Pop Darrell - a tough ex-cop living in New York City with a terminal heart problem.  He and his wife had a pact that when one died the other would follow but a beautiful and terrified Chinese woman pounding on his apartment door interrupts his suicide attempt and he soon finds himself unraveling a mystery while tracking and being tracked by sadistic killers and fleeing the police himself. 

His detective nephew is worried that his uncle is too old and too out-of-touch with modern detection methods, and that his stubbornness could get him killed.  But Pop Darrell is determined to solve the case and deal with the killers in his own, old-fashioned way – regardless of danger.   

But as Pop Darrell works his last case, he begins to suspect the girl is not telling the entire truth.  And then the dreams begin - strange dreams of ancient Chinese warriors on a battlefield beckoning him to join them.  And the once serene world of Pop Darrell will change forever.

 

 

             

Pop Darrell’s Last Case

 

 

I

 

Fengjie County, Sich’uan Province, China

 

 The two men huddled behind the mass of huge, bizarre-shaped, granite boulders and waited.  Silent.  Motionless.  In the faint glow of starlight, only their foreheads were visible.  Despite the coolness of the October evening both men sweated profusely. 

Dressed in their scruffy tunics and torn, baggy trousers they could have passed as peasants in any of China’s dynasties.  But even the least competent of China’s magistrates would have immediately recognized the tomb robbers for what they were; and would have had them beaten with bamboo rods and forced to kneel on heated chains.  Before having them beheaded.  Even in modern 21st century China, if they were caught, the men were well aware that their fate would not be a pleasant one.

A powerfully, thick-set man and his much thinner and much less confident companion.  The thin man furtively nudged his lantern closer to the boulder and scratched at a skin rash from kerosene that had spilled earlier in the day.

Until three years before, the men had had their own metal shop business but as part of a controversial dam project their village, along with dozens of others, had been relocated.  The men had been resettled in an area not of their choosing, and then reassigned to work not to their liking: driving huge Caterpillar dump trucks that removed the soil for the Dam Project.  Trapped between too many gambling debts and too little income, taking treasures from tombs that would soon be flooded or buried forever did not seem to such men like stealing.    

Of the two, the worrier was the thin man.  He worried that they had planted too much dynamite, he worried about ancestral ghosts inhabiting the tomb, he worried about being caught, and he worried about not having protection in case noxious gases had built up inside the tomb over the centuries.  But his companion had dismissed his fears.  He had used dynamite before, there were no ancestral ghosts, the authorities could be bribed, and this tomb was inside a knoll, not buried far under the earth. 

And yet the thin man thought the knoll itself was strange.  It was not like other hills and mountains he had ever seen.  He felt something almost foreboding about it.  Although other hills in the area were barren this one had a profusion of exotic plant life throughout a dense and wild thicket.  And in the semi-darkness the luxuriant vegetation and thick undergrowth seemed otherworldly, almost menacing.

The sudden explosion sent a deafening fusillade of stones and earth roaring out over them.  The men remained still even as a shower of pebbles fell upon their heads and shoulders, and clouds of dust enveloped them.  Then they jumped up, only the thin man pausing to briefly dust himself off.  They grabbed their painted steel kerosene lanterns and ran toward the entrance of the tomb. 

The first man, burly, dirty and unshaven for days, turned up his lantern light, sending a weak shaft of light through the crevice of the tomb, but he could make out nothing in the stygian darkness of the interior.  He slipped a hammer from his belt and struck again and again at the projecting slivers of stone.  Finally, the man was satisfied that he could fit through the opening.  He stretched out his arms together before him and, head first, quickly squeezed into the crevice.  Ignoring the pain of the jagged-edged fragments he had missed, he crawled into the tomb.  The second man wrapped a burlap sack around each arm and quickly followed in the manner of the first.

Inside the tomb they passed cautiously through an antechamber, its stone walls and ceiling obviously devoid of treasures.  And then they entered a much larger chamber and their excitement grew as painted faces of fierce gods and exquisite goddesses emerged from centuries of darkness.  The men moved their rusted and chipped lamps closer to the wall niches. 

The light glittered on golden statues and illuminated jade figures which seemed almost alive.  Bronze figures of the eight immortals with paper-thin patinas of blue and green lined a shelf beside a beautifully carved jade-and-coral peach as big as a man’s fist.  Each immortal was draped with a necklace of pearls.

For several seconds, the men were too spellbound to speak.  When finally they did, it was in their home Ch’angsha, Hunan dialect, a dialect unintelligible to Mandarin speakers.

“Waaahh!”  The thin man’s exclamation of surprise and delight echoed about the chambers.

The burly man hissed at his companion.  “Quiet, you rice bucket!  It means death if we’re caught!”  He picked up a jade statue of a goddess, despite the thin layer of dust, cool to his touch.  “Look at them!  Do you know how old these are?  With just one I am rich!”

The thin man thought of his shrew of a wife and her arguments against what he was doing.  “But perhaps we are stealing our own history.”

“Are you crazy?  This place will be flooded by the dam, anyway.  We are saving our history!”  The man spat onto the statue and rubbed it.  “Anyway, don’t worry about history; worry about your future!”  He grabbed a role of rice paper from his oversized pockets and began grabbing statues, wrapping them carefully, and stuffing them into his burlap bag. 

His companion looked cautiously about, briefly hesitated, then followed his example.  He breathed the air and realized his companion had been right: there had been no need for protection; there were no gases.  And yet that too seemed unnatural to him.  He felt a chill pass through him but continued stuffing his bag.  But he wondered: if this is a tomb where is the coffin?  He stopped suddenly.

     The burly man glared at him. “What?”

     “I thought I heard something.”

After remaining still for a few seconds, the barrel-chested man continued stuffing his bag. “Your imagination!”

The thin man moved the light of his lamp about. He walked to a narrow stone opening that had been hidden in the shadows.  He held the lamp above his head and, in the light of the sooty flame, read the four Chinese characters chiseled in stone:

 

                      TIEN HSIA WU SHENG

                 (Military Saint of the World)

 

He cautiously moved into the opening, walked several feet, then turned.  He found himself at the stone doorway of a small chamber.  As he entered, his lamp lit up a huge human-sized figure made of stone, with smaller warrior figures on either side. 

The central statue had been carved wearing a warrior’s uniform and a fantastic helmet.  A beautiful green robe made of exquisite jade was draped over his shoulders.  The light of the tomb robber’s lamp illuminated his very red face, mustache, full beard and angry expression.  And then the shaft of dust-laden light fell upon the huge broadsword the figure was holding. 

     The man called to his companion. “Come here!  Quickly!”

     Despite his annoyance, the barrel-chested man was unnerved by the excitement and fear in his companion’s voice. “What is it?  I’m ready to go!”  He carefully set down his burlap bag of figurines and necklaces and entered the small room.  He stared at the statue, mouth agape.  His eyes focused on the sword, actually, a kind of halberd known to Chinese as guandao.  It was shaped like the crescent moon, the blade forged in a sweeping curve protruding from the mouth of a fierce dragon carved into the long wooden shaft.  His eyes followed the contour of the weapon and stopped at the upturned hook on the backside of the blade; a kind of spike used to trap weapons of enemies or for forcefully dismounting riders. 

   He thought of the folktales Old Man Wu had related to children in the village when he was a boy.  The many heroic deeds of the great general who would over many centuries of China’s chaotic history become known as the god of war - and his broadsword known as ‘Green Dragon Shading the Moon.’  Every schoolboy knew that because of the weight only the strongest of men could use it effectively in battle.  Almost in a trance, he moved toward the crescent blade.  “It is a shrine to the God of War.” 

      The thin man backed slowly away.  “We should not be here.  I can feel it.”

     The big man pushed him aside.  He could not take his eyes off the sword.  “The Green Dragon!  We have found the famous sword of the God of War.”

     “All the more reason to get out of here!”

     “You coffin chisel!  Don’t be stupid!  The Green Dragon is priceless!”  The man moved toward the sword.

     “Don’t!  Something is strange here!”

     Ignoring him, his companion stepped onto a stone platform to pull the sword from the statue’s grasp.  As he did so, the platform suddenly tilted, sending him tumbling into a pit below; onto sharpened iron spikes and into a mass of slithering snakes.

The man’s death-agony screams seemed to hypnotize his companion, rendering him immobile.  And when he looked again at the god of war, he saw that the Green Dragon broadsword had disappeared.  Not fallen; simply vanished.

His fear forced his legs to move.  He streaked to the tomb crevice, wriggled through, and ran for his life.  In the light of the abandoned lantern, the fierce eyes of Kwan Kung, China’s revered god of war, seemed almost to follow him.


 

DAY ONE
 

                              II

 

Queens, New York City

 

 

"FUCK the Mets!   The biggest collection of overpaid hacks in the history of baseball!  I got more batting power in my pants than they had in their lineup the whole year.  Whatdaya think about that, Ronnie?"

Vince leaned across the girl to watch Ronnie's reaction.  As he did, he pinned the girl's arms to the seat of the car with one hand and put his other hand up the girl's dress between her legs.  The girl pressed her legs together but whatever Vince did with his hand caused her to open them again.

Ronnie laughed automatically at Vince's witticism; like he always did.  Actually, Vinny never really said anything very witty and Ronnie didn't much like the way he was fondling the girl.  It was one thing to have to kill somebody but another to do the things Vinny sometimes did to people.  But it wasn't smart to piss Vince off.  He'd done that once; and still had the knife scar on his chin to prove it.  Never again.  He spoke with a big grin on his face.  "Yeah, Vinny, that's a good one."

Frank spoke from the front seat.  "That ain't saying much, though."

Vinny's hand under the girl's dress suddenly stopped moving.  "Whatdaya mean 'that ain't sayin' much'."

"I mean, like you said, the Mets ain't done shit all season so if you got more batting power in your pants than they had all year - and I ain't sayin' you don't - then it ain't saying much."

Vinny's hand began moving again, eliciting a painful moan from the girl.  He obviously had decided to let Frank's comment pass.  "You just keep your fucking wop eyes on the road and let me worry about what I got in my pants."

"Sure, Vinny, no need to get sore."

Vinny shifted his attention back to the girl.  "Yeah, that's right.  Let's not spoil Judy's ride with any hard feelin's.  Especially her last ride." 

Frank suddenly leaned forward and looked out the car window to the opposite side of Queen's Boulevard.  "Hey!  There’s Goldfingers!"

"What's that?"

"Hey, Frank, you hear that?  Ronnie wants to know what's Goldfingers."

Frank gave Vince the guffaw he'd expected.

"What Goldfingers is is the best topless bar in all of Queens.  Where you been all your life?  Broads are a bit tight-assed to talk to but they sure got what it takes in all the right places."  Vince leaned down and kissed the girl's blouse.  He nuzzled her breasts through the cotton.  She grimaced and leaned still closer to Ronnie.

Vinny sat back up.  "Like Judy here.  This China doll is more than a match for any of them Goldfingers bitches.  Sure is a shame we got to do her so quick.  Hey!  The Mets hotel is right up the road.  Why the hell can't Jamaica Bay wait an hour?"

"Dawson wouldn't like that, Vince."

Frank pulled his hand out from under the girl's dress and leaned forward against the front seat.  He cuffed Frank on his right ear.  "Dawson can kiss the rosy red side of my ass!"

Vince cuffed him a second time.  The driver of a Nissan Maxima in the next lane leaned on his horn as Frank briefly let Dawson's brand new Volkswagen Phaeton luxury saloon drift into his lane.

"Hey, Vince, I'm drivin'." 

"That's right asshole.  You are a fucking driver.  Ronnie is a good kid with a lot to learn.  Dawson is a fucking shit-for-brains bullshit artist with his head up his ass."  Several tense seconds passed before the angry creases on Vince's forehead relaxed.  "Dawson is OK for settin' things up; but Dawson don't do nobody.  Never did, never will.  Not himself.  I do that.  So in this car I am the guy that gives the fucking orders." 

Vince leaned back against the seat and sat in sullen silence.  He stared at Frank's eyes in the rearview mirror until Frank looked away.  "I didn't mean nothin', Vinny.  It's just that-"

"Shut the fuck up!" 

The girl turned her head toward Ronnie and opened her dark brown eyes wide.  Her long black, disheveled hair framed her oval face.  Ronnie had never been attracted to Asian women but this one even he had to admit was beautiful.  When they'd snatched her from her Washington Heights apartment, she had fought them briefly and not without skill, almost managing to escape out the back door; until Vince had grabbed her by that beautiful mane of fine black hair and slapped her face with one hand while pulling her around like a puppet on a string.  They’d got there just in time.  She’d had her bags packed and was about to take off for somewhere. 

Her slightly swollen lips moved silently forming the words, "Please help me."

God, Ronnie hated this part of the job.  He turned away from the girl to look out the window.  It was getting dark.  He'd be glad when they got the hell to Jamaica and got the job done.  And then got the hell back to Manhattan.  Every time he left Manhattan he never liked anything he saw or anybody he met.  Manhattan might have its faults but people in these fucking outer boroughs were nuts. 

One time in Queens he'd even gotten into a fight with a shoemaker.  Fighting over a pair of fucking shoes!  And he'd almost gotten into a fight with a bartender in Brooklyn Heights.  Over cigarette smoke, for Christ's sakes!  He'd had to appear in court on a harassment charge over the shoes which he beat only because the cops had screwed up the paperwork.  So the shoemaker got a broken window and, just as soon as he had the time, the bartender would have a slashed tire.  But who needed shit like that? 

He knew better than to mention things like that to Vinny.  Vinny would help, all right.  It was the kind of situation Vinny loved to help him with.  The problem was Vinny solved everything the same way.  The way he was going to solve the problem of the girl in the car.  The girl whose old man didn't care whether she lived or died.  The kind of asshole who wasn't about to let anyone use the well-being of those close to him as a bargaining tool against him.  Which, according to Dawson, made her excess baggage. 

Well, from now on Dawson or anybody else would pay more for jobs that took him out of Manhattan.  He didn't like being around up-tight people with no sense of humor.
 

 

                              III

 

POP Darrell looked up at the hospital’s red-brick facade just as the fluorescent lights flickered on in all the rooms.  Something about fluorescent lights being turned on while it was still light out struck him as the worst kind of gloom.  After all, this was the day his wife died.  Her body was still inside.  A few hours ago she was still alive.  So what was the rush to end the day? 

He briefly stroked his mustache and unkempt salt-and-pepper beard with his right hand; an action by now so automatic it was doubtful that he was aware he was doing it.  It was actually more of a goatee than a full beard and there were times when it would be more accurate to call it stubble which ran riot.  He had begun to let it grow in the last few months but he knew if asked he couldn’t say why.  He just wished they’d leave off those damn fluorescent lights for a while.

"Pop, are you all right?"

He looked toward his oldest son and smiled.  The kid had his cop face even if he hadn't become a cop.  "I'm fine, Danny; What makes you think I'm not?"

Because I've asked you three times if you'd like to come home with Cheryl and me.  And you act like you're in another world."

His daughter, Ann, gave him a hug.  "Dad, come home with me.  I can take a few days off and-"

"No.  Nobody needs to take time off from work to hold my hand.  I'll do just fine.  The cancer took her when it was her time.  If she'd lingered any longer she'd have been in pain.  I accept what had to be.  So I thank you all for your concern but I want you to quit your worrying."

His grandson said something Pop didn't catch.  He was observing the gun-metal gray sky and wondering if a soul could really make its way through such heavy overcast as that.  Above his head hung an immense layer of sullen gray, a brooding stratum, whose cheerless desolation was made only more intense by intermittent milk-white patches and crescent streaks of a darker hue.  It seemed to Pop that the layer was able to project moods of indifference and maleficence simultaneously.  Beneath the overcast sky, people walked through wintry streets with heads down and hands thrust deeply into pockets -- less a defense against climate than a surrender to despondency.

He realized there was something about the lights on in all those hospital windows during late afternoon light that was making him depressed.  In one of the windows on the fourth floor he could see an old woman looking down at him.  Had she known his wife in her last days?  He felt that he could handle things a lot better if he could get away from this gloom.  From his children and their children.  He didn't want people to fuss over him now.  He just wanted to be alone.  Besides, he already knew what he had to do.

He put his hand on his daughter's shoulder.  She had always been his favorite.  His wife worried he would spoil her.  No way.  None of his kids ever disappointed him.  Although it would have been nice if one of them had become a cop.  But he never pushed it on them.  "It's all right, really.  I'll be fine.  I just want to walk back to the house and take a rest.  If I need company, I'll give you a call."

His daughter brushed tears away from her eyes.  Tears for her mother?  For him?  "You promise, dad?  You'll really call?"

He embraced her and gave her a squeeze.  "I'll really call."

He walked through the streets of Forest Hills in the direction of Queen's Boulevard.  A late October day in which the temperature had hit 70 degrees.  Something about a warm day during the cold season that made things even more depressing.  Yellow maple leaves littered the sidewalks beneath nearly bare branches.  The Halloween cutout of a cat with a malicious grin had been pasted over a stop sign.  Pumpkins with evil eyes and jagged smiles stared out from apartment windows as he passed.

Each of the seven-story brick buildings had the inevitable listing of physicians and their specialties displayed prominently out front.  His wife had referred to the ubiquitous directories as the "Forest Hills Flower."  More like a weed, really.  Inside one of the buildings, on the ground floor, he could see patients in a room waiting their turn for a doctor.  All had white hair. 

He passed people who lived in the neighborhood.  The old and the feeble and the paranoid.  Sometimes all three were rolled into one.  An elderly Chinese man in a wheelchair sat immobile, drooling and staring into space with large black eyes.  When he saw Pop Darrell he sat up and gaped in amazement.  He pointed at him as if he knew him and desperately tried to speak.  Pop stared back at the old man while a female nurse attempted to quiet him.  For several seconds, the man’s pathetic grunts of gwa goo followed after him.

As he turned the corner onto his block he passed a very elderly white woman with a walker being helped by a paid assistant, a middle-aged black woman.  In front of a rest home, an ambulance crew carried out a blanket-covered stretcher and leisurely pulled off without sounding the siren.  No need.  The patient wouldn't be needing any medical assistance.  Pop Darrell looked up again at the dark grey sky.  Maybe if the person's soul hurried, it could catch up with his wife's soul; keep her company on the journey. 


 
 

                              IV

 

BY the time they reached the intersection of Queen's Boulevard and Continental Avenue, Vince had lightened up.  He was even retelling some of his stupid stories.  He'd saved enough to make a trip to Bangkok and to hear it from him he'd fucked every woman in Southeast Asia.  Thai.  Cambodian.  Laotian.  Vietnamese.  And none of them could get enough of what it was he had in his pants.  He shook his head and smiled at the memories.  "The things you could do over there!  And it was all legal!"

Ronnie was about to ask Vince to tell him more of his adventures; not because he hadn't heard them all before, or because he believed any of them; but to show he was interested.  But before he could open his mouth the Chinese kid on the bicycle slammed into the car.  Not a kid really.  A middle-aged guy trying to eke out a living by delivering Chinese food to customers in Rego Park and Forest Hills on a bike that should have been scrapped for metal years before. 

Ronnie had caught some of the action out of the corner of his eye.  From what he glimpsed, the Chinese guy had swerved to avoid a Buick driven by a hundred-year-old fart who couldn't drive for shit.  And that swerve had taken him into contact with the right rear door of their Phaeton.  Just where Vince was sitting. 

Vince was out of the car in a New York minute.  The Chinese guy almost had the bike under control.  Then the car door slammed into him and sent the guy -- still straddling the bike -- toppling over in the other direction.

Frank screamed something to Vince about not attracting attention but Vince was already on top of the guy who was now lying on the highway pinned under the bicycle and doing what he could to rearrange his face.  Ronnie opened his door and ran around the car to try to pull Vince off the guy.  Jesus!  Blood all over.  He heard Frank yell something.  He heard Vince yell something.  He heard the guy trapped under the bike yell something.  He heard people in the growing crowd yell something.  It took all his strength to pry Vince loose and about the time he did what Frank was screaming at him finally registered.  The girl was out.  

Ronnie did what he'd never done before.  He screamed at Vince and shook him.  Then he pointed to where the girl was disappearing across Queen's Boulevard up Continental Avenue.  Vince ran across the delivery guy and the bike as if the combination was a starting ramp to a race, shoved an elderly pedestrian out of the way and ran in the direction of the girl.  Ronnie glanced at Frank who waved for him to follow Vince.  And he ran. 

Jesus H. Christ!  Vince's temper was about to get them all permanent stays in Riker's.  Thirty years to life because of some goddamn spring rolls and fried fucking noodles being delivered by an illegal immigrant on a broken-down bike.  But he'd known it all along.  Anywhere outside the borough of Manhattan was unlucky for him.  And now he was running around fucking Forest Hills.  No forest, no hills; just synagogues on every block, Korean greengrocers on every corner and doctor's offices in every building.

He could understand the crazies of Manhattan's Upper West Side or even the East Village -- that was normal New York.  But Forest Hills crazies were really old guys carrying blaring radios and decades-old grudges, and really ancient women ready to fight with their bony, wrinkled fists over a place in a supermarket line.  Outer borough paranoids -- not Manhattan crazies.  If he could just get this job done and get back to his East Village apartment he vowed he'd never leave the place again. 

 

                                  V

 

ALAN Miller could see he was getting somewhere.  As drunk as he was, he knew a thing or two about women.  And the bombshell blonde in the tight blue dress on the next stool was giving him one hell of a delicious smile.  Alan knew he had her hooked.  It was just a question of carefully reeling in the line.  He held up his glass and stared through it, openly admiring her beautiful face and voluptuous body.  Something about women he liked; no, everything about women he liked.  "I am completely serious.  I know exactly what you're thinking.  Exactly."

And there it was again.  That delicious, devil-may-care, come-hither smile.  She knew she was good-looking but she wasn't spoiled by it; just accepted it as a natural phenomenon in the scheme of things.  "You do, hummm?"

And the voice.  As seductive as her body was succulent.  A cross between Scarlett O'Hara and Lauren Bacall.  He tossed back the last bit of Chivas Regal and called to the bartender for another.  "Yeah, I do.  And just as soon as Herman here pours me another wildly overpriced splash of his delicious blended scotch whiskey -- the very same scotch whiskey that has been maturing in oak casks for twelve fucking years solely for the purpose of giving us pleasure -- I intend to tell you."

The woman returned his smile as Herman poured.  Alan Miller liked a woman who wasn't offended by a swear word here and there.  And she probably appreciated his eloquence.  There just wasn't much eloquence left in America.  Whiskey could always bring out the eloquence in him.  It was just a question of unlocking the door and letting it all spill out.  As long as Herman kept the golden liquid flowing.  Herman wasn't a bad bartender.  Poured the drinks, wiped the bar and minded his business.  Who was it who said whores and bartenders were a detective's only friends?  It didn't take any sleuthing to know this one was no whore -- this was Class Personified. 

When Herman dutifully shuffled off to make some loud-mouthed bimbo at the end of the bar a "Sex on the Beach," Alan Miller launched into his finale.  "You're thinking that if death is the end of all possibility, then how in hell can it be the root of the possible!"

The woman's smile faded briefly then reappeared.  "Not bad.  I didn't know you were into philosophy."

Alan Miller knew when a woman was impressed; and this one was.  He could see the admiration in those beautiful emerald green eyes.  And that was just one of many lines he had ready for when the time came.  For when the chase was on in earnest.  For when the clock struck the hour of seduction.  Actually, it was Kierkegaard’s line but what the hell; he was dead and buried in a Danish churchyard somewhere so why not use it. 

Besides, women always expected him to suggest they had been thinking something off-color; and when he suddenly got intellectual on them, it threw them off balance.  Like a right hook to the head when they'd been expecting a straight left to the body.  Or a split-fingered fast ball over the outside corner of the plate when they'd been expecting another slider up and inside.  Class Personified Women appreciated a bit of intellect in a man's approach.  Somehow, in a way even he couldn't articulate, it made them feel more comfortable.  It helped them appreciate the fact that he wasn't some kind of jerk.  Alan Miller knew both human nature and feminine psychology.  "Am I right or am I right?"

She pursed her lustrous, ruby red lips slightly, a gesture which made her even more irresistible.  "Well, not exactly." 

     He seemed to detect a shade of embarrassment in her still sultry voice and slight lowering of the head.  Probably she had been thinking of something sexy.  Something involving him.  He began to wonder if this catch was almost too easy.  What's the point of taking a beautiful woman to bed if there was no challenge.  He imagined that long blonde hair spilling out across his pillow; cascading down his chest; lying across his...  He gave her his most charming smile.  A cross between Bogart and Gable with just a soupcon of Brad Pitt.  "Oh, yeah?   So what were you thinking exactly?"

     Even though lost in his thick alcoholic fog, Alan noticed an attractive brunette glaring at him from across the room.  He was certain he knew her but couldn’t place her.  He probably had bedded her before, promised to call again, and didn’t.  Alan decided she was just jealous that he paid her no attention.  She was good looking all right but the blond was one of a kind.  And he wasn’t about to lose her by engaging in a two-front campaign.

The blonde’s voice was like silk and honey.  "I was thinking you're the kind of guy who forgets things when you drink too much."

Alan Miller let his hand stray onto the woman's knee.  Gently, softly, naturally, leisurely -- like a glider drifting in for a landing.  Her flesh was cold and smooth -- a perfectly formed feminine knee.  He reflected that she didn't know just how fortunate she was that he was this horny.  Because usually he wasn't.  Well, sometimes he wasn't.  He gave her perfect knee a playful squeeze.  A woman always liked to be touched by a man she really liked.  Even the most expensive aftershave could only do so much.  A combination approach was always the best: olfactory and tactile.  "Oh, really?  Well then, tell me, Beautiful Creature of the Night, what might I be forgetting that could possibly be of any importance to our blossoming relationship?"

Again, that smile.  Only this time he thought he detected a bit of sympathy in it.  Sympathy?

"You're forgetting about what my boyfriend told you."

Alan Miller tried to get his tongue around the word.  It was like wrestling with a greased pig.  He decided his speech was beginning to slur.  "Loylend?"

She nodded slightly.  Just the tiniest of wrinkles appeared on her smooth brow.  A troubled goddess.  "Boyfriend.  He told you that if you bothered me one more time, he was going to punch your lights out."

The blonde bombshell casually, almost perfunctorily, removed his hand from her knee and glanced over his shoulder.  As she slightly tilted her head back, the ceiling light caught her perfectly formed and incredibly delicate wedge-shaped chin.  There was something irresistibly inviting about that jutting chin -- pure and smooth and white; unblemished; like the unbarnacled bow of an immaculately kept clipper ship plowing proudly through rolling blue waves as it crossed the finish line far ahead of the pack.  But first things first.

Alan Miller turned his body on the stool in preparation to turning his head.  Surely she was jesting.  Although, something in what she said did ring a dull bell.  He found himself looking up at a muscular, thick-necked, unsmiling jock-type individual standing behind his stool; the type who probably did x number of repetitions of one boring exercise and x number of repetitions of another boring exercise and probably ran ten miles a day -- all to keep his body in shape.  Worse, he wore a small earring in his right ear and had his hair pulled back into a small queue; the type of man who wasn't afraid to appear just a bit feminine because it was so painfully obvious just how masculine he really was.  No brains.  Just brussels sprout and brawn.  Well, what the hell, Alan Miller wasn't after his body; surely even a muscle-bound jock with a pretentious pigtail could understand that. 

As Alan Miller opened his mouth to explain, he saw the man draw back his right arm.  He seemed to be holding something in his hand.  It resembled, no, it was a fist.  A fist the size of a grapefruit.  A faint memory of having been warned several times before by this obviously vexed individual emerged from a partially sober corner of Alan Miller's mind -- just before the lights went out.                             


 

 

                               VI

 

BY the time Pop Darrell reached the front door of his two-story Elizabethan-style house it was almost completely dark.  He hung his leather jacket on the hook in the hallway near the stairs and went on into the living room.  He walked through each room of the ground floor, straightening anything he found even slightly out of place.  He then climbed the stairs and walked slowly through each room on the upstairs level.  Everything was immaculate and in perfect order.  He'd spent the last several days making it that way.  There would be no messes for anyone to clean up.

He walked downstairs and entered the living room.  He turned on a desk lamp and lowered and closed the blinds on all four windows.  He went into the kitchen and washed his hands.  The faucet drip made a slight pinging sound as it hit the edge of the sink drain.  He had meant to replace the washer but had never quite gotten around to it.  It would be a chore for the next owner to take care of.

He pulled out a small stool from underneath the sink and stepped up.  He reached behind stacks of plates and cups to retrieve a small, tightly sealed bottle of capsules.  He stepped off the stool and opened a cupboard.  Inside the cupboard his hand passed over Maker's Mark and Jack Daniel's to grab a full bottle of Wild Turkey. 

He walked to the living room and placed the capsules and the whiskey on the desk near the lamp.  He opened the storage bin of home videos, CDs and DVDs at one end of the couch and pulled out a disc from the bottom of a stack.  He popped it into the player and used the remotes to turn on the television and the disc and sat in the desk chair.  He took a long drink of whiskey, leaned back in the chair with his hands locked behind his head and watched the two of them appear on the screen. 

His wife was dressed in one of her favorite dresses -- blue-and-white cotton with just enough frills to make it feminine without being flashy.  He was dressed in a well-pressed brown-and-white checked summer shirt.  He'd worn well-pressed trousers as well but those were out of camera range.  He'd even trimmed his shaggy growth of stubble for the occasion.  Behind them, on the wall above the dining table, he could see their favorite photograph blown up to poster size - the two of them bundled up in vests, jackets and boots climbing into a raft on the shore of an Alaskan river.  Ready to shoot the rapids.

He remembered it hadn't turned cold yet when they'd made the video.  About a week after the cancer was first diagnosed.  He even remembered it was the day the Mets had dropped into third place, losing their last slim mathematical chance to win the division title.

His wife addressed their son and two daughters by name and began speaking quietly but firmly.  She told them not to be upset but that she and their father had decided that when one dies the other will also take his or her life.  She has incurable cancer and he has a serious heart condition and only God knew which one he wanted to take first.  But she has pills and he has pills.  The kind of pills that can end a life painlessly.  It's the way they want it; that they have had long and happy lives together, a wonderful family, no regrets, etc.  Then he listened to his own voice telling his family that although they might not agree with this decision, they should respect their right to make it.  And he heard himself apologize for misleading them; that in fact his heart condition was quite a bit worse than he had let on.  Then he heard both of them say, "We love you."  Then the screen went blank.  No music, no credits, no sequel.

Something about the video made it all seem unreal.  As if it was something happening to strangers.  His sitting alone in the living room of their house watching two people speak of ending their lives, saying goodbye forever.  One already dead; one soon to be.  He hadn't realized at this moment that his own emotions would be nearly dead as well.

Pop Darrell opened the desk drawer.  From under a pile of papers he took out a long white envelope with the printed words: "The Last Will and Testament of" and beneath that their names had been neatly typed in.  And below that the small printed letters of "Jacoby & Meyers - Law Offices."  Pop opened the envelope and briefly let his eyes scan the words, "being of sound and disposing mind and memory, and in contemplation of the uncertainties of this life..." 

He took another swig of Wild Turkey and then he got up and removed the disc.  He placed it carefully on top of the will and placed a set of keys from the drawer on top of the disc.  House keys, car keys, gun case keys, bank box keys.

He picked up the bottle of Seconal and opened it.  Forty capsules of seco-barbital and one bottle of Wild Turkey.  His executioners.  He tilted the bottle and let the bright orange capsules slide onto his palm.  He stared at them for nearly a minute before coming to a decision.

He slid the capsules back into the bottle and closed the lid.  He looked toward a silver-framed picture of his wife surrounded by smaller pictures of their children.  The framed picture had only his wife’s face staring back at him with a knowing smile.  He spoke softly but without remorse.  "Sorry, doll, I can't do it that way."  He didn't speak again until he'd returned from the hall closet with his police revolver, loaded it with one round and snapped the cylinder shut.  "But, then, you might have suspected that." 

Pop Darrell sat in the chair and looked around a room he would never see again.  Already it was becoming less familiar.  Less important.  He got up, took a long drink from the whiskey bottle, then poured the rest into a large rubber plant.  As he placed the empty bottle on the dirt of the flower pot he heard himself say, "Cheers!"  He sat down, picked up the phone and punched some buttons.

"Hundred and tenth?  There's been a shooting.  One-One-three One hundred and tenth Street.  Forest Hills...Yeah, I think he's dead.  Anyway, the front door's unlocked for you.  Tell Holcombe I'm sorry to add to his load of paperwork...My name doesn't matter.  I'm the deceased."

Pop hung up the phone and placed the muzzle of the revolver flush with the side of his head.  Just behind his right ear.  So there would be one mess to clean up after all.  He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. 

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