Nature of the Beast

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My stepfather thought he’d make a man of me by shipping me West one summer to work on his ranch in Southwest Colorado. He told me I needed to learn the way of the world, the natural order of things in which Man, or least my stepfather, sat at the top of the mountain.

And so I was sent to help Waini Muatagoci, who the other ranch hands called Luke Two Moon, which is what his Ute name translated to. Two Moon was from the Muache Band of the Southern Ute tribe who once ruled this part of the Four Corners before the whites “subdued” them and, in turn showed them the way up that mountain my stepfather talked about. Just nowhere near the top.

Yog’yuvitc, brother coyote, he’s been here since before my people arrived in the before times, young Ben. Coyotes would take deer and elk and the calves of kutc-um, the buffalo. But it wasn’t until the white ranchers came that coyote has been hunted like this, just to be rid of him on the ranches,” Two Moon said as we rode the trap line set out to take down the coyotes that had been killing calves of my stepfather’s prized Herefords during the calving season.

“I guess Hal’s barbed wire fence is only good at keeping the cattle in and not the coyotes out,” I said, half-joking. Hal was my stepfather, Harold King.

“No. Mr. King thought he could scare them off the ranch by making big noises. Coyote ran away, laughed at him and then came back for more calves. He sent us on hunts, but there are more of them than there are of us and this is a big spread. So now we set traps and kill coyote without even seeing him. It’s a dirty and cowardly thing,” Two Moon said.

Up ahead we saw a thin gray form lying on the ground. It was my first view of a coyote and later I wished it was my last.

The animal’s bloody leg was in a hole, its mouth open as if in a silent scream of protest and it’s eyes were open in defiance, fear…maybe even accusation. I couldn’t look at its face long enough to tell.

“So now you see Mr. King’s ‘enemy,’ this scrawny thing lying here in a pile of skin, fur and bones. Help me get him out of the hole so I can reset the trap, young Ben,” Two Moon said.

I put on my gloves, pulled down my hat and jumped off my buckskin and tried to put aside my disgust. I understood the problem of the coyotes coming through the wire and taking calves, but I wished there was better way to keep them under control besides killing them in such an inhumane manner.

“This is just wrong,” I said.

“As far as the ranch goes, you’re wrong, young Ben. But you’re also so very right.”

In the next hour we found four more dead coyotes, their legs caught in traps set in holes and hidden from them, save for the bait that drew them to their abrupt capture and slow, agonizing deaths.

“As long as there are so many cattle here, breeding and calving so often, there will be coyote hunting and taking the calves,” Two Moon said. “It is as it has always been. Mr King is just providing many more opportunities for coyote to prove his rightful place in our Mother Nature’s order.”

At the next trap in the line, which sat at the top of little rise near the southern boundary fence of Hal’s spread, we didn’t find a coyote carcass. No, what we found was even more grotesque than the twisted form of a now-dead animal once wild with pain and fear.

Two Moon asked me to check on the trap set and bait, so I jumped off my buckskin and carefully reached into the hole. Two Moon must have thought I got bitten or the trap snapped and my hand barely escaped its vicious jaws, but he’d be wrong on both counts.

I looked at my glove and showed the blood to Two Moon.

“You all right, boy? Trap catch you?”

“No. Come on down and take a look in here,” I said.

Two Moon’s feet hit the ground in a silent puff of dust and he walked to the hole, kneeled next to me, peered into it and withdrew the bloody trap. In its jaws was the severed leg of a coyote. Actually the lower leg that had been gnawed off by the trapped coyote. Two Moon’s face took on an expression both resigned and disgusted.

“You’ll see this happen from time to time, young Ben, when brother coyote will not wait to die on the Man’s terms. He would rather die free, no matter the cost in pain and suffering,” Two Moon said as he opened the trap and let the grotesque talisman of a perverted sense of freedom fall to the ground.

“May I have that, Two Moon?” I asked.

The old Ute shrugged and said, “Why not? It’s not doing coyote any good now and the dead ones on the pack-horse don’t need it, either.”

He reset this trap just as he had the previous ones and the seven more in which we found coyotes of both genders and all ages until we came to the end of the trap line.

“If Hal wants me to check the line tomorrow, do you think I should check the sets on the way back to the house, Two Moon? Just so’s I can remember their location and order?” I said.

“Ya know, that’s probably not a bad idea, young Ben. I’ll leave you to it while I bring these back to the big house for burning,” Two Moon said. “I think your idea’s a right good one.”

As Two Moon road back to the big house he sang, in what I assumed was Ute, a tune that swayed in the wind behind him.

I tripped every trap on the way back. I knew the calving season was still months away and I’d be back East by then. No more coyotes would die like that while I played cowboy. They’d have to find another way to control the coyotes.

My real Dad had been a conscientious objector and Draft protester back in ’67-‘68. Yet he went on to win a Silver Star in Vietnam as a life-saving medic and came back to protest the war and racism and whatever other injustice he saw in American society right up until he died in ’86.

Hal wanted me to be a man by his definition, if not in his image. I’d already decided to be the man Dad would want me to be.

As I tripped the last trap, I heard a coyote howl in the distance, saw it in silhouette against the moon as both rose over the ridge south of the big house. I yip-yip-yeowed right back at it and it echoed my call. I’m sure it had no idea what I was doing, but liked to think it understood my eastern accented message we were in solidarity against the Man.

I hope…no, I know Dad would be proud of me.

First draft of a story I wrote based on a suggested theme of “resistance.” I’m not one to write political protests or satire, and I’m pretty sure I’ve buried my take on the subject much too deeply beneath the allegory of keeping el coyote from ruining the ranch. But, I don’t have the answers when one beast wants in, while the other will do anything to keep him out.

The Siesta

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The Afternoon Siesta 1889 Vincent Van Gogh

In the still oven-like shade of a stack of wheat here in this field outside Arles, Louisa and I lie in a midday siesta. Meanwhile, my Maitane is home, heavy with our first child.

When Maitane arrived from up in Donostia, I wished my love welcome to this blazing Purgatario, this stopover on our journey from Infernu to blessed Zeruko. Or perhaps to our own farm in the dreamy someday of a siesta.

“That is why I have come to be with you, Josu,” Maitane whispered as she laid her head upon my chest, disregarding the sweat-drenched shirt and all-too-quick drowsing. “If you are on such a journey, I do not wish to be separated from you another day. Such an adventure we shall share together. What God has joined together…”

“Yes, Maitane, we will chase this dream together, stopping here in this Purgatario of Provence on our way. It is much like the fable the brown-robed fathers taught us about the comforts of the Afterlife. Such tales and such an afterlife are mere myth, no more. But I suppose a myth is better than nothing. Yes?” I said.

“For me, my love, Heaven will forever be in your arms, no matter where they are, no matter what task they do,” Maitane said, smiling with drowsy eyes, herself.

I never wished to leave my family in the Basque country to the northwest, but times there had been harder than I can remember. The sheep were dying, as if being sacrificed on an altar of grassless fields.

“I shall find us a place to keep us whole if it takes moving halfway around the world to find it, Maitane,” I told her back in our town. It turned out all I needed to travel was only halfway across France, which was not Heaven, though beautiful nonetheless.

The red-haired painter from Holland who I befriended in a cafe one night offered to have his lover, the whore Sien, provide me with similar companionship.

“Vincent,” I said, “I have not yet reached that state of desperation, though I bid you thanks.” I put him off for a week, when one night I drunkenly fell from a cafe stool and somehow to a bed in a room of blue into the arms of a girl who smelled of the fields of lavender where she worked as well.

“Well, my friend, was she not an angel to warm your body and cool your buried desires?” Vincent said. Blushing, I nodded.

That night I wrote Maitane and told her to come here to be with me, because I couldn’t bear anymore her absence from my arms. My dreams of her were not enough.

Vincent laughed when I told him what I did.

“You have the soul of a cleric, though from what Louisa told Sien, the ardor of three bulls in the rut,” he said. “I believe Louisa may have fallen for you in but one night of passion, my friend. Shall I give her the news of your return to the celibacy of the marital bed from here forward?”

I chose not to admit how heavenly I felt after our time together, Louisa’s and mine. To do so would be to sink further into the abyss I see Vincent sliding into. He is a good man, though with frightening eyes that see all, but in a way only he can see it.

When I received Maitane’s reply that she would be coming to me in Arles, I was both thrilled and worried. That was because I had become almost as enamored of Louisa as she of me, even though I still left a sous behind as tribute to her sharing her precious body with this Basque farm boy.

And so I still reside in this purgatory between two angels and the hell into which I have thrown myself and don’t wish to escape, despite the pain it brings me. It is much like this shade within which I lie with Louisa. Out of the sun yet still burning with heat. And she still smells of lavender.

Meanwhile, Vincent stares with his devilish and brilliant all-seeing eyes and chronicles my sins upon his flaming canvas, hopefully not capturing them like hell, for an eternity.

Perhaps a Heaven really is just over that hill where the sun sleeps with tomorrow. For now, though, I will find it sleeping with my angels, gifts like cool rain dropped from the clouds. They comfort my dreams with their bodies as I hold them to mine.

Our couplings are prayers for the rest of my journey, where, without fear, I test the truths of Purgatario and Zeruko, because heriotza, death, my inevitable end, is just another fork in this road.

Taps

US flags at graves at Veterans cemetery

US flags at graves at Veterans cemetery

My brother Eddie and I stared at the backs of the solemn folks in ill-fitting dark suits and veterans’  VFW garrison caps surrounding our father’s old drinking buddy’s casket. Eddie whispered, “I gotta take a leak.”

Typical Eddie.  Total mammal.  If he was outdoors, country road or golf fairway, he just couldn’t help stepping into the brush and watering the flora.

The reverend droned on about a better place and dust.  I couldn’t imagine anywhere better than this military cemetery, welcomed by its perfect white smiles of tombstones.

As gunshot salutes faded, Eddie reappeared, grinning like a fool.

“Where you been?” I said.

“Behind those bushes over there.”

“You were serious.”

“Heck, yeah, I was serious.  When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

“What’s so funny?”

“Ten years ago I had an argument with this guy at work. When they pulled us apart, I told him if I ever got the chance, I’d piss on his grave. Well, while I was over there, guess what I found?”

“You didn’t.”

“Uh-huh, I did.” He laughed through his crooked smile.

“And you think this is some kind of joke, right?”
“On him, yeah.”

“What if someone did something like that to your grave?”

“I wouldn’t know about it.”

“What if Ma decided to come visit your grave one Sunday and found some guy relieving himself on your head?”

“Never happen.”

“Could. How would you like it if visited Grandma’s grave and found some drunk kid off-loading Milwaukee’s Best on her headstone?”

“I’d kill him,” Eddie said.

“What if someone saw you?” I said.

“Look, I always look around to see if I can take a leak without being seen. I really didn’t piss on his grave. Just nearby. No harm, no foul, okay?” he said.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” we heard behind us. We turned to find a tall, black Marine in dress blues staring hard at us.

“Saw what you did, man,” he said to Eddie. “That’s just wrong and you gotta come correct. Or I’m gonna correct you.”

“I don’t know what you’re taking about,” Eddie said, choking on a dry gulp.

“It’s bad enough you dishonor the brave man who’s being buried here today, but then you go and dishonor another one.”

“My brother is very sorry for his abhorrent behavior.  Aren’t you?”

“Look, corporal, I’ve got a bladder problem and sometimes I just have to go…fast.  This was one of those times,” Eddie said.

“I heard you laugh and say you thought what you did was funny.  You know what I think is funny? When a tough guy gets called out and turns out he’s nothing but a bunch of air.  You a tough guy? Or something else?”

Eddie reached for the car door.

His hand was consumed by a large brown hand that seemed the size of a baseball mitt, only not as soft.

“Ow, leggo,” Eddie said, “that hurts.”

“You know what really hurts? That guys like you can be assholes in this country because of guys like me and the men you disrespected today.”

Eddie tugged, but the Marine just squeezed harder.

“Oh, God,” Eddie sobbed, dropping to his knees.

The sound of breaking china came from where their hands met in what seemed a sign of peace. Tears appeared in Eddie’s eyes.

“That’s the kind of behavior I expect in honoring the dead,” the Marine said. “I think you’ve come to accept disciplined, honorable behavior. Please stop by and honor these brave folks again, sir. Semper Fi.”

He released Edie’s hand, about-faced, and melted into the bushes where this all began.

Eddie tells everyone he broke his hand catching it in the car door. The tool.

A place-keeper story today for my ruptured duck of a Story a Day quest for September. Couldn’t get to the prompted one, but had this in the old sack. Poor story from a stumbling, sleep-starved September writer.

Another Victory for His Excellency

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I knew it might come to this one day. When such a great tree as he falls, it does not go quietly, nor without an echo. This was to be his final echo.

“The men are aligned and ready, your excellency,” my adjutant, Gates said. More than 12,000 regulars and militiamen filed in ranks behind me. My heart leapt at the chance to lead an army again.

“Have them hold position until I give the order, Gates. Let’s see what the old fox has up his sleeve besides a flask of corn liquor,” I said.

Gates could barely stand me since I jumped over him in command after our success in New York. But he knew I was a fighter, a leader of my men from their front and took my new role as seriously and with as much humility as a man of my station and reputation could.

And out there, the Old Man sat astride his white horse, like he was posing for a portrait by Stuart, at the head of a ragtag army of frontier rabble in rebellion against the very nation we both fought to bring independence. With his history of failure, you would think him foolish to side against the full force of this united army–my army.

But defeat does not sit well with one who once was himself the commander of armies, now relegated to the role of “gentleman farmer.” Actually he was not much more than a law-breaker, a rebel who would not pay the legally legislated tax on his farm’s major product. He wasn’t that much different from those dirt-scratching over-mountain bumpkins. He just had the benefit of aristocratic birth and a workforce of I don’t know how many slaves to make him the leader of these rebels.

He never had to fight against the discrimination of the born rich against the man who had the courage and audacity to build his own reputation. He never had to buck the tide of Congressional cronyism, the jealous finagling of other so-called military leaders, sheep who led from the safety of a headquarters well behind the line of battle. Never felt the sting of hot lead nor the sickening snap of bone.

He raised a white flag, coming forward with his lieutenants to parley. I can’t believe he has the gall to wear his blue uniform coat with its gold epaulets in front of these men in filthy linsey-woolsy and buckskin. They actually think of him as their champion when he is using them to line his own pockets. The fools. I pray they don’t decide to fight today, but if they do, I’ll see this rebellion quashed by sundown and the Old Man hanged.

“Gates, bring Hamilton forward. He started this thing. Let’s see what their paramount leader’s jealous machinations will be.” I said.

Together with Gates, Hamilton and a squadron of dragoons for security, we met in the center of the field in western Pennsylvania. The Old Man looked more haggard than when last I saw him when he was sacked by Congress, which had the good sense to place me in total command of our forces. Though he looked tired and old in his countenance, he still sat a horse well, his height and erect posture no doubt persuading a shallow Congress to put him in command in the first place.

Well, those days were over. They played a different tune after my victories on the Hudson and his running from battle to battle.

“Good day to you, Your Excellency,” the Old Man said, his jaw clenched.

“And to you, General. You look well, sir. I see the infirmities of rustic camp life have not diminished your old vigour,” I said.

I could see the jealousy in his eyes, the despair that I was the one who won independence and he was banished to his home, to distill his spirits and sell them at an obscene profit to both sides. Such was the weakness of the undisciplined army he left to me. Well, I straightened them out, baptizing them in blood and blessed in the incense of gun smoke.

“General, violence will not solve this dispute. It is the law of the nation, established by your very own erstwhile adjutant. You and your ‘army’ stand no chance against the assembled arms you see behind me. In fact, I see scores of your rebels already melting back into the countryside from which they came,” I said. I had acquired consummate skill in statesmanship once a proud nation chose me its first leader.

The Old Man sagged, no longer able to hold up the pretense of his ability to fight, to lead, to win. Not against the rule of law, not against the might of my forces, and surely not against me.

“I must agree with you, Your Excellency. Such a battle would leave this field littered with our dead. And while it would be a tragedy for independent men who turn the bounty of their crops into a public necessity, such bloodshed would leave your government bereft of individuals from whom to bleed your tax, something you and I fought a war to free our people from,” the Old Man said.

“So, General, will you retire from the field and send your people back to their loving families and bountiful farmsteads?” I said.

“Aye, sir. You have bested me once again with a reputation built upon the bones of your enemies. You may send your tax collectors where you may to bleed us dry so the nation may drink to your honour,” the Old Man said, and wheeled his white horse without another word.

“And to yours, good sir, and to your continued good health,” I replied.

As we returned to our cheering army, i felt the swell of pride in my latest victory. This one not as a mere soldier anymore. Not like at Quebec, or Ticonderoga, or Stanwix, or Saratoga, or Yorktown. No, now as President of the United States.

“Congratulations, Your Excellency You knew all along that Washington would never fight against you, didn’t you?” Gates said, still with jealousy in his voice.

“A military leader must always fight to win, Gates. That has been my motto, my creed, my life since I left Connecticut to fight for independence, lo, these sixteen years ago,” I replied. “That is what helped us become the United States of America, and I, Benedict Arnold, their President.”

A little speculative history about the Whisky Rebellion of 1791 in response to the Day 4 prompt in my September Story a Day Challenge. This one called for a story written in first person. The idea for this tale has been banging around in my head for a couple of years. And now I’ve written its first draft in an hour. Funny how these things work out, like Benedict Arnold becoming our first President.

Mercy in Schuyler’s Abattoir

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In the hospital tent, Dr. Savage stood by the table that belonged to General Schuyler, but had now become his surgical table where more limbs were removed from wounded soldiers than bullets that caused them.

When the stretcher bearing the British officer arrived, Savage’s orders were to save the man at any cost. Simultaneously, bearers lugged the canvas sling fashioned to carry to the makeshift surgery young Thomas Borden from the field in front of Breymann’s Redoubt. The curiosity of the medical staff was set off not by the bullet hole in the Tryon County volunteer’s left shoulder. His shirt had been ripped to get a better view of the wound and that provided a surprising view of Private Borden’s breast, a breast belonging most definitely to a female.

Savage looked over the British Major, who someone said was a West Country noble called John Acland. He’d been shot through the hips and Savage’s inspection with his fingers and metal probe didn’t show any serious damage to bone or his lower gut. Savage packed the Major’s wounds with lint, knowing that was about all he could do for the man. All the while, Acland observed the doctor’s ministrations with quiet moans and wing looks at Savage. The doctor nodded to his assistants and then moved to Borden.

“Orders are orders, gentlemen, but this woman needs as much if not more care as our Redcoat officer here. Bartlett, give the Major a large dose of that rum and a dram of laudanum to keep the pain at bay and then join me over here with this…” Savage didn’t know what to call young Borden.

Pulling back the young woman’s linsey-woolsy hunting shirt, Savage saw the bullet wound she’d suffered. It was of a similar caliber as the large and heavy round fired from the British army’s Brown Bess musket.

“How did this girl get wounded?” Savage asked.

“I heard Colonel Van Wie shot her so she wouldn’t kill the wounded grenadier officer there, sir,” Savage’s aide said. .

“Well someone sure as hell did,” Savage said. “Now I’ve got to probe inside her for that ball. Leadbetter, give her shot of that corn whisky and Then you and Larabee hold her still,” Savage said to his cadre of aides. “Quite a waste. She’s almost a pretty thing,” he said. “And I know I’ve seen her before.”

From behind him, Savage heard Acland say, “Aye.”

After removing Bodden’s shirt, some of the aides, hardened by the surgery’s abattoir atmosphere, blushed with some semblance of Christian decorum.

“More light over here, Bartlett,” Dr. Savage said. He wiped some of the blood from Acland’s procedure off a metal probe and held it ready in his left hand as he pushed his red-stained index finger into the .69 caliber hole left by Van Wie’s pistol. The girl’s scream was no more nor less than that of any other soldier’s. The mirrored lantern revealed a steady pulsing of blood from her left shoulder.

Savage said, “You might be one lucky young Borden, or Miss Bodden, or whatever your real name is. Ball nicked your bone but didn’t shatter it. Went right on through without touching any major vessels. Nevertheless…”

“Is…is he dead? Did I kill him?” The girl, dressed as a Mohawk Valley farmer on an October hunt might, thrashed a bit to see if Acland was next to her, or just his body. She saw him staring at her.

“No, he’s alive, though it’s a grievous wound. Nevertheless, he’s watching you now,” Savage said. Then he turned to his assistant and said, “Tourniquet, Bartlett.”

“No,” came booming from the pallet where Major Acland lay. “You’ll not take the girl’s arm. Clean and bind her wound, give her rum and laudanum, but do not take her arm.”

“Delirium, sir?” Bartlett asked Savage. “Or the ravings from the opium and drink?” He held a leather strap which was slick with blood.

“No, I don’t think so. Sir, you’re neither a doctor or surgeon. You just lie back and let me do what must be done,” Savage said.

“You’re wrong there, sir,” Acland said through clenched teeth. “I studied with Hunter in London. I believe you’d be doing more harm than good from so drastic a procedure. Please do as I ask, I’m imploring you. The girl has as much or greater chance of dying from the amputation as the bullet wound itself. You have nothing to lose, sir,” Acland said.

“Hunter, eh?” Savage said. “I’ve read some of his studies. But we don’t have time here to debate theorem, sir. Only to cut, saw and burn. And my time for her seems to have been superseded by my need to tend to the next twelve men. I’ll leave her life to God and your conscience, then, sir. Take her off and do as the learned Major Acland said, Bartlett.”

With that, Savage turned and shouted, “Larabee, what by Jehovah are you standing there for? Bring on the next. Oh, with your august permission, Doctor Acland.”

But Acland couldn’t hear the rebel surgeon’s jeering retort. He’d finally succumbed to the shock of his wounds and the opium in his system. Leadbetter rolled him back onto his pallet and, with Bartlett, lifted another wounded soldier upon the table, where Savage removed the man’s leg just above the knee in but two minutes.

“Another, Leadbetter,” he said, rinsing blood from his hands in a basin of pink water. Then, to no one, he added, “War. Women. Madness.”

In response to another month-long Story a Day Challenge, I was supposed to write a story in 30 minutes. In it, I’m supposed to take a character and make him do the opposite of what you or he would ever think of doing. I decided to try writing a chapter of a novel that’s been nagging me for four years. It’s working title is “Stillwater,” and it’s the story of a girl from Somerset, England who comes to New York in the 1770s to escape the nobleman who she believe may instigated her father’s death and attacked her sister. But sometimes the obvious isn’t as it seems. This is by no means a finished piece. It’s a first draft speed write. But it has “good bones.

The Program

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Photo copyright K. S. Brooks.

Phillips, or #2730098-RP in New Mexico’s Corrections System, offered up his hands for the shackles attached to the chains already confining his ankles and waist.

“Must feel pretty good about today, eh, greener? Cop killer getting off The Row,” CO Baez said. He guided Phillips by the shoulder as he shuffled along the portico to Admin wing.

“Ain’t seen the sun and those shadows since first day I got here,” Phillips said. “Now I’ll see ‘em every day working Provisions Program, instead of getting the needle over there.” He pointed with his chin.

At the end of the portico, a buzzer sounded and Baez nudged Phillips through the door. A female CO whose tag read Silvana met them at a desk.

“Afternoon, Jaime. This the new one?” she said.

“Yep, all yours now. Says he can’t wait to get started.”

“We’ll process him right away then,” she said.

Silvana guided Phillips down another hall, where COs removed his shackles and told him to strip for a shower. Six jets in the tiled wall doused Phillips with soapy water and rinsed him clean.

“Okay, lifer, the State of New Mexico thanks you for your service to its Inmate Provision Program,” a CO said. “Processing’s through those doors.”

Phillips walked through and dropped without feeling a thing, the captive bolt pistol popping his skull and entering his brain. His final thought was of walking through a tunnel of light and shadow, as his life sentence ended Day One in The Program.

Wrote this for a weekly flash fiction contest in response to the photo prompt up top. Needed to write a flash fiction piece of 250 words or less based on that photo by award-winning author and photographer K.S. Brooks. If you like it enough, you vote on it or others starting Wednesday over at the Indies Unlimited website.

Fire Horse Medium Rare

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It was as the sun crossed the Virginia horizon, bounced off the sizzling cars on I-95, eventually streaming nearly horizontally through my room’s curtains that I noticed someone’s secret sitting there on the desk where I rested my laptop.

In that late afternoon light, the shadows of a prior guest’s last message written on the hotel’s notepad showed like filigree etched into fine glassware, like the pattern embossed on the shin-high leather of my Justin boots.

None of your business, I thought. You’ve gotta make it down to the Longhorn before half of Fredericksburg decides they want your rib-eye, medium, baked potato and cold beers. Okay, a little salad, too.

For most of my life this inquisitive nature of mine and blessed curse of turning a phrase paid the bills, put two daughters through college, paid off one mortgage and half of another and let me retire at 62. Besides, who the hell would know or care?

I reached into my laptop bag and pulled out one of the school kid’s thick soft-lead pencils I started using when the arthritis made it too painful to write with a yellow #2 like other folks. That is, those folks who actually write anymore.

I rubbed the graphite equivalent of an illegal phone tap lightly from the upper left to lower right of the notepad. And then I read the transcript of someone’s private life:

Jax — 8:30
Pkg Gar 3-24
Black Accord
100K
No cpos

Well, that was more than the something like Large half pepperoni w/small antipasto no onion I expected. This was more like one kilo, no B12, no glucose.

Of course, it could be just someone doodling, a mystery writer or some lame fan fic geek still trying to get Crockett and Tubbs in the sack together after twenty-five years. The misspell of “cops” might confirm the latter.

No, the depth of these imprints showed some emotion pushing down the pedal and the pen. This ghost note’s writer was fairly intense, as least within their own mind.

Okay, Mr. Retired Newshound, what’re you gonna do? Telling the cute Pakistani girl and the fat Bubba sweating through his shirt down at the main desk might get the ball rolling. And then you won’t be late for that hot date with Ms. Well-Marbled 2016.

Besides, you’ve had no excitement since you piled a career’s notes, files, plaques, pics and bye-bye kisses into that small cardboard box on your way out of the city room. You know you want one more first on a story before all the talking hairdos and oh-so-serious news bunnies set up their lights and cameras to tell the same story for the next three days at Noon, 6:00 and 11:00.

That’s how I found myself sweaty and squinting into the shadows of the garage across the way from the hotel. I figured its proximity made the hotel and I-95 made it worth a shot. I’d climbed the stairs to the third level and realized why I didn’t chase ambulances anymore. Young guy’s game.

But those kids lack your chops, Woodstein, I wheezed to myself.

At column 24 I could feel my heart flutter like an old fire horse’s when it heard a bell even after being put to pasture. I had to admit, this was an excellent place for a money drop for any nefarious reason — drugs, kidnapping, extortion — down on the dark far corner from the exit. Down where there wasn’t a Honda to be found.

Daughter 2 taught me how to use my iPhone as a flashlight, so I thought I’d give the scene a cursory flyover and then head on down to the Longhorn before they closed the kitchen. That’s when I spotted the business card in a dark puddle. A dark puddle in a parking garage was no surprise, but the red stain it imparted on the card was.

Shit. Damn it. Oh boy.

I turned off the flashlight and hit 911. Two hours later, the cops let me go after I gave them my statement, my cell number and the land line at my new home in Florida.

Yep, that was blood and the name on the card was that of Elise Weston, a Richmond bank exec who hadn’t shown up at work since Tuesday. I left the sherlocking to the Sherlocks and stepped out into the warm Virginia night. The midnight night.

I finally ate, though not that rib-eye, dammit. No, here in the room where it all started this afternoon I’m munching on this personal half-pepperoni and small antipasto, no onions. Sipping this Sweetwater IPA from the supermarket down the road. Glad the cashier could handle the C-note I paid with. Wiped the worst of the blood off so…

Discovery draft free write I managed in the past 90 minutes of toddler nap time. Gotta learn how to write something like a flash fiction mystery/thriller someday, I reckoned. Today was the first toe in the bloody puddle.