Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Motorcycle - a short story

Written after a failed marriage and while I was still suffering from deep depression caused most likely by my time in Vietnam as an infantry foot soldier, much of this story is autobiographical. Like the lead character in the story, my life was in a mess. I somehow managed to keep my day job and most of my relationships, probably because it was during the "wild and crazy" days of the Oklahoma Oil Boom of the 80s and almost everyone at the time was drunk, stoned or both. There's a grain of truth in every fiction and there was a real person I met one night who called himself Blue Angel. And yes I owned a 750 Triumph Bonneville, just likes James Dean.
P.S. Unlike the way I may once have been, it isn't my desire to offend anyone. If you are offended by apathy, drugs, sexual and violent situations then please stop reading now.


Motorcycle

Dying twilight and flashing neon beckoned me into one of the many stripper bars skirting the edge of town. I parked my bike beside a row of Harleys and opened the black enamel door, blaring rock and roll flooding over me as I made my way through the crowded barroom. A tipsy dancer had just begun her gyrations on center stage and I grabbed the first empty chair I came to.
When my eyes finally adjusted to the subdued light, I noticed the man sitting beside me had a big pear-shaped head and a screwy grin on his pug-ugly face that indicated he was already drunk. He was also obese; his double chin dove into hairy flab wedged beneath the gaudy western shirt he wore.
Unmindful of my sudden critical stare, or foaming brew dribbling down his neck, the fat man slugged beer straight from the pitcher without an offer of apology. Despite his repugnancy, I couldn't turn away, his ugliness hopelessly mesmerizing me.
The man's blackened teeth looked like California asphalt on a hot August day, and a motorized wheelchair supported his bulky frame. He grinned when he finally noticed me staring at him. Had I been sober myself, I'd have probably searched for another chair. I wasn't.
I was wishing I had minded my own business when he said, "Kinda motorcycle you ride?"
Dancing strobes flooded center stage with silver light, further accenting his drunken grin. I straightened in my chair and said, "Triumph Bonneville 750. Like James Dean."
"Most people 'round here ride Harleys," he said.
Glancing around the crowded barroom, I saw what he meant. Leather-clad, bandanna-headed bikers of both sexes crowded the stripper bar, rotating strobe lights magnifying their greasy hair, deadhead tattoos, and silver earrings. The fat man's raspy voice shattered my flight of fancy.
"What's your name, bub?"
"Denzil. You?"
"You can call me Blue Angel."
I needn't have worried about my inability to suppress a drunken snicker. Blue Angel didn't seem to mind. He was apparently either used to the look or else he just didn't give a damn. I forgot about my musings when the girl on stage winked at me and jutted her breasts in a brazen manner. Blue Angel whistled, using his index fingers to tightly stretch his thin lips, managing to produce a piercing shrill.
"Pleased to meet you, Blue Angel."
"Nam," he said, seeing my inquisitive glance at his withered legs. "Landmine."
After comparing tiny legs with his bloated body, I had trouble believing his deformity was anything other than congenital. I kept my opinion to myself, not wishing to insult him even further.
"I was there," I said. "Infantry."
Blue Angel grabbed the elbow of a passing waitress, ignoring my assertion, and ordered another pitcher. His broken-tooth grin had all but vanished from his inflated cheeks.
"I ride a Harley," he said.
Advanced inebriation and a pinch of embedded meanness marked my blurted reply, regretted the moment I spoke the words. "The hell you say. Cripples can't ride bikes."
My drunken grin failed miserably to indicate that I meant the vicious remark in the best possible way. Blue Angel's own smile revealed he had taken no apparent offense. He just kept describing his cycle.
"Three-wheeler. Hand controls. Custom made."
On stage, the nude girl with broken hearts tattooed on her breasts gyrated to the caustic strains of a Bob Seeger psycho-melody. Multi-colored strobe lights flared in my face. From a shadow-cloaked corner, the waitress returned with Blue Angel's pitcher of beer and he tipped it to his lips, swilling beer until it gushed from his mouth, wetting his shirt. He shoved it toward me when he finished.
"You work, Denzil?"
"Longshoreman."
"Married?"
"Not now," I said, shaking my head.
"Marrying soon, myself," he said. "Luanna's crippled too. Met her at a paraplegic convention. Gonna marry her right here on center stage.
"Terrific," I said.
"Hell's Angels comin' from all over the country. Big event. Be here or be square."
Ignoring his off-handed invitation, I returned my attention to center stage where two blondes were dancing in an odd pseudo-sexual parody. Blue Angel whistled to the waitress, hastily ordering another pitcher.
By now I was totally anesthetized by cold beer, blatant sex, and loud music. When we finished the second pitcher, I ordered yet another. Awash in noise, beer, and gyrating naked dancers, Blue Angel wheeled himself to the bathroom. When he returned he slid out of his wheelchair, onto his back on the filthy floor. Without success, he struggled to get up.
I tried lifting Blue Angel's dead weight back into his unwieldy vehicle but found he was heavier than he looked. Two bikers wandering over from the pool table helped, grinning as if they'd performed the same task many times before. After we'd killed another pitcher of beer, Blue Angel asked me to show him my bike.
"Why not?" I said.
Through the crowded barroom, I wheeled him, past milling bikers, out the side door to the parking lot flooded with interfering rays of moon and neon. Parked between a black Harley and candy apple pickup we found my metallic blue Triumph.
"No Limey bike's good as a hog," Blue Angel said. "Least it ain't a rice burner."
"Faster than any hog," I said. "And lots of rice burners."
"Maybe. Take me for a ride?"
"You crazy?" I said. "I couldn't even lift you off the floor in there. How do you expect me to get you on back of the bike?"
"Jack and Banjo will help."
"But you wouldn't stay put, even if we managed to get you on back."
"Then strap my ankles to the bike frame with bar rags. I'll hang on."
Shaking my head, I said "I might not make it home myself, drunk as I am. You want to go for a ride on the back of my bike, Blue Angel then you must be drunker than me."
Blue Angel's lips curled into a pleading pout. "I ain't that drunk. Please take me. I never been on a Limey bike before."
"Maybe next time," I said, wheeling him back toward the strip bar.
*  *  *
I don't remember when I began stopping after work for drinks at the Blue Note Lounge. Sometimes I stayed until Jimmy Turner, the owner, kicked me out and closed the place. Sheila didn't mind much. She was busy with her own life, new job, summer softball league and all. That summer she met Big Zina, playing ball on the same team. Before long Big Zina began going everywhere with us. Out to eat, to the movies. I didn't mind. When Big Zina was around Sheila was always in a good mood. When she wasn't. . .
Sheila had never smoked during our seven-year marriage. That summer I began finding ashtrays filled with butts, hers and Big Zina's. I also found a half-smoked roach in an ashtray. Sheila and Big Zina confessed to buying a lid to smoke at a Peter Frampton concert. They spent the weekend out of town, seeing Peter Frampton and doing other things with some of the girls from the team.
Shortly after our divorce, I bought a motorcycle, a metallic blue Triumph Bonneville 750. I knew nothing about motorcycles, never ridden one, but had an immediate need to wrap my legs around a powerful engine and drive it, very fast, down the highway.
After selling my old Mustang I began going everywhere on the bike. Even in the rain. Most of my free time I spent swilling beer at the Blue Note. Sometimes I made it home without remembering where I had been, or what I had done. Once two teenage boys lifted the cycle off the pavement when I tumped it over, leaving the bar. I remember the shock in their eyes when I charged out of the parking lot, barely missing the front fender of a passing car.
About that time Jimmy kicked me out for good. In a drunken fit, I threw a pitcher of beer at his frosted-glass mirror behind the bar. Unsatisfied with the ensuing explosion, I capped it off by smashing a couple of chairs and tables with my fists and feet. Jimmy and two regulars tossed me out on my face.
"Don't ever come back," he said as I powered away on my cycle.
After Jimmy banned me from the Blue Note, I began frequenting sleaze joints and biker bars populating the back roads leading to the ocean. It was there I met Rhonda.
Rhonda had red curly hair, a tattoo on her left shoulder and ultra red lips the same intense color as her skin art. Her personality also matched her hair. She smoked pot, used various drugs, slept around and had no visible means of support. Between jobs, she had explained. Rhonda lived in a three-room wood-framed cracker box on the wrong side of town.
Shortly after we met, we made love - spontaneously. In the front room on her shabby couch. We were both drunk, Rhonda's libido further stoked by pot and coke. I made do with beer and a couple of shooters. As we made love I noticed her faded green curtains gaping, wide open, for the world to see. The front door was also open.
"Think I better close the door and window?"
"Why?"
"Because someone might see us."
"Fuck 'em," she said.
Rhonda had long since sorted out her life, going through men faster than some women go through nail polish. As I was becoming attached to her, she had already finished with me, tossing me away like an empty bottle. Leaving a bar one night, drunk and alone, I motored past her place, maybe to satiate my morbid curiosity. See who she was with. Perhaps, deep down, I thought she might be alone and be happy to see me.
Parking the Triumph in the drive, I strolled up to her front door, peeking through the window before I knocked - a good thing because she wouldn't have answered anyway. She was on her back and she wasn't alone. Rhonda and a long-haired, nearly nude man was in motion on the shabby couch, feeling the apparent throes of full-blown, drug-assisted sexual nirvana. I had to kick-start my heart, and then my bike.
Gunning its engine, I trenched Rhonda's front yard as I sped away, nearing sixty by the time I reached the approaching intersection. It didn't matter that the light was red because I didn't have time to stop anyway. An old woman wheeled her Chevy directly in front of my fleeting path and I still remember her startled look when she saw me sliding toward her. I was very much out of control.
Concerned motorists pulled the cycle off my chest, the accident sparing me, and mostly the motorcycle, but leaving me cut, scratched and black and blue. When the cops finally released me, I watched headlights trailing away into the night, feeling the fool. I walked home alone after the tow truck had hauled away the bike.
*  *  *
"You awake?" Blue Angel said, tapping my shoulder.
"Sorry," I said, glancing up into his big cow eyes.
A nude dancer was weaving a sexual burlesque on the grimy wooden stage in front of us and lightning flashed through the open front door. I could smell rain blowing in from the north.
"Gotta go," he said, tapping the counter. "Don't forget my wedding next Saturday. Right here, same time."
Jack and Banjo suddenly appeared, pushing through smoke, shadows and frenzied customers, wheeling Blue Angel out the front door. They lifted him into the bed of an awaiting pickup and drove away as rain began to fall. I watched them disappear into the neon-illuminated gloom, and then rested my head on the counter.
By now my brain pulsated with a deep-seated ache, threatening to burst straight through the skull. Resting my head on the bar, I closed my eyes, letting loud music and bar noises resonate through flesh, bone and the distressed wood of the stage. The moment provided scant solace. Instead, I screamed through space, straight to the back of the truck with Blue Angel, my suddenly blurred thoughts a vision of street noise, glimmering neon, and passing humanity. Blue Angel flashed his blackened grin when he saw me.
"Welcome home, Bub," he said.

###





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 & NobleKobo and iBook author pages. You might also like to check out his website.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Pole Dancer - a short story

I can't recall the exact time I wrote this short story though sometime during the 80s is a safe guess. It's about a man, an American Indian man, visiting a strip club to watch his sister perform. The idea came to me after I had visited a strip club. I'd had a conversation with a dancer who was upset because her father had come into the club to watch her perform and to try to convince her to quit her job. The bouncer had thrown him out before he'd had a chance to do either. 
Reading the story again after many years I can still feel the anger in my words that I felt following a failed marriage and, most likely, still suffering from PTSD from my time as an infantry machinegunner in Vietnam. The sentences are choppy and the dialogue stilted but I refrained myself from launching into a massive edit job because it was written by the person I was at the time and not the same person I am now. Thanks for reading Pole Dancer and I hope you like it anyway. P.S. If the subject of nudity offends you then please stop reading now.

Pole Dancer

Another hot Oklahoma day, dry clouds streaking a faded sky as dervishes of swirling dust burnished Joe Redbird's elbow. Two crows, examining an armadillo carcass, moved out of his path. Joe had other things on his mind and didn't notice as he passed a slow-moving pumping unit, siphoning the last greasy sips from a dying reservoir. Scattered remnants of a once proud industry littered both sides of the road, staining the dry earth with dirty water. Overhead, a lone hawk floated in a thermal updraft.
Redbird pulled into a pea-gravel parking lot surrounding a freestanding cinder block building. Broken neon lighting, mounted on two pilfered stands of drill pipe, proclaimed the place Valley of the Dolls.
Shading his eyes from noon sun, he steered the pickup between a red Chevy and a dented Fat Bob Harley. Waves of damp heat flooded the cab when he opened the door. He didn't bother stretching as he side-stepped a drunk Okie leaning against the wall.
He squinted into murky darkness, smoke accosting his eyes and loud music his ears. At least the air-conditioning felt good, chilling his sweaty neck as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. A half-nude waitress encircled his waist with slender arms, pressing her breasts into the small of his back.
"Whatcha having, Geronimo?"
"Pitcher of Bud," he said.
"Smile, Chief. Can't be all that bad."
Redbird's expression remained dark, despite the young woman's friendly prodding. He nodded toward the bar circling center stage. His mousy-haired server puckered her lips and made lewd kissing sounds. When he refused to respond, she wriggled her nipples between thumb and forefinger and then kissed him on the cheek.
"You need something, just whistle. I'm Anita."
Redbird's features remained impassive as Anita winked and backed away through the crowd. When his eyes dilated enough to see, he glanced over his shoulder at the dozens of other patrons. Bikers in leather and chains, soldiers with shaved heads and roughnecks in dirty overalls. They filled the large room to frantic capacity, and he had to elbow his way to an empty chair at center stage.
His dollar tip earned him a wet kiss when Anita returned with his pitcher of beer. Ignoring her, he wiped the lipstick off his face with the back of his hand. Anita shrugged and eased away through the crowd. After draining the first glass, he poured another. Then he faded into cool darkness as pulsating-neon flooded center stage.
Several-dozen prairie voyeurs rattling beer bottles soon replaced the jukebox. A new dancer was preparing to come on stage, and shrill whistles began piercing the darkness. Redbird cocked his head for a better view of the wooden stage.
Staggering up the short ramp, a young blue-eyed blond woman licked her lips. Clad in only a bra and gold sequined g-string, she smiled at the whistling, cat-calling audience staring back at her. When the jukebox began, she gyrated in a drunken simulation of sensuality. Above blaring rock and roll, a high-pitched voice shrilled.
"Hey baby, show us your snatch."
When someone put two soft hands on Redbird's shoulders, he knew who it was without turning to look.
"What are you doing here, Joe?"
Redbird pivoted in his chair, gazing up into a dancer's dark eyes.
"Pete Thompson said I'd find you here."
The young woman's long hair draped in raven waves over bronze shoulders. Reflections in her dark eyes rippled like black paint in a blender. Joe's neck grew warm as he sensed the gaze of everyone around them. They were admiring the attractive dancer, a woman with smooth skin, brown as his own.
"Pete's right. I'm a dancer."
Glancing over his shoulder at the girl on stage, Redbird said, "Like her?"
When Victoria shut her eyes, Redbird could almost feel the hot flush spreading up her neck. Opening them, she stared at the floor.
"Mom send you?"
In a voice barely audible above the loud music and grating background voices, he answered, "Mom doesn't know you work here. Maybe you can tell me why you do?"
Redbird leaned forward, touching her hand, causing her to wrench away and back into a drunk at the table behind her. The man groped her leg before she could move away.
"I have no answer. Least one you'd understand."
"Try me."
"Vicky, you're up next," someone called from behind the bar.
"Have to go," she said. "Finish your beer and get out of here before you embarrass us both."
"Will it embarrass you to have your big brother watch you strip and do squat thrusts while these monkeys masturbate in the dark?"
Vicky shook her dark mane. "I don't do that. They are to watch me dance. That's all."
Glancing at the girl weaving drunken circles on stage, Redbird said, "You call that dancing?"
"What about you? You've been here before."
"Different," he said.
Victoria tried to smile, but her quivering lower lip betrayed her true feelings. She leaned against the table so no one else could hear her reply.
"Why is it different?"
"Because people are laughing behind your back," he said.
"Who are they laughing at? You or me?"
"I don't dance in a titty bar."
"Yeah, and I suppose all your friends have great respect for the way you earn a living, driving a garbage truck."
"Honest work."
"So is dancing."
"This isn't dancing, Vicky. It’s obscene. I feel sorrow for you and shame for our family."
"Only thing you feel is your throbbing head and queasy gut when you wake up Sunday morning with puke on your pillow."
"Doesn't change things," he said.
Victoria touched his hand and said in a whisper, "I can't expect you to understand. I've wanted to dance since I was a little girl."
"But why here?"
"Because we all have decisions to make, and don't always have enough choices."
Redbird folded his arms and shook his head. "These scumbags don't care if you dance, or parade around on all fours. In fact, I'm sure that's what they would prefer."
"I do it for myself, Joe. Not them, and not you." When he didn't reply, she said, "Just get out of here. Please."
He stayed in his chair, noticing glints of sadness flicker and fade in the darkest corner of her eyes. Her lip quivered, and she drew a breath, almost losing the tiny halter covering her breasts when she exhaled. Clutching it to her bosom, she hurried away through the crowded tables.
Though impassive, his shoulders began shaking in an almost imperceptible tremble. Sitting straight up in the rickety bar chair, he locked his folded arms against his chest and turned toward center stage. Everyone locked on to the blue-eyed dancer. No one had noticed the confrontation. Enveloped in her third song, she'd already discarded the sequined halter covering her breasts. As he watched, she yanked on her golden g-string.
With eyes like a stalking wolf, she promenaded across the stage on hands and knees. When she spotted Redbird and saw his frown.
Pulling the snap of her g-string, she twirled it once around her head, sniffed it, and then tossed it around Redbird's neck. With a satisfied smirk, she flipped over, wrapping long legs around her neck. She rolled across the stage, displaying her shaved privates. Her performance brought whistles from the drunken crowd.
Redbird turned away. Some perverse curiosity returned his gaze to the stage. He locked onto the young woman's sweating body, dirty from the dust tracked floor. She writhed in widening circles, not forgetting Redbird until the music ceased.
When the song ended, she collected the dollar bills scattered across the stage and grabbed her outfit in a slight bend of the knees. Redbird folded his arms and turned away, trying to lose himself in the remaining slug of beer. At least, until a hand touched his shoulder.
"Another pitcher, Chief?"
Redbird nodded. After returning from the bar, Anita filled his glass, sipping from it before handing it to him. Confused by his rampant emotions, he studied the rose tattoo on her breast and the strange gold fleck in her left eye. She licked foam from her lips with an overt flick of her tongue. His dollar tip earned him another wet kiss, followed by solitude as she departed to wait on someone else.
Attracted by the booming jukebox, Redbird's gaze returned to center stage. As beautiful Victoria appeared through the neon-lighted darkness, he held his breath.
Except for her near-nudity, she seemed a beautiful princess, ascending dirty steps to a royal throne. Behind Redbird, the anonymous audience whooped and whistled their approval. He couldn't look her in the eye but couldn't take his own off her body. His face and neck grew red. Victoria was tall and dark, moving across the stage like a dandelion wafting in the breeze. She pirouetted in slow, measured circles, long raven hair billowing in synchronous waves.  Her eyes, dark and liquid, mesmerized and quieted the audience, Her movements possessed them. Victoria whisked off the tiny halter covering her breasts during a slow turn on the polished pole. As a single entity, the crowd gasped.
Joe Redbird watched, along with bikers, soldiers, and roughnecks. His skin flushed with rising anger. Unable to forget the leering creatures gaping at his beautiful sister, he turned away. His head began to shake with a subtle flutter that crept into his shoulders and down the base of his spine.
Victoria's last number sheathed its patrons in a tight knot of rapt concentration. As bass notes resonated through the murky darkness, her movements entwined them. Nothing disturbed her as she revolved around the polished pole, like a holographic vision in a giant music box. Finally, she whisked off her last garment.
Screaming shouts and wild applause punctuated her curtsied finale. Smiling at the ovation like a prima ballerina, she waved, acknowledging their praise. As she prepared to exit the stage, Redbird hoisted his half-filled pitcher of beer, hurling it at his sister.
She dodged the missile, watching it crash into the wall-length mirror behind center stage. An explosion of flying shards liberated the audience as angry patrons closed around Redbird. A fat security guard bullied his way through the crowd. When he reached for Redbird, the tall Native American took a round-house swing and knocked him on his ass. With fists raised, he pivoted in a semi-circle, daring anyone to touch him. Someone did.
Willowy arms encircled him; the gentle pressure of soft breasts in the small of his back calmed him like water on a lighted fuse. With fury bleeding from his soul, he allowed the woman to back him to the front door.
"Get the hell outa here and don't ever come back," the fat security guard called after them.
Someone started another song on the jukebox, and another dancer took center stage. Bar patrons grumbled but returned to consuming more beer and watching the next performance. Mousy-haired Anita pushed Joe Redbird into bright August sunlight of the graveled parking lot. He halted when she shouted at him.
"What right have you got pulling a stunt like that?"
Naked, except for a yellow strip of tawdry cloth covering her pubic hair, she waited for his answer. It never came. Instead, his apathetic stare caused her to shield her bare breasts with a perfunctory arm.
A pickup passed on the highway, honking its horn and raising dust devils on the blacktop. Heat from late afternoon sun sent perspiration trickling down Redbird's neck. Wiping it away, he continued staring at Anita in silence.
They stood like gunfighters preparing to draw their weapons. Brilliant sunlight revealed all the young woman’s physical flaws. Her self-confidence began to wane, and even the rose tattoo on her breast seemed to fade. Redbird stared at stretch marks on her breasts and belly, blinking as he studied her bowed legs. After gazing at angry scars of adolescent acne on her almost pretty face, he turned away.
Her shoulders sagged. Taking a single step backward, she tripped on a rock in the uneven parking lot and almost fell.
Quivering with emotion, she said, "Victoria is beautiful. Everyone loves to watch her dance. If you didn't want to see, you shouldn't have come."
Redbird didn't answer, unsure of what he had seen, or how he felt. Returning to his pickup, he lowered the windows before cranking the engine. The heat felt like the last agonizing breath of a bursting lung.
As he pulled out of the parking lot, he glanced again at sad Anita, her arms folded across her bare breasts. Numbed by emotion and too much beer, he spun the tires in loose gravel and drove away back down the lonely blacktop road from where he had come.

###



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 & NobleKobo and iBook author pages. You might also like to check out his website.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Ghost of a Chance - an excerpt


Having grown up only a few miles from Caddo Lake, the largest natural lake in Texas, I remember its mystery, beauty, and danger. My grandmother lived on a farm at the very end of a long dirt road, not far from the lake, in east Texas. When I was young, Grandma's house had no electricity. Whenever my brother Jack and I visited her, we watched as she churned butter, drank well water, and burned coal oil in sooty lamps. At night we listened to panthers and wolves howling outside in the woods. Emma Fitzgerald is the first character to appear in my book Ghost of a Chance and she reminds me a lot of my east Texas grandmother.
Texas is a big state and east Texas reminds you more of the old south than the wild west. The town of Jefferson was once the largest seaport in the state and as many as twenty-five steamships visited the boom town daily to load up cotton to take down the river to New Orleans. Unlike the wild west, east Texas is hilly with pine forests so thick the area has been called the "pine curtain."
Ghost of a Chance is my first published book and remains as one of my favorites. It features my Oklahoma private investigator Buck McDivit. Buck is visiting east Texas for the first time and quickly becomes a victim of culture shock. I hope you wind up loving both east Texas and Ghost of a Chance. If so, you might like the other two books in the Paranormal Cowboy Series. Thanks for giving the first three chapters a read.  

Chapter 1

Emma Fitzgerald’s rocking chair creaked as she listened to a chorus of frogs down by the lake. Silent lightning snaked across the sky, and angry clouds rolled toward the island. The approaching storm heightened the old woman's senses and sent a chill down her spine.
The storm arrived with lazy raindrops dampening the path to the lake. Emma didn’t notice, her gaze locked on the point of light far across the dark water. Words from behind released her from the spell.
“Miss Emma, you’ll catch your death if you don’t get in this house. You know it’s way past your bedtime.”
“It’s dry beneath the overhang, and I’m not the least bit sleepy. The storm’s blowing in and I’m watching that strange light out there.”
Pearl Johnson opened the screen door and joined Emma Fitzgerald on the porch, shivering when thunder rumbled the rafters. She shielded her eyes from some imagined glare and stared in the direction Emma had pointed.
“I don’t see nothing, Miss Emma.”
“Then I guess you scared it away.”
Pearl frowned and shook her big head. “Come on inside. You been brooding out here since dinner and it’s getting late.”
Emma glanced at her watch’s luminous dial. “Then why are you still here?”
“Cause you’re distressing me the way you’re acting.”
Worry lines on Emma’s face softened into a smile. She stood up from the rocking chair and wrapped her rangy arms around the big woman.
“Don’t fret over me. I’m too old and ornery to let anything get me down very long; least of all a man. Now you run on home to Raymond before the bottom drops out and drenches that pretty yellow dress of yours.”
“You sure?”
Emma pushed Pearl toward the door, waiting until she’d opened the screen and stepped outside.
“Sure as this old lake’s got twelve-foot alligators. Now get on home with you.”
Pearl started to say something. Shaking her head instead, she hurried down the stairs. More thunder shook the rafters as she lumbered toward her own house on the far side of the clearing. Emma settled back into the rocking chair and draped a frayed orange Afghan over her knees. This time the meow of a striped kitten broke her trance.
“Tiger, you little rascal, don’t you know cats hate rain and thunder?”
Tiger didn’t seem to mind the rain, curling up in Emma’s lap and closing his eyes. Pearl had gone in time as falling water swelled into a deafening deluge. The pouring rain pooled up on the roof, finally causing a waterfall to stream from the porch overhang. Emma watched the storm as Tiger ignored it with a contented purr. Neither moved until the tempest had passed, leaving behind hazy moonlight. Grabbing Tiger by the scruff, she carried him inside and deposited him on his kitty bed beside the stove.
“Enough attention for one day, you little rascal,” she said.
Tiger nudged his toy mouse and then returned to contented sleep.
Emma started for the stairs but stopped at the window, staring at the lake. Again, she saw it. The ephemeral glow of circular light had returned, hanging over the dark water. Wrapping the Afghan around her shoulders, she headed for the door.
The hoot of an owl sounded from the distance as Emma followed the mushy path past the boat dock to the water’s edge. Vapor rose off the lake’s surface as she stopped beside a pile of brush and stared across the water.
The rain had moved north, leaving only dancing shadows to frolic over the lake. When an alligator’s knotty head appeared ten feet from Emma’s muddy slippers, she ignored it. The floating light locked her gaze, growing brighter as it approached the bank. As it did, the surrounding mist chilled the muggy air around her.
Emma’s dilated eyes soon made out the vague outline of a girl’s slender body. An apparition surrounded by veils of phosphorescence floating through the fog. Mesmerized, her sense of reality dimmed as the spirit girl approached. The apparition drew ever nearer, her translucent skin glowing. Even her eyes were colorless. Emma focused on something clutched in the spirit girl’s hand.
“Please help me,” the spirit girl whispered.
Emma reached for her hand. She succeeded only in passing her fingers through the damp mist as the spirit’s image began to wane. She blinked, and when she opened her eyes, the girl had vanished. Her hand was damp and cold but no longer empty. The object in her hand emitted an eerie pink glow when she opened her palm.
Sounds of someone shoveling damp earth grabbed her attention. The beam of a powerful flashlight overpowered its misty incandescence. Squeezing the object in her hand, she decided to investigate.
Murky shadows replaced moonlight as she followed a path through a maze of creepers and vines. She discovered the origin of the light in a small clearing. Leaning against a cypress trunk, she brushed gray hair from her eyes, gazing at a large hole in the ground. When a hand touched her shoulder, she wheeled around, realizing who was with her in the clearing.
“You scared me half to death. I told you to get the hell off my island and never come back.”
Instead of an answer, she caught the brunt of a shovel across the back of her head. A chorus of bullfrogs began to sing as she toppled into the mire. Miss Emma Fitzgerald never heard them.

Chapter 2

Sheriff Taylor Wright stood knee-deep in shallow water, mopping his forehead with a red bandanna. Remnant humidity from last night’s rain sent rivulets of sweat down his neck, providing dive-bombing mosquitoes a tempting target. Something other than mosquitoes occupied his attention as he brushed the swarming creatures away with a subconscious swat. It was a body, already stiff with rigor.
He waited as Dave Roberts, the assistant medical examiner, and Deputy Sam Goodlake pulled the corpse toward shore. Raymond Johnson and his son Ray watched from the bank. When Roberts and Goodlake reached the shore with the body, Raymond Johnson fell to his knees and began to sob.
“It’s Emma all right,” Dave Roberts said. “Been dead a good ten hours, I’d say.”
Sheriff Wright pushed Raymond away from the body, turning him toward the lodge. “Ray, take your daddy back to the house. Nothing either of you can do here now. I’ll be along directly to ask a few questions.”
When Raymond resisted the sheriff’s advice, Ray took his father’s elbow, gently directing him away from the lifeless body of Emma Fitzgerald. Dr. Tom Proctor, the coroner, and chief medical examiner nudged the corpse with the toe of his boot.
“Looks like Emma got herself tangled in a trotline. Maybe drowned. Her nigrahs seem mighty distraught.”
“What was she doing out in the lake in the middle of a storm?” asked Sam Goodlake, the lanky deputy.
“Good question,” Sheriff Wright said, bending over the body. “Anyone got an answer?”
“She’s holding something,” Dave Roberts said, ignoring Wright’s query as he struggled with Emma’s frozen fingers.
They watched Dave Roberts pry open her hand, revealing a crusty piece of jewelry. After palming it once, he handed it to the sheriff.
“What is it?” Goodlake asked, craning his long neck for a better view.
“Looks like a cameo brooch.”
Sheriff Wright fingered the old brooch, caressing its alabaster edges as Roberts took photos of the body and surrounding area. Something behind Emma’s ear caught the sheriff’s attention. Using both hands, he gently canted the old woman’s chin, brushing aside her salt and pepper hair to expose caked blood that had oozed from a swollen contusion on the back of her head. After a careful rotation, he rested the old woman’s head in soft earth, and then slipped the brooch into his khaki shirt, giving the body one last look.
“Sam, check the lakefront for evidence. I’m taking a little walk down to the lodge to question Pearl and Raymond.”
Sam had already begun helping Dave Roberts stuff Emma’s body into a rubber bag and didn’t bother replying to Wright’s request. A motorboat with a two-stroke engine droned across the lake, causing dozens of turtles to abandon their perches and splash into the water. The commotion failed to interrupt Sheriff Wright’s long stride.
Fitzgerald Lodge loomed in the distance, about a hundred yards from the lake’s edge. Backed by pine and live oak, the rustic abode formed an imposing edifice, dwarfing all other structures and outbuildings on the island. The once active resort had declined in recent years to little more than a worn and neglected fishing camp for locals.
Before her untimely demise, Emma Fitzgerald had planned to change all that. Sheriff Wright recognized the woeful cry of Pearl Johnson as he entered the door, knowing long before seeing her how distraught she must be. He followed her whimpers to Emma’s office at the end of a long hallway. There he found her and husband Raymond, along with Randy Rummels, a local attorney.
“You all right, Pearl?” he asked.
She wiped her mouth and nose with a paper napkin, blinking away her tears. “No sir, sheriff, I ain’t. I still can’t believe Miss Emma’s really dead. I should have hung around last night, knowing how blue she was.”
Taylor scrawled Pearl’s remark in a notebook he carried in the pocket of his Western-cut khaki shirt.
“Wasn’t your fault.”
Raymond banged the big oak desk with his formidable fist. “Miss Emma wouldn’t have gone out in no storm.”
“Calm yourself down. I’m sure no one carried her there,” Sheriff Wright said. “There’s one big bump on the back of her head. Maybe a limb blew down in the wind and knocked her into the lake. Who saw her alive last?”
“Guess it was me,” Pearl said. “I went home last night about ten. About the time the storm hit.”
“What were you doing here so late?”
“Miss Emma was brooding, and I didn’t want to leave her alone.”
Taylor Wright turned a chair around, straddled it and rested his arms on the backrest. “Brooding about what?”
“Bones Malone. They had an argument, and Miss Emma told him to pack his stuff and move off the island. He left without even bothering to take his things.”
Sheriff Wright digested this tidbit of information. “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him around lately. Know where he is, or what they were arguing about?”
Raymond and Pearl exchanged perplexed glances. Pearl said, “Whatever it was, Miss Emma took it pretty hard.”
“You think Bones is involved in Emma’s death?” Wright asked, removing his hat to scratch his bald spot.
“Why hell no,” Raymond said, turning away from the sheriff’s stare and gazing at the hardwood floor. “Maybe they had a little argument. Don’t matter none because I know Bones Malone loved that old lady.”
“Maybe so, but you said yourself Miss Emma wouldn’t have wandered down to the lake in a thunderstorm, no matter how upset she was.”
“She was getting along in age,” Randy Rummels said.
“Eighty,” Raymond said. “And still sharp as any twenty-year-old.”
Sheriff Wright tapped the back of the chair twice, rearranged the hat atop his head, stood and leaned against one of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining the room.
“What are you doing here, Randy?” he asked. “Smell a healthy legal fee all the way from town?”
Rummels brushed aside Sheriff Wright’s professional slur without protest. “How you doing, Sheriff? Guess you know Daddy was Miss Emma’s lawyer. I’m discussing her estate with Pearl and Raymond. Emma died intestate.”
“You’re full of shit,” Raymond said. “Miss Emma’s had a will for years. I saw it, and so did Pearl. You know it’s true because your daddy wrote it.”
Randy Rummels shook his head. “I’m Emma Fitzgerald’s attorney now, and I’m telling you, she never had a will.”
“Your father was Miss Emma’s lawyer,” Pearl said.
“Well Daddy’s dead, and nothing ever went on in that firm that I don’t know about. Believe me, Emma died intestate.”
Raymond’s glare left no doubt of his emotional frame of mind or his feelings about Rummels’ statement.
“You’re a liar.”
“Who you calling a liar?” Rummels said, jumping to his feet and standing eyeball to eyeball with the larger black man. “You two are just trying to horn in where you don’t belong.”
“Wait just a minute here,” Sheriff Wright said, stepping between the two men. “What difference does it make anyway?”
“Because Miss Emma’s will deeds us half the marina,” Pearl said.”
“Miss Emma couldn’t run it by herself,” Raymond added. “Or afford to pay much in the way of wages. She made up for it by willing us half the marina when she died.”
“You’re dreaming,” Rummels said. “There’s no record of any such transaction.”
Rummels’ declaration was more than Raymond could take. Clinching his hand, he lunged across the desk at the young lawyer. Sheriff Wright interceded again, this time grabbing Raymond’s wrist and backing him up with a combination of arm strength and steely eye contact. Rummels sat down, apparently grateful for the sheriff’s timely intervention.
“The bank has a mortgage on all Emma’s real property. The island, marina, and lodge that is. With no heir and no will,” he said, “Everything left in Emma’s estate will be used to settle her debt with the bank. I got no ax to grind with the Johnsons here. I’d as soon they got the place as have it go to the bank.”
“You’re crazy as hell,” Raymond said. “Miss Emma never borrowed a penny in her life. She don’t owe the bank nothing.”
“We have her signature to prove she does,” Rummels said.
Sheriff Wright glanced at Pearl and Raymond, not letting his glimpse linger. “So what happens to Raymond and Pearl?”
“Nothing,” Rummels said. “They simply vacate the premises.”
“We’ve lived here thirty years,” Pearl said. “Miss Emma sold us the house we live in and the yard around it. She filed the deed at the courthouse in Deception and left a copy in her safety deposit box.”
Rummels simply shook his head. “No deed, no record of a deed, no way.”
Talk of the marina had propelled Raymond into a rapidly disintegrating emotional state. Rocking side to side, he said, “We don’t want a damn thing that ain’t coming to us. Miss Emma didn’t intend to leave Fitzgerald Island to the Bank of Deception. Check it out at the courthouse, and you’ll see we ain’t lying.”
“Never trust a white man,” Randy Rummels said with a smirk. “Or in this case, a white woman.”
Sheriff Wright frowned at Rummels and pointed toward the door. “Why don’t you get the hell out of here? You’re just causing trouble.”
“Not until I finish my business.”
“It’s finished,” Wright said.
Randy Rummels didn’t miss the angry inflection in Sheriff Wright’s voice. Realizing he was already pushing his luck, he folded his portfolio and started for the door.
“Fine. You straighten it out with these people.”
“Watch your tone, Randy,” Wright said. “These people took care of Emma for thirty years and deserve a little respect.”
“The only thing they deserve is a quick trip off the island. I don’t make the rules. I just see they’re carried out.”
Taylor Wright’s own adrenaline was pumping, as was that of young Rummels’. Neither reacted immediately to Pearl’s words.
“Maybe Miss Emma’s heir can settle the bank debt.”
Rummels glanced first at Pearl, then at Wright. “What did you say?”
“I said Miss Emma has an heir.”
“There’s no indication of that,” Rummels said, slamming his portfolio back on the desktop.
“Yes, there is,” Pearl said. “Miss Emma has a nephew in Oklahoma.”
“Says who?” Rummels said.
Pearl opened the top drawer of the desk, took out an opened letter, and handed it to Rummels. After removing the contents slowly, the lawyer made a big production of reading it. When he finished, Sheriff Taylor Wright took it from him.
“What’s this all about?” he asked after glancing at the letter.
“Miss Emma received it about a week ago and couldn’t wait to call the man who sent it. Seems he’s a private investigator in Oklahoma. A young man raised in foster homes.”
“Already sounds bogus to me,” Rummels said.
“It’s the truth,” Pearl said. “When Miss Emma talked with the man on the phone, he told her he could prove he was her nephew.”
“I’ll believe it when I see his proof,” Rummels said.
“What happens until then?” Wright said.
“Not a damn thing.” Rummels turned before reaching the door. Pointing his finger at Raymond, he said, “Until this matter is assessed, don’t run off with anything on this island. Sheriff, I’m holding you responsible.”
Sheriff Wright waited for the front door to slam before handing the letter to Pearl.
“What’s this all about? Emma had no family I know of, and I’ve lived here all my life. Where did this long lost nephew come from?”
“Miss Emma’s wandering brother,” Pearl said. “He had a son while traipsing around the oil patch up in Oklahoma.”
“You think this man is Emma’s nephew and can prove it?”
Pearl lowered her eyes. “Don’t really know, Sheriff Taylor. I just made that part up because that little weasel Rummels made me so mad. The rest is true, though.”
“Could just be a scam artist that sees an opportunity to cut a fat hog. P.I.s search for lost heirs all the time.”
“We don’t know nothing about that,” Raymond said. “I do know Miss Emma thought he was for real. She was going to call Randy Rummels to change her will.”
“Randy says there is no will. Never was one.”
“Uh huh,” Raymond said as he stalked out of the room.
Wright tapped the desktop twice before following him. Halfway into the hall he turned and scratched his head.
“Why would Rummels destroy Emma’s will and let the bank take her property instead of letting you two have a shot at it?”
“You’re the sheriff,” Pearl said. “You tell us.”
Sheriff Taylor Wright tipped his hat. “I’ll check it out.”
“You’ll get your chance, Sheriff. Miss Emma’s nephew is on his way to Texas. James T. McDivit should be here any minute. When he arrives, you can check him out for yourself.”

Chapter 3

James T. “Buck” McDivit had come to Texas for answers. What he found was a giant lake amid a maze of vines, creepers and lily pads; a place that seemed more like Louisiana than Texas. He quickly realized it was different from both states.
Cypress trees grew in abundance, both in the water and out, and Spanish moss, wafting in slow-motion waves, hung from their limbs, caressing the lake’s coffee-colored surface. Only the head of a slow-swimming snake disrupted the lake’s tranquility.
East Texas was a place far different from Buck’s own home on the rolling hills of central Oklahoma. This mysterious locale seemed more like a virtual botanical garden replete with subtropical greenery and a climate to match. He felt a thousand miles from home.
Interstate highway, replaced by rural Texas blacktop, had long since disappeared in his rearview mirror. Untended hollyhocks, blooming in lavender flower falls that saturated humid air with their cloying fragrances grew wild beside the road. Damp pathways, none leading anywhere in particular, pierced the tangle of vegetation as a flock of cattle egrets winged high overhead.
Egrets weren’t the only wildlife in abundance, nor were oak, cypress, and Hollyhock the only plants bordering the road. Cascades of blue impatiens, crimson-blossomed rosebushes, and clumps of green willow painted the terrain from a diverse palette of color. When a trucker blew his horn, waving an angry fist as he sped past, Buck realized he had slowed to less than twenty miles an hour. Taking the warning to heart, he pressed the accelerator and followed him.
Dense vegetation parted as he rounded the next bend. It left him little time to worry about the angry trucker and prevented him from further gawking at the birds and wildflowers. In front of him lay a sleepy Victorian village dwarfed by the mammoth lake. Buck quickly realized Deception, Texas was the literal end of the road.
 Deception, once a riverboat stop along the way between New Orleans and Jefferson, was situated many secluded miles from the nearest Interstate highway. The old riverboat port had managed to preserve much of its antebellum flavor. Many buildings, some with ornate decks jutting out over the water, still fronted the lake. Tourists wandered the narrow streets, gazing at storefront displays or licking Sno-cones purchased from vendors vying for space in the town square. Buck parked his Ramcharger and stepped out for a better look.
Near a little park fronting the lake, Buck discovered everything wasn’t old. Bulldozers and heavy equipment were at work clearing trees and leveling dirt. Someone was building something large and incongruous with the sleepy village and had already cut a large brown swath across the flourishing sea of green.
He completed a quick swing through Deception before returning to his truck and driving to the rear of the Pelican Restaurant. An attorney awaited inside the Pelican to discuss his late aunt’s estate. Their recent telephone conversation had left Buck leery about their impending meeting and little doubt that the attorney considered him a money-seeking opportunist.
Afternoon shadows had begun draping the village as gray clouds formed out over the lake. The back of the restaurant seemed unexceptional except for the stacks of fish traps and piles of gill netting strewn across the ground. As he scanned the area, someone came crashing through the screen door. The disruption ended his thoughts about his meeting with the attorney.
A man that looked big enough to take care of himself tumbled across the loading dock, slamming headfirst into a packing crate. Lying in a daze, he rubbed his head as two men piled out the door after him.
“Get your black ass out of here,” the first attacker said, delivering a vicious kick to the fallen man’s ribs.
The big man managed to roll off the dock and crawl on his hands and knees to shelter behind a broken fish trap.
“Next time use the back door,” the second attacker said. “Our customers don’t want no stinking niggah shuffling past their tables while they’re trying to eat.”
The two men halted their attack but stood at the door, glaring at the black man on his knees below them. The taller of the two was bone thin with scraggly hair capping his acne-scarred face. His shorter partner, whose diminutive height probably resulted from some congenital deformity, was anything but thin. He stood hunched over in a permanent crouch, a large hump crowning his twisted back. Neither man would have had much luck in a beauty contest.
Buck could tell by their attitudes they probably liked it that way. He waited until they’d slammed the door behind them before helping the big man to his feet.
“You okay?”
“Take more than those two to get the best of ol’ Raymond Johnson,” the man said, dusting himself off.
“Looks to me like they did a pretty good job.”
“They got the drop on me when my back was turned,” Raymond Johnson said, rubbing his jaw.
“Take it easy big fellow and next time watch your back,” Buck said.
He quickly forgot the incident and strolled to the front of the restaurant. Daylight was waning, but the cobbled parking lot continued radiating heat absorbed from late afternoon sun. He found it cooler inside, frigid air chilling the perspiration on his forehead as he opened the restaurant door. Wiping his face with his handkerchief, he greeted the hostess waiting in the entryway.
“I’m meeting a man named Rummels,” Buck said. “Know if he’s here yet?”
The young woman was dressed in a colorful period costume. Antebellum, he guessed. She had a friendly smile, a red bow in her hair, and made him feel welcome. The woman’s warm smile was no accident. Buck McDivit was young, tall, and good-looking, with the body of a trained athlete and piercing blue eyes of a movie star. Dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, and western-cut shirt, he could have passed as a young John Wayne.
“Mister Rummels just phoned,” she said, quickly flipping through the guest register on the entryway lectern. “I’ll seat you, and you can wait for him in the dining area.”
She led Buck into the main dining room where potted ferns hung in garlands from rough-hewn rafters. Checkerboard tablecloths draped wooden tables, and the restaurant’s rustic decor blended perfectly with the aroma of frying cornmeal floating in from the kitchen. An outside veranda flanked the room on three sides. A damp breeze moved along by slow-moving ceiling fans, wafted in through the open door.
“Enjoy your dinner,” she said, seating him at a corner table overlooking the lake.
Buck barely had time to adjust his chair and stare out at the darkening sky before a waitress appeared and asked him what he wanted to drink. Her red bow went well with a thick thatch of black hair and her own colorful period dress.
She smiled when he said, “Coors, please and keep the frosted mug.”
Buck had finished his beer before Raymond Rummels arrived. Rummels was wearing dark pinstripes, despite the oppressive outside heat, and a constipated smile. He looked about thirty, trying to pass for fifty.
“You James T. McDivit?”
“One in the same,” Buck said, reaching to shake the young lawyer’s hand.
Rummels joined him at the table, not bothering to thank their waitress when she brought him a Manhattan, and Buck another Coors.
“Catfish is the specialty of the house,” he said.
Buck gave the young woman a thumb up and said, “Sounds good to me.”
Rummels dismissed her with a dispassionate nod. “I’ll come right to the point, McDivit. I’m unaware of any heirs to the Emma Fitzgerald estate. She had no children, adopted or otherwise. Her only brother died years ago in an oil field accident in Oklahoma. To my knowledge, he had no children.”
“He had one,” Buck said. “Me.”
“Then why is there no record of his marriage, or your birth?”
“Because he never married. He carried on for a while with a teenage girl, my mother, and I was the result. The family forced her to give me up.”
“Why didn’t you come forward before now?”
“I didn’t know I had any relatives until recently. I’m a private investigator in Oklahoma City. While reviewing some public records for a client, I came across a newspaper article that got me thinking about my own roots. Once I decided to track down my parents, the rest was easy. John McDivit was definitely my father.”
“Can you prove it?”
Buck handed Rummels a package of information and waited as he pawed through it.
“What is all this?” the lawyer asked.
“Birth certificate, eye-witness accounts, and a statement from my mother. She had pictures, some belongings, and even John McDivit’s medical records. There’s no doubt I’m his son and that he was the younger brother of Emma Fitzgerald.”
“These could be forgeries.”
“They’re not.”
“How do I know that?”
“You’d believe a federal judge, wouldn’t you?”
The hint of a snicker appeared on Rummels’ face but vanished just as quickly. “You bring one with you?”
“No, but I have this affidavit.”
Buck handed Rummels a letter his old friend Judge Beamon Dawkins had written for him before leaving Oklahoma. In it, Judge Beamon attested to Buck’s good word and the authenticity of the documents he’d presented the lawyer. Rummels held the letter long enough to read it three times.
“Excuse me a moment,” he finally said, hurrying away from the table without explanation.
Remnant daylight had all but disappeared, replaced now by intermittent lightning that veined the sky over the lake. Thunder, shaking the roof and windows, soon followed, causing the lights to dim. Rummels rejoined Buck at the table.
“Assuming your papers are in order and you inherit Emma Fitzgerald’s estate, what exactly do you intend to do with it?”
“Don’t know,” Buck said. “It was never my intention to stake out my aunt’s estate. I only wanted to meet the old lady and discuss my father’s family with her.”
“Then you deny your inheritance?”
“Didn’t say that. What exactly is my inheritance?”
Rummels cleared his throat, finished his Manhattan, and waved for another.
“Emma Fitzgerald’s estate consists of an island on Caddo Lake and everything on it. She has some money in the bank. Just enough to pay for the probate.”
“What about the island?” Buck asked.
“Emma Fitzgerald operated a lodge and fishing camp, discontinuing lodge service about four years ago. Though the marina is still operable, there are a couple of problems, Mr. McDivit.”
“Such as?”
“Emma Fitzgerald borrowed money from the bank last year to remodel the lodge and marina. She put up the island as collateral. Emma failed to make a payment on the note for the last six months, and the bank had begun foreclosure proceedings before her death. The hearing is in ten days. If you want to prevent the foreclosure, you have ten days to repay the bank loan, along with court costs and accumulated attorney fees.”
“That’s not much notice. You mentioned a second problem.”
Rummels rustled his yellow pad, leaning forward in his chair. “They found Emma Fitzgerald floating in the lake. Pearl Johnson, her housekeeper, says she was despondent. The coroner considered that and ruled her death a suicide. I’m afraid that nullifies Emma’s life insurance.”
“No one said anything to me about life insurance or suicide.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “When they found Emma, she had something in her hand,” Rummels dropped a crusted cameo brooch into Buck’s open palm. “Depression sometimes takes people to the edge. In Emma’s case, it sent her over the edge.”
Nearby thunder shook the rafters followed by slow rain drumming the roof and windows.
Rummels brow furrowed when Buck asked, “What if I pay off the note?”
“Well, of course, you have that option. Is that your plan?”
Buck had neither assets nor collateral to satisfy Aunt Emma’s note. Rummels didn’t know that. Tapping his chin as if he were considering it, he said, “Don’t know yet.”
“Pardon me a moment,” Rummels said. He returned shortly with another man. “This is Mr. Hogg Nation. He owns the Pelican.”
The distinguished gentleman with the odd name had green eyes, short hair, and specks of white frosting his head. Despite his hair color, his face proclaimed him no older than forty.
“At your disposal, Mr. McDivit. Hope you’re enjoying our hospitality. Your meal and drinks are on the house tonight.”
Buck managed a nod and half smile. Raymond Rummels was wringing his hands, his own expression having turned sour.
“Mr. Nation is also my client. He wishes to purchase Fitzgerald Island from you. Two-hundred thousand dollars is a generous offer, Mr. McDivit. Enough to pay the bank note and leave twenty-five thousand for your troubles.”
Nation’s proposal caught Buck by surprise. When he finally managed a reply, he said, “Thanks, but I’d like to visit the island before I decide.”
“Take your time and enjoy the catfish,” Nation said, moving away toward the kitchen.
Randy Rummels remained standing until his client had departed, the waitress arriving with a bell-shaped glass filled with an icy concoction.
“Mr. Nation would like you to try a Hurricane. It’s the house specialty.”
She winked and hurried away.
It was raining harder now, water beading down the picture window in soft sheets. Buck sipped the sugary drink. Rain and alcohol had all but hypnotized him when a familiar high-pitched voice returned his attention to the restaurant. Staring across the crowded room, he spotted the two men involved in the incident behind the restaurant. They were drinking and talking loudly, even above the din of the crowd.
“Who are those two men?”
Rummels was chewing on the straw of his Manhattan. “Humpback and Deacon John,” he said. “They work for Mr. Nation.” Before Buck could inquire further, the lawyer glanced at his watch. “I have another appointment. Raymond Johnson, an employee of the marina on Fitzgerald Island, will pick you up shortly and take you there.” Handing Buck his business card, he said, “You have ten days to make up your mind.”
Thunder shook the roof as Randy Rummels tapped the back of his chair and started away. Buck wondered, as the lawyer departed, why the man’s crooked grin gave him an uneasy feeling in the pit of his gut.
The friendly waitress soon appeared with hush puppies, catfish, and another hurricane. Buck handed her his empty glass and took a quick gulp from the fresh drink. The spicy catfish tasted wonderful and whetted his growing thirst. He was feeling light-headed when the waitress appeared for the final time.
“Raymond Johnson is waiting for you on the back porch,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, stumbling when he tried to get out of the chair. “Which way?”
She pointed him to the back door. He was surprised when he realized the person waiting for him was the large black man involved in the scuffle behind the restaurant. Before he could ponder the coincidence, he caught his foot on a net and tumbled into the big man’s outstretched arms.
“Have yourself a little too much of Mr. Nation’s hospitality?”
“Guess I did. Was that you that got yourself kicked out the door a little earlier?”
“Mr. Nation’s boys,” he said without explanation. “You probably don’t remember me. I’m Raymond Johnson. You Mr. McDivit?”
“Buck.”
Johnson stared at Buck McDivit’s extended hand and finally shook it. “If you ain’t through eating yet, I’ll wait out here.”
“I’m done,” Buck said, unable to stifle a drunken giggle.
“Good. Don’t need no more trouble tonight. Let’s get out of here.”
Concurring with Johnson, Buck followed him off the porch. By now, his head was swimming. His vision was blurry, and tongue thick.
“Where’s your car?” Raymond asked.
“Truck’s in the back.”
The big black man grabbed Buck, supporting his weight and ignoring his helpless giggles. Raymond left him on the steps while he retrieved his suitcase from the truck. The rain had slackened as he herded him and his bag down the slope to the lake where a gentle breeze was blowing across the water. It caused the boat, and Buck’s head on the side of the boat, to rock with the waves. Raymond Johnson untied the bowline and pushed away from the dock.
“Couple of miles to the island,” he said, maneuvering through a stand of cypress trees surrounding the shadow-dark shoreline. “You okay?”
Buck answered with a giddy laugh. “I think someone spiked my drink.”
“Sure they did,” Johnson said as the high-pitched outboard motor drowned out Buck’s slurred words and any further attempt at conversation.
As the boat glided across the rain-dimpled water, Buck closed his eyes, his mind awash with flickering moonbeams splaying the lake’s murky surface. Half an hour later, they landed on the island. When they reached a large two-storied house, Raymond Johnson dragged him upstairs and dumped him on a feather bed.
The suitcase made a hollow thump when it hit the floor, the door shutting behind Raymond as he exited with a damp swoosh. Locked in a drunken stupor, Buck didn’t really care.
He lay there for what seemed like hours, mesmerized by slow rain drumming the tin roof as he stared at the ceiling’s darkness. He finally stumbled out of bed, hoping to find an aspirin for his throbbing head. Unable to locate the lights or an appropriate pill, he embarked instead on a late-night tour of the house.
Moonlight through open windows guided him back down the stairs where he found a liquor cabinet amid stormy shadows and resident gloom. What the hell, he thought. A little hair of the dog couldn’t make him feel any worse than he already did. Shattering one of the bottles in an eruption of flying glass, the ensuing explosion failed to deter him. Slugging whiskey straight from an unbroken bottle, he headed down a dark hallway, glassy shards crunching beneath his boots.
Buck stumbled through the house, finally finding a door that led outside. Soft rain continued falling, a few rays of moonlight penetrating the cover of clouds. Reflections off the lake beckoned. Wobbling toward the water’s edge, he dribbled whiskey from his open mouth and down his neck, and then howled at the moon. When he reached the lake, he tripped on a cypress knee, tumbling into the mud. Revived by the dank odor of warm rain and rotting vegetation, he watched dull light radiate from a pinpoint across the lake. This time it wasn’t the moon. Even after rubbing his eyes, he couldn’t make it disappear. Instead, it grew larger, drawing ever closer.
Sitting in the mud, too stunned to move, he swayed as the vague outline of a veil shrouded apparition floated toward him. He bit his lip, pain failing to convince him he was coherent. When the apparition stopped directly in front of him, he could see it was a girl.
A translucent shawl clung to her thin frame, icy mist drifting around her shoulders, chilling warm night air. Tears flowed down her cheeks. When she reached out to him, his neck grew inexplicably warm. Aunt Emma’s brooch in his hand began pulsating with pink light as the translucent body of the ghostly vision gleamed brightly.
He blinked, opening his eyes to see the girl had disappeared, leaving him unsure of what he’d seen. Still very much inebriated, he managed to stumble back to the lodge where he passed out before hitting the sheets.

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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 & NobleKobo and iBook author pages. You might also like to check out his website.