Bulwer-Lytton and Death by Haggis.
In the acknowledgements below I explain in detail the unusual way in which this book came about. As a brief introduction, I want to point out that the story began with a single sentence that was sent to me by my old friend Terry Boothman. We had decided that we would build a novel together based on his first sentence. It wasn’t until a year later that I learned that he had “borrowed” his sentence from a recent winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (“BLFC”).
On finishing the novel I was pretty certain it was the first ever created from a Bulwer-Lytton contest winner. The only problem is that the author of the sentence which we used to create our novel is in the process of creating his own novel from his sentence and preferred that we did not use his winning entry. So we wrote a new first sentence.
Technically this means that this novel has absolutely nothing to do with the BLFC.
But we still fondly think of it as having grown from that one “opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”
The acknowledgements below explain how this work began as an interesting collaboration between myself and Terry Boothman, who later dropped out of the project before anyone could blame him for it.
I would like to express gratitude to Terry’s daughter, Sophia Boothman, an incredibly talented artist who has been drawing amazing pictures since the age of 3 and is now pursuing a career in commecial art, in which I predict she will be highly successful. Sophia did the fantastic cover art for Death by Haggis. She is available for other cover work or art projects. You can contact her through us.
Death By Haggis – Acknowledgements and Chapters 1 through 5
Death By Haggis: What people are saying …
“What are you staring at?”
“Jay Cutts does for fiction what Dave Barry does for gourmet cooking.”
St. Louis Blues Dispatch
“What more compelling metaphor for life itself could there be than a mysterious white leviathan and the mindless drive of a nearly ruined sea captain to track it down and destroy it? Oh, wait. You mean this book?”
“This is one of those books that you know immediately could be an instant classic if millions of people all bought it and liked it and it got a lot of publicity and then they made a movie out of it.”
George W. Bush
“Ain’t goin’ down, ain’t goin’ down, mama, to de well no mo’.”
“The humor of Edgar Alan Poe, the refined taste of William S. Bourroughs, the punctuation of e.e. cummings. This work contains it all, but I forget on which page.”
The Milwaukee Braves
“If Jay Cutts is not yet [in] an institution, he should be, and soon.”
Better Homes and Gargoyles
“Cut it out, will ya.”
Death By Haggis
with contributions by Terry Boothman
Cover artwork by Sophia Boothman
This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This means you.
Copyright © Jay Cutts 2012
All rights reserved.
Published by Jay Cutts
Why This Isn’t My Fault
Like another well known Book, this book has an unusual genesis. It all started innocently enough … (fade out).
Hmm. The fifteenth email today from my old friend Terry Boothman, witty and clever fellow and co-author, along with Nancy Kress, of the Writer’s Software Companion and whom I’ve known for, uhm, forty years now, since our college days. The email says, “Make up a joke whose punch line is ‘Yeah, but the weasel has her diaphragm.’”
There must be, I think to myself, a way to put this creative energy to productive use. Got it! I reply to Terry:
Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re:Re: Novel
With all of the emailing back and forth that we do, we could start a story, each of us adding a few lines and then sending the result back to the other, and in a few months we’ll have an entire novel.
Moments later I get an email: Enhance your “tiger” with our new …
Oops. Wrong email. Moments later I get an email with a long sentence describing a detective sitting at his desk eating a burrito when a gorgeous dame walks in and knocks him off his feet. Terry has taken the challenge and come up with a wild first sentence. I sink deeply into serious thought and write back. And so it begins … (Fade back to the present.)
The first five and a half chapters of this book are the result of this back and forth process. If you think this was easy, imagine taking two cats, tying one end of a string around the neck of one and the other end around the neck of the other and letting them loose in your yard. This experiment was actually done by certain co-authors who shall remain nameless. (NB. It wasn’t me.)
The first minor challenge that Terry and I had was a small difference in writing style.
How I would say it: He was taken aback by her attractiveness.
How Terry would say it: He was lost in the pellucid miasma of her eyes and feeling a surge of endocrinological recklessness charge like a flaming tomcat into the burnt and redolent shell of his erotic reckoning.
Of course, since this book begins as a parody of the classic detective novel, Terry’s style was much more appropriate. However, as he confessed to me at a later date, you can’t read more than a page or two like that without wanting to take pruning shears to it. Fortunately, this intense verbal barage lets up after a chapter or two.
Until that time, it may help if you consider that Sam Barlow sees the world in his own unique way, captured nicely by Terry. Consider the following hypothetical event:
As experienced by Sam: The door to Barlow’s apartment blew open like the back hatch of a Citroen in a Taiwanese typhoon. The half naked goddess standing there with long brown hair to her waist held Barlow’s gaze and squeezed. “Hey, big boy. I’ve got something for you.” She winked, swayed her hips and reached into the bag she was carrying. Barlow felt like a male praying mantis, overwhelmed with desire, knowing the outcome but not caring. Then somewhere in his brain a 15 amp fuse started to smoke and a tiny but desperate voice shouted “Wait! Something’s wrong.” Just in time Barlow dropped to the ground, pulled out his Remington and started spitting bullets. He hated spitting bullets. It left a nasty taste in his mouth and usually chipped his teeth.
As experienced by everyone else: Mrs. Kovac, Barlow’s upstairs neighbor, hobbled down the steps, still wearing her apron with yellow flowers, and catching her breath, knocked shakily on Barlow’s door and then opened it. “I’ve got some kolachki for you, Mr. Barlow. Are you ok?” A series of strange sounds emanated from the young man who was staring at her. She decided he was having “one of his days” and left the bag of kolachki for when he felt better.
If Sam’s view of the world seems a bit, let’s say, out of the ordinary at first, please have patience with him. There is hope for even Sam Barlow. Just wait and see.
Another small difference between Terry’s literary approach and mine was that I have the old fashioned and probably silly belief that a novel should have a bit of a story line, you know. Something that is, say, happening. A series of events that move forward in a way that the average reader can follow.
Terry, on the other hand, believes that if a plot is starting to solidify, it should be blown to atoms and reconstructed in a completely different way. Or, even better, left as a smouldering pile of atoms that the reader can do with as he or she pleases.
I am not passing judgment on either style. I am merely pointing these things out by way of emphasizing that some of what you will read here is not my fault.
This collaborative (or perhaps mutually destructive) process definitely made for an exciting creative challenge and I hope that you, the reader, (or perhaps you, the person perusing this before putting it in the shredder) will enjoy the results.
What would you, gentle reader (or shredder) do, for example, if you had just received your latest portion of the novel in progress, ending with:
“Look, whoever you are, I need help. I just found out that,” and she looked off as though watching a distant herd of hyenas chasing a game fowl, …” ?
How would you continue? Try it!
I don’t know about you, but to me the glaring problem here is that hyenas only eat animals that were killed by other animals and would, thus, never chase a live bird, unless it were perhaps just in fun. Call me a stickler for biological consistency. God knows many people do. From my stand point, the plot be damned. We have a factual error to address. I did it like this:
“Look, whoever you are, I need help. I just found out that,” and she looked off as though watching a distant herd of hyenas chasing a game fowl, “that hyenas were strictly carrion eaters,” she thought to herself. “But I can’t tell him that.”
Now try this experiment. You are given the following last words of a dying man – the only person who has the clues to solve the mystery: Cleveland … treasure … uhhghh … basement … Elm street … last will … gakhhh. Your job is to create an entire story line from this. Not too hard. Think about it for a minute or two.
Now suppose you have the same task but the last words provided by your co-author with an overly active imagination are: Cadwalleder … pigeons … Bastille day … never start a land war in Asia … zymurgy. You’re stuck with these clues to the mystery for the rest of your novel. So what’s the story going to be? Come on. I dare you. It is exactly what I had to do in this novel.
On it went in this way for a couple months, Terry throwing me random scraps of mongrel metals with sharp edges, me smelting them in the fires of creativity and forging them into a golden statue, with Terry then blowing the statue into twisted fragments of junk again and me starting from scratch. And yet not quite from scratch because each time the golden statue shone all the more brightly for its turbulent midwivery. Or whatever.
Naturally, we sometimes lost track of what the other had already written. I will leave it to you, kind reader (nasty readers can skip this part) to find out what happens when a howling inhuman thing that lives on the eighth floor of an ancient mansion gets written into the second floor of a small apartment. Or when a woman who is a thousand miles away across an ocean suddenly drops in for dinner.
Somewhere in Chapter 6 Terry found that he was no longer able to “commit,” and, wishing me well in the continued birthing of our mutual brain child, not to mention the diaper changing, education, financial support, and lifelong emotional investment, moved on to things like trimming his beard and women. Personally I suspect his initial surge of endocrinological recklessness got tired of charging like a flaming tomcat into the burnt and redolent shell of his erotic reckoning.
I forged ahead with renewed vigor and, dare I say, lust for discovering how this story would actually turn out, which I could only do by writing it to the end. The result is the book you now hold in your hands, unless you have placed the book on the kitchen table, anchored the pages with a rolling pin and are reading by standing over it and peering down, while holding a completely different book in your hands. If that’s the case, I suggest you put the other book away until you’ve finished this one. I’ve put quite a lot of work into it and think you will find it entertaining.
Still Not My Fault
It was a dark and stormy night …
You’ve probably heard the line. There is a story behind it. Or rather after it, technically. But first …
As acknowledged in my Acknowledgements, the first line of this novel was sent to me by my old friend Terry Boothman. Based on that line, I continued to work on the story for about a year, at which time I happened to visit Terry. It came out in our discussions that the line he had sent me was not actually original, as such. In fact he had copied it lock, stock and gerund from someone else. There is a dark and shameful name for this kind of activity.
It turns out that Terry had “borrowed” the opening sentence from a well known literary contest – the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest – which describes itself as “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” The first sentence he had given me was the 2006 winner and was written by Jim Guigli.
When I first found this out, I thought that perhaps this would be the first time someone had taken an “opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels” and turned it into a full length novel. As it turns out, Jim already had the idea to do that and as I write this, he is in the process of completing a novel based on his winning sentence. In deference to Jim’s efforts and to his beefy henchmen in black suits, I removed the original first sentence and replaced it with the one you find here. However, I still have a warm spot in my heart for Jim’s character and am grateful to Jim for his work. After you finish this book, you can read his.
I also want to express gratitude to Professor Scott Rice of San Jose State University, the founder of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The official Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest website (http://www.bulwer-lytton.com) introduces Professor Rice as the person “whose graduate school excavations unearthed the source of the line ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ Sentenced to write a seminar paper on a minor Victorian novelist, he chose the man with the funny hyphenated name, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who was best known for perpetrating The Last Days of Pompeii, Eugene Aram, Rienzi, The Caxtons, The Coming Race, and–not least–Paul Clifford, whose famous opener has been plagiarized repeatedly by the cartoon beagle Snoopy.”
I encourage you to visit the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest website. Enjoy the efforts of some of America’s best writers of first sentences of worst possible novels. Contribute your own efforts. Who knows? You too could have a novel created from your sentence.
In case you were wondering, here is the whole opening sentence from Bulwer-Lytton.
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
–Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)
And now, on a similarly dark and stormy night, enter the world of Sam Barlow…if you dare.
A Chicken Sandwich, A Redhead and a Magnum
Sam Barlow, Private Eye, sat in his cluttered office, working chicken salad on Kimmelwick and cold coffee, and watching the light from his tiny window make French impressionist rhomboids on the desk when she walked in, sporting a body like a Japanese sneak attack, a face that could make him crawl all the way to Sandusky wearing nothing more than a rain hat and a two-dollar phony smile, and a trained parrot that said, “Touch her and I claw your eyes out.”
“Have you heard of the Jehovah’s Witnesses?” she purred from the doorway. A small stack of brochures was tucked under her arm, not inches away from the tantalizing roundness that made her blouse look like an invitation to damnation.
“Whuh-,” he mumbled fecklessly, lost in the pellucid miasma of her eyes and feeling a surge of endocrinological recklessness charge like a flaming tomcat into the burnt and redolent shell of his erotic reckoning. He pointed at the ceiling for no reason known to man, and then reached for one of the brochures, careful not to appear anxious.
“I hate a man who mumbles fecklessly,” she hissed. Undraping herself from the blistering phalanges of the doorway, she slinked her way across the room, her ample rear coming to a fluid stop on the corner of his desk. It took two minutes for the waves to stop rippling through the rest of her body.
“Let’s get down to business. Take a look at that brochure and tell me what you think is fishy. And stop pointing at the damn ceiling.”
Barlow flipped open the brochure with the hand that was trembling the least and read the terse scrawl using eyes that had read too much terse scrawl. If he trusted nothing else in his tormented life, he’d trusted those bits of orbital jelly – but now, now – even his eyes would seem to betray him. It was all in the first sentence. It read, simply, “Your son was killed in Viet Nam, doo dah, doo dah — your son was killed in Viet Nam, oh, de doo dah day.”
“Say,” Barlow barked at the mysterious babe sitting there as stone faced as a petrified lizard, “Is this some kind of sick joke? First of all, I don’t have a son. Second of all, this is 1948. Who are you, anyway, and what’s your form of organized recreation?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, licking her lips as though they’d been set on fire during the 1843 Polish invasion of Podgorny. “I was thinking of another man, another time.” She bent over to adjust her silk stocking, so far over that, had someone been looking from the other side, he’d now be pouring lemonade down his pants. “Look, whoever you are, I need help. I just found out that,” and she looked off as though watching a distant herd of hyenas chasing a game fowl, “that hyenas were strictly carrion eaters,” she thought to herself. “But I can’t tell him that.”
Barlow followed her gaze off into the distance but he didn’t see anything. Maybe a prairie hen, but other than that, nothing. “Let me help you with that,” he added casually.
“With what? Licking my lips?”
“Well, yeah, but now that you say it out loud… Hey, I know you got something on your mind and it’s probably not easy to talk about it. What say me and you go downstairs to the Filthy Barrel and talk over some brewhahas?”
“What say you and I go downstairs,” she intoned.
“Yeah, sure. That’s what I said.”
“No. You said ‘me and you’.”
“Ok. Listen. You go down there by yourself and I’ll meet you there in 5. Oh, and by the way, you do have a name, don’t ya? Other than Angel Face.”
“Yeah, that’s right, I have a name. Some call me Destiny. Some call me Desire. Some call me at 3 in the morning. And some spend their lives guessing.”
“Got it. I’ll call you Jane.”
“Good guess, big guy. First shot out of the box. But I’m afraid it’s too late to go downstairs. Or anywhere, for that matter.” She slid her comely paw into a purse that looked like it held the camshaft of a ’39 Chevy. When it came out, it held a little derringer with a pearl handle. “I call this ‘Pepe.'”
Barlow backed away, raised his hands, and uttered that one syllable known intimately to men who back away and raise their hands, “Eeyoooww!” OK, five syllables.
Jane’s eyebrows rose. “What’s wrong?”
“You’ve got a booger. Man, it looks real bad. Let’s make a deal. You put your Pepe away and I’ll keep my Pepe in my pants. Clean your nose and let’s me and, uhmm, let’s the two of us go down to the Filthy Barrel and talk this thing through. I can tell you need some help, so don’t turn away the only guy around that can get you out of whatever fix it is that your in.”
They left the office. Barlow stopped to set the thirteen locks and five booby traps that kept every thug in town out of his records. They stepped into the elevator. The door closed and they found themselves pressed a little too closely together for either one’s comfort, but for different reasons. “Down, Pepe,” he half shouted. She gave him a dirty look. The elevator operator, Pepe, replied, “Yes, sir.”
Barlow ignored him. He hated the service professions and everything they stood for, even when seated. They stopped on the 1st floor, which was really the 15th floor, but they’d had the first 13 floors renamed to the First Floor to avoid bad luck. He took Jane by the elbow and lurched into the lobby of the old Stansfield Building. They walked briskly to the magazine stand where Barlow dropped two bits for a copy of Modern Bride – he liked the pictures – then to the street. He turned to Jane. “Coffee?”
“No, it’s Jane. You had it right the first time.”
“No, I mean do you want some coffee?”
“What is this — 20 questions?” she said.
“Look, I just wanted to know if you want some damn coffee?”
She froze. Suddenly she was in tears. No, wrong. It was raining – but it was what tears would be like if there were really a whole lot of them and they were all coming down real fast from the sky. He handed her the bottom of his tie and, as she wiped her chin, he knew where all of this was going. Right down the front of her blouse. At least most of it was going there and within five seconds she looked like the winner of the Thursday morning wet T-shirt contest at the Filthy Barrel, only she was female.
The rain was cold. It was painfully clear that her fantastic thoracic infrastructure was being supported by nothing but its own incredibly firm collagen. Something in his brain began to dribble and he tried desperately to keep his hands to himself. It was no use. Without some help, he was going to do something he would both love and regret. He stopped the first passerby – an elderly Greek Orthodox priest engulfed in black robes and a gray beard – and begged him to hold his hands behind his back. Unfortunately the priest was already holding his hands behind his back and continued to do so off into the distance. Barlow reached both hands out toward Jane, shouting, “I can’t help this!” and began making hand puppets. It wasn’t what he had had in mind but he was, for the moment, safe.
Jane said, “It’s time to talk turkey.” He knew what came next: she’d squat down, waggle her fingers under her chin, and make those silly gobbling noises. But she didn’t. She surprised him. “Sam, I think someone’s trying to kill me.”
Barlow grabbed her by the arm and yanked her out from under the shadow of the piano that was falling from five stories up. It crashed loudly on the street, playing the final chord from some Rachmaninov concerto, if there was such a thing.
Barlow said, “Piano.” He heard an arrow whiz overhead, and then the blast of a .358 Magnum as a shell ricocheted near Jane. Then something flying like a flying tomato flew by and smashed on the wall behind her. The wall dissolved as though eaten by a team of surly june bugs.
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s just this creepy feeling. And this note.” She pulled a crumpled bit of paper from a place in her blouse that he’d have given a week’s pay to fingerpaint, and handed it to him. It read, “Somebody’s trying to kill me, I think.”
“I wrote this down so I wouldn’t forget,” she explained. “Then I had the milkman stick it down here in my blouse.” She pointed and held her wet blouse away from her dripping, creamy white skin, bustling with goose bustles.
When he came to, she was gone but the blouse was still there. Whatever had happened to her, she must be pretty cold and all defenseless and exposed and perky and pink and … When he came to this time, she was back, blouse and all. “Thank goodness,” he groaned. “You saved me a lot of work.”
“Look,” she said, “we don’t have much time. Well, I don’t have much time—can’t say what you’ve got—I mean, I don’t mean to pretend to know how much time other people have, but as for me, there’s not much, nosiree, not much at all. Anyway, you’ve got to help me, Sam …” She started whimpering in that way that made him want to give women a 5% discount off his standard fee.
Barlow cocked his head and said, “OK. I’ll do what I can, babe. Let’s try to get some inside dope.” He spent a moment considering the notion of “some outside dope,” but let it go, and hailed a cab. “Wowee—look at that beautiful cab!” he called as the cab sped by. “Hail hail!” He repeated this a few times until she stopped staring at him. Finally they grabbed a cab—and, later, after a few more embarrassing moments, let go of the bumper, opened the door, and got in.
Fifteen minutess later, Barlow was leading Jane down a dark hallway. He stopped in front of a slighlty battered and stained door, turned the knob and entered. He stepped over the sleeping Chinese rhumba teacher, and brought Jane with him by the elbow. He was pretty sure it was her elbow. In front of them, mouth open in either surprise or perpetual perplexity, stood a skinny male at least distantly related to the human family.
“Jane, this is Johnny Snitch.” Yeah, his name was Johnny Snitch. He was a snitch. Barlow knew that Johnny knew that Snitch wasn’t the best name for a snitch, but it was easier to remember than Schneitzenkruper, although that wasn’t his name either. Johnny told Barlow once that he never knew his father or his mother but he was sure she’d been either Egyptian or Pekingese, although he thought one of those was a species of game fowl.
Barlow gave Johnny the bird’s-eye low-down on the whole Jane caper. Johnny sat bleary eyed, trying to listen. He hardly ever slept for fear that if he didn’t stay awake, he’d forget certain things. He wasn’t sure what those things were—but he was sure they were important. Barlow thought that if brains were wheat straw, Johnny Snitch couldn’t stuff a fruit bat’s codpiece.
Johnny suddenly stood up, went into a back room and called for the others to follow. On the bed was a battered figure, moaning softly. Jane gasped. It was her best friend.
“Oh, Bennie, Bennie”, she sobbed. “What… How.. When… Why….” She choked up and couldn’t go on. Bennie had been missing since 4:15 that afternoon, which was now over 25 minutes ago. He had been trying to help Jane find out who was after her. He had called her yesterday to say he’d found out something. They were supposed to have met this evening so he could tell her. From the looks of him now, this evening would never come. Oh, please let him be able to talk, Jane thought. She looked up at Johnny. “What happened? Where did you find him?”
“He was walking across the street sorta lost in thought or something and this car turned the corner and banged right into him. The driver never had a chance to see him. It was a nun driving, too. Boy, was she upset.” Johnny pulled a flask out of his back pocket. “It took three slugs of this to calm her down.
“So I bend down to take a look at the guy in case it’s somebody who I’d be glad to have out of the way when the guy whispers to me “Barlow.” I figure he must know Sam, so I get the nun to help me carry him in here. Then she went off to get some help. I don’t think he’ll last that long, though.”
Jane looked at her bruised and broken friend crumpled on the bed. He was struggling to breath now. She leaned over to his ear. “It’s Jane, Bennie. Can you hear me? We’re going to get help, Bennie. Hang on.” She held her breath as Bennie’s mouth began to quiver.
Bennie looked into Jane’s eyes, gasped, gurgled, and said, “Cadwalleder …” and then sank back into the bed.
Jane looked up at Barlow as if to say “Do something.” “Do something,” she pleaded.
Barlow leaned close in, whispered into Bennie’s ear and then held his own ear close Bennie’s mouth and listened. Jane looked on anxiously, feeling time creep along moment by agonizing moment. Then it was over. Bennie’s head rolled to one side. His struggle to breath was over.
Jane and Barlow looked at each other like two lemmings who had left their life jackets at home.
“We gotta get outa here,” Barlow said.
Return of the Prodigal Hominid
Jane took him back to her place. It surprised him; he figured a dame like that would live in a nifty little penthouse somewhere on 5th Avenue, not behind a crate of egg noodles at Polly Knocker’s Soup Kitchen. “This isn’t my real place, Sam,” she said, “I live in a nifty little penthouse somewhere on 5th Avenue. But I’m afraid to go there—it’s the first place they’d find me.”
“The ones who are trying to kill me.”
“How do you know it’s a they and they’s not an its?’
“Huh,” she said.
“I’m saying, how do you know they’s a them and them’s not an its or just a guy?”
“Well, uh ..” she stammered in that adorably way that women do when they’re nervous or have a goiter with a tattoo on it. “I guess I don’t know,” she said.
There was something fishy—something as fishy as a dancing Bavarian at a flounder circus. Something that stank so bad, the cats were wearing nosegays and the gays were wearing jodhpurs. Barlow figured he’d let it slide until he had more information. “Got anything to drink?”
“Well,” she said, “there’s this.” It was a bottle of window cleaner from a shelf at Polly’s.
Barlow took a stiff hit, spewed it out in a cloud of mist, and suddenly the whole thing seemed as clear as a window down at Macys on Easter Sunday. “Criminy … why, it’s raining out! I hadn’t even noticed. Guess this stuff cleaned up my glasses. Wow! I can see again.”
“Sma, …” Jane began.
“That’s ‘Sam’, sweetheart,” he corrected.
“I knew that, Sam Sweetheart. It was just a typo,” she continued.
“It’s not Sam Sweetheart, sweetheart. It’s Sam Barlow,” he hastened to add.
“Don’t call me Barlow, Sam. Anyway, I’ve been going over and over what Bennie said. I just don’t know what to make of it. You got any ideas?”
Barlow absent-mindedly took off his glasses, pulled out the hanky that had been living in his back pocket since 8th grade and began cleaning the lenses. Slipping the glasses back on, suddenly the world was back to the way he had remembered it – dim, blurry and snot-colored. “’Pigeons’. I dunno. It beats me. It could mean anything. Then ‘Bastille Day’. And then his final words ‘Never start a land war in Asia.’ And then his even more final word, ‘zymurgy.’ “
“Oh, Sam, you’re just babbling.” Suddenly Jane was sobbing. Glistening tears plummeted down her cheekbones like tiny rivers of saline crossing the vaunted Himalayas of her flesh. Barlow reached over to brush them away, but she blocked his hand with a deft jab and kneed him in the groin with the “Tiger Knees You in Groin” move she’d learned in karate class. Barlow folded to the ground, grunting like a Carpathian stevedore.
He looked up at her, his eyes welling with tears of pain, his hand shaking, his legs forming the semaphore for the letter J. “Jesus!” he sputtered, “Why the hell did you do that?”
“I’m sorry, Sam. Something just came over me, I guess.”
“Cadwalleder – that was Bennie’s first word.”
“That’s right. Cadwalleder—but what does it mean?”
“I don’t know,” said Barlow, “but we’re going to find out. There’s one guy I know who can help us, Professor Ocho Wasamata.”
“Is he a Mexican, Sam?”
“Jesus.” Jane was as hot as flaming tuna, but if brains were toothpaste, she couldn’t scrub a molar in a stunted swamp rat. “No, he’s a Jap.”
“Oh, God,” she said, “aren’t we fighting them in the war?”
“No, honey, the war’s been over for three years.”
They left down the back stairs. As they entered the street, there was the pokka pokka of a pokka pokka gun, and flak splattered on the alley wall. Then a flying fish exploded near Jane’s head, and a stick of dynamite rolled toward them from an invisible hiding place that no one could see in the black nothingness that was the impenetrable nowhere called “night.”
They ran. “I think someone’s trying to kill me, Sam.”
“Yeah, yeah, so you said.” They flew into Barlow’s ’39 Buick, and he hit the pedal like a man with a mission, two days to live, and about a dollar and twenty cents. He felt the adrenaline surge into his loins as though those same loins had just walked from Tucson to Natchez with a bad rash.
Wasamata’s door was covered with blood-red symbols. They looked like a hybrid between Rorschach blotches and that funny Japanese writing that the Japs used just so no one could know what the hell they were talking about. Barlow whacked the little gong with his fist and stepped back. Jane stepped back too and suddenly raised her dress. “Christ, put that down,” Barlow spat.
She turned to him, sniffed back a tear, and said, ” Sam, there’s something I need to show you …”
“Uhh, yeah, ok, but, uh, but not now, Jane. I mean …”
“You don’t understand … ,” she began but stopped short when the door opened and a small, wrinkled figure appeared stood motionless in the doorway, silent and inscrutable.
Barlow broke the silence. “We were hoping to speak with Professor Wasamata.”
“Chuck? He not home. He go Gleek lestaulant. You come back mebbe tomollow, mebbe next year, hahahahaha.”
Jane stepped forward. The situation seemed to call for a woman’s touch. “Excuse me, ma’am,” she hazarded a guess at the gender of the old slouched figure with the wild shock of white hair. “I presume you are his trusted companion. Perhaps you can help us.”
“Hahahaha, you so smaht. I basicary srave, do raundry, cook, crean, wipe nose. But sex is good. Hahahaha. “
Jane found herself speechless. Was this the professor’s wife, his servant, a trusted advisor? Or just some crazy relative he was responsible for? She thought she could risk just a bit more probing before the old lady, if that’s what she was, slammed the door in their faces.
“Please excuse me for asking but I couldn’t help noticing your face. It’s quite a distinguished face, I would say, and if I’m not mistaken I detect wisdom behind it. But I am confused about one thing. You really don’t look Japanese, at least to me.”
“Hahahaha. Too funny. I not Japanese, you clazy white woman. I Porish.”
“Porish?” Jane repeated.
Barlow broke in. “I think she’s from Poland.”
Jane was flustered. “But why is she speaking with a Japanese accent, Sam?”
“Hahahahaha. You velly funny after all. Come in, come in.” She shuffled back into the apartment with surprising speed, leaving Jane and Barlow staring at each other and then quickly entering so as not to lose her somewhere in the depths of the apartment.
The apartment looked much larger on the inside than it had on the outside, Barlow thought to himself. In fact from the outside it simply looked like a door, 24 to 30 square feet at the most, whereas inside it looked like a bunch of rooms connected by hallways. Optical irrusion, he mused. The accent was catchy. The apartment did, in reality, take up the entire seventh floor of the old Caldicot mansion, the once stately home of H. P. Caldicot, the famed necktie baron of the previous century, and now divided among a handful of unbelievably eccentric residents who had almost nothing in common other than being human (with the exception of “Mrs. Piddle”.)
The present moment represented an extremely fragile equilibrium in which the old mansion, in its inexorable descent from grandeur to crap, found itself in perfect balance with this collection of humans who, travelling along a different dimension, were at the exact same point on the scale from birth to death. It would only be a matter of months, maybe days, maybe minutes, before these parties brought together so fortuitously would go careening off on their separate paths to oblivion, like pigeons in a hurricane or mice in a cement mixer. Barlow would not have guessed any of this if it hadn’t been printed neatly on the professor’s calling cards, one of which he was now squinting at, since the type was tiny.
A rich voice broke his reverie. For a minute he wasn’t sure if he’d been daydreaming or if there was a bugle telling him to wake up. The tones bore just the slightest accent, lending the words a distinguished air without making them difficult to understand and yet the choice of words revealed a mind that was thinking in a different idiom, an idiom from half a world away.
“Ahh, I understand so you are look for me. First you have found my card and now you have found also real thing. Ha! Please to sit.” The professor’s legs folded smoothly underneath him and he settled onto the tatami floor on his knees, hands resting on his thighs.
“Oh, Professor,” Jane began, looking around for a cushion to sit on. She was torn between an urge to blurt out everything and a feeling that she should just be silent for a long time. “We, we thought you were out at a restaurant.”
“Ah, so. You will learn never trust anything old woman say. If sanity were kielbasa, she would not have enough to make breakfast for intestinal parasite of flea. I read that in detective novel. Ha!”
“Well, anyway, we’re real glad you’re here. Ya see, Chuck…” Barlow interjected. Professor Wasamata’s face suddenly darkened and the glare he directed at Barlow made Barlow’s gall bladder try to run and hide. “Uhmm, Ocho, that is.” His liver backed up against the trapped gall bladder and froze. “Professor Wasamata, sir.” The professor exhaled and a trace of a smile appeared at the corner of his eyes. Barlow was sure his liver was sweating. “Ya see, sir, we need some help. Real bad. And you may be the only one that can help us. Jane here …”
Jane took over. After all, she thought, this was her mess. She filled the professor in on everything that had happened from the first attempt on her life (not counting the date years ago who had accidentally poured gin in her orange juice) to everything that had happened since she had met Barlow, including her friend’s mysterious final words and even more final word. There was one thing she didn’t tell him but neither the professor nor Barlow knew that. She didn’t dare. The risk was too great.
“Cadwalleder,” mused the professor. “Cadwalleder, pigeons, Bastille day, never start a land war in Asia, zymurgy. What does this mean? Barlow, why you come to me? I am professor of proctology. Only reason you come, takes one to know one. Ha!”
“Me and you are in the same business, professor. You understand the human mind. You know where to look to find out who a person really is. Human nature – you got it pegged like nobody else I know. That’s reason number one. Reason number two, I know who you are. You’re the smartest man on the face of the goddanged earth. You got a mind like a huge machine that converts information into nothings and somethings and then puts the data back together in completely new ways that it woulda taken a thousand scientists a thousand years to figure out and even then they still wouldn’ta. You see what humanity can’t see about itself. You’re the closest thing to God between here and Poughkeepsie.”
“Ok, you found me out, mistah smaht guy. Anybody want crispy noodle?” He took a bag off the low table between himself and Barlow and poured some noodles into a black lacquered bowl, then passed it over to Jane, who crunched down a handful. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d relaxed over a real meal.
“Now so we get to work. Noodle is fuel for brain. First question not why someone try to kill Jane. First question who is Jane.”
“Yeah, you’re right. We haven’t actually gotten around to that. Come to think of it, I don’t know who she is.” Barlow reflected, looking over at Jane, who couldn’t decide where to look and ended up looking at a dracaena, then her foot and then a spot on the tatami that began to look like a Cuban guy smoking a cigar. “Although,” continued Barlow, “she did start to show me …”
“Not important. Big question not her history but who she is. I look at her now.” The professor turned his face toward Jane, who could have sworn that his eyes were closed. “Jane special human being. Not regular schmuck. Mmmm. Smart, creative, also see what going on. This very dangerous to many people. Mmmm. More to situation than meet eye. Probably something she not tell us.
“Now next question what Bennie try to tell. Mmmm. Cadwalleder can be thousands people but if it is relate to Jane, I think it must be Cadwalleder who is also special not regular schmuck human being. Cadwalleder who also see what really going on in world. That is only one Cadwalleder. That is only Ian Cadwalleder, Scottish, very smaht physicist, also stamp collector and plays violin. Try to paint birds on watercolor canvas, but very terrible artist.
“Bastille Day, pigeons. Ahh, this one very easy, I think. Paris. Summer. Lots of tourist. Lots of pigeon crap. To French people is same thing. Slang for tourist is pigeon. Zymurgy mean make beer. Sit and drink beer in Paris on hot summer day. Mean sidewalk café like all tourist.
“Very clever. Bastille Day tell us when – summer. Pigeon tell us who and where – tourist in France. Zymurgy tell us what they are doing – drink beer. ‘Never start land war in Asia’ is something so obvious everyone little boy and girl in Asia know this. Only American general don’t know. This tell us to think of obvious – not obscure, not hidden. So this confirm obvious Paris. Also tourist who drink beer are in obvious place, outside, everyone can see. This means must be before war or after war. During war, no happy go rucky tourist sit outside and relax in Paris.
“Now what this have to do with Cadwalleder? What this have to do with Jane?” Here the professor sank into silence, reaching deeper for the hidden connections. He needn’t have bothered.
Jane’s face was flushed and she pulled nervously at her fingers. “Before the war. I met a man in Paris, over beer, at a sidewalk cafe,” she blurted. “It was July. I didn’t know who he was. But he changed my life. Oh, I can’t talk about this! It’s too important. I don’t know who I can trust.” She dabbed at her face with her hanky. “I never knew his last name but he told me to call him Ian. And he spoke with a Scottish accent.”
“You rest now, missy. Enough for now. More pieces of puzzle wait till tomorrow.” The professor motioned toward the adjoining room and the old lady shuffled out and took Jane’s hand.
“Oh, you hand velly hot. You hot rady,” she winked in Barlow’s general direction. “I take you to bed now. Hahahahaha.” Barlow was sure the old lady was rubbing it in. He tried to curb his imagination.
When the professor was alone with Barlow, he lowered his voice and told Barlow exactly what he had to do next. It had been a long day, longer than a day should be. Longer than three or four days should be if they were all rolled together into one excessively long day that was too long. Barlow picked up his hat and coat from the floor where he had laid them next to his cushion. As he stood by the door, he stuck his hand out and then awkwardly returned the professor’s bow.
Standing in the hall outside the apartment, he noticed how strange it felt to be alone. In this short time he’d gotten used to having Jane around, even though she’d been a pain and a tease. Just tired, he thought to himself. Too much to think about. He looked back at the blood red symbols painted on the door and lacquered over. A poem? A warning to salesmen? An incantation? The secret of the universe? He walked down the seven flights of stairs to wake himself up. Outside it was a short walk to the car. Gotta get home, relax, take advantage of some zymurgy and forget all of this till tomorrow. Yeah, I should be so lucky. Probably gonna lie awake all night.
He drove off with a squeal of his tires. On the seventh floor a curtain parted slightly and a small face could be seen peeking out. On the eighth floor something not quite human howled.
The Real Cadwalleder
It was two weeks before he saw Jane again. She’d kept herself under wraps in a Mexican wrapping store just south of the Herkimer underpass. When she knocked on the door, she was wearing some sort of woven horse blanket, and she had her hair done up with a few wads of colored paper and bits of candy. She looked like something that might be lusted after by a concupiscent piñata.
“Sam, I think it’s time I spilled the beans.” She opened a jar and tossed a hundred or so dried chickpeas on the floor. Barlow spent a moment being glad she hadn’t decided to spill her guts. “I wanted to tell you everything—I wanted to—honest to God. I just couldn’t.”
Barlow gathered up the beans and pocketed them—next to his cheese sandwich, his pocket watch, a copy of “Good Manners for Beginners” by Amy Pratt, and the Earl of Marlbury. He gave Jane a drink and they sat on the floor in the kitchen, listening, for only a moment, to the howl of the inhuman thing on the second floor. There seemed to be a lot of inhuman things visiting the city this spring. Barlow guessed that tourist season was starting early. He made a few finger puppets, but she interrupted him again.
“You see ….” there was something dark behind her eyes—something old, ancient, dark, brooding, dark and deathless. It was her mascara. “You see,” she stammered, “I’m not who you think I am. That is, assuming you think I am someone, and that that ‘someone’ is an entity, that is, something that bears an identity—well, I think you know what I mean and/or don’t mean, and, all philological maundering aside, I’m not entirely either that or—”
It was clear that the whole emotional tax of being pursued by a killer, seeing her best friend die, the professor, and the bad hooch he’d given her—all this was adding up and she was beginning to unravel. Barlow knew in an instant what she needed. He grabbed the battered copper box he kept behind the coal stove and brought it out in front of her. He opened the lid. She gasped. It was an ice cube.
“I’ve been saving this since 7th grade just hoping I’d meet someone like you, and that there would be some emergency and you’d really need an ice cube in order to feel better and here I’d just happen to have one handy,” Barlow stammered.
“You can’t keep an ice cube, you imbecile.” Jane stared at him as though he had just offered her a twenty year old ice cube.
“I had it laminated,” Barlow explained, but somehow the magic moment had passed and he stuck it back in the copper box.
“Sam, have you made any progress these last two weeks? Have you found out anything at all?”
Barlow sat back down on the wooden crate that he referred to as his Comfo-Lounger and thought back over his recent endeavors. He scratched his chin a bit, shook his head, checked to see if his nose needed cleaning out. “Jane, we got nothing to go on. The professor said he needed more info on Cadwalleder. He figures ol’ Caddy is one of the good guys, through and through. No way that he could be behind the attempts on your life. But on the other hand it’s all connected to him. But how?
“I made some inquiries, ruffled a few feathers, scraped a few scales, cracked some chitonous exoskeletons when I had to, but I haven’t found much. So how about you tell me what you know that you’ve been keeping secret?”
Jane sighed. She didn’t have the energy to keep up her defenses but wasn’t convinced she should really trust anyone, especially this guy Barlow. On the one hand he could be so crude but on the other hand he had really gone out of his way for her, in his own awkward and revolting way. And who else did she have to trust? The professor? Yes, maybe, though she was never sure she was seeing the real person behind his facade. And the professor trusted Sam. “Ok. I met Ian before the war. In Paris. In July. We spent an afternoon at a sidewalk café. And, yes, we drank beer. And, yes, it changed my life.
“There really isn’t much more to say. We talked. He told me that he was involved in a very important project, a project that included scientists from around the world. A project that could change the future of humanity.”
“Oh, jeez,” Sam interrupted. “What a line. ‘I just happen to be very famous. Very powerful. Very wealthy. And I find you terribly charming, my dear. Why don’t you and I …’ “
“It wasn’t like that. He wasn’t like that! It really made sense. We talked about the sad state of the world, the shadow of war over Europe, the bleak future. And he said that if there was a way for humanity to escape its barbarous history, it would take a team effort of the most intelligent, educated and compassionate people in the world. It just seemed so obvious.”
“So that’s it? He just told you about his project?”
“Actually he didn’t tell me about it. Just that it existed. No details. Of course I was dreadfully curious but he made it quite clear that… that he wasn’t there to talk about it. It was more of a way of introduction so that he could, well, I think, so that he could find out something about me.”
“Ok, good. So what did he ask you about?”
“Oh, I don’t remember. Just little things. But you know, this may sound very strange but mostly he just looked at me, listened somehow. Then he’d ask a question, I’d respond and he’d listen and watch some more.”
“Yeah, right! Your basic pervert. What was he doing with his hands?” Barlow barked at her. He ducked in time to miss the quick slap from her left hand and ran right into the punch from her right. “Touchy,” he mumbled automatically, then his brain kicked in and hoped she hadn’t heard. He’d been a victim of his mouth/brain lag too many times.
“Look, I really enjoyed Ian’s company. Here was a man who cared, who listened, who wanted to do something to make the world better, not like somebody sitting around on their damn so-called Comfo-Lounger sorting chickpeas and laminating ice cubes.”
“Ok, ok. So Mr. Nice Guy stared at you for a while. Then what?”
“Nothing much. He told me that I was going to be an important part of the project and that I would be contacted again, sometimes by people I didn’t know and sometimes, he hoped, by him. Oh, and then he asked if he could get a sample of my reproductive material.”
Barlow spit a mouthful of his tomato juice and tonic half way across the living room, ruining the covers of at least two rare editions of Modern Bride and confusing a small colony of fleas that had just congregated in the carpet.
“That does it! I’m gonna kill the bastard if I find him. Is that when you finally realized he was a pervert? I hope you slugged him good. God knows you got the talent.”
“I let him do what he wanted with me.”
The fleas ducked just in time. “I can’t believe it. I don’t get it. I give up. I just give up. How can you fall for a lying bastard and here I am, a nice guy who goes out of his way not to take advantage of a poor dame and where do I get? Nowhere! ‘I’d like to sample your reproductive fluids’. Oh, lordy. Well, you know what? From now on every woman I meet I’m going to ask if she would mind if I sampled her reproductive fluids and if she gives me any cheek, I’m just gonna tell her that the finest woman I know fell hook, line and worm for that stupid line, so why shouldn’t she!”
“Are you done?”
“No, I’m not done. How could I be done when…”
Jane reached over and clamped his mouth shut with her hand. “You’re done. It was a surgical procedure, scalpel and everything. It was over in 60 seconds.”
“I’m surprised he lasted that long.”
“Sam!! If you want to know the story, you’re going to have to listen to me. I don’t know what he wanted it for. I didn’t care. I trusted him. I still do.” She let out a sigh that gave away how difficult it had been for her to bring back these memories. “There’s one more thing.”
She went over and stood directly in front of Barlow, who was still seated on the Comfo-Lounger. He noticed how she towered over him. Then she reached way down, grabbed the hem of her skirt and raised it.
Barlow froze. A cross between a grin and a grimace had taken over his mouth, and a thin line of saliva was beginning to work its way chinward over the brink of his lips. His eyes looked like those of a lemur caught in the beam of a lighthouse. A small twitch was torqueing the skin on his cheek, a temporary replacement for conscious motor control.
Jane grabbed his head and turned it so that his gaze was refocused at a lower point, specifically the garter belt on her right thigh. “He gave me this.”
Barlow didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to look. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t shut his eyes. But he didn’t want to see what he was seeing.
“He told me that if I were ever to be in serious danger, in mortal danger, I should open this and deliver it to a contact. It will tell me how to make that contact. And it will pass on something, some information, that shouldn’t die, even if I do. I’ve never opened it. But now I’m wondering if it’s time.” She dropped her skirt back into its normal position. Barlow passed out.
The Malingering Shadow
When Barlow came to, she was gone, taking her leg and her garter belt with her. She probably couldn’t take the heat. It was hard to find a woman who could stand up to a man who passed out nearly every three hours. Hell, it was hard to find any kind of woman these days who wasn’t a drunk, a looney, or a twenty-dollar skank. He thought for a moment of his mother, who was all of the above, and who really did love him, although she had that “smack your head with this big fish” habit that kept him out of school for weeks at a time.
He thought about what Jane had spilled: a bottle of Vichy water—no, that wasn’t it—it was a whole story about Cadwalleder, the cad, the walleder, the….oh, sweet Mother of Luigi San Obispo, his head hurt and his gut felt like a team of weimaraners had used it for a chew toy. He remembered the garter belt and a surge of effluvial mortality trumpeted like an imploding canard smoking a cheap stogie in his cranium.
It was clear that Jane hadn’t told him the whole story, and that Cadwalleder was up to something more than just “check out my etchings.” So he had to find her, and get the truth—even if he had to use the old “watch me crack my nose” technique to wheedle the answers out of her. There was something rotten in Denmark and he was going to find it—and if that meant flying to Copenhagen, so be it.
He went back to the Comfo-Lounger, sat down, picked up his trusty pipe and absentmindedly stuck it in his mouth. It was half inch PVC and tasted like crap on a bun, but if you puckered up your lips and blew on it like it was a trumpet, it could make some pretty cool sounds. In the olden days he had brought it on dates but experience had failed to provide any shred of positive reinforcement for this practice and now he was likely to forget it two times out of ten.
Just then there was a knock on the door. He opened it. It was Johnny Snitch. “Sam, I’ve got the drop on the sweetcheeks. A double sawbuck and you’re in like Flint.”
While Barlow worked on ripping through two George Washingtons with a steak knife, Johnny ensconced himself in the battered iron-frame chair like a bag of sand that’d fallen off a Long Island trolley during a chess match. Barlow handed him the four chunks of what had been dollar bills, and Johnny bent forward, hands on knees, squinting. “First of all, she ain’t no sweetcheeks. She’s as phony as a dancing clam in a bowl of spuds. Her real name is Cynthia Elmsford Hamchester—yeah, the Hamchesters. Her daddy’s worth ten million easy, and she ain’t from Cleveland either.”
Johnny tried to pocket the four little dollar-pieces, but they fell to the floor since his shirt pocket was on the inside. It took him four tries, and Barlow thought that if brains were sour mash, Johnny couldn’t make a suppository for a constipated pygmy. “She’s from East Orange. And she’s no ten-bit floozy either—she’s got a twenty per cent share of Hamchester Electronics and controlling ownership of half the shoe-shine stands in Iowa. And here’s the part that’ll make your guts stand up, salute, and scrub your socks in a bowl of guava juice. She’s got an identical twin sister named Jane!”
Barlow was used to dealing with Johnny. Johnny had had a rough life. He’d been a snitch since kindergarten and it had landed him a lot of broken noses and a very paranoid attitude toward reality. He was a guy who was offended by the selfishness of humanity and offended by the fact that most people resented someone who pointed it out. The first time he told the kindergarten teacher that little Ernie had stuffed toilet paper into the toilet, she had just said, “Well, I’m glad you told me but you know, Johnny, nobody likes a snitch.” He’d been bright once, intelligent and on the ball, but his passion for revealing the dirty truth at all costs had alienated him from most of humanity, and in his isolation his brain had taken a left turn at Poughkeepsie and had never recovered.
“Johnny, let me ask you a question.”
“What the hell is a sweetchecks?”
“Uhh, I dunno. It sounded good. I think it’s some kinda organ meat.”
“Well, anyway, you did good, Johnny. I know because I found out all this stuff last week, so you can give me back three and a half of those sawed up bucks. The thing is, is, is that Jane is the twin sister named Jane and Cynthia is the other sister of the Jane who we know correctly as Jane, not Cynthia. I put in a call to this Cynthia babe at her shoe shine headquarters in Iowa City and, trust me, she is like an ice cube made outa Tabasco sauce. She was only moderately nasty until I mentioned Jane and then she acted like I’d dropped a weasel down her blouse. And believe me, I know what that’s like.”
Just then there was a different knock but on the same door. “Hey, you’re a popular guy, Sam. The last person that knocked on my door was a raven and that was ten years ago. You usually just barge right in. Did it ever occur to you that a guy could be takin’ a …”
“Yeah, yeah. Will you get the door for me? Every time I answer it, it’s nothing but trouble.”
Johnny pulled himself out of the iron maiden that served as Barlow’s Chase Lounge. And he did mean chase. Invite a guest to sit there for more than a minute or two and you can count on chasing them away. A Jehovah’s Witness had held out for over 10 minutes once but only because he couldn’t get out of the thing due to bad knees. On his way to the door Johnny decided he was in fact an elegant British butler. His back straightened, his face took on the serious look of someone whose job it was to see that things were done properly. He was a lone oasis of properliness in a world awry with selfishness, wrong doing and just plain sloppiness. In his mind, his twenty year old once-flannel shirt, inside out and with the tails untucked, became an elegant jacket of the finest wool, lined with silk, in the deepest and purist of black, with tails flowing out behind him like an angel of correctitude. He took a firm hold of the door knob and opened the battered door with infinite grace.
“Madam?” he spoke ceremoniously to the figure at the door, who stopped in mid-exclamation at the solemnity of his greeting. Then his intestines betrayed him as the mounting pressure of methane and refried bean molecules became uncontainable.
“Oh, hi, Johnny. Are you ok? You’re face is, uhmm, redder than usual.” It was the real Jane, as far as he could tell.
“Oh, hey. Yeah, I’m fine. Just fine … CYNTHIA!”, he shouted and jumped right in front of her. The leer on his face revealed a blend of self-righteousness and disgust.
“Oh, no. Do we have to bring my family into this? Have you been snooping? Well, have you?” she demanded.
If Johnny had been a basset hound, he’d have been lying on the floor now with his ears covering his face and whining. This hadn’t gone the way he’d hoped. What had he hoped? Maybe that in the face of his righteousness, she’d admit her true identity and … And then what? Uhmm, maybe Sam would give him three bucks, or six sawed bucks. Johnny figured it really wasn’t much of a plan anyway, and felt better that it hadn’t worked.
“Jane! It’s you. Thank God. Hey, I thought you had bolted or, or, worse. Jeez, where the heck were you?” Barlow had stepped in from the kitchen with a dish towel in his hands, wiping tomato juice and tonic off his shirt.
“I just went to the store on the corner for a sandwich. You were out cold. I guess you’ve never seen a secret message before. I’ve been gone a total of eight minutes, according to the grandfather clock in the corner, there.”
“That clock always says people have been gone for eight minutes, so you can’t go by that. I was gone once for fourteen years and when I came back, it said I’d been gone eight minutes.”
Johnny’s face brightened. “Sam, you coulda been gone fourteen years and eight minutes.”
The conversation came to a dead stop, backed up and started all over again. “Well, never mind. I just, was worried about ya, Jane. It’s a tough neighborhood here.” Barlow took Jane’s paper bag with her sandwich and set it down on the pile of tires covered with a red and white checked plastic table clothed that served as the coffee table/operating theater (when necessary.) “I’ll open up a can of tuna and we can have some real swell lunch. How’s about it, Johnny? You eaten this month?”
“Not yet. I’ll give ya a hand.” The others followed Barlow into the kitchen. When they came back a few minutes later, there was a cat on the coffee table/operating theater. There were also the shreds of a paper bag and a few crumbly remains of the sandwich.
“Get offa there,” Johnny screamed. “Can’t believe I left the dang door open!” In his anger he was already thinking of how he could rat on this cat. He needn’t have bothered. The cat was on its back with its legs up in the air. Something was real wrong with its mouth. Nobody looked long enough to find out what.
“The sandwich,” Jane sputtered. “I almost ate that.”
“Ya can’t leave mayo out in this kinda weather,” Johnny observed. He’d learned this from his mother, who didn’t leave anything out in any kind of weather.
Barlow gave Johnny a little pat on the shoulder. You had to admit the guy tried. Then he wiped his hand on the towel, which he was still carrying, and threw the towel into what he referred to as the “laundry corner”. Most people would have called it the compost heap. “I’m, uhm, suddenly not that hungry. Listen, let’s get back to work here. I gotta do some serious thinking and you two can help. There’s a lot to figure out here.”
Barlow took the Comfo-Lounger without giving much thought to where the others would sit. Jane leaned against one of the comfier looking walls and Johnny stretched out next to the pile of tires.
Barlow started. “Here’s what we know so far. Cadwalleder meets Jane under strange circumstances. Nothing much seems to come from it but there is something important enough going on to make someone want Jane out of the way. Cadwalleder gets a clean bill of health from the professor, who is 100% confident that he’s a complete good guy, which rules out that Caddie got cold feet over spilling something to Jane. So Cadwalleder must be onto something important and Jane must be part of it, an important enough part to be a danger to someone. But Jane has no idea why. In fact she knows pretty much nothing about Cadwalleder’s project. So she can’t be dangerous because of what she knows. Must be because of what she is. Whatever that means.”
He took a breath and stared at the ceiling for a while. You never knew what you’d find up there, plus it drained his sinuses and cleared his thoughts. He stared up there for a minute or two, then forgot what he’d been talking about.
“How long have I been staring and what was I talking about?” he asked.
Johnny looked at the clock. “Eight minutes. You were talking about the lady from Wilmington you took advantage of last year.”
“Never mind. I remember. Ok. So that’s what we know so far and what we can infer from what we know. What else do we need to know? We need to know who’s behind these murder attempts. Who wants Jane out of the way. Maybe we need to know why they want to get rid of her, if that helps us figure out who. This is like a connect the dots drawing only we’ve got a canvas as big as the world and only two dots – Jane and Ian Cadwalleder.”
Johnny jumped up with the fire of inspiration nipping at his heels. “I got it! It’s a line! A straight line!”
Barlow actually considered this seriously for about 10 seconds. You never knew when something stupid could be brilliant, or vice versa. It didn’t get him anywhere. If it was a straight line, it would mean that Cadwalleder was trying to kill Jane or that Jane was trying to kill Cadwalleder. According to the professor’s axiom number one, Cadwalleder can’t be a bad guy. Hey, so wait a minute. What if Jane is trying to kill Cadwalleder? Then Cadwalleder could still be a good guy trying to get rid of a bad guy by having her killed. But Jane was no guy. But wait. How do we know that? What if “she” was really a “he” in disguise. Dang good disguise. He’d seen her thigh. That was not the thigh of a bad guy.
“We need more dots,” Barlow finally concluded. “Without more dots, we’re just drawing in the dark. Not actually the dark,” he reconsidered. “More like we’re just drawing all over a blank canvas randomly. Jeez, I mean we just need to find out more and hope that we can connect… uhm, hope it starts to make sense. I did find out a few things about ol’ Caddie during the last two weeks. Nothing that seemed to be of much help, but I guess we should go over it.
“I started by calling his place in Scotland. The lady that answered the phone said he was out at a Greek restaurant and to call back later. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but does that ring any bells?”
Jane thought for a second and then said, “Why, yes, suddenly it does. I remember the place I first met Ian—it was called the Greek Eyedrops.”
Barlow stared at Jane like she was a three-inch porterhouse trimmed with onions and mushrooms and small, agile, peas that darted about the plate in that “devil may care” way that peas dart about when they’re wretchedly lonely and even the cheap hooch leaves them feeling like the dooter boys have busted every crapper from here to Kankakee.
God, she was beautiful, with her hair pulled back like that, her delicate shoulders swishing like lilies, and her ample …uh oh—
When he came to, the room was empty except for the dead cat and its piteous moustache of mayo. This case wasn’t going to solve itself. Jane had told him what she could. Now it was up to him to take action.
Barlow booked the next steamer to Scotland, taking only a few shirts, his hairbrush, and the Remington .245 he’d kept since his days on the playground in Upper Darby. Three weeks later he was standing in a town square in Glasgow, drinking a bottle of goat’s milk laced with rotgut whisky, and thinking about how funny prunes looked in certain kinds of light. Suddenly, there was a strange sensation on his shoulder. It was the ball joint that connected his cervical area with his arm but then everyone knew that, at least in America. Here it might be shuildar or something. He turned around to find a midget holding a long stick with a hook on the end.
“Here then,” the midget exclaimed. “Did ye nae feel the tap o’ me foinughal stick on yer shuildar?”
It was the tenth time that day someone had asked him that and Barlow was getting sick of it. He got out his Scottish dictionary and tried to make himself understood. “Wha’ ho, laddie!” he began uncertainly, trying to scan through the handy phrases and look up words at the same time. “Airrre yee nneigh daft, wha’, ye bleeding humunculus?”
The midget stared at him the way Genghis Khan had once stared at a soldier tap dancing and whistling in the front lines. “That’s no ‘bleeding’. It’s ‘bleedin’’. Bleedin’, lad. Ye’re no frae here, are ye? Ye speak like a cow stepped on your mouth when ye were a wee lad.” He pulled a wad of something from his left front pants pocket and shoved it in his mouth. Then he reached down for some more and held it out to Barlow. “Care for a chaw o’ fraggis?”
Barlow didn’t. He didn’t care for most of what he saw around here and fraggis was no exception. This little town was gray, cold, wet and windy. Back home spring was starting to brighten up the city with flowering trees and bright skies. Here spring just whimpered, “Dunna get yer hopes up.”
“Say, pal,” Barlow queried, giving up on being understood but not knowing what else to do, “is there anyone in this village that could help me get to the Cadwalleder estate? I hear it’s around here somewhere.”
“Crivens! Why did ye nae say so in the farst place? I’ll take ye there m’self in the mornin’ but it’ll cost you three squid six stone and fu’pence. In advance, if ye dunna mind, or if ye dui mind, f’r that mahtter.”
Barlow was suffering from a severe case of ship lag. Was it just him or did nothing here make sense? “Uhmm, how much is that, that money you talked about?’
“I have no idea. I just made it up. We dunna use that English money here. Strictly gold in the highlands. Half an ounce’ll get ye thar and back, if ye’re lucky. Gold’ll buy ye a fare but it canna buy ye luck, lad. Many’s the traveller’ll tell ye that.”
At least for the moment luck was with Barlow. He always carried gold. It was the only thing in this world that he trusted, at least since his mother had lost her marbles. He used to trust her kind words and easily dodged right slap. Now she just dribbled crazy stories and stared off sadly into who knows where – the past? The future? Or something that only she could see? In any case his store of gold would serve him well here. If his judgment of human nature was what he thought it was, gold would not only buy him services here but it would buy him trust. He’d be talking the language of the highlanders.
“It’s a deal,” he replied to the midget, and to prove his good faith, he handed him the requisite sum. “Meet here tomorrow at, say, 8 in the morning?”
“Ye’re a lazy one,” the midget replied. “Eight, then.”
Barlow was about to turn and head for the local inn when an afterthought rolled up on him like a storm cloud. “Name’s Barlow,” he said, holding out his hand. “And you are …?”
The midget took his hand and looked him squarely in the eye. “Cadwalleder.”
“What?? You? You’re Ian? Wait. This can’t be right.”
“Not Ian, ye fool. MacDermott. MacDermott Cadwalleder. We’re all named Cadwalleder around here.”
The midget turned back toward the direction he had come from. Barlow stood and watched as the midget headed off into the distance. Finally, at the very edge of visibility, Barlow had the impression that the little man disappeared into a hole in the ground.
He’d already secured a small sleeping room at the inn. It would serve as a home base for now. As the early evening shadows began malingering around the perimeter of his perceptions, he headed back to the inn to rest up and hopefully get a bit of something edible. Later that evening, sitting on the springy bed in his little room, he let his thoughts drift back to home and to Jane. He’d been too busy arranging his trip to spend the time with her that he would have liked but hopefully the letter he left her would keep her thinking about him and even more importantly keep her spirits up while he was gone.
Six hours earlier, on the other side of the ocean, she had indeed been sitting in her most recent rented room (she felt it was safest to keep moving) reading over his letter and feeling just the slightest bit that there might be hope.
I hope I spelled your name right. Sorry I’ve been so busy getting this trip together the last couple weeks. I wanted to tell you a few things I didn’t get to say before I left.
First of all I understand why you don’t want to open the secret letter on your thigh, I mean your leg. If you change your mind, try to wire me or at least go to the professor to show it to him (the message, not the thigh). Otherwise maybe at least I can take another look at it when I get back. Ha ha. Just kidding.
Number three, I promise I’ll come back quick as soon as I have anything to go on.
Number four is I think we’ll really find something here. It’s sort of an intuition that I have, so I want you to believe that it will work out and you can stop worrying. I keep having these dreams about Cadwalleder’s place in Scotland, this big castle all surrounded by craggy gorse and heather and all that stuff, whatever it is. I just know there are some secrets there and I mean to find out what they are.
Number five is you can go use my place any time if you need some place to go. The key is in the fake dog doo by the front door. Just watch out for the real dog doo. It gets me at least three times out of seven. And if you sleep there, I’m just glad that I’m not there because it would drive me crazy to have you sleeping there with me there, although if I was there, you wouldn’t be sleeping there, unless we were both going to be sleeping there on purpose, which you probably wouldn’t do, would you? You don’t have to answer now. Which you can’t anyway, cuz I’m not there.
So don’t worry. I’ll be back with some info.
S. Barlow, Private Eye
PS. If this letter is not from me, do NOT touch it. It could be dangerous.”
Jane had tucked the letter into a handy undergarment, in this case a pair of red flannel long johns. It wasn’t much to go on, she had thought, but somehow this letter felt like a lifeline, a lucky charm, something tangible that she could hold on to and just hope that there was a way out of this nightmare. As she had lain back onto the unfamiliar mattress, she felt all of her anxiety flowing away into the letter and soon she was asleep.
Across the ocean Barlow looked out the tiny window at the nearly full moon. It looked like Jane’s face. He smiled, lay back and drifted away.
The Castle Amongst the Gorse and Heather
He awoke after a pleasant dream in which Jane and the Scottish Women’s Soccer Team had dressed him in a kilt and were passing him from hand to hand like a haggis salad on the back of a shillelagh. He supposed it had something to do with soccer.
He asked the innkeeper if he knew of the whereabouts of Ian Cadwalleder. The man, bent 90 degrees at the waist, stinking of fatback, and wearing at least three woolen sweaters, said, “Nar ai eh heh ool.” Barlow was able to translate this into “there’s no Ian Cadwalleders around here, although, strangely, there are over 11,000 Ians and 3407 Cadwalleders within a 20 mile radius.”
“How is that possible?”
“Na bare, na bare, il larri matarri gai-took.” Barlow assumed he meant, “None of your beeswax, you running-dog neo-colonialist honky fascist dupe.” It was some kind of cover-up—and Barlow wasn’t going for it. Scots or no Scots, he wasn’t born in a rag-picker’s basket with three pounds of plum jelly and a little note that said, “free to the taker.”
The next morning Barlow met the midget, MacDermott Cadwalleder, as planned and they headed for the far country, noted on the map as “The Far Country,” except when he got there, all the signs said, “Not Cadwalleder’s Place—No Way.” Damn—the waste of a trip.
The village was little more than a gaggle of shops and a few dreary pubs in which pasty-faced Scots downed yard-arms of dark beer and danced with piano-legged matrons. Except there was a dirt road that led up a tall hill, and on top of that hill, a castle that might have been the home of Robert Bruce. MacDermott pointed hillward with his middle finger and said, “Thar’s yer wee karstie, lad” or something to that effect. “I’ll wait here far ye.”
Barlow followed the small dirt path that led upward from the edge of the village. At the top of the hill, he faced the castle. Panting and sweating like a rhinoceros in a sauna, he approached the door. There was a huge gothic knocker carved from ram’s horn, and stained with soot or puke—it was hard to say in these parts. It took both his hands to lift the knocker. It made a dull thud on a door that sounded like it was three feet thick. The door opened slowly and with an ominous creaking.
A face appeared. Or was it? Could it be that that nasty apparition with the psychotically twisted mouth, the black beady eyes, the wildly disheveled hair, the thin line of spittle running down the chin and the face that looked like it hadn’t been washed in months was actually his own reflection? Yes, in fact he realized that whoever had opened the door was holding up a mirror.
“Ye’re aaalriddy here, ye see. Gae awa’ nu!” The door slammed shut again but not before Barlow caught a glimpse of a very short plump figure swathed in skirts.
Barlow sighed. That was the stupidest brush off he had seen in his too many to count years in the business. Why bother with the mirror trick? Why not just slam the door or not open it at all or just open it and say go away or open it wearing a mask? Clever tricks he could admire. The trap door in the pavement in front of the main door. The electric shock in the door bell. Even the poisoned hand shake. But a mirror?? He had the feeling it was going to be a real long day.
Well, why not fight inanity with inanity, he thought, not quite knowing what he meant. He banged the huge knocker again and shouted, “Her Majesty’s Royal Infantry 20,000 strong and armed to the teeth requesting your appearance under pain of … very painful things!”
The door opened a crack and a small, round pinkish face at about his chest level peeked out and looked left and right.
“Ye’re bloofin’,” she said.
“No, I’m not,” Barlow replied. “They’re behind that tree and they are very serious.” While the pink lady squinted at the tree, he pushed his way inside and stood triumphantly in a very long and dark hallway whose end he couldn’t quite make out.
“Are they on horsies then?” the little lady asked.
“Uh, yes! Yes, horsies. Thousands of horsies. One for each man. They ride them.” Barlow was trying to figure out where he stood. He had anticipated at least 20 ways to counter any possible attempts by the woman to evict him or do him harm. But her question gave him a sneaking suspicion that he was being done in in some way he couldn’t see.
“Well, they’d batter clean oop after themsel’s, is all I can say or the groondskipper’ll beat ‘em a’ wi a stout switchet. Wait here.” And she took off down the hall, eventually disappearing.
Barlow took the opportunity to get his bearings. “Ok, I’m in,” he thought. “But is this Cadwalleder’s place? MacDermott told me it was. Or at least I think he did. Or is this happening too easily? Are they planning to grind me into haggis?” He took a couple of deep breaths and tried to brace himself but he didn’t know what against.
In what seemed like eight minutes later, he glimpsed some movement at the far end of the hallway. At least that proved there was an end to it. Or did things just materialize there out of nowhere? He watched as something, or probably someone, approached unhurriedly. There was a certain canter to the silhouette that perked his attention. The movement was definitely female, in the long, slinky sense.
As she approached, Barlow was not disappointed. Her raven black hair hung down her back on her right side but over her shoulder and down her front on the left. It reached nearly to her waist and he desperately wanted to as well. She was too far away to start talking to but too close to not look at so that for the final 30 seconds of her approach they looked at each other in a silence that was too intimate for complete strangers.
When she finally reached him, she held out a hand in that delicate way that is not so much for shaking as for touching and said, “I am the lady of the house. Our housemistress says you are American, or, if not, then perhaps ‘the davil’.”
Barlow noted that she hadn’t offered her name.
“Few people chance upon our little castle by themselves. I’m afraid it’s quite plain and uninteresting,” she continued.
“Oh, uh, I think it’s real swell. Great wooden door and I love your huge knockers. They’re almost too much for two hands.” Barlow was trying to keep the conversation going on a friendly note.
A brief but unidentifiable expression passed over her face. “Well, thank you ever so much for coming. Do stop by again. Good bye.” And she turned and started walking.
“Wait!” he half shouted. There was no tactful way to do this. “I am looking for someone. I hope you can help.”
She stopped and turned but said nothing and her eyes remained steady and unreadable.
“Ian Cadwalleder. I’ve come a very long way and I have reason to believe this is his castle. The life of another person is at stake. I need to see him.”
“Ah. Ian. He’s out at a Greek restaurant at the moment. Do come back.” She turned and resolutely headed down the hall. Barlow could tell there was no point trying to stop her again. At least he was at the right place but obviously there was no Greek restaurant for hundreds of miles. Certainly not here amongst the gorse and heather. It was just a brush off, but was it permanent?
He watched her retreat. She was halfway down the infinite hallway. Suddenly there was a motion between where she was and where he stood. Someone must have come out of a side passage. Probably the plump pink woman with the mirror. His body tensed slightly and he thought about the 20,000 infantrymen and their messy horsies.
But the figure was too tall, too slender and too elegant in its movement. Definitely male. Not tall for a male but stately in its bearing. As he approached, Barlow observed him to be a pleasant looking person, probably on the distinguished end of his 40’s, dressed in a way that suggested that someone had provided him with fashionable clothing which he had put on haphazardly, and yet the effect was pleasing.
When they finally met, the man held out his hand and, his expression serious and yet kind, said, “Ian Cadwalleder. You are Sam Barlow, I presume.”
Barlow hated being caught off guard. He also hated looking caught off guard, which he knew right now he did. He tried to say “I’m incredibly glad I found you” and “I’m outa here, buster” at the same time. The result was that the sound waves completed cancelled each other and he stood there with his mouth open, silent.
“Sorry. I was notified by friends back at your end. It was necessary. By the way, you are apparently out of tuna at your apartment,” Ian explained.
Barlow suppressed a snarl. Yeah and what color underwear is Jane wearing, you pervert, he thought to himself. Then he remembered a conversation he’d had with Jane a few days before he’d left. It had started when he’d badgered her for the 80th time about her “sexual” relationship with Cadwalleder.
“Sam, this has got to stop right now,” she had shouted. “First, it’s not the way you keep thinking it is. But even more important, you keep thinking of me like this naïve little girl that you have to protect. Can you get it through your head that we’re both adults? The fact that we’ve been sexual before doesn’t cheapen us. The fact that you and I have had sex with hundreds of other people doesn’t make us dirty.”
Barlow had tried to make the sentence stop after “you and I have had sex” but to no avail. Hundreds?? There was a funny feeling taking over the bottom of his stomach. He started to tally silently on his fingers. Mary Jo Polasky. That’s one. That woman with the wooden leg. Two. Uhhm, Mary Jo Polasky again but ten years later. Does that count as three? If two people having sex counted as one time, could he get a half credit for just himself? His logic center said yes, definitely but only once. Dang. That coulda really pumped up the numbers. He stopped at two or possibly three and a half because he suddenly realized that Jane was still talking.
“…so if you could please stop treating me like a little girl and appreciate me for the woman I am, I would be very grateful.” And then she had stomped off to his kitchen to make some tea before she remembered how disgusting it was in there.
Barlow didn’t think he had any trouble appreciating her for the woman she was. Could he stop feeling protective toward her? He wasn’t sure. How else are you supposed to feel about a woman you, uhmm, you liked? Odd. He hadn’t thought that thought before.
Now, face to face with Cadwalleder, he wondered if he could put his jealousy aside. Cadwalleder seemed like a nice guy. That made it worse. But hey, I’m here to save Jane’s life, Barlow thought. Gotta just move forward.
Since Barlow still hadn’t uttered a word, or at least words that hadn’t cancelled themselves out, Cadwalleder continued, “Please forgive my wife as well. She goes out of her way to protect me, which I very much appreciate, though sometimes it’s hard on others.”
“Which one was your wife?” In the clearer parts of his brain Barlow knew the answer of course, but the impulsive blurting sulcus of the right temporal lobe had won out, as it tended to do when he was otherwise paralyzed with fear, indecision, indigestion, sexual arousal or being awake.
“Ah, yes. You met our housemistress as well. My wife is the tall, elegant one with the long black hair. Her name is Gloria, which she will be quite happy to be called by you. And here comes the housemistress now, so I will introduce you properly to her.” The front door had just opened behind Barlow’s back and two people came in, one being the housemistress in question and the other being a rather weathered older man in dungy dungarees.
“Sam, I’d like you to meet my two dearest friends, without whom this whole place would fall quickly to the dogs. This is our housemistress, Heather. And this gentleman is my stable and grounds master, Gorse.”