07 June 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter I

Bill turned to Jerry and said, "Where did that armadillo come from?"

Jerry replied, "That's not an armadillo. It looks more like an armored dildo." His response was unsatisfactory on so many levels.
But then, Jerry was known for not being very satisfactory. On many levels.

Bill stood there, watching the armored critter scurry across the shimmering pavement, and it suddenly dawned on him that he'd made a terrible mistake. Jerry had convinced him to go on the road trip, using that last fight Bill had with Teresa as the ultimate goad. And now, she was desperately searching for him in order eliminate him from her life for good!

How could I have been so dumb? Bill thought to himself, thinking back to the scene a few days earlier.

I want my two dollars!" Teresa shouted over the thunder. Bill stood there, with a hurt look on his face. He'd laughed once when she said things like that. Now he couldn't even manage a smile. Their relationship had always been ... exciting and somewhat contentious, but for many years he had always enjoyed the friction - and the making up.

"Well? What do you have to say?" she asked.

"The drawing was a few minutes ago. If you'll switch the TV over to the news, they'll be showing the numbers. I may have already won?" he responded, his voice growing desperate as her face grew darker with what appeared to be true anger.

She considered a few possible responses, and then realized she had to leave before the rain began in earnest. "I just can't take it any more, Bill. We're broker than broke, and you're buying lottery tickets. I'll be ... I don't know. I just know I have to get out of here."

Teresa grabbed her keys and left, slamming the kitchen door behind her, which caused - as always - the lower cabinet door to swing open, and the mutated cockroaches which had taken up residence there were suddenly bathed in the bright light of the kitchen.

It became quite clear that the cockroaches - like Bill - had no other place to go. It was at that moment that Jerry showed up, and started talking about a road trip to Vegas....

06 June 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter II

It was a dark night in the city in the mountains. I had been hitting the bottle pretty hard at the Five Spot, my favorite watering hole. I dragged my bleary eyes up towards the clock behind the bar. At first, the clock on the wall read half passed[sic] a monkey's ass, a quarter 'til his balls, but after I rubbed my eyes, I realized that I was still mildly drunk and the clock really read 1:17a.m. Okay, I was more than mildly drunk. I was well on my way to being plastered... or beyond.

Jimmy wasn't there that night, and Ellen, the substitute bartender, could see the mood I was in and was setting down a fresh drink for me before I could even ask.

The rain was coming down outside like the flow of Niagara over the falls, and the frequent lightning showed the deserted late night streets of the "metropolis" of AsheVegas. Even the cabbies were laying low.

I told Ellen to not make me any more drinks, as I had an early appointment the next morning with a potential client. It was a simple check on a business partner who was thought to be skimming profits, but it promised to pay well - and I needed the bucks, as the rent on my office was past due.

All of us left in the bar turned to look as lightning struck a lamppost outside, the thunder loud enough to rattle the bottles of premium liquor on the top shelf behind the bar. The sound of the thunder echoed off the buildings of the city as I put on my raincoat and fedora.

Ellen asked me if I wanted her to call me a cab, but I told her the walk back to the office would be good for me - and that I was a private investigator, not a mode of transportation. As I stood there, wobbling slightly due to the alcohol and waiting in vain for her to laugh at my joke, I noticed it was silent outside. The rumble had subsided and I went outside at last.

I turned right to head down the street toward my office and the rumpled sofa I called my bed, and there she was. Tall and slim, with her long, curly red hair plastered to her head from the rain, she was wearing a white raincoat that looked like the repellent had worn out long ago. She was barefoot, and carrying one high-heeled shoe in her porcelain-skinned, long-fingered hand.

"Excuse me, sir," she said in a throaty voice that would warm an Iditarod racer who had been on the go all day in a blizzard. Do you know the famous detective, Guy Noir? The doorman at his building said he hangs out in the bar you just left."

"I not only know him, I am him," I replied.

"Wow," she said. "That's some kind of coincidence."

"I'm in no position to believe in coincidence."
She grabbed hold of me as another bolt of lightning struck nearby, wrapping her slim arms around my neck and holding on tight. I could feel her heart beating against my chest as she sobbed quietly.

She looked at me sheepishly as she released me and said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Noir. I'm a bit afraid of thunderstorms. I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"My neck hurts," I replied, still feeling the warmth of her being pressed against me, "but that's an old injury and not your fault. Why don't we go to my office and out of this storm, and you can tell me why you were looking for me?"

A part of me hoped another lightning bolt would cause her to grab hold of me again, as it had been some time since a beautiful woman had been that close to me, but we made it to the Acme Building without any of them. We went up the elevator to my floor and into my office. I went into my bathroom to get her a towel so she could dry her hair and face, and when I came back out I stood stunned for a moment.

She had taken off her raincoat, and stood there wearing a rain-soaked peasant blouse and a skirt so short I could see the bottom of the word "Saturday" embroidered on the back of her panties.

I handed her the towel and went to the closet to get her one of my spare shirts.

"Here," I said, handing her the shirt, "you can go into the bathroom and put this on. We can hang your blouse over the radiator to dry."

Her pale face turned red as she looked down at her blouse that was stuck to her like a second skin. "Thank you. I'm not leaving much to the imagination right now, am I?"

"I don't mind," I said quietly to her back as she walked into the bathroom and closed the door.

When she came out of the bathroom and laid her blouse and skirt on the top of the radiator, she told me why she had been looking for me. Her name was Arianne Campbell. She owned a small bake shop and cafe on the other side of town, and was having problems with the lawyer's office next door. There were all sorts of loud and strange noises coming from over there all day long, and it was scaring her patrons off.

While she told her story, I stood at the window watching the rain fall. I had heard of the shop she owned. It was one of those sketchy places, but the food was great. I had never been there myself, as I was the type that preferred street vendor hot dogs to gluten-free carob chip muffins.

When she fell silent, I turned to tell her my standard rates and saw that she had fallen asleep on the sofa. I sighed, pulled my tattered blanket over her, and sat down at my desk. I put my feet up on the desk and settled back to nap a bit myself, somewhat glad that we didn't negotiate my fee while I was drunk. That had never worked out well for me in the past....

The sound of the garbage truck backing into the alley outside my window woke me. The sun was low on the eastern horizon and just beginning to send its golden rays into my office. I looked over at the sofa and wasn't surprised to see it empty. I brewed a pot of coffee and washed my face, then decided, since my appointment wasn't for another two hours, to head over to her place - make sure she was okay and to return her clothes that she had left on the now cold radiator.

As the cab pulled up to her address, I could see her standing on the sidewalk in front of her shop. She sighed as she watched the hand-painted sign flapping loosely above her little bakery: 'Pie Dough and Trends'. Once, it had been the favorite haunt of the "in" crowd. Now, she was in jeopardy of losing it.

"Good morning, Miss Campbell," I said as I stepped up beside her and held out her blouse and skirt. "You left these at my office."

She flashed a brilliant smile at me and said "I hope I didn't wake you when I left. I needed to get over here and open up ... in case anyone shows up wanting food, that is." Her large blue eyes began welling with tears as she turned and unlocked the front door of the shop. "Let me repay your generosity from last night by fixing you some breakfast."

The strong coffee laying in my stomach lurched at the thought of a seven grain bagel joining it, and I graciously declined.

"Well," I said, "I might as well look in on your neighbor while I'm here." A large man with long curly hair had just unlocked and entered the lawyer's office and it appeared they were now open for the day.

"Oh, thank you, Mr. Noir!" she cried, hugging me tightly. I gave her a brief hug in return and then stepped through the door and into the law office. I was not prepared for the sight that greeted me.

The large man had taken off his overcoat, and was standing in front of a picture of a tropical beach, wearing only a long print Polynesian skirt.

"The Fucking Bees! Oh, Jesus God. Mother-kripes-fucker! What the poop!" he screamed at the picture. The picture on the wall just stared back at him. Never saying anything.

He noticed me then and spun around shouting something that sounded like .... Mommadaddy smelled like trees. Burnt trees on a sultry Sunday morning. But I couldn't understand him because there was a disgusting fluid bubbling out of his mouth as he tried to speak. He lurched toward me and, before I could completely react, puked on me. My hand was covered in sticky, putrid goo, and there wasn't a sink to be found. He grabbed a coffee mug off the desk and swatted at the air around his head. He then turned his crazed gaze on me again and held the mug out in front of me like a gun.

"Don't you point that coffee mug at me, young man!" I shouted at him, backing slowly toward the door.

"I'm from Samoa!!!" he gibbered. "The Devil not only made me do it, but he changed the mug from a .357 Magnum into what you now see." His eyes suddenly rolled back in his head, and I thought he was going to pass out.

Then he looked at me and said - in a calm voice, "Good morning, sir. May I help you? Let's go next door and get a bagel, okay?"

I followed him into Pie Dough and Trends, somewhat taken aback by his sudden change of demeanor, and looked over at Arianne as the Samoan lawyer went into the bathroom to wash up. I started to ask her if he was the only person next door when a scream from the bathroom echoed through the shop.

The door burst open and the Samoan stood there, drool dribbling from his chin and the crazed look back in his eyes. The so-called "luxury soap" left a nasty rash that crept up his forearms as he slowly advanced toward us, wielding a large sliver of broken mirror. Arianne screamed as he stabbed at me, and.....

05 June 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter III

Teresa was on her way to Las Vegas, having gotten a tip that Bill and Jerry had been spotted at the Luxor, when her cell phone rang.


"Hi, Teresa, it's Lynne," came the response. "I've got good news for you. We've decided to push up the release date of your book to next week."

Teresa had been waiting months to hear this news, but was, for the moment, confused - her mind was so focused on getting to Vegas before Bill left town.

"I'm sorry?" she asked. "Book? ... Oh! Why, that's great!"

"I thought you'd be happy," Lynne replied. "But I need you to be in New York this afternoon. We've booked you on Regis & Kelly to talk about it. There's a ticket waiting at the airport for you. Oh, and make sure you pack a green outfit."

Why was green so very important? She had no idea. But that really wasn't a concern right now. "Ummm, I'm not at home. I'm on I-40 between Flagstaff and Kingman, on my way to Vegas." She hesitated, not wanting to say why she was on her way to Vegas. Somehow, she didn't think that telling her editor that she was on her way to kill her ex would be a career plus.

"Vegas? Okay,... we can get you a ticket on the red-eye into New York, and I'll get someone to pick up an outfit for you." Lynne said. "Postpone your gambling and head to the airport. I'll have a driver waiting at Newark, to take you to your hotel. See you in the morning!" ... and she hung up.

Shit. Shit, shit, shit... Teresa thought as she dropped the cell phone on the seat beside her....

Meanwhile, in Vegas............

Bill awoke from a deep sleep and looked around the room. Luckily, Jerry was not there. Breathing a sigh of relief, Bill let go of the closed umbrella he had been clutching when he finally drifted off to sleep, got up from the bed, and headed for the bathroom.

Bill wasn't sure what had been going on with Jerry the night before. He'd been perfectly content to let the laundry pile up in the corner. That is, until the pile started talking to him. Bill suspected it had something to do with the 300 pound Samoan he had seen talking to Jerry in the casino earlier. Something wasn't quite right about the guy - flailing his arms about like he was swatting at giant flies and all that.

As he stepped under the stream of hot water in the shower, he thought again about trying to call Teresa and seeing if he could explain. By the time he finished showering, he knew exactly what he would say to her ... if she answered the phone.

He reached for the towel and his hand closed on something unexpected. What was this? A second umbrella?...

Later that morning, in the Green Room of the Regis & Kelly show.......

Teresa finished off her fourth cup of coffee since awakening, confused, in her hotel room. She really needed to pee, but had been cornered by Regis, who was telling stories of his childhood, and Kelly - who was being very ... Kelly.

As Regis finished a story about how his mom did his nail polish the first time he cross-dressed, Teresa looked around desperately, hoping to catch Lynne's attention. Unfortunately, Lynne had left the room with one of the other guests, to do what Teresa didn't know. As Regis paused in his torrent of tales of his youth, Kelly piped up with a series of questions. When the host asked how A Wizard of Earthsea was different than Harry Potter, she sat stunned for a moment and then realized, she was in the presence of stupid people with no knowledge of classical fantasy.

Teresa stood up abruptly and she cried, "No more, no more" and ran out of the room. She ran down the hall and out to the street, where she stood stunned. It was raining, but it wasn't water falling from the sky. She started shaking her head in denial as she stared at the scene in front of her. It had been years since she had seen that many frogs in one place....

Back in Vegas............

Bill hurried down the hall of the luxury hotel, buttoning his shirt with one hand, and trying not to drop his shoes as he rushed for the elevator. Something was very wrong. He jabbed at the "G" repeatedly, hoping - as people in a hurry always do - that it would somehow speed up the process of the elevator doors closing and the car getting to its destination.

The elevator performed its duties in at its own pace, however, but eventually (to Bill's frantic thinking) opened the doors and let him out in the lobby. He ran past the slot machines and out the door, planning on grabbing the first taxi in line to get him the hell away from whatever was happening back in the room that he and Jerry had been sharing.

As the heat of a Las Vegas day hit him, he skidded to a halt, confused. There were no taxis or shuttle buses under the canopy. There was no valet, waiting for the next guest to arrive. There were no people visible anywhere. It was just too damn quiet outside....


He looked up from the unfinished manuscript and around the nearly empty room. This was just one of many partial stories that Arianne had left behind when she abruptly closed her bakery and left town, and he had finally gotten around to putting them into storage. He couldn't bring himself to throw them away, hoping that she would someday return. Guy sighed again as he looked around the large apartment that Arianne and he had called home for the short time they were together.

The bells in the cathedral tolled 8, but it was only 3:45 as he reached over to get another box into which to put the stories and the other remainders of their relationship, and noticed that the boxes, once seemingly an endless pile, had suddenly run out. There was no container for the most precious of their belongings.

Then he noticed the TCU umbrella in the corner.

04 June 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter IV

It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, out on the edge of... wait, that's not right. *Ahem*

It was a slow week in the city in the mountains. I was still hoping to hear from Arianne, but was beginning to think that it would never happen. I had several of my PI compatriots all over the country looking out for any info about her, but all I could do was wait... and empty yet another bottle of gin as I sat at my desk brooding.

I was thinking about going down to the liquor store to get a fresh bottle, when my office door opened and in walked a tall blonde. She crossed the room and sat across the desk from me, flipping her long, silken hair over her shoulder.

"I understand you're a Private Investigator," she said as she pulled a cigarette from a silver case and lit it.

"Yes, I am," I answered, sliding the half-full ashtray across the desk. "It says so, right on my door."

"Oh. I ... didn't notice." She sat for a minute, silently smoking her cigarette. I was just about to ask if she needed my services when she spoke up. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have come here. Forgive me for bothering you."

She stood up and turned to leave, and I said "Wait, Miss ...".

I could see the hesitation on her face as she stood there considering her next move. Finally she sat back down. "Davis. Eloise Davis. I work in the research labs over at the university, and we have a ... situation going on. I was hoping you'd be able to help out."

"My standard rate is 200 a day, plus expenses," I told her. She nodded her head and proceeded to explain the problem.

"As I said, I work in the university labs. I specialize in AI - that's artificial intelligence. For the last three years my team has been working on designing intelligent home appliances. Not mindless robots that follow pre-programmed instructions like a Roomba, but ones that will actually foresee and take care of all housekeeping needs. These days, with two - or even three - income households being the norm, people just don't have the time and energy to maintain a spotless home.

"Anyway, two months ago, we got a grant from a new patron. It was a very large grant, but it came with a couple of provisos - one of which was the addition of a new researcher, Dr. Gary Smedlin. That's when the trouble started." She paused for a moment, then asked "May I use your restroom?"

"Help yourself," I said, gesturing to the door. I waited while she ... took care of business, and when she came back out I said, "I'm not sure how I can help. The only knowledge I have of computers is the PIN number for my ATM card." This wasn't exactly true, as I had both a MySpace page and accounts at several online poker sites, but that wasn't important now.

"Oh, it's not the science that I want to to look at," she replied as she looked in the full-length mirror on the wall next to the bathroom door. "I want you to check out Dr. Smedlin. There's something ... creepy about him." She was checking her stockings in the mirror when the phone rang.

"Noir," I said, speaking into the phone. It was my landlord, reminding me that the rent had been due the week before. I sighed and said, "Yeah, I've got a case I'm looking into right now. I'll have the money for you by the end of the week," and hung up the phone. "Looks like you've hired yourself a private eye, Miss Davis."

She gave me directions to her lab, and Smedlin's address, and I told her I'd be by later that day.

After she left I went down to the Five Spot for a cup of Jimmy's famous coffee, to help clear my head. Jimmy set the cup of steaming hot java in front of me and said, "Gee, Guy, you look like you've been run over. What gives?"

"Just keep the pot handy, Jimmy. I'm not in the mood to talk," I answered. I grabbed the powdered creamer container to add to my cup, but when I turned it up nothing came out. Peeking in the opening in the top, I saw that it was empty. Jimmy got me a fresh container, and I proceeded to drink three cups of the strong brew before I felt up to hailing a cab for the trip across town to the university.

Forty-five minutes later I walked up to the door of the lab where Davis - and Smedlin - worked. As I reached up to knock, I heard a scream, and then laughter, from inside. A quick check confirmed that my Special was in its shoulder holster, and I opened the door to see what was going on.

Eloise stood in one corner of the large room, a large shop-vac vacuum cleaner spinning around wildly, spewing water near her. Over by a bank of computers stood the laughing man - it must have been Smedlin. There was a look of mania in his eyes as he laughed, and I shivered a bit at the sight of it. When Smedlin saw me, he stopped laughing and ran over to the shop-vac, yelling imprecations at the appliance and flipping a switch on the side of an odd-looking box mounted to the side of the vac.

The vacuum cleaner took the tirade in stride, and calmly continued its task, sucking up the water that it had just spewed all over the lab.

"Who is this, Davis? Some knight in," he looked at my rumpled clothing, "dingy armor, come to 'save' you?" Smedlin cackled as he returned to his side of the research lab.

"I've had enough of you and your petty, insane practical jokes, Smedlin," Eloise hissed at his back as she stalked across the room, the squelching of her sodden shoes sending the mad scientist into further gales of laughter.

I fixed Smedlin with a gimlet eye, and said, "Soggy socks will never stop her." Adventures require fortitude, and we were going to experience much worse than wet feet. But I didn't yet know that.

"Who the hell are you, and why are you here?" Smedlin yelled, flipping a switch on the side of an iron, which started working on a pair of slacks lying on an ironing board. The shop-vac saw this, moved over to the ironing board and latched on to the dangling pant leg.

Before I could answer the question, the iron attacked the shop-vac and Smedlin reached for the off switches on the two appliances. The iron dodged his attempt and leaped across the ironing board and onto the adjacent counter top. The shop-vac tried to get away from the scientist, to no avail. Smedlin straightened from flipping the switch, thinking all was under control again, but then the iron got involved and it was asymmetrical warfare all over again.

The iron managed to reactivate the shop-vac, which in turn powered up a weed trimmer and a chainsaw, and ... the results weren't pretty. When the fury in the middle of the room subsided, there wasn't much of Smedlin left in one piece - but the bits lying about weren't human, they were machine parts. After making sure that the rogue appliances weren't going to attack Eloise or myself, I reached down and picked up the head of the "scientist", which was trailing hundreds of wires which had been attached to various other bits.

The back of the head popped open, and inside was a small jar. The jar contained a thick black sludge that looked as if it might be a new, or alien, life form. It had several wires of different gauge running from it to clusters of relays inside the head. Looking more closely at the jar, I discovered that there was a dead cockroach inside it.

I looked at Eloise, who was shaken but recovering, and said, "I'm assuming this was a straightforward case of insect asphyxiation."

03 June 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter V

It was a humid night in the city in the mountains, but the afternoon thunderstorms dropped the temperature enough to make the humidity bearable. The waxing moon was just visible above the ridge on the east side of town as I walked over to the Five Spot for a drink.

"Hey, Guy," Jimmy said as I entered the bar and took my usual seat. "What can I get you this evening?"

"I think I'd like something different, Jimmy. How 'bout something chocolate? Maybe with a little Bailey's?"

"I got a new bottle of Godiva's just today. One Irish Lady coming right up, Guy," he answered and turned to his work.

"Excuse me, are you Guy Noir?" a soft voice behind me asked. I turned and saw her. The bar lights showed the highlights in her dark brown hair to perfection. She was wearing a short sleeve shirt so tight that it could stop traffic, and jeans that fit like a glove.

"Why, yes. Yes I am," I stammered. "May I help you with something? Buy you a drink?"

Another voice drew my attention "Ah, I see you found him." It was Dirk Easley, one of my fellow private eyes. We had worked together on a couple of cases, but his style was very different from mine. While I was a details man, Dirk tended to look at the whole picture.

He stepped up beside the woman and said, "Noir, this is Black. Black, Noir. You know what to do."

"Oh, forgive me for not introducing myself, Mr. Noir. I'm Emma Black." She paused as Jimmy set my drink in front of me, then said, "That looks good. May I have the same?"

"Put it on my tab, Jimmy," I said to the bartender. "And, please, call me Guy."

"I always call you Guy, Guy," Jimmy replied.

"I was talking to the lady, Jimmy."

"Oh. Right," he said, then went to fix another drink.

I looked into the brilliant green eyes of the woman and asked, "So, how may I help you, Miss Black?"

She flashed a brilliant smile and replied, "Call me Emma. My cousin, Eloise, told me that you might be able to help me. You helped her out a while back, remember?"

"Oh, yes. How is her research going, now that the simulacrum has been dealt with?"

"She says it's going well, and asked me to express her thanks to you." She took a deep breath and continued, "I have a similarly ... odd problem. I'm an Antarctic Ornithologist - I study petrels, skua and penguins in particular. Mmm, this drink is fantastic," she said to Jimmy, who blushed at the compliment - but then, Jimmy was famous for blushing when a pretty woman so much as walked by. Jimmy was ... inexperienced.

"Guy? ... Mr. Noir?" Emma's voice brought me out of my reverie.

"Yes, yes. Antarctic ornithology. Sounds fascinating. So what's... what's the problem?"

"I'd, ummm, rather not talk about it here. Could you come by my place tomorrow?" she asked, handing me her card.

"Sure thing. Around 10 okay?"

"Yes. Thank you, Guy. I'll see you in the morning." She finished her drink, smiled at Jimmy - which set him to blushing all over again - and left.

The next morning, I caught a cab to her address, and knocked on her door promptly at 10. She invited me in, and led me to her home office. As I looked around the office - typically, for a scientist, it was cluttered floor to ceiling - I noticed that Emma looked harried. She was dressed in sweatpants and a black ribbed tank top and, after gesturing me to a chair, sat slumped behind her desk.

As she sat there staring at nothing, I couldn't help but believe that she was thinking that, surrounded by piles of files and papers at work, surrounded by piles of dishes, laundry and bills at home, she began to wonder if she exerted some strange gravitational pull on paper and filth. It was just that kind of look she had on her face.

I waited patiently, since I had nothing else to do anyway, and she finally sighed and looked over at me. She smiled briefly and said, "I'm sorry, Guy. I was trying to figure the best way to explain what's going on.

"As I told you last night, I'm an Antarctic ornithologist. As such, I spend a lot of time in the field down at the bottom of the world. And, as you might imagine, there aren't a lot of people who specialize in my field. So, I spend most of my field time either alone, or with one or two graduate research assistants.

"On my most recent trip down there, I set up camp near a colony of Macaroni Penguins, to study mating habits. I was there alone for the first five weeks - my one assistant for the season would arrive then." She stood, and began moving around the room while she talked, straightening piles of books and papers, and moving things from one place to another, seemingly at random.

"The first few days, I was busy setting up camp and acclimating the colony to my presence. Then it was time to get down to serious business. I easily determined the leader of the colony, and concentrated on him.

"And... he seemed to be taking as much interest in me as I was in him. That was when..." she paused for a long time, then took a deep breath and said "that was when he started talking to me - and asking questions."

My only outward expression was to raise an eyebrow, but she obviously (and reasonably) knew that I was quite surprised - and a bit unnerved - by this statement, and she continued quickly. "Before you get up and walk out, please watch this." She pressed play on the DVD player sitting on a TV in the corner, and, for the next ten minutes I stared raptly at the screen as she and a penguin had a long conversation.

When the DVD stopped, she continued with her story. "As you can see, he was quite interested in human civilization, and what we're doing to the planet. I wondered if maybe I was going crazy, and waited anxiously for my assistant to arrive. In the meantime, though, I began - at his request - teaching him to read. There was a rock outcropping nearby, and I used the natural slate as a chalk board for our lessons."

She sat back down at her desk and said, "By the time Sherri arrived, Clarence - I couldn't pronounce his real name, but that's a close approximation - was reading on a high school level. I couldn't believe how smart he was and couldn't wait to see the look on Sherri's face when I showed her."

I leaned forward and said softly, "Let me guess. When your assistant arrived, he stopped talking?"

Emma hung her head and replied, "Yes. He continued to hang around the camp, and when Sherri was otherwise engaged he would whisper questions to me, but if she was in earshot... silence."

"Well, I'm not sure how I can help you."

She turned the gaze of those green eyes on me and said, "I want you to go down there with me. I ... don't know what good it will do, but you were so helpful to Eloise - not to mention not saying anything to anyone else about ... what happened in her lab - that I'm just sure you'll be able to help me!"

As I stared into the verdant depths of her eyes, I realized It was time. Time to escape the boredom, the mundane, the beloved and redundant familiar. I could use some time away from everything, and you can't really do that better than being in Antarctica.

"Okay, I'll do it."

A week later, the military helicopter landed gently near the large outcropping that Emma had told me about. The loadmaster helped us with our equipment and supplies, and then the chopper lifted off, leaving us on our own.

As soon as the aircraft disappeared in the distance, Clarence came over and started following Emma around as we set up camp - glancing often at me, and making no noise whatsoever. And so it went for the next five days. I was reassured to find out that she hadn't faked the video, because, just like the previous time, when it was just Emma and Clarence, he would talk to her, and she would record the conversations. It was only when I was around that he was silent.

Until, as I said, the sixth day.

I woke to the sounds of an argument. I couldn't make out all the words, but it was evident that Clarence wanted Emma to do something she didn't want to do. I lay in my tent, listening quietly, and when the voices stopped, I raised up to look out the flap.

Clarence was waddling back toward the colony, and Emma was stamping toward her tent.
I pulled on my boots, and clambered out of the tent, as she got to hers.

"Did you hear?"

"Sort of. I couldn't understand most of it, but I certainly got the ... intent."

"He... wants me to... join him. Join with him, I mean. I think... I don't know what to think." She pulled her pack out of her tent and got the bottles of Bailey's and Godiva Chocolate Liqueur that we had brought with us, along with some powdered milk.

I thought better of mentioning that it was a bit early in the day to be drinking, as Emma was clearly upset by this new turn of events.

I sat next to Emma as she downed several stiff drinks and talked herself into humoring Clarence, knowing that it wouldn't really mean anything if she did go through with the ritual. But she would have one requirement of her own - that I be allowed to attend and film the encounter.

She went off to tell him her decision and requirements, and returned with several fish. "Clarence says that it's part of the ritual. I'm to eat all of these before he comes to take me to the actual ceremony."

She lit the cookstove while I cleaned the fish, and then gave them to her to cook. She sat down to eat them, and was almost done when she turned pale. The chocolate and halibut suddenly disagreed in her stomach and she ran for the outhouse.

After several trips to the outhouse, she seemed better, and just in time, too, as Clarence and several other penguins were approaching across the snowfield. The attendant penguins each had a large fish grasped tightly in its beak and, when the entourage reached us, laid the fish at Emma's feet.

"Since you are not comfortable with eating the sacramental fish raw, your attendant will be allowed to cook it," Clarence said.

I scooped up the fish, quickly cleaned it, and put it in the skillet with the leftover halibut. When it was done, I dumped all the food onto a plate and returned to the waiting group. The attendant penguins began a muffled, braying chant as they led the party over to the edge of the open water.

Waiting there was the rest of the colony, including an ancient one that I immediately identified as a priest or shaman penguin. I set up the digital recorder on a tripod, as I was now part of the 'wedding party', and the ceremony began. When the shaman gestured to me, I held out the plate for Emma to take some of the cooked fish. I could tell that she was having a hard time not giggling, as she was still a bit drunk from the Irish Ladies, but she was able to maintain her composure as the ceremony reached what I assumed was its conclusion.

What happened next, neither of us expected.

A shimmering began, and quickly enveloped Emma's body. It grew in intensity until I was nearly blinded, but I realized that her body was changing shape. Emma looked over at me, horror in her eyes, because suddenly she realized that she had ingested the wrong fish. It was the sacrament of the herring, not the sacrament of the halibut, and obviously the Great Penguin was having His revenge upon her. She resolved to do double penance at the local Ice Cathedral at the next Celebration of the March of the Penguins.

When the light faded, Emma was no longer human, but a Macaroni Penguin. Clarence waddled over to me and said, "We shall be stronger and more complete with her joining to our society. Do not worry, as she is happy now." And with that, they all - including penguin-Emma - slipped into the water and swam away.

I walked over to the camera, popped out the memory card, and threw it into the ocean. Then I walked back to the camp, sent out an emergency call to McMurdo base, and waited for the rescue helicopter to come.....

When I arrived at the temporary camp, I attempted to question Mr. Noir to find out what had happened. Subject was completely unresponsive. As he started at the blank slate he realized he had nothing to say.

02 June 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter VI

"Why don't those birds ever stop circling!?", Bill said to Jerry. "Jerry? You still with me, man?" Bill craned his neck around as far as the bindings that had him staked to the desert floor allowed, trying to see his friend, who was staked out a couple dozen yards away. "Jerry!"

"Where the hell else would I be," Jerry croaked. "I'm staked to the ground just like you are! Besides, it's better for them to be circling than for them to land - cause then it's lunchtime!!" he finished with a hoarse laugh.

Bill sighed and went back to watching the buzzards circling. The hot sun had long since drawn all the sweat of him, and he could feel the dried, salty remains of the rivulets that hours before had run down the side of his face. And he thought he could feel his skin blistering in ... well, places that didn't normally get much exposure to the sun. He closed his eyes against the brightness of the sun as his mind drifted.

Suddenly, he found himself standing in a grocery store, looking at the peanut butter displays. He reached for a jar and thought, Smooth or creamy? The other shoppers would never comprehend just how much was riding on the decision. Wait. Smooth or creamy? He looked down and realized he was holding a bottle of sunscreen. He looked around as he felt a tap on his shoulder and saw his old college flame, Linda, the redhead that had started his fascination with that hair color.

I hadn't talked to her in so long that I wasn't sure any communication from me would be well received, he thought out loud in a film-noir non sequitur. "Oh, my God, Linda! I haven't seen you in forever!" She was wearing purple lizard shorts and a sequined leotard, and had a marmoset on her shoulder.

He reached out to hug her and she looked at him quizzically, "But Grandpa", she said, "I don't want hair on my chest. I want BOOBS."

Bill shook his head to try and make sense of her statement and found himself back in the desert, naked and staked to the ground, with Linda kneeling beside him, bottle of sunscreen in her hand.

"Step right up, step right up!! Try your skill!!" A voice drew Bill's attention, and he looked over to see Danny DeVito in a Ringmaster outfit, like in the movie Big Fish.

"Hey, Linda," DeVito whispered, "his winkie looks a bit burned. Maybe you should put somea that sunscreen on it."

Linda looked over at the Ringmaster and she couldn't help but be envious of the idea. She opened the bottle and began applying the lotion eagerly and liberally.

"Who will be the first to try their luck," the Ringmaster cried. "Three shots, and you only have to hit once to win!!"

Jerry stood up, his bonds shredding, handed the Ringmaster a dollar, and took the rifle from his hands.

First? How could he be first? And if he was first was it fair to take the first shot at the drunken birds? Bill thought as Linda's ministrations began to both soothe and excite him. While he tried to make sense of these conflicting sensations, Jerry fired the rifle at the circling birds.

Suddenly, a shadow fell on Bill's face, and cool, refreshing water hit him. He blinked the water out of his eyes, looked up, and saw Teresa standing over him.

"Oh, Bill. I'm so sorry. Thank God I found you before it was too late!" She knelt down and began untying the ropes that held Bill spread-eagle on the ground, and then handed him the canteen and moved over to Jerry.....

01 June 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter VII

It had been a rough month for Bill.

The fight with Teresa that led to him agreeing to go to Vegas with Jerry, the disastrous experiment with peyote in the desert, getting kicked out of the casino at the Bellagio for card counting, the escape from the Luxor, and finally being snatched by the two goons and staked out naked in the desert.

But, just in the nick of time, Teresa had shown up and saved him - and Jerry - from boiling and/or desiccating to death in the hot desert sun. They put Jerry on a bus headed back home, and Teresa set out to make it up to Bill, spending lavishly from the earnings of her book tour.

She seemed willing to do whatever he asked of her, and even offered things he'd never felt comfortable asking for. Their days were full of travel from city to city and book signings - as her novel had made it to the top ten on the New York Times bestseller list - and their nights were filled with an animal passion unlike anything either had experienced before. They simply couldn't get enough of each other... and neither one was complaining in the least.

Another benefit of their new situation was that Teresa's creative juices were flowing at above flood stage, sweeping Bill along as well. They began collaborating on a new book and the pages flew by. Even with her 100+ words per minute typing she could hardly keep up with the story they were weaving together.

As the hectic pace of the book tour began to slow, Teresa decided that they should be seeing more of the country than what passed by outside the airliner windows as they flew from city to city, so she suggested they lease an RV and spend some time traveling. Bill had fond memories of camping as a child, so he had no objections.

They planned their itinerary around Teresa's speaking engagements, visiting national parks and historic sites in and around the cities where Teresa's agent sent them. From the Great Smokies to Denali, they drove and wrote and ... played ... across the continent until, one evening at a campground in the Grant Tetons, punch drunk on fumes and horny as all get out, Bill looked at Teresa playfully and said, "Where did I put that spatula?" as they returned to the camper from a presentation on animal wildlife in the park at the small amphitheater.

"Spatula?" Teresa giggled as she climbed the steps into the RV. "Is that what's protruding from your elephant's poopchute?" She pointed at the giant stuffed GOP icon that they had stolen from the Republican Convention a week earlier - and had since been using as the butt of a series of visual jokes that they would email to all their friends - that was strapped to the ceiling above the foldout couch.

"No, that's a ... personal item, as you well know," Bill growled at her as he reached out to tickle her, but she sidestepped him and ran for the bedroom at the back of the RV, dropping articles of clothing as she went.

Arianne paused in her writing and thought of Guy, who was probably sitting in his office... and most likely, if the information she had gotten was correct, thinking about her. She sighed and, not for the first time, regretted her hasty decision to sell the bakery and leave the city in the mountains. But what was done was done, and couldn't be undone.

"Ellen, honey, you've got a package down here," Geneva called up the stairs. Arianne had given the false name back when she didn't want to be found, and now couldn't bear the thought of confessing her deception to the sweet lady who had become more like a mother than a landlady to her.

"I'll be right down," she called out as she clicked on save and then reached for her silk robe. The favored gift from Guy was the only concession to decency that she could muster, as the heat of the non air-conditioned apartment was nearly unbearable - but she couldn't very well go downstairs in only her skivvies.

"Here, sweetie, have a glass of iced tea," Geneva said as Arianne walked into the kitchen. "The package is on the table."

Arianne took the offered glass gratefully and sat at the table. She sipped at the refreshing drink for a moment and then set it down and picked up the medium sized box. It was forwarded from her sister (who knew about the false name - and why she was using it), but the original return address was still visible:

G. Noir
1242-A Acme Building

A thrill passed through her body as she set the box back down. She forced herself to engage in some small talk with Geneva, who was always interested in her writing.

"Are you having any luck getting the story back on track?" Geneva finally asked, after talking about the flower garden they had been working on the evening before.

"No, not really. My organizational skills are such right now that I can't seem to find my ass with both hands!" Arianne replied as she finished her glass of tea.

Geneva smiled and said, "Well, maybe whatever's in that box will help you out."

"I hope so," Arianne said, then excused herself and took the box back upstairs which, no doubt, disappointed Geneva, but not knowing what was in the box, Arianne didn't dare open it in front of the older woman.

As soon as she shut the door to her room, she ripped the wrapping off the box and opened it. Her excitement mounting, she flung scraps of newspaper out of the box as if her very life depended on it.

Finally, she got through all the packing material and saw what lay in bottom of the box. And then the emotional damn burst. First it was a spork. Then the knife ran off with the spoon. When would the abandonment end? What did she do to deserve this kind of cutlery treatment?

As she sat there on the bed, crying and cradling the calfskin wrapped, long handled spatula, she couldn't quite put her finger on it, but she knew he was trying to tell her something. She did know, without a doubt, that she had to get in touch with Guy. Some things were just too incredible for coincidence.

31 May 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter VIII

It was anything but a quiet week in the city in the mountains, what with the 30th Annual Bele Chere Festival going on, so I had taken myself out of town, and up into the hills in search of a quiet campsite where I could pitch my tent and just relax.

I had sent the package to Arianne's sister, hoping that - even if she wouldn't talk to me, and tell me where Arianne was - she would still forward it. But I had no way of knowing. And no way of knowing what Arianne's reaction would be. So I hoped that spending a few days away from everything, and communing with Nature, would help me get my mind settled so I could get back to working on some cases and making some money.

I got a friend to drop me off at my favorite trailhead, agreed on a time to meet him to take me back to town, shouldered my pack and headed into the woods. I had a spot in mind along the creek where an old rail line had once been laid for logging, so it was flat and well above the water - in case of a sudden storm - and I knew it would take me about two hours of hiking to get there.

As I moved along the trail, I could feel the concerns of my life slipping away. The sounds and scents of Nature gently pushed away thoughts of bills, and rent ... and Arianne. About 3/4 of a mile in, the trail began to parallel Lynne's Creek, and the sound of the water rushing over the rocks as it headed down the mountain caused the last vestiges of concern to drop away.

"I should do this more often," I said to myself as I followed upstream, toward the first of three waterfalls I knew lay between here and my destination. As I got closer to the waterfall, I could hear the crash of the water as it cascaded down the face of the falls. But there was another, clashing sound that was beginning to tug at me. I slowed my stride as I tried to figure out this dissonance, but was totally unprepared for the realization that was about to come.

As I made my way around the last bend of the trail below the falls, I realized that I was hearing music... a marching band. What The Poop?, I thought as I walked into the small glade around the pool at the bottom of the falls. There, spread out all around the pool, was the Saint Francis School for Girls Marching Band, playing John Philip Sousa music and having a picnic.

The music ground to a halt as the girls noticed that I had entered the glade. I stood there with a dumbstruck look on my face, wondering how - and why - an entire marching band had come all the way out here into the forest to have lunch and rehearse. It certainly wasn't because they weren't good. They sounded quite good, not to mention looking very fetching in their blue and white uniforms.

It was then that I noticed that not all the girls had been busy playing music. There were several of them in the pool, staring at me with only their heads above the water, and I noticed piles of clothes on the bank nearby.

I looked around nervously, trying to figure the quickest way through the group and on up the trail, as one of the girls in the water moved towards me. "Hey, mister, would you care to join us? We've got lots of food, and the water is fine!" she said as she reached the bank and pulled herself out of the water. Her shoulders were scorched, and no one seemed to care.

I turned away quickly and busied myself looking at the trees up on the hillside as the girl laughed and put on her uniform. More laughter rippled through the group as they noticed that my face was red. I heard a sigh behind me, as the girl said "Sometimes the only way to get these things started is to grease them up a bit. My name is Mary Catherine, and I'm the drum major. Won't you please join us? Dean Michaels would never forgive us if we weren't hospitable."

As several of the girls around me offered food, Mary Catherine jumped up on a rock and motioned for the band to begin playing again - a jaunty tune that sounded somewhat familiar. I accepted some fruit and cheeses as I listened and enjoyed. Although the cheese was moldy, the glockenspiel stayed in tune, and I began to really enjoy myself. One of the girls helped me off with my pack, and I sat down to eat.

The band members were taking turns swimming, never enough at one time to detract from the music, although there were moments of discord in the brass section. The trumpets and trombones were doing all right, but the Sousaphone, again, was uncooperative. Despite this minor fracas, I was feeling extremely giddy, and even began to dance around a bit.

I continued eating the moldy cheese until suddenly a moose came crashing out of the woods, while the band was playing a rousing version of Amazing Grace. By this point I was acting as a music stand for Mary Catherine, and as the gangly animal careened through the panicked band - bellowing the whole time - its antlers snagged on a picnic basket and hurled the contents through the air. The condiments in the basket spewed everywhere, including on the me and the sheet music I was holding. Amazing Grace was doused in ketchup, but the moose was loud and clear.

It was then that I slipped on some mayonnaise and hit my head on a rock.

When I came to, the paramedics were loading me onto a stretcher. I had laid in the woods for two days, unconscious, before my friend found me, and the head wound had become infected. The antibiotics cost half again as much as the doctor's appointment. So much for socialized medicine. And there was no sign of a Girl's School Marching Band anywhere.

30 May 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter IX

It had been a very quiet week in the city in the mountains. I was still recovering from my abortive attempt at camping, and the head wound that resulted. The antibiotics were doing their job, but I had been experiencing a headache and so had unplugged my phone.

Which wasn't doing my bank account any good. Of course, clients had been few and far between for some time, so maybe I wasn't missing anything. No way to know.

Another aftereffect of my wound - or at least I thought it was an aftereffect - was that I was cold a lot of the time, so I began to think that a warmer, more arid climate was becoming vastly appealing.

I spent several days holed up in my office with the lights low and the curtains drawn, and then, as I began to feel a bit better, I ventured online to check my email and such. Imagine my surprise and joy when I saw that I had a message from Arianne!

I clicked on it and read eagerly. She had received the package, and decided that it was time to be back in touch with me, and, according to her message, talk about us getting back together. And there at the very end was her Skype name and "call me!"

After my eagerness to be in touch with her, I was somewhat surprised by my hesitancy to do so now that she had requested it, and so I dithered for a day or so, then logged into Skype and entered her name. Almost immediately, I received confirmation that she had added me as a contact.

I clicked on her name, and the computer dialed.

"Hi, Guy."

"Hi, Arianne."

After a brief silence, we continued for a while with some small talk... "Yeah it's been awhile... Not much, how 'bout you...I'm not sure why I called... I guess I really just wanted to talk to you... And I was thinking maybe later on... We could get together for awhile... It's been such a long time... And I really do miss your smile"

I paused for a moment, then said "Well, either you need to tell me where you are or you can come here."

Arianne replied, "I'm over in Dandridge. Living on Rossi Street, down near the --" and the call dropped. Then my computer went crazy....

The virus had appeared out of nowhere, and so they found themselves cut off. I looked around the office, but there was no one else - I had no idea where the voice came from.

Arianne looked at her computer in a daze as window after window opened. She couldn't get it to stop, so she shut the computer off, laid down on her bed and stared at the ceiling. It was nice to hear Guy's voice again, but she wasn't sure what to do next. She continued thinking as she drifted off to sleep....

The howling of the coyotes woke her up. They seemed to be just outside her bedroom window, they were that loud. And it was very odd, because she had, up to now, had no inkling that there were coyotes in the area. She got up and looked out the window and saw Geneva in the yard, struggling against a strong wind, picking up fallen branches. There had apparently been a storm come through while Arianne slept. Arianne pulled on a jacket and went outside to help, as it was obvious that Geneva was having a hard time of it.

The two women worked silently for a few minutes, cleaning up the storm damage, and, just as they collected all the debris, a powerful gust of wind came along and scattered the pile. Arianne looked around disgustedly, and she sighed and began rearranging the tree branches. Again.

When they had regathered all the mess, they went back into the house and discovered that mayhem had taken place in the kitchen. Geneva had baked a pie before the storm came through, and had forgotten that it was sitting on the window sill. Feathers were everywhere, and apple pie was out of the question. Geneva had a crazed look in her eyes as she said, "I can't seem to rid my house of these dots." Arianne stared at her landlady, not knowing what to say - or do.

It took me a couple of days, and a visit from Jimmy the Bartender - who was a bit of a computer whiz - to get the virus out of my computer, and when I tried to get in touch with Arianne, I had no luck. So, I decided to go "old school" and send her a letter. I spent some time carefully composing a letter that I hoped would be well received and addressed the envelope as best I could. It was impossible to know if her letter was going to get to its destination, so vague was the address she provided.

By now my head wound was pretty much healed, and the headaches were gone, so I decided to venture out. I waited until evening, and walked down the street toward the Five Spot. The sun was bright and the size of a quarter, yet the moon appeared as a silvery dollar. The street was more crowded than usual, and I had to push my way through folks and to the door of the pub.

I entered and found myself looking at a standoff. The regular patrons were all crowded into one corner of the room, and Dirk Easley was standing in front of the bar, his hands held out from his sides. A large man was standing a few feet away, a gun in his hands, his eyes darting back and forth from Dirk to the folk in the corner. He saw me and spun around to point the gun at me and said, "Where would the plane land now? Can you tell me that?!?"

Dirk took advantage of my entry and lunged at the man, who reacted fast and fired the gun at Dirk. Jimmy and I moved at the same time and wrestled the man to the floor and disarmed him. Jimmy held the man down as I went to check on Dirk.

"Damn slugs," Dirk said, clutching at the wound in his gut. He looked up at me as his eyes began to glaze over and quietly said, "But how did my pants get wet?"

29 May 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter X


It was raining sideways that morning.

Which, arguably, is the perfect weather for a funeral. So it was a fairly small crowd that gathered at the cemetery on the hill for Dirk's funeral. We stood there, overcoats whipping in the wind, umbrellas all but useless. There couldn't have been more than 20 mourners; half a dozen of his fellow private investigators, friends from his club, and some cousins I was sure he hadn't seen in years.

The cousins had predatory looks in their eyes, and one of them kept looking over at me. I suppose they knew I was the executor for Dirk's estate. Some estate, I mused as the priest droned on. An office full of old magazines, some furniture in a small apartment, and a 1949 Plymouth Woody station wagon. That was it, as far as I knew, but we'd all find out together later at the reading of the will.

The ceremony finally finished, and we trudged through the rain back to the waiting vehicles. I ended up in the car with a couple from the Whole-ism Club, where Dirk had been a member for many years. Marge and Anthony Geklis had known Dirk since he had moved to the city in the mountains some ten years earlier. I knew them by sight, but that was about it.

We rode in silence for a bit, then Marge turned to me and spoke. "Bear in mind," she said, "You have far more going for you than you think."

"I'm sorry?" I answered, more than a bit confused.

"You seem to be somewhat morose, is all. Which is understandable, since you just lost a good friend - and in such a strange way..." her voice faded off as she turned and looked out the window at the dreary day.

Anthony took up the topic, saying, "Yes. To survive being shot in the stomach only to go from such an odd thing."

"What was it, again?" Marge asked, still watching the rain hit the windows.

"It was very strange," I answered, reciting for what seemed like the hundredth time, "'I am afraid', said the doctor, 'that you have a terminal case of Epidermophyton floccosum. I would suggest you get your affairs in order.'"

Tears rolled down Marge's cheeks as she said, "To die from athlete's foot." The rest of the ride passed in silence, except for the rain hitting the car.

We arrived at the Five Spot, where the wake was to be held, and hurried through the rain to the open door. There were many more of Dirk's friends here, which was not really that surprising. Most people would rather have a drink in a cozy pub than stand at a graveside in the driving rain.

The avaricious cousins had already arrived, one of them carrying a little dog. Like many little dogs, it barked. And barked. And barked. The incessant barking was enough to drive me to tears.

Eloise Black, whom I had assisted on a case several weeks earlier, was also at the wake, and when she saw me she came over to speak with me. "I can't believe someone would bring a yippy dog like that to a wake! Isn't it illegal or something to have a dog in a pub anyway?"

My motto had always been - An apple pie is better than an angry swarm of hornets, so I didn't really want to get involved in this, but Eloise looked at me with such a look that I couldn't resist. I walked over to the owner of the dog and introduced myself, and then mentioned that having a dog in a pub - and at a wake - was probably not the best course to take, and that the dog might feel more comfortable waiting somewhere else.

The cousin, whose name I still did not know, must have had more to drink than I thought, because he reacted quite angrily. "How dare you tell me what to do with Chesterton! He has just as much right to be here as any of these... Neanderthal!" he bellowed, glaring around in disgust at the crowd.

"Percy, calm down," one of the other cousins said.

"I will not calm down, James! And if this ... disheveled excuse of a person does not remove himself from my presence immediately, I shall--"

"Look, Bub," I said, drawing myself to my full height, "This pub is full of Dirk's friends, and we're here to celebrate his life, not listen to some useless little bit of fur yap its fool head off. I knew Dirk for 20 years, and never once did he mention any of you, and you certainly never visited him. Now, I suggest you take that dog and leave."

I wasn't sure why I was reacting this way, as I am normally a peaceable man, but something about this guy just raised my hackles.

"This is a public place!" Percy shouted. "I will not have you telling me what I can and can't do!! I'll call the police!! I'll report you to the ---" Suddenly, he clutched at his chest and started to fall forward.

His brothers caught him and gently lowered him to the floor as Jimmy the bartender grabbed the phone and dialed 911. James handed the dog to his other brother. "Edward," he said, "Take this dog to Mr. Paulson's house. He'll know what to do." He then turned his attention to his fallen brother.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" I asked.

Wearing a face as serious as a heart attack, he said in a matter-of-fact tone, "My daddy did that to me once. Once!"

I looked at my drink in consternation, confused by the non sequitur, and then stood back. Within a couple of minutes, we could hear the wail of a siren as the EMTs arrived. They went to work on the fallen man, and soon had him on a gurney and out the door, James trailing along behind him, talking on his cell phone.

The rest of the wake went surprisingly well.

When I staggered back to the office a few hours later, there was a message on my machine from Dirk's lawyer. The reading of the will was to be postponed until Percy's condition was determined, and I was to call the lawyer back the next day to discuss matters.

I turned off the lights, collapsed on the couch, and was asleep almost instantly.

I awoke the next morning, feeling like a coal train was rumbling through my head. I stumbled into the bathroom and washed my face, then started a pot of coffee. Once I felt almost human again, I tried to call the lawyer - no answer. I tried repeatedly throughout the day to contact him, to no avail. I went to the Five Spot for lunch, and found out that Percy was going to be okay. Jimmy had been concerned, since the man had had an attack there in the pub, after all, and had called the hospital.

Once I got back to the office I began trying again to get through to the lawyer. After trying to reach him for over ten hours, the line finally rang through! The reading was to be two days later, at three in the afternoon.

Back in the early days of my junior detective apprenticeship I had gotten into the habit of logging the outcome of each case. Although I hadn't had to investigate anything with Dirk's situation, I reached for my book and made a mark in the appropriate column.

28 May 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter XI

It had been a busy few days for me. After the funeral and somewhat eventful wake for Dirk Easley, there was the reading of the will. I was quite surprised to find that not only was Dirk's estate much more extensive than I had ever thought, but that he had left the bulk of it to me. This fact did not please the Cousins Avaricious, as I now thought of the trio that had showed up at the wake and caused such a ruckus. In fact, they were now threatening to challenge the will in court. So the only access I had to my new-found wealth was the 1949 Plymouth Woody - which, truth be told, was the best part.

I had never been a materialistic person, and the idea of owning masterwork paintings and other artwork, not to mention all the rest, was a bit daunting. Well, I didn't really have a problem with the house on Beech Mountain - not that I would ever go skiing. But the pictures showed a nice house with an absolutely wonderful view, and I looked forward to going up and seeing it... assuming the court case went my way, that was.

The reading had been on Tuesday in Charlotte. I caught the bus down the mountain and sat through all the yelling from the Cousins Avaricious, and after it was over - and they had sneered at the Plymouth - the lawyer handed me the keys. I walked the five blocks to the garage where the car had been stored, signed the paperwork, and got in. I turned the key and the engine purred to life, the solid old motor sounding brand new.

As I sat there, listening to the engine idle, I noticed a button on the dash that didn't look original. It wasn't labeled, so I pushed it to see what it did.

"Do not attempt to defeat this safety feature," blared a voice from the radio speakers. I waited nervously for a moment to see what would else might happen, and when nothing did, I put the car in gear and drove it out of the garage and toward the highway. I had gone less than a block when I saw Jimmy, the bartender at the Five Spot, standing at a bus stop.

I pulled over to the curb, rolled the window down, and said, "Hey, Jimmy. What are you doing here? You need a lift?"

"Guy! Where'd you get that sweet ride?" the young man asked, coming over to the car.

"It was Dirk's, and he left it to me in his will," I replied, gesturing for him to get in. "What brings you to Charlotte?"

"Wow! It looks brand new!!" the exuberant bartender exclaimed as I pulled away from the curb. "Oh, I came down to visit my Aunt Sofia. She lives in the Panther Den Rest Home over by the Stadium. Thanks for saving me bus fare back up the mountain."

"No problem, kid. I'm heading back that way anyway."

As I drove, the feel and sound of the old car took my thoughts back in time to when I was just starting out in the Private Investigator business.

"Did I ever tell you about working for old Snappy Lefkowitz?" I asked Jimmy as we tooled down the highway.

"No, Guy, you haven't," Jimmy answered.

"I had been out of high school for a couple of years, and was still trying to find my place in the world. My Granpa had been a police detective and I had always thought that was a cool job, but being a cop held no interest for me. So I drifted from part-time job to part-time job, unhappy with them and hanging out on the streets more than I should, until one day in August my Granpa came by my place.

"'Come get in the car,' he said to me. Now Granpa was not someone to be disobeyed. Before he became a policeman, he spent five years working in the steel mills up north. As the saying goes, his muscles had muscles, and growing older hadn't diminished him at all.

"Anyway, I dutifully followed him to his car, which was very much like this one, and he drove us across town to the old Jackson Building. We went up to the 8th floor and to the office of one of his old buddies, Jerome "Snappy" Lefkowitz. Snappy was like those detectives you read stories about. Crisp linen suit, freshly blocked fedora, trenchcoat.. .the whole deal.

"Granpa walked into the office like he owned the place, and said to Snappy, "This is my grandson. Teach him everything you know." And then he walked back out the door."

Jimmy's eyes were huge as he looked at me and said, "He just left you there? Without asking you?"

"Those were different times, and Granpa was a different kind of man," I replied as I wheeled the Woody onto the interstate. I settled back in my seat, keeping one eye on the road and one on the speedometer as we sped down the road.

"So what happened then?" Jimmy asked.

"Well, Snappy looked at me, all gangly arms and legs - remember, I was only 20," I said as Jimmy looked at my ... no longer slender form, "and said, 'First thing is, you need a suit. C'mon.' He stood up, put on his hat and coat, and took me to the tailor.

"For the next year and a half I worked hard as Snappy's errand boy/assistant, learning all the basics - and many of the tricks - of the Private Investigator biz. We sat stakeout for days at a time, waiting to catch the philandering husband in the act. We tracked down the daughter that ran away from home to become an actress. We found the missing family jewels. All kinds of things.

"I asked endless questions, and Snappy never failed to answer directly... except for the one time when I said, 'Why do you wear gloves when you're loading the guns?' 'Oh, you know - just in case,' he answered curtly. I didn't figure out the real reason for several years, but that's another story for another time.

Sadness crept into my voice as I continued, "It all came to an end at the Jackson Building Christmas Party in 1978. Most of the offices in the building were one or two-person businesses, and so the whole building got together to have an annual party. Old Doc Hawkins, the dentist, dressed as Santa and chased all the secretaries around, there was spiced wine and strong eggnog, and everybody participated in the secret Santa.

"I was young and stupid at the time. As such, it never occurred to me that giving unrefrigerated olive loaf as a secret Santa present at work might have unforeseen consequences."

My stomach rumbled and I remembered I hadn't eaten since breakfast - and that was two cups of coffee and some dry toast. I felt giddy with the promised wealth, so I said something I'd never said to another man before, "Let me buy you some dinner, Jimmy."

"Gee, Guy, are you sure?" Jimmy said with no small amount of astonishment. This was a man who had seen me nurse a gin and tonic for three hours, just so I wouldn't have to buy the next round.

"Maybe it's the spirit of Dirk, but I feel like splurging a bit. Let's have some seafood," I replied as I saw the sign at the exit. I turned down the exit ramp,took a right at the light, and pulled into the Wharfed Mind Restaurant. We walked in and were seated at a table by the window.

"Order anything you like, Jimmy," I said as I looked the menu over. Jimmy was scratching his nose as the waitress arrived to take our order. His hand stopped suddenly and a look of concentration crept across his face. He glanced at her to see if she was watching, she wasn't, of course, so he went ahead and picked his nose. I chose the Calabash shrimp and Jimmy ordered clam chowder and a salad.

"So, what happened with the olive loaf, Guy?" he asked after the waitress had brought us our drinks.

"Hmm? Oh, that," I replied. "Well, the Christmas tree in the lobby was right next to one of those big old radiators. So when Mrs. Rimble, who was Doc Hawkins' receptionist and whose name I had drawn, opened the package, it ... well, it sort of exploded as she tore off the wrapping paper, and the most horrible smell filled the room. Judge Henderson, who had the whole top floor for his offices and who oversaw the Christmas party, was furious.

"'Who in the hell chose that as a gift!' he thundered. All of the partygoers shrank back from him - and away from the offensive smell emanating from Mrs. Rimble's lap. None of them had ever seen a full-blown conniption before and were quite unprepared for the mess. When no one answered - I was too terrified to say anything - he strode around the room, glaring at each person in turn, grabbing all the other presents and flinging them across the room.

"The longer he waited for someone to speak up, the angrier he got. Poinsettias went flying, and the other decorations that had been put up for the party fell to his wrath. As he finally approached me I was quaking in my patent leather shoes, certain that the guilt was clear on my face. Snappy must have seen it too, cause he stepped in front of the Judge, and whispered something in his ear."

By this time our food had arrived, and I ate while I continued my story. "Whatever he said to Judge Henderson deflated the anger like a tire runing over a nail. The Judge cast his glare once more around the room, then stomped to his private elevator, glancing back over his shoulder at Snappy, who stood there calmy, arms crossed.

"As soon as the elevator doors closed behind the Judge, the whole crowd bolted for the doors, to get some fresh air. I started moving that way, too, but Snappy's arm shot out and blocked my way. 'Let's go up on the roof,' he said, and grabbed my elbow. We took the other elevator up, then climbed the stairs to the roof.

"The stars were dim, blocked by the glare radiating from hundreds of empty parking lots. We stood there for a minute in silence, then Snappy turned to me and asked, 'Why didn't you own up to it?' I stammered and stuttered, giving excuse after excuse. It was kind of like painting one's self into a corner. Finally, I admitted that I had no good reason, other than I honestly feared for my life, the Judge's rage was so severe.

"Snappy was silent for a few moments, then said quietly, 'As of the new year, the office is yours. I've taught you all you need to know, and it's time for me to be moving on. Especially since I played a trump card tonight I'd been holding for years.' He looked me up and down, and then said 'I think it was worth it, though. You'll be a good PI, son.'

"He started to walk back to the stairs. I was stunned that he was turning over his business to me, but recovered just in time to shout, 'What did you say to the Judge?' before he went through the door.

"Snappy smiled as he replied, 'Oh, just a couple of things I overheard the Judge say to the preacher's wife several years ago.... There's nothing like the smell of sex in the morning. and,'..." I paused, noticing that Jimmy was turning an incredibly unhealthy looking shade of green. "Are you all right, Jimmy?"

"Boy, that chowder wasn't any good," he said, and jumped up and ran to the bathroom.

It was nearly an hour later - and after much apologizing by the manager of the restaurant, and a $20 gift certificate, which I tossed in the trash as we walked out the door - that we got back in the Woody and headed toward the city in the mountains, Jimmy laid out in the back seat, still not quite over his bout.

I'd been driving for 15 minutes when Jimmy suddenly said, "Uh oh!" and I heard the distinct sounds of vomiting. "I'm sorry, Guy. I threw up on your books."

"Books?" I asked, pulling over to the side of the highway. I opened the back hatch of the Woody and there were several boxes of books there, partially covered by an old ratty blanket. Some vintage erotica, hand written diaries and what appeared to be a complete set of German-Hungarian/Hungarian-German dictionaries. It was hard to tell, though, because not only do I not speak German or Hungarian, but they were covered with ... well. They were unseemly. It was the first time in my life (as best I could remember) that I had thrown away books, but volumes H through Q were left by the side of the road.

I got back in the car and pulled onto the road as Jimmy piped up weakly to ask, "What was the other thing Snappy overheard the Judge say?"

"Heh. He said, '"Muskrat" was never meant to be a verb.'"

27 May 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter XII

Arianne sat in her car, the engine off, and stared at the Acme Building. She knew that Guy would be up in his office, but she just couldn't get herself to open the car door and cross the street to the building.

And then the pipe exploded.

Arianne stared in amazement as the manhole cover fifty feet in front of her car flew up in the air, borne aloft on a stream of waste. Almost immediately the stench hit her, giving her the impetus she needed to leave the car and head for the front door of the Acme Building. A gust of wind blew some of the airborne shite her way and she got splattered just before she got to the door.

She pushed her way past a group of teens staring out the door, pointing and laughing as people ran from the excretory rain, and headed for the ladies room to clean up. She looked at the empty towel dispensers in disgust, and then stepped back out into the lobby. A quick glance at the news kiosk by the stairs caused her to shake her head. Then she had an idea....

It had been a quiet week in the city by the mountains. Despite their threat, the Cousins Avaricious decided to not contest Dirk's will, and I was in the process of getting all the legal stuff taken care of so that I could take possession of Dirk's estate. The Woody was a real blessing for me. I had already saved twenty or thirty bucks in cab fare, plus people smiled and pointed when they saw it coming down the street. Jimmy had fully recovered from his food poisoning and was back at work at the Five Spot, so my drinks were just the way I liked them again.

The only thing I didn't have was a case to work on, but after the events of the last couple months... I didn't really mind that much. And so it was that I was leaning back in my chair with my feet up on the desk, dozing, when my office door opened and Arianne walked in. At first I thought I was dreaming, but then a ... smell reached my nose. A smell that heretofore I had not associated with Arianne.

Seeing my nose wrinkle, she held up a hand to silence me before I could ask, and said, "Have you looked out your window in the last ten minutes?"

When I shook my head no, still somewhat taken aback at seeing her in my office, she told me what had happened and finished by saying, "...The paper towels were used up and there was no newspaper. I muttered something the kids couldn't hear and started ripping pages from the phone book to clean up the mess. And then I came on up, since I was in the building and, well, didn't want to go back outside."

"Hello to you to," I said, standing and crossing to her. I started to reach out and hug her, but a strange weakness hit me.

His once strong arms felt as though he had been heaving bales of hay onto a truck all day.

I looked at Arianne and said, "Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"That voice... It seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere." She looked at me quizzically and I hastily added, "Just kidding. Damn, it's great to see you!" My arms worked just fine this time, so I hugged her tight.

"Oh, Guy, I'm sorry I just ... left before. I was still messed up from the incident with the Samoan lawyer, and dealing with the police and all, and...." she trailed off as I put her head on my shoulder.

"None of that matters now. You're here. And, ummm, you smell like shit." I smiled at her to make sure she knew I was being playful, and said, "Let's blow this office and get you to a shower."

As we started down the hall she said, "Wait. My car's out front, and probably covered with...."

"Don't worry, kid," I replied. "I've got my own wheels now. And it's parked in the back lot." I told her about Dirk leaving me his estate in his will as we rode down to the basement in the elevator.

Freddie the custodian was standing by the back door as we walked out, and asked, "Where are you off to, Guy?"

"It's Tuesday, and that means it's time to wax the cat!" I shouted to him as we got to the Woody. Arianne laughed at his look as I put the car in gear and pulled out of my parking space.

We got to the apartment and while she was cleaning up, my cell phone rang. It took me a moment to realize what the sound was, as I'd only had the thing for a couple days and wasn't used to it, but then I pushed the button to answer and said, "Noir here."

"Hey, Guy. It's Frank Kirby, with the metro PD? I don't know if you remember me, but -"

"Yeah, sure, Frank. I helped you guys out with the DiNozzo case last year. How you doing?"

"I'm doing all right, but my cousin Jim, who works as a detective at the Department over in Waynesville, could use some help. They've got a case that's just up your alley."

"Can it wait til morning," I asked, as Arianne came out of the bathroom wearing only a towel. "I've got something I ... need to look into this afternoon."

"Sure, Guy, just stop by the station over there in the morning and ask for Jim. I'll let him know you're coming by. I owe you one, Noir," he said and hung up.

Arianne walked over to me and reached her arms up to my neck, and the towel fell to the floor....

The next morning, bright and early, I slipped out of bed without waking Arianne, got dressed and drove over to the Waynesville Police Department. I was still getting used to driving and not riding in the back of cabs, which meant I did more looking at scenery than I really should have.

As I drove past the shopping centers, I could sense the excitement in other drivers; the abundance of parking lots with empty parking spots is always a strange thrill in the suburbs. The whole scene was as nice as ever. Nothing ever changes, not ever, out here in suburbia.

I pulled into the police station and walked in. I told the desk sergeant I was there to see Detective Kirby, and he pointed me down the hall. My first take on Detective Jim Kirby wasn't all that good. He was in his office, which he shared with the K-9 unit, and, all things considered, Jim was having far too much fun with the Jiffy-Lam 3000 laminator. The dog looked at him reproachfully.

He looked up from the machine as I walked in and said, "You must be the PI cousin Frank said was coming over. Jim Kirby," he said, holding out his hand. We shook, and I asked him what the case was.

He explained that a Mr. Ralph McMahan had died of arsenic poisoning after eating dinner at the annual Kiwanis talent show. They had several suspects, but couldn't get the goods on any of them. He gave me a list of the names, with addresses, and I told him I'd check them out.

I read the report, including the statement of the deceased's wife, "He said, 'Sure; it was a small town fund-raiser, but that was by far the best plate of enchiladas he'd ever had.'" was about all she could say, and then I left the station to go interview the suspects.

The first name on the list was Dr. Emma Jones, Professor of History at the university in the city, so I called her office to make an appointment to stop by. On my way over there, I tried to come up with an excuse to be seeing a History Professor, as my general process is to talk to suspects without letting on that I'm checking them out. That way I get a feeling of them as a person. My intuition had rarely ever failed me. I was stuck for a bit for a topic to start on, but then I remembered about my great-great grandmother.

I walked into the office and introduced myself, then told the tale of my great-great. She really had died of mysterious circumstances, and the date had been lost for a long time. I told Dr. Jones the story, finishing up with, "The class of 1857's class letters had provided me with a general idea about her death – some time after October 4, 1862, but not more than a couple weeks. I can't get any farther than that, though. Do you think you can help me?"

While I was telling her my story, I had been getting a strange vibe, and the itch just wouldn't go away. She seemed excited to hear my tale, but not in the "oh boy, a history mystery" way. It was more the "oh boy, someone died mysteriously" way. In fact, she was way too excited, and my radar was pinging like mad. But I didn't want to move to fast.

Catching hardened criminals is like landing a fish. Always give them some line, and then set the hook. I learned that from Snappy Leftowitz. About criminals and fish.

So, I left her my phone number and asked her to call me if she found out anything, but that I would check with her in any case in a couple of days. She said that was fine, and walked me out to my car with a gleam in her eye.

By the time I pulled out of the parking lot, I was sure that The professor was the murderer, and just had to figure a way to prove it. So, instead of checking up on the other people on Detective Kirby's suspect list, I headed home to Arianne.

I got there and suggested that we go out to dinner, but she wanted to cook, so we went to the market to pick up some things. While we were out, we went by and got her car and took it to the car wash - and ran it through twice.

I offered to help fix the dinner, and while we were chopping veggies and prepping the meat, Arianne started asking me all kinds of questions about the case. I was still so thrilled to have her back in my life that I forgot all about professional ethics and was telling her all about the case before I realized it. In the Private Investigator biz, there are things you just don't share, but there was no holding back now. I told Arianne all my suspicions and just why I felt the way I did, and how my intuitions were almost always spot on. Not since Snappy had retired had I shared that secret with anyone.

Arianne was thrilled by the whole process, and asked if she could go with me when I confronted Professor Jones. I was going to refuse, but one look in her eyes and I had to say yes.

Two days later, Professor Jones called me, and asked if I could come over to see her, that she had some info on my great-great grandmother for me. I said sure, and she gave me directions to her house, as she had no classes or office hours that day. Arianne and I got in the car and headed over to the address.

We were met at the door by a maid, who led us to the Professor's study. I introduced Arianne, and we sat down while Dr. Jones went through the information she had gathered about my ancestress - all of which I already knew, of course. She was almost finished when we were interrupted by a loud squawking. Arianne and I looked at each other, confusion writ large on our faces, and then a parrot came riding through the study on a miniature tricycle.

As it crossed the room, it said, "Put the arsenic in the enchiladas. He'll never know what hit him! Hahahahaha!"

That was all it took. I called Detective Kirby and detained the Professor while we waited for him to show up and arrest her.

As the uniformed officers were leading her out in handcuffs, I overheard her say, "This is the last time," she said to herself, "the very last time I will let the parrot ride the tricycle."

And so, another case went into my book.

26 May 2008

Interactive Creative Writing, Chapter XIII

It had been a quiet week in the city in the mountains. The final paperwork had gone through on the inheritance, and I found out I would only have to sell a third of the paintings and other artwork to pay the taxes, so that was good. Arianne and I were settling back into our relationship comfortably, and had decided to go up to the house on Beech Mountain for a few days. I had hired an assistant, a young man by the name of Albert Cerrano, and told him to keep my desk chair warm and refer any clients to Fizzy Joines, a private investigator that I had worked with often in the past.

So we threw some stuff in the back of the Woody, Arianne grabbed her laptop, and we headed up the Blue Ridge Parkway towards Banner Elk and Beech Mountain. Like a lot of the homes up on the mountain, Dirk's house had been available for weekend rental during the times he wasn't using it. We figured we would do the same, so once we got to the top of Beech Mountain, we pulled into the lot of Beech Realty to sign the paperwork and pick up a set of keys to the house.

Arianne decided to go next door to the General Store while I took care of things with the Realtor, so I was alone as I walked into the office. I didn't see anyone, so I called out - "Hello?"

"Be with you in a minute," I heard a woman's voice call out from behind a closed door. Then I heard a flush and the door opened. The woman who walked out of the bathroom wasn't what I expected in a Realtor's office. She was dressed conservatively, as Realtors tend to be, but something about her gave me the impression that she would be more comfortable in a logging camp or on a soccer field.

"Whew! Hope you don't need to use the facilities, friend," she said, waving her hand in front of her face. "That's why you don't light a candle in the bathroom," she added, then burst out laughing.

"Janey Hicks," she said, holding out her hand and taking mine firmly. "How can I help you?" She stepped over to the front window and saw the Woody in the parking lot. "Oh! You must be Mr. Noir. I recognize Dirk's car. So sad to lose him, but life goes on. Let me get the paperwork and we'll be done in a jiffy. I'm sure you want to get on over to the house and check it out."

We were going over the documents when her computer beeped. While I continued reading the rental details, she opened the incoming email and read for a moment. "It's from my worthless ex boyfriend," she said to me. I could tell just by looking at her that, after reading the email, she wanted to reach through the computer screen and smack him for his burning stupidity. "Best day of my life was the day I told him what he could do with himself. We were at the marina over to Watauga Lake, waiting for some friends we were gonna go boating with, and I just had enough of him. He was drunk again - as usual - and when he tried to paw me right there in front of God and everybody, I punched him in the gut, smacked his face and shoved him in the water. Bam, pow, oof, splash!"

I smiled with her and then she burst out in a loud guffaw, "You probably think I'm an awful person, don't ya!"

"Not at all, Ms. Hicks. Sounds to me like he had it coming. So, I just need to sign here?" I added, wanting to finish up and get over to the house.

"Yep. That takes care of things at this end. As soon as you and your ladyfriend figure out when you're most likely to want to come up here, you just let me know, and we'll block those dates from the rental schedule. Welcome to the Village of Beech Mountain!"

It shook her hand again as she handed me the keys and took my leave, smiling at the Mountain Woman image made flesh. Arianne wasn't back to the car yet, so I walked across the parking lot to the store. As I was climbing the steps up on to the porch, I heard a voice cry out, "Stop him!" and a young man came barreling out the front door.

My finely honed instincts kicked in and I reached out to grab the fleeing miscreant. He goosed, then ducked. Unluckily for him, though, I'd been nabbing perps for longer than he'd been alive, and was wise to their tricks. I tackled him, and the package he had tried to get away with went flying.

The rogue lay there for a moment, stunned by the impact with the sidewalk, and then moaned loudly. He wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen it with his own eye - there was his other eye, looking back at him. He reached out and picked it up - I could see it was glass at that point - and popped it back into the socket.

The Village Police Station was just on the other side of the real estate office, so it took only a moment for an officer to run over and take control of the would-be (and, frankly, not very intelligent) thief. As the cop was securing the prisoner, I could hear the young man babbling. Much like the Internet, there was some useful, possibly even vital information hidden amid the rambling and bravado. He swayed on his feet, clearly intoxicated, and let loose a spew of colourful bile on the sidewalk - it furthered the metaphor, and I was delighted.

Arianne stepped out the front door of the store as the crook shouted something along the lines of "It's in the lutefisk!!" and jerked his chin toward the package, which had burst open as it hit the concrete sidewalk. Arianne walked over to it and I joined her there.

"What is he talking about, Guy?" she asked me.

"Not sure," I replied, squatting down to look at the contents. It had the consistency of pudding, but the scent wafting off its quivering bulk spoke volumes about un-emptied dumpsters and forgotten stacks of crusty socks. "Definitely lutefisk," I said, moving to stand upwind.

"I'm gonna snitch a bit of it so we can check it out," Arianne said, pulling a small plastic container out of her shopping bag.

"I'm on vacation, Darlin'," I said as I smiled at her, knowing that she knew that I wouldn't be able to resist the mystery implied in all these goings on. She scooped some of the fishy stuff into the container, and stood as a man in dark glasses came out of the store and strode directly to the package. He quickly gathered up the contents, and carried the mess back into the store, without saying a word or even looking at us.

I had to make a statement to the cop, but there was no problem once Janey came out of her office and vouched for me, and then Arianne and I headed on over to the house.

I had been to Dirk's house several times, but it was Arianne's first visit. She was quite impressed as she walked through the rooms, and positively thrilled when she saw the hot tub on the deck off the master suite upstairs.

"I think that, after the drive and the excitement at the store, we deserve to ... relax... in the tub for a bit," she called to me.

I walked out onto the deck to join her. "Sounds good to me, but you better read the house rules over there," I said, pointing to the carved sign hanging on the wall.

She stepped over and read for a moment, then turned to me. "Naked?" she cried, aghast. Then she burst out laughing and quickly stripped down.

All I could do was join her....

Some time later, Arianne was looking around the house and found an old microscope that Dirk had used on a couple of cases involving priceless collectible Tibetan Hopping Spiders.

Few are privy to the inner workings of the insular world of competitive arachnid collection, but Dirk had shared a few anecdotes with me at the time. I knew, for instance, that the insanely intricate yet frequently modified qualifications for any given year's Prize Specimen made for lively discussions and heated controversy at the biweekly meetings. All in all, the Arachnid Fanciers' gatherings were a morass of strong opinions loosely held - and loudly expressed.

On a shelf beside the microscope, Arianne discovered a prize specimen specially mounted in a small glass box. She slid it under the lens and bent to the eyepiece.

Looking into the microscope, her first thought was how much the spider looked like Dame Penelope's insufferable Yorkie, Ewok...but with more eyes.

To be continued....