After writing professional letters and sales copy for customers and friends in my too long career in the paint and industrial coatings industry, and thanks to my beautiful wife, I decided to leap into the unknown and become a full time writer. I made several attempts at various novels. After investing countless hours writing and questioning my very worth, I chalked up these metaphorical endless staircases to nowhere as practice for my latest work, Let Flowers be Flowers. A few kicks in the teeth later, based on reader feedback I reworked Flowers, added 13 chapters and once again feel it is ready for publishing. Since I had an interest in screen writing at the time, Flowers started as a screen play, and once again at the encouragement of my wife (I'm sensing a developing pattern), I decided to turn it into a novel. Doing so allowed me to explore writing descriptive text of various landscapes I know very well - from the coulee area of western Wisconsin to the boreal forest of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I have enjoyed writing Flowers because I was able to explore both character development and bringing to life the various relationships among men and their families. Exploring the sociopathic nature of a killer was an interesting twist, a character who was inspired by a deep imagination of what it is like to be a killer - what motivates a killer, what haunts a killer, and what purpose that killer believes he has in his life. In addition to pursuing my passion for writing, I work with several clients in areas of speech writing, political opinion pieces, and business or technical papers. I enjoy working with clients by taking in what their needs are and turning it into a product that has their voice, while bringing their message to their audience with interest.

“That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more.” Pop a can of spinach, enjoy instant super- human strength and beat the crap out of Bluto. If Popeye would have fought evil instead, he could have been right up there with the supers, man, woman or bat. Consider evil in the general sense of the word though, nothing global. The official American hero representative overseas shouldn’t sound like he had a recent stroke, or a crippling speech impediment that may in fact have been an unfortunate result of repeatedly eating out of lead-soldered cans. Imagine the French, ‘Ees thees da best they had to offa?’.

And yes, Bluto was technically evil, but it wasn’t his fault. Olive Oyl played him and Popeye both. She was the real villain, tormenting Bluto and his over-active pituitary, flaunting her stick thin figure like an unemployed concubine. She messed with Popeye’s head so hard he had to drown his sorrows in soggy, broad leafed vegetables that looked and smelled like they were dredged from the bottom of a swamp pond.

Paul wasn’t sure how it happened. One minute he was admiring his metaphorical kingdom, the quiet domain that was Miller Creek Mall after hours, and the next? He wakes up Saturday morning sprawled on the floor in his underwear with Betty the mall manager and half a dozen elderly walkers standing over him wondering if he was still alive.

“Someone hit me with something. Something hard,” Paul said.

The question of who ‘dunnit’ will have to be shelved for the time being, as the day before, the Black Friday incident offered much bigger fish for frying. Friday fish fries are culturally significant in these parts.

“Is there a scenario where this was an accident?” Philippine asked.

“Maximine, tell me you’re here for a new pair of man stomping high heel hoof covers and an overpriced cup of bean juice,” the detective jabbed.

“Save it flat foot, you know you’re not that lucky Czerneski,” she said.

Detective Tom Czerneski had been swimming in the shallow pool of collaborative investigating so long that the skin on the top of his feet were worn raw.

“I suppose you’re going to tell me this is connected to your missing persons somehow,” Tom said.

“Well, now that you mention it, the thought had crossed my mind,” she said.

“Sorry Philippine, the only way you’re finding foul play here is if the supposed perp, in plain sight of a couple hundred people set up a real-life game of mousetrap. No way, no how. Hell, it was a good thing she hung there for minute, gave people a chance to get out of the way,” he said.

“How long are you going to leave her out there?”

“Not too much longer, the meat wagon is on its way. Besides, we still got a mourner,” Tom said.

“You’re a real sensitive soul Czerneski. Mind if I talk to her?” she asked.

“Knock yourself out,” he said.

Well inside the yellow tape Tempest Seely sat by herself on the same sort of folding chair that caught her friend. She was chanting something inaudibly, her lips moving like a subtitled movie on mute.

“Oh my Tempest, you knew her?” Philippine asked.

“I did, she was like, like my…”

Tempest took a moment to clear her throat and gather herself.

“She was just a few feet away, she was coming in to drop off dolls, just a few more steps,” Tempest cried.

“I’m so sorry. If there’s anything I can do…” Philippine said.

Tempest picked her head up slowly and stared directly into Philippine’s eyes.

“Find it,” she said.

“I’m sorry what? Find what?” Philippine asked.

“It. I don’t know what it is, who it is. I know you can feel it, it’s in your bones. She felt it, my lovely lady Pireau. She warned us in her own way, and it took her. It took her from us and now, now…” Tempest broke down again.

“As much as I would like to say I don’t know what you’re talking about, I can’t. I can’t because there’s something going on here Tempest, and it scares me,” Philippine said.

Tempest, once again gaining her composure grabbed Philippine by both hands and plead with her.

“The police will do nothing, you are my hope, John Blake’s hope, even Roy Manis’ hope,” she said.

“I thought you hated Roy,” Philippine said.

“Hate is what it wants, hate has lead us here, next to my beautiful friend. I have to go. I can’t be here anymore. Here, call me when it’s done. I have to go. I have to go.”

Tempest handed Philippine a note, presumably with her number on it and ran from the area. Philippine didn’t even look at it, she just kept her eyes on Tempest and tucked it into her front pant pocket.

“What the hell was that all about,” Tom asked.

“That’s her friend lying there, that’s what it was about. Sounds like they were close,” Philippine said.

“Ah, I get it, carpet munchers, huh?” Tom asked.

“Czerneski, I swear if there were more ways to say you’re a damn pig I can’t think of one. Anybody see anything?” she asked.

“Hell yes, about a hundred kids and their mothers. They all say the same thing, they looked up, she was hangin’ there and then she fell. She was holding…”

Tom was interrupted by a whole new array of panicked screaming coming from the second floor.

“Now what? Sergeant, can you go see what the hell that’s all about now?” Tom asked.

“Yessir, on my way,” he answered.

“How did she fall Tom?” Philippine asked.

“Something slippery on the ground, looks like oil,” Tom said.

“And that’s normal?” she asked.

“The way we figure it, they had a lift in here the night before last hanging decorations and what not. Probably one of them leaked,” he said.

“Did you sample the oil? Check it against the lift?” she asked.

“Not as of yet, Maximine,” Tom said, annoyed.

“And even if that’s true, it doesn’t explain why she was on the railing. I mean, people don’t just slip and fall up, right? It doesn’t make any sense, I mean, she’d have to be hanging over the edge almost, don’t you think? Somebody has to have seen something,” she said.

“Look Maximine, whether you PI’s like to admit it or not, accidents happen. Not everything is a big conspiracy. So if you don’t mind, I gotta make sure this here accident, slash old lady is cleaned up and outta here before them cameras get turned on. Cause you know what happens then? I put on my sad face and tell the city there was an unfortunate accident. Then, after that, the world’s most credible witness is gonna come on and say the same damn thing. Maybe you know him, he’s got a big white beard, wears a red suit, kinda heavy set if ya get my drift,” Tom explained.

 “Well, in that case, you mind if I ask a few questions?” Philippine said.

“Watch yourself Maximine, I don’t need no half-cocked PI makin’ waves,” the detective warned.

“Don’t worry about me Detective, I’ll be just like a little elf, you won’t even know I was here,” she said.

“Fine, knock yourself out,” he said.

Philippine was almost at the tape holding back the masses when Tom yelled back at her.

“Hey elf! Just in case you find anything in that stocking, you be sure to let me know first, huh?” he said.

Philippine nodded and disappeared into the crowd.

By the time Saturday morning rolled around Betty was at wit’s end. Between the accident, her missing people, Killer creek rumors and the press, who have consequently picked-up on the rumors, she sobbed uncontrollably.

“My God Paul, what happened? Are you okay?” Betty asked.

“Someone hit me with something, something hard,” Paul said.

“What happened to your clothes?” she asked.

“My clothes? Shit, my clothes!” Paul yelled.

He was so busy screwing his head on straight he didn’t realize he had been stripped. His guard uniform including his hat, nightstick, batman utility belt and everything on it was gone. He was left with a wife beater t-shirt, formerly whitey tighties, black socks jammed to his knobby knees and a pair of shiny, non-slip, short bus guard shoes.

The day before, after the incident, amid the chaos, Roy slipped out of the display window and took up a cliché pose closer to the front door.

He’s not getting away with this, not again.

He’d check, then move, check then move again as he inched closer to the door, eventually making it out in front of the boutique, a welcoming ambassador to the novel treasures inside.

“How did you get out here? I swear, it’s always something. C’mon, you’re coming with me,” Tempest said.

She had just left the scene downstairs and fully intended to close the boutique, send her staff home and disappear for the rest of the day. She picked Roy up by the waist and tried to carry him back inside the store, but he clobbered her arms and broke her grip. Tempest jolted backwards and bumped her head on the metal doorframe, hard enough for her to see stars.

It’s now or never.

Roy ran out into the very public second level of the mall. His awkward gate lacked balance. Unable to adequately contort his body to weave through and around obstacles, he crashed and bounced off nearly everything in his path, including people.

Some were too shocked to utter a word, others smiled and laughed, sure that they were part of some sort of hidden camera, or mass marketing event.  It was mostly the little ones who wailed in terror at the hard, plastic anthropomorphic nightmare. Their screams carried like a wave through the upper level until Roy finally ducked into one of the big department stores.

The second level of the store where Roy entered was littered with people picking through shelves, searching for deals on unnecessary items that will save them enough money to make them feel like their hamburger was free.

The people who chased him mingled with those already inside until nobody had a clue as to where he had gone. Inside the dressing room, Roy slipped out of his burlap overshirt and cargo shorts and into whatever article of clothing happened to be left on the hook. In this case, a black, tea-length party dress with rhinestones bedazzling a lacey handkerchief hem.

The boots didn’t do the dress justice, but the ensemble really did a good job of accentuating the solid tone of his legs.

This is just great.

Peering through the slats in the door he could see people searching. Every mannequin in the store was suspect, each an unwilling recipient of a pointed physical attack meant to make them blow their cover.

He saw the sergeant first and then Philippine. They spoke briefly to each other and then to a gaggle of witnesses who appeared to be pointing in every direction.

If I only… I gotta warn her.

All good things must come to an end, and this curiously undelightful Black Friday at Miller Creek Mall was no exception. The closing announcement was soon followed by the pitter patter of employee feet who collectively spared no time finding the exits.

Paul’s first round was uneventful, no people, no music, no mannequins. He heard about the chaos earlier and was pleased to have missed it. He didn’t believe what people said, chalking it all up to hysteria born of an unfortunate accident. He even laughed out loud at the prospect of a mannequin being alive, scoffing at the ridiculousness of the notion. And then it hit him, literally.

Roy needed to warn Philippine, but he was afraid. If he were to be caught he would surely be destroyed. The warning from the old woman played over and over in his mind. The only man who knew he existed, the only person who could help him was the evil to which she referred.

He would have cried if he could. Defeated, depressed, and overwhelmed with terror Roy repented, praying that God could hear him through his plastic shell.

Santa’s workshop, a velvet rope laden maze where kids wait lifetimes to see the Claus while parents posture themselves, planning for bad backs while they dissuade cherubic impending fears. Small tables along the route littered with coloring sheets and crayons offered consuming art opportunities victims never had a chance to finish.

Much like the children who infested the same waters, the popular theory suggested the twisted prankster simply ran out of time. It most likely took him so long to dress a mannequin in Paul’s uniform that he didn’t have time to finish the note before the mall opened.

‘Help me, I’m Ro’ was as far as the broken blue crayon and his poor penmanship could take him.

It’s hard to write with plastic hands. The white light blinded him, he felt like a stone shot from a giant slingshot.

Not again.

When Roy came to his senses, his lips were locked against those of a beautiful young woman. In a circle around them, half a dozen people knelt, watching with envy, their faces lit with the anticipation of trying it themselves. He relished the air pumping into his lungs, a feeling he had not enjoyed for some time. 

Keys. If you’re very young, or very old, it’s whatever you just had, but for an adult it’s keys. Keys are the most lost and often misplaced item an adult can own. There’s no official science here, no study brought to you by your favorite pharmaceutical company or current government, just an observation. You need keys for everything, cars, homes, safes, hotels, etc. The list is daunting. All because people are dishonest.

What do they look like?

They look like keys.

Where did you find them? You couldn’t have, I looked there.

I don’t get it.

Because you missed the key to understanding, the most oft lost key, hands down.

I spent the last few days wearing the numbers off my phone. I love pushing the buttons. The clicking and beeping satisfy to the point where sometimes I wish phone numbers were longer. A dial phone person might disagree with me, but I would argue that trogging your way through longer numbers with a dial phone might give you more time to think of things to say. Maybe answer the question yourself before you ask, before you had to waste that person’s time checking seedy motels, casinos, and park benches. There are only so many favors I was willing to call-in to have a guy I know flip and finger the bum with the newspaper blanket behind the nunnery.

Family would have been helpful, if in one case he had any, and in the other if they cared. John Blake has a cousin who was surprised to know he still existed. Seems their prospective families became estranged when both men were children. Marty Fischer lived a couple of hundred miles away and had little intention of caring about his cousin’s disappearance besides hollow placations and virtue signaling strong enough that he could sleep at night.

I was so hopelessly irritated that I tossed almost half a cup of perfectly good coffee against the brick wall outside the cop shop. Dead ends I could handle but asking Czerneski for help hurt like my soul stubbing its toe.

Turned out both of their places were clean. Normal guy stuff, messy, not much food, filthy bathrooms, a dead goldfinch, and a couple of dirty magazines. Correction, one of them had a parakeet, emphasis on had.

They only had one thing in common, the mall. I already squeezed Betty for anything useful, personnel files, habits, favorite foods, known hobbies, and sexual preferences. My only option was obvious, MawMaw said it more than once, ‘If you wants to find bodies, you gots to flip a few stones.’

Staring into the hobby shop window without the mannequin didn’t have the same mesmerizing effect. I tried, thinking maybe I could de-focus my eyes long enough to get into it, but all I got was an empty store.

Across the mall I felt as if I was seeing an old friend, the unspoken bond sort of friend. The friend who you don’t talk too often, but you can pretty much catch up with a glance and glass of something with alcohol. I liked his outfit, right down to the boots. Tempest didn’t sell boots. The store was about as busy as you might expect.

“Hi Tempest, remember me?” I asked.

“Why yes, how’s the leg?” she asked back.

I reached down and rubbed my leg.

“Oh, great, really good stuff, really got in there,” I said.

“Great, I’m so glad for you. What can I help you with today?” Tempest asked.

“I’m not sure if I made it clear last time, let me re-introduce myself. Philippine, Philippine Maximine. I’m a private detective hired by the owners of the mall to look into the history of a man who used to work here,” I told her.

“A man? Here? Oh no, I’m sure you’re mistaken. I’ve never had a man working here,” Tempest said.

“No, not here in the store, in the mall. His name was Roy, Roy Manis, he was the security guard,” I explained.

Tempest Seely took a deep breath, one step back and braced her arm against the sales counter behind her.

“I will tell you I have wondered, but not aloud. I didn’t want to curse it. Whatever the reason that man is gone is good enough for me,” she said.

“So I’m assuming you were not a fan?” I asked.

“A fan? Of a pig? No more than I am a fan of one cooked,” Tempest said.

“I see. Maybe you can elaborate?” I asked.

“Ms. Maximine, you could walk this mall day and night for weeks and never find a more terrible person.”

“Is that right?” I asked.

A loud crash and bang drew our attention to the front of the store. A small, gray, painted box, the type that holds shoes for sale closer to eye level tipped over in the display window. The mannequin must have been leaning on it for he too was pushed against the glass. The unique position of his landing place almost made it seem as if he tried to catch himself. He pointed forward, at a man who happened to be watching the whole episode unfold, John Buries. He tipped his English countryside gentlemen’s hat to us and came inside.

“Oh no, what have we here?” he asked.

“The box tipped over and hit the glass,” Tempest said.

“I’m so sorry, I must have left it uneven,” John said.

“Why John Buries, fancy meeting you here” I said energetically.

“I assure you there’s nothing fancy at all. Just doing my due diligence, and it appears it’s a good thing I did,” he said.

“Actually, I’m glad you’re here John, I was going to get ahold of you anyways. In your time here, do you remember the mall security guard? His name was Roy, Roy Manis. From what I understand if you’d have met him, he’s the kind of guy most people remember,” I said.

“No, I can’t say that I have, especially considering his anecdotal repute. Did you say his name ‘was’?” he said.

“Um yeah, as a matter of fact it appears he has flown the coop so to speak. Can’t find hide nor hair of him,” I said.

“I wish I could help you, I really do, but like I said,” John repeated.

“Okay, well, if you don’t mind, I have a few more questions I’d like to ask Tempest away from prying ears. That is, of course, if you have a few minutes, Ms. Seely. May we use your office?” I asked.

“Absolutely, honestly though, when it comes to that man, I’m not even sure where to start,” she said disgusted.

“No problem at all. That’ll give me a chance to freshen up this display. I will, of course, do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen again as well,” John said.

“Great, and hey, thanks again. See you later?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” John said.

John worked his job like a busy little bee until Tempest and Philippine were out of sight.

“So, Roy Manis huh? What did you do to deserve this, Mr. Manis? I told you bringing you here was a good idea. It appears, Mr. Manis, we have found your witch. And if not her, then definitely her voodoo queen friend. Stay tuned, keep your place. We have to let the world know who you really are but, first, we have a few loose ends to tie off. One of the last things we need is a private dick sniffing around,” John said.

No! Not her!

Roy dropped his arm and pulled on John’s coat, doing his best to portray concern.

“Don’t worry, I said she’s the last thing,” John said.

You son-of-a-bitch.

While Tempest was busy with Philippine, John bought every last voodoo doll in the boutique, then put them in the public trash can out in the mall in front of the store. He kept one, flashing it from his inside coat pocket to Roy, like he was selling hot watches.

When the women returned John was waiting by the store’s front sales counter to greet them.

“It’s all taken care of, my sincerest apologies, Ms. Seely,” John said.

“It’s no problem really, thank you so much for your help with everything,” she said.

“Ms. Seely, as long as I have your attention, I have to ask you about this doll I purchased from your store. The authenticity is beyond measure, and frankly I’m enthralled with it. I would love the opportunity to purchase more of them. I know for certain that I have some family and friends who would absolutely love them, well with the holidays coming on,” John gushed.

“Oh, well I’m sure we have quite a few more right over…” The shelf was of course empty. “My, wow, I wasn’t expecting that. Tell you what, let me make a quick call and I’ll find out when I can get some more,” she said.

“That’d be great. I, or rather, we’ll, just hang out for a few minutes,” John said.

“Honestly, Mr. Buries I didn’t take you for the gift giving type,” Philippine said.

“I guess you just never know about some people,” John quipped.

“Good news, I just got off the phone with my supplier and she said she could have more here by Friday,” Tempest said.

“Hmmm, any idea what time? My schedule is filling up fast,” he said.

“Oh, she is usually pretty prompt. I’d say 10:30 would be on time and by 10:45 she’d be unusually late,” she said.

“Great, I’ll see you then. And what about you, Ms. Maximine? Would you have time for a lunch engagement this day?” John asked.

“Uh, I would love to, and thank you for asking but I’m not really having much luck tracking these guys down. I’m going to talk to some other people in the stores and see if I can’t put together some sort of working theory,” she said.

“Very well then, la prochaine fois mon amour,” he said.

Philippine was shocked into stunned silence. She knew the words. French was common where she grew up, but it had been awhile.

“My love? A bit presumptuous are we not, Mr. Buries?” she asked.

“I presume nothing, and reap the benefits of surprise,” he said walking away.

In the mall world, Christmas is the big season, the time of year when most retailers hope to make their nut. Having a properly decorated mall which is tasteful and inviting to customers without being over-bearing is crucial. Post close is the best time for crews to get the job done, especially the night before Thanksgiving.

“Not sure they could pay me enough to do that job, am I right Paul?” John asked.

“Oh, hey, yeah, no kidding. Hi, I forgot your name but what are you doing here?” Paul asked.

“Same thing as these guys, just finishing up downstairs,” he said.

“Oh, I didn’t know you worked here too. Yeah, you said it. No way you’re catching me up there on those lift things hanging decorations. I have a hard-enough time hanging lights on my gutter at home. It’s gotta be thirty feet,” Paul said.

“Fifty, I’d say. Hell, it’s probably twenty-five from the railing,” John said.

“Yeah, I guess they’re going to string holly up and down all those too,” Paul said.

“That would be a nice touch, don’t you think?” John asked.

“The more the merrier,” Paul said.

“Indeed,” John said.

Friday morning Lady Pireau was ascending slowly up the glass elevator with her burlap bag of dolls at 10:25 am. She seemed pleased with the holiday decorations and stopped occasionally to notice and admire them. In front of the boutique, amidst the occasional pub table and plant boxes with tiny Xmas trees, the holly strung along the outer rail began to ring.

One lone bell drew her gaze, as it was tied to the leg of one of her dolls. She would have normally dismissed its presence as simple ironic ornamentation if not for its coal black face. Lady Pireau would never, not ever.

The situation demanded further inspection, she approached the doll and attempted to tug it free of the strand. Her mind dismissed the sensation of the holly tugging back. She tried but could not let go. In an attempt to preserve the doll as an ornament as well as add an embellishing shine, some enterprising soul coated it with a clear varnish that most obviously had not had time to dry.

Investigators believe she most likely never noticed the nearly clear oil on the floor, most likely leaked from the scissor lift the night before.

As she folded over the railing, the holly wrapped her neck. She hung there for a few moments, obliged by the screams of holiday shoppers patiently waiting for Santa below.

Once the strand finally broke, she caught the back of a metal chair on her way to the ground ironically breaking both her fall as well as her neck.

John sat at a small round table along the railing a few festive bows down the length of the holly strand, patiently waiting for his dolls to arrive. He joined the hordes gaping over the edge, taking in all the horrifying scene had to offer. He gave Roy a wink and a nod before disappearing into the crowd.

A few of the lucky kids in line received free voodoo dolls as consolation for Santa having to unexpectedly leave to feed his reindeer.

Have you ever considered any photo of yourself to be good enough? Are you the sort of person who loves having their picture taken? Do you love the process, the result, or both? Fearless people dress-up, paint themselves, and pose willingly without apprehension. The more they dive into the shallow pool of narcissism, the more likely they are to emerge dripping with a radiant glow. It’s some sort of cold fusion of self-confidence, a scientific breakthrough that keeps burning without fuel or outside stimuli. Yet, the picture could always be better.

For some, the end result of a photo session is a Ming vase shattered into a million pieces. Even though it was a handmade one-off and there will absolutely positively never be another, they offered to let the clown spin it on a tall stick at the circus. The photo is not to dread as much as it is a well painted door that usually stays locked. It’s where they store self-loathing and doubt, and the one and only favorite photo of themselves that doesn’t really exist. The picture is never good enough.

I don’t sleep. I wonder if I’ve ever slept. I guess my mind turns off for a while, time passes, and I become sentient again. Focus.

I’ll rush him when he comes in, he’ll never expect it. He acted like he knew I was me, but he was probably just being folksy. He doesn’t believe, he doesn’t know. No way he figured it out, but I did, because I’ve had the time. They think they took time from me, but they haven’t. It’s the opposite. They’ve given me time.

The boy. The boy and his mother and every person who have stared into my eyes. I move because of them. Every person who talked to me, who almost seemed to care. Treating me so much like the man who used to be me that they’ll never know. They didn’t then and they don’t now.

Imagine their faces, the fear, the horror. They’ll care then, they’ll know me then. I wish they could know my name, who I was is who I am, and they made me. Through disassociation and zero regard for the person I was, they made me. Now through plastic injection molds and a spell, or maybe divine intervention they’ve made me again. They made me in God’s image, and now in the image of an image that probably never existed. But I do, they’ll see.

Roy waited patiently, sitting to the full extent his metal and plastic joints would allow on the small step ladder in the storage room. Every time he heard footsteps in the hallway or the jingle of keys he felt a heart skip in a chest where there was no heart at all. It was opening night, and this was the first time he was ever cast in the starring role. He had woken up from his bad dream and found his center, his purpose. His focus on revenge, his intent on making someone pay for his condition was the talon that clenched the backside of his sanity. It was all he had left. 

Here we go.

John swung the sticky door open with a bit of help from a hip-check. He looked towards the wall where he had stood the mannequin up the evening before and then to the floor where it might have fallen. His brain never bothered to substantiate the figure on the ladder in the middle of the room. There are certain things a person knows to be true, and the mind often erases all other realities accordingly.

“How did you…” John said.

He fully intended on finishing his question but was instead immediately faced with the certain impossibility of being attacked by a department store mannequin.

Roy came off the ladder with astonishing speed. He pivoted at the hips, cocking his body to throw a blow with both arms, one back, the other fore. Purely by way of luck and instinct John managed a partial block. The other caught his ribcage, inflicting a pain recognized by any individual who has caught the upper corner of his or her car door high in their side during careless closure.

Roy followed with multiple quick kicks reminiscent of a marching wooden soldier. He caught a knee, then a shin. He struck hard enough to make John bend to the side and give up his position. He could run and now would be the time, or he could stay and finish him, beat him with hard plastic hands, or a ladder. Maybe even kill him, murder an innocent man.

Roy’s hesitancy, his cessation of aggression cost him the opportunity to benefit from the decision he did not make. John struck back. With his knee in Roy’s left side he braced and pulled the mannequin’s arm completely out of it’s socket. Using it as a bat he swung hard enough to dislodge the head, sending it careening across the room into wall and unceremoniously into the corner on the floor. The body remained plumb, still pivoting and swinging, taking long, broad steps desperately holding onto balance. John used a similar strategy to remove the right leg. The mannequin fell.

The post battle silence intrigued John more than being brutally attacked by what on all accounts is generally considered to be an inanimate object. The fact that it happened at all didn’t seem to surprise him.

“If it were a man laying lifeless before me, he would make no less noise than you my friend. Why do you seem so much more silent?” John asked.

John closed and locked the door to the room and retrieved the head. He relaxed with it for a bit leaning against the very same step ladder Roy used to launch his attack. He held it by the base of the neck, looking soulfully into its eyes.  For a moment, before he spoke, it was a fall day, vivid yellow and brilliantly orange maples decayed to peak color while the occasional red oak would remind him that he was indeed still attached to the earth. It was warm out, his side ached from an uncharacteristic slip and fall on the rocks while fly fishing earlier that morning.

“Let’s not do that again shall we? I’m not sure who you are, or even why you are, but you clearly are. And I’m not sure what I have to do with it, but I knew the second I saw you. Your eyes were too unreal, too plastic. They fake them to look real, that’s their job, but yours, yours weren’t real enough. There’s something in you, something even more fake than plastic eyes. Who knows, maybe that’s what landed you here in the first place,” John explained.

He assembled the pieces, re-attaching the arm first and then the leg while the head watched patiently.

“In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, I do not fear you. If I did, I would tell you. I would because there are men who go to war and return as heroes. These men cry themselves asleep at night because of fear, and of course guilt. Not for what they’ve done, but for not admitting their fear, to themselves more than others. Guilt is a tool, a one size fits all wrench of the damned, designed by the devil himself to build the very cage that holds you now. A cage you yourself constructed. You’re not a tool of evil but instead a victim of it, a tormented soul. That is why I do not fear you because if I did, I would very much destroy you,” John explained.

The head of the mannequin is attached to the body by a metal rod jutting out of the neck. John reverently slid the head back into place, stepped back and studied what he had done.

“There, that should do it,” John said.

Roy turned slowly to face him.

“So I have determined that you are indeed a man, or at least used to be. It was simple really, the possessed do not hesitate. Their decisions have been made for them. You could have finished me, but you chose not to. I’ve decided I’m going to help you, but the reason for my philanthropy is solely my own. Here, let’s put these on,” John said.

He slid a musty hemp woven coat onto Roy’s body.

“You’re not possessed so what’s left? It certainly was no accident so I can only assume that you have been somehow bewitched. In that case what better place to start our search for your cure than the witch’s castle? You, my friend, are going to be the new window display of Seely’s Unique Boutique, a fact I’m sure you’re already aware of based on your antics yesterday. Here, how about some cargo shorts to go with your shirt?” John asked.

Roy helped with the dressing, extending his arms and legs when necessary, even pointing to his bare feet.

“Socks? Yes, and some shoes. I suppose it could help with your lack of balance. Those feet weren’t exactly designed to walk with. Something rugged and outdoorsy. Hiking boots maybe, that should bode well with her clientele. Wait here. When I get back we’ll finish this and get you in place,” John said.

I could kill her right now and no one would be the wiser. It had to be her.

“John, thank you so much for all you’ve done. I never really thought much about this sort of marketing. And he, looks, great. I love the boots, really nice touch,” Tempest said.

“Like I said, it is my pleasure, and to be completely transparent, well… Your store here, your, how do I say it, your way of life intrigues me. I have great respect for people of the earth. You see I too gravitate towards the natural realm. There’s much to be learned here and part of me hopes that this will be the beginning of that opportunity for me,” John said.

“I knew it, I knew I sensed something about you John, something different than other people. How long have you known?” she asked.

“Known?” John said.

“Yes, known that you were, well, different?” Tempest asked.

“Since I was very young, after my mother died, there was something else, something I could not quite explain, something I do not wish to remember,” John said.

“I don’t want to alarm you John but what you’re saying lends itself to necromancy. You need to be careful John, the other side can be perilous,” she said.

“My dear, you speak as if there is only one other side. It’s oblivion, don’t you know? Go far enough and see yourself where you stand, upwards to the bottom of your own feet,” said Lady Pireau.

“Lady Pireau, I nearly forgot you were coming in today. John Buries, this is Lady Pireau, my friend and mentor,” Tempest said.

“A pleasure. I’m afraid I became lost in that conversation somewhere,” John said.

Lady Pireau did not answer John, nor did she shake his hand or even look at him more than for a second. Instead, she addressed Tempest.

“Why is he here?” she asked.

“He set up this display for me. He does this sort of thing for large retail chains. Turns out he has some interest in things we do so he offered to help,” Tempest said.

“Of course he did. I have brought you what you have asked for my sweet,” she said.

She pointed backwards over her shoulder as she moved towards the back side of the window display. She brushed John aside, ignoring his attempt at pleasantries.

“Excuse me,” he said.

Recognizing her obvious rude indifference to his presence, Tempest quickly dissolved the situation.

“Well John, thank you so much for all your hard work. Lady Pireau and I did have an appointment, so I guess we’ll talk another time perhaps?” Tempest asked.

“Yes, yes, I look forward to it. Like I said, it was my pleasure. Lady Pireau, also a pleasure,” John said.

As he left she still refused to speak with him.

“Might I ask what that was about?” Tempest asked.

“You invited him. No, no I cannot. I must leave very soon,” she said.

“Oh, well, let me get the dolls and I’ll go back and get you paid,” Tempest said.

“Very well. I will wait here,” Lady Pireau said.

She touched the mannequin lightly on his wrist then ran her hand lovingly across his face as she laughed quietly.

“You want to lash out mon amour, but you are frozen. I feel your anger. But as much as you would like, you cannot harm me. I am your mother. Nor can you harm your father for he is the world. He is all men, all women, every plant and animal, even me. We made you, fornicating in the darkest places in the shadows of men’s souls. This is the place where you were born, in that very darkness. Your path to light, to life, is to know him, to immerse yourself in the humanity that you have willfully never known. I warn you security man, if you are destroyed, if this erroneous body fails you, you will be gone forever. You have aligned with the like wicked. Bend to his will and say your name and I tell you the vessel of your despair will change with every wind,” she whispered harshly.

Lady Pireau backed away. With a rare and very slight smile she appeared to be thoughtfully admiring the display.

“What do you think?” Tempest asked.

“I think, I think… I think it needs more light.”

Have you ever wondered where witches shop? October would be the quintessential time of the year to buy a tall pointy hat, but how well are they made? An Oklahoma or Texas cowboy wouldn’t buy a costume ten gallon would he? Of course not, but then again he wouldn’t have to, cowboy hats are readily available. A high-quality witch hat durable enough to withstand the rigors of nighttime broom travel should also provide the wearer casual comfort. Nothing instills confidence and inner beauty like a hat that is just as at home on the burning stake as it is vigorously stirring a boiling caldron of children. Form versus function is as timeless a battle as hackneyed stereotypes versus reality, a campaign any woman in my business would be passionately familiar with.

“Welcome to Seely’s. How can I help you today?” Tempest asked.

Seely’s Unique Boutique was aptly named. It had an earthy vibe, not quite dark to the point of depression, but also a million miles from unicorns with rainbow manes and pink halter tops. Wooden handmade shelves offered a myriad of natural salves, ointments, and scents. At first I delighted at the clean smell of soap but then for some reason it started to remind me of vegetable soup. After ten minutes I could no longer determine with any certainty the smell of anything I have ever been accustomed with. The clothes for sale were clearly born of subsistence. Decisions were made to trade fashion for a more foreboding and daily bread attire somewhat reminiscent of burlap but not quite as hopeless. The home décor on the other hand spoke volumes to the idea that decorative items can also be functional. Dream catchers, various amulets, talismans, a seriously beautiful collection of God’s eyes, and a corner shelf with all too familiar hometown voodoo dolls rounded out the eclectic collection.

“We’re pretty good, and you?” I asked.

“I’m well, very well. Is there something I can help you find today?” she asked.

“My friend here has an injury to her leg. Naturopathic medicine in my experience has always been very effective and I understand you have quite the selection,” John said.

“Wow, absolutely!” Tempest said happily.

“I’m sure I have something that will help. What is the nature of the injury? Is it muscular?” she asked.

“Uh, yeah, I guess, feels like I probably pulled something, I’m having some trouble getting around,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, I really am. The good news is I have a few different items that might work for you. If you’d like, I’ll make a few recommendations and you can try out some of our free samples. That way, you can be sure what you’re buying will work for you. We have very comfortable and secure dressing rooms where you can enjoy your own peace,” she said.

I wasn’t used to a high level of service and stood somewhat dumbfounded after hearing her sales pitch. Consequently her confidence had me looking forward to a remedy that didn’t include a handful of pills. I retired to a warm and plush dressing room with my cache of little jars. I was instructed to apply one fingertip of each to the affected area.

“Excuse me miss, miss?” John asked.

“Tempest, Tempest Seely,” she said.

“I would like to compliment you on your store. You’re very friendly and welcoming,” John said.

“Thank you so much,” Tempest replied.

“I feel it is my duty to inform you as a professional in retail marketing that your clothing selection is, shall we say, under available to the public eye. Take this for instance, comfortable, natural fibers and imminently affordable,” John said.

“Why thank you so much. As you can see, our merchandising is authentic and real. Sadly, the budget doesn’t really leave much room for advertising,” she said.

“I completely understand, but I will tell you that the store across the mall is closing and I know for sure that there are some things available that might help. Maybe for your display window for instance? Properly done, it could really help draw in some customers. Purely as a thank you for the breath of fresh air you’ve given to this industry I would like to set something up for you. Absolutely no charge whatsoever,” John said.

“I saw that. What a shame. I didn’t know Mr. Blake very well but I certainly wish him the best,” Tempest said.

I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation from the dressing room. They may have been warm and comfortable, but the paper-thin walls rendered audible privacy inert.

“I’ll be sure to let you know if we find him,” I said.

“Oh my, he is missing then, I presume?” Tempest asked.

“He sure is, but I think it’ll be pretty easy to track him down. This one right here, it kind of tingled and then went sort of numb but not like a dead limb or anything. I’m thinking this will be the one,” I said.

“Yes, lavender oil with capsaicin, very good choice,“ she said.

“Thank you so much for your offer Mr., Mr.,” Tempest stuttered.

“John, John Buries and I’ve been in sales, setting up retail merchandising displays across the country for years now. It would be my pleasure, really. My time here at Miller Creek is nearly at an end and I would love nothing more than to see an entrepreneur such as yourself prosper,” John said.

“Really? So you’ll be leaving soon?” I asked.

Tempest looked us both over. Maybe it was something in the lilt of my voice, maybe she was empathic, but probably it was just because she was also woman that she decided to take him up on his offer.

“Well Mr. Buries, it would be a bit of work, probably take a few days at least but I would be remiss not to take you up on your kind offer,” she said.

“Excellent! In that case there’s something I have to attend to immediately. Excuse me Ms. Seely. Oh, is there some place I might store a few items?” John asked.

“Uhh, we have a storage room in the basement that I’m quite sure is empty. Let me get you the key,” she said.

“Wow, that was awfully nice of you, almost, oddly nice,” I said.

“Some might think so, but maybe the world could use a little kindness now and then. How’s that leg? I could use a hand,” he said.

“It’ll be okay. Sure, I’ve got a few minutes. What did you have in mind? I asked.

“You’ll see,” he said.

After getting the key from Tempest we went back to the hobby store where once again I became enthralled with the display window while John went inside and had a short and apparently pleasant conversation with Betty the mall manager. My stupor was abruptly interrupted watching John’s almost unfairly muscular arms remove the naked mannequin from the display.

Putting on a clinic regarding the proper technique of a fireman’s carry, John left the store with the mannequin draped precariously over his shoulder.

“Hey, you, stop right there!” a man yelled.

The new and improved version of a mall security guard, sensing a crime being committed, put his black, shiny oxfords in overdrive and hotfooted his way to our position.

“Where do you think you’re going with that? Put it down this instant,” he demanded.

John gave him the minimal courtesy of at least not walking any further but didn’t bother to look at him.

“Hi, you must be the new guy,” I said.

Before he could answer, Betty hurried out from the hobby store.

“Paul, Paul, it’s okay. It’s fine, they have my permission,” she said.            

“Oh, sorry, Ms. Wilbur, I just thought, I mean, I saw…” Paul stammered.

“It’s fine, Paul. Ms. Maximine, John, let me introduce you to Paul Owens, our new security guard,” Betty said.

“Owens? Any relation to Mason Owens?” I asked.

“Yeah, he’s my brother? You know Mason?” he asked.

“Why yes, I do. Let’s just say him and I have done a little business together,” I said.

“Did you buy a house off him?” Paul asked.

“Not quite,” I said.

John looked at Paul closely. First at his shiny shoes, scanning him slowly upwards until his eyes reached the very top of Paul’s security man hat.

“You a hunter, Paul?” John asked.

“Heck yeah, deer mostly,” Paul said.

I thought the question to be oddly out of place and time.

“A man in your position should be. Hunting hones a man’s instincts. You know what I mean? I could tell that about you right away, that your instinctual, a natural born hunter. Tell you what, Paul, I’m in sporting goods, archery mainly but not exclusively. If you ever need anything from Outdoors World downstairs, you tell them I sent you and I said to give you my discount. John Buries,” John said.

“Thanks Mr., uh, John. I’m going to take you up on that, and sorry again for the misunderstanding,” Paul said.

“Please do, Paul, and don’t think twice about it, you’re just doing your job. Have a great day and keep up the good work,” John said.

We all smiled at each other accordingly while John and I walked away.

“That was pretty nice of you. Same with the lady in the store? Tell me John Buries, are you always this nice to people or are you doing it just to impress me?” I asked.

“Why, are you impressed?” John asked.

“Maybe, maybe. It’s just that I never met a man who was so outwardly helpful and kind to others,” I said.

“Like I said Philippine, the world could use a little more kindness, just doing my part. Isn’t that right buddy?” John asked the mannequin.

“Take this guy here for instance, we’re about to give him a new life in a new store, selling new products, give him a whole new perspective on the world. By tomorrow afternoon he’ll be wearing the best Seely’s Unique Boutique has to offer,” John said.

At that very moment John appeared to have tripped. The mannequin flew forward off John’s shoulder and landed with a hard, plastic slap onto the commercial vinyl tile floor of the mall.

“Wow, it’s almost like he flung himself off. What did you trip on?” I asked laughing.

John just stared at the mannequin on the ground not bothering to answer.

“John? You okay?” I asked.         

“Yes, fine. Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?” I asked.

“Yes, nothing. I tripped on nothing. It was him, he did it. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he doesn’t want to be the Seely’s store mannequin,” John said.

I laughed more, impressed with his faux sincerity. Most men would have acknowledged their own joke nearly instantly, anxious to bask in the glory of their own wit.  John’s sense of humor was so ostensibly dry that he never let-on that he was kidding at all. Instead he just picked the mannequin up off the floor and we continued our trek to the basement of the mall without further fanfare.

Between the two of us we were able to successfully navigate the maze and find the storage room for Seely’s boutique.

“Here you go buddy, you can hang out here until tomorrow,” John said.

The room was nearly empty. Nothing but a short silver stepladder and half a dozen open cardboard boxes with balled-up newspaper packing inside. The musty odor reeked of a room that had not been open for some time.

John stood the mannequin up against the wall in the middle of the room. He moved up close, face-to-face and stared it in the eyes for long enough to make the whole scene feel uncomfortable. He took one step back and flicked it with his middle finger right on the tip of its nose.

“That’s for jumping,” he said.

“Don’t pick on the poor guy, I wouldn’t want to work there either,” I said.

After locking the door, John and I were a few steps down the outside hallway when we heard a crash come from inside the storage room. We both stopped in our tracks and gave each other a look that confirmed at once the situation had taken a turn for the creepy worse.

“Huh, I guess he really doesn’t want to go,” I joked.

John smiled and knocked on the wall.

“You just calm down in there buddy, I’ll deal with you in the morning,” he said.

“What do you say we get some lunch?” John asked.

“Why Mr. Buries, would you be asking me out on a date?” I quipped.

“Maybe,” he said.

“Well, either way I accept. Should we pick something up for your friend in there?” I asked.

“I don’t think so. Clothes models don’t eat, they feed off attention,” he said.

It was the best anthropomorphic hyperbole I heard all day.

People go missing all the time. Often, that’s the way they want it. The world becomes too much for whatever reason and they abruptly disappear. I’ve found them living under bridges hundreds of miles from home. I’ve found them in vans, in homeless shelters, and on beaches. I found one woman working in the local greasy spoon within a bus transfer from her former house. Her husband had no idea. She was barely earning enough to stay alive and couldn’t have been happier. In fact, I would venture a guess that most of the people I have found went AWOL on purpose, except when I found them dead, but occasionally, even then.

“Hello, I’m looking for Bethany Wilbur,” I inquired.

The manager’s office at The Miller Creek Mall lived underground in the catacombs of the sprawling atrocity. Few people ever get to see what it’s like in the bowels of their local shopping mall. Hallways are almost always shiny and white. Cinder block walls are the norm, but I’ve seen standard sheetrock as well. Reckless pushcart operators and careless men in brown clothes leave black scars and gouges sometimes so long and deep that you would have to swear they were done on purpose. Maybe they hated their jobs. Things always cheer right up though at the glass door of the manager’s office.

“Hi, I’m Bethany, you must be Ms. Maximine,” she said.

“Philippine, Philippine Maximine at your service,” I said.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Philippine. You can call me Betty. Can I get you anything? A coffee maybe?”

“A cup of coffee would be great. What do you say we get right to it? You have a couple of employees who have gone missing?” I asked.

“One employee, one store owner. Here, please, have a seat,” she said.

“You’ll forgive me for saying so, but don’t you think it’s a little odd that the real estate company would be hiring me to find them? I mean, a client in this case would usually be a family member, maybe a close friend,” I said.

“Oh I agree, but in this case our security guard, Roy Manis hasn’t had a single person come forward. Mr. Blake was widowed some years ago and he has no family that I’m aware of. It just isn’t like John to just disappear. John is Mr. Blake, John Blake,” she said.

“Ya, got it, go on,” I answered.

“We’re not even sure how long Mr. Manis has even been gone. Not to be disrespectful but if you met him, I’m sure you’d agree that this job was, well, pretty much his whole life. He took security here at the mall more seriously that any guard we’ve ever had. Honestly, probably a little too seriously if you get my drift,” she sighed.

“I might, but just in case, why don’t you tell me more,” I said.

Betty was a middle-aged spinster who I could tell went the extra mile her entire life to be overly polite.

“Um, he had run-ins with people, especially teenagers,” Betty said.

“Run-ins?” I asked.

“Yes, well, I would say he didn’t like them. We had an awful lot of complaints from parents, store owners, even some of our elderly early morning walkers about how he treated people,” she said.

“Might I ask why you continued to keep him in your employ then?” I asked.

“Well like I said, it’s all he had,” Betty said.

“Why do you think he’s missing, Betty? Loners like him sometimes just up and leave. Especially if they didn’t have family or friends to speak of. I’ve seen it many times,” I said.

“The detective said the same thing. They even checked his house. They said it didn’t look like he took anything. I’m telling you Ms. Maximine, Roy wouldn’t just leave us like that,” she said.

“The detective? Let me guess, Czerneski right?” I asked.

“Why yes, do you know him?” she asked.

“We’ve met. But that’s neither here nor there. What about Mr. Blake?” I asked.

“That’s even stranger. One day, he just didn’t open his store. He owns the hobby shop up on the second floor. He called me the night before to ask if I had a replacement mannequin. Apparently the one he had was loose, and the arms kept falling down or something. The next day I sent one up, but he was closed,” she said.

“Isn’t the store responsible for their own sales merchandise?” I asked.

“Usually, but we have a whole room full of them and they would just be sitting there otherwise so we let our stores pick and choose through them if they need one,” she said.

“I understand. So, no calls from him, no notes, nobody has seen him? He’s not in the hospital, the morgue maybe?” I asked.

“Oh heavens no, I hope not. We haven’t heard from him. The only thing was I received a call from one of the vendors that same day saying there was an altercation in front of his store, something about an angry woman. John never mentioned it though, so I didn’t really think anything of it,” she said.

“A vendor? What, like a guy who fills machines?” I asked.

“No, a vendor is a business that sells to other businesses. He was in sporting goods I believe,” she said.

“Did you get his name?” I asked.

“John, his name was John. I remember because John was calling about John. You know, the whole word association thing,” she said.

“Ya, I got it, got it. Tell me, do these men have a history of being friends? Do you think their disappearances may be connected?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t know about that. Maybe, but it’s not like they were gone at the same time,” she said.

“Betty, how long did you wait to report Roy missing?” I asked.

She sipped her coffee hard, holding her cup with both hands while staring directly into my eyes. I could see the wheels turning in her brain, desperately trying to manufacture an excuse.

“I hate to say it, but, well, like you implied, if it was going to be a disguised blessing, we weren’t going to ask too many questions. I’m sorry, but Roy was, was… But when John disappeared, well, we grew concerned,” she said.

“At the risk of sounding like a broken record, how long? And I have to ask you again why would the real estate company hire me to find these men?” I asked.

“To be perfectly honest Ms. Maximine, Roy was such a boisterous figure around here that people noticed him missing. It was like the lights were brighter, people were happier. We even saw an uptick in traffic. That is until John also disappeared. Then, people started to ask questions. And then, well then kids were saying things like, ‘Don’t go to the mall alone, the Maller might get you,’ or ‘Stay away from Killer Creek Mall’. I guess you could say we are trying to get out ahead of this thing and the police haven’t been really any help at all,” she said.

“How long?” I asked again.

Betty sighed the long sigh and put her cup down on the desk.

“Three weeks. It’s been three weeks, and Roy has been gone for we think at least two weeks before that, maybe more. Between you and I John was getting pretty far behind. We let him slide because he’s one of our original stores, but in light of the situation, well, he used up his deposit for rent and I’m afraid from a business standpoint we have no choice. So honestly, by hiring you we can say we did absolutely everything we could under the circumstances,” she said.

“I understand, perfectly. Tell you what, you put your John Hancock on this contract, and I’ll get this ball rolling,” I said.

I had a strong suspicion we were talking about a dead-beat store owner who skipped town and a low life security guard who coincidentally beat feet as well, for whatever reason. There was probably a casino involved, lots of guys on their last legs try to win their way back into prosperity. It never works. Most of the time I find them spread eagle in the bottom of a bottle, occasionally alive.

“Yes, very good. After all the news lately we feel like you’re the obvious choice,” she said.

“Excellent. Can we head up to the hobby store then? I’d like to have a look around,” I asked.

I slammed the last drop of joe and waited for Betty next to the door.

“Of course. Oh my, Ms. Maximine, your limping. Should I call for a cart?” she asked.

“No, no, I’m fine. Like you said, all the news lately. Between a camping trip from hell, getting attacked by a lion, shot at and running from a burning house, well, a girl is bound to get nicked-up along the way,” I laughed.

“Oh my, I hope this case is a lot easier on you,” Betty said.

“Me too, Betty, me too.”

The intestines of the mall seemed to have two doors below for everyone above.

“Are these offices?” I asked.

“I think originally they were supposed to be, but now they’re storage. Every store has one included in their lease,” she said.

I didn’t think about it until we passed the food court on the second floor.  Maybe there was something about the smell of cinnamon rolls and polyester that made me wax philosophically. A dirty freight elevator brings you up to the ground floor, but during your next lift, you’re going to be able to gaze out upon all the sunshine and glory that was your time on the first floor. 

“I don’t remember you saying today was moving day,” I said.

The closed sign in the middle of a giant masking tape ‘X’ over the front display window signaled the end of the road for the hobby store. Workers were busy taking inventory of each bank of items before boxing them up and loading them onto push carts.

“Where is all this stuff headed?” I asked.

“Until everything is sorted out we are going to put everything downstairs,” Betty said.

I gave the place the once-over although there wasn’t much to see. A meager pittance of money was left in the register, maybe enough to make change for a twenty. His coat still hung on the back of his office chair and leftovers from lunch filled the top shelf of his tiny under cabinet refrigerator.

“Where was this altercation?” I asked Betty.

“Just outside the window from what I gathered,” she said.

I took a slow meander outside the store. The foreboding closed sign sucked up all my attention to the point where I felt like I had been standing there and staring at it for hours. They took everything, right down to the clothes on the mannequin.

“Hell of a shame, isn’t it?” he said.

A random man a few paces behind me obviously took note of my hypnotized state.

“Yeah, damn shame,” I said.

“Not really a surprise though considering the way he treated his customers,” he said.

“Really?” I said.

The man behind me was shockingly stark with vibrant eyes, the kind of eyes you remember for two days and then forget until you see something brighter blue than it should be, and then you think about them again.

“Did you know John?” I asked.

“A little. I spoke to him after he had what I would describe as a fight with a woman out here about a month ago,” he said.

“You saw this?” I asked.

“Yes, yes I did. What’s more is I spoke with him about the incident immediately after. I explained to him that it wasn’t in his best interest to treat customers with such contempt,” he said.

“And what did he say?” I asked.

“Well, let’s just say he carried that same contempt into our conversation. As a person with interests in the customer base of this mall I also thought it prudent to report the incident to management,” he said.

“Oh, so you’re the guy,” I gushed.

He smiled brilliantly and readily stepped forward to introduce himself amid an obvious air of reluctance.

“John,” he said.

“Philippine. Philippine Maximine. A pleasure,” I said.

“The pleasure is all mine,” he said.

“You know what, I’ve looked it over, and there’s really not much more I can get from looking inside. You’re really my best, my only lead at the moment John, John?” I inquired.

“John Buries,” he said.

“Berries? Like a blue berry?” I asked.

I thought I was being cute, my brain having inadvertently creating word play regarding his eyes. I was pleased to have thought it but I absolutely hated my mouth for saying the words aloud.

“Would you be a detective then Ms. Maximine?” he asked.

“Please, Philippine. And yes, well, sort of. I am of the private variety,” I said awkwardly.

“I see. Philippine, I couldn’t help but notice you’re favoring one leg. I would be remiss as a gentleman if I didn’t tell you about an herbal topical that works absolute wonders. As fate would have it, it’s only available right here in this mall. Right over there as a matter of fact,” he said.

He motioned to a dark little store across the mall on the same floor, Seely’s Unique Boutique.

“Allow me to escort you?” he asked.

I froze.

“Trust me, you won’t be disappointed, guaranteed,” he said.

After standing there with a stupid look on my face for a week and a half, I was finally able to get my brain and my mouth on the same page.

“Um, sure, what the hell. It’s not going to kill me,” I said.

“Probably not,” he laughed.

“Probably not.”

I sell telescopes. I Laugh! Hear me? Hear me? Yeah, you can’t can you? I sell telescopes. Come one, come all, nerds, pervs, gift buying people. Shit who cares. I care. I’m not here, I’m there, no I’m over there, no I’m here again. Always here, but nobody knows, not even me. Why? They can’t hear me crying. I don’t cry, I rage, I rage, I rage, all night, all day! They can all die, who cares? I’ll see them when they get here.

He wasn’t sure how long he had been there. Day after day, night after night, never really knowing if he was asleep or awake. His mind, completely incapable of wrapping itself around the situation, rebuffed reality at every turn. The people, the place, everything was nothing because he was starting to believe nothing was really there, because he wasn’t really there.

After his initial wake-up, Roy was able to keep track of the days, but once the question arose in his mind, “three nights or four?”, the machine that was his consciousness began to break down. Everything was a catechism, right down to his own existence, including the passing wonder if he had ever truly been alive at all.

A short, portly British boy, less than ten years old but more than five stood next to his mother in front of the hobby shop display window.

“Is that the one?” the mother asked.

“Yes, I suppose,” he said.

“If you want a different one, we can shop around. You don’t sound too thrilled,” she said.

“No, no I don’t think so. That’s the one. It’s just that,” he said.

“What?” she asked.

“Him, he really doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself now does he?” the boy asked.

The mother looked closely at the mannequin in the display, at Roy. Another man who happened to be walking by at the time overheard the two talking. He was the type of man not prone to intervene in other people’s conversations even though he was in sales. He stepped back to the husband bench at the edge of the railing overlooking the ground floor, just far enough away to hear them without seeming like an obvious eavesdropper.

“I guess he doesn’t. But he is just a mannequin. I’m pretty sure they don’t have feelings. You know, because they’re plastic,” she said.

“But he isn’t. He has a face, he’s doing something. He’s probably lonely,” the boy said.

“Isn’t what? Plastic?” she asked.

“No mother, just a mannequin,” he answered.

At that very moment Roy’s left arm, attached to his foam and plastic body via a ball joint similar to that which may reside on an automobile, fell to his side. The arm that had been for untold time shading light from the viewfinder and for no apparent reason, including unseen changes in temperature or humidity, and apart from the speed of something that might slip due to time and gravity, moved seemingly on its own.

Much to his dismay, Roy felt relief, as if his muscles relaxed.

“Mum, did you see that? He moved!” the boy exclaimed.

“Of course he didn’t,” she said.

“Yes, yes he did, I saw it, I saw him move, look. Look at where his arm is now,” the boy said.

“I don’t think so, but it does, no. It’s just one of those things,” she explained.

The man who had been watching and listening stepped forward.

“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Hebrews 13:3,” the man said.

“Well yes I suppose that’s all well and good, but I’ll thank you to leave us be. And what would that even mean? Really, how dare you,” she scolded.

“This is why you should never talk to strangers, let’s go, on our way then,” she said.

The mother grabbed the boy by the arm and hurried him off. The man did not scoff at her through words or any meaningful adjective of facial expression. He only stepped forward to the window and stared into the eyes of the mannequin.

John Blake, owner and namesake of the hobby store was watching the short altercation from inside behind the sales counter. Annoyed at the notion that he may have lost a sale he stepped out to confront the man in the mall.

“Um, excuse me, you mind telling me what that was all about there bud?” he asked.

The man at the window did not sway his stare away from Roy, nor did he answer.

“Hey man, I’m talking to you,” John said.

“Empathy,” the man said.

“What?” John asked.

The man quickly turned and inserted himself into John’s private space, close enough that John had difficulty focusing on his face.

“How much for the mannequin?” the man asked.

John took two steps back. With stark raving blue eyes and a jaw that could cut paper the man imposed his will through chiseled features and relentless attitude on other men without effort or grace.

“I’d like to buy that mannequin,” he said.

“For what? I mean, it’s not for sale,” John said.

“Of course it is, everyone is for sale,” he said.

“Heh, you mean every thing is for sale, and I get that but…”

“I don’t respect men who say one thing but mean another, so that could never be me. How much?” the man asked.

“Why do you even want it? Who wants a mannequin?” John asked.

“What’s your name?” the man asked.

“John, John Blake. This is my store,” John said.

The man’s demeanor became abruptly personable as he offered his hand.

“John. My name is also John. I’m in sales John. In the right setting, this mannequin could be beneficial to my customer,” the man said.

“Oh hey, pleased to meet you,” John said submissively.

“So we have a deal then? I’ll pay your price and you’ll have him moved to the loading dock. I prefer he be kept in one piece,” the man said.

“What? Um, no, no. Look, it’s not even mine man. The mall, the mall has a room downstairs that’s full of these things. I could put you in touch with,” John said.

“Sporting goods John,” the man interrupted.

“What’s that now?” John asked.

“Sporting goods John, in case you were wondering. I do business with some of the largest sporting good chains in the country, including those that are right here in this mall. You see, it has to have the look. They already have mannequins John, but they’re milquetoast. Plastic, generic versions of men, like so many men. The weapons I sell do not kill John, any more than the reading glasses in your breast pocket kill. But if you broke them, if you took the lens out and sliced my artery you will have killed me, and you wouldn’t be plastic. With him, I could sell reading glasses, with him I could sell intent and that’s really what it’s all about now isn’t it John?” the man said.

John stood bewildered and intimidated, stuck to his knees in uncomfortable silence.

“I guess, but like I said, maybe they have more like it,” John said.

“Like him? No, they do not,” the man said.

“Say, um, what did you mean before when I first walked out, empathy? And I don’t know how we got away from it, but I gotta wonder why you chased that woman and her kid away,” John said.

“There is power in empathy, John. It has a power all its own. It’s about seeing through other people’s eyes, hearing what they hear, feeling what they feel. I only told them what the scriptures say about it, nothing more. As it happens, the boy has it, the mother does not. There’s nothing I could do about that,” the man said.

Again, John was perplexed at the man’s answer. He was beginning to think the man was not quite all there and just wanted him to leave.

“Look I’m not sure what that has to do with the price of tea in China, but your little speech probably lost me a sale. And if you are in sales maybe you should have some empathy for me. I guess what I’m saying mister is I don’t need you to make a habit of it. You know what I mean?” John said.

“A man does not have to be a God in order to recognize a God’s existence,” the man said.

He nearly smiled as he touched his index finger off his brow, turned and walked away.

“Freak,” John said quietly.

He took the man’s place at the window, staring into the eyes of the mannequin, Roy’s eyes. It took him a few seconds to notice the mannequin’s head had been turned slightly and both arms were now at his side.

“What the? Who moved you?” he said to himself.

John went back inside to inspect the window display. He put the mannequin’s extremities back where they were, turned the head back, cinched down its red hat and stood back.

John, it’s me, it’s me!

Roy swung his arms back down to his side.

“What the?” John asked.

John moved the arms back into position only to watch it happen again.

“Well shit, no wonder they freaked out. Huh,” he said.

John left the display in route to his office in the back of the store.

Wait! Wait! For God’s sake help me!

“Yes hello Betty. Look, I got this mannequin in the window here, probably been here since I opened up, yeah, yeah, for sure, well it seems like it’s wearing out or something. Well I set it up and a second later it just kind of falls back to where it was. Yeah the arms, and the head too. I was hoping you had something in storage, you know, trade this one out. Oh he will? Great, I’ll get it ready. Yeah, yeah, I want my shirt back anyways,” he laughed. “Hey as long as I got you on the phone, what the hell happened to Roy. Roy, the security guard. I could of used him here just a few minutes ago. No not kids, some guy, a real psycho. Yeah, I’ll keep my eye out, yup, thanks a bunch,” John hung up the phone.

At the end of the business day John removed Roy from the display window, took off his clothes and left his bare plastic body leaning up against the sales counter. He changed out his own shirt for the faded tee just to annoy the mannequin.

“How do you like that? Always looked better on me anyways. Maintenance is coming to trade you out for a newer model. Sure are takin’ their damn sweet time about though,” John said.

Roy felt energy from every word directed towards him. The feeling of strength and control welled-up inside his composite body like a plant growing exponentially.

Keep talking man, please.

A few minutes after the closing announcement cleared out the last of the shoppers a man dressed in a gray jumpsuit with a matching hat pulled low stopped in front of the store and tapped on the window. He pushed a large cart, the sort that might be used in a post office for mail or packages, metal framed with sidewalls of dingy canvas.

“Well it’s about effin’ time, I got things to do!” John chastised.

John unlocked the door and looked inside the cart.

“What the hell is this? You guys were supposed to send me up a new one, not just parts. Parts won’t do me any good, this one is worn the hell out. You get it?” John said.

“I’m sorry sir, I’ll have to look at the work order again,” the man mumbled.

“You do that. Well, you can take this one back with you anyways. Here, gimme a hand, it’s heavy. I’ll get the legs,” John said.

“It’ll just take a second,” the man said.

He removed a pair of glasses from his pocket and looked closely at the forms on the clipboard he held in his hands.

“Look. That shit doesn’t matter right now. You screwed up. People like you always screw up. It’s expected. Now I told you already I have things to do, so grab this damn thing so we can toss it in the cart, and you can get the hell out of here,” John said.

Again John reached down and grabbed the legs of the mannequin and once again the maintenance man was messing with his glasses. John stood up even more enraged than before, just in time to hear something snap.

The man swiped the lens from a broken pair of readers across John’s neck, severing his Carotid artery and instantly soaking his faded tee with a torrent of blood. He shoved John into the cart, removed his hat, exposed his now familiar face and glared at John through piercing blue eyes.

“One and one-half inches John, deep enough to release the power of empathy. Not yours, his. It works both ways,” he said.

John was unconscious within seconds and died moments later, never to be seen again.

That night, back in the window Roy wept. His tears stained the price tag on the telescope. It was the last one in stock, a display model on closeout, priced to… move.

“Hey, stop! What the hell you little spooks up to? Did you just steal that? Gimme that, let’s see what you got,” Manis demanded.

Roy Manis was the second shift security guard at the Miller Creek Mall. A blatant bully and overt racist, he may have had a promising career on the police force if not for the formerly stated. He was tops in his class at the academy, a crack shot with a keen sense for detecting criminal behavior, a virtual future shoe-in for a gold detective badge. Unfortunately for him, as much as it was likewise fortunate for the city, his success bred arrogance, a trait that led him all the way to the unemployment line.

As if a drowning event at the beach wasn’t tragic enough for the visiting family, then officer Manis somehow thought he would garner accolades from his fellow officers by kicking sand at the mourning siblings of the drowned boy, an incident caught on film by local news crews.

The camera however was not sensitive enough to discern his words from so many others amid the chaos of the scene. Witnesses would testify that what he said was eviler and more wrong than any one person could imagine.

The hearing held by the fire and police commission ruled the testimony as hear-say and ordered it stricken from public record. Manis himself decried the accusations as baseless lies and that he was only attempting to kick away a bee that had fallen to the beach. He surmised that had any one of the children been allergic, the situation could have become even worse and he should in reality be rewarded for his actions. The commission wholeheartedly disagreed.

The boys at the mall were well aware of Manis’ reputation for cruelty to children and complied out of fear.

“You let those boys go right this instant. And give them back their bag. You have no right to harass them. Do you really think they’d steal something and then take a bag too? With our logo on it yet? And spooks? Are you kidding me? Go on boys, you’re fine. Come see me next time I’ll have a little something extra for you,” she said.

“What? It’s a Halloween store right? Spooks, goblins, that sort of thing? Look, just because you work here doesn’t give you the right to tell me how to do my job,” Manis said.

“You see what it says on the sign? I’ll help you in case you can’t read. It says Seely’s Unique Boutique. That’s me, that’s my name, Tempest Seely. I don’t just work here, I own this place. You, Roy Manis work for me, and I swear to God if I catch you harassing any more of my customers, and for that matter, anyone else in here, I’ll make your life a living hell,” Tempest said.

“God? Ha, that’s a laugh. I thought witches like you didn’t believe in God. And no, I don’t work for you, I work for the owners of the mall,” Roy said.

“I am Wiccan Mr. Manis, and my beliefs regarding supreme deities is almost certainly beyond your comprehension of who or what God may be. Rest assured security guard, the rule of three will be harder on you than most, and that, Mr. Manis is a fate you have indignantly earned,” she said.

“Yeah whatever, freak,” Manis said walking away.

He whistled often but only when he was alone. He never really gave it a thought, even though he was pretty good at it. Tonight, like so many others he whistled his way through his rounds, making certain that he was alone in the mall.

He made it a point to stop in front of Seely’s window and give the store a long, hard, finger.

“Fuck you witch,” he said to himself.

Directly across the mall, also on the second floor was the hobby shop. Blake Gift and Hobby. Roy considered the owner John Blake to be a friend of his. He vowed repeatedly to give John’s store extra attention due to their perceived relationship. “Nobody is taking nothin’ from you John, I guarantee it.”  It was a sentiment John both appreciated and abhorred, much like making a deal with the devil, when the devil doesn’t know that you know it’s him.

Roy stood staring into the display window of the hobby shop. Front and center, mired in hanging cardboard planets, oversized plastic aliens, and spaceships stood the Interstellertron 3000, the last telescope anyone would ever need. At least that’s how it was marketed. In Roy’s case, it would be the only telescope anyone would ever borrow, something he did quite regularly.

As the only security, Roy kept a key for every store in the mall on a huge steel ring attached to his belt.  He even had keys to the pull-down security grates meant to keep people like him out. He took macabre pleasure in pissing on the wall in various places like Seely’s, knowing that even though it would most likely be dry the next day, it would still maintain a foul and hard to find odor.

A faceless gray mannequin wearing a red ball cap backwards, blue jeans and a faded tee the owner brought from home peered into the viewfinder of the telescope. One plastic, immobile hand appeared to salute the stars while the other shaded the viewfinder from the many fluorescent suns of the mall.

“Move over buddy,” Roy said.

He slid the mannequin to the side in order to more easily remove the telescope from the display.

“You got it made buddy, just sittin’ here lookin’ at asses all day long,” Roy said.

He left with the telescope shaking his head, lamenting his luck compared to that of a store front mannequin.

The roof of the mall was Roy’s personal sanctum sanctorum, a holy place where he is self-allowed to violate the neighborhood.

The majority of houses surrounding the mall were of the same basic, post WWII simple construction. Often, only the lower panes of many of the bathroom windows enjoyed frosted glass.

Roy set up in his usual spot hidden alongside a giant HVAC unit. He kept a mental list of which houses he’s had the best luck seeing women in various stages of undress. He gave them names he thought best suited their physical attributes. His favorites included Big Blondie, Hair Girl, and Black Mamba. It only took one, and after that, it was usually less than a minute before he had to zip up his blue khaki guard pants and get back to work guarding the mall.

Mid October and business at the mall was booming, especially for Tempest Seely. Although her boutique regularly offered items some would consider a few shades darker than contemporary, the autumn season was by far her busiest. Costumes and specialty items available nowhere else pinned her squarely on the insider’s destination guide to one offs and unique Halloween fanfare.

A woman, definitely not young but undeterminably old stood quietly at the counter inside the boutique. Her head was wrapped in a tightly crocheted scarf that at one time used to be red. Her dress was plain and gray but vaguely Victorian, its white accents tarnished by time. Her skin and eyes were dark brown and if a person looked closely enough, they would see the ink of ritualistic tattoos under her eyes, but most people never got that close.

“Lady Pireau, how good to see you,” Tempest said gleefully.

“You as well. You are well, I know this to be,” Pireau said.

“Yes, yes, very well. And what do you have for me today?” Tempest asked.

“I have as you asked girl, they will harm no one, and no one may cause harm with them. I have seen to that,” she said.

Lady Pireau lifted a large burlap bag the size of a toaster oven onto the sales counter. Inside were two dozen perfectly hand crafted, tirelessly impotent voodoo dolls.

“They are absolutely incredible!” Tempest gushed looking into the bag.

“Come back to the office and I’ll get you paid,” she said.

“Help, help!” the child yelled.

A young boy, maybe ten years old dodging around customers and under clothes racks was busy running for his life with mall officer Roy Manis hot on his heels. The boy crashed directly into the arms of Lady Pireau, accidentally but possibly quite instinctively finding the very safest place to be.

“I got you, you little thief,” Roy said grabbing the boy’s arm.

“Unhand the boy!” Pireau screamed.

She raised her fully extended arm into the air easily breaking Roy’s grip.

“Manis what did I tell you about harassing kids in my store, this time you’ve gone too far!” Tempest protested.

“This little shit stole a pretzel out of the hot case at the food court. Seen it with my own eyes. Shoved most of it in his big damn mouth before I could even catch him,” Roy said.

Lady Pireau stroked the side of the boy’s face and held her other hand over his heart.

“That is because this boy has not eaten anything but trash in days,” she said slowly, quietly.

Lady Pireau wept silently, looking down on the boy, letting just a few of her tears drop onto his forehead. She spoke quietly.

“Let the belly always be full of this boy who has suffered,” she said.

She looked up at Roy, still grabbing for air after his run, face dripping with sweat and anger.

“And let he who has caused suffering, suffer unto himself his dire envy. Release him to things not meant to be to know what he has become,” she said.

Lady Pireau reached into the bag and removed one of the dolls.

“There will only be twenty-three my dear,” she said.

“Oh don’t worry about that, I would be glad to pay you in full,” Tempest replied.

Roy stood dumbfounded at his lack of willingness to pursue the issue any longer to the point where he inexplicably felt like he had to walk away.

“Oh and Roy, tell the people at Hot Sam’s I’ll be down to pay for his pretzel a little later would you please?” Tempest asked.

Roy was only able to obediently nod affirmatively as he shuffled out of the store.

The rest of his afternoon passed without trumpets or parade. He couldn’t wait for lock-up. With winter just around the corner, the cold fall nights were starting to affect Roy’s routine so the earlier the better. Once again he found himself in the hobby store display window.

“Hey buddy, how’s them asses today?” Roy laughed.

“Not to worry, I’ll have her back in a flash,” he said leaving.

Safely tucked into the shadow of the HVAC unit it didn’t take long for Roy to score.

“Oh baby! Black Mamba it is!” he said excitedly.

He unzipped his pants.

Far into the distant neighborhood a black woman stood topless with her back to the window. She was readying her bath as Roy waited with bated breath for her to turn around and inadvertently give him exactly what he came for. He grew increasingly impatient as she held her motionless pose for what seemed like an unnatural amount of time.

What the hell are you doing? It’s cold out here. He was amused by his own thoughts although be it only temporarily. Suddenly and without warning, an unexpected and overwhelming feeling of dread draped over him. His lecherous smile fell flat with all the anticipation of a man in a barrel about to go over the falls.

The Black Mamba, suddenly familiar, turned to face him. She stared directly into the telescope, far into the backs of Roy’s eyes, but somehow deeper. Lady Pireau then snapped her fingers across her face. In a blinding flash, Roy fell backwards into a state of unconscious, crashing hard onto the gravel covered roof of the mall.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It took him a few seconds to even realize where he was. A good sign to him was that nobody was in the mall so he felt it couldn’t have been that long. He briefly remembered the flash and then recalled seeing Mamba and connecting her with the woman in the store earlier. So jarring was the revelation that he didn’t realize at first that he was not able to move anything besides his eyes. Even at that, they moved very little. They recognized no color as if he was looking out through lenses of dark gray or black.

Initially, Roy suffered through a few solid minutes of sheer panic until he caught his reflection in the glass. There, he saw himself in a red cap turned backwards, wearing blue jeans and a faded tee the owner brought from home. He was inconspicuously bent down over the Interstellartron 3000, shading the viewfinder from the lights of the mall. He could not move, he could not make a sound, he could only watch through gray eyes, one narrow view of the world outside his window.

A groundswell of end of the world terror and hysteria overtook him. His mind passed out, but his plastic mannequin body stayed steadfastly poised over the telescope.

“What do you mean you believe her? She played me,” Mason said angrily.

The popular quote more specifically mentions being played like a fiddle, as if just anyone can pick-up and competently play a fiddle. You’ll never hear ‘played like a violin’ because of the mental picture it draws. Who would think sitting in any one of the numbered orchestra chairs playing classical music under the direction of a long coat-tailed maniac would be easy? Either one would be difficult, especially because they are the very same instrument.

“Just because she played you like a violin doesn’t mean she tried to have me killed,” I said.

“Please stop saying that! I would never, could never!” she said.

“What? Play me? You can save it, Vince told us everything,” Mason said.

“Again with the play me,” I said sarcastically.

“Okay fine, yes. I was helping him. But you don’t understand. There’s a time in my life when I did things that I’m not very proud of. Vinnie is one of those things. I hoped if I could help him with one more score, that would be it, we’d be done. Really, I didn’t even have to do anything at all. I mean, sure I told him I would tell Alfie if things went bad, but really, it was all him,” Buffy said.

“First of all, to be clear, Alfie is Alfred Meltone correct? Secondly, I have to say that so far you’re not at all what I expected,” I said.

“You mean, who you expected? I get that a lot. Buffy, the dumb blonde stripper right?” she asked.

“For a minute I was thinking Buffy the attempted murderer,” I said.

“Hell I still do. You trust her?” Mason asked.

“I do, but you can bet they don’t,” I said.

I gave them both the heads up to the driveway outside that all of a sudden was piling up with police vehicles. Buffy appeared a little shocked, maybe at a loss for what to do, but certainly not scared.

“I wouldn’t wait if I were you. They’re not shy about taking doors down,” I said.

Buffy hurried to let them in.

“Buffy Meltone?” the policeman asked.

“Yes, can I help you?” she asked.

“Detective Tom Czerneski, I have a warrant to search your home,” Tom said.

Without any further ado, a small army of uniformed police officers as well as a few plain clothes types pushed their way into the house.

“Ah, Philippine, fancy meeting you here. Where’s your car?” Tom asked.

“I rode with him,” I said.

“If you don’t mind, I need a word, in private,” he said.

“Of course,” I said.

“Wait a minute, what’s this all about?” Buffy asked.

“Mrs. Meltone you have the right to remain silent,” he said.

“Am I being arrested? For what?” she demanded.

“Sergeant, would you kindly read Mrs. Meltone her rights while I have a little talk with Ms. Maximine?” he asked.

“Sure boss. Mrs. Meltone, you have the right to remain…”

After more than a word I returned to face a handcuffed and confused Buffy Meltone and a strangely satisfied Mason Owens sipping a morning drink at the bar.

“Is that really necessary?” I asked referring to the cuffs.

“Until I know for sure,” Tom said.

“Mason, would you please take me to my car? Buffy here has her hands full for now,” I said.

“You going to tell me what’s going on?” Mason asked.

“All in good time, all in good time,” I told him.

I didn’t give Mason much to go on, I couldn’t, not yet.

“If not her than who? I’m telling you, no way it was Mary,” he said.

“Listen, I’ll give you a call later. There’s something I have to do first, stay tuned,” I told him.

I had to see my old friend Vinnie again. With Buffy in cuffs and a hole in his pants I had a hunch he was going to be slightly more cooperative. By the time I arrived at the AAPT central offices, it was just about quitting time for nine to fivers.

“Hello Philippine, I didn’t expect to see you. I don’t remember you having any meetings with the boys today. Did you have something scheduled?” Marnie asked.

“Nope, just thought I’d drop-in. There’s a couple things I need to discuss. Hey, could you do me a favor?” I asked her.

“Sure, what did you need?” she asked.

“Could you page your driver? We’re going to need to talk to him,” I said.

“Sure, I guess. Who’s we?” she asked.

“Oh, me and the boys,” I said.

“Well, okay, in that case let me call Wesley and let him know you’re here,” she said.

“Don’t bother, I think I’ll just pop-in,” I said.

I charged past her and directly into Alfred’s office.

“Sir Alfred Meltone?” I asked. “Philippine, Philippine Maximine. I stopped in today because up until this morning, I was wondering why you tried to kill me?” I asked.

“What? Why I never,” he said.

He picked up his intercom and demanded Marnie call the police to have me removed. The look on his face when he heard the reply was priceless.

“Um, they are already here sir,” she said.

Detective Tom knocked as he entered the office. Before he closed the door I could see any number of uniformed officers milling around the other side. It wasn’t a moment before Wesley Meltone also made his way into the room slamming the door behind him.

“Oh, it’s you. Figures you would have something to do with this,” he said to me.

“Wesley Meltone? I’m definitely going to need a word with you. For now, why don’t you do me a favor and have a seat at your desk. Could you do that please Mr. Meltone?” Tom asked.

“I demand to know what this is all about. What is she doing here? Why are you harassing my father?” he ranted.

Tom opened the door and called out into the office.

“Sergeant, could you please escort Mr. Meltone to his office and make sure he stays there until I’m ready for him?” Tom asked.

“Sure thing boss.”

“What is this all about?” Alfred asked.

“Mr. Meltone? I have in my hand a ballistics report. Are you familiar with modern ballistics Mr. Meltone?” Tom asked.

“Yes of course,” Alfred said.

“Well, do you know what it says? It says the bullet fired through Ms. Maximine’s office window,” he paused. “I’m sure you know Ms. Maximine. Anyways, the hole in Ms. Maximine’s window was made by a 7.7-millimeter rifle round otherwise known as a British .303. I have to say, it took my guys a little while to track it down but once they did, it got me to wondering. Turns out that this morning we recovered from your home one immaculately cared for MK-1 Lee Enfield rifle, chambered for the British .303, the weapon of choice for the British army in WWII. Immaculate, except for the fact that it had been recently fired. Now, chance being what it is, I decided to have that rifle tested against the round recovered from the wall outside Ms. Maximine’s office and wouldn’t you know it? It matched. And, it had your fingerprints on it to boot,” Tom explained.

“Of course it had my fingerprints on it, it’s mine. Besides, your story is preposterous. You sir are bluffing. My wife was home, she would have called,” Alfred said.

“And that is exactly what she planned to do, that is until we told her why you fired the shot. Recognize this man?” Tom asked.

Tom was holding an 8 x 10 glossy of Mason Owens, the man Sir Alfred thought was having an affair with his wife. Mr. Meltone took a moment before sitting back down in his chair.

“Yes, yes of course, I recognize the chap, he is my real estate man. But this proves nothing,” he said.

“You’re jealousy got the best of you Alfie, but you were too cheap to hire out weren’t you. War hero like yourself, thought you’d just take care of it on your own. Well, almost. Isn’t that right Alfie? I tell you what Mr. Meltone, I’m going to do something I don’t normally do, because without her, we might never have known. Philippine?” Tom said.

Tom leaned out of the office and spoke to the officer outside for a brief moment before returning.

“I’m not saying another word until I can speak to my lawyer,” Alfred said.

“That’s just fine Alfie, because all I want you to do is listen, let him in,” I said.

“Have a seat,” Tom said to Wesley.

“You see this whole time I was looking for a person that wanted to kill me. At first, I thought it was your driver, Vince, but besides him not really having the brains, he didn’t really have a reason. I considered for a moment Wesley, thinking maybe after talking to Vince and uncovering his little scam, you’re being played by the way, he might want to have me bumped-off. But it turns out that it wasn’t his limo in the alley outside my office that day was it? It was yours. You see, in all the chaos, my cat jumped out the window that day. Yup, right off the ledge, briefly onto your car, and off who knows where? He never came back, but that’s not the point, his footprints were. That’s two things you should have cleaned Mr. Meltone, your rifle and your car. It wasn’t me you wanted to kill, it was Buffy. You found out who she really was thanks to Vince, who was blackmailing you to keep it all a secret. The public embarrassment would have killed every chance at the fundraising you need to keep this place afloat,” I accused.

“Again! Preposterous. Anyone who knows me can tell you unequivocally that I do not drive. I’ll also have you know that I love my wife very much,” he said.

“Yes, I’m sure you do Mr. Meltone, or at least, did. Tom?” I said.

Tom opened up the door and let Vince in the room with the same instructions he gave to Wesley.

“Let me introduce my old friend, Vince Botoni.  Seems you two have a lot in common. Huh, who’d guess?” I said.

“Anything this man says is not to be believed. Why, he is a common criminal,” Alfred said.

“Oh don’t worry about Vince, he’s only here because I wanted him to hear this. I’m well aware that you weren’t driving the car Mr. Meltone, nor was Vinnie, or even Wesley here. The person driving the car is the same person who stole Mary Owens’ Jaguar, although be it temporarily. She left her scent all over it. This person also met with and hired a group of killers. This person has access to your money. Tom?” I said.

“The person who saw you pull the trigger from the moon roof of the limo, a person you love, a person who wished she was in Buffy’s spot and the person willing to kill to get there. I remembered her fragrance. I remembered the first time I smelled it; it was unique. It was the day she walked into my office looking for her lost brother. Ms. Marnie Fankowski,” I said.

The sergeant led Marnie into the room in handcuffs.

“Ms. Marnie Fankowski, taking advantage of the limousine lunches of Mary Owens and Wesley Meltone, stole Owens’ car so as not to be trackable, and with access to the company checkbook hired a group of men to assassinate me at all costs. One of the men who I did not manage to kill, but only wound escaped that day. However, detective Tom informed me this morning during the search of your house Mr. Meltone, that a suspect was apprehended and in exchange for certain amenities, was more than willing to talk,” I explained.

“That’s enough of this nonsense, Ms. Fankowski has impeccable credentials and…” Wesley said.

Wesley saw the look on her face as her head hung low.

“You lied about my brother, you took my money and lied. All that bullshit about being a hero. You and that damn kid, you got him to lie too. For all I know you never even went looking for him. You deserve to die for putting me through it all again. Why do you think I recommended you to the sicko in the first place?” Marnie exclaimed.

“Sicko? Why I never…” Wesley protested.

“And finally that takes us to you, Wesley Meltone. As it happens, I know exactly why she called you that. You see the real reason I wanted Vinnie here wasn’t just to hear the evidence, or her confession. Alfred was right, he’s a common thug. Whether you know it or not Mr. Meltone, Vinnie here was in the process of blackmailing you. Well, you and Mason Owens that is. Him and his beloved ex Buffy were going to take half of everything you scammed off the old man. She was just hoping to get Vinnie off her back once and for all. Yeah, sorry Vinnie, truth hurts. Vince here was hoping for the big score. Too bad he was too stupid to pull it off. That, I’ll leave up to the detective to handle but not you Wesley. Because this time, it’s personal. Your father’s house wasn’t the only home searched this morning. Nobody was at your house. You’re not married are you Mr. Meltone? I wonder why? I thought nothing of it when Detective Tom told me they didn’t find anything incriminating, that is until he finished his sentence. ‘Nothing but an out of place old gray pair of sweatpants.’ We both found that to be a little strange. So this afternoon, purely on a hunch I called Vinnie here and for some reason he was far more cooperative than he had been in the past. He told me about a strange habit you have of being dropped off at a large strip mall parking lot, one with a laundromat where consequently, you like to put your dick on the windows of women’s cars you sick, son of a bitch,” I said, angry.

“I spent the afternoon collecting all the evidence they’ll ever need to give you some quality time with men of equal values. I admit, I didn’t recognize you. After all, I wasn’t really concentrating on your face, but it’s not your face I’m going to have to ID is it now Mr. Meltone? Detective Czerneski? They’re all yours. If you’ll excuse me, I have a few clients to attend to, and a window to wash.”

There was always one girl in grade school who was monumentally bigger than all the rest of the girls, even most of the boys. I was not that girl. That girl in our class was Maribella Schmaltz. Maribella loved to pick on the smaller girls, including me. One day, having had enough I pushed Maribella off the top of the silver metal slide. You had to wonder what kind of sadist would approve the installation of a slide on a playground for children that would get so hot in the summer sun that it would often leave skin behind. A short railing kept users safe, unless your Maribella who’s foot was firmly stuck. She hung there upside down like an overly large hormonal freak pinata. The formerly bullied crowd circled her, roundly ridiculing her situation and consequently filthy underwear. Maribella put on the tough front as long as she could before finally cracking. The foul stench of bullying was replaced with sweet pity that day, and a general sense of satisfaction was enjoyed by almost everyone.

“Get in,” I said.

I opened the back door of Mason’s sedan and slid in next to Vince, keeping the barrel of my gun tight against his gut.

“Take me to my car,” I said.

“Where’s your car?” Mason asked.

“Your house,” I said.

“Look Lady, this ain’t gonna go well for you,” Vince said.

“Oh no? I feel like it’s the other way around,” I said.

“We’ll see. Same for you money bags. Wait’ll your buddy Wesley finds out, and the old man. All about your dirty little scam. It’s all over for you buddy, curtains,” Vince said.

“Curtains? Are we filming an old movie?” Mason asked.

Vince was a want-to-be old timey mobster right down to his heavily pomaded hair and grossly underpowered and inaccurate snub nose .38 I removed from his cliché shoulder holster.

“Who ya workin’ for Vinnie?” I asked jabbing the gun into his side.

“That’ll be the day,” he said.

“You think I’m playin’ around here Vinnie?” I asked.

“You ain’t got the balls lady. I’m as safe as if I was in my dear mother’s arms,” he said sarcastically.

I pulled the hammer back and pushed the gun into Vince’s scrotum.

“Now you ain’t gonna have the balls either,” I said.

“Ha, like I said, you ain’t gonna do nothin’ lady. Why don’t you go knit a nice sweater somewhere, yous can even add in a picture of a, a, King Martin or whatever, maybe the peanut guy,” Vince laughed.

I fired a round through his pants unintentionally missing Vince’s most cherished appendage. The shot caused Mason to swerve the vehicle into a near miss that would have undoubtedly claimed the life of at least one, and maybe all of us. Vince jumped backwards in the seat and hit his head on the rear glass. 

“Oh God you crazy bitch you did it oh God oh God!” Vince screeched.

“My God Philippine, what the hell? My car!” Mason yelled.

“Shut up, I only burned it, next time though, off with its head,” I said.

I dragged my thumb across my neck mimicking the universal sign for death via beheading. I apologized to Mason for shooting a hole in his seat and probably the floor. However, the satisfied smirk on my face as I noticed the smoking hole in the fine leather seat may have made the apology seem slightly disingenuous.

“Now, let’s try this again. Who are you working for?” I asked.

“I ain’t workin for nobody. I just drive the car, I swear,” he said.

“Not good enough,” I said.

I cocked the gun again, exaggerating the angle of my grip while looking him in the eyes.

“Who you working for? No way you’re smart enough to pull this off alone,” I said.

“I’m tellin’ ya lady. I ain’t workin’ for nobody. He knows, ask him. It’s only me and her you know? He knows,” Vince said referring to Mason.

“Wait what? So she already knows?” Mason asked.

“Yeah, yeah she knows everything,” Vince said.

The ‘she’ to whom he was referring was Buffy Meltone, wife, arm candy, and now prime suspect in my attempted murder.

“Why her? She doesn’t need the money,” I said.

“Me and her go way back. We was a thing. Now she got hers and I’m getting mine. She’s helping me. Me and her, we’ll always be a thing, ya know?” he said.

“What about me?” Mason asked.

“What about you? You don’t mean nothin’ to her if that’s what you’re getting at. Yeah that’s right lover boy. She ain’t as dumb as you two think. She’s been on to you since day one.”

The tan sedan looked no worse for wear besides some dirty ash and a dick stain on the window. Same for the jag sans the stain. I climbed in for a second just to see how the other half lived. The seat was pulled up high for a short driver. The mirrors echoed the same short sentiment. No surprise. It was the heavy cloth inlay that told the crux of the tale. Deep in the pores I recognized a scent my nose hadn’t caught wind of since I first saw her at the AAPT office. It was earthy, slightly subtle. Not the sort of fragrance I expected a girl like her to wear. The office, the girl, the car, things were beginning to get clearer.

Muffled beeping irritated its way into the interrogation from Vince’s pocket.

“What’s that? What is it?” I asked, shouting, pointing my gun at him.

“Please lady, calm down would ya? It’s just my beeper,” Vince said.

As far back as there has been history either written or delivered intrinsically over the blanketed laps of elders, telling a person, especially a woman, and most especially me, to calm down, has not only never worked, it has enflamed every single situation to the point where someone usually needs medical attention. In fact, rumor has it a hysterical woman aggressively demanded her husband get rid of the snake in the garden and guess what he said? And that my friends is how Adam messed it up for everybody.

“Who is it? Who is it, Vince?” I demanded.

I was doing my best to keep the situation tense.  Vince needed to believe me without trusting me. Tough nuts eventually crack, especially when a bullet cuts it a little too close.

“It’s them, er, him. I gotta pick him up probably. It’s about that time,” Vince said.

“Who’s him?” I asked.

“The old man, you know, Meltone,” he said.

“Just him? Where?” I asked.

“I dunno, I gotta call the office,” he said.

“We have to find a payphone, now,” I told Mason.

Vince hung up the phone and gave us the scoop.

“Okay, I just gotta go get the car, pick him up at home, and bring him to the office. No biggie,” Vince said.

“Where’s the car?” I asked.

“At the office. Yeah, there’s you know, there’s a thing, a what-da-ya-call-it, a parking garage underneath, they keep the limos in there,” Vince said.

“Limos? How many Limos?” I asked.

“Two,” he said.

“I’d be very interested to see those. Just him?” I asked.

“Just him what?” Vince asked.

“Meltone, you idiot. Is it just Meltone or are you picking someone else up too?” I asked, frustrated.

“Oh sorry, just him, just him,” Vince said.

“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. Mason, you and I are taking Vinnie here to the limo. From there, we’re going to follow him out to pick up the old man. After he’s merrily on his way, we’re going to stay behind and have a chat with your girlfriend,” I said.

“What about him? What if he tells the old man what we’re doing?” Mason asked.

I gave Vince a long look in his eyes. I could tell that was exactly what he planned to do because he was waiting for my answer as well.

“First of all, once my friend detective Tom Czerneski finds out it was Vinnie here that took a shot through my office window, well, let’s just say it’s gonna be a pretty tough rap to beat. Attempted murder can be that way,” I said.

“Whoa, whoa, wait, hold it lady, I didn’t do nothin’ like that,” Vince said.

“Especially once he finds out about your connection to Buffy,” I said.

“Look lady, you know damn well that’s a bunch of…”

“And secondly, I’m about to turn this gun on little miss ‘always be a thing’ and her and I are going to take a little ride. If the old man finds out, trust the shit out of me when I tell you she’ll be lucky if the birds find enough of her to shit a stain on the old man’s fancy car. Capiche?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah, you make a good case. But like I said, I didn’t do no shootin’,” Vince said.

“Yeah, well, then who did?” Mason asked.

“Beats me buddy. Yous can tell it wasn’t me,” he said.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“You’re still breathin’ ain’t ya?” he said as we pulled into the garage.

“Who drives this other limo?” I asked.

“Me usually, I mean, it’s sorta like a backup. Whoever needs a car ya know? Let’s say you gotta go to the office store and I’m out, get lunch, whatever,” Vince said.

“What about that day you followed her and Mason to lunch, the day I saw you driving down my a…”

I stopped. As I rounded the rear of the second limo during my circle inspection I noticed something.

“Tell me Vince, are there any cats in this garage?” I asked.

“Not that I’ve seen. And I’d notice, I hate cats,” he said.

“Of course you do. How then would you explain these?” I asked.

I stood next to the car like a stage model presenting the grandest feature of the latest piece of crap marketed to make a woman’s life easier but designed to take her money.

“What?” he asked.

“Cat tracks,” I said.

“Yeah so?” Vince said.

“Open it up,” I said.

I walked around and climbed into the driver’s seat. It was set up for a woman, along with the mirrors. The smell, again, recognizable.

“Let’s get a move-on boys, me and the little lady have some things to discuss,” I said slamming the door.

Mason and I followed Vince to the gates of a ridiculous stone mansion on the lake. We parked and walked into the expansive compound, taking refuge behind the guest house until they passed on their way out.

“You’re up loverboy,” I said.

I stood off to the side and let Mason work the scrooge door knocker with the creepy face on it. As much as I wanted to be ready for the next interrogation, I couldn’t help but think that if the door knocker came to life and started talking, I was going to have to abandon this case altogether.

“May I help you?” the maid asked.

“Um, yes. Mrs. Meltone please. Please tell her Mr. Mason Owens is here to discuss her design interpretations at the new building.”

The maid looked outside the door slightly puzzled but had not seen me.

“Why didn’t you ring at the gate?” she asked.

Mason stood there silent for what I felt was far too long but like any good salesman, quick lies come natural.

“Oh well I just happened into Mr. Meltone on his way out. He told me to just go ahead on through. I’m sure if you feel like there’s a problem we can give him a call,” he said.

“No, no, I’m sure it’s fine,” she said with a new smile.

“Won’t you come in? I’ll just let her know you’re here,” she said.

I stepped-in behind Mason as she double-timed her chore in order to save face.

“There’s a bar, head over there and make a drink,” I whispered.

“A drink? But it’s..”

I gave him a look that would have led him down a hole from which few return. I hid behind the bar and waited for my chance.

“Oh my gosh, Mason dear, what are you doing here?” Buffy asked.

“You and Vince? Really? You were going to turn me in to the old man? Are you trying to get me killed?” he asked heatedly.

“No, no, you don’t understand, it was all Vinnie’s idea. If Alfie found out who I was, I mean, I’d lose everything,” she pled.

“Is that why you tried to kill Maximine? Because she found out who you used to be?” he asked.

“Maxiwho?” she asked stupidly.

“Maximine, Philippine Maximine, the private investigator. She was the one who spoke to Sindy? Found out what you used to do there? Ring any bells?”

Buffy cluelessly looked at Mason doing her level best not to break into tears.

“Really! I don’t know what you mean! I could never hurt anybody!” she cried.

“Hey Buff, how’s about you and I have us a good old-fashioned girl to girl chat?” I asked.

My jack in the box scene entrance startled the cry right out of her. Or maybe it was the gun I set down on the bar.

“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Philippine Maximine, and I believe you.”

Would you rather suffer pain from a superficial injury or be the guest in the home of a couple having an impromptu argument? Maybe something started out as a joke, worse if it was your joke, and it escalated from there. Maybe it was deep-seeded, and it just took a while to break the surface to find light and grow. Would it be worth blood not to be there? How about a broken bone, or would you settle for a bad sprain with bruising? Spend enough time with any couple anywhere and you might be able to answer the question.

A night in the hospital is just what the doctor ordered, especially in a guarded room. I’m glad it wasn’t private. I would have hated to be so disassociated from human suffering as to not enjoy the company of my roommate. She made for a rather contradictory metaphor. In Oz, the witch was just out there for everyone to see, there were no preconceived notions about who she was. She gets all the credit in the world for that. The wizard, he hid behind a curtain. Everything he did was accidental, lucky lies that took on lives of their own. And of course, he was quite familiarly busted by a little dog. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Poor Muffin. This woman was definitely a witch, but she stayed behind the curtain.

After her particularly harsh brand of personal intoxication wore off, the remorse of what she may have done, had she remembered set in. My job was to be her captive emotional tampon. For some reason I was supposed to tell her everything was going to be alright. She wanted me to assure her that there’s no way her husband was going to find out she was knee-deep in the dealer’s sheets when the drug house was busted. Her husband, after he finds a babysitter, was not going to mind one bit that all she had to wear was jail scrubs and he’d better dig something out of her drawer before he comes down to bail her out. He won’t mind the track marks on her arm, the wreak of straight booze emanating from her pours. He’ll never know a thing unless he hires me. I wondered if the old man knew Buffy was a stripper.

“Lady? I just shot some guys okay? Shit in your own bedpan,” I said.

“Knock, knock, you decent?” Detective Tom asked.

“Whatever happened to resting?” I asked.

“Haven’t you ever heard the phrase no rest for the wicked?” Tom asked.

“Explains more than you know,” I said.

“Well, anyways, I thought you might want to know, so far ballistics came back with a bullet fired from an as of yet unidentified high caliber rifle,” he said.

“So, nothing. You couldn’t have told me that on the phone?” I asked.

“There’s more. The guy, the guy you wounded really didn’t give us much, and fact is, he might never,” he said.

“Bad?” I asked.

 “Worse, he could be gone by the time I get back up there,” Tom said.

 “What, a, shame,” I said slowly.

“At the moment, I’m holding her on suspicion to commit, but that ain’t gonna hold for long. Once the judge gets ahold of it she’s going to be on the street before you can whistle dixie unless I can get more. What else you got for me Philippine. And don’t hold out on me, it’s your ass we’re talkin about here,” Tom said.

“I gotta tell ya Tom, Mary Owens might be a first-class bitch, but I don’t think it’s her. The second guy? He was going to kill her, sure as shit. Even if I was the target, they had no problem with collateral damage, even her. Those guys weren’t a couple of half-wits from the bar, they did that sort of shit for a living. Contracts like that generally pay in full upon completion. No way they kill her, not if they wanted to get paid,” I explained.

“You sure about that? Maybe some guys on down the line just don’t know any better,” Tom said.

“Yeah but even right away when it all started. They just opened fire, started blasting. If the dog didn’t tip us off…”

“She never gave you a clue? What about the cat, the shot in your office? Think about it Philippine,” Tom said.

“Yeah, I got it. You need something, I might have something. You know why I’m in here Tom?” I asked.

“Yeah, of course, you were in an explosion,” Tom answered.

“Yeah Tom, I’m here for observation, overnight, under guard. I got a damn tube in my arm and they gave me some shit that’s supposed to relax me but it ain’t workin’. You know why it ain’t workin’ Tom?” I asked.

“Read you loud and clear Maximine. I’ll see you in the mornin’. Hey, what’s her problem anyways?” Tom asked.

He needed to pass by the witch’s side of the curtain in order to leave the room. Asking personally invasive questions is a cop’s version of comforting small talk.

“She is, same as everyone,” I said.

“Yeah? Well, whatever,” he said as he left.

I checked myself out early the next morning. I wanted to make sure I could beat feet before I had to meet with Detective Tom again. The tan sedan was still at the scene, so I called the one guy I knew for sure wasn’t getting any sleep.

“Thanks, we need to talk,” I said.

His car was what you would expect it to be. The leather seats in Mason’s late model European sedan squeaked as I slid my ass into place. 

“Where to?” Mason asked.

“Let’s get a cup of coffee. Try here,” I said.

I had a drink coaster in my back pocket. I planned on using it when I changed seats at the bar, but I never got around to it. I showed it to Mason and tossed it onto the floor.

“Are you kidding? Hey!” he said.

“Nope, and whatever, they have good coffee,” I said.

The uncomfortable silence was made worse by the damn car you could barely hear run.

“What about the car Mason? Black Jag convertibles don’t exactly grow on trees,” I asked.

“Coincidence. Has to be,” he said.

“Really? That’s bullshit and you know it.  You got no chance at that coincidence BS with me. I ain’t buyin’ it, and you can bet the cops aren’t either. And what the hell is this situation you got yourself into? What are you trying to get out of?” I asked.

Mason stopped his car in front of the club.

“Here? Really? You sure?” he asked.

“Yeah. Like I said, they got good coffee. Plus, I know someone who works here, I can get us a deal,” I said.

“I’ll buy if money is the issue,” Mason said.

“Nope, plus maybe we’ll get lucky and run into an old friend,” I said.

“Yeah? Like who?” Mason asked.

“Doesn’t matter. Point is, nobody here gives a shit about us, so we know nobody is listening,” I said.

The smell of fresh coffee and urine punch you in the face first step through the front doors. Once you’re used to it, it’s almost like that sweet smell when you’re still a half a mile from a flat skunk, until you get close.

We chose a booth where I could see the door. My old friend Randy spotted us and immediately disappeared into the back room.

“Friend of yours?” Mason asked.

“Not exactly, but she is,” I said.

Sindy must have pulled the early shift that day. She came through the front doors looking like she got up late for church.

“Hey Sin,” I said.

“Ms. Maximine! Hey, he’s much better than the last one huh?” Sindy said.

“Just business Sindy. I’m glad I ran into you though. I was hoping you could keep an eye out for me. Ya know in case anyone we might know shows up unexpectedly. Oh, and could you tell her a couple of large coffees? Thanks,” I said.

I handed her a twenty spot folded the long ways. She gave the bartender our order, gave me a wink and headed backstage.

“Alright, spill it,” I said.

“She didn’t do it. No way. I’d know. This whole thing has gotten out of hand,” Mason said.

“I’m aware. Now why don’t we start with what it is you got yourself into,” I said.

“Money. Lots and lots of money. The AAPT, the old man. He got on this animal kick a few years back. He wants to go international with this thing. Hell, he already has. They needed properties, and I knew how to get ‘em. Thing is, the son, Wesley, he was in charge of all property acquisition. Now believe it or not, he’s still punching the damn clock. The old man might have all the money in the world, but unless you either got tits or puppies, he ain’t all about sharing it,” Mason said.

“So lemme’ guess, you and Wesley set out to get some of it for yourselves,” I said.

“Yeah, you could say that. The old man has no idea how much property costs. As long as it was for the animals, he doesn’t care what he pays for a building. Wesley and I split the overage right down the middle, fifty, fifty,” he said.

“How does Mary fit in?” I asked.

“She knows about it, about everything. She was lovin’ it, fancy house, car, maid. It was all good until he found out,” Mason said.

“Who? The old man?” I asked.

“Vince, Vince Rantelinini. The fuckin’ chauffeur. This guy overhears a conversation Wesley and I were having in the back of the damn car, comes to my office and says he’s going to tell the old man’s arm candy wife all about us. Says he used to date her heavy and she’ll tell the old man unless we cut him in on the deal.,” he explains.

“How much did he want?” I asked.

“Half! Fuckin half! I’m supposed to tell Wesley that him and I are going to get twenty-five each while this asshole gets half? I don’t think so. He had to have sent Mrs. McArm Candy, aka Buffy over there to make the hire,” he said.

“Why me then? I’ve never met the woman,” I said.

“Um hello? Like, she probably doesn’t want her like traditional old guy husband to know she like, you know, worked here,” Sindy said.

“What the, how long have you been standing there?” I asked.

“Um, I brought your coffee, and he’s here,” Sindy said.

“Who’s here?” Mason asked.

“Him,” she said pointing.

Vince walked in and sat at the bar, never having even glanced in our direction.

“Nice Sin, nice,” I said.

“Great, so you know this asshole,” Mason asked.

“He’s the old friend I was talking about, although admittedly we’ve never been formerly introduced,” I said.

“How does that even make sense?” Mason asked.

I sipped my coffee.

“Anyways, maybe she’s right? I mean, it had to cost a shitload of money to hire those guys. Who else could do it?” Mason asked.

“No way, uh uh. Doesn’t add up. Why send so much firepower, do so much damage just for me? Seems like a bit of overkill doesn’t it?” I asked.

“Maybe they tried it the other way and missed. You know, one guy, a shot through an office window?” Mason asked.

I’ll admit, Mason and Sindy had my wheels turning double time. It just seemed a little bit too easy.

“What about the cat? Where’ did ole Vince get a mountain lion?” I asked.

“Oh. Well, um, that might have been us,” Mason said.

I removed my gun from its holster and placed it on the table in front of us.

“What?” I asked.

“Yeah, well, we needed you to keep an eye on Wesley without really telling you to keep an eye on Wesley. He was the threat who at first, we never anticipated. How long before he realized he didn’t need me anymore? We needed you to think we were getting divorced so that Wesley would trust Mary. We knew if you tailed her, she’d lead you to him. The lion was a setup. Who else can get a lion besides the boss of a rare animal rescue? It was a breadcrumb. And once Mary got tight with Wesley, we’d know about any plan he had to you know, end the deal, end me. Meanwhile I knew damn well Buffy wasn’t getting what she needed from the old man, so you know, a passing glance, a little flirting here, an accidental touch there. Next thing you know we’re on both sides of the coin. Being with her was the only way I knew for sure I could get ahead of this whole Vince thing. And really, the lion thing worked, sort of,” Mason said nervously.

I picked the gun up off the table, chambered a round, stood up in the booth and pointed it at Mason’s head, aiming carefully between his eyes. After a moment of conjectural fear instillation, I adjusted my aim, stepped out of the booth and approached the bar.         

“Hi Vince, let’s say you and me take a ride.”