Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Cities of the Dead-a New Orleans short story

INTRODUCTION

I’ve long been a fan of short stories and penned my first attempt at the genre when I was only ten. I continued writing short fiction during high school and college, though none of the stories managed to survive the years. I can’t remember when I wrote my first short story featuring French Quarter sleuth Wyatt Thomas, but it was long before the publication of Big Easy in 2006. Once I started, I found it all but impossible to stop.
~SPOILER ALERT~
When I decided to write Big Easy, my first novel-length French Quarter Mystery, I did so by combining parts of three New Orleans’ short stories: Cities of the DeadVoodoo Nights, and Pontchartrain. If you haven’t read Big Easy and are considering doing so, then you should probably start it first before reading Cities of the Dead.
If you’ve already read Big Easy, then you might get a kick out of Cities of the Dead as it’s different in many ways than the side-story in the novel.

Cities of the Dead

Darkness draped Rue St. Ann as throngs of French Quarter tourists crowded the entrance to a Creole townhouse. Heat radiating from the stoop bothered Lieutenant Tony Nicosia. He mopped his brow as he watched paramedics remove two stretchers from the premises. The old man occupying one of the stretchers didn't notice the heat.
*  *  *
It started with Buddy DeJan's wake. Buddy was nearing seventy when a heart attack claimed him in his sleep. His wife Foxy called a wake for him at their house, near the spot where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf—the literal end of the road. I attended the wake with Buddy's cousin, Bertram Picou. As lights disappeared in our rear-view mirror, sub-tropical vegetation and endless splay channels gradually replaced them. Soon, there was no sense of civilization at all as scrub oak and cypress knobs replaced jazz and musty mortar.
Distraught over his cousin's death, Bertram tippled Cuervo and sniveled all the way from the City. Having my own memories of Buddy and little patience for Bertram's stories I'd heard all before, I stared out the window, trying to block out his mindless chatter. When we reached the wake, his bottle was already empty.
Foxy and Buddy lived in a fishing camp beside a murky channel that snaked into the Gulf. Wooden stilts raised their house above a soggy yard marked by muskrat hides, catfish bones, and flat-bottomed fishing skiffs. By midnight, the occasion had turned festive, with Bertram leading the charge. A black dress swathed Foxy DeJan’s large frame. She had long since discarded her shawl of mourning. Like many of the mourners crowding the room, she clasped a half-empty glass of bourbon in her hand.
Black crepe-paper draped the front door, and clocks were stopped to coincide with the time of Buddy's passing. All mirrors faced the wall. Lying in his mahogany coffin, Buddy seemed more resplendent than in life. I slipped out of the house, seeking solitude in the darkness below. My trance shattered abruptly when someone tapped my shoulder.
“I didn't mean to startle you,” the young woman said.”
“Guess I was thinking about Buddy.”
“I see that. I'm Celeste Duples. Mr. DeJan and my Father were distant cousins.”
“Wyatt Thomas,” I said. “I didn't know Buddy had any relatives named Duples. You from around here?”
“I grew up in Philadelphia with my mother. Now I live in Starkville. Daddy sells real estate. I teach at the college there. And you?”
“I have a place in the Quarter and do odd jobs for people.”
“Such as?”
“Look up this. Research that. Most anything to earn a buck.”
I stepped into the beam of the floodlight suspended from the roof. Celeste's green eyes sparkled in the light. She was tall, fully five-eight, and had jet black hair and an olive complexion that left little doubt of her French Acadian ancestry.
“This wake seems so strange to me.”
“Ritual,” I said. “A mixture of Catholic, Protestant, and Judaism, with a smidgen of black magic from Africa and voodoo from Haiti.”
Dueling strains of mandolin and accordion, saturating the damp air with a Cajun melody and silencing the chorus of frogs, floated down the stairs. A shooting star streaked across the sky, disappearing over the horizon.
“Buddy's wake will be a party before morning.”
“I won't last that long,” Celeste said.
“I wish I could leave, but I rode down with one of Buddy's closest cousins. He won't stop grieving till he OD's on Cuervo.”
My description of Bertram's alcoholic inclinations amused Celeste. Leaning closer, she said, “We'll take you back.”
I needed very little persuasion. After paying my last respects, I joined Celeste and her father in the driveway. He had the same strange last name as his daughter, and she called him Maurice.
Celeste's maroon convertible left no chance for conversation. The breeze it produced was welcome after the smoky wake. I'd recently moved into an apartment over Bertram's bar. When Celeste and her father dropped me off, I didn't expect to see them again. I was wrong.
***
Lady, Bertram's collie licked my hand, relieving any guilt about missing Buddy's funeral. Next morning I opened the bar for him, even managing to turn a small profit. Bertram showed up at noon. Hung-over and head pounding, he went straight to his apartment in back. I kept working until five when Maurice Duples strutted through the front door.
Back-dropped by bright sunlight, he seemed different from the man whose shoulder I had pressed all the way back to the City. Although still wearing the same tweed sports coat, he had changed pants, shirt, and shoes. Now he sported combed gray hair and a fresh shave and greeted me by squeezing my hand in a vice-like grip.
“I was hoping I'd find you here,” he said.
“Bertram's under the weather. I help out when I can.”
“Celeste said you were a good man.”
Celeste's praise secretly pleased me. “You aren't here to commend me on my benevolence. What can I do for you?”
Surprised by my directness, Duples gazed around Bertram's bar. “Celeste says you know a lot about New Orleans burial rituals.”
“No more than anyone else in the City.”
“Am I correct in thinking you make a point in knowing things others don't?”
“Maybe.”
“Several people at Buddy's wake told me so. I’d like to visit a grave and thought you might be of assistance. I have no earthly idea where to find it.”
“Then you're in trouble,” I said. “The city has dozens of cemeteries.”
“Precisely why I need your help. I'll pay your fee.”
He sat on a stool and sprawled his elbows on the zinc countertop. Exhaling, he rested his head in his hands.
He smiled when I said, “You look like you could use a drink.”
Maurice Duples was tall and slender. Thirty-five or forty years older than his daughter Celeste. I guessed his age at sixty-five or seventy.
“Red wine,” he said.
When I set the glass in front of him, he seemed almost asleep, his left hand dangling off the counter. Lady's warm tongue revived him, and he patted her head before sipping his wine.
“Interesting place,” he said, noting the severed ties, bras, panties and other intimate undergarments draped from the ceiling and mirror behind the bar.
“New Orleans is an easy place to lose your inhibitions.”
Duples smiled for the first time since I'd met him. “Celeste was conceived here. During a particularly eventful Mardi Gras.”
“She said you live in Mississippi.”
“Born in New Orleans. My mother worked for a man named Duplessis. We lived with his family until she died. An aunt from Starkville took me in. I never knew my father or mother's burial place. I'm desperate to find her grave. Will you help me?”
I topped up his glass and said, “Anything else you remember about New Orleans?”
“Is that a yes?”
“Look, Mr. Duples, you don't need me. If you know your mother's name and her approximate date of death, you can go over to the Notarial Archives in the basement of the District Court and find where she's buried.”
“Tried that already. The two investigators I hired found nothing. If you can't help me, I don't know where I'll turn.”
“Why don't you tell me everything you remember and I'll do my best to help you.”
The look of desperation melted from Duples' face. When he latched on to my hand with both of his, I had the sudden sensation I was saving a drowning man.
“Thank you, Mr. Thomas, thank you.”
I poured myself a glass of lemonade from the stash under the counter and said, “Let's go to a booth and talk.”
Duples and Lady followed me to the back of Bertram's bar. Most of Bertram's regulars never appeared before nine or ten at night. The place was empty.
“Now tell me what you remember.”
“Nothing much,” he said. “I was eleven when they buried her. Guess I’ve blocked most of the details from my memory.”
“Rest your head and relax. Close your eyes and focus on the muscles in your face. Imagine you have a warm towel resting there.”
Maurice Duples followed my suggestions, soon sinking into a low-grade trance. I continued speaking in modulated tones until his breathing and heart rate reduced to barely a whisper.
“You're a child again, at your mother's funeral. Tell me what you see.”
Duples began reciting in the high-pitched voice of an eleven-year-old.
“Rows of rectangular structures topped with crosses and Greek statues. Beautiful flowers with colors and smells you can almost feel, amid wide streets separating the structures. I see an impatient horse, snorting and kicking up grass with his hoof. He's pulling a black carriage. It's almost like a city. Everyone is crying, and dressed in black.”
“Is there a special statue you see, or maybe a nearby name you can read? Anything specific you remember?”
“Yes,” Duples said. “Hundreds of x marks on one of the structures.”
Bingo. Having all I needed, I woke Duples from his trance.
“Amazing,” he said. “I feel wonderful. Better than I have in years. And I remember things now.”
“You never really forgot. You just had them blocked.”
By now, Bertram was awake and cleaning up the bar with a wet rag. A few afternoon patrons straggled in, along with a curious sightseer or two. A street band, hoping to evoke donations from the throng of tourists filing into the French Quarter, fired up a hot jazz number outside. Maurice Duples was smiling.
“I haven't visited the cemetery since Mother's funeral. Now, I remember it vividly. It was almost like a little town, with rows of houses and narrow streets.”
“That's why they're called Cities of the Dead. Since much of New Orleans is below sea level, the water table is close to the surface. Before the City set up a drainage system, the only recourse was to bury their dead in a puddle of water, or else above ground.”
“You said you knew where to find my mother's grave.”
“I know exactly where it is, in the St. Louis Cemetery # 1, over on Basin Street.”
“Pardon my skepticism, Mr. Thomas. How can you be so sure?”
“Number One is the oldest cemetery in the City. Many famous people are buried there—Etienne Bore, father of the sugar industry, and Homer Plessy, to name a couple. You may remember the pivotal cemetery scene from Easy Rider. It was filmed in the St. Louis # 1.”
Duples didn't seem to know about Easy Rider or the two names I'd mentioned.
Homer Plessy?”
“Plessy v. Ferguson. An 1892 Supreme Court decision establishing separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws for blacks and whites in the South.”
“Sorry,” Duples said. “I'm in real estate, not a first-year law student.”
Biting my tongue, I refrained from asking if he could read. Instead, I continued my explanation.
“Many of the rich and notables had expensive and ornate tombs built for their families. It's not uncommon to see forty-foot tall Greek statuary or tons of carved and polished stone. I was hoping you would remember a landmark tomb.”
“But I didn't.”
“Yes, you did. You remembered seeing the most famous tomb in New Orleans—the crypt of Marie Laveau, queen of voodoo.”
Light from the jukebox reflected off Duples’ deep green eyes.
“Take me there.”
“We'll go tomorrow.”
Duples folded his arms and shook his head. “I won't wait another day. Let’s go now.”
“Impossible. It's near the Iberville Project and crime is rampant there. Even tomorrow we'll need to go with a group.”
“Not on your life, Mr. Thomas. I have a thousand dollars. It's yours if you take me now. If you don't, I'll find someone else who will.”
Before I could answer, the educated voice of Celeste sounded from behind us.
“Such wild expressions on your faces, you both look ready to fight.”
***
After leaving Duples' irresistible money with Bertram for safe-keeping, I accompanied Maurice and Celeste up Basin Street, past the Project to the St. Louis Cemetery # 1. Although closed to the public for the night, I knew the location of the caretaker's entrance. Duples had armed me with two vital bits of information: the probable location of his mother's grave and the name of a shadowy figure from his past. Arthur Duplessis was still alive, living on St. Ann's. Duples could look him up after we visited the grave.
Last glimmers of the sun had disappeared over the trees as we opened a wrought-iron gate and entered the City of the Dead. Dormant pigeons roosting in eaves around the tombs barely budged as we passed. Bats strafed our heads with wildly beating wings. Up the street, a tomcat's screech momentarily silenced the cooing of pigeons.
Apparently unaware of our possible danger, Celeste sported a blissful smile on her pretty face. “If Marie Laveau's grave is unmarked, then how did you know Daddy saw it?”
“Because it's covered with freshly-chalked x’s. The superstitious believe if you make a wish, along with marking an x on the grave, your wish will come true.”
Celeste squeezed my hand. “What do you believe?”
“That we should find your grandmother's grave and get the hell out of here.”
“Is it that dangerous?”
Her question went unanswered. By now it was dark, with only dim fluorescent street light and the powerful beam from my flashlight illuminating our path. We barely noticed two men as they appeared from the shadows in front of us.
“Well, what do we have here? Grave robbers or midnight mourners?” one of the men asked.
 Several missing teeth made his accent even more incomprehensible. It didn't stop his companion from laughing at the joke. His laughter died away when we tried to walk around them. They were big, mean and ugly. Even worse, both men had switchblades.
“Where you think you're going?” the leader said, digging his knuckle into my breastbone.
To my surprise, Celeste knocked the man's hand away with the palm of her hand.
“Leave us alone. This is a public place.”
Celeste's anger brought an even greater outburst of laughter from the two men.
“Looky here Biggs. We got ourselves a sassy one.”
“Jackson, we surely do.”
“You heard the lady,” I said. “I'm an off-duty cop. Make trouble with us at your own risk.”
I forced as much authority into my voice as I could and it had some effect. Biggs and Jackson both took half-steps backward. The NOPD is notorious. That's spelled b–a–d, with a capital B. The force had even turned back a group of Hell's Angels at the City limits, preventing them from attending and disrupting Mardi Gras. I was counting on my bluff to get us safely out of the cemetery. Something else saved us instead.
Two pistol shots fired directly behind my head almost caused me to lose my lemonade. Diving for the turf, I wrestled Celeste down with me.
“Run or I'll blow your heads off, you lice-infested ghouls.”
 It was Maurice Duples, screaming like a banshee and firing an old German Luger into the air. Biggs and Jackson didn't wait around. They took Celeste's smile with them and she trembled as I helped her up. Sirens wailed in the distance. They weren't coming our way.
“Are they gone?” she asked.
“Yes. Now let's get out of here.”
“Not until I see my mother's grave.”
Celeste and I stared at her father's eyes, now wildly green amid dim light from the street.
Celeste continued to shake. When I put my arm around her, my own racing heart did little to abate her chill.
“This is frightening your daughter. I'll bring you back tomorrow. And what are you doing with that gun?”
“It saved our lives. Go on, if you're so frightened. And take Celeste with you. I'll find the grave by myself.”
When I nudged Celeste toward the street, she shook her head. “We can't leave him here by himself.”
“He has the gun,” I reminded her.
Celeste ignored my comment.
Maurice Duples struck out alone, trudging blindly along the path lined with broken shells. Celeste and I followed after him. We weren't far from Marie Laveau's grave when Duple's demented yell pealed through the cemetery.
“Here it is!”
We found him squatting by a large tomb bedecked with faded marble, and statues of Greek gods. Celeste knelt beside him, her hands on his shoulders.
“What is it, Daddy?”
“The name,” he said. “It's not our name. Someone removed my mother's remains from her grave. Why would anyone do that to her?”
Duples was possibly correct. During the plague years of the 1800s, with cemetery space at a premium, residents often sold or bartered tomb rights to the more prosperous. This practice continued until recent times, bones being moved hither and yon, often to who-knows-where. Strangely, the names of Arthur and Megan Duplessis were engraved in stone on the tomb, their deaths as yet unrecorded. The couple Maurice and his mother had lived with had apparently taken her grave.
Probably a mistake,” I said. “We'll check the Notarial Archives tomorrow.”
After helping Maurice and Celeste to their feet, I pointed the flashlight back from where we had come. It reflected off of Marie Laveau's grave. Celeste stopped beside it. Maurice and I watched as she took a fragment of chalk from the sidewalk, closed her eyes and made a large x on the side of the tomb.
***
I tossed and turned after finally making it to bed, somehow sensing the night had yet to end. It hadn't. At midnight I received a frantic call from Celeste.
“Daddy's gone crazy. He went storming out of here with his pistol to find Arthur Duplessis.”
“Meet me at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann,” I said, pulling on my pants. “Just down the street from your hotel. I'll be there in ten minutes.”
We found the door to the Duplessis townhouse on St. Ann open and entered without knocking. Duples stood braced against the wall, pointing his pistol at an old man in a rattan wheelchair. A ratty Afghan draped the man's legs and he showed no fear. His face was contorted in a crooked grin every bit as deranged as Duples'.
Duples waved his gun at us in a menacing fashion. Remembering the incident at the cemetery, I pinned Celeste against the wall with the back of my arm. Duplessis spoke, returning Maurice's attention to the center of the room.
“You wanna kill me? Go ahead. I'm ninety next month,” he said, giving his useless legs a hard slap with the flat of his hand. “I already done more living than any three men.”
“I'll kill you, all right, but not before you tell me why you moved my mother's remains.”
 “You crazy? Who are you, anyway?”
 “Maurice Duples. My mother's name was Emeline, but you already know that.”
Arthur Duplessis's rheumy old eyes glimmered with sudden recognition in the light of the suppressed overhead bulb.
“You about a dumb one, you. You mama was a whore over in Storyville until they bulldozed the place to the ground.”
“You're a liar.”
“Don't call your own father a liar.”
Duples opened his mouth. Nothing came out. Outside the door, a horse-drawn carriage clomped by on the street. It was followed by a dog howling over near the Iberville Project.
“Don't look so surprised,” Duplessis said. “You think your name was Duples all these years? What kind of dumb name is that? You mama was my whore and you're my bastard boy.”
Duplessis howled with laughter and it drew into a hacking cough. When the coughing abated, he started to speak but never got the words out. A terrific blast rocked the room, knocking the old man out of his wheelchair and blowing him against the wall.
Celeste and I turned to Maurice Duples but he looked every bit as stunned as we were. Both barrels of a twelve-gauge shotgun had blasted Duplessis. A gray-haired old woman, dressed in tattered silk, stood tall and without emotion. She was still clutching the smoking gun.
“He's the bastard, not you. I should have killed him twenty years ago. He kept your mama and others like her. He never gave a whit for my feelings or theirs.”
Megan Duplessis let the shotgun slide to the floor and crossed the room to where stunned Maurice stood, still braced against the wall. When she touched his cheek, he dropped the pistol to the floor.
“I want you to know, your mama's still in that tomb. The old man just had her bones pushed to the back of the vault. I raised you as my son until the old man sent you away to Mississippi.”
She went to her fallen husband, kneeling and giving his lifeless cheek a final kiss before clutching her heart, gasping once and sinking to the floor beside him.
***
Lieutenant Tony Nicosia gave me a go-to-hell look when he and the NOPD finally arrived. Between stilted explanations, deftly omitting why we were there in the first place, I spirited Maurice Duples' pistol off the floor and into my jacket. Arthur and Megan ranked high in the City's elite. Because of this, the police would conveniently overlook the fact that the old man had died from a shotgun blast. His death, subsequently resulting in Megan's untimely heart attack, would go down as accidental.
Other than some puritanical need to punish Maurice for his temporary insanity, I saw no reason to involve him further in his father’s death. New Orleans has few Puritans. I wasn't one of them. While escorting Maurice and his daughter to the hospital to attend Megan Duplessis, Celeste informed me the real reason I covered up for her father.
“The x I made on Marie Laveau's tomb. I wished my father would find out about his family so his bad memories would go away. And I wished for a happy ending.”
Watching Maurice hold Megan Duplessis’ hand in the back of the ambulance, I realized Celeste had gotten her wish.

####





Born near Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption, and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma where he continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. He is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series set in New Orleans and the Paranormal Cowboy Series. Please check it out on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages. You might also like to check out his website.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Something Terrible - The Bombing of Alfred P. Murrah

Years ago, I wrote a short story called Prairie Justice. I had almost forgotten the story and found it again, recently, while deleting unnecessary files from my computer. As I reread and re-edited the story, details of why I wrote it in the first place flooded my brain.
The year was 1995. During April of that year, a madman blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building, killing 168 innocent victims, including many children in daycare there. Anne, my wife then, was a fledgling lawyer, having gone to law school late in life (mid-forties). She partnered with Becky S., and we were about to move into our new offices when the bomb exploded.
I had returned home from an early-morning dentist’s appointment. I found Anne sobbing uncontrollably.
I was puzzled because Anne was a trooper. Despite all the bad things that had happened to us, I don’t recall having ever seen her cry. When I saw her that morning, she was crying like a baby.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Something terrible has happened.”
We turned on the TV to a local news station. Their helicopter was heading downtown to check out an explosion that had rocked the city.
“There’s lots of smoke coming from one of the buildings. I think it’s the Federal Building,” the chopper pilot said.
A cameraman was taking pictures. Except for the smoke, the front of the building looked normal. We watched as the chopper circled around the building. When the camera focused on what remained of the north side of the building, Anne and I gasped in disbelief.
“Oh my God!” the pilot said. “Oh my God!”
Days passed, and then weeks. The bombing was like a blow to the head for the entire City. It became all too common to be talking to someone, and suddenly have them dissolve into tears, blurting out some heart-wrenching story they’d kept bottled inside for far too long. Everyone had a story. Everyone was affected.
Shortly after the bombing, Becky sent Anne to interview a deadbeat, druggie client that had been put in jail for beating his wife.
“You may think he’s scum, but he deserves his day in court. He’s your client so treat him with respect, no matter how you feel about him in your heart,” Becky counseled.
Anne and I left Oklahoma City early one morning, heading west to El Reno, the Canadian County seat. I can’t even remember why we stopped there, but I remember the courthouse facilities and the historic town well. Leaving El Reno, we passed a Las Vegas-style bingo hall in nearby Concho. Gambling was in its infancy in Oklahoma. Sixteen years later, it’s rampant.
We drove through the tiny town of Okarche, to Eischen’s Bar. The longest continuously operating bar in Oklahoma was shut down at the time because of a flash fire. We made it to Enid shortly before lunch, finding the correction’s facility ensconced in an old neighborhood.
The jailers brought Doug (that was his first name) into a visitor’s room, wearing an orange jumpsuit, shackled in leg irons, handcuffs and a belly chain. I watched from a distance as Anne talked with him for about half an hour. Wearing her own shackles of lawyer/client privilege, she never told me what they talked about.
Later that night, I wrote Prairie Justice, a short story featuring Buck McDivit, a character that had suddenly invaded my mind. The story is about a crooked oilman and mirrors a real oilman responsible for the bankruptcy of the oil company Anne and I started from scratch. Most of the description in the story actually occurred.
Years have passed since I wrote Prairie Justice. Anne died three years after the Murrah bombing. I wrote Ghost of a Chance, my first Buck McDivit novel, some years later. It was published in 2005. The scar of the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing has faded. Tears streamed down my face as I wrote this story. Buck McDivit is now a real person to me. The Murrah Building scar has faded, and people no longer sob during normal conversation. Maybe, but the bombing still rests like a red blotch on my soul, as I’m sure it does for everyone that experienced that sad day.


###



All of Eric's books are available at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and on his iBook author pages, and his Website.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Old Bones - a short story

 It’s a gray day here in Oklahoma, my two kitties, Buster and Buttercup, searching for even a scant patch of sunlight in which to bask. The gloom reminds me of a search I made many years ago that resulted in an eerie discovery.
A chill weekend in November found Gail, my ex, and me deep in a pine forest in southwest Arkansas. A graduate student in geology, my thesis concerned long-forgotten mineral deposits in a sparsely populated corner of the universe. Years before the invention of GPS tracking devices, we relied on a very old Brunton compass to navigate through the stark loneliness of the southern Ouachita Mountains.
Tall trees, mostly pines, covered the rolling terrain. While the Ouachitas aren’t high, rapid elevation changes of several hundred feet are common. We were moving slowly, picking our way through the undergrowth as we traversed an east-west trending ridgeline, looking for an old lead mine hidden deep in the forest.
Gail was short, had green eyes, dark hair and an olive complexion inherited from her French-Acadian parents. Though raised in the New Orleans’ metro area, her athletic legs carried her through the forest as smoothly as if she’d been born there. She was walking ahead of me, and I bumped into her when she halted abruptly.
“How do you know where we’re going?” she asked. “There’s no trail. I think we’re lost.”
I was holding an old topo map in one hand and the Brunton compass in the other. “We’re following an azimuth. The mine should be just up ahead.”
“That’s what you said thirty minutes ago,” she said.
“It’s hard staying in a straight line with so many trees and boulders in the way.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Let’s keep walking,” I said. “We’ll find it.”
I was about to give up when we reached a slight clearing that led down the slope to a roaring stream. There was something anomalous about the rounded pile of dirt located in a bend.
“That has to be it,” I said.
“That pile of dirt?” she said.
“Someone dug that dirt out of the ground and put it there. I think it’s the mine we’re looking for.”
“Doesn’t look like a mine to me,” Gail said.
“Quit bitching and let’s investigate. Even if it’s not the Davis Mine, we can at least take a break.”
Gail had endless energy and rarely ever took a break. As I sat on a fallen log and tossed pebbles into the roaring water of the creek, she climbed up on the pile of dirt and began exploring it.
“This hill’s bigger than it looks,” she said. “It follows the river for at least fifty yards.”
“I’m sure it was built by humans,” I said.
“Hell yeah,” she said. “Look at this.”
Glancing up the hill, I could see Gail had something in her hand.
“What is it?” I asked.
“An old bottle.”
“How old?”
“Real old,” she said. “Looks like something from a museum.”
I left my perch on the stump and followed her up the hill. The bottle was faded green and crusted with dirt. I was still examining it when Gail called again.
“Check this out,” she said, holding up something for me to see.
“What is it?”
“What’s left of a Confederate soldier’s shirt.”
“How do you know that?”
“There’s a brass button still attached with the letters C.S.A.,” she said.
The weathered hill was the talus pile of an old mine. A scar, roughly a half-acre in size, was all that remained of the old mining operation. Vertical shafts had collapsed or were filled with standing water. We soon began digging beautiful ore specimens out of the talus pile strewn with old bottles, broken timbers and a few faded signs of the men that had worked it.
“How did anyone ever find this place?” Gail asked when she finally stopped for a break.
“Prospectors searching for silver in the 1830s found lead and antimony instead,” I said. “This particular mine used horses and slave labor to mine lead for the Confederacy.”
“The old man at the truck stop told us we’d never find this place, and that it’s haunted,” Gail said.
“Well, we did find it. Don’t know about any ghosts, though the accounts of operations at the Davis Mine refer to abuse, torture and even murder of Union prisoners of war conscripted to work here.”
“Then maybe it is haunted.”
“Maybe so,” I said. “The shadows and silence are starting to creep me out.”
“Me too,” Gail said. “I keep looking around, thinking someone’s behind me.”
It was already past noon when we found the old mine, days short and our time limited before we needed to start back to the truck. We took photos and collected specimens, all the while feeling as if there was something present other than ourselves, even if it was only fleeting shadows. The distinct sensation that we were disturbing a place where something terrible had happened was unmistakable. I felt it, and so did Gail.
I jumped when she said, “Oh, shit!”
“What is it?”
“You better come see. I’m not touching this thing.”
She was standing on the top of the pile, nudging something with the toe of her boot. Though mostly covered with dirt, it looked for all the world like a human skull.
“Shit is right,” I said, digging the skull out of the earth with my pick hammer.
“Is that a bullet hole?” Gail asked as I held the skull in my hand.
“Looks like it to me,” I said. “But hell if I know for sure.”
“What are we going to do with it?” Gail asked.
I tossed it into the creek, staring at the rapidly rushing water a moment before answering.
“Forget we found it,” I said.
“Can we do that?” Gail asked.
“I have a thesis to write and no time to participate in a murder investigation. I don’t intend to ever return to this place except maybe in my nightmares.”
“I hear that,” Gail said. “Let’s get the hell out of here before it gets dark.”
Twilight draped the forest when we finally made it back to our old faded green Ford truck, waiting for us on a muddy dirt road. When we returned to Fayetteville, I sent some of the ore samples to the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver for analysis. The results surprised me as I’m sure they would have the prospectors that discovered the Davis Mine. The ore wasn’t just lead and antimony; there was silver present, and it was richer even than ore from the Comstock Lode.
Many years have passed since Gail, and I felt the presence of ghosts at the remote Davis Mine, hidden deep in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. Today, as an overhead cloud cast a shadow on my kittens, sleeping on the hood of my car, I remembered in vivid detail.


 ###



All of Eric's books are available at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and on his iBook author pages, and his Website.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

MACHINE GUN - Vietnam War Story

 I was in graduate school working on a Master’s degree in geology in 1969 when the first Vietnam draft lottery was held. Having already graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I no longer had a 2-S deferment from the military. My draft number was 38 and I was called up to the military shortly after the lottery in December. I believe in our country but didn’t believe in what I considered to be an absolutely senseless war. Because of this, I declined repeated offers to go to officer’s training school. I went instead to basic training and advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, Louisiana and was on my way to Vietnam by the summer of 1970 as a private. I spent just short of six months in the boonies patrolling the Jolly Trail system near the Cambodian border. During my months in a “free fire zone” I made 52 combat assaults out of a helicopter, earning an Air Medal and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, for both of which I am very proud. Amazingly, I was neither killed nor wounded. Since I was and still am a crack typist—a skill that serves me well now that I’m a writer—I got a job back in the rear as a clerk-typist when an opening came up. After coming home, many years passed before I told anyone that I was a Vietnam vet. This is because Vietnam vets were all thought to be drug-crazed baby killers and all manner of other nasty things. I don’t know, but I think this was also true for both World War II and Korean War vets. I’m so glad that the perception of people serving in our military has changed for the better. Whatever, I was proud to be of service to the country that I love. Just remember that freedom isn’t free.

Machine Gun

I watched a program on the cable channel Encore about Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies.  On the show, he played a song called Machine Gun, and it evoked a memory of Vietnam that I hadn’t thought about in years.
I went to Vietnam in 1970 as an infantry mortar man.  For a while, in addition to my M16, I humped the base plate of an 81 MM mortar in the mortar platoon of an infantry line company.  I was in Charlie Company, 1st of the 8th Cavalry, First Cavalry Air Mobile.  We were operating off a hill bulldozed bald amid a jungle of green that could literally swallow you whole.  The Cav had just made their first sanctioned incursion into formerly off-limits Cambodia, and we had dealt a near-mortal blow to Charlie.  For the following months, Charlie played a game of duck-and-run while we tried desperately, and with little luck, to finish him off.
After several months of fifteen days in the jungle, five days on the firebase, and almost no success in encountering the enemy, Brass devised a new tactic of having us fly around in helicopters until we started taking ground-to-air fire.  Once we did, the choppers would swoop down and drop us off in hopes of making contact—something that rarely happened because of Charlie’s weakened state.
During this time, Brass also decided the 81 MM mortar was too unwieldy for rapid deployment, and all of us in the mortar company suddenly became infantry foot soldiers, grunts, 11-bravos; also known as 11-bullet-stoppers.  I was given a twenty-six pound M-60 machine gun to carry since I already had experience toting a twenty-three-pound base plate.  I had never shot an M-60, even during basic training at Fort Polk in Louisiana. This is because mortar men weren’t ever supposed to use the gun.
Around this time artillery began shooting sophisticated listening devices into the jungle using specially designed 105 MM rounds.  Intelligence mapped the locations of these devices, and we soon had a good idea of where there was movement—of a military nature—in the jungle.  The devices weren’t always correct, and we once found a large family of monkeys instead of Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars.  This wasn’t always the case.
Reports of intense enemy troop movement in a nearby swamp had the Brass salivating.  My company was soon loaded into choppers, flown to the area and dropped out of the birds. I mean this literally.  With no landing zone cut into the jungle for us to land and deploy from, the choppers hovered 10 feet or so above a large swampy pond while we jumped out.  This was no easy feat while carrying 100 pounds of gear.
We soon found ourselves in a maze of trails and something very anomalous— there was movement all around us.  Charlie wasn’t even trying to cover it up.  This could only mean one of two things: Either we had caught the enemy very much by surprise, or else they had us outnumbered and knew it.  We were all pretty nervous because one thing we had never really done was catch Charlie by surprise.
Our company had about 100 men divided equally into four platoons.  We set up a camp, and then my platoon started out on patrol.  Soon as we were out of sight from the rest of the company we began hearing even more movement.  After months in the boonies, we were all attuned to sounds of the jungle. Now, there was no doubt in my mind that there was a large number of enemy soldiers very close to us, and that they were paralleling our movement through the jungle.  This bothered me and everyone else because we were on Charlie’s home turf—likely smack-dab in the middle of a large enemy camp and staging area.  We could hear movement in every direction, and if I told you that I was anything but piss-in-my-pants scared, I’d be lying through my teeth.
Jungle warfare is like no other.  You can be 10 feet from the enemy and never see him.  You have to rely on your nose, your ears, and your wits because otherwise, you may as well be blind.  My nose, ears, and wits told me we were about to have the living shit kicked out of us and I expected, any minute, to be shredded by AK 47 bullets.  The platoon leader decided on a quick ploy.
I was the machine gunner, the “Gun.”  When Super Sarge tapped my shoulder and pointed to a slight concave just to the side of the trail, I knew my time had come.  We quickly prepared for what we called an instant ambush.  Charlie was following close behind.  My assistant gunner and I set the M-60’s bi-pod and started stringing every round of ammo we had into the gun’s chamber, locked and loaded, ready to kill—and just as likely, I knew, to be killed. It didn’t matter that I’d never pulled the trigger on an M-60. What mattered was that I was getting ready to.  Just as quickly as the sergeant tapped my shoulder and motioned what he wanted, he left the two of us alone on the trail to mow down anyone coming up from behind.  From the sounds we heard, we wouldn’t have long to wait.
I could tell you that we ambushed Charlie, wiped most of them out and sent them dropping their weapons and running for cover.  That didn’t happen.  What did happen is almost as strange but still true.  It was monsoon season in Vietnam.  Every day the skies would part, and rain would fall in torrents—almost like being under a waterfall.  My finger was on the trigger of the M-60, my heart in my throat when it began to rain.  My assistant gunner and I lay there on our bellies for an interminable time, rapidly flowing water soaking our fatigues.  When the rain stopped, there was no sound.  I mean none.  Charlie had taken the opportunity to clear out, and we never heard him again.
 That night we camped in the middle of the swamp, mosquitoes, and leeches sucking our blood.  It rained so hard that Charlie could have gotten close enough to cut our throats and we wouldn’t have seen him.  The next morning the Captain let me shoot the M-60, for practice, while we waited for the choppers to extract us. We stood single file, knee-deep in a wide pool of stagnating water. With five-hundred rounds locked and loaded, I stood like Rambo, the big gun at my waist, and began mowing down vegetation across the pond. I didn’t take my finger off the trigger until the sound of imminent death finally ceased and the pungent odor of spent rounds wafted up into my nostrils.
It was the first and last time that I ever shot the big gun, though I’ll never forget the sound it made or the power of life and death I felt, and that will never leave me for as long as I live.
Tonight, while watching the piece on Jimi Hendrix, I remembered that sound and that feeling, and it chilled my soul.

###




All of Eric's books are available at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and on his iBook author pages, and his Website.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Night at the Triple X - a short story


It’s been said that the biggest sex organ in the body is the brain. Years ago, I had reason to confirm that claim.
Miss Carol and I were a number, but we were beginning to get on each other’s nerves. She was smart, confident and good looking. I was simply young and dumb. Even though we worked in the same industry, the biggest attraction we had for each other was sex, pure and simple.
Six months had passed in our relationship, and the attraction had begun to wane. Both of us, it seemed, was searching for a way to let the other down easy. My friend Joel was in town from Colorado and staying with me. I was divorced, but my ex and I had not yet sold our house. We were taking turns staying there until we found a buyer.
Miss Carol’s friend Miss Ann took Joel with her to one of our favorite bars. Miss Carol and I were supposed to join them. It was Friday night, Miss Carol a lease broker who had just returned to town from a week of checking records in Roger Mills County, had been doing her thing during that time, and I mine.
“I just want to go home and go to bed,” she said.
“What about Joel and Miss Ann?” I asked.
“They don’t need us,” she said.
“Let’s drive over anyway. Joel can ride back with me, and Miss Ann can take you home.”
“Fine,” she said, “But I’m not staying.”
On the way to the club, I caught a whiff of her perfume and suddenly remembered why I liked her so much. We were on 10th street, an area in Oklahoma City populated by strip bars and seedy hole-in-the-walls. About that time, we passed a stand-alone X-rated movie theatre.
“Have you ever seen a porn movie?” I asked.
“I’m not ten,” she said.
On a whim, I pulled into the parking lot. “Let’s go in.”
Miss Carol grinned. She was trying to dump me but had just enough kink to consider my offer.
“Okay, Perv,” she said. “You’ll say uncle before me.”
The XXX Theatre was a single-storied building with a very dark lobby. We purchased two tickets from the disinterested ticket puncher who had likely seen it all before. The theater was small and dark and smelled like urine. A naked man and an equally unclad woman were going at it on the screen.
There were probably ten patrons in the theater. All weirdos and not people you’d want to call friends. Miss Carol and I found an empty aisle and settled in to watch the movie. The couple on screen was performing every sex act imaginable, complete with grunts, groans, moans, and even a few screams.
As I began getting into the flick, I put my hand between Miss Carol’s legs, groping her most private parts, fully expecting a slap in the face. Instead, she began licking my neck. Before long, we both had our jeans pulled down to our knees, helplessly locked in the throws of hot, mindless sex right there in the middle of an x-rated theater, surrounded by perverts with their own pants down to their knees. We were shocked back to reality by a raspy voice.
“Real sex ain’t allowed in here. Take it outside, or I’ll have to call the cops,” the man from the ticket booth told us.
I was having trouble discerning the difference between real sex and sex on the screen as we headed for the lobby. Didn’t really matter, faces burning and buttoning our jeans as we went. We were both still hot. Hell! My head was about to explode! I was all over Miss Carol soon as the doors of my car closed. She was as hot as I was, and I’m not sure who was all over whom. Our passion continued, the windows steaming like a sauna when someone tapped on the door. It was a cop. He wasn’t smiling.
“Take it to the house, and I mean now.”
Our ardor hadn’t waned when we made it home, spending the rest of the night locked in hot passion. Joel interrupted our ardor, knocking on the door around two in the morning. I let him in and quickly returned to the bedroom without bothering to hear the story he wanted to tell me.
Do I recommend a triple-X experience? I’ll just say this. It won’t save a relationship, but it’ll sure make for unforgettable memories. Miss Carol and I broke up shortly after our night of red-hot passion. My lust had dissolved and my brain again able to add two and two and not come up with five.

END






Wyatt Thomas and Bertram Picou are recurring characters in Eric Wilder's French Quarter Mystery Series. Check out all the colorful characters on Eric's AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages, and his Website.