saved all their lives. And willingly gave theirs in doing so. Mundy was not a man given to much emotion, but damn, he thought, that was brave.

He got to the ship. Jennifer already had the engines ready. All he needed was to engage and they’d be on their way. He saw several laser shots hit the door above Jorgenson and he returned fire. Then Jorgenson turned and looked at Mundy through the portal and hit the ‘emergency open door’ button. Inside the cargo bay you could hear the great whoosh as all the air rushed out of the opening door. He saw Jorgenson crouch on the other side of the door and return fire again. The bay door was about halfway open when it stopped. Then slowly it began to close.

“Oh, shit. Als’ people found an override,” Mundy said. He had to think quick. “Jennifer, shields on maximum. Davie, on impulse power, back us up as far from the door as possible.”

“Captain, you’re not thinking…?”

“Damn straight. Full power forward. Engage!” To tell the truth, he wasn’t sure if the ship would survive breaking through the cargo bay door. But he didn’t see any reason to stay behind. It was now or never. The Superior was a tough little ship and survived crashing through the door, leaving twisted metal in its wake. They flew clear of the larger ship. Anderson yelled “Yeehaaa!” as they burst free. Their spirits all soared with the little ship.

***

Donovan had planned on lobbing two neutron grenades into the bridge. If Als was there at the time, he was a goner. Good, Mundy thought. With the havoc they created in the engine room, he doubted they would ever leap to hyper drive again. Hell, impulse might even be a challenge. Without controls the weapons were offline, as was the tractor beam. Now for the really crazy part of my plan, he thought.

“Captain, we’re being followed,” reported Anderson.

“What? How?”

“Apparently it’s a shuttle craft. It doesn’t have much range, but it’s fast and sensors show it’s armed.”

“Shields aft, full power!” Mundy yelled, expecting a proton torpedo or laser cannon blast.

“Sir, we’re being hailed,” Karen told him.

“Patch it through.”

The connection was tenuous and the words were scratchy but the message came through loud and clear.

“Got room for four hitchhikers, Cap?” Donovan crowed.

“You old devil. I thought sure they got you,” Mundy said, overjoyed.

“It’ll take more than a few dickhead Nazis to take me out. I got a couple of presents for you. See you in five. I just have a couple of torpedoes to get rid of.”

“Karen. Aft screen,” Mundy commanded. Before them they saw the little shuttle craft and the huge Konigsberg looming in the background. Two tiny missiles shot out of the back of the speeding craft, headed for the mothership. Both were direct hits, setting off a chain reaction of other explosions. Within moments the ship was shambles. Ironically, there was little left to salvage.

Within five minutes the shuttle had come up alongside the Superior. Anderson connected it with the grappling hooks. Donovan said they had four space suits so they could tether and walk over. The airlock was small so they had to come in one at a time. The first one in and out of his suit was Jimmy Cain. No one was more glad to see him than Anderson. He wrapped Jimmy up in his long arms.

“Bud. I so thought I’d lost you.”

“I so thought you had, too,” Jimmy deadpanned. His face was badly bruised but he seemed to be holding up well, until suddenly he collapsed, weeping.

“I’ll take him to our quarters,” Anderson said. He helped Jimmy out of the room. Dr. Vera Jong, who had an extensive background in counseling followed them. Jimmy might need to talk with her a few times.

Second through the door was Jorgenson. Mundy hugged him and slapped him on the back.

“Our other present is coming next,” Jorgenson said.

An unknown man took off his suit next. He was young, pleasant looking and seemed very frightened.

            Jorgenson said, “Meet Bunde Christophe Verhoven. He found Jimmy, shot three guards who had Donovan pinned down and asked for asylum. I didn’t see how we could turn him down. He said he couldn’t stand anymore of Als, the Nationalists or the Empire. I think the guy finally found his moral center.

            They all cheered when Donovan came through the door.

“Mundy,” he said. “Against all odds, that crazy plan worked. I never thought it would.”

            “Well, pretty much anything is possible with two leathernecks and an old squid. Hell, I’ll even say Semper Fi.”

“Ok, the testosterone’s getting a little thick in here,” said Jennifer.

            Anderson appeared in the doorway with fire in his eyes.

            “You filthy bastards!” he raged at Verhoven. “You freaking assholes! Your soldiers raped Jimmy. I swear I’ll kill every one of you. He lunged at the soldier but was intercepted by Donovan and Mundy.

            “Easy, cowboy,” Donovan crooned softly.

            “Stand down, Anderson. That’s an order. This man saved Jimmy and Donovan’s lives and has been offered asylum. We can’t blame him for what the others did.” Mundy held on to Anderson as he cried in his arms.

            “I’m so sorry for what they did,” pleaded Verhoven. “The Empire breeds violence like that. That’s what I want to get away from.”

            “Well, we may be a lonely little outpost of civilization, but welcome aboard, soldier,” said Mundy.

             “I hate to break up the party, but we still have a huge problem. We’re nine hundred years from our time in the middle of an evil empire.” Jennifer looked at Mundy expectantly.

            “Speaking of improbable plans, I have an idea,” Mundy announced. “Before we got deep into the black hole Karen and I had a talk with our physics expert Dr. Righter. Her calculations show that the anomaly she found at the black hole was most likely a wormhole.”

            “Most likely as in really might be or wishful thinking?” asked Jennifer.

            “Somewhere in between,” admitted Karen. “Einstein theorized they would be in the center of a black hole, but Gloria’s equations and data indicate this to be an extra-solar temporal distortion, i.e. a wormhole not in the center of a black hole.”

            “Is that even possible?” Jennifer wanted to know.

            “Who knows what’s possible? Gloria says she’s convinced her math is correct. If we fly the Superior into it there’s a good chance the shield would keep it from crushing us. It would probably be navigable and should deposit us somewhere and sometime else, not sure where or when.”

            “Good chance, probably, might? Why don’t we just follow the yellow brick road while we’re at it? Maybe we’ll end up in Kansas,” Jennifer was unconvinced.

            “At this point, if I found a yellow brick road, I’d follow it. We know what this time in this universe holds for us. I don’t want to stick around. This wormhole is a chance to escape. There’s no guarantees. But if we survive, it will put us somewhere, sometime, in some universe. Odds are, whatever we find, it will be better than what we’re leaving. It would be hard pressed to be worse.”

            “I’m in,” said Donovan, with Jorgenson nodding.

“If our friends are going into the black hole, I guess we should, too,” said Jorgenson.

            “What?” asked Mundy.

            “While we were in the engine room, I entered a new flight plan and gave the ship a push. It’s set to drift right for the middle of the black hole. I decided that a black hole was a nice resting place for their black hearts.” Donovan raised his fist, grinning, and Jorgenson bumped it.

            Dr. Gloria Righter spoke up. “The scientists have decided we want to go, also.”

            “I think we all want to go, Captain,” said Karen, and Jennifer nodded.

            “Alright. Everybody buckle in. It’s going to be a rough ride.”

Over the next few minutes everything in the ship was battened or stowed. The scientists buckled in and the crew took their places.

            “Dr. Righter gave me the coordinates for the anomaly. All laid in. Awaiting your orders, Captain,” Anderson said. He decided it felt good to be able to say that again.

            “Engage.”

Changing of the Guard

            As I said, I sometimes like to go back and revisit a character from a former story for various reasons. This story does just that. If you haven’t read La Duchessa, stop and read it now. If you don’t have the background from that story, this one will not make much sense. So stop. Go read it now. I’ll wait.

            I home that La Duchessa left you wondering. If so, Changing of the Guard should answer some of your questions.

Changing of the Guard

            “Come,” the Grand Prince called in response to the urgent knocking on his bedroom door. It was not yet seven o’clock in the morning, when he usually arose. His personal assistant, Andre entered looking concerned.

            “Your Serene Highness, I apologize for awakening you at this hour but we have a ‘situation’. It seems her grace La Duchessa has passed away. Her maids say they have been unable to rouse her.”

            Grand Prince Giovanni sighed. La Duchessa, who in reality was Prince Sergei of Romania, had said he did not know how long he would live but expected it to be very long. He said he had been subjected to Soviet experiments before the last World War. Experiments on prolonging life. The Grand Prince was unsure how a royal had managed to run afoul of the Soviets but Sergei in person was proof enough. His documents showed he was born before the turn of the century. The twentieth century. Now in 2010 he was at least 110 years old. Not that he didn’t look it. Even in his makeup and disguise as La Duchessa you could see he was at a very advanced age.

            “Send for the palace doctor. I’ll meet him at La Duchessa’s rooms.”

            “He’s already on his way, your Serene Highness.” Andre was always one for efficiency and calm action. I need to give him a raise, Giovanni thought.

            The palace doctor, Dr. Longini, was examining La Duchessa’s body, in his bed, when the Grand Prince arrived. His two maids stood cowering in the anteroom, weeping.

            “Well, he’s dead alright,” was his greeting. “Looks as if he died in his sleep. All in all, not the worst way to go. Must have been early in the evening judging by the low body temperature. Unusual there’s no lividity but that sometimes happens in the very old. No rigor yet, either.”

            “Sergei thought he might live forever,” the Grand Prince mused. “Sorry he missed it. He was a great friend to me and to San Giorgio. I know Carlo will be upset. The two of them have been quite the odd pair of late.” Someone would need to tell his son. Well, I guess I’m the logical choice for that, Giovanni thought. Currently he, the Grand Princessa, his four children, the doctor, Andre and the two maids were the only ones who knew that La Duchessa was actually a man. Even the maids did not know the man was over 110 years old.

            “I’ll have the body transported to the palace morgue. I know it was Sergei’s wish to be buried in your family vault, without embalming. A bit old fashioned, but when you’re over 100, I guess you can have whatever you want.,” Dr. Longini said.

            “Yes, see to it. I’ll have Andre make the announcements and set up arrangements. Dress him up as best you can, as a man. The funeral will be closed coffin, per his request, but he said he wanted to meet his maker in his original state. Well, not totally original state. He does want to be clothed. But as a man. He has a suit selected. I’ll have Andre deliver it to you. I need to go talk with Carlo.”

            “So he’s really dead. I can hardly believe it.” Carlo, with his morning stubble and still only dressed in the t-shirt and gym pants he slept in looked sadly at his father. “I don’t think I really believed he was near immortal, but on the other hand, I guess I always hoped it was true. Old as he was, he always seemed so full of life.”

            “Yes, it will be strange without him, always available for consultation. And so valuable. He seemed to be a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge of how a monarch should be,” Giovanni agreed. He eyed his son, now 28. He had grown into a fine man. Well-built, intelligent and compassionate. He decided his son will be good as the next ruler of San Giorgio. He had already assumed a number of tasks for his father in preparation.

            “Thanks for throwing him at me, Father,” Carlo said somberly.

            Giovanni grinned. “You were not so sure about working with him at first, I’ll admit. But it’s done wonders. He’s molded you into the man I always hoped you’d be.”

            “I was scared as hell of him at first. So severe. And that scowl! Once we got used to each other I realized he was just an old softie, though.” Carlo smiled at the memories.

            “Don’t mistake love and loyalty for softness, son. He taught you better than that. He could be a formidable adversary. I would not call him cruel, but I’ve seen him do some things people might call vicious. He was not one to be crossed. He was a man of strong emotions. He loved you like a son. It’s a love you earned. You should be proud of that.”

            “I am so proud to have known him and had the opportunity to learn from him. I’m going to miss working with him. He was so keen; had such sharp insight. Paolo and Kat thought I was nuts when I told them how much I respected him. They just knew him as ‘the Spook’, the crazy old Duchessa.”

            “He played the part well. None would guess the machinations he was involved in. The stories I could tell. Ah, well. He told me he has a will, I guess it’s in his papers. I’ll have to put that into motion. He has or had I should say quite a considerable fortune.”

            “Yes, he told me he’s left most of it to someone named Orloff,” Carlo said.

            “Orloff? I knew a Count Leopold Orloff once. But he was killed along with the Ceausescus back in what was it, 1989? Poor Nicolae and Elena never deserved what happened to them. They were just victims of the Communists. I never heard Orloff had relatives. I assumed the line ended with him.”

            “Well, I guess we’ll know soon enough.”

            “Yes, we will. Dr. Longini is preparing Sergei for burial. It will be a closed coffin funeral at his request. Will you join the doctor and me for a private farewell tonight? Also at his request, he will be dressed as a man. I don’t believe you have seen him as such, have you?”

            “No, I haven’t. I guess I’ll always remember him as a sharp-eyed old lady. But I would like to say good bye. And see him as he really was. Thank you, Father.”

            Three men, Grand Prince Giovanni, Crown Prince Carlo and Dr. Longini stood in the palace morgue gazing at the man in the coffin.

            “It’s just the three of us Antonio,” Giovanni said, addressing Dr. Longini. “You didn’t need to go overboard with the makeup.”

            “I used very little makeup. Just a little rouge to relieve the pallor of death.”

            “But you must have done more. He hardly has a wrinkle. If it weren’t for the gray hair, I’d swear I was looking at a younger man. Much younger than 100 years.”

            “That sometimes happens. You remember how he always held his face in a scowl? The famous Duchessa Scowl? Now that the muscles have relaxed, perhaps the skin has fallen back into more normal lines. I’ve seen many corpses with very few wrinkles. It is sometimes a bit unnerving. And perhaps it is due to the anti-aging experiments. Who knows?”

            “He looks as if he could get up and speak to us,” said Carlo wistfully.

            “Anyway, farewell old friend. Till we meet again,” Giovanni said as Dr. Longini closed the coffin.

            The royal family gathered outside the small chapel where the Duchessa’s funeral was to be held. She was a little-known figure among the nobility so there would be no star-studded cast of mourners, probably very few people would turn out at all. But Giovanni demanded that the entire royal family attend to show their respect for such a remarkable person and good friend. He got no dissention from anyone. Even Kat flew in from Sweden, her new home.

            Giovanni nodded for Andre to precede them into the chapel and make the announcement.

            “Their Serene Royal Highnesses the Grand Prince Giovanni and the Grand Princessa Diana of San Giorgio.

            “Their Royal Highnesses Crown Prince Carlo and Crown Princessa Carolyn.

            “His Royal Highness Colonel Prince Paolo.

            “Her Royal Highness Princessa Victoria.

            “Their Royal Highnesses Prince Carl Gustav and Princessa Katarina of Sweden.”

            They marched in, headed for the royal box. Giovanni visibly started and Carlo was heard to softly gasp. The chapel was filled with people, taking all but the royal seats and standing several deep along the back and sides. It seemed La Duchessa had a loyal following. By their dress you could tell none were noble. To the nobility, La Duchessa was simply a forgotten old woman who served no purpose. Someone best forgotten. But to the hundreds of workers, staff, dependents and others surrounding the crown, she was revered.

            As was expected the royals formed a receiving line for the mourners exiting the chapel. Giovanni was touched by the sincerity of the grief he saw. One elderly lady said that in all her time at the palace La Duchessa never forgot to ask after her sickly husband and sent flowers when he died. Another recalled that when her child was ill, La Duchessa came in person with a tonic that worked like magic. An old gardener said when his wife was ill and he couldn’t afford the medicine, the pharmacy sent it, saying it had been paid by a friend. He found that La Duchessa had paid the bill. Again and again, Giovanni was told the simple kindnesses Sergei had visited upon these common people that had endeared La Duchessa to them forever.

            “I knew he had an extensive network but never expected that kind of turn out,” Carlo said later, after the funeral reception. “Sergei told me that he secretly employed scores of servants to keep him in the loop on everything going on. He told me knowledge was the currency of a monarch. But he also drove home that one couldn’t just collect information and sit on it. Intelligence should be acted upon. The simple kindnesses he was able to give these people cost him very little, took little effort but reaped immense benefits. He had a very loyal following. And it was true. Nothing happened in the palace that he did not know. He taught me all of this. I only hope I can be half as incredible as he was.”

            Finally, La Duchessa was interred and her apartments were sealed pending the dispositions of the will. Life in the palace went on.

            There were few surprises when the will was opened. Sergei left all his considerable collection of jewelry to the San Giorgio crown. Diana and Carolyn were delighted. His library and personal papers were left to Prince Carlo along with a hefty endowment. As crown prince, Carlo had a palace allowance, but the endowment made him wealthy indeed. The rest of the estate was left to Count Franz Orloff. No one knew who he was. Andre said the attorneys were searching for him.

            About a month later Grand Prince Giovanni was meeting in the throne room with his cabinet. They were all gathered around a long table spread with papers. San Giorgio was a well-run principality, but there were always little snags that needed attending to. Prince Giovanni prided himself on keeping tabs on as much as possible in his little domain. He was much loved by his subjects for his personal touch.

            The chamber door opened and Andre waited to be addressed.

            “Yes, Andre, what is it?” asked the prince.

            “Your Serene Highness. May I present his grace, Count Franz Orloff.”

            A thin but strong looking man strode into the chamber.  His dress was formal, and faintly military. He had several medals, perhaps insignia of his noble rank on his lapel. He walked directly to the chair where the Grand Prince sat and sketched a short bow.

            “Your Serene Highness, I am Orloff.” Giovanni was shocked. The smiling man, with the slightly bulging eyes, sharp cheeks, luxurious raven hair and brief mustache was nearly identical to the man he had buried not two months ago. He finally found his voice.

            “Yes, Count. We have been expecting you.”

            “My apologies. Matters in my estates have detained me. However, now I am at your disposal. I bring you belated greetings from my late mother Contessa Andrea. She spoke well of you. She and I barely escaped the madness in Yugoslavia many years ago, that claimed my father. I was just a child at the time.” He stared at the Grand Prince steadily. Giovanni felt as if a daze swept over him. No, Orloff didn’t look all that familiar after all. Just a trick of the light.

            “Yes. I met Count Leopold and the contessa a few times. It was so long ago.”

            “Perhaps when there is time, you could tell me more of my father. All I have are the memories of a child.”

            “I’d be delighted. And let me introduce you to my son and heir, Crown Prince Carlo.”

            Count Orloff turned in the direction of Carlo, gave him a large smile and bowed.

            “I am honored to meet you, your Royal Highness.” Carlo just stared as if entranced by a snake.

            “Uh, likewise.”

            “You seem preoccupied, Highness?” Orloff noticed.

            “What? No, it’s just that you remind me of someone,” Carlo said. That was an understatement. If he had not seen Sergei’s coffin interred he would swear that this was him brought back to life, albeit not much older than himself.

            “I have been told I have a passing resemblance to the royal Romanian line. The Orloffs descend from a second son. That must be it.” With this he caught Carlo’s eyes. They stared at each other momentarily. Carlo broke the stare and put his hand to his head as if trying to clear a dizzy spell.

            “Yes, that must be it,” he said.

            “Yes, of course,” smiled Orloff.

            The following week Grand Prince Giovanni vested even more of his ceremonial powers in his son, saying that he wanted to enjoy a little peace in his ‘twilight years’.  In light of his new duties, the Crown Prince needed to appoint a chief of staff. Everyone in the palace was surprised when he named newcomer Count Orloff to the important position. The Count quickly began reorganizing the Crown Prince’s offices. In reviewing present personnel he brought one in particular to the attention of Carlo.

            “Highness. This man, Khanis Zaytoun. He is Turkish, yes?”

            “Yes. He’s been my press secretary since I was invested at 21.”

            “He will need to be dismissed.”

            “What? Khanis has proven to be an asset to us.”

            “Nevertheless. He will need to go. I do not care to work with Turks.”

            “Franz. Remember, I’m the Prince, I make the decisions,” Carlo did not like the tone the Count had been taking with him.

            “My apologies, Highness. No disrespect was intended. However, I believe I can be of great benefit to your household. I see the makings of a great monarch in you and see many ways I can help you get there. But you must trust me in the decisions I make. I have found time and again that Turks are untrustworthy. I cannot and will not work with them. If Khanis must remain, I ask that I be re-assigned.” Count Orloff stared at the crown prince as he made this statement.

            Carlo felt a momentary dizziness, but shook his head to clear it. Orloff was right. He needed to trust his chief of staff. And it was the chief of staff’s duty to fill the positions in the Crown Prince’s office.

            “Well, if you think we should rearrange my staff, go ahead and do it. That’s what we hired you to do,” Carlo said.

            “Of course, your Royal Highness. I will take care of everything.”

Good Shot

I’ve been away for awhile so I got behind on the blog. So, the last story I posted was Escape to Paradise where Jenna was trying to get away from the evil boyfriend. Sometimes when I create a character I get a little attached to them. I liked my Jenna. While beaten down by her culture and her boyfriend, she had a little spark of spunk. While I want all my characters (at least the good ones) to have a happy outcome, that doesn’t always happen. I was hoping it would for Jenna. I left her sitting in a courtroom with a fire storm about to erupt all around her. I wanted to revisit her and find out what happened next. So I do what I always do. I sat down and thought about her and then let my mind wander. The story Good Shot just fell into place.

If you haven’t read Escape to Paradise, please go read it before Good Shot. This story will make more sense if you know the background. So refresh that mai tai and enjoy.

Good Shot

At 7 pm on a Thursday in April, there was a knock at Jenna’s door. She looked through her peephole and began smiling. It was Ryan. Ryan Bronski, her boyfriend. The man who had literally saved her life. The thought gave her a flashback to over a year ago when a similar knock was from a man intent on killing her. What a difference a year makes. That man, Dustin Randall, was in prison now, where he belonged. He would be there another thirty years paying for the pain and anguish he had put her through, including hiring his cousin to kill her. Without his malevolent presence in her life she had found she was able to flourish. She took yoga classes to find inner serenity. She returned to the ballroom and fell in love with dancing again. On a more practical note, she enrolled in a personal weapons safety class to learn to use her revolver reliably in case she had another emergency situation. Joyce said she had already disaster proofed her life.

            “You’ve already had Dustin Randall in your life. What are the odds you could do any worse?” She kinda has a point, Jenna thought.

            Still, Jenna didn’t want to take any chances. Her freedom was hard won. It had taken many weeks of meetings with a counselor to find and root out the reasons for her near non-existent self-esteem. Now she worked every day to prove to herself and to the world that she was indeed a worthwhile person. She was pretty and fun and smart and engaging and a generally nice human being. All the things that Dusty had convinced her she wasn’t.

            The trial had been horrific. The Randalls hired a high-priced New York attorney to destroy her. He tried to make the trial about her through character assassination. Fortunately, the Randalls were guilty of so many crimes that even if she were the cheap harlot the attorney painted, there was still plenty of guilt to go around. Her attorney helped her through it all, even holding her hand and passing Kleenexes after each round of testimony. The Randall’s tacky ploy had backfired however. People knew the kind of person Jenna was and the kind of person Dusty was. The Randalls had pulled every string they could to get a new venue for the trial but the judge wouldn’t allow it. And everybody in a five county radius knew and hated the Randalls. It was payback time. Old Man Randall got life without parole. Dusty and Drew each got thirty years. The verdicts came down in December, solid guilty on every count, and Dusty spent the first of thirty Christmases at Odom Maximum Security Correctional Institute in rural eastern North Carolina.

            Ryan Bronski had shown what a masterful attorney he was, besting the Randall’s hired gun at every turn. It was a coup for his small firm to work with the DA’s office to successfully bring down a local kingpin like Randall. She was so proud for him. And she was emotionally exhausted.

            After the excitement of the holidays had passed, Ryan had asked her to meet him at Starbucks. He said he wanted to discuss something with her. She hoped it wasn’t some wrinkle in the law that would let Dusty get out of paying for his crimes. When she arrived at the coffee shop she thought she was early because Ryan didn’t appear to be there. Then she did a double take when he waved from a nearby table. Without his lawyer costume, as she thought of it, he looked so different. He was dressed comfortably in a polo shirt and faded jeans. The casual dress only accentuated his youthful appearance, reminding her that he was only thirty years old. She always told him that his brown suits make him look like an old man. When he smiled as she approached it lit up his entire face. She realized how attractive he was. She was surprised some high-powered lady attorney or legal secretary hadn’t already snapped him up.

            He stood as she reached his table. Yes, his mama did teach him some manners, she mused.

            “I took the liberty of ordering you a mocha latte, extra hazelnut. I hope you don’t mind,” he said.

            Jenna was touched that he remembered what she liked, but then, they had shared much coffee over the course of the trial.

            “Thanks.” Considering his casual dress, she began thinking maybe this wasn’t about the Randall case. But what else could it be, she wondered. We don’t exactly run in the same crowds.

            After brief small talk about their health and the weather, Ryan got to the point.

            “Jenna, I have to say that despite the unpleasantness of the trial, you have been a bright spot in my day for the past few months. I’ll miss that. It’s as if you’ve blossomed as you got out from under Dustin’s thumb. You’ve evolved into this wonderful, caring woman. You’ve become more independent, more sure of yourself and assertive. I like to think you’ve become the woman you were always meant to be. And watching that unfold has had a profound effect on me. I couldn’t say anything before because I was your attorney and it would have been unethical, but I can’t hide it any longer. I’ve grown fond of you and wondered if you would have dinner with me on Sunday?”

            Jenna did not see this coming and hoped the shock didn’t show on her face. His face was open and vulnerable. She had never seen him look like this before. He was being totally guileless, putting his happiness in her hands.

            “You mean, like a date?” she asked.

            “Yes, like a date.”

            She wasn’t sure how she wanted to respond. On the one hand he was someone she respected and looked up to. A man good and true. And he was a friend. He was also handsome and successful. What woman wouldn’t want to date a man like that? But would she have trouble seeing him as anything but her lawyer? And they came from such different worlds. She wasn’t as smart as his attorney friends and was afraid she might embarrass him. There would be complications.

            She suddenly realized she had taken too long to answer. She could see his face falling and his confidence erode as he assumed she was trying to find a way out.

            “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve put you on the spot. I shouldn’t have done that. Please forgive me.”

            “No, it’s okay. I’d love to go out with you. I’m just concerned that we are from such different backgrounds.”

            “Yes, we are. Maybe that’s part of the allure. But I want to explore this.”

            “Well, that’s not only the nicest, but the only offer I’ve had all year, so I’ll take it.”

            Ryan picked her up Sunday night and drove to a nice restaurant in Greensboro. Not just a Red Lobster or Chili’s or, god forbid, IHOP, which was the best she could hope for from Dusty. He was totally charming, steering clear of any lawyer talk, just exploring common interests and a little bit of gossip. He made her feel so very special. She couldn’t remember the last time she had such a fuss made over her. It was nice. He ordered wine with dinner. She didn’t know anything about wine, but the one glass she had was delicious. She realized she was a lightweight drinker when the one glass made her feel tingly. A cheap date, as Joyce would say.

            She feared the good night kiss might be awkward, considering their relationship, but when he bent his head to hers at her door-step she was all in. Perhaps the wine had put her in a happy place, but his kiss set off the fireworks. She was definitely under his spell. She just drifted inside in a daze.

            Ryan called her at work midmorning on Monday just to check in. He asked if it was okay to call her at work like this.

            “Yeah, but if you do it more than once people might start talking. They know the trial is over. You know how people are.”

            “Let them talk. I’m not ashamed. I hope you aren’t.”

            “Of you? Of course not. You’re totally presentable.”

            “I’m glad you feel that way, because I’m aiming to make people talk. I’d like to see you again. Friday night?”

            “I have a dance lesson and then a studio function. You could come with me. Do you know any ballroom?”

            “Let’s see, I can identify my left foot and my right foot. That’s about as far as I get.”

            “Well, if we’re going to be a thing, you’re going to need to dance.” She immediately regretted saying it, fearing she had jumped the gun. Two dates did not constitute a ‘thing’.

            “Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?” he deadpanned. “Do you have time for a quick dinner between your lesson and function?”

            They made plans and Friday night Jenna discovered that while Ryan’s dancing skills were dreadful, he was a quick study. By the end of the night had had the hang of a couple of dances.

            “Looks like I’m getting my dance legs,” he said. “I can see why you love this so. The people who have been doing this awhile are amazing. Then there are the people like me.”

            “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You did great.”

            “You think so? Maybe I’ll have to call up and ask for the ‘Miss Mitzi Special’,” referring to the studio’s beginner program.

            Of course, this led to more dates. Over the next few weeks she and Ryan saw more of each other than they did during the trial. He was smitten and it didn’t take Jenna long to find that she was well on her way, also. They did dinners, picnics with the symphony, street fairs, and dance functions, of course. She even took him to the firing range to practice shooting with her. He was impressed with her marksmanship.

            And people did talk. She realized they were officially a couple when people at the office would begin a sentence with “You and Ryan…” as if they were a single person.

            Perhaps the sweetest thing he did for her was when he invited her to the local American Bar Association dinner. He was receiving an award for his part in the Randall case. There was a band and general dancing after dinner. The band was good and played contemporary music but few people actually danced. Some people jumped around in what they called ‘free style’ dancing. After a few songs Ryan went up and spoke with the band. The band leader announced the next dance as a special request. Jenna was amazed when the band began a lovely waltz. She was even more amazed when Ryan held his hand to her and said, “May I?” The few people who had taken the floor quickly moved away as Ryan and Jenna showed off their waltz abilities. Ryan’s lessons had paid off and he was nearly as good as Jenna. Together they were perfect. At the end of the dance they got a standing ovation. Jenna blushed but was so pleased. All she could think was that she had found the perfect man.

            All this went through her mind in a flash as she saw Ryan through the peephole. She opened the door saying, “Hey, babe.”

            “Hey, sweetheart,” he answered, giving her a quick kiss. He usually didn’t come over without calling first and especially on a weeknight, so Jenna figured something was up.

            “You need to sit down.” Now she knew it was bad. No good news ever began with those words.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you need to know. Dustin has escaped from prison.”

            “He what?” Jenna felt as if a rug had been pulled from under her and she was plummeting down. She was glad she was sitting.

            “He was being transferred for something, I’m not clear on that yet, but a guard got too close without paying attention. He managed to grab the guard’s gun. He held the gun right against the guard’s head while he made the other guard unlock the cuffs on him and two other prisoners in the van. They split up. One of the prisoners was picked up pretty quickly. He told the police that Randall shot both guards point blank and was laughing while he did. One died. The other is in serious condition.”

            “He’s just gone and lost his mind. I know he’s reckless and mean as a snake, but to kill someone like that, it’s just crazy.”

            “He was planning to kill you Jenna. He’s been crazy for a long time.”

            “Yeah, but at least he thought he had a reason to kill me. These poor guards were just doing their job.”

            “Well, he’ll be caught, no question. And killing the guard will get him the needle. I hate it had to come at this price, but I’m not sorry he’s going down. He’s just a mad dog.”

            “So they haven’t caught him yet?”

            “No. And they think he’s heading this way. There’s only one reason he would come here. You.”

            Once again, Jenna’s stomach dropped. Oh, no. Not again. She thought she was done with Dusty and the whole Randall clan. Ryan had urged her to file a civil suit against them. She stood to win a lot of money that way. But she would have none of it. She wanted nothing from the Randalls, especially their blood money. It came from their criminal schemes and she wouldn’t touch it. She wanted to be done with them permanently. And now Dusty was coming for her.

            “They should have told both of us immediately after it happened but someone goofed. He escaped two days ago. He could have easily broken in your house and killed you by now. I want you to pack a bag and come with me. You can stay at my house until they catch him. I won’t be able to sleep a wink if I don’t know you’re safe.”

            Jenna finally found her balance and decided to lighten the atmosphere.

            “Why Mr. Bronski, are you asking me for a sleep over? Whatever will the neighbors think?”

            “I don’t give a damn what anybody thinks. I just have to know that you’re safe. I’ve got a security system and the police have agreed to post a uniform outside my house. Please say you’ll come.”

            “Alright. Let me get some things.” Her thoughts were interrupted when her cell phone began playing a tinny version of “Mama Mia”. It was the ringtone she had assigned to her mother.

            “Looks like Mama’s heard,” she said. “Let me get that. She’s going to worry.”

            “Hey, Mama,” she said after clicking the accept button.

            “Hey baby,” said a deep rasping voice. “I’ve missed you.” She had been standing but suddenly collapsed onto the sofa. It was Dusty. And he had Mama’s phone.

            “Dusty!” was all she could say. Ryan was immediately by her side.  “What are you doing calling me on Mama’s phone? Where’s Mama? If you’ve hurt her I swear I’ll get you.”

            “Now don’t go making promises you can’t keep, sweetheart. Don’t worry about your mama. She’s a tough old broad. I had to knock her around a bit to get her to cooperate. You Davenports are a stubborn set of bitches.”

            “I’m calling the police right now,” she yelled into the phone.

            “Now you don’t want to do that, baby. Right now your mama’s doing fine. A few bruises, some blood. Maybe some broken bones, I don’t know. I got excited and got into it. It’s been so long since I had the chance to really work over a woman. But if the police show up I’ll be long gone and all they’ll find is your mama with a butcher knife in her heart. Or maybe I’ll cut it out and take it with me.”

            “Dusty, don’t you hurt my mama,” she couldn’t help crying as she said it. “Please.”

            “Yeah, baby, I love it when you beg. Makes me hard. Oooh yeah.”

            “What do you want?” she asked. “Mama ain’t done nothing to you. You want something from me. What?”

            “Are you forgetting that you’re my girl? I heard you been whoring around with that lawyer that put me in prison. That ain’t something I can let my girl get by with. People might think I’m soft. No real man lets his woman whore around without teaching her a lesson. I think it’s time you and me had a talk.”

            She couldn’t respond, only hyperventilate into the phone.

            “You come on out to your mama’s house. When you get here, I’ll let her go and you and me can talk about your transgressions.” By ‘talk’ she knew he meant beat. He came close to putting her in the hospital after several of their discussions of her failings.

            “Just you. Nobody else. I see anybody else but you and that butcher knife goes right into Mama’s heart.”

            “How do I know you ain’t already killed her? Let me talk to Mama,” she demanded.

            “So bossy. I see I’ll need to remind you how to address your lord and master. But I’m feeling kind. Hey, Mama. Say hi to your girl.” She could hear him move the phone away from himself. Then she heard Mama’s voice.”

            “Don’t, baby. It’s a trap!”

            “Shut up, bitch!” She heard a noise that sounded as if he had slapped Mama and a brief cry of pain. Jenna was a total wreck.

            “It seems your mama’s feeling poorly. You better get on over here and take care of her. I’d say about ten minutes.” Then the phone went dead.

            Ryan had his ear next to Jenna’s and heard the entire exchange.

            “You need to call the police now,” he said.

            “You heard what he said. He’ll kill Mama!”

            “And if you go there, he’ll kill both of you.”

            “You think I don’t know that! But I can’t turn my back on Mama. How will I live with myself if something happens to her and I didn’t even try to help her.?”

            “The only way you can help her is to get the police involved. They can get her out alive. If you go in there, neither of you are coming out except in a body bag. He’s just as liable to kill himself, too.”

            “I’ve got to go.”

            “No. I won’t let you. It’s suicide.”

            “Ryan Bronski, get the hell out of my way. You got no say over my life.”

            “The hell I don’t. I’m in love with you. Don’t you realize that? What happens to you happens to me. I’ve got to have a say.”

            “Well, I love you, too, but your timing sucks.”

            Jenna pulled into the rutted path that led up to Mama’s house. It sat back across a bean field, about a hundred yards from the state road. As the car bounced along she noticed a blue Toyota sitting in front of the house. Probably the car Dusty stole when he escaped, she figured. She pulled up and mentally prepared herself for a moment before exiting the car. When she decided to come over, she knew Dusty planned to kill her and that he won’t let Mama go, either. He would probably kill her also. The only thing she was uncertain about was whether he would then light out for Mexico or just kill himself. He’d always been a bit of a drama queen. The murder-suicide is so his style, she thought.

Mama’s house was a turn of the century basic farm house. It had a wide front porch with a couple of rocking chairs, a rusted glider and swing. She had so many fond memories of family on this porch. Just one more thing Dusty is trying to spoil. He ruins everything he touches, she thought. She knocked on the door.

            “It’s open,” came from inside.

            She pushed the door open and walked into a sizeable living area. At the far side Mama was sitting in a dining room chair, tied and gagged. There were black bruises forming on her face and a trickle of blood from her nose and mouth. But all in all, she seemed to be in good condition. She had a murderous look in her eyes. Yep, Mama’s alright, she thought. For now.

            Dusty was standing beside her mama. He had the prison guard’s handgun pointed at Mama’s head. She knew he wouldn’t use it yet. He wanted to make her suffer longer than a quick shooting would. He was sweating profusely even though it wasn’t hot inside. It just made him look all the crazier.

            “Come on in, sweetheart. Join the party. We’ve been waiting for you.”

            “Let Mama go, Dusty. You said if I came, you’d let her go. Here I am.”

            “Yeah, funny thing about that. I can’t believe you actually fell for it. I don’t remember you being that stupid.” He laughed as if it were quite funny.

            “You bastard.”

            “Hey, you don’t talk about your fiancé like that,” he said in a warning tone.

            “You’re not my fiancé Dustin Randall. You’re just a low life punk, a bully, a redneck son of a bitch.” It felt so good to get it out. The words she’d been longing to say to him. His face reddened. Yeah, the truth hurts, don’t it, she thought.

            “Raise your hands. I want to make sure you ain’t got anything.” She did as she was told.

            “Now pull out your pockets. You might have a knife or something in there.” Again, she complied.

            “Good. Now get over here,” he indicated a chair near Mama’s. There was rope and duct tape on the floor beside it. “I’m gonna get you good and secured and then we can work on your manners.” His evil grin had returned. She realized the set up was the best she could hope for to use her plan. Mama was on her left and Dusty was clear of her. Acting scared she gave him a wide berth approaching the chair. This required her to keep her left side to him. He could not see her right hand. He didn’t see it creep to the back of her waist. He didn’t notice her pulling the revolver out of her waistband.

            She stopped a good distance from the chair. Time to get the gun off Mama and work on Dusty.

            “Go on. Get in the chair,” Dusty said.

            “No.”

            “What? You heard me, bitch. Do as I say.”

            “And I said no. I’m not playing your sick game. You’re just a yellow-bellied coward who gets off on hurting people who are smaller than you. You don’t have the balls to take on a real man. You’re just a pansy loser. I bet you’re somebody’s bitch in prison.” She laid it on thick. She wanted to get him really mad.

            “You don’t want to test me, girl. Now move!” Dusty was getting red in the face.

            “Nope. Ain’t doing it.”

            “I said git!” Dusty swiveled the gun from Mama’s head to point at Jenna. Ok, good, Jenna thought. He’s not pointing it at Mama. Now to get him to lower the gun.

            “Fuck you. Make me,” she taunted. Dusty’s eyes flew wide as he became enraged. He charged Jenna. He lowered the gun as he moved. Jenna had time to pull her revolver from behind her, take a quick aim at his groin and fire. The deafening blast made Mama squeak. Dusty went down fast. He quickly rolled into a fetal position grabbing his crotch and screaming. Ryan burst through the door, handgun in one hand and cell phone in the other. He had been waiting in the backseat of her car. He had already contacted the 911 operator. Help was on the way. He ran up and embraced Jenna and then they untied Mama. Thankfully, her wounds were only superficial.

            When the first EMTs came in she directed them away from Dusty and toward Mama. Luckily for him there were two technicians so they split up. Poor Dusty was still screaming and bleeding profusely. The EMT had a devil of a time getting him out of the fetal position to strap him on a gurney. By the time they had him packed up the place was swarming with police. They didn’t bother to threaten Jenna. She was within her rights to use all force necessary when facing an armed convicted felon. And the Randalls no longer owned the county. Suddenly, all her steel shattered and she became a basket case. But Ryan was there to take care of her. Her precious Ryan.

            A few days later Ryan gave her the official word on Dusty.

            “He’s going to be tried for the murder of a prison police officer, among other things. The state is asking for the death penalty.

            “Good.  I hope they get it. Then he can sit alone in his cell for the next fifteen years, no one to visit him but his mama, and I hear she may be under indictment. They say that many death row inmates eventually go crazy from the boredom with no human contact and nothing to do but jerk off.”

            “Well, ah, he won’t be doing that anymore either. Your shot actually severed his penis and shattered his balls. Ouch. He’s going to need a catheter to piss and there’s no chance of him diluting the quality of the gene pool ever again.”

            Jenna thought again of her choice of where to shoot Dusty. Maybe what she did was over the top, but she wanted to hurt him. And she wanted to hurt him bad. He lived on his machismo so taking that away seemed her best option. But it was time to forget Dustin Randall and look to her own life again.

            “So, Ryan. About that sleepover you mentioned. Is that offer still on the table?”           
             

Escape to Paradise

Two of my passions aside from writing are ballroom dancing and cruising. A ballroom dance cruise is a double pleasure. Writing about a ballroom cruise brings together all three. If I could just figure out how to work in skiing it would be perfect.

I was able to relive some of my favorite memories of cruises when writing “Escape to Paradise”. Although nothing bad has ever happened on my cruises. They have all been wonderful. I have my fifteenth planned this December.

Most of the action of this story takes place on a cruise ship. If you have cruised before, think more Queen Mary 2 and less Carnival. So stretch out on the chaise, mai tai in hand, and enjoy a little story about romance and danger on the high seas.

Escape to Paradise

            At 8 pm on a Thursday in January, there was a knock at Jenna’s door. She looked through her peephole and began shivering. It was Dusty. Dustin Randall, her ex-boyfriend. Dustin, the ex-boyfriend who wouldn’t let go. Dustin, the ex-boyfriend who nearly put her in the hospital the last time he beat her. Which would be the LAST time he beat her, she had decided. She had packed up and left him for good. First, she fled to the Women’s Center. They helped her get an apartment quickly. She never gave him her new apartment location. Someone must have ratted her out.

            “Go away, Dusty!” she shouted at the door. She knew he could hear her through the cheap thin material.

            “Come on, baby. Let me in,” he wheedled.

            “You’re not supposed to be here. I have a restraining order.”

            “Yeah, my daddy’s getting it dismissed. Come on, babe. I just want to talk.”

Jenna closed her eyes and prayed for strength. The results of their last ‘talk’ had not yet healed, leaving lingering yellow and green marks on her face and arms.

            “I’m calling the cops!” she yelled.

            “And what are they gonna do? They’re all on my daddy’s payroll.”

            “My lawyer said I could call the State Troopers. They don’t kowtow to your family.”

            “You don’t want to make me mad, Jenna. You know how I get. You just bring the misery upon yourself. Don’t make me hurt you.”

            “Go away! I’m done with you. I don’t ever want to see you again. Can’t you get that through your thick head?

            “You know I can’t do that, honey. We belong together. You and me. You belong to me. And I aim to keep what’s mine. Now open this fucking door!” Jenna had just finished dialing 911.

            “911 Emergency. What is the nature of your emergency?”

            “There’s a man trying to break into my apartment,” she whispered.

            “Are you able to get out of the apartment?”

            “No. He’s at the only door.”

            “Do you know the identity of the intruder?”

            “Yes, my ex-boyfriend. I have a restraining order against him.”

            “I’ve already dispatched the police, in the meantime..,”

            “No. The police are on his daddy’s payroll. They won’t do anything. Can you send the State Patrol?”

            “Sorry, ma’am. We’re only connected to the police. Your police department is not owned by any family. They will protect you. I suggest you get into the most secure room you can and barricade the door. The police should be there in five minutes.”

            Wham! Jenna dropped the phone at the sound of Dusty trying to break the door down. She could hear the faint squawk of the 911 operator still trying to talk to her. She scurried into the kitchen, clawed open a drawer and pulled out the revolver she had just bought. She checked that it was loaded and that the safety was off. She put her back against the wall directly in front of the door. She extended her arms, holding the gun with both hands, pointing it at the door. The end of the revolver trembled violently.

            “Dusty, go away! I have a gun.”

            “And what do you think you’re gonna do with a gun? I ain’t scared of you, girl. You ain’t got the balls to shoot me. We gonna have us some fun. You ever heard of being pistol whipped?” Wham! A huge crack appeared in the door.

Wham! The thin veneer of the door shattered.  Dusty pushed his arms through, knocking the plywood out of his way. He leered evilly when he saw Jenna ten feet away, obviously scared out of her wits. She usually thought he was so handsome, and he usually was. But when he got that evil look on his face she knew she was in trouble. He forced his way into the room. Before he said anything, Jenna fired the pistol at him three times. All three missed, mostly because she turned her head to the side and closed her eyes as she fired.

            “What the fuck, girl? You gonna pay for that.”

            Jenna fired the remaining three shots. At least one hit him because Dusty went down howling in pain. Bright red appeared on his thigh. Sirens could be heard in the distance.

            Dusty looked at Jenna through the grimace of pain on his sweaty face.

            “You have just signed your death warrant, bitch.”

            The police swarmed in a few minutes later. They immediately recognized Dusty and knew what was what. Jenna was disarmed and taken into custody. An ambulance was called for Dusty. She called her lawyer from the police department. Since she was in her own apartment, had a restraining order and a broken-down door her lawyer was able to bully the night cops into not booking her but releasing her to him. They would probably be fired by Mr. Randall.

            As he drove her to a friend’s house he said, “Too bad you didn’t kill the bastard. Save us all a lot of trouble.”

            “He said he is going to kill me. He means it, too.”

            “Well, he’s going to have to wait. Violating the restraining order, breaking down your door, communicating threats. We might be able to put him away for a while this time.”

            “No, we won’t,” Jenna said defeatedly. “His daddy will just paper over it. He’ll be bandaged up and out on bail by morning. He’s never going to stop. Not till one of us is dead.”

            “That’s just defeatist talk. Come on. There’s a new judge who isn’t owned by the Randalls and I think I can get this before him. We might be able to get that ass some serious time.”

            “You really think so?” For the first time there was hope in her voice.

            “Yeah, I do. Here we are.” He pulled up in front of Arlene’s house. Arlene was Joyce’s half-sister. Joyce was Jenna’s best friend. Joyce’s apartment would be the first place Dusty would look. Dusty didn’t know Joyce had a half-sister which made it a perfect hideout. Arlene opened the door as they got to the porch.

            “Come on in, honey. That bastard acting up again?”

            “Ms. Connors, thanks for taking Jenna in like this. Remember for both of your safety, the Randalls mustn’t find out she’s here.”

            “I ain’t scared of Dusty Randall. Let that punk set foot on my property. I got a shotgun and I don’t miss. I’d love a chance to blow his ass clear across North Carolina.”

            “I love your fighting spirit but please, lay low. Good night, Jenna. Get some rest. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He left.

            When her lawyer called the next day, the news was as expected – not good. Dusty had indeed been released on bail that morning. He never actually went to the jail. His family arranged for him to be held overnight at the hospital. The Randalls were making noises about suing her, but her lawyer explained NC law was on her side. The broken door, the recording of the 911 call and the all-important restraining order proved that she was within her rights to defend herself, with deadly force if necessary. The good news was that he had the case placed before the new unbiased judge. The bad news was that the case wouldn’t be heard for another month. Until that time Dusty was free to do as he pleased.

            “He knows where I work. I can’t take a month off. He’s going to find me and kill me.”

            “We’ll work something out,” he said.

            On Monday morning Jenna drove her five-year-old Honda Civic to the State Employees’ Credit Union where she worked. She didn’t see Dusty’s Camaro anywhere in the parking lot, but still waited for the security guard to come out to escort her into the building. She worked in an office, not as a teller, so Dusty would have to get past the security guard and locked doors to get to her. She knew he was crazy enough to try it, though.

            After work, the security guard walked her out to her car. As she pulled away she thought she saw Dusty’s blue car a few blocks behind. Since he didn’t get any closer she figured he was trying to tail her to her apartment. As planned, she drove straight to her attorney’s office in a highrise. It had the benefit of a gated parking lot. The gate guard watched as she entered the building. Once inside she went through the building, out another little used service entrance, across an alley to where Arlene was waiting. Tomorrow Arlene would bring her back to enter through the side entrance and she would take her car to work. Jenna knew this would not work for long. Dusty was a lot of disagreeable things, but stupid was not one of them. Crazy, but not stupid. That’s what made him so dangerous. He would figure out there was a ruse and discover it. But she had a few days.

            “Aruba? You think I can afford to go to Aruba?” Jenna exclaimed over the phone to Joyce. It was Wednesday evening.

            “Yes, you can. My brother and his fiancée are having to cancel. They can turn the tickets over to us. They’re willing to let them go for half-price. It’s a steal. And it leaves this Saturday. You can get away from dickhead and relax. By the time you get back it’ll be 14 days closer to the hearing. Less than a week to go at that point.”

            Jenna was hesitant. She did have vacation time and her boss at the credit union was very supportive and concerned about her situation. It was a near certainty that she would approve the time off. But a cruise? Such a luxury seemed almost obscene considering the trouble she was facing. But then again. Fourteen days without having to hide, look over her shoulder, be constantly on edge would be heaven.

            “How much?” she finally said. Then, “I’m in.”

            Jenna packed in her apartment on Thursday night with a State Trooper guarding her. She realized she hadn’t obsessed about Dusty for several hours and was actually starting to feel a little happy again. Just one more day to go.

            As she ate her lunch on Friday at her desk, as she usually did, Jenna heard a commotion out in the lobby area of the credit union. Someone was shouting. She walked over to the security station near her office and looked at the console which had a view from all the security cameras in the building. Sure enough, in the lobby was Dustin Randall, red faced, probably a little drunk facing off against two security guards. He ranted while they just impassively stood in front of the door that gave access to the rest of the offices. Her boss showed up beside her.

            “That asshole needs to get shot, and not in the leg,” she said. “You’re doing the right thing to get out of town for a few weeks. Send me a post card. I can stick it on my refrigerator as inspiration to get back into my bikini.”

            As they watched the camera footage, Dusty seemed to wind down his rant and give up. He turned as if to leave, but it was just a feint. He swung back around with a roundhouse punch aimed at the first security officer’s jaw. The officer reacted in time and only got a glancing blow. Immediately the guards jumped on Dusty, taking him to the floor. In no time he was cuffed, screaming obscenities and Jenna’s name, waiting for the police to come pick him up. Jenna revised her estimation of Dusty. Looks like he is stupid, after all. Well, she thought, this will keep him tied up until tomorrow. It looks like I’ll get away, after all.

            “Wow, I didn’t realize how big it is,” Jenna gaped at the Ocean Flyer, pride of the Cormorant line, as they were boarding.

            “Yep, just us and 2,000 of our closest friends,” joked Joyce.

            Once on board, they hustled up to the Lido deck for the buffet lunch. Sitting at a table, looking out over the palmed resorts of Fort Lauderdale, Jenna momentarily wondered if she was just having a wonderful dream. She was so afraid she’d wake up to find Dusty breaking down her door. This is paradise.

            “Forget him,” Joyce said, placing her hand on Jenna’s. “At least for the next 14 days. Relax, unwind, get drunk, flirt with some cute guys. That’s what vacation is for.”

            “You’re right. Tell the waiter I’ll have a margarita. And find me some cute guys.” They both laughed gaily.

            There were so many activities on board the ship they hardly knew what to do first. They would be at sea for two days before any island stops so they’d have plenty of time to explore. Jenna found one activity that she considered a must.

            “There’s an orchestra playing ballroom music in the Queen’s Lounge after dinner. Let’s go.”

            “Ballroom? Seriously?”

            “Yes. I took lessons for a couple of years, BD, Before Dusty. I let that get away. I want to reclaim something that he has no part of.”

            “Okay,” Joyce said dubiously. “But you’re buying the drinks. And if it’s all old folks, I’m outta there.”

            It turned out there were mixed ages in the lounge and a number of single men. That immediately caught Joyce’s eye. She and Jenna were attractive young ladies so they quickly caught the attention of the men present. A very attractive fortyish man came to their table.

            “I’m Jack, a ship dance host. May I have this dance?” He held his hand out to Joyce. She giggled girlishly and accompanied him to the floor. Two minutes later, after she had walked all over his feet, he resignedly returned her to the table.

            “Sorry, guess I should have told you I don’t know how to dance,” she said to him sheepishly. Jenna could tell he was biting his tongue. “You should ask Jenna here. She’s a bona fide ballroom dancer.”

            “Joyce! I am not. I haven’t danced in two years.”

            “It’s like riding a bicycle. It comes back easily. May I?” the host asked. Jenna allowed him to lead her to the floor. She could tell it was a foxtrot.

            “I only know American style foxtrot,” she said. The host was impressed that she recognized it was a foxtrot and that she knew there was a difference in styles. He smiled broadly, took her in dance hold and moved off. Slow, quick, quick. Jenna found that it did come back. They floated around the room effortlessly. This is what dancing is all about, she said to herself. It’s like flying. Just skimming along, free and easy. We’re like Fred and Ginger.  Oh, how I have missed this. When the host returned her to her table he commented it was one of the best dances he’d had recently and hoped she would allow him to dance with her again in the future. She smiled and assured him he was welcome anytime. She felt like she was glowing.

            “Ooh. He likes you,” Joyce giggled. “And so debonair. Looks like Cary Grant.”

            After another song, a young man, upper twenties, their age, came to their table. He was quite cute and Jenna found his nervous look endearing.

            “I’m nowhere near as good as you, but do you want to dance? I’m Drew by the way,” he said to Jenna. It was a rumba. Jenna figured even a novice could probably handle it.

            Drew proved that he had a basic understanding of the dance. He only stepped on her a few times, but mostly he did basic moves. This gave her an opportunity to talk to him.

            “So, are you enjoying the cruise?” was all she could think to say. She grimaced at how trite it sounded.

            “Slow, quick, quick,” he said. “Can’t talk. Counting. Slow, quick, quick.”  She giggled and allowed him to finish the dance without further interruption.

            He returned her to her table and asked Joyce to dance, but she said no. She decided she wasn’t a ballroom dancer and was content to just watch. Plus she was on her third hurricane.

            Drew came back a couple more times that evening to ask Jenna to dance as did Jack. The third time Drew returned her to the table Joyce asked him to stay awhile.

            “Shtay awhile,” she drawled. “It’ll shave ush all time.” He looked at Jenna and she just grinned. Joyce was a lovable drunk. Drew pulled up a chair and sat by Jenna.

            “Look at that old couple,” Jenna pointed out a couple in the crowd. It was a waltz so nearly everyone was dancing. “They aren’t doing anything fancy, but they look so happy. They’ve probably been dancing with each other 50 years. It’s so romantic to be so comfortable and in sync with someone. Her eyes are closed. She’s probably remembering the handsome boy she fell in love with.”

            “Her husband or some other guy?” Drew asked. Then he winked and laughed.

            “Oh, you,” Jenna chided and swatted his arm lightly.

            “You are such a romantic,” he said. “It’s nice to find that. I’m afraid I don’t see it all that much.”

            “Drew. You have a southern accent. Where are you from, anyway?”

            “Well, I grew up in Winston-Salem. That’s in North Carolina. Now I work for a bank in Charlotte. Me and my buddy Bill decided to take a cruise together. He’s probably up in the disco putting moves on underage girls. He’s a mess.”

            “Hey, we’re from North Carolina, too. Just outside Greensboro. And I work in a bank. Well, at least, a credit union.”

            “Wow, howdy homegirl,” he laughed. They heard a snore and noticed Joyce was out.

            “Well, I guess I need to get Sleeping Beauty to bed. Come on, girl. Up.” She grabbed Joyce’s arm and dragged her up. Joyce stumbled a little and Jenna put her arm around her.

            “Let’s go, babe. Goodnight, Drew. I hope to see you around the ship.”

            “Night.”

            Midmorning next day found Jenna ensconced at a small table on the Lido deck enjoying the sunshine and a breakfast of fruit.

            “I swear I’m not stalking you. Really. Cross my heart.” Jenna looked up and Drew stood by her table with a tray of food.

            “Well, good morning, have a seat,” she invited.

            “Thanks. Where’s your other half?”

            “In bed with an ice pack on her head.”

            “Ouch.”

            “That’s what she said,” she quipped. “How about Bill?”

            “Oh, he’s out at the pool chasing a bikini.”

            “Already? It’s barely past 10,” she asked with surprise.

            “I guess the early bird gets the bimbo,” he said.

            “You don’t seem to think much of Bill, sometimes.”

            “Don’t get me wrong. I love him like a brother. It’s just he has no judgment. He just thinks with his, well, his smaller head.” Jenna couldn’t help but giggle.

            After breakfast Drew went to check on Bill. Jenna thought a walk along the deck would be nice. As she neared the front of the ship she saw people gathering at the rail and pointing. She went to see what was going on. Just fifty or so yards away she saw a family of dolphins leaping about, obviously playing and having a marvelous time. Everyone was exclaiming and taking pictures. She was as charmed as anyone. She looked up and saw people on other decks had also noticed the dolphins. About two decks up she noticed a handsome man, a very handsome man with an evil leer. He was staring at her. It was a face she knew all too well. It was Dustin Randall. She froze for a second and then bolted. She raced as fast as she could back to her room. Once inside she bolted the door and slumped to the floor leaning against it. Her heart felt as if it would burst.

            “What’s going on?” Joyce said blearily from her bed.

            “Oh my god, Joyce. Dusty is on the ship.”

            “What? He can’t be? How would he even know?”

            “Hell, his family knows everything that goes on. They probably had your phone bugged or something. I just saw him on deck, staring at me.”

            “Are you sure it was him?”

            “Joyce. I lived with him for six months. I know what he looks like. He’s here. He’s come after me. What am I gonna do?”

            “We need to see the captain.”

            They soon found out that no one can just ‘see the captain’. The purser’s office directed them to the security office.

            “So you think your boyfriend followed you on this ship?” said Chief Security Officer Nigel Scott.

            “Yes.”

            “Has he made contact or threatened you in any way?”

            “No. But I have a restraining order that he can’t come within a thousand feet. Anywhere on this ship is inside that. And he knew I was coming on this ship.”

            “What’s the name?”

            “Dustin Lee Randall.” The security officer pulled up a computer file.

            “No one by that name on the manifest. Does he have an alias?”

            “Not that I know of.”

            “Well, there’s no one with that name listed. And our security is too tight for any stowaways. Maybe you just made a mistake.”

            “It wasn’t a mistake. You took pictures for our key cards when we got on. Let me look through the pictures and I’ll find him.”

            “I can’t let you go through our files, miss. That’s about a dozen breaches in security protocols. And even then, there are about a thousand men on this ship.”

            Jenna pulled out her phone. She didn’t have service on the ship but the camera app worked.

            “Here’s his picture. Can you look for him for me?”

            “Miss. I have more important things to do than look through a thousand pictures trying to find a person who isn’t even on the ship.”

            “Oh, please. I’ll never be able to relax if I think he’s here. He’s said he will kill me.” She hated playing the damsel in distress, but this was an emergency.

            “Okay, look. Go to the purser’s desk and buy some phone minutes. Send his picture to this number.” He handed her a scribbled number. “When I have some free time, I’ll try to run through the guest photos. Alright?”

            “Yes, thank you.”

            Jenna followed his instructions then locked herself in her room.

            “So you gonna stay here in the room the rest of the cruise?” Joyce asked, hands on her hips.

            “What else can I do?”

            “Oh, babe. Get over it. Go and live it up. There’s like a hundred people around you all the time on the ship. He’s not going to try anything here. Plus, there are hunky deck crew, totally kissable, too, standing every few feet on the deck. They can surely take care of him. You’re safe here. Safer than anywhere else. Don’t let him take this away from you.”

            “You think so?” Jenna was unsure.

            “I’ll be right beside you. If I see him I’ll scream bloody murder. Everyone will be watching. Probably taking video.”

            Joyce was recovered by the evening, but sipping only ginger ale. She raised an eyebrow as Drew approached their table in the Queen’s Lounge.

            “Mind if I join you ladies?”

            “Please, sit,” offered Jenna. After a moment Joyce gave Jenna a pointed look. A look that said ‘go for it’.

            “I’ve got a roll of quarters I need to throw away. I’ll be in the casino if anybody needs me,” she said airily and walked away.

            “Is it something I said?” Drew looked puzzled.

            “No, just Joyce being Joyce.”

            They danced to several songs. While he was nowhere near the skill level of the dance host, Jack, he was competent. Jack did claim a few dances but he had to work the entire room. After about her fourth dance with Drew, Jenna said, “You should probably dance with some other ladies or people might talk.”

            “Let them talk. I like dancing with you.”

            Jenna knew she was blushing, but it was nice to be getting positive attention for a change.

            “You seem preoccupied. I hope I’m not boring you,” Drew said softly.

            “Oh, it’s not you. I just had a bad moment today. I thought I saw my boyfriend.”

            “Boyfriend? Um, am I in the way?”

            “My ex-boyfriend. He’s been harassing me. I think he’s on the cruise, the bastard.’

            “I don’t want to get mixed up in any weird domestic stuff. Why don’t I go sit at another table.”

            “Don’t go, Drew. He’s not going to cause any trouble. I alerted the ship. They’re looking for him. As Joyce said, we’re always surrounded by like a hundred people. What’s he going to do?”

            “You sure. I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

            “You won’t. You’re the nicest thing that’s happened to me in a while. I’m enjoying it.” Drew smiled self-consciously. She thought she saw a hint of a blush. It was adorable.

            “We’re stopping at the private island tomorrow. Care to explore it with me?” he asked.

            “I’ve already talked with Joyce about hitting the beach.”

            “Bring her. If I can pry Bill away from his bikini bimbo we can make a foursome.”

            “Sure.”

            Drew showed up at the gangway the next morning alone.

            “No Bill?” Jenna asked.

            “The bikini apparently held more promise. I swear she’s not even 17.”

            The three of them left the ship and were soon walking along the sand under palm trees. It was the middle of January and here she was in paradise. Bright sunshine, sparkling water in a shade of blue only seen in the Caribbean, gentle breeze softly scented with tropical flowers and coconut. If only I could stay here forever, Jenna thought. Stay here with someone like Drew.

            “Listen, you kids. I don’t need a sunburn as my souvenir so I’m going to park it in a chaise under a palm tree. I’ve got a novel full of heaving bosoms to keep me occupied. You go have fun.” Joyce shooed them away. So they explored. Jenna had a delightful time. Drew turned out to be quite charming.

            That evening the purser found her at her dining table and ask to see her for a moment.

            “Security Officer Scott has checked the photo you provided against the passengers. It doesn’t match anyone on board. I’ve talked with the captain. Our security team will remain on alert, but we feel sure it was just mistaken identity. It’s happened before. Please try to relax. Here is a complimentary pass from the captain for a day in the spa. Please enjoy.”

            Back at the table she told Joyce that there was no sign of Dusty.

            “I was sure I saw him.”

            “Your nerves have been a mess, girl. You probably just saw what you fear. Kinda like your worst nightmare.”

            “I guess.”

            After dinner, they went back to the room to freshen up. Joyce said she had actually won money at the casino and was going to try her luck again.

            “Anything beats watching you and Casanova make cow eyes at each other.”

            “Joyce!” Jenna was shocked.

            “Hey, I just call it like I see it. He’s way hunky. I say go for it. I’m okay with the old bra on the doorknob, but I’m not spending all night in the library. Make it a quickie.”

            “Joyce! You’re scandalous. I’m not bringing Drew back to my room.”

            “Okay. Go to his. But mark my words. Sex is in the air.” She leered playfully and left before Jenna could throw anything at her.

            Jenna changed to a dress a little less formal than her dinner wear and headed for the lounge. She left her room and began walking up the long narrow hallway. You could see nearly the entire length of the ship here. It was dimly lit and kind of spooky. There was no one about except a gentleman coming from the direction she was heading. She started out. She suddenly noticed the man’s limping walk looked familiar. Her heart flew into her throat as he got close enough for her to make out his face. Dusty!

            She turned and fled back to her room. She could hear his running steps behind her.

            “Jenna! Stop, damn you!”

            She zipped her card in the lock and quickly slipped in the room and bolted the door. As she leaned back on the door, sobbing, she slid slowly to the floor. Would this nightmare never end?

            Once she was relatively together she called the security desk. She explained that regardless of what they had told her, someone matching the description of her ex-boyfriend had just chased her back to her room. She realized she was starting to sound hysterical but couldn’t help it. Before long Security Officer Scott, her room steward and the ship’s doctor were in her room.

            She accepted a sedative from the doctor. “He called my name. I know his voice. Why doesn’t anyone believe me?”

            “I’m sorry, miss, but I just don’t see any way he could have gotten on the ship. I have passed the photo you gave us to all ship’s personnel. If he is on this ship, we’ll find him. There is a suite available on the King’s deck. Entrance to the deck is key carded. We can upgrade you and your roommate there for extra security if you wish. No charge of course,” the security chief offered.

            The purser had paged Joyce and she burst into the room.

            “What’s happened? Jenna, are you okay?”

            “No. Dusty IS on board. He chased me down the hall.”

            “Oh, shit. Sorry, guys,” she apologized for her colorful language.

            “I was just telling Miss Davenport that we can upgrade the two of you to a more secure deck.”

            “It’ll be a bitch to move all this stuff again,” she groused.

            “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your steward can arrange for some porters to transfer your belongings.”

            By nearly midnight they were moved into the new suite.

            “Nice digs,” noted Joyce. “We actually can turn around without bumping butts.”

            “Yeah,” Jenna said wanly. She was a little spaced by the sedative. Joyce sat on the bed beside her.

            “Jenna, level with me,” Joyce said seriously. “What’s going on? Did you really see Dusty? Or do you just think you did. I mean, be honest. How could he have gotten on the ship without anyone knowing? It doesn’t make sense.”

            “Not you, too,” moaned Jenna. “No one believes me. Do I have to turn up with a fucking knife in my chest to make you believe me?”

            “Oh, no, baby,” Joyce tried to soothe her, taking her in her arms. “I believe you. If you say you saw him, then you did.” Jenna just folded herself into a ball in Joyce’s arms and cried.

            Drew found them at a table during lunchtime the next day. He came up to their table smiling.

            “Ok. This time I am stalking you. What happened last night? I missed you in the Queen’s Lounge.” He suddenly noticed her pallor. “Oh god, what’s happened? The boyfriend again?”

            “Yeah, he attacked her last night,” Joyce told him.

            “Oh my god. I thought the ship said he wasn’t on board.”

            “Apparently the ship fucked up,” Joyce said tersely.

            “I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

            “Well,” Joyce said. “I gotta piss. Stay here while I go.”

            “Your friend has a way with words,” Drew murmured trying to lighten the mood. Jenna just looked at him.

            “She’s just angry. Dusty has ruined her vacation, too. He poisons everything.”

            “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this. You are such a nice lady.”

            “Thanks. I think I’ll go back to my room.” She got up to walk away.

            “Shouldn’t you wait for your friend?”

            “Oh yeah. Walk me to the elevator? My deck is restricted entry. I’ll be safe from there.”

            He walked her down to the nearest elevator.

            “I know you’re feeling low right now. But I hope you decide to come to the Queen’s Lounge tonight. It’s just not the same without you. I’ll miss you.”

            Jenna made a half smile. “I’ll see.”

            The elevator opened and some people got off. She got in, with a group of people, pressing ‘King’s Deck’ on the panel. Drew seemed quite taken with her, she thought. She was somewhat taken with him, also. Too bad the cruise was such a bomb. She could really do with two weeks of mindless flirting.

            The elevator stopped. A few people got off, a few got on. When the elevator stopped on the Queen’s deck most people got off. A key card was required to go further. As the last person exited the elevator Jenna glanced in the mirrored wall and almost died on the spot. The reflection showed Dusty was right behind her in the elevator.

            “I said I’d kill you,” he hissed. He grabbed for her arm, but she evaded him, and dove out the rapidly closing door, screaming. By the time security personnel had arrived, the elevator was long gone. One of the deck crew lifted her in his arms like a child and carried her to sick bay.

            Hours later Joyce helped Jenna climb into the bed in their suite.

            “It’s going to be alright, babe. Don’t you worry. Joyce is here and everything’s going to be fine.”

            “No, it’s not. They think I’m crazy. You do, too. Everyone does. Maybe I am.”

            “Now, that’s crazy talk. You know I’m with you on this. You just get some rest.”

            The next day the ship’s doctor, purser and captain came to see her.

            “Miss Davenport,” the captain began. “We are terribly upset that your vacation has been marred by problems on this ship. My crew and I have done everything we can to ensure your safety, but I don’t know what else we can do. Tomorrow we will be docking in Curaçao. There is an American embassy there. If you wish, my staff will assist you in contacting them to arrange air transport back to your home destination. Unfortunately, we cannot offer a refund since the voyage is nearly half over, but if you have purchased trip insurance our ship’s doctor will assist you with filing.”

            Jenna thought for a few moments. “Yes, I’d like to go home. Joyce, I want you to stay. There’s no need to ruin both our vacations.”

            “Nothing doing, hon. We’re in this together. I go where you go. Besides I’d have a crappy time without you here to enjoy it with me.  Looks like it’s time to pack.”

            “You up for dinner in the dining room tonight?” Joyce asked later that day.

            “Yeah, I think so. Might as well use it while we can. I have enjoyed the food on this cruise.”

            “You and me, too. A couple more days and I’d have to break out my fat britches.”  Jenna had to laugh.

            After dinner Joyce said, “Come on. I’ll go with you to the Queen’s Lounge. You know Romeo will be there looking for you. And don’t worry. Neither of us will leave you for a second. Total protection. But you need to unwind a little.”

            “You don’t like the music. I hate to make you go through that.”

            “Oh, hell, girl. I’ve gone through much worse for a lot less. Just buy me a couple of hurricanes and I’ll be fine.”

            As soon as they found a table in the Queen’s Lounge, Drew showed up.

            “I was so worried about you,” he said to Jenna. “Are you going to be okay?” She had taken a half a sedative tab after dinner, so she felt she had a grip on her nerves. For now.

            “Thanks, Drew. You’re a dear. I’ve enjoyed meeting you.”

            “That sounds a lot like goodbye,” he said, puzzled.

            “It is. I’m leaving the cruise tomorrow. The captain said I can get a flight back to the US from Curaçao. I just don’t feel safe on the ship anymore.”

            Drew’s breath caught quickly. “Are you sure that’s the right thing to do? To just toss the whole vacation?”

            “I don’t know what else I can do. Constantly look over my shoulder waiting for him to attack me? That’s not a vacation.

            “Joyce, talk some sense into her. She’s just giving up.”

            “Why do you care?” Joyce asked. Drew got quiet.

            “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion.”

            “Joyce, you don’t need to be rude,” Jenna said. “Drew, I’d love to stay, I’ve had such a nice time with you, but it isn’t working. I’m a nervous wreck.”

            “Well, it’s just that you’ve become kind of special to me these past few days. You seem to understand me and are so nice. Aw crap, I don’t know how to say it. I like you. And I’d like a chance to know you better.”

            “Drew, don’t start. We’re from different worlds.”

            “What different worlds? Charlotte and Greensboro are what, a couple hours apart? Maybe we were meant to meet.”

            “Oh brother,” Joyce said dryly. “I’m on the Love Boat.”

            “Well, at least, can we dance?” he asked. They danced several dances. Drew seemed determined to keep her dancing. He really is taken with me, she thought.

            A rumba came on. Drew pulled her close, very close. She realized she liked dancing this closely with him. His face was in close to hers. He kept looking into her eyes. Oh god, she thought. This feels like one of those trashy novels Joyce loves. He leaned in, as if hoping for a kiss. What the hell, she decided. Give him a nice memory. She opened her mouth to him. Maybe the sedative was just kicking in, but she was feeling a bit lightheaded. Or maybe it was the kiss. Damn! He’s good at this. A moment later, he had his mouth by her ear.

            “Oh, Jenna. I think about you so much. I’ll be lost without you. Won’t you reconsider leaving me?” he whispered in her ear.

            “I’m not leaving you, Drew. It’s this ship. I can’t be on a ship with my ex. And I’m sure he’s somewhere on board.”

            “Jenna, you’re tearing me apart.”

            “Drew, please don’t make this any harder for me.”

            They remained in the lounge until the band quit at 11, but Jenna could tell the life had gone out of Drew. She’d been unaware of how deeply he felt. She liked him, too, but he was way ahead of her. The ladies gathered their belongings to leave.

            “Will I get a chance to see you tomorrow?” he asked. She would swear there were unshed tears in his eyes.

            “We’re doing an early breakfast. I’ll be at Lido at 7.”

            “Okay. Bye.” He looked down at the floor. She felt awful.

            “Drew, you’ll be okay. Just do like Bill. Go chase some bikinis.”

            “I’m not interested in bikinis,” he said like a truculent little boy.

            “Joyce, go on. I need to talk to Drew.”

            Joyce looked at Drew. “She has a curfew of midnight, young man. Not a minute after. Got it?”

            He gave her a half-hearted grin, “Yes, ma’am.”

            Jenna laced her arm through Drew’s. They strolled up the incline out of the lounge into the central part of the ship. He turned right and they went through the double doors out onto the deck. There was a half moon out. It cast enough light on the water that you could see the outline of an island in the distance. It was quiet and romantic. Drew dropped her arm and propped both of his on the deck railing, looking down into the dark sea.

            “Drew, I’m sorry.”

            “Are you? Was I just a game?”

            “No, Drew. You know I care for you.”

            He petulantly snatched his arms off the railing. He jammed his hands in his pants pockets and started walking away, down the deck. Jenna followed.

            “Drew, I’m not trying to hurt you.” He passed a windbreak and stopped again at the railing. She came up to him. It was darker here. He pulled her gently into himself. She had to admit she liked his arms around her. It had been a while since she felt safe in a man’s arms. He was leaning in again, so she helped and reached her mouth toward his. She also had to admit she liked kissing him. She was becoming lightheaded again. Maybe she shouldn’t have taken that half tab. But it was hours ago. It should have worn off by now. She realized she had trouble keeping her balance. Drew supported her.

            “What’s wrong, hon?” he asked. “Like my kisses that much?”

            She found that she couldn’t get her tongue to work to answer him.

            “That’s okay, baby. You don’t need to say anything. Dusty said you always talk too much.”

            What?! her brain flared. She tried to struggle, but was unable to control her body.

            “Shh, honey. Everything’s okay. It’s just time for you to take a swim. You’ve been depressed and talking crazy the past few days. I’ll say I tried to get to you but you jumped before I could stop you. I had a bit of trouble dosing your drink tonight. That bitch of a roommate of yours wouldn’t take her eyes off me. I can tell she’s hot for me. She’ll need consoling after you go overboard. She’s not bad looking. I can probably get her in bed in no time. Whadya think?”

            Jenna was paralyzed and could only look at him with eyes wide with terror.

            “You were so easy. You just ate up my sad little boy routine. Dusty said you’d probably spread your legs for me before the week was out. I was hoping for some of that before you went over, but you had to mess it up. He ain’t even on this ship. He’s back in Greensboro. You were crazy to think he’s here, but it works in our favor. Now the whole ship thinks you’re nuts. Anyway, this is where we part ways.” He put an arm under her to lift her over the railing.

            She heard a click, and realized it was a gun being cocked.

            “Stop right there, Mr. Wilson.” It was the Chief Security Officer Scott. “Release Miss Davenport and turn around slowly.” When Drew released her, she fell to the deck. The momentary deflection of the guard’s attention gave Drew the moment he needed. He jumped past the guard and raced down the deck. His exit was cut off by two burly deck hands. He was cornered. With a crazed look back at Jenna, he dashed to his right and sailed over the railing. A deck hand ran to the side and threw over a life preserver, the other ran to the wall and rang the man overboard bell. The security guard came and propped Jenna up. “Good thing I decided to keep an eye on you.” Once again, a deck hand picked her up like a child and carried her to sick bay.

            Jenna was sitting by her attorney in a courtroom twenty days later. It was the beginning of February so she was the only one in the courtroom sporting a suntan. It was obtained during fourteen glorious days in the Caribbean. Once she had realized Dusty wasn’t on the ship she was able to relax. She realized she had experienced hallucinations, but they had seemed so real. The ship’s doctor said that was common in survivors of abuse. The final eight days had done her a world of good.

            “Guilty,” the judge intoned. “Sentencing to be on …” he looked at the court calendar. “The 24th of February. Bailiff, take him away.” The bailiff led Dustin Randall in an orange jumpsuit from the courtroom.

            “Your honor. I’m Mr. Mills from the District Attorney’s office,” said a man approaching the gate separating the attorneys from the courtroom. “We’d like to request a delay in sentencing of Mr. Randall until the disposition of our case. I have three warrants for the arrest of Dustin Lee Randall, his cousin Andrew Scott Wilson and his father D. Jarratt Randall. We plan to charge them with multiple felonies including bribery, racketeering, wiretap, suborning felonies, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to hire a murder, attempted first degree murder, kidnapping, assault with intent to kill, witness tampering. And there may be more.”

            “Your honor,” the Randall lawyer objected. “These charges are all hearsay. Young Dusty was violently attacked by a spurned woman and now they want to drag the Randall family name through the mud. The family has suffered enough. I move that the charges be dropped as baseless.”             “Objection overruled. The charges will stand. Sentencing is delayed.  Since the counts are related to the current tort, the clerk will calendar them on my court dates. Court adjourned.”